Harvest moon eclipsed on the 16th
Two eclipses and a couple of notable space exploration milestones make September an interesting month for astronomers. I’ll postpone until the close of this note, though, my thoughts on the exciting news that Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Sun, has a planet which is probably rocky, slightly larger than the Earth and in the star’s so-called habitable zone where liquid water might exist.
The first eclipse, an annular or “ring” eclipse of the Sun, occurs on the 1st with the Moon too distant to hide the Sun completely. Instead, a dazzling ring of sunlight remains visible along a narrow path that stretches across Central Southern Africa into the Indian Ocean. Surrounding areas enjoy a partial solar eclipse but nothing is seen as far north as Europe
Of greater interest for us is a penumbral eclipse of the Moon on the 16th during which the Moon passes through the southern outer part of the Earth’s shadow, the penumbra. The event lasts from 17:55 to 21:54 BST although, as seen from Edinburgh, the Moon only rises in the east at 19:29. Maximum eclipse occurs 25 minutes later, at 19:54, when all but the southern 9% of the Moon is within the penumbra. Little darkening of the disk may be noticeable, except near the northern edge which is closest to the Earth’s umbra where all direct sunlight is extinguished.
Since this full moon is the one closest to the autumnal equinox, due at 15:21 BST on the 22nd, it is also called the harvest moon. The tradition is that the bright moon stands at a similar altitude in the eastern sky over several evenings at this time, so permitting the harvesting hours to be extended.
The Sun tracks 11.5° southwards during September to cross the celestial equator at the equinox when day and night have approximately equal lengths around the Earth. Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 06:18/20:06 BST on the 1st to 07:14/18:50 on the 30th. The moon is new on the 1st, at first quarter on the 9th, full on the 16th, at last quarter on the 23rd and new again on 1 October.
Jupiter is now lost from view as it nears conjunction on the Sun’s far side on the 26th. It leaves Venus as an evening star, but even though Venus is brilliant at magnitude -3.9 it stands less than 5° above Edinburgh’s horizon at sunset and sets itself within the next 45 minutes. Catch it, if you can, in the west as September begins, shifting to the south-west by the month’s end.
Mars, Saturn and the star Antares in Scorpius form a triangle low in the south-west as darkness falls at present, with Saturn above Antares and Mars a few degrees to their left. Saturn is magnitude 0.5 while Mars is brighter and noticeably reddish, though it fades from magnitude -0.3 to 0.1 as it speeds 18° eastwards and further away. By month’s end, its motion brings it onto our chart and close to the so-called Teapot of Sagittarius, just setting in the south-west.
Look for the Moon close to Saturn on the 9th and above Mars on the 10th when, if viewed telescopically, the two planets appear 16 and 10 arcseconds wide respectively, with Saturn’s wide-open rings spanning 37 arcseconds.
Mercury begins its best morning appearance of the year late in the month. From the 24th onwards, it rises in the east more than 95 minutes before the Sun and reaches more than 8° high forty minutes before sunrise. It is furthest west of the Sun (18°) on the 28th and is magnitude -0.5 when it lies alongside the slender earthlit Moon on the 29th.
Just a day later, on the 30th, Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft is destined to end its mission when it collides with Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the rubber-duck shaped body it has been orbiting and investigating since August 2014. The collision will be gentle but radio contact and data-collection is likely to be lost as the craft settles on the comet’s surface.
Earlier in the month, during a month-long launch window beginning on the 8th, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is due to embark on its seven-years mission to collect and return samples from the surface of Bennu, a small asteroid which has been given an outside chance of having a catastrophic impact with the Earth late in the next century.
Proxima Centauri lies at a distance of only 4.25 light years but is much too dim to be seen without a telescope, A small red dwarf star, it is less than 15% as massive and wide as our Sun and has less than 0.2% of the Sun’s energy output. Also called Alpha Centauri C, it was discovered in 1915 by the Edinburgh-born astronomer Robert Innes and lies 15° to the east of the Southern Cross in a part of the sky we never see from Britain. It is thought to form a triple star system with Alpha Centauri A and B, a tight binary of more Sun-like stars that lie 2° away in the sky.
The newly discovered world has been dubbed Proxima b but it is something of a stretch to call it Earth-like. It orbits its star in a year of 11.2 Earth-days at a distance of less than 8 million km where it is blasted by X-rays from dramatic flares that we see erupting on Proxima’s surface – far from ideal for life. It is also probably tidally locked – keeping its same face towards the star – and we do not even know (yet!) that it has water, never mind life.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on September 1st 2016, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Perseids meteor shower peaks under moonless skies
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.
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.
Europe’s Philae probe to attempt first touchdown on comet
In an exciting month in astronomy and space exploration, November should bring the first soft landing on a comet when the European Space Agency’s Philae craft detaches from the Rosetta probe and drops gently onto the icy nucleus of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Our sky at nightfall s similar to that of a month ago although, with our return to GMT, darkness arrives more than two hours earlier in the evening. Mars continues as the only bright planet at these times, visible low in Edinburgh’s south-south-western sky and fading only a little from magnitude 0.9 to 1.0 as it tracks eastwards above the Teapot of Sagittarius.
However, even though Mars is drawing closer to the Sun, its altitude at the end of nautical twilight improves from 5° to 9° during November as the Sun plunges more than 7° southwards in the sky and Mars edges almost 3° northwards. This also means that Mars-set in the south-west occurs at about 19:05 throughout the period. It stands below the young crescent Moon on the 26th.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 07:19/16:33 GMT on the 1st to 08:17/15:45 on the 30th as the duration of nautical twilight at dawn and dusk extends from 83 to 93 minutes. The Moon is full on the 6th, at last quarter on the 14th, new on the 22nd and at first quarter on the 29th.
Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko lies 6° south-east of Mars on the 12th but is a very dim telescopic object some 450 million km from the Sun. On that day Philae is due to unlatch from Rosetta and take about seven hours to fall 22.5km, coming to rest on tripod legs at about 16:00 GMT atop the head of the comet’s strange “rubber-duck” shape. To stop itself bouncing off into space in defiance of the comet’s feeble gravitational pull, it should then fire a tethered harpoon to anchor itself to the surface.
The comet’s 6-year orbit is carrying it closer to the Sun, eventually to reach perihelion at a distance of 186 million km next August. Meantime, its activity is picking up and Rosetta is imaging jets of dust and gas emerging, mainly from the duck’s neck region at present. With Philae in position to also monitor conditions at the surface, and even below the crust using sonar, seismographs and permittivity probes, our knowledge of what makes comets tick should soon be transformed.
The Summer Triangle of Vega, Deneb and Altair, lies in the west at our map times as Orion rises in the east below Taurus and the Pleiades. The Square of Pegasus stands high on the meridian with the three main stars of Andromeda, Alpheratz, Mirach and Almach, leading off from its top-left corner. The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, could hardly be better placed, being visible to the naked eye in a decent sky and not difficult at all through binoculars. It stands 2.5 million light years (ly) away and appears as an oval smudge some 8° above Mirach.
A line through the Square’s two right-hand stars points the way to Fomalhaut, bright but very low in the south. I mentioned last time that it may have at least a couple of planets. In fact, the first so-called extrasolar planet circling a solar-type star was discovered in 1995 and is about half the size of Jupiter yet orbits in only 4.2 days at a distance only one seventh of that of Mercury from the Sun. The star concerned is 51 Pegasi, magnitude 5.5 and 50 ly distant, which is unmistakable through binoculars just 1.5° or 3 Moon-widths to the right of the Scheat-Markab line.
Of the 1,800-plus extrasolar planets now known, no less than four orbit Upsilon Andromedae, a fourth magnitude star at 44 ly that stands between Mirach and Almach (see chart).
Jupiter, is creeping eastwards to the right of the famous Sickle of Leo. Rising in the east-north-east at about 23:20 on the 1st and as early as 21:40 on the 30th, it is prominent until dawn as it climbs through our south-eastern sky to pass about 50° high on our meridian before dawn. The Jovian disk is 38 arcseconds across when Jupiter lies near the Moon on the night of 13/14th.
The annual Leonids meteor shower lasts from the 15th to the 20th, building to a sharp peak on the morning of the 18th. Its super-swift meteors flash in all parts of the sky, though their paths radiate from a point in the Sickle. There is little moonlight interference this year, but meteor rates may be well down on what they were a few years ago when the shower’s parent comet was in the vicinity.
Venus sets too soon after the Sun to be seen, and with Saturn reaching conjunction on the Sun’s far side on the 18th, our only other observable bright planet is Mercury, fortunately putting on its best morning show of 2014.
On the 1st Mercury rises two hours before the Sun and shines at magnitude -0.5 as it climbs to an altitude of 10° in the east-south-east forty minutes before sunrise. Although it soon brightens to magnitude 0.8, it also slips back towards the Sun, so that by the 14th it rises 89 minutes before the Sun and is 6° high forty minutes before sunrise. Given a clear horizon, though, binoculars should show it easily and it should be a naked-eye object until it is swamped by the brightening twilight. Look for Virgo’s leading star, Spica, climbing from below Mercury to pass 5° to its right on the 7th.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on October 31st 2014, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Mars greets a rival and two new orbiters
The Summer Triangle, formed by the bright stars Vega, Deneb and Altair, still has pride of place high in our southern sky at nightfall. Mars and Saturn are visible on our September evenings, too, but we must look low in the south-west to catch them. Both are well past their best and less interesting telescopic targets than Jupiter which is now resplendent in the east before dawn.
Having swept 3°, or six Moon-widths, to the south of Saturn on 27 August, Mars has a trio of further notable encounters later in September. Two new spacecraft, NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM or Mangalyaan, are on course to enter orbit around Mars on the 21st and 24th respectively while the planet is due to pass 3° north of the enormous red supergiant star Antares in Scorpius on the 27th. The name Antares comes from the Ancient Greek for “rival to Mars” and, while they may indeed be similar in brightness by the month’s end, it will be fascinating to see how their colours compare.
Meanwhile, Mars, or rather the spacecraft in orbit around it, are due for a more challenging encounter when the icy nucleus of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring sweeps within some 130,000 km of the planet on 19 October. The operators of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey, and of Europe’s Mars Express, are arranging to shield their craft from the worst of the dust storm that is likely to be accompanying the comet, and similar precautions may be needed for MAVEN and MOM.
In other space news, Europe’s Rosetta craft is now studying five potential landing sites for its Philae lander on the nucleus of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The landing is not due until November, but it is planned to choose a primary and a backup site this month as Rosetta closes to with 30 km of the nucleus.
By our star map times, the Summer Triangle lies just west of our meridian as it gives way to the stars of autumn led by the topsy-turvy winged horse Pegasus whose nose is marked by the star Enif. Use binoculars to look 4° north-west of Enif for the star cluster M15 which appears as a fuzzy blob less than half as wide as the Moon. In fact, it is one of the finest globular clusters in the sky and contains more than 100,000 stars at a distance in excess of 30,000 light years.
The Sun tracks 11.5° southwards in the sky during September and crosses the equator at 03:29 BST on the 23rd, the time of this year’s autumnal equinox. Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 06:17/20:07 on the 1st to 07:13/18:51 on the 30th as the duration of nautical twilight at dawn and dusk falls from 89 to 80 minutes.
The Moon is at first quarter on the 2nd, full on the 9th, at last quarter on the 16th and new on the 24th. As the full moon nearest to the equinox, the one on the 9th is also our Harvest Moon and, since it comes less than a day after the Moon is closest to the Earth, it is yet another supermoon.
Saturn stands about 11° high in the south-west and only 0.3° above the northern tip of the crescent Moon as the evening twilight fades on 31 August, with Mars another 4° below and to their left.
On 27 September, the young Moon returns to lie 6° to the right of Saturn which, by then, is 4° lower in the sky and becoming hard to spot in the twilight. Both planets begin the period at magnitude 0.6, but Mars dims slightly to magnitude 0.8 by the 29th when it stands 5° below the Moon and 3° above Antares. It is also 20° to the left of Saturn and drops below Edinburgh’s horizon at 20:51 BST. Viewed through a telescope, Mars is only 6 arcseconds in diameter at midmonth, while Saturn is 16 arcseconds wide within rings that span 36 arcseconds and have their north face tilted 22° towards us.
After Mars and Saturn set, the sky is devoid of bright planets until Jupiter rises more than five hours later. True, Neptune and Uranus are binocular objects at magnitudes of 7.8 and 5.7 in Aquarius and Pisces respectively, but we need better charts to identify them.
There is no mistaking Jupiter, though. The conspicuous giant planet rises at Edinburgh’s east-north-eastern horizon at 03:29 on the 1st and by 02:07 on the 30th. climbing well clear of the eastern to south-eastern horizon by dawn. As it brightens slightly from magnitude -1.8 to -1.9, it also tracks 6° eastwards, below and away from the Praesepe or Beehive star cluster in Cancer. Look for the waning earthlit Moon 6° below and right of Jupiter before dawn on the 20th. Viewed through a telescope on that morning, the cloud-banded Jovian disk is 33 arcseconds across.
Venus is also a morning object and, although it remains brilliant at magnitude -3.9, it is sinking deeper into the twilight as it approaches conjunction on the Sun’s far side in October. On the 1st, it rises 87 minutes before the Sun and stands 14° below and left of Jupiter as it climbs 12° above our eastern horizon by sunrise. Jupiter soon leaves it behind, though, so by the 30th it rises 32 minutes before the Sun and is only 6° high at sunrise. Viewed telescopically, its almost full disk is only 10 arcseconds across.
The other inner planet, Mercury, moves to lie 26° east of the Sun on the 21st, but hugs the western horizon at sunset and is not observable from our latitudes.