New Year, New Sky: A January Skywatching Guide

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The New Year brings a great meteor shower, a rarely visible planet, a "blue moon," and a total lunar eclipse. Here are a few things skywatchers should be on the lookout for as they begin 2018.

JANUARY 1: VISIBLE MERCURY & WOLF SUPERMOON

Just before sunrise on New Year's Day, Mercury will be visible in the sky. Because of its proximity to the Sun, you can only see the planet on a handful of days every year—when Mercury reaches “greatest elongation”—and even then, you only have a narrow window of opportunity to see it. (For reference: In New York State, the magic hours are between roughly 5:30 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. Mercury will peak in the southeast a mere 10 degrees over the horizon. The times and maximum height over the horizon will vary based on your location. Check for your location here.) If you're pulling a New Year all-nighter anyway, be sure to make the effort.

Finding the southeast is easy. (Worst-case scenario, use the compass app in your phone.) But how do you calculate 10 degrees over the horizon? The easiest way is to hold your thumb out sideways at arm's length. The thickness of your thumb is about two degrees. A clenched fist, upright, is about 10 degrees. Hold the bottom of your fist at the horizon; the top of it will reveal an approximation of where Mercury should be.

That's not the only sky event on January 1. We'll also see the first full moon of 2018. It will be a “supermoon”—that is, it will be full while closest to Earth in its elliptical orbit. (Unless you are a devoted Moon watcher, you are unlikely to notice whether or not the Moon is a few percentage points larger than normal, so don't get too caught up in that.) According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, Native Americans called this first full moon in January the Wolf Moon, because winter has been in full swing for a while now, and wolves are hungry. There's a little extra longing in those customary howls.

JANUARY 3–4: QUADRANTIDS METEOR SHOWER

On January 3 at around 11:00 p.m., you can celebrate J.R.R. Tolkien's birthday (and mine) by finding an area of little light pollution, laying out a blanket, turning off your phone, opening a bottle of wine, and letting your eyes adjust to the darkness. Just before midnight, your eyes should be good and ready to enjoy the first major meteor shower of 2018: the Quadrantids. On a good year, you'll be able to catch around 70 meteors per hour. This, however, will not be a good year, because of an almost fully illuminated moon which will wash out the night sky. All is not lost, however: If the sky is clear and you've found a nice remote area, you're sure to see something through the predawn hours of January 4.

The Quadrantids are particularly interesting for two reasons: 1. They are named for Quadrans Muralis, a constellation “drawn” by an 18th-century French astronomer, but which fell out of favor in the late 1800s and does not formally exist today, according to the International Astronomical Union; and 2. The meteor shower is produced by 2003 EH1, a near-Earth asteroid that is believed to be an extinct comet. (With no volatiles left to sublimate and give it that distinct comet tail, or coma, the comet essentially becomes a hunk of space rock. We still love it, but it's no Halley.)

JANUARY 31: BLUE SUPERMOON ECLIPSE

Every month begins or ends with a full moon, more or less. The lunar phases are where we get the word "month" in the first place. Every so often, the lunar cycle so aligns as to give us two full moons in one month. This second full moon is called a "blue moon" (as in: "once in a … "). There's no cosmic magic about it, though it is a lovely way to acknowledge the beauty of celestial mechanics. The blue moon on January 31 will be a particularly good showing, as it is a supermoon, and in the western United States, across the Pacific, and into eastern Asia, there will be a total lunar eclipse! At moonset, the Moon will cross through the darkest part of the Earth's shadow and turn a reddish color. No telescopes or special protective glasses will be needed to enjoy this. (The eastern United States will experience a partial lunar eclipse, whereupon a part of the moon will darken. It's better than nothing!)

If your January skywatching is ruined with rain and alarm clocks that didn't go off, don't lose hope. Next month promises a minor meteor shower, a "black moon," and the always-romantic Valentine's Day star.

Editor's Note: This post has been updated.

5 Fast Facts About the Spring Equinox

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iStock.com/AHPhotoswpg

The northern hemisphere has officially survived a long winter of Arctic temperatures, bomb cyclones, and ice tsunamis. Spring starts March 20, which means warmer weather and longer days are around the corner. To celebrate the spring equinox, hear are some facts about the event.

1. The spring equinox arrives at 5:58 p.m.

The first day of spring is today, but the spring equinox will only be here for a brief time. At 5:58 p.m. Eastern Time, the Sun will be perfectly in line with the equator, which results in both the northern and southern hemispheres receiving equal amounts of sunlight throughout the day. After the vernal equinox has passed, days will start to become shorter for the Southern Hemisphere and longer up north.

2. The Equinox isn't the only time you can balance an egg.

You may have heard the myth that you can balance on egg on its end during the vernal equinox, and you may have even tried the experiment in school. The idea is that the extra gravitational pull from the Sun when it's over the equator helps the egg stand up straight. While it is possible to balance an egg, the trick has nothing to do with the equinox: You can make an egg stand on its end by setting it on a rough surface any day of the year.

3. Not every place gets equal night and day.

The equal night and day split between the northern and southern hemispheres isn't distributed evenly across all parts of the world. Though every region gets approximately 12 hours of sunlight the day of the vernal equinox, some places get a little more (the day is 12 hours and 15 minute in Fairbanks, Alaska), and some get less (it's 12 hours and 6 minutes in Miami).

4. The name means Equal Night.

The word equinox literally translates to equal ("equi") and night ("nox") in Latin. The term vernal means "new and fresh," and comes from the Latin word vernus for "of spring."

5. The 2019 spring equinox coincides with a supermoon.

On March 20, the day the Sun lines up with equator, the Moon will reach the closest point to Earth in its orbit. The Moon will also be full, making it the third supermoon of 2019. A full moon last coincided with the first day of spring on March 20, 1981, and it the two events won't occur within 24 hours of each other again until 2030.

A Full Pink Moon Is Coming in April

Ana Luisa Santo, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Ana Luisa Santo, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Mark your calendars for Friday, April 19 and get ready to snap some blurry pictures of the sky on your way to work. A full pink moon will appear early that morning, according to a calendar published by The Old Farmer's Almanac.

Considering that the full moon cycle is completed every 29.5 days, the April full moon will be the fourth full moon of 2019. Despite its name, the surface of the moon doesn't actually appear rosy. The name refers to the wild ground phlox, a type of pink wildflower, that tends to sprout in the U.S. and Canada around this time of year. It's also sometimes called an egg moon, fish moon, or sprouting grass moon.

What does the Full Pink Moon mean?

The April full moon might be a bit of a misnomer, but it still plays a pretty important role in the Christian tradition. The date on which the full pink moon appears has historically been used to determine when Easter will be observed. The holiday always falls on the Sunday following the first full moon that appears after the spring equinox. However, if the full moon falls on a Sunday, Easter will be held the following Sunday.

This rule dates back to 325 C.E., when a group of Christian churches called the First Council of Nicaea decided that the light of the full moon would help guide religious pilgrims as they traveled ahead of the holiday. Since the full moon will be visible on April 19 this year, Easter will be held on April 21.

When to see the full pink moon

The best time to view this April full moon is around 4:12 a.m. on the West Coast and 7:12 a.m. on the East Coast. The exact time will vary depending on your location. For a more specific estimate, head to the Almanac's website and type in your city and state or ZIP code.

If you happen to miss this spectacle because you're enjoying a full night’s sleep, don't fret too much. A full flower moon will be arriving in May.

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