The Best Astronomical Events of 2017

The Best Astronomical Events of 2017
The Best Astronomical Events of 2017

Our roundup of the 2017 Celestial Events you don't want to miss

Astronomers around the world are gearing up for an exciting year of celestial phenomena. Of course, the most dramatic is a total eclipse of the Sun across the entire continental US in August. But venture to a dark site at almost any point throughout the year and you’re bound to find something exciting in the night sky. So mark your calendar and grab your telescope—you won’t want to miss these celestial events!

The Great American Solar Eclipse

For those who witness it, this eclipse on August 21 promises to be one of the most spectacular celestial events of our lifetimes. Along the path of totality, the Moon will completely eclipse the Sun, resulting in dark skies for up to 3 minutes in midmorning! It’s the perfect time to view the Sun’s corona with a solar telescope or solar glasses. Totality will dazzle observers in major US cities like St. Louis, Nashville, and Charleston, SC. The rest of North America will see a partial solar eclipse. Wherever you are, make sure to use proper solar filters whenever you observe the Sun.

Oppositions and Conjunctions

From the cloud bands on Jupiter to the breathtaking rings of Saturn to the blue-green glow of the distant gas giants, there’s a lot to discover right in our own solar system. Although the planets are hundreds of millions of miles away, there are certain times of the year when they reach their closest approach to Earth, making them appear slightly larger and brighter in your telescope. These special nights are called opposition. Here are the oppositions you won’t want miss in 2017:

  • April 7 – Jupiter at opposition

  • June 15 – Saturn at opposition

  • September 5 – Neptune at opposition

  • October 19 – Uranus at opposition

As they orbit the Sun, the planets appear to dance across the night sky. Sometimes, they have a close encounter, known as a conjunction. On November 13, just before sunrise, you’ll see a spectacular conjunction of the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter. They’ll appear just 0.3 degrees apart from one another in the eastern sky. Attach your longest focal length eyepiece (24mm or above) and you should be able to view both planets in the same field of view!

Meteor Showers

As the Earth moves through the paths of past comets, observers can view several major meteor showers throughout the year. Meteors, commonly called “shooting stars,” are actually rock and dust left behind in the comet’s wake that burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. The most impressive show is the last one of the year, the Geminids, in mid-December.

Head to a dark sky site and look up to catch these showers:

  • January 3-4 – Quantarids Meteor Shower, up to 40 meteors per hour

  • April 22-23 Lyrids Meteor Shower, about 20 meteors per hour

  • May 6-7 – Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower, up to 30 meteors per hour

  • August 12-13 – Perseids Meteor Shower, up to 60 meteors per hour, but slightly obscured by the waning gibbous Moon

  • October 7 – Draconids Meteor Shower, up to 10 meteors per hour in early evening

  • October 21-22 – Orionids Meteor Shower, up to 20 meteors per hour

  • November 17-18 – Leonids Meteor Shower, up to 15 meteors per hour

  • December 13-14 – Geminids Meteor Shower, up to 120 meteors per hour

Other Lunar and Solar Eclipses Outside North America

Observers in the Southern Hemisphere will experience their own solar eclipse in 2017, an Annular Solar Eclipse on February 26. During this type of eclipse, the Moon is farther away from the Earth, creating a “ring of fire” effect. There are also a few lunar eclipses on deck for 2017:

  • February 11 – A penumbral lunar eclipse will cause the Moon to appear dimmer but not darken completely. Visible in South America, eastern Canada, Europe, and Africa.

  • August 7 – Africa, Asia, and Australia experience a partial lunar eclipse, where a portion of the Moon will pass through the Earth’s shadow and darken.