Jimmy Westlake’s Top 10 celestial events for 2019
December 30, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There is something exciting happening in the sky almost every night of the year, if you know when and where to look. I have sifted through all of the celestial events happening in 2019 and selected the 10 that I am most excited about.
These are my “Top 10 Celestial Events for 2019,” presented in chronological order. While no optical aid is required to view these events, an ordinary pair of binoculars or a small backyard telescope will almost always enhance the view. For updates on these and other celestial events, keep an eye on the NASA-sponsored websites spaceweather.com and apod.nasa.gov.
Jan. 1: New Horizons zooms past Ultima Thule
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is about to make history … again. Just a few minutes after the stroke of midnight rings in the New Year on the East Coast, New Horizons will be zooming past the most distant object ever explored by a spacecraft, a small object in the distant Kuiper Belt named Ultima Thule.
New Horizons first made history right after it was launched on Jan. 19, 2006, when it became the fastest moving human-made object ever, cruising past the moon in only nine hours. Old-timers might recall that it took the Apollo 11 spacecraft three days to get our astronauts to the moon.
Even now, New Horizons is traveling at about 36,000 mph. That’s 20 times faster than a high-speed rifle bullet. At that amazing speed, New Horizons still required almost 10 years to reach the distant dwarf planet Pluto, three billion miles from home.
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There, on July 14, 2015, it made history again as it became the first spacecraft to reach the former ninth planet and show us, for the first time, what little Pluto looked like. It was the most distant space reconnaissance mission ever.
Now, New Horizons is ready to break its own distance record. One billion miles beyond Pluto, in the cold depths of the solar system’s frozen frontier, called the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons has its sights set on little Ultima Thule.
Astronomers had not yet discovered Ultima Thule when New Horizons left Earth 13 years ago. A sweep of the outer solar system with the venerable Hubble Space Telescope turned up the little wanderer in June 2014. Astronomers named it Ultima Thule, a Latin phrase meaning “beyond the known borders of the world.”
Little is known about this distant mini-world. It is reddish in color, which probably indicates that it is covered with ancient ice. When Ultima Thule recently eclipsed a distant star, astronomers noted that the star winked out more than once, indicating that Ultima Thule might be two objects, each about 10 miles in diameter, in a close binary orbit. Either that, or Ultima Thule has two lobes and is shaped somewhat like a peanut. New Horizons is poised to solve that mystery.
From four billion miles away, the images and other data from New Horizons will require more than six hours to arrive at Earth and, at such a slow rate, that it will take about 20 months for scientists to download the entire treasure trove of information.
But, we won’t have to wait that long for the first images to reach Earth. NASA plans a quick return of some low-resolution images of Ultima Thule on Jan. 1, 2019, so we should see those first images late on New Year’s Day or on Jan. 2. Keep an eye on the website SeeUltimaThuleNow.com for the latest information and pictures as they are released. And, get ready to meet Ultima Thule.
Jan. 20: Total eclipse of the Super Wolf Moon
Every object placed in direct sunlight casts a shadow, whether it’s a beach ball or a planet. As the Earth and moon orbit each other, the two occasionally pass in and out of each other’s shadows, creating unusual events that we call eclipses.
The word eclipse comes from the Greek word meaning “to abandon.” Thus, during a solar eclipse, the sun abandons us as Earth passes into the moon’s shadow. During a lunar eclipse, the moon abandons us as it passes into the Earth’s shadow.
This shadow play would happen every month, if the Earth and moon orbited in the same plane, but, as it is, the 5-degree tilt of the moon’s orbit means that the shadows miss their mark most of the time. Only when the sun, moon and Earth line up perfectly can an eclipse occur. These eclipse “seasons” happen twice a year, roughly six months apart.
On the night of Jan. 20, 2019, the alignment of worlds will be nearly perfect and North America will be treated to a spectacular total eclipse of the moon. The January full moon traditionally is nicknamed the Wolf Moon and, this year, the Wolf Moon occurs the same day as the moon’s perigee, or closest point to the Earth. This makes the Wolf Moon simultaneously a Super Moon. A Super Moon can appear up to 30 percent brighter and 14 percent larger than other full moons, certainly enough to be noticeable to the human eye.
So, when the sun goes down on Jan. 20, you’ll see the full Super Wolf Moon rising over the mountains to the east. Around 8:33 p.m., you’ll notice a darkening of the lower portion of the moon’s disk. This is the edge of the Earth’s dark shadow and, over the next hour, the moon will move deeper and deeper into it.
By 9:41 p.m., the moon will be totally immersed in the shadow and out of the direct sunlight, yet, it will still glow with an orange-red color. This is the red light of every sunrise and sunset around the nighttime edge of the Earth being cast upon the moon.
Mid-eclipse occurs at 10:12 p.m., and the moon will be its deepest in the Earth’s shadow. During the darkness of totality, look for the ghostly glow of the Beehive star cluster to the moon’s lower left. At 10:43 p.m., the moon will reach the opposite side of Earth’s shadow and totally comes to an end. It will take another hour for the Super Wolf Moon to fully emerge back into the sunlight and after 11:50 p.m., it will once again shine with its former brilliance.
Enjoy this eclipse. Colorado won’t see another total lunar eclipse until May 26, 2021.
Jan. 21: Venus meets Jupiter before dawn
Anytime that the sky’s two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, pass close to each other in the sky, it is a spectacular event worth seeing. On the morning after the total eclipse of the Super Wolf Moon, Venus and Jupiter will appear to pass so closely to each other that you will be able to hide them both behind the tip of your thumb held at arm’s length.
Believe it or not, the two planets are actually 484 million miles apart, Venus being the closer planet, 74 million miles from Earth. They only appear close enough to shake hands because they lie along the same line of sight as viewed from Earth. This amazing conjunction is so close — 2.5 degrees apart — that both planets will fit together into your binoculars at the same time for a stunning sight.
If you have a telescope of any size, aim it at each planet for an even better view. Venus will look like a tiny half-moon while Jupiter shows a full disk, sporting its two, dark, equatorial cloud stripes. As a bonus, three of four of Jupiter’s giant moons will be in view, too. Europa, Callisto and Ganymede all will be grouped together on the west side of Jupiter.
The pair of planets will rise together in the east, southeast at around 4:20 a.m., but catch them around 6 a.m. when they have risen higher in the sky and before dawn has chased away the stars.
In the background, behind the dazzling planets, will twinkle the stars of the constellation Scorpius, the Scorpion, including the bright red star Antares, only a fist width to the west of the planets.
If you are an early riser, start watching Venus and Jupiter a week before the conjunction and continue watching for a week after. It’s fascinating to watch the planets approach each other and then pull apart, day by day.
Before dawn on New Year’s Eve, the crescent moon will join Venus and Jupiter for a beautiful three-way conjunction. Don’t miss it.
Feb. 18: Venus meets Saturn before dawn
Just four weeks after the spectacular conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, Venus will have an even closer conjunction with the ringed planet Saturn. Before dawn on Feb. 18, the two planets will pass only 1 degree from each other. But looks can be deceiving. Venus will be 93 million miles from Earth while Saturn will be much further off in the distance, 1 billion miles away.
This time, you’ll be able to see two planets at once through the eyepiece of your low-powered telescope. Seeing two planets up close in the telescope at the same time is a rare treat.
Venus will have fattened into a gibbous phase while Saturn will appear full, in all its glory. If you can take your eyes off of those amazing rings, look for Saturn’s giant moon Titan. It will look like a little orange star, just off the western tip of the rings.
On the morning of Feb. 18, look for Venus and Saturn low in the southeast sky around 6 a.m., just to the east of the well-known Teapot asterism of Sagittarius, the Archer. Jupiter will be visible, too, about two hand spans to the west.
By March 1, the gap between the two planets will have grown to 12 degrees but keep watching because the crescent moon will join the scene. It will sit right beside Saturn on March 1 and then right beside Venus on March 2.
June 10: See Jupiter at its best
Jupiter is the planet that was almost a star. It’s true.
Like a star, Jupiter is composed mostly of the gas hydrogen. Like a star, Jupiter radiates more heat than it receives from space. Like a star, Jupiter generates a powerful magnetic field around itself. Like a star, Jupiter has a family of smaller worlds that formed along with it and obediently orbit around it. What does a star have that Jupiter doesn’t have?
Although Jupiter’s core is hot, it is not hot enough to create a nuclear furnace, something that every star possesses. Jupiter would have to be about 80 times more massive in order to fire up nuclear fusion in its core. As it is, Jupiter, the almost star, has to settle for being the largest planet in our solar system.
Jupiter and Earth are in a perpetual race around the sun, a race that the faster Earth will always win. Once every 13 months, the Earth gains a lap on Jupiter and pulls up alongside it in an event called opposition. It is during opposition that a planet is closest to the Earth and therefore best visible in our sky.
This year, Jupiter arrives at opposition on June 10. At a distance of 398 million miles, this will be the closest opposition of Jupiter since January 2014.
A planet at opposition shines all night long, rising in the east at sunset and setting in the west at sunrise. In the background, behind Jupiter, will shine the stars of the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer. Nearby are the bright star Antares and Saturn, the next planet to reach opposition this year.
If you have a telescope of any size, even a good pair of binoculars, aim them at Jupiter around the time of opposition to experience one of the greatest thrills that backyard astronomy has to offer – seeing the Galilean moons of Jupiter. These four planet-sized moons, discovered by Galileo in 1610, swing around Jupiter in a matter of days and are never in the same positions twice.
Sometimes, all four might appear on the same side of Jupiter; other times two on one side and two on the other. Occasionally, one or more moons might disappear in front of or behind Jupiter. As a kid, I used to love keeping track of Jupiter’s moons from night to night with my little 3-inch telescope.
Our own moon will pair up with Jupiter in the sky about once a month in 2019. Look for them side by side on the following nights: Jan. 3, 6:30 a.m.; Jan. 30, 6 a.m.; Feb. 27, 4:30 a.m.; March 27, 5:30 a.m.; April 23, 5 a.m.; May 20, 4 a.m.; June 16, 4 a.m.; June 16, 10 p.m.; July 13, 10 p.m.; Aug. 9, 9 p.m.; Sept. 5, 9 p.m.; Oct. 3, 8 p.m.; Oct. 31, 7 p.m.; and Nov. 28, 5:30 p.m.
June 18: Mercury meets Mars at dusk
The closest planetary conjunction of the year stars the solar system’s two smallest planets, Mercury and Mars. Just after sunset on June 18, these two planets will shine only 1/3 of a degree apart. That’s so close that the two will almost blend into one.
This super-close conjunction of Mercury and Mars will be much more challenging to see than the conjunctions of Venus, Jupiter and Saturn earlier in the year. First of all, neither Mercury nor Mars will be shining nearly as bright as Venus, Jupiter or even Saturn.
Secondly, the pair of planets will be in fairly bright twilight and not a fully darkened sky. Try looking for the planets a night or two before the close conjunction so you’ll know right where, and when, to look. Start scanning about a fist width at arm’s length above the north, northwest horizon around 9:30 p.m. Mercury will be the brighter of the two planets. Mars will be fainter and redder.
Binoculars aren’t required, but they might make spotting the planets easier. As the minutes tick by, the sky will darken, but the planets will also sink closer to the horizon. Catch them before they set at 10:20 p.m.
Once you’ve zeroed in on the Mercury and Mars, see if you also can spot Gemini’s twin stars Pollux and Castor, just above and to the right of the planets.
If you succeed in observing this close encounter of Mercury and Mars, pat yourself on the back and know that you are an A1 astronomer. It is rumored that the great astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus himself never succeeded in seeing the elusive planet Mercury.
July 9: See Saturn at its best
Saturn is the second bright planet to reach opposition in 2019. Every 12 and a half months, the Earth gains a lap on sluggish Saturn and passes directly between Saturn and the sun, placing the two planets as close together as possible.
When Saturn reaches opposition July 9, it will be 839 million miles from Earth, its closest point for 2018. That’s a little more than twice as far away as Jupiter was at its opposition. Saturn will rise in the eastern sky at dusk and shine brightly all night long.
This year, Saturn shines down on us from near the Teapot asterism in the constellation of Sagittarius, the Archer.
Just six nights after opposition, the full Thunder Moon will rise alongside Saturn on the night of opposition. Watch for pairings of Saturn and the moon on these other nights in 2019: March 1, 5 a.m.; March 29, 5:30 a.m.; April 25, 4 a.m.; May 22, 4 a.m.; May 22, 4 a.m.; June 18, 11 p.m.; July 15, 10 p.m.; Aug. 8, 9 p.m.; Sept. 7, 9 p.m.; Oct. 5, 8 p.m.; Nov. 1, 8 p.m.; and Nov. 29, 6 p.m.
Saturn also will have two close encounters with the planet Venus this year, once before dawn on Feb. 18 and then again on Dec. 10, at dusk.
A telescope of any size, aimed at Saturn, will reveal its beautiful icy rings and the largest of its 62 known moons, Mercury-sized Titan. Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens discovered and named Titan in the year 1655.
Today, we know that Titan possesses a nitrogen rich atmosphere that is denser than Earth’s and harbors great lakes of liquid methane and ethane on its frigid surface. Saturn’s rings are tilted almost at their maximum toward Earth this year, so it’s a great chance to see the solar system’s crown jewel at its best.
Aug. 12: The annual Perseid Meteor Shower
A shower of meteors is a sight to behold, and the annual Perseid meteor shower is arguably the best meteor shower of the year. This year, the peak of activity occurs on the night of Aug. 12 and into the morning of Aug. 13 when a single observer might see a meteor a minute.
Sometimes referred to as “St. Lawrence’s Tears,” Perseid meteors have been observed every August since at least 258 AD. That’s when the Romans martyred a Christian deacon named Laurentius on a hot gridiron. As Laurnetius’ family carried away his body, they noticed a number of bright streaks shooting across the sky and they marveled at the miracle, believing that the streaks were the fiery tears of Laurentius falling from heaven. Centuries later, people the world over continue to marvel every August at the sight of “St. Lawrence’s Tears.”
In 1862, American astronomers Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle co-discovered the comet that now bears their names. Four years later, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli pointed out that the particles that cause our Perseid meteors orbit the sun in the same path as Comet Swift-Tuttle. That was the first indication that comets could be the source of our annual meteor showers.
We now know that the Perseid meteors are produced when tiny bits of dust shed by Comet Swift-Tuttle enter the Earth’s atmosphere at 130,000 mph and burn up as fiery meteors about 60 miles over our heads. These dust particles are so tiny that you easily could hold 1,000 of them in the cupped palm of your hand.
Perseid meteors are so named because they seem to spring out of the constellation of Perseus, just below the familiar W-shaped constellation of Cassiopeia.
On the night of peak activity, the nearly full moon will drown out many of the fainter meteors until it sets at 4:20 a.m. That will leave the last hour before dawn perfect for watching St. Lawrence’s tears.
Nov. 28: A Thanksgiving gathering of the planets
Three bright planets and the moon will gather together for a breathtaking cosmic vista on the early evening of Nov. 28, Thanksgiving Day. The 2 ½-day-old crescent moon will join Venus, Jupiter and Saturn in the multicolored evening twilight.
Start looking in the southwest sky about an hour after sunset, around 5:30 p.m. Closest to the moon will be the brightest planet, Venus, with slightly fainter Jupiter glowing a little below them. Saturn will be shining just to the upper left of the moon. The twinkly stars behind the moon and planets are those of the Teapot asterism in Sagittarius.
In the days ahead, Jupiter and Saturn will sink into the sunset glow and move out of our evening sky, while Venus moves up and out of the solar glare to take its position as the beautiful Evening Star for the remainder of the year.
Dec. 13 and 14: The annual Geminid Meteor Shower
Let’s end the year with a celestial bang — the Geminid meteor shower. In spite of the cold December nights, the annual Geminid meteor shower is my favorite shower of the year. Their numbers equal or even surpass the August Perseids, and the bright stars of Orion form a wonderful winter backdrop.
The Geminid meteor shower is a relative newcomer to our skies. There are no reports of Geminid meteors before 1862, and the shower seems to be increasing in strength every year.
The Geminid meteor shower is unique because it is the only meteor shower whose source is an asteroid, not a comet. While comets are icy bodies orbiting the sun, asteroids are rocky bodies. The parent body and source of the Geminid meteors is an asteroid named 3200 Phaethon.
Once every 1.4 years, Phaethon passes very close to the sun’s hot surface. This must bake and crack the asteroid’s surface and release millions of tiny particles that trail behind it. Every December, when Earth crosses Phaethon’s orbit, these particles create our Geminid meteors.
Under ideal dark sky conditions, a single observer can expect to see from 90 to 120 Geminid meteors per hour, at the peak of activity. The meteors seem to shoot out of the sky near the twin stars of Castor and Pollux in the constellation of Gemini, hence the name of this shower.
This year, the moon will be three days past full on the night of Dec. 13 and the morning of Dec. 14 and will be sitting smack in the middle of the constellation Gemini. Nevertheless, with the bright moonlight at your back, there will be plenty of bright Geminids to see.
But don’t just watch on the night of the expected peak. Dozens of meteors can be seen for a night or two on either side of the peak.
Jimmy Westlake’s "Celestial News" column appears monthly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Check out Westlake’s new “2019 Cosmic Calendar” of sky events on his website at jwestlake.com. It features twelve of his best astro-photos and a day-by-day listing of cool celestial events that you and your family can enjoy watching all year.