Mark your calendars and plan star parties with your family, friends, and fellow astronomy enthusiasts to catch these noteworthy 2016 celestial events. Here are just a few of the exciting sights to look forward to in the New Year!
Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) moves northward in January, brushing past the Big Dipper about mid-month. The comet is expected to be a bit fainter than naked-eye visibility for most observers, binoculars might show a fussy "star" while a medium to large telescope should show the comet's core and faint wisps of tail.
Bundle up in warm clothes and keep your eyes peeled at night in early January to catch the Quadrantids meteor shower. Some meteors associated with the Quadrantids are expected to be visible from January 1st until the 6th, but the peak of activity will occur on the evening of January 3rd into the very early morning of the 4th, with up to 40 meteors expected per hour. Look for "shooting stars" radiating from the constellation Bo÷tes.
It's worth rising an hour or two before the Sun on January 8th and 9th, to see a close pairing of planets Venus and Saturn in the pre-dawn sky.
The second month of 2016 offers great views of the winter Milky Way, especially the evenings around February 8th, when the New Moon promises dark skies. Scan the "cloudy" Milky Way with big binoculars or a wide-field telescope to explore dozens of interesting star clusters and wispy nebulas.
Speaking of star clusters, use a telescope and look east of constellation Canis Major's brightest star Sirius to see two beautiful star clusters, M46 and M47 in the constellation Puppis. For more star cluster observations in February, look in the constellation Auriga and go after sparkling clusters M36, M37 & M38, or M35 in the constellation Gemini.
From late January through late February, get outside about an hour before dawn to see five planets line-up above the eastern horizon. For the first time in over a decade, planets Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter will all be visible at once before the Sun rises. While you may need binoculars to spot Mercury, which will be very close to the horizon, this planetary line-up is not to be missed.
Get ready for great views of giant Jupiter this month as the gas giant planet will be at opposition on the evening of March 8th - the point in its orbit when it appears opposite the Sun from Earth. This will be the best night of the year to view Jupiter and its four brightest moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
Some of the best galaxies to see are spread across the night skies of March from Ursa Major to Virgo. Take advantage of the New Moon on March 9th and set sail for these island universes with a big telescope!
Grab a pair of 50mm or larger binoculars in March for great views of the Pleiades cluster (M45), the Beehive cluster (M44), and the must-see Double Cluster in Perseus. These sparkling sky gems are perfect fare for big astronomy binoculars and telescopes too.
Don't miss the Lyrids meteor shower which peaks on the evening of April 22nd into the morning of April 23rd. Scan the skies near the constellation Lyra after midnight on the 22nd for your best chance to see meteors. Unfortunately, the Full Moon of April 22nd will outshine fainter meteors, but there will still be a chance to see "shooting stars" after midnight and into the early morning hours of April 23rd.
With the Virgo Galaxy Cluster and the Big Dipper and Coma Berenices well-positioned in the sky, April evenings are truly a gift for galaxy hounds. Check out a few of our favorite galaxies: M101, M51, and M106 near the Big Dipper asterism in Ursa Major; M86, M87, M84 and M104 in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster; and don't miss NGC 4565, M64, M99, and M100 in the constellation Coma Berenices.
A grouping of bright beacons Saturn, Mars, Antares and the Moon will adorn the night sky on April 25th and 26th.
Grab a comfortable blanket or lounge chair and catch the Eta Aquarids meteor shower which peaks on the evening of May 4th into the early morning hours of May 5th. The New Moon of May 6th means conditions will be ideal to watch "shooting stars" created by debris from Halley's Comet. Look for meteors to radiate outwards from the constellation Aquarius.
On May 9th, planet Mercury will transit the Sun. This will be the first Mercury transit since 2006, and observers using solar filter-equipped telescopes will be able to enjoy the view as Mercury passes between the Earth and the Sun, appearing as a tiny black dot moving slowly across (transiting) the Sun's luminous disc over a 7.5-hour period. From locations in the western U.S., the transit will begin before sunrise, while the entire transit will be visible from the Midwest, southern U.S. and the east coast. CAUTION: Never look at the Sun, either directly or through a telescope or binocular, without a professionally made protective solar filter installed that completely covers the front of the instrument, or permanent eye damage could result.
May skies present great viewing opportunities for many globular star clusters, including M3 in the constellation Bo÷tes, the Great Cluster M13 in the keystone asterism of Hercules, M5 in Serpens, and M92 in the northern section of Hercules.
The best time of the year to observe Earth's next-door neighbor planet Mars is the night of May 22nd, when it reaches opposition. The Red Planet rises at sunset and shines brightly with reflected sunlight all night. Look for Mars within the constellation Scorpius.
Summer stargazing season kicks off in June with great opportunities to see a host of globular and open star clusters, emission nebulas, and more. Grab a pair of big binoculars or a wide-field telescope and scan the summer Milky Way for great views.
Gas giant planet Saturn will be at opposition on June 2nd, arguably the best night of the year to observe and capture astrophotos of Saturn and its majestic rings. Saturn will be visible all night long in the constellation Ophiuchus, and it will be brighter than any other night of the year. Saturn's brighter moons such as Titan and Enceladus make great targets for 6" and larger telescopes.
Catch a close pairing of the Moon and gigantic Jupiter on June 11th. At their closest approach, Jupiter will appear to pass within 1░25' of the Moon, making a nice target for binoculars and telescopes.
With constellation Hercules almost directly overhead and Scorpius to the south, there's plenty to explore in July skies as summer continues. Check out globular star clusters M13 and M92 in Hercules, and explore Scorpius to find numerous deep-sky objects including open clusters M6 and M7, and globular clusters M4 and M80.
On July 9th, the Moon and Jupiter will make a very close approach to one another in the evening sky, appearing to pass as close as 0░48' from each other.
July winds down with the Delta Aquarids meteor shower. For the best chance to see meteors, get outside after midnight on July 28th and look towards the constellation Aquarius.
Use 50mm or larger binoculars and/or a telescope with a low-power eyepiece to explore the summer Milky Way in August for nice views of various star clusters, galaxies, and cloudy nebulas.
Check out the skies after midnight on August 12th and in the early morning hours of August 13th to see meteors from the Perseids shower radiating from the constellation Perseus. This year, the waxing gibbous Moon will set a bit after midnight, leaving skies nice and dark to see lots of "shooting stars" streak across the sky.
On August 27th, look above the western horizon just after sunset to see an extremely close pairing of bright planets Venus and Jupiter. The two planets will appear to pass within a scant 0░3.6' of one another, presenting a wonderful target for binoculars and telescopes.
The fall stargazing season begins with wonderfully placed spiral galaxies M31 (Andromeda Galaxy), M33 (Triangulum Galaxy), and M74 in Pisces. Use a big telescope to see these glittering island universes.
Three popular globular star clusters line up almost directly north-south in September skies. From a dark sky site, check out views M15 in Pegasus, M2 in Aquarius, and M30 in Capricornus.
In early October, catch your last glimpse of the year of the galactic center in the constellation Sagittarius, low in the southwestern sky, where you can track down four great emission nebulas - M8, the Lagoon; M20, the Trifid; M17 the Omega; and M16, the Eagle or "Star Queen" nebulas.
Two great planetary nebulas are still well-placed in October skies - M57, the Ring Nebula; and M27, the Dumbbell Nebula.
Sit back and relax in your favorite backyard chair to watch the Orionid meteor shower, which peaks on the night of October 20th into the morning of October 22nd. Unfortunately, the bright Moon will outshine fainter meteors, but brighter "shooting stars" will be visible. The Orionids shower is notoriously irregular, so keep an eye out for meteors on any night from October 20th through the 24th.
Bundle up for bright winter skies! See our namesake constellation Orion arch its way across the sky in November along with lots of bright star clusters to explore with big astronomy binoculars and telescopes.
Get outside after midnight on November 17-18 to see the Leonids meteor shower peak as meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Leo.
High in the northern skies of November, between the constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia, use a pair of big binoculars or a wide-field telescope to seek out the sparkling Double Cluster in Perseus -- two open star clusters NGC 884 and NGC 869 side by side.
Don't miss the Geminids meteor shower which peaks after midnight on December 13-14. This year, the Full Moon of December 14th will outshine fainter Geminids meteors, but there's still a good chance to see "shooting stars" the evening of December 13th into the early morning hours of the 14th. Look for meteors to emanate from the constellation Gemini and the surrounding area.
The New Moon of December 28th will provide dark skies and great conditions to observe deep-sky gems with big binoculars or a telescope. Check out open cluster M42 (Pleiades), the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), and the many gems within our namesake constellation Orion, including M42 the Orion Nebula and the elusive Horsehead Nebula located near Alnitak - the easternmost star of Orion's easily recognizable belt.