At any moment of the day, countless awe-inspiring celestial events are unfolding in the sky. With a universe of options, it can be hard to pin down what to observe, what to look into or what to remember. This column takes a peek at what’s happening in the sky and in the world of astronomy in general to provide a quick list of highlights that can jumpstart your own explorations.
January 26th-February 1st
What to observe:
For observers from 63° North to 90° South, January is the perfect time to head out with your telescope and hop amongst the celestial offerings of the 290-square-degree Lepus Constellation. Known as the Hare, this constellation was one of Ptolemy’s original 48 and is relatively easy to pinpoint due to its close proximity to the popular Orion and Canis Major constellations. Stargazers can begin with the four stars that make up the quadrilateral asterism known as the “Throne of Jawza.” Alpha Leporis, which is also known as Arneb, is a yellow-white supergiant that is the constellation’s brightest stellar member. Arneb is 10 times as massive as our own star and is nearing the end of its already long life. The second brightest star in Lepus is Beta Leporis, which also goes by Nihal. Although it can be viewed through binoculars, a telescope will reveal that it is actually a double star system that includes a yellow giant. The third star in the asterism is Gamma Leporis. This intriguing multi-star system is part of the Ursa Major Moving Group, which is a collection of stars with similar velocities that appear to have a common origin based on factors such as speed, age and composition. Although it is not especially bright, Gamma Leporis is worth checking out because it was one of the top candidates for NASA’s proposed Terrestrial Planet Finder project. The final member of the asterism is the orange subgiant Delta Leporis. Another notable star offering in Lepus is R Leporis, which goes by the name Hind’s Crimson Star. As indicated by its rich red hue, this beauty is one of the best in a fairly rare class of stars – the carbon star. Positioned near the constellation’s border with the Eridanus constellation, this unusual star is also a long period Mira variable, which displays fluctuating magnitude due to its pulsating nature. Other stellar targets in Lepus to consider are Epsilon Leporis, an orange giant; Mu Leporis, a blue-white subgiant that may be a variable; Zeta Leporis, a white main sequence star that boasts the first asteroid belt discovered outside of our own Solar System; and Eta Leporis, a yellow white dwarf. Although there are a host of stars to occupy one’s time when exploring Lepus, the constellation does have a few deep sky offerings. The most famous of these is the faint globular cluster Messier 79. This dense collection of brilliant points of light lies in a section of the sky that is an uncommon host for globular clusters, which tend to be near the Galactic Center. In addition, M79 is believed to have originated outside the Milky Way in the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, which is currently interacting with our galaxy. Another deep sky target is the Spirograph Nebula, which is a planetary nebula named for the intricate patterns that swirl within it.
January 30th - Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy Reaches Perihelion
Over the last couple of weeks, Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy has put on quite a show as it zipped through the Taurus, Aries and Triangulum constellations on its journey toward perihelion on January 30th. When it finally reaches its closest approach to the Sun, the comet will be in the Andromeda constellation, where it will eventually soar near the double star Almach in early February. Currently still in the 4th magnitude neighborhood, this brilliant icy beauty can be seen with binoculars or small telescopes. Discovered by established comet hunter Terry Lovejoy on August 17th, 2014, while he was observing in Australia, this comet has a very long orbital period and is not expected back in our celestial neighborhood for another 8,000 years. Although it has been in southern skies for months, the comet is now gracing Northern Hemisphere viewers with its brightest display. It is best viewed in the early evening (around 8 p.m. local time). For detailed information on locating Comet Lovejoy, visit
What to remember:
January 28th - NASA Day of Remembrance
Around this time every year, NASA has a Day of Remembrance to commemorate fallen colleagues and mark the solemn anniversaries of three of its most heartbreaking tragedies.
The first of these tragedies occurred on January 27th, 1967, during a pre-flight test for the Apollo 1 mission that had been slated to launch February 21st, 1967. Astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee were inside the spacecraft as it sat on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Several hours and several problems into their launch rehearsal, a fire suddenly broke out in the spacecraft. Within seconds the command module ruptured, the fire quickly spread and the cabin filled with a lethal mixture of carbon monoxide, smoke and fumes. Because the hatch door could only open inward, a feat made impossible by the higher than atmospheric pressure inside the cabin, escape attempts were thwarted, and all three astronauts perished. The resulting investigation led to more than one thousand changes in the command module and launch pad procedures. These included a new quick-operating hatch design that opened outward; the use of an oxygen-nitrogen mix rather than 100 percent oxygen in the launch pad cabin atmosphere; a major reduction in flammable materials inside the spacecraft; and the addition of protective insulation to plumbing and wiring. Manned Apollo flights resumed in October 1968.
Almost 20 years after the Apollo 1 fire, tragedy rocked NASA again when on January 28th, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke up after liftoff killing all seven crew members. On launch day, media hype was high and classrooms across the nation were tuned in to watch live as the first teacher-astronaut, Christa McAuliffe, journeyed into space on the inaugural mission in NASA’s new Teacher in Space program. Just 73 seconds after liftoff, spectators at the site and around the world watched in horror as the shuttle broke up in a plume of smoke and fire. Although the crew cabin did make it through the initial break-up in tact, the impact from its high-velocity freefall into the Atlantic Ocean was too intense to survive. In addition to McAuliffe, those killed were Francis “Dick” Scobee, Ron McNair, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik and Greg Jarvis. Subsequent investigations concluded that the disaster was caused when an O-ring seal on the right solid rocket booster failed in the unusually frigid temperatures on the morning of the launch. NASA once again rallied to right the failures the accident tragically revealed, and the shuttle program resumed in 1988.
The shuttle program once again faced disaster on February 1st, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia was returning from a 16-day micro-gravity research mission. During re-entry, the shuttle disintegrated leaving its seven crew members dead and a debris field spread across Texas and Louisiana. Those who perished in the devastating accident were U.S. astronauts Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown and Laurel Clark; and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. Prior to the disaster, Columbia had a triumphant history that started in 1981 when it became the first Space Shuttle launched in the program. On January 16, 2003, Columbia set off on its 28th mission. During liftoff, a piece of insulating foam on the external fuel tank broke off and hit the shuttle’s left wing. Investigations following the accident determined that when the wayward foam struck the wing it caused a breach in the thermal protection that ultimately led to the spacecraft’s destruction.
Although these horrifying incidents occurred decades apart, they share a common legacy. Each was more than a grim reminder of the dangers of space exploration. Instead, they galvanized NASA to improve and drove the agency to persevere in its noble pursuit to discover the secrets of space.
In addition to live ceremonies, NASA has produced an online tribute that can be viewed at http://www.nasa.gov/externalflash/DOR2015/