Saturday Reader: Crash’s 2015 Astro-Calendar

astro calendar

Mark your calendar, wake the kids, phone the neighbors!  From eclipses to meteor showers, from planets and stars to galaxies & full moons – it’s all here.

Bundle up and keep your eyes peeled on the evenings of January 3rd and 4th to catch the Quadrantids meteor shower. While the nearly Full Moon will unfortunately outshine many of the Quadrantids this year, there will still be opportunities to see brighter meteors streak across the night sky. Look for meteors appearing to radiate from the constellation Boötes.

On the night of January 23rd, train your telescope on Jupiter from 7pm PST to about half-past 11pm PST to witness a rare triple Galilean moon and shadow transit. The shadows of Galilean moons Callisto, Io and Europa will cross the face of Jupiter, followed by the moons themselves, all in one night!

Get ready for great views of giant Jupiter this month as the gas giant planet will be at opposition on the evening of February 6th – the point in its orbit when it appears opposite the Sun from Earth. The second month of 2015 continues to offer good views of the winter Milky Way, especially during the evening of February 18th, when the New Moon promises dark skies.

Catch an early evening conjunction of the planets Venus and Mars on February 22, when our closest neighboring planets will appear to be just a half-degree apart in the evening sky.

Some of the best galaxies to see are spread across the night skies of March from Ursa Major to Virgo. Take advantage of the New Moon on March 20th and set sail for these island universes with a big telescope! Grab a pair of 50mm or larger binoculars in March for great views of the Pleiades cluster (M45), the Beehive cluster (M44), and the must-see Double Cluster in Perseus. These sparkling sky gems are perfect fare for big astronomy binoculars and telescopes too.

Skygazers get a treat this month in the form of a Total Lunar Eclipse on the evening of April 4th. You won’t want to miss the show as the Full Moon gradually becomes darkened by the Earth’s shadow and turn a reddish orange color. This Total Lunar Eclipse will be visible throughout most of North and South America, eastern Asia and Australia.

Don’t miss the Lyrids meteor shower which peaks during April 22nd and 23rd. Scan the skies near the constellation Lyra after midnight on the 22nd for your best chance to see meteors.

Grab a comfortable blanket or lounge chair and catch the Eta Aquarids meteor shower which peaks on the evening of May 5th and the early morning of May 6th. Meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Aquarius.

May skies present great viewing opportunities for many globular star clusters, including M3 in the constellation Boötes, the Great Cluster M13 in the keystone asertism of Hercules, M5 in Serpens, M92 in the northern section of Hercules.

The best time of the year to observe Saturn and its spectacular rings is the night of May 22nd, when the gas giant planet reaches opposition. 2015 will be a great year to observe and photograph Saturn because its rings will be at nearly maximum tilt from our vantage point.

Summer stargazing season kicks off in June with great opportunities to see a host of globular and open star clusters, emission nebulas, and more. Grab a pair of big binoculars or a wide-field telescope and scan the summer Milky Way for great views.

Around 10pm in mid-June, two face-on spiral galaxies M51 and M101 will both be well-paced in the night sky for observation and astrophotography. While you can see these galaxies from a dark sky site with a humble 60mm refractor, bigger telescopes will reveal much more detail. Use a 10″ or larger reflector to see the spiral arms of M51.

With constellation Hercules almost directly overhead and Scorpius to the south, there’s plenty to explore in July skies as summer continues.

On the night of July 1st, get outside in the early evening to catch a close conjunction between bright planet Venus and giant Jupiter. The two planets will appear just 24 arcminutes away from one another in a very pretty pairing. July winds down with the Delta Aquarids meteor shower. For the best chance to see meteors, get outside the night of July 28th and look towards the constellation Aquarius.

Get outside during the evening of August 6th to see a close conjunction between the planets Mercury and Jupiter, which will appear just 35 arcminutes away from one another.

Use 50mm or larger binoculars and/or a telescope with a low-power eyepiece to explore the summer Milky Way in August for nice views of various star clusters, galaxies, and cloudy nebulas.

Check out the skies after dark on August 12th and in the early morning hours of August 13th to see meteors from the Perseids shower radiating from the constellation Perseus. This year, the thin crescent Moon during the Perseids will allow summer stargazers to see plenty of beautiful meteors streak across the night sky.

The fall stargazing season begins with wonderfully placed spiral galaxies M31 (Andromeda Galaxy), M33 (Triangulum Galaxy), and M74 in Pisces. Use a big telescope to see these glittering island universes.

Three popular globular star clusters line up almost directly north-south in September skies. From a dark sky site, check out views M15 in Pegasus, M2 in Aquarius, and M30 in Capricornus.

The end of September treats us to a Total Lunar Eclipse on the evening of the 28th. Get outside to see the Moon become a deep red color as it becomes darkened by Earth’s shadow. This Total Lunar Eclipse will be visible from most of North and South America, Europe, western Asia and Africa.

Sit back and relax in your favorite backyard chair to watch the Orionid meteor shower, which peaks on the night of October 21st into the morning of October 22nd. The Orionids shower is notoriously irregular, so keep an eye out for meteors on any night from October 20th through the 24th also.

Set your alarm to get up early on October 28th, to catch a glimpse of a rare triple-conjunction between the planets Venus, Mars and Jupiter before sunrise. These three planets will form a 1-degree triangle in the pre-dawn skies of the 28th.

Bundle up for bright winter skies! See our namesake constellation Orion arch its way across the sky in November along with lots of bright star clusters to explore with big astronomy binoculars and telescopes.

Get outside on the evenings of November 17th and 18th to see the Leonids meteor shower as meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Leo.

High in the northern skies of November, between the constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia, use a pair of big binoculars or a wide-field telescope to seek out the sparkling Double Cluster in Perseus – two open star clusters NGC 884 and NGC 889 side by side.

Don’t miss the Geminids meteor shower which peaks during December 13th and 14th. Even though the peak is on the 13th and 14th, this popular shower will likely produce worthwhile meteors from the 6th through the 19th. Look for meteors to emanate from the constellation Gemini and the surrounding area.

The New Moon of December 11th will improve your chances of seeing the Geminids shower, as well provide optimal conditions to go after deep space telescope fare including the open cluster Pleiades (M42), the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), and the many gems within our namesake constellation Orion, including M42 the Orion Nebula and the elusive Horsehead Nebula located near Alnitak – the easternmost star of Orion’s easily recognizable belt.

A ghostly full moon rises over the Anasazi ruins known as Wukoki in Wupatki National Monument, Arizona. Photo appears courtesy of NatGeo and copyright 2008 David Edwards.

A ghostly full moon rises over the Anasazi ruins known as Wukoki in Wupatki National Monument, Arizona.
Photo appears courtesy of NatGeo and copyright 2008 David Edwards.

Full Moons:  Names & Meanings

Unlike hurricanes and winter storms, the names of each full moon are a constant – they never change.  Sure, we sometimes add names but for the most part their nameshave remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

One of the most dramatic sights in the night sky—and inspiration for poets, artists, and lovers for millennia—full moons captivate us like nothing else.

Every month Earth’s moon goes through its phases, waning and waxing in its constant transformation from new moon to full moon and back again. Full moons occur every 29.5 days or so as the moon moves to the side of Earth directly opposite the sun, reflecting the sun’s rays off its full face and appearing as a brilliant, perfectly circular disk.

For millennia, humans have used the movement of the moon to keep track of the passing year and set schedules for hunting, planting, and harvesting. Ancient cultures the world over have given these full moons names based on the behavior of the plants, animals, or weather during that month.

January: Wolf Moon
Native Americans and medieval Europeans named January’s full moon after the howling of hungry wolves lamenting the midwinter paucity of food. Other names for this month’s full moon include old moon and ice moon.

February: Snow Moon
The typically cold, snowy weather of February in North America earned its full moon the name snow moon. Other common names include storm moon and hunger moon.

March: Worm Moon
Native Americans called this last full moon of winter the worm moon after the worm trails that would appear in the newly thawed ground. Other names include chaste moon, death moon, crust moon (a reference to snow that would become crusty as it thawed during the day and froze at night), and sap moon, after the tapping of the maple trees.

April: Pink Moon
Northern Native Americans call April’s full moon the pink moon after a species of early blooming wildflower. In other cultures, this moon is called the sprouting grass moon, the egg moon, and the fish moon.

May: Flower Moon
May’s abundant blooms give its full moon the name flower moon in many cultures. Other names include the hare moon, the corn planting moon, and the milk moon.

June: Strawberry Moon
In North America, the harvesting of strawberries in June gives that month’s full moon its name. Europeans have dubbed it the rose moon, while other cultures named it the hot moon for the beginning of the summer heat.

July: Buck Moon
Male deer, which shed their antlers every year, begin to regrow them in July, hence the Native American name for July’s full moon. Other names include thunder moon, for the month’s many summer storms, and hay moon, after the July hay harvest.

August: Sturgeon Moon
North American fishing tribes called August’s full moon the sturgeon moon since the species was abundant during this month. It’s also been called the green corn moon, the grain moon, and the red moon for the reddish hue it often takes on in the summer haze.

September: Harvest Moon
The most familiar named moon, September’s harvest moon refers to the time of year after the autumn equinox when crops are gathered. It also refers to the moon’s particularly bright appearance and early rise, which lets farmers continue harvesting into the night. Other names include the corn moon and the barley moon.

October: Hunter’s Moon
The first moon after the harvest moon is the hunter’s moon, so named as the preferred month to hunt summer-fattened deer and fox unable to hide in now bare fields. Like the harvest moon, the hunter’s moon is also particularly bright and long in the sky, giving hunters the opportunity to stalk prey at night. Other names include the travel moon and the dying grass moon.

November: Beaver Moon
There is disagreement over the origin of November’s beaver moon name. Some say it comes from Native Americans setting beaver traps during this month, while others say the name comes from the heavy activity of beavers building their winter dams. Another name is the frost moon.

December: Cold Moon
The coming of winter earned December’s full moon the name cold moon. Other names include the long night moon and the oak moon.

The Blue Moon
Each year, the moon completes its final cycle about 11 days before the Earth finishes its orbit around the sun. These days add up, and every two and a half years or so, there is an extra full moon, called a blue moon. The origin of the term is uncertain, and its precise definition has changed over the years. The term is commonly used today to describe the second full moon of a calendar month, but it was originally the name given to the third full moon of a season containing four full moons.

Many thanks to the Astronomy Departments of Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia and Arizona State University, Phoenix, Arizona. Additional thanks to the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland and Fernbank Museum of Natural History/Fernbank Science Center, Decatur, Georgia.

Happy viewing and have a great 2015!