Sunset trio kicks off stargazing events for Spring 2017
Visit the Complete Guide to Spring 2017 for the Spring Forecast, tips to survive it and much more.
Monday, March 20, 2017, 11:13 AM - Spring is fast approaching, so here are the top five stargazing and skywatching events to watch for in the season ahead!
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March 29: Moon - Mercury - Mars Conjunction
In the evening hours of March 29, just after the Sun has completely set, watch the western horizon as the stars begin to come out for a beautiful trio of night sky objects.
In addition to a very thin crescent Moon, two brighter objects will emerge from the glare of the Sun - the planets Mars and Mercury - to form a triangle with the Moon.
The March 29 conjunction. Credit: Stellarium/S. Sutherland
Mercury, which will be very near its maximum elongation (its farthest distance from the Sun, from our perspective here on Earth), will likely appear as the brightest of the three, since it will be receiving (and thus reflecting) the greatest amount of sunlight of the three, and the Moon will be such a thin crescent at the time.
April 7: Jupiter at Opposition
On the night of April 7, Jupiter will be on the exact opposite side of Earth as the Sun.
The giant planet will rise at sunset and set at sunrise, giving the maximum amount of viewing time, and this will be the closest Earth and Jupiter will be all year.
A simulated look at Jupiter, and its largest moons, at opposition. Credit: Stellarium/S. Sutherland
This will require a telescope (or perhaps a good pair of binoculars) to see, but even a beginners telescope will do to spot the planet and its four Galilean moons.
April 22-23: Lyrid meteor shower
On the night of Saturday, April 22 to Sunday, April 23, stargazers may be able to catch a few meteors during the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower.
This meteor shower typically is not one of the strongest of the year, as it only delivers about 15-20 meteors per hour, and that is under ideal conditions. The meteors tend to be fairly bright, however, and some even produce fireballs in the night sky.
Unlike in 2016, when Lyrid viewers had to contend with the light of the Full Moon, this year's shower takes place under better conditions.
The position of the Lyrid meteor shower radiant, in the East, at roughly midnight, April 22-23. Credit: Stellarium/S. Sutherland
The waning crescent Moon will not rise above the horizon until very early morning, in the hour or so just before sunrise, so it will not present a problem at all for viewing this meteor shower.
May through June: Double-shadow transits on Jupiter
Remember when the Hubble Space Telescope captured a rare triple-shadow crossing the face of Jupiter in January 2015? Well, spring is the season for double-shadow transits in 2017.
From May 12 to June 23, occurring once every two or three days, two of Jupiter's Galilean moons will pass in front of the gas giant, casting their shadows onto the planet's cloud tops at the same time.
There are a total of 15 different double-shadow transit events during this time - 14 involving Io and Europa and one with Io and Ganymede. They will not all be visible to us, however. Due to the time of day they occur at, and whether or not Jupiter is above the horizon, only five of these events will be easily visible to those of us in parts of Canada.
Simulated views of five double-shadow transits in 2017. Credit: Stellarium/S. Sutherland
Four of these events involve Io and Europa, the two closest of Jupiter's Galilean moons, while one features the shadows of Io and Ganymede. They can be seen at the following dates and times:
• Io and Europa, May 11, at 9:59 p.m. to 10:04 p.m. EDT (Europa's shadow egresses just 5 minutes after Io's shadow ingresses)
• Io and Europa, May 18, 11:54 p.m. to May 19, 12:40 a.m. EDT
• Io and Europa, May 26, 1:47 a.m. to 3:19 a.m. EDT (Jupiter sets shortly before the end of the event)
• Io and Ganymede, June 3, 10:21 p.m. to June 4, 12:40 a.m. EDT
• Io and Europa, June 19, 10:04 p.m. to 10:38 p.m. EDT
Adjust times, accordingly, for your local time zone.
These are awesome events to witness, but a telescope is required to see them. Jupiter is just too small in the sky to see details with the naked eye.
If you do not have a telescope, check with your local astronomy club or observatory to see if anyone is planning viewing events around these transits.
June 9: Mini Strawberry Moon
The first two Full Moons of Spring 2017 - on April 11 and May 10 - are not very remarkable (although certainly nice to look at, if you have a clear night). June's Strawberry Moon, however, will be a "mini Full Moon", and 2017's "apogee" Full Moon - the smallest Full Moon of the year.
The Spring Full Moons of 2017. Credit: NASA GSVS/S. Sutherland
Even though there's over 7,500 km difference in the distance between the April and June Full Moons, that's only about a 2 per cent different compared to the average distance of the Moon (384,400 km). So, it's very difficult to notice that the Moon actually appears smaller, just by looking at it in the sky.
It will appear dimmer, though - possibly noticeably dimmer, depending on how sensitive your eyes are to such things. Keep a sharp eye on the Moon over the spring, and see if you can notice the difference.
Other noteworthy events
May 5 - eta Aquariid meteor shower. One of two meteor showers from Halley's Comet, this is usually a good show when it comes around. This year, however, it is not well timed for the western hemisphere. Viewers may be able to see something in the hours just before sunrise, with the shower radiant very low along the eastern horizon.
May 26 - "super" New Moon. This is the closest perigee Moon of the year, but unfortunately we're not going to see it, because it's a New Moon, so it will be on the Sun-ward side of the planet when this occurs. Still, watch out for large tides around this date.
June 15 - Saturn at Opposition. With Saturn up all night, it's a great time to see the ringed planet in all its glory.
As always with these stargazing and skywatching events: be mindful of the light pollution in your area, and keep an eye on the developing weather, as these two factors will often be the deciding ones for whether or not you actually get to see these events unfold.
Watch Below: Meteorologist and Science Writer Scott Sutherland talks about spring skywatching events, via Facebook Live, answering questions and taking everyone on a tour of his amazing, nerdy workspace (note: we had a microphone glitch for the first two minutes or so, so keep watching past that part to get to the good stuff!)