Dec 13

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – December, 2014

Comet Landing Highlights December’s Other Stellar Events

I’ll be honest. I was hoping that I would be reporting on exciting new discoveries from the surface of a comet in this column. But, although there are, indeed, historic activities taking place, the risks and unknown factors of space exploration played a major role in this month’s landing of a probe on the surface of a comet.

As the Rosetta spacecraft continues to orbit Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P for short), the little Philea lander had a rough time of it and is currently sleeping it off. Apparently the lander encountered a bit of bad luck when it came to rest in the shadow of a cliff. Lacking sufficient sunlight, the spacecraft’s batteries drained and she is now in a deep sleep.

The good news is that Philea was still able to collect valuable data and take some photos from the surface of the comet. And there is a chance that, as the comet approaches the Sun, the lander will receive sufficient sunlight to once again become operational.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of Philea, the fact that we were able to actually land a probe on the surface of a comet is an outstanding achievement in itself. And the Rosetta spacecraft will continue to follow the comet as it makes its closest passage to the sun.

On a more down to earth level, there are some promising sights to behold this month. On the evenings of December 13 and 14, check out the Geminid meteor shower. A nice display of shooting stars is possible near the midnight hour. The shower lasts a few days, so watch for several nights around the peak. Look toward the southeast after dark and you may spot an “Earth-grazer”, a meteor that hits our atmosphere at a shallow angle and leaves a long, bright trail.

Another favorite observation of mine is to see the Northern Cross upright near the western horizon after sunset around Christmas. It seems very appropriate that the symbol of Christianity be so well placed for viewing at this time of year.

The crescent Moon puts on its best show next month just before Christmas. Look to the west one half hour after sunset on Monday, December 22, and you will see (weather permitting) the thin crescent Moon just to the right of the bright planet Venus. Two days later, on Christmas Eve, the now larger crescent Moon is right next to the planet Mars.

One can only imagine what the ancients would have made of such a significant event up in their skies.

This month in history:

Dec. 4: Mars Pathfinder launched – 1996
Dec. 8: Galileo makes first Earth flyby – 1990
Dec. 14: Gene Cernan, Apollo 17 astronaut, is last human to walk on Moon – 1972
Dec. 17: Orville Wright makes first powered flight – 1903
Dec. 24: Apollo 8 astronauts give us inspirational moment from lunar orbit – 1968
Dec. 25: Isaac Newton born – 1642