Conjunctions to Watch For in July

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!

The Moon & Venus on the evening of July 9th from latitude 30 degrees north, about 30 minutes after sunset. (Created by the author using Stellarium).
The Moon & Venus on the evening of July 9th as seen from latitude 30 degrees north, about 30 minutes after sunset. (Created by the author using Stellarium).

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.

The waxing crescent Moon nearing Spica on the evening of the 15th at 10PM EDT. The Moon reaches 1st Quarter on the same evening at 11:18PM EDT. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
The waxing crescent Moon nearing Spica on the evening of the 15th at 10PM EDT. The Moon reaches 1st Quarter phase on the same evening at 11:18PM EDT. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

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 and Jupiter in a close conjunction on the morning of July 22nd, about 30 minutes before sunrise as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
Mars and Jupiter in a close conjunction on the morning of July 22nd, about 30 minutes before sunrise as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

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!

Happy (or is it Merry?) Aphelion This Friday

This 4th of July weekend brings us one more reason to celebrate. On July 5th at approximately 11:00 AM EDT/15:00 UT, our fair planet Earth reaches aphelion, or its farthest point from the Sun at 1.0167 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) or 152,096,000 kilometres distant.

Though it may not seem it to northern hemisphere residents sizzling in the summer heat, we’re currently 3.3% farther from the Sun than our 147,098,290 kilometre (0.9833 A.U.) approach made in early January.

We thought it would be a fun project to capture this change. A common cry heard from denier circles as to scientific facts is “yeah, but have you ever SEEN it?” and in the case of the variation in distance between the Sun and the Earth from aphelion to perihelion, we can report that we have!

We typically observe the Sun in white light and hydrogen alpha using a standard rig and a Coronado Personal Solar Telescope  on every clear day. We have two filtered rigs for white light- a glass Orion filter for our 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain, and a homemade Baader solar filter for our DSLR. We prefer the DSLR rig for ease of deployment. We’ve described in a previous post how to make a safe and effective solar observing rig using Baader solar film.

Our solar imaging rig.
Our primary solar imaging rig. A Nikon D60 DSLR with a 400mm lens + a 2x teleconverter and Baader solar filter. Very easy to employ!

We’ve been imaging the Sun daily for a few years as part of our effort to make a home-brewed “solar rotation and activity movie” of the entire solar cycle.  We recently realized that we’ve imaged Sol very near aphelion and perihelion on previous years with this same fixed rig, and decided to check and see if we caught the apparent size variation of our nearest star. And sure enough, comparing the sizes of the two disks revealed a tiny but consistent variation.

It’s a common misconception that the seasons are due to our distance from the Sun. The insolation due to the 23.4° tilt of the rotational axis of the Earth is the dominant driving factor behind the seasons. (Don’t they still teach this in grade school? You’d be surprised at the things I’ve heard!) In the current epoch, a January perihelion and a July aphelion results in milder climatic summers in the northern hemisphere and more severe summers in the southern. The current difference in solar isolation between hemispheres due to eccentricity of Earth’s orbit is 6.8%.

The orbit of the Earth also currently has one of the lowest eccentricities (how far it deviates for circular) of the planets at 0.0167, or 1.67%. Only Neptune (1%) and Venus (0.68%) are “more circular.”

The orbital eccentricity of the Earth also oscillates over a 413,000 year period between 5.8% (about the same as Saturn) down to 0.5%. We’re currently at the low end of the scale, just below the mean value of 2.8%.

Variation in eccentricity is also coupled with other factors, such as the change in axial obliquity the precession of the line of apsides and the equinoxes to result in what are known as Milankovitch cycles. These variations in extremes play a role in the riddle of climate over hundreds of thousands of years.  Climate change deniers like to point out that there are large natural cycles in the records, and they’re right – but in the wrong direction. Note that looking solely at variations in the climate due to Milankovitch cycles, we should be in a cooling trend right now.  Against this backdrop, the signal of anthropogenic climate forcing and global dimming of albedo (which also masks warming via cloud cover and reflectivity) becomes even more ominous.

Aphelion can presently fall between July 2nd at 20:00 UT (as it did last in 1960) and July 7th at 00:00 UT as it last did on 2007.  The seemingly random variation is due to the position of the Earth with respect to the barycenter of the Earth-Moon system near the time of aphelion. The once every four year reset of the leap year (with the exception of the year 2000!) also plays a lesser role.

Perihelion and aphelion vs the solstices and equinoxes, an exagarated view.
Perihelion and aphelion vs the solstices and equinoxes, an exaggerated view. (Wikimedia Commons image under a 3.0 Unported Attribution-Share Alike license. Author Gothika/Doudoudou).

I love observing the Sun any time of year, as its face is constantly changing from day-to-day. There’s also no worrying about light pollution in the solar observing world, though we’ve noticed turbulence aloft (in the form of bad seeing) is an issue later in the day, especially in the summertime.  The rotational axis of the Sun is also tipped by about 7.25° relative to the ecliptic, and will present its north pole at maximum tilt towards us on September 8th. And yes, it does seem strange to think in terms of “the north pole of the Sun…”

We’re also approaching the solar maximum through the 2013-2014 time frame, another reason to break out those solar scopes.  This current Solar Cycle #24 has been off to a sputtering start, with the Sun active one week, and quiet the next. The last 2009 minimum was the quietest in a century, and there’s speculation that Cycle #25 may be missing all together.

And yes, the Moon also varies in its apparent size throughout its orbit as well, as hyped during last month’s perigee or Super Moon. Keep those posts handy- we’ve got one more Super Moon to endure this month on July 22nd. The New Moon on July 8th at 7:15UT/3:15 AM EDT will occur just 30 hours after apogee, and will hence be the “smallest New Moon” of 2013, with a lot less fanfare. Observers worldwide also have a shot at catching the slender crescent Moon on the evening of July 9th. This lunation and the sighting of the crescent Moon also marks the start of the month of Ramadan on the Muslim calendar.

Be sure to observe the aphelion Sun (with proper protection of course!) It would be uber-cool to see a stitched together animation of the Sun “growing & shrinking” from aphelion to perihelion and back. We could also use a hip Internet-ready meme for the perihelion & aphelion Sun- perhaps a “MiniSol?” A recent pun from Dr Marco Langbroek laid claim to the moniker of “#SuperSun;” in time for next January’s perihelion;

Marco quote

Could a new trend be afoot?