January 2000 Sky from the Keeble Observatory
No, I wonít wish you a happy new millennium! The end of the 20th Century in the current calendar will not occur until the end of this year (thereís no Year 0). However, I hope you enjoyed the New Yearís party, anyway!
NASA Administrator Dan Goldinís "faster, better, cheaper" policy is now under serious review. Some of the probes launched within this paradigm have been spectacular successes: Lunar Prospector, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor, Deep Space 1. Yet, one finds a nagging suspicion that Mars Climate Observer (lost to an error in sophomore-level math), or Mars Polar Lander (still no real answer as to why or how this one failed) might have been successful with a bit more funding. One might have more confidence in the policy if the fleet of four Shuttles (Columbia, Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour) had not been grounded for most of 1999 because someone noticed that wiring was dangerously frayed on all four orbiters. In real dollars, NASAís budget is below its levels of 5 years ago. With rising costs for the International Space Station (a project I support, in spite of the stress it is placing on doing real science), there is less and less available for the exciting exploration of the solar system. There is less available for doing the job right.
Shuttle operations have been "out-sourced" to a private contractor. This was done for the same reasons your employer might do it Ė to save money. I am not privy to the details of the operations contract. But, it seems to me that any contract based on incentives for reducing dollar cost, but no incentives for preventive maintenance to insure safe and efficient operation, is likely to cost us another shuttle and more human lives. Lest we forget, Challenger broke up shortly after launch, with the resultant destruction of the orbiter and the death of her 7 member crew on 1986 January 28.
Rather than a small number of billion dollar probes once each decade, the current Mars exploration strategy calls for a robust schedule of launches every 26 months (the next window is April 2001) with each mission costing in the neighborhood of $150 million. More bang for the buck. Faster, better, cheaper. Right? After all, the last billion dollar Mars probe blew up before entering Mars orbit. But, what gets left out when the objective is to do more with less? Engineering review boards that could easily catch the English-metric foul-up donít meet. Redundancy of systems, of the kind that allowed Galileo to function superbly at Jupiter, even with a failed high gain antenna, gets left out. There have been rumblings that the thruster design on Mars Polar Lander was suspect Ė where is the review to find and fix such problems before launch? Cut from the budget.
When President Kennedy first committed the United States to the Apollo program, which sent Americans to the Moon and returned them safely, he noted that we choose to do these things, not because they were easy but because they were difficult. The extraordinary complexity of human space flight, and of remote, robotic exploration of the planets should not be underestimated. Nor should the importance of devoting a small part of our national resources to this endeavor be denigrated.
One of my professors as an undergraduate used to pose the question, "If you donít have time to do it right, when are you going to find time to fix it?" A final review of the policy, and of the individual mission failures, may yet determine that the overall vision is sound. Yet, in the context of prudently allocating resources, we might well ask of the Congress, "If you donít allocate enough to do it right, where are we to find the money to fix it?"
Lunar phases for January: New Moon on the 6th, at 1:14 pm; First Quarter on the 14th, at 8:34 am; Full Moon on the20th, at 11:40 pm; Last Quarter on the28th, at 2:57 am.
The Full Moon on the 20th will be accompanied by a total lunar eclipse. The Moon will enter the inner part of the Earthís shadow (the umbra) at 10:01 pm. Totality will occur at 11:04 continuing until 12:23 am, finally emerging from the umbra at 1:26 am. The Quadrantid meteors peak after midnight, early on the 4th.
Jupiter and Saturn are high and bright to the south at sunset. Mars is low on the southwest horizon. Mercury puts in a late appearance, returning to the evening twilight on the 31st. Venus is unmistakable in the morning twilight, far brighter than any other "star" in the sky. Look high to the southeast. With care and patience, you can actually follow Venus through the day with a small telescope or binoculars.
The overhead view on the 15th, looking up at about 8:30, will have Perseus at zenith. Just to the east is the bright star Capella, in the constellation Auriga. Closer to the horizon we see Gemini, with its bright twins, Castor and Pollux. Orion rules the southeast, chasing the great Bull of Taurus. The Pleiades cluster rides the shoulder of the bull. Behind Orion is the faithful dog star, Sirius, in Canis Major. To the west of zenith, we find still the great Andromeda Galaxy, just above the Great Square of Pegasus.