Grab that Calendar, 2012 Great Year for Astronomy

Grab that Calendar, 2012 Great Year for Astronomy
by Rod Kennedy

Happy New Year fellow sky-watchers.  Time to start planning another year of observing, and 2012 holds some of the most spectacular events imaginable.  One event won’t be seen again within our lifetime.  So without further ado, grab your calendar and start penciling in the following events.

January 3,4: Annual Quadrantids Meteor Shower.  This is an average meteor shower best viewed after midnight.  The radiant is in the constellation Boötes the Herdsman.
February 20 through March 12: Best time to observe Mercury.  Mercury is far enough from the sun’s glare to be visible in the evening sky.  As February turns to March, Mercury will rise higher in the sky.
March  3 – 5: Mercury, Venus and Jupiter all visible in the evening sky.  The planets are not especially close, but they are all visible along a line extending up from the southwestern horizon.  Mars will also be visible rising in the East.  These are four of the five classical or “naked eye” planets known to ancient observers. Mars is at opposition (directly opposite the sun in the sky) on March 3.
April 15: Saturn at Opposition.  This is the best time to observe Saturn, but to the naked eye Saturn will appear as a cream colored light in the Eastern sky.  Telescopes will be needed for capturing photographs.
May 20: Annular Solar Eclipse.  Because the Moon’s orbit around the Earth is not a perfect circle, the Moon’s distance changes slightly over a month.  When the moon passes in front of the sun at its furthest, “aphelion,” it cannot completely cover the disk of the sun.  This is an Annular Solar eclipse.  This eclipse won’t be visible from Wyoming. However a short jaunt to Albuquerque, New Mexico, will give you a front row seat to this rare and wonderful event.
June 5 – 6: Transit of Venus.  When the Moon passes directly in front of the sun it is an eclipse.  When either Mercury or Venus passes in front of the sun it is called a Transit. However, because the orbit of Venus is slightly inclined relative to that of Earth, the planet does not always pass directly in front of the Sun’s disk.  In fact, this event is so rare, another transit won’t happen again until the year 2117.
August 12 – 13: Perseids Meteor Shower.  A crowd favorite, the Perseids is one of the best meteor showers of the year.  A good year can produce more than 60 meteors per hour, and since August is the height of summer, temperatures are perfect for a long evening looking up.
November 27: Conjunction of Venus & Saturn.  The two planets will slowly draw closer together from the beginning of the month to the end.  By the 27th the two planets are less than one degree apart in the pre-dawn sky.  Mercury will also be visible, closer to the horizon.
Dec 3: Jupiter at Opposition.  While Venus and Mercury constantly alternate between morning and evening skies, the outer planets such as Jupiter remain visible in the sky most of the night for several months.  Jupiter, due to its huge size, is a bright beacon in the darkest of months.

While some people have come to see 2012 as a year to fear, the year to come holds a variety of astronomical events that will delight and amaze.  No need to let the fears of some spoil a year of excellent observing.  Get out there and enjoy the sights!

January 2012 Chart

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