Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
Steamboat Springs Sky watchers in 2007 can look forward to several excellent meteor showers, lots of bright planets, and two total eclipses of the moon. Add in a spacecraft flyby of the planet Jupiter and two more launches of spacecraft headed for Mars and beyond, and it stacks up to be a great year in astronomy!
Both of the best annual meteor showers in 2007 will occur during the dark of the moon, setting the stage for some excellent meteor watching. The August perseid meteor shower and the December geminid meteor shower can each produce well over 60 meteors, or shooting stars, every hour during their peaks. There's even a chance for a meteor storm with hundreds or even thousands of meteors per hour for a short time on Sept. 1 during the usually weak aurigid meteor shower. The two astronomers who successfully predicted the magnificent leonid meteor storms of 2001 and 2002, Esko Lyytinen of Finland and Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute in California, have now predicted that on the morning of Sept. 1, 2007, the Earth will encounter a dense dust stream shed long ago by Comet Kiess. Such predictions are generally very sketchy, and predicting the actual number of meteors is nearly impossible. Still, if you get up that morning before dawn and see a spectacular meteor storm, you won't regret losing a couple of hours of sleep!
After enduring months of an evening sky devoid of planets, we are now entering a period with planets galore. Venus returns to our evening sky in
early January and will be joined by the planets Saturn and Mercury in February and Jupiter in June. Mars comes onto the scene late in December. All year long, these planets have close encounters with each other and with the moon providing plenty of "Wow!" moments.
There are two total eclipses of the moon in 2007, on March 3 and Aug. 28, but only the August event will be visible from Colorado and the West. Lunar eclipses occur when the full moon enters the shadow of the Earth and is temporarily thrust into darkness. During the total phase of the eclipse, the moon often appears as a ghostly red orb suspended in the starry sky due to solar rays refracted through the Earth's atmosphere and faintly illuminating the moon. We won't see another total lunar eclipse from these parts until Feb. 21, 2008.
NASA has several big events planned for the new year, starting with a flyby of the planet Jupiter by the New Horizons spacecraft. New Horizons began its journey to the (former) planet Pluto last February and will use Jupiter as a gravitational slingshot to speed it on its way for a 2015 rendezvous. On Feb. 28, New Horizons will hurtle around Jupiter, and NASA scientists will use the opportunity to test the spacecraft's cameras and other instruments before the long, cold trek to Pluto.
Then, on June 20, NASA's Dawn spacecraft will begin its journey to two of the largest asteroids in the asteroid belt. Dawn will drop into orbit around the asteroid Vesta in 2011 and study it for several months, then it will head for the largest asteroid of all, Ceres, for another orbital study in 2015. Scientists expect to learn much about the formation of Earth and the other planets in our solar system by studying these two dwarf planets that haven't changed very much in billions of years.
Finally, our exploration of Mars continues when, on Aug. 3, NASA's Phoenix spacecraft blasts off for Mars. When it arrives in May 2008, Phoenix will land near the north polar ice cap of Mars and dig beneath the surface in search of the stuff that makes life on Earth flourish - water! With its microscopic imager, Phoenix will be able to zoom in on microscopic Martians, if they exist.
In addition to these exciting events, NASA continues to operate the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars and the Cassini orbiter around Saturn, all of which return amazing images of these alien worlds to Earth every day. Just do an Internet search on the spacecraft names to find their home pages and you can join in on the daily discoveries.
Remember, it doesn't cost a single cent to look up and enjoy the other half of nature over our heads, so, dust off that old telescope in the attic and keep an eye on the sky in 2007!