Falcon Heavy launch kicks off amazing 2018 space lineup
Friday, March 23, 2018, 8:00 AM - There is a LOT going on in space and astronomy this year, from launching roadsters to Mars and lunar eclipses, to probing the Sun, exploring asteroids and even swinging a spacecraft past one of the most distant objects in our solar system. Here's what to watch for in 2018!
This story has been updated to reflect changes in what we've seen already, and shifts in the launch schedule.
There are plenty of space launches and astronomical events going on throughout the year, but here's a list of the dozen events that are really worth watching out for (plus a bonus at the end)!
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 launch of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe
• August 12-13 Perseid Meteor Shower
• August 17 "arrival" of OSIRIS-REx at asteroid Bennu
• October launch of Bepicolombo mission to Mercury
• October start of OSIRIS-REx mapping of Benu
• November launch of Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques to the ISS
• November 26 landing of InSight on Mars
• "End of year" SpaceX launch of tourists around the Moon
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.
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.
First image of a Supermassive Black Hole - early 2018
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
Stay tuned for more on this, to come!
The launch of TESS, NASA's new planet-hunter - Updated to 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 - July 31 to August 19
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.
Watch out for updates on this record-breaking mission.
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.
Bepicolombo to Mercury - October
The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are teaming up for the Bepicolombo mission, which is scheduled to launch sometime in October, 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.
OSIRIS-REx begins mapping Asteroid Bennu - October
Sometime in October, OSIRIS-REx will complete a series of manuevers meant to bring it close in to Bennu, so that the spacecraft can begin its mapping survey of the asteroid's surface.
OSIRIS-REx maps Bennu with its instruments. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona
This will begin a roughly two-year stay at Bennu for the spacecraft, while it performs its full array of science investigations.
David Saint-Jacques launches to the International Space Station
Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques will be taking his first flight into space in mid-November of this year, 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.
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
SpaceX sends two tourists around the Moon? - late 2018
There's been very few details about this particular event, but SpaceX announced in February of last year that they would be sending two people on a trip around the Moon, sometime in 2018, using the Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon Heavy rocket to perform a modern reboot of the 1968 Apollo 8 mission.
An artist's rendition of the SpaceX Crew Dragon rounding the Moon. Credit: NASA/SpaceX/Scott Sutherland
With the first launch of the Falcon Heavy pushed from September 2017 to January 2018, and the Crew Dragon yet to make its own final test flight, however, that could mean that SpaceX simply won't be ready to send passengers around the Moon this year. For this one, we'll just have to wait and see.
Bonus - New Horizons begins final approach to 2014 MU69!
Technically, NASA's New Horizons doesn'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. Stand by to learn more about MU69 as New Horizons gets closer in the months to come, and be sure to pay close attention in the final days of 2018, and the beginning of 2019, for a close look at this distant object.