Starry Night: Late January 2012 — A mission to the moon

Posted Wednesday, January 11, 2012 in Features

Starry Night: Late January 2012 — A mission to the moon

by Tristan Radtke

With the excitement of the Quadrantids over, mid-January is generally a quiet time for those looking to view the night sky in the Northern Hemisphere. With cold temperatures outdoors, the otherwise avid stargazer might just choose to spend this month reviewing important recent events in human space travel instead.

China's space agency, the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA), announced the successful testing of systems for its Chang’e-3 spacecraft — the third of six planned projects in the CNSA’s Lunar Exploration Program — scheduled for launch some time in 2013, as reported by Aviation Week at this link. If Chang’e-3 performs as expected, it will be the first time since 1976 that a human spacecraft has made a soft landing on the surface of the moon. Meanwhile, the CNSA announced that the fifth phase of the Lunar Exploration Program, a human landing on the lunar surface, is on track for a date sometime between 2025 and 2030, as was reported last week in a number of publications, including this article from the Guardian.

While a manned mission to the moon may seem less than practical, the Chinese space program has not been slacking in more practical endeavors either; at the end of December, the Chinese announced that their Beidou global positioning system satellite constellation was active for China and surrounding areas, with other regions expected to be added with future satellites. The system arrives in a market which is dominated worldwide by the American GPS system, with 95 percent of all global positioning service receivers in China using that system, but adds a number of features including a receiver-to-receiver text-messaging system which may just give it the edge in the modern marketplace.

The Stars

The winter stars are still out and brilliant. Because of the colder weather and lengthening days, it is not as pleasant to stargaze now as it was in late December, but the local skies tend to be darker after all the Christmas lights go away. Take a good, deep look at the Orion group and Gemini this week. The sky begins changing again in February, so this is a good time to look at some of the showiest star groups of the night sky.

The Planets

• Mercury: Mercury rises around 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 15. By the end of the month, it will have moved into the sun's rising glare.

• Venus: Venus will set at about 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 15, and by Jan. 31 it will set at 8 p.m.

• Mars: Mars will rise around 9 p.m. on Jan. 15. By Jan. 31, it will rise at 8 p.m.

• Jupiter: Jupiter will set around 12:15 a.m. on Jan. 15, and will set around 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 31.

• Saturn: Saturn will rise at about 12:45 a.m. on Jan. 15, the leftmost point of a triangle of bright objects, the others being Spica and the moon. On Jan. 31, Saturn will rise at 11:30 p.m., still bright and near by Spica.

• Uranus: Uranus will set at 8:45 p.m. on Jan. 15, and by Jan. 31 it will not have changed much, setting around the same time.

• Neptune: On Jan. 15, Neptune will be in close proximity to Venus, setting around 7:10 p.m., but it will be difficult to spot with a magnitude of +7.9. By Jan. 31, it will have moved a bit closer to the sun's glare, setting around 6:15 p.m.

• Pluto: Pluto will be almost impossible to spot without a good telescope, rising near the sunrise on Jan. 15 at around 5:45 a.m. at a magnitude of +14.1. On Jan. 31, it will rise a bit earlier, around 4:50 a.m.

The Moon

The moon will begin the second half of January waning, reaching third quarter by Jan. 16. On Jan. 23, the moon will be in new phase. On Jan. 31, it will reach first quarter, waxing into the second month of the year.

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