What exciting space events has 2012 in store for us? What important space anniversaries are coming up this year? Welcome to our annual guide to what the Universe has waiting ahead!
This year marks twenty years since the first extra-solar planets were discovered when a pair of planets were detected orbiting PSR B1257+12, a pulsar located about 2000 light years from the Sun (a third planet in the system was discovered in 2007). Since this unlikely start, we have found over 700 strange new worlds orbiting other stars.
In 2012 the Chinese space program is likely to accelerate with two 14 day missions, Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10, to China’s space station prototype, Tiangong 1. One or both of these flights will carry a crew, one member of which may be China’s first female astronaut.
It is hoped that powered flights of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo sub-orbital tourism craft will commence sometime in 2012, but based on experience to date I am not holding my breath for this.
Distressingly, no major NASA interplanetary missions are planned for launch this year.
5 January: This is the fortieth anniversary of President Nixon’s approving the development of the Space Shuttle.
8 January: Stephen Hawking, famous for his appearances in Star Trek: the Next Generation and the Simpsons (he has done a bit of science too), is 70 today. Happy birthday!
27 January: On this day in 1967 astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were killed by a fire in their Apollo capsule. This terrible accident delayed the Apollo project, but thirty months later Apollo 11 landed safely on the Moon.
13 February: Europe’s new Vega rocket was launched for the first time. Vega is designed to launch small (300 to 2000kg) satellites into Earth orbit.
20 February: Fifty years ago, John Glenn orbits the Earth three times in the Mercury capsule Friendship 7, becoming the first American to follow Yuri Gagarin’s lead. Also it is 65 years to the day since the first living creatures were launched into (and recovered) from space when fruit flies were launched to an altitude of 68 miles (109 km) aboard a US-owned A4 (V-2) rocket.
10 March: This is the 30th anniversary of the last syzygy when all eight planets (plus Pluto) aligned on the same side of the Sun.
13 March: Venus and Jupiter will appear as a brilliant ‘double planet’ in the western sky after sunset. They will be separated by just 3 degrees on this evening, Venus passing to the northwest (upper right) of Jupiter and shining nearly eight times brighter than Jupiter. Although they will gradually go their separate ways after this date, on 25 and 26 March, a crescent moon will pass by, adding additional beauty to this celestial spectacle.
16 April: Forty years ago today, Apollo 16 was launched to the Moon. Astronauts John Young and Charles Duke spent just under three days on the lunar surface.
19 April: Salyut 7, last of the Salyut stations, was launched thirty years ago today. In its eight year life, the orbital outpost was visited by ten crews.
24 April: ‘The Sky at Night’, the BBC’s long running astronomy programme will celebrate the 55th anniversary of its first broadcast on this day. Sadly, this date is also the 45th anniversary of a fatal space accident. Soyuz 1 was launched on this date in 1967. Tragically, the craft’s pilot cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov became the first space traveller to perish during a mission when the craft’s parachutes failed as it returned to Earth. Later Soyuz craft have been much more successful. Improved versions of the design are still the workhorses of the Russian space programme.
30 April: an uncrewed Dragon capsule is to be launched to the International Space Station. The crew of the ISS will grab the Dragon with a remote manipulator arm and berth it to a docking port. This is to prove the concept of Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, the privatisation of US orbital space travel. Bon voyage Dragon!
20 May: An annular solar eclipse will take place today. It will be visible from the Chinese coast across the Pacific Ocean to the western part of the United States and Canada.
24 May: Fifty years ago today, Scott Carpenter becomes the second American to orbit the Earth aboard Aurora 7.
4 June: A partial lunar eclipse will take place. It will be visible over Australia, eastern Asia and western North America. It is also ten years since the discovery of the Trans-Neptunian Object 50000 Quaoar, a possible dwarf planet.
5–6 June : A transit of Venus will take place. Observers in North America will be see the start of the transit while those in south Asia, the Middle East, and most of Europe will catch the end of it. The transit will not be visible in most of South America or western Africa. Don’t miss this; only six transits of Venus have been observed by humans before: in 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874, 1882 and in 2004. After 2012, the next transits of Venus will be in December 2117 and December 2125. Do be careful though; make sure you are using a proper solar scope .
July: After a year-long sojourn NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will depart its Vestiocentric orbit and set course for a rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres in 2015.
3 July: Ten years ago, the COmet Nucleus TOUR (CONTOUR) probe was launched. It had as its primary objective close flybys of the comets Encke and Schwassmann-Wachmann-3. Alas the spacecraft exploded shortly after launch.
4 July: This is the fifteenth anniversary of the arrival of the Pathfinder probe on Mars. Its famous passenger was the Sojourner rover which in 83 days of operation sent 550 photographs back to Earth as it wandered through the rock-strewn landscape around Pathfinder.
6 August : All being well, NASA’s Curiosity rover will make a hair-raising landing in Gale Crater, Mars on this day courtesy of its extraordinary Skycrane landing system. Gale Crater, about 160 km wide features a 5 km high mountain apparently made of layers of sediments. The site is perhaps the remains of an ancient lakebed.
20 August: This date marks the 35th anniversary of the launch of Voyager 2. The Voyager project was a magnificent success revealing the wonders of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in unprecedented detail.
5 September: The Voyager 1 probe was launched thirty five years ago today (two weeks after Voyager 2!)
16 September: Radio astronomy began eighty years ago today when radio researcher Karl Jansky determined that some of the radio noise he was investigating originated from Sagittarius.
4 October marks the 55th anniversary of the start of the Space Age. The first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 was launched on this date.
5 October : Fifty years ago, five European countries (Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden) came together to establish the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere, better known as the European Southern Observatory. ESO’s first observatory was built on La Silla, a 2400 m high mountain in Chile. The La Silla Observatory is equipped with several large optical telescopes including the ESO 3.6m telescope is now home to the HARPS exoplanet hunter. ESO continues to this day as a hugely productive source of astronomical discoveries.
11 October: The Jodrell Bank radio telescope started to scan the skies fifty five years ago today. Now known as the Lovell Telescope it remains in service today.
18 October: On this date in 1967, the USSR’s Venera 4 became the first probe to directly analyse the environment of another planet as it descended through the hellish atmosphere of Venus. The harsh conditions destroyed it before it reached the surface.
13-14 November: a total solar eclipse will be visible from across the Pacific Ocean.
28 November: Forty five years ago today, graduate student Jocelyn Bell noticed a strange “bit of scruff” in the data from the radio telescope at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory. This was the first pulsar to be discovered. Also this day, a penumbral lunar eclipse will take place.
14 December: On this date in 1972, the crew of Apollo 17, including Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, returned to Earth. That was 40 years ago, Cernan and Schmitt are the last people to visit the Moon to date, a fact I find faintly depressing.
21 December: On this day, a 5125 year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar comes to an end and so does the planet Earth. On this date, Earth will collide simultaneously with Nibiru, Planet X and Comet Elenin. At the same time we will be irradiated by not only a giant solar flare but also by an energy beam generated by the Earth coming into alignment with the centre of the Galaxy and by the blast wave from the Betelgeuse supernova. Simultaneously, our planet will be invaded by the Anunnaki, evil shape-shifting lizard people from the 4th Dimension who will eat any survivors of these cosmic disasters. Probably the Stars Will Be Right and Great Cthulhu will rise from his watery grave too on this fateful day. Crumbs! Anyone who isn’t safely onboard one of the Arks to a new life on Kepler-22b* is in for a really bad day!
December 28: Four hundred years ago Galileo observed the planet Neptune for the first time but mistakenly catalogued it as a fixed star because of its extremely slow motion across the sky. Neptune’s discovery had to wait until 1846.
*If you haven’t got a ticket for the Arks yet, just forget I mentioned them. OK?
(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Communicator)