Skywatching in 2019
Another year of skywatching is upon us, and there's a lot to look forward to in 2019!
Here are the 10 most noteworthy sky events. A total lunar eclipse, two close pairing-offs between the two brightest planets, a total solar eclipse for parts of Chile and Argentina and a rare transit of Mercury are among the celestial highlights that will take place in the new year. Of course ... Space.com's Night Sky column will provide more extensive coverage of these events as they draw closer.
Jan. 20: Total eclipse of the moon
Just 20 days into the New Year, a spectacular total lunar eclipse will occur over the Americas and Western Europe; a potential viewing audience of about 1.3 billion people. Weather permitting, observers will see all stages of this event simultaneously unfold – something not possible from most of these regions since another eclipse with very similar circumstances occurred exactly 19 years before. Totality will be particularly dramatic from North America, where a coppery-hued moon will glow eerily high in a dark and crisp winter sky. Eclipse watchers from the Hawaiian Islands will see a different, but still stirring spectacle: the eclipse will already be in progress when the moon rises at sunset with roughly half of the moon already immersed in shadow as it climbs out of the Pacific Ocean. Large swaths of Africa, Asia Minor, and the Middle East will experience the drama of totality shortly before the moon sets. Totality will last a bit longer than average: one hour and 2 minutes. The moon will pass north of the center of the Earth's shadow, so during the total phase the upper part of the moon will appear brightest while its lower portion should appear somewhat darker and more subdued. However, the brightness and colors that appear on the moon will solely depend on the state of our atmosphere, so it's hard to say in advance exactly how the totally eclipsed moon might look.
Jan. 22: Venus and Jupiter, close embrace #1
Morning twilight crackles with the excitement of a close conjunction this morning between the two brightest planets. Venus will be passing 2.4 degrees to the upper left of Jupiter. Augmenting this display off to their right is the bright ruddy star, Antares. And on the morning of Jan. 31, a lovely crescent moon joins the array; Venus just to the moon's lower left and Jupiter well off to the moon's upper right.
Feb. 18: Venus and Saturn
The goddess of love passes just over a degree to the upper left of the "lord of the rings" in this morning's predawn sky; one of the closest bright planet conjunctions of 2019.
Feb. 19: Biggest "supermoon" of the year
On Feb. 19 at 4 a.m. EST, the moon will arrive at its closest point to the Earth in 2019: an extreme perigee distance of 221,681 miles (356,761 kilometers) away. Six hours and 53 minutes later, the moon will officially turn full. In addition, the near coincidence of this full moon with perigee will result in a dramatically large range of high and low ocean tides. While this "supermoon" will be the biggest full moon of 2019, the variation of the moon's distance is not readily apparent to observers viewing the moon directly.
July 2: Total eclipse of the sun
This will be the first total eclipse of the sun since the Great American Total Eclipse of 2017, when the long, thin finger of the moon's dark umbral shadow will again draw its tip – averaging 95 miles (150 kilometers) wide – across the Earth's surface. But unlike in 2017, which offered a multitude of possibilities for land-based viewing, the 6,800-mile (11,000-kilometer) path of the 2019 eclipse is confined almost exclusively to the South Pacific Ocean. The total eclipse track begins at local sunrise, 2,175-miles (4,000-kilometers) east-northeast of Wellington, New Zealand. Just 89 minutes later, comes the moment of greatest eclipse, where the duration on the center line of the shadow path lasts the longest: 4 minutes 32.8 seconds, at a point about 1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers) southwest of Isla Isabela of the Galapagos Islands, but still over open ocean waters. Indeed, out of the 161 minutes that the shadow’s umbra is in contact with the Earth, it is only in the final four minutes that it finally makes a landfall in central Chile and continues rapidly east-southeast through central Argentina, the path coming to an end just before reaching Rio de la Plata and the nation of Uruguay, before the shadow lifts off of the Earth at sunset and returns to space. A very fortuitous circumstance is that Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, a world class facility of astronomical telescopes and instruments located 50-miles (80 kilometers) east of La Serena, Chile, at an altitude of 7,200 feet (2,200 meters) is within the totality path and will witness 2 minutes and 6 seconds of total eclipse. Some notable metropolitan areas that will see a very large partial eclipse include Montevideo (90 percent), Santiago (93 percent) and Buenos Aires (99.4 percent). A partial eclipse will also be visible from Panama, Costa Rica and a slice of southwest Nicaragua, as well as much of South America, except for the northern and eastern sections.
Aug. 12-13: Perseid meteor shower
The Perseid meteor shower is considered to be among the best of the annual displays thanks to its high rates of up to 90 per hour for a single observer, as well as its reliability. Beloved by summer campers and often discovered by city dwellers who might be spending time in the country under a dark starry skies. But sadly, this year's peak happens just two days before full moon, meaning the sky will be flooded with bright moonlight that will obscure all but the brightest streaks. However, just before the break of dawn on the morning of the Aug. 13, the moon will set leaving about an hour of dark sky and affording an opportunity – albeit brief – to catch the maximum number of shooting stars.
Nov. 11: Transit of Mercury
The beginning of the transit will be visible from the eastern third of North America, the southern third of Greenland, and all of Central and South America. The beginning will also be visible from Africa, Europe and western Asia and virtually all of Antarctica. The end will be visible over much of North America, except for central and western Alaska. The end will also be visible from all of South America, southernmost Greenland, Hawaii, a small slice of western Africa, all of New Zealand and virtually all of Antarctica. When Mercury is in transit across the solar disk, the planet appears as a tiny, round black spot with a diameter just 1/195 that of the sun. This size is too small to be visible to the naked eye. Prospective observers are warned to take special safety precautions (as with a solar eclipse) in attempting to view the tiny silhouette of Mercury against the blindingly brilliant disc of the sun. This will be the last transit of Mercury available to North Americans until May 7, 2049. [See photos of Mercury's solar transit in 2016]
Nov. 24: Venus and Jupiter, close embrace #2
Venus and Jupiter are very low in the southwest during the chilly November dusk. Their overtaking of each other this month occurs with a glorious conjunction that is further enlivened by background stars; for the second time this year these two bright luminaries have a rendezvous; the last was just over ten months ago in the morning sky. Back then they were separated by 2.5 degrees. This evening they're even closer; Venus sits 1.4 degrees to Jupiter's lower left.
Nov. 28: Celestial summit meeting at dusk
Step outside about 45 minutes after sundown and look low near the southwest horizon. You'll see Jupiter and to its upper left Venus. Just above Venus will be a hairline crescent moon, just 2.5 days past new. And finally, well to the upper left shines yet a third bright planet, Saturn.
Dec. 26: Annular eclipse of the sun
The final eclipse of 2019 will be an annular solar eclipse visible solely from the Eastern Hemisphere. North America will not see any part of it. Although the new moon will pass directly across the face of the sun, it will not cover it entirely because the moon will be farther than the average distance from the Earth and the moon's resultant apparent size will be 3 percent smaller than that of the sun. As a consequence, a thin ring of sunlight will shine around the dark silhouette of the moon, resulting in an "annular" eclipse; derived from the Latin word annulus, meaning "ring shaped." A good analogy would be to place a penny on top of a nickel, the penny represents the moon and the nickel represents the sun. Unlike July's eclipse of the sun whose totality path almost entirely swept over open ocean, the path of December's annular eclipse will pass over many countries and population centers stretching from the Middle East to the western Pacific Ocean: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, India, Sri Lanka, Sumatra, Singapore, Borneo, the Philippines, and even the tiny island of Guam. Just to the east of the Indonesian island of Pulau Gin Besar is where the ring of sunlight will last the longest: 3 minutes 39.5 seconds. A partial eclipse will be visible from virtually all of Asia, northeastern Africa and northern and western portions of Australia.
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 Verizon Fios1 News in Rye Brook, NY.