Anticipate auroras, meteors and a great comet in 2013

northern lights @This might be an amazing year in the sky. Forget star charts, telescopes or any sky knowledge; rare celestial events in 2013 may fill the heavens with spectacle.

First, we expect the long-awaited Solar Max – probably this spring. This means that the Sun will periodically erupt to hurl billions of tons of solar fragments in our direction. Result: the Northern Lights. We have seen fantastic auroral displays in the past, but none during the last decade. That’s because the Sun entered an unusually deep sleep during its bizarre prolonged minimum from 2005 to 2009. That’s over: The Sun is now fully awake.

Although the signs are pointing toward a less active Solar Maximum than usual (which had been predicted by most researchers), there still will be enough activity to produce several auroras this year and next over our region. If you check sites like www.space.com you’ll see predictions, and these occasionally materialize. It’s the best that you can hope for when it comes to getting advance notice. We’ll also need luck. When the Sun erupts and its detritus reaches us two or three days later, our skies need to be clear that night, and the Moon must not be near full.

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The second great event will be the summer meteor shower. This year the Moon will be a harmless crescent for the August 11 Perseid display of shooting stars.

The third great event may be the best of all: Comet ISON looks to be fantastic in November. Its tail may spread across a quarter of the sky. More about that as the year goes on.

As for the planets, the best will be Saturn. It will be at its most glorious from April through June. Its rings are now “open” (meaning not edgewise), though this does require a telescope. Naked-eye, Saturn’s merely a bright-but-not-brilliant “star” in Libra. It will retrograde into Virgo for the warm months, then return to Libra in the autumn.

As for the brightest planets, they’ll be bookends. Jupiter is at its best right now – very simply the brightest star in the sky. It floats to the upper right of Orion, near the Pleiades star cluster. It will fade this spring, vanish for the summer and return to glory in November and December. As for Venus, it has a rather dull year hiding behind the Sun. We will see it well only in November and December.

If you love the Moon, its closest 2013 approach to Earth – when of course it will also look largest – occurs at the exact same hour as the Full Moon of June. This is also the highest Moon of the year.

To sum up, we will see no eclipses, no great appearances of Venus until late next winter and no close approaches of either Mars or Jupiter. Nonetheless, this year should richly reward anyone with a home in the country and an open expanse of sky – with extraordinary apparitions of meteors, auroras and what could be the best comet of our lives.

 

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