To the stars and beyond – reasons to look up in 2018

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  Last updated January 18, 2018 at 11:54 am

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There’s a lot happening in space this year, so here are 13 reasons (and times!) to look up in 2018. There’s everything from rocket launches to NASA missions to meteor showers — you don’t want to miss these astronomical events.


The Falcon Heavy is effectively three Falcon 9’s strapped together. Credit: SpaceX


SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch (with that payload)


January – The future of reusable rockets and potentially SpaceX itself rides on the success of upgrading from the Falcon 9 to the Falcon Heavy (effectively three Falcon 9’s strapped together) that allows larger payloads to be carried into orbit. Drastically reducing costs as three times more payload can be launched for just a third more of the price. Elon Musk says the launch will take place towards the end of the month.


What payload is aboard this first launch? Something dispensable as surely as something will almost certainly go wrong. Not quite. It’s Elon Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster. With enough velocity to reach Mars (although it appears like Elon’s Roadster will be placed in a solar orbit instead). A red car for the Red Planet, and it will apparently be playing David Bowie’s Space Oddity on loop. Except in space no one can hear you Major Tom.


A red car for the Red Planet. Credit: Elon Musk/SpaceX


Check out the Instagram site for more amazing images: t.co/PakS3rvp5C


The Falcon Heavy was first mentioned by Elon Musk in 2011 for a launch date in 2013, now five years later we are finally seeing it happen. What has it taken so long to realise a rocket that looks like it’s three Falcon 9’s strapped together? Well the main reason is that it’s not.


While outer two Falcon Heavy boosters are indeed reused Falcon 9s (one reason for a delay until at least 2017 was to have these spares to hand from successful landing!)


The inner core has to withstand forces up to three times larger than a Falcon 9 as it has a payload potentially three times as massive. This has proven to be incredibly challenging, and before investing significant R&D into this the SpaceX team had to wait for Falcon 9 to mature – the latest series v1.2 has evolved significantly from v1.0, growing longer as well as resulting in 50% more thrust.


The biggest advancement in the Falcon Heavy is that all three rockets will separate and land themselves for reuse, one on a drone ship in the ocean and two on land at Cape Canaveral. That will be a spectacular sight!


The biggest challenge will be to launch 27 Merlin engines at the same time, the last time humanity attempted to light so many at once was the 30-engine Soviet N1 answer to NASA’s Saturn V. All four attempts exploded. It’s not easy.


So what we will see launch in January is a very different rocket to that tentatively scheduled for launch five years ago. It will be twice as powerful as any rocket flown in the 21st Century and offers the chance for nearly 63,800 kilogram of payload to be launched into low earth orbit and 26,700 kilogram to the more energetically demanding higher geostationary orbit. This will put it at twice the lift capacity of ULA’s Delta IV Heavy, at a third the cost. Which doesn’t even factor in savings SpaceX will make (and some fraction of which pass on) from reusing the expensive rockets.


The Falcon Heavy isn’t just a big deal for a company, it’s a big deal for all of us with a passion for space exploration as once more the cost to space is slashed and access to space further democratised.


Supermoon rising in Yosemite. Credit: iStock


Blue Blood Supermoon


31 January – This is a bizarre name for our favourite celestial neighbour; as the second Full Moon in the month, the Moon is a Blue Moon (hence the expression of a rare event as once in a Blue Moon, but really that’s once every two and a half years so not that rare!


It is a perigee syzygy, aka a Supermoon, as the Full Moon occurs during a relatively close approach (perigee) which can be 50,000 kilometres closer than the furthest point (apogee) making it both appear larger (about 14%) and brighter (30%).


Finally, it’s a Blood Moon because it is a lunar eclipse, when the Moon travels into the Earth’s shadow. A shadow creeps across the face of the bright Full Moon, but thanks to our atmosphere some sunlight is bent (or refracted) towards the Moon, illuminating it in a blood red colour – this is all of the sunsets and sunrises of Earth.


March is Moon month


March – This is a hectic time for Moon exploration, as India’s Chandrayaan-2 orbiter / lander and rover will launch in March. Significantly more advanced than the first spacecraft, the orbiter carries a wealth of multi-wavelength instrumentation for mapping the Moon’s contents, in particular minerals and water. Even more exciting is this will be India’s first attempt at landing and they’ve chosen a location near the South Pole, a region that might one day feature a permanent human presence. There is also a rover which offers a chance to further probe the elemental composition of the terrain below it.


Even more excitingly is the chance of private companies reaching the Moon at the same time in their bid to win some of the $20m LunarX prize. Originally funded by Google to spur innovation and private enterprise to develop space exploration, the LunarX prize has led to three very advanced mission designs that can explore the surface in HD quality. Moon Express is one example of a startup company with big visions, aiming to use their hoped-for winnings to develop more advanced spacecraft that can begin to mine the surface for valuable resources, in particular water that can be used both to sustain life but also as rocket fuel by splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen.


That’s a prize worth aiming for.


Searching for nearby Earth-like world


March – following on the incredible success of the Kepler space satellite which has spotted thousands of alien worlds, or exoplanets, NASA will launch TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite). Once again the exoplanets will be spotted as a slight dimming in the starlight as they pass between us and their parent star.


While Kepler stayed focussed on a rich patch of stars many thousands of light years away, TESS will survey the entire sky looking at the brightest and nearest 500,000 stars. This means that the estimated 3,000 worlds TESS finds can be followed up by modest telescopes around the world (these stars will be 30-100 times brighter than most of the Kepler targets) including measuring their atmospheres.


The search for humanity’s interstellar home kicks off this year with a launch scheduled for March.


More about the mission: tess.gsfc.nasa.gov/


Chang’e 4 heads for the dark side of the Moon


June – China continues its exploration of the Moon, reaching the L2 point on the far side of the Moon from the Earth, with Chang’e 4 this month. The spacecraft will act as a communications relay to a lander that, if successful, will be the first to land on the far side of the Moon (in November).


This lander will sample the minerals in the Moon regolith, as well as have a container filled with seeds and insects to test if a small ecosystem can be established on the Moon. The region of interest is the Von Kármán crater which is thought to be the oldest impact feature on the Moon. It also contains relatively high traces of thorium, a replacement for Uranium as a nuclear fuel source.


Expect China’s space mission to continue to grow in ambition if these success continue to accrue.


Hayabusa2 mission to asteroid Ryugu


July – The mission to asteroid Ryugu has been traveling since 3 Dec 2014 on ion engines and is scheduled to reach its target – a C-type asteroid.


Unlike S-type asteroids these are thought to be older, more primordial, relics of the solar system with more organic / hydrated minerals which may resemble the original contents of the solar system nebula from which we all formed. A impactor will be released to slam into the asteroid, creating a crater a few metres across and revealing pristine material, protected from space-weathering, ready to be collected by the orbiting spacecraft and returned to Earth for analysis in Dec 2020.


You can read for about the mission here: global.jaxa.jp/projects/sat/hayabusa2/


An artist’s impression of Hayabusa 2 approaching Ryugu. Credit: NASA


Mars at Opposition and Lunar Eclipse


27 July – The Red Planet will glide close to the Moon during a lunar eclipse and spectators will be struck at how red both appear. This is because Mars is at opposition (literally opposite the Sun in our sky, presenting the fullest illuminated extent like a Full Moon).


A few days later, on 31 July, the red planet is at its closest point to the Earth (57.6 million kilometres), appearing bigger and brighter than any time since 2003. It will have a maximum extent of 24 arcseconds, meaning most simple telescopes will be able to see the red surface and white icecaps with ease (even high-power binoculars can resolve the red point of light into a disk).


Enjoy it for these few days as Mars won’t be this good until its closest approach again in 2035.


Parker Solar Probe to our ‘nearest star’


31 July (at the earliest) – The first mission to “touch the nearest star”. This is a wonderfully insane experiment that will use a similar range of gravitational slingshots to slow down to reach the inner worlds as BepiColombo but then go one step further to actually pass so close to the Sun as to directly sample the corona and hopefully allow us to perfect our models of this region.


Illustration of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the sun. Credits: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory


As the Sun’s corona is responsible for coronal mass ejections that can destroy satellites and damage our infrastructure (think of the Carrington Event but now in today’s much more connected world) this is an important scientific goal.


The Parker Solar Probe will reach as close as 6.2 million kilometres to the Sun, seven times closer than any previous spacecraft, and will heats up to 1377 C. This is a mission that will test the limits of spacecraft materials as well as our models of the Sun.


More about the mission here: parkersolarprobe.jhuapl.edu/index.php#the-mission and a cool animation here.


OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu


August – The NASA spacecraft mission to map Bennu is due to rendezvous with the asteroid. Bennu’s name may be familiar, as its orbit passes close to the Earth and it has a non-negligible chance of impact Earth in the late 2100s! Other reasons NASA wanted to know more about this object is that it is both large and, as a B-type asteroid, is carbon rich. Bennu is a fossil, preserving the conditions four billion years ago when this asteroid formed, and should inform NASA as to the types of organic molecules that were in existence then. It will attempt a sample return from this asteroid to Earth in Sept 2023 for us to study in detail with more powerful, ground-based, detectors.


The mission: www.asteroidmission.org


Perseids meteor shower 2018


12 August – Worth checking out a week either side of the peak on the 12th August, the Perseids a regular favourite for meteor shower enthusiasts (especially based in the Northern Hemisphere). The shooting stars are a consequence of the Earth slamming into the debris tail of the parent comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, burning up in our atmosphere at great speed. Often these are no more than a grain of sand in size, but occasional fireballs with this meteor shower indicate larger pieces. None will be large enough to reach the ground however, so sit back, in a dark region and potentially enjoy as many as 100 meteors per hour thanks to a New Moon ensuring these faint shooting stars aren’t competing with moonlight.


Mission to Mercury – ESA’s BepiColombo


October – Europe’s first mission to Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, launches. Costing 1.3 billion euros, and designed to survive temperatures of over 350 °C, it is designed to probe the composition, atmosphere and magnetosphere of Mercury. The mission will however only arrive in 2025.


BepiColombo in cruise configuration
Credit: ESA/ATG medialab


The reason it takes so long to ‘fall’ inwards is that the spacecraft needs to lose orbital velocity (essentially the Earth’s speed around the Sun) which it will do through a series of gravitational slingshots. Unlike our efforts to reach the outer planets in which we get speed ups, this is a series of slow downs by travelling the other way in a flyby of Earth, two flybys of Venus, and six flybys of Mercury.


Mercury is essentially an iron core, similar to the Earth’s, but with a very thin layer of rock surrounding it. Once thought a dead world, it was recently discovered by the Messenger spacecraft to be shrinking showing tectonic activity as 3 kilometres high cracks appear in surface running for as long as 1,000 kilometres. Who knows what secrets BepiColombo will uncover!


There is more about the mission here: sci.esa.int/bepicolombo/


NASA’s InSight Lander arrives on the Red Planet


November – the latest mission to Mars, which is due to launch 5 May, isn’t a flash rover like Curiosity, instead it will sit in one place. The reason? It is a seismic monitor, aiming to probe the interior of Mars through seismic waves produced by Martian tectonic activity as well as asteroid impacts that will set the Red Planet ringing like a bell.


This artist’s concept of NASA’s InSight Mars lander fully deployed for studying the deep interior of Mars.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech


In astronomy Mars is used as a counterpoint to Earth, to see how two such similar forming terrestrial worlds can end up appearing so different by the end, InSight will aim to “fingerprints” of this differential formation. It will also monitor the planet’s vital signs, as NASA puts it, measuring “its ‘pulse’ (seismology), ‘temperature’ (heat flow probe), and ‘reflexes’ (precision tracking).”


The Red Planet will have a physical as never before.


More about the mission: insight.jpl.nasa.gov/home.cfm


Geminids meteor shower


14 December – The most reliably spectacular of the meteor showers, the Geminids is also unusual in being a deris tail from an asteroid (3200 Phaethon) rather than a comet. The peak of the meteor shower occurs on the 14th December which is a first quarter Moon, so to ensure you see the most shooting stars wait for the Moon to have set (after midnight) and you can hope to see over 120 meteors per hour.


New Horizons approaches second Kuiper Belt Object (2014MU69)


31 December – Following the success of New Horizon’s Pluto flyby it has adjust course to race by just 3,500 kilometres from the incredibly isolated Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69. Little more than a dot of light this is a closeup view of a relic of the earliest moments of our Solar System seen for the very first time. In particular New Horizons will be able to search for dust rings as well as moon (with one already confirmed from Hubble Space Telescope observations).


2014 MU69 imaged by Hubble sSpace Telescope in 2014


The Kuiper Belt forms one of the outermost edges of the Solar System, a graveyard of rock and ice leftover from the messy business of forming planets. There in the frozen, dimly lit region New Horizons will make its likely final contribution to science before hurtling off into the darkness, perhaps one day reaching the Oort Cloud home to countless Hailey’s Comet analogues and many tens of thousands of years later perhaps even reaching nearby stars.


A sombre end to a magnificent year in space.




About the Author

Alan Duffy
Associate Professor Alan Duffy is an astronomer and physicist at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. He's also lead scientist for Australia's Science Channel. You can find him on Twitter @astroduff.

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Science and technology is as much a part of our cultural fabric as art, music, theatre and literature. They play a significant role in our daily lives, yet, in a world dependent on science, we often take them for granted. Australia’s Science Channel believes every citizen has a right, and a responsibility, to be informed, and our mission is to create programs to bring that about.


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