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(Times are for San Francisco, CA, and will vary slightly for other locations.)
On January 1, 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi discovered 600-mile wide Ceres, at first thought to be a new planet, then downgraded to “asteroid” around 1850, and classified yet again in 2006 as a “dwarf planet,” joining the larger objects Pluto, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake in the new category. While now considered the smallest-known dwarf planet, Ceres has nevertheless retained its status as the largest asteroid, thus enjoying “dual citizenship” in both categories of solar system bodies. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, launched in 2007, is still a year away from its expected encounter with Ceres in February 2015. The first-ever encounter by any spacecraft with Ceres, Dawn will enter into an orbit that will eventually bring it as close as 434 miles above the asteroid’s/dwarf planet’s surface.
NASA’s robotic Mars Exploration rover A, better known as “Spirit,” landed in Gusev Crater on Mars on January 3, 2004. Long-outlasting its nominal mission lifetime of 90 days and rolling at an average 1 cm per second, Spirit traveled approximately 4.8 miles before getting stuck in a sand dune, finally losing contact with Earth in 2010. MER-B, or “Opportunity,” landed in Eagle Crater on January 25, 2004 and is still operating, having traveled 22.89 miles. Both rovers were named in 2003 by then 9-year old Sofi Collis of Scottsdale, AZ, who submitted the names in a NASA-sponsored essay contest.
Acceleration of galactic expansion was announced on January 9, 1998, attributed to an as-yet-little-understood force that has come to be known as “dark energy.” This is one of the subjects of the new show “Dark Universe,” running in the Academy’s Morrison Planetarium January 31-October 9, 2014.
Simon Mayr (latinized from the original German to “Marius”) was born on January 20, 1573. A rival of Galileo’s, he claimed to have observed Jupiter’s moons before Galileo did, though Galileo is credited because he published his observations first, in March 1610. Although Galileo had intended to name Jupiter’s satellites the “Medician stars,” after the wealthy Medici family, whose patronage he sought, Marius suggested the names that are recognized today – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Viewing his rival unfavorably (and, in fact, accusing him of falsely claiming prior discovery of the moons), Galileo refused to use Marius’ proposed names, holding to simple numerical designations (I, II, III, IV) that astronomers continued using until the mid-20th century.
Interestingly-named asteroids (with identifying clues in parentheses) making their closest approaches to Earth in January – though none are close enough to be of any concern whatsoever, let alone to be visible: 11247 (aviation pioneer) Wilburwright, 1604 (Pluto-discoverer Clyde) Tombaugh, 25930 (filmmaker Steven) Spielberg, 30440 Larry (Fine, of 3 Stooges fame), 32605 (hominid-skeleton) Lucy, 5535 (Holocaust figure) Annefrank, 16046 (golfer) Gregnorman, 18125 Brianwilson (of the Beach Boys, not the former SF Giants pitcher), 3852 (actor) Glennford, 58671 (dinosaur) Diplodocus, 16155 Buddy (Holly), 4149 (Beatle George) Harrison. Yes, there’s an asteroid named “Buddy.”
Launched in 1977 and passing Jupiter in 1979, then Saturn in 1981, NASA’s Voyager 2 flew past the seventh planet, Uranus, on January 24, 1986. Uranus is currently located against the stars of Pisces the Fishes, low in the west just after sunset in January & February, but lost to view in March when the Sun enters that part of the sky. Uranus was discovered on March 13, 1781 by Sir William Herschel, a German-born British astronomer who first thought he had discovered a comet. When convinced that he had, in fact, found a new planet, he first proposed naming it after King George III – an unpopular idea outside of England.
On February 5, 1971, the Apollo 14 lunar module “Antares” made the third manned moon-landing of the Apollo program, bringing astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell to the Fra Mauro Highlands on the northern edge of the Moon’s Mare Nubium (“Sea of Clouds”) – a location originally intended for the aborted Apollo 13 mission.
Also on February 5, asteroid 1288 Santa makes its closest approach to Earth (better late than never, but at least still during the right season). Other asteroids making their close approaches to Earth in February (though none too close to worry about) include: 19019 Sunflower, 3552 (fictional windmill-fighting knight) Don Quixote, 7707 (rock group) Yes, 6223 (children’s author Roald) Dahl, 10221 (“2001” director) Kubrick, 15092 (rock group) Beegees, 6758 (Olympic athlete) Jesseowens, 9341 (actress-turned-Princess of Monaco) Gracekelly, 6469 (Apollo astronaut Neil) Armstrong, 6128 (former Dodgers manager Tommy) Lasorda, 23990 (“Boss” Bruce) Springsteen, 274301 (Internet resource) Wikipedia, 246247 (”Big Bang Theory” character) Sheldoncooper.
Galileo Galilei, the first astronomer to use a telescope and hence dubbed the “father of modern astronomy,” was born on February 15, 1564. This year would’ve marked his 372nd birthday. He discovered three of Jupiter’s moons on January 7, 1610 – though at the time, one of the objects Galileo saw was actually two so close together that he couldn’t resolve them as separate objects. It wasn’t until the next night, January 8, that the four distinct moons, which have collectively come to be known as the Galilean satellites.
The object formerly known as a planet, the now-“dwarf planet” Pluto, was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh on Feb 18, 1930 at Lowell Observatory in Arizona. After subsequent observations, its discovery was confirmed and telegraphed to the Harvard Observatory on March 13, 1930, and a name was selected for it, drawing from more than 1000 proposals submitted from around the world, including Lowell, Constance (after Lowell’s wife), Cronus, Zeus, Atlas, Artemis, Perseus, Tantalus, Idana, Minerva, Athene, Cosmos, Hera, Hercules, Icarus, Odin, Pax, Persephone, Prometheus, Vulcan, and Zymal, among others. From a short list of three final contenders, the unanimous vote by Lowell Observatory staff went on March 24, 1930 to the name submitted by 11-year old Venetia Burney of Oxford, England, who was interested in mythology and suggested the name of the Roman god of the underworld.
With the March (or Spring) Equinox occurring on March 20, it’s good to note that Easter is usually on the first Sunday after the first full Moon of Spring, which can be either on or after the Equinox itself. This means that in 2014, the first full Moon of Spring will fall on April 14, and Easter – the next Sunday after that – is on April 20. This is an example of a lunar-solar (or sometimes “solunar”) calendar observance, which incorporates both solar and lunar cycles – solar for the equinox and lunar for the full Moon.
And to complete the set, asteroids having closest approach to Earth in March include: 24310 (astronomer David) Morrison, 9342 (actor) Carygrant, 43844 (“Harry Potter” author J.K.) Rowling, 9937 (dinosaur) Triceratops, 9885 (computer operating system) Linux, 8080 (computer chip-maker) Intel, 17023 (comedian Bud) Abbott, 17024 (comedian Lou) Costello, 6216 San Jose*, 214476 (comedian) Stephencolbert, 9949 (dinosaur) Brontosaurus, 12818 (actor & astronomy buff) Tomhanks, 6042 (“Alice in Wonderland” character) Cheshirecat, 11365 (U.S. space agency) NASA, 4659 (“Star Trek” creator Gene) Roddenberry, 2866 (comedian Oliver) Hardy, and 9000 (fictional computer from “2001”) Hal.
*In 1998, asteroid 1975 SJ was renamed 6216 San Jose in recognition of the city’s long-time support of nearby Lick Observatory, especially after city officials decided in 1980 to convert outdoor lighting to a type which can be easily filtered out, enabling astronomers to continue productive work at the facility, including the discovery of asteroids, outer solar system moons, and, most recently, extrasolar planets.