In this first chronicle of the New Year, we look at the main astronomical events that await sky-lovers over the coming twelve months…
Four eclipses, both solar and lunar, will occur in 2014; three of them will be visible, either completely or in part, from Quebec.
The first, a total eclipse of the Moon, will take place during the early morning hours of April 15: In Quebec, totality terminates just before dawn while the final partial phases will unfold at daybreak. Spica, the brightest star in Virgo, will be situated just next to the eclipsed Moon.
Six months later, on October 8, a second total lunar eclipse will commence during the wee hours of the morning; once again, you’ll have to wake up early if you wish to see it. However, for viewers in Quebec, dawn will break just after totality begins: In other words, the totally eclipsed Moon will set in the west just as the Sun rises in the east!
Also in October, at day’s end on the 23rd, there will be a partial eclipse of the Sun, visible in varying degrees throughout a large part of North America. Maximum eclipse will be visible from the western part of Hudson Bay to the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. In western Quebec, the eclipse will get underway as the Sun sets. In Montreal, for example, the eclipse will begin 15 minutes before sunset: When the Sun reaches the horizon, the Moon will mask just 9% of its surface; in Quebec City, only 2% of the solar surface will be eclipsed at sunset. Though it doesn’t qualify as spectacular, this eclipse can certainly be considered a noteworthy curiosity.
Meteor showers are a recurrent phenomenon whose visual quality can be predicted with a fair measure of accuracy. With this in mind, let’s begin with the Perseids: This year won’t be spectacular for the famous August meteors, since their peak period coincides with the full Moon. However, other interesting showers that are somewhat less known to the public, will benefit from favourable observing conditions in 2014.
For example, the Quadrantids are expected to reach their maximum on January 3, less than three days after the new Moon. Observing conditions will be excellent for this meteor shower, which despite its “lesser-known” status, is nonetheless one of the two most prolific of the year. On the downside: the time predicted for the shower’s maximum favours observers in Asia. Given that the Quadrantids’ maximum is of short duration, there might only be a few meteors left to see when night falls in Quebec and the rest of North America. The shower’s radiant is located in the northern part of Boötes, where the obsolete constellation, Quadrans Muralis, used to be. (Mural Quadrants were astronomical instruments used for measuring the elevation of stars above the horizon.)
The Eta Aquarids in May, the Orionids in October and the Geminids in December are all showers of medium to strong intensity, which will benefit from favourable observing conditions in 2014.
However, the most intense shower of the year may well occur early on the morning of May 24, when Earth crosses the debris trail left behind by Comet 209P/LINEAR. Around 3:00 A.M. Eastern Time, just before dawn, we might see a pronounced jump in meteoric activity, which could surpass 100 meteors per hour. The lunar crescent will be in its final stages, just four days before new Moon, so moonlight will not hamper observations significantly. The meteors’ radiant is in Camelopardalis, the Giraffe, which is located near the North Star between Cassiopeia and Ursa Major. An event to watch for!
The planets this year
During the first few days of January, Venus remains visible low in the southwest at twilight, but the dazzling planet will disappear in the glow of sunset shortly thereafter. It moves between the Sun and Earth on January 11 and reappears a few days later in the morning sky, where it will spend most of the year, greeting early risers until October, before returning to the evening sky at year’s end.
Jupiter starts the year off with a flourish: On January 5, the giant planet is in opposition, which is the best time to observe the planets. Not only is Jupiter closest to Earth, and brightest, but it is also opposite the Sun in the sky: It rises at sunset and sets at dawn. Around the middle of the night in January, Jupiter’s elevation will be very high; that’s the ideal position for studying it through a telescope. Over the following months, Jupiter will culminate progressively earlier in the evening. The giant planet disappears in the glow of twilight in June and will reappear at dawn toward the end of summer.
In April, it’s Mars’ turn to reach opposition — an important time when it comes to observing the Red Planet in particular. Mars is so tiny, the optimum window for examining it through telescope lasts only about twelve weeks; and that only happens once every 26 months. Unfortunately for us, Mars is currently in Virgo, a region of sky that never gets very high as seen from Quebec. None-the-less, this year from early March to early June, telescopes everywhere will be pointed at the Red Planet. Mars will continue to shine in the evening sky until the beginning of 2015.
After Mars, Saturn is next to reach opposition in May. The ringed planet is currently in Libra — also low on the horizon — which reduces the quality of telescopic images. Despite this fact, Saturn’s magnificent rings are presently inclined 22 degrees toward Earth: This open aspect provides a fascinating view.
Mercury has an excellent apparition in the evening sky from January 20 to February 5. You’ll find the tiny planet in the west-southwest at twilight; look for the crescent Moon shining nearby on the evening of January 31! Mercury will have another very good evening apparition in May, and a third window of visibility will open from the last week of October to mid-November, in the morning sky.
The most outstanding planetary conjunction of the year will occur on August 18, at the first light of dawn: Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest planets, will rise alongside each other on the east-northeast horizon, separated by just a quarter-degree. At daybreak, on August 23, the lunar crescent will appear near the duo, forming a spectacular celestial triangle in the morning twilight.
Here’s to clear skies, and happy New Year!