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    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

Events January 2011: Sunrise planets, a Jupiter flyby of Uranus, and a maybe spectacular meteor shower

Three bright planets, joined by a sliver of a Moon, welcome in the New Year just before sunrise. Click image for larger view.(Some labels added to Stellarium screen shot.)

 

Quadrantid update January 4, 2011: The Quadrantids should be past their peak now, but will continue to be active through January 10. There are also several very minor showers producing some meteors this week. For an excellent meteor forecast go here. Frederik Broms captured a nice shot of a Quadrantid scooting across a beautiful backdrop of  aurora in Norway. I was observing this morning and took  about a 30-minute break to sit down,  enjoy a cup of tea,  and take in  a handful of Quandrnatids – eight to be exact – all quite bright fast, and short. The first was the brightest – about magnitude minus 2 – and seemed to be heading right towards me out of the northeast, passing below the head of Draco.   I observed other objects for a total of two hours this morning, pausing occasionally to look for Quadrantids, but saw none that way.  (More details about the Quadrantids near the end of the original post.)

And in the real world – this update as of January 1, 2011:

Clouds enhanced the sky show on January 1, revealing firstone, adn then another, of the three planets and crescent Moon. (Click image for larger view.) Picture was taken in morning twilight from Westport, MA.

For more pictures and information on what was visible from Westport, go here.

Back to the original post:

Count them! Three bright planets, plus a very thin crescent Moon will ring in 2011 just before sunrise and will mark a year that gets off with some celestial fireworks in the first week, then calms down a bit. And it’s not just a morning scene – the evening sky also holds a special treat. Jupiter and its dancing moons will continue to fascinate observers, and if you want an easy shot at Uranus, early January is as easy as it gets – until 2038!

But back to the morning: Pre-dawn viewing is fun at this time of year – at least in the northern hemisphere – for “pre-dawn” doesn’t mean getting up ridiculously early. For example, at my location in Westport, MA, the scene pictured above is best seen about 6:25 am, a very reasonable time as early observing goes. And fireworks? Well, that’s a maybe, but they could be provided by the very elusive annual Quadrantid meteor shower which can be spectacular if you’re lucky – I’m usually not, but hope blooms eternal. So here’s the basic lineup to open 2011:

  • Sunrise planets
  • Jupiter flyby for Uranus
  • Quadrantid meteors

Sunrise planets

While the precise details of the scene at the top of this post are just for January 1, most of what you see in the scene will be there all month. The Moon, of course, is only in the scene at the start of the month – in fact, that show really starts near the end of December as the following charts will show. But if you get clouded out in the early days, don’t give up. Mercury is well placed in the morning sky from the start of the month through about January 20. It reaches its highest point in the first week when it is nearly nine degrees above the horizon about 45 minutes before sunrise. By the 18th it is about five degrees above the horizon 45 minutes before sunrise, so it’s getting pretty difficult to spot. Venus and Saturn are there all month – and Venus is nothing short of dazzling, dominating the scene as it shines at about magnitude -4.4. So as you check out the changing position of the Moon in these early charts, keep in mind that most mornings this month the pre-dawn sky to the southeast will hold a treasure of planets.

Please note: Stellarium pictures the Moon as a bright circle. In truth, on these dates it will be a crescent that gets smaller and more difficult to see as it gets lower in the sky each morning.

Three bright planets, joined by a crescent Moon, just before sunrise on December 30, 2010. Click image for larger view. (Some labels added to Stellarium screen shot.)

Three bright planets, joined by a crescent Moon, just before sunrise on December 31, 2010. Click image for larger view. (Some labels added to Stellarium screen shot.)

Three bright planets, joined by a slither of a crescent Moon - it will be difficult to see unless you have a very clear horizon - just before sunrise on January 2, 2011. (January 1 view is at the top of this post.) Click image for larger view. (Some labels added to Stellarium screen shot.)

How to find the morning planets

You won’t have any difficulty picking out Venus – there’s simply nothing brighter in the sky except the Moon and Sun. Start about an hour before sunrise and simply look to the southeast. It will be roughly 20 degrees – two fists – above the horizon, its exact height depending on when you start looking for it.

Mercury is more of a challenge. You want to look soon enough to catch it against as dark a sky as possible. But the later you look, the higher in the sky it will get. Higher is better because you’re looking through less atmosphere, so it will appear brighter. Problem is, as it gets higher, so does the pre-dawn sky, so the still-hidden Sun is washing out the sky behind Mercury, making it more difficult to see. My strategy is to start looking about an hour before local sunrise. I expect to pick up Mercury – assuming I have a clear eastern horizon – about 45-30 minutes before sunrise. If it gets much later than that, then Mercury is likely to get lost in the brightening dawn sky. Using binoculars helps, but is not necessary. With clear skies, you should see it with your naked eye. But its nearness to the Sun always makes spotting Mercury a bit challenging and not all appearances of Mercury are equal. Sometimes it takes a very low trajectory above the horizon. This month’s is a good appearance. After mid-month it gets lower and lower until it’s lost in the Sun’s glare by the last week of the month.

Saturn is easy, and you can see it much earlier. At the start of the month it rises just after midnight. This means that by an hour or two before sunrise it is well up in the south south east, about 10 degrees (one fist) above and to the right of Spica, and around 40 degrees (four fists) above the horizon. It’s easy to confuse with Spica, however, since they are nearly the same brightness – but Spica is below it, and has a bluish tint and will tend to twinkle more. Saturn has a steady, yellowish glow. You can’t see its fabled rings with binoculars, but this year it will be a delight to those using small telescopes. It’s now tilted so its rings are easily visible in the telescope -something that hasn’t been so for the past couple of years when the rings have been close to – or at – edge on from our perspective.

Jupiter flyby of Uranus

First, don’t forget that Jupiter is fun in itself with its constantly changing configuration of four Galilean moons. These are a challenge with binoculars, a joy in small telescopes, and you can learn more about them in this October post. (Just remember that the sky position in that post is for October – now Jupiter is in the southwest visible about 45 minutes after sunset.) Also, to find out which moons are where at any given moment, go here. But Jupiter serves another task this month – it guides us to Uranus – the “Georgian Star.” This is significant because it makes Uranus, which is just barely of naked eye visibility under the best of conditions, very easy for anyone to pick out using binoculars. All you have to do is find Jupiter, and since it’s the brightest “star” in the southwestern sky on January evenings this year, it’s hard to miss. Point your binoculars at it and use the charts here to identify Uranus. The charts show Jupiter’s eastward movement against the background of stars from December 25, 2010, to January 14, 2011, as it does a “fly by” of Uranus. Uranus – much more distant and orbiting much slower, hardly appears to move during this time.

This is the third such close encounter in a year, but don’t hold your breath for the next one – it’s 27 years from now!

Though at magnitude 5.9, Uranus should be visible to the naked eye if you have really dark skies and good eyes, but it will be far, far easier to see in binoculars. The circle shows a 5-degree field, typical of what you will see in binoculars, though many will show even more. The two identified stars are 20 Piscium and 24 Piscium. They are magnitude 5.5 and 5.9 respectively. They make finding Uranus even easier, for it is shining at magnitude 5.9 as well – so the three make a nice triangle of “stars” of just about equal brightness. Uranus may show a slightly blue tint. At their closest, around January 4, Uranus is less than a degree from Jupiter.

Uranus and Jupiter in the early evening of December 25, 2010. Click image for larger view. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Uranus and Jupiter in the early evening of January 4, 2010. Click image for larger view. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Uranus and Jupiter in the early evening of January 14, 2011. Click image for larger view. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

I like to call Uranus the “Georgian Star” even though folks seldom know what I’m talking about! The point is, “Georgian Star” beats the heck out of the adolescent giggles you get if you’re not very careful about how you pronounce Uranus – and “Georgian Star” was the name it went by in England when first discovered. For more on the Georgian Star see the Spetember post here.

Quadrantids – the most elusive of meteor showers

If you love morning, if you love cold weather, and if you love gambling – then the Quadrantid meteor shower is for you! For me – I’m usually up early and out early observing if it’s clear, so in early January I remind myself to look north for a while to see if I can spot some Quadrantid meteors. This January that advice is particularly good on January 3rd and 4th for North American observers – and especially good on January 3rd if you happen to live in Europe. Why? The Quadrantids can produce as many as 100 meteors an hour, but everything has to be just right for that to happen. But even if they don’t produce many, the ones that do show can be spectacular.

Quadrantid radiant point as it appears at 3 am January 4 from 42° N latitude. (Chart is screen shot from Starry Night Pro.)

For one thing, while Quadrantid meteors may appear essentially any time during the first 10 days of the year, the Quadrantids have an incredibly sharp peak (just 2-4 hours long) that according to the American Meteor Society will happen near 0100 Universal Time on January 4th. (Go here to convert Universal Time to your time.) This is 8 pm EST, and there will be no interference from the Moon, but before you East Coast folks get too excited, the radiant point (see chart above) for the Quadrantids is very low in the northwest at that time of night. The American Meteor Society (AMS) says this about observing when the Quadrantid radiant is low:

Rates would only be a small fraction of what could be seen with the radiant high in the sky. This timing is best suited for Eastern Europe and Central Asia where the radiant is favorably placed high in the sky during the morning hours. Even under ideal circumstances this display is quite variable. Observers should witness 30-50 shower members per hour at maximum but occasionally these rates can exceed 100 Quadrantids per hour from rural locations.

However, don’t despair. Sky and Telescope in the January issue acknowledges that very few meteors appear when the radiant is low:

But those that do are spectacular “earthgrazers” that skim along the upper atmosphere far across the sky. Just one of those can make your night. So keep an eye out on the evening January 3rd.

What’s more, the Quadrantids are known for producing fireballs – the very brightest of meteors – ones that can even outshine Venus!

So how will you know a Quadrantid when you see it. After all, on any given night there can be several random meteors. The key is to note its direction. If you’re in North America, Quadrantids will generally come from the north northwest in the early evening, from north about the time of the shower’s peak, and from the north northeast later. As with so many good showers, the time to see the most Quadrantids will be in the early morning – essentially from about 1 am January 4, 2011, on.

Because of this, the AMS urges North American observers to view on both the mornings of January 3 and January 4 – especially the last few hours before dawn. They also give a piece of advice about meteor watching that is new to me – don’t look straight up – focus on a slice of sky from the horizon, upwards. Here’s more advice from their web site about this year’s Quadrantids:

The best strategy is to face toward the north or eastern portion of the sky. This way you can have the Quadrantid radiant within your field of view and easily determine shower association for Quadrantids and non-Quadrantids. Do not face directly at the radiant as the meteors seen in the region of the sky are short and easily missed. Meteors seen further from the radiant are longer and more noticeable. It is advised to face as low as possible without looking at the ground. Therefore, have the bottom of your field of view on the horizon. You may have thought that facing straight up is best but the sky directly above you presents a thin slice of the atmosphere and you see only meteors that are relatively close to you. Facing more toward the horizon allows you to see a larger portion of the atmosphere and meteors that occur much further away.

And why are they called Quadrantids? Other meteor showers are named for the constellation in which their radiant is located – the Perseids in Perseus, the Geminids in Gemini, etc. But who knows of a constellation named Quadran…??? Well, think Pluto! There once was a constellation named Quadrans Muralis, and that’s where they appear to radiate from. But in 1932 the International Astronomical Union cleaned up sky maps, through out some constellations, and agreed upon official boundaries for the remaining 88. The Quadrans Muralis is no more. But they do still appear on sky charts printed before that time.

Its name is Latin for mural quadrant and refers to an instrument that was very important to astronomy before the time of telescopes. Check out this description.


Update: January 1, 2011

I got up this morning, saw clouds, and was tempted to go back to bed. I should know by now that Mark Twain had it right when he penned his famous essay on New England weather . . .

I reverently believe that the Maker who made us all makes everything in New England but the weather. I don’t know who makes that, but I think it must be raw apprentices in the weather-clerk’s factory who experiment and learn how, in New England, for board and clothes, and then are promoted to make weather for countries that require a good article, and will take their custom elsewhere if they don’t get it.

There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger’s admiration-and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go. . .  .

And seldom have I scene anything quite so sumptuous as the weather that started out 2011, threatening to overcome, yet in the end, enhancing tremendously the parade of planets the Universe had planned to start the year.  At least that’s the way it was at Gooseberry this morning.

I had been up observing from 3-4 am under clear skies.  At 5 am it was totally overcast at my home, 10 minutes from Gooseberry where I can watch the sun rise over Buzzard’s Bay. At 5:30 it was still cloudy, but I went to Gooseberry anyway because the satellite images hinted at some remote possibility it would clear again.  At about 6 am Jennifer and Sybil arrived. It was totally overcast, but their spirits were high. Sybil said she had scene a lovely crescent Moon from her home a few minutes before getting in the car.  That was an encouraging sign.

Then as we stood there in the cool air, a star or two started to pop out overhead. Hope! Off on the eastern horizon there was a clear band between two cloud banks. “What’s that?” asked Jennifer? “A planet?” Yep!  Mercury. The one I expected to see last, if at all, for even under perfectly clear conditions mercury was so close to the horizon I knew it would be difficult to pick out. but there it was sandwiched between the dark clouds.

Next Saturn popped out  above Spica – and about the same time Arcturus put in an appearance and over in the west, Regulus. So we had two planets with some serious hope that the clouds would continue to move. But it was quite a while before we started catching glimpses of brilliant Venus.  And the last to emerge was the beautiful crescent Moon.  The pictures give some idea of what we saw, but nothing can capture the experience of simply being there. A scene like this really is enhanced by the clouds. They add an element of mystery and motion to what is already a wonder-full show. of course, they can also frustrate the heck out of you – but the fact they didn’t is perhaps a good sign – a good way to begin 2011.

Last to be revealed by the shifting clouds were Venus and the crescent Moon. (Click image for larger view.)

A picture can only hint at the richness of the varioed pastel colors in the morning twilight, and the awesome emtional impact of seeing the crescent Moon and Venus framed so beautifully. (CLick image for larger view.)

Having trouble picking out Venus in the above photo. The enlarged version might help -or take a look at this “enhanced version. ”

Click image for larger view.

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