Monday, April 30, 2012

May Celestial Events

Celestial Events: May 2012
April 30: Venus at greatest brilliancy. Magnitude -4.5
April 30: First quarter Moon forms a tight triangle with Regulus and Mars.  
May 20: Annular eclipse of the sun. Begins at sunset here.
May 22: Venus is next to the thin crescent moon in the bright evening twilight at 9:00 p.m.
May 31: Gibbous moon forms a straight line with Saturn and Spica.

Such is our view from Earth...

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Moon meets Venus in Taurus

The crescent moon entered the constellation Taurus to join Venus in our early evening sky tonight. This magical scene was made even more mysterious by fast passing clouds riding the latest front.
Tomorrow night, the moon will be higher in the sky, farther from Venus.  Over the next few weeks, Venus drops closer to the horizon and closer to the sun as it catches the Earth. It eventually passes exactly between the Earth and the sun on June 5. Then the brilliant planet enters our morning sky.

Such is our view from Earth...

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Our Moon Positions Itself next to Jupiter, then Venus

Tonight, our moon positions itself next to mighty Jupiter very low in the western sky directly after sunset. If you have a good view of the western horizon, catch this sight through binoculars. It will likely be the last time you see Jupiter for a month or two. In July mornings it will be found peeking above the eastern horizon before sunrise.

Tuesday night features the moon glowing next to brilliant Venus. This just might be the prettiest moon - planet pairing of 2012.

Such is our view from Earth...

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Saturn Saunters in the early evening Spring Sky

This is the best time of year to spot Saturn in our early evening sky. Of the five "bright" planets, it is the farthest and the dimmest. It does not blaze forth, nor does it shine brightly. It appears as another bright star.

Look to the southeast about 9:30 p.m. for Saturn and another object of similar brightness, Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. In the accompanying top image, Saturn lies just to the upper left of Spica. Saturn appears a tad bit brighter than Spica. The four quadrangle stars of Corvus lie to Spica's far right. To top two stars of that quadrangle point left directly to Spica, helping to identify it.

The planet takes about 29 years to orbit the sun, and, as a result, it moves quite slowly across the celestial sphere. It takes 29 years to move through all the zodiacal constellations along the ecliptic before it returns to its starting spot.

The bottom image shows Saturn and Spica as they were on April 28, 2011. Saturn was to Spica's upper right, near the moderately bright star Porrima. In the past year, it has crawled only 1/14 across the evening's celestial dome. Next year about this date, it will have moved another 1/14 across the sky far to Spica's lower left. 

Such is our view from Earth...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mars moves Eastward

The planets, including Mars, normally move eastward across the celestial dome. Occasionally, they shift directions and head west. This is what Mars has been doing since January. Tonight, the Red Planet reaches as far west in the constellation Leo as it gets. Tomorrow, it begins its proper movement heading east, albeit very slowly.

This is all due to the Earth overtaking Mars in early March.

Look for Mars tonight when it lies just east of the bright star Regulus. Mars will be brighter. At 10 p.m. Mars shines high in the south. To find it, first find the Big Dipper. The two sets of bowl stars point south directly to Leo and Regulus.

The bottom photo was captured on March 15, the next one on April 11. The westward change of position of Mars can be easily seen. After tonight, Mars creeps eastward for the next two years.

Such is our view from Earth...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Zodiacal Light, your best opportunity to see it

An often missed sight in our night sky is the Zodiacal Light. This cone shaped western glow found 90 minutes after sunset is never bright, but always occurs. The Zodiacal Light is simply the combined sunlight reflected off minute dust grains orbiting our sun. Most of the dust lies in the plane of the ecliptic and, therefore, its reflected sunlight can be found on or near the ecliptic band as seen from Earth.

During April, the ecliptic band stands nearly straight up from the western horizon after sunset. Once twilight ends and true night begins, the Zodiacal Light rises almost straight up from the western horizon to perhaps 45 degrees, maybe less. Careful observers notice that it tilts slightly to the left as does the ecliptic band.

In April, the Pleiades and Hyades frame the cone, and this year, Venus joins the scene. This phenomenon can be seen from a dark location with a dark western horizon until moonlight interferes on April 22.

Such is our view from Earth.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Celestial Line up

Saturn, Spica, and the Moon line up tonight. The planet is farthest to the left, or east, with Spica in the middle. The bright glare of the moon nearly overpowers Spica, and not so much Saturn. Tomorrow night (Saturday) the moon moves below the other two objects.

Such is our view from Earth...

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Venus says goodbye to the Pleiades

Venus begins to leave the Pleiades behind after their close encounter on Tuesday and Wednesday. For the next several weeks, each night the Pleiades sinks closer to the horizon and Venus trails higher in the sky. Keep an eye on Venus as it remains very bright, brilliant really.vBy mid-May, the planet will be lost from view as it approaches the sun.

Such is our view from Earth...

Moon, Spica, Saturn line up

The moon can be a guide to identifying other celestial bodies. Friday night, the full moon forms a straight line with the bright star Spica and the planet Saturn. Look to the east at 10 p.m. The moon may act as a guide, but it can also be a hinderance with its glare. Can you spot Spica immediately to its left and Saturn immediately to Spica's left?

A good way of finding Spica, without the moon's help, is to first locate the handle of the Big Dipper. At this time of year, the Dipper is high in the northeast after darkness falls. Continue the handle's arc until it hits Arcturus, the second brightest star from Virginia. Follow the arc more, and it hits Spica.

Such is our view from Earth...

Monday, April 2, 2012

Venus finally meets the Pleiades

Venus finally catches the Pleiades. After a week of inching closer to the famous star cluster, Venus begins to pass directly underneath it. The planet's glare blocks the relatively faint light of the Pleiades, so binoculars definitely will be useful in seeing for yourself the scene. Over the next couple of nights, Venus moves below then above the cluster's stars.

Such is our view from Earth...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Celestial Highlights for April

Celestial Highlights for April

4/02, 03, 04: Venus passes the Pleiades, skirting its southern edge. Before these dates, Venus rises slightly higher each evening to catch the Pleiades. After these dates, Venus lies above the Pleiades. As April progresses, Venus drops closer to the set sun each evening.
4/02: The ten day old gibbous moon forms a straight line with Regulus and Mars.
4/06: When the full moon rises high enough, about 10:30 p.m., it can be see forming a straight line with Saturn and Spica.
4/15: Saturn reaches opposition and is at its annual closest to the Earth, orbiting 810 million miles from our fair blue world. This is the best time of year to view it and its beautiful ring system.
4/15: Mars ends retrograde motion, just east of Regulus. During April and May, observe the motion of Mars in Leo. It can be found drifting slowly towards Regulus, then abruptly changing direction and begin moving away from Leo’s brightest star.
4/22: If you are inclined to test your observing skills on a challenge event, look for the thin crescent Moon sinking in the bright western twilight next to Jupiter. They both should be very low at 8:30 p.m. Binoculars will help.
4/24: For a great photo opportunity, look to the west at 9:00 p.m. for the thin crescent Moon hovering near Venus. The Moon will be full with Earthshine lending a magical air to the scene. This is the last Moon/Venus pairing before the Venus transit on June 5.

Such is our view from Earth...