‘Explody’ Taurid Meteors Produce Persistent Trains

“The landscape was just at the verge of trying to silently explode with vibrant colors of red, gold and oranges,” said photographer Brad Goldpaint as he described the autumn view during his hike to Deadfall Basin in California to set up his cameras to try and capture a few Taurid meteors.

But the landscape wasn’t the only thing about to explode.

Later that night Brad captured a few “exploding” meteors that produced what are called persistent trains: what remains of a meteor fireball in the upper atmosphere as winds twist and swirl the expanding debris.

Brad created a time-lapse video from the event and slowed down the footage to highlight the trains.

Persistent trains have been difficult to study because they are rather elusive. But lately, with the widespread availability of ultra-fast lenses and highly sensitive cameras, capturing these trains is becoming more common.

Phil Plait still has the best description out there of what happens when persistent trains are produced:

As a meteoroid (the actual solid chunk of material) blasts through the air, it ionizes the gases, stripping electrons from their parent atoms. As the electrons slowly recombine with the atoms, they emit light — this is how neon signs glow, as well as giant star-forming nebulae in space. The upper-level winds blowing that high (upwards of 100 km/60 miles) create the twisting, fantastic shapes in the train.

The consensus among our Universe Today Flickr pool photographers who posted images of the Taurids this year is that the 2015 Taurids weren’t entirely remarkable. Most astrophotgraphers reported they saw one or two per hour. Here are a few more Taurid meteor shower images from our photographer friends:

A bright Taurid fireball on November 9, 2015. Credit and copyright: Mark Sansom.
A bright Taurid fireball on November 9, 2015. Credit and copyright: Mark Sansom.
Two Taurid meteors from the November 2015 shower, on November 10, 2015. Credit and copyright: Alan Dyer.
Two Taurid meteors from the November 2015 shower, on November 10, 2015. Credit and copyright: Alan Dyer.
A bright Taurid meteor is reflected in a lake in Illinois. Credit and copyright: Kevin Palmer.
A bright Taurid meteor is reflected in a lake in Illinois. Credit and copyright: Kevin Palmer.

Stunning Planetary Trio Pictures from Around the World

Have you seen the views in the morning skies this week, with three planets huddling together at dawn? Just one degree separated planets Jupiter and Venus, with Mars sneaking in nearby. Astrophotographers were out in full force to capture the scene!

Above, the very talented photographer Alan Dyer from Canada captured a stunning image of the planetary trio over Lake Annette, in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada. He took several gorgeous shots, and so we’ve added one more of his below, plus dozens of other wonderful shots from our astrophotographer friends around the world. Each of these images are from Universe Today’s Flickr pool, so you can click on each picture to get a larger view on Flickr.

Enjoy these great views, as there won’t be a more compact arrangement of three planets again until January 10, 2021.

A panorama of roughly 120° showing a star- and planet-filled sky in the dawn twilight over Lake Annette in Jasper National Park, Alberta, on the morning of October 25, 2015.   At left, to the east, are the two bright planets, Venus (brightest) and Jupiter in a close conjunction 1° apart (and here almost merging into one glow), plus reddish Mars below them, all in Leo, with the bright star Regulus above them. Right of centre, to the south, is Orion and Canis Major, with the bright star Sirius low in the south. At upper right are the stars of Taurus, including Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster. Venus was near greatest elongation on this morning. Credit and copyright: Alan Dyer.
A panorama of roughly 120° showing a star- and planet-filled sky in the dawn twilight over Lake Annette in Jasper National Park, Alberta, on the morning of October 25, 2015.
At left, to the east, are the two bright planets, Venus (brightest) and Jupiter in a close conjunction 1° apart (and here almost merging into one glow), plus reddish Mars below them, all in Leo, with the bright star Regulus above them. Right of centre, to the south, is Orion and Canis Major, with the bright star Sirius low in the south. At upper right are the stars of Taurus, including Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster. Venus was near greatest elongation on this morning. Credit and copyright: Alan Dyer.
Taken from Coral Towers Observatory in Queensland, Australia on October 28, 2014. Venus is to the right of and slightly below Jupiter and Mars is to the right of and below Venus. The pre-dawn landscape is illuminated by moonlight. Credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe.
Taken from Coral Towers Observatory in Queensland, Australia on October 28, 2014. Venus is to the right of and slightly below Jupiter and Mars is to the right of and below Venus. The pre-dawn landscape is illuminated by moonlight. Credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe.
Jupiter, Venus, and Mars rise behind the 14,155 foot peak of Mount Democrat in Colorado. Credit and copyright: Patrick Cullis.
Jupiter, Venus, and Mars rise behind the 14,155 foot peak of Mount Democrat in Colorado. Credit and copyright: Patrick Cullis.
Spooky Selfie, Three Planets and a Dead Satellite. The planetary conjunction of Jupiter, Venus and Mars on October 26, 2015, along with the ADEOS II satellite, which died in orbit in 2003 after the solar panels failed. Credit and copyright: Tom Wildoner.
Spooky Selfie, Three Planets and a Dead Satellite. The planetary conjunction of Jupiter, Venus and Mars on October 26, 2015, along with the ADEOS II satellite, which died in orbit in 2003 after the solar panels failed. Credit and copyright: Tom Wildoner.
Planetary conjunction of Jupiter, Venus and Mars as seen from Search Results     Map of Le Puy Saint-Bonnet, 49300 Cholet, France     Le Puy Saint-Bonnet, 49300 Cholet, France     Le Puy-Saint-Bonnet in France on October 26, 2015. Credit and copyright: David de Cueves.
Planetary conjunction of Jupiter, Venus and Mars as seen from Search Results
Map of Le Puy Saint-Bonnet, 49300 Cholet, France
Le Puy Saint-Bonnet, 49300 Cholet, France
Le Puy-Saint-Bonnet in France on October 26, 2015. Credit and copyright: David de Cueves.
Venus, Jupiter and Mars grace the morning skies in France on October 26, 2015. Credit and copyright: Frank Tyrlik.
Venus, Jupiter and Mars grace the morning skies in France on October 26, 2015. Credit and copyright: Frank Tyrlik.

Here’s a timelapse from Damien Weatherley of his planet imaging session from the morning of October 25, 2015:

Astronomy timelapse 25.10.15

Venus, Jupiter & Mars create a close triangle in the eastern sky at dawn! John Chumack captured this image above his backyard Observatory in Dayton, Ohio on 10-26-2015. Credit and copyright: John Chumack.
Venus, Jupiter & Mars create a close triangle in the eastern sky at dawn! John Chumack captured this image above his backyard Observatory in Dayton, Ohio on 10-26-2015. Credit and copyright: John Chumack.
A zoomed out view of the planetary trio from John Chumack's observatory in Dayton, Ohio on October 25, 2015. Credit and copyright: John Chumack.
A zoomed out view of the planetary trio from John Chumack’s observatory in Dayton, Ohio on October 25, 2015. Credit and copyright: John Chumack.
Conjunction of Venus, Jupiter & Mars on the morning of  Monday Oct. 26, 2015. Credit and copyright: Holly Roberts.
Conjunction of Venus, Jupiter & Mars on the morning of Monday Oct. 26, 2015. Credit and copyright: Holly Roberts.
Jupiter and Venus conjunction on October 25, 2015. They were approximately with a degree and a half of each other. Jupiter's moons are visible. Credit and copyright: Chris Lyons.
Jupiter and Venus conjunction on October 25, 2015. They were approximately with a degree and a half of each other. Jupiter’s moons are visible. Credit and copyright: Chris Lyons.
Venus and the almost invisible Jupiter struggled to shine through the haze on the morning of October 25, 2015, as seen in Malaysia. Credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad.
Venus and the almost invisible Jupiter struggled to shine through the haze on the morning of October 25, 2015, as seen in Malaysia. Credit and copyright:Shahrin Ahmad.
Venus, Jupiter and Mars in the hazy, cloudy morning skies over the UK on October 25, 2015. Credit and copyright: Sarah and Simon Fisher.
Venus, Jupiter and Mars in the hazy, cloudy morning skies over the UK on October 25, 2015. Credit and copyright: Sarah and Simon Fisher.

And here’s just a reminder that this planetary conjunction has been setting up for a while. Here’s a shot from October 10 of the planets as they started moving closer together:

A spooky planetary conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and Mars on October 10, 2015 on the Isle of Mull, Scotland. Credit and copyright: Shaun Reynold.
A spooky planetary conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and Mars on October 10, 2015 on the Isle of Mull, Scotland. Credit and copyright: Shaun Reynold.

Can Lunar Earthshine Reveal Ashen Light on Venus?

A recent celestial event provided a fascinating look at a long-standing astronomical mystery.

Is the ‘ashen light of Venus’ a real phenomena or an illusion?

On October 8th, the waning crescent Moon occulted (passed in front of) the bright planet Venus for observers in the southern hemisphere. And while such occurrences aren’t at all rare—the Moon occults Venus 3 times in 2015, and 25 times in this decade alone worldwide—the particulars were exceptional for observers in Australia, with a -4.5 magnitude, 40% illuminated Venus 30” in size emerging under dark skies 45 degrees west of the Sun from behind the dark limb of the Moon.

David and Joan Dunham rose to the challenge, and caught an amazing sequence featuring a brilliant Venus reappearing from behind the Moon as seen from the Australian Outback. When I first watched the video posted on You Tube by International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA) North American coordinator Brad Timerson, I was a bit perplexed, until I realized we were actually seeing the dark nighttime side of a waning Moon, with the bright crescent just out of view. Venus fully emerges in just under a minute after first appearing, and its -4th magnitude visage shines like a spotlight when revealed in its full glory.

Image credit:
A simulation of Venus on the limb of the Moon on October 8th. Image credit: Stellarium

“Joan and I observed the reappearance of Venus from behind the dark side of the 15% sunlit waning crescent Moon, from a dark and wide parking area on the east side of the Stuart Highway that afforded a low (1-2 degree) horizon to the east,” Dunham said. “Since the past observations of ashen light were visual, I decided that it would be best to use the 25mm eyepiece with the 8-inch visually rather than just make a redundant video. Neither the real-time visual observation, nor close visual inspection of the video recording, showed any sign of the dark side of Venus.”

Image credit:
Dunham’s ‘box scope’ imaging set up Image credit: David Dunham

We’ve written about the strange puzzle of ashen light on the nighttime side of Venus previously.

Reports by visual observers of ashen light on the dark limb of Venus over the centuries remain a mystery. On the crescent Moon, it’s easy to explain, as the Earth illuminates the nighttime side of our natural satellite; no such nearby illumination source exists in the case of Venus. Ashen light on Venus is either an illusion—a trick of the dazzling brilliance of a crescent Venus fooling the eye of the observer—or a real, and not as yet fully described phenomenon. Over the years, suggestions have included: lightning, airglow, volcanism, and aurora. A good prime candidate in the form of an ‘auroral nightglow” was proposed by New Mexico State University researchers in 2014. 19th century astronomers even proposed we might be seeing the lights of Venusian cities, or perhaps forest fires!

Could we ever separate the bright crescent of Venus from its nighttime side? A lunar occultation, such as the October 8th event provides just such a fleeting opportunity.  Though it’s hard to discern in the video, Dunham also watched the event visually through the telescope, and noted that, in his words, “the dark side of Venus remains dark,” with no brief appearance prior to sighting the crescent shining through the lunar valleys.

A tentative light curve made by Mr. Timerson seems to support this assertion, as the appearance of Venus quickly over-saturates the view:

Image credit
A rough light curve of the event. Photon counts are along the vertical axis, each tick mark along the horizontal equals one second. Image credit: Brad Timerson

Of course, this is far from conclusive, but seems to support the idea that the ashen light of Venus noted by ground observers is largely an optical illusion. Not all occultations of Venus by the Moon are created equal, and the best ones to test this method occur when Venus is less than half illuminated and greater than 40 degrees from the Sun against a relatively dark sky. Compounding problems, the ‘dark’ limb of the Moon has a brightness of its own, thanks to Earthshine. Dunham notes that observers in southern Alaska may have another shot at seeing this same phenomenon on December 7th, when the 13% illuminated crescent Moon occults a -4.2 magnitude 69% illuminated Venus, 42 degrees west of the Sun… the rest of North and South America will see this occultation in the daytime, still an interesting catch.

Image credit
The occultation footprint for the Dec 7 event. The dashed lines indicate where the event happens during daylight. Image credit: Occult 4.1

Looking at future occultations, there’s an intriguing possibility to hunt for the ashen light on the evening of October 10th, 2029, when then Moon occults a 57% illuminated Venus against dark skies for observers along the U.S. West Coast. Incidentally, a dawn occultation provides a better circumstance than a dusk one, as Venus always reemerges from the Moon’s dark limb when it’s waning. It enters the same when waxing, perhaps allowing for observer bias.

Image credit:
A simulation of the 2029 event. Image credit: Stellarium

Can’t wait for December? The Moon also occults the bright star Aldebaran on October 29th for Europe and North America on November 26th near Full phase… the good folks at the Virtual Telescope will carry the October event live.

Image credit:
The occultation footprint for the 2029 event. Image credit: Occult 4.1

For now, the ashen light of Venus remains an intriguing mystery. Perhaps, an airborne observation could extend the appearance of Venus during an occultation, or maybe the recently announced Discovery-class mission to Venus could observe the night side of the planet for an Earthly glow… if nothing else, it’s simply amazing to watch the two brightest objects in the nighttime sky come together.

Watch Lenticular Clouds Form in the Moonlight

Clouds and moonlight are usually the bane of astronomers and astrophotographers. But on a recent evening at Mount Shasta in northern California, the two combined for a stunning look at usual cloud formations called lenticular clouds.

Fortunately for us, photographer Brad Goldpaint from Goldpaint Photography was on hand to capture the event. His beautiful sunset and moonlit images show these strange UFO-reminscent clouds, and the timelapse video he created provides a great demonstration of just how they form.

See the video and more images below:

A few ingredients are needed for lenticular clouds to form: mountains, stable but moist air, and just the right temperature and dew point.

According to WeatherUnderground, these smoooth, lens-shaped clouds normally develop on the downwind side of a mountain or mountain range when the stable, moist air flows over the obstruction and a series of large oscillating waves waves may form. If the temperature at the crest of the wave drops to the dew point, moisture in the air may condense to form lens-like or lenticular clouds. Since the air is stable, the oval clouds can grow quite large appear to be hovering in one place. Hence, the UFO appearance.

In the video, even though the clouds appear to be moving fast, it is a timelapse, so it shows the cloud movement over the entire night, condensed down to 30 seconds. But the video does allow us to see the fluid dynamics or laminar flows in parallel layers that creates the lenticular clouds. Plus, the stars and moonlight add to the beauty of the scene.

Lenticular clouds form at sunset over Mount Shasta in northern California, October r2015. Credit and copyright: Brad Goldpaint/Goldpaint Photography.
Lenticular clouds form at sunset over Mount Shasta in northern California, October r2015. Credit and copyright: Brad Goldpaint/Goldpaint Photography.
Lenticular clouds form over Mount Shasta in northern  California, October, 2015. Credit and copyright: Brad Goldpaint/Goldpaint Photography.
Lenticular clouds form over Mount Shasta in northern California, October, 2015. Credit and copyright: Brad Goldpaint/Goldpaint Photography.

Thanks to Brad for sharing his great work! See more at his website including his series of astrophotography workshops.

Guide to October’s Conjunction Mania, See Venus in Daylight

Tomorrow morning might be a good time to call for extra celestial traffic control. A slip of a crescent Moon will join a passel of planets in the dawn sky for the first of several exciting conjunctions over the next few days.

Facing east about 1 1/2 hours before sunrise Thursday morning Oct. 8. Let your eyes delight in the river of Moon and planets. Source: Stellarium
The scene facing east about 1 1/2 hours before sunrise Thursday morning Oct. 8. Let your eyes delight in the tumble of Moon and planets. Source: Stellarium

In the space of three mornings beginning tomorrow,  four planets, the Moon and the star Regulus will participate in six separate conjunctions. Here’s how it’ll play out. Time are shown in UT / Greenwich Mean Time and Central Daylight and 1° equals two full moon diameters:

  • October 8: Venus 2.5° south of Regulus at 18 UT (1 p.m. CDT)
  • October 8: Regulus 3.1° north of the moon at 19 UT (2 p.m. CDT)
  • October 8: Venus 0.6° north of the moon at 20 UT (3 p.m. CDT)
  • October 9: Mars 3.2° north of the moon at 14 UT (9 a.m. CDT)
  • October 9: Jupiter 2.5° north of the moon at 21 UT (4 p.m.)
  • October 11: Mercury 0.8° north of the moon 11 UT (6 a.m. CDT)
The crescent Moon will be near Venus all day Thursday for the Americas until it sets in late afternoon, making for a great opportunity to catch sight of the planet in the middle of the day. This binocular view is for noon CDT Oct. 8 when the planet lies just shy of 2 from the Moon. Source:: Stellarium
The crescent Moon will be near Venus all day Thursday for the Americas until it sets in late afternoon. What a great opportunity to catch sight of the planet in the middle of the day. This binocular view depicts their arrangement around noon CDT Oct. 8, when the planet lies less than 2° from the Moon. Source:: Stellarium

Since several of the events occur in the middle of the afternoon for skywatchers in the Americas, here’s an expanded viewing guide:

* Thursday, October 8: Skywatchers will see Venus pass 2.5° south of Leo’s brightest star Regulus with a cool crescent moon a little more than 3° to the west of the brilliant planet. If you live in Japan and the Far East, you’ll see a splendidly close conjunction of the moon and Venus at dawn on October 9, when the pair will be separated by a hair more than one moon diameter (0.6°). At nearly the same time, the moon will be in conjunction with Regulus.

Observers in Australia and New Zealand will see the Moon occult Venus in a dark sky sky before dawn (or in daylight, depending on exact location) on the 9th. Click HERE for information, times and a map for the event.

The following morning, October 9, the moon makes a neat triangle with Jupiter and Mars. Source: Stellarium
Ready to set the alarm again? The following morning, October 9, the moon makes a neat triangle with Jupiter and Mars. Source: Stellarium

* Friday, October 9: An even thinner moon passes about 3° north of Mars in the Americas at dawn and approximately 4° from Jupiter. Watch for the three luminaries to sketch a nifty triangle in the eastern sky 90 minutes to an hour before sunrise. Venus will gaze down at the planetary conclave 10° further west.

If you follow the moon to through its eastern descent, you'll be rewarded on Saturday morning (Oct. 11) with a fine pairing with Mercury. To see this conjunction, find a place with a good eastern horizon and bring binoculars to help you find the planet in bright twilight. Source: Stellarium
There’s not much of the Moon left by Saturday morning the 11th. The knife-edge crescent will hang less than a degree below the planet Mercury 40 minutes before sunrise. Make sure you find a spot with a good eastern horizon. Source: Stellarium

* Sunday, October 11: Mercury, which has quietly taken up residence again in the dawn sky, hovers 0.8° above a hair-thin moon this morning at 6 a.m. CDT. Best views will be about 45 minutes before sunrise, when the pair rises high enough to clear distant trees. Bring binoculars to help you spot the planet.

Mars and Jupiter 0.4 degree apart just before the start of dawn October 17 CDT. Venus won't be far away. Source: Stellarium
After a short break, Mars and Jupiter will cozy up 0.4 degree apart just before the start of dawn on October 17 CDT. Venus won’t be far away. Source: Stellarium

You’re thinking, why does this all have to happen in the morning? Thankfully, sunrise occurs around 7 a.m. for many locations, so you can see all these cool happenings in twilight around 6 a.m. — not terribly unreasonable. And now that the The Martian has finally hit the movie theaters, what better time to see the planet in the flesh? By pure coincidence, the location of stranded astronaut Mark Watney in the fictional account — Acidalia Planitia (Mare Acidalium) — will be facing dawn risers across the Americas and Hawaii this week.

October wraps up with a close grouping of three planets before dawn. This is the closest gathering of three planets since May 27, 2013. The next won't happen till January 10, 2021. Source: Stellarium
October wraps up with a tight trio of three planets before dawn. It will be the closest gathering of three planets since May 27, 2013. The next won’t happen till January 10, 2021. Source: Stellarium

Dare I say this string of continuous conjunctions is only a warm-up for more to come? Earth’s revolution around the Sun quickly brings Jupiter higher in the eastern sky, while Mars races eastward as if on a collision course. The following Saturday on October 17, the two will meet in conjunction less than 1/2 degree (one Full Moon width) apart. Very nice!

But it gets even better. On Tuesday morning, October 27, you’ll see all three planets huddle at dawn. One degree will separate Jupiter and Venus with Mars bringing up the rear several degrees further east. Feast on the view because there won’t be a more compact arrangement of three planets again until January 10, 2021.

First Lunar Eclipse Ever Photographed with a Transit of the ISS

To our knowledge, this is the first time anyone has ever photographed a transit of the International Space Station of the Moon DURING a lunar eclipse. And guess who did it?

Not surprisingly, it was the legendary astrophotographer Thierry Legault.
Usually, Thierry will travel up to thousands of miles to capture unique events like this, but this time, he only had to go 10 miles!

“Even if I caught a cold, I could not miss it,” Thierry told Universe Today in an email. “The Moon was very low on the horizon, only 16 degrees, so the seeing was not very good, but at least the sky was clear.”

Still, a stunning — and singularly unique — view of the “Super Blood Moon” eclipse!

See the video below:

It was a quick pass, with the ISS transit duration lasting a total of 1.7 seconds. Thierry uses CalSky to calculate where he needs to be to best capture an event like this, then studies maps, and has a radio synchronized watch to know very accurately when the transit event will happen.

In a previous article on Universe Today, Legault shared how he figures out the best places to travel to from his home near Paris to get the absolute best shots:

“For transits I have to calculate the place, and considering the width of the visibility path is usually between 5-10 kilometers, but I have to be close to the center of this path,” Legault explained, “because if I am at the edge, it is just like an eclipse where the transit is shorter and shorter. And the edge of visibility line of the transit lasts very short. So the precision of where I have to be is within one kilometer.”

Here’s the specs: ISS Speed: 25000 km/h (15500 mph). ISS Distance: 1100 km; Moon distance: 357,000 km (320x).

You can see other imagery from around the world of the lunar eclipse here, with images taken by Universe Today readers and staff.

Earlier this year, Thierry captured an ISS transit during the March 20, 2015 SOLAR eclipse, which you can see here.

Universe Today’s David Dickinson said he’s been trying to steer people towards trying to capture an ISS transit during a lunar eclipse for quite some time, and concurred that Thierry’s feat is a first. Dave made a video earlier this year to explain how people might photograph it during the April 2015 lunar eclipse, but unfortunately, no astrophotographers had any luck.

Thanks again to Thierry Legault for sharing his incredible work with Universe Today. Check out his website for additional imagery and information.

You can also see some of Legault’s beautiful and sometimes ground-breaking astrophotography here on Universe Today, such as images of the space shuttle or International Space Station crossing the Sun or Moon, or views of spy satellites in orbit.

If you want to try and master the art of astrophotography, you can learn from Legault by reading his book, “Astrophotography,” which is available on Amazon in a large format book or as a Kindle edition for those who might like to have a lit version while out in the field. It is also available at book retailers like Barnes and Noble and Shop Indie bookstores, or from the publisher, Rocky Nook, here.

See a Glowing ‘Honey Moon’ and Unique Star Trails in New Night Sky Timelapse

The “stars” of a new 3-minute timelapse are some very unique star trails and a glowing fireball that is actually a giant ‘honey moon‘ — the full Moon in June. Gavin Heffernan from Sunchaser Pictures and Harun Mehmedinovic from Bloodhoney.com teamed up for this video, filming in gorgeous mountain locations in the Southwestern US, showcasing gathering storm clouds and stunning night sky scenes.

At about 1:50 in the video, you’ll see a unique “split” star trail effect, where it looks like the trails are cascading down the sides of a mountain. At 2:02, the Moon appears to burn through the sky like a meteor.

See imagery from the footage below:

This video is part of the Skyglow Project, which is an initiative to protect the night skies and raise awareness of the light pollution and its dangers. It was produced in association with BBC Earth.

Interestingly, Heffernan said some of the footage seen here was also featured this summer by The Rolling Stones in their Zip Code Stadium Tour, after Mick Jagger saw some of their previous timelapse videos.

The footage was shot in Monument Valley, Arizona, Trona Pinnacles, California, and Red Rock Canyon, California.

Thanks to Gavin Heffernan for continuing to share his wonderful work!

A star trail sequence from the timelapse video "Pinnacles". Image credit: Harun Mehmedinovic. Used by permission.
A star trail sequence from the timelapse video “Pinnacles.” Image credit: Harun Mehmedinovic. Used by permission.

PINNACLES – Southwest Timelapse Medley from Sunchaser Pictures on Vimeo.

Mars Meets the King of the Beasts

I was up before dawn today hoping to find the returning comet 205P/Giacobini and a faint new supernova in the galaxy IC 1776 in Pisces. I was fortunate to see them both. But the morning held a pleasant surprise I hadn’t anticipated. Venus rose brilliantly in the east followed by the much dimmer planet Mars some 10° to its lower left. And there, not more than a couple degrees below Mars, shone Leo’s brightest star, Regulus. At first glance both appeared about equally bright, but looking closer, it was clear that Regulus, at magnitude +1.3, bested Mars by nearly half a magnitude. What was especially appealing was the color contrast between the two with Mars’ dusty, rusty surface so different from the pure white radiance of Regulus.

On Friday morning September 25, Mars and Regulus will be just 0.8 degrees apart in the eastern sky below brilliant Venus at dawn. They'll be nearly as close Thursday morning. Source: Stellarium
On Friday morning September 25, Mars and Regulus will be just 0.8 degrees apart in the eastern sky below brilliant Venus at dawn. They’ll be nearly as close Thursday morning. Source: Stellarium

While star and planet are both close enough to catch the eye, they’re headed for an excellent conjunction Thursday and Friday mornings, September 24 and 25. The actual time of closest approach, when star and planet will be separated by just 0.8°, occurs around 11 p.m. CDT — before Mars rises for skywatchers in the Americas and Canada, but about perfect for European and African observers.

Just the same, everyone around the planet will see them less than a degree apart low in the eastern sky about 90 minutes to an hour before sunrise on those dates. Joining the scene will be Venus, now spectacularly bright against the deep blue, early dawn, and Jupiter, bringing up the rear further lower down in Leo’s tail.


Regulus is a main sequence star like the Sun but hotter. It spins so fast that it’s stretched into an oblate spheroid 4.3 times the diameter of the Sun.

Regulus, Latin for “little king”, may have received that name because it’s the brightest star in the Leo the Lion, king of the beasts. The ancient Greeks knew it by the same name, Basiliscos, as did the Babylonians before them who called it Lugal (king). Regulus is the only 1st magnitude star to sit almost directly on the ecliptic, the path followed by the Moon, Sun and planets through the sky. That means it gets regular visitors. Mars this week; Venus and the crescent Moon both on October 8. Few bright stars are as welcoming of unannounced guests.

I encourage beginning and advanced astrophotographers alike to capture the Regulus-Mars conjunction using a tripod-mounted camera.  Just find an attractive setting and make a series of exposures at ISO 800 with a standard 35mm lens. Click here to find out when the Sun rises, so you’ll know what time to back up from to see the event. Now that fall brings much later sunrises, it’s not so hard anymore to catch dawn sky offerings.

It’s also a delight to see the Red Planet again, which will come to a close opposition in the constellation Scorpius next May. Let the fun begin!

Amateur Astronomer Chases Down Barnard’s Star – You Can Too!

Tucked away in northern Ophiuchus and well-placed for observing from spring through fall is one of the most remarkable objects in the sky — Barnard’s Star.  A magnitude +9.5 red dwarf wouldn’t normally catch our attention were it not for the fact that it speeds across the sky faster than any other star known.

Incredibly, you can actually see its motion with a small telescope simply by dropping by once a year for 2-3 years and taking note of its position against the background stars. For one amateur astronomer, recording its wandering ways became a 9-year mission.

This map shows the sky facing southeast around 10:30 p.m. local time in early June. Barnard's Star is located 1° NW of the 4.8-magnitude star 66 Ophiuchi on the northern fringe of the loose open cluster Melotte 186. Source: Stellarium
This map shows the sky facing south-southwest around 9 o’clock local time in late September. Barnard’s Star is located 1° NW of the 4.8-magnitude star 66 Ophiuchi on the northern fringe of the loose open cluster Melotte 186. Use the more detailed map below to pinpoint the star’s location. Source: Stellarium

Located just 6 light years from Earth, making it the closest star beyond the Sun except for the Alpha Centauri system, Barnard’s Star dashes along at 10.3 arc seconds a year. OK, that doesn’t sound like much, but over the course of a human lifetime it moves a quarter of a degree or half a Full Moon, a distance large enough to be easily perceived with the naked eye.

Barnard's Star would be an undistinguished red dwarf in Ophiuchus were it not for its rapid motion across the sky. It measures 1.9 times Jupiter's diameter and lies only 6 light-years from Eart
Barnard’s Star is a very low mass red dwarf star 1.9 times Jupiter’s diameter only 6 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer. Credit: Wikipedia with additions by the author

This fleet-footed luminary was first spotted by the American astronomer E.E. Barnard in 1916. With a proper motion even greater than the triple star Alpha Centauri, we’ve since learned that the star’s speed is truly phenomenal; it zips along at 86 miles a second (139 km/sec) relative to the Sun. As the stellar dwarf moves north, it’s simultaneously headed in our direction.

Based on its high velocity and low “metal” content, Barnard’s Star is believed to be a member of the galactic bulge, a fastness of ancient stars formed early on in the Milky Way galaxy’s evolution. Metals in astronomy refer to elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, the fundamental building blocks of stars. That’s pretty much all that was around when the first generation of suns formed about 100 million years after the Big Bang.

Generally, the lower a star’s metal content, the more ancient it is as earlier generations only had the simplest elements on hand. More complex elements like lithium, carbon, oxygen and all the rest had to be cooked up the earliest stars’ interiors and then released in supernovae explosions where they later became incorporated in metal-rich stars like our Sun.

All this to say that Barnard’s Star is an interloper, a visitor from another realm of the galaxy here to take us on a journey across the years. It certainly got the attention of Lincoln, Nebraska amateur Rick Johnson, who first learned of the famous dwarf in 1957.

Close-up map showing Barnard's Star's northward march every 5 years from 2015 to 2030. Your guide star, 66 Ophiuchi, is at lower left. Stars are numbered with magnitudes and a 15? scale bar is at lower right. North is up. The line through the two 12th-magnitude stars will help you gauge Barnard's movement. Click for larger map.
Close-up map showing Barnard’s Star’s position every 5 years from 2015 to 2030. Your guide star, 66 Ophiuchi, also shown on the first map, is at lower left. Stars are numbered with magnitudes and a 15 arc minute scale bar is at lower right. North is up. The line through the two 12th-magnitude stars will help you gauge Barnard’s movement in the coming few years. Click for a larger map.

“One of the first things I imaged was Barnard’s Star on the off chance I could see its motion,” wrote Johnson, who used a cheap 400mm lens on a homemade tracking mount. “Taking it a couple months later didn’t show any obvious motion, though I thought I saw it move slightly.  So I took another image the following year and the motion was obvious.”

Many years later in 2005, Johnson moved to very dark skies, upgraded his equipment and purchased a good digital camera. Barnard’s Star continued to tug at his mind.

“Again one of my first thoughts was Barnard’s Star.  The idea of an animation however didn’t hit until later, so my exposure times were all over the map.  This made the first frames hard to match.” Later, he standardized the exposures and then assembled the individual images into a color animation.

This diagram illustrates the locations of the star systems closest to the sun. The year when the distance to each system was determined is listed after the system's name. NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, found two of the four closest systems: the binary brown dwarf WISE 1049-5319 and the brown dwarf WISE J085510.83-071442.5. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope helped pin down the location of the latter object. The closest system to the sun is a trio of stars that consists of Alpha Centauri, a close companion to it and Proxima Centauri. Credit: NASA / Penn State
This diagram illustrates the locations of the star systems closest to the Sun along with the dates of discovery. NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, found two of the four closest systems: the binary brown dwarf WISE 1049-5319 and the brown dwarf WISE J085510.83-071442.5. The closest system to the Sun is a trio of stars that consists of Alpha Centauri, a close companion to it and Proxima Centauri. Credit: NASA / Penn State

“Now the system is programed to take it each July,” he added. I’m automated, so its all automatic now.” Johnson said the Barnard video is his most popular of many he’s made over the years including short animations of the eye-catching Comet C/2006 M4 SWAN and Near-Earth asteroid 2005 YU55.

With Johnson’s wonderful animation in your mind’s eye, I encourage you to use the maps provided to track down the star yourself the next clear night. To find it, first locate 66 Ophiuchi (mag. 4.8) just above the little triangle of 4th magnitude stars a short distance east or left of Beta Ophiuchi. Then use the detailed map to star hop ~1° to the northwest to Barnard’s Star.

Barnard's Star is one of our galaxy's ancient ones with age of somewhere between 7 and 12 billion years
Barnard’s Star, a red dwarf low in metals,  is very ancient with an age between 7 and 12 billion years. Like people, older stars slow down and Barnard’s is no exception with a rotation rate of 150 days. Heading in the Sun’s direction, the star will come closest to our Solar System around the year 11,800 A.D. at a distance of just 3.75 light years. Credit: NASA

It’s easily visible in a 3-inch or larger telescope. Use as high a magnification as conditions will allow to make a sketch of the star’s current position, showing it in relation to nearby field stars. Or take a photograph. Next summer, when you return to the field, sketch it again. If you’ve taken the time to accurately note the star’s position, you might see motion in just a year. If not, be patient and return the following year.

Most stars are too far away for us to detect motion either with the naked eye or telescope in our lifetime. Barnard’s presents a rare opportunity to witness the grand cycling of stars around the galaxy otherwise denied our short lives. Chase it.

Adventures With Starblinker

Observational astronomy is a study in patience. Since the introduction of the telescope over four centuries ago, steely-eyed observers have watched the skies for star-like or fuzzy points of light that appear to move. Astronomers of yore discovered asteroids, comets and even the occasional planet this way. Today, swiftly moving satellites have joined the fray. Still other ‘new stars’ turn out to be variables or novae.

Now, a new and exciting tool named Starblinker promises to place the prospect of discovery in the hands of the backyard observer.

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Tombaugh’s mechanical ‘steampunk starblinker’ on display at the Lowell observatory. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

The advent of photography in the late 19th century upped the game… you’ll recall that Clyde Tombaugh used a blink comparator to discover Pluto from the Lowell Observatory in 1930. Clyde’s mechanical shutter device looked at glass plates in quick sequence. Starblinker takes this idea a step further, allowing astro-imagers to compare two images in rapid sequence in a similar ‘blink comparator’ fashion. You can even quickly compare an image against one online from, say, the SDSS catalog or Wikipedia or an old archival image. Starblinker even automatically orients and aligns the image for you. Heck, this would’ve been handy during a certain Virtual Star Party early last year hosted by Universe Today, making the tale of the ‘supernova in M82 that got away’ turn out very differently…

Often times, a great new program arises simply because astrophotographers find a need where no commercial offering exists. K3CCD Tools, Registax, Orbitron and Deep Sky Stacker are all great examples of DIY programs that filled a critical astronomy need which skilled users built themselves.

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M81 via Starblinker. Image credit: Marco Lorrai

“I started to code the software after the mid of last month,” Starblinker creator Marco Lorrai told Universe Today. “I knew there was a plugin for MaximDL to do this job, but nothing for people like me that make photos just with a DSLR… I own a 250mm telescope, and my images go easily down to magnitude +18 so it is not impossible to find something interesting…”

Starblinker is a free application, and features a simple interface. Advanced observers have designed other programs to sift through video and stacks of images in the past, but we have yet to see one with such a straight-forward user interface with an eye toward quick and simple  use in the field.

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Starblinker screenshot.  Image credit: Marco Lorrai

“The idea came to me taking my astrophotos: many images are so rich with stars, why not analyze (them) to check if something has changed?” Lorrai said. “I started to do this check manually, but the task was very thorny, because of differences in scale and rotation between the two images. Also, the ‘blinking’ was done loading two alternating windows containing two different images… not the best! This task could be simplified if someone already has a large set of images for comparison with one old image (taken) with the same instrument… a better method is needed to do this check, and then I started to code Starblinker.”

Why Starblinker

I can see a few immediate applications for Starblinker: possible capture of comets, asteroids, and novae or extragalactic supernovae, to name a few. You can also note the variability of stars in subsequent images. Take images over the span of years, and you might even be able to tease out the proper motion of nearby fast movers such as 61 Cygni, Kapteyn’s or even Barnard’s Star, or the orbits of double stars.  Or how about capturing lunar impacts on the dark limb of the Moon? It may sound strange, but it has been done before… and hey, there’s a lunar eclipse coming right up on the night of September 27/28th. Just be careful to watch for cosmic ray hits, hot pixels, satellite and meteor photobombs, all of which can foil a true discovery.

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The Dumbell Nebula (M27). Note the (possible) variable star (marked). Image credit: Marco Lorrai

“A nice feature to add could be the support for FITS images and I think it could be very nice that… the program could retrieve automatically a comparison image, to help amateurs that are just starting (DSLR imaging).” Lorrai said.

And here is our challenge to you, the skilled observing public. What can YOU do with Starblinker? Surprise us… as is often the case with any hot new tech, ya just never know what weird and wonderful things folks will do with it once it’s released in the wild. Hey, discover a comet, and you could be immortalized with a celestial namesake… we promise that any future ‘Comet Dickinson’ will not be an extinction level event, just a good show…

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Not Starblinker… but it could be. Do you see the dwarf planet Makemake? Image credit: Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia observatory
Image credit: Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia observatory
Image credit: Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia observatory

Download Starblinker here.

Think you’ve discovered a comet? Nova? A new asteroid? Inbound alien invasion fleet? OK, that last one might be tweet worthy, otherwise, here’s a handy list of sites to get you started, with the checklist of protocols to report a discovery used by the pros:

How to Report New Variable Star Discoveries  to the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)

-The Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams (they take emails, too!)

How to Report a Comet by veteran comet hunter David Levy

How to Report a Discovery via the International Astronomical Union

-And be sure to send in those Starblinker captures to Universe Today.