Amazing Stargazing Sights This Week

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 27, 2014 – 9:10 pm -

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Sitting more than 2,100 light years from Earth, the Little Beehive Cluster shines bright in the evening sky this week. Credit: NOAO

As we head towards the final days of January, the night sky is filled with cosmic wonders, from a supernova explosion, Mercury at its best, and Martian close encounters.

For the naked-eye observers nothing beat the moon gliding past bright planets – and this week Luna’s close encounter with Venus will be a beauty. For binocular observers – the forth brightest asteroid is fairly easy to hunt down in Pisces constellation in the evenings, while a stunning open star cluster hits prime-time  in backyard telescope with scores of diamond-like stars huddling together.

Get all your observing details for these and other sky events this week at my weekly skywatching column at National Geographic News.


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Cassini Snaps Amazing Earth-Moon Portrait

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 22, 2013 – 6:24 pm -

n this rare image taken on July 19, 2013, the wide-angle camera on NASA's Cassini spacecraft has captured Saturn's rings and our planet Earth and its moon in the same frame. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

n this rare image taken on July 19, 2013, the wide-angle camera on NASA's Cassini spacecraft has captured Saturn's rings and our planet Earth and its moon in the same frame. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Check out this humbling new photograph taken by the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. The image was taken this past Friday afternoon and released late Monday, June 22nd.  Admittedly there is not much to see on the few pixels that make up Earth adn the Moon but it’s simply amazing to think that everything and everyone you know is on that little pale blue dot – as the late astronomer Carl Sagan so famously said.

You can check out more detailed images of Earth from Cassini and also the MESSENGER  spacecraft at Mercury.


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NOW: Best Views of Elusive Mercury for 2013

Written by The Night Sky Guy on June 9, 2013 – 5:36 pm -

NASAs Messenger probe has mapped the surface of Mercury in both true and exaggerated false-color. Credit: NASA

NASA's Messenger probe has mapped the surface of Mercury in both true and exaggerated false-color. Credit: NASA

According to legend, famed astronomer Nicolas Copernicus lay on his deathbed in 1563 lamenting that in all his years observing the heavens he had never seen elusive Mercury.   Five centuries later, Mercury remains a true challenge to hunt down in the sky however backyard skywatchers need not suffer the same fate. All month long the elusive little planet shines in the northwest sky at dusk- putting on its best show of 2013.

As Mercury whizzes around the Sun at an average distance of a mere 58 million km, a Mercurian year lasts only 88 days – the shortest of any planet. Curiously however, it takes 59 days for the planet to spin once on it axis compared to Earth’s seemingly dizzying 24 hours. Even more bizarre, during this time Mercury travels two-thirds of its orbit around the Sun.  So with this complex gravitational solar dance, one Mercurian day (sunrise to sunrise) ends up lasting an excruciating 176 days long. This is a world where a day truly lasts longer than a year!

Actually the two planets closest the Sun, Mercury and Venus are at primetime viewing as a cosmic pair in the early evenings nearly all of June. While the gas giant  Jupiter can be glimpsed at the early days of the month below Venus it soon sinks ever closer to the Sun and disappears from sunset skies by mid month.

Mercury however hangs around Venus but is higher in the northwest sky.  When it comes to viewing the innermost planet – distance from the Sun is key. Mercury has traditionally been the most challenging planet to glimpse by backyard stargazers because it usually is masked by the glare from the sunset. But now Mercury is shining high enough in the twilight sky that it can be quite easy to track down – even under lots of light pollution.

Huddled around the Sun little Mercury is now quickly making its way higher each night into the western sky right after sunset. Faint and fast moving, it remains the most difficult of all naked-eye planets to glimpse and to be able to claim that you have at least seen it is still quite an observational feat! So, to join this elite group of “Mercury watchers” you’ll have to look fast. This window of opportunity to see this mysterious world lasts less than a month.


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Look Up At Planet Sky Show

Written by The Night Sky Guy on May 24, 2013 – 2:02 pm -

Skywatchers around the world get set to see a striking triple planetary meetup in the evening skies the likes of which won’t be repeated until 2026.

From May 24 to 27, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter will appear to converge in the low northwest sky after sunset and all you need to see this event are just your eyes!

The best part of the show will be on May 26th when all three planets are huddled together in a tight triangular formation. Check the image below for what it will look like in your low northwestern sky.

Triple planetary alignment visible in the low northwest sky at dusk. Credit: NASA

Triple planetary alignment visible in the low northwest sky at dusk. Credit: NASA

For all the details check out my skywatcher’s guide at National Geographic News


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Video: Weekly Space News Interview

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 2, 2012 – 5:56 pm -

Check out some of the cool space news coming out this past week on my weekly CTV News Channel interview.


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Moon Points to Mercury at Dawn

Written by The Night Sky Guy on April 18, 2012 – 3:19 pm -

Skywatchers get a great observing challenge on April 19th before dawn when a razor-thin crescent Moon helps point the way to elusive little planet Mercury.  The trick with this observation is that you need to have a very clear line of sight to the VERY low eastern horizon to see this celestial pair. So try and find a spot that does not have any trees or building obstructing your view of the eastern horizon. About a half hour before the sun rises you get a short window of opportunity to catch faint Mercury before it’s lost in the glare of the rising sun.  The Moon will be less than 8 degrees north of the little planet so the pair should fit within the view of a wide-field binocular like an 8 x 50… BTW – Uranus will be even more of a challenge for telescope users as it will be embedded within the glare of the rising sun.

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Mercury Up in the Sky

Written by The Night Sky Guy on March 23, 2011 – 5:13 pm -

If you have clear skies one of these next few nights this week try your hand at finding planet Mercury in the sky. Face the western horizon after sunset and look for a faint star in the sun’s fading glow. Binoculars will surely help pick out the pinprick light from this innermost planet.  Just below it you can spot the quickly sinking Jupiter as well. Both planets will be a challenge to see because they are so close to the horizon and will be setting soon after the Sun.  By the last week in March the pair will be lost in the Sun’s glare so now is the time to get out and observe these neighbouring worlds. BTW – this will be the best apparition for little Mercury for 2011.

EXTRA: For more on Mercury and the ghostly Zodiacal Lights that are now visible in the Northern Hemisphere read  my National Geographic Skywatch column this week.

Also check out this cool photo taken by a Montreal-based backyard astronomer who managed to capture both planets in this picture postcard.

Mercury (top) and Jupiter (bottom) shine in the low western evening sky above Montreal. Photo Courtesy of Frank Tomaras.

Mercury (top) and Jupiter (bottom) shine in the low western evening sky above Montreal, Canada on March 15, 2011. Photo Courtesy of Frank Tomaras. Canon Rebel 150mm, 1/30 sec. Click image to enlarge.


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New Night Sky Episode

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 9, 2011 – 5:41 pm -

This week highlights catching the planets Mercury, Jupiter and the Moon, as well as spotting the International Space Station above your backyard.


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Catch Mercury in the Morning

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 7, 2011 – 6:36 pm -

For a about a week in mid-January Mercury will be far enough away from the Sun to observe in the morning sky

For a about a week in mid-January Mercury will be far enough away from the Sun to observe in the morning sky. It will be joining two much brighter planets - Venus and Saturn.

Check out the innermost planet in the solar system with the unaided eye as it rises to its best morning showing in months. Little Mercury will be at its greatest elongation – or farthest away from the Sun it can get from our vantage point on January 9, 2011. This means that the planet will be the easiest to spot, especially for casual skywatchers because it will be higher up in the eastern sky, away from the glare of the rising Sun. Mercury is quite a tricky target to obseve, especially for beginner stargazers because it is never far away from the Sun. It is also a small planet, only one-and-a-half times larger than our own moon and orbits our star in just 3 months.

For Earth-bound viewers around mid-January Mercury will be positioned in its orbit such that it appears farthest from the Sun; click image to enlarge

For Earth-bound viewers around mid-January Mercury will be positioned in its orbit such that it appears farthest from the Sun; click image to enlarge

If you face towards the eastern sky at dawn over the course of the next week, you get a three-for-one planetary deal with Venus,  Mercury and Saturn. The three planets will actually line up diagonally in the sky this weekend. Venus will be the brightest of the trio and so the easiest to spot.

On January 9th, Sunday, Mercury will officially be at greatest elongation west at 23 degrees- meaning it will be about 46 full moon disks away from the Sun in the sky. This elongation for Mercury is not the best ever – it can be as much as 27 degrees.

Here is a photo I took of Mercury in the evening sky in 2009.


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Tonight: Moon Hangs out with Planets

Written by The Night Sky Guy on April 16, 2010 – 5:52 pm -

Venus will be the easier of the two planets to see because of its brilliance, while with Mercury you may want to use binoculars.
Face the western horizon at dusk today and use the Moon to locate Venus and Mercury

Face the western horizon at dusk today and use the Moon to locate Venus and Mercury


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