From the November 2013 issue

Rhythms of the sky

Preview the key celestial motions of 2014.
By | Published: November 25, 2013 | Last updated on May 18, 2023

Jim Metzner’s Pulse of the Planet is a syndicated radio show that explores nature’s various rhythms. Like beating hearts, fluttering wings, or chirping crickets, the night sky also displays a cadence — many of them actually.

Olden observers noted how stars faithfully rise four minutes earlier per night and how the Sun’s midday height — now so low — follows an annual cycle that doesn’t vary by even a single second. Serious sky-observing cultures like the Maya took it further, basing calendars on beloved patterns like the reliable motions of Venus.

These days, we mostly notice mundane pulses like the daily recurrences of traffic jams. While such earthly repetitions grab the bulk of our attention, the celestial ones continue with all their ancient glory for everyone who cares to notice.

The start of a new year marks the most appropriate time to preview 2014’s greatest sky-rhythms.

The Moon’s oval path carries it closer and farther while that orbit itself changes shape. Once yearly, it must arrive at its nearest point to Earth. But in 2014, this essentially happens twice. The first is on the year’s opening day! This is the same day the Moon is New and hence invisible. Expect extraordinary tides. The Moon’s second 2014 close approach is even more interesting. This one, on August 10, happens the exact same hour the Moon is Full. And since this perigee is 17 miles (27 kilometers) closer than the January 1 event — about a quarter the width of some lunar craters — it too will create dramatic tides. This is the year’s biggest Moon.

And that’s still not the best thing the Moon does in 2014. On U.S. tax day, April 15, and again October 8, it plunges fully into Earth’s shadow to create total lunar eclipses. Both are visible from virtually all of the United States and Canada. When does most of our continent get two total eclipses in a single year? Never!

Well, almost: This is the first since 2003. The Maya would have flipped. Imagine: Two chances to sacrifice their most annoying tribal members.

No total solar eclipses occur in 2014, but the eastern half of the United States gets a partial eclipse at sunset October 23. Use #14 welder’s goggles.


The Maya’s favorite entity would have disappointed them this year, a bummer ranking only slightly lower than having their ruler kidnapped by the Spanish. Their beloved Venus, whose importance was equivalent to our own Philly cheesesteak, has a dreadful year. January opens with the “evening star” very low; then it promptly vanishes into the solar glare. After its January 11 inferior conjunction, the planet soon reappears as a morning star. But a Venus springtime morning apparition is always a miserably low pattern except for those in far-southern states. And the rest of the year finds it pathetically horizon-hugging until it wimps its way behind the Sun around Halloween, putting our sister planet out of its misery.

Mars is a different story. The Red Planet boasts a biennial pattern with good years alternating with bad. This is a good one. At opposition, nearly a week before its closest approach April 14, Mars shines at a brilliant magnitude –1.5, its best since 2007. Floating in Virgo, it dramatically hovers near the Moon on the 13th and 14th. You simply can’t miss it. True, its 15-arcsecond width remains pretty small: It’ll swell to 24.5 arcseconds four years from now. But then it’ll be super-low, so you can’t have everything.

When the gossip turns to celestial patterns, nothing beats Jupiter. It comes closest to Earth a month later each year, which means it advances approximately one zodiacal constellation annually. Jupiter is astronomy made simple. This year it hits the ground running. It’s already dazzling, reaches its nearest and brightest January 5, and remains striking through the spring. Jupiter stands above Orion in the constellation Gemini all night long. Nothing except the Moon can shine more brightly at midnight, when Jove hovers high overhead.

Saturn’s rhythm has its near point two weeks later each year. Its 2014 opposition is excellent. The rings now slant in a wonderfully “open” orientation, as the outer edge extends clear around the planet, virtually unblocked. Their high reflectivity makes this Saturn’s brightest opposition since 2007. (That year keeps popping up here. My vote for 2007’s most memorable news story: Australia’s storefront Santas were ordered to stop saying “ho ho ho” and instead told to chant “ha ha ha.” I’m not making this up.)

Saturn’s closest night is May 10. But it’s great all spring as it hovers in Libra, which resembles a “scale” only to portly skywatchers craving a midnight coconut cream pie. Locate the ringed world near Libra’s Alpha star, Zubenelgenubi. If for some strange reason you want to mention this fact at parties, that Arabic name has its own cadence whose accent is on the second syllable.

But the rhythms of celestial words — ah, that’s a topic for another time.

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