Outstanding skywatching opportunities in the coming year

No question about it: 2012 will be a fantastic year in the night sky. All years are not created equal. This has been a long-time problem. Here in Alm@nac, as well as in Astronomy and the Old Farmer’s Almanac and for nearly 20 years in Discover, I preview each New Year in the January issue. But I sometimes “fake it” because the upcoming year is scheduled to suck.

It’s not rare for all the meteor showers to be ruined by a bright Moon. Many planets can be extremely dim or low, the way Mars and Venus have been during most of 2010 and 2011. Some years, no juicy space probes are scheduled to arrive anywhere interesting. In other years, not a single eclipse appears. From 2005 to 2010, the Sun remained frozen in an unusually deep minimum, with no storm activity and thus virtually no auroral displays here on Earth.

Dud years: I had no choice but to don a happy face and emphasize the few bright celestial lights scheduled to unfold. Not this time; 2012 will be special in nearly every way.

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Start right now. Look around the sky. The brightest star is Jupiter, riding high on the Pisces/Aries border. Meanwhile, Venus is returning above the sunset point, shining from a higher-up position each evening as twilight deepens. During the next four months the Evening Star will get higher and more dazzling – its best apparition in years.

Mars, always a tricky planet, comes close and becomes bright in alternate years, and this is a Martian “on” year. Already it shines as a bright orange “star” of exactly magnitude zero in the constellation Leo, and rises by 11:30 p.m. It will continue to brighten and rise earlier, and will reach its closest point to Earth on March 3.

One month later, Saturn arrives at its closest point to Earth. Its rings are now tilted more optimally than they have appeared in the past five years – simply glorious through any small telescope. On April 15 it will be closest and largest, and it will remain stunning and easily visible through the first half of summer.

On May 20, the Moon passes in front of the Sun to produce an annular eclipse, visible from the Western states, but not here.

Spring is also when Venus shines at its most dazzling. Then, in the category of truly rare spectacle, Venus will cross the face of the Sun on June 5. This is the last transit until the year 2117. And best of all, it will be visible from right here. In July, Venus climbs rapidly into the morning sky and becomes the most superb Morning Star that we’ve seen in years.

In August, the famous Perseid meteor shower will perform splendidly on the 11th. Unlike the last two years, the Moon will not rise until very late, affording nice dark skies for the shooting stars. Indeed, the Moon will be totally absent for the year’s second-best meteor shower as well, when, on December 13, the Geminids will be magnificent.

Finally, there will be a total eclipse of the Sun on November 13. I know it’s a long trip, but I hope some of you will join me in Australia to view it. Check out Bermanastronomytours.com for information.

Speaking of the Sun, sunspot cycle number 24 is heating up rapidly. Solar max is expected sometime in 2013. This means that 2012 will almost certainly provide us with displays of the Aurora Borealis. I will be leading a group to central Alaska on March 20 to view the aurora under optimum conditions, but we get fabulous (if less-frequent) displays from right here, and you don’t have to budge from your backyard. What’s required is simply to watch the sky on clear moonless nights and look for any glow towards the north or northwest. I’d wager that we get four good auroral displays this year.

Sure, 2012 will also be insane, what with the election and all. And the nation’s economy may not improve very much. But that’s where astronomy comes to the rescue: The sky is free. Meteors don’t cost a dime. And there’s nothing more soothing than space: the salve for modern vexations.

We might as well enjoy it, since 2012 also brings the end of the world.

Meteor alert!

Set the alarm for 4 a.m. on Wednesday, January 4 and watch the sky. The little-known but sometimes-spectacular Quadrantid meteors last for just a few hours, but this year they happen right smack at the best time of night for us, and the Moon will have set. I expect a meteor a minute – anywhere in the sky.

 

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