Top 5 Sky-watching Events for Indiana in 2017
By Claire Thoma Emmons, Research and Evaluation Associate and lifelong sky watcher.
Although I have a pretty cool job at The Children’s Museum, my dream job would be to spend all day (and night) showing people the wonders of our solar system and the universe through telescopes. Family sky-watching experiences make memories for a lifetime, so mark your calendar for these celestial events—no telescope required. You never know when an experience will spark a life-long interest for your children or yourself!
#1 MUST SEE: Solar Eclipse
August 21, about noon-3:00 pm
A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon completely blocks the Sun, but because the moon is so small compared to the Earth, you have to be standing in a very specific spot on the planet to see it—literally in the moon’s shadow! The last total solar eclipse visible in the continental United States occurred in 1979, and the next one will not take place until 2024. To see the total solar eclipse, you must be in the path of totality on August 21st. The path of totality crosses just a bit south of us in Kentucky, so consider taking a day trip to see it. If you stay in Indiana, you will still be able to see a most of the sun eclipsed, so make sure to go outside! The eclipse will begin around 1:00 pm for Indiana (or noon local time in KY) with the maximum eclipse around 2:30 pm (or 1:30 pm in KY). Solar eclipses are such a rare and spectacular sight, people often travel around the world “chasing” them. If you’re bitten by the eclipse bug, here’s a list of 10 cities across the country recommended for this eclipse.
Observing Requirement: Do not look directly at the sun, even when it is partially eclipsed! Read this flyer about safely viewing a solar eclipse. You WILL need eclipse-viewing glasses or a pin-hole camera because it is NOT safe to look directly at the sun, even during a partial solar eclipse. The good news is that safe eclipse-viewing glasses can be purchased for less than $1, and a pin-hole camera can be made at home!
Observing Tip: Check out this interactive map to see the path of totality and local viewing events. Watch this video to see an animation of the moon’s shadow crossing the country and visit NASA’s page to learn more about eclipses.
Jupiter at Opposition a.k.a. Big and Bright
April 7, 9:00 pm-6:00 am
Opposition actually means that Jupiter and Earth will be at the closest points in their orbit (Jupiter and the Sun will be opposite of each other from our perspective on earth). Jupiter will be its brightest around April 7 and will be slightly bigger than usual if viewed through binoculars or a telescope. The best viewing will be between April 1 and April 7 because the moon will be full on April 11. That means that the moon will be very bright and will rise at the same time as the sun sets, putting a lot of extra light in the nighttime sky. Look for Jupiter due south in the constellation Virgo. Looking up from the southern horizon, you will notice two bright objects close together—the star Spica and Jupiter; Jupiter will be slightly higher than Spica.
Observing Tip: This is a good event for binoculars. You should be able to make out the four largest moons of Jupiter as small dots on either side of the bright planet. If you have access to even a small telescope, you will be able to see Jupiter’s striped clouds as well!
Saturn at Opposition a.k.a. Big and Bright
June 15, 10:00 pm-5:00 am
Now it’s Saturn’s turn to be directly opposite the Sun from our perspective on earth. Look toward the south to find Saturn a bit higher in the sky than Sagittarius (whose bright stars resemble a teapot) and Scorpius (whose tail forms a large fishhook). The two brightest dots on the southern side of the sky should be Saturn and Antares. Saturn will be the yellowish dot on the left, and Antares will be the redder star on the right. Saturn will be bright for several weeks, so don’t despair if June 15th is cloudy.
Observing Tip: Try to find a star party in your area during the month of June. That’s the surest way to get to see Saturn’s rings through a telescope, and it’s a sight that you will remember for the rest of your life!
Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter
November 13, pre-dawn
Before sunrise on Nov 13, the two brightest planets—Venus and Jupiter—will be strikingly close together—less than the width of your finger held at arms-length! The planets will appear closest together on Nov. 13, but they will move together and then apart in the weeks before and after. If you have a family of early risers, a neat in-depth project would be to chart their position each morning relative to your local landscape to see how they move through the sky over time.
Observing Tip: Look close to the eastern horizon around 6:45 am. Don’t despair if it is cloudy on this date! Venus and Jupiter will still appear close together for several days before and after.
Geminids Meteor Shower
December 13, 9:00 pm-6:00 am
No sky-watching list is complete without a good meteor shower. The two biggest meteor showers each year are the Perseids in August and the Geminids in December. This year the Geminids will be the king of meteor showers due to the high volume of meteors (an average of 1-2 per minute) and the fact that the moon will not interfere with the show. The shower runs from December 7-17, but its peak will be the night of the 13th and morning of the 14th.
Observing Tip: You should plan to spend an hour watching the skies, so bring blankets and pillows and make yourself comfortable on the ground, and bundle up. A fun game is to make up your own constellations 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!
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. If you need a flashlight to refer to your star chart while outside, buy one with a red filter or use red nail polish to paint the glass of a regular flashlight. Red light does not disrupt your “night vision” once your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, but a regular flashlight or your phone definitely will! If you’d like to look through a telescope, search for astronomy groups in your area, like the Indiana Astronomical Society and Butler University’s Holcomb Observatory, which has free tours, planetarium shows, and telescope observing most Friday and Saturday evenings during the school year.