Celestial News: Jimmy Westlake’s top 10 celestial events of 2023
For Craig Press
There is something exciting happening in the sky almost every night of the year if you know when and where to look. To help you out, I have sifted through all of the predictable celestial events for 2023 and selected the 10 that I am most excited about, including a spectacular “Ring of Fire” eclipse of the Sun, showers of meteors, a new comet, and several alignments of the major planets.
Here are my Top 10 Celestial Events for 2023, presented in chronological order. I used Starry Night Pro Plus 8 software to help select and describe my top 10 events, but not all celestial events are predictable months in advance. There’s always a chance that an unexpected comet, supernova, or auroral storm could upstage any or all of my chosen events — and that’s OK with me!
While no optical aid is required to view and enjoy these events, a pair of binoculars or a small telescope will almost always enhance the view. For updates on these and other celestial events, keep an eye on my monthly “Celestial News” column in the Steamboat Pilot & Today and also the NASA sponsored websites apod.nasa.gov and spaceweather.com. Most of all, have fun this year sharing the wonders of our universe with family and friends.
Jan. 22 – A very close conjunction of Venus and Saturn
The year 2023 opens up with a magnificent meeting of planets in our early evening sky. Just after sunset on Jan. 22, brilliant Venus and the ringed planet Saturn will appear side by side, only 0.33 degrees apart. You will need a clear, unobstructed view toward the southwest horizon to see this conjunction.
The Sun sets at about 5:15 p.m. MST, so start scanning low in the southwestern sky around 5:45 p.m. You’ll see Venus emerge from the sunset glow first, then, as darkness falls, you should spot fainter Saturn just to the right of Venus, at the three-o’clock position. The two worlds will almost appear to merge into a single, bright object. By 6:15 p.m., the planets will appear in a darkened sky, but will only be about 8 degrees above the true horizon. Tall trees or mountains in that direction might obscure the conjunction.
An ordinary pair of binoculars will enhance the view and, if you have a small telescope, you can see both planets in the eyepiece at the same time. Venus will look like a tiny, dazzling ball and beside it, you’ll see the larger ball of Saturn, surrounded by its beautiful, icy rings. At the time of the conjunction, Venus will be about 1.5 AUs from Earth and Saturn will be about 10.5 AUs away, far in the distance.
The planets are not physically close to each other, they just appear along the same line of sight as seen from Earth. The two planets will be close to each other the nights before and after the conjunction, too, so if clouds interfere on one night, don’t give up.
Feb. 2 – Comet ZTF passes closest to Earth
There’s a new comet heading our way in the opening weeks of 2023 that is generating a lot of excitement. It could become the first comet to reach naked eye brightness since beautiful Comet NEOWISE did in the summer of 2020. Comets traditionally are named for their discoverer and this new comet was discovered by a robotic telescope called the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) on March 2. No one expects Comet ZTF to become as spectacular as Comet NEOWISE, but it could become visible to the unaided eye in late January and early February of the new year.
Comet ZTF comes to us from the distant Oort Cloud, at the outer fringes of our solar system, and requires 500 centuries to complete one orbit. That means it has been falling toward the Sun for the last 25,000 years. It finally rounds the Sun on Jan. 12 and begins its outbound journey back to the Oort Cloud. But, on its way out, it will pass only 27 million miles from Earth on Feb. 2. For perspective, that’s about 108 times further from us than the Moon, but that should be close enough to bring the comet into view without a telescope.
After sunset on the night of closest approach, the comet will be passing through the obscure northern constellation of Camelopardalis, the Giraffe, not far from our North Star, Polaris. Even if Comet ZTF doesn’t quite achieve naked eye status, it should still be a wonderful sight in binoculars. Predicting the behavior of comets is notoriously difficult, so we will just have to wait and see what Comet ZTF has in store for us.
As famed comet hunter David H. Levy once said, “Comets are like cats: they have tails, and they do precisely what they want.”
March 1 – A very close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter
Whenever the two brightest objects in the night sky come together for a close conjunction, it’s a “don’t miss” cosmic event. This year’s meeting of Venus and Jupiter is no exception.
It will be fun to watch the dazzling Evening Star, Venus, and the brilliant King of the Planets, Jupiter, close the gap between them during the last week of February and finally stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the multi-colored dusk after sunset on March 1.
On that evening, the two shining worlds will come within 0.5 degrees of each other, barely enough room to fit a full moon between them. Venus is the brighter of the two, outshining Jupiter by a factor of six. The Sun sets around 6 p.m. on March 1, so start looking for the planet pair around 6:30 p.m. in the sunset glow filling the western sky.
The planets won’t set until about 8:30 p.m., so that allows plenty of time to pull out that telescope and aim it at them. It is a rare opportunity to see two planets in the telescope eyepiece at the same time. In addition, all four of Jupiter’s giant moons will be lined up on the same side of the planet – an unusual event in and of itself. Their order of appearance, from Jupiter outward, will be Europa, Io, Ganymede, and Callisto. After March 1, the planets will slowly separate, Venus rising higher in the night sky and Jupiter setting into the sunset glow, not to meet again in the evening sky until June 20, 2026.
June 2/June 13 – Mars and Venus visit the beehive
The Beehive star cluster lies right along the ecliptic. That’s the celestial highway that the Sun, Moon, and planets follow around the sky.
Consequently, the Beehive is frequently visited by passing planets. It’s known by several other names, most notably Messier 44 (M44 for short), Nephelion (Greek for Little Cloud), and the Praesepe (Latin for Manger). Its fuzzy, cloud-like appearance was considered a mystery before Galileo turned his telescope on it in 1609 and discovered that it was composed of dozens of twinkly stars, resembling a swarm of bees buzzing around a hive.
The Beehive is one of the closest star clusters to our solar system, lying at a distance of 590 light years. In June, the Beehive will be visited by both Mars and Venus, — Mars on June 2 and Venus on June 13. Although the planets are very bright, the Beehive cluster itself is faint. You’ll need a pair of ordinary binoculars or a small telescope to really appreciate the beauty of these close encounters. Seeing a dazzling planet surrounded by dozens of glittery stars is a very special treat. That’s why this heavenly double-header makes my top 10 list.
Aug. 1/Aug. 30 – A Super Green Corn Moon and a Super Blue Moon, too
It isn’t a confluence of cosmic forces that allows two full moons to fall in the same calendar month. It’s more of a strange twist in our calendar. A full moon happens once every 29 days 12 hours and 44 minutes. In a month of 30 or 31 days, that leaves plenty of time to fit in two full moons, provided the first full moon falls on the first or second day of the month.
On the average, a full moon falls on the opening day of a month about once every 2.5 years. This year’s full Green Corn Moon happens on Aug. 1 and that leaves time for an extra full moon on Aug. 30. Traditionally, the second full moon in the same calendar month is called a Blue Moon. This has nothing to do with the actual color of the moon in the sky but apparently harkens back to the day when calendar makers indicated the extra nameless full moon with blue ink.
If a Blue Moon in August isn’t unusual enough, here’s the kicker: both the Green Corn Moon and the Blue Moon this year occur at the same time that the Moon is at its perigee point, or closest point to Earth. That qualifies both full moons as Super Moons.
A Super Moon appears about 14% larger and 30% brighter than a Mini Moon that occurs when the full moon happens at its apogee or farthest point from Earth. Will you be able to tell that the Moon looks 14% larger up in the sky? Well, maybe. It would be easy if you could see a Super Moon and a Mini Moon at the same time, side by side, but that will never happen.
Aug. 13 – A great year for the Perseid meteor shower
The annual Perseid meteor shower almost always makes my top 10 list of celestial events. It is the “Old Faithful” of our annual meteor showers and occurs during the warm nights of summer.
We experience this shower of shooting stars every August because the Earth plows head-on into the dust stream left behind by a comet named Swift-Tuttle. Discovered in 1862 by Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle, this dirty snowball orbits the Sun once every 133 years, leaving a river of dust in its wake. The particles shed by the comet are exceedingly small, not much larger than grains of sand, but when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere traveling 37 miles per second, they burn up in brilliant streaks of light.
If the sky is dark and clear, a single observer usually can count between 60 and 90 meteors per hour during the shower’s peak. Many of the brightest meteors leave glowing trails that can persist for several seconds. The meteors will seem to spring out of the constellation Perseus in the northeastern sky, just below the familiar “W” shaped star pattern of Cassiopeia.
This year, peak activity is expected in the hours before dawn on Aug. 13, but a large number of meteors can be seen about a week on either side of this peak, as the shower ramps up to maximum and back down. More meteors can be expected in the hours after midnight, when the Earth has us facing into the direction of the oncoming dust swarm. The 27-day old crescent moon will rise around 3:15 a.m., but its feeble glow shouldn’t interfere with some of the best meteor-watching of the year.
Aug. 24 – The Moon occults the bright star Antares
There is only a handful of bright stars that lie close enough to the Moon’s orbital path that they can be eclipsed, or occulted, by the Moon from time to time: Regulus, Spica, Aldebaran, and Antares. Antares is the bright red supergiant star that marks the heart of Scorpius, the Scorpion.
On the evening of Aug. 24, the first quarter moon will eclipse the heart of the Scorpion for about an hour. When the Sun goes down and the stars come out that night, one bright star, Antares, will be missing. In its place will be the first quarter moon. Antares will disappear behind the dark edge of the moon around 8 p.m., while the sky is still bright.
That will be very difficult to observe, but with a telescope, you might see it wink out. You’ll have a better chance of watching Antares reappear at the bright edge of the Moon around 9 p.m. at the Moon’s four-o’clock position. All of a sudden, Antares will just pop back into view and the Scorpion will have its heart back. As always, a pair of ordinary binoculars will enhance the view and a telescope will make it easy to see.
Oct. 14 – ‘Ring of Fire’ Eclipse visible across North America
Did the Great American Eclipse of Aug. 21, 2017 leave you wanting more time in the Moon’s shadow? If so, you’re in luck. In a real confluence of cosmic forces, worlds will align once again on Oct. 14, creating an eclipse of the Sun for virtually all of North, Central, and South America, however, this eclipse will be different from the one in 2017.
The Moon will be a little too far away from Earth to totally cover the Sun, so a bright ring of sunlight, or “annulus,” will surround the black lunar orb. To see the unbroken ring of sunlight encircling the Moon, you’ll need to be standing in the right spot at the right time, just as in 2017. The path of annularity is a little more than 100 miles wide and paints a swath across nine U.S. states, starting in Oregon, clipping the southwest corner of Colorado, including Mesa Verde National Park, and crossing Texas before entering the Gulf of Mexico. From inside the path of annularity, one will experience up to four and a half minutes of the unbroken “ring of fire.”
From Northwest Colorado, the Moon will be off center and will cover up about 80% of the Sun around 10:30 a.m., leaving a slender crescent of sunlight. As with any solar eclipse, care must be taken not to look directly at the Sun’s blinding disk. A safe solar filter or projection technique is best for observing the event. One of my favorite ways to watch an eclipse is under the shade of some tall trees where the overlapping leaves create countless little images of the Sun, projected onto the ground. Spread out a white sheet and watch the fun safely under the trees. This annular solar eclipse is just a warmup for the highly anticipated total eclipse of the Sun returning to the USA in April 2024.
Dec. 12 – Asteroid 319 Leona eclipses the bright star Betelgeuse
This next event is so rare and unusual that I feel that I must include it in my list of top 10 events, even though it is not visible from the western USA. It is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, maybe even once in 10 lifetimes.
Think about this: there are millions of asteroids, large and small, that orbit around the Sun. Ordinarily, we are oblivious to their comings and goings, but what if one of those asteroids were to pass in front of a distant star and briefly block out its light? Would anyone notice? Well, they might, if it happened to a prominent star in our night sky. Such will be the case on the early evening of Dec. 12, when a medium-sized asteroid named 319 Leona (the 319th asteroid discovered) eclipses the bright star Betelgeuse in the constellation of Orion, the Hunter.
319 Leona was discovered in 1891 and has an estimated diameter of about 44 miles. The star marking Orion’s left shoulder will wink out completely at 8:16 p.m. EST for about 11 seconds. Here’s the catch – the only place in the USA that this event will be visible is across the very southernmost tip of Florida, including the town of Homestead. Careful timing of the eclipse of Betelgeuse from different locations can help to determine the exact size and shape of this distant space rock. As for me, I’m considering a winter trip to the Florida Keys!
Dec. 14 – A great year for 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 rival or even surpass the August Perseids and the bright constellations of winter form a wonderful backdrop.
The Geminid meteors were first seen in the year 1862, and the shower has increased in strength every year since. The source of the Geminid meteors was unknown until 1983. That’s when the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) found a small asteroid following the same orbital path as the meteor dust swarm. Named 3200 Phaethon, it was the first asteroid discovered to generate a meteor shower.
Almost all other meteor showers are associated with icy comets, not rocky asteroids. This year, the Geminid meteor shower is predicted to peak in the hours before dawn on Dec. 14. The two-day old Moon will set shortly after the Sun goes down on the night of Dec. 13, so it won’t interfere at all with meteor watching after midnight.
Under ideal dark sky conditions, a single observer can expect to see between 90 and 120 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. Dozens of meteors can be seen for a night or two on either side of the peak, too. In fact, observers have noticed that there tends to be more bright fireballs on the nights after the peak. Bundle up and happy meteor watching!
Jimmy Westlake is adjunct Professor of Physical Sciences at Colorado Mountain College and former Director of the Rollins Planetarium at Young Harris College in Georgia and the St. Charles Parish Library Planetarium, in Luling, Louisiana. His “Celestial News” column appears monthly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today newspaper. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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