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OUT OF THIS WORLD | Seasonal Skywatching - a preview of what to look for in the night sky for the season ahead

Super Blood Wolf Moon the star for Winter 2019 skywatching


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, December 3, 2018, 3:44 PM - As the days grow colder, and the nights get longer, winter is approaching! Here are the top skywatching events for Winter 2018-2019, and a few extras to keep your eye out for, as well.

Winter may not be the easiest time of year to stargaze, but it can be the most rewarding.

Clear winter nights often present the best viewing, compared to other seasons, as the air overhead tends to be drier and more stable. Stars, planets and the Moon appear crisper and cleaner, as their light encounters less turbulence in the air before it reaches us. The drier air also 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 of the dimmer meteors during annual meteor showers.

So, stay warm when you head out to go skywatching this coming season, and don't miss these great events.

QUICK LIST

• December 22 - Longest Full Moon of 2018
• January 3 - Earth at perihelion
January 3-4 - Quadrantid meteor shower peaks
January 20-21 - Super Blood Wolf Moon Total Lunar Eclipse
• February 21 - Zodiacal Light after evening twilight, western sky for two weeks
• March 20 - Equinox
• Bonus - Conjunctions and Alignments (January 22 - February 27)

DECEMBER 22 - LONGEST FULL MOON OF 2018

This year, December's Full Cold Moon falls on the night of the 22nd, just one night after the longest night of the year.

On that night, the Moon will rise at 5 p.m. local time, and it will set at 8:32 a.m. on the morning of the 23rd, for a total Full Moon viewing time of 15 hours and 32 minutes!

That's the longest Full Moon of the entire year!

We haven't seen a Full Moon last that long since December 2010 (when it was in the sky for 15 hours and 54 minutes on the 20th-21st)!

JANUARY 3 - EARTH AT PERIHELION

This event isn't so much something to see. Instead, it's something simply to experience, as Earth passes through what's known as perihelion.

As Earth travels around the Sun, it doesn't trace a perfect circle. It actually follows an elliptical path.

This means that, even while we typically use an average distance from the Sun of 1 "astronomical unit" or 1 "AU", equal to 150 million km, at some points of its orbit, Earth is closer to the Sun, and at other points, it is farther away.


This schematic of Earth's orbit exaggerates the elliptical shape of the orbit, and the relative sizes of Earth, Moon and Sun. Credit: NASA

Each year, on or around January 3, Earth reaches its closest point to the Sun. This is called perihelion.

If you want to mark the exact moment, pause for a short break in your night, at exactly 05:20 UTC, on January 3.
• 1:50 a.m. Jan 3 Newfoundland Standard Time
• 1:20 a.m. Jan 3 Atlantic Standard Time
• 12:20 a.m. Jan 3 Eastern Standard Time
• 11:20 p.m. Jan 2 Central Standard Time
• 10:20 p.m. Jan 2 Mountain Standard Time
• 9:20 p.m. Jan 2 Pacific Standard Time

Will you feel anything when this occurs? Not specifically from the astronomical event, but it is still pretty cool to mark the moment when it happens.

JANUARY 3-4 - QUADRANTID METEOR SHOWER PEAKS

The best of the winter meteor showers happens right after New Years - the Quadrantids.


The location of the Quadrantid radiant, on the night of January 3-4, 2019. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland

Unlike 2018's Quadrantid shower, which was mostly washed out by a very bright, nearly Full Moon, this year's meteor shower is happening while the Moon is just a thin sliver of a crescent, which slips beyond the horizon very shortly after sunset.

That means we'll have a nice dark sky for the entire night, and observers have the best chance to catch even the faintest of meteors flashing through the sky during the January 3-4 peak of the shower.

The Quadrantids, which originate from an asteroid known as 2003 EH1 (likely an extinct comet), is one of only two known meteor showers to originate from a rocky body! (The December Geminids is the other, originating from 'rock comet' asteroid 3200 Phaethon.)

Both of these meteor showers put on excellent displays, as well, with the Quadrantids delivering an average of 120 meteors per hour (although the actual rate can vary from around 60 to close to 200)!

HOW TO WATCH METEOR SHOWERS

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.

Watch below: What light pollution is doing to city views of the Milky Way



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). 

For best viewing, it's crucial that you give your eyes time to adapt to the dark. Between 30-45 minutes is optimal.

During that time, avoid all bright sources of light, including your cellphone screen. If you need to use your cellphone during this time, consider lowering the amount of blue light your screen gives off and reduce its 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 will not have as big an impact on your nightvision.

Note: Although the graphics presented here point out the location of the meteor shower 'radiants' - 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.

SPECIAL NOTE: When you see times listed for the peak of a meteor shower, don't worry about time zones. The stream of meteoroids Earth passes through during a shower is MILLIONS of kilometres wide, so the shower lasts for days and the peak tends to last an entire night (some, like the Quadrantids, are notably shorter). When observing a shower, it begins for any particular observer when their location on Earth rotates into the oncoming stream particles (typically when night falls, or about an hour before the radiant rises above the horizon). It reaches its local peak when the incoming particles are coming in directly overhead, or as close to that as possible (this is the "Zenith Hourly Rate" or ZHR that you will see associated with meteor showers).

JANUARY 20-21 - SUPER WOLF MOON TOTAL LUNAR ECLIPSE

Nearly a year after 2018's "Super Blue Moon Total Lunar Eclipse", we're going to see another, although this one won't be "blue".

On the night of January 21-22, the Full Wolf Moon will pass through the northern half of Earth's shadow, producing a Total Lunar Eclipse. The graphic above shows the path of the Moon through Earth's penumbral and umbral shadows, and it details the timing of the eclipse, for various time-zones across Canada.

For an added bonus, since the Moon will be very near perigee - its closest distance to Earth - it will be a 'Super Blood Wolf Moon' Total Lunar Eclipse.

Hope for clear skies for this event, since we won't have another Total Lunar Eclipse so nicely centred over North America (so that everyone in Canada has a chance to see it), until May of 2022!

FEBRUARY 21 - THE ZODIACAL LIGHT


Moonlight and zodiacal light over La Silla. Credit: ESO

This winter, evening skywatchers will have a chance to see the immense cloud of interplanetary dust that encircles the Sun, which manifests in our night sky as a phenomenon known as "The Zodiacal Light".

In the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's 2019 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 21 to March 7.

MARCH 20 - EQUINOX

As our Earth travels in its orbit, the tilt of the planet causes the angle of the Sun to change in our sky.

From late September to late March, the North Pole is angled away from the Sun, so that the Sun is positioned more directly over the southern hemisphere, and the Sun reaches its lowest point in the northern sky (and highest in the southern sky) on or around December 22.

From late March to late September, conversely, the South Pole is angled away from the Sun, so that the Sun is positioned more directly over the northern hemisphere, reaching its highest point in the northern sky (and lowest in the southern sky) on or around June 22.



At the two points in between these periods - specifically around March 20 and September 22 - it appears to us as though the Sun crosses the equator. In March, it crosses from south to north, and in September, it crosses from north to south.

The exact moment that the Sun appears to be over the equator, in either case, is known as an Equinox.

Which hemisphere you're in, at the time, determines exactly which kind of equinox you're experiencing. In March, the northern hemisphere marks the vernal equinox, while the southern hemisphere marks the autumnal equinox. In September, it's the opposite.

The coming equinox, marking the start of spring in the north and autumn in the south, occurs at exactly 5:58 p.m. EDT, on March 20.

CONJUNCTIONS AND ALIGNMENTS

Look up into a clear sky on most nights of the year, and it's very likely that you'll spot the Moon, along with one or more planets (Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn being the most notable), at least at some point during the night.

On certain nights of the year, these objects appear especially close together (at least from our point of view here on Earth), which astronomers refer to it as a 'conjunction', while on other nights, several of these bright objects can line up across the sky in an 'alignment'.

Here are the notable conjunctions and alignments for Winter 2019


These Winter 2019 conjunctions and alignments are all in the early, pre-dawn morning. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland

• January 22 and 23 - Venus-Jupiter conjunctions
• January 31 - Venus-Moon-Jupiter alignment
• February 18 - Venus-Saturn conjunction, with Jupiter nearby
• February 27 - Jupiter-Moon conjunction, with Venus and Saturn nearby
• February 28 - Venus-Saturn-Moon-Jupiter alignment

What's up for the rest of the year? There's plenty going on, but the biggest events coming up are the July southern hemisphere total solar eclipse, and the November transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun!

Sources: IMO | Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

RELATED: SEE THE CENTURY'S LONGEST 'BLOOD MOON' TURN A DARK RED IN TIMELAPSE



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