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A look ahead - into the sky

Dirk LorenzenDecember 30, 2015

Mercury will pass right in front of the sun. Two spacecraft will reach their planets. Hobby astronomers will be rewarded with a total and a partial solar eclipse. Only the moon will disappoint in 2016...

Image: NASA/ESA/ Hubble Heritage Team

The new year is dedicated to Mars and Jupiter. On July 4th, NASA-spaceship Juno will reach Jupiter and enter into an orbit around the planet. For one year, the spacecraft is scheduled to investigate its atmosphere, magnetic field and the topography of the giant planet.

Juno is considered a "green" spacecraft. Never before has a spacecraft so far away from the sun, relying on solar power alone. All previous missions to outlying planets were so far equipped with nuclear-powered batteries.

What is the best place for the next mission?

For March, the European Space Agency ESA is planning the launch of the Exomars Trace Gas Orbiter. The spacecraft is expected to reach the red planet in October.

There are a number of spacecraft already orbiting Mars, and two landing robots are currently operating on the ground. But Mars is no easy field for the researchers. It is still not clear, if conditions there would theoretically allow life on that planet or if there even may be simple forms of life somewhere hidden inside the soil of the Mars.

USA Raumfahrt Juno reist zum Jupiter
Juno has been travelling since 2011 - it will reach Jupiter in July 2016Image: picture alliance / dpa/NASA

That's why the new ESA spacecraft is going to analyse the trace gasses in the atmosphere. Specifically, the researchers are looking for methane, which could indicate some biological activity. When reaching the planet, the Exomars Trace Gas Orbiter will release a small capsule, which is a test run for later landing maneuvers. In the second part of the Exomars mission, a rover laboratory is supposed to land there in 2018 and look for possible life in the sand.

A spectacular end to the Rosetta mission

Also the ESA Rosetta mission was dealing with the origins of life in our solar system. Since August 2014, the spacecraft has been orbiting the comet 67p/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In November 2014, it released its lander Philae onto the rock with a diameter of about four kilometers.

Now, in summer 2016 the Rosetta mission is likely to come to an end - with a spectacular maneuver. Following the example of Philae, Rosetta is supposed to land - even though the spacecraft was not designed for that. During the landing, Rosetta will send more data back to earth. Once the spacecraft has crash landed, it will probably cease to work. But the data the scientists have gotten and will yet get will keep them busy for years and even decades to come.

Mercury gives us a mini eclipse

The astronomical highlight of 2016 will be the passing of Mercury in front of the solar disk. On May 9th, the smallest planet will travel right between Earth and the sun. For more than seven hours, it will slowly move over the sun and will be visible to some of us. This will be the case in most parts of the world with the exception of East Asia, Australia and New Zeeland. The best place to observe it is northern and western Europe, Greenland and parts of North and South America.

Unfortunately, Mercury is so small that it is impossible to see it with the naked eye - even when using the obligatory eye safety protection. With binoculars or a telescope, it should be possible to make the transit of Mercury visible, however.

Sonnenfinsternis 2015 Deutschland
There will be two solar eclipses in 2016 - don't forget your special protective shades!Image: AFP/Getty Images/S. Loos

Beware of the sunlight!

Never, ever look directly into the sun! The worst eye damage and even complete blindness could be the result! If you are not familiar with solar-observation please ask for advice at a local astronomers club or a community planetary observatory.

Even better: Attend one of the many public events, which professionals are going to organize in many countries all over the world. The passing of planets like Mercury in front of the solar disc is a rather rare event. The next mini solar eclipse will be in 2029.

A total and a ring-shaped solar eclipse

On March 9, there will be a "real" solar eclipse, in which the moon will cover all of the sun. It will be visible in a 150 kilometer wide stripe, reaching all the way from Indonesia through large parts of the Pacific. For four minutes, the moon will cover the sun completely and turn day into night.

In Japan, China, southeastern Asia, large parts of Australia and in Hawaii and Alaska, this will be visible as a partial eclipse. Since it passes the dayline, the eclipse will be visible in Hawaii and Alaska already on the evening of March 8th.

On September 1, the moon will again move itself in front of the sun. But it will be when it is at the farthest reaches of its orbit. That means the lunar disc is too small to cover all of the sun. The event will thus appear as a ring-shaped eclipse and it will last for about three minutes.

Mondfinsternis: Animation auf der Basis einer Finsternis 2014 in China
There won't be anything like this in 2016Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Enthusiasts can watch the event within a 100-kilometer wide stripe that reaches from the Atlantic equator through central Africa to the northern end of Madagascar. As a partial eclipse, it will be visible all over Africa and in the westernmost areas of Australia.

Disappointing Moon

There will not be a real Lunar eclipse in 2016. Only three times does the moon touch the half shade of planet earth. It will still be completely visible, then, but the edges will appear darker. Most likely, only experts will notice. But at least in 2017 there will be a partial lunar eclipse. And one year after that, all hobby astronomers will be compensated by two total lunar eclipses. For 2016, take solace with the other celestial events!

And the saving grace - we will get a leap year with 366 nights!