The mysterious noctilucent clouds of summer
If we are prepared to do battle with June’s night-long twilight, and provided the weather improves at last, there is plenty of interest in our June sky. Saturn is the pick of the planets while the bright star Vega in Lyra leads the onslaught as the constellations of summer invade from the east at our star map times. We also need to be alert for noctilucent clouds as they make their seasonal appearance low in our northern sky.
The Sun is furthest north at 11:51 BST on the 21st, the instant of our summer solstice. On that day, the Sun dips only 10.6° below Edinburgh’s northern horizon in the middle of the night, so that our sky remains bathed in twilight throughout the night while from further north in Scotland the sky is brighter still. This obviously impedes our ability to see the dimmer stars and “faint fuzzies” such as galaxies and nebulae. On the other hand, it means that satellites remain sunlit whenever they pass overhead. Indeed, the International Space Station is conspicuous two or three times each night until 10 June as it transits from west to east across Scotland’s southern sky – visit heavens-above.com for predictions customised for your location.
The Sun’s shallow sweep below our northern horizon overnight also allows us occasional views of noctilucent or “night-shining” clouds. Composed of tiny ice crystals in a thin layer at a height near 82 km, they catch the sunlight long after our usual low-level clouds are in darkness and can appear like chaotic banks of electric-blue cirrus, sometimes in a herringbone pattern. Their preferred direction follows the Sun around the horizon, so they are more commonly seen low in the north-west after nightfall and towards the north-east before dawn. They occur from mid-May to mid-August but why they are more frequent than they were a century ago remains a mystery. Could the rise be due to global warming, increased industrial pollution or even particles from rocket launches?
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 04:35/21:47 BST on the 1st to 04:26/22:03 on the 21st and 04:31/22:02 on the 30th. The Moon is at first quarter on the 5th, full on the 13th, at last quarter on the 19th and new on the 27th.
At magnitude -1.9, our brightest evening planet continues to be Jupiter, but we must look lower into the west to catch it below Pollux in Gemini as the twilight fades. Shining at magnitude -1.9, it stands 9° above-right of the Moon on the 1st. Jupiter sinks to set in the north-west almost three hours after the Sun as June begins but by the 30th it is only 6° high at sunset and may already be lost from view.
Mercury lies 18° below and to the right of Jupiter on the 1st but is one twentieth as bright at magnitude 1.4 and fading rapidly as it moves to pass through inferior conjunction between the Sun and Earth on the 19th.
The bright star Arcturus in Bootes stands high on the meridian at nightfall but has moved to the middle of our south-western sky by the map times. This leaves our high southern sky devoid of bright stars until we come to Vega in Lyra high in the east-south-east. Directly below Vega is Altair in Aquila while Deneb in Cygnus, almost due east, completes the Summer Triangle. The arc from Vega to Arcturus cuts through Hercules and Corona Borealis, the pretty semi-circular Northern Crown whose main star has the dual names of Alphecca or, perhaps more appropriately, Gemma.
Mars fades from magnitude -0.5 to 0.0 as it tracks eastwards in Virgo towards Spica. It also recedes from 119 million to 148 million km during the month as its small disk contracts from 12 to 9 arcseconds if viewed through a telescope. Look for its reddish light about 26° high in the south-west at nightfall and catch it above the Moon on the 7th. Our maps show it sinking towards the west where it sets two hours later.
Saturn, magnitude 0.2 to 0.4, stands almost 20° high in the south at nightfall at present and continues to creep westwards in Libra almost 4° above-left of the double star Zubenelgenubi. After standing close to Spica on the 8th, the Moon lies near Saturn on the 10th when the planet appears 18 arcseconds wide, its disk set within rings that span 41 arcseconds and have their north face inclined 21° towards us. Don’t miss an opportunity to observe it this month for it will soon be following Mars lower into the south-west at nightfall, and it stands even further south in our summer sky during every year until 2022.
Continuing as a brilliant morning star of magnitude -4.0 to -3.9, Venus rises above Edinburgh’s east-north-eastern horizon 61 minutes before the Sun tomorrow and in the north-east 102 minutes before sunrise on the 30th. Before dawn on the 24th, it lies 5° left of the slender waning Moon and 6° below the Pleiades in Taurus.
Last month, I reported the prediction that the Earth would slice through streams of particles from Comet 209P/LINEAR on the morning on 24 May and that the resulting meteor shower might be spectacular. In fact, it appears that the encounter occurred as forecast, but that the resulting display was disappointing with only a few bright meteors, even for observers in the Americas for whom the timing of the outburst was ideal. Radar studies suggest that the vast majority of meteoroids were unusually small and their meteors too dim to be seen by the unaided eye.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on May 30th 2014, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Saturn’s opposition in the Balance
Our days lengthen during May until the period of true nighttime darkness dwindles to almost nothing by the month’s end. You might think that astronomers would be tempted to mothball their telescopes, but if they did they would miss the year’s best views of Saturn.
The beautiful ringed planet comes to opposition at a distance of 1,331 million km on the 10th when it lies in Libra, the Balance or Scales, and stands in the south in the middle of the night. The ochre deserts and white north polar cap of Mars are also observable, as are all the other brighter planets at one time or another. There may also be a spectacular meteor shower that has never been seen before.
Look overhead at nightfall to find the Plough and extend a curving line along its handle to reach the star Arcturus shining brightly in Bootes well up in the east-south-east. Continue that line, still bending, into the south-east where Mars is conspicuous and reddish in Virgo, above-right of Virgo’s leading star Spica. By our star map times, the Plough has moved to stand high in the west, Arcturus is high in the south, and Mars is in the south-west.
Following its own opposition on 8 April, Mars is now receding from us, from 96 million to 119 million km during May, and although it halves in brightness from magnitude -1.2 to -0.5 it still outshines Arcturus. Viewed telescopically, its disk shrinks from 15 to 12 arcseconds and only in moments of steady “seeing” can we discern its surface detail. The Red Planet’s slow westerly progress below the famous binary star Porrima halts on the 21st when it reaches a so-called stationary point before tracking eastwards again.
Saturn, creeping westwards in the middle of Libra and bright at magnitude 0.1, stands close to the horizon and beneath Arcturus at nightfall. By our map times, though, it is almost due south at an altitude of nearly 19° as seen from Edinburgh. This is 12° lower than Mars when it transits the meridian, so we see it through more of the Earth’s atmosphere and the seeing is likely to be worse. On the other hand, Saturn’s disk is bigger at 19 arcseconds while its superb ring system spans 42 arcseconds and has its north face tipped 22° towards us. This is a good time to look for the Cassini Division, the 4.800 km gap between the two main rings.
Binoculars show the star Zubenelgenubi, 5° to the west of Saturn, to be an obvious double star, while Zubeneschamali, to Saturn’s north, is held (perhaps mistakenly) by some observers to be one of the few greenish-hued stars in the sky. The Arabic names for these stars mean Southern and Northern Claw respectively and date from an era when they were also associated with the brighter nearby constellation of Scorpius the Scorpion. Use binoculars to scan 11° north of Zubeneschamali for the fuzzy blob of M5, a globular cluster of up to 500,000 stars at a distance of about 25,000 light years. Some observers rate it more highly than the more familiar M13 globular in Hercules and M3 in Canes Venatici, 12° to the north-west of Arcturus.
Jupiter remains prominent, and brighter than any star, in the west at nightfall but is close to setting in the north-west by our map times. At magnitude -2.0, it is tracking eastwards in the middle of Gemini, below Castor and Pollux, and shows a 34 arcseconds disk at midmonth.
Mercury is an evening star as it climbs to stand furthest east of the Sun, 23°, on the 25th. Between the 13th and 29th it stands about 10° high in the west-north-west forty minutes after sunset though it may be hard to spy without binoculars in the slowly-fading twilight. It dims from magnitude -0.6 to 1.0 between these dates. Venus is a brilliant morning star on magnitude -4.1 which rises in the east fifty minutes before the Sun on the 1st and one hour before sunrise on the 31st.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 05:29/20:52 BST on the 1st to 04:36/21:45 on the 31st. Nautical twilight at dusk and dawn lasts for 105 minutes on the 1st and for all but the middle 24 minutes of the last night of May.
The Moon is at first quarter on the 7th, full on the 14th, at last quarter on the 21st and new on the 28th. The Moon is strongly earthlit when it stands just above Aldebaran in Taurus on the 1st evening. Catch it again below-left of Jupiter on the 4th, near Mars on the nights of the 10th and 11th and Saturn on the 13th and 14th.
The morning of the 24th may see slow meteors streaming away from a radiant point in the dim constellation of Camelopardalis the Giraffe, see north map. The prediction is made by analysts who have back-tracked the motion of a small comet whose official name is Comet 209P/LINEAR. Discovered as recently as 2004, its path carries it between the orbits of the Earth and Jupiter every 5.1 years and it is to pass harmlessly only 8,290,000 km from the Earth on the 29th, the ninth closest approach by a comet on record.
Only a few days earlier, it is thought that the Earth may encounter several streams of particles that were released by the comet between 1803 and 1924. Meteor rates could hit many hundreds per hour, if not storm force, though the peak of activity is predicted between 08:00 and 09:00 BST on the 24th, during daylight for Britain but ideal for observers in N America. Our pre-dawn hours could still be interesting, though.