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Viewing Comet Lovejoy January 8, 2015

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, MichiganAstro, Urban Observing.
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Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2 is about 4th magnitude right now. if your observing sight is dark, it’s easily naked eye. Urban observers aren’t so lucky, but it’s bright enough to be picked by a camera!

You’ll need a camera you can set the exposure and focus on (some smart phone apps will do that.) I strongly recommend a tripod since you’ll need an exposure of a few seconds.

Focus first on Jupiter: it’s bright enough to see through your viewfinder, and rises by the time the sky is dark enough to see the comet.

Once you’ve got a good focus, point your camera so Orion is on the left side of your view, and Taurus at the top middle. As it gets latter in the month, adjust the position so Taurus is on the left, and Orion is out of the view. Check the maps on the Sky & Telescope website for a more precise location.

Take exposures ranging from about half a second to about 15 seconds – the longer your exposure, the better the comet will look, but too long and the sky brightness may wash out everything.  You should have a very wide field image.


about 5 seconds…

Once back inside, you can zoom in and crop to get a better composed picture.


Of course, if your skies are this bad, adding a little guidance might help.

There's the comet! Really!

There’s the comet! Really!

Ok, you’re unimpressed. I can tell. But consider how bright those trees are. And, it was so cold my camera stopped working. Hey, if you think you can do better, prove it! Share your photos!

Urban Observing January 2015 January 1, 2015

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, MichiganAstro, Urban Observing.
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Special events

What better way to start a year then with a comet. Already a naked-eye object at the end of December, comet Lovejoy should brighten more during January, making it a good binocular target for urban skies. It starts the month in the constellation Lepus, just below Orion’s feet. It then travels up past Orion, through Taurus, Aries and Triangulum. On Feb 2, you’ll find it next to Almach, the foot of Andromeda. Look for it especially January 13-20, when you’ll have less interference from the waning moon, and the comet should be at its brightest. Also, it’s not too far from the Pleiades on those days. There’s a great map, not to mention an article with some spectacular pictures, on the Sky and Telescope website.

Comet Lovejoy near the Pleiades at 9 PM on January 17.

Comet Lovejoy near the Pleiades at 9 PM on January 17.

Some of you will enjoy knowing that perihelion, Earth’s closest position to the Sun, occurs on January 4 this year. Some of you will, of course, be confused because January is the coldest part of winter here in the northern hemisphere. Just remember, it’s the tilt and whoever gets more sunlight, not the distance that counts. After all, it’s summer down south right now!

Meteor showers

The year kicks off with what could be one of the best meteor showers of the year. Unfortunately, the Quadrantids have a very short peak, and the weather in the northern hemisphere at this time of year tends to be terrible for observing. Also, a gibbous Moon interferes this year. Still, with a typical rate of 25 meteors per hour bright enough to see in the glare of the full moon, and a high number of fireballs, this shower is worth a look even for urban observers. The peak should occur at 2:00 UT on January 4, which is 10 PM on January 3 in the eastern standard time zone. The radiant doesn’t rise until 11 PM, but early observers might get the chance to see a few meteors shooting up from the northern horizon.

A full sky map showing comet Lovejoy and the location of the radiant of the Quadrantids meteor shower

The sky on January 3 at 11 PM. The meteor shower radiant is just rising in the NNE, and comet Lovejoy is in the south.

There are a large number of radiants located along the ecliptic from Cancer to Virgo. While none of these is sufficiently active to generate a shower, the overall meteor activity at this time of year is increased. If you have insomnia, or work third shift, this is a good time of year to go out on any clear night between midnight and dawn and look up. For details on a week by week basis, be sure to check out the American meteor Society website: http://www.amsmeteors.org/category/meteor-showers/


Full: Jan. 5
New: Jan 20


Mercury and Venus peek out of the sunset twilight together at the start of the month. Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation on January 14. Being mid-month, you might think that means it’ll be visible in the evening all month, but as it heads back toward conjunction and away from Venus, its apparent motion speeds up, and it vanishes into the glare of the Sun around the 25th. The two planets are less than a degree apart on January 11. A day old young Moon joins the pair on January 21, but it will be difficult to spot even with a telescope. Venus meanwhile heads toward an early February conjunction with Neptune.

Venus and Mercury with the rays of the setting Sun

Venus and Mercury, less than half a degree apart, at 5:45 PM on January 11.

Mars continues its slow progress toward conjunction in late spring. It passes slowly through Capricorn and Aquarius this month. Look for it within 2 hours of sunset. It passes less than a degree from Neptune on the 19th, and there’s a good binocular conjunction of Mars, Neptune and a young Moon on the 22.

The starfield with Mars, Neptune, and Sigma Aquarii  marked.

Mars and Neptune, only 0.5º apart, at 8 PM on January 19. This image is about 1 1/2° across, so It shows what you might see through binoculars or a small telescope.

Mars, Neptune, and a young Moon above Venus on January 22nd at 7 PM.

Mars, Neptune, and a young Moon above Venus on January 22nd at 7 PM.

Jupiter is well up by 10 PM this month. It is in retrograde right now, so look for it between Leo and Cancer, headed slowly closer to Cancer. There is a nice conjunction with the gibbous moon on the 7th.

Jupiter and the Moon in the east at 10 PM on January 7.

Jupiter and the Moon in the east at 10 PM on January 7.

Saturn is the gem of the dawn skies this month. Between Libra and Scorpio, it is best viewed around 7 AM at the beginning of the month, and around 6 AM at the end. There should be a stunning grouping of Saturn, Scorpio’s claws, and a waning crescent moon on the morning of January 16.

Saturn , the lone planet of the eastern predawn skies. Shown here at 7 AM on January 16.

Saturn , the lone planet of the eastern predawn skies. Shown here at 7 AM on January 16.

Deep sky Objects

Early sunsets and clear, dry air make January one of the best months for deep sky observing with a small telescope. Of course, you should definitely bundle up!

The Orion nebula, or M42, is one of the nicest objects. Binoculars are enough to show a hint of fuzz and the cluster of the stars. A small telescope resolves the 4 young type O stars at the core even in very bad skies.

January is a good time to catch the Beehive cluster, or M44, in Cancer. A naked eye object in dark skies, it shows up nicely in binoculars or a small telescope even in badly light polluted skies. Find it by about half way between Castor and Regulus.

The early sunset also means you can still catch the Andromeda galaxy, M31 around 9 pm.

While you’re in that area,be sure to look for the Blue Snowball planetary nebula, NGC 7662. A nebula, sky, or O2 filter help a lot with this in light polluted skies.

Full sky map for 9 PM on January 15.

Full sky map for 9 PM on January 15.

Space Weather Enthusiasts Dashboard | NOAA / NWS Space Weather Prediction Center December 20, 2014

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, MichiganAstro.
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Space Weather Enthusiasts Dashboard | NOAA / NWS Space Weather Prediction Center.


An email from Spaceweather.com let me know that an increase in solar activity has led to an increased chance of aurora later this weekend or early next week. This led me to a search for better data on aurora predictions. This NOAA dashboard might be overkill for some, but I’m geeked by finding it!

Urban observing December 2014 part 2 December 15, 2014

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy.
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Well, it took a bit longer than I could wish, But here’s part two. At least I didn’t miss what is probably the biggest event of the month…

Of course then I apparently published this as a page instead of a post. Someday I’ll get my act together!

Special Events

The biggest event for December is probably the Geminid meteor shower. With a potential for over 100 meteors per hour, this is the most active shower of the year. Meteors are also slow-moving, making this a good shower to watch with friends. While the peak occurs overnight on the 13th to 14th of December, it is active at least a week before and after, giving observers several chances to get out and look. Given what the weather in the Northern Hemisphere is generally like at this time of year, that’s a huge advantage. Gemini rises before 7 p.m., but should be at its highest around 1 or 2 AM, making the early morning hours the best time to watch.

Gemini with the position of Castor noted

The Geminid radiant is near Castor, which is high in the south at 1 AM on the morning of Dec. 14.

Northern observers should also be on the lookout for the Ursid meteor shower from December 17-23. The peak occurs on the night of December 21-22. However, it is a much less active shower, with typical rates of only 5 to 10 meteors per hour. It is best viewed when the Big Dipper is very high in the sky, which is a few hours before dawn at this time of year, roughly 4 – 6 AM.

The winter solstice of course also occurs in December. This year it falls on December 21, at 6:03 PM Eastern Standard Time, or 23:03 UT.


Full on 12/6
New: 12/21
A new moon on the 21st means you’ll have a perfect waxing crescent to try out that new telescope on, which will quickly set and let you look at deep sky objects too!


Mercury was in superior conjunction on the 8th, So we won’t really see it this month. With a clear Southwest horizon, you might catch it in the last few days of the month.

Mercury, Venus, Mars, the Moon and Neptune aligned on the ecliptic

Looking southwest at 5:30 PM on December 25

Venus makes its way slowly into the evening skies this month. Start looking for it just after sunset around the 13th. It becomes an easier target at the end of the month. Use binoculars to look for a conjunction with young Crescent moon early in the evening on the 22nd.

Mercury on the Horizon, with Venus and the Moon in the glow of the sunset

A VERY young Moon and Venus 20 minutes after sunset on December 22

The ever-lengthening nights mean that Mars continues to hang out low in the southwest all month. However, as it recedes ever further from us, it gets dimmer and harder to make out any features, even with a good telescope. A crescent moon passes by it on the 24th.

The Moon and Mars in Capricorn.

The Moon and Mars at 6 PM on Christmas eve.

At mid-month, Jupiter rises around 10 PM. By the end of the month, he’ll be up before 9PM. It’s a great target to try out a new telescope on since it is bright and easy to find, but the belts take good contrast to make out easily. Use the sky and telescope out to figure out if the great red Spot should be visible.

Jupiter rising at 11 PM on December 17.

Jupiter rising at 11 PM on December 17.

Saturn is in the morning sky now. The late dawn means you should look for it around 6 or 7 AM. A waning crescent moon pales close to it on the 19th.

The Moon and Saturn in libra near Scorpio

The Moon and Saturn pre-dawn on December 19

Uranus is about 3º north east of a quarter Moon on the evening of the 28th, making that a good time try spot this faint planet.

The Moon and Uranus on December 28

The Moon and Uranus on December 28


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