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OUT OF THIS WORLD | What's Up In Space - a weekly look at the biggest news coming down to Earth from space

Relive all of the amazing space events from 2018!

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, December 31, 2018, 8:00 AM - There was a LOT going on in space and astronomy this year, from launching roadsters into space and lunar eclipses, to probing the Sun, exploring asteroids and landing a new robot on Mars. Here's the definitive list of the best of them, so that we can go back and relive all the excitement!

There were plenty of space launches and astronomical events going on throughout the year, and here's the list of the biggest events that were worth tuning in for (as well as a bonus at the end of the year)!

Space and Astronomy Highlights

January SpaceX Falcon Heavy test launch
January 31 Supermoon Lunar Eclipse
Early 2018 first image of a black hole (???)
March April exoplanet hunter TESS launch
May launch of NASA's InSight lander
July arrival of Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft at its asteroid destination
July August 11 launch of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe
August 12-13 Perseid Meteor Shower
August 17 "arrival" of OSIRIS-REx at asteroid Bennu
October 18 launch of Bepicolombo mission to Mercury
October start of OSIRIS-REx maneuvers on approach to asteroid Bennu
November 6 first perihelion for Parker Solar Probe
November 26 landing of InSight on Mars
December 3 launch of Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques to the ISS
"End of year" SpaceX launch of tourists around the Moon (Delayed, and redefined?)
Bonus (New Horizons and 2014 MU69!!)


Super Blue Moon Lunar Eclipse - January 31

On the morning of January 31, 2018, most of Canada and all of the United States saw at least a partial lunar eclipse. Residents of Atlantic Canada did not see the Moon turn red at all, as it set beyond the western horizon before it entered Earth's red umbral shadow. Quebec, most of Ontario, and much of the eastern United States saw a partial eclipse before the Moon set, and the rest of the continent was able to see a total lunar eclipse in the pre-dawn sky. The farther west you were, the longer the total eclipse lasted!

Not only was this a lunar eclipse, but it was the 2nd closest Full Moon of 2018, making it a Supermoon. Also, by some definitions, it was also a "Blue Moon", as it was the 2nd Full Moon in the calendar month of January. The traditional definition of a blue moon is the third Full Moon in a season with four Full Moons, but that's not happening until May 2019.

Falcon Heavy launch - Tuesday, February 6

After a few delays, SpaceX finally launched their new Falcon Heavy rocket!

In the final week of 2017, space enthusiasts were capturing pictures of this incredible new rocket as it was raised into position at Launch Complex 39A, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX then shot this amazing drone footage of the rocket in place for its launch.

Inside the clamshell "fairings" at the top of the rocket - Elon Musk's very own red Tesla roadster.

Sending his electric sports car into space was certainly an attention-getter. If it wasn't his car, the "payload" for this launch would very likely be an immense block of concrete, as is customary for a test launch of a new rocket system. Rather than go with that "boring" option, though, Musk decided to send up something more interesting.

Nearly all went well on the day in question. Check out all the details here.

The red roadster didn't end up headed for the Red Planet, though. Instead, it was put into an orbit around the Sun, known as the Hohmann Transfer Orbit, which is just about the easiest, lowest energy path to Mars. There's a catch, though.

NASA's Insight lander is set to launch on one of these transfer orbits in early May (see below), when the next Hohmann transfer orbit window to Mars opens up. A launch in February, though, will not actually reach Mars, because the Earth and Mars are not in the right positions. Instead, Musk's car will simply continue to orbit the Sun, possibly coming close to Mars at some point in the future, when the timing finally works out.

First image of a Supermassive Black Hole - ???

There is a monster lurking at the core of The Milky Way - a supermassive black hole, 4 million times as massive as our Sun, known as Sagittarius A*.

Up until now, we've only "seen" this immense object based on the effects of its gravity, as we watch numerous stars at the core of our galaxy travel in mind-boggling elliptical orbits around it, or its impact on passing gas clouds.

The orbital paths of stars in our galactic core, and the projected path and fate of gas cloud G2, as they interact with Sagittarius A-star. Credit: ESO

Sometime in early 2018, we are apparently going to get as close as we possibly can to actually seeing Sagittarius A*, directly.

It's impossible to image the black hole itself, as - by definition - it does not emit light. Instead, astronomers with the European Southern Observatory have combined observations taken throughout 2017, from different telescopes around the world, to produce a virtual radio telescope as big as the Earth! With this, they will have hopefully gathered enough information from photons orbiting extremely close to Sagittarius A*'s event horizon, that they can let us "see" the shadow of the event horizon.

Simulated image of an accreting black hole. The event horizon is in the middle of the image, and the shadow can be seen with a rotating accretion disk surrounding it. Credit: Bronzwaer/Davelaar/Moscibrodzka/Falcke/Radboud University c/o ESO

According to the latest update from the Event Horizon Telescope, due to the timing of when data from certain telescopes in the array was received, as well as data processing challenges and the full schedules of the astronomers involved in the project, there have been unavoidable delays.

Stay tuned for more on this!

The launch of TESS, NASA's new planet-hunter - April 16

We've been seeing amazing breakthroughs from various planet-hunters around the world and in space. The Kepler Space Telescope, alone, has found over 2,500 confirmed exoplanets, and there's over 5,000 more "candidates" just waiting for confirmation from other telescopes on the ground. With discoveries still coming in from the Kepler mission, NASA is set to put their next planet hunting telescope into space, TESS - The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.

From its place in orbit, TESS will scan the entire celestial sphere, one sector at a time, starting with the northern sky and finishing with the southern sky. Taking images of each sector with its four cameras, it will watch for the same thing Kepler is on the lookout for - planets that transit in front of their star, from our point of view. The characteristic dip in the brightness of the star, as seen already through Kepler, will reveal these alien worlds to us. This will be a next-level leap over the Kepler mission, though, which gathered light from one specific collection of stars (Kepler's initial run), and then a series of stellar groups along the solar system's ecliptic (the K2 mission profile). Scanning the entire sky will likely reveal thousands more exoplanets as the mission gathers data.

Update: NASA has set a new launch date for April 16, at 6:32 p.m. EDT. It is expected to launch from Space Launch Complex 40, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, atop one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster rockets.

NASA's InSight lifts off for Mars - May 5

After a delay in 2016 due to a technical problem, NASA's InSight lander is finally set for its rescheduled launch date of May 5, 2018.

InSight is short for INterior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.

This annotated artist's rendition of InSight highlights all of the lander's scientific instruments. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Bristling with scientific instruments, InSight will sample weather data at its location, just north of the Martian equator, and it will drill down into the Martian surface and take seismic readings, to give us a better idea of what the interior of Mars looks like.

Not only will this be the first NASA mission launched to the surface of Mars since the Curiosity rover took off in 2011, but this will also be the very first interplanetary launch to take place from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California. To date, all interplanetary NASA missions have taken off from Cape Canaveral, in Florida.

This lander is set to touch down at Elysium Planitia on Mars, in November of this year. Read on for more details, below.

Hayabusa2 arrives at Asteroid 162173 Ryugu - July

Back in 2003, Japan launched their Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission, which flew to a small near-Earth asteroid known as 25143 Itokawa, examined every conceivable detail of the space rock, then collected a sample and brought it back for study. In 2014, they launched Hayabusa2, which has been travelling on a similar mission, but this time to a different asteroid, named 162173 Ryugu. After a long wait for the mission team, the spacecraft is finally set to arrive at its destination in July of this year.

Artist's conception drawing of Hayabusa2 sampling from the surface of 162173 Ryugu. Credit: JAXA

We will have to wait until the end of 2020, at least, for Hayabusa2's return with its sample cargo, but in the mean time, the data the spacecraft sends back will help us learn more about these remnants from the solar system's formation.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launches - Currently, August 11

The Parker Solar Probe is expected to launch sometime this summer, on a mission to "touch the Sun".

As I wrote last year:

Over roughly seven years following its launch, the probe will use the gravity of Venus to assist it as it pulls closer and closer to the Sun, until it reaches a distance of around 6.25 million kilometres from the Sun's 'surface'. From there, each orbit around the Sun will bring the spacecraft on a trajectory to dive through the topmost layer of the solar corona - the Sun's intensely hot atmosphere.
That's around 10 times closer than Mercury's average distance to the Sun, and will be over seven times closer than the 43.2 million km record for a human-built object, set by the Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976.
By sampling the environment there, the Parker Solar Probe will help answer some key questions about our home star - perhaps most importantly, why is the Sun's corona, which can reach temperatures into the millions of degrees, so hot compared to the Sun's surface, which has a temperature of roughly 6,000 degrees. We have some clues to this mystery from other missions (such as the concept of microflares), however the answers are far from settled.

Update: The launch of the Parker Solar Probe has been moved to August 11.

The Perseid Meteor Shower - August 12-13

The Perseids radiant at midnight on Aug 12-13. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland

One of the best meteor showers of the year, the Perseids run from July 17 to August 24, as Earth passes through the debris stream left behind by Comet Swift–Tuttle, and the best night to watch is during its peak, on the night of August 12-13.

On that night, a stargazer watching under a dark, cloudless sky can see up to 110 meteors per hour!

Even better, the Perseids are known to have the highest concentration of very bright fireball meteors, compared to all of the other meteor showers of the year!

While last year's shower was somewhat spoiled by the bright Full Moon, the 2018 Perseids are promising to be great, due to the peak taking place only one night after the New Moon. Without the light of the Moon to wash out the dimmest meteors, this will increase our chances of seeing as many meteors as possible.

OSIRIS-REx "arrives" at Asteroid Bennu - August 17

Launched in September of 2016, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft (short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) is scheduled to begin its finall approach to near-Earth asteroid Bennu on August 17, 2018.

The purpose of the OSIRIS-REx mission is to investigate Bennu, and map its surface using a Canadian built and managed instrument, called the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter or OLA. It is also intended to perform experiments that will determine if a large asteroid, like Bennu, could be diverted by a spacecraft, if that asteroid was found to be a danger to Earth. By using its own mass to create a gravity tractor, OSIRIS-REx will discover what kind of effect it can have on the asteroid's trajectory. When it is finally done at Bennu, it will return to Earth with a sample from the asteroid, so that scientists here can perform tests on the materials, and investigate one of the oldest objects in our solar system.

The word "arrives" is in quotes because although this is the date when OSIRIS-REx is slated to arrive at Bennu, it will actually still be roughly 2 million kilometres away (over 5 times the distance between Earth and the Moon). However, it is a benchmark for when the spacecraft will begin the investigation stage of its mission.

The spacecraft is expected to achieve orbit around asteroid Bennu in December.

Bepicolombo to Mercury - October 19/20

The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are teaming up for the Bepicolombo mission, which launched in the late hours of October 19 (EDT), towards the innermost planet of our solar system, Mercury.

The orbits of the two Bepicolombo spacecraft around Mercury. The Sun is off-frame to the right. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

This mission will actually deliver two different spacecraft to Mercury. The Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO), on the inner orbit in the image, above, is built by the ESA. The Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO), on the outer orbit, is being built by JAXA. They are not expected to arrive at their destination until late 2025, due to the long, complicated process involved in maneuvering spacecraft into Mercury orbit. For example, NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft launched in 2004, but did not slip into orbit around Mercury until 2011.

Watch a replay of the launch, below.

OSIRIS-REx on approach to Asteroid Bennu - October

Throughout October, OSIRIS-REx has completed a series of maneuvers meant to bring it close in to asteroid Bennu, so the spacecraft can begin its mapping survey of the asteroid's surface.

On October 1, and again on October 15, the spacecraft fired its main engine thruster, to slow its approach to the asteroid. A third 'burn' is planned for October 29, and a fourth for November 12, with the goal of OSIRIS-REx coming to within 12 kilometres of Bennu on December 3.

OSIRIS-REx maps Bennu with its instruments. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

While the image above depicts OSIRIS-Rex's close survey, which will begin in December of this year, the spacecraft's instruments should begin to pick up surface features of the asteroid starting in October, allowing it to at least begin its mapping mission.

This will begin a roughly two-year stay at Bennu for the spacecraft, while it performs its full array of science investigations.

First perihelion for Parker Solar Probe

It only launched a few months ago, but already the Parker Solar Probe has entered Venus' gravitational influence, to pick up a boost of speed for its very first swing around the Sun.

Perihelion - its closest point to the Sun - for this first pass is scheduled for November 6!

An orbital diagram for the Parker Solar Probe shows its first and subsequent perihelions. Rs is solar radius, which is equal to 695,508 km. The probe's first perihelion, at 35.7 Rs, will be at a distance of 24.8 million km. Credit: NASA

InSight lands on Mars - November 26

Launched on May 5, InSight will only take roughly six and a half months to arrive at Mars. When it arrives, it will plunge into the atmosphere, using aerobraking, parachutes and landing thrusters in order to put it down, safely, on the surface of the Red Planet, in a region known as Elysium Planitia. Located just north of Mars' equator, InSight will be only 500-600 kilometres north of Gale Crater, where the Curiosity rover is conducting its investigations.

A colour-coded topographical map of Mars, with the locations of NASA's lander and rover missions, including the location of the upcoming InSight mission. Credit: NASA JPL

David Saint-Jacques launches to the International Space Station - December 20 (possibly delayed)

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques will be taking his first flight into space, which is currently scheduled for December 20, after being chosen by NASA to be part of Expedition 58/59 on board the International Space Station.

David Saint-Jacques. Credit: Canadian Space Agency

According to the CSA:

During his mission, David will have many responsibilities, such as:
• co-piloting the Soyuz;
• serving as the crew medical officer;
• acting as a robotics specialist;
• being the mission specialist for the European Space Agency's Columbus laboratory;
• participating in science experiments;
• helping maintain the ISS; and
• sharing his experience with the world through various communications and outreach initiatives.

Saint-Jacques is one of Canada's four astronauts, along with Jeremy Hansen, who was selected for the astronaut core, along with Saint-Jacques, in 2009, plus newly chosen astronauts Joshua Kutryk and Jennifer Sidey, who are currently training with NASA.

When Saint-Jacques takes his place on board the ISS, he will be the first Canadian in space since Chris Hadfield returned from orbit in 2013.

Update: With the failure of the crewed Soyuz MS-10 launch, on October 11, Roscosmos and NASA are investigating the accident, and all further crewed Soyuz launches are currently on hold. This may or may not impact David Saint-Jacques' launch date to the ISS.

SpaceX sends two tourists around the Moon? - Cancelled and replaced!

There were very few details about this particular event, but SpaceX has already moved on to a new idea - sending a Japanese billionaire on a trip around the Moon, along with a group of artists that will accompany him.

An artist's rendition of the SpaceX Crew Dragon rounding the Moon. Credit: NASA/SpaceX/Scott Sutherland

Bonus - New Horizons flies past most distant explored object ever!

Technically, NASA's New Horizons didn't fly past 2014 MU69 until January 1, 2019, but as we saw when it approached the Pluto system in 2015, even a day out, the spacecraft was sending back incredible imagery.

An artist's rendition of 2014 MU69, based on New Horizon's discovery regarding the nature of this distant denizen of the solar system. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker

From observations taken in 2017, this distant Kuiper Belt object, chosen as New Horizon's next flyby target after the Pluto system, appears to be two objects orbiting one another very closely, or they could be a "contact binary", one object but with two massive lobes.

Early on January 1 - at 5:33 UTC or 12:33 a.m. EST - New Horizons will fly past 2014 MU69 at a distance of just 3,500 km.

This diagram shows the flyby path of New Horizons, as it passes 2014 MU69. Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The spacecraft will snap numerous images on its flyby and will beaming those back on the 6+ hour light trip back to Earth. The encounter will be brief, unfortunately, as New Horizons is travelling too quickly to spend much time with this distant object.

Read more about this amazing encounter here!


Watch Below: It's Surprisingly Hard to Go to the Sun

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