Astronomical Highlights for 2015
I always look forward to writing my January column because it previews a variety of astronomical events for the upcoming year. Yearly astronomical almanacs, both hard copy and Internet, can be referenced to find the best highlights amateur astronomers and casual stargazers may enjoy observing. I often supplement my choices using sophisticated planetarium software like Starry Night Pro to portray better exactly how these phenomena will look in the skies around southern New England.
However, it is quite discouraging how many sky events succumb to the weather whims of Mother Nature. Last winter was snowy and cold. Seagrave Observatory was closed until the last week in March due to the amount of snow cover. Ladd Observatory didn’t fare much better. And cloudy skies conspired to keep these observatories closed on many of their public open nights throughout 2014.
It’s difficult being an observational astronomer around here these days. We missed two lunar eclipses in 2014, plus many of the major meteor showers due to inclement weather. My observing reports are often more about meteorology than astronomy. In fact, a few folks have jokingly (I hope) suggested that I move out to the southwest to end their draught!
Well, I’m not ready to give up quite yet. I love Rhode Island and enjoy enlightening my fellow citizens on the beauty of the heavens. We’ve got to catch a break once in a while, and I’m hoping 2015 will be one of clear and transparent skies.
So with renewed enthusiasm, let me guide you through the year to see what our little corner of the universe has in store for us in 2015.
Even if the weather cooperates, the major meteor showers from January through July will be severely hampered by a very bright Moon. Fortunately, meteor displays occurring from August through December have much better observing prospects Moon-wise. (See the table at the end of this column.)
The first casualty of the new year is the annual Quadrantid meteor shower during the night of January 3-4. A waxing gibbous Moon (Full on the 4th) will brighten the sky and greatly reduce the number of meteors that could be seen, which in a good year can be anywhere from 60-100 meteors per hour at peak. Only a handful or so will likely be visible through the interfering moonlight. And if the temperature is well below freezing during peak night, I wouldn’t spend much time with the Quadrantids.
If you do decide to try your luck, at least block the Moon from direct view. You can see the meteors anywhere in the sky, but their radiant point (the area of sky from where the meteors appear to originate) is not far from the end star, Alkaid, of the Big Dipper’s handle. From midnight till dawn, this area of sky will rise higher and higher above the north-east horizon, and by 4:00 a.m. it will be almost at zenith (directly overhead).
You’ll know you’ve spotted a Quadrantid meteor if its dust train through the sky points back to the radiant point. Also, they are most often blue in color and frequently blaze more than halfway across the sky at 25.5 miles per second.
Jupiter will be rising earlier each night as we progress into the new year. This fifth planet from the Sun can be found in the constellation Leo, just east of the backwards question mark asterism (called the sickle) that forms the Lion’s head. Blue-white Regulus, the heart of the Lion, is the star located at the bottom of the question mark. Jupiter is fascinating to watch through a telescope. Not only can an observer see Jupiter’s many belts and zones that form its atmosphere, but even a small telescope will reveal the parade of his four Galilean moons as they orbit about this massive world. Jupiter will move into the constellation of Cancer on February 4 and will be closest to the Earth two days later at 404,004,661 miles—the closest until June 10, 2019.
On February 22 there is a beautiful conjunction (close encounter) of Venus and Mars. Look to the western sky an half hour after sunset when they will be about one full moon diameter apart.
While a total lunar eclipse occurs during the pre-dawn hours of April 4, here in southern New England we will see only a partial eclipse before the Moon sets below the western horizon. The partial phase begins at 6:17 a.m. EDT with the Moon barely two degrees above the horizon. It will set at approximately eight minutes later. You’ll need to head out west to observe more of this beautiful celestial event.
In April the Dawn spacecraft will be arriving at former asteroid, and now dwarf planet, Ceres. You’ll be hearing how amazing this is, considering that back in September a very energetic cosmic ray struck a major electronic component controlling one of the spacecraft’s ion engines, sending the robotic explorer into safe mode. Handlers back on Earth saved the mission. Stay tuned for exciting images of this object, the largest in the asteroid belt.
Saturn will be at its closest to the Earth this year on May 23 at approximately 833,506,000 miles. This date is the middle of the best time to train a telescope on this magnificent ringed-world. Saturn will reside in the constellation Scorpius. (It will be easily visible in a late evening sky during April as well.) Everyone can’t wait to observe Saturn and his beautiful rings. If you don’t have a telescope, then please visit the local observatories listed at the conclusion of this column for some spectacular views. And don’t forget to bring your children. They’ll absolutely love it!
On July 14 the New Horizons spacecraft will finally encounter dwarf planet Pluto and five of its known moons after a journey that began at launch on January 19, 2006. At the time of close approach Pluto and the spacecraft will be approximately 2,968,900,000 miles away in the far reaches of our solar system. That’s farther than Westerly for you northern Rhode Island residents! It will take the signal almost 4.5 hours at the speed of light to reach the Earth. I can’t wait to see what new discoveries will be made.
We are fortunate that another total lunar eclipse will occur on the night of September 27-28. This time, southern New Englanders will observe the entire event, provided the skies remain clear. The partial phase begins around 9:07 p.m. and totality at 10:11 p.m. These are all reasonable times of the evening to spend some quality time to follow the progress of this celestial ballet as the Moon slides through Earth’s dark shadow.
Before sunrise on October 26, Venus and Jupiter will be within two full moon diameters of each other above the eastern horizon in the constellation Leo. Mars will be just below them as well. Over several days Venus will approach Mars. On November 3 Mars and Venus will be just over one full moon diameter apart.
And finally, on December 7, a waning crescent Moon and Venus will have a conjunction only two degrees (four full Moon diameters) apart in the eastern sky before sunrise. To the left of this pairing you might also detect Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) with your naked-eye. Try using a pair of binoculars and scan the area if your eyes alone fail to find it.
In conclusion, please remember that the local observatories do remain open year-round to provide incredible views of the heavens with their wonderful telescopes. These facilities are unheated, so dress warmly. in North Scituate is open to the public every clear Saturday night. Ladd Observatory in Providence is open every clear Tuesday night. The Margaret M. Jacoby Observatory at the CCRI Knight Campus in Warwick is open every clear Wednesday night. Frosty Drew Observatory in Charlestown is open every clear Friday night year-round. Snow or ice can force closures, so please check the respective websites for any cancellation notices before venturing out for a visit. Currently the winter hours for Seagrave and Ladd are 7-9 p.m., while Frosty Drew begins at 6:00 p.m. with no set end time.
Be sure to check the websites of these facilities before venturing out for a visit.
Please clip and save the following chart showing the observing prospects for the 2015 meteor showers. These displays of shooting stars only require your eyes, dark skies, and patience to enjoy.
David A. Huestis