Saturn at full tilt as Comet Halley’s meteors fly
Our charts capture the sky in transition between the stars of summer, led by the Summer Triangle of Deneb, Vega and Altair in the west, and the sparkling winter groups heralded by Taurus and the Pleiades star cluster climbing in the east. Indeed, if we look out before dawn, as Venus blazes in the east, we see a southern sky centred on Orion that mirrors that of our spectacular February evenings. October also brings our second opportunity this year to spot debris from Comet Halley.
As the ashes of the Cassini spacecraft settle into Saturn, the planet reaches a milestone in its 29-years orbit of the Sun when its northern hemisphere and rings are tilted towards us at their maximum angle of 27.0° this month. In practice, our view of the rings’ splendour is compromised at present by its low altitude.
Although it shines at magnitude 0.5 and is the brightest object in its part of the sky, Saturn hovers very low in the south-west at nightfall and sets around 80 minutes before our map times. The rings span 36 arcseconds at mid-month while its noticeably rotation-flattened disk measures 16 arcseconds across the equator and 14 arcseconds pole-to-pole. Catch it below and to the right of the young crescent Moon on the 24th.
The Sun moves 11° further south of the equator this month as sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 07:16/18:48 BST (06:16/17:48 GMT) on the 1st to 07:18/16:34 GMT on the 31st, after we set our clocks back on the 29th.
Jupiter is now lost in our evening twilight as it nears the Sun’s far side on the 26th. Saturn is not alone as an evening planet, though, for both Neptune and Uranus are well placed. They are plotted on our southern chart in Aquarius and Pisces respectively but we can obtain more detailed and helpful diagrams of their position via a Web search for a Neptune or Uranus “finder chart” – simply asking for a “chart” is more likely to lead you to astrological nonsense.
Neptune, dimly visible through binoculars at magnitude 7.8, lies only 0.6° south-east (below-left) of the star Lambda Aquarii at present and tracks slowly westwards to sit a similar distance south of Lambda by the 31st. It lies 4,346 million km away on the 1st and its bluish disk is a mere 2.3 arcseconds wide.
Uranus reaches opposition on the 19th when it stands directly opposite the Sun and 2,830 million km from Earth. At magnitude 5.7 it is just visible to the unaided eye in a good dark sky, and easy through binoculars. Currently 1.3° north-west of the star Omicron Piscium and also edging westwards, it shows a bluish-green 3.7 arcseconds disk if viewed telescopically.
North of Aquarius and Pisces are Pegasus and Andromeda, the former being famous for its relatively barren Square while the fuzzy smudge of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, lies 2.5 million light years away and is easy to glimpse through binoculars if not always with the naked eye.
Mercury slips through superior conjunction on the Sun’s far side on the 8th and is out of sight. Venus remains resplendent at magnitude -3.9 in the east before dawn though it does rise later and stand lower each morning. On the 1st, it rises for Edinburgh at 04:44 BST (03:44 GMT) and climbs to stand 20° high at sunrise. By the month’s end, it rises at 05:30 GMT and is 13° high at sunrise. Against the background stars, it speeds from Leo to lie 5° above Virgo’s star Spica by the 31st.
Mars is another morning object, though almost 200 times dimmer at magnitude 1.8 as it moves from 2.6° below-left of Venus on the 1st to 16° above-right of Venus on the 31st. The pair pass within a Moon’s breadth of each other on the 5th and 6th when Venus appears 11 arcseconds in diameter and 91% sunlit and Mars (like Uranus) is a mere 3.7 arcseconds wide.
Comet Halley was last closest to the Sun in 1986 and will not return again until 2061. Twice each year, though, the Earth cuts through Halley’s orbit around the Sun and encounters some of the dusty debris it has released into its path over past millennia. The resulting pair of meteor showers are the Eta Aquarids in early-May and the Orionids later this month. Although the former is a fine shower for watchers in the southern hemisphere, it yields only the occasional meteor in Scotland’s morning twilight.
The Orionids are best seen in the morning sky, too, and produce fewer than half the meteors of our main annual displays. This time the very young Moon offers no interference during the shower’s broad peak between the 21st and 23rd. In fact, Orionids appear throughout the latter half of October as they diverge from a radiant point in the region to the north and east of the bright red supergiant star Betelgeuse in Orion’s shoulder and close to the feet of Gemini. Note that they streak in all parts of the sky, not just around the radiant.
Orionids begin to appear when the radiant rises in the east-north-east at our map times, building in number until it passes around 50° high in the south before dawn. Under ideal conditions, with the radiant overhead in a black sky, as many as 25 fast meteors might be counted in one hour with many leave glowing trains in their wake. Rates were considerably higher than this between 2006 and 2009, so there is the potential for another pleasant surprise.
This is a slightly revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on September 30th 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
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.