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Scotland’s Sky in September, 2017

Cassini’s scheduled suicide at Saturn

The maps show the sky at 23:00 BST on the 1st, 22:00 on the 16th and 21.00 on the 30th. (Click on map to enlarge)

The maps show the sky at 23:00 BST on the 1st, 22:00 on the 16th and 21.00 on the 30th. (Click on map to enlarge)

The heroic Cassini mission to Saturn is set to reach its dramatic conclusion on 15 September. After a seven-year journey from Earth, the probe has been studying the planet, its glorious rings and its fascinating moons for the past thirteen years. Now, with its fuel running low, it is time for the NASA probe to plunge into the Saturnian atmosphere where, in the interest of so-called planetary protection, it will disintegrate and vaporise.

To leave it in orbit around the planet would run the risk of it colliding with the rings or one of the moons, with the outside possibility of contaminating them with microbes from the Earth. This was of little concern when Cassini’s mission was planned, and it carried and delivered the European-built Huygens probe which parachuted to the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. It touched down on a world in which rivers of liquid hydrocarbons, chiefly methane, flow into lakes in a landscape dominated by water-ice mountains.

Now, though, we realise that despite Saturn’s remoteness from the Sun, the possibility of alien life there cannot be discounted. Indeed, it seems clear that its small moon Enceladus has a subsurface watery ocean and there has been talk of sending a mission to search for organic compounds in the plumes of water erupting from geysers on its surface.

Recent orbits of Saturn have seen Cassini piercing the gap between Saturn and its rings, and even skimming the planet’s outer atmosphere. It will continue to collect data as it begins its final suicidal dive into Saturn’s atmosphere on the 15th, but its signal will be lost at around 13:00 BST as aerodynamic forces cause it to tumble and, eventually, break apart and burn up.

The Sun crosses southwards over the equator at 21:02 BST on the 22nd, the moment of our autumnal equinox. Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 06:17/20:07 BST on the 1st to 07:14/18:50 on the 30th. The Moon is full on the 6th, at last quarter on the 13th, new on the 20th and at first quarter on the 28th.

Now that Scotland’s persistent summer twilight is behind us, our nights offer views of the Milky Way as it arches directly overhead from the south-west to the north-east at our chart times, carving through the Summer Triangle formed by Deneb, Altair and Vega which now lies just west of the high meridian.

To the east of the Triangle is the distinctive form of the celestial dolphin, Delphinus, where the celebrated English amateur astronomer George Alcock discovered a famous and unusual naked-eye nova fifty summers ago in 1967. I remember watching the stellar outburst as it took five months to reach its peak brightness at magnitude 3.5. Now assigned the variable-star tag HR Delphini, the star is still visible as a twelfth magnitude object through telescopes.

Another 13° east of Delphinus is the globular star cluster Messier 15, 4° north-west of Pegasus’s brightest star, Enif. A tightly packed globe of perhaps 100,000 stars, all very much older than our Sun, M15 lies around 34,000 light years away and looks like a fuzzy star through binoculars.

Saturn is the sole bright planet to appear on our star maps. Look for it as the brightest object low down in the south-south-west at nightfall and even lower in the south-west by our map times, only thirty minutes before it sets. Edging eastwards in Ophiuchus, it shines 4° below-left of the Moon on the 26th.

Jupiter is bright at magnitude -1.7 but hard to see very low in the west-south-west just after sunset. By mid-month it is likely to be lost in the twilight.

Our charts plot the two outer planets, the ice giant world Uranus in Pisces and its near-twin Neptune in Aquarius, though we probably need more detailed charts to identify them through binoculars or telescopes. At magnitude 5.7, Uranus is at the verge of naked-eye visibility, while Neptune reaches opposition on the 5th and is dimmer at magnitude 7.8.

The other planets are about to join Venus low down in our eastern sky at the end of the night. The brilliant morning star shines at magnitude -4.0 when it rises in the north-east at 03:04 for Edinburgh on 1 September, and climbs 25° high into the east by sunrise. Catch it through binoculars before the twilight intervenes on that day and look 1.2° to its left for the Praesepe or Beehive cluster of stars in Cancer. Leaving the cluster behind, Venus tracks east-south-eastwards into Leo to pass 0.5° (a Moon’s breadth) north of the star Regulus on the 20th.

Mercury emerges from the Sun’s glare to stand 18° west of the Sun and 11° below-left of Venus on the 12th. Between the 6th and 23rd it rises more than 80 minutes before sunrise and brightens eightfold from magnitude 1.1 to -1.1. On the 6th, in fact, Mercury lies 2.5° to the right of Regulus which, in turn, is 0.8° to the right of the fainter magnitude 1.8 planet Mars. As Regulus climbs above them, the two planets then converge to lie less than 0.5° apart on the 16th and 17th.

Early risers are in for a special treat when the waning earthlit Moon joins the party on the 17th. On that morning, Venus stands 10° below-left of the Moon and almost 4° above-right of Regulus, with the Mars-Mercury conjunction another 8° below and to the left. On the 18th, the line-up is even more compact as the Moon shifts to lie 0.7° below Regulus. By the 30th, Venus rises in the east-north-east at 04:41 and is 3° above-right of Mars.

Alan Pickup

This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on August 31st 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.

Scotland’s Sky in May, 2017

Cassini begins Grand Finale at Saturn

The maps show the sky at 01:00 BST on the 1st, midnight on the 16th and 23:00 on the 31st. (Click on map to enlarge)

The maps show the sky at 01:00 BST on the 1st, midnight on the 16th and 23:00 on the 31st. (Click on map to enlarge)

This month brings the final truly dark night skies for Scotland until mid-July or later. Our dwindling nights are dominated by Jupiter, bright and unmistakable as it passes about 30° high in our southern evening sky and sinks to the western horizon before dawn. Venus is brighter still but easily overlooked as it hovers low in our brightening eastern dawn twilight. Saturn is also best as a morning planet, though it rises at our south-eastern horizon a few minutes before our May star map times.

Saturn creeps westwards from the constellation Sagittarius into Ophiuchus this month and brightens a little from magnitude 0.3 to 0.1, making it comparable with the brightest stars visible at our map times – Arcturus, Capella and Vega. The ringed planet, though, climbs to only 12° high in the south by the time morning twilight floods our sky, which is too low for crisp telescopic views of its stunning rings. On the morning of the 14th, as Saturn stands only 3° below-right of the Moon, its rotation-squashed globe measures 18 arcseconds in diameter while its rings stretch across 41 arcseconds and have their northern face tipped at 26° to our view.

Saturn’s main moon, Titan, takes 16 days to orbit the planet and is an easy telescopic target on the ninth magnitude. It stands furthest west of the disk (3 arcminutes) on the 3rd and 19th and furthest east on the 11th and 27th.

The Cassini probe is now into the final chapter, its so-called Grand Finale, of its epic exploration of the Saturn system. On 22 April, it made its 127th and last flyby of Titan, while on 26 April it dived for the first time through the gap between the planet and its visible rings, successfully returning data from a region it has never dared to explore before. Cassini’s new orbit sees it make another 21 weekly dives until, come 15 September, its almost-20 years mission ends with a fiery plunge into the Saturnian atmosphere.

The Sun’s northwards progress during May, to within only 1.4° of its most northerly point at the summer solstice, changes the sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh from 05:29/20:52 BST on the 1st to 04:36/21:46 on the 31st. The Moon reaches first quarter on the 3rd, full on the 10th, last quarter on the 19th and new on the 25th.

This crescent Moon on the 1st lies in the west, between the stars Pollux in Gemini and Procyon in Canis Minor, lower to its left, while on the 2nd it is 4° below-left of the Praesepe star cluster in Cancer, best viewed through binoculars. It lies near Regulus in Leo on the 3rd and 4th, and appears only 1.2° above the conspicuous Jupiter on the 7th.

The giant planet lies 10° above-right of Virgo’s leading star Spica and edges 2° to the west-north-west this month, drawing closer to the celebrated double star Porrima whose two equal stars orbit each other every 169 years but appear so close together at present that we need a good telescope to divide them.

Following its opposition on 7 April, Jupiter recedes from 678 million to 724 million km during May, dimming slightly from magnitude -2.4 to -2.2 as its diameter shrinks from 43 to 41 arcseconds. Any telescope should show its changing cloud-banded surface while its four main moons may be glimpsed through binoculars, although sometimes one or more disappear as they transit in front of the disk or are hidden behind it or in its shadow.

Some 30° above and to the left of Jupiter is the orange-red giant star Arcturus in Bootes the Herdsman. At magnitude -0.05, this is (just) the brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere ahead of Capella in Auriga, low in the north-north-west at our map times, and Vega in Lyra, climbing in the east. It is also one of the closer stars to the Sun, but it is only a temporary neighbour for it is speeding by the solar system at 122 km per second at a distance of 36.7 light years. Even so, it takes 800 years to move a Moon’s breadth across our sky. It is also a corner star of a rarely-heralded asterism dubbed the Spring Triangle – the other vertices being marked by Spica and Regulus.

A useful trick for finding Arcturus is to extend a curving line along the handle of the Plough which passes overhead during our spring evenings but is always visible somewhere in our northern sky. That line, still pending, leads to Arcturus and then onwards to Spica. The traditional mnemonic for this is “Arc to Arcturus, spike to Spica” but, given current circumstances, we might amend this to “Arc to Arcturus, jump to Jupiter”.

Venus rises 65 minutes before the Sun on the 1st and climbs to stand 9° high at sunrise. By the 31st, these figures change only a little to 75 minutes and 10°, so it is far from obvious as a morning star, even though it blazes at magnitude -4.5 to -4.3. Through a telescope, it shows a crescent whose sunlit portion increases from 27% to 48% while its diameter shrinks from 38 to 25 arcseconds. Early rises, or insomniacs, can see it left of the waning Moon on the 22nd.

Mercury stands below and left of Venus but remains swamped by our dawn twilight. It is furthest west of the Sun (26°) on the 18th. Still visible, but destined soon to disappear into our evening twilight, is Mars. Shining at a lowly magnitude 1.6, it lies 7° above-right of Aldebaran as the month begins and tracks between the Bull’s horns as Taurus sinks below our north-western horizon in the early evening.

Alan Pickup

This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on May 1st 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.