Monthly Archives: December 2012

2012 In Review

Twenty-twelve was a fascinating year for myself, astronomy, and science.  There were many scientific milestones reached and important events during the last twelve months, most notably, the we survived the bedlam that was the Mayan apocalypse.  I thought I’d take some time to compile the best moments from 2012 in astronomy and space science and look ahead to 2013 hi-lighting the known astronomical events coming up.

First on the list is the impressive conjunction of Venus and Jupiter from March 15th.  On the date famous for the murder of Julius Caesar we were treated to two Roman gods forming a conspiracy of their own in the sky.  Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest planets in the solar system respectively, passed extremely close to each other (from Earth’s perspective), just 3 degrees apart.

Venus and Jupiter conjunction on 3/15/12 seen from France.  Credit:  Laurent Lavender TWAN

Venus and Jupiter conjunction on 3/15/12 seen from France. Credit: Laurent Lavender TWAN

Venus-Jupiter conjunctions are fairly common, occurring roughly every two years.  The next conjunction will be on May 28, 2013 and will be even more eye-catching when the two planets pass just one degree from one another.  Even more spectacular will be the conjunction in 2014 when the two pass only one-fourth of a degree from each other!  To put that in perspective, the width of the full moon is about one-half a degree in apparent size, so the 2014 conjunction will place the planets half a moon width apart!  I hate to build you up for these two conjunctions though, because neither will be visible from the Northern hemisphere.  If you can wait 53 years, until 2065, you’ll get to see the best of all planetary conjunctions:  a transit, when Venus passes in front of Jupiter in its orbit.  I may be alive but I’ll be quite an old man by then.

The next highlight from 2012 is something, if you saw it, you’ll likely never forget…the transit of Venus.  While my own luck observing the transit was less than optimal, I did get to view it briefly and it was amazing.  On June 5th, 2012 Venus transited, or passed in front of the sun appearing as a small black disk silhouetted against the fiery inferno of the sun.  There were some truly remarkable pictures of the transit taken by professionals and amateurs alike.  What made this event so special was the rarity of it and its historical and scientific significance in past centuries.  A transit of Venus takes place in pairs every 121 years then 105 years to form a cycle of 243 years.  Venus crosses in front of the sun once a year in its orbit but it’s only during these cycle years that it can actually be seen from Earth due to the two planets orbits being slightly inclined.

Venus transits have been historically significant to the world of science for centuries.  The first transit to be observed with a telescope was in 1639.  British scientist Jeremiah Horrocks used the transit that year to make a much more accurate calculation of the Earth’s distance from the sun using angles of parallax and geometry.  The 1769 transit was led to the discovery of an atmosphere on Venus.  Legendary explorer Captain James Cook observed the transit that same year in Tahiti at the still named “Point of Venus”.

2012 Venus Transit in extreme ultraviolet light  Credit:  NASA SDO

2012 Venus Transit in extreme ultraviolet light Credit: NASA SDO

The next event on the list is the occultation of the moon and Jupiter on July 15th, 2012.  Only observers in Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa were able to view this majestic event but the images produced from it were spectacular.

Series of images from the Jupiter-Moon occultation from Lebanon Credit:  AstroZ1 on Flickr

Series of images from the Jupiter-Moon occultation from Lebanon Credit: AstroZ1 on Flickr

The next event on my list is the one that I was looking forward to the most.  Curiosity.  I had been eagerly anticipating Curiosity’s landing on Mars for over a year and on August 5th it finally happened.  Due mostly to the unprecedented entry, landing, and descent plan Curiosity was intriguing from the word Go!  The sky crane and powered descent was daring and risky but it proved a massive success for NASA.  Not to mention the fact that Curiosity is the most scientifically advanced planetary rover yet.  The rover is practically a fully functioning mobile chemistry laboratory.  Within days of its landing Curiosity sent back some of the most stunning and detailed images of the Martian surface we’ve ever seen.

Panorama of rocky Martian landscape from Curiosity  Credit:  NASA/JPL

Panorama of rocky Martian landscape from Curiosity Credit: NASA/JPL

The final two events on my list of memorable astronomical events of 2012 both happened in the month of December.  First off is the mighty Geminid meteor shower of three weeks ago.  The peak of the shower combined with a new moon allowed for some excellent viewing.  The expected rate was all the way up to 120 per hour!  I went out for about one hour between 10:30 and 11:30 under moderately light polluted skies and was able to count 55 meteors.  I was quite impressed with the shower which included several fireball meteors with long, smokey trails.

Splendid Geminid fireball  Credit:  Patrick Cullis

Splendid Geminid fireball Credit: Patrick Cullis

I suppose the last event can’t really be confined to the month of December 2012.  It actually spans over a length of several years but it came to a conclusion just a couple days ago.  Of course I’m talking about the apocalypse!  You might have called it Judgment Day, the Rapture, or simply the winter solstice, but there was an inordinate amount of hype surrounding the long-dreaded end of the Maya calendar.  This event in particular is in reference to the way people with degrees in physics, astronomy, geology, cosmology, ontology, biology, paleontology, gynecology, urology, you name it, refuted the claims of doomsday made by people who are less intelligent.  Two people/organizations come to mind when I think of leading the fight against stupidity:  NASA and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Turns out people were actually believing the convoluted claims of doomsday 2012 and the world was indeed in danger…from stupidity.  So hats off to you NDT and NASA for saving the world!

Earth's next great hero:  Neil deGrasse Tyson

Earth’s next great hero: Neil deGrasse Tyson

So that wraps up my 2012 rewind.  This past year has truly been remarkable for astronomy and science.  2013 promises to be just as exciting.  Stay tuned over the next day or two as I’ll preview the two excellent comets coming up in the next year.

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