Go Stargazing: April Edition

Saturn dominates April 2011 skies because yesterday, on April 3, the Earth passed between the sun and Saturn.  This alignment, called opposition, puts Saturn in the sky all night long; it rises in the east at dusk and sets in the west at dawn.

Venus’ apparition as a dazzling morning star is coming to an end.  It is getting lower and lower in the sky each morning as the angle between the solar system plane and the horizon gets shallower.  Face southeast at dawn, and you can’t miss it of you have a clear horizon.

Jupiter is directly behind the sun from our perspective on April 6 and therefore invisible all month.

Mars also remains lost in the sun’s glare all month.

A swath of brilliant winter stars continues to dominate evening skies.  These stars are now high in the west at dusk and set in late evening.  Orion, the Hunter, is in the southwest as April begins.  His two dogs, represented by Sirius and Procyon, are to his left.  Beside Orion in the west is Taurus, the Bull with Aldebaran as its eye. Gemini, the Twins, are above Orion.  The Big Dipper is to the upper right of the North Star, with its handle pointing down and to the right.  From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are low in the east at dusk.  Leo, the Lion, passes almost overhead in late evening.

Below Sirius, just above the southern horizon in late twilight, is a star second only to Sirius in brightness.  This is Canopus, which marks the keel (bottom) of the legendary ship Argo Navis.  Canopus is so far south, in fact, that most Americans never see it.  From the Gulf Coast, however, Canopus does rise.  In early April, you can still see it in the evening just after dusk.

Lune
Creative Commons License photo credit: ComputerHotline

Moon Phases in April 2011:

New Moon                      April 3, 9:32 a.m.

1st Quarter                     April 11, 7:05 a.m.

Full Moon                       April 17, 9:43 p.m.

Last Quarter                  April 24, 9:46 p.m.

Sunday, April 24, is the first Sunday after the first Full Moon of spring.  Therefore, this is Easter Sunday.  This happens to be the second latest possible date for Easter.  Easter will fall on April 25, the absolute latest date, in 2038.

Go Stargazing! March Edition

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

Jupiter leaves the evening sky this month.  For now, you can still observe it in the west at dusk, where it sets by 8:25 on March 1.  It outshines all stars in the sky, so it’s easy to find.  Face west at dusk and look for the brightest thing there.  However, Jupiter is getting a little lower in the sky each evening.  You should be able to follow it until about the middle of the month.  By month’s end, Jupiter is lost in the sun’s glare.  On April 6, it is directly behind the sun from our perspective.

Mercury emerges from behind the sun this month and appears beside Jupiter before Jupiter fades from view.  On March 15, Mercury is about two degrees to the right of Jupiter as they both set in twilight.  As Jupiter becomes lost in the sun’s glare, Mercury remains visible low in the west at dusk for the rest of the month.

Venus remains a dazzling morning star.  It is getting lower in the sky as the angle between the solar system plane and the horizon gets shallower.  Face southeast at dawn, and you can’t miss it.

Saturn is in the southwest at dawn, getting lower in the southwest by month’s end.  This is because at the end of the month, Earth is about to pass between the sun and Saturn.  This alignment, called opposition, puts Saturn in the sky all night long; it rises in the east at dusk and sets in the west at dawn (the precise opposition date is April 3).  As a result, Saturn is also an evening object, rising in the east by 9:00 p.m. on March 1 and by dusk on the 31.

Mars, just past conjunction with the sun, remains lost in the sun’s glare all month.

A swath of brilliant winter stars continues to dominate evening skies.  These stars are now due south at dusk, but shift to the southwest later in the evening.  Orion, the Hunter, is almost due south.  His two dogs, represented by Sirius and Procyon, are to his left.  Above Orion is Taurus, the Bull with Aldebaran as its eye. Gemini, the Twins, are to Orion’s upper left.  Leo, the Lion, rises in the east.  The Big Dipper has now fully re-entered the evening sky; it is to the right of the North Star with the handle pointing down.

Below Sirius, just above the southern horizon, is a star second only to Sirius in brightness.  This is Canopus, which marks the keel (bottom) of the legendary ship Argo Navis.  Canopus is so far south, in fact, that most Americans never see it.  From the Gulf Coast, however, Canopus does rise.  March and March are the best months to see it in the evening.

Moon Phases in March 2011:

New Moon                              March 4, 2:46 p.m.

1st Quarter                             March 12, 5:45 p.m.

Full Moon                               March 19, 1:10 p.m.

Last Quarter                          March 26, 7:07 a.m.

At 6:21 p.m. CDT on Sunday, March 20, the sun is overhead at the Earth’s equator, giving everyone in the world the same amount of daylight.  This, then is the vernal equinox, the ‘official’ start of spring.  For us, days have been lengthening since December 21; by now daytime is almost as long as the night.  After March 20, daytime is longer than night for us.  For many people, however, wintry weather continues so long as arctic air masses remain in motion across North America, Europe, and Asia.

Winter time
Creative Commons License photo credit: cvanstane

People in the Southern Hemisphere had their longest days back in December; their days have since shortened to be about equal to the night.  After March 20, night is longer than day down there, so this is their autumnal (fall) equinox.

Sunday, March 13, is the second Sunday in March.  Therefore, Daylight Saving Time begins at 2 that morning (1:59:59 is followed by 3:00:00).  Don’t forget to set your clocks forward one hour on Saturday night, March 12!

Go Stargazing! January Edition

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

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

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

Mars is still 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.

The Great Square of Pegasus sets in the west, while brilliant winter stars shine in the south.  Orion, the Hunter, is almost due south.  His two dogs, represented by Sirius and Procyon, are to his left.  Above Orion is Taurus, the Bull with Aldebaran as its eye. Gemini, the Twins, are to Orion’s upper left.

Moon Phases in January 2011:

New Moon                              January 4, 3:03 a.m

1st Quarter                             January 12, 5:32 a.m

Full Moon                               January 19, 3:22 a.m.

Last Quarter                          January 26, 6:58 p.m.

The new moon of Tuesday, January 4, partially blocks the sun, causing a partial solar eclipse.  This event occurs during our nighttime, however; the eclipse is visible only in Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa.

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

At about 1 p.m. on Monday, January 3, the Earth is as close to the sun as it will get all year. In other words, Earth is at perihelion. Earth’s orbit is not a perfect circle but an ellipse, so its distance from the sun varies between about 147 million kilometers in January and 152 million kilometers in July. This variation is too small to affect our seasons; the effect of Earth’s 23.5 degree title on its axis dominates it. That’s why it’s colder now than in July. The actual moment of perihelion varies each year between late on January 1 and early on January 5.

At Houston’s latitude, the latest sunrise of the year occurs Friday, January 10.  Of course, days have been lengthening since the solstice, which makes sunset later and sunrise earlier.  However, Earth is still going a little faster than average on its orbit, since it is just past perihelion (its closest approach to the sun).  This causes sunrise, local noon, and sunset to occur slightly later each day.  Until mid-January, we are still close enough to perihelion that the second effect actually predominates.  As a result, sunset gets a little later during early January even while the days are getting longer.

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.