Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Happy New Year everyone!

I hope your 2013 has gotten off to a great start.  For many of you, that may mean making some New Year's Resolutions.  I've never been much for them myself...I often find my enthusiasm for them wanes rapidly after the New Year's celebrations are over.  But if you find yourself in need of some resolutions this year...I humbly present to you these recommendations.

New Year's Resolution #1: Resolve to be more in touch with the universe around you.
Back in the day, humans were very in touch with the universe.  It was our clock, our calendar, a source of wonder and the home of the gods.  Today, many of us go through our lives without ever taking the time to look up.  Make it a mission to spend some time under the stars this year.  We can help!  Every second Saturday of the month, the museum hosts a Star Party.  The first one in 2013 is on January 12 - we'll look forward to seeing you!  Star Parties are FREE and everyone is welcome.

New Year's Resolution #2: Resolve to see some shooting stars.
Virtually every year there's a really good meteor shower to see...and 2013 is no exception.  This year, the Perseids are on tap to put on an excellent show, and that's great news for all you folks who hate having to be outside in the freezing cold weather to do your stargazing!  The Perseids peak on August 12th, so you'll be able to spend a balmy evening in your shorts and t-shirt watching "stars" fall from the sky!  On that night, the Moon will be just past first quarter and will set early, so you can drag out a lawn chair and stare upwards for the rest of the night with nothing to dim your view of the heavens (just get away from any city lights near you).  Some models are predicting a bump up in rates for the Perseids this year, so this one could be pretty neat.  Remember - no telescope or binoculars are needed; the more sky you can see, the better.  Put your back to the constellation Perseus and enjoy the show.

A bright Perseid meteor streaks across the sky.  Image by Stefano DeRosa

New Year's Resolution #3: Resolve to use that telescope in the closet to see something cool.
So many of us have a telescope sitting somewhere gathering dust.  Well, this year, you need to get it out and have it set up and ready to go on Friday, October 11, no later than 11:30pm.  Point it at Jupiter as early as you can, and watch.  Slowly but surely, the shadows of not one, not two, but THREE of the largest Jovian moons will make their way across the giant planet.  A triple eclipse for Jupiter...a triple shadow transit for those of us here on Earth.  It should be a lovely sight in a good sized telescope.

A rare triple shadow transit on Jupiter on March 28, 2004.  Image by Sid Leach.

New Year's Resolution #4: Resolve to watch a rocket take off.
If you can get to Cape Canaveral on November 18th, you'll have the opportunity to do it in person!  If not, tune in NASA TV and watch the launch of MAVEN: the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission.  MAVEN will study the Martian atmosphere to see how the loss of materials to space has affected Mars over its long history.  Launches are always cool to watch, and this one should be no different.

An artist's conception of the MAVEN spacecraft orbiting Mars.  Courtesy NASA.

New Year's Resolution #5: Resolve to see the comet of the century...maybe...
There's already a buzz in the astronomical community about Comet ISON - it could be the most amazing comet North America has seen since Hale-Bopp...or it could fizzle.  Currently located beyond Jupiter, this newly-discovered comet is making its way toward a close encounter with the Sun.  If it holds together, it could put on an incredible show during the last two months of 2013.  Early predictions indicate that Comet ISON could reach negative magnitudes (bright like Jupiter or Venus), or even outshine the Moon (2nd brightest object in the sky!) and have a gorgeous tail visible to the unaided eye for weeks or even months.  Other early predictions say it could completely collapse under the pressure of the Sun's light and heat and be a total washout.  The only way to find out will be to watch the skies.

The orbital path of Comet ISON.  Courtesy NASA.
So there you have it - five astronomical things to resolve to do in 2013.  Whatever you choose to do, may 2013 be a year full of joy for all of us.

Carpe noctem!

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