Join us at a special date/time for this episode! Pamela’s traveling so we’re recording this on Saturday, 1/6/2018, at 2 pm EST / 11 am PST / 19:00 UTC!
Phew, 2018, time to press the reset button and enjoy a whole new year of space exploration and space science. What’s coming up this year? What should we expect to launch, and what will we see in the sky?
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This episode is sponsored by: Casper.
Google Lunar X Prize winner?
SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch
Gaia mission results
Lunar Eclipse in January
Parker Solar Probe
Kilogram Mass standard redefined?
Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)
Kepler new results
AI system training for new results in planetfinding, etc.
Space Internet system development?
Fast Radio burst observations
Chinese Space Station Uncontrolled rentry (yikes!)
Fraser going to Australia in July
Pamela going to Amsterdam in March, then Israel, plus lots more.
Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription
Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast, Episode 474: What’s coming up in 2018. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, Dr. Pamela Gay, the Director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the Director of CosmoQuest. Hey Pamela, how are you doing?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing?
Fraser Cain: Good. We are recording this episode literally one day – I’m using literally in the correct way – one day since we recorded the last episode. But for those of you receiving it in your podcast feeds, time has no meaning. It’s all relative. And so you’re going to receive it a couple of days extra. But that’s because you’re going somewhere next week.
Dr. Pamela Gay: I am. I am going to be at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C. and the meetings held in that city tend to be the absolute largest of all the AAS meetings. So, this is going to be several thousand researchers, students, education specialists, all the different careers that are needed to make professional astronomy a thing. We’re all going to be in one place, apparently freezing to death because Washington, D.C. So, today is all about getting everything done ahead of travel tomorrow.
Fraser Cain: And you’re going to bring back some knowledge, right?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I hope to and while I’m there, my goal is to – I’ve somehow managed to avoid having to have a lot of business meetings while I’m there, so I’m going to go pretty much as press. Tuesday is all about presentations and every other day, I will be tweeting out, blogging out and at 5:30 Eastern, Twitching out on CosmoQuestX on Twitch all the new things that we have learned that particular day.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, that’s one of my favorite times of the year, when you bring back all the new stories because it’s one thing to see all the press releases, but it’s another thing that you were there and you got a chance to chat with the actual researchers and you get a bit of a background knowledge about some of the experiences and the stories that went into actually gathering this research.
So, it’s funny. We wrapped up the show and we were like figuring out what we were going to do next week and I said, “Oh, you’re going to the AAS.” I really like it when you give that roundup of the AAS and some of the other big science meetings that are out there because those of you who aren’t in the science communicating group don’t really realize how much just comes out from these meetings, like just mountains and mountains of news and it’s kind of overwhelming. It takes a lot to sort of dig through it, so I’m really looking forward to that and I hope everybody else is too, so have a safe trip out there and have a successful hunt.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s my hope. That and one of the things you and I have joked about is there seems to always be a new tidal tail that has been discovered from some shredded dwarf galaxy.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. Oh, we got another one.
Dr. Pamela Gay: There is always a new explanation for the sun’s corona.
Fraser Cain: They find something new in the cause of microwave background radiation.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Exactly. So, we almost need a bingo card for some of these discoveries that are made every single year like clockwork.
Fraser Cain: Exactly. Yeah, that would be awesome if you just took your bingo card. We should totally do that. All right, 2018. Time to press the reset button and enjoy a whole new year of space exploration and space science. What’s coming up this year? What should we expect to launch and what will we see in the sky? All right, so we’re going to tackle both of these this episode. We’re going to talk about some of the stuff that we’re going to be able to – what stuff is expected to launch, what new rocketry, what new systems are coming online, but as well, what are some of the predicted events?
And I think before we even begin, I need to make the same disclaimer that I made last week, which is that 70 percent of what ended up being the big stories of the year, we had no preparation for. They were discoveries, they were events, they were failures, they were things that nobody had planned for and so we’ve got to assume that the same thing is going to happen this year. What we think is going to happen is going to be a fraction of what actually happens, so enjoy our hilariously outdated predictions by the end of this year.
Dr. Pamela Gay: We really need to, at some point, just blog. We don’t need to go on camera and admit shame on camera. We need to like, go back and find past episodes and see just how badly we’ve screwed up predictions in the past.
Fraser Cain: Well, we’ve never been super rigorous about it, but I would love, totally, and maybe this isn’t the time that we do it because we’re not super organized about it, but I would love this for us to like literally make some big predictions because I totally would have failed the Earth 2.0 prediction because I keep saying, “This is it. This is the year. This is when we find the second Earth.” And then the Kepler spacecraft goes down or whatever. So, let’s go. What do you got? What’s something that you’re looking forward to this year?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m really hoping that someone finally wins the Google Lunar XPRIZE. I’m really hoping that now that we have Falcon Heavy getting ready to finally do its Falcon Heavy thing that we’re going to see some of these teams – we both have friends with SpaceIL, there’s Moon Express, all these different teams. I want to see some of them finally get to the surface and do whatever they’re going to do to get those 500 meters and send back some video and show that anyone with enough gumption can get to the moon.
Fraser Cain: There was a couple of flights; I’m trying to remember who. Like I know some people have ended up booking a SpaceX Falcon – I thought a SpaceX Falcon, just a regular Falcon rocket.
Dr. Pamela Gay: They’re booked on all sorts of different things. It depends on the team. That’s the crazy part.
Fraser Cain: But the part that’s super great about this is that in some cases multiple teams are on the same rocket and so they’re going to land on the moon and then have some kind of wacky race across the surface of the moon to try and reach that finish line first and I would love if they had buzzsaws and they could fight each other as they were trying to make their way across the moon.
Dr. Pamela Gay: You want the Junkyard Wars version of it.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. But still, the fact that we’re going to get closer – and we’re running out of time. Like, if one of these spacecraft – and I know they already extended the Lunar XPRIZE timeframe –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Multiple, multiple times.
Fraser Cain: But I think they’re running out of time to actually claim the prize and make the big money. So, let’s hope this is the year that it finally comes together. All right, so I’m going to sort of pick a few spaceflight things for us. Now, you mentioned the Falcon Heavy last week as sort of in the final days of the year, it was clear that we had got rolled out to the launch pad I think on the first couple days of the year, the rocket got stood up and then was brought back down.
We’re going to see some probably captive fire tests. They’re going to test the engines at various throttles. They’re going to try and do some vibration tests. They’re going to do a few other tests. And it looks like right now we’re going to see the Falcon Heavy launch at the end of January. So, if all goes well, Falcon Heavy will launch on a Mars Interception trajectory carrying Elon Musk’s beloved Tesla Roadster, cherry red, playing “Space Oddity” as long as the battery holds out.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Now, do you think it will actually be a successful first launch?
Fraser Cain: Well, I mean Elon Musk couldn’t be downplaying it more. His opinion of success is if it clears the launch gantry and doesn’t do damage to this historic launch pad when it goes off. I mean this is the same launch pad that they used for the Apollo rocket. So, this is a very important launch facility and yeah, if that thing went off right on the launch pad, it would cause a massive amount of damage to it. But if it actually makes it to a few hundred meters above the launch gantry and then detonates, yeah, I think Elon Musk calls that a success. But the perfect success is that it’s all of the rockets are going to – all the first stages, all three first stages, two reused first stages and the one middle one, they’re all going to return back and land at various locations around the facility and then the upper stage is going to send this thing on this interception orbit. So, it should be, could be really exciting and super weird, right? To just have – like nothing like this has ever happened before.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s synchronized first-stage landings.
Fraser Cain: Just that we’ve never seen a privately built rocket used for such a whimsical purpose. Like there is nothing to compare this to except for maybe you could imagine someone back in the Roman times building a ludicrous statue to themselves because they can.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s the kind of thing I think Howard Hughes would have done.
Fraser Cain: Yeah.
Dr. Pamela Gay: He did movies that were whimsical and strange with crazy flight scenes and stuff instead, so this is totally a Howard Hughes maneuver from someone who is more mentally stable than Howard Hughes, as far as we know.
Fraser Cain: What else should people look forward to this year?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m really hoping that Gaia – and I am such a fangirl of the Gaia spacecraft – I’ m really hoping that Gaia is able to start firehosing us with statistically significant information on how common a whole bunch of otherwise rare things were and start doing for stars what Sloan Digital Sky Survey did for galaxies in terms of just, “Here is all the data, go understand everything because you have all the data.” So, I’m looking for all sorts of, “We didn’t know this was happening,” to start coming from Gaia.
Fraser Cain: I think it’s safe to say Gaia is one of the most productive and one of the most fascinating space missions that’s been released in the last decade. Not only will it discover a billion, it will track the movements and locations and chemistry of a billion stars, 1 percent of the stars in the Milky Way, it will also discover extrasolar planets. It will also help pin down information about dark matter and dark energy, maybe discover gravitational waves. This thing is going to do everything.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And what I’m kind of expecting and looking forward to is there will be a new slurry of papers on we have redefined the standard ladder of distant measurements by redefining distance to Cepheid and RR Lyrae variables and now everything has shifted a few percent.
Fraser Cain: So, I’m going to give you one that’s in astronomy, and this is visual astronomy, and this is – there’s going to be a lunar eclipse coming up at the end of January. And it’s going to suck for those of us in North America, but for the folks in Asia, they’re going to get a chance to see. I’ll see it just as the moon is rising in the morning. I don’t know what’s the date, the exact date. 31st I think? It’s right at the end of January. So, it’s going to be a very – and lunar eclipses are just always a wonderful treat and so if you’re going to be in the affected area, you’re going to want to go out and you’re going to want to watch the lunar eclipse as it happens and make sure you do.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And there’s a partial solar eclipse that will be kind of awesome if you’re in Cape Town or the southern third of Africa and not worth it for anyone else in the world. But, if you’re in the southern part of Africa or can go to Cape Town, which is a fabulous city, I highly recommend Cape Town, February 15th is the day to go.
Fraser Cain: Right on.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s high summer there. Go escape our winter by going and visiting summer in Cape Town where they have a beach with baboons and penguins on one beach.
Fraser Cain: So it’s not going to be a great solar eclipse year.
Dr. Pamela Gay: No.
Fraser Cain: Next year is going to be a good one and we’re really still waiting for the 2024 events. What else have you got?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I have to say this is going to be that year where budgets get sorted out in ways that either let us dream big or not. We have a all Republican everything at the moment and it’s going to be one of those years that as we look forward to starting the next decadal surveys, as we start looking to plan out the next set of years, we’ve pretty much finished James Webb Space Telescope. It will launch next year.
We’ve finished ALMA, we’ve finished Curiosity and this is the year we get to start thinking about what’s the next big thing and I’m waiting for those announcements to start coming out of we either have to tighten our belt and money’s going to manned spaceflight or we get to dream big and start imagining new great observatories. It’s going to be one or the other and I don’t know which extreme this year will take.
Fraser Cain: It’s going to be a really good year for missions. There’s going to be a ton of space missions taking off and heading out into space. So, I’ll go through a bunch of them and from a bunch of different countries as well. So, one that I think is going to be really interesting that won’t be on everybody’s sort of radar is going to be the Chang’e. I think – I hope I’m saying it the right –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Chang’e.
Fraser Cain: It’s Chang’e.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Really?
Fraser Cain: Yeah. I used to say Chang’e, and I got – I give people a hard time. So, it’s Chang’e. And that’s the Chinese lander and this is going to be a – ideally, it’s going to be a sample return mission. It’s going to be taking insects, seeds, to the surface of the moon, sort of seeing how they handle this lower lunar gravity. It’s going to be trying to be bringing a sample back from the moon. So, it’s going to be a very ambitious mission, one of the more ambitious missions that have happened in lunar exploration. So, I think that’s going to be amazing.
There’s going to be the Parker Solar probe, which is going to be almost a flagship mission to the sun and what I really love about the Parker Solar Probe is that it’s going to do a dozen flybys of Venus, a couple every year, tweaking its orbit and doing sort of like this reverse gravity slingshot to put it into an orbit that allows it to get very close to the sun. It’s going to be like 6 million kilometers away from the sun at its closest point to the sun, so it’s going to just be right there, seeing the sun at a higher resolution.
And when you think about those amazing images that we’ve got from SOHO and SDO and things like that, you haven’t seen anything yet. So, when Parker Solar Probe really starts to do those first observations of the sun, it’s going to be like how we felt when we could see pictures of Saturn from Cassini and things like that. But now it’s of the sun. So I can’t wait. I got a whole bunch more, but I won’t hit you with them all yet. Have you got anything else?
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, one of my favorite weird things that’s not a prediction, we’re pretty sure this will happen, but I’m super looking forward to figuring out how they do it is currently the kilogram mass is based on these physical balls they have I think in France and there’s concern that every time that they’re handled, they’re moved, anything happens, atoms rub off, slowly reducing the mass of what the standard mass is.
And they’re planning to finally redefine the kilogram based on physical properties this year. And I don’t know how they’re going to do that because it’s not like anyone has figured out how this already, figuring out things like redefining the meter; that was easy. But this one, I’m really looking forward to seeing how they do that this year.
Fraser Cain: Oh, that’s going to be crazy. It’s like a number of atoms of some molar weight of some kind of atom. But can you imagine like counting up the atoms? One, two –
Dr. Pamela Gay: And this is how I wonder how they’re going to do it, so I don’t know, but I look forward to it.
Fraser Cain: So, I’ll give you a couple more spacecraft that are going to be launching this year. The next big one that I think is pretty exciting is the Chandrayaan-2 and this is from the Indian Space Agency and this is going to be their mission to the moon. This is the second one and again, India has a really great track record of launching spacecraft. They have an orbiter at Mars, the MOM, and now they’re going to go back to the moon. So, just like more spacecraft orbiting the moon, exploring the moon. It’s fantastic.
Another big mission that’s going to be going up is the TESS spacecraft and this is going to be the transiting exoplanet survey satellite. And so it’s going to be a super version of Kepler, but unlike Kepler, which had a fairly narrow field of view, TESS is going to be able to see a big, wide swath of the night sky and be able to detect lots and lots and lots of planets around huge chunks. Like it should pretty much be able to find all of the transiting planets that are in our neighborhood just – when it’s done, we’ll know where all of the transiting planets are and then those will then become targets for follow on study and the other part that’s amazing about this is that it can find these Earth-sized worlds.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And one of the awesome things that we’re also seeing happening is Google has been like, “And we can solve that,” when it comes to exoplanets and they’ve loosed a new artificial intelligence that they’ve trained on the Kepler data. There’s no reason for them to not do the same thing when the TESS data starts coming. And because they’re actual programmers with actual training in programming versus astronomers who have learned how to program, their AIs work better than ours.
And so the Kepler team has done a really, really good job writing software that would specifically find planets that match certain known criteria and then the Planet Hunters citizen science project has done a really good job using the human brain to find patterns that our software couldn’t find. And Google’s like, “Give. Just give.” And they’ve –
Fraser Cain: Is that your job now? To train AIs?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes. And I’m okay with that.
Fraser Cain: Totally.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And there’s always going to be problems that need AIs trained for. So, I am happy to do the first few thousand data points and hand it all over to an AI, and so I think this is going to be the year that we see that computer scientists who are actual computer scientists with training in computer science where that is all they do start taking over different problems that scientists have been trying to solve and are underfunded, make in a year what a computer scientist makes in a months ways, I think the computer scientists are going to come in and just start solving problems for us. And I welcome this new invasion of the experts.
Fraser Cain: Right, so one of the big predictions that we’re going to see is that 2018 is going to be the year of space internet. So, right now, I know of eight to ten different organizations, and we’re just doing a story about this right now on Universe Today, eight to ten different groups that are trying to build constellations of satellites that are going to deliver high-speed internet to the Earth. And we’re going to start to see some of these launches.
The smart money is on right now is of course SpaceX. They’ve got a plan for a constellation of satellites that are sort of, I think 3,000 hundred-ish kilogram satellites that are going to be able to deliver gigabit internet to any spot on Earth. All you need to do is have a pizza box receiver. So you’re not going to be able to really get it while you’re walking around, but if you’ve got a cabin in the forest or if you’re on a boat or if you’re in your car or at your house.
And this is going to, in theory, this will eventually replace your broadband. So, whether it’s SpaceX that does it or whether it’s an upgraded iridium network, like I said, there are a bunch of groups that are all competing to do this and we’re going to start to see these first satellites go up and online. And I would be amazed if in five years from now it’s not a really competitive solution for being able to get your internet from space. I cannot wait to be able to get this.
Dr. Pamela Gay: This is going to create a new digital divide in some interesting ways because we know that Google and SpaceX both are very interested, especially Google, in getting broadband to new places and Google’s strategy is to give it away for free so that they can get people’s data. And SpaceX is more entrepreneurial. And I can imagine in rural areas that you have people that are paying $100.00 a month for their SpaceX satellite gigabit connection and Google is one town at a time installing Google Fiber and I’m intrigued to see how the race between fiber and satellite spells out across the country.
Fraser Cain: Satellite.
Dr. Pamela Gay: But the thing is, not everyone can afford that. So, in the rural areas, how is it going to play out?
Fraser Cain: In theory, it’s going to be about the same price as your broadband.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And not everyone can afford broadband, which is where it’s going to be interesting.
Fraser Cain: We’ll see. Yeah. I mean but the point is like if you can have a gigabit in one location, you can have a radio tower that can distribute it to other people. There could be wifi. There’s a bunch of options that this can do. So, the point is is that this breaks the chokehold of both the broadband and the mobile providers in a lot of these countries. And I know for the folks in the United States, you’ve really only gotten – in many cases two providers.
Dr. Pamela Gay: That’s optimistic.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. One provider where you can actually get your broadband internet from. Well, that is ridiculous and that needs to be solved. So, I think that this is the way. So, once again, Elon Musk to the rescue. What have you got, Pamela?
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, with – going back to the science side of things, we’ve finally gotten one observation of the fast radio burst and I’m hoping that now that we’ve seen one, we’re going to start seeing a whole bunch and finally start to figure out what the heck is going on and to figure out just these little things that we keep seeing and we’ve been seeing for a long time and don’t know what are. I want to start picking apart these and I think fast radio bursts, just like we finally know exactly what a short gamma ray burst is, I think these things are with all the new instruments coming on, what we’re finally going to be able to identify.
Fraser Cain: One of the most sensitive instruments for this project is here in Canada, just a few, well, maybe about 800 kilometers away from my house in the middle of British Columbia. It looks like a bunch of snowboard halfpipes all aligned. It’s called CHIME and I really would like to go and check it out at some point. We haven’t done an episode on FRBs yet, have we?
Dr. Pamela Gay: No, no. We should probably do that. Let’s consider doing that next.
Fraser Cain: It’s on the list that I sent you of ideas for topics, so maybe elevate that one.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And beyond that, we have Large Hadron Collider has been getting closer and closer and closer and getting more and more, still not quite statistically significant, tantalizing hints at new particles. And I’m really hoping that this year, they push it and we start either ruling out different models or confirming different models that might even start to explain what dark matter particles are.
Fraser Cain: That would be amazing. So, one big one here is watch the skies because the Chinese Tiangong-1 space station is going to be returning to Earth.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Uncontrolled.
Fraser Cain: Uncontrolled. Yeah, they lost control of the spacecraft a couple of years ago. Now it’s probably tumbling and is losing altitude and the current expectation right now is it’s going to come back sometime in mid-March. And it’s going to come back anywhere between North and South 43 degrees latitude, so mmmm.
Dr. Pamela Gay: My guess is it hits Siberia because everything seems to hit Siberia.
Fraser Cain: it can’t because it’s too high. It can’t even hit us here in Canada.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Aren’t the southern parts of Siberia that far South?
Fraser Cain: Northern California is sort of where the 43 degrees passes through. If you think about – draw a line through Northern California and wherever that works across the planet. I’m safe here and you –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Are not.
Fraser Cain: Are not safe, no. No, so there you go. You should be okay, actually.
Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m 31.
Fraser Cain: Oh, are you?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: Okay. Yeah, I’m at 49. But there you go. Then watch the skies. So, right now, the thing is that we don’t know where it’s going to come down. As it gets closer and closer and closer to actually coming down, then the controllers will know what those final orbits are going to be and they’ll go. It will probably come down on this track or it’s going to probably come down on that track and so then if you’re along that track, then you’ll know if there’s a risk. Most likely it’s just going to end up in the Pacific Ocean.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Because that’s the biggest part of our planet.
Fraser Cain: Yep. I’m pretty much out, but I’ve got some personal things that are going to be happening this year, so what about you?
Dr. Pamela Gay: As always, I am always waiting for that statistically significant something and I’m just going to go back to I’m pretty sure Gaia is going to do something awesome. And I look forward to it. I’m going to stop there.
Fraser Cain: Right. So, for me, I’ve got a talk that I’m giving in Australia in July. So, I’m going to get a chance to go to the Southern Hemisphere and it’s going to be an astronomer convention on the Gold Coast and I will see the Southern Hemisphere objects with my own eyeballs for the first time.
Dr. Pamela Gay: That is awesome.
Fraser Cain: I know. I’m going to get a chance to see the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, the Omega cluster, the Southern Cross, Alpha Centauri. I’m really excited to do this. So, hopefully we’re going to be able to extend the trip and maybe I’ll get a chance to go a couple of other places while I’m down there, since I’m already going to be in the neighborhood. So, that’s going to be a big thing that I’ll be doing this year.
Dr. Pamela Gay: If you can make it to New Zealand, it’s on my list of places I would move if I was given a job offer. It’s a very, very, short list. It’s a list of four places.
Fraser Cain: Right? You hear that New Zealand people? Pamela will come work from New Zealand. Anything else before we wrap up this week’s show?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I have nothing that exciting going on. In February, I’ll be at the European Testing Conference in Amsterdam. In March, I’m going to be at a big data conference in Israel. Other than that, I’m still plotting out the rest of my year.
Fraser Cain: Right on. All right. Well, have a good trip to AAS and we’ll see you when we actually see you, which will be close to two weeks, but for the people that are listening, it will be in a week. So, see you later Pamela.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Bye-bye.
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Duration: 33 minutes