Image of Sputnik 1 from Air and Space Museum
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Morrison Planetarium's hub for the latest out-of-this-world news, from meteor showers to space exploration events.

A New Year and New Discoveries for New Horizons

Artist rendering of New Horizons spacecraft

East Coast space fans have a reason to celebrate as January 1 begins, and not just because of the New Year. At 12:33 am EST, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft arrives at the distant Kuiper body Ultima Thule for our farthest encounter with a solar system body.

Converting to the appropriate time zones for the rest of the country places the encounter late on December 31, but regardless of where you are, space fans can follow New Horizons on social media and at mission websites hosted by NASA and Johns Hopkins University as the spacecraft approaches its target.

Ultima Thule measures approximately 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) across and has an elongated, double-lobe shape that may indicate that it's either a binary system or even a contact binary (two bodies touching each other). It was not in the mission plan when New Horizons was launched for Pluto in 2006, having been discovered well after in 2014, but it was found to be close enough along the spacecraft's trajectory that New Horizons could reach it with the fuel that it had left after the Pluto encounter. Given a new target and a second life, New Horizons is about to make history again, going where no spacecraft has gone before.

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A New Year's Meteor Shower

Quadrantid meteor shower

Just a few days into 2019, the annual Quadrantid meteor shower peaks on January 3-4, radiating from a point just northeast of the tip of the Big Dipper's handle. Named after the faint, defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis the Wall Quadrant, it's traditionally said to produce about 40 meteors per hour. While some resources indicate a higher rate, this is only under the most ideal of conditions (seen from a dark location on a moonless night with the radiant—the point from which meteors seem to fan out—directly overhead).

For observers in San Francisco, the peak time is around 1 am on the morning of the 4th, when the shower's radiant is only seven degrees above the northeastern horizon. From amid the glow of city lights, skywatchers might see about 10 meteors per hour.

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San Francisco's Last Total Lunar Eclipse Until 2021

Artist rendering of a lunar eclipse

A total lunar eclipse is visible in its entirety from the U.S. on the night of January 20 as the full Moon passes through the darkest part of Earth's shadow (the umbra). The stages at the very beginning and end of the eclipse may be hard to see, since that's when the Moon is in the pale outer fringe of Earth's shadow (or penumbra). During the partial stages on either side of totality, look for the curvature of our planet's shadow, proving that Earth is round. Because Earth's shadow is red, the Moon turns either bright, reddish-orange or a muddier, rusty brown at totality, when it's fully immersed in the umbra. Here are eclipse timings for San Francisco (all times PST):

  • Penumbral eclipse begins: 6:36 pm
  • Partial eclipse begins: 7:34 pm
  • Totality begins: 8:41 pm
  • Totality ends: 9:43 pm
  • Partial eclipse ends: 10:50 pm
  • Penumbral eclipse ends: 11:48 pm
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Another Pair of Predawn Processions of Planets (and the Moon and a Star)

Diagram of planetary procession

About an hour before sunrise on the morning of February 1, weather permitting, look for a graceful, fairly evenly spaced arc in the southeast, formed in ascending order by Saturn, the thin crescent Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and the reddish star Antares (the heart of Scorpius the Scorpion). At the end of February, a similar string can be seen an hour before dawn on the morning of the 28th, with (again, in ascending order) Venus, Saturn, the Moon, Jupiter, and Antares. Certainly, for a few days before and after the dates given here, the planets can be seen clustering together, but February 1 and 28 are when they're most evenly spaced.

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The Year Will Be A Boar

Photo of a black boar

Two or three months into the year, Asian countries and communities celebrate the Chinese New Year, also known as Tet to the Vietnamese, Sol-Nal to Koreans, and sometimes misleadingly referred to as the Lunar New Year.

Although the exact date depends on the phases of the Moon, the event is also locked to the seasons, thus tying it as well to the solar calendar (otherwise, observances would occur 11 days earlier each year, the way events in the purely Moon-based Islamic calendar do).

For cultures that observe it, this new year observance usually occurs sometime between the Gregorian calendar dates of January 21 and February 20, and is on the first full day following the second new Moon after the Winter Solstice. February's full Moon is at midday of the 4th, so the start of the new year (the Year of the Boar, according to the Chinese Zodiac) is celebrated on February 5th.

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Equinox...or "Equi-not"?

Photo of a vibrant sunrise

March 20 is the vernal equinox, commonly recognized as the beginning of spring for the northern hemisphere and the autumnal equinox, or beginning of fall for the southern hemisphere. This is when the Sun rises due east and sets due west, but contrary to popular wisdom, it's not when day and night are equal in length, despite the meaning of the word "equinox" ("equal night"). One reason is because the Sun is not a point but has a diameter of half of a degree of arc, making the definition of sunrise and sunset a little fuzzy, depending on whether the terms refer to the top of the Sun's disk being on the horizon or its center, which can affect the time by two minutes. Another reason is that when the Sun is just below the horizon, Earth's atmosphere refracts its light, forming a mirage of our star that appears before sunrise and lingers after sunset. Combined, these effects cause the Sun to be above the horizon for about six to eight minutes longer on the equinox than below it. For northern mid-latitudes, the date that the Sun actually appears to be above and below the horizon for equal durations is a few days before the spring equinox, or March 17.

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