New Year, New Sky: A January Skywatching Guide

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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.

Two Harvard Scientists Suggest 'Oumuamua Could Be, Uh, an Alien Probe

ESO/M. Kornmesser
ESO/M. Kornmesser

An odd, cigar-shaped object has been stumping scientists ever since it zoomed into our solar system last year. Dubbed 'Oumuamua (pronounced oh-MOO-ah-MOO-ah), it was first seen through the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii in October 2017. 'Oumuamua moved at an unusually high speed and in a different kind of orbit than those of comets or asteroids, leading scientists to conclude that it didn't originate in our solar system. It was the first interstellar object to arrive from somewhere else, but its visit was brief. After being spotted over Chile and other locales, 'Oumuamua left last January, leaving lots of questions in its wake.

Now, two researchers at Harvard University bury a surprising suggestion in a new paper that analyzes the object's movement: 'Oumuamua could be an alien probe. Sure, why not?

First, astrophysicists Shmuel Bialy and Abraham Loeb argue that 'Oumuamua is being driven through space by solar radiation pressure, which could explain its uncharacteristic speed. But for that theory to work, they calculate that the object must be unusually thin. Bialy and Loeb then analyze how such a slender object might withstand collisions with dust and gases, and the force of rotation, on its interstellar journey.

Then things get weird.

"A more exotic scenario is that 'Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization," they write [PDF]. They suggest that ‘Oumuamua could be be a lightsail—an artificial object propelled by radiation pressure—which also happens to be the technology that the Breakthrough Starshot initiative, of which Loeb is the advisory committee chair, is trying to send into space. "Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that 'Oumuamua is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment,” they write.

Their paper, which was not peer-reviewed, was posted on the pre-print platform arXiv.

Loeb is well known for theorizing about alien tech. He previously suggested that intense radio signals from 2007 could be the work of aliens who travel through space on solar sails. However, Loeb acknowledged that this theory deals more with possibility than probability, The Washington Post noted. “It’s worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge,” Loeb told the paper last year.

[h/t CNN]

A Team of Young Women Wants to Send Kyrgyzstan's First Satellite to Space

José Furtado y Antel, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0
José Furtado y Antel, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

Kyrgyzstan is one of 123 countries that doesn't have a national space agency. That could soon change, thanks to a group of young programmers and engineers taking the matter into their own hands.

As The Next Web reports, the Kyrgyz Space Program is made up of 12 women ranging in age from 17 to 25 years old. They met in 2017, when journalist and TED fellow Bektour Iskender started a free course in his home country of Kyrgyzstan teaching young women there how to build robots and satellites.

The team has since made it its mission to build a cube satellite (CubeSat)—a smaller type of satellite that costs about $150,000 to put together. If they are able to construct the spacecraft, launch it into orbit, and send it to the International Space Station as planned, the project will mark the first time Kyrgyzstan has sent a satellite into space.

The Kyrgyz Space Program now meets twice a week in the offices of Kloop, a media outlet that's known for its support of feminist causes in a country where women still have a long way to go to reach parity. Even as more women start to get involved in Kyrgyzstan's politics, domestic violence, child marriage, and bride kidnappings are still rampant.

In order to accomplish their goal of sending a Kyrgyz satellite to orbit, the program has launched a crowdfunding campaign. Reaching the $2500-a-month marker means they can construct the CubeSat with guidance from the team who launched Lithuania's first satellite. If they reach the $10,000-a-month threshold, they will be able to send the CubeSat to the International Space Station. You can join the 120 people who've already supported their Patreon page by pledging today.

[h/t The Next Web]

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