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Planet Watch 2014

by Perry Pezzolanella

Life here on the Third Rock cannot get any better when it comes to observing the night sky during 2014. Earth will have a busy year with the evening sky dominated by Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn on any given night and sometimes any two or even all three will command attention at once! Comet ISON may have fizzled, but other comets could unexpectedly appear at any time. The night sky is always busy with several objects to look at that will include asteroids, meteor showers, satellites, Iridium flares, and the International Space Station. The sun has been active so there could be auroras and there are always beautiful lunar and planetary conjunctions.

At long last there will be eclipses to keep us busy, weather permitting. Locally we will be lavished with two total eclipses of the Moon and a partial eclipse of the Sun. The first total lunar eclipse occurs during the wee hours of April 15, 2014; totality will last for 1 hour and 19 minutes from 3:06 A.M. until 4:25 A.M. The Moon will pass through the southern half of Earth's dark shadow, the umbra. Since it will not pass too deeply into the umbra or cross the center of it, the southern part of the Moon should appear bright. Partial eclipse begins at 1:58 A.M. and ends at 5:33 A.M. If this one is clouded out there is another one on October 8, 2014 that is a little more convenient if you are an early riser. Totality lasts exactly one hour from 6:24 A.M. to 7:24 A.M., but twilight and sunrise will be a factor; the Moon will be setting so this one could be a challenge. The partial phase begins at 5:14 A.M. and the penumbral phase starts at 4:13 A.M. The Moon will pass through the northern part of the umbra, but not too deeply, so this eclipse could be rather bright. The next total lunar eclipse after this duo is September 27, 2015. There will be a partial solar eclipse on October 23 as the Sun sets and it may be possible to see the Sun up to 25% eclipsed. It will look like a bite was taken out of the right side of the Sun as it sets. This is the last eclipse of the Sun here until August 21, 2017 when the Sun will be high up and 70% eclipsed.

Jupiter rules the evening sky until spring when Mars and Saturn will take over as Jupiter fades into the twilight by June. Mars will then compete with Saturn but will grow too small for serious observing once summer is under way leaving Saturn as the best planet of the summer until it fades into the twilight by Halloween. Saturn will clearly be the planet of choice at all public star parties during the spring and summer months. Jupiter will return in the east before midnight by Thanksgiving and Venus will appear low in the southwest after sunset towards Christmas. Mercury will be at its best from mid-May into early June soon after sunset but will never stray from the twilight glow. Uranus and Neptune are never brilliant, but both are worth the hunt and both will be visible in the evening from August until next February. Here is the breakdown for each planet in the evening sky during 2014:

Mercury: The First Rock is always a challenge to find because it is always so low to the horizon and in bright twilight, but it is easiest to see in the evening from May 11 to June 4, being highest above the horizon on May 25. Mercury grows steadily through this period from 6 to 10 arcseconds across as it approaches Earth but its magnitude will dim from -1 to +2. It will go through phases like a tiny, coppery version of the waning Moon, from nearly full to a thin crescent. It will be especially easy to find on May 30 when it is near the waxing crescent moon.

Venus: The Second Rock will be primarily a morning planet all year and will dominate the morning sky from January through October. It may be seen briefly in the evening sky during the first week of January and will become visible again in the evening by December. The magnitude will range from -3.8 to -4.9. It will be a huge, thin crescent in early January being over one arcminute across and will shrink to a nearly full disc barely 10 arcseconds by September. Venus will be exceptionally bright during February mornings approaching magnitude -5, the brightest possible.

Mars: The Fourth Rock has returned at long last for fairly good observing during the first half of the year. It will begin rising before midnight by February and will reach opposition on April 8 in Virgo not far from Spica. Due to its highly elliptical orbit Mars will actually be closest, largest, and brightest on April 14 when it is 57.4 million miles away, 15.2 arcseconds across, and shining at magnitude -1.5. It will shrink to hardly 5 arcseconds across and grow steadily dimmer as the year passes and will fade into the twilight by the end of the year.

Jupiter: The Fifth Rock is the planet of winter with opposition occurring on January 5 at 46.8 arcseconds across and shining at magnitude -2.7 in Gemini. Jupiter begins the year well up in the south during the evening which makes for an excellent opportunity to follow it through one full rotation during the long winter nights since it rotates in under ten hours while winter nights last more than 12 hours. Jupiter is a huge, stormy world that is always very large and rewarding to observe and photograph. The large size allows for detailed viewing of the cloud belts, polar hoods, and Great Red Spot. It should be possible to see the tiny discs of the larger moons, Callisto and Ganymede, and to compare their size to smaller Europa and Io. It might even be possible to detect slight color differences among them. Jupiter will eventually become lost in the evening twilight by June as it fades to magnitude -2.0 and shrinks to 33 arcseconds across. Jupiter rises before midnight by December to start another winter of great viewing well into 2015.

Saturn: The Sixth Rock keeps getting better as its rings continue to open wider revealing the best detail in a decade and will be a showstopper at every star party. Saturn is at opposition on May 10 in Libra when it will be 18.7 arcseconds across and shine at magnitude +0.0. There is no other planet that equals the beauty of Saturn and it is the icon of our Solar System. There is a wealth of detail to see and simply admiring its beauty is satisfying. Saturn dominates the warmer seasons which will allow an excellent opportunity to study its belts and spots and to look for the Cassini Division in the rings. The largest moon, Titan, is usually visible and it might be possible to see a little peach coloration. Saturn will slowly fade to magnitude +0.6 and shrink to around 16 arcseconds across in October when it becomes lost in the evening twilight.

Uranus: The Seventh Rock will be at opposition on October 7 in Pisces. Uranus will be 3.7 arcseconds across and shine at magnitude +5.7 in an area devoid of bright stars to the lower left of the Great Square of Pegasus and well east of the Circlet of Pisces just above Cetus. Uranus rises before midnight by August and gradually fades into the evening twilight by March 2015.

Neptune: The Eighth Rock is at opposition on August 29 in Aquarius below the Water Jar near the bright star Sigma Aquarii making it easier to find and follow this year. Neptune will be 2.4 arcseconds across and shine at magnitude +7.8. Neptune will rise before midnight by July and disappear into the evening twilight during February 2015. A finder chart for Uranus and Neptune will appear in the August issue of Telescopic Topics.

Pluto: The Ninth Rock is slowly leaving the thick of the heart of the Milky Way above the spout of the Sagittarius Teapot and approaching the Teaspoon from the upper right. Pluto is at opposition on July 4 among thousands of stars and will shine like a faint spark at magnitude +14.1. It will be only 0.1 arcseconds across making it a challenge to find. Locating Pluto will gradually become a touch easier in the years ahead as it leaves the heart of the Milky Way by the end of this decade. Unfortunately it will dim to magnitude +15 in about 30 years and remain very low, with a declination as low as nearly -24 degrees, as it moves slowly away from Earth.