Sunday, 11 January 2015

2015 - An exciting year in space?

I've recently started to get more interested in all things to do with space exploration and astronomical events, I think possibly because there's more going on now than there ever really has in my lifetime before. 2014 was an exciting year with all the drama of the Rosetta spacecraft and the Philae lander bouncing on a comet in November. But what can we look forward to in 2015, and when?

Jan-March 2015 - Nasa's Dawn spacecraft is currently exploring the asteroid belt. It spent 14 months orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta, before firing its ion thrusters in late 2012 to depart for the dwarf planet Ceres. It's due to arrive at Ceres on 6th March, but for a good few weeks there will be some great photo ops as it approaches. We know very little about Ceres, so this should be interesting. On a technical point, it is the first spacecraft to successfully orbit two different planetary bodies - usually they don't have the power to leave a body's orbit when they've arrived.

20th March 2015 - There is a total solar eclipse scheduled for 20th March. Although this happens every couple of years, it's often not actually on land. This time, there will be a total eclipse in the Faroe Islands and parts of Svalbard. The good news if you live in the UK is you'll get at least an 80% eclipse. Where I live in the north of England, it should be around 90%, which is the best we've had for a decade and a half (the last time was in 1999 - there was a total eclipse in Cornwall, but it was cloudy alas. British weather!). There's an annual three day astronomy event on TV - Stargazing Live - which will be taking place around this date.

July 2015 - The NASA New Horizons spacecraft will reach the (dwarf) planet Pluto. It has been travelling for nine years, and is now on final approach to Pluto, 3.6 billion miles away. It is so far away that it takes signals 4 hours to reach Earth. The really exciting thing about this is that it is the only one of the planets (if we still call it a planet) that has not been explored. The best images we had previously were very blurry images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. As one commentator said, it is like we are back in the 1960s and 70s when all of the other planets were visited for the first time. I wasn't born then, so this will be a first for me.

Late 2015 - British astronaut Tim Peake will journey to the International Space Station for six months, the first British astronaut to do so. Hopefully this will have a lot of media coverage here in the UK, and encourage more investment in space technology.

There's a few other things going on throughout the year which I'll be taking an interest in:

SpaceX is always an exciting company to watch. At the moment they're working on making the first stage of their rockets reusable. This doesn't sound exciting on the face of it, but if they succeed they'll make space missions of all sorts a lot cheaper. Which will pave the way for lots of exciting and useful things. Their first test this year didn't go so well, as the rocket was supposed to make a "soft landing" on a barge in the sea, but kind of crashed into it. Still, it hit the target which I believe is a very hopefully sign!

Rosetta/Philae mission - remember those? The plucky Philae craft managed to land on the comet, but ended up in the shade and its batteries soon died. The scientists on the mission are optimistic that as the comet flies closer to the sun, the Philae craft will wake up as it gets more sunlight on its solar panels. Even if it doesn't, the Rosetta mothership will be collecting lots of interesting data including how the comet's tail develops as it travels close to the sun.

Mars One - I don't know what to make of this one, it's a grand plan to land a team of people on Mars within 10 years and start a colony. They've got it all planned out but will it - literally and figuratively - get off the ground. Will they get the funding? If they do, then 2024-5 will be a very exciting time...

Have I missed space-wise happening this year?