Whats Up in the Sky December, 2005
Japan Space Program
Japanese automakers have been in the news lately, but Ive seen little about an incredible spacecraft launched by Japans space agency, JAXA, in May of 2003. It is called Hayabusa (which means œfalcon in Japanese) and, as of this writing, it has successfully landed on the asteroid Itokawa becoming the only space probe to land on an asteroid and then take off. However, it failed to collect material for a planned sample-return to Earth so mission controllers decided to try a second time to land, capture a sample, and return to Earth. This second landing took place last Saturday and surface samples were, indeed, collected. When you read this the spacecraft should be safely awaiting its return trip to Earth. If successful, it will be the first time a space probe has returned samples from an asteroid.
Named after Hideo Itokawa, a pioneer of Japanese rocketry, the asteroid is more like a pile of rubble rather than a solid boulder, 1800 feet long and 1000 feet wide. It orbits the sun out as far as Mars.
The spacecraft has until early December before it must begin its 180 million-mile trip back. In June of 2007, if all goes according to plan, it should land in the Australian Outback, hopefully with a sample of the asteroid for scientists to examine. By studying asteroid samples, astronomers hope to gain knowledge about the early stages in the formation of the solar system. This is because, unlike planets and moons, asteroids have surfaces that are believed to be unchanged since they were formed.
Scientists will also try to better understand the potential for using the raw materials from asteroids to build structures in space.
Here are this months viewing highlights:
Planets this month: Venus is at its highest point in the SW at dusk and sets about three hours later. Mars is bright in east at sunset. Five hours later, Mars is high in S, Saturn is near E horizon. Dec. See Mercury and Jupiter near SE horizon between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m.
December 1: New Moon
December 4: Look for Venus and crescent Moon, SW one hour after sunset.
December 8: First Quarter Moon
December 12: Greatest separation between Mercury and Sun – 21 degrees
December 13: Geminid meteor shower washed out by moonlight.
December 15: Full Moon – very high – up for 16 straight hours!
December 19: Saturn appears extremely close to 7th magnitude star.
December 23: Third Quarter Moon
December 25: Crescent moon close to star Spica before sunrise.
December 30: Second New Moon of month (Blue Moon)
Peter Burkey is president of the Shoreline Amateur Astronomical Association and has been an amateur astronomer and astrophotographer for 25 years. He also taught astronomy at Fennville High School from 1981 to 2003.
Peter Burkey – SAAA President