SALT LAKE CITY — From an astronomical point of view, 2019 started off with a bang Sunday night as millions of people in the Western Hemisphere were able to observe a blood moon lunar eclipse. In other respects it will be a typical year in the night sky. But that doesn't mean there won't be lots of splendid sights.
"There's a couple of things that are going to catch people's eye this year," said Richard Ingebretsen, a professor in the University of Utah Department of Physics and Astronomy. If you ask him what to look for in the firmament, he's liable to get excited and start drawing sketches of the solar system.
"Venus orbits the sun like this," he said, sketching the path of Venus on a stray sheet of paper in the department's on-campus observatory. He noted that Venus will give us plenty of face time this year, posing as the "morning star" just before sunrise or the "evening star" just after sunset.
"That's not rare, but it sure is beautiful," Ingebretsen said. "Mercury will do the same thing, only it won't be as far away as Venus, but you'll still be able to see it."
Mercury has something special — and relatively rare — on its schedule in the daytime on Nov. 11, a so-called "transit of Mercury" across the face of the sun, the last one visible from North America until 2049.
"Mercury will become exactly between us and the sun," Ingebretsen explained. But to see it, viewers will need to use special filters to protect their eyes. Ingebretsen's department plans to make the proper equipment available for public viewing on Nov. 11.
"You can actually see it moving, over a few minutes, in front of the sun," Ingebretsen said, "and it's beautiful to see."
This Tuesday morning, Venus will also have a special moment. It will appear very close in the sky to Jupiter. But that's a bit of a trick of the eye, Ingebretsen pointed out, because Jupiter is always vastly more distant than Venus. "When you have two planets close together they are not close together at all," he said. "They just look like they're close together."
For skywatchers in the summer, a big treat is always the Perseids meteor shower, which typically peaks around Aug. 12. It's Ingebretsen's favorite meteor shower each year, but he said it disappoints many viewers who make the mistake of going to bed too early. It's best to stay up late until the Earth rotates Utah into the best viewing position: straight into the oncoming meteors.2 comments on this story
"After 1 o'clock in the morning," Ingebretsen said. "Stay up and you'll see a really dazzling sight."
The astronomical highlight of 2019 — hands down — will come on July 2. It's a total solar eclipse. But, sorry Utah, totality will not be visible here or anywhere else in North America. The eclipse path will cut across South America, west to east over Chile and Argentina.
"So if you know people who are going to be in South America," Ingebretsen said, "or you want to go to South America around that time, plan it around the time of the eclipse. It's worth the effort."