China’s Meteoric Rise in the Space Race

21 Nov 6a00d8341bf7f753ef01b7c87bb279970b-800wi

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) looks set to become a science power-house with projects and ambitions in space overshadowing any other country on the globe.

China’s roots in space exploration can be traced back to the 1950’s when rocket propelled ballistic missile programs spearheaded national security measures. After two decades of military tensions in the region, the country’s first satellite was launched into orbit in 1970. However, it was not until 1993, when the China National Space Administration (CNSA) was formed that we got an idea of their intentions in racing to the stars.

After a series of unmanned missions from 1999 onwards, China soon became the third country to send humans in to space successfully when the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft launched astronaut Yang Liwei in October of 2003. Since then the space community has seen an exponential rise in the amount of missions and other research programs headed by the communist state.

Reaching for the Skies

Back in September we saw news regarding the Space Administration entering a three year test phase of the World’s largest Radio Telescope in the south-western Guizhou Province.

Measuring in at 500m across, the telescope dwarfs the current largest Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico by nearly 200m.

With the ability to detect signals in the furthest reaches of the cosmos as well as focus on extremely distant, dense stars, this instrument is likely to make China one of the globe’s science superpowers.

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Photo courtesy of Chinese Academy of Sciences

The Red’s Planet?

Following a number of scientific successes in the early part of this decade, the Chinese are continuing their aspirations in space exploration by planning un-crewed missions to both the Moon and Mars. In 2013 the Jade Rabbit lunar probe was launched as part of the lunar exploration program, which also aims to have the Chang’e-4 probe land on the far side of the moon by 2018.

The planet Mars seems to have captured the imagination of China as much as any other country. Beijing have a series of projects and launches lined up to prepare them for their first on-surface rover by 2020, and ambitions to send humans between 2040 – 2060.

China was also a leading member in the Mars 500 program, simulating the psychological effects of isolation for the duration of a mission to Mars, which is around 500 days.

Project 921

After decades of cooperation with the then Soviet Union and continued support from Russia, the Chinese developed modified versions of their Shenzhou spacecraft with the intention of constructing a permanently manned Space Station by 2022 under the title of Project 921.

In 2011 the PRC began their continual testing program by launching the first in a series of spacecraft modules under the name Tiangong, meaning “Heavenly Palace”. Manned crafts Shenzhou 8,9 and 10 were launched in the early twenty-tens, all docking with the first module Tiangong 1, creating history for China’s space program.

The second phase of this project was only recently entered when the Tiangong 2 precursor facility was launched to rendezvous with the first module and, after a month on board Tiangong 1 conducting scientific and medical tests, two CNSA Astronauts returned to Earth safely.

Shortly after astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, the ruling Communist Party’s Central Committee commented:

“our manned space program has achieved major new progress and is the latest achievement in building a country of innovation and a world power of science and technology… It is the newest achievement of Chinese people in climbing the peak of the world.”

Rosetta gets stoned

9 Oct comet67p_navcamfeb3

Last week saw a dramatic end to one of the most influential space missions in recent decades. At 11:19am GMT on September 30th the Rosetta spacecraft crash landed on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko to the cheers and jeers of scientists and engineers from the European Space Agency (ESA) and German Aerospace Center (DLR).

Back in early March 2004 spacecraft Rosetta, and assistant lander Philae, launched from the Guiana Space Centre in South America with a mission to map the surface and composition of Comet 67P.

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After over ten years of transit, Rosetta finally rendezvoused with the comet in August 2014 having passed a number of asteroids and the planet Mars. Throughout the 720 million kilometre journey the spacecraft’s array of instruments were cataloguing data as well as gathering a library of 116,000 images.

Probe lander Philae created history when it detached from its carrier on November 12th 2014 and touched down after bouncing twice on the comet’s surface. Once located relatively unscathed at the bottom of a crater wall, Philae could begin to send vital data back to Earth via Rosetta. The probe pieced together the molecular structures of the comet’s atmosphere and soil for a further three days until its battery was depleted.

Rosetta continued its work after the loss of Philae and the spacecraft was able to relay important evidence for another 23 months. Evidence such as the signature of water vapour, making up some of the comet’s structure, was found to be vastly different to that on Earth. Bringing scientists to the conclusion that the globe’s oceans were not delivered via these types of objects.

After 12 years and 7 billion kilometres travelled it was time for Rosetta’s final farewell. Last Friday (September 30th) ground crew at DLR’s facility in Darmstadt, Germany deliberately drove the vehicle in to the comet it had been so closely monitoring.  Emotions were running high as the team awaited imagery and information of the declination.

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Image courtesy of theweathernetwork.com

Even now that ESA and DLR scientists have called an end to Rosetta’s career, the mission directors are saying there is so much more to come.

“We have only scratched the surface of the science, there is decades worth of data here.”
– Matt Taylor, Rosetta Project Scientist

A selection of spectacular images captured by Rosetta can be found on the ESA website.

Picture Perfect Pluto

2 Jul Charon as seen on Pluto

Mysteries of the solar system’s misfit planet may finally be solved this month as NASA’s New Horizons space probe approaches Pluto to shed light on the ex-planet we’ve left well within the darkness.

On July 14th 2015 Pluto’s eerie appearance will come into view and it is sure to astound us all.

Hurtling at over 9000 kilometres per hour, the New Horizons probe is near the end of its epic journey to view Pluto and it’s moon system like never before. The probe will soon finish its near decade long trip and finally fall within the orbit of this strange body to help us understand far flung dwarf planets and their neighbours.

What do we know?

At over 4.6 billion kilometres away and smaller than our moon, it is no wonder so little is known about this ex-planet that was eradicated from the big boys league in 2006.

What we do know is that it is extremely cold this far from the sun. Temperatures on Pluto can plummet to lower than -400 degrees Fahrenheit that’s -240 degrees Celsius.

This dwarf planet is thought to have up to 5 orbiting satellites close by but scientists believe this number could be significantly higher due to Pluto hanging over the edge of the extremely vast Kuiper Belt.

Currently we know Pluto’s atmosphere is comprised of the solar system’s usual elemental suspects, Nitrogen, Methane and Carbon Monoxide.

From previous distant observations we see Pluto as a dark yellow, almost sand coloured world, with white highlights across its surface which raises a number of questions regarding its exact composition.

Much like many of our other celestial friends Pluto is likely to be covered with craters caused by large scale impacts since its creation. Early observations have suggested that this world should be somewhat more scarred by heavy bombardments however, there is already a solution to this theory.

Large rifts on the surface of Pluto suggest dynamic geological processes including geysers, that could possibly be spewing liquid methane into the atmosphere, which could point to a warm planetary core.

What we don’t know

Possibly the most exciting thing about Pluto that scientists across the globe are speculating is, what will it look like? Many people have drastically different ideas about how the landscape of Pluto will look. Now, finally, with the help of New Horizons we can start to see the real face of this aptly named plutoid.

Clues to Pluto’s landscape may be shaped by possible past impacts and events. Pluto’s closets moon Charon is likely to have been created when the dwarf planet and another massive body collided in an almost cataclysmic event. Much like our own moons formation, this huge impact would have thrown out dust and debris away from these objects only to be captured by the gravity of the mostly still intact Pluto.

This event may have paved the way for an equatorial mountain range being formed much like we see in moons and planets throughout our local neighbourhood. Perhaps Pluto may harbour lakes of liquid neon or even giant ice fractures on its surface much like Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Pluto’s Polar Regions may end up looking very similar to our own in aesthetics and could even consist of mountain high ice caps during seasonal frosts.

The possibilities are endless

As the New Horizons probe edges closer and closer to this distant world we will begin to see her a little clearer with every mile.

Working with one of NASAs most advanced telescopes and image capture systems it is highly likely New Horizons will be treating us to some spectacular views of the far reaches of our celestial neighbourhood.

We may finally now gain insight into one of the solar systems most bizarre bodies as well as improve our knowledge of all dwarf planets and the other thousands of Kuiper Belt objects.

[COSMIC BODIES] – Lost Worlds

20 Oct artist depiction of CFBDSIR 2149-0403

It is easy to lose something small, it might slip down the back of the sofa, or you might drop it on a night out but surely it is a lot harder to lose something the size of a planet?

Ok, well no one has lost anything quite this big, because well frankly it never belonged to anyone. I am, however, referring to rouge planets and their stars. These are huge wandering worlds slowly meandering across the universe perhaps looking for a parent star to take them into their protective care.

There is one particular lost world, which was only discovered in the winter of last year that has everyone in the planetary scientific community mystified.

This bizarre place does not have a name of yet but is known by its scientific designation: CFBDSIR 2149-0403. For the purpose of this article I would like to nickname it ‘Columbus’

‘Columbus’ lies about 100 light-years from us here on Earth and is about the size of 4-7 Jupiter’s. We judge exosolar planets on their comparable size to our biggest heavenly neighbour because, well, we have no comprehension on just how massive these spheres are. Temperatures on ‘Columbus’ get as hot as Mercury, reaching at least 700 Kelvin or around 425 Degrees Celsius.

It is highly likely that ‘Columbus’ was created in a gas cloud similar to the one that formed our solar system; it would have originally had a parent star to orbit around just as we do the Sun. Then after a few millennia the Planet would have been ejected of its orbit by a huge force, most probably another planet or even star.

Now this lonely domain is scheduled to spend the rest of its existence slowly rambling throughout the cosmos. Maybe ‘Columbus’ will get lucky and full into the orbit of a star big enough to hold its mass or maybe this planet’s fate lies in eventual vaporisation and destruction.

Scientists will continue to watch as ‘Columbus’ embarks on the next leg of its exploratory journey. Whilst it does they will also keep their eyes peeled for any other ambling orbs.

Tonight’s SuperMoon

23 Jun Tim Martindale

It has been an appalling Summer for skywatching this year. Unannounced rain and general overcast cloud cover has restricted us from viewing the heavens above this season. There is some hope for any keen amateur astronomers though and it comes in the form of our familiar friend the Moon.

Many of you would have gazed up at the shimmering disc in the sky, probably on many occasions too, but today is a special day for the Moon, the celestial body will come to its closets point on its orbit around us. Granted, this event is pretty common but nonetheless incredibly spectacular for anyone watching. There will be other SuperMoons in the future of course, in fact there is one due in July. However our cosmic neighbour wont be passing as close as it is time around.

The scientific name for this event is ‘Perigee Moon’ it marks the coincidence where a new or full Moon is at it’s closets proximity to the Earth. The Lunar surface will appear 30% brighter to us and 14% larger in the night sky. According to experts the best time to view this phenomenon is both at moonrise and moonset when it appears at its very massive.

The next SuperMoon of this magnitude wont be occurring until August 2014. So, weather permitting, keep an eye on the night sky this evening, you may just be surprised to see an old friend looking a little different.

Asteroid 2012 DA14’s Flirt with Earth

12 Feb 2012 DA14 (Getty Image)

The extremely close fly-by of an asteroid this week reminds us of just how vulnerable this world is. In a week where we all hold and cherish the ones we adore, we must also remember that we have come to love and depend on this planet and that we must also do our all to defend her.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 will pass our world this week, reaching its closest point on Friday 15th at around 19:30(GMT), coming in closer proximity than some of the satellites that orbit above us. This is the nearest any NEO (Near Earth Object) has come in history or at least recorded human history, zooming by at a height of 17,200 miles. That may sound like a large amount but that distance is 10 times closer than the circulation of the moon.

Covering half a football field Asteroid 2012 DA14 is relatively small in comparison to some wondering rocks out there but if it were to collide with another dense body, chaos and destruction would ensue. It is thought if this particular asteroid were to end up on a collision course with Earth that its fate would be similar to the asteroid that exploded in the ‘Tunguska‘ event over Siberia in 1908. Luckily 2012 DA14 is NOT on an impact trajectory with Earth nor is it likely to in the future. Of course this is not certain but scientists have been able to plot the rocky body’s course for the next few decades and note that we are safe for now.

NASA and other Space organizations are planning to assess and document all of 1,300 known potentially dangerous NEO’s. Modern technology allows us to calculate future courses of huge wondering rocks, it almost seems as though we have a Saint watching over us and letting us know when we are in danger.

In a week where people the world over celebrate St Valentines day by handing each other gifts depicting effigies such as Cupid, maybe the Pagan festival of Lupercalia rings more truthful.

Outlawed by the church centuries ago for being un-Christian, Lupercalia, is a festival marking purification and as a warning to evil spirits coming to plunder riches. It seems rather fitting then that such a heavenly event such as Asteroid 2012 DA14’s passing should coincide with Lupercalia. As a species we rely heavily on what our planet offers because well, we have nothing else, nowhere else.

Unfortunately asteroid 2012 DA14 will not be visible to the naked eye from Central Europe but perhaps that makes it that much more romantic, an object of such devastation can roam by freely, barely missing us and many are none the wiser. NASA have this base covered as they intend to research future fly-bys by asteroids of similar threat. One way they plan on doing this is by launching a satellite in 2016 called ‘Osiris-Rex’ that will monitor Asteroid 1999 RQ36. A vastly bigger rock than DA14 but one that isnt scheduled to pass us again until 2182, posing a threat to future generations.

If you are a keen amateur astronomer the best places to see Asteroid 2012 DA14 will be in the Eastern Hemisphere but if you live elsewhere and you are equipped with a small telescope you maybe lucky enough to find it in the northern sky passing through to the south on Friday February 15th, although it will appear very faint and only for a short while.

Happy Hunting.

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