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Space and astronomy digest: February 2015

Last Updated on Monday, 02 February 2015 16:34
Published on Monday, 02 February 2015 16:04

The February digest of upcoming space, astronomy and geophysics events. This month sees the launch of an experimental European spacecraft, conferences on the nature of plate tectonics, new ways of studying the universe and the upper atmosphere of the Earth, and a public lecture on the hazards and benefits of meteorites.


5-6 February: British Geophysical Association: The Lithosphere Asthenosphere Boundary 2015, Geological Society, Burlington House, London

Plate tectonics, the large scale movement of the Earth’s crust, has been at the core of Earth science for nearly 50 years. Despite this long history fundamental questions remain, such as the location of the base of the plates and what makes them "plate - like".

A better understanding of the transition from the rigid lithospheric plate (the crust) to the weaker mantle beneath – the so-called lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary (LAB) will help scientists develop ideas on not just plate tectonics, but natural hazards like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and climate change.

From 5 to 6 February, the British Geophysical Association (BGA) will bring together experts on the LAB for a conference at the Geological Society, where they will discuss the latest research results.

Conference organisers’ home page

8 February: Launch of DSCOVR mission (delayed from late January)

dscovrArtist's impression of the DSCOVR spacecraft. Credit:NOAABuilt, launched and operated by NASA, the US Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite is set for launch on 8 February. The spacecraft will monitor the solar wind, giving early warning of bursts of charged particles from the Sun (coronal mass ejections or CMEs) that can lead to inclement ‘space weather’ and disrupt spacecraft, communications and terrestrial power systems. It will also continuously observe the sunlit side of the Earth, providing imagery and monitoring of cloud cover and reflected sunlight.

DSCOVR will be carried aloft by a Falcon 9 rocket supplied by the private operator SpaceX, launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in the United States. After launch the observatory will travel to the Sun-Earth ‘Lagrangian Point’ L1, a location in space about 1.5 million km from the Earth in the direction of the Sun. CMEs reach L1 about 20 minutes before they arrive at the Earth, giving us notice of possible adverse space weather. DSCOVR is expected to replace the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite that started service in 1997.

DSCOVR home page


John Leslie
+1 301 713 0214
NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service
United States
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10 February: RAS public lectures: Incoming! - learning to love the dreaded thunderstone: Geological Society and Royal Astronomical Society

Thousands of tonnes of meteoritic material lands on Earth every day, mostly unnoticed. Occasionally in Earth history, very large impacts occur and can have a dramatic effect on the history of life. However, despite what most people think they know about the end-Cretaceous extinction, dinosaurs were not destroyed by a single cause, and large meteorites may not always be harmful to life.

In the latest public lecture for the Royal Astronomical Society, geoscientist Dr Ted Nield surveys the ways impacts have influenced life on Earth, and suggests that, as with ideas, meteorites have 'timeliness', because the effect of any single cause, in human as in Earth history, is controlled largely by the context in which it occurs.


Robert Massey

11 February: Launch of Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV), Kourou, French Guiana

The European Space Agency (ESA) is developing re-usable space vehicles as part of its Future Launchers Preparatory Programme. The latest step in this is the test launch of the IXV spacecraft, scheduled for 11 February. With a mass of 2 tonnes, the IXV is a vehicle with controllable flaps (but not Shuttle-like wings), and is designed to test how similar craft would behave when returning to the surface of the Earth from low-Earth orbit.

IXV smallAn artist's impression of the IXV returning to Earth. Credit: ESA / J. Huart. Click for a full size imageIn this sub-orbital test flight, the IXV will be launched from the Kourou spaceport using a Vega rocket and climb to a maximum altitude of 412 km. IXV travels across the Atlantic, over northern Scandinavia, the Arctic and Siberia and then descends to the ground, with a parachute slowing its landing in the Pacific Ocean. Engineers expect to collect data throughout the flight on the performance of the spacecraft, paving the way for future vehicles that might for example return astronauts to Earth from the International Space Station.


ESA Media Relations Office
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13 February: Meeting the challenges in Upper Atmospheric Science, Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington House, London

On 13 February 2015 geophysicists will gather at the Royal Astronomical Society for a specialist discussion meeting on the upper atmosphere of the Earth.

The upper atmosphere includes the mesosphere, thermosphere and ionosphere, regions that are home to several ‘space weather’ effects like the aurora borealis. The UK National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) has identified the upper atmosphere in one of their five challenges alongside their more traditional atmospheric programmes.

This meeting on 13 February will be an opportunity for the geophysics community to come together and identify common aims and goals and determine what the key challenges are in upper atmosphere science.

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


Robert Massey


13 February: Surveying the transient Universe: from electromagnetic to gravitational waves, Geological Society, Burlington House, London

Astronomy is poised to enter a new era, where light and the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum are only one part of the toolkit we use to understand the universe. Astronomers and physicists will come together on 13 February for a cross-disciplinary meeting at the Geological Society on these ‘non-photonic messengers’ such as gravitational waves, high energy cosmic rays and neutrinos.

Delegates at the meeting will discuss the prospects and latest results from this new research, and how they can collaborate to continue the leading role of the UK in these areas.

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


Robert Massey


Night sky in February

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.

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