While you may not relish the prospect of waking up in the small hours most Monday mornings, observers in the British Isles and Western Europe will want to set their alarms no later than 5am GMT on 21 January to see this month’s showstopper celestial event — a total lunar eclipse of an unusually close ‘supermoon’. The total lunar eclipse is also visible in its entirety (weather permitting) from the Americas.
As dusk fades to dark on Thursday, 17 January, observers in the British Isles and Western Europe can see the rising 10-day-old Moon less than 1 degree away from first-magnitude star Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus. Grab your binoculars to enjoy the sight of the gibbous Moon amid the Hyades open star cluster too.
Observers should direct their gaze to the southern sky at dusk on Saturday, 12 January to view the 6-day-old waxing Moon in the constellation of Pisces. Look a little closer around 6pm GMT in the UK this night to see Mars as a magnitude +0.6 orange-coloured ‘star’ above the lunar crescent. If you own wide-angle 7× or 8× binoculars, you can see the Moon and Red Planet in the same field of view.
Brilliant planet Venus attains its greatest elongation almost 47° west of the Sun at dawn in the UK on Sunday, 6 January. Find a location that offers you a view down to the southeast horizon around 7am GMT and you may catch a glimpse of Jupiter too. The planetary duo is currently 14 degrees apart, but drawing nearer for a close conjunction on 22 January.
Hot on the heels of terrestrial fireworks ushering in the New Year, it’s time for some celestial pyrotechnics from the Quadrantid meteor shower – the year’s first major display of shooting stars – on 4 January. With an old waning crescent Moon not rising until nautical dawn in the UK, dark skies could see up to 80 meteors per hour around 2am GMT.
Early risers in the UK with an unobstructed horizon from southeast through south can see the old crescent Moon close to dazzling Venus in Libra then Jupiter in Ophiuchus over three consecutive mornings starting New Year’s Day around 7am GMT. The brightest and largest planets lie little more than the span of an outstretched hand at arm’s length apart at this time.
The December Geminid meteor shower is generally regarded as the richest and most reliable of the major annual shooting star displays. This year the predicted peak occurs close to 12h UT on 14 December, though high rates of activity should be encountered between 8pm GMT on Thursday, 13 December and 5pm GMT the following evening.
Bright Comet 46P/Wirtanen skims past Earth just 30 lunar distances away on 16 December when it could become a diffuse magnitude +3 object almost a degree wide located between the Pleiades and Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus. Grab your binoculars and find a dark sky location well away from streetlights to enjoy this Christmas comet before the glow from a waxing Moon gets too bright from 17 December.
Observers in the British Isles looking due south close to 6pm GMT on Friday, 7 December will find magnitude +0.1 planet Mars about 30 degress, or a span and a half of an outstretched hand at arm’s length, above the horizon. What you won’t see unless you have binoculars or a small telescope is that magnitude +7.9 outermost planet Neptune lies just one-tenth of a degree from the Red Planet.
The Leonid shower is well known for fast meteors, the brightest of which can leave persistent trains that appear to hang in the air for several seconds. This year’s maximum is predicted for 1am GMT on Sunday, 18 November. With a 9-day-old waxing gibbous Moon setting around the time of the shower’s peak in the UK, prospects are good.