Here is an overview of the major celestial events you can watch for in 2012
Meteor Showers: These are regular occurrences throughout the year. I have a complete listing of them here ( Meteor Showers for 2010) . There are showers every month but some are better than others.
Quick definition: "Opposition" This is an astronomical term for when another planet is the closest to Earth for the entire year. This is the best time to view the planet. It happens to each planet each year. I have listed the opposition dates for the planets.
- January: The Quadrantids: Up to 120 Per hour and this shower can be seen as originating from the constellation Bootes. See a chart of the constellation Bootes here
- May: Eta Aquarids: up to 60 per hour; This meteor shower is associated with Halley's Comet and this shower can be seen originating from the constellation Aquarius. See a chart of Aquarius and the Eta Aquarids here
- June: Arietids: This is a fairly strong meteor shower that can be up to 60 an hour but it is spread out over a period of time rougly from May 22 to July 2. The peak is usually around June 7th. So, a few days before and after June 7 is typically the best time to view this meteor shower. You can see a star chart of Aries and the Arietids here
- July: The south Delta Aquarids. This meteor shower is spread out over a full month from around July 18 to August 19 and it usually peaks around July 28 & 29 with about 20 shooting stars per hour. You can see a star chart of aquarius here.
- August: The Perseids Meteor shower. This is a pretty good meteor shower that can produce up to 60 shooting stars per hour. It lasts about a month from July 23 to August 22 and it peaks around August 12 and 13. You can see a star chart of Perseus here
- October: The Orionids: Oct 17-25 This is a very interesting meteor shower. It typically has a medium rate of around 20 shooting stars per hour but it is known for producing meteors that are yellow and green which makes it quite unique and it often produces large meteors described as fireballs. It can be an erratic meteor shower that is spread out over a period of time but usually the best is from Oct 17-25 with a peak around Oct 21 and 22. You can see a star chart of Orion here.
- December: The Geminids. This is one of the most reliable meteor showers of the year. They typically come in at 120 shooting stars per hour and they range in color from white to yellow, blue, green and red! The time of the Geminids ranges from December 7 to 17 and they peak on December 13 and 14. I have a star chart of Gemini here.
March 22: Saturn - Saturn Makes its closest approach to the Earth on this evening. This is a great time to observe it and to take photos of it. Although, because of the way Saturn is currently tilted the rings are almost invisible.
June 26: Partial Lunar Eclipse - This is where the Earth comes between the moon and the sun so a shadow will be cast over part of the moon. This cannot be observed from everywhere on the earth only through most of Asia, Australia, the Pacific Ocean and the western Americas. NASA has a nice map that you can look at to see if you will be able to see the eclipse from where you live and it shows you whether you will be able to see it as partial or full. NASA Eclipse Map
July 11: Total Solar Eclipse - This is where the moon will block out the sun. This is only viewable from limited parts of the Earth including The southern pacific ocean, Easter Island, southern Chile and Argentina. Some parts of South America will see a partial solar eclipse. NASA has a nice map showing where on the Earth this eclipse is visible. You will see by the map that it is pretty much an over the ocean event. There are companies that host cruises to see this eclipse. It would make for a fun vacation.
August 13: Triple conjunction of three planets with the moon . Venus, Mars, and Saturn will all be very close to a small crescent of the moon on this evening. This is a rare triple conjunction and it is particularly good because the moon will only be a sliver which makes for reasonably dark skies.
August 20: Neptune is at opposition which means it will have its closest approach to the Earth. It isn't visible with the naked eye and it will only appear as a small bluish dot to most telescopes. But larger telescopes will be able to get a real good look at it on this night.
September 21: Jupiter at Opposition which means that Jupiter will be its closest to Earth on this night. This will be the best night to view it and it will be very bright to even the naked eye.
September 22: Uranus at Opposition which means Uranus will be its closest to Earth on this night. It isn't visible with the naked eye and you need a powerful telescope to get any real good look at it. Otherwise it is a blue dot.
October 20: Hartley 2 Comet - For a few days around October 20th this comet will make its closest approach to the Earth. Best viewing will be in the mornings of early November - look o the east just before sunrise to find it. This is a rather weak comet but it will be visible to the naked eye with dark skies. You need to get away from the city lights to see the tail of this comet.
December 21: Total Lunar Eclipse - This is a nice treat for much of the world and all of North America will be able to see this lunar eclipse. NASA has a nice graphic showing where it will be visible here: NASA lunar eclipse chart for December 21 Don't miss this one. It is a rare total eclipse that will be directly overhead. Hopefully you won't have a cloudy night!