It’s never easy selecting the year’s top 10 events in the world of astronomy but we’ve done our best! Read on for a selection of some of our favourite events of 2018.
1. Super Blue Blood Moon
January 31 marked a rare event dubbed the ‘super blue blood moon eclipse’ in which incredibly, three separate celestial events occurred simultaneously over one evening. The last time this had happened was in March of 1866.
A supermoon was the first of the trifecta occurring when the full moon coincided with the closest orbit of the Earth. The close proximity of Earth and its Moon increased the appearance of the Moon by about 14 per cent and its brightness by about 30 per cent resulting in an incredibly striking view.
The second event was that the gigantic supermoon was also a ‘blue moon’ as it was the second full moon in January. This phenomenon happens due to the slight differences between calendar months and lunar phases. Each full moon occurs every 29.5 days. However, calendar months vary between 28 and 31 days. Blue moons happen on average every two and a half years.
The third in the trio sequence of celestial events was a ‘blood moon’ also known as a total lunar eclipse. For this to happen, the full moon, Earth and the Sun must align. During a total lunar eclipse, Earth blocks the direct sunlight from reaching the Moon. The Sun is behind Earth and so causes Earth’s shadow to reflect on the Moon instead of the Sun’s rays. The term ‘blood moon’ refers to when the Moon goes into Earth’s shadow and sunlight passes through Earth’s atmosphere and refracts onto the Moon. The result? A striking blood-red colour across the lunar surface. Unlike solar eclipses, lunar eclipses are completely fine to view with the naked eye.
Stardome celebrated by staying open well into the early hours of the morning so as not to miss a thing! Unfortunately, it did cloud out just at the best viewing times, but that certainly didn’t deter the crowds
2. First launch of the Falcon Heavy + Tesla
February 6 marked the historic maiden voyage of the privately owned, SpaceX Falcon Heavy booster. Earmarked as the world’s most powerful booster (since NASA’s Saturn V), producing five million pounds- force of thrust and having twice the lift capacity of NASA Space Shuttle launch system. The rocket stands a mighty 23 stories tall.
On return to Earth, incredibly, the Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters successfully landed in unison at Cape Canaveral. Unfortunately, the central core failed to light two of the three engines during the landing burn and crashed spectacularly into the ocean not far from the drone ship.
Elon Musk, CEO and founder of SpaceX and Tesla, sent a cherry red Tesla Roadstar into space aboard the spacecraft as the dummy payload. Launched with sufficient velocity, the Roadstar is on an elliptic orbit around the Sun and has crossed the orbit of Mars.
The pilot of the Tesla is affectionately known as Starman; a mannequin spaceman strapped to the driver’s seat with a copy of Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book safely stowed in the glovebox with ‘Space Oddity’ and Life on Mars’ by David Bowie on loop, blarring from the sound system.
We will be keeping our eyes peeled on the SpaceX team for the announcement of the next FalconX Heavy launch expected early 2019.
3. Discovery of Exo-Moon
To date, astronomers have discovered more than 3,500 exoplanets; worlds orbiting stars other than our own Sun.
In October the object was spotted in data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. It was later observed using the Hubble telescope when researchers monitored the transit of exoplanet Kepler 1625b as it passed in front of its parent star.
The 19-hour event involved monitoring data of the blocked-out light of the star and revealed a second smaller dimming of the star’s brightness. This indicated that there was a moon trailing the planet. The location, shape and depth were consistent with a Neptune sized moon transiting in front of the star.
Both Kepler 1625b and its newly discovered exomoon Kepler 1625b-I are gas giants, and the Moon is estimated to be orbiting some three million kilometres from the planet.
The discovery is the first of an exomoon with previously discovered potential candidates being debunked following further investigation. Researchers will continue to conduct follow-up observations with Hubble
4. InSight successfully lands on Mars
Following a six-month journey to reach the red planet, on November 27, NASA successfully landed spacecraft InSight on the vast, flat surface of the Elysium Planitia, Mars.
Mission Control at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory erupted in cheers when it became clear InSight had safely landed, on cue at 19:53 GMT, Monday 26 November. The complicated descent involved piercing the Martian atmosphere at a speed of 19,800km/h, popping a parachute, firing its descent engines and landing gently on three legs. All in the space of six minutes.
This is the first attempt since 2012 and the eighth attempt that NASA has made to land on Mars. A notable achievement of the mission was the success story of two very small briefcase-sized satellites MarCO- A and MarCO-B or as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team at NASA refer to them, Eve and Wall-E. Launched at the same time as InSight, the job entailed the pair trailing the spacecraft for six months through space and finally, relaying information once on Mars back to Earth.
InSight is the first probe dedicated to investigating the interior of Mars and will conduct three experiments to reveal what the rock layers are made of, to gather data of temperature fluctuations and to determine the wobble of Mars on its axis. This will hopefully help to reveal the distribution of liquid in the interior
5. Rocket Lab launches
Rocket Lab has had continued success in 2018 with several notable launches and milestones achieved.
With facility in our own back yard, launching from Mahia Peninsula, the privately owned Rocket Lab continues to respond rapidly to an ever-growing small satellite market.
Founder and CEO, Peter Beck says “Rocket Lab’s responsive space model is crucial to support the exponential growth of the small satellite market. That a customer can come to us seeking a ride to orbit and we can have them booked to launch in weeks is unheard of in the launch business”
This year’s highlights reel includes the Electron ‘Still Testing’ mission on January 20, a new high-volume production facility was unveiled in Auckland on October 12, the first fully commercial launch ‘Its business time’ successfully making it into orbit carrying seven payloads on November 11 and finally, successful launch of ‘This One’s For Pickering’ carrying payload for NASA of 13 Cubesats on December 16.
We look forward to tracking the exciting launch schedule and advancements at Rocket Lab in 2019!
6. Mars opposition
On July 27, 2018 Mars was the closest to Earth that it will be for the next 17 years, appearing bigger and brighter than ever before. Both Earth and Mars follow elliptical (oval-shaped) orbits around the Sun. However, because Earth is closer to the Sun than Mars, it speeds along its orbit more quickly than the red planet. We take two trips around the Sun in about the same time it takes Mars to take one! When Earth lines up directly between Mars and the Sun, we say that Mars is in opposition.
With the team staying open until the wee hours of the morning, telescopes aimed and ready to go, 2000 odd enthusiasts dropped in to the observatory to catch a glimpse of the Red Giant (Mars) in all its glory. Although the Martian storm raged on during the majority of the several months on either side of opposition, which drastically impacted our observing, you still likely spotted Mars looking brighter in the sky throughout the past year!
7. Hayabusa2 arrives and deploys probes to surface of asteroid Ryugu
Following a successful launch on 3 December 2014, Japanese Space Agency spacecraft Hayabusa2 arrived at Asteroid Ryugu on 27 June 2018. The asteroid sample-return mission will now spend a year and a half surveying the asteroid before returning to Earth in December 2020.
Hayabusa2 carries science payloads for remote sensing and sampling as well as four small rovers that are investigating the asteroid’s surface. The samples will be collected through a kinetic penetrator that will shoot into the asteroid to expose pristine sample material. The first ever photograph of the surface of an asteroid was taken by Hayabusa2 Rover-1A on September 22 of 2018.
8. Educator Josh captured ISS transit shots of both the Moon and Sun
On October 31st just a little before 6pm, our very talented Stardome educator and Auckland astrophotographer, Josh Kirkley captured a rare photograph. At the bottom of his driveway in South Auckland using his Canon 800D camera and Celestron Nexstar 6SE telescope, he managed to make the most of the fantastic conditions and captured the International Space Station passing across the Sun.
Josh was also clever enough to capture the International Space Station transiting across the Moon on camera the following month. The transit was complete in a blink of an eye and he had captured it – achieving an astrophotographic goal that he had set when his interest was first peeked by astronomy.
We are very proud of Josh and his passion for what he does
9. Osiris Rex arrives at Bennu
NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex launched on September 8, 2016. On December 3, 2018 OSIRIS-REX arrived at asteroid Bennu after a two-year journey. It is expected to return samples to Earth of potentially hazardous Bennu by 2023. Member of the Apollo group, the carbonaceous asteroid with a mean diameter of approximately 492m was discovered in 1999. It is estimated to have a 1 in 2,700 chance of impacting Earth between 2175 and 2199. Following its arrival, OSIRIS-REx will first map the outside of the asteroid before attempting to obtain a small sample and return to Earth by 2023.
We look forward to following the discoveries of NASA’s New Frontiers Program and OSIRIS-Rex on Bennu in 2019.
10. Parker solar probe launched to the Sun
This year on August 12, we were witness to the historical event of the launch of humanities’ first uncrewed mission to a star. Over the last five months, the Parker Solar Probe has traveled through the Sun’s atmosphere moving closer to the surface of the Sun than any spacecraft before it. Built to face the expected brutal heat and radiation conditions projected by the largest star of our Solar System, the data collected by the Parker Solar Probe will provide us with the closest-ever observations of a star.
Operating in a hazardous region of intense heat and radiation, the primary science goals of the probe are to trace how energy and heat move through the solar corona and to explore what accelerates the solar wind and energetic particles.
Additionally, an incredible feat achieved by the NASA team and Parker Solar Probe was the performance of a gravity assist that drew it’s orbit closer to the star by 4 million miles on October 3.
On the final three orbits, Parker Solar Probe will fly to within 3.8 million miles of the Sun’s surface which is more than seven times closer than the current record-holder for a close solar pass, the Helios 2 spacecraft, which came within 27 million miles in 1976.