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The Curiosity Desk | Jan. 9, 2019

A Look Ahead At The Year In Space

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Illustration of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69 – nicknamed “Ultima Thule” – a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles beyond Pluto. New Horizons’ exploration of Ultima will be the farthest space probe flyby in history.
NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
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The Curiosity Desk | Jan. 9, 2019

Though only two weeks old, 2019 has already been a banner year in space. NASA has successfully flown by an object 4 billion miles away, and the Chinese have landed on the dark side of the moon. That got us here at the Curiosity Desk wondering what else might be in store among the stars this year, so we surveyed some local space experts to find out what they’ve got their eyes on in 2019.

When it became clear just after midnight on New Year’s Day that NASA’s New Horizons had just successfully visited the most distant object ever explored by a spacecraft, MIT's Richard Binzel, one of the mission scientists, was — to say the least — relieved.

"I tell you, in space flight there are never any guarantees," he said. "But it looks like we nailed it."

Given how long it takes to transmit information 4 billion miles, Binzel says that as 2019 unfolds, scientist should expect enough revelatory data to keep them busy for years — and the public should expect some pretty stunning pictures.

"We have literally seen just the tip of the iceberg of the images," he said.

Binzel will also be watching a near-earth asteroid called Bennu this year. NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived there last month, and now the studying begins. On board is an instrument designed and built by students at MIT and Harvard.

"This MIT/Harvard student instrument is going to give us the first elemental fingerprints of what this asteroid is made out of," said Binzel.

OSIRIS-REx will also eventually bring a physical sample of the asteroid back to earth, offering scientists an unprecedented chance to test the accuracy of the student-built machine.

"If this instrument works, we can then go out and fingerprint any asteroid we might happen to be interested in," said Binzel. "That could be a huge advancement in the decades ahead."

Out at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), 2019 will bring testing and tweaking of new technologies without which the most ambitious of future projects — a manned mission to Mars, for example — might never blossom.

"How do you keep astronauts alive for long space flight? How do you make sure our communications with them will be flawless?," asked College President Laurie Leshin, a space scientist by training and a NASA alum. "It’s these kinds of foundational technologies that are being worked on at WPI."

Speaking of Mars, Leshin says 2019 should be a big year on the red planet.

"One of the big questions on Mars is — it has a core, we know it has a core — [but] we don’t even know if that core is a liquid or a solid," she explained.

That mystery could be solved in 2019. NASA’s newest Mars lander, InSight, touched down successfully just after Thanksgiving. It will spend this year drilling, measuring, and listening for 'Marsquakes' to understand more about the planet's makeup and formation.

"By understanding how Mars formed, we’re understanding how solar systems form and how planets like Earth form," said Leshin.

2019 also marks the golden anniversary of a watershed moment in America’s manned spaceflight program, and in human history: The Apollo 11 moon landing. But since the last Space Shuttle flight back in 2011, the U.S. has been completely out of the manned spaceflight game — our astronauts rely on Russia to shuttle them to and from the International Space Station.

That should all change in 2019 thanks to two private companies, SpaceX and Boeing, according to Kelly Beatty with the Cambridge-based Sky and Telescope Magazine. Beatty says both are poised to launch astronauts into space once again from American soil on an American-built spacecraft.

"The first tests will be without anybody on board," said Beatty. "And then assuming those are successful, the crews will get on board and rocket off to the space station some time this summer."

Of course, no look ahead to the year in space would be complete without a tip about when and where to look up. And Beatty says perhaps the biggest celestial highlight of the year is just around the corner: A full lunar eclipse.

"It’s not something that happens very often," he said. "It sort of reminds me of the clockwork regularity of our solar system. These things come and go, and have been for time immemorial."

On the night of Jan. 20, the earth will pass between the sun and the moon. If it’s a clear night, beginning just before midnight, Beatty says a three-hour show will commence that will be well worth a look.

"There’s so much to see," he said. "You watch the moon moving into the shadow. You watch how the color might change while it’s in the shadow. Sometimes it’s sort of a dark red or coppery or bright orange — it can vary — and then you get to watch it moving out."

And if you do look up to the skies to catch a glimpse of the wonders of the nature, take a moment to consider the work of women and men steadily going on up there — that you can’t see.

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