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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On Sunday, November 1, early risers get a chance to catch the goddess of love and the god of war team up in the low eastern sky just before dawn when super-bright Venus slides within 1 degree of Mars. The king of the gods, Jupiter, will be perched above, looking down on the pair.
For more night sky events, check out my National Geographic column, Starstruck.
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On Halloween, Saturday, October 31, trick-or-treaters can hunt down a real stellar ghoul in the sky. That night, the naked-eye star Algol sits in the constellation Perseus, rising high in the northeastern evening sky. The star represents the eye of the monster Medusa from ancient Greek mythology, but what makes it so eerie is that it appears to wink at us.
Algol, which means “ghoul’s head,” sits 93 light-years away and is actually two stars that orbit each other. From our vantage point here on Earth, the two stars are lined up so that one eclipses the other every 2.867 days, or 68 hours, 48 minutes, and 59.9 seconds. That makes Algol appear to fade and brighten.
Known as an eclipsing binary variable, Algol is normally the second-brightest star in the constellation Perseus at 2.1 magnitude, which is about as bright as stars in the Big Dipper. But over a 10-hour period, Algol fades dramatically to 3.4 magnitude and then again brightens, as one star passes in front of the other. This week, Algol reaches its dimmest point at 8:50 a.m. ET on October 27 and 5:39 a.m. ET on October 30.
You can easily hunt down the demon star in the constellation Perseus, the hero, near the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia and the bright star Capella of the constellation Auriga. Perseus looks somewhat like a lopsided K, with Algol located along one of the upper arms just a few degrees from the bright star Mirfak.
For more night sky events, check out my National Geographic column, Starstruck.
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The moon shows the way to an open cluster in the predawn hours on Wednesday, October 7. The crescent moon will now be parked next to Messier 67, which contains hundreds of geriatric stars that are believed to be at least 3.2 billion years old. Only a few open clusters are older than M67, but none are closer to Earth. Located in the southwestern sky, this grouping of geriatric stars is in the zodiacal constellation Cancer.
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The waning moon will rise in the early morning hours in the northeastern sky on Sunday, October 4 and will appear to be perched above the bright constellation Orion, the hunter.
Sky-watchers looking under the moon will be greeted by one of the largest naked-eye stars in the entire sky: Betelgeuse, which marks the left shoulder of Orion. Shining with a distinct orange hue, Betelgeuse is a red giant star that is 700 times the size of our sun. It’s so large, in fact, that if it replaced the sun at the center of our solar system, the edge of Betelgeuse would reach at least to the orbit of Mars.
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66-light-years distant Aldebaran, the star that represents the red eye of the constellation Taurus, will appear to be eclipsed or occulted by the moon at dawn for viewers on the west coast of North America, and during daylight for the rest of the American continent.
The best way to catch a glimpse of the star-moon pair during daylight will be to use binoculars. Scan to the left of the moon for the star. Aldebaran should reach the limb of the moon at 9:55 a.m. EDT (6:15 a.m. PDT) and will reappear on the other side, the darkened limb of the moon, at 10:52 a.m. EDT (7:15 a.m. PDT).
For more information and more celestial events, check out my National Geographic column.
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Everyone with clear skies across the Americas will have a front-row seat Sunday night to a rare total eclipse of the super-harvest moon.
On the evening of September 27, three separate lunar events converge. The total eclipse coincides with the full moon nearest the fall equinox, known as the harvest moon. What’s more, the moon is at its closest approach to Earth for the year, making it also a supermoon or perigee moon. That’s why it’s being coined by some as a Super Harvest Blood Moon—a mouthful to be sure.
This confluence has happened only five times since 1900. According to NASA, the last time we saw this celestial triple combination was in 1982, and it won’t repeat until 2033.
The most spectacular part of the eclipse will be the totality phase, when Earth’s shadow completely covers the moon and turns it an eerie red. The moon will dip into the deepest and darkest part of Earth’s shadow, or umbra, during the totality phase, which lasts as long as 72 minutes.
This week’s eclipse is even more special because the lunar disk will appear slightly larger than usual. The moon will be at perigee—its closest point to Earth—just 59 minutes before the height of the eclipse. This will make the lunar disk appear 13 percent larger than average.
During the total eclipse, sunlight shining through the ring of Earth’s dusty atmosphere is bent, or refracted, toward the red part of the spectrum and cast onto the moon’s surface.
As a result, expect to see the lunar disk go from a dark gray color during the partial phase of the eclipse to a reddish-orange color during totality. The moon’s color during totality can vary considerably depending on the amount of dust in the Earth’s atmosphere at the time. Active volcanoes spewing tons of ash into the upper atmosphere, for instance, can trigger blood-red eclipses.
No one can predict exactly what color we’ll see before each eclipse.
What Time Do I Watch?
The first part of the eclipse will be the partial phase, when the moon enters Earth’s dark shadow (umbra) beginning at 9:07 p.m. EDT or 01:07 GMT. From that point, the dark umbral shadow will spread across the moon’s disk from left to right.
At 10:11 p.m. EDT, totality begins—when the moon is fully engulfed in the umbral shadow and turns a shade of orange-red. Totality will last as long as one hour and 12 minutes, with the rest of the visible eclipse ending at 12:27 a.m. EDT.
Eclipse Event EDT CDT MDT PDT
Partial eclipse begins 9:07 p.m. 8:07 p.m.
Total eclipse begins 10:11 p.m 9:11 p.m 8:11 p.m 7:11 p.m
Midpoint of eclipse 10:47 p.m. 9:47 p.m. 8:47 p.m. 7:47 p.m.
Total eclipse ends 11:23 p.m. 10:23 p.m. 9:23 p.m. 8:23 p.m.
Partial eclipse ends 12:27 a.m 11:27 p.m. 10:27 p.m. 9:27 p.m.
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Near midnight on Tuesday look for the planet Uranus beside the waning gibbous moon as it rises in the east.
The two worlds will be separated by only 3 degrees—less than the width of your three middle fingers held at arm’s length. The planet’s close proximity to the moon will make it easy to locate the magnitude-5.8 ice giant. Because of the lunar glare, however, binoculars will be needed to see the planet’s distinct greenish hue.
For more sky events check out my weekly sky-watcher’s guide over at National Geographic News.
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While watching fireworks on Independence Day–Saturday, July 4–look for the iconic Summer Triangle riding high in the southern, late night sky.
Not a constellation by itself, the Summer Triangle offers a great three-for-one deal for backyard stargazers. The individual stars not only anchor the triangle but also act as a guide to three separate constellations.
Leading off the triangle at the top is the most brilliant of the group, Vega, which is part of the constellation Lyra, the harp. This powerhouse star, located about 25 light-years away, is twice the size of our sun and burns 50 times brighter. Not surprisingly, it ranks as the fifth brightest star in the entire sky.
The next point of the triangle is Altair, the eye of Aquila, the eagle. It’s the faintest of the three despite being the closest–only 17 light-years distant. According to romantic Chinese legend, Altair is a young man who is in love with the beautiful princess, Vega. Unfortunately, they are destined to be separated forever by the fast flowing river that is the Milky Way.
Finally, the lowest point in this celestial triangle is marked by Deneb, the tail of Cygnus, the swan. But don’t be fooled by its serene appearance. This monster is about 200 times the size of our sun and burns an astonishing 100,000 times brighter, making Vega seem puny by comparison.
Tags: Summer Triangle
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Just in time to celebrate Earth Day, the Lyrid meteor shower comes into full swing! Stay up late on the night of Wednesday, April 22 and witness shooting stars that will seem to come from the northeast sky.
The peak of this light show will be after 11 pm and really kick in after midnight as the moon sets and leave behind dark skies. Enjoy 15 – 20 meteors per hour in areas outside the light dome of the city until the morning hours of Thursday.
For information about this celestial event and more, check out my National Geographic blog – StarStruck.
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