2015: A year of meteors, eclipses and dwarf planets | SteamboatToday.com

2015: A year of meteors, eclipses and dwarf planets

Jimmy Westlake





The annual Perseid meteor shower always is a thrill to watch every Aug. 11 and 12, but in 2000, it turned into a once-in-a-lifetime spectacular. A rare and colorful display of the Northern Lights erupted over Colorado, setting a surreal stage for the Perseid meteors to shoot through. This bright Perseid fireball was captured streaking over the dark silhouette of Hahn's Peak in northern Routt County on Aug. 12, 2000.

There is something exciting happening in the sky almost every night of the year if you know when and where to look. Jimmy Westlake has sifted through all of the 2015 celestial events and selected the 10 he is most excited about.

This is his list of top 10 celestial events for 2015, in chronological order. No optical aid is required to view and enjoy these events, although 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 Westlake's weekly "Celestial News" column in the Steamboat Today and the NASA-sponsored website http://www.spaceweather.com.

After 10 years and nearly 4 billion miles, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will finally arrive at Pluto in July of this year. New Horizons will shoot through the Pluto system, traveling faster than a high speed rifle bullet, and open our eyes to this mysterious mini-world for the first time. Among other things, astronomers hope to learn whether or not Pluto's five moons were formed from a cataclysmic collision between Pluto and another mini-planet eons ago. Total lunar eclipses No. 3 and No. 4 of the current tetrad of eclipses will happen in April and September 2015. This telescopic image of total lunar eclipse No. 2 on Oct. 8 captured a rainbow of colors projected onto the moon during totality. No two total lunar eclipses ever look quite the same as the colors depend on conditions in Earth's atmosphere at the time of the eclipse. In this artist's conception, NASA's Dawn spacecraft is shown with its two primary targets, asteroid Vesta and asteroid/dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn already has spent a year orbiting and mapping the surface of Vesta and now is on its way to rendezvous and orbit the Texas-sized dwarf planet Ceres in March. Astronomers theorize that Earth and the other large planets were formed from the assimilation of mini-worlds like Vesta and Ceres. Studying them could tell us about Earth's early history.

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Feb. 20: The moon, Venus and Mars meet at dusk

Close groupings of the moon and planets in earthly skies have no cosmic significance whatsoever. After all, their apparent closeness is just an illusion. The celestial bodies can be millions of miles apart, and yet, by cosmic coincidence, they are along the same line of sight as viewed from Earth.

Because the five naked eye planets are among the brightest objects in our night sky, gatherings are often spectacular. That's why this tight grouping of three worlds in our early evening sky Feb. 20 makes my top 10 list this year.

When deep dusk arrives at about 6:45 p.m. that night, the moon will be a slender crescent low in the western sky, only two days past new. Sunlight reflecting off the Earth will illuminate the dark portion of the moon, making its outline faintly visible.

Only 1.5 degrees from the moon's lower left edge will gleam the beautiful evening star, Venus. Fainter and redder Mars is even closer — only 1 degree off the moon's left edge. Venus and Mars themselves are only 2/3 degrees apart.

So close are these three objects that you can easily hide all three behind the tip of your thumb held at arm's length. Don't hesitate to aim your binoculars or telescope at the spectacle to enhance the view. You'll feel like you are floating in space among the planets.

March 6: The Dawn spacecraft arrives at dwarf planet Ceres

2015 could be called "The Year of the Dwarf Planets."

Not one but two of the five dwarf planets in our solar system will be visited for the first time by robotic spacecraft this year, starting with dwarf planet and largest member of the asteroid belt, Ceres. Ceres was discovered

Jan. 1, 1801, by Giuseppe Piazzi and immediately was announced as a new planet orbiting in the huge gulf between Mars and Jupiter.

After many other tiny objects were found orbiting in the same vicinity as Ceres, it eventually was demoted from planethood and awarded the consolation prize of being the biggest asteroid. Its classification changed yet again in 2006 when the International Astronomical Union invented a new class of objects called dwarf planets.

As a result, Ceres was promoted from asteroid to dwarf planet. NASA's Dawn spacecraft, launched in September 2007, is expected to go into orbit around Ceres on March 6 and begin to map its surface in great detail. We know virtually nothing about this Texas-sized asteroid/dwarf planet thing, so Dawn will open our eyes to it for the first time. Expect surprises.

April 4: Total eclipse of the full egg moon

Early morning April 4, Coloradans will experience the third total lunar eclipse of the current tetrad of eclipses. This one will be an early morning event, just before dawn, as the full egg moon glides through the extreme northern part of the Earth's shadow.

The moon first touches the Earth's dark umbral shadow at 4:16 a.m. MDT, when it is only 26 degrees high in the southwestern sky. Totality begins at 5:58 a.m. and lasts for only five minutes, ending at 6:03 a.m.

It is during these brief moments of totality when the moon's blood-red color will be most visible. The red light that illuminates the moon during a total eclipse is sunlight filtered through the Earth's atmosphere — the combined light of every sunrise and sunset on Earth at that moment, projected onto the moon.

The moon exits Earth's shadow at

7:45 a.m., however, the moon sets for us at 6:53 a.m., while the eclipse still is in progress. Because Easter is the first Sunday following the first full moon of spring, the next day, April 5, will be Easter Sunday this year. What a nice way to begin Easter weekend.

June 13: Venus very close to Beehive star cluster at dusk

When the sun goes down June 13, the dazzling Evening Star, Venus, will be the first thing to pop out in the multicolored sunset glow.

As the dusk deepens, Jupiter will appear about a fist width to Venus' upper left, followed by the heart of Leo the Lion, the bright star Regulus, an equal distance to Jupiter's upper left. But the main event begins when darkness arrives and the faint, twinkly stars of the Beehive star cluster appear just below Venus.

Binoculars will reveal several dozen of the Beehive's members, in little pairs and triplets, less than 1 degree below Venus. The contrast between the sky's brightest planet and the faint little stars of the Beehive cluster in binoculars will provide a real "wow" moment.

Be sure to catch this event before Venus and the Beehive set at about 11:30 p.m.

June 30: Venus and Jupiter very close together at dusk

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 evening of June 30, starting about an hour after sunset, 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 actually are millions of miles apart, Venus being the closer planet to us only 0.5 astronomical unit (au) away. They only appear along the same line of sight from Earth, with Jupiter in the far distance 6 au away.

This amazing conjunction is so close, that both planets will fit into the low power eyepiece view of a telescope at the same time. Venus will be a dazzling crescent, like a tiny moon, and Jupiter will appear as a full disk, sporting its two dark equatorial cloud stripes.

As a bonus, all four of Jupiter's giant moons will be in view, too. Europa, Io and Callisto will form a line on the west side of Jupiter, and lone Ganymede will appear on Jupiter's east side.

Watch the two planets converge night by night during the last week of June and then separate night by night the first week of July. It's orbital motion at work.

July 14: The New Horizons spacecraft flies by dwarf Pluto

This is it — the event that I am most excited about in 2015.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, after a nine-year journey, will finally fly through the Pluto system and reveal the mysteries of this misfit planet and its five moons to us at long last.

Pluto was discovered by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 and was immediately christened planet No. 9 in our solar system. Thus, it remained for the next 76 years.

Anyone older than 12 learned in elementary school that our solar system has nine planets, Pluto being the smallest and most distant. In fact, when the New Horizons spacecraft was launched in January 2006, NASA billed it as "the first spacecraft to the last planet."

Somewhere along the way, though, Pluto was booted from the planet club to become one of five dwarf planets orbiting the sun. Well, it's still the same old Pluto that we grew up with, no matter what we call it today.

Our best eye in the sky, the Hubble Space Telescope, only can detect vague light and dark markings on this distant, frozen mini-world, so when New Horizons blasts through the Pluto system July 14, we will get to know our favorite little planet's alien surface features for the first time.

What will we discover? I can't wait to find out.

Oh, by the way, Clyde died in 1997, but a small vial of his cremated mortal remains on board New Horizons will ensure that he is the first to visit the new world that he discovered. I'm betting that the largest crater that New Horizons discovers on Pluto will be named Tombaugh.

Aug. 12: Perseid meteor shower before dawn

The annual Perseid meteor shower, among the very best of the year, was mooned out last August, but not this year. On the morning of peak activity, Aug. 12, the thin crescent moon won't rise until dawn itself begins to brighten the sky.

We experience this shower of "falling stars" every Aug. 11 and 12 when the Earth plows head-on into the dust swarm left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. If the sky is dark and clear, a single observer usually can count about 90 meteors per hour during the shower's peak between midnight and dawn Aug. 12, with smaller numbers seen for about a week on either side of the peak.

The Perseids tend to shoot across the sky in brief flurries of two or three with several minutes of calm in between. The meteors will seem to spring out of the constellation of Perseus in the northeastern sky.

Perseid meteor watching makes a great late summer family activity. Take the kids to a nice, dark location, roll out the sleeping bags and watch the fireworks.

Sept. 27: Total eclipse of the full harvest super moon

This eclipse will be the last of the four total lunar eclipses in the tetrad we've been enjoying the past two years.

It's easy to get jaded to these beautiful events when they happen every six months, but remember, four consecutive total lunar eclipses visible from the same location are exceedingly rare. You have to go back to the years 1967 and 1968 for a previous tetrad of total lunar eclipses visible from Colorado, and it won't happen again this century.

This eclipse happens in prime time, before bedtime for most folks in Colorado. And, to make it even more special, this eclipse happens when the full harvest moon is at perigee, its closest point to Earth, making this a super moon, 7 percent larger than your average full moon.

You might notice a slight shading on the lower edge of the moon as it rises at 6:51 p.m. MDT on Sept. 27. The partial eclipse begins minutes later, at 7:12 p.m.

For the next hour, the super harvest moon will mover deeper and deeper into the Earth's shadow until, at 8:13 p.m., totality begins, and the moon turns blood red. Mid-eclipse happens at 8:47 p.m., and totality won't end until 9:22 p.m.

It will take until 10:23 p.m. for the moon to completely emerge back into the sunshine and then, the eclipse is over. Enjoy it — the next total lunar eclipse for Colorado won't happen until Jan. 31, 2018.

Oct. 9: The moon joins Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter before dawn

In October, all of the planetary action shifts into our morning sky, providing several close conjunctions of planets and an amazing four-planet cluster with the moon before dawn.

At 6 a.m. Oct. 9, an hour before sunrise, the moon will be a slender crescent, facing east and glowing with earthshine.

Venus will seem to be hovering 8 degrees above the moon. Mars will shine 3.5 degrees from the moon's left edge with Jupiter just slightly below Mars, 5 degrees from the moon.

Little Mercury will just be coming on stage below the others, having risen above the eastern horizon minutes earlier. As the sky brightens, Mercury will rise higher but will be the first to fade into the sunrise glow.

Saturn is the only naked-eye planet missing from this clustering of worlds. You can catch it at sundown the night before, hanging above the western horizon in the sunset glow. But, the morning action is only beginning.

On the morning of Oct. 17, Jupiter and Mars will have a near miss, passing only 1/4 degrees from each other. Venus and Jupiter pass 1 degree from each other the morning of Oct. 25. Then, Venus will shine less than 1/2 degrees from Mars on the mornings of Nov. 2 and 3.

If you are an early riser, you can enjoy watching this parade of the planets all month long.

Dec. 14: The Geminid meteor shower before dawn

The annual Geminid meteor shower almost always makes my top 10 list of celestial events.

Geminid meteors shoot out of our constellation of Gemini, near the bright stars Castor and Pollux, and are caused by tiny bits of debris from the asteroid or burned-out comet named Phaethon.

Geminid meteors tend to be long, slow and bright. Under ideal, dark sky conditions, a single observer can expect to see as many as120 meteors per hour at the peak of activity.

This year, the 2 1/2-day-old crescent moon will set early in the evening, so meteor watching can begin as early as 8 p.m. the night of Dec. 13 and 14 when the constellation of Gemini breaks the northeast horizon.

In general, the meteor counts tend to increase in the hours after midnight as Gemini rises higher in our sky. Geminid meteors can be seen for several nights before and after the peak, so bundle up and take advantage of those clear, crisp December nights and see how many Geminids you can spot this year.