It’s a New Year in the sky, so let’s preview it. But first, step outdoors just after everyone has stopped clinking glasses. The opening of 2016 brims with sky candy.
At midnight, precisely due south, hovers the blue star Sirius. At that minute it stands at its highest of the night. This is the brightest true star – also called the Dog Star. Also at that moment, rising in the east, the low, waning, gibbous Moon has brilliant Jupiter hovering just above it. It all looks so cool. It’s as if the opening of the New Year comes with decorations.
If you’re still up at 1 a.m., the bright-orange star Arcturus rises in the east. By 2 a.m. it’s nicely up. You can clinch your identification of it easily enough: It’s to the lower left of the Moon and Jupiter. Or you can follow the Big Dipper’s handle. It famously “arcs to Arcturus.”
We care about Arcturus because that night and the next, it will be right next to comet Catalina. That interesting green comet with a bizarre double tail may be well seen in ordinary binoculars right next to Arcturus. Or it may be too challenging, especially with the bright Moon in the vicinity. But it’s well worth a try.
As for the rest of the year, solstices and equinoxes will happen earlier than ever before in our lives. The June solstice will fall on the 20th for only the second time in four centuries. It’s the earliest summer since 1896.
In the realm of space science, 2015 was a hard act to follow, since the Europeans landed on a comet and the NASA New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto. We also had two total lunar eclipses visible from here, whereas in this New Year there will be exactly zero.
When it comes to meteor showers, the famous summer Perseid display on August 11 and 12 will unfold under good predawn conditions. Venus will be a nice, if lowish, morning star during the first half of 2016; it’s that dazzling “star” currently low in the east before dawn. Mars will be brilliant in the spring, and at its closest to Earth since 2005. Jupiter will be fabulous the first half of this year, and Saturn will have its rings wide open and be more glorious through a backyard telescope than has been seen in over a decade. Its best appearances in 2016 will happen during the summer.
The biggest media event will revolve around the Moon. This coming November 13/14, on the very night that it is full, it will come closer to Earth than anytime this century. This will be the most-super “supermoon” with the most exaggerated tides as well, and is guaranteed to get headlines.
Meanwhile, though it’s not astronomy but climate, many will be watching the weather. Last year we had a colder-than-normal winter, and experts were wondering if climate change was altering the northern jet stream to let Siberian air spill over the Pole into the Northeast. But this year, the climate prediction center is forecasting that our amazingly warm December will be followed by a warmer-than-normal January, February, March and April.
We will see.