Lightspeed, warp speed, we all speed toward the great unknown. Space exploration and space travel aren’t limited to only astronauts. Some, if not all, of the most fascinating discoveries would not have been possible without the use of technology, from space probes to rovers to radio and light waves.
Let’s take a closer look at how the science behind interstellar exploration led to the knowledge and advancements we know today. Here are ten discoveries we wouldn’t have without space travel.
10 Traversable Wormholes
Einstein’s theory of general relativity, proposed in 1915, expands on space and time, which he initially theorized in 1910. However, Einstein didn’t consider gravity, and he discovered that massive objects warp spacetime through gravity.
General relativity mentions how wormholes are curved regions of spacetime that connect two distant points like a tunnel. Even though scientists haven’t directly observed these in nature and no proof of their existence is available to confirm the theory, scientists suggest that any wormhole would be extremely unstable. If anything were to pass through, the tunnel would collapse, and the matter would be cut off and disappear, trapped in whatever remote part of space the wormhole led to.
However, some scientists have theorized that there is a way to keep wormholes open and prevent their collapse through the use of negative mass, or electrons, to counteract the electric charge and mass of the wormhole. Another theory is that by layering the wormhole entrance with shells of regular matter, the tunnel would be stabilized and allow matter to pass through. The researchers who proposed these discoveries plan to test the theories experimentally. If proven true, our greatest sci-fi dreams of time travel would come true and challenge our understanding of the universe.
You’ve heard of Earthquakes; now get ready for Marsquakes. NASA’s InSight lander, launched in 2018, has measured three separate quakes on the red planet. On September 18, 2021, on its thousandth day on Mars, InSight measured a 4.2 tremor that lasted for an hour and a half. The average quake on Earth only lasts for about thirty seconds.
These Marsquakes provide valuable insight (Get it? Because the lander’s name is InSight?) to the planet’s composition, how it was formed, and how these tremors travel through Mars’ crust, mantle, and core. It was a close call for the lander to even detect these Marsquakes, though, due to the planet’s elliptical orbit taking it farther from the sun, causing InSight to use heaters to stay warm and not receive even solar energy in its panels. Thankfully scientists were able to turn off specific instruments and conserve power. As InSight approaches the sun again, its energy levels can rise and continue to gather data on the red planet.
8 Surviving the Death of a Star
Scientists discovered 4,324 exoplanets in 2020. Since then, the total has risen to 4,903. But in September 2020, a giant Jupiter-sized planet, called WD 1856 b, was found orbiting a white dwarf star. Even though this star is a dwarf, it’s actually forty percent larger than Earth. Dwarf stars are the dense leftovers of a sun-like star that has emitted all of its energy, swollen, then ejected its outer layers, losing up to eighty percent of its mass and leaving only a dense core.
Any nearby objects are typically engulfed by the star’s mass and burnt up during this process which, in this system, would have been WD 1856 b. Somehow, the planet seven times larger than the dwarf star got extremely close and managed to stay in one piece. WD 1856 b resides in the constellation of Draco and is eighty light-years, or twenty-five parsecs, from Earth.
7 Asteroid Mining
While mining asteroids is a trope in science fiction novels, primarily for the galaxies that have used up a planet’s resources and looked for other options for fuel, it may just become a reality.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launched in 2016 and traveled to the asteroid, Bennu, which is close to Earth. The purpose of this mission is to collect a sample of rocks and materials from the asteroid’s surface to better understand its chemical makeup, how life and planets form, and if asteroids hold material that Earthlings might find viable. OSIRIS-REx’s planned return to Earth in 2023 will bring its handlers a host of extraterrestrial samples for study.
6 Voyagers’ Discoveries
In August 1977, Voyager 1 was launched to observe Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. In September 1977, Voyager 2 was launched with the same objective of exploring our solar system’s outer limits and the impact of the sun’s reach.
The Voyager spacecraft travel at about 38,000 miles per hour, or 17 kilometers per second. Since their launches over forty years ago, the two have discovered ice-covered moons, deep space volcanoes, and evidence of water on other planets. Jupiter’s moon, Io, has a volcano with ten times more activity than the volcanic activity on Earth.
Jupiter’s other moon, Europa, has a cracked surface, leading scientists to believe there was liquid water below the surface. Voyager 2 is currently 12 billion miles from Earth, and Voyager 1 is currently 14 billion miles from Earth. They are the first flyby crafts to travel interstellar space. It takes two days for mission control to send and receive incoming communications. This link offers an in-depth look at Voyager 2, while this one provides an in-depth look at Voyager 1 and a real-time location of their positions.
5 Black Hole Area Theorem
You know black holes, right? Can the voids that consume matter let nothing, not even light, escape? In 1971, Stephen Hawking proposed the theory that black holes can’t decrease in size over time, also known as the Black Hole Area Theorem. It primarily functions on the thermodynamic principle of entropy, which is a system’s thermal energy converted into mechanical work. So heat into movement.
After fifty years of being proposed, researchers in 2021 finally proved Hawking’s theory by analyzing the gravitational waves produced by black holes. Scientists calculated the surface area of the two holes before and after they merged and discovered that the area was greater than the sum of the two separate black holes.
It seems obvious that adding 1 + 1 equals 2, but it’s a breakthrough discovery in understanding astrophysics. It even led to two physicists theorizing a method to safely and efficiently extract energy from black holes. It’s hypothesized that this could be accomplished by breaking and reforming magnetic field lines at black hole’s boundaries, making it possible for matter such as light to escape.
4 Space Dust
Without space travel, we never would have discovered that 5,200 tons of space dust are added to Earth every year. Space dust is visible in the sky and is otherwise known as zodiacal light that diffuses a faint glow often seen at sunset or sunrise.
Over a twenty-year study, scientists gathered data of what and how these particles were occurring. Space dust consists of comet, asteroid, and interstellar dust passing through the solar system. Though most particles range from a few molecules to 0.1 millimeters, this dust contains organic compounds formed by stars at the beginning and end of their lives. So next time you go to clean, maybe hang onto those dust bunnies. They might just be from space.
3 A Day on Venus
The length of Venus’s day changes by twenty minutes every orbit. At least, it used to. A group of scientists got together and conducted a decade-long research mission using radar to bounce light waves off of the planet to measure its axial tilt, the size of its core, and how long it takes to complete an orbit.
If scientists ever want to send missions to Venus, the spin and orbital length must be exact; otherwise, a spacecraft could land twenty miles off course and severely impact the mission. The research team discovered that one day on Venus is the equivalent of 243 Earth days and some change. The discrepancy they previously encountered was due to the thick, fast-moving clouds in Venus’s atmosphere, which alter the planet’s spin.
2 Dwarf Galaxies
In 2021, scientists discovered a new tiny galaxy, only 1% of the Milky Way’s size. It’s still developing and in the early stages of its expansion. Still, scientists were able to find it by gravitational lensing, where large objects bend and magnify light which creates a sense of what is there and what is not, like a photo negative.
Now, this new galaxy is not the first of its kind. There are actually twenty dwarf galaxies floating around in the Milky Way, but finding them wouldn’t have been possible without the minds and technology behind space travel.
1 The Fifth Force
Four fundamental forces govern spacetime: gravity, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear. The standard model of physics combines all of these forces, but scientists can’t stop picking at a healing wound and conducted experiments that verified the standard model is incomplete. It doesn’t unify gravity with the other three forces, nor does it explain the dark matter that makes up 96% of the universe.
So they started looking at beauty quarks and the process of their decay, which just so happens to create a set of light particles through the weak force. The type of particles these quarks are decaying into violate a law of lepton universality, which says that the number of leptons before and after has to be the same. Though this discovery still requires more data, researchers are on the brink of discovering a fifth element that could forever alter our understanding of physics.