Five sky surprises you want to see before the end of the year, no telescope required
There's a show going on, right above your head. Here's what to look for.
Much of the excitement in the sky this week has come from fans of the Perseid meteor shower. Some observers have reported as many as 75 of the extra-bright meteors per hour under dark sky conditions and even in cities like Las Vegas, watchers have reported fireballs in the sky. As the meteor shower winds down over the next couple days, there are some other noteworthy things to see in the sky this year. Best of all, you don't need a telescope to catch these sights.
Comet ISON may be visible in the daytime. This is an image of Comet McNaught, which was briefly visible in the morning sky.
Realistically, it's hard for most people to do that. Skywatching requires the patience of a saint, and a bit of luck. Although one can usually see shooting stars on every night of the year, waiting around for them isn't something people are usually willing to do.
Add the fact that light pollution washes out most of what happens in the sky above, and we end up with millions of people who live and work without any notion of the busyness above their heads.
Yet, going out on a clear, dark night, far from city lights, and one can see within minutes after sunset, the myriad of activity above.
For example, for the first hour or so after sunset, and again before sunrise, satellites that pass overhead can be seen, appearing as stars moving steadily against the canopy of the sky. Sometimes, their solar panels catch the Sun's rays just right, and they brighten to a brilliance so great that even city lights cannot drown them from view.
For satellites on a west to east path, observers can watch them dim, then wink out, as they pass into the Earth's shadow, hundreds of miles above the ground.
In addition to satellites, the International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope, discarded rocket boosters, and more can be seen. Apps which you can install on your smartphone or various webpages can tell you what each point of light happens to be. No matter what time of day, visible or not, these many objects are constantly circulating above our heads, passing in stately review each night.
The ISS and a cargo supply ship streak overhead in the twilight sky.
In addition to satellites, the skies are often filled with less exotic fare, but no less interesting. Military aircraft, odd civilian aircraft, and in a few locations for now, unmanned drones can be spotted.
Of course, most skywatchers are interested in celestial phenomenons that are not of human origin. Fortunately, the universe is rich with these as well.
The next interesting show may be the penumbral lunar eclipse of the night of October 18. For observers in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and most of Asia, the Moon will pass through the outer ring of Earth's shadow in space. The Moon will darken to an orange-red color, but it will not darken completely as in a normal lunar eclipse. The Moon is missing the darkest portion of the Earth's shadow.
The moon in the penumbra will appear a copper color to most observers.
Still, it's an interesting thing to observe. Notably, the ancient Greeks were able to discern the round (spherical) shape of the Earth by observing the Earth's shadow passing in front of the Moon. It is likely that ancient skywatchers observed this too. Modern folk like to think Christopher Columbus and the people of his time believed the Earth was flat. This is an utter and complete myth. That the world was a sphere was common knowledge even in ancient, pre-Christian times.
If watching the Moon redden behind the Earth's shadow doesn't interest you, then perhaps a solar eclipse will. During a solar eclipse the Moon passes in front of the Sun and anyone in the shadow will see a solar eclipse.
Most of those lucky enough to witness this event will see a partial eclipse, as the Moon clips the edge of the solar disk, partially darkening the sky as on a cloudy day in most places. However, for a lucky group living in a swath running along the eastern coast of the U.S., and over to central Africa, the eclipse will be annular to total.
A dramatic image of the annular eclipse of the sun taken May 20, 2012.
The eclipse is a rare, hybrid-eclipse where in some places the moon will pass before the sun and leave a bright ring around its edge, which is known as an annular eclipse, from the Latin word, annulus, for ring.
The eclipse will be total in other places, with the Moon completely covering the Sun and darkening the sky for a few minutes.
Throughout the month of December another spectacular sight will grace the evening skies. Looking to the west at sunset, skywatchers will notice a brilliant point of light, one that is already shining at sunset. It's not a star, nor airplane, but Venus.
Venus is the brightest planet in the nighttime sky and has been mistaken variously for an airplane, or even a UFO. In December, Venus will be high in the southwestern sky, and extraordinarily brilliant.
The planet is bright because it will be relatively close to Earth and is covered entirely in clouds, which reflect much of the sunlight that strikes it. Through a telescope, observers will notice that Venus also has phases like the Moon. High in the sky and bright as can be, Venus will be a brilliant object of fascination throughout the coming fall.
Venus and Jupiter over the Griffith observatory. In December, Venus is expected to be exceptionally bright in the evening sky.
Venus will not reach such brilliance in Earthly skies again until 2021.
Of course, bright planets and eclipses are attention getting, but even they are common sights compared to what comes next. A spectacular sky show is set to happen at the end of November and may last into January of next year -and it's a once in a lifetime event.
The passing of Comet ISON will dazzle skywatchers unlike any other sight described here.
The ball of ice and dust is already closing in on the Sun and has started brightening and casting off a signature tail of debris. Although it remains invisible in all but the largest professional telescopes, by November the comet is expected to brighten to naked-eye visibility.
Moreover, predictions suggest the comet could brighten so much as to become visible in the daytime.
Comet ISON will be bright because it is on its first, and only pass by the Sun, and it will pass particularly close. It is also close enough to Earth to be readily visible. All these factors combine to create a once-in-a-century comet.
ISON will be visible around November 23 or 24, and will remains visible, assuming it survives its close passage (less than a million miles) over the surface of the Sun.
ISON may brighten enough to rival the full moon in brightness and could even be visible in broad daylight. If so, it will prove to be a unique event, rarely matched in the annals of history.
How Comet ISON may look in November.
There's a lot going on in the skies above you, you have only to take the time to watch. With each season, the stars rise and set earlier, the Moon rises later each night and goes through its phases like clockwork. The Sun rises and sets in a slightly different position and at a slightly different time each day. Planets traverse the sky, and sometimes appear to move backwards over the course of many nights.
The skies above are filled with wonder and best of all, there's no telescope required to appreciate them.
© 2013, Distributed by NEWS CONSORTIUM.
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for December 2013
General Intention: Victimized Children. That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need.
Missionary Intention: Prepare the Savior's Coming. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.
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