Watch for these amazing planetary conjunctions! Here's when
Friday, February 2, 2018, 5:56 PM - It may be cold outside, but there are still some sights in the night sky this winter that shouldn't be missed! Here's the top three skywatching events for the coming season, and a few extras to keep your eye out for, as well.
Winter isn't the easiest time of year to stargaze, but it can be the most rewarding time.
The cold winter air often presents the best viewing of the night sky, compared to other seasons, as the air tends to be drier and more stable. Through a telescope or binoculars, stars, planets and the Moon appear crisper and cleaner, as their light encounters less turbulence in the air before it reaches us. Even with the unaided eye, the drier air reflects back less of the light pollution produced by our urban centres, so our skies tend to be darker, allowing us to see more stars, and more meteors during the annual meteor showers.
So, stay warm when you head out to go skywatching this coming season, and don't miss these great events.
Dec 21-22 - Usrid meteor shower peak (10-30 meteors per hour)
Jan 1-2 - 2018's Perigee Full Moon
Jan 3-4 - Quadrantid meteor shower peak (short peak of up to 120 meteors per hour)
Jan 30-31 - Super Blue Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse (Eclipse is in the AM in Canada)
• Jan 7 to March 17 - Several planetary conjunctions, including a persistent planetary alignment
• Early Feb and early March - The Zodiacal Light is visible in the western sky after twilight
Planetary and Lunar Conjunctions
Planets are among the brightest objects in our night sky, with some easily seen even under the worst light pollution conditions. Seeing one planet is noteworthy enough. Catching two or more in the sky is remarkable. Seeing two (or possibly more) that are very close together - a conjunction - is extremely cool.
This winter, we will be treated to an extremely close conjunction of Mars and Jupiter - which will appear so close as to be touching - a triangle of Mars, Jupiter and the Moon, a fairly persistent line of Saturn, Mars and Jupiter (with the occassional visit from the Moon), and a sunset pairing of Venus and Mercury.
The numerous planetary conjunctions of Winter 2017-18. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland
• Jan 7 - Mars and Jupiter
• Jan 11 - Mars, Jupiter and the Moon
• Jan 13 - Mercury and Saturn
• Jan 15 - Mercury, Saturn and the Moon in a triangle
• Feb 7 - Jupiter and the Moon, with Saturn and Mars
• Feb 9 - Mars and the Moon, with Saturn and Jupiter
• Feb 11 - Saturn and the Moon, with Mars and Jupiter
• March 7 - Jupiter and the Moon, with Saturn and Mars
• March 10 - Saturn, Mars and the Moon in a triangle, with Jupiter nearby
• March 12 - The Moon, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter in a lineup
• March 17 - Mercury and Venus along the western horizon, just after sunset
The Zodiacal light
Twice this winter, skywatchers will have a chance to see the immense cloud of interplanetary dust that encircles the Sun, which manifests in our night sky as "The Zodiacal Light".
In the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's 2018 Observer's Handbook, Dr. Roy Bishop, Emeritus Professor of Physics from Acadia University, wrote:
The zodiacal light appears as a huge, softly radiant pyramid of white light with its base near the horizon, and its axis centred on the zodiac (or better, the ecliptic). In its brightest parts, it exceeds the luminance of the central Milky Way.
According to Dr. Bishop, event though this phenomenon can be quite bright, it can easily be spoiled by moonlight, haze or light pollution. Also, since it is best viewed just after twilight, the inexperienced sometimes confused it for twilight, and thus miss out.
On clear nights, and under dark skies, look to the western horizon, in the half an hour just after twilight has faded, from about February 2-15, and March 5-18.
What we've already seen
Morning of January 31 - Super Blue Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse
This is one event that's worth getting up extra early for!
The Full Moon on the night of January 30-31 is not only a supermoon, the second largest and second brightest Full Moon of 2018, and some also call it a Blue Moon, since it's the 2nd Full Moon in the month of January (February has no Full Moon this year).
The path of the Full Moon through Earth's dim grey penumbral shadow and the deep red umbra, on the morning of Jan 31, 2018. Credit: Scott Sutherland
The original definition of a Blue Moon is "the third Full Moon in a season with four Full Moons." Typically, seasons have three Full Moons, but once in awhile, when the Full Moons fall around the 18th-22nd of the month, you can have four. Thus, technically, the next true Blue Moon will be on May 18, 2019, since that will be the third Full Moon of the four Full Moons of spring that year (March 21, April 19, May 18 and June 17).
Using Blue Moon to describe the second Full Moon in a calendar month is based on a mistake, but is still a popular definition. It's the same as the term "supermoon", which has caught on to describe a Full Moon or New Moon that happens close to lunar perigee, despite it being a fairly arbitrary astrological term.
Regardless of how you define this particular Full Moon, much of Canada will get to see a Total Lunar Eclipse in the early morning hours of Wednesday, January 31, as the Moon slips through Earth's shadow.
The timing of the eclipse, across Canada, is detailed in the image above.
Nova Scotia and Newfoundland won't see this eclipse, because the Moon will have set just before it slips into Earth's penumbral shadow.
In New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Labrador, the Moon will be seen to dim slightly before it sets, as residents of those regions catch the Moon dipping into Earth's penumbra.
In Quebec and southern/eastern Ontario, a partial lunar eclipse will be visible, as the Moon makes it only part way into the red umbra before it is lost to view beyond the horizon.
From northwestern Ontario and up to Nunavut, all the way west to the coast of British Columbia and up into the Yukon, a total lunar eclipse will visible in the predawn hours. The farther west the viewer is, the more of the eclipse they will be able to see. For example, in Thunder Bay, viewers will see the full blood red Moon for all of six minutes before it slips below the horizon, while in Vancouver, the entire eclipse will be visible, from beginning to end.
King Tides on both coasts
In the days following this supermoon eclipse, the east and west coasts of Canada and the United States should be prepared to see some extra high tides - possibly the highest of the year, also known as the King Tides.
King Tides, also known as perigean spring tides, happen when the Moon is near or at perigee, due to the gravitational pulls of the Moon and the Sun lining up very closely. When lunar perigee happens very close to when the Earth is at perhelion (its closest point to the Sun), these forces add together at their near-strongest, and it produces exceptionally high tides.
British Columbia has been going through this since December, due to a trio of supermoons happening during northern winter, when Earth passes through its closest point to the Sun. Locations along the lower mainland should be mindful of coastal areas for the rest of this week, especially if any storms move in off the ocean.
According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, high tides in the Vancouver area could reach up to 5 metres, which is 20 centimetres higher than they were at this time last year, when the Moon was closer to its average distance from Earth.
In the east, especially the Bay of Fundy, they will see a similar effect. The forecast for high tides at Digby, Nova Scotia, for example, shows that they could reach up to 9.1 metres in the days ahead, which is nearly a full metre higher than they at were this time, last year.
January 1-2 - New Year Perigee Full Moon
Following up on 2017's Perigee Full Moon (the closest Full Moon of the entire year), 2018's Perigee Full Moon happened on the night of January 1-2.
2018's perigee (closest) and apogee (farthest) Full Moons. The average distance of the Moon is 384,400 km. Credit: NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Scott Sutherland
The Full Moon reached its peak at 9:24 p.m. ET on the 1st of January, only around 4 hours after the Moon reached its closest perigee of 2018, at a distance of 356,565 km. This was the second of three 'supermoons' in a row. The first was on December 4, 2017, and the third will be on January 31, 2018, which will include some extra special details (such as a total lunar eclipse!).
January 3-4 - Quadrantid Meteor Shower Peaks
The Quadrantid meteor shower reached its annual peak on the night of January 3-4, as Earth passed through a stream of rocky debris left behind by extinct comet 2003 EH1. Along with the December Geminids, the Quadrantids are only one of two major meteor showers of the year that do not originate from an active comet.
While the Quadrantids can be just as numerous in the night sky as the Geminids, the view was spoiled some this year, due to the fact that the shower peaked only one night after the closest and brightest Full Moon of 2018. The brightness of the Moon washed out many of the dimmer meteors, leaving only the brightest to be seen.
The position of the Quadrantid meteor shower radiant, near the constellation Bootes, around midnight on January 2-3, 2018. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland
Also, while the Geminids peak ramps up over a few nights beforehand and can still give good returns the night after, the Quadrantids peak is very sharp, lasting just that one night. Also, the timing of this year's peak was forecast for 21:00 UTC, or roughly 4 p.m. ET. That meant that Europe was favoured for viewing the peak, with Canada missing out on most of it while the radiant was still below the eastern horizon.
How to watch a meteor shower
The first thing to consider when planning to watch a meteor shower is to keep track of the weather. Be sure to check The Weather Network on TV, on our website, or from our app, just to be sure that you have the most up-to-date forecast.
Next, you need to get away from city lights, and the farther away you can get, the better.
For most regions of Canada, getting out from under light pollution is simply a matter of driving outside of your city, town or village. Some areas, though, such as southwestern and central Ontario, and along the St Lawrence River, the concentration of light pollution is very high. Getting far enough outside of one city to escape its light pollution, unfortunately, tends to put you under the light pollution of the next city over. In these areas, there are dark sky preserves, however a skywatcher's best bet for dark skies is usually to drive north.
Once you've verified you'll have clear skies, and you've escaped from urban light pollution, stop somewhere safe and dark (provincial parks, even if you're confined to the parking lot, are usually an excellent location). Give your eyes between 30-45 minutes to adapt to the dark. During that time, avoid all bright sources of light, including your cellphone screen. Consider lowering the amount of blue light your screen gives off and reduce the brightness. Also look into an app that puts your phone into "night mode", which shifts the screen colours even more into the red. Once you've done that, checking your phone while skywatching won't impact on your nightvision as much.
Although the graphic presented here points out the location of the meteor shower radiant, which is the point in the sky where the meteors appear to originate from, the meteors themselves can show up anywhere in the sky. So, the best way to watch a meteor shower is to look straight up. That way, your field of view takes in as much of the sky as possible, all at once. Bring a blanket to spread on the ground, or a lawn chair to sit in, or even lean back against your car. Bringing along some family and friends is also great, since it's best to share these experiences with others.
December 21-22 - Peak of the Ursid meteor shower
The Ursids are not a very well-known meteor shower. Produced from the debris trail left behind by Comet 8P/Tuttle, they only produce around 10 meteors per hour, on average, with the occasional outburst. Certainly not a match for either the Geminids or the Quadrantids.
The position of the Ursid meteor shower radiant, near the Little Dipper and Big Dipper, around 8 p.m. on December 21-22, 2017. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland
This year, the Ursids coincide with a thin, waxing crescent Moon, which sets just shortly after sunset, leaving behind a clear night sky for viewing. Best viewing will be in the hours before sunrise, when the radiant is high in the sky.
Some years, the Ursids can actually produce outbursts of hundreds of meteors per hour, but these are very rare. The International Meteor Organization is predicting a fairly typical shower for 2017, with a slight chance of a minor outburst, due to Earth encountering a dust trail ejected by 8P/Tuttle in 884 AD.
Note: The definition of "Blue Moon" in a previous version of this article only referred to the popular definition of "a second Full Moon in a calendar month", and left out the historic definition. This has been corrected. We apologize for any confusion.