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Thursday, December 24, 2015



The chances are that if you live in rural Eastern Niagara County you’re a backyard astronomer of sorts. You might find yourself outdoors on a cool, clear winter night marveling at the countless stars in the heavens. In the summer months, you probably sit around campfires in your backyard yelling “did you see that?!” to your family and friends whenever a meteor streaks across the night sky.

There’s something innate, some primeval, about the interest, the love affair, with the nighttime skies. The universe is fascinating, awe-inspiring, and even relaxing – after a day of hustle and bustle and going in a hundred different directions, it’s always comforting to look skyward, see that vastness and realize that we and our human experiences are but tiny, inconsequential blips in the whole scheme of things.

We backyard astronomers like to maximize this appreciation, because, far too often, Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate with us. The Niagara County skies are some of the cloudiest in the United States, thanks to the Great Lakes and the prevailing southwesterly winds that drive the moisture from Lake Erie before it hits a brick wall of cold air created by Lake Ontario, creating the abundant clouds.

So, any time that we are blessed with a clear night, we like to take advantage of it. And, we always hope that it happens when some celestial event is taking place. To help you plan for that in 2016 -- and to give you the signal to start praying to God to ease up on the cloud machine a little bit -- here’s a look at some of the nighttime sights on tap for next year…

Eclipses

Unfortunately, observers on the Niagara Frontier won’t get to see any lunar or solar eclipses, either partial or full, in 2016. But, we’ll more than make up for it the next year: skywatchers are pumped for August of 2017 when a full solar eclipse will take place in the US, the first one in 38 years. When that event happens, we won’t be on the center line (which runs from the Carolinas to Oregon), but we will see two-thirds of the sun covered by the moon.

Northern Lights

The aurora borealis or northern lights are more abundant when the sun’s face is covered with sunspots and it is emitting all sorts of flares and other solar energy. In recent years, the sun hasn’t been too eventful as we are on the down slope of the 11-year sunspot cycle – some space weather enthusiasts believe that it might even be something worse than that recurring cycle’s trough and we might be heading into a prolonged period of a quiet sun.

Either way, the northern lights won’t be very common -- you might even call them downright rare -- for our latitude again in 2016 (we aren’t as lucky as northern Canada where they are bathed by the green glow most every night). In 2015 there were less than a half dozen aurora events that were visible from the Lake Ontario shore and we might see more of the same in 2016 unless the sun wakes up and belches some energy our way.

Comets

2016 will be a slow year for readily-visible comets (those you can see with naked eyes, binoculars or common backyard telescopes). The only one we have a chance to see is Catalina. During the first half of January, you will be able to see her but only as a small fuzzy dot through your binoculars. You will have to look east before the sun rises. This map should help you track Catalina: (link)

The year 2017 will be a different story as we will be graced with three comets that can be seen with binoculars and one of them might even become visible to the naked eye.

The best and brightest meteor showers

The Quantrids meteor shower will be the first of the year, peaking on Jan. 3 and 4. The second quarter moon will dull all but the brightest shooting stars, but the output will be good enough that you should see a few per hour. The best time to look is after midnight towards the constellation Bootes.

The Persieds meteor shower never ceases to amaze, throwing some really bright meteors out there. This year it will peak on Aug. 12 and 13. On both nights the waning moon will set around midnight, making for some excellent dark sky viewing (after midnight is always the best time to see these streakers anyways). Look towards the constellation Perseus to see them in their full beauty.

Unfortunately, due to timing in 2016, some of the other consistent showers (like December’s Geminids) won’t make for great viewing due to full moons or nearly full moons.

New moons 

If you are serious about stargazing, you will mark on your calendar every date on which there is a new moon. Basically “no moon,” the new moon ensures there is no moonlight robbing your skywatching experience, meaning you have full visibility of the stars, the Milky Way, meteors and more. You typically have decent dark sky viewing for three days on either side of the new moon.

New moons will occur on Jan. 10, Feb. 8, March 9, April 7, May 6, June 5, July 4, Aug. 2, Sept. 1, Oct. 1, Oct. 30, Nov. 29, and Dec. 29, 2016.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where cloudy nights consistently frustrate the stargazer. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at bobconfer@juno.com.



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