January 13, 2008

2008 Preview Night Sky Highlights

Here are some of the more noteworthy sky events that will
take place this year. SPACE.com's weekly Night Sky column will provide more
extensive coverage of each event as they draw closer.

February 1 — Venus/Jupiter conjunction, Part 1. This
will be the first of two meetings this year between the two brightest planets
in our sky. This one will occur in the morning sky, low in the east-southeast
and is best seen about 45 minutes before sunup. On Feb. 4, a beautiful crescent
moon will join the two planets making for an eye-catching array.

February 20-21 — Total eclipse of the moon. Less than
six months after last August's total lunar eclipse, we have yet another that
occurs during the late-night hours of February 20-21. This eclipse will favor
much of North America, occurring during convenient evening hours, although
Europeans will also be able to enjoy a view of the darkened moon before it sets. Totality will
last for a bit less time than usual (50 minutes), as the moon slides to just within
the southern portion of the Earth's umbra, perhaps leading to a potentially
bright total phase highlighted by a brighter southern limb. Adding to this
spectacle, a planet (Saturn) and a bright star (Regulus) will be close to the
totally eclipsed moon forming a broad triangle.

May 10 — Occultation of the Beehive star cluster. A
waxing crescent moon, 38 percent illuminated, will pass in front of the famous
Beehive Cluster this evening for North Americans, making for a pretty sight in
binoculars and low-power telescopes. Members of the cluster will disappear
behind the moon's dark edge and will reappear about an hour later behind the
bright edge.

May 21-22 — Jupiter without satellites! Anyone who
points a small telescope toward the planet Jupiter will nearly always see some or
all of the four famous Galilean satellites. Usually at least two or three of
these moons are immediately evident; sometimes all four. It is very rare when
only one moon is in view and rarer still when no moons at all are visible. On
this night, for parts of the northeast U.S. and eastern Canada, Jupiter will appear moonless for about 20 minutes.

June 30 — Occultation of the Pleiades star cluster. This
occultation is already in progress for the northeastern U.S. as a skinny sliver
of a waning crescent moon rises in the pre-dawn sky. Earthshine should also be
present, imparting a "3-D effect" in binoculars and small telescopes.
The best views will come as the brighter stars of this cluster reappear along
the dark lunar limb.

August 1 — Total eclipse of the sun. Siberia anyone? From Novosibirsk you'll see the late-afternoon sun completely blotted out
for 2.3 minutes. Totality will also be visible from Canada's Northwest Passage,
western Mongolia, and the western end of the Great Wall of China.

August 11-12 — Perseid meteor shower. At first glance
this doesn't look like a favorable year to view this famous meteor display, since the moon will be
in a bright waxing gibbous phase on the peak viewing night. Fortunately, the moon
will set at around 1:45 a.m. local daylight time, leaving the rest of the night
dark for meteor watchers.

August 16 — Partial eclipse of the moon. Europe,
Africa and Asia will be in the best position to watch about four-fifths of moon
become immersed in the Earth's dark umbral shadow.

September 19 — Another Pleiades occultation. A waning
gibbous moon will already be within the Pleiades as it rises over the Eastern
U.S. and Canada during the mid-evening hours. The reappearance of stars such as
Alcyone and Taygeta should be well-seen along the moon's dark limb.

December 1 — Venus/Jupiter conjunction, Part 2. This
will be the second pairing-off of the two brightest planets in 2008, this time
in the evening sky soon after sundown. And as a bonus, the crescent moon will
join them forming a striking triangle and likely making even those who normally
don't look up at the sky take notice.

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other
publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.