Meteor showers, big rockets and asteroid encounters: What to expect in space in 2018

There will be some memorable events for astronomy and space in the new year. Here's what to expect.

SpaceX to launch biggest rocket since Apollo era and the moon is going to get a visitor

The Perseid meteor shower is seen on the peak night of Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. (Image © Alan Dyer)

Space and astronomy brought us some pretty exciting stories in 2017, from the solar eclipse, to the discovery of seven planets orbiting another star that could be the best place to look for life. Though there's no way of knowing what discoveries are to come, here are some interesting space stories to look forward to in 2018.

Big rocket

Not since final launch of the Saturn V in 1973 — the rocket that took astronauts to the moon — has there been a rocket as powerful as the highly anticipated Falcon Heavy. SpaceX, a private space company, has scheduled the first test of the colossal rocket for some time in January.

The Falcon Heavy is the rocket that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk plans to send to the moon or Mars. As well, at some time in 2018, a pair of private citizens are supposedly going to blast off on top of this rocket to orbit the moon.

As if a private company sending the largest rocket since the Apollo era wasn't enough, then there's the payload. Musk said he plans to launch a "midnight cherry Tesla Roadster" into an Earth-Mars orbit around the sun. Why? Because he can.

It's also interesting to note that the test launch of this rocket will be from launch pad 39A, the same pad from which the first astronauts to walk on the moon departed.

Lunar eclipse

While it won't be as spectacular as the partial solar eclipse that graced Canada in 2017, the sun and moon will once again do a celestial dance. 

This time, instead of the moon coming between Earth and the sun, it's a sun-Earth-moon alignment. On Jan. 31, the full moon will glide through Earth's shadow, a result of the sun being directly behind the planet and casting a shadow into space. As the moon moves, it enters the penumbra (Earth's fainter outer shadow) and the umbra (the darkest part of the shadow). 

We get a lunar eclipse when the moon passes through Earth's shadow. (Shutterstock/Designua)

If you're in Vancouver, good news: you'll be able to see a total lunar eclipse. The moon enters the umbra at 3:51 a.m. PT with maximum eclipse (when the moon is in the entire shadow) at 5:29 a.m. The moon then sets around 7:49 a.m. PT. 

Depending on where you are in Canada, you will see either a partial phase or the total lunar eclipse on Jan. 31. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The last big Canadian city to experience totality will be Winnipeg. If you're in Toronto or Montreal, you'll only see a partial lunar eclipse before the moon sets just after 7 a.m. local time.

Moon landing

India is heading to the moon.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has plans to launch Chandrayaan-2, which will include an orbiter, lander and rover, some time in March.

Since the U.S. manned mission to the moon in 1972, only the Soviet Union and China — a country that has seen a lot of success in its space program — have landed anything on the moon.

But India, too, is quickly becoming a key player in space exploration. Its Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM, has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2014. It also has plans to put a lander on Mars by 2021 or 2022 and send a spacecraft to orbit Venus.

Asteroid encounter

This summer, the Japanese space agency JAXA will see the arrival of  Hayabusa-2 at asteroid Ryugu 1999 JU3. Once there, it will spend six months surveying the asteroid. But even more exciting will be the collection of some of the asteroid's surface for a sample return.

Hayabusa 2 will depart Ryugu in December 2019 and return to Earth with the sample in 2020.

Perseid meteor shower

Yes, it's the favourite meteor shower of the year for Canadians: the annual Perseids.

You can catch a meteor on any given night, but sometimes Earth flies through a cloud of debris left over from a passing comet or asteroid. This, in turn, produces many meteors and gives us the "showers." 

A composite of the Perseid meteor shower, on the peak night, Aug 11-12, 2016. The sky is also filled with bands of red and green airglow. (Image © Alan Dyer)

Luckily for us, one of the best — the Perseids — occurs in the warm days of summer. The shower is active from July 13 to Aug. 26, but peaks on the night of Aug. 12 or 13. That night you can see as many as 100 meteors per hour in good sky conditions. 

The past two years have seen pretty decent shows, and this year could also feature a good one. The best part is that there will be almost no moon to contend with, so you'll be able to catch even the faint meteors as they streak across the sky.

Asteroid digging

While Hyabusa-2 is set to arrive at Ryugu in March, NASA'sOSIRIS-REx spacecraft will land on the asteroid Bennu in August. 

Once there, OSIRIS-REx will map the surface of the 492-metre-wide asteroid using the Canadian-made OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA). This will scan the asteroid in visible, infrared and X-ray wavelengths, providing valuable information on Bennu's history and composition. 

The spacecraft will also collect a 2.1-ounce sample that will return to Earth in 2023.

In this artist rendering, OSIRIS-REx contacts the asteroid Bennu with the Touch-And-Go Sample Arm Mechanism or TAGSAM. (NASA)

As of mid-December, the spacecraft was approximately 48 million kilometres from Earth. It is scheduled to rendezvous with Bennu on Aug. 17.

David Saint-Jacques heads to space

After waiting nine years for his turn to head into space, the time has finally come: Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques is scheduled to blast off to the International Space Station in November. 

Astronaut David Saint-Jacques is scheduled to travel to space in November for a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Saint-Jacques was chosen, along with Jeremy Hansen, in May 2009 as next in line to represent Canada in space. 

He will blast off from Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket and head to the International Space Station where he will spend roughly six months living in space while conducting medical and scientific experiments. 

Geminids

​It's one of the best meteor shows of the year, even though it does occur as the chilly weather descends upon us.

The Geminids is the final big show of the year and can produce bright fireballs that light up the sky. 

Beginning Dec. 4, the shower runs until Dec. 16, but peaks on the night of Dec. 13 and 14. For those willing to brave the cold weather, it could be rewarding. There will be just about 30 per cent of the moon's light, which means you'll be able to catch some of the dimmer meteors.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said that after the Apollo program, only China had landed spacecraft on the moon. It has been corrected to include the Soviet Union.
    Dec 27, 2017 11:24 AM ET

About the Author

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Reporter, Science

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.

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