Science & Environment

A science news preview of 2017

From a majestic natural spectacle to a high-octane technological thrill ride, here's our guide to the big science events of 2017.

Eclipse of the century

Image copyright PA

If reports are to be believed, 2017 will offer up what's been described as the eclipse of the century.

In August next year, skywatchers from all over the world are expected to converge on the United States for this spectacular cosmic event.

The excitement is understandable, since it's the first such eclipse with a path of totality crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts since 1918.

Over the course of one-and-a-half-hours, the Moon's shadow will trace an arching path from Oregon in the west diagonally downwards towards South Carolina.

In addition, several large urban centres, such as St Louis, Missouri, and Nashville, Tennessee, lie in the path of the eclipse.

There isn't much cutting-edge science to be done on eclipses, but next year's event is sure to provide one of the greatest natural spectacles in recent memory.

Image copyright Google Maps

Lord of the rings

In 2017, one of Nasa's most successful ever missions will build up to a dramatic end. The Cassini spacecraft was launched in 1997, arriving in orbit around Saturn in 2004.

Image copyright NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/G Ugarkovic

The array of discoveries made during the mission is staggering: giant hurricanes at Saturn's poles, geysers erupting from the icy moon Enceladus, rain, rivers and seas on the planet's biggest satellite Titan.

But starting at the end of 2016 and continuing through early 2017, Cassini will carry out more than 20 dives at the outer edge of the majestic ring system that surrounds Saturn.

This will give scientists the opportunity to study the rings in unprecedented detail.

"We have two instruments that can sample particles and gases as we cross the ring plane, so in a sense Cassini is also 'grazing' on the rings," said Linda Spilker, Cassini's project scientist.

They will also be able to observe the menagerie of small moons that orbit in or near the edges of the rings.

In April, Cassini will begin repeated dives through the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings. Finally, on 15 September, the probe will end its mission by plunging through Saturn's atmosphere - a finale designed to prevent it crashing into potentially habitable moons and contaminating them with any Earth bugs that have hitched a ride.

It should be a thrilling and spectacular ride.

Fast and furious

The British Bloodhound project aims to smash the land speed record with a rocket-powered car.

Image copyright BLOODHOUND SSC

The project has already been delayed several times, but the team behind the record attempt will be hoping that 2017 is their lucky year.

Most of the car is already built; most recently, the team has been testing the car's fuel system.

Powered by a rocket bolted to a Eurofighter-Typhoon jet engine, the vehicle should be subjected to trials at Newquay Airport in the UK in July and then Hakskeen Pan in South Africa later in the year.

The British team wants to accelerate the car to 800mph, exceeding the current land speed record, by the end of the year.

Then, after a hiatus, the car should return to South Africa in 2018 to achieve its ultimate goal of breaking the 1,000mph mark.

A British car being entered for next year's World Solar Challenge won't need to get anywhere near those speeds. But it will require impressive feats of engineering to drive the sleek vehicle 3,000km through Australia's interior.

Heavy metal

Will this be the year that Elon Musk's SpaceX launches its Falcon Heavy rocket? The super heavy-lift launcher was first mentioned in 2005, but the date for its maiden flight has slipped several times, most recently because of the explosion of SpaceX's smaller Falcon 9 rocket in September.

Image copyright SpaceX

While Musk's company works to successfully return that rocket to flight in 2017, it's just possible that we might see its more powerful cousin launch next year. The rocket, which effectively consists of three combined Falcon 9 boosters, is designed to lift heavy payloads into orbit, including the heaviest commercial and military satellites - and, perhaps one day, crewed spacecraft.

But the repeated delays have prompted some interested commercial customers to look at other options for planned satellite launches over the next few years.

The demonstration launch could either occur from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California or Kennedy Space Center in Florida. With so much else in play at the moment, SpaceX may further delay the launcher's debut.

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