Year 2014 will be one of eclipses. Two total eclipses of the moon and a partial eclipse of the sun will be the real headline grabbers in 2014, but there are plenty of bright planets and showers of shooting stars to keep us looking up all year long.
Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
Find the 2014 cosmic calendar of celestial events here.
These are my choices for the Top 10 Celestial Events for 2014, in chronological order. No optical aid, other than a safe solar filter, is required to view and enjoy these events, though binoculars or a small telescope will enhance the view in some cases. For updates on these and other celestial events this year, keep an eye on the NASA-sponsored website www.spaceweather.com.
JAN. 5: JUPITER AT OPPOSITION
Jupiter wears the crown when it comes to ruling the midnight sky, shining brighter than any other object, except for the moon.
Jupiter is the first of three outer planets to reach opposition early this year. It will be at its closest point to Earth and brightest in our sky Jan. 5. Jupiter will rise in the east as the sun goes down in the west and will gleam brilliantly from high overhead in our midnight sky.
On the night of opposition, Jupiter will be a mere stone’s throw from Earth — about 380 million miles. Steady binoculars or any small telescope will reveal Jupiter’s four traveling companions, discovered by Galileo in 1610. They are the four largest of Jupiter’s 67 known moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
Watch from night to night as the moons constantly change their positions around Jupiter. With a medium-sized telescope, you also can see the two main cloud stripes straddling Jupiter’s equator and maybe even the famous great red spot.
This winter, Jupiter will shine down on us from the constellation of Gemini, the Twins, very close to the twin stars Castor and Pollux. January’s full Wolf Moon will rise alongside dazzling Jupiter on Jan. 14.
APRIL 8: MARS AT OPPOSITION
Mars is the second outer planet to reach opposition in 2014. It takes 780 days for the Earth to gain a lap on Mars and pass between it and the sun for an opposition. Because of Mars’ very eccentric orbit, some oppositions are closer and more favorable than others.
This year’s opposition is not a very close one. When Mars reaches opposition April 8, it will be 58 million miles from Earth. During a favorable opposition, Mars can be as close as 36 million miles.
Still, from 58 million miles away, Mars will be one of the brightest objects in our night sky, and its ruddy color will make it unmistakable. Mars will be glowing prominently in the constellation of Virgo during opposition, not far from the bright star Spica.
And as a special treat, April’s full Easter Egg Moon will be totally eclipsed right beside Mars on the night of April 14 to 15. Read more about this beautiful eclipse below.
APRIL 14 and 15: A TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE MOON
Total lunar eclipses are not particularly rare. One is visible from somewhere on Earth almost every year. The last one visible from Colorado was Dec. 21, 2010.
On the night of April 14 to 15, we will be treated to the first of two total lunar eclipses visible from Colorado.
At 11:58 p.m. April 14, just two minutes before midnight, the Easter Egg Moon will begin to slip into the dark umbral shadow of the Earth. During the next hour, the dark “bite” out of the moon will grow in size until, at 1:06 a.m., the moon will be totally immersed in Earth’s shadow.
For 78 minutes, the full moon will look like a glowing, red ember against the starry sky as the reddened light of every sunrise and sunset on Earth is projected onto the moon at once. The bright star Spica will be only 1.5 degrees from the moon during totality, and the brilliant planet Mars will lie only 9 degrees away, creating an amazing scene behind the spooky-looking moon. Totality ends at 2:24 a.m., then the moon slowly emerges back into the full sunlight and finally leaves the Earth’s dark shadow at 3:33 a.m.
You won’t want to miss this gorgeous eclipse, but if you do, you’ll have one more chance to see a total lunar eclipse in October of this year.
MAY 10: SATURN AT OPPOSITION
Every 378 days, the Earth gains a lap on the sluggish planet Saturn and passes directly between Saturn and the sun, placing the two planets as close together as possible. This alignment of worlds is called opposition.
When Saturn reaches opposition May 10, it will be
828 million miles from Earth, its closest point for 2014. Saturn will rise in the eastern sky at dusk and shine brightly all night long from the heart of the constellation of Libra, the Scales, before setting in the west at dawn.
Flanking Saturn on its left and right are the two brightest stars of Libra, Zubeneschamali and Zubenelgenubi. A telescope of any size aimed at Saturn will reveal its beautiful icy rings and the largest of its 62 moons, planet-sized Titan.
The full Milk Moon will rise alongside Saturn the night of May 13 to 14, and the lovely pair will move across the sky together all night long, appearing closest just before dawn.
MAY 24: A POSSIBLE NEW METEOR SHOWER
One of things I enjoy most about astronomy is the occasional surprise that the universe can spring on us, like an unexpected bright comet or auroral storm. Well, this year, if astronomers’ calculations are correct, we might all be treated to a brand-new meteor shower, maybe even a meteor storm.
It seems that the Earth is due to pass right through the orbit of a little comet called 209P/LINEAR, and we might get pelted with comet dust. Computer models suggest that the meteor shower could briefly produce 200 meteors per hour, maybe more, at its peak. The estimated time of peak activity is at about 1 a.m. on the morning of May 24 — perfect for observers in North America.
The meteors will seem to spring from an obscure little constellation named Camelopardalis, the Giraffe, located just below the North Star during the meteor outburst, but meteors should be visible in all parts of the sky. Scientists are getting pretty good at predicting these sorts of things, but it is important to remember that this meteor shower has never been seen before — it’s brand new — so we don’t really know what to expect.
You can bet, though, that I’ll be outside watching the sky for the first Camelopardalid meteor shower May 24. This is the celestial event that I am most excited about in 2014.
MAY 25: CATCH MERCURY AT ITS BEST
The solar system’s two innermost planets, Mercury and Venus, behave differently from the rest of the planets. Instead of being free to wander all the way around the sky, they seem to be tethered to the sun so that they swing out from one side of the sun to the other and then back again.
Consequently, each planet spends a brief time in our sky as an “evening star,” followed by a brief engagement as a “morning star.” The best time to catch each planet is when it is near its greatest angular distance from the sun in our sky, an event called greatest elongation. Even at greatest elongation, Mercury is never more than 28 degrees and Venus never more than 48 degrees from the sun.
The little planet Mercury is particularly challenging to see. One must have a good clear sky and an unobstructed view down to the horizon, and even then, it can be tough. Legend has it that the great astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was never successful at seeing it.
Your best opportunity this year to spot the elusive innermost planet is on the evening of May 25, about an hour after sunset, when it reaches its greatest elongation 23 degrees east of the sun. Look for it about a hand span or so to the lower right of the much brighter planet Jupiter. If you can’t spot it that night, try again May 30, when the slender crescent moon will join Mercury and serve as a guide.
AUG. 18: VENUS, JUPITER MEET IN THE BEEHIVE
Anytime that the sky’s two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, pass close to each other, it is a spectacular event worth seeing.
On the morning of Aug. 18, an hour before sunrise, Venus and Jupiter will appear to pass so close to each other that you will be able to hide both planets behind the tip of your pinky finger held out at arm’s length. Of course, they are actually millions of miles apart, Venus being the closer planet to us. They only appear along the same line of sight from Earth, with Jupiter in the far distance.
This particular meeting of the two planets is unique because they will be positioned right in front of the beautiful Beehive Star Cluster. Use binoculars for the best view of the dazzling planets surrounded by dozens of twinkling stars.
This is an event for early risers, though. Start looking at about 5:15 a.m., very low in the east-northeastern sky. Try spotting the planets a morning or two before their close encounter Aug. 18 so you’ll know right where to look. It’s amazing to watch them close in on each other a little bit each morning before the main event.
OCT. 8: ANOTHER TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE MOON
You have to go back 11 years to 2003 for the last time that two total lunar eclipses were visible from Colorado in the same calendar year. The second total eclipse of the moon this year happens in the wee morning hours of Oct. 8 when the full Harvest Moon slips into the shadow of the Earth.
Look for the first dark “bite” out of the moon to show up at 3:14 a.m. and grow in size until the onset of totality at 4:25 a.m. This time, totality lasts for only 59 minutes, until 5:24 a.m., after which the bright Harvest Moon completely reappears by 6:34 a.m., just 30 minutes before the sun pops up.
The background for the moon during this eclipse is the fishy constellation of Pisces, just beneath the Great Square of Pegasus. As an encore performance, in just two weeks, the moon will turn the tables on the sun and give us a partial solar eclipse.
OCT. 23: A PARTIAL ECLIPSE OF THE SUN
The third eclipse of 2014 is a partial eclipse of the sun. The shadow of the moon will pass over almost all of North America on the afternoon of Oct. 23 as the moon crosses paths with the sun.
This eclipse will not be total or annular anywhere on Earth; it’s just a glancing blow by the moon’s shadow, creating a partial solar eclipse. Depending on where you live in Colorado, about 55 percent of the sun will be covered by the moon.
Watching an eclipse of the sun is fun, but extreme caution must be practiced because the unfiltered sun can cause permanent eye damage in seconds. There are safe solar filters that you can purchase on the Internet, or you can use a No. 12 welder’s glass to look through.
One of my favorite ways to watch a solar eclipse is by sitting under a tree. The overlapping leaves create hundreds of little pinholes that project images of the eclipsed sun on a white piece of poster board on the ground.
The eclipse begins at about 3:20 p.m., maximum eclipse is at 4:35 p.m., and the eclipse ends at about 5:45 p.m. The next solar eclipse for us will be the long-awaited total solar eclipse of Aug. 21, 2017.
DEC. 14: THE GEMINID METEOR SHOWER
The best of our annual meteor showers in 2014 will be December’s Geminids. First observed in the year 1862, Geminid meteors spring from our constellation of Gemini, the Twins, and are caused by tiny bits of debris from the asteroid or burned-out comet named Phaethon.
Geminid meteors tend to be long, bright and slow. Under ideal dark sky conditions, a single observer can expect to see as many as 120 meteors per hour at the peak of activity.
In 2013, the Geminids had to compete with a nearly full moon, but they fare better in 2014. The third quarter moon won’t rise until 12:40 a.m., so meteor watching can commence as early as 8 p.m. the night of Dec. 13 when the constellation of Gemini breaks the northeast horizon.
In general, the meteor counts tend to increase in the hours after midnight, but the rising moon could negate that. Geminid meteors can be seen for several nights before and after the peak, so take advantage of those clear, crisp December nights and see how many Geminids you can spot this year.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out “Jimmy’s 2014 Cosmic Calendar” of sky events on his website at www.jwestlake.com. It features 12 of his best astrophotographs and a day-by-day listing of cool celestial events that you and your family can enjoy watching in 2014. Proceeds from the sale of Cosmic Calendars help to support the CMC SKY Club.