For space fans, 2015 is going to be hard to beat. From New Horizons at Pluto, Dawn at Ceres and some stunning total solar and lunar eclipses to discovering water on Mars, the unveiling of an Earth 2.0 and landing a reusable orbital rocket, it was a busy 12 months in space exploration and stargazing.
How can 2016 top that? From a NASA mission to the Giant Planet, a dazzling planetary conjunction and a January comet to eclipses, meteor showers and an asteroid mission, there’s plenty of stuff going on in space in 2016.
January 1-18 – A New Year Comet
Your New Year’s resolution? Find a comet. Those with binoculars or a telescope in their Christmas stockings should plan an early morning to catch C/2013 US10, aka Comet Catalina. Now moving away from the Sun and towards Earth (and higher in the sky), Catalina – a bright tadpole-like object in binoculars – should be visible if you’re up and out in the pre-dawn hours.
Any time from New Year’s Day (when it’s beside bright star Arcturus) until about 18 January 2016 (when its near Mizar in the Plough/Big Dipper) should be fine.
March 9 – Total Solar Eclipse
One of the most visually and emotionally spectacular natural events it’s possible to witness, a total eclipse of the Sun will be visible from Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi and the Moluccas for a few minutes on March 9. As the Moon and Sun line up, the last visible rays of sunshine race through the valleys of the moon, causing beads of red light on one side and an eery light to fall on those standing under the growing shadow.
That’s followed by the elusive ‘diamond ring’ flash, then darkness and a once-in-a-lifetime look at the Sun’s corona, which appears as white whisps and strands pulsing for a precious few minutes. As the Moon moves away, those same beads of light appear on the opposite side until another diamond ring heralds the return of the emerging Sun.
May 9 – Transit of Mercury
The apparent transit of a planet across the sun is a rare event indeed; as the third planet from the sun we only get to see Venus and Mercury pass across the Sun’s disc. Unlike the transits of Venus in 2004 and 2012, which won’t happen again in any of our lifetimes, there are around 13 transits of Mercury every 100 years.
This is the first since 2006. This seven and a half hour event begins at 11:12 UT on 9 May 2016 when the small black disc of Mercury will travel across the Sun, though it should only be viewed using special equipment – specifically a telescope with 50x to 100x magnification, and a full-aperture solar filter.
May – Tim Peake returns from the ISS
The UK doesn’t send many astronauts to space, so the return of Tim Peake from the International Space Station during May 2016 is sure to be an excuse for some national back-slapping. Now on Expedition 46/47 on his Principia mission for over 171 days, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Peake will climb into a Soyuz capsule during May, make a de-orbit burn, and plunge through the Earth’s atmosphere.
A couple of parachutes and six thruster burns later and Peake will be back … in a wheelchair, in Kazakhstan (he won’t have enough bone mass to walk safely for a few days).
July 4 – Juno’s Jovian Journey
The undisputed king of the planets in the solar system will come into focus in on July 4 – Independence Day in the US – when NASA’s Juno probe arrives at Jupiter after a five year journey. The Jovian system will get the scientific treatment, with Juno measuring its atmosphere, magnetosphere, and (for the first time) its interior. From its elliptical, polar orbit, Juno will get just 3,000 miles from the planet’s clouds at its closest.
August 12 & 13 – The Jupiter Effect
Ah, pretty comet dust! Every August the Earth busts into debris and dust left by Comet Swift-Tuttle, which shot through the solar system back in 1992 (and won’t return until 2126). The result is the year’s biggest meteor shower, nicknamed the Perseids because the shooting stars and fireballs appear to originate from the constellation of Perseus. The display should be unusually strong in 2016 because Jupiter’s gravitational field has pushed the comet dust closer to Earth’s path. Patience is everything, as are dark-adapted eyes (no looking at your phone).
August 27 – A celestial near-miss
Since Venus is always close to the Sun it’s very often a bright object just before dawn and just after dusk. It’s almost always the chief reason for UFO sightings, but believers in aliens and ‘end of days’ proclaimers will get especially agitated by a line-of-sight illusion in August when Venus and Jupiter – by far the two brightest planets to us on Earth – will appear to be just four arc minutes apart in the night sky. That’s as close as many of us will ever witness, though if you can hang on until 2065 you’ll get to see Venus more across, and block, Jupiter.
September 1 – Ring of Fire
Although total darkness won’t occur as with March’s total solar eclipse in Indonesia, 2016’s three minute annular solar eclipse will be an awesome spectacle. It happens when the Moon’s orbital path takes it furthest from the Earth (so the opposite of a Super Moon), so the Sun appears slightly bigger in the sky. The result is a Ring of Fire, though you will need to find a pair of eclipse glasses since at no time are the Sun’s rays blotted out by more than 94%. The key locations are in Tanzania’s remote Katavi National Park at 08:30am, and in Ankarafantsika National Park in Madagascar at 10:30am.
September 3 – NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Mission launches
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, due to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida on an Atlas V on 3 September 2016, will send a probe to the potentially Earth-bound 493m-wide RQ36 asteroid, also called Bennu, which could strike Earth sometime after 2169 (‘impact mitigation’ discussions will follow). The sample of carbon-rich Bennu that will return to Earth in a capsule during 2021 could give clues to the origins of the solar system.
October 16 & December 14 – Two Super Full
The term ‘Super Moon’ is overused and largely meaningless, referring only to a time when the Moon is a tiny bit closer to Earth, so a little bigger in the sky. Although it’s unnoticeable once it’s risen high, a Super Moon does seem confusingly bigger than usual when it hangs over the horizon at Moon-rise and Moon-set in its brief Full phase.
On both October 16 & December 14 2016, a Full Moon will rise as the Sun sets, glowing a gorgeous orange for about 15 minutes – as it does every single month, but it will be bigger than usual. Get outside at sunset and look to the east for an eyeful of Moon … and get your telephoto lenses at the ready (go for a 400mm or more).