In Search of Darkness: the Battle Against Light Pollution

A good majority of modern Americans have never seen truly dark skies. I was fortunate to grow up in northern Maine in the 1970s with skies dark enough to see the summer Milky Way right from my doorstep. For most of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, this is no longer the case. During the blackout brought on by Hurricane Sandy over the tri-state area in 2012 and after Hurricane Andrew hit Miami in 1992, many urbanites got to see an unfamiliar sight first hand; a dark night sky. There were even calls to 9/11 reporting fires on the horizon, which were in fact the Milky Way!

Do your skies look like this? (Photo by Author).
Do your skies look like this?
(Photo by Author).

In just over two weeks time on March 10th, most of North America will “spring forward” once again to daylight savings time; three weeks afterwards on March 31st, the European Union will follow suit.

For astronomers, this means waiting until the later evening hours for total darkness and late start times for star parties. If it seems like we spend more of the year on daylight savings time, we in fact do; the Energy Policy Act of 2005 mandates that daylight savings for most of the U.S. (a majority of Arizona is a staunch hold out) now starts on the second Sunday of March and runs until the first Sunday of November, or about 65% of the year. But discussions of DST’s utility or anachronism aside, it puts just one more hurdle between astronomers and what they love: dark skies.

Does your observatories' night sky look like this? (Photo by Author).
Observatory versus light pollution. (Photo by Author).

You can’t even see your hand in front of your face under truly dark skies. Such darkness is measured on what’s known as the Bortle Scale, with 1 being dark enough to notice air glow and phenomena like the Gegenschein, while 9 is a washed out inner-city night sky, with perhaps only the Moon and the brightest planets punching through the haze.

We once did a Bortle scale estimation while waiting for an airport shuttle on the Las Vegas strip; Vegas is arguably the most light-polluted locale on the planet. Jupiter, the Moon and the brightest stars of Orion could only be seen if you knew exactly where to look for them. In contrast, we’ve heard many service members remark about how splendid the sky looks from such deployed locations as Afghanistan.

A vanishing treasure; true dark skies. (Photo by Author).
A vanishing treasure; true dark skies. (Photo by Author).

The encroachment of civilization on wilderness areas also means that most school star parties and downtown observatories are restricted to bright targets, and serious deep sky observers must now drive several hours for a reasonably dark sky. Living just outside the Tampa/Saint Petersburg area in Florida, I can actually tell if it’s cloudy or clear at night just by how bright our bedroom appears with lights out. A cloudy sky reflects all the city lights back down, creating a “false dawn” that fills the room.

Dark sky sites are like secret fishing holes for backyard astronomers. Everyone knows of a few, some of which are even carefully hidden and discussed in hushed tones for fear of the light generating hordes which will descend upon them.

For dark skies in the Tampa Bay area, most observers head north to Chiefland along the Nature Coast about a two hour drive north. If you’ve got boat access, a truly dark sky locale can be had in the Dry Tortugas off of the Florida Keys to the south.

Dark Skies at Dunham Farms, Georgia (Photo by Author).
Dark Skies at Dunham Farms, Georgia (Photo by Author).

We recently visited such a hidden “dark sky island” in northern Georgia. Dunham Farms is a great old farmhouse Bed & Breakfast in Liberty County near Hinesville, Georgia. Despite how close as it is to Savanna, Dunham Farms sits in a “triangle of darkness,” a rarity along the Atlantic coast. We estimated the sky at a Bortle Scale of 2-3 while we were there doing nighttime astrophotography. Astronomy clubs in nearby Savanna also find dark sky requiem at nearby Tybee Pier, and further north, clubs such as the Midlands Astronomers based out of Melton Observatory in Columbia, South Carolina head to nearby Congaree Swamp.

And so it is along much of the U.S. East Coast, as observers must make to pilgrimage ever further inland in search of dark skies. Truth is, much of nighttime lighting is simply wasted energy headed skyward to illuminate the undersides of clouds and aircraft. Not only does this destroy our pristine night sky, but it’s also a threat to nocturnal wildlife and humans as well. Nigh-time  lighting confuses migrating birds, often casuing them to fly into buildings.  In 2009 the American Medical Association joined the fight against light pollution, citing it as a health risk. Light pollution effects our natural circadian rhythms, and studies show it may be linked to increased cancer rates as well. Turns out, our bodies need darkness.

But there is light (bad pun intended) at the end of the tunnel. Light pollution ordinances are now on the books in many municipalities. In 2001, the International Dark Sky Association recognized Flagstaff, Arizona as the first dark sky certified city. Increasingly, observatories around cities in Arizona such as Tucson and Flagstaff are being recognized as national scientific assets to be safeguarded.

Of course, legislation on the books is only as good as its enforcement. There are no “light pollution police” on the beat, and ordinances against “light trespass” are only put into practice when someone complains about it. We’ve found that frequently, inviting the neighbors over for a “backyard star party” can avoid having them install a World War II surplus anti-aircraft spotlight in their back yard to begin with… hey, that’s what your security light looks like to us!

And there’s nothing stopping hardware outlets from selling light fixtures that are illegal to install. A good fixture directs light downward where it’s needed. Lowes has recently launched its line of dark sky compliant outdoor lighting, and hey, if enough customers “vote with their wallets” more may follow suit. Its money saved in these cash strapped times, and a night sky gained!

Naming Pluto’s Moons: Will it Come Down to Trekkies Versus the IAU?

As reported here on Universe Today last week, the SETI Institute has invited the public to vote on the names of Pluto’s 4th and 5th moons. Discovered in 2011 and 2012 respectively, researcher and co-discoverer Mark Showalter will take these names before the International Astronomical Union (IAU) after voting closes on February 25th, 2013.

But days after the polling opened, a curious twist in the tale occurred that Star Trek’s Mr. Spock would only describe as “Fascinating.”

William Shatner, James T. Kirk himself, proposed the name Vulcan for one of Pluto’s unnamed moons. Fans and Trekkies worldwide rallied, and as of writing this, Vulcan enjoys a comfortable lead over Cerberus and Styx which are vying for the 2nd place position.

This astronomical horse-race has the propensity to get interesting. In order to be considered, the IAU’s naming convention simply states “Those that share Pluto’s orbital rhythm take the name of underworld deities,” And the named moons of Charon, Nix & Hydra all follow this convention. Shatner’s case for Vulcan does cite the god as “The nephew of Pluto” in Roman mythology, but anyone who had studied Roman and Greek mythos knows that familial relations can be proven between nearly any given god and/or goddess.

Interestingly, Showalter turned down Shatner’s second Star Trek/mythological suggestion of Romulus, citing that Romulus and Remus are already the names of the moons of asteroid 87 Silvia. While the “double naming” of objects in the solar system isn’t unheard of, it may be a definite strike against a proposal. Cerberus, Orpheus, Hypnos & Persephone are all names in the running that are all also assigned to asteroids.

On February 14th, researchers “Opened up the Gates of Hell” a bit further and took more mythological nominations into the running, adding Elysium, Hecate, Melinoe, Orthrus, Sisyphus, Tantalus, Tartarus and Thantos into the fray. You can write-in candidates such as “Donald,” & “Goofy,” but these stand a proverbial snowball’s chance in Hades of being accepted. Perhaps the backing of a starship captain would help, if Adama or Han Solo were available for hire…

Still, one wonders if the name Vulcan will make it past the gate-keepers at the IAU. The IAU has sparked controversy surrounding Pluto before, in its 2006 decision that angered 5th graders everywhere when they demoted Pluto to dwarf planet status. No solar system body currently holds the name of Vulcan, although one hypothetical one once did; the tiny fleeting world that was once thought to be interior to Mercury’s orbit. Several astronomers even claimed to witness transits of the fleeting world across the face of the Sun, and up until the late 19th century, you could still find Vulcan in many astronomy texts. While the idea of Vulcan as a planet interior to Mercury is out (think of how many telescopes, both amateur and professional, now continuously monitor the Sun daily)  it’s not out of the question that a small group of asteroids less than 10 kilometres in size tentatively dubbed “Vulcanoids” may still inhabit the space interior to Mercury.

Fans of Pluto unite... could Vulcan spark a repeat protest? (Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain).
Fans of Pluto unite… could Vulcan spark a repeat protest? (Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain).

But if nothing else, the poll is a fun exercise to watch as astronomy fans worldwide delve into mythological lore and dig out the names of obscure gods and goddesses. A similar debate on mythological merits swirled around the naming of the moon of dwarf planet Orcus, ultimately named Vanth in 2009.

While only two names will be selected for P4 & P5, the other denizens of the underworld may just get their day in July 2015 when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft gives us the first close up look at Pluto and friends. Previous “first flybys” of other planets and asteroids have turned up new moons before, and Pluto may be no different.

“The discovery of so many small moons indirectly tells us that there must be lots of small particles lurking unseen in the Pluto system,” stated Harold Weaver of the Johns Hopkins University of Applied Physics Laboratory. Such debris will be a definite concern as scientists seek to thread the spacecraft’s trajectory past Pluto and its moons.

A young Clyde Tombaugh with one of his famous homemade telescopes. (Credit : NASA/GSFC).
A young Clyde Tombaugh with one of his famous homemade telescopes. (Credit : NASA/GSFC).

Discovered 83 years ago to the day on February 18th, 1930 by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto remains an uncharted corner of the solar system. Mr. Tombaugh passed away on January 17th, 1997, and an ounce of his ashes are aboard the New Horizons spacecraft which, along with the Pioneer 10 & 11 and Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft, are escaping the solar system to wander along the galactic plane.

I’ve also got a proposal out in the running. By naming one of Pluto’s moons Alecto, we would honor Clyde with the inclusion of his initials “CT” on a moon. There is precedent for such a clever tribute before; James Christy honored his wife Charlene in the naming of Pluto’s large moon Charon and Mike Brown paid homage to his wife Diane by naming Eris’s moon Dysnomia.

Whatever happens, it’ll be interesting to see what transpires in the final names of P4/P5 are selected. Hopefully it won’t end in a showdown pitting Trekkies against the IAU… but don’t forget, the Trekkies did keep a television series on the air and got a space shuttle re-named!

Jupiter and the Moon Have a Close Encounter in the Sky February 18, 2013

The movement of the Moon makes a fascinating study of celestial mechanics. Despite the light pollution it brings to the nighttime sky, we’re fortunate as a species to have a large solitary satellite to give us lessons in “Celestial Mechanics 101″

This weekend, we’ll get to follow that motion as the Moon crosses into the constellation Taurus for a near-pass of the planet Jupiter, and for a very few citizens of our fair world, occults it.

The Moon versus Jupiter during the previous occultation of the planet last month. (Image courtesy of Luis Argerich at Nightscape Photography; used with permission).
The Moon versus Jupiter during the previous occultation of the planet last month. (Image courtesy of Luis Argerich at Nightscape Photography; used with permission).

In astronomy, the term “occultation” simply means that one astronomical body passes in front of another. The term has its hoary roots in astronomy’s ancient past; just like the modern day science of chemistry sprung from the pseudo-science of alchemy, astronomy was once intertwined with the arcane practice of astrology, although the two have long since parted ways. When I use the term “occultation” around my non-space geek friends, (I do have a few!) I never fail to get a funny look, as if I just confirmed every wacky suspicion that they ever had about us backyard astronomers…

But those of us who follow lunar occultations never miss a chance to observe one. You’ll actually get to see the motion of the Moon as it moves against the background planet or star, covering it up abruptly. The Moon actually moves about 12° degrees across the sky per 24 hour period.

The position of the Moon & Jupiter as seen from Tampa (Feb 18th, 7PM EST), Perth, (Feb 18th 11:30UT) & London  (Feb 18th at 19UT). Created by the author using Stellarium.
The position of the Moon & Jupiter as seen from Tampa (Feb 18th, 7PM EST), Perth, (Feb 18th 11:30UT) & London (Feb 18th at 19UT). Created by the author using Stellarium.

On the evening of Monday, February 18th, the 56% illuminated waxing gibbous Moon will occult Jupiter for Tasmania and southern Australia around 12:00 Universal Time (UT). Folks along the same longitude as Australia (i.e., eastern Asia) will see a close pass of the pair. For North America, we’ll see the Moon approach Jupiter and Aldebaran of February 17th (the night of the Virtual Star Party) and the Moon appear past the pair after dusk on the 18th.

Orientation of Jupiter, the Moon & Vesta on the evening of February 18th for North America. (Created by the author in Starry Night).
Orientation of Jupiter, the Moon & Vesta on the evening of February 18th for North America. (Created by the author in Starry Night).

But fret not; you may still be able to spot Jupiter near the Moon on the 18th… in the daytime. Daytime planet-spotting is a fun feat of visual athletics, and the daytime Moon always serves as a fine guide. Jupiter is juuuuuust bright enough to see near the Moon with the unaided eye if you know exactly where to look;

Jupiter captured during a close 2012 pass in the daytime! (Photo by author).
Jupiter captured during a close 2012 pass in the daytime! (Photo by author).

To see a planet in the daytime, you’ll need a clear, blue sky. One trick we’ve used is to take an empty paper towel tube and employ it as a “1x finder” to help find our target… binoculars may also help! To date, we’ve seen Venus, Jupiter, Sirius & Mars near favorable opposition all in the daylight… Mercury and Vega should also be possible under rare and favorable conditions.

This week’s occultation of Jupiter is the 3rd and final in a series that started in December of last year. The Moon won’t occult a planet again until an occultation of Venus on September 8th later this year, and won’t occult Jupiter again until July 9th, 2016. We’re also in the midst of a long series of occultations of the bright star Spica (Alpha Virginis) in 2013, as the Moon occults it once every lunation from somewhere in the world. Four major stars brighter than +1st magnitude lie along the Moon’s path near the ecliptic; Spica, Aldebaran, Regulus, and Antares which we caught an occultation of in 2009;

Also of note: we’re approaching a “plane-crossing” of the Jovian moons next year. This means that we’ll start seeing Callisto casting shadows on the Jovian cloud tops this summer on July 20th, and it will continue until July 21st, 2016. The orbits of the Jovian moons appear edge-on to us about every five years, and never really deviate a large amount. Callisto is the only moon that can “miss” casting a shadow on the disk of Jupiter in its passage.  The actual plane crossing as seen from the Earth occurs in November 2014. Jupiter reaches solar conjunction this year on June 19th and doesn’t come back into opposition until early next year on January 5th. 2013 is an “opposition-less” year for Jupiter, which occurs on average once per every 11-12 years. (One Jovian orbit equals 11.8 Earth years).

The Moon plus Jupiter during last month's close conjunction. (Photo by author).
The Moon plus Jupiter during last month’s close conjunction. (Photo by author).

But wait, there’s more… the Moon will also occult +7.7th magnitude 4 Vesta on February 18th at~21:00 UT. This occultation occurs across South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. It would be fun to catch its ingress behind the dark limb of the Moon, and we bet that a precisely timed video might just show evidence for Vesta’s tiny angular diameter as it winks out. For North American observers, Vesta will sit just off the northern limb of the Moon… if you have never seen it, now is a great time to try!

Finally, we realized that also in the field with 4 Vesta is an explorer that just departed its environs, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Although unobservable from Earth, we thought that it would be an interesting exercise to see if it gets occulted by the Moon as well this week, and in fact it does, for a very tiny slice of the planet;

The occultation of the Dawn spacecraft as seen from Earth. Created by the author using Occult 4.0.
The occultation of the Dawn spacecraft as seen from Earth. Created by the author using Occult 4.0.

Hey, calculating astronomical oddities is what we do for fun… be sure to post those pics of Jupiter, the Moon and more up to our Universe Today Flickr page & enjoy the celestial show worldwide!

See more of Luis Argerich’s astrophotography at Nightscape Photography.

Graphics created by author using Stellarium, Starry Night and Occult 4.0 software.

Asteroid 2012 DA14: Observing Prospects and How to See It

2012-DA14

Mark your calendars: this Friday, February 15, 2013, is the close flyby of Near Earth Asteroid 2012 DA14, passing just 27,630 kilometers (17,168 miles) from the surface of the Earth. About 50 meters (164 feet) in size, 2012 DA14 and its close shave marks the the first time there has been passage of an asteroid this close that we’ve known a year beforehand. Yes, it passes within the ring of geosynchronous satellites girdling the Earth. No, there’s no danger, either to said satellites or the Earth, so Bruce Willis can stay home for this one.  But right behind those inquiries, the question we most frequently get is… how can I see it?

The orbital path of asteroid 2012  DA14 as seen face on (top) & near edge on (bottom). (Credit: JPL Small Body Database Browser).
The orbital path of asteroid 2012 DA14 as seen face on (top) & near edge on (bottom). (Credit: JPL Small Body Database Browser).

The great news is that an advanced observer can indeed catch 2012 DA14 on its close pass the night of February 15th… with a little skill and luck. Now for the bad news; the asteroid won’t be visible without binoculars or a telescope, and North America will largely miss out.

2012 DA14 will be really moving across the sky on closest approach, covering 0.8° per minute, or the diameter of a Full Moon every 45 seconds!  With its passage closer to the Earth than the ring of geosynchronous satellites, it’s worth treating the passage of the asteroid as a satellite and hunting it down accordingly. Catching and watching such a pass can be an unforgettable experience; not many objects in the sky show such swift motion in real time. In fact, 2012 DA14 will span the celestial sphere from declination -60° to +60° in just 4 hours!  Needless to say, its passage through the Earth’s gravity well will alter its orbit considerably; most planetarium software programs do not account for this and thus will introduce a large error for a heliocentric object. Compounding the dilemma is the large amount of parallactic shift of such a nearby object. As viewed from the span of the Earth, 2012 DA14 will have a parallax of ~20° at greatest approach!

The path of asteroid 2012 DA14 through the celestial sphere on February 15th. (Created by Author).
The path of asteroid 2012 DA14 through the celestial sphere on February 15th. (Created by Author).

But two sites on the web can help you with the search. One is Heavens-Above,  which currently has a link on its main page to custom generate sky charts for specific locations for 2012 DA14 (make sure you’re logged in as a registered user and your observing location is set correctly). Another option is to generate an ephemeris customized for your location from the JPL Solar System Dynamics Horizons Web-Interface.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 is approaching the planet Earth from “down under,” and moving almost exactly parallel to the 12 hour line in right ascension. In fact, it’ll cross very near the equinoctial point in Virgo (one of the two points where the celestial equator and the ecliptic cross) shortly after its closest approach on Friday, February 15th at 19:25UT. The asteroid will be at the local zenith (straight overhead) for observers in the pre-dawn hours located in western Indonesia at closest approach. Australia and eastern Asia will have a shot at seeing the asteroid as it whizzes through the sky in the early morning hours of February 16th local. Observers in western Asia, Africa and Europe will see the asteroid lower to the east on the night of the 15th. Note that 2012 DA14 juuuuuust misses Earth’s shadow (see strip chart) at closest approach. The shadow of our fair planet is ~20° across at the distance of the geosynchronous satellites; had it passed about a month later, we would have seen an “asteroid eclipse!” In fact, “eclipse season” for geosynchronous satellites occurs right around the equinoxes and is only a month away.

The “banana strip chart” shows the path of 2012 DA14 from the time it reaches a magnitude brighter than +10 at 17:40UT until it dips back down below it at 22:10UT on the same night. It also shows the width of uncertainty for its position due to the aforementioned 20° of parallax, and the points that it enters and departs the distance sphere of the geosynchronous satellites. Keep in mind, these satellites still orbit roughly hundred times higher than the International Space Station!

A good search strategy to catch 2012 DA14 is to actually to treat it like you’re hunting for a faint satellite. Find the time that it’s crossing a set declination and begin scanning with binoculars in right ascension back and forth until you “ambush” your astronomical prey moving slowly against the starry background. If using a telescope, use the lowest power and widest field of view that the instrument will allow. We’ve used this technique in the past to sweep up Near Earth Asteroids 2005 YU55 and 99942 Apophis and routinely use it to hunt for satellites fainter than naked eye visibility. At closest approach, asteroid 2012 DA14 will shine at around +8th magnitude as it crosses the Bowl of Virgo northward past Denebola in the constellation Leo.

Recent measurements early this month conducted by astronomers at the Las Campanas observatory in Chile refined the orbit of 2012 DA14, placing its February 15th passage just 45 kilometres closer to Earth than previously calculated but still well outside the threat zone. Campaigns are underway to refine measurements of its orbit even further on this pass. We won’t get another close pass of 2012 DA14 until February 16th, 2046 when the asteroid misses us at about twice the distance of the Moon. An impact has been ruled out for this century. Predictions get less certain the further you project them into time, and 2012 DA14 will definitely be a space rock worth keeping tabs on!     

Mercury’s False Moon: The Mercury/Mars Planetary Conjunction this Weekend

[/caption]

The history of astronomy is littered with astronomical objects in the solar system that have fallen to the wayside. These include fleeting sightings of Venusian moons, inter-mercurial planets, and even secondary moons of the Earth.

While none of these observations ever amounted to true discoveries, this weekend gives observers and astrophotographers a unique chance to “mimic” a spurious discovery that has dotted astronomical lore: a visual “pseudo-moon” for the planet Mercury. This “moon illusion” will occur on February 8, 2013 during the closest conjunction of two naked eye planets in 2013. February offers a chance to see the fleeting Mercury in the sky, and this conjunction with Mars will provide the opportunity to see how Mercury would look in the night sky if it had a moon!

Mercury has been suspected of having moons before. On March 29th 1974, the Mariner 10 spacecraft became the first mission to image the innermost world up close. Mariner 10 mapped 40-45% of Mercury on 3 successive passes, revealing a pock-marked world not that different than our own Moon. But Mariner 10 also detected something more: brief anomalies in the ultra-violet spectrum suggestive of a moon with a 3 day period. For a very brief time, Mercury was thought to have a moon of its own, and NASA nearly made a press release to this effect. The spectroscopic binary 31 Crateris is now suspect in the anomalous readings. Still, the Mariner 10 observation made researchers realize the observations in the extreme UV were possible over interstellar distances.

The planet Mercury as seen by NASA's Messenger spacecraft (Credit: NASA/JPL).
The planet Mercury as seen by NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL).

Today, NASA has a permanent emissary orbiting Mercury with its MESSENGER spacecraft. MESSENGER first entered orbit around Mercury on March 18th, 2011 after a series of trajectory changing flybys. MESSENGER has filled in the map of the remainder of Mercury’s surface, with no signs of the anomalous “moon.” Interestingly, MESSENGER was also on the lookout for “Vulcanoids” (tiny asteroids interior to Mercury’s orbit; sorry, Mr. Spock) while enroute to its final orbital insertion. NASA even released an April Fool’s Day prank of a fake “discovery” of a Mercurial moon dubbed Caduceus in 2012.

But MESSENGER has made some fascinating true to life discoveries, such as sampling Mercury’s tenuous exosphere & the possibility of ice at its permanently shadowed poles. Lots of new features have been mapped and named on Mercury, following the convention of naming features after famous deceased artists, musicians and authors set forth by the International Astronomical Union. It’s amazing to think that we had no detailed views at the entire surface of Mercury until the 1970’s, although some ground-based professional observatories and even skilled amateurs are now doing just that.

Fast forward to this weekend. Mercury is just beginning its first apparition of six in 2013 this week and is currently visible low in the dusk sky after sunset to the west. Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation on February 16th at 18.1° from the Sun. Interestingly, that’s very close to the shortest elongation that can occur. Mercury’s orbit is eccentric enough that greatest elongation as seen from the Earth can vary from 17.9° to 27.8°. This month’s elongation happens within only 5 hours of Mercury reaching perihelion at 46 million kilometers from the Sun. This means that Mercury won’t peak above the dusk horizon for mid-northern latitude observers quite as high as it will during the next evening apparition of the planet in June.

Mercury Mars
caption =”Looking west 30 minutes after sunset on Feb. 8th from latitude 30° north.

 

This appearance of Mercury does, however, have some things going for it. First off, the ecliptic sits at a favorable viewing angle, roughly perpendicular to the western horizon at dusk for mid- to high northern latitude observers. This gives Mercury a bit of a “boost” out of the weeds. Secondly, Mercury is a full magnitude (2.512 times) brighter when it reaches maximum elongation near perihelion than aphelion, such as its next appearance in the dawn sky on March 31st of this year. Mercury will reach magnitude -0.5, versus +0.5 in late March.

To see Mercury, find a site with a western horizon free of ground clutter and start sweeping the horizon with binoculars about 15 minutes after local sunset. See a reddish dot just above Mercury? That’s the planet Mars, shining about 7 times fainter than -1.0 magnitude Mercury at magnitude +1.2. Mercury is fast approaching a conjunction with Mars; the two will be only 15’ apart (half the average width of a Full Moon) on the evening of February 8th at 17:00 Universal Time!

If you ever wondered how Mercury would appear with a moon, now is a good time to take a look! Again, binoculars are the best optical tool for the job. Can you see both with the naked eye? Can you place both in the same low power field of view with a telescope? You’ll only have a 15-30 minute window (depending on latitude) to snare the pairing before they follow the setting Sun below the horizon. Photographing the pair will be tricky, though not impossible, as they present a very low contrast against the bright background twilight sky.

Cass_Obs_13_Feb_5_6
caption =”Mercury (lower center) & Mars (upper center) imaged by Mike Weasner on February 5th.

 

Don’t expect to see detail on Mercury or Mars telescopically; Mercury only appears 5.8” across on the 8th, while Mars is 4” in apparent size. Mars disappears from view later this month to reach solar conjunction on April 18th 2013. The waxing crescent Moon just 1 day after New joins the pair on the evenings of February 10th and 11th.

Now for the “Wow” factor of what you’re seeing. The conjunction of Mars and Mercury only appears close; in reality, they are over 180 million kilometers apart. Mercury is 1.15 Astronomical Units (A.U.s)/178 million kilometers from us on February 8th, while Mars is nearly at its farthest from us at 2.31 A.U.s/358 million kilometers distant. It’s splendid to think that with Curiosity and friends operating on Mars and Messenger orbiting Mercury, we now have permanent robotic “eyes” on and around both!

Credits: Simulation created by the author using Starry Night.

Mercury & Mars courtesy of Mike Weasner and the Cassiopeia Observatory. Used with permission.