Published January 13. 2013 4:00AM
Expect the usual assortment of monthly meteor showers, moon phases, planet conjunctions, eclipses and seasonal changes as Earth circles the sun once again.
The special events of 2013 will be Comet PANSTARRS and Comet ISON, both named for the institutions that own the telescopes through which each was discovered.
PANSTARRS becomes visible from the northern hemisphere in mid-March, possibly as a very bright object low in the west during evening twilight. At that time it is also near its closest approaches to the sun (28 million miles) and Earth (102 million miles). By the end of May it will be high in the sky near Polaris, the north star, and probably undetectable to the naked eye.
Comet ISON arrives this fall. As it passes within 1.2 million miles of the sun Nov. 28, it could be the comet of the century. Such lofty proclamations often fall flat, and this one will, too if the comet disintegrates as it approaches the sun. But if it remains mostly intact as it flies by, we may be in for a vision rivaling Halley (1986), Hyakutake (1996) and Hale-Bopp (1997). Be excited. Be very excited.
As Comet ISON approaches, heat from the sun will vaporize ice particles in its body, possibly creating a spectacular tail visible at night without telescopes or even binoculars from about October 2013 through January 2014.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Right now, it's January 2013.
At the beginning of the month, you may have caught the Quadrantid meteor shower, the year's first astronomy event, peaking in the wee hours of Jan. 4.
Nothing much to write home about until more visual thrills arrive on April 21 when The Lyrids emerge. The Lyrids are fairly average, usually producing about 20 meteors per hour at peak, some leaving bright dust trails that linger for several seconds. The gibbous moon's glare could hide many of the fainter meteors, but it will set before sunrise. Look toward constellation Lyra after midnight.
Four days later, on April 25, there will be a partial lunar eclipse, but you'll have to go to Africa, Europe, Asia or Australia to see it. On April 28, Saturn will be at opposition. This is the best time to view and photograph Saturn and its moons.
Cinco de Mayo, May 5, brings the Eta Aquarids meteor shower. The Eta Aquarids are a light shower, usually producing about 10 meteors per hour at their peak, or a meteor every six minutes. A minimally disruptive crescent moon will be present. Meteors will radiate from Aquarius. Best viewing is usually to the east after midnight.
May 10 will offer an annular solar eclipse, in which the moon covers all but a bright ring around the circumference of the sun. This is yet another eclipse the northeast will miss out on. The path of annularity will begin in western Australia and move east across the central Pacific Ocean.
A penumbral, or partial, lunar eclipse will take place May 25, and we'll be able to see it from Connecticut.
Venus and Jupiter will be within 1 degree of each other in the evening sky May 28. The planet Mercury will be visible nearby. Look to the west near sunset to see the three planets.
Then, two good meteor showers arrive on the heels of one another. July 28 brings the Southern Delta Aquarids meteor shower, which could produce about 20 meteors per hour at their peak. The radiant point for this shower will be in the constellation Aquarius. The last quarter moon may hide some of the fainter meteors. Look to the east after midnight.
Aug. 12 brings the Perseids, one of the year's best meteor showers. They frequently average a meteor a minute at their peak. The radiant point for this shower will be in the constellation Perseus. The moon will set before midnight, leaving nothing but dark skies for this celestial stunner. Look to the northeast after midnight.
Oct. 18 brings another penumbral lunar eclipse, visible throughout most of the world except for Australia and extreme eastern Siberia.
The Orionids meteor shower peaks after midnight Oct. 21. The Orionids is an average shower, producing about 20 meteors per hour at their peak. The gibbous moon will be a problem this year, hiding all but the brightest meteors with its glare. Best viewing will be to the east after midnight.
On Nov. 3, the East Coast gets its own special show in the form of a hybrid solar eclipse. All that means is the eclipse will appear total along some places in its path and partial along others. (Another definition describes it as when a Prius passes between Earth and the sun.)
The path will begin in the Atlantic Ocean off the eastern coast of the United States and move across the Atlantic to cross central Africa.
The Leonids meteor shower peaks after midnight Nov. 17. The Leonids is one of the better meteor showers to observe, producing an average of 40 meteors per hour at their peak. Unfortunately, there will be a full moon. Look toward the constellation Leo after midnight if you want to try to spot some meteors.
We lucked out this year with no moon, but next year, when the Geminids peak again around Dec. 13, the gibbous moon may throw too much light for us to see fainter meteors. The Geminids are known to display up to 60 multicolored meteors per hour at their peak. Meteors will originate from the constellation Gemini. Look to the east after midnight from a dark location.