8 space marvels to scope out in 2024
It’s going to be a bumper year for astronomy and spaceflight. We tell you exactly when to look to the skies.
Look up to the stars this year, and you can expect to see all kinds of wonders.
There will be a major eclipse and numerous meteor showers, and the spaceflight industry has planned a whole batch of rocket-based adventures and exploratory missions deep into space.
Grant Denn, Ph.D., professor in Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Physics, and Dave Gingerich, M.S., affiliate professor in the Department of Aviation and Aerospace, present their perfect space guide.
Moon landings (all year)
This looks like a big year for lunar missions. Japan’s SLIM mission already led the way this month by successfully navigating a robotic explorer to the moon’s surface — a historic first for the country. And the Nova-C spacecraft (sponsored by NASA) aims to land near the lunar South Pole next month, becoming the first privately built spacecraft to reach the moon.
In May, China’s Chang’e-6 spacecraft hopes to collect rocks from the far side of the moon, and there are several more private ventures planned. But reaching the moon is notoriously hazardous and difficult. Just last week, the U.S.-built Peregrine spacecraft burned up while reentering Earth’s atmosphere.
Total solar eclipse (April 8)
Mark your calendar for the first total eclipse to pass over North America in seven years. It will temporarily turn day into night across a whole swath of states, including Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and New York as well as New England.
Standing directly in the eclipse’s path during the moment of totality is a breathtaking experience – but Coloradans will need to head down to Texas for that. Even still, people in Denver will see a partial eclipse of 71%, which is still impressive. And don’t forget: If you’re planning to watch the eclipse, wherever you are, you should first buy some special eclipse glasses to protect your eyes.
Colorado enters the space race (April)
When the Dream Chaser space plane lifts off in April on a maiden mission to carry cargo up to the International Space Station, it will be a proud moment for the Centennial State. This characterful new craft (it looks like a mini-Space Shuttle) was created by Sierra Space, a Colorado-based aerospace company. The Dream Chaser has a formidable task: launch successfully (without a human pilot), carry cargo into space, handle the 3,000-degree re-entry temperatures and then land like a conventional plane. If it all works, it will be an incredible engineering feat.
Comet Pons-Brooks says hello (April)
This distinctive “Devil Comet” — its shape is often compared to devil horns — only comes along every 71 years. During the first weeks of April, the comet should become fairly bright and develop a tail, making it potentially visible to the naked eye in the Northern Hemisphere. (And, a rare treat, it will be briefly visible in daytime during the total solar eclipse.) However, Pons-Brooks may get more difficult to see upon reaching its closest point to the sun on April 21, so try to catch it before then.
Journey to Mars (August)
Later this year, NASA’s EscaPADE mission will send two small spacecraft to Mars to study the planet’s solar wind energy and unique magnetosphere. That sounds straightforward enough, but this mission says a lot about the potential future of space exploration.
In aerospace terms, EscaPADE has been built very cheaply, via a special NASA program meant to fund low-cost, high-risk missions. And to even reach space, the two small spacecraft will need to hitch a ride. That’s how they will become the first paying customers on Blue Origin’s giant, reusable New Glenn rocket.
Perseid meteor shower hits its peak (August 11-12)
The legendary Perseids — first discovered by beady-eyed observers in the 1830s — are among the brightest and strongest meteor showers you’re likely to see. No wonder this shower is so popular with sky watchers: During its apex, it can deliver roughly a meteor per minute, each one with long, sometimes colorful streaks.
Even better, it arrives in peak vacation season when more of us are likely to be roaming in rural areas under unspoiled skies — the perfect viewing conditions. The best times for catching the meteors this year will be in the early hours, once the half-moon has set. PS. Bear in mind that it’s incredibly hard to see comets and meteors in a light-polluted city. If possible, head for quieter areas with dark skies.
USA goes to Jupiter (October)
For this major mission in October, NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft will spend six years travelling to Jupiter’s icy ocean moon (named Europa), which scientists believe might just hold the right conditions for life. Once the Clipper reaches its destination, it will orbit around Jupiter and perform multiple close flybys of the icy moon, in the hopes of finally finding some signs of elusive extra-terrestrial life.
The Geminids (December 13/14):
Traditionally one of the strongest and most dependable meteor showers, the Geminids are a true highlight of the winter sky watching calendar. During peak periods, North Americans can expect to see upward of 100 meteors per hour, although a nearly full moon this year might put a slight dampener on the viewing party. Interesting fact: Geminid meteors are actually pieces of debris from an asteroid named Phaethon, which break off under blazing heat as it circles the sun every 3.3 years.