While 2018 offered an amazing array of sky watching opportunities, one of the wonderful truths about the night sky is there's always something worth staying up for. Below are just a handful of worth-the-effort stargazing opportunities for January 2019.
New Horizons' speed date with Ultima Thule (Jan. 1)
On Jan. 1 at about 12:33 a.m. EST, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft –– the same that made history with an unprecedented flyby of Pluto in 2015 –– will have a close encounter with a Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule."
Thought to be a frozen remnant of our solar system's earliest days, "Thule" will be captured in all its glory by New Horizons at a distance of only 2,200 miles. Even more impressive, Horizons will be traveling at an estimated speed of more than 32,000 miles per hour when it turns its instruments towards the 19-mile-wide space rock.
"We don't know what a primordial, ancient, perfectly preserved object like Ultima is, because no one's ever been to something like this," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told Geek Wire. "It's terra incognita. It is pure exploration. We'll just see what it's all about — if it's got rings, if it's got a swarm of satellites."
After ringing in the new year, you will be able to follow along live as NASA awaits confirmation of this successful rendezvous more than 4 billion miles from Earth.
Quadrantids meteor shower (Jan. 3-4)
A Quadrantid meteor lights up the sky above New Mexico. (Photo: Mike Lewinski/Flickr)
The Quadrantids, an annual meteor shower that can produce as many as 100 shooting stars an hour, will peak this month on Jan. 3-4. The shower is the result of Earth passing through a debris field created by a fractured comet some 500 years ago.
To see the Quadrantids, find a spot with little light pollution and look towards the north-northeast between the North Star and the Big Dipper. Fortunately, this month's New Moon on Jan. 5 will help keep skies dark to let even the faintest Quadrantids scorch the heavens and leave their mark on our imaginations.
SpaceX's 1st Crew Dragon test flight to ISS (Jan. 7)
The effort to officially end the United States' reliance on Russia to send astronauts to the International Space Station will earn its first test only a few days into 2019. According to NASA, SpaceX will perform the maiden launch of its Crew Dragon capsule from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 7. Should this un-crewed test flight prove successful, it will likely keep SpaceX on track to launch a crewed mission in June 2019.
Boeing is also prepping the launch of its own crewed capsule, the Starliner, with a test set for March and a manned version in August.
Rise of the rare super blood moon (Jan. 21)
Those living on the West Coast of the U.S. and in Hawaii will be able to view a total lunar eclipse in late January. (Photo: Nick Bramhall/Flickr)
On the evening of Jan. 21, skywatchers across North and South America will be treated to a rare lunar eclipse that coincides with a super moon (aka, the point at which the moon is closest to the Earth). Because this phenomenon turns the moon a ruddy red, it's also nicknamed "the blood moon." Having a supermoon transform into a super blood moon won't happen again until 2036, so this is one night sky event you won't want to miss!
The lunar disc will begin passing through our planet's shadow at about 9:36 p.m. EST. It will achieve full totality, a phenomenon that's safe to view without special glasses, at 12:12 a.m. EST and conclude at 2:48 a.m. EST.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in January 2018 and has been updated with more recent information.