As a passionate comet observer I never tire of these fuzzballs faint or bright, but with every single one of them faint and requiring a telescope to see right now (except maybe C/2012 V2 LINEAR, visible only in the southern hemisphere), you might be weary hearing about all the wonderful views you’re missing.
Have patience. Comet ISON steps it up late next month, waxing bright enough to follow in binoculars and with the naked eye by the third week of November. Comets Encke and Lovejoy will never crack the naked eye limit but should be visible in binoculars under dark sky in late Oct. and Nov. respectively.
Right now we’ve got planets on the menu. Jupiter and Mars are rising a little earlier with each passing night and easily visible with the naked eye. Tonight the thick waning lunar crescent will slide to Jupiter’s lower right. Watch for the pair to clear your skyline around 1-1:30 a.m. local time. Late, I know, but if you’re returning from a Friday night party, it’s worth a minute of your time for some out-of-this-world eye candy before heading in.
Binoculars will show at least two of Jupiter’s four bright moons tomorrow morning. Small telescope users will see all four and may even get a look at the shadow of Europa at magnifications of 80x or higher. Look for a black pinprick way off to the west side of the planet around 1:30 a.m. CDT; the shadow departs the disk around 2.
The Great Red Spot, which blushes redder this fall than in recent years, will make a great presentation Sunday morning Sept. 29 for much of the Americas. Jupiter’s rotation will turn the Spot to face us square-on around 6 a.m. CDT (7 a.m. Eastern, 5 a.m. Mountain and 4 a.m. Pacific). You’ll still get a good look an hour before and after those times. Look for a ruddy oval in the planet’s southern hemisphere about 1/3 of the way between the equator and south pole.
Mars hovers in the eastern sky near the star Regulus in Leo; it’s best from around the start of dawn until it disappears in the glare of the impending sunrise. The later you watch, the higher the planet rises and the sharper it will look in a telescope. Thicker, more turbulent near the horizon both blurs and dims celestial objects.
Even in a telescope Mars is very tiny because it’s still so far away – 200.5 million miles (323 million km). The gap between Earth and Mars shrinks a little bit every day until the two planets pull up alongside each other on April 8, 2014. On that day, just 58 million miles (93 million km) will separate them and Mars will shine as brightly as Sirius, the brightest star.
If the air is steady, boost your magnification to 200x or higher and you might see a few of the dark markings in the illustration at left.
The easiest Martian feature to spot right now is the north polar cap. With spring underway in Mars’ northern hemisphere, the cap, composed of both water and carbon dioxide ice, is out in the clear. Look for a tiny, bright, white patch at the planet’s northern limb.
While things like polar caps and moon shadows do require a telescope, finding and following the planets is easy. Throw in a few choice moon alignments (tomorrow for Jupiter, Sept. 30 for Mars) and it’s a show.