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Sky, Eye, and Camera: Special Opportunities for October 2014

Note: This is a new feature about events each month that are not only fun to observe with eye and binoculars, but are particularly suitable for capture as photographs –  especially photographs that convey a sense of being there and are taken with ordinary cameras.   While taking night sky photographs used to be more demanding, modern digital cameras don’t have to go to bed at night – they’re a great addition to your night sky enjoyment. Greg Stone

September 2013 - Full Moon rises shortly after Sunset with the Earth's shadow as backdrop, topped by the rosy "Belt of Venus." This shot was easy because the Moon is so bright.  But on October 8, 2014 I expect a similar situation in the morning western sky just before Sunrise. However, in that case the Moon won't simply be in line with the Earth's shadow - it will be in it, fully eclipsed. Under such circumstances will be able to see it?

September 2013 – Full Moon rises shortly after Sunset with the Earth’s shadow as backdrop, topped by the rosy “Belt of Venus.” This shot was easy because the Moon is so bright. But on October 8, 2014 I expect a similar situation in the western sky just before Sunrise. However, in that case the Moon won’t simply be in line with the Earth’s shadow – it will be in it, fully eclipsed. Under such circumstances will we be able to see it?

Photographing October’s Lunar Eclipse

The moon makes all sorts of news this month, but for U.S. East Coast dwellers such as me the big photo opportunity will be the total Lunar eclipse on the morning of October 8, 2014.

In addition, much of North America will see a partial solar eclipse as the Moon’s shadow falls on the Earth October 23. On October 17 and 18 the Moon plays tag with brilliant Jupiter in the morning sky. Then in the evening sky on October 27 and 28 a waxing crescent will dance above the Teapot right in the Milky Way and Mars will join it. Whew! Real lunacy this month! 😉

But I’m keeping my fingers crossed about the weather for the total lunar eclipse. This is one of four in a two-year period with others due next spring and fall. The first in this series –  last spring – was clouded out for me and I at first thought this one would be uninteresting, coming as it does, right near sunrise for my location. But that’s actually going to make it all the more interesting – especially from a photographic perspective! Here’s why.

Totality actually starts at 6:25 am EDT, 23 minutes before sunrise. Now I figure 5-10 minutes after totality begins the Earth’s shadow and the Belt of Venus should be visible in the west as they are about 15 minutes before every sunrise. But this time the Moon itself will be in that shadow.

How cool that will be! But, I’m holding my excitement because it could also be all but invisible!

It would be cool because during the typical total eclipse the Moon is in a dark sky and we can’t see the Earth’s shadow – we just know it must be there because the Moon is getting darker on one side as it moves into  it.  But this time we will have a totally eclipsed Moon sitting right inside the Earth’s shadow which we will see – weather permitting – the entire length of the western horizon.

Now I have no doubt that we will see the Earth shadow – we see it every clear morning – but will we even be able to see the Moon at that point? When totality starts the Moon will be only 4 degrees above the horizon. It sets – locally – about five minutes after sunrise. We can, of course, see even a crescent moon in broad daylight – but this is an eclipsed Moon.

So will it be visible at all and how visible? Even during the partial phases I expect it to be a little hard to pick up in a brightening sky. The partial eclipse begins at 05:15 am EDT. Astronomical Twilight – the first detectable lightening of the sky – starts a couple minutes later.

So during the partial phases we’ll have a moon that’s getting darker and darker and a sky that’s getting progressively lighter. Not much contrast. Civil Twilight begins at 06:21 for me with the moon is a tad less than five degrees above the horizon and close to totally eclipsed.

But now the question becomes how clear is the western horizon? The slightest bit of cloudiness will show up and obscure the moon when it’s at that altitude.

So the bottom line is this: I have no doubt that I will see the early stages of a partial eclipse. I simply don’t know at what point – even given perfect weather – it will start to become difficult to see and lose it’s appeal as two things work against visibility – the lightening sky and the Moon drawing closer to the horizon.

This, of course, will make it a challenging photographic target – but then remember, the camera can see things that are a bit fainter than what our naked eye sees – even with an exposure of just a second or two. Tripod needed, of course, and remote shutter release handy. But wait – we will be so close to dawn we can’t use a real slow shutter speed or it will wash everything else out. And that’s where I’m thankful for digital cameras because they’ll let us take test shots and check the results, immediately, over and over!

It’s probably a pipe dream,  but I would really like to see – and photograph – a beautiful shadow of the Earth topped by a deep red Belt of Venus with a barely detectable full Moon sitting on the horizon in the middle of the Earth’s shadow. Last year I got the full moon rising with the Earth’s shadow as a backdrop – that was neat, but of course the Moon wasn’t actually in the shadow at that point and it was at its  brightest.

Technically possible, I guess – so I’m skeptical, but please – surprise me!

In any event, here’s the complete relevant time table. The  lunar eclipse times are constant for any location, though of course you will have to convert them form EDT if you’re in a different zone. Sunrise and twilight times are strictly local. They apply to my location in southeastern Massachusetts and should be checked locally. To find them I use the service provided  by the Naval Observatory and found here.

For detailed advice on photographing a lunar eclipse go here.

Here’s my local time table – I’m at 71° 04′ W and 41° 33′ N

Lunar eclipse timetable – EDT  –  Plus Moon’s altitude

05:15 Partial eclipse begins 16.5°

05:17 Astronomical Twilight Begins     16.5°

05:49 NauticalTwilight Begins     10.4°

06:21 Civil Twilight begins 4.7°

06:25 Total eclipse begins 4°

06:48 Sun rise on horizon

06:53 Moon set

October’s Partial Solar Eclipse

From a photographic stand point I find a partial solar eclipse far, far, far less exciting than a total solar eclipse and more dangerous. You simply need to know that you shouldn’t be looking at the sun, even partially eclipsed, without special protection for you and your camera.

But if you’re in a section of North America where the partial eclipse will be good, I suggest you check out this site to find exact times for your locality – http://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/solar/2014-october-23 

 – and then go here for observing and photographing information.

http://www.eclipse-chasers.com/photo/Photo18.html

Because the Moon’s shadow seeps across the Earth during a solar eclipse, the time they occur depends on your location. With the lunar eclipse they happen at the same Universal Time everywhere as the Moon moves into the Earth’s shadow – but, of course that time has to be adjusted for time zones.

Other Special Night Sky Photo Ops in October

My goal, as always, is to include that most beautiful – and interesting – of planets, Earth, in any of my astronomical photography. To that end the idea is to look at when planets and the Moon approach closely and plan in advance what you wish to include in your Earth-sky photographs.

You don’t need a special event – or even the Moon – for this sort of thing, of course. I was photographing Saturn, Mars, and Antares with a crescent Moon low in the west over a seacoast last month. I was happy with this result.

September 27,2014 - c. 45 minutes after sunset looking west on beach in front of Allens Pond. Dartmouth, MA.  Waxing Moon with Saturn just south - plus Mars and Antares. (Click image for larger version.)

September 27,2014, an hour after sunset looking west on beach in front of Allens Pond. Dartmouth, MA. Waxing Moon with Saturn just south of it – plus Mars and Antares. (Click image for larger version.)

But I was happier when I turned around and caught the outlines of some folks sitting on a nearby large rock, as well as the glow of distance city lights to the north and the rising stars in the general area of Perseus and Triangulum. (Both these images need to be clicked on and displayed  large to see details.)

September 27,2014 - 90 minutes after sunset looking east on beach in front of Allens Pond. Dartmouth, MA.

September 27,2014 – 90 minutes after sunset looking east on beach in front of Allens Pond. Dartmouth, MA. (Click image for larger version.)

So here are the situations I would anticipate as offering some special opportunities this month.

Jupiter is quite high in the Eastern morning sky and very bright, so just about any time this month it offers a good twilight opportunity with the stars of nearby Leo. With it this high, however, you’ll probably want to be closer to foreground objects – trees, buildings, boats – whatever  – to include them.

A couple hours before sunrise you’ll find Jupiter roughly 45 degrees (4-5 fists) in the eastsoutheast and unmistakeable as the brightest “star” in the sky.

On the mornings of October 17 and 18 it will be joined by a waning crescent Moon less than 10 degrees – one fist – away – a nice combination. To take advantage of this you want to scout out locations that would offer a nice, twilight scene to the southeast.

The evening sky will offer a simlar situation, but with a waxing crescent Moon and the center of our Milky Way as background. Mars will be in the vicinity, but the distinctive “Teapot”  asterism which highlights Sagittarius will make it especially interesting. Will the Moon totally drown out the Milky Way? Certainly it will impact some of it, but this will be an interesting night sky challenge

Starting on the evening of October 26 a waxing crescent about three days old will form a rough triangle with Saturn and Antares low in the south-southwest. Antares and Saturn may be too low to see depending on how clear your horizon is.  The Moon you won’t miss.

In the next two days the Moon climbs higher and moves in the general direction of Mars, the Teapot, and the Milky Way. I think this provides an interesting combination through the 28th, but with each successive day the moon gets brighter and brighter, and thus will drown out more and more of the Milky Way in it’s area.  So I think the best opportunity will be on the 26th – but you can only be sure by getting out and seeing – and snapping.

Sky, Eye, and Camera: Special Viewing/Photo Ops for September 2014

Note: This is my first installment of a new feature. It’s a modification of the old “events” post and still is a guide to special events for the month – things happening in the sky that do not repeat from month to month but are special to a particular date. To this I have added – and put emphasis on – information about events that are particularly suitable for capture as photographs – especially photographs that convey a sense of being there and are taken with ordinary cameras.  This is in contrast to the traditional astronomy images that use special cameras to show us things we cannot see with the naked eye by taking long exposures and gathering much more light, usually using a telescope as the lens. Greg Stone

 

September 2014 gives us several special opportunities for nice, naked-eye views of stars and planets that also provide excellent photo opportunities, especially if you have a DSLR camera – or something similar where you can adjust the exposure.

August 2014 "super" Moon. (Photo by Greg Stone)

August 2014 “Super” Moon. (Photo by Greg Stone) Click image for larger version.

September 8, 2014 – “Super” Moon rising in the Earth’s Shadow/ Belt of Venus

I can’t get real excited about the “Super” Moon idea – we’ve had two this year already, and they’re really not all that unusual, or for that matter not quite as “super” as the word makes them sound.

But the full Moon rising is always a pretty sight and a very easy subject for photographers. One alert, though. The Moon is really quite small – half a degree – and so your picture may show a Moon much smaller than you remember seeing with the naked eye. This is because the full Moon  ALWAYS appears to be much larger to us when it’s near the horizon, whether “super” or not. A friend asked me recently why my picture of the Moon conveyed this sense of what he saw, while others didn’t.

The answer is simple. I used a small telephoto lens. Technically it was an 80mm, but because of the sensor on my camera, you have to add a factor of 1.6 to that to get the 35mm – or “full frame” equivalent. So in this case it was like using a 128mm telephoto on a 35mm camera.  Lots of simple cameras come with zooms that provide at least that much magnification. Use more magnification and you may end up with a real nice picture – but it may make the Moon look a lot bigger than what people saw with their naked eye.

That brings me to another major point. My whole approach to night sky photography is to try to convey a sense of being there. For that reason I don’t overdo the sensitivity of the CCD – that is, I don’t set the ISO real high – and I do keep the exposures relatively short. With the full Moon in August, I had the ISO set at  1600 – which meant I had a little noise to clean up with the editing software – and I could take the-picture at 1/160th of a second – that’s fast enough to hand hold even with the 128mm telephoto – and the the F-stop was 7.1, small enough to provide some reasonable depth of field.

That last is critical. The Moon is at infinity, but you want to also include some foreground subjects at close and mid-range to give a sense of proportion to the objects in the sky.

Moon rise time varies by your location. Where I am on the eastern seaboard of the US, the Moon will be rising roughly 20 minutes before the Sun sets on September 8th. This is going to provide an interesting  opportunity, I think, to catch the Moon in the shadow of the Earth and/or the Belt of Venus. These appear in the east shortly after sunset and after about 15 minutes start melding into the night. The shadow will be a darker blue than the sky above it and extend perhaps a fist above the horizon.  The “Belt of Venus” will be a rosy band above the shadow. Bottom line: I think the most interesting shots will be taken about 10-15 minutes after sunset.

Of course, much depends on local weather conditions. For me the trick is to know where the Moon will be rising – just a tad south of east in September 2014 – and find a spot that not only gives me a clear horizon in that direction, but also provides some interesting foreground objects to go along with the Moon.

September 20, 2014 – Algol at minimum brightness

This event – an eclipse of Algol – will be centered on 10:55 pm EDT; on the 17th a similar event will center on 11:06pm PDT. I’m not going to go into  detail about the “demon star” here. If you don’t know about it, you can read more in this earlier post.

What I do want to point out is it’s fun to see this star dim, then brighten over the course of a few hours, and if you like taking constellation pictures, it would be neat to get one of Perseus with Algol at full strength and one with Algol at full eclipse.

While these eclipses happen every few days, you’re lucky if you find one or two a month that come at a time convenient for you to watch – and then, of course, the weather has to cooperate.

September 22, 2014 – the  Fall Equinox

This is a fun time to get a picture of either sunrise or sunset. You don’t need to be right on this date -a day or two before or after will do fine. The basic idea is to show the Sun in relation to local landmarks and thus identify for yourself the general heading for east or west from any given spot.  Actually, a real nice project is to pick a scenic spot, take a picture of a sunrise or sunset as close to the Equinox as you can get, then do the same thing again from the same spot showing the Sun at the Winter and Summer Solstices and at the Spring Equinox. The four will then show the movement of the Sun along the local horizon in the course of a year.

September 24-30 – Mars and its Rival, Plus Saturn

Click for larger version - prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot.

Click for larger version – prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot.

I suggest you go out an hour after sunset and look southwest for three bright “stars” near the horizon. Two should have a reddish hue, one a yellowish hue – though honestly, with them all this close to the horizon the atmosphere may cause them to twinkle and change color.

Still, this is worth seeing and should provide an interesting photographic challenge. However, if you have been taking pictures of constellations, similar settings should work here. (I like to set the ISO at 6400 and expose for four seconds at F7.1 with the camera on a tripod, of course, and using a cable release. This, for me, gives a typical naked eye view – but you need to experiment. I also clean up the background noise in such photographs using Lightroom.)

The main attraction here is that Mars – the red planet – is near Antares, a red star. In fact, the name “Antares” means “rival of Mars” because its color rivals the obviously ruddy planet.  Saturn is farther away but has a distinctly yellowish hue. In the course of these six evenings, Mars will first draw a bit closer to Antares, then get farther away. Saturn will also get lower each night, though Mars is moving in a counter direction right now and will appear to hold its altitude – that is, be at the same height at the same time. Of course, all of these will get too close to the horizon and eventually set, so timing is important. I plan to start an hour after sunset, then see what works best over the next half hour or so as the sky gets darker, but Antares, Mars, and Saturn also get lower.

Again, the challenge for me is to include foreground objects and show the night sky as we really experience it.  Here’s a shot, for example, that I took last winter of Orion – with a quite bright Moon out of the picture to the left.

Orion as seen from the Town Farm in Westport, MA in the winter of 2014. (Photo by Greg Stone)

Orion as seen from the Town Farm in Westport, MA in the winter of 2014. (Photo by Greg Stone)

Crescent Moon and Planets  in September 2014

I see two photo opportunities to capture a crescent Moon near major planets. On September 20, 2o14, the Moon should be within about 6 degrees of Jupiter, both about one-third the way up the eastern sky an hour before dawn. As Jupiter fades, Venus may put in an appearance near the horizon, though it’s getting quite close to the Sun.

On September 27, 2014, Saturn will have an even closer encounter with the Moon in the southwestern sky at dusk. Yep – this is in the middle of the period suggested to capture Antares, Mars, and Saturn – so if the weather gives you a break you might get a crescent Moon as a bonus.

 

Events, June 2014 – Bright Lights Along the Ecliptic this Month

This is a great month to become familiar with the ecliptic in our sky. The ecliptic is the plane of our solar system where you will always find the Sun, Moon, and Planets.

Finding it sounds simple – and it is if you pick your time and date. The problem is it changes constantly because the Earth is tilted on its axis and revolving around the Sun.  I should stress one more thing – the ecliptic is not the path you will see the Sun, Moon, and planets take across the sky in a given night – it is the path they will follow as they change position over days, weeks, and even years. How quickly an object follows this path depends on how close it is to us – the Moon makes it completely around the ecliptic each month, the Sun each year – but a distant planet, such as Saturn, takes about 30 years.

You can trace the portion of this path visible about an hour after sunset on a June night in 2014. For the chart below I chose June 13th simply to include a nearly full Moon in the picture. It will, of course, change position each night – but the planets will stick pretty close to these general spots all month. So go out an hour or so after sunset and start your search by looking to the northwest for brilliant Jupiter. It will be brighter than any star, or any of the other planets and only about 10 degrees above the horizon – ten degrees can be measured by holding your closed fist at arms length.

Jupiter thus achors the western end of the ecliptic. We’ll move eastward to trace out the rest of it.

Click on this chart to get a much larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Click on this chart to get a much larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

 

Up above Jupiter are the famous Gemini Twins – the nearer and slightly brighter one is Pollux, the other is Castor.

Turn a bit south of west you will find the bright star Regulus. While it outshines most other stars visible tonight, it is just in between Castor and Pollux in brightness and is about 30 degrees above the horizon – three fists.

Next on our list is the red planet Mars – the second brightest object on our chart. If you’re not detecting the rusty redness of it, try looking at it in binoculars. Then compare it with the next bright star on our chart, Spica. Spica is a  little lower than Mars an quite a bit dimmer. (Mats is four fist high, Spica about three and half.) Spica, however, is a very hot – and thus very blue – star. Look at the difference in color between it and Mars.

Moving eastward you’ll find Saturn, whose beautiful rings will show in even a small telescope. However, to the naked eye and binoculars Saturn simply looks like a bright star – not as bright as Mars, but certainly brighter than Spica. It has a pale, yellowish hue.

Continuing to the east is Antares, just 15-degrees – a fist and a half – above the horizon.  It’s name means “rival to Mars” and for good reason – it is a classic, red star, rivaling the color of Mars.  Again, contrast its color with that of Spica and Mars.

Oh – high overhead is the bright star Arcturus. It’s about as bright as Saturn and nearly 70 degrees above the horizon – seven fists.  Do you remember how to find Arcturus? You “follow the arc” of the Big Dipper’s handle – now high in our northern sky, to Arcturus, then “drive a spike” to Spica.

What else is going on this month?

Well, two dates to keep in mind:

The Summer Solstice is June 21 at 6:57 am EDT – and thus begins the longest day of the year.

On June 24 a thin crescent Moon will be very close to the brightest of planets, Venus in the eastern sky about an hour before sunrise. Should be a pretty sight and a nice picture opportunity.

Events April 2014: Mars, the Moon, and the Earth’s Shadow – Yes, a Total Lunar Eclipse !

 

anatomy-of-a-lunar-eclipse-graphic

Love those Lunar eclipses, but who was in charge of the scheduling for this one? Some insomniac like me, no doubt, for on the East Coast of the USA where I live this thing really doesn’t pick up steam until about 2 am April 15, then continues until near when the Moon sets just before dawn. The West coast residents get a somewhat more timely view.

Here’s the schedule for those in the Eastern Daylight Time zone on the morning of April 15:

1:57 am partial eclipse begins

3:06 am totality begins

3:45 am mid-eclipse

4:25 am totality ends

5:33 am partial ends

The Moon sets about the time the Sun rises, which varies according to location. (Eclipses happen at the same time all over the world – but of course what time that is for your location depends on your time zone – and for some, the Moon simply won’t be in your sky during the eclipse hours.  For a complete guide to where this eclipse can be seen and when for your location, see the NASA eclipse pages.

There’s an incredible NASA eclipse Javascript on this page that delivers all sorts of eclipse data and time for anywhere in the world – however, I did notice that the times were  standard – so you need to adjust for daylight savings if relevant.

What adds a special touch to this eclipse is that Mars will be pretty close to the Moon from the time the Moon rises near sunset. I always like watching the fainter stars come out as the Moon goes into total eclipse, then slowly vanish as it comes back. But with this eclipse, Mars will provide a special treat with it’s ruddy hue shining brighter than any of the nearby stars – though Arcturus and Spica will both rival it.  Here’s a chart for my location – the same relationships will apply anywhere, but those farther west will see the orientation of the chart shift since the Moon and stars will be higher in their sky at this point.

 

eclipsed_moon

Click image for larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

 

The Scorpion should be beautiful on the southern horizon. For me the Moon is about 22 degrees above the southwest horizon at this point. If you have trouble finding it – eclipses vary on how dark they get, then simply look for Mars and Spica – if you get Spica in binoculars the Moon will be in the same field about 2 degrees east of it.

April Planet Parade

Click image for larger view. (Made from screen shot of Starry Nights Pro.)

No, you can’t see the Moon – it’s eclipsed! (Actually, it can be quite red and fairly easy to see – or it can be quite dark and difficult to see during totality. ) Click image for larger view. (Made from screen shot of Starry Nights Pro.)

Jupiter is high in the western sky all month, setting in the wee hours of the morning; by the end of the month it sets closer to midnight, but is still brighter than any star or any other planet in the evening sky.

However, Mars rivals Jupiter, taking over in the eastern sky in the early evening hours and remaining visible all night throughout April. It’s in retrograde motion this month, which means it appears to climb a bit higher in our sky as the month goes on, moving west against the background of stars. This is the best opportunity for two years for telescope users to get a good look at Mars.

Saturn gets high enough to view in the eastern sky about three hours after sunset at the start of the month, and two hours after sunset by the end of the month.

Venus is best seen low in the east about 45 minutes before sunrise, and on April 25th has a nice pairing with the crescent Moon. While Jupiter is brighter than any star, Venus is two magnitudes brighter than Jupiter, so it shows up well even though it is well into morning twilight before it is high enough to see easily. I like finding pretty spots to try to capture the crescent Moon, Venus, and foreground landscape  in twilight.  Here’s a shot I got at the Town Farm in Westport MA when there was a similar  arrangement of the Moon and Venus in March 2014.

venus_moon_farm

Click image for larger view.

 

A Meteor Sprinkle

The annual Lyrids meteor “shower” is not nearly as intense as the Perseids in August or the Geminids in December, but if the night is clear it could be fun. It is supposed to peak (roughly 20 meteors per hour) on April 23 when a  waning crescent Moon will rise after 3 am and start to interfere some.

I must admit that with a shower like this I take it casually. That is, I go out and observe other things, but I keep an eye out for meteors, and if I see one, I try to trace its path backwards to see if it points in the general direction of the constellation Lyra – if it does, I assume it’s part of the shower and not a random meteor. You might see a shower meteor a few days before or after the peak, and it might come at any time of night in any part of the sky, but if I were going to pick an hour to keep a sharp eye out for Lyrids, it would be between 2 am and 3 am on the morning of April 23.

The Lyrids are believed to be remnants of Comet Thatcher, which orbits the Sun about every 415 years.

 

 

February 2014 Events: Obvious Jupiter, Morning Venus, Subtle Zodiacal and a timely wink from the Demon

Yep, you can’t miss Jupiter this month.  It’s well up in the eastern sky as it gets dark and brighter, by far, than even Sirius, the brightest star we folks in the north see.

What other special events are on parade this month? Well, the Moon provides a wonderful viewing – or photo op -with Venus in the predawn sky late in the month; the last two weeks of February will be a good time to look for that elusive Zodiacal Light about 80 minutes after Sunset, and if the weather on February 17 cooperates, we have a perfectly timed eclipse of Algol, the Demon Star, for folks in the Eastern Half of the US. ( There are other dates with the Demon available too for other parts of the world.)

So let’s start with Jupiter. You really can’t miss it even if you’re a beginner. In fact, if you’re a beginner this is a good time to let Jupiter be your guide to the Winter Hexagon. As mentioned in our “look east” post, you’ll find it in Gemini. Look to the southeast a couple of hours after sunset and here’s what you should see.

Click image for much larger version. To get the full beauty of this section of sky find an area with a clear horizon to the southeast and go out on a February evening a couple of hours after sunset. The chart shows what you'll see. The link below provides a small black-on-white version you can print and take into the field. (Prepared from a Stellarium screen shot.)

Click image for much larger version. To get the full beauty of this section of sky find an area with a clear horizon to the southeast and go out on a February evening a couple of hours after sunset. The chart shows what you’ll see. The link below provides a small black-on-white version you can print and take into the field. (Prepared from a Stellarium screen shot.)

Click here for a printable map of the above chart.

Jupiter reaches its highest point as it crosses to the south about 5 hours after sunset near the start of the month and closer to three hours after sunset at the end of the month. As the chart shows, Sirius will be lower and more to the south.

Moon and Venus team up for a Picture Perfect  Pre-dawn Sight

Venus is a morning star and really stays pretty close to the Sun this month, but as Sky and Telescope points out, there’s a great meeting of Venus and a thin crescent Moon on the morning of February 26. Here’s what to look for then.

Click picture for larger version.

Circle shows the typical view through ordinary binoculars – you may just be able to fit them both in the same field of view. Click picture for larger version.

Soft, elusive, and fascinating – Zodiacal Light

Mornings not your thing? Well from February 16 to March 2 the Moon will stay out of your way if you go out about 80 minutes after sunset and look for the elusive, zodiacal light. This is faint – sort of like the Milky Way – but its a pyramid of light rising up from where the Sun sets and going roughly halfway up the sky and leaning to the south.  To see it you must have dark skies pretty much free of light pollution. (A city to your west, for example, would likely ruin it.) And, of course, your eyes must be dark adapted.

Still, it’s a fascinating cloud of fine dust. Here’s what I said about it a couple of years ago – and it still applies:

You don’t need a totally clear horizon to see the zodiacal light, or binoculars, but you do need total darkness and that means little-to-no light pollution and no Moon. So you want to wait until a few days after full Moon to begin this quest. I feel I have a good shot at it from my favorite ocean-front observing point where I have a clear horizon to the west with no cities to create light domes there. Evenings in February and March – and mornings in September and October – are the best time for folks at mid-northern latitudes to look for this.

The zodiacal light is roughly the same intensity as the Milky Way, so if you can see the Milky Way from your chosen location, then you should be able to pick up this faint glow. Like the Milky Way, it stretches over a good deal of sky. It is widest near the horizon and gets narrower as it rises towards the zenith. You want to look for this starting  roughly 80 minutes after sunset. You can check for an exact time for your location by getting information from here on when astronomical twilight ends. (The drop-down menu on that page specifies the times for astronomical twilight.) As astronomical twilight ends you want to start looking. As with any faint object, your eyes need to be dark adapted, so I am assuming you have been out for at least 15 minutes with no white light to dazzle you. If you try to look for this earlier, you may confuse it with twilight. Much later and it is not as bright, for what we are seeing is sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust particles – dust particles that orbit in the same plane as the planets – the area we call the zodiac – and thus the name for this phenomena, zodiacal light.

If you see it, reflect on this explanation from Wikipedia:

The material producing the zodiacal light is located in a lens-shaped volume of space centered on the Sun and extending well out beyond the orbit of Earth. This material is known as the interplanetary dust cloud. Since most of the material is located near the plane of the Solar System, the zodiacal light is seen along the ecliptic. The amount of material needed to produce the observed zodiacal light is amazingly small. If it were in the form of 1 mm particles, each with the same albedo (reflecting power) as Earth’s Moon, each particle would be 8 km from its neighbors.

For the metrically challenged (that includes me), that means one dust particle every five miles! And that causes all that light?! Awesome!

Now, about that Demon!

I wrote about Algol the “Demon Star” in this  posting for October, but it’ s still well placed for viewing in February, and if you look at the right time, you’ll catch it in mid-eclipse, which is cool. For those on the East Coast, the most convenient time will be roughly 7:45 pm. Technically, the eclipse goes on for about two hours with the lowest point – the star at its dimmest – at 8:44 pm EST.  But to appreciate this you should check it an hour before to see the normal brightness, then look again at 8:44 pm. Of course, you could start at 8:44 pm and note how it brightens during the next hours. Either way, it will convey why ancient star gazers considered this the “Demon Star.” These events happen often enough for them to notice it dimming every once in a while – sort of winking at them – and no other bright star does that, so it’s easy to imagine the stories that would be told.

Every 2.3 days Algol dims like clockwork, but it is only at its dimmest for about two hours, so to see it in this condition you really need to be watching at the right two hours. Fortunately, there are several places that will give you a list of times when this occurs – but many of these times will be while normal people are sleeping – and many more will be during daylight hours. However, each month there should be one or two dates when it is really a good time for you to catch Algol doing its thing.

Most of the listings I know of for Algol “minima” give date and time in Universal Time. What I like about the one at Sky and Telescope magazine, is it will calculate a list of coming Algol minima for you – and give you the Universal Time, plus your local time. So it’s easy to glance over it and see when it will be most convenient – weather permitting – for you to take a look. In my case, February 2014 gives me a couple of opportunities worth noting:

  • 02/14/2014 @ 11:55 pm
  • 02/17/2014 @ 08:44 pm

With winter weather it’s easy to get clouded out, so the more opportunities the better your chance of seeing something. I find these eclipses amazingly elusive and rarely see one, maybe because I think there’s always going to be another opportunity – and there will, but . . .

Look East In January 2014 – King Jupiter, plus a trio of twins; Orion, man of the world; Betelgeuse, giant among giants!

January 2014 brings the usual host of bright and wondrous winter stars – and one star that isn’t  a star, but outshines them all in our skies – Jupiter. The “king of the planets” is absolutely dominant in the eastern sky this month, even though it gets a tad dimmer as the month goes on.  As we put some more distance between us and it, it drops from magnitude -2.7  at the start to -2.6 at the end of the month –  good luck on even being able to notice the change!  At magnitude 0 Capella is the brightest star we see, though in an hour or two, Sirius at Magnitude -1.5 will be up and come significantly closer to Jupiter’s brightness – but Jupiter will still dominate.

There are four new guidepost stars to meet this month and one new guidepost asterism, Orion. Orion is probably the best known figure in the heavens because it actually looks like a person and can be seen from most locations in the world since it’s centered on the celestial equator. That’s a lot for one month, but fun to think about on a dreary winter day and more fun to observe on a brilliant, winter evening. Here’s the chart for the eastern sky one hour after sunset for mid-northern latitudes. Remember, going out about 45 minutes to an hour  after sunset and looking east, you’ll see only the brightest stars as they come out. This makes it easier to identify and learn our guidepost stars. Our guidepost asterisms may not be as readily seen until a little later as the sky gets darker and more of the fainter stars come out.

The eastern sky as seen on a January evening about one hour after sunset. Click image for larger version. Use link below to download a printer-friendly, black and white version of this chart. (Chart is based on a screen shot, modified by me, of Starry Nights Pro software.)

The eastern sky as seen on a January 2014 evening about one hour after sunset. Click image for larger version. Use link below to download a printer-friendly, black and white version of this chart. (Chart is based on a screen shot, modified by me, of Starry Nights Pro software.)

Click here to download a black-on-white (printer-friendly) version of this chart

The January eastern sky – what to remember

 Castor – A trio of twins When you see Castor, think “twins” – a trio of twins. Well, in a sense there are really four pairs!

Castor is one of the Gemini Twins (Castor and Pollux), but in a small telescope we see it really is three stars, Castor A, Castor B, and Castor C - and though we can't see this in our telescopes, each of these stars is really a pair, making six stars in all!
When you spot Gemini in 2014 you will notice a brilliant Jupiter is right int he middle of it – this is shown on our “look east” chart at the beginning of this post. Click image for larger view.

But the fourth pair is just mythological – Castor is one of the “heavenly twins” of the constellation Gemini – the other twin being Pollux. This is nothing but a fanciful relationship, though, based on how the stars appear to us – and appeared to ancient cultures as well. But there is more, much more, to Castor. And, it’s what we don’t see that makes this bright star so fascinating. And seeing with your mind’s eye – your knowledge of what you are seeing – always enhances your experience under the night sky. So were you to look at Castor in a backyard telescope, you would see it has a twin – another bright star that appears quite close –  the two are known simply as Castor A and B. These two are related, orbiting one another about every 400 years.

But there’s more. Each of these two are twins! However, you can’t see this in a small telescope because in both cases the pairs of stars are extremely close to one another, orbiting one another in periods of less than 10 days. And as noted, each pair orbits the other pair in about 400 years.

But there’s more. Returning to that backyard telescope you may notice a third star, Castor C, quite a distance from the first two and significantly dimmer. This star is also part of the Castor family and it too has a twin that also is so close we can’t detect it without special instruments. In fact, Castor C consists of the closest pair of all, orbiting one another in less than a day! This pair, in turn, orbits the other four stars in the system once every 10,000 years or so. So when you look at Castor, remember that in classic mythology it has a twin, Pollux – and remember that what looks to you like a single bright star is really the combined light from six stars, all held together in one of the most complex star systems we know. (I wrote much more about the Castor system on the double-star blog. That post includes a scale model that puts Castor and company into perspective with the Earth and Sun. You’ll find it here. )

Vital stats (for just the brightest star in the Castor system):

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 1.58, the 23rd brightest star in our sky and the brightest second magnitude star. Absolute magnitude is 0.9. (Yes, we call a star “second magnitude” if it’s magnitude is between 1.5 and 2.5 – so you can see castor just slips into this category.)
  • Distance: 50 light years (not among the 200 nearest stars)
  • Spectral Type: A
  • Position: 07h:34m:36s, +31°:53′:18″
  • Compared to the Sun: Castor radiates 14 times as much energy as our Sun.

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Getting to know Pollux – the bigger, brighter twin

How Bayer saw the Gemini Twins in his 1603 atlas. (Image courtesy of Linda Hall library of Science, Engineering and Technology.)

Pollux should feel a little cheated because it’s the brightest star in the constellation of Gemini and usually the brightest star was given the designation “alpha”  by the early chart maker, Bayer. Not Pollux. It is designated “Beta Geminorum” and follows its slightly dimmer twin brother around the sky. But Pollux has its own way of standing out: It has a slight edge in brilliance in our skyit is a tad closer to us; and it is an orange giant. What’s more, in 2008 it was confirmed to have a planet orbiting it. As an orange giant, it has moved off the “main sequence,” and instead of fusing hydrogen into helium, as our Sun does, it is fusing helium into carbon and oxygen. It will eventually blow off a lot of its substance becoming a planetary nebula. It is currently about eight times the diameter of our Sun – that’s huge, but nowhere near as large as our next star, Betelgeuse. The planet that is circling Pollux is also large – “Jupiter class” – and was first detected in 1993, but not confirmed until 2008.

Vital stats:

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 1.14, the 17th brightest star in our sky. Absolute magnitude is 0.7 .
  • Distance: 34 light years (not among the 200 nearest stars)
  • Spectral Type: K
  • Position: 07h:45m:19s, +28°:01′:35″

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 Orion – A man for all to see

If you’re in the same general latitude as I am in Westport, MA, then you see Orion like this as it rises in the east on a January evening.

Orion – as seen when rising in mid-northern latitudes. (Click for larger image.)

What always sticks with me about Orion is how Robert Frost described him in his wonderful poem, “The Star Splitter.”

‘You know Orion always comes up sideways. Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains, And rising on his hands, he looks in on me . . .

But if I lived in Sydney, Australia, I wouldn’t see it this way. What I would see is a man standing on his head!

Orion, as seen when rising in the east from Sydney, Australia. (Click image for larger version.)

The real point here is that these stars do look like a man, and they can be seen from deep into both the southern and northern hemispheres. What’s more, the three distinctive stars that form Orion’s belt also mark the approximate position of the celestial equator in your sky, a handy thing to know. Of course, if you’re in the southern hemisphere, the celestial equator appears to make an arc across your sky to your north. In the northern hemisphere it appears to make an east-west arc across the sky to the south. But in either case the belt stars of Orion will rise just about due east and set due west. How high they get in your sky is calculated simply by subtracting your latitude from 90. That is, if your latitude is 42 degrees, as mine is, then Orion’s belt will be, at its highest, about 48 degrees above the horizon when it passes due south. From Sydney, Australia, the stars in the belt will cross about 56 degrees above the horizon as they pass due north. And yes, if you live on the equator these stars will cross directly over head. Anyway you look at it, Orion is a man for all latitudes – well, almost. At the north pole you would only see his top half, and at the south pole, only his feet! Return to Menu

Betelgeuse – giant among giants – and Rigel’s pretty large as well!

When you look at the eastern sky early on a January evening, get this picture in your head!

Here’s what our eastern sky would look like on a January evening if Adebaran and Rigel, two genuine giants, were as near to us as our Sun. The Sun, to scale, is also shown. Betelgeuse is NOT shown to scale.

Yes, that’s Rigel represented in the illustration, not Betelgeuse. Classified as a red supergiant, Betelgeuse is one of the largest stars you can see – and certainly up there with the biggest of all stars – yet it doesn’t look any bigger in our sky than other stars because all stars, except the Sun, are so far away they appear only as a point source of light to our eyes. Last month we showed what Aldebaran would look like if it were in our sky and the same distance from us as the Sun, and this month we’ve added Rigel to the picture. But we can’t do a similar thing with Betelgeuse – it wouldn’t be in our sky – it’s so large we would be in it if it were located where our Sun is! What’s more, it’s hard to put a number to the size of Betelgeuse, not because it can’t be measured, but because it’s hard to decide exactly what you want to measure when you’re dealing with a ball of gas – especially one like Betelgeuse. Our Sun is a little easier case. While it does not have a surface, it does appear to us to have an edge that’s fairly easy to define – it’s the place where its gases are dense enough to be opaque to our vision. Exactly how we define the size of Betelgeuse is a bit more difficult. I rely on James B. Kaler as my stellar authority. I love his books, and in one, “The Hundred Greatest Stars,” he describes the size of Betelgeuse variably as:

  • 650 times that of the Sun, or 2.8 AU (Astronomical Units – an Astronomical Unit is the distance between the Earth and the Sun – roughly 93 million miles)
  • 800 times the diameter of the Sun, or about 4 AU
  • 1600 times the Sun – about 8 AU when measured by modern observation in ultraviolet light

And on his Web site, after opting for a figure of around 8-9 AU, he writes:

However, the star is surrounded by a huge complex pattern of nested dust and gas shells, the result of aeons of mass loss, that extends nearly 20,000 AU away (Betelgeuse so far having lost over a solar mass). That, an extended atmosphere, and the pulsations make it difficult to locate an actual “surface” to tell just how large the star actually is. Moreover, because of changes in gaseous transparency, the “size” of the star depends on the color of observation.

Betelgeuse has other problems. The pulsations he refers to are a sort of puffing up that occurs from time to time and changes both size and brightness significantly. Betelgeuse is usually thought of as about magnitude 0.55, but it can be as bright as 0.3, or as dim as 1.1. All this huffing and puffing will soon lead to an explosion, and Kaler says it will then be as bright as a crescent moon! But don’t hold your breath. “Soon” in astronomical terms means sometime in the next million years or so! Its distance, too, is uncertain, but 500 light years is a good ballpark figure. Let’s focus on that 8 AU size for a moment. When we build a scale model of our solar system and reduce the Sun to something about the size of a volleyball, the tiny speck of the Earth orbits at around 75 feet away. But at 8 AU Betelgeuse would be more like 600 feet in diameter. So pause for a moment as you look at Betelgeuse on a winter evening. Imagine yourself holding an 8-inch volleyball in one hand – our Sun – while you stand next to a red, raging, unstable monster ball that is 600 feet in diameter!

Vital stats:

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 0.3 – 1.1, the 10th brightest star in our sky (sometimes). Shines with the luminosity of about 90,000 Suns.
  • Distance: 570 light years
  • Spectral Type: M
  • Position: 05h:55m:10s, +7°:24′:25″

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Rigel – Blue and brilliant

Here we go again! Like Pollux, it looks like Rigel was short-changed having been designated the “Beta” star of the constellation Orion while dimmer Betelgeuse is the Alpha. Of course, Betelgeuse, being variable, may have been brighter when Johann Bayer made his designations in 1603. Bayer’s “system” is inconsistent, however, to say the least, so there’s no sense getting too worried about this. Like Betelgeuse, Rigel is a supergiant. It’s huge and it’s brilliant too – and since it is more distant (860 light years), it is intrinsically more brilliant than Betelgeuse. Jim Kaler writes: “Only about 10 million years old, Rigel should eventually expand to become a red supergiant very much like Betelgeuse is today, by which time it will be fusing helium into carbon and beyond in preparation for its eventual explosion as a supernova.” Rigel’s radius is 74 times that of the Sun, 0.34 Astronomical Units, nearly as big as the orbit of Mercury. Rigel is a challenging double star for amateurs with moderate-sized telescopes.

Vital stats:

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 0.12, the 7th brightest star in our sky. Shines with the luminosity of about 90,000 Suns.
  • Distance: 860 light years
  • Spectral Type: B
  • Position: 05h:55m:10s, +7°:24′:25″

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December Events – a brilliant crescent Venus, Jupiter, and moon-drenched meteors

Venus – brilliant shortly after sunset to southwest

Chart shows position of Venus, roughly two fists (18 degrees) above the southwest horizon for much of December. During the last half of the month it will move closer to the Sun - and thus closer to the horizon half an hour after Sunset and by the end of the month will only be about 8 degrees high.  Vega and Altair will be much dimmer, but should show within about 45 minutes after sunset. (Created from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Chart shows position of Venus, roughly two fists (18 degrees) above the southwest horizon, for much of December. During the last half of the month it will move closer to the Sun – and thus closer to the horizon half an hour after sunset and by the end of the month will only be about 8 degrees high. Vega and Altair will be much dimmer, but should show within about 45 minutes after sunset. (Created from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

For telescope users – and maybe even those with binoculars – Venus does a gorgeous job of showing off its phases this month as it shrinks and grows at the same time.  For all of us, with telescope or not, it’s a brilliant “evening star” dominating the southwestern sky about half an hour after sunset.

Galileo was the first to see this and it was part of his argument for a Sun-centered solar system. Like Galileo, if you really want to see the phases you need a telescope, though near the end of the month you may be able to detect its thin crescent with good binoculars held very steady.

You won’t have any trouble finding it.  It’s that most brilliant “star” about 18 degrees – a little less than  two fists held at arm’s length – above the southwestern horizon half an hour after sunset.  It shrinks in terms of the amount of its disc that is lit. At the start of December 2013 about one third of the disc is lit – by the end of the month this will drop to just 5 percent. Amazingly, it stays almost the same brightness all month – in fact, this is the time it is at its most brilliant. Why? Because it is overtaking Earth in its orbit and in January will pass between us and the Sun – a sort of “new moon” phase, then become visible in the morning sky. ( When Venus is in its “full moon” phase it is farthest from us, so even though nearly the entire disc is lit, it does not appear nearly as bright.)

Positions of inner planets in mid-December, 2013. All are moving counter clockwise and Venus is about to overtake the Earth, passing between us and the Sun.

Positions of inner planets in mid-December, 2013. All are moving counter clockwise and Venus is about to overtake the Earth, passing between us and the Sun. Mars is positioned to be seen in our morning sky and Mercury is visible at the start of the month before dawn, but is pretty much lost most of the month in the glare of the Sun.

And about the growing Venus? Well, as it gets nearer to us it also appears larger. At the start of the month it’s disc about 38 seconds in diameter – by  the end of the month it is nearly a full minute of arc in diameter. To give you an idea what a minute of arc is, stand on the goal line of a football field and have a friend go down to the 10 yard line at the othe end and hold up a quarter? Can you see it? You may be able to if you have excellent vision.

On the other hand, a quarter held nine feet away is roughly the size of the full Moon – or Sun – in our sky – about 30 minutes of arc, or 30 times larger than Venus will appear in a telescope at the end of the month.

If you do go looking for the Venus crescent with binoculars or a small telescope, go out early. Locate  it while still in twilight, about half an hour after sunset. There’s less glare then and so it is easier to see the form. Later, as it gets fully dark, Venus is so bright you may find detecting its crescent difficult even in a telescope.

Jupiter – very bright as it rises in the east a couple hours after sunset

Click image for larger version. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

Click image for larger version. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

So is Venus the only special show in in our December skies this year? No. If you wait until “prime time” – about 8 pm – you will see a very bright “star” rising in the east. This is Jupiter, which by the end of the month starts coming up right after sunset.  Once it’s fairly high in the sky it makes a good target for binoculars. Its disc won’t be quite as large as Venus, but it does have four bright Moons and you can almost always find one or two of them with binoculars – sometimes three or even four.  Galileo did it four hundred years ago with a telescope that certainly wasn’t as good as most modern binoculars, but was a bit more powerful. Again, you need to hold your binoculars steady and focus them carefully.

Geminids – nice, but they will be drowned out some by moonlight

We also have the best meteor shower of the year putting in its annual appearance in December – the Geminids. Unfortunaetly, this year it will have to compete with the nearly full Moon. Still, Geminid meteors tend to be slow and quite bright, so even with the Moon you should see some. The shower is forecast to peak just after midnight (EDT) on Saturday morning, December 14th. That means late on the night of December 13th – hmmm, Friday, the thirteenth – should be good for seeing Geminids and the best views  will come in the very early morning hours of Saturday when the Moon is low in the west and the shower’s radiant point – in Gemini near Jupiter – is high in the sky.

Solstice – December 21, a good reason to celebrate

You need not be a Druid to celebrate this just after midnight EDT on December 21, 2013.  For northern hemisphere observers the winter solstice means the Sun has stopped running south and is turning around and heading back north. Of course it will take a few months before it’s warming rays change our weather much, but the fact that it is heading back north is a good sign.

It’s hard to imagine just how much that would mean to people living off the land and dependent on the seasons. Even in my warm home I am  cheered by the change, Every morning when I take the dogs out I see the Sun rising on the southeast horizon. At this time of year it appears to stand still for a week or so – but by the end of the month the northward movement becomes noticeable as I mark its path by the trunks of the bare trees I see it through. Of course for those of you in the southern hemisphere this marks the start of summer.

Christmas Star – it’s in your heart, but either Venus or Jupiter will be a nice reminder

In December I frequently get asked about the Christmas Star and while competing scientific theories have abounded about it for centuries, in the final analysis it is a Christmas myth that you can choose to believe, or not believe. Various scientific explanations – informed guesses – range from certain gatherings of planets, to a comet or super nova. Part of the problem is we don’t know the date – not even the year – Jesus of Nazareth was born, so various astronomical  – and astrological – possibilities exist depending on the date chosen. Me, I just take any bright star that’s visible and treat it as  a symbolic Christmas Star. This year we have Venus in the west for a couple hours after sunset – and by the time it sets we have a very bright Jupiter rising in the east.

Solar eclipse , Comet ISON, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars . . . welcome to November, 2013

COMET ISON UPDATE – NOV  30

 ISON bottom line: Awesome new movies from STERO spacecraft you can see right now – but prospects for naked eye observation very dim – though we’re still talking about a comet and as one scientists said recently – comets are like cats – they have tails and they do what they want.

Best web site I’ve found so far is this NASA blog. Scroll to the movies and the text below that explains them well. This is a rare view of a sun-grazing comet. 

As you look at the images of ISON keep a couple things in mind – first, the Sun is huge – you can fit 109 Earth’s across it’s face – so judge the changing size of the comet by that. Second, ISON is coming from the outer reaches of the Solar System where it is made of the same material from which the Earth and other planets were formed 5 billion years ago – material in its relatively pristine state. That’s one of the things that excites the scientists. Think of it as a space probe in reverse – a probe that not only goes to the outer reach of our neighborhood, but in a real sense goes back in time billions of years.

Of course, the main question has been what will ISON look like after this close-encounter with the Sun and the best answer right now is that it will be a good target for experienced astro imagers with the proper equipment – but it is very doubtful that it will be visible to the naked eye. I’ve updating this page in the hopes that we would be able to observe Comet witht he naked eye  some cool December morning – but it now looks like that will not be the case. But with these special movies it still has proven to be a mind-blowing, visual treat and no one has to get cold or lose sleep to enjoy them. 😉

COMET ISON UPDATE – NOV  19

Got my first look at Comet ISON this morning – sadly, not impressive.

It, of course, may still burst into full glory after it rounds the Sun on Thanksgiving – or it may break up, or it may just be so-so – have to wait and see.

At about 5:35 am when I was looking with 15X70 binoculars it was easy to spot as I scaned between the bright star Spica and even brighter Mercury which was low down, well in the morning twilight. ISON was roughly halfway  between – well, closer to Spica.

Also, a near full moon was still 26 degrees up in the west and washing out all but the brightest stars. Between morning twilight and the Moon these are pretty terrible conditions to see any comet. ISON appeared to me as nothing but a fuzzy star about 13 degrees (little more than one fist) above the southeastern horizon. Here’s a chart –http://observing.skyhound.com/ISON.html

COMET ISON UPDATE – NOV  16

Comet ISON is brightening and the Messenger spacecraft orbiting Mercury is about to get up close and personal not only with ISON, but with a second comet as well -very, very unusual.

Comet ISON is undergoing a sudden brightening – so there’s hope at last that even if we get clouded out now it might put on a good show right after Thanksgiving. And the Mercury flyby more exciting news from a science standpoint.

Right now ISON is in the pre-dawn sky and on the edge of naked eye visibility -and, of course, we have clouds in the forecast! However, the clouds will not impact the view from Mercury where we have a spacecraft circling that planet that can be used to examine not one – but two comets that will fly close by the planet in just a few days.

This is an incredible coincidence – comets can approach the Sun from any angle or direction and the chance that they pass especially close to any given planet are slim – that two comets should pass very close to Mercury in just two days. . . well, read all about it here:

http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2013/15nov_twocomets/

I still don’t expect a whole lot from ISON in the next week, but who knows. Seeing it will require getting up early and, of course, very clear skies.

To learn more details about ISON go here  and to follow the latest reports, go here.

COMET ISON UPDATE – NOV  5

COMET ISON is still a fairly faint object visible in large astronomical binoculars and small telescopes in the morning sky – where there are currently three other small comets that are brighter – at this time – than COMET ISON and one of these may become visible to the Naked eye in the next week or two.

I really like the following summary from an excellent comet web site found here.

“How can ISON still be a Great Comet? ISON is running considerably fainter than initially hoped, and this trend has continued into November. But just as there is a chance that it will disintegrate one night, ISON could also flare up, becoming much brighter. In December a long tail may be visible on the pre-dawn horizon, regardless of if it survives or not. This tail could be spectacular to the eye, but even if it isn’t, it could still be spectacular in photographs.  We have no way of knowing, and this is what makes observing comets so much fun. Hang on, get out there as often as you can to have a look, and enjoy the ride!”

To get details on the other three comets – including detailed finder charts, go here.

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With an unusual solar eclipse, perhaps a major comet, and planets galore – November 2013 should be an exciting month for those who look up!

The partial solar eclipse is this Sunday (November 3, 2013) and for those on the East Coast is underway at Sunrise. Also it is better the farther north you are.  But this is really the tail end of an unusual eclipse event, much of which takes place over the Atlantic Ocean. PLEASE KEEP IN MIND THAT WATCHING THIS EVENT REQUIRES SPECIAL PROTECTION FOR YOUR EYES! For details on what you will see from where and when you will see it, go here.

The “maybe major” comet is Comet ISON, of course, which we have been hearing about all year. It’s already well within the range of amateur telescopes and it may brighten enough to be seen with binoculars, or even the naked eye before the month is out – but the best view will probably come the first couple weeks of December.  In all cases this is a morning sky event. No one can give any guarantees on a comet – it may be spectacular, it may be a dud – I think it will likely be somewhere between these extremes. But it is coming close enough to the Sun to break up and if that happens too early in its encounter,  it will be a total dud – happen later and it could make it all the more spectacular – and, of course, the break up might not happen at all.

Comet ISON is in the morning sky now and as it draws near the Sun it will get brighter – but it also will be seen against a sky background that grows lighter because of dawn. This is part of the tension comets usually create – they’re at their best when they’re closest to the Sun, but the closer they get to the Sun the  more into twilight skies they appear.  To learn more details about ISON go here  and to follow the latest reports, go here.

A really easy – and predictable – show no one can miss right now is  that brilliant “star” low in the southwest about half an hour after sunset.  It’s no star, of course, it’s the planet Venus – and it has been hanging around low in the western sky much of the year. But in November it draws closer to Earth as Venus starts to overtake us in our orbit.  This means that through a small telescope you can watch it change form into a miniature crescent moon shape. But while it shows us less surface area as it starts to pass between us and the Sun , it gets brighter because during this time it is also getting closer to us. It gets a little higher as the month goes on and by the end is nearly two fists above the southwestern horizon about half an hour after Sunset.

Meanwhile, over in the eastern sky Jupiter is starting to put on a show at a reasonable hour. It has been with us for months now, but visible only to early risers. In November it brightens and it rises high enough, early enough, for many to see it before going to bed. At the start of the month it is rising at about 10 pm, but then we switch to  Standard Time and it rises at 9 pm. By the end of the month rise time is about 7 pm. At about magnitude 2.5 it is brighter than any star, but can’t hold a candle to Venus.

So near the end of the month and early December a dazzling Venus will be well above the horizon to the south west – then as Venus sets, Jupiter  will be rising to the east. Nice show – though you will probably have to wait another  hour for Jupiter to be easy to see.

Meanwhile, in the morning sky this month we have ISON growing brighter and coming near some familiar objects – the bright star Spica and the planets Mercury and Saturn. From what I’ve read to date I think it’s reasonable to assume it will be a nice binocular object this month and possibly reach naked eye visibility. Key dates put it reasonably close to Spica around November 16 and  Mercury and Saturn  about November 22. But again, I suggest you look at the charts and follow the updates here.  Another place to look for reporst from amateur astronomers following Ison is the the discussion thread on Cloudy Nights found here.

September 2013 – pursuing the not-so-false dawn – plus planets

There’s nothing false about the false dawn – in fact, it’s quite intriguing and somewhat puzzling, but very real. Here’s a cool picture of it.

Yes, I’m talking about the zodiacal light – known for hundreds, if not thousands of years as the “false dawn” because it precedes the usual predawn light. Only it isn’t always so obvious – September and October are the best time to see it in the northern hemisphere early morning sky.  (It is best seen in the early evening sky in February and March.)

Oh  – do keep in mind that the picture above was taken through the thin air and superbly dark skies above the European Southern Observatory in Chile and  benefits from the camera’s ability to do a better job of capturing faint light  than our eyes.  We won’t see it that way. But,  the picture is very useful because it gives us a good idea of the shape and size of what we are looking for when we seek this elusive glow in our skies.

If you want to catch it you have to:

  • Be out two hours before sunrise – and  give your eyes time to dark adapt. It is best seen about 80 minutes  before sunrise.
  • Be in a place relatively free of light pollution – you especially don’t want to be looking at a light dome from a city to your east. If you can see the Milky Way your skies are dark enough – if not, you need to go somewhere where you can see it.
  • Look at a time when the Moon isn’t in the morning sky – in 2013 that means the first two weeks of either September or October. 

Is it worth it – I certainly think so – but then I think September mornings are great anyways because you get to see all the bright stars of the Winter Hexagon without freezing your tail off as you do when they are in the evening sky in January. In addition we have Mars rising low in the East and Jupiter is already pretty high up and should appear near the peak of the zodiacal light – and be brighter than any star.  (Mars will be about as bright as   Castor and Pollux,  two of the bright stars  of the Winter Hexagon. Here’s a chart.

Click for larger image. Prepared from a Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

Click for larger image. Prepared from a Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

Click here for a printable, black and white version of this chart.

For you insomniacs – or folks who just love to get up early when the world is still and most of the neighbors have turned off their lights so the sky is darker, pursuing the zodiacal light is special.

What is it? It is sun light reflecting off a  huge cloud of very fine dust between the Earth and Sun on the plane of the solar system.  That’s been agreed upon for some time.  How much dust?  Well, wrap your mind around this.  Assuming that the dust particles have the same reflectivity as the surface of the moon, it would take one dust particle every five miles to reflect that much light! We’re still looking at an awful lot of empty space. Hmmm. . . there 93 million mile between the Earth and Sun – so if we had a single straight line of dust particles, we’d still have more than 18 million of them – and of course this is much more than one single line.  Now that’s awesome.

But where did all that dust come from?    J. Kelly Beatty goes over the science history in an excellent article in September’s Sky and Telescope  and notes that the current opinion is the dust cloud is a result of short period comets.  Think of a comet as a dirty snowball that melts as it nears the Sun, leaving a trail of dust. That dust stays in orbit. Short period comets are ones whose orbit takes 200 years or less because they have been captured by the gravity of the  planets. (Other comets take much longer to orbit, or simply make a single trip around the Sun.)

Why is it obvious in the morning sky in the fall and the  evening sky in the spring? Because it follows the path of the ecliptic and the ecliptic is more or less straight up and down in the morning at this time of year – and in the evening in February and March. At other times it slants at quite an angle keeping the zodiacal light lower in the sky where it gets lost in the routine dawn light.

There’s a nice little planetary show in the west this month as well, as Venus and Saturn get cozy and on September 8 Venus has a close encounter with the crescent moon right after sunset.   It’s Saturn’s turn the next night.  About a week later  Saturn and Venus should fit comfortably in the same binocular field of view for several days.

Click for a larger image. (Prepared from a Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Click for a larger image. (Prepared from a Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Update- March 5 – Outlook brightens for PanSTARRS!Events – March 2013: Get set for a real nice – BINOCULAR – Comet and more

NASA guide to PanSTARRS position and tail direction on different dates this month. This is NOT a prediction of tail length or comet brightness. It is likely tobe much shrter and fainter - but comets are full of surprises and so this still has the potential to be really nice.

NASA guide to PanSTARRS position and tail direction on different dates this month. This is NOT a prediction of tail length or comet brightness. It is likely to be much shorter and fainter – but comets are full of surprises and so this still has the potential to be really nice. (Click image for larger version.)

The latest indicators are that Comet PanSTARRS will put on a better show than anticipated just a week ago – as noted, comets are just not that predictable! – here’s a recent news item:

Observers in the Southern Hemisphere have been watching Comet PanSTARRS for weeks, but the Northern Hemisphere is due to get its first looks at one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated sky extravaganzas this week. And there’s good news for northerners: The up-and-down expectations for the cometary show are trending upward again.

March Observing Highlights  –

Comet PANSTARRS and its distant kin, the Zodiacal Light

First, let me stress Comet PanSTARRS is not likely to be nearly as bright as originally predicted – but it still should be a nice comet, especially when viewed with binoculars.  And remember – we have another due in November/December that should be much better. However, with comets we can only make educated guesses – they can – and have – surprised the experts over the years, sometimes under performing, sometimes over performing.

I’m linking this comet with the Zodiacal Light because both might be seen at their best on March 12 after sunset in the west. What’s more,  they are  both essentially dust reflecting sunlight,  presenting a related observing challenge, though they are radically different in size. March 12 may be the earliest time for a good look at Comet PanSTARRS in the early twilight – and it will be the last night in early March for the  Zodiacal Light which can be seen about 80 minutes after sunset for the first 12 days of March – after that the Moon will tend to wash out the Zodiacal Light until the last couple days of the month.

Quick Observing Guide:

  • to observe both comet and Zodiacal Light  at their best, hope for clear skies on March 12 – and some special comet luck 
  • to observe the Zodiacal Light  alone go out any evening during the first 12 days of March 2013 and look for it about 80 minutes after sunset.
  • to observe Comet PanSTARRS it may be visible – especially from low northern latitudes such as the southern US, as early as March 7 or 8th, but the week beginning March 12 will probably give the best opportunity for observers in mid-northern latitudes.

A comet is a “dirty snowball” that “melts” when it gets near the sun, giving off what can be a spectacular trail (tail) of tiny dust particles that reflect sunlight. When we think of a comet we are usually thinking of seeing one with such a tail.  And the Zodiacal Light? It’s tons of inter-planetary dust, much of it having accumulated over the years from many comets that eventually disintegrated as they made several trips around the Sun. And while your best views of Comet PanSTARRS will be when it’s near the Sun – but getting dark – your best view of the Zodiacal Light will be just as full darkness is arriving – about 80 minutes after local sunset.

The Zodiacal Light will be in a fixed position night after night – a huge, but very faint, light cone reaching from the western horizon and slanting up in the general direction of the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus  – Comet PanSTARRS will change position slightly each night, drawing away from the Sun. The Zodiacal Light is most certainly a naked eye phenomenon requiring a good view to the west and  skies that are largely free of light pollution in that direction.

The same basic requirements fit Comet PanSTARRS – you need a good view to the west with an unobstructed horizon, at least for the early – and probably best – views. While it may be visible to the naked eye, the best guess is this will be bets seen in binoculars. So by all means, break out the binoculars! You don’t need any thing special – ordinary, low-power ones will do, though if you have large astronomical binoculars, all the better.  And while you will be searching for the comet in the early twilight, do be careful. Wait until about 15 minutes after sunset before scanning the western horizon for it. At all cost, avoid looking with your binoculars at the sun, as that will seriously damage your eyes.

Yes, you are likely to hear that PANSTARRS is visible to the naked eye. Don’t get too excited, though, it’s visibility is a lot like that regular March visitor, the  Zodiacal Light – the numbers in reality don’t really add up. Thus the binoculars are highly recommended – even if its brighter than expected.

Great video guide to the comet from NASA

I read in Sky and Telescope this month that the Zodiacal Light is actually the second brightest “thing” in the Solar system.  Wow! Never prove that from my experience. I  have always found it elusive. I count myself lucky if I can see it at all!  But, of course, Sky and Telescope is right.  Here again there’s an important lesson relating to both the Zodiacal Light and a comet – the brightness they’re talking about is for a point object, but in our view of it, this light is spread out.

So when you hear the Zodiacal Light is beaten only by the Sun in brightness, you have to understand that this is determined by pretending all the light reflected from it was concentrated in a single spot – and it isn’t. It is spread out over a huge area of sky – widest near the horizon and getting narrower as it rises towards the Pleiades. For me it looks much like the Milky Way, only a bit fainter.

The same thing is true of a comet – but to a much lesser degree. That is, Comet PanSTARRS is fairly likely to reach magnitude 2 and if it does, well that’s as bright as the North Star, or most of the stars in the Big Dipper. But – and here’s the catch – that light will be spread out with much of it concentrated in the fuzzy head, but  some also appearing in the tail.

What’s more, as the comet draws away from the Sun it will almost certainly get fainter – and therein lies the crucial problem of seeing a comet at its best. What we are dealing with is a constantly changing set of variables. Generally speaking, the closer a comet is to the Sun, the brighter it is.  However, the closer it is to the Sun, the more it is competing with the lingering sun light. As the twilight deepens, the comet should stand out more – BUT, as the twilight deepens the comet is also getting lower in the sky and that means you’re looking at it through more atmosphere and that makes it appear dimmer.

So the joy – and frustration – of comet hunting is that how the comet looks to you will depend on your local weather, of course, but also exactly when you see it – how bright it is, how high it is, and how dark the sky is around it. That’s what makes viewing – and photographing – comets both fun and challenging.

So what’s the best bet for Comet PanSTARRS – for those in mid-northern latitude somewhere between March 7 and 20 probably about halfway in between. I plan to watch the weather closely from March 10th to 17th and take advantage of any clear evening to look for it. The farther south you are, the sooner it should appear at its best for you – the farther north,  the later in the month it will be at its best.

But remember – on a  clear night early in the month that you go comet hunting – hang around even if the comet is too low to see well – the Zodiacal Light should be best about 80 minutes after sunset when there is no – or little – interference from the Moon. (That means from March 1 to about March 12, 3013.)  If you see the Zodiacal Light – how well you see it depends largely on timing, local weather conditions, and the lack of light pollution.  In other words, it is not quite to finicky as the comet, but still a challenge.

Jupiter – King of the Winter Hexagon!

Wow! What a view to the south!

As the sky darkens on these March evening, don't hesitate to look due south for a wonderful view of Jupiter dominating the Winter Hexagon - thata rea of sky with more birght stars in it than any other! Click the image for a larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

As the sky darkens on these March evening, don’t hesitate to look due south for a wonderful view of Jupiter dominating the Winter Hexagon – that area of sky with more bright stars in it than any other! Click the image for a larger version suitable for printing. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

The Winter Hexagon is one of my favorite asterisms encompassing a very rich area of sky contains eight very bright stars and that most recognizable of constellations, Orion.  But bright as these stars are, Jupiter will dominate them, outshining even Sirius, the brightest star for norther hemisphere observers. Take a look in that direction about an hour after sunset – in fact, you can’t hope but notice this brilliant area as you scan in the darkening even sky for the Zodiacal Light which shine faintly in a widening cone reaching from near the Pleiades to the western horizon.

And what a fabulous binocular sight!

Use your binoculars to:

  • Look for the fuzzy area in Orion’s sword  which hangs below his belt – the Great Orion Nebulae.
  • Look for the Hyades – the fabulous star cluster that makes up the “V” of Taurus and is just 150 light years away.
  • Look for the Pleiades – my favorite binocular target, a cluster of brilliant gem stone roughly 400 light years away.
  • And, of course, if you can hold them steady enough – brace against a pole, or the corner of a house – try to pick up one or more of the four bright moons of Jupiter.
The "V" of Taurus marks the Hyades cluster and the Pleiades are bit to the right as seen when looking south about 90 minutes after sunset this month.  Watch carefully over the course of the month and you will see Jupiter slowly change position moving towards Aldebaran, the bright star that marks the bull's eye. (Click for larger version. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

The “V” of Taurus marks the Hyades cluster and the Pleiades are a bit to the right as seen when looking south about 90 minutes after sunset this month. Watch carefully over the course of the month and you will see Jupiter slowly change position moving towards Aldebaran, the bright star that marks the bull’s eye. (Click for larger version. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Oh – and I should add that Jupiter will have a real close call with a “young” crescent Moon on March 17, 2013. Exactly how close will depend on where you are, but for me on the East Coast of the US, the Moon will pass within two degrees of the bright planet and add to the fun of binocular observing on that night. They both will fit easily into the same binocular field of view!

Saturn now dominates the morning sky

Think of it as “coming attractions” if you’re not a morning person. Saturn crosses over into our late evening sky and by next month it will be quite easy t see at a reasonable hour.  For March 2013, however, it is primarily the dominant planet in the morning sky.

In fact, this is a rare month for planets – well, I should say planets are rare this month. Jupiter and Saturn are, for all practical purposes, the whole show – the other major planets being too near the Sun for easy viewing.

Our chart shows Saturn at  mid-month and midnight due southeast and about 23 degrees above the horizon. Spica – which is about half a magnitude dimmer than Saturn, will be about 18 degrees away. Be sure to look for the color difference. Saturn should appear creamy – maybe a tad yellow, while Spica is an icy blue.

Saturn and Spica at midnight in March 2013. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot. Click image for larger version.)

Saturn and Spica at midnight in March 2013. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot. Click image for larger version.)

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