Cassini’s scheduled suicide at Saturn
The heroic Cassini mission to Saturn is set to reach its dramatic conclusion on 15 September. After a seven-year journey from Earth, the probe has been studying the planet, its glorious rings and its fascinating moons for the past thirteen years. Now, with its fuel running low, it is time for the NASA probe to plunge into the Saturnian atmosphere where, in the interest of so-called planetary protection, it will disintegrate and vaporise.
To leave it in orbit around the planet would run the risk of it colliding with the rings or one of the moons, with the outside possibility of contaminating them with microbes from the Earth. This was of little concern when Cassini’s mission was planned, and it carried and delivered the European-built Huygens probe which parachuted to the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. It touched down on a world in which rivers of liquid hydrocarbons, chiefly methane, flow into lakes in a landscape dominated by water-ice mountains.
Now, though, we realise that despite Saturn’s remoteness from the Sun, the possibility of alien life there cannot be discounted. Indeed, it seems clear that its small moon Enceladus has a subsurface watery ocean and there has been talk of sending a mission to search for organic compounds in the plumes of water erupting from geysers on its surface.
Recent orbits of Saturn have seen Cassini piercing the gap between Saturn and its rings, and even skimming the planet’s outer atmosphere. It will continue to collect data as it begins its final suicidal dive into Saturn’s atmosphere on the 15th, but its signal will be lost at around 13:00 BST as aerodynamic forces cause it to tumble and, eventually, break apart and burn up.
The Sun crosses southwards over the equator at 21:02 BST on the 22nd, the moment of our autumnal equinox. Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 06:17/20:07 BST on the 1st to 07:14/18:50 on the 30th. The Moon is full on the 6th, at last quarter on the 13th, new on the 20th and at first quarter on the 28th.
Now that Scotland’s persistent summer twilight is behind us, our nights offer views of the Milky Way as it arches directly overhead from the south-west to the north-east at our chart times, carving through the Summer Triangle formed by Deneb, Altair and Vega which now lies just west of the high meridian.
To the east of the Triangle is the distinctive form of the celestial dolphin, Delphinus, where the celebrated English amateur astronomer George Alcock discovered a famous and unusual naked-eye nova fifty summers ago in 1967. I remember watching the stellar outburst as it took five months to reach its peak brightness at magnitude 3.5. Now assigned the variable-star tag HR Delphini, the star is still visible as a twelfth magnitude object through telescopes.
Another 13° east of Delphinus is the globular star cluster Messier 15, 4° north-west of Pegasus’s brightest star, Enif. A tightly packed globe of perhaps 100,000 stars, all very much older than our Sun, M15 lies around 34,000 light years away and looks like a fuzzy star through binoculars.
Saturn is the sole bright planet to appear on our star maps. Look for it as the brightest object low down in the south-south-west at nightfall and even lower in the south-west by our map times, only thirty minutes before it sets. Edging eastwards in Ophiuchus, it shines 4° below-left of the Moon on the 26th.
Jupiter is bright at magnitude -1.7 but hard to see very low in the west-south-west just after sunset. By mid-month it is likely to be lost in the twilight.
Our charts plot the two outer planets, the ice giant world Uranus in Pisces and its near-twin Neptune in Aquarius, though we probably need more detailed charts to identify them through binoculars or telescopes. At magnitude 5.7, Uranus is at the verge of naked-eye visibility, while Neptune reaches opposition on the 5th and is dimmer at magnitude 7.8.
The other planets are about to join Venus low down in our eastern sky at the end of the night. The brilliant morning star shines at magnitude -4.0 when it rises in the north-east at 03:04 for Edinburgh on 1 September, and climbs 25° high into the east by sunrise. Catch it through binoculars before the twilight intervenes on that day and look 1.2° to its left for the Praesepe or Beehive cluster of stars in Cancer. Leaving the cluster behind, Venus tracks east-south-eastwards into Leo to pass 0.5° (a Moon’s breadth) north of the star Regulus on the 20th.
Mercury emerges from the Sun’s glare to stand 18° west of the Sun and 11° below-left of Venus on the 12th. Between the 6th and 23rd it rises more than 80 minutes before sunrise and brightens eightfold from magnitude 1.1 to -1.1. On the 6th, in fact, Mercury lies 2.5° to the right of Regulus which, in turn, is 0.8° to the right of the fainter magnitude 1.8 planet Mars. As Regulus climbs above them, the two planets then converge to lie less than 0.5° apart on the 16th and 17th.
Early risers are in for a special treat when the waning earthlit Moon joins the party on the 17th. On that morning, Venus stands 10° below-left of the Moon and almost 4° above-right of Regulus, with the Mars-Mercury conjunction another 8° below and to the left. On the 18th, the line-up is even more compact as the Moon shifts to lie 0.7° below Regulus. By the 30th, Venus rises in the east-north-east at 04:41 and is 3° above-right of Mars.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on August 31st 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Countdown to the Great American Eclipse
With two eclipses and a major meteor display, August is 2017’s most interesting month for sky-watchers. Admittedly, Scotland is on the fringe of visibility for both eclipses while the annual Perseids meteor shower suffers moonlight interference.
The undoubted highlight is the so-called Great American Eclipse on the 21st. This eclipse of the Sun is total along a path, no more than 115km wide, that sweeps across the USA from Oregon at 18:17 BST (10:17 PDT) to South Carolina at 19:48 BST (14:48 EDT) – the first such coast-to-coast eclipse for 99 years.
Totality is visible only from within this path as the Moon hides completely the dazzling solar surface, allowing ruddy flame-like prominences to be glimpsed at the solar limb and the pearly corona, the Sun’s outer atmosphere, to be admired at it reaches out into space. At its longest, though, totality lasts for only 2 minutes and 40 seconds so many of those people fiddling with their gadgets to take selfies and the like may be in danger of missing the spectacle altogether.
The surrounding area from which a partial eclipse is visible even extends as far as Scotland. From Edinburgh, this lasts from 19:38 to 20:18 BST but, at most, only the lower 2% of the Sun is hidden at 19:58 as it hangs a mere 4° high in the west. Need I add that the danger of eye damage means that we must never look directly at the Sun – instead project the Sun through a pinhole, binoculars or a small ‘scope, or use an appropriate filter or “eclipse glasses”.
A partial lunar eclipse occurs over the Indian Ocean on the 7th as the southern quarter of the Moon passes through the edge of the Earth’s central dark umbral shadow between 18:23 and 20:18 BST. By the time the Moon rises for Edinburgh at 20:57, it is on its way to leaving the lighter penumbral shadow and I doubt whether we will see any dimming, It exits the penumbra at 21:51.
Our charts show the two halves of the sky around midnight at present. In the north-west is the familiar shape of the Plough while the bright stars Deneb in Cygnus and Vega in Lyra lie to the south-east and south-west of the zenith respectively. These, together with Altair in Aquila in the middle of our southern sky, make up the Summer Triangle. The Milky Way flows through the Triangle as it arches overhead from the south-west to the north-east where Capella in Auriga rivals Vega in brightness.
Of course, many of us have to contend with light pollution which swamps all trace of the Milky Way and we are not helped by moonlight which peaks when the Moon is full on the 7th and only subsides as last quarter approaches on the 15th. New moon comes on the 21st and first quarter on the 29th. The Sun, meantime, slips another 8° southwards during the month as sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 05:17/21:20 BST on the 1st to 06:15/20:09 on the 31st.
Meteors of the annual Perseids shower, the tears of St Lawrence, are already arriving in low numbers. They stream away from a radiant point in the northern Perseus which stands in the north-east at our map times, between Capella and the W-pattern of Cassiopeia. We spot Perseids in all parts of the sky, though, and not just around Perseus.
Meteor numbers are expected to swell to a peak on the evening of the 12th when upwards of 80 per hour might be counted under ideal conditions. Even though moonlight will depress the numbers seen this time, we can expect the brighter ones still to impress as they disintegrate in the upper atmosphere at 59 km per second, many leaving glowing trains in their wake. The meteoroids concerned come from Comet Swift-Tuttle which last approached the Sun in 1992.
Although Neptune is dimly visible through binoculars at magnitude 7.8 some 2° east of the star Lambda Aquarii, the only naked-eye planet at our map times is Saturn. The latter shines at magnitude 0.3 to 0.4 low down in the south-west as it sinks to set less than two hours later. It is a little higher towards the south at nightfall, though, where it lies below-left of the Moon on the 2nd when a telescope shows its disk to be 18 arcseconds wide and its stunning wide-open rings to span 40 arcseconds. Saturn is near the Moon again on the 29th.
Jupiter is bright (magnitude -1.9 to -1.7) but very low in our western evening sky, its altitude one hour after sunset sinking from 6° on the 1st to only 1° by the month’s end as it disappears into the twilight. Catch it just below and right of the young Moon on the 25th.
Venus is brilliant at magnitude -4.0 in the east before dawn. Rising in the north-east a little after 02:00 BST at present, and an hour later by the 31st, it climbs to stand 25° high at sunrise. Viewed through a telescope, its disk shrinks from 15 to 12 arcseconds in diameter as it recedes from 172 million to 200 million km and its gibbous phase changes from 74% to 83% sunlit.
As Venus tracks eastwards through Gemini, it passes below-right of the star cluster M35 (use binoculars) on the 2nd and 3rd, stands above-left of the waning earthlit Moon on the 19th and around 10° below Castor and Pollux as it enters Cancer a few days later. On the 31st it stands 2° to the right of another cluster, M44, which is also known as Praesepe or the Beehive.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on July 31st 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Pole stars of the future in the Summer Triangle
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.
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.
In 1961, Professor Frank Drake attempted to estimate the number of extra-terrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way with which we might come into contact by making several assumptions. The Drake equation  states that:
N = R* x Fp x Ne x Fl x Fi x Fc x L
N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;
R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
Fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
Ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
Fl = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
Fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
Fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
Drake gave each parameter the following values:
R* = 10/year (10 stars formed per year, on average over the life of the galaxy)
Fp = 0.5 (half of all stars formed will have planets)
Ne= 2 (stars with planets will have 2 planets capable of supporting life)
Fl = 1 (100% of these planets will develop life)
Fi = 0.01 (1% of which will be intelligent life)
Fc = 0.01 (1% of which will be able to communicate)
L = 10,000 years (which will last 10,000 years).
So that N = 10 × 0.5 × 2 × 1 × 0.01 × 0.01 × 10,000 = 10.
Recently, Professor Paul Davies has made a different estimate with a range of different values in the Equation . His N is between 1 and a billion!
I find Drake’s approach strange. A more logical approach might be to ask how many stars there are in the Galaxy. If there are between 100 and 400 billion stars, if half of all stars have planets, if there is life on only one planet in each system, but if only one in a million of those planets develops intelligent life, then there are between 50,000 and 200,000 planets with intelligent life.
Of course the values chosen for the Equation are highly questionable; they are merely wild guesses. However, one can question some more than others. The guess that, where stars have planets, two of them will harbour life is hardly justified from the example of the Solar System, where, as far as we know, only one planet (Earth) carries life. Even that change could halve Drake’s estimate to five. More importantly, these estimates seem to overlook the circumstances in which intelligent life has emerged on Earth. In particular, the value given to Fi (that intelligent life emerges on only one in a hundred planets where life has developed) is questionable.
It is easy to assume that because we exist, intelligent life is common (see the popular belief in aliens). However, we should consider the peculiar circumstances that have allowed us to evolve. Although life appeared very early on Earth (at least only 500 million years after the planet’s birth), multicellular life did not emerge until about 600 million years ago (MYA), fish only 500 MYA, reptiles only 300 MYA and our species only about 500,000 years ago. So it may be that modern humans have existed for only about 0.1 per cent of the life of the planet and it is certain that our modern technological civilization has existed for only about 200 years (~0.00004% of the life of planet Earth). That is a chance of only 1 in 2.5 billion that anyone looking for an advanced technological civilization (ATC) on Earth between the planet’s birth and now would be successful. What does that say for our chance of finding another ATC now?
Then consider the possibility that such a civilization will destroy itself. Nuclear war could have destroyed our civilization in 1962, before we even began looking for signals from another Galactic civilization (although not before our radio, TV and radar signals leaked out). This could lead to the conclusion that the chance of finding another ATC at this time is vanishingly small (Paul Davies allows for fi to be zero).
The Equation does not appear to have made allowance for the fact that we owe our existence to the demise of the dinosaurs 65 MYA. It should not be assumed that such destruction does not threaten other planets, or that it does. Without that event, the dinosaurs, who had ruled for 180 million years would probably still rule the Earth. If life on other planets follows such a path, do we have to assume some equivalent calamity before intelligent life can emerge? If so, what odds do we put on it?
Another important factor is our Moon, which is unusual in being so large and influential. We already believe that the Moon’s birth was the result of a catastrophic collision been the proto-Earth and another planetismal the size of Mars. How typical would such a collision be and what odds do we put on it occurring in a planetary system? If the result is a moon such as ours and such a large moon is unusual, then perhaps such collisions themselves are unusual. But does that mean that we owe our existence, inter alia, to the Moon?
Professor Neil F. Comins asked himself what the implications would be if the Moon did not exist . There would have been many differences, including a shorter rotation period and a different chemical composition, but those that might influence the development of life include the possibility of a different tilt axis and instability of that axis. The Moon, besides gradually slowing Earth’s rotation, also stabilizes Earth’s axis. The lack of the Moon would mean smaller ocean tides, perhaps making the transfer of life from the oceans to land more difficult. It may also have meant more bombardment of Earth by asteroids and/or comets (the Moon has shielded Earth to some extent). This may have interfered with the development of life. Comins also thought that a Moon-less Earth (he called it ‘Solon’) would have a different atmosphere, with such a large amount of carbon dioxide that ‘life as we know it may never have been feasible’.
It has already been observed that our civilization has developed in a balmy interglacial, but Professor James Hansen has recently drawn attention to the fact that (unusually) sea levels have been remarkable stable for the last 7000 years (the climate kept an ice sheet from forming in Canada but kept stable ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica). He pointed out that, because our major civilizations have mostly developed on coasts, especially on river deltas, this may have contributed to the development of civilization. Repeated changes in sea level would have inhibited the development of civilization .
Most anthropologists agree that bipedal hairless apes (humans) evolved out of many other varieties of hominins due to fortuitous climatic changes. Some believe that these forced our ancestors out of the trees onto the African savannah (the ‘Tarzan hypothesis’) and some believe that we evolved our special characteristics, not least of all our large brains, in an aquatic environmental excursion (hardly a normal evolutionary experience) . Either way, we appear to owe our emergence to random climatic fluctuations. How typical would that be of life on other planets?
Some point to the explosion of the super-volcano Toba (Indonesia) about 70,000 years ago, which may have led to the extinction of many rival hominins and severely reduced our own numbers and created a bottle neck in our evolution. This catastrophe may also have been the trigger for our migration out of Africa, which itself may have led to the development of civilization. It is fortunate for us that no other super-volcano has erupted since (the next one to do so may be the end of civilization).
Does it not seem that we have been lucky ? Or rather that we owe our existence to a series of fortuitous chance events that must be rare in themselves never mind in combination? If that is true, then we probably are a very rare phenomenon: an intelligent species that has developed advanced technology, even now venturing into space. My guess is that the chance of another such species emerging elsewhere in our Galaxy is almost nil and we may indeed be alone, even in the whole universe.
- See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation
- The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe? by Paul Davies (2010, Allen Lane).
- ‘The Earth Without the Moon’, Astronomy 19:2 (Feb 1991); later in What if the Moon didn’t exist? by Neil F. Comins (1993, Harper Collins, New York).
- Storms of My Grandchildren by James E. Hansen (Bloomsbury, 2009).
- The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis by Elaine Morgan (1997, Souvenir Press).
- Lucky Planet – Why Earth is Exceptional – and What that Means for Life in the Universe by David Waltham (Icon Books, 2014).
Steuart is a science writer, a member of the ASE and a regular contributor to the Journal.
Saturn at its best as noctilucent clouds gleam
The first day of June marks the start of our meteorological summer, though some would argue that summer begins on 21 June when (at 05:25 BST) the Sun reaches its most northerly point at the summer solstice.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh vary surprisingly little from 04:35/21:47 BST on the 1st, to 04:26/22:03 at the solstice and 04:31/22:02 on the 30th. The Moon is at first quarter on the 1st, full on the 9th, at last quarter on the 17th and new on the 24th.
The Sun is already so far north that our nights remain bathed in twilight and it will be mid-July before Edinburgh sees its next (officially) dark and moonless sky. This is a pity, for the twilight swamps the fainter stars and, from northern Scotland, only the brightest stars and planets are in view.
If we travel south, though, the nights grow longer and darker, and the spectacular Milky Way star fields in Sagittarius and Scorpius climb higher in the south. From London at the solstice, for example, official darkness, with the Sun more than 12° below the horizon, lasts for three hours, while both Barcelona and Rome rejoice in more than six hours.
It is in this same area of sky, low in the south in the middle of the night, that we find the glorious ringed planet Saturn. This stands just below the full moon on the 9th and is at opposition, directly opposite the Sun, on the 15th when it is 1,353 million km away and shines at magnitude 0.0, comparable with the stars Arcturus in Bootes and Vega in Lyra. The latter shines high in the east-north-east at our map times and, together with Altair in Aquila and Deneb in Cygnus, forms the Summer Triangle which is a familiar feature of our nights until late-autumn.
Viewed telescopically, Saturn’s globe appears 18 arcseconds wide at opposition while its rings have their north face tipped 27° towards us and span 41 arcseconds. Sadly, Saturn’s low altitude, no more than 12° for Edinburgh, means that we miss the sharpest views although it should still be possible to spy the inky arc of the Cassini division which separates the outermost of the obvious rings, the A ring, from its neighbouring and brighter B ring.
Other gaps in the rings may be hard to spot from our latitudes – we can only envy the view for observers in the southern hemisphere who have Saturn near the zenith in the middle of their winter’s night. For us, Saturn is less than a Moon’s breadth further south over our next two summers, while the ring-tilt begins to decrease again.
On the other hand, we can sympathize with those southern observers for most of them never see noctilucent clouds, a phenomenon for which we in Scotland are ideally placed. Formed by ice condensing on dust motes, their intricate cirrus-like patterns float at about 82 km, high enough to shine with an electric-blue or pearly hue as they reflect the sunlight after any run-of-the-mill clouds are in darkness. Because of the geometry involving the Sun’s position below our horizon, they are often best seen low in the north-north-west an hour to two after sunset, shifting towards the north-north-east before dawn – along roughly the path taken by the bright star Capella in Auriga during the night.
Jupiter dims slightly from magnitude -2.2 to -2.0 but (after the Moon) remains the most conspicuous object in the sky for most of the night. Indeed, the Moon lies close to the planet on the 3rd – 4th and again on the 30th. As the sky darkens at present, it stands some 30° high and just to the west of the meridian, though by the month’s end it is only half as high and well over in the SW. Our star maps plot it in the west-south-west as it sinks closer to the western horizon where it sets two hours later.
The giant planet is slow-moving in Virgo, about 11° above-right of the star Spica and 3° below-left of the double star Porrima. As its distance grows from 724 million to 789 million km, its disk shrinks from 41 to 37 arcseconds in diameter but remains a favourite target for observers.
The early science results from NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter were released on 25 May. They reveal the atmosphere to be even more turbulent than was thought, with the polar regions peppered by 1,000 km-wide cyclones that are apparently jostling together chaotically. This is in stark contrast to the meteorology at lower latitudes, where organized parallel bands of cloud dominate in our telescopic views. In addition, the planet’s magnetic field is stronger and more lumpy than was expected. Juno last skimmed 3,500 km above the Jovian clouds on 19 May and is continuing to make close passes every 53 days.
Both Mars and Mercury are hidden in the Sun’s glare this month, the latter reaching superior conjunction on the Sun’s far side on the 21st.
Venus, brilliant at magnitude -4.3 to -4.1, is low above our eastern horizon before dawn. It stands at its furthest west of the Sun in the sky, 46°, on 3 June but it rises only 78 minutes before the Sun and stands 10° high at sunrise as seen from Edinburgh. By the 30th, it climbs to 16° high at sunrise, having risen more than two hours earlier. Between these days, it shrinks in diameter from 24 to 18 arcseconds and changes in phase from 49% to 62% illuminated. It lies left of the waning crescent Moon on the 20th and above the Moon on the following morning.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on May 31st 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Cassini begins Grand Finale at Saturn
This month brings the final truly dark night skies for Scotland until mid-July or later. Our dwindling nights are dominated by Jupiter, bright and unmistakable as it passes about 30° high in our southern evening sky and sinks to the western horizon before dawn. Venus is brighter still but easily overlooked as it hovers low in our brightening eastern dawn twilight. Saturn is also best as a morning planet, though it rises at our south-eastern horizon a few minutes before our May star map times.
Saturn creeps westwards from the constellation Sagittarius into Ophiuchus this month and brightens a little from magnitude 0.3 to 0.1, making it comparable with the brightest stars visible at our map times – Arcturus, Capella and Vega. The ringed planet, though, climbs to only 12° high in the south by the time morning twilight floods our sky, which is too low for crisp telescopic views of its stunning rings. On the morning of the 14th, as Saturn stands only 3° below-right of the Moon, its rotation-squashed globe measures 18 arcseconds in diameter while its rings stretch across 41 arcseconds and have their northern face tipped at 26° to our view.
Saturn’s main moon, Titan, takes 16 days to orbit the planet and is an easy telescopic target on the ninth magnitude. It stands furthest west of the disk (3 arcminutes) on the 3rd and 19th and furthest east on the 11th and 27th.
The Cassini probe is now into the final chapter, its so-called Grand Finale, of its epic exploration of the Saturn system. On 22 April, it made its 127th and last flyby of Titan, while on 26 April it dived for the first time through the gap between the planet and its visible rings, successfully returning data from a region it has never dared to explore before. Cassini’s new orbit sees it make another 21 weekly dives until, come 15 September, its almost-20 years mission ends with a fiery plunge into the Saturnian atmosphere.
The Sun’s northwards progress during May, to within only 1.4° of its most northerly point at the summer solstice, changes the sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh from 05:29/20:52 BST on the 1st to 04:36/21:46 on the 31st. The Moon reaches first quarter on the 3rd, full on the 10th, last quarter on the 19th and new on the 25th.
This crescent Moon on the 1st lies in the west, between the stars Pollux in Gemini and Procyon in Canis Minor, lower to its left, while on the 2nd it is 4° below-left of the Praesepe star cluster in Cancer, best viewed through binoculars. It lies near Regulus in Leo on the 3rd and 4th, and appears only 1.2° above the conspicuous Jupiter on the 7th.
The giant planet lies 10° above-right of Virgo’s leading star Spica and edges 2° to the west-north-west this month, drawing closer to the celebrated double star Porrima whose two equal stars orbit each other every 169 years but appear so close together at present that we need a good telescope to divide them.
Following its opposition on 7 April, Jupiter recedes from 678 million to 724 million km during May, dimming slightly from magnitude -2.4 to -2.2 as its diameter shrinks from 43 to 41 arcseconds. Any telescope should show its changing cloud-banded surface while its four main moons may be glimpsed through binoculars, although sometimes one or more disappear as they transit in front of the disk or are hidden behind it or in its shadow.
Some 30° above and to the left of Jupiter is the orange-red giant star Arcturus in Bootes the Herdsman. At magnitude -0.05, this is (just) the brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere ahead of Capella in Auriga, low in the north-north-west at our map times, and Vega in Lyra, climbing in the east. It is also one of the closer stars to the Sun, but it is only a temporary neighbour for it is speeding by the solar system at 122 km per second at a distance of 36.7 light years. Even so, it takes 800 years to move a Moon’s breadth across our sky. It is also a corner star of a rarely-heralded asterism dubbed the Spring Triangle – the other vertices being marked by Spica and Regulus.
A useful trick for finding Arcturus is to extend a curving line along the handle of the Plough which passes overhead during our spring evenings but is always visible somewhere in our northern sky. That line, still pending, leads to Arcturus and then onwards to Spica. The traditional mnemonic for this is “Arc to Arcturus, spike to Spica” but, given current circumstances, we might amend this to “Arc to Arcturus, jump to Jupiter”.
Venus rises 65 minutes before the Sun on the 1st and climbs to stand 9° high at sunrise. By the 31st, these figures change only a little to 75 minutes and 10°, so it is far from obvious as a morning star, even though it blazes at magnitude -4.5 to -4.3. Through a telescope, it shows a crescent whose sunlit portion increases from 27% to 48% while its diameter shrinks from 38 to 25 arcseconds. Early rises, or insomniacs, can see it left of the waning Moon on the 22nd.
Mercury stands below and left of Venus but remains swamped by our dawn twilight. It is furthest west of the Sun (26°) on the 18th. Still visible, but destined soon to disappear into our evening twilight, is Mars. Shining at a lowly magnitude 1.6, it lies 7° above-right of Aldebaran as the month begins and tracks between the Bull’s horns as Taurus sinks below our north-western horizon in the early evening.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on May 1st 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Jupiter rules our April nights
Venus dominated our evening sky for the first quarter of 2017, but it is now Jupiter’s turn in the spotlight. The conspicuous giant planet lies directly opposite the Sun in the sky on the 7th so that it rises in the east at sunset, reaches its highest point in the south in the middle of the night and sets in the west at sunrise.
Our charts show it in Virgo to the east of south as Taurus and Orion dip beneath the western horizon and the Plough looms overhead, stretched out of its familiar shape by our map projection. Regulus in Leo is in the south-west and almost level with Arcturus in Bootes in the south-east. Vega in Lyra and Deneb in Cygnus are beginning their climb in the north-east.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 06:43/19:51 BST on the 1st to 05:31/20:50 on the 30th. The Moon is at first quarter on the 3rd, full on the 11th, at last quarter on the 19th and new on the 26th.
Venus rises only a little more than one hour before sunrise and, though brilliant at magnitude -4.2, may be difficult to spot low in the east before dawn. However, the other inner planet, Mercury, remains nicely placed in the evening and stands furthest east of the Sun (19°) on the 1st.
Thirty minutes after Edinburgh’s sunset on that day, Mercury is 12° high in the west and shines at magnitude 0.0. It should be possible to spy it through binoculars and eventually with the unaided eye as the twilight fades and the planet sinks to set another 96 minutes later. By the 8th, though, it is a couple of degrees lower and a quarter as bright at magnitude 1.6 as it is engulfed by the twilight. Inferior conjunction on the Sun’s near side occurs on the 20th.
Mars, magnitude 1.5 to 1.6 and above and to Mercury’s left at present, tracks east-north-eastwards this month to pass 5° below the Pleiades on the 15th and a similar distance left of the star cluster on the 26th. By then it sets late enough to be plotted near our north-western horizon at the star map times.
Its opposition means that Jupiter is at its brightest and closest, shining more brightly than any star at magnitude -2.5 and a distance of 666 million km. It lies 6° north-west (above-right) of Virgo’s leading star Spica as the month begins and tracks 3.7° westwards during April to pass 10 arcminutes or a third of a Moon’s-width south of the fourth magnitude star Theta Virginis on the 5th.
Jupiter lies close to the full Moon on the night of the 10th-11th when the Jovian disk appears 44 arcseconds wide if viewed telescopically, one fortieth as wide as the Moon.
Jupiter’s clouds are arrayed in bands that lie parallel to its equator, the dark ones called belts and the intervening lighter hued ones called zones. There are numerous whirls and spots, the most famous being the Great Red Spot in the southern hemisphere. The planet spins in under ten hours, so a resolute observer might view the entire span of its clouds in a single April night. The four main moons, visible through decent binoculars and easy through a telescope, lie on each side of the disk and change their configuration from night to night.
The beautiful planet Saturn rises in the south-east less than three hours after our map times and is the brightest object (magnitude 0.4 to 0.3) less than 15° above Edinburgh’s southern horizon before dawn. It is a shame that its low altitude means that we miss the sharpest and most impressive views of it rings which span 39 arcseconds in mid-April, and are tilted at 26° around its 17 arcseconds disk. After appearing stationary on the 6th, Saturn begins to creep westwards against the stars of Sagittarius – look for it below and left of the Moon on the 16th and right of the Moon on the 17th.
It is not often that I advertise the annual Lyrids meteor shower. As one of the year’s lesser displays, it yields only some 18 meteors per hour at best, all of them swift and some leaving glowing trains in their wake as they diverge from a radiant point to the right of Vega. The event lasts from the 18th to the 25th and peaks on the 22nd when moonlight should not interfere unduly this year. The Lyrid meteoroids were released by Comet Thatcher, last seen in 1861.
Bright comets have been rare of late, but fainter ones are observed frequently. One such has the jaunty name of comet 41P/Tuttle–Giacobini–Kresák and takes 5.4 years to orbit between the paths of Jupiter and the Earth. It passes within 21 million km of us on the 1st as it nears perihelion, its closest point to the Sun, on the 12th. I glimpsed it through binoculars from a superb dark-sky site at Kielder Forrest, Northumberland, last week when it was a diffuse seventh magnitude smudge close to Merak, the southern star of the Pointers in the Plough.
Although its path is not depicted on our chart, the comet is poised to sweep close to three of the stars identified in Draco, between the Plough and Polaris, the Pole Star. It passes 0.6° north of Thuban on the night of the 2nd-3rd, 1.5° south-west of Eta on the 11th (sadly, in full moonlight) and 0.6° west of Beta on the 18th-19th. During past perihelia, it has been seen to flare by several magnitudes for a few days at a time, so, if we are lucky, it may reach naked-eye visibility.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on March 31st 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Brilliant Venus plunges into the evening twilight
Stargazers will be hoping for better weather as Orion and the stars of winter depart westwards in our evening sky, Venus dives into the evening twilight and around the Sun’s near side, while all the other bright planets are on view too. Indeed, Venus has the rare privilege of appearing as both an evening star and a morning star over several days, provided our western and eastern horizons are clear.
Orion still dominates our southern sky at nightfall as Leo climbs in the east and the Plough balances on its handle in the north-east. The Sun’s northwards progress and our lengthening days mean that by nightfall at the month’s end Orion has drifted lower into the south-west, halfway to his setting-point in the west. He is even lower in the west-south-west by our star map times when it is the turn of Leo to reach the meridian and the Plough to be almost overhead.
Leo’s leading star, Regulus, sits at the base of the Sickle of Leo, the reversed question-mark of stars from which meteors of the Leonids shower stream every November. The star Algieba in the Sickle (see chart) appears as a glorious double star through a telescope. Its components are larger and much more luminous than our Sun and lie almost 5 arcseconds apart, taking some 510 years to orbit each other. The pair lie 130 light years away and are unrelated to the star less than a Moon’s breadth to the south which is only half as far from us.
The Sun travels northward across the equator at 10:28 GMT on the 20th, the moment of the vernal (spring) equinox in our northern hemisphere. On this date, nights and days are of roughly equal length around the globe. Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 07:04/17:47 GMT on the 1st to 06:46/17:49 BST (05:46/18:49 GMT) on the 31st after we set our clocks forwards to BST on the morning of the 26th. The lunar phases change from first quarter on the 5th to full on the 12th, last quarter on the 20th and new on the 28th.
Look for the young earthlit Moon well to the left of the brilliant magnitude -4.6 Venus on the 1st when telescopes show the planet’s dazzling crescent to be 47 arcseconds in diameter and 16% sunlit. Venus’ altitude at sunset plummets from 29° in the west-south-west on that day to only 7° in the west on the 22nd as its diameter swells to 59 arcseconds and the phase shrinks to only 1% – indeed, a few keen-sighted people might be able to discern its crescent with the naked eye and this is certainly easy to spot through binoculars.
Venus dims to magnitude -4.0 by the time it sweeps 8° north of the Sun and only 42 million km from the Earth at its inferior conjunction on the 25th. This marks its formal transition from the evening to the morning sky, but because it passes so far north of the Sun as it does every eight years or so, Venus is already visible in the predawn before we lose it in the evening. In fact, it is 7° high in the east at sunrise on the 22nd, and it only gets better as the month draws to its close.
Before Venus exits our evening sky, it meets Mercury as the latter begins its best spell as an evening star this year. On the 20th, the small innermost planet lies 10° to the left of Venus, shines at magnitude -1.2 and sets at Edinburgh’s western horizon 78 minutes after the Sun. By the 29th, it is 10° high forty minutes after sunset and shines at magnitude -0.4, easily visible through binoculars and 8° to the right of the very young Moon.
Mars, near the Moon on the 1st and again on the 30th, dims from magnitude 1.3 to 1.5 this month as it tracks from Pisces into Aries. By the month’s end, it lies to the left of Aries’ main star Hamal and sets at our map times. It is now more than 300 million km away and its disk, less than 5 arcseconds across, is too small to be of interest telescopically.
The Moon has another encounter with the Hyades star cluster on the night of the 4th-5th, hiding several of its stars but setting for Scotland before it reaches Taurus’ main star Aldebaran. The latter, though, is occulted later as seen from most of the USA. The Moon passes just below Regulus on the night of the 10th-11th and meets the planet Jupiter on the 14th.
Jupiter, conspicuous at magnitude -2.3 to -2.5, rises in the east at 21:37 GMT on the 1st and only 31 minutes after Edinburgh’s sunset on the 31st. Now edging westwards above the star Spica in Virgo, it is unmistakable as it climbs through our south-eastern sky to cross the meridian in the small hours and lie in the south-west before dawn. Its disk, 43 arcseconds wide at mid-month, shows parallel cloud bands through almost any telescope, while its four moons may be glimpsed through binoculars as they orbit from one side to the other.
Saturn, the last of the night’s planets, rises in the south-east at 03:44 GMT on the 1st and almost two hours earlier by the 31st. Improving very slightly from magnitude 0.5 to 0.4 during March, it is the brightest object about 10° above the south-south-eastern horizon before dawn. Look for it 4° below-left of the Moon on the 20th.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on February 28th 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Moon between Venus and Mars on the 2nd
The new year opens with the Moon as a slim crescent in our evening sky, its light insufficient to hinder observations of the Quadrantids meteor shower.
Lasting from the 1st to the 6th, the shower is due to reach its maximum at about 15:00 GMT on the 3rd. Perhaps because of the cold weather, or a lingering hangover from Hogmanay, this may be the least appreciated of the year’s top three showers. It can, though, yield more than 80 meteors per hour under the best conditions, with some blue and yellow and all of medium speed. It can also produce some spectacular events – I still recall a Quadrantids fireball many years ago that flared to magnitude -8, many times brighter than Venus.
Although Quadrantids appear in all parts of the sky, perspective means that their paths stream away from a radiant point in northern Bootes. Plotted on our north map, this glides from left to right low across our northern sky during the evening and trails the Plough as it climbs through the north-east later in the night. The shower’s peak is quite narrow so the optimum times for meteor-spotting are before dawn on the 3rd, when the radiant stands high in the east, and during the evening of that day when Quadrantids may follow long trails from north to south across our sky.
Mars and Venus continue as evening objects, improving in altitude in our south-south-western sky at nightfall and, in the case of Venus, becoming still more spectacular as it brightens from magnitude -4.3 to -4.6. Mars, more than one hundred times fainter, dims from magnitude 0.9 to 1.1 but is obvious above and to Venus’ left, their separation falling from 12° to 5° during the month as they track eastwards and northwards from Aquarius to Pisces.
On the evening of the 1st, Mars stands only 18 arcminutes, just over half a Moon’s breadth, above-left of the farthest planet Neptune though, since the latter shines at magnitude 7.9, we will need binoculars if not a telescope to glimpse it. At the time, Neptune, 4,556 million km away, is a mere 2.2 arcseconds wide if viewed telescopically and Mars appears 5.7 arcseconds across from a range of 246 million km. On that evening, the young Moon lies 8° below and right of Venus, while on the 2nd the Moon stands directly between Mars and Venus. The pair lie close to the Moon again on the 31st.
As its distance falls from 115 million to 81 million km this month, Venus swells from 22 to 31 arcseconds in diameter and its disk changes from 56% to 40% sunlit. In theory, dichotomy, the moment when it is 50% illuminated like the Moon at first quarter, occurs on the 14th. However, the way sunlight scatters in its dazzling clouds means that Venus usually appears to reach this state a few days early when it is an evening star – a phenomenon Sir Patrick Moore named the Schröter effect after the German astronomer who first reported it. Venus stands at its furthest to the east of the Sun, 47°, on the 12th.
The Sun climbs 6° northwards during January and stands closer to the Earth in early January than at any other time of the year. At the Earth’s perihelion at 14:00 GMT on the 4th the two are 147,100,998 km apart, almost 5 million km less than at aphelion on 3 July. Obviously, it is not the Sun’s distance that dictates our seasons, but rather the Earth’s axial tilt away from the Sun during winter and towards it in summer.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 08:43/15:49 on the 1st to 08:09/16:44 on the 31st. The Moon is at first quarter on the 5th, full on the 12th, at last quarter on the 19th and new on the 28th.
The Moon lies below the Pleiades on the evening of the 8th and to the left of Aldebaran in Taurus on the next night. Below and left of Aldebaran is the magnificent constellation of Orion with the bright red supergiant star Betelgeuse at his shoulder. Soon in astronomical terms, but perhaps not for 100,000 years, Betelgeuse will disintegrate in a supernova explosion.
The relics of a supernova witnessed by Chinese observers in AD 1054 lies 15° further north and just 1.1° north-west of Zeta Tauri, the star at the tip of Taurus’ southern horn. The 8th magnitude oval smudge we call the Crab Nebula contains a pulsar, a 20km wide neutron star that spins 30 times each second.
The conspicuous planet in our morning sky is Jupiter which rises at Edinburgh’s eastern horizon at 01:27 on the 1st and at 23:37 on the 31st. Creeping eastwards 4° north of Spica in Virgo, it brightens from magnitude -1.9 to -2.1 and is unmistakable in the lower half of our southern sky before dawn. Catch it just below the Moon on the 19th when a telescope shows its cloud-banded disk to be 37 arcseconds broad at a distance of 786 million km. We need just decent binoculars to check out the changing positions of its four main moons.
Saturn, respectable at magnitude 0.5, stands low in our south-east before dawn, its altitude one hour before sunrise improving from 3° to 8° during the month. Look to its left and slightly down from the 6th onwards to glimpse Mercury. This reaches 24° west of the Sun on the 19th and brightens from magnitude 0.9 on the 6th to -0.2 on the 24th when the waning earthlit Moon stands 3° above Saturn.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on December 31st 2016, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Geminids suffer in the supermoonlight
The Sun reaches its farthest south at our winter solstice at 10:44 GMT on the 21st, as Mars and the brilliant Venus stand higher in our evening sky than at any other time this year. This is not a coincidence, for both planets are tracking eastwards and, more importantly, northwards in the sky as they keep close to the ecliptic, the Sun’s path over the coming weeks and months. Meantime, Jupiter is prominent during the pre-dawn hours while Orion is unmistakable for most of the night and strides proudly across the meridian at midnight in mid-December.
As the sky darkens this evening, Pegasus with its iconic, but rather empty, Square is nearing the meridian and the Summer Triangle (Vega, Deneb and Altair) stands high in the south-west.
By our map times, Altair is setting in the west and Orion stands in the south-east, the three stars of Belt pointing down to where Sirius, our brightest night-time star, will soon rise. Sirius, the red supergiant Betelgeuse at Orion’s shoulder and Procyon in Canis Minor, almost due east of Betelgeuse, form a near-equilateral triangle which has come to be known as the Winter Triangle.
Above Orion is Taurus, home to the Pleiades star cluster and the bright orange giant star Aldebaran, the latter located less than halfway between us and the V-shaped Hyades cluster.
Look for the almost-full Moon below the Pleiades and to the right of Aldebaran and the Hyades on the evening of the 12th and watch it barrel through the cluster during the night, occulting (hiding) several of the cluster’s stars on the way. As they dip low into the west on the following morning, the Moon occults Aldebaran itself, the star slipping behind the Moon’s northern edge between 05:26 and 05:41 as seen from Edinburgh. Even though this is the brightest star to be occulted this year, the Moon’s brilliance means we may well need a telescope to view the event.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh vary from 08:20/15:44 on the 1st to 08:42/15:40 on the 21st and 08:44/15:48 on the 31st. The Moon is at first quarter on the 7th and full on the 14th when, once again, it is near its perigee, its closest point to the Earth. Despite the fact that the Moon appears a barely perceptible 7% wider than it does on average, we can look forward to yet another dose of over-hyped supermoon hysteria in the media. The Moon’s last quarter comes on the 21st and it is new on the 29th.
Sadly, the Moon does its best to swamp the annual Geminids meteor shower which lasts from the 8th to the 17th and is expected to peak at about 20:00 on the 13th. Its meteors are medium-slow and, thankfully, there are enough bright ones that several should be noticeable despite the moonlight. Without the moonlight, and under perfect conditions, this might have been our best display of 2016, with 100 or more meteors per hour.
Geminids are visible in all parts of the sky, but perspective makes them appear to diverge from a radiant point near the star Castor in Gemini, marked near the eastern edge of our north map. This radiant climbs from our north-eastern horizon at nightfall to pass high in the south at 02:00.
Venus stands 10° above Edinburgh’s southern horizon at sunset on the 1st and shines spectacularly at magnitude -4.2 as it sinks to set in the south-west almost three hours later. The young earthlit Moon stands 10° above-right of Venus on the 2nd, 5° above the planet on the 3rd and, one lunation later, 20° below-right of the Moon on Hogmanay. By then, Venus is twice as high at sunset and (just) brighter still at magnitude -4.3. A telescope shows its dazzling gibbous disk which swells from 17 to 22 arcseconds in diameter as the sunlit portion shrinks from 68% to 57%.
As Venus speeds from Sagittarius to Capricornus, so Mars keeps above and to its left as it moves from Capricornus into Aquarius and into the region of sky above our south-western horizon at the map times. Mars is only a fraction as bright, though, and fades from magnitude 0.6 to 0.9. It also appears much smaller, only 6 arcseconds, so that telescopes now struggle to reveal any surface features. Spot Mars to the left of the Moon on the 4th and below-right of the Moon on the 5th.
Mercury is farthest east of the Sun, 21°, on the 11th but hugs our south-western horizon at nightfall and is unlikely to be seen. It reaches inferior conjunction between the Sun and Earth on the 28th by which time Saturn, which passes beyond the Sun on the 10th, might just be glimpsed low above the south-eastern horizon before dawn. On the 27th, it shines at magnitude 0.5 and lies 7° below-left of the slender waning Moon.
Jupiter is conspicuous at magnitude -1.8 to -1.9 and the real star of our morning sky. Rising in the east for Edinburgh at 03:04 on the 1st and 01:31 on the 31st, it climbs well up into our southern sky before dawn where it stands above Virgo’s leading star Spica and draws closer during the month.
Jupiter, Spica and the Moon form a neat triangle before dawn on the 23rd, when Jupiter is 850 million km away and appears 35 arcseconds wide through a telescope. Any decent telescope shows its parallel cloud belts, while binoculars reveal its four main moons which swap places from side to side of the disk as they orbit the planet in periods of between 1.8 and 17 days.