5 Sky Events This Week: Penguin Solar Eclipse, Comet Encounters Whirlpool

This week a comet glides past the iconic Whirlpool galaxy. Courtesy: K. Rhode, M. Young, and WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

From an exotic solar eclipse to a comet buzzing a galaxy, a veritable cosmic buffet of celestial sights greets sky-gazers this week.

Age of Aquarids. Starting Monday, April 28, the Eta Aquarid minor meteor shower will ramp up. Before peaking this week in the early morning hours of May 6, anywhere from five to ten of the shower’s shooting stars should be visible every hour as seen from dark countryside locations. And since there is a new moon late tonight, sky conditions should be great for spotting the zippy meteors burning up in the predawn hours on Tuesday.

Look for Aquarids to radiate out from their namesake constellation, Aquarius, rising in the northeast after local midnight.

Penguin solar eclipse. With the new moon on Tuesday, April 29, at exactly 2:14 a.m. EDT, the lunar disk will partially cover the sun over Australia, a partial solar eclipse. Farther south, a lopsided annular “Ring of Fire” eclipse will occur near the horizon for a tiny, uninhabited sliver of Antarctica. Only penguins will most likely enjoy front-row seats to the sky spectacle.

The best seats in the house in Australia will be for observers along the southern coast of the continent, where up to 60 percent of the sun’s disk will be covered by the moon. Those in Tasmania will do even better and witness 70 percent coverage (map and details here).

This is the second of four eclipses in 2014, two solar and two lunar. The first was the total lunar eclipse on April 14-15.

While this eclipse is really remote, the entire world can tune in for the sky show online. On the night of April 28, telescopes from slooh.com will broadcast the partial phases of the eclipse live as it creeps across Australia. Coverage will begin on Monday, April 28, starting at 11 p.m. PDT/2 a.m. EDT (4/29)/06:00 UTC (4/29).

Remember never to look directly into the sun without using astronomical-grade solar filters; otherwise, permanent eye damage can result. 

Pan-STARRS comet. After nightfall on Tuesday, April 29, the magnitude-9 comet Pan-STARRS passes less than 1 degree south of the bright star Alkaid or Eta Ursa Majoris, the last star at the end of the handle of the Big Dipper.  

Look for the Big Dipper’s famed seven-star pattern lying upside down in the Ursa Major constellation near overhead in the northeastern sky in the early evening.

A few days later on Thursday, May 1, the star reaches its closest point to the iconic Whirlpool galaxy. The cosmic odd couple will appear separated by only 2 degrees (a little less than the width of two index fingers held against the sky at arm’s length), with the comet north of the island of stars 23 million light-years away (detailed finder chart here).

A four-inch telescope will easily show the fuzzy coma of the comet and hazy appearance of the galaxy.

Wide-angle starchart showing location of comet and galaxy in relation to the handle stars of the Big Dipper on the night of April 29, 2014. Credit: SkySafari
This wide-angle star chart shows the location of the comet and galaxy in relation to the stars of the handle of the Big Dipper on the night of April 29, 2014. Credit: SkySafari

Razor-thin moon. On Wednesday, April 30, try a special observing challenge and hunt down the extremely thin moon in the very low west about 30 minutes after sunset. If you can’t spot it with just your eyes, try using binoculars. The bright orange star Aldebaran will appear to its upper left and may help guide you.

By the next evening, Thursday, May 1, look for the waxing crescent moon to have risen higher in the dusk sky with Aldebaran now below it.

Jupiter pairs up. On Sunday, May 4, look nearly halfway up the western sky after nightfall for Jupiter, which will be only 5 degrees north of the crescent moon.

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on TwitterFacebook, and his website.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.