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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So 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.
Both issues are unresolved, and are set to loom large on the landscape this year. But what else is on the horizon?
We should always expect the unexpected. But perhaps the most predictable “unexpected” event would be a heatwave, prompting one or more of our creaking coal-fired power stations to have a meltdown. Maybe the “Big Banana” (as Elon Musk’s battery has been branded) will step in again, as it already has.
If fossil fuel power stations fail again, expect to see the culture war heat up again, with coal’s defenders using ever more twisting logic to defend their dear dinosaur technology.
Barring the apocalypse, on March 17 South Australians will go to the polls. Will Premier Jay Weatherill be returned to power, to continue his long-running stoush with federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg? Will heatwaves and power outages help or hinder him? At the moment, polls have former senator Nick Xenophon as putative premier. My crystal ball is hazy on what this would mean for energy policy.
In April there will be a meeting of the COAG Energy Council at which the NEG proposal will come under scrutiny. Expect it to be bloody. State governments have demanded more modelling, so they can compare the NEG to Finkel’s Clean Energy Target that Finkel suggested, and an emissions intensity scheme.
Current SA treasurer Tom Koutsantonis has raised several concerns with the NEG, arguing that it doesn’t give a big enough boost to renewables, and would do nothing to break up the power of the big “gentailers”, who generate and sell electricity.
“To proceed, the NEG would require unanimous support at COAG, so this policy is either years away, or won’t happen at all,” Koutsantonis said. Expect a long-running pitched battle if Weatherill and Koutsantonis are still about, and perhaps even if they’re not.
In the May budget the Turnbull government is going to have to decide what to do about the Emissions Reduction Fund, the centrepiece of former prime minister Tony Abbott’s Direct Action policy, which replaced his predecessor Julia Gillard’s carbon price.
The fund, which lets companies bid for public money to implement emissions-reduction projects, started at A$2.55bn, and there is about A$260 million left.
Connected to these decisions are questions over whether and how the fund’s “safeguard mechanism”, which is supposed to stop the system being gamed, will be modified.
Among the many criticisms levelled at the government’s 2017 climate policy review, released with little fanfare the week before Christmas, was the proposal to make the already flexible mechanism even more flexible, so as to “reduce the administrative and auditing costs” for businesses.
The government’s climate review also says that in 2018 it will start the process of developing a long-term emissions-reduction strategy, to be finalised by 2020. It has promised to “consult widely” with businesses, the community, states and territories, and other G20 nations. Time will tell exactly how wide this consultation turns out to be, although anything would be better than the Trump Adminstration’s systematic removal of the term “climate change” from federal websites.
The climate review suggests that the Turnbull government will push for more international carbon trading. An unlikely alliance has formed against the idea, consisting of those who view carbon credits as buck-passing, as well as Tony Abbott, who thinks Australian money “shouldn’t be going offshore into dodgy carbon farms in Equatorial Guinea and Kazakhstan”.
His stance has already been branded as nonsensical by the business lobby – who, it must be said, stand to benefit significantly from carbon trading.
On the diplomatic front, the United Nations will hold a “2018 Talanoa dialogue” process, featuring a series of meetings in which major economies will come under pressure to upgrade their climate commitments to meet the Paris target.
As Giles Parkinson notes, Australia had probably thought that they could get away with no climate target upgrades until around 2025.
In October the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release a report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5℃ – the more ambitious of the Paris Agreement’s twin goals – and the emissions pathways we would need to follow to get there. Expect climate deniers to get their retaliation in first.
The next UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (number 24 in a never-ending series) will be held in December in Katowice, in Poland’s coal heartland.
Butler gloomily forecasted more policy chaos and renewables-blaming, while Bandt was sunnier, predicting that 2018 will be “the year of energy storage” as the economics for commercial and household batteries begin to stack up.
Bandt also thinks the public debate will heat up as extreme weather hits, and the national security implications become (more) obvious.
Donald Trump will continue being Donald Trump. Liberal and National backbenchers will put pressure on Turnbull to do what John Howard did when George W. Bush was in the Oval Office – namely, get into the United States’ slipstream and take advantage of the lowered ambition.
For each shower, we give the forecast activity period and the predicted time of maximum. We also provide charts showing you where to look, and give the peak rates that could be seen under perfect conditions (known as the maximum Zenithal Hourly Rate, or ZHR).
The actual rate you see will always be lower than this value – but the higher a shower’s radiant in the sky and the darker the conditions, the closer the observed rate will get to this ideal value.
The Lyrids hold the record for the shower with the longest recorded history, having been observed since at least 687BC.
That longevity is linked to the orbit of the Lyrid’s parent comet, discovered in 1861 by A. E. Thatcher. Comet Thatcher moves on a highly inclined, eccentric orbit, swinging through the inner Solar system every 415 years or so. Its most recent approach to Earth was in 1861.
Compared with many other comets, Thatcher’s orbit is relatively stable, as the only planet with which it can experience close encounters is Earth. This means the meteors it sheds continue to follow roughly the same orbit.
Over the millennia, that shed debris has spread all around the comet’s vast orbit, meaning that for thousands of years, every time Earth intersects Comet Thatcher’s orbit, the Lyrids have been seen, as regular as clockwork.
These days, the Lyrids are usually a moderately active shower, producing somewhere between 10 and 20 fast, bright meteors per hour at their peak. Occasionally, though, the Lyrids have thrown up a surprise, with rates climbing far higher for a period of several hours.
The best of those outbursts seem to occur every 60 years or so, with the most recent occurring in 1982 when observed rates reached or exceeded 90 per hour.
No such outburst is predicted for 2018, but even in quiet years, the Lyrids are still a fun shower to observe.
They are best seen from northern latitudes, but their radiant is far enough south for observers throughout Australia to observe them in the hours before dawn.
For observers at mid-northern latitudes, the Lyrid radiant reaches suitable altitude by about 11pm local time. Viewers in the southern hemisphere have to wait until the early hours of the morning before reasonable rates can be observed.
The forecast time of maximum this year favours observers in Australia and east Asia but the timing of maximum has been known to vary somewhat, so observers around the globe will likely be keeping their eyes peeled, just in case!
Active: July 17 – August 24
Maximum: August 12, 8pm UT – August 13, 8am UT = from August 12, 9pm BST (UK) = 10pm CEST (Europe) = 6pm EDT (East Coast, US) = 3pm PDT (West Coast, US) for 12 hours
For observers in the northern hemisphere, the Perseids are a spectacular summer highlight. At their peak, rates often reach or exceed 100 meteors per hour, and they are famed for their frequent spectacular fireballs.
The Perseids are probably the best known and most widely observed of all modern meteor showers. They are remarkably consistent, with peak rates usually visible for a couple of evenings, and fall in the middle of the northern hemisphere summer holiday season. The warm nights and frequent clear skies at that time of year make the shower a real favourite!
Like the Lyrids, the Perseids have a long and storied history, having been observed for at least 2,000 years. Their parent comet, 109P/Swift-Tuttle, is a behemoth, with the largest nucleus of the known periodic comets – some 26km in diameter.
It has likely moved on its current orbit for tens of thousands of years, all the time laying down the debris that gives us our annual Perseid extravaganza. It will next swing past Earth in 2126 when it will be a spectacular naked eye object.
This year the forecast maximum for the Perseids favours observers in Europe, although given the length of peak activity, any location in the northern hemisphere has the potential to see a spectacular show on the night of August 12.
But don’t despair if it’s cloudy that night, as the Perseids have a relatively broad period of peak activity, meaning that good rates can be seen for a few days either side of their peak.
In 2018, the peak of the Perseid shower coincides with the New Moon, and so is totally unaffected by moonlight, which makes this an ideal year to observe the shower.
The further north you are, the earlier the shower’s radiant will be visible. But reasonable rates can typically be seen any time after about 10pm, local time. The later in the night you observe, the better the rates will be, as the radiant climbs higher into the sky.
It is not uncommon for enthusiastic observers to watch the shower until dawn on the night of maximum, seeing several hundred meteors in a single night.
Active: October 6-10
Maximum: October 9, 12:10am UT = 1:10am BST (UK) = 2:10am CEST (Europe)
The Draconids are a fascinating meteor shower, although in most years, somewhat underwhelming. Unlike the previous showers, the Draconids are a relatively young meteor shower that can vary dramatically from one year to the next.
That comet was the first to be visited by a spacecraft, and has frequent close encounters with Jupiter, which continually nudges its orbit around. These encounters also perturb the meteor stream the comet is laying down, sometimes enhancing rates at Earth and sometimes diminishing them.
In the early 20th century, it was realised that Comet Giacobini-Zinner’s orbit comes close enough to Earth that we might be able to see meteors as we plough through the debris it leaves behind.
This led to the first predictions of Draconid activity. Sure enough, in 1920, the great meteor observer W. F. Denning confirmed the existence of the shower, with a mere five meteors observed between October 6 and October 9.
In 1933 and 1946, the Draconids produced two of the greatest meteor displays of the 20th century – great storms, with peak rates of several thousand meteors per hour. In those years, Earth crossed the comet’s orbit just a month or two after the comet passed through perihelion (closest approach to the Sun), and Earth ploughed through dense material in the comet’s wake.
After 1946, the Draconids went quiet, all but vanishing from our skies. Jupiter had swung the comet onto a less favourable orbit. Only a few Draconids were seen in 1972, then again in 1985 and 1998.
The late 1990s saw a renaissance in our ability to predict and understand meteor showers, born of enhanced activity exhibited by the Leonid meteor shower. Using the techniques developed to study the Leonids, astronomers predicted enhanced activity from the Draconids in 2011, and the predicted outburst duly occurred, with rates of around 300 meteors per hour being observed.
This year comet Giacobini-Zinner once again passes through perihelion and swings close to Earth’s orbit. The chances are good that the shower will be active – albeit unlikely to produce a spectacular storm.
Modelling suggests that rates of 20 to 50 faint meteors per hour might be seen around 12:14am UT on October 9. Other models suggest that rates will peak about 45 minutes earlier, with lower rates of 15 to 20.
The Draconid radiant is circumpolar (that is, it never sets) for locations north of 44°N, and is highest in the sky before midnight. This year, the Moon is new at the time of the forecast peak, which is ideally timed for observers in Europe.
If skies are clear that evening, it is well worth heading out at around 11:30pm BST on October 8 (12:30am CEST on October 9) and spending a couple of hours staring north, just in case the Draconids put on another spectacular show.
Active: September 10 – December 10
Maxima: October 10 (Southern Taurids); November 12 (Northern Taurids)
Of all the year’s meteor showers, the one that dumps the greatest amount of dust into Earth’s atmosphere are the Taurids. The inner Solar system contains a vast swathe of debris known as the Taurid stream. It is so spread out that Earth spends a quarter of the year passing through it.
In June, that debris spawns the Daytime Taurid meteor shower, which (as the name suggests) occurs during daylight hours, and is only really known thanks to radio observations.
After leaving the stream for a little while, Earth penetrates it again at the start of September, and activity continues right through until December. Hourly rates fluctuate up and down, with several distinct peaks and troughs through October and November.
The Taurid stream is complex – with at least two main components, known as the northern and southern branches. Typically, the Southern Taurids are active a little earlier in the year and reach their peak about a month before the northern branch.
The Taurids are slow meteors and feature plenty of bright fireballs. So even though their rates are low, they are well worth looking out for, particularly when other showers are also active, such as the Draconids, the Orionids and the Leonids.
Put together, these showers make the northern autumn or the southern spring a great time to get out and look for natural fireworks.
Twice a year, Earth runs through the stream of debris littered around the orbit of Comet 1P/Halley. Throughout the month of October this gives rise to the Orionid meteor shower.
The Orionids are a fairly reliable meteor shower with a long, broad maximum. Typically, peak rates can last for almost a week, centred on the nominal maximum date. Throughout that week, Orionid rates can fluctuate markedly, leading to a number of distinct maxima and minima.
Orionid meteors are fast – much faster than the Taurids that are active at the same of year. Like the Taurids, they are often bright, the result of the high speed at which the meteoroids hit Earth’s atmosphere.
The Orionid radiant rises in the late evening and is only really high enough in the sky for reasonable rates to be seen after midnight. As a result, the best rates are usually observed in the hours before dawn.
This works well this year, as the Moon will be in its waxing gibbous phase, setting some time after midnight and leaving the sky dark, allowing us to watch for pieces of the most famous comet of them all.
Active: December 4-17
Maximum: December 14, 12:30pm UT = Australia: December 14, 8pm AWST (WA) = 10:30pm (QLD) = 11:30pm AEST (NSW/ACT/Vic/Tas) = United States: December 14, 7:30am (EST) = 5:30am (PST) = 2:30am (Hawaii)
As the year comes to a close, we reach the most reliable and spectacular of the annual meteor showers – the Geminids. Unlike the Perseids and the Lyrids, which have graced our skies for thousands of years, the Geminids are a relatively new phenomenon.
They were first observed just 150 years ago, and through the first part of the 20th century were a relatively minor shower. But since then rates have improved decade-on-decade, to the point where they are now the best of the annual showers, bar none.
The reason for their rapid evolution is that their orbit (and that of their parent body, the asteroid Phaethon) is shifting rapidly over time, precessing around the Sun (wobbling like a slow spinning top). As it does so, the centre of Phaethon’s orbit, and the centre of the Geminid stream, are moving ever closer to Earth.
For northern locations, the radiant rises shortly after sunset, and good rates can be seen from mid-evening onwards. For observers in the southern hemisphere, the radiant rises later, so good rates are delayed until later at night (as detailed in our 2015 report on the shower).
Although the time of maximum this year seems to favour observers in the Americas and Australia, peak rates from the Geminids usually last around 24 hours, and so good rates should be visible around the globe.
This year the maximum falls a day before the Moon reaches first quarter so the best rates are visible (after midnight, local time) when the Moon will have set and moonlight will not interfere.
Given that rates from the Geminids continue to climb, the estimated ZHR of 120 is likely to be somewhat conservative. Rates in excess of 130, and even as high as 200 per hour, have been seen in recent years.
Geminids are medium-speed meteors and are often bright. The individual meteors also seem to last just that bit longer than other showers, a fact likely related to their parent object’s rocky nature.
Wherever you are on the planet, the Geminids are a fantastic way to bring the year to an end, and we will hopefully be treated to a magnificent display this year.