2012 is going to be pretty difficult to top. NASA landed an SUV-sized rover, Venus put on a once-in-a-lifetime show as it passed across the Sun, and SpaceX took the handoff from NASA to transfer cargo to the ISS. The coming year will have its share of astronomical and space exploration events as well.
Planets pass within sight distance
The first occurred barely a day into the new year. Earth was at its closest point to the sun, about 3 million miles closer, around midnight New Years Day. It seems non-sensical for this to happen during the winter months, but keep in mind that Earth's tilt that creates the seasons, not proximity to the Sun.
On Jan. 21, Jupiter will be very easy to spot again as it passes less than a degree from the moon. They won't appear this close to each other for another 13 years and should make for some great photos.
During February, the usually difficult-to-spot Mercury will be visible in the evening. Feb. 8 should be a particularly good evening to look for Mercury as it passes very close to Mars at sunset.
The "Supermoon" phenomenon which generated a lot of interest in 2012 makes another appearance in 2013. A full moon again coincides with the moon's closest approach to the Earth the morning of June 23, 2013. The precise points where the moon is at its fullest and closest to Earth are separated by only 30 minutes not long after sunrise, but the moon should still be big and beautiful the previous evening.
Comets could bring big show
The Persied meteor shower is expected to peak on Aug. 12. A waxing crescent moon will help keep the sky dark enough to see and will likely be your best opportunity to spot meteors this year.
The Geminid meteor shower has produced the most meteors in recent years. However, 2013's Geminids aren't expected to match 2012's show due to the near-full moon visible all night. Early risers could get a treat as the moon sets a few hours before sunrise.
Eclipses happen each year, and 2013 is no different with three lunar and two solar eclipses. Unfortunately, none will be visible from our area.
Next year isn't much better. The partial solar eclipse on Oct. 23, 2014, will technically be visible but will starts near sunset and will likely below the treeline for most in North Carolina. Your patience will be rewarded on Aug. 21, 2017, when a total solar eclipse will be visible across North America with the greatest eclipse visible in parts of North and South Carolina.
The most memorable space events of the year could be icy visitors from outside outside our solar system. Anticipation is already building for a pair of comets originating in the Ort Cloud a light year away to put on a show that will be long remembered, if they survive the journey.
Comet ISON was discovered back in September by a pair of amateur astronomers in Russia and is expected to be visible in late November.
Some estimates have it brighter than the full moon and even visible in daylight. Comet PANSTARRS has been tracked since its discovery in June of 2011 and is expected to be visible in March around sunset.
However, predicting the visibility of comets is especially challenging. Comets are essentially big snowballs trapping rocks, dust and frozen gasses. As they approach the sun, that material is released creating a visible coma or tail which can stretch for millions of kilometers. That same heating process can also break up the comet. Only time will tell if comets ISON or PANSTARRS survive their dive toward the sun producing a memorable show.
Commercial cargo dominates launches
Looking a little closer to home, NASA and other agencies have several launches planned in the coming year.
SpaceX has scheduled a pair of cargo runs from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station for March 1 and Sept. 30. Closer to home, Orbital Sciences Corp. is targeting April 5 for their first cargo flight to the International Space Station with their Cygnus spacecraft. Unlike previous cargo missions to the ISS, this will be launched from Wallops Island, Va. In the right conditions, this launch could be visible from much of central and eastern North Carolina. The station will also continue to be visited by cargo craft from Japan, Europe and Russia throughout the year.
The same SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket which carries the Dragon capsule to the ISS will be used to launch a Canadian satellite in April. Cascade Smallsat and Ionospheric Polar Explorer (CASSIOPE) will study solar storms effects on our upper atmosphere. This will be SpaceX's first launch from Vandenburg AFB in California and first launch for the company's Merlin 1D engine.
NASA will launch its Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) satellite to study the sun's atmosphere. It is being launched not from the ground but instead from Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket in midair from a carrier plane.
NASA Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Experiment (LADEE) will analyze the moon's wisp-thin atmosphere as well as seek answer to questions first raised 40 years ago. Is lunar dust responsible for the pre-sunrise horizon glow that Apollo astronauts saw? The mission is also a testbed for a laser-based communication system. An August launch date is planned for LADEE from Wallops Island, Va., the first lunar mission to launch from there.
How atmospheres work is also the target of study again for NASA's next planetary exploration mission. Mars Atmosphere And Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) is scheduled for launch mid-November to early December. When it arrives 10 months later it will begin study of Mars' upper atmosphere and how those gasses are lost to space.
Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.