It’s August: Buckle Up
It’s August: buckle up. Some cool astronomy shit is going down this month:
August 6 – The Rosetta spacecraft, launched in 2004 by the European Space Agency, will fall into orbit around a small rocky comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Being that it’s not Halley’s Comet, 67P was formerly of little to no interest to Earthlings. But it’s about to get a lot more interesting: the ultimate goal is to land a probe on its surface as it speeds closer to the sun at 33,000mph. To build up enough velocity to fling itself to the outer regions of the solar system, Rosetta performed a sort of slingshot maneuver, orbiting the Earth three times and once around Mars before hurtling off toward 67P. It then shut down its systems into a state of near-hibernation for two and a half years.
On January 14 of this year, Rosetta was fired back up to burn its engines and slowly bring it close to 67P. In less than a week, Rosetta is scheduled for its final burn that will bring it into orbit. Afterwards it will begin preparing to gently push and nudge the Philae lander onto its surface, where it will run tests for the next year as the comet whips around the sun.
August 12 – Peak viewing for Perseid meteor shower. Does this even need an explanation? Sixty meteors per hour streaking across the night sky, some appearing as bright fireballs hurtling toward the ground. I rest my case.
[Because of a full moon on August 10, viewing will be less than optimal this year, but even less than optimal Perseids are pretty damn spectacular.]
August 24 – New Horizons, a NASA probe sent to study reject planet Pluto, will cross Neptune’s orbit. New Horizons was launched in 2006 (hard to believe it’s been eight years since then) and is expected to reach Pluto in about one year. To give you an idea of the layout of our solar system, one year after its launch, the spacecraft performed a flyby of Jupiter and harnessed its gravitational power to propel itself forward 9000mph faster. Seven and a half years later, it’s just now crossing Neptune and is still 300,000,000 miles from its destination.
The goal of the New Horizons mission is to learn more about the shadowy boulder, such as its diameter and atmospheric composition. Images from the craft will exceed the quality of the Hubble telescope.