The cosmic swirl continues, as our home, a tiny blue dot in a sea of darkness, hurtles through space. Astronauts aside, we're all stuck here on the surface in the safety of our atmosphere. But that hasn't kept us humans from turning our eyes skyward for compelling astronomical events every year. So mark your calendars now. Here's what to watch out for in 2018.
Total Lunar Eclipse and Blue Supermoon: Jan. 31
The first month of 2018 wraps up with a double lunar event. A total lunar eclipse, the first Earth has experienced in more than two years, arrives the night of Jan. 31. The shadow of Earth across the moon's full face gives it an otherworldly, reddish-brown hue that's behind the "Blood Moon" nickname for a total lunar eclipse. This'll be most visible to people around the Pacific Ocean, from the Western United States in predawn to Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Australia at sunset. This full moon's also a supermoon (closest in its orbit to Earth) and a blue moon (the second of two full moons in one calendar month), so feel free to call it a super blue blood moon if you feel that'll impress people. (If you'd like to read more, you can check out our blue moon/blood moon/supermoon story, too.)
Partial Solar Eclipse: Feb. 15
Earth this year gets only three partial solar eclipses and no total solar eclipses like the dramatic one experienced across North America in August 2017. Those who find themselves in southern South America the day after Valentine's Day will experience about a 10- to 20-percent coverage of the sun, while those few hardy souls in Antarctica will see up to half the sun's surface covered.
TESS Spacecraft Launch: March 20
NASA's space telescope Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will head out on its two-year mission to survey more than 200,000 bright stars, looking for the evidence of even more exoplanets. Rocket watchers should head to Cape Canaveral, Florida, for the launch, when TESS will head spaceward on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The current tentative launch date is March 20, though conditions can change that date. TESS has a no-later-than launch date of June 2018.
Lyrids Meteor Shower Peak: April 22
Created by Earth's orbit around the sun passing through debris from comet Thatcher, the Lyrids meteor shower kicks off April 14 and lasts through April 30, but peaks on Earth Day. The moon will be only a quarter full, meaning less lunar light interference. Midnight to 5 a.m. should be your best time to catch this shower.
Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower: May 6
Halley's comet is the most famous comet on the planet, and the trail of dust and debris it's left in our solar system results in this annual event. The shower doesn't arrive and leave as dramatically as others in the year — it's more plateau than peak — and should be most visible for several days on both sides of May 6, particularly around the equator and in the Southern Hemisphere.
Partial Solar Eclipse: July 13
Most of this eclipse takes place in the waters between Australia, New Zealand and Australia, but to our friends Down Under in Adelaide, Melbourne and Tasmania, get ready for a mild eclipse of up to about 10 percent of the sun's face with the partial eclipse of July 13. But let's be honest: This isn't going to be one for the record books.
Total Lunar Eclipse: July 27
The year's second total eclipse of the moon hits in the middle of the year, and will be widely visible for most of the world's population, with only North and Central America missing out entirely on the total eclipse.
Partial Solar Eclipse: Aug. 11
The third and final partial solar eclipse of the year is also the one with the most coverage of the sun's face. But as with February's, only people in remote parts of the globe will experience the peak eclipse. Parts of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, China, Russia, Scandinavian countries and the Korean peninsula will see up to 30 percent of the sun covered on Aug. 11; for more, head to northeastern Russia or the North Pole. (Earth's next total solar eclipse doesn't arrive until July 2019.)
Perseids Meteor Shower Peak: Aug. 12
This annual meteor shower produced by the Swift-Tuttle comet is a favorite among stargazers, as it can produce up to 60 meteors per hour at its peak. A thin crescent moon this year means this batch of Perseids could be relatively easy to spot.
Orionids Meteor Shower Peak: Oct. 21
This shower gets its name from the constellation Orion, which is in the part of the nighttime sky from which its meteors appear to originate. It's not one of the most productive showers of the year, producing usually between 10 and 20 meteors per hour at its peak, but its proximity to the easy-to-spot Orion and its association with Halley's comet make it a well-known one. This year the moon will be nearly full, which won't make for optimal viewing.
Comet 38P/Stephan-Oterma: November
The last time this Halley-type comet swung by Earth was back in 1980, so astronomers this year are in for a rare treat. The comet reaches perihelion — the point where it's closest to the sun in its 38-year orbit — on Aug. 26, and should be visible starting then. It will hang around through early 2019, but will be brightest and most prominent in November.
Return of the Halloween Asteroid: November
Around the night of Halloween in 2015, astronomers studied an asteroid that passed by Earth at a distance only 1.3 times the distance between us and the moon. There was plenty to learn from the rock blazing through space, but what was most compelling to many was that, under the right lighting angles and conditions, the asteroid looked like a human skull — and on Halloween, no less! Add to that the fact that 2015 TB145 is about as dark and reflective as charcoal, and you've got one spooky space rock. It passes close again to Earth in November, and an asteroid of its size — 625 and 700 meters, or slightly less than half a mile, long — won't be this close to Earth until 2027.
Geminids Meteor Shower Peak: Dec. 14
What's generally one of the stronger displays of the year, both in terms of number of meteors and their respective size, returns in mid-December. The meteor shower appears annually when Earth's orbital path intersects with a stream of debris from the asteroid 3200 Phaeton. A quarter-moon that sets around midnight means that the early-morning hours of Dec. 15 may be your best bet for meteors — there can be more than 100 an hour.