January was a month of few special events in the heavens, but the rest of the 1994 astronomical almanac offers a variety of celestial wonders. The May solar eclipse is the most visible event for the contiguous United States to occur in several decades. The impact of a large comet on Jupiter this July has never before been witnessed, and may have never even occurred in the thousands of years of human history.
Eclipses: Three of 1994’s four eclipses will be visible from all 50 states except for Alaska and Hawaii. The first, on May 10, is an “annular eclipse” of the Sun as seen from a wide band bisecting the country from New Mexico to Maine, and a large partial eclipse for the rest of the country. Most Americans will notice an impressive darkening of sky and landscape. (Remember: Only look at the Sun with proper protection.) I will give details about making such observations and the eclipse in general in the upcoming issue.
If you want to see a total eclipse of the Sun in 1994, check astronomical magazines for tours to South America to view the total solar eclipse there on November 3.
Meanwhile, this year’s lunar eclipses include a small partial eclipse on May 25 and a large penumbra (almost partial) eclipse on November 18. Neither will be spectacular, but both will still be good examples of the shadow of the world we live on, touching the face of the Moon.
Planets and Conjunctions: This will be a very intriguing year to watch Jupiter and Saturn by telescope, and–at certain times–Venus, Mars, and Mercury with the naked eye. We will be treated to an unusual number of close “conjunctions” (i.e., meetings) of planets with each other and with the Moon and stars.
Jupiter is at its brightest in 1994 during late April, but if you have a telescope, the date to mark on your calendar is July 7th. On that day comet Shoemaker-Levy will strike Jupiter. No one is sure exactly what we will see. But the blast may light up the moons of Jupiter, creating long-lasting disruptions in the clouds of Jupiter, which will be easily visible with small telescopes (and perhaps even visible to the naked eye).
The tilting of the rings of Saturn will be exciting this year. In June, the rings will be the narrowest they have been in over a decade. Naked-eye observers will enjoy seeing Venus as “Evening Star” in spring and summer, as “Morning Star” in November and December.
Mars will not begin to brighten until September, but will be a striking sight near Regulus on December 8. Elusive Mercury is best seen low in the west about 45 minutes after sunset in early February and late May, 45 minutes before sunrise in early November.
Best conjunctions of the year include those of Venus and the Moon at dusk on April 12 and at dawn on November 30. Venus is splendid near Regulus on July 10, and the star Spica on August 31. Venus and Jupiter don’t have an official conjunction but will be fairly close to each other and low in the southeast after sunset in October.
Meteor Shows and Other Wonders. No one knows when the next brilliant new comet or Northern Lights display will appear. But we do know what nights to expect this year’s major meteor showers. If you choose an observation spot located miles away from city lights in clear, moon-free conditions, you will see 10, 20, 30, or more meteors from a few of these showers in their peak hour.
In 1994, a bright Moon interferes with viewing most of the major showers, but watch for the Perseids meteor shower. On the night of August 11-12 a good display–dozens of bright Perseids per hour–seems assured, and an hour-long Perseid storm shooting out of the Northeast or North around 3 A.M. (EST) is a distinct possibility.