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2011: The year in space

Artist's impression of the Juno spacecraft at Jupiter

Artist's impression of the Juno spacecraft investigating Jupiter. Juno is set for launch later this year.

THERE ARE LOTS OF EXCITING happenings coming up in space this year. Here’s just a sample of what we can expect.

On February 14-15, NASA’s Stardust probe will do a fly-by of comet Tempel 1. It’ll be looking for damage done by the Deep Impact spacecraft, which fired a projectile into the comet back in 2005.

Also there’ll be the launch of Glory, an Earth-orbiting spacecraft that’ll make readings of black carbon and aerosols in the atmosphere, and measure the amount of incoming sunlight. Plus there’ll be the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery, on a mission to the space station.

March will see NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft go into orbit around Mercury, the first probe to do so. A largely unknown world, the closest planet to the Sun is sure to hold some surprises. That month will also mark 25 years since Europe’s Giotto probe gave us our first close-up look at a comet, the famous Halley.

In April there’ll be a bunch of anniversaries, the 30th of the first space shuttle launch, the 40th of the first space station launch (which was the Soviet’s Salyut 1), and the biggie, the 50th anniversary of the flight of Vostok 1, carrying Yuri Gagarin, the first person to go into outer space.

Artist's impression of Salyut 1

Artist's impression of Salyut 1, the world's first space station.

April will also see the last flight of space shuttle Endeavour. And it could be the final shuttle mission of all. An extra flight by Atlantis in June has been approved but not yet funded, so we’ll just have to wait and see. Also in June, some parts of Australia will catch a short glimpse of a lunar eclipse.

July will see the second flight of the new, private Dragon spacecraft, designed to take cargo and eventually people to the International Space Station. Its first short test flight last year went perfectly. Dragon could end up being the replacement for the space shuttle.

Also in July, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will sidle up to the 530km-wide asteroid Vesta, and go into orbit. It’ll spend a year investigating it before heading off to do the same thing with the even larger asteroid Ceres, which is actually known as a dwarf planet these days.

Artist's impression of the Dawn spacecraft

Artist's impression of the Dawn spacecraft studying asteroid Vesta

August will see the launch of Juno, NASA’s new unmanned mission to study the planet Jupiter. It’ll take about five years to get there. And the following month will see NASA launch GRAIL, a pair of satellites that’ll orbit the Moon and map its gravitational field, which will help scientists work out its inner structure.

In November, Russia will launch Fobos-Grunt, a mission to the larger of the two Martian moons, Phobos. All going well, it’ll touch down, grab some samples, and blast off back to Earth with them. The Chinese are piggybacking a small satellite too, which will orbit Mars and study its atmosphere, ionosphere and surface.

Finally, in December, there’ll be another launch of that Dragon capsule, plus the first launch of its competitor, called Cygnus. And to top it off, we’ll have another lunar eclipse.

Image credits: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

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Total lunar eclipse today

A TOTAL LUNAR ECLIPSE will happen today, December 21, visible from certain parts of the world. (Shown above is an amateur video of a similar eclipse from 2007.)

The whole of the eclipse will be seen from the North American continent, Iceland and Greenland. (For observers in the western parts of Canada and the USA, the eclipse will actually begin before midnight on December 20.)

For the UK, the eclipse will begin just before sunrise and moonset, so observers there will see only the initial stages of the eclipse before the sky becomes too bright and the Moon dips below the horizon.

For observers in Australia and New Zealand, the eclipse will already be in progress by the time the Moon rises above the horizon…which will be at different times depending upon location.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon goes “behind” the Earth (with respect to the Sun) and moves through the Earth’s shadow. So the Sun, the Earth and the Moon have to be in a line, with Earth in the middle. Here’s a video that demonstrates it:

You don’t need a telescope to watch a lunar eclipse (although you’re welcome to do so if you have one.) Just go outside in the mid-evening (for Australian observers) after the Moon has risen and look to the east.

The times of moonrise vary depending on where you are in Australia. The times of moonrise—in local times, with daylight saving included—are:

Sydney — 8:05pm

Melbourne — 8:42pm

Brisbane — 6:40pm

Canberra — 8:17pm

Hobart — 8:49pm

Adelaide — 8:30pm

Darwin — 7:11pm

Alice Springs — 7:21pm

Perth — 7:26pm

There are usually a couple of lunar eclipses each year, but they’re not always visible from the same spots. For any particular location on Earth, you might get one or two lunar eclipses per year.

Some are better than others, depending upon how much of Earth’s shadow the Moon moves through.

From start to finish, they can be up to a couple of hours long.

For Australian observers, the next lunar eclipse after this one, will be on June 15, 2011, when again about half of it will be visible. After that, the following one will be on December 10, 2011, when we’ll see the whole total eclipse.

For more details on how, when and where to see the eclipse, please refer to these web pages:


New Zealand

North America


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What’s up? December’s night sky

Telescopes pointed at the sky

Summertime in the Southern Hemisphere is a great opportunity to do some stargazing.

Mercury and Mars are still keeping each other company very low on the western horizon after sunset in the first half of December. Both planets will be quite hard to see, as they are dropping toward the horizon and by mid-month will be lost in the glare of the Sun. (Mercury will make a reappearance in the morning sky to the east at the end of the month).

Venus is prominent in the eastern sky before dawn, climbing higher in the sky as the month progresses. You won’t miss it—apart from the Sun and Moon, it’s the brightest thing in the sky.

Saturn, too, is visible in the morning sky, higher up than Venus and quite close to the star Spica.

Jupiter is well placed for viewing, too, about halfway up the sky in the northwest after sunset.

Except where indicated, all of the phenomena described here can be seen with just the unaided eye. And unless otherwise specified, dates and times shown here are for the Australian Eastern Daylight Time zone, and sky directions are from the point of view of an observer in the Southern Hemisphere.

Silhouette of person staring at the sky with binoculars

Binoculars are sometimes easier than telescopes for stargazing.

December 6

It’s New Moon today. New Moon is the opposite of Full Moon, and means, for a day or two, it is effectively impossible or very hard to see the Moon. This is because it between us and the Sun (although not exactly in line, otherwise we’d have a solar eclipse), and we are looking at the unilluminated side of the Moon.

December 7

A very thin crescent Moon will be near the planet Mercury tonight, low on the western horizon just after sunset. It will be very hard to see though—you might need binoculars to see it (make sure the Sun has fully set!…you don’t want to blind yourself.)

December 13

Today the Moon reaches its First Quarter phase, which is halfway between New Moon and Full Moon. Also today, the Moon will be at apogee, which is the farthest point in its orbit around the Earth. The distance between Earth and Moon will be 404,406 kilometres. And finally, take a look at the Moon and you’ll see a fairly bright star nearby. That’s not actually a star, it’s the planet Jupiter!

Also tonight, very low down near the western after sunset, the planets Mercury and Mars will appear near each other.

People looking at the nighttime sky

Make the most of summer nights by doing some stargazing.

December 14

The Moon is still near Jupiter tonight.

December 21

It’s Full Moon today. If the weather is clear, you’ll see the big, bright Moon rising over the eastern horizon as the Sun is sinking in the west.

There’s also a lunar eclipse this evening but, depending on where you live, you might not see much of it…or you might miss out altogether.

For most skywatchers in New Zealand, the main part of the eclipse will already be underway by the time the Moon rises. The Moon will still be quite low in the sky when the eclipse ends.

You can get more information on the eclipse, including when are where to see it, here.

December 22

Today it is the Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere (Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere). This is the day when the Sun is highest in the sky for those in the Southern Hemisphere, and it is also the day where we have maximum hours of daylight. (For those in the Northern Hemisphere, it is the day of maximum hours of darkness.)

December 25

The Moon will be at perigee today, which is the closest point in its orbit around the Earth. The distance between Earth and Moon will be 368,461 kilometres.

December 28

Today the Moon reaches its Last Quarter phase, which is halfway between Full Moon and New Moon.

If you have any questions or comments on the night sky, please use the feedback form below. Happy stargazing!

Images courtesy IAU.

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