From the launch of a billion-pixel space camera to India’s mission to Mars, space enthusiasts are looking at the year ahead with much anticipation.
For more than two decades, the Hubble Space Telescope has given us breath-taking views of deep space. But as Hubble nears the end of its working life, advanced new telescopes are being planned. One is the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission. It’s due to launch in 2013 and will house the largest-ever space camera. Gaia’s billion-pixel camera will create a detailed 3D map of our Milky Way galaxy and its neighbours over the course of its five-year mission.
Also on the 2013 launch calendar: the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V, which carried man to the Moon 40 years ago. The Falcon Heavy rocket is being developed by SpaceX, one of two private companies NASA has contracted to carry cargo into space. At full power the Falcon Heavy has a thrust equivalent to 15 Boeing 747 aircrafts and can carry satellites or spacecraft weighing more than 53 tonnes into orbit. SpaceX hopes Falcon Heavy will be a cheaper and more reliable reusable rocket option – one they can scale up to be three times more powerful for future missions.
India, too, will be taking another step into space. In September it celebrated its 100th space launch. In 2013 it plans to send an unmanned orbiter to Mars to study the Martian atmosphere. The $85m dollar mission is considered cheap compared to NASA’s $2.5bn Curiosity rover.
“This is an investment not only to reach Mars, but this is an investment about learning more science and technology, and which will have definitely multiplying effects on various other developments into the country,” said Ajey Lele of the Indian Institute for Defence Studies Analyses, a think tank on security and strategic studies.
Early 2013 is also expected to see a peak in the 11-year solar cycle. US space agency NASA says it expecting a period of energetic solar flares: intensely hot gas escaping from the sun.
“Solar flares are the most energetic manifestation of the solar activity, where the surface of the sun and the gas on the surface of the sun becomes extremely hot and extremely violent. And it ejects a lot of material into space – a lot of radiation going out into space,” said Francisco Diego, a senior research fellow in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at University College London.
If this solar radiation is directed towards the Earth, it can cause disruptions to communications and power networks.
“If you see a major solar flare … when you have an electric storm outside your house and you have a lot of lightning coming, you switch off all your electronics, all your computers and everything and then you protect them,” said Diego.