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Watch the skies

Don't miss out on cosmic events of 2008

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Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

Cosmic calendar

January

2 - Earth reaches perihelion (closest point to the sun this year) at 91,401,591 miles.

4 - Quadrantid Meteor Shower peaks this morning around midnight (night of Jan. 3-4).

5 - The slender crescent moon appears very close to the red giant star Antares and the dazzling planet Venus at dawn (6:30 a.m., SE sky).

13 - The eclipsing binary star Algol in the constellation Perseus is in mid-eclipse tonight at 7:32 p.m. Look directly overhead at 7:32 p.m. That fuzzy ball beside Algol is Comet Holmes! Use binoculars for a better view.

14 - NASA's Messenger spacecraft makes its closest approach to the planet Mercury today! Watch the news media for updates and amazing close-up photos.

18 - Use binoculars to watch the fat gibbous moon slide through the Pleiades star cluster between 1 and 2 a.m.

19 - Mars and the nearly-full moon rise side by side tonight in the NE sky at dusk.

21 - The planet Mercury reaches its greatest elongation 19 degrees east of the sun. This is one of the two best opportunities to see the illusive innermost planet in the evening sky in 2008. Look for it tonight about 45 minutes after sunset in the Western sky.

22 - Tonight's full moon is called the "Moon After Yule" or "Old Moon" (6:35 a.m.).

30 - Yipes! Will the asteroid 2007 WD5 crash into Mars today? Watch the news to find out!

February

1 - Don't miss Venus and Jupiter this morning before dawn (6:30 a.m.) in the SE sky! The sky's two brightest planets are only 0.6 degrees apart, while the thin crescent moon smiles at the duo from nearby. That bright red star beside the moon is Antares. This is the first of two spectacular meetings of Venus and Jupiter in the sky this year. The second occurs in the evening sky at dusk on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.

20 - Tonight, the full "Snow Moon" will be totally eclipsed by the Earth's shadow. Visible from all of North America, the eclipse begins at 6:43 p.m., the total phase begins at 8:01 p.m. and lasts until 8:52 p.m., and the eclipse ends at 10:09 p.m. The moon will be beautifully positioned right between the planet Saturn, below, and the bright star Regulus, above. This is the last total eclipse of the moon visible from Colorado until Dec. 21, 2010. Don't miss this one!

24 - The planet Saturn reaches opposition this morning, its closest point to the Earth in 2008, at a distance of 775 million miles (8.3 astronomical units). Look for the bright yellow planet rising just below the bright star Regulus in the east tonight just as the sun goes down in the west. Use a telescope to spot Saturn's beautiful rings and its largest moon, Titan, close by.

27 - The planet Mercury passes only 1.1 degrees from the planet Venus this morning. Look low in the SE sky between 6 and 6:30 a.m. Also look for bright Jupiter to the upper right of Venus and Mercury.

March

3 - Mercury reaches its greatest elongation 27 degrees west of the sun and is visible this morning just before sunrise in the SE sky. Look for the thin crescent moon positioned between Jupiter to the moon's upper right and the Venus-Mercury pair to its lower left.

5 - Daytime occultation of Venus by the crescent moon (10 a.m.). Use binoculars or a small telescope to watch Venus disappear behind the moon, but be very careful not to aim your scope at the nearby sun! Permanent eye damage could result. Try hiding the sun behind the corner of the house as you observe the occultation.

8 - NASA's Cassini spacecraft will make a dangerously close fly-by of Saturn's enigmatic moon Enceladus to learn more about its icy geysers. Watch the news media for more details.

9 - Daylight Savings Time begins at 2 a.m. Set your clocks forward one hour.

19 - Vernal Equinox! Spring begins in the northern hemisphere at 10:48 p.m.

21 - Tonight's full moon is called the "Crow Moon" or "Worm Moon" (12:40 p.m.).

24 - The planet Mercury passes only 0.9 degrees from the planet Venus this morning. After hanging around each other for the past month, the two planets will now separate and go their own ways. Look low in the SSE sky at dawn (6 a.m.).

April

6 to 13 - This is the fifth annual National Dark Sky Week! Encourage your neighbors to turn off all unnecessary outdoor lighting to reduce light pollution so we can all enjoy the starry sky. Visit www.ndsw.com for more information.

8 - Watch the skinny crescent moon glide in front of the Pleiades star cluster (also called "the Seven Sisters" and the "Subaru" in Japan) starting about an hour after sunset. Use binoculars to enhance the breathtaking view! Notice the earthshine illuminating the dark portion of the moon, a phenomenon called "the new moon in the old moon's arms." Beautiful!

11 - The bright orange "star" above the moon tonight is the planet Mars! Just above Mars are the Gemini twin stars Pollux and Castor.

14 - The bright yellow "star" close to the moon tonight is the planet Saturn! The fainter star between Saturn and the moon is the star Regulus.

20 - Tonight's full moon is called the "Egg Moon" or the "Grass Moon" (4:24 a.m.).

May

5 - Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower! This is a very favorable year to observe this annual meteor shower, caused by bits of dust from the tail of Halley's Comet. Expect to see between 30 and 60 "shooting stars" per hour in the hours before dawn this morning.

6 - Look for the planet Mercury low in the WNW sky after sunset just below the micro-thin crescent moon!

9 - The fat crescent moon tonight sits between the red planet Mars on the left and the Gemini twin stars Pollux and Castor on the right.

12 - The two bright objects beside tonight's gibbous moon are the ringed planet Saturn and the brightest star in Leo the Lion, Regulus.

13 - The planet Mercury reaches its greatest elongation 22 degrees east of the sun. This is the best opportunity to see the illusive innermost planet in the evening sky in 2008. Look for it tonight about 45 minutes after sunset in the WNW sky.

20 - Tonight's full moon is called the "Milk Moon" or the "Planting Moon" (8:11 p.m.).

22 - Use your binoculars or small telescope to watch the planet Mars pass in front of the Beehive star cluster tonight and tomorrow night. Beautiful sight!

23 - The bright planet rising beside the waning gibbous moon at about 11 p.m. in the SE sky is the giant planet Jupiter. Use a small telescope to view four of Jupiter's big moons in a straight line on the eastern side of the planet tonight.

25 - NASA's Phoenix spacecraft arrives at Mars today and will attempt to land softly near the north polar region to search for underground water in the form of ice. Stay tuned to the news media for updates.

June

7 - The red planet Mars appears beside the crescent moon tonight after sunset.

8 - The bright star closest to the moon tonight is Regulus. The brighter ringed planet Saturn hovers nearby.

18 - Tonight's full moon is called the "Flower Moon," the "Rose Moon" or the "Strawberry Moon" (11:30 a.m.).

19 - Watch the bright planet Jupiter rise beside the nearly full moon tonight in the SE sky around 9:30 p.m.

20 - Summer Solstice! Summer begins in the northern hemisphere at 5:59 p.m.

30 - Mars passes only 0.7 degrees from the bright star Regulus tonight after sunset. Look due W around 9:45 p.m. tonight and tomorrow night. The ringed planet Saturn shines only 4 degrees away from Mars and Regulus.

July

1 - Mercury reaches its greatest elongation 22 degrees west of the sun and is visible this morning just before sunrise in the Eastern sky. This is one of the best chances in 2008 to see elusive Mercury in the morning sky. The thin crescent moon appears just above Mercury around 5 a.m.

4 - Earth reaches aphelion (farthest point from the sun this year) at 94,513,144 miles.

5 - Wow! Tonight after sunset, the slender crescent moon lines up with three bright objects in the SW sky; the star Regulus, the planet Mars, and the planet Saturn. Catch them early before they set around 10 p.m. Beautiful sight!

8 - Jupiter reaches opposition tonight, its closest point to the Earth in 2008, at a distance of 387 million miles (4.16 astronomical units). Look for the dazzling white planet rising in the SE sky tonight just as the sun goes down in the west. Use a telescope to spot four of Jupiter's giant moons, two on each side of the planet tonight.

10 - Wow! The planets Saturn and Mars pass only 0.6 degrees from each other tonight after sunset. Look due west around 9:30 p.m.

17 - Tonight's full moon is called the "Hay Moon" or the "Thunder Moon" (1:59 a.m.).

27 - Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower! This is an excellent year to enjoy the slow, graceful

meteors of this minor annual meteor shower. Expect to see one or two dozen meteors per hour before dawn this morning. Just before dawn, take a look at the crescent moon poised right beside the Pleiades star cluster in the Eastern sky. Gorgeous!

August

1 - Total eclipse of the sun for folks living in northern Greenland, China, and Siberia! We'll have to wait until Aug. 21, 2017, for a total eclipse across the U.S.

11 to 15 - Wow! Watch the "Dance of the Planets" Saturn, Venus, and Mercury in the Western sky after sunset, changing positions and partners each night. On the night of Aug. 13, Saturn and Venus are less than 0.5 degrees apart. Then, on Aug. 15, Saturn and Mercury are only 0.7 degrees apart! After that, Venus and Mercury perform a do-si-do during the next week. Look very low in the Western sky at about 8:45 p.m. Venus is the brightest, followed by Mercury then Saturn.

12 - The annual Perseid Meteor Shower peaks in the wee morning hours of Aug. 12. The fat gibbous moon will set at about 2 a.m., leaving the sky nice and dark for the prime meteor-watching hours before dawn. Expect to see anywhere from 60 to 90 meteors per hour from a clear, dark location. Dress warm and enjoy nature's fireworks!

16 - Tonight's full moon is called the "Grain Moon" or the "Green Corn Moon" (3:16 p.m.). The moon will be partially eclipsed tonight as seen from the eastern hemisphere.

20 - Mercury passes only 0.9 degrees from Venus tonight low in the Western sky at dusk.

September

1 - The "Dance of the Planets" continues in the evening sky tonight! The very thin crescent moon joins the planets Venus, Mercury and Mars low in the Western sky at dusk. They set early, so start looking at about 8 p.m. Beautiful!

6 - Fainter Mars passes brighter Mercury tonight at dusk, only 2.5 degrees apart.

10 - Mercury reaches its greatest elongation 27 degrees east of the sun and is visible this evening just after sunset, low in the Western sky to the lower left of brilliant Venus. That's Mars just to the left of Venus!

11 - Venus and Mars finally partner up in the "Dance of the Planets" after sunset tonight, only 0.3 degrees apart! Fainter Mars might be lost in the glare of dazzling Venus, so use binoculars to enhance the view. Catch them early before they set at about 8:30 p.m.

15 - Tonight's full moon is called the "Fruit Moon" (3:13 a.m.).

22 - Autumnal Equinox! Autumn begins in the northern hemisphere at 9:44 a.m.

October

1 - See if you can spot the ultra-thin sliver of the crescent moon just below Venus in the SW sky at dusk. Catch it early, at about 7 p.m.

6 - The first quarter moon is just below brilliant Jupiter tonight after sunset, low in the Southern sky.

14 - Tonight's full moon is called the "Harvest Moon" (2:02 p.m.).

18 - Mercury reaches its greatest elongation 18 degrees west of the sun and is visible this morning just before sunrise in the Eastern sky. This is the best opportunity to see elusive Mercury in the morning sky in 2008.

31 - Boo! Catch the spooky little crescent moon just below dazzling Venus tonight at dusk while trick-or-treating! The red star just to the right of the moon is Antares, the heart of the Scorpion. Happy Halloween!

November

1 - Don't forget to set your clocks back one hour tonight before bed as Daylight Savings Time ends. At sundown, look for the slender crescent moon close to the planet Venus, low in the SW sky.

2 - Wow! Tonight at dusk, the slender crescent moon sits almost midway between the sky's two brightest planets, Venus to the lower right and Jupiter to the upper left. Beautiful sight, but just a warm-up for next month's unforgettable grouping!

3 - Tonight, the giant planet Jupiter sits just above the thick crescent moon.

5 - After the moon sets around 11:30 p.m., the sky will be nice and dark for the South Taurid Meteor Shower! This is an excellent year to watch this minor meteor shower because the moon sets early. Although you might see only a dozen or so meteors each hour after midnight the night of Nov. 4 to 5, the Taurid shower is well known for its slow, bright fireballs!

12 - Tonight's full moon is called the "Hunter's Moon," the "Frosty Moon," or the "Beaver Moon" (11:18 p.m.).

30 - This year's "Dance of the Planets" culminates tonight and tomorrow night low in the SW sky at dusk (at about 5:30 p.m.). The two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, are only 2 degrees apart tonight! Venus is the brighter of the two. The thin crescent moon, illuminated with earthshine, smiles about a hand span to the lower right of the planets. Just wait until tomorrow night!

December

1 - Wow! Venus, Jupiter, and the slender crescent moon form a breathtaking trio in the SW sky after sunset! Some astronomers think that a similar (but much closer) conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in the year 2 BC might have been what the Magi observed and interpreted as the Star of Bethlehem. What a beautiful way to ring in the Christmas season this year! Watch the two planets begin to separate with each passing night.

12 - Tonight's full moon is called the "Moon Before Yule" or the "Long Night Moon" (9:38 a.m.).

14 - The annual Geminid Meteor Shower peaks in the early morning hours of Dec. 14. The nearly full Moon pretty much ruins this year's performance, though. You still might see a dozen or so of the brightest meteors each hour between midnight and dawn.

21 - Winter Solstice! Winter begins in the northern hemisphere at 5:04 a.m.

29 - Tonight at dusk, you can spot the planets Jupiter and Mercury low in the SW sky with the very skinny crescent moon hovering just above them. The "Evening Star" Venus shines to the upper left of the trio.

30 - The crescent moon tonight sits nearly halfway between the Jupiter-Mercury pair, to the lower right, and Venus, to the upper left.

31 - The year 2008 comes to an end with a final curtain call for the moon and planets. As the Jupiter-Mercury pair slowly sinks in the west at dusk, the two brightest objects in the sky, Venus and the crescent moon, shine together side by side for one last dance!

— If you enjoy watching the skies for eclipses, meteor showers, comets and bright planets, then 2008 has plenty of celestial events to keep you busy. Here is a brief summary of some of the celestial highlights you can look forward to in the New Year:

- The last total eclipse of the moon visible from these parts until December 2010 happens Feb. 20. Unlike last year's Aug. 28 lunar eclipse that took place in the wee hours of the morning, this year's lunar eclipse happens during the prime evening hours and will be over before bedtime. The eclipse begins at 6:43 p.m. (all times are MST) when the full "Snow Moon" touches the edge of the Earth's dark shadow in space. During the next hour, the moon's orbital motion will carry it completely within the shadow. Totality begins at 8:01 p.m. and lasts until 8:52 p.m. It is during this time that the darkened moon will glow faintly with the coppery color of sunlight refracted through Earth's atmosphere. It literally is the combined light of every sunset and sunrise on Earth at that moment focused on to the moon. The planet Saturn and the bright star Regulus in Leo the Lion will shine beside the moon during this eclipse. Totality ends at 8:52 p.m., and the moon slowly emerges into the sunlight again over the next hour until 10:09 p.m., when the eclipse comes to an end.

- Whenever the Earth encounters the dust stream shed by an old comet, we experience a meteor shower when dozens of meteors or "shooting stars" can be seen. There are a number of reliable annual meteor showers that occur on the same night every year, just like clockwork. One of the best annual meteor showers is the Perseid shower, which occurs on the morning of Aug. 12. The moon will set by 2 a.m. this year, leaving the sky nice and dark for the peak of this "old faithful" meteor shower. You can expect to see 60-plus meteors each hour from a dark, clear location.

- This year also is an excellent one for watching some of the lesser-known but still spectacular meteor showers. This year's Eta Aquarid meteor shower on May 5, Delta Aquarid meteor shower on July 27, and the South Taurid meteor shower on Nov. 5 are all predicted to be better than average for North American observers. If you're like me, you can never see too many shooting stars streaking across the sky!

- As the five naked eye planets cruise along in their orbits around the sun, they occasionally pass close to each other in the sky, creating an eye-catching conjunction. If the moon happens to join in on the conjunction, the view can be particularly spellbinding. In 2008, there will be two close conjunctions of the planets Venus and Jupiter, one on Feb. 1 in the predawn sky and another on Dec. 1 at dusk. Mars and Saturn will pass pleasingly close to each other on the night of July 10. Then, in mid-August, the trio of planets Venus, Saturn and Mercury will dance with each other for several nights just after the sun goes down. If you watch the sky show from night to night, you'll understand why the ancients called these five bright objects "wandering stars."

- On the morning of March 5, the waning crescent moon will occult, or eclipse, the bright planet Venus as seen from the western U.S. The event happens after sunrise, so a pair of binoculars or a small telescope will be needed to view this rare event. Be careful not to aim those binoculars at the sun by accident! Permanent eye damage could be the result. Try placing the sun behind the edge of a building so that you won't sweep across it inadvertently.

- NASA has several important events planned for this year, too. On May 25, the Mars Phoenix spacecraft should land near the Martian north polar ice cap and drill for water, or, more correctly, ice. There's plenty of ice on Saturn's small moon Enceladus, even icy geysers spewing into space. The intrepid Cassini spacecraft is targeted to fly through one of these geysers March 8 to measure the size and quantity of the icy particles. On Jan. 14, the Messenger spacecraft will sail past the innermost planet Mercury at close range and relay photographs of some never-before-seen areas of the planet. After several looping passes, Messenger will settle into a permanent orbit around Mercury in 2011 and completely map the planet's surface.

- Comet 17P/Holmes exploded last October and has been a naked-eye object in our constellation Perseus ever since. It now covers an area of the sky larger than the full moon, and it will probably remain visible for many more weeks into the new year. Look for a faint fuzzball nearly overhead at 7:30 p.m. on moonless January nights. Another fainter comet is also barely visible to the naked eye this January, Comet 8P/Tuttle. Consult a Web site such as www.spaceweather.com for details on where to spot both comets.

- Unexpected visitors, like Comet McNaught last January, can show up at any time and create quite a spectacular sky show. As the sun begins to generate more sunspots in 2008 after reaching its 11-year minimum of activity last year, we might have a chance for seeing a colorful aurora or two this year from Colorado. There is always something happening in the sky to excite and delight the backyard astronomer, so plan on keeping an eye on the sky in 2008!

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