01/10/2012 01:58 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2012

Plans and Precommitment: 2012 in Space!

There were a lot of things on my mind when I came home for Holiday Break a few days ago--being back in New York for the first time since August, seeing my dog Comet again, Christmas and all it entails, being done with finals, and having several weeks without homework (that was a big one). But one thing that hadn't even crossed my mind was that I'd missed three issues of Smithsonian Magazine, which meant I had some catching up to do.

All three issues contained some great stuff, but the item most relevant to this post was an article in the December issue about famous African explorer Henry Morton Stanley and how his great willpower contributed to his success. In the article, I came across a psychological term I'd never heard before--precommitment. "Precommitment" means taking actions in advance that will force you to behave in a certain way if you know you might become tempted to do something different later on. (For example, signing up for a marathon several months in advance as an inspiration to stay in shape.)

Now, one thing about being in college is that it keeps me pretty busy, between the schoolwork and the clubs I'm in. It's easy to forget when events or anniversaries are coming up, especially if they're really obscure ones that other people aren't likely to be talking about. I really hate it when I only remember that it's some sort of special day when it's too late for me to do anything to celebrate.

The simple antidote for this, of course, is to write myself reminders, or to write about the day beforehand so the date gets engrained in my brain. For example, even though it was the date of my first final exam, I remembered that December 17th was Wright Brothers Day because I'd written about it for my blog. The shame of NOT celebrating something I've informed my readers about motivates me not to forget the date--a form of precommitment!

So, when I decided to write a list of space events I was looking forward to in the New Year, I realized that it could be just as useful as a memory aid for me as for my readers--a list of things I don't want to miss, and that I don't want any of you to, either!

Without further ado, then, here's a month-by-month listing of events I'm excited for in 2012:


We've got a big event scheduled for the very first day of the New Year--the GRAIL-B probe is set to enter orbit around the moon on January 1st, 25 hours after its twin, GRAIL-A. These Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory probes will work in tandem to map the moon's gravitational field.

January 5th is perihelion--the day the Earth is closest in its orbit to the sun. (That's right--seasons have nothing to do with the Earth as a whole being closer to the sun and everything to do with which hemisphere of the Earth is tilted towards the sun at a given time.)

The last Thursday in January, January 27th this year, is NASA's official Day of Remembrance, honoring those who have lost their lives in the exploration of space. This date was chosen for its proximity to the dates of three significant spaceflight accidents--the Apollo 1 fire on January 27th, 1967, the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, and the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003.


Early this month, the International Space Station is due to get a visit from a dragon! Err, not that kind of dragon--an uncrewed 'Dragon' capsule designed by the company SpaceX is set to launch on February 7th and rendezvous with the station a few days later. This is an important test of the capsule's capabilities, and, if successful, it may be used in the future to transfer people and cargo between Earth and the space station. The Dragon will be the first commercially-operated vehicle to visit the station.

February 20th marks the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's first spaceflight aboard Friendship 7. While Alan Shepard had become the first American in space several months before, Shepard's flight was only sub-orbital, while Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth. (Contrary to popular belief, you can be in space without being in orbit. It's a bit like standing on a ladder to see over a fence vs. jumping.)


March 14th-- Pi Day--is the targeted launch date for NuSTAR, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array. This orbiting satellite will observe the universe in x-ray, but focusing on higher-energy radiation than other x-ray space telescopes like Chandra and XMM-Newton. Its main objectives are studying black holes and supernovae, but, like other space telescopes such as Hubble and Spitzer, it will be able to shift its attention to anything else that astronomers find potentially interesting.

Also this month, the twin GRAIL probes will be in the proper orbit to begin their scientific observations of the moon!


April 16th is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 16 mission. In 1972, John Young, Thomas "Ken" Mattingly, and Charles M. Duke explored the moon's Descartes Highlands.

April 12th is a very special date in space history. On that day in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to travel in space. Twenty years later, on April 12th, 1981, John Young and Robert Crippen launched on STS-1, the first-ever flight of a space shuttle. Check out the official Yuri's Night website to look for celebrations in your area on this special date.

The Lyrid metor shower peaks on the night of April 21/22.


Astronauts Oleg Kononenko, Andre Kuipers, and Don Pettit, who just launched on the 21st of December, are scheduled to come home from the International Space Station. They'll be replaced by Sunita Williams, Yuri Malenchenko and Akihiko Hoshide.

Also this month, an annular solar eclipse will be visible over eastern Asia, the Pacific, and the western United States. "Annular" comes from the Latin "annulus", meaning ring, because, unlike in a total eclipse, the sun is not completely covered by the moon--a bright "ring" around the sun's circumference remains visible.


If there's one space event you don't want to miss in 2012, it's the Transit of Venus on June 5th. Why? Because the next one won't be until December 11th, 2117! The planet Venus will pass between the Earth and the Sun, and will be visible through telescopes as a black dot on the Sun's disk. (As you probably know, however, observing the sun with anything other than specially-designed solar telescopes is very bad for your eyesight and should never be done. So get the proper equipment or use a pinhole projector!) If, like me, you missed the previous transit in 2004, 2012 is your last chance to see this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, so mark your calendars!

The day before, however, the area near the Pacific Ocean gets lucky once again, with a partial lunar eclipse visible.


After a year, the Dawn probe leaves orbit around the asteroid Vesta and heads off to Ceres, where it will arrive in February of 2015. I was super-excited when Dawn first arrived at Vesta, and here's hoping the rest of the mission is as successful as these first six months at Vesta!

July 20th is a date everyone should be familiar with--the day in 1969 that humans first landed on the moon.


On August 6th, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, is scheduled to land on Mars after traveling through space since this November. I'll be watching as eagerly as I was at launch!

The Perseid meteor shower peaks on the night of August 12/13. Since it falls during the summer school vacation, this is usually the easiest meteor shower to watch with children.


Kind of a quiet month. On September 26th, the Cassini probe will fly past Saturn's moon Titan.


October 4th is the anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite.

The Orionid meteor shower peaks on the night of October 21/22.


The Expedition 32 crew who will launch to the International Space Station in May are scheduled to come home this month.

The Leonid meteor shower peaks on the night of November 17/18.

A total solar eclipse will be visible on November 13th in the South Pacific Ocean and Antarctica, and a penumbral lunar eclipse will occur on November 28th, with visibility best over Alaska, Australia, and eastern Asia. (2012 is just not a good year to see eclipses from Boston, it seems...)


Sadly, after four years of commemorative news stories, awesome animated comics, and really cool public events, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon missions ends this month with the 40th anniversary of the final landing, Apollo 17. (Don't worry, though, because next year we'll celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Skylab space station!) On December 7th, 1972, astronauts Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans, and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt blasted off to explore the Taurus-Littrow valley, on the southeastern edge of the moon's Sea of Serenity. Schmitt, a geologist, was the only trained scientist to walk on the moon.

The Geminid meteor shower peaks on the night of December 13/14, coinciding with a New Moon, which means there won't be any moonlight to block out the meteors--nearly-perfect viewing conditions, although a bit cold in the Northern Hemisphere.

Writing this post has got me even more excited for the New Year than I was before. I hope that I'll be able to share all of these totally cosmic adventures with all of you! It's going to be a great ride!