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Big celestial events to watch out for this year

Big celestial events to watch out for this year

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years.

Environmentalist and author Paul Hawkens suggested one answer.

Addressing the commencement class of the University of Portland in 2009, he said: "No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God.

"Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television."

This year though, the heavens are set to sparkle with so many spectacular displays, our television sets will be left neglected in the corner.

From a total solar eclipse in March to the king of meteor showers in December - here's a breakdown of the top celestial events lighting up our skies this year.

January

The first of six supermoons this year occurs on January 20, as the moon falls directly between the earth and the sun.

Although not visible from the earth, the New Moon occurrence means it is the best time to observe usually faint objects such as galaxies or star clusters without interference from the typically bright moonlight.

So if you're out wanting to capture clear star trails with your camera, this is the date to do it.

  (Andrew McMillan)
via STV via STV

February

In February, giant planet Jupiter will be at its closest approach to Earth with its face fully illuminated by the sun, making it the best time of year to view and photograph the planet and its moons.

You should be able to see some of Jupiter's cloud bands as well as its four largest moons.

There will also be a rare conjunction of Venus and Mars, where the two will appear brightly and extremely close together in the sky at around sunset.

  (NASA)
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March

Two big events are set to take place this month - one far far above us.

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has entered an approach phase on Ceres, a dwarf planet never before visited by a spacecraft.

Dawn launched in 2007 and is scheduled to enter Ceres orbit in March 2015, so keep your eyes on the news for the first pictures it sends back.

The spacecraft's arrival at Ceres will mark the first time that a spacecraft has ever orbited two solar system targets.

  (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
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The second big event is one we can see - a total solar eclipse.

Although a total eclipse can be seen from earth every year or two, they are very rarely seen from Europe, which is why excitement is growing for this one.

On March 20, the moon will completely block the sun, allowing for a great view of its beautiful corona.

Tour operators within the Arctic Circle are already planning special trips to see it around northern Norway, where it's expected to cast an eerie glow on the snow and ice.

The total phase of the eclipse won't be completely view-able from Scotland, but it can be observed as a partial solar eclipse.

The next total eclipse will be in America in 2017, and the next total eclipse anywhere near the UK will be in 2081 in central Europe, and finally in Britain in 2090.

  (Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be)
via STV via STV

April

The Lyrid meteor shower - April's shooting stars - will reach its maximum rate of activity on April 22, with some shooting stars associated with the shower expected to be visible each night from April 19 to April 25.

The radiant point of the Lyrids lie in the constellation Lyra and Lyrid meteors tend to be bright and often leave trails which can make for great photographs.

About 10-20 meteors per hour can be expected at their peak, plus, according to EarthSky the Lyrids are known for uncommon surges that can sometimes bring the rate up to 100 per hour.

Tom Replogle

May

On May 23, ringed planet Saturn will be at its closest approach to the earth making it the best time to view the planet and its moons.

A medium-sized or larger telescope will allow you to see Saturn's rings and a few of its brightest moons.

  (NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute)
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June/July

The big space news this summer is that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at Pluto after a nine and a half year journey.

Launched on January 19, 2006, this will be the first spacecraft to visit Pluto and send back the first close-up views of the dwarf planet and its moons.

After passing Pluto in July, the spacecraft will continue on to the Kuiper belt to examine some of the other icy bodies at the edge of the Solar System.

ScienceAtNASA

August

The month of August is host to the Perseids, one of the best meteor showers to observe, with up to 60 bright meteors per hour at its peak.

It's an annual trip for them as they swing by each year in the second week of August as part of a sort of orbital galactic summer vacation.

Its peak this year is set for the night of August 12 and can appear anywhere in the sky.

Jeff Sullivan

September

On September 1, blue giant Neptune will be at its closest approach to Earth but will still only appear as a tiny blue dot in your telescopes.

Several of our observatories across Scotland will be able to view it though and generally hold public astronomy evenings for those interested in attending.

  (NASA/JPL - http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA00046)
via STV via STV

October

The beautiful blue-green planet Uranus will be at its closest point to earth this month on October 11, and can be viewed as a bright turquoise dot through powerful telescopes.

Venus and Jupiter will also be in rare conjunction, with the two bright planets visible within a degree of each other just before sunrise on October 26, and on October 28 Mars will join them, making a tight triangle in the morning sky.

The Draconids meteor shower also returns in October, peaking on the 8th, but will be hard to spot as the moon will be in its second phase.

However, if you head to some of Scotland's darkest spots, like Galloway Forest, you may be able to spot a few good meteors shooting by.

November

The Leonids meteor shower peaks on the night of November 17, where meteors will radiate out from the constellation Leo.

An average shower, you can expect around 15 meteors per hour if you manage to seat yourself in a dark location with minimal light pollution.

We would suggest being well out of the city limits if you hope to catch a view of anything.

  (Ed Sweeney under CC License: (https://www.flickr.com/photos/edsweeney/))
via STV via STV

December

The final month of the year not only brings the rare conjunction of the Moon and Venus, but also the king of meteor showers - the Geminids.

Considered by many to be the best meteor shower in the night sky, the Geminids can produce up to 60 multicoloured meteors per hour at their peak, and this year that peak should be on the nights between December 13 and 14.

With the moon at its crescent phase, you can expect a great dark sky environment for viewing what is expected to be an excellent show.

One of the best spots in Scotland is Galloway Forest, the UK's first Dark Sky Park.

Over 7,000 stars and planets are visible with the naked eye from the park, including the bright band of the Milky Way.

Cover image copyright: Mila Zinkova

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