When you go online, you probably first get to a welcome screen. It delivers the day’s news and sometimes includes a high-profile upcoming astronomy event. Since 2010, such sky headlines have revolved around specific celestial events that have recently caught the mass media’s fancy.
Trouble is, they’re often trivial or even unobservable. They create disappointment. For example, every year brings eight minor meteor showers, and half unfold during bright Moon conditions. No observer will see much, if anything. Yet the Web often says, “Don’t miss the Lyrid meteors tonight!” Anyone acting on that might see two shooting stars in an hour – except very few would keep watching that long. Result: a zero.
So I always ask myself whether ordinary people will be wowed by a particular celestial occurrence. Can they find it if they don’t know the constellations? Does it have a high potential to be disappointing?
Take the planet lineup, which made the front page of The New York Times a few weeks ago. As I mentioned in the previous column, the leftmost planet, Mercury, was impossible to see until just this past week. It was far too dim and low in brightening twilight; anyone who tried would have been disappointed.
But everything’s different this coming Saturday morning, February 6. If you have an unobstructed eastern horizon – and I mean flat all the way down – you’ll be very happy if you look there at 6:30 a.m. You’ll see a tight, dramatic triangle consisting of the thin crescent Moon, the brilliant planet Venus and the much-dimmer orange planet Mercury: really worthwhile, and easy to find if it’s clear and if your eastern view is not blocked.
The last three years have brought a media obsession with a “supermoon” –a label that didn’t even exist until recently. It’s a Moon that is closer to Earth than normal, especially the night when the Moon is nearest of the year. The one coming up in the middle of November will be the closest Moon since the 1970s. I’ll be excited about it too.
But if you want the truth, there’s barely any visual difference between one Moon compared to another. The deviation from the average is only around seven percent. When the Moon is low and near the horizon, it always looks enormous thanks to the Moon Illusion; but all high-up Moons pretty much look the same. So people go out to see the “supermoon,” observe no real difference and get turned off to astronomy.
What are the truly dramatic celestial sights? The ones that are easy to see and do not disappoint?
To the naked eye, without any equipment or knowledge of the sky, they are:
A rich meteor shower. Those are the August Perseids and the December Geminids, and once a century, the November Leonids. Even then, the Moon must not be bright.
A lunar eclipse.
The summer Milky Way on a moonless night, away from artificial lights.
The aurora borealis.
A striking conjunction, like the one this weekend.
An array of bright planets in a line.
Best of all, a total solar eclipse.
Through a modest backyard telescope, the most impressive objects are the Moon at any phase except Full; the planet Saturn; possibly Jupiter; and, a double star, if each of the components has a different color.
For us who live away from the lights of any big city, the stars and constellations remain special most of the time – especially on moonless nights like this entire coming week.