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Urban Observing June 2016 – Planets version June 7, 2016

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, MichiganAstro, Urban Observing.
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I’m a little overloaded these days, but there’s so much good stuff in planets I wanted to get those out there.

Mars Opposition was on May 22, and it’s closest approach on May 30, so early June is still a great time to check out the red planet.

It’s not far from Saturn, which is at opposition on June 3. It has a nice tilt now too, so it’s a great month for cell phone pictures through a telescope.

Jupiter is still a great evening target. Look for it high in the south at sunset. It’s only 1º from a first quarter moon on the 11th.


Morning observers get some of the easiest viewing of Mercury the first 2 weeks of the month. Of course, the early sunrise means you’ll have about a 15 minute window 30 – 45 minutes before sunrise to catch it. Greatest western elongation is on the 5th, but the best angle relative to the horizon is the 13th (at least at 42º latitude.) Binoculars will help.


Venus fans are out of luck. Superior Conjunction is on the 6th, so it’s lost in the Sun’s glare most of the month. If you’re up for challenge, start watching for it in the evening at the end of the month.

The lowest full moon of the year will be on June 20. If you’re a fan of optical illusions, check it out – the low altitude enhances the Moon Illusion.


View all the naked eye planets at dawn January 20, 2016

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, MichiganAstro, Urban Observing.
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The return of Mercury to the morning skies means all the naked eye planets are visible at dawn now. We have a couple weeks’ worth of great morning observing coming up, which might make you glad for late sunrises.

Start with January 24th. At 7 AM, Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter, and the Moon spread out across the entire sky.


The sky at 7 AM on January 24

The 25th marks the day of least span. From Mercury to Jupiter will cover only 112º 3′ that day, or about 2/3 of the sky from southeast to southwest.

By the 28th, the planets will have spread out to 112º 40’ (not a noticeable change to most of us), but the Moon will be inside that span. It’ll be right next to bright Jupiter, so if you like taking pictures, it’s a good opportunity.


The sky at 7 AM on January 28. Jupiter and the Moon make a good pair.

The Moon tends to overwhelm the other planets, but if you like conjunctions, look for the Moon and:  Spica on the 30th; Mars on February 1; Saturn on the 3rd; and Venus and Mercury on the 6th.

If your goal is a glimpse of illusive Mercury, take your binoculars out on February 4th, when Mercury is more than 5 1/2° above the southeast horizon at 7 AM. That’s about the same as holding 3 fingers at arm’s length, so a clear horizon is a must.  It’ll be up 10° by 7:30, but by then it will also be very bright out. 


Mercury is farthest from the horizon at 7 AM on February 4th.

On February 6, head out with the binoculars again and use Venus to find Mercury and an old crescent Moon. 


Bright Venus can guide you to an old Moon and Mercury on Feb. 6th.

Mercury, the fleet footed messenger, and Venus, goddess of love, will be at their closest on February 14, just in time for Valentine’s Day. May he speed your messages to the one you love.


October 2015 Urban Observing October 8, 2015

Posted by aquillam in MichiganAstro, Urban Observing.
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Special Events

Meteor showers

October begins the most active time of year for meteor showers. While few individual showers are as active as August’s Perseids, several overlapping showers make fall a great time to bundle up and get outside.

The showers actually started at the end of September with the southern Taurids. This is a low activity shower, so you’ll barely notice it’s active. However, it’s especially good for southern sky watchers, and a lot of its meteors are fireballs. It doesn’t have a district peak, but remains active in to early November.

Next up are the Orionids. They are active early October to mid November, with a peak on October 21-22. Most years this is a moderately active shower with about 20 meteors per hour. In some years it’s very active, with rates comproble to the Perseids, but at this time we don’t know how to predict if it’s an average or better than average year. Check the AMS weekly blog for the most current predictions.

Finally the Northern Taurids are a close cousin to the Southern Taurids. Like the Southern Taurids, this is an extended shower with a low rate but a high number of fireballs. It is active from mid October to early December.

If you prefer to listen to meteor showers, check out the Draconids. Because of its position in the sky, the best time to observe these is actually late afternoon and early evening. That makes this a great shower to try out the radio observation techniques.


New on October 13

Full October 26 – this is the last “super moon” of the year.


Morning planet watchers are in for several treats this month. Even if you aren’t normally in early riser, you may want to get up on October 28 for a rare three planet conjunction. Mars, Venus, and Jupiter will all be within 1° of each other on that morning.

Three planets in a very short line on October 28.

Three planets in a very short line on October 28.

Mercury reaches greatest Western Elongation on October 16, so the second and third week in October should be a great time to observe Mercury  in the morning.

Mercury at greatest elongation about an hour before sunrise on October 16.

Mercury at greatest elongation about an hour before sunrise on October 16.

Venus reaches greatest western elongation on October 26. It will be a good morning object for the rest of the year. However, it’s approaching a new Venus, so although it’s getting closer to us, it’s actually getting dimmer as well. It makes a tight group with Regulus and the Moon on October 8.

A line of planets before dawn on Oct. 8.

A line of planets before dawn on Oct. 8.

Mars is overshadowed by the other brilliant morning planets. A thin crescent Moon passes it on October 9. It is less than half a degree from Jupiter on the 17.

The Moon passes Mars on the morning of Oct 9.

The Moon passes Mars on the morning of Oct 9.

Mars and Jupiter are VERY close just before dawn on October 17p

Mars and Jupiter are VERY close just before dawn on October 17

Jupiter has fully emerged into the morning skies by the beginning of the month. If it weren’t for Venus, it would be the jewel of the morning skies. Look for it in conjunction with Venus on the 26th.

A trio of planets so close you can fit them all in binoculars just before dawn on October 26.

A trio of planets so close you can fit them all in binoculars just before dawn on October 26.

Saturn quickly disappears into the evening twilight. Look for it with a crescent Moon at sunset on October 15 & 16.

The Moon and Saturn at dusk on October 15

The Moon and Saturn at dusk on October 15

If you have a telescope, October will be a great time to look for Uranus. It reaches opposition on October 11. If you can get away from the urban lights, you might even be able to catch it naked eye.

Uranus in the constellation of Pisces.

Uranus in the constellation of Pisces.

August 2015 Urban Observing August 1, 2015

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy.
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Special Events

Meteor Showers

August is known as the month of meteor showers. The Perseids and the best known and the best shower in August, and should peak on the 13th this year. That means you should observe sometime between midnight and 5 AM on the morning of the 13th and/or 14th. There are a few other meteor showers too, but they aren’t as big, so I think I’ll leave that for another post so I can get this one finished before the 1st!


Full Aug 29 18:38 UT (2:38 EDT).
The Moon is at perigee about 20 hours latter, at 15:22 UTC (11:22 EDT), making this a supermoon.
Being late summer, it’ll be higher in the sky than the last few full moons, so it’ll be even more problematic for deep sky observers. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the August moon is the Sturgeon or Green Corn Moon.



Mercury peeks out of the evening twilight this month. on the fist it sets 35 minutes after the Sun so you’ll have to work to find it. By mid month it’ll hang out nearly an hour after the Sun sets. It reaches aphelion on August 29, and greatest eastern elongation on Sept. 3, so it really doesn’t get farther from the Sun than this! It’s still a tiny planet in twilight though, so binoculars or a small ’scope are very helpful. Look for a Jupiter-Mercury conjunction on August 6, and for Mercury with a young crescent Moon on the 16th.

The Moon and Mercury in the evening twilight

The Moon and Mercury on August 16 at dusk

Mercury and Jupiter in twilight

9 pm on August 6, 2015


Venus reaches Inferior conjunction on August 15, so it’s not visible most of the month. If you happen to be up before 6:30 though, start looking for it in the east beginning around August 21. It zips past Mars at the end of the month / early September.
Venus and Mars just before dawn on August 31

Venus and Mars just before dawn on August 31


Mars is for morning observers this month. A very old Moon will be near it on August 12, but it’ll be tough to spot without binoculars. It crosses M44 on Aug 19, but you’ll need a ‘scope to pull the cluster out of the twilight.

Mars and the Moon near Gemini

Mars and the Moon pair up in the pre-dawn sky on August 12


Jupiter disappears quickly into the twilight this month, reaching conjunction on August 26. Before it disappears, catch it pass half a degree from Regulus on August 8 – 11
Mercury, Regulus, and Jupiter in twilight

Jupiter and Regulus are less than a degree apart on August 8, 2015.


Saturn continues to drift slowly from Libra to Sagittarius this month. Look for it with a first quarter Moon on August 22.
The Moon and Saturn near Scorpio

The Moon passes Saturn


Opposition is at roughly 03:00 UT September 1, which is about 11 PM Aug. 31 here. That means Neptune is closer the Earth at the end of this month and beginning of September than at any other time this year, so it’s your best chance to see it as something more than a faint dot. There isn’t much around it to guide you though, so you’ll probably want some more detailed maps than I can post here, or (of course) a computerized ‘scope.
Neptune on August 31

Neptune on August 31

Deep Sky

Double Stars

The nice thing about stars is that they are point sources. You just look at the magnitude and you pretty much know whether or not you’ll be able to see it. However, stars don’t look too much different though the ‘scope than naked eye, so they aren’t the most exciting things to look at. Unless it’s not just 1 star…
The easiest double is Alcor & Mizar. It’s a naked eye double in the handle of the Big Dipper. A telescope reveals Mizar as a double, and a fourth star in the system.
Albireo is also fairly easy to find, at the head of Cygnus. A telescope reveals it as a yellowish star and a blueish star (though different people will see the colors differently.) Nearby, you can test the resolution of your ‘scope on Epsilon Lyrae, the double-double. A small ‘scope separates it into two stars, which each resolve as two stars in a bigger ‘scope..

Globular star clusters

The summer skies are full of globular clusters. Three of the nicest are M13, M92, and M3. M13 and M92 are high overhead at the start of the month, one M3 is to the west. At the end of the month, M3 is low in the west and M13 and M92 are high in the west.

Open clusters

The summer Milky Way is high overhead, and of course it is full of open clusters. Two of the nicest clusters are M6 ( the butterfly cluster) and M7 (the northern jewel box). They transit at 9 PM at the end of the month, when it’s still twilight, so look for them soon!


Bright skies make it really hard to see nebulae. M57 (the ring) is a nicely compact object, so even though it’s faint you might be able to pull it in with a small ‘scope. M27 (dumbbell) has a brighter magnitude, but it’s also bigger, so it has a lower surface brightness, which makes it much harder to see in urban skies. If you happen to have a good night, or a nebula or oxygen filter, it’s worth trying. Also worth trying is M8, the lateen nebula. Unlike M27 & M57, which are the remnants of dying Sun-like stars, M8 is a star forming region. In dark skies, M8 is visible to the naked eye as a large fuzzy patch in Sagittarius, sometimes even referred to as the steam from the tea pot. Binoculars are enough to pull out the associated star cluster and bright inner region, even under fairly bright skies. A small ‘scope might pull in some of the wider dust lanes.


One of the great things about August is the return of M31. Look for it low in the northeast at 10 PM at the beginning of the month, or mid height in the east-north-east at the end of the month.
Full sky map on August 15, 10 PM.

Full sky map on August 15, 10 PM.