Among other celestial delights, the upcoming year may be best remembered for a planetary disappearing act and a Martian close-up.
Mars will be at its biggest and brightest in May, and then in the fall will appear to pass close to a famous nebula. And in another beautiful view, the tiny planet Mercury will pass in front of the sun, appearing as a black spot traveling across the sun's face.
Here's a rundown of these and more of the skywatching events worth circling on your calendar in 2016.
Total Solar Eclipse — March 8
The sun undergoes the most amazing celestial disappearing act this year—a total eclipse—when the moon slides in front of it. Complete cover, or totality, lasts for four minutes and will be visible along a narrow path that includes southeast Asia, from Indonesia to the western Pacific Ocean.
A partial eclipse—where only a bite out of the sun is visible—will be visible over a much wider area including most of Asia, Oceania and Australia.
Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower — May 6
Many of the grand annual meteor showers this year will unfortunately be washed out by the bright glare of the moon, but the Eta Aquarids should offer plenty of wishes.
The sand-grain-sized debris from the famed Halley’s Comet will be raining down on Earth’s atmosphere on the night of May 6 into the pre-dawn hours of May 7. And this year the peak activity happens to coincide with the time we have a new moon, so the skies should be dark enough for skywatchers to catch even the faintest meteors zipping overhead.
In dark countryside in the Northern Hemisphere, expect around 30 meteors per hour, while those in the Southern Hemisphere may experience an hourly rate as as high as 60.
Transit of Mercury — May 9
Skywatchers get a truly rare treat of witnessing Mercury glide across the sun on Monday, May 9—the first in ten years.
The tiny black silhouette of the the planet will take about seven hours to make its trek across the solar disk, from 11:12 GMT to 18:42 GMT. Weather permitting, this means the whole transit will be visible from most of the Americas and western Europe, and portions will be visible from most of Africa and parts of Asia. Folks in eastern Asia and Australia will miss out, unfortunately, since it will be nighttime there. (See here for visibility map.)
The innermost planet will pass between Earth and the sun, and will eclipse only 1/150th of the solar disk. Safe viewing of the sun’s disk will require magnification using a small solar-filter-equipped telescope.
Celestial Line-up — August 23
After nightfall on August 23 and 24, an eye-catching alignment plays out between two of the brightest planets visible to the naked eyes, Mars and Saturn, along with Antares, the lead star of the Scorpius constellation.
Particularly attractive will be the competing orange-red hues of Mars and its rival Antares. The cosmic trio will form a dramatic vertical line low in southwest evening sky that should easily fit within a binoculars' field of view.
Venus Meets Jupiter — August 27
Two of the brightest celestial objects after the sun and moon will have a super-close encounter at dusk on August 27.
Neighboring planets Venus and Jupiter will have a spectacularly close conjunction at dusk, very low in the western sky. The two worlds will appear to be separated by only 10 arc-minutes—equal to only a third of the diameter of the moon’s disk in the sky. Since this conjunction event will be taking place so low to the horizon, the planets will be battling the glare of the twilight. Binoculars will make viewing more enjoyable.
Mars and Lagoon — September 28
While Mars will be at its biggest and brightest in Earth’s skies earlier in the year, around late May and early June, it will pose pretty with one of the most famous interstellar clouds of gas and dust.
Once darkness sets in on September 28, the red planet will make it a convenient marker for training backyard telescopes on the 4,000 light-year-distant Lagoon Nebula.
The two celestial objects will appear less than 1 degree apart, making them easily fit inside the same field of view in both binoculars and telescopes, and will surely create a particularly impressive photo opportunity.