After Dark – Part 2

For astronomers, cosmologists, astrophysicists, or the amateur stargazer, the years 2013, 2014, and 2015 are three of the more active years for Earth’s heavens, the Moon, and our solar system!  In Part One I covered some stargazing basics, how the night sky is arranged in our two hemispheres and some short history behind the naming of two constellations Orion and Virgo.  In this second part let’s explain why these next three years are so extraordinary.

The Celestial Shows Are Here!

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Ringmaster opens, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, turn your eyes to the heavens!  The most extraordinarily rare spectacular-spectacular is happening for the next three years!

2013

Earlier this year between March and April the comet Pan-STARRS was visible with a good pair of binoculars or amateur telescope.  However, in an area of medium-to-heavy light-pollution Pan-STARRS would have been hard to locate.  May 24th through 30th you would have watched Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter dance around each other in the west-northwest twilight sky shortly after sunset.  Every evening they were changing positions noticeably with Venus and Jupiter separated by about 1-degree on May 28th and Venus outshining Jupiter by six times.

On June 23rd at 6:00 a.m. CDT, the moon was as close to Earth as it will ever be in 2013 and at 6:32 a.m. it was brightest and fullest, known affectionately as a Super Moon.  Larger than normal ranges in ocean tides occurred for several days.  In 2014 it will arrive even closer than this year.

August 12th will be the annual Perseid Meteor Shower.  At a rate of up to 90-meteors-per-hour it is considered one of the best displays of meteors for a single observer.  Summer campers love the annual shower as it resembles a non-stop array of white bottle-rockets everywhere in the night sky.

Comet-ISON-peri-in-westMid-November through December is perhaps the biggest event in astronomy for 2013.  The Comet ISON will travel less than 750,000 miles above our sun’s surface, making it a very bright “sungrazer” on Nov. 28th, Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.  ISON could very well be easily visible in broad daylight at its closest point to the sun.  Then ISON will travel toward Earth getting as close as 40-million miles in December.  Because the comet will be ideally placed in the morning and evening sky from the Northern Hemisphere, it will most likely be one of the most watched and photographed comets of all time.

The entire month of December will be a stargazer’s extravaganza!  Venus will put on the most brilliant “evening star” show of 2013 and 2014 combined; evening or morning…doesn’t matter.  She fills the southwestern sky for 3 hours of bravos after sundown in early December, and 1.5 hours after sundown by New Year’s Eve.  And if that were not enough, a crescent moon will pass above and to the right of the goddess Dec. 5th and on the 6th she will give her grand finale!  She will not be as spectacular again until 2021.

On December 13th and 14th a most entertaining show will take place:  the Geminid Meteor Shower.  Most astronomers and meteorists give it top accolades as it surpasses even the brilliance and reliability of August’s Perseid annual showers.  Our near full moon will dilute most of the smaller fainter meteors, however, right after the moon sets (4:30 a.m. EDT), it will leave the sky completely dark for an hour or so, and that is your chance to witness as much as 2 meteor sightings per minute, or 120 per hour!  Indeed, the night sky will look like an American 4th of July fireworks show!

2014

March 27th Perihelion – Comet Holmes.  After almost two days in Oct. 2007, the Holmes comet became a half-million times brighter on its way to becoming the largest object in our solar system.  Yes, larger than our Sun.  Comet Holmes will be one of the more spectacular comets at its perihelion in 2014.

Path of Comet 209P/LINEAR

Path of Comet 209P/LINEAR

March 29th Perihelion – Comet Faye.  Discovered in 1844 by a French astronomer it is a periodic comet but will be minor in comparison to the year’s other comets.

May 6th Perihelion – Comet 209P/LINEAR.  If astronomers are correct, Earth will pass through the tail of 209P/Linear on its way back out from the Sun between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. GMT on May 24th, resulting in a meteor storm of 100-400 meteors per hour.  Canada and the U.S. will have the best viewing.  This date is a must on your calendar!

August 10thSuper Moon.  “According to NASA, a full moon at perigee is up to 14% larger and 30% brighter than one at its farthest point, or apogee.  The full Moon, occurring less than one hour away from perigee, is a near-perfect coincidence that happens only every 18 years or so.” [Wikipedia]

Possible view of Comet C/2013-A1 from NASA Mars rover

Possible view of Comet C/2013-A1 from NASA Mars rover

August 12th – 14th will be the annual return of the Perseids Meteor Shower and its 60-meteors per hour at its peak on the 13th and 14th.  Some of the early and late meteors arrive from July 23rd through Aug. 22nd.  It radiant point, or source spot, will be in the Perseus constellation in the northeast sky after midnight.

October 19th – 25th is shaping up to be the biggest event of 2014:  Comet C/2013-A1, aka Siding Spring.  Astronomers currently calculate a 1 and 8,000 chance that C/2013-A1 will hit the surface of Mars on Oct. 19th.  The comet will pass, following its normal path, about 73,000 miles from the surface of Mars.  As the date nears and further observations are made, scientists will refine the orbit predictions.  Nevertheless, preparations are already being made to develop high-tech observations both around Mars as it approaches the planet, and on Earth as it approaches the Sun.  Mars vs. C/2013-A1 comet.

December 13th – 14th and the annual Geminids Meteor Shower won’t be as spectacular as 2013, but it will produce about 60 multicolored meteors per hour at the peak on the 13th and 14th.  The radiant point or source spot will be in the Gemini constellation in the eastern sky after midnight.

Rosetta European spacecraft.  In January 2014 Rosetta will awake from hibernation to fire-up its engines and get within 3,000 km of comet CG as it starts its return orbit back to our Sun.  In 2010 Rosetta flew within 3,000 km of asteroid Lutetia closely examining its surface and makeup.  Since then Rosetta has been cruising through the deepest parts of our solar system – a billion kilometers from the Sun – where that distance generates such little solar power she had to go into hibernation until comet CG approached.  In January 2014 after Rosetta nears CG, it will literally harpoon it so it can place the robot Philae on its surface.  As comet CG returns to our solar system to head towards our Sun, Philae will send scientific data back to Earth.

2015

January 30th Perihelion – Comet 7P/Pons-Winnecke.  The Pons-Winnecke comet is a Near Earth Comet (NEC) and will pass Earth’s surface only about 3.5 million miles away, or about fifteen times the distance to the Moon.  It probably won’t be visible by the naked eye, but a good pair of binoculars will assist in seeing this faint comet that comes around every 6.36 years.

February Dawn spacecraft.  NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is the first of its kind to use the highly efficient ion propulsion engine.  Ion thrust engines must be in an environment devoid of any other ionized particles – deep space is the perfect example of such an ideal environment for this engine system.  During February Dawn will rendezvous with one of two large asteroids (Vesta in 2012 and Ceres) classified as dwarf planets in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.  Dawn will spend several months examining Ceres and its surface sending back to Earth the first close-up images of a dwarf planet in our Solar System.

February 22ndThe Union of Venus and Mars.  Conjunctions of planets are rare events and occur only when the very long large planets and their orbits seem to join or cross.  Like lovers, Venus and Mars will be within a half degree of each other in the western sky just after sunset.

March 2nd Perihelion – Comet d’Arrest.  Discovered in 1851, the d’Arrest comet has an orbital period of 6.54 years around the Sun so it is a frequent visitor.  Like Pons-Winnecke it too will be very faint to the naked eye.

July 14thNew Horizons spacecraft.  Launched in January 2006, NASA’s spacecraft New Horizons arrives at the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons after a nine and a half-year journey.  It will capture the first close-up images of the planet and moons then continue out to the Kuiper-belt for images of icy objects at the outer edge of our Solar System.

August 12th – 14th is again the annual Perseids Meteor Shower.  See 2014 information above.

2015 conjunction will look like this May 2013 conjunction!

2015 conjunction will look like this May 2013 conjunction!

October 28thPlanetary Ménage à Trois.  A conjunction of three planets is very rare event and will be quite the spectacle in the early morning eastern sky before sunrise.  Venus, Mars, and Jupiter will be in a tight 1-degree triangle of consummation!

November 17th – 18th is the return of the Leonids Meteor Shower with an average of 40 meteors per hour at its peak.  During its 33-year cyclic peak hundreds of meteors are produced per hour.  This last occurred in 2001.  Some of its early arriving then late arriving meteors can be seen between Nov. 13th and 20th.  The radiant point can be found in the constellation Leo after midnight.

December 13th – 14th is again the annual Geminids Meteor Shower.  See 2014 information above.

(paragraph separation)

“Perchance to Dream”

It will be a 1-in-a-million lifetime jaw-dropping event to see.  Well, actually in less than 1-million years.  Yes, sadly we won’t be around to witness it, but the Betelgeuse Supernova will be brighter, much brighter than our own full Moon!  It will be easily visible in daytime for several months so don’t be fooled into thinking it’s the second coming with another Star of Bethlehem, but instead the wonder of the cosmos with the Star of Betelgeuse!

The star is well-known among avid stargazers because it is the second brightest star in the Orion constellation and because of its size, color, and placement.  It is the red supergiant star in Orion’s “right shoulder” and ranks as the eighth brightest star in our entire night sky.  For some perspective, Betelgeuse is so huge that if it were our own Sun, its outer edges would touch Jupiter!  It is approximately 640 light years away from our Sun.  If it were to explode at night in our lifetime, it might look something like this…

Cosmologists and astronomers predict it will go super-nova in 1-million years or less because it is a “runaway star”.  In other words, due to its super size and mass, it will burn-up, collapse on itself, and create such an explosion that from even 640 light years away, it will be well beyond the brightest super-nova EVER recorded in Earth’s history!  If you can imagine any major global event throughout all of history, Betelgeuse will dwarf that.  For those several months, Earth’s night sky will seem like endless twilight until sunrise!  Wouldn’t that be the most remarkable thing in life to witness?

* * * * * * * * * *

In the final part of this three-part series, I will explain how simple tools and methods can map the night sky, locate major seasonal celestial highlights and their historical backgrounds, and explain why and how humanity will gaze the heavens just as the ancients did without any man-made light-pollution.  If you have enjoyed this part, please let me know by commenting, and check-in every so often for Part 3.

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10 thoughts on “After Dark – Part 2

  1. Professor,

    Your post allowed my mind to travel to the beautiful understanding in how we are all different and yet, so alike.

    Professor, I have no idea about the things you’ve just shared. However, I will think of the passion in your words and be able to relate, as I passionately gaze upon tonight’s night sky.

    Kelly 🙂

    Like

    • As you gaze Kelly, know how connected you are with this incredible planet we call home, and how equally connected we all are to the Universe/Multiverse we live in!

      Watch the night skies on these nights, especially this coming Thanksgiving holidays! 🙂

      Like

  2. Wow! You’re *really* into this! Every time I see a shooting star I think of you and your comment to me a while back that there are supposed to be an increasing number of meteors as the year goes on… I will definitely be staying up on December 13 and 14! 🙂

    Like

    • Every shooting star!? Wow, now you’ll have me thinking of you when I see them. It’s much more fun when you stargaze with another; more catching eyes! 🙂

      And don’t forget to watch over the Thanksgiving holidays this year! ISON will be a spectacle! Impress your friends Jessica but don’t tell them who your “brilliant” source is. 😉

      Like

  3. Wow. Can I just tell you how all your technical speak just killed the romance of an night sky for me? 😉 Just kidding.

    It’s strange. Many people I’ve known have been interested in the sky, but not nearly to the extent that you are…and most of them prefer the day sky…for watching clouds, rainbows or enjoying sun. I suspect that means I’ve got a lot of friends who are dreamers. (I’ve always had a soft spot for folks with their heads in the clouds.)

    Like

  4. Pingback: After Dark | Professor Taboo

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