Amateur astronomer discovers first interstellar comet
It is two years since astronomers in Hawaii discovered the first object known to have approached the Sun from beyond our solar system. Given the Hawaiian name of ʻOumuamua, this appeared to be a reddish and elongated slab-shaped body of about the size of a skyscraper that passed 38 million km from the Sun before sweeping within 24 million km of the Earth. It came from roughly the current direction of the star Vega and headed away towards the Square of Pegasus, though it may take 20,000 years to leave the solar system completely.
Its small size meant that it was followed only faintly and for barely a month. Astronomers were surprised to notice no sign of cometary activity – no surrounding fuzzy coma and no tail – while suggestions that it was an alien probe prompted unsuccessful scans for any artificial radio emissions.
Now the second-known interstellar intruder has been sighted, and this one appears larger, brighter and is surely a comet. It was discovered photographically on 29 August from an observatory in Crimea by the amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov using a telescope he built himself. Initially called C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), or Comet Borisov for short, it was clearly speeding along a strongly hyperbolic path past the Sun, very unlike the elliptical or nearly parabolic orbits followed by all previous comets. Now it has been awarded the official interstellar designation of 2I/Borisov.
The comet was travelling at about 33 km per second as it entered the solar system from the direction of the constellation Cassiopeia, fast enough to cover the 4-light-years distance of the nearest star in under 40,000 years. Perihelion, its closest point to the Sun, occurs at 303 million km on 8 December, putting it still beyond the orbit of Mars, and it reaches its closest to the Earth at 293 million km twenty days later.
It is still faint, no better than magnitude 17, but may attain magnitude 14 near perihelion and, while it will never reach naked-eye or binocular visibility, is likely to be within telescopic range until at least the middle of next year. This gives plenty of time for astronomers to study a comet that probably formed elsewhere in the Milky Way galaxy at a different time and with possibly a different composition than those that formed alongside the Sun and Earth. October has Comet Borisov travelling south-eastwards to the west of the Sickle of Leo and passing within a Moon’s-breadth east of the star Regulus on the 24th.
Leo’s Sickle rises in the north-east in the early morning and stands some 30° high in the east before dawn as our southern sky is dominated by the glorious constellation of Orion. The pre-dawn also gives us a chance to spot Mars as it emerges from the Sun’s far side. The planet rises in the east one hour before the Sun on the 1st and two hours before sunrise on the 31st. Moving east-south-eastwards in Virgo, it shines only at magnitude 1.8 and lies 8° below the slender earthlit Moon on the 26th.
As the Sun tracks southwards by 11° during October, the sky at nightfall is changing only slowly. The Summer Triangle is still high in the south as darkness falls, although its three stars, Vega in Lyra, Deneb in Cygnus and Altair in Aquila, have shifted into the west by our star map times. By then, Pegasus, the upside-down flying horse with his nose near Delphinus the Dolphin, stands high in the south.
The sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change this month from 07:15/18:49 BST (06:15/17:49 GMT) on the 1st to 07:17/16:35 GMT on the 31st, following Summer Time’s end on the 27th. The Moon reaches first quarter on the 5th, full phase on the 13th, last quarter on the 21st and new on the 28th.
Like Mars, Venus is also coming into view from beyond the Sun, but this time into our evening twilight in the west-south-west. Although brilliant at magnitude -3.9, it stands a mere 3° high at sunset for Edinburgh and sets at present only 30 minutes later, so we need good weather and a clear horizon to catch it. On the 29th, look for it 2.8° below the sliver of the earthlit young Moon, only 3° illuminated. Mercury is fainter and even lower at sunset and not visible from Scotland.
Jupiter is well past its best as an evening object although it remains obvious low in the south-west at nightfall, sinking to set at Edinburgh’s south-western horizon at 21:14 BST on the 1st and as early as 18:34 GMT by the 31st. At magnitude -2.0 to -1.9 and 36 to 33 arcseconds in diameter, it lies close to the Moon on the 3rd and 31st.
Saturn, one tenth as bright at magnitude 0.5 to 0.6, lies some 25° to the left of Jupiter. When it is close to the first quarter Moon on the 5th, its disk and rings span 17 and 38 arcseconds respectively. It is in Sagittarius low in the south at nightfall and sets in the south-west soon after our map times.
Neptune and Uranus are binocular brightness object of magnitudes 7.8 and 5.7 in Aquarius and Pisces respectively. There is little hope of locating them using our chart, but a web search, such as “Where is Uranus?”, should bring up information and a finder chart. Uranus, in fact, reaches opposition at a distance of 2,817 million km on the 28th when it stands directly opposite the Sun and appears as a tiny 3.7 arcseconds blue-green disk through a telescope.
Our Diary, below, records the peak dates for two of the October’s meteor showers, the Draconids on the 8th and the Orionids on the 22nd. Neither is among the year’s top showers, though both can yield rates of 20 or more meteors per hour under ideal conditions. The Draconids are active from the 6th to the 10th with slow meteors that diverge from a radiant near the Head of Draco, the quadrilateral of stars below and left of the D of DRACO on our north map. Unfortunately, the light of the bright gibbous Moon will hinder observations before the Moon sets in the early morning.
The Orionids, like May’s Eta Aquarids shower, are caused by meteoroid debris from Comet Halley. They last throughout the month and into early November but are expected to be most prolific on the nights of the 22nd and 23rd when their fast meteors diverge from a point that lies around 10° north-east (above-right) of Betelgeuse at Orion’s shoulder. That point passes high in the south before dawn but is just rising in the east-north-east at our map times, so no Orionids appear before then. As with those other swift meteors, the Perseids of August, many of the brighter Orionids leave glowing trains in their wake.
Diary for 2019 October
Times are BST until the 27th and GMT thereafter.
3rd 21h Moon 1.9° N of Jupiter
5th 18h First quarter
5th 22h Moon 0.3° S of Saturn
8th 07h Peak of Draconids meteor shower
13th 22h Full moon
17th 23h Moon 2.9° N of Aldebaran
20th 05h Mercury furthest E of Sun (25°)
21st 14h Last quarter
22nd Peak of Orionids meteor shower
22nd 06h Moon 1.0° N of Praesepe
23rd 19h Moon 3° N of Regulus
26th 18h Moon 5° N of Mars
27th 02h BST = 01h GMT End of British Summer Time
28th 04h New moon
28th 08h Uranus at opposition at distance of 2,817 million km
29th 14h Moon 4° N of Venus
30th 08h Mercury 2.7° S of Venus
31st 14h Moon 1.3° N of Jupiter
This is an extended version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on September 30th 2019, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Draconid meteors glide away from the Dragon’s head
Mars dominates our southern evening sky but most of the other bright planets are poorly placed this month. Even so, our October nights are full of interest, from the Summer Triangle in the evening to the star-fest around Orion before dawn.
Although Mars dims from magnitude -1.3 to -0.6, its reddish light remains prominent as it moves from low in the south-south-east at nightfall to the south-south-west at our map times and onwards to set in the south-west a little before 01:00 BST (midnight GMT). As its distance grows from 89 million to 118 million km, and its diameter shrinks from 16 to 12 arcseconds, the planet speeds through Capricornus to climb 6° northwards and that much higher in our sky. Catch it to the left of the Moon on the 17th and below-right of the Moon on the 18th.
The Sun tracks 11° southwards as Edinburgh’s sunrise/sunset times change from 07:15/18:48 BST (06:15/17:48 GMT) on the 1st to 07:17/16:35 GMT on the 31st. The Moon is at last quarter on the 2nd, new on the 9th, at first quarter on the 16th, full (the Hunter’s Moon) on the 24th and back at last quarter on the 31st.
Our charts show the Plough in the north as it moves below Polaris, the Pole Star. Mizar, in the Plough’s handle, forms a famous double star with the fainter Alcor – the pair being separated by about one third the diameter of the Moon. Once held as a (not very rigorous) test of eyesight, they were dubbed “The Horse and Rider”.
Both lie 83 light years (ly) from us although we can’t be certain that they are tied together by gravity. In any case, we are not talking about just two stars, for Alcor has a faint companion and most telescopes show Mizar to be a binary star – the first to be discovered telescopically in the 17th century. Spectroscopes reveal that each of Mizar’s components is itself binary, so Mizar and Alcor, if they are truly associated, together form a sextuplet star system.
Mizar is the same brightness, magnitude 2.2, as Eltanin which lies 14° to the right of Vega and very high in the west at nightfall, falling into the north-west overnight. It is the brightest star in Draco and a member of a quadrilateral that marks the head of the Dragon whose body and tail twist to end between the Plough and Polaris. It lies 154 ly away but is approaching the Sun and will pass within 28 ly in another 1.5 million years to become the brightest star in Earth’s night sky.
Meteors from the Draconids shower diverge from a radiant point that lies close to Draco’s head (see our north map) between the 7th and 10th. Don’t expect a major display – perhaps no more than 10 meteors per hour, though all of them are very slow as they glide away from the radiant. The shower’s peak is due in a moonless sky around midnight on the 8th-9th and is worth checking because some years surprise us with strong displays and the shower’s parent comet, Comet Giacobini-Zinner, was visible through binoculars when it swept within 59 million km last month.
A better-known comet, Halley, is responsible for the meteors of the Orionids shower which lasts from the 16th to the 30th and has a broad but not very intense peak of fast meteors between the 21st and 24th. The radiant point, between Orion and Gemini, rises in the east-north-east soon after our map times and passes high in the south before dawn. Sadly, the peak coincides with the full moon, so don’t expect much of a show.
From high in the south at nightfall, the Summer Triangle (Vega, Deneb and Altair) tumbles into our western sky by the map times. By then, the less impressive and rather empty Square of Pegasus is in the south and Taurus and the Pleiades star cluster are climbing in the east. Orion rises below Taurus over the next two hours and crosses the meridian as the night ends.
Neptune and Uranus, now well placed in the evening, may be located through binoculars using better charts than I can provide here. A web search, for example for “Neptune finder chart”, should help. Neptune shines at magnitude 7.8 and lies in Aquarius at a distance of 4,342 million km on the 1st. Uranus is 2,824 million km away in Aries, near its border with Pisces, when it stands opposite the Sun in the sky (opposition) on the 24th. Although the full Moon stands close to it on that day, its magnitude of 5.7 makes it just visible to the unaided eye under a good dark and moonless sky.
October should see the launch of the European Space Agency’s BepiColombo mission to Mercury, but the planet itself is too low in our evening twilight to be seen. Venus sweeps around the Sun’s near side at inferior conjunction on the 26th and remains hidden in the Sun’s glare.
Jupiter is bright (magnitude -1.8) but less than 8° high in the south-west at sunset as the month begins. One of our last chances of spotting it in our bright evening twilight comes on the 11th when it lies 4° below-left of the young earthlit Moon.
Saturn, magnitude 0.5 and edging eastwards in Sagittarius, stands less than 10° high above Edinburgh’s south-south-western horizon as the sky darkens and sets in the south-west some 45 minutes before our map times. Look for it to the left of the Moon on the 14th.
Diary for 2018 October
Times are BST until the 28th
2nd 11h Last Quarter
9th 00h Peak of Draconids meteor shower
9th 05h New moon
11th 22h Moon 4° N of Jupiter
15th 04h Moon 1.8° N of Saturn
16th 19h First quarter
18th 14h Moon 1.9° N of Mars
21st – 24th Peak of Orionids meteor shower
24th 02h Uranus at opposition at distance of 2,824m km
24th 18h Full moon
26th 15h Venus in inferior conjunction on Sun’s near side
28th 02h BST = 01h GMT End of British Summer Time
31st 17h GMT Last quarter
This is a slightly revised version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on September 29th 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.
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.
Ice giants lurk in our southern sky
Our October nights are some of the finest for stargazing in the entire year. The temperatures have yet to plumb the bone-chilling depths of winter, but the constellations visible between dusk and dawn include all the highlights of our summer and winter skies. It is just a shame that most of the bright planets are poorly placed at present.
The nights begin with the Summer Triangle high in the south. Formed by the prominent stars Vega in Lyra, Altair in Aquila and Deneb in Cygnus, its stands just to the west of the meridian at nightfall, but tumbles into the west by the star map times. In a dark sky, the diffuse band of the Milky Way flows through it is it arches overhead through Cepheus and Cassiopeia.
Look up in the south at our map times for the large, and largely empty, Square of Pegasus, and very low in the south, less than 5° high for Edinburgh, to find Fomalhaut in Pisces Austrinus, the Southern Fish. A young star only 25 light years away, it is surrounded by disks of dust and probably orbited by two or more planets.
Only two planets are visible at our map times as they lurk to the south of the Square. Uranus and Neptune are plotted on our chart in Pisces and Aquarius respectively, but they are binocular-brightness at magnitude 5.7 and 7.8 and demand more detailed charts, perhaps from the Internet, to identify them. They show tiny bluish disks through a telescope, with Uranus only 3.7 arcseconds wide when it comes to opposition at a distance of 2,845 million km on the 7th, while Neptune is currently 2.3 arcseconds and 1,500 million km further away. Both have ring systems, invisible under normal circumstances, and a plethora of moons.
For decades, these distant worlds have been classed among the gas giants to distinguish them from the smaller rocky planets closer to the Sun. Both are of similar size, some four times wider than Earth, with Uranus being 51,118 km in equatorial diameter and Neptune only 1,600 km smaller. Unlike Jupiter and Saturn, though, they contain a much smaller proportion of raw hydrogen and helium and instead are predominantly composed of the ices of water, methane and ammonia. Indeed, they are more often now classed as ice giants.
Taurus, climbing in the east, is the forerunner of the spectacular constellations of winter centred around Orion. The latter rises below Taurus over the following two hours and is unmistakable in the south before dawn as Sirius, the brightest star, twinkles furiously in the south-south-east.
In northern Orion, 10° to the north-east of Betelgeuse at Orion’s shoulder, lies the radiant point for the Orionids meteor shower which is active in the mornings from the 16th to the 30th. Fast meteors diverge from the point, particularly around the 22nd when numbers may approach 25 per hour under dark moonless skies. The meteoroids were released by Comet Halley.
The Sun sinks another 11° southwards during October as sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 07:15/18:48 BST (06:15/17:48 GMT) on the 1st to 07:17/16:35 GMT on the 31st. British Summer Time ends at 02:00 BST on the 26th when clocks are set back one hour to 01:00 GMT. Nautical twilight at dawn and dusk persists for a little over 80 minutes.
The Moon is at first quarter on the 1st and full on the 8th when observers around the Pacific, including N America, see a total lunar eclipse. Last quarter occurs on the 15th with new moon on the 23rd which brings a partial solar eclipse visible over most of N America and the north-eastern Pacific. First quarter comes round again on the 31st.
The solitary conspicuous planet is Jupiter but we must wait until the morning hours to see it. The largest of the gas giants shines at magnitude -1.9 as it rises in the east-north-east at about 02:00 BST at present and before 23:30 at the month’s end, climbing high into the south-east and even the south before dawn later in the period. Mid-October sees it slip from Cancer into Leo and by the 31st it has drawn to within 10° of Leo’s main star Regulus. The Moon stands 6° below Jupiter on the 18th when the planet is 35 arcseconds wide and 841 million km away.
Venus may be brilliant at magnitude -3.9 but it rises in the east only 40 minutes before sunrise on the 1st and is soon lost from view as it tracks towards superior conjunction on the Sun’s far side on the 25th. Mercury, though, slips through inferior on the Sun’s near side on the 16th and becomes a morning star during the final week of the month. By the 31st, it rises almost two hours before sunrise and shines at magnitude -0.4 low in the east-south-east.
Saturn and Mars are challenging evening planets just above the south-west horizon as darkness falls. Saturn, magnitude 0.6 in Libra, is lost from view later in the month as it is swallowed by the twilight, though experienced telescope users may be able to observe it being occulted by the young Moon in the late afternoon of the 25th. It is 11° high in Edinburgh’s south-west when it disappears behind the Moon’s eastern edge at 16:55 BST, though since they are 21° to the right of the Sun, caution is advised.
Mars, now well to the left of Saturn, dims from magnitude 0.8 to 0.9 as it tracks eastwards from 4° above Antares in Scorpius. Catch it 6° below the young Moon on the 28th.