Sky Lights

A guide to nature's displays and man's space escapades in 2002

By Bob Berman|Tuesday, January 01, 2002


The seemingly simple force of gravity sets the moon, planets, and the solar system's lesser players spinning in a complex dance of eclipses, conjunctions, and shooting stars during the coming year. Meanwhile, man-made gadgetry will perform its own vacuum-packed choreography, angling for prime viewing spots in space.

JANUARY The show begins in the very first hour of 2002, when Jupiter shines its brightest of the year. And during the first half of the month, rarely seen Mercury hovers noticeably in the evening twilight as the only prominent "star" immediately above the horizon. The crescent moon helpfully dangles just below it on the 14th.

FEBRUARY A team of astronauts plan to pay a service call on the Hubble Space Telescope and install upgraded instruments to boost the observatory's optics. The mission will be performed from the oldest space shuttle, Columbia, which began service in 1981 and is freshly refurbished for its first flight since July 1999. In the "easy astronomy" department, the moon scoots stunningly close to Saturn on the 20th and Jupiter on the 22nd.


It's a busy year for space exploration—the International Space Station gets two major springtime upgrades.
Photograph by Eric Weeks
APRIL/MAY After a quiet month, all five planets that can be seen by the naked eye meet for an extended gathering just after nightfall. This celestial powwow will be visible to anyone with a west-facing view. Around the same time, a series of space-shuttle missions will focus on the building of a 360-foot truss on the International Space Station. The aluminum structure, resembling an enormous erector set with an attached rail, will support a mobile platform for the station's giant grasping robotic arm.

JUNE Venus and Jupiter, the sky's two brightest "stars," meet after sunset during the first four days of the month. On the 10th, a partial solar eclipse delivers crescent-shaped shadows across the western two-thirds of North America.

JULY The long-delayed Space InfraRed Telescope Facility finally gets off the ground. The last of NASA's Great Observatories, it will complement the Hubble and Chandra X-ray observatories (the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, sadly, is no more). NASA is running a yearlong contest to name the observatory at sirtf.caltech.edu/ namingcontest. Also scheduled for launch: Contour, a robotic probe that will provide close-up looks at three different comets over the next six years.

AUGUST Comets shed fragments that become meteors if they sizzle into our atmosphere. That's exactly what will happen around the 11th of the month when the annual Perseid meteor shower arrives. It will be the first chance since 1999 to see the Perseids under dark, moonless skies. Barring clouds, the best viewing comes after midnight, in the early morning hours of the 12th.

SEPTEMBER Low in the west, Venus dominates the evening sky. It hovers next to Virgo's hot blue sun, Spica, on the 1st. The cloud-shrouded planet reaches its greatest brilliancy on the 26th.

NOVEMBER On the 18th, the famously fickle Leonid meteors may escalate into a full-blown meteor storm, with North America favored to witness the spectacle. By this time, the Russians may have sent another billionaire, South Africa's fittingly named Mark Shuttleworth, to the International Space Station. "It's science, in a way," says NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs. "It's a kind of experiment to see if very wealthy people throw up in zero gravity."

DECEMBER Venus, Mars, and the crescent moon, our three nearest neighbors in space, form a beautifully tight arrangement just before sunrise on the 1st. The year's only total solar eclipse takes place in Africa and southern Australia on the 4th. But observers everywhere can watch as yellow-ringed Saturn grows closer, brighter, bigger, and higher than at any time since 1973. It's a good time to put a telescope on the holiday wish list.





For a look at what NASA has in store this year, see www-pao.ksc.nasa.gov/kscpao/schedule/mixfleet.htm. Another NASA site has links to every major space mission under way: spacescience.nasa.gov/missions/index.htm.

If you are more interested in what you can see with your own two eyes, refer to Sky & Telescope's preview of upcoming sky events: www.skypub.com/sights/sights.shtml.
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