Ten cool things to watch the sky for in 2014

2013 was still an exceptional year for skywatching. We had some surprises and some disappointments, but as we head into 2014, the new year promises to provide a similar collection of events to watch the skies for, including some possible new meteor showers, a rare type of eclipse, and a comet near-miss for the planet Mars!

January 2/3 — The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks

A Quadrantid meteor (NASA)Possibly one of the best meteor showers of this year, the Quadrantids were something of a disappointment a year ago, mostly because the bright moon in the sky washed out the show. This year, we're coming out of a New Moon from January 1, so there should be prime viewing conditions. Boötes, the constellation that the meteor shower appears to stream out of, climbs above the eastern horizon right around midnight (local time), and will be up until well after sunrise.

The Quadrantids, which may originate from an asteroid named 2003 EH1, rather than a comet, have produced between 80-150 meteors per hour in past years. So, if you can get away from major sources of light pollution and you have clear enough skies, it should be a great show. If it happens to be overcast where you are (or possibly too cold to venture outside), you can see it via the Slooh Space Camera website on Friday, January 3rd, starting at shortly after 3 p.m. Eastern Time.

January 10 — Possible new meteor shower from Comet ISON

Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) may be dead and gone, but it may have left behind a little gift for us. As the comet approached the sun, it crossed the path of Earth's orbit at the beginning of November. Starting around January 10, Earth will swing through that same region of its orbit, and it's possible that ISON may have left behind enough debris from its passage to give us a brand new meteor shower for a few days. Science@NASA produced a great video talking about the potential phenomenon:

The fine comet dust may not become visible as actual meteors streaking through the sky, but, as the video narrator says, it could possibly produce brilliant noctilucent clouds in the sky. Also, since Comet ISON has already surprised us many times so far, creating a brand new annual meteor shower could be its final reveal.

April 15 — Total lunar eclipse

On the night of April 15th, the moon will pass directly through Earth's shadow, marking the first of four consecutive total lunar eclipses for 2014 and 2015.

The best place to view the eclipse from is the equatorial Pacific Ocean, central and western North America and the west coast of South America, where the event will be visible from start to finish. The east coast of North America and eastern South America will see the eclipse towards sunrise, and Australia and east Asia will see it after sunset.

The moon will start its trek through Earth's shadow just before 5 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time, will reach the peak of the eclipse at around 7:45 GMT, and will emerge again from Earth's shadow around 10:30 GMT (to convert to your timezone, click here).

April 29 — Rare annular solar eclipse

(NASA)Following the lunar eclipse, the moon will be swinging around to produce a rare type of solar eclipse, known as a 'non-central antumbral' eclipse. In this case, the moon will be at such an extreme distance and angle in its orbit that it will form a 'ring of fire' annular eclipse, but the centre of its shadow will completely miss the planet. Only the edge of its shadow will fall on the surface.

The eclipse will only be visible from parts of Antarctica, Australia and the Indian Ocean, but you can be sure that skywatchers and eclipse enthusiasts will definitely be making the journey to check out this special event.

May 24 — Possible new meteor shower from Comet LINEAR

Just like the possible new meteor shower from Comet ISON in mid-January, astronomers are predicting that Earth will be passing through the debris trail of Comet 209P/LINEAR around May 24. This could spawn a brand new meteor shower in our skies, but what's even more exciting for skywatchers is that this could turn out to be a meteor storm!

When the idea of this new meteor shower was first proposed back in 2012, French astronomer Jeremie Vaubaillon calculated that it could produce between 100-400 meteors per hour, and maybe even 'storm' levels (closer to 1000 per hour)! A followup investigation by astronomers at the University of Western Ontario played it down a little bit, but their models still brought the new shower in with an estimate of around 200 meteors per hour. Given that some of our most prolific meteor showers average around 100 per hour (under ideal conditions), that's still pretty impressive!

Meteor showers can be just as unpredictable as the comets they come from, especially brand new ones that we've never seen before, so the only way to be sure about this one is for us to get out and see it for ourselves.

August 12/13 — The Perseid meteor shower peaks

The Perseid meteor shower peaks on the night of August 12 to 13, as Earth passes through the stream of dust and ice left behind by the passage of Comet Swift-Tuttle. It's one of the most prolific meteor showers of the year, and it's also known for having more fireballs than any other meteor shower of the year.

The only limitation for the Perseid meteor shower this year is that the moon may spoil the view. The moon will be just a couple of days past full on the night the shower peaks, so its light will likely wash out the faintest of the meteors. Don't let that discourage you, though. Since it occurs during the hot summer months and it produces about 100 meteors per hour, it's still one of the best meteor showers to watch.

October 8 — Total lunar eclipse

(Wikimedia Commons)The second lunar eclipse of the year, and the second of four total lunar eclipses in a row for 2014 and 2015, will happen on the night of October 8.

Similar to the one in mid-April, this will be best viewed from the Pacific Ocean and the western North America, and is another early morning eclipse — starting around 8:15 Greenwich Mean Time, peaking just before 11 GMT and ending just after 1:30 GMT (to convert to your timezone, click here). The best way to see it in most of North America is to get up just before sunrise, and in Asia it will be visible just after sunset.

October 19 — Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring makes close pass by Mars

Back in early January of 2013, a new comet was discovered — designated C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) — and over the two months that followed, it became clear that it was going to make a very close pass by the planet Mars. There was even a chance that it might strike the Red Planet, possibly dooming our various rovers and satellites investigating the planet, but also potentially altering the planet's climate (even ever so slightly).

The possibility of an impact has been ruled out now, but it will still be coming within around 130,000 kilometres of Mars — the equivalent of about one third the distance between Earth and the moon. This will also coincide roughly with its closest approach to the sun, so it won't be coming anywhere close to Earth, nor will it be taking ISON's suicidal sun-grazing path. In fact, once it flies by Mars, the comet's path may carry it completely out of the solar system, never to return again.

As it makes that flyby, though, it will hopefully be producing an impressive tail that will not only be visible from telescopes here on Earth, but should also provide a wealth of scientific data to the satellites in orbit, and put on an impressive meteor storm for Curiosity and Opportunity to watch.

October 23 — Partial solar eclipse

(Wikimedia Commons)This second and final solar eclipse of 2014 will only be a partial one, as the moon covers over most of the 'northern' part of the sun, leaving a rather 'Cheshire Cat'-looking smile in the sky to be seen by anyone in far northeastern Russia or across North America.

The centre of the eclipse's shadow will track from Siberia, across the Arctic Ocean and Nunavut, down through the Great Lakes region, and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico throughout the afternoon on October 23. However, the eclipse should be visible at least in some form to most residents of North America. Those in the west will see it first, staring early in the afternoon, while those in the Great Lakes region will have to wait until later in the afternoon through until sunset.

Dec 13/14 — Geminid meteor shower peaks

The last big meteor shower of the year, and the last event on the list, the Geminids are always a great event to watch. Unlike most meteor showers of the year, which originate from icy comets, Geminid meteors actually come from a five-kilometre-wide asteroid called 3200 Phaethon that many call a 'rock comet'. The orbit of this asteroid takes it very close to the sun, where the heat and radiation cause it to become 'active' like a comet, throwing off debris that forms a trail behind it.

So, while most meteor showers are from bits of dust and ice hitting our upper atmosphere, the Geminids are from rocky grit and gravel. Under ideal viewing conditions (clear skies and no light pollution), the shower produces around 120 meteors per hour, most of which show up as yellow (likely from iron content). Also, since the constellation Gemini — where the shower's radiant is located — rises just after sunset, this is a great meteor shower for those who aren't thrilled about the idea of staying up too late or getting up really early in the morning. Be sure to check it out!

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This 'top 10' (of sorts) for cool things to watch for in the sky is just a sampling of what's to come, and we're bound to have some surprises in store for us as well. Keep coming back here for all your astronomy and skywatching news as it happens throughout the year.

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