In The Sky This Month – September 2010

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of September 2010.

September 2010 Highlights

* Venus, Mars and Spica together in evening sky at start of month
* The above 3 joined by the Moon on the 11th
* Jupiter at opposition (21st) with Full Moon (23rd) and Uranus nearby
* Mercury has a good morning apparition
* Comet 103P/Hartley 2 is bright enough for small telescopes and binoculars

Note: If anyone has pictures or observations of these objects/events and want to share them with my readers, send them to the Transient Sky at <transientsky1@yahoo.com>.

Planets

Moon - This month brings a new addition to the “In The Sky This Month” lineup. The table below lists important lunar dates for the month, including the phases of the Moon and nights of lunar-planetary and lunar-stellar conjunctions.

September 1 - Last Quarter
September 1 - Moon 1° South of Pleiades
September 1 - Moon 8° North of Aldebaran
September 4 - Moon 8° SSW of Pollux
September 5 - Moon 4° SSW of Beehive Cluster
September 8 - New Moon
September 9 - Moon 7° SSW of Saturn
September 10 - Moon 3° SSW of Spica
September 11 - Moon 5° SSW of Mars
September 12 - Moon 0.6° from Venus
September 14 - Moon 2° NNW of Antares
September 15 - First Quarter
September 23 - Full Moon
September 23 - Moon 7° from Jupiter
September 28 - Moon 1.5° from Pleiades
September 29 - Moon 8° North of Aldebaran

Saturn – Saturn is located low in the west during evening twilight. By month’s end the +1.0 magnitude planet will be too close to the Sun to be seen easily by most observers.

September 9 - Moon within 7° of Saturn

Mars – Mars is the second of three planets visible in the west after sundown. This month +1.5 magnitude Mars starts a few degrees to the upper right of brilliant Venus. Though the planets will slowly move apart they will stay within 7° of each other all month long.

September 11 - Moon passes within 5° of Mars

Venus – Venus is the third and by far the brightest planet visible in the early evening (at magnitude -4.6 to -4.8). For northern observers this is a poor apparition. Though the planet is at its brightest and located almost as far from the Sun as it gets, the angle between the ecliptic and the horizon results in the planet staying close to the horizon. A clear view of the WSW horizon is needed in order to see Venus (and Mars and Saturn, as well). The planet sets 1.5 hours after sunset at the start of September and less than an hour by the end of the month. See the notes in the Mars section above about seeing Mars in the vicinity of Venus.

September 1 - Venus within 1° of Spica
September 11 - Moon passes within 0.6° of Venus
September 27 - Venus at its brightest (magnitude -4.6)

Jupiter (and Uranus, too…) – This month Jupiter rules the heavens. On the 21st, the ‘King of the Planets’ will be at opposition (meaning it is located directly opposite the Sun on the sky). All month Jupiter will shine at its brightest (near magnitude -2.9). Opposition also means it will be visible all night long, rising in the evening, reaching its highest elevation around midnight and setting during dawn.

If you have a pair of binoculars or small telescope take a look at Jupiter. See if you can see any of its 4 bright Galilean moons or 2 large atmospheric belts. In addition, Jupiter is within a degree of +5.7 magnitude Uranus all month long.

September 18 - Jupiter and Uranus within 0.8° of each other
September 21 - Jupiter and Uranus at opposition
September 23 - Moon within 7 of Jupiter and 6 of Uranus

Mercury - Mercury starts the month too close to the Sun to be seen. By mid-month, it is in the midst of its best morning apparition (for northern observers).

September 19 - Mercury at Greatest Elongation West (18 from Sun)

Meteors

Meteor activity is near a yearly maximum in September. The year is usually split in 2 with January through June having low rates with few major showers while July through December (really through the 1st week of January) have high rates with many major showers.

Sporadic Meteors

Sporadic meteors are not part of any known meteor shower. They represent the background flux of meteors. Except for the few days per year when a major shower is active, most meteors that are observed are Sporadics. This is especially true for meteors observed during the evening. During September, 10-16 or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

No major showers this month.

Minor Meteor Showers

Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors. Starting this month, info on most of the minor showers will be provided on a weekly basis by Robert Lunsford’s Meteor Activity Outlook.

Additional information on these showers and other minor showers not included here can be found at the following sites: Wayne Hally’s and Mark Davis’s NAMN Notes, and the International Meteor Organization’s 2010 Meteor Shower Calendar.

Comets

Naked Eye Comets (V < 6.0)

None

Binocular Comets (V = 6.0 – 8.0)

Comet 103P/Hartley 2

If it behaves as expected, Comet 103P/Hartley 2 should be the comet of the year. Currently magnitude +11.5, the comet is predicted to reach naked eye visibility (for dark sky observers) in October/November.

103P was discovered at Siding Spring Observatory (Australia) on March 15, 1986 by  Malcolm Hartley. With an orbital period of 6.47 years, the comet’s orbit currently stretches from 1.06 AU to 5.89 AU from the Sun. Though not an especially big or active comet, this year it passes 0.12 AU from Earth on October 21 allowing the comet to get much brighter than usual.

The comet starts the month in the faint constellation of Lacerta at a distance of 1.31 AU from the Sun and 0.39 AU from Earth. By mid-month it has moved into Andromeda and will be 1.21 AU from the Sun and 0.29 AU from Earth. By month’s end, the comet will just south of the brightest star in Cassiopeia (Alpha Cas) and 1.13 AU from the Sun and 0.19 AU from Earth.

[Note: The following paragraph has been updated to reflect recent observations.]

Now that the Moon is out of the morning sky, visual observers have been able to estimate the brightness of the comet. Observations over the past few days show the comet to be around magnitude 8.5. This is very close to its predicted brightness and suggests the comet may live up to its expected maximum brightness of 5th or 6th magnitude this Oct/Nov. The comet is large and diffuse with much of its brightness contained in a large, faint outer coma. As a result, the comet may appear much fainter to observers using large telescopes or observing from bright sites. By the end of the month the comet should be around magnitude 6.5 making it an easy binocular object.

In early November the NASA EPOXI (ex-Deep Impact) spacecraft will encounter the comet giving us close-up views of the comet’s nucleus.

A finder chart for Comet Hartley 2 can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Small Telescope Comets (V = 8.0 – 10.0)

Comet 10P/Tempel 2

’10P’ says it all. This was only the 10th comet to be observed at a 2nd apparition meaning we’ve been following this comet for a long time. Discovered by prolific German comet discoverer Ernst Wilhelm Leberecht Tempel in Marseille, France on July 4, 1873, Tempel 2 has been observed at nearly every return since then. The comet’s current orbit brings it to within 1.42 AU of the Sun on July 4 and to within 0.65 AU of Earth in late August.

The comet is currently at a brightness of 9.0 to 9.5 magnitude. This is a large diffuse object so it will be more difficult to see than your average 9th magnitude comet or deep sky object. From my moderately light polluted backyard and 12″ telescope, the comet was a difficult object and was estimated to be magnitude 10.0. From a dark site and 30×125 binoculars, the comet was much brighter (magnitude 9.5), larger and easier to see. The added brightness was probably due to the dark site allowing me to see much more of the comet’s coma.

At mid-month the comet will be 1.61 AU from the Sun and 0.67 AU from Earth. Tempel 2 is a morning object moving through the constellation of Cetus.

A finder chart for Comet Tempel 2 can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 9.0)

(1) Ceres

Ceres is the biggest asteroid in the Main Belt with a diameter of 585 miles or 975 km. It is so big that it is now considered a Dwarf Planet. Classified as a carbonaceous (carbon-rich) Cg-type asteroid, there are suggestions that it may be rich in volatile material such as water. Some even propose that an ocean exists below its surface. Ceres is the other target of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which is scheduled to visit it in 2015.

This month Ceres is an evening object moving from Ophiuchus into Saggitarius. The asteroid will start the month at magnitude 8.6 and fade to magnitude 9.0 by the end of the month.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Ceres from Heavens Above.

(6) Hebe and (8) Flora

These 2 large inner Main Belt asteroids will move in tandem this fall. Both are S-type asteroids with similar compositions and albedos. (6) Hebe is the larger of the pair (205 x 185 x 170 km). Recent research suggests that it is the source of many ordinary chondrite meteorites and near-Earth asteroids. (8) Flora is a little smaller (136 x 136 x 113 km) and is the largest surviving member of a numerous asteroid family created by a long ago impact.

This month Hebe is retrograding in Cetus and will brighten from magnitude 8.0 to 7.7. Just across the border in Aquarius Flora will brighten from magnitude 8.4 and peak at magnitude 8.2 in early September before fading back to 8.4 at the end of the month.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Hebe from Heavens Above.

In The Sky This Month – August 2010

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of August 2010.

August 2010 Highlights

* Venus, Mars and Saturn close in on each other in the evening sky
* A 2nd trio of Venus, Mars and Spica form at the end of the month
* Perseid meteor shower visible under great conditions
* Mercury has a mediocre evening apparition in July/August (great from SH)
* Comet 10P/Tempel 2 reaches small telescope brightness in the morning sky

Note: If anyone has pictures or observations of these objects/events and want to share them, send me a comment and I’ll post them on the blog.

Planets

Venus, Mars and Saturn – Venus is the brightest “star” visible in the early evening (at magnitude -4.3 to -4.6). Low in the west it sets about 1.9 to 1.5 hours after sunset. Maximum height above the horizon was reached a few months ago. As a result, Venus will appear to sink lower in the sky every night. Still, it will be well placed for easy observing as it is at its brightest this month. If you are located south of the equator, this is a much better apparition and Venus is sitting as high above the horizon as it can get. Regardless, of where you are located it will be hard to miss brilliant -4 magnitude Venus in the west an hour or 2 after sunset.

This month Venus, Mars and Saturn form a tight trio in the early evening sky. On August 8, Venus (magnitude -4.3), Mars (magnitude +1.5) and Saturn (magnitude +1.1) are located within 4.8° of each other.

August 8 - Venus and Saturn within 2.7° of each other
August 13 - Moon passes within 4.2° of Venus, 7.3° of Saturn and 5.5° of Mars
August 19 - Venus and Mars within 1.9° of each othe

Jupiter - Jupiter once again returns to sight as a brilliant star in the east-southeast a few hours after sunset. The magnitude -2.6 planet will get brighter and better place for observing over the next few months. Last year Jupiter made a series of close approaches to Neptune. This year Jupiter will do the same for Uranus. All month long Jupiter will be located within a few degrees of Uranus.

August 27 - Moon passes within 6.7° of Jupiter

Mercury - Mercury is in the midst of a mediocre evening apparition for northern observers. The apparition is a great one for southern hemisphere observers.

August 12 - Moon passes within 2.2° of Mercury

Meteors

Meteor activity is near a yearly maximum in August. The year is usually split in 2 with January through June having low rates with few major showers while July through December (really through the 1st week of January) have high rates with many major showers.

Sporadic Meteors

Sporadic meteors are not part of any known meteor shower. They represent the background flux of meteors. Except for the few days per year when a major shower is active, most meteors that are observed are Sporadics. This is especially true for meteors observed during the evening. During August, 12-18 or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

Perseids (PER)

The Perseids are one of 2 showers that are worth getting up early for. This year the Moon will set early in the evening so the prime meteor watching hours will be nice and dark. Based on the their behavior in prior years a broad maximum is expected between 2010 Aug. 12, 18:30 UT and Aug. 13, 7:00 UT. There may even be a little enhancement as we pass through a dust trail ejected by the Perseids’ parent comet, Swift-Tuttle, in 441 AD at 13:19 UT on Aug. 13 (from the work of Mikhail  Maslov). An additional dust trail created in 1479 may also add a few meteors. The enhancements will be small and may only add another 10 or so meteors per hour to the expected maximum rate of 100 per hour.

These rates will only be visible for those under a very dark sky when the radiant is high in the sky. For most of us, rates will be lower due to light pollution. Still, unless you live in a bright major city, you should be able to see a few dozen meteors per hour.

The best time to look will be after about 1-2 am on the night of August 12/13. Meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation of Perseus in the northeast sky.

Minor Meteor Showers

Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors. Starting this month, info on most of the minor showers will be provided on a weekly basis by Robert Lunsford’s Meteor Activity Outlook.

Additional information on these showers and other minor showers not included here can be found at the following sites: Wayne Hally’s and Mark Davis’s NAMN Notes, and the International Meteor Organization’s 2010 Meteor Shower Calendar.

Comets

Naked Eye Comets (V < 6.0)

None

Binocular Comets (V = 6.0 – 8.0)

None

Small Telescope Comets (V = 8.0 – 10.0)

Comet 10P/Tempel 2

’10P’ says it all. This was only the 10th comet to be observed at a 2nd apparition meaning we’ve been following this comet for a long time. Discovered by prolific German comet discoverer Ernst Wilhelm Leberecht Tempel in Marseille, France on July 4, 1873, Tempel 2 has been observed at nearly every return since then. The comet’s current orbit brings it to within 1.42 AU of the Sun on July 4 and to within 0.65 AU of Earth in late August.

The comet is currently at a brightness of 9.0 to 9.5 magnitude. This is a large diffuse object so it will be more difficult to see than your average 9th magnitude comet or deep sky object. From my moderately light polluted backyard and 12″ telescope, the comet was a difficult object and was estimated to be magnitude 10.0. From a dark site and 30×125 binoculars, the comet was much brighter (magnitude 9.5), larger and easier to see. The added brightness was probably due to the dark site allowing me to see much more of the comet’s coma.

At mid-month the comet will be 1.49 AU from the Sun and 0.66 AU from Earth. Tempel 2 is a morning object moving from the constellation of Aquarius to Cetus.

A finder chart for Comet Tempel 2 can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 9.0)

(1) Ceres

Ceres is the biggest asteroid in the Main Belt with a diameter of 585 miles or 975 km. It is so big that it is now considered a Dwarf Planet. Classified as a carbonaceous (carbon-rich) Cg-type asteroid, there are suggestions that it may be rich in volatile material such as water. Some even propose that an ocean exists below its surface. Ceres is the other target of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which is scheduled to visit it in 2015.

This month Ceres is a month past opposition. The asteroid will start the month at magnitude 8.1 and fade to magnitude 8.6 by the end of the month. All month long it will slowly moving in the constellation Ophiuchus.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Ceres from Heavens Above.

(6) Hebe and (8) Flora

These 2 large inner Main Belt asteroids will move in tandem this fall. Both are S-type asteroids with similar compositions and albedos. (6) Hebe is the larger of the pair (205 x 185 x 170 km). Recent research suggests that it is the source of many ordinary chondrite meteorites and near-Earth asteroids. (8) Flora is a little smaller (136 x 136 x 113 km) and is the largest surviving member of a numerous asteroid family created by a long ago impact.

This month Hebe is retrograding in Cetus and will brighten from magnitude 8.7 to 8.0. Just across the border in Aquarius Flora will brighten from magnitude 9.2 to 8.4.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Hebe from Heavens Above.

In the Sky This Month – July 2010

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of July 2010.

July 2010 Highlights

* Total Solar Eclipse on the 11th for the South Pacific
* Venus, Mars and Saturn close in on each other in the evening sky
* Venus passes within 2° of bright star Regulus on the 8th
* Mars and Saturn within 1.8° of each other on the 30th
* Mercury has a mediocre evening apparition in July/August (great from SH)
* Mercury passes within 0.3° of Regulus on the 27th
* Comet 10P/Tempel 2 reaches small telescope brightness in the morning sky

Note: If anyone has pictures or observations of these objects/events and want to share them, send me a comment and I’ll post them on the blog.

Planets

Venus – Venus is the brightest “star” visible in the early evening (at magnitude -4.2). Low in the west it sets about 2 hours after the Sun. Maximum height above the horizon was reached over a month ago. As a result, Venus will appear to sink lower in the sky every night. Still, it will be well placed for easy observing for the next 2 months. If you are located south of the equator, this is a great apparition and Venus will continue to climb higher till late August. Regardless, of where you are located it will be hard to miss brilliant -4 magnitude Venus in the west an hour or 2 after sunset.

July 10 - Venus within 1.0° of bright star Regulus
July 14 - Moon passes within 5.5° of Venus

Mars – Mars moves rapidly from the constellation of Leo and into Virgo this month. Though fading from magnitude +1.3 to +1.5 it is still an obvious red beacon in the southwest right after sundown. It’s brightness is comparable to that of the other bright stars. Mars starts the month 23° from Venus and 15° from Saturn. By the end of the month, Mars will have caught up to Saturn. Venus isn’t far behind and all three planets will share the same part of the sky in August.

July 16 - Moon passes within 5.6° of Mars
July 30 - Mars and Saturn within 1.8° of each other

Saturn – This month Saturn is located in Virgo and visible in the southwest during the early evening hours. At magnitude +1.1 it is slightly brighter than Mars. The two will be within 2° of each other at the end of the month. Telescope users should note that Saturn’s rings are still within a few degrees of edge-on.

July 16 - Moon passes within 7.4° of Saturn
July 30 - Saturn and Mars within 1.8° of each other

Jupiter - Jupiter once again returns to sight as a brilliant star in the east-southeast before dawn. The magnitude -2.6 planet will get brighter and better place for observing over the next few months. Last year Jupiter made a series of close approaches to Neptune. This year Jupiter will do the same for Uranus. All month long Jupiter will be located within 2-3° of Uranus.

July 3 - Moon passes within 6.5° of Jupiter
July 31 - Moon passes within 6.6° of Jupiter

Mercury - Mercury will start the month too close to the Sun for observation. By mid-month, it starts to peak above the western horizon after sundown.  The apparition is a great one for southern hemisphere observers but a so-so one for northern observers. The

July 12 - Moon passes within 3.9° of Mercury
July 27 - Mercury passes within 0.3° of bright star Regulus

Meteors

Meteor activity should really pick up in July. The year is usually split in 2 with January through June having low rates with few major showers while July through December (really through the 1st week of January) have high rates with many major showers.

Sporadic Meteors

Sporadic meteors are not part of any known meteor shower. They represent the background flux of meteors. Except for the few days per year when a major shower is active, most meteors that are observed are Sporadics. This is especially true for meteors observed during the evening. During JuLy, 10-16 or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

No major showers are active this month.

Minor Meteor Showers

Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors. Starting this month, info on most of the minor showers will be provided on a weekly basis by Robert Lunsford’s Meteor Activity Outlook.

Additional information on these showers and other minor showers not included here can be found at the following sites: Wayne Hally’s and Mark Davis’s NAMN Notes, and the International Meteor Organization’s 2010 Meteor Shower Calendar.

Comets

Naked Eye Comets (V < 6.0)

None

Binocular Comets (V = 6.0 – 8.0)

None

Small Telescope Comets (V = 8.0 – 10.0)

Comet 10P/Tempel 2

’10P’ says it all. This was only the 10th comet to be observed at a 2nd apparition meaning we’ve been following this comet for a long time. Discovered by prolific German comet discoverer Ernst Wilhelm Leberecht Tempel in Marseille, France on July 4, 1873, Tempel 2 has been observed at nearly every return since then. The comet’s current orbit brings it to within 1.42 AU of the Sun on July 4 and to within 0.65 AU of Earth in late August.

The comet is currently at a brightness of 9.0 to 9.5 magnitude and should brighten by another half magnitude this month. This is a large diffuse object so it will be more difficult to see than your average 9th magnitude comet or deep sky object. From my moderately light polluted backyard and 12″ telescope, the comet was a difficult object and was estimated to be magnitude 10.0. From a dark site and 30×125 binoculars, the comet was much brighter (magnitude 9.5), larger and easier to see. The added brightness was probably due to the dark site allowing me to see much more of the comet’s coma.

Tempel 2 is a morning object moving from the constellation of Aquarius to Cetus.

A finder chart for Comet McNaught can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet C/2009 K5 (McNaught)

If you are looking for Comet C/2009 R1 (McNaught), which was a nice bright naked eye comet last month, this Comet McNaught isn’t the comet you’re looking for. C/2009 R1 is now too close to the Sun to be seen. The lesser known, and fainter but more observable, ‘Comet McNaught’  is Comet C/2009 K5 (McNaught). This will probably be the last month to catch a glimpse of this comet in backyard telescopes.

With perihelion back on April 30 of this year at a distance of 1.42 AU from the Sun, C/2009 K5 may still be bright enough to be seen in small backyard telescopes from dark sites. At mid-month it will be located 1.78 AU from the Sun and 2.47 AU from Earth.

Observations over the past month show the comet to be around magnitude 8.5. With the comet in full retreat from the Sun and Earth, it should fade rapidly from here on out. The comet will start the month between 8.5 and 9.0 but should fade to fainter than 10.0 by the end of the month. Due to its located in the northern constellations of Camelopardalis and Lynx, the comet can be seen at all hours of the night from high northern latitudes. It is best in the evening right after the end of twilight.

A finder chart for Comet McNaught can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 9.0)

(1) Ceres

Ceres is the biggest asteroid in the Main Belt with a diameter of 585 miles or 975 km. It is so big that it is now considered a Dwarf Planet. Classified as a carbonaceous (carbon-rich) Cg-type asteroid, there are suggestions that it may be rich in volatile material such as water. Some even propose that an ocean exists below its surface. Ceres is the other target of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which is scheduled to visit it in 2015.

This month Ceres will be at opposition and brightest. The asteroid will start the month at magnitude 7.4 and fade to magnitude 8.1 by the end of the month. All month long it will be retrograding on the border of Sagittarius and Ophiuchus.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Ceres from Heavens Above.

In The Sky This Month – June 2010

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of June 2010.

June 2010 Highlights

* Venus, Mars and Saturn close in on each other in the evening sky
* Comet 2009 R1 (McNaught) reaches naked eye brightness in the morning sky
* Jupiter passes close to Uranus
* Asteroid (1) Ceres at opposition on the 19th and is an easy binocular object
* Partial Lunar Eclipse for the Far East and most of North/South America on the 26th
* Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft to return samples from asteroid Itokawa on the 13th
* EPOXI (spacecraft formally known as Deep Impact) flys past Earth on the 27th

Note: If anyone has pictures or observations of these objects/events and want to share them, send me a comment and I’ll post them on the blog.

Planetary Spacecraft

Hayabusa – On the June 13th, the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft is scheduled to return to Earth. Tucked away in its sample return capsule may be a few grams of regolith (asteroid soil) from the small Near-Earth asteroid (25143) Itokawa). Launched in 2003, Hayabusa spent a few months in late 2005 studying Itokawa. Though the plan was to retrieve samples of the asteroid for return to Earth, the mission was plagued with many difficulties. As a result, mission operators are unsure if any samples were picked up. Even whether or not the spacecraft can successful hit it target and land in Australia is in doubt. Regardless, the spacecraft and its sample return capsule will be coming back to Earth on the 13th.

NASA will be watching the re-entry of Hayabusa and studying the resulting fireball. Hopefully we will get some great video shortly afterwards. Check out the Hayabusa Re-Entry airborne observing campaign at the SETI Institute and the press releases from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency for the latest.

EPOXI (ex-Deep Impact) -

The main comet event of 2010 will be periodic comet 103P/Hartley 2. Not only will the comet become a nice naked eye object this fall, but a re-used NASA spacecraft will encounter the comet. EPOXI has gone through quite a few name changes in its time. Originally Deep Impact it was launched in January 2005. In July 2005, it released a small package which impacted the surface of periodic comet 9P/Tempel 1. The impact allowed scientists an opportunity to study the interior of a comet. After the conclusion of its primary mission, NASA agreed to fund 2 experiments that utilized the spacecraft. One of its cameras was used to study planets studying other stars (an experiment called EPOCh, for Extrsolar Planet Observation and Charaterization). Also it will fly-by the aforementioned comet Hartley 2 (an experiment called DIXI for Deep Impact eXtended Investigation). Eventually the names were merged into EPOXI but really we are just talking about the old Deep Impact spacecraft.

On the 27th, EPOXI will fly-by the Earth setting up an encounter of Hartley 2 on November 4th.

Planets (and Moon)

Moon – The Moon will experience a Partial Lunar Eclipse on the night of June 25/26. At its best, a little over 53% of the Moon will be in umbral (darkest) eclipse. For the best info on this eclipse go to NASA’s Eclipse Website.

Venus – Venus is the brightest “star” visible in the early evening. Low in the west it sets about 2.5 hours after the Sun. From now till July/August it will ride as high as it’ll get for northern observers. In fact, this is not a great evening apparition for Venus. On the other hand, it is a great apparition for observers south of the Equator. For them, Venus will continue to climb higher till late August. Regardless, of where you are located it will be hard to miss brilliant -4 magnitude Venus in the west an hour or 2 after sunset.

June 11 - Venus in line with bright stars Castor and Pollux
June 15 - Moon passes within 4° of Venus
June 20 - Venus passes the center of the Beehive star cluster

Mars – Mars moves rapidly through the constellation of Leo this month. Though fading from magnitude +1.1 to +1.3 it is still an obvious red beacon to the southwest of overhead right after sundown. It’s brightness is comparable to that of the other bright stars. Watch Mars pass within 0.8° of the bright star Regulus on the 7th. Mars will be magnitude +1.2 on that date and just slightly brighter than Regulus at magnitude +1.4. By the end of the month, Mars is located within 16° of Saturn. The two will be closest at the end of July, and will be joined by Venus in early August.

June 7 - Mars passes 0.8° from the 1st mag star Regulus
June 17 - Moon passes within 6° of Mars

Saturn – This month Saturn is visible in the south during the early evening hours. It will slowly fade from magnitude +1.0 to +1.1 making it slightly brighter than Mars. Telescope users should note that Saturn’s rings are still within a few degrees of edge-on.

June 19 - Moon passes within 8° of Saturn

Jupiter and UranusJupiter once again returns to sight as a brilliant star low in the east-southeast before dawn. The magnitude -2.4 planet will get brighter and better place for observing over the next few months. Last year Jupiter made a series of close approaches to Neptune. This year Jupiter will do the same for Uranus. On June 6th, Jupiter will make it’s first closes approach to Uranus at a small distance of 0.44°.

June 6 - Moon passes within 7° of Jupiter
June 8 - Jupiter passes within 0.5° of Uranus

Mercury -Mercury is in the middle of a morning apparition at the start of the month. This morning apparition will not be good for northern observers though it is excellent for southern observers. By mid-month, Mercury will have fallen back into the glare of the Sun.

June 11 - Moon passes within 9° of Mercury

Meteors

June starts to see an increase in meteor activity after a few months of low activity. The year is usually split in 2 with January through June having low rates with few major showers while July through December (really through the 1st week of January) have high rates with many major showers.

Sporadic Meteors

Sporadic meteors are not part of any known meteor shower. They represent the background flux of meteors. Except for the few days per year when a major shower is active, most meteors that are observed are Sporadics. This is especially true for meteors observed during the evening. During June, 10-16 or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

No major showers are active this month.

Minor Meteor Showers

Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors. Starting this month, info on most of the minor showers will be provided on a weekly basis by Robert Lunsford’s Meteor Activity Outlook.

Additional information on these showers and other minor showers not included here can be found at the following sites: Wayne Hally’s and Mark Davis’s NAMN Notes, and the International Meteor Organization’s 2010 Meteor Shower Calendar.

Comets

Naked Eye Comets (V < 6.0)

Comet C/2009 R1 (McNaught)

Comet C/2009 R1 (McNaught) will be a bright binocular comet and probably even a faint naked eye comet for observers under dark skies. Observations made over the past few weeks shows this comet to be rapidly brightening. By the start of June, the comet should be around magnitude 6.5 to 7.0. By mid-month, it will have brightened to magnitude 5.0 and maybe even 4.0. By the end of the month, it will be a bright magnitude 4.0 and perhaps brighter. The lightcurve below shows 3 possible brightness trends that the comet could follow. Though the red curve which shows a peak brightness of magnitude 2 would be nice it is most likely the comet will follow one of the fainter curves and peak at magnitude ~4.

Visual magnitude estimates for C/2009 R1 (as of May 27). Created with COMET. Credit: Carl Hergenrother.

The comet is a morning object and is only visible for an hour or so before the start of dawn. By the end of the month the comet can also be glimpsed in the evening. As the month progresses the comet will become harder to see as it moves closer to the Sun. Observers will need a clear NE (or NW in the evening later in the month) horizon to see the comet. Fourth magnitude is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye under dark conditions. Unfortunately the majority of  us live under bright, murky skies so binoculars will be required to see the comet for most people. The fact that the comet will set will twilight is still bright surely doesn’t help either. Currently the comet is located in Andromeda but it will quickly move through that constellation as well as Perseus and Auriga.

Still inbound, perihelion will occur on July 2nd of this year at a relatively small distance of 0.41 AU from the Sun. This month it will be 0.88 AU from the Sun and 1.26 AU from Earth on June 1st, 0.61 AU from the Sun and 1.14 AU from Earth on the 15th, and 0.41 AU from the Sun and 1.26 AU from Earth on the 30th.

Orbits and position of Comet C/2009 R1 and the planets for June 15, 2010. Image created with C2A. Credit: Carl Hergenrother.

A finder chart for Comet McNaught can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Binocular Comets (V = 6.0 – 8.0)

None

Small Telescope Comets (V = 8.0 – 10.0)

Comet C/2009 K5 (McNaught)

The 2nd ‘Comet McNaught’  is Comet C/2009 K5 (McNaught). It was discovered on May 27, 2009 deep in the southern sky. Similar to C/2009 R1, this comet was also found with the Uppsala schmidt at around magnitude 17.

With perihelion on April 30 of this year at a distance of 1.42 AU from the Sun, C/2009 K5 is still bright enough to be seen in small backyard telescopes from dark sites.   At mid-month it will be located 1.57 AU from the Sun and 2.05 AU from Earth.

Visual magnitude estimates for C/2009 K5 (as of May 30). Created with COMET. Credit: Carl Hergenrother.

Observations over the past 2 months show the comet to be around magnitude 8.0 to 8.5. With the comet in full retreat from the Sun and Earth, it should fade from here on out. The comet will start the month between 8.0 and 8.5 but should fade to around 9.0 by the end of the month. Due to its located in the far northern constellation of Camelopardalis, the comet can be seen at all hours of the night from northern latitudes. It is best in the evening right after the end of twilight.

Orbits and position of Comet C/2009 K5 and the planets for June 15, 2010. Image created with C2A. Credit: Carl Hergenrother.

A finder chart for Comet McNaught can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 9.0)

(4) Vesta

Vesta is the brightest asteroid in the Main Belt. This is due to its high albedo (or reflectivity) which causes it to reflect ~42% of the light that strikes it. Vesta is also peculiar in that it appears to have evidence of volcanism on its surface. Similar to the Moon, Vesta may be covered with large expanses of frozen lava flows. It is classified as a V-type asteroid and is the only large asteroid with this classification. Many of the smaller V-type asteroids are chips of Vesta blasted off it by past asteroid and comet impacts. Vesta has dimensions of 347x336x275 miles or 578×560×458 km.

The maps below were created from images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. The geography is dominated by a large impact crater located near the south pole (the blue ‘donut’ in the elevation map). Perhaps this crater is the result of the impact that blasted off the smaller V-type asteroids. We’ll know more next year when NASA’s Dawn spacecraft enters orbit around Vesta for a full year. Currently the encounter is scheduled for July 2011 to July 2012.

Images and models of the shape of asteroid (4) Vesta. In the upper left is a real HST image, to the upper right is a model of Vesta’s shape, and on the bottom is an elevation map . Credit: NASA/STScI.

Vesta starts the month at magnitude 7.7 and steadily fades to mag 7.9. A pair of binoculars will allow you to see Vesta among the stars of Leo.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Vesta from Heavens Above.

(1) Ceres

Ceres is the biggest asteroid in the Main Belt with a diameter of 585 miles or 975 km. It is so big that it is now considered a Dwarf Planet. Classified as a carbonaceous (carbon-rich) Cg-type asteroid, there are suggestions that it may be rich in volatile material such as water. Some even propose that an ocean exists below its surface. Ceres is the other target of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which is scheduled to visit it in 2015.

Image of Ceres taken with the NASA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Parker (Southwest Research Institute), P. Thomas (Cornell University), and L. McFadden (University of Maryland, College Park)

This month Ceres will be at opposition and brightest. The asteroid will start the month at magnitude 7.5, brighten to magnitude 7.1 at opposition of June 19, and then fade to magnitude 7.4 by the end of the month. All month long it will be retrograding on the border of Sagittarius and Ophiuchus.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Ceres from Heavens Above.

In The Sky This Month – June 2009

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of June 2009.

Note: If anyone has pictures or observations of these objects/events and want to share them, send me a comment. I’ll post them here.

Planets

Mercury - Mercury will be a morning object during June. Though it will be best placed for observation around the date of June 20, it will be visible for a week after that date. In fact, the planet will be slowly brightening during the time, so later dates may be easier for observing this elusive planet. Mercury can be seen very low in ENE sky right before dawn. It is better placed (higher in the sky) for southern hemisphere observers.

Saturn – Saturn is the easiest planet to observe in June. By the end of twilight, Saturn is high in the southwest under the eastern part of the constellation of Leo.

This year Saturn is dimmer than usual. At magnitude +0.9 to +1.0, there are at least a dozen or more stars that are brighter than it. The reason is the rings of Saturn contribute a lot  to the brightness of Saturn. But this year, is a ring plane crossing year meaning that the rings are nearly edge-on. As a result, the rings are reflecting much less light in the Earth’s direction this year. Saturn’s appearance through a telescope closely matches the below image taken on April 23. In June, the rings will be even closer to edge on then they were in the image below.

The Moon will pass a relatively distant 5.8 degrees to the south of Saturn on the evening of June 27.

Jupiter and Neptune - Jupiter rises in the middle of the night. Other than Venus, it is the brightest “star” at dawn with a  magnitude of -2.5 to -2.7. Due to Jupiter’s location in the southern constellation of Capricornus , it never gets very high this year.

For those with a telescope or binoculars and a dark sky, Neptune is located within 1/2 to 3/4 degrees of Jupiter. Jupiter will be a bright magnitude -2.5 to -2.7 while Neptune will be a faint +7.9. That makes Jupiter nearly ~12,000 times brighter than Neptune. Even Jupiter’s 4 large Galilean moons are about a dozen times brighter than Neptune even though they are much smaller. The big reason for the faintness of Neptune is its distance from both the Earth and Sun. It is roughly 6 times further away from us and the Sun as Jupiter. The distance also explains its apparent small size of 2.3″. A good sized telescope will be required to see Neptune as anything other than a faint star.

Though Neptune wasn’t discovered until 1846, it was actually observed by Galileo on two occasions in 1612 and 1613. Similar to this month’s circumstances, Jupiter was passing very close to Neptune. Galileo observed and recorded Neptune as a star in the vicinity of Jupiter. There is also evidence that he noticed that Neptune had moved but didn’t follow up on it. So when you observe these 2 planets imagine what Galileo must have been thinking nearly 400 years ago.

Uranus – Uranus is located in western Pisces. It is bright enough to be seen in small binoculars at magnitude +5.8 but will still require a telescope in order to see it as anything other than a star (it’s disk is only 3.5″ across).

Venus - Venus continues to slowly climb higher every night. It is currently a morning object and is best seen an hour before sunrise low in the eastern sky. For Southern Hemisphere observers, it is near its highest above the horizon for this apparition. For Northern observers, Venus will continue to climb higher until early August.

For binocular and telescope users, Venus will start the month as a “half moon”, 25″ across and 47% illuminated. By the end of the month, it will have shrunk to 19″ across but will also have a gibbous phase illuminated at 61%.

Mars – Mars can be seen very low in the eastern sky all month long. At magnitude +1.1, it is only as bright as some of the brighter stars. Mars and Venus are located within 5 degrees of each other all month. Closest approach will occur on June 21 when Mars will pass within 2 degrees of Venus. The two will steadily move apart for the rest of the year.

Meteors

The month of June experiences no major showers and only one minor one.  June is the last relatively low activity month before the “fireworks” of summer.

Sporadic Meteors

Sporadic meteors are not part of any known meteor shower. They represent the background flux of meteors. Except for the few days per year when a major shower is active, most meteors that are observed are Sporadics. This is especially true for meteors observed during the evening. During June, 8 or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

None

Minor Meteor Showers

Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors.

June Bootids (JBO)

The June Bootids are usually a very minor shower with very low rates, if any meteors,  seen in most years. On occasion the shower has put on good displays with as many as 50-100+ meteors per hour seen in 1998. Other years of enhanced activity include 1916, 1921, 1927 and 2004 when up to 30 meteors per hour were seen. The next predicted year for enhanced activity is next June in 2010. Though the shower is expected to be minor this year, the models aren’t perfect and anything can happen. Though active from June 22 to July 2, the peak night is June 27.

The parent of the June Bootids is the Jupiter family comet 7P/Pons-Winnecke. This comet was first seen by Jean-Louis Pons of Marsielles, France on 1819 June 12. Though it was recognized as a short period comet, a rarity at the time, it was lost until rediscovered by Friedrich Winnecke (Bonn, Germany) in 1858. Since then the comet has been observed at nearly every return including 3 returns when the comet passed exceptionally close to Earth (0.14 AU in 1921, 0.04 AU in 1927, and 0.11 AU in 1939). During the 1927 close approach the comet was bright enough to be an easy naked eye object. Since then the orbit of the comet has changed and moved further from the Sun and Earth. As a result, close approaches to Earth will not be possible until the comet’s orbit moves back closer to Earth’s around 2045.

Comets

Naked Eye Comets (V < 6.0)

None

Binocular Comets (V = 6.0 – 8.0)

Comet C/2008 Q3 (Garradd)

This is the surprise comet of the summer. From time to time what appears to be a faint run-of-the-mill comet will undergo an outburst and brighten substantially. This is the case with Comet Garradd which was discovered by Gordon Garradd of the Siding Spring Survey (Australia). He used the 0.5-m Uppsala schmidt telescope to discover this comet back on 2008 August 27.

The comet was a faint 19th magnitude at discovery. With perihelion expected on 2009 June 23 at 1.80 AU from the Sun, it was expected to brighten but only to about 12th-14th magnitude. Two weeks ago the comet was sitting at 15th magnitude. Bright enough for CCD imaging but too faint for nearly all visual observers. On April 20th Micheal Jager imaged the comet and found it too be much brighter. Over the next few days, visual observers were able to confirm the outburst and estimated the comet to be as bright as magnitude 8.9.

Now more than a month after its outburst, the comet continues to brighten and has recently been estimated at magnitude 7.2. With perihelion this month, the comet should be as bright as it gets though one never knows with outburst comets.

At the start of the month, the comet is located in the far southern constellation of Circinus. As a result, it is only observable from the Southern Hemisphere. This quickly changes as the comet rockets to the north and becomes visible for most northern observers by mid-month. The comet travels from Circinus through Centaurus and Hydra before ending the month in Corvus.

A finder chart for Comet Garradd can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Small Telescope Comets (V = 8.0 – 10.0)

Comet C/2008 T2 (Cardinal)

Rob Cardinal, an astronomer at the University of Calgary in Canada, discovered this comet last October. The comet was discovered as part of a survey at  the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory for new Near-Earth asteroids at high declinations. In fact the comet was found within 10 degrees of the North celestial pole. At the time of discovery, the comet was ~14th magnitude.

At perihelion on June 13th, the comet will pass within 1.20 AU of the Sun. The comet is currently magnitude 8.5 as it moves south from Gemini into Canis Minor in the evening sky. For northern observers, this comet is getting hard to see and requires a clear and dark western horizon right after dusk. It is easier to see for southern observers where it will be located higher in the sky. After the first week or 2 of June, the comet will no longer be observable from the Northern Hemisphere.

A finder chart for Comet Cardinal can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet C/2006 W3 (Christensen)

This comet was discovered over 2 years ago on 2006 November 18 by Eric Christensen of the Catalina Sky Survey north of Tucson. At the time the comet was located at 8.7 AU from the Sun which is nearly the distance of Saturn. The comet continues to move closer to the Sun and Earth and is currently 3.8 AU from the Sun and 3.4 AU from the Earth.

The comet is currently around magnitude 8.8 and will slowly brighten during the month.  It is moving near the border of Lacerta and Pegasus.  The comet is best seen in the early morning.

The comet will reach perihelion at a still rather distant 3.12 AU from the Sun on 2009 July 6. At that time, the comet will be 8th magnitude and visible in many smaller backyard telescopes and even binoculars from dark sites. Christensen should remain bright enough to see in modest sized backyard telescopes for all of 2009.

On the morning of April 21, I was able to observe this comet with both 30×125 binoculars and a 12″ dobsonian. The comet was much easier to see in the 12″. Observation was made under a moderately light polluted sky with a limiting mag of ~+5.5.

A finder chart for Comet Christensen can be found at Comet Chasing and Aktuelle Kometen (in German).

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet C/2009 G1 (STEREO)

Jiangao Ruan of China found this comet on images taken by the SECCHI HI-1B instrument onboard one of the STEREO spacecraft. The comet was first visible on images taken on April 3 UT. Similar to SOHO (a spacecraft that was used to co-discover Comet C/2009 F6 (Yi-Swan)), the two STEREO spacecraft study the Sun and its immediate environment.

With perihelion on April 16 at 1.13 AU from the Sun, the comet is now moving away from the Sun. It is also moving away from the Earth and should slowly fade during the course of the month.

The comet starts the month the far southern constellation of Phoenix and will only travel further south reaching Pictor by month’s end . It was never an easy object for northern observers and is now only observable from southern latitudes.

A finder chart for Comet Christensen can be found at Comet Chasing and Aktuelle Kometen (in German).

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

22P/Kopff

All of the above comets are long-period comets which will not return to the inner Solar System in thousands to millions of years. Comet Kopff is a frequent visitor with an orbital period of 6.4 years. Discovered on 1906 August 20 by August Kopff of Germany, the comet has been observed during every subsequent return except one.

The comet reached perihelion at 1.58 AU from the Sun on May 25. Though now moving away from the Sun, the comet still moving closer to Earth and will be located 0.78 AU from us at the end of the month. Recent observations place the comet at magnitude 9.0 which is about as bright as it will get this apparition. The comet starts June in Capricornus north of Jupiter. For most of the month, Kopff is movng eastward through Aquarius.

A finder chart for Comet Kopff can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 10.0)

(1) Ceres

Ceres is the biggest asteroid in the Main Belt with a diameter of 585 miles or 975 km. It is so big that it is now considered a Dwarf Planet. Classified as a carbonaceous (carbon-rich) Cg-type asteroid, there are suggestions that it may be rich in volatile material such as water. Some even propose that an ocean exists below its surface. Ceres is one of two targets for NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which is scheduled to visit it in 2015. This month Ceres fades from from magnitude 8.4 to 8.7 as it moves through eastern Leo in the evening sky. If you are observing Saturn with a telescope or pair of binoculars, try your hand at finding Ceres with one of the finder charts linked below.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Ceres from Heavens Above.

(7) Iris

Iris is an inner Main-Belt asteroid that can occassionally get as bright as any asteroid. This year, Iris will not get as bright but will still become a binocular object (albeit a difficult one) at opposition on July 4 at magnitude 8.7. During June, it is located in the constellation of Sagittarius at magnitude 9.7 at the start of the month and magnitude 8.8 at the end.

With a size of 240 x 200 x 200 km, Iris is the 5th largest stoney S-type asteroid. It was discovered in 1847 by John Russel Hind, the 1st of 10 asteroids he discovered.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Ceres from Heavens Above.

In The Sky This Month – 2009 April

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of April 2009. The month sees the return of the borderline major meteor shower, the Lyrids. The highlight of the month is the lunar occultation of Venus right before dawn on April 22.

Note: If anyone has pictures or observations of these objects/events and want to share them, send me a comment. I’ll post them here.

Planets

Mercury - This month brings us the best opportunity of the year to observe Mercury in the evening sky (for Northern Hemisphere observers). Mercury will be at its highest on April 26, though even then it will be low in the western sky 30-60 minutes after sunset.

The Moon will also located just above Mercury on the evening of April 26. The image below shows what the scene will look like from North America. Note that the Pleiades open star cluster will be located between Mercury and the Moon. It will be a great sight via your eye or binoculars. In a telescope, Mercury will appear as a fat crescent with ~36% of its disk illuminated.

mercury_moon_apr26

Map of the Moon-Mercury-Pleiades conjunction on the evening of April 26. Map made with Stellarium.

Saturn – Saturn is the only planet visible in the evening sky. By the end of twilight, Saturn is high in the southeast under the eastern part of the constellation of Leo.

This year Saturn is dimmer than usual. At magnitude +0.6 to +0.7, there are at least 11 stars that are brighter than it. The reason is that the rings of Saturn contribute a lot  to the brightness of Saturn. But this year, is a ring plane crossing year meaning that the rings are nearly edge-on. As a result, the rings are reflecting much less light in the Earth’s direction this year. Saturn’s appearance through a telescope will match the below image taken by Bob Lunsford on March 28. Note the small dark spot near the top edge of Saturn’s disk, this is a shadow cast by Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

saturn_20090328_1007_lunsford

Image of Saturn by Bob Lunsford from 2009 March 28. Titan's shadow seen near top.

The Moon will pass a relatively distant 5.5 degrees to the south of Saturn on the evening of April 6.

Venus - After spending the past few months dominating the evening sky, Venus will now spend the rest of the year as a morning object. If you live south of the Equator, Venus will appear to rocket higher and higher every morning. In fact it should be an easy sight by the 2nd week of April if you have a clear eastern horizon. Venus will reach its highest in late May.

For those of us north of the Equator, Venus will take a little longer to gain altitude. Though it is already visible for observers with a clear eastern horizon, Venus will slowly climb higher every night. For  northern observers, Venus won’t reach its highest till August. Regardless of where you are observing, Venus will be at its brightest on April 29 though it is always a very bright object.

For binocular and telescope users, Venus will start the month as a large thin crescent, 59″ across and only ~2% illuminated. By mid-month, it will have shrunk to ~50″ across but it will also become a fatter crescent with ~12% of the disk illuminated. By the end of the month, it is 39″ across and 25% illuminated

Venus is also involved in the coolest event of the month. On the morning of April 22, the Moon will occult (or pass in front) of Venus for observers in most of North America. The below map from the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA) shows where the occultation will be visible. Times for the beginning and end of the occultation can be found at IOTA’s site. I’ll write more about this as the date draws closer.

0422venus1

The following diagram gives a good representation of what the occultation will look like right before the Moon passes in front of Venus on the morning of April 22. Note that Mars will be located nearby as well. For those with binoculars or a telescope, Venus will appear as a thin crescent similar to, but much smaller than, the Moon.

venus_moon_mars_april22

The Moon, Venus and Mars just before the start of the occulatation of Venus on the morning of April 22. Sky map produced with Stellarium.

Jupiter - Jupiter rises a few hours before sunrise. Other than Venus, it is the brightest “star” in the morning sky at magnitude -2.2. Due to Jupiter’s location in the southern constellation of Capricornus , it never gets very high this year.

Mars – Mars can be seen very low in the eastern sky all month long. At magnitude +1.2, it is only as bright as some of the brighter stars. Venus will pass a distant 5.5 degrees to the north of Mars on April 24. As a result, Mars will be located just below the spectacular Moon-Venus occultation.

Meteors

The month of March experiences no major showers and only a few minor ones. It continues the annual lull in meteor activity from mid-January to mid-April.

Sporadic Meteors

Sporadic meteors are not part of any known meteor shower. They represent the background flux of meteors. Except for the few days per year when a major shower is active, most meteors that are observed are Sporadics. This is especially true for meteors observed during the evening. During April, 8 or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

Lyrids (LYR)

April brings the first major meteor shower since the Quadrantids in early January. The Lyrids are produced by Comet Thatcher, a comet on a ~400 years orbit that has only been observed in 1861. The Lyrids, on the other hand, can be seen every year.

The radiant is located between the constellations of Lyra and Hercules. Though the radiant rises during the evening, the best time to see Lyrids is after 11 pm when the radiant is high in the sky.

The shower is active from April 16 to 25 with a peak on the morning of April 22. The shower only shows good levels of activity on the night of the peak. Even then, this is the most minor of the major showers with a peak rate of ~15-25 meteors per hour.

Though there are no predictions on enhanced activity, the Lyrids have been known to put on grand displays. The 1st great display goes back almost 25oo years while the last happened in 1982. So you never know, this year could be the next good display.

Minor Meteor Showers

Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors.

Pi Puppids (PPI)

The Pi Puppids are usually a very low activity shower. In 1977 and 1982, the shower put on a good display with up to 60 meteors per hour being observed. This shower radiates from the far southern constellation of Puppis and can not be seen from most of North America and Europe.

We now know that the Pi Puppids are created by Comet 26P/Grigg-Skjellerup. P/G-S is a small Jupiter family comet that orbits the Sun once every 5.3 years.

There are no predictions for enhanced material this year. The shower is active from April 15-28 with a peak on April 23. At its best we should expect 1-2 meteors per hour with even that number being optimistic for northern observers.

Eta Aquarids (ETA)

The Eta Aquarids are a major shower, especially for southern hemisphere observers, when they peak on May 5. During the month of April, the shower can be considered a minor shower.

The ETA were produced by Comet Halley which also gives us the Orionids in October. Models suggest that the ETA were released by Comet Halley no later than 837 AD. The Orionids are easy to see because the particles are hitting the Earth from the anti-solar direction. This means the meteor shower can be seen in the middle of the night. The ETA are produced by meteoroids moving outbound from the Sun, as a result the radiant is located relatively close to the Sun. This means that the ETA radiant is only visible for an hour or so before twilight.

The shower spans from April 19 to May 28 with a peak around May 5 with a maximum ZHR of ~60. The last week of April will see some low activity (ZHR < 10) from the ETAs.

Additional information on these showers and other minor showers not included here can be found at the following sites: Robert Lunsford’s Meteor Activity Outlook, Wayne Hally’s and Mark Davis’s NAMN Notes, and the International Meteor Organization’s 2008 Meteor Shower Calendar.

Comets

Naked Eye Comets (V < 6.0)

None

Binocular Comets (V < 8.0)

None

Small Telescope Comets (V < 10.0)

Comet C/2009 E1 (Itagaki)

This recently discovered comet was found by amateur astronomer Koichi Itagaki of Yamagata, Japan. Comet C/2009 E1 (Itagaki) is a long-period comet which will come within 0.60 AU of the Sun at perihelion on April 7. It is also periodic in that it returns once every ~250 years according to the latest orbit.

This is the 1st comet to bear Koichi Itagaki’s name but it is not his 1st discovery. Back in 1968, he was a co-discoverer of Comet Tago-Honda-Yamamoto. Due to the rule that only the 1st 3 discoverers can have their name attached to a comet, his name was left off. Only a few months ago, he also re-discovered long-lost comet Giacobini.

The comet is located in the evening sky north of the constellation of Aries. As the month progresses the comet will move north of the Sun as it travels through Triangulum, northern Pisces and Andromeda. Only observers with a clear view of the northwestern horizon in the evening and northeastern horizon in the morning will be able to see the comet. By May the comet will only be visible in the morning sky and will be much easier to see.

At magnitude ~8.0 to 8.5, the comet is bright enough to be seen in a reasonably sized backyard telescope. Having said that, I was just barely able to see it from my backyard in Tucson with my 12″ telescope due to the city lights and the bright twilight.

A finder chart for Comet Itagaki can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany).

Comet C/2009 F6 (Yi-SWAN)

A new comet has been discovered that should be the brightest comet in the sky this month. Comet C/2009 F6 (Yi-SWAN) is a long-period comet which will pass within 1.27 AU of the Sun on May 8. The comet is currently around magnitude 8.5 making it bright enough to be seen in small telescopes. Right now the nearly Full Moon will make observing the comet difficult but in a few days the Moon will not be a problem for evening observers. The comet is located north of the Sun. For southern hemisphere observers, you are out of luck. For northern observers, the comet can be observed in both the evening and morning sky.

Currently the comet is located in Cassiopeia. It is moving to the east and will enter Perseus by mid-month. The comet should continue to brighten as it approaches perihelion and may be as bright as magnitude 8.0.

On the morning of April 21, I was able to observe Yi-SWAN with 30×125 binoculars. My observing location isn’t too dark with a limiting magnitude of ~+5.5. Even then, the summer Milky Way was faintly visible. The comet was barely visible as it was large and diffuse. Interestingly, the comet was not visible during multiple attempts to observe it during the evening hours. The darker morning sky most definitely helped.

yi-swan4

The comet was found by Dae-am Yi of Yeongwol-kun, Gangwon-do, South Korea on March 26. He noticed the obvious blue-green glow of a comet on 2 images he took with a Canon 5D digital camera and a 90-mm f/2.8 lens. The other discoverer was Robert Matson of Irvine, CA. Mr. Matson found the comet on a series of images taken with the SWAN instrument on the SOHO (Solar Heliospheric Observatory) spacecraft starting on March 29. The SWAN insturment images the entire sky for solar Lyman-alpha particles that are backscattered off of neutral hydrogen atoms. In this way, SWAN can monitor the activity of the far-side of the Sun. This instrument is also excellent at detecting the glow of hydrogan in the extended coma of comets.

Comet C/2007 N3 (Lulin)

Comet Lulin was discovered by the Lulin Sky Survey in Taiwan on 2007 July 11. At the time the comet was located beyond the orbit of Jupiter. The comet will be closest to the Sun on 2009 January 10 at 1.21 AU from the Sun. It will be closest to Earth in late-February when it will be only 0.41 AU from us.

The comet is fading after its closest approach to Earth in late February. It is a evening object and spends all of April moving westward through western Gemini. The comet starts the month around magnitude 8.5 and should fade to magnitude 10.0 or fainter by the end of the month.

A finder chart for Comet Lulin can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet C/2006 W3 (Christensen)

This comet was discovered over 2 years ago on 2006 November 18 by Eric Christensen of the Catalina Sky Survey north of Tucson. At the time the comet was located at 8.7 AU from the Sun which is nearly the distance of Saturn. The comet continues to move closer to the Sun and Earth and is currently 3.8 AU from the Sun and 3.4 AU from the Earth.

The comet is currently around magnitude 9.5 and will slowly brighten during the month.  It is moving near the border of Lacerta and Pegasus.  The comet is best seen in the early morning. I was able to observe the comet visually with my backyard 12″ reflecting telescope back in November. Being small and condensed, the comet was fairly easy to see.

The comet will continue to brighten as it approaches perihelion at a still rather distant 3.12 AU from the Sun on 2009 July 6. At that time, the comet will be 8th magnitude and visible in many smaller backyard telescopes and even binoculars from dark sites. Christensen should remain bright enough to see in modest sized backyard telescopes for all of 2009.

On the morning of April 21, I was able to observe this comet with both 30×125 binoculars and a 12″ dobsonian. The comet was much easier to see in the 12″. Observation was made under a moderately light polluted sky with a limiting mag of ~+5.5.

A finder chart for Comet Christensen can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 10.0)

(1) Ceres

Ceres is the biggest asteroid in the Main Belt with a diameter of 585 miles or 975 km. It is so big that it is now considered a Dwarf Planet. Classified as a carbonaceous (carbon-rich) Cg-type asteroid, there are suggestions that it may be rich in volatile material such as water. Some even propose that an ocean exists below its surface. Ceres is one of two targets for NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which is scheduled to visit it in 2015. Last month Ceres was at opposition (at its closest to the Earth and at its brightest). This month Ceres will fade from from magnitude 7.4 to 8.0 as it ends is retrograde motion just north of Leo. If you are observing Saturn with a telescope or pair of binoculars, try your hand at finding Ceres with one of the finder charts linked below.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Ceres from Heavens Above.

(2) Pallas

Pallas is also a carbonaceous asteroid though with a slightly bluish B-type spectrum. Due to its high inclination (tilt of its orbit with respect to Earth’s orbit) of 34 degrees it is a difficult target for future spacecraft missions. Pallas is large with dimensions of 350x334x301 miles or 582x556x501 km. This month it continues moving north, leaving the constellation of Orion and entering Monoceros. It fades from  magnitude 8.7 to 8.9 over the course of the month.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Pallas from Heavens Above.

(8) Flora

Flora is a large asteroid roughly 136x136x113 km in dimension. It is innermost large asteroid in the Main Belt. As a result, it can get bright enough for backyard observers with modest sized telescopes and binoculars. Flora is a stoney S-type asteroid and also the largest member of the Flora family. This family was created when a large impact occured on Flora. The other family members are pieces of Flora that were thrown off by the impact.

Flora starts the month at magnitude 10.0. It reaches its maximum brightness on April 22 at magnitude 9.8. By the end of the month, it has slightly faded to 9.9. Flora and Irene provide us with a 2-for since both objects are located within 5 degrees of each other.

Since there I have not been able to find a nice star chart showing the position of Flora, here is one I made with the C2A program. It also shows the position of Irene.

flora_irene_april

(14) Irene

Irene was discovered by John Russel Hind in 1851, being only the 14th asteroid known at the time (if you are wondering ~400,000 asteroids have been discovered to date, we’ve come a long way). It is an S-type asteroid with a stoney or silicate composition. Its takes 6.3 years to orbit the Sun.

This month Irene will brighten from magnitude 9.2 to a maximum of 8.9 on April 24 as it retrogrades through western Virgo. Remember Flora is located within 5 degrees of Irene.

(15) Eunomia

Discovered in 1851, Eunomia is one of the largest stoney S-type asteroids. Its dimensions are roughly 357×255×212 km. Similar to Flora, Eunomia is also the parent body of its own family.

Eunomia spends all of April in the constellation of Corvus, just to the south of Virgo. With opposition on April 2, the asteroid is as bright as it’s going to get this year at magnitude 9.8. As the month progresses it will fade to 10.0. This year Eunomia is at aphelion, its furthest from the Sun making this one of its faintest oppositions. When at perihelion, it can get as bright as magnitude ~8.

Since there I have not been able to find a nice star chart showing the position of Eunomia, here is one I made with the C2A program.

eunomia_april

(29) Amphitrite

Discovered in 1854, Amphitrite was the 29th asteroid to be discovered. Similar to Euterpe, Amphitrite is also a stoney S-type asteroid. With an average diameter of  127 miles (212 km) it is bigger than Euterpe though its further distance from the Earth and Sun keeps it from getting as bright.

Amphitrite fades from magnitude 9.5 to 10.1 this month. It spends the entire month in eastern Virgo not far from Saturn. If you are observing Saturn, take a short star-hopping trip to Amphitrite

Since there I have not been able to find a nice star chart showing the position of Amphitrie, here is one I made with the C2A program.

amphitrite_april

In The Sky This Month – March 2009

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of March 2009. This month sees the end to Venus’ reign over the evening sky. Also Comet Lulin should continue to be bright enough for easy evening observation.

Note: If anyone has pictures or observations of these objects/events and want to share them, send me a comment. I’ll post them here.

Planets

Venus has been putting on quite a display for the past few months in the evening sky. Unfortunately, the show comes to an end this month. At the beginning of the month, Venus is still riding high in the western sky after sunset. As the month progresses, it will appear lower and lower in the sky. Most people will have a hard time seeing it by mid-month. On March 27, Venus will pass between closest to the Sun. After that date, it will become a morning object. Early hour risers will witness Venus in all of its glory for most of the rest of the year.

venussaturn_200902261

This month Saturn will at opposition. The exact date being March 8. Opposition is when a planet (or comet or asteroid) is located opposite the direction of the Sun. On this date, Saturn will be closest to Earth and at its brightest. It rises at sunset and by 9pm is high enough to be easily seen. Even at its brightest, Saturn is not as brilliant as Venus or Jupiter. Still at magnitude +0.5, it is brighter than all but the 9 or 10 brightest stars.

saturn_allsky_09452

The evening sky for March 15 at 9:45 pm. Chart produced with the Stellarium planetarium program.

This opposition is actually one of Saturn’s dimmest. The reason is that the rings of Saturn contribute a lot  to the brightness of Saturn. But this year, is a ring plane crossing year meaning that the rings are nearly edge-on. As a result, the rings are reflecting much less light in the Earth’s direction this year.

Jupiter and Mars are located near each other low in the early morning sky. As the month progresses Jupiter will become easier and easier to see. At magnitude -2.1, Jupiter is brighter than any star in the sky.  Mars on the other hand will only be visible to those with a clear view of the southeastern horizon. At magnitude 1.2, Mars would just crack the Top 20 in brightest stars in the sky.

march_sunrise

Early morning sky right before dawn on March 15. (produced with Stellarium)

Mercury is still visible low in the east just before dawn. Due to the angle of the ecliptic with the morning eastern horizon this month, Mercury is a very difficult object to observe from the Northern Hemisphere but an easy object from the Southern Hemisphere. It will be lost to Northern observers a few days into the month. Southern observers will be able to follow it till a bit past mid-month.

Meteors

The month of March experiences no major showers and only a few minor ones. It continues the annual lull in meteor activity from mid-January to mid-April.

Sporadic Meteors

Sporadic meteors are not part of any known meteor shower. They represent the background flux of meteors. Except for the few days per year when a major shower is active, most meteors that are observed are Sporadics. This is especially true for meteors observed during the evening. During November, six (6) or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

None.

Minor Meteor Showers

Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors.

Delta Leonids (DLE)

The Delta Leonids are another minor shower with a period of activity from February 15 to March 10. Near its February 25 peak, rates may reach a paltry 2 per hour.

Gamma Normids (GNO)

This shower is best from the Southern Hemisphere since it radiates from the southern constellation of Norma. Observers north of +40 deg North will not be able to see any GNOs. Then again it is such a minor shower that there is doubt whether it even exists!

The shower spans from Feb 25 to March 22 with a peak around March 13 with a maximum ZHR of 4.

Additional information on these showers and other minor showers not included here can be found at the following sites: Robert Lunsford’s Meteor Activity Outlook, Wayne Hally’s and Mark Davis’s NAMN Notes, and the International Meteor Organization’s 2008 Meteor Shower Calendar.

Comets

Naked Eye Comets (V < 6.0)

Comet Lulin starts the month as a barely naked eye comet at magnitude 5. More on this comet can be found in the next section.

Binocular Comets (V < 8.0)

Comet C/2007 N3 (Lulin)

Comet Lulin was discovered by the Lulin Sky Survey in Taiwan on 2007 July 11. At the time the comet was located beyond the orbit of Jupiter. The comet will be closest to the Sun on 2009 January 10 at 1.21 AU from the Sun. It will be closest to Earth in late-February when it will be only 0.41 AU from us.

The comet is currently around magnitude 5.2 which makes it an easy object for binoculars and small telescopes from a dark sky. From a dark rural moon-less sky, it can even be seen with the naked eye. Over the course of the month, the comet will fade from naked eye view but still be bright enough for binocs/small telescopes. By the end of the month, Lulin will be close to 7th magnitude.

After a few months as a morning object, Lulin spends all of March visible in the evening. Due to its retrograde orbit, the comet is moving in almost the exact opposite direction as the Earth. As a result, it is rapidly moving to the west every night. Over the course of the month, Lulin will start the month in western Leo, cross Cancer and end in the middle of Gemini.

A finder chart for Comet Lulin can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Small Telescope Comets (V < 10.0)

Comet C/2006 W3 (Christensen)

This comet was discovered over 2 years ago on 2006 November 18 by Eric Christensen of the Catalina Sky Survey north of Tucson. At the time the comet was located at 8.7 AU from the Sun which is nearly the distance of Saturn. The comet continues to move closer to the Sun and Earth and is currently 3.8 AU from the Sun and 3.4 AU from the Earth.

The comet is currently around magnitude 9.7 and will slowly brighten during the month.  It is moving near the border of Lacerta and Pegasus.  The comet is best seen in the early morning. I was able to observe the comet visually with my backyard 12″ reflecting telescope in November. Being small and condensed, the comet was fairly easy to see.

The comet will continue to brighten as it approaches perihelion at a still rather distant 3.12 AU from the Sun on 2009 July 6. At that time, the comet will be 8th magnitude and visible in many smaller backyard telescopes and even binoculars from dark sites. Christensen should remain bright enough to see in modest sized backyard telescopes for all of 2009.

A finder chart for Comet Christensen can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet 144P/Kushida

Comet Kushida was discovered by Japanese amateur astronomer Yoshio Kushida back on 1994 January 8. With an orbital period of 7.6 years, this year marks its 3rd appearance since discovery.

The comet was not expected to get brighter than magnitude 10 or 11 but recently observers have estimated it is as bright as magnitude 9.1. With perihelion this January 26 at 1.44 AU from the Sun, the comet should start to rapidly fade. The comet starts the month near the border of Taurus and Orion before moving across the “club” of Orion and into Gemini.

A finder chart for Comet Kushida can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 10.0)

(1) Ceres

Ceres is the biggest asteroid in the Main Belt with a diameter of 585 miles or 975 km. It is so big that it is now considered a Dwarf Planet. Classified as a carbonaceous (carbon-rich) Cg-type asteroid, there are suggestions that it may be rich in volatile material such as water. Some even propose that an ocean exists below its surface. Ceres is one of two targets for NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which is scheduled to visit it in 2015. Last month Ceres was at opposition (at its closest to the Earth and at its brightest). This month Ceres will fade from from magnitude 6.9 to 7.4 as it moves into Leo Minor, just north of Leo. If you are observing Saturn with a telescope or pair of binoculars, try your hand at finding Ceres with one of the finder charts linked below.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Ceres from Heavens Above.

(2) Pallas

Pallas is also a carbonaceous asteroid though with a slightly bluish B-type spectrum. Due to its high inclination (tilt of its orbit with respect to Earth’s orbit) of 34 degrees it is a difficult target for future spacecraft missions. Pallas is large with dimensions of 350x334x301 miles or 582x556x501 km. This month it continues moving north, leaving the constellation of Lepus and entering southern Orion. It fades from  magnitude 8.4 to 8.7 over the course of the month.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Pallas from Heavens Above.

(4) Vesta

Though not as large as Ceres, Vesta is more reflective making it the brightest asteroid in the Main Belt. Vesta is peculiar in that it appears to have evidence of volcanism on its surface. Similar to the Moon, Vesta may be covered with large expanses of frozen lava flows. It is classified as a V-type asteroid and is the only large asteroid with this classification. Many of the smaller V-type asteroids are chips of Vesta blasted off it by past asteroid and comet impacts. Vesta is similar in size to Pallas with dimensions of 347x336x275 miles or 578×560×458 km. Vesta will also be visited by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which will arrive in 2010. On October 30, Vesta was at opposition (directly opposite from the Sun in the sky) and at its brightest. This month Vesta is an evening object moving through Aries before entering Taurus near the end of the month. It will fade from magnitude 8.3 to 8.5.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Vesta from Heavens Above.

(14) Irene

Irene was discovered by John Russel Hind in 1851, being only the 14th asteroid known at the time (if you are wondering ~400,000 asteroids have been discovered to date, we’ve come a long way). It is an S-type asteroid with a stoney or silicate composition. Its takes 6.3 years to orbit the Sun.

This month Irene will brighten from magnitude 9.9 to 9.2 as it travels through Virgo. Next month it will reach its brightest on April 21 at magnitude 8.9.

(27) Euterpe

Euterpe was the 27th asteroid discovered when it was first seen in 1853. It is an S-type asteroid with a stoney or silicate composition. With a diameter of 58 miles (96 km) it is much smaller than Ceres, Pallas or Vesta. The reason it can get as bright as them is due to its orbit which brings it closer to the Sun and Earth. This month Euterpe will be roughly 1 AU from Earth and 2 AU from the Sun.

This month Euterpe is located in Cancer not far to the east of the Beehive Star Cluster. It starts the month at magnitude 9.7 and fades to 10.5 making this an object for advanced observers.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Euterpe from Heavens Above.

(29) Amphitrite

Discovered in 1854, Amphitrite was the 29th asteroid to be discovered. Similar to Euterpe, Amphitrite is also a stoney S-type asteroid. With an average diameter of  127 miles (212 km) it is bigger than Euterpe though its further distance from the Earth and Sun keeps it from getting as bright.

Ampitrite reaches it brightest for the year on March 22 at magnitude 9.1. It starts the month at mag 9.7, brightens to 9.1 at opposition and fades back to 9.4 at month’s end. It spends the entire month in Virgo.

The Sky Tonight – Feb 28

I hope everyone was able to see the spectacular conjunction between Venus and the Moon. Even to this sometimes jaded astronomer, it was quite a sight to see. Right now it is the highlight of the year so far. But as nice as it looked, there will be an even better Venus-Moon pair-up in 2 months. You’ll need to get up in the early hours of the morning, but mark April 22 on your calendars. On that date, all of North America will see the Moon and Venus even closer to each other. And for central and western North America, the Moon will pass in front of (or occult) Venus. As a teaser, here what the view will be from Tucson at 5:00 am on April 22. Note, Mars will also be nearby with Jupiter visible many degrees away.

venus_moon_mars_april221

The Venus-Moon (and Mars) conjunction that will take place on 2009 April 22. Image shows the scene over Tucson at 5:00 am that morning. Image from the Stellarium program (www.stellarium.org).

Tonight, the Moon has moved quite a bit away from Venus. It will not be quite the striking site it was last night but should still be impressive. A chart showing the relative position of Venus, the Moon, Comet Lulin, Saturn and the brighter stars can be seen below.

sky_20090228

Night sky on the evening of Feb 28 at 8:15 pm. Image made with the Stellarium software program (www.stellarium.org).

Comet Lulin continues to move rapidly to the west. Remember it was only a few days ago when the comet was right next to Saturn. Last night it was practically on top of Regulus, the brightest star in Leo. If you haven’t seen the comet, don’t wait. The comet is still at its brightest but will start to fade rapidly. That and the bright Moon for the next 2 weeks will make Lulin a tough site to see without a good sized pair of binoculars or telescope. Right now Lulin is a difficult naked eye object from a very dark site and an easy binocular object from just about anywhere.

In the Sky This Month – January 2009

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of January 2009. The month starts off with Mercury and Jupiter close together in the evening sky. January also has one major meteor shower, the Quadrantids on Jan 3/4.

Note: If anyone has pictures or observations of these objects/events and want to share them, send me a comment. I’ll post them here.

Planets

Venus rules the month of January. Located about 30-40 degrees above the southwest horizon, Venus is the brightest “star” in the sky for the first few hours of the night. Through a telescope, Venus appears like a brilliant half moon. The Moon will pass within 2.5 degrees of Venus on the night of the 30th.

Jupiter is located well below Venus in the west-southwest during the first week of January. After that Jupiter will be too close to the Sun to be seen.

Mercury is also visible a few degrees above Jupiter during the 1st week or so of January. It will be furthest from the Sun on the 4th and highest above the horizon on the 6th. By mid-month, Mercury will be too close to the Sun to be seen.

This month Saturn rises in the east around 11pm on the 1st and 9pm on the 31st. The best time to observe it, though, is when it is located directly overhead (5am on the 1st and 3am on the 31st). The Moon will pass close to Saturn on the night of the 15th.

Mars is still too close to the Sun to be seen.

Meteors

The month of January experiences 1 major shower, the Quadrantids, and only a few minor ones.

Sporadic Meteors

Sporadic meteors are not part of any known meteor shower. They represent the background flux of meteors. Except for the few days per year when a major shower is active, most meteors that are observed are Sporadics. This is especially true for meteors observed during the evening. During November, six (6) or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

Quadrantids (QUA)

The Quadrantids are the best shower that you’ve probably never heard of. It’s bad enough that this shower peaks in the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere, but it is also named after a long defunct constellation. When first identified in the early 1800s, the meteors were observed to radiate from the small faint constellation of Quadrans Muralis (the Mural Quadrant). Unfortunately, the constellation didn’t make the cut when the official list of 80 constellations was set in 1930. Today, Quadrans Muralis and the radiant of the Quadrantids can be found north of the constellation of Bootes.

Another strike against observing the Quadrantids is their short duration. Showers, like the Perseids and Orionids, produce high rates of meteors for a few days near their maximum. The Quadrantids are only highly active for 12-24 hours. As a result, the shower can be missed if the peak does not coincide with your early morning observing.

This year there are 2 predictions for the peak. Based on past Quadrantid peaks, the International Meteor Organization predicts a peak on January 3 at 12h 50m UT. That’s 5:50 am MST or 4:50 am PST. If this prediction is correct, the Quadrantids will be best over western North America and probably pretty good for all of North America.

A second prediction is based on work by Jeremie Veubaillon and published in a chart in Peter Jenniskens’s book “Meteor Showers and Their Parent Comets”.It predicts an earlier peak on January 3 at ~1:00 UT. That’s in the early evening for North America at a time when the shower will not be easily visible. The Veubaillon prediction is based on all of the Quadrantids having been released during the break-up of a comet in 1490.

Last year rates reached as high as ~80 meteors per hour under a dark sky. Like most meteor showers, the Quadrantids are only observable early in the morning a few hours before dawn. The International Meteor Organization will post up-to-date observations of the activity level at their ZHR Live site.

Where do the Quadrantids come from? According to Peter Jenniskens, the Quadrantids are the result of an outburst of material or even the break-up of a comet in 1490. This comet was observed by Chinese, Korean and Japanese astronomers. In 2003, a new asteroid was discovered named 2003 EH1. It now appears that 2003 EH1 is either the same as the comet seen in 1490 or the largest surviving piece of that comet.

Minor Meteor Showers

Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors.

Coma Berenicids (COM)

The Coma Berenicids are a minor shower with rates of ~5 meteors per hour at their peak. The shower is active from mid-December to late January as its radiant moves from southern Ursa Major through Coma Berenices and into Virgo. The shower may have been created by Comet C/1913 I (Lowe) a retrograde Halley-type comet. That is assuming Comet Lowe ever existed. There are some doubts that the comet was real since other observers were not able to observe the comet.

According to Peter Jennisken’s book “Meteor Showers and Their Parent Comets” a number of meteor outbursts seen between the years of 609 AD and 764 AD may have caused by this shower.

Additional information on these showers and other minor showers not included here can be found at the following sites: Robert Lunsford’s Meteor Activity Outlook, Wayne Hally’s and Mark Davis’s NAMN Notes, and the International Meteor Organization’s 2008 Meteor Shower Calendar.

Comets

Naked Eye Comets (V < 6.0)

There are no comets bright enough to be seen without binoculars or a telescope.

Binocular Comets (V < 8.0)

Comet C/2007 N3 (Lulin)

The brightest comet of the month can be seen low in the southeast right before dawn. Starting the month near the “head” of Scorpius, the comet will move into and cross the constellation of Libra during the month. Comet Lulin was discovered by the Lulin Sky Survey in Taiwan on 2007 July 11. At the time the comet was located beyond the orbit of Jupiter.

The comet will be closest to the Sun on 2009 January 10 at 1.21 AU from the Sun. It will be closest to Earth in late-February when it will be only 0.41 AU from us. At that time the comet may be as bright as 4th magnitude making it an easy object for binoculars and small telescopes. In fact, the comet will be visible to the naked eye as a small faint fuzzball from dark sites.

The comet is currently around magnitude 7.5 which makes it an easy object for binoculars and small telescopes from a dark sky. By the end of the month, it should be around magnitude 6 and perhaps visible to naked eye observers in very dark skies.

A finder chart for Comet Lulin can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Small Telescope Comets (V < 10.0)

Comet C/2006 W3 (Christensen)

This comet was discovered over 2 years ago on 2006 November 18 by Eric Christensen of the Catalina Sky Survey north of Tucson. At the time the comet was located at 8.7 AU from the Sun which is nearly the distance of Saturn. The comet continues to move closer to the Sun and Earth and is currently 3.8 AU from the Sun and 3.4 AU from the Earth.

The comet is currently around magnitude 10.2 and will slowly brighten during the month.  It will be traveling south through the constellation of Lacerta and is nicely positioned for evening observing. I was able to observe the comet visually with my backyard 12″ reflecting telescope in November. Being small and condensed, the comet was fairly easy to see.

The comet will continue to brighten as it approaches perihelion at a still rather distant 3.12 AU from the Sun on 2009 July 6. At the time, the comet will be 8th magnitude and visible in many smaller backyard telescopes and even binoculars from dark sites. Christensen should remain bright enough to see in modest sized backyard telescopes for all of 2009.

A finder chart for Comet Christensen can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet C/2006 OF2 (Broughton)

Similar to Comet C/2006 W3 (Christensen), C/2006 OF2 (Broughton) is another intrinsically bright comet with a large perihelion distance. It was the 2nd comet discovered by amateur astronomer John Broughton of Queensland, Australia. He first saw it on 2006 July 17 with a CCD-equipped 0.25-m telescope. At first, no cometary activity was detected and the object was classified as an asteroid. In late September of 2006, I was able to find evidence of cometary activity on images taken with the University of Arizona 1.54-m and the object was reclassified as a comet.

Comet Broughton passed perihelion on 2008 September 15 at a distance of 2.43 AU from the Sun. Based on its prior brightness behavior, it was not expected to be brighter than 10th magnitude. In the past few weeks, the comet has experienced a minor outburst in brightness. At its current magnitude of 9.8, the comet can be seen in large backyard telescopes. Moving south through the constellation of Auriga, the comet should fade as it moves away from both the Sun and Earth.

A finder chart for Comet Broughten can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet 144P/Kushida

Comet Kushida was discovered by Japanese amateur astronomer Yoshio Kushida back on 1994 January 8. With an orbital period of 7.6 years, this year marks its 3rd appearance since discovery.

The comet was not expected to get brighter than magnitude 10 or 11 but recently observers have estimated it is as bright as magnitude 8.8. With perihelion this January 26 at 1.44 AU from the Sun, the comet may brighten a little more over the next few weeks. It is currently retrograding through western Taurus.

A finder chart for Comet Kushida can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet 210P/Christensen

Yet another comet discovered by Eric Christensen may be visible in backyard scopes in January. This comet is a short-period comet with a period of 5.7 years. It is very faint except when close to the Sun. Perihelion occurred on December 19 at a distance of 0.53 AU from the Sun.

Alan Watson found Comet 210P/Christensen on images taken by the STEREO-B spacecraft on 2008 December 8 and 9. At the time, he thought the comet might be new until Maik Meyer suggested the STEREO comet was actually Comet 210P/Christensen. STEREO (which stands for Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) is a NASA mission to study the Sun and its immediate environment. Though not designed specifically to observe comets, its cameras have the ability to pick up bright comets close to the Sun. Quite often, these comets are too close to the Sun to be seen from Earth due to the scattering of sunlight by Earth’s atmosphere.

Though too close to the Sun to be seen from Earth, another spacecraft was able to see the comet as it sped past the Sun. Observations by the SOHO spacecraft estimated that the comet reached a brightness of 6th magnitude. The comet may still be bright enough for large backyard telescopes during the 1st half of January. The comet should be 9th-10th magnitude as it speeds through the constellation of Ophiuchus in the pre-dawn sky.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 10.0)

(1) Ceres

Ceres is the biggest asteroid in the Main Belt with a diameter of 585 miles or 975 km. It is so big that it is now considered a Dwarf Planet. Classified as a carbonaceous (carbon-rich) Cg-type asteroid, there are suggestions that it may be rich in volatile material such as water. Some even propose that an ocean exists below the surface. Ceres is one of two targets for NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which is scheduled to visit it in 2015. This month Ceres is located in Leo brightening from magnitude 7.9to 7.2.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Ceres from Heavens Above.

(2) Pallas

Pallas is also a carbonaceous asteroid though with a slightly bluish B-type spectrum. Due to its high inclination (tilt of its orbit with respect to Earth’s orbit) of 34 degrees it is a difficult target for future spacecraft missions. Pallas is large with dimensions of 350x334x301 miles or 582x556x501 km. This month it moves through the far southern constellations of Caelum and Eridanus. It fades from  magnitude 8.0 to 8.2 over the course of the month.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Pallas from Heavens Above.

(4) Vesta

Though not as large as Ceres, Vesta is more reflective making it the brightest asteroid in the Main Belt. Vesta is peculiar in that it appears to have evidence of volcanism on its surface. Similar to the Moon, Vesta may be covered with large expanses of frozen lava flows. It is classified as a V-type asteroid and is the only large asteroid with this classification. Many of the smaller V-type asteroids are chips of Vesta blasted off it by past asteroid and comet impacts. Vesta is similar in size to Pallas with dimensions of 347x336x275 miles or 578×560×458 km. Vesta will also be visited by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which will arrive in 2010. On October 30, Vesta was at opposition (directly opposite from the Sun in the sky) and at its brightest. This month Vesta will fade from magnitude 7.6 to 8.1 as it moves from Pisces into Cetus.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Vesta from Heavens Above.

(27) Euterpe

Euterpe was the 27th asteroid discovered when it was first seen in 1853. It is an S-type asteroid with a stoney or silicate composition. With a diameter of 75 miles (125 km) it much smaller than Ceres, Pallas or Vesta. The reason it can get as bright as them is due to its orbit which brings it closer to the Sun and Earth. This month Euterpe will be roughly 1 AU from Earth and 2 AU from the Sun.

This month Euterpe will brighten from magnitude 9.7 to 8.9 as it moves from Leo into Cancer. The asteroid will be at its brightest in early February at magnitude 8.8.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Euterpe from Heavens Above.

(40) Harmonia

[Thanks to Sam Millar for calling attention to this asteroid.]

Harmonia just barely makes the cut this month. Starting the month at magnitude 9.9, it peaks in brightness on January 12 at 9.5. By the end of the month, Harmonia is back below 10th magnitude.

Similar to Euterpe, Harmonia is a stoney silicate-rich S-type in the inner Main Belt. At opposition on the 12th, it will be 2.30 AU from the Sun and 1.31 AU from Earth.

Finder chart for Harmonia from Heavens Above.

In The Sky This Month – December 2008

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of December 2008. The biggest event of the month will be the Venus-Jupiter-Moon conjunction on the 1st. On the 13th, the Geminid meteor shower will peak. Though usually one of the best showers of the year, the Full Moon will ruin the show.

Planets

Venus and Jupiter start off the month in grand fashion. On the 1st, the two are located in the south-southwest just after sunset within 2 degrees of each other. Venus is by far the brighter of the pair. Not that Jupiter is a slouch only being the brightest “star” in the sky after Venus. To add to the sight, a thin crescent Moon will be located just to the upper left of the pair.

As the month progresses, Venus will rapidly move away from Jupiter. Venus will appear to start each evening higher and higher in the sky. Jupiter, on the other hand, will quickly drop towards the horizon and by the end of the month, will be located close to the southwest horizon. But Jupiter will not be alone and ends the month within 1.3 degrees of the innermost planet Mercury. The Moon can also be used at the end of the month to find the evening planets as it passes close to Jupiter and Mercury on the 29th and Venus on the 31st.

This month, Saturn starts to rise before midnight. The best time to observe it, though, is just before the start of dawn when it will be located high in the sky in the constellation of Leo. The Moon will pass close to Saturn on the nights of the 18th and 19th.

Mars is too close to the Sun to be seen.

Meteors

The month of December experiences 2 major showers, the Geminids and the Ursids, and a slew of minor ones.

Sporadic Meteors

Sporadic meteors are not part of any known meteor shower. They represent the background flux of meteors. Except for the few days per year when a major shower is active, most meteors that are observed are Sporadics. This is especially true for meteors observed during the evening. During November, twelve (12) or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

Geminids (GEM)

Along with the Perseids of August, the Geminids are one of the best meteor showers delivering great displays year after year. Unfortunately, this year sees the worst circumstances possible for Geminid watching as the nearly Full Moon is located right next to the radiant. Similar circumstances occurred in October for the Orionids but observers were still able to see quite a few meteors.

According to Sirko Molau’s analysis of video data, the Geminids are already observable at the beginning of the month though their rates are very low. The peak is predicted for the nights of December 13-16. With a radiant near the star Castor in the constellation of Gemini, the Geminids are one of the rare major showers that are observable before midnight and can be observed as early as 8:00 pm though rates are usually best after 10:00 pm. Under a dark rural moon-less sky, the Geminids can produce as many as 100+ meteors per hour. With the bright Moon, rates of a few tens of meteors per hour may still be observed.

The Geminids are the result of the break-up and subsequent activity of the “asteroid” Phaethon. Why asteroid in quotes? Most meteor showers come from comets yet Phaethon is on a very non-cometary orbit and has never shown any cometary activity. There is still much scientific discussion about what exactly Phaethon is.

More details on the Geminids and their parent “asteroid” Phaethon will be posted as we get closer to its peak.

Ursids (URS)

The Ursids will produce up to 10 meteors per hour at their peak on December 22-23. That rate makes it a borderline major/minor shower though the Ursids have experienced a number of outbursts in the past. With a radiant near the “bowl” of Ursa Minor (the “Little Dipper”), this shower is also observable all night long though the best time to observe it is during the last hours of the night. More details on the Ursids and their parent comet, Comet Tuttle, will be posted later.

Minor Meteor Showers

Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors.

December Phoenicids (PHO)

The December Phoenicids (also just called the Phoenicids) radiate from the far southern constellation of Phoenix. Due to its southern radiant, this shower is very difficult to observe from the Northern Hemisphere. The shower results from the break-up or splitting of Comet P/1819 W1 (Blanpain) in 1819. Most years the shower only produces a few meteors per hour but on occasion up to 100 meteors per hour have been seen (1887, 1938 and 1956). No further outbursts are predicted until 2050 though that doesn’t mean we can’t be surprised. The shower is predicted to peak on December 6. In 2003, the barely active nucleus of Comet Blanpain was re-discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey.

Puppid/Velids (PUP)

These showers are another two for the southern hemisphere. There is evidence that the Puppids and the Velids are part of a much larger complex of showers that span from November through February. Their orbits suggest they are the result of the break-up of a yet-to-be-discovered comet or asteroid on a high inclination orbit (50-70 degrees). At their best, Puppid/Velids produce 5-10 meteors per hour for those south of the equator. Not too many are visible for northern hemisphere observers.

Monocerotids (MON)

The December Monocerotids (sometimes just called the Monocerotids) are produced by Comet C/1917 F1 (Mellish). Discovered in 1917 this bright comet is on a ~145 year orbit and isn’t due back till around 2062. There is evidence that this shower may have produced a number of bright fireballs during the 11th through 16th century. The shower is predicted to peak on December 7th-9th with a paltry 2 meteors per hour radiating from the faint constellation of Monoceros (located just east of Orion).

σ-Hydrids (HYD)

With a peak on December 9th of only 3 meteors per hour, these meteor from the “head” of the constellation of Hydra will be difficult to observe by all but the most advanced observers. Not much is known about this shower other than it was created by an unknown long-period or Halley-type comet with a perihelion of ~0.25 AU and an inclination of ~125 to 130 degrees.

Coma Berenicids (COM)

The Coma Berenicids are another minor shower with rates of ~5 meteors per hour at their peak. The shower is active from mid-December to late January as its radiant moves from southern Ursa Major through Coma Berenices and into Virgo. The shower may have been created by Comet C/1913 I (Lowe) a retrograde Halley-type comet. That is assuming Comet Lowe ever existed. There are some doubts that the comet was real since other observers were not able to observe the comet.

According to Peter Jennisken’s book “Meteor Showers and Their Parent Comets” a number of meteor outbursts seen between the years of 609 AD and 764 AD may have caused by this shower.

Additional information on these showers and other minor showers not included here can be found at the following sites: Robert Lunsford’s Meteor Activity Outlook, Wayne Hally’s and Mark Davis’s NAMN Notes, and the International Meteor Organization’s 2008 Meteor Shower Calendar.

Comets

Naked Eye Comets

There are no comets bright enough to be seen without binoculars or a telescope.

Binocular Comets

Comet C/2007 N3 (Lulin)

The brightest comet of the month is not visible for the 1st half of the month. Comet Lulin will be too close to the Sun until after mid-month when it will be visible low in the southeast (near the “head” of Scorpius) at the start of dawn. Comet Lulin was discovered by the Lulin Sky Survey in Taiwan on 2007 July 11. At the time the comet was located beyond the orbit of Jupiter.

The comet will be closest to the Sun on 2009 January 10 at 1.21 AU from the Sun. It will be closest to Earth in late-February when it will be only 0.41 AU from us. At that time the comet may be as bright as 4th magnitude making it an easy object for binoculars and small telescopes. In fact, the comet will be visible to the naked eye as a small faint fuzzball from dark sites.

In December the comet should brighten from 7th magnitude to 6th. I say “should” because the comet has not been seen since late October because it has been too close to the Sun. As a result, we don’t know how bright Lulin is right now. Baring a new discovery or unforeseen outburst, Comet Lulin may be the best comet of 2009.

A finder chart for Comet Lulin can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Small Telescope Comets

Comet C/2008 A1 (McNaught)

Comet McNaught is a long-period comet that passed closest to the Sun on Sept 29 at a distance of 1.07 AU (100 million miles or 160 million km). It was the first comet discovered in 2008 having been found by  Robert McNaught of the Siding Spring Survey back on January 10. It was McNaught’s 43rd comet discovery.

The comet is only visible from the Northern Hemisphere and during December it travels through northern Ophiuchus into southern Hercules. After getting as bright as 6th magnitude at perihelion, the comet will slowly fade from magnitude 8.8 to 10.0 during the month. This will probably be the last month to see this comet in regular sized backyard telescopes.

A finder chart for Comet McNaught can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet C/2006 W3 (Christensen)

This comet was discovered over 2 years ago on 2006 November 18 by Eric Christensen of the Catalina Sky Survey north of Tucson. At the time the comet was located at 8.7 AU from the Sun which is nearly the distance of Saturn. The comet continues to move closer to the Sun and Earth and is currently 3.8 AU from the Sun and 3.4 AU from the Earth.

The comet is currently around magnitude 10.2 and will slowly brighten during the month.  It will be traveling south through the constellations of Cepheus and Lacerta and is nicely positioned for evening observing. I was able to observe the comet visually with my backyard 12″ reflecting telescope a few weeks ago. Being small and condensed, the comet was fairly easy to see.

The comet will continue to brighten as it approaches perihelion at a still rather distant 3.12 AU from the Sun on 2009 July 6. At the time, the comet will be 8th magnitude and visible in many smaller backyard telescopes and even binoculars from dark sites. Christensen should remain bright enough to see in modest sized backyard telescopes for all of 2009.

A finder chart for Comet Christensen can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet P/2003 K2 (Christensen)

Yet another comet discovered by Eric Christensen may be visible in backyard scopes in December. This comet is a short-period comet with a period of 5.7 years. It is very faint except when close to the Sun. With perihelion predicted for 2009 January 8 at a distance of 0.53 AU from the Sun, the comet may be bright enough for backyard observers by the end of the month.

There are a lot of question marks about this comet. It was only observed for 1 month in 2003 and those observations were made after perihelion. The comet has yet to be observed during this return and its exact location is unknown. Plus since the comet has never been observed before perihelion we don’t know how bright it should be. Hopefully the comet will be picked up in the next few weeks. When/if that happens, we’ll have a better idea of how observable it will be.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids

(1) Ceres

Ceres is the biggest asteroid in the Main Belt with a diameter of 585 miles or 975 km. It is so big that it is now considered a Dwarf Planet. Classified as a carbonaceous (carbon-rich) Cg-type asteroid, there are suggestions that it may be rich in volatile material such as water. Some even propose that an ocean exists below the surface. Ceres is one of two targets for NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which is scheduled to visit it in 2015. This month Ceres is located high in the sky right before sunrise in Leo brightening from magnitude 8.3 to 7.9.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand.

(2) Pallas

Pallas is also a carbonaceous asteroid though with a slightly bluish B-type spectrum. Due to its high inclination (tilt of its orbit with respect to Earth’s orbit) of 34 degrees it is a difficult target for future spacecraft missions. Pallas is large with dimensions of 350x334x301 miles or 582x556x501 km. This month it moves through the far southern constellations of Columba and Caelum. It peaks at magnitude 8.0 over the course of the month.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand.

(4) Vesta

Though not as large as Ceres, Vesta is more reflective making it the brightest asteroid in the Main Belt. Vesta is peculiar in that it appears to have evidence of volcanism on its surface. Similar to the Moon, Vesta may be covered with large expanses of frozen lava flows. It is classified as a V-type asteroid and is the only large asteroid with this classification. Many of the smaller V-type asteroids are chips of Vesta blasted off it by past asteroid and comet impacts. Vesta is similar in size to Pallas with dimensions of 347x336x275 miles or 578×560×458 km. Vesta will also be visited by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which will arrive in 2010. On October 30, Vesta was at opposition (directly opposite from the Sun in the sky) and at its brightest. This month Vesta will fade from magnitude 7.0 to 7.6 as it moves through Pisces.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand.

(9) Metis

Metis was discovered in 1848 by Andrew Graham of Ireland. It is a S-type asteroid with a composition similar to stony meteorites (ordinary chondrites). With a diameter of 140x120x85 miles or 235×195×140 km, it is much smaller than Ceres, Pallas or Vesta. During the month, it will quickly fade from magnitude 9.1 to 9.8 as it travels through Aries just a few degrees northeast of Vesta.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand.

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