Space Sunday: a look at the year ahead

Artist's concept of Cassini's final orbits between the innermost rings and Saturn's cloud tops (see below). Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of Cassini’s final orbits between the innermost rings and Saturn’s cloud tops (see below). Credit: NASA

As we enter a new year, I thought I’d take a quick dip into some of the astronomical and space events which will occur in 2017.

January / February

  • The Quantids Meteor Shower: reaching a peak on January 3rd / 4th, this should be visible for those in the northern hemisphere graced with clear night skies, as the Earth passes through the debris trail from asteroid 2003 EH1. Just look towards Ursa Major (The Plough / The Big Dipper) and you could see up to 100 “shooting stars” per hour as dust and minute debris from the comet’s tail burn up in the upper atmosphere.
  • SpaceX Return to Flight: while no date has been confirmed, it is expected this will take place in January / February 2017 – see my expanded report below.
  • Catch a Comet: February will see  Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova pass the Earth on its way back out into space, having swung around the Sun in December. A short period comet, orbiting the Sun every 5.5 years, it should be visible just before dawn between the constellations Aquila and Hercules. On the morning of February 11th it will be at its closest to Earth – 12,320,000 km (7,700,000 mi), and should be visible to the naked eyes as a tiny fuzzy ball.
  • Southern Hemisphere Annular Eclipse: Africa and South America get to see an annular eclipse on February 26th. This is when the Sun and Moon are exactly in line with the Earth, but the apparent size of the Moon is smaller than that of the Sun. Hence the Sun appears as a very bright ring, or annulus, surrounding the dark disk of the Moon.

March / April

  • The Moon-Mars-Mercury Triangle: looking out toward the crescent moon just after dusk on March 29th should reveal the celestial triangle between the Moon, ruddy Mars (relatively high above the horizon) and tiny Mercury, much closer to the horizon. The latter will actually be at its most distant from the Sun at the time and at the highest above the horizon it ever gets, marking one of the rare occasions it can easily be seen as a naked eye object.
The Moon-Mars-Mercury "triangle". Credit: Andrew Fazekas
The Moon-Mars-Mercury “triangle”. Credit: Andrew Fazekas
  • Jupiter’s Bright Opposition: Jupiter and the Sun will be sitting almost exactly on opposite sides of the Earth relative to one another during March and April (opposition actually occurring on April 7th). This means that Jupiter will be one of the brightest objects in the night sky, and on April 10th will be a brilliant companion for the full Moon, appearing just above and to the right of the Moon’s limb.
  • Cassini’s Final Grand Tour: On April 22nd, NASA’s long running Cassini mission to Saturn will enter its final phase as the spaceraft bearing the mission’s name commences 22 final orbits which will see it passing between the planet and its rings to come within 1,630 km (1,013 mi) of Saturn’s cloud tops.
  • China’s Tianzhou 1 to Fly: while it has yet to be confirmed, April has been earmarked for the maiden flight of China’s automated resupply vehicle, Tianzhou 1, which should rendezvous with the Tiangong-2 orbital laboratory to deliver consumables, fuel and other supplies. The mission is key to China’s longer-term aim of establishing a crewed space station in orbit.


  • Saturn’s Opposition and Rings:  Saturn will also be in opposition in June, revealing it as one of the brightest objects in the night sky, sitting within the in the constellation Ophiuchus. Saturn will be angled to show its northern hemisphere at this opposition, so the rings will inclined at an angle of 26° to our line of sight, which is almost the maximum inclination they can have, making them visible to even a modest telescope (30-cm / 6-in).

August / September

  • Perseids Sparkle:  it’s the most prolific meteor shower in the year visible in the northern hemisphere, with 60-110 “shooting stars” visible per hour at peak times, with some visible for up to a second at a time. Peak activity will occur between the 9th and 14th August – just look towards the constellation Perseus. But you’ll have to be out really early to see them – around 2:00am local time where you are. They’re the result of the Earth passing through the debris trail left by 1992’s Comet Swift-Tuttle,
  • The Great American Eclipse: the United States gets the best of this year’s solar eclipses, with a total eclipse occurring on August  21st. Totality (the complete eclipsing of the Sun by the Moon) will be visible in a narrow band stretching across the continental United States – see the video from NASA, below. Check with NASA for the best observing times in your location.

  • Dragon V2’s fiery ascent: although the first crewed flight of the Dragon V2 capsule has been delayed until 2018, SpaceX are targeting August 2017 as the month for the first uncrewed flight of the system, an important step on the way toward full certification to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
  • Farewell to Cassini: it won’t be visible from Earth, but at 11:07 UT on September 15th, 2017, NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn will come to an end as the vehicle, which has been in space for 20 years, 13 of them in orbit around the planet, plunges into the upper reaches of Saturn’s atmosphere and burns up. It will be a fiery and sad end to a magnificent mission, and I hope to present a Cassini special in these pages later in the year.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: a look at the year ahead”