2016 in space and looking ahead

16 12 2016

2016 has been an interesting year for good and bad reasons. It certainly didn’t top 2015 for raw amounts of space news, but there were still some real gems! Here’s Cosmoboy’s Top 5 stories for the year and a things to look out for in 2017.

5. The beginning of Cassini’s death spiral

cassini-saturnGiven Saturn’s incredible beauty it should be no surprise that the Cassini mission has been a huge hit with the public. Image after image has revealed new discoveries, from icy plumes coming from Enceladus to the incredible polar hexagon and plenty more (heck I didn’t even mention Huygens and images from Titan!)  But all good things must come to an end. And so NASA engineers have begun Cassini on a series of maneuvers that will plunge over the poles of Saturn, past the edges of the rings and eventually into the cloud tops of the planet in September 2017. There’s still a bit more science to come, but the final waltz has started!

4. The space race

spaceXexplo.pngOK, I’m cheating again! But everyone must have noticed that Blue Origin is quietly sneaking up on SpaceX in terms of achieving multiple launches and landing of the same vehicle. Their suborbital flights are of course easier than the launches SpaceX is doing, but they have an impressive flight record. Competition is good, hopefully they can make rapid progress on their New Glenn lift vehicle. SpaceX had a mixed year, making its first barge landing but also suffering its first launch pad accident during fueling. Delays also pushed back the first test of Falcon Heavy. Perhaps not so quietly, Virgin Galactic returned to testing with a new SpaceShipTwo, following the crash of VSS Enterprise in October 2014. Virgin won’t comment on an expected date for first passengers at this time. A wise move.

3. Juno reaches Jupiter

junojupiter.jpgGood news and bad with this one! The good is obvious: Juno reached Jupiter after one of the most incredibly complicated flight plans NASA has ever flown. Borrowing energy from the Earth’s orbit, Juno was flung like a slingshot stone towards Jupiter in 2013. At the other end of its journey it had to slow down and take up a highly elliptical orbit around Jupiter’s polar region. The plan was to first get it into a large 53-day orbit, and then a smaller 14 day orbit called the “science orbit.” The first one was achieved  but alas not the second. A faulty valve is preventing NASA from making orbital corrections. Scientists working on the project have reported they’ll still be able to do the groundbreaking science that was planned, focusing primarily on the structure of Jupiter and how it formed, but they’ll just have fewer orbits of data. Being farther out most of the time Juno will be less impacted by Jupiter’s powerful radiation and so the mission can be extended to allow more orbits if necessary. Remember, the end of the mission will see Juno plunged into Jupiter!

2. Proxima Centauri B

proxima_centauribFinding a planet around our nearest stellar neighbour is a really big deal. Being so close, it offers the possibility of studying with the James Webb Space Telescope and the next generation of 30m class telescopes that will be completed in the 2020s. There was initially a lot of speculation about the possibility of life, however the likelihood isn’t good. Proxima Centauri is a flare star, so it regularly releases burst of high energy particles which could be expected to hit the planet. With the planet so close to the star (it orbits at only 1/20th of the Earth-Sun distance) it would be amazing if it managed to hold on to an atmosphere. I can’t wait for JWST to give us some clues on that in just a year or two!

1 Discovery of Gravitational Waves

ligo.jpgJust imagine it – two black holes, one 29 times the mass of the Sun, another 36 times the mass of the Sun inspiralling together at almost half the speed of light. They’d be just 100s km across each, and in the collision three times the mass of the Sun would be released in gravitational wave energy! In that split second the rate of gravitational energy release is greater than the light energy from all the stars in the observable universe! Announced in February of 2016, the LIGO gravitational wave detector picked up the signal from this truly mindboggling event. That marked the end of a 50 year quest to confirm the existence of gravitational waves, first predicted by Einstein a century ago. The detection also opens up an entirely new branch of astronomy: gravitational wave astronomy. Who knows what amazing new discoveries are around the corner?

What’s coming in 2017? While there are plenty more, here’s just three things!

Space X has pushed back a first launch of Falcon Heavy until Q2 of 2017. Remember this is “super heavy-lift vehicle” and is supposed to be capable of putting more mass into orbit than the Apollo rockets. It’s also powerful enough to put 14 tonnes on trans-Martian orbit. And of course, that’s where Elon wants to go!

Want to know more about extrasolar planets? The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is scheduled to launch in December 2017 on board a Falcon 9 from Space X. Needless to say a lot of astronomers are hoping Space X gets their fueling process sorted out to avoid any more launch pad explosions! TESS  will survey over 500,000 stars looking for signs of extrasolar planets and will be an important part of finding the closest ones to Earth for next generation telescopes to look at.

And continuing their interest in the Moon, China will launch the Chang’e 5, the first sample return mission to the Moon in over 40 years! It’s flight plan will be similar to the Apollo missions in that after leaving the surface it will rendezvous with the orbiting return module before flying back to Earth.

Wishing you all a wonderful 2017!

 

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