This year, outer space is going to be a busy place.
We’ve got the launch of the Europa Clipper, which will orbit one of Jupiter’s enigmatic moons and investigate whether it could harbour conditions suitable for life; we could cheer on the first Canadian to orbit the moon; and we’re getting a total solar eclipse that will be visible across eastern Canada.
Here are just some exciting events to look forward to in 2024.
As always, the year starts off with the annual Quadrantid meteor shower, which is pretty impressive, albeit short-lived.
At its peak, and under ideal conditions, the shower can produce upward of 100 or more meteors an hour in a dark-sky site.
Though the shower runs from Dec. 27 to Jan. 10, the peak occurs on the night of Jan. 3.
It only lasts 12 hours — and it’s expected to have some celestial competition, according to Peter Brown, Canada Research Chair in meteor astronomy and a professor at Western University in London, Ont.
“The Quadrantids have a peak which is favourable for North America [around 4 a.m. ET], but the last quarter moon will interfere,” Brown said in an email. “Nevertheless, it is such a strong and sharp shower that it is worth checking out in 2024, but with modest expectations given the bad lunar conditions.”
An added bonus is that the Quadrantids tend to produce bright fireballs, increasing the chances of seeing something spectacular.
The next opportunity to see a similarly impressive meteor shower won’t come until August, when the Perseids arrive.
This shower is often described as the best of the year, and with good reason. It’s the summer, the night skies tend to be clear and the weather is warmer, making for a comfortable night of viewing under the stars.
“The Perseids have better lunar conditions, and this year there are several old trails which may be encountered … so the night of Aug 11-12 might be particularly interesting to follow this year,” Brown said. ” However, the rates won’t be super high — maybe a few tens of per cent above normal levels if these filaments are encountered in that time.”
This tends to be a dependable shower, capable in ideal conditions of producing 100 meteors an hour at its peak, which falls on the night of Aug. 11. And the great news about this year’s shower is that there will be no moon to interfere with capturing some of the fainter meteors.
Finally, there is the Geminid meteor shower.
This event can produce close to 150 meteors an hour. While the shower runs from Dec. 4-17, the peak occurs on the night of Dec. 13.
While this shower is as or more dependable than the Perseids, the downside is that winter nights can be cold and cloudy. However, the meteors that streak across the sky can be very bright, sometimes leaving behind long trains.
But wait, there’s more … potentially.
“Beyond these three, the other shower to watch [that] may show unusual activity next year is the Eta Aquariids,” Brown said. This spring shower will be best viewed early in the month of May.
“Though normally not easy to see from Canada, the new moon on May 8 and the expectation of higher rates and bright meteors for a few nights around the maximum, would make it worth checking things out in the early morning hours of May 4-6,” he said.
This is the story of the year when it comes to astronomical events.
On April 8, a total solar eclipse will stretch across the Pacific Ocean into Mexico, then into the United States beginning in Texas, before continuing into eastern Canada.
“A total eclipse of the sun is the most awe-inspiring and sublime astronomical event visible to the naked eye,” said Fred Espenak, a retired NASA astronomer and the agency’s lead eclipse expert. “It is something everyone should see at least once in their life.”
In Ontario, Toronto and Ottawa will only reach 99.9 and 99.8 per cent of totality, respectively. However, Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Kingston will experience full totality.
Espenak also noted that the first place to experience totality will be at Point Pelee National Park, the southernmost point of mainland Canada.
Sherbrooke, Que., Fredericton, and Summerside, P.E.I, will be a few of other cities that experience full totality.
“The total solar eclipse of April 8, 2024, is the last opportunity for Canadians to one until Aug. 23, 2044 — 20 years from now,” Espenak added.
Totality will be quite the sight. Not only will viewers be able to see the sun’s corona, but Jupiter and Venus will suddenly appear in the darkened sky.
And, as an added bonus, there will likely be a comet — 12p/Pons-Brooks — in the sky near Jupiter.
Astronomical organizations and universities located in the eclipse path will likely organize events that are open to the public. It’s also a good idea to get your hands on verified, safe eclipse glasses, which can be found at science and astronomy stores or from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
Missions to moons
It’s all about moons in 2024.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to send a mission to the two moons of Mars — Phobos and Deimos.
There has never been a successful mission to these small moons, which are believed to be captured asteroids.
JAXA’s mission, the Martian Moons eXploration, will study these moons to determine whether they were indeed asteroids, or fragments that came together after something impacted Mars, as our moon is believed to have formed.
It will also collect a sample from Phobos and return it to Earth by 2029.
There’s also an exciting mission planned to Europa, one of the largest of Jupiter’s 95 known moons.
Europa is of particular interest to astrobiologists. There is evidence that beneath its icy crust lies a vast salty, liquid ocean with the potential to harbour life.
NASA’s Europa Clipper is set to blast off in October 2024 and will arrive in the Jovian system in 2030. Once there, it will orbit Europa 50 times, searching for signs that it has the key ingredients to support life — water, essential chemical building blocks and energy.
China is expected to launch its Chang’e 6 sample-return to the moon sometime in 2024.
This will be its second sample-return mission following the success of Chang’e 5 in 2020. This time, the mission aims to collect samples from the far side of the moon.
The mission is expected to last 53 days.
The other big story of the year is the launch of Artemis II to the moon.
This mission is a follow-up to the first launch of NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket with its Orion capsule, Artemis I. That uncrewed, 25.5–day mission orbited the moon in a test of its systems.
But Artemis II will have four astronauts on board, including Canada’s Jeremy Hansen.
Hansen will be a mission specialist working alongside three NASA astronauts — commander Reid Wiseman, pilot Victor Glover and mission specialist Christina Koch. This will be the farthest any Canadian astronaut has travelled in space.
The four will conduct a 10-day flight test that will orbit the moon.
The mission is scheduled to launch in November, though it could be pushed into 2025.
Starship and a return to asteroids
If you’ve been keeping an eye on space missions, you’ll remember NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) in 2021. In this mission, a spacecraft slammed into a small asteroid called Dimorphos, which is part of a binary asteroid (two asteroids) that included a bigger one named Didymos.
Why slam something into an asteroid? It was to see if a spacecraft is able to nudge an asteroid on a collision course with Earth out of its orbit. And it was a success.
As part of a follow-up, the European Space Agency will launch its Hera mission to the pair of asteroids in October, where it will perform a post-impact survey of Dimorphos. It will arrive in 2026.
And finally, you can count on more SpaceX flights of its massive Starship. The 120-metre tall spaceship is a key part of founder Elon Musk’s goal of taking humans to Mars.
But more importantly, it’s part of NASA’s Artemis III mission, which will see astronauts once again stepping foot on the moon.