As the Moon grows from its waxing crescent to its waxing gibbous phase this week, you can use it to identify some great late winter features of the early evening sky.
March 16 – The waxing crescent Moon will be near the Pleiades star cluster which appears as a small fuzzy cloud with some brighter points of light to the naked eye. In a small telescope this cloud resolves into a beautiful, tight grouping of stars.
March 17 – The Moon is in close conjunction with Jupiter and appears between Jupiter and the bright star Aldebaran which appears in the Hyades star cluster. Can you resolve Aldebaran’s orange coloration and the “V” of stars that is the Hyades? You might have to wait until the Moon moves on.
March 23 – The now waxing gibbous Moon appears near Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo (the lion).
Back in January I posted a couple links on the astronomical happenings in 2013. Two of the more exciting events predicted for the year involved comets. The first is finally nearly upon us. Comet PanSTARRS should make an appearance for us in the mid-northern latitudes beginning around March 10. Unfortunately, the comet has not met early expectations for brightness and will be right at the naked eye limit. It will also remain fairly low above the western horizon. As such, it will best be viewed shortly after sunset. This combination will make it difficult to pick out without binoculars. When to start looking? Maybe on March 12 when it will appear to the left of a thin waxing crescent Moon. After that it will appear slightly higher in the sky over the next few days.
Good luck with your viewing! Objects low in the west are somewhat problematic here as we sit down in a bowl. I never did see Mercury during this latest viewing window.
This Thursday (2/7/13) and Friday (2/8/13) the planets Mercury and Mars will have a very close conjunction above the west-southwest horizon just after sunset. Faithful readers will remember we had good evening views of Mars throughout the spring and summer. It’s still visible just after sunset, albeit very dim at this point. Mercury never gets very high above the horizon, but when it does appear it’s relatively bright. Providing you have an unobstructed western horizon, you can use Mercury to find Mars towards the end of this week. For an additional challenge, see how long you can continue to track Mars after the conjunction.
Don’t ignore Mercury after the conjunction! While it never strays too far from the Sun, there will be an excellent window for viewing just after sunset above the western horizon through most of February 2013.
We’ve had some beautiful clear nights lately and you may have noticed the Moon making its way across the sky, appearing further to the east and becoming fatter from night-to-night. You may have also noticed Jupiter now high overhead in the early evening, easy to spot because it’s so bright. The Moon and Jupiter are heading towards a close rendezvous on the evening of Monday, January 21. The Moon will be a few days into its waxing gibbous phase by then, but Jupiter will still be easily visible for most of us that are able to witness the event. This conjunction is so close that parts of South America will actually be able to view the Moon pass in front of, or occult Jupiter.
Make a New Years resolution you’ll actually keep: become more involved in astronomical events in 2013! You’ll be glad you did because the sky never fails to deliver. 2013 should be an exciting year. Here are a couple links to lists of events occuring in 2013:
Today (January 2) is a great day to get started. You’re actually participating in an event already – today Earth is at perihelion, it’s closest approach to the Sun for the year.
Tonight you can attempt to check out the first meteor shower of the year, the Quadrantid meteor shower. This is a tough one because the peak occurs over just a few hours, unlike over a few days for some of the more well-known meteor showers. The peak for North America should occur tonight after midnight through the pre-dawn hours. This year will be especially tough though because the waning gibbous Moon will also be out. Still, you might be able to catch the brightest meteors through the glare of the Moon.
The southern (or winter solstice as we often call it here in the northern hemisphere) occurs tomorrow (12/21/12) at 5:12 AM CST. For the northern hemisphere this day has the shortest daylight period of the year. If the lack of daylight depresses you, the silver lining is that the daylight periods will soon begin to lengthen. Also, you may find comfort in thinking about folks in the southern hemisphere-they are enjoying the longest daylight period of the year!
It looks like tonight is the night for one of the best meteor showers of the year! A meteor per minute is not an unreasonable expectation during a good year for the Geminids. Will this be a good year? The answer is an unqualified yes because there is no Moon in the sky and because of the unusually warm weather we’ve been experiencing in the Midwest. Normally the peak for any meteor shower occurs in the pre-dawn hours, but the Geminids have been known to make earlier appearances. Go ahead and start looking around 10:00 PM. You can watch anywhere in the sky. If you follow the trails back they will appear to originate in the constellation Gemini rising in the east after sunset and transitioning to the west over the course of the evening. Happy viewing!
There is lots going on in the sky on Wednesday, November 28! In the morning, the western US will have the opportunity to view a penumbral lunar eclipse. Back on November 13, there was a total solar eclipse that was only visible across the south Pacific. We are therefore in eclipse season and it shouldn’t be too surprising there is an upcoming lunar eclipse. The penumbra is the outer part of Earth’s shadow so the darkening of the Moon is usually not terribly dramatic. And, unfortunately for us in northeast Iowa, the eclipse occurs about an hour after the Moon sets in the morning.
We will have to settle for what should be a beautiful close Jupiter-Moon conjunction visible in the evening and throughout the night. If viewing in the evening under dark skies, the conjunction will be framed by the bright star Aldebaran to the right. Sharp eyes may also pick out the “V” shape of the Hyades star cluster of which Aldebaran appears to be a member and the fuzzy patch that is the Pleiades star cluster above.
We lost good evening views of Saturn just about the time my Astronomy course was beginning back in late August. Now Saturn is back in the morning and easy to find for the next few days. Venus is still shining brightly above the east-southeast horizon. Tomorrow morning (11/27/12), Saturn will be very close to Venus. While the sky is still dark, look for a fainter, more golden orb right next to Venus. In fact, it might be easier to spot on subsequent mornings as they begin to move farther apart.
If you are up early on Saturday, November 17 you might look above the eastern horizon to see if you can spot any shooting stars. The pre-dawn hours that morning will see the peak of the Leonid meteor shower with meteors appearing to originate in the constellation of Leo. The Leonid meteor shower is typically fairly weak with only 10-15 meteors visible per hour. However, it has been known to occasionally produce a meteor storm. Apparently the peak in 1966 brought rates of thousands of meteors per minute for a very brief period. This year viewing conditions will be ideal as the waxing crescent Moon sets much earlier than the peak pre-dawn hours.
If you are looking for a more consistent show and can endure colder temperatures, you should hold out for the Geminid meteor shower in mid-December. We’ll talk more about that one as it gets closer as it should be an ideal year for the Geminids as well.