Observing Neptune: A Guide to the 2014 Opposition Season

Never seen Neptune? Now is a good time to try, as the outermost ice giant world reaches opposition this weekend at 14:00 Universal Time (UT) or 10:00 AM EDT on Friday, August 29th. This means that the distant world lies “opposite” to the Sun as seen from our Earthly perspective and rises to the east as the Sun sets to the west, riding high in the sky across the local meridian near midnight.

2014 finds Neptune shining at magnitude +7.6 in the constellation of Aquarius. Unfortunately, the planet is too faint to be seen with the naked eye, but can be sighted using a good pair of binoculars if know exactly where to look for it. Though the telescope, Neptune exhibits a tiny blue-gray disk 2.4” across — 750 “Neptunes” would fit across the apparent diameter of the Full Moon — that’s barely discernible. Don’t be afraid to crank up the magnification in your quest. We’ve found Neptune on years previous by patently examining suspect stars one by one, looking for the one in the field that stubbornly refuses to focus to a star-like point. Make sure your optics are well collimated to attempt this trick. Neptune will exhibit a tiny fuzzy disk, much like a second-rate planetary nebula. In fact, this is where “planetaries” get their moniker, as the pesky deep sky objects resembled planets in those telescopes of yore…

Looking eastward
The position of Neptune, looking eastward on the night of opposition around an hour after sunset. Created using Stellarium.

The 1846 discovery of Neptune stood as a vindication of the (then) new-fangled theory of Newtonian gravitational dynamics. Uranus was discovered just decades before by Sir William Hershel in 1781, and it stubbornly refused to follow predictions concerning its position. French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier correctly assumed that an unseen body was tugging on Uranus, predicted the position of the suspect object in the sky, and the race was on. On the night of September 24th, Heinrich Louis d’Arrest and Johann Gottfried Galle observing from the Berlin observatory became the first humans to gaze upon the new world referring to it as such. Did you know: Galileo actually sketched Neptune near Jupiter in 1612? And those early 18th century astronomers got a lucky break… had Neptune happened to have been opposite to Uranus in its orbit, it might’ve eluded discovery for decades to come!

It’s also sobering to think that Neptune has only recently completed a single orbit of the Sun in 2011 since its discovery. Opposition of Neptune occurs once every 368 days, meaning that opposition is slowly moving forward by about three days a year on our Gregorian calendar and will soon start occurring in northern hemisphere Fall.

September 15th
Neptune and a one degree field (green) circle. Note that it passes the bright naked eye star Sigma Aquarii on September 15th. Created using Starry Night Education Software.

Now for the “wow factor” of what you’re actually seeing. Though tiny, Neptune is actually 24,622 kilometres in radius, and is 58 times as big as the Earth in volume and over 17 times as massive. Neptune is 29 A.U.s or 4.3 billion kilometres from Earth at opposition, meaning the light we see took almost four hours to transit from Neptune to your backyard.

Neptune is currently south of the equator, and won’t be north of it again until 2027.

Next month, keep an eye on Neptune as it passes less than half a degree north of the +4.8 magnitude star Sigma Aquarii through mid-September, making a great guide to find the planet…

Aug 29
The orbit of Triton on the evening of August 29th, superimposed on a one arc minute field of view. Created using Starry Night Software.

Still not enough of a challenge? Try tracking down Neptune’s large moon, Triton. Orbiting the planet in a retrograde path once every 5.9 days, Triton is within reach of a large backyard scope at magnitude +14. Triton never strays more than 15” from the disk of Neptune, but opposition is a great time to cross this curious moon off of your observing life list. Neptune has 14 moons at last count.

And speaking of Triton, NASA recently released a new map of the moon. We’ve only gotten one good look at Triton, Neptune, and its retinue of moons back in 1989 when Voyager 2 conducted the only flyby of the planet to date.  Will Pluto turn out to be Triton’s twin when New Horizons completes its historic flyby next summer?

The Moon also passes 4.3 degrees north of Neptune on September 8th on its way to “Supermoon 3 of 3” for 2014 on the night of September 8th/9th. Fun fact: a cycle of occultations of Neptune by the Moon commences on June 2016.

When will we explore Neptune once more? Will a dedicated “Neptune orbiter” ever make its way to the planet in our lifetimes? All fun things to ponder as you check out the first planet discovered using scientific reasoning this weekend.

A Spectacular Dawn Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter Set For August 18th

“What are those two bright stars in the morning sky?”

About once a year we can be assured that we’ll start fielding inquires to this effect, as the third and fourth brightest natural objects in the sky once again meet up.

We’re talking about a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Venus. Venus has been dominating the dawn sky for 2014, and Jupiter is fresh off of solar conjunction on the far side of the Sun on July 24th and is currently racing up to greet it.

We just caught sight of Jupiter for the first time for this apparition yesterday from our campsite on F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. We’d just wrapped up an early vigil for Perseid meteors and scrambled to shoot a quick sequence of the supermoon setting behind a distant wind farm. Jupiter was an easy catch, first with binoculars, and then the naked eye, using brilliant Venus as a guide post.

Stellarium
The view looking eastward at dawn on August 18th, including a five degree telrad (red circles) and a one degree telescopic field of view (inset). Created using Stellarium.

And Jupiter will become more prominent as the week progresses, climaxing with a fine conjunction of the pair on Monday, August 18th. This will be the closest planet versus planet conjunction for 2014. At their closest — around 4:00 Universal Time or midnight Eastern Daylight Saving Time — Venus and Jupiter will stand only 11.9’ apart, less than half the diameter of a Full Moon. This will make the pair an “easy squeeze” into the same telescopic field of view at low power. Venus will shine at magnitude -3.9, while Jupiter is currently about 2 magnitudes or 6.3 times fainter at magnitude -1.8. In fact, Jupiter shines about as bright as another famous star just emerging into the dawn sky, Sirius. Such a dawn sighting is known as a heliacal rising, and the first recovery of Sirius in the dawn heralded the flooding of the Nile for the ancient Egyptians and the start what we now term the Dog Days of Summer.

To the naked eye, enormous Jupiter will appear to be the “moon” that Venus never had next weekend. The spurious and legendary Neith reported by astronomers of yore lives! You can imagine the view of the Earth and our large Moon as a would-be Venusian astronomer stares back at us (you’d have to get up above those sulfuric acid clouds, of course!)

Said conjunction is only a product of our Earthly vantage point. Venus currently exhibits a waxing gibbous disk 10” across — three times smaller than Jupiter — but Venus is also four times closer to Earth at 1.61 astronomical units distant. And from Jupiter’s vantage point, you’d see a splendid conjunction of Venus and the Earth, albeit only three degrees from the Sun:

conjunction
Earth meets Venus, as seen from Jupiter on August 18th. Note the Moon nearby. Created using Starry Night Education Software.

How often do the two brightest planets in the sky meet up? Well, Jupiter reaches the same solar longitude (say, returns back to opposition again) about once every 13 months. Venus, however, never strays more than 47.1 degrees elongation from the Sun and can thus always be found in either the dawn or dusk sky. This means that Jupiter pairs up with Venus roughly about once a year:

A list
A list of Venus and Jupiter conjunctions, including angular separation and elongations (west=dawn, east=dusk) from now until 2020. Created by author.

Note that next year and 2019 offer up two pairings of Jupiter and Venus, while 2018 lacks even one. And the conjunction on August 27th, 2016 is only 4’ apart! And yes, Venus can indeed occult Jupiter, although that hasn’t happened since 1818 and won’t be seen again from Earth until – mark your calendars – November 22nd, 2065, though only a scant eight degrees from the Sun. Hey, maybe SOHO’s solar observing successor will be on duty by then…

Venus has been the culprit in many UFO sightings, as pilots have been known to chase after it and air traffic controllers have made furtive attempts to hail it over the years. And astronomy can indeed save lives when it comes to conjunctions: in fact, last year’s close pairing of Jupiter and Venus in the dusk sky nearly sparked an international incident, when Indian Army sentries along the Himalayan border with China mistook the pair for Chinese spy drones. Luckily, Indian astronomers identified the conjunction before shots were exchanged!

Earth strikes back...
Earth strikes back… firing a 5mw green laser at the 2013 conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. Photo by author.

Next week’s conjunction also occurs against the backdrop of Messier 44/Praesepe, also known as the “Beehive cluster”. It’ll be difficult to catch sight of M44, however, because the entire “tri-conjunction” sits only 18 degrees from the Sun in the dawn sky. Binocs or a low power field of view might tease out the distant cluster from behind the planetary pair.

And to top it off, the waning crescent Moon joins the group on the mornings of August 23rd and 24th, passing about five degrees distant. Photo op! Can you follow Venus up into the daytime sky, using the Moon as a guide? How about Jupiter? Be sure to block that blinding Sun behind a hill or building while making this attempt.

Stellarium
The Moon photobombs the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter on the weekend of August 23rd. Credit: Stellarium.

The addition of the Moon will provide the opportunity to catch a skewed “emoticon” conjunction. A rare smiley face “:)” conjunction occurred in 2009, and another tight skewed tri-conjunction is in the offering for 2056. While many national flags incorporate examples of close pairings of Venus and the crescent Moon, we feel at least one should include a “smiley face” conjunction, if for no other reason than to highlight the irony of the cosmos.

A challenge: can you catch a time exposure of the International Space Station passing Venus and Jupiter? You might at least pull off a “:/” emoticon image!

Don’t miss the astronomical action unfolding in a dawn sky near you over the coming weeks. And be sure to spread the word: astronomical knowledge may just well avert a global catastrophe. The fate of the free world lies in the hands of amateur astronomers!

Observing Challenge: The Moon Brushes Past Venus and Covers Mercury This Week

The summer astronomical action heats up this week, as the waning crescent Moon joins the inner planets at dawn. This week’s action comes hot on the tails of the northward solstice which occurred this past weekend, which fell on June 21st in 2014, marking the start of astronomical summer in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern. This also means that the ecliptic angle at dawn for mid-northern latitude observers will run southward from the northeast early in the morning sky. And although the longest day was June 21st, the earliest sunrise from 40 degrees north latitude was June 14th and the latest sunset occurs on June 27th. We’re slowly taking back the night!

The dawn patrol action begins tomorrow, as the waning crescent Moon slides by Venus low in the dawn sky Tuesday morning. Geocentric (Earth-centered) conjunction occurs on June 24th at around 13:00 Universal Time/9:00 AM EDT, as the 8% illuminated Moon sits 1.3 degrees — just shy of three Full Moon diameters — from -3.8 magnitude Venus. Also note that the open cluster the Pleiades (Messier 45) sits nearby. Well, nearby as seen from our Earthbound vantage point… the Moon is just over one light second away, Venus is 11 light minutes away, and the Pleiades are about 400 light years distant.

Jun 24 5AM Starry Night
Looking east the morning of Tuesday, June 24th at 5:00 AM EDT from latitude 30 degrees north. Created using Starry Night Education software.

And speaking of the Pleiades, Venus will once again meet the cluster in 2020 in the dusk sky, just like it did in 2012. This is the result of an eight year cycle, where apparitions of Venus roughly repeat. Unfortunately we won’t, however, get another transit of Venus across the face of the Sun until 2117!

Can you follow the crescent Moon up in to the daytime sky? Tuesday is also a great time to hunt for Venus in the daytime sky, using the nearby crescent Moon as a guide. Both sit about 32 degrees from the Sun on June 24th. Just make sure you physically block the dazzling Sun behind a building or hill in your quest.

From there, the waning Moon continues to thin on successive mornings as it heads towards New phase on Friday, June 27th at 8:09 UT/4:09 AM EDT and the start of lunation 1132. You might be able to spy the uber-thin Moon about 20-24 hours from to New on the morning prior. The Moon will also occult (pass in front of) Mercury Thursday morning, as the planet just begins its dawn apparition and emerges from the glare of the Sun.

Credit
The position of the Moon and Mercury post-sunrise on the morning of June 26th. Credit: Stellarium.

Unfortunately, catching the event will be a challenge. Mercury is almost always occulted by the Moon in the daytime due to its close proximity to the Sun. The footprint of the occultation runs from the Middle East across North Africa to the southeastern U.S. and northern South America, but only a thin sliver of land from northern Alabama to Venezuela will see the occultation begin just before sunrise… for the remainder of the U.S. SE, the occultation will be underway at sunrise and Mercury will emerge from behind the dark limb of the Moon in daylight.

Credit
The ground track of the June 26th occultation. Credit: Occult 4.0.

Mercury and the Moon sit 10 degrees from the Sun during the event. Stargazer and veteran daytime planet hunter Shahrin Ahmad based in Malaysia notes that while it is possible to catch Mercury at 10 degrees from the Sun in the daytime using proper precautions, it’ll shine at magnitude +3.5, almost a full 5 magnitudes (100 times) fainter than its maximum possible brightness of -1.5. The only other occultation of Mercury by the Moon in 2014 favors Australia and New Zealand on October 22nd.

This current morning apparition of Mercury this July is equally favorable for the southern hemisphere, and the planet reaches 20.9 degrees elongation west of the Sun on July 12th.

You can see Mercury crossing the field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera from left to right recently, along with comet C/2014 E2 Jacques as a small moving dot down at about the 7 o’clock position.

SOHO
Mercury (arrowed) and comet E2 Jacques (in the box) as seen from SOHO. (Click  here for animation)

And keep an eye on the morning action this summer, as Jupiter joins the morning roundup in August for a fine pairing with Venus on August 18th.

The Moon will then reemerge in the dusk evening sky this weekend and may just be visible as a 40-44 hour old crescent on Saturday night June 28th. The appearance of the returning Moon this month also marks the start of the month of Ramadan on the Islamic calendar, a month of fasting. The Muslim calendar is strictly based on the lunar cycle, and thus loses about 11 days per year compared to the Gregorian calendar, which strives to keep the tropical and sidereal solar years in sync. On years when the sighting of the crescent Moon is right on the edge of theoretical observability, there can actually be some debate as to the exact evening on which Ramadan will begin.

Don’t miss the wanderings of our nearest natural neighbor across the dawn and dusk sky this week!

Get Set For Comet K1 PanSTARRS: A Guide to its Spring Appearance

Get those binoculars ready: an icy interloper from the Oort cloud is about to grace the night sky.

The comet is C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS, and it’s currently just passed from the constellation Hercules into Corona Borealis and presents a good target for observers high in the sky in the hours before dawn. In fact, from our Tampa based latitude, K1 PanSTARRS is nearly at the zenith at around 6 AM local.

Observers currently place K1 PanSTARRS at magnitude +10.5 and brightening and showing a small condensed coma. Through the eyepiece, a comet at this stage will often resemble a fuzzy, unresolved globular star cluster.

And the good news is, K1 PanSTARRS will continue to brighten, headed northward through the early morning and then into the evening sky before reaching solar conjunction on August 9th, when it’ll actually pass behind the Sun for a few hours as seen from from our vantage point. We actually get two good apparitions of Comet K1 PanSTARRS: one for the northern hemisphere in the Spring and one for the southern hemisphere after it reaches perihelion and crosses south of the ecliptic plane in August.

And it’ll be worth keeping an eye out for K1 PanSTARRS online as well, as it passes into the view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera on August 2 before exiting its 15 degree field of view on August 16th.

This actually means the comet will reach opposition twice from our Earthbound vantage point: once on April 15th, and again on November 7th. And, as is often the case, this comet arrives six months early –or late, depending how you look at it- to be a fine naked eye object. Had K1 PanSTARRS reached perihelion in January, we’d have really been in for a show, with the comet only around 0.05 Astronomical Units (about 7.7 million kilometers) from the Earth!

The orbit of comet K1 PanSTARRS.
The orbit of comet K1 PanSTARRS through the inner solar system. The yellow arrows denote the motion of the planets and the comet as seen from north of the ecliptic plane. Credit-NASA/JPL Horizons Solar System Dynamics generator.

But alas, such was not to be. At its best, K1 PanSTARRS will be hidden by the glare of the Sun at its very best, to emerge into the southern sky. The comet has a steeply inclined 142 degree retrograde orbit, and thus approaches the inner solar system from high above the ecliptic plane.

These coming last weeks of March are a great time to search out K1 PanSTARRS as the Moon reaches Last Quarter this weekend and heads towards New on March 30th, beginning a two week “moonless period for AM observing in early April. Projections by veteran comet observer Seiichi Yoshida suggest that K1 PanSTARRS will begin to brighten dramatically towards +8th magnitude through April. We first picked up the now posthumous comet ISON with binoculars around this magnitude last Fall. Keep in mind, like nebula and galaxies, the apparent brightness of a comet is spread out over its surface area. This can make a +10th magnitude comet much tougher to spot than a pinpoint +10 magnitude star.

We actually prefer our trusty Canon 15x45IS image stabilized binoculars for comet hunting… they’re powerful and easy to deploy on a cold March morning!

Here’s a handy list of notable events to watch for as Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS crosses the springtime sky. Only passages of less than one degree near stars greater than magnitude +6 are mentioned except where otherwise noted:

March 17th: Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS passes into the constellation Corona Borealis.

March 21st: Passes the +5.8 magnitude star Upsilon Coronae Borealis.

March 29th: Passes the +5.4 magnitude star Rho Coronae Borealis.

March 30th: The Moon reaches New phase.

The path of comet K1 PanSTARRS through March and April
The path of comet K1 PanSTARRS in one week intervals through March and April. Created using Stellarium.

April 2nd: Passes the +4.8 magnitude star Kappa Coronae Borealis.

April 7th: Passes the +5.2 magnitude star Mu Coronae Borealis.

April 10th: Passes into the constellation of Boötes.

April 10th: Passes the +5 magnitude wide binary pair Nu Boötis.

April 15th: Comet K1 PanSTARRS reaches opposition, rising opposite to the setting Sun and moving into the evening sky.

April 20th: K1 PanSTARRS becomes circumpolar for observers above 45 degrees north until May 25th.

April 26th: Passes into the constellation Ursa Majoris.

April 29th: Passes the bright +1.9th magnitude star Alkaid in the handle of the Big Dipper asterism. This is the brightest star that K1 PanSTARRS will pass near for this apparition, and Alkaid will make a great “finder” to spot the comet.

April 29th: The Moon reaches New phase.

April 30th: Approaches the +4.7 magnitude star 24 Canum Venaticorum.

Path of comet K1 PanSTARRS Credit: Starry Night Education Software
The Spring path of comet K1 PanSTARRS from mid-March through late June. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.

May 1st: Passes into the constellation Canes Venatici.

May 1st:  Passes less than 2 degrees from the galaxy M51… photo op!

May 3rd: Passes the 5.1 magnitude star 21 Canum Venaticorum.

May 6th: K1 PanSTARRS Reaches a maximum declination of 49.5 degrees north.

May 11th: Passes the 5.3 magnitude star 3 Canum Venaticorum.

May 14th: Passes into the constellation Ursa Major.

May 17th: Another great photo ops awaits astrophotographers, as the comet passes the +3.7 magnitude star Chi Ursae Majoris and the +12 magnitude galaxy NGC 3877.

May 25th: Passes the 3rd magnitude star Psi Ursae Majoris.

May 28th: The Moon reaches New phase.

May 28th: Passes the 4.7 magnitude star Omega Ursae Majoris.

June 7th Passes into the constellation Leo Minor.

June 15th: Passes the +4.5 magnitude star 21 Leo Minoris.

June 22nd: Passes into the constellation Leo.

July 1- Passes to within 40 degrees elongation from the Sun.

And from there, Comet K1 PanSTARRS reaches perihelion just outside of the Earth’s orbit at 1.05 A.U. on August 27, and plunges south across the celestial equator on September 15.

Video animation of comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS over the span of an evening. Credit: Dan Crowson of Dardenne Prairie Missouri, used with permission. 

It’s also worth noting that K1 PanSTARRS will make its first of two approaches at a minimum distance of 1.471 A.U.s from Earth May 4th and will be moving at about a degree a day – twice the diameter of the Full Moon – before receding from us once more for a closer 1.056 A.U.  approach to Earth on August 25th.

Discovered on May 19th, 2012 by the PanSTARRS telescope based on the island of Maui, Comet K1 PanSTARRS was first spotted at 8.7 A.U.s distant, well past the orbit of Jupiter.  The PanSTARRS survey has been a prolific discoverer of asteroids and comets, including the brilliant comet C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS that graced dusk skies in March of last year.

Comet K1 PanSTARRS will join the ranks of comets reaching binocular observability later this year which includes C/2013 V5 Oukaimeden, Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, and the recently discovered C/2014 E2 Jacques, which may reach +7th magnitude as it nears perihelion this coming July.

And those are just the binocular comets that are scheduled to perform… remember, the next “big one” could come barreling in towards the inner solar system at any time to put on a memorable performance worthy of another comet Hyakutake or Hale-Bopp… just not TOO close!

–      Be sure to send those comet pics in to Universe Today.

Watch the Moon Meet Venus in the Dawn this Wednesday

Are you ready for some lunar versus planetary occultation action? One of the best events for 2014 occurs early this Wednesday morning on February 26th, when the waning crescent Moon — sometimes referred to as a decrescent Moon — meets up with a brilliant Venus in the dawn sky. This will be a showcase event for the ongoing 2014 dawn apparition of Venus that we wrote about recently.

This is one of 16 occultations of a planet by our Moon for 2014, which will hide every naked eye classical planet except Jupiter and only one of two involving Venus this year.

An occultation occurs when one celestial body passes in front of another, obscuring it from our line of sight. The term is used to refer to planets or asteroids blocking out distant stars or the Moon passing in front of stars or planets.

Wednesday’s event has a central conjunction time of 5:00 Universal. Viewers in northwestern Africa based in Mali and southern Algeria and surrounding nations will see the occultation occur in the dawn sky before sunrise, while viewers eastward across the Horn of Africa, the southern Arabian peninsula, India and southeast Asia will see the occultation occur in the daylight.

January 29th, 2014
A comparison of Venus versus the Moon in the daytime taken by Sharin Ahmad (@shahgazer) from Malaysia during the last lunation on January 29th, 2014.

Observers worldwide, including those based in Australia, Europe and the Americas will see a near miss, but early risers will still be rewarded with a brilliant dawn pairing of the second and third brightest objects in the night sky. This will also be a fine time to attempt to spot Venus in the daytime, using the nearby crescent Moon as a guide. It’s easier than you might think!  In fact, Venus is actually brighter than the Moon per apparent square arc second of surface area, owing to its higher average reflectivity (known as albedo) of 80% versus the Moon’s dusky 14%.

The International Occultation Timing Association also maintains a chart of ingress and egress times for specific locations along the track of the occultation.

Credit: Created using Occult 4.0.11.
The footprint of the Wednesday occultation of Venus by the Moon. Solid lines indicate where the occultation occurs before sunrise, while the dashed area denotes where the occultation occurs after sunrise. Credit: Created using Occult 4.1.0.11.

The Moon occults Venus 21 times in this decade. The last occultation of Venus by the Moon occurred on September 8th, 2013, and the next occurs October 23rd 2014 over the South Pacific in daylight skies very close to the Sun, and is unobservable.

Wednesday’s event also offers a unique opportunity to catch a crescent Venus emerging from behind the dark limb of the Moon. On Wednesday, Venus presents a 34” diameter disk that is 35% illuminated and shining at magnitude -4.3, while the Moon is a 12% illuminated crescent three days from New. Fun fact: February 2014 is missing a New Moon, meaning that both January and March will each contain two!

Apparent path of Venus in relation to the Moon
Apparent path of Venus in relation to the Moon Wednesday morning as seen from a theoretical geocentric (Earth-centered) location. Created using Starry Night Education software.

This also means that a well positioned observer in northwestern Africa would be able to see able to catch the dark limb of Venus creeping out from behind the nighttime side of the Moon against a dark sky. Such favorable occurrences only happen a handful of times per decade, and this week would be a great time to try and briefly spot – or perhaps even video or photograph – a phenomenon know as the ashen light of Venus as the dazzling crescent daytime side of the planet lay obscured by the Moon. Is this effect reported by observers over the years a fanciful illusion, or a real occurrence?

Perhaps, due to the remote location, this chance to spy and record this elusive effect will go unnoticed this time ‘round. The next chance with optimal possibilities to catch a crescent Venus occulted by the Moon against a dark sky occurs next year on October 8th, 2015, favoring the Australian outback. Anyone out there down for an observing expedition to prove or disprove the ashen light of Venus once and for all? Astronomy road trip!

Photo by Author
April 22nd, 2009 conjunction of Venus and the Moon as seen from Hudson, Florida. The Photo by author.

This event also provides optimal circumstances as Venus heads towards greatest elongation west of the Sun on March 22nd and the Moon-Venus pair lay 43 degrees west of the Sun during Wednesday’s event. Compare this to the impossible to observe occultation this October, when the pairing is only one degree east of the Sun! The next occultation of Venus for North America occurs next year on December 7th, 2015 and will be visible in the daytime across the extent of the track except for Alaska and Northwestern Canada.

Vexillographers may also want to take note: this week’s Venus-Moon pairing will closely emulate the familiar crescent Moon plus star pairing seen on many national flags worldwide. Did an ancient and unrecorded occultation of Venus by the Moon inspire this meme?   Tradition has it that Sultan Alp Arslan settled on the star and crescent for the flag of the Turks after witnessing a close conjunction after the defeat of the Byzantine Army at the Battle of Manzikert on August 26th, 1071 A.D. This tale, however, is almost certainly apocryphal, as no occultations of planets or bright stars by the Moon occurred on or near that date, and only two occultations of Venus by the Moon occurred that year. And Venus was less than two degrees from the Sun on that date, yet another strike against it. In fact, the only occultations of Venus by the Moon in 1071 occurred on June 29th and November 27th. Perhaps Arslan just took a while to decide…

Still, this week’s event provides a great photo-op to have “Fun with Flags” and capture the pair behind your favorite astronomical conjunction-depicting banner. And be sure to send those pics into Universe Today… methinks there’s a good chance of us running a post occultation photo-essay later this week!

See the Smallest Full Moon of 2014: It’s the “Return of the Mini-Moon”

 Last month, (and last year) we wrote about the visually smallest Full Moon of 2013. Now, in a followup  act, our natural satellite gives  us an even more dramatic lesson in celestial mechanics with an encore performance just one lunation later with the smallest Full Moon of 2014.

We’ve noted the advent of the yearly Mini-Moon, a bizzaro twin to the often over-hyped “SuperMoon,” or Proxigean Full Moon. Occurring approximately six months apart, you can always expect lunar apogee to roughly coincide with the instant of a Full Moon about half a year after it coincides with perigee. In fact, the familiar synodic period that it takes the Moon to return to like phase (such as Full back to Full) of 29.5 days has a lesser known relative known as the anomalistic month, which is the period of time it takes the Moon to return to perigee at 27.55 days.

But the circumstances for “Mini-Moon 2014” are exceptional. The first Full Moon of the year occurs on the night of January 15th at 11:52 PM EST/4:52 Universal Time (on January 16th). This is just 2 hours and 59 minutes after the Moon reaches apogee at 406,536 kilometres distant at 8:53 PM EST/1:53 UT. This isn’t the farthest apogee that occurs in 2014, but it’s close: the Moon is just 32 kilometres more distant on July 28th, 2014. Apogee can vary from 404,000 to 406,700 kilometres, and this month’s apogee falls just 164 kilometres short of the maximum value.

As you can see, this year’s Mini-Moon falls extremely close to apogee… in fact, you have to go all the way back to the Full Moon of November 18th, 1994 to find a closer occurrence, and this year’s won’t be topped until May 13th, 2052! The Moon will appear only 29’ 23” in size on Wednesday night at moonrise, very close to its minimum possible value of 29’ 18”. This is also almost 5 arc minutes smaller than the largest “Super-Moon” possible.

Cool factoid: you actually move closer to the Moon as it rises, until it transits your local meridian and you begin moving away from it, all due to the Earth’s rotation. You can thus gain and lose a maximum of one Earth radii distance from the Moon in the span one night.

We also just passed the most northern Moon of 2014, as it reached a declination of 19 degrees 24’ north this morning at 8:00 UT/3:00 AM EST. This is a far cry from the maximum that can occur, at just over 28 degrees north. This is because we’re headed towards a “shallow year” as the Moon’s motion bottoms out relative to the ecliptic in 2015 and once again begins to widen out in its 18+ year cycle to its maximum in 2024-25.

The position of the Moon Monday night on January 13th in Orion. Credit: Stellarium
The position of the Moon Monday night on January 13th in Orion. Credit: Stellarium

This week’s Moon also visits some interesting celestial targets as well. The waxing gibbous Moon sits just 5.1 degrees south of the open cluster M35 tonight. Notice something odd about the Moon’s position Monday night? That’s because it is passing through Orion the Hunter, one of the six non-zodiacal constellations that it can be found in. Can you name the other five? Hint: one was the “13th sign of the zodiac that created a non-traversy a few years back.

On Tuesday evening, the Moon passes six degrees from the planet Jupiter. This presents a fine time to try and spot the planet in the daytime to the Moon’s upper left, just a few hours prior to sunset.

The Moon will also occult the +3.6 magnitude star Lambda Geminorum on January 15th for observers in northwestern North America. In fact, viewers along a line crossing central British Columbia will witness a spectacular graze along the lunar limb as the star winks out behind lunar mountains and pops into view as it shines through lunar valleys along the edge of the Moon. This can make for an amazing video capture, we’re just throwing that out there…

The occultation footprint for Lambda Geminorum for January 15th. (Created using Occult 4.01 software)
The occultation footprint for Lambda Geminorum for January 15th. (Created using Occult 4.10.11 software)

In addition to being this year’s Mini-Moon, the January Full Moon is also known as the Wolf Moon in the tradition of the Algonquin Native Americans, as January was a time of the mid-winter season when starving wolf packs would howl through the long cold night. The January Full Moon is also sometimes referred to as “The Moon after Yule,” marking the first Full Moon after Christmas.

And just when is the next Super Moon, you might ask? Well, 2014 has three Full Moons occurring within 24 hours of perigee starting on July 15th and finishing up on September 8th. But the most notable is on August 10th, when the Moon passes perigee just 27 minutes from Full. Expect it to be preceded by the usual lunacy that surrounds each annual “Super Moon” as we once again bravely battle the forces of woo and describe just exactly what a perigee Full Moon isn’t capable of. Yes, we still prefer the quixotic term “Proxigean Moon,” but there you go.

Also, be sure to wave a China’s Chang’e-3 lander and rover in the Bay of Rainbows (Sinus Iridum) as you check out this week’s Full Moon, as it just experienced its first lunar sunrise this past week.

Be sure to send those Mini-Moon pics and more in to Universe Today, and let’s get this week’s #MiniMoon trending on Twitter!

The Quadrantid Meteor Shower-One of the Best Bets for 2014

If there’s one thing we love, it’s a good meteor shower from an obscure and defunct constellation.

Never heard of the Quadrantids?  It may well be because this brief but intense annual meteor shower occurs in the early days of January. Chilly temps greet any would be meteor watchers with hardly the balmy climes of showers such as the August Perseids. Still, 2014 presents some good reasons to brave the cold in the first week of January, to just possibly catch the best meteor shower of the year.

The Quadrantids – sometimes simply referred to as “the Quads” in hipster meteor watcher inner circles – peak on January 3rd around 19:30 Universal Time (UT) or 2:30 PM Eastern Standard Time (EST). This places the northern Asia region in the best position to watch the show, though all northern hemisphere observers are encouraged to watch past 11 PM local worldwide. Remember: meteor showers are fickle beasties, with peak activity often arriving early or late. The Quadrantids tie the December Geminids for the highest predicted Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) for 2014 at 120.

A 2012 Quadrantid meteor in the bottom left side of the frame. (Photo by Author).
A 2012 Quadrantid meteor in the bottom left side of the frame. (Photo by Author).

Though the Quads are active from January 1st to the 10th, the enhanced peak only spans an average of six to ten hours. Though high northern latitudes have the best prospects, we’ve seen Quads all the way down in  the balmy January climes of Florida from around 30 degrees north.

Rates for the Quads are typically less than 10 per hour just a day prior to the sharp peak. The moonless mornings of Friday, January 3rd and Saturday, January 4th will be key times to watch. The radiant for the Quads stands highest just hours before local sunrise.

So, what’s up with the unwieldy name? Well, the Quadrantids take their name from a constellation that no longer exists on modern star charts. Along with the familiar patterns such as Leo and Orion, exist such archaic and obscure patterns as “The Printing Office” and the “Northern Fly” that, thankfully, didn’t make the cut. Quadrans Muralis, or the Mural Quadrant, established by Jérome de Lalande in the 1795 edition of Fortin’s Celestial Atlas was one such creation.  A mural quadrant was a large arc-shaped astronomical tool used for measuring angles in the sky. Apparently, Renaissance astronomers were mighty proud of their new inventions, and put immortalized them in the sky every chance they got as sort of the IPhone 5’s of their day.

The outline of the Mural Quadrant against the backdrop of modern day constellations. (Photo and graphic by author).
The outline of the Mural Quadrant against the backdrop of modern day constellations. (Photo and graphic by author).

The Mural Quadrant spanned the modern day constellations of Draco, Hercules and Boötes. The exact radiant of the Quads lies at Right Ascension 15 Hours 18’ and declination 49.5 degrees north, in the modern day constellation Boötes just 15 degrees east of the star Alkaid.

Previous year’s maximum rates as per the IMO have been as follows:

2013: ZHR=129

2012: ZHR=83

2011: ZHR=90

2010: ZHR=No data (Bright waning gibbous Moon)

2009: ZHR=138

The parent source of the Quadrantids went unknown, until Peter Jenniskens proposed that asteroid 2003 EH1 is a likely suspect. Possibly an extinct comet, 2003 EH1 reaches perihelion at 1.2 AUs from the Sun in 2014 on March 12th, another reason to keep an eye on the Quads in 2014. 2003 EH1 is on a 5.5 year orbit, and it’s been proposed that the asteroid may have a connection to comet C/1490 Y1 which was observed and recorded by 15th century astronomers in the Far East.

The Quadrantids were first identified as a distinct meteor shower in the 1830s by European observers. Owing to their abrupt nature and their climax during the coldest time of the year, the Quadrantids have only been sporadically studied. It’s interesting to note that researchers modeling the Quadrantid meteor stream have found that it undergoes periodic oscillations due to the perturbations from Jupiter. The shower displays a similar orbit to the Delta Aquarids over a millennia ago, and researchers M. N. Youssef and S. E. Hamid proposed in 1963 that the parent body for the shower may have been captured into its present orbit only four thousand years ago.

The orbital path of Amor NEO asteroid 196256 2003 EH1. (Credit: NASA/JPL Solar System Dynamics Small-Body Database Browser).
The orbital path of Amor NEO asteroid 196256 2003 EH1. (Credit: NASA/JPL Solar System Dynamics Small-Body Database Browser).

2003 EH1 is set to resume a series of close resonnance passes of Earth and Jupiter in 2044, at which time activity from the Quads may also increase. It’s been proposed that the shower may fade out entirely by the year 2400 AD.

And the Quadrantids may not be the only shower active in the coming weeks. There’s been some discussion that the posthumous comet formerly known as ISON might provide a brief meteor display on or around the second week of January.

Be sure to note any meteors and the direction that they’re coming from: the International Meteor Organization and the American Meteor Society always welcomes any observations. Simple counts of how many meteors observed and from what shower (Quads versus sporadics, etc) from a given location can go a long way towards understanding the nature of this January shower and how the stream is continually evolving.

Stay warm, tweet those meteors to #Meteorwatch, and send those brilliant fireball pics in to Universe Today!