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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 October 2011: Mars stirs up the Beehive, plus a little LunaSee Jupiter style!

October starts in September – at least when it comes to observing Mars this year! In fact, October 2011 will be a neat month for planet watching with naked eye and binoculars, not to mention a good time to catch the  Zodaical Light, as well as a few Orionid meteors  – and with the first items it’s good to get an early start. By early, I mean you can start your Mars watching near the end of September and this is an early morning event.  But if early morning isn’t your thing, take heart – King Jupiter and his retinue are available evening and morning. (Jump to here if you’re interested primarily in Jupiter.)

Fast-moving Mars

That said, let’s start with Mars because it has been fun to watch in September as it cruised through Gemini and for a brief period made the heavenly twins look like triplets. In October it’s even cooler as it goes ripping through one of the best binocular star clusters – M44, the “Beehive,”  known to the ancients as “Praesepe.” That last name is Latin for “manger” and some saw this as a manger, apparently with hay in it and two donkeys – the Northern Ass and the Southern Ass, eating out of it.

These are handy, relatively bright stars that Mars will pass between. They also  may help you with your Latin, for their more formal names are Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis.  Seeing them in binoculars may help you pick up  the Beehive if  your light pollution is so bad that you are having trouble finding it, though binoculars certainly should bring it out in all but the worst conditions. Here’s the scene in the eastern sky early in the month a couple hours before sunrise.

Click image for a larger version. This is the view looking east about two hours before sunrise on October 1 when Mars will be about 30 degrees above the horizon - that's three fists. It will be about halfway between Castor and Pollux in brightness and should have a red tint very similar to Betelgeuse in Orion. (Chart prepared from Starry nights Pro screenshot.)

You can download a printer friendly version of the above chart to use under the stars here.

Here’s what typical binoculars – with a 7-degree field of view will show when you zoom in on Mars on October 1, 2011.

The view through binoculars. Click image for a larger version. Mars will be much brighter - and redder - than the stars in the same field. The brightest stars will be Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis and they are about the brightness of the stars in the handle of the Little Dipper, so will not be seen with the naked eye unless you have skies relatively free of light pollution. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot.)

This  cluster has been known since ancient times since it is visible to the naked eye as a dim cloud (if your skies are dark and your eyes dark adapted) – Galileo was able to resolve it into about 40 stars with his small telescope and you should be able to do the same with ordinary binoculars. There are actually more than 200 stars in this cluster and according to the Hipparcos satellite, the cluster is 577 light years away.

This also makes a handy illustration of sky directions. Remember – in the sky directions are a bit  different from on the ground – west is the direction the stars appear to move each night and north is the direction towards the North Star.  In looking at the Beehive you will get a good sense of North and South because Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis line up pretty much north/south as their names imply. What’s more,   Mars is moving eastward against the background of stars and it’s travel can be seen from night to night. It will take it little more than a week to pass in and out of our binocular field of view that is centered on the Beehive and by early November it will be close to Regulus, the bright star at the base of the Sickle of Leo.

Eastward journey of Mars from September 25 to October 3, 2011. Circle represents the typical field of view for low-powered binoculars. Click image for larger version. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot.

Jupiter – evening, midnight, or morning – take your pick!

And I should add, bring your binoculars, for using them to spot Jupiter’s moons will be the real focus of this post.

Jupiter is a magnificent, brilliant “star” that rises in the east shortly after sunset and will be dominant on any night this fall – nothing will outshine it but the Moon – and as we get closer to winter, Venus. In early October you’ll have to wait until about three hours after sunset for Jupiter to be well placed for viewing. By the end of the month it will be high enough in about two hours after sunset. Once up, it’s good for the rest of the night, so if you’re out viewing Mars in the early morning, for example, take in Jupiter as well.  But the fun increases expoentially when you observe Jupiter with binoculars, or any  small telescope. We’ll focus here on the binocular view because most people have binoculars.

Why are binoculars so important? Because of Jupiter’s four bright moons which constantly change positions with the changes noticeable over a matter of hours and certainly from night-to-night. These are the Galilean Moons – the ones the great scientist discovered in 1610 and with nothing more than binoculars you can follow in his footsteps, discovering them for yourself. And try to imagine the excitement it caused, for discovering these Moons helped change our whole view of the universe – they were solid evidence that not everything revolved around the Earth, as thought, for here were four objects obviously revolving around another planet.

Jupiter can be great fun – and a challenge – for anyone with binoculars.  It is common to say that bincoulars are all you need to see Jupiter’s four bright moons.  This is true  – but I’m afraid a bit misleading.  Don’t think you’re going to just pop out the door some night in October and glance up at Jupiter with the binoculars you bought for sports events and immediately see the moons. Those binoculars should do the trick, but it’s a bit more challenging than that for most of us. (OK, I’m 70 years old and in average health with reasonable eyesight – someone younger, healthier,and with sharper sight might find this easier.)

For example, one recent morning I was surprised by a few hours of clear skies. I grabbed three pair of binoculars and decided to put this idea of seeing Jupiter’s moons to a systematic test. I’d glimpsed them before with binocuars, but most of the time I look at Jupiter either with my naked eye, or a telescope.  With the naked eye you can’t see the moons – with a telescope you can’t miss them. So here’s what I learned in my little binocular test.

With binoculars in astronomy the goal is to gather more light and the bigger the objective, the more light it gathers and thus makes fainter objects brighter. The 40mm objectives are roughly the equivalent of 63 eyes, the 56mm objectives, 123 eyes, and 70mm objectives 192 eyes.

First, my equipment included an ordinary pair of birding/sports binoculars – 8X40 Celestrons – I had bought several years ago.  I also had a pair of my favorite “quick look” astromical binoculars, the very large 15X70 Celestrons, and a pair I had recently bought from Garrett Optical as an experimental compromise to these huge ones – 11X56 Gemini binoculars. The issues here are simple. The larger the objective glass, the more light is gathered and thus the brighter the moons should appear.  The objective glasses on my binoculars were 40mm (quite typical), 56mm (unusual) and 70mm (pretty common as inexpensive astronomical binoculars go.) The magnification rose in keeping with the objective lens size – 8X, 11X, and 15X – and the more magnification, the more separation between moon and bright planet, so the easier to see the moons.

Bigger objectives means bigger - and heavier - binoculars. From left, these are 15X70, 11X56, and 8X40.

This should quite obviously point to the 15X70s being the binoculars easiest to see Jupiter’s moons with – and I won’t keep you in suspence – they were.  But this also flies in the face of common advice given to persons choosing binoculars for astronomy – advice that up until a year ago I usually gave. And that is, you can’t hold these big binoculars steady – both because they are too large and heavy, and because they magnify too much.  And that’s true. What’s more, if you can’t hold them steady, you shouldn’t be able to see difficult things – and that’s not entirely true.

The standard wisdom is that 10X50 binoculars are the largest binoculars the typical person can hold steady and so are the best for handheld astronomy. It’s not bad advice. But it isn’t entirely true. It depends on exactly what you want to do with them. If you want to be able to wear them around your neck all night and frequently hold them to your eyes for long, thoughtful gazes at the Milky Way, I agree – go for the 10X50s. They won’t wear you out and they will give you a lot of good time with the stars.

But – if like me – you want to use them for an occasional look in the course of an evening – and if you want to be able to see fainter stars and even fainter nebulae, clusters, and galaxies, I recommend the 15X70s and I will even go so far as to recommend the Celestron 15X70 Sky Masters because I’ve had good luck with that brand and model and it usually can be had for between $50 and $80 and they are surprisingly good for the price – though I do urge you to get a better, padded strap to go with them. The one that comes with them is too dinky.  And treat them gently. Most binocular optics will get out of whack if they are dropped, or bounced around.

Here’s the sort of thing you are hoping to see:

How Jupiter's moon might appear at one specific moment - in this case a moment when they were all on the same side of the planet. Of course the next night the view could be quite different. The letters stand for Europa, Io, Ganymede, and Callisto.

And keep in mind this view will occupy only a small part of the center of your binocular field of view.

The largest circle represents the typical field of view with low power binoculars. The next circle shows the field with 15X70 binoculars - and the green circle represents the amount of space Jupiter and its moons will occupy in such a field of view - quite tiny, but Jupiter is so bright it will seem bigger.

So back to Jupiter. I had a clear sky with Jupiter well up in the west.  I stepped out onto my deck with all three pair of binoculars and tried to see Jupiter’s moons with first one and then the other. Nothing. I could not see a single Moon. Why? Two reasons.

First, my eyes were not dark adapted and the moons are a faint target. They look like stars and their magnitudes may fool you into thinking you can see them quite easily, for they are as bright as some of the faintest stars we see in areas where light pollution isn’t a big problem. But they are very near an incredibly bright object – Jupiter – which in October will be very close to magnitude -3 – only Venus, the Moon, and Sun are brighter!  Since the moons are generally within 10 arc minutes or less of the planet – think of that as about 10 planet diameters – they frequently get lost in the glare of Jupiter. And that brings us to the second issue – focusing the binoculars.

Binoculars need to be precisely focused for this task and that isn’t as simple as it sounds. First, a lot of people don’t know that it’s a two-step process to focus binoculars. With the typical center-focus binocular you need to look through the binocular, close your right eye, and focus with the center wheel. When the object is sharp in your left eye view, then close the left eye and now focus the right side using the diopter setting – that  means turning the knob that surrounds the eyepiece on the right. (This isn’t always obviously marked as such – just try turning the right eyepiece as you look through it.)  This brings both sides of the binocular into sharp focus and accounts for any difference between your eyes. Not difficult – but on a dazzling object such as Jupiter against a dark sky I had to do this repeatedly with each pair of binoculars before I was satisfield I had a really sharp view.

And this is where you will first notice how difficult it is to hold any binocular – but especially the larger ones – steady.  Focusing on a bird or quarterback or race horse is far easier. We usually don’t demand such precision out of what are – in all but the most expensive – quite crude optical instruments.  The stars put these inexpensive optics to the test.  So be patient. Do your best to get Jupiter to quiet down and sit still and be round.

And by the time you do – Voila! Bet your dark adaption will be pretty good. If it isn’t, give yourself 10-to-15 minutes in the dark  – no flashlights or other white light – to get your eyes properly adapted.

Now those two things out of the way I decided to do this the hard way. I knew the largest binoculars would give me the best view, so I didn’t want to prejudice things by looking first through them.  I wanted to pretend the smallest was all that I had.  So I looked first with the 8X40 glasses  and after about a minute of careful observing, a tiny dot of light popped into view on the west side of the planet.  Aha! A moon. Probably Ganymeade because it’s the largest and brightest.

That I saw while standing up.  I then went in and got a pillow, brought it out and lay down on the deck. This was better. I saw Ganymeade quite easily and the more I looked I saw there was a second moon closer to the planet – probably Europa or Io, but I couldn’t be sure – any of the moons can appear to be close – it’s just that Europa and Io never wander too far away from it, while Callisto can be quite far out – or in our line of sight, appear to be quite close.

I later brought out a comfortable deck chair and it proved to give me almost as good views as I got lying down – I could hold the binoculars steadier sitting than standing.

I should add here that I have good straps on all the binoculars and sometimes I push my elbows through the straps and spread them out to give me  a steadier grip. You can get quite fancy with this approach, using the strap in various ways much as soldiers and competitive shooters learn how to use a rifle sling to steady it.

There is a ton of excellent advice with pictures on how to hold binoculars steady here. And you can mount them on a camera tripod.  Many places sell an inexpensive adapter, such as this one,  that works with most binoculars.  The problem with this tripod approach is the higher things get the more awkward it is to look through the binoculars – so don’t wait too long. When Jupiter is about 30 degrees up – three fists above the horizon – would be a good time to give this tripod approach a try. More elaborate parallelogram mounts for binoculars are great fun, but can cost significantly more than the binoculars and sort of defeat the purpose of having a light weight, easy to carry and use observing tool.

But back to the handheld tests. I had certainly seen one moon and gotten hints of a second and the slightest whisper of a third. How did the 11X56 do? About the same. Except with the larger binoculars the  “hints” turned into certainty for the second moon and there was, from time to time, solid suggestions of a third moon out well beyond Ganymeade – which could only be  Callisto. This business of now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t is not unusual with faint astronomy objects. Our sky conditions rapidly change giving us clear, momentary looks at things that are on the edge of the capabilities of our eyes and instruments.

When I switched to the 15X70s all three moons were confirmed and really quite easy – yet I will remind you, before dark adaption and careful focusing, I wasn’t seeing any of the moons even with these larger binoculars.

And that was it. I did a lot more observing and retesting and being sure of my views through each binocular and the more I observed the easier it got – and the more just plain satisfying. Galileo would have loved any of these binoculars. Knowing exactly where to look and what to expect is a big help. The moons will always be pretty much in a line with the equator of the planet – but they can be on either side of it and one or more may be hidden from view at any given time and all might be quite close, or all on the same side. And the line holding the moons may tilt upward or be level, or tilt downward depending on the position of Jupiter in the sky. So while much of the universe is unchanging – at least on our time scale – this is one part that changes constantly.

If this is your first time looking for the moon, do yourself a favor. Go to this page at the Sky and Telescope Web site and open the JavaScipt utility.  It will tell you right where the moons are – and which is which – for any given moment. On the morning I looked, here’s what that utility showed me.

Screenshot of javascript utility at Sky and Telescope showing positions of Jupiter's bright moons.

Notice all four moons were on the same side, but one, Europa, was too close to the planet for me to see! So the bottom line is this. I saw all three moons with all three binoculars once my eyes were dark adapted and t e binoculars were well focused and I was sitting or lying to hold them steady.  But despite the difficulty of holding the binoculars steady, the biggest gave me the brightest and best view.

Ghostly light, meteors, and the Moon this month

The ghostly light I refer to is the zodaical light which is sometimes known as false dawn. In the fall it is best seen in September and October in the morning – and you must do it in an area that has dark skies – skies which reveal the Milky Way – and at a time when there is no competition from the Moon which would easily drown it out. For this fall that means you best bet is the first week or so of October. You need to pick your time carefully – between two hours and 80 minutes of sunrise. You look in the east and what you;re trying to spot is a wide, conical light rising fromt he eastern horizon.

If you go out looking for Mars in the early morning at the start of the month, be sure to include alook for Zodaical Light once your eyes are well dark adapted.  You’ll find more details about it near the bottom of this post.

On the meteor front I think the best bet this month is the Orionids which should be best on the morning of the October 22 – but don’t expect anything spectacular. The Moon will be a waning crescent and offer some interference and this “shower” is really just a drizzle. Other may put more emphasis on the Draconids because they are expected to be intense for a brief period on October 8th, but with the Moon nearly full that night it’s hard to imagine seeing anything but a few of the very brightest.

And speaking of the Moon, it is at first quarter on October 3, full on October 11, at last quarter on the 18th and new on the 26th. It will be quite close to Jupiter on the nights of October 12, 13, and 14, but even though near full, will not over power the brilliant planet. That is, jupiter will be easily visible, though stars in that vicinity will not.

On October 28th The Moon and inner planets will put on a challenging display in our western sky with Venus and Mercury. The Moon is  two days old and shouldn’t be too hard to  find. Venus is brilliant at magnitude -3.9 (a full magnitude brighter than Jupiter) and though very close to the horizon, should also be fairly easy with binoculars and clear skies. Mercury? Good luck. It’s around magnitude zero, so significantly dimmer than Venus, but brighter than the star Antares – but it is so close to the horizon you’ll have to have a completely unobstrcuted view and awfully good luck with clouds. I’d start looking about 10 minutes after sunset using binoculars. Our chart below is for half an hour after sunset. Much later than that and everything will be too low to see – or have set. Even at that time the Moon is just six degrees above the horizon- roughly half a fist!

Chart is for half an hour after sunset on October 28, 2011. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot.

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2 Responses

  1. i live i corpus christi texas and last night outober 14 th 2011 around 9;30 p.m. i let my dogs outside i happened to glance at the moon the sky was so clear i saw something i never saw before the moon was bright but it looked different like the moon was showing parts of other planets or something of the sort around 10 p.m. it was almost normal just a little blurry did any one else see this if so can you explain this

    • Not at all sure what you mean by “parts of other planets,”,but the Moon does have two or three exceptionally bright spots on it and at least one of these would have been prominent last night. Perhaps that’s what you saw.

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