2014’s out-of-this-world greatest hits


2014 was a spectacular year in space exploration/astronomy – headed by accomplishments of NASA’s Curiosity Rover on Mars, and the Rosetta/Philae comet landing. New Years’ Celebrations – Used to be March 1 in the early Roman calendar, then: the evolution of the calendar. 153BC 2nd king of Rome Numa Pontilius added January and February, and year started Jan 1 to coincide with a civil year – the start of the one=year term of two new Roman consuls. 46BC Solar-based Julian Calendar started by JC established Jan. 1 as the start of the year and became the consistent date but only in the Roman world. Christian countries still saw this as pagan – they continued with March and spring as start of new year. Europe didn’t firmly adopt Jan. 1 until the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1582. Even then England – and thus early America didn’t adopt Gregorian calendar until 170 yrs later – 1752. Then Jan 1 became start of the new year in America.

December 29, 2014


[Dave Heller] Let’s look ahead — overhead — in 2015 on Skytalk, with Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute. And Derrick, to gain perspective on what’s to come, let’s look at space exploration and astronomy’s greatest hits in 2014. Where do we start?

[Derrick Pitts] Lots of great stuff happened last year. We can start with what I think is the most exciting news and that’s about Curiosity on Mars. The rover on Mars has traveled over 9 kilometers from its landing 2 years ago. And it has accomplished most of its major scientific objectives being on Mars, trying to figure out whether or not there really were watery environments, and trying to figure out whether or not those watery environments could have been conducive to the development of life. We know that definitely Mars had very large bodies of water including lakes. We know that those lakes allowed for the deposition of sediments to creating layering to a very good depth. So that’s a significant finding. We’ve also been able to determine that methane in the atmosphere of Mars periodically spikes, so that there’s some process on Mars that generates bursts of methane. And as I said to someone earlier, I’m not sure if there are cows on Mars or if the rover is passing gas — One of those things is happening! And there is a chemical, scientific reason for this, but as it turns out, organic molecules are being found on Mars so this is all pushing very, very slowly, step-by-step methodically toward being able to identify whether or not there had been any life on Mars. And we know that there will be more discoveries, more observations coming in 2015 because its objective now is to continue up this stream bed at Mount Sharp.

  • This mosaic image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS made from photographs taken by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover looks to the west of the Kimberley waypoint on the rover’s route to the base of Mount Sharp. The mountain lies to the left of the scene. Sets of sandstone beds all incline to the south, indicating progressive build-out of sediment toward Mount Sharp. These inclined beds are overlain in the background by horizontally bedded fine-grained sandstones that likely represent river deposits. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

But it’s not just all about planets in our solar system.

No, it’s not. There are also some interesting stories about comets. And the most exciting one has been the Rosetta comet carrying the lander Philae to a successful landing on Comet 67P. And you know, when you look at the images that come back from Rosetta and from the lander, you know the comet looks absolutely nothing like what we originally envisioned comets to look like or how we see them in the sky. It looks like a sandy, rocky, lumpy body without all the gas jets and the tail and all that sort of stuff. We were able to determine that this comet is not carrying the type of water that Earth has, so we can’t say that water came to this planet from this comet. Maybe another type of comet, but certainly not this one. So good things from comets as well.

We’re about to flip the page on the calendar but it depends which calendar we’re lookin’ at.

[Laughs] You know, it really does. We take it for granted that January 1 has always been New Year’s Day, the day on which we celebrate the coming of the new year. But that’s not the case at all. If we actually were to just look back and just consider civilization and societies and how they develop and flourish, you would easily understand that perhaps early March — or sometime in what we call “March”, near the Spring Solstice — would be a good time to start the year, because that’s when we see so much rebirth, regeneration of all the vegetation, things like that. It makes perfect sense. The early Romans used March 1 as their first day of the year. For them though, the year only had 10 months. And if we look at our year, we can see September, October, November, December are all leftover from that.

However, in 153 BC the second king of Rome Numa Pontilius added January and February to the year. And then the year started January 1, but only to coincide with a civil year. It also marked the beginning of the one year term for new Roman consoles that were coming in. They were the highest offices in Rome. So it was connected more to a civil thing. But in 46 BC, Julius Caesar instituted the Julian calendar. That was a solar-based calendar; the other calendar was a lunar calendar. And going to a solar calendar actually helped to straighten out a whole lot of mess that was going on about shifting times and things like that. So, that was a good thing. And at that point, that’s when January 1 was established as the new year for the Romans. But that was just the Roman world.

For the rest of the world, they saw this as being a Pagan sort of recognition of when the year started, especially the other Christian countries. So they continued with March and spring as the start of the new year. It wasn’t until the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1582 that January 1 actually became the official beginning of the year for countries throughout Europe, except for one country and that was England. England didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar for another 170 years. It wasn’t until 1752 that the American colonies also adopted the new Gregorian calendar.

And for listeners who do indeed celebrate the new year now some 54 hours out, what’s available in the 2015 sky?

All kinds of really great stuff. Mars and Venus are in the western sky at sunset, so just after sunset you can catch those without any problem. Jupiter, the largest planet of the solar system, is up in the east by 8:15. And the Winter Circle, also in the east, is also easily visible. All those constellations that surround Orion the Hunter as the main constellation of the winter sky. But believe it or not, over on the western side are the last stars of the summer — Cygnus the Swan just heading down below the western horizon. You can still see it if you catch it as soon as the sky darkens. And then Saturn takes over the predawn sky around 6 a.m. over in the southeast.

Thanks Derrick, and all good things for you and yours in the new year.

Thank you, Dave, and same to you.

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