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2012 Skywatching Events Guide & 2012 Venus Transit

This story was updated on Jan. 2. As the year 2011 comes to a close, some might wonder what is looming sky-wise for 2012? What celestial events might we look forward to seeing? I've selected what I consider to be the top 12 "skylights" for this coming year, and list them here in chronological order. Hopefully your local weather will cooperate on most, if not all, of these dates. Jan. 4: Quadrantid meteor shower peaks This meteor shower reaches its peak in the predawn hours of Jan. 4 for eastern North America. From the eastern half of North America, a single observer might count on seeing as many as 50-to-100 "Quads" in a single hour. The first major meteor shower of 2012 takes place on the night of Tuesday, Jan. 3 and the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 4. Feb. 20 to March 12: Best evening apparition of Mercury In February and March, the "elusive" innermost planet Mercury moves far enough from the glare of the sun to be readily visible soon after sunset. March 3: Mars arrives at opposition

how to use a telescope - how to use a telescope properly Let's talk about how to use a telescope properly. This is an important part of owning a telescope that many new telescope users overlook, or just don't think about. It's wonderful that you have taken an interest in Astronomy, and you're no doubt thinking of buying a telescope, or maybe you already have one. You already have an idea how telescopes work, but you have to know how to use a telescope too. There are a few things you need to know to make sure youget the maximum enjoymet from your telescope. Here are the guidelines to follow to make sure you're are using your telescope properly. The first step is to find the best place in your home to put your telescope.

NASA Spacecraft Captures Sun's Year-End Outburst on Video | The Sun & Space Weather | Solar Flares & Coronal Mass Ejections The sun closed out 2011 with a flurry of activity, and a keen-eyed NASA spacecraft captured the dramatic outburst on video. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) watched as our star erupted in dozens of storms during a 36-hour period on Dec. 29 and Dec. 30. The probe's stunning video, taken in extreme ultraviolet light, shows spouts of plasma and intense flashes of radiation blasting from the solar surface. "Magnetic forces were violently pulling against each other, creating the frenetic activity," SDO researchers wrote in an accompanying update. The recent outburst didn't produce any truly gargantuan storms. One medium-size flare is visible as a bright white flash about halfway through the new video. CMEs that hit Earth can wreak havoc on our planet, causing temporary disruptions in GPS signals, radio communications and power grids. It's not terribly suprising that the sun ended the year with a bang, because it had a very active 2011.

Planetary tilt could affect alien life Artist's rendition of the Milky Way's billions of planets. (credit: M. Kornmesser / ESO) An exciting announcement was made recently that suggests there could be billions of extraterrestrial-inhabited planets in our very own galaxy. A team of international scientists recently published findings in the journal Nature that conclude “stars are orbited by planets as a rule, rather than the exception,” and many of those are likely to be similar to Earth. The search for habitable planets and extraterrestrial life is gaining momentum, thanks largely to NASA’s planet-hunting space telescope Kepler. Artist's conception of Kepler-22b (credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech) reports that Heller and his colleagues recently published two papers describing how the gravitational interactions of stars and planets eventually erode the axial tilt of a planet.

Hubble snaps stunning barred spiral galaxy image 3 February 2012Last updated at 09:35 NGC 1073 lies in the Cetus (a sea monster in Greek mythology) constellation The Hubble space telescope has captured an image of a "barred spiral" galaxy that could help us better understand our own Milky Way. Most of the known spiral galaxies fall into this "barred" category - which are defined by the pronounced bar structure across their centres. The presence of this structure may be an indication of a galaxy's age. Two-thirds of nearby galaxies have the bar, while only a fifth of more distant spirals have it. The new picture also continues the Hubble space telescope's long heritage of striking astronomical images. In the upper left of the image is a cluster showing recent star formation that is just visible to Hubble's cameras. But it is a bright source in X-ray light; astronomers believe that this IXO-5 X-ray source is actually a "binary" system comprising a star and a black hole in mutual orbit.

New "Super Earth" Found at Right Distance for Life A new planet—probably a rocky super-Earth—has been found squarely within its star's habitable zone, making it one of the best candidates yet to support life, its discoverers say. The planet, dubbed GJ 667Cc, orbits a red dwarf star 22 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Scorpio. A binary pair of orange dwarf stars are part of the same system. (Related: "'Tatooine' Planet With Two Suns Could Host Habitable Moon?") The new planet has a mass 4.5 times that of Earth and orbits its host star every 28 days. The red dwarf is relatively dim, so the planet receives slightly less light from its star than Earth does from the sun. That means if the planet has a rocky surface—which is predicted for planets less than ten times Earth's mass—and an atmosphere, it could support liquid water and maybe life, said co-discoverer Guillem Anglada-Escudé, who conducted the work while at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. Rocky Planet Around Unexpected Star

NASA Beams Beatles' 'Across the Universe' Into Space NASA Beams Beatles' 'Across the Universe' Into Space For the first time ever, NASA beamed a song -- The Beatles' "Across the Universe" -- directly into deep space at 7 p.m. EST on Feb. 4. The transmission over NASA's Deep Space Network commemorated the 40th anniversary of the day The Beatles recorded the song, as well as the 50th anniversary of NASA's founding and the group's beginnings. Two other anniversaries also are being honored: The launch 50 years ago this week of Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, and the founding 45 years ago of the Deep Space Network, an international network of antennas that supports missions to explore the universe. The transmission was aimed at the North Star, Polaris, which is located 431 light years away from Earth. "Amazing! Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, characterized the song's transmission as a significant event. "I see that this is the beginning of the new age in which we will communicate with billions of planets across the universe," she said.

Distant Galaxies Revealed in New Space Photo | Galaxy & Universe Evolution More than 200,000 galaxies take center stage in a staggering photo snapped by a European telescope, an image that scientists say is the deepest view of the sky ever recorded at this size in infrared light. The European Southern Observatory's VISTA telescope (the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) in Chile captured the galactic treasure trove tucked inside what astronomers thought was an unremarkable patch of the sky. It was discovered by the observatory's UltraVISTA survey, a project that studies distant galaxies in the early universe and star formation by repeatedly scanning a section of the sky to obtained unprecedented image depth. By constantly staring at the same portion of the sky, the VISTA telescope is slowly picking up measurements of the very dim light of the most distant galaxies, ESO officials said in a statement. The new photo picture shows a region of the sky known as the COSMOS field, which is located in the constellation of Sextans (The Sextant).

8 Mysteries in Astronomy | Dark Matter, Dark Energy & Cosmic Rays The vastness of space and the puzzling nature of the cosmic objects that occupy it provides no shortage of material for astronomers to ponder. To round up some of the most enduring mysteries in the field of astronomy, the journal Science enlisted help from science writers and members of the Board of Reviewing Editors to choose eight puzzling questions being asked by leading astronomers today. As Robert Coontz, deputy news editor at Science, writes in his introduction to the series, the participants decided that, "true mysteries must have staying power," rather than being questions that might be resolved by research in the near future. In no particular order, here are eight of the most compelling mysteries of astronomy, as presented by the journal Science: The galaxy cluster Abell 1689 is famous for the way it bends light in a phenomenon called gravitational lensing. What is dark energy? "Dark energy might never reveal its nature," Science staff writer Adrian Cho wrote.

Scientists Hear a Star’s ‘Screams’ As It’s Devoured By Blackhole Scientists have recorded the last gasps of a star being swallowed by a black hole, and are likening its “quasiperiodic oscillations” to a human scream. “You can think of it as hearing the star scream as it gets devoured,” astronomer Jon Miller told University of Michigan’s press service. However, the old Alien tagline still applies: in space, no one can hear you scream. Without any medium to move through, sound waves can’t travel through the vacuum of space — so by “scream,” Miller actually means that the star emits an oscillating signal at a frequency that, if converted into something audible, would sound like an ultra-low D-sharp. As the star is being ripped apart by the black hole, its material “wobbles” just before being devoured. That wobble, scientists think, is the source of the signal detected by their telescopes. (PHOTOS: Spinning In the Heavens — Spiral Galaxies) A team at the University of Michigan recorded the signal using the Suzaku and XMM-Newton orbiting telescopes.

Saturn and its Largest Moon Reflect Their True Colors Posing for portraits for NASA's Cassini spacecraft, Saturn and its largest moon, Titan, show spectacular colors in a quartet of images being released today. One image captures the changing hues of Saturn's northern and southern hemispheres as they pass from one season to the next. A wide-angle view in today's package captures Titan passing in front of Saturn, as well as the planet's changing colors. Upon Cassini's arrival at Saturn eight years ago, Saturn's northern winter hemisphere was an azure blue. The other three images depict the newly discovered south polar vortex in the atmosphere of Titan, reported recently by Cassini scientists. Some of these views, such as those of the polar vortex, are only possible because Cassini's newly inclined -- or tilted -- orbits allow more direct viewing of the polar regions of Saturn and its moons. Launched in 1997, Cassini went into orbit around Saturn on July 1, 2004.

Mars Rover Finds Bed of Ancient Flowing Stream Scratch water off NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity’s list of things to find in a two-year quest to learn if the planet most like Earth in the solar system could have supported microbial life. Less than two months after touching down inside a giant impact basin near the planet’s equator, Curiosity has returned clear evidence of flowing water, scientists told reporters during a conference call Thursday. PHOTOS: Curiosity Flips Powerful Camera’s Dust Cap The proof comes from analysis of pictures of a jagged slab of rock taken with a telephoto camera on the rover’s mast. The rock, which resembles a jackhammered chunk of broken sidewalk, is flecked with rounded pieces of gravel — too big to have been carried by Martian winds. Instead, Curiosity scientists are quite sure the gravel was deposited by a vigorously flowing stream, one that was between ankle- and knee-deep and likely flowed for thousands or even millions of years. BIG PIC: Curiosity ‘Reaches Out’ to Pyramidal Mars Rock

Private Asteroid-Hunting Space Telescope to Launch in 2017 This story was updated at 2:12 p.m. EDT. A private space telescope mission that aims to discover 500,000 near-Earth asteroids is technically sound and on track for a 2017 launch, a review panel says. The mission design and implementation plans for the Sentinel Space Telescope — which is being put together by the nonprofit B612 Foundation and its partner Ball Aerospace — are solid, according to the panel, which is called the Sentinel Special Review Team. "This is a major milestone in the development of Sentinel, and has validated the enormous amount of design and planning work that has already been carried out by Ball Aerospace," SSRT chair Tom Gavin, former director for solar system exploration at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement. The SSRT is composed of 11 experts in the aerospace community, who met in Boulder, Co., from Sept. 11-13 to pore over Sentinel's mission design. "Essentially, we're on the right track," he said.