Attention stargazers: 2019 brings a 'Super Blood Wolf Moon' and Mercury's transit across the sun

The highlights of 2019 for stargazers include a total lunar eclipse some are calling a “Super Blood Wolf Moon” and a transit of Mercury across the sun. And there are plenty of sights to spot in the heavens in between.

Though all five visible planets won’t appear in the sky at the same time again until 2020, there are chances to see each of them — and twice to see bright Venus and Jupiter side by side. With a telescope or maybe even binoculars, you could spot distant Uranus and Neptune.

Or, weather permitting, recline somewhere dark and look for some of the regular meteor showers that light up the sky at different points of the year. Sky and Telescope magazine predicts January’s Quadrantids and May’s Eta Aquariids could be the best shows of 2019.

Some celestial events are less predictable, such as flyovers of the International Space Station. Websites like NASA’s Spot the Station and Heavens-Above.com help you find the satellite in the sky.

Unfortunately, solar eclipses on the 2019 calendar aren’t visible from this corner of the globe. But organizations like the Slooh observatory broadcast them online for the whole world.

Here’s what to look for in the night and early morning skies in 2019:

January

The year begins with the Quadrantid meteor shower. It’s expected to peak the night of Jan. 3-4, but meteors could be visible throughout the first week of the new year. As many as a few dozen meteors per hour could be visible at the peak.

The year’s latest sunrise comes Jan. 5, at 7:26 a.m.

A total lunar eclipse falls on Jan. 21, darkening the moon behind Earth’s shadow. At total eclipse, it appears in a dim, rusty and sometimes blood-like hue (instead of being blackened out) because of sunlight being refracted through Earth’s atmosphere and around the planet. The eclipse coincides with a supermoon, when a full moon appears slightly larger and brighter because it occurs around the same time the moon reaches its closest point to Earth in its orbit. And January’s full moon is always known as the Wolf Moon. So some are calling this one the “Super Blood Wolf Moon.” The moon will be in full eclipse for about an hour starting just before midnight, and it will become full at 12:16 a.m.

Early the next morning, on Jan. 22, there is what is known as a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, when the two brightest objects in the sky (after the sun and the moon, of course) appear side by side. Spot them in the southeast from about 5 a.m. until sunrise. Both planets will remain visible in the morning hours through the spring; Venus will appear closer and closer to the sun at sunrise each day.

February

A recently discovered comet designated C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto) is expected to pass about 28 million miles from Earth around Feb. 11-12, and it could become visible through small telescopes or possibly binoculars.

February’s full moon is also considered a supermoon, a non-technical term applied to any full moon that occurs when the moon is within about 225,000 miles of Earth. At the time of the Full Snow Moon, at 10:53 a.m. Feb. 19, Earth will be within 222,000 miles of the moon.

Of the five visible planets, Mercury is hardest to spot because it’s so close to the sun. At the end of February, it will be at what is known as its greatest eastern elongation — when it is farthest from the sun in the evening sky. Look in the west during and after sunset, and don’t miss Mars overhead. Later in the year, around June 23 and Oct. 19, are similarly good times to try to spot Mercury in the evening.

March

Spring begins at 5:58 p.m. March 20, the moment of vernal equinox. At that time, Earth’s axis is tilted neither toward nor away from the sun, giving both the Northern and Southern hemispheres equal light. Both day and night are roughly 12 hours around the world on the equinox, but the exact timing varies — in Baltimore, daylight will surpass nighttime for the first time in 2019 on March 17.

Later on the equinox, the March full moon, known as the Worm Moon, is also technically a supermoon. It arrives at 9:42 p.m. March 20.

April

The Lyrid meteor shower peaks the night of April 22 and early morning of April 23, but the bright waning gibbous moon could make some fainter meteors hard to spot. Meteor showers are named for the constellations they appear to radiate from (in this case, the constellation Lyra), but you don’t necessarily need to find those star formations to see the “shooting stars” streak across the sky.

Mercury may be visible in the east before sunrise around April 11, near brilliant Venus. Other good times to spot elusive Mercury in the mornings this year are around Aug. 9 and Nov. 28.

May

Mars is an evening planet throughout the first half of the year. By May, it starts to appear lower toward the western horizon each evening. It’s bright enough that it should be one of the first objects to appear as dusk fades into night, as the only planet in the evening sky for much of the month.

The Eta Aquariid meteor shower peaks early on the morning of May 6, as Earth passes through the orbit of Halley’s Comet. The moon, a thin crescent at this point in the month, won’t outshine too many meteors.

A true Blue Moon comes May 18. It will be the third full moon in a spring season with four full moons, meeting the traditional definition of a blue moon. A blue moon has become more commonly known as the second full moon in a calendar month, though. There were two of that sort of blue moon in 2018, but will be none in 2019.

June

Summer begins with the solstice at 11:54 a.m. June 21. At that moment, the orientation of Earth’s axis relative to the sun means the Northern Hemisphere is getting maximum daylight — more than 14 hours, 56 minutes of it in Baltimore. The earliest sunrises of the year come at 5:39 a.m. around June 14, and the latest sunsets arrive at 8:37 p.m. around June 27-28.

Jupiter will be out for most of each night and early morning during June, moving across the southern sky with Saturn rising close behind it. The full moon will appear near them around the middle of the month, closest to Jupiter on June 16 and even closer to Saturn on June 18. The Full Strawberry Moon comes at 4:30 a.m. June 17.

July

A total solar eclipse occurs July 2, but will only be visible in parts of South America and the Pacific Ocean.

Though the sun feels most intense in July, when summer heat typically peaks, Earth actually reaches its farthest point from the sun in its elliptical orbit (a moment known as aphelion) at 6:10 p.m. July 4.

Saturn is the visible planet that will spend the most time in the night sky in July, and it will be at its brightest around July 9. If you missed it in June, the moon will again pass by both Saturn and Jupiter in the southern sky July 13-15. Jupiter is the brighter of the two planets, while Saturn has a golden hue. Saturn’s rings are visible even with a child’s telescope. But research recently published in the journal Icarus found that the particles that make up the rings are gradually raining onto the planet’s surface, and will disappear within a few hundred million years.

Delta Aquariid meteors could appear on the nights around July 29.

August

The Perseids, usually making for one of the most active meteor showers of the year, are expected to be most abundant the night of Aug. 12 and morning of Aug. 13. Each meteor is a chunk of debris from the trail of the Comet Swift-Tuttle burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. In a perfectly dark sky, as many as 100 meteors can be visible each hour at the shower’s peak. Unfortunately, a waxing gibbous moon will outshine many of them this year.

There is a supermoon in August, but it won’t be visible — it’s a new moon. The moon will be within 222,000 miles of Earth when a new lunar cycle starts at 6:37 a.m. Aug. 30, bringing about higher than usual tides.

September

Neptune is not visible with the naked eye, but around Sept. 10 becomes brightest for the year and most easily spotted with a telescope. Consult a star chart to find it in the constellation Aquarius.

September’s full moon is a “micromoon,” another non-technical astronomical term that can be used to make a normal full moon seem a little more special. The moon will be more than 252,000 miles away from Earth when it becomes full at 12:32 a.m. Sept. 14. That means the Harvest Moon will appear about 14 percent smaller than February’s supermoon.

The autumnal equinox arrives Sept. 23 at 3:50 a.m., the moment the Northern and Southern hemispheres again receive equal sunlight. It marks the beginning of fall on our side of the world, and of spring on the other side. The sun begins spending more time below the horizon than above it in Baltimore on Sept. 26.

October

The Orionid meteors, which also come from debris in the trail of Halley’s Comet, peak the night of Oct. 21-22. You don’t need to find Orion, the constellation from which the meteors appear to radiate, to spot them, but the hunter and his belt are among the easier constellations to find.

Uranus isn’t easily visible with the naked eye, but around Oct. 28 becomes relatively easier to spot with binoculars or a telescope. A star chart can help you find it near the constellation Aries.

November

A transit of Mercury will be visible across the sun for about 5 ½ hours Nov. 11. A transit occurs when Mercury or Venus passes directly between the Earth and the sun, appearing as a tiny dark spot on the face of the sun. A transit of Mercury was last visible from Baltimore on May 9, 2016, but won’t be again until May 7, 2049.

The Leonid meteor shower peaks after midnight Nov. 18, as Earth passes through the orbit of the Comet Tempel-Tuttle. The constellation Leo will be relatively low in the east-northeast sky at that time, and closer to the middle of the sky before dawn. As many as a dozen meteors could appear each hour.

Jupiter and Venus will again come together for a close conjunction Nov. 24, but will appear not far from the sun. Look in the southwest in the evening twilight. Saturn will appear just above them.

November is the best month to spot the tight Pleiades star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters. They appear in the east within about an hour of sunset, and straight overhead around midnight. Find them toward the northwest of Orion’s belt, beyond the bright star Aldebaran.

December

The earliest sunsets of the year arrive at 4:43 p.m. for the first two weeks of December, centered around Dec. 7.

The Geminid meteors, the best shower of the year, peak around the night of Dec. 13-14. Unfortunately, as with the Perseids, the moon could spoil the show. With a full moon early on Dec. 12, some of the fainter meteors may be hidden by the moon’s glare. But it’s still worth a look for meteors from the trail of Comet 3200 Phaethon — dozens can appear each hour, sometimes streaking across the sky in bright colors.

The winter solstice comes Dec. 21 at 11:19 p.m. There will be 9 hours, 24 minutes of daylight, about 5 ½ fewer hours than on the “longest” day of the year in June.

The night of Dec. 22, the Ursid meteors, a relatively minor shower, could provide a better show than usual.

An annular solar eclipse — when the moon darkens all but the outer edges of the sun — occurs Dec. 26, but will be visible only across southern Asia.

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