Skies Over West Seattle: Sneak peek at what you’ll see this year

February 2, 2014 at 5:53 pm | In Skies Over West Seattle, West Seattle news | 3 Comments

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ever wish for advance alert of an upcoming meteor shower/eclipse/etc. – and/or wonder “What’s that bright ‘star’ up there?” – especially on these recent clear nights? Here you go! It’s our periodic feature by West Seattle’s own Solar System Ambassador Alice Enevoldsen, famous for her solstice/equinox sunset watches among other things.

(December 2011 lunar eclipse, photographed by David Hutchinson – more on the way!)
By Alice Enevoldsen
Special to West Seattle Blog

It finally cleared up a bit recently for the first time since December and got me thinking about what’s coming up for the year. So here I present for you an overview of what to watch for in 2014.

Right Now: Nova in M82

There’s another nova in our sky right now, though it is extremely difficult to see from the city, even with an amateur telescope. “Nova” classically means ‘new star,’ though nowadays we know that these so-called ‘new’ stars are just brightening of stars that were there before. This one, SN2014J, has apparently peaked in brightness, and is a telescope-only object. It’s in the galaxy M82, conveniently located off the tip of the bowl of the Big Dipper. If you plan on looking for it, leave the city.

All Year: Sun & Aurora, Saturn & the Moon

Don’t be worried, I’m not asking you to read that NASA graph in detail.

We have just passed the maximum of this 11-year solar cycle, so we can expect less and less activity on the Sun as time passes. Funny thing though, some of the biggest solar flares happen in the few months after solar max. Those amazing flares can, in turn, lead to aurorae on Earth as far south as Seattle, as well as significantly farther: even Colorado & New Mexico.

The irony is that when the storms get that big, the satellites that allow us to predict the location and magnitude of possible auroral storms are often disrupted by the solar radiation. Wait and watch for flares and aurorae for the rest of this year.

Most months this year the Moon will almost occult Saturn. Seeing an occultation of a bright object like Saturn can be exciting because the object seems to suddenly wink out. The close approaches will be cool too; the best ones are on March 21st and August 4th.

January & February: Venus

Venus was pretty amazing right at the beginning of January; it was an extremely bright crescent, with some folks in West Seattle reporting that they could almost make out the crescent shape without binoculars or a telescope. You’ll have another chance at this amazing view of Venus during the week of Valentine’s Day: February 11-15. Venus will still be a crescent and will reach its greatest brightness. Watch for it in the morning skies.

March: Mars

Somewhat appropriately, Mars becomes an evening object in March, with the potential of good viewing. March is also the month to get ready for the spring equinox sunset watch.

April: Total Lunar Eclipse

We have a total lunar eclipse to watch for in April. The eclipse begins at 9:53 pm our time on April 14th, reaches totality at 12:45 am on April 15, and completes a couple hours later at 3:37 am. As this is a total lunar eclipse, you can expect to see the Moon looking rusty red. The effect is from being in the Earth’s shadow.

April 12 is Yuri’s Night if you’re interested in hosting a 21-and-over celebration of space exploration. If you prefer all-ages events, wait until May for Astronomy Day.

May, June, & July: Good Ol’ Basic Stargazing

May 10 is Astronomy Day. Traditionally both Museum of Flight and Pacific Science Center have extra astronomy programming on this day.

Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and Venus will all continue to be visible and very bright, and we’ll be watching the sunset for the summer solstice in June.

August: Meteors

August is your best meteor shower month with the annual appearance of the Perseids on the night of August 12 and early morning of August 13. Find a clear northern sky and start watching about midnight.

September: Spacecraft

The MAVEN spacecraft will be arriving at Mars on September 21st, and the fall equinox sunset watch will be the day after on the 22nd.

NASA’s new Orion spacecraft will have its first test flight to space at some point in September. I am hoping they make their timeline, but this is the kind of experimental flight that might suffer delays. Orion will be NASA’s next generation of spacecraft for carrying humans to space. Unlike the Space Shuttle, which was limited to Low Earth Orbit, the Orion program will have the technical capability to reach beyond the International Space Station to the Moon or nearby asteroids (yes, just like in Armageddon, but also NOT AT ALL like that because their physics was just plain wrong).

October: Eclipses and Close Approaches

October has our second chance at a lunar eclipse, starting at 1:15 am on October 8 and peaking at 3:55 am. The whole event will be over by 6:33 am.

Not only that, but on October 23 we also have a partial solar eclipse, visible from here in Seattle! You’ll need to prepare yourself to watch this safely around 2:44 pm. If you don’t own a pair of safe solar-viewing glasses, you have time to order some for a couple bucks from Rainbow Symphony. (Their website is a little rough around the edges, but I haven’t found a better selection of eclipse glasses and diffraction grating anywhere else.)

Between the two eclipses, on October 19, Comet 2013A will be passing very close to Mars. Now, normally when I say that it means you can see them near each other in the sky, but in reality they are nowhere near each other, because space has that pesky third dimension. In this case the two objects are going to be close to each other in actual space. In fact, it was only a few months ago that scientists from JPL determined that the comet would not hit Mars, just pass quite close. It won’t be a show in our night skies, but hopefully we’ll get some amazing photos back from the rovers and satellites around Mars.

November: Meteors

The Leonid meteor shower peaks just before midnight on November 17. This has potential to be a great shower some years. I haven’t heard how this one is shaping up.

December

One last sunset watch for the year, and on to 2015. Be sure to take advantage of any winter clear skies to see the crystal-clear winter stars.

Got events to add? Please comment below.

Resources:

Guy Ottewell’s Astronomical Calendar

JPL’s Space Calendar

Stellarium: Free planetarium software for your home computer. Bring up the sky for anywhere in the world – any time and date in history, or the future.

Clear Sky Chart: The astronomer’s forecast for the next couple days. Cloud cover, darkness, and “seeing” which is how nice it is to view the stars, all on one handy chart.

USNO: Dates and times of astronomical happenings.

International Dark Sky Association

Who is Alice?

Alice is many things and works and volunteers for a few different notable organizations, but the suggestions and opinions put forth in this article are her own and no one else’s. You can find more about astronomy at alicesastroinfo.com.

3 Comments

  1. I’m wondering about the gravitational flip that might be headed our way.

    Comment by G — 7:24 pm February 2, 2014 #

  2. Could just make out the SN2014J last week in the 10″ dob. When most think of a nova or supernova they think of something that lights up the sky. Not so in this case.
    Thanks for the info on upcoming events.

    Comment by WestSide45 — 8:11 pm February 2, 2014 #

  3. @WestSide45 — yeah! we almost saw it through our 8″ with averted vision recently … this one is, well, it exists and it is cool, but it takes quite the know-how to find it!
    .
    G — I hesitate to address your comment briefly for fear of being misunderstood. The short of it is this: there is no need to worry and there isn’t a “gravitational flip headed our way” or even one we’re waiting for, nor do we need to spend effort worrying about it. That’s the easy part. Here’s where I’m afraid people reading this will get confused: well, yes, the Earth’s gravitational field goes through changes over time, and at some point it will do so again. Something you can take to heart is this: we know about the the gravitational changes through the geologic record, and we see NO EVIDENCE of species extinction at those times. So, grandiose claims that the gravitational flip will be the end of humanity are hyped up and one doesn’t need to be afraid of it as such. Also, by “expecting” we mean that it could happen any time in the next 200-20,000 years. So, please no worries. The “Big One” earthquake that Seattle is expecting is much more likely to wreak havoc with your life than the gravitational shift that may or may not affect the way life is lived, and will not happen during your lifetime anyway.
    .
    I hope that is reassuring.
    -Alice

    Comment by Alice — 8:42 pm February 2, 2014 #

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