Expect the unexpected when you step under the stars

The last quarter moon rises in a low fog beneath the little-dipper shaped Pleaides star cluster around 11:15 p.m. last night. Credit: Bob King

Fog can be magic. Like last night when the last quarter moon rose through the trees wearing a crown of foggy beams. The sight lasted only a few minutes until the moon rose higher and the mist moved on.

A low auroral arc with subtle banding glows in the northern sky last night. It’s topped by a faint, diffuse pink-purple band. Credit: Bob King

There are so many unexpected sights possible when you spend an hour or two under the stars. Auroras, meteors, the sounds of crickets mingled with the moaning calls of distant wolves. Even a few fireflies lingered last night.

A meteor streaks across the constellation aurora-steeped Perseus around 11 o’clock last night. Credit: Bob King

Despite some haze I checked out the planet Neptune in my pair of 8×40 binoculars. It was a dim “star” right where it was supposed to be. The nova in Delphinus still hangs in there at magnitude 6.1, right at the naked eye limit. A recent study based on the rate of decline in the nova’s brightness places the star at a whopping 13,000 light years from Earth. That’s farther than most of the stars we see on a clear night.

The northern hemisphere sky has no particularly bright comets visible at the moment. Famous (infamous?) Comet L4 PANSTARRS was a small, faint haze in my 15-inch telescope. Comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon continues to leisurely cruise across the high northern sky moving from Cepheus into Draco. It’s also a faint fuzzball but still shows a nice tail.

Comet Lemmon on Aug. 27. Its current brightness is around 10.5 magnitude. The amazing tail comes courtesy of Earth’s unique perspective on the comet at the moment. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

Earth is crossing the comet’s orbital plane this week so we see the comet and its debris cloud edge-on (in profile), giving Lemmon a remarkably long tail. The photo shows the true length; in the 15-inch scope only a fraction of the tail is visible, about 1 degree.

Step out the next time the stars are out and expect the unexpected.

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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.

10 thoughts on “Expect the unexpected when you step under the stars

  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to post these. I enjoy reading your articles and seeing your lovely pics so much! I always learn something interesting. Thanks again!

  2. Most of the time I see things I did not expect to see. Sometimes those surprises turn out to be the main events. Nice picture of Lemmon. By some calculations I have Panstaarrs visible in a 12 inch scope just brighter than ISON. Lemmon, I believe could be seen in an 8 inch scope. Nice picture by the way,the main surprise to me was the tail still so visible.

  3. So, with binoculars we can see all of the main planets. I disagree. Because whether one agrees or not. I still call Pluto a main planet. One of my favorite memories was listening to 85 year old Clyde Tombaugh talk about his discovery 60 years after the fact. I saw him not on TV, but in the same room. I believe that Clyde would have agreed with me. I may see Neptune soon and can point in the general area of Pluto. Pluto sets at 2:18 AM in my home town tonight.

  4. I stepped out after 10 AM after driving bus this morning. The sky was warm, clear and sunny. I looked high in the south east and there were a few thin clouds. But I could still see the Moon among them. The Moon is now about 100 degrees elongation from the Sun and waning.

  5. Beautiful pictures!!! I admire the sky &.everything in it as well, just something about the beauty if infinity. Early in the night/morning around 2am I seen all the fog and the beautiful moon to the east….but to the west I spotted a very very bright almost as bright as the moon star, planet or comet. I live in wakeman Ohio, its by lake Erie. The object was low as i had to stand ony bed to try to see over the trees. Ive never seen anything like it! Can you let me know if you know what im talking about please! I know stargazers are saying we wont be able to see it with naked eye until november but ive never seen any star or planet as bright as what i seen last night!!!!! -Tara Horvath

  6. The comet I forgot to mention ( the one we won’t be able to see until November) was comet ison that I was talking about :) like I said, I’m not sure what I was looking at last night but the glare was as bright as the moon if not brighter!!! maybe it was due to the foggy mist but even with that it was still brighter than the moon!!! :)

  7. You said that only a fraction of the tail is visible in your 15 inch scope, about 1 degree. If the total length of the tail is say 2 degrees, then judging from it’s current distance to Earth, the tail would likely be over 7 million miles long.

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