Eclipses, meteor showers, comets to help ring in the New Year

Chuck Bednar for – Your Universe Online

As space enthusiasts bid farewell to a year that saw a probe land on a comet for the first time and the discovery of active organic chemistry on Mars (among other things), the Universe has gone to great lengths to ensure that the transition from 2014 to 2015 will be a spectacular one.

According to National Geographic, this week will feature a quartet of amazing sky events, including a pair of eclipses, a meteor shower and a glowing comet. The events will kick off late on New Year’s Eve and will run through nightfall on Sunday, January 4, the website said.

First on the docket is Wednesday’s eclipse involving Ganymede, the largest of Jupiter’s moons. Ganymede will slowly enter the planet’s shadow starting at 10:18pm EST, and at 11pm, its neighboring moon Europa will also enter into eclipse. The events can be viewed with quality binoculars or a small telescope.

Shortly after nightfall on New Year’s Day, the waxing gibbous moon will be visible in the constellation Taurus in the low southeastern sky, Nat Geo said. Nearly straight above it will be “the jewel-like star cluster known as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters,” which also can be viewed with binoculars or a small telescope, and to the left will be “the orange-hued, dying stellar giant Aldebaran as well as the distinctive, V-shaped Hyades star cluster.”

On Saturday, January 3, the first meteor shower of the year – the Quadrantids – will hit their peak, with 50 to 100 shooting stars an hour being visible in dark locations, the Akron Beacon Journal said. Unfortunately, the shower has a short peak that lasts only a few hours, and light from the nearly full moon will wash out all but the brightest meteors.

“The Quadrantids get their name from the obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis, from which they appear to radiate out, in the northeast sky just off the Big Dipper’s handle,” Nat Geo noted. “Give your eyes time to adjust to the dark when looking for meteors and look downstream from the demoted constellation, where you have the best chance to see a shooting star.”

Finally, on Sunday night, Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) will pass by the superbright star Rigel during the nighttime hours, and the blue-white stellar giant will make it easy for stargazers to locate the comet using little more than binoculars. Nat Geo advises those interested to be on the lookout for a tiny point of light in the center of a large, hazy patch in the constellation Orion.

However, if you miss the comet on Sunday, don’t fret – former St. Cloud State University Planetarium director David Williams reports that you will have other good opportunities to catch Lovejoy. On January 7, it will be at its closest point to Earth (approximately 44,000,000 miles or 0.5 astronomical unit), and it will grow brighter as it approaches the sun later on in the month.

“I would expect this comet to have a rather short tail,” Williams said. “A tail is composed of melting gases and dust as the comet approaches the sun. The gases and dust are blown away from the comet by the solar wind. The tail always points away from the sun.”

“This comet has a long period. This means that it takes a long time for it to go around the sun. The orbital period is approximately 11,500 years,” he added. “So you better see this one soon or you won’t see it again. Unless of course, you plan to live long like Methuselah.”


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