Friday, December 18, 2015

Reader's Top 5 Space Events of 2015

Earlier this month we asked our readers to submit what they thought was their favourite astronomical/space event of the past year. We were flooded with responses ranging from the solar eclipse of March 20 to meteor showers to the New Horizons flyby of Pluto.

So without further ado, here are your favourite space events of 2015!

1. "Supermoon" Lunar Eclipse
By far the most popular event, receiving twice the number of votes than second place, it's clear that the lunar eclipse on September 28 has a special place in our reader's hearts. And why wouldn't it? 
David Blanchflower captured this stunning image of the eclipse
from Newcastle, England (credit: David Blanchflower)

Encompassing more than half the planet, those lucky enough to catch a glimpse between clouds were wowed by what they saw, and those who stayed up into the wee hours of the morning were kindly rewarded for their efforts.

For many, it will be remembered as the night the Moon turned blood red- a "blood Moon." 

However, this was no ordinary lunar eclipse. What made this one special was the fact that it occurred during a Supermoon- when the Moon is full at its closest point to Earth in its orbit. While lunar eclipses happen all the time, supermoon lunar eclipses are rare- with the next one occurring in 2033!

2. The New Horizons Flyby of Pluto

Pluto seen by New Horizons at a distance of 280,000 miles
(credit: NASA)
On July 14 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft made history by becoming the first space probe to make a close flyby to observe dwarf planet Pluto and its moons.

Launching from Florida in 2006, it took over nine years for New Horizons to reach the distant Kuiper Belt object. In fact, the journey took so long that Pluto was demoted from a planet to a dwarf planet during its transit. But Pluto didn't disappoint, with New Horizons capturing stunning images like these which allowed scientists back on Earth try and understand how dwarf planets first came into existence.

Now that Pluto has finally been checked off the list of heavenly bodies in our solar system to explore, New Horizons is now setting its sights on a new target to explore. It's currently headed for Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 with arrival scheduled for January 1 2019.

3. Solar Eclipse of March 20

There's no better way to demonstrate the alignment of objects in our solar system than a solar eclipse. A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes in front of the Sun- turning day into night and back again all within a few minutes. 

The solar eclipse of March 20 was visible from most of Europe with totality only visible from the Faroe Islands. Unfortunately most eclipse hunters who made the trip to the islands in the North Atlantic were clouded over. But it wasn't all bad news as some great shots of the total solar eclipse were captured by people in aircraft flying above the clouds. Check out this cool video taken from a plane flying high over the Atlantic where the view was much, much more spectacular.

For the rest of Europe a partial solar eclipse was visible, allowing viewers on the ground to view and take photographs of the rare celestial event. The next partial solar eclipse visible from Ireland takes place on August 21 2017, when viewers situated in a long corridor spanning the United States will witness totality.

4. The Perseid Meteor Shower

In the northern hemisphere the Perseid Meteor Shower always ranks among the favourite astronomical events of the year- never failing to disappoint. With up to fifty meteors per hour visible in dark skies, it's easy to spend hours looking up and watching debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle slam into the Earth’s upper atmosphere at around 210,000 kilometers (130,000 miles) per hour, lighting up the nighttime with fast-moving shooting stars.

Check out this amazing shot of Perseid meteors and the Milky Way over Mount Ranier in Washington State(credit: Matthew Dietrich).

5. The discovery of liquid water on Mars

On September 28 NASA announced that liquid water has been discovered on the surface of Mars!(See: NASA Has Found Liquid Water on Mars)

Based on images taken over several years from the NASA's Mars Reconaissance Orbiter(MRO), currently orbiting the red planet, there is enough evidence to suggest that liquid water does in fact exist on the surface of Mars today. MRO has been orbiting Mars since 2006.

“This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water - albeit briny - is flowing today on the surface of Mars.” -John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. 

Recurring Slope Lineae at Hale Crater, Mars
(credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)
Using the orbiter's imaging spectrometer, scientists have observed that dark streaks on the Martian surface appear to ebb and flow over time. These darks streaks are known as recurring slope lineae(RSL) and appear to flow down steep slopes during warmer months, then fade away during colder months.

September 28 will go down in history as the day when humans stopped thinking of the existence of water on Mars as science fiction and instead turned it into science reality. In the words of Grunsfeld, "Stay tuned to science because science never sleeps and we've got lots of discoveries(left to make)."

What was your favourite space event of 2015? Let us know by tweeting us @irishspaceblog
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