In 2003 we witnessed triumph and tragedy in astronomy and space exploration. Throughout the year, SkyandTelescope.com stayed on top of the most important stories, including the closest Mars approach in nearly 60,000 years, exciting new developments in cosmology and gamma-ray bursts, and NASA's successful deployment of the Spitzer Space Telescope.
But while we rejoiced over these magnificent events, our celebration was tempered by the Columbia disaster of February 1st. Astronomers around the world also mourned the loss of the Mount Stromlo Observatory in Australia to bushfires.
From a public perspective, the biggest astronomy story of the year was undoubtedly the close Mars approach in late August. Media outlets around the world trumpeted the opposition as the best in nearly 60,000 years. While true, S&T cut through the hype, pointing out that this Mars opposition was only marginally better than previous great oppositions, such as the one in 1988. In an August 22nd article, S&T senior editor Alan MacRobert reminded readers that the Mars show didn't end with the close approach on August 26th-27th: "Mars remains just as big and bright, for all practical purposes, during at least the first half of September."
Throughout the year, researchers studied the red planet with orbiting sentinels. Mars Odyssey discovered subsurface water ice and shed more light on the controversy over the origin of Martian gullies. Mars Global Surveyor, in the meantime, continued its successful mission, taking a beautiful image of Phobos, among other accomplishments. What's more, the launch of the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, and NASA's twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, will add to our growing understanding, and will likely shed considerable light, on whether the red planet ever harbored life.
In cosmology, both space- and ground-based observations lent crucial support to the emerging consensus that we live in a universe dominated by dark energy and dark matter. According to results from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) released in late February, the universe is 13.7 billion years old (give or take 200 million years), and it consists of 73 percent dark energy, 23 percent dark matter, and just 4 percent everything else (including the type of "atomic" matter that makes up stars, planets, and people). Alan MacRobert lead his February 11th article: "As of today we know better than ever when the universe began, how it behaved in its earliest instants, how it has evolved since then, and everything it contains."
Later in the year, results from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey helped cosmologists refine the WMAP results. In a November 3rd article, University of Pennsylvania cosmologist Max Tegmark said, "Different telescopes, different galaxies, different astronomers, and a different analysis — and we still get the same numbers. That's quite comforting." Now that cosmologists seem to agree on the universe's ingredients, they can concentrate their efforts on determining what this dark stuff actually is.
A powerful gamma-ray burst (GRB) on March 29th later exhibited supernova behavior, providing the key link that supports the growing consensus that these mysterious flashes of high-energy radiation represent the death cries of massive stars and the formation of stellar-mass black holes. In an April 4th news story, S&T contributing editor Govert Schilling wrote, "If you live in western North America and were watching the constellation Leo early on the morning of March 29th, you might have been able to see a titanic explosion 2 billion light-years away — with your naked eyes."
On August 12th, S&T associate editor David Tytell posted a different article on GRB detection. His article described the July 25th discovery of a GRB afterglow by South African amateur astronomer Berto Monard. Just ten years ago, no GRB afterglows had ever been seen. Now, they fall within the purview of amateur astronomers. "Monard's ability to beat professionals to the punch with his afterglow discovery," wrote Tytell, "came from a combination of preparation and opportunity."
On December 19, S&T covered the first release of images from NASA's latest Great Observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope, formerly known as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility. Based on the preliminary images, we can look forward to five years of spectacular images and discoveries as astronomers peer through dust-laden clouds to enjoy previously hidden vistas.
Despite the successes of 2003, the Columbia tragedy cast a shadow over all subsequent events. The world lost seven exceptional human beings as the shuttle disintegrated over northern Texas. In addition, the disaster placed NASA's manned space program under a cloud of uncertainty, and put the future of the Hubble Space Telescope in doubt, which we covered in articles on August 1st and August 15th.
Another tragedy occurred on January 18th, when a ferocious bushfire ravaged most of the Mount Stromlo Observatory in Canberra, Australia. As reported by S&T executive editor J. Kelly Beatty, the fire destroyed six telescopes, the main administration building, the library, and a workshop containing a $5 million imaging spectrograph for the 8-meter Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. Besides the astronomical losses, the fire claimed four lives and some 400 houses.
In 2003 we also bid farewell to several intrepid space explorers. On January 22nd, ground controllers received the final signal from Pioneer 10, launched in 1972 to study Jupiter. On September 23rd, Galileo plunged into the upper atmosphere of Jupiter, which we covered in articles on March 4th and September 22nd. On December 10th, Japanese flight controllers lost contact with their probe Nozomi just before it was to rendezvous with the red planet. And so far, ESA has failed to make contact with Beagle 2, a British-built Mars lander.
It's too soon to predict whether 2004 will top this year on the excitement scale. But stay tuned to SkyandTelescope.com for the latest updates on NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which will land on January 3rd and 25th, respectively. Also keep an eye on our ongoing coverage of Mars Express, Stardust's encounter with Comet Wild 2 on January 2nd, Cassini's July rendezvous with Saturn, and sky events such as the June 8th transit of Venus, partial solar eclipses on April 19th and October 13th-14th, total lunar eclipses on May 4th-5th and October 27th-28th, and two comets that might rise to naked-eye brightness in May. For more news from 2003, please visit SkyandTelescope.com's news archive.