August 2016 Skywatch: Planets and Meteors

I often feature the planets we can observe in our night skies in this column because they stand out so well and because one can get a thrill knowing that they are seeing another distant world in our Solar System. August’s warm nights this year offer plenty of good planet viewing. No fewer than 5 planets show up soon after sunset. And this month the annual Perseid Meteor Shower, always the best one of the calendar year, peaks in the pre-dawn hours of August 12th.

The planet show begins in early evening twilight. As August begins, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter form a straight line. Venus is closest to the horizon; Mercury is to Venus’ upper left, and Jupiter is at the top of the line. Venus is the brightest of the trio, at magnitude –3.9, and should be easy to spot 1/2 hour after sunset. Jupiter, though dimmer at –1.7, will have greater altitude, so it should be easy to see. But binoculars will likely be necessary to see Mercury, about 8 degrees to the upper left of Venus.

From August 4th through August 6th the crescent Moon will appear to pass through the sky where the trio of planets are found. On the 4th the Moon will be just left of Mercury, with both objects 6 degrees above the horizon 30 minutes after sunset. On August 5th the somewhat fatter Moon will be just below Jupiter, and on the 6th the Moon will be above and left of Jupiter. The Moon being close to the planets will help point them our to us.

During August the orbit of Venus will make it appear to climb steadily away from the Sun, while Jupiter will look as if it is sinking down toward the Sun. This will set up a very close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter on August 27th. Indeed the two planets will appear closer to each other than at any time since May of 2000! They will almost appear to merge! Telescope views will put Venus and Jupiter together in the same field of view. And binoculars will separate this stunning planetary pair and will also reveal Mercury 5 degrees to their lower left.

After this great conjunction, the orbits of Venus and Jupiter will cause them to appear to separate. On August 31st Venus will be 4 degrees to Jupiter’s upper left. Mercury’s orbit will have taken it down toward the Sun by then, where it will be lost in the Sun’s glare.

After the skies darken fully look south where two more planets, Mars and Saturn, will be found. Mars the brighter and appearing reddish at magnitude –0.8 is on the border of Libra and Scorpius, almost due south some 10 degrees above and right of Antares, the reddish and brightest star in Scorpius. Saturn glows yellowish at +0.3 magnitude and sits just above Antares. A gibbous Moon will be seen 8 degrees above Mars on August 8th.

Mars’s orbit takes it east (left as we face it) for 3 weeks in August and it enters Ophiuchus on the 21st, passing 2 degrees above Antares on the 23rd, and in line with the star and Saturn. On the 25th, Mars will be 4 degrees below Saturn.

Turning attention now to the Perseid Meteor Shower which peaks on the morning of August 12th over in the northeast sky. The Perseids always rank among the best meteor showers of the year, and 2016 could be exceptional. Some experts are saying the rate of meteors could reach 150 per hour —- some 50% higher than typical years. The reason is because Jupiter’s gravity recently tugged the stream of debris from the Perseids parent Comet, 109B Swift-Tuttle, closer to Earth’s orbit. It should be good anyway, so look northeast anytime form 1 am to dawn on the morning of August 12th.

Moon phases for August: New — Aug. 2nd; 1st Quart. — Aug. 10; Full — August 18; and Last Quart. — Aug. 24.

Skywatch for Feb. 2015: Jupiter At Its Best

Three planets that go around the Sun in orbits larger than ours, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, are easily visible to us even without any optical aid. These three planets are called Superior Planets, because they have these bigger orbits. At various times, due to the combined motions of these planets and the motion of Earth itself, each of the three planets come into positions where they appear at their brightest to us on Earth. This month, on February 6th, it is Jupiter’s turn.

We call this position OPPOSITION, because the planet is seen “opposite” the Sun in the sky. In other words, if we would be able to look down on our solar system from above, we could draw a line from the Sun to the Earth and continue it on the Jupiter, on February 6th, and Jupiter would appear to rise above the eastern horizon as the Sun would be seen setting in the west. Jupiter, which takes 12 years to orbit the Sun, reaches opposition in every calendar year, some 39 days later than the previous year, and appears to spend one year in each zodiac constellation.

This year Jupiter’s opposition will appear among the very faint stars of Cancer the Crab, while last year when Jupiter reached opposition in very early January, it was “in” Gemini. Jupiter will be well up above the eastern horizon by 8 pm, and will dominate the night sky all night throughout winter and even into the spring at magnitude –2.6. Three days before opposition, Jupiter will be seen about 5 degrees above February’s Full Moon (the night of February 3/4).

With only a modest backyard telescope, you can easily see Jupiter’s four largest moons. Here they are through a 10″ (25 cm) Meade LX200 telescope. Image credit: Jan Sandberg

Jupiter’s four largest moons can be seen through a modest backyard telescope. Image credit: Jan Sandberg

Jupiter’s only rival in brightness, other than the Moon, this month will be Venus, which at magnitude –3.9 is six times brighter. Venus is visible as soon as twilight starts low in the southwestern sky where it remains visible until it sets around 8 pm. A neat conjunction of sky objects occurs on the night of February 20th. Looking toward Venus in the southwest, one hour after sunset, look for Mars just 0.7 degrees above and right of Mars, with the very thin crescent Moon just to the right of the planet pair!

Though we pass the exact mid-point of winter on February 2nd, there is still lots of cold weather to come before spring and summer arrive. The main winter constellations of Orion, Canis Major and Canis Minor, Gemini, Auriga, and Taurus are all in full glory due south as we reach full darkness each February night. However skywatchers can get a glimpse of summer by looking south-southeast from 4 am to dawn and finding Scorpius the scorpion rising there. Saturn, the famous ringed planet, appears to cross the northern(upper) portion of Scorpius, only about 9 degrees above and slightly left of Antares, the brightest star of Scorpius. A nice color contrast can be seen between the red-orange glow of Antares, and the creamy white of Saturn. Saturn is the brighter, at +0.5; while Antares is +1.0.

Moon phases this month: Full (Feb. 3); Last Qrtr. (Feb. 11); New (Feb. 18); and 1st Qrtr. (Feb. 25).

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Skywatch for Sept. 2014: Longer Nights and the Equinox

When September arrives, the hours of darkness grow longer in the Northern Hemisphere, while day-length decreases. The shorter daylight hours trigger all kinds of biological events, such as animal migrations and fall leaf color changes. The longer nights bring greater opportunities for skywatchers to view the wonders of the night sky. Meanwhile, September 22nd this year will mark the time of the Autumnal Equinox, which occurs at precisely 10:29 pm EDT. This marks the moment when the Sun appears to cross the Celestial Equator, appearing to move below or south of it. Earth’s tilt and its constant annual motion around the Sun cause this each year. This means that we are heading towards winter. Winter’s cold is still months away and September nights are very comfortable for getting outside.

During an equinox, the Earth's North and South poles are not tilted toward or away from the Sun, and the duration of daylight is theoretically the same at all points on Earth's surface. (Wikipedia)

During an equinox, the Earth’s North and South poles are not tilted toward or away from the Sun, and the duration of daylight is theoretically the same at all points on Earth’s surface. (Wikipedia)

Saturn the beautiful ringed planet stays above our southwestern horizon all month, but it is getting lower each night. In the first week of September it is 20 degrees above the horizon one hour after sunset, with Mars just 5 degrees to its left. Both are down to magnitude 0.6, but Mars appears reddish-orange, while Saturn is more yellowish. By the end of September Saturn will only be 10 degrees above the horizon an hour after sunset, while Mars will appear to move much faster against the background stars all month because it orbits the Sun much faster than Saturn. This motion will take Mars east, or left, of Saturn out of Libra, across Scorpius, and into Ophiuchus. On September 27th, Mars will pass just 3 degrees above Antares, a red star and the brightest star in Scorpius. Saturn will be to the right, or west of Mars that evening, and the waxing crescent Moon will be seen just 0ne degree to the right of Saturn! Two nights later on the 29th, look for the Moon to be directly above the pair of planets.

In the early morning eastern sky we can find Jupiter at magnitude –1.8 rising about 4 am local daylight time in early days of September. During the month it will rise sooner and appear higher above the horizon. Venus may be spotted in early September, rising around 5 am and appearing even closer to the horizon. But with a good clear view to the horizon, we can spot it easily because it is so bright — -3.9 magnitude. By the end of the month it will be only a few degrees from the Sun and be lost to us in its glare.

The Full Moon this month will be on the 8th; Last Quarter on the 15th; and New Moon will be on the 24th.

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Skywatch for Aug. 2014: Close Encounters & a Super-Moon

The sky’s two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, will give us a terrific conjunction of the both of them in mid-August. It is rare for these two consistently bright planets to appear to join in the sky, but before dawn on August 18th (Monday) they will be within 0.2 degrees of each other! Do not wait until the 18th to view these 2 planets however, start about a week before then, looking east-northeast. Venus rises at about 4:30 am, which is some 100 minutes before the Sun, while Jupiter rises at about 5:00 am. On August 12th Jupiter will be seen about 6 degrees to the lower left of Venus. Each morning thereafter the gap will close until on August 18th the separation of the 2 planets will be half of the diameter of the Full Moon. Venus will be the brighter of the two; at magnitude –3.8, while Jupiter will be at –1.8.

Remember that both Venus and Jupiter will be fairly close to the horizon so we will need a clear view to the horizon. Looking across the street into the neighbor’s tree-filled yard will not reveal the horizon very well. After the conjunction the two planets will separate, but the waning crescent Moon will pass close to them on the morning of August 23rd.

Mars and Saturn will form another conjunction this month, but this one will be in the evening sky. On August 10th, Mars will be some 9 degrees west(right) of Saturn in the southwestern sky. By August 20th, the two will be only 4 degrees apart; remaining at about the same distance apart until the 29th or so. Neither are any where nearly as bright as Venus or Jupiter, but are still bright. Both are around +0.6 in magnitude with Mars appearing an orange-red hue and Saturn yellowish-white. The waxing crescent Moon will form a tight triangle with the 2 planets on August 31st, and all three will set around 10:30 pm.

The Full Moon will put a damper on the Perseid Meteor Shower this year; the Perseids being one of the most consistent showers all year. The peak of the shower is August 12/13 which is just two days past Full Moon. So the Moon will brighten the sky enough to cut down on our ability to spot meteors. But the Full Moon in August is the closest Full Moon to Earth for 2014. Recent culture has started to mention “Super Moons’ in recent years. This simply means a Moon that is the closest to the Earth in a calendar year.

The Moon’s orbit around the Earth is elliptical; that is an oval-shape, so each month there is a point where the Moon is at its farthest from Earth (called APOGEE), and a point where is is closest to Earth (called PERIGEE). These points do not always coincide exactly with the Full Moon phase, but when they do, we get the super moon. The August 10th Full Moon will be 221,765 miles from Earth. To give that some meaning, the farthest Full Moon from Earth was on January 15, 2014, at 252,607 miles. This difference of 30,842 miles translates to a 26% brighter Full Moon this August.

The TV, print, and internet media will hype this event; so lets join in and enjoy it too – and hope for clear skies on August 10th!

Full Moons vary in size because of the oval shape of the Moon's orbit. The Moon follows an elliptical path around Earth with one side ("perigee") about 50,000 km closer than the other ("apogee").  Full Moons that occur on the perigee side of the Moon's orbit seem extra big and bright. Credit: NASA

Full Moons vary in size because of the oval shape of the Moon’s orbit. The Moon follows an elliptical path around Earth with one side (“perigee”) about 50,000 km closer than the other (“apogee”). Full Moons that occur on the perigee side of the Moon’s orbit seem extra big and bright. Credit: NASA

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Skywatch for July 2014: Summer Nights

The planet show we have been enjoying over the last several months fades a bit for us in July. Yet good evening views of Mars and Saturn will be possible and the morning eastern sky will feature our two innermost planets, Venus and Mercury.

Mars may be found in the southwestern sky as soon as it gets dark all month. On July 1st it will be only 5 degrees (above and right) from Spica, the brightest star in Virgo. Its reddish-orange color will make a nice visual contrast with the blue-white color of this star. Only July 5th, the 1st Quarter Moon will be seen between Mars and Spica; being only one degree from Mars! Mars and Spica, due to Mars’s orbital motion, will appear to draw closer to each other all month. Indeed, they will be only one degree apart on July 12th! Thereafter, Mars will move past Spica throughout the month.

Astrophotographer Scott Hoggard sent in a photo of the Milky Way over route 404 on Maryland's Eastern Shore in Queen Anne County, taken June 16, 2013.

Astrophotographer Scott Hoggard sent in a photo of the Milky Way over route 404 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Queen Anne County, taken June 16, 2013.

Saturn may be found east – or to the left – of Mars. They will appear to draw closer to each other too, throughout the month, dropping from 28 degrees of separation down to just 12 degrees. In late August they will be only 4 degrees apart from each other —— something to look forward to seeing then.

Mercury makes a brief appearance in the pre-dawn sky of July and reaches greatest eastern elongation angle from the Sun on the morning of July 12th. What this means is that it will be about 21 degrees in front of the Sun and about 7 degrees above the east-northeast horizon, 45 to 60 minutes before sunrise. Mercury will also be just to the lower left of brighter Venus then, which will be a guide to finding the dimmer Mercury. We will, however, need a clear, un-obstructed view down to the horizon to see Mercury since it remains quite low and it will be seen in a sky already getting lit-up by approaching dawn.

Summer nights provide comfortable temperatures for viewing, but because summer day lengths are greater, it does not get completely dark until nearly 9:30 pm during July. Moreover, the warm summer air can hold more moisture than cooler air, and often does. It is what we call humidity. And humidity can sometimes give us hazy skies, which can muffle the lights of stars we seek. Despite this, when it is clear, and we can avoid street and house lights around us, the summer Milky Way spread out before us in regal splendor as we look toward the center of it in July.

Beginning due south between Scorpius and Sagittarius, the Milky Way appears to arch up toward the zenith, through Aquila the Eagle, past Cygnus the swan, and then descends toward the northeast through Cassiopeia the Queen, and on to Perseus the hero, and down to the northeast horizon.

Every summer since I was 10, I have looked at the Milky Way through binoculars, slowly tracing the path I just described, never tiring of the splendid, wide field view I see. Countless more stars and glowing gases than can be seen with the unaided eye are revealed, giving just a hint of the the vastness of space. Try it yourselves. You will be hooked!

Moon phases: 1st quarter/July 5; Full/July 12; Lat Quarter/ July 18; New/July 26.

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Skywatch for June 2014: Summer Planets

After oppositions for Mars in April and for Saturn in May, both planets remain prominent sky objects for sky-watchers to enjoy throughout June.  Jupiter, on the other hand, having been brilliant all through the winter and spring, is now moving so close to the Sun that views of it can only be had for a few hours after sunset in the western sky.  The waxing crescent Moon tracking through Cancer, Leo, and Virgo during the first week of June points the way to finding Mars, as it will appear just below the Red planet on June 7th, but in waxing gibbous phase by that time.  Mars is at magnitude –0.5 on June 1st but fades to 0.0 by June 30th.  The distance between us and Mars grows steadily as we move in our respective orbits during the month.  Still telescopic views of Mars will remain good all month.  Mars is currently among the stars of Virgo in the southern sky.

Saturn is at 0.3 magnitude and among the dim stars of Libra all month and is still a great telescopic object for sky-watchers lucky enough to have a scope.  Rings, surface markings, and orbiting moons add to the view of the planet.  Look in the southern evening sky, east or left of Virgo and Mars, for it, especially on June 10th when the nearly Full Moon passes just below the ringed planet.

The Moon also directs our eyes to Venus, though in truth Venus is always easy because of its ever-present brightness.  Now Venus is at –3.9 magnitude.  On June 24th, the very thin waning crescent Moon may be seen just right of Venus and just below the Pleiades star cluster in the east sky 45 to 60 minutes before the Sun rises.

June is not a good month for meteor observers; there are no major meteor showers in June.  But one minor shower may be worth a look.  The Bootids went dormant after a great show in 1927 but re-emerged in 1998 with 90 meteors spotted per hour.  In 2004 another big display of meteors occurred.  Astronomers do not expect another big display this year, but the peak night, June 27th, coincides with the New Moon —- the best Moon phase for seeing meteors.  So we might give it a try looking northwest between 1 am and dawn on the 27th of June.

Summer Solstice arrives on June 21st at 6:51 am EDT.  The Sun then for us in Maryland will be at its highest for the year, at 73 1/2 degrees above the southern horizon at noon.  Day length is at its longest and night-time at its shortest at this time of year.  Enjoy the extra day light even though the night sky does not come to glory until a much later hour.  Full Moon for June is going to be on June 13th.

Diagram of the Earth's seasons as seen from the north. Far left: summer solstice for the Northern Hemisphere. Front right: summer solstice for the Southern Hemisphere.

Diagram of the Earth’s seasons as seen from the north. Far left: summer solstice for the Northern Hemisphere. Front right: summer solstice for the Southern Hemisphere.

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Skywatch for May 2014: Saturn Comes to Visit

Last month Mars reached opposition – the position in our skies opposite the Sun – and the place where planets with orbits bigger than Earth’s orbit are seen at their best and brightest. For Mars this was its first opposition in over 2 years. In May Mars is still a prominent object, though a bit dimmer than it was in April, in the south-southeastern sky among the stars of Virgo.

This month brings Saturn into opposition – on May 10th – opposite the Sun in our sky for the first time since last year. Saturn therefore, will rise in the east among the stars of Libra and reach its highest point in the southern sky around midnight to 1 am. This year because Saturn’s rings tilt 22 degrees to our line of sight, greater detail may be seen through telescopes. Additional light, meaning additional brightness will be achieved even though Saturn is very distant from Earth. The planet and its rings will reflect enough light to make it appear at + 0.1 magnitude; its best in over 2 years.

Image of Saturn produced by digital imager Mattias Malmer. The image was pieced together from 102 frames recorded by the Cassini spacecraft ISS on October 6, 2004.

Image of Saturn produced by digital imager Mattias Malmer. The image was pieced together from 102 frames recorded by the Cassini spacecraft ISS on October 6, 2004.

The Moon will track close to some of the planets in the month of May setting up some nice conjunctions; which are easy to see with the unaided eye. The waxing gibbous Moon may be seen just below Mars on May 11th, and the May 14th Full Moon will be seen less than a degree below Saturn.

Mercury will join the planet parade this month too, appearing just 3 degrees below the Pleiades star cluster, low in the west sky just after sunset around May 10th. By May 13th, Mercury will have moved to appear just above Aldebaran, Taurus’s brightest star; still low in the west after sunset. On May 24th, Mercury reaches its greatest angle away from the Sun (elongation) and will set some 2 hours after the Sun. Meanwhile, Jupiter still dazzles in the west sky after dark until it sets around midnight, at magnitude –2.0. And Venus remains a “morning” star , rising about 90 minutes before the Sun; so it will be low in the southeast sky. However at magnitude –4.0 it is prominent until 30 minutes before sunup.

A new meteor shower may appear before dawn on May 24th. astronomers are predicting that Earth will pass through a debris field left behind from Comet 209PLINEAR which went through the inner solar system just a few years ago. Up to 100 meteors per hour may show up from this encounter with the peak area and direction to look being nearly due north between Ursa Major(Big Dipper) and Camelopardalis (straight down to the horizon from the Big Dipper, now in spring, riding high up in the North.

Full Moon is May 14th; Last Quarter May 21st; New Moon on the 28th. First Quarter is early – on May 6th.

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Skywatch for April 2014: Mars and Lunar Eclipse

April 2014 is an action-packed month for skywatchers; full of excellent events and things to see in our skies. The headliner is the first of two Total Lunar Eclipses for 2014, which happens in the early morning hours of “tax day”, April 15th. It has been 857 days since the Sun, Earth, and Moon lined up (in that order) and the Moon passed through Earth’s shadow and any of us saw a total lunar eclipse—- over two years! (2014’s second lunar eclipse will be on October 8th).

 

Total Lunar Eclipse of 1993 Nov 29 (Dunkirk, Maryland) by Fred Espenak

Total Lunar Eclipse of 1993 Nov 29 (Dunkirk, Maryland) by Fred Espenak

Skywatchers in North and South America will have the prime view of the April 15th eclipse, as none of it will be seen in Europe, Africa, and Central Asia (Moon will already have set when in eclipse). For us the Moon will appear nestled among the stars of zodiac constellation Virgo, and the total phase of the eclipse will last 1 hour and 18 minutes. In the sky region around the Moon will also be seen 1st magnitude star Spica (Virgo’s brightest) just 1.5 degrees to the right and below the Moon, and 1st magnitude Arcturus (Bootes) 32 degrees above and left of the Moon, and 1st magnitude Antares (Scorpius) 45 degrees below and left of it. Meanwhile, Mars will be seen, a week past opposition for it, just 9 degrees above and right of the Moon, and Saturn, 27 degrees left, and slightly above the Moon. This will keep us busy spotting things in addition to the eclipse.

Partial Eclipse starts at 1:58 am EDT —– this is when the Moon enters the Umbra(darkest part) of Earth’s shadow
Totality begins at 3:07 am EDT ——– this is when the Moon is fully inside the Umbra.
Totality ends at 4:25 am EDT ——–Moon exits the Umbra.
Partial Eclipse ends at 5:33 am EDT —– Moon fully out of Earth’s shadow.

Path of the Moon through Earth's umbral and penumbral shadows  during the Total Lunar Eclipse of April 15, 2014. Courtesy of Fred Espenak.

Path of the Moon through Earth’s umbral and penumbral shadows
during the Total Lunar Eclipse of April 15, 2014. Courtesy of Fred Espenak.

When in total eclipse the Moon usually looks reddish-orange in color because our air bends some of the Sun’s rays into our shadow while scattering the shorter blue wavelengths of light. Any significant volcanic eruptions may darken the Moon’s appearance too by filling the air with fine dust and ash particles. Remember, this is a completely “safe” eclipse to watch —- we are not looking at any bright Sun rays (as in a Solar Eclipse) —– but merely looking into Earth’s shadow through which the Moon is passing. And since it lasts for 3 1/2 hours, one can watch all of it or parts of it spread over that time. You can use your eyes, binoculars, or telescopes, and it can be seen from a dark observing place or even from a brightly light parking lot. The only problem is the timing —– 2:00 to 5:30 am —– is not an especially convenient time —– BUT —–well worth getting up to see!!

Jupiter and Venus continue to be bright, easy to see planets all month. Jupiter at magnitude –2.1 is in the southwest sky form dusk until about 2 am. Venus in the southeast pre-dawn sky can be seen there for two hours before sunrise at magnitude –4.3. Also each planet will have the Moon passing nearby it during April. A nearly first quarter Moon will be seen just 5 degrees below Jupiter on April 6th, and a waning crescent Moon will be just above Venus on the morning of the 25th.

But the other biggest April event after the eclipse is the opposition of Mars on April 8th. Mars then is closer to Earth than it has been since December 2007, at 50 million miles. Mars will rise in the East as the Sun sets in the west that night, and it will appear at –1.5 magnitude, making it even brighter than Sirius, the sky’s brightest star (-1.4; and still visible low in Canis Major in the southwest sky in April). Mars will be visible all throughout the spring and into summer, but will stay at its current brightness for only this month because Mars is a small planet and our orbit motion and its own obit separate us fairly quickly. But it will stay as bright as other 1st magnitude stars into summer among the stars of Virgo and then into Cancer.

Get out and enjoy what the sky offers this first full month of spring!!

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Skywatch for March 2014: Spring Planets

Illumination of Earth by the Sun at the March equinox. Image credit: Wikipedia.

Illumination of Earth by the Sun at the March equinox. Image credit: Wikipedia.

After a long, cold, and snowy winter, we all are looking forward to the arrival of spring. So I am happy to announce that the Vernal Equinox(spring equinox), the astronomical first day of spring, occurs on March 20th (Thursday) at exactly 12:57 pm EDT. This means that the Sun appears to intersect the Celestial Equator in the sky, which is located at 50 degrees above the southern horizon for us in Maryland. It also means that the Sun looks to be higher in the sky each day at noon than the previous day, and that overall day-length will be longer than night-length all the way now until June 21st (the date of the Summer Solstice). The Vernal Equinox is also one of two days in the year when the Sun appears to rise exactly due East and to set exactly due West. (the other is the Autumnal Equinox in September).

The Vernal Equinox however does not necessarily mean that winter cannot still raise its head. I recall a late winter March 17th nor-easter snow storm that struck Maryland several years ago. But signs of spring have begun to appear. For example, the zodiac constellation Leo the Lion, has been rising up in the eastern sky already since February, with its distinctive “backwards question mark” shape of six stars. Now in March it is well up in the East as as soon as it gets dark. And all the bright and beautiful winter constellations —– Orion, Taurus, Gemini, Canis Major, and Auriga —- have all shifted over to the west or southwest skies, because of Earth orbiting the Sun. Most are still prominent there however until midnight.

Mars is now just a month away from its first opposition in two years —- when it will be at its best for skywatchers. Opposition is when a planet appears to lie opposite the Sun in the sky as seen from Earth. Thus Mars will rise in the East as the Sun sets in West next month.

For now, in March, Mars rises around 9:30 pm in the East; and by 7:30 pm at the end of the month. It will brighten all month; from –0.5 to –1.3 magnitude, and will be in the best position for seeing from 11 pm to 4 am in the southern sky, among the stars of Virgo.

With only a modest backyard telescope, you can easily see Jupiter’s four largest moons. Image credit: Jan Sandberg

With only a modest backyard telescope, you can easily see Jupiter’s four largest moons. Image credit: Jan Sandberg

Jupiter remains the brightest evening planet all month, already well up in the East when the Sun sets among the stars of Gemini. It will remain visible there until about 4 am, shining at magnitude –2.3. Saturn rises in the East also —- about 2 hours after Mars —- among Libra’s stars, and will have a magnitude of +0.4. It will be highest in the east-southeast just before morning twilight starts; around 5:30 to 6:30 am.

The brightest planet this month is Venus, which is an early morning object in the southeast sky and which rises 2 hours before sunup. At magnitude –4.5 it is a full 2 magnitudes brighter even than Jupiter. On march 27th the waning crescent Moon will be seen just above Venus at about 6:00 in the morning. Venus is at what we call greatest western elongation from the Sun from March 22nd to April 2nd, which also translates into its greatest altitude above the horizon. We will have no trouble seeing it; it is just so bright!

The Moon will be in conjunction with some of the planets this month too. These always make lovely sights to see as Moon and planet appear close together in the sky. A waxing gibbous Moon will appear just below Jupiter on March 10th; a nearly Full Moon just below Mars on March 18th; and very close and below Saturn on March 20th. Moon phases this month are: 1st quarter on March 8th; Full Moon on March 16th; and 3rd (last) quarter on March 23rd.

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Skywatch January 2014: Broken Comet, But Bright Planets

Nature is very unpredictable; and we were reminded of this especially well in regard to comets. Despite the months-long major buildup about Comet ISON being the spectacular naked-eye “Comet of the Century”, nature provided a quite different outcome.Screen shot 2014-01-06 at 11.11.40 AM

Comet ISON was a “sun-grazing” comet. Its orbital path took it within 700,000 miles of the Sun. Though this sounds like a lot of miles, most comets pass millions of miles from the Sun. The Sun up close is frightfully hot and horribly deadly with harmful gamma rays, X-rays, and ultraviolet light. Ninety percent of Comet ISON was destroyed by this onslaught and though it had reached an apparent magnitude of -2.0 just before Thanksgiving, when it emerged from behind the Sun a few days later, there was not much left.

It was disappointing when the expected spectacular naked-eye comet did not materialize. But people connected with this comet as never before due to modern social media recording millions of hits from curious people; potential skywatchers. I was glad to see the interest it generated as I too, received numerous calls and questions leading up to Comet ISON’s swing around the Sun, and again afterwards, as people wondered what had happened.

The answer remains: Comets are probably the most unpredictable of celestial objects especially in regard to brightness. But one thing is sure. Comets are regular members of the Solar System and frequent visitors to the inner Solar System. Others will come and some may be bright and spectacular.

Meantime, the month of January features lots of action among the planets, with Jupiter reaching its closest approach to Earth in the last 13 months on January 5th, Venus visible low in the southwest at magnitude -4.4 until mid-January, and a fine appearance of Mercury in the West sky after sunset.

Venus will be unmistakable low in the southwest evening sky until about January 14th as its smaller orbit takes it close to the Sun, and then brings it into the Sun’s glare until late January,when it emerges into the eastern pre-dawn sky. It will be visible only for 30 to 40 minutes after sunset in early January in the southwest sky, but for 1 to 2 hours before sunrise in the East in late January and into February.

As twilight deepens Jupiter will rise among the stars of Gemini in the East reaching opposition January 5th. This means it is opposite the Sun in the sky as seen from Earth. Jupiter rises in the east as the Sun sets in the west and it is visible all night at magnitude -2.7! It will be hard to miss. On January 15th look for the Full Moon just a few degrees below Jupiter in the eastern evening sky.

Mercury gets to its greatest elongation (angle) from the Sun on January 31st. It will be seen in the southwest just left of where the Sun sets and about 10 to 12 degrees above that horizon, 45 to 60 minutes after the Sun goes down. A very thin crescent Moon will also be seen in the January 31st west sky just to Mercury’s lower right. Into February’s first days, the Moon will appear above and left of Mercury.

January’s Quadrantid meteor shower peaks on the night of January 3rd/4th. Look east-northeast from 4 to 6 am (I know, it is early and cold, but dark). You may see up to 60 meteors per hour.

January Moon Phases: 1st quarter Jan.7th; Full Jan. 15th; Last Quarter Jan.24.

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