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Urban observing – October 2013 September 30, 2013

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, Urban Observing.
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ISON update

In late September, ISON remained a dim, 12th magnitude object, so it’s probably not going to be a good urban skies object. It’s in Leo this month, which is low in the east at 6 AM at the start of the month, and somewhat higher in the ESE at 6AM on Halloween. Star charts are available at http://www.aerith.net/comet/catalog/2012S1/2012S1.html. If you want to generate your own charts or have a go-to ‘scope, you can get the ephemeris from http://scully.cfa.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/returnprepeph.cgi?d=c&o=CK12S010.
Early risers who do astrophotography may want to check out the ISON campaign at http://isoncampaign.org/. You can get the latest predictions and news on observing from there, or share your images to help scientists gain a better understanding of comets.

Meteor Showers

The Orionids occur this year on October 21 – 22. The best time to observe is 3 – 5 AM, when Orion in high and the sky overhead is facing into the oncoming stream of meteors. This is not the best shower for those new to observing: expect 15 – 25 meteors per hour, mostly swift and faint. You’ll want a dark sky with a clear view from east to south to catch the most meteors.

Now on to things that actually ARE good for urban observers!


Mercury is at its best early this month. Greatest eastern elongation occurs on Oct. 9, which is the farthest it gets from the Sun, so it’s the best evening views. Unfortunately, the ecliptic is close the the horizon at sunset this time of year, so look for it to be low in the WSW about 15 minutes after sunset. Use binoculars on Oct. 6 to spot it along with a young Moon and Saturn 5º – 10º above the WSW horizon, and about 20º from bright Venus.

October 6, 7:30 PM.  Image made using Starry Night.

October 6, 7:30 PM.
Image made using Starry Night.

Venus plays evening star this month. It hangs out low in the southwest, easily visible for more than an hour after sunset all month. Look for a nice conjunction with a young Moon and the stars of Scorpius on Oct 8. It passes close by the red giant Antares Oct 15 – 17. Greatest eastern elongation occurs on October 30, so the end of this month and early November will the best time to observe.

Mars is still a morning planet. Look for it somewhat high in the east an hour before sunrise all month. An old moon passes close by on Oct 1, and again Oct 29. There’s a conjunction with Regulus on Oct 14.

Jupiter is also out in the morning for October, although it rises just before midnight at the end of the month (actually, at 10:56 on Oct 31!) Look for a nice third quarter Moon to pass it by on Oct 25 – 26. It is working its way slowly through Gemini right now, so look for it high in the ESE an hour before sunrise.

Saturn is a hard catch in the evening twilight. You’ll need binoculars to pick it out of the glow, and by the end of the month it might not be worth the effort. Look for the crescent Moon very close to it on the 7th, which is almost as good as the grouping on the 6th. Mercury and Saturn are at their closest on the 8th.

Uranus and Neptune are both good targets if you have a ‘scope and can find them. Look for Uranus in Pisces about 20º up in the ESE at 9 PM on the first of the month, and almost 40º above SE at 9 PM on the 31st.  Neptune is in Aquarius, 30º above SE on the 1st, and 35º above south on the 31, both at 9 PM again. Neptune shares the field with a couple other stars of 7th magnitude, so a good finder chart will be very useful. Uranus is at opposition on Oct. 3, so it’s also at its brightest right now. At magnitude 5.7, it should be unmistakable if you get your ‘scope pointed at it. The next brightest thing within 5º is a background star of magnitude 6.9!

October 19, 9 PM EDT, looking southeast. Image made using Starry Night.

October 19, 9 PM EDT, looking southeast. Image made using Starry Night.


The full Moon occurs at 23:38 UT (7:38 PM EDT) on Oct 18. Technically, there’s an eclipse at that time (running from 5:51 – 9:50 PM EDT, with deepest eclipse at 7:50 PM.) However, it’s a penumbral eclipse, so unless you’re a really careful observer, or have a photometer to measure the light reflected from the Moon, you won’t notice a thing. If you want to know more, check out Fred Espenak’s page on it: http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/OH/OH2013.html#LE2013Oct18N.


Urban Observing – August 2013 August 1, 2013

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, Urban Observing.
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As August opens, be sure to look for the Delta Aquarid meteor shower. While the peak was July 29 or 30, this shower doesn’t have a well-defined peak, and generally continues to be active for another week or two. In fact, Perseid observers often report seeing a few Delta Aquarids.

Speaking of the Perseids, they should peak this year on August 12, give or take a day.  The best time to look for them should be around 3 – 5 AM between the 10th and 14h. The Moon will be first quarter then, so the early morning skies will be nice and dark. If you find a dark site, you should see 50-100 meteors per hour, or about a meteor a minute. It’s still worth watching in urban skies too, though. The Perseids have a high number of fireballs, which are visible even in some of the worst skies. There may be only a half dozen of these in an hour, but trust me, seeing only one is worth it!

Evening observers should look for Venus low in the west in the first hour after sunset all month. Early in the month it should be almost due west, then moving towards the southwest as the month progresses. Look for a three-day old Moon to pass Venus on the evening of August 9.

Saturn starts the month high in the southeast at sunset. Look for it low in the east-southeast at the month’s end, just after sunset. A wide crescent Moon passes Saturn between the 12th and 13th.

The sky between the east and south-east on August 20, with Neptune and Uranus labeled.

Looking ESE at 11 PM on August 20

If you have a telescope and enjoy a challenge, be sure to look for Neptune at the end of the month. It’s in Aquarius all month. The full Moon passes a mere 7° above it on the evening of August 20. At magnitude 7.8, you’ll need a star map or a go-to ‘scope to find it. It will be at opposition on the 26th, so September should actually be the best month this year to observe it.

As long as you have the telescope out, you might as well look for Uranus. It doesn’t rise until around 11 this month, but if you have dark skies it’s actually a naked eye object. It’s a magnitude 5.8, and rises almost due east all month.

Jupiter, Mars, the crescent Moon, and Mercury in Gemini and Cancer on August 4 at 6 AM

August 4, 6 AM, looking east

Early risers get a shot at Mercury as the month begins. You can also get a look at Mars and Jupiter all month. Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and a waning crescent Moon line up together in the east-northeast on the mornings of August 2 – 4, though on the 4th, you’ll need binoculars for the Moon.

Mars, Jupiter and the Moon make another nice group along with Castor & Pollux on August 30 – Sept 1.

The sky in the east on Sept 1, with Jupiter, the Moon, Mars, and the Beehive cluster highlighted.

Looking east at 6 AM on Sept 1.

There a several nice double stars for late summer and a small telescope. Albireo is a favorite around U-M. Something about the stars being Maize and Blue or something…

Nearby is Epsilon Lyrae, the double-double (labeleod Epsilon2a Lyrae in the map below). This is a good test of your telescope’s resolution. A small ‘scope will resolve the star as a visual double. A good ‘scope will resolve each of those stars as a binary.

Among the unique star clusters of summer is Brocchi’s cluster, or the coathanger. It’s a great binocular object. Start by focusing on Vega, then scan toward Altair. It’s about halfway between the two stars, and just a bit west. It’s also fairly unmistakable: it looks exactly like a wooden coat-hanger!

The stars overhead on August 17 at 10 PM. Vega, Altair, Epsilon Lyrae, Albireo, and Broccih's cluster are labeled.

August 17, 10 PM, facing south and looking overhead.

Evening planets March 2012 March 4, 2012

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, MichiganAstro.
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If you like planets, and you prefer observing in the evening, now is the time to get out and look up.

Unless you really don’t get astronomy (in which case, why are you reading this blog??) you’ve surely noticed Venus and Jupiter in the evening in the west. They’ve been bright enough and spectacular enough to attract all sorts of attention.

Look a little lower just after sunset with a pair of binoculars and you can spot Mercury. It’ll be reasonably easy to catch until roughly March 10, then it disappears into the twilight. Exactly how hard it is to catch depends mostly on what your horizon is like and how much practice you’ve had.

If you have a good telescope, look for Uranus a bit south of Mercury, about 2 degrees to the left and half a degree lower in the sky. It needs to be pretty dark before you’ll pull it out of the twilight though, so don’t be disappointed if you can’t find it. It gets lower in the sky as the week goes on, so tonight and tomorrow are probably your last chances to catch it.

As Mercury disappears, turn your sights westward. Low in the west will be Mars. Opposition was March 3, and closest approach is March 5. Opposition means opposite the Sun in the sky, so it rises at sunset  and sets at sunrise – perfect for viewing all night long. Closest approach means it’s bigger and brighter right now than at any other time this year. In fact, because of its orbit, the next time it’ll look this good will be summer 2014. so get out there with your telescope!

When you’re tired of Mars, take a peek at the Moon. It’ll be full on the 8th, so it’ll wash out all the dim sky objects, and of course the 8th will be a terrible time to view it.  But the terminator is always nice on the other days.

If you’re still outside after 10, look back to the east again for Saturn. It’s tilted nicely, so the rings should be visible even in a pair of binoculars.

So basically, the only planet you can’t see tonight will be Neptune. It’s near conjunction, so you’re not going to see it right now. Also, if you prefer morning planets, you’ll have to wait a few months.

Finally, I’m trying out this new “Recommended Links” thing from WordPress. It seems a little hit-or-miss to me, but let me know what you think.