Uranus preps for tomorrow’s hand off to Mars

Like a baton in a relay race, Uranus has been passed on from one bright planetary body to the next in a series of close conjunctions. Credit: Steve Kuchera

Like a baton in a relay race, Uranus has been passed on from one bright planetary body to the next in a series of close conjunctions. Credit: Steve Kuchera

In a relay race, a baton is passed from one teammate to another during each leg of the race. Uranus can relate. It was picked up by the moon on Feb. 21, handed off to Venus on March 4th and tomorrow night will be handed off again to Mars. Before the planet crosses the finish line at solar conjunction, here’s one last opportunity to see it in binoculars in the evening sky.

Tonight the passed-along planet will lie just 1/2° or one full moon diameter to Mars’ upper left. Though just about any pair of binoculars, Uranus will look exactly like a star. Tomorrow night the two planets will be closest, separated by about 1/3° with Uranus directly below or south of the Red Planet. Thereafter they part, both hurrying in the Sun’s direction.

Uranus will be close to Mars tonight and even closer tomorrow evening March 11. Use binoculars to find it. Created with Stellarium

Uranus will be close to Mars tonight and even closer tomorrow evening March 11. Use binoculars to find it. Created with Stellarium

Venus, brilliant gem of dusk, stands high in the west as the sky darkens after sunset. Mars is considerably dimmer and shines not quite a fist to its lower right. Be sure you’re in a spot with nice open view to the west. To see Uranus, start at Venus and drop down to Mars. Point your binoculars at Mars and use the maps to help you spot it.

Because Mars sets early, I suggest you start looking about an hour after sunset. Take your time and stay out till nightfall, so you can also use those opera glasses to look at Comet Lovejoy, now passing very near the star Ruchbah in the familiar W of Cassiopeia high in the northwestern sky. Here’s a map to help you find it.

Planetary traffic jam lookback / Speedy comet update

To capture the planet Uranus (at lower right) I had to overexpose the bright, sunlight lunar crescent. Naturally, this made the earth-lit portion stand out very clearly. Credit: Bob King

To capture the planet Uranus (at lower right) I had to overexpose the bright, sunlight lunar crescent. Naturally, this made the earth-lit portion stand out very clearly. Credit: Bob King

Wow, we had quite a weekend. The moon visited every evening sky planet while Venus and Mars squeezed together for their closest approach of the year. We’ve already looked at the “triple play” conjunction that occurred Friday. I thought it would be fun to look at the other alignments that have made the past few nights so memorable.

The moon (top) along with Venus and Mars Saturday evening Feb. 21, 2015. Credit: Guy Sander

The moon (top) along with Venus and Mars Saturday evening Feb. 21, 2015 from near Duluth, Minn. Credit: Guy Sander

Here, Guy has enlarged portions of the image to better see all three planets involved. Credit: Guy Sander

Here, Guy has enlarged portions of the image to better see all three planets involved. Credit: Guy Sander

Venus and Mars were still close Sunday night Feb. 22, but they will part in the coming days as Venus moves up and Mars slides closer to the Sun. Credit: Bob King

Venus and Mars were still close Sunday night Feb. 22, but they will part in the coming days as Venus moves up and away from the Sun while Mars slides closer. Credit: Bob King

As for that fast-moving comet discovered last week and en route to the evening sky, Karl Battams, an astrophysicist and computational scientist based at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington DC, is right now at his computer measuring positions of the comet from photos made with the orbiting Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO).

Comet SOHO-2875 survived its close passage of the Sun and may make an appearance in the evening sky soon. This photo montage was made using the coronagraph (Sun-blocking device) on SOHO. Click to watch a movie of the comet. Credit: NASA/ESA

Comet SOHO-2875 survived its close passage of the Sun and may make an appearance in the evening sky soon. This photo montage was made using the coronagraph (Sun-blocking device) on SOHO. Click to watch a movie of the comet. Credit: NASA/ESA

Once enough positions are known, he’ll send the data off to the Minor Planet Center where a preliminary orbit will be determined. With that information I can make a nice map showing us where to look for it. Stay tuned.

Moon meets Uranus next / Oddball comet update

Wow! What a fine photo from last night's conjunction. Venus, Mars and waxing crescent Moon over sculpture "Calling The Power" by Larry Bechtel at Vic Thomas Park. Credit: Terry Aldhizer

Wow! What a fine photo from last night’s conjunction. Venus, Mars and the waxing crescent Moon over the sculpture “Calling The Power” by Larry Bechtel at Vic Thomas Park in Roanoke, Virginia. Credit: Terry Aldhizer

Close-up of the moon, Venus, Mars gathering last night. The earthshine on the moon is amazing! Credit: Terry Aldhizer

Close-up of the moon, Venus, Mars gathering last night. The earthshine on the moon is amazing! Credit: Terry Aldhizer

We were  hopelessly cloudy for last night’s conjunction. You were luckier I hope. Don’t forget, tonight’s thicker crescent passes very close to the planet Uranus, occulting it from the far northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada. Venus and Mars will also be in conjunction today and a smidge closer that they were yesterday evening.

Wide view of Uranus and the moon on tonight (Feb. 21)  as seen from the Midwest about an hour and a quarter after sunset. Source: Stellarium

For the Central Time Zone, Uranus will lie 0.5° west of the moon in twilight, 1° away the Mountain States and 1.5° for the West Coast. What a great opportunity to spot the 7th planet in binoculars. Not only that, but a simple time exposure with a tripod-mounted camera will easily show it. Wait till late twilight and try a range of exposures starting around 5 seconds at ISO 800 with the lens wide open to f/2.8 or 3.5.

Uranus in early twilight (left) just before its dramatic disappearance behind the earth-lit edge of the moon tonight Feb. 21 as seen from Portland, Maine. 36 minutes later Uranus emerges at the bright crescent’s edge. Both disappearance and reappearance occur in a dark enough sky to see in a small telescope. Source: Stellarium

Map showing where the occultation of Uranus by the moon will be visible. Between the white lines, it’ll be visible in a dark sky. Blue is twilight and the red dotted line is daytime. Uranus is too faint to see in the daytime sky. Click the map to get a list of disappearance and reappearance times for a variety of cities. Credit: IOTA/Occult

Most of the time the moon occults stars along its path since there are a lot more of those than planets. Because they’re so remote, stars are little more than points of light; as the moon moves over them they disappear with surprisingly suddenness. Since Uranus displays a real, measurable disk it will take a second or two to disappear behind the moon’s edge.

SOHO-8275 comet about 7 east of the Sun this morning at 9:06 a.m. (CST) this morning. Credit: NASA/ESA

SOHO-2875 comet about 7 east of the Sun this morning at 9:06 a.m. (CST) this morning. Credit: NASA/ESA

The little comet we discussed yesterday continues trekking away from the Sun after its searing encounter two days ago. SOHO-2875 still shows a short tail and hangs in there around magnitude +3.5. It reached the edge of the field of view of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory’s C3 wide-field coronagraph this morning headed east-northeast.

Since the field of view of the coronagraph is 15°, the comet’s presently about 7° east of the Sun, too close to spot yet in twilight. Give it 4-5 more days and someone may see it in a telescope in evening twilight. As soon as an orbit becomes available I’ll put together a chart to help you find it.

A triple-scoop conjunction with a cherry on top!

Venus and Mars (at right) are drawing closer every night. This photo was taken at dusk Thursday Feb. 12 an hour and 15 minutes after sunset. On Feb. 20-21 they’ll be just half a degree apart or 8 times closer. The moon joins the pair on the 20th. Details: 35mm lens, f/3.5, ISO 800, 12 second exposure. Credit: Bob King

Get ready. One week from tonight fate has arranged a celestial spectacle. That night (Feb. 20) a two-day-old crescent moon will “triple up” with the planets Venus and Mars after sundown.

The entire bunch will fit within a circle 1.5° wide or just three times the diameter of the full moon. Like a glittering pendant around your sweetheart’s neck the trio will dangle above the western horizon in the afterglow of sunset. This is a not-to-miss event and one that should be fairly easy to photograph.

Moon, Mars and Venus around 6:45 p.m. (CST) on Feb. 20 in the western sky. Be sure to look for the darkly-lit part of the moon illuminated by sunlight reflecting off Earth called earthshine. It’s a beautiful sight in binoculars. Source: Stellarium

Look toward the west in the direction of the setting Sun; the best viewing time will be 45 to 90 minutes after sunset. With plenty of light to work with, taking a picture of the scene shouldn’t be too difficult. Attach your camera to a tripod and use the information in the photo caption as a place to start. Try to keep your exposure times to 20 seconds or less. Any longer and the planets will stretch into short trails instead of compact dots due to Earth’s rotation.

When you look at the LCD screen on the back of your camera, don’t be surprised if the crescent moon is completely filled out. Time exposures in semi-darkness necessarily overexpose the bright sunlit crescent. The rest of the moon is illuminated by dimmer earthshine, sunlight reflected from the Earth to the moon and back.

From the East Coast, the moon will lie a little farther to the right of Venus and Mars than depicted in the map; from the West Coast, it sits above the pair. Conjunction with Venus occurs around 5 p.m. (CST) and with Mars an hour later.

Venus and Mars will be close conjunction the following night (Feb. 21) only 0.5° or one moon diameter apart. If the weather doesn’t cooperate on the 21st, don’t sweat it – the two planets will be close from the 19th through the 22nd. You’ll easily tell the two apart. Venus is SO much brighter than Mars (about a hundred times) and the lunar crescent brighter yet. This promises to be one of the best moon-planet gatherings of the year.

Uranus in early twilight (left) just before its dramatic disappearance behind the earth-lit edge of the moon on Feb. 21 as seen from Portland, Maine. 36 minutes later Uranus emerges at the bright crescent’s edge. Both disappearance and reappearance occur in a dark enough sky to see in a small telescope. Source: Stellarium

Here’s a wider view of Uranus and the moon on Feb. 21 as seen from the Midwest about an hour and a quarter after sunset. Source: Stellarium

Ah, but the moon won’t be quite finished with its magic. There’s still the cherry on top. The very same night – Feb. 21 – the crescent covers up or occults the planet Uranus for skywatchers in northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada during twilight. For the Central Time Zone Uranus will lie 0.5° west of the moon, 1° from the Mountain States and 1.5° for the West Coast. Amazing stuff – yet another opportunity to easily spot planet #7 in binoculars.

Map showing where the occultation of Uranus by the moon will be visible. Between the white lines, it’ll be visible in a dark sky. Blue is twilight and the red dotted line is daytime. Uranus is too faint to see in the daytime sky. Click the map to get a list of disappearance and reappearance times for a variety of cities. Credit: IOTA/Occult

Most of the time the moon occults stars along its path since there are a lot more of those than planets. Because they’re so remote, stars are little more than points of light; as the moon moves over them they disappear with surprisingly suddenness. Since Uranus displays a real, measurable disk it takes a second or two to disappear behind the moon’s edge. This should be a very fun occultation for those lucky skywatchers living out East. Maybe it will help take their minds off the unrelenting snow.

Jupiter and the Full Moon make a lovely pair tonight

First, my apologies. Due to a system upgrade all the images from the blogs have been taken down temporarily, nor can I post any new ones. This hurts my soul but at least I can use these things called words.

In a nutshell,  there’s a really nice conjunction of Jupiter and the Full Snow Moon tonight. Just take a look out east when the sky gets dark and there they’ll be shining in tandem in Cancer the Crab. If you’d like to read a more complete explanation of the event and why it’s special beyond just looking plain beautiful, head over to Universe Today where you’ll find more information and some of the photos I’d hoped to use here. Thanks for hanging in there.

Rare comet-moon conjunction tonight

Tonight (Friday, Jan. 23rd) the moon will pass only about 1°  (two moon diameters) south of Comet 15P/Finlay as seen from the Americas. This map shows the view from the upper Midwest at 7 p.m. Two 6th magnitude stars in Pisces are labelled. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

I want to alert you to a rather unusual event occurring this evening.

If you read yesterday’s blog, you know about the triple shadow transit of Jupiter’s moons Io, Europa and Callisto. That’s scheduled for late tonight.

Earlier, around nightfall, the crescent moon will lie 1° or less to the south-southwest of comet 15P/Finlay. No doubt lunar glare will hamper the view some, but what a fun opportunity to use the moon to find a comet.

The farther south you live, the closer the moon will approach the comet tonight. This diagram shows the view from Tucson, Ariz. at nightfall when less than 1/2° will separate the two. At about the same time (~7 p.m. local time) the moon will occult or cover up a 6th magnitude star (seen poking out from its left side). Source: SkyMap

Finlay underwent a flare in brightness last week when it became easily visible in binoculars.

Though a crescent moon isn’t what you’d call a glare bomb, I can’t predict for certain whether you’ll still see the comet in binoculars tonight or need a small telescope instead. Most likely a scope. Finlay has faded some since its outburst and now glows around magnitude +8.5.

You can try with a 10×50 or larger glass, and if you don’t succeed, whip out your telescope; a 4.5-inch or larger instrument should handle the job. Just point it at the moon at star-hop a little to the north-northeast using the map until you see a fuzzy spot with a brighter center. That’s your comet. The tail won’t be visible unless you’re using more firepower, something closer to 10-inches.

Comet Finlay in outburst on January 20, 2015 showing a beautiful parabolic-shaped head. Credit: Joseph Brimacombe

By the way, the father south you live, the closer the moon approaches Finlay. From the far southern U.S. they’ll be just 1/2° apart. Keep going south and parts of Central and South America will actually see the earth-lit edge of moon approach and then occult the comet from view!

* UPDATE: Although light clouds marred the view I had difficulty finding the comet this evening in my 10-inch scope. It’s possible it’s further faded or my conditions weren’t optimal or both. No luck BTW in binoculars.

Mars has close brush with Neptune tonight

Binocular view (~5 field) of Mars, Neptune and nearby stars this evening. The planets will be very close together – only one-fifth of a full moon diameter apart. Mars is bright, but Neptune will look like a faint star to the planet’s upper right. Stars shown to magnitude +8.5. Source: Stellarium

Mars has been hiding away in Aquarius low in the southwestern sky at dusk minding its own business. But tonight however the Red Planet will pass VERY close to another more distant planet, Neptune.

To find Mars you’ll need an open view to the southwest. This map shows the sky facing southwest at the end of evening twilight. Mars is about 12-15° above the horizon at that time. Diphda is a fairly bright star in the constellation Cetus the Sea Monster. Source: Stellarium

You can see the “double planet” faintly in 10×50 or larger binoculars but a small telescope will make it a snap. The chart shows a binocular view just the way you’d see the scene facing southwest at nightfall with north toward the upper right. The best time to view the conjunction will be at the end of twilight when they’re highest.

Track of Mars in the next few days as it glides by the planet Neptune. This is also a 5° field of view similar to what you’d see in a pair of binoculars. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Also in your binocular view you’ll see the stars Sigma and 58 Aquarii. Neptune will look exactly like a star and surprisingly close to Mars.

Waning moon moons Saturn at dawn tomorrow

Saturn lies just a degree from Beta Scorpii, a fine double star for small telescopes. Tomorrow morning a waning lunar crescent will join the pair in a fairly close conjunction. This photo shows the sky facing southeast at the start of morning twilight. Credit: Bob King

Have you seen Saturn at dawn yet? No? Here’s a great excuse to go out. The waning crescent moon squeaks just 1° north of the planet tomorrow morning in a close conjunction. It all happens not far from Antares, the fiery heart of the summertime constellation Scorpius the Scorpion.

Look low in the southeast tomorrow morning (Friday) Jan. 16th just when the sky starts to brighten at dawn. First you’ll notice the moon. Right below it will be Saturn, and one degree below Saturn, the sweet double star Beta Scorpii. Source: Stellarium

I know that getting up at 6 or 6:30’s not much fun, but I’m convinced that if you act boldly and wisely (dress well for the cold), you’ll return to the warmth of your home a half-hour later with a smile on your face.

Seeing the conjunction requires no optical aid whatsoever, though a pair of binoculars will show nice details on the moon as well the smoky glow of earthshine on the portion not illuminated by the Sun. Saturn requires only a telescope magnifying 30x or higher for a good view.

Saturn, its fab rings and brightness moons depicted for Friday morning. Source: Stellarium

While we’ve been sleeping, Saturn’s rings have been tilting ever more in our direction. Now at mid-month, they’re tipped nearly 25° – almost to their 27° max – and really look showy.

Saturn never travels alone, preferring instead to sally about with its grand family of moons. The diagram above shows the positions of the brightest ones tomorrow morning around 6:30 a.m. (CST).

Saturn in late August 2014. We currently view the north face of the rings. Credit: Paul Maxson

Finally, you’ll notice a modestly bright star just south of Saturn. That’s Beta Scorpii or Graffias, one of the sky’s best and brightest double stars. The 2.6 and 4.5 magnitude stars nestle together like chicks in a nest. Even a 3-inch telescope will show them.

So get out there and say “hi!” to the ringed planet tomorrow.

Moon perambulates with Uranus tonight

The half-moon creeps up on the planet Uranus this evening. The two will be near each other all night in the constellation Pisces, but closest – less than one-third of a moon diameter apart – just before midnight (CST). The views are what you’ll see in a pair of binoculars. The 4th magnitude star Delta Piscium is at top in the field. Source: Stellarium

Sunlight. Moonlight. Starlight. I saw all three for the first time in weeks yesterday. Filled with photons, I feel lighter today, less burdened. Ready to float off the floor.

Seattle, two time zones west of the Midwest, will see the two closest around 9:30 p.m. local time. Source: Stellarium

There’s a nice event you’ll want to see tonight if only because it’s so effortless. The half-moon will pass very close to the planet Uranus for skywatchers across North America this Sunday evening Dec. 28th.

Pop the rubber lens caps off those binoculars and point them at the moon. If you look a short distance to the left you’ll notice a star-like object. That’s the planet!

You can do this anytime it’s dark, but the later you look the better because the moon moves eastward and closer to the planet as the hours tick by. Early in the evening, the two will be separated by a couple degrees, but around 11:30 p.m. CST (9:30 p.m. PST) when the moon reclines in the western sky, the planet will dangle like an solitary diamond less than a third of a lunar diameter away. When closest to the Moon, Uranus may prove tricky to see in its glare. If you hide the Moon behind a chimney, roofline or power pole, you’ll find it easier to see the planet.

Binocular view from the desert city of Tucson around 10:45 p.m. local time tonight. The moon’s farther north of the planet compared to the view from Seattle because the 1,500 miles between the two cities is enough to shift the moon’s position against the background stars. Source: Stellarium

The farther north you live, the closer the twain will be. Skywatchers in Japan, the northeastern portion of Russia, northern Canada and Alaska will see the moon completely hide Uranus for a time.

The farther west you are, the higher the moon will be when they conjoin. West Coast states see the pair highest when they’re closest.

The radically different character of each world can best be appreciated in a telescope. Pump the magnification up to 150x and slide both planet and moon into the same field of view. Uranus, a pale blue dot, wears a permanent cover of methane-laced clouds where temperatures hover around -350°F (-212°C).

Though the moon will be lower in the sky at closest approach, observers in the eastern U.S. and Canada will still see planet and moon just 1/2 degree apart before moonset. Source: Stellarium

The fantastically large-appearing moon in contrast has precious little atmosphere and its sunny terrain bakes at 250°F (121°C). And just look at those craters! First-quarter phase is one of the best times for moon viewing because the terminator or shadow-line that divides lunar day from night slices right across the middle of the lunar landscape.

Shadows cast by mountain peaks and crater rims are longest and most dramatic around this time because we look squarely down upon them. At crescent and gibbous phases, the terminator is off to one side and craters and their shadows appear scrunched and foreshortened.

The day-night line or terminator cuts across a magnificent landscape rich with craters and mountain ranges emerging from the lunar night. Several prominent lunar “seas” or maria and prominent craters are shown. Credit: Christian Legrand and Patrick Chevalley / Virtual Moon Atlas

Enjoy the view and consider the depth of space your view encompasses. Uranus is 1.85 billion miles from Earth today — 7,700 times farther away than the half moon.

Venus returns, joins exceptionally young moon tonight

Look low in the southwestern sky starting about 20 minutes after sunset this evening for a little spark of light – Venus. About 5° (one binocular field of view) to its upper right you might glimpse the moon, just 20 hours old from the East Coast (21 hours from the Midwest, 22 hours from the mountain states and 23 hours from the West Coast.) Source: Stellarium

Have you noticed something missing lately? Venus has been absent from view since late last summer. We last saw it struggling against the solar glare at dawn.

Now, just in time for the holidays, Venus is returning to the evening sky, low in the southwest after sundown. Tonight there’s even a chance to see it next to an exceptionally thin crescent moon.

Look for the goddess of beauty and love to meet up with the moon some 20 minutes after sundown low in the southwestern sky. Most of us consider seeing a day-old crescent moon quite a feat, but from the Midwest this evening, Luna will be just 21 hours old, a fragile crust if ever there was and a chance to break your personal young moon record.

I’d bring binoculars just to be sure you see the two. Venus will be only 6° above the horizon this evening. Make slow horizontal sweeps with your binoculars to the left of the brightest part of the lingering glow of sunset. As long as the sky is haze-free, Venus should pop into view. Once you’ve nailed it, move to the upper right in the field of view and locate the moon. Now, lower the binoculars and try sighting both with your naked eye alone.

Venus revolves around the Sun interior to Earth’s orbit. Right now it’s still near its greatest distance from Earth on the opposite side of the Sun from us. Over the coming weeks and month, it will draw closer to Earth and grow in apparent size as its phase changes from full to crescent. Source: Wikipedia with additions by the author

Venus underwent superior conjunction on October 25th, when it lined up with the Sun on the opposite side of its orbit from Earth. It was most distant from us then and appeared like a tiny full moon. The planet’s still pretty far away and will remain near the Sun in evening twilight for the next month or so. Although Venus’ orbital speed varies little over its nearly circular orbit, it appears to travel very slowly this winter because it’s very far from us.

Fear not! Its appearance this month is a harbinger for this spring and early summer’s exceptional apparition when the brightest of the planets will catch your eye in the west all evening long.

Looking at the diagram, notice that Venus, moving faster than Earth because it’s closer to the Sun, is slowly catching up with our planet. As it does, the angle it makes to Sun and Earth continuously changes which changes the appearance of Venus. Through a small telescope we can easily see its phase shrink from full to half to crescent exactly like the phases of the moon.

Panels illustrating several of the closest and best conjunctions of Venus and the planets in the coming year. Source: Stellarium

Venus is famous creating spectacular scenes with other bright planets and the moon. We call these events conjunctions. I’ve illustrated a few of them above. The best will occur on July 1st when the sky’s two brightest planets will be just 0.4° apart.

I love it when Venus returns to view. It always puts a bright face on every clear night.