Look for elusive Mercury just before sunrise during the first week of January. It will be located near the southeast horizon.
Venus is the brilliant ''Evening Star'' in the southwest sky during and after twilight this month. Watch it slowly climb higher and shine even brighter throughout the winter and into early spring.
Mars rises in the east by late evening. It will rise earlier and become brighter each night. The Red Planet reaches opposition on March 3, when it will be about at its closest to Earth this year.
Massive Jupiter appears high in the southern evening sky. Now is a great time to observe it with a small telescope or even a steadily supported pair of binoculars. Its four large Galilean moons change position every night.
Beautiful Saturn rises during the middle of the night. Wait until it's higher in the sky, just before dawn, to observe it with a telescope.
The Quadrantid Meteor Shower will peak on Jan. 4. These bluish meteors travel at about 26 miles per second. The best time to see them will be following moonset (about 3 a.m.) and the start of morning twilight (about 6 a.m.).
LIFE UNDER EXTREME CONDITIONS
''Life is anything that dies when you stomp on it.'' - Dave Barry
In some ways, life on Earth seems to be very fragile. The sudden loss of a loved one demonstrates that the precious thing we call life can be here one minute and gone the next. However, in other ways, some forms of life can be very tenacious, hanging on and even thriving under extremely harsh conditions. Let's take a look at some of the most inhospitable conditions under which life on Earth can exist:
Scientists have not yet determined the highest or the lowest temperatures under which some forms of life will survive. Humans and other animals couldn't begin to withstand the boiling hot springs that exist in places like Yellowstone Park, Alaska, New Zealand, Iceland and Italy. But it appears as though organisms with simple structures are able to live and grow and evolve under much more extreme environments compared to organisms possessing more complicated structures. Many scientists think that life on Earth began about three billion years ago in possibly very high-heat environments such as the acidic, scalding springs found in volcanic regions or in the many hydrothermal vents found in the deep ocean trenches. At the present time, several types of microbes are known to be capable of living and multiplying in sulfuric acid at over 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Exactly how tough are some forms of microbes and bacteria? Certain strains have survived near-zero pressures and temperatures in vacuum chambers. Some colonies have even remained alive after exposures to pressures as high as 71 tons per square inch. Certain microbes can withstand intense radiation and have been found living in the interior of an operating nuclear reactor. Although it's hard to believe, one strain of bacteria has been revived and cultured after having been encapsulated in the guts of a resin-trapped bee for 25 million years. Japanese researchers also cultivated several types of bacteria while they were being rotated in an ultracentrifuge at high speeds that corresponded to hundreds of thousands of times the normal acceleration due to gravity. These conditions of hyperacceleration are usually found only in cosmic environments, such as the vicinity of massive stars or in the shock waves of supernovae. Some of the test bacteria not only survived but actually thrived and demonstrated robust cellular growth while spinning at very high speed.
The field of astrobiology deals with theories that concern the nature and future of life forms in the universe. Scientists in this field are especially interested in studying and observing extremophiles, those organisms that live in environments that would be lethal to most forms of life on Earth. The recent discovery of life over four miles under the Earth's surface nearly doubles the estimated biomass on our planet. Knowledge in this field will help to guide scientists in their search to find life on other planets. Many of Earth's extremophiles would be able to survive the conditions known to exist on other planets. The enormous ocean of water under the ice on Jupiter's moon Europa could support life near hydrothermal vents that may exist on the ocean's floor. Mars could also support life forms in its deep underground layers of permafrost. Even Io, the innermost of Jupiter's large moons and the most volcanically active world in the solar system, is a prime candidate for subsurface extreme extraterrestrial life.
While I was writing this article, astronomers announced a new group of 50 planets orbiting stars that are in the neighborhood of our sun, the largest group ever announced at one time. As our technology continues to improve, we will discover more and more of these exoplanets. Since multiple planet systems orbiting nearby suns seem to be the norm, there are probably billions of planets out there in our Milky Way Galaxy alone that could support some type of life. As Metrodorus of Chios stated way back in the 4th century BCE, ''To consider the Earth as the only populated world in infinite space is as absurd as to assert that in an entire field of millet, only one grain will grow.''
Editor's note: This monthly guide to the stars is from the Marshall Martz Memorial Astronomical Association, the Southern Tier Astronomy Recreation Society, and The Post-Journal. For further information, contact the M.M.M.A.A. at www.martzobservatory.org or S.T.A.R.S. at www.UpStateAstro.org/stars/stars.html.