Update — Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2)
Discovered in August 2014 by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy, Comet C/2014 Q2 became accessible to observers in the Northern hemisphere in late December. It has also grown significantly brighter than anticipated: at the moment, it is perceptible to the naked eye under very dark skies, and is easily detectable with binoculars under moderately polluted suburban skies. It appears like a round, greenish, faint smudge of light; its tail only shows up on long-exposure photographs. Over the coming weeks, Comet Lovejoy is moving northward through the constellations, passing to the right of Orion, the Hyades and the Pleiades; it culminates in the South between 7 and 8 pm, local time. Comet Lovejoy should brighten somewhat more until the second half of January; the moon will then be out of the evening sky, providing excellent conditions to try and spot it.
Finder chart (PDF): skyandtelescope.com. (Tick marks are for midnight Universal Time on the given date, which corresponds to 7:00 pm Eastern Time on the previous evening.)
More information on skyandtelescope.com
In this first instalment for 2015, we present an overview of the most notable astronomical events for the coming year.
This year, there will be two lunar eclipses – the third, and then the last of a series of four consecutive total eclipses of the Moon to take place in 2014-2015. Unfortunately, only the initial partial phases of the April 4 eclipse will be visible from western Quebec, at dawn; to observe the event in its entirety, one would have to be in the western half of the continent. In compensation, the evening of September 27 will offer a final lunar eclipse, which will be visible from beginning to end throughout all of Quebec – definitely a date to note in your agenda. The Moon will be totally immersed in Earth’s shadow from 10:10 to 11:23 P.M. (EDT) with mid-eclipse occurring at 10:47 P.M. This will be the last lunar eclipse visible from Quebec before 2019.
Neither of the two solar eclipses that occur in 2015 will be visible from Quebec. The band of totality for the March 20 eclipse will cross the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans; the Sun will be partially eclipsed over Greenland, Europe, North Africa and most of Siberia. The partial solar eclipse of September 13 will be visible from southern Africa, Madagascar, the southern Indian Ocean and Antarctica. (See The Sky – October 2014 for an explanation of how eclipses occur.)
Many nature-lovers plan their outdoors vacation around the time of the Perseids, the famed mid-August meteor shower – one of the three most prominent of the year. If you are among those described, rejoice… and reserve the night of August 12 to 13: the Perseids will reach their maximum between 2:30 and 5:00 A.M. The shower will take place under nearly perfect astronomical conditions, less than 48 hours before the new moon. Since meteors are best observed under dark moonless skies, to make the most of this opportunity it’s worth the effort to find a sky that’s as far from light pollution as possible.
The Geminid meteor shower is generally the most consistent of the year, surpassing the Perseids in terms of the quantity of meteors it produces. The only downside is the cold temperature that prevails when the shower takes place. This year, the maximum will occur on December 14, but experts don’t agree on exactly when the peak will be (possibly around 1:00 P.M. EST). However, the Geminids are sufficiently long-lived that we can expect elevated meteor counts during the nights of December 13 to 15. Since the Moon will be new on the 11th, astronomical conditions will be perfect from mid-evening to dawn.
Two lesser meteor showers are also worth mentioning because they take place under good conditions in 2015. The Lyrids are expected to peak on April 22 around 7:00 P.M. (EDT). However, this shower will only reach its full potential after midnight when the crescent moon sets, leaving the sky dark until dawn. Next October 20 to 22, the Orionids will also be visible during the latter half of the night after the Moon sets. Though not very numerous or bright, the Orionids are very fast – often ending in a small burst, and sometimes leaving a trail that lasts several seconds.
Venus reappeared as the Evening Star in December and is in good form when 2015 begins. The dazzling planet captures our attention after sunset, dominating the twilight and late evening hours during the first half of the year. As the weeks pass, Venus climbs ever higher in the sky: By the beginning of May, it reigns some thirty degrees above the western horizon toward the end of civil twilight, and sets around midnight. In May and June, the brilliant planet re-approaches the Sun – slowly at first, then faster – and plunges toward the horizon in July. Venus passes between the Sun and Earth on August 15 and re-appears in the dawn sky at month’s end, where it shines as the Morning Star; it spends autumn about thirty degrees above the horizon in the east and southeast.
At the end of January, when Venus approaches the west-southwest horizon at twilight, Jupiter emerges on the opposite side of the sky, low in the east-northeast. On the evening of February 3, don’t miss the giant planet as it rises in the twilight next to the full moon. Jupiter is at opposition on February 6 and is ideally placed for observing, high in the sky around midnight, between Cancer and Leo. The brilliant planet will remain visible in the evening until the end of July before passing behind the Sun in August. The gaseous giant returns at dawn in September and will be visible during the latter part of the night throughout the fall.
This winter and spring, notice how the gap between Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest planets, gradually diminishes. In fact, the planetary duo will meet in the twilight at the end of June, and on the evening of the 20th, Venus, Jupiter and the crescent moon will form a spectacular triangle. On June 30, the two planets will be just a third-of-a-degree apart, producing the most outstanding conjunction of the year. This encounter will repeat in the fall, but toward the dawn: On October 9, Venus, Jupiter and the crescent moon will again form a triangle; and the two planets will be just one degree apart on October 25.
Mercury offers an excellent twilight apparition from January 1 to 22. The tiny planet emerges above the southwest horizon at the beginning of January, and within a week it rises to meet Venus, which serves as a locating beacon: For a few days around January 10, the two planets will be right next to each other. Mercury has another favourable apparition at twilight from mid-April to mid-May. It will also appear under favourable conditions in the morning sky from the end of June to mid-July, and again from October 10 to the beginning of November.
Saturn has its turn at opposition on May 22. The ringed planet is currently in the southern part of the ecliptic, on the border of Libra and Scorpius: As a result, it never rises very high in the skies of Quebec. On the plus side, its rings are inclined about 25 degrees, so we see them quite well… and they are well worth a look! Saturn will be visible only during the latter half of the night until April, and then in the evening all summer until October.
Mars, which is currently on the far side of the Sun from Earth, is in transition this year. This winter, the Red Planet is low in the southwest at twilight, but it will completely disappear in the solar glare when spring arrives. Mars passes behind the Sun on June 14 and eventually re-appears at dawn toward summer’s end. Favourable periods for observing Mars occur about every 26 months: The next window won’t come before May-June 2016, during the few weeks surrounding its next opposition.
Happy 2015… and clear skies to all!
Planets visible to the naked eye