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Supermoon lunar eclipse highlights Winter 2017 skywatching

The Weather Network logo The Weather Network 2017-12-20
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It may be cold outside, but there are still some sights in the night sky this winter that shouldn't be missed! Here's the top three skywatching events for the coming season, and a few extras to keep your eye out for, as well.

January 1-2 - New Year Perigee Full Moon

Following up on 2017's Perigee Full Moon (the closest Full Moon of the entire year), 2018's Perigee Full Moon will happen on the night of January 1-2.

a close up of the moon © Provided by The Weather Network

2018's perigee (closest) and apogee (farthest) Full Moons. The average distance of the Moon is 384,400 km. Credit: NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Scott Sutherland

The Full Moon will reach its peak at 9:24 p.m. ET on the 1st of January, only around 4 hours after the Moon reaches its closest perigee of 2018, at a distance of 356,565 km. This is the second of three 'supermoons' in a row. The first was on December 4, 2017, and the third will be on January 31, 2018, which will include some extra special details.

Before we get to that, though...

January 3-4 - Quadrantid Meteor Shower Peaks

The Quadrantid meteor shower reaches its peak on the night of January 3-4, as Earth passes through a stream of rocky debris left behind by extinct come 2003 EH1. Along with the December Geminids, the Quadrantids are only one of two major meteor showers of the year that do not originate from an active comet.

While the Quadrantids can be just as numerous in the night sky as the Geminids, the view will be spoiled this year, due to the fact that the shower is peaking only one night after the closest and brightest Full Moon of 2018. The brightness of the Moon will wash out many of the dimmer meteors, leaving only the brightest to be seen.

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The position of the Quadrantid meteor shower radiant, near the constellation Bootes, around midnight on January 2-3, 2018. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland

Also, while the Geminids peak ramps up over a few nights beforehand and can still give good returns the night after, the Quadrantids peak is very sharp, lasting just that one night. Also, the timing of this year's peak is forecast for 21:00 UTC, or roughly 4 p.m. ET. That means that Europe will be favoured for viewing the peak, Canada missing out on most of it while the radiant is still below the eastern horizon.

If you happen to be under clear, dark skies, however, it may still be worth a look.

The first thing to consider when planning to watch a meteor shower is to keep track of the weather. Be sure to check The Weather Network on TV, on our website, or from our app, just to be sure that you have the most up-to-date forecast.

Next, you need to get away from city lights, and the farther away you can get, the better.

For most regions of Canada, getting out from under light pollution is simply a matter of driving outside of your city, town or village. Some areas, though, such as southwestern and central Ontario, and along the St Lawrence River, the concentration of light pollution is very high. Getting far enough outside of one city to escape its light pollution, unfortunately, tends to put you under the light pollution of the next city over. In these areas, there are dark sky preserves, however a skywatcher's best bet for dark skies is usually to drive north.

Once you've verified you'll have clear skies, and you've escaped from urban light pollution, stop somewhere safe and dark (provincial parks, even if you're confined to the parking lot, are usually an excellent location). Give your eyes between 30-45 minutes to adapt to the dark. During that time, avoid all bright sources of light, including your cellphone screen. Consider lowering the amount of blue light your screen gives off and reduce the brightness. Also look into an app that puts your phone into "night mode", which shifts the screen colours even more into the red. Once you've done that, checking your phone while skywatching won't impact on your nightvision as much. 

Although the graphics presented here point out the location of the meteor shower radiants, which is the point in the sky where the meteors appear to originate from, the meteors themselves can show up anywhere in the sky. So, the best way to watch a meteor shower is to look straight up. That way, your field of view takes in as much of the sky as possible, all at once. Bring a blanket to spread on the ground, or a lawn chair to sit in, or even lean back against your car. Bringing along some family and friends is also great, since it's best to share these experiences with others.

Morning of January 31 - Super Blue Moon Lunar Eclipse

This is one event that's worth getting up extra early for!

The Full Moon on the night of January 30-31 is not only a supermoon, the second largest and second brightest Full Moon of 2018, but it's also a Blue Moon, since it's the 2nd Full Moon in the month of January (February has no Full Moon this year).

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The path of the Full Moon through Earth's dim grey penumbral shadow and the deep red umbra, on the morning of Jan 31, 2018. Credit: Scott Sutherland

On top of that, much of Canada will get to see a Total Lunar Eclipse in the early morning hours of January 31, as the Moon slips through Earth's shadow.

© Provided by The Weather Network

The timing of the eclipse, across Canada, is detailed in the image above.

Nova Scotia and Newfoundland won't see this eclipse, because the Moon will have set just before it slips into Earth's penumbral shadow.

In New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Labrador, the Moon will be seen to dim slightly before it sets, as residents of those regions catch the Moon dipping into Earth's penumbra.

In Quebec and southern/eastern Ontario, a partial lunar eclipse will be visible, as the Moon makes it only part way into the red umbra before it is lost to view beyond the horizon.

From northwestern Ontario and up to Nunavut, all the way west to the coast of British Columbia and up into the Yukon, a total lunar eclipse will visible in the predawn hours. The farther west the viewer is, the more of the eclipse they will be able to see. For example, in Thunder Bay, viewers will see the full blood red Moon for all of six minutes before it slips below the horizon, while in Vancouver, the entire eclipse will be visible, from beginning to end.

Other notable skywatching events

Conjunctions

Planets are among the brightest objects in our night sky, with some easily seen even under the worst light pollution conditions. Seeing one planet is noteworthy enough. Catching two or more in the sky is remarkable. Seeing two (or possibly more) that are very close together - a conjunction - is extremely cool.

This winter, we will be treated to an extremely close conjunction of Mars and Jupiter - which will appear so close as to be touching - a triangle of Mars, Jupiter and the Moon, a fairly persistent line of Saturn, Mars and Jupiter (with the occasional visit from the Moon), and a sunset pairing of Venus and Mercury.

The numerous planetary conjunctions of Winter 2017-18. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland

• Jan 7 - Mars and Jupiter 
• Jan 11 - Mars, Jupiter and the Moon
• Jan 13 - Mercury and Saturn
• Jan 15 - Mercury, Saturn and the Moon in a triangle
• Feb 7 - Jupiter and the Moon, with Saturn and Mars
• Feb 9 - Mars and the Moon, with Saturn and Jupiter
• Feb 11 - Saturn and the Moon, with Mars and Jupiter
• March 7 - Jupiter and the Moon, with Saturn and Mars 
• March 10 - Saturn, Mars and the Moon in a triangle, with Jupiter nearby 
• March 12 - The Moon, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter in a lineup 
• March 17 - Mercury & Venus along the western horizon, just after sunset

The Zodiacal light

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Moonlight and zodiacal light over La Silla. Credit: ESO

Twice this winter, skywatchers will have a chance to see the immense cloud of interplanetary dust that encircles the Sun, which manifests in our night sky as "The Zodiacal Light".

In the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's 2018 Observer's Handbook, Dr. Roy Bishop, Emeritus Professor of Physics from Acadia University, wrote:

The zodiacal light appears as a huge, softly radiant pyramid of white light with its base near the horizon, and its axis centred on the zodiac (or better, the ecliptic). In its brightest parts, it exceeds the luminance of the central Milky Way.

According to Dr. Bishop, event though this phenomenon can be quite bright, it can easily be spoiled by moonlight, haze or light pollution. Also, since it is best viewed just after twilight, the inexperienced sometimes confused it for twilight, and thus miss out.

On clear nights, and under dark skies, look to the western horizon, in the half an hour just after twilight has faded, from about February 2-15, and March 5-18.

Sources: RASC | NASA | ESO


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