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Must-see night sky this winter, here's when to watch

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Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Tuesday, December 20, 2016, 3:14 PM - As our nights get longer and darker with the settling of northern winter, Canadians enter the best time of the year for stargazing. With a stretch of Super Moons and the annual Geminid meteor shower already under its belt, here's what to watch for in the night sky for the remainder of the winter season!

The Quadrantid meteor shower

In the first week of 2017, another of the year's best meteor shower will peak in our night skies - the Quadrantids.

Along with the Geminids, the Quadrantids are one of two meteor showers we see during the year that originate from an asteroid, rather than a comet. Occurring from December 28-January 12, the Quadrantids are a very strong and bright shower, which typically delivers around 120 meteors per hour during its peak, on the night of Jan 3-4.

The location of the Quadrantid radiant, after midnight, on the night of January 3-4, 2017. Credit: Stellarium/S. Sutherland

Although the Quadrantid radiant is in the vicinity of the constellation Bootes, if you want to find it, look in the northeast sky, after midnight, just under the Big Dipper and just to the north of the bright star, Arcturus.

You don't need to find the radiant to enjoy the show, however. The best way to watch this meteor shower, as with others, is to find a dark place, away from city lights, plunk down a lawn chair, sit and tilt your head back, so that you can take in the entire night sky, all at once. This is because the meteoroids in the debris stream can intercept the atmosphere at any point in the sky, so only keeping your eyes on the northeast will mean missing plenty of these meteors.

Unlike the Geminids, which have to compete with the light of the December 14 Full Moon, the Quadrantids rise only after the waxing crescent Moon has set for the night, so there should be great viewing, if the weather gives us clear skies.

A challenging lunar eclipse

On the night of February 10, Canadians have a chance to see a hard-to-spot eclipse of the Moon.

As the Moon rises on that night, it will be passing through Earth's penumbra - the faint, grey, outermost portion of the planet's shadow. 

Unlike the best lunar eclipses, when the Moon turns a dull reddish colour as it passes through Earth's umbra, a penumbral eclipse is fairly difficult to see. An observer needs very dark skies, as far away from light pollution as possible, and they need to watch the Moon very carefully for when it dims.

Credit: NASA

The timing of the eclipse favours Europe and Africa, however different regions of Canada should be able to see varying parts of it, as it unfolds.

Newfoundland - runs from 7:04 p.m. to 11:23 p.m. NST, peaking at 9:13 p.m. NST
Atlantic Canada - runs from 6:34 p.m. to 10:53 p.m. AST, peaking at 8:43 p.m. AST
Ontario and Quebec - runs from 5:34 p.m. to 9:53 p.m. EST, peaking at 7:43 p.m. EST
Note: for areas of Ontario to the west of a line running from Toronto to Sudbury, the eclipse will already have begun as the Moon rises above the eastern horizon 
Manitoba - rises at 4:37 p.m. and runs until 8:53 p.m. CST, peaking at 6:43 p.m. CST
Saskatchewan - rises at 6:07 p.m. and runs until 8:53 p.m. CST, peaking at 6:43 p.m. CST
Alberta - rises 5:45 p.m. and runs until 7:53 p.m. MST, peaking at 5:49 p.m. MST
British Columbia - rises 5:27 p.m. and runs until 6:53 p.m. PST, peaking at 5:31 p.m. PST

Also note, that for Alberta and British Columbia, the peak of the eclipse actually occurs very close to sunset, so the light from the setting Sun may make it even more difficult to see this eclipse.

A southern "ring of fire" solar eclipse

To go along with the February 10-11 lunar eclipse, there will be an annular eclipse - aka a "ring of fire" eclipse - during the day on February 26, 2017.

The May 20, 2012 annular solar eclipse. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The path of the Feb 26, 2017 annular solar eclipse. Credit: NASA

The catch for this particular eclipse is that it will not be directly visible to anyone in the U.S. You can bet that there will be plenty of people travelling to that thin strip of the planet, noted on the map above in red, and they will be posting plenty of pictures, and possibly even live-streaming video of the event.

RELATED: What is Light Pollution and how does it affect Canadians?

Sources: International Meteor Organization (pdf) | NASA | Timeanddate.com

Teaser image: Sean Roddick

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