There were some great astronomy and space science events over the past year — from the transit of Venus, to the Mars Curiosity Rover landing, to the discovery of even more extra-solar planets, including one right 'next door', orbiting Alpha Centauri B — but I have to say that I'm pretty excited about the year to come. Curiosity should reach the base of Mt. Sharp later this year, and astronomers are predicting the discovery of a truly 'Earth-like' planet sometime in the next 12 months, but I decided to take a look at the things that everyone would have a chance of seeing first hand, and list them here so that you all know what you can look forward to:
Less than two days from now, in the early morning hours of January 3rd, the Earth will pass through a narrow stream of dust and debris in space left behind by the passing of an asteroid named 2003 EH1. The meteor shower is caused by the dust and debris particles in that stream burning up as they slam into our atmosphere at around 144,000 km/h. To see them, look to the northeast shortly after midnight Eastern Standard Time. The Quadrantids have a maximum rate of about 80 meteors per hour, but the number you see will depend on your location, local light sources and the phase of the Moon.
There are a few limitations for this meteor shower. Unlike others, which can be visible for up to a few days before and after their peak time, the narrow stream of debris means that the Quadrantids will only be visible for a few hours. Also, due to the angle that 2003 EH1's orbit intersects with our own, the meteor shower is only visible to those north of 51 degrees south latitude, and even if you are located at the right latitude for viewing, the light from a waning gibbous moon will limit the number of meteors you see to about 5 to 10 per hour.
Mercury will come out from hiding in the glare of the Sun for most of the month of February this year and it will be visible above the western horizon, just after sunset. Best viewing is around February 16th, when it reaches its furthest distance from the Sun (relative to our view) and maximum brightness of around magnitude -1.0 (the brightness of astronomical objects is on a scale where the lower the number, the brighter the object, with negative numbers being very bright).
The near-Earth asteroid named 2012 DA14 — discovered on February 23rd, 2012 — will swing by the Earth in the middle of February, coming within 27,000 km of the planet, which is closer than the orbit of our own geostationary satellites (like weather satellites). 2012 DA14 is about 45 meters in diameter and has an estimated mass of around 130 thousand tons, which would certainly cause some damage if it were to strike the Earth — but there's no reason to worry about it. Astronomers have ruled out any chance of it hitting our homeworld either this year, or in 2020, and there is only a 1 in 3,030 chance of it striking the Earth at any point between the years 2026 and 2069 (which is extremely low).
Detected June 5th-6th, 2011, this comet will pass by Earth on March 5th, 2013, on its way to its closest distance to the Sun on March 9th. All indications are that this comet has a parabolic orbit, rather than an elliptical one, which means that we will probably never see it again. It promises to be quite spectacular, though, and may reach magnitude zero brightness, which is as bright as the stars Arcturus, Capella, and Vega.
An annular solar eclipse happens when the Moon is farther out in its orbit around the Earth, so that when it passes across the Sun (to our point of view), it only covers up most of the Sun's disk, leaving a 'Ring of Fire'. This particular eclipse will be best viewed along similar path as the total solar eclipse of 2012 — from northeastern Australia and the south Pacific — but you can bet that sites like the Slooh Space Camera will be broadcasting the event live, for free, for everyone around the world to see.
Three planets do a little 'do-si-do' in the night sky in late May, changing their positions (relative to our point of view) each night. Watch for them above the western horizon, just after sunset, and Venus and Jupiter will appear exceptionally close to one another on the 28th.
The biggest Full Moon of the year will be on June 23rd. This phenomena is caused by the Full Moon coinciding with the time when the Moon is at perigee — the point in its elliptical orbit when it is closest to the Earth. This makes the Moon appear about 14 per cent larger, and about 30 per cent brighter than usual.
This meteor shower is always one the best ones of the year, typically peaking at over 100 meteors per hour. There is a slow buildup towards its peak in the two or three weeks beforehand, and meteors from it should still be visible until August 22nd, but the real show is between August 11th and 13th. The Perseids are caused by the trail of dust and ice left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle, which passes by the Earth every 133 years. Its last pass was in 1992, turning the 1993 meteor shower an amazing meteor storm, and it isn't due to swing back around to us until 2126.
A 'hybrid' solar eclipse happens when most of the Moon's shadow falls on the Earth, but part of it slips off the edge of the planet. Thus, depending on where you are, the same eclipse can be either a total solar eclipse or an annular solar eclipse. Totality of this particular eclipse will be best viewed from the mid-Atlantic, down to equatorial Africa, and up to central Somalia.
This is the one I'm really waiting for. This comet was spotted in September of 2012, just beyond the orbit of Jupiter, and its size immediately caused speculation that it may rival the Great Comet of 1680. It should become visible to the naked eye starting in late September, when it passes the orbit of Mars, flying almost directly over the Red Planet's north pole (which should give Opportunity and Curiosity a great show). It passes Earth's orbit at the beginning of November, way out ahead of us reaching that point in our orbit (so there's no chance of any impact), and it could be bright enough to outshine the Full Moon.
After that, it dives below the 'plane of the ecliptic' to whip around very close to the Sun in a polar orbit on November 28th, swinging back out over the Sun's north poll to head towards the outer solar system. During this Sun-dive, its brightness and long bright tail will likely make it visible during the daytime, but I believe the real show from ISON will be on New Year's Eve.
As the comet heads back out towards the outer solar system, it will pass almost directly over the Earth on December 31st (at a distance of nearly 65 million kilometres, so again, no worries of an impact), which just happens to be when we will reach the point in our orbit where ISON first passed by. With the potential for an extremely long tail from this comet, that means we could have New Year's Eve meteor shower at the same time that we can look up at the comet passing by overhead! What a truly spectacular event that would be!
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