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Mercury at maximum elongation, 25 May 2014

May 13, 2014 1 comment

The planet Mercury is the most elusive of all of the naked eye planets. It orbits nearest the Sun, and so always rises just before the Sun or sets just after it, appearing in the glow of twilight. For much of Mercury’s orbit it isn’t visible at all, lying too close to the Sun in the sky.

To see Mercury at its best you have to wait until it’s as far as possible from the Sun in the sky; what astronomers refer to as its maximum elongation. When Mercury is at its maximum eastern elongation it’s visible just before sunrise; when it’s at its maximum western elongation its visible just after sunset.

At the moment Mercury is nearing its maximum western elongation and so makes a perfect evening target.

Mercury in the WNW, at Maximum Elongation, 25 May 2014

Mercury in the WNW, at Maximum Elongation, 25 May 2014, created using Stellarium

Mercury’s range of maximum elongation is between 18° and 28°, and in this particular apparition it’s furthest distance from the Sun is 22.7°. This occurs on 25 May 2014. Between now and the end of May look west just after sunset to try and catch a glimpse of Mercury shining at magnitude +0.4. It’ll be low in the sky, very low, but if you look towards the west, find Jupiter shining brilliantly, and follow a line down to the right at an angle of approx. 45° you should see Mercury a few degrees above the horizon.

If you’re trying to observe it through a telescope then make sure you wait until the Sun has well and truly set below the horizon. Mercury exhibits phases like the Moon and Venus which can be seen through a telescope but shows no other detail through an earth-based scope; on 25 May the disk of Mercury facing the Earth will only be 40% illuminated, making a fat crescent shape. Mercury’s angular size is the smallest of all the planets save distant Uranus and Neptune.

If you’ve ever seen Jupiter or Saturn through a telescope then you’ll know that they look spectacular despite their relatively meagre size. On 25 May, for example, Jupiter will appear to have a diameter of 33 arcseconds (written 33″), Saturn 19″, Venus 15″, Mars 12″, and Mercury a paltry 8″.

And you can actually see all five of these planets on the night of 25 May (or any night between now and the end of May. Mercury is the trickiest to find, but Jupiter will be blazing low in the east, Mars high in the south, Saturn lower in the south-east, and if you’re keen to get up before sunrise you’ll see Venus low in the east. (Uranus and Neptune are dawn objects too at the moment).

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The Night Sky in May 2014

May 2, 2014 3 comments

This month sees a glut of amazing stargazing sights in the night sky, even as the days lengthen towards summer.

Saturn, image by Kenneth Crawford and Michael A. Mayda

Saturn as it might look through a large telescope, image by Kenneth Crawford and Michael A. Mayda

Saturn is coming to opposition this month (10 May) meaning it shines in the sky all night long throughout the month. A small telescope (even a pair of binoculars on a tripod) will show Saturn’s beautiful rings and one of its moons.

Mars is even brighter than Saturn, shining a soft orange colour in the constellation of Virgo, near the bright star Spica.

Jupiter is still an evening object although it sets in the west around 1am.

There’s the possibility of a spectacular new meteor shower on 23/34 May as the Earth passes through the dust trail of comet 209P/Linear.

And May sees the start of the noctilucent cloud season, where these elusive high-altitude begin to shine in deep twilight.

Full moon this month is on 14 May, when the Moon will sit near Saturn.

A New Meteor Shower for 2014: The Camelopardalids

January 9, 2014 Leave a comment

UPDATE: See below

This year sees a brand new meteor shower possibly gracing our night skies, on 24 May 2014.

Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through a cloud of dust left behind by a comet. These clouds hang in space in the same place, and so meteor showers occur at the same time every year as the Earth revisits them.

But every so often a new comet comes along and creates a cloud of dust where none existed before. In the case of this anticipated shower the comet that left the cloud behind goes by the name of 209P/Linear. It was discovered in 2004 and passed near the sun in 2009, and will do so again this year in early May.

Current predictions are that the Earth will pass through the cloud of dust left by 209P/Linear on 24 May 2014. Quite how many shooting stars will be visible is unknown, but given that this is a fresh cloud of dust that hasn’t been “used up” before in previous meteor showers, we might expect a good display.

Stargazers in North America are probably best suited to see it, but in the UK it’s still worth looking out for. More accurate information regarding timings will become available nearer the time, but regardless of when exactly the Earth passes through the dust stargazers in the UK will have to wait until the sky is dark. It never gets truly dark in the UK in late May except in the south, and the Channel Islands, but the best time is between 0000 and 0200.

And where to look in the sky? As with all meteor showers it doesn’t matter where you look; the shooting stars streak across the sky in all directions. However if you trace the trails back they will all converge at the same part of the sky, called the radiant. Meteor showers are named after their radiants (e.g. the Perseids emerge from Perseus, and the Geminids from Gemini) and this new shower will appear to emanate from the dim constellation of Camelopardalis*, so they’ll be known as the Camelopardalids! Just flows off the tongue…

* Camelopard comes from the romanised Greek words for “camel” and “leopard”, and is the name for a giraffe, which the Greeks thought were part camel, part leopard!

UPDATE: The International Meteor Organisation repeats the need for caution in predicting how good this meteor shower might be:

[M]uch is unknown about this comet, including its dust productivity and even its precise orbit. Consequently, while tentative proposals have been made that ZHRs at best could reach 100+, perhaps up to storm proportions… these are far from certain. The strongest activity could be short lived too, lasting perhaps between a few minutes to a fraction of an hour only. In addition, the number of dust trails involved means there may be more than one peak, and that others could happen outside the “key hour” period, so observers at suitable locations are urged to be vigilant for as long as possible to either side of the predicted event to record whatever takes place. Remember, there are no guarantees in meteor astronomy!

They suggest that independent calculations show that the peak of activity (which might be very narrow, see above) will fall some time around 0700-0740UT (0800-0840BST) Saturday 24 May which obviously means that UK observers will miss the peak (US meteorwatchers will be perfectly placed).

However it is still worthwhile keeping an eye out during the darkest part of the night on the nights of 23/24 and 24/25 May in case there are multiple peaks, or the main peak is broad.

We just don’t know yet what is going to happen with this meteor shower: it might fizzle out to nothing, or it might reach storm levels, meaning hundreds of shooting stars per hour. Good luck!

Mercury, Venus, Jupiter in the evening sky, May 2013

This evening, and for the next few evenings, just as the sky begins to darken after sunset, you’ve got a chance to see three of the five naked-eye planets side by side.

The two brightest naked eye planets (Venus and Jupiter) are close together, separated by only a few degrees, closing to 1° on 28 May (in what we call a conjunction). This should make them very easy to spot, low in the NW from around 30 minutes after sunset. In fact they’re close enough together that you could fit them both in one binocular field of view.

Mercury, however, might be trickier to spot. As the faintest naked-eye planet it will lurk in the twilight sky unseen for many people, just above the two brighter planets.

Remember, if you’re observing with binoculars or a telescope make sure you wait until the Sun has fully set

Constellation of the Month: Leo the Lion

Head outside during April just as the sky gets properly dark and sitting high in the south is the constellation of Leo the Lion.

20130406-153646.jpg

Leo is well-known as it’s one of the signs of the zodiac, and therefore one of the constellations through which the planets, Sun and Moon pass over the course of the year.

Leo is also well-known due to its most prominent feature, a pattern of stars within the constellation (called an asterism) known as The Sickle, which looks like a backwards question mark, with the bright star Regulus as the dot.

Regulus is known as the king star, and is one of the brightest stars in the sky, shining blue-white in late winter and spring.

Within the constellation of Leo are two groups of galaxies, marked as 1 and 2 on the chart above.

1. The Leo Triplet: M65, M66, and NGC3628
20130406-155530.jpg

2. The M96 Group: Including M95 & M96
20130406-155656.jpg
Any of these galaxies can be seen with even a small telescope, but their detailed structure can only really be seen in larger scopes.

Enjoy the spring skies, and happy galaxy hunting!

Maps and descriptions like this one for each of the 88 constellations can be found in my new book, Stargazing for Dummies. Click on the image on the right for more info.

The Lowest Full Moon of the Year

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.

Full Moon by Luc Viatour http://www.lucnix.be

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).

Month Date of
Full Moon
Time of
Full Moon (UT)
Time/Date of
“Full Moon” due S
Time from/since
instant of Full Moon
Altitude due S
(degrees)**
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:

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