Mars and moon are mates tonight / Binocular comet eludes the Lion’s bite

Mars is in conjunction with the moon tonight. Watch for the pair during early evening hours. For U.S. observers the two will be separated by about four moon diameters. Stellarium

As twilight gives way to darkness tonight, look up at the waxing moon in the south. Just above it you’ll see the planet Mars. If you’re game, whip out a pair of binoculars and see if you can spot Mars before sunset using the moon as guide.

It’s been two months now since Mars made its most recent closest approach to Earth. While the planet has faded a full magnitude and shrunk in size since opposition, it will remain the brightest ‘star’ in the evening sky until June 27, when Arcturus will outshine it by a hair.

Mars has resumed its normal eastward motion across the sky and is now on the move across Virgo. Watch for it to glide above bright Spica in mid-July and below Saturn in late August.

Mars looks very much out of round this month. It’s only about 90% illuminated and in gibbous phase. Outer planets – especially Mars – show a gibbous phase when illuminated by the sun from a very different angle than we see it on Earth. Credit: Giorgio Rizzarelli

Through a telescope it’s easy to see that its phase has changed from full to gibbous.

The inner planets Venus and Mercury show phases from crescent to half to full as they alternatively pass between Earth and sun, but the outer planets are limited to full and gibbous phases because they’re forever outside the orbit of our own planet. No passing between the sun and Earth for them.

Left: Inner planets Venus and Mercury pass through all phases from crescent to full. Outer planets appear full around opposition and gibbous when viewed from the side. The effect is most extreme at quadrature when a planet is 90 degrees from the sun. Credit: Univ. of Tennessee-Knoxville

Full phases happens around the time of opposition when Earth and an outer planet like Mars are lined up on the same side of the sun and nearest each other. We face the planet square-on and it appears fully illuminated. Several months past opposition, sunlight strikes Mars at a very different angle than what we see on Earth. We look ‘off to one side’ instead of directly at the planet; from our perspective a portion of its globe is hidden in shadow and we see it as little gibbous ‘egg’.

The shadowing effect is most extreme at ‘quadrature’ when an outer planet lies 90 degrees from the sun, ie. it’s due south at sunrise or sunset. Mars reaches eastern quadrature on July 19.

Jupiter and Saturn also show a phase effect but it’s very, very slight because they’re so far away that Earth and sun appear in nearly the same direction from their perspective. There’s very little ‘looking off to one side’ perspective compared to much closer Mars.

8th magnitude comet K1 PANSTARRS travels above the head of Leo the Lion this month. This map shows its position every 5 days with stars to magnitude 8. The stars marked Mu and Lambda are two of the bear’s claws in Ursa Major. Leo is mid-way up in the southwestern sky at nightfall. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Although the moon is getting brighter by the night as it approaches full phase on June 13, I see it’s time for a new map showing the ramblings of comet C/2012 K1 PANSTARRS. This reliable comet has been slowly getting brighter all spring and now has a nice 1/2-degree tail visible in 6-inch and larger telescopes. At magnitude +8, I’ve seen it plainly with 40mm binoculars from a dark sky.

Comet K1 PANSTARRS on June 1, 2014 displays a bright head and two tails – a brighter dust tail pointing east and a faint gas or ion tail. Credit: Gianluca Masi

This month it moves from the obscure constellation Leo Minor into Leo the Lion and will continue to slowly brighten. The best time to view K1 PANSTARRS is at nightfall when it’s highest in the southwestern sky.

Moonlight won’t interfere too much with viewing tonight but will be an issue in the coming nights. Dark skies return around June 15.

Give it a try – we’ve got until mid-July. After that northern hemisphere observers won’t see the comet again until morning twilight in early September.

Guide to the Best Astronomical Sights of 2014

Orion climbs over snow-clad spruce trees to welcome in the new year. Credit: Bob King

As the 2013 comes to an end, we look back for a moment at the year’s biggest stories then telescope into the new year to check out all the astronomical sights that await us.

Here are my picks for 2013′s Top Ten stories in order of importance:

1. Chelyabinsk meteorite fall over Russia Feb. 15
2. Comet ISON’s dusty endComets Lovejoy and PANSTARRS pick up the slack
3. Curiosity discovers water-tumbled pebbles on Mars
4. China’s Chang’e 3 mission lands on the moon
5. Voyager I probe enters interstellar space
6. Juno’s extremely flyby of Earth en route to Jupiter
7. Cassini’s photo of Earth, Mars and Venus taken from Saturn
8. Kepler spacecraft’s demise and legacy of 3, 603 potential extrasolar planets
9. One of the brightest novae in years flares in Delphinus
10. U.S. government shutdown in October and its effects on NASA

Now on to 2014 and a brand new host of celestial offerings. For the record, the majority of events listed are western hemisphere-centric and visible with the naked eye or binoculars. Times and dates are Central Standard or Central Daylight as noted. Clear skies!

January 

1 – The very first day of the year offers the opportunity for North American observers to break their personal “youngest crescent moon” record. The moon will be just 12 hours old from the Midwest and 14 hour from the West Coast.

Watch for meteors from the Quadrantid shower before dawn on Jan. 3. Credit: John Chumack

3 – The peak of the annual Quadrantid meteor shower with a sharp maximum occurring at 1:30 p.m. (CST) on 1/3. Best time for viewing from North America will be 5-6:30 a.m. Jan. 3. The evening crescent moon will not interfere; eastern hemisphere skywatchers will have a dark sky at peak.

5 – Jupiter at opposition to the sun in Gemini and closest and brightest for the year. The planet rises at sunset and stays up all night. Great time for telescope viewing!

11 – Venus passes between the Earth and sun at inferior conjunction. For a week on either side of this date, you can see the planet as an exceedingly thin crescent in the daytime sky.

14 – Venus reappears very low in the eastern dawn sky 30 minutes before sunrise about this time

31 – Mercury at greatest elongation east of the sun and well-placed for viewing during evening twilight. Joined by a very thin crescent moon this day.

February 

14 – Give that special someone a big kiss under tonight’s Valentine’s Day full moon

26 – Spectacular close conjunction of the crescent moon and Venus at dawn as seen from Europe and Africa. The two will be separated by only 0.3 degrees.

March

10 – The waxing gibbous moon occults the 3.6 magnitude star Lambda Geminorum for North America this evening.


Demonstration and path of the Erigone occultation of Regulus 

20 – Asteroid 167 Erigone occults the bright star Regulus for observers living in a 45-mile-wide (72 km) band from New York City into Ontario, Canada. For those in the center of the path, Regulus will blank out for 12 seconds. The whole event will be easily visible with the naked eye. More information HERE.

20 – Spring (vernal equinox) begins in the northern hemisphere at 11:57 a.m. (CST)

Ganymede and Io will cast their shadows on Jupiter’s cloud tops for North and South American skywatchers on March 23. Credit: Created with Claude Duplessis Meridian software

21 – Saturn and the waning gibbous moon in close conjunction only 0.3 degrees apart as seen from Europe and Africa. Western hemisphere observers will see them about 3 degrees apart.

22 – Venus reaches greatest elongation of 47 degrees west of the sun in the morning sky. Despite its great separation from the sun, the planet will stand only about 15 degrees high at sunrise from mid-northern latitudes.

23 – Double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons Io and Ganymede occurs from about 9:10-35 p.m. CDT. Easy to see in a small telescope.

April

8 – Mars at opposition and closest to the Earth since 2008. March-April will be the best time to observe the planet, when it’s up all night in the constellation Virgo near the bright star Spica and shining at magnitude -1.5, nearly as bright as Sirius.

The first of two total lunar eclipse in 2014 happens overnight April 15-16. Credit: NASA

15 – Total eclipse of the moon! The moon slips into Earth’s inner shadow starting at 12:58 a.m. CDT with maximum eclipse at 2:46 a.m. More information HERE.

15 – Asteroid Vesta at opposition and brightest for the year at magnitude 5.5. It should be easily visible with the naked eye from a dark sky site.

22 – Peak of the annual Lyrid meteor shower this morning with rates of 10-20 meteors per hour. Look to the south in wee hours before dawn. Some interference from the last quarter moon.

29 – Annular solar eclipse visible from Australia, the Southern Indian Ocean and Antarctica. More information HERE.

May

6 – Early morning peak of the annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower with rates of around 30 per hour. Each flash represents the burn-up of a small crumb left by Halley’s Comet.

10 – Saturn at opposition and brightest and closest for the year shining at magnitude 0. The rings will be inclined some 22 degrees to our line of sight, almost wide open. The planet will appear noticeably “out of round” in binoculars and present a beautiful sight in any size telescope.

24 - Possible big-time meteor shower from comet 209P/LINEAR when Earth passes through dust trails it deposited a century ago. Expect a peak between 2-3 a.m. (CST) with rates of 100+ per hour possible. No interference from the morning crescent moon.

25 – Mercury at greatest elongation east of the sun and easily visible low in the northwestern sky during evening twilight for observers in mid-northern latitudes.

June

3 – Triple shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons Callisto, Europa and Ganymede from 18:05 – 19:44 Greenwich time. Eastern Europe is favored. Not visible from the U.S.

21 – Start of summer (summer solstice) in the northern hemisphere at 12:51 a.m. CDT

Venus and the thin crescent at dawn on June 24. Stellarium

21 and for several days around this time – The International Space Station remains in sunlight throughout its orbit for northern hemisphere observers allowing us to see it on multiple passes throughout the night.

24 – Close conjunction of the crescent moon and Venus at dawn. With the moon so close you can use it to spot the planet even after sunrise.

July 

5 – First quarter moon and Mars in conjunction less than a degree apart at dusk.

5 – Asteroids Ceres and Vesta – targets of NASA’s Dawn Mission – are less than 1/5 degree apart in Virgo during early evening hours. A rare event!

12 – The first of three “Super Moons” of 2014. The moon reaches perigee, closest to Earth, only 21 hours before it’s full and will appear slightly larger than a typical full moon.

29 – Peak of the annual Delta Aquarid meteor shower with a maximum of 20 per hour after midnight.

August 

10 – Biggest Full Moon of the year! The moon turns full at 1:09 p.m. CDT. Nine minutes earlier it will have arrived at its closest point to Earth in 2014 of 221,765 miles (356,896 km).

12-13 – Peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower with rates of around 60-80 per hour. Spoiled this year by a bright moon just two days past full.

Comet Oukaimeden may glow around 8th magnitude in late August 2014 when it rises with the winter stars before dawn. Stellarium

18 – Spectacular close conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in the morning sky. They’ll be just 1/4 degree apart as seen from Europe and slightly wider by the time the pair rises for North and South American observers.

23 – Beautiful grouping of the thin crescent moon, Jupiter and Venus in the morning sky

25 – Mars and Saturn just 3.4 degrees apart in conjunction in the evening sky

27 – Comet C/2013 Oukaimeden should be within reach of binoculars in the morning sky near Orion.

29 – Neptune at opposition and brightest for the year at magnitude 7.8 in Aquarius

September

5 – Venus passes just 0.7 degrees north of Leo’s brightest star Regulus this morning in the east before sunrise.

8 – The final Super Moon of 2014 occurs 22 hours after perigee

22 – First day of fall (autumnal equinox) begins at 9:29 p.m. CDT in the northern hemisphere

October

Diagram show the moon’s path through Earth inner umbral shadow during the Oct. 8 total lunar eclipse. Credit: NASA

7 – Uranus at opposition and brightest for the year at magnitude 5.7 in Pisces

8 – Total eclipse of the moon, the second visible from the U.S. this year. Partial eclipse begins at 4:15 a.m. CDT with totality occurring from 5:25 – 6:24 a.m. Only the East Coast will miss a small portion of this eclipse. More information HERE.

19 – Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring encounters Mars. It will pass close enough that the coma may envelop the planet with a potential meteor storm to boot. Mars will be 151 million miles from Earth at the time and located in the constellation Ophiuchus and visible low in the southwestern sky at dusk.

18 – Comet C/2012 K1 PANSTARRS should be nearing peak brightness of magnitude 5.5. Mid-northern latitude observers can watch for it low in the southern sky in Puppis before dawn.

22 – The annual Orionid meteor shower peaks this morning with up to 25 meteors per hour visible. With the moon a day before new, dark skies will rule.

Diagram showing the visibility of the Oct. 23 partial solar eclipse. Credit: NASA

23 – Partial solar eclipse visible across the U.S. and Canada during late afternoon hours. At maximum for the central U.S. about half the sun will be covered by the moon. Click HERE for more information.

 

November 

1 – Mercury reaches greatest elongation west of the sun and shines brightly at magnitude -0.5 in the morning sky for skywatchers in mid-northern latitudes. Best morning appearance of the year.

17 – Peak of the annual Leonid meteor shower. This year is an off-year for the Leonids with only 10-15 meteors visible per hour. Glare from the thick waning crescent moon will interfere somewhat.

December

7 – Double shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons Europa and Io occurs from 10:18 – 10:27 p.m. CST. They shadows will be on exactly opposite sides of the planet.

14 – Peak of the annual Geminid meteor shower, one of the richest and most reliable meteor showers with rates topping 100 per hour. Expect maximum activity overnight Dec. 13-14. Some interference from the last quarter moon after midnight.

21 – Start of winter (winter solstice) at 5:03 p.m. CST

If you know of an important event that I may have missed, please drop me a line at rking@duluthnews.com

Thanks everyone and enjoy a Happy New Year!

 

Comet Lovejoy keeps on giving / Bright comet prospects for 2014

Beautiful Comet Lovejoy still shines brightly in the morning sky. This photo was taken on Dec. 27, 2013. Click to enlarge. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

Things have gotten awfully quiet around here ever since Comet ISON left the stage. The half dozen or so comets sprinkled about morning and evening skies are faint and require detailed charts and good-sized telescopes to see and appreciate. Except for Comet Lovejoy. This gift to beginner and amateur astronomers alike keeps on giving.

Still glowing around magnitude 6 (naked eye limit), the comet remains easy to see in binoculars from fairly dark skies as it tracks from the constellation Hercules into Ophiuchus in the coming weeks. Even in last quarter moonlight observers have reported seeing a short tail. Now that the moon is little more than a thin crescent and far away to the south of Lovejoy, conditions are perfect for another look.

Track of Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy in the morning sky marked at 3-day intervals shortly before the start of dawn (6 a.m. local time) tomorrow through Jan. 31. Stars shown for Dec. 29 to magnitude 5.8. Her = Hercules and Oph = Ophiuchus. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

The best time for viewing is shortly before the start of dawn when Lovejoy sails highest in the eastern sky at an altitude of around 30 degrees or “three fists” up from the horizon. By January’s end, the comet will still be 25 degrees high in a dark sky.

Looking ahead to 2014 there are at present three comets beside Lovejoy that are expected to wax bright enough to see in binoculars and possibly with the naked eye: C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS and C/2013 A1 Siding Spring. The first will be easy to track in a small telescope from mid-spring through early summer for northern hemisphere observers as it makes its way from Bootes across the Big Dipper and down through Leo the Lion.

K1 PANSTARRS then disappears in the solar glow for a while before returning to the morning sky in fall for its best showing. Expect it to crest above the naked limit (mag. 5.5) in mid-October just before it dips too far in the southern sky for easy viewing from mid-northern latitudes.

Mars and Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring will overlap as seen from Earth on Oct. 19, 2014 when the comet might pass as close as 25,700 miles (41,300 km) from the planet’s center. View shows the sky at the end of evening twilight facing southwest. Stellarium

C/2013 A1 Siding Spring is expected to reach magnitude 7.5 and become binocular-worthy for southern hemisphere skywatchers in September. Northerners will have to wait until early October for the comet to make an appearance in Scorpius and Sagittarius very low in the southwestern sky at dusk. It will still glow around 8th magnitude through late October.

Would that we could see Siding Spring from Mars this fall. On October 19 the comet will pass so close to the planet that its outer coma or atmosphere may brush against that of Mars, possibly sparking a meteor shower. The sight of a bright planet smack in the middle of a comet’s head should be something quite wonderful to see through a telescope.

Comet Oukaimeden may glow around 8th magnitude in late August 2014 when it rises with the winter stars before dawn. Stellarium.

Finally, there’s comet C/2013 V5 (Oukaimeden), discovered November 15 at Oukaimeden Observatory in Marrekech, Morocco. Preliminary estimates place the comet at around magnitude 5.5 in mid-September. It should reach binocular visibility in late August in Monoceros the Unicorn east of Orion in the pre-dawn sky before disappearing in the twilight glow for mid-northern latitude observers. Southern hemisphere skywatchers will see the comet at its best and brightest before dawn in early September and at dusk later that month.

While the list of predicted comets is skimpy and arguably not bright in the sense of beauties like Hale-Bopp or even L4 PANSTARRS from earlier this year,all may become visible with the naked eye from a dark sky site and should present no problems seeing in binoculars.

Every year new comets are discovered, some of which can swiftly brighten and put on a great show just like Lovejoy did last fall several months after its discovery by Terry Lovejoy on September 7. We’ll just have to wait and see what flies our way.