Astronomy 2013: Comet ISON, Meteor Showers, Eclipses, Comet PANSTARRS, Supermoon, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, etc
February 3, 2013 in Space
2013 is going to be an amazing year for amateur astronomers. Two major comets, Comet ISON and Comet PANSTARRS, will be visible. Some great meteor showers are expected, a couple of solar and lunar eclipses, the “Dance of the Planets”, and a very bright Mercury in February and very bright Venus in December are expected.
The list below has everything that you need to enjoy the year — the best dates, times, and places to observe from.
Astronomy 2013: Best Astronomical Events of the Year
Super Bright Mercury
Best Date To See: February 16
Mercury follows a very close orbit around the Sun, and also a very eccentric one. As a result its visibility when seen from the Earth changes cyclically, ranging considerably in its apparent magnitude, from -2.6 to 5.7, and also varying quite a bit in its apparent distance from the Sun.
Because the planet is much closer to the Sun than the Earth is, it’s only visible for a short time after sunrise or before sunset (when the Sun is below the horizon or close to it), and only occasionally at that.
So, the best time to see the planet is when it appears to be at its greatest distance (elongation) from the Sun, while also being towards the brighter end of its range. Which is exactly what’s happening on February 16.
On February 16th, Mercury will be located about 11 degrees above the west-southwestern horizon (when seen from mid-northern latitudes), around a half hour or so after sunset. It will be very bright by this point, peaking roughly around a magnitude of -1.2.
The planet will also be visible for a week or so before and after the 16th, or possibly longer, so whenever you have the time, give it a shot. Since it will be visible only very close to the horizon, it’s best to find some place very flat to watch from (the beach is excellent).
Best Dates To See: March 10-24
Comet PANSTARRS (C/2011 L4), discovered in 2011, will be passing by the Earth on March 5, and making its closest approach to the Sun on March 10. March 10 through March 24 will likely be the best days to see it, but that will depend somewhat on whether or not it follows predictions. Either way, it should end up visible to the naked eye for at least a few days. It has been predicted that it could possibly get as bright as magnitude -4, which is about as bright as Venus. Unlike Venus, though, PANSTARRS will probably possess a very large tail that stretches across the sky.
Recently, there has been an observed slowdown in Comet PANSTARRS process of brightening, though, which means that the comet may end up ‘only’ as bright as magnitude +1. Which is still rather bright, and for those with cameras or telescopes will still be very interesting. Hopefully it does end up brighter than +1, but comets are notoriously unpredictable, so we will have to wait and see.
Partial Lunar Eclipse
When: April 25
For those in Europe, Africa, Australia, and the majority of Asia, a very minor partial lunar eclipse will occur on April 25th. It’ll be best seen from the Southern Hemisphere, and will not be visible at all from North America.
It will last about 27 minutes, from around 13h44 to 14h11 UTC, and will be located in the constellation of Virgo when seen from the Earth.
Annular Solar Eclipse
When: May 10
An annular solar eclipse, also known as a “ring of fire” eclipse, will be occurring on May 10th. Annularity will be visible from northern Australia and the Southern Pacific, and Hawaii will get a partial show. In Australia, the eclipse will begin in the morning after sunrise. And in Hawaii, it will be towards mid-afternoon. The “ring of fire” will last for up to six minutes in some locations that are directly on the eclipse’s path.
Dance of the Planets
Best Dates To See: May 24-30
During the week of May 24th through 30th, the planets Venus, Mercury, and Jupiter will be visible after sunset, seemingly ‘dancing’ around each other, changing places every night. So, during the twilight hours of late May, if you look towards the west-northwest portion of the sky, you can see three of the brightest objects in the sky seemingly packed tightly together, even though they are really separated by vast distances.
‘Supermoon’, Biggest And Brightest Moon of 2013
When: June 23
The Full Moon occurring on the morning of June 23rd will be the brightest one of the year, a ‘Supermoon’. The moon will be only 221,824 miles away at the time — over 30,000 miles closer than it is when its at farthest distance from us. In addition to appearing somewhat larger and brighter than normal, Supermoons also cause tides that are stronger than normal.
Peak of Meteor Shower: August 12
The Perseids are consistently one of the most interesting meteor showers of the year. They vary somewhat, but can be expected to produce at least 70-80 meteors an hour, when seen from a dark rural place. Because of their occurrence during the pleasant summer months (for those in the Northern Hemisphere), they’re probably the most watched meteor shower of the year.
The moon isn’t expected to cause any problems this year, as it will be setting in the early evening, so the show should be quite good!
Penumbral Lunar Eclipse
When: October 18
A penumbral lunar eclipse will be occurring on October 18th, the last lunar eclipse of the year. It will be best seen from Africa and Europe, but the Americas and Asia can catch some of it. Those in the U.S., especially on the West Coast, will only catch the middle and end of the eclipse. When moonrise occurs there, the eclipse will already be in progress. The eclipse begins at 21:50 UT and ends at 01:50 UT.
Hybrid Solar Eclipse
When: November 3
On November 3rd, a hybrid solar eclipse will be occurring, primarily visible from Africa, but those in Florida and the Caribbean will also be able to see totality. Gabon will get the best view, with the totality there lasting for 1 minute and 39 seconds, though the rest of central and east Africa should get a good show also.
Best Dates To See: Mid-November 2013 Through Mid-January 2014
What will possibly be the brightest comet seen in centuries will be visible later this year, from around the middle of November until the middle of January. Comet ISON, also known as C/2012 S1, will make its closest approach to the Sun (perihelion) on November 28th, very possibly becoming brighter than the Full Moon by then, and will be visible in broad daylight.
After passing by the Sun (if it survives), it may start to dim slightly, but should remain highly visible, and possibly with a very long tail, until around the middle of January. It will be making its closest approach to the Earth on December 26th, at about 39 million miles away. The Earth will then pass through the debris trail left by Comet ISON on January 14-15 2014, possibly triggering meteor showers.
The overall time frame is: visible with binoculars by August, visible with the naked eye by November or possibly late October, peaking towards the end of November/early December, then visible until mid-January, and possibly ending with a meteor shower.
Interestingly, ISON shares a very similar orbit with the Great Comet of 1680, which was a very bright, long-tailed comet, so it’s possible that the two were formed from the same fragmented parent body. In which case, ISON may possibly end up as spectacular as that comet was.
It’s important to note, though, that predicting the brightness of a comet is very difficult, and certainly not an exact science, so there is some variability about how Comet ISON may turn out. If all goes well, it could be the brightest comet seen in a long time.
Best Dates To See: All Of December
December will be the best month for watching Venus in all of 2013 and 2014. The ‘evening star’ will be visible for a few hours every night throughout the whole month. Always the brightest ‘star’ in the sky, Venus will truly stand out this month, it’ll be hard to miss.
Peak of Meteor Shower: December 14
Though they are a somewhat ‘new’ meteor shower, the Geminids have become one of the best meteor showers of the year. They also appear to be intensifying every year, so this year could be even better than the last. The moon will be in its bright phase around December 14th this year, so if you want a really good show, you’ll need to wait until after the moon sets, around 4:30am. The meteor shower is very prolific either way, though, if it’s dark you can expect up to 120 meteors an hour, or maybe even more.
Image Credits: Venus, Supermoon, Lunar Eclipse, Ring of Fire, Solar Eclipse, Comet Sunset, Comet Holmes, Lunar Eclipse, via Wikimedia Commons; Mercury and Venus, Perseids, Geminids, and Milky Way, The Dark Half via Flickr CC