Stargazing 01/06

The night sky in early January.

Happy New Year! This year will bring us five eclipses: three solar eclipses and two lunar eclipses. The first one happens Sunday but you’ll need to travel to Siberia to see the moon block up to 62 percent of the sun (a partial solar eclipse). The average daytime high is a bit nippy 28 below zero, so I’m going to skip this one. Be sure to send pictures to The Californian if you go.

Usually solar eclipses and lunar eclipses go together, and the next eclipse is going to be a total lunar eclipse visible to everyone in the U.S. on the evening of Jan. 20. Although the lunar eclipse will begin around 6:36 p.m. when the moon enters Earth’s penumbra (partial shadow), you probably won’t notice anything happening until 7:34 p.m. when the moon enters Earth’s umbra (darkest, total shadow). Look east. You’ll see Earth’s dark shadow move across the moon from left to right. Total eclipse begins at 8:41 p.m. and will last until 9:43 p.m. The moon will leave the umbra at 10:51 p.m.

Lunar eclipses happen at full moon and this full moon will also be a “supermoon,” which happens when the full moon occurs within 24 hours of being at perigee (closest distance to us in its elliptical orbit around Earth). Another supermoon will happen on Feb. 19. The original definition of “supermoon” says it is whenever a full moon or new moon is within 90 percent of perigee. However, since we can’t view a new moon, due to it being right next to the sun on our sky, the new moon supermoons are not going to make the news. Using the original definition, the March 20 full moon would also be considered a supermoon.

A simplified definition of the dating of Easter would say that March 24 should be Easter since that is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, which falls on March 20 this year. The full moon happens five hours after the precise time of the vernal equinox. However, the actual dating of Easter uses the paschal full moon, which is the full moon falling on or after March 21. Therefore, Easter is going to be late this year: April 21.

On July 2, there will be a total solar eclipse visible in the Southern Hemisphere. There will be up to 4.5 minutes of totality visible in the South Pacific about 700 miles north of Easter Island. Landfall will be in central Chile and Argentina where totality will last about two minutes. July in the Southern Hemisphere is winter, so it will be cold. The best weather will probably be a little inland of La Serena in the Elqui Valley and in western Argentina, east of the Andes.

July 19 will bring a partial lunar eclipse visible to those in Europe and Africa. Then on Dec. 26 will be an annular solar eclipse visible to those in southeastern Asia. In an annular solar eclipse, the moon is in the farther part of its elliptical orbit when it passes in front of the sun, so it doesn’t totally cover up the sun. You’ll see a ring (annulus) of the sun’s photosphere (surface) around the dark moon. Greatest eclipse lasting nearly four minutes will be in eastern Sumatra.

The best meteor showers will probably be the Quadrantids that peak Friday morning and the Eta Aquaridiids that peak on May 6. The best times to view them are after midnight in the pre-dawn hours when the Earth has rotated so that you are facing into Earth’s direction of motion through space and you’re facing right into the dust trail left behind the meteor shower’s parent comet. The other meteor showers of the year will have a bright gibbous or full moon to wash out all but the brightest meteors.

On Nov. 11 (Veterans Day) we will be able to see Mercury transit, or pass in front of, the sun. The tiny dot of Mercury will appear to cross the sun from left to right starting at 4:35 a.m. before the sun has risen. Mercury will be right in the middle of its passage across the sun’s disk at 7:20 a.m. (about 50 minutes after sunrise). The Mercury transit will end at 10:04 a.m. Those in the eastern U.S. will have a better view because the sun will be higher in the sky.

There will be very few science spacecraft launched in 2019. In mid-March the NASA Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 will launch to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide to a precision better than 1 ppm. It will be installed on the International Space Station. The ESA Cheops (“Characterizing Exoplanet Satellite”) will launch sometime in mid-October to mid-November to measure the properties of already-discovered exoplanets around bright stars. The second half of 2019 will hopefully see the United States’ return to manned rocket launches with a SpaceX demonstration mission in June and a Boeing flight test in August. Finally, here on the ground, LIGO will start its third observing run in February with even more sensitive gravitational wave detectors than before. Undoubtedly, exciting discoveries will be made this year by current spacecraft, including New Horizons, which made humanity’s most distant object flyby earlier this week.

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