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A Year in Review: 2016 Astronomy Highlights

In a year that saw the observation of gravitational waves, a cosmic distance record and the discovery of Proxima b, among other milestones, the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO) takes a moment to reflect on a few of the astronomy highlights from 2016.

February – Observing Gravitational Waves

For the first time, scientists observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves, arriving at the earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.

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Two black holes merge into one. Image credit: The SXS (Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes) Project.

March – Hubble Team Breaks Cosmic Distance Record

By pushing NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to its limits, an international team of astronomers shattered the cosmic distance record by measuring the farthest galaxy ever seen in the universe. This surprisingly bright infant galaxy, named GN-z11, is seen as it was 13.4 billion years in the past, just 400 million years after the Big Bang.

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Location of GN-z11. Image credit: NASA.

August – Astronomers Discover Proxima b

An international team of astronomers, including Mike Endl from the University of Texas at Austin, a GMTO founder institution, announced the discovery of Proxima b, a planet orbiting the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, 4.22 light years away. The planet is in an orbit that would allow it to have liquid water on its surface, thus raising the question of its habitability. The finding has been called “the biggest exoplanet discovery since the discovery of exoplanets.”

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Surface of Proxima b (Artist’s Impression). Image credit: Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

November – Completion of James Webb Space Telescope

After more than 20 years of construction, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is complete and, following in-depth testing, the largest-ever space telescope is expected to launch within two years.