Excursions to Jupiter, Mars and beyond in 2016

It’s shaping up to be an exciting year for space exploration

An artist’s impression of the probe Philae separating from Rosetta and descending to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

An artist’s impression of the probe Philae separating from Rosetta and descending to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

 

From chasing comets and planets to testing tech for measuring ripples in space-time, this year is gearing up to be another stellar year for space research.

The Rosetta mission, which in late 2014 placed the Philae lander on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, should have more to show this year, says Dr David McKeown, a space researcher from University College Dublin.

“This year the European Space Agency Rosetta spacecraft could get as close as 10km to the comet’s surface and allow better-resolution images. In September the Rosetta spacecraft will itself attempt to land on the comet’s surface.”

And from a tiny comet to a huge planet: Nasa’s Juno mission will arrive at Jupiter in July and will hopefully find out more about how the gaseous giant was formed, says McKeown.

Mars will be a hive of activity this year. It’s a good year to send missions there, as the Red Planet is relatively close to Earth, and the first of the Exomars missions between the ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) will be launched in March and arrive at Mars in October. “That will put a trace gas orbiter around Mars, and the Schiaparelli lander will act as a test for future soft landings on the surface of Mars, such as a European rover planned to be sent in 2018 when Mars is close again.”

Dr Mary Bourke of Trinity College Dublin will be keeping a close eye on the Martian landscape. “Just in December Curiosity rover sent back the first ground-based images of large, dark dunes on Mars. I have been waiting 17 years hoping to see such images, and they were worth the wait. Early 2016 will reveal several more images of these dunes.”

On a path to finding waves

Prof Turlough Downes of Dublin City University is looking forward to watching ESA’s Lisa Pathfinder mission. It launched last month to test technology for a future observatory that could measure tiny changes from powerful gravitational waves, which are key to Albert Einstein’s predictions about the fabric of space-time.

“These waves would distort the length and width of everything they encounter, but unfortunately for us these changes are tiny: the length of an object 1km long will only change by about 1,000th the size of an atomic nucleus. We wait with bated breath to see what results come back.”

Opening up space

Dr Niall Smith of Blackrock Castle Observatory and Cork Institute of Technology expects this year to be another interesting one for private companies developing cost-effective space technology.

Last year SpaceX successfully deployed its reusable Falcon 9 rocket, and this year the Planetary Society is set to launch its tiny LightSail spacecraft, which will use the light from the sun to propel the small payload. “This [LightSail] technology could be used to reduce the cost of space missions and will be particularly useful for exploring objects in the solar system at highly competitive costs,” says Smith.

Ireland will also be sowing the seeds for more space research, with talks about joining the European Southern Observatory, probably by 2018, says Smith.

“Being a member of ESO would see huge opportunities for Irish companies to win contracts worth tens of millions of euro, and 2016 will represent an important stepping stone on that path.”

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