The Best Celestial Events of 2016

From the Moon and planets to countless deep space objects, you can discover something new in the night sky just about every night of the year. But as the Earth makes its annual journey around the Sun, we get the opportunity to view special celestial events like meteor showers, conjunctions, and eclipses. Some last just a few hours while others can last several days or weeks—but once they’re here, time is of the essence! So mark your calendar, grab your telescope, and take a look at some of 2016's unforgettable events.

Celestial Events of 2016

January 3-4 – Quadrantids Meteor Shower

Why not welcome the New Year with a night of stargazing and meteor hunting? The Quadrantids meteor shower can yield as many as 40 meteors per hour, radiating from the constellation Bootes. This year’s show will be diminished thanks to a bright second quarter Moon, but you may be able to spot a few during the night.

March 8 – Jupiter at Opposition

All eyes turn toward Jupiter as it basks in full sunlight during its opposition. Jupiter is sure to delight all who view it, from professional observatories to amateurs with handheld binoculars. Make sure to check out its four Galilean moons and see if you can make out colorful cloud bands or the Great Red Spot. If you’ve ever considered dabbling in planetary imaging, tonight would be the perfect night to start!

March 9 – Total Solar Eclipse (Indonesia and Pacific Ocean)

There is perhaps no other celestial event as spectacular as a total solar eclipse—when the Moon completely blocks the solar disk, darkening the daytime sky and revealing the Sun’s dazzling corona. Unfortunately for the rest of us, only a select few people in Indonesia and on boats on the Pacific Ocean will catch this one. But hang tight! A once-in-a-lifetime total eclipse will cross the entire continental United States next year on August 21, 2017.

March 23 – Penumbral Lunar Eclipse (Western North America and Eastern Asia)

This unusual type of eclipse occurs when the Moon passes through the penumbra, the outermost edges of the Earth’s shadow. The Moon will appear to get darker, but will not take on the typical red hue of a total lunar eclipse.

May 6-7 – Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower

Bright Moon phases will obscure many of this year’s best meteor showers, but a new Moon on the night of May 6 ensures dark skies for the Eta Aquarids, which is composed of the remnants of the famous Comet Halley. Meteors—up to 30 per hour in the Northern Hemisphere and 60 per hour in the Southern—will appear to radiate from Aquarius.

May 9 – Transit of Mercury

This will be the highlight of 2016 for many amateur astronomers. The elusive Mercury, one of the most difficult planets to view, will be out in broad daylight—literally! Look through a telescope equipped with a suitable solar filter and you’ll be able to view tiny Mercury transit across the surface of the Sun. This rare celestial event will be visible throughout much of the world, but observers along the eastern coasts of the Americas will get the best view.

May 22 – Mars at Opposition

Although Mars is our next door neighbor, it’s the second smallest planet in the Solar System, making it difficult to observe in detail through a telescope. Your best shot will come on May 22, when Mars and Earth reach their closest points to one another. Try viewing Mars in a large telescope to see if you can spot its polar ice caps or any of the darker regions on the rusty-red surface.

June 3 – Saturn at Opposition

Saturn rules the summer sky, but on this night, the ringed planet truly takes center stage. When it reaches opposition, Saturn will be bright and fully illuminated by the Sun. You may even notice that its rings look brighter than usual thanks to a phenomenon known as the Seeliger Effect. Take it all in! Saturn’s rings will be visible in even small aperture telescopes.

June 20 – Winter Solstice (Southern Hemisphere)

Calling all Southern Hemisphere observers! Get out your telescope and enjoy the longest night of the year! The winter solstice is the perfect time to enjoy a stargazing marathon. You’ll get several hours of additional observing time compared to summer when days are much longer. (Unfortunately for Northern Hemisphere astronomers, this is your shortest night of the year. But you’ll get your own winter solstice in December!)

July 4 – Juno arrives at Jupiter

Back in 2011, NASA launched the spacecraft Juno to study Jupiter’s polar region. On Independence Day, Juno will complete its five-year journey and begin its important work. Take a look at Jupiter in your telescope and imagine what Juno’s first encounter with Jupiter must be like.

August 12-13 – Perseids Meteor Shower

The Perseids meteor shower is one of the main celestial events of the summer. This year, skies will be dark after the Moon sets around midnight, leaving the sky ready for peak meteor viewing, up to 60 per hour. This shower’s timing is perfect for a summer camping trip to your favorite dark sky site. Here’s to eating s’mores by the campfire and seeing s’more meteors overhead!

August 16 – Mercury at Greatest Eastern Elongation

Following its dramatic transit across the Sun in May, this is your next best opportunity to observe Mercury. On this day, it reaches maximum distance away from the Sun. Look to the western horizon just after sunset and you can catch a glimpse of the tiny planet.

August 27 – Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter

It doesn’t get much closer than this! The two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, will appear to have an ultra-close encounter in the evening sky, coming within 0.06 degrees of one another. This amazing event will occur just after sunset in the western sky. 

September 1 – Annular Solar Eclipse (Africa)

Also known as the “Ring of Fire,” an annular solar eclipse is similar to a total eclipse, except that the Moon is farther away from the Earth, so it’s not large enough to completely cover the Sun. Observers in certain parts of Africa including Congo and Madagascar will be treated to this unique celestial phenomenon. If you won’t be there yourself, check the web for photos of the event afterward!

September 3 – Neptune at Opposition

Viewing the blue giant Neptune can be tricky, so if this planet’s been on your wish list, make tonight the night you finally observe it. Even though it’s closer on this night than any other night of the year, the planet is still approximately 2.7 billion miles away, so it will appear as a tiny blue dot in most telescopes.

September 16 – Penumbral Lunar Eclipse (Eastern Europe, Eastern Africa, Asia, Australia)

This is the second penumbral eclipse of the year, but will treat a different region of the globe to a similar show. Sky-watchers in the Americas will miss out on this one, but it will be visible throughout much of the rest of the world including eastern Europe, eastern Africa, Asia, and western Australia.

October 15 – Uranus at Opposition

Like Neptune before it, Uranus reaches prime viewing position when it enters opposition and becomes fully illuminated by the Sun. This cold, distant planet is so far away that its unusal ring and surface detail cannot be observed through a telescope. However, you will be able to appreciate its unique blue-green color in the eyepiece or with a planetary camera.

October 21-22 – Orionids Meteor Shower

The Orionids, meteors left behind in the wake of Halley’s Comet, will race through the skies on the evening of October 21. As they do, they’ll be competing with the light of the second quarter Moon. But these meteors, numbering up to 20 per hour, tend to be among the brightest of the year. Look toward the constellation Orion for the best chance of spotting these celestial visitors.

December 13-14 – Geminids Meteor Shower and Supermoon

Normally a full Moon is a death sentence for a meteor shower, so a Supermoon on the night of December 14 will certainly put a damper on the usually-breathtaking Geminids. However, since the Geminids are the biggest and brightest shower of the year, a few “shooting stars” might peek through the Moon glow. Make a night of it by observing craters and geographical features on the Moon and see if a stray meteor streaks by here and there.

December 21 – Winter Solstice (Northern Hemisphere)

As temperatures drop in the Northern Hemisphere, days grow shorter and shorter. On December 21, get out there and enjoy an extra-long observing session; it’s the shortest day and longest night of the year!

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