The Unparalleled Beauty of the Night Sky ... Up Close
2016 Planetary Imaging Highlights
2016 brings a few spectacular planetary imaging opportunities: a solar transit by Mercury, a very close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, a lunar occultation of Jupiter, and a very close Mars opposition.
All events are described as viewed from San Diego California.
February 6, 2016Mercury morning elongation. Mercury hovers 15 above the horizon at sunrise from January 25 - February 10 as it changes from a thick crescent to gibbous, so those 2 weeks before elongation provide the best viewing.
March 8, 2016Jupiter 2016 Opposition. This is an aphelic opposition with Jupiter reaching 44.45" across. Jupiter will exceed 40" diameter from January - May 2016. Be sure to take advantage of Jupiter's elevation - it will transit the meridian at 62 altitude, excellent for imaging. It won't be this high in the sky again until 2023! We passed through Jupiter's equatorial plane in 2015, with several months of mutual Galilean moon events. Now Jupiter is still tilted less than 2, so all 4 Galileans will transit and eclipse Jupiter's disk.
Comparison of all Jupiter oppositions 2000 - 2049 AD
April 18, 2016Mercury evening elongation. This is an exceptional evening elongation, the best in 2016. Mercury will be about 18.5 high at sunset. It will be above 15 altitude at sunset from April 9 - April 27 as it rapidly transits from 70% gibbous to a 10" thin crescent only 15% illuminated.
May 9, 2016Mercury Solar Transit. For California observers, Mercury begins transiting the Sun before dawn. More than half of the transit occurs after sunrise, ending about 11:40 AM PDT with the Sun at about 70 altitude. Mercury will be 12.1" in size during the transit - whereas transits that occur in November are only about 10". This transit will be excellent for imaging, don't miss it! The Mercury transits of 2019, 2032, 2039, and 2049 won't be visible from California!
May 22, 2016Mars 2016 Opposition. Mars is finally back to perihelic oppositions! Although it will be even closer in 2018 and 2020, this opposition is pretty good with Mars closest at 11 PM PDT on May 30, 2016 at 0.503,210 AU (46.78 million miles), reaching 18.61" diameter. Mars will only reach 35 altitude near opposition. This opposition we'll be viewing the northern hemisphere tilted towards us, with opposition occurring during late summer, so the north polar cap should be at a minimum. In late September 2016 Earth passed through Mars' equatorial plane, followed by views of the southern hemisphere. Mars will tilt very quickly, pointing its south polar 26 towards Earth by late January 2017. Martian perihelion occurs in late October 2016, so dust storms may occur near the end of this opposition cycle.
Mars exceeds 5" in size from: December 10, 2015 - February 1, 2017
Mars exceeds 10" in size from: March 15, 2016 - September 10, 2016
Mars exceeds 15" in size from: April 20, 2016 - July 15, 2016

Comparison of all Mars oppositions 2000 - 2049 AD
June 3, 2016Saturn 2016 Opposition. Saturn won't get higher in the sky than 36 altitude, but will be even lower for the next 2 years before it begins to climb higher in the sky again. This is also an aphelic opposition, with Saturn reaching only 18.44" diameter. On a positive note, Saturn's rings reach maximum tilt next year, but are within a degree of maximum this year.

Special imaging note: On May 21, 2016, just days before opposition, Phoebe has a rare eclipse by Saturn's disk. Although it would be extremely difficult to image the mV 16.7 moon near Saturn's bright disk, about a week later - at the very end of May - all Saturn's classical moons will present a rare photo opportunity with even Iapetus nearby - all moons will fit within a 5 arcminute field of view.

Comparison of all Saturn oppositions 2000 - 2049 AD
June 5, 2016Mercury morning elongation. Mercury reaches only 14 altitude at sunrise during this elongation. It remains at a height of 13 from June 1 - June 19.
July 7, 2016Pluto is at opposition. It has been receding towards aphelion since 1989, becoming dimmer and more distant each year. It is also lost in the crowded starfields of the Milky Way. By 2018 it will be visible in less crowded fields again, but is getting lower in the sky each year. After 2030 it will begin to climb higher once again.
August 16, 2016Mercury evening elongation. Mercury reaches a maximum height of only 14 at sunset, about a week before elongation.
August 27, 2016Jupiter-Venus conjunction. Around 3:30 PM PDT, Venus passes within 4 arcminutes of Jupiter's north pole – closer to Jupiter than Callisto! Viewed from California the planets will be about 55 above the horizon, having just crossed the meridian. This event will require daytime viewing, since the pair will be close to setting at sunset. These planets won't be this close again in the next few decades. In addition to being visually stunning, this is a rare imaging opportunity. The challenge will be selecting the correct exposure time, as Venus will be very bright compared to Jupiter.
September 2, 2016Lunar occultation of Jupiter. A very new Moon occults Jupiter for about an hour in mid-afternoon. At 2:45 PM PDT, Jupiter slips behind the dark lunar limb, about 56 above the horizon. At 3:45 PM PDT, Jupiter re-emerges from behind the very thin crescent of the new moon, at 49 altitude.
September 3, 2016Neptune is at opposition. Due to its distance and circular orbit, Neptune does not show measurable change in opposition diameter. This year at opposition Neptune rides 50 above the horizon. It will continue to climb higher each year for the next few decades, making it a better imaging target.
September 28, 2016Mercury morning elongation. This is the best morning apparition for 2016. Mercury reaches a height of 17.5 at sunrise. It will be more than 15 high from September 23 - October 6. During these 2 weeks it changes rapidly from a thick crescent to a gibbous disk.
October 15, 2016Uranus is at opposition. Having just passed aphelion in 2009, Uranus is still small at 3.72" diameter, slowly growing to 4.07" at its next perihelic opposition in 2050. Although Earth just passed through Uranus' equatorial plane in 2007-2008, Uranus' north pole is already tilted 35 towards Earth at opposition. Uranus is an excellent imaging target, reaching 65 above the horizon. It will continue to climb higher for the next 17 years.
December 11, 2016Mercury evening elongation. Mercury is only 14 high at sunset.
January 12, 2017Venus evening elongation. Venus spends the first half of 2016 as a morning star, sinking from 30 high at sunset in January to its June 6, 2016 superior conjunction, as it shrinks from only 15" to 10" in size. It moves into the evening sky and by September it will be 15 high at sunset. In January and February 2017 Venus will hover 40 above the horizon at sunset at it rapidly grows into a large, thin crescent, then plunges rapidly out of the night sky for a March 25, 2017 inferior conjunction.
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