From the January 2007 issue

Bob Berman’s strange universe: Oddballs in the sky

January 2007: The sky's brightest denizens will all be wonderfully odd in 2007.
By | Published: January 1, 2007
Bob Berman
I sure don’t. And that’s just fine. Normal people aren’t as much fun as the unusual ones. Maybe it’s the same way with the sky. As the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s, Sirius will dutifully blaze at its highest point of the night, just as it has for centuries. But after that, things go bananas. The sky’s brightest denizens will all be wonderfully odd in 2007.

The fun starts with the very first Full Moon, the night of January 2/3. This will be the highest Full Moon until 2024! It’ll hover straight up at midnight over south Florida and south Texas.

That’s odder than you might think: The Moon normally avoids the zenith like the plague. (The Sun is never straight up from any part of the continental United States, Canada, or Europe.)

This happens because the Moon’s orbit now tilts the same way Earth is slanted. This temporary state of affairs will produce several days of weirdly high and low Moons each month throughout 2007, even after that first Full Moon. And that’s just the beginning. Several astro-cycles are now coming together like a class reunion. The Sun reaches an extreme, too. We’re at sunspot minimum, and the night sky will probably respond by assuming its darkest guise of the decade. The space between the stars now grows unusually murky, as if someone has turned the brightness knob all the way down. Explanation: Airglow, the greatest natural influence on the background sky, varies with the sunspot cycle.

Venus is extreme, too. This month, it slowly emerges from the Sun’s glare at dusk, raising the curtain on a display we haven’t seen since 1999. That cloud-covered planet’s behavior gets precisely duplicated every 8 years. Count back: In 1975, 1983, 1991, and 1999, the evening star was extraordinarily high and conspicuous. This happens when Venus reaches the eastern edge of its orbit just as that orbit angles most vertically from our horizon. But never mind the mechanical details. What matters are the results: It’s now 8 years after the great 1999 apparition, so here we go again.

Will this peculiar alignment cause Wi-Fi spam from M20 to beam into our home computers?
Watch Venus blaze high at dusk late this winter and especially in spring, when it won’t even set until midnight or so. In May, it’ll hover straight up for observers in South Florida’s gatored communities. A zenithal Venus! How bizarre! This happens at 4 p.m., with the planet’s dazzling –4 magnitude making it visible against the afternoon sky.

If your backyard doesn’t have alligators or lizards, neither January’s midnight Full Moon, nor springtime’s afternoon Venus will reach perfectly straight up, but they’ll still be oddly high and anything but normal.

We’re not finished with 2007’s uniqueness. Consider the Moon’s separation from us. On November 9, its oval orbit will carry it far into the distance, to a whopping 252,700 miles (406,700 kilometers) away. This will be the farthest, smallest Moon until the year 2020.

The three brightest sky-denizens, the Sun, Moon, and Venus, each do unusual things, but let’s add number four — Jupiter, which also emerges from the Sun’s glare in December. By month’s end, early risers can check out Red Spot, Jr., the planet’s oddest event since Voyager 1 passed by in 1979 carrying Chuck Berry music on a laserdisc.

Then, for a day starting on 2007’s winter solstice, Earth, the Sun, Jupiter, and the Trifid Nebula (M20) all form a straight line. The meeting happens at the lowest point of the zodiac. Will this peculiar alignment cause Wi-Fi spam from M20 to beam into our home computers? Expect a paranoid web site to raise fears about this lineup.

As for our own planet, no need to hunt for strangeness — it’s as close as your breath. Last summer, Hawaii’s Mauna Loa reported the newest carbon-dioxide figures, and our planet’s air now contains 381 parts per million (ppm). That’s the largest increase ever, a rise of 2.6 ppm from last year. CO2 is up 40 percent from 1848, up 100 ppm from the 280 ppm level it’s held for the last 650,000 years. Whatever global consequences must follow, the CO2 levels are not in dispute. So far as we know, no other planet is experiencing such a rapidly changing atmosphere.

More 2007 astro-oddities: We’ll have the final March 21 equinox of our lives, reckoned by Universal Time (UT). In fact, all four equinoxes and solstices will happen so late this year that none of them will be matched or preceded until the 22nd century! Better not be in a hurry for summer to start.

Our planet also hits its far point from the Sun, aphelion, at its latest of the century, on the final hour UT of July 7. A more common date would have been July 4. Yet, strangely, the solar near point occurs at a normal January 3.

Eccentrics of the world, drink a New Year’s toast under the sky. We’re heading into an odd and special year.