As the world looks ahead to 2017, many astronomers and sky gazers are looking up, with a litany of space-related events and missions peppering the months ahead. We've chronicled a handful of the most exciting to circle on your calendar. Let's all hope for clear skies.
Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova will make its closest approach to Earth on Feb. 11 at a distance of 7.7 million miles. (Photo: Jose Chambo/NASA)
Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, discovered simultaneously in 1948 by Japanese astronomer Minoru Honda and Czechoslovakian astronomers Antonin Mrkos and Ludmila Pajdusakova, is a periodic comet that returns to the inner solar system every five years.
While this is the same comet that put on a show to those with telescopes or strong binoculars on New Year's Eve 2016, the real time to catch this sungrazer is on its return trip back through the solar system. On Feb. 11, Comet 45P will make its closest approach to Earth, coming within 7.7 million miles and brightening to a predicted magnitude of +6. This is just on the edge of viewing with the naked eye. Look for it near the constellation Hercules just before dawn.
SpaceX's Falcon Heavy test
Sometime in the first half of 2017, SpaceX is expected to proceed with the inaugural launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket. Consisting of three Falcon 9 cores, this 27 engine rocket will (if successful) become the most powerful operational booster in the world. In addition to being able to lift more than 119,000 pounds into orbit, the Falcon Heavy is also expected to operate at one-third the cost of the next closest heavy booster.
The launch of the Falcon Heavy will also hold special significance for the future of humanity's exploration of deep space, including a potential manned mission to Mars.
"Falcon Heavy was designed from the outset to carry humans into space and restores the possibility of flying missions with crew to the moon or Mars," the company states on its website.
When SpaceX founder Elon Musk does announce the first launch date, you can bet it will quickly become one of the more nail-biting space-related events of 2017.
The Great American Eclipse
On Aug. 21, the first total solar eclipse visible from the contiguous United States in more than three decades will dazzle from sea to shining sea. To see the moon fully pass in front of the sun, however, you'll need to be within a 75-mile wide band that stretches across the U.S. between Oregon and South Carolina. Those outside this special band will still witness quite a shot, as the sun takes on a crescent shape for between one to two minutes.
The place to head to if you're really eager to embrace this event? Glendo, Wyoming. Never heard of it? That's not surprising, as the town is home to only 205 people. That population is expected to dramatically increase as Glendo's location is in the bulls-eye of the moon's shadow on Aug. 21. As a result, it will experience the totality of the solar eclipse for just under three minutes.
"Plan a trip to see this total solar eclipse," writes astronomer Dean Regas. "Call in sick to work. Play hooky from school. If you need an astronomer’s note, I can provide one. A total solar eclipse will be a sight you will never forget."
Saturn's rings on display
For much of 2017, the planet Saturn will shine at its brightest since 2002. This is because its beautiful rings, which contribute greatly to its ability to be seen with the naked eye, will be "wide open," with Saturn's northern hemisphere tipped in our direction. In fact, the planet won't look this good again until at least 2030.
The ringed planet will be at its brightest in the evening sky on June 15, when it makes its closest approach to Earth. A medium-sized or larger telescope will allow you to view Saturn's rings and a few of its brightest moons.
China's moon mission
In the fall of 2017, China will launch its new Chang’e 5 lander on a mission to land on the moon and return 4.5 pounds of lunar samples back to Earth. If successful, it would mark the first time in more than 40 years that a sample from the moon has been made available for scientific study.
"We are ready. Every lab is ready," chief scientist Ouyang Ziyuan told reporters in October 2016. "Once the samples are back, we can begin our analysis right away."
In addition to Chang’e 5, China is also planning a 2018 mission to make the first-ever soft-landing on the far side of the moon. The lander would include a 37-pound rover to explore the moon's surface and relay scientific data, pictures, and video back to China's mission control.
Geminid meteor shower
Campers take in the December 2014 Geminid meteor shower. (Photo: Eddie Yip/flickr)
While the Perseid meteor shower each August offers a fantastic opportunity to witness shooting stars, this year's event will unfortunately be washed out by a waning gibbous moon. Thankfully, with the holiday season in full swing, the Geminid meteor shower on Dec. 14 will pick up the slack. With the moon a waning crescent rising before dawn, the evening will be perfectly tuned to allow skygazers to spot as many as 100 meteors per hour.
Cassini crashes into Saturn
On Sept. 17, the Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn will make a dramatic death plunge into the planet. The maneuver, designed to prevent a future fuel-spent Cassini from crashing into (and potentially contaminating) two moons around Saturn thought to harbor life, will record unprecedented data on the ringed world.
"It’s inspiring, adventurous and romantic — a fitting end to this thrilling story of discovery," NASA writes.
The dramatic finale will cap a mission by Cassini spanning more than 20 years in space. Discoveries, some of which we've profiled here, have included everything from landing a probe on the moon of Titan to spotting a giant hurricane spanning more than 1,200 miles in Saturn's atmosphere.