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.
Tags: Catalina, comet, Comet Catalina, Tau Virginis
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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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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.
Tags: Gemini, Geminids, meteor shower
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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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From late night Thursday, November 5 through November 12 skywatchers should be on the lookout from exceptionally bright meteors known as fireballs. These shooting stars will appear to radiate out from the part of the sky occupied by their namesake constellation Taurus, the bull, which rises in the east late nights this time of the year.
The shooting stars have distinct yellow-orange coloration and move a bit more slowly across the sky than the average meteor. Throughout this week, as many as a dozen per hour could be visible from dark skies.
For more celestial events, check out my National Geographic column, Starstruck.
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Late night on Friday, October 30, the waning gibbous moon will be parked just beneath one of the brightest supernova remnants in the entire sky, an expanding cloud that sits about 7,000 light-years from Earth.
Just above the moon is Zeta Tau, one of the stars that mark the tips of Taurus’s long horns. The star acts as a convenient guidepost to the famed Crab Nebula, the remains of a supernova recorded by Chinese astronomers in A.D. 1054.
Look for the faint Crab Nebula, also known as Messier 1, approximately 1 degree above Zeta Tau and 5 degrees above the moon—slightly less than the width of three middle fingers at arm’s length. The nebula shines faintly at magnitude 9.0, making it just visible through binoculars and an easy target for even small backyard telescopes.
For more information about night sky events, visit my National Geographic column, Starstruck.
Tags: Crab nebula, nebula
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From late night Tuesday through Thursday morning, ten to 20 shooting stars per hour will zip across the night sky. As meteor showers go, this one is more of a sprinkle, but the Orionids make up for modest performance with a distinguished pedigree. Orionid shooting stars are part of the debris shed from the most famous of all Earth’s icy visitors, Halley’s Comet.
Individual meteor streaks can be traced back to the shower’s namesake constellation Orion, which rises in the northeast in the overnight hours. Absolute peak is expected sometime late night on the 21st into the early morning hours of the 22nd.
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In the early dawn hours on Tuesday, October 6, skywatchers can use the moon to find the Beehive star cluster (Messier 44) nearby. This open cluster lies in the heart of the zodiacal constellation Cancer in the southeastern sky.
This cluster is one of the closest to our Sun, sitting at 610 light-years distant. Seen with the naked eye in dark skies, the Beehive appears as a nebulous mass. Through binoculars or telescopes, though, the cluster reveals itself as a loose grouping of sparkling stars.
Tags: Beehive cluster, M44, Open Star Cluster, The Moon
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From catching the moon dance with ice giants, Venus gliding by a stunning star cluster, to one of the largest asteroids offering its best views for 2015, there is something for everyone in the sky this week.
Over the next few days there are a number celestial events that are within reach of the backyard sky-watcher. While a few need binoculars and small telescopes, most can be seen with nothing more than unaided eyes.
Check out my weekly column over at National Geographic where you will find a detailed viewer’s guide and finder star charts.
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