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Meteor Showers, Comets + More Predictions for 2013

Monday, December 31, 2012

 

I can’t believe it is once again time to preview the visibility forecast for a new year of meteor showers and other astronomical events. Where has the time gone? If you are reading this column it is obvious the Doomsday 2012 scenarios passed us by so we can celebrate another year of stargazing.

While many of the meteor showers for 2012 were not spectacular, and we were clouded out locally for the transit of Venus, the skies did cooperate from time-to-time to provide some decent views of the heavens.

So what does 2013 have in store for us here in Southern New England? Let me highlight some of the major events we will have the opportunity to experience.

Eclipses

In 2013 there are five eclipses—two solar and three lunar. Of the two solar eclipses, the total eclipse of November 3 will be visible for a short time as a partial eclipse at sunrise. Some members of Skyscrapers have already been “scoping” out locations in Rhode Island from where they will get an unobstructed view of the eastern sky.

While the penumbral lunar eclipse on May 24-25 will technically be visible from our location, the Moon will just barely graze the Earth’s lighter shadow and will not be noticeable. A much “deeper” penumbral lunar eclipse will occur on October 8 from about 5:48pm until 9:52pm EDT as the Moon slides farther into the Earth’s lighter shadow. At mid-eclipse a keen observer should notice a slight darkening of a portion of the lunar surface.

Jupiter, Saturn, Venus + Mercury

In addition, Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, will be well placed for observing from all of the local observatories. But also, if you have even a small telescope it will easily reveal Jupiter’s bands and zones and his four Galilean moons. Jupiter can be exciting to observe as these moons parade around in the equatorial plane of the planet, providing a number of events to observe, including eclipses, transits and occultations. Jupiter will remain easily visible through May.

Also, while Saturn will be observable in the early morning hours during the winter months, as we move into spring this beautiful ringed world will rise earlier and earlier. On February 7, Saturn will rise before midnight, and by April 28 magnificent Saturn will rise above the eastern horizon at sunset. It will remain visible to evening stargazers for several months.

Venus and Mercury will be visible before sunrise and after sunset at various times during 2013. During the end of May you will be able to find Jupiter, Venus and Mercury above the western horizon after sunset. In fact, on May 26, this conjunction of planets will form a beautiful triangle contained within a three-degree circle. That’s only six Full Moon diameters. It will be a beautiful sight to the naked-eye and through binoculars.

Comet!

But perhaps the most exciting event for 2013 will be the arrival of a new comet heading inbound towards the Sun from the outer reaches of our solar system. At its closest approach (perihelion) to the Sun on November 28, 2013, it will pass within approximately 750,000 miles of the solar surface. If Comet ISON survives this close encounter, it is predicted to be easily visible to the naked-eye before dawn and after sunset through the first couple of weeks of December. Some predictions have the comet appearing brighter than the Full Moon, and even possibly so bright it will be seen in broad daylight. But, as famed comet discoverer David H. Levy has said about comets, “Comets are like cats: they have tails, and they do precisely what they want.” 

We can only hope that Mother Nature will cooperate and provide us some cloud-free skies so we can enjoy the celestial sights noted above. But wait, there’s more. I know many readers of this column love to venture outside into a clear and dark sky to watch for “burning rocks” to fall from the sky. As you may remember, 2012 was perhaps the best meteor shower observing year in some time. Can we expect the same to occur for 2013? Only time will tell.

Meteor Showers for 2013

I like to plan ahead to see what meteor showers will be seen to best advantage for the coming year. And I know many of you will be excited to know that the viewing prospects for some of the shooting star displays will benefit from favorable Moon phases.

It’s always nice to welcome in the new-year with the Quadrantid meteor shower. Unfortunately for 2013 the peak activity will occur around 8:00am on January 3 (about an hour after sunrise) for us on the east coast. This shooting star display has a very sharp peak lasting only about two hours, so it is likely we will miss the best numbers this shower has to offer. Combine the poor timing with a bright waning gibbous Moon (almost last quarter), and I suspect observers will not count an abundance of meteors. Still, predictions can be wrong. The radiant point, the area of sky from where the meteors appear to originate, is not far from the end star (Alkaid) of the Big Dipper’s handle. From midnight till dawn this area of sky will rise higher and higher above the north-east horizon, and by 4:00am it will be almost at zenith (directly overhead).

Select an observing location as far from interfering lights as possible. In addition, please dress warmly if you plan on spending more than a just a few minutes outdoors viewing the Quadrantids. If you scan the sky with the Moon to your back you will maximize your chances of seeing as many meteors as possible. The Quadrantids are often blue and frequently blaze more than halfway across the sky at 25.5 miles per second. (The night of January 3 to the early morning hours of the 4th will produce even fewer shooting stars.)

The observing prospects for the rest of the major meteor showers for 2013 are not the greatest, but also not the worse we have seen in the past either. At least the August Perseids will peak once a waxing crescent Moon has set. As usual, all we have to do is hope for cloud-free skies so we can enjoy the shooting star displays when they occur.

Clip and save this 2013 meteor shower prospects chart and use it to plan your observing schedule for the coming year. I will highlight the specifics of each shower in my monthly columns as the peak dates approach.

Clip & Save: Meteor Shower Prospects for 2013

  Month

Shower

Date

Moon Phase

 

 

 

 

January

Quadrantids

3-4

Waning Gibbous

April

Lyrids

21-22

Waxing Gibbous

May

Eta Aquarids

5-6

Waning Gibbous

July

Delta Aquarids

28-30

Last Quarter

July

Capricornids

29-30

Last Quarter

August

Perseids

12-13

Waxing Crescent

October

Orionids

20-21

Waning Gibbous

November

Leonids

16-17

Full Moon

December

Geminids

13-14

Waxing Gibbous

 

Let’s hope 2013 will reward all of us stargazers with clear skies to explore the wonders of the heavens.

Happy New Year!

 

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