In case you haven’t heard the BBC are running another series of Stargazing Live starting on Monday 16 January for three nights. Each hour long programme will be presented by Professor Brian Cox and comedian Dara O’Briain, and will feature a wealth of information about what’s visible in the night sky.
This series will focus on light pollution, and the benefits of a dark sky.
On Wednesday 18 January, Dulverton in Somerset [in Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve] will attempt to become one of the first towns in the UK to have every single one of its lights turned off at the same time, as part of a Stargazing Live demonstration showcasing the beauty of a night sky free of the effects of light pollution.
There are 177 street lights in Dulverton making the night sky significantly brighter and making it much harder to see the stars. At roughly 8.15pm on Wednesday (or at the sound of a unique set of church bells), the Stargazing Live team want every single person in Dulverton to turn off every single light in the town, giving people in the area the unique chance to take in the wonders of the night sky free of the effects of light pollution.
To support this series, and encourage people to get out and look up, the BBC are sponsoring hundreds of events around the country, from planetarium shows to star parties, from lectures to observatory visits. You can find out what’s on near you on their events page.
To find out more about the shows visit their website, where you can view images, download their excellent star guide and activity pack, listen to some audio guides, watch “how to” videos, and take part in live web chats. You can also follow the series on Twitter using the hashtag #BBCstargazing.
This morning (Wednesday 04 January 2012) at around 0530 the Quadrantids meteor shower reached its peak activity rate. According to the International Meteor Organisation the ZHR(max) was 78 +/- 7. As is usual with this meteor shower the peak was quite narrow, with activity starting to increase after 0000 on 04 January, and dropping off again by 1800 the same day.
As was predicted, observers who were out under clear skies between 0430 and 0630 would have got the best views, as within this two hour window the Moon had set and the Sun had yet to brighten the sky. The ZHR(max) of 78 was rather disappointingly low compared with the predicted maximum rate of ~120, but predicting these things isn’t an exact science. The IMO estimated that the rate usually falls somewhere between 60 and 200, so this year’s shower was certainly at the lower end of that, however that might be down to the fact that few people had clear skies (a common problem at this time of year) and so some meteors were missed.
A ZHR (max) occurring at 0530 on 04 January 2012, when the radiant was around 60° above the eastern horizon (in the UK), if seen from a cloudless dark sky site with no light pollution (i.e. a limiting magnitude of 6.5) would have meant that you’d have seen around 70 shooting stars an hour, still quite an impressive show
On the night of 03/04 January 2012 the first meteor shower of the year will take place, the Quadrantids. This shower ranks as one of the best performers of the year, assuming your skies aren’t clouded, as they so often are in winter. If the peak of this shower occurs under ideal conditions – i.e. perfectly clear skies, free from light pollution – then you can expect to see in excess of 100 meteors every hour. The peak for this shower is very brief though, so you’ll have to catch just the right conditions at just the right time to see a display this good. This year’s peak is estimated to occur just before dawn on 04 January 2012.
Not only do you have the weather to contend with, but this year the waxing gibbous Moon will be up for much of the night. However the Moon sets at around 0415, giving you a couple of hours before the sky starts to brighten before sunrise. Given that the peak of this shower will probably occur within this short window, things are looking pretty good for this year’s display.
Last year’s graph of meteor activity shows how sharp the peak is, so you probably won’t see many Quadrantids on the nights either side of the peak, but it’s worth a look if you have clear dark skies. ZHR for this year may be anywhere between 60 and 200.
How best to view the Quadrantids 2012
- Get somewhere as far from street lights and city glow as possible, preferably somewhere really dark, like your nearest national park or one of the UK’s dark sky places: Galloway Forest Park, Sark or Exmoor.
- Go out at the right time, which for this year’s shower is between around 0400 and 0700 GMT.
- You don’t need binoculars or a telescope, your eyes are best for viewing meteors.
- Wrap up warm, as if you have clear skies (which you’ll be hoping for) it will be very cold in these early morning hours.
- Bring a reclining deck chair so you don’t have to stand all night, and a blanket to wrap yourself in!
- Although the radiant of the meteor shower (the point where the meteors will appear to stream from) is high in the E around 0400 you don’t need to worry about facing in any particular direction, just position yourself so that you can see as much sky as possible, and enjoy the view!
If you want to make more serious observations of this shower you can submit them to either the International Meteor Organisation, the British Astronomical Association, or the Society for Popular Astronomy.
Tonight (actually around 0130 tomorrow morning) the Full Moon will reach its highest point due south, just an hour and a half after the eclipse ends. Despite being at its highest in the sky, you’ll still struggle to see it, as it is very low down. In fact the Full Moon nearest the Summer Solstice is the lowest Full Moon of the Year.
First, let’s begin with the definition of “Full Moon”. A Full Moon occurs when the Moon is diametrically opposite the Sun, as seen from the Earth. In this configuration, the entire lit hemisphere of the Moon’s surface is visible from Earth, which is what makes it “Full”. There is an actual instant of the exactly Full Moon, that is the exact instant that the Moon is directly opposite the Sun. Therefore when you see timings listed for the Full Moon they will usually include the exact time (hh:mm) that the Moon is 180° round from the Sun (we call this point opposition).
Here’s a list of the times of all Full Moons between June 2011 and June 2012:
|Month||Date of Full Moon
||Time of Full Moon (UT)
|June 2011||15 June||2014*|
|July 2011||15 July||0640*|
|August 2011||13 August||1857*|
|September 2011||12 September||0927*|
|October 2011||12 October||0206*|
|November 2011||10 November||2016|
|December 2011||10 December||1436|
|January 2012||09 January||0730|
|February 2012||07 February||2154|
|March 2012||08 March||0939|
|April 2012||06 April||1919*|
|May 2012||06 May||0335*|
|June 2012||04 June||1112*|
* UK observers should add on one hour for BST
As you can see from this table, the instant of the Full Moon can occur at any time of day, even in the daytime when the Moon is below the horizon. So most often when we see a “Full Moon” in the sky it is not exactly full, it is a little bit less than full, being a few hours ahead or behind the instant of the Full Moon. I’ll refer to this with “” marks, to distinguish this from the instant of the Full Moon (they look virtually identical in the sky).
The Moon rises and sets, like the Sun does, rising towards the east and setting towards the west, reaching its highest point due south around midnight (although not exactly at midnight, just like the Sun does not usually reach its highest point exactly at noon). And like with the Sun the maximum distance above the horizon of the “Full Moon” varies over the year.
The Sun is at its highest due south around noon on the Summer Solstice (20 or 21 June) and at its lowest due south around noon on the Winter Solstice (21 or 22 Dec) (of course the Sun is often lower than this, as it rises and sets, but we’re talking here about the lowest high point at mid-day, i.e. the day of the year in which, when the Sun is at its highest point that day, that height is lowest…)
And because Full Moons occur when the Moon is directly opposite the Sun, you can imagine the Moon and Sun as sitting on either sides of a celestial see-saw: on the day when the Sun is highest in the middle of the day (in Summer), the Moon is at its lowest high point at midnight; and on the day when the Sun is at its lowest high point in the middle of the day (in Winter), the Moon is at its highest high point at midnight.
This means, in practical terms, that Summer “Full Moons” are always very low on the horizon, while Winter “Full Moons” can be very high overhead.
Here’s a table of the altitude of the “Full Moon” when due south. Remember the times in this table don’t match the exact time of the Full Moon, but instead have been chosen as the closest in time to that instant, and so have be labelled “Full Moon” (in quotes).
Full Moon (UT)
“Full Moon” due S
instant of Full Moon
|Altitude due S
|June 2011||15 June||2014*||0127BST 16 June 2011||+4h13m||10° 05′|
|July 2011||15 July||0640*||0012BST 15 July 2011||-7h28m||10° 24′|
|August 2011||13 August||1857*||0126BST 14 August 2011||+5h27m||19° 19′|
|September 2011||12 September||0927*||0049BST 12 September 2011||-9h38m||31° 49′|
|October 2011||12 October||0206*||0053BST 12 October 2011||-1h13m||44° 16′|
|November 2011||10 November||2016||0005GMT 11 November 2011||-3h49m||53° 24′|
|December 2011||10 December||1436||0030GMT 11 December 2011||+9h54m||56° 03′|
|January 2012||09 January||0730||0006GMT 09 January 2012||-7h24m||53° 36′|
|February 2012||07 February||2154||0031GMT 08 February 2012||+2h37m||43° 47′|
|March 2012||08 March||0939||0000GMT 08 March 2012||-9h39m||35° 37′|
|April 2012||06 April||1919*||0145BST 07 April 2012||+5h26m||21° 45′|
|May 2012||06 May||0335*||0102BST 06 May 2012||-3h33m||15° 20′|
|June 2012||04 June||1112*||0047BST 04 June 2012||-11h25m||11° 49′|
* UK observers should add on one hour for BST
** The altitude here is based on my observing location in Glasgow, Scotland. You can find out how to work out how high these altitudes are here.
As you can see from this table, the highest “Full Moon” due S this year occurs at 0030 on 11 December 2011, when the Moon will be over 56° above the southern horizon (approximately the height of the midsummer mid-day Sun which culminates at 57°34′).
Compare this to the “Full Moon” this month, just after the eclipse, in the morning of 16 June, when the Moon barely grazes 10° above the horizon, and you can see just how low the midsummer Full Moon can be.
In fact the closeness of summer “Full Moons” to the horizon means that this is an ideal time of year to try and observe the Moon Illusion.
UPDATE: Here’s a very cool speeded up video of the Moon cycling through its phases, as see by the LRO spacecraft: