From rocket launches to a crashing space station, we’re in for a huge year in space

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Rocket Lab successfully launched its Electron rocket from the company’s complex on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand.
Rocket Lab

Brad E Tucker, Australian National University

A Blood Moon, a trip to the Moon and back for two explorers, a space station crashing to Earth and the launch of a new mission to find planets around other stars: these are just some of the exciting things to watch in space in 2018.

Elon Musk’s Space X also plans to launch one of the new Falcon Heavy rockets, the largest since the manned Moon landings.

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The Blood Moon comes from the lunar eclipse on Wednesday night, which is also being claimed as a Blue Super Full Moon (or is it?)

A Blood Moon – when the Moon turns red during a total lunar eclipse. The red comes from the sunrise and sunset here on Earth, continuing out into space and lighting up the Moon.

All of Australia, plus most of Asia and the Pacific region, will be treated to this spectacular lunar event on January 31. If you miss it, don’t worry, you’ll get another total lunar eclipse on the night of July 27 and early morning hours of July 28.

Unlike a Solar eclipse, you do not need any special equipment to see a lunar eclipse and it is safe to look at with your eyes.

Speaking of solar eclipses, Tasmania and southern parts of Victoria and South Australia will be treated to a partial Solar Eclipse on July 13.

Goodbye Kepler, thanks for the Exoplanets!

The Kepler Space telescope was launched nearly nine years ago and has changed our view of the cosmos and our place in it, but its mission is coming to an end this year.

Kepler has confirmed around 2,500 exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars), with thousands more potential planets. It discovered the first Earth-like planet in a habitable zone , an area where water could exist as a liquid.

An artistic impression of NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope.
NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle

Kepler also showed that rocky, potentially Earth-like and/or habitable planets are common with potentially tens of billions (yes, billions with a b) existing in our galaxy alone.

After a failure of two reaction wheels (the things that help it point) in 2013, a new mission, K2, was conceived. It was able to keep stable by using a combination of short thruster firings and using the Sun to steer it like a sail.

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Kepler continued its exoplanet-finding quest, along with discoveries such as shockwaves from exploding stars and even picking up sound waves deep in the heart of stars (a technique called asteroseismology).

But this extra thruster firing is causing Kepler to use up its fuel, and it is due to run out sometime this year, which will cause NASA to put it into hibernation.


Where one missions ends, a new one begins. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), is set to be launched between March and June, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. If the stars align, we might even have overlap between these two exoplanet-discovering machines.

A conceptual image of TESS in space and its targets – planets orbiting other stars.

Rockets, rockets and more rockets

The privatisation of space continued this year with the US-based Rocket Labs having its first successful launch, from a site across the Tasman in New Zealand.

SpaceX also had its first static test of the new Falcon 9 Heavy, the largest rocket since the Saturn V that took US astronauts to the Moon.


The Falcon 9 Heavy is scheduled for a first launch in early February where it will carry one of Musk’s Tesla Roadsters. We may even see an appearance of the company’s Dragon 2 that will carry humans into space this year. SpaceX has already announced that two people have paid to go on a tour around the Moon.

It’s not just private companies exploring space, with China aiming for 40 launches in 2018 alone.

Exploring the small things in our Solar System

The Moon is on the radar for both India and China. India’s Chandrayaan-2 is set to land on the Moon in March, while China’s Chang’e 4 will be its second lunar rover, set to land on the far side of the Moon at the end of 2018. First it will have to launch a special communication satellite, slated for June, to a position called L2, or a special point related to the Earth-Moon system that will allow for communications with Earth and the far side of the Moon.

While it is a bit early for New Year’s Eve 2018, NASA already has big plans. New Horizons, the probe that flew by Pluto in 2015 is set to swing past its second icy world, 2014 MU 69, on December 31. Little is known about 2014 MU 69, which is around 6.5 billion km from the Sun, other than the fact that it might be two objects instead of one and that it needs a better name.

Hubble Space Telescope Wide Field Camera 3 discovery images of 2014 MU69. Positions are shown by the green circles.
NASA, ESA, SwRI, JHU/APL, and the New Horizons KBO Search Team

Asteroids are not forgotten in all of this space exploration. Japan’s Hayabusa-2 is set to arrive at asteroid 162173 Ryugu. It’s a new version of Hayabusa, which surveyed the asteroid 25143 Itokawa and took samples before returning back to Earth, landing near Woomera, South Australia in 2010.

Likewise, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx will arrive at the asteroid Bennu where it will extend an arm to drill down into the asteroid, and return with samples, in what is the next step towards an asteroid mining future.

An artist impression of OSIRIS-REx extending its arm down to the asteroid Bennu.

A falling space station

If you were around in 1979 and happened to be in Western Australia, you might have a unique souvenir – part of the US space station Skylab, which re-entered and crashed outside Esperance, WA.

If you’ve seen the 2013 movie Gravity (and a spoiler alert for those who haven’t!) you might remember the final scene in which Sandra Bullock’s character returns home by hijacking Tiangong-1, the Chinese space station. She returns safely, but the same can’t be said for Tiangong-1.

Well in March, we are set for a clash of sci-fi against reality when Tiangong-1 comes back down to Earth.

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You can track its progress but in short, somewhere between +43 and -43 latitude (or half the Earth), it will re-enter and break apart. Currently, the likely potential (land) areas are around Central and South America, Northern Africa and the Mediterranean, and indeed Western Australia.

Like Skylab, there are likely to be large pieces that survive re-entry. Hopefully you are lucky to be in a position to see it with your eyes, but not so close that it lands on your house, as it’s unlikely to be covered by your insurance policy.

The ConversationSo that’s a summary of some of the things we’re expecting to happen this year. But as with all science, I’m just as excited for those discoveries that we do not know about that will happen in 2018.

Brad E Tucker, Astronomer and outreach officer, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Climate scientists explore hidden ocean beneath Antarctica’s largest ice shelf

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The team used hot-water drilling gear to melt a hole through Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf to explore the ocean below.
Christina Hulbe, CC BY-ND

Craig Stevens and Christina Hulbe

Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf is the world’s largest floating slab of ice: it’s about the size of Spain, and nearly a kilometre thick.

The ocean beneath, roughly the volume of the North Sea, is one of the most important but least understood parts of the climate system.

We are part of the multi-disciplinary Aotearoa New Zealand Ross Ice Shelf programme team, and have melted a hole through hundreds of metres of ice to explore this ocean and the ice shelf’s vulnerability to climate change. Our measurements show that this hidden ocean is warming and freshening – but in ways we weren’t expecting.

Instruments travelling 360m down a bore hole, from the snow-covered surface of the Ross Ice Shelf through to the ocean below the ice. After splash-down at about 60m, they move through the bubble-rich upper ice and down into the dark bubble-free lower reaches of the ice – passing embedded sediment that left the coast line centuries ago.

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Antarctic glacier’s unstable past reveals danger of future melting

A hidden conveyor belt

All major ice shelves are found around the coast of Antarctica. These massive pieces of ice hold back the land-locked ice sheets that, if freed to melt into the ocean, would raise sea levels and change the face of our world.

An ice shelf is a massive lid of ice that forms when glaciers flow off the land and merge as they float out over the coastal ocean. Shelves lose ice by either breaking off icebergs or by melting from below. We can see big icebergs from satellites – it is the melting that is hidden.

Because the water flowing underneath the Ross Ice Shelf is cold (minus 1.9C), it is called a “cold cavity”. If it warms, the future of the shelf and the ice upstream could change dramatically. Yet this hidden ocean is excluded from all present models of future climate.

This satellite map shows the camp site on the Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica.
Ross Ice Shelf Programme, CC BY-ND

There has only been one set of measurements of this ocean, made by an international team in the late 1970s. The team made repeated attempts, using several types of drills, over the course of five years. With this experience and newer, cleaner, technology, we were able to complete our work in a single season.

Our basic understanding is that seawater circulates through the cavity by flowing in at the sea bed as relatively warm, salty water. It eventually finds its way to the shore – except of course this is a shoreline under as much as 800 metres of ice. There it starts melting the shelf from beneath and flows across the shelf underside back towards the open ocean.

Peering through a hole in the ice

The New Zealand team – including hot water drillers, glaciologists, biologists, seismologists, oceanographers – worked from November through to January, supported by tracked vehicles and, when ever the notorious local weather permitted, Twin Otter aircraft.

As with all polar oceanography, getting to the ocean is often the most difficult part. In this case, we faced the complex task of melting a bore hole, only 25 centimetres in diameter, through hundreds of metres of ice.

A team of ice drillers from Victoria University of Wellington used hot water and a drilling system developed at Victoria to melt a hole through hundreds of metres of ice.
Craig Stevens, CC BY-ND

But once the instruments are lowered more than 300m down the bore hole, it becomes the easiest oceanography in the world. You don’t get seasick and there is little bio-fouling to corrupt measurements. There is, however, plenty of ice that can freeze up your instruments or freeze the hole shut.

A moving world

Our camp in the middle of the ice shelf served as a base for this science, but everything was moving. The ocean is slowly circulating, perhaps renewing every few years. The ice is moving too, at around 1.6 metres each day where we were camped. The whole plate of ice is shifting under its own weight, stretching inexorably toward the ocean fringe of the shelf where it breaks off as sometimes massive icebergs. The floating plate is also bobbing up and down with the daily tides.

The team at work, preparing a mooring.
Christina Hulbe, CC BY-ND

Things also move vertically through the shelf. As the layer stretches toward the front, it thins. But the shelf can also thicken as new snow piles up on top, or as ocean water freezes onto the bottom. Or it might thin where wind scours away surface snow or relatively warm ocean water melts it from below.

When you add it all up, every particle in the shelf is moving. Indeed, our camp was not so far (about 160km) from where Robert Falcon Scott and his two team members were entombed more than a century ago during their return from the South Pole. Their bodies are now making their way down through the ice and out to the coast.

What the future might hold

If the ocean beneath the ice warms, what does this mean for the Ross Ice Shelf, the massive ice sheet that it holds back, and future sea level? We took detailed temperature and salinity data to understand how the ocean circulates within the cavity. We can use this data to test and improve computer simulations and to assess if the underside of the ice is melting or actually refreezing and growing.

Our new data indicate an ocean warming compared to the measurements taken during the 1970s, especially deeper down. As well as this, the ocean has become less salty. Both are in keeping with what we know about the open oceans around Antarctica.

We also discovered that the underside of the ice was rather more complex than we thought. It was covered in ice crystals – something we see in sea ice near ice shelves. But there was not a massive layer of crystals as seen in the smaller, but very thick, Amery Ice Shelf.

Instead the underside of the ice held clear signatures of sediment, likely incorporated into the ice as the glaciers forming the shelf separated from the coast centuries earlier. The ice crystals must be temporary.

None of this is included in present models of the climate system. Neither the effect of the warm, saline water draining into the cavity, nor the very cold surface waters flowing out, the ice crystals affecting heat transfer to the ice, or the ocean mixing at the ice fronts.

The ConversationIt is not clear if these hidden waters play a significant role in how the world’s oceans work, but it is certain that they affect the ice shelf above. The longevity of ice shelves and their buttressing of Antarctica’s massive ice sheets is of paramount concern.

Craig Stevens, Associate Professor in Ocean Physics and Christina Hulbe, Professor and Dean of the School of Surveying (glaciology specialisation)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.