From eclipses and planets to meteor showers galore, the northern spring season of 2014 will bring a number of eye-catching celestial sights for stargazers on Earth.
Weather permitting, some of the best spring night sky events could be readily visible without the aid of binoculars or a telescope, even from brightly-lit cities. But you'll need to know when and where to look to make the most of the season.
I've always felt that many astronomers started their careers as perceptive children who responded to the thrill of witnessing a noteworthy astronomical event. So whether you want to impress a youngster, or you're simply hoping to witness a head-turning astronomical event for yourself, it always helps to be ready in advance by marking your calendar and highlighting a number of these special dates:
April 14 and15: Mars' closest approach in 2014 and a total eclipse of the moon!
During the overnight hours of April 14 and 15, it will be a night for viewing first Mars and later the full moon. [Mars at Its best in April Night Sky (Video)]
First, Mars will come to within 57.4 million miles (92.4 million kilometers) of our planet, making its closest approach to us since Jan. 3, 2008. All through the night, Mars will resemble a dazzling star shining with a steady fiery-colored tint making it a formidable sight; its brightness will match Sirius, the brightest of all the stars.
As a bonus, later that very same night (actually during the early hours of April 15) North America will have a ringside seat to see a total lunar eclipse when the Full Moon becomes transformed into a mottled reddish ball for 78 minutes as it becomes completely immersed in the shadow of the Earth.
This total lunar eclipse will be the first one widely visible from North America in nearly 3.5 years. The Americas will have the best view of this eclipse, although over the Canadian Maritimes, moonset will intervene near the end of totality. Of special interest is the fact that the moon will appear quite near to the bright star Spica, in the constellation Virgo, during the eclipse. They actually will be in conjunction a couple of hours prior to the onset of totality, but they're still relatively near to each other when the eclipse gets underway.
April 22: The Lyrid meteor shower
Rather favorable circumstances are expected for this year’s Lyrid meteor shower, predicted to be at maximum this morning. The radiant, located near the brilliant bluish-white star Vega, rises in the northeast about the time evening twilight ends, and viewing will improve until light from the last-quarter moon begins to interfere just after 2 a.m. your local time.
Under the best conditions, 10 to 15 members of this shower can be seen in an hour by a single observer. The Lyrids remain about a quarter of their peak number for about two days. These bright meteors are associated with Thatcher’s Comet of 1861.
April 28 and 29: A Ring Eclipse that nobody will see?
It is quite possible that only penguins will witness the annular solar eclipse, also known as a "ring of fire" solar eclipse. That's because it will occur within the uninhabited region of Wilkes Land in Antarctica.
Those living in southernmost parts of Indonesia as well as Australia (where it will be autumn) will at least get a view of a partial eclipse of the sun. Because the axis of the moon's antumbral shadow misses the Earth and only its edge grazes Antarctica, it makes an accurate prediction of the duration of annularity all but impossible.
May 6: The Eta Aquarid meteor shower
The annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower — "shooting stars" spawned by the famed Halley's Comet — is scheduled to reach maximum early this morning. It's usually the year's richest meteor display for Southern Hemisphere observers, but north of the equator the Eta Aquarid shower is one of the more difficult annual displays to observe.
From mid-northern latitudes, the radiant (from where the meteors appear to emanate) rises about 1:30 a.m. local daylight time, scarcely two hours before morning twilight begins to interfere. At peak activity, about a dozen shower members can be seen per hour by a single observer with good sky conditions from latitude 26 degrees North, but practically zero north of latitude 40 degrees. The shower remains active at roughly one-half peak strength for a couple of days before and after the maximum. Conditions this year are excellent; the moon is absent from the predawn sky for more than a week around maximum. [Facts About the Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower]
May 10: Saturn at opposition
The ringed planet Saturn reaches opposition; it rises in the east-southeast at dusk, is due south in the middle of the night and sets in the west-southwest at dawn. Once it gains enough altitude, it appears similarly as bright as the zero-magnitude stars Arcturus and Vega.
Saturn's famous rings appear much more impressive than in recent years, since they are now tipped by 21.5 degrees from edge on.
May 24: Possible outburst of bright meteors
Perhaps the most dramatic sky event in 2014 could come at the start of the Memorial Day weekend. In the predawn hours of Saturday, May 24, our planet is expected to sweep through a great number of dusty trails left behind in space by the small comet P/209 LINEAR.
This unusual cosmic interaction might possibly result in an amazing, albeit brief display of meteors — popularly known as "shooting stars" — perhaps numbering in the many dozens …or even hundreds per hour. Nobody knows exactly how many meteors will be seen, but several meteor scientists believe that because the particles will be unusually large, the meteors will be outstandingly bright.
May 25: Mercury attains its greatest elongation
The planet Mercury will reach its greatest elongation, or greatest angular distance, east of the sun on this night. This is Mercury's best evening apparition of the year; it sets about 100 minutes after sunset. An hour after sunset, look low above the west-northwest horizon; the speedy planet should be easily visible as a yellowish "star."
Mercury will appear somewhat brighter up to two weeks before this date, and noticeably dimmer for about a week afterwards.
Editor's Note: If you snap an amazing night-sky photo and would like to share it with Space.com for a possible story or gallery, please send images and comments (including your name and the photo's location) to managing editor Tariq Malik at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmer's Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, N.Y. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Original story on Space.com.