Thursday, December 8, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Mark your calendars: What 2017 will bring for WNY skywatchers

Chances are, that if you live in rural Western New York you’re a backyard astronomer of sorts. You might find yourself outdoors on a cool, clear winter night marveling at the countless stars in the heavens. In the summer months, you probably sit around campfires in your backyard yelling “did you see that?!” to your family and friends whenever a meteor streaks across the night sky.

There’s something innate, some primeval, about the interest, the love affair, with the nighttime skies. The universe is fascinating, awe-inspiring, and even relaxing – after a day of hustle and bustle and going in a hundred different directions, it’s always comforting to look skyward, see that vastness and realize that we and our human experiences are but tiny, inconsequential blips in the whole scheme of things.

We WNY backyard astronomers like to maximize this appreciation, because, far too often, Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate with us. The Niagara County and Erie County skies, especially, are some of the cloudiest in the United States, thanks to the Great Lakes and the prevailing southwesterly winds that drive the moisture from Lake Erie before it hits a brick wall of cold air created by Lake Ontario, creating the abundant clouds.

So, any time that we are blessed with a clear night, we like to take advantage of it. And, we always hope that it happens when some celestial event is taking place. To help you plan for that in 2017 -- and to give you the signal to start praying to God to ease up on the cloud machine a little bit -- here’s a look at some of the nighttime (and even daytime) sights on tap for next year…


This one will get a lot of press in 2017: For the first time in 38 years, the continental United States will be graced with a total solar eclipse.

The event will occur on August 21st. Those who will get to see it in its full view will be those who live along the eclipse’s center line that runs from the Carolinas to Oregon. Here on the Niagara Frontier we will see approximately 68% of the sun covered. As we get closer to the event, I will provide some viewing tips in this column.

Well before that, in February, we will get to see a penumbral lunar eclipse on the night of the 10th. This is not anything spectacular – under these conditions, the face of the moon sees some, not all, of the sun’s glow cut off by Earth. It’s sort of like a glancing blow. The full moon will still be in full view, but it might look shaded or ashen during the eclipse.

Northern Lights

The aurora borealis or northern lights are more abundant when the sun’s face is covered with sunspots and it is emitting all sorts of flares and other solar energy. In recent years, the sun hasn’t been too eventful as we are on the down slope of the 11-year sunspot cycle – some space weather enthusiasts believe that it might even be something worse than that recurring cycle’s trough and we might be heading into a prolonged period of a quiet sun.

Either way, the northern lights won’t be very common -- you might even call them downright rare -- for our latitude again in 2017 (we aren’t as lucky as northern Canada where they are bathed by the green glow most every night). In 2016 there were less than a half dozen aurora events that were visible from the Lake Ontario shore and we might see more of the same in 2017 unless the sun wakes up and belches some energy our way.


2016 was a slow year for readily-visible comets (those you can see with naked eyes, binoculars or common backyard telescopes). The only one we had a chance to see was Catalina in January, which was unimpressive.

2017 will be a different story as we will be graced with three comets that can be seen with binoculars -- and one of them might even become visible to the naked eye.

The first one is Comet 2P/Encke which will be visible to binoculars here in late-February after the full moon wanes.

Starting in April and maybe for a two-month period, skywatchers will be able to see Comet 41P/Tuttle–Giacobini–Kresák with binoculars and there is a very good chance this beauty becomes visible to the naked eye in dark skies (like those in our Southern Tier).

Then, in May, Comet C/2015 V2 (Johnson) will become available to us, once again by binoculars.

As we get closer to their approaches, I will pen a column about each individual comet.

The best and brightest meteor showers

The Quantrids meteor shower will be the first of the year, peaking overnight on January 5th. The Quantrids is unusual in that the peak is typically one night, while other showers can be at peak or close to peak over a few days. The first quarter moon won’t dull the shooting stars too much, and the output will be good enough that you should see a dozen or two per hour. The best time to look is after nightfall towards the constellation Bootes.

The Persieds meteor shower never ceases to amaze, throwing some really bright meteors out there. 2016 was an outburst year, and I saw nearly 100 shooting stars over an hour and a half period on the peak night. While this year’s shower won’t reach such numbers, the Perseids is always a good show. Even on “lean years” you can see 30 to 60 per hour. In 2017 it will peak overnight on August 13th. On that night and the nights leading up to it (which still offer good meteors), the third quarter moon will rise around midnight, really affecting dark sky viewing (and after midnight is always the best time to see these streakers). So, your best – if not only -- bet is to look between 10:00 and midnight. Look towards the constellation Perseus to see them in their full beauty.

December 2016’s Geminids shower was a dud due to a full moon, but in 2017 it will be nearly a new moon on the 14th of December which will make for great viewing of this underrated shower which can throw out 50 to 90 an hour. It’s likely an underrated shower because of the weather conditions – the Perseids is easy to watch on a summer night. Geminids in December? You never know what Jack Frost will throw at you.

New moons 

If you are serious about stargazing, you will mark on your calendar every date on which there is a new moon. Basically “no moon,” the new moon ensures there is no moonlight robbing your skywatching experience, meaning you have full visibility of the stars, the Milky Way, meteors and more. You typically have decent dark sky viewing for three days on either side of the new moon. On these days, if you live in the city, suburbs, or village, you should make it a point to get as far away from city lights as possible and maybe book at stay at Allegany State Park or camp at any of the numerous makeshift campsites on state land in Allegany County. If you think you see a lot of stars in rural Niagara or Genesee Counties, they are NOTHING compared to what you can see near the Pennsylvania border where the vast umbrella of city lights are gone.

New moons will occur on Jan. 27, Feb. 26, March 27, April 26, May 25, June 23, July 21, Aug. 20, Sept. 19, Oct. 1, Oct. 19, Nov. 18, and Dec. 18, 2017.

From the 08 December 2016 All WNY News

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