Inconstant stars in stunning New Year sky
Our evening sky is bursting with stellar interest but devoid of bright planets. Instead, Mars partners Jupiter in the predawn in the south-east to south while the impending spectacle of the annual Quadrantids meteor shower is rather blunted by bright moonlight.
The charts show Taurus high on the meridian, above and to the right of the unmistakable form of Orion whose brightest stars are the distinctly reddish supergiant Betelgeuse and the contrasting blue-white supergiant Rigel.
Between them lie the three stars of Orion’s Belt, while hanging below the middle of these is his fainter Sword with the Orion Nebula. The latter’s diffuse glow, visible to the unaided eye under decent conditions and obvious through binoculars, comes from a region where new stars and planets are forming. It lies some 1,350 light years away and is one of the most intensively studied objects in the entire sky.
Two iconic variable stars, Algol and Mira, are well placed in the evening. Algol in Perseus, the archetype of eclipsing variable stars, has two unequal stars that orbit around, and hide, each other every 2 days 20 hours and 49 minutes. Normally Algol shines at magnitude 2.1 and is almost identical in brightness to the star Almach in Andromeda, 12° to its west and labelled on the chart.
However, when Algol’s fainter star partially obscures its brighter companion, their combined light dips to magnitude 3.4, one third as bright, in an eclipse that lasts for about 10 hours and can be followed with nothing more than the naked eye. This month, Algol is at its mid-eclipse faintest at 02:45 on the 13th, 23:34 on the 15th and 20:23 on the 18th.
Mira, by contrast, is a single red giant star that pulsates in size and brightness every 332 days on average. It lies well to the west of Orion in Cetus, the sea monster of Greek mythology which was slain by Perseus when he rescued Andromeda.
During a typical pulsation, Mira varies between about magnitude 3.5, easy for the naked eye, and the ninth magnitude, probably needing a telescope. Unlike Algol, whose variability is like clockwork, Mira is less predictable and it has been known to touch the second magnitude, as it did in 2011. Now is the time to check, for it is close to its maximum as the year begins. Markedly orange in colour, it dims only half as quickly as it brightens so should remain as a naked-eye object throughout January.
Named for the extinct constellation of Quadrans Muralis, the Quadrantids meteors diverge from a radiant point in northern Bootes which lies low in the north at our map times and climbs to stand high in the east before dawn. Meteors are seen between the 1st and 6th but peak rates persist for only a few hours around the shower’s peak, due this time at about 21:00 on the 3rd when 80 or more meteors per hour might be counted by an observer with the radiant overhead in a clear moonless sky. However, with the radiant low in the north and moonlight flooding the sky at the time, expect to see only a fraction of these, perhaps trailing overhead from north to south.
Earlier on the 3rd, at 06:00, the Earth reaches perihelion, its closest point to the Sun in its annual orbit. Edinburgh’s sunrise/sunset times change from 08:44/15:49 on the 1st to 08:09/16:44 on the 31st. The Moon is full at 02:25 on the 2nd, only four hours after it reaches its closest point to the Earth for the entire year. There is a relatively modern obsession in dubbing such an event a supermoon, because the Moon appears 17% wider than it does when at its furthest. The difference between an average full moon and this one, though, is hardly “super” and far from obvious to the eye.
The Moon’s last quarter on the 8th is followed by new on the 17th, first quarter on the 24th and full again on the 31st when it passes through the southern half of the Earth’s shadow in a total lunar eclipse. Sadly, the event is over before sunset and moonrise for Britain.
Venus slips around the Sun’s far side to reach superior conjunction on the 9th and leave Jupiter as our brightest morning planet. Seen from Edinburgh, the latter rises in the east-south-east at 04:04 on the 1st and is climbing more than 15° high into the south before dawn. Conspicuous at magnitude -1.8 to -2.0, it creeps 4° eastwards to the east of the famous double star Zubenelgenubi in Libra and rises at 02:30 by the month’s end.
Mars, much fainter at magnitude 1.5, lies almost 3° above-right of Jupiter on the 1st and tracks more quickly eastwards to stand only 14 arcminutes (half a Moon’s breadth) below Jupiter before dawn on the 7th. The pair lie below the waning Moon in our predawn sky on the 11th when Jupiter’s cloud-banded disk 34 arcseconds wide and visible through any telescope, while Mars is still too small to appear interesting. Mars is brighter at magnitude 1.2 and stands 12° to the left of Jupiter by the 31st.
Mercury, bright at magnitude -0.3, may be glimpsed through binoculars as it hovers very low above our south-eastern horizon for more than 90 minutes before sunrise until the 8th. Given a clear horizon it may still be visible on the 15th when it stands 2.6° below-right of the vanishingly slender waning Moon. Saturn, half as bright at magnitude 0.5, lies 4° right of the Moon on that morning but is easier to spot by the month’s end when it rises almost two hours before the Sun.
This is a slightly revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on December 30th 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Geminid meteors sparkle during long December nights
December brings us spectacular night skies and arguably the richest meteor shower of the year, the Geminids. We still have the Summer Triangle of bright stars, Vega in Lyra, Deneb in Cygnus and Altair in Aquila, high in the south-west at nightfall while the unmistakable figure of Orion dominates the midnight hours, surrounded by his cohort of familiar winter constellations. By the predawn, the Plough sails overhead and the night’s only conspicuous planets shine to the south of east.
Our longest nights, of course, occur around the winter solstice when the Sun reaches its most southerly point in its annual trek around the sky. This occurs at 16:28 GMT on the 21st when Edinburgh’s night, measured from sunset to sunrise, lasts for 17 hours and 3 minutes, which no less than 10 hours and 39 minutes longer than at June’s summer solstice.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh during December vary from 08:19/15:44 on the 1st to 08:42/15:40 on the 21st and 08:44/15:48 on the 31st. The Moon is full on the 3rd, at last quarter on the 10th, new on the 18th and at first quarter on the 26th,
By our map times, the Summer Triangle has toppled low into the west and is being followed by the less impressive Square of Pegasus. The Square’s top-left star, Alpheratz, belongs to Andromeda whose other main stars, Mirach and Almach, line up to its left. A spur of fainter stars above Mirach leads us to the Andromeda Galaxy, whose oval glow reaches us from 2.5 million light years away.
Orion is in the east-south-east, his Belt pointing up Aldebaran and the Pleiades in Taurus and down to where the brightest nighttime star, Sirius in Canis Major, rises less than one hour later.
The Moon lies to the right of Aldebaran and below the Pleiades on the night of 2nd-3rd, to the left of Aldebaran a day later and comes around again to occult the star in the early hours of the 31st. We need a telescope to see Aldebaran wink out at the Moon’s limb at 01:01 and reappear at 01:57 as seen from Edinburgh.
It is from a radiant point near Castor in Gemini, north-east of Orion, that meteors from the Geminids shower diverge between the 8th and 17th although, of course, the meteors fly in all parts of the sky. With negligible moonlight this year, and given decent weather, we are in for a stunning display of sparkling long-trailed meteors whose paths point back to the radiant. Rates for an observer under an ideal dark sky could peak at more than 100 per hour at the shower’s peak on the night of the 13th-14th, though most of us may glimpse only a fraction of these.
Although most meteors originate as cometary debris, the Geminids appear to be rocky splinters from the 5 km-wide asteroid, Phaethon, which dives within 21 million km of the Sun every 523 days. In what is its closest approach to the Earth since its discovery in 1983, Phaethon sweeps only 10.3 million km from the Earth on the 16th when a telescope might show it as a tenth magnitude speck speeding past Alpheratz.
December’s second shower, the Ursids, derives from Comet Tuttle and is active between the 17th and 25th, peaking on the 23rd. Typically it yields fewer than ten meteors per hour so I rarely mention it here – I believe my last time was 37 years ago – but very occasionally it rivals the Geminids in intensity, if only for a few hours. The radiant point lies near the star Kochab in Ursa Minor and is plotted on our northern chart.
The unprecedented interstellar asteroid, discovered using a telescope in Hawaii and featured here hast time, has now been called 1I/’Oumuamua. This indicates that it is our first known interstellar visitor and employs the Hawaiian word ’Oumuamua to reflect its supposed status as a scout from the distant past. Further observations imply that it is remarkably elongated, being at least five times longer than it is wide.
Venus shines brilliantly at magnitude -3.9 very low in the south-east as the night ends, but is soon lost from view as it dives towards the Sun’s far side. It leaves Jupiter as our most prominent (magnitude -1.7 to -1.8) morning object. The giant world rises at Edinburgh’s east-south-eastern horizon at 05:31 on the 1st and 04:07 on the 31st, climbing southwards in the sky to stand some 15° high before dawn. Tracking eastwards in Libra, it passes 0.7° north of the celebrated double star Zubenelgenubi on the 21st.
Mars, fainter at magnitude 1.7 to 1.5, lies 16° above-right of Jupiter on the 1st when it is also about half as bright as Virgo’s star Spica, 3° below and to its right. As Mars tracks east-south-eastwards from Virgo to Libra it almost keeps pace with the Sun, so that it rises at around 03:50 throughout the month. By the 31st, it stands 3° from Jupiter, with Zubenelgenubi below and to Mars’ left in the same binocular field of view. The waning Moon forms a nice triangle with Mars and Spica on the 13th and with Mars and Jupiter on the 14th.
Saturn sets in our bright evening twilight as it heads towards conjunction beyond the Sun on the 21st. Mercury slips around the Sun’s near side on the 13th to become best placed as a morning star between Christmas and New Year. Between the 21st and 31st it brightens between magnitude 0.8 and -0.3, rises 100 or more minutes before Edinburgh’s sunrise and stands around 8° high in the south-east thirty minutes before sunrise.
This is a slightly revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on November 30th 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Two brightest planets in closest meeting for 14 years
Our usual highlight for August is the return of the prolific and reliable Perseids meteor shower. Unfortunately, meteor-watchers have to contend with moonlight this year and it is just as well that we have other highlights as compensation. Foremost among them is the closest conjunction between Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest planets, since 2000 though they are low down in our morning twilight. Mars and Saturn rendezvous, too, and we have our best supermoon of the year.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 05:17/21:20 BST on the 1st to 06:15/20:10 on the 31st. The spell of nautical twilight at dusk and dawn shrinks from 121 to 89 minutes. The Moon is at first quarter on the 4th, full on the 10th (see below), at last quarter on the 17th and new on the 25th.
The term supermoon has gained currency in recent years to describe a full moon that occurs when the Moon is near its closest in its monthly orbit. At such times, it can appear 7% wider and 15% brighter than an average full moon. In my view, the enhancement is barely perceptible to the eye and is less impressive than the illusion that always makes the Moon appear larger when it is near the horizon. As the media have discovered, though, supermoons provide a good excuse to feature attractive images of the Moon against a variety of landscapes, and if this encourages more people into astrophotography, so much the better.
This month, the Moon is full at 19:10 BST on the 10th, less than 30 minutes after its closest point (perigee) for the whole of 2014. On that evening, the supermoon is already 4° high in the east-south-east as the Sun sets for Edinburgh, so judge (and photograph?) for yourself.
Venus is brilliant at magnitude -3.9 as a morning star. Rising at Edinburgh’s north-eastern horizon at 03:10 BST on the 1st, it stands 15° high in the east-north-east at sunrise. By the 31st, it rises at 04:42 and is 12° high at sunrise. Between these dates it is caught and passed by Jupiter which emerges from the twilight below and to Venus’ left on about the 7th and stands only 0.2° below Venus before dawn on the 18th.
Jupiter is magnitude -1.8, one seventh as bright as Venus, but still outshines every star so the conjunction is a spectacular one, albeit at an inconvenient time of the night. In fact, the event occurs less than a degree south-west of the Praesepe or Beehive star cluster in Cancer, but this may be hard to spot in the twilight. Before dawn on the 23rd, the two planets lie to the left of the waning and brightly earthlit Moon. By the month’s end, Jupiter rises by 03:25 and stands 13° above-right of Venus.
Mars and Saturn have set by the map times but stand low in the south-west as our evening twilight fades. On the 1st, Mars is magnitude 0.4 and lies 10° to the left of Spica in Virgo. Saturn, only a little dimmer at magnitude 0.5 in Libra, is 13° to Mars’ left, and slightly higher. Look for the Moon to the right of Mars on the 2nd, between Mars and Saturn on the 3rd and to the left of Saturn on the 4th. Mars, meanwhile, tracks eastwards to cross from Virgo to Libra on the 10th and pass 3.5° below Saturn on the 24th. By the 31st, both planets have faded to magnitude 0.6, and Mars lies 5° below-left of Saturn with the Moon between them again and very close to Saturn.
After passing around the Sun’s far side on the 8th, Mercury is too low to be seen in our evening twilight.
Our chart depicts the bright stars Deneb, Vega and Altair high in our southern sky where they form the Summer Triangle. The centre of our Milky Way galaxy lies in Sagittarius on the south-south-western horizon but the Milky Way itself flows northwards through Aquila and Cygnus before tumbling down through Cepheus, Cassiopeia and Perseus in the north-north-east.
Use binoculars to seek out the star Mu Cephei high above familiar “W” of Cassiopeia. Dubbed the Garnet star by Sir William Herschel, Mu is one of the reddest stars we know and pulsates semi-regularly between magnitude 3.4 and 5.1. Some 6,000 light years away, it is so large that it would extend beyond the orbit of Saturn if it replaced the Sun and is sure to explode as a supernova within a few million years.
The Perseids are due to peak in the middle of the night on 12-13th August when we might have been able to glimpse more than 80 meteors per hour under ideal conditions. As it is, bright moonlight will ensure that meteor counts are well down, though we can still expect some impressive bright meteors that leave persistent glowing streaks, called trains, in their wake.
Decent rates may be seen from perhaps 10-15th August and, in fact, the shower is already underway as the Earth takes from 23 July to 20 August to traverse the stream of Perseid meteoroid particles laid down by Comet Swift-Tuttle. It is only appropriate that the resulting meteors are swift, too, as they disintegrate in the upper atmosphere at 59 km per second. Although they move in parallel through space, perspective means that they appear to diverge from a radiant point in Perseus, plotted on our northern star map below Cassiopeia. That point climbs through the north-east overnight to approach the zenith by dawn, but remember that the meteors can appear in any part of the sky and not just towards the radiant.