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Space and astronomy digest: March 2015

Last Updated on Friday, 27 February 2015 14:58
Published on Friday, 27 February 2015 09:30

The March digest of upcoming space and astronomy events. Highlights this month include the arrival of Dawn at Ceres and the deepest solar eclipse in the UK this decade.


6 March: Dawn spacecraft arrives at Ceres

March 6 sees the arrival of the NASA-led Dawn spacecraft at the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the main belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft will initially enter a polar orbit at an altitude of 13,500 km above the surface of the icy world. In a series of manoeuvres over the following eight months, the probe will eventually travel around the dwarf planet at a distance of just 375 km, enabling close up imaging, measurements of the gravitational field (giving insights into the interior of Ceres) and allowing scientists to analyse the composition of its surface.

Launched in 2007, Dawn uses ion propulsion and will be the first spacecraft to visit a dwarf planet, following a flyby of Mars in 2009, and a successful 14 months in orbit around the asteroid Vesta. The spacecraft is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, with components supplied from the Netherlands, Italy and Germany.

Dawn home page


Stuart Wolpert
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+1 310 206 0510

Elizabeth Landau
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+1 818 354 6425

NASA Discovery Program
Dwayne Brown
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+1 202 358 1726


10 March: RAS public lectures: The Cosmic Chemical Cauldron: Geological Society and Royal Astronomical Society

Dr Helen Fraser of the Open University will give the latest RAS public lecture on 10 March, at 1pm in the Geological Society and again at 6pm in the Royal Astronomical Society. In her talk she will describe how the universe is full of chemical compounds, with over 200 discovered to date, most of which are detected in the space between the stars.

The assembly of molecules in space is intrinsically linked with the birth of stars, affects the processes of planet formation, and potentially provides the ingredients for the origins of life itself. Dr Fraser will take her audience on a journey from the cold, dark, diffuse regions of pre-stellar cores, right through to a newly formed exoplanet, explaining along the way what chemistry is happening, and what information astronomers obtain from these molecular tracers.

RAS meeting page


Robert Massey

13 March: Tectonics from Above: Recent Advances in the Use of High-resolution Topography and Imagery, Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington House, London

Topography, the study of surface shape and features, is one of the most important geophysical observations of the Earth. Recent advances mean that geophysicists can soon expect to achieve a resolution of 1 m and better in these measurements.

When these are combined with high-resolution imagery, they greatly enhance the ability of scientists to understand the changes that result from earthquakes and around geological faults in general. On 13 March, geophysicists will come to the Royal Astronomical Society for a special conference on these new datasets and the scientific opportunities they present.

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

RAS meeting page



Robert Massey

13 March: Building an Open UK SKA-Science Consortium, Geological Society, Burlington House, London

On 13 March astronomers will gather at the Geological Society for a specialist discussion meeting on the future collaborations that will exploit science from the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world’s largest radio telescope under construction in Australia and southern Africa.

This science-focussed meeting will look forward to the SKA and includes the pathfinder and precursor radio observatories like the Low-Frequency Array for radio astronomy (LOFAR), the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), MeerKAT (in the Karoo semi-desert in South Africa), the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) in Australia, e-MERLIN (centred on Jodrell Bank in the UK) and the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (JVLA) in the US.

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

RAS meeting page


Robert Massey

20 March: Total solar eclipse

Solar eclipse 1999 4 NR smallThe total solar eclipse of 1999, as seen from France. Credit: Luc Viatour / Click for a larger imageOn 20 March a total eclipse of the Sun will take place, visible from the North Atlantic Ocean, the Faroe Islands and most of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Observers in Europe (including the UK and Ireland), Iceland, Greenland, western Asia and northern Africa will see a partial solar eclipse.

Total solar eclipses take place when the Earth, Moon and Sun are aligned and the shadow of the Moon touches the surface of the Earth. At mid-eclipse, observers within the lunar shadow briefly see totality, where the silhouette of the Moon completely covers the Sun, revealing the beautiful outer solar atmosphere or corona.

Away from the path of the total eclipse the Sun is only partly obscured by the Moon. This partial eclipse is visible across a large part of the northern hemisphere, including the whole of Europe and the UK, where it will take place in the morning.

In London the partial phase of the eclipse begins at 0825 GMT. Maximum eclipse is at 0931 GMT when 85% of the Sun will be blocked. The partial eclipse ends at 1041 GMT. Further north in the British Isles, observers enjoy a better view. From Edinburgh 93% of the Sun is covered and from Lerwick in the Shetland Isles, the Moon obscures 97% of the solar disk.

Although eclipses of the Sun are spectacular events, they should NOT be viewed with the unaided eye except during the brief period of totality, which this time will not be visible anywhere in the UK. Looking at the partially eclipsed Sun without appropriate protection can cause serious and permanent damage to the eyes.

On 20 March, some amateur astronomical societies and public observatories will be running events where members of the public can safely enjoy the eclipse. The RAS and the Baker Street Irregular Astronomers (BSIA) will be running a joint event in Regents Park, central London, where members of the public can come and view the eclipse using appropriate equipment.

With support from the Society for Popular Astronomy, the RAS has produced a guide to safely viewing solar eclipses.

More information:


Night sky in March

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