By Claire Thoma Emmons, Research and Evaluation Associate and lifelong sky-watcher
My interest in astronomy began at an early age through listening to StarDate on the radio on the way to school and occasionally venturing outside at night with my dad to see comets and meteor showers. That early interest planted some lingering seeds as I eventually majored in Astronomy in college. When I traveled to Hawaii for my honeymoon a few months ago, I even made a special trip to the Mauna Kea Observatories! Early sky-watching experiences really do make memories for a lifetime, so here are some easy-to-observe celestial events you can see with your family. They are sure to spark curiosity that may just lead to everyone in the family learning more about our solar system or even our universe!
5 Planet Parade
Now through February 20, pre-dawn
Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are currently parading across the sky, and they are all visible together during the hour before sunrise. All of them appear as very bright stars to the unaided eye, although Mars will look orange and Saturn appears yellowish to keen eyes. If you do have binoculars, you will be able to see Jupiter’s four largest moons, which Galileo first discovered.
Check out this article for more information. This parade won’t happen again until 2020!
Observing Tip: To see all of the planets, head outside 30-60 minutes before sunrise. Try to find a spot with a clear view of the horizon since Mercury will be very low in the southeast. Venus will be nearby and easy to spot as it will be the brightest object in the sky. After it, Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter will be spread out diagonally across more than half of the southern side of the sky. Between Jan 27 and Feb 6 the moon will also join the lineup!
Mercury Transits the Sun
May 9, 7 a.m.-3 p.m.
Mercury passes exactly between the Earth and the Sun, such that we can see its silhouette against the Sun about a dozen times each century. This occurrence is called a transit, and one will happen this May! From Indiana, the transit will begin just after 7:00 am EDT and continue until nearly 3:00 pm. Because Mercury will appear so small against the Sun, a telescope is needed to view this event (but ONLY with the proper protection!). Seeing this event will be a visceral reminder that our planet is one of many in a dynamic system orbiting our star.
Observing Tip: As this date approaches, look for announcements of observing parties where astronomers will be set up with the proper equipment to view the transit safely. This observer is already planning to host an event in downtown South Bend, IN! In case of clouds over Indiana that day, the event will certainly be streamed online by a number of observatories where you could check in every 30-60 minutes to watch the black dot of Mercury cross the disc of the Sun.
Mars at Opposition, a.k.a. very bright
May 18-June 3, after 10 p.m.
A planet is said to be at opposition when it is positioned directly opposite the Sun from our perspective on Earth. This is also usually when the planet is as its closest distance to Earth, thereby rendering it brighter in the night sky. The exact date of opposition will be May 22, but Mars will be bright and easy to spot for weeks before and after, so remember to head outside after 10 p.m. on any clear night near that date! Mars will be rising in the southeast around 10 p.m. and will reach its highest point in the sky, as viewed from Indiana, about 1:30 a.m.
Observing tip: Mars will appear in the constellation Scorpius, a bit above and to the right of the bright red star Antares. This should make it easy to locate in the southern side of the sky! Bonus—Saturn will appear a bit to the east of Mars as well.
Observing tip: Binoculars or a telescope will allow you to see the planet as a disc, rather than a point of light. The Moon will be near Mars from May 20-24, which will make for another neat object to look at but will also make Mars appear less bright. To see Mars at its brightest, find it on a date when the Moon is far across the sky or below the horizon.
Bonus—Juno arrives at Jupiter
There will be extra cause for fireworks on July 4 this year as it is the date that NASA’s spacecraft Juno will officially arrive at its destination—Jupiter! You’ll surely be hearing about it in the news, and we expect excellent photographs and exciting new discoveries to come from the spacecraft’s time orbiting the largest planet in our solar system. You can track Juno’s progress, watch videos about the mission, and get other information on the mission webpage.
Perseid Meteor Shower
August 12 overnight, best after midnight
The Perseid meteor shower will likely be the best of the annual meteor displays this year thanks to the fact that the moon will set before midnight and not interfere with the shooting stars. Observers can sometimes see about 1 meteor per minute during the shower.
Observing Tip: You should plan to spend an hour watching the skies, so bring blankets and pillows and make yourself comfortable on the ground. A fun game is to make up your own constellations or stories while waiting for the shooting stars. You will be able to see the brightest meteors even with streetlights around, but you will be able to see many more if you can get to a darker spot.
Observing Tip: Binoculars are not helpful during meteor showers because they restrict your field of view to a small amount of the sky. You’re more likely to miss a shooting star than see it through binoculars!
Double the Planets, Double the Fun: Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter
August 28, just after sunset
Shortly after sunset, in the west-southwest sky, the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, will be strikingly close together—less than the width of the moon! The planets will appear closest together on Aug. 28, but they will move together and then apart in the week before and after. A neat in-depth project would be to chart their position each night relative to your local landscape to see how they move through the sky over time.
Observing Tip: Don’t despair if it is cloudy on this date! Venus and Jupiter will still appear close together for several days before and after.
Observing Tip: This is a good event for binoculars. Even without binoculars, look for a difference in color between the two planets. Jupiter should appear much more yellow than Venus, which is a bright bluish white.
All of these are special events to observe, but star-gazing can be fun any night! Pick up a constellation book and start becoming familiar with the stars you can see from your yard. You can also search for astronomy groups in your area, like the Indiana Astronomical Society, which holds open observing monthly near Martinsville, IN.