April in Space
Meteor from the Geminid Meteor shower. Credit: Dean Rowe

April in Space

31/03/2021Written by Alex Thompson

A busy month of launches, anniversaries, astronomy and a meteor shower to observe.

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A batch of 60 Starlink satellites stacked atop a Falcon 9 rocket. Image: SpaceX

If all goes to plan, with several delayed launches from last month due to launch this month, April should be another busy month in space.

  • 07 April – SpaceX’s Starlink (60 satellites)
  • 09 April – Soyuz MS-18 launch to ISS
  • 16/17 April – Soyuz MS-17 return to Earth
  • 22 April – SpaceX Falcon 9 Crew-2 launch to ISS
  • 22 April – Lyrids Meteor Shower
  • 26 April – OneWeb 6 (36 satellites)
  • 27 April – Super Pink Moon
  • 29 April – Tianhe core module launch

Please note – dates of launches may change.

Soyuz MS-18 Crew
Expedition 64 official crew portrait Credit: NASA

The first crew, currently due for launch on 09 April, will see cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov, along with NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei launch on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station.

Originally an all Russian crew, Vande Hei replaced Sergei Korsakov following an in-kind service agreement between NASA and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, which offers space for American astronauts on Soyuz spaceflights.

They will be joined two weeks later by crew members of SpaceX Crew-2, the second operational crewed flight of a Crew Dragon spacecraft and the third crewed overall (Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley’s mission to the ISS was officially a demo flight.)

This will also be the first crewed SpaceX mission to feature a previously used flight booster and dragon spacecraft, with the Crew Dragon being the one used by Bob and Doug in their historic flight.

The crew for the mission will consist of NASA’s Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, JAXA’s Akihiko Hoshide and ESA’s Thomas Pesquet.

Pesquet, who was a part of the 2009 ESA astronaut class along with Britain’s Tim Peake, will become the first European to travel on a Crew Dragon and the first French commander of the space station.

Currently set to launch on 22 April, the crew will replace NASA’s Shannon Walker, Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover, plus JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi, all of whom will return to Earth in early May.

Composite image of Lyrid and not-Lyrid meteors over New Mexico from April, 2012. Image via NASA/ MSFC/ Danielle Moser.

On 22 April not only will we potentially see a SpaceX crewed launch, but we should also be able to see a meteor shower (clear skies permitting).

This will be the peak of the Lyrids, which can be seen 13-29 April. The Lyrids is an average meteor shower that can produce roughly 20 meteors an hour. It is produced by dust particles of a comet discovered in 1861 by amateur astronomer A.E. Thatcher, aptly named c/1861 G1 Thatcher, and can produce bright dust trails lasting several seconds.

Unfortunately we will be hindered this year by the glare of a nearly full moon, however, the brightest ones should still be visible and if you’re patient you may very well be rewarded with a great show.

As with nearly all meteor showers we suggest heading to a dark location after midnight, and whilst the meteors will radiate around the constellation of Lyra they may appear anywhere in the night sky. Happy hunting and good luck.

An image showing the difference between a supermoon and a 'normal' moon. Credit: Marco Langbroek

Whilst the Moon may impede our meteor spotting, it will actually produce something rather special a few nights later.

On April 27, as it reaches its fullest in the night sky, we will see the a supermoon, that is also known as the ‘super pink Moon’ this month.

A supermoon is where we see the full Moon when it is closest to the Earth. The Moon orbits the planet in an Ellipse, so will appear closer at certain times, although this can often be difficult to see with the naked eye.  An official supermoon is when the Moon’s centre is within 360,000km of Earth’s centre.

For the best opportunity to see the supermoon, you will need to head outside at moonrise, when the Moon is near the horizon.

Yuri Gagarin before launch. Credit: Energia
STS-1 Credit: NASA

April will see some huge anniversary events in the story of space exploration, as well as one very important birthday.

On 12 April it will the 60th anniversary of  Yuri Gagarin’s momentous flight, as he became the first person in space in one of humankind’s greatest ever achievements.

When Yuri Gagarin launched, he was following in the footsteps of just a handful of satellites, and a few animals such as Laika the dog, who proved it was possible to live, breathe, and eat in space.

Yuri had no control of his flight – there was the fear that he would pass out or be unable to operate the spacecraft in microgravity. He orbited the Earth just once, speeding at 27,000 kilometres per hour.

After 108 minutes, Yuri made a dramatic return to Earth, instantly becoming a global celebrity.

By coincidence, the launch had been delayed due to safety issues, the 12 April will also be 40 years to the day since NASA launched its first space shuttle, Columbia.

The two day mission was piloted by John Young and Robert Crippen.

Another space hero is our very own UK born ESA astronaut Tim Peake, who on 07 April will be celebrating his birthday.

Tim was the first British ESA astronaut to visit the International Space Station. He launched on a Soyuz rocket on 15 December 2015 and landed back on Earth on Earth 18 June 2016 after 186 days in space.

Another monumental feat took place on 17 April 1970 as the crew of Apollo 13 safely returned to Earth after one of their oxygen tanks exploded on the way to the Moon three days earlier. The rescue, that was against all odds and had billions around the globe following its every move, was made into a 1995 Oscar-winning film and produced the memorable (if misquoted) line “Houston, we have a problem!”

This isn’t the only Apollo mission to celebrate an anniversary this month. On 20 April 1972 the less dramatic but infinitely more successful Apollo 16 mission touched down on the lunar surface, with the astronauts collecting the biggest piece of Moon rock returned to Earth which they nicknamed “Big Muley.”

And finally, on 24 April 1990 NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope, where it has been sending back stunning images of deep space and transforming our understanding of the Universe for over 30 years.