Here is a selection of observing highlights that amateur astronomers and casual stargazers can look forward to during 2017. (To check out the sky this month, see this page for northern hemisphere observers, and this page for readers in the southern hemisphere.)
January 1: Planetary conjunction. The New Year opens with distant planet Neptune appearing very close to the much brighter Mars in the evening sky. At magnitude 1, Mars will resemble a bright star, but Neptune will be more than 200 times fainter at magnitude 8. Both will be visible in the same low-power field of view of a small telescope, with the planets less than a Moon’s width apart. Fine crescent Moon and Venus nearby will add to the spectacle. Then, on January 3rd, Mars will lie just a fifth of a degree south of the Moon.
January 2/3: Occultation of Mars. Observers in Hawaii will see the Moon blot out Mars at around 6:03 pm local time on January 2nd (just after 8h UT, January 3rd). More than three hours earlier, the Moon will have passed in front of Neptune from the same location, but in broad daylight.
January 3: Quadrantid meteor shower. The Quadrantids have a very short, sharp maximum which, this year is predicted to occur at around 14h UT on the 3rd. This favours the western coast of the USA and Canada where it will still be dark. There an hourly rate of 80 meteors might be seen by a single observer under ideal conditions. In other parts of the world, rates are expected to be considerably lower either before or after maximum.
January 18: Opposition of Vesta. The brightest of the asteroids will be easy to find with binoculars on the opposite side of the sky to the Sun. Read our guide on how to see it.
February 11: Penumbral eclipse of the Moon. This eclipse, where the Moon only passes through the lighter outer shadow of the Earth, is entirely visible from Europe and Africa. From there, the Full Moon will appear to be slightly dimmer than usual.
February 26: Annular solar eclipse. This is an eclipse occurring when the Moon is at a more distant point in its elliptical orbit around the Earth, and therefore not big enough in the sky to cover the Sun’s disk completely, as in a total eclipse. A ring of light will therefore be seen around the Moon from locations on the central track of the eclipse, which begins at sunrise in the South Pacific, crosses the southern tip of South America, the South Atlantic and Central Africa before ending at sunset in the Central Republic of the Congo. Here is our guide to this eclipse.
April 7: Opposition of Jupiter. The giant planet reaches the opposite point in the sky to the Sun as seen from Earth, making it visible all night in the constellation of Virgo.
April 22: Lyrid meteor shower peaks. With the Moon close to new, conditions will be very favourable for the maximum of this meteor shower, whose meteors appear to radiate from the constellation of Lyra. The predicted zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) is 10, but some years have brought much better activity. Meteors may be seen between the dates of April 18-25.
May 5/6: Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks. This promises to be quite s strong shower for southern hemisphere observers, with best rates (ZHR) expected to reach 40. A gibbous Moon will be up for most of the night, drowning out the fainter meteors, which were shed by Halley’s Comet. Meteors may be seen from April 24 to May 20.
June 15: Opposition of Saturn. The ringed planet lies in the opposite part of the sky to the Sun, as seen from Earth, and so will be visible all night long.
July 25: Occultation of Mercury. The waning crescent Moon will cover Mercury as seen from the UK, but the event occurs in daylight at around 07.30 UT. A telescope will be needed, but great care must be taken not to point it at the Sun.
August 7: Partial eclipse of the Moon. This event, where the Moon only partly enters the main dark shadow, or umbra, of the Earth in space, will b visible from Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Only the very start of the eclipse will be visible at moonset from New Zealand, and the very end from the UK and Ireland at moonrise.
August 12/13: Perseid meteor shower peaks. This shower is one of the most reliable and spectacular of the year, with hourly rates (ZHR) reaching 80 or more, and a high proportion of bright meteors. Light from a waning gibbous Moon will interfere at maximum. Meteors may be seen from around July 23 to August 20, so it will be possible to watch for meteors away from maximum when the Moon is out of the night sky.
August 21: Total solar eclipse. This eclipse of the Sun is likely to be the highlight of the year for amateur astronomers. The track of totality crosses the mainland USA, making it easily accessible to a huge local population as well as visitors from around the world. States that will be crossed by the Moon’s shadow are, in order, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
September 5. Opposition of Neptune. The outermost planet will be visible all night in binoculars.
September 16: Conjunction between Mars and Mercury. These two planets will come as close together as a 0.05°, which is a tenth the apparent diameter of the Moon in the sky. See them together low in the east before dawn.
September 18: Occultation of Venus. The Moon will pass in front of bright planet Venus as viewed from Australia. The event occurs in daylight, so a telescope or binoculars will be needed to view it. Make sure you do not accidentally point at the Sun.
October 12: Asteroid makes close approach. The asteroid 2012 TC4, which is believed to be between 10 and 40 metres wide, will pass within a few thousand km of Earth. However, its precise orbit is uncertain, and there is a “one in a million” chance that it will collide, according to ESA. Visible in amateur telescopes at its closest, the asteroid will appear to move swiftly across the sky background.
October 19: Opposition of Uranus. The ice giant will be visible all night at the very limit of naked-eye visibility under perfect skies. It will be easy to spot in binoculars.
October 21-23: Orionid meteors peak. The Orionids are the second shower of the year caused by Earth crossing the orbit of dust left by Halley’s Comet. Conditions are very favourable this year, with no interference from moonlight. An hourly rate (ZHR) of 25 meteors under ideal conditions is expected, with brighter meteors leaving persistent trains. Some meteors from this shower may be seen from October 16 to 30.
November 5 and 12: Taurid meteors’ double peak. The Taurids are a shower rich in very bright meteors. The expected rate (ZHR) is only around 10, but some activity may be seen from October 20 to November 30.
November 17: Leonid meteor shower peaks. The Leonids are a shower whose activity varies greatly over a cycle of around 33 years. There were very high rates around the turn of the century, and we are now at a time where very activity is low. Perhaps 20 an hour might be seen in ideal conditions. Moonlight will not interfere this year if you want to check it out.
December 14: Geminid meteor shower peaks. Conditions are very favourable in 2017 for this shower, which has become the richest and most reliable of the year, as the Moon will be close to New. More than 100 meteors an hour might be seen by a single observer observing under optimum conditions (the ZHR). The shower has a high number of very bright meteors and so it is well worth the effort of braving the cold nights for northern hemisphere observers. Some Geminids may be sen as early as December 8 and as late as December 17.