2008 Preview Night Sky Highlights

Here are some of the more noteworthy sky events that willtake place this year. SPACE.com's weekly Night Sky column will provide moreextensive coverage of each event as they draw closer.

February 1 — Venus/Jupiter conjunction, Part 1. Thiswill be the first of two meetings this year between the two brightest planetsin our sky. This one will occur in the morning sky, low in the east-southeastand is best seen about 45 minutes before sunup. On Feb. 4, a beautiful crescentmoon will join the two planets making for an eye-catching array.

February 20-21 — Total eclipse of the moon. Less thansix months after last August's total lunar eclipse, we have yet another thatoccurs during the late-night hours of February 20-21. This eclipse will favormuch of North America, occurring during convenient evening hours, althoughEuropeans will also be able to enjoy a view of the darkened moon before it sets. Totality willlast for a bit less time than usual (50 minutes), as the moon slides to just withinthe southern portion of the Earth's umbra, perhaps leading to a potentiallybright total phase highlighted by a brighter southern limb. Adding to thisspectacle, a planet (Saturn) and a bright star (Regulus) will be close to thetotally eclipsed moon forming a broad triangle.

May 10 — Occultation of the Beehive star cluster. Awaxing crescent moon, 38 percent illuminated, will pass in front of the famousBeehive Cluster this evening for North Americans, making for a pretty sight inbinoculars and low-power telescopes. Members of the cluster will disappearbehind the moon's dark edge and will reappear about an hour later behind thebright edge.

May 21-22 — Jupiter without satellites! Anyone whopoints a small telescope toward the planet Jupiter will nearly always see some orall of the four famous Galilean satellites. Usually at least two or three ofthese moons are immediately evident; sometimes all four. It is very rare whenonly one moon is in view and rarer still when no moons at all are visible. Onthis night, for parts of the northeast U.S. and eastern Canada, Jupiter will appear moonless for about 20 minutes.

June 30 — Occultation of the Pleiades star cluster. Thisoccultation is already in progress for the northeastern U.S. as a skinny sliverof a waning crescent moon rises in the pre-dawn sky. Earthshine should also bepresent, imparting a "3-D effect" in binoculars and small telescopes.The best views will come as the brighter stars of this cluster reappear alongthe dark lunar limb.

August 1 — Total eclipse of the sun. Siberia anyone? From Novosibirsk you'll see the late-afternoon sun completely blotted outfor 2.3 minutes. Totality will also be visible from Canada's Northwest Passage,western Mongolia, and the western end of the Great Wall of China.

August 11-12 — Perseid meteor shower. At first glancethis doesn't look like a favorable year to view this famous meteor display, since the moon will bein a bright waxing gibbous phase on the peak viewing night. Fortunately, the moonwill set at around 1:45 a.m. local daylight time, leaving the rest of the nightdark for meteor watchers.

August 16 — Partial eclipse of the moon. Europe,Africa and Asia will be in the best position to watch about four-fifths of moonbecome immersed in the Earth's dark umbral shadow.

September 19 — Another Pleiades occultation. A waninggibbous moon will already be within the Pleiades as it rises over the EasternU.S. and Canada during the mid-evening hours. The reappearance of stars such asAlcyone and Taygeta should be well-seen along the moon's dark limb.

December 1 — Venus/Jupiter conjunction, Part 2. Thiswill be the second pairing-off of the two brightest planets in 2008, this timein the evening sky soon after sundown. And as a bonus, the crescent moon willjoin them forming a striking triangle and likely making even those who normallydon't look up at the sky take notice.

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and otherpublications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.