The poet Shelley wrote: “O Wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” The answer to his question this year has been “Yes!”
But spring will come. Astronomers tell us that starting March 20, Earth will reach the point in its orbit at which its northern hemisphere will begin to tilt more toward than away from the sun. Sunsets are getting later and the length of day longer. Warmth will have to grow.
Today, I preview the several really amazing astronomical events of spring that may lift spirits for skywatchers. For one, imagine the warmth of Memorial Day weekend watching perhaps 200 meteors (“shooting stars”) per hour — many of them unusually bright — zooming over New Jersey.
Looking ahead to spring and its great sky-sights. On March 20, the first day of spring, an incredibly rare astronomical event will occur very briefly and just miss South Jersey.
If you are almost anywhere in New York City or Long Island in the pre-dawn hours that day, you may see the bright star in Leo’s heart, Regulus, vanish from view for a few seconds as the shadow of a 45-mile-wide asteroid races northwest at 11,400 mph across parts of New York state.
Devoted amateur astronomers who might make a trip to see this should start their planning now. See www.skyandtelescope.com and, for the really technical details, www.occultations .org/ Regulus2014.
Other great spring astronomical events are visible in New Jersey (indeed, over all or most of the world). One of these is the “opposition” and close approach of the planet Mars.
Mars already is getting bright and colorful — orange-yellow — in our skies, but for much of April it will shine a little brighter and, in telescopes, look a little bigger than it has at any time since 2007.
We’re sure to have many chances in April to enjoy Mars, especially because it will be visible all night long. But we have to keep our fingers crossed that the sky is clear for us in pre-dawn hours April 15. That is the night when we have what I think could be the most beautiful total eclipse of the moon in decades.
It should not only be a long and colorful eclipse, but it will feature the moon in Virgo very close to one of the sky’s brightest stars, Spica, and have Mars at its flaming brightest not too far off to the side. This will be magnificent to observe, and these days almost anyone can get good photographs.
Saturn will be at its best in May. Venus, the brightest planet, will pose breathtakingly near the moon on several occasions. The first and best of these Venus-moon pairings will be on March 27.
In the next few months, there is a reasonable chance that we finally could get a fine display of Northern Lights visible from southern New Jersey.
The really rare and potentially stunning event in New Jersey skies is predicted to peak a few hours after midnight on May 25, the day before Memorial Day: the powerful and bright “meteor shower.”
Sights for these next two cold weeks. Our next two weeks are not without their own attractive sky sights, if you just dress warmly enough to enjoy them. About 7 p.m. Friday, that dramatic point of light just below the half moon is the eye of Taurus the bull, the bright star Aldebaran. And the full moon is fairly near brilliant Jupiter Sunday evening.
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: email@example.com.