The lunar eclipse that took place in the early hours of Monday 21 January kicks off a major year for our satellite. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, the first crewed landing on the Moon.
After more than four decades, the Moon is again in the spotlight of space agencies worldwide as a destination for both robotic missions and human explorers.
But first, the lunar eclipse.
The phenomenon known as a total lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth passes directly between the Moon and the Sun, hiding the light that illuminates the surface of our satellite.
As the Moon passes through the shadow of Earth it appears in orange and red hues. This is because a small portion of sunlight is refracted by the Earth's atmosphere and mostly red light reaches the Moon.
Many across Europe woke in the early hours to view this phenomenon and shared their images on social media. The images were stunning across the continent, but particularly over Lake Maggiore. This image of the eclipse at totality was taken at 06:23 CET by Alberto Negro.
In collaboration with international partners, ESA is preparing to go forward to the Moon on several missions to be developed over the next few years.
ESA has already delivered a key component to the NASA Orion spacecraft that will take humans back to the Moon. The European Service Module, the powerhouse engine that will propel the spacecraft, is currently undergoing mating and testing with the rest of the spacecraft in the United States.
Moving away from one-shot orbital missions, ESA is also teaming up with international partners on missions to explore the polar regions hand-in-hand with robots, in international cooperation and commercial participation.
This Copernicus Sentinel-2B image features the city of Zaragoza nestling in the Ebro valley and flanked by mountains to the south.
Zaragoza is the capital of the province of Zaragoza in the region of Aragon in northeast Spain. It is home to about half of Aragon’s population, making it the fifth largest municipality in Spain.
In the top-right of the image, the Ebro River can be seen winding its way through the city. Between its source in the Cantabrian Mountains in the northwest and its delta on the Mediterranean coast, the Ebro River is fed by more than 200 tributaries as it flows across much of northern Spain. In fact, the Ebro River discharges more water into the sea than any other river in Spain.
In an otherwise arid region, the river is used to irrigate crops in the valley – fields can be seen in the top-right of the image.
To the south of the city and dominating the image, lie mountains, relatively devoid of vegetation. There are also mountains to the north that are beyond the frame of this image. These mountains, which effectively surround Zaragoza, form a barrier to moisture from the Atlantic Ocean and from the Mediterranean Sea, creating a semi-arid climate.
On average, Zaragoza only has about 350 mm of precipitation a year, compared to Paris in France, for example, which has around 650 mm of precipitation a year. In recent years, efforts – from discounts on water-saving products to new watering systems for parks – have been in helping to reduce water consumption. Efforts such as these resulted in Zaragoza’s per capita use of water dropping from 150 litres a day in 1997 to just 99 litres a day by 2012.
This image, captured on 25 February 2018, is also featured on the Earth from Space video programme.
The occultation of two stars in the Cancer constellation by the Moon, imaged at 04:56 and 05:21 GMT, respectively, on 21 January during a lunar eclipse.
The image on the left shows the star HIP 39869, located 5930 light years away, shortly before disappearing behind the Moon’s disc; and the image on the right shows the star HIP 39749, located 309 light years away, as it emerges from behind the Moon after its occultation.
These images were taken at ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre near Madrid, Spain, with a Newtonian (reflecting) telescope CG8 with 20-cm aperture, and a Canon EOS550D camera.
The first qualification model of the P120C solid-propellant rocket motor, in the configuration for Vega-C, was transferred to the test stand in December to prepare for its first hot firing at Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana on 28 January 2019.
The P120C is 13.5 m long and 3.4 m in diameter, and contains 142 tonnes of solid propellant.
The Moon seen rising over the Goonhilly antenna, taken at 5:27 UTC (06:27 CET) on Monday, 21 January, during an eclipse of the Moon, which gave it a reddish tinge.
If you’re planning on flying a robotic or human mission in the near future to the Moon, an asteroid or even Mars, an indispensable requirement you will face is the need for at least one large tracking dish to communicate with your spacecraft.
ESA has built and operates for this purpose a world-wide tracking network with stations located in Spain, Australia and Argentina. In addition, cooperation agreements between ESA and other agencies allow sharing capacity via their networks as well.
Today, new companies are joining the 'Space 4.0' initiative and are devising innovative solutions in the area of space to ground communication. For instance a company in the UK is redeveloping part of Goonhilly Earth Station, an existing commercial station in Cornwall, to enable it to provide Europe’s first commercial tracking services for missions farther than Earth’s orbit – for example to the Moon.
ESA engineering teams are working to support this effort, as it promises to provide expanded tracking capacity for ESA's own current and future missions.
In addition to expanding commercial tracking services, ESA's mission control and ground station experts are assisting a number of initiatives that revolve around Earth's ‘natural satellite’.
For instance, later this year, ESA tracking stations will provide critical support to China's Chang'e-5 lunar sample return mission, providing communications just after launch and helping Chinese mission controllers determine the precise trajectory of the return capsule.
ESA is also examining how its ground systems and operations teams can support the future space Gateway, a platform in deep space from which human exploration of the Solar System can set forth.
It will operate in the vicinity of the Moon, and serve as a testing ground for the challenges of long-duration human missions in the environment of deep space.
ESA’s new Earth observation innovation hub, ɸ-lab, is set to welcome three research fellows from the aerospace industry giant Airbus, to work at the edge of disruptive technologies that monitor Earth’s environment from space. This has been made possible through an agreement signed today by Josef Aschbacher, Head of ESA’s Earth Observation Programmes (right), and Evert Dudok, Executive Vice President of Communications Intelligence and Security for Airbus (left).
This ethereal image was taken by Daniel Michalik, currently a research fellow at ESA. It was shortlisted as a finalist in the Royal Society photography competition in 2017, and went on to become the overall winner in the ‘Astronomy’ category – and it’s easy to see why.
It captures a beautiful scene at the Earth’s South Pole in Antarctica, where the dry, cold conditions allow for observations of a number of rare celestial phenomena that are seen far less often elsewhere. The sight captured beautifully here by Daniel is a good example of such a phenomenon: a light pillar.
The Moon illuminates a column of bright light between it and the frozen plateau below, creating a scene akin to a dramatic lunar spotlight beaming downwards. This is caused by moonlight reflecting from and refracting through ice crystals suspended in our planet’s atmosphere, producing a diffuse, eerie glow. Atmospheric ice crystals are behind a number of the phenomena showcased wonderfully at the South Pole, including halos and arcs (glowing rings that encircle the Sun or Moon in the sky), as well as sun and moon dogs (bright, circular spots of light that sometimes appear along these halos around the Sun or Moon).
Jupiter can be seen as a bright spot to the upper left of the Moon. This photograph is one single long exposure with minor contrast and exposure adjustments, taken at -60°C.
Daniel wintered at the Geographic South Pole in 2017 while he worked at the 10-metre South Pole Telescope (SPT), visible here as the leftmost radio dish. The other two dishes visible are BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization 2), and the Keck Array. These telescopes are exploring the very earliest days of the cosmos. They are located in the Dark Sector of the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, where any sources of electro-magnetic interference that could potentially affect the observations are kept as low as possible. This means no wifi, no radio contact, and no bright lights in this area, amongst others.
A line of flags is visible snaking away from the camera towards these telescopes – it helps astronomers and staff find their way to the site during the five months of continuous winter darkness.
The Moon creates a number of fascinating and unique sights for terrestrial observers, perhaps the most famous being eclipses. The most recent lunar eclipse – when the Earth slips between the Moon and the Sun, casting its shadow onto our satellite – occurred during the early hours of this morning. The total lunar eclipse could be seen from North America, South America, and parts of western and northern Europe and Africa.
While the Moon has not welcomed human visitors since the 1970s, it is again becoming a target for space agencies. The Moon is a key reference point for understanding the evolution of the early Solar System. There is also renewed interest in a long-term human presence on the Moon as it offers great potential as a ‘springboard’ for humans to explore other regions of space – Mars being the next goal.
This picture showcases a gravitational lensing system called SDSS J0928+2031. Quite a few images of this type of lensing have been featured as Pictures of the Week in past months, as NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope data is currently being used to research how stars form and evolve in distant galaxies.
Gravitational lensing can help astronomers study objects that would otherwise be too faint or appear too small for us to view. When a massive object — such as a massive cluster of galaxies, as seen here — distorts space with its immense gravitational field, it causes light from more distant galaxies to travel along altered and warped paths. It also amplifies the light, making it possible for us to observe and study its source.
In this image, we see two dominant elliptical galaxies near the centre of the image. The gravity from the galaxy cluster that is the home of these galaxies is acting as the aforementioned gravitational lens, allowing us to view the more distant galaxies sitting behind them. We see the effects of this lensing as narrow, curved streaks of light surrounding both of the large galaxies.
This image was observed by Hubble as part of the Sloan Giant Arcs Survey programme.
Week in images
21 - 25 January 2019