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2019: What's ahead in space

Dirk Lorenzen
January 17, 2019

This year, space fans will be treated to two lunar mission, the Apollo 11 anniversary, some lunar and solar eclipses, and brand-new spacecrafts heading for the ISS.

Spanien Perseiden Sternschnuppen
Image: Imago/Westend61

2019 will be the year of the moon. It started with Chinas Chang'e 4 mission that landed on January 3 on the far side of the moon. No spacecraft had ever touched down on the famous "dark side," which isn't actually dark but which is always out of sight from Earth. The Chang'e 4 lander and its rover will study the landing site, measure the composition of the rocks and transmit pictures to ground control. An instrument built by physicists at the Christian Albrechts University in Kiel will look for traces of water in the lunar soil.

A picture of the Moon, taken by space-probe Chang'e-4
Right at the beginning of the year, China put its lander on the MoonImage: picture-alliance/Xinhua News Agency

India aims for the moon, too

In April, India will continue this year's "Moon Festival." That's when Chandrayaan-2, the country's second lunar mission, is set to launch. It consists of an orbiter, a lander and a rover. The flight team wants the lander to touch down on the near side of the moon at high southern latitudes, close to the south pole region. India will gather experience in deep space activities, and the scientists want to study the composition of the moon.

The highlight of this lunar year is the 50th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon on July 21. Exactly half a century ago, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set their feet on the lunar surface. Most space flight experts look back wistfully, as no human being has been on the moon since the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. Twelve men from the US have walked on the moon. Who will the 13th be? It could be a Chinese astronaut in about ten years' time. 

Read more: Of 'white guys on the Moon' and black America

and here: A question about race in space

Total lunar eclipse on January 20/21

There are lots of space flight activities connected to the moon. But the moon itself, our only natural satellite, will be an extraordinary sight in the sky as well: There are two lunar eclipses in 2019. The first one is a total lunar eclipse on January 21. From 4:41 until 5:44 GMT, the moon will be completely eclipsed by the Earth's shadow. About an hour before and one hour after totality, the moon will be partially eclipsed.

A lunar eclipse is always visible from the regions where the moon is above the horizon. In January, observers in most parts of Europe, western Africa, the Americas,  Greenland, the Atlantic and the eastern Pacific Ocean will enjoy the eclipse. Since some sunlight is bent by Earth's atmosphere into the shadow, the eclipsed moon doesn't disappear completely. Instead, it will still be visible in a marvelous reddish color, similar to copper.

On July 16 there will be a partial solar eclipse — 50 years to the day after the liftoff of Apollo 11 from Cape Canaveral towards the moon. This phenomenon will be visible in Africa, most parts of Europe, Asia and Australia, as well as in South America, the southern Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and Antarctica. 

Read more: Longest 'blood moon' of century coincides with chance to see Mars at nearest

Three solar eclipses but only one is total

There will even be three solar eclipses in 2019. The first was a partial one during the night of  January 5 to 6. Observers in the far east of Russia, in north China, in Korea, Japan and the northern Pacific were able to observe this encounter of sun and moon.

A total solar eclipse, as seen in the US state of Oregon in 2017
A total solar eclipseImage: Reuters/Courtesy A. Gemignani/NASA

This highlight in the skies is the only total solar eclipse on July 2. With a zone extending over more than 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) but only about 200 kilometers wide, day will turn into night for 4 minutes and 38 seconds at best. During totality, the brightest stars in the sky light up, and around the black lunar disk, the fine bright structure of the beautiful corona is visible — the sun's atmosphere. The narrow strip of totality extends from the ocean east of New Zealand, across the southern Pacific and makes landfall in Chile and ends in Argentina close to Buenos Aires. The partial phase of this eclipse is visible from all of South America and the southern Pacific. 

Read more: 'Ring of fire' solar eclipse attracts stargazers in Chile and Argentina

Annular eclipse over south India and Singapore

The last eclipse of this year happens on December 26. It is an annular eclipse, meaning a new moon is in front of the sun but it is too small to cover the bright disk completely. Even at mid-eclipse, a narrow annulus of the sun remains visible. The partial phase is visible in most regions of Asia, in the Indian Ocean, in the most eastern part of Africa, in Indonesia, in the northern part of Australia and in the western Pacific. The zone of the annular eclipse is only 100 km wide and stretches from the Persian Gulf, over the southern part of India, Sri Lanka, the Bay of Bengal, Sumatra, Singapore, Borneo and all the way into the Pacific. The annular phase lasts for three and a half minutes. 

Read more: Animals turn blind eye to solar eclipse

Small planet, big performance: Mercury

A very special cosmic phenomenon is going to happen on November 11. The smallest and innermost planet, Mercury, will pass exactly between sun and the Earth. For about five hours, the planet will be visible as a small black spot crossing the bright disk of the sun. 

Read more: BepiColombo spacecraft launch: A long mission to Mercury begins

Planet Mercury passes in front of the Sun
Mercury was last visible in front of the sun in 2016 Image: picture-alliance/dpa/INAF

This event will be visible (at least in part) from Europe, Africa, the Indian Ocean, in the Americas, large areas of the Pacific and Antarctica. However, Mercury is so small that there is no way to watch it with the naked eye, even if the sun's glare is blocked by appropriate filters.

And please do pay attention! It isn't safe to observe the sun with the unprotected eye. You always need special glasses to block out the sun's light. 

Jupiter and Saturn  planets of the year

While 2018 was a fantastic year for Mars, with the red planet getting closer to Earth than during the previous 15 years, our neighbour will be tough to find in 2019. Mars is in the evening sky until April or May, however it's much fainter than it was last year. On September 2, Mars will be right behind the Sun. In late October, it'll reappear in the morning sky.

Jupiter, the gas giant of our solar system, will be a brilliant planet to look at from April to September. June 10 will mark its best visible position. Jupiter can be found in the constellation Ophiuchus.

Saturn, the ring planet, is located in Sagittarius. On July 9, it will in its best position to be observed. Together, Jupiter and Saturn will be the stars of the long winter nights in  the southern hemisphere.

Venus, our inner neighbor in the solar system, starts 2019 as a bright morning star. In June it will disappear. Then, it re-emerges on the evening sky in October.

New US spaceships for the ISS?

2019 could see a shift in paradigm for US space flight activities. SpaceX and Boeing will test their crew capsules for flights to the space station (and back to Earth). SpaceX presented its Crew Dragon almost five years ago. The — still uncrewed — maiden flight is tentatively set for no earlier than February.

CST-100 Starliner
Boeing's CST-100 Starliner, along with SpaceX's Dragon, might bring astronauts to the ISS this year Image: Boeing

If it performs flawlessly, and if another safety test in spring turns out well, it could be that NASA astronauts launch from US territory into space for the first time since the shuttle fleet was retired in 2011. Boeing aims to get its crewed CST-100 spaceship into operation later this year.

X-ray satellite and the hunt for planets: Europe in space

After many years of delay, the Russian satellite Spektr-RG is set to launch into space in late March. One instrument on board is the X-ray telescope EROSITA, provided by the Max Planck Institute for extraterrestrial physics in Garching, near Munich. EROSITA will map the entire sky in X-rays and study the most energetic regions in the universe, i.e. back holes.

In October, the European Space Agency wants to launch its CHEOPS mission. This space telescope will provide unique data about planets orbiting other stars. The ESA team will characterize rocky planets and determine their size and density in order to select candidates for the future search for life in space.

James Webb Space Telescope array during construction
It will take some more time until we get pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope Image: imago/StockTrek Images

Few shooting stars – and no James Webb launch

Stargazers will be disappointed by this year's meteor showers. The three major ones, the Perseids from August 10 to 14, the Leonids from November 14 to 16 and the Geminids from December 11 to 15 are spoiled by the light of a bright moon in the sky. Only the brightest meteors will be visible under these bad viewing conditions.

The biggest disappointment, however, is the shift in the launch date of the James Webb space telescope, which is a sort of successor to the the Hubble Space Telescope that NASA and ESA want to put into space well beyond the moon. That launch was delayed by another two years to 2021. 

Read more: NASA finds more Earth-sized planets that could support life