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Space and astronomy digest: February 2011

This release summarises some of the astronomy and space science events taking place during January, particularly those with UK involvement. Events this month include the NExT mission encounter with Comet 9/P Tempel 1, the launch of the Johannes Kepler ATV to the International Space Station and the final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

The Automated Transfer Vehicle Johannes Kepler. Credit: 2010 ESA / CNES / Arianespace / Photo Optique Vidéo du CSG


1, 12, 14 February: Mars500 crew enter lander, land on 'Mars' and emerge onto alien surface

Mars500 is an ongoing project to simulate a space mission to Mars. The six volunteers who make up the crew entered a mock-up spacecraft, sited in Moscow, in June 2010 and will emerge in 2012. The crew live and work as if they were en route to Mars and for example have a 20 minute delay between outgoing radio messages and replies, reflecting the time it would for messages to travel back and forth between Mars and Earth.

On 1 February the Mars500 spacecraft will 'dock' with a lander vehicle. Half the crew will transfer to the lander, with the simulated landing itself taking place on 12 February. The crew members will make their first simulated 'Marswalk' on 14 February, with two other excursions to follow during their ten day stay.

ESA press release on 'Mars landing' (and invitation to journalists to attend)


ESA media relations
Tel: +33 1 5369 7299
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

8 February: RAS lunchtime lecture: The Zodiac

Dr Jacqueline Mitton will give the latest RAS public lecture at 1300 GMT on 8 February. She will discuss the twelve constellations that officially make up the 'Zodiac', the belt circling the sky which the Sun, Moon and planets appear to move through. Dr Mitton will explain how the earliest Zodiacal constellations are more than 5000 years old, how it has developed, the mythology associated with these groupings and how the concept has been interpreted in art and buildings.

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.

10-11 February: British Geophysical Association (BGA): New advances in geophysics meeting 2011: controlling factors of subduction zone earthquakes

Recent major earthquakes such as those offshore from Sumatra between 2004 and 2007 and in Chile in 2010 show the importance of understanding the processes that lead to them and the dynamic and structural contexts in which they occur. On 10 and 11 February, scientists will gather at the Geological Society for a BGA conference where they will present and discuss the latest research into the key earth science issues related to earthquakes that take place where one tectonic plate moves under another - so-called subduction zones.

Bona fide members of the media who wish to attend this meeting should present their credentials at the reception desk of the Geological Society for free admission.

Meeting home page

RAS events and meetings

Robert Massey (details above)

10-11 February: RAS specialist discussion meeting: Dynamics and composition of (exo)planet atmospheres

Extrasolar planets are being discovered at an ever increasing pace. As a result, Earth and planetary scientists and astronomers are increasingly called upon to help make the transition from discovery to characterization of these worlds, paving the way towards understanding these planets in the way that we understand those in our own Solar System. This RAS discussion meeting will bring together specialists from the Solar System and extrasolar system research areas to exchange problems, solutions, ideas and techniques.

Bona fide members of the media who wish to attend this meeting should present their credentials at the reception desk of the RAS for free admission.

RAS events and meetings

Robert Massey (details above)

15 February: NASA NExT mission encounters Comet 9P / Tempel 1

In July 2005, the Deep Impact spacecraft released a projectile which collided with the nucleus of Comet 9P / Tempel 1. The impact excavated a crater, releasing a bright cloud of material observed by both the main spacecraft and observatories on and near the Earth.

At 0440 GMT on 15 February (2040 Pacific Standard Time on 14 February), the Stardust spacecraft (which itself collected material from a comet and brought it to Earth in 2006) will pass 9P / Tempel 1 at a distance of around 200 km, studying the crater made in the 2005 impact and observing any other changes that have taken place in the nucleus in the intervening years. This will be the first time that a comet has been visited by two spacecraft.

Stardust / NExT


DC Agle
NASA / JPL media relations
Tel: +1 818 393 9011
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

15 February: Johannes Kepler ATV takes off for International Space Station

On 15 February the second European Space Agency (ESA) built Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is scheduled to launch on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS), taking off from the ESA spaceport at Kourou in French Guiana. Named Johannes Kepler, the ATV will carry around 6.6 tonnes of supplies to the ISS. It will remain docked to the ISS for six months or so, before detaching with 6.4 tonnes of waste on board and burning up in the Earth's atmosphere.

Johannes Kepler has its own navigation and propulsion systems and is pressurised to allow astronauts to retrieve cargo and load waste in its cargo carrier. The ATV engine is also used to boost the altitude of the ISS.



ESA media relations
Tel: +33 1 5369 7299
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

23 February: Launch of Glory satellite

The Glory satellite is a NASA mission that will study the Earth's atmosphere, looking at the chemical, physical and optical properties of aerosols. Alongside this, Glory will measure solar irradiance (the amount of electromagnetic radiation striking each unit area of the Earth) in an effort to understand how the Sun directly and indirectly affects the terrestrial climate. The satellite has a planned lifetime of three years.

Glory will take off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 1009 GMT on 23 February, atop a Taurus XL rocket, and will operate from an orbit 705 km high.

Glory Mission

24 February: Launch of NASA Space Shuttle Discovery to ISS

Following a number of delays, the next window for the launch of the Discovery Space Shuttle opens on 24 February. The Shuttle will take off from the Kennedy Space Center, carrying six astronauts on an 11-day mission to continue the construction of the ISS, designated STS-133. Discovery's cargo includes the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM, named Leonardo) that will provide additional ISS storage space, various spare parts and the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier 4 platform.

Alongside the human crew is Robonaut 2, an experimental robot designed to teach astronauts how robots work in space, with the eventual possibility that it will be deployed to assist future ISS crews with scientific work.

STS-133 is the 39th and final flight for Discovery and the third from last mission in the Space Shuttle programme.



Stephanie Schierholz
Washington DC, USA
Tel: +1 202 358 1100
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

All month: February's night sky

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



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.

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