Video: Venus passes sun

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updated 12/30/2011 6:39:37 PM ET 2011-12-30T23:39:37

As the year 2011 comes to a close, some might wonder what is looming sky-wise for 2012? What celestial events might we look forward to seeing? 

I've selected what I consider to be the top 12 "skylights" for this coming year, and list them here in chronological order. Not all these events will be visible from any one locality ... for the eclipses, for instance, you'll probably have to do some traveling ... but many can be observed from the comfort of your backyard.

Hopefully your local weather will cooperate on most, if not all, of these dates. Clear skies!

software map of star constellations with meteors marked
Starry Night Software
The first major meteor shower of 2012 takes place on the night of Jan. 3-4. The Quadrantids peak at 2 a.m. ET Jan. 4. This chart shows the "radiant" from which the meteors appear to emanate.

Jan. 4: Quadrantid meteor shower peaks
This meteor shower reaches its peak in the predawn hours of Jan. 4 for eastern North America. The Quadrantid meteor shower is a very short-lived meteor display, whose peak rates only last several hours. The phase of the moon is a bright waxing gibbous, normally prohibitive for viewing any meteor shower, but the moon will set by 3 a.m., leaving the sky dark for a few hours until the first light of dawn; that's when you'll have the best shot at seeing many of these bluish-hued meteors. 

From the eastern half of North America, a single observer might count on seeing as many as 50 to 100 "Quads" in a single hour. From the western half of the continent the display will be on the wane by the time the moon sets, with hourly rates probably diminishing to around 25 to 50 meteors.

Feb. 20 to March 12: Best evening apparition of Mercury
In February and March, the "elusive" innermost planet Mercury moves far enough from the glare of the sun to be readily visible soon after sunset. Its appearance will be augmented by two other bright planets (Venus and Jupiter), which also will be visible in the western sky during this same time frame.

Mercury will arrive at its greatest elongation from the sun March 5. It will be quite bright (-1.3 to zero magnitude) before this date and will fade rapidly to +1.6 magnitude thereafter. Astronomers measure the brightness of objects in terms of magnitude, with lower numbers corresponding to brighter objects.

March 3: Mars arrives at opposition
On March 3, Earth will be passing Mars as the two planets wheel around the sun in their respective orbits. Because Mars reaches aphelion — its farthest point from the sun — on Feb. 15, this particular opposition will be an unfavorable one. In fact, two days after opposition, Mars will be closest to Earth at a distance of 62.6 million miles.

Compare this with the August 2003 opposition when Mars was only 34.6 million miles away.  Nonetheless, even at this unfavorable opposition the fiery-hued Mars will be an imposing naked-eye sight, shining at magnitude -1.2, just a bit dimmer than Sirius, the brightest star, and will be visible in the sky all night long.    

March 13: Brilliant 'double planet'
The two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, team up to make for an eye-catching sight in the western sky soon after sunset. They will be separated by 3 degrees on this evening, Venus passing to the northwest (upper right) of Jupiter and shining nearly eight times brighter than "Big Jupe." Although they will gradually go their separate ways after this date, on March 25 and 26, a crescent moon will pass by, adding additional beauty to this celestial scene.

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May 5: Biggest full moon of 2012
The moon turns full at 11:35 p.m. ET, and just 25 minutes later it will arrive at its closest point to Earth in 2012, at a distance of 221,801 miles. Expect a large range in ocean tides (exceptionally low to exceptionally high) for the next few days. [Photos: 'Supermoon' of 2011]

May 20: Annular eclipse of the sun
The path of annularity for this eclipse starts over eastern China and sweeps northeast across southern and central Japan. The path continues northeast then east, passing just south of Alaska's Aleutian Island chain. The path then turns to the southeast, making landfall in the western United States along the California-Oregon coast. It will pass over central Nevada, southern Utah, northern Arizona, the extreme southwest corner of Colorado and most of New Mexico before coming to an end over northern Texas.

Since the disk of the moon will appear smaller than the disk of the sun, it will create a "penny on nickel" effect, with a fiery ring of sunlight shining around the moon's dark silhouette. Locations that will witness this eerie sight include Eureka and Reading, Calif.; Carson City, Reno and Ely, Nev.; Bryce Canyon in Utah; Arizona's Grand Canyon; Albuquerque and Santa Fe in N.M., and just prior to sunset for Lubbock, Tex.

A partial eclipse of the sun will be visible over a large swath of the United States and Canada, including Alaska and Hawaii, but no eclipse will be visible near and along the Atlantic Seaboard.

June 4: Partial eclipse of the moon
This partial lunar eclipse favors the Pacific Ocean; Hawaii sees it high in the sky during the middle of its night. Across North America the eclipse takes place between midnight and dawn. The farther east one goes, the closer the time of moonset coincides with the moment that the moon enters the Earth's dark umbral shadow.

In fact, over the Northeastern United States and eastern Canada, the only evidence of this eclipse will be a slight shading on the moon's left edge (the faint penumbral shadow) before moonset. Over the Canadian Maritimes, the moon will set before the eclipse begins. At maximum, more than one-third of the moon's lower portion (37.6 percent) will be immersed in the umbra.

Color photo of landscape with planet Venus in sky
Jeffrey Berkes
Astrophotographer Jeffrey Berkes of West Chester, Pa., snapped this stunning view of planet Venus and the crescent moon during a bright conjunction on Dec. 26.

June 5: Rare transit of Venus across the sun
The passage of Venus in front of the sun is among the rarest of astronomical events, rarer even than the return of Halley's Comet every 76 years. Only six transits of Venus are known to have been observed by humans before: in 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874, 1882 and, most recently, in 2004.

The next one will occur in the year 2114. When Venus is in transit across the solar disk, the planet appears as a distinct, albeit tiny, round black spot with a diameter just 1/32nd of the sun. This size is large enough to readily perceive with the naked eye. 

HOWEVER ... prospective observers are warned to take special precautions (as with a solar eclipse) when attempting to view the silhouette of Venus against the blindingly brilliant solar disc.

The beginning of the transit will be visible from all of North America, Greenland, extreme northern and western portions of South America, Hawaii, northern and eastern portions of Asia including Japan, New Guinea, northern and eastern portions of Australia, and New Zealand. The end will be visible over Alaska, all of Asia and Indonesia, Australia, Eastern Europe, the eastern third of Africa, and the island nation of Madagascar.

Aug. 12: Perseid meteor shower
The Perseids are considered to be among the best of the annual displays thanks to its high rates of up to 90 per hour for a single observer, as well as its reliability. Beloved by summer campers and often discovered by city dwellers who might be spending time in the country under dark starry skies. [10 Perseid Meteor Shower Facts]

Last summer a bright moon wrecked the shower by blotting out many of the fainter streaks, but in 2012 the moon will be three days past last quarter phase on this peak morning — a fat waning crescent presenting only a minor nuisance for prospective observers.

low-rez composite image of meteor shower
NASA/MSFC/Meteoroid Environment Office
This is a composite of Perseids and other meteors seen on Aug. 12-13. Concentric circles are star trails.

Nov. 13: Total eclipse of the sun
The first total solar eclipse since July 2010. Virtually the entire path of totality falls over water. At the very beginning, the track cuts through Australia's Northern Territory just to the east of Darwin, then across the Gulf of Carpentaria, then through northern Queensland, passing over Cairns and Port Douglas before heading out to sea.

The rest of the eclipse path, including the point of the maximum duration of totality (4 minutes, 2 seconds) is, unfortunately, pretty much wasted by falling over the open waters of the Pacific Ocean.

black-white photo of observatory with meteor shower
John Chumack
Using his south sky video camera, amateur astronomer John Chumack captured Geminids streaking across the Winter Triangle and Orion on Dec. 9, 2011. The best nights to watch for the shower are Dec. 13-15.

Dec. 13-14: Geminid meteor shower
If there is one meteor display guaranteed to put on a very entertaining show it is the Geminid meteor shower. Now considered by most meteor experts to be at the top of the list, surpassing in brilliance and reliability even the August Perseids.

Bundle warmly against the winter chill; you can start observing as soon as darkness falls on the evening of Dec. 13 as Gemini starts coming up above the eastern horizon and continue through the rest of the night. Around 2 a.m. when Gemini is almost directly overhead, you might see as many as two meteor sightings per minute … 120 per hour! And the moon is new, meaning that it will not be a factor at all.

Dec. 25: Christmas evening and Jupiter
On Christmas, many will be looking skyward and wondering what that brilliant silvery "star" is hovering just above the waxing gibbous moon. It's not a star (or Santa returning to the North Pole), but the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter, serving as a sort of holiday ornament with our nearest neighbor in space to cap off a year of interesting and predictable sky events that we all can enjoy!

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.

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Photos: Year in Space 2011

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  1. Ultimate space shot

    2011 was a year of farewells in space: an end to the space shuttle program ... NASA's official abandonment of the Spirit rover on Mars ... and the leavetaking of NASA's next Mars rover. This unprecedented image shows a different kind of leavetaking. Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli snapped the picture of Endeavour docked to the International Space Station on May 23 as he was leaving in a Soyuz spacecraft. This was the only opportunity to photograph the space station and shuttle together from an orbital vantage point. (Paolo Nespoli / NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Tribute to Gabby

    During a post-landing ride on a Russian helicopter, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly wears a blue "Gabby" wristband in honor of his sister-in-law, wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Kelly and his fellow crew members from the International Space Station returned to Earth on March 16. Kelly's twin brother, Mark Kelly, is Giffords' husband. The two Kellys were the only twins to serve together in NASA's astronaut corps. Mark Kelly retired from NASA in October. (Bill Ingalls / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Up from the clouds

    Stefanie Gordon captured this remarkable picture of the shuttle Endeavour's ascent on May 16 while she was on a commercial airline flight from New York to Palm Beach, Fla. (Stefanie Gordon / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Hanging on

    NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff holds a handrail during the fourth spacewalk conducted by the shuttle Endeavour's crew at the International Space Station. During the seven-hour, 24-minute spacewalk on May 27, Chamitoff and astronaut Michael Fincke (visible in the reflections of Chamitoff's helmet visor) moved a 50-foot-long inspection boom to the station, officially completing U.S. station assembly. (NASA via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. First Family on the final frontier

    Astronaut Janet Kavandi leads President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, beneath the shuttle Atlantis' underbelly during an April 29 tour of an Orbiter Processing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Obamas visited the space center in hopes of seeing the shuttle Endeavour's final launch, but liftoff was delayed due to a technical glitch. The Obamas couldn't return to the cape for the Endeavour launch on May 16. Atlantis' launch in July closed out the 30-year space shuttle program. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Waiting for the last launch

    Spur King, from Armarillo, Texas, sleeps on the roof of a van in Titusville, Fla., as he waits to watch the liftoff of space shuttle Atlantis from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on July 8. Atlantis' mission marked the end of the 30-year space shuttle era. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Last liftoff

    NASA managers watch from Firing Room Four of the Launch Control Center at Kennedy Space Center as the space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Launch Pad 39A on July 8. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Look! Up in the sky!

    Spectators watch the shuttle Atlantis ascend for the last time from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8. (Shawn Thew / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Back to Earth

    The space shuttle Atlantis blazes a trail back home through the atmosphere in this photograph, captured by the crew aboard the International Space Station on July 21. Airglow over Earth can be seen on the horizon. (NASA via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Night landing

    The space shuttle Atlantis glides down from a moonlit sky to the runway at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 21. Atlantis' touchdown marked the end of a 30-year odyssey for NASA's shuttle fleet. (Pierre Ducharme / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. On the beam

    A glowing laser shines forth from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, in a picture captured by ESO Photo Ambassador Gerhard Hüdepohl. The beam energizes sodium atoms high in Earth’s mesosphere, causing them to glow and creating a bright dot that looks like a star to observers on the ground. That artificial star serves as a guide for the telescope's adaptive optics system. (ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Does 'Pacman' have teeth?

    In visible light, the star-forming cloud cataloged as NGC 281 in the constellation of Cassiopeia appears to be chomping through the cosmos. Astronomers nicknamed NGC 281 the "Pacman Nebula," after the famous Pac-Man video game of the 1980s. This infrared view from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, released Oct. 26, reveals jagged rows of "teeth" that are actually pillars of interstellar dust. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Getting the rover ready

    NASA engineers stand by a conical shell that will help protect the Curiosity rover, a robot the size of a car, from the searing temperatures of atmospheric entry when it lands on Mars next year. This picture of the rover preparations was taken at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on April 4. Curiosity was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in November and is due to land on Mars in August 2012. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Millipedes on Mars

    Martian sand dunes ripple across this false-color image from the high-resolution camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. What's fascinating about this image, released Oct. 17, are the ridges running the length of the dunes, creating the spectacular illusion that we're looking at millipedes. This is a good example of what's called "pareidolia," where our brain interprets a pattern as representing a familiar object - such as the Face on Mars. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Walking on a mock Mars

    A mock mission to Mars "landed" on a simulated Red Planet on Feb. 14, and in the days afterward, volunteer crew members went on three make-believe Marswalks. The simulated surface was actually a giant sandpit, built inside a Moscow research institute. The exercise was the climax of a 520-day isolation experiment aimed at studying how a future real-life crew would handle the psychological stresses of a Mars mission. (Lightroom Photos / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Celestial snow angel

    The bipolar star-forming region called Sharpless 2-106, or S106 for short, looks like a soaring, celestial snow angel in this image from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Dec. 15. The outstretched "wings" of the nebula record the contrasting imprint of heat and motion against the backdrop of a colder medium. Twin lobes of super-hot gas, glowing blue in this image, stretch outward from the central star. A ring of dust and gas orbiting the star acts like a belt, cinching the expanding nebula into an hourglass shape. (NASA / ESA / STScI / AURA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Outer-space ornament

    The moon hangs over Earth's limb like a holiday ornament in a picture from the International Space Station.. Original tweet from Oct: 21, 2011: "#TGIF Here's a beautiful moon shot to start your weekend #NASA #ISS" http://twitpic.com/73povh (Ron Garan / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Golden Gate ... to space?

    A new Virgin America A320 jet, aptly named "My Other Ride Is a Spaceship," flies in tandem with the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its mothership over the Golden Gate Bridge on April 6. The aircraft landed at San Francisco International Airport, becoming the first planes to arrive at the new $388 million, 640,000-square-foot Terminal 2. SpaceShipTwo is expected to begin rocket-powered suborbital test flights during 2012 - not from San Francisco, but from the Mojave Air and Space Port near Los Angeles. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin America) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A little lunar base

    Hillary Livingston adds the finishing touches to a scale-model lunar base camp in the "Beyond Planet Earth" exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on Nov. 10. The exhibition looks forward to the next 50 to 100 years of spaceflight, with the intention of fueling dreams of colonizing the moon and Mars. (Piotr Redlinski / New York Times via Redux) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. After the landing

    An aerial view shows vehicles with their headlights on converging on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in northern Kazakhstan after its landing on Nov. 22. The capsule brought NASA astronaut Michael Fossum, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa back to Earth from the International Space Station. (Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Galactic firestorm

    The fiery birth of stars is chronicled in this view of the galaxy Centaurus A, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and released on June 16. (NASA/ESA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. In the dish

    Engineers carry out maintenance on the focus box inside the 76-meter dish of the Lovell Telescope on June 21 in Holmes Chapel, England. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Groovy view of Vesta

    This image obtained by the framing camera on NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows the south pole of the giant asteroid Vesta. The probe entered orbit around Vesta on July 16 for a year's worth of observations. Scientists are discussing whether the circular structure that covers most of this image originated by a collision with another asteroid, or by internal processes early in the asteroid's history. Images in higher resolution might help answer that question. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A falling star in autumn

    An Orionid meteor streaks through the skies above French Creek State Park in Pennsylvania early Oct. 22, with the reds, yellows and oranges of autumn reflected in the trees below. (Jeff Berkes) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Colorful crash

    The Antennae are a pair of colliding galaxies about 70 million light-years away in the constellation Corvus. This color-coded image, released Oct. 3, combines views from the Hubble Space Telescope and the newly inaugurated ALMA radio telescope array in Chile. (ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. That's heavy, dude

    An unmanned Boeing Delta 4 Heavy rocket rises from its launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Jan. 27. The heavy-lift launch vehicle sent a spy satellite into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office. This was the largest rocket ever launched from the West Coast. (Bryan Walton / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Monster blast from the sun

    When an M-3.6-class flare occurred near the edge of the sun, it blew out a gorgeous, waving mass of erupting plasma that swirled and twisted over a 90-minute period on Feb. 24. The event was captured in extreme ultraviolet light by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Some of the material blew out into space, and other portions fell back to the surface. (SDO Goddard Space Flight Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Quartet of moons

    Four Saturnian moons, from tiny to huge, make an appearance amid the planet's rings in this composition from the Cassini orbiter, released Oct. 24. Bright Dione is in the foreground, with Titan in the background. The dot just to the right of Saturn's nearly edge-on rings is Pandora, and Pan is just a speck embedded within the rings, to the left of Titan and Dione. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Lights, camera, action

    Norwegian photographer Tommy Eliason captured this amazing view of the northern lights, the Milky Way and a meteor streaking across the sky over Ifjord, Norway, on Sept. 25. The year was notable for producing frequent auroral displays. (Tommy Eliassen / Caters News Agency) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Pool practice

    With the aid of scuba divers, spacesuit-clad astronaut trainees take part in drills in a pool at Russia's Star City cosmonaut training center outside Moscow on Feb. 18. Underwater training simulates conditions of weightlessness and is a part of space crew training. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Chinese ship seen from space

    This Dec. 8 satellite image provided by the DigitalGlobe Analysis Center shows the Chinese aircraft carrier Shi Lang (a.k.a. Varyag) sailing in the Yellow Sea, approximately 60 miles (100 kilometers) south-southeast of the port of Dalian, China. (Digitalglobe / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. The glow below

    A picture taken from the International Space Station on Sept. 17 shows two docked Russian spacecraft with the southern lights below. The auroral display is caused by the interaction between solar particles and Earth's magnetic field. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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