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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 June, 2017

Saturn at its best as noctilucent clouds gleam

The maps show the sky at 01:00 BST on the 1st, midnight on the 16th and 23:00 on the 30th. (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 30th. (Click on map to enlarge)

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.

Alan Pickup

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.

Scotland’s Sky in February, 2017

Venus highest and brightest as evening star

The maps show the sky at 22:00 GMT on the 1st, 21:00 on the 15th and 20:00 on the 28th. Arrows depict the motions of Mars during the month, and of Venus from the 14th. (Click on map to enlarge)

The maps show the sky at 22:00 GMT on the 1st, 21:00 on the 15th and 20:00 on the 28th. Arrows depict the motions of Mars during the month, and of Venus from the 14th. (Click on map to enlarge)

If you doubt that February offers our best evening sky of the year, then consider the evidence. The unrivalled constellation of Orion stands astride the meridian at 21:00 GMT tonight, and two hours earlier by February’s end. Around him are arrayed some of the brightest stars in the night sky, including Sirius, the brightest, and Capella, the sixth brightest which shines yellowish in Auriga near the zenith. This month also sees Venus, always the brightest planet, reach its greatest brilliancy and stand at its highest as an evening star.

By our map times, a little later in the evening, Orion has progressed into the south-south-west and Sirius, nipping at his heel as the Dog Star in Canis Major, stands lower down on the meridian. All stars twinkle as their light, from effectively a single point in space, is refracted by turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere, but Sirius’ multi-hued scintillation is most noticeable simply because it is so bright. On the whole, planets do not twinkle since their light comes from a small disk and not a point.

I mentioned two months ago how Sirius, Betelgeuse at Orion’s shoulder and Procyon, the Lesser Dog Star to the east of Betelgeuse, form a near-perfect equilateral triangle we dub the Winter Triangle. Another larger but less regular asterism, the Winter Hexagon, can be constructed around Betelgeuse. Its sides connect Capella, Aldebaran in Taurus, Rigel at Orion’s knee, Sirius, Procyon and Castor and Pollux in Gemini, the latter pair considered jointly as one vertex of the hexagon.

Aldebaran, found by extending the line of Orion’s Belt up and to the right, just avoids being hidden (occulted) by the Moon on the 5th. At about 22:20 GMT, the northern edge of the Moon slides just 5 arcminutes, or one sixth of the Moon’s diameter, below and left of the star. Earlier that evening, the Moon occults several stars of V-shaped Hyades cluster which, together with Aldebaran, form the Bull’s face.

Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 08:07/16:46 on the 1st to 07:06/17:45 on the 28th. The Moon is at first quarter on the 4th and lies to the west of Regulus in Leo when full just after midnight on the night of the 10th/11th. It is then blanketed by the southern part of the Earth’s outer shadow in a penumbral lunar eclipse. The event lasts from 22:34 until 02:53 with an obvious dimming of the upper part of the Moon’s disk apparent near mid-eclipse at 00:33. This time, the Moon misses the central dark umbra of the shadow where all direct sunlight is blocked by the Earth, but only by 160 km or 5% of its diameter.

Following last quarter on the 18th, the Moon is new on the 26th when the narrow track of an annular solar eclipse crosses the south Atlantic from Chile and Argentina to southern Africa. Observers along the track see the Moon’s ink-black disk surrounded by a dazzling ring of sunlight while neighbouring regions, but not Europe, enjoy a partial eclipse of the Sun.

Venus, below and to the right of the crescent Moon as the month begins, stands at it’s highest in the south-west at sunset on the 11th and 12th and blazes at magnitude -4.6, reaching its greatest brilliancy on the 17th. It stands further above-and to the right of the slim impressively-earthlit Moon again on the 28th.

Viewed through a telescope, Venus’ dazzling crescent swells in diameter from 31 to 47 arcseconds and the illuminated portion of the disk shrinks from 40% to 17%. Indeed, steadily-held binoculars should be enough to glimpse its shape. This month its distance falls from 81 million to 53 million km as it begins to swing around its orbit to pass around the Sun’s near side late in March.

Mars stands above and to the left of Venus but is fainter and dimming further from magnitude 1.1 to 1.3 during February. It appears closest to Venus, 5.4°, on the 2nd but the gap between them grows to 12° by the 28th as they track eastwards and northwards through Pisces. Both set before our map times at present but our charts pick them up at midmonth as they pass below-left of Algenib, the star at the bottom-left corner of the Square of Pegasus.

Mars shrinks below 5 arcseconds in diameter this month so few surface details are visible telescopically. This is certainly not the case with Jupiter, whose intricately-detailed cloud-banded disk swells from 39 to 42 arcseconds. We do need to wait, though, for two hours beyond our map times for Jupiter to rise in the east and until the pre-dawn hours for it to stand at its highest in the south. Second only to Venus, it shines at magnitude -2.1 to -2.3 and lies almost 4° due north of Virgo’s leading star Spica where it appears stationary on the 6th when its motion switches from easterly to westerly.  Look for the two below-left of the Moon on the 15th and to the right of the Moon on the 16th.

Saturn is a morning object, low down in the south-east after its rises for Edinburgh at 05:25 on the 1st and by 03:48 on the 28th. At magnitude 0.6 to 0.5, it stands on the Ophiuchus-Sagittarius border where it is below-right of the waning Moon on the 21st. It is a pity that telescopic views are hindered by its low altitude because Saturn’s disk, 16 arcseconds wide, is set within wide-open rings which measure 16 by 36 arcseconds and have their northern face tipped 27° towards the Earth. Mercury remains too deep in our south-eastern morning twilight to be seen this month.

Alan Pickup

This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on January 31st 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.

Scotland’s Sky in June, 2015

Venus and Jupiter converge for twilight rendezvous

The maps show the sky at 01:00 BST on the 1st, midnight on the 16th and 23:00 on 30th. (Click on map to englarge)

The maps show the sky at 01:00 BST on the 1st, midnight on the 16th and 23:00 on 30th. (Click on map to englarge)

The perpetual twilight during Scotland’s all-too-brief June nights means that the month is rarely a vintage one for stargazing. Indeed, from the north of the country, all but the brighter stars and planets are swamped by the “gloaming” or, for those in the Northern Isles, the “simmer dim”.

This year, though, we have two powerful excuses for staying up late. Not only is the beautiful world Saturn at its stunning best, but the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, are converging in our western evening sky on their way to a spectacular close conjunction low down in the twilight at the month’s end. Just expect a flurry of UFO reports.

The Sun is at its furthest north over the Tropic of Cancer at 17:38 BST on the 21st, the moment of our summer solstice when days are at their longest over Earth’s northern hemisphere. For Edinburgh, sunrise/sunset times vary from 04:35/21:46 BST on the 1st, to 04:26/22:03 on the 21st and 04:30/22:02 on the 30th. The Moon is full on the 2nd, at last quarter on the 9th, new on the 16th and at first quarter on the 24th.

Venus is brilliant in our western evening sky and sets in the west-north-west just prior to our star map times. It reaches its greatest angular distance of 45° east of the Sun on the 6th and grows even brighter from magnitude -4.3 to -4.4 – bright enough to be glimpsed in broad daylight. However, its motion against the stars is taking it southwards in the sky so that its altitude at Edinburgh’s sunset plunges from 27° on the 1st to 16° by the 30th.

As Venus approaches from 113 million to 77 million km, a telescope shows its disk swelling from 22 to 32 arcseconds across while the sunlit portion falls from 53% to 32%. The planet is said to reach dichotomy when it is 50% illuminated on the 6th, but it seems that optical effects involving its deep cloudy atmosphere mean that observers see the phase occurring several days earlier than predicted when Venus is an evening star.

Venus lies below and left of the Castor and Pollux in Gemini as the month begins, but it tracks east-south-eastwards across Cancer and into Leo to pass 0.9° north of the Praesepe star cluster (use binoculars) on the 13th.

As it does so, it closes on the night’s second brightest planet, Jupiter, which creeps much more slowly from Cancer into Leo. Jupiter stands 21° to the left of Venus on the 1st but is barely 0.4°, less than a Moon’s breadth, above-left of Venus by the evening of the 30th. The giant planet dims slightly from magnitude -1.9 to -1.8 during the period and shrinks from 34 to 32 arcseconds as it recedes from 851 million to 909 million km.

Don’t forget that Jupiter’s four main moons can be followed through a telescope or decent binoculars as they orbit from side to side of the planet. Our own Moon is a 19% sunlit crescent on the 20th when it stands 5° below Jupiter which, in turn, is 6° left of Venus. On the next evening the Moon lies 5° below-left of the star Regulus in Leo which is about to set in the west-north-west at our map times as the Plough stands high above.

Mars and Mercury are not observable this month. Mars reaches conjunction on the Sun’s far side on the 14th while Mercury reaches 22° west of the Sun on the 24th but is swamped by our morning twilight.

The constellations of Hercules and Ophiuchus, both sparsely populated with stars, loom in the south at the map times while the Summer Triangle formed by Vega, Altair and Deneb is high in the east to south-east. Were we under darker skies a few degrees further south, in southern Europe for example, then we might spy the Milky Way flowing through the Triangle as it arches across the eastern sky from Sagittarius and Scorpius in the south. The latter are rich in stars and star clusters, but they hug Scotland’s southern horizon where only the bright yellowish Saturn and the distinctly red supergiant star Antares, half as bright and more than 11° below-left of the planet, stand out.

Saturn stood at opposition on May 23 but is still observable throughout the night as it moves from the south-east at nightfall to the south-west before dawn, peaking only 16° above Edinburgh’s southern horizon thirty minutes before our map times. As the planet edges 2° westwards in eastern Libra, it tracks away from the fine double star Graffias in Scorpius, below and to its left. Look for it close to the Moon on the evenings of the 1st and 28th.

This month Saturn fades a little from magnitude 0.1 to 0.3 but remains a striking telescopic sight. Its iconic ring system is tilted 24° towards us and spans 42 arcseconds around the rotation-flattened 18 arcseconds globe.

On the opposite side of our sky to Saturn is the star Capella in Auriga which transits low across the north from the north-west at dusk to the north-north-east before dawn. It is in this region of our sky that we sometimes see noctilucent clouds. Appearing like wisps, ripples and sheets of silvery-blue cirrus, these form as ice condenses around particles near altitudes of 82 km where they glow in the sunlight after our more familiar weather or troposphere clouds are in darkness. Best seen from latitudes between 50° and 60° N, ideal for Scotland, they appear for just a few weeks around the solstice, from about mid-May to early-August.

Alan Pickup

This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on May 29th 2015, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.