Exploring the Ice Giants: Neptune and Uranus at Opposition for 2018

Neptune

Have you seen the outer ice giant planets for yourself?

This week is a good time to check the most difficult of the major planets off of your life list, as Neptune reaches opposition for 2018 on Friday, September 7th at at ~18:00 Universal Time (UT)/2:00 PM EDT. And while it may not look like much more than a gray-blue dot at the eyepiece, the outermost ice giant world has a fascinating tale to tell. Continue reading “Exploring the Ice Giants: Neptune and Uranus at Opposition for 2018”

A Partial Solar Eclipse Down Under

partial solar eclipse
partial solar eclipse
A partial solar eclipse as seen from New York City on November 3rd, 2013. Image credit and copyright: Valentin Lyakhovich

Eclipse season in nigh… though most of us won’t notice the start this week. The second eclipse season for 2018 commences with the arrival of New Moon and Brown Lunation number 1182 at 3:01 Universal Time on (triskaidekaphobics take note) Friday July 13th, 2018. This eclipse is a shallow partial, just skimming the southern hemisphere of the Earth between the Australian and Antarctic continents.

The Eclipse

We doubt many eclipse chasers will make the pilgrimage to Tasmania to see such a slim partial, though we know of at least one, veteran eclipse chaser Jay Pasachoff who has expressed intent on the Yahoo! Solar Eclipse Message List (SEML) message board to head southward this week.

partial eclipse
The course of the July 13th, 2018 partial solar eclipse. NASA/A.T. Sinclair/GSFC

Tasmania gets the best view, with a maximum 9.5% obscuration of Sol as seen from the capital Hobart around 3:25 UT. The upper limit of the eclipse path just skims the southern coast of Australia across the Great Australian Bight and the southern Indian Ocean, and nicks the very southern tip of the south island of New Zealand and Steward Island at 3:48 UT with a barely discernible 1% eclipse before the lunar penumbra departs the Earth. If skies are clear, the very best view just might come along the coast of Antarctica, as the 33% eclipsed Sun rolls along the northern horizon.

Antarctic view
Looking northward along the Antarctic coast on July 13th. Credit: Stellarium

Perhaps a few lone penguins will notice, if they bother to look at the Sun filtered through the murk of the atmosphere along the horizon. France does have one permanently occupied research station in Antarctica named Dumont D’urville along the coast that will see a 30% eclipsed Sun on the horizon right around 3:00-3:15 UT.

We say that this heralds the start of eclipse season, as the ascending node where the Moon’s orbit intersects the ecliptic plane is very near the current position of the Sun. In fact, node crossing occurs at 18:50 UT on July 13th, just 24 hours after New Moon. Eclipses always occur in at least pairs, and the Full Moon two weeks later is close enough to the descending node for a nearly central total lunar eclipse on July 27th (more on that in a bit). This season, however, is special, with a third eclipse ending the cycle on August 11th, 2018, this time gracing the Arctic pole of the Earth along with Scandinavia and Russia.

We’re already seeing some hype surrounding this event as a “Supermoon eclipse,” as the Moon reaches perigee 5 hours 27 minutes past maximum eclipse. Note that this also sets us up for a Minimoon total lunar eclipse two weeks later, as the Moon is near apogee on July 27th.

The Moon’s orbit is tilted 5.145 degrees relative to the plane of the ecliptic, and the nodes make one full revolution around the Earth relative to the equinoctial points once every 18.6 years in what’s known as the precession of the line of apsides.

Viewing a Partial

A partial solar eclipse means that all safety precautions must be taken throughout all phases of the eclipse. This means using approved solar filters that fit snugly over the aperture of a telescope, and solar glasses with the approved ISO 12312-2 rating for solar viewing. We built a safe binocular filter out of a set of spare eclipse safety glasses for the August 21st, 2017 total solar eclipse last year.

Eclipse Safety
Practicing eclipse safety at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in North Carolina during the August 21st, 2017 Great American Eclipse. Image credit: Myscha Theriault

Unfortunately as of writing this, the disk of Sol is blank in terms of Earthward facing sunspots, and may be so on eclipse day. We’re currently headed towards a profound solar minimum and the Sun has already been spotless for more than half of 2018 thus far.

Don’t own a solar filter, safety glasses or a telescope? You can always use our tried and true method of projecting the eclipse using a spaghetti strainer.

It’s all in the gamma. This eclipse is partial only, because the dark inner shadow or umbra misses the Earth by 35.4% of the radius of the planet or about 1,400 miles. The gamma for an eclipse states how many Earth radii an eclipse deviates from central (where the Moon’s umbra is aimed straight at the center of the Earth) and Friday’s eclipse has a gamma value of 1.3541.

Tales of the Saros

Friday’s eclipse is part of an older saros series, member 69 of 71 eclipses for saros series 117. This saros started waaaaaay back on June 24th, 792 AD, and produced its last total solar eclipse on May 9th, 1910. This was also the last total solar eclipse for Tasmania until June 25th, 2131. This series only has two more eclipses to go, with its last event occurring briefly over the Antarctic on August 3rd, 2054. Perhaps, Friday’s event will be the very last one witnessed by human eyes for saros 117.

Tasmania eclipse
Mr. E. Carns Driffield’s drawing of Total Solar Eclipse of the Sun on 9 May 1910. Image credit: Joy Olney.

This also sets us up for the best of the three eclipses this season, the total lunar eclipse at the end of the month on July 27th. This eclipse will be widely visible across Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia—only the Americas miss out.

A Possible Views… “From Spaaaaaaace…”

The International Space Station also threads its way through the outer shadow of the Moon towards the end of the event Friday at ~3:50 UT. ESA’s solar observing Proba-2 spacecraft might just get a very brief view as well from its vantage point in low Earth orbit, around 3:09 UT.

proba-2
Proba-2’s brief view of the eclipse on July 13th at 3:08 UT. Credit: Starry Night.

And although most of us miss out on Friday’s eclipse, you can still try and spot the slender crescent Moon on the evening of Friday, July 13th. The U.S. East Coast is particularly well placed to try and spy the slim Moon low to the west, only 22 hours after New. After that, the Moon tours all of the naked eye planets, passing Mercury and Venus this weekend and passing Jupiter, Saturn and Mars en route to the July 27th total lunar eclipse.

Will anyone webcast the eclipse live? So far, no webcasts (not even from the venerable Slooh site) have surfaced… if anyone else is planning on featuring the July 13th partial solar eclipse, let us know!

It’s the biggest question when it comes to solar eclipses. When’s the next total? Well, just under a year from now, the next total solar eclipse crosses Chile and Argentina on July 2nd, 2019. Note that this event crosses over several major astronomical observatories at La Silla. How many newly minted eclipse chasers fresh off last year’s Great American Eclipse experience can’t wait until totality next visits the United States on April 8th , 2024 and plan to head to South America next summer?

partial eclipse
Partial eclipse rising over the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center on the morning of November 3rd, 2013. Image credit: Dave Dickinson.

A partial eclipse may not inspire many eclipse chasers to hop on a plane, but we can still marvel at the celestial ticks of a clockwork Universe carry on, right on schedule.

-Got the eclipse chasing bug? Read all about eclipse chasing, observing and photography in our new book, the Universe Today Guide to Viewing the Cosmos: Everything You Need to know to Become and Amateur Astronomer out on October 23rd.

Venus Returns to the Dusk Sky

Venus returns  – The changing phases of Venus, from the 2013 apparition. Credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad (@Shahgazer)

Where have all the planets gone? The end of February 2018 sees the three naked eye outer planets – Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — hiding in the dawn. It takes an extra effort to brave the chill of a February morning, for sure. The good news is, the two inner planets – Mercury and Venus – begin favorable dusk apparitions this week, putting on a fine sunset showing in March.

Venus in 2018: Venus begins the month of March as a -3.9 magnitude, 10” disk emerging from behind the Sun. Venus is already over 12 degrees east of the Sun this week, as it begins its long chase to catch up to the Earth. Venus always emerges from behind the Sun in the dusk, lapping the Earth about eight months later as it passes through inferior conjunction between the Sun and the Earth as it ventures into the dusk sky.

Follow that planet, as Venus reaches greatest elongation at 45.9 degrees east of the Sun on August 17th. Venus occupies the apex of a right triangle on this date, with the Earth at the end of one vertice, and the Sun at the end of the other.

Not all elongations of Mercury or Venus are equal, but depend on the seasonal angle of the ecliptic, and whether they occur near aphelion or perihelion. Credit: Dave Dickinson

Mercury joins the fray in early March, as the fleeting innermost world races up to meet Venus in the dusk. March 4th is a great date to check Mercury off of your life list, as the -1.2 magnitude planet passes just 66′ – just over a degree, or twice the span of a Full Moon – from Venus. Mercury reaches greatest elongation 18.4 degrees east of the Sun on March 15th.

And the Moon makes three on the evening of March 18th, as Mercury, Venus and the slim waxing crescent Moon form a line nine degrees long.

The Moon, Venus and Mercury – looking west at dusk on March 18th. Credit: Stellarium

It’s a bit of a cosmic irony: Venus, the closest planet to the Earth, is also eternally shrouded in clouds and appears featureless at the eyepiece. The most notable feature Venus exhibits are its phases, similar to the Moon’s. Things get interesting as Venus reaches half phase near greatest elongation. After that, the disk of Venus swells in size but thins down to a slender crescent. Venus’s orbit is tilted 3.4 degrees relative to the ecliptic, and on some years, you can follow it right through inferior conjunction from the dusk to the dawn sky. Unfortunately, this also means that Venus usually misses transiting the disk of the Sun, as it last did on June 5-6th, 2012, and won’t do again until just under a century from now on December 10-11th, 2117.

Small consolation prize: Mercury, a much more frequent solar transiter, will do so again next year on November 11-12th, 2019.

Amateur astronomers have, however, managed to tease out detail from the Venusian cloudtops using ultraviolet filters. And check out this amazing recent image of Venus courtesy of the Japanese Space Agency’s Akatsuki spacecraft:

Venus in the ultraviolet courtesy of JAXA’s Akatsuki spacecraft. Credit: JAXA/Akatsuki/ISAS/DARTS/Damia Bouic

It’s one of our favorite astro-challenges. Can you see Venus in the daytime? Once you’ve seen it, it’s surprisingly easily to spy… the main difficulty is to get your eyes to focus in on it without any other references against a blank sky. The crescent Moon makes a great visual aid in this quest; although the Moon’s reflectivity or albedo is actually much lower than Venus’s, it’s larger apparent size in the sky makes it stand out. Key upcoming dates to see Venus near the Moon around greatest elongation are April 17th, May 17th, June 16th, July 15th, and Aug 14th.

Apparitions of Venus also follow a predictable eight year cycle. This occurs because 13 orbits of Venus very nearly equals eight orbits of the Earth. For example, Venus will resume visiting the Pleiades star cluster during the dusk 2020 apparition, just like it did back before 2012.

Phenomena of Venus

When does Venus appear half illuminated to you? This stage is known as dichotomy, and its actual observed point can often be several days off from its theoretical arrival. Also keep an eye out for the Ashen Light of Venus, a faint illumination of the planet’s night side during crescent phase, similar to the familiar sight seen on the crescent Moon. Unlike the Moon, however, Venus has no nearby body to illuminate its nighttime side… What’s going on here? Is this just the psychological effect of the brain filling in what the eye sees when it looks at the dazzling curve of the crescent Venus, or is it something real? Long reported by observers, a 2014 study suggests that a nascent air-glow or aurora may persist on the broiling night side of Venus.

All thoughts to ponder, as you follow Venus emerging into the dusk sky this March.

Get Set For a “Super Blue Blood Moon Total Lunar Eclipse”

total lunar eclipse
total lunar eclipse
Totality! Not a “Super Blue Blood Moon Total Lunar Eclipse,” but the “Winter Solstice Total Lunar Eclipse” of December, 2010. Dave Dickinson

Can you feel the tremor in the Force? Early next Wednesday morning internet astro-memes collide, in one of the big ticket sky events of the year, with a total lunar eclipse dubbed as — get ready — a Super Blue Blood Moon total lunar eclipse.

Specifics on the eclipse: That’s a mouthful, for sure. This is the first eclipse of 2018, and only one of two featuring totality, lunar or solar. Wednesday morning’s eclipse favors the region centered on the Pacific Rim, with regions of Asia and Australia seeing the evening eclipse at moonrise, while most of North America will see totality early Wednesday morning at moonset. Only the regions of the Canadian Maritimes and the United States east of the Mississippi misses out on the spectacle’s climax, catching a partially eclipsed Moon setting in the west at sunrise.

eclipse
The path of the Moon through the Earth’s shadow and the circumstances for the January 31st, super blue blood Moon total lunar eclipse. NASA

2018 features four eclipses overall, two lunar and two solar. Paired with this eclipse is a partial solar eclipse on February 15th favoring the very southern tip of South America, followed by another total lunar eclipse this summer on July 27th. The final eclipse for 2018 is a partial solar eclipse on August 11th, favoring northern Europe and northeastern Asia.

What’s all the fuss about? Let’s dissect the eclipse, meme by meme:

Why it’s Super: Totality for this eclipse lasts 1 hour, 16 minutes and 4 seconds, the longest since April 15th, 2014. Full Moon (and maximum duration for this eclipse) occurs at 13:30 Universal Time (UT), just 27 hours after the Moon reaches perigee the day prior on January 30th at 9:55 UT . Note that this isn’t quite the closest perigee of the year in space and time: the January 1st Full Moon perigee beat it out for that title by 2,429 km (1509 miles) and 23 hours.

super blue blood moon
Worldwide circumstances for Wednesday’s super blue blood moon total lunar eclipse. NASA

Why it’s Blue: This is the second Full Moon of the month, making this month’s Moon “Blue” in the modern sense of the term. This definition comes down to us thanks to a misinterpretation in the July 1943 issue of Sky & Telescope. The Maine Farmer’s Almanac once used an even more convoluted definition of a Blue Moon as “the third Full Moon in an astronomical season with four,” and legend has it, used blue ink in the almanac printing to denote that extra spurious Moon… anyone have any old Maine Farmer’s Almanacs in the attic to verify the tale?

Note that Blue Moons aren’t all that rare… the month of March 2018 also hosts two Full Moons, while truncated February 2018 contains none, sometimes referred to as a “Black Moon”.

Why All the Blood: The cone of the Earth’s umbra or dark inner shadow isn’t completely devoid of light. Instead, you’re seeing sunlight from all the Earth’s sunrises and sunsets around its limb, filtered into the shadow of the the planet onto the nearside of the Moon. Standing on the Earthward facing side of the Moon, you would witness a solar eclipse as the Earth passed between the Moon and the Sun. Unlike the neat near fit for solar eclipses on the Earth, however, solar eclipses on the Moon can last over an hour, as the Earth appears about three times larger than the disk of the Sun. And although astronauts have witnessed eclipses from space, no human has yet stood on the Moon and witnessed the ring of fire surrounding the Earth during a solar eclipse.

Tales of the Saros: For saros buffs, this eclipse is member 49 of 74 lunar eclipses for lunar saros cycle 124, stretching all the way back to August 17th, 1152. If you caught the total lunar eclipse on January 21st, 2000, you saw the last eclipse in this cycle. Stick around until April 18th, 2144 AD and you can watch the final total lunar eclipse for saros 124.

Unlike total solar eclipses, lunar eclipses are leisurely affairs. The entire penumbral phase of the eclipse lasts for over 5 hours, though you probably won’t notice the subtle shading on the limb of the Moon until its about halfway immersed in the Earth’s penumbral shadow.

Not all total lunar eclipses are the same. Depending on how deep the Moon passes through the Earth’s shadow and the murkiness of the Earth’s atmosphere, the Moon can appear anywhere from a sickly orange, to a deep brick red during totality… for example, the Moon almost disappeared entirely during a total lunar eclipse shortly after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the early 1990s!

The color of the Moon during totality is known as its Danjon Number, with 4 being bright with a bluish cast on the outer limb of the Moon, and 0 appearing dark and deep red.

This is also one of the only times you can see that the Earth is indeed round with your own eyes as the curve of the shadow cast by our homeworld falls back across the Moon. This curve is the same, regardless of the angle, and whether the Moon is high above near the zenith, or close to the horizon.

Don’t miss the first eclipse of 2018 and the (deep breath) super blue blood Moon total lunar eclipse!

-Clouded out, or on the wrong side of the planet? Watch the January 31st eclipse live courtesy of the Virtual Telescope Project.

Here Comes Comet Heinze for the Holidays

Comet C/2017 T1 Heinze passes near the galaxy NGC 2706 on November 25th. Image credit and copyright: Charles Bell.

Yeah, we’re still all waiting for that next great “Comet of the Century” to make its presence known. In the meantime, we’ve had a steady stream of good binocular comets over the past year both expected and new, including Comet C/2017 O1 ASASSN1, 45/P Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková and Comet 41P Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák (links). Now, another newcomer is set to bring 2017 in over the finish line.

The Discovery: Astronomer Aren Heinze discovered Comet C/2017 T1 Heinze as a tiny +18th magnitude fuzzball on the night of October 2nd, 2017. The comet will juuust breech our “is interesting, take a look” +10th magnitude cutoff in the final weeks of December leading into January, perhaps topping out around +8th magnitude.

Heinze discovered his first comet as part of the Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) search program looking for hazardous objects using the eight 50 cm Wright-Schmidt telescope array atop Haleakala and Mauna Loa in the Hawaiian Islands.

The passage of Comet Heinze through the inner solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL

The orbit for Comet Heinze is an intriguing one, and as is often the case with comets, tempts us with what could have been. Heinze will vault over the ecliptic headed northward on Christmas Day, and reaches perihelion 87 million km (0.58 AU) from the Sun on February 21st, 2018. Closest passage from Earth for Comet Heinze is 33 million km (0.22 AU) on January 4th, 2018, when the comet will appear to move an amazing seven degrees a day through the constellation Camelopardalis.

But it’s the southward passage of Heinze though the ecliptic on April 1st that gives us pause, only 0.0144 AU exterior of Earth’s orbit… had this occurred on July 4th, we might’ve been in for a show, with the comet only 2.1 million kilometers away! Heinze seems like a tiny body as comets go, and there’s discussion that the comet is dynamically new and may end up shredding its nucleus all together. (link)

On a steep 97 degree inclined retrograde orbit, Comet Heinze also has a knife edge hyperbolic eccentricity of nearly 1.0. As with many long period comet, it’s tough to tell if Comet Heinze is a true denizen of our solar system, or just visiting. 2017 also saw the first asteroid whose extra-solar source was clear, as I/2017 U1 ‘Oumuamua, which passed through the inner solar system this past October.

The December path of Comet Heinze. Starry Night.

The Prospects: Currently, Comet Heinze is located highest to the south around 5AM local for northern hemisphere observers. Expect this situation to change to around 2 AM towards months end, as the comet is higher placed in the constellation Lynx come January 1st, 2018 as it nears opposition.

Comet observer Charles Bell noted on November 27th that Comet Heinze currently displays a short fan-shaped tail, about 88 days before perihelion.

Here’s the blow-by-blow for Comet Heinze for the next few months (passages mentioned here are to within a degree unless otherwise noted).

December

7- Crosses the celestial equator northward.

16- Passes near +3 magnitude star Zeta Hydrae.

18- Crosses into the constellation Cancer.

21- Passes near the open cluster M67.

25- Photo op: passes near the Beehive Cluster M44 and crosses the ecliptic northward.

29- Skirts the corner of the constellation Gemini and crosses into the Lynx.

The January 2018 passage of Comet Heinze through the inner solar system. Starry Night

January

1- May break +10th magnitude?

1- Passes near the +4.5 magnitude star 21 Lyncis.

2- Reaches opposition.

3- Passes near the +4.5 magnitude star 2 Lyncis and into the constellation Camelopardalis.

5- Passes near the +4 magnitude star Alpha Camelopardalis.

6- Passes 31 degrees from the north celestial pole.

7- Crosses into the constellation Cassiopeia.

10-Crosses the galactic equator southward.

13- Crosses into the constellation Andromeda.

14-Crosses into the constellation Lacerta.

17- Passes near the +4.5 magnitude star 6 Lacertae.

21- Passes near the +4 magnitude star 1 Lacertae.

23- Crosses into the constellation Pegasus.

February

26- Passes near the globular cluster M15.

March

1- May drop back down below +10th magnitude?

heinze
The projected light curve for Comet Heinze. Credit: Seiichi Yoshida’s Weekly Info on Bright Comets.

And though Comet Heinze won’t join their ranks, here’s a list of the great comets of the past century:

You could say we’re due.

Summer Astronomy, Minimoon & Saturn Opposition 2017

Saturn on June 1st, nearing opposition. Image credit and copyright: Peter on the Universe Today Flickr forum

Summertime astronomy leaves observers with the perennial question: when to observe? Here in Florida, for example, true astronomical darkness does not occur until 10 PM; folks further north face an even more dire situation. In Alaska, the game in late July became “on what date can you first spot a bright planet/star? around midnight.

And evening summer thunder showers don’t help. Our solution is to get up early (4 AM or so) when the roiling atmosphere has settled down a bit.

But there’s one reason to stay up late, as the planet Saturn reaches opposition next week on June 15th and crosses into the evening sky.

Southern hemisphere observers have it best this year, as the ringed planet loiters in southern declinations for the next few years. In fact, Saturn won’t pop up over the celestial equator again until April, 2026. You’ll still be able to see Saturn from mid-northern latitudes, looking low to the south.

First, a brief rundown of the planets this summer. Mars is currently on the far side of the Sun and headed towards solar conjunction of July 26th. Meanwhile, Mercury is headed towards greatest eastern (dusk) elongation on June 21st. Early AM viewers, can follow Venus, which has just passed greatest elongation west of the Sun on June 3rd, just last week. Finally, Jupiter joins Saturn in the dusk sky, high to the south at sunset and headed towards quadrature 90 degrees east of the Sun on July 6th.

Looking eastward on the evening of June 9th. Credit: Stellarium.

There’s another astronomical curiosity afoot this coming weekend: the MiniMoon for 2017. This is the Full Moon nearest to lunar apogee, a sort of antithesis of the over-hyped “SuperMoon.” Lunar apogee occurs on Thursday, June 8th and the Full Moon occurs just 14 hours after.

2017 sees Saturn traveling from the dreaded “13th constellation” of zodiac Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer into Sagittarius. This also means that Saturn is headed towards bottoming out near 23 degrees southern declination next year in late 2018. Saturn truly lives up to its “father time” namesake, marking up its slow 29 year passage once around the zodiac. This struck home to us a few years back when Saturn passed Spica in the constellation Virgo, right back where I first started observing the planet as a teenager three decades before.

The path of Saturn through the last half of 2017. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.

The rings are also at their widest tilt in 2017, making for an extra photogenic view. 27 degrees wide as seen from our Earthly vantage point is as wide as Saturn’s ring system ever gets. Saturn isn’t really “tipping” back and forth as much as it’s orbiting the Sun and dipping one hemisphere towards us, and then another. In 2017, it’s the planet’s northern hemisphere time to shine.

Saturn: the changing view. Image credit and copyright: Andrew Symes (@failedprotostar)

Here’s the last/next cycle rundown:

-Rings wide open: (southern pole of Saturn tipped earthward): 2003

Rings edge on: 2009

Rings wide open: (northern pole of Saturn tipped earthward): 2017

-Rings edge on: 2025

-Rings wide open: (southern pole of Saturn tipped earthward): 2032

Even a small 60 mm refractor and a low power eyepiece will reveal the most glorious facet of Saturn: its glorious rings. Galileo first saw this confounding view in 1610, and sketched Saturn as a curious double-handled world. In 1655 Christaan Huygens first correctly deduced that Saturn’s rings are a flat plane, fully disconnected from the planet itself.

Crank up the magnification a bit, and the large Cassini Gap in the rings and the shadow play of the rings and the planet becomes apparent. This gives the view an amazing 3-D effect unparalleled in observational astronomy. The shadow cast by the bulk of the planet disappears behind it during opposition, then slowly starts to reemerge to one side after. Other things to watch for include the retro-reflector Seeliger Effect ( also known as opposition surge) as the planet brightens near opposition. And can you spy the bulk of the planet through the Cassini gap?

The moons of Saturn. Image credit and copyright: John Chumack

Hunting for Saturn’s moons is also a fun challenge. Saturn has more moons visible to a backyard telescope than any other planet. Titan is easiest, as the +8 magnitude moon orbits Saturn once every 16 days. In a small to medium-sized (8-inch) telescope, six moons are readily visible: Enceladus, Mimas, Rhea, Dione, Iapetus and Tethys. Large light bucket scopes 10” and larger might just also tease out the two faint +15th magnitude moons Hyperion and Phoebe.

Saturn
Cassini looks back across Saturn’s rings. NASA/Cassini/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

There’s also something else special about Saturn in 2017 in the world of space flight: the venerable Cassini mission comes to an end this September. Hard to believe, this mission soon won’t be with us. Launched in 1997, Cassini arrived at Saturn in in July 2004, and has since provided us with an amazing decade plus of science. The internet and science writing online has grown up with Cassini, and it’ll be a sad moment to see it go.

All thoughts to ponder, as you check out Saturn at the eyepiece this summer.

Movie Review – Alien: Covenant

Promotional poster for Alien: Covenant. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Warning: mild plot spoilers ahead for the upcoming summer film Alien: Covenant, though we plan to focus more on the overall Alien sci-fi franchise and some of the science depicted in the movie.

So, are you excited for the 2017 movie season? U.S. Memorial Day weekend is almost upon us, and that means big ticket, explosion-laden sci-fi flicks and reboots/sequels. Lots of sequels. We recently got a chance to check out Alien: Covenant opening Thursday, May 18th as the second prequel and the seventh film (if you count 2004’s Alien vs. Predator offshoot) in the Alien franchise.

We’ll say right up front that we were both excited and skeptical to see the film… excited, because the early Alien films still stand as some of the best horror sci-fi ever made. But we were skeptical, as 2012’s Prometheus was lackluster at best. Plus, Prometheus hits you with an astronomical doozy in the form of the “alien star chart” right off the bat, not a great first step. Probably the best scene is Noomi Rapace’s terrifying self-surgery to remove the alien parasite. Mark Watney had to do something similar to remove the antenna impaled in his side in The Martian. Apparently, Ridley Scott likes to use this sort of scene to really gross audiences out. The second Aliens film probably stands as the benchmark for the series, and the third film lost fans almost immediately with the death of Newt at the very beginning, the girl Sigourney Weaver and crew fought so hard to save in Aliens.

How well does Alien: Covenant hold up? Well, while it was a better attempt at a prequel than Prometheus, it approaches though doesn’t surpass the iconic first two. Alien: Covenant is very similar to Aliens, right down to the same action beats.

The story opens as the crew of the first Earth interstellar colony ship Covenant heads towards a promised paradise planet Origae-6. En route, the crew receives a distress signal from the world where the ill-fated Prometheus disappeared, and detours to investigate. If you’ve never seen an Alien film before, we can tell you that investigating a mysterious transmission is always a very bad idea, as blood and gore via face-hugging parasites is bound to ensue. As with every Alien film, the crew of the Covenant is an entirely new cast, with Katherine Waterston as the new chief protagonist similar to Sigourney Weaver in the original films. And like any sci-fi horror film, expect few survivors.

Alien: Covenant is a worthy addition to the Alien franchise for fans who know what to expect, hearkening back to the original films. As a summer blockbuster, it has a bit of an uphill battle, with a slower opening before the real drama begins.

So how does the science of Alien: Covenant hold up?

The Good: Well, as with the earlier films, we always liked how the aliens in the franchise were truly, well, alien, not just human actors with cosmetic flourishes such as antennae or pointed ears. Humans are the result of evolutionary fortuity, assuring that an alien life form will trend more towards the heptapods in Arrival than Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. Still more is revealed about the parasitic aliens in Alien: Covenant, though the whole idea of a inter-genetic human alien hybrid advanced in the later films seems like a tall order… what if their DNA helix curled the wrong way? Or was triple or single, instead of double stranded?

Spaceships spin for gravity in the Alien universe, and I always liked Scott’s industrial-looking, gray steel and rough edges world in the Alien films, very 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Now, for a very few pedantic nit picks. You knew they were coming, right? In the opening scenes, the Covenant gets hit with a “neutrino burst” dramatically disabling the deployed solar array and killing a portion of the hibernating crew. Through neutrinos are real, they, for the most part, pass right through solid matter, with nary a hit. Millions are passing through you and me, right now. The burst is later described as due to a “stellar ignition event” (a flare? Maybe a nova?) Though the crew states there’s no way to predict these beforehand… but even today there is, as missions such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory and SOHO monitor Sol around the clock. And we do know which nearby stars such as Betelgeuse and Spica are likely to go supernova, and that red dwarfs are tempestuous flare stars. An interstellar colonization mission would (or at least should) know to monitor nearby stars (if any) for activity. True, a similar sort of maguffin in the form of the overblown Mars sandstorm was used in The Martian to get things rolling plot-wise, but we think maybe something like equally unpredictable bursts high-energy cosmic rays would be a bigger threat to an interstellar mission.

The crew also decides to detour while moving at presumably relativistic speeds to investigate the strange signal. This actually happens lots in sci-fi, as it seems as easy as running errands around town to simply hop from one world to the next. In reality, mass and change of momentum are costly affairs in terms of energy. In space, you want to get there quickly, but any interstellar mission would involve long stretches of slow acceleration followed by deceleration to enter orbit at your destination… changing this flight plan would be out of the question, even for the futuristic crew of the Covenant.

Expect a high body count: the crew of the Covenant. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Another tiny quibble: the Covenant’s computer pinpoints the source of the mysterious signal, and gives its coordinates in right ascension and declination. OK, this is good: RA and declination are part of a real coordinate system astronomers use to find things in the sky… here on Earth. It’s an equatorial system, though, hardly handy when you get out into space. Maybe a reference system using the plane of the Milky Way galaxy would be more useful.

But of course, had the crew of the Covenant uneventfully made it to Origae-6 and lived happily ever after stomach-exploding parasite free, there would be no film. Alien: Covenant is a worthy addition to the franchise and a better prequel attempt than Prometheus… though it doesn’t quite live up to the thrill ride of the first two, a tough act to follow in the realm of horror sci-fi.

See Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS at its Best

ER61 PanSTARRS
ER61 PanSTARRS
Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS shortly after outburst on April 8th. Image credit and copyright: John Purvis.

Have you been following the springtime parade of bright comets? Thus far, the Oort cloud has offered up several fine binocular comets, including Comet 2/P Encke, 41/P Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, 45/P Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, C/2016 U1 NEOWISE and C/2017 E4 Lovejoy. Now, another comet joins the dawn ranks, as it brightens up ahead of expectations: 2015 ER61 PanSTARRS.

Discovered on March 15th, 2015 by the prolific PanSTARRS-1 NEO survey atop Haleakala in Maui, Hawaii, Comet ER61 PanSTARRS made our who’s-who list of bright comets to watch for in 2017. The odd “ER61” designation stems from the early identification of the object as an asteroid, before it presented observers with a cometary appearance.

ER61 PanSTARRS Skychart
The path of Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS through the sky from early May through mid-August. Credit: Starry Night Education software.

Late northern hemisphere Spring through Summer sees the comet maintaining a decent elevation above the eastern horizon at dawn, gliding north and parallel to the ecliptic plane through the constellations Pisces, Aries and Taurus from May through mid-August. The comet passed 1.08 AU from the Earth last month on April 4th, and is now racing away from us. The comet’s location near the March equinoctial point on the celestial hemisphere assures an equally good apparition for both the northern and southern hemisphere. As seen from latitude 30 degrees north, the comet sits 30 degrees above the eastern horizon, through the remainder of May. Venus also makes a brilliant beacon to track down Comet ER61 PanSTARRS, as the planet heads towards greatest elongation 46 degrees west of the Sun on June 3rd.

The orbit of Comet ER61 PanSTARRS through the inner solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL.

The comet is also on a 7,591 year long orbit inbound, which takes it out nearly 2,500 AU from the Sun. That’s 190 times the Pluto-Sun distance, and the fourth most distant aphelion of any solar system object known. The 2015-2017 passage of the comet through the inner solar system actually shortened the orbit of Comet ER61 PanSTARRS down to an aphelion of ‘only’ 854 AU due to a 0.9 AU pass near Jupiter last year on March 28th, 2016. A similar orbital shortening by Jove occurred for Comet Hale-Bopp in 1996, which came in on an 4,200 year orbit and departed the inner solar system on a shorter 2,500 year path around the Sun.

The projected light curve for Comet C/2015 ER51 PanSTARRS. The purple line denotes perihelion, and the black dots are actual observations. Adapted from Seiichii Yoshida’s Weekly Information for Bright Comets.

Prospects and Prognostications

Observers reported an outburst from the comet last month in the first week of April, causing it to jump about 2 magnitudes in brightness. Right now, it’s holding steady at +7th magnitude. Unfortunately, the Moon reaches Full phase this week on May 10th, though you’ve still got a slim window to hunt for the comet after Moonset and before sunrise. Once the Moon moves towards a slender crescent phase next late week, we’ll once again have dark predawn skies ideal for comet hunting.

Here are some key dates for Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS as it glides through the dawn sky:

(Stars highlighted are brighter than +5th magnitude, and passes are less than a degree unless otherwise noted.)

May 10th: Reaches perihelion at 1.04 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun.

May 12th: Passes near the +4.9 magnitude star 19X Piscium.

May 20-23rd: Passes less than 10 degrees from Venus.

May 21st: The waning crescent Moon passes less than 10 degrees to the south.

June 10th: Passes near the +3.6 magnitude star Eta Piscium.

June 11th: Passes near the galaxy M74.

June 16th: Passes into the constellation Aries.

June 19th: The waning crescent Moon passes 9 degrees to the south.

July 13th: Passes near (less than 5′) the +4.6 magnitude star Epsilon Arietis.

July 18th: The waning crescent Moon passes 9 degrees to the south.

July 23rd: Passes near the +4.8 star Zeta Arietis.

The comet versus Venus in the dawn sky – looking eastward on May 15th. Credit: Stellarium.

August 2nd: Crosses into the constellation Taurus.

August 15th: The waning crescent Moon passes 8 degrees to the south.

August 16th: Passes near M45 (The Pleiades)

After mid-August, Comet 2015 ER61 PanSTARRS will drop back down below +10th magnitude, not to return for several millennia to come.

Observing a comet like ER61 PanSTARRS is as simple as knowing where and when to look, then starting to slowly sweep the suspect area with binoculars for a little fuzzball looking like a globular cluster stubbornly refusing to snap into focus. In pre-telescopic times, ER61 PanSTARRS would’ve entered and exited the inner solar system unrecorded.

April ER61 PanSTARRS
Comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS from April 12th. Image credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe.

Next up: We’ve got one more predicted comet on tap for 2017, as C/2015 V2 Johnson brightens up to +7th magnitude in mid-June. Keep watching the skies, as the next great comet of the century could always appear unannounced at any time.

An Impalpable Penumbral Eclipse

penumbral eclipse

Hey, how ’bout that annular eclipse last week? Some great images flooded in to Universe Today, as the final solar eclipse for 2016 graced the African continent. This not only marked the start of the second and final eclipse season for 2016, but it also set us up for the final eclipse of the year next week.

The path of next week's penumbral eclipse through the Earth's shadow. Adapted from NASA/GSFC/F. Espenak.
The path of next week’s penumbral eclipse through the Earth’s shadow. Adapted from NASA/GSFC/F. Espenak.

We’re talking about the penumbral lunar eclipse coming up next week on September 16th, 2016. this sort of eclipse occurs when the Moon just misses the dark inner core (umbra) of the Earth’s shadow, and instead, drifts through its relatively bright outer cone, known as the penumbra. Though not the grandest show as eclipses go, astute observers should notice a subtle light tea-colored shading of the Full Moon, and perhaps the ragged dark edge of the umbra on the northwestern limb of the Moon as it brushes by around mid-eclipse.

The visibility map for next week's eclipse. Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Fred Espenak.
The visibility map for next week’s eclipse. Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Fred Espenak.

The entirety of the eclipse will be visible from the region surrounding the Indian Ocean on the evening of Friday, September 6th. Viewers in Australia, New Zealand and Japan will see the eclipse transpire at moonset, and the eclipse will get underway at moonrise for observers in western Africa and Europe.

The eclipse runs from first contact at 16:55 Universal Time (UT) to 20:54 UT when the Moon quits the Earth’s shadow almost four hours later. Mid-eclipse occurs at 18:55 UT, with the Moon 91% immersed in the Earth’s outer shadow.

Tales of the Saros

This particular eclipse is member 9 of the 71 lunar eclipses in saros series 147. This saros began on July 2nd 1890 and runs through to the final eclipse in the cycle on May 1st 2990. It will produce its very first partial eclipse next time around on September 28th 2034, and its first total lunar eclipse on June 6th, 2449.

Why penumbrals? Aren’t they the ultimate non-event when it comes to eclipses? Like with much of observational astronomy, a penumbral lunar eclipse pushes our skills as a visual athlete to the limit. Check out the waxing gibbous Moon the night before the eclipse, then the Moon the night of the event. If you didn’t know any better, could you tell the difference from one night to the next? Often, the camera can see what the eye can’t. Photographing the Moon before, during and after a penumbral eclipse will often bring out the subtle shading on post-comparison. You’ll want to photograph the Moon when its high in the sky and free of atmospheric distortion low to the horizon, which tends to discolor the Moon. Such a high-flying Moon during mid-eclipse favors the Indian Subcontinent this time around. We’ve yet to see a good convincing time-lapse documenting a penumbral eclipse, though such a feat is certainly possible.

See anything... shady going on? Here's the penumbral lunar eclipse from this past March. Image credit and copyright: Neeraj Ladia
See anything… shady going on? Here’s the penumbral lunar eclipse from this past March. Image credit and copyright: Neeraj Ladia

When is an eclipse… not an eclipse? By some accounts, the Moon underwent a very shallow penumbral one cycle ago on August 18th, 2016, though the brush past the shadow was so slight that many lists, including the NASA’s GSFC eclipse page omitted it. Three eclipses (a lunar partial and a penumbral, or two penumbrals and one solar) can occur in one eclipse season, if the nodes of the Moon’s orbit where it intersects the ecliptic fall just right. This last occurred in 2013, and will happen again in 2020.

And when there’s a lunar eclipse, there’s also a Full Moon. The September Full Moon is the Harvest Moon, providing a few extra hours of illumination to get the crops in. This year, the Harvest Moon falls just six days from the equinox on September 22nd, marking the start of astronomical Fall in the northern hemisphere and Spring in the southern. The relative ecliptic angle also ensures that moonrise only slides back by a slight amount each evening for observers in mid-northern latitudes around the Harvest Moon.

Can’t wait til the next eclipse? Well, 2017 has four of ’em: an annular on February 26th favoring South America, two lunars (another penumbral on February 11th and a partial on August 7th) and oh yeah, there’s a total solar eclipse crossing the United States on August 21st. And the next total lunar eclipse? The dry spell is broken on January 31st, 2018, when a total lunar eclipse favoring the Pacific Rim occurs. Yeah, we got spoiled with four back-to-back lunar eclipses during the Blood Moon tetrad of 2014-2015…

Read Dave Dickinson’s eclipse-fueled sci-fi tales Exeligmos, Shadowfall, The Syzygy Gambit and Peak Season.