What′s in store for space and sky in 2014 | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 30.12.2013
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What's in store for space and sky in 2014

Amateur astronomers and space enthusiasts around the world will have plenty to look forward to in the year to come - including comet research, special Mars viewing and two full lunar eclipses.

Melas Chasma in the huge Valles Marineris rift valley on Mars (Photo: ESA/DLR)

The topography of Mars will be researched in the coming year

The coming year will start with a bang for the European Space Agency's comet-chasing satellite Rosetta: The craft will awaken from almost three years of deep-space hibernation.

Launched in 2004, the craft has circled the sun five times on its journey. It eventually traveled so far from the energy source that its could no longer charge up its solar cells, and had to be put into hibernation to preserve energy.

But on January 20, an alarm will wake up the craft and it will prepare for arrival to its final destination: comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. After its system is booted and it points its antennae back at Earth, European Space Agency (ESA) controllers in the German city of Darmstadt will again establish contact.

Rosetta should reach the comet around the middle of summer, and be able to research it up close for about a year. In November, a special landing capsule will be sent to the comet's core to examine materials dating from the beginning of the solar system, about 4.5 billion years ago. It's hoped this will provide clues to the origin of life on Earth.

Depiction of Rosetta’s Philae lander on comet nucleus (ESA / AOES Medialab)

The Rosetta probe is to send a special robotic capsule to the comet's core

Earth to Mars

Two probes will reach Mars in September. NASA's craft MAVEN, or Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, will examine our neighboring planet's atmosphere.

The second probe - called Mangalyaan - represents India's first planetary mission, and is intended to allow the aspiring space power to test technology and gather experience in researching planets. Mangalyaan will photograph and map the red planet's surface once it reaches its orbit.

German astronaut at ISS

Alexander Gerst (Photo: Federico Gambarini dpa/lnw)

Gerst is in final preparations for his long journey

2014 will be a special year for manned space travel for Germany: Astronaut Alexander Gerst will travel to the International Space Station (ISS) in May to begin a six-month sojourn. It's been six years since a German has stayed so long at the ISS.

Previous German ISS resident Thomas Reiter now directs the ESA's Human Spaceflight and Operations program.

China's space missions

China gained an advantage in the new space race with its successful moon landing earlier this month. The Chang'e 3 craft, named after the Chinese moon goddess, is supposed to take measurements for a year, as well as observe space through its own small telescope.

Chang'e 3's moon rover Yutu - or "Jade Rabbit" - will be active until April 2014, mapping the area around the landing.

Jade Rabbit on the surface of the moon after separating from the ChangE-3 lander on its lunar probe mission

Jade Rabbit's deployment helped China sprint ahead in the second space race

It's not clear what else China has up its space sleeve in the new year - although it is expected to send people to its Tiangong-1 space station. The country is somewhat isolated in its space missions, since the United States has continued to block the Asian nation from working with the ISS. But China will be participating in an international meeting on space mapping, to be held this January in Washington.

Lighting up

Looking skyward from Earth will also yield plenty to see in the year to come. Our neighboring planet on the sun side - Venus, also known as the morning star - will reach its furthest point west from the sun, or greatest elongation, in the last week of March. This means it will rise especially early, more than two hours before the sun.

And at the beginning of April, Mars will glow brighter than it has in years, when it reaches its furthest position from the sun - or opposition - in the night sky.

In late summer, the brightest planets in the night sky will converge: Venus and Jupiter will be so close together on August 18 that they should appear as a single orb to the naked eye.

Darkening down

2014 holds two total lunar eclipses, and two partial solar eclipses. The first lunar eclipse - visible over east Australia, the Pacific, and North and South America - will take place April 15.

Total lunar eclipse in Zagreb, Croatia (Photo: Goran Jakus/PIXSELL)

The last total lunar eclipse in Europe was in 2011

The moon will again pass into the Earth's shadow, causing a lunar eclipse, on October 8. People in Australia, the Pacific and North America will have the opportunity to again experience a total lunar eclipse - and this time, it will also be visible in eastern Asia.

On April 29, the moon will pass between Earth and the sun, creating a partial solar eclipse, visible in Antarctica and Australia. The day will be darkened in North America and far eastern Russia during a second partial solar eclipse, which will occur October 23.

Solar and lunar eclipse cycles have nothing in store for Europe this year - but just wait until 2015. The old country will see be dimmed yet.

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