As an exhausting 2016 crawls to the finish line, let’s look forward to some of the exciting stories that astronomy and space exploration have in store for us in 2017.
Juno’s Sojourn at Jupiter
Among the near-certainties of the next year is that the Juno spacecraft’s visit to Jupiter will make some news, for most of its mission will be carried out in 2017. Juno arrived at the Solar System’s largest planet this past July and almost immediately began sending back astonishing images such as the one below.
Because Jupiter is essentially invulnerable to many of the forces (such as intense solar radiation and bombardment by asteroids and comets) that have shaped the much smaller terrestrial planets, astronomers believe that Juno has the potential to contribute to our understanding of the Solar System as a whole. With a little good fortune, we can expect the release of a stream of fascinating discoveries as Juno executes its 37 orbits of the majestic orb.
Mars Is Always on Our Minds
Will 2017 be the year? Finally, for frickin’ sake, will Mars give us an inkling, a hint, a mysterious sign that life exists or has existed in some form, at some time, in some tucked away nook or cranny somewhere on that big round sponge for our projections, our fantasies, and our most extensive (and expensive) explorations?
The European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter recently arrived to join three NASA orbiters and two rovers at the Red Planet, but it will spend the entire year just getting into the right position to begin its scientific mission in early 2018. In the meantime, the Curiosity rover will be doing its part in the search for signs of life by drilling holes in the mudstone of Gale Crater (below), considered by scientists to be one of the most likely locations on Mars to look for indications of past or present life.
It would be nice to wake up one morning in 2017 and be greeted by news of the discovery of life on Mars, but maybe we’ll just have to be patient and wait for astronauts to travel there to do it the old fashioned way – with picks and shovels and typical human ingenuity.
A Truly Grand Finale for Cassini
Almost two decades have passed since the Cassini-Huygens mission was launched from Cape Canaveral, in 1997. The Huygens probe separated from Cassini and landed on Saturn’s moon Titan on Christmas Day, 2004, but the orbiter’s mission has been extended twice, providing scientists with cutting-edge data ever since – and treating the rest of us to a trove of astonishingly vivid images of the Saturnian system. Alas, even such an extraordinarily successful mission must eventually reach its end.
Cassini began its final phase on November 30 when the spacecraft was commanded to begin a series of 20 daring “ring-grazing orbits” calculated to produce unprecedented views of (and data concerning) Saturn, its moons, and its iconic rings. Early results of this “Grand Finale” have been spectacular, and we can look forward to frequent mind-blowing updates during the months ahead until September 15 when Cassini will make a terminal dive into the clouds of Saturn to meet its demise.
Telescopic Explorations Abound
In addition to investigations of our Solar System, 2017 will, no doubt, feature amazing discoveries in the search for habitable exoplanets and observations of the Universe far beyond the Milky Way galaxy. Three new land- and space-based observatories may produce headlines around the globe:
In South Africa, the MeerKAT Radio Telescope came online this year with only 16 of its 64 dishes in operation. Even so, it was able to identify 1,300 previously unseen galaxies in a sliver of sky where only 70 had been known. Astronomers are virtually salivating to see what MeerKat will reveal when all of the dishes are up and running in 2017.
China flipped the switch on its Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) this past September. Nicknamed the “Eye of Heaven,” the enormous radio telescope has a diameter of 500 meters! It dwarfs in size and sensitivity the famous Arecibo Observatory that was featured in movies such as Contact and the James Bond thriller GoldenEye. FAST will have a wide range of potential uses, including (in its early stages) observations of pulsars, detection of interstellar molecules, and active participation in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Partnering with MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and others, NASA plans to launch its Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) next December. During its projected two-year initial mission, TESS will survey more than 200,000 relatively nearby stars in order to discover thousands of additional exoplanets in the “habitable zones” of their stars. Among its objectives will be to identify exoplanets for further analysis by the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled for launch in 2018.
Surely 2017 will provide a cornucopia of breathtaking images, amazing discoveries, and surprises aplenty upon which to feast. The SpaceRip team looks forward to following developments and continuing to bring our viewers and readers fresh perspectives on space exploration and astronomy. Happy New Year!