10 mins read 30 Dec 2020

2020 – An Australian Year in Space

Whilst looking back over the course of 2020, one could not be blamed for considering it one of the most challenging years in recent times. However, the Australian space community celebrated so many fantastic achievements in a big year in space across our industries, communities, science and research.

Credit: Alex Cherney/CCDSC/DSN/CSIRO.

The year 2020 will certainly go into the record books as a year of various firsts.

For many of us, it started with the devastating bushfires on the East Coast but then took an even more dramatic turn, with the unprecedented outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic taking its grip on the world. Things changed for everyone back in March when the pandemic was declared, and the ‘new normal’ has been continually redefined ever since.

One beacon of shining light along the way has been the absolutely wonderful work, research, and contribution our local Australian space community has made for each other and the general Australian public over the course of the year.

New, ground-breaking astronomical research changed our views of the Universe at large, our space industry pushed the boundaries of collaboration and success into orbit, and thousands of young Australians’ were inspired into participating in space activities, which could potentially help them choose a career in a space-related field.

Below are some of the stories we found as the most interesting, exciting, and educational through the course of the year, as a subset of the many other SpaceAustralia.com stories we were able to share, which also really showcased how much value we have in the Australian space community.

Rediscovering Our Universe

Different masses of compact massive objects observed by LIGO-Virgo. Credit: LIGO-Virgo/Northwestern U./F. Elavsky & A. Geller.

With the relatively recent discovery of gravitational waves as a new way to look at the Universe, we featured many exciting stories about gravitational wave astronomy from organisations like OzGrav and the ANU Centre for Gravitational-Wave Astrophysics.

From the creation of ‘laser tweezers’ used in the giant interferometers, or having our teams be some of the first in the world to identify signals in LIGOs data, through to the ongoing search for low-frequency gravitational waves using pulsars scattered across the galaxy, Australian astrophysicists helped advance the field to the next level – and there’s even talk about getting our own gravitational wave detector here in Australia.

Defining the expansion rate of the Universe proved to also be a contested topic in 2020, with many scientific papers being released about different methods used to attempt to define Hubble’s constant. Professor Geraint Lewis described what the issue was and why it was so hard to lock down the number, as the fascinating debate continues.

Multiple FRBs have been used to measure the baryonic matter density between host galaxies and the Milky Way. Credit: ICRAR.

And the most bittersweet story of the year had to be the discovery made using the CSIRO Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope to find the missing baryonic matter in the Universe using powerful radio pulses, known as Fast Radio Bursts. Shortly after the discovery, lead author Associate Professor Jean-Pierre Macquart from Curtin University tragically passed away, but not before changing the world’s science knowledge banks and our understanding of the Universe, forever.

Our Amazing Solar System

The planets of the Solar system – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and the Dwarf Planet Pluto. The relative size of the bodies in thus composite image is correct – however, the distances are not. Credit: NASA/LPI.

A little closer to home, Australian planetary scientists helped us see our very own neighbourhood – the Solar system – through a new prism. University of Southern Queensland’s Professor Jonti Horner took us on a hitchhike around our system, drawing parallels and learnings about what we can expect from other systems around other, distant stars. Controversially, we also heard back from a lot of you who had extraordinarily strong, polarised feelings as to Pluto’s planetary status. That was a can of worms.

Keeping out at the edge of our System, Dr. Graziella Caprarelli really exposed one of the most fascinating moons of Neptune, delving into Triton’s atmosphere and through to its core. Could the conditions be right enough for life to exist at these far reaches of the Solar system? And what does this special moon tell us about what lies beyond Neptune?

The Hayabusa-2 spacecraft. Credit: DLR German Aerospace Center.

Dr. Helen Maynard-Casely also covered an exciting, collaborative mission between both Australia and Japan – with the return of surface and sub-surface samples from the Asteroid Ryugu, by the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft. In early December, the spacecraft deployed a small capsule with the extremely precious content, landing in Woomera in South Australia, where Australian recovery teams – assisted by our Space Agency and Department of Defence, were the first place in the world to sample the atmospheric content of another body from our system.

And we can’t go past the big, bold statements made in the controversial paper that a potential life signature (Phosphine) had been found in the atmosphere of our sister planet, Venus. The announcement took the world by storm, as Dr. Chenoa Tremblay outlined, with global headlines proclaiming Alien life had been detected before a controversial rebuttal was submitted in response. The investigations continue into these exciting findings.

Our Space Industry Goes Into Orbit

In the early part of the year, as the fires raged across the East Coast, we shared a story about how the historical fires of 2003 had changed the face of Mount Stromlo, and other observatories around the world forever. It all came a little close to home this year, but thankfully, we prevailed.

We also got to spend some wonderful time exploring the Canberra Deep Space Communication Centre (CDSCC), and talking with the team who have worked on projects like Voyager for decades about their work. Extraordinary, some of the CDSCC team are the only humans to have been present for nearly every encounter with all bodies across our system – at it all happened from our backyard.

Telescopes at CSIRO’s ParkesObservatory received Wiradjuri names at a ceremony on 8 November 2020.Credit: C.Watson/CSIRO.

The Iconic CSIRO Parkes radio telescope was also given a beautiful and much deserved Wiradjuri name, which means SkyWorld – connecting the lands of the Wiradjuri people to the stars and planets above.

And it wasn’t just our own telescopes that our scientists worked on, as Dr. Tayyaba Zafar showcased how the next generation of giant ground-based telescopes, is going to feature a suite of Australian-developed instrumentation that’s going to open up new ways of observing the Universe altogether.

Australia also joined the hunt for the elusive stuff that makes up most of the matter in Universe – with a new Dark Matter facility being built deep underground in regional Victoria. The facility, which is paired with a sister site in Italy, will determine if Dark Matter modulates seasonally and might help scientists work out what it actually is.

A gold mine in Stawell will house the new dark matter detection lab. Credit: Pursuit/University of Melbourne.

And we can’t forget the excellent progress made by our space companies, who literally took off from Earth! Southern Launch sent up a commercial sub-orbital flight, Gilmour Space Technologies is gearing up for a big start of the new decade – with several organisations now signed up to take payloads into space, and the team from Equatorial Launch Australia is getting ready to build a globally competitive platform that can place Australia’s launch capabilities inline with other big space agencies.

The recently established Australian Space Agency also powered ahead with its plans to support programs like NASA’s Artemis, whilst also building local capability, skills, and jobs. There’s even a new mission control centre on the way!

Education to inspire the Next-Generation

The SpaceAusScope in production by the Sydney team. Credit: R. Mandow.

With lockdown happening in most places around the country, telescope stores reported a surge in sales as people turned to the sky from their own backyards. It was an excellent year to look upwards with several events, such as the visit from Comet Neowise, the bright opposition of the planets, the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn and more - keeping amateurs, newcomers and professionals deeply interested and excited in seeing the Universe come into play. 

The DIY nature of the Australian space community kicked in, and we developed a wonderful community of backyard radio telescope builders – with a few telescopes now operational and receiving data. This project will continue into 2021 as well.

We also saw a record number (26,000) young people participate in the Moonhack coding challenge hosted by Code Clube Australia, including an excellent 50% female participation rate. The sessions included learning about sustainable space launch and removal of space junk, with the young coders being inspired to hopefully continue their careers along STEAM pathways in the future.  

And it didn’t just stop there – with several young people around the country having their projects actually go into space. Working through the One Giant Leap Foundation, Australian Wattle seedlings were sent to the International Space Station (ISS) and returned and are currently being distributed to schools across the country for young community scientists to grow.

The Int-Ball robotic camera, floating in the Kibo module of ISS. Credit: apod.nasa.gov.

Students from the GalenVex team from Wangaratta in Victoria, competed in the fictional coding challenge to save the ISS after it is hit with a small meteor by developing code that programs robots aboard the ISS. The team was selected to have their code actually sent to the ISS robots and ended up coming in an outstanding third place in the global competition.

Whilst some student were sending things upwards, others were sending them back down to Earth – with University of Western Australia students building experiments to test the effect of microgravity after releasing a rocket from an altitude of 30 km in the atmosphere.

The Australian space community also went out of their way to help support up and coming next-gen amateurs, scientists and minorities throughout the year.

Astrophysicist Dr Ángel López-Sánchez gave us an excellent introduction as to what all the beautiful colours are when we are looking at detailed astrophotography images of nebulae – and what is actually occurring within these giant clouds in space.

Native wildflowers growing at the MWA telescope, near the spider-like dipole antennas. Credit: MWA Collaboration/Curtin Uni.

International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) Ph.D. student Kat Ross also described the perfect analogy of being locked down in 2020, by showcasing how her favourite telescope – the MWA in outback Western Australia – can also represent our social distancing but being together.

Additionally, Kat wrote an excellent piece addressing the patriarchy in programming, after a paper was released in the popular journal Nature, which featured 26 male-only authors. Kat’s piece contributed to a global echo of voices who called for changes – which were acknowledged and addressed by the paper’s authors.

As the academics job cycle commenced in an already tough year, Dr. Fiona Panther outlined an excellent guideline to help assist the astronomy sector in succeeding with their best chance of landing a job. If you know someone that can benefit from this, pass it on – it is an excellent resource.

Credit: Deadly Science.

And lastly, we were truly inspired by the tireless and amazing work of Corey Tutt and the Deadly Science Team, who has been working with young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children across the country to inspire them into the fields of science. The Deadly Science project is a real game-changer in building a stronger, and longer-term sustainable solution to inspiring the next generation of Indigenous Scientists around the country.

So overall, 2020 was certainly a challenging year for nearly every one and in a number of different ways – but it was also a fantastic year to see a lot of the Australian space community progress and grow across many different sectors and aspects.

From our team here at SpaceAustralia.com, we thank all of our contributors, authors, scientists, industry stakeholders and community members for allowing us the privilege of telling these stories and are absolutely honoured to have their voices featured in our community.

Here’s to a bigger 2021 for space, across Australia!


Southern Launch video credit: Royal Australian Air Force.