Elusive Mercury is second evening star alongside Venus
Orion is striding proudly across the meridian as darkness falls, but, even before the twilight dims, we have our best chances this year to spot Mercury low down in the west and close to the more familiar brilliant planet Venus.
Both evening stars lie within the same field-of-view in binoculars for much of March, so the fainter Mercury should be relatively easy to locate using Venus as a guide. Provided, of course, that we have an unobstructed horizon. Mercury never strays far from the Sun’s glare, making it the most elusive of the naked-eye planets – indeed, it is claimed that many astronomers, including Copernicus, never saw it.
Blazing at magnitude -3.9, Venus hovers only 9° above Edinburgh’s western horizon at sunset on the 1st and sets 64 minutes later. Mercury, one tenth as bright at magnitude -1.3, lies 2.0° (four Moon-breadths) below and to its right and may be glimpsed through binoculars as the twilight fades. Mercury stands 1.1° to the right of Venus on the 3rd and soon becomes a naked eye object as both planets stand higher from night to night, becoming visible until later in the darkening sky.
By the 15th, Mercury lies 4° above-right of Venus and at its maximum angle of 18° from the Sun, although it has more than halved in brightness to magnitude 0.2. The slender young Moon sits 5° below-left of Venus on the 18th and 11° above-left of the planetary pairing on the 19th. Earthshine, “the old Moon in the new Moon’s arms”, should be a striking sight over the following few evenings.
On the 22nd, the 30% illuminated Moon creeps through the V-shaped Hyades star cluster and hides (occults) Taurus’ leading star Aldebaran between 23:31 and 00:14 as they sink low into Edinburgh’s west-north-western sky.
Falling back towards the Sun, Mercury fades sharply to magnitude 1.4 by the 22nd when it passes 5° right of Venus and becomes lost from view during the following week. At the month’s end, Venus stands 15° high at sunset and sets two hours later.
The Sun climbs 12° northwards in March to cross the sky’s equator at the vernal equinox at 16:15 on the 20th, which is five days before we set our clocks forward at the start of British Summer Time. Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 07:04/17:47 GMT on the 1st to 06:46/19:49 BST (05:46/18:49 GMT) on the 31st. The Moon is full on the 2nd, at last quarter on the 9th, new on the 17th, at first quarter on the 24th and full again on the 31st.
Orion is sinking to our western horizon at our star map times while the Plough, the asterism formed by the brighter stars of Ursa Major, is soaring high in the east towards the zenith. To the south of Ursa Major, and just reaching our meridian, is Leo which is said to represent the Nemean lion strangled by Hercules (aka Heracles) in the first of his twelve labours. Leo appears to be facing west and squatting in a similar pose to that of the lions at the foot of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.
Leo’s Sickle, the reversed question mark that curls above Leo’s brightest star Regulus, outlines its head and mane and contains the famous double star Algieba whose two component stars, both much larger than our Sun, take more than 500 years to orbit each other and may be seen through a small telescope. Regulus, itself, is occulted as they sink towards Edinburgh’s western horizon at 06:02 on the morning of the 1st.
Jupiter, easily our brightest morning object, rises at Edinburgh’s east-south-eastern horizon at 00:47 GMT on the 1st and at 23:41 BST (22:41 GMT) on the 31st, climbing to pass around 17° high in the south some four hours later. Brightening from magnitude -2.2 to -2.4, it is slow moving in Libra, being stationary on the 9th when its motion reverses from easterly to westerly. Jupiter is obvious below the Moon on the 7th when a telescope shows the Jovian disk to be 40 arcseconds wide.
If we look below and to the left of Jupiter in the south before dawn, the three objects that catch our attention are the red supergiant star Antares in Scorpius and, further from Jupiter, the planets Mars and Saturn.
Mars lies in southern Ophiuchus, between Antares and Saturn, and is heading eastwards into Sagittarius and towards a conjunction with Saturn in early April. The angle between the two planets falls from 17° to only 1.5° this month as Mars brightens from magnitude 0.8 to 0.3 and its distance falls from 210 million to 166 million km. Mars’ disk swells from 6.7 to 8.4 arcseconds, becoming large enough for surface detail to be visible through decent telescopes. Sadly, Mars (like Saturn) is so far south and so low in Scotland’s sky that the “seeing” is unlikely to be crisp and sharp.
Incidentally, on the morning of the 19th Mars passes between two of the southern sky’s showpiece objects, being a Moon’s breadth below the Trifid Nebula and twice this distance above the Lagoon Nebula. Both glowing clouds of hydrogen, dust and young stars appear as hazy patches through binoculars but are stunning in photographs.
Saturn, creeping eastwards just above the Teapot of Sagittarius, improves from magnitude 0.6 to 0.5 and has a 16 arcseconds disk set within its superb rings which span 37 arcseconds at midmonth and have their northern face tipped towards us at 26°. The waning Moon lies above-left of Mars on the 10th and close to Saturn on the 11th.
Diary for 2018 March
Times are GMT until March 25, BST thereafter.
1st 06h Moon occults Regulus (disappears at 06:02 for Edinburgh)
2nd 01h Full moon
4th 14h Neptune in conjunction with Sun
5th 18h Mercury 1.4° N of Venus
7th 07h Moon 4° N of Jupiter
9th 10h Jupiter stationary (motion against stars reverses from E to W)
9th 11h Last quarter
10th 01h Moon 4° N of Mars
11th 02h Moon 2.2° N of Saturn
15th 15h Mercury furthest E of Sun (18°)
17th 13h New moon
18th 01h Mercury 4° N of Venus
18th 18h Moon 8° S of Mercury
18th 19h Moon 4° S of Venus
20th 16:15 Vernal equinox
23rd 00h Moon occults Aldebaran (23:31 to 00:14 for Edinburgh)
24th 16h First quarter
25th 01h Start of British Summer Time
27th 02h Moon 1.8° S of star cluster Praesepe in Cancer
31st 14h Full moon
This is a slightly revised version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on February 28th 2018, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Perseids rain as Mars approaches his rival
Every year at this time the Earth sweeps through the stream of meteoroids released by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle which passed just inside the Earth’s orbit in 1992 and is not due to return until 2126. And every year at this time, some of those meteoroids plunge into our upper atmosphere at 59 km per second, producing a rich display of bright meteors, many leaving glowing trains in their wake. According to some claims, this year’s meteor spectacle could be even better than usual.
The meteors appear in all parts of the sky but, since they are moving in parallel, perspective causes their paths to point away from a so-called radiant point in the constellation Perseus. It has already been active for a week, but it is expected to peak at about 13:00 BST on the 12th when, typically, an observer beneath the radiant and with a perfect dark sky might count 80 or more Perseids per hour. Of course, this year’s peak occurs in daylight for Scotland, but we should still enjoy high rates on our nights of 11/12th and 12/13th.
The radiant, plotted on our north star map, stands in the north-east at nightfall and climbs to lie just east of overhead before dawn. As the radiant climbs, so we face more directly into the Perseids stream and meteor rates climb in sympathy. This means that our morning hours are favoured and we have the extra advantage that the Moon sets in the middle of the night on the critical nights, though moonlight will hinder evening watches. Another bonus is that the nights are much less cold than they are for the year’s other two major showers which occur in the depths of winter.
The suggestions that the Perseids might be particularly active in 2016, with perhaps twice as many meteors as usual, derive from the fact that Jupiter approaches the Perseids stream every 12 years and its gravity might be diverting a segment of the stream closer to the Earth on each encounter. Indeed, there does seem to be a 12-years periodicity in enhanced Perseids displays with the last one in 2004, so we may be due for another special show this month.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 05:17/21:19 BST on the 1st to 06:16/20:09 on the 31st. The Moon is new on the 2nd, at first quarter on the 10th, full on the 18th and at last quarter on the 25th.
Our chart depicts the Summer Triangle, formed by Deneb, Vega and Altair, high on the meridian as the Plough sinks in the north-west and the “W” of Cassiopeia climbs in the north-east, above the Perseids radiant. The large but rather empty Square of Pegasus balances on a corner in the east-south-east while the Teapot of Sagittarius is toppling westwards on our southern horizon. To its right, and very low in the south-west, is Saturn, the only bright planet visible at our map times.
Saturn hardly moves this month, being stationary against the stars on the 13th when it reverses from westerly to easterly in motion. It lies in Ophiuchus, 6° north of the red supergiant star Antares in Scorpius. Antares is around magnitude 1.0 while Saturn is almost twice as bright at 0.4. Saturn stands above Antares low in the south-south-west as tonight’s twilight fades but are outshone by the Red Planet, Mars, which lies 10° to their right and is three times brighter than Saturn at magnitude -0.8.
Mars, though, is moving eastwards (to the left) at almost a Moon’s-breadth each day and passes between Antares and Saturn, and 1.8° above Antares, on the 24th. Even though Mars dims to magnitude -0.4 by then, it remains much brighter than Antares even though the star’s name comes from the Ancient Greek for “equal to Mars”. Both appear reddish, of course, but for very different reasons – Antares has a bloated “cool” gaseous surface that glows red at about 3,100°C while Mars has a rocky surface which is rich in iron oxide, better known as rust.
The Moon stands above-right of Mars and to the left of Saturn on the 11th when Mars appears only 12 arcseconds wide if viewed through a telescope. Saturn is 17 arcseconds across while its rings span 39 arcseconds and have their north face tipped 26° towards us. By the 31st, Mars has faded further to magnitude -0.3 and lies 4° above-left of Antares.
Observers at our northern latitudes must work hard to spot any other bright planet this month although anyone in the southern hemisphere can enjoy a spectacular trio of them low in the west at nightfall. Seen from Scotland, though, the brilliant (magnitude -3.9) evening star Venus stands barely 5° above our western horizon at sunset and sets itself less than 40 minutes later. We need a pristine western outlook to see it, and quite possibly binoculars to glimpse it against the twilight.
Fainter (magnitude -1.7) is Jupiter which stands currently 27° to the left of Venus and 5° higher so that it sets more than 70 minutes after the Sun. Between them, and considerably fainter, is Mercury which stands furthest from the Sun (27°) on the 16th and, perhaps surprisingly, is enjoying its best evening apparition of the year as seen from the southern hemisphere.
Jupiter sinks lower with each evening and meets Venus on the 27th when Venus passes less than 5 arcminutes north of Jupiter. This is the closest planetary conjunction of the year and would be spectacular were the two not so twilight-bound. As it is, binoculars might show Jupiter 9 arcminutes below and left of Venus on that evening.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on August 1st 2016, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Mars greets a rival and two new orbiters
The Summer Triangle, formed by the bright stars Vega, Deneb and Altair, still has pride of place high in our southern sky at nightfall. Mars and Saturn are visible on our September evenings, too, but we must look low in the south-west to catch them. Both are well past their best and less interesting telescopic targets than Jupiter which is now resplendent in the east before dawn.
Having swept 3°, or six Moon-widths, to the south of Saturn on 27 August, Mars has a trio of further notable encounters later in September. Two new spacecraft, NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM or Mangalyaan, are on course to enter orbit around Mars on the 21st and 24th respectively while the planet is due to pass 3° north of the enormous red supergiant star Antares in Scorpius on the 27th. The name Antares comes from the Ancient Greek for “rival to Mars” and, while they may indeed be similar in brightness by the month’s end, it will be fascinating to see how their colours compare.
Meanwhile, Mars, or rather the spacecraft in orbit around it, are due for a more challenging encounter when the icy nucleus of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring sweeps within some 130,000 km of the planet on 19 October. The operators of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey, and of Europe’s Mars Express, are arranging to shield their craft from the worst of the dust storm that is likely to be accompanying the comet, and similar precautions may be needed for MAVEN and MOM.
In other space news, Europe’s Rosetta craft is now studying five potential landing sites for its Philae lander on the nucleus of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The landing is not due until November, but it is planned to choose a primary and a backup site this month as Rosetta closes to with 30 km of the nucleus.
By our star map times, the Summer Triangle lies just west of our meridian as it gives way to the stars of autumn led by the topsy-turvy winged horse Pegasus whose nose is marked by the star Enif. Use binoculars to look 4° north-west of Enif for the star cluster M15 which appears as a fuzzy blob less than half as wide as the Moon. In fact, it is one of the finest globular clusters in the sky and contains more than 100,000 stars at a distance in excess of 30,000 light years.
The Sun tracks 11.5° southwards in the sky during September and crosses the equator at 03:29 BST on the 23rd, the time of this year’s autumnal equinox. Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 06:17/20:07 on the 1st to 07:13/18:51 on the 30th as the duration of nautical twilight at dawn and dusk falls from 89 to 80 minutes.
The Moon is at first quarter on the 2nd, full on the 9th, at last quarter on the 16th and new on the 24th. As the full moon nearest to the equinox, the one on the 9th is also our Harvest Moon and, since it comes less than a day after the Moon is closest to the Earth, it is yet another supermoon.
Saturn stands about 11° high in the south-west and only 0.3° above the northern tip of the crescent Moon as the evening twilight fades on 31 August, with Mars another 4° below and to their left.
On 27 September, the young Moon returns to lie 6° to the right of Saturn which, by then, is 4° lower in the sky and becoming hard to spot in the twilight. Both planets begin the period at magnitude 0.6, but Mars dims slightly to magnitude 0.8 by the 29th when it stands 5° below the Moon and 3° above Antares. It is also 20° to the left of Saturn and drops below Edinburgh’s horizon at 20:51 BST. Viewed through a telescope, Mars is only 6 arcseconds in diameter at midmonth, while Saturn is 16 arcseconds wide within rings that span 36 arcseconds and have their north face tilted 22° towards us.
After Mars and Saturn set, the sky is devoid of bright planets until Jupiter rises more than five hours later. True, Neptune and Uranus are binocular objects at magnitudes of 7.8 and 5.7 in Aquarius and Pisces respectively, but we need better charts to identify them.
There is no mistaking Jupiter, though. The conspicuous giant planet rises at Edinburgh’s east-north-eastern horizon at 03:29 on the 1st and by 02:07 on the 30th. climbing well clear of the eastern to south-eastern horizon by dawn. As it brightens slightly from magnitude -1.8 to -1.9, it also tracks 6° eastwards, below and away from the Praesepe or Beehive star cluster in Cancer. Look for the waning earthlit Moon 6° below and right of Jupiter before dawn on the 20th. Viewed through a telescope on that morning, the cloud-banded Jovian disk is 33 arcseconds across.
Venus is also a morning object and, although it remains brilliant at magnitude -3.9, it is sinking deeper into the twilight as it approaches conjunction on the Sun’s far side in October. On the 1st, it rises 87 minutes before the Sun and stands 14° below and left of Jupiter as it climbs 12° above our eastern horizon by sunrise. Jupiter soon leaves it behind, though, so by the 30th it rises 32 minutes before the Sun and is only 6° high at sunrise. Viewed telescopically, its almost full disk is only 10 arcseconds across.
The other inner planet, Mercury, moves to lie 26° east of the Sun on the 21st, but hugs the western horizon at sunset and is not observable from our latitudes.