2011 is nearly out of breath. This past year we’ve seen two close asteroid flybys – 2011 MD on June 27 and 2005 YU55 on November 8, the Dawn spacecraft’s successful mission to Vesta, a total lunar eclipse in December, the return of Venus to the evening sky, and two big satellites – UARS and Roentgen – fall back to Earth. The sun also cooked up some big flares in 2011 and sparked two spectacular auroral displays for mid-latitude skywatchers this fall.
Comet Elenin, the comet we all expected would brighten to naked eye visibility, went poof! Given all the doomsday talk surrounding this hapless hunk of ice, its disappearance was sweet irony. Meanwhile Comet Lovejoy, which many expected to vaporize during its searingly close approach to the sun earlier this month, survived and became one of the prettiest comets in years for southern hemisphere skywatchers. I love surprises.
What lies ahead for 2012? Below you’ll find a selection of interesting astronomical events to look forward to in the coming year.
January 4 – Quadrantid meteor shower: We’ll have more details on this shower in the coming days, but this will be the year’s first meteor shower with 50-100 meteors visible per hour in the early morning sky just before dawn. No moon will interfere.
Mid-Feb through March – Comet Garradd: The only bright, easily visible comet predicted for 2012. Garradd will move from Hercules into Draco in February and remain visible around 6th magnitude in binoculars all night long high in the northern sky for observers at mid-northern latitudes.
March – Mars at opposition and near Earth: About every two years, Mars and the Earth closely approach one another as they line up together on the same side of the sun. This happens on March 3, when Mars will be 62.6 million miles away. Because the Red Planet is farthest from the sun at nearly the same time, it won’t make an especially close approach to Earth. Still it will shine at magnitude -1.2, nearly as bright as Sirius and make an inviting telescopic target.
March 13 – Jupiter-Venus close conjunction: The sky’s two brightest planet pair up for a tour de force in the western sky during evening twilight. They’ll be within three degrees of each other that day and visited by the crescent moon on March 25-26.
May 20 – Annular eclipse of the sun: The eclipse path crosses Oregon-California border, Nevada and much of the western U.S. An annular eclipse is like a total solar eclipse in that the moon passes directly in front of the sun, but like trying to cover a pan with lid too small, the moon’s disk is too small to cover the sun. This happens when the moon is at the far end of its orbit around the Earth at the time and appears smaller than at other times. No need for disappointment. What you see instead is a spectacular ring (annulus) of sunlight around the black disk of the moon. Don’t pass up the chance to drive or fly to see this.
June 5 – Transit of Venus: A very rare event! Venus will look like a small black disk when it passes directly in front of the sun during afternoon hours for North America. Venus transits come in pairs – the last one was in June 2004. Very few people will be alive for the next pair of transits on December 11, 2117 and December 8, 2125. You can watch the progress of the planet across the sun’s face with a safe solar eclipse-style filter. No telescope needed!
August 6-20 Curiosity Rover lands on Mars: Sometime in mid-August, the latest, greatest Mars rover will land on the slopes of a mountain in Gale Crater and begin looking for signs of the planet’s wetter past. Expect lots of great science, photos and videos to come streaming back to Earth.
August 12-13 Perseid Meteor Shower: 2011’s full moon this year snuffed out many of the fainter Perseids. In 2012, conditions will be much better with little to no interference from the waning crescent moon. Lay out a warm blanked and expect to see around 60 meteors per hour.
November 13 – Total eclipse of the sun: Visible across northern Australia but since the path is mostly over ocean, most people wanting to see this eclipse will probably book cruises in the South Pacific.
December 13-14 Geminid Meteor Shower: With no moon at all to spoil the show, the 2012 Geminids should be wonderful with up to 100 meteors per hour zipping overhead.
Naturally, we should also expect the unexpected in the coming year. A bright new comet could be discovered, we might finally contact E.T. or identify an Earth-sized extrasolar planet in a star’s “habitable zone”. A meteorite could land in your front yard or fossils found on Mars. The world might even end – well, that’s not going to happen, but I guarantee 2012 will wrap up richer in wonders than it began.