2012 is here, and the world shows no sign of ending as the heavens spin on their appointed rounds high overhead. But the diligent observer may be rewarded with several unique an spurious sights, both natural and manmade…
1st up is everyone’s favorite meteor shower named after an obsolete constellation; the Quadrantids peak the morning of January 4th in what is the first large meteor shower of the year. The peak is very swift, only lasting about 12 hours or so and is centered this year on 2:00 AM EST/7:00 AM UTC. This favors the U.S. East Coast in 2012, as the 79% waxing gibbous Moon will set around 2AM local the morning of the 4th for observers in mid-northern latitudes. The radiant of the shower lies at a declination of 52° degrees north at the junction of the modern constellations of Draco, Bootes and Hercules, and thus activity may be visible pre-midnite local, although the setting of the Moon and the rising of the radiant will raise sighting prospects considerably. Expect swift-moving meteors headed outward from the radiant above the handle of the Big Dipper to appear anywhere in the sky. The Quadrantids have been known since the early 1800’s, but there has been much conjecture as to the source parent body. Astronomer Fred Whipple noted in 1963 that the stream bears some resemblance to the Delta Aquarids, and that the orbital path has undergone alterations by the planet Jupiter in the last few thousand years. In 2003, SETI researcher Peter Jenniskens proposed that the source may be then recently discovered asteroid 2003 EH1, which has been tentatively linked to Comet C/1490 Y1, which approached Earth at a distance of 0.52 Astronomical Units on January 12th 1491. Be sure to keep an eye out for Quadrantids on these chilly January mornings, as we commemorate Quadrans Muralis, a constellation that is no longer!
But not all that is flashing overhead is natural…this week also starts the re-entry window for Russia’s doomed Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. An article that circulated around the web last week caused a brief stir when a defense agency statement declared that the probe would “hit Afghanistan…” Let us note that the re-entry of Phobos-Grunt is uncontrolled, and thus could come in anywhere along its orbital path inclined at 52° degrees, a coverage of over 95% of the populated planet. Of course, there’s some concern because the spacecraft is carrying a large payload of toxic hydrazine, and we wouldn’t rule out the idea that plans to “take it out” of orbit ala USA 193 could be in the (unconfirmed) works. The re-entry window runs from about January 7th-17th, centered on January 12-13th. Interestingly, Phobos-Grunt starts a good series of passes over the US southeast on January 6th; we saw it on two mornings in late December, and it was really moving at about a degree a second when directly overhead!
Next up, the International Space Station reaches an interesting point on Jan 7th where it is illuminated through the entire length of its orbit for four days. This will make for multiple sighting ops worldwide an event that we’ve dubbed a FISSION (as in Four/Five ISS Sightings In One Night) thru numerous discussions on Twitter… check Heavens-Above for a passage near you!
Also this week, the Earth reaches perihelion or its closest approach to the Sun at a distance of 91.4 million miles on January 4th at 7PM EST or just past midnite on the 5th UTC. This is the first time the Earth reaches perigee on January 5th as reckoned in Universal Time in the 21st century and we won’t do so again until 2020. In addition to the slow precession of our ever-evolving orbit, two primary factors come into play to cause this shift; 1. 2012 is a leap year, as we offset those pesky .025 odd days that build up every year; and 2. The Earth-Moon system swings about a common barycenter, throwing us slightly “off-axis” year-to-year with respect to the annual perihelion-aphelion points.
So you may not “feel the burn” as you scrape snow off of your car in the depths of northern hemisphere winter… unless, of course, you head “Down Under!”
Also, in occultation news, the evening of January 9th gives viewers a chance to catch a +8.3 magnitude star “flash” out for up to 5 seconds as the asteroid 75 Eurydike occults, or passes in front of it. The “shadow path” runs from Baja to Texas across the US Southeast to North Carolina before crossing the Atlantic to Africa. The event runs from 03:03 to 03:22 UT, and this is one of the better asteroid occultations of the year.
Finally, Comet P/2006 T1 Levy was slated for a fine binocular performance in January, but current reports from late December place it below 15th magnitude, definitely not the “flashiest”. Thoughts are that perhaps it was in outburst when veteran comet hunter David Levy spied it from Jarnac Observatory in 2006; January 3rd provides a good chance to “check in” on it as the comet passes near the star Algenib in the “box” asterism that makes up part of the constellation Pegasus, although of course, that meddling waning Moon will interfere.
Good luck in hunting “all that flashes” it the night skies… let us know what you see!