- Moon near Jupiter (Jan 27th/28th)
- Moon near Mars (Feb 1st)
- Moon near Saturn (Feb 2nd/3rd)
- Moon near Mercury and Venus (Feb 6th)
Take a look at this simulated scene from the morning of January 27th 2016 at around 7am.
The view is south facing at around 7am. There are five planets scattered across the morning sky (six, if you include the one you're standing on!)
If you're in the UK then you'll have from about January 24th - February 8th to see all five planets.
The positions of the planets will be slightly different each successive morning; for example, Jupiter is apparently moving west (away from the Sun) whilst Venus is moving towards the Sun. These apparent motions are caused by our own vantage point on a moving planet as well as the real movement of the planets around the Sun.
Mercury will be the trickiest planet to see. Fortunately it is not far from Venus, the brightest planet: just look to the left of Venus and a little lower towards the horizon. You'll need a clear view of the horizon and any wisps of cloud may be enough to hide Mercury in a twilight sky. If you have binoculars then it should be easy to see Mercury.
The moon, which is visible in the picture above may help to identify the planets on various mornings over the next couple of weeks.
After the first week of February it will become very difficult to pick Mercury out of the morning twilight (from the UK at least). Venus is also drawing closer to the glare of the Sun. The other planets - Saturn, Mars and Jupiter - will continue to be visible in the coming months.
Although the planets look like they're in some kind of special alignment - that's not really the case. The planets always fall close to a line in the sky called the ecliptic and that's a consequence of the fact that the solar system is disk shaped, with the planets orbiting more or less level with each other (and the Earth).
What makes this configuration more notable is that the planets are all on the same side of Sun from our persepctive. Imagine if the Sun were somewhere between Saturn and Mars in the picture above; it would mean Mars and Jupiter (to the right) would be visible in the morning sky, whilst Saturn, Venus and Mercury (to the left) were in the evening sky. That's a more typical situation.
When viewed from above the solar system you can see the arrangement of planets isn't really a notable alignment.
The Earth's orbit is highlighted in red. The other planets are spread out in different positions along their orbits. If you draw a line from Jupiter - Earth - Mercury the angle at the Earth is around 110 degrees. For all the planets to be visible in the sky at the same time we just need that angle to be less than 180 degrees with the Sun outside of the line (to the left or right of the first or last planet respectively).
Seeing a line of planets like this is fairly rare! The last event like this occurred in the evening sky in the Spring of 2002.
Comet 2013 US10 Catalina has been in the morning sky for northern observers since the start of December. Not that there's been much chance to see it! The weather here has been mostly appalling for much of that time.
For a few days around the New Year period Catalina will buzz past Arcturus - the brightest star in the northern sky. Arcturus is an orange giant star - there really is no mistaking it in high in the south east before dawn breaks. Arcturus provides an easy signpost to Comet Catalina as the year ends.
A clear transparent sky away from light pollution is essential to view the comet. It isn't quite bright enough to be visible without optical aid: binoculars or telescopes will easily show it.
Here is a closer view of the sky around Arcturus. The star and comet will appear closest together in the sky on New Year's morning.
A more detailed finder chart for the comet can be found here.
Venus is at inferior conjunction today. That means it positioned between the Earth and Sun.
When the alignment is exact Venus is seen to transit in front of the Sun. At most inferior conjunctions the alignment is not exact and Venus passes above or below the Sun. That was how things were today; Venus passed just under 8 degrees south of the Sun.
Here is the simulated view provided by Stellarium:
It's very difficult to observe Venus under these circumstances. The planet isn't visible to the naked eye. It's so close to the Sun that even when the telescope is aimed at Venus some sunlight can still enter the optical system and cook the inside of the telescope!
I was using a Celestron NexStar 102SLT to observe Venus. The telescope is tracking Venus on the HEQ5 Pro mount. Without being able to do a polar alignment in daylight it was fairly tricky to find Venus. My method was to get the 'scope pointed at the Sun (and then correctly focussed) with a solar filter in place. Then I offset the telescope by the required number of degrees in RA and Dec and hoped for the best after removing the solar filter.
Venus was relatively easy to see once it entered the field of view. A razor sharp white crescent against bright blue sky. The air was a little turbulent and that stopped me getting a good picture with the camera. I did get the crescent though:
Venus has been visible in the evening sky after sunset since late 2014. After today it is technically a morning sky object - visible before dawn. Venus will be shining in the morning sky before sunrise before the end of the month.
Last night I watched an asteroid --- 2004 BL86 --- drift past the Earth. There was never any danger of a collision and it never got closer than about 3x the distance of the Moon. Nevertheless it was an interesting event to watch through the telescope. The asteroid was tracking north through the evening sky. At around 7.30pm, when I arrived home from work, it was too low in the southeast sky in Hydra. As the evening went on it raced north towards the constellation Cancer.
The animation below was made from frames taken over a ten minute period at around 9.30pm. The asteroid moved across a patch of sky about the size of the full moon during this period.
I stacked the images to make this picture:
I'm not sure why the asteroid has a strong green colour! It may be that the presence of moonlight in the sky messed up the colour balance during post processing.
Just to put this into some kind of perspective: the asteroid is about half a mile in diameter and it was around 1 milliion miles away when I took the pictures. Shining at around 9th magnitude, the asteroid was much too faint to be seen without optical aid. I saw several articles on astronomy and science websites suggesting that binoculars would have been enough. The fact of the matter is that at least a small telescope would have been needed by most observers unfamiliar with searching for faint objects.
Radar surveys of the asteroid carried out yesterday showed this tiny asteroid had a moon!
This is second time I've caught an asteroid close approach. I was lucky enough to catch the even closer approach by an asteroid called Duende (formerly 2012DA14) in 2013.
Comet 2014 Q2 Lovejoy will be at its closest point to the Sun on January 30th - a mere 120 million miles from it. Despite being further from the Sun (by 27 million miles) than us, Comet Lovejoy is glowing in our northern sky more brightly than any comet since Comet 2011 L4 PANSTARRs in 2013. Comet Lovejoy is starting to fade but remains excellently placed in the northern sky for UK astronomers.
The chart below shows the path of Comet Lovejoy from the last week of January until the start of March. During this period the comet is expected to fade from magnitude +5 to +8. Comets are somewhat unpredictable and those estimates don't take account of sudden outbursts caused by unstable conditions on the comet.
During the past few weeks I've tried to get pictures of Comet Lovejoy on lots of occasions. Here are a couple of my best pictures:
That delicate ion tail has been very difficult to see both visually through the telescope eyepiece and on camera. It's not helped that someone thought it a good idea to build Newcastle not far from here. And even less of a good idea to fill it with streetlights. Makes it almost impossible to get dark skies from my back garden.
The comet begins February in the constellation Andromeda, near second magnitude star Almach (itself a superb double star through telescopes). An excellent photographic opportunity occurs on the evening of February 20th/21st when the comet will be very close to the Little Dumbbell nebula (M76) in Perseus.
During March the comet will fade to the point where only telescopes can resolve the coma as it begins to blend into the rich starfields of Cassiopeia.
Comet 2014 Q2 Lovejoy is really starting to put on a great show for UK astronomers. At last, it is north of the celestial equator and shining brightly enough to be visible to the naked eye. My camera remote control has died so the pictures below were taken with my dad's superior Nikon D90.
This was my view of the southern sky at about 6.30pm last night:
Comet Lovejoy was easily visible in the sky. At first glance it looks like a faint star but using averted vision it does look somewhat fuzzy. The cometary nature is revealed easily with binoculars.
A closer view of Comet Lovejoy as it passes through a beautiful part of the sky near Taurus, the Bull.
Finally, here's a telescope view of the comet revealing many delicate streams of material pushed away from the comet by the solar wind.
Comet Lovejoy was about 45 million miles from Earth last night. Although it's getting further away from us, it is continuing to approach the Sun. It will remain an easy target over the next couple of weeks for binoculars and small telescopes.
Here's a star chart showing the northwards drift of the comet during the first weeks of 2015.
I've left the magnitude estimates off the chart but astronomers are expecting Comet Lovejoy to be around 6th, maybe even 5th magnitude during this period. That will put it within easy reach of binoculars and small telescopes. From especially dark sites it might attain naked eye visibility.
Comet Lovejoy is very well placed for UK astronomers in the New Year. After beginning the month close to the southern horizon in the early evening sky it rapidly climbs north from Lepus (the Hare) through Eridanus (the River) and into Taurus (the Bull).
Just a bit of background on the comet itself. It was discovered by veteran comet hunter Terry Lovejoy in August 2014 and was his 5th comet discovery. This one is going to reach a similar brightness to one of his previous comets - 2013 R1 - which was visible in the UK in late Autumn 2013.
2014 Q2 Lovejoy will be closest to Earth (0.469 AU / 43.6 million miles) on January 7th. It will reach a perihelion (closest to the Sun) distance of 1.29 AU (119.9 million miles) on January 30th. The entire orbit of this comet lies outside Earth's orbit and that's why the comet can be seen almost on the opposite side of the sky to the Sun despite being near perihelion.
I'll post updates on Comet 2014 Q2 Lovejoy and, hopefully, some pictures over the coming weeks.
A PDF finder chart is available here.
Fomalhaut is a tough star to see from these northerly latitudes. You can find it using the popular "Square of Pegasus" stars shown above. Follow a line from the two right-hand stars down to the horizon. It's typically only visible for just a few hours each night and it climbs just 6 degrees above the southern horizon at most. The further north you are, the harder it gets! Way up past 61 degrees north it doesn't rise at all.
In Northumberland on late on autumn evenings there's a bright, lonely star near the southern horizon. It often goes unnoticed - perhaps hidden by nearby (or even distant) buildings or trees. The name of the star is Fomalhaut (pronounced "fum-al-hort").
Course notes from my session called "Astrometry" at NASTRO are available by clicking the link.
The PDF has Flash animations from University of Nebraska-Lincoln embedded in it. When you open it, you'll have to enable them to run. It usually means clicking a little toolbar at the top of the talk. For best results press ctrl-L to view in full screen after you've done that.
You can view the Flash animations online if you prefer. These are the ones I showed during the talk:
Altitude/Azimuth (Horizon coordinates)
Right Ascension / Declination (Equatorial coordinates)
Coordinate Systems Comparison
There are loads more at the UNL website on other topics. Enjoy!
At NASTRO outreach sessions I usually begin constellation tours with some advice about how to get started in learning the night sky. Given that there's an app for just about anything you might think the days when you had to learn star patterns to enjoy astronomy is long gone. But It is possible to navigate the night sky by starting with simple star patterns. Over time you can build up your own internal map of the sky without your iPhone or Android ruining your night vision. During the late Summer and Autumn months a natural starting point is the Summer Triangle.
Also the the story behind the Summer Triangle is sort of interesting! The Summer Triangle (blue-dashed triangle on the star chart below) is formed between three of the brightest stars in the sky: Vega, Deneb and Altair.
In the 1920s the Internationational Astronomical Union decided to formalise the various star patterns that astronomers used to specify star locations. With the advent of astrophotography and the flood of variable star discoveries (which were named according to the constellation) it became important to know where one constellation ended and another began. They drew up a list of 88 constellations which are still use today, today. On the star chart above the constellations are patterns connected by the green lines (e.g. Aquila, Sagitta and so on).
There are other interesting star patterns in the sky - The Plough and Summer Triangle being the most famous - which are not part of the official list. We call these patterns asterisms. The Plough stars are part of the constellation Ursa Major. The Summer Triangle stars are part of three different constellations: Cygnus, Lyra and Aquila.
The Summer Triangle was popularised by Sir Patrick Moore on The Sky at Night and in his numerous astronomy books from the 1950s onwards. References to the Summer Triangle (or Great Triangle) can be traced back to the start of the 20th century.
Back to the Summer Triangle. Vega and Deneb mark the northernmost corners of the triangle. Altair is the star at the southern corner. The Milky Way runs through the Triangle and appears to split into two streams (separated by the Cygnus rift).
Vega is brightest star and Altair is slightly dimmer. Deneb appears to be the faintest of the three but that's just an illusion! Vega and Altair are quite nearby - 17 and 25 light-years away respectively. Deneb is an absolutely brilliant beacon shining across 1,800 light-years of space. If Deneb were at the distance of Altair it would shine as brightly as the crescent moon does! After identifying the Summer Triangle it becomes easier to find the surrounding constellations. For example, with Vega comes the tiny constellation of Lyra. Within the borders of Lyra is the Ring Nebula. Deneb is the leading star of Cygnus. When the shape of Cygnus can be recognised there are many star clusters to be found and one of the most beautiful double stars in the night sky. There are other smaller constellations with distinctive shapes nearby (Delphinus - a dolphin. And Sagitta - an arrow) in which a great number of incredible deepsky objects are waiting to be seen through your binoculars and telescopes.
The Summer Triangle will be around for awhile longer; despite the name it is visible for much of the autumn and into winter. But the relatively pleasant evenings of late summer are definitely the best to go out and find it for the first time.
Dr Adrian Jannetta
Guitar strummin' explorer of the universe. Mild mannered maths teacher by day and astronomer by night.