The year 2016 will have had its share of surprises, and exploits on the spatial level. I am thinking in particular of the arrival of the Juno probe around Jupiter, the flight of French astronaut Thomas Pesquet for the ISS, or even the numerous discoveries of exoplanets thanks to Kepler. Enthusiasts, already spoiled at the end of the year, will also be in 2017 with many dates to mark on your calendar. Sciencepost takes stock of the major space and astronomical events of the coming year.
Quadrantids, the first meteor shower of 2017
The New Year kicks off with meteor showers forecast for January 1-5 (peak January 3 at 120 shooting stars per hour) thanks to the tail of debris from asteroid 2003 EH1. Called Quadrantides, this annual rain appears in the constellation Bouvier, close to the constellations of Hercules and the Dragon. The following appointments will be Les Lyrids, from April 15 to 28 (peak on April 22 with 15 shooting stars per hour), then Eta Aquarids from April 19 to May 28 (peak at 60 shooting stars per hour on May 6) . Don’t forget to roll your eyes!
Juno explores Jupiter
Exploring one of the most dangerous places in the solar system is pretty ambitious, but to do it 37 times in a year sounds crazy. Yet this is what NASA’s Juno mission will undertake this year. Entering orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016, the probe has already started work and is facing some technical problems, but does not intend to stop there. The next visit to Jupiter must take place at the end of January. If Juno’s camera is working properly, it will show us the Jovian atmosphere in great detail, while on Earth, thousands of amateur and professional astronomers will simultaneously photograph the largest of the planets, which will once again be high in the night sky, glowing in the constellation Virgo.
The return of Space X
In 2016, the Space X company made aerospace history by recovering the main stage of its Falcon 9 launcher on several occasions. Launcher which, unfortunately, exploded in September at Cape Canaveral during a banal static test main stage motors. After weeks of investigations, Elon Musk confirmed last November that he had found the cause of the explosion on the ground of his launcher. It is not due to an external phenomenon, but rather to a problem which involved one of the three liquid helium tanks located inside the liquid oxygen tank of the upper stage. Initially scheduled for December 16, the first launch since the ground explosion of a Falcon 9 launcher should finally take place during the month of January, hoping that this “anomaly” will be corrected. A new era of space exploration and, why not, colonization is opening up to humans this year!
TESS takes the stage
The Kepler mission will have enabled the detection of hundreds of new alien worlds, some potentially habitable. In 2017, NASA triggered the second with the planned launch of the TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) mission. In orbit around the Earth, TESS will try to unearth exoplanets in space by targeting nearly 500,000 stars much brighter than those monitored by Kepler, including the 1000 closest red dwarfs. Launch scheduled for December.
Cheops, the European exoplanet hunter
ESA, the European space agency, should also launch a satellite in search of exoplanets, CHEOPS, for CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite. The goal will not be to observe new stars, like the TESS mission, but this time to analyze more in depth the exoplanets already listed. This satellite will notably make it possible to precisely measure the radius of several dozen known exoplanets in transit, to provide new information on their internal structure.
September 15: the final fall of the Cassini probe
Since November 30, Cassini has been observing Saturn’s rings up close. She will continue her journey at the start of the year before seeing her trajectory change in April, one last time. This new orbit will send the probe between the inner rings, less than 2000 km from Saturn’s atmosphere. A modification that will ultimately be fatal to him on September 15, 2017, the date on which all communications with Earth will be permanently cut off. During her last moments, Cassini will try to analyze what she can, before dying on/in Saturn.
Spacewalk for Thomas Pesquet
The French astronaut should leave the International Space Station to install new batteries on January 13. He could stay in the spacesuit in the vacuum of space for more than 7 hours. He will be the 11th European astronaut to carry out a spacewalk on the ISS. The return to Earth of Thomas Pesquet is scheduled for next May. Already !
China on the Moon
After the Chang’e 3 moon landing in December 2013, China is once again preparing to return to the moon next year. If all goes as planned, the Middle Kingdom should be next year the third space nation to have samples of lunar rocks.