Thursday, 22 November 2012

Curious Cosmos

2012 has been a rather special year with regards to cosmological events. On the 13th Nov 2012 a total solar eclipse took place and was viable in Queensland, Australia (1). A solar eclipse is when the moon comes between the sun and the earth, and casts the moons shadow on the earth. A total solar eclipse is a fairly rare occurrence, happening ever few years, but since it only lasts a few minutes it means it is only visible by a small area of the earth when it occurs, and this could be over an ocean or the poles. The Total solar eclipse, as opposed to an Annular eclipse where the sun can still be seen, will not occur in Australia until 2028(2). Around 60, 000 people travelled to Cairns, Queensland to witness the event, luckily experiencing clear skies and a stunning experience(3). Total solar eclipses are not only beautiful but important to astronomy, where they have been used to prove Einstein's theory of general relativity by showing that gravity can bend light and the discovery of Helium, which was the first element to be discovered outside of the earth(4).

June earlier this year(5), the transit of Venus took place; this is where the planet appears to travel across the sun, because of the alignment of the planets and the orbits. From Earth we can only witness transits of Venus and Mercury, because they are the only planets that orbit closer to the sun than earth. Transits of Mercury are very rare, occurring once every 13yrs(2), however, the orbit of Venus is much larger and so transits of Venus are even rarer, occur roughly twice every 120 years. The next transit of Venus is not due to occur until 2117(2), so it is rather a special event. The transit of Venus is particularly important for science as it allows many special calculations and data to be collected that couldn’t be obtained otherwise. In the 18th century the transit of Venus allowed scientists to calculate the size of the solar system(6), which was a huge leap forward for both astronomy and physics of the time.

August this year also saw the landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity(7), which will spend 2 years exploring, photographing and analyzing the Martian surface. The landing itself was an outstanding feat of engineering and watched by millions as the craft entered the atmosphere and touched down. Many have hailed the Mars Rover landing as this generations moon landing. Certainly a significant moment in history and the results from the Rover are likely to influence the future of research to come.

Unfortunately the next few years are going to be cosmologically dull in comparison, as there will be no total lunar or solar eclipses or any transits during 2013. The next significant event will be the transit of Mercury in 2016(2). While the Rover will be exploring the Martian surface there is unlikely to be any Eureka moments in its findings. However, hopefully this past year will have brought curiosity and enthusiasm to a new generation, and influence many young people to see astronomy as an fascinating and exciting subject.

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