Solar Eclipse and Meteor Shower to Launch 2011 Skywatching Season

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The year 2011 promises to be a dazzling one for skywatchers, and it hits the ground running with a partial solar eclipse and meteor shower.

But those two sky spectacles are just the beginning for 2011. Here are some of the more noteworthy sky events that will take place over the next year.'s Night Sky column will provide more extensive coverage of most of these events as they draw closer. 

Jan. 4Meteor shower, solar eclipse and planets (oh my!): An action-packed day on the celestial calendar.  First, the Quadrantid Meteor Shower reaches its peak during the predawn hours. Its one of the best meteor displays of the year, with 50 to 100 meteors per hour. Those living in Europe and western and central Asia should have the best views.

As a bonus, those areas of the world will witness a partial eclipse of the sun on this same day.  The greatest part of the eclipse, where nearly 86 percent of the suns diameter will be covered, occurs at sunrise over northeastern Sweden, along the Gulf of Bothnia, near the city of Skellefte Cities in Western Europe, including Oslo, London, Paris and Madrid, will also enjoy a sunrise eclipse.

Finally, Jupiter will engage Uranus in the last of a series of three conjunctions; there have been only six such triple conjunctions between 1801 and 2200.The last was in 1983 and the next will come during 2037-38.

March 15Mercury and Jupiter draw close: Like two ships passing in the twilight, Mercury and Jupiter come within 2 degrees of each other this evening. For comparison, your fist held at arm's length covers about 10 degrees of arc in the night sky.

Jupiter will be heading toward the sun, while Mercury is moving away from the sun during this time. Immediately after sunset, concentrate on that part of the sky just above and to the left of where the sun has just set. Using binoculars, sweep around this part of the sky to see bright Jupiter sitting just below and to the left of the harder-to-spot Mercury.

May (all month long): Four of the five naked-eye planets will crowd together into what could be described as a Great Celestial Summit Meeting.

Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter are contained within a 10-degree span on May 1, shrinking to a minimum of less than 6 degrees on May 12, then opening back up to 10 degrees on May 20.

Twice during May, three planets close to within nearly 2 degrees of each other: Mercury-Venus-Jupiter (on May 11-12) and Mercury-Venus-Mars (May 21).  And the crescent moon joins the array on May 1 and again on May 30-31. 

June 1A partial eclipse of the sun:  The zone of visibility for this eclipse covers parts of northeast Asia, where the largest eclipse occurs over Cheshskaya Bay and the Bolshezemelskaya Tundra of far northwestern Russia. Here, the upper three-fifths of the midnight sun will appear bitten away. 

The eclipse will also be available to the northern two-thirds of Alaska (an early afternoon event), as well as northern and eastern portions of Canada, where viewers will see the eclipse during the course of their afternoon, as the sun slowly descends toward the west-northwest horizon.

Greenland and Iceland are also within the eclipse zone, the latter getting a view just before the sun begins to set in their late evening. The penumbral shadow quits the surface over the open waters of the Atlantic to the east of Newfoundland, as the sun passes out of sight.

June 15A total eclipse of the moon: The Americas are pretty much shut out of this event, but almost the entire Eastern Hemisphere will be able see it. [Photos: The Total Lunar Eclipse of 2010]

At mid-eclipse, the moon passes just north of the center of the Earth's shadow. As such, the duration of totality is an unusually long 100 minutes, which is just seven minutes shy of the absolute maximum for a total lunar eclipse. In fact, over the last one hundred years, only three other eclipses have rivaled the duration of totality of this eclipse: 1935, July 16 (101 minutes); 1982, July 6 (107 minutes), and 2000, July 16 (107 minutes).  

Aug. 13Perseidmeteor shower: More of a lowlight than a highlight; the annual summer performance of the Perseid meteor shower will be severely hindered by the light of a full moon.

Oct. 8Draconidmeteor shower: Many meteor experts are predicting a good chance that an outburst of up to many hundreds of Draconid meteors will take place. Unfortunately, like the Perseids, a bright moon could severely hamper visibility.  The peak of the display is due sometime between 16h and 21h UT, meaning that the best chances of seeing any enhanced activity from these very slow-moving meteors would be from Eastern Europe and Asia.   

Nov. 10Mars and bright star: A colorful conjunction takes place high in the predawn sky between the yellow-orange Mars and the bluish-white star Regulus in Leo, the Lion.  They are separated by 1.3 degrees, but theyll be within 2 degrees of each other for five days and within 5 degrees of each other for nearly three weeks, so they will be a rather long-enduring feature of the mid-autumn morning sky.

Nov. 25A partial eclipse of the sun: The earths penumbral shadow brushes the southern and western portion of South Africa.  Greatest eclipse nearly 91 percent of the suns diameter covered as it reaches a magnitude of 0.905 occurs at a point in the Bellingshausen Sea along the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. 

The shadow (just barely) manages to pass over Tasmania as well as portions of New Zealand's South Island. In fact, the last contact of the shadow with Earth occurs just to the west of the South Island, in the Tasman Sea.

Dec. 10A total eclipse of the moon: The side of the Earth that is facing the moon during this event is chiefly the Pacific Ocean, with eastern and central Asia seeing this as an evening event, while for North Americans this is a pre-sunrise affair. 

From a spot in the Philippine Sea, south of Japan and east of Taiwan, the moon will stand directly overhead during the middle of the eclipse. For those living in the Eastern Time Zone of the U.S. and Canada, the moon will have already dropped out of sight beyond the west-northwest horizon for those living near and along the Atlantic Seaboard. 

Over the central U.S. and Canada, the moon will become progressively immersed in the umbra as it approaches its setting; the farther west you go, the larger the obscuration before the moon goes out of sight. The western U.S. and Canada will be able to see the total phase.

Dec. 13Another low-light meteor shower: The Geminid meteor shower, now ranked as the best of the annual meteor showers, has the misfortune of occurring during the time of a waning gibbous moon, which will pretty much squelch all but the brightest meteors.

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.