The best moonshots, planet views and eye-catching conjunctions happening in the next 12 months
Astrophotography has its own celestial schedule. As the seasons change so do the views of deep-sky objects. For every galaxy that gradually drifts out of view, an open cluster appears to replace it. Years can be spent mastering and honing the craft of astrophotography, but it’s wise to know what sporadic events are going on that you can turn your lens on.
In 2023 there will be a few cases of the Moon occulting a planet – something that can produce incredible views for astrophotographers – as well as plenty of moonless meteor showers and even a couple of solar eclipses for those who can travel.
Here are some of the most picturesque astronomical events of 2023…
1 The Moon occults Uranus
The Moon orbits Earth along roughly the same plane as all the planets orbit the Sun, so occasionally it’s bound to blot out (or ‘occult’, in astronomy-speak) a planet. In 2023 it’s the turn of the seventh planet Uranus, which on 1 January 2023 will appear to be hidden by an 80% waxing gibbous Moon for up to two hours (between 21:45 UTC and 23:40 UTC). The shot to go for is Uranus beside the limb of the Moon — just before it disappears – though it’s only visible from the U.K (north of Birmingham) and northern Scandinavia.
2 Meteors in a moonless night sky
2023 will be a great year for ‘shooting stars’. As Earth goes around the Sun it predictably busts through streams of dust and debris left in the inner solar system by passing comets. That explains the annual meteor shower calendar, but it’s more complicated than that for astrophotographers.
Knowing when the peak of a meteor shower isn’t enough. You need to find one that occurs when the Moon is down if it’s to be dark enough to take long exposure images.
In 2023 there are four that will be worth photographing – and they include all of the year’s most powerful:
- Lyrid meteor shower: April 22/23, 2023 (waxing crescent moon, sets just after sunset)
- Perseid meteor shower: August 13/14, 2023 (waning crescent moon, rises just before sunrise)
- Leonid meteor shower: November 17/18, 2023 (waxing crescent moon, sets before midnight)
- Geminid meteor shower: December 13/14, 2023 (New Moon, so not visible)
3 An appulse of Venus and Jupiter
It’s not rare for Venus and Jupiter to appear to pass close to each other, but it is spectacular. The brightest two planets in the solar system, as seen from Earth, will be in conjunction in early March, appearing to pass just 0°32’ from each other after sunset on March 2, 2023. Technically that’s called an appulse by astronomers. Make sure you have a clear view of the southwestern horizon.
4 Australia’s rare kind of solar eclipse
On April 20, 2023, a rare type of solar eclipse will strike the remote Exmouth Peninsula in Western Australia. Called a hybrid by astronomers, this combination of an annular (‘ring of fire’ eclipse and a total solar eclipse will, effectively, be the latter for astrophotographers lined up on beaches. A totality lasting just over a minute might seem underwhelming, but only to the uninitiated; the shortness of this eclipse will make it one of the most spectacular for many years. That’s because as the sky goes dark there will be an extended display of beads of light around the Moon just prior to totality … the prize for intrepid astrophotographers will be a double, triple or quadruple ‘diamond ring’ around the Moon. A slightly longer eclipse will also be visible in (the potentially cloudier) Timor Leste and West Papua.
5 The red planet among blue stars
Occasionally a planet will, from our point of view on Earth, appear to move in front of a popular and well-photographed deep-sky object, giving astrophotographers the rare chance to get two of their favorite subjects in the same composition. That will happen on 2 June 2023 when Mars glides through M44, better known as the Beehive Cluster. Around 520 light-years away in the constellation of Cancer, this open cluster has about 12 easily visible bright blue stars.
6 Four supermoons
So-called ‘supermoons’ are a divisive subject amongst astronomers (who call them ‘perigee-syzygy’ moons), but astrophotographers ought to think of them only as a great photography subject. Slightly larger and brighter than most full moons – purely because our natural satellite is somewhat closer to Earth than on average – a supermoon is best captured when on the horizon when it glows a deep orange color, but it looks its largest when imaged between buildings and/or mountains to give it context. In 2023 there are four (3 July, 1 August, 31 August, and 29 September).
7 The ‘Morning Star’ at its brightest
The brightest object in Earth’s night sky aside from the Moon, the planet Venus never strays too far from the Sun hence its nicknames ‘morning star’ and ‘evening star.’ In 2023 it’s going to enter a morning apparition in 2023 through 2024 when it will shine brightly before sunrise. On September 18, 2023, it will reach its greatest brightness, shining at magnitude -4.5. Look high above the eastern horizon before sunrise.
8 America’s annular solar eclipse
On October 14, 2023, a ‘ring of fire’ solar eclipse will be visible in the skies above the U.S. (Oregon, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas), Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia and Brazil, beginning in Oregon and ceasing on Brazil’s Atlantic coast. Within a 125 miles-wide path between the two, a circular solar eclipse will be visible for about five minutes. It will be caused by the opposite of a supermoon – a moon farthest away from Earth– eclipsing 95% of the sun. Incredible locations to shoot the phenomena (though all cameras will require a solar filter) include Great Basin National Park in Nevada, Capitol Reef National Park and Canyonlands National Park in Utah, and Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.
9 A crescent moon occults Venus
Is there anything more beautiful than the sight of a bright planet close to – and even being occulted by – a crescent Moon? You’ll have to get up very early for this one on 9 November 2023, but the prize is a delicate 14%-lit crescent Moon beside Venus shining at a magnitude of -8.6. Those in North America will see Venus disappear behind the dark limb of the Moon. Be sure to capture ‘Earthshine’ on the lunar surface – sunlight reflected from Earth’s surface back onto the Moon.
10 A rare show of Andromedids?
A popular target for close-up astrophotography at this time of year is, of course, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) – the farthest object it’s possible to see with the naked eye, at about 2.5 million light-years. However, it will be worth switching lenses to a wide-angle on the night around midnight on 2/3 December 2023 for the 60 ‘shooting stars’ predicted to strike during a very rare display of dust and debris from Biela’s Comet striking Earth’s atmosphere.