February 2021 in Space
Over the last few months we’ve being following three exciting Mars missions as they’ve travelled through space, and this is the month they all arrive.
First to arrive will be the United Arab Emirates Mars Mission and its Hope orbiter. The mission will study both the upper and lower atmospheres, to discover more about climate dynamics and weather, as well as the escape of oxygen and hydrogen into space. We’re expecting an orbital insertion on 09 February 2021.
The following day will see the arrival of the Chinese Tianwen-1 mission. Consisting of both an orbiter and rover, Tianwen-1 hopes to find evidence of current or past life, as well as producing Martian surface maps. Though the arrival of the mission is imminent, the rover will not land on the planet until May 2021.
Finally we have NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter arriving on 18 February 2021. Perseverance will, like Tianwen-1, be looking for biosignatures of life as well as collecting soil samples and testing Oxygen production in the atmosphere for potential future human missions. Ingenuity’s task is entirely engineering based – to successfully demonstrate how a miniature aircraft can travel in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere.
Travelling to and landing on Mars is extremely difficult, and we’re sure you’ll join us in wishing a safe arrival to all three missions, that could change the way we understand the red planet forever.
Spotting the Red Planet
If three robotic missions to Mars are not enough, February also gives you a great chance to spot the red planet with your own eyes.
On the same day Perseverance touches down, 18 February, you will be able to see a conjunction between Mars and our Moon in the night sky.
First visible from sunset (around 17.40 GMT on 18 February 2021), you will be able to see both in your field of view through binoculars or with the naked eye.
They will rest in the constellation of Aries, which is slightly east of Orion, with Mars only slightly below a direct line from Orion’s belt. We will also have a half Moon, which will cut down on the natural light levels, allowing you to see more details of the Moons surface with binoculars or a telescope.
If we do not have clear skies on 18 February, you can also try on 19 February.
If you would prefer to look at a different planet, and you’re a bit of an early riser, head outside on the morning of the 25 February where Mercury will be at its highest point in the sky. It will appear bright at 7° above the horizon, rising south-east at 05:54 GMT, so make sure you see it before sunrise.
On 04 February it will be fifty years since Apollo 14 landed on the Moon, a mission most fondly remembered for the Lunar Olympics – a two sport event between astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell that consisted of golf and the javelin.
The European Space Agency’s biggest component part to the International Space Station, the Columbus Module, was launched on 07 February 2008. We have our own full-scale mock-up of the module at the National Space Centre which we hope you’ll be able to explore as soon as we are able to re-open.
One of the most remarkable images ever taken was captured on the 14 February 1990, a photo of our planet from four billion miles away. Famously called A Pale Blue Dot, the photo was taken by the Voyager 1 space probe as it took one last look at its home planet from the edge of our Solar System, before leaving our planetary neighbourhood for good.
On 18 February 91 years ago Clyde W. Tombaugh first spotted Pluto. To mark the occasion the date has been named Pluto Day, so if you have love for the former planet (it’s still a dwarf planet), then this is a day to celebrate.
Finally, on 21 February it will be the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope confirming the existence of a black hole by stellar motions. This was the first time one had been discovered in this way and is now a common technique for detecting dormant supermassive black holes.
About the author: Alex Thompson is a Space Communications Presenter at the National Space Centre.