Mercury and the moon entice, plus what’s ahead in 2011

You'll need a wide open view toward the southeast horizon to catch the moon and Mercury in conjunction tomorrow morning before sunrise. Take along your binoculars to help you find the pair and enhance the view. Created with Stellarium

2011 starts off with a fine conjunction of the planet Mercury and the thinnest of crescent moons tomorrow morning. Look to the southeast tomorrow (Sun.) morning about 45 minutes before sunrise. The moon will be well to the lower left of Venus just five degrees above the horizon. Because only 3.6% of the moon will be lit by the sun, it will appear exceedingly delicate. Mercury floats some four degrees or two fingers held together at arm’s length above the moon. Although I’ve included Scorpius’ brightest star Antares on the map, the sky may be too bright at that time to see it easily with the naked eye.

The International Space Station (ISS) will be lighting up our evening sky through January 15. I’ve listed times below when it’s easiest to see from the Duluth, Minn. region. For times for your town, log on to Heavens Above or click HERE and type in your zip code. All passes this week will happen in the northern sky as the ISS travels from northwest to northeast.

  • Tonight Jan. 1 starting at 5:20 p.m. Brilliant appearance! Will pass directly in front of the North Star in the Little Dipper around 5:23 p.m.
  • Sunday Jan. 2 at 5:47 p.m. Not quite as bright as last night but equal to Jupiter.
  • Monday Jan. 3 at 6:14 p.m. Will enter Earth’s shadow and disappear at 6:16 p.m.
  • Tuesday Jan. 4 at 5:04 p.m.
  • Wednesday Jan. 5 at 5:31 p.m.
  • Thursday Jan. 6 at 5:57 p.m. Disappears into Earth’s shadow in the east at 6 p.m.
  • Friday Jan. 7 at 4:48 p.m. in bright twilight. Second pass at 6:23 p.m. Enters Earth’s shadow in dramatic fashion at 6:26 p.m. almost directly overhead in Cassiopeia.

Five sunspot groups speckle the sun today in this photo taken by the SOHO observatory. Three groups have yet to be numbered. Click photo to enlarge. Credit: NASA/ESA

We’re off to a great start for solar activity this year with no fewer than five sunspot regions currently visible on the sun. None of them yet poses a potential for powerful solar flares, the kind that can instigate northern lights displays for mid-northern latitudes, but as always, the sun has a mind of its own. The most active group, region 1140, may kick out a few “C class” or small flares. If you own a telescope and have a safe solar filter, this is a good week to watch a parade of sunspot groups travel from east to west across the sun’s face as it rotates on its axis.

Because the sun is a sphere of gas rather than a solid, rocky body like the Earth, it’s not constrained to rotate at a fixed rate. Instead, the rate varies with latitude. The equatorial region spins around once every 24.5 days, while the poles take nearly 35 days. Most sunspots appear in the mid to lower latitudes and complete a full circle in 27 days. The gas giants Jupiter and Saturn likewise rotate at different speeds depending on latitude. Latitudes near the equator on Jupiter spin around once in 9 hours 50 minutes; nearer the poles, it’s five minutes longer.

With a new year on our doorsteps, here are a few celestial events we can look forward to in 2011:

January

  • Quadrantid meteor shower on Jan. 3-4 (more on this in Monday’s blog)
  • Venus is brightest and best visible in the dawn sky this month.

February

  • The Stardust probe, which photographed and sampled dust from Comet Wild 2 in 2004, will fly by Comet Tempel 1 on Valentine’s Day.

March

  • Mercury and Jupiter pair up in the evening sky on the 16th.
  • First day of spring begins on the 20th at 6 p.m. CST
  • NASA’s Messenger space probe will insert itself into orbit around the planet Mercury on the 18th – the first ever mission to orbit the innermost planet. Expect a bevy of amazing images to follow!

April

  • Saturn reaches opposition on the 3rd, when it will closest to Earth for the year and easily visible in the evening sky in the constellation Virgo. The rings will be tilted open 9 degrees to our line of sight that night. The tilt increases to 15 degrees by year’s end.
  • The Lyrid meteor shower peaks on the 22nd, but light from the last quarter moon will compromise it somewhat.

May

  • Spectacular conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and Mercury at dawn on the 11th. The crescent moon joins the scene on the 29th and 30th.
  • Mars returns to visibility this month appearing low in the northeastern sky at dawn.

June

  • Partial eclipse of the sun visible across northern Alaska and Arctic Canada on the 1st.
  • First day of summer begins at noon on the 21st.

July

  • The Dawn spacecraft arrives at the asteroid Vesta, which it will study and photograph before departing in 2012 to visit the largest asteroid Ceres. Arrival at Vesta expected on the 16th. Even better. Vesta will be easily visible in binoculars this month and next.
  • Comet C/20009 P1 Garrad will be bright enough to see in binoculars in the morning sky this month.

August

  • The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks on the night of August 12-13 but light from the full moon will spoil some of the fun.

September

  • Venus returns to the evening sky late in the month when it will be visible very low in the west a half hour after sunset.
  • First day of fall begins at 4 a.m. on the 23rd.
  • Recently discovered Comet Elenin should be at least bright enough for binocular viewing by mid-month in the morning sky.

October

  • Prospects look good for the Orionid meteor shower which peaks on the 21st. The moon will be a crescent in the morning sky at the time.
  • Jupiter reaches opposition on the 28th when it will shine all night long in the constellation Aries the Ram.
  • Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova visible in small telescopes in the morning sky at the start of dawn.

November

  • Sometime late this month or early next month, NASA will launch its next mission to Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory, known as Curiosity, is a large, nuclear-powered rover that weighs a ton. It will traverse 12 miles of the planet’s surface during a two-year mission to investigate whether the Red Planet is or has been hospitable to bacterial life. Arrival is expected in August 2012.
  • Peak of the Leonid meteor shower on the 17th.

December

  • Total lunar eclipse visible from the western states, Alaska and part of Asia on the morning of the 10th. Partial phases will be visible across the upper Midwest and the Dakotas.
  • Peak of the Geminid meteor shower on the night of the 13-14th. Light from the waning gibbous moon will compromise the view.
  • First day of winter begins at midnight Dec. 22.
  • Mars rises before midnight in Leo the Lion late in the month, growing bigger and brighter all along.
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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

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