Which astronomical phenomena deserve your attention in 2018? Read our guide to discover what the new year holds in store.
Moon and eclipses
Five solar or lunar eclipses are set for 2018, but for observers in southern Quebec, only the total lunar eclipse on January 31 will be of interest. The phenomenon is fully visible in western North America, the Pacific, the Far East and Oceania. On that morning, however, in most areas of Quebec (except the northwest region near Hudson Bay), we’ll see only the start of the partial phases of the eclipse (beginning at 6:47 EST) as the Moon sinks toward the west-northwest horizon at dawn. Our satellite disappears below the horizon before totality begins at 7:51 EST.
In the far north of Quebec, Labrador and Newfoundland, the Sun rises on August 11 with a small bite taken out of it (about 20% in Salluit, for example). The partial eclipse ends in the minutes that follow while the Sun is still very low on the horizon. This partial solar eclipse is visible especially in circumpolar regions: Northern Europe, North Asia, Greenland and the Canadian Arctic.
Note that January has two full moons this year. Indeed, 2018 starts off with a bang thanks to a perigee full moon, commonly known as a “supermoon.” It’s the largest full moon of the year (the one on January 31 ranks second). A second full moon in the same month is sometimes called a “blue moon.” March also has two full moons this year.
Different factors affect observing conditions during major annual meteor showers. Possible interference from the Moon is the easiest factor to predict. The time when the shower peaks is another. Given these two factors, we can safely say that conditions in 2018 will be favourable during the famous Perseids and, to a lesser extent, the Geminids.
The Perseids are set to peak between 4 p.m. on August 12 and 4 a.m. on August 13. Since a new moon occurs on August 11 and the peak most likely takes place after nightfall in Quebec, 2018 should be a bumper year. Expect to see over 60 meteors an hour in a crystal-clear sky free of light pollution.
The Geminids are usually more intense than the Perseids, but they’re lesser known to the public because they occur in mid-December when only the truly devoted stargazers venture outside in the cold. In 2018, the peak is around 7:30 a.m. EST on December 14. The waxing moon sets around 10 p.m. on December 13, creating good visibility in the second half of the night when the radiant culminates in the sky over Quebec very high to the south. The Geminids will put on a great show, but you need to go to bed late—or get up very early.
The bright planets can be spotted in the morning sky at the start of 2018. Early birds have the chance to observe four of the five “wandering stars” (as our distant ancestors called them).
The first two emerge together above the southeast horizon before 4 a.m. They rise higher during the final hours of the night and reign at dawn in the south-southeast. Brilliant Jupiter is easier to spot because its creamy-white glow outshines all the stars and penetrates even heavy light pollution. Its neighbour in the night sky is Mars, which is much less bright for now but recognizable by its orange hue. The two planets cross in the sky on the mornings of January 6 and 7 (less than a third of a degree apart on the 6th and a quarter of a degree apart on the 7th). On the morning of January 11, the thin crescent moon joins Jupiter and Mars and lies less than 4 degrees from the two planets, which themselves are 2 degrees apart. Admire this lovely celestial triangle in the light of dawn one hour before sunrise above the south-southeast horizon.
In January, Mars is very far from Earth and its apparent size very small. Under such conditions, it’ll be hard for amateur astronomers to observe surface details. But keep an eye on the red planet because the situation changes radically over the next six months. The distance between Mars and Earth narrows significantly, creating an impressive increase in its apparent size and brightness in the sky. By late July, the red planet is closer to Earth than any other time in the past 15 years. These favourable periods for observing Mars through a telescope, which last only a few weeks around the planet’s opposition, occur only about every 26 months, and the opposition will be exceptional in 2018. Though Mars is the real focal point this summer, Jupiter is an easier target for novice astronomers. The opposition of Jupiter occurs on May 8: the giant planet will then be visible from sunset to sunrise, culminating in the south in the middle of the night.
In January, you must wait till dawn to see the other two planets. Mercury, the first planet from the Sun, enjoys a very good period of visibility till mid-January. Scan the sky low on the southeast horizon 45 minutes before sunrise. Mercury is rather bright at the moment (magnitude –0.3) and fairly easy to spot in the light of dawn.
You can also locate Saturn not far from Mercury. A bit less bright (magnitude +0.5) than Mercury, the ringed planet was till recently lost in the Sun’s glow, but it gradually pulls away from our star in early January. Saturn first appears to the lower left of Mercury and hence closer to the horizon. Day by day, though, Saturn climbs toward Mercury. The two planets cross on the morning of January 13, Saturn passing only three-quarters of a degree above Mercury. On January 15 at dawn, the thin crescent moon joins the two planets.
After mid-January, Mercury becomes lost in the Sun’s glare while Saturn continues to climb in the sky. In opposition on June 27 and visible all night long in early summer, Saturn shines this year in the constellation Sagittarius, just above the Teapot. At our latitude, this part of the celestial sphere rises little in relation to the horizon. Given this unfavourable position in the sky, the famous rings aren’t as visible despite their almost maximum tilt toward Earth in 2018.
As for Mercury, other good apparitions will also occur during the year, particularly at twilight from March 1 to 20, but also in the morning sky from August 21 to September 12, and from December 5 to early January 2019.
To complete the list of five planets visible to the naked eye, let’s turn to Venus. It lies on the other side of the Sun in superior conjunction on January 9, so the bright planet begins the year out of sight, too close to our star and swallowed up by its glow. Not till the very end of January or even early February does Venus move far enough from the Sun to finally be seen low on the west-southwest horizon in the minutes following sunset. But as winter continues, the situation improves, and dazzling Venus, the Evening Star, will appear at twilight until late September. In May, it shines at its highest in the sky at nightfall. In October, Venus is again unobservable since it’s in inferior conjunction between Earth and the Sun. It emerges at dawn in the early days of November, so it’s as the Morning Star that it wraps up the year and kicks off 2019.
Happy 2018 and happy skygazing!