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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

Total solar eclipse one of many BIG events ahead: When

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Thursday, January 5, 2017, 10:52 AM - Want to know what's up in space for 2017? Look no further! Here's a guide to some of the best astronomical events and space launches that are on the calendar for this year!

January 19 (or thereabouts) - First Light image from GOES-16

On November 19, 2016, NASA, NOAA and ULA launched the next-gen GOES-R weather satellite into space, towards geosynchronous orbit.

Now in position and renamed GOES-16, this satellite has been undergoing tests, trials and calibrations, to prep it for delivering a new level of weather data to forecasters here on the ground.

If all has gone well, the earliest date that the public will see the "First Light" images from GOES-16's Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) is 61 days after launch, which is January 19, 2017. It's possible that we may have to wait up to another month before we receive this treat, depending on how testing and calibrations have worked out, but the extra wait will be worth it!

Why is this important? GOES-16 represents a leap forward in weather monitoring for the western hemisphere - increased image resolution to pick out smaller weather features, expanded imagery to gather even more information about our weather, and an increase in the speed at which data is gathered and transmitted back to Earth. Japan's Himawari 8 satellite, which features similar capabilities, is already delivering amazingly detailed imagery and data for the eastern hemisphere, and forecasters noted a marked improvement in forecast accuracy in the months after it came online. Adding GOES-R to the suite of resources forecasters can access in Canada and the United States promises similar results for weather forecasting here!

February 2 - First Juno "perijove" for 2017

This will be the fourth close pass around Jupiter for NASA's Juno mission, since it entered orbit around the gas giant on July 4, 2016, and the first of 7 perijoves for this year, at the very least.

Juno remains in a long 52.5-day orbit around Jupiter, after the mission team discovered a problem with the valves on the spacecraft's main thruster. If the team manages to resolve this issue, they could have Juno execute a main engine burn on any of its perijove approaches, to drop the probe down into its intended 14-day science orbit. That would increase the number of perijoves for the year, of course, but for the moment, the spacecraft remains in its longer orbit.

Here's an example of what one flight between perijoves is like:

The video, processed from JunoCam imagery by Gerald Eichstädt, shows Jupiter from Juno's perspective, between July 4 and Oct 19, 2016.

Why is this so important? Any chance to see more closeup images of Jupiter's amazing cloud layers is enough, but the science data the spacecraft is collecting on each close pass has to be keeping the mission team and other scientists very busy. The studies of Jupiter's auroras, and the investigation of what may lie at the planet's core - a solid rocky mass or something else - are particularly interesting!

February 26 - Annular solar eclipse

February 26 marks the first of two solar eclipses in 2017. It will be an annular, or "ring of fire" eclipse, when the Moon is farther away than average, meaning that it will not appear large enough to cover the entire disk of the Sun.

The May 20, 2012 annular solar eclipse, taken from Nevada by Wikimedia user Smrgeog

Credit: Fred Espenak/NASA

The above picture is an excellent example of this kind of eclipse, but on February 26, 2017, the Moon won't be as far away from Earth as it was on May 20, 2012. Therefore, it won't be as small, relative to the disk of the Sun, and witnesses will see only a very thin ring of the Sun around the edges of the Moon.

This one won't be witnessed, personally, by anyone in Canada or the United States, however, as it starts across Chile and Argentina, crosses the south Atlantic and ends over southern Africa, as shown on the map to the right. Anyone who does get to witness this, first-hand, ought to have some kind of eye protection though. While there is a brief time during a total solar eclipse when it is safe to look directly at the Sun (right at totality, when the Moon completely blocks out the Sun), and you have to be VERY good with your timing to avoid trouble, there's NO TIME during an annular solar eclipse that's safe to look directly at it without eye protection.

We can be sure that there will be plenty of images taken of this eclipse, as well as streaming live feeds from somewhere along the eclipse's path (such as from the Slooh Community Observatory), so those of us in the northern hemisphere are unlikely to completely miss out.

What's important about this? Eclipses are always exceptional events to watch, but this could also provide some cool science results, as well. Since the Moon will be just slightly smaller in the sky than the Sun, covering just over 98 per cent of the Sun's disk, we could see an effect called Baily's beads, where the Moon's topography - the terrain around the "edge" of the Moon - allows more light to shine past in some places than in others. 

February TBD: Relaunch of a Falcon

Back in April of 2016, SpaceX successfully landed one of their Falcon 9 booster rockets on the company's automated drone barge, out on the Atlantic Ocean.

Here's a panoramic view of this landing, taken during the Falcon 9's touchdown at sea:

As of now, the company plans on relaunching that particular rocket booster back into space, carrying the SES-10 geosynchronous communications satellite, at some point in February.

What's important about this? So far, SpaceX has demonstrated that they can land their booster rockets successfully, both on land (in Dec 2015) and on their autonomous drone ship at sea (several times). This will be the first relaunch of a successfully-landed booster, and it will represent the next step in proving that their entire "reusable space launch system" is feasible. Really, the only thing that remains after this is to show exactly how many times one booster can be reused, to confirm their system works the way they intended!

Between April 1 - June 30: Blue Origin flies people into space

Although the exact timing of this is still up in the air (if you'll pardon the pun), Blue Origin expects to perform the first crewed sub-orbital launch of their New Shepard rocket and crew capsule sometime in the 2nd quarter of 2017.

Blue Origin, a space company started by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, has been making significant progress towards launching commercial space tourism, with tests of the launch and landing capabilities of their New Shepard rocket and capsule. 

Why is this so important? Two words - space tourism!

August 12-13 - Perseid meteor shower

The Perseids is one of the best meteor showers of the year, and is famed for producing the most bright fireball meteors of any other shower.

The radiant for the Perseids - the point in the sky where the meteors appear to originate from - never sets for Canadian viewers. This means that it all comes down to the timing of sunset and sunrise, and the phase of the Moon, that determines when the shower will be visible and how many meteors we will be able to see.

According to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's Observer's Handbook 2017, some models used to predict meteor shower activity are pointing towards enhanced activity from the Perseids this year (perhaps similar to what was seen in 2016?). The shower competes against a waxing gibbous moon, though, which will wash out many of the dimmer meteors. Still, if there is enhanced activity, this will likely include more fireballs than usual as well, so this is still worth getting out to see!

Why is this important? If there's any meteor shower that draws people out to see, it's this one, since it usually takes place in good weather. This probably makes it the very best event for which to gather with other fans of astronomy, and to potentially get more involved in skywatching activities! The enhanced activity, if that does play out this year, is just a bonus!

August 21 - 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

The big event for North America in August is the Total Solar Eclipse, which passes straight through the United States, from starting in Oregon at 10:10 a.m. PDT and ending in South Carolina, at 2:50 p.m. EDT.

As shown in the NASA animation above, the total eclipse will only be visible along a narrow strip of land through the continental United States, which is known as the "path of totality". As demonstrated by the Sun icons over various locations on the map, though, anyone who can't make the trip to the path of totality can still enjoy a partial solar eclipse during the event.

What's important about this? The eclipse promises to be a spectacular sight, but its proximity to so many urban centres guarantees that it will be one of the best documented and studied solar eclipses in years!

Stay tuned, closer to the date, for a more in-depth analysis of this eclipse!

September 15 - Cassini mission ends at Saturn

Since arriving at Saturn in 2004, the NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission has delivered some absolutely amazing results, revealing details about Saturn, its rings and its moons, that we had never seen before, and had never-before examined in such up-close detail.

On September 15, 2017, at 8:07 a.m. EDT, we will get another chance to perform this kind of ground-breaking (cloud-breaking?) work. After months of "ring grazing orbits", Cassini will end its 13+ year stay at Saturn by diving into Saturn's cloud layers. On its plunge, it will send back data for as long as it can before it succumbs to the powerful winds in Saturn's upper atmosphere.

Ending the mission in this way will ensure that any microorganisms that happened to make the journey from Earth with Cassini, and survive this long (it's possible!), will not accidentally contaminate Enceladus or Titan, which could (possibly) have abundant biological life of their own!

Why does this matter? Cassini ending its mission not only brings the close-up study of Saturn to an end, which is a loss in its own right, but it also means the end of planetary studies in the outer solar system. The closest things we have are Juno at Jupiter, which is not likely to continue beyond 2019, and New Horizons, which will be in hibernation for the next two years, until it reaches its new target, a tiny Kuiper belt object (KBO) named 2014 MU69. The daily images of the Saturn system will be missed, but there's so much more still to learn about Saturn and its moons, that the loss to science will likely be greater.

September TBD - Falcon Heavy test flight

SpaceX has been relying on their Falcon 9 booster rockets so far, but their Falcon Heavy launch system has been "waiting in the wings" so-to-speak, ready to show us what it can do.

Although there's no set launch date for the Falcon Heavy test, SpaceX appears to want this to happen by the end of September 2017.

Why is this important? This rocket system is currently the best option for getting humans to the Moon, Mars or any other deep space mission!

October 21 - Orionid meteor shower

The Orionids aren't a particularly strong meteor shower - nothing like the Quadrantids, Perseids or Geminids - but this one should be great, simply due to a favourable Moon.

The Orionid radiant at 1 a.m. local time, October 21, 2017. Credit: Stellarium/S. Sutherland

Since the Moon's light can drown out faint meteors, the nearly New Moon that will be in the sky around this time of year will barely be noticed, and offer no challenge to even the faintest of Orionid meteors. Just get away from bright city lights for a great show!

Why is this important? Have you heard of "persistent trains"? Some meteoroids leave these behind, as they fly though the atmosphere so quickly that they not only produce the meteor flash, but they also ionize the air molecules they interact with. This produces glowing trails in their wake that can persist for seconds, to minutes, to even hours. Meteor scientists are very interested in this phenomenon, so a favourable Orionids shower (which is known for very fast, persistent-train-producing meteors) will be a boon for their study!

December 13-14 - Geminid meteor shower

At around 1 a.m. EST on December 14, another of the best meteor showers of the year will be peaking, and this could end up being the best meteor shower of 2017.

The Geminid radiant at 1 a.m. local time, December 14, 2017. Credit: Stellarium/S. Sutherland

Unlike in 2016, when a large and bright "Full Super Moon" washed out the majority of meteors from this "rock comet meteor shower", in 2017, only be a thin crescent Moon will rise into the night sky, and it will only do so at around 5 a.m., local time. So, with the Geminid radiant rising at sunset and being in the sky all the way until sunrise, we will have nearly all night long to enjoy the amazing show put on by this event.

Why is this important? Any chance to see a meteor shower is great, but when everything lines up to make the show even better, that's awesome. We just need the weather to cooperate this year!

December TBD - A new exoplanet hunter set to launch

NASA is set to launch TESS - the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite - in December of 2017, at the earliest.

This satellite, once delivered to space by one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster rockets, will perform systematic scans of the space surrounding our solar system, searching the nearest stars for orbiting worlds, with the goal of finding Earth sized and super-Earth sized planets.

What's the big deal? TESS will scan the closest star systems to Earth for potentially rocky exoplanets. The mission estimates say that it'll likely find around 3,000 planets, with perhaps 500 or so that will be Earth-sized. This would represent a massive increase in the number of potentially habitable planets that we know about, and all of them would be reasonably close to us - not close enough to visit, but certainly close enough to study in greater detail. This may be the mission that leads us to find life (of some kind) out in the galaxy!

December TBD - SpaceX test launches their new Crew Dragon

Also on the schedule for December is the first uncrewed test launch of SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft. This mission, should it lift off on the current schedule, would take it on a flight to dock with the International Space Station, sometime in December of 2017.

The most amazing part of this flight won't be the trip up to space, however, but the return to Earth. Rather than descending on parachutes, and then landing in the ocean like NASA capsules of the past, or bumping down on land like the Soyuz, the Crew Dragon will reserve the parachutes for emergencies, and bring the crew back down to Earth in style!

The first flight of the Crew Dragon with astronauts on board was originally scheduled to happen at this time, however, with missions pushed back in the schedule, the actual crewed launch of this spacecraft will have to wait until 2018.

Why is this one important? Not only will seeing this ship launch, dock with the ISS and then land again be extremely cool, but bringing crewed space launches back to U.S. soil is good for both NASA and CSA astronauts, and it could also open up opportunities for others to visit space, as well. This, along with Blue Origin's New Shepard and Virgin's SpaceShipTwo, is bringing space tourism closer to reality!

Scott's Top 3 List of What Will Put 2017 on the "Space Map"

There's plenty going on in 2017 - much more than I could reasonably list here - but here is a very select list of events that I think will "make or break" 2017 for me, as far as space and astronomy goes.

1. SpaceX performs a perfect launch and landing of the Crew Dragon

I am particularly looking forward to this mission. Seeing the Falcon 9 booster come in for a landing at Cape Canaveral in December of 2015 was awe-inspiring, but to watch the Crew Dragon descend on rockets and softly touch down on solid ground will be a jaw-dropping experience!

2. Beautiful visuals of the August 21 Total Solar Eclipse

This one will be particularly satisfying (and it may be pushed up to the #1 spot) if I can personally make the journey to the path of totality. Even if I remain content with personally witnessing a partial solar eclipse (safely, with special solar eclipse glasses, of course!), and simply get the visuals of totality from the internet, this still promises to be pretty spectacular.

3. The launch of TESS

It was hard to choose a third one from everything going on, but I've been waiting for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite to launch for years now! Just the thought of it revealing the numerous exoplanets that must be orbiting the stars surrounding us fires up my imagination! I'll accept this one getting pushed into early 2018, if necessary, but I'll still be pretty disappointed.

Honourable Mention - GOES-16 "First Light"

As a meteorologist, I am very excited to see the new imagery that we'll be getting from GOES-16, even if we do have to wait until around November of this year before the satellite data becomes available for forecasters to use.

Do you have personal favourites on the list, or do you have a list of your own? I'd like to hear from you in the comments, below!

Sources: The Planetary Society | Wikipedia (2017 in Spaceflight) | IMO | RASC Observer's Handbook 2017 | NASA 

Teaser image courtesy: SpaceX

Watch Below: While we wait for all of these incredible events, enjoy a view of the Moon, courtesy NASA, for every hour of every day, for all of 2017!

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