To twinkle or not to twinkle, that is the question

Venus passes Regulus on the morning of September 5. Look low in the eastern sky 30-45 minutes before sunrise to see the pair. Bring binoculars in case twilight overwhelms Regulus. Stellarium

Early Friday morning September 5, skywatchers will see Venus and Leo’s brightest star Regulus in a close conjunction. The two will be separated by just 1° and look very nice in binoculars. Find a place with a view down to the eastern horizon and start looking about 40 minutes before sunrise. Jupiter, higher up in a darker sky, can help guide you to Venus.

This will be Venus’ last encounter with a bright star at dawn before it’s lost in the glare of the sun. It’s often said that one way you can tell a planet from a star is that a planet’s light appears steady, while stars twinkle. Not always. Stars only appear as points of light even through the largest telescopes and are easily shoved this way and that by air turbulence. These tiny shifts in position are what cause twinkling.

When we look at stars low in the sky we look across hundreds of miles of air in the lower, densest part of the atmosphere. Air currents across that great distance push a star’s light around causing it to twinkle. It can have the same effect on bright, naked eye planets when they’re far away and show a smaller than usual disk. Credit: Bob King

Planets have measurable disks and are less affected by the flutter of air, so we rarely catch them shimmering. But when the planet is far from Earth and very low in the sky, the rules change. Both Venus and Mars range in size from tiny blips to substantial disks (or in the case of Venus, a substantial half-moon or crescent). When viewed at low altitude, I’ve seen both twinkle lively.

Illustration showing how a planet, with a measurable disk, defeats air turbulence compared to a star which appears as a tiny point of light through a telescope. Credit: Bob King with Jupiter pic by Damian Peach

I witnessed it last Thursday morning with Venus. Jupiter, larger and higher in the sky, was a steady beacon. Venus, now nearly on the opposite side of the sun from Earth and about as small as it ever gets, trembled like a flame in the wind. What will you see Friday morning?

Venus remains visible for another two weeks before it’s lost in the solar glare. We won’t see the planet at all for more than a month until it returns to the evening sky around Thanksgiving in November. Watch for it to shake and shimmy its way up the western sky until fattening up around Christmas.

Miss the conjunction? Here’s your consolation prize

Clear skies prevailed over Königswinter, Germany for a great view of Venus and Jupiter just 0.2° apart at dawn this morning August 18. Credit: Daniel Fischer

Those killers of all things astronomical – clouds – were back again this morning, so no Venus-Jupiter conjunction here. Looks like I’ll pin my hopes on the one scheduled for next June 30 in Leo at dusk. I’m grateful for the flatness of the solar system, which guarantees that every few years we get repeat planet pairings.

Look east this coming Saturday morning for a sweet pairing of the bright planets and wiry crescent moon. This view shows the sky about 45 minutes before sunrise. Stellarium

I hope some of you got to see the conjunction from your home or on the way to work this morning. While Venus and Jupiter will now part ways, they’ll be one more blast of celestial awesomeness involving the duo and the crescent moon this weekend. Consider it a consolation prize. Who knows, this event might be even prettier than what passed this morning.

On Saturday morning, August 23rd about 30-45 minutes before sunrise, the thin, waning lunar crescent joins Jupiter and Venus in a stunning triangle of loveliness in the eastern sky.The threesome will all fit inside an 8° circle.

Now that I know this is coming I don’t feel so bad about missing the conjunction.

Jupiter and Venus cozy up for year’s best conjunction

The sky’s two brightest planets, Jupiter and Venus, will approach with 0.3 degrees of each other in morning twilight on Monday August 18th, the closest conjunction of the pair visible over North America since April 1998. This view faces northeast about 40 minutes before sunrise. Stellarium

As Mars approaches Saturn at dusk, Jupiter and Venus are zeroing in on each other at dawn for a spectacular close conjunction Monday morning August 18th. You won’t want to miss this one.

Conjunctions of the two brightest planets occur about once every 13 months but vary in visibility (some happen in daylight) and separation. The closer they get, the more arresting the view.

Tomorrow morning the planets will be a little more than 1º (two full moon diameters apart) – righteously close. But Monday morning they’ll be three times closer, just 0.3º  apart or a tad more than a half moon. That’s cozy enough for both to comfortably fit in the same field of view of a telescope.

Want to watch the approach? This view shows the sky tomorrow morning Sunday August 17th about 45 minutes before sunrise facing northeast. Venus will be about a degree above Jupiter and shine six times brighter.  Stellarium

To watch the event, find a place with a wide-open view to the east as far down to the horizon as possible.

Both planets will about 8º high or just shy of a fist held at arm’s length 40-45 minutes before sunrise.

Bring your camera too! A mobile phone might do OK in twilight, otherwise set your camera’s ISO to 400, place it on a tripod and open the lens to f/4 or 4.5. Then in auto mode, focus your lens at infinity by pointing it at the moon or a cloud. Now click your lens back into manual focus mode and point it at the planets, making a series of exposures from 1 second to 10 seconds. Check the camera back to make sure you’re in the ballpark on both sharpness and exposure.

Jupiter (top) and Venus in a more distant conjunction on June 30, 2012 seen over Lake Superior in Duluth, Minn. Credit: Bob King

Close as Jupiter and Venus will be for North America, skywatchers in central Europe will see them even closer (0.2º) before sunrise. After Monday, Jupiter continues its swift rise in the eastern sky while Venus slowly sinks toward the sun. They won’t pair up again until June 30, 2015 when they’ll be just as close in evening twilight in the constellation Leo.

Venus and Jupiter will pair up right next door to the Beehive Cluster in Cancer Monday August 18th at dawn. This shows an approximate binocular view. Stellarium

One final and happy note. Not only are the planets pairing up, they also happen to be right next to the Beehive star cluster in the constellation Cancer the Crab. I think you’ll need binoculars to see the cluster clearly, so be sure to have a pair along.

It should be a fun morning. The only down side is that it’s a Monday, meaning you’ll need a nap by the afternoon.

Mars and Saturn boogaloo with Zubenelgenubi

Mars and Saturn are now only about 7 degrees apart (a little more than three fingers) low in the southwestern sky at dusk. This view shows the sky about 90 minutes after sunset. Between the two, you can spot the dimmer star Zubenelgenubi, the brightest star in the constellation Libra the Scales. Stellarium

Evening planets Saturn and Mars are fading and dropping lower in the western sky as August ticks toward September. Remember when Mars was brighter than Arcturus this spring? Planets. They never sit still. Their light’s never constant. We love watching them change, which is why our ancient ancestors knew immediately they were different from the static stars.

From my house, I need to be vigilant to spot Saturn and Mars before they’re lost in the treetops. That means getting out about an hour after sunset in fading twilight and finding an open spot where I can look low in the southwestern sky.

You may have noticed that the two have slowly been drawing together over the past few weeks. Mars, much closer to Earth than Saturn, moves more quickly across the sky. It’s been ‘chasing’ slower Saturn for some time now.

Mars gets closer to Saturn with each passing night until August 25 when they’ll be in conjunction just 3.4 degrees apart (twice as close as tonight). Watching Mars move against much slower Saturn makes a fun and easy observing project. Stellarium

Tonight, the two planets will be 7 degrees apart on either side of Libra the Scales’ brightest star, Zubenelgenubi (zoo-BEN-el-je-NEW-bee). The name, a delight to pronounce, is pure Arabic and means ‘southern claw’. Libra’s stars used to belong to neighboring Scorpius and both it and nearby Zubeneschamali (northern claw) remind of us of times long ago when Libra belonged to Scorpius.

Zubenelgenubi (a.k.a. Alpha Librae) is a double star that observers with keen vision can split with the naked eye. Most of us will find that a pair of binoculars will make the job much easier.

Mars will soon pass its slower brother but not before the two are in conjunction and closest together on the evening of August 25th. Watching two planets pass in the night is fun and instructive – it makes us aware that everything in our solar system’s on the move.

This weekend we’ll look at another even more amazing planetary conjunction coming up very soon – Jupiter and Venus on August 18.

Rocky moon meets the ringed planet tonight

Look to the waxing gibbous moon tonight July 7 and you’ll see the planet Saturn about 1 degree above it. This map shows the sky around 10 o’clock local time. Stellarium

Forgive this ultra-brief appearance, but I’ve been exploring a virtually unknown astronomical paradise the past few days – Las Vegas! Although it seems incongruous, given Vegas’ image, the Las Vegas Astronomical Society has a very active presence here.

A recent photo posted by the Cassini spacecraft photo group shows Saturn’s magnificent rings, polar vortex and the jet stream-created polar hexagon. The hexagon, which is wider than 2 Earths, forms a six-lobed, stationary wave that wraps around the north polar regions at a latitude of roughly 77 degrees North. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The group planned a public outing for the Mars-moon conjunction on July 5 but were clouded out. Maybe tonight their members will get a clear sky for the Saturn-moon conjunction. I’ll be in a plane at 35,000 feet for the event crossing my fingers I get a window seat on the ‘right’ side.

Serious about Ceres? Vested in Vesta? A last-minute conjunction guide

Last night July 2, 2014 Ceres and Vesta were about a quarter degree apart in Virgo above Mars and Spica in the southwestern sky around 11 p.m. You can clearly see that Vesta is the brighter asteroid. 70mm lens at f/2.8, ISO 2500, 15-second exposure. Credit: Bob King

And yes the twain shall meet! Tonight I have a couple new photos to share with you showing the asteroids Ceres and Vesta just before their face-to-face meeting on July 5. That night they’ll be 10 arc minutes or just a third of a full moon diameter apart. Don’t fret if the weather’s supposed to be cloudy then – they’ll be nearly close tonight through the 6th.

Ceres and Vesta on the move! Pictures taken last night July 2, 2014 and tonight July 3 around 11 p.m. CDT show both asteroids zipping along near Zeta Virginis. The small triangle of stars serves as a reference to help you judge their movement. Photos taken with a 70mm lens, enlarged and cropped. Credit: Bob King

Besides, tonight the moon’s still a crescent and neither as bright nor as close to our asteroidal celebrities as it will be on the 5th. Glare that night will make seeing fainter Ceres difficult. If you have a telescope, both can be viewed right on through the full moon.

Map showing the motion of Ceres and Vesta at 1-day intervals near Zeta Virginis, a 3rd magnitude star located above the bright pair of Mars and Spica in the southwestern sky at nightfall. They’ll be closest on July 5. Stars plotted to magnitude 8.5. I also drew in the same triangle as in the photos. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

Vesta shines at magnitude 7, one magnitude fainter than the naked eye limit. I had no problem seeing either asteroid in 8×40 binoculars last night (July 2). They also showed up in my camera with a 15-second exposure at ISO 2500 with the lens wide open at f/2.8. The next few nights present a great opportunity for anyone with a medium to higher end digital camera and tripod to create a series of photos showing their convergence and divergence over time. A animated gif of the motion would be sweet!

Ceres and Vesta through a 14-inch telescope on July 3, 2014 when they were 13 arc minutes (a bit less than a 1/4 of a full moon diameter) apart. Both asteroids are too small and far away to appear as real disks in most telescopes. Credit: Gianluca Masi

Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi plans to feature live telescope images of Ceres and Vesta at closest approach on his Virtual Telescope site beginning at 3 p.m. CDT (4 p.m. EDT, 2 p.m. MDT and 1 p.m. PDT) Saturday July 5.

Hope you get to see the pair. Their last conjunction was in 1996 when they were much farther apart (2 degrees). And don’t forget the nearby conjunction of the moon and Mars with Spica nearby the same night.

Celestial fireworks light up the sky on the Fifth of July

The crescent moon shines in the southwestern sky tonight July 2 not far from Leo’s brightest star Regulus. It’s headed for two fine conjunctions later this week. Stellarium

We celebrate Independence Day this Friday the 4th with parades and good food topped off with colorful fireworks. Consider that the opening act. Festivities continue into the weekend with two spectacular conjunctions of the moon and planets.

Saturday evening July 5 allow your gaze to wander up to the first quarter moon. Levitating above it will be a bright red light – the planet Mars! They’ll be close. From most of the central and eastern U.S. and Canada the two are separated by just a half degree or one moon diameter. Look a short distance to the left of moon and you’ll also spot Virgo’s brightest star Spica.

The first quarter moon pays a close visit to Mars on Saturday July 5 and then passes Saturn two nights later. The views show the scene from the central U.S. around the start of nightfall. Stellarium

If you live farther south, the moon will inch closer to Mars. From sizzling Miami, the duo’s only a 1/3 of a moon apart, while the moon will completely cover or occult Mars for up to an hour across a wide swath of South America. Click HERE for a map and times showing where and when the occultation will occur.

Though Mars isn’t quite as bright as it was at opposition in April, it’s still brighter than its color rival Betelgeuse in Orion. With haze-free skies and a pair of binoculars you might be able to see it atop the moon a short time before sunset. Certainly worth a try.

Everybody loves an encore after a great performance, and the moon’s happy to oblige. Two nights later on July 7 it glides about a degree (two diameters) directly below Saturn. Once again, the moon will occult the planet as seen from the southern half of South America. While these sky events aren’t exactly stars exploding before our very eyes, their quiet beauty is worth our admiration.

Farewell Jupiter, hello moon!

The 2-day-old lunar crescent will shine low in the west-northwest tonight June 29, 2014. This view shows the moon about 30 minutes after sunset. Not far away – hidden by the tree – Jupiter makes its last stand. See below. Source: Stellarium

Tonight’s returning crescent moon will help us bid adieu to a planet that brought us through winter and spring to the doorstep of summer.

Jupiter’s put on a great show in Gemini this year. We’ve watched the nightly ballet of its four bright moons, pondered the shrinking of the Great Red Spot (how small it will get nobody knows) and witnessed the planet in many fine conjunctions with the crescent, quarter, gibbous and full moons.

That’s a lot of visual delight, but being one of the brightest planets, Jupiter rarely fails to please. Tonight you might see it for the last time this season using the moon as your guide. Face west-northwest about a half-hour after sunset. With binoculars, sweep the sky about 12 degrees to the right and below the crescent moon. Can you see it with your naked eye?

With a clear view to the west-northwest tonight, the moon will help you find Jupiter one last time. The map shows the sky 30 minutes after sunset from the central U.S. Jupiter lies about 12 degrees – a little more than a horizontally-held fist at arm’s length – to the right and below the moon. Use binoculars first and then see if you can spot it without optical aid. Source: Stellarium

No planet escapes the glare of the sun. The apparent movement of the sun across the sky caused by Earth’s revolution around it means that sooner or later our driven star catches up with the slower-orbiting planets that lie beyond the Earth. Indeed, the sun’s been gaining ground on Jupiter ever since January 5. On that date, the planet was at opposition, rising at sunset and remaining visible until the next morning’s sunrise. The very next day the sun gained 4 minutes on it and hasn’t stopped since.

Jupiter’s now (almost) hopelessly lost in bright evening twilight. It will still roast in the BBQ glow of the sunset until July 24 when it passes just a fraction of a degree north of the sun in conjunction. For several days before and after that date we’ll get to see it in SOHO’s coronagraph, an instrument that blocks out the sun to reveal the solar corona, background stars and occasional comet and planet crossings.

Wow! On Aug. 18, days after Jupiter returns to view in the morning sky, it will pass only 0.2 degrees (1/3 the diameter of the full moon) from Venus in the constellation Cancer. Source: Stellarium

As the sun passes and leaves Jupiter behind, the planet re-emerges in the east in morning twilight in early August. And what a grand entry it will be! On August 18 Jupiter passes just 0.2 degrees from Venus in one of the year’s most spectacular conjunctions.

If you recall, Jupiter spent most of this year in the constellation Gemini beneath the bright ‘twin stars’ Castor and Pollux. On its return in August you’ll be struck by how far the planet has moved east along the zodiac. Ceaselessly orbiting the sun, Jupiter will have abandoned Gemini for the faint constellation Cancer the Crab. And so it goes, round and round and round.

Two asteroids approach in the night / See Saturn’s elusive moon Iapetus

Map showing Ceres and Vesta as they approach each other closely this coming week. Both asteroids are near the easy-to-find star Zeta in Virgo not far from bright Mars (see map below). Although the asteroids appear very close together in the sky, they’re really about 51 million miles apart with Vesta in the foreground. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

This coming week there will be something for everyone in the night sky whatever instrument you choose: telescope, binoculars or naked eyeballs.

The biggest asteroid, Ceres, and brightest, Vesta, have been on converging paths since early spring. Right now they’re about a moon diameter (1/2 degree) apart and closing with each passing night. Saturday night July 5 – one week from today –  they’ll be three times closer yet, separated by just 10 arc minutes. To see this double asteroid treat a pair of 35 or 50mm binoculars should do the trick.

Use this wider view to help get oriented. Our two featured asteroids are near the 3rd magnitude star Zeta Virginis just above the bright pair of Mars and Spica. The map shows the sky around 10 p.m. local time tonight June 28, 2014 for the central U.S. Stellarium

Just as moon routinely has conjunctions with bright planets and stars during its monthly round through the zodiac, Vesta and Ceres will be in conjunction one directly atop the other on July 5. Vesta will shine at 7th magnitude and be easy to spot in binoculars; fainter Ceres at magnitude 8.3 will take a little more effort. Since asteroids are too small and far away to show as disks in most telescopes, the pair will look like a temporary ‘double star’ in all instruments.

Double your conjunction fun on Saturday night July 5. The same night Ceres and Vesta are closest, the moon and Mars form a tight duo nearby. From parts of South America, the moon will cover or occult the Red Planet. Stellarium

Another celestial duo debuts on the very same night the asteroids are closest. For observers in the U.S. and Canada, the moon, some 7 degrees south of Vesta-Ceres, passes only a half degree from Mars. Two conjunctions in the same small pocket of sky on the same night!

For U.S. observers, this all happens the night after the July 4 Independence Day fireworks. Could July start with more of a bang?

Another telescopic delight is happening a stone’s throw from Mars around the planet Saturn. Of the 62 known moons of the ringed planet, one of the most peculiar is 907-mile-wide Iapetus, which orbits well beyond the more familiar telescopic moons Titan, Rhea, Tethys and Dione.

Ever seen Saturn’s peculiar moon Iapetus? Right now it’s west of the planet and bright — second only to the moon Titan. Click to enlarge. Source: Starry Night

Iapetus has two faces really. One is shiny white and bright as snow, the other dark as the sky above Gotham City. The moon takes 79 days to complete one orbit around Saturn and like our own moon, keeps one face locked toward the planet. When it orbits east of Saturn, Iapetus shines dimly at magnitude +12 because its dark side faces us. But when it’s off to the west of the planet, the brilliant side turns our way and we see it shine two magnitudes brighter.

Saturn’s moon Iapetus, 907 miles (1,460 km) in diameter, has a dual personality. One hemisphere is covered with bright ice, the other with darker material possibly ejected by impacts on the more distant moon Phoebe. Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute

Greatest brightness occurs at the time of greatest distance west of the planet which happens on July 3. You can use the map above to help you follow the moon through its cycle of bright to dim. For more information, please see this recent article in Sky and Telescope.

Crescent moon visits a ‘wintering’ Venus / Mercury-moon conjunction for y’all

The slender crescent moon brushes Venus Tuesday morning at dawn low in the northeastern sky. The Pleiades star cluster, better known as the Seven Sisters, floats just above the pair. This map shows the sky facing northeast around 4 a.m. June 24. Stellarium

Wonder where the moon’s been hiding lately? Unless you’re up around 3 a.m. it’s been scarce this past week. All that time our favorite cratered world has been slimming down in the morning sky.

Now it’s a waning crescent fingernail, what many consider the moon’s most eye-catching phase.

Tuesday morning June 24 at dawn the thin crescent will join Venus in the constellation Taurus just below the pretty Pleiades star cluster. About 1 1/2 degrees or three moon diameters will separate Venus and the moon. To see this beautiful conjunction, look low in the northeastern sky at the start of dawn.

For the best view of the Seven Sisters, I recommend binoculars. Whenever I’ve had a reason to be up before sunrise in early summer I make a point of looking at the cluster. Taurus, neighboring Auriga and the Pleiades all belong to the winter sky, but we get a preview of that inevitable season as early as the first mornings of summer. There’s something delicious about seeing the first stars of winter as the robins sing in the dewy woods.

An extremely thin moon will pass very close to Mercury on Thursday morning June 26 as seen from the southern U.S. This view shows the sky facing northeast right around sunrise for New Orleans, LA. The moon will only be about 5 degrees high at the time. Use binoculars to find it. Seeing Mercury will require a small telescope. Stellarium

Live in the far southern U.S.? You’ve got one more lunar visitation. This one will be challenging. On Thursday morning, the moon, just 21 hours before new, will glide a fraction of a degree south of the planet Mercury in a bright sky only minutes before sunrise. The moon will hover very low (5 degrees) in the northeast in a bright sky. Whatever you do, bring binoculars. You might need them to find the moon at all.

Like the moon, Mercury’s an extremely thin crescent and very faint, shining at just magnitude 3.5. Skywatchers might spot it in binoculars, but I’m not betting on it. With very clear skies, there’s a chance of seeing the planet directly above the northern cusp of the moon with a small telescope. Should you succeed, you’ll be rewarded with the rare sight of two delicate crescents one atop the other. Find a location with a wide open view to the northeast and start looking about 15 minutes before sunrise.

The moon will cover up or occult the planet for observers in northern South America, but again, this will happen in a bright sky and prove tricky to see.

Just a reminder. Although no auroras showed last night at mid-latitudes, there’s still a chance for a minor storm tonight. I’ll send out a notice if that happens.