Where’s Saturn? January 2019

The searches that come to my blog here at bkellysky are often looking for “What does Saturn (or other bright planet) look like in a telescope?” In early January 2019, our telescopes won’t find Saturn and its marvelous rings, since we are sailing around the far side of the Sun from Saturn and lose it in the Sun’s glare.

That’s where we can ‘cheat’ by using the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. SOHO is designed to look for faint solar wind phenomena. It’s a million miles from Earth in the direction of the Sun, pointed toward the Sun and doesn’t have to deal with those pesky things like atmospheric turbulence or our Moon photobombing the shot.

Here’s links to the SOHO photos and movies.

In the photo from the instrument known as LASCO C3, the brightest dot near the center of the photo is Saturn. The lines on each side are not from the rings. Because Saturn is so bright, some of its photons overflow into bins on either side of where Saturn is. In other words, it’s a artifact of the sensor on the spacecraft. The dark circle is the device the spacecraft uses to block the Sun’s light, so we can see the fainter outer solar atmosphere. That ‘cloud’ on the right in today’s movies at the SOHO site is the Milky Way, the part we usually see in nighttime sky during summer.

And if you want to plan ahead, here’s a chart showing when interesting objects will pass through SOHO’s sensors:


Start your New Years’ back to work happy

If you are up more than a half hour before sunrise, look to where the sky is brightening in the southeast. You should be able to see a very thin moon, just to the lower left of very bright Venus. If it’s dark enough, down in the trees will be Jupiter, to the lower left of the Moon and Venus. (For example: Sunrise in NYC is 720am on Wednesday and near that for the next few days, so 1/2 hour before sunrise would be 650am. ) You can see this as early as 530am or so.

Here’s what it looked like on Tuesday, New Years’ morning, quite a bit earlier, but still showing how the Moon, Venus and Jupiter are lined up:

When you find our moon, if it’s still dark enough outside, you may see the more dimly lit part of the moon. It’s lit by Sunlight reflected by the Earth – Earthshine. (Yes, it is a lovely Earth out tonight on our Moon. The Earth is over 3/4 full as seen from our Moon!)

Tuesday, Jan 1st 520am. NightCap 1/10 second f/1.8 ISO 7040, iPhone7, cropped and labeled. Moon overexposed.

On Wednesday, the Moon will be between Venus and Jupiter. On Thursday, the very thin, and perhaps hard to see, moon will be very low with Jupiter, as shown at the Sky and Telescope site (scroll down on their page to see the diagram of the sky for this week’s morning sky).

Today, we were able to Venus next to the moon in daylight. We found the moon first and then saw Venus several moon diameters to its left. Wednesday, Venus will be almost a fist-wide to our moon’s right. You’ll need to stand in the shade and have a very clear sky to see this.

I hope seeing any of this makes your oh-too-early-new-work-year-morning better.

New Years’ Celebrations: Our Near Sky and a Daring Pass by the Furthest Object We’ve Ever Visited

Two things: near and far, and both very cool and worth your attention this New Years’ holiday.

Near: If you have December’s Sky and Telescope magazine, you can use Scott Levine’s article and pop out from time to time New Years’ Eve overnight to know about the fun stuff you can see in the sky.

Also Near: New Years’ morning will bring our moon next to stunning Venus, visible in the morning sky before sunrise (and maybe into daylight!). If New Years’ morning is clouded out, try one (any, or all) of the following mornings: Our moon will be between Venus and not-quite-as-bright-but-still-really-bright Jupiter on the morning of the 2nd; near Jupiter on the 3rd and harder to find, but next to fainter Mercury, on the 4th.

Taken with NightCap app on iPhone7. Equivalent settings of f/1.8, ISO 1600 with 1/4 second exposure.
Venus is the bright dot to the upper right and Jupiter is a fainter dot just above the top of the tree over the house with the overexposed porch light.

Far. Really Far. New Horizons, which did such a good job at Pluto, passes a 20-mile-wide rock or pair of rocks just after midnight on New Years’ Day, much smaller than Pluto. The rock(s), designated 2014 MU69 (and unofficially called “Ultima Thule” by the New Horizons management) is/are much further out than Pluto, so it will be darker and and harder to see. We know almost nothing about this place- perhaps its shape from when it went behind a star earlier in 2018.

In fact, most of New Horizons’ photos will be dark, blank space, as they can’t be exactly sure where to point the cameras. Since it takes six hours for instructions to get to New Horizons, and six for data to come back, the robot has to be exquisitely programed to run this flyby all by itself.

New Horizons’ antenna is fixed to its side and its cameras don’t move (unlike Voyager), so it can’t talk to us and take photos at the same time. (Saved weight and less moving parts to break.) We won’t know what happens at closest approach about quarter after midnight, January 1st, Eastern Time until later Tuesday morning. New Horizons will take a minute, point toward Earth and send a series of beeps that says ‘I’m ok!’ and turn back to work. Later on Tuesday, the first good photos may arrive back on earth. The public may not see a clear copy until Wednesday.

What do we know? See articles at the sites listed below. In summary, it’s an elongated or two-piece object. It has no discernible light curve, so perhaps it’s spinning very fast. It appears to have no additional moons or ring of large particles around it, so (we hope) the path will be clear as New Horizons passes it 2,200 miles away at 31,600 miles per hour.

Here are good sources for information around those times when we may hear if the robot craft survives its encounter with Ultima Thule:

New Horizon’s press site

Planetary Society Blogs

Or unmannedspaceflight.com and NASASpaceflight.com

Peace to you and yours for the new year and always.

Heads UP! for January 2019

  • Venus and Jupiter draw attention in the morning sky, especially Jan. 20 – 26.
  • Watch the Midnight Supermoon Total Lunar Eclipse during the night of January 20-21. 
  • New Horizons spacecraft passes an object we know next to nothing about on New Years’ Day.
  • Mars stands out in the southwest in the evening sky. 

The Midnight Supermoon Total Lunar Eclipse is deepest at 12:12amEST on the night of January 20-21.  Our moon is closest to us just 15 hours later.  With the moon so high in the sky, I’m not sure it will look larger than normal.  Some people have a Monday holiday to recover some sleeping time. Beware of higher than normal tides from the 20th through 23rd, especially if a nor’easter passes by.  The largest full moon for 2019 will be in February.  I’ll have more details in a post before the eclipse.

Happy Gregorian Calendar New Year!  Near Midnight on New Years’ Day, New Horizons will pass a tiny denizen of the Kuiper Belt, nicknamed Ultima Thule.  Information from New Horizons takes six hours to travel back to Earth at the speed of light.  The spacecraft can’t talk and take photos at the same time, so around 10:30am EST, an ‘I’m OK’ tone will be the first word that the craft survived the encounter.  NH is programmed to send the first photos around mid-afternoon.  It may take as long as 20 months for all the data from the encounter to get to Earth.

Venus holds its brilliance in the pre-sunrise sky and plays traffic cop for the other planets.  Our moon passes by early and late in the month. The Morning Star appears farthest out from the Sun on the 6th.  From the 20th to the 25th look for several days of a striking paring of Venus and Jupiter, the brightest planets in our sky.  Are they bright enough for a selfie?  Our moon joins the scene on the 30th and 31st.  Venus will appear to drift lower each week, but will hang out, low but bright, into May.  The planet will be half-lit in the first week of January, waxing wider, but appearing smaller in a telescope.  If you can, take a photo through the telescope now and again to have a nice set of comparison shots as Venus’ phase changes.

Mercury starts out January halfway between Jupiter and the Sun in the morning sky, only one fist high above the horizon even at sunrise.  The innermost planet shows itself tiny, but almost fully lit, in a telescope. 

It would be a good year for the strong, but short Quadrantids meteor shower on the night of the 3rd/4th.  With no moon to dazzle our eyes you really could see a hundred meteors an hour at the peak.  However, the peak happens at 9pm for the USA before we face head-on into the meteor stream after midnight on the 4th.  

Mars is bright, like a leftover holiday ornament hanging up in the southwestern sky after sunset.  It’s the brightest object in that neighborhood of the sky. Mars shows little detail, even in a large telescope, but is noticeably out of round in most scopes at 88 percent sunlit.  Our moon passes by to point it out on the 9th

Uranus is hiding in the evening sky to the upper left of Mars in the dim stars of Pisces. If you can hop to it, it’s worth a look.  In a telescope, it’s definitely a dot, unlike the surrounding point-like stars.  Neptune has lost its Martian red laser pointer star from last month.  It’s in Aquarius to the lower right of Mars, halfway to horizon.

Saturn is in conjunction with our Sun on the 2nd.  It drifts through the SOHO C3 field of view during the first week of January.  Mercury zips by at the end of the month, swinging around the far side of the Sun on the 29th.

Latest sunrise is January 4th.  It’s not on the shortest day of the year mostly because the Earth’s orbit isn’t circular.  By the 4th, sunset is already 10 minutes later than in early December, giving hope to evening commuters.  We are closest to the sun for 2019 on January 4th.  At 91.4 million miles away, we’re 3 percent closer than at our apogee on July 4th. For the record, there is a partial solar eclipse for the North Pacific on January 6th.

The International Space Station crew is back down to only three souls on board.  It is visible in the morning sky through the 14th and in the evening sky after the 19th.  Check your favorite satellite-finding app as times may change.  It’s fun to look for photo ops with our moon and bright planets.

A Guide to Guides About What’s Happening in the Heavens in 2019

The Astronomical Almanac (2019 – 2023) by Richard J. Bartlett

Divided into sets of 10 days, with daily information about lunar and planetary location, brightness, phase, size and visibility.  List of significant events.  Illustrations show the apparent size of the planets each 10 days.  Glossary not only explains all the entries, it often has helpful descriptions of how to use the data. Not super-portable, but you may want to have this on your bookshelf if you like to plan way ahead.

The Astronomical Almanac (2019 - 2023): A Comprehensive Guide to Night Sky Events

2019 Guide to the Night Sky by Dunlop and Tirion

See caveats at the end of this note. Also, be sure to get the North American edition.

Light and wonderfully handy.  Whoever decided ‘we should turn the pages to be viewed in the landscape (sideways) direction’ should get a prize.  Includes sky charts, descriptions of objects and how to find them and diagrams of significant sights for each month. 

Strangely, the information on the location of January’s total lunar eclipse is wrong and there is no entry at all for the transit of Mercury in November 2019.  Makes me wonder what else might be wrong. I had no problems with the 2018 edition.

2019 Guide to the Night Sky: A Month-by-Month Guide to Exploring the Skies Above North America

Observer’s Handbook 2019 – Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

For the second year the Canadians have translated their almanac into an edition with United States’ language and location information.  Lots of data. Each month has a two page listing of events and summary of planetary locations and visibility.  Well-written sections on astronomical events and observing them.  Like a textbook, but with without the heft or the high sticker price. Great section on observing the Sea of Tranquility this 50th year after the first moon landing.

Sky Watch 2019 from Sky and Telescope

This is a classic, revamped for 2019.  Each month now has four pages instead of two, but a good layout makes it comprehensible.  It’s a lightweight magazine with monthly star maps, planet visibility and highlights.  In addition, articles on observing and equipment tips.  Great for beginners, but not just. Available at bookstores and via S&T’s online store. Buy two and give one away to a budding astronomer.

Skywatch 2019

Skygazer’s Almanac 2019 from Sky and Telescope

A graphical almanac on one sheet of paper, this two page graph of rise and set times is a great way to see how our universe moves on a giant timeline of the night sky.  It’s worth getting January’s issue of S&T just to get the chart.  It can be ordered separately from S&T’s online store.  Also available for purchase as a wall poster.

2019 Skygazer's Almanac, 40 degrees North

Astronomy Magazine The January 2019 issue includes a sixteen-page guide to 2019’s events.  They focus on a particular event each month.  Worth a visit to your local Barnes and Noble to see if you like it. 

Astronomical Almanac for the Year 2019 from the US Department of the Navy and UK Nautical Almanac Office   http://asa.usno.navy.mil/

More than most of us need, with information on exact planetary positions.

Astronomical Almanac For The Year 2019 | U.S. Government ...

The Astronomical Phenomena for the Year 2019


This pamphlet includes the most useful information for observers from the Astronomical Almanac. You can get it as a free PDF from the US Naval Observatory website.  Lots of data and useful information.  Strangely, last I checked, the printed copy was on backorder at the US Gov’t Bookstore. https://aa.usno.navy.mil/publications/docs/ap.php

Really wet weather

Update: heaviest rain and strongest winds are a bit further east than in computer forecast models. Still a very wet breezy day.

Here in the eastern United States, a very deep bend in the jet stream is bringing a plume of moisture from the tropics up the coast. The amount of water in the atmosphere over New York City will peak out near 1.75 inches of water. That’s more than Puerto Rico right now. Maybe we’ll set some record high temperatures on Friday.

Tropical rain in the winter! From the NYC National Weather Service Forecast Discussion:

The Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic ocean will be open to provide
anomalously high amounts of moisture with this longwave trough.
Precipitable waters are progged to be 4 to 5 standard deviations
above normal for this time of year with values averaging around 1.50
inches on Friday. SPC sounding climatology reveals that these
precipitable waters are close to record observed levels for this
time of year.

The SPC Sounding Climatology covers about ten years of data, so some of these extreme conditions may have occurred in a larger data set. Of course, if you check the data (see after the map, below), a 1.50 or more total precipitable water amount rarely occurs outside of June through September.

This plot from the forecast model shows the wind flow in the lower atmosphere from the ground to about 10,000 feet.

The University of Wisconsin’s dry air analysis shows a plume of dry air extending from Africa to the eastern Carabiean.
It seems like a very large area of dry air for this time of year, based on what I’ve seen in the past.
Nonetheless, the air over Puerto Rico is drier than usual.
The plume of moist air is moving northward through western Cuba to the eastern United States.

Venus gets company: Mercury and Jupiter

Many people are expecting company for the holidays, and perhaps Venus is no exception. Mercury has been hanging out, low and to the left of Venus. Now, Jupiter is joining them. I saw them low in the trees from my house, so I went to the local middle school to get some elevation.

Jupiter (down in the trees and wires) and Mercury (fainter and to the upper right). Cropped from 50mm Canon XS on tripod.

Camera settings: f/2 1/12 second ISO 400 6:30am EST 45 minutes before local sunrise.

Here’s the original photo:

Jupiter and Mercury down to the lower left. Jupiter is in the trees to the left of the power tower. Mercury above it and slightly to the right in blue sky.

The hills on the other side of the valley raises the horizon a bit. A the time of the photo, Venus was 28 degrees above the horizon and Jupiter and Mercury were 5 and 8 degrees, respectively. Here’s a chart from Mobile Observatory:

Here’s Venus (super bright upper right) and Mercury (faint at lower left).

Venus and Mercury 1/25 second at f/2, ISO 400, 50mm lens Canon XS on tripod.

Jupiter will move up and pass Mercury on the 22nd as Mercury falls closer to the horizon, but brightens a bit. Then it will follow Jupiter, rising into the bright twilight and be visible low in the morning sky into January.

Jupiter will get up to where Venus is January 20 to 26 as the two brightest planets in our skies these days will be low, but bright enough to impress even the most casual observer.