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.
Tags: Constellations, Mars, Mercury, Pisces, Planets, skywatching, space, Spica, Stargazing, stars, The Moon
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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.
Tags: Cassini, Earth, Mercury, MESSENGER, Saturn, The Moon
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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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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.
For all the details check out my skywatcher’s guide at National Geographic News
Tags: conjun, conjunction, Jupiter, Mercury, Venus
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Check out some of the cool space news coming out this past week on my weekly CTV News Channel interview.
Tags: black hole, galaxy, Mercury, space news
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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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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.
Tags: Jupiter, Mercury
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This week highlights catching the planets Mercury, Jupiter and the Moon, as well as spotting the International Space Station above your backyard.
Tags: ISS, Jupiter, Mercury, The Moon, TV
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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.
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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Tags: Mercury, Venus
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