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! March Edition

Venus leaves the evening sky in dramatic fashion this month.  Look west-southwest right as night falls for the brightest thing there except for the Moon.  Keep watching each clear night this month; you’ll see Venus noticeably lower to the horizon each passing day.  By March 20, Venus sets as twilight ends, and by the end of the month, it is gone.  When is the last day the month you can see it?  Venus, on its faster, inner orbit, has come around to our side of the Sun and will pass us on March 27.  Astronomers call this alignment inferior conjunction

(: Smiley Face Over Perth
Creative Commons License photo credit: rich115

In addition, Venus’ orbit is highly inclined to ours.  (The planets orbit almost, but not exactly, in the same plane.)  As a result, we often see Venus pass above or below the Sun at inferior conjunction rather that truly aligning with the Sun.  This time, Venus passes ‘above’ the Sun in our sky, giving us the chance to see it as both evening and morning star!  Do you have a clear horizon, without tall trees or buildings, to the east and west?  If so, then you can try observing Venus very low in the west at sunset and very low in the east the next morning.  It’s best to try this between March 24 and 27. 

Saturn is now up all night.  On March 8, Earth passes between the Sun and Saturn, putting the Sun and Saturn on opposite sides of the Earth.  In this alignment, called opposition, a planet rises at sundown and sets at sunup; it is visible literally all night long.  Saturn is nowhere near as bright as Venus, but it is in a relatively dim star field and therefore is just as easy to see.  Face east at dusk, south at midnight, or west at dawn to see it. 

Mars and Jupiter emerge from the Sun’s glare this month.  Jupiter, in the southeast at dawn, is the brightest thing in that part of the sky unless the Moon is nearby (as it is on March 22, 23, and 24).  Mars moves faster than Jupiter and therefore seems to ‘keep pace’ with the Sun’s apparent motion.  As a result, Mars remains close to the horizon at dawn much of the spring, and takes longer to fully emerge into the morning sky. 

M42 Orion
Creative Commons License photo credit: makelessnoise

Dazzling Orion is due south at dusk.  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.  Look for a fairly bright star just to the right of Sirius and then drop your gaze straight down to the horizon. The bright star just above the horizon, possibly shining through trees, is Canopus, the second brightest star we see at night.  This star is so far south that it never rises for people north of 37 degrees north latitude (Houston is at just under 30 degrees north).  To Orion’s upper left are two stars of similar brightness less than five degrees apart.  These are Castor and Pollux, marking the heads of Gemini, the Twins.  Look in the east at dusk for stars in the shape of a backwards question mark, with a right triangle below that.  These stars are in Leo, the Lion.  Saturn rises in Leo.

Moon Phases in March 2009:

1st Quarter           March 4, 1:45 am
Full                       March 10, 9:37 pm
Last Quarter          March 18, 12:49 pm
New                      March 26, 11:07 pm

Time For... ?
Creative Commons License photo credit: bogenfreund

Sunday, March 8, is the second Sunday of March.  Therefore, we spring forward to Daylight Saving Time at 2 a.m. that morning.  (Clocks officially go from 1:59 a.m. to 3 a.m.)  Don’t forget to set your clocks one hour ahead Saturday night, March 7!

At 6:45 am on Friday, March 20, the Sun is directly overhead at the equator.  This is therefore the vernal (spring) equinox.  On this date, everyone has the same amount of daylight.  For us, day is now longer than night, and days will continue to lengthen until June.  In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s night that is getting longer.  For them, this is the autumnal equinox—the start of fall. 

Go Stargazing! February Edition

Venus continues to dominate the western sky on February evenings.  Look west-southwest right as night falls for the brightest thing there except for the Moon, which is nearby at the end of the month.  Venus, on its faster orbit, is coming around to our side of the Sun (and will pass us in March).  Therefore Venus is about as bright as it can be this month. 

Saturn is now a late evening object, rising in the east by 9 p.m. now and by 7 p.m. at month’s end.  Early next month, it will be opposite the Sun in the sky and be visible all night long. 

Mars and Jupiter are lost in the Sun’s glare much of this month.  They form a close conjunction on the morning of February 17, but the pair rises right as the twilight begins to brighten the sky that morning.  Mercury joins them later in the month. 

Dazzling Orion rises in the east, 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.  To Orion’s left as he rises are two stars of similar brightness less than five degrees apart.  These are Castor and Pollux, marking the heads of Gemini, the Twins. 

Moon
Creative Commons License photo credit: Fingerz


Moon Phases in February 2009:

1st Quarter             February 2, 5:12 pm
Full Moon               February 9, 8:49 pm
Last Quarter           February 16, 3:38 pm
New Moon             February 24, 7:35 pm

The Full Moon of February 9 almost enters the Earth’s shadow.  It does enter a region of space called the penumbra, in which the Earth partially blocks the Sun.  This event is thus called a penumbral eclipse.  However, it begins right as the Moon is about to set here in Houston.  What’s more, a penumbral eclipse is only a slight darkening of the Moon, barely noticeable in the darkest skies.  In the morning twilight of February 9, you won’t see much of any difference in the Moon as it sets.

IMG_0959
Creative Commons License photo credit: S1lvers Family


Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow on Groundhog Day, meaning six more weeks of winter.  What does this have to do with astronomy?  Well, Groundhog Day occurs about halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal (spring) equinox.  It therefore occurs near one of the cross-quarter days, called Imbolc by the Celts.  The other three are at the beginning of May, August, and November, and they represent points halfway between the quarter days, which are the equinoxes and solstices. 

Since we don’t want Phil to see his shadow, we clearly don’t want sunshine on February 2.  If this seems ‘backwards,’ consider that there is another day when we don’t want sunshine or warmth-Christmas. 

Houstonians still fondly recall our Christmas Eve snowstorm of 2004, while a similar snowfall on January 24 would have been much less romantic.  The French have the saying, “Christmas on the balcony, Easter by the fireplace.”  Early pagans considered the winter solstice and Imbolc symbols of winter itself.  If these days were appropriately wintry, with clouds and cold, then it was a sign that all was in order.  Winter, which was happening on time, would end on time.  However, if these days were not appropriately wintry, then something was wrong, and a ‘remedial’ winter would need to occur in springtime.  The traditions of the winter solstice and Imbolc were transferred to Christmas and Groundhog Day, respectively.  Thus, sunny weather (with shadows) is a bad omen on Groundhog Day, while cloudy weather (no shadows) is a good omen. 

Go Stargazing! December Edition

The ‘main event’ of December evenings occurs in the southwest at dusk, where you can watch Venus pull away from Jupiter.  Look southwest right as night falls for the two brightest things there except for the Moon.  The brighter one low in the southwest is Venus, which outshines everything else in the night sky.  Jupiter is the dimmer of the two, although it still outshines all the stars we ever see at night.  Venus and Jupiter begin the month about 2 degrees apart (your finger at arms length blocks about 1 degree.)  However, Venus will extend that gap quite noticeably each night, until it appears high above Jupiter on December 31. 

Mercury emerges from the Sun’s glare in time to form a nice pair with Jupiter on New Year’s Eve.  As you prepare to ring in 2009, take a moment to look at Mercury just to Jupiter’s left in late twilight.  That same night, the Moon will be near Venus. Saturn can be found high in the south at dawn.  Mars is lost in the Sun’s glare this month, and will remain out of sight into 2009.  It is directly behind the Sun (in conjunction with the Sun) on December 5.

Orion no céu
Creative Commons License photo credit: giumaiolini

The enormous Summer Triangle, consisting of the stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair, sets in the west.  The Great Square of Pegasus is overhead 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 the Dipper.  In fall and early winter, while the Dipper is low and out of sight, Cassiopeia rides high.

Dazzling Orion rises in the east, reminding us that winter is on the way.  His belt points up to Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull.  By 9 pm tonight (7 pm by New Year’s Eve), the Dog Stars Sirius and Procyon will have risen below Orion in the east.  Sirius is the brightest star we ever see at night. 

Moon Phases in December 2008:

1st Quarter         December 5, 3:25 pm
Full                     December 12, 10:38 am
Last Quarter        December 19, 4:30 am
New                    December 27, 6:22 am

At 6:04 am on Sunday, December 21, the Sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn, meaning that the North Pole is tilted as much as possible away from the Sun.  This is the winter solstice.  For people in the Northern Hemisphere, December 21 has less daylight and more night than any other day of the year. 

Sunset at Appalachian Trail
Creative Commons License photo credit: Pardesi*

However, the earliest sunsets occur on December 1 and 2.  We are already close enough to the solstice that the Sun’s apparent path across the sky on December 21 is only slightly lower than on any other day this month.  Meanwhile, Earth is about to make its nearest approach to the Sun, called perihelion, in January.  As a result, the Earth is speeding up.  The effect isn’t much (Earth’s orbit is nearly circular), but it’s enough to make both sunrise and sunset a little later each day this month and next.  With the Sun’s apparent height in the sky not changing that much in December and January, the small effect of Earth’s acceleration near perihelion dominates.  Since most of us sleep through sunrise and witness sunset, the days seem be slightly lengthening between the beginning of the month and the 21st, although they are actually getting slightly shorter.