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ASTROBLOG: 6 Exciting Upcoming Skywatching Opportunities!

by Matthew Whithouse, Boeing Observatory Manager

We’re now a few months into 2016, but the best astronomy and skywatching events of the year are yet to come. Read on to discover what the rest of the year has in store!

1. April 18: Great evening to see Mercury

Mercury April 18 2016

Look to the west between 8:15pm and 8:30pm on April 18, and you’ll see Mercury as a point of light in the twilight glow. If you’re not able to see Mercury with your unaided eye, try scanning the western horizon with binoculars. Image: Stellarium.

Mercury is an elusive planet. Because Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, it never strays far from the Sun in the sky. It is almost always hidden in the glow of sunset or sunrise and thus tricky to spot.

On April 18, Mercury will be at its maximum distance from the Sun in the sky (the technical term for this is “greatest eastern elongation”). Mercury will thus be higher in the sky than normal, and easier to see. Look low in the western sky just after sunset, and you should see Mercury as a dim point of light. You’ll want a viewing location with a clear western horizon. In the Columbia area, I recommend the walking path on the Lake Murray dam.

You’ll want to catch Mercury soon after sunset, as it will disappear below the horizon quickly after it gets dark. Later in the year, there’s another great Mercury viewing opportunity just after sunset on August 16.

2. May 9: Transit of Mercury


The November 8, 2006 transit of Mercury. Mercury is indicated by the black arrow. Image: Brocken Inaglory (Wikipedia).

On May 9, Mercury will appear to cross the face of the Sun. As Mercury transits the Sun, it will look like a tiny black dot superimposed on the Sun’s surface. The transit of Mercury is one of the top astronomy events of 2016, and the next Mercury transits aren’t until 2019 and 2032. You won’t want to miss this event!

To see the transit of Mercury, you’ll need either a properly filtered telescope or eclipse glasses. Please DON’T look at the Sun with an unfiltered telescope or binoculars, or without proper eye protection; we don’t want you damaging your eyesight. Sunglasses or welders’ glasses are not sufficient. Here in Columbia, the transit starts at 7:12am and ends at 2:42pm. The museum will open at 8:30am, and we’ll be offering SAFE transit viewing (weather permitting, of course). Please join us!

3. July 4: NASA’s Juno spacecraft arrives at Jupiter

The Juno space probe’s arrival at Jupiter will be a big event in solar system exploration this summer. Juno launched from Cape Canaveral on August 5, 2011, and has been on its way to Jupiter ever since. The main goal of the Juno mission is to learn more about the origin and evolution of Jupiter and the solar system as a whole. Juno won’t actually land on Jupiter (or any of its moons), but will instead explore Jupiter from orbit. You can click HERE to learn more.

So on the 4th of July, we’ll have solar system exploration fireworks to accompany our Earth-based Independence Day celebrations!

4. August 11-13: Perseid Meteor Shower

This is one of the top meteor showers of the year. At its peak on the night of August 12-13, you might see up to 60 meteors per hour. The best time to observe is after midnight, and you’ll want to watch from a dark location away from city lights.

5. August 27: Venus/Jupiter Conjunction

Venus and Jupiter 27 Aug 2016

Look low in the west at around 8:15pm on August 27, and you’ll see Venus and Jupiter VERY close together. Image: Stellarium.

This will be a beautiful sight! Venus and Jupiter will come within 0.06 degrees of each other, and it will be spectacular to see these two bright planets so close together. They will be so close that they’ll almost look like one super-bright object. You’ll want to look low in the western sky just after sunset. Once again, a location with a clear western horizon (such as the Lake Murray Dam) is best.

6. December 13-14: Geminid Meteor Shower

The Geminids boast upwards of 75 meteors per hour, rivaling or even exceeding the Perseids. Unfortunately, the 2016 Geminids will be washed out by the light of the full Moon. But you may still see a few meteors!

BONUS: Planet Watching!

You may have seen the spectacular line-up of Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter in the morning sky back in January and February. As we head into the spring and summer, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn move into the evening sky. Jupiter moves into the early evening sky in mid-March, followed by Mars and Saturn in June.

We’ll have a great time showing the planets in the observatory on Tuesday nights this summer, so join us for some planet-gazing. The observatory will be open until 10:00pm on Tuesday nights until we go off daylight savings time in early November.

There are so many amazing things to see in the sky, so don’t forget to look up. Happy skywatching!

DON’T FORGET! The Boeing Observatory at the SC State Museum is open late every Tuesday night. Click HERE to learn more.