This image was taken on the night of Nov. 17, 2001, from Arches National Park during the Leonid meteor storm of that year. The stars of Leo the Lion made short trails across the film during the 7-minute time exposure while several bright meteors streaked across the sky, all pointing back to Leo. Another Leonid mini-storm is predicted for Nov. 17 over the western U.S.

Jimmy Westlake/Courtesy

This image was taken on the night of Nov. 17, 2001, from Arches National Park during the Leonid meteor storm of that year. The stars of Leo the Lion made short trails across the film during the 7-minute time exposure while several bright meteors streaked across the sky, all pointing back to Leo. Another Leonid mini-storm is predicted for Nov. 17 over the western U.S.

Jimmy Westlake: Year of Astronomy

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Jimmy Westlake/Courtesy

Folks living in or traveling to India, Nepal, and China will have the opportunity to witness the longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century this year on July 22. The circumstances for this eclipse are nearly identical to those of the total eclipse seen in Hawaii and Mexico on July 11, 1991. During a total solar eclipse, the moon covers the blinding face of the sun to reveal its faint outer atmosphere, called the corona, as seen in this image from the 1991 Mexico eclipse. The U.S. won't get a total eclipse of the sun until Aug. 21, 2017.

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Jimmy Westlake/Courtesy

2009's best comet might be Comet Lulin, due to pass only 0.41 astronomical units from Earth on February 24. One astronomical unit is the average distance between the Earth and sun, about 93 million miles. Comet Lulin should be visible to the unaided eye from dark locations during the last two weeks of February and might appear similar to 2004's Comet NEAT, shown in this image taken May 14, 2004.

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Jimmy Westlake/Courtesy

There are three glittering star clusters that lie close to the ecliptic, the celestial highway that the planets, Sun, and Moon follow across the sky: M35, M44 (the Beehive), and M45 (the Pleiades). Occasionally, one of the bright planets will pass in front of or near one of these clusters and provide a beautiful binocular view. Venus and Mars will pose with M35 and M44 this coming fall. Shown here is the red planet Mars as it skirted the edge of the M35 star cluster in March 2008.

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Jimmy Westlake/Courtesy

Epsilon Aurigae, also named Almaaz, is one of the most unusual stars in the galaxy. Something very large, but invisible, eclipses the main star for 18 months every 27.1 years. The next eclipse begins in August 2009 and astronomers hope that with the Hubble Space Telescope and many other large Earth-based telescopes now available, the mystery of Almaaz might be resolved at last.

Jimmy Westlake

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

Find more columns by Westlake here.

On the 'Net

For news and updates on the events listed below and for alerts on unexpected events such as auroras and new comets, keep an eye on the NASA Web site at www.Spaceweather....>

For Jimmy Westlake's astronomy photos, visit www.jwestlake.com>

Reasons to look to the skies in 2009

January

- Long period variable star Mira reaches maximum brightness this month in Cetus, the Whale.

3 - Quadrantid Meteor Shower peaks today at 5 a.m.

4 - The planet Mercury reaches its greatest elongation 19 degrees east of the sun. This is one of the two best opportunities to see Mercury in the evening sky in 2009. Look for it tonight about 45 minutes after sunset in the western sky.

10 - Largest full moon of 2009 - called the Moon After Yule or Old Moon

14 - The planet Venus reaches its greatest elongation 47 degrees east of the sun, setting four hours after the sun sets. Look for the dazzling "evening star" in the southwest sky near the "Water Jug" of Aquarius.

26 - Annular Solar Eclipse, not visible from Colorado, visible over the Indian Ocean and Indonesia.

30 - Look for the planet Venus close to the crescent moon after sunset, near the "Circlet" of Pisces.

February

- Comet C/2007 N3 Lulin might reach naked-eye brightness this month

- Venus brightest and highest this month before disappearing in March

3 - The moon passes through the sparkling Pleiades star cluster about 7 p.m. Use binoculars to enhance the view.

9 - Full moon - called the Wolf Moon, Snow Moon or Hunger Moon

13 - The planet Mercury reaches its greatest elongation 26 degrees west of the sun in the predawn sky. Look low in the southeast sky about 6 a.m.

22 - Look for the moon, Mercury, Jupiter and Mars (in that order) close together in the morning sky about 6:15 a.m. You must have a clear view of the southeast horizon. With binoculars or a small telescope, look for moons Europa, Io, Callisto east of Jupiter, Ganymede west of Jupiter; the extra "moon" is the star 19 Capricornii.

25 - Largest asteroid/dwarf planet Ceres has closest opposition since 1857, reaches magnitude 6.9 in constellation Leo (won't be closer for 2000+ years). Binoculars required.

March

8 - Daylight Saving Time begins at 2 a.m.

The planet Saturn reaches opposition today, its closest point to Earth in 2009, 781 million miles away. Look for a bright yellow "star" rising in the east as darkness falls.

10 - Full moon - called the Lenten Moon, Sap Moon, Crow Moon or Worm Moon

20 - March Equinox - marks the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere (5:45 a.m.).

27 - Venus passes inferior conjunction, moving from our evening sky into our morning sky. Goodbye "evening star" - hello "morning star!"

April

9 - Full moon - called the Egg Moon, Grass Moon, Easter Moon or Paschal Moon

20 to 26 - National Dark Sky Week - Please join your neighbors and turn off all outdoor lighting after dark and watch the stars this week.

22 - Watch the crescent moon eclipse the planet Venus in the eastern sky about 6 a.m., a rare event. The planet Mars is only 4.5 degrees below the moon/Venus pair. Use binoculars to enhance the view.

The Lyrid Meteor Shower peaks this morning, too. Watch for a dozen or so nice "shooting stars" each hour before dawn.

26 - The planet Mercury reaches its greatest elongation 20 degrees east of the sun tonight, 5.5 degrees below the crescent moon, with the Pleiades star cluster in between. Best opportunity to see Mercury in the evening sky in 2009. Look west about 8 p.m., and use binoculars to enhance the view.

May

8 - Full moon - called the Milk Moon or Planting Moon

12 - NASA scheduled to launch the space shuttle Atlantis for the final repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

20 - Jupiter and its four bright moons are joined by star Mu Capricornii in the morning. Use a small telescope or binoculars to see Io, Jupiter, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto (in that order) with the star Mu Cap just above.

27 - Planets Jupiter and Neptune pass less than 1/2 degree from each other in the first of a triple conjunction in 2009. Much fainter Neptune appears above Jupiter.

June

5 - The planet Venus reaches its greatest elongation 46 degrees west of the sun in the morning sky. Look for the beautiful "morning star" in the eastern sky, rising nearly four hours before the sun.

6 - Full moon eclipses the bright star Antares about 8 p.m. - called the Flower Moon, Rose Moon or Strawberry Moon

13 - Mercury reaches its greatest elongation 23 degrees west of the sun in the morning sky. Look for it low in the eastern sky below the Venus-Mars pair at 4 a.m.

19 - Moon, Venus, Mars conjunction in the predawn sky. Moon only 5 degrees north of Mars, and Mars 2 degrees north of Venus. Look east about 4 a.m.

20 - June Solstice - marks the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere (11:45 p.m.)

July

7 - Full moon, smallest of 2009 - called the Hay Moon or the Thunder Moon

9 - Jupiter passes 1/2 degree from Neptune for the second time in 2009's triple conjunction. Binoculars required to see much fainter Neptune above Jupiter and its four bright moons: Io, Jupiter, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto (in that order).

13 - Venus makes a second "eye" of Taurus the Bull along with Aldebaran in pre-dawn sky about 5 a.m.

18 - Taurus the Bull meets the crescent moon, Mars and Venus in an early morning conjunction between the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters. Look east about 4 a.m.

21 and 22 - Total Solar Eclipse, the longest total eclipse of the 21st century: 6 minutes and 39 seconds. Mostly over the Pacific Ocean but touches land in China and some Japanese Islands.

August

- Eclipsing binary star Epsilon Aurigae (Almaaz) goes into its first eclipse in 27 years this month, lasting until May 2011.

5 - Full moon - called the Grain Moon or the Green Corn Moon

12 - Perseid Meteor Shower peaks this morning before dawn. Expect to see fewer than the usual 60-plus "shooting stars" per hour this year, but it's still a good show.

14 - Jupiter reaches opposition and its closest point to Earth for 2009, 375-million miles away. Look for a brilliant star rising in the southeast sky as darkness falls.

24 - Mercury reaches its greatest elongation 27 degrees east of the sun. Look low in the western sky soon after sunset.

29 - The planet Mars passes just 0.6 degrees south of the glittering star cluster M35 at the feet of the Gemini Twins about 4 a.m.

September

1 - Venus passes 1.5 degrees south of M44, the Beehive star cluster, about 4:30 a.m.

2 - Jupiter rises aside the nearly full moon.

4 - Full moon - called the Fruit Moon

Saturn's rings are positioned edge-on to Earth today, nearly disappearing from view. This only happens every 15th year.

22 - September Equinox - marks the beginning of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere (3:22 p.m. MDT)

29 - NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft makes its third and final close flyby of Mercury before its orbital insertion on March 18, 2011. See http://messenger.... for the latest information.

October

4 - Full moon - called the Harvest Moon

5 - Mercury reaches its greatest elongation 18 degrees west of the sun in the morning sky. Look east about 5 a.m., just below the bright planets Venus and Saturn.

8 - Mercury passes very close to Saturn (1/4 degree) while 5.5 degrees below Venus about 5 a.m. in the eastern sky; Mars is near bright stars Castor and Pollux overhead.

13 - Venus passes 1/2 degree from Saturn, both 6 degrees above Mercury at 5 a.m. in the eastern sky.

21 - Orionid Meteor Shower peaks before dawn. Great year to see pieces of Halley's Comet shoot across the sky at the rate of 20-plus per hour.

November

1 - Daylight Saving Time ends at 2 a.m. Mars passes right through the Beehive Star Cluster (M44).

2 - Full moon - called the Hunter's Moon, Frosty Moon or Beaver Moon

NASA's Cassini spacecraft makes the first of two close flybys of Saturn's moon Enceladus this month. Check http://saturn.jpl... for details and pictures.

17 - Leonid Meteor Storm? Astronomers predict the high probability of a very strong shower of meteors for the western United States just before dawn. Watch the sky between 4 a.m. and dawn for as many as 500 "shooting stars" per hour!

21 - NASA's Cassini spacecraft makes its second close flyby of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

December

2 - December's 1st full moon - called the Moon Before Yule or the Long Night Moon

14 - Geminid Meteor Shower peaks this morning about 2 a.m. Great year for watching as many as 120 Geminid meteors per hour!

18 - Mercury reaches its greatest elongation 20 degrees east of the sun in the evening sky. Look west about 45 minutes after sunset for the innermost planet.

20 - Jupiter passes 1/2 degree from Neptune in the final of three conjunctions in 2009 while the crescent moon shines nearby. Use binoculars or a small telescope to see much fainter Neptune above Jupiter and its three bright moons: Europa, Jupiter, Callisto and Ganymede (in that order).

21 - December Solstice - marks the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere (10:47 p.m.)

31 - December's 2nd full moon (a Blue Moon!)

- Sources:"Astronomical Calendar 2009" by Guy Otwell and "Observer's Handbook 2009" by The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

— Four hundred years ago this year, Italian scientist Galileo Galilei aimed his homemade telescope to the heavens and opened up a new era in astronomy. Although he did not actually invent the telescope (that was done by Hans Lippershey in 1608), Galileo made several improvements on the design and was the first to observe several celestial bodies up close and publish his amazing discoveries: craters and mountains on the moon, four satellites orbiting Jupiter, the phases of Venus, sunspots and the stars of the Milky Way. His telescope had a lens about 1 inch in diameter and magnified about 30 times. Fast forward four centuries: Astronomers now crank out telescope mirrors as large as 8.4 meters (27 feet) in diameter, and the Hubble Space Telescope carries its 2.4-meter mirror in orbit above Earth's blurry atmosphere where it can see 10 times clearer than any earth-bound telescope.

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first telescopic glimpse of the heavens, the United Nations and the International Astronomical Union officially have designated 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy. Amateur and professional astronomers around the world will be celebrating IYA2009 with special events for the general public, all designed to bring the wonders of astronomy to everyone. According to the IYA2009's Web site (http://astronomy2009.org/), "IYA2009 will be a global celebration of astronomy and its contribution to society and culture, with strong emphasis on education, public participation and the involvement of young people and with events at national, regional and global levels." With this goal in mind, the official slogan of the IYA2009 is "The Universe - Yours to Discover."

If you enjoy looking skyward, there are lots of celestial events to capture your attention and imagination in 2009. Inside is a summary of some of 2009's celestial highlights.

- Meteors - This year's annual Lyrid (April 22), Perseid (Aug. 12), Orionid (Oct. 21), and Geminid (Dec. 14) meteor showers promise good prospects for meteor watching, as usual, but the real excitement should come during November's Leonid meteor shower. The most recent Leonid storm occurred in 2001 and the next one wasn't expected until about 2034. Recent calculations by several astronomers, however, have predicted a very intense shower of meteors in 2009 on the morning of Nov. 17, in spite of this being an off year. Estimates place the single-observer meteor rate near 500 meteors per hour at the peak of activity just before dawn.

- Eclipses - There are no eclipses of the sun or moon visible from the United States this year, but there are eclipses to be seen from other areas of the globe. An annular or ring eclipse of the sun will sweep across the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans on Jan. 26, only touching land near the end of the eclipse path across portions of Indonesia. Then, on July 21, the longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century will throw parts of China and some of the Japanese islands into darkness for close to seven minutes. The next opportunity for North Americans to witness a total eclipse of the sun from home is still eight years away: Aug. 21, 2017. There are no total eclipses of the moon this year. The next one will occur Dec. 21, 2010.

- Comets - The only comet predicted to reach naked eye visibility this year is Comet Lulin (C/2007 N3). If it brightens according to estimates, Comet Lulin should be visible as a fuzzy wisp the last two weeks of February in the constellation Leo, close to the planet Saturn and the star Regulus. To date, it is running a little ahead of its brightness predictions, so it might put on a really nice show.

- Planets - Venus dominates our evening sky for the first few months of 2009, then, it quickly shifts into our morning sky for the rest of 2009. Much of the planetary action this year will take place in the predawn sky with several planetary conjunctions between Venus, Mars, Mercury and Saturn this summer and fall. One of the highlights of the year will be the dawn occultation of dazzling Venus by the thin crescent moon on the morning of April 22. Before the sun rises, the moon and Venus will make a striking pair, very close together in the sky. At about the same time the sun rises, the moon will eclipse, or occult, Venus. Binoculars will enhance the view once the sun brightens the sky.

Mars and Venus will pass through or near some sparkling star clusters this year, starting with Mars gliding past the M35 star cluster Aug. 29. Two nights later, Venus passes close by the Beehive Star Cluster (M44), and Nov. 1, Mars will pass through the heart of the Beehive Cluster. For all of these events, binoculars or a small telescope will provide the best view.

Saturn will turn its rings edgewise to the Earth this year for the first time since 1995. When this happens, the razor-thin rings seem to disappear from view, as seen through a telescope. The ring plane crossing occurs Sept. 4.

- NASA Highlights - NASA has several big events planned for the new year. After several delays, NASA plans to send the space shuttle Atlantis into high Earth orbit May 12 to perform much-needed repairs and upgrades on the Hubble Space Telescope. This final repair and servicing mission will allow the HST to keep performing for several more years before it is finally de-orbited and ends its reign as the world's best telescope as a fiery meteor blazing across the sky.

The Cassini spacecraft continues to orbit Saturn and send back amazing pictures and data. In November, Cassini will make two daring passes by Saturn's geyser-spewing moon Enceladus. Check out the Cassini home page for images and details: http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.cfm.

The MESSENGER spacecraft will make its third and final flyby of the planet Mercury on September 29 and reveal more about the innermost planet before settling into a permanent orbit around Mercury in March 2011.

- Epsilon Aurigae Eclipse - Hundreds of eclipsing binary stars are known and studied by astronomers, but the most unusual of them all is the star known as Almaaz, or Epsilon Aurigae. Every 27.1 years, something huge passes in front of the star and causes it to fade to half its usual brightness for 18 months. What that something is remains a topic of debate, but it might be vast cloud of dust orbiting the main star. The last eclipse was in 1982 to 1984, so the next one should begin sometime in August 2009. Almaaz is the top-most star in the tiny triangle of stars known as "The Kids," beside the bright star Capella. The eclipse will be detectable with the unaided eye during a period of weeks.

There always is something happening in the sky to excite and delight the backyard astronomer, so plan on keeping an eye on the sky in 2009, the International Year of Astronomy!

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