Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF)
Discovered in early March 2023 by the Zwicky Transienf Facility atop Mount Palomar, comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is now observable all night long from mid-northern latitudes. In a dark sky, under excellent conditions, it could become just visible to the naked eye, but binoculars will make it easier to detect. It can be found by facing north; the comet is low on the horizon in the early evening, but it appears much higher in the sky in the early morning hours. During the second half of January, it will glide between Polaris, the North Star, and the Big Dipper, that famous pattern of stars in the constellation Ursa Major. However, light spilling from the waxing moon will become a problem later in the month.
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From meteor showers to solar or lunar eclipses, check out the most noteworthy astronomical phenomena this year.
Almost every year, the Quadrantid meteor shower is the first astronomical phenomenon worth noting on the calendar. Although considered one of the most prolific of the year, it remains lesser known to the public because of its very short duration and the difficult observation conditions in the cold of winter. At the time of its expected peak, around 10:40 p.m. on January 3, the Quadrantid radiant is still very low on the north-northeastern horizon and the waxing gibbous Moon clearly makes its luminous presence felt. However, there will be a short window of opportunity a few hours later: After 5 a.m. on January 4th, the radiant will be roughly 60 degrees high in the east just as the Moon is about to set. If you’re in the countryside under cloudless skies, completely free of light pollution, you should be able to spot a good 30 or so Quadrantids per hour before the light of dawn puts an end to the show.
Several of the other annual meteor showers will benefit from favourable, even very favourable conditions in 2023. So, keep an eye out for the Lyrids in April, the beloved Perseids in August, as well as the Orionids, Leonids and Geminids next fall.
Partial solar eclipse in October
There are four eclipses—two lunar and two solar—on the calendar for 2023. The first two eclipses of the year will not be visible at all from North America. Only the two October eclipses, one solar and one lunar, will be partially visible from Quebec.
The solar eclipse of October 14 will occur when the Moon is too far away from Earth to completely cover the Sun: Observers who find themselves within a narrow corridor across the surface of the Earth will be treated to an annular eclipse, where the Sun’s outer edge remains visible and appears as a glowing ring around the Moon’s dark silhouette at the peak of the phenomenon. This path of annularity crosses the western and southwestern United States, from Oregon to Texas, then the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia and Brazil. The rest of North and South America, and particularly Quebec, will witness a partial eclipse of varying degrees. By early afternoon in Montreal, up to 17 percent of the Sun’s surface will be covered by the Moon. It will be a rehearsal for the total eclipse of April 8, 2024.
Only in the Arctic, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia will the lunar eclipse of October 28 be seen from beginning to end. It’s also a very shallow partial eclipse, meaning only a small section of the lunar disc’s southern portion will enter Earth’s umbral shadow. The partial eclipse will be almost over, and just a tiny portion of the Moon will be missing when it rises in the late afternoon in the Atlantic provinces, the lower North Shore and the far north of Quebec. Unfortunately, there will be nothing to see in the southern part of the province since the Moon will have already exited the Earth’s umbral shadow and will only be in the subtle penumbra when it emerges above the horizon. The next total lunar eclipse entirely visible from Quebec will occur on the night of May 13-14, 2025.
As 2023 gets underway, turn your gaze to the southwest within an hour of sunset and you’ll see brilliant Venus, beaming brightly in the twilight glow about 10 degrees in altitude. The beautiful Evening Star will accompany our evenings until next summer. From week to week until April, Venus climbs higher as it slowly works its way west, i.e., to the right along the horizon. In May, it will rule our early evening skies at more than 30 degrees in the west, remaining visible for more than three and a half hours after the Sun sets. But all good things must come to an end, which is what happens when the gap between Venus and the Sun slowly shrinks and the beautiful planet draws ever closer to the horizon. By late July, Venus disappears in the Sun’s glare before gliding between the Earth and the Sun in August. It then emerges in the east at dawn, where it makes an excellent appearance in the morning sky until the spring of 2024.
On January 22, Venus and the considerably fainter Saturn cross paths in the sky; the two planets are barely ⅓ of a degree apart at twilight, with Saturn slightly higher and to the right of Venus. The next evening, on January 23, the thin crescent Moon lies 7 degrees to the left of the planetary duo, slightly above the horizon.
Unlike Venus, Saturn’s presence in the evening sky comes to an end this month. In early January, before its encounter with Venus, the ringed planet can be spotted above the southwestern horizon at nightfall. But the Sun catches up to Saturn, which appears progressively lower on the horizon with each passing evening; it eventually disappears in the dazzle of the setting Sun during the early days of February. Saturn will be in solar conjunction on February 16 and will re-emerge in the morning sky in March. However, the best conditions for observing the planet will only occur in the second half of summer, when Saturn will be in opposition on August 27: It can then be found in the constellation Aquarius, shining a little higher in the sky than in recent years—an improvement for telescope viewing.
Another really bright object located very high in the south at twilight will capture our attention this January: That would be Jupiter, which we can admire in excellent conditions at nightfall. On the evening of January 25, turn your gaze to the crescent Moon lying a mere 3 degrees below the giant planet. The Sun is also slowly catching up to Jupiter, and the giant planet will encounter Venus on the evening of March 1: a conjunction that promises to be spectacular, when the gap between the two brightest planets will be only ½ a degree. Jupiter will remain visible in the early evening until late March before slipping behind the Sun on April 11. The planet will re-emerge in the morning sky in May, but the opposition will only take place November 2, making fall the best time for viewing.
One month after reaching opposition, on December 8, Mars is still fairly close to Earth for you to catch views of its surface details in an amateur telescope. In January, the Red Planet culminates very high in the south in the evening hours, shining like an extra orangey star in the constellation Taurus. The waxing gibbous Moon moves to within just 1½ degrees of Mars on the evening of January 3, and even closer on the night of January 30-31. However, the Red Planet rapidly recedes from Earth during the first few weeks of 2023, dimming in the sky and shrinking ever smaller in our telescopes. But since it moves rather quickly in its orbit, it takes longer for the Sun to catch up with it: That means we’ll continue to see it in the evening until mid-summer before it disappears in the twilight glow. Mars will be in conjunction with the Sun on November 18. By then, the Red Planet will have travelled across one-third of the sky, crossing several familiar constellations: Starting in Taurus, it crosses into Gemini at the end of March, Cancer on May 16, Leo on June 20, and Virgo on August 17. The next Martian opposition will only take place in early 2025.
A word about the most difficult of the planets to see because it’s always so close to the Sun: Mercury kicks off 2023 in inferior conjunction (January 7), between the Earth and the Sun, and immediately moves into the morning sky, where it makes an appearance from January 15 to February 12. Look for a tiny point of light about 10 degrees above the southeastern horizon, 45 minutes before sunrise; you’ll have the best conditions for observing the tiny planet between January 20 and February 2. Mercury will make several other appearances during the year, with its periods of visibility alternating between dusk and dawn. Its best appearances in 2023 will be from March 25 to April 22 (in the evening sky) and from September 14 to October 10 (in the morning sky).
Happy astronomical year 2023 and happy skygazing!