What's in the stars for 2013? A preview of the year's astronomical highlights

Bob King, Duluth News Tribune
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With 2012 under our belt, we can look forward to what the new year will bring. It’s a big, wild sky up above us, and here’s a month-by-month listing of some of the astronomical highlights.

The coming year could go down in history as the one for spectacular comets. Both C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS and C/2012 ISON are expected to become at least as bright as the brightest stars. But comets are unpredictable, so we’ll have to wait and see. No problem — that’s what we lovers of the sky do best.

For more information on all things astronomy, and updates on all of these events as they drew closer, look online at astrobob.areavoices.com.

JANUARY

Jan. 3 — Peak of the annual Quadrantid meteor shower during the early morning hours when up to 80 meteors per hour may be seen. A waning gibbous moon will compromise the view and the peak is a very short sliver of time. Observers in Asia are favored.

Jan. 21 — The waxing gibbous moon has a very close conjunction with the planet Jupiter in the evening sky. They’ll be about one moon diameter apart.

FEBRUARY

Feb. 7 and 8 — Mercury passes very close to Mars (0.3 degrees) low in the western sky at dusk

Feb. 15 — Asteroid 2012 DA14 will zoom by just 21,000 miles from Earth at about 2 p.m. Duluth time. The 147-foot-long boulder will not impact the planet, and the chance of it striking a satellite in the geosynchronous belt is near zero. At its brightest it will shine at magnitude 7.7.

Feb. 16 — Mercury will be at greatest elongation east of the sun and easy to find during evening twilight.

Feb. 28 — Late tonight the moon will pass just one-tenth of one degree south of Virgo’s brightest star, Spica — that’s close!

MARCH

March 8-20 — Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS emerges in the western sky after sunset with a brilliant head and ever-lengthening tail. Its height increases night by night as the comet fades. Its expected magnitude is about 0, or about as bright as the star Vega. A much anticipated event! The thin crescent moon passes close to the comet on the 12th.

March 20 — In the northern hemisphere, spring begins at 6:02 a.m.

APRIL

April 24 — Another extremely close approach of the waxing gibbous moon and star Spica.

April 25 — Partial eclipse of the moon. It will be visible from Australia, Asia, Europe and Africa, but not from North or South America.

April 28 — Opposition of Saturn when it’s closest and brightest for the year. The planet will shine at 0.1 magnitude in Libra and rise at sunset. The rings will be nicely open to view and visible in any telescope magnifying at least 30x.

MAY

May 5-6 — Peak of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. This is a modest shower with a rate of about 10 to 15 per hour radiating from the constellation Aquarius, best viewed in the early morning hours. Moonlight from the setting waxing gibbous moon will comprise the shower somewhat.

May 9 — Annular eclipse of the sun — not visible from North America, but will be partially visible in Hawaii. Path of annularity passes through northern Australia and the tip of New Guinea.

May 22-30 — Venus, Mercury and Jupiter cluster together low in the western sky after sunset. Close conjunctions of Venus and Mercury (24th), Mercury and Jupiter (26th) and Venus and Jupiter (27th-28th). Low, but a potentially great show. The southern states will have the better views.

May 24-25 — Penumbral lunar eclipse visible across North America except Alaska. Keen-eyed observers might notice some shading along one side of the moon as it dips into Earth’s outer shadow, called the penumbra. Eclipse starts at 10:43 p.m. Duluth time and ends at 11:37 p.m. May 24.

JUNE

June 1 — Striking lineup of Jupiter, Venus and Mercury low in the western sky after sunset. Find an unobstructed horizon for the best view.

June 21 — In the northern hemisphere, summer begins at 12:04 a.m.

JULY

July 3-4 — Venus returns to the evening sky, visible low in the west during twilight. On these dates, binocular users will see the planet pass in front of the Beehive star cluster in Cancer.

July 21-23 — Conjunction of Mars and Jupiter. Both planets now return to the morning sky and pair up within one degree of each other on these dates. They’re visible in Gemini low in the eastern sky before sunrise.

July 28-29 — Peak of the Southern Delta Aquarid meteor shower. Up to 20 meteors per hour before dawn will radiate from the constellation Aquarius. This year’s show will be compromised by the waning gibbous moon.

AUGUST

Aug. 3-5 — Very nice lineup of Mercury, Mars and Jupiter joined by the thin crescent moon these mornings. Look to the east about an hour before sunrise.

Aug. 12-13 — Peak of the great Perseid meteor shower. Up to 80 to 100 meteors per hour are visible, especially after midnight. This year the moon is a thick crescent that sets before 11 p.m. and won’t compromise the shower.

Mid-August — Comet ISON emerges into the dawn sky in the constellation Cancer shining at about 11th magnitude, bright enough to spot in amateur telescopes.

SEPTEMBER

Sept. 5-6 — Venus near Spica low in the southwestern sky at dusk.

Sept. 8 — Fine conjunction of the crescent moon and Venus this evening.

Sept. 19 — Full Harvest Moon.

Sept. 22 — Fall starts with the autumnal equinox at 3:44 p.m.

OCTOBER

Oct. 18 — Penumbral eclipse of the moon partially visible from North America. The moon enters Earth’s outer shadow (penumbra) at 4:48 p.m. Duluth time and exits at 8:52 p.m. The shading should be more noticeable than during May’s penumbral eclipse.

Oct. 21 — Peak of the Orionid meteor shower, which originates from dust trailing Halley’s Comet. About 20 meteors per hour radiate from the constellation Orion after midnight. Meteor counts will be reduced due to light from the waning gibbous moon.

Late October — Comet ISON brightens to magnitude 7 and becomes visible in binoculars

NOVEMBER

Nov. 1 — Venus at greatest elongation east of the sun. It finally gains some altitude and becomes much easier to see this month during evening twilight.

Nov. 3 — The only total solar eclipse this year, visible across the equatorial Atlantic Ocean and West Africa. Not visible in North America.

Early November — Comet ISON should be visible with the naked eye at 2nd magnitude (as bright as the Big Dipper stars) in the morning sky.

Nov. 17-18 — Peak of the annual Leonid meteor shower. Ten to 15 meteors per hour are expected, but the full moon will make a big dent in meteor counts.

Nov. 25-26 — Mercury and returning Saturn meet up together for a close conjunction. The two will be just one degree apart on these dates.

Nov. 28 — Perihelion of Comet ISON. This is when the comet will be closest to the sun. It’s expected to shine brighter than Venus and visible near the sun in the daytime sky with proper viewing precautions. The comet will look like a star with a short tail.

DECEMBER

Early through mid-December — Comet ISON at its best, visible in both the early morning and evening skies hurrying northward away from the sun’s glow. It’s expected to be nearly as bright as Jupiter with a long tail.

Dec. 6 — Venus will dazzle as it climbs higher and reaches greatest brilliancy for the year.

Dec. 13 — Peak of the great Geminid meteor shower. About 100 meteors per hour will be visible in a dark sky, but this year the waxing gibbous moon will compromise the view until after moonset about 4 a.m.

Dec. 21 — Winter begins with the solstice at 11:11 p.m. Duluth time.

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