2011 will be a year of exciting and historic upcoming events in space exploration. It is is also a significant anniversary year of some triumphs and tragedies in space history. Here’s a look at what lies in store.
This year marks four centuries since sunspots were first observed telescopically by Galileo Galilei (actually astronomers Johannes and David Fabricius beat him to the post by a few months but their discovery is usually overlooked). The most significant spaceflight event of 2011 will be the end of the NASA Space Shuttle programme and the surviving vehicles’ retirement. The historical importance of this project and its lasting impact on human spaceflight will be debated for decades to come.
28 January: On this date in 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, all seven crew members perished. Their names were Francis (Dick) Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe. Suddenly the Shuttle programme lost its innocence and early promise.
31 January: On this date in 1971, the Apollo 14 mission was launched. This was the first Moon mission since the near-disastrous failure of Apollo 13. Astronauts Alan Shepard (see also 5 May) and Edgar Mitchell successfully landed Lunar Module (LM) Antares at Fra Mauro while Stuart Roosa watched over the Command Module (CSM) Kitty Hawk.
14 February: The Stardust (NExT) spacecraft will perform a flyby of the nucleus of comet Tempel 1. One objective of this manoeuvre will be observation of the crater caused by a projectile launched by the Deep Impact spacecraft in 2005.
24 February: It is intended to launch Discovery to the ISS on this date on the penultimate Shuttle mission. Nagging technical problems with the vehicle’s External tank may yet delay this further. A further complication is that the mission’s commander Mark Kelley is the husband of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (a strong supporter of NASA), severely injured in a murderous rampage on 8 January 2011.
14 March: This is the 25th anniversary of ESA’s Giotto probe’s close encounter with comet Halley in 1986. Despite collisions with some small particles emitted by the comet, the probe survived and returned important scientific data on the comet.
18 March: Mercury will gain its first artificial satellite today when NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft arrives in orbit around the planet after a journey of almost seven years. Also today, the New Horizons probe en route to Pluto will cross the orbit of Uranus, after a five-year journey.
10 April: Five years ago today a new, young and fresh-faced Science Communicator started work at Armagh Planetarium. Whatever happened to that crazy kid?
12 April: This is the fiftieth anniversary of Mankind becoming a spacefaring species. On April 12 1961, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, a cosmonaut from the Soviet Union, was carried into Earth orbit on board Vostok 1. The young and handsome Gagarin deservedly became a hero world-wide for this exploit. Probably there will come a time when the twentieth century is remembered only for this landmark date.
12 April 1981: Thirty years ago today, Columbia made the first flight of the Space Shuttle project. The crew for the two day long mission was John Young (who walked on the Moon ten years earlier, see 26 July) and Robert Crippen. At the time this was seen as the beginning of an era of cheap and regular flights to orbit, sadly this time still lies in our future.
19 April: Endeavour is to fly STS-134, which is now intended as the final Space Shuttle mission this month. On this date in 1971, Salyut 1 the first space station, was launched into Earth orbit. Weighing 18.4 tonnes, Salyut 1 featured a telescope and spectroscope for astronomical observations.
May: This month Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, and Mars are all visible within a roughly 6° area of sky.
5 May 1961: Fifty years ago today Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Launched by a Redstone rocket, Shepard’s Mercury spacecraft Freedom 7 made a suborbital flight lasting less than 16 minutes. Compared to Gagarin’s two hour orbital mission, to many this flight looked like a desperate attempt to catch up.
25 May: Fifty years ago, President Kennedy announced his goal to initiate a project to put a “man on the moon” before the end of the decade. It seemed impossible at the time, but was triumphantly achieved in July 1969.
June: It is claimed that China will launch a small (8.5 tonne) space station called Tiangong 1 this month. If this goes ahead, it will demonstrate the Chinese space programme’s increasing competence and confidence.
1 June: Partial solar eclipse in the Arctic.
6 June: On this day in 1971 Soyuz 11 cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, Vladislav Volkov travelled to Salyut 1 becoming the first ever space station crew. The trio carried out medical experiments and astronomical observations while adapting to life in space.
15 June: Total lunar eclipse, mainly visible in Africa, India, and the Middle East.
28 June: Exactly a century ago the Nakhla meteorite (from Mars) fell near Alexandria, Egypt, killing a dog.
29 June: On this day in 1971, the crew of Soyuz 11 undocked from Salyut 1 to return home. Tragically, the crew perished during re-entry when a valve failure allowed their craft’s atmosphere to escape (to save space in the cramped capsule the crew were not wearing spacesuits).
July: The Dawn spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the asteroid 4 Vesta this month. The probe will orbit Vesta for a year then depart for the dwarf planet Ceres.
1 July: Partial solar eclipse off the coast of Antarctica.
10 July: Neptune completes its first full orbit since its discovery in 1846.
26 July: Forty years ago today, Apollo 15 set off for the Moon. This was the first J-series Apollo mission utilising improved equipment, mainly an upgraded Saturn 5 launch vehicle and a souped-up Lunar Module, permitting transport of the famous Lunar Rover Vehicle, to increase the scientific returns of the exploration. In a very successful mission astronauts David Scott and James Irwin spent 18 hours outside the LM Falcon studying the mountainous landscape of Hadley Rille (Alfred Worden remained in the CSM Endeavour).
August: This month, NASA’s Juno probe will be launched towards Jupiter (it will get there in 2016). Its mission is to study Jupiter’s composition, gravitational field, magnetic field, and polar magnetosphere from a Jovian polar orbit.
6 August: On this day in 1961 Vostok 2 was launched carrying cosmonaut Gherman Stepanovich Titov into orbit for a full day to study the effects of a prolonged period of weightlessness on the human body. In that time he became the first human to sleep in space and the first person to suffer from space sickness! Titov was only 25 at the time and is still the youngest person to make a spaceflight.
24 August: This date marks the fifth anniversary of Pluto’s demotion from planet to dwarf planet.
26 August: Thirty years ago Voyager 2 made its historic flyby of Saturn.
19 September: On this date in 1961, Betty and Barney Hill observed a bright light (almost certainly Jupiter) under the Moon as they drove along a New Hampshire country road. Later they claimed that the light actually revealed itself to be an alien spaceship. Its crew of small grey-skinned humanoids abducted the Hills and performed bizarre experiments on them before releasing them (according to the couple). Much of subsequent UFO mythology is derived from this unlikely story.
29 October: This is the 20th anniversary of the Galileo Jupiter probe’s flyby of asteroid 951 Gaspra. This was our first close-up view of a minor planet.
25 November: Partial solar eclipse over Antarctica. Also this is start of the launch window for NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory to be launched. Curiosity is a 900 kg nuclear-powered rover probe intended to investigate how suitable the Martian environment is and was to support life.
2 December: Forty years ago today, the USSR’s Mars 3 probe became the first vehicle to soft land on the Red Planet, an achievement all but forgotten today. Alas,the vehicle (which was to release a small rover) landed in the middle of an intense duststorm and all contact with it was lost shortly afterwards. The only image returned by it was featureless.
18 December: MSL Curiosity’s Martian launch window closes.