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2018 will offer an abundance of chances to observe many astronomical events. A quick list of dates for things in the sky to look for include:
- January 31: A Lunar eclipse of a super-moon. It becomes even more special as the second full moon of the month, a blue moon!
- March 7-8: Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn will align with the moon on the evening of March 8th.
- July 27: Mars reaches peak visibility with opposition. This is brightest and largest it has been since 2003 and it won’t get this close again until 2035.
- August 12-13: The best meteor shower of the year arrives when the Perseid meteor shower arrives. Up to 120 meteors per hour at peaks times is possible.
- December 12: Comet 46P/Wirtanen may become visible to the naked eye, becoming the brightest comet visible in North America in last five years.
Stargazing can fill you with awe and inspiration, especially when there is something exciting going on in the night’s sky. As a hiker and outdoorsman, I found my binoculars trained towards the moon, planets and other celestial objects during the evening hours. Stargazing has become a rewarding hobby on its own, and the following information should help peak your interest with a multitude of astronomical events throughout 2018.
Comet Celestial Events
Comets are an uncommon site, and 2018 will provide observers with two chances to catch a glimpse of these space phenomena. A comet is an icy object that travels through our solar system, with some visiting at regular intervals. The closer they get to the sun, the more that they outgas, creating coma or tail.
Comet 38P/Stephan-Oterma: You will need some help from a telescope to see this visitor. During the first few days in December, it will reach peak brightness and can be found between the constellations of Gemini and Ursa Major. It hasn’t been seen since 1980 and won’t be this bright again until late 2056.
Comet 46P/Wirtanen: While the best views of this celestial object will be found in a pair of binoculrs or a telescope, it may become bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye. It may be the brightest comet seen in the Northern Hemisphere since 2013.
It will reach its closest approach to the sun on December 12 and can be seen in the constellation of Taurus. Just a few days later it will make its closest approach to earth and can be found near the Pleiades star cluster.
Lunar Astronomical Events
Our moon provides plenty of opportunities to dust off those binoculars. There are a variety of observable phenomena that occur regularly, so keep the following events in mind throughout the year.
The New Moon
Anyone who enjoys looking at the night’s sky through binoculars can confirm that a new moon offers us some of the best viewing opportunities of hard to see celestial objects. If you are new to stargazing it is important to understand why this phase of the lunar cycle is so appealing.
Light can limit what you see, and in this case, it is the sun’s light that reflects off of the lunar surface that is the problem. Even the smallest sliver of moonlight from a waxing or waning moon will obscure objects and dull features on objects that you can see.
When the sky is clear during a new moon take the opportunity to observe objects such as star clusters and nebulae. A closer look at the Milky Way with binoculars can reveal a great number of stars that our eyes cannot resolve. Dark patches may indicate the location of pockets of dust and non-glowing gases. A new moon will also provide the best viewing for objects outside of the Milky Way, such as the Andromeda Galaxy.
2018 Dates: January 17, February 15, March 17, April 16, May 15, June 13, July 13, August 11, September 9, October 9, November 7, and December 7.
The Full Moon
While the new moon offers the best glimpses at deep sky objects that doesn’t mean the full moon lacks observable things in the sky. The brighter stars can still be observed, and the planet watcher can still see their favorite objects. A full moon, however, provides us with an opportunity to see the lunar surface in all of its splendour.
This celestial object is a perfect target for beginners using binoculars. Those grey blotches, known as the maria, are lava basins that can be brought into focus with low magnification. These are impact basins filled after asteroid-sized strikes 3.5-billion years ago. The older terrain between the maria, white in color, display many craters.
2018 Dates: January 2, January 31, March 2, March 31, April 30, May 29, June 28, July 27, August 26, September 25, October 24, November 23, and December 22.
Blue Moon: A blue moon is a name for a second full moon in a month. In 2018, there will be two blue moon events, a second full moon on January 31 and on March 31. These events make 2018 rare, as the two blue moons arrive in a way that prevents February from having a full moon!
Super Moon: In 2018, January 2 and 31 provide us with two Super Moon events. During these lunar phases, the moon is at its closest approach to the earth. This may cause the moon to appear brighter and larger than normal.
The Moon In Other Phases
A fun observation project is watching the moon as it is waxing and waning. The terminator line between the dark and the light on the moon’s surface provides some interesting observations. Reliefs and shadows can be seen through the binoculars, cast by surface features.
After the new moon, during the waxing crescent, a phenomenon known as earthshine can be seen. This is the soft glow that is visible on the moon’s darkened surface and is caused by light reflected from the earth. The best time to observe this is just after sunset when the moon is sitting low in the western sky.
In 2018, there will be two opportunities to observe the space phenomena known as a lunar eclipse. When the moon moves completely into the earth’s umbra or dark shadow, it becomes increasingly darker. The lunar surface becomes red or rusty in color and gradually returns to its normal color and brightness as it leaves the shadow cast by our planet. Notice that lunar eclipses occur during the full moon phase of the lunar cycle.
January 31: This should be visible if you live in the western part of North America, the Pacific Ocean, or Eastern Asia and Australia. NASA has provided information about locations and visibility here: Eclipse Locations
July 27: This eclipse will be visible for those located in Africa, Europe, the Indian Ocean, Central and Western Asia, as well as Western Australia. NASA has provided information about locations and visibility here: Eclipse Locations
During the new moon phase of the lunar cycle, the moon can come between the earth and the sun. When this happens, the moon blocks part of the sun’s surface. As the moon moves across the sun’s path it blocks some of the light that hits our planet. In 2018, there will be three of these celestial events. While none of these events will be a full eclipse, all three offer observers a chance to see a partial eclipse of the sun.
Use Caution!: It is important to remember that you can damage your eyes permanently if you do not use proper observation techniques when viewing a solar eclipse. NASA provided this article on solar eclipse viewing safety for the 2017 eclipse: Eclipse Safety
February 15: If you happen to be in the southern hemisphere, there is a chance to observe this event.
July 13: Those in southern Australia get another opportunity with this partial eclipse.
August 11: The Northern Hemisphere gets a shot at seeing a partial eclipse on this date, with those in northern Russia observing more than half of the sun’s surface being blocked.
Meteor Shower Events
As comets travel through our solar system, they leave behind a trail of metal and rock debris. When the earth crosses these debris paths, the meteors enter the atmosphere and burn up. This observable phenomenon is called a meteor shower.
Due to our observation point on the earth’s surface, the debris paths and velocity cause the meteors to appear from a single point in the sky. This point is referred to as the radiant point. Several showers are listed on the American Meteor Society website located here: Meteor Shower Calendar
The following showers may provide some fun viewing if weather permits:
Quadrantids Meteor Shower: January 3-4. This annual shower may produce nearly 40 meteors per hour at its peak. The radiant point appears from the Bootes constellation. Even if the sky is clear, the nearly full moon will obscure many meteors.
Lyrids Meteor Shower: April 22-23. This annual event can produce up to 20 meteors per hour at its peak. The radiant point appears in the constellation Lyra. A waxing quarter moon will set after midnight and the early morning hours of the 23rd may produce a good show.
Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower: May 6-7. While this annual shower is best viewed in the Southern Hemisphere, those located in the north can expect up to 30 meteors per hour at its peak. The radiant point appears in the constellation Aquarius, but you can see meteors anywhere. The gibbous moon is waning and will obscure faint meteor streaks, so the best observation time may be early in the evening of the 6th.
Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower: July 28-29. This annual shower will produce up to 20 meteors per hour at its peak. The constellation Aquarius will serve as the radiant point. A nearly full moon will obscure most of the meteors this year, but a bit of patience will allow you to catch some nice ones across the sky.
Perseids Meteor Shower: August 12-13. This annual event is one of the busier ones, producing up to 60 meteors per hour at its peak. The radiant point is found in the constellation Perseus. A waxing crescent moon will set in the west early, so the peak during the night of the 12th and the morning of the 13th should produce some great viewing.
Draconids Meteor Shower: October 8. This annual shower produces up to 10 meteors per hour at its peak. The constellation Draco serves as the radiant point for this event. With the new moon falling on the 9th, 2018 should be a good year to observe the Draconids right after sunset.
Orionids Meteor Shower: October 21-22. The annual show from the Orionids will produce up to 20 meteors per hour at its peak. Its radiant point is located in the Orion constellation. A full moon is only a few days away, so fainter meteors will be obscured. This shower tends to produce bright meteors, however, so look for a good show after midnight.
Taurids Meteor Shower: November 5-6. This is one of the weaker annual events, producing between 5 and 10 meteors per hour at its peak. The constellation Taurus hosts the radiant point of this event. A waxing crescent moon will set early, providing a dark sky during the peak on the night of the 5th.
Leonids Meteor Shower: November 17-18. As an average event, the Leonids can produce up to 15 meteors per hour at its peak. The constellation Leo serves as the radiant point. A gibbous moon is waxing and will set near midnight, darkening the sky for good observations in the early morning of the 18th.
Geminids Meteor Shower: December 13-14. This is considered the best annual shower and is capable of producing up to 120 meteors per hour at its peak. The constellation Gemini serves as the radiant point, but meteors can be observed across the sky. The waxing quarter moon will set by midnight and allow for great viewing after.
Ursids Meteor Shower: December 21-22. Compared to the Geminids, the Ursids appear weak with only 5 to 10 meteors per hour at its peak. The radiant point for meteors is the constellation Ursa Minor. Sadly, a full moon falls during this shower in 2018, obscuring most meteors.
As the closest planet to the sun, Mercury has the shortest orbit time of just under 88-days. The planet stays close to the horizons and is visible before sunrise or after sunset.
Greatest Western Elongation: On the dates listed below, the planet will be at its highest point above the eastern horizon before dawn.
Dates: January 1, April 29, August 26, and December 15.
Greatest Eastern Elongation: On the dates listed below, the planet will be at its highest point above the western horizon after sunset.
Dates: March 15, July 12, and November 6.
The next closest planet is Venus, which can also be observed close to the horizons before dawn and after dusk. On August 17, Venus will reach its greatest eastern elongation. It will be located 45.9-degrees from the sun and can be observed on the western horizon after the sun is set.
Similar in size to the Earth, Mars is the fourth planet in the solar system. On July 27, the planet will reach opposition and approach closest to the earth on this day. The surface of the planet will be fully illuminated and will offer the best views of the year.
Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system and is visible during the year. On May 9, the gas giant will reach opposition and reach its closest approach to earth. It will be visible throughout the night and be brighter than it will be at any other time in 2018.
The second largest planet, Saturn, orbits outside of Jupiter. On June 27 it will reach opposition and reach its closest approach to our planet. The face of the planet will be fully illuminated and will be visible all night long. It will be brighter on this date then it will be at any other time this year.
Another of the Jovian planets, Uranus is a favorite for the planet watcher using high-powered binoculars and telescopes. The planet reaches opposition on October 23, coming closer to earth than at any other point in the year. Fully illuminated, it will be at its brightest for 2018 and it will be the best time to view this far away gas giant.
The last of the Jovian planets, Neptune is often referred to as an ice giant, although it still consists of mostly hydrogen and helium. The opposition will be reached on September 7, coming closer to Earth than at any other time in 2018. It will be at its brightest and can be seen throughout the night, but you will still need some magnification to see it.
When Will The Planets Align In 2018?
A planetary conjunction between two planets can provide an observer with some great opportunities if they happen to be a planet watcher. There will be 11 conjunctions in 2018, three of which will showcase Mercury and Venus in the early morning or early evening skylines (March 5, March 18, and October 14). Other conjunctions worth mentioning include:
January 6-11: The year starts out with Jupiter and Mars sharing the same binocular field. Mars will pass as close as 0.2-degrees south of Jupiter during this planet alignment. On January 11th, the planets will join the waning crescent of the moon for a triple visual-punch.
March 28: Uranus and Venus will provide a conjunction between the seventh and second planets in the evening sky. These celestial bodies will be separated by less than four arc-minutes and should be visible with binoculars.
December 7: Late in the year, Mars and Neptune will come together in a conjunction that places them along the same right ascension. Mars will pass north of Neptune and should be visible during the early evening.
In-The-Sky.org offers a conjunction table here: Conjunction Table
No matter which celestial events you favor there should be plenty of interesting objects to keep you busy in 2018. As Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler always used to say, “Keep looking up!”