New Year, New Sky: A January Skywatching Guide

iStock
iStock

The New Year brings a great meteor shower, a rarely visible planet, a "blue moon," and a total lunar eclipse. Here are a few things skywatchers should be on the lookout for as they begin 2018.

JANUARY 1: VISIBLE MERCURY & WOLF SUPERMOON

Just before sunrise on New Year's Day, Mercury will be visible in the sky. Because of its proximity to the Sun, you can only see the planet on a handful of days every year—when Mercury reaches “greatest elongation”—and even then, you only have a narrow window of opportunity to see it. (For reference: In New York State, the magic hours are between roughly 5:30 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. Mercury will peak in the southeast a mere 10 degrees over the horizon. The times and maximum height over the horizon will vary based on your location. Check for your location here.) If you're pulling a New Year all-nighter anyway, be sure to make the effort.

Finding the southeast is easy. (Worst-case scenario, use the compass app in your phone.) But how do you calculate 10 degrees over the horizon? The easiest way is to hold your thumb out sideways at arm's length. The thickness of your thumb is about two degrees. A clenched fist, upright, is about 10 degrees. Hold the bottom of your fist at the horizon; the top of it will reveal an approximation of where Mercury should be.

That's not the only sky event on January 1. We'll also see the first full moon of 2018. It will be a “supermoon”—that is, it will be full while closest to Earth in its elliptical orbit. (Unless you are a devoted Moon watcher, you are unlikely to notice whether or not the Moon is a few percentage points larger than normal, so don't get too caught up in that.) According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, Native Americans called this first full moon in January the Wolf Moon, because winter has been in full swing for a while now, and wolves are hungry. There's a little extra longing in those customary howls.

JANUARY 3–4: QUADRANTIDS METEOR SHOWER

On January 3 at around 11:00 p.m., you can celebrate J.R.R. Tolkien's birthday (and mine) by finding an area of little light pollution, laying out a blanket, turning off your phone, opening a bottle of wine, and letting your eyes adjust to the darkness. Just before midnight, your eyes should be good and ready to enjoy the first major meteor shower of 2018: the Quadrantids. On a good year, you'll be able to catch around 70 meteors per hour. This, however, will not be a good year, because of an almost fully illuminated moon which will wash out the night sky. All is not lost, however: If the sky is clear and you've found a nice remote area, you're sure to see something through the predawn hours of January 4.

The Quadrantids are particularly interesting for two reasons: 1. They are named for Quadrans Muralis, a constellation “drawn” by an 18th-century French astronomer, but which fell out of favor in the late 1800s and does not formally exist today, according to the International Astronomical Union; and 2. The meteor shower is produced by 2003 EH1, a near-Earth asteroid that is believed to be an extinct comet. (With no volatiles left to sublimate and give it that distinct comet tail, or coma, the comet essentially becomes a hunk of space rock. We still love it, but it's no Halley.)

JANUARY 31: BLUE SUPERMOON ECLIPSE

Every month begins or ends with a full moon, more or less. The lunar phases are where we get the word "month" in the first place. Every so often, the lunar cycle so aligns as to give us two full moons in one month. This second full moon is called a "blue moon" (as in: "once in a … "). There's no cosmic magic about it, though it is a lovely way to acknowledge the beauty of celestial mechanics. The blue moon on January 31 will be a particularly good showing, as it is a supermoon, and in the western United States, across the Pacific, and into eastern Asia, there will be a total lunar eclipse! At moonset, the Moon will cross through the darkest part of the Earth's shadow and turn a reddish color. No telescopes or special protective glasses will be needed to enjoy this. (The eastern United States will experience a partial lunar eclipse, whereupon a part of the moon will darken. It's better than nothing!)

If your January skywatching is ruined with rain and alarm clocks that didn't go off, don't lose hope. Next month promises a minor meteor shower, a "black moon," and the always-romantic Valentine's Day star.

Editor's Note: This post has been updated.

Life on Nearby Exoplanet Barnard's Star B Might Be Possible, According to Astronomers

iStock.com/PavelSmilyk
iStock.com/PavelSmilyk

Despite contradictory statements from UFO eyewitnesses, we have yet to confirm the presence of intelligent life beyond Earth. But astronomers continue to flirt with that hope. The most recent speculation comes from Barnard’s Star, the second-closest star system to Earth, which is circled by a frozen super-Earth dubbed Barnard's Star b. While its surface might be as cold as -274°F, there may just be potential for life.

According to CNET, the chilly Barnard's Star b—located 6 light years away from Earth—could still be hospitable to living organisms. Astrophysicists at Villanova University speculate the planet could have a hot liquid-iron core that produces geothermal energy. That warmth might support primitive life under the icy surface. A similar situation could possibly occur on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, where tidal heating might allow for subsurface oceans containing living things.

Barnard's Star b has a mass just over three times that of Earth. The conclusions about potential life were drawn by Villanova researchers from 15 years of photometry examination of the solar system [PDF].

“The most significant aspect of the discovery of Barnard’s star b is that the two nearest star systems to the Sun are now known to host planets,” Scott Engle, a Villanova astrophysicist, said in a statement. “This supports previous studies based on Kepler Mission data, inferring that planets can be very common throughout the galaxy, even numbering in the tens of billions. Also, Barnard’s Star is about twice as old as the Sun—about 9 billion years old compared to 4.6 billion years for the Sun. The universe has been producing Earth-size planets far longer than we, or even the Sun itself, have existed.”

Scientists hope to learn more about the potential for life on Barnard's Star b as new, more powerful telescopes are put into use. NASA’s delayed James Webb Space Telescope could be one such solution. Its 21-foot mirror—three times the size of the Hubble—is set to open in 2021.

[h/t CNET]

15 Fantastic Buzz Aldrin Quotes

Christopher Polk, Getty Images
Christopher Polk, Getty Images

Buzz Aldrin—born Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr. on January 20, 1930—celebrates his 89th birthday this year. The fighter pilot-turned-astronaut flew on Apollo 11 and became one of the first people to set foot on the Moon (and was one of just 12 to do so). Over the course of his life, Aldrin has learned a lot, and he’s shared his wisdom in a number of books and interviews. Here are a few of his most awesome and inspirational quotes.

1. “From the distance of the Moon, Earth was four times the size of a full moon seen from Earth. It was a brilliant jewel in the black velvet sky. Yet it was still at a great distance, considering the challenges of the voyage home.” —From an interview with Scholastic

2. “‘Where are the billions and billions and billions of people, on what I'm looking at? We're the only three that are not back there.' And we didn't get to celebrate. Because we were out of town.” —On what he was thinking as he looked back at Earth from the Moon, from a Reddit AMA

An image of astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon.
NASA/Getty Images

3. “Some people don’t like to admit that they have failed or that they have not yet achieved their goals or lived up to their own expectations. But failure is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign that you are alive and growing.” —From the book No Dream is Too High

4. “As the senior crew member, it was appropriate for [Neil Armstrong] to be the first. But after years and years of being asked to speak to a group of people and then be introduced as the second man on the Moon, it does get a little frustrating. Is it really necessary to point out to the crowd that somebody else was first when we all went through the same training, we all landed at the same time and all contributed? But for the rest of my life I'll always be identified as the second man to walk on the Moon. [Laughs.]” —From an interview with National Geographic

5. “Resilience is what humans have and resilience is what humans need to take advantage of—their ability to explore and to understand and then to react positively and with motivation, not as a defeatist, to the constant flow of challenges. Negativity doesn’t get anybody anywhere. It takes reacting to all of life in a positive way to make the most out of what you’ve experienced and to make a better life and a better world.” —From an interview with Biography.com

6. “The urge to explore has propelled evolution since the first water creatures reconnoitered the land. Like all living systems, cultures cannot remain static; they evolve or decline. They explore or expire.” —From a 1999 article in the Albuquerque Tribune

An image of the Apollo 11 astronauts getting out of their lunar vehicle into a boat on the ocean.
NASA/Newsmakers/Getty Images

7. “There's a tremendously satisfying freedom associated with weightlessness. It's challenging in the absence of traction or leverage, and it requires thoughtful readjustment. I found the experience of weightlessness to be one of the most fun and enjoyable, challenging and rewarding, experiences of spaceflight. Returning to Earth brings with it a great sense of heaviness, and a need for careful movement. In some ways it's not too different from returning from a rocking ocean ship.” —From an interview with Scholastic

8. “It certainly didn't make me feel lonely, except to realize that we were as far away as people had ever been. Once we were on the surface of the Moon we could look back and see the Earth, a little blue dot in the sky. We are a very small part of the solar system and the whole universe. The sky was black as could be, and the horizon was so well defined as it curved many miles away from us into space.” —From an interview with National Geographic

An image of Buzz Aldrin's boot and footprint on the Moon.
Keystone/Getty Images

9. “I know the sky is not the limit, because there are footprints on the Moon—and I made some of them! So don’t allow anyone to denigrate or inhibit your lofty aspirations. Your dream can take you might higher and much farther than anyone ever thought possible! I know mine did.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

10. “Take a good, long, honest, positive look at what good can come out of every situation you’re in. Wherever you are, that’s where you are. You’re there with it. This is your history you’re living right now. So do what you can to make the most of what comes along. And please, don’t try to do everything on your own. There are a lot of people out there in the universe who wish you well and want to be your friend. Let them help you. You don’t have to carry it all on your own.” —From an interview with Biography.com

11. “Your mind is like a parachute: If it isn’t open, it doesn’t work.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

12. “I prefer the soft singing voice of Karen Carpenter. I have heard Frank Sinatra sing 'Fly Me to the Moon' almost too many times. So I'm interested in composing a new song, entitled "Get Your Ass to Mars!" —From a Reddit AMA

13. “Fear paralyzes in many ways, but especially if it keeps you from responding wisely and intelligently to challenges. The only way to overcome your fears is to face them head-on.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

An image of Buzz Aldrin performing an experiment on the Moon.
NASA/Newsmakers/Getty Images

14. “My first words of my impression of being on the surface of the Moon that just came to my mind was ‘magnificent desolation’. [...] there is no place on Earth as desolate as what I was viewing in those first moments on the lunar surface. Because I realized what I was looking at, towards the horizon and in every direction, had not changed in hundreds, thousands of years. Beyond me I could see the Moon curving away—no atmosphere, black sky. Cold. Colder than anyone could experience on Earth when the Sun is up […] No sign of life whatsoever. That is desolate. More desolate than any place on Earth.” —From a Reddit AMA

15. “Choose your heroes wisely, and be careful who you idolize. Why? Simple: you will become like the people with whom you most often associate.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER