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Science

What's happening in space in 2017: Shed a tear for poor Cassini

Venus at its most brilliant, a partial lunar eclipse, a spectacular US solar eclipse and, in September, the grand finale of the Cassini mission to Saturn. The year 2017 will be one of mixed emotions for space fans.

Next year will be very much about Saturn. Early in the year, the Cassini spacecraft will come very close to the planet's rings, transmitting unprecedented views of the breathtaking system.

However, on September 15, the joy will turn into sadness. At 1207 UTC the spacecraft will plunge into the planet and burn up in its thick atmosphere. This is going to be the end of one of the most successful space missions ever. The Cassini spacecraft, a US-European mission, was launched in 1997.

In 2004 Cassini entered Saturn's orbit. It has radioed a plethora of scientific data and beautiful pictures back to Earth. In September, Cassini will have spent more than 13 years in Saturn's orbit - much longer than previously anticipated.

Death of last 'dinosaur'

The first concepts of the Cassini mission were drawn in the 1970s. Back then NASA has planned multi-billion-dollar missions with sophisticated instrumentation and ambitious scientific goals. Cassini belongs to this class, as well as the Voyager spacecrafts exploring the outer planets, and Galileo, an earlier Cassini-type mission. Cassini's probe is still working perfectly, with only very few technical issues during the mission.

The camera will take unique pictures showing the wonders of the rings in exquisite detail. Other instruments collect particles and icy dust grains and analyze them on board.

Getting so close to the rings, is always a bit risky. But the flight team is optimistic that Cassini is not going to be hit by larger particles. In mid-September, Cassini's signal will disappear. The moment the contact is lost for ever will be very emotional for the scientists.

Enceladus Saturn moon

Scientists want to be sure that Cassini doesn't lose power and hit a moon like Enceladus, where it could do harm

Cosmic environmental protection

There is hardly any fuel left to navigate the spacecraft properly. That's why NASA has chosen to send the spacecraft into Saturn. The spacecraft would get out of control in the near future, facing the risk to hit one of Saturn's moons accidentally. That's the worst case scenario. The largest moon of Saturn, Titan, surpassing even the planet Mercury, is an amazing place with a thick atmosphere, resembling Earth's atmosphere three billion years ago.

Enceladus, a moon about 500 kilometres in diameter, has a deep water ocean beneath its icy surface, as Cassini's data suggest. This water may harbour primitive forms of life. The scientists have to avoid that Cassini crashes on the surface of those moons and spoils them with germs from Earth that might have survived the cosmic trip inside the spacecraft.

To protect the most exciting moons of Saturn, Cassini has to be destroyed on purpose.

New US space ship

In manned space flight the ISS will continue to be operated routinely by a crew of six. The next German astronaut in orbit will be Alexander Gerst, who will be on his second term in space in 2018. However, things are going change in the last quarter of 2017.

SpaceX, the private company providing cargo transport to and from the station under a multi-billion US-dollar NASA contract, will test its new passenger-friendly Dragon capsule. In an unmanned flight, the spacecraft will demonstrate its ability to dock to the station and return safely to Earth.

USA SpaceX Falcon Heavy (picture alliance/ZUMA Press/SpaceX)

The Heavy Falcon is a stepping stone in SpaceX's plan to send humans to Mars

In the event that the new vehicle performs as hoped, the launch of manned space ships from Cape Canaveral could resume as soon as 2018. The last flight of astronauts directly from the US to the International Space Station was in 2011, when NASA retired its space shuttle fleet. Since then, all astronauts fly via the Russian space port Baikonur to orbit.

Maiden flight of the Mars rocket

There is another milestone for SpaceX.  The maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy, a new powerful rocket, is expected before the middle of the year. It's something that's needed for the company's ambitious goals like flights to Mars etc.

SpaceX has had to cope with several set backs over the past years. It will be crucial to succeed with the improved Dragon capsule as well as with the Falcon Heavy.

Of course, all experts are eagerly awaiting what the focus in space for the new US government will be. When Barack Obama took office in 2009, he forced NASA to a fundamental change in its space policy, stopping almost all the major programs of his predecessor.

Milchstraße und Venus (imago/Leemage/L. Perrot )

Venus will be shining bright and clearly visible with the naked eye

Venus, Jupiter and Saturn in the sky

Backyard astronomers are looking forward to a great year of Venus. The "evening star" will be a splendid sight in the sky in January and February. In March Venus will pass between Earth and Sun and switch to the morning sky. Venus will be a bright pre-dawn object from April to November. Mars will only be seen faintly in 2017, as it is behind the Sun as seen from Earth. It will be invisible for some months and return to the morning sky in October. Jupiter, the biggest of all planets, is right now a brilliant object after midnight. It will be visible all night in March, April and May.

Saturn is very low in the sky for observers from the northern hemisphere. For people in Australia or the southern parts of Africa and America it is high up. Saturn will be brightest in mid-June, but it will be a nice object in the heavens from May to August. Looking up at Saturn - remember Cassini. It will be still orbiting the planet during the northern hemisphere's summer.

Bright meteors in 2017

It will also be a great year in terms of meteor showers. The Perseids will be visible from August 10th to 14th. The Leonids will show up from November 16th to 19th, and the Geminids will be a wonderful sight from December 11th to 14th. The bright Moon light will affect slightly the Perseids in August. But unlike 2016, the Leonids and Geminids will be visible on a completely dark sky with no Moon light at all. Observers in areas with no artificial light pollution may easily catch more than 30 meteors per hour. Make sure you have a long list of wishes to hand.

The Great American Eclipse

All eclipse chasers are looking forward to the "Great American Eclipse" on August, 21. In a narrow strip thousands of kilometres long but only about 100 kilometres wide, the Sun will be totally eclipsed by the Moon. For at most 2 minutes and 40 seconds day will turn into night.

Sun eclipse

The real beauty of a total eclipse, with the Sun's corona actually visible

During totality the brightest stars and planets are visible, as well as the beautiful corona, the Sun's "atmosphere." A total solar eclipse is really a mind-blowing experience. The partial phase of this eclipse is visible in all North and Central America, but the zone of totality will pass only from Oregon via Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee to South Carolina.

On February, 26, there is an annular eclipse of the Sun visible in South America and parts of Africa. The Moon is right in front of the Sun but too small to cover it entirely. Even at maximum eclipse, there is a "ring of fire” in the sky. That's nice but completely different from a total solar eclipse.

More to come in 2018!

Once again, the lunar eclipses are pretty disappointing this year. There is only a partial eclipse on August, 7. At Its maximum at 1821 UTC, a quarter of the Moon will be in the shadow of the Earth. This event is visible from Australia and most parts of Asia, Africa and Europe.

Don't be too disappointed: 2018 will be a great eclipse year with two total lunar eclipses in January and July.

Tthere are quite a number of exciting space flight projects in 2018 as well, notably the launch of the successor of the legendary Hubble telescope. Space enthusiasts have to endure this relatively low-profile year first. But there is always something to discover. Keep looking up!

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