27 Dec 2017
Look out for a total lunar eclipse, two supermoons, planetary conjunctions, and an array of meteor showers over the coming year.
By Affelia Wibisono, Astronomy Programmes Assistant
If you’ve just been given a new telescope for Christmas, or would like to take up stargazing, or even astrophotography, as a new hobby but don’t know what to look for, then read on! There are lots of astronomical events coming up in 2018. Many will be easy to spot without the use of binoculars or telescopes, others require a little bit of patience, but all are incredible to witness.
Please note: times given are for London, UK and between January and 24 March, times are in GMT. Between 25 March and 27 October, times are in BST. Then after this date it's back to GMT!
January – March
- Two supermoons
- Planetary conjunction between Mars and Jupiter
- Two blue moons
You don’t need to wait long to see the first full moon in 2018, which coincidently will also be the biggest and closest supermoon of next year and will occur on 2 January. Technically speaking, this will only happen for a moment at 2:24 am GMT as this is when the Sun, Earth and Moon align perfectly and the Moon will be completely lit up by the Sun. However, the difference in illumination will be very small and unnoticeable so you don’t need to stay up this late to see it – the Moon at this time will look pretty much the same as it will on the night of 1 January.
There will be a second supermoon on 31 January (at 1:37 pm to be exact) which can also be considered as a blue moon because it is the second full moon within the same month. The Moon won’t actually change its colour to blue, but those in North America, Asia and Australia may witness it turn red as it coincides with a lunar eclipse.
A planetary conjunction between Mars and Jupiter will occur in the very early morning of the 7 January. These two planets will seem to have a close encounter with one another in the south-eastern sky and are easily visible with the naked eye. Jupiter will be the brightest starlike object whilst Mars will have a reddish hue. Both planets are distinguishable from stars as their light will appear to be much steadier and not twinkle as much as the stars. What would be fun to try is to view the conjunction through a pair of binoculars and see the two planets in the same field of view. The separation between them is only 0.5 degrees so if you can see the full disc of the full moon through your equipment then you should be able to catch them. Don’t forget to take a photograph of it if you manage to do this!
Saturn will join the predawn party in February from around 6am every morning in this month. You can see the Moon change its phase from last quarter to waning crescent as it weaves in between Jupiter, Mars and Saturn between 7 and 12 February. Look towards the south east before sunrise to observe this.
March also gives us two full moons – the first being on the 2 and another on 31. Therefore, this will give us a second chance to see a blue moon in 2018. The next time where we’ll have two blue moons in the same year will be in 2037!
April – June
- Lyrid meteor shower
- Jupiter at opposition
- Saturn at opposition
Early risers can witness the last quarter moon, Saturn and Mars appear to be in a tight triangle in the southern sky on the 7 and 8 April before sunrise.
The Lyrid meteor shower runs every year between 16 and 25 April and has a peak on the 22 and 23. It is thought to be the oldest meteor shower and is known to have meteors with bright dust trails. The best time to watch them is after midnight after the first quarter moon has set. If conditions are perfect, you might be able to catch up to 20 meteors per hour.
Jupiter will be visible in the evening skies in May and will be at opposition on the 9 and is (weather permitting!) the best time to see and photograph the king of the planets. It is visible from sunset in the south east until sunrise in the south west and will appear to be at its biggest and brightest because it will be at its closest approach to the Earth. A pair of binoculars may show you up to four of Jupiter’s largest moons and a medium telescope can also reveal some of the details on Jupiter’s atmosphere.
June brings us another planet at opposition – this time Saturn on the 27. You can use the almost full moon as a guide to find the ringed planet. Just look for a bright, steady point of light on the bottom left of the Moon and you would be look at Saturn! A medium telescope will let you observe Saturn’s rings and some of its brightest satellites.
July – September
- Total lunar eclipse
- Perseid meteor shower
- Neptune and Mars at opposition
Two very exciting astronomical events will be happening on the night of the 27 July. Mars will be at opposition and a total lunar eclipse will be visible over most of Europe and Asia, Australia and South America. Unfortunately, those in the UK will not be able to see the start of the lunar eclipse as the Moon will still be below the horizon at this time. However, the Moon will already be in the Earth’s umbra (the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow) and so will already start to look red. The table below shows the timings for the lunar eclipse as seen from London.
Lunar eclipse timings
On the horizon in the south east
This is when the Moon is closest to the centre of the Earth’s umbra.
Very low in the south east
Total eclipse ends
The Moon will start to leave the Earth’s umbra and enter its penumbra (area of partial shadow) and starts to lose its red colour.
Low in the south east
Partial eclipse ends
The Moon has left the Earth’s umbra and has completely lost its red colour.
Low in the south east
Penumbral eclipse ends
The Moon will look slightly darker than usual and has now left the Earth’s penumbra.
Fairly high in the south
The standout spectacle in August is the Perseid meteor shower that is active between 17 July and 24 August, although the peak falls on the 12 – 13 August. The very thin waxing crescent moon will set at sunset leaving the night sky dark enough for the fainter meteors to be visible. This shower is widely regarded to be one of the best meteor showers of the year as it usually produces a high rate of meteors and the warm summer nights are perfect for hosting star parties with friends and family to watch the meteor shower together.
For those who’d like a challenge, Neptune will be at opposition on 7 September. We’ve never had a photograph of Neptune shortlisted in the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition before so this is the perfect opportunity for someone to change that! You would need a powerful telescope to see the eighth planet as a small blue dot.
October – December
- Orionid meteor shower
- Uranus at opposition
- Geminid meteor shower
Now that the sky gets darker earlier, we’ve got more time to observe the celestial objects above us. October brings us the Draconid and Orionid meteor showers. We’ll also have Uranus at opposition on the 23. Check out our photo of Uranus as seen through Great Equatorial Telescope.
Look out for two meteor showers in November – the Taurid and Leonid. The Taurids are actually composed of two separate showers. The materials that provide the Northern Taurids originate from Asteroid 2004 TG10 and the Southern Taurids are from Comet 2P Encke. The Leonids tend to be more active than the Taurids and peaks a few days later. November also offers opportunities to view Mars in the southern sky at sunset where it will remain until the end of the year.
December is another great month to see meteors as the peak of the Geminids falls on the 13 -14. If you’re in a rural area with a clear view of the horizon, you might be able to see up to 100 meteors per hour. The Moon will be in its waxing crescent phase and will set just before 10pm which gives observers a nice dark sky to see the celestial fireworks.
Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year
If you’ve taken photos of something written in this blog, or anything else in the night sky, don’t forget you can enter the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2018 competition between 15 January and 9 March. Otherwise, you can tweet us @ROGAstronomers – we love seeing your photographs!