Aurora update plus we visit with the sun’s sisters in Cancer

Thin bands of cloud intersect a series of bright green auroral rays last night. Photo: Bob King

Wow – two decent auroral displays in a week! We haven’t had that around here for a long time. While last night’s lights were in the forecast, they weren’t described as anything more than “isolated active periods”. I think it came as a surprise at how bright and widely seen across the northern U.S. they were. Tonight there’s a chance for more. With early evening skies forecast to be clear for the Duluth, Minn. region, be sure to spend a few minutes outside watching the northern sky for any activity.

New moon happens this Tuesday and on Wednesday the thin crescent returns to the evening sky. Take advantage of the next few moonless nights to explore two star clusters in the constellation Cancer the Crab. One of them, nicknamed the Beehive, is visible to the naked eye from suburban and rural skies as a cloudy patch. The other goes by the simple catalog designation of M67 and requires binoculars or a small telescope to see.

To find out featured star clusters, get your bearings using Orion and the bright Winter Triangle. The bright pair of stars Castor and Pollux are to the Triangle's upper left. Two binocular fields below them, you'll bump into the Beehive, then drop straight below to arrive at M67. Created with Stellarium

M44 has been known for centuries. The ancient Greeks and Romans saw the thatch of stars as a manger filled with hay from which a pair of donkeys ate. We know it as M44 or the Beehive, an open cluster containing hundreds of stars located 582 light years from Earth. While you probably won’t be able to distinguish individual stars with your eye, binoculars easily reveal the Beehive’s buzz of tiny suns. Take a look. You might be surprised at how effortlessly the ‘fuzz’ resolves into stars. Galileo pointed his little telescope at the cluster back in 1609 and counted 40. How many can you see?

The Beehive Cluster is flanked by two stars that represent the donkeys at the manger. Photo: Bob King

M67, though fainter than M44 is no less fascinating. Most clusters like the Beehive were born from clouds of gas and dust in the flat disk of the Milky Way galaxy. Standing apart from the crowd, M67 is situated well above the galactic plane some 2,800 light years from Earth.

Clusters within the disk eventually get pulled apart by gravitational interactions with other gas clouds and passing stars. M67, far from the hubbub of the disk, has remained intact for over 4 billion years, an exceptionally long life for a star cluster.  A typical cluster lifetime is around 10 million years.

The cluster’s age and chemical makeup of its stars are nearly the same as that of our own sun – about 4 billion years.

Recently, astronomers identified a nearly identical twin of the sun within the cluster. There’s even speculation that because of the similarities, the sun may once have been a full-fledged member of M67 that somehow escaped the mother cluster to live the single life with its pals in the galaxy’s disk. Could it have strayed during one of M67′s “brief” orbital passes through the thicket of the Milky Way?

The stars in the open star cluster M67 in Cancer have a composition nearly the same as the sun. Credit: Bob Franke

While most astronomers think the chances are small that the sun originated in M67, we know it must have been born within a similar cluster of stars. That’s why they continue to study this binocular object in Cancer to learn more about what the sun’s birthplace may have been like.

You can learn more about M67 and its solar connections in an excellent article in the March 2012 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine.

Through binoculars the cluster is hazy patch dotted with stars; a telescope completely resolves it into many stars – a rich sight. Look it up and imagine this place as a womb of the sun’s birth.

Aurora out tonight!

Soft, green aurora patches in the northern sky this evening (Feb. 17) about 9 p.m. CST. Photo: Bob King

A high-speed solar wind plus effects from a coronal hole put aurora on the NOAA Space Weather forecast for tonight. A moment ago I stepped out the door and there’s definitely aurora here in Duluth, Minn. A thick, fairly bright band or glow is visible across the bottom third of the northern sky. Over the past 10 minutes a few rays have shot out and faded back. Overall the aurora is mostly just a formless glow, but there’s an intensity to it that makes me think it might become more active. The Kp index, an indicator of magnetic and potential auroral activity overhead, stood elevated at 3 as of 9 p.m. CST.

Flame-like rayed arcs of aurora danced across the northern sky between 9:30 and 10 p.m. Photo: Bob King

Go out and take a look. If you can, consider a drive to a darker area with a good view of the northern horizon. One never knows quite how long an aurora will last – 10 minutes? an hour? I’ll keep you posted.

Diffuse patches of northern lights appeared above and to the right (west) of Orion. Photo: Bob King

Update 9:15 p.m. — Large, curving swaths of fuzzy light are now all over the northern sky and spilling into the southern sky across the constellation of Gemini. No distinct forms but lots of aurora. If you didn’t know it was northern lights, you might think haze or clouds had moved in, but just watch for a little while. You’ll see the difference.

Update 11 p.m. — Much has happened in the past hour and a half. The display broke into a splendid series of rayed arcs across the northern sky plus a couple odd, isolated glowing patches in Leo and west of Orion. Very green color when bright. Things started settling down – at least for the time being – around 10:30.

Update midnight — The bottom half of the northern sky still aglow with aurora. Mostly soft glows and an occasional brushy ray. The Kp index hit 5 late this evening/early morning.

Peanut butter and jelly in Zero-G and a wayward black hole

Don Pettit balances a slice of bread spread with peanut butter and honey on both sides. This is easy to do in space without getting your fingers sticky. Credit: NASA

NASA astronaut Don Pettit was making a peanut butter and honey sandwich the other day when he accidentally fumbled and dropped it. Here on Earth it would head straight to the floor, but in the world of Zero-G aboard the International Space Station (ISS), things turned out differently. It sped away and hit a panel jelly-side “out” and then continued until the inevitable happened. See Don’s blog to see to read how science played into the story as the scene played out.

The space station passes near the evening crescent moon in this time exposure. Credit: George Kristiansen

Some really bright passes of the space station this week will help you picture floating PB&J sandwiches with ease. The times below are for the Duluth, Minn. region. For times for you town, click over to Heavens Above or type in your zip code into Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys page. As always, the station will look like a brilliant moving “star” as bright as Jupiter and traveling steadily from west to east. You’ll notice it has a yellow hue from the colorful orange solar panels that generate the station’s power. On some nights, two passes are visible, because the ISS takes only about 90 minutes to orbit the Earth. If the sun is still up for the station after its first pass over a particular locale, we’ll get to see it a second time.

* Tonight Feb. 18 starting at 6:15 p.m. The ISS will travel straight across the top of the sky and shine even brighter than Jupiter.
* Sunday Feb. 19 at 6:55 p.m. across the northern sky
* Monday Feb. 20 at 5:58 p.m. in bright twilight. Glides just below the North Star about 6:01 p.m. Second pass lower in the north at 7:35 p.m.
* Tuesday Feb. 21 at  6:37 p.m. across the north
* Wednesday Feb. 22 at 7:17 p.m. Across the north and fading out as it enters Earth’s shadow just before reaching the Big Dipper in the northeast
* Thursday Feb. 23 at 6:20 p.m. in the northern sky
* Friday Feb. 24 at 6:59 p.m. in the northern sky

HLX-1 is circled in this picture of the galaxy ESO 243-49 located 290 million light years from Earth in the constellation of Phoenix. The blue light not only comes from a flaming gas in a disk around the hole, but also from a cluster of hot young stars that formed around the black hole. The dark stripe is interstellar dust in the galaxy's plane. NASA, ESA, S. Farrell (Univ. of Sydney and Univ. of Leicester, UK)

Recently the Hubble Space Telescope was used to photograph an unusual star cluster-black hole combo in the galaxy called ESO 243-49. Called HLX-1 for Hyper-Luminous X-Ray source 1, the black hole weighs in at 20,000 suns. It’s surrounded by a disk of hot gas that emits X-rays as the material gets sucked down the hole and a cluster of hot stars. Normally larger black holes are found in the centers of galaxies not in their hinterlands.

To explain this oddity, astronomers believe HLX-1 and surrounding stars were cannibalized from the core of a smaller galaxy that happened to veer too close to ESO 243-29 sometime in the past. As the dwarf galaxy was ripped apart from gravitational tides, the bigger one grabbed a few goodies.

As for the future of the black hole, it could spiral into to join the supermassive black hole in the galaxy’s center or continue to orbit normally around the center like the other stars in the galaxy. Time and further observation will tell. Read more HERE.

A crouching rabbit hides a crimson star

The rabbit Lepus crouches below the constellation Orion (upper right) in this photo taken earlier this week. See map below for the rabbit's outline. Details: 16mm lens at f/2.8, ISO 2500, 25-seconds. Photo: Bob King

Snowshoe hares hop around our yards and woods in the winter months, but I’ve yet to see one this year. Either their fur coats haven’t morphed from brown to white due to lack of snow or the rabbits making all those tracks in my yard are a different species.

A snowshoe hare in proper winter attire. Credit: USDA

The Y-shaped tracks of rabbits are a familiar sight in suburban and rural areas, but you’ll also find them in the sky. Our distant ancestors, who created the constellation outlines we still use today, populated the sky with plenty of animals including a rabbit named Lepus (LEE-pus) the Hare. The ancients were impressed with the hare’s swiftness and prodigious fertility, reasons enough to place it in the heavens along with the great hero Perseus and the mighty Hercules.

You’ll find the white bunny crouching under Orion the Hunter as if in hiding. And why shouldn’t it? A chilled hunter on a February night would enjoy a hot hasenpfeffer stew just like my grandmother used to make. To date however, Orion seems not to have noticed what’s under his feet, giving you and I the opportunity to get familiar with the sky bunny.

The bright stars Sirius and Rigel make Lepus easy to find even though its stars aren't particularly bright. Maps created with Stellarium

Orion is easy to find thanks to those three belt stars. Finding Lepus requires only a little hop below Rigel and a moderately dark suburban sky.

Look to the south-southeast as soon as it gets dark. To the right or west of Sirius is the rabbit’s tail – a short arc of stars – while directly below Rigel are two prongs of faint stars that form his ears. The ears are faint, but the rest of the rabbit’s form isn’t difficult to trace.  Whenever I see Lepus, I’m reminded of a kite or dragonfly until I “add” the fainter ears – then it looks like a proper rabbit.

R Leporis is a carbon star notable for its deep red hue. Start with Mu and point your telescope east to the little "trapezoid". From there, look a short distance north to find the star. It currently shines at about magnitude 8.5. Stars are shown to about 8th magnitude. R will stand out from the others by color alone.

Directly across from the ears not far from the star Mu Leporis is one of the reddest stars in the sky. Called R Leporis, observers have described it as a glowing red coal, a red bulb on a Christmas tree, a ruby. You get the idea. If you have any kind of telescope, be sure to take the time to hunt it down. Every time I see this star I’m amazed at the depth of its color.

R Leporis is a variable star ranging in brightness from around 6th magnitude to as faint as 12th over a period of 432 days superimposed on a second cycle lasting about 40 years.  Also known as Hind’s Crimson Star after its discoverer J.R. Hind, R Leporis’ light varies because it expands and contracts like a slow-beating heat.

You'll find few stars as intensely red as R Leporis. Carbon in the star's atmosphere is responsible for the intense color.

The sun fuses hydrogen into helium in its core and produces energy in the process. R is further along in its evolution than the sun and cooking up elements like carbon and oxygen in its core. Convective heat currents dredge the carbon up from deep below and spread it into a layer of “soot” in the star’s outer layers. The soot dims and reddens the star dramatically. When winds in R’s outer atmosphere blow the carbon into space, the star re-brightens until more carbon is dredged up and the cycle begins anew. The Crimson Star belongs to a special category of red giants called carbon stars.

So whether you enjoy hunting rabbits or rare carbon stars, Lepus is where it’s at.

One weird-looking comet plus a constellation that can spell

The two-tailed comet photographed through a telescope on February 12. While two tails aren't unusual in a comet, seeing them exactly opposite one another isn't common. Credit: Michael Jaeger

Comet Garradd is one weird-looking comet. At the moment, because we see it high above the plane of our planet’s orbit, the two tails stick straight out of either side of its head. It’s not often you get to see a comet’s tails 180 degrees apart, but Garradd has been visible for so many months now, it’s like an entertainer remaking his image in hopes of rekindling that old fire.

The bluish gas tail points to the right; the dust tail to the left. According to the photographer, Michael Jaeger, the gas tail has been fading recently. You can see the comet as a fuzzy spot in a pair of binoculars under reasonably dark skies. The fainter tails require an 8-inch or larger telescope to see well.

Comet Garradd now never sets for the northern U.S. The map shows its location every five days low in the northern sky during early evening hours. Stars shown to 6th magnitude. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap

Recently Comet Garradd became circumpolar for the northern half of the U.S., Canada and much of Europe. A star or comet that’s circumpolar is always visible above the horizon, forever circling around the pole star Polaris. The good news is that you don’t have to get up before dawn to see it; the bad news is that it’s still rather low in the north – at least during the early evening hours.

Sigma-shaped Cassiopeia is up in the northwestern sky on the opposite side of the North Star from the Big Dipper during late February evenings. Created with Stellarium

You can use the map at any time of night however simply by saving it, printing it and then turning it counterclockwise, so the constellations match your sky view.  The comet will continue to climb higher in the north as it arcs its way through Draco the Dragon and passes between the two Dipper Bowls early next month.

The ancient and modern Greek letter sigma

While you’re out facing north, take a look off to the northwest (to the left of the Little Dipper) at the zigzag of Cassiopeia, now standing on its end. When it first rose in the northeastern sky late last summer, it looked like the letter W. Come December, when it was pitched high overhead, the W was inverted and became the letter M. Now it’s sitting up sideways and resembles the upper case Greek letter sigma.

No matter the season, Queen Cassiopeia always gets our attention not only because of her bright form but also her rudimentary attempts at spelling.

Surprise aurora tonight – more may be coming

Several well-defined rays grew from a backdrop of "mushy" northern lights about 11 p.m. Tuesday night. Photo: Bob King

It wasn’t exactly in the forecast, but then again, that’s how weather is sometimes. I was out with my class looking at Mars and the Orion Nebula Tuesday night (Feb. 14) about 9:30 p.m. CST when all at once a patch of aurora blossomed in the northeastern sky. It faded but then was replaced by another and another and then a few rays to boot. After we wrapped up our observing time, I drove out to a location with a good open horizon to the north and watched the display for nearly an hour.

Banks of rayed-arcs march across the entire northern sky Tuesday night. The possibility for auroras for the northern U.S. and Canada continues tonight. Photo: Bob King

Soft rays and rayed-arcs lolled about the north slowly coming and going. Nothing dramatic but the pale greens and shifting textures of the the aurora kept me put till my feet nearly froze. At best, rays and diffuse patches reached halfway up in the sky to touch the North Star.

Oxygen molecules glow both green and pink when excited by solar wind electrons spiraling at high speed into the upper atmosphere. Photo: Bob King

It’s now just after midnight and there’s still some glow in the north. If you’re still up or live in the northern U.S. or southern Canada, it might be worth your while to give a look. Here’s the link for the Kp index, an indicator of activity in Earth’s magnetic field, and a second link for viewing the real-time auroral oval. I hope the lights continue to flare up during the night. There’s a possibility they’re connected to a coronal mass ejection from the sun on the 10th, but it’s still unclear. Whatever the reason, I’ll take aurora any way I can get it.

A rich interplay of rays and patchy northern lights livens up the northern sky last night. Photo: Bob King

UPDATE: The aurora may appear again tonight for northerners, so keep an eye out. As far as what caused the Valentine’s Day aurora, it now appears it had to do with the direction of the magnetism blown out by the sun into the solar system. The magnetic field bound up in the solar wind pointed south, partly canceling the Earth’s northward-pointing field and allowing particles in the wind to penetrate the upper atmosphere and spark auroras. You can read more about the how it happens HERE.

Cosmic candy wishes on Valentine’s Day

May you be touched by cosmic love on Valentine's Day. Photo illustration: Bob King

Happy’s Valentine’s Day! I hope you’re feeling a cosmic connection with friends, lovers, family and of course the stars. The moon is past last quarter phase and rises well after midnight very near the bright red star Antares in Scorpius the Scorpion. Check it out if you’re up at dawn tomorrow morning.

The moon and Antares tomorrow morning. Maps made with Stellarium

And if you have telescope and want to get in that Valentine’s mood, I heartily recommend looking up the Rosette Nebula in the constellation Monoceros the Unicorn. This stunning gas cloud is a pink rose in full bloom complete with anthers (a star cluster at its center) and multiple petals of nebulosity. From a dark sky, you can even see it in binoculars as a packet of stars wrapped in a ball of faint mist.

The beautiful Rosette Nebula and its associated star cluster NGC 2244 at center are a celestial highlight in the constellation Monoceros east of Orion. Credit: Mike Salway

At 5,200 light years from Earth, the Rosette spans 130 light years across. Long time exposure photographs highlight the lovely pink glow of hydrogen gas excited to fluorescence by the cluster of young stars in its core. Scattered throughout the bloom are small dark blobs within which new stars and planets are forming. Like the Orion Nebula, the Rosette is a stellar nursery extraordinaire, where clumps of denser gas within the nebula collapse under the force of gravity to form brand new stars.

Use this map to guide you to the Rosette Nebula and cluster. You can make a triangle with Betelgeuse and Alhena in Gemini or point your scope about one-third the way between Betelgeuse and bright Procyon.

To find the Rosette, start with Orion and use the map above to star-step your way to the east toward Procyon. Look for a bright, rectangular cluster of stars. That’s NGC 2244 in the nebula’s center. The faint, mottled cloudy patches around the cluster form the Rosette. Although visible in binoculars from a dark sky, a 6-inch or larger telescope gives the best view.

New Comet Bruenjes brushes the lovely dust

Venus (bottom) and Jupiter are points of brilliance against the subtle radiance of the zodiacal light Sunday evening. The pink glow is light pollution from the city of Duluth. Photo: Bob King

A night with no wind is one of amateur astronomy’s greatest joys. You can stay out and enjoy the sky in comfort even in cold weather. Last night was that kind of night. I found a very dark place where the Milky Way was all smoke and starry sparks and Venus bright enough to cast shadows.

We talked about the zodiacal light two days ago, so I won’t belabor the topic, but I had to share this picture taken yesterday at the end of evening twilight. The cone of comet dust towered in the west, ornamented in the most beautiful way by the planets Venus and Jupiter. The zodiacal light, like the planets, lies in the flat plane of the solar system. If you’ve ever wanted to visualize the flatness, find a dark sky and take a look this week and next.

Comet hunter and discover Fred Bruenjes at his telescope. Credit: Fred Bruenjes

Hidden inside that wedge of dusty light not far from Jupiter is a brand new comet discovered this weekend by Fred Bruenjes of Warrensburg, Missouri. Fred describes himself as an “electrical engineer by day and amateur astronomer by night.” He’s been systematically hunting comets since 2009 with a digital camera and 14-inch telescope. Here’s a snip of what Bruenjes (rhymes with sponges) wrote in his discovery account:

“Friday, February 10th 2012 just felt like the perfect night for a comet to be discovered by an amateur astronomer. I felt really compelled to observe, as the sky conditions were perfect, the cold weather probably scared off other amateurs, and most professional observatories had been shut down by the full moon for several days. That leaves the sky wide open for new discoveries.”

Our new fuzzy visitor Comet Bruenjes photographed last night by Michael Jaeger of Austria. The comet is an 11th magnitude object in the constellation Aries.

After examining images taken through the telescope, he spotted a fuzzy object that was not plotted on any of his sky charts. I can only imagine the adrenaline rush Bruenjes must have felt at that moment. Still, he held back, checking for other objects like a gas-venting satellite or a known asteroid that might show comet-like activity. Not until he obtained a second set of photos the next night that showed his “fuzzy” had moved, did he report it to the Minor Planet Center for confirmation. Again, in Fred’s own words:

“Waiting a little longer, in the next frame that object was definitely there and it had a greenish fuzzy tinge! Oh. Wow. It was dead nuts at where it was supposed to be. Wow. This thing is for real! It’s at about this time that it begins to sink in that a lifelong quest has just been fulfilled. I just crossed another thing off the bucket list!”

Congratulations Fred! Comet C/2012 C2 Bruenjes has been confirmed and is now official. Any comet discovered by an amateur is cause to celebrate, since these days most are first “seen” by robotic survey programs. Goes to show that with a good program and determination, an amateur can still (literally) make a name for himself.

As Comet Bruenjes orbits the sun, the Earth and it will continue to move farther apart in the coming days and weeks. The comet poses no danger to our planet. Credit: NASA/JPL

I suppose you’re wondering how bright this new comet will become. Unfortunately not very. Right now, it’s conveniently visible in the evening sky in the constellation Aries, but shining only around 10.5-11.0 magnitude. You’ll need at least an 8-inch telescope and dark skies to see it well.Through a 15-inch telescope, I had no problem coaxing it into view last night. Bruenjes looks like nearly every other comet – a soft, blurry spot with a slightly brighter center. Since it’s moving quickly to the west in the sun’s direction, I could see it shift position against the background stars in just a half hour.

For a time, no one even knew this comet was there, like a celebrity in town wearing sunglasses and a concealing hat … until Fred called it out.

Today the comet is about 65 million miles from Earth but will fade in the coming weeks as its distance from us increases. If you have a star charting program that allows you to input comet orbital elements (numbers that define the comet’s orbit) you can make your own charts to find it. Just go to the Minor Planet Center’s page for Comet Bruenjes and scroll down to the orbital elements. I’ve also listed them below. Although the numbers are preliminary, they took me straight to the right spot last night:

T = 2012 March 12.84724
q = 0.8019135
e = 1.0
Peri. = 62.95552
Node = 117.75580
Incl. = 162.71216

Explore the universe from yocto to yottameters

A frame from the Scale of the Universe 2 showing comparisons between Earth, moon and other solar system bodies. Click image to see the interactive video. Credit: Cary and Michael Huang

Two years ago Cary and Michael Huang released their wonderful “The Scale of the Universe” flash video that took viewers on an interactive tour of the known world from the smallest things to the edge of the observable universe. Earlier this month they released an even better second version that features hundreds of different objects from quarks to quasars along with descriptions for each one. Zoom from big to small or small to big at your own pace, and if you’re curious to know more about a featured image, just give it a click. There’s also an option for listening to (or turning off) the background soundtrack of heavenly voices. A YouTube version is available, but as you might guess, it’s not interactive.

Joe, a former work colleague who made me aware of the new version, described it as “totally freaking awesome”. It’s that and more. Flicks of a finger take you from galaxy clusters measuring yottameters across (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 meters) all the way down to tiniest things we know of – quantum foam and cosmic strings – at a scale of 0.000000001 yoctometers. In case you’ve forgotten, one yoctometer equals 0.000000000000000000000001 meters. Either way it’s a lotta meters and a visceral way to learn about cosmic scale. As you explore, consider that a human being stands midway in size between a red giant star and a hydrogen atom.  Rather a cozy spot in a universe of extremes.

A single image from a short video of the northern lights over Canada made by space station astronauts on January 25, 2012. Click to watch this and other orbital videos of aurora. Credit: NASA

This week the International Space Station (ISS) returns to view in the evening sky. Look for a Jupiter-bright “star” moving steadily from west to east in the span of several minutes. The times below are for the Duluth, Minn. region. For times for your town, check out Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys or Heavens Above. The latter site provides individual maps for each pass. And if you’re without a Valentine’s Day gift idea for your significant other, you can always step outside and give her or him a big romantic kiss as the ISS glides silently overhead. They’ll never forget your passionate gesture.

* Tonight Sun. Feb. 12 starting at 7:08 p.m. Low, brief pass in the southern sky.
* Monday Feb. 13 at 6:12 p.m. low across the south-southeast.
* Tuesday Feb. 14 at 6:50 p.m. A gorgeous and brilliant pass across the south. Cuts right through Orion’s Belt about 6:52 p.m.
* Wednesday Feb. 15 at 5:54 p.m. low in the south in bright twilight and again at 7:29 p.m. in the western sky.
* Thursday Feb. 16 at 6:32 p.m. Brilliant! Passes nearly overhead.
* Friday Feb. 17 at 7:12 p.m. across the northern sky. Another bright one!

Zodiacal light, a stellar eclipse and a moon-Saturn tryst tonight

Two big glows show in the picture taken last February: the dome of Duluth light pollution at left and the slanted cone of zodiacal light standing up from the western horizon.The cone is created by sunlight reflected off comet and asteroid dust in the plane of the solar system. Photo: Bob KIng

The temperature is struggling to clear zero degrees this morning despite blue sky and sunshine. Tonight looks clear without a moon. If you’ve got some extra time on your hands early this evening and good weather’s in the forecast, consider a drive to the country to see the zodiacal light.

Beginning in February and continuing through early spring, the “thumbprint” of the zodiacal (Zoh-DYE-uh-cull) light makes its appearance in the western sky during late twilight and early night for observers at mid-northern latitudes.

The combined glow of dust particles in the plane of the solar system reaching from the sun's vicinity to beyond Mars is responsible for the zodiacal light. Planets are shown as colored disks. Illustration: Bob King

This large, oval or cone-shaped glow, which is composed of minute dust particles shed by passing comets,  spreads through plane of the solar system. In mid-winter, we see that plane tilted steeply upwards in the west during evening hours, “lifting” the dim, diffuse zodiacal light high enough to clear the lower, hazy air and improve its visibility.

Anytime over the next week and a half is ideal to look for the Z-light, since the moon won’t disturb the darkness required to see this curious cometary remnant. That’s why I recommend a trip to a rural area where light pollution is at a minimum. The cone is widest near the western horizon and narrows as you direct your gaze upward and to the left. The best way I’ve found to spot it is to turn your head left and right while facing west and look for a large, soft haze similar in brightness to the Milky Way.

If you have any doubt as to which direction to look, consider that Venus lies in the plane of the solar system just like the comet dust that creates the zodiacal light. The planet is smack dab in the middle of the cone with Jupiter, the other bright evening planet, just beyond its tip.

The best time to see it is starting about 90 minutes after sunset (roughly around 7 p.m. for Duluth) when twilight is ending and night beginning. To tell it apart from the miasmic glare of light pollution, look for a large, tapering glow with a distinct tilt to the left.

The waning gibbous moon visits Saturn and Spica the next two mornings. Created with Stellarium

Since this is a Saturday and you might be visiting a local pub for a brew, there’s a special sky treat if you leave around closing time. Take a look toward the waning moon in the southeast. Not far away you’ll see Virgo’s brightest star Spica and the planet Saturn.

Not planning on being up at 1 or 2? You can see them instead at dawn around 6 in the southwest.

The gibbous moon just after sunrise over Kearsarge Peak in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Credit: Andrew Kirk

Andrew Kirk of Independence, Calif. sent me this beautiful photo of the waning gibbous moon setting over Kearsarge Peak in the Sierra Nevadas yesterday morning. The picture reminds us that we can now see the moon again in the morning sky after sunrise for the next week. Look well to the right or west of the sun.

Algol B, larger and fainter than Algol A, partially eclipses it every 2.9 days causing the system to fade. Illustration: Bob King

Two last observing notes. For those of you with telescopes, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, which looks pale pink right now, will be facing directly at us tonight around 8 p.m. CST. You can go out an hour earlier or later and the view will almost as good. Use 100x and wait for the air to settle to see it best. And if you don’t have a telescope, you’ll only need your naked eyes to watch the binary star Algol in Perseus undergo an eclipse for about two hours centered on 9:50 p.m. CST. Normally the star is magnitude 2.1 – as bright as a Big Dipper star – but when its companion star eclipses it, Algol fades to 3.4. For the Midwest, if you look as soon as it gets dark, you’ll see the star fade over the next couple hours to minimum. Click HERE for more information and a map to find it.