Update! Mid-May 2020 Swan Song, ISS all-night, Venus/Mercury, Morning Planets

  • Summary:
  • Is Comet Swan going to re-brighten?. It’s low in the northeast just before sunrise. Also later in the month low in the northwest right after sunset.
  • This week, try for as many ISS overflights as you can see in a night – every 90 minutes or so for a few nights, then just in the evening sky. Check heavens-above.com or the NASA site for times.
  • Venus stands bright, but getting lower, in the west-northwest. Watch for Mercury’s pop-up appearance, arcing above Venus later next week. The very thin Moon joins them in twilight on the 24th/25th.
  • Jupiter and Saturn are still outstanding low in the southeastern sky before sunrise. Check out their moons! Mars socially distances to the left.

Comet SWAN: Another one falls to dust (I think there is a song there!). It may be showing signs of re-brightening. Best resource for SWAN is Astro Bob (no relation) at https://astrobob.areavoices.com/ .

ISS overflights! The night of the 15th /16th has as many as six (!) overflights, some better than others. Here’s a list from heavens-above.com for White Plains, NY. This is also a great night of ISS viewing for the northeast and middle-atlantic states of the USA. See heavens-above for times for your location. The ISS has a “high beta angle” near the summer solstice for the northern hemisphere. This year beta season is very early and here’s a link to why. Thanks to space station guys for the reference!

15 May-2.420:51:2310°S20:53:5420°SE20:56:2610°Evisible
15 May-2.822:27:1210°WSW22:30:2749°NNW22:33:4510°NEvisible
16 May-0.700:05:4010°NW00:07:5216°NNW00:10:0410°NNEvisible
16 May-0.501:43:4010°NNW01:45:4115°N01:47:4310°NEvisible
16 May-2.203:20:0110°NW03:23:1137°NNE03:26:2210°Evisible
16 May-2.804:56:5810°WNW04:59:5327°SW05:02:4810°SSEvisible
Times you can see the International Space Station from the NYC metro area.
Thanks to heavens-above.com !

The best overflight over NYC is on the 16th, overhead, across the Big Dipper, about 9:43pm. After the 19th, the overflights are after sunset through mid-night.

At Four-so-early-in-the-morning (Daylight Time), see the outer planets. (Pluto’s location marked for completeness. Not visible.)

4:30am Local Daylight Time sky May 16th. Good for rest of May
(However, the Moon will move on each day toward new moon on the 22nd.)

Cute break for today: When I wear my Planetary Society shirt, My two-year old grandchild points to the tiny dots at the bottom of the shirt, out beyond Neptune, and says “planets”. I guess she’s in favor of Kuiper-Belt objects as planets!

Heads UP! for January 2014

For the first week of January, Venus is very low in the southwest, just after sunset. It’s a tiny crescent if you look in binoculars or a telescope. Some can even see the crescent shape without optical aid. Not me. Binoculars help, as does looking at Venus in a bright sky. By the end of the month, Venus rises before the beginning of morning twilight, the start of a long run in the morning sky through October.
It’s on our side of the sun, and Venus is the closest planet to Earth until Mars takes the title in late March.

Saturn is up at dawn in the southern sky, its rings tipped open toward us, making a magnificent sight in the telescope. You can find it without a telescope, but use a finder chart to find it the first time – once you see where it is, you’ll know for the future. To the unaided eye, Saturn doesn’t look like anything special – a bit steadier point of light, equal in brightness to many of the brightest stars. But in any telescope at 40 power or more, it’s tiny, but distinctly unlike anything else in the sky with its tiny-looking ring.

Jupiter is more than happy to take the spotlight as Venus exits to the morning sky. Jupiter is up all night, as it’s closest to us for the year on the 5th. It’s brighter than any of the stars and planets in the evening sky, and draws the eye to the twin brightest stars of Gemini and the nearby star clusters in Orion and Taurus. Any size telescope can tease out variations in Jupiter’s cloud belts and track Jupiter’s moons.

Mars gets brighter; at its highest before sunrise. Its reddish color makes it stand out, but it’s small. Part of the reason for its small size is that Mars is at its furthest distance from the Sun. Try to see if the shrinking northern polar cap is still large enough to show up in your telescope. Use high power!

Mercury makes an appearance in the evening in the second half of January. It is a poor substitute for brilliant Venus, but it’s an accessible apparition for fans of the innermost planet and those who haven’t seen Mercury in a while – or ever.

The sun will rise over the landing site for Yutu, China’s rover, on the Mare Imbrium, around the 11th. The faint variations in gray across the Mare show different lava flows. Yutu has ground-penetrating radar that may see these layers.

The Moon provides close company for Jupiter on the 14th/15th. Does the furthest away full moon about midnight on the 15th/16th really look further away and is it less glarey? The Moon glides between Mars and Spica on the morning of the 23rd. Saturn gets a close pass two mornings later and the Moon swings by Venus in the morning on the 28th and 29th. When the Moon comes back to the evening sky, it’s a thin crescent below Mercury on the 31st and above Mercury on the 1st of February.

If you can pull your eyes from Orion and his neighbors, look overhead at Auriga for the Goat. The constellation is a charioteer; the goat is one star, Capella, the brightest star in Auriga. The triangle of stars nearby is the goat’s kids or the kid goats. Auriga has star clusters worth seeing: M36, 37 and 38. Then slide over to Perseus for the Double Cluster and M34. Just to their south is M45, the Pleiades, leads us back to Taurus. If you keep moving west, you’ll get to Cassiopeia and the galaxies in Andromeda that were the stars of the fall sky. So bundle up, lay out and tour the sky above you with binoculars or do stand up with a wide-field telescope.

You’ll need binoculars and a finder chart to catch Comet Lovejoy in the eastern pre-dawn sky, falling between Hercules and Ophiuchus. It’s readily visible in a dark sky, which is great for a comet this bright.
[Let us not speak any more of that Christmas gift that didn’t come – Comet ISON. It broke up into pieces of dust before closest approach, which made it impossible for us to see it after perihelion.]

The International Space Station is also a bright morning sky object for a few minutes arcing across our skies most mornings starting on the 7th through the end of January. China’s orbiting outpost, Tiangong 1, is also a morning traveler across our skies for the second half of January, peaking just under magnitude +1 on the overflights with the highest azimuth in our skies.

Where is Saturn in the sky, Wednesday, June 19th?

Here in the northeastern United States, skies are going to be clear tonight, Wednesday, July 19th, and it’s a great night to get out to see bright objects.

The Moon will be our tour guide – just to the upper right of the Moon tonight – that bright star is the planet Saturn. Saturn will still be about the same place the next few weeks, but the Moon will move on to the left, further away each night.

So tonight is a good night to see Saturn in your telescope – search for my other posts to see what Saturn looks like in a small telescope. Tonight focus on seeing Saturn’s rings and its brightest moon, Titan in the telescope view. (The brighter object to the upper right of Saturn is a star.) If you can’t seen some of the fainter moons of Saturn, try again when the Moon isn’t nearby to dazzle your eyes with its glare.

Start with Saturn and save the view of the Moon until later, since after you look at the Moon in your telescope, you’ll lose much of your ability to see in the dark. But the Moon is well worth the look, as well. It’s wonderful in any telescope or binoculars, although you’ll need a telescope or good spotting scope to see Saturn’s rings.

See the photos and graphics below……click on ‘skychart’ to get a skychart, in pdf form, for the entire evening sky for Wed, June 19 (also good for the rest of June, except for the Moon- the Moon will move further left each night)

Here’s a photo that shows Saturn and the similarly bright star Spica, as you would see them together in the sky. The Moon is not in this photo, since I took it several nights ago.

How to find Saturn - Face south (a 90 degree left turn from where the sun set) - Saturn is on the left and Spica on the right
How to find Saturn – Face south (a 90 degree left turn from where the sun set) – Saturn is on the left and Spica on the right

All of this, except for the weather forecast, is good for anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Saturn will be lower in the sky if you are further north than my location at 41 degrees north. The Moon will be closer to Saturn in the Eastern Hemisphere, and further to the left on the west coast of the US and Asia.

What does Saturn look like in a small telescope? What does Venus look like in a small telescope? What does Mars look like in a small telescope?

What does Saturn look like in a small telescope?  That is the most popular item on my blog – the place more people go to than any other!

So, here are photos of Saturn, as well as Venus and Mars, all taken on two nights – May 18th and 19th, 2012, all except one, through my 8-inch dobsonian (reflector) telescope. 

If you look at the photo before you click on it (unless you have a wide-screen and you’re looking close-up), it’s how Saturn looks in a small telescope.


Then click and you’ll get an idea of what Saturn looks like in a large telescope. (You may have to hit the ‘back’ button to get back to the post.) This is a snapshot, unprocessed.  Your view through a large scope will be a bit larger with more details, with Saturn’s faint cloud belts, a thin gap splitting the ring in two and Saturn’s brightest moon, Titan nearby.

Here’s a shot over-brightening Saturn to get an image of Titan, faint, to the lower left.  It’s more obvious in the eyepiece.


Here’s Venus, now visible low in the west, right after sunset.

Almost any binoculars or telescope will show Venus as a tiny crescent, looking like a miniature crescent moon.  First the view through my 9 power finder scope, Venus at the bottom of the frame.  I took this photo I took with my Canon XS held up to the eyepiece. The thick black lines are the cross hairs in the finder scope.Image Here’s Venus taken through the telescope with the Canon XS attached directly to the scope (“prime focus”).  This is the same way I took the photo of Saturn, above.  Notice how much larger Venus looks.  Venus is smaller than Saturn, but it’s much closer.


Venus will get lower in the sky each night in May, with a slimmer crescent each night, but larger from end to end by a little bit each night.

Now for comparison, here is Mars, taken the same way.  Mars is smaller than Venus and further away, so it’s tiny, even in a large telescope.  Details are hard to see, except perhaps at high power and with a steady sky.


Hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of planets through my scopes.


See Saturn’s Rings from Saturn’s Moons

Want a better view of Saturn’s rings? You could fly to one of Saturn’s moons for a ‘rings-side’ seat, but the orbits of most of Saturn’s moons line up with the rings, so you would see them mostly on edge, as in this view from Saturn’s largest moon, Titan:

Saturn as seen from Titan - 20 degree-wide view

Two of Saturn’s moons have orbits that don’t line up with the rings. On Iapetus, for much of its travel around Saturn, you’d be able to see the face of the rings, like this view:
Saturn from Iapetus - 20 degree-wide view

While Iapetus is further from Saturn, the view of the rings is nicer, isn’t it. So call your real estate agent today and get some prime property on Iapetus !
{Disclaimer: Only one side of Iapetus faces Saturn – don’t fall for the ‘far side of Iapetus’ trick!}

In the simulations, you can see that Saturn is over five degrees across as seen from Titan -that’s the width of 10 full moons and Saturn plus its rings cover the same space as the apparent distance between the pointer stars of the Big Dipper. Saturn would be hard to miss if you could see it through Titan’s clouds. Saturn is 2 degrees across as seen from Iapetus; smaller, but still the width of four full moons.

Here’s how the moons of Saturn would look in a telescope this weekend – Titan is the brightest and can be seen in most small telescopes.

Saturn and its moon for the July 4th weekend - from Cartes du Ciel software

For more on how to find Saturn in the evening sky, see the post further below or the weekly planet discussion at Sky and Telescope.

Find Saturn this weekend

For those who want to find Saturn in the sky, use this diagram to help you see which of those relatively bright stars is Saturn.

Sky chart for finding Saturn, facing SSW (to the left of where the sun set

When you find Saturn, you’ll know it because once the sky gets dark you can see a fainter star right next to Saturn that you don’t need a telescope to see. Saturn is closest to this star this week and it’s cool to check Saturn every few nights to see how it will move away from that star over the next two months.
You’ll need a telescope to see Saturn’s rings, but it’s worth it – find a friend with a telescope or a local star party!!

Heads UP! for March 2011

Evening’s Bright Dot is Jupiter, Which Leads Us to Mercury
The Moon Runs Over a Star
March Comes in Like a Lion – Leo Rises
The Space Station and Solar Sail Make Appearances
Where are Saturn, Venus and Mars?
Don’t Forget Daylight-time Starts March 13th
Which Planet is Closest to Us?

Watch that bright dot in the western sky right after the sky gets dark in the evening. That’s the planet Jupiter. It will get lower in the sky every night, but as it gets down, it will pass the planet Mercury from the 13th through the 16th. If you have never seen Mercury in the sky, this is a great opportunity to see it. Mercury will be dimmer than Jupiter, but easy to see without optical aid with Jupiter nearby pointing the way.

Look out for the Moon this month as it cruises though our skies. On the 1st and the 31st, it lines up with Venus in the morning sky just before sunrise. It shares the evening twilight with Jupiter on the 6th and 7th. And the first quarter moon, when the moon looks half-full, is stuck high in the horns of Taurus the bull on the 12th. If you want to take up a challenge with your binoculars or telescope, the sight of a star instantly winking out when the dark limb of the Moon passes in front of it is exciting and educational (showing the lack of a substantial atmosphere on the Moon). The Moon covers μ Geminorum, a star normally easily seen without optical aid (magnitude 2.9) at the foot of one of the Gemini twins, on the evening of the 13th about 7:00pm in the New York City area. The moon’s glare may make it hard to find the star, so find the moon high up in bright twilight sky in advance of 7pm and look to the left of the moon with your optical aid to see the star. Then wait and watch for the moon to run it over.

Does March come in like a lion? Is our skies, it does, as Leo the lion rises into our evening skies from the eastern horizon. The bright winter constellations we have been enjoying seem to move quickly westward, as if in fear of our not-cowardly lion of the east.

Saturn is an object for late evening object through early morning. At 800 million miles away, it is tiny, but in a telescope, unmistakably Saturn with its ring. In your telescope, you’ll also see a nearby star. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan is fainter, but visible in telescopes larger than 3 inches wide.

Venus is still out there in the pre-dawn sky, only about one fist-width or so above the horizon.

Mars is still hiding in the glare of the Sun, but it is far enough from solar conjunction that scientists are listening again for signals from the Spirit rover, which hasn’t been heard from since the beginning of its Martian winter last March. The Opportunity rover is trundling along toward the large crater called Endeavour. Opportunity has been on Mars for 2511 Martian days and has 16½ miles on its odometer.

The International Space Station has bright evening-time overflights of our area now through the 13th and in the mornings starting on the 24th. The Nano-sail D solar sailing satellite has unfurled and NASA is having a contest to encourage photos of it as it travels across our skies like a moderately bright star. The best times for viewing Nano-sail D are in the evening through the 6th, and in the morning after that. Check spaceweather.com or heavens-above.com as the viewing times may change as the sail’s orbit is modified by solar wind pressure and bumps from the few atoms that make up our atmosphere at that altitude.

Remember that daylight time starts on March 13th, making the time of sunrise and sunset 6:59am and 7:07pm, respectively. Note that it’s not exactly a 12-hour period of daylight; one reason is due to the refraction of sunlight by Earth’s atmosphere from below the horizon lengthening daylight by a few minutes.

Which planet is closest to Earth most often? The surprising answer is Mercury. This year, for example, Mercury is the closest planet to Earth from March 14th through December 27th, when Mars becomes the closest planet to Earth. The distance from Earth to Venus is more than the distance from Earth to Mercury until January 7th, 2012, as Venus spends most of 2011 moving away from Earth in its slightly faster, inner orbit.

Heads UP! for August 2010

Heads UP! for August 2010

One blazing planet and three or four dimmer planets are low, but seeable, in the twilight soon after sunset.  But they are upstaged by the rise of the King of the Planets, Jupiter.    Also, around the middle of the month, tiny pieces from the distant comet Swift-Tuttle give us the Perseid meteor show.  It’s a good year for viewing these fast-moving, bright meteors.

Stay out after sunset

Four planets are conveniently located in the western twilight sky an hour after sunset.  Venus gets our attention at once.  It’s beyond dazzling, but you’ll need a clear view of the western horizon.  Look low in the part of the sky where the sun just set.

Venus has good company this month.  If you watch the sky each night, you’ll notice that it looks like Venus is going to run over much fainter Mars and Saturn.  They are fainter, but readily visible with some patience.  Over several nights, Saturn (as bright as one of the brighter stars) appears to sidestep the on-rushing Venus, passing just above Venus around the 7th .  Mars (a little brighter than Saturn) appears to slow down as it lingers in the vicinity of Venus all month.  For the first half of the month, you can cover all three planets with your outstretched fist.  Our gang of three are closest together for our WAA Observing Night on the 7th.   Our fourth early evening guest, Mercury, is way down to the lower right of Venus, for the second and third week of August.  The crescent Moon drives by on the 12th and makes a striking line-up after dark on the 13th.

So follow Venus this month as it brightens a bit but sinks lower toward the horizon.  On September 1st, Venus will make a small group with Mars and the bright star Spica.  It will be an especially cool sight in binoculars.  Just aim at Venus and move a little to the right.

A Rain of Stars

Do you tilt your umbrella forward when you run in the rain?  That’s a classic demonstration of why we see more meteors on the morning side of midnight than during the ‘prime time’ evening hours.  In the morning, our side of the planet is in ‘front’, that is, in Earth’s direction of travel, as we move around the sun.  That’s why we advise sky watchers to get up early in the morning for the most meteors.  This year, the Perseid meteor shower has two features that may encourage those who are disheartened at getting up at 0200 (i.e., oh-too-early in the morning for me).  First, the shower is predicted to peak around 9pm EDT on August 12th.  Second, the Perseids is a display with many bright meteors.  If your goal is to see some bright meteors, you should be just fine with whichever of the evenings near the 12th will be clear.  Stay out after the sky gets dark (10pm or later) and lay out so you can see a large part of the sky comfortably, preferably with a sleeping bag to protect you from the mosquitoes and the dew, and you should get your share of ‘OMG, did you see that?’ meteors.

The Reign of a Planet

Jupiter is called the king of planets, when it (he?) rises after 10 o’clock early in the month you’ll know why.  Brighter than anything except the Sun, Moon and Venus (as we saw earlier in the evening), it’s hard to miss his entrance.   To view Jupiter and his retinue of 4 bright moons, you’ll need to stay out late or get up before dawn so you can get a good view in the morning sky.  Use a telescope or steadily-held binoculars to see the moons and I think you’ll agree it worth the wait.   The Moon comes by on the 26th.

Be a Beach Bum

You need a really dark location to see the Milky Way.  So, it’s a great time to visit someone’s beach house.  If you can get away from the lights, the Milky Way looks like a stream of high, thin clouds in a band soaring high into clearer skies away from the murky horizon.  But also look low in the south- can you see the group of stars that looks like a teapot, low in the southern sky?  If you look carefully, the Milky Way looks like ‘steam’ from the teapot.  This area around the constellation Sagittarius is a wonderful visual playground for an observer with binoculars or a small telescope.

What’s that Bright Star Overhead?

Overhead, the sky and your imagination can transport you millions of miles or tens of light-years away.  Vega is that bright star almost overhead on these August nights.  Vega’s north pole points nearly at Earth, so the Sun (a dim, but visible star at Vega’s 25 light year distance) could be the pole star for Vega’s possible planets.  Nearby, the top of the Northern Cross points like an arrow to a spot 7 degrees away that would mark the pole star – if you were on Mars.  So look straight up and you can imagine being someone else’s pole star; and what it would be like standing on the north pole of Mars!

Fantasy Sky

For a great sky scene that you can’t see from Earth, go to NASA’s Solar System Simulator this month and ask it to give you a view of Venus as seen from Mars.  Start with a 60 degree field of view.  Earth is part of a striking scene with Venus and Jupiter.  Mercury joins the scene about mid-month.  I wonder if they’ll try to get a photo of this scene from one of the rovers.

The Moon is a great sight with binoculars or telescope.  For August:

Last Quarter    8/3       New Moon      8/9       First Quarter   8/16     Full Moon        8/24

You can see lots of detailed craters and mountain ranges, especially from the 15th through the 18th.

The International Space Station

The ISS makes overflights of our area in the dawn skies from August 4th though 24th and in the evening skies from August 23rd through September 15th.  Check nasa.gov, spaceweather.com or heavens-above.com for times when you can see the ISS and many other bright satellites for your location.  The ISS is often as bright as Venus, so it’s easy to spot as it appears to lazily drift over us while orbiting the Earth at 18,000 miles per hour.

Have a telescope?  Want to see how to use it?

Come to Pound Ward Ridge Park on Saturday evening, August 8th, members of the Westchester Astronomers will be there to help you use your telescope.  Check the August WAA newsletter at http://www.westchesterastronomers.org/ for updates.

Heads UP! For July 2010

Show your support for your local planets !

Not much darkness this time of year, but with Venus, Mars and Saturn lining up for you in the evening twilight, how can you not go out and see them!

After sunset face yourself toward where the bright twilight is leftover from the sunset earlier in the evening.  The planets are easiest to see about 9 to 10pm, after the sky gets a bit less bright and before the planets disappear over the horizon.  It helps to not have hills and trees in the western sky, as well.

Details on the planet lineup

Binoculars make viewing the planetary lineups more striking, but are not necessary!  First start with dazzling Venus.  Once the sun sets, it’s the brightest thing out there, unless the Moon is nearby or a bright aircraft comes along.  So pick out Venus and then move to its upper left. The next bright dot is much fainter, but gets easier to see as the sky gets dark.  For the first part of the month, that’s the first magnitude star Regulus.  Venus pushes past Regulus on the 8th and 9th (the pair are a pretty sight even by themselves).  Then, ruddy Mars is next, then Saturn.  By the end of the month, the spacing between the planets tightens up while the grouping moves lower in the western sky.  You may have to wait for the sky to darken a bit, but the close encounters are worth seeing and showing off to friends[1].

Waiting on Jupiter

The King of the planets is still sleeping late, and you have to stay up to midnight or get up super-early in the morning to see him.  I hear Jupiter is so bright, you can’t miss it.   I cheated and found Jupiter at 10:30am in the daytime (see bkellysky.wordpress.com for a photo).  The king will reign supreme in the evening sky starting in September.

Mercury Joins the Party

Anytime Mercury gets up from the horizon, it’s a good time to find it.  Look low to the right of Venus from mid-July through early August.  If you find Mercury, then it’s easy to see all five classical planets in one night.  Move up to Venus, Mars and Saturn (especially easy when they get close together – closest on August 8th!).  Then stay up for Jupiter to rise and you’ve done all the five planets that are easily visible to the unaided eye.

The Moon Swings By the Planets:

By Venus on the 14th – zoom in with your point and shoot for a nice photo!  Near Mars on the 15th, Saturn is on the right on the 16th.  Jupiter is near the moon after it rises after 11pm on the 30th.

Sunset Block Party in Manhattan on July 8th

See http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/resources/starstruck/manhattanhenge/ for details on the setting sun shining down the cross streets of Manhattan on July 8th.

See the International Space Station

Looking like a bright dot of light, the ISS soars over us on many evenings between now and July 14th.  In late June the ISS is in sunlight almost all the time, so it’s visible about every 90 minutes all night.  See nasa.gov or heavens-above.com or spaceweather.com for times for your location.

Two flights of the Space Transportation System remain!

STS-133 was planned for September, but may be moved to launch on October 28th or 29th.   STS-134 may be moved to February 2011.  There is a booster rocket set for another flight if NASA can get the funds for one additional flight.  The STS has been the major source of water and supplies for the ISS.

Chcck out http://www.westchesterastronomers.org/ for the July newsletter and come to the July 10th star show under the stars!

[1] Of course, less patient people may not believe you.  See my encounter with an inquiring mind at the June 16 entry on the Brightness of Venus folder at the unmannedspaceflight.com blog: