Unique stained-glass transoms add personal touch to Baltimore rowhomes
Maryland

Spot five planets at once and a transit of Mercury in 2016

On the stargazing calendar for 2016: Spot five planets at once and a transit of Mercury.

Skywatchers will have many opportunities in 2016 to see just how small we are in the universe.

Four days into the new year, hundreds of meteors will dance across the night skies. By February, early mornings will offer a view of Earth's five closest neighbors, appearing as tiny lights in the predawn darkness. In May, a transit of Mercury across the sun will show the dramatic contrast between the solar system's smallest planet and the star at its center. Come September, an outer ring of the sun's annular eclipse will be visible across Africa. In between, there will be spectacular shooting stars and super moons to take in.

Here is what to look up for each month this year:

January

The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks in the early morning hours of Jan. 4, with 40 meteors or more crossing the sky per hour in dark conditions. This year, a crescent moon could make it hard to see the fainter meteors.

The moon, Venus and Saturn will appear alongside each other in the southeastern predawn sky in early to mid-January.

February

From about Jan. 20 to Feb. 20, all five planets that are visible to the naked eye — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — will occupy the morning sky. This hasn't happened since 2005, according to EarthSky.org. To distinguish them, remember that Mercury never appears far from the horizon, Venus is the brightest, Mars can appear to have a reddish tint, and Saturn looks more golden.

March

Jupiter, the second-brightest of the visible planets, will be at its most brilliant March 8. With binoculars, you might even be able to see its four largest moons, while a telescope will reveal other details, like its Great Red Spot.

A total solar eclipse will occur March 9, visible in Hawaii and across the Pacific Ocean to Indonesia. Organizations like the Slooh telescope service broadcast eclipses and other celestial events live online.

The sun begins spending more than half of the day above the horizon again starting March 17, just a few days before the vernal equinox at 12:31 a.m. March 20.

The moon will pass through the edge of Earth's shadow before sunrise March 23, dimming the shine of the Full Worm Moon, but the penumbral eclipse won't be as dramatic as the series of "blood moon" total lunar eclipses of 2014 and 2015.

April

April 7 brings the year's closest "super" new moon. You can't see it, but it will be less than 222,000 miles from Earth and affect ocean tides. The April 22 full moon, known as the Full Pink or Egg Moon, can be considered a "micro moon" because it is the year's smallest, at more than 252,000 miles away.

Mercury reaches its longest eastern elongation on April 18, which means you can spot it after sunset above the western horizon. It's perhaps the hardest of the visible planets to spot because it's so close to the sun.

May

The Eta Aquarid meteor shower's peak coincides with a new moon the night of May 6, meaning more than 30 "shooting stars" could be visible per hour in a dark sky. The shower happens every year when Earth passes through the trail of Halley's Comet.

Mercury will cross the sun's face as viewed from Earth on May 9. It is only safe to watch through a telescope with an adequate solar filter, and even then, Mercury is a tiny dot relative to the size of the sun. Transits of Mercury occur about 13 times each century, more frequently than transits of Venus but not as often as lunar or solar eclipses. The last Mercury transit occurred in 2006; the next won't come until 2019.

A true "blue moon" will occur for the first time since 2013 when the Full Flower Moon rises. There will be four full moons this spring, instead of the usual three, and the third of them comes May 21. That makes it a blue moon, under the traditional definition of the term; it has since been broadened to include the second of two full moons within a single calendar month. There are four full moons in a season only once about every three years, according to Sea and Sky.

June

Saturn is at its brightest June 3. Even with a small telescope, you can see its rings.

June 20 is the "longest" day of the year, with the sun spending more than 14 hours, 56 minutes above the horizon. The summer solstice comes at 6:35 p.m.

July

NASA's Juno spacecraft will reach Jupiter in early July after a nearly five-year journey. The mission is a successor of sorts to NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto, which was managed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel and reached its destination a year earlier than Juno will, but after a twice-as-long trip. The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California in charge of Juno will study the gaseous planet's atmosphere and magnetic field.

August

A waxing gibbous moon will be in the sky at the Perseid meteor shower's peak the night of Aug. 12 into the morning of Aug. 13 and will outshine some meteors. But the moon will set by 2 a.m., making for dark skies during the best hours to watch, which is before dawn.

Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest objects in the sky (after the sun and moon, of course) will line up within a degree of each other in the western sky just after sunset Aug. 27. Mercury will also be nearby.

September

The moon will block out all of the sun but an outer ring in an annular eclipse that can be seen across Africa on Sept. 1.

The autumnal equinox arrives at 10:22 a.m. Sept. 22. By Sept. 26, there will be more nighttime than daytime again.

October

There are two annual meteor showers in October, but neither produces more than 10 or 20 meteors per hour. The Draconids peak the evening of Oct. 7, while the Orionids peak the morning of Oct. 21.

November

The year's biggest and brightest "supermoon" occurs with the Full Beaver Moon on Nov. 14. The moon will be less than 222,000 miles away when it becomes full, the closest full moon to Earth so far this century, according to EarthSky.org. Some may call the October and December full moons "super," too, as the term is not an official astronomical designation. All of them will look big and bright to the casual observer.

December

The timing of December's "super" full moon, known as the Long Nights Moon, is poor because it coincides with the Geminid meteor shower, usually one of the year's best. The shower peaks the night of Dec. 13 into the morning of Dec. 14, and the moon becomes full at 7:05 p.m. Dec. 13.

The winter solstice comes at 5:45 a.m. Dec. 21, the "shortest" day of the year with about 9 hours, 24 minutes of daylight.

sdance@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MdWeather

Copyright © 2016, The Baltimore Sun
70°