In The Sky This Month – January 2011

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of January 2011.

January 2011 Highlights
* Quadrantids Meteor Shower peaks on Jan 4
* Jupiter rules the evening sky, while...
* Venus dominates the morning sky with ...
* Mercury also in the midst of a good morning apparition

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 - 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.

Jan 1 - Moon 3° from bright star Antares
Jan 2 - Moon 4° from Mercury
Jan 4 - New Moon
Jan 10 - Moon 6° from Jupiter and Uranus
Jan 12 - First Quarter Moon
Jan 15 - Moon 1.3° from Pleiades
Jan 16 - Moon 8° from bright star Aldebaran
Jan 19 - Full Moon 9° from bright star Pollux
Jan 20 - Moon 4° from Beehive Cluster
Jan 21 - Moon 5° from bright star Regulus
Jan 25 - Moon 8° from Saturn and 3° from bright star Spica
Jan 26 - Third Quarter Moon
Jan 29 - Moon 3° from bright star Antares
Jan 30 - Moon 4° from Venus

Jupiter (and Uranus, too…) - The ‘King of the Planets’ continues his reign as the uncontested ‘King of the Evening Sky’ though fading from magnitude -2.3 to -2.2, nothing but the Moon rivals it in brightness. Located on the Pisces/Aquarius border, Jupiter is easy to find in the south as it gets dark. Jupiter then spends the rest of the evening getting lower in the southwest sky.

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 its large atmospheric belts (there are usually 2 prominent belts but 1 has recently disappeared though it may make a comeback at any time). In addition, Jupiter is close to Uranus all month long. On Jan 4 the two are 0.5° apart.

Jan 4 - Jupiter and Uranus within 0.5° of each other
Jan 10 - Moon within 6-7° of Jupiter and Uranus

Saturn – Saturn rises during the middle of the night. Located in Virgo, the ringed planet is a close match in brightness (mag +0.7) to Spica, the brightest star in Virgo (mag +1.0). Saturn spends the entire month within 8-9° of Spica.

Jan 25 - Moon within 8° of Saturn

Venus – After passing through inferior conjunction in late October , Venus is now the dominant sight in the morning sky. On Dec 1, Venus rises almost 3 hours before the Sun in the eastern sky. Unlike this year’s evening apparition which was poorly placed, Venus’ current stay in the morning sky will be a good one for northern observers. Through a telescope it currently looks like a brilliant ‘half moon’.

Jan 8 - Venus at Greatest Elongation West
Jan 17 - Venus within 8° of bright star Antares
Jan 30 - Moon within 3.5° of Venus

Mercury – Mercury is in the middle of a good morning apparition all month long.

Jan 2 - Moon within 4° of Mercury
Jan 9 - Greatest Elongation West

Mars – Too close to the Sun for observation.

Meteors

Meteor activity starts to plummet in January. 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

Quadrantids (QUA) [Max Date = Jan 4, Max Rate = ~60-150 per hour under dark skies]

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 on the northern reaches of the constellation Bootes.

Another strike against observing the Quadrantids is their short duration. Most 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.

The peak time for this shower is always uncertain on the order of half a day or so and the IMO prediction calls for a peak some time between 21:00 UT on Jan 3 and 6:00 UT on Jan 4. This well placed for observers in Europe. Here in the US activity during the prime early morning hours should be rapidly tailing off.

Back in 2009 this shower put on a great show with the peak well observed from the US. Peak rates that year reached a ZHR of ~150-160. But in 2008, rates “only” reached into the 80s. With the Moon near New the sky will be dark. Who knows what we’ll get this year so we’ll just have to brave the cold and see.

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 103P/Hartley 2 – Comet 103P/Hartley 2 continues its retreat from the Earth and Sun. Well past its late October peak in brightness, the comet starts January around magnitude 8-9 and should steadily fade to around magnitude 9-10 by the end of the month.

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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 comet, this year it passed 0.12 AU from Earth on October 21 allowing the comet to get much brighter than usual.The comet starts the month at a distance of 1.37 AU from the Sun and 0.47 AU from Earth. By mid-month it will be 1.49 AU from the Sun and 0.57 AU from Earth. At the end of the month, Hartley 2 will be 1.62 AU and 0.73 AU from the Sun and Earth, respectively.
The comet is located in the southern part of the winter Milky Way. Slowly moving north 103P will spend most of the month in Canis Major before crossing the border back into Monoceros near the end of the month. It is a month past opposition and is highest in the sky during the middle of the night.
 

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On November 4 the NASA EPOXI (ex-Deep Impact) spacecraft encountered Hartley 2 giving us close-up views of the comet’s nucleus. This is the xth comet visited by a spacecraft after Comets 21P/Giacobini-Zinner (1985), 1P/Halley (1986), 19P/Borelly (2001), 81P/Wild 2 (2004), 9P/Tempel 1 (2005). On February 15, 2011, Tempel 1 will be the first comet to be re-visited by a spacecraft.

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

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)

(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 at opposition on January 24 at magnitude 7.9. During December, it is located in the constellation of Cancer a few degrees to the southwest of the Beehive Cluster. It starts the month at magnitude 8.3, brightens to 7.9 at opposition on the 24th and then fades to 8.1 at the end of the month..

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 – December 2010

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

December 2010 Highlights
* Great Total Lunar Eclipse for the Americas and Eastern Asia on Dec 21
* Geminid Meteor Shower peaks on Dec 14
* Jupiter dominates the evening sky, while…
* Venus dominates the morning sky
* Comet 103P/Hartley 2 slowly fades as it moves away from the Earth and Sun

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 - The big event this month is a Total Lunar Eclipse on the night of Dec 20/21. The Moon will be located nearly overhead during the peak of the eclipse for North American observers.

The start of the umbral eclipse (when the darkest part of Earth’s shadow covers the Moon) will occur at 6:32 UT (1:32 EST / 12:32 CST / 11:32 MST / 10:32 PST) with mid-eclipse at 8:16 UT (3:16 EST / 2:16 CST / 1:16 MST / 12:16 PST)

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.

Dec 1 - Moon 7° from Saturn
Dec 2 - Moon 6° from Venus and 3° from Spica
Dec 5 - New Moon
Dec 6 - Moon 0.8° from Mars
Dec 7 - Moon 2° from Mercury
Dec 11 - Moon 5° from Neptune
Dec 13 - First Quarter Moon 7° from Jupiter
Dec 14 - Moon 6° from Uranus
Dec 19 - Moon 1.5° from Pleiades and 8° from Aldebaran
Dec 21 - Full Moon and Total Lunar Eclipse
Dec 23 - Moon 8° from Pollux
Dec 24 - Moon 4° from Beehive Cluster
Dec 25 - Moon 5° from Regulus
Dec 28 - Third Quarter Moon 7° from Saturn
Dec 29 - Moon 3° from Spica
Dec 31 - Moon 7° from Venus

Mercury – Mercury is in the middle of a evening apparition at the start of the month. It’s all downhill (literally) after that as the innermost planet creeps back into the bright twilight and out of view by mid-month. At the end of the month Mercury is back as it peeks above the SE horizon right before dawn.

Dec 1 - Greatest Elongation East
Dec 7 - Moon 2° from Mercury 

Mars - Mars is practically out of view this month for most of us. Those with exceptionally clear skies and unobstructed view of the SW sky in the evening might still catch a glimpse of this +1.3 magnitude planet.

Dec 6 - Moon 0.8° from Mars

Jupiter (and Uranus, too...) - The 'King of the Planets' continues his reign as the uncontested 'King of the Evening Sky'. though fading from magnitude -2.5 to -2.3, nothing but the Moon rivals it in brightness. Located on the Pisces/Aquarius border, Jupiter is easy to find in the south-south-east as it gets dark.

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 its large atmospheric belts (there are usually 2 prominent belts but 1 has recently disappeared though it may make a comeback at any time). In addition, Jupiter is within 2.9° of +5.8 magnitude Uranus on Dec 1 and 0.7° on Dec 31.

Dec 13 - First Quarter Moon 7° from Jupiter

Saturn - Saturn rises a few hours before the Sun. Located in Virgo, the ringed planet is a close match in brightness (mag +0.9) to the Spica, the brightest star in Virgo (mag +1.0). Saturn spends the entire month within 9-10° of Spica. It's rings are slowly opening up and are currently 9° from edge-on.

Dec 1 - Moon 7° from Saturn
Dec 28 - Moon 7° from Saturn

Venus - After passing through inferior conjunction in late October , Venus is now the dominant sight in the morning sky. On Dec 1, Venus rises 3 hours before the Sun in the eastern sky. By the end of the month, it is up almost 4 hours before sunrise. Unlike this year's evening apparition which was poorly placed, Venus' current stay in the morning sky will be a good one for northern observers.

Dec 2 - Venus at its brightest (magnitude -4.5 to -4.9 depending on the source)
Dec 2 - Moon 6° from Venus
Dec 31 - Moon 7° from Venus

Meteors

Meteor activity is still quite high in December. 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

Geminids (GEM) [Max Date = Dec 14, Max Rate = ~60-120 per hour under dark skies]

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 nicely timed with the First Quarter Moon will be setting around midnight.

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 (though with the caveat for this year that the Moon will spoil the show until it sets around midnight). 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" (3200) 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.

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 - Comet 103P/Hartley 2 continues its retreat from the Earth and Sun. Well past its late October peak in brightness, the comet starts December around magnitude 6 and should steadily fade to around magnitude 8 by the end of the month.

.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 comet, this year it passed 0.12 AU from Earth on October 21 allowing the comet to get much brighter than usual.The comet starts the month at a distance of 1.16 AU from the Sun and 0.29 AU from Earth. By mid-month it will be 1.24 AU from the Sun and 0.36 AU from Earth. At the end of the month, Hartley 2 will be 1.36 AU and 0.46 AU from the Sun and Earth, respectively. 

Even though the comet is currently 6th magnitude and theoretically bright enough to be an easy binocular object, in reality this is a difficult object to observe. With a coma diameter approaching 1° across, the light of the comet is spread over a wide area. As a result, even small amounts of light pollution renders much of the coma invisible. Dark skies are always a plus and will help in observing this challenging comet.

The comet is located in the southern part of the winter Milky Way. The start of December sees the comet in Puppis just to the south of the bright open clusters M46 and M47. By the end of the month it will have retrograded into Canis Major. It is a morning object and is visible after midnight.

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On November 4 the NASA EPOXI (ex-Deep Impact) spacecraft encountered Hartley 2 giving us close-up views of the comet's nucleus. This is the xth comet visited by a spacecraft after Comets 21P/Giacobini-Zinner (1985), 1P/Halley (1986), 19P/Borelly (2001), 81P/Wild 2 (2004), 9P/Tempel 1 (2005). On February 15, 2011, Tempel 1 will be the first comet to be re-visited by a spacecraft.

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

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 P/2010 V1 (Ikeya-Murakami) - Probably the surprise comet of the year, Comet Ikeya-Murakami is a rare visual find. Not long ago most bright comets were discovered by amateur astronomers visually through the eyepiece of their telescopes without the help of computers. Nowadays, the professional surveys are able to scan large swathes of sky and with the help of digital CCD cameras and detection software find most comets.

The reason Ikeya and Murakami could discover P/2010 V1 is probably because it is a small and usually weakly or even inactive comet. The fact that the comet was not visible to other comet hunters (including Ikeya) a day or two before discovery suggests it has recently undergone an outburst. CCD images of its rapidly expanding coma also point to a recent event. At discovery the comet was as bright as magnitude 7.5 to 8.0. At the start of this month the comet is around magnitude 9 to 10 and, baring another outburst, should quickly fade.

Another interesting thing about this comet is its orbit. With an aphelion of only ~4.2 AU, the comet does not extend far enough to reach the orbit of Jupiter. Unlike most cometary orbits, this orbit is very asteroidal and suggests that it more closely related to volatile-rich Main belt comets than the typical comet from the outer Solar System.

Perihelion occurred on 2010 Oct. 11 at 1.57 AU. The comet is now outbound and at mid-month is located 1.68 AU from the Sun and 2.21 AU from Earth. Starting the month in Virgo the comet will cross into Libra by mid-month.

A finder chart for Comet Ikeya-Murakami 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)

(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 at opposition on January 24 at magnitude 7.9. During December, it is located in the constellation of Cancer a few degrees to the southwest of the Beehive Cluster. It starts the month at magnitude 8.9 and ends it at magnitude 8.3.

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 – November 2010

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

November 2010 Highlights
* Comet 103P/Hartley 2 is still a naked eye object (though fading) under very dark skies
* Jupiter dominates the eastern evening sky
* Uranus remains within 3 degrees of Jupiter all month
* Venus rockets into the morning sky
* Leonids meteor shower has a weak peak on the 17th

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 - 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.

Nov 1 - Moon 5° from Regulus
Nov 4 - Moon 7° from Saturn and 3° from Spica
Nov 5 - Moon 1° from Venus (but 12° from Sun)
Nov 6 - New Moon
Nov 7 - Moon 2° from Mars
Nov 8 - Moon 3° from Antares
Nov 13 - First Quarter 
Nov 16 - Moon 7° from Jupiter and 6° from Uranus
Nov 21 - Full Moon
Nov 21 - Moon 2° from Pleiades
Nov 22 - Moon 8° from Aldebaran
Nov 25 - Moon 9° from Pollux
Nov 26 - Moon 4° from Beehive Cluster
Nov 28 - Last Quarter
Nov 28 - Moon 5° from Regulus

Mercury – Mercury pops above the southwestern horizon around mid-month for a relatively poor evening apparition for northern observers (it is a pretty good one for those south of the equator). For most of the month Mercury hangs out with Mars and Antares. At magnitude -0.4, it is much brighter than the ‘Red Planet’. This evening apparition will continue into December.

Nov 15 - Mercury, Mars and Antares can fit within a 5° circle
Nov 20 - Mars and Mercury within 2° of each other 

Mars – Mars has fun this month with conjunctions with Mercury and 1st magnitude star Antares. Unfortunately, you’ll need an ultra-flat and ultra-clear southwestern horizon to see any of this. For most of us, the current Martian apparition is over. For the next few months the planet will be on the far side of the Sun and out of view.

Nov 7 - Mars 2° from the Moon
Nov 11 - Mars 4° from Antares 
Nov 15 - Mercury, Mars and Antares can fit within a 5° circle
Nov 20 - Mars and Mercury within 2° of each other 

Jupiter (and Uranus, too…) – ‘King of the Planets’ continues his reign as the uncontested ‘King of the Evening Sky’. though fading from magnitude -2.8 to -2.6, nothing but the Moon rivals it in brightness. Located on the Pisces/Aquarius border, Jupiter is easy to find in the south-south-east as it gets dark.

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 3.4° of +5.8 magnitude Uranus all month long.

Nov 16 - Moon within 7° of Jupiter and 6° of Uranus

Saturn – Saturn rises a few hours before the Sun. Located in Virgo, the ringed planet is a close match in brightness (mag +0.9) to the Spica, the brightest star in Virgo (mag +1.0). It’s rings are slowly opening up and are currently 9° from edge-on.

Nov 4 - Saturn within 7° of the Moon

Venus – After passing through inferior conjunction last month, Venus begins a 10-month stay in the morning sky. On Nov 1, Venus rises only a half an hour before the Sun in the eastern sky. By the middle of the month, it is up 2 hours before sunrise and 3 hours before sunrise by the end of the month. Unlike this year’s evening apparition which was poorly placed, Venus’ current stay in the morning sky will be a good one for northern observers.

Nov 5 - Moon 1° from Venus (but 12° from Sun)

Meteors

Meteor activity is near a yearly maximum in October. 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

Leonids (ORI) [Max Date = Nov 17, Max Rate = ~10-20 per hour]

The Leonids are the only November shower which can approach major shower status. Though this shower has produced some of the greatest meteor storms in history, in most year’s it produces a rather pedestrian 10-20 meteors per hour under dark skies. Now that we are 12 years removed from the last perihelion of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, the parent comet of the Leonids, rates should be low with little likelihood of any enhanced activity.

The following summary from the IMO  2010 Meteor Calendar states: “This year is not expected to produce enhanced rates, but theoretical work by Mikhail Maslov suggested peak ZHRs of ~ 20 might occur around November 17, 15h UT instead of at the usual nodal crossing time above [Nov 17, 21:15 UT]. ZHRs from that later possible peak are likely to be ~ 10–20. The waxing gibbous Moon will not set until 2 to 3 a.m. local time on November 17 across the mid-latitude globe (later moonsets for places further north). As the Leonid radiant rises usefully only around local midnight (or indeed afterwards south of the equator), there will still be plenty of dark-sky time between moonset and the onset of morning twilight to observe whatever happens this year. The ~ 15h UT peak timing would coincide with moonless skies from the extreme east of Russia east to Alaska and places at similar longitudes on the Pacific Ocean. The ~ 21h UT timing would favour locations at comparable longitudes to central-eastern Asia, from roughly India east to Japan/western Australia. Other possible maxima are not excluded, and observers should be alert as often as conditions allow throughout the shower, in case something unexpected happens.”

The Leonids appear to radiate from a spot in the ‘sickle’ of Leo. Like many showers, the radiant does not rise till after midnight and is not well placed until after 3 am.

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 103P/Hartley 2 – Comet 103P/Hartley 2 is now in retreat from the Earth and Sun. Though past peak brightness the comet starts the month only a few tenths of a magnitude fainter than at its best (around magnitude +4.7). By the end of the month the comet will have faded by a magnitude or more.

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 at a distance of 1.06 AU from the Sun and 0.14 AU from Earth. By mid-month it will be 1.09 AU from the Sun and 0.20 AU from Earth. At the end of the month, Hartley 2 will be 1.15 AU and 0.28 AU from the Sun and Earth, respectively.

Even though the comet is currently 4th to 5th magnitude and theoretically bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, in reality this is a difficult object to observe. With a coma diameter greater than 1° across, Under very dark skies the comet can be seen with the naked eye. For most of us under brighter skies, the comet is not visible naked eye object but is visible in small binoculars as a large (30’+) diffuse fuzz ball. Under my moderately light polluted sky (LM +5.5), the comet was a faint but easy object in 10×50 binoculars if you know exactly where to look. As always, the darker the sky the better.

The comet is still racing south along the winter Milky Way. It starts the month in southern Gemini before crossing through Canis Minor and Monoceros and ending the month in Puppis between the bright open clusters M46 and M47. It is a morning object and is highest in the sky before the start of dawn.

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On November 4 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 and Sky and Telescope.

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)

None

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 9.0)

(6) Hebe

(6) Hebe is a S-type asteroid with dimensions 205 x 185 x 170 km. Recent research suggests that it is the source of many ordinary chondrite meteorites and near-Earth asteroids.

This month Hebe is in Cetus and will fade from magnitude 8.4 to 9.0.

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.

Moon and Jupiter This Evening

This week Comet Hartley 2 is at its biggest and brightest and the Moon will wreck the show. This week the Orionid meteor shower is at its best and the Moon will wreck the show. But at least the Moon will  give us a consolation prize tonight as it teams up with the King of the Planets this evening.

Right after it gets dark this evening check out the Moon in the eastern sky. That brilliant ‘star’ below it is the planet Jupiter. If you have a pair of binoculars check out Jupiter up close. See if you can tell that Jupiter is a small globe rather than just a stellar point. Count how many of its 4 Galilean satellites are visible nearby. For a real challenge hunt for 5th magnitude Uranus only a few degrees away. For a finder chart for Uranus go here.

In the Sky This Month – October 2010

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

October 2010 Highlights 
* Comet 103P/Hartley 2 is a naked eye object under very dark skies
* Jupiter dominates the eastern evening sky
* Uranus remains within 3 degrees of Jupiter all month
* Orionids meteor shower will be washed out by bright Moonlight

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 - 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.

October 1 - Last Quarter 
October 2 - Moon 8° from Pollux 
October 3 - Moon 4° from Beehive Cluster 
October 4 - Moon 5° from Regulus
October 7 - New Moon 
October 9 - Moon 3° from Venus
October 10 - Moon 3° from Mars
October 11 - Moon 3° from Antares 
October 14 - First Quarter  
October 20 - Moon 7° from Jupiter and Uranus
October 23 - Full Moon
October 25 - Moon 1.5° from Pleiades 
October 26 - Moon 8° from Aldebaran
October 29 - Moon 8° from Pollux
October 30 - Last Quarter
October 30 - Moon 4° from Beehive Cluster

Venus – Venus starts the month very low in the SW sky at sunset. By the end of twilight it has already set. Conditions only get worse as it descends towards the Sun. By mid-month, Venus is invisible in the evening sky. After passing inferior conjunction on the 29th, Venus will rapidly climb higher in the morning sky and should be visible by early next month.

October 1 - Venus 7° S of Mars
October 9 - Moon passes within 3.4° of Venus 
October 29 - Venus at inferior conjunction

Mars – Mars continues its slow grind lower in the southwestern evening sky. At a relatively faint (for a planet anyway) magnitude of +1.5, Mars is only visible low in the SW during evening twilight.

October 1 - Mars 7° N of Venus
October 10 - Moon passes within 3° of Mars

Jupiter (and Uranus, too…) – This month the ‘King of the Planets’ is also the ‘King of the Evening Sky’. At magnitude -2.8 Jupiter is the brightest ‘star’ in the eastern evening sky. It is currently located on the Pisces/Aquarius border.

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 3° of +5.7 magnitude Uranus all month long.

October 20 - Moon within 7° of Jupiter and 6° of Uranus

Saturn – Saturn starts the month behind the Sun. By the end of the month, the +0.9 magnitude planet can be seen very low  in the eastern sky during dawn. It is currently located in Virgo and will be for the next year or so.

October 1 - Saturn at conjunction with Sun

Mercury - Mercury is rapidly dropping towards the Sun at the beginning of the month. By  the end of the first week of October it will be too close to the Sun to be seen.

October 17 - Mercury at Superior Conjunction

Meteors

Meteor activity is near a yearly maximum in October. 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

Orionids (ORI) [Max Date = Oct 21, 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 their high level of activity over the course of ~5 nights or so. This gives ample opportunity to catch a few Orionid meteors. Unfortunately this year the nearly Full Moon will severely hamper watching this shower.

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. During the last  two years rates reached 40-45 meteors per hour which is nearly half the rate observed in 2007 (70 per hour). With a bright Moon-lit sky, actual rates will be much lower making this a dificult year to see the Orionids.

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 earlier Orionids posting from 2008 and 2009.

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 103P/Hartley 2 – Comet 103P/Hartley 2 should be the comet of the year. Currently as bright as magnitude +5.5 to +6.5 magnitude, naked eye sightings of this comet have already been reported from very dark sites. The comet will continue to brighten during the course of the month.

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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 at a distance of 1.12 AU from the Sun and 0.18 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. Closest approach to Earth occurs on October 21 at 0.12 AU while closest approach to the Sun happens on October 28 at 1.06 AU. At the end of the month, Hartley 2 will be 1.06 AU and 0.14 AU from the Sun and Earth, respectively.

Last month there was concern that the comet was running much fainter than expected. Due to the large diffuse nature of its coma, many observers were underestimating the brightness of the comet. The comet still appears to be a little fainter than predicted but it should still brighten to a nice magnitude +4.5 to +5.0 by the end of October.

Under very dark skies the comet can already be seen with the naked eye. For most of the rest of us, Hartley 2 is a large (30’+) diffuse fuzz ball. Under my moderately light polluted sky (LM +5.5), the comet was a difficult object in 10×50 binoculars. As always, the darker the sky the better.

The comet is traversing the winter Milky Way and starts the month in Cassiopeia before running the length of Perseus and Auriga and ending the month in Gemini. It is visible all night long at the start of the month but becomes solely a morning object by mid-month.

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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 and Sky and Telescope.

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)

None

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 9.0)

(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 fade from magnitude 7.7 to 8.4. Just across the border in Aquarius Flora fades from magnitude 8.5 to 9.1.

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.

Around the Sky in 28 Days – Days 14-16

Tonight marks the Full Moon (9:18 UT, 2:18 am PDT, 3:18 am MDT, 4:18 am CDT, 5:18 am EDT). But that’s not it! Today is also the 1st day of Spring. Also both Jupiter and Uranus were at opposition only  2 days ago. As a result, the 1st Full Moon of autumn is located right next to a brilliant Jupiter and an easy to find Uranus.

The charts below show the location of the Moon, Jupiter and Uranus for the next 3 nights. Each chart is for the early evening a few hours after sunset.

Eastern sky a few hours after sunset on Sept. 22.

Eastern sky a few hours after sunset on Sept. 23.

Eastern sky a few hours after sunset on Sept. 24.

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Definitely take the opportunity to use a pair of binoculars or a telescope to take a peak at Jupiter. The planet is large enough to appear as a small globe even in the smallest of instruments. Also obvious are its 4 Galilean satellites (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto). The moons are surprisingly bright at 4th-5th magnitude and would be easy naked eye objects under a dark sky if they weren’t swamped by the glow of Jupiter. Note, all 4 moons may not be visible at any particular time since the moons can be located behind or even in front of Jupiter’s disk. The chart below shows the positions of the moons in the early evening of the 22nd.

Uranus is as bright as the faintest Galilean satellites and located not that much further away from Jupiter. While Jupiter is located 3.95 AU from Earth (about as close as it can get), Uranus is farther away at a distance of 19.09 AU. In small scopes, Uranus will probably look like a green star. At high magnifications one might notice the planet as a very small disk.

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.

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