Astronomers spot a mystery interstellar visitor
Comets have always been of particular interest. Appearing without warning, and sometimes with impressive tails, it was not surprising that they were regarded as portents of battles to be won or lost and of the passing of kings.
It was in 1705 that Edmond Halley first published the orbit of the comet that now bears his name. This, and the more than 5,000 comets that have been studied since, have all proved to be members of our solar system.
Some, like Halley, follow closed elongated orbits, returning to perihelion in the Sun’s vicinity every few years. Many more, though, trace almost parabolic paths as they dive towards the Sun from the Oort cloud, a spherical reservoir of icy worlds at the edge of the Sun’s influence – if they ever return to perihelion it may not be for millions of years. A handful, though, receive a sufficient gravitational boost as they pass a planet that they are flung beyond the Oort cloud into interstellar space, never to return.
Now astronomers have sighted a faint object which appears to have originated far beyond the Oort cloud, perhaps as an escapee from another star. Discovered by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii on 18 October, it had already reached its perihelion within 38 million km of the Sun nine days before and passed 24 million km from the Earth on the 14th. Dubbed at first Comet/2017 U1 (PanSTARRS) because of its highly eccentric comet-like orbit, its name was changed to A/2017 U1 on 25 October when observers failed to detect any trace of a tail or hazy coma surrounding its small nucleus, probably less than 200 metres wide. So, for the moment, it is classed as an asteroid.
Its path though is certainly hyperbolic, having entered the solar system at a relative speed of 26 km per second from a direction close to the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra. This is also close to the direction that our solar system is moving at 20 km per second with regard to the stars around us, so it may be expected that interstellar intruders, be they comets or asteroids, are most likely to appear from this region. As our first known visitor from interstellar space, frantic efforts are underway to investigate its spectrum and nature before it recedes forever from view in the direction of the Square of Pegasus.
Vega, itself, is the brightest object very high in the south-west at nightfall, falling into the west by our star chart times as Pegasus and Andromeda occupy our high meridian. Orion is rising in the east below Taurus whose brightest star, Aldebaran, is occulted by the bright Moon on the morning of the 6th. Use a telescope to watch it slip behind the Moon’s lower-left limb between 02:27 and 03:26 as seen from Edinburgh
Our sole bright evening planet, Saturn at magnitude 0.5, is easy to miss as it hangs low in the south-west at nightfall, sinking to Edinburgh’s horizon at 18:40 on the 1st and by 16:58 on the 30th. We may need binoculars to spy it in the twilight 5° left of the young earthlit Moon on the 20th and 8° below-right of the Moon a day later. Mercury stands 22° east of the Sun on the 24th but is unlikely to be visible from our latitudes.
The other naked-eye planets are all in our predawn sky. Mars rises in the east just before 04:00 throughout November, climbing to stand 15° to 20° high in the south-east before its magnitude 1.8 pinprick is swallowed by the twilight. This month, it tracks 19° east-south-eastwards in Virgo to pass 3° north of Virgo’s leading star Spica on the 28th. Mars stands to the right of the waning Moon on the 15th when a telescope show it as only 4 arcseconds wide – too small to see any detail.
Venus continues as a brilliant morning star of magnitude -3.9, but it stands lower each morning as it approaches the Sun’s far side. Currently above and left of Spica but speeding east-south-eastwards into Libra, it rises a little more than two hours before the Sun on the 1st and one hour before sunrise by the 30th.
Jupiter, about to emerge from the Sun’s glare below-left of Venus, climbs to pass a mere 16 arcminutes, or half the Moon’s diameter, below-right of Venus on the 13th. Conspicuous at magnitude -1.7, the Jovian disk appears 31 arcseconds wide as compared with only 10 arcseconds for Venus. On the 17th, the incredibly slim earthlit Moon lies above-left of Venus and to the left of Jupiter while the later stands 18° above-right of Venus by the 30th.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 07:20/16:32 on the 1st to 08:18/15:45 on the 30th. The Moon is full on the 4th, at last quarter on the 10th, new on the 18th and at first quarter on the 26.
The annual Leonids meteor shower lasts from the 15th to the 20th and peaks on the night of the 17th-18th. Its meteors, all of them very fast and many leaving glowing trains in their wake, emanate from the Sickle, the reversed question-mark of stars above Regulus in Leo. This rises in the north-east at 22:00, with most Leonids visible during the predawn hours as it climbs through our eastern sky. The shower has given some spectacular meteor storms in the past, notably in 1966 and 1999, but the parent comet, Comet Tempel-Tuttle, is now near the farthest point of its orbit and rates may be around a dozen meteors per hour. For once, though, moonlight is no hindrance.
This is a slightly revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on October 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.
Nights begin with Venus and end at Jupiter
The end of British Summer Time means that we now enjoy six hours of official darkness before midnight, though I appreciate that this may not be welcomed by everyone. The starry sky as darkness falls, however, sees only a small shift since a month ago, with the Summer Triangle, formed by the bright stars Vega, Deneb and Altair, now just west of the meridian and toppling into the middle of the western sky by our star map times.
Those maps show the Square of Pegasus high in the south. The star at its top-left, Alpheratz, actually belongs to Andromeda whose other main stars, Mirach and Almach, are nearly equal in brightness and stand level to its left. A spur of two stars above Mirach leads to the oval glow of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, which is larger than our Milky Way and, at 2.5 million light years, is the most distant object visible to the unaided eye. It is also approaching us at 225 km per second and due to collide with the Milky Way in some 4 billion years’ time.
Binoculars show M31 easily and you will also need them to glimpse more than a handful of stars inside the boundaries of the Square of Pegasus, even under the darkest of skies. In fact, there are only four such stars brighter than the fifth magnitude and another nine to the sixth magnitude, close to the naked eye limit under good conditions. How many can you count?
Mars is the easiest of three bright planets to spot in tonight’s evening sky. As seen from Edinburgh, it stands 11° high in the south as the twilight fades, shining with its customary reddish hue at a magnitude of 0.4, and appearing about half as bright as the star Altair in Aquila, 32° directly above it.
Now moving east-north-eastwards (to the left), Mars is 5° below-right of the Moon on the 6th and crosses from Sagittarius into Capricornus two days later. Soon after this, it enters the region covered by our southern star map, its motion being shown by the arrow. By the 30th, Mars has dimmed slightly to magnitude 0.6 but is almost 6° higher in the south at nightfall, moving to set in the west-south-west at 21:00. It is a disappointingly small telescopic sight, though, its disk shrinking from only 7.5 to 6.5 arcseconds in diameter as it recedes from 188 million to 215 million km.
We need a clear south-western horizon to spy Venus and Saturn, both low down in our early evening twilight. Venus, by far the brighter at magnitude -4.0, is less than 4° high in the south-west thirty minutes after sunset, while Saturn is 4° above and to its right, very much fainter at magnitude 0.6 and only visible through binoculars. The young earthlit Moon may help to locate them – it stands 3° above-right of Saturn on the 2nd and 8° above-left of Venus on the 3rd.
Mercury is out of sight in the evening twilight and Saturn will soon join it as it tracks towards the Sun’s far side. However, Venus’ altitude thirty minutes after sunset improves to 9° by the 30th when it sets for Edinburgh at 18:30 and is a little brighter at magnitude -4.1. Viewed telescopically, Venus shows a dazzling gibbous disk that swells from 14 to 17 arcseconds as its distance falls from 178 million to 149 million km.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 07:20/16:31 on the 1st to 08:18/15:44 on the 30th. The Moon reaches first quarter on the 7th, full on the 14th, last quarter on the 21 and new on the 28th.
The full moon on the 14th occurs only three hours after the Moon reaches its perigee, the closest point to the Earth in its monthly orbit. As such, this is classed as a supermoon because the full moon appears slightly (7%) wider than it does on average. By my reckoning, this particular lunar perigee, at a distance of 356,509 km, is the closest since 1948 when it also coincided with a supermoon.
Of the other planets, Neptune and Uranus continue as binocular-brightness objects in Aquarius and Pisces respectively in our southern evening sky, while Jupiter, second only to Venus in brightness, is now obvious in the pre-dawn.
Jupiter rises at Edinburgh’s eastern horizon at 04:28 on the 1st and stands more than 15° high in the south-east as morning twilight floods the sky. It outshines every star as it improves from magnitude -1.7 to -1.8 by the 30th when it rises at 03:07 and is almost twice as high in the south-south-east before dawn.
Currently close to the famous double star Porrima in Virgo, Jupiter is 13° above-right of Virgo’s leader Spica and draws 5° closer during the period. Catch it less than 3° to the right of the waning earthlit Moon on the 25th. Jupiter’s distance falls from 944 million to 898 million km during November while its cloud-banded disk is some 32 arcseconds across.
The annual Leonids meteor shower has produced some stunning storms of super-swift meteors in the past, but probably not this year. Active from the 15th to 20th, it is expected to peak at 04:00 on the 17th but with no more than 20 meteors per hour under a dark sky. In fact, the bright moonlight is likely to swamp all but the brightest of these this year. Leonids diverge from a radiant point that lies within the Sickle of Leo which climbs from low in the east-north-east at midnight to pass high in the south before dawn.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on November 1st 2016, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
November nights end with planets on parade
With the return of earlier and longer nights, astronomy enthusiasts have plenty to observe in November. As in October, though, the real highlight is the parade of bright planets in our eastern morning sky.
The first to appear is Jupiter which rises above Edinburgh’s eastern horizon at 02:04 GMT on the 1st and by 00:35 on the 30th. More conspicuous than any star, it brightens from magnitude -1.8 to -2.0 this month as it moves 4° eastwards in south-eastern Leo. It lies 882 million km away and appears 33 arcseconds wide through a telescope when it stands 4° to the left of the waning Moon on the 6th.
Following close behind Jupiter at present is the even more brilliant Venus. This rises 34 minutes after Jupiter on the 1st and stands 5° below and to its left as they climb 30° into the south-east before dawn. In fact, the two were only 1° apart in a spectacular conjunction on the morning of October 26 and Venus enjoys an even closer meeting with the planet Mars over the first few days of November.
On the 1st, Venus blazes at magnitude -4.3 and lies 1.1° to the right of Mars, some 250 times fainter at magnitude 1.7. The pair are closest on the 3rd, with Venus only 0.7° (less than two Moon-breadths) below-right of Mars, before Venus races down and to Mars’ left as the morning star sweeps east-south-eastwards through the constellation Virgo. Catch Mars and Venus 2° apart on the 7th as they form a neat triangle with the Moon, a triangle that contains Virgo’s star Zavijava.
Venus lies only 4 arcminutes above-left of the star Zaniah on the 13th, and 1.1° below-left of Porrima on the 18th. The final morning of the month finds it 4° above-left of Virgo’s leading star Spica. By then Mars is 14° above and to the right of Venus and 1.3° below-right of Porrima, while Jupiter is another 19° higher and to their right.
Venus dims slightly to magnitude -4.2 during November, its gibbous disk shrinking as seen through a telescope from 23 to 18 arcseconds as its distance grows from 110 million to 142 million km. Mars improves to magnitude 1.5 and is only 4 arcseconds wide as it approaches from 329 million to 296 million km.
Neither Mercury nor Saturn are observable during November as they reach conjunction on the Sun’s far side on the 17th and 30th respectively.
More than 15° above and to the right of Jupiter is Leo’s leading star Regulus, while curling like a reversed question-mark above this is the Sickle of Leo from which meteors of the Leonids shower diverge between the 15th and 20th. The fastest meteors we see, these streak in all parts of the sky and are expected to be most numerous, albeit with rates of under 20 per hour, during the morning hours of the 18th.
The Sun plunges another 7.5° southwards during November as sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 07:19/16:33 GMT on the 1st to 08:18/15:44 on the 30th. The Moon is at last quarter on the 3rd, new on the 11th, at first quarter on the 19th and full on the 25th.
As the last of the evening twilight fades in early November, the Summer Triangle formed by bright stars Vega, Deneb and Altair fills our high southern sky. By our star map time of 21:00 GMT, the Triangle has toppled into the west to be intersected by the semicircular border of both charts – the line that arches overhead from east to west and separates the northern half of our sky from the southern.
The maps show the Plough in the north as it turns counterclockwise below Polaris, the Pole Star, while Cassiopeia passes overhead and Orion rises in the east.
The Square of Pegasus is high in the south with Andromeda stretching to its left as quintet of watery constellations arc across our southern sky below them. These are Capricornus the Sea Goat, Aquarius the Water Bearer, Pisces the (Two) Fish, Cetus the Water Monster and Eridanus the River.
One of Pisces’ fish lies to the south of Mirach and is joined by a cord to another depicted by a loop of stars dubbed the Circlet below the Square. Like the rest of Pisces, they are dim and easily swamped by moonlight or street-lighting. Just to the left of the Circlet, one of the reddest stars known is visible easily though binoculars. TX Piscium is a giant star some 760 light years away and has a surface temperature of perhaps 3,200C compared with our Sun’s 5,500C.
Omega Piscium, to the left of the Circlet, is notable because it sits only two arcminutes east of the zero-degree longitude line in the sky – making it one of the closest naked-eye stars to the celestial equivalent of our Greenwich Meridian. The celestial counterparts of latitude and longitude are called declination and right ascension. Declination is measured northwards from the sky’s equator while right ascension is measured eastwards from the point at which the Sun crosses northwards over the equator at the vernal equinox.
That point lies 7° to the south of Omega but drifts slowly westwards as the Earth’s axis wobbles over a period of 26,000 years – the effect known as precession.
Below Pisces lies Cetus, the mythological beast from which Perseus rescued Andromeda. Its brightest stars, Menkar and Deneb Kaitos, are both orange-red giants, the latter almost identical in brightness to Polaris at magnitude 2.0. Another, Mira, takes 11 months to pulsate between naked-eye and telescopic visibility and is currently near its minimum brightness.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on October 30th 2015, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here. Journal Editor’s apologies for the lateness of the article appearing here.
Europe’s Philae probe to attempt first touchdown on comet
In an exciting month in astronomy and space exploration, November should bring the first soft landing on a comet when the European Space Agency’s Philae craft detaches from the Rosetta probe and drops gently onto the icy nucleus of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Our sky at nightfall s similar to that of a month ago although, with our return to GMT, darkness arrives more than two hours earlier in the evening. Mars continues as the only bright planet at these times, visible low in Edinburgh’s south-south-western sky and fading only a little from magnitude 0.9 to 1.0 as it tracks eastwards above the Teapot of Sagittarius.
However, even though Mars is drawing closer to the Sun, its altitude at the end of nautical twilight improves from 5° to 9° during November as the Sun plunges more than 7° southwards in the sky and Mars edges almost 3° northwards. This also means that Mars-set in the south-west occurs at about 19:05 throughout the period. It stands below the young crescent Moon on the 26th.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 07:19/16:33 GMT on the 1st to 08:17/15:45 on the 30th as the duration of nautical twilight at dawn and dusk extends from 83 to 93 minutes. The Moon is full on the 6th, at last quarter on the 14th, new on the 22nd and at first quarter on the 29th.
Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko lies 6° south-east of Mars on the 12th but is a very dim telescopic object some 450 million km from the Sun. On that day Philae is due to unlatch from Rosetta and take about seven hours to fall 22.5km, coming to rest on tripod legs at about 16:00 GMT atop the head of the comet’s strange “rubber-duck” shape. To stop itself bouncing off into space in defiance of the comet’s feeble gravitational pull, it should then fire a tethered harpoon to anchor itself to the surface.
The comet’s 6-year orbit is carrying it closer to the Sun, eventually to reach perihelion at a distance of 186 million km next August. Meantime, its activity is picking up and Rosetta is imaging jets of dust and gas emerging, mainly from the duck’s neck region at present. With Philae in position to also monitor conditions at the surface, and even below the crust using sonar, seismographs and permittivity probes, our knowledge of what makes comets tick should soon be transformed.
The Summer Triangle of Vega, Deneb and Altair, lies in the west at our map times as Orion rises in the east below Taurus and the Pleiades. The Square of Pegasus stands high on the meridian with the three main stars of Andromeda, Alpheratz, Mirach and Almach, leading off from its top-left corner. The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, could hardly be better placed, being visible to the naked eye in a decent sky and not difficult at all through binoculars. It stands 2.5 million light years (ly) away and appears as an oval smudge some 8° above Mirach.
A line through the Square’s two right-hand stars points the way to Fomalhaut, bright but very low in the south. I mentioned last time that it may have at least a couple of planets. In fact, the first so-called extrasolar planet circling a solar-type star was discovered in 1995 and is about half the size of Jupiter yet orbits in only 4.2 days at a distance only one seventh of that of Mercury from the Sun. The star concerned is 51 Pegasi, magnitude 5.5 and 50 ly distant, which is unmistakable through binoculars just 1.5° or 3 Moon-widths to the right of the Scheat-Markab line.
Of the 1,800-plus extrasolar planets now known, no less than four orbit Upsilon Andromedae, a fourth magnitude star at 44 ly that stands between Mirach and Almach (see chart).
Jupiter, is creeping eastwards to the right of the famous Sickle of Leo. Rising in the east-north-east at about 23:20 on the 1st and as early as 21:40 on the 30th, it is prominent until dawn as it climbs through our south-eastern sky to pass about 50° high on our meridian before dawn. The Jovian disk is 38 arcseconds across when Jupiter lies near the Moon on the night of 13/14th.
The annual Leonids meteor shower lasts from the 15th to the 20th, building to a sharp peak on the morning of the 18th. Its super-swift meteors flash in all parts of the sky, though their paths radiate from a point in the Sickle. There is little moonlight interference this year, but meteor rates may be well down on what they were a few years ago when the shower’s parent comet was in the vicinity.
Venus sets too soon after the Sun to be seen, and with Saturn reaching conjunction on the Sun’s far side on the 18th, our only other observable bright planet is Mercury, fortunately putting on its best morning show of 2014.
On the 1st Mercury rises two hours before the Sun and shines at magnitude -0.5 as it climbs to an altitude of 10° in the east-south-east forty minutes before sunrise. Although it soon brightens to magnitude 0.8, it also slips back towards the Sun, so that by the 14th it rises 89 minutes before the Sun and is 6° high forty minutes before sunrise. Given a clear horizon, though, binoculars should show it easily and it should be a naked-eye object until it is swamped by the brightening twilight. Look for Virgo’s leading star, Spica, climbing from below Mercury to pass 5° to its right on the 7th.