Heads Up (Literally!)

Over at A Sky Full of Stars, Tavi and Rob have a post about tonight’s ‘sunset treats’.  Head on over and read up on how to catch Mercury next to the Pleiades, the Hyades, Vesta and Orion Nebula, and four open clusters (M35, M36, M37 and M38)  next to the crecent moon!

Planets putting on a show for the new year

Moon, Venus, Jupiter & Mercury in conjuntion

In case you missed it over the last few nights ( See this, this and this ) the planets Venus, Jupiter and Mercury, along with the Moon, are putting on a fantastic show in the South-East (for us in the Northern Hemisphere) at sunset for the start of the International Year of Astronomy 2009.   So get outside tonight, December 31, 2008 and enjoy the show!

Most impressive, of course, is Venus at Mag -4.27, and nearing it’s maximum elongation (which occurs on January 14th) and maximum apparent magnitude (which occurs between January 30th and February 8th at Mag -4.45).     Venus will pop into visibility almost as soon as the sun sets.  Because of the elongation (tonight it will be 46° 34′ 4″ away from the sun) it will appear about 34° up from the horizon.  Depending on sky conditions, and your eyes, you may be able to pick it out in daylight by using the moon as a guide.

The moon will be a waxing crescent just above Venus, shining at Mag. -9.22.

Jupiter and Mercury will be down close to the horizon, so you’ll only have a few minutes to catch them.  Jupiter will be the brighter of the two at Mag. -1.50, and Mercury will shine at a none-too-shabby -0.78 (brighter than all stars except two; Sol and Sirius).

If you have a telescope handy, you can also catch Uranus and Neptune in the sky close to Venus.

Tavi Greiner has photos from Monday here, here and here.

UPDATE: The sun is getting into the act.  See the prominences here.

Observation Log: 20081229 17:30

Oh. My. Lord.

I grabbed my Christmas present from the family, a pair of 8×56 Celestron Skymaster binoculars, and went out specifically to view the conjunction.

Wow.  Just… wow.  I had mostly clear skies, and the seeing wasn’t great due to some high altitude moisture.  Venus had a ring around it, it was so bright, and  I could pick out Jupiter with no problem.  Mercury couldn’t be seen at first except with the binoculars, but after about 20 minutes I could just make it out without them.

With the binocs, even against the skyglow, I could see 2 of the galilean moons.   I could see visible discs on all three planets (well, a half-disk on Venus).

All three of the planets were set against the 5% crescent moon, and the four objects were just beautiful together.  Every time I glanced up, until the moon set over the hills,  the moon and Venus reminded me of a parachute and payload, falling up through the sky.  I think it reminded me of the picture of the Phoenix lander that Phil Plait picked as his top picture of 2008.  That’s the one that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped with the HIRISE camera while Phoenix was on the way down.

If you missed it tonight, you have two more chances.  On Tuesday December 30, the moon will be slightly larger and higher in the sky, closer to Venus.  On Wednesday December 31, the moon will be just above Venus, and Jupiter and Mercury will be about 1.3 degrees apart.   This Week’s Sky at a Glance has some graphics of what you should be looking for.

UPDATE: Phil Plait also has an entry on his blog about the conjunction.

UPDATE 2: Tavi Greiner has photos here, here and here.

A moon, and four planets

If you’re into finding planets, a trio of naked-eye visible planets will bracket the waxing crescent moon tonight  ( December 29, 2008 ).   If you have clear skies tonight it’s definitely worth a trip outside just as the sun sets.

Moon and Four Planets

Moon and Four Planets

I’ve set up Stellarium for about a half-hour after Sunset (click the image for a larger version).   The moon is shown just below center of the picture, with Jupiter and Mercury below and to the right, and Venus and Neptune above and to the left.

Venus will be the easiest to spot, as it is almost Mag -5.   Jupiter ( Mag -1.88)  and Mercury (Mag 0.66)  will be harder to see, both because they are fainter and because they are immersed in the sunset glow.   However, if you have a good view of the western horizon you should have a good chance of seeing both.  Binoculars will enhance the view considerably.

Neptune is next to Venus, but you have no chance of seeing the Mag 7.95 planet of the Sea God unless you are using a scope, and even with a scope it’s going to be tough to spot against the sunset.

Also shown is the asteroid Juno, but buried in the sunset you have almost zero chance of seeing this tiny ( 300km ) object, even with a telescope.

Jupiter and Venus in the morning

Here’s a snapshot I took with a handheld camera at 6:30 this morning of Jupiter (not Mercury, as I had incorrectly identified it earlier) and Venus together. Venus is the brighter one (obviously) at -3.94, while Jupiter is at -1.83. They’re only about half a degree apart ( 0°35’6” ). All I had was a cheap Kodak digital, and I braced against my car in order to steady myself. The streak to the left of the planets is a jet contrail that I had to wait for as it passed in front of them.


Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Beta Scorpii on December 10th

If you go out before sunrise on Sunday, December 10, and look in the ESE, (binoculars will help a lot) you should see Mercury, Mars and Jupiter in a conjunction with the star Beta Scorpii. All four objects will fit in a 1.1° field of view. Sky and Telescope magazine’s “This Weeks Sky at a Glance” page has a write up near the bottom.