With 2012 under our belt, we look forward to what the new year will bring. It’s a big, wild sky up there. Below you’ll find a month-by-month listing of some of the highlights. 2013 could go down in history as the year of spectacular comets. Both C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS and C/2012 ISON are expected to become at least as bright as the brightest stars. Comets are unpredictable however, so we’ll have to wait and see. No problem. That’s what we lovers of the sky do best.
* Jan. 3 – Peak of the annual Quadrantid meteor shower during the early morning hours when up to 80 meteors per hour could be seen. A waning gibbous moon will compromise the view and the peak is a very short sliver of time. Observers in Asia are favored.
* Jan. 21 – The waxing gibbous moon has a very close conjunction with the planet Jupiter in the evening sky. They’ll be about one moon diameter apart.
* Feb. 7 and 8 – Mercury passes very close to Mars (0.3 degrees) low in the western sky at dusk
* Feb. 15 - Asteroid 2012 DA14 zooms just 21,000 miles from Earth around 2 p.m. (CST) this afternoon. The 147-foot long boulder will not impact the planet and the chances of it striking a satellite in the geosynchronous belt is near zero. At brightest it will shine at magnitude 7.7.
* Feb. 16 – Mercury at greatest elongation east of the sun and easy to find during evening twilight.
* Feb. 28 – Late tonight the moon will pass just 1/10 of one degree south of Virgo’s brightest star Spica – that’s close!
* March 8-20 – Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS emerges in the western sky after sunset with a brilliant head and ever-lengthening tail. Its height increases night by night as the comet fades. Expected magnitude of around 0 or about as bright as the star Vega. A much anticipated event! The thin lunar crescent passes close to the comet on the 12th.
* March 20 – First day of spring for the northern hemisphere begins at 6:02 a.m.
* April 24 – Another extremely close approach of the waxing gibbous moon and star Spica
* April 25 – Partial eclipse of the moon. Visible from Australia, Asia, Europe and Africa but not from North or South America.
* April 28 – Opposition of Saturn when it’s closest and brightest for the year. The planet shines at 0.1 magnitude in Libra and rises at sunset. The rings are nicely open to view and can be seen in any telescope magnifying at least 30x.
* May 5-6 – Peak of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. This is modest shower with a rate of about 10-15 per hour radiating from the constellation Aquarius. Best viewed in the early morning hours. Moonlight from the setting waxing gibbous moon will comprise the shower somewhat.
* May 9 – Annular eclipse of the sun. Not visible from North America but will be partial in Hawaii. Path of annularity passes through northern Australia and the tip of New Guinea.
* May 22-30 - Venus, Mercury and Jupiter cluster together low in the western sky after sunset. Close conjunctions of Venus and Mercury (24th), Mercury and Jupiter (26th) and Venus and Jupiter (27th-28th). Low but a potentially great show. The southern states will have the better views.
* May 24-25 – Penumbral lunar eclipse visible across North America except Alaska. Keen-eyed observers might notice some shading along one side of the moon as it dips into Earth’s outer shadow called the penumbra. Eclipse starts at 10:43 p.m. CDT and ends at 11:37 p.m. May 24.
* June 1 – Striking lineup of Jupiter, Venus and Mercury low in the western sky after sunset. Find an unobstructed horizon to see best.
* First week of June – Mercury well-placed for viewing low in the western evening sky.
* June 21 – First day of summer in the northern hemisphere begins at 12:04 a.m. CST.
* July 3-4 – Venus returns to the evening sky visible low in the west during twilight. On these dates, binocular users will see the planet pass in front of the Beehive star cluster in Cancer.
* July 21-23 – Conjunction of Mars and Jupiter. Both planets now return to the morning sky and pair up within one degree of each other on these dates. They’re visible in Gemini low in the eastern sky before sunrise.
* July 28-29 – Peak of the Southern Delta Aquarid meteor shower. Up to 20 meteors per hour before dawn radiate from the constellation Aquarius. Compromised this year by the waning gibbous moon.
* August 3-5 – Very nice lineup of Mercury, Mars and Jupiter joined by the thin crescent moon these mornings. Look to the east about an hour before sunrise.
* Aug. 12-13 – Peak of the great Perseid meteor shower. Up to 80-100 meteors per hour are visible especially after midnight. This year the moon is a thick crescent that sets before 11 p.m. and won’t compromise the shower.
* Mid-August – Comet ISON emerges into the dawn sky in the constellation Cancer shining around 11th magnitude, bright enough to spot in amateur telescopes.
* September 5-6 – Venus near Spica low in the southwestern sky at dusk
* September 8 – Fine conjunction of the crescent moon and Venus this evening
* September 19 – Full Harvest Moon
* September 22 – Fall starts with the autumnal equinox at 3:44 p.m. CDT.
* Maximum of Sunspot Cycle 24 predicted to happen this fall. It appears this will be the smallest cycle since Feb. 1906.
* October 18 – Penumbral eclipse of the moon partially visible from North America. The moon enters Earth’s outer shadow (penumbra) at 4:48 p.m. CDT and exits at 8:52 p.m. The shading should be more noticeable than during May’s penumbral eclipse.
* October 21 – Peak of the Orionid meteor shower which originates from dust trailing Halley’s Comet. About 20 meteors per hour radiate from the constellation Orion after midnight. Meteor counts will be reduced due to light from the waning gibbous moon.
* Late October – Comet ISON brightens to magnitude 7 and becomes visible in binoculars
* November 1 – Venus at greatest elongation east of the sun. It finally gains some altitude and becomes much easier to see this month during evening twilight.
* November 3 – The only total solar eclipse this year. Visible across the equatorial Atlantic Ocean and West Africa. Not visible in North America.
* Early November – Comet ISON should be visible with the naked eye at 2nd magnitude (as bright as the Big Dipper stars) in the morning sky.
* November 17-18 – Peak of the annual Leonid meteor shower. 10-15 meteors per hour are expected but the full moon will make a big dent in meteor counts.
* November 25-26 – Mercury and returning Saturn meet up together for a close conjunction. The two will be just one degree apart on these dates.
* November 28 – Perihelion of Comet ISON. This is when the comet will be closest to the sun. It’s expected to shine brighter than Venus and visible near the sun in the daytime sky with proper viewing precautions. The comet will look like a star with a short tail.
* Early thru mid-December – Comet ISON at its best. Visible in both the early morning and evening skies, ISON hurries northward away from the sun’s glow. It’s expected to be nearly as bright as Jupiter with a long tail.
* December 6 – Venus dazzles as it climbs higher and reaches greatest brilliancy for the year.
* December 13 – Peak of the great Geminid meteor shower. About 100 meteors per hour are visible from a dark sky, but this year the waxing gibbous moon will compromise the view until after moonset around 4 a.m.
* December 21 – Winter begins with the solstice at 11:11 p.m.