Moons Drop Shadows on Jupiter

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 9, 2016 – 3:41 pm -

Sunday night watch the shadows of 3 major moons of Jupiter drop their shadows onto the surface of the gas giant.

Late on Sunday, January 10, and into the overnight hours, telescope users can watch as Jupiter’s three largest moons travel in front of the largest planet in the solar system.

The sky show begins at 11:37 p.m. ET, when Europa’s tiny disk begins its trek across the planet, a journey that ends at 2:21 a.m. ET on Monday. Calisto then starts its transit at 3:04 a.m. ET, followed by Io’s shadow, which will touch the gas giant’s disk at 4:22 a.m. ET. Finally Io itself will begin to move in front of the planet at 5:27 a.m. ET.

All this action takes place so far away that the sunlight reflected off Jupiter and its moons takes 41 minutes to reach our eyes here on Earth.

For this and other celestial events, check out my National Geographic column, Starstruck.


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Venus and Saturn Snuggle

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 8, 2016 – 3:40 pm -

Simulated view shows Saturn and Venus, which will appear together in Earth skies on Saturday at their closest conjunction in a decade Saturday morning just before dawn.

At dawn on Saturday, January 9, skywatchers get a chance to witness a spectacularly close encounter between two bright planets that will be visible with the naked eye. On this day, Venus and Saturn will appear closer together than at any other time in the last decade.

Europeans will be able to see the pair at their tightest, when they are just 5 arc-seconds apart, at 4 a.m. GMT. By the time the planets become visible in the low southeast skies of North America they will have separated a bit but still be less than half a degree apart, less than the width of a pencil held at arm’s length.

The two worlds are quite low to the horizon, so they may be a little challenging to see through the glare of dawn. Also, Venus will be far more brilliant than Saturn and may overwhelm the ringed world’s light. However, binoculars will easily show off the two worlds, and the planets will readily fit within the same field of view through a telescope.

For more information about this and other celestial events, visit my National Geographic column, Starstruck.


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Catalina’s Coming!

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 18, 2015 – 2:54 pm -

Comet Catalina will be easier to spot next to naked eye star Tau Virginis on Sunday just before dawn.

Early risers can continue to catch the pre-dawn comet show playing out in the eastern sky this week.  On Sunday, December 20, hunting it down might be a bit easier as the comet passes four degrees due left of the magnitude 4 star Tau Virginis, which is just visible to the naked eye.

The comet is currently traveling through the Virgo constellation, visible to the left of the planets Venus and Mars, and is best seen about an hour before sunrise about 30 degrees above the horizon—equal to a stack of three fists held at arm’s length.

The icy visitor has brightened a bit, to magnitude 6, but is still best viewed through binoculars and telescopes. Will it continue to brighten? No one knows at this point, but stay tuned for updates.


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Uranus Sits Next to Moon

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 18, 2015 – 2:16 pm -

Catch this Green Giant next to the Moon on Saturday night.

Catch this Green Giant next to the Moon on Saturday night.

After nightfall on Saturday, December 19, the waxing gibbous moon will be parked next to the planet Uranus.

Look for the green-hued ice giant less than two degrees above the the moon: equal to about four lunar disks apart. Also the moon, Uranus and the faint (4.2 magnitude) star Epsilon Piscium will form a straight line, with the planet nearly exactly in middle.

Shining at magnitude 5.8 magnitude, Uranus is best spotted using at least binoculars, through which it appears as a distinct but tiny greenish colored disk against a backdrop of faint stars of the constellation Pisces, the fishes.

For more about this and other celestial events, check out my Starstruck column at National Geographic.


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Geminids Peak!

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 11, 2015 – 3:48 pm -

Image Credit: Jimmy Westlake

After a week of slowly ramping up, the annual Geminid meteor shower kicks into high gear, reaching its peak in the overnight hours of Sunday, December 13. With the moon out of the way, sky conditions promise to be perfect for this celestial fireworks show.

Every year around mid-December, Earth plows into a cloud of debris left by the comet-like asteroid Phaethon, causing a shower of meteors that appears to come from the direction of the constellation Gemini.

Best views of the peak will be from the dark countryside, far from city lights, with up to 100 shooting stars visible per hour. From suburbs, these numbers are expected to drop to 20 to 60 meteors per hour, depending on local light-pollution levels. But even in urban centers across the Northern Hemisphere, the brightest meteors, called fireballs, should be easily visible under clear skies. The Geminids should produce a few fireballs during the peak hours from local midnight to just before dawn on Monday.

For this and other celestial events, visit my National Geographic column, Starstruck.


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Counter Glow

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 10, 2015 – 3:48 pm -

Image Credit & Copyright: Yuri Beletsky (Las Campanas Observatory, Carnegie Institution)

Starting on Friday, December 11, and into the next week, look under dark skies before dawn for the elusive sky glow known as Gegenschein, which is German for “counter glow.”

Gegenschein is a faint, circular glowing area in the sky opposite from the sun and is similar to the zodiacal lights, which look like a cone of light in the direction of the sun at morning or evening twilight. The diffuse patch of light of the counter glow is caused by the backscattering of light off dust spread out between planets in the solar system, but it is usually blocked from Earth viewers by light pollution or the moon’s shine. It is best visible when the sky is moonless and the skywatcher is in the dark countryside far from a city.

The counter glow is easiest to spot around local midnight, when sunshine hits the dust particles in space squarely in relation to Earth. This is similar to the uptick in brightness that occurs when a planet is at opposition, or opposite in the sky from the sun. From our vantage point on Earth, Gegenschein appears as a distinctly brighter spot in the sky. Look for a faint, round glow about 10 degrees across, equal to about the width of your fist held at arm’s length.

For this and other celestial events, check out my National Geographic column, Starstruck.


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Waning Moon and Mars

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 5, 2015 – 7:26 am -

The moon and mars will meet up in the early morning hours on Sunday, Dec. 6. Look toward the southeastern skies.

The moon and mars will meet up in the early morning hours on Sunday, Dec. 6. Look toward the southeastern skies.

During early morning twilight on Sunday, December 6th, skywatchers get a real sky show as the Red Planet gets its chance to hang out with the thinning crescent moon.

The dramatic pair will appear only four degrees apart—less than the width of your three middle fingers held at arm’s length.

For this and more celestial events, check out my National Geographic column, StarStruck.


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Geminids Grace Skies

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 4, 2015 – 7:25 am -

meteor-shower-icon1

Starting Saturday, December 5, the annual Geminid meteor shower officially begins.

While only a trickle of meteors will be visible during the overnight hours, the shower will ramp up over the next two weeks and peak on December 14. At that point, the shower will become one of the premier astronomical events of the year.

The shower gets its name from the Gemini constellation, where all the shooting star appear to radiate out from.

For more information about this or other celestial events, check out my National Geographic column, StarStruck.


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Whisper Thin Crescent Moon Joins Jupiter, Venus & Mars

Written by The Night Sky Guy on November 6, 2015 – 3:28 pm -

Look towards the eastern predawn skies to view the conjunction of Mars, Venus and the moon with Jupiter.

Look towards the eastern predawn skies on November 7 to view the conjunction of Mars, Venus and the moon with Jupiter.

The early morning of Saturday, November 7, will make for a stunning finale to a celestial dance with the thin crescent moon—only 16 percent lit—slipping below Jupiter and pairing up with the brilliant Venus and Mars.

Earth’s natural satellite will appear only two degrees from the planetary duo, making for an amazing photo opportunity.

Keep in mind that while these worlds may look close together in the sky, they are in fact great distances apart. Venus is six light-minutes away, Mars is 18 light-minutes distant, and Jupiter is so far away that reflected sunlight off its cloud tops takes a whopping 49 minutes to reach our eyes.


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Sliver Moon Snuggles King

Written by The Night Sky Guy on November 5, 2015 – 3:22 pm -

Illustration of night sky

The King of the Planets joins the whisker-thin moon as the top a Venus/Mars pairing on November 6.

The morning of Friday, November 6, the moon will shrink to a crescent, snuggling up to the right of Jupiter, the king of the planets. 

The pair will be very eye-catching at only two degrees apart, equal to the width of four lunar disks. Adding to the beauty will be the Venus-Mars pair, hanging just ten degrees below.

For more celestial events, consult my Starstruck column at National Geographic.


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