The arrival of 2010 has some interesting ironies associated with it.
It seems we always look back and smile at where we thought we would be by a certain date. For example, in the 1980s a movie titled “2010 Odyssey 2” (a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001 A Space Odyssey”) predicted a joint American/Soviet manned mission to Jupiter. Today the Soviet Union no longer exists, and we are nowhere near ready to send a manned mission to Jupiter. Even a manned mission to Mars is nothing more than a dream. Fortunately, both Mars and Jupiter are visible to us in January, allowing us to take a telescopic journey to both those far-flung worlds.
Jupiter is easily located in the southwest just after sunset. Jupiter will be the most obvious object in this part of the sky since the constellations of this area are composed of very dim stars. Binoculars will reveal Jupiter’s four largest moons, the Galilean moons, named for their discoverer Galileo Galilei. A small telescope will reveal two dark bands in Jupiter’s atmosphere. A slightly larger telescope may reveal Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, but only if it is on the side of the planet facing Earth. Careful observation under dark skies will be necessary to pick out this elusive storm.
Turning toward the east, we find Mars rising around 6:30 p.m. Mars will be easy to spot, being a bright reddish-orange color. However, don’t confuse Mars with Betelgeuse, which is higher in the sky in the shoulder of Orion the Hunter. The best way to find Mars is to first locate Orion’s belt, and follow a line through the belt down toward the horizon to the brightest star in the evening sky, Sirius. From Sirius move to the left to find Procyon and then on to reddish Mars. Unlike Jupiter, Mars will not show as many surface features, even in a telescope. Occasionally darker areas or the polar ice caps can be seen on the planet’s disc, but a 6-inch-diameter telescope or larger is needed to pick out these features.
For those who just want to gaze up at the beauty of the night sky, the southeast is the best place to look. This is where the bright stars of winter are slowly rising. The brightest stars of winter form a large asterism known as the Winter Hexagon. The Winter Hexagon begins with the bright star Sirius, proceeds up and to the left to Procyon, higher to Castor and Pollux in Gemini, then on to the highest star Capella in Auriga. From Capella the lines proceed down to Aldebaran in Taurus and finally to Rigel in Orion. The star Betelgeuse is roughly at the center of the hexagon.
While 2010 may not be what science fiction writers of the 1950s and ’60s envisioned, we continue to make great strides toward that vision. Although we don’t have a lunar base and are not on our way to Mars, we can still carry on a long-distance conversation while walking down the street. Think about it: Captain Kirk’s communicator isn’t too different from the cellular phones most of us carry in our pockets. Yet when we look up at the night sky and dream, we are no different from those visionary writers of a generation ago, or even from our ancient ancestors.
Will future generations still look up at the night sky in wonder and dream of distant voyages? Only time will tell.
Happy New Year, fellow sky watchers.