Mars Opposition Season 2014: Images From Around the World

Did you see it? Last night, the Red Planet rose in the east as it passed opposition for 2014, and astrophotographers the world over were ready to greet it.  And although Mars gets slightly closer to us over the coming week, opposition marks the point at which Mars is 180 degrees “opposite” to the setting Sun in Right Ascension as viewed from our Earthly vantage point and denotes the center of the Mars observing season. Opposition only comes around once about every 26 months, so it’s definitely worth your while to check out Mars through a telescope now if you can. We’ve written about prospects for observing Mars this season, and the folks at Slooh and the Virtual Telescope Project also featured live views of the Red Planet last night. We also thought we’d include a reader roundup of pics from worldwide:

Mars and Spica rising over the telescope domes at Kitt Peak, Arizona. The 2.1 metre dome is on the left, and the 0.9 metre dome is to the right. Credit-Rob Sparks @halfastro
Mars and Spica rising over the telescope domes at Kitt Peak, Arizona. The 2.1 metre dome is on the left, and the 0.9 metre dome is to the right. Credit-Rob Sparks @halfastro.

Even near opposition, Mars presents a challenge to observers. In 2014, Mars only reaches 15 arc seconds maximum in apparent size, a far cry from its 25″ appearance during the historic 2003 opposition.  Now for the good news: we’re in a cycle of improving oppositions…  the next one on May 22nd, 2016 will be better still, and the 2018 opposition will be nearly as favorable as the 2003 appearance!

Mars as seen from the Netherlands at 0:26 UT... about 3 hours past opposition. Credit- Christian Fröschlin.
Mars as seen from the Netherlands at 0:26 UT… about 3 hours past opposition. Credit- Christian Fröschlin @chrfde.

And you can see just how technology in the amateur astronomy community has improved with each successive appearance of Mars over the years. Early observers were restricted to sketching features glimpsed during fleeting moments of steady seeing. Even during the film era of photography, absurdly long focal lengths were required to yield even a tiny speck of a dot. And even then, the “graininess” of the film tended to smear and yield a blurry image with few details to be seen.

The  advent of digital photography opened new vistas on planetary imaging. Now backyard astrophotographers are routinely taking images using stacking techniques and processing to “grab” and align those moments of good seeing. These images are often now better that what you’d see in a text book taken from professional observatories only a few decades ago!

And you can now easily modify a webcam to take decent planetary images that can then be stacked and processed with software freely available on the web.

…And check out this video animation also by Christian Fröschlin that shows the rotation (!) of Mars:

Mars as seen from Ottawa, Canada, taken using an IPhone 4S through a NexStar 8SE telescope on April 4th, 2014. Awesome! Credit-Andrew Symes @FailedProtostar
Mars as seen from Ottawa, Canada, taken using an IPhone 4S through a NexStar 8SE telescope on April 4th, 2014. Awesome! Credit-Andrew Symes @FailedProtostar

Shahrin Ahmad made an excellent video from Malaysia that demonstrates just what raw captured images of Mars look like before processing:

Note that the large dark triangular region is Syrtis Major.

Mars annotated, a stack of 1128 frames shot at 666x. Credit-Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia Observatory.
Mars annotated, a stack of 1128 frames shot at 666x. Credit-Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia Observatory.

The northern polar cap is currently tipped towards us, as it’s northern hemisphere summertime on Mars. Many images reflect this prominent feature, as well as the orographic clouds skirting the Hellas basin that have been the hallmark of the Mars opposition of 2014. These are also apparent visually at the eyepiece. It’s worth staying up a bit towards local midnight to observe and image Mars, as it transits at its maximum  elevation — and is above the murk of the sky low to the horizon — right around this time.

Mars captured through a Celestron C6 SCT telescope on April 5th, 2014. Credit: Joel Tonyan.
Mars captured through a Celestron C6 SCT telescope on April 5th, 2014. Credit: Joel Tonyan.
Mars: a study of color contrasts on the eve of opposition. Credit-Laura Austin @LAismylady
Mars: a study of color contrasts on the eve of opposition. Credit-Laura Austin @LAismylady

And Mars observing season doesn’t end this week. Mars makes its closest passage to the Earth for 2014 next Monday on April 14th at 0.618 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) distant. Mars will occupy the evening sky for the remainder of 2014 before finally reaching solar conjunction on June 14th, 2015. Mars will still be greater than a respectable 10″ in apparent size until June 24th and will continue to offer observers a fine view at the eyepiece.

Mars as seen from Rhode Island on the night of opposition. Credit-Cherie @KelieAna
Mars as seen from Rhode Island on the night of opposition. Credit-Cherie @KelieAna

And don’t forget, that waxing gibbous Moon is now homing in on Mars and will only sit a few degrees away from the Red Planet and Spica on the night of the April 14th/15th, 2014 during a fine total lunar eclipse. And no, a “red” planet + a “blood red” eclipsed Moon does not equal doomsday… but it’ll make a great photo op!

Mars imaged using a 150 mm scope. Credit-Sergei Golyshev under a Creative Commons Share-Alike 2.0 Generic License.
Mars imaged using a 150 mm scope. Credit-Sergei Golyshev under a Creative Commons Share-Alike 2.0 Generic License.

… and finally, Mars and the bright blue-white star Spica offered us a fine morning view as the storm front passed over Astroguyz HQ here in Florida this AM:

Author
Mars, Spica, and our partly cloudy terrestrial atmosphere. Photo by author.

Want something more? Have you ever seen Mars… in the daytime? Currently shining at magnitude -1.5, its just possible if you known exactly where to look for it low to the east about 10 minutes or so before local sunset. In fact, near opposition is the only time you can carry this unusual feat of visual athletics out. The best chance in 2014 is on the evening of April 13th and 14th, when the waxing gibbous Moon lies nearby:

Starry Night education software
Looking east on the evening of April 13th, just before sunset. Credit: Starry Night education software.

Good luck, and thanks to everyone who imaged Mars this season!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Night of the Red Planet: Mars Opposition 2014 Coming Soon!

Mars attacks and comes to a night sky near you this month, and the folks at the Virtual Telescope Project and Slooh are bringing it to you live and in color. Unlike most planets, “Mars viewing season” comes around only once about every two years. And while Mars is shining bright in the sky right now, the “official” event of Mars being closest to Earth happens next week on April 8th, when the Red Planet reaches opposition and shines at magnitude -1.5 in the constellation Virgo.

We’ve written about the prospects and circumstances for viewing Mars this opposition season; now it’s time to watch it live. The webcast starts at 23:00 Universal Time (UT) or / 7:00 PM EDT on the night of Tuesday April 8th, and will feature real-time images brought to you via robotic telescopes worldwide. Hosted by astrophysicist Gianluca Masi and run in conjunction with Astronomers Without Borders, this online observing session of Mars also occurs during Global Astronomy Month. Anyone who tuned in for their recent online Messier Marathon and live broadcasts of several recent Near-Earth Asteroids past our fair planet knows that they’re in for quite a treat!

Want more? Or simply want dual screen live views of “all Mars, all the time?” Our dependable friends over at Slooh will be chronicling the Mars opposition on the same night, starting at a slightly different bat-time at 02:00 UT (the morning of the 9th) which is 10:00 PM EDT the evening of the 8th. Slooh will be presenting a live feed from its automated telescopes based in the Canary Islands off of the coast of West Africa and will feature live commentary from hosts Paul Cox and astronomer and author of The Sun’s Heartbeat Bob Berman.

“Mars has held disproportionate focus for humans since ancient times,” Berman said in a recent press release. “It is neither the closest planet, nor the largest, nor the most detailed through telescopes. Nonetheless, it is the only planet in the universe that shows distinct and sometimes detailed surface features through our telescopes. It is also the most Earthlike body in the known universe, with oxygen bound into its soil and water contained in its ices. Therefore, during the brief two weeks when it comes near us every 26 months, it deserves the limelight.”

Indeed, Mars has captivated observers ever since Christiaan Huygens sketched the first blurry surface feature Syrtis Major back in 1659. Percival Lowell enthralled the public imagination with his sketches of what he thought were canals built by an intelligent and ancient civilization on the Red Planet, and astronomer David Peck Todd once proposed to signal said Martians via balloon aloft in 1909. The SETI Institute’s Seth Shostak noted in his book Confessions of an Alien Hunter that to the average person on the street in the early 20th century, the idea that Mars was inhabited was a given.

Of course, the reality revealed to us by the early Mariner missions in the 1960s onwards paints a bleak picture of a cratered world with a tenuous atmosphere inhospitable to life as we know it.

Still, Mars is a real world, somewhere that rovers are rolling across and exploring even as we peer at it though the eyepiece this month. Six months prior to opposition also the best opportunity to send spacecraft to Mars, and later this year, NASA’s MAVEN and India’s Mars orbiter Mangalyaan both launched in late 2013 will complete the trip.

Mars approaches Earth during the month of April. Credit: Efrain Morales Rivera/Jaicoa Observatory/Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.
Mars approaches Earth during the month of April. Credit: Efrain Morales Rivera/Jaicoa Observatory/Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.

Observing the Red Planet through the eyepiece is easy. The most conspicuous feature is the white northern pole cap, currently tipped towards us. Orographic clouds have also been imaged by amateurs recently over the Hellas basin, and a planet wide dust storm could always crop up at any time. A Martian day is only 37 minutes longer than the Earth’s, meaning you’re only seeing Mars rotated by about 15 degrees of longitude if you observe it at the same time each night.  At about 15” across, you could stack 120 Mars diameters as seen this week from Earth across a Full Moon. And no, Mars NEVER appears as big as a Full Moon as seen from the Earth, not this week, every August, or EVER, despite those pesky chain-emails from well meaning co-workers/friends/relatives who just know that you’re into that “space thing…”

All oppositions of Mars are not created equal. In fact, we’re coming off of a series of lackluster oppositions that’ll see Mars getting successively better until 2018, when it’ll nearly top the historic opposition of 2003. For ephemerides buffs, Mars reaches opposition — that is, it’s 180 degrees opposite to the Sun as reckoned in right ascension — on April 8th at 21:00 UT/5:00 PM EDT. It is not quite, however, at its closest to us for 2014: it has still got 0.003 AU (465,000 kilometres, a little over the distance from the Earth to the Moon) and just over 5 days before its closest approach to Earth on the night of April 14th/15th, when a total eclipse of the Moon lies just nine degrees away. The reason opposition and the closest approach of Mars to Earth are not quite in sync is because the orbits of both planets are elliptical, and while Mars is currently moving towards perihelion, Earth is heading toward aphelion on July 4th.

A photo-montage leading up to the 2003 opposition. Photos by author using a webcam turned planetcam.
A photo-montage leading up to the 2003 opposition. Photos by author using a webcam turned planetcam.

Can’t wait until the 8th?  Universe Today hosts a Virtual Star Party every Sunday evening at 11:00 PM EDT / 03:00 UT on Google+ featuring telescopes and commentary by observers and astronomers worldwide. Weather willing, Mars should be a centerpiece object for the show this Sunday night on April 6th.

Be sure to check out Mars at its best this week for 2014, either in a sky near you or online… hey, maybe we’ll be live casting the transit of Earth, the Moon and Phobos someday from Mars on the slopes of Elysium Mons on November 10th, 2084:

Let’s see, hopefully they’ll have perfected that whole Futurama “head in a jar” thing by then…

Enjoy!

 

Enter the Red Planet: A Guide to the Upcoming Mars 2014 Opposition Season

Get those telescopes ready: the coming months offer Earthbound viewers some great views of the planet Mars.

Mars reaches opposition for 2014 on April 8th. This is approaching season represents the best time to observe Mars, as the Red Planet is closest to us in April and rises in the east as the Sun sets opposite to it in the west.  Mars reaches 10” in apparent size this week. Mars is already beginning to show surface detail through a moderate-sized telescope as it continues to grow. In mid-February, Mars currently rises at around midnight local, and rides high to the south at local sunrise.

Mars imaged by Leo Aerts on February 3rd. Shot using a Celestron 14" scope, DMK 21AU618 webcam with a 2.5 powermate projection and a RGB Baader filter set.
Mars imaged by Leo Aerts on February 3rd. Shot using a Celestron 14″ scope, DMK 21AU618 webcam with a 2.5 powermate projection and a RGB Baader filter set.

The 2014 opposition of Mars offers a mixed bag for observers. Hanging around 5-10 degrees south of the celestial equator just east of the September equinoctial point in Virgo, viewing opportunities are roughly equal for both northern and southern hemisphere observers. At opposition, Mars will shine at magnitude -1.5 and present a 15.2” disk, only slightly larger than the near minimum apparition of 2012, when it appeared 13.9” across. This is a far cry from the historic 2003 appearance, when Mars nearly maxed out at 25.1” across.

Why such a difference? Because the planet Mars has an exceptionally eccentric orbit. In fact, the eccentricity for Mars is 9.3% compared to 1.7% for the relatively sedate Earth.

A decade of Mars oppositions.
A decade plus of Mars oppositions, from 2012 through 2025. Graphic created by the author.

This guarantees that all oppositions of Mars – which occur roughly 26 months/780 days apart – are not created equal. In our current epoch, Mars can pass anywhere from 0.683 to 0.373 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) from the Earth. This year’s passage sees Mars overtake us at 0.62 A.U.s or over 96 million kilometres from Earth on the night of opposition. Mars is slightly closer to us at 0.618 A.U.s six nights later on April 14th.

Why the slight difference? Well, the speedier Earth is on the inside track headed towards aphelion in July, while Mars is lagging but headed slightly inward towards perihelion just afterwards in September. This combined motion makes for a slightly closer approach just after opposition until the Earth begins to pull away.

And this also means that Mars will make its apparent retrograde loop through Virgo on the months surrounding opposition:

Mars retrograde credit-Starry Night
The motion of Mars through Virgo from March 1st through July 31st. Created by the author using Starry Night Education software.

Now for the good news. Oppositions of Mars also follow a rough 15-year cycle, meaning that they get successively closer or more distant with every two year passage. For example, the 1999 opposition of Mars had a very similar geometry to this year’s, as will to the future opposition in 2029.

And we’re currently on an improving trend: the next opposition in 2016 is much better than this year’s at 18.6” in size, and during the 2018 opposition, Mars will present a disc 24.3” across and will be nearly as favorable as the one in 2003!

It’s also worth noting that Mars sits within four degrees of the rising Moon on the evening of April 14th. The bright star Spica also sits even closer to the Full Moon on the same evening, at less than two degrees away. This particular evening is also noteworthy as it hosts the first of two lunar eclipses for 2014, both of which favor North America.

Mars April 14th.
Mars, the Full Moon and Spica rising in the east on April 14th. Created using Stellarium.

Can you catch Mars near the Moon before sundown on the 14th using binoculars? The Moon will also occult Mars on July 6th for viewers across central and South America.

Though Mars is nicknamed the Red Planet, we’ve seen it appear anywhere from a pumpkin orange to a sickly yellow hue. In fact, such a jaundiced color change can be a sign that a planet-wide dust storm is under way. Such a variation can be readily seen with the naked eye. What color does Mars appear like to you tonight?

On Mars, northern hemisphere summer starts on February 15th, 2014. This means that the northern pole cap of the planet is tipped towards us at opposition during 2014. The day on Mars is only slightly longer than Earth’s at 24 hours and 37 minutes, meaning that Mars will have seemed to rotated only an extra ~8 degrees if you observe it at the same time on each successive evening.

The white pole caps of the planet are the first feature that becomes apparent to the observer at the eyepiece. In February, Mars shows a noticeable gibbous phase in February as we get a peek at the edge of the nighttime side of the planet. Mars will be nearly “full” at opposition, after which it’ll once again take on a slightly distorted football shape.

A growing Mars.
A growing (& shrinking) Mars through the 2014 opposition season. Created by the author using Starry Night Education software.

Tracking the features of the Red Planet is also possible at moderate magnification. One of the largest features apparent is the dark area known as Syrtis Major. Sky & Telescope has an excellent and easy to use application named Mars Previewer that will show you which longitude is currently facing Earth.

Sketching the regions of Mars is a fun exercise. You’ll find that drawing planetary features at the eyepiece can sharpen your observing skills and give you a more critical eye to discern subtle detail. And this season also provides an excellent reason to turn that newly constructed planetary webcam towards Mars.

Up for a challenge? Opposition is also a great time to try and observe the moons of Mars.

moons Starry Night
The moons of Mars as seen on April 8th at around 9:00 Universal Time. Created by the author using Starry Night Education software.

Phobos and Deimos are a tough catch, but are indeed within range of amateur instruments. The chief problem lies in their close proximity to dazzling Mars: +11.5 magnitude, Phobos never strays 14” from the Red Planet in 2014, and 12.4 magnitude Deimos never travels farther than 45” away. Phobos orbits Mars once 7.7 hours — faster than the planet rotates beneath it — and Deimos orbits once every 30.3 hours. The best strategy for a successful Martian moon hunt is to either place Mars just out of the field of view at high power when a moon reaches greatest elongation or block it from view using an eyepiece equipped with an occulting bar.

Extra credit for anyone who nabs pics of the pair!

And opposition is also “Visit Mars season,” as MAVEN and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission arrive later this year. In 2016, NASA’s Mars InSight mission is slated to make the trip, and the window is fast-closing for Dennis Tito’s proposed crewed fly-by mission of Mars in 2018.

And finally, to aid you in your quest for those elusive Martian moons, reader and human astronomical calculator extraordinaire Ed Kotapish was kind enough to compile a list of favorable apparitions of the moons of Mars on the weeks surrounding opposition. (see below)

Good luck, and be sure to send in those pics of Mars and more to Universe Today!

ELONGATIONS OF THE MARTIAN MOONS
DATES AND TIMES IN UT
STARTING  3/30/2014
MAR 30
PHOBOS 0300 W
PHOBOS 0645 E
DEIMOS 0900 W
PHOBOS 1040 W
PHOBOS 1425 E
PHOBOS 1815 W
PHOBOS 2205 EMAR 31
DEIMOS 0005 E
PHOBOS 0155 W
PHOBOS 0545 E
PHOBOS 0935 W
PHOBOS 1320 E
DEIMOS 1515 W
PHOBOS 1715 W
PHOBOS 2100 E

APR 01
PHOBOS 0055 W
PHOBOS 0440 E
DEIMOS 0620 E
PHOBOS 0830 W
PHOBOS 1220 E
PHOBOS 1610 W
PHOBOS 2000 E
DEIMOS 2130 W
PHOBOS 2350 W

APR 02
PHOBOS 0340 E
PHOBOS 0730 W
PHOBOS 1115 E
DEIMOS 1235 E
PHOBOS 1510 W
PHOBOS 1855 E
PHOBOS 2245 W

APR 03
PHOBOS 0235 E
DEIMOS 0345 W
PHOBOS 0625 W
PHOBOS 1015 E
PHOBOS 1405 W
PHOBOS 1755 E
DEIMOS 1855 E
PHOBOS 2145 W

APR 04
PHOBOS 0130 E
PHOBOS 0525 W
PHOBOS 0910 E
DEIMOS 1000 W
PHOBOS 1305 W
PHOBOS 1650 E
PHOBOS 2040 W

APR 05
PHOBOS 0030 E
DEIMOS 0110 E
PHOBOS 0420 W
PHOBOS 0810 E
PHOBOS 1200 W
PHOBOS 1550 E
DEIMOS 1615 W
PHOBOS 1940 W
PHOBOS 2325 E

APR 06
PHOBOS 0320 W
PHOBOS 0705 E
DEIMOS 0725 E
PHOBOS 1055 W
PHOBOS 1445 E
PHOBOS 1835 W
PHOBOS 2225 E
DEIMOS 2230 WAPR 07
PHOBOS 0215 W
PHOBOS 0605 E
PHOBOS 0955 W
PHOBOS 1340 EDEIMOS 1340 E (Mutual)
PHOBOS 1735 W
PHOBOS 2120 E

APR 08
PHOBOS 0115 W
DEIMOS 0445 W
PHOBOS 0500 E
PHOBOS 0850 W
PHOBOS 1240 E
PHOBOS 1630 W
DEIMOS 1955 E
PHOBOS 2020 E

APR 09
PHOBOS 0010 W
PHOBOS 0355 E
PHOBOS 0750 W
DEIMOS 1100 W
PHOBOS 1135 E
PHOBOS 1530 W
PHOBOS 1915 E
PHOBOS 2305 W

APR 10
DEIMOS 0210 E
PHOBOS 0255 E
PHOBOS 0645 W
PHOBOS 1035 E
PHOBOS 1425 W
DEIMOS 1715 W
PHOBOS 1815 E
PHOBOS 2205 W

APR 11
PHOBOS 0150 E
PHOBOS 0545 W
DEIMOS 0825 E
PHOBOS 0930 E
PHOBOS 1320 W
PHOBOS 1710 E
PHOBOS 2100 W
DEIMOS 2330 W

APR 12
PHOBOS 0050 E
PHOBOS 0440 W
PHOBOS 0830 E
PHOBOS 1220 W
DEIMOS 1440 E
PHOBOS 1605 E
PHOBOS 2000 W
PHOBOS 2345 EAPR 13
PHOBOS 0340 W
DEIMOS 0550 W
PHOBOS 0725 E
PHOBOS 1115 W
PHOBOS 1505 E
PHOBOS 1855 W
DEIMOS 2055 E
PHOBOS 2245 E

APR 14
PHOBOS 0235 W
PHOBOS 0620 E
PHOBOS 1015 W
DEIMOS 1205 W
PHOBOS 1400 E
PHOBOS 1755 W
PHOBOS 2140 E

APR 15
PHOBOS 0130 W
DEIMOS 0310 E
PHOBOS 0520 E
PHOBOS 0910 W
PHOBOS 1300 E
PHOBOS 1650 W
DEIMOS 1820 W
PHOBOS 2040 E

APR 16
PHOBOS 0030 W
PHOBOS 0415 E
PHOBOS 0810 W
DEIMOS 0925 E
PHOBOS 1155 E
PHOBOS 1545 W
PHOBOS 1935 E
PHOBOS 2325 W

APR 17
DEIMOS 0035 W
PHOBOS 0315 E
PHOBOS 0705 W
PHOBOS 1055 E
PHOBOS 1445 W
DEIMOS 1540 E
PHOBOS 1830 E
PHOBOS 2225 W

APR 18
PHOBOS 0210 E
PHOBOS 0605 W
DEIMOS 0650 W
PHOBOS 0950 E
PHOBOS 1340 W
PHOBOS 1730 E
PHOBOS 2120 W
DEIMOS 2200 E

 

101 Astronomical Events for 2014

It’s here!

As 2013 draws to a close, we once again cast our thoughts to all things astronomical for the coming year. For the past five years, I’ve been constructing this list of all things astronomical for the coming year, lovingly distilling the events transpiring worldwide down to a 101 “best events of the year”. This is the first year this list has been featured on Universe Today, so we’ll lay out our ground rules and reasoning a bit as to selection criteria.

Events selected run the gamut from conjunctions and eclipses that are visible worldwide or over a good swath of the planet, to asteroid occultations of stars that are only visible along a thin path along the surface of the Earth. Geocentric conjunction times for occultations are quoted. Generally, only conjunctions involving bright stars, planets & the Moon are noted. The intent of this list is to bridge the gap between the often meager “10 Best Astronomy Events of 2014” listicles that make their rounds this time of year and the more tedious laundry lists of Moon phases and wide conjunctions.

As always, we look at the coming year with an eye out for the astronomically curious and the bizarre. Times are quoted in Universal Time (UT) using a 24-hour clock, which is identical to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and Zulu for those in the military.

Some caveats as to how selections were made:

-To make the cut, asteroid occultations must have a rank of 99 or greater, and occult a star brighter than +8th magnitude.

– We only selected major annual meteor showers with a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) projected to be 20 or greater.

– Only lunar occultations of planets and bright stars are listed.

– Solstice seasons where the International Space Station reaches full illumination are approximate; the ISS gets boosted periodically, and therefore it’s impossible to project its precise orbit months in advance.

– Comets come and go. The comets included on this list are some of the “best bets” that are forcasted to reach binocular visibility for 2014. A big bright one could come up and steal the show at any time!

This list was meant to “whet the appetite” for what’s coming to skies worldwide in 2014 with a succinct rapid fire listing by month. Where an online resource exists that expands on the event, we linked to ‘em. A full resource list, both paper and cyber, is given at the end of the post. Print these events, post it on your refrigerator and/or observatory wall, and expect us to feature many these fine events on Universe Today in the coming year!

Some notes on 2014:

2014 sees Mars reach opposition in early April, which is sure to be a highlight as we head towards an exceptionally close opposition in 2018.

The month of February is also missing a New Moon, which last occurred in 1995 and won’t happen again until 2033. February is the only calendar month which can be missing the same moon phase twice!

We’re also coming off a profoundly weak solar maximum in 2014, though as always, the Sun may have some surprises in store for solar observers and aurora watchers worldwide.

The motion of the Moon in 2014 is headed towards a “shallow” year in 2015 relative to the ecliptic; it will then begin to slowly open back up and ride high around 2025.

2014 also contains the minimum number of eclipses that can occur in one year, 2 solar and 2 lunar. And while there are no total solar eclipses in 2014, there are two fine total lunar eclipses, both visible from North America.

And here’s the month by month rundown:

Moon Jan 1
The view looking west from the US east coast at 6 PM on January 1st from latitude 30 degrees north. (Created in Stellarium).

January

01- The extremely thin crescent 12-15 hour old Moon will present a challenge for North American viewers low to the west at dusk.

03- Quadrantid meteors peak with a ZHR=120 at ~05:00 UT, best seen from the Atlantic region. Favorable in 2014, with the Moon a 2 day old waxing crescent.

04- Earth reaches perihelion at 12:00 UT, 147.1 million kilometres from the Sun.

04- Mars passes 1.3’ from the +11.5th magnitude galaxy NGC 4684.

05- Jupiter reaches opposition for 2014 and shines at magnitude -2.7.

10- A Possible meteor shower due to dust from the Comet (formerly known as) ISON over the next few days?

11- Venus reaches inferior conjunction between the Sun and the Earth, shining at -4th magnitude. It may be just possible to spot it five degrees north of the solar limb from high northern latitudes.

13- Moon reaches its farthest northern declination for 2014 a 19.4 degrees.

16- The most distant Full Moon, and visually smallest Full Moon of 2014 occurs, with the Moon reaching Full within two hours of apogee. MiniMoon!

25- The Moon occults Saturn for the South Pacific at ~13:58 UT.

27- The Moon reaches its farthest southern declination for 2014, at -19.3 degrees.

30- A Black Moon occurs, as reckoned as the second New Moon in a month with two.

31- Mercury reaches a favorable elongation, shining at magnitude -0.9, 18.4 degrees east of the Sun.

Venus occultation footprint for
Venus occultation footprint for February 26th. (Created using Occult v4.1.0).

February

06- Two shadows transit the cloud tops of Jupiter from 10:20 UT-12:44 UT, favoring western North America.

21- The Moon occults Saturn for the Indian Ocean at ~22:18 UT.

26- The 14% waning crescent Moon occults Venus for central Africa at ~5:23 UT.

March

07- Asteroid 9 Metis occults a +7.9 magnitude star for Europe ~3:14 UT.

10- The 70% illuminated waxing gibbous Moon occults the +3.6 magnitude star Lambda Geminorum for North America in the evening sky.

14- Mercury reaches greatest morning elongation at 27.5 degrees west of the Sun shining at magnitude +0.1. Mercury’s best morning apparition in 2014 for southern hemisphere observers.

16- A double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons occurs from 22:20 to 00:35 UT, visible from Atlantic Canada after sunset.

20- The Northward Equinox occurs at 16:57 UT.

20- GEO satellite eclipse season occurs, as geostationary satellites enter Earth’s shadow near the equinox.

20- Regulus is occulted by asteroid 163 Erigone for the NE United States and Canada at ~6:07 UT, The brightest star occulted by an asteroid in 2014.

21- The Moon occults Saturn for the South Atlantic at ~3:18 UT.

24- A double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons occurs from 2:08 to 2:28 UT, favoring eastern North America.

24- Asteroid 172 Baucis occults a +6.7 magnitude star for South America at ~9:27 UT.

22- Venus reaches greatest morning elongation, at 47 degrees west of the Sun.

28- Asteroid 51 Nemausa occults a +7.7 magnitude star for Africa at 20:02 UT.

30- A Black Moon occurs, as reckoned as the second New Moon in one month.

The viewing prospects for the April 15th Total Lunar Eclipse. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/
The viewing prospects for the April 15th Total Lunar Eclipse. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Espenak/Meeus).

April

08- Mars reaches opposition for 2014, shining at magnitude -1.5.

12- A close conjunction of Venus and Neptune occurs, with the planets just 0.7 degrees apart at 2:00 UT.

15- A Total Lunar Eclipse occurs, visible from the Americas and centered on 7:47 UT.

17- The Moon occults Saturn for South America at ~7:19 UT.

29- An Annular Solar Eclipse visible from Australia and the southern Indian Ocean occurs, centered on 6:05 UT. This is a unique, non-central antumbral eclipse!

May

03- Asteroid 105 Artemis occults a +7.7 magnitude star for NW Brazil and Peru at ~9:17 UT.

04- Asteroid 34 Circe occults a +7.4 magnitude star for Peru and Ecuador at ~10:12 UT.

06- The closest lunar apogee of 2014 occurs at 404,318 km distant at 10:23 UT.

07- Eta Aquariid meteors peak, with a ZHR=55 at 4:00 UT. Best observed from the Atlantic Region. Favorable in 2014, with the 7-day old Moon at waxing gibbous.

07- Asteroid 206 Hersilia occults a +7.5 magnitude star for Australia and Indonesia at ~17:49 UT.

10- Saturn reaches opposition for 2014, shining at magnitude +0.1. Saturn’s rings are tipped open a maximum of 23 degrees to our line of sight on February 11th, and widening overall in 2014.

13- A double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons occurs from 9:20-9:32 UT favoring NW North America.

14- The Moon occults Saturn for Australia and New Zealand at ~12:18 UT.

24- A meteor shower outburst may be in the offing, courtesy of Comet 209P LINEAR. Will the “Camelopardalids” perform?

24- Asteroid 33 Polyhymnia occults a +5.5 magnitude star for South America at ~8:30 UT.

25- Mercury reaches maximum dusk elongation, 22.7 degrees east of the Sun. Mercury’s best evening apparition for 2014 for northern hemisphere viewers.

The triple shadow transit of June 3rd, as seen at 18:00 UT. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
The triple shadow transit of June 3rd, as seen at 19:00 UT. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

 June

3- A triple Jovian shadow transit occurs from 18:05-19:44 UT, favoring eastern Europe and Africa. This is the only triple shadow transit for 2014.

10- The Moon occults Saturn for the southern Indian Ocean at ~18:48 UT.

21- The Northward Solstice occurs at ~10:51 UT.

22- The International Space Station enters a period of full illumination near the June solstice, favoring multiple views for northern hemisphere viewers.

24- The waning crescent Moon passes within a degree of Venus, a great time for spotting the planet in the daytime.

26- The Moon occults Mercury just 20 hours prior to New… a tough catch, but may visible from the SE US and Venezuela just before sunrise.

27- The June Boötid meteors peak, with a ZHR variable from 0-100 at ~15:00 UT, favoring the Central Pacific. Optimal in 2014, as the Moon is at New phase.

July

04- Earth reaches aphelion at 2:00 UT, at 152,098,232 kilometres from the Sun.

04- Pluto reaches opposition at 3:00 UT.

05– 1 Ceres passes just 10’ from 4 Vesta in the constellation Virgo.

06– The Moon occults Mars for South America at ~01:21 UT

08– The Moon occults Saturn for Argentina & Chile at ~2:25 UT.

12- Mercury reaches its maximum elongation of 20.9 degrees west of the Sun, shining at magnitude +0.4 in the dawn.

12– The first Full Proxigean “Super” Moon (1 of 3) for 2014 occurs at 11:27 UT. The Moon reaches Full 21 hours prior to perigee.

30– The Southern Delta Aquarids peak, with a ZHR=20. Time variable, favorable in 2014 with the waxing crescent Moon 4 days past New.

20– Asteroid 451 Patientia occults a +7.1 magnitude star for South Africa at ~17:15 UT.

28- The farthest lunar apogee of 2014 occurs, with the Moon 406,568 kilometres distant at 3:28 UT.

30– Asteroid 103 Hera occults a +6.1 magnitude star for west Africa and central South America at ~1:11 UT.

A tri-conjunction of the Moon, Venus & Jupiter- A "Skewed Smiley face" conjunction!" Credit:  Stellarium
A tri-conjunction of the Moon, Venus & Jupiter on the morning of August 23rd- A “Skewed Smiley face” conjunction!” Credit: Stellarium).

August

02– A close conjunction of Mercury and Jupiter occurs, with the planets just 0.9 degrees apart at 19:00 UT. Visible in SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera.

04- The Moon occults Saturn for Australia at ~10:31 UT.

10– The closest lunar perigee of 2014 occurs, with the Moon 356,896 kilometres distant at 17:44 UT.

10- The Closest Full Moon of the year & “Super” Moon (2 of 3) for 2014 occurs, with Full Moon occurring just 27 minutes after perigee.

13– The Perseid meteors peak, with a ZHR=100 at ~04:00 UT favoring The Atlantic region. Unfavorable in 2014, with the 17 day old Moon at waning gibbous.

18- A conjunction of Venus and Jupiter occurs 5:00 UT, the closest conjunction of two naked eye planets in 2014, with the two just 15’ apart.

29- Neptune reaches opposition at 14:00 UT, shining at +7.8 magnitude.

31– The Moon occults Saturn for Africa and the eastern US (in the daytime) at ~18:59.

September

05- Venus passes 0.7 degrees from the bright star Regulus.

09– The final Full “Super” Moon (3 of 3) for 2014 occurs at 1:39 UT, just 22 hours after perigee.

15– Comet C/2013 V5 Oukaimeden may reach +5.5th magnitude for southern hemisphere observers.

20– Mercury passes 0.5 degrees south of the bright star Spica at 21:00 UT.

21- Mercury reaches its greatest elongation of 26.4 degrees east of the Sun shining at magnitude +0.0 in the dawn sky. Mercury’s best sunset apparition for 2014 for southern hemisphere observers.

23- The Southward Equinox occurs at 2:29 UT.

23- GEO satellite eclipse season occurs, as geostationary satellites enter Earth’s shadow near the equinox.

28– The Moon occults Saturn for the northern Pacific at ~4:25 UT. The Moon also occults 1 Ceres and 4 Vesta on the same day!

The path of Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Springs versus the planet Mars through October, 2014. (Created by the author using Stellarium).
The path of Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Springs versus the planet Mars through October, 2014. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

 October

04- 1 Ceres passes just 30’ north of Saturn.

06- Possible Draconid meteor shower, highly variable in terms of rates and timing, but unfavorable in 2014, with the Moon just two days from Full.

08- A Total Lunar Eclipse visible from the Pacific Rim region occurs, centered on 10:56 UT. The planet Uranus will also lie less than a degree away from the eclipsed Moon!

14- Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS may reach +5th magnitude for southern hemisphere viewers.

13– The Moon reaches it shallowest northern declination for 2014 at +18.5 degrees.

19- Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring passes just 7’ from the planet Mars. Globular cluster NGC 6401 also lies nearby.

22– The Orionid meteor shower peaks at ~05:00 UT, with a predicted ZHR=25 favoring the Americas. Optimal in 2014, with the Moon at waning crescent.

22– The Moon occults Mercury for Australia just 24 hours prior to New as seen from Australia.

23- A Partial Solar Eclipse visible from western North America occurs centered on 21:46 UT.

25- The Moon occults Saturn for the northern Atlantic at ~15:43 UT.

25- The Moon reaches its shallowest southern point for 2014, at a declination of -18.6 degrees.

The partial solar eclipse of October 23rd, 2014. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Fred Espenak).
The partial solar eclipse of October 23rd, 2014. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Fred Espenak).

 November

01- Mercury reaches its greatest elongation 18.7 degrees west of the Sun, shining at magnitude -0.5. The best morning apparition of Mercury for 2014 as seen from the northern hemisphere.

18– Leonid meteors peak at 05:00 UT with a ZHR=20 favoring the Atlantic region. Optimal in 2014, with the 25 day old Moon at waning crescent phase.

20- Asteroid 3 Juno occults a +7.4 magnitude star for the US NE and eastern Canada.

27- The farthest lunar perigee of 2014 occurs with the Moon 369,824 km distant at 23:12 UT.

December

09- A double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons occurs from 4:18 to 4:27 UT favoring eastern North America.

12- A double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons occurs from 16:19 to 16:44 UT favoring NW North America.

13- The Geminid meteors peak with a ZHR=120 at ~01:00 UT, favoring the Middle East & Eastern Europe. Unfavorable in 2014, with the 20 day old  Moon at waning gibbous.

18- Asteroid 702 Alauda occults a +6.2 magnitude star at 14:12 UT for eastern Australia.

21- The Southward Solstice occurs at 23:03 UT.

21- The International Space Station enters period of full illumination around the solstice, with multiple nightly views favoring the southern hemisphere.

21- A double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons occurs from 14:17 to 15:55 UT, favoring the Far East and Australia.

Don’t see your favorite or most anticipated event of 2014 on the list? Drop us a line and let us know!

Links & Resources Used:

-The American Meteor Society list of 2014 showers

-NASA’s Eclipse Website

-The United States Naval Observatory’s Astronomical Almanac Online

-Guy Ottewell’s 2014 Astronomical Calendar

-The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s 2014 Observer’s Calendar

-Steve Preston’s list of asteroid occultation events for 2014

Stellarium

Starry Nite

-Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet website

-Fourmilab’s Lunar Apogee and Perigee calculator

Heavens-Above

-The International Occultation Timing Association’s list of lunar occultations for 2014.

And finally, thanks to all of those too numerous to name who provided discussions/diatribes/input via Twitter/G+/message boards/etc to make this listing possible… let another exciting year of astronomy begin!

 

 

 

 

The Cyber-Myth That Just Won’t Die: See Mars as Large as a Full Moon!!!

It’s hard to believe that it’s been with us for a decade now.

Ten years ago this week, the planet Mars reached made an exceptionally close pass of the planet Earth. This occurred on August 27th, 2003, when Mars was only 56 million kilometres from our fair planet and shined at magnitude -2.9.

Such an event is known as opposition.  This occurs when a planet with an orbit exterior to our own reaches a point opposite to the Sun in the sky, and rises as the Sun sets. In the case of Mars, this occurs about every 2.13 years.

But another myth arose in 2003, one that now makes its return every August, whether Mars does or not.You’ve no doubt gotten the chain mail from a well-meaning friend/relative/coworker back in the bygone days a decade ago, back before the advent social media when spam was still sorta hip. “Mars to appear as large as the Full Moon!!!” it breathlessly exclaimed. “A once in a lifetime event!!!”

Though a little over the top, the original version did at least explain (towards the end) that Mars would indeed look glorious on the night of August 27th, 2003 … through a telescope.

Mars during the historic opposition season of '03.
Mars during the historic opposition season of ’03.

But never let facts get in the way of a good internet rumor. Though Mars didn’t reach opposition again until November 7th 2005, the “Mars Hoax” email soon began to make its rounds every August.

Co-workers and friends continued to hit send. Spam folder filled up. Science news bloggers debunked, and later recycled posts on the silliness of it all.

Now, a decade later, the Mars Hoax seems to have successfully made the transition over to social media and found new life on Facebook.

Mars as seen during a close conjunction with the Moon on July 17th, 2003. Mars was 20 arc seconds in size at the time leading up to the August 2003 opposition.
How Mars really appears next to the Moon: Mars as seen during a close conjunction with the Moon on July 17th, 2003. Mars was 20 arc seconds in size at the time, leading up to the August 2003 opposition. Image courtesy of Rick Stankiewicz, used with permission.

No one knows where the Mars Hoax meme goes to weather the lean months, only to return complete with all caps and even more exclamation points each and every August. Is it the just a product of the never ending quest for the almighty SEO? Are we now destined to recycle and relive astronomical events in cyber-land annually, even if they’re imaginary?

Perhaps, if anything there’s a social psychology study somewhere in there, begging the question of why such a meme as the Mars Hoax endures… Will it attain a mythos akin to the many variations of a “Blue Moon,” decades from now, with historians debating where the cultural thread came from?

Here are the facts:

-Mars reaches opposition about every 2.13 Earth years.

-Due to its eccentric orbit, Mars can vary from about 56 million to over 101 million kilometres from the Earth during oppositions.

-Therefore, Mars can appear visually from 13.8” to 25.1” arc seconds in size.

-But that’s still tiny, as the Moon appears about 30’ across as seen from the Earth. You could ring the local horizon with about 720 Full Moons end-to-end, and place 71 “maxed out Mars’s” with room to spare across each one of them!

-And although the Full Moon looks huge, you can cover it up with a dime held at arm’s length…. Try it sometime, and amaze your email sending/Facebook sharing friends!

Important: Mars NEVER gets large enough to look like anything other than a star-like point to the naked eye.

Reality check... how Mars really appears compared to the Moon as seen during a close conjunction in 2012.
Reality check… how Mars actually appears compared to the Moon as seen during a close conjunction in 2012.

-And finally, and this is the point that should be getting placed in all caps on Facebook, to the tune of thousands of likes…  MARS ISN’T EVEN ANYWHERE NEAR OPPOSITION in August 2013!!! Mars is currently low in the dawn sky in the constellation Cancer on the other side of the Sun. Mars won’t be reaching opposition until April 8th, 2014, when it will reach magnitude -1.4 and an apparent size of 15.2” across.

Still, like zombies from the grave, this myth just won’t die. In the public’s eye, Mars now shines “As big as” (or bigger, depending on the bad hyperbole used) as Full Moon now every August. Friends and relatives hit send, (or these days, “share” or “retweet”) observatories and planetariums get queries, astronomers shake their heads, and science bloggers dust off their debunking posts for another round. Hey, at least it’s not 2012, and we don’t have to keep remembering how many “baktuns are in a piktun…”

What’s a well meaning purveyor & promoter science to do?

Feed those hungry brains a dose of reality.

There are real things, fascinating things about Mars afoot. We’re exploring the Red Planet via Mars Curiosity, an SUV-sized, nuclear powered rover equipped with a laser. The opposition coming up next year means that the once every 2+ year launch window to journey to Mars is soon opening. This time around, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission and, just perhaps, India’s pioneering Mars Orbiter Mission may make the trip. Launching from Cape Canaveral on November 18th, MAVEN seeks to answer the questions of what the climate and characteristics of Mars were like in the past by probing its tenuous modern day atmosphere.

The circumstances for opositions of Mars from
The circumstances for the oppositions of Mars from 2001 to 2029.

And as opposition approaches in 2014, Mars will again present a fine target for small telescopes.  As a matter of fact, Mars will pass two intriguing celestial objects next month, passing in front of the Beehive cluster and — perhaps — a brightening Comet ISON. More to come on that later this week!

And it’s worth noting that after a series of bad oppositions in 2010 and 2012, oppositions in 2014 and 2016 are trending towards more favorable. In fact, the Mars opposition of July 27th, 2018 will be nearly as good as the 2003 approach, with Mars appearing 24.1” across. Not nearly as “large as a Full Moon” by a long shot, but hey, a great star party target.

Will the Mars Hoax email enjoy a resurgence on Facebook, Twitter or whatever is in vogue then? Stay tuned!