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2018 Solar Outlook

It’s never a bad thing to add a little science to your year.

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The solar eclipse in August sparked a national craze of sky-watching enthusiasts. In Richmond, a watch party drew hundreds of people to Brown's Island.

But what will have us looking skyward in 2018?

Mars, says Ken Wilson, a board member of the Richmond Astronomical Society. The Red Planet gets closer than usual to Earth every two years, he says, but it's rarely as visible as it will be July 31.

The last time we got this close was in 2003, Wilson says: "There was news about it and a lot of public interest."

Other soaring sights will be more of the man-made variety, says Justin Bartel of the Science Museum of Virginia. He supervises its astronomy programming and the dome.

The European Space Agency will launch a craft toward Mercury, he says, and NASA will launch new spacecraft to Mars in May. It's expected to land in November for a two-year stay on the planet. And SpaceX will launch a rocket with Tesla technology.

While various spacecraft are set to examine planets from their surfaces, there are chances to view some through telescopes locally.

As for other planets, Wilson says Jupiter and Saturn should be easier to see by springtime, and Mercury will become more visible March 5 as it moves closer to Venus.

"It doesn't usually get very far from the sun so it's a challenge sometimes to see it," Wilson says. "You have to look at it right after sunset with a nice clear sky or just before sunrise is on the horizon."

Venus is a bright planet so its proximity should help Mercury's visibility.

Meteor showers also are on the agenda. "But the really spectacular ones are the Perseus that comes in August every year," Wilson says, "and the Geminid that comes in December."

Though these particular meteor showers occur annually, if they fall on days that the moon is at its fullest, they can be hidden. Luckily, Wilson says, the two showers will take place very close to new moons.

"As long as the weather is clear," he says, "we should have really good meteor showers on Aug. 12 for the Perseus, and then Dec. 13 is the peak for the Geminid."

A comet named Wirtanen is predicted to near Earth in December, and likely will be the brightest comet to be viewed in the past five years.

The astronomical society, which has been around since the 1940s, works with the Science Museum to hold sky-watching sessions that are open to the public. The next one takes place Jan. 19. "They help you find any interesting objects that will happen to be in the sky that evening," Bartel says.

Looking up can change your perspective, Wilson says.

"No matter how bad a day you've had or how great your troubles may seem," he says, "compared to the scale of the universe, it makes it relatively small. That's always fascinated me." S

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