Groundhog Day in the universe

(Photo by Barbara L. Hanson)

An intriguing New York Times headline appeared on November 29: Ice has been discovered on Mercury. Wow, frozen water on the broiling innermost planet!

But something was screwy. Ice had already been found there 21 years ago. I mentioned it in my first book, published in 1995, and on this page on March 19, 1998.

What really happened? Well, the Messenger spacecraft orbiting Mercury has now observed the polar ice. In other words, the previous radar discovery is now confirmed. But why not label it “confirmation” rather than “discovery”? They’re not the same. Like, finding your boyfriend or girlfriend in the arms of his or her yoga teacher would probably be less revelatory the second time around. What makes this story interesting is a trend the past few years for dressing up old astronomy news and repackaging it as new.

Every couple of months you’ll read about the “first-ever” “New Earth” found beyond the solar system. Or the “first-ever” discovery of water ice on Mars. Or the “first-ever” affirmation of dark matter. Add these to legitimate-if-repetitive items like the latest “farthest galaxy” (the newest is always barely more distant than the previous record-holder) and you start to wonder. In New Age or pseudoscience circles we’re long accustomed to a new Doomsday every few years, with all the previous failed prophecies forgotten; now mainstream science is jumping on the Groundhog Day bandwagon.

I’ve never witnessed such dull, uninspired reporting of celestial events as what we routinely see these days. The real universe jumps out and goes “Boo!” all the time. Astronomy is inherently amazing. But the mass media routinely ignore the most mind-stretching findings and their implications – like evidence for an infinite universe, or the bizarre hexagon at Saturn’s North Pole, or the gargantuan high-energy bubbles that are wildly expanding around emptiness above and below our galaxy’s core – in favor of the most pedantic and predictable.

Oh well. Since this is sort of a negative rant, I’ll get it out of my system and preview the dark side of 2013. Next week we’ll explore the great sky spectacles of the coming year, including what may be the best comet of our lives. For now, here’s a heads-up warning about this year’s coming eclipses.

There are five. And, count on it, some almanacs and TV news shows will announce each in turn: You’ll naturally wonder how you can observe them. The reality? Not a single one will appear for us. The sole total solar eclipse, a one-minute affair, will occur only in equatorial Africa on November 3, where the chance of overcast skies is between 80 and 90 percent. There’s also an annular solar eclipse – a type of partial eclipse that requires eye protection – but it will only be visible near Australia.

We’ll get three lunar eclipses, on April 25, May 25 and October 19. But in all three, the Moon will only venture into our planet’s penumbral or faint outer shadow, and won’t even pass very far into that. As a result, even during the single event that does theoretically occur over our region (the May eclipse), the Full Moon will be utterly unchanged. There won’t be the slightest visual hint that any kind of eclipse is unfolding, even though many ill-informed TV meteorologists will announce “Eclipse tonight!” just to get people looking up in bewilderment.

Since taking over astronomy editorship of the Old Farmer’s Almanac some 20 years ago, I’ve discontinued what had been a centuries-long practice of mentioning invisible penumbral eclipses – just as I don’t on this page. Why get folks excited, only to be bummed when they see nothing?

It’s caveat emptor, even when it comes to the free goodies of outer space.

P.S.: Did you happen to see that striking close conjunction of the Moon and brilliant Jupiter on Christmas night? They were only a Moon’s-width apart. Good news: It will repeat on January 21.

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