Since prehistory, mankind has been looking at the skies for answers regarding the mysteries of the natural world. Hence, our ancestors were able to comprehend important concepts like time, seasons, climate, and distance. But no matter how far humanity has come in terms of technology, looking at the vast heavens (especially) at night still leaves people in a state of awe – realizing how insignificant we all are in the natural order of the universe.
In fact, in 2015, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a study that concluded the positive changes in a human’s personality after prolonged stargazing. More than 2,000 participants under 5 separate studies yielded a consistent result that describes the reduced sense of self-importance and increased pro-social behavior.
Inspiration, a spark of creativity, and a deeper perspective on life – all these still prove that mankind isn’t yet ‘too lofty to avoid seeking answers from above.’
Just like in prehistoric times, there are still among us who gaze upon the night sky as hobby or lore. And every year, these stargazers from all walks of life take note of the forecast for interesting cosmic events.
2018 was an exciting year for avid stargazers. In retrospective summary, it began with the Super Blood Moon and ended with the passing of Comet 46P/Wirtanen. The stargazing events in 2019 could be as wonderful as the last.
The Top 10 Astronomical Events In Detail
This year can be a busy period for passionate astrophotography enthusiasts collecting vivid night sky shots or outdoor vacationers who only wish to simply gaze the heavens by the blazing campfire.
With the introduction being given to you, let’s dive into the details of the ten sky events shown in the above image.
1. Total Lunar Eclipse
The total lunar eclipse is often characterized by a pale crimson glow of the moon’s disc. In some cases, the moon is practically visible. However, there are also instances where its emergence in the night sky is very obscure – as if it threatens to melt into the darkness of the night.
For every ancient civilization that worships the moon as a deity, a total lunar eclipse gives an impression of a wounded god/goddess. The Inca people of South America would gather en-masse to wail and create chaotic noise, believing that it would ward off the sky jaguar attacking the moon.
As far as science is concerned, a total lunar eclipse is simply a result of the moon’s orbital position. Using the earth as a point of reference, the sun and the moon sits directly above opposite hemispheres. Instead of sunlight, the moon rather mirrors the shadow of the earth (umbra).
A number of mystical traditions around the world consider this cosmic phenomenon as a crucial factor in their organized ceremonies (e.g. weddings). This curious practice stems from the belief that people’s fate, in concurrence with the balance of good and evil, is determined by a particular order of astronomical bodies in the cosmos.
It is important to understand, however, that planetary alignment in this article is specifically understood in terms of using earth as a point of reference (instead of the sun).
2019 Schedule & Details:
Unlike last year, the total lunar eclipse in 2019 can only be spotted once. The astronomical forecast schedules its appearance in the night sky on January 21. Fortunately, this cosmic event is visible in almost every part of the globe. Anyone in North America, South America, eastern Pacific Ocean, the western Atlantic Ocean, and the westernmost fringes of Europe and Africa can see it.
The first historically recorded sighting of the total lunar eclipse dates back as early as 2095 BC, in what was known as the Sumerian civilization. The ancient astrological compendium called Enuma Anu Enlil is comprised of 68 to 70 major serial tablets discussing Babylonian astrology.
A significant portion of the ancient writings pertaining to the total lunar eclipse described terrible omens and its ensuing disasters. These tragic events include the assassination of the Sumerian king, famine, and death on a massive scale. Fortunately, no similar horrific misfortunes ever occurred on the exact dates of 2018’s two blood moons (January 31 and July 27).
2. Venus Kisses Jupiter
There are roughly a dozen or so planetary conjunctions that appear in the sky each year. Due to their proximity to the sun and the earth, fast-orbiting celestial bodies like Luna (the moon), Mercury, and Venus dominate the stargazer’s visual roster.
2019 is a special timeline to witness the meeting of Aphrodite (Venus) and Zeus (Jupiter). Previous astronomical projections usually feature an extremely close proximity between these two celestial beings. As far as the Greco-Roman mythology is concerned, it ought to be a very awkward reunion.
One specific tale recounts Zeus’ unsuccessful attempt to rape the insatiable goddess of love. The latter fled, leaving the king of the gods to scatter his uncultured seed upon the earth. People in modern-day Cyprus may look upon the dim skies and wonder if Jupiter’s next fiasco would spawn another batch of centaurs in their homeland.
2019 Schedule & Details:
The conjunction of Venus and Jupiter is scheduled to occur twice in 2019. Curiously, however, these occurrences are separated by a significant 8-month delay. The first close encounter can be seen on the eastern horizon before daylight on January 22. For those who prefer to witness Venus and Jupiter on the western horizon by sunset, they ought to schedule their stargazing on November 22.
November 13 of 2017 marked the last time Venus and Jupiter were seen together. But while traditional mythology dictates that Zeus and Aphrodite never consummated, modern astronomy may figuratively refute that established tale.
On August 27 of 2016, Venus and Jupiter emerged in the same sky like conjoined heavenly bodies. In the naked eye, this cosmic romance appears like a huge exploding star. Oftentimes mistaken as another conjunction, it is technically called an appulse and it won’t happen again until 2065.
3. Mercury on Spotlight
The closest planet from the sun is passing its greatest elongation seven times within the year 2018. In scientific terms, elongation is described as the angular separation of an astronomical body from the sun, with the Earth being the point of visual reference. The further the planet from the sun as seen from Earth, the more visible it is in the sky.
Mercury serves as one of the ideal models for understanding the concept of elongation, considering its proximity with the sun.
Not surprisingly, it is the single most frequently visible planet in the sky for every calendar period.
Named after the Greek (aka Hermes) god of commerce, eloquence, communications, fortune and theft, Mercury is actually the closest brother of the sun god Apollo. Considering the knowledge of ancient Greek astronomers, this particular detail of the mythological narrative is more than just a mere coincidence.
2019 Schedule & Details:
The Mercury can be easily spotted in the sky either before sunrise or after sunset, respectively known as the western elongations and the eastern elongations. You can see Mercury after sunset in the western skies on February 27, June 23, and October 20. If you prefer to wake up early and spot it before sunrise, look for it in the eastern skies on April 11, August 9, and November 28.
The last time the Mercury shone its most visible form was December 15 of 2018. In a comical sense, the Greco-Roman god might have flown too fast on his way to crash Jesus Christ’s birthday and arrived 10 days earlier. Last year, Mercury appeared at the sky seven times.
4. Gift from Halley’s Comet
Halley’s Comet (also known as 1P Halley) would take 76 years to orbit around the sun, leaving behind a sparkling cosmic wreckage in our atmosphere. One of the two known meteor showers originating from Halley’s Comet is the Eta Aquarids. This meteor shower is able to launch up to 30 cosmic projectiles per hour, with the first meteoroid originating from the Aquarius constellation.
Like almost every heavenly bodies existing in the universe, the Eta Aquarids derives its namesake from Greco-Roman mythology. Legend tells of how the Olympian god king Zeus, enamored by the beauty of a prince named Ganymede, transformed into a majestic eagle to perform a successful abduction. After the kidnapping, the boy was given immortality and appointed as divine cup-bearer.
Mankind would look upon the goblet-shaped Aquarius constellation and wonder at how a relationship between a full grown man and a boy (pederasty) can inspire a popular creation myth. Perhaps Eta Aquarids signify an occasional overspill of blessings from Ganymede’s celestial cup.
2019 Schedule & Details:
Each year, the occurrence of Eta Aquarids falls between the middle of April and the end of May. The peak activity in 2019 is scheduled on the night of May 6 until the dawn of May 7. Experts foresee the ideal stargazing location anywhere within the earth’s southern hemisphere. The northern hemisphere (including the United States) may only feature around 10 to 20 meteors per hour.
As far as history goes, the visibility of Eta Aquarids always intertwined with its parent Halley’s Comet. Mankind has been seeing this meteor shower since prehistory. However, it wasn’t until the late 1800’s when this meteor shower was officially classified.
Lt. Colonel George Lyon Tupman of the Italian Meteoric Association was credited with the recorded detection of 15 meteors darting the night sky during his Mediterranean cruise on April 30, 1870. Interestingly in 2018, the Eta Aquarids shot in the heavens on the same exact calendar days.
5. Super Blue Moon
Astronomy is a science that abounds with consistent patterns or constant factors. As far as lunar events are concerned, one of these constants includes the standard occurrence of 12 full moons per year. However, there are mild deviations that break the consistent pattern of events in certain annual cycles. As such, there are years with 13 full moons.
This surplus deviation is known as the ‘blue moon.’ Hence, the phrase ‘once in a blue moon’ fits into the metaphor describing any rare occurrence. It is important to understand that this particular event tends to be misleading for those who aren’t familiar with technical concepts in astronomy.
As opposed to the complex principle defining the calendar sequence, a blue moon is often easily mistaken for its literal namesake color. Interestingly, seeing a neon-lit cerulean full moon is only possible after a major forest fire or volcanic eruption. That too only happens ‘once in a blue moon.’
2019 Schedule & Details:
The fifth uncharted full moon in the year 2019 cycle is bound to make an appearance in the night sky on May 18. It is important to take note that the occurrence of this cosmic event is also dependent on its specific time zone.
People in the east coast of the United States (e.g. New York) can witness this lunar event beginning at 5:11 PM. But for those on the west coast (e.g. California) sighting the blue moon starts a couple of hours after lunch, approximately 2:11 PM.
The study of the lunar phases and its cycles gives ancient people an edge in terms of determining the ideal conditions for farming, seafaring, and even procreation. The earliest recorded mention of the blue moon dates back as early as 18th Century, particularly with the Old Farmer’s Almanac published in 1782.
It is interesting to take note that the Algonquian tribes living alongside New England settlers helped shape the fundamentals of lunar forecasts in their almanac. According to the Native American lunar calendar, the 2019 blue moon is the ideal time to get busy. In other words, farmers and husbands should start ‘planting their own respective seeds.’
6. Total Solar Eclipse
Just like the total lunar eclipse, a total solar eclipse is also a subject that strongly evokes dread. It is characterized by a dimly lit halo hanging above the dark morning sky. This is a result of the moon orbiting much nearer to earth and obscuring the sun behind it. Warning: looking directly at an eclipsed sun without visual filters can cause impaired vision (at best) or blindness (at worst)!
Solar eclipses have significantly contributed to the opulent cultural aspects of astronomy. From the Greek word ekleipsis, which means ‘to abandon,’ several ancient people in various cultures around the world aptly associated it to doomsday. Such were the days when worshippers see their sun deity (e.g. Amun-Ra, Apollo, or Amaterasu) extinguish before them.
While solar eclipse is often associated with bad events, there are instances when it also positively shaped world history. One, in particular, concerns the discovery of the element helium while observing the total eclipse of August 18, 1868 – the same exact day predicted by King Mongkut of Siam (Thailand) two years earlier.
2019 Schedule & Details:
The total solar eclipse of 2019 is set to occur on July 2 – two days before the highly celebrated American Independence Day. Unfortunately for the avid stargazers in the United States, they have to catch this lunar spectacle somewhere out of the country.
This solar eclipse is visible in South America, particularly in the central parts of Argentina and Chile. Experienced travelers who wish to embark on a westward Pacific voyage must visit French Polynesia, Pitcairn Islands, and the easternmost part of New Zealand.
A total solar eclipse is just one of the many cosmic events that stargazers have witnessed and observed extensively since prehistoric times. However, the earliest recorded history of such an occurrence dates back as far as 2134 BC in ancient China. The fourth king of the Xia Dynasty, Zhong Kang, once executed two royal astrologers failing in their eclipse forecast due to drunkenness.
The average duration of a solar eclipse in the 21st Century is roughly 2 to 3 minutes. But in 2009, the longest total solar eclipse literally eclipsed the regular timeframe up to threefold. The renowned July 22 solar event lasted for 6 minutes and 39 seconds.
7. Sighting the Superior Planets
Wandering the outlying orbits of the Solar System, the superior planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are among the most distant cosmic objects visible from Earth. Their clarity is determined by an astronomical principle called opposition.
In theory, the position of these outlying planets during its greatest opposition is angled at 180 degrees – hiding directly from the sun behind Earth. Curiously, these four giants were named after the principal gods of the Greek mythology.
Jupiter (Zeus) occupies the highest echelon as king of the universe. Saturn (Chronos) bears the Roman variant of the dethroned Titan god of time. Uranus (Ouranos) was named after the oldest Titan god of skies. Neptune (Poseidon), Jupiter’s brother and celestial viceroy, ruled the seas. Their size, color, and orbital arrangement serve as a deliberate allusion to their mythological hierarchy.
2019 Schedule & Details:
The highest visual quality for each of these superior planets can only be witnessed once, and each of them will appear in separate calendar dates. Jupiter (and a good portion of its 69 moons with a telescope) is visible all night long on June 10. If you prefer to see Saturn and its prominent multi-colored rings, you may catch it glowing brightly in the night sky on July 27.
For Uranus and Neptune, you may catch them closing the distance to Earth respectively on October 27 and September 9. Both of these planets can avoid detection from our unaided eyes and the use of telescope may require skillful night sky navigation. Take note: look for Venus to see Uranus, and look for Mars to see Neptune. Using interactive apps (e.g. Exoplanet) is very helpful for novices who struggle with getting the right bearings from traditional star charts.
While all of these superior planets bear the names of principal gods in Greek mythology, only two were actually christened in the same classical era. Due to their sheer enormity, both Jupiter and Saturn stood in the cosmic limelight as far back as prehistoric times. The invention of the telescope during the Late Middle Ages was crucial to the development of a more accurate observation.
Galileo Galilei, the father of modern astronomy, was the first to closely monitor Jupiter and Saturn through a telescope in 1610. Uranus and Neptune were previously mistaken as stars due to their comparatively slow movement. The earliest naked eye observation of Uranus by Hipparchus of Nicea (128 BC) persisted until it was seen and confirmed as a planet by William Herschel in 1781. Galileo also mistook Neptune as a star until confirmation as a planet was established in 1846 by Johann Galle and Urbain Le Verrier.
8. Fastest Brightest Meteorites
2019 is expected to feature a total of 11 meteor showers in the night sky. The Perseids are scheduled to grace the heavens anytime in the middle of the year (as it always should). These meteor showers are a residue of the comet Swift-Tuttle, which was discovered in 1862 by two of its namesake astronomers – Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle.
The Perseids are able to produce 60 projectiles per minute during its peak. What really makes these meteor showers interesting is that each darting object travels at an average speed of 60 kilometers per second. Greater velocity also equates to greater friction as each meteoroid crashes and burns in the atmosphere. Hence, Perseids’ stream yields very bright and colorful meteor showers.
Identified after the Perseus constellation, this cosmic event also derived its cultural identity from Greco-Roman myths. The demigod Perseus, the illegitimate son of Zeus and a mortal queen, is not only one of the greatest heroic archetypes in the ancient Greek-speaking world. He is also the known patriarch of Iran’s once glorious empire – Persia.
2019 Schedule & Details:
The occurrence of the Perseids will be at its peak on August 12 and August 13 – beginning an hour after sunset and ending before daylight. It is important to take note that the full moon is expected to come into sight two days following the peak of meteor showers.
The moon would brighten the young night skies of the 12th and 13th day, interfering with the visibility of Perseids. Experts advise stargazers to schedule their observation after midnight when the moon is set to retreat to a distant horizon – specifically around 3:00 AM.
Prior to its official discovery in 1835 by the Belgian astronomer Adolphe Quetelet, the earliest documented sighting of the Perseids dates back roughly 1,500 years earlier. On August 10 of 258 AD, a charismatic Christian devotee was martyred in Rome. So what do the Perseids have anything to do with it? The meteor showers occurred on the day St. Lawrence was executed – hence, the early medieval name St. Lawrence’s Tears.
Interestingly, the Perseids inspired one of the many timeless recordings of legendary American country musician, John Denver. A line in the chorus lyrics of the song Rocky Mountain High sings “I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.” This pertains to the meteor showers he saw during one of his family camping trips in Aspen, Colorado.
9. Moving Speck on the Sun
Elongation is not the only phenomenon involving the smaller, faster and nearer heavenly bodies orbiting the sun. Like the eclipse of the moon, Mercury and Venus also have their ‘transit.’ This event is characterized by the passing of a small speck moving along a specific trajectory along the length of the sun’s disc.
It is important to understand that Mercury is 227 times smaller than the sun. Due to its relative distance from the earth, it will require a sophisticated filtered telescope with 50x magnification to witness this extraordinary phenomenon. Catching this moving dot on the sun can be an important milestone for avid stargazers considering that this event only occurs 13 times per century.
Interestingly, this cosmic phenomenon also accurately parallels one event in Greco-Roman mythology involving their two namesake gods. Hermes once ‘crossed’ his older brother Apollo for stealing the latter’s favorite cattle. The universe, indeed, has a savage way of retelling that tale.
2019 Schedule & Details:
The rare transit of Mercury across the sun is expected to happen on November 11 of 2019. This event is highly visible in South America and the Caribbean. Full visibility is only restricted in the eastern part of United States, with its western demarcation running along (from north to south) Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Curiously, the history of Mercury’s transit along the sun was already theorized years prior to its first actual observation. The renowned astronomer Johannes Kepler managed to predict its appearance on November 10 of 1630 though an unpleasant weather interfered with the visibility. It was the younger colleague Pierre Gassendi who was credited for witnessing it using a clever projection of the sun’s 20-cm image through a white screen.
This specific event also once coincidentally occurred during the coronation of King Charles II of England occurred on May 3, 1661. But being an avid patron of the arts and sciences prior to his ascendancy to the throne, it might be too much of the coincidence that this Mercury transit was discovered by London’s brilliant Dutch astronomer – Christiaan Huygens.
10. Annular Solar Eclipse
There is more than one type of solar eclipse and their differences are easily apparent at first look (provided that people gaze at them through safety solar filter). The partial solar eclipse is characterized by a crescent-shaped glow. The total solar eclipse features a thin faint halo. An annular solar is defined by a thick fiery loop.
The main difference in detailed appearance between a total and annular solar eclipse is determined by the moon’s distance from earth. Outlying objects look smaller the farther they move away from the observer’s viewpoint. The lunar disc blocking the sun during an annular eclipse is merely far from the earth, hence, producing a thicker and brighter corona.
Aside from the usual superstitious fear it evokes, a solar eclipse of this variety often has an uncanny habit of being the fitting atmosphere over many bloody battlefields. The last three annular eclipses of the Classical Period have been the blight in the daylight skies during the Greek-Persian War (480 BC) and Peloponnesian War (431 to 424 BC).
2019 Schedule & Details:
The annular eclipse in 2019 is scheduled to occur on December 26 – a day after Christmas. Superstitious Christians in the United States may breathe a sigh of relief knowing that their holiday is spared from this ‘intense’ spectacle. This cosmic event follows an eastward visibility path that starts from Saudi Arabia ending all the way to Guam.
The earliest recorded history of an annular solar eclipse is found in the Bible, precisely in Chapter 10:12 of the Book of Joshua. As far as the narrative goes, the miraculous solar eclipse helped the Israelites annihilate all five Canaanite kings and their armies – hence, ending the campaign for reclaiming the Promised Land (modern-day Israel and Palestine).
Both the standard calculations of the astronomical date and archaeological evidence prove that a celestial ring fire occurred within a period of a marked prolific presence of Hebrew culture in the Levantine region. The solar eclipse in 1207 BC lasted 7 minutes and 4 seconds – more than enough time to tip the scales of battle.