January 2, 2022

Early January at 8:30 PM looking southeast with inset at 5:30 PM looking southwest

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Happy New Year! Tomorrow is perihelion day when Earth is closest to the sun. The Earth will be just 91,406,842 miles from the sun which is 3.1 million miles closer than Earth will be at its farthest distance from the sun in early July at aphelion. Although we’re so close to the sun now, our part of Earth is tilted away from sun, so the sunlight hits the ground at a more glancing angle which reduces the amount of energy absorbed. Angles, not distance, determine the seasons.

Just after sunset you might be able to see four planets lined up within 40 degrees of each other (two handspans at arm’s length): bright Jupiter will be up highest, then Saturn, then Mercury, and finally Venus. Venus’ status as the evening star is just about finished. Even though it is brightest of the planets, Venus is going to be hard to see so close to the horizon. Next week on January 8, Venus will be in between us and the sun at “inferior conjunction”. By the third week in January, Venus will visible in the east as the morning star

Mercury continues climbing up away from the sun and will reach its greatest angle east of the sun on January 6/7. Mercury will get to within 3.5 degrees of Saturn on January 12 and then drop down quickly toward the sun in the following couple of weeks. Mercury will be slightly brighter than Saturn when they’re next to each other. Mercury will be at inferior conjunction on January 23 and then joins Venus in the pre-dawn sky. 

Also in the early morning sky is Mars which is just to the left of Antares at the heart of Scorpius. The name Antares means “like Mars” because the two have similar colors and brightness on our sky. With this month’s placement of the two, you’ll be able to easily compare their colors. Antares will be the brighter of the two since Mars is positioned on the opposite side of its orbit from us. Antares is a red supergiant star putting out about 60,000 times the energy as the sun and if placed in our solar system at the sun’s position, it would easily swallow up the four inner planets. Antares will eventually go supernova sometime within the next million years with any day/night in that timespan being equally likely, so we might see that happen in our lifetime.

The moon is right next to the sun at new phase today. Tomorrow it will be just below Mercury but the crescent may be too thin to see. On January 4, the moon will be to the left of Saturn and the following night, the moon will be a fatter crescent below Jupiter. The moon will be at first quarter phase on January 9.

We’ll be able to experience two lunar eclipses this year, the first on May 15 and the second on November 8. Those who go to bed early will prefer the May 15 eclipse while night owls will have fun with the November 8 eclipse. There will be no total solar eclipses in 2022.

In space exploration, we’ll hopefully begin receiving excellent infrared images and spectroscopy data from the James Webb Space Telescope by late May. Webb finally launched on Christmas day, the culmination of many years work by thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians in the U.S., Canada, and twelve European countries who, combined, gave over 40 million hours of work. Now Webb is in the middle of a four-week deployment of unfolding itself that I’ve described in previous columns. This week, Webb begins the trickiest part of the whole deployment: unfurling its five-layered sunshield. It’s a delicate process that will take about three days to complete. The following two weeks will be spent deploying the secondary mirror and unfolding the large 6.5-meter primary mirror. On January 22/23, Webb will fire its rockets to begin orbiting around the L2 point of the Earth-sun system. Orbiting around the L2 point will enable Webb’s solar panels to always be in sunlight and not be in Earth’s shadow. 

After deployment, the Webb team will take about five months of checking, calibrating, and commissioning the ultra-sensitive instruments for the revolutionary science that is sure to come. Observing in the infrared, instead of visible light, Webb is the scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Webb is going to see the first stars that formed in the universe as well as peer into the dusty cocoons surrounding newly-forming stars and planets in our local part of the Milky Way galaxy and take detailed spectra of the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets to see which ones “off-kilter” gas ratios that could only be caused by life.

Other space exploration launches in 2022: a number of moon missions with several CubeSats launching in the first part of the year and then two CLPS landers in December. The Psyche mission to the iron-rich asteroid of the same name launches in August (arriving late May 2023) and the European astrobiology rover mission to Mars, ExoMars 2022, launches in mid-September (arriving in June 2023). 

I hope that you’ll be able to find a time and place sometime in 2022 to gaze up in wonder at a dark night sky filled with thousands of stars.

Nick Strobel
Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College
Author of the award-winning website www.astronomynotes.com