I've been taking astronomy images with a DSLR and various telescopes for about 2 years. The slideshow below are what I hold to be my best pictures of the year.
The early evening night sky in January looks something like this in the Uk.
Stars and constellations
The southern part of the sky is dominated by the bright stars of the constellation Orion.
This striking star pattern lies on the celestial equator and is visible from all inhabited places on Earth. Orion in mythology was a great hunter and it doesn't take much imagination to visualise a human figure holding a shield (or a bow). Big broad, shoulders but a few faint stars marking the head (showing that he is more brawn and not much brain, according to Eva Hans, formerly of South Tyneside College Planetarium!)
The brightest stars in the constellation are Betelgeuse (with a definite orange/red hue) marking the right shoulder and Rigel (white/blue colour) marking a knee. In star atlases Betelgeuse is labelled "alpha" and Rigel is "beta". However, Rigel is usually the brighter of the two, with Betelgeuse occasionally fluctuating enough to surpass it in brilliance. Betelgeuse is a big star near the end of it's life and good candidate for becoming one our galaxy's next supernovae.
Beneath the Belt stars is a compact group of stars known as Orion's Sword. Binoculars show this region has a large fuzzy region, which telescopes reveal to be a bright nebula --- the Orion Nebula. The other stars of the Sword are revealed to be star clusters rather than individual stars.
The whole region is superb to see with telescopes of any size.
The three prominent Belt stars, which make an almost perfect straight line, point upwards towards Taurus and the orange star Aldebaran, marking the eye of the Bull. Follow the line of the Belt stars down towards the horizon and you'll see the madly twinkling Sirius - the brightest star in the sky.
Above Orion the planet Jupiter is at its most brilliant. The planet is at opposition (meaning opposite to the Sun in the sky) this month. This month, not only is Jupiter at its closest to Earth of the year it is also at the best place in the 12 year long orbit for observing in the UK.
The Milky Way runs from northwest to southeast in the sky. Although this section of the Milky Way is less prominent than the part visible in the late summer and autumn in the UK, there are numerous star clusters and nebulae visible with binoculars and small telescopes as it flows through Auriga, Gemini and to the east of Orion and on to Canis Major in the south.
By contrast, the western part of the evening sky is fairly devoid of the bright stars. The autumn patterns of the Square of Pegasus, Pisces and Cetus mark a direction in which we can look out of the plane of the Milky Way, where there are fewer stars in that direction between us and the great voids between other galaxies.
In the east, particularly later in the evening, the galaxy filled constellations of Leo and Virgo are coming into view. More about those next month!
The moon and hours of darkness
The best evening opportunities to have moonless sessions of astronomy come in the first week, before first quarter moon and then from January 19th until the end of the month.
Mercury will be visible in the evening sky in latter half of January. The picture shows the view towards the western horizon at about 5.30pm at the end of January. Mercury will be shining a full magnitude brighter than Vega (over the northwest horizon). Mercury reaches a maximum elongation of 18 degrees east of the Sun on January 31st and should be visible easily for a week either side of this date.
Venus is quickly slipping between the Earth and Sun and will be visible in the evening sky shortly after sunset during the first few days of January. Venus is at inferior conjunction on January 11th and emerges in the morning sky before sunrise later in the month.
Mars and Saturn are best seen in the morning sky. The picture shows the view towards the southeast in the middle of the month at about 4.30am. Mars is among the stars of Virgo near the bright star Spica. The colour of orange/red Mars and bluish Spica will contrast nicely as both are about the same brightness. Saturn is in the constellation Libra and closer to the horizon. Saturn is shining as brightly as Mars and Spica but with a more yellowish/cream colour.
The planet Jupiter reaches opposition in January and is observable all night. Jupiter is in the constellation Gemini and is the brightest "star" in the sky after sunset. Visible in the east during the early evening Jupiter climbs high into the southern sky by the middle of the night. Binoculars, steadily held, will reveal up to four of its moons and a view similar to that seen by Galileo when be discovered them. Telescopes will show the two equatorial belts of dark cloud on the planet, while larger instruments will reveal the some of the larger Jovian storms such as the Great Red Spot.
The rotation period of Jupiter is just under 10 hours so the long winter nights in the UK make it possible to watch the entire planet rotate between dusk and dawn.
Quadrantid Meteor Shower
The annual Quadrantid meteor shower is active between December 28th and January 12th. The peak in 2014 comes on the evening of January 3rd, with the best time to observe being the early hours of January 4th. During the narrow peak rates as high as 120 meteors per hour might be possible.
The Quadrantid meteors radiate away from the border of the constellations Bootes and Hercules and it is named after a now defunct constellation – Quadrans Muralis - the Mural Quadrant.
The crescent moon will have set long before the radiant is high in the sky. More details to follow in a post nearer the time.
Comet 2013 R1 Lovejoy
The brightest comet in the sky at present is Comet 2013 R1 Lovejoy.
Comet Lovejoy peaked in brightness (mag +4.5) in early December and was a naked eye object from dark observing sites. The comet continued to approach the Sun during December and reached perihelion on the 22nd (0.8AU from the Sun).
Comet Lovejoy is best seen in the hours before sunrise in the UK. It remains bright enough to be seen with binoculars and small telescopes but is now fading. Telescopes with apertures of 4 inches or more will show the tail easily. Images of the comet taken in mid-December showed a tail stretching across 20 degrees of the sky!
Although Comet Lovejoy is fading and moving towards the southern hemisphere of the sky, it will remain observable in the UK for the rest of January. The following star chart shows the movement of Lovejoy during the month.
The comet begins the month in the southern part of Hercules at around 5th magnitude. It is expected to fade to 7th magnitude by the end of the month.
Caught this strange object on one of my pictures of NGC 663 in Cassiopeia taken on Christmas Eve.
Not sure what to make of it. Luckily it only ruined one frame out of about 30.
First day away from work and I've been sneakily watching the US version of Netflix using a Google Chrome extension called Media Hint. So much more choice over the pond than here! Skyfall was great - definitely the best Bond movie I've seen. Olympus Has Fallen was excellent - a total take your brain out of gear and enjoy the explosions type of film (which should really have been called The Sum of all Die Hard 24). Followed that with Europa Report, an impressively realistic film about a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. Going to round the evening off with Apollo 18 or Iron Sky. Can't decide if I want to see aliens or nazis wreaking havoc on the moon.
It's official. Northumberland has some of the darkest night skies in Europe. We certainly have the biggest dark sky park in Europe now.
Hopefully this will go beyond simply recognising how great it is to do astronomy in the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park. I hope it raises the public consciousness to the increasing levels of light pollution around the rest of the county. Because even a few miles outside the Northumberland Dark Sky Park the evidence of light pollution fades back into the sky.
Everyone one can play a part in the reduction of light pollution: from simply being aware of where the external security lights are pointing on your property (shield them or angle them down - it's unlikely you'll be robbed Mission Impossible style from above!) to councils paying attention to light pollution legislation when installing or replacing streetlights.
The Milky Way, meandering across a dark sky is a wonder of nature that people are increasingly missing out on seeing. To see what you're missing out on because of light pollution - click this. And you really want to click that! Understanding the nature of that pale band of light was a scientific journey traversing centuries. Light pollution makes it inaccessible to everyone. The Milky Way and the other stars are increasingly fading into an orange background because of street-lighting scattering up into the atmosphere. Now that a large part of Northumberland's area is protected we have to be vigilant over the 70% that isn't.
I hope that with this award fight to take back our night sky will begin in earnest.
I've seen two Great comets and lots of others. All different some very interesting. I've trawled through my old observing records to compile this list in date order from first to last.
That's 30 comets as of July 2014.
Comet 1P/Halley should be on the list - but I didn't see it. I was 12 when it was visible in late 1985. Halley wasn't particularly bright from the UK at that apparition and although I looked for it, I didn't see it. Oh well. Maybe in 2061?
Comet Hale-Bopp in early 1997 was the brightest. I regret not having a telescope to observe it with at the time. But was impressive enough to the naked eye - low in the north night after night.
The most memorable by far was the great cosmic jellyfish - Comet Holmes! It underwent an outburst and became - briefly - the biggest object in the Solar System. Bigger even than the Sun. The views of Holmes through my 16 inch LightBridge were something I'll never forget.
...which might be soon if I don't get more sleep. It's the comets....they've been making me wake at about 4am every morning. If it's cloudy then I go back to sleep. If it's clear then I get dressed and go out to look at them. First it was Comet ISON and now it's Comet Lovejoy.
It's worth the effort.
This is an elongation chart for the naked eye planets in 2014.
A high quality PDF version with more details is available below.
This chart shows the positions of each planet relative to the Sun (middle) all through the year. The wavy yellow line represents regions of the sky rendered invisible because of the proximity of the Sun. The shape of that wavy line explains, for example, why Mercury is easier to observe in the October morning sky than the September morning sky (even though it is further from the Sun in September).
Places where the lines intersect are events where the planets are close together in the sky (planetary conunctions). Unfortunately there are only two easy to observe conjunctions in 2014.
ISON has been grabbing the headlines for months but another comet has consistently been brighter and easier to find in last couple of months: C/2013 R1 Lovejoy.
Here's a picture I took in the hours before dawn on December 1st.
It's pretty easy to find in the northern sky after dusk and for next few weeks the comet will always be above the horizon in Northumberland. The comet actually shows up on a 30 second exposure taken with my Nikon D80 on a tripod:
Move on from ISON. Go and look for this comet. It's even visible to the naked eye if you have a dark enough sky and binoculars are all that are required to see the little tail pointing away from the Sun.
Jupiter is nearing opposition so I set myself the target of getting a picture of one of Jupiter's moons - but not the usual four. Tonight my target was little Himalia.
Himalia was only discovered in 1904 by Charles Dillon Perrine. Himalia has is tiny in comparison with the four Galilean moons and has a mean diameter of 185 km.
I took two pictures separated by about about 90 minutes and cropped out the region containing the moon. It barely shows up on a two minute exposure taken through an 80mm refractor. Himalia was around magnitude +15.
Himalia orbits Jupiter in an elliptical orbit at an average distance of 11.5 million km. It takes more than 250 days to orbit Jupiter. The next picture shows just how far Himalia is from Jupiter and the Galilean moons - almost two degrees! You could fit four full moons into that gap on the sky!
Here was the view through the 8 inch Meade LX10 showing the four Galilean moons. From left to right: Callisto, Europa, Jupiter, Io and Ganymede.
And finally the closeup of Jupiter with the QHY5 Mono camera at prime focus of the 8 inch, The Great Red Spot was near the meridian (but it's not too clear because of bad seeing) and the shadow of Europa on the cloud tops of Jupiter.
Dr Adrian Jannetta
Guitar strummin' explorer of the universe. Mild mannered maths teacher by day and astronomer by night.