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.
Pole stars of the future in the Summer Triangle
The Sun’s southerly motion since the solstice on 21 June has yet to gain speed and not until 12 July does it lie sufficiently far south for Edinburgh to enjoy any so-called nautical darkness, with the Sun more than 12° below the northern horizon in the middle of the night. Even then, moonlight is troublesome for a few more days to delay our first views of a dark summer night sky.
If there is one star-pattern that dominates our skies over the summer, it is the Summer Triangle. Formed by the bright stars Vega in the constellation Lyra, Deneb in Cygnus and Altair in Aquila, it occupies the upper part of our south star map, though its outline is not depicted. In fact, the projection used means that the Triangle’s proportions are squashed, because Vega and Deneb are significantly closer together in the sky than either are to Altair.
The leader and brightest of the Triangle’s stars is Vega which moves from high in the east at nightfall to stand even higher in the south at our map times. Blazing at magnitude 0.0 from a distance of 25 light years, it is a white star, twice as massive as our Sun but very much younger. Excess heat revealed by infrared astronomy indicates that Vega is encircled by a disk of dust which may be evidence that a planetary system is forming around it.
Set your time machine for about AD 13,700 and you will be able to glimpse Vega close to where we currently find Polaris, our current Pole Star. This is because the Earth’s axis is slowly toppling in space, taking 26,000 years to complete a 47° circle in the sky and carrying the axis to within 4° of Vega. Polaris happens to lie within 0.8° of the axis at present so that, as the Earth rotates once each day, it stays almost fixed in our sky and the other stars appear to circle counterclockwise around it
Altair is the second brightest of the Triangle’s stars and one of the closest bright stars at “only” 16.7 light years. Shining at magnitude 0.8, half as bright as Vega, it is 80% more massive than our Sun but, remarkably, spins on its axis in about nine hours as compared with the more leisurely 25 days taken by the Sun. As a result, it is noticeably oblate, measuring 20% wider across its equator than it does pole-to-pole.
Deneb’s magnitude of 1.2 makes it the dimmest of the Triangle’s corner stars but it is also one of the most luminous stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. Because its distance may be around 2,600 light years, it very difficult to measure the minuscule shift in its position when viewed from opposite sides of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun – the parallax technique that gives us accurate distances to Vega and Altair. Indeed, estimates of Deneb’s distance differ by well over 1,000 light years.
White-hot and shining at some 200,000 Sun-power, Deneb is large enough to engulf the Earth were it to swap places with the Sun. It is also burning its nuclear fuel at such a rate that it seems destined to disintegrate in a supernova within a few million years, although it should survive to be another of our future pole stars as it comes as close as 5° to the pole in AD 9,800.
The Sun eventually tracks 5° southwards during July as Edinburgh’s sunrise/sunset times change from 04:32/22:01 BST on the 1st to 05:15/21:22 on the 31st. The Moon is at first quarter on the 1st, full on the 9th, at last quarter on the 16th, new on the 23rd and returns to first quarter on the 30th.
At magnitude -2.0, Jupiter remains our brightest evening planet though it stands lower in the south-west to west as it sinks to set in the west just before our star map times. Above and to the right of the star Spica in Virgo, it lies to the right of the Moon in the south-west as the sky darkens on the 1st and is just below the Moon and much lower in the west-south-west on the 28th. The cloud-banded Jovian disk appear 39 arcseconds wide at mid-month if viewed telescopically, while binoculars allow glimpses of its four main moons.
Saturn is less conspicuous at magnitude 0.1 to 0.3 but continues as the brightest object low in our southern night sky. Creeping westwards against the stars of southern Ophiuchus, it crosses Edinburgh’s meridian at an altitude of 12° one hour before our map times and may be spotted 3° below-left of the Moon on the 6th. Binoculars show it as more than a round dot, while small telescopes reveal the beauty of ring system which is tilted wide open to our view and spans 41 arcseconds in mid-July.
Venus is brilliant at magnitude -4.1 in the east before dawn. After rising in the north-east at about 02:15 BST throughout the month. it climbs to stand 17° high at sunrise as the month begins and higher still by its end. Seen through a telescope, it is 16 arcseconds across and 70% illuminated when it lies to the left of waning (15% sunlit) and earthlit Moon on the 20th. Against the background stars of Taurus, the planet moves from 8° below-right of the Pleiades tomorrow to pass 3° above-left of Aldebaran on the 14th.
Of the other bright planets, Mars is out of sight as it reaches conjunction on the Sun’s far side on the 27th, while Mercury stands furthest east of the Sun (27°) on the 30th but is unlikely to be seen near our west-north-western horizon in the bright evening twilight.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on June 30th 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Jupiter rules our April nights
Venus dominated our evening sky for the first quarter of 2017, but it is now Jupiter’s turn in the spotlight. The conspicuous giant planet lies directly opposite the Sun in the sky on the 7th so that it rises in the east at sunset, reaches its highest point in the south in the middle of the night and sets in the west at sunrise.
Our charts show it in Virgo to the east of south as Taurus and Orion dip beneath the western horizon and the Plough looms overhead, stretched out of its familiar shape by our map projection. Regulus in Leo is in the south-west and almost level with Arcturus in Bootes in the south-east. Vega in Lyra and Deneb in Cygnus are beginning their climb in the north-east.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 06:43/19:51 BST on the 1st to 05:31/20:50 on the 30th. The Moon is at first quarter on the 3rd, full on the 11th, at last quarter on the 19th and new on the 26th.
Venus rises only a little more than one hour before sunrise and, though brilliant at magnitude -4.2, may be difficult to spot low in the east before dawn. However, the other inner planet, Mercury, remains nicely placed in the evening and stands furthest east of the Sun (19°) on the 1st.
Thirty minutes after Edinburgh’s sunset on that day, Mercury is 12° high in the west and shines at magnitude 0.0. It should be possible to spy it through binoculars and eventually with the unaided eye as the twilight fades and the planet sinks to set another 96 minutes later. By the 8th, though, it is a couple of degrees lower and a quarter as bright at magnitude 1.6 as it is engulfed by the twilight. Inferior conjunction on the Sun’s near side occurs on the 20th.
Mars, magnitude 1.5 to 1.6 and above and to Mercury’s left at present, tracks east-north-eastwards this month to pass 5° below the Pleiades on the 15th and a similar distance left of the star cluster on the 26th. By then it sets late enough to be plotted near our north-western horizon at the star map times.
Its opposition means that Jupiter is at its brightest and closest, shining more brightly than any star at magnitude -2.5 and a distance of 666 million km. It lies 6° north-west (above-right) of Virgo’s leading star Spica as the month begins and tracks 3.7° westwards during April to pass 10 arcminutes or a third of a Moon’s-width south of the fourth magnitude star Theta Virginis on the 5th.
Jupiter lies close to the full Moon on the night of the 10th-11th when the Jovian disk appears 44 arcseconds wide if viewed telescopically, one fortieth as wide as the Moon.
Jupiter’s clouds are arrayed in bands that lie parallel to its equator, the dark ones called belts and the intervening lighter hued ones called zones. There are numerous whirls and spots, the most famous being the Great Red Spot in the southern hemisphere. The planet spins in under ten hours, so a resolute observer might view the entire span of its clouds in a single April night. The four main moons, visible through decent binoculars and easy through a telescope, lie on each side of the disk and change their configuration from night to night.
The beautiful planet Saturn rises in the south-east less than three hours after our map times and is the brightest object (magnitude 0.4 to 0.3) less than 15° above Edinburgh’s southern horizon before dawn. It is a shame that its low altitude means that we miss the sharpest and most impressive views of it rings which span 39 arcseconds in mid-April, and are tilted at 26° around its 17 arcseconds disk. After appearing stationary on the 6th, Saturn begins to creep westwards against the stars of Sagittarius – look for it below and left of the Moon on the 16th and right of the Moon on the 17th.
It is not often that I advertise the annual Lyrids meteor shower. As one of the year’s lesser displays, it yields only some 18 meteors per hour at best, all of them swift and some leaving glowing trains in their wake as they diverge from a radiant point to the right of Vega. The event lasts from the 18th to the 25th and peaks on the 22nd when moonlight should not interfere unduly this year. The Lyrid meteoroids were released by Comet Thatcher, last seen in 1861.
Bright comets have been rare of late, but fainter ones are observed frequently. One such has the jaunty name of comet 41P/Tuttle–Giacobini–Kresák and takes 5.4 years to orbit between the paths of Jupiter and the Earth. It passes within 21 million km of us on the 1st as it nears perihelion, its closest point to the Sun, on the 12th. I glimpsed it through binoculars from a superb dark-sky site at Kielder Forrest, Northumberland, last week when it was a diffuse seventh magnitude smudge close to Merak, the southern star of the Pointers in the Plough.
Although its path is not depicted on our chart, the comet is poised to sweep close to three of the stars identified in Draco, between the Plough and Polaris, the Pole Star. It passes 0.6° north of Thuban on the night of the 2nd-3rd, 1.5° south-west of Eta on the 11th (sadly, in full moonlight) and 0.6° west of Beta on the 18th-19th. During past perihelia, it has been seen to flare by several magnitudes for a few days at a time, so, if we are lucky, it may reach naked-eye visibility.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on March 31st 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
New Horizons to be first at dwarf planet Pluto
Since our nights are still awash with summer twilight, we may be excused if our attention this month turns to Pluto as it is visited by a spacecraft for the first time.
Pluto was still regarded as a the solar system’s ninth planet when NASA’s New Horizons mission launched in 2006, but it was officially reclassified as a dwarf planet later that year. We now recognise it as one of several icy worlds, and not even the largest, in the Kuiper Belt of such objects beyond the orbit of Neptune.
Pluto is 2,368 km wide and has a system of five moons, two of them only discovered while New Horizons has been en route. The largest moon, Charon, is 1,207 km across and, like Pluto itself, will block the probe’s signal briefly as New Horizons zooms through the system at a relative speed of almost 14 km per second on the 14th. The closest approach to Pluto is due at 12:50 BST at a range of some 12,500 km from Pluto and 4,772 million km from the Earth. It will not hang around, though, since this is a flyby mission and the probe will speed onwards, perhaps to encounter another still-to-be-identified Kuiper Belt world before the end of this decade.
A conjunction of an altogether different type is gracing our western evening sky as July begins. The two most conspicuous planets have been converging over recent weeks and stand at their closest on the 1st when the brilliant Venus passes within 21 arcminutes, or two-thirds of a Moon’s breadth, of Jupiter.
On that evening, Venus is just below and left of Jupiter and sinks from 14° high in the west at sunset to set in the west-north-west about 100 minutes later. Shining at magnitude -4.4 from a distance of 76 million km, Venus appears 33 arcseconds in diameter and 33% illuminated, its dazzling crescent visible through a small telescope or even binoculars. Jupiter, 911 million km away on that evening, is 32 arcseconds wide but only one eleventh as bright at magnitude -1.8.
Over the coming days, Venus slips to the left with respect to Jupiter as both planets drop lower into the twilight. By July 15, Venus is only 7° high at sunset and sets within the hour, while Jupiter is 5° to its right and slightly higher, but unlikely to be seen without binoculars and a clear horizon. By then, too, Venus has closed to 61 million km and its crescent is taller but narrower, 41 arcseconds and 22% sunlit.
It is perhaps surprising that the Earth reaches aphelion, the farthest point from the Sun in its annual orbit, on the 6th. We are then 152,093,481 km from the Sun, 4,997,277 km further away than we were at perihelion on January 4.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 04:31/22:01 BST on the 1st to 05:14/21:23 on the 31st. The Sun tracks 5° southwards during July to bring the return of nautical darkness for Edinburgh from the night July 11/12. By the last night of the month this official measure of darkness lasts for almost four hours.
The Moon is full on the 2nd, at last quarter on the 8th, new on the 16th, at first quarter on the 24th and full again on the 31st – there is a notion, sadly mistaken, that a second full moon in a month should be termed a “blue moon”.
The white star Vega climbs from high in the east at nightfall to dominate our high southern sky at the star map times. It stands at a distance of 25 light years, being the third brightest star ever seen in Scotland’s night sky after Sirius, which is currently out of sight, and Arcturus in Bootes which stands low in the west by the map times.
Vega is twice as massive as our Sun and 40 times more luminous but only one tenth as old. It has an extensive disk of dusty material, although observations hinting that this contained a planet appear not to be supported my more recent studies.
Vega is the leader of the small box-shaped constellation of Lyra the Lyre, representing a small harp from classical times. It is also the brightest star in the Summer Triangle that includes Deneb in Cygnus, high in the east at the map times, and Altair in Aquila, in the middle of our south-east. Far to the south of Vega is the so-called Teapot in Sagittarius which seems to be pouring to the right as it sits on Scotland’s southern horizon. We have much clearer views of this region of sky, rich in stars and star clusters, if we view them higher above the horizon under darker skies further south.
The red supergiant Antares in Scorpius glowers to the right of the Teapot and lies 13° below-left of Saturn which is twice as bright at magnitude 0.3 to 0.4. Indeed, after the Moon, it is the brightest object low down in the south at nightfall, moving to the south-west by our map times and setting less than two hours later. Currently creeping westwards in eastern Libra, it shows an 18 arcseconds disk through a telescope, set within glorious rings that stretch across 41 arcseconds and have their north face inclined towards us at 24°. Catch the Moon to the right of Saturn on the 25th and to its left a day later.
Of the other planets, Mars has yet to emerge from the Sun’s glare while Mercury hides low in our bright morning twilight as it moves towards superior conjunction on the Sun’s far side on the 23rd.