By Bob Confer
If you live in rural Western New York you’re probably a backyard astronomer of sorts.
You might find yourself outdoors on a clear night marveling at the countless stars in the heavens. There’s something innate, primeval, about the love affair with the nighttime skies. The universe is fascinating, awe-inspiring, and relaxing – after a day of hustle and bustle and going in a hundred different directions, it’s 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, 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.
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 2022 — 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 sights on tap for this year.
It’s a good year for viewing eclipses in WNY as we will be graced with two total lunar eclipses.
The first one will happen on Sunday, May 15th heading into Monday, May 16th. The event will begin at 9:32 PM and become a total eclipse – and a red moon – at 11:28 PM. That will last for an hour before gradually reverting back to the full moon at 2:50 AM.
The second one will occur early the morning of Tuesday, November 8th – Election Day, no less (foretelling the future?). It will begin at 3:02 AM and hit full eclipse at 5:59 AM, perfect timing as you arise for work or to be first at the polls.
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 wasn’t too eventful as it was at the bottom of the 11-year sunspot cycle — and that past cycle was somewhat of a dud to begin with. Solar Cycle 25 is now underway and it’s taking its sweet time ramping up to the 2025 peak, but, she’s trying.
That said, the northern lights won’t be very common — you might even call them downright rare — for our latitude again in 2022 (we aren’t as lucky as northern Canada). But that doesn’t mean the sun won’t surprise us on occasion.
If you want to know when you have a chance, a great tool is the aurora oval (updated every few minutes) on the left side toolbar of the website SpaceWeather.com. If the green or red hue takes over or comes close to the US-Canada border on that map, it’s time to get outside and look. You don’t ever want to miss the northern lights.
The best meteor showers
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 during lean years, you can see 30 to 60 per hour.
In 2022, Perseids will peak on the night of August 11th heading into the morning hours of the 12th. Unfortunately, the full moon will drown out the faint and mid-magnitude meteors. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look. Perseids has the tendency to produce incredibly bright massive fireballs – if you see one of them, you will never forget it. Trust me. Your best bet is after midnight. Look towards the constellation Perseus to see them in their full beauty.
December’s Geminids shower will be somewhat muted as it takes place under a waning gibbous moon on the night of December 12th. This underrated shower can throw out 50 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.
If you are serious about stargazing, you will so as I and 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 perfect dark sky viewing for four days on either side of the new moon.
New moons will occur on: February 1, March 2, April 1, April 30, May 30, June 28, July 28, August 27, September 25, October 25, November 23, and December 23.