In the December 2013 issue of Astronomy magazine, Yvette Cendes and Roen Kelly had a “Where are they now?” article on spacecraft that made headlines years ago but have since dropped from the public consciousness. Over the next months, Maine Skies will carry short excerpts on some of these old, forgotten spacecraft.
Mariner 2 was launched on Aug. 27, 1962, and was the first planetary probe to another planet as it reached Venus on Dec. 14, 1962. Among other data, the probe revealed Venus had an atmosphere of cool clouds and an extremely hot surface. The last transmission from Mariner 2 was almost exactly a half century ago on Jan. 3, 1963. Since then it was last known to be orbiting the Sun in 2002 and is assumed to be still doing so.
Focus on the planets
Mercury will make an appearance around midmonth low in the west at dusk for one of its best apparitions of the year.
Venus sparkles on the southwest horizon about a half hour after sunset. Venus set an hour after the sun on New Year’s Day but continually dips lower each night to disappear after midmonth. Venus begins to peek above the southeast horizon at dawn as the month ends.
Mars rings in the new year by rising in the east at midnight. Mars will continue to increase in size and start to show a few surface features in large telescopes as the month winds down.
Jupiter is readily visible low in the east-northeast at dusk and remains in the sky all night. All the giant planet’s surface features, belts and bands, and periodically the Great Red Spot, are easily viewed, as are the movements of its four major moons.
Saturn rises in the south around 3 a.m. as January opens with the best time for viewing being before morning twilight. The rings are tilted 22 degrees to our line of sight, giving a spectacular view of the feature for which Saturn is famed.
Uranus is high in the southwest at nightfall where its blue-green disk may be spotted among the stars of Pisces.
Neptune is a blue-gray disk in the southwest among the stars of Aquarius. On Jan. 31, Neptune, Mercury and the moon form a line. Use skypub.com/urnep, a website of Sky & Telescope magazine, to find the elusive outer planets.
2: Look to the southwest about 45 minutes after sunset for brilliant Venus with the thin crescent moon to the upper left.
3: This is the peak night for the Quadrantid meteor shower. Although the sky is nearly moonless, much of the peak, which lasts only about 8 hours, falls during the daylight hours. Radiating from a point in Bootes, watchers should see up to 60 meteors per hour between midnight and dawn.
4: The Earth is at perihelion, or closest approach to the Sun for the year today.
7: Moon in first quarter, 12:39 p.m. The two stars to the left of Jupiter are Castor and Pollux of Gemini.
14: Jupiter is prominent just to the upper left of the moon on the eastern horizon an hour after sunset. This would be New Year’s Day if the Julian calendar was still in effect.
15: The moon is at apogee, or farthest distance from Earth. Full moon, 11:52 p.m. The full moon of January is called the Wolf Moon and occasionally the Old Moon.
19: The sun enters the astronomical sign of Capricornus on the ecliptic and, about nine hours later, enters the astrological sign of Aquarius.
24: Moon in last quarter, 12:21 a.m.
25: Saturn is to the immediate upper left of the moon in the south-southwest about an hour before sunrise.
30: New moon, 4:39 p.m. The moon is at perigee, or closest approach to Earth for the second time in January. Expect high tides.
31: Mercury is in the west-southwest about a half hour after sunset. The thin crescent moon is to Mercury’s lower right and the lone star far to the lower left is Fomalhaut. Sunrise, 6:56 a.m.; sunset, 4:42 p.m.
Send astronomical queries to Clair Wood at email@example.com or care of the Bangor Daily News, Style Desk, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor, ME 04402.