Cool sky stuff is coming in 2014

Astronomer Bob Berman at his observatory near Woodstock. (photo by Andrea Barrist Stern)

Astronomer Bob Berman at his observatory near Woodstock. (photo by Andrea Barrist Stern)

Jim Metzner’s Pulse of the Planet is a syndicated radio show that explores nature’s rhythms. Like beating hearts or chirping crickets, the night sky also displays a cadence – many of them, actually. For example, olden observers noted how the Sun’s midday height – at its absolute lowest this past week – alters in an annual cycle that doesn’t vary by even a minute.

The start of a new year marks the most appropriate time to preview 2014’s greatest sky rhythms.


The Moon’s oval path carries it closer and farther, while that orbit itself changes shape. Once yearly it must arrive at its nearest point to Earth. In 2014, this happens on the opening day: on Wednesday! This is the same day that it’s new, and hence invisible. Expect extraordinary tides.

But hold everything: The Moon has a second close 2014 approach, which is even more interesting. This one, on August 10, happens at the exact same hour that the Moon is full. And since this perigee is a mere 17 miles farther than the January 1 event, it will create equally dramatic tides. This is the year’s biggest visible Moon.

And that’s still not the best thing that the Moon does in 2014. On Tax Day, April 15, and again on October 8, it plunges fully into Earth’s shadow to create total lunar eclipses. Both are visible from here. When do we get two red total eclipses in a single year? Never!

Well, almost: This is the first since 2003. The Maya would have flipped. Imagine: Two chances to sacrifice their most annoying tribal members.

Our region also gets a partial solar eclipse at sunset on October 23. Use shade 14 welders’ goggles. I hope that you’re writing this all down.

The Mayas’ favorite entity would have disappointed them this year, a bummer ranking only slightly lower than having their ruler kidnapped by the Spanish. Their beloved Venus, whose importance was equivalent to our own Philly cheese steak, has a dreadful year. January opens with the Evening Star very low; then it promptly vanishes into the solar glare. After its January 11 inferior conjunction, it soon reappears as a morning star. But a Venus springtime morning apparition is always a miserably low pattern. And the rest of the year finds it pathetically horizon-hugging until it wimps its way behind the Sun around Halloween, putting it out of its misery.

Mars is a different story. The Red Planet boasts a semiannual pattern, with good years alternating with bad. This is a good one. At its closest approach on April 14, Mars shines at a brilliant magnitude -1.3: its best since 2007. Floating in Virgo, it dramatically hovers near the Moon on the 13th and 14th. True, it’ll appear 50 percent bigger and brighter four years from now. But then it’ll be super-low, so you can’t have everything.

When the gossip turns to celestial patterns, nothing beats Jupiter. It advances one zodiac constellation annually. Jupiter is astronomy made simple. This year it hits the ground running. It’s already dazzling, reaches its nearest and brightest on January 5 and remains striking through the spring. In Gemini, Jupiter stands above Orion all night long. Nothing except the Moon shines more brightly at midnight.

Saturn’s rhythm has it reaching its near point two weeks later each year. Its 2014 opposition is excellent, and it will be wonderful throughout the spring. The rings now slant in such an exposed “open” orientation that they extend clear around the planet, virtually unblocked. Their high reflectivity makes this Saturn’s brightest appearance since 2007. (That year keeps popping up here. My vote for 2007’s most memorable news story: Australia’s storefront Santas were ordered to stop saying “Ho-ho-ho” and instead told to chant “Ha-ha-ha.” I’m not making this up.)

Celestial rhythms may be epic, but it’s still a funny old universe.