Venus Comes Out of Hiding! How to See Upcoming Conjunctions in the Evening Sky

Starting Friday the moon will be your guide to Venus' return to the evening sky. This map shows the sky facing west-northwest about 30 minutes after sunset across the middle of the U.S., but it's useful from 30-50 degrees north. Venus will be 4 degrees high at the time. Friday's moon is very thin! Stellarium

Has Venus finally come out of hiding? For the past couple months it’s kept close to the sun, hidden in its glare, but come Friday, sky watchers in mid-northern latitudes may get their first shot at seeing the planet’s return to the evening sky.

It won’t be easy, but you’ll have help from the knife-edged crescent moon. Like a spring bloom raising its head from the dark earth, Venus will poke just 4 degrees above the western horizon a half hour after sunset. The moon will be about 2 degrees to the lower left of the planet. Seeing both requires a wide open view to the west and a clean, cloudless sky. It also helps to know when the sun sets for your location – easily found by clicking HERE.

Most any binoculars will prove useful for seeing Venus in twilight this week. One of my (inexpensive) favorites is a pair of Nikon Action 8x40s. Once you spot the planet in binoculars, try to see it with your naked eye. Credit: Bob King
Most any binoculars will prove useful for seeing Venus in twilight this week. One of my (inexpensive) favorites is a pair of Nikon Action 8x40s. Once you spot the planet in binoculars, try to see it with your naked eye. Credit: Bob King

Take along a pair of binoculars. They’ll help fish out both moon and planet in the bright twilight sky. It’s also advantageous to arrive at your viewing spot a little early. Enjoy the sunset, and then take a minute to make sure you’re binoculars are focused at infinity. If you don’t, Venus will be a blur and much harder to find. I usually focus mine on a cloud or the very farthest thing out along the horizon.

Once you’re all set, point your binoculars in the sunset direction and slowly sweep back and forth. Venus will be a short distance to the left or south of the brightest glow remaining along the horizon. Since most binoculars have a field of view of 4 or 5 degrees, when you place the horizon at the bottom of the view, the moon should appear in the middle of the field and Venus up near the top. Look higher and lower and farther left and right to be thorough. Once spotted in binoculars, take the visual challenge and see if you can find it without optical aid.

Venus punctuates colorful clouds low in the west in August 2008. Credit: Bob King
Venus punctuates a colorful sky low in the west at dusk in August 2008. Credit: Bob King

If you succeed, you’ll be rewarded with an elegant eyeful. Swamped in skylight, Venus will appear unusually meek but still possess its classic fiery brilliance. The newborn crescent will float just a degree and a half (three full moon diameters) away. From the U.S. east coast, the moon will be just 24 hours old; from the west coast 27 hours. Seeing such a young moon is a rarity in itself, but in the company of Venus that much finer.

Let’s say conditions aren’t ideal and you miss the pair on Friday. Well, try again on Saturday. The moon will be higher and much easier to see. Use it as a bow to shoot an imaginary arrow horizon-ward to Venus. And did I mention Jupiter? The planet that cheerily lit up our winter nights is now departing in the west. Watch for it to have a close encounter with Venus on the nights of May 27-28.

With its perpetual clouds, Venus would be a most distressing planet to any skywatcher unfortunate enough to live there. Yet it’s those same clouds that make it the most brilliant planet in the solar system seen from Earth. Clouds reflect sunlight splendidly. Combined with Venus’ proximity to Earth, it’s no wonder the planet earned the title of goddess of love and beauty.

As Venus revolves around the sun, we see it from a constantly changing perspective from our vantage point on Earth. In May, the planet is slightly to the left or east of the sun and making its reappearance as nearly "full moon" in evening twilight. Come Halloween it will appear like a half-moon. Credit: Bob King
As Venus and Earth revolve around the sun at different speeds, we see Venus from a constantly changing perspective. In May, the planet is slightly to the left or east of the sun and looks like a miniature full moon at dusk. Come Halloween it resembles a half-moon and a crescent at Christmas. Credit: Bob King

In the first 3 months of this year, Venus remained close to the sun in the morning sky and difficult to see. Then on March 28, it passed behind the sun on the opposite side of Earth’s orbit; astronomers call the lineup superior conjunction. Seen from Earth, Venus looked like a tiny full moon. We’re now about 6 weeks past conjunction and the planet has begun to peek out into the evening sky. At 98% illuminated, it still looks nearly full through a telescope, but that will change in the coming months as Venus approaches Earth in its speedier orbit. Watch for the goddess to grow larger in apparent size while at the same time slimming down her phase from full to half to crescent. Good luck getting re-acquainted this weekend!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: August 20-26, 2012

Crater Petavius - Credit: Damian Peach

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! It’s going to be a great week to catch up on your lunar studies, but be sure to mark your calendar for Tuesday’s splendid conjunction! There will be bright stars and clusters to study, so enjoy these temperate nights while they last! Whenever you’re ready to learn more about the history, mystery and majesty of what’s out there, meet me in the back yard…

Monday, August 20 – Tonight the Moon sets by skydark, but if you’re looking for a lunar challenge, return to crater Petavius about one-third the way up from the southern cusp just after sunset. This ancient crater is a wonderland of detail when lying on the terminator. Look for its rugged walls interrupted by crater Wrottesley to the northwest and elongated Palitzsch southeast. If conditions are stable, power up to look for a massive, multi-peaked central mountain region, along with a deep scar – Rima Petavius – cutting diagonally across the wavelike floor.

When the Moon has set, look for the southern Crown – Corona Australis. Its hidden jewel is 7.3 magnitude, 28,000 light-year distant globular cluster NGC 6723 (Right Ascension: 18 : 59.6 – Declination: -36 : 38). Discovered on June 3, 1826 by James Dunlop of New South Wales, Australia, NGC 6723 can be best found by heading less than 7 degrees due south of Zeta Sagittarii. This mid-sized cluster gives a surprising view, but if you’re more north, best catch it at its highest.

Now, relax! Tonight is the peak of the Kappa Cygnid meteor shower. Although the Moon will interfere early in the evening, wait until it has set and watch the area near Deneb. Discovered in the late 1800?s, the Kappa Cygnids are often overlooked because the grander, more prolific Perseids tend to get more attention. Although the stream has been verified, peak dates and fall rates vary from year to year. The average fall rate is usually no more than 5 per hour, but it is not uncommon to see 12 or more per hour with many fireballs. The stream’s duration is around 15 days. Clear skies!

Tuesday, August 21 – Deep Blue Celestial Scenery Alert! Don’t goof around tonight. Find yourself an open western horizon and be outside at sky dark for the awe inspiring combination of the Moon, Spica, Mars and Saturn. The powerful blue/white star will be located just northeast of the lunar edge while Mars resides to the east/southeast and Saturn reigns above them all. This will be a very photographic opportunity, so be sure to take advantage of this splendid conjunction. Tell your family and friends!

Although we have traveled this road before, let’s go further south than last night’s lunar study and have another look at Furnerius. Shallower and less impressive than Petavius, Furnerius will fade to obscurity as the Moon waxes. This flooded old crater has no central peak, but a much younger crater has punched a hole in its lava-filled floor. Look for the long “crack” extending from Furnerius’ north shore to crater rim. Perhaps it was caused by the impact? Sharp-eyed observers with good conditions and high power will also spot a multitude of small craters within and along Furnerius’ walls. For binocular viewers, try spotting crater Stevinus to the north and Fraunhofer to the south.

Now let’s go have a look at a star buried in one of the spiral arms of our own galaxy – W Sagittarii…

Located less than a fingerwidth north of Gamma, the tip of the “teapot spout,” W is a Cepheid variable that’s worth keeping an eye on. While its brightness only varies by less than a magnitude, it does so in less than 8 days! Normally holding close to a magnitude 4, nearby field stars will help you correctly assess when minimum and maximum occur. While it’s difficult for a beginner to see such changes, watch it over a period of time. At maximum, it will be only slightly fainter than Gamma to the south. At minimum, it will be only slightly brighter than the stars to its northeast and southwest.

While you watch W go through its changes – think on this: not only is W a Cepheid variable (a standard for distance measurements), but it is also one that periodically changes its shape. Not enough? Then think twice… Because W is also a Cepheid binary. Still not enough? Then you might like to know that recent research points toward W having a third companion as well!

Wednesday, August 22 – On the lunar surface tonight, head to the eastern shore of Mare Nectaris to catch an easily noticed broken black line. This is the western flank of the Pyrenees Mountains which stretch close to 350 kilometers north to south. The black line you see is a good example of a lunar scarp, a feature more like a cliff than a true mountain range. This scarp ends to the north in crater Guttenberg. Just south of Guttenberg, you will find high contrast Santbech.

Although it will be tough to locate with the unaided eye thanks to the Moon, let’s take a closer look at one of the most unsung stars in this region of sky – Eta Sagittarii. This M-class giant star will show a wonderful color contrast to binoculars or scopes, being slightly more orange than the surrounding field. Located 149 light-years away, this irregular variable star is a source of infrared radiation and is a little larger than our own Sun – yet 585 times brighter. At around 3 billion years old, Eta has either expended its helium core or just begun to use it to fuse carbon and oxygen – creating an unstable star capable of changing its luminosity by about 4%. But have a closer look… For Eta is also a binary system with an 8th magnitude companion!

Thursday, August 23 – Do you remember a few days ago in history when Lunar Orbiter 1 was launched? Well, on this day in history it made headlines as it sent back the very first photo of Earth seen from space!

On the lunar surface tonight, we’ll return to identify Metius, Fabricus and Janssen to the south. Southwest of this trio you will see a sharply defined small crater known as Vlacq. Power up to resolve its small central mountain peak. Angling off to the west and extending westward is multiple crater Hommel. Look especially for Hommel A and Hommel C which fit nicely and precisely within the borders of the older crater. Note how many individual craters make up its borders. Just north of Hommel is Pitiscus and to its south is Nearch.

Now let’s have a look at the brightest star in the “Archer” – Epsilon Sagittarii. Known as Kaus Australis, or the “Southern Bow,” Epsilon holds a respectable magnitude 1.8 and is located around 120 light-years from Earth. This sparkling blue/white star is 250 times brighter than our own Sun. While a major challenge would be to spot Epsilon’s 14th magnitude companion star located about 32? away, even the smallest of telescopes and most binoculars can try for the 7th magnitude visual companion widely spaced to the north-northwest.

Friday, August 24 – Today in 1966 from an Earth-orbiting platform, the Luna 11 mission was launched on a three day trip. After successfully achieving orbit, the mission went on to study many things, including lunar composition and nearby meteoroid streams.

Tonight’s prominent lunar features are also Astronomical League challenges. Look southwest of previous study Theophilus for the huge form of Maurolycus. Its cratered floor may be either partially lit or fully disclosed depending on your observing time. Note especially Maurolycus’ multiple central mountains. North of Maurolycus you will see the well-eroded remains of Gemma Frisius. Its broken walls will show well under current illumination. Finally look carefully for crater Goodacre which has destroyed Gemma Frisius’ northern wall.

The Moon is now becoming the “highlight” of the night sky. Try using “higher power” to diminish some of its glare. While southwestern Sagittarius is also high, why not observe some of its other globular clusters?

Center the scope on Epsilon and sweep less than 3 degrees north-northeast to find small 7.7 magnitude globular M69 (Right Ascension: 18 : 31.4 – Declination: -32 : 21). M69 gives an appearance similar to that of other compact clusters – such as M28 and M80. Small and moderately bright, it appears coarsely textured through smaller instruments and requires larger scopes to bring out its brightest 14th magnitude members. This cluster sits near a blue 7th magnitude star which complicates seeing M69 through binoculars and finderscopes.

Now head a little more than a degree southeast, then north of a pair of 6th magnitude stars to locate NGC 6652 (Right Ascension: 18 : 35.8 – Declination: -32 : 59) – a very small 9th magnitude globular. Go less than 2 degrees northeast to find brighter (8.1 magnitude), larger M70 (Right Ascension: 18 : 43.2 – Declination: -32 : 18). Notice how more of M70?s light is concentrated in its core than M69. Continuing a little more than 3 degrees in the direction of Zeta we encounter M54 (Right Ascension: 18 : 55.1 – Declination: -30 : 29). Through a modest scope, this 7.7 magnitude globular is small, very blue, and intensely concentrated at the core. Larger amateur instruments will only bring out a few 15th magnitude members out of this globular’s faintly glowing form.

Charles Messier discovered M69 and M70 on August 31, 1780 from Paris while trying to confirm a discovery made by Lacaille using a half-inch spyglass in South Africa. These two globulars lie within 2,000 light-years of each other and less than 30,000 light-years from Earth. Due to unusual richness in metal content – for astronomers, “metals” are any elements other than hydrogen and helium – M69 may be a relatively young cluster. At some 90,000 light-years, M54 is the most distant Messier globular cluster – and may not be a globular at all – but the core of a dwarf galaxy beyond the bounds of the Milky Way! In fact M54 is intrinsically larger (300 light-years in diameter) and brighter (magnitude 10.1) than any other globular within the Milky Way itself.

Saturday, August 25 – Tonight the waxing Moon’s most notable features will be the vast area of craters dominating the south-central portion near and along the terminator. Now emerging is Ptolemaeus – just north-northeast of Albategnius. This large round crater is a mountain walled plain filled with lava flow. With the exception of interior crater Ptolemaeus A, binoculars will see it as very smooth. Telescopes however can reveal faint mottling in the surface of the crater’s interior, along with a single elongated craterlet to the northeast. Despite its apparent uniformity, close inspection has revealed as many as 195 interior craterlets within Ptolemaeus! Look for a variety of interior ridges and shallow depressions.

With the moonlight causing studies to be mildly hampered, our main feature for tonight will definitely improve once the Moon sets – so while we’re waiting, let’s drop by open cluster M29 (Right Ascension: 20 : 23.9 – Declination: +38 : 32) less than 2 degrees south-southeast of Gamma Cygni. At lower power, or through small scopes, its handful of brightest members makes this 6.6 magnitude open cluster look more like an asterism than a real group. Lacking any sense of a core, higher power and larger scopes will bring out another dozen or so stars. Those with binoculars will enjoy seeing a few of M29?s brightest stars against a vague nebulosity.

Now let’s see what the “I” can “C”… Less than 2 degrees southwest of M29 (just south of 5th magnitude P Cygni) lies another open cluster of similar brightness and size to M29 – IC 4996 (Right Ascension: 20 – : 16.5 – Declination: +37 : 38). How do these two compare? The less conspicuous IC 4996 lies in a richer Milky Way field and consists of fewer and more compact bright stars. Smaller scopes see this one as a patch of nebulosity.

Now for M55 (Right Ascension: 19 : 40.0 – Declination: -30 : 58). Found in the far reaches of eastern Sagittarius, and west-southwest of Zeta, M55 is one of the coarsest globulars known. At magnitude 7.0, M55 can be seen as a large pale ghost of luminosity in binoculars or finderscopes. This is one very open globular cluster! A multitude of fine, easily resolved stars spread oblately over the mid-power field. Long exposure photos show this to be a true globular glowing with the combined light of almost 100,000 suns.

Tonight is also the peak of the Northern Iota Aquarid meteor shower. While the Moon will totally interfere most of the evening, you still might catch a bright streak!

Sunday, August 26 – The most outstanding feature tonight on the Moon will be a southern crater near the terminator – Maurolycus. Depending on your viewing time, the terminator may be running through it. These shadows will multiply its contrast many times over and display its vivid formations. As true lunar challenge, Maurolycus will definitely catch your eye with its black interior and western crest stretched over the terminator’s darkness. Too many southern craters to be sure? Don’t worry. Maurolycus dominates them all tonight. Look for its double southern wall and multiple crater strikes along its edges. Maurolycus is found about two Crisium lengths southwest of Theophilus and in tonight’s light will appear especially fine. But look just north of Maurolycus to pick out the battered remains of Class III crater Gemma Frisius, another lunar challenge. Spanning 56 miles and descending 17,100 feet below the Moon’s surface, you’ll find its walls broken, yet enough of its northern boundary remains to clearly reveal the impact that created Goodacre. Look for the shadows which blend Goodacre and Gemma Frisius together.

On this date in 1981, Voyager 2 made a fly-by of Saturn. Eight years later in 1989, Voyager 2 flew by Neptune on this date. Why don’t we make a “date” tonight to have a look at this distant blue world? You’ll find it on the ecliptic plane. While large binoculars can pick up Neptune’s very tiny blue orb, you’ll need a telescope tonight to spot it through the lunar glare.

Until next week? Wishing you clear skies!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: May 28 – June 3, 2012

Hadley Rille - Credit: Damien Peach


Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! As the Venus Transit draws closer, our bright neighboring planet is quickly disappearing into the sunset glow. As we await this astronomical piece of history, let’s take the time this week to have a look at a host of wonderful lunar features and bright stars. Be sure to catch the conjunction of Spica, Saturn and the Moon – and to catch a shooting star from the Tau Herculid meteor shower! If you’re ready to learn more about the history, mystery and magic of astronomy, then grab your optics and meet me in the back yard…

Monday, May 28 – On this day in 1959, the first primates made it to space. Abel (a rhesus monkey) and Baker (a squirrel monkey) lifted off in the nose cone of an Army Jupiter missile and were carried to sub-orbital flight. Recovered unharmed, Abel died just three days later from anesthesia during an electrode removal, but Baker lived on to a ripe old age of 27.

Our first challenge for the evening will be a telescopic one on the lunar surface known as the Hadley Rille. Using our past knowledge of Mare Serenitatis, look for the break along its western shoreline that divides the Caucasus and Apennine mountain ranges. Just south of this break is the bright peak of Mons Hadley. You’ll find this area of highest interest for several reasons, so power up as much as possible.

Impressive Mons Hadley measures about 24 by 48 kilometers at its base and reaches up an incredible 4572 meters. If this mountain was indeed caused by volcanic activity on the lunar surface, this would make it comparable to some of the very highest volcanically caused peaks on Earth, such as Mount Shasta or Mount Rainer. To its south is the secondary peak Mons Hadley Delta – the home of the Apollo 15 landing site just a breath north of where it extends into the cove created by Palus Putredinus.

Along this ridgeline and smooth floor, look for a major fault line known as the Hadley Rille, winding its way across 120 kilometers of lunar surface. In places, the rille spans 1500 meters in width and drops to a depth of 300 meters below the surface. Believed to have been formed by volcanic activity some 3.3 billion years ago, we can see the impact that lower gravity has had on this type of formation, since earthly lava channels are less than 10 kilometers long and only around 100 meters wide.

During the Apollo 15 mission, Hadley Rille was visited at a point where it was only 1.6 kilometers wide – still a considerable distance as seen in respect to astronaut James Irwin and the lunar rover. Over a period of time, its lava may have continued to flow through this area, yet it remains forever buried beneath years of regolith.

Now let’s head about four fingerwidths northwest of Beta Virginis for another unusual star – Omega. Classed as an M-type red giant, this 480 light-year distant beauty is also an irregular variable which fluxes by about half a magnitude. Although you won’t notice much change in this 5th magnitude star, it has a very pretty red coloration and is worth the time to view.

Tuesday, May 29 – Today in 1919, a total eclipse of the Sun occurred and stellar measurements taken along the limb agreed with predictions based on Einstein’s General Relativity theory – the first such confirmation. Although we call it gravity, space/time curvature deflects the light of stars near the limb, causing their apparent positions to differ slightly. Unlike today’s astronomy, at that time you could only observe stars near the Sun’s limb (within less than an arc second) during an eclipse. It’s interesting to note that even Newton had his own theories on light and gravitation which predicted some deflection!

Tonight on the Moon we’ll be looking for another challenging feature and a crater which conjoins it – Stofler and Faraday.

Located along the terminator to the south, crater Stofler was named for Dutch mathematician and astronomer Johan Stofler. Consuming lunar landscape with an immense diameter of 126 kilometers and dropping 2760 meters below the surface, Stofler is a wonderland of small details in an eroded surrounding. Breaking its wall on the north is Fernelius, but sharing the southeast boundary is Faraday. Named for English physicist and chemist Michael Faraday, it is more complex and deeper at 4090 meters, but far smaller at 70 kilometers in diameter. Look for myriad smaller strikes which bind the two together!

If you’re up for a bit more of a challenge, then let’s head about 59 light-years away in Virgo for star 70. You’ll find it located about 6 degrees northeast of Eta and right in the corner of the Coma, Bootes, and Virgo border. So what’s so special about this G-type, very normal-looking 5th magnitude star?

It’s a star that has a planet.

Long believed to be a spectroscopic binary because of its 117 day shifts in color, closer inspection has revealed that 70 Virginis actually has a companion planet. Roughly 7 times larger than Jupiter and orbiting no further away than Mercury from its cooler-than-Sol parent star, 70 Virginis B just might well be a planet cool enough to support water in its liquid form.

How “cool” is that? Try about 85 degrees Celsius…

Wednesday, May 30 – Are you ready to explore some more history? Then tonight have a look at the Moon and identify Alphonsus – it’s the centermost in a line of rings which looks much like the Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catharina trio.

Alphonsus is a very old, Class V crater which spans 118 kilometers in diameter and drops below the surface by about 2730 meters and contains a small central peak. Partially flooded, Eugene Shoemaker had made of study of this crater’s formation and found dark haloes on the floor. Again, this could be attributed to volcanism and Shoemaker believed them to be maar volcanoes, and the haloes to be dark ash. Power up and look closely at the central peak, for not only did Ranger 9 hard land just northeast, but this is the only area on the Moon where an astronomer has observed a change and back up that observation with photographic proof.

On November 2, 1958 Nikolai Kozyrev’s long and arduous study of Alphonsus was about to be rewarded. Some two years earlier Dinsmore Alter had taken a series of photographs from the Mt. Wilson 60? reflector that showed hazy patches in this area that could not be accounted for. Night after night, Kozyrev continued to study at the Crimean Observatory – but with no success. During the process of guiding the scope for a spectrogram the unbelievable happened – a cloud of gas containing carbon molecules had been captured! Selected as the last target for the Ranger photographic mission series, Alphonsus delivered 5814 spectacular high-resolution images of this mysterious region before Ranger 9 splattered nearby.
Capture it yourself tonight!

Now let’s add to our double star list as we hunt down Zeta Bootes located about 7 degrees southeast of Arcturus. This is a delightful multiple star system for even small telescopes.

Thursday, May 31 – As we begin the evening, be sure to note a splendid conjunction. Tonight the waxing Moon will dominate the sky, but it’s joined by the visage of Spica and Saturn. Look for the brilliant star located just to the lunar north and the gentle giant planet about 10 degrees or so further north.

Now, let’s have a look at awesome crater Clavius. As a huge mountain-walled plain, Clavius will appear near the terminator tonight in the lunar southern hemisphere, rivaled only in sheer size by similar structured Deslandres and Baily. Rising 1646 meters above the surface, the interior wall slopes gently downward for a distance of almost 24 km and a span of 225 km. Its crater-strewn walls are over 56 km thick!

Clavius is punctuated by many pockmarks and craters; the largest on the southeast wall is named Rutherford. Its twin, Porter, lies to the northeast. Long noted as a test of optics, Clavius crater can offer up to thirteen such small craters on a steady night at high power. How many can you see?

While the glare will make it difficult to do many things, we can still have a look at other bright objects! Let’s start tonight by going just north of Zeta Bootes for Pi. With a wider separation, this pair of whites will easily resolve to the smaller telescope.

Now skip up northeast about a degree for Omicron Bootes. While this is not a multiple system, it makes for a nice visual pairing for a binocular challenge. For telescopes, the southeastern star holds interest as a small asterism.
Continue northeast another two degrees to discover Xi Bootes. This one is a genuine multiple star system with magnitude 5 and 7 companions. Not only will you enjoy this G-type sun for its duplicity, but for the fine field of stars in which it resides!

Now have a look at Mars. Over the last few weeks it has dropped significantly in brightness and has now reached an approximate +0.5 magnitude. Have you been watching its progress against the background stars? It won’t be long until it crosses constellation boundaries again.

Friday, June 1 – Tonight on the Moon, crater Copernicus will try to steal the scene, head further south to capture another lunar club challenge – Bullialdus. Even binoculars can make out this crater with ease near the center of Mare Nubium. If you’re scoping – power up – this one is fun! Very similar to Copernicus, note Bullialdus’ thick, terraced walls and central peak. If you examine the area around it carefully, you can note it is a much newer crater than shallow Lubiniezsky to its north and almost non-existent Kies to the south. On Bullialdus’ southern flank, it’s easy to make out its A and B craters, as well as the interesting little Koenig to the southwest.

Now let’s have a look at a tasty red star – R Hydrae. You’ll find it about a fistwidth south of Spica or about a fingerwidth west of Gamma Hydrae.

R was the third long term variable star to be discovered and it is credited to Maraldi in 1704. While it had been observed by Hevelius some 42 years earlier, it was not recognized immediately because its changes happen over more than a year. At maximum, R reaches near 4th magnitude – but drops well below human eye perception to magnitude 10. During Maraldi’s and Hevelius’ time, this incredible star took over 500 days to change, but it has speeded up to around 390 days in the present century.

Why such a wide range? Science isn’t really sure. R Hydrae is a pulsing M-type giant whose evolution may be progressing more rapidly than expected due to changes in structure. What we do know is that it is around 325 light-years away and is approaching us at around 10 kilometers per second.

In the telescope, R will have a pronounced red coloration which deepens near minima. Nearby is 12th magnitude visual companion star Ho 381, which was first measured for position angle and distance in 1891. Since that time no changes in separation have been noted, which leads us to believe that the pair may be a true binary.

Saturday, June 2 – Tonight would be a wonderful opportunity for Moongazers to return to the surface and have a look at the peaceful Sinus Iridum area. If you’ve been clouded out before, be sure to have a look for telescopic lunar club challenges – Promontoriums Heraclides and LaPlace.

Now let’s return again to R Hydrae. While observing a variable star with either the unaided eye, binoculars, or a telescope can be very rewarding, it’s often quite difficult to catch changes in long-term variables, because there are times when the constellation is not visible. While R Hydrae is unique in color, let’s drop about half a degree to the southeast to visit another variable star – SS Hydrae.

SS is a quick change artist – the Algol-type. While you will need binoculars or a telescope to see this normally 7.7 magnitude star, at least its fluctuations are far more rapid, with a period of only 8.2 days. With R Hydrae we have a star that expands and contracts causing the changes in brightness – but SS is an eclipsing binary. While less than a half magnitude is not a noteworthy amount, you will notice a difference if you view it over a period of time. Be sure to note that this is actually a triple star system, for there is also a 13th magnitude companion star located 13? from the primary. Watch if as often as possible and see if you can detect changes in the next few weeks!

Sunday, June 3 – If you’re up early, why not keep a watch out for the peak of the Tau Herculids meteor shower? These are the offspring of comet Schwassman-Wachmann 3, which broke up in 2006. The radiant is near Corona Borealis and we’ll be in this stream for about a month. At best when the parent comet has passed perihelion, you’ll catch about 15 per hour maximum. Most are quite faint and the westering Moon will interfere, but sharp-eyed observers will enjoy it.

Tonight let’s have a look at a very bright and changeable lunar feature that is often over-looked. Starting with the great grey oval of Grimaldi, let your eyes slide along the terminator towards the south until you encounter the bright crater Byrgius. Named for Joost Burgi, who made a sextant for Tycho Brahe, this “seen on the curve” crater is really quite large with a diameter of 87 kilometers. Perhaps one of the most interesting features of all is high albedo Byrgius A, which sits along its east wall line and produces a wonderfully bright ray system. While it is not noted as a lunar club challenge, it’s a great crater to help add to your knowledge of selenography!

Now let’s try a visual double for the unaided eye – Eta Virginis. Can you distinguish between a 4th and 6th magnitude pair?

The brighter of the two is Zaniah (Eta), which through occultation had been discovered to be a triple star. In 2002, Zaniah became the first star imaged by combining multiple telescopes with the Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer. This was the first time the three were split. Two of them are so close that they orbit in less than half the distance between the Earth and Sun!

Binocular users should take a look at visual double Rho Virginis about a fistwidth west-southwest of Epsilon. This pair is far closer and will require an optical aid to separate. The brighter of this pair – Rho – is a white, main sequence dwarf with a secret… It’s a variable! Known as a Delta Scuti type, this odd star can vary slightly in magnitude in anywhere from 30 minutes to two and a half hours as it pulsates.

For mid-to-large telescopes, Rho offers just a little bit more. The visual companion star has a visual companion as well! Less than a half degree southwest of Rho is a small, faint spiral galaxy – NGC 4608 (Right Ascension: 12 : 41.2 – Declination: +10 : 09) – at 12th magnitude, it’s hard to see because of Rho’s brightness…but it’s not alone. Look for a small, but curiously shaped galaxy labeled NGC 4596 (Right Ascension: 12 : 39.9 – Declination: +10 : 11). Its resemblance to the planet Saturn makes it well worthwhile!

Until next week? Ask for the Moon, but keep on reaching for the stars!

A Weekend Sky Show: Moon, Venus and Jupiter

Moon and Venus on Feb. 25, 2012. © Jason Major


As promised by Nancy in a previous article on Universe Today, Venus was visible during the daylight hours this Saturday, very close to the crescent Moon. If you had clear weather you may have been able to catch a glimpse of the scene above, photographed from my location in north Texas at 6:35 p.m. local time.

Dim but visible, Venus is the “star” at lower left.

Later that same evening the show really went into full force as the Moon was illuminated by Earthshine in the western sky, with Venus ablaze and Jupiter making a bright appearance as well!

Nancy wrote on Feb. 24: If you don’t see Venus during the day, try to see Venus immediately at sunset; and right now, the Moon, Venus and Jupiter are lining up for triple conjunction at dusk, and with clear skies, it will be a great view that is almost impossible to miss!

A great view indeed! I grabbed a quick shot with my iPhone camera of the conjunction, and took the opportunity to point out the view to some neighbors as well.

Conjunction of the Moon, Venus and Jupiter on Feb. 25, 2012. (Jason Major)

One of the more dramatic planetary conjunctions I’ve seen, especially with the light from a fading sunset illuminating the stage.

Sometimes the best astronomy is the type you can see with your own eyes… and be able to easily share with others!

ADDED 2/26: Sunday evening brought some great views as well! Here’s a photo from around 6:45 pm on Feb. 26th:

Jupiter, the Moon and Venus on Feb. 26, 2012. © Jason Major