10 celestial events to watch for in 2022
For the Steamboat Pilot & Today
If I had to characterize the year 2022 astronomically, I would call it, “The Year of Eclipses and Planets.”
There is something exciting happening in the sky almost every night of the year if you know when and where to look. I have sifted through all of the predictable celestial events for 2022 and selected the 10 that I am most excited about, including two total eclipses of the moon and several alignments of the major planets.
I used Starry Night Pro Plus 8 software to help select and describe my top 10 events, but readers should know that all celestial events are not predictable months in advance. There’s always a chance that an unexpected comet, supernova, or auroral storm could upstage any or all of my chosen events — and that’s okay with me.
While no optical aid is required to view and enjoy these events, a pair of binoculars or a small telescope will almost always enhance the view. For updates on these and other celestial events, keep an eye on my monthly “Celestial News” columns in the Steamboat Pilot & Today and also the NASA-sponsored websites apod.nasa.gov and SpaceWeather.com. Most of all, have fun this year sharing the sky with family and friends.
— Jimmy Westlake
Presented in chronological order, these are my top 10 celestial events for 2022.
April 4 – Mars passes very close to Saturn
As the planets whirl around the sun, they all follow the same celestial highway called the ecliptic, which passes through the 12 constellations of the zodiac.
Each planet moves at its own pace — some fast, some slow. It’s inevitable that the planets will occasionally cluster together or pass each other in the night.
On the morning of April 4, Mars will pass very close to Saturn, so close, in fact, that you could barely place a full moon between them. That’s close enough that you should be able to see both planets at the same time through a low to medium power telescope.
To see this spectacle, you’ll need a clear view down to the southeast horizon. The pair of planets will break the horizon at 4:45 a.m. MDT and will be about a fist-width high an hour later. That will be the best time to view the planets before the sun starts to brighten the sky.
Saturn will appear slightly brighter than Mars and Mars will appear slightly redder than Saturn. They will be equally close the next morning but after that, they will get farther apart each day.
April 30 – Jupiter meets Venus at dawn
Next up in the dance of the planets is a very close pass of Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest planets in the sky. On April 30, Venus will pass closer to Jupiter than one full moon diameter and will shine about six times brighter than Jupiter.
Like the close pass of Mars and Saturn earlier in the month, Venus and Jupiter will be close enough to fit together in the eyepiece of a telescope. Venus will show a phase like a tiny quarter moon, and Jupiter will be flanked by three of its giant moons — Ganymede on one side and Io and Callisto on the other side.
The planets will appear very low in the eastern sky at 5 a.m. MDT, about one hour before sunrise. Both Mars and Saturn will be shining to the right of the Venus-Jupiter pair. Four planets at once. That’s not bad.
May 15 – A prime time total lunar eclipse
I don’t know why, but it seems like the best celestial events tend to happen in the wee hours of the morning in the cold dead of winter. Not so with this spectacular total eclipse of May’s full Flower Moon that happens in the relative warmth of mid-spring and during the early evening hours before midnight.
Just as a refresher, a total lunar eclipse happens when the full moon passes into the shadow of the Earth and is temporarily blotted out. Sunlight filtering through the Earth’s atmosphere illuminates the shadowed moon with an artist’s palette of reddish hues, giving rise to the term “blood moon.”
May’s full Flower Moon rises around 8 p.m. MDT on the 15th and the partial phase of the lunar eclipse will begin minutes later at 8:27 p.m. For the next hour, the dark “bite” out of the moon will grow larger while the moon rises higher in the sky.
Totality begins at 9:29 p.m. and ends at 10:53 p.m., with maximum eclipse occurring at 10:11 p.m. It takes another hour for the moon to slip out of the Earth’s shadow and shine full again at 11:55 p.m. There’s another total lunar eclipse coming in November, but this month’s prime time eclipse will be the more pleasant of the two to watch.
May 29 – Mars passes Jupiter at dawn
In the third and final planet matchup of spring 2022, Mars meets up with Jupiter in the predawn sky on May 29.
Once again, the planets will appear about one full moon diameter apart, close enough to be viewed together through a telescope. Jupiter will shine 16 times brighter than ruddy Mars.
Catch the planet duo between 3:40 and 4:40 a.m. MDT before the onset of dawn, low in the eastern sky. Telescopically, Mars will look like a tiny red bead compared to the glowing white orb of Jupiter. Look for moons Europa and Ganymede on one side of Jupiter and Callisto on the other side.
Aug. 14 – Saturn reaches opposition
As the planets race around the sun in their respective orbits, their distances from Earth vary over the course of the year. The outer planets, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and, yes, even little Pluto, are closest to Earth during their oppositions, when the Earth passes between the planet and the sun.
Viewed from Earth, this places the planet in the opposite position (opposition) of the sun in the sky. Slow-moving Saturn comes to opposition once every 12.5 months and is due to reach opposition this year on Aug. 14.
At a distance of 823-million miles, Saturn will shine big and bright in our summer sky from the constellation of Capricornus. The whole month of August will be a great time to pull out your telescope and explore Saturn. A telescope of any size will reveal the beautiful, icy rings as well as Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Titan looks like a tiny orange star beside Saturn.
Sept. 26 – Jupiter reaches opposition
All oppositions of Jupiter are not created equal. Like Earth’s orbit, Jupiter’s orbit is an ellipse that leads it closer to the sun (and Earth) on one side and farther from the sun (and Earth) on the other side.
An opposition that occurs in a year when Jupiter is closest to the sun, as it is in 2022, is called a perihelic opposition, and it puts Earth and Jupiter as close together as possible.
When the giant planet Jupiter reaches opposition on Sept. 26, it will be 369-million miles from Earth, the closest it has come to us since September 2010.
Jupiter requires 12 years to orbit the sun and comes to opposition every 13 months, so it spends one year moving through each of the 12 constellations of the zodiac. This year, Jupiter is moving through the constellation Pisces, the Fish, just below the Great Square of Pegasus.
Watching Jupiter from night to night with a backyard telescope is fascinating. In addition to its dark cloud stripes and Great Red Spot, there are four planet-sized moons that change their positions around Jupiter every night.
Famed Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei discovered these four moons with his little one-inch telescope in 1610. Their names are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Any telescope will allow you to watch these moons as they whirl around the giant planet and this year’s perihelic opposition offers the perfect opportunity to give it a try. You won’t see Jupiter any bigger or brighter until 2034.
Nov. 8 – An encore total lunar eclipse, and Uranus, too
It isn’t unusual to have two lunar eclipses in the same year. That’s because the sun, moon and Earth align themselves for eclipses twice each year during our eclipse seasons, six months apart.
This month’s total eclipse of the full Hunter’s Moon happens six months after last May’s eclipse of the full Flower Moon. Unlike May’s eclipse, this month’s eclipse happens entirely after midnight, in the wee hours of the morning.
The partial eclipse begins at 2:09 a.m. MST and culminates with totality at 3:16 a.m. Totality will last for one hour and twenty-five minutes, centered on 3:59 a.m. The total eclipse ends at 4:41 a.m., and it will take the moon another hour and eight minutes to completely emerge back into the sunlight at 5:49 a.m.
The starry background for this eclipse is the constellation of Aries, the ram. One interesting aspect of this eclipse is the opportunity to spot Uranus less than two degrees off of the edge of the moon during the darkness of totality. Uranus is visible just barely to the unaided eye, so use binoculars or a small telescope to enhance the view.
As fate would have it, Uranus will be at its closest point to the Earth for the year and, consequently, as bright as it can get. Look for it about three moon diameters off of the edge of the totally eclipsed moon at the 11 o’clock position. If you miss this total eclipse of the moon, you won’t get another opportunity until March 13, 2025.
Dec. 7 – Double-header: A total eclipse of Mars at opposition
Oppositions of slow-moving Jupiter and Saturn happen every year, but oppositions of Mars are rarer. It takes the Earth 780 days (2.14 years) to gain a lap on Mars for an opposition.
Also, because of Mars’ elliptical orbit, some oppositions are closer and more favorable than others. Under the most favorable conditions, Mars can come within 34.6 million miles of Earth, as it did in 2003.
When Mars reaches opposition on Dec. 7, it will be 51.1 million miles from Earth, blazing like a red beacon right between the horns of Taurus, the celestial Bull. That’s not quite as close as it was in 2020, but it is closer than it will be at the next opposition in 2025. In fact, Mars won’t be closer to Earth until 2033.
You’ve probably seen a total eclipse of the moon. You might have even witnessed a total eclipse of the sun. But have you ever seen a total eclipse of Mars? Occasionally, the moon will pass in front of Mars and temporarily block it from view.
Astronomers use the term occultation when the moon eclipses a planet or star. Well, get ready to check this one off of your astronomical bucket list. On Dec. 7, the red planet Mars will be occulted (eclipsed) by the full Long Night Moon, coincidentally on the same night that it reaches opposition.
When the full moon rises in the northeastern sky around sunset, the bright, reddish planet will be trailing just behind it. The actual time of the occultation depends heavily on the observer’s ground location.
The following times are valid for observers in northwest Colorado. As the moon-Mars pair rises higher up in the sky, the distance between the two will shrink until 7:43 p.m. MST, when the leading edge of Mars reaches the trailing edge of the moon near the moon’s 8 o’clock position.
Mars will not wink out instantly because it has a sizeable disk, even though you can’t see the disk with the naked eye. It will take about 36 seconds for Mars to fade and disappear at 7:44 p.m. Mars will be hidden by the moon for about one hour, then it will begin to reappear near the moon’s 3 o’clock position beginning at 8:48 p.m. Forty-one seconds later, Mars will shine once again at its full brightness.
Although no optical aid is required to see this event, the view of the occultation through a telescope — any telescope — will be fantastic.
Dec. 14: The Geminid meteor shower
Have you ever seen a shower of falling stars? If not, here’s your chance. The annual Geminid meteor shower is due to peak before dawn on the morning of Dec. 14. Under ideal conditions, you can expect to see upwards of 90 Geminid meteors per hour at the peak of activity. However, this year’s conditions are not ideal.
The waning gibbous moon will shine from midnight to dawn and drown out many of the faintest meteors. But don’t let that discourage you from stepping out in the crisp night air to watch. The Geminid shower is rich in bright meteors and fireballs that make long, slow streaks across all parts of the sky. Just keep the moon to your back, and you’ll still see plenty of meteors. The meteors appear to spring out of our constellation Gemini, the Twins, hence the name for this shower.
Geminid meteors were first seen in 1862. Ever since then, the shower has been increasing in strength. The source of the Geminid meteors was not known until 1983. That’s when the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) found a small asteroid following the same orbital path as the meteor swarm.
Named 3200 Phaethon, it was the first asteroid discovered to generate a meteor shower. Almost all of the other annual meteor showers are associated with icy comets.
Dec. 26 – View all five naked-eye planets, plus the moon
There are five planets bright enough to be seen easily with the naked eye — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Getting to see all five of these “wandering stars” in the sky at the same time is most unusual, so when the opportunity arises, I like to take advantage of it.
That will be the case for the week between Christmas and New Year’s in 2022. I’ve chosen to describe the view that you will have on Dec. 26, but it will change very little over the following few nights, except for the location of the moon.
You will need to plan your observing location and timing very carefully. Choose a location away from city lights where you have a clear view down to the southwestern horizon. That’s where you will spot the planets Mercury and Venus, low in the colorful twilight.
The sun sets around 4:46 p.m. and Venus sets at 5:56 p.m., so you’ll need to start scanning for the pair of planets around 5:15 p.m., after the sunset glow has faded a bit. If the sky is clear, dazzling Venus should be easy to spot about five degrees above the horizon.
Fainter Mercury will be about 2 degrees above Venus at the 11 0’clock position. Get these two in your back pocket before moving on to the remaining planets. Finding Saturn will be much easier because it will be just off the cusp of the crescent moon.
Brilliant Jupiter will be shining high up in the southern sky and ruddy Mars will be gleaming high in the eastern sky. The fact that all five planets and the moon form a line across the sky is not a coincidence. Our solar system is flat, like a pancake, with the planets all orbiting in nearly the same plane.
When viewed from Earth, the planets seem to follow the same path through the 12 constellations of the zodiac. You’ll have several nights to attempt to see all five planets and the moon in the sky all at once. What a great way to end a great year of celestial events!
Jimmy Westlake is adjunct professor of Physical Sciences at Colorado Mountain College and former director of the Rollins Planetarium at Young Harris College in Georgia and the St. Charles Parish Library Planetarium in Luling, Louisiana. His “Celestial News” column appears monthly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
For more information about astronomy-related events in Steamboat Springs, including public star parties at CMC’s Ball Observatory, contact physics and astronomy instructor Paul McCudden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-870-4537 or visit the SKY Club web page at http://www.coloradomtn.edu/skyclub.
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