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Mars landings to Mega-comets: The top six space stories from 2021 – The Weather Network

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Amazing Mars landings. Incredible cosmic discoveries. Spectacular sights in our skies. This year has delivered a steady stream of astronomy and space stories, and while it wasn’t easy to chose among them, here’s our best of the best from 2021.

IN OUR SKIES

There were many astronomical events to see in the skies throughout the year. Meteor showers, planetary alignments, and eclipses were all beautiful sights to behold. However, the best of these for all of 2021 were the two lunar eclipses that were visible across nearly all of Canada.

On the morning of May 26, the Super Flower Moon passed through Earth’s shadow, producing the last “Super” Total Lunar Eclipse we’ll see for the next decade. While it was best viewed from the western half of the country, excellent views were streamed over the web for those who couldn’t see the entire event for themselves.

Watch below as LA’s Griffith Observatory presents the Super Blood Flower Moon total lunar eclipse in less than 1 minute.

A little under six months later, on November 19, we saw another lunar eclipse.

This time the Full Moon mostly dipped into the dark, reddish portion of Earth’s shadow. Thus, it ‘only’ produced a partial lunar eclipse.

The November 19, 2021, Partial Lunar Eclipse, as seen from Calgary, AB. Credit: Kyle Brittain

However, this eclipse was still pretty special. In fact, due to the Moon’s path bringing it so close to the edge of the umbra, this was the longest partial lunar eclipse seen since February 18, 1440, over 581 years ago!

According to NASA’s records, the next longest partial lunar eclipse occurs nearly 648 years from now, on February 8, 2669!

Runner up: Another event in our night skies that ranked pretty high this year was the burst of aurora activity that occurred in the first week of November.

Although the “Halloween Solar Storm” ultimately failed to deliver any significant auroras, further solar activity during the first couple of days of November sparked incredible displays that were visible much farther south than usual.

As we just entered a new solar cycle, this kind of activity will be ramping up over the next five years or so. Thus, there will be plenty more opportunities to see the Northern Lights in the years to come.

ON MARS

Many eyes have been on Mars this year. Two missions — Curiosity and InSight — were already operating on the surface to start. Meanwhile, six orbiters — Mars Odyssey, MRO, Mars Express, MAVEN, MOM, and ExoMars TGO — were circling the planet. Adding to this, the Emirates “Hope” orbiter and China’s Tianwen 1 spacecraft both pulled into orbit in early February. Just days later, NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down in Jezero Crater. Finally, in May, China’s Zhurong rover landed in Utopia Planitia, doubling the robot population of the surface of Mars.

Of all these new missions, simply based on its accomplishments so far and the tremendous amount of data it has sent back, the best is NASA’s Perseverance and Ingenuity mission.

The rover’s landing on February 22 was simply unreal. Although similar to Curiosity’s 2012 landing in Gale Crater, it included new technological advances that allowed Perseverance to steer itself to the perfect touchdown spot. It also treated us to spectacular views, not only of the terrain below as the rover chose where to set down but also of the incredible ‘sky crane’ maneuver during the final step of the landing.

As a special bonus, sharp-eyed viewers spotted a binary code message sewn right into the pattern of Perseverance’s parachute. When translated, it spelled out the motto of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory — DARE MIGHTY THINGS.

Perseverance is a technological marvel, in of itself, with high-definition cameras and instruments designed to tell us whether life once existed on Mars. Along for the ride, though, was a small drone helicopter named Ingenuity that has now flown on Mars — something that was once thought to be impossible.

Perseverance-Selfie-Mars-NASA-JPL-CaltechTaken on April 6, 2021, the 46th Martian day of Perseverance’s mission, this ‘selfie’ with Ingenuity is a composite, stitched together from 62 images captured the WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering) camera, located at the end of the rover’s robotic arm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Ingenuity’s sole mission, to start, was simply to prove that powered rotor flight can work in Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere. After succeeding in that goal, following the drone’s fifth flight, NASA graduated it from a simple tech demonstration to a full-fledged member of the science mission. Now, having completed a total of 18 flights for 2021, Ingenuity is acting as a scout for Perseverance, locating interesting targets for investigation. It is even exploring parts of the crater floor that are deemed too hazardous for Perseverance to venture.

Runners up: The rest of the new Mars explorers that arrived this year deserve their share of attention as well. For the first deep-space mission from the United Arab Emirates, Hope performed remarkably well, and even captured our best look yet at Mars’ auroras. The Tianwen 1 mission is not only the first Mars orbiter for China, but it also included the nation’s first Mars lander. With the Zhurong rover rolling around on the surface, China becomes only the second nation to successfully land a robot rover on Mars.

Zhurong-Rover-Mars-webcam-smallpic-CNSAChina’s Zhurong rover snaps a picture with a remote camera that has been placed on the surface, capturing both the rover and its lander. Credit: CNSA

OUT IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM

There have been some ambitious space missions launched over the years. However, one that stood out this year was the Parker Solar Probe. Launched by NASA in 2018, this spacecraft has already flown closer to the Sun than any previous mission. It has also broken records for speed as it dives closer and closer to our home star.

Parker-Solar-Probe-perihelion-NASA-GSFCThis artist’s impression shows the Parker Solar Probe flying through perihelion — its closest distance to the Sun during its orbits. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

This year, Parker Solar Probe finally flew close enough that it effectively touched the Sun! On April 28, during PSP’s eighth pass around the Sun, it dove through the outer edge of the Sun’s atmosphere, the corona.

Sun-and-PSP-Orbit-NASA-GSFCThis schematic shows PSP’s path through the corona on orbit 8. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

“I’m excited to see what Parker finds as it repeatedly passes through the corona in the years to come,” Nicola Fox, the director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA HQ, which specializes in the study of the Sun and how its activity affects Earth and the solar system, said in a NASA press release. “The opportunity for new discoveries is boundless.”

Runner up: As NASA’s Juno mission enters its extended mission around Jupiter, the spacecraft has begun capturing images of other exciting targets in the area. In 2021, the probe gave us our closest look yet at Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede!

Ganymede Juno 07062021 NASA JPL-Caltech Kevin M GillThis image of Ganymede from the June 7, 2021 flyby was produced from raw Juno data by Kevin M. Gill, software engineer and data wrangler at NASA-JPL. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill (CC by 3.0)

HUMAN SPACEFLIGHT

A total of eight missions carried people into orbit in 2021. SpaceX’s Crew 2 and Crew 3 Dragons launched to the International Space Station. Russia also sent the Soyuz MS-19, MS-19, and MS-20 spacecraft to the station. On the Shenzhou-12 and Shenzhou-13 spacecraft, China launched two crews to their new Tiangong space station.

The eighth launch is a remarkable one, though. SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission was the first all-amateur orbital launch ever. Four civilian astronauts — Jared Isaacman, Dr. Sian Proctor, Hayley Arceneaux, and Chris Sembroski — lifted off in a unique private Dragon spacecraft, supported by a completely private crew on the ground, for a three-day flight around the Earth.

Circling the planet at 575 kilometres above the ground, Inspiration4 flew higher than any other space mission in nearly two decades! The mission raised over $210 million for St. Jude Children’s Hospital, but it was also meant to inspire anyone who wants to one day fly to space.

Runners up: SpaceX wasn’t the only company to make headlines with civilian launches to space this year. Two celebrities blasted off to the edge of space on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. Wally Funk, a member of the Mercury 13, the group of women who trained as Mercury astronauts but were then denied the chance to go to space, flew with Jeff Bezos on July 20. Star Trek’s William Shatner then flew on another New Shepard launch on October 13.

William-Shatner-Landing-Blue-Origin-Oct13-2021William Shatner stands with Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos near the RSS First Step capsule as he relates his experience on the flight after touchdown on Wednesday, October 13, 2021. Credit: Blue Origin

NEW VISITORS

While the Moon and the planets are near-constants and we can count on annual meteor showers like clockwork, something new shows up in our night skies every once in a while.

Dozens of comets have been spotted this year, but none have delivered so spectacularly as Comet Leonard.

Comet Leonard - Gregg Ruppel - Dec82021Astronomer Gregg Ruppel captured this view of Comet Leonard on December 8, 2021, from Animas, NM. (Used with permission)

Discovered on the 3rd of January by astronomer Gregory Leonard at the Mt. Lemmon Observatory, it was the first comet found in 2021. As such, it goes by the technical name C/2021 A1 (Leonard).

This is the very first time we’ve seen this comet, and it is very likely the last time, as well. With an estimated 80,000 year orbit, it would take some extraordinary circumstances for anyone alive today to see it make a return pass. However, it doesn’t look like Comet Leonard will make another pass around the Sun, ever.

Comet Leonard orbital trajectory hyperbolic-NASA-JPL-Caltech-CNEOSThis orbital diagram for C/2021 A1 (Leonard) plots the comet’s trajectory through the inner solar system as well as its location on December 30, 2021. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CNEOS

As shown in the orbital diagram above, the comet’s inbound trajectory is parabolic, which means it is gravitationally bound to the Sun. A parabolic comet will orbit the Sun indefinitely. Once Comet Leonard makes its closest pass around the Sun on January 3, 2022, though, its orbit becomes hyperbolic. It will have picked up enough extra speed that it will be moving fast enough to break free from the Sun’s gravity.

In other words, in Comet Leonard, we are seeing an interstellar comet before it goes interstellar!

Runner up: There was another remarkable comet discovery this year, but it doesn’t make the top spot because it’s so far out in the solar system right now, it only appears as a tiny bright dot to our most powerful telescopes.

Comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein) was first noticed by astronomers in June of this year, but they then traced it in previous observations all the way back to 2014.

The remarkable thing about Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein? It is massive! While most comets are about 10 kilometres wide, current estimates say that ‘mega-comet’ Bernardinelli-Bernstein is roughly 200 kilometres across! That makes it one of the largest comets we’ve ever seen!

Comet-C-2014-UN271-032031-NASA-JPLCaltechThe projected position of 2014 UN271, on March 24, 2031. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This mega-comet won’t reach its closest distance to the Sun until 2031. But, even then, it will be far out in the solar system, just beyond the orbit of Saturn. So, while it won’t come close enough to Earth to put on a great show, telescopes will be tracking it the entire time. Maybe we could even launch a fast-moving space probe to intercept it for a closer look!

NEW MISSIONS

Several new space missions launched this year, but the one that holds the most promise is the James Webb Space Telescope.

jwst in space - ESA/Northrup GrummanThis artist impression shows the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) against the backdrop of the cosmos. Credit: ESA/Northrup Grumman

After blasting off Christmas morning, Webb will reach its final orbit around Lagrange Point 2, 1.5 million kilometres away from Earth, in late January. Once there, the mission team will then take another 4 to 5 months to deploy the telescope and calibrate its mirrors and other systems. Once that wait is over, JWST will then get to work revolutionizing astronomy. It is expected to provide us with our clearest views of the cosmos yet, it could potentially discover life-supporting alien worlds, and it will see farther back in time than any telescope has so far, to the time when the first stars formed.

webb-successeur-hubble-simulation-champ-ultraprofondThe top two panels of this image are taken from the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, showing one section of the field and a close-up on one specific galaxy in that section. The bottom two panels are simulations of what JWST would see in the same area of space. Credit: Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) via Canadian Space Agency

Runner up: Among the other missions this year, NASA’s DART — the Double Asteroid Redirect Test — is particularly noteworthy.

The primary purpose of DART is to fly out to an asteroid and then slam into that asteroid at top speed. The impact is expected to cause a slight deflection in the asteroid’s orbit, which astronomers will measure from here on Earth.

DART-infographic-v4-NASA-Johns-Hopkins-APLThis graphic shows the purpose of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART), to deflect the orbit of asteroid Dimorphos in its orbit around larger asteroid Didymos. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

DART will intercept its targets — Didymos and Dimorphos — in late September of 2022, so we’ll see some quick returns from the mission. Those returns may be of great importance to us one day, as well.

There are no asteroid threats to Earth for at least the next 100 years. That includes Didymos and Dimorphos, and that fact will not change once DART’s mission is complete. However, suppose we do find an asteroid that is a danger to us. In that case, the data DART sends back could help us to deflect that object onto a safer path and save us from destruction.

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Western scientists study meteorite made famous after crashing into B.C. woman's bedroom – CBC.ca

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A meteorite that ripped through a roof and landed inches from a B.C. woman’s head is believed to be around 470 million years old, Western researchers say. 

Ruth Hamilton of Golden, B.C. was woken abruptly on the night of Oct. 3, when the small charcoal grey rock the size of a melon broke through her ceiling and landed between her floral pillowcases. 

After coming to terms with the surreal experience, she lent the rock to Western University’s physics and astronomy department in London, Ont., where researchers are working to map its orbital journey around the sun before it arrived in Hamilton’s bedroom. 

“It was very exciting getting it because any time you see a new meteorite, it’s kind of like Christmas Day,” said adjunct professor Phil McCausland, who leads the investigation.  

A hole in the ceiling is seen above a meteorite resting on a bed inside a residential building in Golden, B.C., in an undated handout photo. Ruth Hamilton says she was sound asleep when she was awakened by her dog barking, the sound of a crash through her ceiling and the feeling of debris on her face. (Submitted by Ruth Hamilton)

Upon inspection, McCausland found that the meteorite is an L chondrite, one of the most commonly found types of meteorites to fall on Earth.

What’s not so common about Hamilton’s meteorite is where it originates in the sky.

“This rock has a very interesting and unusual orbit,” said McCausland. 

The meteorite is embedded with shards of plywood and metal from the roof. (Submitted by Phil McCausland)

“Chondrite meteors are thought with good evidence to have come from the early solar system, but they went through a major asteroid breakup event. So there is a big body in the asteroid belt that broke up about 470 million years ago,” he said. 

“From then, a bunch of material has been delivered around the inner solar system, some of it arriving on Earth. And this, prospectively, is one of those pieces.”  

McCausland said so far, the orbits of only a handful of L chondrite meteors are known. 

“What happens out in space is that the cosmic rays interact with the rock and end up irradiating it, so that it has somewhat activated isotopes that decay over time,” he said. “We can detect what the decay products are that are coming out of this, the gamma rays and so on. And that gives us a handle on the orbital history of the rock.” 

Afternoon Drive9:04Meteorite analysis at Western University

Phil McCausland, an adjunct professor at Western University, and lead investigator, speaks with CBC Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre about a meteorite discovered in Golden, B.C. 9:04

He added that researchers are looking to dash cam and surveillance footage, as well as local photographers who captured the fireball event, to reconstruct the rock’s flight path. 

Under Canadian law, the meteor is owned by its finder – in this case, Ruth Hamilton. It’s hers to sell, donate, or keep. 

Meanwhile, McCausland will ensure a sample is registered with the Meteoritical Society, where it will be available for future scientific research.
 

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How to Take Care of Air Plants – Lifehacker

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Photo: Al Cole (Shutterstock)

Despite the classic excuse of not having a “green thumb,” keeping a houseplant alive has more to do with the ability to make and remember to stick to a schedule than being born without a pretend gene that makes you good at gardening. (And if you have a literal green thumb, you may want to have a medical profession look at it.)

But some houseplants are definitely easier to care for than others, and people who travel a lot, or find it difficult to remember to water their plants may want to opt for varieties that are more self-sufficient. And when it comes to being low maintenance, it’s hard to beat air plants. Still, they’re not completely hands-off and do require some occasional care. Here’s what to know.

What is an air plant?

Officially called Tillandsias, there are more than 600 types of air plants. And while they’re native to the southern parts to the United States and through Central and South America, it’s possible to grow air plants indoors in any climate. And yes, they got their name because they don’t need soil to grow.

Air plants are epiphytes, “which means they use their roots to cling onto supports such as tree branches and rocks, similar to the way orchids grow,” according to the Farmer’s Almanac. “Instead of soaking up water and nutrients through their roots, they use trichomes, special scale-like structures on their leaves, to do the job.”

How to take care of an air plant

First of all, never plant an air plant in soil, or put one in a terrarium. Instead, pop them into a cup or bowl or vase, and place them somewhere that gets between four and six hours of filtered natural light each day. Also, make sure the temperature is between the 50s and 90s (which shouldn’t be difficult indoors).

Air plants need to be soaked—not watered in the traditional sense—once every two weeks. To do this, take the plant out of its usual home and submerge it in a bowl of either rainwater or bottled drinking water (softened and/or tap water contains minerals that can harm the air plants) for about an hour.

After its bath, shake the plant out to remove as much of the water as possible (so it doesn’t rot when it goes back into its usual pot or vase). If an air plant’s leaves start turning brown, it means that it needs to be watered more frequently. And if any of the leaves die completely, cut them off with a pair of sharp scissors.

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Roberta Bondar flew into space 30 years ago and never saw Earth the same after that – CBC.ca

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It’s been 30 years since Roberta Bondar was strapped into a five-point harness on the space shuttle Discovery and blasted into fame as Canada’s first female astronaut.

But first, she left a tearful farewell recording for her mom, in case of disaster. It was the first time a Canadian had been part of a shuttle launch since the devastating Challenger explosion that killed seven crew members six years earlier.

“For me, being the first was not about breaking records. It was the idea that there was somebody who represented strength and valour and bravery,” Bondar, 76, told Piya Chattopadhyay of CBC Radio’s The Sunday Magazine.

Bondar joked that people saw her as either “brave or out of her mind.”

There are a few things people may not know about Bondar. Her name is pronounced BOND-ur, not bond-ARE.

In space, she played renditions of O Canada as she drifted above planet Earth. And what she saw as she was tossed like a slow-motion dice changed her.

Bondar was first neurologist in space and helped conduct experiments in the International Microgravity Laboratory. (The Roberta Bondar Foundation)

“In space tumbling around and being at all angles … develop[s] a different perspective,” said Bondar, who now lives in Toronto.

“I like reflecting back to it in the moments when I have some peaceful time, especially out in the natural world. I think about being away from the planet and how much the planet meant to me.”

Blazing trails in space 

Bondar dreamed of space travel since grade school. She defied her high school guidance counsellor — who dissuaded her from pursuing science saying it wasn’t a subject for girls — and a lot of odds to eventually earn a spot on the U.S. space shuttle Discovery’s flight that blasted off on Jan. 22, 1992.

“No one had done any of this. I was really on the tip of the prow of a ship plowing through heavy seas. There were no role models for me in Canada,” said Bondar.

Now, decades later, there are schools in Bondar’s name and a Canadian postage stamp with her face.

“Being the first Canadian woman was a big thing because it supposedly was going to show the diversity of the space program, which is — I don’t want to choke over it — but I’m not sure that we have that, still,” said Bondar.

Bondar inspired would-be female astronaut candidates like Alberta’s Shawna Pandya. She said she’s been fascinated by the night sky and space travel since childhood. Pandya followed in Bondar’s footsteps, getting a degree in neuroscience and studying medicine before attending the International Space University in France.

“I remember being obsessed with reading about Dr. Bondar’s trajectory. She inspired me in so many ways. She was hugely influential with the trails that she blazed,” said Pandya.

Despite Bondar’s inroads, astronaut recruitment programs don’t reflect Canada’s diversity, still leaning toward military-trained males, according to Bondar.

Bondar works in the International Microgravity Laboratory with U.S. astronaut Steve Oswald on Jan. 22, 1992. (NASA)

NASA confirmed that 73 women have been to space — about 12 per cent of all people sent there so far.

“We can continue to expect it to increase as astronaut classes are increasingly diverse. Canada’s last astronaut selection was 50/50,” said Stephanie Schierholz, lead spokesperson for NASA public affairs.

The first woman in space was cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova on the Soviet Union’s Vostok 6 in 1963. America’s first woman in space was Sally Ride, a California physicist aboard the Challenger’s STS-7 mission that blasted off on June 18, 1983.

Currently, NASA’s Artemis program aims to land the first woman on the moon by 2024.

Fierce competition

Competition to be selected as an astronaut is fierce and often foreign nationals like Bondar are seen as “taking up space,” she said. On board the shuttle, Bondar performed like any male crew member.

Commander Ronald Grabe voluntarily gave her his bunk or sleeping cabinet spot so she would not have to share with a male crew member.

“He didn’t have to do that. That’s the only special treatment I got as a female,” said Bondar.

And she risked losing her coveted spot on the shuttle when she “kicked up a fuss” over the treatment of her family.

The space shuttle Discovery soars from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 30, 1984, beginning its maiden voyage and a storied spaceflight career that spanned more than 26 years. (NASA)

Bondar’s father had died in 1985. In 1992, only her mother and sister came to see the launch at the Cape Canaveral Complex 39-A in Florida. While other astronaut families watched from a room in the assembly tower, Bondar’s family members remained in the public gallery.

They were also denied the privilege of greeting Bondar when she landed at the Edwards Air Force Base in California after eight days in orbit.

“The rules said that unless you had a spouse or a dog, you couldn’t have someone greet you. So I wasn’t married. I didn’t have a dog. I had a mother and a sister.”

Bondar urges people to ask ‘why’

In the end, after a fight, Bondar’s mother did greet her, but her sister waved from behind barbed wire.

That moment still stings.

Bondar is adamant that it was her supportive family, not rocket fuel, that really launched her.

It was a childhood of asking: Why?

“If we don’t ask those deep questions about what’s out there … then we are never going to evolve,” Bondar said.

Payload specialist Bondar holds oat seedlings up to the video camera aboard Discovery on Jan. 25, 1992. (NASA/The Associated Press)

Now the first neurologist in space has evolved into an avid wildlife photographer. She now studies endangered migratory birds and runs the Toronto-based Roberta Bondar Foundation. She says her new mission is fusing art and science in an effort to protect the planet.

“When you look at Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, you see the work that was done. It captures both art and science. So at some point along our path, art and science split.

“I’m not sure that was the best thing to do because scientists have to be creative or they couldn’t possibly develop ways of looking at things with different perspectives. And artists really have to understand some science.”

She said in space it was the absence of Earth’s sounds and smells that she noticed most. No bird song. No scent of forest rain. That’s when she says that she realized just how much Earth really meant to her.

Bondar and the rest of the Discovery mission crew returned to Earth at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Jan. 30, 1992. (CBC)


Written by Yvette Brend. Produced by Annie Bender.

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