2012, What a Year!

Seth Jarvis

Yes, there’s plenty about this year that causes us to reach for the antacids, but in terms of space exploration and astronomy, it’s been a year of amazing events. Here are just a few:

May 20th – The Annular Solar Eclipse. An “annular” solar eclipse is when the Moon passes directly in front of the Sun, but isn’t quite large enough in apparent diameter to completely cover the Sun, leaving a thin bright ring (an “annulus”) around the Sun.

Eclipse viewing party at The Gateway.

Clark Planetarium became THE place to get eclipse-watching protective glasses. It was a madhouse here for more than a month prior to the eclipse itself. Planetarium staff set up observing locations in several locations in Salt Lake County to help people safely watch this event and learn about it. Glimpsing the eclipse through clouds along the Wasatch Front added drama to the eclipse, but we saw it!

The last annular eclipse in Utah was in 1994, and there won’t be another one visible in our area until 2023.

June 5th – The Transit of Venus. Talk about rare! Transits of Venus, when the planet Venus passes directly in front of the Sun as seen from Earth, happen in pairs where each half of the pair occurs about eight years apart and the pairs themselves are each separated by more than a century. Clark Planetarium staff again set up telescopes with solar filters here in downtown Salt Lake City and in Sandy to give people a chance to see this “once in a lifetime” (literally) astronomical wonder. Even though we struggled with clouds, we got an amazing view of the disk of Venus against the Sun just before sunset. What a sight!

The last Transit of Venus seen from the western hemisphere was in 1882, and the next one visible in the western hemisphere won’t be until 2125. If you’re willing to travel to China, you can catch an earlier Venus Transit… in 2117.

August 6th – The Mars Science Laboratory rover “Curiosity” lands on Mars.

Yes, other spacecraft, including rovers, have landed on Mars. The Curiosity rover, however, is something really special. It’s much larger and tremendously more muscular (scientifically) than any previous Mars surface mission. It’s a one ton, six wheel drive, nuclear powered, high-tech rolling laboratory that bristles with high resolution cameras, a rock-blasting laser, drills, spectrometers, a robotic soil sampling scoop and many other scientific goodies.

Best of all, Curiosity is scheduled to investigate Gale Crater on Mars for at least two years, and will most likely be doing science on Mars for a dozen or more years. nd while this is happening on the Martian surface, we still have other spacecraft orbiting Mars. The combination of ground-based and space-based observations are going to allow us to dramatically expand our knowledge of the planet in our solar system that is undoubtedly the next planet in our solar system to receive a fresh set of human footprints.

Water on Mercury

Observations made this year by the MESSENGER spacecraft orbiting the planet Mercury have revealed that Mercury has what NASA describes as “abundant” water ice at the bottom of many craters in the planet’s polar regions. These are places that never receive direct sunlight, so even though they’re on the closest planet to the Sun these polar craters remain intensely cold and retain water deposited there by impacts with comets.

Water, Water, Everywhere…

This news is important.

Spacecraft orbiting our Moon have similarly revealed “abundant” water ice at the bottom of the Moon’s polar craters. Mars has revealed itself to have significant water in the form of ices at its poles. There’s even strong evidence for the presence of liquid water a few feet below the Martian surface.

Mercury has water. Our Moon has water. Earth has water. Mars has water. All the outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) have moons that are either mostly made of, or contain significant amounts of, water. Pluto and the other “dwarf planets” orbiting our Sun are almost certainly made mostly of water.

Water appears to be ubiquitous and abundant in our solar system. That means it is likely to be ubiquitous and abundant in other solar systems. And since we know that the chemistry of life on Earth depends of water, the discovery of water throughout our own solar system decreases the odds that life in our solar system is unique in our galaxy.

Voyager 1 – An interstellar spacecraft at last.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, is this year now at the edge of our solar system’s magnetic environment and is entering honest-to-gosh interstellar space. The outer boundary of our solar system isn’t the last planet, it’s the place where the Sun’s electromagnetic influence ends and the electromagnetic realm of our Milky Way begins.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft, now more than 35 years in flight, appears to be at the extreme outer boundary of our solar system in a region of space known as the heliopause. That’s where the electromagnetic environment of our Sun gives way to the interstellar environment of the Milky Way Galaxy. Instruments aboard Voyager 1 are now starting to twitch to a significantly different electromagnetic environment, one dominated not by our Sun, but by the billions of other stars in our galaxy.

Voyager 1 is moving away from our Sun at about 38,000 mph and is at a distance of more than 11 billion miles from the Sun. That’s about 122 farther from the Sun than is the Earth. That’s four times farther way than Neptune. Take my word for it – that’s a long way.

So at 38,000 mph, how long before it reaches another star? A very, very long time. In about 40,000 years Voyager 1 will pass within 1.6 light years of the star Gliese 445, in the constellation Camelopardalis.

In Memoriam

Neil Armstrong (August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012)

Neil Alden Armstrong was the first human to set foot on another world. If you were over the age of 10 in 1969 then you probably can remember exactly where you were and who you were with when Armstrong said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was a history-making moment like no other.

Armstrong was also an accomplished aerospace engineer, naval combat aviator, test pilot, and university professor. His ability to stay calm under conditions of extreme stress (like piloting the ungainly Apollo Lunar Excursion Module to a safe landing on the Moon with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining and warning alarms sounding around him) was legendary among his peers. He was an intensely private person, and rarely gave interviews.

Sally Ride (May 26, 1951 – July 23, 2012)

Sally Kristen Ride was the first female American to orbit the Earth. She joined NASA in 1978 and, in 1983 at the age of 32, became the first American woman in space. She was and still is the youngest person NASA has ever sent into space.

After she retired from NASA in 1987 she distinguished herself with her work at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control and had served on the investigation panels for both the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle – the only person to serve on both panels.

In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, and organization dedicated to encouraging young people to gain proficiency in science.

So we close 2012 and look forward to the events that will define 2013. Here’s to a wonderful 2013. Happy New Year from Clark Planetarium.


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