Biggest, Best Astronomy Events Coming In 2012

Comet Garradd photographed on November 28, 2011 with a wide-field 8" telescope. Credit: Michael Jaeger

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.

Mars and its north polar cap. Credit: Damian Peach

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.

Annular eclipse over Urbana, Illinois on May 10, 1994. Photo: Bob King

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.

The last transit of Venus photographed from Tower, Minn. through a low power telescope with solar filter. Photo: Bob King

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.

A bright Perseid meteor. Credit: Kohle Kredner

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.

21 Responses

  1. starchaser

    What a wonderful year full of astro-events awaits us! 🙂 I especially like the ‘trusty’ comet Garradd! I have watched it this summer as it advanced through Summer Triangle and passed by M71, can’t wait to see it zoom by M92 in Hercules in the morning of February 3rd! Clear Skies!

    1. astrobob

      starchaser,
      That comet really has staying power. Few comets have gone through more seasons at so steady a brightness.

  2. Gary Morris

    I’m looking forward to reading your blog in 2012 and all the excellent information you share. I’ve now enjoyed a full year of your postings and find them most interesting. Knowing your a skier I’ll share this, we just got 15 cm’s of snow and expecting 15 more tonight, hope you guys get some.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Gary,
      I’m happy you find the blog helpful. Thanks for writing. Sounds like you’re in for some excellent skiing. Snow has been scarce here this winter, but today a few inches are in the forecast, so I’m hopeful. Happy 2012 celebrations tonight!

  3. caralex

    I’ve never seen either – so I’ll be looking forward to both! I’d also love to see an aurora. I saw one once from Dublin, Ireland some years ago, but never here in southern Ontario. So that’s on my list too!

    1. astrobob

      Carol,
      That must have been an amazing aurora to be visible from a big city. I hope the new year brings you a great display.

      1. caralex

        Yes, it was made dim because of the city lights, but it was like a green curtain reaching to the zenith, so it wasn’t really that difficult to see.

  4. synur

    astrobob,
    Is there any event will happened in Aug-12 such as comet comming or anything? thanks..

    1. astrobob

      Hi synur,
      That’s the date of the annual Perseid meteor shower, an event not to miss since no moonlight will interfere this year. The following day Venus has a close conjunction with the moon.

  5. Denise

    Astrobob – The sights earlier this year were phenomenal (eclipse, venus transit) and look forward to other astral beauty later this year. Isn’t there something happening in October? This is not a joke – while traveling in India I had a dream. In summary the message was: “Exactly 24 years from today, life will cease to exist as we know it.” That was October 19, 1988, and long before I heard of the Mayan or other cultural myths and beliefs. I also am not one to prescribe to doomsday. I felt that this dream meant something wonderful, expansive, a leap of sorts, not the end of life. Perhaps a change of consciousness. I have never before nor after had another dream like it in context or feeling, and it affected me to such a degree that I have remembered it all these years. “Exactly 24 years” from the dream will be October 19, 2012. Nothing astrological happening in October?

    1. astrobob

      Denise,
      Nope, nothing much going on on Oct. 19. The annual Orionid meteor shower peaks on the 21st. The 19th’s still free for catastrophe – just kidding.

  6. Denise

    AstroBob – I actually came across this by accident – seriously –

    “October 2012
    October 19, 2012 — at 01:36 UTC, the Earth will be home to 7 billion people, according to the US Census Bureau. ”

    Well, there ya go. See, dreams really do come true. 🙂

    Denise

  7. synur

    Dear bob, our earth is become increasingly bizarre. Climate change does not happen before. More information about this can be achieved on the web. What is the cause of this and whether this is related to the location of stars in the sky?

    1. astrobob

      Synur,
      Climate change has happened many times in the past. Just think of the glaciers advancing and receding. The locations of the stars do not affect the Earth’s climate. They’re much too far away. The nearest star, the sun, has probably been involved in some of the climate changes our planet has experienced over its lifetime.

  8. Karl

    “Very few people will be alive for the next pair of transits on December 11, 2117 and December 8, 2125.”
    You and the Mayans, always with the doomsday predictions.
    🙂

  9. synur

    Dear Bob, talked about planet x or Nibiru, what your views on this? There are many theories, pictorial evidence and information about it. It is true?

    1. astrobob

      Hi synur,
      My view is that there’s no physical or observational evidence for it. Niburu itself is a fabrication. There’s a remote possibility there may exist a planet way, way out beyond Neptune, but none has been found yet.

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