As the year begins, let’s take a few moments to discover what the night sky has in store for 2013: some beautiful planetary encounters, a few meteors, and maybe even a couple of bright comets…
For some time now, it has been the hot topic in astronomical circles: If the current trend continues, comet C/2011 L4 Pan-STARRS — or simply Panstarrs — could become a major event in 2013. It was discovered in 2011 by researchers at the University of Hawaii as part of project Pan-STARRS (acronym for Panoramic Survey Telescope And Rapid Response System) looking for Earth-crossing comets and asteroids. The comet will pass closest to the Sun on March 9, liberating large quantities of dust and gas, which could make it easily visible to the naked eye. If that transpires this spring during March and April, Panstarrs will be the celestial object of choice. But brightness predictions for comets are notoriously imprecise, so we’ll have to wait a few more weeks before making a definite pronouncement: Rest assured, you’ll be the first to know!
But no matter what happens, Panstarrs will serve as a general rehearsal for another comet expected this fall, which could be even brighter: comet ISON (C/2012 S1). ISON was discovered just a few months ago and will graze the Sun at the end of November, creating what could be a spectacular tail at dusk and at dawn. Keep a watch on that one, too!
Mercury is always a challenge to observe: The tiny planet is never more than 30 degrees east or west of the Sun and is only visible above the horizon, at dawn or dusk, in the glow of twilight. Nonetheless, there are optimum times to observe the furtive planet, and this year, there are two favourable periods: evening from February 10 to 22, and morning from November 11 to 23. In both cases, you’ll need an unobstructed horizon, and you can use binoculars to help you find Mercury: It will have the appearance of a bright star-like point several degrees above the horizon.
Mercury may be hard to observe, but the opposite is true for Venus, which is also visible around dawn or dusk because of its proximity to the Sun but is oh-so-much-brighter than its tiny neighbour! In 2013, Venus will shine as the Morning Star from January to March, and as the Evening Star from May to December. Because of the shallow angle of its orbit against the western horizon throughout the summer and fall, Venus will be easier to observe in the evening toward the end of the year, in November and December.
Not to be missed: Venus, Mercury and Jupiter will be in triple conjunction in the evening sky right after sunset, from May 22 to 27. In particular, the planetary trio will form a beautiful equilateral triangle at twilight on May 26, providing a great photo opportunity!
We often repeat that the best time to observe Mars is during opposition, when the planet is closest to Earth, and its apparent diameter and brightness increase. Unfortunately, there won’t be an opposition in 2013, but the end of the year will serve as preparation for the opposition of April 2014. In the morning sky, during November and December, Mars will gain in size and brightness, something that observers will certainly notice with their telescopes. Earlier in the year, Mars will cross paths with Jupiter: On July 22, the planetary duo will appear in the east, two hours before sunrise. The Red Planet will also graze the beautiful Beehive star cluster on the mornings of September 8 and 9. This promises to be a wonderful sight, especially with binoculars or an amateur telescope!
Jupiter was at opposition this past December 3, and will be again in January 2014, which makes 2013 a rare year — one without an opposition of the giant planet. Even so, we’ll still be able to see Jupiter in the evening from January to June, between the Hyades and Pleiades, and in the morning sky from August to December, in Gemini. The ever-changing configuration of the planet’s four Galilean moons is easy to see, even with binoculars, and is a constant source of interest. As for Saturn, the ringed planet will be in opposition on April 28, at which point it will remain visible all night, from sunset to sunrise. The period from mid-April to mid-May will be the ideal time to observe Saturn with a telescope, especially since its rings are tilted favourably toward us.
The dearth of eclipses continues in 2013, with neither a solar nor lunar eclipse visible from Quebec this year. There will be a penumbral eclipse of the Moon on October 18 but even the most astute observers won’t notice a difference in the Moon’s appearance. The next total lunar eclipse visible from Quebec will be on April 15, 2014; and the next total solar eclipse visible from here will occur ten years later, on April 8, 2024!
Meteor showers could be disappointing in 2013, since two of the three major showers will occur around the full Moon, which will wash out the sky. The November Leonids and December Geminids will especially be veiled by moonlight. Fortunately, the Perseids will fare better: The crescent Moon will set around mid-evening on August 12, leaving the sky dark for the rest of the night. Under ideal conditions, you can expect to see about 60 meteors per hour. And finally, will we see more northern auroras in 2013 than in 2012? Hard to say, given that solar activity, which causes these beautiful magnetic displays in our atmosphere, has been sparse the last few years. If predictions hold true, we can expect a solar maximum — and an increase in auroras — in 2013, but it should be a weak maximum, so auroras might be rare and not very bright. We’ll just have to wait and see!