Ep. 511: Predictions for 2019

We did it, we made it through 2018 in space. Now let’s look forward to the incredible launches, discoveries and astronomical events happening in 2019.

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Show Notes

New Horizons arrives at Ultima Thule on New Year’s Eve! We’ll be covering it live on our Twitch stream – https://www.twitch.tv/cosmoquestx
CosmoQuest releases new projects and a new webdesign on New Year’s Day
Chang’e 4 lander arrives on far side of the moon on Jan. 3.
Insight will tell us temperature of underground on Mars in early 2019 when they dig and put in a temperature probe
SpaceX Crew Dragon this year – Jan 17th empty test, July and August tests, hopefully one will be fully crewed!
Boeing: CST-100 Starliner – hopefully will test capsules this year
Parker Solar Probe still working – making another close approach to sun, showing engineering prowess in it’s trajectories and materials
Event Horizon Telescope – images in Spring 2019
OSIRIS-REx will start imaging in January, then visit in September to grab it’s sample to send back to Earth
Events to Observe – Lunar Eclipses, Solar Eclipse in summer, and Mercury Transit!
Hayabusa 2 – will be observing and returning a rock in December
SpaceX Starship
Cheops mission joining TESS measuring exoplanet transits
July 20th is 50th Anniversary of NASA’s Moon Landing, and 100th anniversary of IAU


Fraser: Astronomy Cast, episode 511, 2019 In Space. Welcome to the Astronomy Cast, our weekly, facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always is, Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela, how are you doing?

Pamela: I’m doing well. How are you doing Fraser?

Fraser: Great. Now, before we get into this week’s show, I know you have one quick piece of shameless self-promotion in the planet department.

Pamela: I do. My house has an infestation of planets, and I’m hoping that some of you out there can adopt these worlds and give them a fabulous home. For those of you who don’t know, I paint and I have been painting planets in my spare time to help give my brain something to do when it’s kind of done in with the other aspects of my day job, and I invite all of you to check them out. My husband and I have an Etsy store; all you have to do is go to 739Studios.com; 739, it’s prime, it’s odd. And he makes random wooden objects, and I paint planets. So, please take a planet off my hands.

Fraser: Take a planet off her hands. But also, I think it’s important for us to remind everybody, if you didn’t join us for the 40 hours of hangoutathonery, the cause is still there. We raised – I think you said we raised, what? Close to $30,000.00?

Pamela: Just over $30,000.00.

Fraser: $30,000.00 so far, which is sort of halfway to our larger goal. But if you were unable to participate live, it doesn’t mean that you can’t still help us out. And it’s very rare that we literally beg you. But, this is one of those times where, as we have mentioned – we mentioned this last week – the funding for CosmoQuest has been cut that the team that is working on the software, that is working on coordinating the scientists, working to just keep the lights on and keep this whole machine running, is living on borrowed time now, while Pamela gets hard at work writing for new funding grants. And she’s the master, but it takes time, and the wheels of politics take their time.

So, if you can, if you have any money to spare, if the work what we do with CosmoQuest is important to you, please take a second, go to hangoutathon.org and there are instructions there how you can participate. And for those of you who are trying to break some kind of tax time, we’ve only got another couple of day for when you get this, I think, to be able to provide some donations before the end of the year.

So, if you’ve been sitting on the fence and happily enjoying the science that’s happening from the sidelines and now, you’re wondering: this is the time. This is when we need your help, or we start laying off people. I can’t deliver the way to describe it.


Pamela: And if every single person who downloaded this podcast episode donated just $2.00, we’d be good. Now, the thing is, maybe 1 in 50 of you, maybe – more likely 1 in 1000 of you, and I mean that literally – are going to donate. If you wanna make the statistics better than 1 in 1000, please donate now. My way of contributing is, I’m not gonna pay my salary of off any of these donations.

Fraser: Yeah. And I don’t make any money off this either. So, it just goes to the team. It just goes to the people, the programmers, the editors, the producers, the people who are doing the work with us. So – All right, well, let’s get into the show – on a happier note. We did it! We made it through 2018 In Space. And now we look forward –


Pamela: In space.

Fraser: – to the incredible launches, discoveries and astronomical events happening in 2019. Now, we did this show last year, and apparently, we made a bunch of predictions, and I don’t care. Whatever predictions we made for 2018, those are lost to the annals of time. There is no way for anybody to go check or verify whether or not we were right, so it doesn’t matter. The past is prolonged; it’s time for us to look to the future and make some predictions for 2019. But really, we’re gonna look at the upcoming amazing stuff that you should be watching out for and stay tuned so that when it all happens you’re not surprised and shocked.

Pamela, just so many things happening in 2019, that we know of. Right? Of course, there’re gonna be also the unexpected discoveries that we weren’t familiar with. We can talk about it, sort of, through the calendar, or we can just pick and choose interesting events over the course of the entire year. Where do you wanna start?

Pamela: Well, I think the place to start – because this episode is going to go out on Monday, December 31st – and for those of you listening right now, there’s cool shit going on right now because Alan Stern likes to do orbital dynamics that disrupt holidays.

Fraser: Isn’t it really Alex Parker’s fault? I saw you called him out on Twitter.

Pamela: It is. So, as near as I could tell, Alan was like, “We need to do this on a holiday,” and Alex was like, “And it’s done.” I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but yeah. So. Alex Parker, he’s a fabulous guy, super creative, PI of one of the survey teams, and rumor has it, he’s the person that figured out how to get New Horizons arriving at Ultima Thule, timed for the strike of midnight, on New Year’s for the East Coast, where their organizational folks are working at the Advanced Physics Lab out at John Hopkin’s University.

Now, we have mixed information on how best to cover this because the US Government is a bit not open for business right now. There was a Tweet by NASA administrator Bridenstine earlier today, saying NASA TV will be covering this. So, I have hope and we will be co-streaming everything live over on twitch.tv.cosmoquestx/annie wilson, and I have you covered. Come join us, chat with us. And we’re also gonna be launching a bunch of new stuff on the CosmoQuest website.

Fraser: But the gist is this is essentially gonna be the most distant objects that human beings have ever reached. It’s way out beyond Pluto, Ultima Thule, another Kuiper Belt Object. It’s been a bit of a mystery as the spacecraft is approaching the object. It’s not brightening up in the way that astronomers were expecting. They were expecting to get a few details, to sort of see the way it was changing in brightness. Maybe that would mean that it’s got a moon; maybe there’s some kind of dust around it, but it’s still a bit of a puzzle. So, when it actually does arrive, on New Year’s Day, it is going to be the first insight that we have to this whole new place. And will it look the same as Pluto, will it look different from Pluto and Charon; we have no idea.

Pamela: It’s truly mysterious. And watching people be deeply confused at this object’s refusal to variate in brightness is so much fun because it’s not behaving the way we expect an object to behave, which means that’s it’s either the most boring surface ever, is uniquely aligned with us, is rotating super weird – This is an object that we need a closer look at, and we are getting a closer look just in time to force us to get up early in the morning on New Year’s Day.

Fraser: Yeah. I can’t wait. And by the time people are reading this, they will be able to see these first pictures. But the timeframes that are gonna be going on are mind-bending. It is so far away; the images are gonna take so long to come out. It’s gonna be 20 months for the data to just trickle back home. So, we won’t really see all of the pictures that we’re taking in this brief period of time for 20 months. So, we –

Pamela: We’ll get the thumbnails.

Fraser: We’ll get the thumbnails, but we won’t get the full rich, full dramatic version. And the hope is that this isn’t gonna be the end of New Horizons. There could be one more object in the works if they can find something that’s, sort of, in its cone of trajectory for the future. So, stay tuned. I can’t wait. And, again, by the time you’re listening to this, you’ll know what the pictures look like, so it’s like we’re already talking about something that happened in 2018, but we don’t know. You know, but we don’t know – if you listen to this. Which is so weird. All right. Well, it’s gonna be exciting.

So, then, I think we are moving somewhat through time here. So, why not? I wanna talk about the Chinese mission to the Moon. And we actually talked about this in 2018, the Chang’e-4. And it set up at the relay station at the far side on the Moon, and it launched the rover lander. And now in just – January 3rd – so again, by the time you listen to this show, this might have already happened – the rover lander is going to be touching down on the far side of the Moon. And for the first time, we are going to see this bizarre, tumbled up, chewed up landscape that is the other side of the Moon. Not the side that we see, but the side we don’t see.

Pamela: And while this mission isn’t peopled, they’re building up towards that. So, in the future, there may very well be that it’s Chinese astronauts who are the first humans to go to the Moon in our lifetime.

Fraser: Yeah. I don’t care who does that. Go China. Go SpaceX. Go US. Go Europe. Somebody, get to the Moon. Well, we’ll talk about this later on, but of course, the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing is coming up. What else do we got?

Pamela: So, the thing that I’m looking most forward to, and at this point we don’t know when it’s gonna happen, is finding out the temperature profile of the soil on Mars. This does not sound like the most exciting thing in the world or on another world, but for years I’ve been going to conference talks, I’ve been hearing people talk about, “Well, if this is true, that is true, then we have liquid possibilities underneath the surface.” And I want to know what is that temperature profile on Mars and is there the capacity for subsoil chemistry and potentially even life to be going on.

Fraser: Yeah. So, in February, NASA’s insight spacecraft, which we covered as a 2018 – you’re gonna see this happen a lot – it has already placed its seismometer gently on the surface of Mars, and in February it’s going to hammer in a probe, a temperature probe, 5 meters down into the regolith of Mars, and that is going to serve as a way to measure the temperature gradient. How is that gonna work?

Pamela: It is a super cool device that they put together where it essentially bores itself in thanks to, well – momentum. They have a hammer inside of a shaft that carefully and slowly pulls itself up and then releases with violence downwards. And this downward release it impacts into the soil and every time it moves itself down a little bit more, and a little bit more, and a little bit more. And it’s this up slowly, downwards quickly that allows this to happen.

Fraser: And how will it be to check the temperature?

Pamela: Well, it has sensors. We have gotten really, really good at putting sensors into things that bury themselves into the ground. This is technology that the oil industry has really perfected. This is kind of like the smallest oilrig ever, it just has a different way of boring down under the ground and it uses a whole lot less electricity.

Fraser: Right. But by having this temperature probe 5 meters down below the surface, and measuring the temperature very carefully, and measuring the temperature variations between the daytime and the nighttime, and the wintertime and the summertime, they will be able to model what they think the interior – how molten the interior of Mars is, which is –

Pamela: Well, so this doesn’t so much get to the molten as it gets to the insulation. The seismometers get to the molten. This is only going down, I believe it’s 5 meters, and 5 meters starts to tell you how much insulation do you get, how much thermal variants do you get. The seismometer, as it measures waves going through the world, is going to tell us are there pockets of more or less liquid material inside or is it completely solid.

So, between these two instruments we start to get a profile of what is the outer insulating properties – if you wanted to build a hobbit hole on Mars and how well will it thermally protect you from the outside. And then if you kept digging is there geologic activity down there? And more importantly, could this be the on again, off again, source of methane that we may or may not be seeing.

Fraser: Right. So, 2019 is going to be the year that Americans were able to deliver human beings to the International Space Station, in theory. So, there are two spacecraft that are being developed right now. The first by SpaceX is called Crew Dragon, and the other one by Boeing is called the CST-100 Starliner – I think?

Pamela: It’s the Starliner.

Fraser: Yeah. And both of those are due for un-crewed tests. Now, the SpaceX one is going to be launching on January 17th; it’s going to not have anybody in it. And then they’re gonna be doing another mission, I think in June, with some astronauts on board. But it’s not gonna go anywhere; it’s just gonna go up and go to orbit and come back down. And then in, I believe, September – August, we should see the first mission, which will have the Crew Dragon taking astronauts to the International Space Station.

So, if SpaceX’ schedule works as they are hoping, we should see three launches of the Crew Dragon this year. One of the un-crewed Crew Dragon, then we’ll see a crewed Crew Dragon, and then we’re gonna see a crewed Crew Dragon to the International Space Station. The Boeing flight is behind. It’s probably gonna be taking off – let’s see – in March, I think?

Pamela: You are so optimistic.

Fraser: I know, I know, I know. This is what people are planning. This is how it works, right? So, Boeing is gonna test their mission sometime in March, and hope to have a crew on board in August. But I don’t know of any plans to send astronauts to the space station from Boeing this year. So, we should see, really one of the United States’ greatest weaknesses is that they can’t send human beings to space. So, that thing’s gonna get fixed.


Pamela: Virgin Galactic would argue with you, but it depends on your definition of space. We can’t send people to orbit. We can’t send people to orbit.

Fraser: Sure. Yeah, yeah. I would even say, you can’t send people to space.

Pamela: Fine. The reason that I am more optimistic about one of these space crafts than the other is, we’ve previously seen a Dragon capsule launch a load of cheese, because why not? This is a tried and true rocket that goes up, it feels like every day of the week. It’s probably like three days of the week. And Boeing’s rocket, we just haven’t seen enough of. And so, here we have both a rocket and a capsule that have to be tested, whereas, with SpaceX it’s just the capsule.

Now, one of the things that intrigues me about this timeline is, Elon Musk likes to test things during that week during which NASA’s had so many accidents occur. This is that third week in January where, for whatever reason, we’ve seen two space shuttles get lost and an Apollo capsule. And we know that temperature has to do with some of the issues with the space shuttles. And to see him purposefully over, and over again, pushing the boundary during January is his way of saying, “We’re not gonna let a little bit of cold weather worry us. We’re gonna show we’re solid. But we’re gonna do people in the summer.”

Fraser: Right. Yes. And I think that summer, people; that’s the time. I agree. All right. Let’s move on. So, we talked about the – you know what? It’s your turn. What do you wanna talk about?


Pamela: Oh! Okay. Oh, man. Those are the cool things. So, Parker Solar Probe is continuing its journey through the solar system, it’s going to make another close approach to the Sun. This isn’t a mission that’s really returning any of the super-showy pictures like Juno has spoiled us with. But, with every one of its amazing gravitational assists it is showing its mathematical prowess and every time it dives through the Sun’s corona, it is showing its material science prowess.

This is just a technological feed that is going to build up a scientific picture that may not be pretty except for intellectually, and that too is awesome. And Juno, too, is still out there. I just have to say Juno’s there until 2021. We’re good with Juno; pretty pictures will keep coming.

Fraser: Yeah. you’re gonna see a flyby of Parker Solar Probe on April 4th; you’re gonna see one in September, and you’re gonna see one in December. So, three flybys of the Sun, each one getting closer, and closer, and closer. Now you say there won’t be pretty – there will be pretty pictures.

Pamela: There’s be pretty pictures, and there’s “Holy-expletive-Batman! I need to learn how to paint!” It’s gonna not be the latter.

Fraser: It’s not gonna be as pretty as Juno. I mean, hilariously, it’s gonna be super close, so that you’re not gonnna see structures. We know we see the sun, but this sort of far out picture. But, still, I think they’re gonna surprise and wow us with the kinds of images they’re gonna be turning. So, don’t listen to Pamela. She’s just grumpy.

So, one thing that people have been asking me, and asking me, and asking me is, “When do we see pictures from the Event Horizon Telescope?” And this picture was taken more than a year ago, now. This is, of course, the first-ever image of the event horizon of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way. From what we understand, we’re going to see the first images of it in the spring of 2019. And so –

Pamela: Do you believe this?

Fraser: I do. I do. Yeah. Why not? Because it’s been so long and everybody who is working on it tells me that that’s when we’re gonna see the pictures. And s ost people have already forgotten. So, yeah. I think that’s when we’re gonna actually see these first – this one first picture. Of course, as we mentioned, prepare yourself, it’s gonna be a blob. But the shape of this blob will tell people whether Einstein was right or wrong? My money’s on right.

Pamela: Truth. So, speaking of lumps, we have a spacecraft at Bennu. It is working its way into orbit ever so very carefully. And OSIRIS-Rex is going to start returning a mosaic image in January. It is going to then swoop down to the surface in September. And in between those two times – CosmoQuest: we have written the software; we have tested the software; the software is ready to go. And out software is part of how they’re going to find the rock that they’re gonna steal off of that surface to bring back to Earth.

Fraser: Yeah. So, remember when we said there’s a good reason to help out with CosmoQuest? This is one of them.

Pamela: I’d like my staff to still be employed when we’re doing the awesome stuff. Please.

Fraser: Exactly. All right, so you’ve got some – a couple of astronomical events that you should be watching out for. The first one is, there’s going to be a lunar eclipse in January. And the cool thing about this is that it is gonna be visible for – the folks in the United States. Not that – they get all of the lunar eclipses. But I live very close. It’s gonna be visible to me and the folks in the western hemisphere. The last one was visible to Europe and – South Africa, which is where we had our livestream from. So, this one’s gonna be visible for the folks in the western hemisphere, which is gonna be great. I think it’s the 20th-21st. So, enjoy that. And then there’s also gonna be a solar eclipse that’s gonna be happening in the summertime – July 2nd.

Pamela: And in November, there’s a Mercury transit.

Fraser: I know, I know, I know. That’s gonna be amazing. That could be the highlight for most people because everyone will be able to see the transit – where it’s daytime. Right. But the solar eclipse is gonna be a rough one because it’s gonna zip through Chile, Argentina. So, it’s gonna start in the Pacific Ocean, end up in the Atlantic Ocean, and just make this quick slice across South America. So, you’ve gotta be very well positioned to be able to actually see the thing live.

We were thinking of trying to organize some kind of trip down, as part of Astro Tours, but it just ended up being too difficult to be able to try to pack yourself into a small part of the world during this time. So, for the folks in Chile, who live down there: Congratulations! You’re gonna enjoy it.

Pamela: I’ve actually had people say, “Please, please, please, please, don’t come. You bring bad weather.”

Fraser: Right. And it’s gonna be wintertime in the southern hemisphere. So, the chances of being able to see it are gonna be a little worse. So, yeah. I agree. What else you got?

Pamela: So, Hayabusa2 – we need to remember it’s not just OSIRIS-REx. These two spacecraft are sampling two different near-Earth asteroids. We have the carbonaceous chondrites for OSIRIS-REx, and we have more of a metal-rich asteroid for Hayabusa2. It too shall be grabbing a rock and it will be departing Ryugu with its rock in December. So, it’s rock collecting time folks.

Fraser: Yeah. Both missions are gonna be bringing rocks back. All right. I think the one that the SpaceX nerds are most excited about is going to be the first hop test of the Starship, which of course is the new SpaceX – the new name for the BFR; it’s called the Starship. The booster is called the Super Heavy. And right now they’re constructing the outer shell of the Starship in Texas, I believe? Or is it in –?

Pamela: It’s down in Texas and it looks strangely like a silo or a water tower right now.


Fraser: Yeah, like a big – but apparently he’s switched – they’ve switched the material from carbon fiber composite to stainless steel, which is awesome. Right?

Pamela: It’s weird!

Fraser: No way! It’s the best. Are you kidding me? It looks like an old-timey 1950s rocket; it’s gonna be chrome and shiny – this is the science fiction future that we were always promised. So, if everything goes well, this thing will hop into the air and land again.

Pamela: And I’m deeply amused that folks like Scott Manley are trying to figure out if Elon Musk is trolling us with the current pictures that do look like a water tower.

Fraser: Yeah, totally looks like a water tower. Like, “Is that it? Is that real? Is that the thing? Or is that just a water – Or is that where you’re gonna store fuel?” Like, “It’s pretty weird that that’s what you’re doing.” Yeah. We can’t be entirely sure that he’s not just trolling us.

And the problem, of course, classic Elon’s style is he is just trickling out the news, tiny bit by tiny bit onto the internet through Twitter, and not really answering any good questions. And so, you’re just getting – The fans are just arguing with each other and it is – as a space journalist, who kind of relies on people to provide information for the things they say, it’s enraging. But in theory, we’re gonna see a hop this next – in 2019, and then orbital by 2020. But that will be for 2020’s show.

Pamela: Yeah. And along the way, we do expect there to be science. I personally expect there to be more gravitational waves than ever before even if my heart is still curmudgeonly about it, and I think this could potentially lead to new understanding on the initial mass function for the first stars in our universe. We’re finding black holes at masses we weren’t expecting and numbers we weren’t expecting, and the only way to explain this is weird creation mechanisms, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this works.

I’m looking forward to seeing how far we’re able to push the very large telescope now that it has full on interferometry going left and right; I’m looking forward to new results coming out of the Gaia Mission, test results coming – there are so many things doing science. It’s easy to get all excited about the robots in space, the rovers on other worlds. But there’s cool, everyday telescopes helping to expand our understanding as well.

Fraser: I mean, the grand-based telescopes with a very large array – Sorry. The Very Large Telescope, which is the European Southern Observatory’s telescope, essentially the most powerful telescope on Earth – it’s four enormous telescopes that work together as one Voltron super telescope – and they have some incredible equipment that are attached to these telescopes. They have the sphere instrument and the espresso instrument, and they’re producing the most stunning images of planets orbiting stars, of planetary disks, of gaps in these planet-forming regions. We’re seeing other worlds orbiting other stars at a higher level of resolution than we’ve ever seen before.

And this is all just a taste of what’s gonna happen when the big telescopes arrive in the middle of 2020. But now, ground-based telescopes are well beyond the capabilities of space-based telescopes for infrared, and for near-infrared, and visible light. They still need them for ultraviolet, and X-rays, and certain things like that. But the ground telescopes have caught up and have moved ahead. So, now we need James Webb to go up and push it forward. But I think, you’re exactly right. You’re gonna see images of things happening in other places that are going to make your jaw drop when you wrap your head around what it is that you’re looking at.

Pamela: And the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, as it returns planetary disk after planetary disk, capturing the stages of solar system formation, we may actually end up with enough data that we can say, “This is what it looks like at every stage,” the same way we say, “This is what galaxy collisions look like at every stage,” because we have so many images.

Fraser: Yeah. Here’s how planets form.

Pamela: Yeah. Watch.

Fraser: Yeah. Now, there aren’t a lot of brand new missions going up, but one that is going up is the European Space Agency’s CHEOPS mission, the characterizing exoplanet satellite, and it is going to be another planet hunter. And it’s gonna join TESS in finding planets or orbiting bright stars relatively nearby. And so, we’re gonna get another – more planets – which is great.

Pamela: And we continue to look forward to dark energy discoveries, dark matter discoveries. We will not have not have Large Hadron Collider discoveries because it is shut down for upgrades. And sometimes that’s a good thing.

Fraser: Yeah. Well, I got an invite to come and check it out, so I should go do it now that it’s shut down. I mean you won’t get any superpowers when you go in, but you also won’t die.

Pamela: I don’t wanna run that fast.

Fraser: Now is the time to check it out. Cool. Well’ we’re running out of time. One big event, and we mentioned this earlier, is on July 20th; it is the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. This is the time, 50 years since human beings first set foot on the Moon.

Pamela: And this is the 100th Anniversary of the International Astronomical Union and the 400th Anniversary of some of Kepler’s laws. So, stay tuned for the history as well. And one last time, go buy my planets at 739Studios.com because my house is filled with worlds and it doesn’t have enough volume for them.

Fraser: Yeah. Exoplanet hunters are finding countless worlds in Pamela’s house.

Pamela: It is true.

Fraser: All right. Well, thanks, Pamela. Here’s to an amazing 2019 and I can’t wait to see what unfolds over the next year.

Pamela: And I shall see you on the other side.

Fraser: All right.

Female voice: Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by the Planetary Science Institute, Fraser Cane and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at Astronomy Cast. You can email us at info@astronomycast.com, Tweet us @astronomycast, like us on Facebook, and watch us on YouTube. We record our show live on YouTube every Friday at 3:00 p.m. EST, 12:00 p.m. PST, or 19:00 UTC. Our intro music was provided by David Joseph Wesley, the Altro music is by Travis Searle, and the show was edited by Susy Murph.

[End of Audio]

Duration: 34 minutes

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