The long-term forecast

More interesting skies…if you can wait for The Next Big Spectacles in 2012

by Bob Berman
June 23, 2011 11:09 AM | 0 0 comments | 201 201 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Last week’s total lunar eclipse was a worldwide sensation. Streamed globally over the Internet, the images of the suddenly red Full Moon proved an excellent visual subject for computer monitors.

Unfortunately, most celestial events appear infinitely better in person – meteors, for example. When synthetically shown on a screen or in a planetarium, they’re mere white streaks with all the visceral impact of a baloney sandwich. “Ya gotta be there!” is so true when it comes to shooting stars. They elicit gasps in person, but never otherwise.

So what are the next naked-eye sky spectacles? This coming August 11 usually offers a nice meteor shower. But a nearly Full Moon will wash it out. Then, the other normally great shower, on December 13, will also be ruined by a bright Moon. It’s very rare to have both spoiled the same year, but that’s the case in 2011.

There will be another total lunar eclipse on December 10, but like this past one it will not be visible here at all. Venus will be a dud the rest of the year; no bright comets are currently known to be approaching; there are no total solar eclipses anywhere, nor any striking conjunctions. Thus – unfortunately – the rest of 2011 is an exceptionally dull period for sky spectacles. (The night sky is stunning every clear dry night from here, but that’s not what we’re talking about.)

Happily, 2012 will be very different. It’ll be an extraordinary year for sky spectacles. One of them is the transit of Venus across the Sun’s face on June 5. Visible with just the naked eye (through a filter like welders’ goggles), it is the last one until the 22nd century!

There’s much more. A respected science tour company has affixed my name to a couple of very special reasonably priced expeditions. Thus, if you check out you’ll see that we’re bringing people to an amazing Alaska hot spring to see the Aurora, on March 20. The reason is: The Sun’s new cycle is rapidly heating up, and March is the best month for the Northern Lights, and that place happens to be the best place in the world to see them. Can you join us? (I feel that it’s not too obnoxious to plug this, since I’m not getting paid a dime.)

No lunar eclipses occur next year, but there’s an infinitely better event: It’s a total solar eclipse – in Australia. That’s on November 13. Check out that same tour company, for an Outback adventure that features this life-changing celestial spectacle. Without a doubt, the totality of a solar eclipse and a major display of the Northern Lights are Nature’s two top sky spectacles. (I’d rate a great comet as a distant Number Three.)

Next year also offers a fine and lengthy apparition of Venus, plus some nice conjunctions, and dark skies for both of the major meteor showers. In general, things will then keep improving here. The increased solar activity ought to give us periodic auroras starting next year and right through 2015.

During the next decade, the only total lunar eclipses visible here will happen on April 15, 2014, and then on September 27, 2015, and then on January 21, 2019. Much more importantly, in 2017 the US gets its first total solar eclipse in 38 years. It will be total in Jackson, Wyoming and Nashville, Tennessee, and all places on a 100-mile-wide ribbon in between. After that we’ll get a nearer total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, where totality will sweep from Cleveland through Buffalo, over Rochester and then over Burlington, Vermont before frightening the moose in northern Maine.

Of course, a bright comet can be discovered anytime, and hover over us a few weeks or months later. They happen every 15 years on average, and nobody knows when the next will occur. So all you need to do is get through 2011.

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