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Scotland’s Sky in April, 2019

Galaxy clusters of interest in April’s southern evening sky

The maps show the sky at midnight BST on the 1st, 23:00 on the 16th and 22:00 on 30th. An arrow depicts the motion of Mars. (Click on map to enlarge)

The maps show the sky at midnight BST on the 1st, 23:00 on the 16th and 22:00 on 30th. An arrow depicts the motion of Mars. (Click on map to enlarge)

Orion stands in the south-west at nightfall as the sparkling skies of winter give way to the less flamboyant constellations of spring, led by Leo and Virgo. By our map times, Orion has mostly set the west and the Milky Way arcs only some 30° above Edinburgh’s north-western horizon as it flows between Auriga and the “W” formation of Cassiopeia.

The Milky Way, of course, marks the plane of our disk-shaped galaxy, itself dubbed the Milky Way, around which our Sun orbits every 240 million years. If we look along it, we encounter numerous distant stars but countless more are forever hidden from sight behind intervening clouds of gas and dust – the raw material from which new stars and planets may eventually coalesce. If we gaze in directions away from the plane of the Milky Way, though, the star numbers fall away and there is negligible gas and dust to hide our view of galaxies far beyond our own.

It follows that we might expect our best view of the distant universe to be in directions at right angles to the plane, towards the galactic poles. Regions around the North Galactic Pole are ideally placed in our April evening sky and host some of the most interesting clusters of galaxies in the entire sky.

The pole itself lies in the less-than-startling Coma Berenices which is approaching the high meridian at our map times. As the only modern constellation named for a historic person, this celebrates Queen Berenice II of Egypt who is said to have sacrificed her long hair as an offering to Aphrodite. Her tresses are represented by a cascade of stars that spill southwards through the “M” of “COMA” on the chart. These make up a dispersed but nearby star cluster at a distance of about 280 light years – the second closest star cluster after the Hyades in Taurus.

Roughly coincident with the “C” of “COMA” is another cluster, but this one of more than 1,000 galaxies at a distance of some 320 million light years. The Coma Cluster’s brightest galaxies are only around the twelfth magnitude and, as such, a challenge for many amateur telescopes. It was by studying this cluster that the Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky uncovered evidence as long ago as 1933 for the existence of what we now call dark matter. He found its galaxies were simply moving too fast to be held together unless addition material was present to supply an extra gravitational pull. Now we suspect that up to 90% of the Coma Cluster consists of this still-mysterious dark matter.

Lying south of Coma Berenices, and about 9° to the east (left) of Leo’s star Denebola, is the closer Virgo Cluster of galaxies. This sprawls across 8° of sky and holds about 1,500 galaxies at a distance of 54 million light years or so. Small telescopes show several, though we’d struggle to locate them without a better chart than I can supply here. In fact, The Virgo Cluster lies at the heart of a much larger family of galaxies and galaxy clusters dubbed the Virgo Supercluster which includes the so-called Local Group of galaxies in which the Milky Way is a major player. The Coma Cluster rules another supercluster.

Edinburgh’s sunrise/sunset times change from 06:44/19:50 BST on the 1st to 05:32/20:49 on the 30th as the Moon stands at new on the 5th, first quarter on the 12th, full on the 19th and last quarter on the 26th. As I mentioned last time, satellites may now be spotted at any time of night though the current spell of evening passes by the International Space Station ends on or about the 5th.

Mars stands some 30° high and alongside the Pleiades in our western sky as our nights begin at present. The planet, though, is tracking east-north-eastwards against the stars and passes north of Taurus’ main star, Aldebaran, to lie between the Bull’s horns later in the month. The young earthlit Moon is an impressive sight 9° below Mars on the 8th and stands above Aldebaran and to the left of Mars on the 9th.

Mars no longer glares like an orange beacon in our sky and is now only half as bright as Aldebaran. As its distance grows from 302 million to 335 million km in April, it dims a little more from magnitude 1.5 to 1.6. Even large telescopes reveal little detail on its small ochre disk, less than 5 arcseconds in diameter, and viewing conditions can only deteriorate as it sinks towards the north-western horizon where it sets in the middle of the night.

There are two brighter planets in our predawn sky, both of them low in the south to south-east as the Summer Triangle formed by Vega, Deneb and Altair climbs through the east.

Jupiter, conspicuous at magnitude -2.2 to -2.5, rises in the south-east less than three hours after our map times and stands 11° above Edinburgh’s southern horizon before dawn. Slow-moving in southern Ophiuchus, it reaches a stationary point on the 10th when its motion appears to reverse from easterly to westerly as it begins to be overtaken by the Earth. Saturn, rather fainter at magnitude 0.6 to 0.5 and at its own stationary point on the 30th, lies in Sagittarius some 25° to Jupiter’s left. Catch the Moon near Jupiter on the 23rd and Saturn on the 25th.

Although Venus is brilliant at magnitude -4.0, it rises in the east less than 38 minutes before sunrise and is unlikely to be noticed. Mercury is furthest west of the Sun (28°) on the 11th but is much fainter and lower still in the morning twilight.

Diary for 2019 April

Times are BST

2nd           05h Moon 2.7° S of Venus

3rd            00h Moon 4° S of Mercury

5th           10h New moon

9th           08h Moon 5° S of Mars

9th           17h Moon 2.1° N of Aldebaran

10th         18h Jupiter stationary (motion reverses from E to W)

11th         21h Mercury furthest W of Sun (28°)

12th         20h First quarter

13th         22h Moon 0.1° N of Praesepe

15th         10h Moon 2.8° N of Regulus

16th         23h Mars 7° N of Aldebaran

19th         12h Full moon

23rd         00h Uranus in conjunction with Sun

23rd         13h Moon 1.6° N of Jupiter

25th         15h Moon 0.4° S of Saturn

26th         23h Last quarter

30th         03h Saturn stationary (motion reverses from E to W)

Alan Pickup

This is a slightly revised version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on March 30th 2019, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.

Scotland’s Sky in August, 2015

Perseids meteor shower peaks under moonless skies

The maps show the sky at 00:00 BST on the 1st, 23:00 on the 16th and 22:00 on 31st. (Click on map to englarge)

The maps show the sky at 00:00 BST on the 1st, 23:00 on the 16th and 22:00 on 31st. (Click on map to englarge)

The revelations by New Horizons at Pluto were certainly the highlight for July, showing that even small ice-bound worlds far from the Sun can have an active and fascinating geology. No doubt we are in for further surprises as the data from the encounter are downloaded over the narrow-bandwidth link to the probe over the coming months.

August sees our attention return to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko which is due to experience its peak activity as it sweeps through perihelion, its closest to the Sun, on the 15th. We should enjoy a grandstand view courtesy of Europe’s Rosetta probe in orbit around the comet’s icy nucleus, but it is far from certain that Philae will be able to relay further measurements from the surface. The comet’s perihelion occurs 26 million km outside the Earth’s orbit so none of the icy debris being driven from its nucleus is destined to reach the Earth.

The Earth does, though, intersect the orbit of Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle with the result that its debris or meteoroids plunge into the upper atmosphere to produce the annual Perseids meteor shower. Its meteors diverge from a radiant point in Perseus which lies in the north-east at our star map times and climbs to stand just east of the zenith before dawn. Note that the shower’s meteors appear in all parts of the sky, with many of them bright and leaving persistent trains in their wake as they disintegrate at 59 km per second.

According to the British Astronomical Association (BAA), the premiere organisation for amateur astronomers in Britain, the shower is active from July 23 until August 20 and, for an observer under ideal conditions, reaches a peak of 80 or more meteors per hour at about 07:00 on the 13th. This is obviously after our daybreak, but rates should be high throughout the night of the 12th-13th and particularly before dawn, and respectable on the preceding and following nights too. With the Moon new on the 14th and causing no interference, the BAA puts the Perseids’ prospects this year as very favourable, an accolade it shares with the Geminids shower in December.

The Sun dips 10° southwards during August as sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 05:16/21:21 BST on the 1st to 06:14/20:11 on the 31st. The duration of nautical twilight at dawn and dusk shrinks from 121 to 89 minutes. The Moon is at first quarter on the 7th, new on the 14th, at first quarter on the 22nd and full again on the 29th.

After the twilit nights during the weeks around the solstice, August should bring (if the weather ever improves!) a chance to reacquaint ourselves with the best of what the summer skies can offer. The Summer Triangle formed by Vega in Lyra, Deneb in Cygnus and Altair in Aquila stands high in the south at our star map times, somewhat squashed by the map projection used. After the Moon leaves the scene, look for the Milky Way as it flows diagonally through the Triangle, its mid-line passing between Altair and Vega and close to Deneb as it arches over the sky from the south-south-west towards Cassiopeia, Perseus and Auriga in the north-east.

The main stars of Cygnus the Swan are sometimes called the Northern Cross, particularly when the cross appears to stand upright in our north-western sky later in the year. The Swan’s neck stretches south-westwards from Sadr to Albireo, the beak, which is one of the finest double stars in the sky. A challenge for binoculars, almost any telescope shows Albireo as a contracting pair of golden and bluish stars.

The brightest star on the line between Sadr and Albireo is usually the magnitude 3.9 Eta. However, just 2.5° south-west of Eta is the star Chi Cygni which pulsates in brightness every 407 days or so and belongs to the class of red giant variable stars that includes Mira in Cetus. Chi is a dim telescopic object at its faintest, but it can become easily visible to the naked eye at its brightest. Last year, though, it only reached magnitude 6.5, barely visible to the naked eye. Now approaching maximum brightness again and as bright as magnitude 4.2 in late July, it may surpass Eta early in August, so is worth a look.

Venus and Jupiter have dominated our evening sky over recent months but are now lost in the Sun’s glare to leave Saturn as our only bright planet as the night begins. Although it dims slightly from magnitude 0.4 to 0.6, it remains the brightest object low down in the south-west as the twilight fades. Indeed, it stands only 5° or so above Edinburgh’s horizon at the end of nautical twilight and sets thirty minutes after our map times, so is now poorly placed for telescopic study. Catch it 2° below-right of the first quarter Moon on the 22nd when Saturn’s rings are tipped at 24° and span 38 arcseconds around its 17 arcseconds disk.

Jupiter reaches conjunction on the Sun’s far side on the 26th while Venus sweeps around the Sun’s near side on the 15th and reappears before dawn a few days later. Brilliant at magnitude -4.2, its height above Edinburgh’s eastern at sunrise doubles from 6° on the 25th to 12° by the 31st.

Also emerging in our morning twilight is the much dimmer planet Mars, magnitude 1.8. On the 20th and 21st it rises in the north-east two hours before the Sun and lies against the Praesepe or Beehive star cluster in Cancer. Before dawn on the 31st, Mars stands 9° above-left of Venus.

Alan Pickup

This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on July 31st 2015, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.

Scotland’s Sky in August, 2014

Two brightest planets in closest meeting for 14 years

The maps show the sky at 00:00 BST on the 1st, 23:00 on the 16th and 22:00 on 31st. (Click on map to enlarge)

The maps show the sky at 00:00 BST on the 1st, 23:00 on the 16th and 22:00 on 31st. (Click on map to enlarge)

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.

Alan Pickup

This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on August 1st 2014, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.

Scotland’s Sky in July, 2014

Sun spotting in safety at solar maximum

The maps show the sky at 01:00 BST on the 1st, midnight on the 16th and 23:00 on 31st. (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 31st. (Click on map to enlarge)

With Scotland’s nights still awash with twilight, many people focus on the Sun during July. There are dangers involved, though, and I don’t just mean sunburn. Specifically, we must never look at the Sun directly through binoculars or any telescope. To do so invites serious eye damage. Instead, project the Sun’s image onto a white card held away from the eyepiece or obtain an approved solar filter to fit over the objective (rather than the eyepiece) end of your instrument.

The most obvious features on the solar disk are sunspots, cooler areas that are shaped by magnetic activity and last for a few hours to several weeks. Because the Sun rotates every 27 days with respect to the Earth, spots take two weeks to cross the Sun’s face, provided they survive as long.

Sunspot numbers ebb and flow in a solar cycle of about 11 years, although the actual period varies from about 9 to 14 years. The last peak in the Sun’s activity occurred in 2000 and, following an unusually prolonged minimum between 2007 and 2010 when very few spots were seen, we are back near solar maximum though at a lower level than in 2000. This also means that solar flares, and the auroral displays that they can produce, are also more frequent even if they are hard to see given our summer twilight

As I warned last time, though, silvery or bluish noctilucent clouds are sometimes visible low down in the northern quarter of the sky and Scotland enjoyed a nice display on the night of 19-20 June. They are formed by ice crystals near 82km and more can be expected until mid-August or so.

The Sun tracks 5° southwards during July and from the 12th onwards Edinburgh enjoys at least a few minutes of official nautical darkness around the middle of the night. We need to wait a few days more for the bright Moon to leave the scene, but when it does the fainter stars should once again be visible.

If light pollution is minimal, the Milky Way may be seen arching high across the east at our star map times. Marking the central plane of our galaxy, with the greater density of distant stars, it stretches from Capella in Auriga in the north through the “W” of Cassiopeia in the north-east before flowing by Deneb in Cygnus in the east and downwards towards Sagittarius near the southern horizon. Where it passes through the Summer Triangle formed by Deneb, Vega and Altair it is split into two by obscuring interstellar dust, the Cygnus Rift.

The red star Chi Cygni, 2.5° or five Moon-widths south-west of Eta in the neck of Cygnus, pulsates every 13 months or so between a naked eye object of the fifth magnitude and a dim telescopic one near magnitude 13. It reached an unusually bright peak of better than magnitude four last year and should be near maximum again about now, though recent observations suggest it may not even hit magnitude six this time.

The Earth is 152,114,000 km from the Sun, and at its farthest for the year, on the 4th. Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 04:31/22:01 BST on the 1st to 05:15/21:22 on the 31st when nautical darkness lasts for almost four hours around the middle of the night. The Moon is at first quarter on the 5th, full on the 12th, at last quarter on the 19th and new on the 26th.

Jupiter is barely 6° above the west-north-western horizon at sunset on the 1st and is unlikely to be visible as it heads for conjunction on the Sun’s far side on 24th.

Mars, to the right of Spica in Virgo and low down in the south-west at nightfall, sinks to set in the west-south-west at our map times. Fading from magnitude 0.0 to 0.4 this month, it tracks to the left to pass 1.3° above Spica on the 14th – the final and closest of three conjunctions between them this year.

The young Moon lies below Regulus in Leo low in the west on the evening of the 1st and close to Mars on the 5th. The 7th finds it close to Saturn and even closer to the double star Zubenelgenubi in Libra, the three making for a superb sight through binoculars. Saturn dims only slightly from magnitude 0.4 to 0.5 and hardly moves against the stars, appearing telescopically as an 18 arcseconds disk with rings 40 arcseconds wide.

A brilliant morning star at magnitude -3.9, Venus rises at about 03:00 BST and stands 12° to 14° high in the east-north-east at sunrise. As it tracks eastwards through Taurus, use it as a pointer to Mercury which is less than 8° below and left of Venus from the 10th to the 23rd as it brightens from magnitude 0.8 to -0.8. Set your alarm to catch Venus 8° to the left of the 7% illuminated waning earthlit Moon before dawn on the 24th.

While many stars are larger than our Sun, including the vast majority of stars visible to the unaided eye, there are billions that are smaller. Indeed, red dwarf stars, from about half the Sun’s mass to 1/13th as massive, are thought to make up 75% of the more than 100 billion stars in our galaxy. The smallest known star, and probably close to the smallest star possible, is a red dwarf in the constellation Lepus, just south of Orion. Smaller than Jupiter, but more massive, it has surface temperature of 1,800C and a luminosity of 1/8,000th of our Sun so that we need a large telescope just to see it even though it is only 40 light years away.

Alan Pickup

This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on July 1st 2014, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.