Since the start of a new year often brings predictions, here are my space-related prognostications. These may not come true in 2014, but there's a good chance some or all will occur over the lifetime of readers of this column.
A NASA rover on Mars, or perhaps one from another country, will discover liquid water on or near the surface. We have lots of intriguing but inconclusive evidence of liquid water appearing seasonally in places on Mars where one might expect it. In the near future, a rover will land at one of those locations and verify it is water.
Also, we will find life elsewhere in our solar system. On Earth, almost without fail, where there is water, there is life. We know there is water on Jupiter's moon Europa, in an ocean below its frozen surface, perhaps 60 to 100 miles deep. Saturn's moon Enceladus sports geysers of salty, mineral-laden water shooting from its surface, a phenomenon also discovered on Europa last month.
Maybe 10 or 20 years from now, a comet bright enough to see with the unaided eye will appear in our sky. The Oort cloud, from whence fizzled Comet ISON originated, contains trillions of them. We only need one to pass close enough to the sun to vaporize a lot of its icy body, but without being consumed, for us to see it. We're due.
There are tens of thousands of objects baseball-size or larger in orbit around Earth. The stuff is debris from the launches of various satellite and space ships humans put into orbit each year. Most are small, but some are larger than a bus. Eventually, it all will come back to Earth. Two-thirds of our planet's surface is water, so most returning debris lands in the ocean. Much of the remaining surface is deserts, rain forests or other uninhabited land. Only one person, a woman in Tulsa, is known to have been hit by re-entering space junk; she was shaken but unharmed. But that will change. Maybe next month, maybe next century, a major piece of space junk will land on a populated area and cause destruction and human death.
Finally, one of the new, giant telescopes being or planned, some to be in space, some on Earth, will discover something that will turn astronomy and physics on their collective ears. If I knew what that was, I'd be working on my Nobel Prize speech.
Earth orbits the sun in an ellipse, not a circle. So our distance from the sun varies slightly from day to day. Our closest approach to the sun each year, a position called perihelion, is in early January. For 2014, it took place at 6 a.m. Saturday when Earth's center was 91,406,673 miles from the center of the sun. Contrast that to aphelion, on July 4, when we will be 94,506,507 miles from the sun.
When we know a hunk of orbiting space debris is headed for your house or we discover life on Mars, we'll let you know. Meanwhile, we'll inform you of what's up in our daily program “Tonight's Sky.” Go to www.sciencemuseumok.org or call 602-3761.
If the night sky holds a special fascination for you, check out the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club at www.okcastroclub.com.
Planet visibility report: Venus, the brilliant “evening star,” dominated the sunset twilight for several months but now has disappeared in the sunset's glow. By month's end, you can bask in its glow as the “morning star” in predawn light. Venus is replaced in the evening sky by the next brightest celestial object, Jupiter, which rises in the east as the sun sets in the west. Until Mars rises around midnight, it is the only planetary body in the night sky, and Saturn joins them around 3 a.m. Mercury makes a brief appearance in the evening twilight at the end of the month. Full moon occurs Jan. 15, followed by new moon Jan. 30.
Write to Wayne Harris-Wyrick, director of the Kirkpatrick Planetarium at Science Museum Oklahoma, at email@example.com.