MAINE SKIES

Giant telescope will aid search for new planets

Posted Dec. 26, 2012, at 11:32 a.m.

A consortium of 15 European countries have agreed to spend 1 billion euros to build the largest optical telescope in the world. The European Extremely Large Telescope, or E-ELT, will be built on a mountaintop in Chile and is planned to come online in 2022. It will have a 39.3-meter mirror and its 978-square-meter light collecting area will collect 15 times more light than other current telescopes. The mirror will consist of 798 hexagonal segments 1.45 meters long but only 50 millimeters thick. It will be designed so that its shape can be adjusted up to 1,000 times per second to compensate for atmospheric distortion. Astronomers hope to use the E-ELT to search for planets around other stars and to do “stellar archaeology,” meaning to observe the properties of galaxies as they formed shortly after the Big Bang.

Focus on the planets

The cold and clear January nights will find Mars low in the southwest and Jupiter high in the east. The early predawn hours find Saturn high in the southeast, with brilliant Venus gracing the southeast at dawn.

Mercury is invisible for much of the month, but the last day of the month may see it make an appearance very low in the west-southwest a half hour after sunset.

Venus rises shortly before dawn in the southeast as the month opens but sinks lower toward the horizon each day as its stint as the “morning star” is nearly over.

Mars is low in the southwest as night falls and sets about two hours after the sun. The far distant planet will appear as a nondescript reddish dot by telescope.

Jupiter is the brilliant “star” in the east-southeast as darkness falls and remains in view until well after midnight. Its four moons continue to put on a show through telescopes, with a few transits across the face of the planet in store for those who check it out faithfully. A waxing gibbous moon joins Jupiter on the evening of Jan. 21, 2013.

Saturn rises in the south about 3 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2013, and progressively earlier each day thereafter. The best time to view Saturn is just before dawn, when viewers with telescopes will be treated to a sight of the ring system open to 19 degrees and the shadow of the planet on them.

Uranus rises around sunset in the southwest and remains in view until late evening. Look for the distinctive blue-green disk of Uranus just south of the Great Square of Pegasus.

Neptune lies just above Mars in the southwest as darkness falls, where its blue-gray disk is visible for most of the night. The finder chart in the September 2012 issue of Sky & Telescope or online at skypub.com/urnep will help locate both Uranus and Neptune.

January 2013 Events

1 Sunrise, 7:13 a.m.; sunset, 4:05 p.m.

2 The Earth is at perihelion, or its nearest point to the sun for the year. Aphelion, or the Earth’s farthest distance from the sun, occurs on July 5. Obviously these play little role in the amount of heat we receive from the sun.

3 Peak night for the Quadrantid meteor shower. Normally observers could expect about 120 meteors per hour originating out of Bootes; however, the waning gibbous moon will wash out all but the brightest meteors, making for a disappointing display this year.

5 Moon in last quarter, 10:58 p.m.

6 Saturn and the Moon pair up on the southern horizon an hour before sunrise.

8 Jupiter is halfway up on the eastern horizon during the early evening hours. Aldebaran is to the lower right and the Pleiades to the upper right.

10 The moon is at perigee, or closest approach to the Earth. The predawn southeast horizon finds Venus being visited by a thin crescent moon.

11 New moon, 2:44 p.m.

13 Mars lies directly below the crescent moon, looking west-southwest about an hour after sunset.

18 Moon in first quarter, 6:45 p.m.

19 The sun enters Capricornus on the ecliptic and, later in the day, enters the astrological sign of Aquarius.

21 Looking to the south around 8 p.m. will find Jupiter and the moon very close with Aldebaran to their lower left.

22 The moon is at apogee or farthest distance from Earth.

27 Full moon, 11:39 p.m. The full moon of January is the Wolf Moon, Old Moon, and sometimes the Moon after Yule.

31 Sunrise, 6:56 a.m.; sunset, 4:42 p.m.

Send astronomical queries to Clair Wood at cgmewood@aol.com or care of the Bangor Daily News, Style Desk, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor, ME 04402.

 

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