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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.

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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.

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