With each new year comes the promise of awe-inspiring stargazing opportunities. Whether we’re talking eclipses, shooting stars or bright planets, here’s an overview of the most noteworthy astronomical phenomena in January and the coming year.
The new year always starts with a light show: the Quadrantids, generally regarded as a strong shower, but also difficult to observe and experience in its full glory. Not only does the shower occur during the very first days of 2022 (with typical wintertime temperatures and clouds), but its peak only lasts a few hours. This year, peak activity is expected around 3:40 p.m. on January 3—that’s broad daylight in our neck of the woods. The remaining activity is likely to be rather low in the periods of darkness before (January 2-3) and after (January 3-4) the peak. What a shame, considering the Moon will be new; and even if the night promises to be dark and clear, we’ll be lucky to see more than five Quadrantids per hour.
The presence of moonlight is always the limiting factor when viewing meteor showers, and 2022 is no exception. With that in mind, conditions will be quite favourable for observing the Eta Aquarids in April. As for the other major annual meteor showers, including the beloved Perseids, but also the Orionids, Leonids and Geminids, we’ll unfortunately have to contend with the Moon’s pesky presence. However, keep an eye out for a potential outburst of the Tau Herculids on the night of May 30-31, and the Leonids in mid-November.
Two must-see lunar eclipses
There are four eclipses—all types combined—on the calendar for 2022. The two solar eclipses will be partial, and neither will be visible from North America. In Quebec, however, we’ll be treated to two total lunar eclipses later this year. The first will take place during the night of May 15 to 16, and since its maximum will occur just after midnight (ET), the entire eclipse will be visible from start to end in our corner of the world. A second total lunar eclipse will take place in the early hours of November 8, as night descends and dawn breaks: The eclipse will reach its maximum at around 5:59 a.m. and totality will end at 6:41 a.m., just as the Moon sets in the northwest in Montreal… and the Sun rises in the opposite direction! This time, the folk living in regions bordering the Pacific Ocean will be the lucky observers of the entire spectacle.
When 2022 gets underway, Saturn will still be visible very close to the southwestern horizon at twilight; late in the day on January 4, 45 minutes after sunset, note the thin crescent Moon hanging 5 degrees to the lower left of the Ringed Planet. But this period of visibility will soon come to an end, as Saturn slowly vanishes in the glow of the setting Sun after January 20. Solar conjunction occurs on February 4, and Saturn will reappear in the morning sky by month’s end, very low in the east-southeast, 30 minutes before sunrise. Saturn gradually pulls away from the Sun over the next few weeks, but it will only be at its best next summer, in the weeks surrounding its opposition on August 14.
The considerably brighter Jupiter, located about 20 degrees east (to the left) of Saturn, dominates the sky at nightfall during the first weeks of winter. On January 5 at twilight, the thin lunar crescent lies 5 degrees below the giant planet; admire the pair low in the southwest, 45 minutes after sunset and in the early evening. Like its neighbour Saturn, Jupiter is also about to disappear in the glare of sunset: It will be fairly easy to spot until mid-February, very low on the southwestern horizon, 30 to 45 minutes after sunset, eventually vanishing during the third week of February. The giant planet is in solar conjunction on March 5. It reappears in April, due east at dawn, but will only be visible in the second half of the night until June. On September 26, it will be Jupiter’s turn to reach opposition.
In 2022, early risers will likely be the only ones out there enjoying a (very) early morning apparition of Venus, which will continue for most of the year. The bright Evening Star disappears in the dazzle of the setting Sun as of the final days of 2021; it reaches inferior conjunction (between the Earth and the Sun) on January 8 and officially re-enters the morning sky. Once again, Venus quickly pulls away from the Sun and, a few days later, the new Morning Star becomes increasingly visible above the east-southeastern horizon, about 30 minutes before sunrise. A few weeks later, around mid-February, Venus climbs to 18 degrees above the southeastern horizon just as civil dawn begins; that’s also when the planet shines its brightest (magnitude –4.8), around February 9. But Venus won’t get any higher during this morning apparition, because even though the planet is still moving away from the Sun, the unfavourable inclination of the ecliptic to the horizon becomes the dominant factor: After mid-February, Venus sinks ever lower as it slowly glides along the horizon from southeast to east-northeast as the weeks go by. Venus reaches its greatest elongation, 46.6 degrees west of the Sun, on March 20, but it has already dipped a good 5 degrees at dawn.
Mercury makes a fine appearance
Mercury kicks off 2022 with a very good showing in the evening sky. The tiny planet is visible until January 16 above the southwestern horizon, 30 minutes after sunset. But keep in mind that its brightness diminishes with every passing evening, which means it’s much easier to see in the very first evenings of the year. On January 3 at twilight, see if you can spot the very thin lunar crescent 5 degrees below Mercury and 11 degrees due left of Venus; however, the Moon will be very difficult to make out as it sits nearly flush with the southwestern horizon a mere 20 minutes after the Sun sets.
Mercury—the planet closest to the Sun and from which it never strays too far—will have periods of best visibility in the evenings throughout winter and spring, such as the one that will take place between April 13 and May 10. Mercury will also periodically be visible in the morning sky, with its most favourable appearances during the summer and fall, such as throughout the entire month of October 2022.
Martian opposition in December
The opposition of Mars is still the biggest planetary attraction, and it will happen in the final months of 2022. But we’ll have to be patient, because the Red Planet will remain relatively inconspicuous throughout the first half of the year: Still far from Earth, tiny and fairly dim, Mars is only visible at the very end of the night and just before the first light of dawn, very low in the southeast. In January, it can be seen close to Antares—the beautiful alpha star of Scorpius—whose colour and brightness match those of Mars. On the morning of January 29, low in the southeast 1 hour before sunrise, look for the thin waning Moon a mere 3½ degrees to the lower right of the Red Planet and 14 degrees from brilliant Venus.
Not till summer does Mars finally achieve some height and shine brighter. As of early August, it will even become increasingly visible before midnight above the east-northeastern horizon, but the best time to observe the Red Planet will be the period between late October and late December. Despite being significantly further away from us and smaller than in 2020, Mars will climb much higher in the sky, culminating at about 69 degrees above the southern horizon, and shining brightly among the stars of Taurus, near the magnificent Hyades and Pleiades star clusters. The opposition itself will occur on December 7 and, as a bonus that evening, the full Moon will pass directly in front of Mars, hiding the planet for more than an hour—a truly exceptional event!
Happy astronomical year 2022 and happy skygazing!