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Christmas launch sends the most complex telescope into space

<i>Chris Gunn/NASA</i><br/>
Chris Gunn
Chris Gunn/NASA

By Ashley Strickland, CNN

Wonder is all around us.

There was a stunning reminder this week as spacecraft and stargazers alike shared videos of an ancient comet as it streaked across our sky.

This is Comet Leonard’s final blaze of glory before disappearing forever — and the rare celestial show is now something we share with our early human ancestors, who likely witnessed it 80,000 years ago.

No matter how different we may be, shared amazement is a true gift. While watching holiday movies with my family, I was surprised to hear that sentiment echoed in the 1947 film “The Bishop’s Wife.”

“We all come from our own little planets,” says Cary Grant’s character, Dudley. “That’s why we’re all different. That’s what makes life interesting.”

This year, all of us little planets revolved around awe-inspiring finds and discoveries. Reflect with the CNN Space and Science team as we look back on the year that was, while saluting our voyage into the future.

Defying gravity

After years of anticipation, the James Webb Space Telescope has finally launched.

The telescope lifted off from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket at 7:20 a.m. ET on Christmas Day.

The world’s next premier space observatory will be used to peer inside the atmospheres of exoplanets and act as an infrared detective observing the earliest galaxies in the deep universe.

Webb could change our understanding of what occurred right after the Big Bang that created the universe — and ultimately determine how we got here and if we’re truly alone.

For more about the telescope, you can watch the CNN Film “The Hunt For Planet B.” The documentary provides an insider look as the scientists build and plan for the launch. It also looks at the search for life on planets outside of our solar system.

We are family

Intriguing new chapters were added to the human story this year. Fossils, footprints and ancient DNA revealed much more about our distant ancestors and how they lived.

A skullcap introduced us to a completely new type of human, enigmatically known as the Dragon Man, who lived between 138,000 and 309,000 years ago.

Footprints in New Mexico that seem freshly made were actually imprinted in the Earth thousands of years ago. We even gleaned new insight about the fashion of our Stone Age forebears.

While cave dirt doesn’t sound like a haven of groundbreaking information, scientists have found that it harbors DNA from early humans that we could never hope to find otherwise — and it’s rewriting history.

A long time ago

An ancient hangover prevention ring, a lost Rembrandt painting and an entire 3,000-year-old city. These were just some of the most exciting art and design discoveries in 2021.

Excavations and expeditions also revealed some of the oldest examples of cave art, ornamental gold masks and even fragments of a Dead Sea Scroll.

These are the kinds of finds that not only excite researchers, but can change history and how we understand it.

It’s eye-opening to see just how long humans have been making their creative mark on the world.

Climate changed

Come sail away with these Saildrones, which have set an open course for the rough seas.

The six unmanned vessels will spend half a year enduring some of the most hostile ocean conditions. The results could help scientists improve weather forecasting and models for climate change.

If these sound familiar, the Saildrones captured the first-ever video from inside a major hurricane at sea level, braving the 120 miles per hour (193 kilometers per hour) winds and 50-foot (15-meter) waves of Hurricane Sam.

Dangerous hurricanes were just one of the many weather events from this year to highlight the growing climate crisis.

Across the universe

The Milky Way like we’ve never seen it before. Mysterious cosmic explosions reaching Earth. Stunning video of landing on Mars and the first powered flight on another planet.

We’re living in a golden age of discovery that has allowed us to get to know the universe a little bit better this year.

Astronomers uncovered secrets about extreme objects like black holes and found the very first planet outside of our galaxy. A spacecraft even “touched the sun.”

Revisit all of the wondrous space discoveries made in 2021. We can’t wait to see what happens next.

The wonder

Here are the headlines that caught our attention this week:

— This perfectly preserved baby dinosaur was discovered curled up inside its egg.

— The first sample collected from a carbon-rich asteroid and returned to Earth is spilling secrets about our solar system.

— Meet “the biggest bug that ever lived,” over 100 million years before the rise of the dinosaurs. It weighed in at a whopping 110 pounds (50 kilograms).

Like what you’ve read? Oh, but there’s more. Sign up here to receive in your inbox the next edition of Wonder Theory, brought to you by CNN Space and Science writer Ashley Strickland, who finds wonder in planets beyond our solar system and discoveries from the ancient world.

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