Now that you’ve learned your way around a telescope in Part 1 of our astronomy-themed articles in celebration of BBC Stargazing LIVE hitting our screens this month, see if you can spot these night and morning sky marvels throughout the year!
1. MERCURY FURTHEST FROM THE SUN
When: 31st January 2014, 25th May 2014 & 1st November 2014
Constellation: Aquarius, Taurus & Virgo
Right Ascension: 22h 06m 23s, 05h 44m 38s & 13h 17m 53s
Declination: -11º 22’ 37”, +25º 24‘ 58” & -05º 55‘ 05”
The innermost planet Mercury can be awkward to view, given that it usually appears close to the Sun in our skies and, of course, staring at the Sun is extremely dangerous and can permanently damage your eyesight. So you will want to wait for the times when Mercury is furthest from the Sun from our point of view, so that when the Sun sets below the horizon (or, alternatively, when the Sun has not yet risen) Mercury is still visible in a twilight sky. Fortunately such occasions, which we call ‘greatest elongations’, crop up fairly often, as Mercury orbits the Sun every 88 days. Greatest elongations east (when Mercury is east of the Sun setting in the west) are visible in the evening sky, while elongations west are visible in the dawn sky in the east, with Mercury westward of the Sun, hence popping up above the horizon before the Sun does.
The best times to see Mercury in 2014 are 31 January and 25 May (greatest elongation east) and 1 November (greatest elongation west). There are other elongations in 2014 but the circumstances are not as good as on these dates. For a week either side of these dates you’ll see a point of light around magnitude -2 to -2.5 with the naked eye and telescopes might even show a crescent phase.
2. VENUS – THE BRILLIANT MORNING STAR
When: 23rd March 2014
Right Ascension: 21h 10m 54s
Declination: -14º 18’ 35”
Venus is both a brilliant and annoying world for stargazers to look at. A brilliant evening or, in this case, morning star peaking at magnitude -5.1, it is stunning to see above the horizon in twilight before sunrise. It’s so bright you can even see it during the day if you know where to look (although the safety warning about looking close to the Sun still applies). On this day Venus rises 2 hours and 38 minutes before the Sun, meaning it will be visible for quite some time in dark skies before dawn. However, its declination is quite low so it will not climb that high above the horizon before dawn – in fact observers in the Southern Hemisphere will get a better view. Mercury will also be in the morning sky at the same time, making for a nice double act.
As good as it is to naked eye stargazers, telescope users might be disappointed. While they will be able to see Venus’ phase, which will be a half-phase at greatest elongation, its appearance is quite bland – its thick cloudy atmosphere reflects a lot of light, which makes it so brilliant, but those same clouds also obscure any interesting features. Sometimes observers using ultraviolet filters on their telescopes can see a little more.
3. MARS AT OPPOSITION
When: 8th April 2014
Right Ascension: 13h 12m 56s
Declination: -05º 03’ 31″
Well placed for observation, the Red Planet will rest far above the horizon for most of the night this Easter, reaching its highest point at midnight whatever your location on Earth. Mars’ closest approach to Earth this time around brings it within 92.75 million kilometres, so it will be a great time to observe it.
Mars will sweep past Earth quickly which means that it will only appear large and bright for a few weeks, shining at a magnitude of around -1.4 and is easiest viewed with a small telescope. Careful observation with a good small to medium telescope should – provided no dust clouds are obscuring its surface – begin to reveal markings on the face of the planet. This will include some of its great planes like Syrtis Major and even the giant volcano, Olympus Mons. Its two moons, Phobos and Deimos, are unfortunately too small and faint to see with anything but a large telescope. A simple pair of binoculars will show Mars to be a disc of light, while the naked eye will reveal an orange-red star-like point. Be aware of rogue hoax e-mails or information across the internet claiming that Mars will be as big as the full moon in the sky at opposition – this claim have been doing the rounds for over ten years and is not true!
The Red Planet will remain visible in the evening sky for a few months following its opposition.
4. SATURN AT OPPOSITION
When: 10th May 2014
Right Ascension: 15h 12m 14s
Declination: -15º 17’ 47”
The warmer nights of May bring Saturn closer to us as it reaches a maximum magnitude of around 0.8, lying in the constellation of Libra. Saturn will reach its highest point at around midnight on its evening of close approach with a small telescope revealing the gaseous world’s impressive rings. For a few hours around the moment of opposition, observers may be treated to a marked brightening in the rings in comparison to its disk which is caused by the ring’s icy particles perfectly reflecting sunlight back at us (remember at opposition the Sun, Earth and Saturn are all in a line). Binoculars and a small telescope will also show enigmatic Titan, which is Saturn’s largest moon, shining at a comparatively dim magnitude 8. To see Saturn’s other moons you will need a larger telescope. As for Saturn itself, its disk is quite bland compared to the churning bands on Jupiter, but the rings more than make up for that!
5. COMET 209P/LINEAR’S NEW SHOWER
When: 24th May 2014
Radiant Constellation: Camelopardalis
A comet found ten years ago might produce an impressive new meteor shower in 2014. In fact there could be so many meteors – conservative estimates are between 100 and 400 meteors per hour, but there could be as many as 1000 – that the event would be most properly classified as a meteor storm. The meteors will come from Comet 209P/LINEAR, which makes its closest approach to the Sun on 6th May. Earth passes through the trail left behind by the comet for the first time in a century in May when astronomers expect the new shower to to occur, with the maximum rate of meteors expected on 24th May when Earth encounters the densest part of the comet’s trail of dusty particles. What’s more the Moon will be a narrow waning sliver just a few days from new making this meteor display all of the more dramatic and tipped to be as vivacious as the Leonids of the late 1990s.
When: 10th August 2014, 17:44 GMT/UTC
What is the supermoon? They occur roughly after every 14 full moons, when the Moon is at perigee in its orbit at the same time it’s in the full phase. The Moon’s orbit is not perfectly circular but is what we call elliptical. It can get as far away as 406,000 kilometres, which we call apogee, but on this day it is 356,897 kilometres at its closest point, or perigee, at the same time it is a full Moon, so we see an abnormally large disk. Plus, there is the optical illusion that objects close to the horizon are larger than they appear higher up in the sky. Moonrise is at 8pm BST on this day, just a few hours after perigee, so the Moon will look much larger than normal on the horizon.
7. THE GEMINIDS
When: 14th December
Radiant Constellation: Gemini
The Geminids are the best meteor shower of the year, with up to 120 meteors per hour when the peak on 14 December, while the Ursid meteor shower lights up the skies just before Christmas, with maybe ten meteors per hour between 17th and 25th December. Plus don’t forget there can be random meteors and fireballs all year long, so make sure you keep an eye out for those!
Images courtesy of (from top to bottom): NASA, ESO/B. Tafreshi/TWAN, NASA, Rochus Hess, NASA/W. Liller & Thomas. W. Earle