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Eclipses, new spacecraft and moon visits: What’s ahead in space in 2019

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When it comes to space, 2018 was a pretty exciting year.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launched successfully — even to CEO Elon Musk’s surprise. NASA’s InSight spacecraft landed on Mars. Another NASA spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, arrived safely at the asteroid Bennu. And, of course, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques is working away on the International Space Station until June.

The year ahead should be no less exciting. Here are some of the highlights to look forward to in 2019. 

Happy New Year!

On July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft gave us the first look at Pluto, which is more than five billion kilometres away.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution, enhanced-colour view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. (NASA)

On Jan. 1, New Horizons will once again zip past another far-off world 6.5 billion kilometres away: 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule. The icy, irregularly shaped body is only about 30 kilometres in diameter and found within the Kuiper Belt, a disk believed to contain hundreds of thousands of icy worlds and perhaps millions more comets.

New Horizons will fly closer to Ultima Thule than it did Pluto, allowing for a closer examination of its surface. In 2015, planetary scientists were surprised by what they found on Pluto — ice volcanoes and a thicker atmosphere than expected — so there’s no telling what surprises Ultima Thule might reveal.

New crew spacecraft

When NASA mothballed the space shuttle program in 2011, it had no means of its own to get its astronauts to the International Space Station. Instead, it has been relying on $75-million-a-seat rides aboard the Russian space agency’s Soyuz rockets.

That’s all about to change.

In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop the next spacecraft to launch Americans from home soil. And in 2019, after years of development and testing, both companies are set to blast off.

On the left, NASA astronaut Suni Williams, fully suited in SpaceX’s spacesuit, interfaces with the display inside a mock-up of the Crew Dragon spacecraft in Hawthorne, Calif., during a testing exercise on April 3, 2018. On the right, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, Eric Boe and Doug Hurley conduct a fully suited exercise in Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner mock-up trainer in early May at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (SpaceX/Boeing)

On Jan. 17, SpaceX is scheduled to conduct a test of its Crew Dragon capsule — but without a crew. The capsule will launch aboard SpaceX’s successful Falcon 9 rocket, called Demo-1. Demo-2, with Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on board, is scheduled for some time in June.

After a delay last year, Boeing will conduct the first uncrewed launch of its CST-100 Starliner in March, to be followed by a launch with Eric Boe, Chris Ferguson and Nicole Mann.

Howl at the moon

The first eclipse of the new year is a total lunar eclipse that will be visible right across the country on Jan. 21.

Lunar eclipses occur an average of two to four times a year. There are three different types of eclipses: total, partial and penumbral.

A lunar eclipse of a full ‘blue moon’ is seen in Santa Monica, Calif., on Jan. 31, 2018. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Total lunar eclipses last for hours, as the moon glides through Earth’s shadow. During January’s eclipse, totality will last for more than an hour.

You might hear this eclipse referred to as the super blood wolf moon. There are three reasons for this dramatic moniker.

First, the moon will be almost at perigee, or the closest point to Earth in its elliptical orbit. When this happens and it’s a full moon, it’s become popular to refer to it as a “super moon” (though visually it’s difficult to tell the moon is larger).

Secondly, full moons are given names monthly, and this one happens to be the “wolf” moon.

And finally, a lunar eclipse tends to turn the moon a coppery-reddish colour as the sun — which lies behind it — refracts light. Blue is scattered, leaving only red, which is reflected off the moon.

No matter what you call it, though, it should be quite a sight.

To the moon!

Over the past few years, there’s been more talk about returning to the moon. Three countries have successfully landed a spacecraft on the moon: the U.S., Russia (the former Soviet Union) and China. But another country is about to be added to the list: Israel.

In February — the date has not yet been confirmed — the non-profit company SpaceIL, together with Israel Aerospace Industries, will send a time capsule to the moon.

The capsule will launch as a secondary payload aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. It will contain three discs filled with hundreds of digital files storing information such as Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the Bible, dictionaries in 27 languages and much more.

Technicians surround the lander Beresheet — the Hebrew word for Genesis — which is expected to launch to the moon in February. (Yoav Weiss)

Meanwhile, China is preparing for a one-of-a-kind return to the moon after its successful Chang’e 3 rover landed in 2013.

Chang’e 4 was launched on Dec. 7 and reached orbit on Dec. 12. It’s expected the rover will head to the surface in early January, when the far side of the moon is illuminated by the sun.

China is also expected to launch Chang’e 5 in late 2019. It is designed to collect material from the moon’s surface and return to Earth.

Mercury crosses the sun

Being on the third planet from the sun, every so often we are treated to a unique visual spectacle: a planet crossing the face of the sun. These events, called transits, are rare, and and can only happen with Mercury and Venus.

A jet is silhouetted by the sun, with Venus appearing just above its tail in 2012. (Gene Blevins/Reuters)

Canada is in a great location to catch the transit of Mercury on Nov. 11. The entire transit will be visible in the early morning in parts of central and southern Ontario and Quebec and all of Atlantic Canada.

In the West, the transit will already be in progress at sunrise. The entire event will take about 5 ½ hours.

Of course, it’s important to remember never to look directly at the sun. Instead, people are encouraged to plan ahead and purchase special glasses that block out the sun’s harmful light.

The last time Mercury crossed the sun was in 2016, and it won’t happen again until 2032. If you’re hoping to see Venus, its next transit is in 2117.

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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