The ubiquitous fireworks display won’t be the only lights in the sky over the next few nights: there will be natural wonders, too.
Seeing them may take some planning, some luck, and maybe a pair of binoculars. But stargazers who are in the right place at the right time will have the opportunity to commune with celestial displays that are even older than the very old tradition of fireworks.
The new year will mark the end of a span of several nights during which all seven other planets in the solar system are visible in the night sky. Then, on January 3, the Quadrantid meteor shower will peak.
Neither condition is particularly rare. Planetary alignments happen every one or two years; the last one was in June. The Quadrantid meteor shower occurs every year. Still, it’s a chance to see two very nice events within a few days, said astronomer Charlie Dittmar of the Tampa Museum of Science and Industry.
The planetary alignment is at its best on Wednesday, Dittmar said, but there’s still a small window to catch it over the next few days. In this case, Mercury is the trickiest planet because it will appear low in the west after sunset if the conditions are right.
“There’s usually a short stretch of very nice nights, if any, where Mercury is available,” he said. “You can’t have any clouds or haze, and you can’t have any issues with the clarity of the sky.”
It helps to stay somewhere with a low horizon and away from light pollution — like a remote beach. Mercury is technically visible to the naked eye, but Dietmar said viewers may need a pair of binoculars to make out the dull orange planet from the haze.
Two other planets, Uranus and Neptune, are only visible with binoculars or a telescope. But Dittmar said it should be easier for skygazers to spot the rest: Venus, second only to the moon in brightness, is also low in the west (find it, then look for Mercury nearby); orange Saturn, higher and more southerly; Jupiter, bright white, is due south; in the east, Mars shines bright reddish.
During the peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower, NASA considers As one of the best meteor showers of the year, viewers can see as many as 100 shooting stars an hour, Dittmar said. Unlike most meteor showers, they are characterized by blue meteors due to their mineral content, he said.
The best way to see the meteor shower is as far away from city lights as possible, Dittmar said. Then, you “just need a blanket or a recliner and take the time to allow your eyes to adjust.”
When the moon is near full, it can be difficult to see all but the brightest meteors, but observers can compensate by standing behind buildings to block out the moonlight, he said.
With the planetary and Quadrantid meteor showers coinciding with the New Year, Dittmar said he found something lovely.
“One of the things that comforts me when I look up at the sky is that I tend to think of generations of people who looked up at the sky before me,” he said. “The fact of the New Year connects me to the future, but the sky connects me to the past.
“No matter how crazy things are on Earth, the sky is still the sky.”