Huestis: Astronomical Highlights of 2017

Sunday, January 01, 2017


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Ever since I became interested in astronomy in the early 1970s I was aware of a total solar eclipse that would cross the United States diagonally from Oregon to South Carolina. Well, as of January 1 that spectacular event will be a mere 233 days away on August 21. While totality will not be visible from southern New England, here in Rhode Island about 66% of the solar disk will be covered by the Moon. 

Fortunately, a day or two’s drive will position you within the 65-mile wide path of totality. Flights to observing locations farther to the west and northwest could possibly be accomplished. However, regardless of what mode of transportation you choose, lodging anywhere near the path of totality could be non-existent or outrageously expensive. One hotel chain I contacted back in July 2015 was originally contemplating charging $1000 per night and requiring a three-night minimum!! They later settled for $899.

So if you haven’t already booked lodging, you may not find anything within a 150 mile drive of the path of totality, or if you do find an establishment you may have to mortgage your house to finance it. Perhaps folks will not book lodging with such high rates and the prices may drop just prior to the event. I will write an extensive column about this Great American Total Solar Eclipse in my August column. Check out this interactive eclipse map that shows the entire path through the United States:  

You can zoom in on any location within the eclipse path to get an idea of how long totality will last, or determine how much of the solar disk will be covered by the Moon outside of the path of totality.

While the total solar eclipse is most definitely the highlight of 2017, there are many other astronomical happenings waiting to be observed. The following is a sampling of events to come.  

On January 4 at 9:17am the Earth is at perihelion (closest to the Sun) for 2017 at 91,404,322 miles. This might seem counterintuitive, but the northern hemisphere is titled away from the Sun at that time and we experience winter. On July 3 at 4:11pm the Earth will be at aphelion (farthest from the Sun) at 94,505,901 miles. This three million mile plus difference in the Earth’s elliptical orbit does not affect our global temperature.     

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The first major meteor shower of the year, called the Quadrantids, occurs during the early morning hours of January 3. No Moon will interfere. These blue shooting stars blaze across the sky at 25.5 miles per second. While 100 meteors per hour are possible, 60 or so is more realistic. Still, the Quadrantids are a very narrow stream of particles, yielding higher numbers for only about an hour or so. One year I called it quits because of the cold temperature and little meteor activity, learning a week later that soon after I retired for the morning the meteors poured out of the sky for a brief but impressive display. Since the peak is forecast during daylight hours for us on the east coast, I would suggest observing between 3:00am and dawn’s early light.

While you can see these meteors anywhere in the sky, their radiant point (the area of sky from where the meteors appear to originate) is not far from the end star, Alkaid, of the Big Dipper’s handle. Find a dark sky location as far away from city lights as possible. Also shield your eyes from local streetlights or neighbors’ security lights. From midnight till dawn, this area of sky will rise higher and higher above the northeast horizon, and by 4:00am it will be almost at zenith (directly overhead). You’ll know you’ve spotted a Quadrantid meteor if you can trace its trajectory back to the radiant point. I’ve seen many Quadrantids shoot more than halfway across the sky! Be sure to dress warmly and do not fall asleep out there under the shooting stars. If the morning of the 3rd is clouded out, you still may catch a few Quads on the morning of the 4th.

The schedule of the other major meteor showers for 2017 appears in a table at the end of this column.

Venus will continue to be that bright beacon seen in the western sky after sunset as 2017 begins. On January 12, it will be at its highest position above the horizon. Telescopic observers should observe Venus as it runs through its phases. At the beginning of January Venus will be just more than half illuminated, looking like a waxing gibbous Moon. The phase will slowly decrease, eventually looking like a waxing crescent as the planet moves towards the horizon and its conjunction with the Sun.

During the early evening of February 11 there is an unremarkable penumbral eclipse of the Moon. The Moon will slide deep into the Earth’s lighter shadow, but will just miss the Earth’s dark umbral shadow. The top portion of the Moon’s disk will look slightly dusky.

Amateur astronomers will be observing Jupiter and Saturn between midnight and dawn during the first few months of the year. By mid March giant Jupiter will be visible high in the eastern sky around 10:00pm. On April 7 Jupiter will be at opposition, rising at sunset. Saturn will likewise be an early morning telescopic target at the beginning of 2017. Saturn will rise before midnight during May, and will reach opposition on June 15. Stargazers will be fortunate to have two bright planets to observe for a couple of months. Jupiter will be visible until late July or early August, depending upon one’s horizon. Saturn will be visible through until mid to late October, again depending upon one’s horizon. In October Saturn’s rings will be at their maximum tilt towards the Earth—27 degrees. We’ve been looking at the north face of Saturn’s rings since the Earth passed above the ring plane in 2009.

Another beautiful celestial sight will be a very slender waning crescent Moon to the lower right of Venus before sunrise on May 22. Notice the earthshine that illuminates the lunar surface not receiving sunlight. Why does this phenomenon occur? If you were on the Moon looking back at the Earth, the Earth would be in a waxing gibbous phase, just before Full Earth (the phase of the Earth is always the opposite phase of the Moon).

On June 9 we experience a Minimoon, the smallest Full Moon of 2017. This scenario is in contrast to a Supermoon! And like a Supermoon, this mini version would not even be recognized as such by the majority of folks without the media hype. 

For a nice view of two planets, look towards the eastern sky before sunrise on November 13. Less than ten degrees above the horizon will be a conjunction of brilliant Venus and Jupiter. The pair will be separated by less than one full moon diameter. Get out your cameras and snap an image of this beautiful event.

Furthermore, like 2016, there are multiple occultations of Taurus’ bright star Aldebaran. They occur on September 12, November 5, and December 30. I will bring the details of these events to your attention in their respective monthly columns.

And our solar system’s closest planet to the Sun, Mercury, will become visible several times in the evening after sunset and also in the morning sky before sunrise throughout the year.

So as you see, 2017 has a lot to offer the amateur and casual stargazer alike. Let’s hope the majority of these celestial events elicit the full cooperation of Mother Nature.

In conclusion, please remember, weather permitting, the local observatories remain open during the winter months to share beautiful views of the heavens. Snow or ice can force closures, so please check the respective websites for any cancellation notices and observing schedules before venturing out for a visit. Seagrave Memorial Observatory in North Scituate is open every clear Saturday night. Ladd Observatory in Providence is open every Tuesday night. The Margaret M. Jacoby Observatory at the CCRI Knight Campus in Warwick is open every clear Wednesday night. Frosty Drew Observatory in Charlestown is open every clear Friday night.

Some of the topics highlighted in this column may be covered in depth as an event date approaches.

Please clip and save the following chart showing the observing prospects for the 2017 meteor showers. These displays of shooting stars only require your eyes, dark skies, and patience to enjoy.

Meteor Shower Prospects for 2017

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Keep your eyes to the skies for 2017 and always.

Happy New Year!   

David A. Huestis


Related Slideshow: 25 Things to do in New England This Winter - 2016

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Newport Winter Festival

Newport, Rhode Island

From February 12 to 21, Newport will be hosting the 28th annual Newport Winter Festival throughout Newport County. Hosting events like Beatlemania, chili cook-off, the Winter Festival is 10 days of music and over 150 events, providing fun for the entire family.

Photo courtesy of Newport Winter Festival

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Dog Sled Tours at New England Dog Sledding

Mason Township, Maine

Embrace the call of the wind and head to New England Dog Sledding for some dog sled tours. Tours are pulled by trained and "very friendly" Alaskan Husky sled dogs and are offered throughout the Bethel, Maine and North Conway,New Hampshire areas. You can also enjoy skijoring, which is nordic skiing pulled by a dog, so you can bring your own or rent one of theirs!  

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Curling at Ocean State Curling Club 

Cranston RI

Try something new, like curling.

The Ocean State Curling Club has your curling fix. Hosting events and tournaments or "bonspiels" at the Veteran’s Memorial Ice Rink in Cranston, RI, the Ocean State Curling Club is a "social club for anyone interested in recreational curling." The club also offers lessons for those who want to learn the sport. 

Photo: dave/Flickr

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Ski Ward

Shrewsbury, MA

Go tubing, skiing or snowboarding on the different terrains of Ski Ward. 

New to the mountain? You can learn how to ride with lessons from their instructors or perfect your technique if you happen to be more experienced. And don't forget to take the whole family out to Slope side Bar and Grill after a long day in the snow. 

Photo: Ski Ward

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Ice Fishing

It's practically a tradition for a lot of people but ice fishing is an interesting winter experience. Head out to the ponds and see what you can get. 

But be safe, it takes 4-6 inches of ice to support a person and 8-10 inches to support a vehicle.

Photo courtesy of Dushan Hanuska/flickr

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Ice Climbing with Adventure Spirit 

Burlington, Vermont

For the adventurous out there, Adventure Spirit in Vermont is your place for ice climbing. Choose from climbing at Bolton Quarry, Bristol Cliffs or even Smuggler's Notch to be lead by one of their experienced instructors. Be prepared to spend your day strenuously climbing some of nature's frozen streams and flow offs. They also offer alpine climbing and outdoor rock climbing for those who wish to fully test their limits.

Photo: Daniel/Flickr

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Cross Country Skiing

East Bay Bike Path, Bristol to Providence RI 

Grab your poles and skis and head down to the East Bay Bicycle Path for some Cross Country Skiing. Of course, you can go cross country skiing anywhere there is snow and some flat land, but the East Bay Bike Path stretches about 14 miles from Bristol to India Point Park in Providence. 

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Lowell Winterfest 

Lowell, MA

The 16th Annual Lowell Winterfest is set to take place on February 19 and 20th. 

The schedule f events includes free ice skating, an opening ceremony and a big winter carnival that the kids will simply love. 

Ice Sculptures, a fire dance and a city hall lighting also highlight the festival.

Photo: Mike/Flickr

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Go Snowshoeing

For those who can't ski or snowboard, snowshoeing is another way to get around in the snow. Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire ski resorts have designated snowshoeing facilities, but the best part is you can strap into a pair and walk around anywhere snow is too deep for boots. 

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Sledding in RI 

Winter time means it's time to get the sleds out and find some serious hills to conquer. 

Click here for Golocal's most recent list of the best sledding hills in Rhode Island. 

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Pond Hockey

Lace up the skates, grab your favorite jersey and stick and hit the frozen ponds for some hockey. Maybe just some one on one action or grab a bunch of friends and play a full scale game. 

Either way enjoy the ice. 

But be safe, But be safe, it takes 4-6 inches of ice to support a person. 

Photo courtesy of yooperann/flckr

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 Take a Nature Walk at Squam Lakes

Holderness, New Hampshire

Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness, NH offers a wide arrange of guided tours of live animal trails. A staff naturalist leads and teaches groups how certain animals are adapted to the winter climate in New Hampshire. The guided tours are run on weekends and can be a great way to experience and learn more about nature in New England.

Photo: Doug Brown/Flickr

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Day and Night Skiing at Wachusett Mountain

Princeton, MA

Make the best of winter by strapping on your skis or snowboard. With over 25 trails open, Wachusett also lights up 18 of these trails until 10pm for night skiing. Wachusett has rentals and lessons for beginners and terrain parks and even an air bag for advanced skiers and boarders. Night tubing is an option during speical events, too!

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Paint and Vino

Pawtucket, RI 

Forget about winter by painting a picture of a tropical sunset at Paint and Vino, Rhode Island's first paint and wine studio. Bring children for family paint events and parties, or leave them at home to enjoy complimentary "adult beverages" as you paint. Perfect for date night, girls night out or a fun friday night, Paint and Vino's classes run for 2 1/2 to 3 hours and a spot must be reserved.

Photo: Yelp Inc./Flickr

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Providence Winter Restaurant Weeks 

Providence Winter Restaurant Weeks will be held until January 23 features about 80 restaurants offering three-course, prix fixe lunches for $14.95 and three-course prix fix dinners for $29.95 and $34.95.

Participating restaurants include Siena in Smithfield, Matunuck Oyster Bar, Eleven Forty Nine Restaurant, The Dorrance, Capriccio, Capital Grille and more.

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Sarah Potenza at The Met 

Providence, Rhode Island 

RI native and The Voice veteran Sarah Potenza will be playing a homecoming show on January 24th at The Met

Expect a full show of classics and maybe some tunes from her new album Monster. 

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Sledding in Central MA 

Last year, Central Mass was hit with a record amount of snow. While we are not wishing for that again, it did make for some great sledding hills. 

When snow comes again this year, break out the sleds. 

Here is GoLocal's latest list of great sledding spots in Central Mass.

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Beach Boys at Park Theatre 

Cranston, Rhode Island

The Beach Boys in February? You bet! The touring band led by original member Mike Love (with Newport native John Cowsill on drums) will be stopping by the Park Theatre on Valentine’s Day. 

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Snowmobiling in Vermont

Mount Snow, Vermont

Snowmobiling across the wilderness is an exhilarating and adventurous experience during the winter. 

Be sure to get on a snowmobile at least once this winter. 

Photo: Frank Kehren/Flickr

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Ice Skating 

Whether you are skating on a pond or at one of the many ice rinks across the region like the Alex & Ani rink in the heart of Providence or the ice rink at Worcester Common Oval, make sure to get out there and get a good skate in with friends and family. 

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Jump Around at Launch Trampoline Park 

Need to get some energy out? or get the energy out of your kids? Head to Launch Trampoline Park. They have a park in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. 

With dodgeball, basketball, foam pits and more, indoor trampoline parks have something to offer people of all ages. Whether you want to bring a group of children for the day, or sign up a group of adults for some "xtreme" dodgeball, trampoline parks can be a great change of pace and a fun way to try something new.

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Indoor Rock Climbing

Do you need a new challenge this winter? Try one of New England's indoor rock climbing gyms. Whether you choose Rock Spot Climbing in Rhode Island, Carabiner's in Massachusetts, or Vertical Dreams in New Hampshire, rock climbing is a fun and challenging way to get some exercise without running on treadmills.

Photo courtesy of Rock Spot Climbing

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Give to the Community

While the winter holidays are generally the biggest volunteer days of the year, any day of the year is a great time to give to organizations or people in need. The winter season is sometimes when items like food, clothes, blankets and other things are needed the most. 

Click here for how to give back to RI non profits. 

Click here for how to give back to Mass non profits. 

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Get the House Organized 

The weather isn't great, it's freezing out side. Winter presents a great opportunity to get the house organized. It's not the most fun thing in the world of course, but it will pay off and at the end of it, you will be glad you did it. 

Here are some ways to get organized this winter. 

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 Zip Line

Mount Washington, Bretton Woods New Hampshire

Soar down Mount Washington on a series of tree-top zip lines! The Canopy Tour is lead by one of Bretton Woods Adventure Guides as they describe the native fauna and flora. You'll descend over 1000 feet of elevation on this 3 hour tour. Each tour guide can take a group of up to 8, so grab some friends and zip down the mountain!


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