5 Days, 2 Spectacular Conjunctions

Two planets close and up close. This is the view through a telescope during the extremely close conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on August 27. Credit: Stellarium
Saturn, Mars and Antares are shown on Sunday night August 21 two nights before their lineup. Mars is still far and away the brightest object in the bunch at magnitude -0.5. Details: 35mm lens, f/2.8, ISO 400, 10 seconds. Credit: Bob King
Saturn, Mars and Antares are shown on Sunday night August 21 two nights before their lineup. Mars is still the brightest of the bunch at magnitude –0.5. It will with Saturn at +0.4 and Antares at +1.0. Details: 35mm lens, f/2.8, ISO 400, 10 seconds. Credit: Bob King

Conjunctions of bright planets make for jewelry in the sky. This week, get ready for some celestial shimmer. If you’ve been following the hither and thither of Mars and Saturn near Antares this summer, you know these planets have been constantly on the move, creating all kinds of cool alignments in the southern sky.

On Tuesday night (August 23) the hopscotching duo will fall in line atop Antares in the southwestern sky at nightfall. Mars will sit just 1.5° above the star and Saturn 4° above Mars. Viewed from the Americas and Europe, the line will appear slightly bent. To catch them perfectly lined up, you’ll have to be in central Asia on the following evening, but the view should be pleasing no matter where you live.

This will be the scene facing south at nightfall from the central U.S. on Tuesday night August 23. The two planets and star form a compact gathering that's sure to grab your attention. Credit: Stellarium
This will be the scene facing southwest at nightfall from the central U.S. on Tuesday night August 23. The two planets and star form a compact gathering that’s sure to grab your attention. The moment of conjunction between Mars and Saturn occurs at 11:00 UT (7 a.m. Eastern Aug. 24), but they’ll be below the horizon at that time for the Americas and Europe. Credit: Stellarium

Nice as it is, the Mars-Saturn-Antares lineup is only the warm-up for the big event: the closest conjunction of the two brightest planets this year. On Saturday evening, August 27, Venus and Jupiter will approach within a hair’s breadth of each other as viewed with the naked eye — only 0.1° will separate the two gems. That’s one-fifth of a full moon’s width! While Mars and Saturn will be a snap to spot low in the southwestern sky during their conjunction, Venus and Jupiter snuggle near the western horizon at dusk.

Look for Venus and Jupiter right next to each other 4 degrees (about three fingers held together horizontally) above the western horizon about a half-hour after sunset on August 27. Map: Bob King; source: Stellarium
Look for Venus and Jupiter right next to each other 4° (about three fingers held together horizontally) above the western horizon about a half-hour after sunset on August 27. This map shows the view from across the central U.S. at about 40°N latitude. The two planets will be closest at 22:00 UT (6 p.m. Eastern, 7 p.m. Central, 8 p.m. Mountain and 9 p.m. Pacific). Map: Bob King; source: Stellarium

To make sure you see them, find a place in advance of the date with a wide open view to the west. I also suggest bringing a pair of binoculars. It’s so much easier to find an object in bright twilight with help from the glass. You can start looking about 25 minutes after sunset; Venus will catch your eye first. Once you’ve found it, look a smidge to its lower right for Jupiter. If you’re using binoculars, lower them to see how remarkably close the two planets appear using nothing but your eyeballs. Perhaps they’ll remind you of a bright double star in a telescope or even the twin suns of Tatooine in Star Wars.

Here's what the two planets will look like through a telescope at medium and high magnification, when both will comfortably fit into the same field of view. Stellarium
The two planets will be only 6 arc minutes apart Saturday evening and easily fit in the same field of view of a telescope at high magnification. Jupiter’s four brightest moons will be obvious. If you’re patient and wait for the air to settle, you’ll be able to make out Venus’s waxing gibbous phase. Credit: Stellarium

Have a small telescope? Take it along — Jupiter and Venus are so close together that they easily fit in the same high magnification field of view. Jupiter’s four brightest moons will be on display, and Venus will look just like a miniature version of the waxing gibbous moon. Rarely do the sky’s two brightest planets nearly fuse, making this a not-to-miss event.

Venus and Jupiter do a little square dance over the nights of August 26-28. Jupiter is headed westward toward conjunction with the sun, while Venus is moving away from the sun from our perspective. Stellarium
Venus and Jupiter do a little square dance over the nights of August 26-28. Jupiter is headed westward toward conjunction with the sun, while Venus is moving away from the sun in the opposite direction from our perspective. Credit: Stellarium

If cloudy weather’s in the forecast that night, you can still spot them relatively close together the night before and night after, when they’ll be about 1° or two full moon diameters apart. I get pretty jazzed when bright objects approach closely in the sky, and I’m betting you do, too.

I also don’t mind being taken in by illusion once in a while. During a conjunction, planets only appear close together because we view them along the same line of sight. Their real distances add a dose of reality.

On Saturday evening Venus will be 143 million miles (230 million km) away vs. 592 million miles (953 million km) for Jupiter. In spite of appearing to almost touch, Jupiter is more than four times farther than the goddess planet.

The showpieces in this week's conjunction parade: Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Saturn. Credit: NASA/ESA
The showpieces in this week’s conjunction parade: Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Saturn. Credit: NASA/ESA

That distance translates to the chill realm of the giant gaseous planets where sunlight is weak and ice is common. Try stretching your imagination that evening to sense as best you can the vast gulf between the two worlds.

You might also try taking a picture of them with your mobile phone. I suggest this because the sky will be light enough to get a hand-held photo of the scene. Photos or not, don’t miss what the planets have in store for earthlings this week.

Lunar ‘Fountain of Youth’ Challenge / Mercury Returns with Gusto

A day-old Moon floats over the Spirit Mountain ski hill in Duluth, Minn. this past January. Credit: Bob King

16th century Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León looked and looked but never did find the Fountain of Youth, a spring rumored to restore one’s youth if you bathed or drank from its waters.  If he had, I might have interviewed him for this story.

Sunday night, another symbol of youth beckons skywatchers the world over. A fresh-faced, day-young crescent Moon will hang in the western sky in the company of the planets Mars and Mercury. While I can’t promise a wrinkle-free life, sighting it may send a tingle down your spine reminding you of why you fell in love with astronomy in the first place. 

Look low in the west-northwest sky Sunday evening April 19 to spot the day-old crescent Moon alongside Mars and returning Mercury. Source: Stellarium
Look low in the west-northwest sky Sunday evening April 19 to spot the day-old crescent Moon alongside Mars and returning Mercury. Brilliant Venus will help you get oriented. This map shows the sky around 40 minutes after sunset but you can start as early as 30 minutes especially if you’re using binoculars. Source: Stellarium

The Moon reaches New Moon phase on Saturday, April 18 during the early afternoon for North and South America. By sunset Sunday, the fragile crescent will be about 29 hours old as seen from the East Coast, 30 for the Midwest, 31 for the mountain states and 32 hours for the West Coast. Depending on where you live, the Moon will hover some 5-7° (three fingers held at arm’s length) above the northwestern horizon 40 minutes after sunset. To make sure you see it, find a location with a wide-open view to the west-northwest.

Earthshine gets easier to see once the Moon moves a little further from the Sun and into a dark sky. Our planet provides enough light to spot some of the larger craters. Credit: Bob King
Earthshine gets easier to see as the Moon moves further from the Sun and the crescent fills out a bit. Our planet provides enough light to spot some of the larger craters. Credit: Bob King

While the crescent is illuminated by direct sunlight, you’ll also see the full outline of the Moon thanks to earthshine. Sunlight reflected off Earth’s globe faintly illuminates the portion of the Moon not lit by the Sun. Because it’s twice-reflected, the light looks more like twilight. Ghostly. Binoculars will help you see it best.

Now that you’ve found the dainty crescent, slide your eyes (or binoculars) to the right. That pinpoint of light just a few degrees away is Mars, a planet that’s lingered in the evening sky longer than you’ve promised to clean out the garage. The Red Planet shone brightly at opposition last April but has since faded and will soon be in conjunction with the Sun. Look for it to return bigger and brighter next May when it’s once again at opposition.

Diagram showing Mercury's position and approximate altitude above the horizon during the current apparition. Also shown are the planet's phases, which are visible in a telescope. Credit: Stellarium, Bob King
Diagram showing Mercury’s position and approximate altitude above the horizon during the current apparition. Also shown are the planet’s changing phases, which are visible in a telescope. Credit: Stellarium, Bob King

To complete the challenge, you’ll have to look even lower in the west to spot Mercury. Although brighter than Vega, it’s only 3° high 40 minutes after sunset Sunday. Its low altitude makes it Mercury is only just returning to the evening sky in what will become its best appearance at dusk for northern hemisphere skywatchers in 2015.

As an inner planet, Mercury goes through phases just like Venus and the Moon. We see it as everything from a crescent to a "full moon" as it angle to the Sun changes during its 88-day orbit. Credit: ESO
As an inner planet, Mercury goes through phases just like Venus and the Moon. We see it morph from crescent to “full moon” as its angle to the Sun changes during its revolution of the Sun. Credit: ESO

Right now, because of altitude, the planet’s a test of your sky and observing chops, but let the Moon be your guide on Sunday and you might be surprised. In the next couple weeks, Mercury vaults from the horizon, becoming easier and easier to see.  Greatest elongation east of the Sun occurs on the evening of May 6. Although the planet will be highest at dusk on that date, it will have faded from magnitude -0.5 to +1.2. By the time it leaves the scene in late May, it will become very tricky to spot at magnitude +3.5.

Mercury’s a bit different from Venus, which is brighter in its crescent phase and faintest at “full”. Mercury’s considerably smaller than Venus and farther from the Earth, causing it to appear brightest around full phase and faintest when a crescent, even though both planets are largest and closest to us when seen as crescents.

Not to be outdone by Venus earlier this month, Mercury passes a few degrees south of the Pleiades star cluster on April 29. The map shows the sky facing northwest about 50 minutes after sunset. Source: Stellarium
Not to be outdone by the Venus-Pleiades conjunction earlier this month, Mercury passes a few degrees south of the star cluster on April 29. The map shows the sky facing northwest about 50 minutes after sunset. Source: Stellarium

Venus makes up for its dwindling girth by its size and close proximity to Earth. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s covered in highly reflective clouds. Venus reflects about 70% of the light it receives from the Sun; Mercury’s a dark world and gives back just 7%. That’s dingier than the asphalt-toned Moon!

Good luck in your mercurial quest. We’d love to hear your personal stories of the hunt — just click on Comments.

Watch Venus as it Wanders Through the Dawn in 2014

Venus as captured by Shahrin Ahmad (@shahgazer) on January 31st, 2014. Credit- Shahgazer.net.

Are you a chronic early riser? Observational astronomy often means late nights and early mornings as daylight lengths get longer for northern hemisphere residents in February through March. But this year offers another delight for the early morning crowd, as the Venus is hanging out in the dawn skies for most of 2014.

You may have already caught sight of the brilliant world: it’s hard to miss, currently shinning at a dazzling -4.5 magnitude in the dawn. Venus is the brightest planet as seen from Earth and the third brightest natural object in the night sky after the Sun and the Moon.

Venus just passed between the Earth and the Sun last month on January 11th at inferior conjunction. Passing over five degrees north of the Sun, this was a far cry from the historic 2012 transit of the solar disk, a feat that won’t be replicated again until 2117 AD.

But February and March offer some notable events worth watching out for as Venus wanders in the dawn.

The path of Venus from February 4th to September 23rd, 2014. The first (top) graphic lays out the path as seen at dawn from latitude 30 degrees north, while the bottom lays out the path of Venus as seen from latitude 30 degrees south. Note that the orientation of the ecliptic in the top frame is set for September 23rd, while the bottom frame is set for February 4th, respectively. Created using Starry Night Education software.
The path of Venus from February 4th to September 23rd, 2014. The first (top) graphic lays out the path as seen at dawn from latitude 30 degrees north, while the bottom lays out the path of Venus as seen from latitude 30 degrees south. Note that the orientation of the ecliptic in the top frame is set for September 23rd, while the bottom frame is set for February 4th, respectively. Created using Starry Night Education software.

This week sees Venus thicken as a 48” 16% illuminated waxing crescent as it continues to present more of its daytime side to the Earth. We’ve always thought that it was a bit of cosmic irony that the closest planet too us presents no surface detail to observers: Venus is a cosmic tease. This assured that astronomers knew almost nothing about Venus until the dawn of the Space Age — guesses at its rotational speed and surface conditions were all widely speculative.  Ideas of a vast extraterrestrial jungle or surface-spanning seas of seltzer water oceans gave way to the reality of a shrouded hellish inferno with noontime temps approaching 460 degrees Celsius. Venus is also bizarre in the fact that it rotates once every 243 Earth days, which is longer than its 224.7 day year — you could easily out walk a Venusian sunrise, that is if you could somehow survive to see it from its perpetually clouded surface!

Venus also passes 4.3 degrees from faint Pluto this week on February 5th. And while Pluto is a tough catch at over a million times fainter than Venus, it’s interesting to consider that NASA’s New Horizons and ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft are also currently off in the same general direction:

Venus and the invisible lineup of deep space missions in the same general direction this week. Also note that Venus has been skirting the non-zodiac constellation of Scutum this season! Created using Starry Night Education Software,
Venus and the invisible lineup of deep space missions in the same general direction this week. Also note that Venus has been skirting the non-zodiacal constellation of Scutum this season! Created using Starry Night Education Software.

Venus also reaches greatest brilliancy at magnitude -4.6 next week on February 11th. Venus is bright enough to cast a shadow onto a high contrast background, such as freshly fallen snow. Can you see your “Venusian shadow” with the naked eye? How about photographically?

Venus then goes on to show its greatest illuminated extent to us on February 15th. This combination occurs because although the crescent of Venus is fattening, the apparent size of the disk is shrinking as the planet pulls away from us in its speedy interior orbit. Can you spy the elusive “ashen light of Venus” through a telescope? Long a controversy, this has been reported by observers as a dim “glow” on the nighttime hemisphere of Venus. Proposed explanations for the ashen light of Venus over the years have been airglow, aurorae, lightning, Venusian land  clearing activity (!) or, more likely, an optical illusion.

And speaking of which, the crescent Venus gets occulted by the waning crescent Moon on February 26th. Observers in western Africa will see this occur in the predawn skies, and the rest of us will see a close pass of the pair worldwide. Can you spot Venus near the crescent Moon in the daytime sky on the 26th?

The Moon and Venus at dawn on February 25th for observers along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.
The Moon and Venus at dawn on February 25th for observers along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. Created using Stellarium.

In March, Venus begins the slide southward towards the point occupied by the Sun months earlier and heads towards its greatest westward elongation for 2014 on March 22nd at 46.6 degrees west of the Sun. Interestingly, Venus is tracing out roughly the same track it took 8 years ago in 2006 and will trace again in 2022, when it will also spend a majority of the year in the dawn once again. The 8-year repeating cycle of Venus is a result of the planet completing very nearly 13 orbits of the Sun to our 8. Ancient cultures, including the Maya, Egyptians, and Babylonian astronomers all knew of this period.

Through the telescope, Venus appears at a tiny “half-moon” phase 50% illuminated at greatest elongation, a point known as dichotomy.  It’s interesting to note that theoretical and observed dichotomy can actually vary by several days surrounding greatest elongation. An optical phenomenon, or a true observational occurrence? When do you judge that dichotomy occurs in 2014?

In April, one of the closest planetary conjunctions occurs of 2014 on the 12th involving Neptune and Venus at just 40’ apart, a little over the span of a Full Moon. Can you squeeze both into an eyepiece field of view? At +7.7th magnitude, Neptune shines at over 25,000 times fainter than Venus. Neith, the spurious “moon” of Venus described by 18th century astronomers lives!

But two even more dramatic conjunctions occur late in the summer, when Jupiter passes just 15’ from Venus on August 18th and Regulus stands just 42’ from Venus on September 5th. Fun fact: Venus actually occulted Regulus last century on July 7th, 1959!

From there on out, Venus heads toward superior conjunction on the far side of the Sun on October 25th, to once again emerge into the dusk sky through late 2014 and 2015.

Be sure to check out these dawn exploits of Venus through this Spring season and beyond!


101 Astronomical Events for 2014

An early Draconid meteor caught by astrophotographer Cory Schmitz. (Used with permission?)

It’s here!

As 2013 draws to a close, we once again cast our thoughts to all things astronomical for the coming year. For the past five years, I’ve been constructing this list of all things astronomical for the coming year, lovingly distilling the events transpiring worldwide down to a 101 “best events of the year”. This is the first year this list has been featured on Universe Today, so we’ll lay out our ground rules and reasoning a bit as to selection criteria.

Events selected run the gamut from conjunctions and eclipses that are visible worldwide or over a good swath of the planet, to asteroid occultations of stars that are only visible along a thin path along the surface of the Earth. Geocentric conjunction times for occultations are quoted. Generally, only conjunctions involving bright stars, planets & the Moon are noted. The intent of this list is to bridge the gap between the often meager “10 Best Astronomy Events of 2014” listicles that make their rounds this time of year and the more tedious laundry lists of Moon phases and wide conjunctions.

As always, we look at the coming year with an eye out for the astronomically curious and the bizarre. Times are quoted in Universal Time (UT) using a 24-hour clock, which is identical to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and Zulu for those in the military.

Some caveats as to how selections were made:

-To make the cut, asteroid occultations must have a rank of 99 or greater, and occult a star brighter than +8th magnitude.

– We only selected major annual meteor showers with a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) projected to be 20 or greater.

– Only lunar occultations of planets and bright stars are listed.

– Solstice seasons where the International Space Station reaches full illumination are approximate; the ISS gets boosted periodically, and therefore it’s impossible to project its precise orbit months in advance.

– Comets come and go. The comets included on this list are some of the “best bets” that are forcasted to reach binocular visibility for 2014. A big bright one could come up and steal the show at any time!

This list was meant to “whet the appetite” for what’s coming to skies worldwide in 2014 with a succinct rapid fire listing by month. Where an online resource exists that expands on the event, we linked to ‘em. A full resource list, both paper and cyber, is given at the end of the post. Print these events, post it on your refrigerator and/or observatory wall, and expect us to feature many these fine events on Universe Today in the coming year!

Some notes on 2014:

2014 sees Mars reach opposition in early April, which is sure to be a highlight as we head towards an exceptionally close opposition in 2018.

The month of February is also missing a New Moon, which last occurred in 1995 and won’t happen again until 2033. February is the only calendar month which can be missing the same moon phase twice!

We’re also coming off a profoundly weak solar maximum in 2014, though as always, the Sun may have some surprises in store for solar observers and aurora watchers worldwide.

The motion of the Moon in 2014 is headed towards a “shallow” year in 2015 relative to the ecliptic; it will then begin to slowly open back up and ride high around 2025.

2014 also contains the minimum number of eclipses that can occur in one year, 2 solar and 2 lunar. And while there are no total solar eclipses in 2014, there are two fine total lunar eclipses, both visible from North America.

And here’s the month by month rundown:

Moon Jan 1
The view looking west from the US east coast at 6 PM on January 1st from latitude 30 degrees north. (Created in Stellarium).


01- The extremely thin crescent 12-15 hour old Moon will present a challenge for North American viewers low to the west at dusk.

03- Quadrantid meteors peak with a ZHR=120 at ~05:00 UT, best seen from the Atlantic region. Favorable in 2014, with the Moon a 2 day old waxing crescent.

04- Earth reaches perihelion at 12:00 UT, 147.1 million kilometres from the Sun.

04- Mars passes 1.3’ from the +11.5th magnitude galaxy NGC 4684.

05- Jupiter reaches opposition for 2014 and shines at magnitude -2.7.

10- A Possible meteor shower due to dust from the Comet (formerly known as) ISON over the next few days?

11- Venus reaches inferior conjunction between the Sun and the Earth, shining at -4th magnitude. It may be just possible to spot it five degrees north of the solar limb from high northern latitudes.

13- Moon reaches its farthest northern declination for 2014 a 19.4 degrees.

16- The most distant Full Moon, and visually smallest Full Moon of 2014 occurs, with the Moon reaching Full within two hours of apogee. MiniMoon!

25- The Moon occults Saturn for the South Pacific at ~13:58 UT.

27- The Moon reaches its farthest southern declination for 2014, at -19.3 degrees.

30- A Black Moon occurs, as reckoned as the second New Moon in a month with two.

31- Mercury reaches a favorable elongation, shining at magnitude -0.9, 18.4 degrees east of the Sun.

Venus occultation footprint for
Venus occultation footprint for February 26th. (Created using Occult v4.1.0).


06- Two shadows transit the cloud tops of Jupiter from 10:20 UT-12:44 UT, favoring western North America.

21- The Moon occults Saturn for the Indian Ocean at ~22:18 UT.

26- The 14% waning crescent Moon occults Venus for central Africa at ~5:23 UT.


07- Asteroid 9 Metis occults a +7.9 magnitude star for Europe ~3:14 UT.

10- The 70% illuminated waxing gibbous Moon occults the +3.6 magnitude star Lambda Geminorum for North America in the evening sky.

14- Mercury reaches greatest morning elongation at 27.5 degrees west of the Sun shining at magnitude +0.1. Mercury’s best morning apparition in 2014 for southern hemisphere observers.

16- A double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons occurs from 22:20 to 00:35 UT, visible from Atlantic Canada after sunset.

20- The Northward Equinox occurs at 16:57 UT.

20- GEO satellite eclipse season occurs, as geostationary satellites enter Earth’s shadow near the equinox.

20- Regulus is occulted by asteroid 163 Erigone for the NE United States and Canada at ~6:07 UT, The brightest star occulted by an asteroid in 2014.

21- The Moon occults Saturn for the South Atlantic at ~3:18 UT.

24- A double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons occurs from 2:08 to 2:28 UT, favoring eastern North America.

24- Asteroid 172 Baucis occults a +6.7 magnitude star for South America at ~9:27 UT.

22- Venus reaches greatest morning elongation, at 47 degrees west of the Sun.

28- Asteroid 51 Nemausa occults a +7.7 magnitude star for Africa at 20:02 UT.

30- A Black Moon occurs, as reckoned as the second New Moon in one month.

The viewing prospects for the April 15th Total Lunar Eclipse. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/
The viewing prospects for the April 15th Total Lunar Eclipse. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Espenak/Meeus).


08- Mars reaches opposition for 2014, shining at magnitude -1.5.

12- A close conjunction of Venus and Neptune occurs, with the planets just 0.7 degrees apart at 2:00 UT.

15- A Total Lunar Eclipse occurs, visible from the Americas and centered on 7:47 UT.

17- The Moon occults Saturn for South America at ~7:19 UT.

29- An Annular Solar Eclipse visible from Australia and the southern Indian Ocean occurs, centered on 6:05 UT. This is a unique, non-central antumbral eclipse!


03- Asteroid 105 Artemis occults a +7.7 magnitude star for NW Brazil and Peru at ~9:17 UT.

04- Asteroid 34 Circe occults a +7.4 magnitude star for Peru and Ecuador at ~10:12 UT.

06- The closest lunar apogee of 2014 occurs at 404,318 km distant at 10:23 UT.

07- Eta Aquariid meteors peak, with a ZHR=55 at 4:00 UT. Best observed from the Atlantic Region. Favorable in 2014, with the 7-day old Moon at waxing gibbous.

07- Asteroid 206 Hersilia occults a +7.5 magnitude star for Australia and Indonesia at ~17:49 UT.

10- Saturn reaches opposition for 2014, shining at magnitude +0.1. Saturn’s rings are tipped open a maximum of 23 degrees to our line of sight on February 11th, and widening overall in 2014.

13- A double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons occurs from 9:20-9:32 UT favoring NW North America.

14- The Moon occults Saturn for Australia and New Zealand at ~12:18 UT.

24- A meteor shower outburst may be in the offing, courtesy of Comet 209P LINEAR. Will the “Camelopardalids” perform?

24- Asteroid 33 Polyhymnia occults a +5.5 magnitude star for South America at ~8:30 UT.

25- Mercury reaches maximum dusk elongation, 22.7 degrees east of the Sun. Mercury’s best evening apparition for 2014 for northern hemisphere viewers.

The triple shadow transit of June 3rd, as seen at 18:00 UT. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
The triple shadow transit of June 3rd, as seen at 19:00 UT. (Created by the author using Starry Night).


3- A triple Jovian shadow transit occurs from 18:05-19:44 UT, favoring eastern Europe and Africa. This is the only triple shadow transit for 2014.

10- The Moon occults Saturn for the southern Indian Ocean at ~18:48 UT.

21- The Northward Solstice occurs at ~10:51 UT.

22- The International Space Station enters a period of full illumination near the June solstice, favoring multiple views for northern hemisphere viewers.

24- The waning crescent Moon passes within a degree of Venus, a great time for spotting the planet in the daytime.

26- The Moon occults Mercury just 20 hours prior to New… a tough catch, but may visible from the SE US and Venezuela just before sunrise.

27- The June Boötid meteors peak, with a ZHR variable from 0-100 at ~15:00 UT, favoring the Central Pacific. Optimal in 2014, as the Moon is at New phase.


04- Earth reaches aphelion at 2:00 UT, at 152,098,232 kilometres from the Sun.

04- Pluto reaches opposition at 3:00 UT.

05– 1 Ceres passes just 10’ from 4 Vesta in the constellation Virgo.

06– The Moon occults Mars for South America at ~01:21 UT

08– The Moon occults Saturn for Argentina & Chile at ~2:25 UT.

12- Mercury reaches its maximum elongation of 20.9 degrees west of the Sun, shining at magnitude +0.4 in the dawn.

12– The first Full Proxigean “Super” Moon (1 of 3) for 2014 occurs at 11:27 UT. The Moon reaches Full 21 hours prior to perigee.

30– The Southern Delta Aquarids peak, with a ZHR=20. Time variable, favorable in 2014 with the waxing crescent Moon 4 days past New.

20– Asteroid 451 Patientia occults a +7.1 magnitude star for South Africa at ~17:15 UT.

28- The farthest lunar apogee of 2014 occurs, with the Moon 406,568 kilometres distant at 3:28 UT.

30– Asteroid 103 Hera occults a +6.1 magnitude star for west Africa and central South America at ~1:11 UT.

A tri-conjunction of the Moon, Venus & Jupiter- A "Skewed Smiley face" conjunction!" Credit:  Stellarium
A tri-conjunction of the Moon, Venus & Jupiter on the morning of August 23rd- A “Skewed Smiley face” conjunction!” Credit: Stellarium).


02– A close conjunction of Mercury and Jupiter occurs, with the planets just 0.9 degrees apart at 19:00 UT. Visible in SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera.

04- The Moon occults Saturn for Australia at ~10:31 UT.

10– The closest lunar perigee of 2014 occurs, with the Moon 356,896 kilometres distant at 17:44 UT.

10- The Closest Full Moon of the year & “Super” Moon (2 of 3) for 2014 occurs, with Full Moon occurring just 27 minutes after perigee.

13– The Perseid meteors peak, with a ZHR=100 at ~04:00 UT favoring The Atlantic region. Unfavorable in 2014, with the 17 day old Moon at waning gibbous.

18- A conjunction of Venus and Jupiter occurs 5:00 UT, the closest conjunction of two naked eye planets in 2014, with the two just 15’ apart.

29- Neptune reaches opposition at 14:00 UT, shining at +7.8 magnitude.

31– The Moon occults Saturn for Africa and the eastern US (in the daytime) at ~18:59.


05- Venus passes 0.7 degrees from the bright star Regulus.

09– The final Full “Super” Moon (3 of 3) for 2014 occurs at 1:39 UT, just 22 hours after perigee.

15– Comet C/2013 V5 Oukaimeden may reach +5.5th magnitude for southern hemisphere observers.

20– Mercury passes 0.5 degrees south of the bright star Spica at 21:00 UT.

21- Mercury reaches its greatest elongation of 26.4 degrees east of the Sun shining at magnitude +0.0 in the dawn sky. Mercury’s best sunset apparition for 2014 for southern hemisphere observers.

23- The Southward Equinox occurs at 2:29 UT.

23- GEO satellite eclipse season occurs, as geostationary satellites enter Earth’s shadow near the equinox.

28– The Moon occults Saturn for the northern Pacific at ~4:25 UT. The Moon also occults 1 Ceres and 4 Vesta on the same day!

The path of Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Springs versus the planet Mars through October, 2014. (Created by the author using Stellarium).
The path of Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Springs versus the planet Mars through October, 2014. (Created by the author using Starry Night).


04- 1 Ceres passes just 30’ north of Saturn.

06- Possible Draconid meteor shower, highly variable in terms of rates and timing, but unfavorable in 2014, with the Moon just two days from Full.

08- A Total Lunar Eclipse visible from the Pacific Rim region occurs, centered on 10:56 UT. The planet Uranus will also lie less than a degree away from the eclipsed Moon!

14- Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS may reach +5th magnitude for southern hemisphere viewers.

13– The Moon reaches it shallowest northern declination for 2014 at +18.5 degrees.

19- Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring passes just 7’ from the planet Mars. Globular cluster NGC 6401 also lies nearby.

22– The Orionid meteor shower peaks at ~05:00 UT, with a predicted ZHR=25 favoring the Americas. Optimal in 2014, with the Moon at waning crescent.

22– The Moon occults Mercury for Australia just 24 hours prior to New as seen from Australia.

23- A Partial Solar Eclipse visible from western North America occurs centered on 21:46 UT.

25- The Moon occults Saturn for the northern Atlantic at ~15:43 UT.

25- The Moon reaches its shallowest southern point for 2014, at a declination of -18.6 degrees.

The partial solar eclipse of October 23rd, 2014. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Fred Espenak).
The partial solar eclipse of October 23rd, 2014. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Fred Espenak).


01- Mercury reaches its greatest elongation 18.7 degrees west of the Sun, shining at magnitude -0.5. The best morning apparition of Mercury for 2014 as seen from the northern hemisphere.

18– Leonid meteors peak at 05:00 UT with a ZHR=20 favoring the Atlantic region. Optimal in 2014, with the 25 day old Moon at waning crescent phase.

20- Asteroid 3 Juno occults a +7.4 magnitude star for the US NE and eastern Canada.

27- The farthest lunar perigee of 2014 occurs with the Moon 369,824 km distant at 23:12 UT.


09- A double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons occurs from 4:18 to 4:27 UT favoring eastern North America.

12- A double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons occurs from 16:19 to 16:44 UT favoring NW North America.

13- The Geminid meteors peak with a ZHR=120 at ~01:00 UT, favoring the Middle East & Eastern Europe. Unfavorable in 2014, with the 20 day old  Moon at waning gibbous.

18- Asteroid 702 Alauda occults a +6.2 magnitude star at 14:12 UT for eastern Australia.

21- The Southward Solstice occurs at 23:03 UT.

21- The International Space Station enters period of full illumination around the solstice, with multiple nightly views favoring the southern hemisphere.

21- A double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons occurs from 14:17 to 15:55 UT, favoring the Far East and Australia.

Don’t see your favorite or most anticipated event of 2014 on the list? Drop us a line and let us know!

Links & Resources Used:

-The American Meteor Society list of 2014 showers

-NASA’s Eclipse Website

-The United States Naval Observatory’s Astronomical Almanac Online

-Guy Ottewell’s 2014 Astronomical Calendar

-The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s 2014 Observer’s Calendar

-Steve Preston’s list of asteroid occultation events for 2014


Starry Nite

-Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet website

-Fourmilab’s Lunar Apogee and Perigee calculator


-The International Occultation Timing Association’s list of lunar occultations for 2014.

And finally, thanks to all of those too numerous to name who provided discussions/diatribes/input via Twitter/G+/message boards/etc to make this listing possible… let another exciting year of astronomy begin!





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

Mercury and Mars on February 8, 2013. See how close they'll be? Image credit: Stellarium.


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.

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.

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: November 19-25, 2012

Crater Curtius courtesy of Damian Peach

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! It’s going to be a great week to study the Moon – and bright Jupiter is just begging for some quality eyepiece time. Need more? Then why don’t we study some very interesting variable stars, too? It’s all out there… Just waiting on you!

Monday, November 19 – Now we’re ready for some serious lunar study. Our first order of business will be to identify crater Curtius. Directly in the center of the Moon is a dark-floored area known as the Sinus Medii. South of it will be two conspicuously large craters – Hipparchus to the north and ancient Albategnius to the south. Trace along the terminator toward the south until you have almost reached its point (cusp) and you will see a black oval. This normal looking crater with the brilliant west wall is equally ancient crater Curtius. Because of its high southern latitude, we shall never see the entire interior of this crater – and neither has the Sun! It is believed the inner walls are quite steep, and so crater Curtius’ full interior has never been illuminated since its formation billions of years ago. Because it has remained dark, we can speculate there may be “lunar ice” (water ice possibly mixed with regolith) pocketed inside its many cracks and rilles which date back to the Moon’s formation!

Because our Moon has no atmosphere, the entire surface is exposed to the vacuum of space. When sunlit, the surface reaches up to 385 K, so any exposed lunar ice would vaporize and be lost because the Moon’s gravity could not hold it. The only way for ice to exist would be in a permanently shadowed area. Near Curtius is the Moon’s south pole, and imaging from the Clementine spacecraft showed around 15,000 square kilometers of area where such conditions could exist. So where did this ice come from? The lunar surface never ceases to be pelted by meteorites – most of which contain water-related ice. As we know, many craters were formed by just such impacts. Once hidden from the sunlight, this ice could continue to exist for millions of years.

Now turn your eyes or binoculars just west of bright Aldebaran and have a look at the Hyades Star Cluster. While Aldebaran appears to be part of this large, V-shaped group, it is not an actual member. The Hyades cluster is one of the nearest galactic clusters, and it is roughly 130 light-years away in the center. This moving group of stars is drifting slowly away towards Orion, and in another 50 million years it will require a telescope to view!

Tuesday, November 20 – Today celebrates another significant astronomer’s birth – Edwin Hubble. Born 1889, Hubble became the first American astronomer to identify Cepheid variables in M31 – which in turn established the extragalactic nature of the spiral nebulae. Continuing with the work of Carl Wirtz, and using Vesto Slipher’s redshifts, Hubble then could calculate the velocity-distance relation for galaxies. This has become known as “Hubble’s Law” and demonstrates the expansion of our Universe.

Tonight we’re going to ignore the Moon and head just a little more than a fistwidth west of the westernmost bright star in Cassiopeia to have a look at Delta Cephei (RA 22 29 10.27 Dec +58 24 54.7). This is the most famous of all variable stars and the granddaddy of all Cepheids. Discovered in 1784 by John Goodricke, its changes in magnitude are not due to a revolving companion – but rather the pulsations of the star itself.

Ranging over almost a full magnitude in 5 days, 8 hours and 48 minutes precisely, Delta’s changes can easily be followed by comparing it to nearby Zeta and Epsilon. When it is its dimmest, it will brighten rapidly in a period of about 36 hours – yet take 4 days to slowly dim again. Take time out of your busy night to watch Delta change and change again. It’s only 1000 light-years away, and doesn’t even require a telescope! (But even binoculars will show its optical companion.)

Wednesday, November 21 – Before we go star hopping this evening, let’s go south on the lunar globe in hopes of catching a very unusual event. On the southern edge of Mare Nubium is the old walled plain Pitatus. Power up. On the western edge you will see smaller and equally old Hesiodus. Almost central along their shared wall there is a break to watch for when the terminator is close. For a brief moment, sunrise on the Moon will pass through this break creating a beam of light across the crater floor in a beautiful phenomenon known as the “Hesiodus Sunrise Ray.” For a very brief moment, a shaft of sunlight will shine through this break and create an experience you will never forget. If the terminator has moved beyond it at your observing time, then look to the south for small Hesiodus A. This is an example of an extremely rare double concentric crater. This formation is caused by one impact followed by another, slightly smaller impact, at exactly the same location.

Now, let’s continue our stellar studies with the central-most star in the lazy “W” of Cassiopeia – Gamma…

At the beginning of the 20th century, the light from Gamma appeared to be steady, but in the mid-1930s it took an unexpected rise in brightness. In less than 2 years it jumped by a magnitude! Then, just as unexpectedly, it dropped back down again in roughly the same amount of time. A performance it repeated some 40 years later!

Gamma Cassiopeiae isn’t quite a giant and is still fairly young on the evolutionary scale. Spectral studies show violent changes and variations in the star’s structure. After its first recorded episode, it ejected a shell of gas which expanded Gamma’s size by over 200% – yet it doesn’t appear to be a candidate for a nova event. The best estimate now is that Gamma is around 100 light-years away and approaching us at a very slow rate. If conditions are good, you might be able to telescopically pick up its disparate 11th magnitude visual companion, discovered by Burnham in 1888. It shares the same proper motion – but doesn’t orbit this unusual variable star. For those who like a challenge, visit Gamma again on a dark night! Its shell left two bright (and difficult!) nebulae, IC 59 and IC 63, to which we will return at the end of the month.

Thursday, November 22 – Tonight when you’re studying the Moon, return to our landmark Copernicus and travel south along the western shore of Mare Cognitum, the “Sea That Has Become Known” and look along the terminator for the Montes Riphaeus – “The Mountains In The Middle of Nowhere.” But are they really mountains? Let’s take a closer look. At the widest, this unusual range spans about 38 kilometers and runs for a distance of around 177 kilometers. Less impressive than most lunar mountain ranges, some peaks reach up to 1250 meters high, making these summits about the same height as our volcano Mt. Kilauea. While we are considering volcanic activity, consider that these peaks are all that is left of Mare Cognitum’s walls after lava filled it in. At one time this may have been amongst the tallest of lunar features!

Once you’ve studied the Montes Riphaeus, you’ll begin noticing another lunar crater that looks a whole lot like a smaller version of Copernicus – the highly under-rated crater Bullialdus. Located close to the center of Mare Nubium, even binoculars can make out Bullialdus when near the terminator. If you’re scoping – power up – this one is fun! Very similar to Copernicus, Bullialdus’ has thick, terraced walls and a central peak. If you examine the area around it carefully, you can note it is a much newer crater than shallow Lubiniezsky to the north and almost non-existent Kies (a real challenge) to the south. On Bullialdus’ southern flank, it’s easy to make out its A and B craterlets, as well as the interesting little Koenig to the southwest.

Friday, November 23 – Tonight in 1885, the very first photograph of a meteor shower was taken. Also, the weather satellite TIROS II was launched on this day in 1960. Carried to orbit by a three-stage Delta rocket, the “Television Infrared Observation Satellite” was about the size of a barrel, testing experimental television techniques and infrared equipment. Operating for 376 days, Tiros II sent back thousands of pictures of Earth’s cloud cover and was successful in its experiments to control the orientation of the satellite spin and its infrared sensors. Oddly enough, a similar mission – Meteosat 1 – also became the first satellite put into orbit by the European Space Agency, in 1977 on this day. Where is all this leading? Why not try observing satellites on your own! Thanks to wonderful on-line tools from NASA you can be alerted by e-mail whenever a bright satellite makes a pass for your specific area. It’s fun!

When you are ready to sail again, we’ll head to the Moon and cross the the western edge of the second largest lunar sea – Mare Imbrium – as we head northeast for the “lighthouse” points set on either side of the landmark “Bay of Rainbows”. They guard the opening to Sinus Iridum and they have names. The easternmost is Promentorium LaPlace, named for Pierre LaPlace. Little more than 56 kilometers in diameter, it rises above the gray sands some 3019 meters; almost identical in height to Buttermilk Mountain near Aspen. Promontorium Heraclides to the west covers roughly the same area, yet rises to little more than half of LaPlace’s height.

Saturday, November 24 – Tonight grab your telescope and head for the Moon and take another look at a feature you might have missed earlier in the year. ! Look west of very bright punctuation of crater Aristarchus for less prominent crater Herodotus. Just to the north you will see a fine white thread known as Schroter’s Valley. This inconspicuous feature winds its way across the Aristarchus plain for about 160 kilometers and measures about 3 to 8 kilometers wide, and about 1 kilometer deep. Schroter’s Valley is an example of a collapsed lava tube. It may have broken open when lava crossed the surface – or it may have settled downwards when a major meteor strike caused a shock wave. What we are looking at is a long, narrow cave on the surface which is very apparent when the lighting is correct.

Ready to aim for a bullseye? Then head for the bright, reddish star Aldebaran. Set your eyes, scopes or binoculars there and let’s look into the “eye” of the Bull.

Known to the Arabs as Al Dabaran, or “the Follower,” Alpha Tauri took its name for the fact that it appears to follow the Pleiades across the sky. In Latin it was Stella Dominatrix, yet the old English knew it as Oculus Tauri, or very literally the “eye of Taurus.” No matter which source of ancient astronomy lore we explore, there are references to Aldeberan.

As the 13th brightest star in the sky, it almost appears from Earth to be a member of the V-shaped Hyades star cluster, but its association is merely coincidental, since it is about twice as close to us as the cluster. In reality, Aldeberan is on the small end as far as K5 stars go, and like many other orange giants could possibly be a variable. Aldeberan is also known to have five close companions, but they are faint and very difficult to observe with backyard equipment. At a distance of approximately 68 light-years, Alpha is slightly less than 45 times larger than our own Sun and approximately 425 times brighter. Because of its position along the ecliptic, Aldeberan is one of the very few stars of first magnitude that can be occulted by the Moon.

Sunday, November 25 – As the Moon nears Full, it becomes more and more difficult to study, but there are still some features that we can take a look at. Before we go to our binoculars or telescopes, just stop and take a look. Do you see the “Cow Jumping over the Moon”? It is strictly a visual phenomenon—a combination of dark maria which looks like the back, forelegs and hindlegs of the shadow of that mythical animal.

While Cassiopeia is in prime position for most northern observers, let’s return tonight for some additional studies. Starting with Delta, let’s hop to the northeast corner of our “flattened W” and identify 520 light-year distant Epsilon. For larger telescopes only, it will be a challenge to find this 12″ diameter, magnitude 13.5 planetary nebula I.1747 in the same field as magnitude 3.3 Epsilon!

Using both Delta and Epsilon as our “guide stars” let’s draw an imaginary line between the pair extending from southwest to northeast and continue the same distance until you stop at visible Iota. Now go to the eyepiece…

As a quadruple system, Iota will require a telescope and a night of steady seeing to split its three visible components. Approximately 160 light-years away, this challenging system will show little or no color to smaller telescopes, but to large aperture, the primary may appear slightly yellow and the companion stars a faint blue. At high magnification, the 8.2 magnitude “C” star will easily break away from the 4.5 primary, 7.2″ to the east-southeast. But look closely at that primary: hugging in very close (2.3″) to the west-southwest and looking like a bump on its side is the B star!

Dropping back to the lowest of powers, place Iota to the southwest edge of the eyepiece. It’s time to study two incredibly interesting stars that should appear in the same field of view to the northeast. When both of these stars are at their maximum, they are easily the brightest of stars in the field. Their names are SU (southernmost) and RZ (northernmost) Cassiopeiae and both are unique! SU is a pulsing Cepheid variable located about 1000 light-years away and will show a distinctive red coloration. RZ is a rapidly eclipsing binary that can change from magnitude 6.4 to magnitude 7.8 in less than two hours. Wow!

Until next week? Clear skies!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: November 12-18, 2012

Four day Moon courtesy of Peter Lloyd

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! While we might have to contend with the Moon again, it’s still going to be a very exciting week because the Leonid Meteor Shower is back in town! The beginning of the week brings on the Pegasid meteors and we can all use a “warm up”! There’s plenty of things to do, so whenever you’re ready, just meet me in the back yard.

Monday, November 12 – Wouldn’t we all have loved to have been there in 1949 when the first scientific observations were made with the Palomar 5-meter (200-inch) telescope? Or to have seen what Voyager 1 saw as it made its closest approach to Saturn on this date in 1980? To watch Space Shuttle Columbia launch in 1981? Or even better, to have been around in 1833 – the night of the Great Leonid Meteor Shower! But this is here and now, so let’s make our own mark on the night sky as we view the waning Moon.

This evening have a look at the lunar surface and the southeast shoreline of Mare Crisium for Agarum Promontorium. To a small telescope it will look like a bright peninsula extending northward across the dark plain of Crisium’s interior, eventually disappearing beneath the ancient lava flow. Small crater Fahrenheit can be spotted at high power to the west of Agarum, and it is just southeast of there that Luna 24 landed. If you continue south of Agarum along the shoreline of Crisium you will encounter 15 kilometer high Mons Usov. To its west is a gentle rille known as Dorsum Termier – where the Luna 15 mission remains lie. Can you spot 23 kilometer wide Shapely further south?

While skies are fairly dark be sure to keep watch for members of the Pegasid meteor shower – the radiant is roughly near the Great Square. This stream endures from mid-October until late November, and used to be quite spectacular.

Tuesday, November 13 – Today is the birthday of James Clerk Maxwell. Born in 1831, Maxwell was a leading English theoretician on electromagnetism and the nature of light. Tonight let’s take a journey of 150 light-years as we honor Maxwell’s theories of electricity and magnetism as we take a look at a star that is in nuclear decay – Alpha Ceti.

Its name is Menkar, and this second magnitude orange giant is slowly using up its nuclear fuel and gaining mass. According to Maxwell’s theories of the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces, W bosons must exist in such circumstances – this was an extremely advanced line of thinking for the time. Without getting deep into the physics, simply enjoy reddish Alpha for the beauty that it is. Even small telescopes will reveal its 5th magnitude optical partner 93 Ceti to the north. It’s only another 350 light-years further away! You’ll be glad you took the time to look this one up, because the wide separation and color contrast of the pair make this tribute to Maxwell worth your time!

Wednesday, November 14 – Ready to aim for a bullseye? Then follow the “Archer” and head right for the bright, reddish star Aldebaran. Set your eyes, scopes or binoculars there and let’s look into the “eye” of the Bull. Known to the Arabs as Al Dabaran, or “the Follower,” Alpha Tauri got its name because it appears to follow the Pleiades across the sky. In Latin it was called Stella Dominatrix, yet the Olde English knew it as Oculus Tauri, or very literally the “eye of Taurus.” No matter which source of ancient astronomical lore we explore, there are references to Aldebaran.

As the 13th brightest star in the sky, it almost appears from Earth to be a member of the V-shaped Hyades star cluster, but this association is merely coincidental, since it is about twice as close to us as the cluster is. In reality, Aldebaran is on the small end as far as K5 stars go, and like many other orange giants, it could possibly be a variable. Aldebaran is also known to have five close companions, but they are faint and very difficult to observe with backyard equipment. At a distance of approximately 68 light-years, Alpha is “only” about 40 times larger than our own Sun and approximately 125 times brighter. Because of its position along the ecliptic, Aldebaran is one of the very few stars of first magnitude that can be occulted by the Moon.

This evening on the Moon we will be returning to familiar features Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catharina. Why not take the time to really power up on them and look closely? Curving away just to the southwest of Catharina on the terminator is another lunar challenge feature, Rupes Altai, or the Altai Scarp. Look for smaller craters beginning to emerge, such as Kant to the northwest, Ibn-Rushd just northwest of Cyrillus and Tacitus to the west.

Thursday, November 15 – Today marks a very special birthday in history. On this day in 1738, my personal hero William Herschel was born. Among this British astronomer and musician’s many accomplishments, Herschel was credited with the discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781, the motion of the Sun in the Milky Way in 1785, Castor’s binary companion in 1804; and he was the first to record infrared radiation. Herschel was well known as the discoverer of many clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. This came through his countless nights studying the sky and writing catalogs whose information we still use today. Just look at how many we’ve logged this year! Tonight let’s look towards Cassiopeia as we remember this great astronomer…

Almost everyone is familiar with the legend of Cassiopeia and how the Queen came to be bound in her chair, destined for an eternity to turn over and over in the sky, but did you know that Cassiopeia holds a wealth of double stars and galactic clusters? Seasoned sky watchers have long been familiar with this constellation’s many delights, but let’s remember that not everyone knows them all, and tonight let’s begin our exploration of Cassiopeia with two of its primary stars.

Looking much like a flattened “W,” its southern-most bright star is Alpha. Also known as Schedar, this magnitude 2.2 spectral type K star was once suspected of being a variable, but no changes have been detected in modern times. Binoculars will reveal its orange/yellow coloring, but a telescope is needed to bring out its unique features. In 1781, Herschel discovered a 9th magnitude companion star and our modern optics easily separate the blue/white component’s distance of 63″. A second, even fainter companion at 38″ is mentioned in the list of double stars and even a third at 14th magnitude was spotted by S.W. Burnham in 1889. All three stars are optical companions only, but make 150 to 200 light-year distant Schedar a delight to view!

Just north of Alpha is the next destination for tonight…Eta Cassiopeiae. Discovered by Herschel in August of 1779, Eta is quite possibly one of the most well-known of binary stars. The 3.5 magnitude primary star is a spectral type G, meaning it has a yellowish color much like our own Sun. It is about 10% larger than Sol and about 25% brighter. The 7.5 magnitude secondary (or B star) is very definitely a K-type: metal poor, and distinctively red. In comparison, it is half the mass of our Sun, crammed into about a quarter of its volume and is around 25 times dimmer. In the eyepiece, the B star will angle off to the northwest, providing a wonderful and colorful look at one of the season’s finest!

Friday, November 16 – Today in 1974, there was a party at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, as the new surface of the giant 1000-foot radio telescope was dedicated. At this time, a quick radio message was released in the direction of the globular cluster M13.

And now the annual Leonid meteor shower is underway! For those of you seeking a definitive date and time, it isn’t always possible. The meteor shower itself belongs to the debris shed by comet 55/P Tempel-Tuttle as it passes our Sun in its 33.2 year orbital period. Although it was once assumed that we would merely add around 33 years to each observed “shower,” we later came to realize that the debris formed a cloud that lagged behind the comet and dispersed irregularly. With each successive pass of Tempel-Tuttle, new filaments of debris were left in space along with the old ones, creating different “streams” that the orbiting Earth passes through at varying times, which makes blanket predictions unreliable at best.

Saturday, November 17 – If you didn’t stay up late, then get up early this morning to catch the Leonids. Each year during November, we pass through the filaments of debris – both old and new – and the chances of impacting a particular stream from any one particular year of Tempel-Tuttle’s orbit becomes a matter of mathematical estimates. We know when it passed… We know where it passed… But will we encounter it and to what degree?

Traditional dates for the peak of the Leonid meteor shower occur as early as the morning of November 17 and as late as November 19, but what about this year? On November 8, 2005 the Earth passed through an ancient stream shed in 1001. Predictions ran high for viewers in Asia, but the actual event resulted in a dud. There is no doubt that we crossed through that stream, but its probability of dissipation is impossible to calculate.

We may never know precisely where and when the Leonids might strike, but we do know that a good time to look for this activity is well before dawn on November 17, 18 and 19th. With the Moon mostly out of the way, wait until the radiant constellation of Leo rises and the chances are good of spotting one of the offspring of periodic comet Tempel-Tuttle. Your chances increase significantly by traveling a dark sky location, but remember to dress warmly and provide for your viewing comfort.

On this day in 1970, the long running Soviet mission Luna 17 successfully landed on the Moon. Its Lunokhod 1 rover became the first wheeled vehicle on the Moon. Lunokhod was designed to function three lunar days but actually operated for eleven. The machinations of Lunokhod officially stopped on October 4, 1971, the anniversary of Sputnik 1. Lunokhod had traversed 10,540 meters, transmitted more than 20,000 television pictures, over 200 television panoramas and performed more than 500 lunar soil tests. We’ll take a look at its landing site in the days ahead. Spaseba!

Sunday, November 18 – If you got clouded out of the Leonids yesterday morning, there is no harm in trying again before dawn! The meteor stream varies, and your chances are still quite good of catching one of these bright meteors.

Tonight let’s head toward an optical pairing of stars known as Zeta and Chi Ceti, a little more than a fistwidth northeast of bright Beta. Now have a look with binoculars or small scopes because you’ll find that each has its own optical companion!
Now drop south-southwest less than a fistwidth to have a look at something so unusual that you can’t help but be charmed – the UV Ceti System (RA 01 39 01 Dec -17 57 01).

What exactly is it? Also known as L 726-8, you are looking at two of the smallest and faintest stars known. This dwarf red binary system is the sixth nearest star to our solar system and resides right around nine light-years away. While you are going to need at least an intermediate-size scope to pick up these near 13th magnitude points of light, don’t stop observing right after you locate it. The fainter member of the two is what is known as a “Luyten’s Flare Star” (hence the “L” in its name). Although it doesn’t have a predictable timetable, this seemingly uninteresting star can jump two magnitudes in less than 60 seconds and drop back to “normal” within minutes – the cycle repeating possibly two or three times every 24 hours. A most incredible incident was recorded in 1952 when UV jumped from magnitude 12.3 to 6.8 in just 20 seconds!

Until next week? Wishing you clear skies!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: October 29 – November 4, 2012

The Andromeda Galaxy Courtesy of Bob Kocar

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! Are you ready for some spooky targets this week? Then follow along as we take a look at the “Little Eyes”, the “Skull Nebula” and a star that’s as red as a drop of blood! If the weather permits, we’ll also be enjoying the Taruid Meteor Shower! Time to dust off those optics and meet me in the backyard…

Monday, October 29 – October’s Full Moon is known as the “Hunter’s Moon” or the “Blood Moon,” its name came from a time when hunters would stalk the fields by Luna’s cold light in search of prey before the winter season began. Pick a place at sunset to watch it rise – a place having a stationary point with which you can gauge its progress. Make note of the time when the first rim appears and then watch how quickly it gains altitude! How long does it take before it rises above your marker?

On this night in 1749, the French astronomer Le Gentil was at the eyepiece of an 18? focal length telescope. His object of choice was the Andromeda Galaxy, which he believed to be a nebula. Little did he know at the time that his descriptive notes also included M32, a satellite galaxy of M31. It was the first small galaxy discovered, and it would be another 175 years before these were recognized as such by Edwin Hubble.

Even though it’s very bright tonight, take the time to view the Andromeda Galaxy for yourself. Located just about a degree west of Nu Andromeda, this ghost set against the starry night was known as far back as 905 AD, and was referred to as the “Little Cloud.” Located about 2.2 million light-years from our solar system, this expansive member of our Local Galaxy Group has delighted observers of all ages throughout the years. No matter if you view with just your eyes, a pair of binoculars or a large telescope, M31 still remains one of the most spectacular galaxies in the night.

Tuesday, October 30 – Tonight let’s have a look at the big, fat Moon as we return again with binoculars to identify the maria once again. Take the time to repeat the names to yourself and to study a map. One of the keys to successfully learning to identify craters is by starting with large, easily recognized features. Even though the Moon is very bright when full, try using colored or Moon filters with your telescope to have a look at the many surface features which throw amazing patterns across its surface. If you have none, a pair of sunglasses will suffice.

Look for things you might not ordinarily notice – such as the huge streak which emanates from crater Menelaus. Look at the pattern projected from Proclus – or the intense little dot of little-known Pytheas north of Copernicus. It’s hard to miss the blinding beacon of Aristarchus! Check the southeastern limb where the edge of Furnerius lights up the landscape…or how a nothing crater like Censorinus shines on the southeast shore of Tranquillitatis, while Dionysus echoes it on the southwest. Could you believe Manlius just north of central could be such a perfect ring – or that Anaxagoras would look like a northern polar cap? On the eastern limb we see the bright splash ray patterns surrounding ancient Furnerius – yet the rays themselves emanate from the much younger crater Furnerius A. All over the visible side, we see small points light up: a testament to the Moon’s violent past written in its scarred lines. Take a look now at the western limb…for the sunrise is about to advance around it.

Wednesday, October 31 – Happy Halloween! Many cultures around the world celebrate this day with a custom known as “Trick or Treat.” Tonight instead of tricking your little ghouls and goblins, why not treat them to a sweet view through your telescope or binoculars? What Halloween would be complete without a witch?! Easily found from a modestly dark site with the unaided eye, the Pleiades can be spotted well above the northeastern horizon within a couple of hours of nightfall. To average skies, many of the 7 bright components will resolve easily without the use of optical aid, but to telescopes and binoculars? M45 (Right Ascension: 03 : 47.0 – Declination: +24 : 07) is stunning…

First let’s explore a bit of history. The recognition of the Pleiades dates back to antiquity and its stars are known by many names in many cultures. The Greeks and Romans referred to them as the “Starry Seven,” the “Net of Stars,” “The Seven Virgins,” “The Daughters of Pleione,” and even “The Children of Atlas.” The Egyptians referred to them as “The Stars of Athyr,” the Germans as “Siebengestiren” (the Seven Stars), the Russians as “Baba” after Baba Yaga, the witch who flew through the skies on her fiery broom. The Japanese call them “Subaru,” Norsemen saw them as packs of dogs and the Tonganese as “Matarii” (the Little Eyes). American Indians viewed the Pleiades as seven maidens placed high upon a tower to protect them from the claws of giant bears, and even Tolkien immortalized the stargroup in “The Hobbit” as “Remmirath.” The Pleiades have even been mentioned in the Bible! So, you see, no matter where we look in our “starry” history, this cluster of seven bright stars has been part of it. But, let’s have some Halloween fun!

The date of the Pleiades culmination (its highest point in the sky) has been celebrated through its rich history by being marked with various festivals and ancient rites – but there is one particular rite that really fits this occasion! What could be more spooky on this date than to imagine a group of Druids celebrating the Pleiades’ midnight “high” with Black Sabbath? This night of “unholy revelry” is still observed in the modern world as “All Hallow’s Eve” or more commonly as Halloween. Although the actual date of the Pleiades midnight culmination is now on November 21 instead of October 31, why break with tradition? Thanks to its nebulous regions, M45 looks wonderfully like a “ghost” haunting the starry skies.

Treat yourself and your loved ones to the “scariest” object in the night. Binoculars give an incredible view of the entire region, revealing far more stars than are visible with the naked eye. Small telescopes at lowest power will enjoy M45?s rich, icy-blue stars and fog-like nebulosity. Larger telescopes and higher power reveal many pairs of double stars buried within its silver folds. No matter what you choose, the Pleiades definitely rock!

Thursday, November 1 – On this day in 1977, Charles Kowal made a wild discovery – Chiron. This represented the first discovery of a multitude of tiny, icy bodies that lie in the outer reaches of our solar system. Collectively known as Centaurs, they reside in unstable orbits between Jupiter and Neptune and are almost certainly “refugees”” from the Kuiper Belt.

Tonight let’s go for something small, but white-hot as we head for a dwarf star and planetary nebula, NGC 246. You’ll find it just a bit more than a fistwidth north-northeast of Beta Ceti (RA 00 47 03.34 Dec -11 52 18.9).

First discovered by Sir William Herschel and cataloged as object V.25, this 8th magnitude planetary nebula has a wonderful patchy, diffuse structure that envelops four stars. Around 1600 light-years away, the nebulosity you can see around the exterior edges was once the outer atmosphere of a star much like our own Sun. At the center of the nebula lies the responsible star – the fainter member of a binary system. While it is now in the process of becoming a white dwarf, we can still enjoy the product of this expanding shell of gas that is often called the “Skull Nebula.”

Friday, November 2 – Celestial scenery alert! If you’re up when the Moon rises, be sure to look for the close pairing of Jupiter and the Moon – they’re only about a fingerwidth apart! For a few viewers in the southernmost Africa region, this is an occultation event, so be sure to check resources for websites like IOTA which will give you times for locations in your area. What a great photographic opportunity… Clear skies!
Today celebrates the birth of an astronomy legend – Harlow Shapely. Born in 1885, the American-born Shapley paved the way in determining distances to stars, clusters, and the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Among his many achievements, Shapely was also the Harvard College Observatory director for many years. Today in 1917 also represents the night first light was seen through the Mt. Wilson 100? telescope.

Of course, Dr. Shapley spent his fair share of time on the Hooker telescope as well. One of his many points of study was globular clusters, their distance, and their relationship to the halo structure of our galaxy. Tonight let’s have a look at a very unusual little globular located about a fistwidth south-southeast of Beta Ceti and just a couple of degrees north-northwest of Alpha Sculptor (RA 00:52:47.5 Dec -26:35:24), as we have a look at NGC 288.

Discovered by William Herschel on October 27, 1785, and cataloged by him as H VI.20, the class X globular cluster blew apart scientific thinking in the late 1980?s as a study of perimeter globulars showed it to be more than 3 million years older than similar globulars – thanks to the color magnitude diagrams of Hertzsprung and Russell. By identifying both its blue and red branches, it was shown that many of NGC 288?s stars are being stripped away by tidal forces and contributing to the formation of the Milky Way’s halo structure. In 1997, three additional variable stars were discovered in this cluster.
At magnitude 8, this small globular is easy for southern observers, but faint for northern ones. If you are using binoculars, be sure to look for the equally bright spiral galaxy NGC 253 to the globular’s north.

Saturday, November 3 – On this day in 1955, one of the few documented cases of a person being hit by a meteorite occurred. What are the odds on that? In 1957 the Russian space program launched its first “live” astronaut into space – Laika. Carried on board Sputnik 2, our canine hero was the first living creature to reach orbit. The speedily developed Sputnik 2 was designed with sensors to transmit the ambient pressure, breathing patterns and heartbeat of its passenger, and also had a television camera on board to monitor its occupant. The craft also studied ultraviolet and x-ray radiation to further assess the impact of space flight upon live occupants. Unfortunately, the technology of the time offered no way to return Laika to Earth, so she perished in space. On April 14, 1958, Laika and Sputnik 2 returned to Earth in a fiery re-entry after 2,570 orbits.

Since we’ve got the scope out, let’s go have another look at that galaxy we spied last night!

Discovered by Caroline Herschel on September 23, 1783, NGC 253 (RA 00 47.6 Dec -25 17) is the brightest member of a concentration of galaxies known as the Sculptor Group, near to our own local group and the brightest of all outside it. Cataloged as both H V.1 and Bennett 4, this 7th magnitude beauty is also known as Caldwell 65, and due to both its brightness and oblique angle is often called the “Silver Dollar Galaxy.” As part of the SAC 110 best NGCs, you can even spot this one if you don’t live in the Southern Hemisphere. At around 10 million light-years away, this very dusty, star-forming Seyfert galaxy rocks in even a modest telescope!

Sunday, November 4 – This morning will be the peak of the Southern Taurid meteor shower. Already making headlines around the world for producing fireballs, the Taurids will be best visible in the early morning hours, but the Moon will interfere. The radiant for this shower is, of course, the constellation of Taurus and red giant Aldeberan, but did you know the Taurids are divided into two streams?

It is surmised that the original parent comet shattered as it passed our Sun around 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. The larger “chunk” continued orbiting and is known as periodic comet Encke. The remaining debris field turned into smaller asteroids, meteors and larger fragments that often pass through our atmosphere creating the astounding “fireballs” known as bolides. Although the fall rate for this particular shower is rather low at 7 per hour, these slow traveling meteors (27 km or 17 miles per second) are usually very bright and appear to almost “trundle” across the sky. With the chances high all week of seeing a bolide, this makes a bit of quiet contemplation under the stars worthy of a morning walk. Be sure to look at how close Saturn is to the Moon!

For unaided eye or binocular observers – or those who just wish something a bit “different” tonight – have a look at 19 Pisces. You’ll find it as the easternmost star in the small “circlet” just south of the Great Square of Pegasus.

Also known as TX, you’ll find this one quite delightful for its strong red color. TX is a cool giant star which varies slightly in magnitude on an irregular basis. This carbon star is located anywhere from 400 to 1000 light-years away and rivals even R Leporis’ crimson beauty.

Until next week? Wishing you clear skies!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: October 22-28, 2012

Mare Nectaris - Credit: Damian Peach

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! It’s going to be a great week to enjoy lunar studies, but why don’t we take a look at couple of other interesting objects, too? I think this would be the perfect opportunity to chase an asteroid! Not enough? Then get out your zombie hunting equipment and we’ll have a look at the “Demon Star”, too! Whenever you’re ready to learn a little more about the history and mystery of what’s out there, just meet me in the back yard…

Monday, October 22 – Something very special happened today in 2136 B.C. There was a solar eclipse, and for the very first time it was seen and recorded by Chinese astronomers. And probably a very good thing because in those days the royal astronomers were executed for failure to predict! Today is also the birthday of Karl Jansky. Born in 1905, Jansky was an American physicist as well as an electrical engineer. One of his pioneer discoveries was non-Earth-based radio waves at 20.5 MHz, a detection he made while investigating noise sources during 1931 and 1932. And, in 1975, Soviet Venera 9 was busy sending Earth the very first look at Venus’ surface.

Also today in 1966 Luna 12 was launched towards the Moon – as so shall we be. We’ll continue our lunar explorations as we look for the “three ring circus” of easily identified craters – Theophilus, Cyrillus, and Catherina – a challenging crater which spans 114 kilometers and goes below the lunar surface by 4730 meters. Are you ready to discover a very conspicuous lunar feature that was never officially named? Cutting its way across Mare Nectaris from Theophilus to shallow crater Beaumont in the south, you’ll see a long, thin, bright line. What you are looking at is an example of a lunar dorsum – nothing more than a wrinkle or low ridge. Chances are good that this ridge is just a “wave” in the lava flow that congealed when Mare Nectaris formed. This particular dorsa is quite striking tonight because of low illumination angle. Has it been named? Yes. It is unofficially known as “Dorsum Beaumont,” but by whatever name it is called, it remains a distinct feature you’ll continue to enjoy! Also to the far south along the terminator you will see Mutus, a small crater with black interior and bright, thin west wall crest. Angling further southwest from Mutus, look for a “bite” taken out of the terminator. This is crater Manzinus.

Tuesday, October 23 – Now it’s time to look for Mare Vaporum – “The Sea of Vapors” – on the southwest shore of Mare Serenitatis. Formed from newer lava flow inside an old crater, this lunar sea is edged to its north by the mighty Apennine Mountains. On its northeastern edge, look for the now washed-out Haemus Mountains. Can you see where lava flow has reached them? This lava has come from different time periods and the slightly different colorations are easy to spot even with binoculars.

Further south and edged by the terminator is Sinus Medii – the “Bay in the Middle” of the visible lunar surface. Central on the terminator, and the adopted “center” of the lunar disc, this the point from which latitude and longitude are measured. This smooth plain may look small, but it covers about as much area as the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. During full daylight temperatures in Sinus Medii can reach up to 212 degrees! On a curious note, in 1930 Sinus Medii was chosen by Edison Petitt and Seth Nicholson for a surface temperature measurement at full Moon. Experiments of this type were started by Lord Rosse as early as 1868, but on this occasion Petit and Nicholson found the surface to be slightly warmer than boiling water. Around a hundred years after Rosse’s attempt, Surveyor 6 successfully landed in Sinus Medii on November 9, 1967, and became the very first probe to “lift off” from the lunar surface.

Wednesday, October 24 – Today in 1851, a busy astronomer was at the eyepiece as William Lassell discovered Uranus’ moons Ariel and Umbriel. Although this is far beyond backyard equipment, we can have a look at that distant world. While Uranus’ small, blue/green disc isn’t exactly the most exciting thing to see in a small telescope or binoculars, the very thought that we are looking at a planet that’s over 18 times further from the Sun than we are is pretty impressive! Usually holding close to a magnitude 6, we watch as the tilted planet orbits our nearest star once every 84 years. Its atmosphere is composed of hydrogen, helium and methane, yet pressure causes about a third of this distant planet to behave as a liquid. Larger telescopes may be able to discern a few of Uranus’ moons, for Titania (the brightest) is around magnitude 14.

Let’s begin our lunar studies tonight with a deeper look at the “Sea of Rains.” Our mission is to explore the disclosure of Mare Imbrium, home to Apollo 15. Stretching out 1123 kilometers over the Moon’s northwest quadrant, Imbrium was formed around 38 million years ago when a huge object impacted the lunar surface creating a gigantic basin.

The basin itself is surrounded by three concentric rings of mountains. The most distant ring reaches a diameter of 1300 kilometers and involves the Montes Carpatus to the south, the Montes Ap-enninus southwest, and the Caucasus to the east. The central ring is formed by the Montes Alpes, and the innermost has long been lost except for a few low hills which still show their 600 kilometer diameter pattern through the eons of lava flow. Originally the impact basin was believed to be as much as 100 kilometers deep. So devastating was the event that a Moon-wide series of fault lines appeared as the massive strike shattered the lunar lithosphere. Imbrium is also home to a huge mascon, and images of the far side show areas opposite the basin where seismic waves traveled through the interior and shaped its landscape. The floor of the basin rebounded from the cataclysm and filled in to a depth of around 12 kilometers. Over time, lava flow and regolith added another five kilometers of material, yet evidence remains of the ejecta which was flung more than 800 kilometers away, carving long runnels through the landscape.

Thursday, October 25 – And who was watching the planets in 1671? None other than Giovanni Cassini – because he’d just discovered Saturn’s moon Iapetus.

Tonight let’s discover our own Moon as we take a look at Mare Insularum, the “Sea Of Islands”. Ir will be partially revealed tonight as one of the most prominent of lunar craters – Copernicus – guides the way. While only a small section of this reasonably young mare is now visible southwest of Copernicus, the lighting will be just right to spot its many different colored lava flows. To the northeast is a lunar club challenge: Sinus Aestuum. Latin for the Bay of Billows, this mare-like region has an approximate diameter of 290 kilometers, and its total area is about the size of the state of New Hampshire. Containing almost no features, this area is low albedo and provides very little surface reflectivity. Can you see any of Copernicus’ splash rays beginning to appear yet?

Today is the birthday of Henry Norris Russell. Born in 1877, Russell was the American leader in establishing the modern field of astrophysics. As the namesake for the American Astronomical Society’s highest award (for lifetime contributions to the field), Mr. Russell is the “R” in HR diagrams, along with Mr. Hertzsprung. This work was first used in a 1914 paper, published by Russell.

Tonight let’s have a look at a star that resides right in the middle of the HR diagram as we have a look Beta Aquarii.

Named Sadal Suud (“Luck of Lucks”), this star of spectral type G is around 1030 light-years distant from our solar system and shines 5800 times brighter than our own Sun. The main sequence beauty also has two 11th magnitude optical companions. The one closest to Sadal Suud was discovered by John Herschel in 1828, while the further star was reported by S.W. Burnham in 1879.

Friday, October 26 – It’s big. It’s bright. It’s the Moon! Look for a small, but very bright, small crater that you just can’t miss… Kepler! This great landmark crater named for Johannes Kepler only spans 32 kilometers, but drops to a deep 2750 meters below the surface. It’s a class I crater that’s a geological hotspot! As the very first lunar crater to be mapped by the U.S. Geological Survey, the area around Kepler contains many smooth lava domes reaching no more than 30 meters above the plains. The crater rim is very bright, consisting mostly of a pale rock called anorthosite. The “lines” extending from Kepler are fragments that were splashed out and flung across the lunar surface when the impact occurred. According to records, in 1963 a glowing red area was spotted near Kepler and extensively photographed. Normally one of the brightest regions of the Moon, the brightness value at the time nearly doubled! Although it was rather exciting, scientists later determined the phenomenon was caused by high energy particles from a solar flare reflecting from Kepler’s high albedo surface – a sharp contrast from the dark mare composed primarily of dark minerals of low reflectivity (albedo) such as iron and magnesium. The region is also home to features known as “domes” – similar to Earth’s shield volcanoes – seen between the crater and the Carpathian Mountains. In the days ahead all details around Kepler will be lost, so take this opportunity to have a good look at one awesome small crater.

This evening we are once again going to study a single star, which will help you become acquainted with the constellation of Perseus. Its formal name is Beta Persei and it is the most famous of all eclipsing variable stars. Tonight, let’s identify Algol and learn all about the “Demon Star.”

Ancient history has given this star many names. Associated with the mythological figure Perseus, Beta was considered to be the head of Medusa the Gorgon, and was known to the Hebrews as Rosh ha Satan or “Satan’s Head.” 17th century maps labeled Beta as Caput Larvae, or the “Specter’s Head,” but it is from the Arabic culture that the star was formally named. They knew it as Al Ra’s al Ghul, or the “Demon’s Head,” and we know it as Algol. Because these medieval astronomers and astrologers associated Algol with danger and misfortune, we are led to believe that Beta’s strange visual variable properties were noted throughout history.

Italian astronomer Geminiano Montanari was the first to record that Algol occasionally “faded,” and its methodical timing was cataloged by John Goodricke in 1782, who surmised that it was being partially eclipsed by a dark companion orbiting it. Thus was born the theory of the “eclipsing binary” and this was proved spectroscopically in 1889 by H. C. Vogel. At 93 light-years away, Algol is the nearest eclipsing binary of its kind, and is treasured by the amateur astronomer because it requires no special equipment to easily follow its stages. Normally Beta Persei holds a magnitude of 2.1, but approximately every three days it dims to magnitude 3.4 and gradually brightens again. The entire eclipse only lasts about 10 hours!

Although Algol is known to have two additional spectroscopic companions, the true beauty of watching this variable star is not telescopic – but visual. The constellation of Perseus is well placed this month for most observers and appears like a glittering chain of stars that lie between Cassiopeia and Andromeda. To help further assist you, re-locate last week’s study star, Gamma Andromedae (Almach) east of Algol. Almach’s visual brightness is about the same as Algol’s at maximum.

Saturday, October 27 – Tonight let’s skip the Moon and hunt down an asteroid! We’ll be locating Vesta which will be cruising along the southern border of Taurus, just about a handspan north/northwest of Betelgeuse. However, since asteroids are always on the move, the position will need to be calculated for your area, so use your local planetarium programs to get an accurate map. When you’re ready, let’s talk…

Asteroid Vesta is considered to be a minor planet since its approximate diameter is 525 km (326 miles), making it slightly smaller in size than the state of Arizona. Vesta was discovered on March 29, 1807 by Heinrich Olbers and it was the fourth such “minor planet” to be identified. Olbers’ discovery was fairly easy because Vesta is the only asteroid bright enough at times to be seen unaided from Earth. Why? Orbiting the Sun every 3.6 years and rotating on its axis in 5.24 hours, Vesta has an albedo (or surface reflectivity) of 42%. Although it is about 220 million miles away, pumpkin-shaped Vesta is the brightest asteroid in our solar system because it has a unique geological surface. Spectroscopic studies show it to be basaltic, which means lava once flowed on the surface. (Very interesting, since most asteroids were once thought to be rocky fragments left-over from our forming solar system!)

Studies by the Hubble telescope have confirmed this, as well as shown a large meteoric impact crater which exposed Vesta’s olivine mantle. Debris from Vesta’s collision then set sail away from the parent asteroid. Some of the debris remained within the asteroid belt near Vesta to become asteroids themselves with the same spectral pyroxene signature, but some escaped through the “Kirkwood Gap” created by Jupiter’s gravitational pull. This allowed these small fragments to be kicked into an orbit that would eventually bring them “down to Earth.” Did one make it? Of course! In 1960 a piece of Vesta fell to Earth and was recovered in Australia. Thanks to Vesta’s unique properties, the meteorite was definitely classified as once being a part of our third largest asteroid. Now, that we’ve learned about Vesta, let’s talk about what we can see from our own backyards.

As you can discern from images, even the Hubble Space Telescope doesn’t give incredible views of this bright asteroid. What we will be able to see in our telescopes and binoculars will closely resemble a roughly magnitude 7 “star,” and it is for that reason that I strongly encourage you to visit Heavens Above, follow the instructions and print yourself a detailed map of the area. When you locate the proper stars and the asteroid’s probable location, mark physically on the map Vesta’s position. Keeping the same map, return to the area a night or two later and see how Vesta has moved since your original mark. Since Vesta will stay located in the same area for awhile, your observations need not be on a particular night, but once you learn how to observe an asteroid and watch it move – you’ll be back for more!

Sunday, October 28 – Today in 1971, Great Britain launched its first satellite – Prospero.

Tonight we’ll launch our journey along the southern shore of Mare Humorum and identify ancient crater Vitello. Notice how this delicate ring resembles earlier study Gassendi on the opposite shore. Its slopes have been crushed by the impact that formed crater Lee to its west. As you begin to circle around Mare Humorum and start northward again, you’ll be traveling along the Rupes Kelvin – ending in the spearhead formation of Promentorium Kelvin. Here again is another extremely old feature, a triangular mountainous cape born in the pre-Imbrian period and as much as 4 billion years old. It could be as long as 41 miles and about as wide as 21 miles, but its height is impossible to judge.

Take a breath now, and we’ll look for two more dark patches to guide us on. South of Mare Humorum is darker Paulus Epidemiarum eastward and paler Lacus Excellentiae westward. To their south you will see a complex cojoined series of craters we’ll take a closer look at – Hainzel and Mee. Hainzel was named for Tycho Brahe’s assistant and measures about 70 kilometers in length and sports several various interior wall structures. Power up and look. Hainzel’s once high walls were obliterated on the north-east by the strike that caused Hainzel C and to the north by impact which caused the formation of Hainzel A. To its basic south is eroded Mee – named for a Scottish astronomer. While Crater Mee doesn’t appear to be much more than simple scenery, it spans 172 kilometers and is far older than Hainzel. While you can spot it easily in binoculars, close telescope inspection shows how the crater is completely deformed by Hainzel. Its once high walls have collapsed to the northwest and its floor is destroyed. Can you spot small impact crater Mee E on the northern edge?

Until next week, wishing you clear and steady skies!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: October 15-21, 2012

Cassiopeia A in Visible Light Courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! Whoops! (she blushes) I got so lost this weekend in researching Comet ISON that I almost forgot to post the forecast! Ah, well… As they say, better late than never, eh? If you do nothing else this week, be sure to catch the close apparition of Mercury and the “Earthshine Moon” on Wednesday and stay up late Saturday night to watch the Orionid Meteor Shower! In case I forget, just meet me in the back yard…

Monday, October 15 –Today in 1963 marks the first detection of an interstellar molecule. This discovery was made by Sander Weinreb (with Barrett, Meeks, and Henry) on the MIT Millstone Hill 84-foot dish. The discovery was made possible by new correlation receiver technology, and picked up a hydroxyl molecule in an absorption band. By using the radio galaxy Cas A as a background continuum source, the detection occurred at 1667.46 MHz and again at 1665.34 MHz. By the dawn of 2000, nearly 200 different interstellar molecules had been identified and many of these are classified as organic.

Tonight is New Moon! Let’s see what’s up there in the region of Cas A using visible light. The nearest bright star to Cas A is Beta Cassiopeiae – the bright star westward of the “W.” To locate the region of Cas A, go about three finger-widths due west of Beta and follow the subtle curve of three 5th magnitude stars. Cas A lies less than one degree south-southwest of the second star in the sequence of three. This star is a complex 5th magnitude multiple star system associated with variable star AR Cas.

Through binoculars, two stars of the AR system are easily resolved – the 4.9 magnitude primary is seen to be led across the sky by a 7.1 magnitude secondary (component C) which is a very tight double itself. Its 8.9 magnitude partner is resolvable in mid-sized scopes. Large aperture scopes may also be able to distinguish a 9.3 magnitude, second (B) component from the primary. Smaller scopes are back in the running again when attempting three 11th magnitude stars – none of which are close to the primary. Intermediate scopes can also hope to pick out a 12.9 magnitude H component northwest of C. 8.9 magnitude F also has a 9.1 magnitude near twin to the east-northeast. If you can see them all you should probably wrap an observatory building around your telescope – if one isn’t there already!

If you like to follow brightness changes in variables – AR Cas is not a good choice. This eclipsing type variable only fluctuates by a tenth of a magnitude over a period of 6 earth days.

Tuesday, October 16 – Let’s begin our evening by having a look at a radio source as we visit a pulsar located almost mid-way between Theta and Beta Capricorni – PSR2045+16.

While pulsars aren’t truly visible objects, there is still something undeniably cool about locating the field in which a rotating neutron star is sending out staccato pulses of radio waves anywhere between .001 and 4 seconds apart. If you have bright star 19 in the binocular field, then you know you’re in the right area for many radio sources, including many nearby quasars… Just imagine the possibilities!

Now let’s drop south-southeast of Beta Capricorni to have a look at a pair of doubles – Rho and Pi.

Northernmost Pi is a multiple system slightly less than 100 light-years away, with each discernable member also being a spectroscopic double. Separated by about an eighth of a light-year, look for a 5th magnitude yellow/white giant with a very close 9th magnitude companion. Further south is Pi, a triple star system which has a traditional name – Okul. Located around 670 light-years away, look for a bright blue/white 5th magnitude primary that is also a spectroscopic double – and its much easier C component, which is around magnitude 8.

Wednesday, October 17 – For naked-eye observers, enjoy the beautiful “Earthshine” Moon and the close apparition of Mercury!

While you’re out, be sure to gaze upon one of the finest of stars, Vega. Facing West at just after sundown, Vega is bright enough to shine even in the city and will appear just slightly below the zenith. The name Vega means “Falling Eagle” and it is the fifth brightest star in the sky. Enjoyed in either telescopes or binoculars, Vega has a wonderful bluish appearance and a lovely halo of spectra. This magnificent star holds a place in ancient legend and blossomed in our imaginations even more recently as it became the “star” of the movie “Contact”. As the western-most point of the “Southern Triangle”, Vega holds a special appeal for those born in the year 1985. Why? Because Vega is 27 light years away, the light you see from it tonight left the year you were born!

Now point those binoculars towards the northwestern corner of Capricornus and have a look a spectacular Alpha!

Although the Alpha 1 and 2 pairing is strictly a visual binary, that won’t stop you from enjoying their slightly yellow and orange colors. Collectively they are named Al Giedi, and the brighter of the pair is Alpha 2 at about 100 light-years distant; while Alpha 1 is around five times further away. Now power up with a telescope and you’ll find that both stars are also visual doubles! While the companion stars to both are around the same magnitude, you’ll find that Alpha 2 is separated by three times as much distance. Be sure to mark your observation lists and enjoy!

Thursday, October 18 – Today in 1959, Soviet Luna 3 began returning the first photographs of the Moon’s far side. Also today – but in 1967 – the Soviets again made history as Venera 4 became the first spacecraft to probe Venus’ atmosphere.

Have you checked out Mars lately? Mars is now leaving the constellation Scorpius and entering Ophiuchus. At more than 2 AU away from Earth, Mars has become quite dim, and its minimal apparent visual brightness is +1.24 magnitude. Can you still spot a few of its more prominent features?

For a true telescope challenge, we’ll have to go out on a limb – the southeastern lunar limb – to have a look at an unusual crater. Named for the French agrochemist and botanist Jean-Baptiste Boussingault, this elliptical-appearing crater actually spans a handsome 71 kilometers. What makes Boussingault so unusual is that it is home to its own large interior crater – A. This double-ring formation gives it a unique stepped, concentric look that’s worth your time!

When we’re done? Let’s go have a look at Gamma Aquilae just for the heck of it. Just northwest of bright Altair, Gamma has the very cool name of Tarazed and is believed to be over 300 light-years away. This K3 type giant will show just a slightly yellow coloration – but what really makes this one special is the low power field!

Friday, October 19 – Our lunar mission for tonight is a revisit on a crater named for historian and theologian Denis Pétau – Petavius! Located almost centrally along the terminator in the southeast quadrant, a lot will depend tonight on your viewing time and the age the Moon itself. Perhaps when you look, you’ll see 177 kilometer diameter Petavius cut in half by the terminator. If so, this is a great time to take a high magnification look at the small range of mountain peaks contained in its center, as well as a deep rima which runs for 80 kilometers across its otherwise fairly smooth surface. To the east lies a long furrow in the landscape. This deep runnel is Palitzsch and its Valles. While the primary crater which forms this deep gash is only 41 kilometers wide, the valley itself stretches for 110 kilometers. Look for crater Haas on Petavius’ southern edge with Snellius to the southwest and Wrottesley along its northwest wall.

Now, let’s go have a look at the northeastern corner of Capricornus as we learn about Delta…

Its proper name is Deneb Algedi and this nearly 3rd magnitude star is a stunning blue/ white. Curiously enough, it’s a rather close star – only about 50 light-years from Earth. Hovering so close to it that we cannot even correctly assess its spectral type is a binary companion whose eclipsing orbit causes Delta to be a very slight variable – with a period of just about one day. In its own way, Delta is rather historic… For it was only 4 degrees north of this star that Uranus was first sighted by Galle in 1846!

Saturday, October 20 – Tonight, let’s check out a lunar map and go hunting! First let’s start with a look at the Mare Fecunditatus region: (1)Taruntius, (2) Secchi, (3) Messier and Messier A, (4) Lubbock, (5) Guttenberg, (6) Montes Pyrenees, (7) Goclenius, (8) Magelhaens, (9) Columbo, (10) Webb, (11) Langrenus, (12) Lohse, (13) Lame, (14) Vendelinus, (15) the Luna 16 landing site

Mare Fecunditatus Region Photographic Map – Image Credit – Greg Konkel

And here is a closer look at the area around Atlas and Hercules: (1) Mare Humboldtianum, (2) Endymion, (3) Atlas, (4) Hercules, (5) Chevalier, (6) Shuckburgh, (7) Hooke, (8) Cepheus, (9) Franklin, (10) Berzelius, (11) Maury, (12) Lacus Somniorum, (13) Daniel, (14) Grove, (15) Williams, (16) Mason, (17) Plana, (18) Burg, (19) Lacus Mortis, (20) Baily, (21) Atlas E, (22) Keldysh, (23) Mare Frigoris, (24) Democritus, (25) Gartner, (26) Schwabe, (27) Thales, (28) Strabo, (29) de la Rue, (30) Hayn.

Atlas and Hercules Region Photographic Map – Image Credit – Greg Konkel

Have fun marking off lunar challenge craters from your list!

After having looked at the Moon, take the time out to view a bright southern star – Fomalhaut (RA 22 57 39 Dec -29 37 20). Also known as “The Lonely One,” Alpha Piscis Austrini seems to sit in a rather empty area in the southern skies, some 23 light-years away. At magnitude 1, this main sequence A3 giant is the southernmost visible star of its type for northern hemisphere viewers, and is the 18th brightest star in the sky. The Lonely One is about twice the diameter of our own Sun, but 14 times more luminous! Just a little visual aid is all that it takes to reveal its optical companion…

Now we are slipping into the stream of Comet Halley and into one of the finest meteor showers of the year. If skies are clear tonight, this would be the perfect chance to begin your observations of the Orionid meteor shower. But, wait for the Moon to set!

Sunday, October 21 – Be sure to be outdoors before dawn to enjoy one of the year’s most reliable meteor showers. The offspring of Comet Halley will grace the early morning hours as they return once again as the Orionid meteor shower. This dependable shower produces an average of 10-20 meteors per hour at maximum and the best activity begins before local midnight on the 20th, and reaches its best as Orion stands high to the south at about two hours before local dawn on the 21st. With the Moon nearly out of the morning picture, this is gonna’ be great!

Although Comet Halley has long since departed our Solar System, the debris left from its trail still remain scattered in Earth’s orbital path around the Sun, allowing us to predict when this meteor shower will occur. We first enter the “stream” at the beginning of October and do not leave it until the beginning of November, making your chances of “catching a falling star” even greater! These meteors are very fast, and although they are faint, it is still possible to see an occasional fireball that leaves a persistent trail.

For best success, try to get away from city lights. Facing south-southeast, simply relax and enjoy the stars of the winter Milky Way. The radiant, or apparent point of origin, for this shower will be near the red giant Alpha Orionis (Betelguese), but meteors may occur from any point in the sky. You will make your meteor watching experience much more comfortable if you take along a lawn chair, a blanket and a thermos of your favorite beverage.

Clouded out? Don’t despair. You don’t always need your eyes or perfect weather to meteor watch. By tuning an FM radio to the lowest frequency possible that does not receive a clear signal, you can practice radio meteor listening! An outdoor FM antenna pointed at the zenith and connected to your receiver will increase your chances, but it’s not necessary. Simply turn up the static and listen. Those hums, whistles, beeps, bongs, and occasional snatches of signals are our own radio signals being reflected off the meteor’s ion trail! Pretty cool, huh?

Por amour du ciel… ~Tammy