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.
Mercury to transit face of Sun on 9th
May is seldom an outstanding month for astronomy for observers at Scotland’s latitudes. The Sun’s northwards progress, welcome as it is, leads to later and briefer nights and, as the month ends, twilight begins to persist throughout the night even over the south of the country.
Two astronomical events occur this May, though, that should arouse our interest. The first is the transit by Mercury across the Sun’s face on the 9th which, if the weather holds, should be our best opportunity until 2049 to view its inky silhouette against the Sun. The month also sees Mars approach closer to us and appear brighter than at any time since 2005.
I must repeat the usual serious warning about the dangers of observing the Sun. To prevent permanent damage to your eyes, never look directly at the Sun through a telescope or binoculars, or even stare at it with the unaided eyes. We may project the solar image onto a shaded white card using a pinhole, binoculars or a small telescope, but note that using a large telescope for this may damage its eyepiece.
Sadly, Mercury’s outline will be too small to view by pinhole-projection, and nor will we see it using so-called eclipse glasses. In my opinion, though, it is best to equip your telescope with a certified solar filter to cover the objective (“big”) end of your instrument and block all the harmful radiation.
The precise times we experience the transit can vary by a couple of minutes across the Earth. For Scotland, Mercury begins to encroach on the eastern (left) edge of the solar disk at 12:12 BST and it takes a little more than three minutes before its outline is complete against the Sun. After crawling across the southern half of the Sun it finally leaves at the south-western (lower-right) edge at 19:41.
At a mere 12 arcseconds in diameter, though, it appears only 1/150th as wide as the Sun and a fifth as wide as did Venus during its transit in 2012. Whereas there are more than a dozen transits of Mercury each century, the next one by Venus is not until 2117 and we must be patient until 2125 for the next to be observable from Scotland.
The Sun climbs 7° northwards during May as sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 05:28/20:53 BST on the 1st to 04:36/21:46 on the 31st. The Moon is new on the 6th, at first quarter on the 13th, full on the 21st and at last quarter on the 29th.
Other than during its transit, Mercury is not visible for us at all this month, and neither is Venus which is lost in the glare on the Sun’s far side.
Jupiter, though, remains prominent in the heart of our southern sky at nightfall where it is slow moving in southern Leo and reaches a stationary point on the 10th before edging eastwards again. May has it dimming slightly from magnitude -2.3 to -2.0 as it recedes from 723 million to 791 million km and its disk shrinks from 41 to 37 arcseconds in diameter. Catch it near the Moon on the 14th and 15th.
By our star chart times, Leo and Jupiter are sinking into the west and our southern sky is dominated by the bright star Arcturus, the equally bright planet Saturn and, most conspicuous of all, the Red Planet, Mars. The Plough is tumbling westwards from the zenith as the Summer Triangle formed by the bright stars Vega in Lyra, Deneb in Cygnus and Altair in Aquila, occupies our lower eastern sky.
Mars rises in the south-east at 23:14 BST on the 1st and at sunset on the 22nd, the day it stands directly opposite the Sun in the sky at opposition. Our chart plots it low down in the south-south-east about one hour before it reaches its highest point, albeit less than 13° above Edinburgh’s southern horizon.
It lies 5° above the red supergiant star Antares in Scorpius at present but is retrograding, or moving westwards, against the stars and enters Libra towards the end of the period as it brightens from magnitude -1.5 to rival Jupiter at magnitude -2.0 at opposition. Because it is on the inwards leg of its somewhat eccentric orbit, it is actually closest to us at 75,280,00 km on the 30th, almost a million km closer than on the day of opposition.
Mars’ low altitude means that views of its reddish disk, only 18 arcseconds wide at opposition, may be less sharp (under “poorer seeing”) than if it stood high in the sky. Even so, telescopes should show the small northern polar cap, tipped 10° towards us, and other surface features as they drift slowly to the right across the disk. Those features return to almost the same position from one night to the next since Mars’ day is 40 minutes longer than that of the Earth. Mars comes 17 million km closer during its next opposition in 2018, but will be 4° lower still in our sky so we should make the most of any chance to view it this time around.
Shining to the east (left) of Mars is Saturn which this month brightens from magnitude 0.2 to 0.0 as it creeps westwards in southern Ophiuchus. It always rewards us with stunning telescopic views, its disk being (like Mars) 18 arcseconds wide but set within a glorious ring system that spans 41 arcseconds and has its north face inclined towards us at 26°. Look for the Moon above Mars late on the 21st and closer still to Saturn on the next night.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on April 30th 2016, 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.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on August 29th 2014, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Two brightest planets in closest meeting for 14 years
Our usual highlight for August is the return of the prolific and reliable Perseids meteor shower. Unfortunately, meteor-watchers have to contend with moonlight this year and it is just as well that we have other highlights as compensation. Foremost among them is the closest conjunction between Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest planets, since 2000 though they are low down in our morning twilight. Mars and Saturn rendezvous, too, and we have our best supermoon of the year.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 05:17/21:20 BST on the 1st to 06:15/20:10 on the 31st. The spell of nautical twilight at dusk and dawn shrinks from 121 to 89 minutes. The Moon is at first quarter on the 4th, full on the 10th (see below), at last quarter on the 17th and new on the 25th.
The term supermoon has gained currency in recent years to describe a full moon that occurs when the Moon is near its closest in its monthly orbit. At such times, it can appear 7% wider and 15% brighter than an average full moon. In my view, the enhancement is barely perceptible to the eye and is less impressive than the illusion that always makes the Moon appear larger when it is near the horizon. As the media have discovered, though, supermoons provide a good excuse to feature attractive images of the Moon against a variety of landscapes, and if this encourages more people into astrophotography, so much the better.
This month, the Moon is full at 19:10 BST on the 10th, less than 30 minutes after its closest point (perigee) for the whole of 2014. On that evening, the supermoon is already 4° high in the east-south-east as the Sun sets for Edinburgh, so judge (and photograph?) for yourself.
Venus is brilliant at magnitude -3.9 as a morning star. Rising at Edinburgh’s north-eastern horizon at 03:10 BST on the 1st, it stands 15° high in the east-north-east at sunrise. By the 31st, it rises at 04:42 and is 12° high at sunrise. Between these dates it is caught and passed by Jupiter which emerges from the twilight below and to Venus’ left on about the 7th and stands only 0.2° below Venus before dawn on the 18th.
Jupiter is magnitude -1.8, one seventh as bright as Venus, but still outshines every star so the conjunction is a spectacular one, albeit at an inconvenient time of the night. In fact, the event occurs less than a degree south-west of the Praesepe or Beehive star cluster in Cancer, but this may be hard to spot in the twilight. Before dawn on the 23rd, the two planets lie to the left of the waning and brightly earthlit Moon. By the month’s end, Jupiter rises by 03:25 and stands 13° above-right of Venus.
Mars and Saturn have set by the map times but stand low in the south-west as our evening twilight fades. On the 1st, Mars is magnitude 0.4 and lies 10° to the left of Spica in Virgo. Saturn, only a little dimmer at magnitude 0.5 in Libra, is 13° to Mars’ left, and slightly higher. Look for the Moon to the right of Mars on the 2nd, between Mars and Saturn on the 3rd and to the left of Saturn on the 4th. Mars, meanwhile, tracks eastwards to cross from Virgo to Libra on the 10th and pass 3.5° below Saturn on the 24th. By the 31st, both planets have faded to magnitude 0.6, and Mars lies 5° below-left of Saturn with the Moon between them again and very close to Saturn.
After passing around the Sun’s far side on the 8th, Mercury is too low to be seen in our evening twilight.
Our chart depicts the bright stars Deneb, Vega and Altair high in our southern sky where they form the Summer Triangle. The centre of our Milky Way galaxy lies in Sagittarius on the south-south-western horizon but the Milky Way itself flows northwards through Aquila and Cygnus before tumbling down through Cepheus, Cassiopeia and Perseus in the north-north-east.
Use binoculars to seek out the star Mu Cephei high above familiar “W” of Cassiopeia. Dubbed the Garnet star by Sir William Herschel, Mu is one of the reddest stars we know and pulsates semi-regularly between magnitude 3.4 and 5.1. Some 6,000 light years away, it is so large that it would extend beyond the orbit of Saturn if it replaced the Sun and is sure to explode as a supernova within a few million years.
The Perseids are due to peak in the middle of the night on 12-13th August when we might have been able to glimpse more than 80 meteors per hour under ideal conditions. As it is, bright moonlight will ensure that meteor counts are well down, though we can still expect some impressive bright meteors that leave persistent glowing streaks, called trains, in their wake.
Decent rates may be seen from perhaps 10-15th August and, in fact, the shower is already underway as the Earth takes from 23 July to 20 August to traverse the stream of Perseid meteoroid particles laid down by Comet Swift-Tuttle. It is only appropriate that the resulting meteors are swift, too, as they disintegrate in the upper atmosphere at 59 km per second. Although they move in parallel through space, perspective means that they appear to diverge from a radiant point in Perseus, plotted on our northern star map below Cassiopeia. That point climbs through the north-east overnight to approach the zenith by dawn, but remember that the meteors can appear in any part of the sky and not just towards the radiant.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on August 1st 2014, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Sun spotting in safety at solar maximum
With Scotland’s nights still awash with twilight, many people focus on the Sun during July. There are dangers involved, though, and I don’t just mean sunburn. Specifically, we must never look at the Sun directly through binoculars or any telescope. To do so invites serious eye damage. Instead, project the Sun’s image onto a white card held away from the eyepiece or obtain an approved solar filter to fit over the objective (rather than the eyepiece) end of your instrument.
The most obvious features on the solar disk are sunspots, cooler areas that are shaped by magnetic activity and last for a few hours to several weeks. Because the Sun rotates every 27 days with respect to the Earth, spots take two weeks to cross the Sun’s face, provided they survive as long.
Sunspot numbers ebb and flow in a solar cycle of about 11 years, although the actual period varies from about 9 to 14 years. The last peak in the Sun’s activity occurred in 2000 and, following an unusually prolonged minimum between 2007 and 2010 when very few spots were seen, we are back near solar maximum though at a lower level than in 2000. This also means that solar flares, and the auroral displays that they can produce, are also more frequent even if they are hard to see given our summer twilight
As I warned last time, though, silvery or bluish noctilucent clouds are sometimes visible low down in the northern quarter of the sky and Scotland enjoyed a nice display on the night of 19-20 June. They are formed by ice crystals near 82km and more can be expected until mid-August or so.
The Sun tracks 5° southwards during July and from the 12th onwards Edinburgh enjoys at least a few minutes of official nautical darkness around the middle of the night. We need to wait a few days more for the bright Moon to leave the scene, but when it does the fainter stars should once again be visible.
If light pollution is minimal, the Milky Way may be seen arching high across the east at our star map times. Marking the central plane of our galaxy, with the greater density of distant stars, it stretches from Capella in Auriga in the north through the “W” of Cassiopeia in the north-east before flowing by Deneb in Cygnus in the east and downwards towards Sagittarius near the southern horizon. Where it passes through the Summer Triangle formed by Deneb, Vega and Altair it is split into two by obscuring interstellar dust, the Cygnus Rift.
The red star Chi Cygni, 2.5° or five Moon-widths south-west of Eta in the neck of Cygnus, pulsates every 13 months or so between a naked eye object of the fifth magnitude and a dim telescopic one near magnitude 13. It reached an unusually bright peak of better than magnitude four last year and should be near maximum again about now, though recent observations suggest it may not even hit magnitude six this time.
The Earth is 152,114,000 km from the Sun, and at its farthest for the year, on the 4th. Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 04:31/22:01 BST on the 1st to 05:15/21:22 on the 31st when nautical darkness lasts for almost four hours around the middle of the night. The Moon is at first quarter on the 5th, full on the 12th, at last quarter on the 19th and new on the 26th.
Jupiter is barely 6° above the west-north-western horizon at sunset on the 1st and is unlikely to be visible as it heads for conjunction on the Sun’s far side on 24th.
Mars, to the right of Spica in Virgo and low down in the south-west at nightfall, sinks to set in the west-south-west at our map times. Fading from magnitude 0.0 to 0.4 this month, it tracks to the left to pass 1.3° above Spica on the 14th – the final and closest of three conjunctions between them this year.
The young Moon lies below Regulus in Leo low in the west on the evening of the 1st and close to Mars on the 5th. The 7th finds it close to Saturn and even closer to the double star Zubenelgenubi in Libra, the three making for a superb sight through binoculars. Saturn dims only slightly from magnitude 0.4 to 0.5 and hardly moves against the stars, appearing telescopically as an 18 arcseconds disk with rings 40 arcseconds wide.
A brilliant morning star at magnitude -3.9, Venus rises at about 03:00 BST and stands 12° to 14° high in the east-north-east at sunrise. As it tracks eastwards through Taurus, use it as a pointer to Mercury which is less than 8° below and left of Venus from the 10th to the 23rd as it brightens from magnitude 0.8 to -0.8. Set your alarm to catch Venus 8° to the left of the 7% illuminated waning earthlit Moon before dawn on the 24th.
While many stars are larger than our Sun, including the vast majority of stars visible to the unaided eye, there are billions that are smaller. Indeed, red dwarf stars, from about half the Sun’s mass to 1/13th as massive, are thought to make up 75% of the more than 100 billion stars in our galaxy. The smallest known star, and probably close to the smallest star possible, is a red dwarf in the constellation Lepus, just south of Orion. Smaller than Jupiter, but more massive, it has surface temperature of 1,800C and a luminosity of 1/8,000th of our Sun so that we need a large telescope just to see it even though it is only 40 light years away.