Eclipses and meteors and supermoons, oh my!
If you're a night owl who loves stargazing, 2016 is going to be a busy year for you. This year is packed full of remarkable sights — including three supermoons, two eclipses, and dozens of meteor showers. Some of them you'll need a telescope or binoculars to see, but many are visible with your naked eye alone.
Here are the things we'll be watching for in the night sky through the rest of 2016:
1. In March, Jupiter will come closer to Earth than it ever will in the next two years.
On March 8, Jupiter reaches opposition (astronomy-speak for "the time when its orbit around the sun brings it closest to Earth"). You’ll be able to see the planet through binoculars or a telescope — if you have the latter you might be able to see its moons or the Great Red Spot).
Then on March 9, skywatchers in parts of Sumatra and Indonesia can grab their pinhole projectors to watch 2016's only total solar eclipse. If you're not able to grab a last-minute ticket to Palembang — don't worry. The next total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017 will be visible across a huge part of the United States.
2. Break out your macro lenses to photograph April's "minimoon."
There are three "supermoons" in 2016, but only one "minimoon." On April 21, the moon will be at "apogee," its furthest point from Earth. That's about 10,000 more miles away than normal and 30,000 more miles away than during a "supermoon."
On April 9, skywatchers with powerful telescopes will be able to see the planet Uranus as it reaches "conjunction" and starts to pass behind the sun. This is the perfect time to brush off your best "Uranus" jokes from fourth grade (to get you started, here's one of my personal favorites).
April 22 will bring the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower. Like August's Perseid meteor shower, these meteors are bright, slightly blue, and often leave long trails. In an average year, about 10-15 meteors can be spotted in the sky, but it may be harder to see them this time because of the full moon.
3. In May, Mercury will transit the sun for the first time in a decade.
Skywatchers in the southern hemisphere are in for a treat May 6-7 with the peak of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. This shower is usually good for about 30 meteors an hour — but you might be able to see even more since it's happening during a new moon when the skies will be much darker.
One of the most anticipated astronomical events of 2016 will happen on May 9, when the planet Mercury passes in front of the sun for the first time in a decade! Mercury is tiny, so you won't be able to see its path across the sun with the naked eye or through a pinhole projector — you'll need a refracting telescope or one with a solar filter. Definitely do not stare directly into the sun trying to see it. Check out your local astronomy center or skywatching group to see if they're doing public viewings, or if you can wait, NASA will have plenty of photos afterward — like this collection from 2012's transit of Venus.
May 21 will bring 2016's first blue moon. Sadly, it won't appear blue (unless Instagram filters count); that's just the name for the second full moon in a month.
On May 22, the planet Mars reaches "opposition," also known as its closest point to Earth of the year. If you have a telescope or binoculars, this will be a good night to break them out and see the red planet in all its glory. The last time it was at opposition was 2003.
4. If you've saved up for binoculars or a telescope, June is a great month to break them in.
Like Mars a few weeks earlier, Saturn's orbit will bring it closest to Earth on June 3. Skywatchers with home telescopes or medium-to-high-powered binoculars should be able to see Saturn's famous rings — and maybe even a few of her moons too.
5. Join NASA as Juno reaches Jupiter in July.
Our solar system's largest resident will get a new visitor on July 4 with the arrival of NASA's Juno orbiter. Over the next two years, Juno will orbit Jupiter 37 times, collecting information about the planet's atmosphere, magnetosphere, and water content. You can learn more about the mission here.
6. Watch the world's most famous meteor shower in August.
On Aug. 11-12, grab a friend, a blanket, and a bottle of wine and settle in for a late night sky spectacle courtesy of the Perseid meteor shower. Made of dusty bits from comet Swift-Tuttle, Perseid meteors appear as fast-moving bright blue streaks across the night sky.
This year is shaping up to be a particularly great show — some astronomers predict as many as 150 meteors will be visible every hour. Plus, with the moon at only a quarter-full (and setting shortly after midnight for folks in the Northern Hemisphere), the sky will be very dark. As astronomers say: Less light in the sky, more meteors to catch your eye. OK, they don't really say that. But they should.
On Aug. 27, early evening skywatchers will be able check out Venus and Jupiter in conjunction. It's the closest the two bright planets will be visible all year.
7. See an IRL "Ring of Fire" in September's partial solar eclipse.
On Sept. 1, skywatchers across Africa will be treated to an annular (or partial) solar eclipse. In this type of eclipse, the moon partially passes between the sun and the Earth, creating what some astronomers call the "ring of fire."
The path of the eclipse crosses Gabon, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Madagascar, and the tiny island nation of Réunion. In the past, generous astronomers have live-streamed images of eclipses; hopefully someone will do the same this year.
8. The first of three supermoons will rise in October.
Oct. 16 brings the first of the years' three supermoons. During a supermoon, the moon's orbit brings it closer to Earth, making it appear larger and brighter than usual. It's a great time to dust off your camera and test out some night shots — here are some tips from a veteran lunar photographer.
Oct. 30 will bring 2016's only black moon, also known as the second new moon in a calendar month. If it is a clear night, black moons are a great chance to look for deep sky objects like the Andromeda galaxy or the Orion nebula.
9. Round out 2016 with two meteor showers and two more supermoons.
Nov. 14 brings the second supermoon of 2016 and the closest full moon to Earth since 1990. You won't want to miss this one — it's the closest the moon will get to Earth until 2021.
Skywatchers in the northern hemisphere should bundle up warm on Nov. 17 to take in the Leonid meteor shower. These meteors are my favorite every year — they're usually large, yellowish-green, and slow moving as they streak across the sky. The moon will be pretty bright in the night sky, but you can still expect to see about 10-15 meteors per hour.
Dec. 12 is the last full moon of the year and 2016's final supermoon. For astronomy fans, it'll be a mixed blessing since the bright light of the supermoon will blot out some of the Geminid meteor shower two days later. At its peak around 2:00 a.m. local time Dec. 13, the Geminid meteor shower can bring up to 120 meteors an hour into our atmosphere. They burn fast, bold, and bright — not great for photography, but perfect for wishes.