Updated Jan 1, 2023 - Science

The year we got to know the universe better

Illustration of a mortar board with a galaxy pattern on top

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

2022 was an extraordinary year for space science— one that brought humanity closer to understanding the very nature of our universe.

Why it matters: Answers to age-old questions about the nearly 14 billion years of cosmic history are closer than ever.

Catch up quick: The year's watershed moments included the long-awaited first images sent from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and a portrait of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

  • JWST, which launched one year ago, delivered unprecedented images of stellar and galactic births, yielding new details about the evolving structure of early galaxies and the first stars to turn on in the universe.
  • The space telescope has also started looking at the atmospheres of planets far from our own, including the TRAPPIST-1 planets that are within their star's habitable zone. (Full results from those observations haven't been released.)

"We are in we're in a whole new era of astrophysics and planetary science," NASA scientist Stefanie Milam told Axios. "What we are seeing even in our first glimpses with the James Webb Space Telescope has just blown our mind. It surpassed our expectations in so many ways."

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) captured images of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way that illustrated the similarities between it and the first black hole to be imaged three years ago.

  • "That's a good thing from the scientific perspective," said Joseph Pesce, a program officer at the National Science Foundation and astrophysicist who studies galaxy cluster formation. "It's important because if they look different, then something's wrong with our underlying theories that describe black holes."
  • The pair of images are "one big result coming together and that really sealed our understanding of black holes," said Heino Falcke, a professor at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands who studies black holes and is part of the EHT.

There were also new findings about the source of elusive neutrino particles.

The big picture: Recent decades were punctuated by several astronomy and astrophysics firsts — like detecting gravitational waves from mergers between neutron stars and black holes, or recording bright gamma ray bursts — but some scientists say 2022 was an out-of-the-ordinary year.

  • JWST's images of distant galaxies that emerged less than 400 million years after the Big Bang are "really a new picture," Falcke says.

Yes, but: While these tools and the data they provide are re-shaping scientists' view of the universe, a "full understanding still has to emerge," Falcke says.

  • For example, a huge constituent of the universe remains elusive. Dark matter is believed to be particles that make up 95% of mass in the universe.
  • Its gravity influences how galaxies form and cluster around one another, and how stars rotate around them. "It's having a direct impact on everything," Pesce says.
  • The tools turned on in 2022 don't directly search for dark matter but if they can capture its indirect effects in new ways, they could guide scientists in their search.

What to watch: The Vera Rubin Observatory and other large telescopes on Earth are expected to reach more milestones on the way to full operations in the coming years.

  • Falcke and his collaborators will begin work on a new millimeter range radio telescope in Namibia — the African continent's first — that will be part of the EHT network.

The bottom line: "We're going to be able to see intricate details about how and when stars die, and how they interact with their dead planetary systems," Milam says.

  • "Our Galileo moment is seeing inside of black holes; we're studying star formation in ways that we've never been able to see."

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