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Space and astronomy digest: March 2011

Last Updated on Monday, 14 March 2011 09:57
Published on Monday, 28 February 2011 11:12

This release summarises some of the astronomy and space science events taking place during March, particularly those with UK involvement. This month sees the MESSENGER spacecraft enter Mercurian orbit, the launch of the OTV-2 spaceplane and a free astronomy festival at University College London.


Artist's impression of the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft in orbit at Mercury. MESSENGER launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on Aug. 3, 2004, and will begin a yearlong orbital study of Mercury in March 2011. Though the Sun is up to 11 times brighter at Mercury than we see on Earth and surface temperatures can reach 450 degrees Celsius (about 840 degrees Fahrenheit), MESSENGER's instruments will operate at room temperature behind a sunshade of heat-resistant ceramic fabric. The spacecraft will also pass only briefly over the hottest parts of the surface, limiting exposure to heat reradiated from the planet. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington



4 March: Launch of OTV-2


On 4 March the United States Air Force is scheduled to launch Orbital Test Vehicle 2 (OTV-2), also known as the X-37 B spacecraft, a robotic, unmanned prototype spaceplane. OTV-2 will take off atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying various classified experiments into space for an as yet unspecified period.

US Air Force

8 March: RAS lunchtime lecture: How to be a rocket scientist

Professor Martin Barstow of the University of Leicester will give the latest RAS public lecture at 1 p.m. on Tuesday 8 March. He will go through the inspiring story of how UK researchers prepare a new telescope for a demonstration flight in space, sharing the excitement and frustration of the team through video footage of the preparations and launch of the mission.

Professor Barstow hopes to show that being a real 'rocket scientist' gives people incredible opportunities to explore the wider Universe – something unlikely to come with other more lucrative occupations.

RAS events and meetings

Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307 / 4582 x214
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

11 March: Future opportunities for whole atmosphere science using UK ground-based radars

The UK has a long tradition of research using atmospheric radars to study the layers of the atmosphere, work that typically focused on the different layers that different types of radar detect. In this specialist discussion meeting set to take place at the Royal Astronomical Society on 11 March, delegates will consider how to develop this work for research on the atmosphere as a whole. They will discuss the latest radar research and development of UK radar facilities.

RAS events and meetings

Robert Massey (details above)

11 March: How can we trace star-forming gas in external galaxies? Preparation for ALMA observations

Understanding how stars are forming in various galaxy types, local and more distant in the Universe, is an essential first step for an accurate reconstruction of how galaxies form and evolve in the Universe. This is also fundamental in increasing our knowledge of the properties of the gas from which all stars are forming. In the second half of 2011, the $1.5 billion Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) interferometer will be ready to revolutionize our current vision of the star formation process involved in external galaxies.

At this specialist discussion meeting to take place at the Geological Society on 11 March, delegates will present state-of-the-art results from research on extragalactic star-forming gas and discuss planning and preparation for the future ALMA observations.

RAS events and meetings

Robert Massey (details above)

11-13 March: Your Universe, University College London (UCL)

From 11 to 13 March, UCL will host a festival of public events and activities related to astronomy, space science and solar physics. Supported by the Royal Astronomical Society, Your Universe is entirely free of charge and aimed at people of all ages. Events include public lectures (on topics from solar activity and its impact on Earth to the far future of the Universe); building a scale model of the Solar system, 'playing God' by building the Universe along a time line and using UCL telescopes to observe the Sun and Moon.

Your Universe


Dr Francisco Diego
Mob: +44 (0)7974 917878
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

18 March: MESSENGER enters orbit around Mercury

The NASA MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft left Earth on 3 August 2004, at the start of a seven-year journey to its final position in orbit around the innermost planet. En route the spacecraft made an Earth flyby, two flybys of Venus and three flybys of Mercury itself. On 18 March MESSENGER will enter orbit around Mercury, where it will then spend a year studying the closest planet to the Sun in detail. MESSENGER is only the second spacecraft to travel to Mercury, after Mariner 10 in 1974-5, and will be the first to enter orbit around the planet.



P. Campbell
The Johns Hopkins University
Applied Physics Laboratory
Tel: +1 240 228 6792
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

All month: March's night sky

Information on stars, planets, comets, meteor showers and other celestial phenomena is available from the British Astronomical Association (BAA) and the Society for Popular Astronomy (SPA).




The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS,, founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.