In the Sky This Month – December 2009

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of December 2009. Jupiter continues its reign as not only king of the planets but king of the evening sky. Though not visible until about 10pm or so, Mars will start to contest Jupiter’s reign this month. December also brings the Geminids which are one of the best meteor showers of the year.

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

Mercury - Mercury will be an evening object this month. Though not a great apparition for northern observers, it should be easy to see if you have an unobstructed view of the southwestern horizon. The best time to see Mercury will be when the Moon passes near it on during the evenings of Dec 17 and 18. At that time Mercury will be magnitude -0.5. By the end of the month, it will be rapidly fading and getting closer to the Sun.

Dec 18 - Moon within 1.3° of Mercury

Jupiter - Jupiter continues to dominate the early evening sky. At magnitude -2.2, Jupiter is ~10 times brighter than the brightest stars in the sky this month. Of all the planets, only Venus, and on very rare occasions Mars, are brighter.

Jupiter is located high in the southwestern sky by the end of dusk for easy observation. As has been the case all year, it is slowly moving through the southern constellation of Capricornus.

Dec 21 - Moon passes 4° from Jupiter
Dec 21 - Jupiter passes 0.5° from Neptune

Neptune – For those with a telescope or binoculars and a dark sky, Neptune is located within a few degrees of Jupiter. This month Jupiter and Neptune will experience the 3rd of this year’s triple conjunction as they pass ~0.5° from each other on the night of Dec 20/21. For most of the month, the 2 planets will be very close to each other and within the same field of view of most small telescopes and binoculars. This is a great opportunity to use the easy-to-find Jupiter to help locate the usually hard-to-find Neptune. Jupiter will be a bright magnitude -2.2 while Neptune will be a faint +8.0. 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.

Dec 21 - Jupiter passes 0.5° from Neptune

Uranus – Uranus is located in western Pisces and is bright enough to be seen in small binoculars at magnitude +5.9 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).

Mars – Mars can be seen rising in the eastern sky late in the evening (~9:30 pm at the start of the month and ~8 pm at the end of the month). Mars is rapidly brightening and will double in brightness this month as it rises from +0.0 to -0.7 magnitude. By the end of the month, Mars will be brighter than all stars expect Sirius and far southern Canopus. Mars will continue to brighten to a max of magnitude -1.3 at its opposition on Jan 29 of next year. This month Mars will appear roughly stationary as it starts its retrograde motion near the Leo/Cancer border.

Dec 6 - Moon passes close (5°) to Mars

Saturn – Saturn is easy to observe during the last few hours of the night. Located in Virgo at magnitude +0.9, Virgo only rises right before the start of dawn. Telescope users should note that Saturn’s rings are still close to edge-on.

Dec 10 - Moon and Saturn within 7° of each other

Venus - Venus will be too close to the Sun this month for most observers. Some with unobstructed views of the southeastern horizon may catch a glimpse of Venus rising 30-50 minutes or so before sunrise.

Dec 15 - Venus and Moon within 3° of each other

Meteors

December hosts one of the best showers of the year in the Geminids. In addition, the background rate of meteors is still rather high. 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 December, 10 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. This year’s Geminids are perfectly timed as the Moon will be nearly New and will not spoil the show.

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 night of December 13/14 though numerous meteors should be visible for a day or two on either side of the peak. 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. Observers under suburban skies will see lower rates.

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.

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.

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.

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 2008 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 C/2007 Q3 (Siding Spring)

This long-period was first seen on 2007 August 25 by Donna Barton of the Siding Spring Survey in Australia. This past Oct. 7th the comet reached a rather distant perihelion at 2.25 AU from the Sun. Unfortunately, the comet and Earth are located on opposite sides of the Sun so the comet is rather far from Earth. Still the comet is observable in the early morning hours as a ~9.0 to 9.5 magnitude comet in Coma Berenices. At mid-month the comet is 2.38 AU from the Sun and 2.43 AU from Earth.

A finder chart for Comet Siding Spring 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 88P/Howell

P/Howell is an evening comet and currently the brightest in the sky. Howell is a short-period comet and takes only 5.49 years to orbit the Sun. Ellen Howell was a student at Caltech when she found the comet on photographic plates taken on 1981 August 29 with the 48″ Palomar schmidt.

In 1981 the comet was on an orbit that never brought it closer to the Sun than 1.62 AU (perihelion distance). As a result, it never got very bright. A relatively close approach to Jupiter in 1990 changed its perihelion distance to 1.40 AU. Further perturbations by Jupiter have decreased its perihelion distance to 1.36 AU. The closer perihelion distance allows the comet to get bright enough for small backyard telescopes. In addition, the comet seems to be running about ~2 magnitude brighter than usual. No obvious reason for the additional brightening has been observed yet.

This year perihelion occurred on Oct 12 so the comet is currently moving away from the Sun and should be fading. A day after perihelion I observed the comet from Tucson with a 12″ dobsonian. The comet was very difficult to observe from the city. At the time, I estimated its brightness at magnitude 8.5. The comet should be a fainter (95 mag or fainter) this month. The comet is located low in the southwest sky after dusk and will spend the monthcrossing Capricornus. At mid-month P/Howell will be 1.53 AU from the Sun and 2.02 AU from Earth.

A finder chart for Comet Howell 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.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 9.0)

(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.

Vesta is once again observable in the morning sky before the start of dawn. It is brightening from magnitude 7.7 to 7.2 as it travels just north of Regulus in 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.

In the Sky This Month – November 2009

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of November 2009. Jupiter continues its reign as not only king of the planets but king of the evening sky. November also brings the Leonids which may put on a good show for some observers this year.

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

Jupiter - Jupiter continues to dominate the evening sky. At magnitude -2.4, Jupiter is ~10 times brighter than the brightest stars in the sky this month. Of all the planets, only Venus, and on very rare occasions Mars, are brighter.

Jupiter is located high in the southern sky by the end of dusk for easy observation. As has been the case all year, it is slowly moving through the southern constellation of Capricornus.

Nov 23 - Moon passes 3° from Jupiter

Neptune – 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 -2.4 while Neptune will be a faint +7.9. 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.

Uranus – Uranus is located in western Pisces and 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).

Mars – Mars can be seen rising in the eastern sky late in the evening (~11 pm at the start of the month and ~9 pm at the end of the month). Mars is rapidly brightening and will reach magnitude 0.0 by the end of the month, matching that of many of the brightest stars visible in the morning sky. Mars will continue to brighten as it approaches its opposition on Jan 29 of next year. This month Mars marches through eastern half of the constellation of Cancer.

Nov 9 – Moon passes close (3°) to Mars

Venus - Venus rises an hour before dawn. When it is visible it is easily the brightest “star” in the sky. It was at its highest in the morning sky back in August and is continuing its slow crawl lower. It is located just above the horizon in the ESE sky right before the start of dawn. For binocular and telescope users, Venus will appear nearly full and is much smaller than it appeared this spring (now 11″ across versus 50″ last spring).

Nov 15 – Moon passes 6° from Venus

Mercury - Mercury starts the month behind the Sun with superior conjunction occurring on November 5. For the rest of the month, Mercury slowly pulls away from the Sun into the evening sky. Southern hemisphere observers will be able to catch a glimpse of Mercury low in the WSW sky during evening twilight. Northern observers will have to wait till December for their chance at seeing Mercury again.

Nov 5 – Mercury at superior conjunction

Saturn – Saturn is easy to observe during the last few hours of the night. Located in Virgo at magnitude +1.0, Virgo only rises right before the start of dawn. Telescope users should note that Saturn’s rings are still close to edge-on.

Nov 12 – Moon and Saturn within 7° of each other

Meteors

November hosts the sometimes great Leonids. In addition, the background rate of meteors is near an annual high. 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 November, 12 or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

Leonids (LEO)

The Leonids have produced some of the most spectacular meteor displays in history. Rates as high as ~70,000 meteors per hour (that’s ~20 meteors per second) were seen in 1833 and 1966. Every ~33 years, the parent comet of the Leonids, Comet Tempel-Tuttle, returns to the vicinity of the Earth. For a few years after Tempel-Tuttle’s last perihelion in 1998, the Leonids produced enhanced rates of meteors as high as 100s to 1000s of meteors per hour.

What will 2009 bring? In a normal year, the Leonids produce maximum rates of ~10-15 meteors per hour. This year there are a number of predictions of enhanced activity.

J. Vaubaillon presents his predictions for this year’s Leonids at the website of the L’Institut de Mécanique céleste et de calcul des éphémérides (IMCCE). The Earth will encounter 4 dense dust trails produced by the Leonid parent comet. On November 17 at ~21:43 UT (or half an hour to an hour later), the Earth will encounter a trail produced in 1466 which may produce as many as ~115 meteors per hour from a dark site. At nearly the same time, November 17 at 21:50 UT, the 1533 trail may produce 80 meteors per hour. Combined the 2 trails may (may being the important word) produce ~200 meteors per hour. A display this strong would not be considered a “storm” but would be better than the Perseids or Geminids at their best by nearly a factor of 2. The predicted times favor observers in central Asia. Unfortunately for those of us in the US, we will miss out.

Two weaker and much more uncertain trails will be observable from the Western hemisphere. On November 17 at ~7:27 UT, the 1567 trail may produce 25 meteors per hour. Since this is in addition to the usual background rate of Leonids may result in total rates of 35-50 per hour which is comparable to last month’s Orionids. Also on November 18 at ~3:29 UT, the very old 1102 trail may enhance activity by 10-50 meteors per hour.

What does this mean? Most of us, especially in the United States, will only see the “normal” maximum on the morning of November 17 with hopefully an extra dozen or two meteors per hour from the 1567 trail. For those located in central Asia, a very good shower may be visible. The Leonids are best observed in the hours before sunrise. They will appear to radiate from the western part of the constellation of Leo.

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.

Northern and Southern Taurids (NTA/STA)

The Taurids never produce more than ~5 meteors per hour. They make up for their low rates by being active for over two months and by producing many bright fireballs. Their fireballs are more apparent to the average observer because, unlike most meteor showers, the Taurids are observable all night long rather than just in the morning. There is a chance that the Taurids will produce a higher number of fireballs this year than usual. There is a good chance that most fireballs being reported this month will be Taurids. They are active for the entire month of November with the northern branch (NTA) peaking around November 14. Though named after the constellation of Taurus, theTaurids radiate from a point between the constellations of Taurus and Aries this month.

The Taurids are produced by Comet 2P/Encke. Encke is an enigmatic object with the shortest period for any known comet at 3.3 years. First observed in 1786, it has been observed over ~60 orbits and has been seen every year since 1993.

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 = 6.0 – 8.0)

None

Small Telescope Comets (V = 8.0 – 10.0)

Comet 88P/Howell

P/Howell is an evening comet and currently the brightest in the sky. Howell is a short-period comet and takes only 5.49 years to orbit the Sun. Ellen Howell was a student at Caltech when she found the comet on photographic plates taken on 1981 August 29 with the 48″ Palomar schmidt.

In 1981 the comet was on an orbit that never brought it closer to the Sun than 1.62 AU (perihelion distance). As a result, it never got very bright. A relatively close approach to Jupiter in 1990 changed its perihelion distance to 1.40 AU. Further perturbations by Jupiter have decreased its perihelion distance to 1.36 AU. The closer perihelion distance allows the comet to get bright enough for small backyard telescopes. In addition, the comet seems to be running about ~2 magnitude brighter than usual. No obvious reason for the additional brightening has been observed yet.

This year perihelion occurred on Oct 12 so the comet is currently moving away from the Sun and should be fading. A day after perihelion I observed the comet from Tucson with a 12″ dobsonian. The comet was very difficult to observe from the city. At the time, I estimated its brightness at magnitude 8.5. The comet should be a little fainter (from 8.8 to 9.5) this month. The comet is located low in the southwest sky after dusk and will spend most of the month in Sagittarius. At mid-month P/Howell will be 1.41 AU from the Sun and 1.79 AU from Earth.

A finder chart for Comet Howell 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/2006 W3 (Christensen)

This comet was discovered nearly 3 years ago on 2006 November 18 by Eric Christensen of the Catalina Sky Survey north of Tucson. At the time the comet was located 8.7 AU from the Sun which is nearly the distance of Saturn.

The comet reached perihelion at a rather distant 3.12 AU from the Sun on 2009 July 6. Because of its large perihelion distance, the comet will only slowly move away from the Sun and, though it will slowly fade, it should remain bright enough to be seen in modest sized backyard telescopes this month.

At mid-month, the comet is 3.37 AU from the Sun and 3.82 AU from Earth. Though observed as bright as magnitude ~8.2 it is now around magnitude 9.5 to 10.0. It is moving southeast while paralleling the summer Milky Way. This month the comet can be found in southern Aquila near the Sagittarius and is well placed for evening observing. This will probably be the last month that this comet will be observable in small scopes.

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 217P/LINEAR

217P/LINEAR is also a short-period comet though it takes a little longer than Howell to circle the Sun, 7.83 years versus 5.49 years. P/LINEAR also comes closer to the Sun with perihelion at 1.22 AU from the Sun. The comet is already a month past perihelion which occurred on Sept 8.

P/LINEAR was first observed by the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey on 2001 June 21 though it wasn’t until 2001 July 11 that it was recognized as a comet. The 2009 apparition is the first return since the discovery apparition.

Though P/LINEAR and P/Howell have similar perihelion distances, LINEAR is a much fainter (or less active) comet. While Howell is ~9th magnitude at a rather distant 1.65 AU from Earth, P/LINEAR is a little fainter at magnitude ~10.0 though it is much closer (0.61 AU from Earth). This may be the last time to see P/LINEAR in small backyard telescopes until its 2048 return when it will pass within 0.40 AU of Earth. All the returns between 2009 and 2048 will be more distant.

I was able to observe 217P/LINEAR with 30×125 binoculars on the morning of Sept 25. In order to see the comet I had to drive out to a dark site. The comet was a rather nondescript smudge about 1.5′ across and with a brightness of magnitude 10.1. On Oct 16, I dragged my 12″ dob to a dark site. The comet was easy to observe with a nice short 0.08° long tail. At that time, the estimated brightness was magnitude 9.9.

This month the comet will be visible in the morning sky in the faint Milky Way constellation of Monoceros. It should remain at magnitude ~10 or a little fainter for the entire month. At mid-month the comet will be 1.49 AU from the Sun and 0.64 AU from Earth.

A finder chart for Comet LINEAR 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/2007 Q3 (Siding Spring)

This long-period was first seen on 2007 August 25 by Donna Barton of the Siding Spring Survey in Australia. This past Oct. 7th the comet reached a rather distant perihelion at 2.25 AU from the Sun. Unfortunately, the comet and Earth are located on opposite sides of the Sun so the comet is rather far from Earth. Still the comet is observable before the start of dawn as a ~9.0 to 9.5 magnitude comet near the Leo/Virgo border. At mid-month the comet is 2.30 AU from the Sun and 2.71 AU from Earth.

A finder chart for Comet Siding Spring 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.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 9.0)

(3) Juno

Juno was the 3rd asteroid to be discovered after (1) Ceres and (2) Pallas. It was found by German astronomer Karl Harding on September 1, 1804. With dimensions of 320×267×200 km (192 x 160 x 120 miles) Juno ranks as the 10th largest asteroid in the Main Belt though it is the 2nd largest stony S-type asteroid.

This month it will be moving slowly southwestward in Aquarius. Peak brightness occurred at opposition on Sept. 22 when Juno was as bright as magnitude 7.6. In November it will fade from magnitude 8.4 to 8.9. Twenty degrees or so to the east of Juno is another bright asteroid, (18) Melpomene which is described in its own section.

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 Juno from Heavens Above.

(18) Melpomene

About 25 degrees to the east of (3) Juno lies another nice asteroid target for small telescopes. (18) Melpomene is located in the constellation of Cetus and is roughly the same brightness as Juno, in November it will fade from magnitude 8.3 to 9.0.

Melpomene is another stoney S-type asteroid and similar to Iris was also discovered by John Russel Hind. Found in 1852, it is his 5th of 10 asteroid discoveries.

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 Iris 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.

Vesta is once again observable in the morning sky before the start of dawn. It is brightening from magnitude 8.1 to 7.7 as it travels eastward just north of Regulus in 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.

In The Sky This Month – October 2009

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of October 2009. Jupiter continues its reign as not only king of the planets but king of the evening sky. October also brings the Orionids, one of the year’s better meteor showers.

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

Jupiter - Jupiter continues to dominate the evening sky. Based on the comments left on this blog, many people have been noticing Jupiter in the southeast sky during the evening. At magnitude -2.6, Jupiter is ~11 times brighter than the brightest stars in the sky this month. Of all the planets, only Venus, and on very rare occasions Mars, are brighter.

Jupiter is located high  in the southern sky by the end of dusk for easy observation. As has been the case all year, it is slowly moving through the southern constellation of Capricornus.

Oct 27 - Moon passes 3° from Jupiter

Oct_evening

View of the evening sky around 8pm on Oct 16. Sky chart made with Stellarium planetarium software.

Neptune – 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 -2.6 while Neptune will be a faint +7.9. That makes Jupiter over ~16,000 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 – This month Uranus is a month past opposition and still near its maximum in brightness. Uranus is located in western Pisces and is bright enough to be seen in small binoculars at magnitude +5.7 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).

Mars – Mars can be seen in the eastern sky during the 2nd half of the might. It rises around midnight though it won’t get high enough to clear most trees and building till about 1-2 am. Mars is rapidly brightening from magnitude +0.9 to +0.6, its brightness matching that of many of the brightest stars visible in the morning sky. Mars will continue to brighten as it approaches its opposition on Jan 29 of next year. This month Mars marches through eastern half of the constellation of Gemini into Cancer. By Halloween, the planet will be moving through the Beehive,  a big bright star cluster in Cancer.

Oct 12 – Moon within 1.1° of Mars

Venus - Venus rises an hour before dawn. When it is visible it is easily the brightest “star” in the sky. It was at its highest in the morning sky back in August and is continuing its slow crawl lower. For binocular and telescope users, Venus will appear nearly full and is much smaller than it appeared this spring (now 11″ across versus 50″ last spring).

Oct 13 – Saturn and Venus within 0.5° of each other
Oct 16
– Moon passes 6° from Venus

Mercury - Mercury puts on its best morning show of the year for northern observers. Below the equator, this is one of Mercury’s worst displays and probably worth skipping. For the 1st 3 weeks of the month, Mercury will be visible about 30 minutes before the start of dawn in the evening sky. The dates below highlight some of the best mornings to observe Mercury.

Oct 6 – Mercury furthest above eastern horizon at dawn
Oct 8 – Saturn and Mercury within 0.3° of each
Oct 17 – Moon and Mercury within 7° of each other

Saturn – After spending the last month or so too close to the Sun to be seen, Saturn is once again visible. Located in Virgo at magnitude +1.0, Virgo only rises right before the start of dawn. For those of you lucky enough to be up every morning and have access to a clear eastern horizon, October will provide a month long show as Venus, Mercury and Saturn dance among themselves. Telescope users should note that Saturn’s rings are still close to edge-on.

Oct 8 – Saturn and Mercury within 0.3° of each
Oct 13 – Saturn and Venus within 0.5° of each other
Oct 16 – Moon and Saturn within 6° of each other

Meteors

October hosts one of the best meteor showers of the year in the Orionids. In addition, the background rate of meteors is near an annual high. 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, 12 or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

Orionids (ORI) [Max Date = Oct 22, Max Rate = ~20-70 per hour]

The Orionids are one of the most reliable and productive showers of the year. Another point in their favor, is there high level of activity over the course of about 5 nights. This gives ample opportunity to catch a few ORI meteors.

The meteors that make up the Orionid shower were originally released by the one comet everyone has heard of, Comet Halley. Computer simulations of the past movements of Halley and its dust suggest that many of this year’s Orionid meteors were released by Halley between 1265 BC and 910 BC (for some points of reference, the Trojan War took place around 1200 BC and King David ruled around 1000 BC).

The Orionids are usually active from Oct 3 to Nov 11 with a broad peak between Oct 18 and 24. During their peak, rates can be as high as 20-70 meteors per hour. Last year rates reached 39 meteors per hour which is nearly half the rate observed in 2007 (70 per hour). With no Moon in the sky, the sky will be nice and dark this year.

The Orionids appear to come from an area in northern Orion. This area, called the radiant, rises around 10pm local time. It is best to wait till the radiant is high in the sky before looking for meteors (say 1am). The radiant is highest around 3:30am which is the best time to look. As you can see on the sky chart, the Moon is almost on top of the radiant. Meteors can appear anywhere in the sky so you don’t have to look at the radiant.

More can be found at an earlier Orionid posting.

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.

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 C/2006 W3 (Christensen)

This comet was discovered nearly 3 years ago on 2006 November 18 by Eric Christensen of the Catalina Sky Survey north of Tucson. At the time the comet was located 8.7 AU from the Sun which is nearly the distance of Saturn.

The comet reached perihelion at a rather distant 3.12 AU from the Sun on 2009 July 6. Because of its large perihelion distance, the comet will only slowly move away from the Sun and, though it will slowly fade, it should remain bright enough to be seen in modest sized backyard telescopes this month.

At mid-month, the comet is 3.3 AU from the Sun and 3.2 AU from Earth. Though observed as bright as magnitude ~8.2 it is now around magnitude 8.8.  It is moving southeast while paralleling the summer Milky Way. This month the comet can be found in southern Aquila and is well placed for evening observing.

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 88P/Howell

P/Howell is another evening comet and should be just as bright as C/Christensen. Howell is a short-period comet and takes only 5.49 years to orbit the Sun. Ellen Howell was a student at CalTech when she found the comet on photographic plates taken on 1981 August 29 with the 48″ Palomar schmidt.

In 1981 the comet was on a orbit that never brought it closer to the Sun than 1.62 AU (perihelion distance). As a result, it never got very bright. A relatively close approach to Jupiter in 1990 changed its perihelion distance to 1.40 AU. Further perturbations by Jupiter have decreased its perihelion distance to 1.36 AU. The closer perihelion distance allows the comet to get bright enough for small backyard telescopes.

This year the perihelion occurs on Oct 12 when it will shine at ~9.0 magnitude or maybe even a little brighter. The comet is located low in the southwest sky after dusk where it will start the month in the constellation of Scorpius before traversing Ophiuchus and ending the month in Sagittarius. At mid-month P/Howell will be 1.36 AU from the Sun and 1.65 AU from Earth.

A finder chart for Comet Howell 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 217P/LINEAR

217P/LINEAR is also a short-period comet though it takes a little longer than Howell to circle the Sun, 7.83 years versus 5.49 years. P/LINEAR also comes closer to the Sun with perihelion at 1.22 AU from the Sun. The comet is already a month past perihelion which occurred on Sept 8.

P/LINEAR was first observed by the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey on 2001 June 21 though it wasn’t until 2001 July 11 that it was recognized as a comet. The 2009 apparition is the first return since the discovery apparition.

Though P/LINEAR and P/Howell have similar perihelion distances, LINEAR is a much fainter (or less active) comet. While Howell is ~9th magnitude at a rather distant 1.65 AU from Earth, P/LINEAR is a little fainter at magnitude ~10.0 though it is much closer (0.61 AU from Earth). This may be the last time to see P/LINEAR in small backyard telescopes until its 2048 return when it will pass within 0.40 AU of Earth. All the returns between 2009 and 2048 will be more distant.

I was able to observe 217P/LINEAR with 30×125 binoculars on the morning of Sept 25. In order to see the comet I had to drive out to a dark site. The comet was a rather non-descript smudge about 1.5′ across and with a brightness of magnitude 10.1.

This month the comet will be visible in the morning sky moving from southern Orion into the faint Milky Way constellation of Monoceros. It should remain at magnitude ~10 for the entire month.

A finder chart for Comet LINEAR 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/2007 Q3 (Siding Spring)

After 2 short-period comets, this next comet is of the long-period variety. Comet C/2007 Q3 (Siding Spring) was first seen on 2007 August 25 by Donna Barton of the Siding Spring Survey in Australia. This Oct. 7 the comet will reach its rather distant perihelion at 2.25 AU from the Sun. Unfortunately, the comet and Earth are located on opposite sides of the Sun (a 3.0 AU distance). Still the comet may be observable during the 2nd half of the month right before the start of dawn as a ~9.5 to 10.0 magnitude comet in Leo.

A finder chart for Comet Siding Spring 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.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 9.0)

(3) Juno

Juno was the 3rd asteroid to be discovered after (1) Ceres and (2) Pallas. It was found by German astronomer Karl Harding on September 1, 1804. With dimensions of 320×267×200 km (192 x 160 x 120 miles) Juno ranks as the 10th largest asteroid in the Main Belt though it is the 2nd largest stony S-type asteroid.

This month it will be moving slowly southwestward in Aquarius. Peak brightness occurred at opposition on Sept. 22 when Juno was as bright as magnitude 7.6. In October it will fade from magnitude 7.8 to 8.4. Twenty degrees or so to the east of Juno is another bright asteroid, (18) Melpomene which is described in its own section.

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 Juno from Heavens Above.

(18) Melpomene

About 25 degrees to the east of (3) Juno lies another nice asteroid target for small telescopes. (18) Melpomene is located in the constellation of Cetus and is roughly the same brightness as Juno, peaking at magnitude 7.9 on Oct 10 and fading to magnitude  7.9 by month’s end.

Melpomene is another stoney S-type asteroid and similar to Iris was also discovered by John Russel Hind. Found in 1852, it is his 5th of 10 asteroid discoveries.

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 Iris from Heavens Above.

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