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Night Sky

.Enjoy our starry night skies
Be a considerate neighbor: reduce nighttime glare.
Shield your outside lights downward.
Let the stars light up the night.

February 2012 Night Sky

Charlie Christmann

2012—The End?

According to some sources, the world will end in December of this year. Perhaps this is the reason we are seeing a recent uptick in Unidentified Flying Objects. Are we being watched more closely? Are they planning our demise? Or, is there just more hysteria from the Mayan Calendar and Nostradamus hype?

According the Colorado-based Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), the largest UFO investigative organization in the world, the first week of January this year was exciting. Reports were received from eyewitnesses in 36 out of 50 states, including New Mexico. According to Clifford Clift, MUFON’s international director, they received 233 reports in that week alone. Last year, the group had more than six-thousand reports; if the trend continues, they expect to get fifty percent more reports in 2012. Only around ten percent of UFO reports remain unexplained after an investigation.

International organizations are being inundated, too. According to New Zealand’s WeatherWatch.co.nz, it received almost eighty reports on January 1 alone.

Here in New Mexico, an anonymous witness, traveling home from a New Year’s Eve party, reported a “green-white UFO traveling north at an impossible speed.”

Sounds like a good time to go outside and do some UFO spotting of your own.

Earth Blockade

Spaceflight has been around since the late 1950s. We have launched both unmanned and manned crafts into various orbits around Earth. Go outside almost any evening a couple of hours after sunset, and look up. Eventually you will see a “moving” star. No, these are NOT UFOs. Those are satellites in orbit around Earth. I use Heavens-above.com to get a list of nightly fly-overs.

As of October 2011, USSPACECOM listed 6,578 satellites launched into orbit since 1957. More than nine hundred are currently operational. Tens to hundreds to thousands of thousands of pieces of space junk also orbit our globe. In a September 2011 report by the United States National Research Council, 16,094 pieces of debris were being tracked as of July; most are one inch across or smaller. A few are decommissioned satellites, rocket boosters, and other intentionally discarded stuff.

Two events are thought to be the largest individual sources of space debris. The first was the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite weapon test. It obliterated the decommissioned Fengyun-1C weather satellite creating approximately 150,000 fragments over one half inch in size. That intentional test alone makes up roughly twenty percent of all tracked objects above the Earth’s surface. The other was an accidental 2009 collision between twelve-year-old active satellite Iridium 33 and the defunct Russian Kosmos-2251 satellite.

A National Research Council report warns that the amount of debris in space is reaching “a tipping point” and could cause damage to satellites or spacecraft. The report continues, “There is enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures.”

Multiple times, the International Space Station has had to dodge larger fragments, and, in June, its crew was forced to prepare to evacuate due to a close encounter with debris. At more than 17,500 mph, even a small object can punch a big hole and do major damage.

If the tipping point is reached, some scientists think it will be too dangerous to try and place anything in Earth orbit until the area naturally clears itself. Fortunately, the recent increase in solar activity is helping. Earth’s atmosphere has been puffing up in response to increasing levels of UV radiation from sunspots. This helps remove debris from low-Earth orbit by increasing the drag. The number of cataloged junk in Earth’s orbit actually decreased during 2011, reports Nick Johnson in NASA’s Orbital Debris Quarterly newsletter. In the absence of a new major satellite breakup, the overall orbital debris population should continue to decrease during 2012 and 2013.

The Planets and Moon

  • Look low in the southwest after sunset for Mercury the last half of the month.
  • Venus is very bright in the southwest, setting around four hours after sunset.
  • Mars rises the southeast at 9:30 p.m. early in the month and around 7:20 p.m. by month end. There is a Mars-Moon conjunction on the 25th.
  • Jupiter is high and bright in the southern sky after sunset, setting at midnight mid-month. Look for a Jupiter-Moon conjunction on the 26th.
  • Find Saturn after midnight in the southeast reaching culmination (highest point in the sky) before sunrise.
  • To find Uranus, look on the 9th for Venus two hours after sunset. Uranus will be just below and to the left (one third of a degree) from Venus. You’ll need good binoculars or a telescope.
  • The Moon will be full at 2:52 p.m. on the 7th and new at 3:53 p.m. on the 21st. On the 12th, one hour before sunrise, find Spica just to the upper right of the Moon. Saturn will be to the upper left of the Moon.
 
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