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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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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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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Moon Shows Crab Nebula

Written by The Night Sky Guy on October 29, 2015 – 11:18 am -

Waning moon sits next to beautiful Crab Nebula on Friday, October 30.

Waning moon sits next to beautiful Crab Nebula on Friday, October 30.

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.


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Beehive Next to Moon

Written by The Night Sky Guy on October 5, 2015 – 2:05 am -

Pre-dawn hours of Tuesday, October 6, in the southwestern sky the moon will buzz very close to the Beehive Cluster. (Image: NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Pre-dawn hours of Tuesday, October 6, in the southwestern sky the moon will buzz very close to the Beehive Cluster. (Image: NOAO/AURA/NSF)

 

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.


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Your Guide to the Total Lunar Eclipse This Sunday

Written by The Night Sky Guy on September 25, 2015 – 4:35 pm -

Eclipse time for Eastern Daylight Time. Credit: Sky and Telescope Illustration.

Eclipse time for Eastern Daylight Time. Credit: Sky and Telescope Illustration.

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.

Sept2015_LunarEclipse_worldmap

This world map shows that both Americas, Europe and Africa will get to see at least part of the lunar eclipse on Sept.27, 2015. Credit: Sky and Telescope Illustration.

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.

 

This diagram shows why the moon does not disappear in our skies during a total eclipse. The sunlight travels through Earth's atmosphere and gets refracted by particles towards the red part of the spectrum. Credit: Sky andTelescope Illustration.

This diagram shows why the moon does not disappear in our skies during a total eclipse. The sunlight travels through Earth’s atmosphere and gets refracted by particles towards the red part of the spectrum. Credit: Sky and Telescope Illustration.

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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Catch Venus Now in the Sky

Written by The Night Sky Guy on June 1, 2015 – 6:17 pm -

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View of Venus in the low western sky after sunset in June. Credit: A.Fazekas/SkySafari

Look for the beacon of Venus about a half-hour after sunset on Saturday, June 6, above the southwest horizon.

The second-to-innermost planet, affectionately called the ‘evening star,’ will today appear at its farthest point from the sun, also called its greatest elongation. Sitting some 45 degrees east of the sun, Venus will shine at -4.4 magnitude, making it about 10 times brighter than Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, visible to its upper left.

After Saturday, Venus will sink closer to the horizon and the sun each day. By August 10th it will disappear in the glare of the sun and will reappear in the morning sky.

While Venus appears impressive to the naked eye all summer long, through even small telescopes, high magnification reveals the planet to be half-lit, much like a miniature quarter moon—a sight worth enjoying.

For more skywatching events check out my weekly National Geographic viewer’s guide.


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