Perseid meteor shower peaks in planet-rich sky
The persistent twilight that has swamped Scotland’s night sky since May is subsiding in time for us to appreciate four bright evening planets and arguably the best meteor shower of the year.
The Perseid shower returns every year between 23 July and 20 August as the Earth cuts through the stream of meteoroids that orbit the Sun along the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. As they rush into the Earth’s atmosphere at 59 km per second, they disintegrate in a swift streak of light with the brighter ones often laying down a glowing train that may take a couple of seconds or more to dissipate.
The shower is due to peak in the early hours of the 13th at around 02:00 BST with rates in excess of 80 meteors per hour for an observer under ideal conditions – under a moonless dark sky with the shower’s radiant point, the place from which the meteors appear to diverge, directly overhead. We should lower our expectations, however, for although moonlight is not a problem this year, most of us contend with light pollution and the radiant does not stand overhead.
Even so, observable rates of 20-40 per hour make for an impressive display and, unlike for the rival Geminid shower in December, we don’t have to freeze for the privilege. Indeed, some people enjoy group meteor parties, with would-be observers reclining to observe different parts of the sky and calling out “meteor!” each time they spot one. Target the night of 12th-13th for any party, though rates may still be respectable between the 9th and 15th.
The shower takes its name from the fact that its radiant point lies in the northern part of the constellation Perseus, see the north map, and climbs from about 30° high in the north-north-east as darkness falls to very high in the east before dawn. Note that Perseids fly in all parts of the sky – it is just their paths that point back to the radiant.
Records of the shower date back to China in AD 36 and it is sometimes called the Tears of St Lawrence after the saint who was martyred on 10 August AD 258, though it seems this title only dates from the nineteenth century.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change this month from 05:17/21:20 BST on the 1st to 06:15/20:10 on the 31st. The Moon is at last quarter on the 4th, new on the 11th, at first quarter on the 18th and full on the 26th.
A partial solar eclipse on the 11th is visible from the Arctic, Greenland, Scandinavia and north-eastern Asia. Observers in Scotland north of a line from North Uist to the Cromarty Firth see a thin sliver of the Sun hidden for just a few minutes at about 09:45 BST. Our best place to be is Shetland but even in Lerwick the eclipse lasts for only 43 minutes with less than 2% of the Sun’s disk hidden at 09:50. To prevent serious eye damage, never look directly at the Sun.
Vega in Lyra is the brightest star overhead at nightfall and marks the upper right corner of the Summer Triangle it forms with Deneb in Cygnus and Altair in Aquila. Now that the worst of the summer twilight is behind us, we have a chance to glimpse the Milky Way as it flows through the Triangle on its way from Sagittarius in the south to Auriga and the star Capella low in the north. Other stars of note include Arcturus in Bootes, the brightest star in our summer sky, which is sinking in the west at the map times as the Square of Pegasus climbs in the east.
Of the quartet of planets in our evening sky, two have already set by our map times. The first and brightest of these is Venus which stands only 9° high in the west at Edinburgh’s sunset on the 1st and sets itself 68 minutes later. By the 31st, these numbers change to 4° and 35 minutes, so despite its brilliance at magnitude -4.2 to -4.4, it is becoming increasingly difficult to spot as an evening star. It is furthest east of the Sun (46°) on the 17th.
Jupiter remains conspicuous about 10° high in the south-west as darkness falls and sets in the west-south-west just before the map times. Edging eastwards in Libra, it dims slightly from magnitude -2.1 to -1.9 and slips 0.6° north of the double star Zubenelgenubi on the 15th. A telescope shows it to be 36 arcseconds wide when it lies below-right of the Moon on the 17th.
The two planets low in the south at our map times are Mars, hanging like a prominent orange beacon only some 7° high in south-western Capricornus, and Saturn which is a shade higher above the Teapot of Sagittarius almost 30° to Mars’ right. Mars stood at opposition on 27 July and is at its closest to the Earth (57.6 million km) four days later. A planet-wide dust storm has hidden much of the surface detail on its small disk which shrinks during August from 24 to 21 arcseconds as its distance increases to 67 million km. Although Mars dims from magnitude -2.8 to -2.1, so it remains second only to Venus in brilliance. Catch the Moon near Saturn on the 20th and 21st and above Mars on the 24th.
Finally, we cannot overlook Mercury which is a morning star later in the period. Between the 22nd and 31st, it brightens from magnitude 0.8 to -0.7, rises more than 90 minutes before the Sun and stands around 7° high in the east-north-east forty minutes before sunrise. It is furthest west of the Sun (18°) on the 26th.
Diary for 2018 August
Times are BST
4th 19h Last quarter
9th 01h Mercury in inferior conjunction on Sun’s near side
11th 11h New moon and partial solar eclipse
13th 02h Peak of Perseids meteor shower
14th 15h Moon 6° N of Venus
17th 12h Moon 5° N of Jupiter
17th 19h Venus furthest E of Sun (46°)
18th 09h First quarter
21st 11h Moon 2.1° N of Saturn
23rd 18h Moon 7° N of Mars
26th 13h Full moon
26th 22h Mercury furthest W of Sun (18°)
28th 11h Mars stationary (motion reverses from W to E)
This is a slightly revised version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on July 31st 2018, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Three planets outshine the stars during June’s twilit nights
Unless our passion is for observing the Sun, Scotland’s brief twilit nights can make June a frustrating month for stargazers. This month, though, three planets outshine all the stars, while a fourth, the handsome ringed world Saturn, is at its best for the year.
We are approaching the summer solstice, due this year at 11:07 BST on the 21st when the Sun is overhead at the Tropic of Cancer. On that day, it passes 57.5° high in the south for Edinburgh at 13:14 BST, the time of local noon.
The middle of the following night sees the Sun 10.6° below the northern horizon for Edinburgh and a mere 6.4° below for Lerwick in Shetland which is why, over northern Scotland in particular, only the brighter stars and planets may be glimpsed.
Edinburgh’s sunrise and sunset times change from 04:35/21:47 BST on the 1st, to 04:26/22:03 on the 21st and 04:31/22:02 on the 30th. The Moon is at last quarter on the 6th, new on the 13th, at first quarter on the 20th and full on the 28th.
Our chart is timed for around the middle of the night at present and depicts three of those planets as they line up low across our southern sky. Even brighter, though, is the brilliant Venus which blazes at magnitude -4.0 low in the west-north-west after sunset and sinks to set in the north-west at 00:36 BST on the 1st and just before midnight by the 31st.
Although it is still drawing away from the Sun, Venus sinks lower each evening as it tracks further south in the sky, moving from below Castor and Pollux in Gemini to the western fringe of Leo by the 30th. Look for it 6° to the right of the young Moon on the 16th with the Praesepe star cluster in Cancer just above and to the Moon’s right. On that evening, the planet is 174 million km distant and appears through a telescope as a 75% illuminated disk of diameter 14 arcseconds.
Mercury joins Venus in the evening twilight later in the month but is a real challenge to spot through binoculars from our latitudes. For us, the little innermost planet shines at about magnitude 0.0 but stands only 2° high in the north-west one hour after sunset from the 20th onwards.
Foremost among the planets on our star chart is Jupiter which is prominent at magnitude -2.5 in Libra as it moves from low in the south-south-east at nightfall to the south-south-west by the map times. Having stood directly opposite the sun at opposition on 9 May, it dims slightly to magnitude -2.3 and shrinks to 41 arcseconds across by June’s end. Binoculars reveal its four main moons to either side and the interesting double star Zubenelgenubi less than a degree to its south over the coming nights. Catch it just below the Moon on the 23rd.
This month it is Saturn’s turn to reach opposition when it stands 1,354 million km away on the 27th when it also happens to lie close to the Moon. It passes less than 12 degrees high in the south as seen from Edinburgh in the middle of the night as Vega, the leading star in the Summer Triangle, passes just to the south of overhead.
Improving from magnitude 0.2 to 0.0 to equal Vega in brightness, Saturn is creeping slowly westwards just above the Teapot of Sagittarius though this asterism barely clears our southern horizon. Viewed telescopically, Saturn’s disk is 18 arcseconds broad at opposition while its rings span 41 arcseconds and have their north face tipped 26° towards us.
The night’s final planet, Mars, is rising above Edinburgh’s south-eastern horizon at our map times and climbs to lie 10° high in the south-south-east before dawn. Its orange hue is already conspicuous at magnitude -1.2 and it more than doubles in brightness to magnitude -2.1 by the 30th. Moving eastwards against the stars of Capricornus, it reaches a so-called stationary point on the 28th when its motion reverses to westerly.
Mars approaches from 92 million to only 67 million km during June while its orange-red disk swells from 15 to 21 arcseconds in diameter, becoming large enough for most decent telescopes to reveal something of its surface detail and that its icy south polar cap is tipped at 15° to our view. Mars lies near the Moon on the morning of the 3rd and to the left of the Moon on the 30th.
I mentioned solar observing at the beginning of this note since our long summer days give ample opportunities for viewing the Sun’s surface, or so we hope. Of course, I should repeat the serious warning that we must never look directly at the Sun through any binoculars or telescopes – to do so invites critical damage to the eyes, if not blindness. Instead it is possible to project the Sun’s image onto a card held away from the eyepiece. Alternatively, obtain an inexpensive but certified “solar filter” and follow the instructions carefully on how to employ this.
Of particular interest are sunspots, dark regions on the solar surface that last for anything from a day to several weeks and mark magnetic storms. Their numbers fluctuate in a cycle of roughly 11 years and, following a peak in activity in 2014, are low at present as we near a so-called sunspot minimum which might be due in 2020. However, sunspot numbers have plummeted in recent months and more than half the days in 2018 have been spotless so far, so it is suggested that the official minimum could occur rather earlier than expected.
Diary for 2018 June
Times are BST
1st 02h Moon 1.6° N of Saturn
3rd 13h Moon 3° N of Mars
6th 03h Mercury in superior conjunction on Sun’s far side
6th 20h Last quarter
13th 21h New moon
14th 14h Moon 5° S of Mercury
16th 14h Moon 2.3° S of Venus
16th 21h Moon 1.2° S of Praesepe in Cancer
20th 06h Venus 0.8° N of Praesepe
20th 12h First quarter
21st 11:07 Summer solstice
23rd 20h Moon 4° N of Jupiter
27th 14h Saturn at opposition at distance of 1,354 million km
28th 05h Moon 1.8° N of Saturn
28th 06h Full moon
28th 15h Mars stationary (motion reverses from E to W)
This is a slightly revised version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on May 31st 2018, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Jupiter’s conspicuous opposition in the Balance
Jupiter is at its brightest and best in the constellation of Libra, the Weighing Scales or Balance, this month. Its opposition, when it stands directly opposite the Sun, occurs on the morning of the 9th but it is prominent every night as it transits low across the south from the south-east at nightfall to the south-west before dawn.
Venus, however, outshines it in the western evening sky and both Saturn and the increasingly striking Mars follow Jupiter into the southern morning sky.
The Sun climbs another 7° northwards during May as Edinburgh’s sunrise/sunset times change from 05:29/20:52 BST on the 1st to 04:36/21:45 on the 31st. Because twilight is also lengthening, official darkness in the middle of the night lasts for under one hour by May’s end.
The Moon is at last quarter on the 8th, new on the 15th, at first quarter on the 22nd and full on the 29th.
Venus stands 20° high in the west at sunset, sinking to set in the north-west by 23:40 on the 1st and one hour later by the 31st. Brilliant at magnitude -3.9, it begins the month 6° above-right of Taurus’ brightest star, Aldebaran, and tracks east-north-eastwards between the Bull’s horns to end May in mid-Gemini, below Castor and Pollux.
The young earthlit Moon makes an impressive sight almost 6° below-left of the planet on the evening of the 17th. Three days later, as Venus joins the region of sky covered by our chart, it passes 1.0° (two Moon-diameters) above-right of the star cluster M35 whose brightest stars may be glimpsed through binoculars from their distance of some 2,800 light years. Still on the far side of its orbit, Venus approaches from 217 million to 190 million km this month as its almost-full disk swells to 13 arcseconds in diameter.
After dominating our winter nights, Orion ducks below our western horizon as the evening twilight fades at present. The Plough is overhead and Leo high in the south with its main star Regulus which has a close encounter with the first quarter Moon on the night of 21st/22nd.
By our map times, Leo sis inking in the west and Jupiter is easily the most conspicuous object in the south though it stands barely 18° high for Edinburgh. Moving westwards in Libra, it lies close to the Moon on the 27th. Its motion takes it from 4° east (left) of the well-known double star Zubenelgenubi at present to lie just 1.0° north-east of the star on the 31st.
Jupiter is 658 million km away at opposition, shines at magnitude -2.5 and shows a 45 arcseconds wide disk through a telescope. Its two main darker cloud bands, its northern and southern equatorial belts, straddle a lighter equatorial zone. The famous Great Red Spot is gradually losing its status, however, being less than half as wide as it was a century ago and currently more salmon-pink in hue than red. It sits in a bay at the southern edge of the south equatorial belt and, like the many other Jovian cloud features, is carried smartly across the disk as the planet spins in just under ten hours.
Steadily-held binoculars show the four main moons of Jupiter, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto which change their configuration to the east and west of Jupiter from night to night, sometimes disappearing as they hide behind Jupiter or cross the disk, along with their shadows.
If Jupiter’s low elevation makes telescopic views less than sharp, this is even more the case with Saturn which rises in the south-east at our map times and is 6° lower in the sky than Jupiter as it reaches the meridian just before dawn. Saturn improves from magnitude 0.4 to 0.2 as it creeps westwards above the Teapot asterism in Sagittarius. It lies 1,392 million km away at mid-month when its oblate globe is 18 arcseconds across set within 40 by 17 arcseconds rings that have their north face inclined at 26° to our view. Look for it 4° right of the Moon on the morning of the 5th.
Less than 2° below Saturn is the globular star cluster M22, a ball of thousands of stars that lies about 10,600 light years away and formed some 12 billion years ago. At about magnitude 5.1 and visible as a hazy glow through binoculars, it was the first globular to be discovered and is brighter than M13 in Hercules, the best globular in the northern sky.
Mars lies almost 15° east of Saturn at present and rises at Edinburgh’s south-eastern horizon at 02:46 on the 1st. As it more than doubles in brightness, from magnitude -0.4 to -1.2, it also speeds 12° eastwards from Sagittarius to Capricornus so that by the 31st it rises at 01:31 and its fiery glow is unmistakable above the south-south-eastern horizon before dawn.
Catch Mars below the Moon on the morning of the 6th. Telescopically, its disk swells from 11 to 15 arcseconds as its distance falls from 126 million to 92 million km. Its approach opens the optimum window for sending probes to the planet and NASA’s InSight lander to study “marsquakes” and the Martian interior is due for launch between 5 May and 8 June.
Meteors of the Eta-Aquarids shower, debris from Comet Halley, appear until the 20th as they radiate from a point that lies low in the east for an hour or so before dawn over Scotland. The shower peaks with some moonlight interference on the 6th and brings a fine shower for watchers further south but only a handful of meteors for us.
Diary for 2018 May
Times are BST
3rd 18h Venus 7° N of Aldebaran
4th 21h Moon 1.7° N of Saturn
5th – 6th Peak of Eta Aquarids meteor shower
6th 08h Moon 2.7° N of Mars
8th 03h Last quarter
9th 02h Jupiter at opposition at distance of 658 million km
15th 13h New moon
17th 19h Moon 5° S of Venus
22nd 03h Moon 1.5° N of Regulus
22nd 05h First quarter
27th 19h Moon 4° N of Jupiter
29th 15h Full moon
This is a slightly revised version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on April 30th 2018, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Impressive conjunction before dawn for Mars and Saturn
The Sun climbs almost 10° northwards during April to bring us longer days and, let us hope, some decent spring-like weather at last. Our nights begin with Venus brilliant in the west and end with three other planets rather low across the south. Only Mercury is missing – after rounding the Sun’s near side on the 1st it remains hidden in Scotland’s morning twilight despite standing further from the Sun in the sky (27°) on the 29th than at any other time this year.
Edinburgh’s sunrise/sunset times change from 06:44/19:51 BST on the 1st to 05:32/20:50 on the 30th. The Moon is at last quarter on the 8th, new on the 16th, first quarter on the 22nd and full on the 30th.
Mars and Saturn rise together in the south-east at about 03:45 BST on the 1st and are closest on the following day, with Mars, just the brighter of the two, only 1.3° south of Saturn. Catch the impressive conjunction less than 10° high in the east-south-east as the morning twilight begins to brighten.
Both planets lie just above the so-called Teapot of Sagittarius but they are at very different distances – Mars at 166 million km on the 1st while Saturn is nine times further away at 1,492 million km.
Brightening slightly from magnitude 0.5 to 0.4 during April, Saturn moves little against the stars and is said to be stationary on the 18th when its motion reverses from easterly to westerly. Almost any telescope shows Saturn’s rings which are tipped at 26° to our view and currently span some 38 arcseconds around its 17 arcseconds disk.
Mars tracks 15° eastwards (to the left) and almost doubles in brightness from magnitude 0.3 to -0.3 as its distance falls to 127 million km. Its reddish disk swells from 8 to 11 arcseconds, large enough for telescopes to show some detail although its low altitude does not help.
Saturn is 4° below-left of Moon and 3° above-right of Mars on the 7th while the last quarter Moon lies 5° to the left of Mars on the next morning.
Orion stands above-right of Sirius in the south-west as darkness falls at present but has all but set in the west by our star map times. Those maps show the Plough directly overhead where it is stretched out of shape by the map projection used. We can extend a curving line along the Plough’s handle to reach the red giant star Arcturus in Bootes and carry it further to the blue giant Spica in Virgo, lower in the south-south-east and to the right of the Moon tomorrow night.
After Sirius, Arcturus is the second brightest star in Scotland’s night sky. Shining at magnitude 0.0 on the astronomers’ brightness scale, though, it is only one ninth as bright as the planet Jupiter, 40° below it in the constellation Libra. In fact, Jupiter improves from magnitude -2.4 to -2.5 this month as its distance falls from 692 million to 660 million km and is hard to miss after it rises in the east-south-east less than one hour before our map times. Look for it below-left of the Moon on the 2nd, right of the Moon on the 3rd, and even closer to the Moon a full lunation later on the 30th.
Jupiter moves 3° westwards to end the month 4° east of the double star Zubenelgenubi (use binoculars). Telescopes show the planet to be about 44 arcseconds wide, but for the sharpest view we should wait until it is highest (17°) in in the south for Edinburgh some four hours after the map times.
Venus’ altitude on the west at sunset improves from 16° to 21° this month as the evening star brightens from magnitude -3.9 to -4.2. Still towards the far side of its orbit, it appears as an almost-full disk, 11 arcseconds wide, with little or no shading across its dazzling cloud-tops. Against the stars, it tracks east-north-eastwards through Aries and into Taurus where it stands 6° below the Pleiades on the 20th and 4° left of the star cluster on the 26th. As it climbs into our evening sky, the earthlit Moon lies 6° below-left of Venus on the 17th and 12° left of the planet on the 18th.
The reason that we have such impressive springtime views of the young Moon is that the Sun’s path against the stars, the ecliptic, is tipped steeply in the west at nightfall as it climbs through Taurus into Gemini. The orbits of the Moon and the planets are only slightly inclined to the ecliptic so that any that happen to be towards this part of the solar system are also well clear of our horizon. Contrast this with our sky just before dawn at present, when the ecliptic lies relatively flat from the east to the south – hence the non-visibility of Mercury and the low altitudes of Mars, Saturn and Jupiter.
The evening tilt of the ecliptic means that, under minimal light pollution and after the Moon is out of the way, it may be possible to see the zodiacal light. This appears as a cone of light that slants up from the horizon through Venus and towards the Pleiades. Caused by sunlight reflecting from tiny particles, probably comet-dust, between the planets, it fades into a very dim zodiacal band that circles the sky. Directly opposite the Sun this intensifies into an oval glow, the gegenschein (German for “counterglow”), which is currently in Virgo and in the south at our map times – we need a really dark sky to see it though.
Diary for 2018 April
Times are BST.
1st 19h Mercury in inferior conjunction on Sun’s near side
2nd 13h Mars 1.3° S of Saturn
3rd 15h Moon 4° N of Jupiter
7th 14h Moon 1.9° N of Saturn
7th 19h Moon 3° N of Mars
8th 08h Last quarter
16th 03h New moon
17th 13h Saturn farthest from Sun (1,505,799,000 km)
17th 20h Moon 5° S of Venus
18th 03h Saturn stationary (motion reverses from E to W)
18th 15h Uranus in conjunction with Sun
22nd 23h First quarter
24th 05h Venus 4° S of Pleiades
24th 21h Moon 1.2° N of Regulus
29th 19h Mercury furthest W of Sun (27°)
30th 02h Full moon
30th 18h Moon 4° N of Jupiter
This is a slightly revised version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on March 31st 2018, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Inconstant stars in stunning New Year sky
Our evening sky is bursting with stellar interest but devoid of bright planets. Instead, Mars partners Jupiter in the predawn in the south-east to south while the impending spectacle of the annual Quadrantids meteor shower is rather blunted by bright moonlight.
The charts show Taurus high on the meridian, above and to the right of the unmistakable form of Orion whose brightest stars are the distinctly reddish supergiant Betelgeuse and the contrasting blue-white supergiant Rigel.
Between them lie the three stars of Orion’s Belt, while hanging below the middle of these is his fainter Sword with the Orion Nebula. The latter’s diffuse glow, visible to the unaided eye under decent conditions and obvious through binoculars, comes from a region where new stars and planets are forming. It lies some 1,350 light years away and is one of the most intensively studied objects in the entire sky.
Two iconic variable stars, Algol and Mira, are well placed in the evening. Algol in Perseus, the archetype of eclipsing variable stars, has two unequal stars that orbit around, and hide, each other every 2 days 20 hours and 49 minutes. Normally Algol shines at magnitude 2.1 and is almost identical in brightness to the star Almach in Andromeda, 12° to its west and labelled on the chart.
However, when Algol’s fainter star partially obscures its brighter companion, their combined light dips to magnitude 3.4, one third as bright, in an eclipse that lasts for about 10 hours and can be followed with nothing more than the naked eye. This month, Algol is at its mid-eclipse faintest at 02:45 on the 13th, 23:34 on the 15th and 20:23 on the 18th.
Mira, by contrast, is a single red giant star that pulsates in size and brightness every 332 days on average. It lies well to the west of Orion in Cetus, the sea monster of Greek mythology which was slain by Perseus when he rescued Andromeda.
During a typical pulsation, Mira varies between about magnitude 3.5, easy for the naked eye, and the ninth magnitude, probably needing a telescope. Unlike Algol, whose variability is like clockwork, Mira is less predictable and it has been known to touch the second magnitude, as it did in 2011. Now is the time to check, for it is close to its maximum as the year begins. Markedly orange in colour, it dims only half as quickly as it brightens so should remain as a naked-eye object throughout January.
Named for the extinct constellation of Quadrans Muralis, the Quadrantids meteors diverge from a radiant point in northern Bootes which lies low in the north at our map times and climbs to stand high in the east before dawn. Meteors are seen between the 1st and 6th but peak rates persist for only a few hours around the shower’s peak, due this time at about 21:00 on the 3rd when 80 or more meteors per hour might be counted by an observer with the radiant overhead in a clear moonless sky. However, with the radiant low in the north and moonlight flooding the sky at the time, expect to see only a fraction of these, perhaps trailing overhead from north to south.
Earlier on the 3rd, at 06:00, the Earth reaches perihelion, its closest point to the Sun in its annual orbit. Edinburgh’s sunrise/sunset times change from 08:44/15:49 on the 1st to 08:09/16:44 on the 31st. The Moon is full at 02:25 on the 2nd, only four hours after it reaches its closest point to the Earth for the entire year. There is a relatively modern obsession in dubbing such an event a supermoon, because the Moon appears 17% wider than it does when at its furthest. The difference between an average full moon and this one, though, is hardly “super” and far from obvious to the eye.
The Moon’s last quarter on the 8th is followed by new on the 17th, first quarter on the 24th and full again on the 31st when it passes through the southern half of the Earth’s shadow in a total lunar eclipse. Sadly, the event is over before sunset and moonrise for Britain.
Venus slips around the Sun’s far side to reach superior conjunction on the 9th and leave Jupiter as our brightest morning planet. Seen from Edinburgh, the latter rises in the east-south-east at 04:04 on the 1st and is climbing more than 15° high into the south before dawn. Conspicuous at magnitude -1.8 to -2.0, it creeps 4° eastwards to the east of the famous double star Zubenelgenubi in Libra and rises at 02:30 by the month’s end.
Mars, much fainter at magnitude 1.5, lies almost 3° above-right of Jupiter on the 1st and tracks more quickly eastwards to stand only 14 arcminutes (half a Moon’s breadth) below Jupiter before dawn on the 7th. The pair lie below the waning Moon in our predawn sky on the 11th when Jupiter’s cloud-banded disk 34 arcseconds wide and visible through any telescope, while Mars is still too small to appear interesting. Mars is brighter at magnitude 1.2 and stands 12° to the left of Jupiter by the 31st.
Mercury, bright at magnitude -0.3, may be glimpsed through binoculars as it hovers very low above our south-eastern horizon for more than 90 minutes before sunrise until the 8th. Given a clear horizon it may still be visible on the 15th when it stands 2.6° below-right of the vanishingly slender waning Moon. Saturn, half as bright at magnitude 0.5, lies 4° right of the Moon on that morning but is easier to spot by the month’s end when it rises almost two hours before the Sun.
This is a slightly revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on December 30th 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Geminid meteors sparkle during long December nights
December brings us spectacular night skies and arguably the richest meteor shower of the year, the Geminids. We still have the Summer Triangle of bright stars, Vega in Lyra, Deneb in Cygnus and Altair in Aquila, high in the south-west at nightfall while the unmistakable figure of Orion dominates the midnight hours, surrounded by his cohort of familiar winter constellations. By the predawn, the Plough sails overhead and the night’s only conspicuous planets shine to the south of east.
Our longest nights, of course, occur around the winter solstice when the Sun reaches its most southerly point in its annual trek around the sky. This occurs at 16:28 GMT on the 21st when Edinburgh’s night, measured from sunset to sunrise, lasts for 17 hours and 3 minutes, which no less than 10 hours and 39 minutes longer than at June’s summer solstice.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh during December vary from 08:19/15:44 on the 1st to 08:42/15:40 on the 21st and 08:44/15:48 on the 31st. The Moon is full on the 3rd, at last quarter on the 10th, new on the 18th and at first quarter on the 26th,
By our map times, the Summer Triangle has toppled low into the west and is being followed by the less impressive Square of Pegasus. The Square’s top-left star, Alpheratz, belongs to Andromeda whose other main stars, Mirach and Almach, line up to its left. A spur of fainter stars above Mirach leads us to the Andromeda Galaxy, whose oval glow reaches us from 2.5 million light years away.
Orion is in the east-south-east, his Belt pointing up Aldebaran and the Pleiades in Taurus and down to where the brightest nighttime star, Sirius in Canis Major, rises less than one hour later.
The Moon lies to the right of Aldebaran and below the Pleiades on the night of 2nd-3rd, to the left of Aldebaran a day later and comes around again to occult the star in the early hours of the 31st. We need a telescope to see Aldebaran wink out at the Moon’s limb at 01:01 and reappear at 01:57 as seen from Edinburgh.
It is from a radiant point near Castor in Gemini, north-east of Orion, that meteors from the Geminids shower diverge between the 8th and 17th although, of course, the meteors fly in all parts of the sky. With negligible moonlight this year, and given decent weather, we are in for a stunning display of sparkling long-trailed meteors whose paths point back to the radiant. Rates for an observer under an ideal dark sky could peak at more than 100 per hour at the shower’s peak on the night of the 13th-14th, though most of us may glimpse only a fraction of these.
Although most meteors originate as cometary debris, the Geminids appear to be rocky splinters from the 5 km-wide asteroid, Phaethon, which dives within 21 million km of the Sun every 523 days. In what is its closest approach to the Earth since its discovery in 1983, Phaethon sweeps only 10.3 million km from the Earth on the 16th when a telescope might show it as a tenth magnitude speck speeding past Alpheratz.
December’s second shower, the Ursids, derives from Comet Tuttle and is active between the 17th and 25th, peaking on the 23rd. Typically it yields fewer than ten meteors per hour so I rarely mention it here – I believe my last time was 37 years ago – but very occasionally it rivals the Geminids in intensity, if only for a few hours. The radiant point lies near the star Kochab in Ursa Minor and is plotted on our northern chart.
The unprecedented interstellar asteroid, discovered using a telescope in Hawaii and featured here hast time, has now been called 1I/’Oumuamua. This indicates that it is our first known interstellar visitor and employs the Hawaiian word ’Oumuamua to reflect its supposed status as a scout from the distant past. Further observations imply that it is remarkably elongated, being at least five times longer than it is wide.
Venus shines brilliantly at magnitude -3.9 very low in the south-east as the night ends, but is soon lost from view as it dives towards the Sun’s far side. It leaves Jupiter as our most prominent (magnitude -1.7 to -1.8) morning object. The giant world rises at Edinburgh’s east-south-eastern horizon at 05:31 on the 1st and 04:07 on the 31st, climbing southwards in the sky to stand some 15° high before dawn. Tracking eastwards in Libra, it passes 0.7° north of the celebrated double star Zubenelgenubi on the 21st.
Mars, fainter at magnitude 1.7 to 1.5, lies 16° above-right of Jupiter on the 1st when it is also about half as bright as Virgo’s star Spica, 3° below and to its right. As Mars tracks east-south-eastwards from Virgo to Libra it almost keeps pace with the Sun, so that it rises at around 03:50 throughout the month. By the 31st, it stands 3° from Jupiter, with Zubenelgenubi below and to Mars’ left in the same binocular field of view. The waning Moon forms a nice triangle with Mars and Spica on the 13th and with Mars and Jupiter on the 14th.
Saturn sets in our bright evening twilight as it heads towards conjunction beyond the Sun on the 21st. Mercury slips around the Sun’s near side on the 13th to become best placed as a morning star between Christmas and New Year. Between the 21st and 31st it brightens between magnitude 0.8 and -0.3, rises 100 or more minutes before Edinburgh’s sunrise and stands around 8° high in the south-east thirty minutes before sunrise.
This is a slightly revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on November 30th 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
An extra day of superb February evening skies
February brings our best evening skies of the year and, with this being a leap year, we have one extra day to enjoy them. Pride of place must go to Orion which marches across our southern sky from the south-east at nightfall tonight to stand in the south-south-west by our star map times.
We are all familiar with the Summer Triangle of bright stars (Vega, Deneb and Altair) which graces our summer nights, but less well known is the Winter Triangle that follows close behind Orion. Consisting of the stars Betelgeuse at Orion’s shoulder, Procyon in Canis Minor which stands level with Betelgeuse to its left, and Sirius in Canis Major, the Winter Triangle is brighter than its summer counterpart and much more isosceles in form.
Sirius, found by extending Orion’s belt down and to the left, is the brightest star in our night sky largely because it is one of the closest to us at 8.6 light years. Indeed, viewed from the same distance as Betelgeuse, some 500 light years, it would be too dim to see without binoculars.
Because they are so obviously placed in the sky in the shape of a man, it is easy to regard the main stars of Orion as lying at similar distances from us. Although they are all highly luminous and far away, they stand at very different distances so that Orion’s impressive outline would change beyond recognition if we could view it from a different direction. A striking example concerns the three stars of Orion’s belt which, in order from the left, are Alnitak, Alnilam and (slightly fainter) Mintaka. Alnitak and Mintaka are thought to stand around 700 light years from us, but some estimates put Alnilam as distant as 2,000 light years, more than twice as far.
The Sun climbs almost 10° northwards during February as sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 08:08/16:45 on the 1st to 07:06/17:46 on the 29th. The Moon is at last quarter on the 1st, new on the 8th, at first quarter on the 15th and full on the 22nd. Because its path is inclined steeply in the south-west at nightfall, there is an excellent opportunity to spot the very young and brightly earthlit Moon low in the west-south-west on the evening of the 9th. It should still be spectacular over the following few evenings.
No bright planets are visible until the conspicuous Jupiter begins its climb through our eastern and south-eastern sky as Orion crosses the meridian. It lies in south-eastern Leo, 22° below and left of Regulus, and is creeping westwards against the stars as it draws towards its opposition in March. This month it brightens from magnitude -2.4 to -2.5, approaches from 694 million to 665 million km and swells from 42 to 44 arcseconds in diameter.
Any telescope should show Jupiter’s two main dark cloud belts, appearing symmetrically and in parallel on either side of its pale equatorial zone. Spots and streaks in the clouds, including the famous Red Spot in its southern hemisphere, drift from east to west across the Jovian disk as the planet rotates in just under ten hours. Of course, we need only binoculars to spot Jupiter’s four main moons as they change their relative positions on either side of the disk.
The second bright planet of the night stands low in the south-east as Jupiter reaches the meridian some five hours after our map times. The reddish, or perhaps salmon-pink, Mars lies below the Moon and just above the double star Zubenelgenubi in Libra on the morning of the 1st.
Mars spends February sliding eastwards though Libra and brightening from magnitude 0.8 to 0.3 as it approaches from 205 million to 161 million km. Its small slightly-gibbous disk grows from 7 to 9 arcseconds and is starting to reveal detail through good telescopes, particularly if we catch it just before dawn as it passes less than 20° high in the south.
If we look before dawn and take a line from Jupiter, well over in the west-south-west, to Mars in the south and onwards to the left we reach the almost equally-bright Saturn (magnitude 0.6 to 0.5) which is slow-moving in southern Ophiuchus, 8° above-left of the red supergiant star Antares in Scorpius. The Moon stands above Antares and above-right of Saturn on the morning of the 3rd when Saturn’s disk appears 16 arcseconds wide, with its rings spanning 36 arcseconds and tipped 26° to our view – a stunning sight.
The line-up of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn may be extended to Venus and Mercury, hugging our south-eastern horizon, and has led to widespread claims of a spectacular planetary alignment in our morning sky. In fact, the term “planetary alignment” is more usually applied to those occasions when several planets collect together in the same region of sky. There was one such tight alignment of Venus, Mars and Jupiter before dawn in October and similar events have been preceded by apocalyptic pronouncements in the crackpot community.
The current alignment stretches over more than 100° of sky and is better appreciated by observers further south and particularly by those in the southern hemisphere. For Scotland, though, Venus is uncomfortably low in our bright predawn twilight and although it is brilliant at magnitude -4.0 it is sinking ever lower – its altitude at Edinburgh’s sunrise being 7° on the 1st and half that by the month’s end. Mercury, much fainter near magnitude 0.0 and farthest from the Sun on the 7th, is a few degrees to the lower-left of Venus and very difficult from our latitudes. Both stand below the slender waning Moon on the 6th.
This is a copy of Alan’s article to be published in The Scotsman on February 1st 2016, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to reproduce here.
Get ready for a memorable meteor display
Experience tells us that the coldest night of the winter is unlikely to occur during December, but the month does bring our longest ones as the Sun dips to its farthest south at the winter solstice, due this year at 04:48 GMT on the 22nd.
Those long nights begin with Pegasus nearing the meridian but, by our star map times, its famous Square is in the south-west and our eastern sky has been claimed by the sparkling constellations of winter. Orion is unmistakable, his three Belt stars aligned almost vertically and pointing up to Aldebaran in Taurus and on to the Pleiades cluster.
There is another occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon on the 23rd with the star blinking out at the Moon’s limb just before 18:18 as viewed from Edinburgh, and reappearing by 19:15. The Moon’s glare means that we will probably need a telescope to view the event.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh vary from 08:18/15:44 on the 1st, to 08:42/15:40 on the 22nd and 08:44/15:47 on the 31st. The Moon’s last quarter on the 3rd is followed by new on the 11th, first quarter on the 18th and full on the 25th.
Our evening sky remains devoid of bright planets at present, but the return of the annual Geminids meteor shower is ample compensation. Now regarded as our best meteor display, this is active from the 8th to the 17th with its peak predicted for about 13:00 on the 14th with meteor rates of perhaps 120 per hour for an observer under an ideal dark sky. This is, of course, during our daylight but, unlike some other showers, meteor activity remains high for more than 24 hours and the nights of 13th/14th and 14th/15th could both be memorable. Just be careful to wrap up well to get your fill of long, bright, medium-slow meteors.
The radiant, the point in the sky from which the meteors appear to diverge, is plotted close to the star Castor in Gemini on the eastern side of our North map. Gemini lies north and east of Orion and as Orion marches across our southern sky so the radiant climbs to pass high in the south at 02:00. Remember that the meteors are visible in all parts of the sky, not just near Gemini – it is their streaks that point back to the radiant.
As Orion crosses our meridian some four hours after our map times, so the first bright planet of the night rises in the east. Jupiter brightens further from magnitude -2.0 to -2.2 as it creeps 2° or four Moon-breadths east-south-eastwards in south-eastern Leo, some 20° below and left of the star Regulus.
As the most conspicuous object in the middle of our southern sky before dawn, Jupiter stands just above the Moon on the 4th and to the Moon’s left on the 31st. By the month’s end, it rises more than one hour before midnight and its interesting cloud-banded disk has swollen in diameter from 36 to 39 arcseconds as seen telescopically.
The night’s second naked-eye planet, Mars, lies 20° east-south-east (below-left) of Jupiter and just below the star Porrima in Virgo as the month begins. At magnitude 1.5, but improving to 1.3, it, too, tracks east-south-eastwards to pass 4° north of Spica on the 21st. Look for it close to the waning Moon before dawn on the 6th but don’t expect your telescope to show much if any detail on its tiny 5 arcseconds disk.
The third planet is the brightest of all. Venus climbs above Edinburgh’s eastern horizon at 03:53 on the 1st and, at magnitude -4.2, may still be visible 25° high in the south-south-east at sunrise. It is then 4° north-east of Spica, but it speeds through Virgo and much of Libra so that, by the 31st, it rises in the south-east at 05:26 and is 15° high in the south at sunrise.
As Venus recedes, its gibbous disk shrinks from 17 to 14 arcseconds in diameter. Its motion takes it 2° above Zubenelgenubi in Libra on the 17th and to within a similar distance of the Graffias in Scorpius on the 31st. Venus is occulted for observers over much of N America as it is overtaken by the Moon next Monday.
Saturn, magnitude 0.5, emerges from the morning twilight to hover low in the south-east, below and to the left of Venus, during the final ten days of the year. On those same days, but in the evening, it might just be possible to spot Mercury as it shines at magnitude -0.5 some 5° high in the south-west only 30 minutes after sunset.
Comet 2013 US10 Catalina is likely to be a binocular object as it climbs into our south-eastern sky before dawn. Thought to be an asteroid when it was discovered in 2013, hence its odd name, it was closest to the Sun (123 million km) on November 15 and is due to pass closest to the Earth (108 million km) on January 17. There has been speculation that it might become a naked eye object of the fourth magnitude or better.
However, having spent weeks hidden in the Sun’s glare, it was a disappointing sixth magnitude object when it was recovered a couple of weeks ago. I fear it may not get much better than this, though the fact that it has two, or even three, tails will make for some interesting photographs. From 11° below-left of Venus as the month begins, it tracks almost due northwards to stand only 4° to the right of Venus next Monday (with the Moon nearby) and lie a mere 2° south of the bright star Arcturus in Bootes by the 31st.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on December 1st 2015, 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.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on July 1st 2014, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
The mysterious noctilucent clouds of summer
If we are prepared to do battle with June’s night-long twilight, and provided the weather improves at last, there is plenty of interest in our June sky. Saturn is the pick of the planets while the bright star Vega in Lyra leads the onslaught as the constellations of summer invade from the east at our star map times. We also need to be alert for noctilucent clouds as they make their seasonal appearance low in our northern sky.
The Sun is furthest north at 11:51 BST on the 21st, the instant of our summer solstice. On that day, the Sun dips only 10.6° below Edinburgh’s northern horizon in the middle of the night, so that our sky remains bathed in twilight throughout the night while from further north in Scotland the sky is brighter still. This obviously impedes our ability to see the dimmer stars and “faint fuzzies” such as galaxies and nebulae. On the other hand, it means that satellites remain sunlit whenever they pass overhead. Indeed, the International Space Station is conspicuous two or three times each night until 10 June as it transits from west to east across Scotland’s southern sky – visit heavens-above.com for predictions customised for your location.
The Sun’s shallow sweep below our northern horizon overnight also allows us occasional views of noctilucent or “night-shining” clouds. Composed of tiny ice crystals in a thin layer at a height near 82 km, they catch the sunlight long after our usual low-level clouds are in darkness and can appear like chaotic banks of electric-blue cirrus, sometimes in a herringbone pattern. Their preferred direction follows the Sun around the horizon, so they are more commonly seen low in the north-west after nightfall and towards the north-east before dawn. They occur from mid-May to mid-August but why they are more frequent than they were a century ago remains a mystery. Could the rise be due to global warming, increased industrial pollution or even particles from rocket launches?
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 04:35/21:47 BST on the 1st to 04:26/22:03 on the 21st and 04:31/22:02 on the 30th. The Moon is at first quarter on the 5th, full on the 13th, at last quarter on the 19th and new on the 27th.
At magnitude -1.9, our brightest evening planet continues to be Jupiter, but we must look lower into the west to catch it below Pollux in Gemini as the twilight fades. Shining at magnitude -1.9, it stands 9° above-right of the Moon on the 1st. Jupiter sinks to set in the north-west almost three hours after the Sun as June begins but by the 30th it is only 6° high at sunset and may already be lost from view.
Mercury lies 18° below and to the right of Jupiter on the 1st but is one twentieth as bright at magnitude 1.4 and fading rapidly as it moves to pass through inferior conjunction between the Sun and Earth on the 19th.
The bright star Arcturus in Bootes stands high on the meridian at nightfall but has moved to the middle of our south-western sky by the map times. This leaves our high southern sky devoid of bright stars until we come to Vega in Lyra high in the east-south-east. Directly below Vega is Altair in Aquila while Deneb in Cygnus, almost due east, completes the Summer Triangle. The arc from Vega to Arcturus cuts through Hercules and Corona Borealis, the pretty semi-circular Northern Crown whose main star has the dual names of Alphecca or, perhaps more appropriately, Gemma.
Mars fades from magnitude -0.5 to 0.0 as it tracks eastwards in Virgo towards Spica. It also recedes from 119 million to 148 million km during the month as its small disk contracts from 12 to 9 arcseconds if viewed through a telescope. Look for its reddish light about 26° high in the south-west at nightfall and catch it above the Moon on the 7th. Our maps show it sinking towards the west where it sets two hours later.
Saturn, magnitude 0.2 to 0.4, stands almost 20° high in the south at nightfall at present and continues to creep westwards in Libra almost 4° above-left of the double star Zubenelgenubi. After standing close to Spica on the 8th, the Moon lies near Saturn on the 10th when the planet appears 18 arcseconds wide, its disk set within rings that span 41 arcseconds and have their north face inclined 21° towards us. Don’t miss an opportunity to observe it this month for it will soon be following Mars lower into the south-west at nightfall, and it stands even further south in our summer sky during every year until 2022.
Continuing as a brilliant morning star of magnitude -4.0 to -3.9, Venus rises above Edinburgh’s east-north-eastern horizon 61 minutes before the Sun tomorrow and in the north-east 102 minutes before sunrise on the 30th. Before dawn on the 24th, it lies 5° left of the slender waning Moon and 6° below the Pleiades in Taurus.
Last month, I reported the prediction that the Earth would slice through streams of particles from Comet 209P/LINEAR on the morning on 24 May and that the resulting meteor shower might be spectacular. In fact, it appears that the encounter occurred as forecast, but that the resulting display was disappointing with only a few bright meteors, even for observers in the Americas for whom the timing of the outburst was ideal. Radar studies suggest that the vast majority of meteoroids were unusually small and their meteors too dim to be seen by the unaided eye.