10 Space Science Stories to Watch in 2015


A new Avengers movie. A reboot of the Star Wars franchise. The final installment of the Hunger Games. The Martian makes it to the big screen. Yup, even if the zombie apocalypse occurs in 2015, it’ll still be a great year. But trading science fiction for fact, we’re also on track for a spectacular year in space science and exploration as well.

Humanity will get its first good look at Ceres and Pluto, giving us science writers some new pics to use instead of the same half dozen blurry dots and artist’s conceptions. SpaceX will also attempt a daring landing on a sea platform, and long duration missions aboard the International Space Station will get underway. And key technology headed to space and on Earth may lead the way to opening up the window of gravitational wave astronomy on the universe. Here’s 10 sure-fire bets to watch for in the coming year from Universe Today:

LISA Pathfinder deployed at L1. Credit: ESA/Artist’s concept.

10. LISA Pathfinder

A precursor to a full-fledged gravitational wave detector in space, LISA Pathfinder will be launching atop a Vega rocket from Kourou, French Guiana in July 2015. LISA stands for the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, and the Pathfinder mission will journey to the L1 Lagrange point between the Earth and the Sun to test key technologies. LISA Pathfinder will pave the way for the full fledged LISA space platform, a series of three free flying spacecraft proposed for launch in the 2030s.

Looking down one of the arms of LIGO Hanford. Credit: Photo by author.

9. AdLIGO Goes Online

And speaking of gravitational waves, we may finally get the first direct detection of the same in 2015, when Advanced LIGO is set to go online. Comprised of two L-shaped detectors, one based in Livingston Louisiana, and another in Hanford Washington, AdLIGO will feature ten times the sensitivity of the original LIGO observatory. In fact, as was the case of the hunt for the Higgs-Boson by CERN, a non-detection of gravitational waves by AdLIGO would be a much stranger result!

A replica of the Hubble Space Telescope on display at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Photo by author.

8. Hubble Turns 25

Launched on April 24th, 1990 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Hubble Space Telescope celebrates 25 years in space in 2015. The final servicing mission in 2009 gave Hubble a reprieve from the space junk scrap heap, and the orbiting telescope is still going strong. Hubble has no less than pushed the limits in modern astronomy to become a modern icon of the space age.

MESSENGER wraps up its mission in 2015. Credit: NASA/MESSENGER/JPL/APL.

7. The End of MESSENGER

NASA’s Mercury exploring spacecraft wraps up its mission next year. Launched in 2004, MESSENGER arrived in orbit around Mercury after a series of flybys on March 18th, 2011. MESSENGER has mapped the innermost world in detail, and studied the space environment and geology of Mercury. In late March 2015, MESSENGER will achieve one final first, when it impacts the surface of Mercury at the end of its extended mission.

Akatsuki on Earth prior to departure. Credit: JAXA.

6. Akatsuki at Venus

This Japanese spacecraft missed orbital insertion a few years back, but gets a second chance at life in 2015. Launched in 2010 atop an H-IIA rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, Akatsuki failed to enter orbit around Venus at the end of 2010, and instead headed out for a heliocentric path around the Sun. Some quick thinking by JAXA engineers led to a plan to attempt to place Akatsuki in Venusian orbit in November 2015. This would be a first for the Japanese space agency, as attempts by JAXA at placing a spacecraft in orbit around another planet – including the Mars Nozomi probe – have thus far failed.

The target for the Falcon-9 first stage later next week. Credit: SpaceX.

5. SpaceX to Attempt to Land on a Sea Platform

It’ll definitely rock if they pull it off next week: on January 6th, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will lift off from Cape Canaveral with its Dragon spacecraft headed to the International Space Station on mission CRS-5. Sure, these resupply missions are becoming routine, but after liftoff, SpaceX is attempting something new and daring: landing the Falcon-9 first stage Buck Rodgers style, “fins first” on a floating barge. This is the next step in ultimately proving the feasibility of having the rocket fly back to the launch site for eventual reuse. If nothing else, expect some stunning video of the attempt soon!

An artist’s concept of an asteroid retrieval mission. Credit: NASA.

4. NASA to Decide on an Asteroid Mission

Some major decisions as to the fate and the future of manned space exploration are due next year, as NASA is expected to decide on the course of action for its Asteroid Redirect Mission. The current timeline calls for the test of the SLS rocket in 2018, and the launch of a spacecraft to recover an asteroid and place it in orbit around the Moon in 2019. If all goes according to plan – a plan which could always shift with the political winds and future changes in administrations – we could see astronauts exploring a captured asteroid by the early 2020s.

Credit: NASA/Roscomos.
Astronaut Scott Kelly (left), and cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko. Credit: NASA/Roscomos.

3. Long Duration ISS Missions

Beginning in 2015, astronauts and cosmonauts will begin year-long stays aboard the ISS to study the effects of long duration space missions. In March of 2015, cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko and U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly will launch as part of Expedition 43 headed to the ISS. The Russians have conducted stays in space longer than a year aboard the Mir space station, but Kelly’s stay aboard the ISS will set a duration record for NASA astronauts. Perhaps, a simulated “Mars mission” aboard the ISS could be possible in the coming years?

An artist’s concept of Dawn approaching 1 Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL.

2. Dawn at Ceres

Fresh off of exploring Vesta, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will become the first mission to enter orbit around a second object, the asteroid 1 Ceres next year in April 2015. The largest asteroid and the first object of its kind discovered on the first day of the 19th century, Ceres looks to be a fascinating world in its own right. Does it possess water ice? Active geology? Moons of its own? If Dawn’s performance at Vesta was any indication, we’re in for another exhilarating round of space exploration!

And artist’s conception of New Horizons at Pluto. Credit: NASA/JPL/Thierry Lombry.

1. New Horizons at Pluto

An easy No. 1,we finally get our first good look at Pluto in July, as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flies less than 14,000 kilometres from the surface of the distant world. Launched in 2006, New Horizons will “thread the needle” between Pluto and Charon in a flurry of activity as it passes by. New Horizons will then turn back as it passes into the shadows of Pluto and Charon and actually view the two worlds as they occult the distant Sun. And from there, New Horizons will head out to explore Kuiper Belt Objects of opportunity.

And these are just the top stories that are slated to be big news in space in 2015. Remember, another Chelyabinsk meteor or the next big comet could drop by at any time… space news can be unpredictable, and its doubtless that 2015 will have lots more surprises in store.



How to See Pluto at Opposition as New Horizons Crosses the One Year Out Mark

Pluto passing near the star cluster M25 in late 2013. Credit: Dave Walker.

Are you ready for 2015? On July 14th, 2015 — just a little over a year from now — NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft with perform its historic flyby of Pluto and its retinue of moons. Flying just 10,000 kilometres from the surface of Pluto — just 2.5% the distance from Earth to the Moon on closest approach — New Horizons is expected to revolutionize our understanding of these distant worlds.

And whether you see Pluto as a much maligned planetary member of the solar system, an archetypal Plutoid, or the “King of the Kuiper Belt,” you can spy this denizen of the outer solar system using a decent sized backyard telescope and a little patience.

New Horizon in the clean room having its plutonium-fueled MMRTG installed. (Credit: NASA).
New Horizons in the clean room having its plutonium-fueled MMRTG installed. (Credit: NASA).

Pluto reaches opposition for 2014 later this week on Friday, July 4th at 3:00 Universal Time (UT), or 11:00 PM EDT on July 3rd. This means that Pluto will rise to the east as the Sun sits opposite to it in the west at sunset and transits the local meridian high to the south at local midnight. This is typically the point of closest approach to Earth for any outer solar system object and the time it is brightest.

Dusk July 4th Credit
The location of Pluto at dusk on July 4th, the night of opposition. Credit: Stellarium.

But even under the best of circumstances, finding Pluto isn’t easy. Pluto never shows a resolvable disk in even the largest backyard telescope, and instead, always appears like a tiny star-like point. When opposition occurs near perihelion — as it last did in 1989 — Pluto can reach a maximum “brilliancy” of magnitude +13.6. However, Pluto has an extremely elliptical orbit ranging from 30 to 49 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) from the Sun. In 2014, Pluto has dropped below +14th magnitude at opposition as it heads back out towards aphelion one century from now in 2114.

Pluto from July-Dec
The path of Pluto from July to December 2014. Created using Starry Night Education Software.

Another factor that makes finding Pluto challenging this decade is the fact that it’s crossing through the star-rich plane of the galaxy in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius until 2023. A good finder chart and accurate pointing is essential to identifying Pluto as it moves 1’ 30” a day against the starry background from one night to the next.

In fact, scouring this star-cluttered field is just one of the challenges faced by the New Horizons team as they hunt for a potential target for the spacecraft post-Pluto encounter. But this has also meant that Pluto has crossed some pretty photogenic regions of the sky, traversing dark Bok globules and skirting near star clusters.

Pluto (marked) imaged by Jim Hendrickson on the morning of June 29th.
Pluto (marked) imaged by Jim Hendrickson @SkyscraperJim on the morning of June 28th.

You can use this fact to your advantage, as nearby bright stars make great “guideposts” to aid in your Pluto-quest. Pluto passes less than 30” from the +7th magnitude pair BB Sagittarii on July 7th and 8th and less than 3’ from the +5.2 magnitude star 25 Sagittarii on July 21st… this could also make for an interesting animation sequence.

Though Pluto has been reliably spotted in telescopes as small as 6” in diameter, you’ll most likely need a scope 10” or larger to spot it. We’ve managed to catch Pluto from the Flandrau observatory situated in downtown Tucson using its venerable 14” reflector.

June 28th-August 8th (inverted)
The path of Pluto June 28th-August 8th. (click here for an inverted white background view). Created using Starry Night Education Software.

Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh from the Lowell Observatory in 1930 while it was crossing the constellation Gemini. It’s sobering to think that it has only worked its way over to Sagittarius in the intervening 84 years. It was also relatively high in the northern hemisphere sky and headed towards perihelion decades later during discovery. 2014 finds Pluto at a southern declination of around -20 degrees, favoring the southern hemisphere. Had circumstances been reversed, or Pluto had been near aphelion, it could have easily escaped detection in the 20th century.

We’re also fortunate that Pluto is currently relatively close to the ecliptic plane, crossing it on October 24th, 2018. Its orbit is inclined 17 degrees relative to the ecliptic and had it been high above or below the plane of the solar system, sending a spacecraft to it in 2015 might have been out of the question due to fuel constraints.

The current location of New Horizons. (Credit: NASA/JPL).
The current location of New Horizons. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

And speaking of spacecraft, New Horizons now sits less than one degree from Pluto as seen from our Earthly vantage point. And although you won’t be able to spy this Earthly ambassador with a telescope, you can wave in its general direction on July 11th and 12th, using the nearby waxing gibbous Moon as a guide:

The Moon, Pluto and New Horizons as seen on July 11th. (Created Using Starry Night Education Software).
The Moon, Pluto and New Horizons as seen on July 11th. (Created Using Starry Night Education Software).

All eyes will be on Pluto and New Horizons in the coming year, as it heads towards a date with destiny… and we’ll bet that the “is Pluto a planet?” debate will rear its head once more as we get a good look at these far-flung worlds.

And hey, if nothing else, us science writers will at last have some decent pics of Pluto to illustrate articles with, as opposed to the same half-dozen blurry images and artist’s renditions…