7 Stargazing Events Not to Miss This Spring and Summer

Dark (and beautiful) skies ahead

NASA/Bill Ingalls.

While most of us focus on the summer sun, it’s the summer nights that are slated for some serious excitement this season. Spring has already sprung a “supermoon,” the lunar event on May 5 that brought the moon 17,000 miles (27,359 kilometers) closer to Earth than usual. Keep your eyes trained on the night skies, because there are seven other events that are not to be missed. (Text: Katherine Butler)

Annular solar eclipse

Photo: Badruddeen/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

An annular solar eclipse happens when the moon is at its furthest point in orbit. On May 20, much of the planet will see some portion of this event as it sweeps the Earth. It will start in China, continuing across the Pacific. It will then sweep over the western United States, where it will end. Other parts of the planet, including East Asia, North Pacific, North America and Greenland, will see a partial eclipse.

Partial lunar eclipse of the moon

Photo: Jörg Weingrill/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

Lunar eclipses come in three forms: total, partial or penumbral. The umbra is the moon’s dark inner shadow. A partial lunar eclipse is when a portion of the moon passes through Earth's umbral shadow. This event is easy to see with the naked eye. A partial lunar eclipse will occur on June 4, 2012. It will be visible through most of western America through midnight and dawn, while parts of eastern Asia and Western Australia will also have a view. All of the Pacific will get an excellent eyeful. Europe, Africa and the Middle East are out of luck for this one.

Rare transit of Venus

NASA/LMSAL.

As we’ve previously reported, on June 5, Venus will pass directly between the sun and Earth while also crossing the Earth’s orbital plane. This rare transit is visible only every century or so and won’t be seen again until 2117. NASA reports that the start of the transit will be visible at sunset from much of North and Central America and parts of northern South America. During the sunrise of June 6, watchers in Europe, parts of western and central Asia, eastern Africa and Western Australia will witness the end of the event.

The top image shows Venus on the eastern limb of the sun. The bottom left image is in the ultraviolet, and the bottom right image is in the extreme ultraviolet.

Venus at its greatest illuminated extent

Wikimedia Commons.

Venus is one of the brightest objects in our skies, and on July 12, 2012, it will be shining forth. Called its greatest illumination event, experts describe this event as “the moment when the visible fraction of Venus’ day side — the part we on Earth can see — covers the greatest area of our sky.” The result is that Venus will appear brighter than ever. Since it has just passed between the Earth and the sun during its transit, the planet will also be relatively close to us. Venus will be best visible in the hours just before dawn in the eastern skies.

Lunar occultation of Jupiter

NASA/Olivier Staiger.

On the early morning of July 15, Jupiter will be briefly hidden by the moon. This is a rare event called a lunar occultation and occurs because the moon is passing between Earth and Jupiter. Unfortunately for the rest of the planet, it will be visible only to sky-watchers in southern England and parts of Europe. Pictured here is an occultation of Jupiter that occurred on April 23, 1998. As NASA describes this photo, “Venus is emerging just beyond the crescent's tip and Jupiter is trailing above the dark lunar edge with a spot of light, Jupiter's moon Ganymede, between the lunar limb and the planet’s disk.”

Curiosity Rover at Mars

NASA/JPL-Caltech.

True, this is not an event that will be visible from Earth. Nonetheless, the important moment in space history will take place on the evening of Aug. 5. At this time, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, carrying the one-ton Curiosity rover, will land on Mars near the base of a mountain inside Gale Crater. This is near the equator of the Red Planet. Pete Theisinger, a project manager for the Mars Science Laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says “Landing an SUV-sized vehicle next to the side of a mountain 85 million miles from home is always stimulating.” NASA plans to use Curiosity to explore the existence of water in the planet during its early history.

Perseid meteor shower

Photo: Luis Calçada/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

Every August, Earth moves through the cloud of debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle. Debris from this comet enters the Earth’s atmosphere “at roughly 133,200 mph (60 kilometers per second) relative to the planet.” This in turn brings the Perseid meteor showers. People have watched the Perseid meteor showers for the past 2,000 years. The Perseids can be seen everywhere, but NASA notes that the best viewing spots will be across the Northern Hemisphere. The Perseids will be visible on Aug. 9-11, but will peak on Aug. 12. They are named for the constellation Perseus, from which they appear to originate.