Celestial events in the skies for the week of Jan. 2-8, 2018 as compiled for The Loafer by Mark D. Marquette.
While sun catchers hanging in our south-facing windows toss the rainbow of photons around the walls of our cozy homes, the days might be cold, but they are getting longer. The Sun is at its lowest point south of the year, the acute angle filtering sunlight into our rooms. But day-by-day, the Sun’s arc across the daytime sky is getting higher—adding about 30 seconds a day to our daylight. But there’s still more than 13 hours of nighttime, which pleases stargazers exploring the glorious winter sky. The post-full phase Moon will begin creeping into the morning sky, leaving dark skies at the end of the week.
Tuesday, January 2
This date in space history has a lot of interplanetary events: in 1959 Russian Luna 1 became first spacecraft to leave Earth’s gravity, but missing the Moon; in 1972 NASA’s Mariner 9 began mapping Mars; and in 2004 NASA’s Stardust spacecraft flew in formation with Comet Wild 2, dropping off to Earth by reenter capsule particles of the alien body in 2006.
Wednesday, January 3
On this 2004 date in space history, NASA’s Mars Excursion Rover named Spirit successfully landed on the Red Planet, beginning a six-year exploration of the surface. Succumbing to battery failure in its sixth year after getting stuck in a hole, Spirit was guaranteed to last 90 days! The rover’s twin, Opportunity, landed a few weeks later but is still alive and well—and ready to celebrate its 15th birthday on Jan. 25th. Talk about NASA giving taxpayers their money’s worth!
Thursday, January 4
Early morning risers will be treated to a half-hour of planetary conjunction as Mars draws closer to Jupiter each day in Libra the Scales. From 6 am to twilight at 6:30 am, red star Antares is above the horizon, gold and brightest Jupiter, then red Mars are side-by-side, and brilliant white star Spica is above.
Friday, January 5
On this 2005 date in space history, astronomers discovered an object larger than Pluto and nearly twice as far. Named Eris, it and a half-dozen other objects near the size of Pluto sparked the debate that demoted the planet to “dwarf planet” status, joining Eris, former asteroid Ceres and others in the new classification.
Saturday, January 6
Get up and look east at 6 am and watch planets Jupiter and Mars in conjunction, so close to each other on Sunday morning they will look like one star! This all happens in Libra, between bright white star Spica in Virgo above, and below the red heart Antares of Scorpius. A great photo opportunity!
Sunday, January 7
On this 1610 date in space history, the great Italian scientist Galileo turned his new telescope to the planet Jupiter and discovered three of its four giant moons. The discovery convinced Galileo that the Earth orbited the Sun and our Moon orbited Earth—which was not accepted knowledge 400 years ago. A few nights later, Galileo saw a fourth Jupiter moon, Ganymeade, joining Io, Callisto and Europa. All four moons, and the cloud bands of Jupiter, are easily seen in any backyard telescope
Monday, January 8
Happy Birthday 77th birthday Stephen Hawking, the world’s premier physicists, and one of the longest survivors of ALS. Confined to a wheel chair for decades, Hawking has a brilliant mind that has pioneered modern day physics, which he popularized in his best-selling book “A Brief History of Time.