With the first total solar eclipse in the Lower 48 in four decades, the first detection of colliding neutron stars via gravitational waves, and the discovery of an exoplanet system with seven earth-sized planets, 2017 will be a tough year to top, astronomically speaking.
Mars will be the big news for sky watchers this year. At the end of July, it will draw closer to earth than it’s been since 2003, and won’t be as close again until 2035. Given that its 2003 apparition spawned the viral “Mars as big as the full moon” e-mail that wouldn’t die, astronomers like me are looking forward to this summer with a mixture of anticipation and dread.
Observations made last year by a worldwide network of radio telescopes are currently being processed with a massive number-crunching effort that, when finished, will meld their data into a single result, as though from a planet-sized telescope. This synthetic, 8000-mile-wide “Event Horizon Telescope” should show, for the first time, the giant black hole at the center of the Milky Way, and its behemoth cousin in a galaxy 60 million light years away in Virgo (the two largest known black holes in terms of their apparent size in the sky).
Notable spacecraft launching this year include the Parker Solar Probe leaving in July on a six-year odyssey to come closer to the sun than any prior mission; the first crewed ISS flight of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule in August; and the InSight Mars lander, arriving in November.
But who knows? By this time next year we may be looking back on something totally unexpected. (A giant planet beyond Pluto? The first naked-eye Milky Way supernova in four centuries?) Like the universe itself, the possibilities are endless.
Next column: What this month’s lunar eclipse moon is, and isn’t.
Sky calendar through January 24th:
One hour after sunset:
No planets visible.
One hour before sunrise:
Mercury: SE, extremely low. Very close to Saturn 1/12-13. Lost in twilight after 1/17.
Saturn: SE, very low. Very close to Mercury 1/12-13.
Mars: SSE, low.
Jupiter: SSE, low.
Moon: Close to Mars and Jupiter 1/11. Close to Mercury 1/15. New moon
7:19 p.m. 1/16. First quarter 3:22 p.m. 1/24.