Timing Celestial Events

September 24, 2012
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Timing Celestial Events

Throughout history, people of all cultures have looked to the sky to better understand themselves and the world in which they live.  The modern era is no exception, and despite the advancement of science and the technical explanations for what we see and where it all came from, the night sky still retains an uncanny ability to calm the mind and bring tranquility to the soul.

It is easy to understand why people everywhere have turned to the stars and planets for guidance, prophecy, and worship.  If you are one of these people you may wish to perform a ritual or pay tribute to the stars and planets during significant moments in their natural cycles.

However, it is difficult to recognize a significant moment in these cycles by simply looking into the sky.   In the past, people went to great trouble to erect time-keeping monuments, kept constant vigil on the sky, and kept thorough records of what they saw in an effort to track the changes, measure time, and choose just the right moment for their harvests, festivals, and rituals.

For most of us, life in the modern world is far too busy and demanding to devote so much time and effort to watching the sky.  However, there are those who still manage to keep careful records and, using modern tools, predict significant events in the night sky such as planetary conjunctions and alignments, the full and new moon, the arrival of known comets, and more.

The following links will take you to some websites that will help you plan ahead for events like this, so you’ll know in advance when something you find personally significant is coming up.

Happy modifying!

SeaSky.org – This website is a great resource for people interested in the world’s oceans, or in the sky above.  The provided link will take you directly to an astronomy calendar for 2012, but there are also calendars for each year up to 2020, with a full listing of everything from full and new moons, the solstice and equinox, meteor showers, the time when planets will be at their nearest approach to Earth, and more.  These nearest approaches will be the time when the Sun, Earth, and the planet in question will be aligned.

The calendar gives times listed in UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).  There is an active clock which will show you the current UTC, allowing you to compare your local time to UTC and calculate the difference.  Remember to account for daylight savings time when planning for future events.  UTC is constant, but the difference between UTC and your local time zone could change.

Lunar Perigee and Apogee Calculator – This simple tool calculates the times of the Moon’s closest approach to Earth (perigee) and furthest departure from Earth (apogee) for an entire year at a time, decades into the future or the past.  It also shows the time of new and full Moons, and compares those times with the times of perigee and apogee.  There is a thorough explanation on how to understand the charts it produces.

Lunar Phase Widget for Your Desktop – This link will take you to a page describing a free downloadable widget for Windows Vista and 7.  It displays a real-time simulation of the current phase of the moon from the northern or southern hemisphere, so you’ll never need to wonder what the moon is up to.  There’s a download link about halfway down the page under the heading “Windows Vista and 7”.   There are also versions for your iPhone, Android phone, and more.  For those who do not have any of these, the simulation is displayed at the top of the page so you can just visit this site and you’ll know instantly.

Aerith.net – This is the home page of a Japanese man named Seiichi Yoshida, which contains a ton of astronomical information, including two comet calendars.  One calendar shows the visible comets in the future, the other shows time when these comets will be in conjunction (appear very close) with other objects in the sky such as other comets, planets, distant galaxies, and more.  These calendars are a bit technical and can be difficult to understand, but click on a comet’s name and you’ll see maps of the comet’s path through the sky which show you where and when you can expect to see the comet.  These maps also show the constellations, making it easier to locate a given comet.

Most of these comets are not visible with the naked eye.  A pair of binoculars or a telescope will be required.  With each comet the calendar shows a number under the heading “Mag.”  This is the comet’s brightness on the magnitude scale.  On this scale brighter objects have smaller numbers.

For example, the human eye can see stars of magnitude 6 or 7 when far from city lights.  Because of light pollution, the human eye may only be able to see stars of magnitude 2, 3, or 4 in a city.

Shining with a magnitude of about 1.5, Sirius is the brightest star in our sky.  Facing south, you can find it just below and to the left of the famous constellation Orion.  The stars of Orion’s belt point nearly straight at it.  It is part of the constellation Canis Major (Latin for “Greater Dog”).

Jupiter can be as bright as magnitude -3, Venus can be as much as -4.  The full moon is nearly -13 and the sun is almost -26.

Highlights for the rest of the year:

September 29 – Uranus at Opposition.  Uranus will be at its closest approach to Earth.  However, like Neptune, it is tremendously far away, and will only be visible as a blue-green dot in all but the most powerful telescopes.

October 20-21 – Orionids Meteor Shower.  So named because it appears to come from the constellation Orion, the Orionids meteor shower produces around 20 meteors per hour at its peak, but meteors should be visible in the night sky from the 17th to the 25th.  The crescent moon will set around midnight, leaving a dark sky for a good view to the east.

Throughout human history meteor showers have long been considered omens of important events to come.

November 13 – Solar Eclipse.  New Zealand and Eastern Australia will be graced with a partial solar eclipse, but a lucky few in extreme Northern Australia will witness a total solar eclipse.

November 17-18 – Leonids Meteor Shower.  One of the best meteor showers of the year, the Leonids meteor shower produces around 40 meteors per hour on average.  The shower should peak on the 17th and 18th but meteors should be seen from the 13th to the 20th.  The crescent moon will set early in the evening, leaving dark skies for an excellent view.  The shower will radiate from the constellation Leo.

November 27 – Conjunction of Venus and Saturn.  Look to the east at sunrise and you will see these two planets within one degree of each other.  At this time, one could draw an almost perfectly straight line from the Earth, through Venus, to Saturn.

November 28 – Penumbral Lunar Eclipse.  Visible throughout most of the world, this type of eclipse occurs when the Moon passes through part of the Earth’s shadow known as the penumbra wherein only some of the light from the sun is blocked.  It may be difficult to see the difference, but the full moon will appear to darken in the sky.

December 3 – Jupiter at Opposition.  The largest planet in the solar system will be at its closest to Earth and the side facing us will be fully lit by the Sun.  This will be the best time of the year to view and photograph Jupiter and its moons, as they will be at their brightest.

December 13-14 – Geminids Meteor Shower.  Radiating from the constellation Gemini, this shower is widely considered to be the best of the year, producing about 60 meteors per hour at its peak.  Though peaking on the 13th and 14th, some meteors should be visible from the 6th to the 19th.

December 21 – Solstice.  At 11:12am UTC the South Pole of the Earth will be tilted toward the Sun which will be at its southern-most point in the sky.  The Sun will be directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.  This is the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere and the first day of summer in the southern hemisphere.  Don’t worry, it won’t be the end of the world.

Bright Comets in 2013

March-May – The comet C/2011 L4 (PanSTARRS) will be visible in the morning and evening and will shine with a magnitude between 1 and -1.  It will be near the constellation Aquarius, having already passed through Libra and Scorpio, and near Sagittarius and Capricorn.  By the end of March it will pass through Pisces and swing a great arch up through Pegasus.   In April it will complete its passage through Pegasus and will pass through Cassiopeia.  In May it will be on its way past Cepheus toward Ursa Major (the Big Dipper), though by the time it reaches Ursa Major it will have faded so much you’ll need binoculars or a telescope to see it unless you’re far from city lights.

October and November – The Comet 2P/Encke will be barely visible around midnight and in the mornings near Gemini in the constellation Lynx.  It will pass above Gemini, Cancer, and Leo, and in November it will pass through Virgo and Libra.  Though no longer visible to the naked eye, it will continue to pass through Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Capricorn.


This article was graciously researched and written by CoBM member John Freemind.