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.

How to See the Full Sturgeon Moon on Thursday

Brook Mitchell, Stringer/Getty Images
Brook Mitchell, Stringer/Getty Images

The full moon of every month has a special nickname. Some—like September's harvest moon, December's cold moon, and May's flower moon—have obvious connections to their seasons, while other names are harder to decode. August's sturgeon moon is an example of the latter. It may not be the prettiest lunar title in The Old Farmer's Almanac, but that doesn't mean the event itself on August 15, 2019 won't be a spectacular sight to behold.

What is a Full Sturgeon Moon?

The first (and normally the only) full moon that occurs in August is called a sturgeon moon. The name may have originated with Native American tribes living around the Great Lakes in the Midwest and Lake Champlain in New England. These bodies of water contain lake sturgeon, a species of freshwater fish that grows up to 6.5 feet in length and can live 55 years or longer. August's full moon was dubbed the sturgeon moon to reflect its harvesting season. This full moon is sometimes called the green corn moon, the grain moon, and the blackberry moon for similar reasons.

When to See the Full Sturgeon Moon

On Thursday, August 15, the full sturgeon moon will be highly visible around sunrise and sunset. The satellite will be 99.9 percent illuminated by the sun when it sets Thursday morning at 5:57 a.m EDT—just nine minutes before dawn. On the West Coast, the setting moon will coincide perfectly with the rising sun at 6:15 a.m. PDT.

If you aren't interested in getting out of bed early to catch the sturgeon moon, wait until Thursday evening to look to the horizon. Twenty-seven minutes after sunset, the full moon will rise on the East Coast at 8:21 p.m. EDT. On the West Coast it rises at 8:10 p.m. PDT, 30 minutes after the sun sets.

The moon generally looks bigger and brighter when it's near the horizon, so twilight and dawn are ideal times to catch the spectacle. But it's worth taking another peek at the sky closer to midnight Thursday night; the Perseid meteor shower is currently active, and though the light of the moon may wash them out, you're most likely to spot a shooting star in the late night and early morning hours.

A Full Harvest Moon Is Coming in September

suerob/iStock via Getty Images
suerob/iStock via Getty Images

The Old Farmer's Almanac lists a special name for every month's full moon, from January's wolf moon to December's cold moon. Even if you're just a casual astronomy fan, you've likely heard the name of September's full moon. The harvest moon is the full moon that falls closest to the fall equinox, and it's associated with festivals celebrating the arrival of autumn. Here's what you need to know before catching the event this year.

What is a harvest moon?

You may have heard that the harvest moon is special because it appears larger and darker in the night sky. This may be true depending on what time of night you look at it, but these features are not unique to the harvest moon.

Throughout the year, the moon rises on average 50 minutes later each night than it did the night before. This window shrinks in the days surrounding the fall equinox. In mid-latitudes, the moon will rise over the horizon only 25 minutes to 30 minutes later night after night. This means the moonrise will occur around sunset several evenings in a row.

So what does this mean for the harvest moon? If you're already watching the sunset and you catch the moonrise at the same time, it will appear bigger than usual thanks to something called the moon illusion. It may also take on an orange-y hue because you're gazing at it through the thick filter of the Earth's atmosphere, which absorbs blue light and projects red light. So if you've only seen the full harvest moon around sunset, you may think it always looks especially big and orange, while in reality, any full moon will look that way when it's just above the horizon.

When to See the Harvest Moon

This year, the harvest moon will be visible the night of Saturday, September 14—about a week before the fall equinox on September 23. The moon will reach its fullest state at 12:33 a.m. ET—but if you're still convinced it's not a true harvest moon without that pumpkin-orange color, you can look for it at moonrise at 7:33 p.m. on September 13.

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