What astronomical phenomena will capture our attention in January and throughout the year? Check out the information below to get the lowdown.
Among the major annual meteor showers, only the Quadrantids (on the night of January 3–4) and the Eta Aquariids (May 4 before dawn) benefit from favourable conditions in 2019. Unfortunately, the famous Perseids in mid-August, the Orionids in October, the Leonids in November and the Geminids in December all hit their peak around the full Moon and suffer from its pesky presence and overpowering light.
Eclipses and transits
Three solar eclipses and two lunar eclipses take place in 2019, but only one is visible from southern Quebec: a total lunar eclipse on the night of January 20–21. As of 10:33 p.m. ET, we begin to see the circular profile of Earth’s shadow cast on the full Moon: this marks the start of the partial phases of the eclipse. From 11:41 p.m. to 12:43 a.m., the Moon is totally obscured by Earth’s shadow and takes on the famous orangey red hue of lunar eclipses. Maximum eclipse is reached at 12:12 a.m. After totality, the partial phases play out in reverse and wrap up at 1:50 a.m.
In Montreal, everybody can fully enjoy the phenomenon because the eclipsed Moon is in an ideal position: very high in the sky, at 64 degrees above the southern horizon at its maximum. The next total lunar eclipse completely visible from Quebec occurs only in three years, on the night of May 15–16, 2022.
Note, too, that this eclipse coincides with what we commonly call a “supermoon”; the full Moon occurs on January 21 at 12:16 a.m., less than 15 hours before its perigee (357,337 km at 3:06 p.m.). This is the second biggest full moon of the year, with an apparent diameter of 33.4': the one on February 19 will be slightly closer and imperceptibly larger.
Another sort of “mini-eclipse” is set for November 11 when the silhouette of the tiny planet Mercury moves across the Sun’s face for nearly five and a half hours (from 7:35 a.m. to 1:04 p.m. ET). At maximum transit, around 10:20 a.m., the Sun is 24 degrees high in the south-southeast. Don’t miss this transit of Mercury because you’ll need to wait almost 30 years before seeing another from Quebec, on May 7, 2049.
Mercury also makes an excellent appearance in the evening sky from February 15 to March 4. You can spot the tiny planet above the west-southwestern horizon 30 to 45 minutes after sunset. Mercury also makes two good appearances in the morning sky in the second half of the year (from August 4 to 29 and from November 18 to December 14).
Venus is truly the planetary “star” in early 2019. The Morning Star shines like a spotlight in the southeast as of 5 a.m., and in the south-southeast once the light of dawn appears. From January 21 to 24, Venus and Jupiter come within 3 degrees of each other; the gap between the two brightest planets is at its minimum, less than 2.5 degrees, on the morning of January 22. The Moon joins the dynamic duo on the morning of January 31 with the crescent lying between them, only 2.5 degrees to the right of Venus. Through a telescope, you can clearly make out the phase of the dazzling planet, which goes from “half-Venus” early in the month to gibbous by late January and becomes increasingly “full” until the summer. Unfortunately, the visibility of Venus dwindles rapidly this winter. The planet appears lower and lower on the horizon and ends up spending most of the year lost in the Sun’s glow. Venus is back in solar conjunction on August 14, on the other side of our star. Once the planet emerges in the evening sky in fall, observation conditions are just as poor. Not till November does Venus finally achieve a bit of height at twilight.
Jupiter moves quickly away from the Sun at dawn and continues on its way after its encounter in January with Venus. The giant planet is in opposition on June 10 and clearly visible this summer in the constellation Ophiuchus. Jupiter sinks into the southwestern horizon at twilight this fall but passes Venus again on the evening of November 24 with less than 1.5 degrees between the two.
Mars isn’t in opposition this year, and it remains far away, tiny and fairly dim throughout 2019. Solar conjunction occurs on September 2, and Mars then lies on the other side of the Sun, at 2.675 astronomical units from Earth. Better luck in fall 2020! The red planet is nevertheless clearly visible this winter at twilight and in the early evening, very high in the southwest. On the evening of January 12, the crescent Moon lies 5 degrees to the left of Mars.
As for Saturn, it isn’t visible in early 2019 since it’s in conjunction with the Sun on January 2 and reappears only late in the month, at dawn, above the southeastern horizon. The ringed planet spends the year in Sagittarius, a region of the sky that doesn’t rise very high on the horizon at our latitude, and so observations are trickier. Nonetheless, it’s worth looking through a telescope at its beautiful rings, which are tilted about 24 degrees toward Earth in 2019. Till late May, Saturn is visible only in the second half of the night, but you can observe it in the evening from summer till late fall. Saturn is in opposition on July 9. In November, Venus drifts away from the Sun and, after passing Jupiter, continues its journey toward Saturn. On December 10 at twilight, the two planets are in conjunction and less than 2 degrees apart.
Finally, Earth is at perihelion (the point in its orbit closest to the Sun) on January 3 at 12:20 a.m. At that time, our distance from the Sun is 147,099,761 km, about 5 million km closer to our star than at aphelion on July 4. This goes to show that the annual variation in the distance between the Sun and us isn’t the main factor explaining the change in seasons.
Best Wishes for 2019, and clear skies!
Public lunar eclipse watching events on January 20-21
Come and watch the eclipse with us at Planetarium Rio Tinto Alcan! Staff and volunteers will have telescopes set up for the public. Please refer to the Facebook Event for details. Important note: If the weather conditions are unfavourable, the event will be cancelled.
Other public eclipse watching events around Montreal and elsewhere in the province are listed on the website of the Fédération des astronomes amateurs du Québec (FAAQ).
If you can’t attend any of these events, or if the sky where you live simply refuses to cooperate, you can still watch live webcasts of the eclipse. Here's a selection: