Mercury: The speedy innermost planet’s best 2011 appearance is in mid-March, when it will hover just to the right of Jupiter in evening twilight.
Venus: Our nearest planetary neighbor is now a dazzling morning star in the east before dawn. Its splendor is short-lived, as Venus will quickly get lower and less bright until it’s less than 10 degrees high in late March. It will scrape the horizon for the rest of the year. Indeed, this is the worst year for Venus since 2003.
Mars: The Red Planet has good years alternating with bad. This one’s bad. Mars starts off dim, distant and invisible, passes behind the Sun on February 4 and remains a tiny, inconspicuous predawn object until December.
Jupiter: Jove enjoys a spectacular year. Right now it’s the night’s brightest star the first few hours after sunset, in Pisces, just below the green planet Uranus – a conjunction easily seen with binoculars. It’s lower in February, passes behind the Sun on April 6, reemerges as a predawn morning star in May and starts rising before midnight in August. Jupiter remains glorious the rest of the year.
Saturn: The ringed world is at its best from now through August; after that it’s either behind the Sun, low or else a predawn object. Those rings have now opened up after their edgewise orientation the last two years, and show up with 30x or more. In Virgo all year, Saturn currently doesn’t rise until midnight, but will be visible throughout the night in April.
Major 2011 events:
The closest, largest Moon of 2011 is on March 19, and it’s a Full Moon. It will not again come this close to Earth until 2016. Expect high proxigean tides. The Vernal Equinox is the next day, the 20th.
Saturn reaches its nearest to Earth on the night of April 3-4. Visible all night, it is springtime’s only naked-eye planet.
The Solstice brings summer on June 21.
Earth reaches aphelion, its far point from the Sun, on July 4.
The asteroid Vesta has a rare close approach the last week of July through the first half of August. It’s faintly but clearly visible to the naked eye at magnitude +5.7 in the lower central part of Capricornus. This is its brightest visit for the next decade.
The famous Perseid meteor shower on August 11 will be washed out by a nearly Full Moon.
Autumn arrives with the Equinox on September 23. A few days later, Virgo hosts an invisible party on the 27th as the Moon, Mercury, Venus and Saturn all crowd next to the Sun.
Jupiter, now in Aries, is at its closest and brightest on October 27 at a blazing magnitude -2.9. This is the giant planet’s closest visit until 2022. It will remain spectacular the rest of the year, and is out all night long.
A nearly Full Moon washes out December’s Geminid meteors. This is a rare year when both major meteor showers are lost to a bright Moon.
In December, our two nearest planetary neighbors finally show improvement. Venus doubles its height in evening twilight, while Mars in Leo finally rises before midnight while explosively brightening.
December 10 brings a predawn total lunar eclipse, visible from the whole US except the Eastern states. Winter begins with the Solstice on the 22nd.
There is no total solar eclipse anywhere this year.
May this New Year bring all our readers – and indeed the world – peace and joy.
In addition to being Alm@nac’s longtime columnist, Woodstock resident Bob Berman has been the astronomy editor of the Old Farmer’s Almanac for the past 20 years. Please consult that publication for more specific 2011 nightly events.