The year ahead in space

Artist's impression of the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Artist's impression of the Curiosity rover on Mars. The craft is due to arrive on Mars on August 6, 2012.

THIS YEAR IS GOING TO BE A BIG ONE in terms of space activity, and will include some events you’ll be able to experience firsthand. Let’s count down the top five.

At number five we have NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, carrying the Curiosity rover to the Red Planet. Scheduled to arrive on August 6, it will land in Gale Crater (named after a 19th-20th century Australian astronomer, Walter Frederick Gale) and look for signs of organic chemicals. The 900-kilogram, nuclear-powered rover has a primary mission of two years but is expected to last for much longer than that.

At number four we have the total eclipse of the Sun on November 14. The path of totality runs along a narrow west-east strip of far northern Queensland, taking in Cairns and surrounding areas. The thousands of people who are expected to flock to the area will experience two minutes of totality shortly after sunrise—observers elsewhere in Australia will witness a partial eclipse.

After this, the next total solar eclipse to be visible from Australia will be in 2028, when the path of totality will run straight through Sydney.

Transit of Venus

The transit of Venus will be seen on the morning of June 6 in Australia. There won't be another one until the year 2117.

Coming in at number three is an event you won’t want to miss, as you’ll never get a chance to see another one. It’s the transit of Venus, which will happen on the morning of June 6. A transit occurs when one of the inner planets, in this case Venus, moves between Earth and the Sun and we see it as a small black dot slowly crawling across the solar face. It was to observe a transit of Venus that Captain Cook travelled to the South Pacific in the 18th century … and on his way home bumped into a certain large, dry continent, girt by sea.

Transits of Venus are very rare. They happen in pairs eight years apart (so the last one was in 2004), but between pairs there is a gap of over 100 years. So the 20th century totally missed out, and after June there won’t be another one until the year 2117. So don’t miss it!

Number two on our list is the decision on where the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, will be built. The SKA will be an enormous network of radio dishes and antennae spread over an area the size of a continent. It will enable astronomers to look back towards the beginning of time, and study the evolution of stars and galaxies throughout cosmic history.

Artist's impression of part of the Square Kilometre Array.

Artist's impression of part of the Square Kilometre Array.

In a situation reminiscent of the Olympics, two regions have put in bids to host the facility and are eagerly awaiting the decision of the international panel. A joint bid by Australia and New Zealand is up against a consortium of southern African countries. The decision could be announced next month. If Australasia gets it, the core of the network will be located in a remote region of Western Australia, but with many other dishes spread out across the nation and into New Zealand.

And so after all of these fantastic events, what could we possibly have in the number one spot on our countdown? What will be this year’s biggest cosmic event? Why, the very survival of Planet Earth of course! In case you haven’t heard, a lot of people seem to be very worried about two things—the apparent end of the Mayan Long Count calendar in December (and the implied end of civilisation as we know it), and a collision between Earth and a planet called Nibiru.

Well, as far as the Mayan calendar is concerned, there is no cause for alarm. Like the Gregorian calendar we use every day, it will simply tick over to a new Long Count and we’ll all live happily every after.

That is, unless we get wiped out by that collision with Nibiru. Frightened? Don’t be. For you see, there’s a basic flaw in the Nibiru hypothesis, and it’s simply this … Nibiru doesn’t exist. It’s a fiction invented by some loopy, cosmic conspiracy nutters. There is no evidence for such a planet, and no evidence that Earth is in any danger from a collision with any other planet, known or unknown. Phew!

UPDATE, February 6: BTW, I misspoke on the Today Show this morning, saying that the next total solar eclipse after this year’s one will occur in the year 2128. I should have said 2028 of course.

Story by Jonathan Nally

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  1. Anne says:

    Excellent update! Thanks. 🙂