With the New Year, I’d like to share with you upcoming astronomical events in 2014. We begin the year with Jupiter at its best. This is an event that we call opposition. Opposition is when a superior planet (a planet whose orbit is beyond the Earth’s orbit around the sun) is opposite the sun in our sky. At opposition, a superior planet is up all night, rising at sundown and setting at sunrise. It’s also the time when a superior planet is closest to earth, and hence best for viewing. Look for Jupiter in the east shortly after sunset. It will look like a bright star. It will be hard to miss, for there will be no stars as bright as Jupiter. Binoculars likely will show some of its four Galilean satellites—moons discovered by Galileo four centuries ago. Through a telescope the planet will look like a small disk, and you may even see dark bands in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Jupiter will be visible in the evening sky until early summer.
In late January and early February Mercury will be visible in the southwest shortly after sunset. Like Jupiter, it will look like a star, though not nearly as bright. You’ll have to look early because Mercury will set before the sky is dark. Being the closest planet to the sun, Mercury is not easy to see, but evening visibility early in the year usually is good. It will be easiest to find on January 31, when a very thin crescent moon will be nearby. Through a telescope, Mercury can be disappointing—it’s very small, low in a murky sky, and not visible in a dark sky.
Mars comes to opposition on April 8. While the other superior planets are only slightly better to see at opposition as opposed to any other time, the situation is very different for Mars. Because its orbit is much closer to the Earth’s orbit, the apparent size of Mars can vary by a factor of ten. Mars normally appears quite small, but for a month or two near opposition it appears much larger than normal. And Martian oppositions occur only every 26 months, so astronomers have to wait more than two years between good opportunities to see Mars well.
The following month, on May 10, Saturn comes to opposition. Then for the next two months all three naked-eye superior planets will be in the evening sky. Saturn’s rings will be visible in even a small telescope. Saturn easily is my favorite thing to view through a telescope. I’ve probably looked at it 10,000 times, but the next time will be just as breathtaking as the first time was many years ago.
There will be three eclipses visible from the USA in 2014—two total lunar eclipses and one partial solar eclipse. The first lunar eclipse will be on the morning of April 15, while the second will be the morning of October 8. The partial solar eclipse will be two weeks later, late on October 23. I’ll provide more information about the eclipses as those dates near.
These are just the highlights for 2014—there is far more. I’ll update you from time to time throughout the year. I hope some of you can visit the Johnson Observatory here at the Creation Museum on one of our Stargazer’s Nights.