2018: Highlights in Space | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 29.12.2017
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Science

2018: Highlights in Space

Next year will bring three bright planets, two total lunar eclipses, a new powerful rocket, Alexander Gerst's second term in the ISS, a Mars mission and the launch of Europe's spacecraft to Mercury.

Space flight activities will be crucial in 2018. SpaceX, in particular — the company that provides cargo transport to and from the international space station on behalf of NASA — is under considerable pressure.

There are ambitious goals on the agenda. As early as late January, we could see the maiden flight of its new powerful rocket, Falcon 9 Heavy. If successful, it will lift about 50 metric tons into the Earth's orbit — making it the most powerful rocket since the legendary Saturn V Moon rocket.

Year of truth for SpaceX

The Falcon 9 Heavy consists of three regular Falcon 9 rockets strapped together. That sounds simple, but the devil is in the detail. It turned out that building this rocket is far from easy, admits even Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and usually by no means shy about his various projects.

There is a lot that can go wrong during a launch. As a result, the payload of the maiden flight is not a satellite, but a car that is supposed to enter an orbit around the sun. This PR stunt — and it's really just environmental pollution in space — cannot cover up that SpaceX is in a decisive phase this year.

The first flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy — the record that is supposed to put the company in a leading position in terms of space transportation — has been postponed almost as often as the inauguration of the notorious Berlin airport.

Read more: Orbiting lunar base: German astronaut Reiter on Deep Space Gateway

SpaceX huge Rocked, docked as a space station. (picture-alliance/dpa/Press Association Images/Spacex)

Not quite ready, yet. From 2024 Elon Musk wants to send people into space aboard this huge rocket.

Will astronauts go to space from US soil again?

SpaceX also needs to perform in its manned spaceflight activities. The Dragon capsule is the routine spacecraft to deliver cargo only to and from the ISS. The manned version was revealed four years ago, but it has never gone into space.

Elon Musk and SpaceX like to present ambitious plans for trips with humans throughout the solar system and aim to make humankind a multi-planetary species. But up until now, the company has not even succeeded in bringing astronauts into low Earth orbit.

SpaxeX hopes to have a first unmanned test flight of its new capsule to the space station in April. If all goes well, there is a slight chance of having the first US astronauts get to the ISS by means of a Dragon capsule by the end of the year. The United States has not had independent access to space for their astronauts since the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011.

A first on the space station: A German commander

Scheduled for late April or early May, the German astronaut Alexander Gerst will return to the ISS , taking the classic tour with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to be launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome. Having made his first trip in 2014, Gerst will be serving his second term in orbit.

Astronaut Alexander Gerst attaches the Horizons mission patch to his suit. (REUTERS/W. Rattay)

Horizons - that's the name of 'Astro-Alex's' next mission.

For about half a year he will live and work in the modules that circulate Earth at an altitude of 400 kilometers (248.5 miles). During the final three months, Gerst will be the commander of the space station — a first for Germany.

The commander doesn't take care just of the scientific experiments, but of the entire crew, and helps rookies to become adjusted to space. However, in case of an emergency, the commander has the last say, deciding whether to evacuate the station or not, for example.

Read more5 things Alexander Gerst will have to do as International Space Station commander

Mars - planet of the year

Gerst and his fellow astronauts orbiting around the world can only dream of flights to Mars. But Earth's red neighbor in space is set to give a great show this year. It will approach our planet to within about 57.6 million kilometers, the shortest distance for 15 years. In some years, Mars is located more than 100 million kilometers from Earth.

From June to September, Mars will be a splendid red dot in the sky. NASA is taking advantage of this close encounter and will launch its "Insight" mission. The spacecraft is scheduled to land on the dusty surface in late November and will explore Mars' interior for several years.

Jupiter and Saturn are in the sky as well

As early as May 9, Jupiter will be in its best position for the year. The bright spot in the constellation Libra, the balance or scale, can't be missed. The gas giant will be visible all night in April and May. In September it will disappear from the evening sky.

Saturn, the planet with the famous rings, will be brightest in late June. It will be a special gem in the sky in the long winter nights of the southern hemisphere. From May to September, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars will be an impressive chain of planetary lights in the evening sky, visible from all over the world.

Venus, our inner neighbor planet, will be an evening star from mid-February until the end of September. Then it switches back to the morning sky and will emerge before dawn after mid-November.

Mission to Mercury: The spacecraft in the pizza oven

In October, finally, a mission might take off that seemed to develop into a never-ending story: BepiColombo, Europe's mission to Mercury, is scheduled to be launched from the spaceport in French Guyana, 18 years after the mission was given the go-ahead.

However, getting to Mercury is a tough task. The innermost planet of the solar system is a hot story. BepiColombo will experience outside temperatures of more than 400 degrees Celsius. A high-tech isolation blanket up to 6 centimeters thick will protect the instruments onboard the spacecraft and keep them at room temperature of about 20 degrees Celsius.

The engineers like to speak of BepiColombo as the flying fridge in the pizza oven. However, the trip will take some years. The spacecraft will not reach its destination before 2026.

Two total lunar eclipses

In 2018 the moon will enter the Earth's umbral shadow two times. On January 31 it will be fully eclipsed from 12:51 p.m. until 02:08 p.m. UTC. The partial phase begins at 11:48 a.m.  and ends at 03:12 p.m.

This eclipse will be visible from the Pacific Ocean, the north-western parts of North America, New Zealand, Australia, East Asia, India and most of Russia. Even when completely eclipsed, the full moon won't be invisible. As some sunlight will be bent by the Earth's atmosphere, the eclipsed Moon will shine in a pale copper red.

On July 27, 2018, the moon will be completely eclipsed from 07:30 p.m. to 09:14 p.m. UTC. The partial phase lasts from 06:24 p.m. until 10:19 p.m. This eclipse will be visible in Europe, in western Asia, in Africa, the Indian Ocean and Antarctica.

What a great cosmic coincidence: The fully eclipsed and reddish-colored moon will be next to the bright red Mars in the sky. This special encounter will arguably be the most beautiful celestial highlight of the year.

A lunar eclipse over Germany in 2015 (Getty Images/AFP/P. Stollarz)

It will be even more beautiful than this picture from 2015: There will be a shiny red Mars visible next to the moon.

No total solar eclipses

On the other hand, solar eclipses will be pretty disappointing this year. All three eclipses are partial. During the first one, on February, 15, about 60 percent of the sun's diameter will be covered by the moon. The maximum will occur at 08.51 p.m. UTC. This partial eclipse will be visible in Antarctica and the southern part of South America only.

The second solar eclipse will happen on July 13 at 03:01 a.m. UTC. Just 22 percent of the sun will be eclipsed. There are hardly any humans who will get to see this eclipse, as it will occur over the ocean between Australia and Antarctica. Australian eclipse-chasers in Tasmania or in the southernmost part of the state of Victoria might see a tiny bit of this eclipse.

On August, 11, the best partial solar eclipse of the year will be visible from Russia, China, northern Europe and Greenland. Maximum will occur at 09:46 a.m.UTC. The moon will cover about three-quarters of the sun.

Many shooting stars in a dark sky

2018 will be another great year in terms of meteor showers. The Perseids from the constellation Perseus will be visible from August 10 to 14. With no moon in the sky during these nights, no bright light will spoil the cosmic performance. The shooting stars are visible from the northern hemisphere and the tropics from about two hours after sunset until dawn. There might be as many as 100 meteors per hour, among them many bright ones.

The Geminids, coming from the constellation Gemini, the twins, will light up from December 11 to 15. The crescent of the moon will be in the sky until midnight, but the meteors will be visible all night long. Before dawn, there will be about 120 shooting stars per hour. Be prepared with all the wishes you have ...

Astronomers might choose to wish for a flawless launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor of Hubble, the living legend in space. James Webb was supposed to be launched this year, but now its trip into space is scheduled for spring 2019.

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