2020 wasn't a great year on Earth - but what about in space?

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By Luke Hurst
2020 was full of amazing cosmic events, such as a total solar eclipse and the visit of Comet Neowise
2020 was full of amazing cosmic events, such as a total solar eclipse and the visit of Comet Neowise   -  Copyright  AP Photo

2020 has been a tough year down on planet Earth, with the coronavirus pandemic interrupting the usual business of humanity.

With so much of the Earth’s population stuck at home for large parts of the year, it has at least been a good one for looking up at the sky and taking in the wonders of space.

Out in the limitless depths we have witnessed grand cosmic spectacles such as comets, eclipses, and the alignment of our neighbouring planets.

And amid the chaos back on the ground, scientists, engineers and astronauts have continued to develop our understanding of the universe with groundbreaking space missions.

Here’s a look back at what happened in space in 2020.

Space X made more history

Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully sent a manned capsule up to the International Space Station - the first private company to do so.

Two NASA astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, were launched from a Falcon 9 rocket in May, from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

This was a manned test-flight, with four more astronauts arriving on a SpaceX capsule in November, to serve a six-month stay on the ISS.

The Sun like you'd never seen it before

In February the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter set off on its mission to take images from closer to the sun than any spacecraft before.

ESA says it is the most complex scientific laboratory to be sent to our star. The first images were published in July, showing features of the Sun in more detail than have ever been seen before.

First views of the Sun obtained with Solar Orbiter's EUI on 30 May 2020, revealing the omnipresent miniature eruptions dubbed 'campfires'.Solar Orbiter/EUI Team/ESA & NASA; CSL, IAS, MPS, PMOD/WRC, ROB, UCL/MSSL

“It’s as if the spacecraft had sent us a postcard from its journey,” said Daniel Müller, Solar Orbiter Project Scientist at ESA.

Over the next five years the orbiter will reveal images of the poles - which control the Sun’s mysterious magnetic field - and sides of our star that have never been seen before.

Scientists also hope to discover what heats the Sun’s corona to millions of degrees, what drives solar wind, and how it affects our planet and the wider solar system.

Comet Neowise paid a rare visit

Only discovered in March, this comet was the brightest visible from the Northern Hemisphere for around 25 years - and won’t be back for another 7,000 years.

Sergei Grits/AP Photo
Comet Neowise is seen over the Turets, Belarus, 110 kilometres west of capital Minsk. July 14, 2020Sergei Grits/AP Photo

Neowise paid a rare passing visit to Earth on its long journey around the solar system this year, visible in July and August. It was clearly visible in clear night skies, with a long tail caused by dust and ice burning off its surface due to proximity to the heat of the Sun.

It is named after NASA’s Neowise infrared space telescope, which spotted it.

Touchdown: Asteroid missions saw success

NASA landed a spacecraft on a small piece of rock hurtling through space 200 million miles from Earth in October.

OSIRIS-Rex touched down briefly on the asteroid Bennu, reaching down onto its surface to gather material scientists say could shed light on the formation of the solar system.

While it was the USA’s first mission to gather samples from an asteroid, Japan has done it twice already.

It was the USA’s first mission to gather samples from an asteroid, something Japan has accomplished twice.

An image from the surface of Ryugu, taken in 2018AP/JAXA

In fact, Japan’s second mission to collect material from an asteroid was completed successfully in December, when a capsule with samples from asteroid Ryugu touched down in the Australian Outback.

It was the first ever mission to collect asteroid subsurface material.

The planets aligned

Jupiter and Saturn were at their closest alignment in the sky for 400 years in December.

Known as the Great Conjunction, the gas giants were less than the diameter of the full moon apart at one point, after being visibly close together in the night sky for most of the year. 

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Saturn, top, and Jupiter, below, are seen in the sky, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, above Edgerton, Kansas, US on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Astronomer and author Tom Kerrs told Euronews: "Four hundred years ago was the last time we saw one (a Great Conjunction) quite so special as this and that's why astronomers are encouraging you to go out and take a look."

While the planets pass each other in their respective orbits around the Sun every 20 Earth years, they hadn't been this close in the sky since 1623.

Total eclipse of the Sun

Thousands of people were rewarded for braving the rain and cloudy weather in Chile and Argentina this month, with a view of a total solar eclipse.

Natacha Pisarenko/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
total solar eclipse in Piedra del Aguila, Argentina, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.Natacha Pisarenko/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Crowds cheered as the sun was completely covered by the moon, before a brief silence fell.

The next eclipse from that part of the world will be in 2048.