Now would be a good time for looking ahead at upcoming notable sky events for the next 12 months. Let us dive into January and then take on the rest of the year in a nutshell.
Jupiter is the star of the month. Having reached opposition in December - meaning it's toward the opposite direction from us as is the Sun - Jupiter is nearly up all night. In early January, it is already high in the sky at the end of evening twilight and sets shortly after 4 a.m.
To the unaided eye, at 7 p.m. as January opens, Jupiter remains in Taurus above the considerably fainter first-magnitude star Aldebaran, located 65 light-years away. Although not a true member, Aldebaran is situated among the Hyades, a V-shaped star cluster. The Hyades are about 90 light-years farther away than Aldebaran, and located along the same line of sight. If you have access to a pair of binoculars, have a good look. The planet, bright star, and star cluster form a very pretty sight.
Throughout the year the planetarium at Bear Branch Nature Center presents monthly evening programs. Weather permitting, members of the Westminster Astronomical Society will be on hand sharing views through their telescopes. For schedule information, check the society's website at
. For planetarium registration, call the Carroll County Parks and Recreation at 410-386-2103.
As far as eclipses go, there are two unimpressive lunar eclipses in May and October. However, there is a notable partial solar eclipse literally coming up in the fall when the Sun rises on a weekend morning already half covered by the Moon in early November. We'll find out more about that one in October.
Shy Mercury will be best placed for evening viewing in June. Venus blazes in the evening sky from August through December. Mars has no opposition this year and will not be well placed. Saturn and its rings will be best placed in the spring.
In terms of a Moon-free sky, the best of the major annual meteor showers could be the Perseids in August. According to Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar, the best of the other active showers may be the Eta Aquarids and Delta Aquarids in May and July, but we can talk about them then.
How about comets? There are two comets coming our way that could put on quite a show.
The first comet, PANSTARRS (C/2011 L4), will be coming up from the south in March. The comet is named after a telescope in Hawaii with which it was discovered in June 2011. In March, we'll discuss expectations for Comet PANSTARRS.
The other comet wild card is one discovered in Russia in 2012, Comet ISON (C/2012 S1). It is a member of a class of comets called "sungrazers" because they round the Sun in close proximity. It has been said Comet ISON may be bright enough to be visible in daylight. The last comet I was able to view during the day was Hale-Bopp in 1997.
However, comets are notoriously unpredictable, so it is dangerous to overplay the possibilities. Likewise, newly discovered and underrated comets can become outstanding. Such was the case with Comet McNaught six winters ago. It made a respectable but brief appearance in evening twilight for northern hemisphere viewers over several nights. Then it headed south to become one of the greatest comets ever seen, but only for viewers in the southern hemisphere.
Comet McNaught was photographed during evening twilight in January 2007. It went on to become one of the best comets ever but only for viewers in the southern hemisphere.