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Scotland’s Sky in September, 2018

Summer Triangle stars as autumn evenings begin

The maps show the sky at 23:00 BST on the 1st, 22:00 on the 16th and 21:00 on the 30th. An arrow depicts the motion of Mars. (Click on map to enlarge)

The maps show the sky at 23:00 BST on the 1st, 22:00 on the 16th and 21:00 on the 30th. An arrow depicts the motion of Mars. (Click on map to enlarge)

We may be edging towards autumn, but the Summer Triangle, the asterism formed by the bright stars Vega, Altair and Deneb, looms high in the south as night falls and shifts into the high south-west by our star map times later in the evening. Vega, almost overhead as the night begins, is the brightest of the three and lies in the small box-shaped constellation of Lyra the Lyre.

The next brightest, Altair in Aquila the Eagle, stands lower in the middle of our southern sky and, at 16.7 light years (ly), is one of the nearest bright stars to the Sun – eight light years closer than Vega. Flanking Altair, like the two sides of a balance, are the fainter stars Alshain (below Altair) and Tarazed (above) whose names come from “shahin-i tarazu”, the Arabic phrase for a balance.

Deneb, 25° from Vega, lies very high in the south-east at nightfall and overhead at our map times. It marks the tail of Cygnus the Swan which is flying overhead with wings outstretched and its long neck reaching south-westwards to Albireo, traditionally the swan’s beak. Although it is the dimmest corner-star of the Triangle, Deneb is one of the most luminous stars in our galaxy. Current estimates suggest that it shines some 200,000 time more brightly than our Sun from a distance of perhaps 2,600 ly, but its power and distance are hard to measure and the subject of some controversy.

Also controversial is the nature of Albireo. Even small telescopes show it as a beautiful double star in which a brighter golden star contrasts with a dimmer blue one. The mystery concerns whether the pair make up a real binary, with the two stars locked in orbit together by gravity, or whether this is just the chance alignment of two stars at different distances. Now measurement by the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft appear to confirm the chance alignment theory.

The Milky Way, the band of countless distant stars in the plane of our galaxy, flows through the Summer Triangle and close to Deneb as it arches across our evening sky. Scan it through binoculars to glimpse a scattering of other double stars and star clusters.

One interesting stellar group is the so-called Coathanger which lies 8°, a little more than a normal binocular field-of-view, south of Albireo. It is also easy to locate one third of the way from Altair to Vega. Its line of stars, with a hook of stars beneath, gives it the appearance of an upside-down coat hanger. For decades this was regarded as a true star cluster, whose stars formed together, and its alternative designations as Brocchi’s Cluster and Collinder 399 reflect this. In 1998, though, results from the Hipparcos satellite, Gaia’s predecessor, proved that the Coathanger’s stars are at very different distances so that it, like Albireo, is simply a fortuitous chance alignment.

The Sun sinks 11.5° southwards during September to cross the sky’s equator at 02:54 BST on the 23rd. This marks our autumnal equinox and, by one definition, the beginning of autumn in the northern hemisphere. Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 06:17/20:07 BST on the 1st at 07:13/18:51 on the 30th. The Moon is at last quarter on the 3rd, new on the 9th, at first quarter on the 17th and full on the 25th.

Venus is brilliant at magnitude -4.4 and 45° from the Sun on the 1st but it is only 4° above Edinburgh’s west-south-western horizon at sunset and sets 35 minutes later as its evening apparition as seen from Scotland comes to an end.

The other inner planet, Mercury, is prominent but low in the east-north-east before dawn until about the 14th. Glimpse it at magnitude -1.1 when it lies 1° above-left of Regulus in Leo on the 6th and 9° below-left of the impressively earthlit waning Moon on the 8th.

Jupiter is conspicuous but very low in the south-west at nightfall, sinking to set in the west-south-west one hour before our map times. Look for it below-right of the Moon on the 13th.

Saturn and Mars are in the far south of our evening sky. Saturn, the fainter of the two at magnitude 0.4 to 0.5, stands above the Teapot of Sagittarius and is just below and right of the Moon on the 17th when a telescope shows that its rings span 38 arcseconds around its 17 arcseconds disk. It sets in the south-west some 70 minutes after our map times.

Mars stands more than 25° east (left) of Saturn, tracks 7° eastwards and northwards in Capricornus and stands near the Moon on the 19th and 20th. It is easily the brightest object (bar the Moon) in the sky at our map times though it more than halves in brightness from magnitude -2.1 to -1.3. As its distance increases from 67 million to 89 million km, its ochre disk shrinks from 21 to 16 arcseconds. The dust storm that blanketed the planet since June has now died down.

Finally, we have a chance to spot the Comet Giacobini-Zinner as it tracks south-eastwards past the bright star Capella in Auriga, low in the north-east at our map times but high in the east before dawn. The comet takes only 6.6 years to orbit the Sun and should appear in binoculars as a small oval greenish smudge only 0.9° to the right of Capella on the evening of the 2nd when it is 60 million km away. Moving at almost 2° per day, it passes less than 7° north-east of Elnath in Taurus (see chart) on the morning of the 11th, just a day after it reaches perihelion, its closest (152 million km) to the Sun.

Diary for 2018 September

Times are BST

2nd           10h Venus 1.4° S of Spica

3rd            03h Moon 1.2° N of Aldebaran

3rd            04h Last quarter

6th            11h Saturn stationary (motion reverses from W to E)

7th            04h Moon 1.1° S of Praesepe in Cancer

7th            19h Neptune at opposition

8th            23h Moon 0.9° N of Mercury

9th            19h New moon

10th         08h Comet Giacobini-Zinner closest to Sun (152 million km)

14th         03h Moon 4° N of Jupiter

16th         14h Mars closest to Sun (206,661,000 km)

17th         00h First quarter

17th         17h Moon 2.1° N of Saturn

20th         08h Moon 5° N of Mars

21st         03h Mercury in superior conjunction

23rd         02:54 Autumnal equinox

25th         04h Full moon

30th         09h Moon 1.4° N of Aldebaran

Alan Pickup

This is a slightly revised version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on August 31st 2018, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
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Scotland’s Sky in July, 2017

Pole stars of the future in the Summer Triangle

The maps show the sky at 01:00 BST on the 1st, midnight on the 16th and 23:00 on the 31st. (Click on map to enlarge)

The maps show the sky at 01:00 BST on the 1st, midnight on the 16th and 23:00 on the 31st. (Click on map to enlarge)

The Sun’s southerly motion since the solstice on 21 June has yet to gain speed and not until 12 July does it lie sufficiently far south for Edinburgh to enjoy any so-called nautical darkness, with the Sun more than 12° below the northern horizon in the middle of the night. Even then, moonlight is troublesome for a few more days to delay our first views of a dark summer night sky.

If there is one star-pattern that dominates our skies over the summer, it is the Summer Triangle. Formed by the bright stars Vega in the constellation Lyra, Deneb in Cygnus and Altair in Aquila, it occupies the upper part of our south star map, though its outline is not depicted. In fact, the projection used means that the Triangle’s proportions are squashed, because Vega and Deneb are significantly closer together in the sky than either are to Altair.

The leader and brightest of the Triangle’s stars is Vega which moves from high in the east at nightfall to stand even higher in the south at our map times. Blazing at magnitude 0.0 from a distance of 25 light years, it is a white star, twice as massive as our Sun but very much younger. Excess heat revealed by infrared astronomy indicates that Vega is encircled by a disk of dust which may be evidence that a planetary system is forming around it.

Set your time machine for about AD 13,700 and you will be able to glimpse Vega close to where we currently find Polaris, our current Pole Star. This is because the Earth’s axis is slowly toppling in space, taking 26,000 years to complete a 47° circle in the sky and carrying the axis to within 4° of Vega. Polaris happens to lie within 0.8° of the axis at present so that, as the Earth rotates once each day, it stays almost fixed in our sky and the other stars appear to circle counterclockwise around it

Altair is the second brightest of the Triangle’s stars and one of the closest bright stars at “only” 16.7 light years. Shining at magnitude 0.8, half as bright as Vega, it is 80% more massive than our Sun but, remarkably, spins on its axis in about nine hours as compared with the more leisurely 25 days taken by the Sun. As a result, it is noticeably oblate, measuring 20% wider across its equator than it does pole-to-pole.

Deneb’s magnitude of 1.2 makes it the dimmest of the Triangle’s corner stars but it is also one of the most luminous stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. Because its distance may be around 2,600 light years, it very difficult to measure the minuscule shift in its position when viewed from opposite sides of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun – the parallax technique that gives us accurate distances to Vega and Altair. Indeed, estimates of Deneb’s distance differ by well over 1,000 light years.

White-hot and shining at some 200,000 Sun-power, Deneb is large enough to engulf the Earth were it to swap places with the Sun. It is also burning its nuclear fuel at such a rate that it seems destined to disintegrate in a supernova within a few million years, although it should survive to be another of our future pole stars as it comes as close as 5° to the pole in AD 9,800.

The Sun eventually tracks 5° southwards during July as Edinburgh’s sunrise/sunset times change from 04:32/22:01 BST on the 1st to 05:15/21:22 on the 31st. The Moon is at first quarter on the 1st, full on the 9th, at last quarter on the 16th, new on the 23rd and returns to first quarter on the 30th.

At magnitude -2.0, Jupiter remains our brightest evening planet though it stands lower in the south-west to west as it sinks to set in the west just before our star map times. Above and to the right of the star Spica in Virgo, it lies to the right of the Moon in the south-west as the sky darkens on the 1st and is just below the Moon and much lower in the west-south-west on the 28th. The cloud-banded Jovian disk appear 39 arcseconds wide at mid-month if viewed telescopically, while binoculars allow glimpses of its four main moons.

Saturn is less conspicuous at magnitude 0.1 to 0.3 but continues as the brightest object low in our southern night sky. Creeping westwards against the stars of southern Ophiuchus, it crosses Edinburgh’s meridian at an altitude of 12° one hour before our map times and may be spotted 3° below-left of the Moon on the 6th. Binoculars show it as more than a round dot, while small telescopes reveal the beauty of ring system which is tilted wide open to our view and spans 41 arcseconds in mid-July.

Venus is brilliant at magnitude -4.1 in the east before dawn. After rising in the north-east at about 02:15 BST throughout the month. it climbs to stand 17° high at sunrise as the month begins and higher still by its end. Seen through a telescope, it is 16 arcseconds across and 70% illuminated when it lies to the left of waning (15% sunlit) and earthlit Moon on the 20th. Against the background stars of Taurus, the planet moves from 8° below-right of the Pleiades tomorrow to pass 3° above-left of Aldebaran on the 14th.

Of the other bright planets, Mars is out of sight as it reaches conjunction on the Sun’s far side on the 27th, while Mercury stands furthest east of the Sun (27°) on the 30th but is unlikely to be seen near our west-north-western horizon in the bright evening twilight.

Alan Pickup

This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on June 30th 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.