If you’ve ever been impressed by the brilliance of Venus or the pulchritude of the Pleiades, you won’t want to miss what’s happening in the western sky this week. Venus has been inching closer and closer to the star cluster for months. Come Friday and Saturday the two will be only 2.5° apart. What a fantastic sight they’ll make together — the sky’s brightest planet and arguably the most beautiful star cluster side by side at dusk.
No fancy equipment is required for a great view of their close conjunction. The naked eye will do, though I recommend binoculars; a pair of 7 x 35s or 10 x 50s will increase the number of stars you’ll see more than tenfold.
Just step outside between about 8:30 and 10 p.m. local time, face west and let Venus be your guide. At magnitude -4.1, it’s rivaled in brightness only by the Moon and Sun. Early this week, Venus will lie about 5° or three fingers held together at arm’s length below the Pleiades. But each day it snuggles up a little closer until closest approach on Friday. Around that time, you’ll be able to view both in the same binocular field. Outrageously bright Venus makes for a stunning contrast against the delicate pinpoint beauty of the star cluster.
Every 8 years on mid-April evenings, Venus skirts the Pleiades just as it’s doing this week. Think back to April 2007 and you might remember a similar passage; a repeat will happen in April 2023. Venus’ cyclical visits to the Seven Sisters occur because the planet’s motion relative to the Sun repeats every 8 years as seen from Earth’s skies. No matter where and when you see Venus – morning or evening, high or low – you’ll see it in nearly the same place 8 years from that date.
But this is where it gets interesting. On closer inspection, we soon learn that not every Venus-Pleiades passage is an exact copy. There are actually 3 varieties:
* Close: Venus passes squarely in front of the cluster
* Mid-distance: Venus passes ~2.5° from the cluster
* Far: Venus passes ~3.5° from the cluster
And get this — each has its own 8-year cycle. This week’s event is part of a series of mid-distance passages that recurs every 8 years. Venus last passed directly through Pleiades in April 2012and will again in April 2020. The next most distant meeting (3.5°) happens in April 2018 and will again in 2026.
Why three flavors? Venus’ orbit is tipped 3.4° to the plane of the ecliptic or the Sun-Earth line. During each of it 8-year close passages, it’s furthest north of the ecliptic and crosses within the Pleiades, which by good fortune lie about 4° north of the ecliptic. During the other two cycles, Venus lies closer to the ecliptic and misses the cluster by a few degrees.
Fascinating that a few simple orbital quirks allow for an ever-changing variety of paths for Venus to take around (and through!) one of our favorite star clusters.
Tonight the thin, 2-day-old crescent Moon will join Venus and Mars in the western sky at dusk for one of the most striking conjunctions of the year. The otherworldly trio will fit neatly with a circle about 1.5° wide or just three times the diameter of the full moon. No question, this will catch a lot of eyes around the world. Why not take a picture and share it with your friends? Here are a few tips to do just that.
You won’t need much for an easy snapshot. In bright twilight, point your mobile phone toward the Moon and tap off a few shots, taking care not to touch the screen too hard lest you shake the phone and blur the image. The phone’s autoexposure and autofocus settings should be adequate to capture both the Moon and Venus. Mars is fainter and may only show if you can steady your phone against something to allow for a longer exposure without blurring. Assuming you use your phone in its default wide view, the Moon, Venus and Mars will form a tight, small group in a larger scene.
Phones provide the highest resolution in their wide setting. If you zoom in, the Moon will be bigger but resolution or sharpness will suffer. Someday phones will be as good as digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) but until then, you’ll need one of these or their cousins, the point-and-shoot cameras, to get the best images of astronomical objects.
You’ll also need a tripod to keep the camera still and stable during the longer exposures you’ll need during the optimum time for photography which begins about 30 minutes after sunset. That’s when your photos will capture all three objects without overexposing the Moon and making it look washed-out. Ideally, you want to see the bright crescent contrasting with the dim glow of the earthshine.
Lucky for us, the Moon’s sharp form makes an ideal target for the camera’s autofocus. Frame an attractive landscape or ask a friend to stand in the foreground. Set your lens to its widest open setting (usually f/2.8-3.5) and the ISO (your camera’s sensitivity to light) to 800. The higher the ISO, the shorter the exposure you can use to capture an image, but high ISOs introduce unwanted noise and graininess. 800’s a good compromise. If you can manually set your exposure, start at 4 seconds.
Compose your photo and then focus on the Moon and gently press the shutter button. Check the image on the back screen. Are you on target or is it too dark? If so, double the time. If too bright, half it. As the sky gets darker, you’ll need to gradually increase your exposure. That’s when the Moon will start to wash out and the beautiful deep blue sky turn black or the color of your local light pollution. Around here, that’s pinkish-orange. I’ve got lots of orange sky photos to prove it!
All told, you can use a mobile phone to shoot from about 25-40 minutes after sunset and a DSLR from 25 minutes to 75 minutes after. If you’re shooting with a standard 24-35mm lens, keep your exposures under 20 seconds or the Moon and planets will start to streak or trail. The Rule of 500 is a great way to remember how long a time exposure you can make with any lens before celestial objects start trailing. So, 500/24mm = 20.8 seconds and 500/200mm (telephoto) = 2.5 seconds. That means if you plan to shoot the conjunction with a longer lens, you’ll need to up your ISO to 1600 or even 3200 in late twilight to get a tack-sharp, motionless photo.
Telephoto images are a bit more challenging, but they increase the size of the pretty trio within the scene. When shooting telephoto images (even wide ones if you’re fussy), shoot them on self-timer. That’s the setting everyone used before the selfie took the world by storm. Most timers are pre-set to 10 seconds. You press it and the camera counts down 10 seconds before automatically tripping the shutter, allowing you time to put yourself in a group photo.
In astrophotography, using the self-timer assures you’re going to get a vibration-free photo. If it’s cold out and you’re shooting with a telephoto, vibration from your finger pressing the shutter button can jiggle the image.
Good luck tonight and clear skies! If you have any questions, please ask.
I want to alert you to a rather unusual event occurring this evening.
Many of you already know about the triple shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons Io, Europa and Callisto. That’s scheduled for late tonight.
Earlier, around nightfall, the crescent moon will lie 1° or less to the south-southwest of comet 15P/Finlay. No doubt lunar glare will hamper the view some, but what a fun opportunity to use the moon to find a comet.
Though a crescent moon isn’t what you’d call a glare bomb, I can’t predict for certain whether you’ll still see the comet in binoculars tonight or need a small telescope instead. Most likely a scope. Finlay has faded some since its outburst and now glows around magnitude +8.5.
You can try with a 10×50 or larger glass, and if you don’t succeed, whip out your telescope; a 4.5-inch or larger instrument should handle the job.
Just point it at the moon at star-hop a little to the north-northeast using the map until you see a fuzzy spot with a brighter center. That’s your comet. The tail won’t be visible unless you’re using more firepower, something closer to 10-inches.
By the way, the father south you live, the closer the moon approaches Finlay. From the far southern U.S. they’ll be just 1/2° apart. Keep going south and parts of Central and South America will actually see the earth-lit edge of moon approach and then occult the comet from view!
UPDATE: Although light clouds marred the view I had difficulty finding the comet this evening in my 10-inch scope. It’s possible it’s further faded or my conditions weren’t optimal or both. No luck BTW in binoculars.
Sunlight. Moonlight. Starlight. I saw all three for the first time in weeks yesterday. Filled with photons, I feel lighter today, less burdened. Have you been under the clouds too? Let’s hope it’s clear tonight because there’s a nice event you’ll want to see if only because it’s so effortless.
The half-moon will pass very close to the planet Uranus for skywatchers across North America this evening Sunday, Dec. 28th. Pop the rubber lens caps off those binoculars and point them at the Moon. If you look a short distance to the left you’ll notice a star-like object. That’s the planet!
You can do this anytime it’s dark, but the later you look the better because the Moon moves eastward and closer to the planet as the hours tick by. Early in the evening, the two will be separated by a couple degrees, but around 11:30 p.m. CST (9:30 p.m. PST) when the Moon reclines in the western sky, the planet will dangle like an solitary diamond less than a third of a lunar diameter away. When closest to the Moon, Uranus may prove tricky to see in its glare. If you hide the Moon behind a chimney, roofline or power pole, you’ll find it easier to see the planet.
The farther north you live, the closer the twain will be. Skywatchers in Japan, the northeastern portion of Russia, northern Canada and Alaska will see the Moon completely hide Uranus for a time. The farther west you are, the higher the Moon will be when they conjoin. West Coast states see the pair highest when they’re closest, but everyone will get a good view.
When closest, the radically different character of each world can best be appreciated in a telescope. Pump the magnification up to 150x and slide both planet and Moon into the same field of view. Uranus, a pale blue dot, wears a permanent cover of methane-laced clouds where temperatures hover around -350°F (-212°C).
The fantastically large-appearing Moon in contrast has precious little atmosphere and its sunny terrain bakes at 250°F (121°C). And just look at those craters! First-quarter phase is one of the best times for Moon viewing. The terminator or shadow-line that divides lunar day from night slices right across the middle of the lunar landscape.
Shadows cast by mountain peaks and crater rims are longest and most dramatic around this time because we look squarely down upon them. At crescent and gibbous phases, the terminator is off to one side and craters and their shadows appear scrunched and foreshortened.
Enjoy the tonight’s conjunction and consider the depth of space your view encompasses. Uranus is 1.85 billion miles (2.9 billion km) from Earth today, some 7,700 times farther away than the half-moon.
“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.
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:
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:
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!
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.
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!
This article was originally published on Aug 10, 2012. We’ve updated it and added this cool new video!
Sending spacecraft to Mars is all about precision. It’s about blasting off from Earth with a controlled explosion, launching a robot into space in the direction of the Red Planet, navigating the intervening distance between our two planets, and landing with incredible precision.
This intricate and complicated maneuver means knowing the exact distance from Earth to Mars. Since Mars and Earth both orbit the Sun – but at different distance, with different eccentricities, and with different orbital velocities – the distance between then is constantly changing
The first person to ever calculate the distance to Mars was the astronomer Giovanni Cassini, famous for his observations of Saturn. Giovanni made observations of Mars in 1672 from Paris, while his colleague, Jean Richer made the same observation from Cayenne, French Guiana. They used the parallax method to calculate the distance to Mars with surprising accuracy.
However, astronomers now calculate the distance to objects in the Solar System using the speed of light. They measure the time it takes for signals to reach spacecraft orbiting other planets. They can bounce powerful radar off planets and measure the time it takes for signals to return. This allows them to measure the distance to planets, like Mars, with incredible accuracy.
Distance Between Earth and Mars:
So, how far away is Mars? The answer to that question changes from moment to moment because Earth and Mars are orbiting the Sun. It also requires a little explanation about the orbital mechanics of each. Both Earth and Mars are following elliptical orbits around the Sun, like two cars travelling at different speeds on two different racetracks.
Sometimes the planets are close together, and other times they’re on opposite sides of the Sun. And although they get close and far apart, those points depend on where the planets are on their particular orbits. So, the Earth Mars distance is changing from minute to minute.
The planets don’t follow circular orbits around the Sun, they’re actually traveling in ellipses. Sometimes they’re at the closest point to the Sun (called perihelion), and other times they’re at the furthest point from the Sun (known as aphelion).
To get the closest point between Earth and Mars, you need to imagine a situation where Earth and Mars are located on the same side of the Sun. Furthermore, you want a situation where Earth is at aphelion, at its most distant point from the Sun, and Mars is at perihelion, the closest point to the Sun.
Earth and Mars Opposition:
When Earth and Mars reach their closest point, this is known as opposition. It’s the time that Mars appears as a bright red star of the sky; one of the brightest objects, rivaling the brightness of Venus or Jupiter. There’s no question Mars is bright and close, you can see it with your own eyes. And theoretically at this point, Mars and Earth will be only 54.6 million kilometers from each other.
But here’s the thing, this is just theoretical, since the two planets haven’t been this close to one another in recorded history. The last known closest approach was back in 2003, when Earth and Mars were only 56 million km (or 33.9 million miles) apart. And this was the closest they’d been in 50,000 years.
Here’s a list of Mars Oppositions from 2007-2020 (source)
Dec. 24, 2007 – 88.2 million km (54.8 million miles)
Jan. 29, 2010 – 99.3 million km (61.7 million miles)
Mar. 03, 2012 – 100.7 million km (62.6 million miles)
Apr. 08, 2014 – 92.4 million km (57.4 million miles)
May. 22, 2016 – 75.3 million km (46.8 million miles)
Jul. 27. 2018 – 57.6 million km (35.8 million miles)
Oct. 13, 2020 – 62.1 million km (38.6 million miles)
2018 should be a very good year, with a Mars looking particularly bright and red in the sky.
Earth and Mars Conjunction:
On the opposite end of the scale, Mars and Earth can be 401 million km apart (249 million miles) when they are in opposition and both are at aphelion. The average distance between the two is 225 million km. When Mars and Earth are at their closest, you have your launch window.
Mars and Earth reach this closest point to one another approximately every two years. And this is the perfect time to launch a mission to the Red Planet. If you look back at the history of launches to Mars, you’ll notice they tend to launch about every two years.
Here’s an example of recent Missions to Mars, and the years they launched:
MER-A Spirit – 2003
MER-B Opportunity – 2003
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter – 2005
Phoenix – 2007
Fobos-Grunt – 2011
MSL Curiosity – 2011
See the trend? Every two years. They’re launching spacecraft when Earth and Mars reach their closest point.
Spacecraft don’t launch directly at Mars; that would use up too much fuel. Instead, spacecraft launch towards the point that Mars is going to be in the future. They start at Earth’s orbit, and then raise their orbit until they intersect the orbit of Mars; right when Mars is at that point. The spacecraft can then land on Mars or go into orbit around it. This journey takes about 250 days.
Communicating with Mars:
With these incredible distances between Earth and Mars, scientists can’t communicate with their spacecraft in real time. Instead, they need to wait for the amount of time it takes for transmissions to travel from Earth to Mars and back again.
When Earth and Mars are at their theoretically closest point of 54.6 million km, it would take a signal from Earth about 3 minutes to make the journey, and then another 3 minutes for the signals to get back to Earth. But when they’re at their most distant point, it takes more like 21 minutes to send a signal to Mars, and then another 21 minutes to receive a return message.
This is why the spacecraft sent to Mars are highly autonomous. They have computer systems on board that allow them to study their environment and avoid dangerous obstacles completely automatically, without human intervention.
The distance from Earth to Mars is the main reason that there has never been a manned flight to the Red Planet. Scientists around the world are working on ways to shorten the trip with the goal of sending a human into Martian orbit within the next decade.
Sky watchers worldwide are in for a treat Sunday evening September 8, 2013 as the waxing crescent Moon passes near the dazzling planet Venus. And for a select few, the Moon will actually pass in front of Venus, in what is known as an occultation.
The action has already started this week, as the Moon reached New phase earlier today at 7:36 AM EDT/11:36 UT. The appearance of the slim crescent Moon nearest to the September equinox marks the start of the Jewish New Year with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, which this year began as early as it possibly can at sundown on September 4th. As per tradition, Rosh Hashanah formally begins when the sky is dark enough for three stars to be seen. The convention established by Hillel II in 363 A.D. uses the mean motion of the Moon to fix the start dates of the Jewish luni-solar calendar, which means that occasionally Rosh Hashanah can start a day early. This also occurred in 2002.
The New Moon has also been historically an opportune time for nighttime military operations to commence —Desert Storm in 1991 and the raid against Bin Laden in 2011 were both conducted under the darkness afforded by the absence of moonlight around a New Moon. It’s yet to be seen if planners looking to conduct airstrikes on Syria are planning on taking advantage of the same conditions to begin operations soon.
Tonight, you can see the +1st magnitude star Spica less than two degrees away from -4th magnitude Venus. This places Venus at 100 times brighter than Spica and visible before sunset if you know exactly where to look for it.
The brightest star in the constellation Virgo, Spica is 260 light years distant and on the short list of nearby stars that will eventually go supernova. Fortunately for us, Spica is well outside of the ~100 light year radius “kill zone”.
You might just be able to spy the Moon and the -1st magnitude planet Mercury low to the west at dusk for the first time for this lunation tonight or (more likely) Friday night. This is also a great time to check out LADEE’s future home as it departs for lunar orbit from Wallops Island in Virginia on Friday night.
Hey, LADEE sitting on the pad atop its Minotaur V rocket with the slim crescent Moon in the background at dusk Friday night would be a great money shot, I’m just sayin’…
This weekend will see the Moon increase in illumination and elevation above the western horizon each evening until Spica, Venus, and the waxing crescent Moon fit within a four degree circle on Sunday night. The Moon will be 12% illuminated, while Venus is currently at a gibbous phase and 72% lit.
This will also present a good chance to see Venus during the daytime, using the nearby crescent Moon as a guide. This is a fun thing to try, and no gear is required! Though Venus may seem tough to find against the bright daytime sky, appearances are deceptive. With an albedo of 67% versus the Moon’s average of 14% Venus is actually brighter than the Moon per square arc second of size!
The Moon will also occult Spica on the evening of September 8th for observers in the Middle East and Europe right around sunset. Spica is one of four bright stars that the Moon can occult in the current epoch, along with Antares, Aldebaran, and Regulus. This is also part of a series of fine occultations of Spica by the Moon ongoing from 2012 to 2014.
Sundown on September 8th offers a special treat, as the 3-day old Moon passes less than a degree from Venus worldwide. The pair will fit easily into the field of view of binoculars or a telescope at low power and present an outstanding photo op.
And for observers based in Argentina and Chile, the Moon will actually occult Venus. Occultations are grand events, a split-second astronomical event in a universe that seems to usually move at a glacial pace. This particular occultation occurs for South American observers just before & after sunset.
We witnessed and recorded a similar pairing of Venus and the daytime Moon from the shores of our camp on Saint Froid Lake in northern Maine back in 2007:
Also, keep an eye out for a ghostly phenomenon known as the ashen light on the dark limb of the Moon. Also known as Earthshine, what you’re seeing is the reflection of sunlight off of the Earth illuminating the (cue Pink Floyd) dark side of the Moon. When the Moon is a crescent as seen from the Earth, the Earth is at gibbous phase as seen from the nearside of the Moon. Remember, the lunar farside and darkside are two different things! Earthshine can vary in brightness, based on the amount of cloud and snow cover present or absent on the Earth’s moonward side. My Farmer’s Almanac-consulting grandpappy would call ashen light the “Old Moon in the New Moon’s arms,” and reckon rain was a comin’…
Be sure to check out these astronomical goings on this weekend, and send those pics in to Universe Today!
The planets are slowly returning into view this month, bashfully peeking out from behind the Sun in the dawn & dusk sky. This month offers a bonanza of photogenic conjunctions, involving the Moon, planets and bright stars.
The action begins tonight on July 8th, as the waxing crescent Moon joins the planet Venus in the dusk sky. The razor thin Moon will be a challenge on Monday night, as it just passed New on the morning of the 8th at 3:14AM EDT/7:14 Universal Time (UT). The record for spotting the thin crescent with the naked eye currently stands at 15 hours and 32 minutes, completed by Stephen O’Meara on May 1990. Binoculars help considerably in this endeavor. Wait until 15 minutes after local sunset, and then begin patiently sweeping the horizon.
Mr. Thierry Legault completed an ultimate photographic challenge earlier today, capturing the Moon at the precise moment of New phase!
This week marks the start of lunation 1120. The Moon will be much easier to nab for observers worldwide on Tuesday night, July 9th for observers worldwide. The sighting of the waxing crescent Moon will also mark the start of the Muslim month of Ramadan for 2013. Due to the angle of the ecliptic in July, many northern hemisphere observers may not spot the Moon until Wednesday night on July 10th, about 6.7 degrees south west of -4.0 magnitude Venus.
Did you know? There are Guidelines for the Performance of Islamic Rites for Muslims aboard the International Space Station. It’s interesting to note that the timing of the rituals follows the point from which the astronaut originally embarked from the Earth, which is exclusively the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for the foreseeable future of manned spaceflight.
Malaysia’s first astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor observed Ramadan aboard the International Space Station in 2007.
From there, the crescent Moon fattens, meeting up with Saturn and Spica on the evenings of July 15th and 16th. The Moon will actually occult (pass in front of) the bright star Spica on the evening of July 15/16th at ~3:33UT/11:33PM EDT (on the 15th) for observers in Central America and western South America. The rest of us will see a near miss worldwide.
This is the 13th in a cycle of 18 occultations of Spica by our Moon spanning 2012-2013. Spica is one of four stars brighter than magnitude +1.4 that lie close enough to the ecliptic to be occulted by our Moon, the others being Antares, Regulus and Aldebaran. Saturn will lie 3 degrees from the Moon on the evening of July 16th.
Can you nab Spica and Saturn near the Moon with binoculars in the daytime around the 15th? It can be done, using the afternoon daytime Moon as a guide. Crystal clear skies (a rarity in the northern hemisphere summertime, I know) and physically blocking the Sun behind a building or hill helps.
The waxing gibbous Moon will also occult +2.8 Alpha Librae for South Africa on July 17th around 17:09UT & +4.4th magnitude Xi Ophiuchi for much of North America on the night of July 19th-20th.
And speaking of Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo lies only a little over a degree (two Full Moon diameters) from Venus only the evenings of July 21st & the 22nd. 77.5 light years distant, Regulus is currently over 100 times fainter at magnitude +1.4. Can you squeeze both into the field of view of your telescope at low power? Venus’s mythical ‘moon’ Neith lives!
Venus can even occult Regulus on rare occasions, as last occurred on July 7th, 1959 and will happen next on October 1st, 2044.
But there’s morning action afoot as well. The planets Mars and Jupiter have emerged from solar conjunction on April 18th and June 19th, 2013 respectively, and can now be seen low in the dawn skies about 30 minutes before sunrise.
Mars approaches Jupiter in the dawn until the pair is only 0.79 degrees (about 48 arc minutes) apart on Monday, July 22nd. Mars shines at magnitude +1.6 and shows a tiny 3.9” disk, while Jupiter displays a 32.5” disk shining at magnitude -1.9 on this date. Conjunction occurs at about 7:00 UT/3:00 AM EDT, after which the two will begin to race apart. Mercury is visible beginning its morning apparition over 5 degrees to the lower right of the pair (see above).
Jupiter will reach opposition and reenter the evening sky on January 5th, 2014, while Mars won’t do the same until April 8th of next year. Weird factoid alert: neither Jupiter or Mars reach opposition in 2013! What effect does this have on terrestrial affairs? Absolutely none, well unless you’re a planetary imager/observer…
Mars also reaches its most northern declination of 2013 of 24 degrees in the constellation Gemini on July 16th at 7:00 AM EDT/11:00 UT. Mars can wander as far as declination 27 degrees north, as last happened in 1993.
Finally, are you observing from southern Mexico this week and up for a true challenge? The asteroid 238 Hypatia occults a +7.4 magnitude star from 10:13-10:49 UT on July 10th in the constellation Pisces for up to 29 seconds. This event will be bright enough to watch with binoculars- check out our best prospects for asteroid occultations of stars in 2013 here and here.
Good luck, clear skies, and be sure to post those astro-pics in the Universe Today’s Flickr community!
Triple planets (Venus/Jupiter/Mercury) conjunction over Mont-Saint-Michel, Normandy, France on May 26. Credit: Thierry Legault – www.astrophoto.fr Update: See expanded Conjunction astrophoto gallery below[/caption]
The rare astronomical coincidence of a spectacular triangular triple conjunction of 3 bright planets happening right now is certainly wowing the entire World of Earthlings! That is if our gallery of astrophotos assembled here is any indication.
Right at sunset, our Solar System’s two brightest planets – Venus and Jupiter – as well as the sun’s closest planet Mercury are very closely aligned for about a week in late May 2013 – starting several days ago and continuing throughout this week.
And, for an extra special bonus – did you know that a pair of spacecraft from Earth are orbiting two of those planets?
Have you seen it yet ?
Well you’re are in for a celestial treat. The conjunction is visible to the naked eye – look West to Northwest shortly after sunset. No telescopes or binoculars needed.
Just check out our Universe Today collection of newly snapped astrophoto’s and videos sent to Nancy and Ken by stargazing enthusiasts from across the globe. See an earlier gallery – here.
Throughout May, the trio of wandering planets have been gradually gathering closer and closer.
On May 26 and 27, Venus, Jupiter and Mercury appear just 3 degrees apart as a spectacular triangularly shaped object in the sunset skies – which
adds a palatial pallet of splendid hues not possible at higher elevations.
And don’t dawdle if you want to see this celestial feast. The best times are 30 to 60 minutes after sunset – because thereafter they’ll disappear below the horizon.
The sky show will continue into late May as the planets alignment changes every day.
On May 28, Venus and Jupiter close in to within just 1 degree.
And on May 30 & 31, Venus, Jupiter and Mercury will form an imaginary line in the sky.
Triple planetary conjunctions are a rather rare occurrence. The last one took place in May 2011. And we won’t see another one until October 2015.
Indeed the wandering trio are also currently the three brightest planets visible. Venus is about magnitude minus 4, Jupiter is about minus 2.
While you’re enjoying the fantastic view, ponder this: The three planets are also joined by two orbiting spacecraft from humanity. NASA’s MESSENGER is orbiting Mercury. ESA’s Venus Express is orbiting Venus. And NASA’s Juno spacecraft is on a long looping trajectory to Jupiter.
Send Ken you conjunction photos to post here.
And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013
Planning a barbecue this weekend? You may want to top it off with a look at three bright planets shuttling about the western sky at dusk. Jupiter, Venus and Mercury gather for nearly a week of delightful alignments including three separate conjunctions staring right now. Mercury and Venus pair up on Friday; Mercury and Jupiter on Sunday and Venus and Jupiter on Monday. All three form a series of ever-changing triangular arrangements as the nights go by.
Brightest of the bunch is Venus followed by Jupiter and then Mercury. The key to seeing them all is a clear sky and unobstructed view of the west-northwest horizon. Best time for viewing is a half hour to 45 minutes after sunset. Although the diagrams make the planets look like largish disks, difference in size is a device to show their brightness. Bigger means brighter.
Mercury gradually climbs higher in the coming days, Venus will remain in nearly the same spot and Jupiter slowly drops off toward the horizon. Seeing three planets bunch up isn’t rare, but it is unusual – all the more reason to go for a look if your skies are clear. Alignments like this occur because all 8 planets lie in essentially the same flat plane. As we look across the solar system, sometimes near planets and far planets lie along the same line of sight and appear side-by-side in the sky. They may look close to each other but of course they’re millions of miles apart.
This week Venus is 154 million miles (248 million km) from Earth, Mercury 113 million (182 million km) and Jupiter a distant 562 million (904 million km). The planet position diagram above will give you a sense of their current arrangement in space.
Whenever you go planet-seeking in bright twilight, I always recommend bringing along a pair of binoculars. They penetrate haze and make finding these bright little dots much easier. Enjoy the show!