• Choose a month

  • Rapt in Awe

    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

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

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.


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.

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



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.



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.


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 . . .

All square on a 2012 July morning with Jupiter, Venus, the Moon and Aldebaran

That is, all will be square in the morning sky  July 15, 2012 and in the evening sky July 24, 2012 – two dates to keep in mind this month. However, Mercury puts on one of its now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t shows the first week of the month in the west and all – Venus and Jupiter flirt with the gorgeous star clusters – the Hyades and Pleiades – in the morning sky.  Here was the scene from  my driveway this morning, July 1, 2012 – typical of the whole month and quite dazzling!

I snapped this about 4 am on July 1, 2012 looking east from 42* N latitude. That’s Jupiter at about magnitude -2 on top, and Venus at -4.4 on the bottom. Aldebaran was still hidden by the trees and my skies were too murky – and twilight already too advanced – to pick up the Pleiades easily, though scanning this area with binoculars revealed them and the Hyades. (Click photo for much larger image.)

Meanwhile, over in the west you still have a chance to catch “fleeting” – make that “fleeing” – Mercury. Here’s where to find it.

At magnitude .6 Mercury is significantly brighter than the other stars, although this image makes it seem less. Use binoculars to find it – though you should be able to see it with your naked eye. Click image for a much larger view. (Prepared from Starry nights Pro screen shot.)

OK – about  the “all square” business

It’s really not a square, but it should be a pretty rectangle that will vary a bit depending on just where you are located and exactly when you look. On the morning of  July 15 the eastern sky should look something like this – at least for those in mid-Northern latitudes. With an unobstructed horizon and clear skies the best view will be about two hours before sunrise. After that it becomes a race – planets and stars all climbs higher and thus are easier to see as time goes by – but, of course, the skies also get lighter as summer twilight starts early.

Click image for a much larger view. (Prepared from Starry nights Pro screen shot.)


In fact, all month Jupiter and Venus turn up the dazzle in the early morning sky, playing in the general vicinity of  the Pleiades and the Hyades. An unobstructed eastern horizon helps, as do binoculars if you want to get a good look at the two star clusters even in twilight.  By the end of the month Jupiter will be in the Hyades and Venus will have dropped quite a bit lower – yet the whole star show will be significantly higher at the same hour. Fun to catch it several times to observe the changing dynamics of our solar system playing against the backdrop of the rest of the universe.

And in the evening sky

The second “square” feels a bit like a mirror image. I don’t think it will be as dazzling because the planets involved simply aren’t as bright  and the Moon will be significantly brighter. Still, this one takes place in the early evening of July 24, 2012 and involves Saturn, brightest at magnitude .77, Mars at magnitude 1, Spica at almost the exact same brightness as Mars, and a 6-day-old Moon.

Click image for a much larger view. (Prepared from Starry nights Pro screen shot.)




Close encounters of the Venus kind! March, April, May, June 2012 – Mark your calendar!

(Go here for a personal update on observing this even – with pictures.)

Venus is a visual treat any night – and for that matter day –  this spring, dazzling us in the western sky right after Sunset as it puts in it best performance of this year and has close encounters with the Moon, the Pleiades, and finally the Sun itself. This last is a once-in-a-lifetime-appearance – the other events are less rare, but, of course, the weather has to cooperate.  Nothing is needed for most of these experiences but your naked eye, though binoculars help and a small telescope makes it even more fun. The last event – the encounter with the Sun – does require a telescope and one with a special filter to make viewing safe.

Here’ s a quick visual guide to Venus events, followed by a guide on how to find Venus in broad daylight – no kidding – and what’s more, late March through April is the best time to try to see this brilliant planet at mid day! I’ll update this post for May. Please note, the charts are specific to my location which makes them generally best  for the East Coast of the US. You can see this show from anywhere in the world, but the exact positions of Venus and the Moon on any given evening will vary somewhat depending on your latitude and longitude.

March 25, 2012

About 10 degrees separate Jupiter from Venus and Venus from the Pleaides - but the Moon and Jupiter should fit in the same low power binocular field, as should the Moon and Venus on the next night. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot - click to enlarge.

March 26, 2012

About 10 degrees separate Jupiter, Venus, and the Pleaides - but the Moon and Venus should fit in the same low power binocular field, as didthe Moon and Jupiter on the previous night. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot - click to enlarge.

March 27, 2012

Jupiter, Venus, and the Moon form a nice line that marks the ecliptic - the plane of our solar system, and if you look to the East you'll see this path completed by Mars. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot - click to enlarge.

April 2, 3, and 4 – a once-in-eight-years encounter between Venus and the Pleaides!

You really need binoculars to see this because the glare of Venus will mask the most beautiful of star clusters, the Pleiades. The encounter will be best on April 3 - but nice the night before and after. Click to enlarge. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

Venus gets near the bright stars of the Pleiades every eight years. This year it will pass through the south side of the cluster, which means that on April 3 , using binoculars, you should be able to see Venus to the left of the four core bright stars in the cluster.  The mythological implications are staggering – I can see the headlines in Ancient Greece now –  Goddess of Love Meets Seven Sisters!  Here’s how Wikipedia sums up their sex lives:

Several of the most prominent male Olympian gods (including Zeus, Poseidon, and Ares) engaged in affairs with the seven heavenly sisters. These relationships resulted in the birth of their children.

  1. Maia, eldest of the seven Pleiades, was mother of Hermes by Zeus.
  2. Electra was mother of Dardanus and Iasion, by Zeus.
  3. Taygete was mother of Lacedaemon, also by Zeus.
  4. Alcyone was mother of HyrieusHyperenor and Aethusa by Poseidon.
  5. Celaeno was mother of Lycus and Eurypylus by Poseidon.
  6. Sterope (also Asterope) was mother of Oenomaus by Ares.
  7. Merope, youngest of the seven Pleiades, was wooed by Orion. In other mythic contexts she married Sisyphus and, becoming mortal, faded away. She bore to Sisyphus several sons.

April 22, 2012

The late April show may not have all the appeal of the one in late March, but it's still nice. You will probably need binoculars to pick out Jupiter, even though it is still quite bright. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot - click to enlarge.

April 24, 2012

On April 24, 2012 the Moon splits Aldebaran and Venus, though Aldebaran may be hard to see despite being a first magnitude star, so you may have to use binoculars. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot - click to enlarge.

April 25, 2012

On April 25, 2012 the Moon is still close enough to Venus to make an interesting combination. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot - click to enlarge.

May 22, 2012

On May 22, 2012 the situation looks much different.  Venus is now getting much closer to the Sun – remember it has a date with the Sun in early June – but it still gives us one more nice combination with the Moon. Again, unobstructed western horizon is important.  The other stars named in the chart are all bright “guidepost” stars but may be difficult to see in strong twilight – however, they will be the first to appear as twilight fades. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot – click to enlarge.

June 5, 2012 – Once-in-a-Lifetime Show – Venus transits the Sun

As I wrote in January

So circle June 5, 2012. What is a transit of Venus? It’s a time when we can see Venus as a black dot cross the disc of the Sun – a time when Venus is actually between us and the Sun – and it happens rarely.  There have been just seven such transits since the invention of the telescope! And – of course – be careful! You will need special equipment to observe such a transit. Never look at the sun either with your naked eye or any  binocular or telescope unless it is one especially equipped just for looking at the Sun.  Such equipment isn’t expensive, though, and if you already have a telescope, would be a good investment to consider for this event and to regularly see  sunspots. I’m sure there will be several public observation points set up for those who don’t have such a telescope.

More details will be provided in May.

Orrery View – why we see what we see – the dance of the Moon and planets

The dance between the  bright planets and the Moon is always fascinating, but made all the more so if you understand what is going on back stage – why we see what we see.  To do that, I suggest you study the following Orrery views taken from the Solar System live web site. Take care to note the line of sight between earth, a given planet, and the Sun.  Everything is in motion,of course, but the motions that count the most for the changes we see in our Western sky right now from night-tonight are these:

  • The  moon moves about 12 degrees – more than our extended fist – each evening because of its orbit around the Earth.
  • Venus moves relatively quickly, so it’s change of position is a combination of its own movements and the motions of the Earth as we both circle the Sun.
  • The changes in how we see Jupiter are primarily caused by our own motiona round the Sun. Jupiter is in motion, but it is slower and so far away that it takes weeks, if not months to notice its motion against the background of stars. However, as with the stars, it’s position change a little each night because of the motion of the Earth.

And on June 5, 2012 – the day that Venus will transit the Sun, here’s a close-up view of the line-up of Venus, Earth, and the Sun.

In April 2012 you can meet the Goddess of Love in broad daylight – no fooling!

Actually, you can do it right now. We’re talking Venus, here, and our sister planet is so bright even in March that you can see it with the naked eye in the middle of a clear day! All you have to do is know when and where to look – and please, please avoid the nearby Sun!

What’s more, April is the best time to look for it this year because this is the month when it is at its brightest and also near it’s greatest distance from the Sun. That great distance makes it easier to see – and safer.

Here’s how. On a clear day look for Venus in the path the Sun took across the sky, but about forty -five degrees behind it. (Use your fist to get a rough idea, remembering one fist, held at arms length, is about 10-degrees.) Use binoculars and once you spot it and know exactly where to look, use your naked eye. And play it safe by leaving the Sun blocked from sight by a nearby building, tree, or other obstacle.

OK -let me expand on those instructions and give you some specifics and hints of how best to do this.

First – the day should be clear – really clear with the bluer the sky the better. Not all “clear” days are equal. Astronomers are looking for “transparency” as well, which means you don’t want a milky, white sky.

 Second – You should know that Venus follow the same general path as the Sun does across the sky – sometimes behind it (as now), and sometimes ahead of it. Usually Venus is too close to the Sun to easily – and safely – pick out. But this April – and for that matter the end of March – it well be separated from the Sun by about 45 degrees – the most it will be all year.

 Third, pick your viewing location carefully.  Everyone should know not to look at the Sun, but I don’t want your enthusiasm for seeing Venus in daylight to lead to an accidental viewing of the Sun – and besides, this will make the seeing easier. STAND ON THE EAST SIDE OF A BUILDING AFTER THE SUN HAS PASSED SO EVEN IF YOU ACCIDENTALLY LOOK TOWARDS THE SUN, YOU WON’T SEE IT!

Fourth, pick your time – generally from noon until sunset, but I think the best time will be when Venus is highest in the sky – near what is called it’s “transit.”  That gives you a good place to look – due south and roughly at the same altitude as the Sun was at around noon.  In April, 2012, Venus transits about three hours after the Sun. In other words, if you know when the Sun is at its highest point – locally, for me, that’s close to 1 pm on April 1 – then Venus will be coming along to the same point about three hours later – about 4 pm.

Fifth – begin your search with binoculars – any binoculars will do, but generally one with low power and thus a reasonably wide field of view.  And one caution. You will systematically scan the correct area of sky – but do your scanning slowly. I was out testing this the other day and found it was very , very easy to see Venus in binoculars – yet I missed it over and over again because I was scanning too fast!

Could I see it with the naked eye  in March? No. Not on the three days I looked and saw it in binoculars.  Maybe the days just weren’t clear enough – there was a lot of moisture in the air. And maybe my old eyes are just not keen enough for this sort of thing.  But I did see Venus this way several years ago and it’s one of those sights that when you first find it, you can’t believe you were missing it.

The best hint I’ve read for this – and this is true with binoculars as well as your eyes – first focus your binoculars on the  most distant object you can see – hopefully something a good half mile or more away away. That way they’ll be roughly in focus to pick up Venus.  (You can even do this the night before by focusing them on a star.)  And when you’re searching with the naked eye? Do the same thing. Focus your eyes on some distant object, THEN look up for Venus. (Our eyes tend to default to a near – or nearer – focus point if we’re not careful. )

It’s always cool to see a bright planet – but it is so much cooler to see a bright planet in broad daylight – even with binoculars Venus will be a sparkling white diamond against a beautiful blue sky.

Luna-See – Let the Moon of August 2011 be your guide!

Anyone can find the Moon – so why not use it to help you learn the sky?

Moon and Mars in the early morning sky, August 25, 2011.

Each month the Moon in its travels comes near some planets, bright stars, and asterisms. If you look on the right night this month you’ll be able to use the Moon to help you find:

  • Saturn and Spica (August 2, 3 & 4)
  • Antares and the Scorpion (August 7)
  • The Arrowhead with the asteroid Vesta (August 13)
  • The Hockey Stick and Jupiter (August 19)
  • Pleiades, Hyades, & Aldebaran (August 22)
  • Taurus (August 23)
  • Mars with the heavenly twins, Castor and Pollux (August 25)

Whew! That’s a whole lot.  And you’ll find when and exactly where to look by using the charts below. You have to pick the right night and you have to  be ready to approximate – the charts are a rough guide as to when and where to look – and use binoculars to help you find otherwise bright stars because the Moon light will tend to wash out  all but the brightest.

I say “rough guide” because these charts are all for my specific location on the Northeast Coast of the United States. The moon moves about half a degree (its diameter) an hour, so observers on the West Coast will see it in a little different location than I do. But the charts should give a good general guide and help you know the night sky better – and as a bonus you’ll begin to develop a feel for the rather complex motion of the Moon each month.

Notice that for the first half of the month the Moon is in the early evening sky. For the second half it is in the morning sky. The Moon’s image in the charts is about three times as big as it actually is in order to show the phase clearly.

Click any chart to get a larger version. All charts are prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shots.

Saturn and Spica, (August 2, 3 & 4)

Antares and the Scorpion (August 7)

The Arrowhead with the asteroid Vesta (August 13)

The Hockey Stick and Jupiter (August 19)

Pleiades, Hyades, & Aldebaran (August 22)

Taurus (August 23)

Mars with the heavenly twins, Castor and Pollux (August 25)

Moon phases

  • New Moon  – July 31
  • First Quarter – August 6
  • Full – August 13
  • Last Quarter -August 21
  • New Moon – August 28

Events July 2011 – Neptune celebrates Year One! Plus – let the Moon find stuff for you.

Can you imagine it? Neptune, the most distant full-sized planet, becomes One Neptunian Year Old on July 12! Should we sing happy birthday? Or Happy New Year?  Or how about just getting to know it a little better, then seeing if we can locate it with our binoculars?

Click for larger image. (Graphics courtesy of NASA - Neptune "facts" added by me. )

That’s right – Neptune was discovered on the night of  September 23/24, 1846.  That’s when it entered the awareness zone of the inhabitants of the third rock from the Sun.  And it has taken it all this time to make a single trip around Sol – almost 165 years.

So – your challenge this month will be to reprise the discovery of Neptune – but we won’t ask you to do the astounding math that led to its discovery in the first place.  What I really like, is when Neptune first was discovered, a graduate student working on the project exclaimed: “That star is not on the map!”

You bet – because that “star” is not a star, but a planet – a “wanderer.”  But when you look at it with your binoculars it will look pretty much like any other star – which is why it fooled some of the greatest observers, including Galileo.  In fact, even if you own a small telescope it will take very high power and steady seeing to see the disc of Neptune. Galileo recorded this “star” twice in 1613 even noting that it had moved – but he didn’t understand the significance of what he had seen. Of course, he had a lot of other things on his mind at the time and everyone assumed then that the Solar System ended with Saturn.  Who even dreamed there were two huge, exotic chunks of ice out there, Uranus and Neptune, yet to be discovered?

But first . . . we interrupt this program for this special message . . . !

I have to admit, Neptune is a challenge object, and if you’re just starting out with your exploration of the universe, why not let the Moon be your guide this month to some more modest finds? It can lead you to Mercury, Mars, one of our bright guide stars, Antares – and if you’re an early riser, even to the Pleiades! So if you feel finding Neptune is a bit much for you, then try using the Moon as a “guide star” to help you discover brighter objects you can see with the naked eye.  Jump to here for all the details.

 . . . and now back to our regularly scheduled program

OK – Neptune shines on the bright side of magnitude 8, which means it should be visible in ordinary binoculars under reasonably dark skies, although 50mm binoculars will give you a better chance, and my favorite  for this kind of a  project are a pair of inexpensive 15X70 Celestrons. I found it in a few minutes with 15X70 binoculars – with 7X35 binoculars it was just on the edge of visibility. If your skies are real dark, they would work, but I recommend at least 50mm binoculars for this project.  But whatever your binoculars, it’s important you know two things about them – their field of view, and how bright a magnitude 8 “star” such as Neptune will appear in them.

Field of view (fov) is fairly easy since on most binoculars it is written on them in degrees. If it isn’t you can make the assumption that if they are 7 power, then they probably have a fov of about 7 degrees. Ten power binoculars will have a smaller field, closer to 5 or 6 degrees, and the 15X ones I favor have a 4.5° fov.  I show a couple of different fields on the accompanying star charts so you can get an idea of how much sky you see when you use your binoculars.

Knowing how bright a magnitude 8 star should appear in your binoculars is a little tricky, but fortunately there is one fairly close to Neptune, and it will be a big help. Your binoculars, of course, gather much more light than your eye and thus you will see many more stars than you can see with your eyes alone.  Not only that, but stars you do see with the naked eye will appear brighter in the binoculars.

Start the search!

Yes, let’s get going. The Moon will offer the least interference in the first 13 days of the month.  If you don’t find Neptune by July 13, you may want to wait until the Moon is past last quarter – the final week of July.  This is an early morning project, since Neptune doesn’t rise until about three hours after sunset and  you really want it to be as high in the sky as it gets to make the search easiest.  Unfortunately, by the time Neptune is due south and at its highest point, morning twilight has already begun. So I suggest you fudge it and set your observational goal for a  2 – 3 am start time.

At that hour you want to look generally south – well, a tad east – into a sky that is really quite empty of bright  stars and clear guideposts.  The brightest star in the general vicinity is Fomalhaut, but there are two other reasonably bright stars nearby that can serve to  guide you. Take a careful look at this chart. What looks like a triangle drawn by a 2-year-old on the right is actually the relatively faint constellation Capricornus. In classic terms you can put these stars together to form a mythical creature known as the “Sea Goat” – half goat, half shark. Good luck. I see a big awkward triangle and the tail end – eastern most – has two third magnitude stars that are pretty easy to pick up, the brighter being named Deneb Algiedi.

Use this chart to make sure you have the general location of Neptune. Click for a larger version. Read more about it below. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot. )

For a  orinter friendly version of this chart, click here.

A tale of two tails

Get your general bearings by identifying the  three brighter stars in view. Fomalhaut is a first magnitude guidepost star and will be about 16 degrees above the horizon while Neptune is more than twice that altitude. Deneb Kaitos (the Sea Monster’s tail) is magnitude 2 – the same brightness as the North Star, Polaris.  Deneb Algiedi (the Sea Goat’s tail) is a bit dimmer at magnitude 2.8, but more important to our search. Finally, the “Circlet” is in Pisces – yep we have a whale, or sea monster, some fish, and a “sea goat,” a very nautical section of sky. The “Circlet” consists of fourth and fifth magnitude stars in Pisces and if you can see these, count yourself as having good, dark skies.  But don’t expect the “Circlet”to jump out at you – these stars are as faint as most of the stars in the Little Dipper.

And now, Neptune!

A simple star hop takes you to Neptune - see explanation in text below. Click for larger image. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

For a printer-friendly version of the above chart, click here.

Using this chart – First, your binoculars may show more stars than these, but they will all be fainter than Neptune. The larger numbers, 1, 12, and 31, mark the position of Neptune on those dates in July 2011. Of course, you may spot it on a different date and thus at a slightly different position along an imaginary line connecting all the dates. The other numbers you see represent star magnitudes to one-tenth of a magnitude – only we don’t put a period in the number because it might be mistaken for a star. Thus “78,” for example, means magnitude 7.8.

Hop 1 –  Locate Deneb Algiedi and its slightly dimmer companion in your binoculars.

Hop 2 – Use this bright pair as a rough guide as you move to the left (eastward) with your binoculars and come to Magnitude 4.3 Iota Aquarii.  (You should be able to see this with your naked eye, as well.)

Hop 3 – Draw mental line between Iota and slightly brighter Theta Aquarii. It’s about 6.5 degrees away so you may not fit it in the same binocular field.  But Neptune lies right along that line.

Hop 4 – The 5.4 magnitude star about one third of the way along this line between Iota and Theta,  anchors a rectangle (as shown)  that includes stars of 7.4, 6.6, and 7.8 magnitude. That last star  – magnitude 7.8 – is especially interesting because that’s the exact magnitude of Neptune.  So on the first of July, for example, that star is on one side of the 5.4 star while Neptune is about the same distance away on the other side. It’s that 7.8 magnitude star that tells you how bright such a star should appear in your binoculars – very faint – and thus tells you what you should expect to see in terms of Neptune.

Of course, if you really want to be sure you have found the “wanderer” Neptune, then you need to make your own chart – you can do that from the one supplied – and mark on it where you believe Neptune is on at least two nights. Ideally they would be several days apart so you could detect the motion.

Planet hunting – at least hunting a faint, distant planet like Neptune –  is not easy.  Just taking up this little challenge should help you appreciate the task astronomers had 165 years ago.  But if you want to know more, I highly recommend you read the article in Sky and Telescope magazine for  July 2011. You can find the story told elsewhere on the Web – it involved  mathematical predictions from two different sources – but what i feel is the definitive article on the subject is in  this month’s S&T.

Let the Moon be your guide

Here’s a simple idea. Everyone can find the Moon when it’s in the sky, so why not take advantage of its travels and use it to point the way to bright stars and planets?

OK? Let’s do that! As the Moon changes location and size during the month, I’ll point out some key items in its neighborhood.  You, of course, have to look on the date specified,  And here are a couple of quibbles:

1. As the Moon gets closer to being full it’s glare will tend to drown out all but the brightest stars near it. Sometimes you may even need binoculars to see some stars that are near.

2. My charts are precise only for my latitude and longitude – roughly 42° N latitude and 71° west longitude – the East Coast of America. If you are on the West Coast the Moon will have moved a bit eastward, for example,  (It moves at the rate of half a degree an hour – that means it changes position by the size of its own diameter every hour.  This should not matter much. Just use the charts as a general guide if you live in  North Amerca.  Elsewhere in the world the difference could be significant – as much as about 12 degrees,

That said – here are the key dates to look for the Moon – and the objects expected near it, for July 2011.  Pick a date and give it a try. Even if you know the object, it could help you develop a better feel for the night sky.

July 2 and 3  – Locate  Mercury

Always hard to find because it is frequently lost in twilight when visible, Mercury makes a good appearance this month in the western evening sky. Start looking about 30 minutes after sunset.  You may also pick up Castor and Pollux, but they will be fainter than Mercury. And finding any of these objects requires an unobstructed western horizon and clear skies. Binoculars are extremely helpful as well.

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

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

July 4 – passing Regulus

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

July 7 – first quarter Moon with Saturn, Spica, and the “Sail”

I love this grouping. It will help you find Saturn, always a delight in any size telescope, as well as identify another bright “guidepost” star, Spica. Finally, though you’ll probably need binoculars to pull it out of the Moon’s glare, the “Sail” is a favorite asterism, for it looks like the sail on the old, gaff-rigged Beetle Catboat I spent so many wonderful summer days sailing.  These stars are more formerly  a major part of the constellation Corvus.

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

July 11 – to the Heart of the Scorpion!

Here’s a constellation I love with a bright, red guidepost star, Antares.  And here’s the moon – getting near full and passing very close to Antares which is at the heart of Scorpius. Try using binoculars if you don’t see this bright star at first – you should be able to pick it up with it’s two companion.  But the Moon will certainly do its best to drown it out.

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

Time to switch to the morning sky! July 24 – the Moon and Jupiter.

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

July 25 – the Moon and the Pleiades

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

July 26, 2011 – Crescent Moon, the Hyades, and Aldebaran

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

July 27, 2011 – Could that be Mars? you bet!

The small, red planet is barely first magnitude. But since it is within about three degrees of the Moon you should be able to fit them both in the same binocular field of view about two hours before sunrise when they are roughly 10 degrees – one fist – above  the eastern horizon.

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

Events December 2010: Eclipse of the Moon, Great Geminid meteors, and planets at all hours!

Lunar Eclipse Update – December 21, 2010 – 11 am EST – I fear much of the lunar eclipse reporting  – and photos –  doesn’t capture the real wonder  of what is going on – the up-the-down-escalator motion of the Moon through Earth’s shadow.

My friends Dom and Daphne from Australia, who were here observing with us in October, had a very special view of the eclipsed Moon, that does drive this home and have created a wonderful, online slideshow so we can see what they saw.  The for their view is the Moon was just emerging from totality as it rose in their eastern sky at sunset.  What make their report  special is the nearness to the eastern horizon of the Moon and the  proximity of all this to sunset so that the Earth’s shadow is actually tangible to us, along with the Belt of Venus, in the Eastern sky.

So take special note of the first shot that looks east where the shadow and the belt of Venus are.  Then watch as the Moon drops out of that shadow, diving towards the ocean – the eastern horizon. Also note the curvature of the Earth’s shadow on the moon – something that told the Greeks, long before Columbus, that the Earth was round.

What this drives home for me is that we  are seeing the shadow of the Earth darken the skynear the horizon to the east, as we always do right after sunset and – since we’re on the Earth – that shadow is huge from our perspective. Yet, out in the vicinity  of the Moon the shadow is only about 6,000 miles in diameter. At that distance, 6,000 miles would cover about a degree and a half of our sky – just three times the apparent diameter of the Moon – and so we see  the Moon appear to drop down out of that shadow – that is the Moon is moving eastward towards the horizon, while the whole show – Earth’s shadow and the Moon appear to be moving westward as the Earth turns.

Simply wonderful!  we all know the textvook explanation, but nothing beats seeing it live and the next best thing is to get a fine report of it such as the slide show Daphne put together – enjoy!



Lunar Eclipse Update – December 21, 2010 – 7 am EST Lot’s of reports with splendid photos of the eclipse showing a very red Moon as happens when our upper atmosphere is clear can be found on today’s Spaceweather.com. Go there and explore.  Although I love to observe without aid of cameras and computers, I also loved this report and photos from Bill Williams, an amateur in Florida. Bill wrote:

“I robotically controlled my telescope (14.5-inch RCOS) and camera (Apogee U16M) remotely 307 miles away at the Chiefland Astronomy Village using the internet. I transferred the data back to Boca Raton and processed it. Is this a great hobby or what?!”

To see his pictures go here.

Lunar Eclipse Update – December 21, 2010 – 3 am EST – Bt was cloudy here in Westport, MA, but there were several Web cameras available from various locations, though most of the ones I checked were being overwhelmed by the number of people looking for a live feed showing the eclipse.

I did find the one pictured below and although it sometimes stood still, it really did give a sense of being there. Here are some screen shots of the “live” action I could see.  I should note, that while we had light snow all day, and the sky was totally overcast, before the eclipse both the sky and the night in general were very light. The full Moon shone through the clouds and bounced off the fresh snow.  By totality, however,  it was very dark – not because of heavier clouds, of course, but because the Moon wasn’t shining through the high thin overcast any more. Very dramatic change I hadn’t anticipated. Here are the screen captures of one web cast.

Click on image for larger view. In the last image of Moon the folks web casting this had changed their camera settings so it was more sensitive to the light of the eclipsed Moon.

Orrinal post on December events follows:

It’s been three years since North America was treated to a total eclipse of the Moon – and it will be more than three years until we get another chance like this! That’s a long time between lunar eclipses, so let’s put clear weather on our holiday wish list for the night of December 20/21 when there will be a terrific total eclipse!

And that’s not all – with the right weather December could be a classic month for sleep deprivation with two great early morning events, plus other cool stuff happening at more reasonable hours, so this post is divided into three parts:

Best lunar eclipse in years! December 20/21, 2010

Click image for larger view.

Yep, you folks on the East Coast are reading that correctly – this is a morning event for us, but before you write it off, read on. I have a “half-is-much-more- than-50-per-cent” eclipse plan that you might want to try. The West Coast gets a break – an eclipse of the Moon happens at the same instant for everyone, but since we live in different time zones that instant occurs at different local times. So for the West Coast, the Moon turns into the Great Pumpkin just before midnight Pacific Standard Time. Oh – and if you’re on the East Coast of Australia – say Sydney? Well, you don’t miss out entirely. You get treated to the rather eerie spectacle of the Moon rising while already totally eclipsed. That will mean your first eclipse challenge will be to find the Moon! And all of this takes place in the most fabulous section of sky imaginable – right in the middle of some of the brightest constellations – Orion, Gemini, Taurus, and friends. And of course, these will be washed out by the full Moon prior to the eclipse, but during the eclipse they’ll come out in their full glory and the darkened Moon will occult a star or two as it journeys eastward. What a show! Study the map below to see if the eclipse is visible form your section of the world.

Click on image for a larger view.

And here is the eclipse sequence in Greenwich Mean Time so you can figure out how that relates to your time zone.

Click on image for larger view.

All these wonderful graphics are courtesy of Fred Espenak, www.MrEclipse.com) / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 who has a terrific eclipse web site with lots of details about this eclipse and eclipses in general.

My half-is-much-more-than-50-per-cent plan

The real fun of an eclipse is in seeing the cover up – or uncovering – while at the same time watching the changing sky. I’m for seeing the whole show and if the weather gods cooperate, I plan to. But, I’m retired and seldom sleep more than four hours at a time, so mornings are no problem for me. Others have jobs to do and need their sleep. If that were my situation, I would try to carve out two hours and dedicate them to eclipse watching. That way I could get a real sense of the eclipse, while minimizing sleep loss. I figure if you see half of it, it’s almost as good as seeing the whole thing. So using the EST times I would make it a point to go out some time in the early evening for a few minutes just to appreciate the full Moon and note how it has washed out all but the brightest stars. Then I’d set my alarm for about 1:15 am and pop out to see the onset of the partial eclipse, which starts at 1:33 am. Again, note how the Moon is washing out most of the bright stars, even though it’s now fully into the penumbra – the weak part of the Earth’s shadow – and starting to enter the umbra. I’d stick it out to totality which begins at 2:41 am, take the next 20 minutes to enjoy the full glory of the stars with a totally eclipsed Moon, then be back to bed shortly after 3 am – thus losing about two hours sleep.

Of course you could work the same thing on the other side of the eclipse. Go to bed early and then get up about 3:15 am. If you’re out by 3:30 am, that will give you time to locate and appreciate the fully eclipsed Moon – note on the star charts below where it will be then – then watch it emerge from the Earth’s shadow starting at 3:53 am and over the next hour wash out more and more of the stars until totality ends at 5:01 am.

Or the-heck-with-sleep-plan, bring on the show!

Hey – one complete total eclipse in nearly six years – are you really going to let a little sleep deprivation steal the show? I’m not. This eclipse has me really psyched for several reasons. First, this is a real dry period between eclipses. There is one next June 15, but North America misses that one entirely. Next December (December 10, 2011) there’s another, and this one can be seen in part by those on the West Coast of North America. But the next full show for all of North America is not until April 14-15, 2014.

Another thing I like about this eclipse is it comes near the time of the winter solstice – 6:38pm, December 21,2010 – and that means the full Moon will be very high in our sky. The full Moon always rises opposite the Sun – so as the winter Sun sets in the southwest, the full Moon will rise in the northeast and travel high overhead.

A third thing I like is where, exactly, in the sky the Moon will be – it’s right in the middle of the Winter Hexagon – an area of sky that includes some of the brightest stars we see and most dramatic asterisms. In fact, the constellation that nearly everyone knows is Orion, and on eclipse night it’s going to look like Orion’s balancing the Moon on the end of his raised club! No kidding. Maybe we should think of that club as a torch for this night. Take a look!

Here's the Moon poised near the end of Orion's club just before the eclipse begins. Of course the Moon will drown out all but the brightest stars in Orion, but once totality begins most of these stars should be visible. (Starry Nights Pro screenshot.)

Is that cool? But wait, there’s more!

I admit I can’t spend hours looking at an eclipsed Moon – especially when there are so many other things to see in the surrounding sky. So by all means, bring your binoculars or a small telescope to this event. I’ll be using a telescope, but here I’ll stick to describing the naked eye and binocular sights.

Winter Hexagon and other things to look for as the moon gets darker and the stars come out. (Modified Starry Nights Pro screenshot.)

Click here for a printer-friendly version of the above chart.

The Winter Hexagon is a wonderful region of night sky, alive with a wide variety of sights. The stars that form it are among the brightest, starting with Sirius, the brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere and at 8 light years, one of our closest companions. Procyon plays the “Little Dog” to the Sirius “Big Dog” – Sirius is the brightest star in Canis Major, Procyon the brightest star in Canis Minor. Castor and Pollux, the heavenly twins, anchor the next corner of the hexagon; then comes brilliant Capella, followed by the orange-tinted Aldebaran – the “bull’s eye” – and finally, the icy blue star at Orion’s left foot, Rigel. The best binocular sites in this area start with the Pleiades star cluster and its close neighbor, the Hyades cluster. (See the “look east” post for December for more about these two.) Orion’s Belt – the three bright stars in a row – slashes across the celestial equator and also is a wonderful, star-rich area to explore with binoculars. Finally, there’s the Great Orion Nebula – M42 – in the giant’s sword that hangs below his belt. Binoculars will show a little cloud in the middle of the sword that is an incredible region of gas and dust where stars are being born. Of course to see all this at its best you need to wait for totality at 2:41 am.

With binoculars or telescope

Obviously you can look at mountains, craters, and seas on the Moon and watch as they each get caught in the Earth’s shadow. But what I think will be most fun is to note the eastward motion of the moon by looking at its leading edge – the dark edge – and watch as one star after another gets snuffed out by the Moon. Now these stars will be more difficult to see during the partial phase, but the darker the moon gets, the easier it will be to see this happen and thus get a real sense that the Moon is indeed traveling around us. The Moon, like everything else in the sky, will appear to move from east to west. But at the same time, its motion around the Earth causes it to move eastward against the backdrop of distant stars. Once totally eclipsed, these “occultations” should be very easy to see.

The following video is a simulation made with Starry Nights Pro software. It shows the view from my location at 42 degrees north. Your view of the Moon – and which stars it occults – will depend on your latitude -so unless you’re within about 10 degrees of me either direction, you should take this simulation as illustrating what to expect in general, but the specific stars will differ. The brightest star occulted near the start is magnitude 7 HIP27698 – which should be visible in binoculars, if not at the start, certainly later when it pops out of the other side from behind a fully eclipsed Moon. The dimmest shown are about magnitude 12 and only visible in telescopes of the size most amateur astronomers use.

Oh – and if you stay up until the end of the eclipse, be sure to take a look at Saturn about 30 degrees high in the southeast and just five degrees from the beautiful double star Porrima. As always, it’s a grand show in any size telescope and now its rings are well displayed – the last couple of years they haven’t been. Below and to the left, Venus will be about six degrees above the eastern horizon and outshining everything except the Moon. Porrima, by the way, is an exquisite, but challenging double for small telescopes that’s getting a little easier to split every month as the two nearly identical stars move farther apart in their orbits.

A Geminids Storm! December 13/14 2010

This could be the best meteor shower of the year, especially for residents on the East Coast of North America – though it should be very good across the country.

The Geminids weren’t discovered until 1862, and when they were, they were more a meteor sprinkle, than a meteor shower. In 1877 astronomers were recording about 14 per hour. That’s wimpy. The Zenith Hourly Rate (ZHR) for the Perseids is 120. But a funny thing happened on the way to 2010 – the Geminids just kept getting better. In the 1930s the rate climbed to 50, was 60 per hour in the next two decades, and about 80 for the remainder of the century. But the respected “Observer’s Handbook 2010” of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada puts the rate for this year at 120 – tied with the Perseids – and some say it could go higher!

Now before you get salivating to go out on a cold December night and lie in a lounge chair, let me set the record straight on “zenith hourly rate.” This is the number that’s usually quoted in various accounts – but most of the time this rate is mentioned it’s not explained and it leaves too many people with false hopes – especially those living in light-polluted areas, which is most of us. This rate is for ideal conditions, and I’ve never been lucky enough to have those ideal conditions. I would be tickled pink if I averaged one meteor per minute from a very dark site – the best I can do near home. Here’s how ZHR is defined in the Handbook:

Zenith Hourly Rate (ZHR) defined as the number of meteors a single average observer would see if the radiant were directly overhead and the sky dark and transparent with a limiting stellar magnitude of +6.5 (conditions that are rarely met in reality.)

That last phrase could also be written as “never in my lifetime!” 😉 I consider my skies super when the limiting magnitude is 5.5. Now I’m not a dedicated meteor shower watcher – but I’ve certainly been out there many nights over the years and generally have had very enjoyable meteor observing sessions – but seldom anything like what people report from the rare ideal site. But then – to have all the astronomical conditions just right is rare enough – yet that’s what this year’s Geminids could deliver, particularly for folks in the eastern half of the country. (As you move west there will be more interference from the Moon at the predicted shower peak time, but the Geminids still should put on a terrific display. The Moon will be low and just past first quarter.)

Oh – and for the radiant of this shower to be directly overhead here? The radiant – the general area where the meteors appear to radiate from – is a point less than two degrees from the bright star Castor and will be as high as it gets in my sky at 2:42 am EST. That won’t be directly overhead – but it’s at about 79 degrees altitude which is close enough to call directly overhead. (Use the Winter Hexagon chart posted above to find Castor – it’s the bright star near the top and is identified in that chart.)

Now here’s the really great news – and it’s why if the weather is clear I will be out there from 1 am on watching for Geminids. The quarter moon – which won’t interfere too much with earlier observing, sets at 1:16 am EST locally. AND – the Geminids are forecast to reach their peak at about 2 am EST. Now these forecasts are seldom right on, but they’re usually good. And I still have fond memories of a Leonid shower near the start of this century which really was a shower – the best I’ve seen in my life. And I hope to top that with this year’s Geminids.

But if the early morning peak turns you off, don’t give up on observing the Geminids. Start observing about four or five hours after sunset and you still should see enough to make it worth your while.

Where to look? They can appear anywhere. But more will be nearer the radiant. During my observing time I plan to be lying flat on my back and looking straight up. And by the way – that one or two a minute? That’s an “average.” Don’t expect to see one or two every minute. You have to look up continuously. And while you can talk to a friend, don’t let your eyes drift from the sky. Do that for at least 30 minutes and you should come close to the average – which I hope will be about one a minute. And I would be real happy with one every couple of minutes.

Finally, if you do see any, note their color – Geminids can be any of several colors – and, of course, notice how the meteor traces back to the radiant point in the sky in the constellation of Gemini. If you see a particularly bright one – take your binoculars and look where it just flashed. You ‘ll have a good chance of seeing a trail, similar to the vapor trail of a jet.

One last note: I think of most meteor showers as comet dust. That is, the Earth is passing through the dusty remnants left by a comet as it got near the Sun. But the Geminids are a bit of a puzzle here. They are believed to be associated with an asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon – only some folks feel this is not an ordinary asteroid. In fact, it is a dead comet. The jury is still out – but whatever the source, it should sprinkle some pixie dust our way December 13/14, and I hope to catch my share.

And Planets at all Hours – Jupiter, Uranus, Saturn – even Mercury and Venus, with a cameo appearance by Mars

Planet-wise, the month starts out with a bang. Jupiter and Uranus are high to the south at sunset; Saturn is getting higher and higher in the pre-dawn sky; and on December 2 there’s a terrific little triangle about an hour before sunrise of the crescent Moon, brilliant Venus, and the guidepost star, Spica. meanwhile, off to the north is another bright guidepost star, Arcturus, and Saturn is well placed above the triangle. (The Moon has a similar conjunction with Venus in the pre-dawn sky of December 31.)

Click image for larger version. (Starry Nights Pro screenshot with labels added.)

Click here to download a printer-friendly version of this chart.

Binocular users can bag Uranus, the planet that about doubled the size of our solar system – the “Georgian Star.” (To learn more about Uranus, see the September post here.) Uranus can be seen with binoculars, assuming it’s well placed, any time – but it’s far easier to locate when it is right near a bright planet such as Jupiter. This is the third time this year it has come close to Jupiter, but don’t hold your breath for this to happen again soon! In other words, see it now! (Neptune went through a similar sequence last year – now it’s off to the southwest and harder to find, though if you want to look, there’s a finder chart at the Sky and Telescope Web site.)

Jupiter joins the party!

Uranus starts off the month about three degrees from Jupiter in a neat little triangle with two stars that are almost identical in brightness to the planet, which is magnitude 5.9 – 20 Piscium (5.5) and 24 Piscium (5.9). As the month goes on, Jupiter moves closer and closer until the end of the month when it’s actually inside this little triangle and less than a degree from Uranus. Here are some charts to help you pick out the distant planet from the much more distant stars that form a backdrop. The circle covers five degrees, a typical binocular field of view, though your binoculars may show more.

Click image for larger version. (Starry Nights Pro screenshot with labels added.)

Click here to download a printer-friendly version of the above chart.

Click image for larger version. (Starry Nights Pro screenshot with labels added.)

Click here to download a printer-friendly version of the above chart.

Click image for larger version. (Starry Nights Pro screenshot with labels added.)

Click here to download a printer-friendly version of the above chart.

The Mars/Mercury Challenge

Can you find these two planets in the bright twilight using binoculars? On December 13 if you have a location with a clear western horizon – and really clear skies, you can put this to the test. It’s detailed by Tony Flanders in Sky and Telescope for December. He suggests looking just after sunset, but he thinks the easiest time to spot them will come about half an hour after sunset. This is one of those familiar races where to see the object, you need a dark sky behind it, but as the sky gets darker, the objects gets closer to the horizon making it more difficult to see.

Actually, your success will really depend on the weather. Looking in the right place should be easy. At my latitude of 42 degrees north the Sun will set that day at azimuth 239 degrees – pretty much southwest. Half an hour later Mercury and Mars will be at azimuth 234 degrees – five degrees to the south of where the Sun set. So if it’s clear, I plan to watch the Sun set and note the spot on the horizon where it vanishes. I’ll give it about 10 minutes, then start scanning about one binocular field to the south of that spot. In 30 minutes Mars and Mercury should still be roughly three degrees above the horizon. So if I look one binocular field to the south of where the sun set and just above the horizon, my binoculars should show me two first magnitude “stars” – it should look like this.

Labels added to Starry Nights Pro screenshot.

Events for April 2010: Venus, Mercury, the Moon, Mars and the Bees, Algol and some morning meteors

The “events” post assumes a new, chronological format this month. The idea is two-fold:

  1. Make it easy to mark your calendars for events worth making special plans to see.
  2. Give you a place to check before going out to observe to see if anything special is happening that night.

There is one category of special events worth checking on, however, that we don’t list here because they’re very specific to where you live and when you observe. These are events involving man-made objects in space – the passages of the International Space Station, Iridium flares, and other bright satellite and space craft passages. There are two excellent ONLINE sources for such events. I urge you to check both, see how they differ, and then make your own decision as to what works best for you.

  • The first is provided by Spaceweather, and you’ll find it by going to their Web site and clicking on the “Satellite Flybys” link on the right, or  by going directly here.
  • The second is the Heavens Above site, and while this requires you to register, the process is painless and free and the result is a lot of information that is specific to your location. You need to know your latitude and longitude, but you can get them by using the link in the “configuration” section near the top of the Heavens Above page. This is a one-time process. Once registered and logged in, study the menu – there’s a wealth of information on satellites and many other things.

April 2010 Astronomical events

Note: While many events are visible throughout the world, the exact time and location in the sky can be dependent upon your latitude and longitude. Since I’m in the mid-northern latitudes (41.5N, 71.1W), specifics, where place-dependent, are calculated for this location.

April 1-15 – Mercury makes what Sky and Telescope calls its “best evening display” of the year, and brilliant Venus will point the way to it. Mercury is brightest at the start of the month and fades significantly by the 15th. But at no time can it hold a candle to Venus, which will be easily found at magnitude -3.9. Just look about a fist or two above the horizon and a tad south of where the Sun set an hour before.

While Mercury is visible to the naked eye and was well-known to ancient observers, it is easiest to find if you use binoculars to pick it out of the twilight. Start half an hour after sunset and locate Venus. In the first few days Mercury will be in the same binocular field with its brighter companion. Here is what the scene should look like on April 1 – no fooling!

From Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

This close relationship holds throughout the 15-day period, though after the first week Mercury starts dropping off towards the north, and by the 13th it may no longer be in the same binocular field – depends on the binoculars used. The 15th is special, though, for Mercury then has a close encounter with a very young Moon. (Scroll down to the listing for the 15th for details.)

April 3 – A very bright, 19-day-old gibbous moon brushes by the bright, red guidepost star Antares at dawn. For me the best time to see this event will be, I believe, between 5:15 and 5:30 am EDT. I’ll be watching in binoculars. The moon will be getting closer and closer, but dawn will be breaking and starting to wash things out. If you live farther west, you’ll see an even closer encounter. Here the separation will be almost a full degree. That is, when viewed with dark skies they will still appear separated by a space greater than the width of the moon itself. The closest approach – about an hour after sunrise for this location – will still leave a gap just about the apparent diameter of the moon itself. I like these close encounters as a reminder of the motion of the moon, which goes counter to the spin of the Earth.

April 14 – The most convenient minima of Algol, the “Demon Star” occurs this month on April 14th at 9:40 pm. Should be fun to check on it about an hour after sunset, then again around 9:40 pm. The only problem – it’s getting very low in the northwest. At 9:40 it will be just 14 degrees above the horizon and will set in a couple of hours – hardly ideal conditions, so I expect this will be the last time I’ll check on it until next fall. For more details on Algol and its eclipses, see the post here.

April 15 – The Venus and Mercury show goes out with a bang, as a 1.4-day-old crescent moon joins them about one fist above the horizon 30 minutes after sunset to the west northwest. Again, Venus should be easy to pick out with the naked eye. Once you have it, use your binoculars and get it in view with them, then move down and to the right just a bit and you should encounter Mercury and the crescent moon. The exact age of the moon and closeness of this encounter will depend on your longitude. From where I sit (41.5 degrees N latitude and 71.1W longitude), the Moon will be just 1.4 days old and less than a degree away from Mercury, which will have dimmed to magnitude 1.5. I don’t expect this to be easy to see. But it all can be visible to the naked eye given an unobstructed western horizon and very clear skies. Once you’ve located it with binoculars, you probably will be able to see it with the naked eye. All depends on a modicum of skill and a lot of luck 😉

Here’s what it should look like.

From Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

April 16-18Mars and the Beehive (M44) mix it up in a delightful pairing for binocular users. Mars has begun its eastward movement against the background stars, and in doing so rolls right between the Beehive cluster and Asellus Borealis, the “Northern Ass.” Actually, this will make a nice binocular grouping from about April 11 to the 23rd, so if the weather doesn’t cooperate on the best nights, try one of the alternatives. I love it when planets get near distinctive stars and star groups because it’s easier then to chart their motions from night to night. So I would urge you to look at Mars with your binoculars at least two nights during this time frame and use the chart below to mark its position. (For other charts to help you locate Mars and the Beehive, see this posting. )

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

Download a printer-friendly version of this chart here.

April 22-23 – Greet the dawn with some meteors! Sky and Telescope says these are are the best dates for the Lyrid meteor shower this year. But with the moon offering interference this is a pre-dawn event and the Lyrids seldom put on a big show. If it’s clear, my plans are to be out about 2:30 am. By then the just-past first quarter moon will have set, so it won’t offer interference, and I’ll have a couple of hours before the pre-dawn light begins to wash out the eastern sky. The next night, the Moon will be a bit brighter and sets about 45 minutes later, so there won’t be as much dark-sky observing time available. I like to be aware of this kind of event, but I don’t plan my observing around it. I go out to observe other things and pause once in a while to sit back, look up at the sky for several minutes, and hope I get lucky. Hey – if it’s clear and I can do that, I’m already lucky! 😉

April 24, 25 – Venus and the Pleiades have a relatively close encounter making a nice binoculars view. Actually, they should both fit in the same low-power binocular field from about April 20 to the 28th, but it’s on the 24 and 25 that Venus is closest as it scoots past. The Pleiades are getting closer to the western horizon with each night. Venus is moving in the opposite direction, higher in the sky each night. (It will be our western evening star right into September.) By the 28th it’s about halfway between the Pleiades and the Hyades, though the clusters are getting so low they’re losing much of their luster. Getting back to the 24th and 25th, Venus will be simple to spot. Look for it about an hour after sunset and about one fist above the horizon to the west northwest. Then look for the Pleiades to the northwest of Venus in the same binocular field. Sweeping a little to the southeast of Venus (up and to the left) with your binoculars you should pick up the Hyades and Aldebaran, but not in the same binocular field as Venus.

Start your year with Mercury!

Start looking for Mercury in your southwestern sky  half an hour after nightfall. Use the crescent Moon as your guide. Move from it to brilliant Venus. Mercury and Hupiter will be much dimmer - about as bright as the two "signpost" stars, Fomalhaut and Altair. An arrow drawn from the Moon to Jupiter points roughly to the Sun and illustrates the approximate location of the plane of our solar system - the area of the sky where you'll always find the planets, (Adapted from a Starry Nights screen.)

Start looking for Mercury in your southwestern sky half an hour after nightfall. Use the crescent Moon as your guide. Move from it to brilliant Venus. Mercury and Jupiter will be much dimmer - about as bright as the two "signpost" stars, Fomalhaut and Altair. An arrow drawn from the Moon to Jupiter points roughly to the Sun and illustrates the approximate location of the plane of our solar system - the area of the sky where you'll always find the planets, (Adapted from a Starry Night screen.)

Update: What I actually saw January 1, 2009 – First, I was surprised how much Mercury had moved in just two days – it is fast! Having Jupiter nearby made it easy to see the changes from night-to-night. Second, it’s still a difficult object for my old eyes without binoculars.  However, it was very easy in binoculars – much easier than my attempt t at pictures may indicate – though the pictures do give you a sense of what to expect as Mercury climbs higher each night for the next several nights.  Here’s a wide view, typical of what you see with th naked ye. The moon and Venus are obvious – Mercury and Jupiter certainly aren’t.

That's the crescent moon up to the left, then Venus. The arrow points to the area near the tree where Mercury and Jupiter could be seen easily with ordinary binoculars.

That's the crescent moon up to the left, then Venus. The arrow points to the area near the tree where Mercury and Jupiter could be seen easily with ordinary binoculars.

And here’s a view where I used a 300mm lens to zoom in on that area near the tree line.

Mercury is the higher, fainter of the two planets. This picture was taken just seconds after the one above, but zoomed in on the tree line.

Mercury is the higher, fainter of the two planets just visible in the notch in the trees to the left. This picture was taken just seconds after the one above, but zoomed in on the tree line.

Update: December 30, 2008 – Just checked and with 12X36 IS binoculars I found Mercury about 20 minutes after nightfall. It was seen easily against a yellow sky with Jupiter – much brighter and easier to spot – above it, but both fitting easily in the same binocular field. I could not see it with the naked eye,however, although sharper eyes than mind might have. At this time it was only about 7 degrees above the horizon – less than a fist. Ten minutes later I could see it with the naked eye, but it was already inthe tree branches!

Original post:

Of the five bright planets known since antiquity, Mercury is the most elusive.  I had been an amateur astronomer for at least 10 years before I tracked it down one morning. It’s funny. When you do see it, you say “what’s the problem. That was easy.” But without knowing exactly when and where to look it can be difficult – and it is always near the Sun and thus near our horizon.

Everything appears dimmer near the horizon because you’re looking through more of our atmosphere than when looking straight up. In addition, there are frequently low clouds and haze on the horizon that may not be apparent – except that you can’t see what you expected to see!

The final issue is a little game of hide and seek. With each passing minute the horizon creep up threatening to swallow Mercury. But with each passing minute the sky gets darker making it a little easier to see a bright planet. Objects higher in the sky, such as Altair and Fomalhaut, may be visible when Mercury isn’t simply because the sky behind them is darker.

Jupiter, significantly brighter than Mercury but not nearly as bright as Venus, should be a handy guide on January 1. As the month wears on Mercury put more distance between itself and the Sun and thus will appear to climb a bit higher in our sky, being near its peak on January 7, 8, and 9th. By that time, however, Jupiter will have sunk lower and may be quite difficult to see. The two planets are  closest to one another this month on January 1.

Such a pack of variables are typical of observing and make it always interesting. You can see Mercury with your naked eye, but it will be easier to find it first in binoculars. Both it and Jupiter should appear in the same binocular field of view on January 1.  By the 7th, 8th and 9th the two may just barely fit in the same field of view, but don’t count on it. Depends on your binoculars. By the middle of the month Mercury will be too low to see easily.

So when should you look? I want to go out on the first. But if it’s not clear, I’ll try any night in these first couple of weeks. Mercury pops into the morning sky by the end of the month – it sure does get around! But not every appearance of Mercury is equal – sometimes it appears much higher above our horizon in a dark sky than at other times. On this appearance it will peak at nearly 10 degrees above the horizon, 30 minutes after nightfall. That’s good. Remember – 10 degrees is about the area covered by your fist when held at arm’s length.

%d bloggers like this: