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Space exploration brought 'hope and joy' during pandemic-devastated 2020

While the planet continues to battle the Covid-19 pandemic, an Auckland astronomer says space is increasingly becoming a place of hope for many.

Great Conjunction phenomemon, which would see Jupiter and Saturn appear close together in the sky. Source: istock.com

Stardome Observatory and Planetarium astronomy educator Josh Kirkley said 2020 space exploration was “surprisingly really successful” despite the pandemic.

“There seems to be a lot more public interest in what's going on in space,” he said.

Kirkley attributed the increased interest in space on the “circumstances of this year”. 

“I think [space] brings a lot of people a lot of hope and joy and excitement. It’s something that brings a lot of people together.”

Big players of the year included the US, China, Japan and India, as well as private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and New Zealand-owned Rocket Labs. 

“I think it has been their most successful year,” he said of the companies. 

1 NEWS spoke to Kirkley about some of the most memorable moments in space this year and what he expected to see in 2021. 

The 'once-in-a-lifetime' Great Conjunction 

From Saturday until tomorrow night, Kiwis can enjoy a “once-in-a-lifetime” phenomenon known as a Great Conjunction. It’ll see Jupiter and Saturn appear at their closes in almost 400 years on the western horizon shortly after sunset. 

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'Once in a lifetime' — Jupiter, Saturn to appear at their closest in almost 400 years tonight

“Planetary conjunctions themselves aren’t rare, but the rarity of this one is the closeness between the two planets from our perspective,” Kirkley said.

“Planets often pass by each other because all the planets orbit on the same plane. But, to see them this close is really rare. 

“So, it’ll still be really exciting.”

The launch of Crew Dragon by SpaceX

On May 30, Elon Musk’s SpaceX became the first commercial rocket to take astronauts into Earth’s orbit. NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken spent two months on the International Space Station before safely returning to Earth. 

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Two NASA astronauts splashed down this morning after the first commercially funded, manned mission to the International Space Station. Source: 1 NEWS

Moving to privatise some space trips was exciting because it would free governments up to focus on planetary missions, Kirkley said. 

“It’s becoming so much more accessible and cheaper not just for NASA, but the entire industry to send people up to space. 

“It’s a really positive thing all round.” 

Discovering water molecules on the moon 

In October, NASA announced it had officially found water on the Moon.

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Nicholas Rattenbury explained the significance of the NASA discovery on TVNZ1's Breakfast. Source: Breakfast

“Scientists have known for a while there was water on the moon, but they weren’t sure if it was just confined to the poles or some craters, for example,” Kirkley said.

He said the discovery could have major impacts on future space travel.

“For example, if we had lunar bases or rockets that are landing, they can actually use that as a natural resource.

“Finding that resource, it's just invaluable … the more you can actually be kind of self-sufficient, that’s really useful.”

Japan retrieves rock samples from asteroid Ryugu

December saw Japan’s space agency JAXA retrieve a small sample of rock from the asteroid Ryugu, which is some 300 million kilometres away from Earth. 

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A Japanese spacecraft has spent a year investigating the Ryugu asteroid. Source: 1 NEWS

Kirkley said the mission was significant because it gave scientists more clues about how the universe began and the origins of life on Earth. 

“What we know about asteroids is that they’re kind of the leftovers of the solar system.

“The more we can understand what it was like when the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago, it helps us to better understand how the Earth formed, how the Sun and all the other planets in our solar system formed, and eventually how life formed because we don’t know that yet.”

Looking ahead to 2021 — Apollo era excitement and privatisation, but no space tourism yet

Kirkley said 2021 would bring “much of the same, but just so much more”.

Space tourism would continue to progress quickly in 2021, but it “probably” won’t take off on a larger scale for another few years, he said.

“We’ve got all the missions going to Mars next year and a bunch of new planetary missions,” he said. 

“We are kind of at a really pivotal point.”

He said the move towards privatisation would also continue next year, with companies like SpaceX and New Zealand-based Rocket Lab at the forefront of innovation. 

The high levels of excitement about space was probably something many hadn’t felt since the Apollo era, he said.

But 2020 had a different flavour to it, he added.

“When you look at Apollo, for example, the first Apollo mission to the moon literally had nothing to do with science — they were kind of political statements. 

“Today, there’s just a lot more effort towards science and discovery and exploration and cooperation between nations. ... It’s a lot more positive, really.”