January night sky in Algarve

by Clive Jackson [email protected]

Clive Jackson is the Director of the Camera Obscura (next to the Castle in Tavira), specialising in education and public outreach.

Welcome to the Algarve night sky for January 2012.

This year has a special significance due to the various doomsday predictions that are circulating, and many of them involve some sort of astronomical disaster.

Now, as far as I know, nothing unusual is in store for us, at least as much as the sky is concerned for 2012. But having said that, we do have a couple of interesting asteroids visiting us this month …

The first one is called Apophis and it was made famous due to its predicted orbit being very close to the Earth in the year 2029 and again on Friday, April 13, 2036. On this last date, Apophis has a very slight chance of an impact and as this asteroid is a lump of rock about a thousand feet across, it would be capable of destroying an entire city if it hit us, but the chance of this happening is millions to one.

On January 12, Apophis will pass us 56 million miles away. Next year (2013) it actually comes even closer at only nine million miles distance.

These multiple approaches are due to the fact that the orbit of Apophis is very similar to the orbit of Earth.

There is another rather larger lump of rock visiting our vicinity in January. This is the asteroid called Eros.

Discovered in 1898, this object is around 20 miles across and if it hit us it would wipe out practically all life on the surface of the Earth, but fortunately there is no chance of a collision for at least the next 100,000 years.

On January 31, Eros will miss us by 16.6 million miles. In 2001, a NASA probe called NEAR Shoemaker visited this asteroid and actually landed on its surface. It will stay there permanently now but it will not transmit any data as its mission was accomplished.

NEAR was designed to orbit Eros but not to land on it. Most of the science instruments will not work close to the asteroid’s surface. But NASA wanted to do this as a test, to show that a spacecraft can land on an asteroid.

The night of January 3 saw the annual Quadrantid meteor shower. These fast moving shooting stars were not so easy to spot.

The first week of this month is when the orbit of the Earth takes our planet a little closer to the Sun than the average. This is called perihelion, although it is not enough to stop January nights from being some of the coldest of the winter.

On January 26, the thin crescent Moon is close to Venus in the early evening sky. The pair will be low down on the western horizon but easy to see.

There is no need to fear nature in 2012 – our planet is 4.5 billion years old and will survive at least another 4.5 billion.

Human beings as a species can rise up to face any challenge and our long term future lies with the stars.

The Moon was first quarter on the 1st, is full on the 9th, last quarter on the 16th, and new on the 23rd and first quarter again on January 31.

To contact Clive Jackson, please call 281 322 527, Fax 281 321 754 or email: [email protected]. Homepage: www.cdepa.pt.