Comet sweeps near Earth as meteors streak from Gemini
December brings our longest and perhaps most interesting nights of the year. The two stand-out planets are Mars in the evening and Venus before dawn, the latter now as brilliant as it ever gets and the source of a flurry of recent UFO reports. We may also enjoy the rich and reliable Geminids meteor shower and Comet Wirtanen looks set to be the brightest comet of the year.
The comet’s progress is plotted on our charts, beginning low in the south near the Cetus-Eridanus border on the 1st and sweeping northwards and eastwards through Taurus to Auriga and beyond. A small comet with an icy nucleus possibly less than 1 km wide, Wirtanen was discovered in 1948 and orbits the Sun every 5.4 years between the Earth and Jupiter. It was the original destination of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission before delays forced the probe to target Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko instead.
Comet Wirtanen reaches perihelion, its closest to the Sun and just beyond the Earth’s orbit, on the 12th. It is nearest the Earth on the 16th, passing only 11.6 million km away in the tenth closest approach of any observed comet since 1950. On that evening it lies 4° east (left) of the Pleiades and may appear as a large fuzzy ball lacking any obvious tail.
Predictions of its appearance at that time vary, but I suspect that its total brightness may be around the fourth magnitude, a little brighter than the fainter stars plotted on our charts. While this would normally put it well within naked-eye range, the fact that it is so close to the Earth is likely to mean that its light is spread out over an area even wider than the Pleiades. Unless we have a good dark sky, we may struggle to see its extended glow, and it is a pity that the gibbous Moon (63% sunlit) will also hinder observations before midnight. Only a week later, on the evening of the 23rd, it lies only 1° east-south-east of the bright star Capella but will be fading in still brighter moonlight.
The Sun reaches its most southerly point at the winter solstice at 22:23 GMT on the 21st as sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 08:19/15:44 GMT on the 1st to 08:42/15:40 on the 21st and 08:44/15:48 on the 31st. The Moon is new on the 7th, at first quarter on the 15th, full on the 22nd and at last quarter on the 29th.
Our charts show Andromeda and its Galaxy high in the south as Orion stands proudly in the south-east below Taurus and the Pleiades. Castor lies above Pollux in Gemini in the east and is close to the point in the sky that marks the radiant of the Geminids meteor shower.
The Geminids always produce an abundance of slow bright meteors which streak in all parts of the sky as they diverge from the radiant. The latter climbs to pass high in the south at around 02:00 and sinks into the west before dawn. The shower is active from the 8th to the 17th with the night of 13th-14th expected to be the best as meteor rates build to a peak at around dawn. An observer under an ideal dark sky with the radiant overhead may count upwards of 100 meteors per hour making the Geminids the highest-rated of our annual showers, though most of us under inferior skies may glimpse only a fraction of these.
Mars shines brightly some 25° high in the south as night falls for Edinburgh at present and is almost 10° higher by the month’s end after moving east-north-eastwards from Aquarius into Pisces. Our maps have it sinking in the south-west on its way to setting in the west before midnight. Although the brightest object in its part of the sky, it dims from magnitude 0.0 to 0.5 as it recedes from 151 million to 189 million km. When Mars stands above the Moon on the 14th, a telescope shows its ochre disk to be only 8 arcseconds across.
Saturn, magnitude 0.6, hangs just above our south-western horizon at nightfall as December begins but is soon lost in the twilight. Our other two evening planets, Uranus and Neptune, are visible through binoculars at magnitudes of 5.7 and 7.9 in Pisces and Aquarius respectively. Mars acts as an excellent guide on the evening of the 7th when Neptune stands about one quarter of a Moon’s breadth below-right of Mars.
Venus, now at its best as a dazzling morning star, rises in the east-south-east four hours before the Sun and climbs towards the south by dawn. This month it dims slightly from magnitude -4.7 to -4.5 as it tracks away from Virgo’s brightest star Spica in Virgo into the next constellation of Libra. Telescopes shows its crescent shrink from 40 to 26 arcseconds in diameter. Look for Venus below-left of the Moon on the morning of the 3rd and to the Moon’s right on the 4th.
Mercury is set to become as a morning star very low in the south-east and is soon to be joined by the even brighter Jupiter. Mercury rises more than 100 minutes before the Sun from the 5th to the 24th and stands between 5° and 9° high forty minutes before sunrise. It shines at magnitude 0.8 when it lies 7° below-left of the impressively earthlit Moon on the 5th, and triples in brightness to magnitude -0.4 by the 24th.
Jupiter, conspicuous at magnitude -1.8, emerges from the twilight and moves from 9° below-left of Mercury on the 11th to pass 0.9° south of Mercury on the 21st.
Diary for 2018 December
3rd 19h Moon 4° N of Venus
5th 21h Moon 1.9° N of Mercury
7th 07h New moon
7th 15h Mars 0.04° N of Neptune
9th 06h Moon 1.1° N of Saturn
12th 23h Comet Wirtanen closest to Sun (158m km)
14th 08h Peak of Geminids meteor shower
14th 23h Moon 4° S of Mars
15th 11h Mercury furthest W of Sun (21°)
15th 12h First quarter
16th 13h Comet Wirtanen closest to Earth (11.6m km) and 3.6° SE of Pleiades
20th 02h Jupiter 5° N of Antares
21st 08h Moon 1.7° N of Aldebaran
21st 15h Mercury 0.9° N of Jupiter
21st 22:23 Winter solstice
22nd 18h Full moon
23rd 18h Comet Wirtanen 0.9° SE of Capella
25th 05h Moon 0.3° S of Praesepe in Cancer
29th 10h Last quarter
This is a slightly revised version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on November 30th 2018, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
InSight probe to land on bright evening planet Mars
The Summer Triangle, still high in the south at nightfall, shifts to the west by our map times as our glorious winter constellations climb in the east. Taurus with the Pleiades and its leading star Aldebaran (close to the Moon on the 23rd) stands well clear of the horizon while Orion is rising below and dominates our southern sky after midnight.
In the month that should see NASA’s InSight lander touch down on its surface, the planet Mars continues as a prominent object in the south at nightfall. Venus springs into view as a spectacular morning star but we must wait to see whether the Leonids meteor shower, which has produced some storm-force displays in the past, gives us any more than the expected few meteors this year.
InSight is due to land on the 26th on a broad plain called Elysium Planitia that straddles Mars’ equator. There it will place an ultra-sensitive seismometer directly onto the surface and cover it with a dome-like shell to shield it from the noise caused by wind and heat changes. This should be able of detect marsquakes and meteor impacts that occur all around Mars. Other InSight experiments will hammer a spike up to five metres into the ground to measure Mars’ heat flow, and further investigate the planet’s interior structure by using radio signals to track tiny wobbles in its rotation.
Until recently, Mars has remained low down as it performed a loop against the stars in the south-western corner of Capricornus. That loop, resulting entirely from our changing vantage point as the Earth overtook Mars and came within 58 million km on 31 July, took Mars more than 26° south of the sky’s equator and 3° further south than the Sun stands at our winter solstice.
Now, though, Mars is climbing east-north-eastwards on a track that will take it further north than the Sun ever gets by the time it disappears into Scotland’s night-long twilight next summer. One by-product of this motion is that Mars’ setting time is remarkably constant over the coming months, being (for Edinburgh) within 13 minutes of 23:42 GMT from now until next May.
This month sees Mars leave Capricornus for Aquarius and shrink as seen through a telescope from 12 to 9 arcseconds as it recedes from 118 million to 151 million km. Its path, indicated on our southern chart, carries it 0.5° (one Moon’s breadth) north of the multiple star Deneb Algedi, the goat’s tail, on the 5th. It almost halves in brightness, from magnitude -0.6 to 0.0, but its peak altitude above Edinburgh’s southern horizon early in the night improves from 16° to 25°, though by our map times it is sinking lower towards the south-west.
Mars is not our sole evening planet since Saturn shines at magnitude 0.6 low down in the south-west at nightfall. It is only a degree below-right of the young Moon on the 11th and sets more than 90 minutes before our map times. The two most distant planets, Neptune and Uranus, are also evening objects and may be glimpsed through binoculars at magnitudes 7.9 and 5.7 in Aquarius and Aries respectively.
Edinburgh’s sunrise/sunset times vary from 07:19/16:32 on the 1st to 08:17/15:45 on the 30th. The Moon is new on the 7th, at first quarter and below-right of Mars on the 15th, full on the 23rd and at last quarter on the 30th.
Jupiter is hidden in the solar glare as it approaches conjunction on the Sun’s far side on the 26th. Mercury stands furthest east of the Sun (23°) on the 6th but is also invisible from our northern latitudes.
Venus, though, emerges rapidly from the Sun’s near side into our morning twilight where it stands to the left of the star Spica in Virgo. Shining brilliantly at magnitude -4.1, the planet rises in the east-south-east only 29 minutes before the Sun on the 1st. By the 6th, though, it rises 80 minutes before sunrise and stands 8° below and right of the impressively earthlit waning Moon. Venus itself is 58 arcseconds wide and 4% illuminated on that morning, its slender crescent being visible through binoculars. By the 30th, Venus rises four hours before the Sun, climbs to stand 23° high in the south-south-east at sunrise and appears as a 41 arcseconds and 25% sunlit crescent.
It is just as well that my previous note led on the usually neglected Draconids meteor shower because observers, at least those under clear skies, were thrilled to see it provide perhaps the best meteor show of 2018. For just a few hours around midnight on 8-9th October, the sky became alive with slow meteors at rates of up to 100 meteors per hour or more.
Leonid meteors arrive this month between the 15th and 20th, with the shower expected to hit its usually-brief peak at around 01:00 on the 18th. Although they flash in all parts of the sky, they diverge from a radiant point in the so-called Sickle of Leo which rises in the north-east before midnight and climbs high into the south before dawn. No Leonids appear before the radiant rises, but even with the radiant high in a dark sky we may see fewer than 20 per hour – all of them very swift and many of the brighter ones leaving glowing trains in their wake.
Leonid meteoroids come from Comet Tempel-Tuttle which orbits the Sun every 33 years and was last in our vicinity in 1998. There has not been a Leonids meteor storm since 2002 and we may be a decade or more away from the next one, or are we?
Diary for 2018 November
2nd 05h Moon 2.1° N of Regulus
6th 16h Mercury furthest E of Sun (23°)
7th 16h New moon
11th 16h Moon 1.5° N of Saturn
15th 15h First quarter
16th 04h Moon 1.0° S of Mars
18th 01h Peak of Leonids meteor shower
23rd 06h Full moon
23rd 22h Moon 1.7° N of Aldebaran
26th 07h Jupiter in conjunction with Sun
26th 20h InSight probe to land on Mars
27th 09h Mercury in inferior conjunction on Sun’s near side
27th 21h Moon 0.4° S of Praesepe
30th 00h Last quarter
This is a slightly revised version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on October 31st 2018, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
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.
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.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on August 31st 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Countdown to the Great American Eclipse
With two eclipses and a major meteor display, August is 2017’s most interesting month for sky-watchers. Admittedly, Scotland is on the fringe of visibility for both eclipses while the annual Perseids meteor shower suffers moonlight interference.
The undoubted highlight is the so-called Great American Eclipse on the 21st. This eclipse of the Sun is total along a path, no more than 115km wide, that sweeps across the USA from Oregon at 18:17 BST (10:17 PDT) to South Carolina at 19:48 BST (14:48 EDT) – the first such coast-to-coast eclipse for 99 years.
Totality is visible only from within this path as the Moon hides completely the dazzling solar surface, allowing ruddy flame-like prominences to be glimpsed at the solar limb and the pearly corona, the Sun’s outer atmosphere, to be admired at it reaches out into space. At its longest, though, totality lasts for only 2 minutes and 40 seconds so many of those people fiddling with their gadgets to take selfies and the like may be in danger of missing the spectacle altogether.
The surrounding area from which a partial eclipse is visible even extends as far as Scotland. From Edinburgh, this lasts from 19:38 to 20:18 BST but, at most, only the lower 2% of the Sun is hidden at 19:58 as it hangs a mere 4° high in the west. Need I add that the danger of eye damage means that we must never look directly at the Sun – instead project the Sun through a pinhole, binoculars or a small ‘scope, or use an appropriate filter or “eclipse glasses”.
A partial lunar eclipse occurs over the Indian Ocean on the 7th as the southern quarter of the Moon passes through the edge of the Earth’s central dark umbral shadow between 18:23 and 20:18 BST. By the time the Moon rises for Edinburgh at 20:57, it is on its way to leaving the lighter penumbral shadow and I doubt whether we will see any dimming, It exits the penumbra at 21:51.
Our charts show the two halves of the sky around midnight at present. In the north-west is the familiar shape of the Plough while the bright stars Deneb in Cygnus and Vega in Lyra lie to the south-east and south-west of the zenith respectively. These, together with Altair in Aquila in the middle of our southern sky, make up the Summer Triangle. The Milky Way flows through the Triangle as it arches overhead from the south-west to the north-east where Capella in Auriga rivals Vega in brightness.
Of course, many of us have to contend with light pollution which swamps all trace of the Milky Way and we are not helped by moonlight which peaks when the Moon is full on the 7th and only subsides as last quarter approaches on the 15th. New moon comes on the 21st and first quarter on the 29th. The Sun, meantime, slips another 8° southwards during the month as sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 05:17/21:20 BST on the 1st to 06:15/20:09 on the 31st.
Meteors of the annual Perseids shower, the tears of St Lawrence, are already arriving in low numbers. They stream away from a radiant point in the northern Perseus which stands in the north-east at our map times, between Capella and the W-pattern of Cassiopeia. We spot Perseids in all parts of the sky, though, and not just around Perseus.
Meteor numbers are expected to swell to a peak on the evening of the 12th when upwards of 80 per hour might be counted under ideal conditions. Even though moonlight will depress the numbers seen this time, we can expect the brighter ones still to impress as they disintegrate in the upper atmosphere at 59 km per second, many leaving glowing trains in their wake. The meteoroids concerned come from Comet Swift-Tuttle which last approached the Sun in 1992.
Although Neptune is dimly visible through binoculars at magnitude 7.8 some 2° east of the star Lambda Aquarii, the only naked-eye planet at our map times is Saturn. The latter shines at magnitude 0.3 to 0.4 low down in the south-west as it sinks to set less than two hours later. It is a little higher towards the south at nightfall, though, where it lies below-left of the Moon on the 2nd when a telescope shows its disk to be 18 arcseconds wide and its stunning wide-open rings to span 40 arcseconds. Saturn is near the Moon again on the 29th.
Jupiter is bright (magnitude -1.9 to -1.7) but very low in our western evening sky, its altitude one hour after sunset sinking from 6° on the 1st to only 1° by the month’s end as it disappears into the twilight. Catch it just below and right of the young Moon on the 25th.
Venus is brilliant at magnitude -4.0 in the east before dawn. Rising in the north-east a little after 02:00 BST at present, and an hour later by the 31st, it climbs to stand 25° high at sunrise. Viewed through a telescope, its disk shrinks from 15 to 12 arcseconds in diameter as it recedes from 172 million to 200 million km and its gibbous phase changes from 74% to 83% sunlit.
As Venus tracks eastwards through Gemini, it passes below-right of the star cluster M35 (use binoculars) on the 2nd and 3rd, stands above-left of the waning earthlit Moon on the 19th and around 10° below Castor and Pollux as it enters Cancer a few days later. On the 31st it stands 2° to the right of another cluster, M44, which is also known as Praesepe or the Beehive.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on July 31st 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Moon between Venus and Mars on the 2nd
The new year opens with the Moon as a slim crescent in our evening sky, its light insufficient to hinder observations of the Quadrantids meteor shower.
Lasting from the 1st to the 6th, the shower is due to reach its maximum at about 15:00 GMT on the 3rd. Perhaps because of the cold weather, or a lingering hangover from Hogmanay, this may be the least appreciated of the year’s top three showers. It can, though, yield more than 80 meteors per hour under the best conditions, with some blue and yellow and all of medium speed. It can also produce some spectacular events – I still recall a Quadrantids fireball many years ago that flared to magnitude -8, many times brighter than Venus.
Although Quadrantids appear in all parts of the sky, perspective means that their paths stream away from a radiant point in northern Bootes. Plotted on our north map, this glides from left to right low across our northern sky during the evening and trails the Plough as it climbs through the north-east later in the night. The shower’s peak is quite narrow so the optimum times for meteor-spotting are before dawn on the 3rd, when the radiant stands high in the east, and during the evening of that day when Quadrantids may follow long trails from north to south across our sky.
Mars and Venus continue as evening objects, improving in altitude in our south-south-western sky at nightfall and, in the case of Venus, becoming still more spectacular as it brightens from magnitude -4.3 to -4.6. Mars, more than one hundred times fainter, dims from magnitude 0.9 to 1.1 but is obvious above and to Venus’ left, their separation falling from 12° to 5° during the month as they track eastwards and northwards from Aquarius to Pisces.
On the evening of the 1st, Mars stands only 18 arcminutes, just over half a Moon’s breadth, above-left of the farthest planet Neptune though, since the latter shines at magnitude 7.9, we will need binoculars if not a telescope to glimpse it. At the time, Neptune, 4,556 million km away, is a mere 2.2 arcseconds wide if viewed telescopically and Mars appears 5.7 arcseconds across from a range of 246 million km. On that evening, the young Moon lies 8° below and right of Venus, while on the 2nd the Moon stands directly between Mars and Venus. The pair lie close to the Moon again on the 31st.
As its distance falls from 115 million to 81 million km this month, Venus swells from 22 to 31 arcseconds in diameter and its disk changes from 56% to 40% sunlit. In theory, dichotomy, the moment when it is 50% illuminated like the Moon at first quarter, occurs on the 14th. However, the way sunlight scatters in its dazzling clouds means that Venus usually appears to reach this state a few days early when it is an evening star – a phenomenon Sir Patrick Moore named the Schröter effect after the German astronomer who first reported it. Venus stands at its furthest to the east of the Sun, 47°, on the 12th.
The Sun climbs 6° northwards during January and stands closer to the Earth in early January than at any other time of the year. At the Earth’s perihelion at 14:00 GMT on the 4th the two are 147,100,998 km apart, almost 5 million km less than at aphelion on 3 July. Obviously, it is not the Sun’s distance that dictates our seasons, but rather the Earth’s axial tilt away from the Sun during winter and towards it in summer.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 08:43/15:49 on the 1st to 08:09/16:44 on the 31st. The Moon is at first quarter on the 5th, full on the 12th, at last quarter on the 19th and new on the 28th.
The Moon lies below the Pleiades on the evening of the 8th and to the left of Aldebaran in Taurus on the next night. Below and left of Aldebaran is the magnificent constellation of Orion with the bright red supergiant star Betelgeuse at his shoulder. Soon in astronomical terms, but perhaps not for 100,000 years, Betelgeuse will disintegrate in a supernova explosion.
The relics of a supernova witnessed by Chinese observers in AD 1054 lies 15° further north and just 1.1° north-west of Zeta Tauri, the star at the tip of Taurus’ southern horn. The 8th magnitude oval smudge we call the Crab Nebula contains a pulsar, a 20km wide neutron star that spins 30 times each second.
The conspicuous planet in our morning sky is Jupiter which rises at Edinburgh’s eastern horizon at 01:27 on the 1st and at 23:37 on the 31st. Creeping eastwards 4° north of Spica in Virgo, it brightens from magnitude -1.9 to -2.1 and is unmistakable in the lower half of our southern sky before dawn. Catch it just below the Moon on the 19th when a telescope shows its cloud-banded disk to be 37 arcseconds broad at a distance of 786 million km. We need just decent binoculars to check out the changing positions of its four main moons.
Saturn, respectable at magnitude 0.5, stands low in our south-east before dawn, its altitude one hour before sunrise improving from 3° to 8° during the month. Look to its left and slightly down from the 6th onwards to glimpse Mercury. This reaches 24° west of the Sun on the 19th and brightens from magnitude 0.9 on the 6th to -0.2 on the 24th when the waning earthlit Moon stands 3° above Saturn.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on December 31st 2016, 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.
Mars bright in evenings as ExoMars probe arrives
As we plunge into the final quarter of the year, our lengthening nights offer a procession of stellar views that stretch from the Summer Triangle in the evening to the stunning star-scapes around Orion during the morning hours. The brighter planets, though, are on show only low down around dusk and dawn.
The middle of the Summer Triangle stands some 60° high and due south as darkness falls tonight. Its brightest corner star, Vega in the constellation Lyra, lies just south-west of overhead, while Deneb in Cygnus is even higher in the south-east and Altair in Aquila lies below them on the meridian.
With no hindering moonlight over the next few evenings, now is a good time to spy the Milky Way as it arches almost overhead after dusk, climbing from Sagittarius on the south-south-western horizon and flowing through the heart of the Triangle on its way to Deneb and the “W” of Cassiopeia high in the north-east. Of course, unless we can find a dark site, away from the pollution of street lighting and the like, we may have trouble seeing the Milky Way or indeed any but the brighter stars on our chart.
Edinburgh’s sunrise/sunset times change this month from 07:16/18:47 BST (06:16/17:47 GMT) on the 1st to 07:18/16:34 GMT on the 31st after we set clocks back one hour with the end of BST on the morning of the 30th. The Moon is new on the 1st, at first quarter on the 9th, full on the 16th (the hunter’s moon), at last quarter on the 22nd and new again on the 30th.
Venus stands nearly 5° high in the south-west at sunset and sets itself only 43 minutes later on the 1st. By the 31st it is barely a degree higher in the south-south-west at sunset but remains visible for 73 minutes so is easier to spot if we enjoy an unobscured outlook. It blazes at magnitude -3.9 and stands 4° below-right of the slender earthlit Moon on the 3rd when its gibbous disk appears 12 arcseconds wide and 85% sunlit if viewed telescopically.
In the month that the first European-Russian ExoMars spacecraft reaches Mars, the planet is the brightest object low in the south-south-west as the twilight disappears. ExoMars consists of a Trace Gas Orbiter to study rare gases, and particularly methane, in Mars’ atmosphere and it also has the experimental Schiaparelli lander.
Mars fades slightly from magnitude 0.1 (almost equal to Vega) to 0.4 this month as it tracks 21° eastwards above the so-called Teapot of Sagittarius, clipping the top star of the Teapot’s lid (Kaus Borealis) on the 7th. The planet recedes from 160 million to 187 million km during October while its gibbous disk shrinks to 7.5 arcseconds in diameter which, with its low altitude, makes telescopic study all the more challenging. It lies below the Moon on the 8th.
A little fainter than Mars, and a little lower to Mars’ right in this evening’s sky, is the ringed planet Saturn. This shines at magnitude 0.6 in southern Ophiuchus and appears 16 arcseconds across, with its glorious rings spanning 36 arcseconds. Saturn lies to the left of the earthlit Moon on the 5th and dips lower with each evening until it is passed by Venus late in the month – catch Saturn 3° above Venus on the 29th.
By our map times, both Saturn and Mars have set and the Summer Triangle has toppled over into the west. High in the south is the Square of Pegasus, a line along its right-hand side pointing down to the southern bright star Fomalhaut in Piscis Austrinus the Southern Fish. Just to the right of this line, and 2° south-west (below-right) of the star Lambda Aquarii (magnitude 3.7), is the farthest of the Sun’s planets, Neptune. At magnitude 7.8 and a distance of 4,350 million km on the 1st, we need binoculars and a better chart to identify it, and probably a large telescope to glimpse its bluish disk only 2.3 arcseconds wide.
To the east of Aquarius lies the constellation of the two fish, Pisces, and the second most distant planet, Uranus, which stands directly opposite the Sun at opposition on the 15th at a distance of 2,835 million km. At magnitude 5.7 it is near the limit of naked-eye visibility under the darkest of skies, but is an easier binocular or telescope target with its diameter of 3.7 arcseconds.
Orion rises in the east less than two hours after our map times and strides across the meridian before dawn. To its north and east lies Gemini and between the two is the radiant point for the annual Orionids meteor shower. This is visible during our morning hours throughout the second half of the month and peaks at rates around 25 meteors per hour between the 21st and 24th. Its meteors are swift, with many leaving glowing trains in their wake, and represent the dusty debris laid down by Halley’s Comet.
The night ends with Mercury which is conspicuous at magnitude -0.7 and rises in the east 109 minutes before the Sun on the 1st, climbing to stand 9° high forty minutes before sunrise. By the 11th, as its favourable morning show draws to a close, it rises 76 minutes before sunrise. On that morning, the even brighter Jupiter lies only 0.7° below-right of Mercury as the giant planet climbs away from the Sun’s far side. By the 28th, Jupiter rises at about 05:40 BST and is an impressive sight 1.5° below the earthlit waning Moon.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on October 1st 2016, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here. Journal Editor’s apologies for the lateness of the article appearing here.
Morning sky holds planetary bonanza
We are well into autumn, yet our sky at nightfall looks much as it did two months ago. The Summer Triangle (Vega, Deneb and Altair) stands high near the meridian and we still have Saturn very low down in the south-west. Shining at magnitude 0.6, and below the young Moon on the 16th, it is tracking eastwards from Libra into Scorpius but we are likely to lose it to the evening twilight later in October.
The hour by hour westwards progress of the stars in the south carries the Triangle into the west and Pegasus to the meridian by our star map times. Taurus in the east and Gemini, just rising, herald the coming of our glorious winter constellations whose leader, Orion, rises another two hours later and is resplendent in the southern sky before dawn. The eastern morning sky also boasts a trio, soon to be a quartet, of planets, including Venus and Jupiter which enjoy a spectacular conjunction on the 26th.
The southern quarter of our sky at our map times is relatively underwhelming. The Square of Pegasus is large, empty and far from striking though one obvious adjoining constellation is Andromeda which extends eastwards, to the left, from the Square’s top-left corner. Indeed, that star, Alpheratz, is now assigned to Andromeda after years with a bigamous classification as both Alpha Andromedae and Delta Pegasi.
Andromeda’s famous galaxy, M31, lies 2.5 million light years away yet is visible as an oval smudge of light to the unaided eye, and is easy to spot using binoculars. Stand by for its collision with our own Milky Way galaxy in another four billion years or so.
Pisces sprawls to the south and east of the Square but is so dim that I often omit it from our chart. The planet Uranus reaches opposition in Pisces on the 12th when it shines at magnitude 5.7 from 2,840 million km. A better chart and binoculars should show it easily, while it is bright enough to be a naked-eye object in a good dark sky.
To its south and west, and scudding westwards below the star Iota in Cetus as shown by the arrow on our chart, is the asteroid Vesta. This stood 214 million km away at opposition on September 28 and dims from magnitude 6.2 to 6.8 during October. A more challenging binocular target is the farthest planet, Neptune, which is magnitude 7.8 and stands 4,377 million km away in Aquarius at mid-month.
The Sun sinks 11° southwards during October as sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 07:15/18:49 BST (06:15/17:49 GMT) on the 1st to 07:16/16:35 GMT on the 31st after our clocks reset to GMT on the 25th. The Moon is at last quarter on the 4th, new on the 13th, at first quarter on the 20th and full on the 27th. The evening of the 29th sees the waning gibbous Moon occult Aldebaran in Taurus. As seen from Edinburgh, the star winks out at the Moon’s bright limb at 21:57 GMT and reappears at its dark edge at 22:49 – use a telescope.
There is no prize for spotting the brightest planet Venus before dawn, though perhaps we deserve one for observing at such unsocial hours. Venus rises to the north of east as seen from Edinburgh at 03:09 BST on the 1st and 02:36 GMT on the 31st, climbing 33° into the south-east by sunrise. Fading a little from magnitude -4.5 to -4.3, it recedes from 76 million to 110 million km and its dazzling disk shrinks telescopically from 33 to 23 arcseconds in diameter as its phase evolves from 35% to 54% sunlit.
Venus lies above and to the right of Leo’s leading star Regulus at present but slides eastwards to pass 2.6° south of the star on the 9th as it draws closer to the second outstanding morning planet, Jupiter. The latter is barely a tenth as bright as Venus, but remains brighter than the brightest star as it improves from magnitude -1.7 to -1.8 and slips 6° eastwards in southern Leo. Jupiter’s cloud-banded disk appears 32 arcseconds wide in mid-October.
Catch the waning Moon above and to the right of Venus on the 8th, below Venus on the 9th and below Jupiter on the 10th.
Set your alarm early for the morning of the 26th when Venus lies just 1° or two Moon-widths below-right of Jupiter in the year’s most spectacular planetary conjunction. True, the two where even closer together on July 1, but that conjunction occurred with them low in our bright evening twilight while this month’s rendezvous sees than high in the east before dawn. Indeed, it coincides with Venus reaching its furthest angular distance of 46° west of the Sun in the sky.
Much fainter is Mars which moves from 4° below-left of Regulus on the 1st to pass only 0.4° north of Jupiter on the 17th. At magnitude 1.8 to 1.7, it is fainter than Regulus while its orange-hued disk is only 4 arcseconds wide. On the morning of the 31st, Mars sits 1.5° to the left of Venus which, by then, lies 4.5° below-left of Jupiter.
At the beginning of its best morning apparition of 2015, Mercury emerges from the dawn twilight next week to lie low in the east as our fourth predawn planet. Seen from Edinburgh, it rises 90 or more minutes before the Sun from the 10th to the 26th, brightening during that period from magnitude 0.6 to -0.9 and climbing to be 7° to 10° high forty minutes before sunrise. Glimpse it 2.6° below-left of the very slim earthlit Moon on the 11th.