Touch of comet fatigue? Consider Jupiter and Mars

Jupiter and the moon will be in conjunction in the northeastern sky around 1:30 a.m. tomorrow morning Sept. 28. Stellarijum

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.

Jupiter and moons tomorrow morning around 1:30 a.m. The shadow of Europa is on the far left (west) side of the planet. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

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.

Icy Europa (far left) casts its shadow on Jupiter’s cloud tops on Sept. 24. The Great Red Spot is at lower left. Click to find other times when the Spot is visible. Credit: John Chumack

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 is visible in the eastern sky at dawn well below and left of brilliant Jupiter. Look for its red color. In the coming week, the planet will approach the bright star Regulus in Leo. Stellarium

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.

Despite Mars’ teeny disk, astrophotographer Damian Peach shot a couple excellent photos of Mars on Sept. 20. The prominent Africa-shaped feature is a large, low shield volcano called Syrtis Major. Since the photo has south up, the north polar cap is at bottom.

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.

Illustration of Mars tomorrow morning around 6 a.m. CDT. The north polar cap and Syrtis Major present themselves. Created with Meridian

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.

12 thoughts on “Touch of comet fatigue? Consider Jupiter and Mars

  1. With Lovejoy at magnitude 12.2 on the 11th of this month, I am going to suggest a possibility of a faint naked sighting in late November. That would really be neat to see Lovejoy then. Because some of us will be wanting to see a comet so much as ISON should be very bright then, but oh so close to the Sun.

      • On the Harvard Observable Comet page, the original prediction was for a brightest magnitude of 8.2. But, that was when the comet was discovered at magnitude 14. I believe that the 12 in mid September was a little brighter than was originally predicted.

        • Edward,
          Well, we’ll never know for certain until close to that date. Such is the nature of comets. I try to keep on the conservative side regarding predicted magnitudes if only to not overinflate expectations.

  2. Since you pointed Jupiter out to me a couple weeks ago, I’ve enjoyed following its course as the moon wanes. Thanks for nourishing in your readers a greater appreciation of the diversity and majesty of the night sky!

  3. I did not see the Jupiter Moon conjunction. It was overcast. But according to the online almanac, Jupiter and the Moon set only 8 minutes apart this afternoon. If I recall rightly, Jupiter sets later than the Moon.

    • Hi Edward,
      We were cloudy too but I happen to get up at 6 and looked out the window. The clouds were still there but they had thinned – Jupiter and the moon were high in the south and the only things you could see.

    • since the moon is speeding E relative to Jupiter, actually now that the conjunction is past Jupiter sets 1st. b4 today the moon was setting 1st.

  4. Good news regarding Comet Lovejoy. On the 27th, it was observed at magnitude 10.8. I am thinking that a magnitude of 5 in late November may not be out of the question.

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