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.
Tags: conjuction, Saturn, Venus
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A mysterious hexagon-shaped weather pattern on the planet Saturn had its most detailed portrait taken this autumn, courtesy of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.
Monstrous jet streams on the ringed gas giant has given birth to a six-sided formation that has stumped researchers for many year but thanks to new, crystal clear imagery it looks like we are getting to understand better what makes weird weather on other worlds tick. Amazingly current theories hold that this bizarre wind generated pattern may have been around for decades, if not longer.
Read my full story on the Hex -shaped pattern on Saturn at National Geographic News
Tags: Cassini, Hexagon, NASA, Saturn, science, space, weather
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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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For skywatchers August will be a busy month with a meteor shower and multiple planetary close encounters!
For early bird skywatchers the goddess of love, Venus dominates the dawn skies in the east perched firmly in the constellation of Gemini, the twins. The great white beacon rises nearly 3 and half hours before the sun every morning and through a small telescope appears like a miniature version of a quarter moon.
Look below Venus for its fainter companion Jupiter – the largest planet in the solar system – sits below nestled between the horns of Taurus the bull constellation. On August 11th the moon will form a celestial triangle with the jovian giant and the eye of the bull – the star Aldebaran. Two mdays later a razor thin crescent moon will park itself to the upper right of Venus.
Watch these two worlds closely and you will notice that while they have been hanging around each other for the past couple of months, the much speedier Venus will quickly increase the gap with Jupiter so that by the end of the month there will be 40 degrees apart.
On August 13 for those with telescopes, Venus will do a disappearing act as it slips behind the very upper portion of the crescent Moon during the daytime. Known as an occultation, this dramatic event however will be a real challenge to catch because it will be occurring in the late afternoon while luna sinks quickly in the low western horizon sky. The first hint of Venus creeping behind the moon will begin at 4:36pm and will take about 25 seconds to completely disappear. Since the moon will be only a few degrees in altitude (eastern N. America) your best bet to catch this event is to find a location that has a clear line of sight right down to the western horizon – like highway overpasses, hilltops and lakesides. Check out a listing of occulation times here.
But there is even more cosmic action in the evening skies. Look towards the west at nightfall for an impressive stellar grouping of the planets Mars, Saturn and the star Spica, in the constellation Virgo. Take note of the diverse colours of these three objects, with orange-hued Mars, yellowish Saturn and brilliant blue-white Spica. The most eye-catching aspect of this stellar trio will be watching them play musical chairs in the sky as they shift positions over the course of the month as they move along in their respective orbits around the Sun.
Then at dusk on August 21th the three objects form an equatorial triangle with the waxing crescent Moon just below.
Shooting Stars Galore
The big astronomical crowd pleaser this month however has to be the famous Perseid meteor shower. Peaking on the night of August 11th and into the early morning hours of August 12th, conditions promise to be good this year because there will only be a crescent moon rising after 1 am so minimal interference from its light is expected. You can expect up to 20 to 30 meteors per hour visible from suburbs and up to 60 from a dark sky.
You can expect about half that many the night before (Aug.10) and after (Aug.13). Best way to see the shower is to lie back on the ground or on reclining lawn chair facing the northeast sky with your naked-eyes. Most of these meteors are the size of a grain of sand and are travelling at about 150,000 km per hour, burning up at about 100 km above your head.
The Perseids get their name from the constellation Perseus – where the shooting stars seem to radiate from in the sky. The meteor shower originates from a cloud of particles in space that was shed by a comet that orbits the Sun. Every year at the same time of year, Earth slams into this cloud of debris, creating a cosmic shower in the heavens above.
BTW if the skies are clear and you are in Montreal area on August 11th, join me and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada for a free Perseids star party at the Morgan Arboretum in Ste. Anne De Bellevue starting at 8pm with a lecture- rain/cloudy date is August 12th.
Tags: Mars, Saturn, Venus
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Space buffs and skywatchers are gearing up for ‘Mars Day’ on Sunday, August 5th as a striking sky show coincides with the daring landing of NASA Mars rover!
Only a hours before Curiosity touches down, Mars, along with ringed Saturn and one of the brightest stars in the heavens, Spica, will form an eye catching grouping as they huddle together in the southwest evening sky. To the naked eye they will appear to be in a equilateral triangle, separated by only 5 degrees on each side – equal to the width of a fist at an outstretched arms length.
Tags: Mars, Saturn, Spica
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NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has spied the aftermath of 30 giant ice falls on Saturn’s moon Iapetus which may offer a unique insight to mechanics of landslides on Earth , according to a new study.
Sporting steep crater walls and a unique 12 mile high mountain ridge – more than twice the height of Mount Everest – that runs nearly the entire length of its equator, Iapetus has nearly a perfect setup for avalanches, says Kelsi Singer, the lead author of the new study published in Nature Geoscience this week.
Read more about these awesome events of nature on a scale never before seen and learn how they may help unlock clues to their Earthly counterparts at National Geographic News
Tags: Iapetus, Saturn
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After circling Saturn for 8 years the Cassini spacecraft has captured new infrared radar images of its largest moon Titan, showing for the first time evidence of lakes near the moon’s equatorial region, according to a new study.
With a diameter just less than half of Earth’s , Titan is a mysterious moon eternally enshrouded in a thick, smoggy atmosphere made mostly of methane, and surface temperatures hovering around a chilly – 297 degrees Fahrenheit. Other than Earth, it remains the only other world that is host to large bodies of liquid, ie. lakes, on its surface.
Tags: Cassini, Saturn, Titan
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Any any clear night next few weeks check out the brightest star of the entire year, Sirius, shining like a lone beacon in the southern sky. The lead member in the constellation Canis Major or Big Dog, it’s so brilliant because it is one of the closest stars to Earth at just over 8 light years away.
Surrounding it is a crown of stellar diamonds that are the hallmark of winter skies. To its upper right is the granddaddy of all stellar figures, Orion the hunter – where you’ll find blue coloured Rigel, orange Betelgeuse and its belt of 3 stars in between. Meanwhile to the upper left of Sirius you can see the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux, and just below it, Canis Minor’s Procyon.
Turning to planets, Mars glows faintly as an orange star in the southeastern sky late nights just below the rump of Leo and within the constellation Virgo . If you wait until dawn, the Red Planet will have glided over to the low southwest. As Mars begins to get closer to Earth in the next few months, it will slowly begin to brighten and rise earlier in the evening as we head into Spring in a couple of months. If you have a telescope handy then you may begin to see surface features on the planet as it increases in apparent size in the sky. By far the easiest to spot will be the bright white north polar cap of Mars, which is tilted towards Earth.
Also worth checking out with a telescope at dawn is the ringed planet Saturn. It now shines , high in the south to the upper left of Virgo’s brightest star Spica.
Can’t forget our closest celestial neighbour, the moon, since it will be involved in two must see events in the coming weeks. While Venus has been dominating the western sky at sunset these past couple of months it will be joined by a crescent moon on Jan.25th and 26th making for a great photo-op.
The king of all planets, super-bright Jupiter high in the south at dusk gets its turn to dance with the first quarter moon on the evening of the 30th.
Finally, keep an eye on both Venus and Jupiter over the course of the next few months. You will see that they are slowly approaching each other as they head for a striking close encounter in March.
Tags: Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Sirius, Venus
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If you are willing to get up at dawn on Jan.16, Monday morning and Tuesday too, you get to see the moon pay a visit to planet Saturn. Face the southern sky about half hour before sunrise and you can observe the quarter phase moon glide just underneath the ringed planet.
To the naked eye Saturn will look like a bright yellow-tinged star, but a small telescope can reveal its rings easily – even some of its larger moons, like Titan. Joining the moon and Saturn will be the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. Spica, despite being 263 light year away from Earth shines as one of the brightest stars in the sky and will complete a triangle pattern with Saturn and the Moon on Monday morning. Look for Spica between the moon and the planet, off to their right. How close will these cosmic players appear in the sky to each other?
On Monday morning the Moon will appear about 2 degrees away from Spica – which is equal to the width of your thumb at an outstretched arm, and the moon will also be 6 degrees from Saturn – a tad wider than your first 3 fingers at an outstretched arm. All in all a nice clustering of heavenly objects to wake up to!
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On Dec.19th and Dec.20th at least a half hour before your local sunrise you can check out the the waning crescent moon tuck underneath the planet Saturn low in the southern sky. On the 20th the pair will be closest together, separated by about 7 degrees – which is equal to about 14 full moon disks.
This may sound like a lot but to the naked eye it will be a pretty sight. Only a few days ago the Moon was hanging out with planet Mars – which BTW you can still see clearly to the far upper right of Saturn in the early mornings, shining with an orange hue.
The Saturn/moon pair will be within the Virgo constellation and in between the two there is another star – called Spica – the brightest member of Virgo and is located 263 light years from Earth. and in case you are wondering, Saturn is about 1.5 billion km distant while the moon is a mere 400,000 km from us.
If you have even the smallest telescope on hand then it’s worth your while to train it on Saturn and observe those magnificent rings that are titled just right so as to give a beautiful view of it’s flattened disk-like nature. The entire ring system spans about 260,000 km across – which would make the entire planet and its rings fit easily between the Earth and Moon. Look carefully and you may also see the ringed giant’s largest moons in its vicinity – buzzing around the planet like bees around a hive.
Titan is the largest moon of Saturn and the second largest in the entire Solar System – it will to the planet’s far upper right in a low magnification eyepiece view. Much closer in to Saturn (from left to right) will be icy moons Rhea, Tethys, and Dione – all of which are about the same brightness at around 10th magnitude – making them quite a bit fainter than Titan but still relatively easy to spot in 3 inch telescopes and up.
Tags: Saturn, The Moon, Virgo
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