The planets in 2012
Planet wise, the most captivating show will take place in March: As the month begins, all five naked-eye planets will be visible in the sky! Early in the evening toward the west, Venus and Jupiter are the first to gain our attention — along with tiny Mercury, just above the west-southwest horizon, which as a bonus, has one of its best apparitions of the year. At the same time, Mars rises in the east. The Red Planet will be at opposition on March 3, and as a result will be at it closest to the Earth, until April 2014. This isn’t the most favourable opposition for Mars, but the planet will none-the-less, be brighter than at any other time of the year. Let’s make the most of it!
Still in March, but somewhat later in the evening, Saturn rises in turn, and displays its rings to admiring astronomers. The rings’ inclination makes them a breathtaking sight through even the smallest amateur telescope. The waltz of the planet continues throughout the month. Venus and Jupiter approach one another around mid-March, and a thin crescent Moon joins the dazzling pair at month’s end. At the beginning of April, Venus passes in front of the Pleiades star cluster, which should provide a magnificent view through binoculars.
Eclipses and transits
This year, the cycle of eclipses won’t favour us, although an annular eclipse of the Sun will be partially visible from western Quebec on May 20, at the end of the day. For western inhabitants of the province, the Sun will set before the eclipse reaches mid-course, which will result in a “solar crescent” at sunset. Of course, precautions are mandatory anytime you observe the Sun: Use appropriate solar filters or observe the Sun’s image projected on a screen. For aficionados who are willing to travel to the four corners of the globe, another solar eclipse — this one total — will be visible in mid-November from the south pacific and northern Australia. Among the eclipses, not visible from Quebec, there will be a partial eclipse of the Moon on the morning of June 4, which can only be seen in its entirety from western North America.
But there’s a different kind of eclipse that you can experience, which involves the planet Venus passing in front of the Sun’s disk. This transit of Venus, the last one before 2117, will occur at the end of the day on June 5. From Quebec, we’ll see the beginning of the transit (which lasts more than six hours) but the Sun will set before Venus completes its passage across the solar disk. If you’re on the northwest coast of North America, you’ll be able to see the entire event. Again, precautions are necessary: use solar filters installed on binoculars or on a small telescope to observe this phenomenon.
Meteors and the aurora borealis
When you think of meteor showers, the Perseids streaking across starry, mid-August skies immediately come to mind. But they are not the only meteor shower of note — far from it! In 2012, meteor lovers will find pleasure with the Lyrids, which reach their peak on April 21 & 22; the Orionids on October 20 & 21; the Leonids, November 17 & 18; and best of all, the Geminids, December 13 & 14. In the case of the last two showers, the cold nights are free from humidity, which under dark skies should greatly improve meteor visibility. For all five showers mentioned above (including the Perseids), the Moon should not hinder observations noticeably.
Contrary to eclipses, planetary conjunctions or even meteor showers, the aurorae borealis are, by nature, an unpredictable phenomenon: They flare up with little warning, filling the northern sky with dancing curtains of coloured light. However, it is possible to anticipate their appearance: When the Sun becomes active, eruptions at the solar surface eject streams of charged particles across interplanetary space, toward Earth. But there’s never any guarantee this wave of particles will provoke the magnetic storms that cause an auroral display. No matter what the case, after a long period of calm, solar activity appears to be on the rise for 2012, and that signals an increasing possibility of auroras this year. Keep your eyes peeled!