Decisions on the future of a joint robotic mission between NASA and the European Space Agency to demonstrate the ability to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth have been put off until later this year after European governments declined to fully fund their part of the project in December.
Before sunrise on Thursday 19 January, observers in Western Europe can see an interesting celestial conjunction in the southern sky. At about 6am local time, the waning gibbous Moon, largest planet Jupiter and Spica — the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo — all lie in a line encompassed by the field of view of a typical 7x or 8x binocular.
On Wednesday 18 January, brightest asteroid 4 Vesta comes to opposition in the constellation of Cancer bordering on Gemini, ideally placed for observation by Northern Hemisphere skywatchers. While the truly eagle-eyed among you might glimpse it with the unaided eye on dark, moonless nights, Vesta is an easy binocular object.
Thursday 12 January brings not only a full Moon, but also finds brightest planet Venus at its greatest easterly elongation from the Sun. By the time darkness falls in Western Europe and the UK, Venus also lies just 0.4 degrees from outermost planet Neptune, while Mars lies less than the span of a fist at arm’s length to their upper left.