Giant Steps and Huge Leaps For All of Mankind

April 2019 should be a banner time for astronomy, and science as a whole. The one thing that may prevent the month from getting the recognition that it so rightly deserves is that in some ways it has become par for course. While many people continue to squabble over things such whether a baseball player deserves a contract of over $430 million (this actually happened – I could not invent, nor fathom, that hitting a ball with a stick would win a person accolades worthy of a superhero and riches that would make Solomon blush), there are other people who are achieving great things for all of mankind. Because of great strides in technology coupled with NASA opening the doors to private enterprise, here is a brief recount of SOME of the accomplishments of this past month.

SpaceIL Logo

An Israeli non-profit company came very close to being the first private organization to purposely land a craft upon the lunar surface. SpaceIL‘s craft, named the Beresheet (Genesis), was launched in February aboard a SpaceX rocket (more on that company in a bit) with the intention of landing on the moon. Around 3PM EST on April 11, the craft began its descent. Though it did land on the moon, it unfortunately wasn’t a soft landing.  It crashed into its intended landing site, and as of this writing scientists are still investigating what went wrong. But let’s not dwell on the negative, because so much went right.

Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster, with Earth in background. “Starman” mannequin wearing SpaceX Spacesuit in driving seat.

Which brings us to SpaceX, started by Elon Musk, who is now a household name. Simultaneously showing the world that cars can be both electrically powered and self driving with his company Tesla Motors, a Tesla Roadster was launched into space aboard a SpaceX rocket in February, 2018. The rocket that launched the car into space was the Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket, built by SpaceX. And on April 11th, a mere 3 hours after SpaceIL’s attempt to land on the moon, SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy again, this time in a non-test environment. In fact, aboard the rocket was a satellite payload to be deployed into space by a paying customer.

Not only did the Falcon Heavy perform flawlessly, but all 3 booster rockets self landed and were recovered (though one was lost at sea after landing) in a maneuver that just a few short years ago would have been considered a thing of science-fiction. But due to this technology existing in reality, the cost of rocket launches has decreased dramatically and the doors have been swung wide open for the SpaceILs of the world to enter into the space race that only a decade ago had been in the exclusive purview of just a few nations and companies.

First Image of a Black Hole

But wait, there’s more. A day prior to SpaceIL’s landing and SpaceX’s launch, a great accomplishment was announced around the world as a result of data from scientists working together from the corners of the earth. The first ever image of a Black Hole had been captured by The Event Horizon Telescope. And for those who may not understand the enormity of this, aside from the unprecedented cooperation among scientists who worked towards this goal, the image of the Black Hole proved the theory of General Relativity postulated by Einstein in 1915.

Let us allow all of that to sink in.

People around the world. In a multitude of countries. At a time of great discord on our planet, all worked together.  They reached a goal of proving that a scientist who obviously worked without the assistance of computers, modern telescopes, or anything space-based, was in fact correct in his calculations and theories from over 100 years ago. This would be a good time to stare at the front page of whatever newspaper you read and wonder why everything about the previous sentences has not been the headline for the last few weeks.

While hopefully you are now reading this with some level of breathless abandon, just a week after the release of the Black Hole image, and SpaceIL and SpaceX’s achievement, yet another earth-shattering discovery was announced: “HeH+”.  These are three simple letters followed by the ‘+’ sign.

What an important announcement it was. Helium and Hydrogen atoms forming helium-hydride were discovered in a nebula 3,000 light years from Earth. Helium-hydride had been theorized nearly 100 years ago, and has now been proven and found. It is the importance of what this molecule represents though that cannot be understated.  It was the first molecule to ever form in the universe, a mere 300,000 years after the Big Bang, dating the molecule to about 13.8 billion years ago. And HeH+ can only be seen in the infrared area of the spectrum, this makes its detection that much more impressive.

So where does that leave us? At the least I think it can safely be said that April 2019 was simply an astounding month of discovery and achievement. Perhaps more importantly though, it portends things to come. More secrets of the universe should be revealed, which will almost definitely lead to more questions, and that in turn just makes the work and support of scientists and science that much more important.  Now if only humanity can get as excited about this as it does for a stick hitting a ball.  Perhaps one day.