January 2018 Sky-Watch: Morning Planets, A Blue Moon, and a Lunar Eclipse

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Jupiter

Mars and Jupiter will lead the way and give us the month’s planetary highlight when they pass within just one degree of each other on January 7th.  Mars shines at magnitude +1.5 and Jupiter dazzles at –1.8, when on January 1st, the pair rise four hours before sunrise and stand just 2.5 degrees apart.  The two straddle Libra’s brightest star, Zubenelgenubi, and the will appear to shift eastward relative to the background star during January.

Mars moves faster in its closer, inner orbit, so its position and Jupiter’s position appear to change, bringing them to within one degree of each other by January 7th.  They will almost appear to be touching, and a telescopic view will place both in the same field of view.  Mars will appear much smaller, even though it is closer to us.  Jupiter’s immense size makes it look larger, and Mars is a relatively small planet, only 60% the size of Earth in fact.  Four days after this great conjunction, the waning, crescent Moon will join the two planets for another really stunning sight!

Through the month of January, the distance between the two planets will widen; Jupiter staying among the stars of Libra, while Mars pushes east into Scorpius.  By January 31st, Mars will be close to Antares, the brightest star of Scorpius, and it will brighten to magnitude +1.2.  Antares means “rival of Mars” because it is a red-orange giant star, and thus it mimics the color of the planet Mars.

Mercury will also be visible this month below Mars and Jupiter, until about the 20th.  On January 1st, thirty minutes before sunrise, Mercury will be about 11 degrees above the eastern horizon and to the lower left of Mars and Jupiter at magnitude –0.3.  Mercury will lose altitude as it swings back toward the Sun in its orbit. It will still be 8 degrees up on January 9th, but down to only 4 degrees on January 20th.

On the morning of January 13th if looking for Mercury, look just one degree above it and you will see Saturn.  Since both will be in a bit of twilight then, binoculars will be helpful to see them.  By the end of January, Saturn will have risen higher among the stars of Sagittarius and be a bit easier to see.  Mercury, by then, will be lost in the glare of the Sun.

According to tradition, the first full moon in the northern hemisphere is called the Full Wolf Moon.

January has a somewhat rare event —- two Full Moons.  Because this only happens about every 2 1/2 years, the expression “once in a Blue Moon” has become a part of our conversation, for the 2nd Full Moon in a Calendar year is called a “Blue Moon.”  The first Full Moon is on the 1st, and the 2nd is on January 31st.

The January 31st Full Moon will also be eclipsed by the Earth’s shadow across North America.  It occurs before dawn with totality lasting 76 minutes.  However, the western two-thirds of North America get the best view of it.  East of a line through the Ohio/Indiana border down to the Gulf of Mexico, the eclipse begins after the start of morning twilight, and the Moon will set before totality begins.  So we in Maryland will miss most of it this time.  The Moon enters Earth’s Shadow at 6:48 EST, and within 20 minutes the Moon will look like a cookie with a bite taken from it.

The Sun just below the horizon and about to rise in the East will be opposite the eclipsed Moon setting low in the West.  Unfortunately, we here will miss most of this spectacular event.  But look anyway for the early beginning of the eclipse —- and remember, unlike solar eclipses, lunar eclipses are completely safe to look at.  No eye protection is needed.

Happy New Year to all Sky-watchers!!

 

December 2017 Sky-Watch:  Xmas Program and Meteor Shower by Dennis Herrmann

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Thirty years ago, December 1987, I led my astronomy students at Kent County High School in writing and producing a Christmas Program in the planetarium.  Along with the help of the radio station at school, WKHS-FM, the program was presented to the public and to classroom students from our county schools.  Each year since 1987, we have done the same thing.

This year we present the 31st annual Xmas Program on December 15, 18, 19, 21, and 22 at 7 p.m. at the KCHS planetarium.  We never charge admission and always provide holiday refreshments.  We hope many of you and your families and friends will join us for this year’s program, “The Magic of Xmas; the Magic of the Planetarium.”  It remains, as always, our gift to the community and is a unique way to help celebrate this wonderful time of year.

The year’s richest and most reliable meteor shower, the Geminids, will peak on the night of December 13/14, without any Moon interference.  The Moon’s phase is slim crescent; and it does not rise until 3:30 p.m.  The Geminids appear to come from the area of the sky where we see the constellation Gemini.  Gemini rises around sunset time, nearly due east, and is nearly overhead by 2 a.m.  The best meteor views will come then on the morning of December 14th, between midnight and 4 am.  Under clear, dark sky conditions we may expect to see upwards to 120 meteors per hour!

Geminids Meteor Shower

Mars rises in the southeast sky at magnitude +1.7 around 3:30 a.m. in early December, where it will be very close to Spica; brightest star in Virgo.  Mars is only half as bright as Spica this month, but bright enough so that its ruddy color will make a nice contrast of color with the blue-white star Spica.

Jupiter also rises in the east about 75 minutes after Mars.  Jupiter is much brighter at –1.7 magnitude and is found among the stars of Libra the Scales.

Last month a close conjunction of the two brightest planets as seen from Earth, Venus and Jupiter, occurred behind cloudy skies for us; so we missed it.  But we will have another chance to see a good planetary conjunction on December 31st.  One hour before sunrise, looking southeast, Mars may be seen just 3 degrees to the right of Jupiter, with the bright star of Libra, Zubenelgeneubi, right between them.  During the first week of January 2018, they will be even closer (just 0.2 degrees) apart!  By the way, Zubenelgenubi is my favorite star name.  Pronounced:  Zoo Ben L gen Oo Bee.

Size comparison – Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mercury, etc.

During the month of December, we can watch Mars draw closer to Jupiter, from 16 degrees apart on the 1st, down to 3 degrees on the 31st.  In between on the 13th, the waning crescent Moon may be seen above Mars, with Jupiter 11 degrees below the red planet.  On December 14th, an even slimmer crescent Moon will be 5 degrees to Jupiter’s upper left.

This month’s Full Moon on December 3 will gather a lot of attention and receive media hype because full phase happens only 17 hours before the Moon makes its closest approach to Earth (perigee) during its monthly orbit.  This coincidence makes this the largest full moon of 2017 – some 7% more than average.  If we observe this Full Moon low above the eastern horizon we will be surprised by its size.  But this is mostly an illusion caused when viewing the Moon near familiar objects in the foreground.  Our minds are “tricked” into perceiving the Moon as larger.  The media will refer to it as a “Super Moon.”

The Moon will also Occult the brightest star in Taurus, Aldebaran, on December 30 between 6 and 7 p.m. EST.  The dark side of the waxing gibbous Moon will cover the star for about one hour, with it coming back to view as the brightly lit side moves past it.  This event is an occultation and is fun to observe with binoculars.

Merry Christmas; keep looking up and watching God’s glorious night sky – and come to the Xmas program!!!

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Sky-Watch October 2017 – Planets and Meteoroids

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Orionid Meteor Shower

I hope all sky-watchers have great eclipse viewing stories to tell, and memories of it that still fill you with awe.  For me, seeing my first total solar eclipse was everything I had thought and hoped it would be.  My wife and I saw it from Spring City, Tennessee, on a perfectly clear day.  We marveled at the crescent-shaped sun images cast onto the ground as the eclipsing Sun shone through leaves before totality.  We were struck by the odd darkening all around as full totality approached, that was so different than the darkening that happens as the sun sets.  And the moment when totality began truly brought tears to my eyes.  The word “awesome” gets thrown around a lot these days in everyday speech —– often for things not really that awesome.  But I can tell you; total solar eclipses are totally awesome!!

I am now eager for the next eclipse that will happen over America in just 7 years (2024).  This one’s totality time will be nearly twice as long as this year’s eclipse, and the path of totality will pass through states from Texas to Ohio and into Canada.  I plan to be in Ohio for this one.  Early October gives us a brief last chance to see Jupiter for awhile, but very low in the southwest sky a half hour after sunset.  By the 15th of October, it will be behind the sun, not to re-emerge until November before dawn in the eastern sky.  Saturn is just 20 degrees above the southwest horizon as full darkness falls, remaining conspicuous there at magnitude +0.5 all month.  Those with telescopes can get a very good of Saturn’s rings now because the rings are tilted 27 degrees to our line of sight.

Mars

Early morning views into the eastern sky before dawn will give us good views of Mars and Venus all month.  In fact, the two planets have a very close conjunction in the first five days of October and then have several conjunctions with stars during the rest of the month.  On October 1st, the two planets will appear just 2.5 degrees apart against the background stars of Leo.  Venus at magnitude –3.9 is brilliant white, while Mars at +1.8 is a dull red.  The gap between Mars and Venus closes until on the morning of October 5th they will be only 0.2 degrees apart!  This is just half the full moon’s apparent diameter.  As both planets move eastward across the sky in their respective orbits they will move into Virgo; Venus on October 9th, and Saturn on October 12th.  As they do they will appear to pass various background stars and form conjunctions with them as they do.

But the most spectacular conjunction will happen on October 17th, when the 5% lit waning crescent moon passes the two planets.  On the 17th the moon will be seen 2 degrees to the left of Mars and 6 degrees above Venus!

 

Halley’s Comet last appeared in our skies more than 30 years ago, but it still makes its presence known.  Every October Earth plows into debris left behind by Halley, and this dusty, chunky debris burns up in our air, causing flashes of light we call shooting stars, or meteors.  These appear to come from the constellation Orion the hunter, giving these meteors the name, the Orionid Meteor Shower.  It should be a good year for the Orionids, because there will be no moon in the sky when the shower peaks before dawn on October 21st.  Ideal time to look is from 2 to 5 am; direction is southeast; and a maximum of up to 20 meteors an hour is likely.

Moon Phases:  Full on the 5th; Last Quarter on the 12th; New Moon on the 19th; and 1st Quarter on the 27th.

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Sky-Watch August – The Great Solar Eclipse of 2017 is Almost Here! Monday Afternoon, Aug. 21, 1-4 pm

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Monday afternoon, right here in Maryland, weather permitting, you can see the Great Solar Eclipse of 2017, though it won’t be completely total here. In Maryland, it will be about 83% but still it should be a fantastic sight. The eclipse runs from about 1:18 pm until 4:00 pm.  The peak of the eclipse will be at about 2:43 pm. Remember not to look directly at the sun unless you have purchased special sun-viewing glasses, ordinary sunglasses aren’t enough to prevent eye damage.  After 4:00 pm, the eclipse will be over.  Don’t miss it!

The first total solar eclipse to cross the continental United States in 99 years will occur (August 21st, Monday).  Though only about 5% of the surface area of the United States falls along the path of totality (the line of the Moon’s shadow), millions of us will gather along that path to witness one of God’s greatest wonders.  My wife and I and two college friends have planned to meet in Tennessee along that path to see it, and each other.

What happens for a solar eclipse, is that the Moon passes directly in front of our Sun and blocks all of its light for a period of from one to seven minutes.  The August 21st eclipse will have a totality period of 2 minutes and 41 seconds maximum.  The reason for the short length of totalities is the fact that the Moon is small and casts a small shadow (only about 165 miles in diameter).  The reason we do not have eclipses every month is that the Moon orbits us in a path that varies by about 5 degrees to the Earth/Sun line (our orbit around the Sun).  The geometries of all these motions establish “eclipse seasons” which are six months apart, and which drift 11 days earlier each year.  Another pattern involving eclipses is the Saros, which even ancient Greeks and Babylonians noted.  Exact eclipse conditions repeat after 18 years and 11 days.  One particularly long eclipse of nearly seven minutes in Baja California on July 11, 1991, was followed by another 6 1/2 minute totality eclipse on July 22, 2009.

There will be no eclipses at all in 2018, one in Chile and Argentina in 2019 and again in 2020.  In 2021 Antarctica will see one; 2022 has none at all, and in 2023 an eclipse of only one-minute totality hits a remote region of Mexico.  But on April 8, 2024, an eclipse of 4 minutes totality will pass over several large cities in the USA, starting in Texas and going northeast over Cleveland, Buffalo, Syracuse, New York, and Burlington, Vermont.

For those of us who stay in Maryland, the eclipse will still be seen, but no amount of totality will be visible.  It will start here at home at 1:18 pm and reach maximum coverage at 2:42 pm.  83% of the Sun will be blocked, with the Sun looking like a crescent across the top of the Sun’s disk.  The eclipse ends, when the Moon passes completely away from the Sun at 4:01 pm.

Let me remind everyone that looking at the eclipse, THAT EYE PROTECTION IS NECESSARY TO AVOID DAMAGE TO THE EYES.  Sunglasses are not enough.  Approved filters and special sun-viewing glasses are required.  These can be ordered online.  With 83% of the Sun blocked, also take a look around you and notice the reduced light on the ground and look for odd shadows of crescents on the ground as sunlight filters through tree leaves.  But look often during the afternoon over the 2 3/4 hours of the passing of the the Moon over the Sun.  Watch it advance and retreat over that period of time.  But again, the eclipse in Maryland will not be fully total.  You must look with approved eye protection.  Not just sun glasses.

While the eclipse will only be total over a narrow strip of the US, the sun will visibly darken over much of America.
As far north as Massachusettes the eclipse will cover up to 70-80% of the sun.  To the south, the sun in Florida will be 80-90% covered.

Sky-watchers should also remember that August gives us 31 nights of worthy celestial sights in addition to the eclipse.  Jupiter dazzles in the southwest sky after dark and does not set until 11 pm.  Saturn also rides up in the southern sky some 30 degrees above the horizon and offers wonderful views for those who have telescopes to use.  The summer Milky Way, when our line of sight in the evening is toward the galaxy center gleams as our eyes scan from the southern horizon up and over toward the northeast, passing from Sagittarius, through Cygnus, and on toward Cassiopeia.  This is especially delightful to see when using binoculars.  Venus is 20 degrees up in the eastern sky before dawn and unmistakable at –4.0 magnitude.  On August 19, it sits just above a very thin crescent Moon.  And the Perseid meteor shower, always one of the year’s best peaks on the early morning of August 11 and 12.  Even though the bright waning gibbous Moon will be in the sky then, the Perseids are bright meteors, and we should still be able to see some.  Look northeast anytime from midnight to dawn.

            The one thing we cannot plan is the weather.  A cloudy sky will change all our plans for viewing the eclipse on August 21, but we still look forward with great anticipation and hope for clear skies.  May it be so!
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Sky Watch for July 2017 – Summer Planets and Eclipse Notes

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The constellation Virgo. Jupiter will be passing through Virgo in July.

Right now in full summer, the solar system’s two largest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, are clearly visible each warm, clear summer night.  Meanwhile, unmistakably bright Venus gleams above the eastern horizon before sunup.

Jupiter is first to be seen at –2.0 magnitude in the southwest sky as soon as it gets dark.  Jupiter appears among the stars of Virgo, and as it moves in its orbit, it will appear to inch some 3 degrees closer to Virgo’s brightest star, Spica during the month of July.  The Moon will make two close passes of Jupiter through the month as well.  At gibbous phase on July 1st, some 10 degrees from Jupiter; and on the 28th, at crescent phase, it will be seen just 3 degrees above the planet.  Jupiter will be visible until bedtime for most of us, setting around 1 am on July 1st, and by 11 pm on July 31st.

Jupiter’s Galilean satellites (moons) will appear to form a diagonal line pointing from the planet down toward the 7 o’clock position, if we imagine a clock face, on July 18th around 11:30 pm.  Binoculars or a small telescope will reveal this lineup, the moons appearing as 4 bright jewels.  In order from top to bottom in the line, arranged by orbital distance from  Jupiter, the moons are Io (closest); then Europa; Ganymede; and Callisto (farthest from Jupiter).

In late evening when Jupiter starts, to dip toward the southwest horizon, look southeast and Saturn will be seen well up there.  At magnitude +0.2, Saturn is far and away the brightest object of any background stars above Scorpius, in Ophiuchus.  On July 6th the nearly Full Moon will pass just 3 degrees above Saturn.  Telescope views of Saturn continue to be rewarding for its lovely rings, colored cloud bands, and jewel-like moons.

Jupiter and its rings

Venus is at magnitude –4.2 and is out-shined only by the Sun and the Moon.  Venus’ orbit carries it through the stars of Taurus all month, sliding near the Pleiades open star cluster from July 2nd to the 6th.  On July 14th, look for Venus to be very close to Aldebaran, the bright red-orange star of Taurus.  Venus is low in the east, but an hour before sunrise it is a full 20 degrees above the horizon and easy to see.

Next month’s total solar eclipse is starting to garner lots of attention and excitement as the August 21st date approaches.  Even the US Postal Service has issued an eclipse stamp.  The eclipse’s center line of totality will pass through 12 states impacting 12 million people along the line, plus all that may travel from somewhere else to be at the center line.  In Maryland, the Sun will be over 80% blocked by the Moon, but eye protection will still be necessary viewing it in our State.

A minimum of 2 solar eclipses occur somewhere on Earth each year, but in any one location, the time between seeing one and then having another one in the same area is over 300 years.  In the 5000 years from 3000 b.c. to 2000 a.d., 3625 years have had 2 eclipses; 877 have had three; 473 have had four, and just 25 have had 5 eclipses in a calendar year.

Totality times never last very long.  The longest in that 5000 year period will occur on July 16, 2186, with a totality of 7 minutes and 24 seconds.  The shortest was on February 3, 919 a.d., and lasted just 9 seconds.  The August 21, 2017 eclipse will have a maximum totality of 2 minutes 41 seconds.

The Moon’s shadow is small; only some 167 miles wide, so it will cover only about 5.5 % on the total land area of the USA.  Some areas along the totality path will be inaccessible to humans (the mountains of Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming; and some heavily wooded areas in the southeastern States where the view would be terrible anyway with all the trees).  I hope the raccoons use eye protection.

Personally, I have been excited about seeing this eclipse ever since I first heard about it 15 years ago!  See national and regional maps below.

July moon phases:  Full, July 9th; Last Quarter, July 16th; New Moon, July 23rd; and First Quarter, July 30th.

       

Sky Watch for June 2017 – Saturn Peaks and Eclipse Coming in August

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The two biggest planets in our Solar System, Jupiter, and Saturn adorn our early summer sky this year.  Jupiter, which has been near its peak in our sky since April, shines at magnitude –2.2 high in the south at sunset, remaining visible until well past midnight.  On June 3rd the waxing gibbous Moon will appear just two degrees from Jupiter.

Rings of Saturn 

Saturn reaches opposition on June 15th as it lies opposite the Sun in our sky and remains visible to us all night.  At oppositions, planets come closest to Earth, so Saturn also shines brightest and looks largest when viewed through a telescope.  The best times to look at Saturn with a telescope is when it is highest, which would be when it is up in the south, from later evening to early morning.  Saturn lies among the stars of Ophiuchus, just past the edge of nearby Sagittarius.  At magnitude 0.0 at opposition, Saturn is far brighter than any star in the surrounding sky.  Any telescopic view of Saturn is spectacular but now, with the rings tilted 27 degrees to our line of sight, seeing their structure is easier than normal.

Another planet, Venus, dazzles too, but in the early dawn eastern sky.  Venus reaches greatest western elongation on June 3rd when it will be 46 degrees west(right) of the Sun.  Venus is at –4.4 magnitude, far brighter than any other morning object.  It rises two hours before the Sun and will be seen about 10 degrees above the eastern horizon one hour before sunrise.  It will be hard to miss, even though its altitude will not be great.  By the end of June Venus will rise 2.5 hours before the Sun and appear some 15 degrees higher.

A really great sight awaits us on June 20 and June 21.  The waning crescent Moon will appear near Venus in the early pre-dawn eastern sky each of those mornings.  And on June 30th, Venus will appear to rise just 8 degrees to the right of the well-known Pleiades star cluster.  Just as morning twilight begins to lighten the sky we should be able to see the Pleiades and Venus together in the viewing field of a pair of binoculars.

Moon phases this month:  1st quarter (June 1st); and (June 30th); Full (June 9th); Last quarter (June 17th); and New (June 23rd).

Summer Solstice occurs at 12:24 am EDT on June 21st ——Summer officially and astronomically begins.

We are getting closer to the wonderful Solar Eclipse of August 21st, so it is time for a few more words about it.  Solar eclipses happen only when the Earth, Sun, and Moon align perfectly so that the Moon passes between us and the Sun directly in front of the Sun.  This is the only time when we can actually see the phase of the Moon we call New.  Usually, we see the Moon partially or fully illuminated by the Sun’s light.  But when the Moon is between us and the Sun its illuminated part is pointed back towards the Sun.  The unlit part faces us and we cannot see it.  So only at eclipse time does that unlit part become visible.

Solar Eclipse

Here are a few things to look for during a total solar eclipse.  In the 5 or 10 minutes before totality, put down your Sun viewing eye protection glasses and notice how the Sun illuminates the grounds around you.  Cars, buildings, trees will appear a bit alien.  The Sun reduced to a mere crescent by the Moon has its light drastically changed in quality.  Shadows will have sharper edges, colors will be saturated, and contrast heightened.  The light passing through trees leaves will leave odd crescent-shaped shadows on the ground.

Totality may be announced by a diamond ring, a temporary small burst of light at the edge of the circle of light of the Sun.  During totality with binoculars look for solar prominences; small deep pink nuclear flames.  And marvel at the corona, the thinnest, wispiest part of the Sun’s atmosphere, which is never seen except during totality.  Around you, on Earth, it will look like a Full Moon night.

I look forward with great anticipation to seeing my first solar totality.  I am told it feels like nothing else in life. So just let it in.  I heard of someone saying, “It felt like the home of my soul.”  American author James Fenimore Cooper, after viewing the total solar eclipse in Oswego New York in 1806, said, “Never have I beheld any spectacle which so plainly manifested the majesty of the Creator, or so forcibly taught the lesson of humility, as a total eclipse of the Sun.”

All I can say is, “be there!”

 

Photos courtesy of NASA.

Solar Eclipse

Skywatch for Dec. 2014: Planets, Meteors, and the Christmas Program

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December brings the full glory of the bright winter star group: Orion, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Auriga, Taurus, and Gemini —- as we, on Earth, in our orbit around the Sun, face the outer edge of the Milky Way galaxy. We see all these constellations under dark skies that descend much earlier in the evening, because winter arrives in the northern hemisphere with the Solstice —– December 21st at 6:03 pm EST. Day length is at its shortest this time of year as Earth’s tilt directs more sunlight to the southern hemisphere. December also brings the annual Christmas Program to the Kent County High School Planetarium.

This year will be the 28th year of annual planetarium programs at KCHS. And despite the fact that I have now retired from the classroom, Chris Singleton, director of WKHS, our FM radio station at the school, and I have decided to put together, with student participation, another original program this year for the community. I have always been fascinated by the wealth and variety of Christmas music and decided it was time we explored the history of it. Christmas has always been displayed prominently in our past shows, but we have never explored the background of the songs. Indeed, we found that Christmas music has really surprising origins.

This year then, THE BEST-LOVED SONGS OF CHRISTMAS will be presented free of charge at the Kent County High School Planetarium at 7:00 pm, on Monday December 15th through Friday December 19th. Try to join us for one these special nights, under the stars of the planetarium!

December will welcome the return of Jupiter to the evening eastern skies, which rises around 10 pm in early December and around 8 pm by Christmas time. It will be prominent all night then, the brightest thing present except of the Moon. Its magnitude will be –2.3, and it will appear among the stars of Leo the Lion. On December 9th it will be just 7 degrees from Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, while on December 11th, we should look for the waning gibbous Moon to be just below Jupiter around 11 pm.

Venus returns to the western evening sky this month too, but despite its –3.9 magnitude, it will remain too low for easy viewing. Mercury will also appear in the western sky at magnitude –0.8, below and just to the right of Venus on December 31st. It is worth trying to see the pair of planets 1/2 hour after sunset, looking southwest at a place where one can find a clear view right down to the horizon.

The cold winter nights of December also feature 2 notable meteor showers. The more famous and more prolific of the two is the Geminids which peak during the early morning hours of December 14th. The less appreciated Ursids peak on December 22nd. The Geminids are one of the the meteor showers which produces bright meteors before midnight, and this month Gemini rises before a last quarter Moon comes up. Up to 120 meteors per hour have been seen coming from the Geminids. So look high in the east on the night of December 13/14 from 11 pm to 5 am. The Ursids generally produce 15 to 20 meteors per hour and appear to come form the area of Ursa Major(Big Dipper), now seen low in the northeast sky.

December’s Moon Phases: Full (December 6th); Last Quarter (14th); New Moon (21st); and First Quarter (28th).

Illumination of the earth at the Winter Solstice for the northern hemisphere. Day length is at its shortest this time of year as Earth’s tilt directs more sunlight to the southern hemisphere.

Illumination of the earth at the Winter Solstice for the northern hemisphere. Day length is at its shortest this time of year as Earth’s tilt directs more sunlight to the southern hemisphere.

Skywatch January 2014: Broken Comet, But Bright Planets

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Nature is very unpredictable; and we were reminded of this especially well in regard to comets. Despite the months-long major buildup about Comet ISON being the spectacular naked-eye “Comet of the Century”, nature provided a quite different outcome.Screen shot 2014-01-06 at 11.11.40 AM

Comet ISON was a “sun-grazing” comet. Its orbital path took it within 700,000 miles of the Sun. Though this sounds like a lot of miles, most comets pass millions of miles from the Sun. The Sun up close is frightfully hot and horribly deadly with harmful gamma rays, X-rays, and ultraviolet light. Ninety percent of Comet ISON was destroyed by this onslaught and though it had reached an apparent magnitude of -2.0 just before Thanksgiving, when it emerged from behind the Sun a few days later, there was not much left.

It was disappointing when the expected spectacular naked-eye comet did not materialize. But people connected with this comet as never before due to modern social media recording millions of hits from curious people; potential skywatchers. I was glad to see the interest it generated as I too, received numerous calls and questions leading up to Comet ISON’s swing around the Sun, and again afterwards, as people wondered what had happened.

The answer remains: Comets are probably the most unpredictable of celestial objects especially in regard to brightness. But one thing is sure. Comets are regular members of the Solar System and frequent visitors to the inner Solar System. Others will come and some may be bright and spectacular.

Meantime, the month of January features lots of action among the planets, with Jupiter reaching its closest approach to Earth in the last 13 months on January 5th, Venus visible low in the southwest at magnitude -4.4 until mid-January, and a fine appearance of Mercury in the West sky after sunset.

Venus will be unmistakable low in the southwest evening sky until about January 14th as its smaller orbit takes it close to the Sun, and then brings it into the Sun’s glare until late January,when it emerges into the eastern pre-dawn sky. It will be visible only for 30 to 40 minutes after sunset in early January in the southwest sky, but for 1 to 2 hours before sunrise in the East in late January and into February.

As twilight deepens Jupiter will rise among the stars of Gemini in the East reaching opposition January 5th. This means it is opposite the Sun in the sky as seen from Earth. Jupiter rises in the east as the Sun sets in the west and it is visible all night at magnitude -2.7! It will be hard to miss. On January 15th look for the Full Moon just a few degrees below Jupiter in the eastern evening sky.

Mercury gets to its greatest elongation (angle) from the Sun on January 31st. It will be seen in the southwest just left of where the Sun sets and about 10 to 12 degrees above that horizon, 45 to 60 minutes after the Sun goes down. A very thin crescent Moon will also be seen in the January 31st west sky just to Mercury’s lower right. Into February’s first days, the Moon will appear above and left of Mercury.

January’s Quadrantid meteor shower peaks on the night of January 3rd/4th. Look east-northeast from 4 to 6 am (I know, it is early and cold, but dark). You may see up to 60 meteors per hour.

January Moon Phases: 1st quarter Jan.7th; Full Jan. 15th; Last Quarter Jan.24.

Kent County High Planetarium Christmas Program December 20th

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The 2012 edition of the annual Kent County High School Planetarium Christmas Program  will be held at the school on Monday December 17th, Tuesday December 18th, Thursday December 20th, and Friday December 21st, 2012 at 7:00 pm.
 This year’s theme and title is “THE PERFECT GIFT”’
There is no admission fee; and holiday refreshments will be provided.