Most of us want our celestial marvels handed to us. We can’t be bothered with charts and don’t have the desire to haul a telescope to a dark mountaintop. We want the in-your-face version of Astronomy 101: Look up. boom! Something exciting.
The coming year will oblige. In every category of snappy observational astronomy--comets, meteors, eclipses, conjunctions, planets-- 1997 puts jewels in its starry showcase.
The year’s highlight is most likely to be Comet Hale-Bopp. But the key word is likely. We’ve been burned before by disappointing comets. In fact, back in September, Hale-Bopp unexpectedly faded when it should have continued brightening. While even a monster like Hale-Bopp can fizzle, comet experts decided that the dimming was just a temporary setback.
Hale-Bopp should now be a low, naked-eye object in January’s predawn sky, where it will brighten through March. Look eastward when the moon is thin or absent: January 7-18, February 4-18, and March 6-20. In April the best view of the comet shifts to the northwest during convenient evening hours, with optimal conditions from March 28 to April 10 and from April 26 to May 9. Then we’ll know whether Hale-Bopp proves to be a great comet, visible from cities, or a medium-bright letdown that demands dark country skies.
Spring also features the year’s premier lunar eclipse, on March 23, high up at midnight, eastern time. While not total, the moon will become 92 percent immersed in Earth’s shadow. For added pizzazz, the ruddy moon hovers near Mars just when the Red Planet is at its two-year personal best. Except for the Northwest, the Mars/eclipse apparition can be seen from the entire mainland United States. (The next total solar eclipse will come this spring too, on March 8. Unfortunately, you can see it only from cloudy, cold Siberia. Next year, totality will be far more viewer-friendly- -falling on February 26, in the sunny Caribbean.)
These early months offer more than eclipses and comets. Saturn lingers conspicuously in the west, its rings nicely tipped for telescopic inspection until the fluffy world falls into evening twilight in March. The year’s best sight of Mercury hovers just to the left of Hale-Bopp, in the fading dusk over the western horizon from March 21 to April 17. And Mars, brightening rapidly, breaks the brilliant magnitude zero barrier from now through May, bested only by Sirius, the Dog Star.
Orange Mars returns to the spotlight in late summer for a rare and beautiful conjunction with Virgo’s bright blue Spica, August 2-4. In August too are the ever-popular Perseid shooting stars, the year’s best. On the night of meteor maximum, August 11-12, the half-moon sets at midnight, providing a dark backdrop just when the meteors start cranking up.
That same month, dazzling Jupiter flaunts its brightest appearance since 1988; the Goliath then dominates the heavens through the fall. Meanwhile, Venus, oddly absent up to this point, starts its slow emergence from the western twilight.
During November, all eight planets appear simultaneously for the final time this millennium. In an impressive display of crowd management, each world invades the southern sky at the same time, arrayed like a string of pearls after sunset. A few weeks later, the show finishes with a flourish, as Venus attains maximum brilliance while performing a hairsbreadth conjunction with Mars.
No one will want a refund.