As the New Year approaches, the night sky will be lit up by comets and constellations, while the brightest star in the sky reaches its annual zenith. For anyone wanting to ring in 2016 from behind a telescope lens, there is plenty to see if you’re lucky enough to get clear skies.
Farewell to Comet Catalina
The comet Catalina has been a highlight of December’s skies, as the visitor from the Oort Cloud passes relatively close to Earth before swinging out of the solar system forever. Sadly, the comet never became as bright as some astronomers thought it might be, but the next few days will be a great opportunity for anyone wanting to test out any telescopes they may have gotten for Christmas, Eddie Irizarry writes for EarthSky.org.
While Catalina is only just barely visible to the naked eye, someone spying it with a telescope or a pair of binoculars might be able to make out some of its more fantastic features, such as its 500,000-mile-long double tail. As the full moon continues fading this week, sharp-eyed stargazers will have an increasingly better view of the comet as it comes closer and closer to Earth.
Irizarry reports that Catalina will be closest on January 17, 2016, so there’s just a few weeks left to catch a glimpse before it finally heads out of view. For the best chance of viewing the comet, look to the skies west of the bright star Arcturus just before dawn.
An Old Friend at Its Peak
The comet Catalina may only be stopping by briefly, but on New Year’s Eve stargazers will get a chance to see an old friend at its peak. Every year, on December 31, the Dog Star Sirius reaches its highest point in the night sky. No matter where you are in the world (except for regions near the south pole experiencing continuous daylight), Sirius will be visible at its peak in between sunset of New Year’s Eve and sunrise on New Year’s Day, Deborah Byrd writes for EarthSky.org.
If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, the best views are towards the south; if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, make sure to look north. If skies are clear, Sirius should be easy to pick out, as it marks the bottom point of a triangle formed with Betelgeuse in Orion’s Shoulder to the right and the star Procyon off to the left, Alan MacRobert writes for Sky & Telescope.
Sirius is so bright in the northern skies that it might appear to twinkle and flash red and blue, which should make it even easier to identify, Byrd writes.
Sirius’ rise may mark the end of 2015, but beginning on the evening of January 1, stargazers in the north will get a chance to watch two of the sky’s most prominent constellations orbit Polaris. Over the next few nights, the constellations Casseopeia and Ursa Major (which contains the Big Dipper) will circle around the North Star, EarthSky.org reports.
The best views will be in northern latitudes, as Ursa Major mostly lurks near or below the horizon even in the southern United States. Up north, the evening skies will hold a celestial carousel, as the two constellations rotate around Polaris every 12 hours or so. Starting at midnight on the evening of January 1, Casseopeia will be to the west of the north star, while Ursa Major will be to the east; but by dawn, Ursa Major will swing above Polaris while Casseopeia passes below.