Tonight's the Night

Not the Neil Young song. For the northeastern United States, tonight is one of the few clear nights recently or upcoming. The weekend has a coastal storm everyone is watching.

So, tonight’s the night to get out there while there is a clear night. We’ll have the crescent Moon, brilliant Venus, and way down to the lower right of Venus, speedy Mercury is starting its ascent into the evening sky.

The ISS will be passing low in the northern sky just before 7pm (see chart at end of this post).

Here’s a chart from Heavens-above.com – it’s ok for this evening for the northeastern and mid-atlantic states, and for most places for this time of night. You can make your own from their site, as well.

Evening sky about an hour after sunset tonight, January 29th (7pm local time).
Mercury is the dot on the western horizon. You’ll have to be out earlier to see Mercury well.

Thursday morning is forecast to be clear as well. Look for unremarkable Mars near anti-Mars (Antares in Scorpius) if it’s still dark, and Jupiter and Saturn scraping the southeastern horizon to Mars’ lower left as you get nearer to sunrise.

6:30am local time, about 40 minutes before Sunrise, Thursday, January 30th.
International Space Station overflight, visible to the unaided eye, but low in the northern sky, as predicted for the White Plains, NY, USA area around 5:55pm EST.
Go to heavens-above.com for predictions for your location.

Count the stars?

I was taking some snapshots of the sky to talk about with my grandson. Then I saw my friend Scott counting five, no six! objects to look at. I had captured four of them. Canon XS on a tripod. Try for yourself! With or without a camera.

Moon.
250mm zoom lens, 1/640 second exposure at f/7.1 ISO 200
Venus.
55mm zoom lens, 10 seconds at f7.1 ISO 200

Missed Aldebaran and the V-shaped Hyades cluster.

Pleiades cluster.
Cropped from larger frame of 55mm lens for 5 seconds at f/4.5 ISO 800
Betelgeuse, the leftmost star in this photo of Orion. (Lying around like a goofball, again!)
55mm zoom lens for 10 seconds at f/4.6 ISO 800

To read all about them, go to Scott’s blog, and count the Count.

Heads UP! for January 2020

Meteor Shower or a Shower in the Rain?

Early Saturday morning January 4th is the bone-chilling Quadrantids meteor shower.  These pieces of asteroid 2003 EH can produce a meteor a minute at their peak.  The bad news is the peak doesn’t last very long.  The good news is a short peak means less time in the cold.  The good news for meteor watchers is the peak occurs at 3:20am, peak meteor shower time of day, and without a bright Moon to get in the way. An investment of couple of hours in the bleak mid-winter will give you a wealth of tiny streaks in the sky. I like being in a sleeping bag on a lay-out lawn chair with my house blocking bright lights.  However, the extended outlook calls for cloudy and rain early Saturday.

In any case, 2003 EH is a chunk of rock, an asteroid, not a comet, so it’s an unlikely source for a meteor shower.  Maybe the pieces are left over from a really bad breakup that 2003 EH hasn’t gotten over yet.

Plan Now for a Great Planetary Conjunction in December

Will you be able to see the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, low in the southwestern sky next December?  They will be closer together than the width of our Moon.  To see if you have a good horizon for viewing this event, go out in early January and look for super-bright Venus, low in the southwest.  The December Jupiter/Saturn conjunction will be a bit lower and to the right of where Venus is now.  Keep looking until you find a good location where you can clearly pick out Venus.  Then write it on a calendar for December 21st.  More details in another blog article.

Loneliness in the Morning Sky

Mars starts the month alone, of all the planets, in the morning sky.  At magnitude +1.5, it’s a pale pinkish dot low in the southeast, just above the claws of the Scorpion.  Compare color and brightness with “anti-Mars” Antares five degrees below Mars at mid-month. By then, Jupiter pops up to keep Mars company in the morning sky, low to the left.  Saturn follows at the end of the month, even farther to the lower left.

Check SOHO

Now, Jupiter and Mercury are passing through the Solar Heliospherical Observatory C3 camera (see SOHO blog entry).  Saturn and Mercury make their closest approach to each other, also seen in the C3 field, on the 11th.  No sunspots for us white-light solar observers as we are in an extended solar minimum in the 11-year cycle of solar activity. 

Evening Wanderers

Venus outshines all the other bright points in the evening sky.  Otherwise, Uranus would lay claim to the brightest of the ‘wanderers’ in our evening sky.  Neptune precedes Uranus to the western horizon. We have another chance to watch Venus sliding underneath the crescent Moon on the 27th, in case you missed the closer pass that made a cosmic semicolon in December.  Bonus observation with a telescope that evening – when magnitude +7.9 Neptune hides less than a Moon-width to the lower right of magnitude -4.0 Venus.  

Mercury strays into the evening sky late in January, hugging the horizon to the left of the setting Sun as it moves toward maximum elongation in early February.

Got an Overhead Skylight?

Have an overhead skylight and want a romantic weeknight at home?  Do some indoor stargazing.  Turn out the lights and frame the sublime Seven Sisters overhead in the window – the Pleiades are closest to overhead about 9pm local time in early January, 7pm by the end of the month.

The International Space Station

Overfights are visible in the morning sky through the 12th and in the evenings starting on the 18th.

Our Moment in the Sun

We have our close-up moment with the Sun on the 5th, only 1.7 percent closer than the astronomical unit, our average distance from the Sun.  The Parker Solar Probe comes to its perihelion, 12 percent of one astronomical unit, on the 29th.     

The Moon has a faint penumbral eclipse at full Moon on the evening of the 10th. It happens before Moonrise here. Some folks in northeastern Maine and points north and east might notice it.  

What's going on behind the Sun?

Thanks to the SOHO ( Solar & Heliospheric Observatory) we can see stars and planets which would be overwhelmed by sunshine here on Earth.

* December 29 through January 2 from SOHO Camera C3. *
White circle is the size of the Sun as seen from SOHO.
Jupiter ‘moving’ to the right and Mercury moving to the left.
Milky Way ‘moving’ right at lower right corner.
Sagittarius’ ‘teapot’ handle ‘moving’ right below the Sun
Note the ‘Teaspoon’ at upper left.

Mercury’s moving in front of M8 on the 29th.
“Moving” in quotes because it’s the Earth’s moving around the Sun that makes the stars and distant planets ‘move’ from left to right.
Map of the sky in the direction of the Sun.
Note Jupiter and Mercury to the west of the Sun and Saturn off to the east, about to enter the C3 scene.

Plan NOW for a Spectacular Conjunction in December 2020

Jupiter and Saturn are going to spend 2020 flirting with each other, finally coming together, as seen from Earth, in late December 2020. On December 21st, they will be so close together they may seem to be one object to the unaided eye. Binoculars or a telescope will show them as separate objects, very close together. This will be a great sight to view with the unaided eye and with binoculars and with a telescope. So, you should find out where you can get a good seat for this show.

Since this conjunction will happen low in the southwestern sky, it will help to have a good view of the southwestern horizon. If you look outside in the next week or so, low in the southwest, after sunset, Venus is almost in the same place Jupiter and Saturn will be in late December. So, now is the time to see if you can see Venus, to know if you have a good location to see the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction in late December 2020.

Here are two sky charts: The first, at 6:30pm local time at or about 40 degrees latitude north, is good for a week around January 4th, when Venus is as high in the sky as Jupiter and Saturn will be as darkness falls on the nights near December 21st, 2020. If you are further south, Venus (and the great conjunction in December) will be higher in your sky.

Super-bright Venus, low in the Southwest in early January.
Venus is visible for more than two hours after sunset.
The sun is located well below the horizon line, just at the bottom of this map.
Monday, December 21, 2020: Jupiter and Saturn so close they, and their name tags, merge on this chart.

The second chart shows the scene when Jupiter and Saturn on and around December 21st, 5:45pm local time, when they are as high as Venus is now.

If you see Venus earlier than 6:30pm, you’ll be seeing where Jupiter and Saturn will be found in brighter twilight in December, if you go out later, and you can find Venus, you’ll be sure to have a good viewing location for Jupiter and Saturn in December.

So, find a good place to see Venus now, and as a bonus, you’ll have a good place to see this conjunction in December. If Venus is blocked from your site, find another good site with a view to the southwestern sky!

Celestial Semicolon 2

Tonight, Saturday December 28, 2019, the crescent Moon and Venus lined up like a semicolon in the sky. I’ve seen this before – here’s a post from 2010 about an earlier alignment like this.

Canon XS on tripod: 50mm lens at f7.1, ISO-400 for 4 seconds.

Venus and the Moon were bright enough to shine through some dense high clouds.

Venus and the Moon with some Earthshine on the Moon (hard to see the Earthshine with the cloud deck scattering the light).
250mm zoom lens at f7.1 for 3.2 seconds at ISO 400.