OUT OF THIS WORLD | Seasonal Skywatching – a preview of what to look for in the sky for the season ahead
Meteorologist / Science Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2018, 8:21 PM – As the days grow colder, and the nights get longer, winter is approaching! Here are the top skywatching events for Winter 2018-2019, and a few extras to keep your eye out for, as well.
Winter may not be the easiest time of year to stargaze, but it can be the most rewarding.
Clear winter nights often present the best viewing, compared to other seasons, as the air overhead tends to be drier and more stable. Stars, planets and the Moon appear crisper and cleaner, as their light encounters less turbulence in the air before it reaches us. The drier air also reflects our urban centers, so our skies tend to be darker, allowing us to see more stars, and more of the dimmer meteors during annual meteor showers.
So, stay warm when you head out to skywatching this coming season, and do not miss these great events.
• December 22 – Longest Full Moon of 2018
January 3 – Earth at perihelion
• January 3-4 – Quadrantid meteor shower peaks
• January 20-21 – Super Blood Wolf Moon Total Lunar Eclipse
• February 21 – Zodiacal Light after evening twilight, western sky for two weeks
March 20 – Equinox
• Bonus – Conjunctions and Alignments (January 22 – February 27)
DECEMBER 22 – LONGEST FULL MOON OF 2018
This year, December's Full Cold Moon falls on the night of the 22nd, just one night after the longest night of the year.
On that night, the moon will rise at 5 p.m. local time, and it will set at 8:32 a.m. on the morning of the 23rd, for a Full Full Moon viewing time of 15 hours and 32 minutes!
That's the longest Full Moon of the whole year!
We have not seen a Full Moon last time since December 2010 (when it was in the sky for 15 hours and 54 minutes on the 20th-21st)!
Januari 3 – EARTH AT PERIHELION
This event is not so much to see. Instead, it's something simply to experience, as Earth passes through what's known as perihelion.
As Earth travels around the Sun, it does not trace a perfect circle. It actually follows an elliptical path.
This means that, even while we typically use an average distance from the Sun of 1 astronomical unit or 1 AU, equal to 150 million km, at some points of its orbit, Earth is close to the Sun, and at other points, it is farther away.
This schematic of Earth's orbit exaggerates the elliptical shape of the orbit, and the relative sizes of Earth, Moon and Sun. Credit: NASA
Every year, on or around January 3, Earth reaches its closest point to the Sun. This is called perihelion.
If you want to mark the exact moment, pause for a short break in your night, at exactly 05:20 UTC, on January 3.
• 1:50 a.m. Jan 3 Newfoundland Standard Time
• 1:20 a.m. Jan 3 Atlantic Standard Time
• 12:20 a.m. Jan 3 Eastern Standard Time
• 11:20 p.m. Jan 2 Central Standard Time
• 10:20 p.m. Jan 2 Mountain Standard Time
• 9:20 p.m. Jan 2 Pacific Standard Time
Will you feel anything when this occurs? Not specifically from the astronomical event, but it is still pretty cool to mark the moment when it happens.
JANUARY 3-4 – QUADRANTID METEOR SHOWER PEAKS
New Years – the Quadrantids.
The location of the Quadrantid radiant, on the night of January 3-4, 2019. Credit: Stellarium / Scott Sutherland
Unlike 2018's Quadrantid shower, which was mostly washed out by a very bright, almost full moon, this year's meteor shower is happening while the moon is just a thin sliver of a crescent, which slips beyond the shortly after sunset.
That means we'll have a nice dark sky for the entire night, and the observers have the faintest of meteors flashing through the sky during the January 3-4 peak of the shower.
The Quadrantids, which originate from an asteroid known as 2003 EH1 (likely an extinct comet), is only one of two known meteor showers to originate from a rocky body (the December Geminids is the other). Both of these meteor showers put on excellent displays, as well, with the Quadrantids delivering a average of 120 meteors per hour (although the actual rate can vary from around 60 to close to 200)!
HOW TO WATCH METEOR SHOWERS
The first thing to consider when a meteor shower is to keep track of the weather.
Be sure to check The Weather Network on TV, on our website, or just to be sure that you have the most up-to-date forecast.
Next, you need to get away from city lights, and the farther away you can get, the better.
Watch below: What light pollution is doing to city views of the Milky Way
For most of the areas of Canada, a town or village is a matter of driving outside your city, town or village. Some areas, however, such as in the southwestern and central Ontario, and along the St Lawrence River, the concentration of light pollution is very high. Getting far enough out of a city to escape its light pollution, unfortunately, tends to put you under the city of the next city over. In these areas, there are dark sky preserves, however a skywatcher's best bet for dark skies is usually to drive north.
Once you've verified you have clear skies, and you've escaped from urban light pollution, stop somewhere safe and dark (provincial parks, even if you are confined to the parking lot, are usually an excellent location).
For best viewing, in order to see the most meteors possible, it's crucial that you give your eyes time to adapt to the dark. Between 30-45 minutes is optimal.
During that time, avoid all the bright sources of light, including your cellphone screen. If you need to use your cellphone, consider lowering the amount of blue light your screen gives off and reduce its brightness. Also, there are apps that can put your phone into 'night mode', which shifts the screen colors even more into the red. Once you've done that, checking your phone while skywatching will not have as big impact on your night vision.
Note: Although the meteor shower appears in the sky, where the meteors appear to originate from – the meteors themselves can show up anywhere in the sky.
So, the best way to watch a meteor shower is so you can look straight up, so that you can see as much as the sky as you can, all at once. Bring a blanket to spread on the ground, or a lawn chair to sit in, or even lean back against your car.
Bringing along some family and friends is also great, because it's best to share these experiences with others.
JANUARY 20-21 – SUPER WOLF MOON TOTAL LUNAR ECLIPSE
Nearly a year after 2018's "Super Blue Moon Total Lunar Eclipse", we're going to see another, though this one will not be "blue".
On the night of January 21-22, the Full Wolf Moon will pass through the northern half of Earth's shadow, producing a Total Lunar Eclipse. The graphic above shows the path of the Moon through the penumbral and umbral shadows, and it details the timing of the eclipse, for various time-zones across Canada.
For an added bonus, since the moon will be very near perigee – its closest distance to Earth – it will be a 'Super Blood Wolf Moon 'Total Lunar Eclipse.
Hope for clear skies for this event, since we'll have another Total Lunar Eclipse so nicely centered over North America (so that everyone in Canada has a chance to see it), until May 2022!
FEBRUARY 21 – THE ZODIACAL LIGHT
This winter, the evening skywatchers will have a chance to see the deep cloud of interplanetary dust that encircles the Sun, which manifests in our night sky as a phenomenon known as "The Zodiacal Light".
In the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's 2019 Observer's Handbook, Dr. Roy Bishop, Emeritus Professor of Physics from Acadia University, wrote:
The zodiacal light appears as a huge, softly radiant pyramid of white light with its base near the horizon, and its axis centered on the zodiac (or better, the ecliptic). In its brightest parts, it exceeds the luminance of the Central Milky Way.
According to Dr. Bishop, event though this phenomenon can be very bright, it can easily be spoiled by moonlight, haze or light pollution. Also, since the best viewed just after twilight, the inexperienced sometimes confused it for the twilight, and thus miss out.
On clear nights, and under dark skies, look at the western horizon, in the half an hour just after twilight has faded, from about February 21 to March 7.
MARCH 20 – EQUINOX
As our Earth travels in its orbit, the tilt of the planet causes the angle of the sun to change in our sky.
From the late September to the late March, the North Pole is angled away from the Sun, so that the Sun is positioned more directly over the southern hemisphere, and the sun reaches its lowest point in the northern sky (and highest in the south sky) on or around December 22.
From the late March to late September, the south pole is angled away from the sun, so that the sun is positioned more directly over the northern hemisphere, reaching its highest point in the southern sky (and the lowest in the south sky) on or around June 22.
At the two points in between these periods – specifically around March 20 and September 22 – it appears to us as though the sun crosses the equator. In March, it crosses from south to north, and in September, it crosses from north to south.
The exact moment that the Sun appears to be over the equator, in either case, is known as an Equinox.
Which hemisphere you're in, at the time, determines exactly what kind of equinox you're experiencing. In March, the northern hemisphere marks the vernal equinox, while the southern hemisphere marks the autumnal equinox. In September, it's the opposite.
The coming equinox, marking the beginning of spring in the north and autumn in the south, occurs at exactly 5:58 p.m. EDT, on March 20.
CONJUNCTIONS AND ALIGNMENTS
On some occasions, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are the most notable), at least at some point during the night.
On the Nights of the year, these objects appear especially closely together, which astronomers refer to it as a 'conjunction', while on other nights, many of these bright objects can line up across the sky in an'alignment'.
Here are the notable conjunctions and alignments for Winter 2019
These Winter 2019 conjunctions and alignments are all in the early, pre-dawn morning. Credit: Stellarium / Scott Sutherland
• January 22 and 23 – Venus-Jupiter conjunctions
• January 31 – Venus-Moon-Jupiter alignment
February 18 – Venus-Saturn conjunction, near Jupiter
February 27 – Jupiter-Moon conjunction, with Venus and Saturn nearby
• February 28 – Venus-Saturn-Moon-Jupiter alignment
What's up for the rest of the year? There are plenty going on, but the largest of the sun is the sun's eclipse, and the November transit of Mercury across the sun!
Sources: IMO | Royal Astronomical Society of Canada
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