A look above: 2017 in space

Oh 2017. You’ve been long awaited; the change in digits billed by many as somehow here to save us from the scourge of celebrity deaths and political upheaval that characterised the preceding twelve calendar months. And while there’s plenty to look forward to in the coming year, the events and developments in the world of space science definitely deserve a spot on your to-look-forward-to list.

2017 is the year the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft mission to Saturn ends. Launched in 1997, the orbiter and lander will take their final dives deep into the flames of the planet, when they run out of fuel in September.

Before the mission ends, the spacecraft will take several dives into the rings of the planet, providing scientists with detailed data gathered from the instruments on board that are equipped to gather particles and gases as the rings are crossed. The kamikaze end to the mission is undertaken in order to avoid a collision with any of Saturn’s moons – any of which could have the potential to sustain life.

Last year also brought the success of the NASA Juno mission. The spacecraft departed from Earth in August 2011 and went into orbit around Jupiter in July 2016. Images and data received from the mission will allow scientists to delve beneath the thick cloud cover sheltering the planet and create a 3D map of its structure, as well as analysing the gases that produce the planet’s multi-coloured auroras. 2017 could be a giant leap for mankind in understanding the role that Jupiter and other gas giants played in the creation of the solar system.

Closer to home, the United States will be witness to a total solar eclipse: the first one visible from the entire American continent since the colonies declared war on Great Britain in 1776. Americans from Oregon to Tennessee will be able to witness the spectacle, which will sweep from coast-to-coast and last around two minutes. Described as “the eclipse of the century,” it’s slated to occur in August and will gather crowds of astronomers to the US from across the world.

Finally, 2017 could prove to be the year that entrepreneur and multi-billionaire Elon Musk launches the Falcon Heavy rocket. The date for the launcher’s maiden flight has been delayed several times – the rocket consists of three Falcon 9 boosters combined, one of which exploded in September. However, Musk’s recent appointment to Trump’s advisory council – despite being prominent in the technology community for his support of Hillary Clinton – comes as a surprise.

So 2017, whatever you have in store for us politically, perhaps this could finally be the year we make it to Mars.


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August 2022
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