Mark your calendars and plan star parties with your family, friends, and fellow astronomy enthusiasts to catch these noteworthy 2017 celestial events. Here are just a few of the exciting sights to look forward to this year!
Orion, our favorite constellation, is well-placed for stargazers throughout January. Take a closer look at the middle of Orion's sword with binoculars or a telescope to reveal amazing views of the bright emission nebula M42. Use a telescope at high powers to resolve the system of four "newborn" stars at the center of M42 that form a trapezoid, known as the Trapezium. If you'll be viewing in a light polluted area, use an Orion UltraBlock filter to boost contrast for better views.
Just above the easternmost star of Orion's belt, named Alnitak, the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024) can be found in larger telescopes. Dark lanes of dust give this emission nebula its fiery appearance. From an area with especially dark skies, the picturesque absorption nebula Barnard 33, also called the Horsehead Nebula, can be found in large telescopes just south of Alnitak.
On January 31st, bright planets Venus and Mars and the crescent Moon will form a big triangle in the night sky. Enjoy this grouping with unaided eyes, or go in for a closer look with big binoculars.
In early February, sky-watchers may get a chance to see a comet! No guarantees, as comets can be fickle, but Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdu?áková was looking good in early January. It heads for its closest approach to Earth on the 11th of February, perhaps reaching easy naked-eye visibility. Look for a tiny but distinct "fuzzball" before dawn as the comet sweeps through the constellations Aquila and Hercules.
Get out your 50mm or larger astronomy binoculars for great views of the Pleiades open star cluster (M45), which will be high in the northwestern sky during February. While M45 can be seen with unaided eyes from a rural location with dark skies, the open star cluster is a much more spectacular sight in binoculars or telescopes with a low-power wide-field eyepiece.
In late February, bright galaxies M81 & M82 are visible with a 50mm or larger binocular, but we suggest you use a large telescope to chase these galaxies down just off the leading edge of the Big Dipper asterism. Many observers consider M81 & M82 the best pairing of visual galaxies in the sky.
Sparkling star clusters adorn the night sky throughout March. Along with the Pleiades star cluster (M45) which continues to be well-placed in March skies, the Beehive cluster (M44) near Cancer, and the must-see Double Cluster in Perseus are well-placed in March. Use a big binocular to explore these twinkling clusters, or use a wide-field telescope for a closer look.
Some of the best galaxies to see are spread across the night skies of March from constellations Ursa Major to Virgo. Use a big telescope and take advantage of the New Moon on March 28th to set sail for these distant galaxies!
On March 29th immediately following sunset, the brand-new crescent Moon and planets Mars and Mercury will form a large triangle above the western horizon. You don't need a telescope to see this pretty grouping!
Gigantic Jupiter reaches opposition on April 7th, making it the best night of the year to explore the gas giant planet and its four brightest moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Since Jupiter will be directly opposite the Sun from Earth, it will be visible all night long. Opposition occurs when a planet reaches its closest approach to Earth in its elliptical orbit. Take advantage of Jupiter's brightest night of the year and take a closer look at its striking cloud band "stripes" and four Galilean moons with any size telescope.
Spot so-called "shooting stars" of the Lyrids meteor shower when it peaks after midnight on April 22nd into the early morning hours of the 23rd. The waning crescent Moon will be out, but it shouldn't make it too difficult to spot meteors. The Lyrids shower often produces meteors with impressive dust trails that can last several seconds.
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.
Before sunrise on May 18, tiny planet Mercury will reach its greatest western elongation. This means Mercury will be at its highest point in the pre-dawn sky. Once the Sun comes up, Mercury will become hard to spot, so look above the eastern horizon just before sunrise to catch the elusive planet.
Go globular in May! There are great viewing opportunities to see globular star clusters in May, including M3 in the constellation Boötes, the Great Cluster M13 in the keystone asterism of Hercules, M5 in Serpens, and M92 in the northern section of Hercules.
Take advantage of the New Moon on May 25th to go after elusive deep sky objects! For the very best views, plan a trip to an observing location away from city lights with nice dark skies. Pack up the family and your favorite telescope for a New Moon adventure!
Bright planet Venus will be at its greatest western elongation on June 3rd, reaching its highest point in the morning sky. Look above the eastern horizon before sunrise to catch our next-door neighbor planet.
Majestic Saturn will reach opposition on June 15th, arguably the best night of the year to observe and capture astrophotos of the picturesque ringed planet. Since the planet will be directly opposite the Sun from Earth, Saturn will be visible all night long and it will appear brighter than any other night of the year. Opposition is a great time to obtain views of Saturn's brighter moons such as Titan and Enceladus, which can be detected in 6" and larger telescopes under dark skies.
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 and scan the summer Milky Way for great views of cloudy nebulas and sparkling star clusters. Get outside after sunset on June 24th to enjoy especially dark skies courtesy of the New Moon.
After reaching opposition in June, ringed planet Saturn continues to be well-placed in July skies for telescopic study. Look for Saturn to the east and slightly north of bright star Antares, nestled between Sagittarius and Scorpius. Saturn's rings will be nicely displayed throughout 2017, as the planet's tilt relative to Earth makes them appear wider than last year. On July 6th, we're treated to a pretty pairing of the Moon and Saturn as they appear close to each other throughout the night.
With constellation Hercules almost directly overhead and Scorpius to the south, there's plenty to see 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.
Catch the Delta Aquarid meteor shower at the end of July. The meteor shower peaks after midnight July 28th into the early morning of July 29th with as many as 20 meteors per hour. Meteors will appear to radiate outward from the constellation Aquarius.
Go outside after midnight on August 12th for the best chance to see the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. With up to 60 meteors expected per hour, this is one of the most popular meteor showers of the year. Light from the waning gibbous Moon may outshine some of the fainter meteors this year, but it's worth the challenge to see meteors streak across the sky.
Don't miss the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a Total Solar Eclipse on August 21st. To see the Moon completely block the Sun and reveal the delicate appearance of the Sun's outer corona, you'll need to be along the path of totality, which will stretch across the contiguous United States from Oregon to South Carolina. Outside the path of totality, a partial eclipse will be visible for most of North America. If you're lucky enough to live along the path of totality, or if you take a summer road trip to see this spectacle, you'll experience a celestial phenomenon that has thrilled earthlings since ancient times.
For more information on the August 21st Total Solar Eclipse, and to find Orion gear for safe observation of this rare event, visit the Solar Eclipse 2017 page in the Orion Community Center.
The fall stargazing season kicks off in September with wonderfully placed spiral galaxies M31 (Andromeda Galaxy), M33 (Triangulum Galaxy), and M74 in Pisces. Use a big telescope to see these distant galaxies.
Just before dawn on September 18th, look just above the eastern horizon to see Venus and bright star Regulus close together above the waning crescent Moon, with planets Mars and Mercury just below and closer to the horizon. This pretty line-up will quickly become lost in the glare of sunlight one the Sun rises, so get outside while it's still dark to see the grouping.
Plan a stargazing session for the night of September 20th, when the New Moon will provide dark skies. This is the best night of the month to observe the night sky, since light from stars and faint deep sky objects won't have to compete with bright moonlight.
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 Nebula; M20, the Trifid Nebula; M17 the Omega Nebula; and M16, the Eagle Nebula.
Take advantage of the New Moon on October 19th to spot two planetary nebulas that are well-placed in October skies — M57, the Ring Nebula in Lyra; and M27, the Dumbbell Nebula in Vulpecula.
Sit back and relax in your favorite backyard chair to watch the Orionid meteor shower. The best time to see meteors will be after the crescent Moon sets around midnight on October 21st into the early hours of the 22nd. Even though meteor activity peaks the night of the 21st, the shower is notoriously irregular, so you may catch glimpses of meteors from October 20th through the 24th.
It's worth getting out of bed before sunrise on November 13th to see planets Venus and Jupiter appear very close together just above the eastern horizon. The bright planets will appear as close as 0.3° apart in the pre-dawn sky. Check in on the pretty pairing over the following days to see the planets spread further and further apart.
Bundle up and get outside after midnight on November 17th to see the peak of the Leonids meteor shower as "shooting stars" appear to radiate outwards from the constellation Leo. The New Moon of November 18th means skies will be nice and dark for great conditions to spot meteors.
Use a pair of big binoculars or a shorter focal length telescope with a wide-field eyepiece in November to seek out the sparkling Double Cluster in Perseus — two side by side open star clusters NGC 884 and NGC 869.
One of the most famous meteor showers, the Geminids, peaks the night of December 13th into the morning of the 14th. This impressive shower is known to produce up to 120 multicolored meteors per hour at its peak. This year, the waning crescent Moon won't outshine the Geminids, so skies will be nice and dark for great views. The best time to see the Geminids will be in the predawn hours of December 14th.
Thanks to the New Moon of December 18th skies will dark enough for nice views of deep-sky gems with a telescope. Check out open cluster M45 (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.