Go Stargazing! December Edition

Jupiter dominates this month’s evening skies.  It outshines all stars in the sky, so it’s easy to find.  Face south at dusk and look for the brightest thing there.

Mercury has emerged into the evening sky, and is visible at the beginning of this month.  Look low in the southwest at dusk, right over the point of sunset.  By mid-month, Mercury is again lost in the Sun’s glare; it re-aligns with the sun (is at inferior conjunction) on Dec. 19.

Venus remains a dazzling morning star.  Face southeast at dawn, and you can’t miss it.

Saturn is in the southeast at dawn, above the much brighter Venus.

mars-06-crop
Creative Commons License photo credit: chipdatajeffb

Mars is now lost in the sun’s glare; it will remain invisible to us all winter as Earth passes around the far side of the sun from it.

Look for the enormous Summer Triangle in the night sky, consisting of the stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair, in the west.  These stars were up all night long back in June and July, hence the name. The Great Square of Pegasus, not quite as bright as the Summer Triangle, is high in the south at dusk.  The star in its upper left hand corner is also the head of Andromeda.  Rising after Andromeda is Perseus, the hero that saved her life.  Facing north, you’ll see five stars in a distinct ‘M’ like shape—this is Cassiopeia, the Queen.  Her stars are about as bright as those in the Big Dipper, and she is directly across the North Star from that Dipper.  Taurus, the Bull rises in the northeast.  Look for the Pleiades star cluster at the feet of Perseus.  Dazzling Orion, the Hunter rises shortly after dusk (by month’s end, it is already up at dusk).  As Orion enters the evening sky, we transition from the relatively dim evening skies of autumn to the brilliant stars of winter.

Moon Phases in December 2010:

New Moon                             December 5, 11:36 a.m.

1st Quarter                            December 13, 7:58 a.m.

Full Moon                              December 21, 2:14 a.m.

Last Quarter                         December 27, 10:19 p.m.

Eclipse burning bright
Creative Commons License photo credit: ericskiff

The full moon of early Tuesday, December 21, enters the Earth’s shadow, causing a total lunar eclipse.  This eclipse is visible in its entirety from all of North America, including Houston.  The moon first encounters the Earth’s shadow (umbra) at 12:32 a.m.  This marks the beginning of the partial eclipse.  The moon takes just over an hour, until 1:40 a.m., to enter the shadow.  That is when totality begins.  In this eclipse, the Moon does not quite cross the center of Earth’s shadow but instead passes through the northern part of it.  Even so, the moon takes 74 minutes to cross to the other side of the shadow, so totality lasts from 1:40 to 2:54 a.m.  By 4:02 a.m., the moon has re-emerged from the shadow, and the eclipse is over.  Remember, seeing a lunar eclipse requires no special equipment at all; anyone who sees the moon sees the eclipse.  The only thing that could stop us from seeing this would be a cloudy night on December 20-21, 2010.  The next total lunar eclipse we see here in Houston occurs just after midnight on April 15, 2014.

At 5:42 p.m. on Tuesday, December 21, the sun is overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn, the most southerly latitude where the sun can be overhead.  This is therefore the winter solstice for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, and the summer solstice for people south of the equator.

At Houston’s latitude, the earliest sunset of the year occurs Thursday, December 2.  Of course, days continue to shorten until the solstice, which makes sunset earlier and sunrise later.  However, Earth is also accelerating as it approaches perihelion (closest approach to the sun) in early January.  This causes sunrise, local noon, and sunset to occur slightly later each day.  This close to the solstice, the second effect actually predominates, so sunset gets a little later during December even while the days are getting shorter.  As you head out to ring in the New Year, notice that sunset on New Year’s Eve is about 10 minutes later than it is now.

2009 Leonid Meteor (cropped, afterglow closeup)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Navicore

The Geminid meteor shower peaks every year in mid-December, this year on the 14.  This shower and the Perseids in August are the two most reliable showers of the year, producing about 1 or two meteors per minute.  The Geminids are not as popular, though, because of colder nights (yes, sometimes even in Houston) and a greater chance of cloudy skies.  Still, it’s worth a look if the skies are clear.  Unlike most meteor showers which are comet debris, the Geminids originate from an asteroid (3200 Phaethon.  The shallower angle between this debris path and Earth’s orbit means that Earth rotates us towards the debris field before midnight.  We can thus observe meteors from late evening all the way until dawn.  Meteors will seem to radiate from the constellation Gemini, hence the shower’s name.

Go Stargazing! November Edition

The king of planets, Jupiter, which dominted the evening skies of September and October, is still well placed for obeserving in the evening during this month. It outshines all stars in the sky, so it’s easy to find. Face southeast at dusk.

Hubble Images Suggest Rogue Asteroid Smacked Jupiter
Creative Commons License photo credit:
NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Mars remains very low in the southwest at dusk; it is of only average brightness and hard to recognize.  It will be even harder to see in the months to come, as Earth passes around the far side of the sun from it.

Venus passed between the Earth and the sun on Oct. 29, an alignment known as inferior conjunction.  In other words, Venus has just ‘lapped’ us on its faster, inner orbit.  As a result, in November 2010 we see Venus emerge quickly into the morning sky.  Face southeast at dawn, especially beginning around mid-month, and you can’t miss it.  If you are a consistent early riser, you can do an experiment.  Observe the southeast horizon before dawn (5:30-5:40 a.m. once we fall back) and see for yourself when you can first see Venus.

Saturn is in the southeast at dawn, above the much brighter Venus.  Look for the ringed planet low in the east at dawn.

Look for the enormous Summer Triangle, consisting of the stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair, in the west.  These stars were up all night long back in June and July, hence the name. The Great Square of Pegasus, not quite as bright as the Summer Triangle, is high in the east at dusk.  The star in its upper left hand corner is also the head of Andromeda.  Rising after Andromeda is Perseus, the hero that saved her life.  Facing north, you’ll see five stars in a distinct ‘M’ like shape—this is Cassiopeia, the Queen.  Her stars are about as bright as those in the Big Dipper, and she is directly across the North Star from that Dipper.  In fall, while the Dipper is low, Cassiopeia rides high. The vast stretch of sky under Pegasus is largely devoid of bright stars—ancients called this the ‘Celestial Sea.”  The only first magnitude star in the entire region is Fomalhaut, in the Southern Fish.  Jupiter’s stark brilliance is even more remarkable against this dim backdrop.  Taurus, the Bull rises in the northeast.  Look for the Pleiades star cluster at the feet of Perseus, low in the northeast just after dusk.

Moon Phases in November 2010:

New Moon                      November 5, 11:51 p.m.

1st Quarter                     November 13, 10:39 p.m.

Full Moon                       November 21, 11:27 a.m.

Last Quarter                  November 28, 2:36 a.m.

Sunday, Nov. 7 is the first Sunday of the month.  Accordingly, we fall back from Daylight Saving Time to Standard Time on that date.  Don’t forget to set all your clocks back on Saturday, Nov. 6 before going to bed.  Enjoy your extra hour of sleep!


*Time* Ticking away...
Creative Commons License photo credit: Michel Filion

Go Stargazing! January Edition

The full moon of Jan. 15 partially blocks the sun, causing an eclipse visible in Africa and Asia. Because it is close to apogee, the moon is too small in the sky to ever block the sun completely, and no total eclipse occurs. Instead, folks on a path stretching from Uganda and Kenya across the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka, Burma, and China see an annular eclipse. The moon will appear to be completely inside the sun’s disk with a ring of sun around it.

Eclipsed? Not totally.
Creative Commons License photo credit: James Jordan

At about 6 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 2, the Earth came to perihelion. This means it was as close to the sun as possible—about 147 million km away (Earth is about 152 million km from the sun in July). This is not enough of a difference to influence our weather. Earth’s 23.5 degree tilt is much more important. Our North Pole is still tilted very much away from the sun and the sun still takes a very low path across our sky. Therefore, in spite of being as close to the sun as we’ll be all year, we’re going to be quite cold in Houston this week.

The latest sunrise of the year (at Houston’s latitude) occurs on Jan. 10. Earth is now just past perihelion, and has sped up a little in its orbit since it is a little closer to the sun. As a result, sunrise, local noon, and sunset have been happening a little later each day since early December. The noon sun is ever so slightly higher at noon each day since the solstice on Dec. 21, but as of today, the sun is still very close to its solstice height. Beginning Jan. 11, the noon sun’s greater height in the sky again becomes the dominant effect (as it is for most of the year). From then until June, sunsets are getting later while sunrises are getting earlier.

Jupiter is the brightest thing in the evening sky this month, except for the moon. You can easily see it by looking to the southwest.  Jupiter appears lower and lower to the horizon each January night.  By the end of the month, Jupiter sets just after 7 p.m.  At the end of February, Earth and Jupiter will be on opposite sides of the sun and Jupiter will therefore be invisible to us.

Mars has become an evening object.  It now rises in the east about 8 p.m. and will rise by dusk at the end of the month.  Mars already outshines all stars in the night sky except the very brightest (Sirius), and will continue to brighten throughout January.  On Jan. 29, Earth will pass between Mars and the sun, putting Mars in our sky all night long (this alignment is called opposition).

Saturn
Creative Commons License photo credit: Elsie esq.

Saturn is currently high in the south at dawn.  Although not as bright as Mars this month, Saturn  is also brightening as it approaches its own opposition in March.

Venus is behind the sun (at superior conjunction) on Jan. 11 and is therefore not visible this month.

The Great Square of Pegasus is in the west at dusk.  The star in its upper left hand corner is also the head of Andromeda.  Facing north, you’ll see five stars in a distinct ‘M’ like shape—this is Cassiopeia, the Queen.  Her stars are about as bright as those in the Big Dipper, and she is directly across the North Star from that Dipper.  Since the Dipper is low and out of sight at dusk this month, Cassiopeia rides high.

Dazzling Orion is high in the southeast, reminding us that winter is here.  His belt points up to Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the Bull.  The Dog Stars Sirius and Procyon are below Orion in the east.  Sirius is the brightest star we ever see at night.  Gemini, the Twins, are to Orion’s left as he rises (and to his upper left once they appear to the south).  Look for two stars of equal brightness less than 5 degrees (three fingers at arms’ length) apart.  These are Castor and Pollux, marking the twins’ heads.  High in the northeast is Capella, the sixth brightest star ever seen at night.

Moon Phases in January 2010:

Last quarter moon                 January 7, 4:41 am
New moon                                January 15, 1:12 am
First quarter moon                January 23, 4:53 am 
Full moon                                 January 30, 12:18 am

Go Stargazing! November Edition

Jupiter is the brightest planet or star in the evening sky this month.  Face south and look for the brightest point of light there.  If you’re looking in the right direction, you can’t miss it. Jupiter can currently be found inside the constellation Capricornus.

Venus begins to wrap up its stint as morning star this month, as it’s now much lower in the pre-dawn sky.  Look southeast right as day begins to break for the brightest thing (other than the Moon.)  Venus remains the ‘morning star’ for the rest of 2009.  Mars is now almost overhead at dawn. It is also brightening as the Earth approaches it. Saturn is now also visible in the morning sky, but it is not as bright as Venus.

Star gazing
Creative Commons License photo credit: Paul Jerry

The Big Dipper happens to be to the lower left of the North Star at dusk this month; you’ll need a clear northern horizon to get a good look at it.  Sagittarius, the Archer, known for its ‘teapot’ asterism, is in the southwest.  Look for the enormous Summer Triangle, consisting of the stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair, high in the west.   As familiar summer patterns shift to the west, the constellations of autumn take center stage.  The Great Square of Pegasus is high in the east at dusk.  The star in its upper left hand corner is also the head of Andromeda.  Facing north, you’ll see five stars in a distinct ‘M’ like shape—this is Cassiopeia, the Queen.  Her stars are about as bright as those in the Big Dipper, and she is directly across the North Star from that Dipper.  In fall, while the Dipper is low, Cassiopeia rides high.

Our Milky Way Galaxy..
Creative Commons License photo credit: Sir Mervs [oh i see..]

You will notice that November evening skies are generally dimmer than skies in summer or winter.  This is because we are facing out of the galactic plane.  Our Milky Way is quite flat—about 100 times as wide as it is thick.  As a result, most stars, including most of the brighter stars, are near the plane of the Galaxy.  We therefore see fewer bright stars when looking perpendicular to this plane, as we do when we face south on November evenings.

Our Galaxy is part of a Local Group of about 40 galaxies.  This group, in turn, is on the edge of the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies.  It turns out that when we look up in November, we have our backs to the center of that huger supercluster and are facing our own Local Group.  Thus, other members of that group, such as the Andromeda Galaxy and the Triangulum Galaxy, are high in the sky.  On May evenings, when we again look out of our galaxy plane, we’ll be facing the center of the Virgo Supercluster and have our backs to our own Local Group.

Moon Phases in November 2009:

Full                                     November 2, 1:14 pm
Last Quarter                   November 9, 9:57 am
New                                   November 16, 1:13 pm
1st Quarter                     November 24, 3:38 pm

Today, the just-past-full Moon will pass very close to a star cluster called the Pleiades.  At 9:11 p.m. and again at 10:11 (CST), it will briefly occult (hide) a couple of its stars.