The Fourth of July weekend has a sky full of astronomical sights. If you can see around all the fireworks, you’ll have two of the brightest asteroids near each other, with the Moon near Mars nearby and wonderful Saturn and its rings put on a show it a telescope.
Asteroids 1Ceres and 4Vesta appear to be flying in tandem. (The numbers are the order they were discovered.) They come closest together around the fourth of July. You’ll need a good pair of binoculars or a telescope and a sky chart to tell them from the many other points of light out there. Look a few days before or after the 4th to see how they moved. Despite appearing near each other, Ceres is 46 million miles behind Vesta.
Also, the Moon passes close by Mars on the 5th. Mars is very tiny at 9 arc seconds (Saturn is 18 arc seconds across, and that’s smaller than a large crater looks on our Moon, for comparison.) Sometimes in a larger telescope, you can still see Mars’ color is a mix of gray volcanic rock and salmon-shaded dust.
Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun (always) but did you know it is mostly often the closest planet to the Earth? It holds that title until the 28th when Mars is left as the closest planet to us as Mercury and Venus flee from us to the other side of the Sun in their faster, inner orbits.
In our skies, Mercury shows up in the morning sky, down and to the left of Venus, in the latter 2/3rds of the month. Mercury approaches Venus, getting closest on the 16th, but still doesn’t reach Venus’ height above the horizon.
The Moon joins the scene from the 23rd through the 25th, making a nice photo opportunity. .
Have you seen the live camera views from new cameras installed outside the International Space Station? It’s worth a look to see what you can see from these cameras, although sometimes they are dark when out of range of ground stations or when the ISS is in the Earth’s shadow.
The HD camera is often the most interesting:
and some of the other cameras’ websites show work inside the space station when needed:
Sometimes just before the Sun comes up on the station (every 90 minutes) you can see the brilliant planet Venus as a bright dot rising before the Sun.
Saturn’s rings have a jaunty tilt this year, making it easier to see the space between the rings and the planet. Even the Cassini Division between the A and B rings can be seen at high power. The two main rings are slightly different shades of white. The bright rings make it harder to see some of Saturn’s smaller moons, but Titan is readily visible at magnitude +9. You may see another dot to the west of Saturn; it’s Iapetus, which is brightening up to magnitude +10 by July 3rd, as it turns its brighter face toward us during its 79-day trip around Saturn.
3 Saturn’s and it moons in a telescope’s view. Cartes du Ciel software.
Jupiter is hiding behind the Sun this month. Track it with the SOHO C3 camera http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/data/realtime-images.html from July 14 through August 2.
Even fans of Pluto find it hard to find, even at opposition and at its brightest for the year this month at magnitude +14.1. Pluto is the closest of the Kuiper Belt objects to Earth, unless, as suspected, Triton, in orbit around Neptune, and Phoebe at Saturn may be Kuiper Belt objects that were thrown inward.
ISS sightings are in the morning sky. One of the better overflights (no one will see, since it’s so early!) at 4:37am on July 18th .
The Moon’s monthly closest approach to Earth (perigee) is on the 13th and within 24 hours of the Full Moon. Lining up with the Sun will create larger than normal tides. The Full Moon occurs near the Moon’s perigee for the next three months.
The Sun, on the other hand, is at its furthest from the Earth on July 3rd.
Heads UP! for June 2014
Jupiter heads for the exits this month – on its way out watch for its changing alignments with 1st magnitude stars Castor and Pollux.
Mercury starts June low to the right of the dancing Gemini and Jupiter; just above the horizon as twilight fades. Mercury doesn’t hang out with the boys for long, so check early in the month. It becomes the closest planet to Earth this month, getting larger, with a crescent phase. As Mercury passes through the glare of the Sun, check it out at the SOHO C3 web site http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/data/realtime-images.html
Just to the upper left of the dancing twins, the backward question mark making the head of Leo looks more like a sickle about to harvest the Moon and Jupiter after sunset late in June.
Saturn is as high as it gets in the sky after dark this year, a bit smaller but with its rings 21 degrees open, it’s a fantastic site in any telescope. After taking in the rings and the butterscotch bands of the planet’s atmosphere, count how many of Saturn’s moons you can see in the telescope. Titan, is easiest to see. You might see a few more moons. The two-faced moon Iapetus passes to the south of Saturn on its way to turning its brighter face toward us in early July, when it brightens to magnitude +10.1 .
Mars is nicely placed in the southwestern sky at the start of June. But the reddish planet fades and shrinks like a color cotton t-shirt in a hot water wash.
Asteroids Ceres and Vesta offer us a two-for-one deal in late June. They get within a full moon’s width from each other in our skies from June 29th through July 5th. They are dimmer than they were a few months ago, now at magnitudes +8.4 and +7.1, respectively, so it helps to have a finder chart from an astronomical website to pick out which of the points of light in your telescope are the asteroids.
Venus is still the brightest planet at magnitude minus 3.9, but getting smaller and looking like a gibbous Moon in a telescope. Look low in the east northeast before sunrise. Venus is racing out ahead of us, but we keep up enough so Venus stays in our morning sky though the summer. It’s noticeably close to the Moon on the 24th. During the last week of June, with binoculars, can you see the wide star clusters, Hyades and Pleiades in the neighborhood of Venus as they come out from behind the Sun?
Uranus and Neptune are getting up earlier in the morning sky. Will you?
Moon points out the way to:
Jupiter on May 31st/June 1st and June 28th
Mars on the 7th
Spica on the 8th
Saturn on the 10th
Venus on the 24th
Aldebaran on the 25th/26th.
The Milky Way climbs out of the horizon’s mists where it hid in May.
The International Space Station spends most of early June in sunlight, so we can see it up to 5 times a night at first, then in the evenings from the 10th through the 21st. Watch continuous live video from a camera mounted outside the ISS (except for when it’s out of the range of tracking stations or the Earth is too dark when the ISS passes through the Earth’s shadow) at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/live-iss-stream .
The northern summer solstice occurs on the 21st at 6:51am EDT. The earliest sunrise is on the 14th and the earliest sunset is on the 27th.
Also, the Westchester Astronomers’ newsletter has been published….
Go out and find Jupiter, a bit lower in the west, still a joy in telescopes, even as it gets a bit smaller. Even without a telescope, go out and get a wide-field photo of Jupiter and the twins as the Gemini stand up on the horizon! The Moon joins their dance line, bouncing on Pollux’ knee, on the 3rd and the 31st.
Mars also shrinks quickly as it moves away, but still attracts attention as the third brightest planet in the evening sky, after Jupiter and Mercury. Clouds over the Hellas desert look like a large polar cap in a telescope; the large contrast with the rest of the ruddy planet making Mars look a bit strange in a ‘scope. The northern polar cap is tipped toward us, but is very tiny since it is summer in the northern hemisphere on Mars. Asteroids Vesta and Ceres are lurking a just few degrees from Mars, with Ceres about to get a visit from the Dawn space probe next February. How long of a camera exposure do you need to get all except Dawn in the same photo? The Moon ‘photobombs’ the scene around the 10th.
Mercury starts out May as the second brightest planet in the evening sky. But it’s deep in the solar glare after hiding behind the Sun at superior conjunction.
It gets dimmer all month but easier to find by mid-May as it moves out from the Sun into the evening sky. It’s the best show for Mercury in our evening skies this year. Catch it before it fades away after the Memorial Day weekend. Use high magnification to watch its rapidly changing phases.
Saturn is closest to us for 2014 around the 10th. The ringed planet makes a splendid appearance in any reasonable optical device over 30 power. Saturn’s moons are a highlight all by themselves. Titan is in reach of smaller scopes. Rhea and Dione are noticeable much of the time in moderate scopes. Iapetus’ orbit is tilted more than the others, so it passes to the north of Saturn in early May. Even at magnitude +11 it is sometimes easier to find, away from the distracting bright rings. If you follow Iapetus’ progress this month, it will get dimmer as it revolves to Saturn’s east. That’s when we’ll see the darker side of the two-faced moon. Saturn’s rings often look brighter for a few days near opposition on the 10th. The Sun is behind us from Saturn’s point of view, so the tiny particles in Saturn’s ring reflect more light back toward its source, making the rings look brighter than usual. The Moon rings in with a very close pass on the 14th.
Venus must be very comfortable, settling in well to right of the rising Sun all through the summer months. In a telescope, our ‘evil twin’ planet looks smaller each week as it moves swiftly away from Earth, but will be 2/3 lit and getting fuller this month. These two factors will offset to keep Venus near a blazing-bright magnitude minus 4.0. You’ll need to find Venus in a bright sky to see the shape of the planet. Just don’t try when the Sun is up, since the Sun follows Venus and will burn out your eyes and your telescope. The Moon is nearby during the Memorial Day weekend.
We may have a new meteor shower this month. Set your alarm before 3am EDT on the 24th. Look overhead or in the darkest, least obstructed part of your sky to see the most meteors. Mathematicians calculated the debris trail from Comet 209P/LINEAR’s will be thick enough to produce a good meteor shower when the comet’s orbit intercepts the Earth’s orbit. Don’t be disappointed if you only see a few meteors; the ones you see are likely to be brighter and slower-moving than meteors you typically see. And there’s always the chance of a meteor storm! The comet itself is predicted to be 11th magnitude or fainter when it passes at a safe distance from Earth five days later.
Lovers of the Moon might want to view the Moon around the 19th, when it will be near perigee for the month. The heavily-cratered south polar region will be tipped a bit more than usual toward Earth. The rugged terrain has lots of details, and may be the site of a future Moon base, so no matter what size telescope you have, crank up the power and see for yourself!
Another comet discovered by the PanSTARRS sky survey – C/2012 K1 – will be a binocular object inside the handle of the Big Dipper in early May.
ISS sightings will resume in the morning sky after the 14th. In early June, as many as five passes a night can be seen.
but I got a few photos before the clouds completely blocked the view….
canon xs on tripod 55 and 250mm zoom
Wide view with Mars on the right – other stars blocked by clouds
Heads UP! for April 2014
During the night of April 14 – 15, you can see all the sunrises and sunset around the world in one night. After midnight on April 15th, we can see our Moon tinted red and blue by sunlight passing through the dust, clouds and ozone of Earth’s atmosphere at the moment of sunrise or sunset, as seen from the Moon. That’s a lunar eclipse, where the Earth blocks out the Sun and puts the Moon in the Earth’s shadow.
Unlike a solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse can see be seen across half the world at once. This eclipse begins in the eastern daylight time zone at 1:58am before dawn on the 15th, and at the same time across the country, including in the pacific daylight time zone at 10:58pm on the 14th. If you get up for the start of the eclipse, watch for the stars around the Moon become more visible as the Moon darkens.
There is quite a collection of objects near the Moon in the sky that night, with Mars very noticeable nearby, Spica right next to the Moon and two asteroids, Ceres and Vesta, visible in binoculars nearby.
At maximum eclipse, at 3:46am, watch for the variation in light across the Moon as the southern part of the Moon is close to the edge of the earth’s shadow and will look brighter than the northern part of the Moon. The partial eclipse is over by 5:33am, and the sky begins to lighten with the Sun coming up at 6:16am in our area.
If you don’t want to get up ‘in the middle of the night’, set your alarm for a little before 4am and watch the second half of the eclipse, when the line of sunrises and sunsets will move across the Moon from 4:25am to 5:33am. The eclipsed Moon may be low enough in the southwestern sky to be seen from indoors, through a window. This ‘picture window’ eclipse allows viewing from the comfort of home.
Meanwhile, watch this month as the winter constellations, with all their bright stars, appear to rush for the exits, leaving our evening skies for the season, so look early after dark to see them. To take their places, Leo the lion and the Big Dipper head for the overhead this month.
This month is your best chance to view details on Mars. Crank the telescope’s power up as high as the shimmering atmosphere of the Earth will allow. The best nights are when the jet stream is not over your observing site. We pass closest to Mars on the 14th, and Mars is the closest planet to Earth this month, but still not the largest in apparent size.
Jupiter spends most of the evening higher in the sky than Mars, thanks to its location in the northern latitudes of the constellations. It’s 90 degrees away from the Sun in the sky, so when the shadows of its moons are on the planet, the moons are mostly off to one side, giving the view the appearance of depth.
Among the things you can’t see this month is an annular solar eclipse, visible in a small area of a remote part of Antarctica on the 27th. It’ll be a partial eclipse in Australia, if you are going ‘down under’ this month.
Mercury is too close to the Sun to see easily this month, passing in back of the Sun, from Earth’s point of view, on the 26th. Neptune and Uranus are deep in the glare of the Sun.
Venus sits patently waiting, low in the southeast, well to the right of where the Sun will rise. It’s half full (not the same as half-empty) at the start of the month. The phase is easiest to see in a telescope when the sky starts to brighten up.
Saturn, the ringed wonder is still highest in the sky in the wee hours of the morning. It’ll be more conveniently located in the evening sky in May, when it reaches opposition.
Look for Venus and the Moon posing together on the mornings of the 25th and 26th. The Moon also appears startlingly close to Saturn on the 17th.
The International Space Station is visible in dusk from the 4th through the 25th. The recent arrival of the Russian Soyuz capsule brought the station population back up to six. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata is the station commander, the first Japanese astronaut to command the international outpost.
The highlight of March will be ‘not seeing’ something. The brightest star in Leo the lion, Regulus, will be briefly blotted out by faint asteroid Euigone(1) passing in front of it just after 2am EDT as seen from a narrow band passing over the New York City area. Seeing one of the brightest stars in the sky turn off for up to 14 seconds is a spooky event worth seeing. Timings from many locations of how long Regulus disappears can be used to map the shape of the asteroid. (See http://www.astronomy.com.cn/bbs/thread-223054-1-1.html scroll down for examples) For lots of details, including how to make scientifically useful observations, see http://occultations.org/Regulus2014/.
To see this event, in addition to setting an alarm clock at oh so dark in the morning, you’ll need to make sure you won’t go out at 2am just to find out you can’t see Regulus from where you planned to stand. (Seeing Regulus disappear behind a tree branch or a house definitely does not count!) So, go out some evening earlier that week and see if you can see the tip of the V in Hyades in Taurus around 8 to 8:30pm EDT. (That’s the V above Orion with reddish Aldebaran at the end of one of the arms of the V.) Regulus at 2am will be about a couple of fingerwidths below that spot in the sky, so if you can see that area below the V without obstructions, you should be able to see Regulus from the same spot around the time of the occultation.
Of course, there are many longer-lasting astronomical sights at more reasonable times in March.
The morning sky has a bright spray of planets, with Venus anchoring the scene low in the dawning sky. To its lower left early in the month is Mercury and well to its right is Saturn, and Mars further to the right, giving the early riser up to four planets for inspection.
Mars gets 25% larger this month and looks substantially brighter as we approach for our closest pass in many years in April. Mars rises by the end of evening twilight late in the month, making it more accessible to the prime time observer with a moderate or large telescope.
Saturn, a morning object, gets 5% larger in March, making a great sight even easier to see.
Venus gets smaller but thicker this month, more like a half-moon than a crescent when seen in a telescope during twilight. It’s standing out low in the southeastern dawn sky. Venus is joined by Mercury, which will be hard to spot lower to the left during the first two weeks of March. By the end of the month, Venus is , moving rapidly away from the Earth and gives up its title as the ‘closest planet to Earth’ to Mars.
Early morning astronomy gets a bit easier with the change to daylight time, with sunrise returning to after 7am, a time more typical to early January, but giving us more time for viewing Venus from east-facing train, bus and elevated subway stations on our way to work.
Jupiter is king of the nightime, passing high and bright overhead during prime time. It’s a great time to see the giant planet, with its ‘great red spot’ more prominent this year and four bright moons that occasionally leave their shadows lingering on the planet’s face.
A bit late for Olympic ice dancing, 4Vesta and 1Ceres appear to twizzle across the sky in Virgo, paired up from now through summer. In July they get within one degree of each other in the sky. Use your imagination to ‘see’ NASA’s Dawn spacecraft as its ion engine putters on its way between the two asteroids. You’ll need a good chart of their locations, but it’s great if you can track these two large rocks as they brighten enough to be see in binoculars as they move among the stars of Virgo from week to week.
The International Space Station joins the fun in the morning sky starting on the 11th through the end of the month.
This wouldn’t be an almanac column without noting the equinox occurs at 12:57pm EDT on March 20th. Enjoy!
(1) Erigone is from a Greek myth, so when spoken it’s divided up as e-RIG-on-e, not er-i-gone, even though since it’s making a star disappear, it might be more fun to use the “–gone” version.