Looking back at 2020, it was a pretty good year for not only space exploration, but also some wonderful astronomical treats: Mars Perseverance blasted off toward the red planet, Americans launched from U.S. soil for the first time since 2011 and we even had a surprise bright comet.
While we can’t predict everything that will happen in 2021, there will be a lot going on in the sky — and some historic missions to look forward to.
Here are just a few space-related events to expect:
January meteor shower
Who doesn’t love a good meteor show? The Quadrantid meteor shower is expected to be the first one of the year and also one of the most active. Under peak conditions — with dark, clear skies — the shower can produce up to 120 meteors an hour.
There are a few downsides to the timing of this shower. One is that the peak falls within a narrow window: just about six hours. The second is that January tends to be one of the cloudiest months of the year. And also, this year the moon will be up and roughly 85 per cent full, which means only the brightest meteors will be visible.
While the shower runs from December 27 to January 10, the peak night is expected to be overnight from January 2 to 3.
Visitors arrive on Mars
There are a couple of highly anticipated missions to Mars planned for this year.
On February 18, NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover is scheduled to land at Jezero Crater. The rover — similar in size to Curiosity, which has been on Mar’s surface since 2012 — is also the first equipped with a helicopter, named Inigenuity.
The location is an important one, as it’s the first rover that is specifically designed to look for signs of past life on Mars. Jezero Crater is considered to be a promising place to find those signs, as it’s the home of an ancient lake bed that planetary scientists believe could have preserved any organic matter.
And in a historic first, China is expected to become the third country to land on the red planet. It’s Tianwen-1 rover launched last July and is scheduled to arrive some time in February. Though unconfirmed, it’s believed to be landing in Utopia Planitia, near where NASA’s Viking 2 landed in 1976. (As an aside, Star Trek fans might recognize the name as the location of the Starfleet shipyards.)
Planets in the morning sky
If you’re an early riser, you won’t want to miss out on a beautiful planetary grouping in the dawn sky on March 9.
Just before sunrise, Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn should be low on the eastern horizon together with a crescent moon.
While Jupiter and Saturn should be fairly easy to spot, Mercury will likely be more challenging. But you can use Jupiter to help locate it, as dim Mercury will be slightly to the lower left of the second-brightest planet in our sky.
If you have a pair of binoculars, you can use them to look at Ganymede and Europa, two moons of Jupiter that will be on either side of the planet. They will also help you locate Mercury.
After a successful first flight to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX looks for a repeat performance on March 30 in the Crew 2 launch.
On board will be NASA astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency’s Thomas Pesquet.
The launch will mark the third time astronauts have been sent to the ISS on board SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. The first was a demonstration mission, the second — launched in November — was the first official return of launches of astronauts from U.S. soil since 2011.
Part of what makes the SpaceX launches so exciting, isn’t just the ride up, but also the return of the first stage — or booster — of its Falcon 9 rocket. To date SpaceX has a first stage seven times
NASA has awarded both SpaceX and Boeing contracts to send astronauts to the ISS, however, Boeing’s first uncrewed demonstration launch in December 2019 failed to dock with the station. So now it’s playing a game of catch-up. It plans to conduct a second uncrewed test flight of its CST-100 spacecraft some time in the first quarter of 2021. Its first crewed test will follow, perhaps some time in June.
Unfortunately, there won’t be many eclipses in 2021, just two lunar and two solar.
On May 26, expect a total lunar eclipse. However, it will only be visible across western Canada at moonset, so it will look like a partial lunar eclipse. However, there are always ways to enjoy the show online, through the Virtual Telescope Projector other online sites.
However, on November 19, most of Canada should be able to see a partial lunar eclipse. The eclipse should look like a total eclipse, however, as only a small fraction of the moon will remain in the penumbra, the fainter outer shadow.
Potential for northern lights
The sun, which goes through an 11-year solar cycle with a solar minimum and maximum, is coming out of a very quiet minimum. That means activity on the sun is already increasing as it makes its way toward the maximum.
During the solar max, the sun becomes more active, with more sunspots. These can result in solar flares, which are sudden releases in energy. These are often followed by a coronal mass ejection, where fast-moving charged particles travel along the solar wind outward. If Earth happens to be in the path, the particles can disrupt our magnetic field, and the particles interact with molecules in the atmosphere.
There were already more sunspots in December, with some reports of northern lights across Canada. It’s still unclear if this maximum will be quieter, as the last few have been. However, a recent paper suggests that there’s a possibility that this solar cycle may be more active than those before.
Perseid meteor shower
Due to the favourable weather conditions and the number of meteors at its peak, the Persieds are the most anticipated meteor shower of the year.
In 2021, the shower is expected to run from July 17 to August 26, but peak on the night of August 11–12.
The shower rarely disappoints, though in 2020, the shower seemed to produce fewer meteors than normal.
At its peak, under ideal conditions — meaning cloud-free and in a dark-sky location — the shower can produce close to 100 meteors an hour.
Tips for catching it: get to as dark a location as you can, and just look up. No binoculars or telescopes needed.
Hubble’s successor finally to launch
After years of delay, NASA’s James Webb telescope — the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope — is set to launch.
The telescope, which will be more powerful than Hubble, is scheduled to launch on board a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket on October 31 from French Guiana.
Webb is far larger than Hubble and will view the sky primarily in the infrared spectrum rather than in visible light. This allows it to see things that are invisible to the unaided eye. It also allows it to look at the atmospheres of potentially habitable planets, distant worlds orbiting distant stars.
The trusty Geminids
A final treat for the end of the year should be the Geminid meteor shower. This is the most active shower of the year, with up to 150 meteors an hour at its peak under ideal conditions.
The 2021 Geminid shower runs from Dec. 4–17 but peaks on the night of Dec. 13–14.
Viewing this shower can be challenging due to the time of year. December tends to be one of the cloudiest months. However, you can try catching a few meteors in the nights ahead and after the peak.
The shower rarely disappoints, with bright fireballs shooting across the sky.
Seaspan’s plans to consolidate its ship repair business at Vancouver Drydock is running into opposition from its residential neighbours.
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Seaspan Shipbuilding is outgrowing its operations on the North Shore, but the company’s plans to expand its companion Vancouver Drydock is colliding with concerns of the residential neighbourhood that has grown up around the century-old industrial waterfront.
Building new ships for the Canadian Coast Guard and Royal Canadian Navy was absorbing Seaspan’s capacity to repair ships at its main shipyard at the end of Pemberton Avenue, said company spokeswoman Kris Neely.
Neely said the company has been thinking about expanding for awhile, as part of a vision to create a “multi generational business.”
“As part of that, we’re consolidating our repair and maintenance services out of Vancouver Drydock and then being able to focus on shipbuilding efforts at our Vancouver Shipyard.”
Their plan is to push Seaspan’s existing dry dock facilities on the Lower Lonsdale waterfront 40 metres further into Burrard Inlet, then ask the Port of Vancouver to extend its water lot lease 40 metres to the west in order to add three smaller dry docks.
Seaspan submitted an application for a review of the plan to the port in April. That federal authority deemed the application complete on June 21, opening up a public comment period. That included virtual public meetings July 13 and 15, and ends July 30.
Many of the comments from residents of condo towers that face the proposed expansion have expressed opposition to allowing Seaspan’s migration west when it has space to the east of its existing docks that is already within its lease.
It isn’t just a matter of views being blocked by new facilities jutting out in front of condos, said resident Al Parsons. Residents are concerned about the impact of additional noise and pollution, including tug boats operating in the waters in front of Shipyard Commons, the bustling commercial district and public space with its waterfront trail and a playground.
“We knew Seaspan was our neighbour when we moved in,” Parsons said. “What we didn’t know was that they were going to continue to move westward and, I think, impose themselves on the (waterfront) Spirit Trail.
“It has walkers, joggers, cyclists, there’s a playground that was built for kids, which is going to be right beside this expansion.”
Parsons said residents aren’t opposed to the idea of expansion and support an initiative that Seaspan says would create 100 jobs, but don’t like there wasn’t any consultation before the company submitted its application.
And they are pushing back against a possible westward expansion, unless Seaspan proves it cannot expand east within their existing lease.
The City of North Vancouver is working on a response to Seaspan’s proposal, but would like to see the public comment period extended and all resident and business concerns taken into consideration.
“I understand the concerns and share many of them,” Mayor Linda Buchanan said in a statement. “This project will bring more family-supporting jobs to the community, but the quality of life of residents needs to be a priority as well.”
Neely said Seaspan did look at other options for this expansion, but siting the new dry docks on the east side of its operations would block water access to a fabrication shop on the site that builds components for new vessels at Vancouver Shipyards.
However, Parsons argued that the east side is perhaps more inconvenient for Seaspan, which would be free to use the east side of its property for other purposes if it were granted a westward expansion.
“I know the water lot is deemed industrial but, frankly, Seaspan is pushing too hard on this neighbourhood that a lot of people contribute tax dollars to support annually.”
NASA on Friday said it had selected SpaceX to launch a planned voyage to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, a huge win for Elon Musk’s company as it sets its sights deeper into the solar system.
The Europa Clipper mission will launch in October 2024 on a Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with the total contract worth $178 million.
The mission was previously supposed to take off on NASA’s own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which has been plagued by delays and cost overruns, with critics calling it a “jobs program” for the state of Alabama where much of the development work is taking place.
While SLS isn’t yet operational, Falcon Heavy has deployed on both commercial and government missions since its maiden flight in 2018 when it carried Musk’s own Tesla Roadster into space.
It generates more than five million pounds of thrust (22 million Newtons) at liftoff, equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft.
The Europa clipper orbiter will make about 40 to 50 close passes over Europa to determine whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life.
Its payload will include cameras and spectrometers to produce high-resolution images and compositional maps of the surface and atmosphere, as well as radar to penetrate the ice layer to search for liquid water below.
Since 2016, there have been 350 accidents involving tugboats or barges in B.C., including 24 sinkings and two fatalities, according to data collected by the TSB.
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More than 20 boats, including ferries, fishing vessels and tugboats, are expected to take part in a memorial event in the Prince Rupert harbour this month in honour of a tugboat captain who died at sea.
Troy Pearson lost his life on Feb. 11 when the tugboat he was captaining sank in the Gardner Canal en route from Kitimat to Kemano. Also killed was 25-year-old Charley Cragg, a Tsawwassen man who had recently moved to Terrace and was working his first shift on the boat. A third man, 19-year-old Zac Dolan, was rescued after he made it to shore.
The event is being planned for July 31 by Pearson’s widow, Judy Carlick-Pearson, who originally intended to scatter Pearson’s ashes in the harbour a few weeks after his birthday.
“Next thing you know, we had people from the coast guard saying they wanted to be here, as well as guys from the ferries, fishing boats, commercial tugs and the marine union,” she said.
Carlick-Pearson is hoping the event, which will involve the boats forming a wide circle in the harbour while eight bells sound to signal the end of the watch, will bring attention to the continuing investigation into the sinking of the tugboat Ingenika.
On Feb. 10 — a day on which 11 cold temperature records were broken as B.C. was hit by an Arctic outflow — Pearson, Cragg and Dolan boarded the tugboat despite a forecast of 50-knot winds. The boat, which belonged to Wainwright Marine Services, was towing a barge carrying construction supplies for a multi-year Rio Tinto tunnel project at Kemano designed to guarantee a stable supply of hydroelectric power to the company’s Kitimat aluminum smelter.
RCMP Cpl. Madonna Saunderson said that just after midnight on Feb. 11, an emergency beacon was received from a tugboat in the Gardner Canal. The RCMP vessel Inkster was dispatched from Hartley Bay and found a man dead in the water. The coast guard found a second dead man. A third person was rescued after reaching shore.
Reached Friday, Saunderson said the RCMP’s investigation into the tugboat sinking comtinues. The Transportation Safety Board said its investigation is still underway as well, with nothing new to say at this time. Postmedia received a similar reply from both WorkSafeBC and the B.C. Coroners Service.
Many in B.C.’s marine community are hoping the four investigations could lead to improved safety regulations in the tow industry. Since 2016, there have been 350 accidents involving tugboats or barges in B.C., including 24 sinkings and two fatalities, according to data collected by the TSB.
The board has been calling on Transport Canada to make safety management systems (SMS) mandatory on all vessels, including small tugboats like the Ingenika, for almost a decade.
SMS is an internationally recognized framework that allows companies to identify and address safety risks. It can incorporate elements such as safe operating standards, a planned maintenance program, a crew training regime and how to respond to specific emergency situations. Transport Canada already requires SMS for larger vessels.
Other stakeholders, including some B.C. tugboat companies, want to see the tug-to-tow weight ratio regulated.
There are currently no regulations governing the tug-to-tow ratio, which allows small tugs to pull large barges that may be beyond their capabilities, said Jason Woods, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 400.
“You can tow a barge full of logging equipment on a bungee cord if you want to,” he has said.
Transport Canada has indicated it is working on a number of “new regulatory projects” that will apply to all Canadian vessels, including making SMS mandatory, with a first draft expected in the fall.
Meanwhile, Carlick-Pearson, as well as some coastal First Nations communities, are calling on authorities to raise the Ingenika from the bottom of the Gardner Canal both to prevent environmental damage and determine why the tug sank.
“Without the boat, we won’t really know what happened that night,” she said. “It could be a smoking gun.”
Carlick-Pearson has also started raising funds to start a marine training school in Prince Rupert in honour of her husband. She hopes to teach kids and families about safety on the water, as well as offer the courses needed for a career in the marine industry. Pearson had to travel to Ladner to do his training, she said.
“It would be better to have something here, closer to home, particularly for Indigenous people who might not want to leave their community for training.”
For more information about the Pearson Marine School of Safety or the memorial event, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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