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.

June

  • 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.

December

  • TESS the planet hunter: NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), previewed here, is currently slated to lift-off in December 2017 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Equipped with four wide-angle telescopes, TESS will occupy a unique orbit, dubbed P/2. Technically, this is a “2:1 lunar resonant orbit“, which will allow the craft to remain balanced within the gravitational effects of the Moon and Earth, thus providing a stable orbital regime which should last for decades. In addition, the orbit means that TESS will be able to survey both the northern and southern hemispheres in it search for planets orbiting other stars.
  • Supermoon: “But wait! didn’t we just have one or two of those, and aren’t they supposed to be sort-of rare?” Well, yes we have, and while they are rare, they’re not quite that rare. A “supermoon” occurs when the Moon is both full and at perigee (the point in its orbit when it is closest to Earth), when it can appear up to 14% larger in diameter than “normal” full moons. The Supermoon of December 3rd 2017 technically won’t be as spectacular as the ones which saw out 2016, as the Moon won’t be so close to the Earth – but I defy anyone to tell the difference with the naked eye! Anyway, it’s a great reason to see the Moon rise full and orange – catch it just after sunset.
  • Geminid End-of-Year Meteors:  The final meteor shower of the year, the Geminids can be very prolific  sometimes up to (60-120 meteors per hour at peak times). 2017 will be special as the showers will reach their peak on December 14th, when there will be a waning Moon in the sky. Look towards the constellation Gemini in the pre-dawn hours.

And Some More

Also to come in 2017:

  • The continuance of NASA’s current missions to the solar system and beyond, together with India and Europe’s missions to Mars.
  • Crewed flights to the International Space Station, together with resupply missions to the same.
  • A second crewed mission to China’s Tiangong-2 orbital laboratory.
  • The potential end-of-year launch of China’s Chang’e 5 mission to the Moon.
  • The potential launch of an uncrewed Boeing CST-100 Starliner.
  • The Google Lunar X-Prize may be won (see below for more).

SpaceX Prepares for Flight and Hints of Things to Come

SpaceX continues preparations for the return to flight of its Falcon 9 launch system while awaiting clearance from the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) – which has final say over all private space launches in America – that they can indeed renew flight operations.

The first launch will be to place ten IridiumNEXT satellites into orbit, and on Wednesday, December 28th, 2016, Iridium Communications announced that all ten satellites are now stacked and secured in the payload fairing of the rocket, which is being assembled at the SpaceX facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Station, California – the United States’ west coast launch facilities, part of which has been leased by SpaceX for launch and recovery operations.

Left: The 10 IridiumNEXT satellites being installed in their payload fairing. Right: the Falcon 9 rocket being assembled by SpaceX. Note the landing legs at the base of the rocket's first stage

Left: The 10 IridiumNEXT satellites being installed in their payload fairing. Right: the Falcon 9 rocket being assembled by SpaceX. Note the triangular landing legs at the base of the rocket’s first stage. Credit: Iridium Communications

SpaceX had to halt all Falcon 9 flights in September 2016 when pre-launch preparations on September 1st lead to the complete loss of vehicle and payload – the Israeli Amos 6 communications satellite –  in a launchpad explosion. While SpaceX believe they have found the cause of the problem, which appears to be process related, rather than to do with any actual technical weakness  / issue within the rocket, they have yet to hear back from the FAA regarding the re-certification of the rocket for flights.

The hope is that FAA approval will come through in early January, potentially allowing the launch to take place before the end of the month, or early February. It will be the first of a series of launches designed to place a constellation of 81 IridiumNEXT satellites in low Earth orbit, dedicated to mobile voice and data communications. Seven of the launches have been assigned to SpaceX, who will launch a total of 70 of the satellites, with the launch of the final 11 still to be contracted out.

The launch will also see SpaceX resume attempts to fly the first stage of the boost back to a control landing, so it can be refurbished and re-used in future missions, thus reducing over all costs to the company – and their clients. So far, SpaceX has made six successful booster recoveries, four of which have been at sea. The return to launch flight will also be at sea, and the land facilities at Vandenberg have yet to be commissioned.

Left: the teaser shot of the interstage ring of the Falcon Heavy, released by SpaceX on December 28th, and right: how the Falcon Heavy will look when ready for launch

Left: the teaser shot of the interstage ring of the Falcon Heavy, released by SpaceX on December 28th, and right: how the Falcon Heavy will look when ready for launch

At the same time as Iridium Communications issued their update on the return to flight launch, SpaceX released a teaser photograph of their next launch system – the Falcon Heavy. The image shows the interstage section – the ring which connects the first and second stages of the booster’s core rocket – complete with the Falcon Heavy logo emblazoned on its side.

It is anticipated the first Falcon Heavy will lift-off around mid-2017, and will be followed a month or so later by a second launch. Capable of lifting 54 tonnes to low Earth orbit, and 14 tonnes to Mars, the Falcon Heavy will become the most powerful launch system in operation when it enters service.

Critics, however, claim that with a total of 27 first stage engines (9 on the core, 9 each on the two “boosters” either side of the core (which are themselves Falcon 9 first stages), the vehicle will be two complex to fly safely. SpaceX is more confident – and the vehicle is key to their plans, presenting valuable operational experience which will help with the massive, 42-engined Interplanetary Transportation Rocket they are construction (capable of lifting up to 300 tonnes to low Earth orbit). Falcon Heavy itself is due to fly SpaceX’s first mission to Mars using an uncrewed “Red Dragon” capsule, in 2018.

The Google Lunar X-Prize

Artist's impression of Moon Express on the lunar surface. Credit: Moon Express

Artist’s impression of Moon Express on the lunar surface. Credit: Moon Express

2017 marks the year in which the Google Lunar X-Prize of US $20 million could be won.

Established in 2007 and sponsored by Google, the competition is overseen by the X-Prize Foundation, the non-profit organisation that designs and manages public competitions intended to encourage technological development that could benefit humanity.

The prize will be awarded to the first the first non-government organisation to land a rover vehicle on the surface of the Moon which can cover a distance of at least 500 metres by driving, or hopping or some other form of locomotion, and transmit high-definition images and video back to Earth. IN addition to the US $20 million first prize, a second prize of US $5 million will be awarded, and there is a further US $5 million available in bonuses for those exceeding the basic requirements of the competition.

The rules of the challenge also required that participating teams had to submit a launch contract for their attempt to the X-Prize Foundation in order of the contract to be verified no later than December 31st, 2016, and missions must launch by the end of 2017. Any teams failing to meet these requirements would be automatically eliminated.

Some 18 teams originally announced their intention to participate. However, at the start of 2017, only five were confirmed as having verified launch opportunities. They are: Synergy Moon (international team spanning 15 countries);  SpaceIL (Israel); Moon Express (United States); Team Indus (India) and Team Hakuto (Japan). There currently appears to be a disagreement between a sixth, German team and the X-Prize Foundation, the former claiming it expects to be confirmed in the competition having submitted their launch contract before December 31st, 2016, whilst a comment from the X-Prize Foundation repeats the point that the end of December 2016 deadline was for contract submission and verification.

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