YOU ARE HERE: Home > News & Press > News archive > News 2014 > Space and astronomy digest: December 2014

I want information on:

Information for:


Space and astronomy digest: December 2014

Last Updated on Monday, 01 December 2014 11:39
Published on Monday, 01 December 2014 11:26

The latest digest of upcoming space and astronomy news events. Highlights this month include the test launch of the Orion spacecraft and the maximum of the Geminids meteor shower.



4 December: Test launch of Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle, Florida, United States

An uncrewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft is set to take place in the afternoon (UK time) of 4 December (the morning of the same day in the US). Orion, the vehicle under development by the US space agency NASA as part of the NASA / ESA Space Launch System, is designed to carry 4 astronauts beyond low Earth orbit to destinations such as the Moon, nearby asteroids and eventually Mars.

Orion spacecraft smallAn artist's impression of the Orion crew capsule and service module. Credit: NASA. Click for a full size imageThe test flight is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. A Delta 4-Heavy rocket will carry the spacecraft to Earth orbit. At the end of the second orbit the module will have been boosted to an altitude of around 5800 km. The Orion craft will then return to Earth, reaching a maximum speed of 32,000 km an hour to simulate a return from an interplanetary destination.

During the test the resistance of the upper atmosphere of the Earth will raise the temperature of the heat shield to 2200 degrees Celsius, so the test is an opportunity to assess its performance in protecting a human crew. After its passage through the atmosphere, the module will splash down in the eastern Pacific Ocean, ready for recovery.


Media contacts

Rachel Kraft, Stephanie Schierholz
Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate
United States
Tel: +1 202 358 1100
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Further information

NASA: Orion Exploration Flight Test-1
Orion Flight Test 1 press kit


9 December: RAS lunchtime lecture: Exploring the Universe Using Exploding Stars: Geological Society, Burlington House, London

The latest RAS public lecture will take place in the Geological Society’s lecture theatre at 1300 GMT on 9 December. Dr Stacey Habergham of Liverpool John Moores University will describe supernovae, the huge explosions that mark the end of the relatively short lives of the most massive stars.

Supernovae are amongst the most violent, energetic, and beautiful events in the Universe, with extreme physical conditions that could never be recreated on Earth. They are responsible for the creation of many of the elements (particularly those heavier than iron) that make up the planets and stars of the present day cosmos. The immense brightness of supernovae also makes them unique probes for understanding the similarities and differences between our own and other galaxies. In her talk, Dr Habergham will describe how these rare but spectacular events are helping astronomers gain a new insight into the universe we live in.


Further information

RAS public lectures



Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society



12 December:  Magnetic reconnection: where now and where next? Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington House, London

The vast majority of ‘ordinary matter’ in the Universe is in the form of plasma, the fourth state of matter along with the more familiar solid, liquid and gas. Consisting of electrically charged particles, namely free electrons and ions (atoms where electrons have been added or removed), plasmas respond strongly to the effects of magnetic fields.

Despite more than half a century of progress, researchers are still struggling to explain some aspects of their behaviour, for example in the presence of magnetic fields in the Solar system. The rearrangement of these fields in so-called ‘magnetic reconnection’ events poses a particular challenge, and this is important for understanding phenomena like the aurora borealis.

On 12 December specialists in this area will gather at the Royal Astronomical Society to consider diverse approaches to these problems. The researchers will reflect on the cutting edge techniques and observations that are currently shedding light on magnetic reconnection, and discuss where future efforts should be directed.

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


Further information

RAS meeting page
Conference organisers’ home page


Robert Massey
(details above)



12 December: Towards gravitational wave astronomy: data analysis techniques and challenges, Geological Society, Burlington House, London

First predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, gravitational waves are ripples in the curvature of space-time. Although mostly extremely weak, systems such as binary black holes are thought to be strong sources of gravitational waves, so detecting them could open up an entirely new way of observing the universe.

The next few years promise to be exciting ones for the field of gravitational wave astronomy, with ground-based detectors starting operation that will collect data at unprecedented sensitivities. Together with other methods, successful detections should offer a wealth of new information on compact binary star systems, supermassive black holes, and general relativity in extreme environments from the early universe to black hole mergers.

On 12 December astronomers and physicists will gather at the Geological Society for a one day conference, where delegates will discuss this cutting edge field of research and the latest advances in data analysis needed to make the most of the first observations.

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


Further information

RAS meeting details
Conference organisers’ meeting page



Robert Massey
(details above)



13-15 December: Maximum of Geminid meteor shower

The Geminid meteor shower is predicted to peak on 14 December. Meteors (commonly known as 'shooting stars') are the result of small pieces of debris entering the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed. Each piece is superheated by air resistance, vaporising and causing the surrounding air to glow in a characteristic short-lived streak of light.

A few random or 'sporadic' meteors can be seen on any clear night, but there are some dates in the year when the Earth encounters trails of material left behind by comets and asteroids, and meteor showers are seen. The Geminids are associated with the asteroid Phaethon, a so-called 'rock comet' and one of a small number of objects that have the features of both asteroids and comets.

Under ideal conditions – in a clear, dark sky away from the lights of towns and cities, a casual skywatcher might see as many as 50 Geminids an hour, with good numbers possible on 13, 14 and 15 December. This year the shower coincides with a waning gibbous Moon, diminishing to last quarter the following night. The Moon will rise late in the evening on 13 December and later still on the following nights, so its light will not interfere too much to begin with. And unlike many night sky events, meteor showers are best enjoyed with the naked eye – and are perfectly safe to watch.


Further information

International Meteor Organisation


Night sky in December

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


Notes for editors

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 3800 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

Follow the RAS on Twitter