Space Sunday: the Sun, Venus and snippets

An annular eclipse with the Sun’s horns. Credit: unknown

Thursday, June 10th will bring forth an annular eclipse of the Sun that will be visible from  Western Europe and North America (weather permitting!).

An annular eclipse is when the distances from the Earth and the Moon and the Earth and the Sun are such that as the Moon comes between Earth and Sun, its disk is too small to completely “blot out” the Sun’s disk.

The event on June 10th will occur at a time when Earth is approaching aphelion – the point in its orbit furthest from the Sun (which it will reach on July 5th), and when the Moon has just passed apogee – the point in its orbit around the Earth when it is furthest from our world. This means that when seen from Earth, the Moon will have an apparent diameter of 29’ 34”, and the Sun 31’ 30”.

Note: you should never, under any circumstances look directly into the Sun, even when wearing sunglasses. Not even during an eclipse.

While annular eclipses are regarded as being less spectacular than a total eclipse, they do have a beauty of their own, and are actually far more common – and will become more and more common in the aeons to come, due to the fact that the Moon is very slowly edging ever further from Earth, and so is ever so gradually forever slipping beyond the “Goldilocks zone” where its apparent diameter will at times almost match that of the Sun’s to present us with a total eclipse.

Not that this will be any time soon – astronomers estimate that it will be another 1.4 billion years before this planet witnesses its last ever total eclipse.

For the event on June 10th, the good news is that the eclipse will be above the horizon for North America from Florida and  in an arc curving through the western and central United States and Canada to reach the Bering Strait, whilst in Europe a similar curve will run from the southern tip of Spain across all of Western Europe and parts of Eastern Europe before turning tightly over Russia to also reach the Bering Strait.

Path of the June 2021 annular eclipse

The bad news is the path of annularity, which offers the very best views of the eclipse, lies along a sparsely populated arc that runs across remote regions of Ontario, Hudson Bay, Northern Quebec and North-western Greenland before crossing the North Pole and ending at dusk on the Arctic shores of Siberia.

Even so, millions across the north-eastern half of North America, nearly all of Europe and Russia will see various stages of a partial solar eclipse, with parts of the United States being especially fortunate in being is the sweet spot for witnessing the a ‘sunrise horns’ eclipse, which will be visible for those up and about in the early hours in the Great Lakes down through the New Jersey-Pennsylvania/Delaware tri-state region..

Speeded-up ‘eclipse-rise’ as seen from Toronto, Canada. Credit: Stellarium

Those within this arc can project an image of the Sun onto a plain white surface using a telescope or binoculars in order to see the “horns” – an effect caused as the Moon passes partially across the Sun’s disk (see right).

Those outside the path of greatest impact should still notice a dimming in daylight during their local period of eclipse (times on the images here are all UTC, so adjust for your time zone).

Or, for possibly the easiest and safest way to view the eclipse – again, weather permitting – is to hop over to the Virtual Telescope Project, who will be hosting a live broadcast of the event starting a 09:30 UTC on Thursday, June 10th.

NASA to return to Venus

For the first time in more than three decades, NASA plans to send robotic mission to Venus, with two mission proposals selected for funding in the latest round of the agency’s Discovery programme.

DAVINCI+, or Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging, will be led by the Goddard Space Flight Centre.  It will send a probe into the planet’s atmosphere, measuring noble gases and other elements that can provide information on how its runaway greenhouse effect developed. Cameras on the probe will hopefully provide high-resolution images of massive geological features known as “tesserae” on the planet’s surface that may be similar in form to Earth’s continents.

VERITAS, or Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy, will be run out of the Jet propulsion Laboratory, and will map the planet from orbit using a synthetic aperture radar system. It will also search for infrared emissions that could help scientists determine if there is active volcanism on Venus.

Hardware for both missions will be built by Lockheed Martin at an estimated cost of US $500 million per mission, with both set to be launched between 2028 and 2030, although NASA will not award actual launch contracts for either until later in their development.

NASA is off to Venus with DAVINCI+ (l) and VERITAS (r). Credit: NASA

In being selected, the Venus missions elbowed their way past the Io Volcano Observer and Triton Trident missions which had also been under consideration for Discovery funding.

The first of these would have sent an orbiter to study the most volcanic place in the solar system, Jupiter’s moon Io, in and attempt to understand the role tidal heating plays in planetary formation. Meanwhile, the Trident mission would have sent a robotic vehicle on a flyby through the Jovian system en route to Neptune, where it would fly by the planet  – and through the atmosphere of it’s geologically active moon, Triton.

While Io Volcano Observer may get to fly in the near future, things are a little more complex for the Trident mission, as this requires a particular planetary alignment between Earth, Venus, Jupiter and Neptune, that allows it to use their gravities to gather the velocity needed to reach Neptune without the associated fuel load. Such alignments only occur once every 13 years. , with the next occurring in 2026/27, meaning the next opportunity for the mission will not come until 2039/40.

The DAVINCI+ mission entry and descent at Venus. Credit: NASA

However, NASA sees value in funding two Venus missions as both DAVINCI+ and VERITAS are very different in their science objectives, offering the potential to massively increase our knowledge of Venus for a comparatively small cost.

Another aspect that weighed in their favour is that both of the Venus missions can function as technology demonstration missions. VERITAS will host an updated version of a deep space atomic clock first flown on an Earth-orbiting spacecraft in 2019. This will assist in radio science observations and autonomous spacecraft manoeuvres. Meanwhile, DAVINCI+ will fly a new ultraviolet imaging spectrometer.

The decision  to go ahead with DAVINCI+ and VERITAS marks the first time dedicated US missions to fly to Venus have been funded since the Magellan radar mapper orbiter, which operated between 1989 and 1994. It also marks an interesting contrast: since 1989, NASA has spent some US $28 billion on  missions to Mars, whilst science spending on Venus has barely passed the US $3 billion in the same period.

In Brief

“Percy” Snaps “Ginny”

I’ve covered the flights of the Mars 2020 helicopter Ingenuity across several Space Sunday reports.  These have included videos and stills of its flights as captured by the Mastcam and Navcam systems on the Perseverance rover. However, in most of those, the helicopter has appeared small and blurry.

Ingenuity as seen in high-resolution by the SuperCam system on the Perseverance rover.  Credit: NASA/JPL / Kevin Gill

However, using raw images captured by the rover’s SuperCam system, former NASA imaging expert Kevin Gill has published the above image of Ingenuity in high-resolution as it sits on Mars.

SuperCam is a remarkable suite of instruments: a laser system that can zap rocks (as with the ChemCam system on the Curiosity rover), a suite of spectrometers that can analyse the resultant vapour, and a high-resolution imager. It is the latter that was used to produce the raw versions of the images Gill used to produce this colour and lighting corrected image of little Ingenuity, bringing to life the little helicopter’s vitality.

Nelson to Speak to Russian Opposite about ISS Future

As I recently reported, senior officials in Russia have suggested the country could leave the partnership operating the International Space Station at the end of 2024. In April, the head of the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, indicated that it was no longer in Russia’s interest to remain involved in the ISS.

While it was not the first time Putin hardliner Rogozin had indicated the country could leave the ISS programme – he made a similar threat in 2014 whilst serving as Russia’s deputy prime minister. As with 2014, his comments came at a time of increasing strain in Russia-US relations; however, his current comments are being looked at more seriously  for a number of reasons.

For one thing, America is now able to support crewed flights to / from the ISS, reducing the large payments the country has been making to Russia for Soyuz launch vehicle seats, and Russia has already indicated it will not be supporting the development of the Lunar Gateway station, but will instead partner with China in developing a base in  the Moon’s south polar regions.

Further, Rogozin’s comments were indirectly supported by Russia’s current deputy prime minister, Yuri Borisov, who has indicated that not only will his country withdraw from ISS, it will actually divert a new power module that should be destined for launch to the ISS in the mid-2020s and use it as the core module of a new Russian space station to be completed by 2030.

NASA’s new Administrator and former astronaut and senator, Bill Nelson, is to discuss Russia’s longer-term involvement in the ISS with his opposite number, Dmitry Rogozin

In order to gain clarification on Russia’s intent, NASA Administrator  Bill Nelsen has indicated he will be speaking directly with Rogozin, and hopes to gain Russia’s extended involvement in the ISS. How successful he might be is hard to say; the day after Nelson indicated he would be talking to Rogozin, the latter indicated to the Russian news agency TASS that he felt Russia had completed all the research it could aboard ISS, and would be better served moving operations to its own space station operating in a Sun-synchronous orbit around Earth.

Axiom Contracts Three more SpaceX Dragon Flights

Axiom Space has signed a contract with SpaceX for three further missions to fly private astronauts to the space station through until at least 2023.

An artist’s impression of the Axiom Space Ax-1 mission arriving at the ISS in 2022. Credit: Axiom Space

The first Axiom mission Ax-1 was agreed to in 2020, and will take place in early 2022 utilising the Crew Dragon vehicle launched via Falcon 9. The Ax-2 through Ax-4  missions will follow-on from that mission, with Ax-2 commanded by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who holds the record for the most time spent in space by an American, and is the most experienced female space walker in the world.

NASA’s low Earth orbit commercialisation strategy, announced two years ago, allows two private astronaut missions a year to the ISS, and Axiom intends to use these opportunities to fly personnel to the station as they prepare to develop their own orbital facility, initially using the ISS prior to operating independently from 2030 onwards.

2 thoughts on “Space Sunday: the Sun, Venus and snippets

  1. That graphic tho. What weird alien planet is that? 🙂
    Took me a while to figure out where the Atlantic was. From there on things got easier. But it’s really weird to see our colourful marble in 3D and East-West alignment. Where did you find that pic?

    Like

    1. It’s just a matter of perspective. We’re far too familiar with seeing the Earth in Mercator project from over the equator and with Africa centre – all of which presents an utterly distorted view of the globe – such as making Greenland appear pretty much as big as Africa.

      The graphic uses Peter projection, which draws the continents in their correct size relative to one another / the Earth as a whole. It then rotates the globe so that the northern hemisphere is dominant and centred on the North Pole. This is to show the area of influence of the eclipse, complete with the path of annularity (the path marked in yellow) where the annular eclipse can be most fully observed as the Moon passes between Earth and the Sun.

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