A big reason people observe nature is to recognize interesting patterns, like the cycles of the Moon and Sun or the shapes of constellations.
Obviously, many patterns are so commonplace that they merit no discussion. City-dwellers expect to hear garbage trucks in the morning. Everyone expects long days in the summer. What more can be said of such obvious facets of life? The observer’s joy lies in uncovering previously unknown patterns lurking within these larger ones.
For example: Sure, winter is not just darker than other seasons, but also colder. But relatively few know that it’s also windier. Or that winter clouds are mostly vast, flat blank sheets that we view from below, while summer clouds tend to be puffy cumulus whose large vertical dimensions assure that they’re commonly viewed sideways.
Since the night sky’s rhythms are known by so few in our modern era, the patterns of planets, meteors and eclipses are sufficiently unknown that the following highlights of the new year will be revelatory to virtually everyone. Consider: Mars comes close to Earth and thus appears brilliant in a 26-month cycle. So its good and bad years alternate.
Well, 2018 brought us an extraordinarily close visit of the Red Planet – so much so that it’s still brilliant, though fading steadily. It’s that very bright orange “star” fully halfway up the sky, upper left of where the Sun sets each evening. It’ll remain easy to see the next couple of months. But, since it came close in 2018, it will not do so in 2019. Expect it to fade out and be a dud most of this year.
Venus displays slow cycles of being a morning star for about 10 months, then an evening star for that same interval. Well, our “Sister Planet” starts the new year as a dazzling morning star that will remain eyecatching around 6:30 to 7 a.m. until early spring. Then it will lurk behind the Sun, lost in glare during the warm months of 2019. It won’t begin its conspicuous apparition as an evening star until December. In a nutshell: not a great Venus year. The opposite is true of Jupiter and Saturn. They will both be at their brightest and most conspicuous this summer, and will remain well-seen through the fall.
In 2019, our region gets one fabulous total lunar eclipse – in just a few weeks, on January 20. There will also be a total solar eclipse, but it can only be viewed from parts of Chile and Argentina, on July 2. Even the partial phases of that event won’t be visible north of Panama. Our own expedition, Special Interest Tours, is sold out.
There will be two major meteor showers. Unfortunately, the Geminids on December 13 will be washed out by a Full Moon. The Perseids can only be well-seen during the two-and-a-half-hour window between moonset and sunrise, from 3 to 5:30 a.m. on August 12. Those willing to set the alarm should then see one to two meteors a minute.
As for the chances for a bright aurora around here: They are minimal in 2019, since we are now smack at the low point of the 11-year Carrington cycle, finishing solar cycle 24 and poised to begin cycle 25. The Sun’s surface just had 100 days of absolute blankness, with solar storms essentially absent. Auroras increase around sunspot maximum, with the maximum for cycle number 25 now expected in 2024.
Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyOne.com. Check out Bob’s new podcast, Astounding Universe, co-hosted by Pulse of the Planet’s Jim Metzner.