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Looking ahead to 2016: What's next in spaceflight and astronomy?

Posted January 1

The Juno mission will reach Jupiter on July 4, 2016 (Credit: NASA/JPL)

After a very busy 2015, astronomy and spaceflight won't slow down in the new year.

A look ahead:


The year leads off with a little known meteor shower originating from debris left by asteroid 2003 EH1. Named for an extinct constellation, the Quadrantids average about 40 meteors per hour under good observing conditions. Unlike other meteor showers which are often seen for days before and after the peak, the Quadrantids have a very narrow peak and are really only visible between midnight and dawn the morning of Monday, Jan. 4. The waning crescent moon shouldn’t spoil the peak expected around 3 a.m.

The morning of Feb. 6, Mercury, Venus and a waning crescent moon will be visible together. On March 8, Jupiter will be at opposition, opposite the sun in our skies. It will be its biggest and brightest, visible all night.

The most distant full moon of the year, sometimes called the “micro moon” occurs on April 21. The moon will be at it's smallest apparent diameter.

Unfortunately, the March 23 lunar eclipse, the only lunar or solar eclipse visible from North Carolina in 2016 ,is a penumbral one. Penumbral eclipses are barely discernible and of more scientific than observational interest. A total solar eclipse will reward your patience on Aug. 21, 2017. The next total lunar eclipse completely visible from the area will be Jan. 20, 2019.

On Monday May 9, 2016, we’ll get a rare view of Mercury. The planet will transit, or pass, between Earth and the sun silhouetting the planet. We last saw this in November of 2006, will see it again in 2019 but won’t see it again for another 13 years. The transit will begin at 8:13 a.m., a comfortable 10 degrees above the horizon about an hour after sunrise. Mercury will make first contact along the southeast edge of the sun’s disk. It will appear as a dark disk about 160 times smaller than the sun progressing northwest across the face of the sun before making a loop to the south around 1 p.m. The show will be over as Mercury exits along to the south at 3:41 p.m.

May brings a “blue moon”, the third of four full moons in an astronomical season (no it won't look blue). On May 22, it’s Mars' turn at opposition when the red planet will be at its closest to Earth. Mars will be just a few days from the spring equinox in the southern hemisphere so its polar ice caps may be visible from even backyard telescopes and binoculars.

June is a great month to spot the International Space Station passing over our homes. The station is most highly illuminated by the sun this time of year making it particularly big and bright.

Saturn finishes out the trio of visible planet oppositions the night of June 2. Saturn’s rings are expected to be especially bright due to the Seeliger effect as shadows within the rings disappear when the planet is fully illuminated.

Your next best opportunity to see Mercury will be Aug. 16 as it reaches its maximum distance from the sun. Look to the western horizon after sunset. On Aug. 27 a conjunction will bring Venus and Jupiter just 1/15th of a degree apart. Look to the west after sunset.

The first of 3 “supermoon” occurrences is on Oct. 19 as the full moon and lunar perigee (closest point in its orbit to Earth) coincide. October also brings a so-called “black moon”, the second new moon in a calendar month. Other “supermoons” are on Nov. 19 and Dec. 12.

Space Exploration

The Juno spacecraft is scheduled to enter orbit around Jupiter on July 4th. This mission has a special place for me because I was fortunate to watch the launch from the Kennedy Space Center press site back in August 2011. Juno is the first mission to the outer planets not relying on nuclear power, instead using 3 school bus sized solar panels. Over the next 20 months, Juno will study Jupiter’s magnetic and gravitational fields and peer into Jupiter’s atmosphere to learn more about the convection driving circulation visible even from small telescopes.

It will be another busy year on launch pads around the world with 52 launches already on the manifest.

Despite losing the lucrative Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract to SpaceX and Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation plans the first orbital launch of their Dream Chaser spacecraft. The reusable Dream Chaser space plane, resembling a small space shuttle orbiter, is launched atop the well-proven Atlas V rocket. While the company’s space systems division is based on Colorado, other company divisions are located in Southern Pines, N.C. and Fayetteville, N.C. Possible landing sites mentioned for Dream Chaser include Huntsville, AL, Houston, TX and the shuttle landing facility at the Kennedy Space Center, FL.

Two heavy-lift rockets are scheduled for their inaugural flights. China’s Long March 5, with a maximum payload capability of 55,000 pounds is expected to launch from the Wenchang Space Center sometime in 2016. SpaceX plans to launch its Falcon Heavy, resembling a trio of Falcon 9 rockets bolted together, with a payload capacity of 117,000 pounds. Not only does SpaceX plan to top the lift capabilities of any other current vehicle, the company plans to land the three booster segments for reuse. SpaceX has also hinted at reusing a recovered Falcon 9 booster sometime in the coming year.

Two planned missions launching to Mars became one recently when the InSight lander was grounded. The planned March 2016 launch of Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission was postponed when France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) was unable to resolve a leak in the prime instrument in the science payload which is particularly bad in the Mars’ extreme cold conditions. Unfortunately, Mars and Earth are only in position for a few weeks every 26 months. NASA and CNES are evaluating a 2018 launch along with the costs of storing the spacecraft for 2 years.

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource, Identification, Security, and Regolith EXplorer (OSIRIS REx) is planned for launch in September. The mission plans a rendezvous with asteroid 101955 Bennu in 2018 and sample return in September 2019.

The European Space Agency (ESA) plans a spring launch its ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (EXMTGO). Also onboard will be joint ESA/Russian Space Agency Schiaparelli mission intended to test entry, descent and landing. EXMTGO will look for trace gasses such as methane in the Mars atmosphere in an effort to identify any geologic or biologic processes that might be active today.

A dramatic end is planned for the ESA’s Rosetta mission with a controlled crash in September into the comet, 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, that the mission has studied since August 2014.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.


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