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.
Brilliant Venus plunges into the evening twilight
Stargazers will be hoping for better weather as Orion and the stars of winter depart westwards in our evening sky, Venus dives into the evening twilight and around the Sun’s near side, while all the other bright planets are on view too. Indeed, Venus has the rare privilege of appearing as both an evening star and a morning star over several days, provided our western and eastern horizons are clear.
Orion still dominates our southern sky at nightfall as Leo climbs in the east and the Plough balances on its handle in the north-east. The Sun’s northwards progress and our lengthening days mean that by nightfall at the month’s end Orion has drifted lower into the south-west, halfway to his setting-point in the west. He is even lower in the west-south-west by our star map times when it is the turn of Leo to reach the meridian and the Plough to be almost overhead.
Leo’s leading star, Regulus, sits at the base of the Sickle of Leo, the reversed question-mark of stars from which meteors of the Leonids shower stream every November. The star Algieba in the Sickle (see chart) appears as a glorious double star through a telescope. Its components are larger and much more luminous than our Sun and lie almost 5 arcseconds apart, taking some 510 years to orbit each other. The pair lie 130 light years away and are unrelated to the star less than a Moon’s breadth to the south which is only half as far from us.
The Sun travels northward across the equator at 10:28 GMT on the 20th, the moment of the vernal (spring) equinox in our northern hemisphere. On this date, nights and days are of roughly equal length around the globe. Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 07:04/17:47 GMT on the 1st to 06:46/17:49 BST (05:46/18:49 GMT) on the 31st after we set our clocks forwards to BST on the morning of the 26th. The lunar phases change from first quarter on the 5th to full on the 12th, last quarter on the 20th and new on the 28th.
Look for the young earthlit Moon well to the left of the brilliant magnitude -4.6 Venus on the 1st when telescopes show the planet’s dazzling crescent to be 47 arcseconds in diameter and 16% sunlit. Venus’ altitude at sunset plummets from 29° in the west-south-west on that day to only 7° in the west on the 22nd as its diameter swells to 59 arcseconds and the phase shrinks to only 1% – indeed, a few keen-sighted people might be able to discern its crescent with the naked eye and this is certainly easy to spot through binoculars.
Venus dims to magnitude -4.0 by the time it sweeps 8° north of the Sun and only 42 million km from the Earth at its inferior conjunction on the 25th. This marks its formal transition from the evening to the morning sky, but because it passes so far north of the Sun as it does every eight years or so, Venus is already visible in the predawn before we lose it in the evening. In fact, it is 7° high in the east at sunrise on the 22nd, and it only gets better as the month draws to its close.
Before Venus exits our evening sky, it meets Mercury as the latter begins its best spell as an evening star this year. On the 20th, the small innermost planet lies 10° to the left of Venus, shines at magnitude -1.2 and sets at Edinburgh’s western horizon 78 minutes after the Sun. By the 29th, it is 10° high forty minutes after sunset and shines at magnitude -0.4, easily visible through binoculars and 8° to the right of the very young Moon.
Mars, near the Moon on the 1st and again on the 30th, dims from magnitude 1.3 to 1.5 this month as it tracks from Pisces into Aries. By the month’s end, it lies to the left of Aries’ main star Hamal and sets at our map times. It is now more than 300 million km away and its disk, less than 5 arcseconds across, is too small to be of interest telescopically.
The Moon has another encounter with the Hyades star cluster on the night of the 4th-5th, hiding several of its stars but setting for Scotland before it reaches Taurus’ main star Aldebaran. The latter, though, is occulted later as seen from most of the USA. The Moon passes just below Regulus on the night of the 10th-11th and meets the planet Jupiter on the 14th.
Jupiter, conspicuous at magnitude -2.3 to -2.5, rises in the east at 21:37 GMT on the 1st and only 31 minutes after Edinburgh’s sunset on the 31st. Now edging westwards above the star Spica in Virgo, it is unmistakable as it climbs through our south-eastern sky to cross the meridian in the small hours and lie in the south-west before dawn. Its disk, 43 arcseconds wide at mid-month, shows parallel cloud bands through almost any telescope, while its four moons may be glimpsed through binoculars as they orbit from one side to the other.
Saturn, the last of the night’s planets, rises in the south-east at 03:44 GMT on the 1st and almost two hours earlier by the 31st. Improving very slightly from magnitude 0.5 to 0.4 during March, it is the brightest object about 10° above the south-south-eastern horizon before dawn. Look for it 4° below-left of the Moon on the 20th.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on February 28th 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Venus highest and brightest as evening star
If you doubt that February offers our best evening sky of the year, then consider the evidence. The unrivalled constellation of Orion stands astride the meridian at 21:00 GMT tonight, and two hours earlier by February’s end. Around him are arrayed some of the brightest stars in the night sky, including Sirius, the brightest, and Capella, the sixth brightest which shines yellowish in Auriga near the zenith. This month also sees Venus, always the brightest planet, reach its greatest brilliancy and stand at its highest as an evening star.
By our map times, a little later in the evening, Orion has progressed into the south-south-west and Sirius, nipping at his heel as the Dog Star in Canis Major, stands lower down on the meridian. All stars twinkle as their light, from effectively a single point in space, is refracted by turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere, but Sirius’ multi-hued scintillation is most noticeable simply because it is so bright. On the whole, planets do not twinkle since their light comes from a small disk and not a point.
I mentioned two months ago how Sirius, Betelgeuse at Orion’s shoulder and Procyon, the Lesser Dog Star to the east of Betelgeuse, form a near-perfect equilateral triangle we dub the Winter Triangle. Another larger but less regular asterism, the Winter Hexagon, can be constructed around Betelgeuse. Its sides connect Capella, Aldebaran in Taurus, Rigel at Orion’s knee, Sirius, Procyon and Castor and Pollux in Gemini, the latter pair considered jointly as one vertex of the hexagon.
Aldebaran, found by extending the line of Orion’s Belt up and to the right, just avoids being hidden (occulted) by the Moon on the 5th. At about 22:20 GMT, the northern edge of the Moon slides just 5 arcminutes, or one sixth of the Moon’s diameter, below and left of the star. Earlier that evening, the Moon occults several stars of V-shaped Hyades cluster which, together with Aldebaran, form the Bull’s face.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 08:07/16:46 on the 1st to 07:06/17:45 on the 28th. The Moon is at first quarter on the 4th and lies to the west of Regulus in Leo when full just after midnight on the night of the 10th/11th. It is then blanketed by the southern part of the Earth’s outer shadow in a penumbral lunar eclipse. The event lasts from 22:34 until 02:53 with an obvious dimming of the upper part of the Moon’s disk apparent near mid-eclipse at 00:33. This time, the Moon misses the central dark umbra of the shadow where all direct sunlight is blocked by the Earth, but only by 160 km or 5% of its diameter.
Following last quarter on the 18th, the Moon is new on the 26th when the narrow track of an annular solar eclipse crosses the south Atlantic from Chile and Argentina to southern Africa. Observers along the track see the Moon’s ink-black disk surrounded by a dazzling ring of sunlight while neighbouring regions, but not Europe, enjoy a partial eclipse of the Sun.
Venus, below and to the right of the crescent Moon as the month begins, stands at it’s highest in the south-west at sunset on the 11th and 12th and blazes at magnitude -4.6, reaching its greatest brilliancy on the 17th. It stands further above-and to the right of the slim impressively-earthlit Moon again on the 28th.
Viewed through a telescope, Venus’ dazzling crescent swells in diameter from 31 to 47 arcseconds and the illuminated portion of the disk shrinks from 40% to 17%. Indeed, steadily-held binoculars should be enough to glimpse its shape. This month its distance falls from 81 million to 53 million km as it begins to swing around its orbit to pass around the Sun’s near side late in March.
Mars stands above and to the left of Venus but is fainter and dimming further from magnitude 1.1 to 1.3 during February. It appears closest to Venus, 5.4°, on the 2nd but the gap between them grows to 12° by the 28th as they track eastwards and northwards through Pisces. Both set before our map times at present but our charts pick them up at midmonth as they pass below-left of Algenib, the star at the bottom-left corner of the Square of Pegasus.
Mars shrinks below 5 arcseconds in diameter this month so few surface details are visible telescopically. This is certainly not the case with Jupiter, whose intricately-detailed cloud-banded disk swells from 39 to 42 arcseconds. We do need to wait, though, for two hours beyond our map times for Jupiter to rise in the east and until the pre-dawn hours for it to stand at its highest in the south. Second only to Venus, it shines at magnitude -2.1 to -2.3 and lies almost 4° due north of Virgo’s leading star Spica where it appears stationary on the 6th when its motion switches from easterly to westerly. Look for the two below-left of the Moon on the 15th and to the right of the Moon on the 16th.
Saturn is a morning object, low down in the south-east after its rises for Edinburgh at 05:25 on the 1st and by 03:48 on the 28th. At magnitude 0.6 to 0.5, it stands on the Ophiuchus-Sagittarius border where it is below-right of the waning Moon on the 21st. It is a pity that telescopic views are hindered by its low altitude because Saturn’s disk, 16 arcseconds wide, is set within wide-open rings which measure 16 by 36 arcseconds and have their northern face tipped 27° towards the Earth. Mercury remains too deep in our south-eastern morning twilight to be seen this month.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on January 31st 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Geminids suffer in the supermoonlight
The Sun reaches its farthest south at our winter solstice at 10:44 GMT on the 21st, as Mars and the brilliant Venus stand higher in our evening sky than at any other time this year. This is not a coincidence, for both planets are tracking eastwards and, more importantly, northwards in the sky as they keep close to the ecliptic, the Sun’s path over the coming weeks and months. Meantime, Jupiter is prominent during the pre-dawn hours while Orion is unmistakable for most of the night and strides proudly across the meridian at midnight in mid-December.
As the sky darkens this evening, Pegasus with its iconic, but rather empty, Square is nearing the meridian and the Summer Triangle (Vega, Deneb and Altair) stands high in the south-west.
By our map times, Altair is setting in the west and Orion stands in the south-east, the three stars of Belt pointing down to where Sirius, our brightest night-time star, will soon rise. Sirius, the red supergiant Betelgeuse at Orion’s shoulder and Procyon in Canis Minor, almost due east of Betelgeuse, form a near-equilateral triangle which has come to be known as the Winter Triangle.
Above Orion is Taurus, home to the Pleiades star cluster and the bright orange giant star Aldebaran, the latter located less than halfway between us and the V-shaped Hyades cluster.
Look for the almost-full Moon below the Pleiades and to the right of Aldebaran and the Hyades on the evening of the 12th and watch it barrel through the cluster during the night, occulting (hiding) several of the cluster’s stars on the way. As they dip low into the west on the following morning, the Moon occults Aldebaran itself, the star slipping behind the Moon’s northern edge between 05:26 and 05:41 as seen from Edinburgh. Even though this is the brightest star to be occulted this year, the Moon’s brilliance means we may well need a telescope to view the event.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh vary from 08:20/15:44 on the 1st to 08:42/15:40 on the 21st and 08:44/15:48 on the 31st. The Moon is at first quarter on the 7th and full on the 14th when, once again, it is near its perigee, its closest point to the Earth. Despite the fact that the Moon appears a barely perceptible 7% wider than it does on average, we can look forward to yet another dose of over-hyped supermoon hysteria in the media. The Moon’s last quarter comes on the 21st and it is new on the 29th.
Sadly, the Moon does its best to swamp the annual Geminids meteor shower which lasts from the 8th to the 17th and is expected to peak at about 20:00 on the 13th. Its meteors are medium-slow and, thankfully, there are enough bright ones that several should be noticeable despite the moonlight. Without the moonlight, and under perfect conditions, this might have been our best display of 2016, with 100 or more meteors per hour.
Geminids are visible in all parts of the sky, but perspective makes them appear to diverge from a radiant point near the star Castor in Gemini, marked near the eastern edge of our north map. This radiant climbs from our north-eastern horizon at nightfall to pass high in the south at 02:00.
Venus stands 10° above Edinburgh’s southern horizon at sunset on the 1st and shines spectacularly at magnitude -4.2 as it sinks to set in the south-west almost three hours later. The young earthlit Moon stands 10° above-right of Venus on the 2nd, 5° above the planet on the 3rd and, one lunation later, 20° below-right of the Moon on Hogmanay. By then, Venus is twice as high at sunset and (just) brighter still at magnitude -4.3. A telescope shows its dazzling gibbous disk which swells from 17 to 22 arcseconds in diameter as the sunlit portion shrinks from 68% to 57%.
As Venus speeds from Sagittarius to Capricornus, so Mars keeps above and to its left as it moves from Capricornus into Aquarius and into the region of sky above our south-western horizon at the map times. Mars is only a fraction as bright, though, and fades from magnitude 0.6 to 0.9. It also appears much smaller, only 6 arcseconds, so that telescopes now struggle to reveal any surface features. Spot Mars to the left of the Moon on the 4th and below-right of the Moon on the 5th.
Mercury is farthest east of the Sun, 21°, on the 11th but hugs our south-western horizon at nightfall and is unlikely to be seen. It reaches inferior conjunction between the Sun and Earth on the 28th by which time Saturn, which passes beyond the Sun on the 10th, might just be glimpsed low above the south-eastern horizon before dawn. On the 27th, it shines at magnitude 0.5 and lies 7° below-left of the slender waning Moon.
Jupiter is conspicuous at magnitude -1.8 to -1.9 and the real star of our morning sky. Rising in the east for Edinburgh at 03:04 on the 1st and 01:31 on the 31st, it climbs well up into our southern sky before dawn where it stands above Virgo’s leading star Spica and draws closer during the month.
Jupiter, Spica and the Moon form a neat triangle before dawn on the 23rd, when Jupiter is 850 million km away and appears 35 arcseconds wide through a telescope. Any decent telescope shows its parallel cloud belts, while binoculars reveal its four main moons which swap places from side to side of the disk as they orbit the planet in periods of between 1.8 and 17 days.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on December 1st 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.