For several weeks our dusky red planet has been holding court, but tonight - New Year's Eve - will usher in another year with the war-god planet at the helm. As always, all directions are written for the world's mid-northern latitudes.
After all the revelry and midnight ticks into 12:01 a.m., face southward to see a very brilliant Sirius, our "dog star" shining in his whitest garb. Sirius is now our Winter Star, and at its highest peak. But the fiery Mars, equal to Sirius in brightness, glares nearly overhead (if you live in the mid-northern latitudes). Glancing down below Mars stands Orion, and off to your left shoulder you'll note Saturn dominating the eastern sky. Remember Regulus, sometimes called the "sickle of Leo" and shines at the heart of that constellation? This star will be easily seen to the upper right of the cabal.
Does this foretell anything I wonder, that the fierce, yet most promising planet will see in 2008? For numerologists, this is the year #1 which I arrived at in this manner: 2+0+0+8=10=1+0=1. Mars is the 4th planet from our own star, and January has landed in the House of 5. (1+4=5...hm? and take that even further, 145=1+4+5=10=1+0=1) The year adds up to a number which adds up to itself, literally. We've concentrated so much science on these rocky slopes and craters, and as many already know, we all may be gaining an abundance of incredibly important cosmic knowledge on January 30th. That is, IF the anticipated asteroid known as 2007 WD5 impacts the Martian scape. If so, it would gouge out a crater roughly a mile across - easily visible by any of the 3 craft now orbiting the planet. Still, most scientists predict a near-miss of only about 55,000 miles, but the odds of a direct hit are 1 in 75. UPDATE: as of 1/3/08 the odds of impact are now 1 in 25 In November of 1979, this same asteroid slipped past the red planet at a startling distance of 400,000 miles. Now it's back, and much closer.
Most likely, it'll be another near-miss. But no one can refine the asteroid's orbit and trajectory, as it is presently a blip in Taurus with the bright moon blocking true vision. However, if a collision does occur it will raise quite a bit of ruddy dust.
More than anything, it can provide us with answers to cosmic mysteries about our own earth, and this solar system. Faithful rovers Spirit and Opportunity are still doing their work on the red planet, and since Mars is now near its closest to earth, Hubble may get a shot of some of the splat. Once again, there's a big "IF" in the middle of all this.
Moving along into New Year's Day, comet Tuttle will be passing closest to earth since its 1858 discovery. It will not return until 2048.
On January 2nd earth will reach perihelion, its closest to our sun for the entire year, only 1/30 closer than at aperihelion (its farthest from the sun) in July.
Finally, on the 3rd, there may be a brief but very spectacular meteor shower called the Quadrantids, or "Quads". They make a truly fine display, especially if you're in North America. Though brief, they're very intense with more than 100 meteors an hour being visible, under ideal conditions. Start looking around 6:40 UT or 1:40 a.m. EST.
A fiery red rusty planet is escorting this new year into history, and whatever underlying mysteries this holds I'm sure the truth of cosmic science will not fail to delight and amaze.
A Very Happy and Safe New Year J-Land!
Basics courtesy of Sky & Telescope, R&L, Gryphon, star charts