Celestial Navigator – November 2015

November is always a great time of year for stargazing.  Cool nights and crisp clear air provide spectacular views on cloudless nights.  As always, stargazing is best away from cities and populated areas, and is a great nighttime activity in camp!111104-Meteor1Photo-hmed-0355p.grid-6x2

  • November 5, 6Taurids Meteor Shower. The Taurids is a long-running minor meteor shower producing only about 5-10 meteors per hour. It is unusual in that it consists of two separate streams. The first is produced by dust grains left behind by Asteroid 2004 TG10. The second stream is produced by debris left behind by Comet 2P Encke. The shower runs annually from September 7 to December 10. It peaks this year on the the night of November 5. The second quarter moon will block out all but the brightest meteors this year. If you are patient, you may still be able to catch a few good ones. Best viewing will be just after midnight from a dark location far away from city lights. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Taurus, but can appear anywhere in the sky.
  • November 11New Moon. The Moon will located on the same side of the Earth as the Sun and will not be visible in the night sky. This phase occurs at 17:47 UTC. This is the best time of the month to observe faint objects such as galaxies and star clusters because there is no moonlight to interfere.
  • November 17, 18Leonids Meteor Shower. The Leonids is an average shower, producing an up to 15 meteors per hour at its peak. This shower is unique in that it has a cyclonic peak about every 33 years where hundreds of meteors per hour can be seen. That last of these occurred in 2001. The Leonids is produced by dust grains left behind by comet Tempel-Tuttle, which was discovered in 1865. The shower runs annually from November 6-30. It peaks this year on the night of the 17th and morning of the 18th. The first quarter moon will set shortly after midnight leaving fairly dark skies for what could be a good show. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Leo, but can appear anywhere in the sky.
  • November 25Full Moon. The Moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun and its face will be will be fully illuminated. This phase occurs at 22:44 UTC. This full moon was known by early Native American tribes as the Full Beaver Moon because this was the time of year to set the beaver traps before the swamps and rivers froze. It has also been known as the Frosty Moon and the Hunter’s Moon.

Celestial Navigator – May 2015

The night sky tonight and on any clear night offers an ever-changing display of fascinating objects you can see, from stars and constellations to bright planets, often the moon, and sometimes special events like meteor showers. Observing the night sky can be done with no special equipment, although a sky map can be very useful, and a good beginner telescope or binoculars will enhance some experiences and bring some otherwise invisible objects into view. You can also use astronomy accessories to make your observing easier. Below, find out what’s up in the night sky for the month of May.

Monday, May 18, 12:13 a.m. EDT New Moon

The moon is not visible on the date of New Moon because it is too close to the sun, but can be seen low in the east as a narrow crescent a morning or two before, just before sunrise. It is visible low in the west an evening or two after New Moon.

Monday, May 25, 1:19 p.m. EDT First Quarter Moon

The First Quarter Moon rises around 1 p.m. and sets around 2:15 a.m. It dominates the evening sky.

Thursday, May 17, evening twilight

This is the best evening apparition of Mercury this year for observers in the northern hemisphere. Use Venus to help you locate it. Mercury is most easily located by sweeping with binoculars, but once you’ve located it, you should be able to see it with your unaided eyes.

Wednesday, May 20, 8:06–8:35 p.m. EDT.  Double shadow transit on Jupiter

The shadows of Io and Ganymede will be on opposite limbs of Jupiter, while the moons Io and Callisto will be central on the disk.

jupiters moons

Friday, May 22, 10 p.m. EDT Saturn at opposition

Saturn will be in opposition to the sun. Note how most of Saturn’s moons are in the same plane as the rings, except for Iapetus, whose orbit is tilted 8.3 degrees. At opposition, Iapetus is close to maximum elongation towards the west, while Titan is close to maximum elongation towards the east.

Wednesday, May 27, 10:01 p.m.–12:18 a.m. EDT Double shadow transit on Jupiter

The shadow of Io chases the shadow of Ganymede across the face of Jupiter, catching up with it and passing it at 11:48 p.m. EDT. The Great Red Spot will also cross Jupiter’s disk during this period.

Planets

Mercury is well placed for northern hemisphere observers in the evening twilight sky for the first three weeks of May.

Venus shines high in the western sky after sunset.

Mars moves from Aries to Taurus on May 3, too close to the sun to be visible.

Jupiter is well placed in the evening sky all month.

Saturn is just north of Scorpius’ “claws.” At opposition on May 22, it is visible all night.

Uranus rises just before the sun in Pisces.

Neptune is in the eastern morning sky in the constellation Aquarius.

Skywatching Terms

  • Asterism: A noteworthy or striking pattern of stars within a larger constellation.
  • Degrees (measuring the sky): The sky is 360 degrees all the way around, which means roughly 180 degrees from horizon to horizon. It’s easy to measure distances between objects: Your fist on an outstretched arm covers about 10 degrees of sky.
  • Visual Magnitude: This is the astronomer’s scale for measuring the brightness of objects in the sky. The dimmest object visible in the night sky under perfectly dark conditions is about magnitude 6.5. Brighter stars are magnitude 2 or 1. The brightest objects get negative numbers. Venus can be as bright as magnitude minus 4.9. The full moon is minus 12.7 and the sun is minus 26.8.
  • Terminator: The boundary on the moon between sunlight and shadow.
  • Zenith: The point in the sky directly overhead.

Night Sky Observing Tips

  • Adjust to the dark: If you wish to observe faint objects, such as meteors or dim stars, give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the darkness.
  • Light Pollution: Even from a big city, one can see the moon, a handful of bright stars and sometimes the brightest planets. But to fully enjoy the heavens — especially a meteor shower, the constellations, or to see the amazing swath across the sky that represents our view toward the center of the Milky Way Galaxy — rural areas are best for night sky viewing. If you’re stuck in a city or suburban area, a building can be used to block ambient light (or moonlight) to help reveal fainter objects. If you’re in the suburbs, simply turning off outdoor lights can help.
  • Prepare for skywatching: If you plan to be out for more than a few minutes, and it’s not a warm summer evening, dress warmer than you think necessary. An hour of observing a winter meteor shower can chill you to the bone. A blanket or lounge chair will prove much more comfortable than standing or sitting in a chair and craning your neck to see overhead.
  • Daytime skywatching: When Venus is visible (that is, not in front of or behind the sun) it can often be spotted during the day. But you’ll need to know where to look. A sky map is helpful. When the sun has large sunspots, they can be seen without a telescope. However, it’s unsafe to look at the sun without protective eyewear. See our video

 

Celestial Navigator – April 2015

 April Stargazing and the Zodiacal Light

Tonight, or any night after sunset in this month of April 2015, people around the world will see the dazzling planet Venus in the western sky. Then … wait a bit zodiacal_light_600for the sky to get fully dark. After twilight ends, the elusive zodiacal light might appear in your western sky with Venus – if your sky is dark enough. For those living in the Northern Hemisphere, Venus can be your guide to the evening zodiacal light this month. This is a good time of year to see the zodiacal light in the evening from mid-northern latitudes.

As twilight ends, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, look for Venus in the midst of the mysterious zodiacal light – a cone of light jutting upward from the western horizon about 80 to 120 minutes after sunset.

April 13 – 18 – International Dark Sky Week. International Dark Sky Week is held during the week of the new moon in April. It is a week during which people worldwide turn out their outdoor lights in order to observe the wonders of the night sky without light pollution. It has been endorsed by the International Dark-Sky Association, the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical League. So go ahead and turn out your outdoor lights this week to appreciate the beauty of the night sky!

April 18 – New Moon. The Moon will be located on the same side of the Earth as the Sun and will not be visible in the night sky. This phase occurs at 18:56 UTC. This is the best time of the month to observe faint object such as galaxies and star clusters because there is no moonlight to interfere.

April 22, 23 – Lyrids Meteor Shower. The Lyrids is an average shower, usually producing about 20 meteors per hour at its peak. It is produced by dust particles left behind by comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which was discovered in 1861. The shower runs annually from April 16-25. It peaks this year on the night of the 22nd and morning of the 23rd. These meteors can sometimes produce bright dust trails that last for several seconds. The first quarter moon will set shortly after midnight, leaving fairly dark skies for the what could be a good show. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Lyra, but can appear anywhere in the sky.

April 25 – International Astronomy Day. Astronomy Day is an annual event intended to provide a means of interaction between the general public and various astronomy enthusiasts, groups and professionals. The theme of Astronomy Day is “Bringing Astronomy to the People,” and on this day astronomy and stargazing clubs and other organizations around the world will plan special events. You can find out about special local events by contacting your local astronomy club or planetarium. You can also find more about Astronomy Day by checking the Web site for the Astronomical League.

Celestial Navigator – March 2015

Sky Maps and Smartphone Apps

Stargazing for Dummies

How many among us can look up at the night sky and point out prominent stars, planets, and other heavenly wonders, purely from memory?  Certainly there are some of us who are blessed with the ability to discern patterns and locations in what appears to the rest of as a completely random and endless sky full of white dots.

Even if you are not one of ‘them’, the celestial know-it-all’s, there are still simple ways to enrich your star gazing experience with the use of a few simple, and free, tools available online and elsewhere.  Here are a few of our favorites:

Sky Maps  – There are several sites that offer free downloads of printable sky maps – our favorite is http://www.skymaps.com/downloads.html   We like to use these in remote areas where other cellular or GPS based maps may not be accessible.  Printed sky maps are easy to use – simply hold them overhead, orient it to north, and you can easily sky mapstart to match up stars with your map.  Next thing you know, you’re finding constellations and planets and nebulae, and the sky patterns will begin to reveal themselves to you.

Smartphone Apps  –  These take printed sky maps to a whole new and interactive level. Working on the same principle of holding your phone overhead to align your screen with the stars, these apps can detect your location, zoom in or out, and show outlines of constellations.  The apps we prefer are: Google Sky Map, Sky Safari, and Sky Map. All are available through the App or Play Stores, and are free in their basic versions.  All of them will place more celestial knowledge at your fingertips than Copernicus had on his best day.

Also available to the amateur stargazer are affordable, GPS-guided telescopes, that combine all the functionality of the Smartphone Apps with telescopic power.  Now you can identify celestial objects, and see them up close.  Most of these telescopes start in the $400 range, and can exceed upwards of $4000.  Experience has shown us tetx-at-tchat the less expensive telescopes are more than sufficient.  Unless you want to explore deep-space objects, most telescopes will only turn small white dots into slightly larger white dots, and therefore the extra expense is not justified.  For viewing closer objects such as the moon and planets, smaller and less-expensive is the way to go.  Our favorite for many years is a slightly older version of the Meade ETX80, which starts around $300 (http://www.meade.com/products/telescopes.html?cat=16)

 

October Stargazing – grab your tent and telescope, and go!

There is some great stargazing in October!  Grab your telescope and your tent!  Enjoy the cool, crisp, super-clear fall evenings – this month we have two meteor showers, a lunar eclipse and some great viewing of Mercury!

October 3 – Uranus at Opposition. The blue-green planet will be at its closest approach to Earth and its face will be fully illuminated by the Sun. This is the best time to view Uranus. Due to its distance, it will only appear as a tiny blue-green dot in all but the most powerful telescopes.

October 5 – New Moon. The Moon will be directly between the Earth and the Sun and will not be visible from Earth. This phase occurs at 00:34 UTC. This is the best time of the month to observe faint objects such as galaxies and star clusters because there is no moonlight to interfere.

October 7, 8 – Draconids Meteor Shower. The Draconids is a minor meteor shower producing only about 10 meteors per hour. It is produced by dust grains left behind by comet 21P Giacobini-Zinner, which was first discovered in 1900. The shower runs annually from October 6-10 and peaks this year on the the night of the 7th and morning of the 8th. The thin crescent moon will set early in the evening leaving dark skies for optimal observing. Best viewing will be just after midnight from a dark location far away from city lights. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Draco, but can appear anywhere in the sky.

October 9 – Mercury at Greatest Eastern Elongation. The planet Mercury will be at its furthest angle from the Sun, known as greatest elongation. It will be at its highest point in the night sky after sunset. This is the best time to try to view Mercury since it stays so close to the Sun and doesn’t usually climb very high above the horizon.

October 12 – Astronomy Day Part 2. Astronomy Day is an annual event intended to provide a means of interaction between the general public and various astronomy enthusiasts, groups and professionals. The theme of Astronomy Day is “Bringing Astronomy to the People,” and on this day astronomy and stargazing clubs and other organizations around the world will plan special events. You can find out about special local events by contacting your local astronomy club or planetarium.

October 18 – Full Moon. The Moon will be directly opposite the Earth from the Sun and will be fully illuminated as seen from Earth. This full moon was known by early Native American tribes as the Full Hunters Moon because at this time of year the leaves are falling and the game is fat and ready to hunt.

October 18 – Penumbral Lunar Eclipse. A penumbral lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes through the Earth’s partial shadow, or penumbra. During this type of eclipse the Moon will darken slightly but not completely. The eclipse will be visible throughout most of the world except for Australia and extreme eastern Siberia.

October 21, 22 – Orionids Meteor Shower. The Orionids is an average shower producing up to 20 meteors per hour at its peak. It is produced by dust grains left behind by comet Halley, which has been known and observed since ancient times. The shower runs annually from October 2 to November 7. It peaks this year on the night of October 21 and the morning of October 22. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Orion, but can appear anywhere in the sky.