It’s landing day for Perseverance and all eyes are on the Red Planet.
The rover spent the last seven months flying the roughly 125-million-mile (202 million kilometers) distance to Mars on a quest to find signs of ancient life. Later today (Feb. 18), the mission will begin a daring “seven minutes of terror“-type descent, and if all goes well, its wheel touchdown will signal the beginning of the most powerful rover yet to roam the Martian surface.
Perseverance will broadcast information back in high-definition 4K, set aside promising rock samples for a sample-return mission and launch the first interplanetary helicopter — all while photographing, laser-targeting and investigating targets in the ancient delta of Jezero Crater.
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This mission has been a decade in the making and as such, various officials from NASA expressed a lot of excitement and trepidation in a press conference Wednesday (Feb. 17). Also, understanding Perseverance best comes after putting it in context with the 50 or so years of Mars missions that came before. The groundwork to this life-seeking mission began with exploring signs of water from orbit, landing a few missions, and then sending out the first rovers in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The first long-running rover missions were Spirit and Opportunity, which landed in 2004 and lasted until about 2010 and 2018, respectively. “[We were] following the water, trying to understand the history of water on Mars and understanding if there were ever a time when there was enough liquid water present on the surface of Mars to support life,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said in the press conference.
“That was followed, of course, by Curiosity [in 2012] — where we really took the next step to understand the habitable environments on Mars. We were able to confirm the presence of a lake of liquid water on the surface of Mars that was sustained over a period of time, and also identify the complex organic molecules that would be the building blocks for life.
“We’ve built on all of that knowledge to prepare ourselves now with the Perseverance rover,” Glaze continued, “which is going to take that next step — to really, actually look for those signs of life.”
Landing on Mars is the first planetary challenge the Perseverance rover, or “Percy” for short, will face as it whips into the atmosphere. Most Martian landing sites of past missions were wider plains, but Jezero Crater has more interesting terrain — craters, rock fields, sand dunes, a wealth of places to explore.
“All those things also represent landing hazards for the spacecraft,” warned Matt Wallace, Perseverance deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “So we do have a new hazard avoidance capability we call terrain-relative navigation, which we’ll employ for the first time.”
In the last minutes before landing, Perseverance will use artificial intelligence to scan for the safest landing site below — and then it will make final adjustments to touch down softly on the surface. The computer-directed landing is a necessity because the light speed between Earth and Mars is too great for somebody to hand-steer the rover remotely, all the way down.
Controllers have not been idle these last few months, however, rather spending the time to make sure Perseverance will stick its crucial landing. Indeed, for about nine years before Perseverance launched, they were already discussing how the last few minutes of the mission would proceed, Wallace said. In more recent weeks, there was lots of practice also, preparation of the various systems.
“Our [pyrotechnic] systems are armed and ready to execute the deployments necessary to execute entry, descent and landing,” Wallace said. “We have tested out our engines and our guidance sensors — they are ready to go, and really we just have a few more [planned] interactions with the spacecraft. But if necessary, Perseverance could land itself already, without any more help.”
The next step after landing is to start communications with Earth. Perseverance can send back simple “tones” or communications without data attached to it, and an orbiting spacecraft known as Mars Atmospheric and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) can send back a little more data a few hours after landing.
But what is really required for real-time updates is the muscle of the long-running Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), a frequent relayer of information from surface spacecraft. MRO recently received a new set of software to relay data from the rover, said Allen Chen, Perseverance’s entry, descent, and landing lead, at JPL. The data sent back during landing will be slow at only eight kilobits per second, roughly half the speed of a dial-up Internet connection, but it will be valuable to see how the spacecraft did.
“We’ll be able to show you what’s going on in real time — and show ourselves as well,” Chen said. “We’ll be able to see what mode we’re in, where we think Perseverance is looking, how fast we’re going, how high we are above the ground, even an estimate of how much fuel we have left as well. We hope to use that to assess what’s going on and to show everybody else what’s going on, as it’s happening.”
All of MRO’s and Perseverance’s information will be useful to numerous future landing missions, NASA officials said, allowing spacecraft in years to come to fly and land more precisely. Such information would in fact be useful for any world with an atmosphere, such as the intriguing moon of Saturn, Titan, which has prebiotic chemistry and may help us understand more about the origins of life in the solar system.
The first few weeks after Percy’s landing will be intense, as the team temporarily works on “Mars time” (a Martian day or “sol” of 24 hours, 37 minutes) to make the most of the first action-packed weeks on the surface. Data will flow back constantly from the rover to the science team, which will need to interpret what they see and then figure out what to do the next day. Next, that information needs to be coded into the rover and sent to Mars for execution.
“This is a very fast-paced, high-stakes operation. It’s kind of a race to get it done. And it also involves literally hundreds of people having to work together seamlessly. I can tell you, this is not what scientists usually do. Scientists do not usually perform under these kinds of circumstances,” Ken Farley, Perseverance project scientist at the California Institute of Technology, said at the press conference.
So JPL — as JPL often does — turned to simulation. Farley said the team sent scientists out to the Nevada desert with instruments for a week to simulate rover activities, while the rest of the science team remained at JPL or at home — a necessity given that everyone still needs to largely self-quarantine amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“One special skill we’ve had to pay attention to — and it’s different than ever before — is the science team is not going to be shoulder-to-shoulder doing this for the foreseeable future,” Farley said. “We are going to be operating remotely. So literally, the science mission is going to be executed from people’s living rooms and bedrooms, all around the country and all around the world. It’s spectacular that we are able to do that. It’s a big challenge and I think we are ready.”
Ground images from the rover will be needed to figure out the best and safest pathway forward for exploration. Perseverance’s wheels are beefed up compared to the delicate wheels of Curiosity, which got unexpectedly torn up due to tough terrain in its early mission before JPL made driving adaptations. Using images from Perseverance and orbit, the team will look for key scientific targets — “rocks that we think will tell us the most about the geologic history of Jezero Crater,” Farley said.
“They are the places where we think there may be evidence for past life on Mars, where we might find biosignatures and places where we are likely to collect samples, so getting onto that trajectory will be something that we do very early in the mission,” he added.
“So, I can tell you that the science team is very excited for this transition. And I personally am extremely excited for those first images that are going to come back. They will be fabulous from a scientific point of view and also, a huge milestone after so many years of effort in this mission.
Visit Space.com today for complete coverage of the Perseverance Mars rover’s landing on the Red Planet.
Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow uson Twitter @Spacedotcomand on Facebook.
Based on the latest national forecast, skies will be mainly clear on Saturday evening (Oct. 31) across about 90% of the contiguous United States, as costumed kids arrive at the door looking for candy or some other Halloween treat.
A storm moving across Lake Superior will drag a cold front across parts of the Northern Plains and western Great Lakes. It’s not likely to bring any precipitation, but perhaps will spread some cloudiness across parts of North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. ADVERTISINGnull
The rest of the country, however, will be in fine shape with a bright full moon lighting up the evening sky. More on that in a moment.
If you plan to accompany children around your neighborhood, you might want to enlighten them by pointing out some of the objects that will be visible in the sky. Of course, in this year of the coronavirus pandemic, you will need to take extra precautions. Be sure that youngsters are wearing face masks; they can help curb the spread of the coronavirus and to protect other people. And remember physical distancing of at least 6 feet (2 meters) from others. It can make a big difference!
“King of the planets” and the “Lord of the Rings”
Jupiter and Saturn will be the first objects to vie for attention as the sky darkens; about a half-hour after sunset both will be near their highest point in sky, about one-third of the way up from the south-southwest horizon. You really can’t miss them; Jupiter — the largest planet in our solar system — appears to shine with a very bright, silvery-white light, while dimmer Saturn, shining sedately with a yellowish tinge will also be evident slightly above and to the left of the “king of the planets.”
With even a small telescope using low magnification you’ll be able to see Jupiter’s disk as well as all four of the famous Galilean moons, so named because Galileo Galilei was the first to see them with his own crude telescope in 1610. On this Halloween night, you’ll see one satellite all by itself on one side of Jupiter — that will be Europa — while the other three reside on the other side of Jupiter.
Going outward from Jupiter will be Io, Ganymede and finally Callisto.null
But as interesting as Jupiter is with its obvious disk and four bright moons, many will consider Saturn as the most beautiful of all the planets. Saturn’s rings are still wide open, with the north face tilted some nearly 21 degrees to our line of sight.
But if you hope to show off the moon, Jupiter and Saturn to trick-or-treaters through a telescope, do it as soon as it gets dark because later in the evening their images likely will be shivering and churning about, due to poor viewing quality near the horizon. Jupiter will set around 10:20 p.m. local time and Saturn about a half hour later.
The god of war
There’s another very bright and more colorful planet that will attract the attention of most folks: Mars, a fiery-colored object hovering in the eastern sky as twilight ends. Its reddish-orange tinge suggested the color of blood, which is why this planet was named for the Roman god of war.
Almost four weeks ago, Mars made the closest approach it will make to Earth until 2035. Its distance from us on Halloween night has since receded from 38.6 million miles (62.1 million kilometers) to 43.4 million miles (69.8 million km) and is virtually a match with Jupiter for brilliance at magnitude -2.1. Through even a small telescope it will show up as an orange-yellow disk with some darker markings streaked across its surface. Admittedly not as impressive as Jupiter’s moons or Saturn’s rings, but still, some of your neighborhood ghosts and goblins will likely want to see it nonetheless.
Of course, the main celestial object that will attract everyone’s attention will be the moon, which will be full on Halloween. I suppose that next to Christmas Eve night, the holiday that is most associated with a full moon is Halloween. Who can forget, for example, that scene in the annual Halloween classic, “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown,” when the silhouette of Snoopy — not the “Great Pumpkin” — rises up out of the pumpkin patch, backdropped by a bright full moon?
This will also be the second full moon in October 2020, so it will also be branded a “Blue Moon.” The phrase “Once in a blue moon” was first noted in 1824 and refers to occurrences that are uncommon, though not truly rare. Yet, to have two full moons in the same month is not as uncommon as one might think. In fact, it occurs, on average, about every 32 months.
But to have a full moon coincide with Halloween is truly quite rare.
I did a survey of the dates of all full moons occurring from 1900 to 2100 and found that — across all United States time zones — there are only eight Halloween full moons that take place: in 1906, 1925, 1944, 2020, 2039, 2058, 2077 and 2096.
Notice that there is an interval of 19 years running in between most of these years. That’s the Metonic Cycle, defined as 235 synodic lunar months, a period which is just 1 hour 27 minutes and 33 seconds longer than 19 tropical years (a tropical year is equal to 365.2422 days). So, most of the time, a full moon recurs on the same date after 19 years has elapsed.
But unfortunately, the cycle is not exact, and as a result there are occasions where a full moon will recur one day later. That was the case in 1963, 1982 and 2001 — when the full moon fell not on Halloween, but the following day (Nov. 1). Our Halloween full moon this year breaks a 76-year drought going back to 1944. However, after this year, the Metonic Cycle will work to bring a Halloween full moon back to us at 19-year intervals four more times, through the rest of the 21st century.
Still, over a span of two centuries, a full moon occurring on Halloween only happens about 4% of the time.
Or truly, once in a blue moon!
Helpful hints for young telescope viewers
In the September 2019 issue of The Astronomical League Magazine “Reflector,” author Richard W. Schmude Jr., offered some tips for those who plan to do a public outreach for astronomy on Halloween:
“Firstly, children sometimes grab or touch the eyepiece, so use an inexpensive one. I gently warn children not to touch the telescope. In my area, parents have learned to tell their children not to touch the telescope. In some cases, a child will grab the eyepiece, causing the telescope to shift. For this reason, a Dobsonian telescope with a good finderscope is a good choice for Halloween outreach. A small stool or booster ladder may help very small viewers. Sometimes, parents hold their children up to look through the eyepiece. One may also place a monitor-connected video camera in the telescope and people can easily see the object on a screen.” (I would add that in this year of the pandemic, that might be the solution of all). “Finally,” adds Mr. Schmude, “I have my bag of goodies next to my telescope so that the children get two treats!”
On a night this past summer, soon after sunset, a number of people gathered at a little-league field, not far from my home, eagerly awaiting nightfall and the appearance of the stars. We had also gathered there because there wasn’t much in the way of light pollution and we were afforded a clear and unobstructed view toward the northwest. As the sky darkened, we finally could see it: Comet NEOWISE, displaying a lovely, curved tail.
“Not a bad show, considering we’re looking at a cosmic litterbug,” I said to the coterie of comet gazers. “Really, what we’re looking at is a piece of garbage out in space; think of that beautiful tail as ‘cosmic litter’; little pieces of dust and grit left behind by NEOWISE, all cluttering up the solar system.” nullADVERTISINGnull
If you step outside before dawn during the next week or so, you might try to catch a view of cosmic litter that has been left behind in space by an even more famous comet: Halley’s. We call that cosmic litter the Orionid meteor shower. And 2020 will be an excellent year to look for them, since the moon will be a slender crescent, four days past new phase and will have set before 9:30 p.m. local time on the night of their peak activity, and will not pose any hindrance whatsoever to prospective meteor observers.
If the December Geminids and August Perseids can be considered ranking as the “first string” among the annual meteor showers in terms of brightness and reliability, then the Orionids are on the junior varsity. This year they are scheduled to reach their maximum before sunrise on Wednesday morning (Oct. 21).
The name “Orionid” comes from the fact that the radiant — that spot on the sky from where the meteors appear to fan out from — is just above Orion’s second brightest star, ruddy Betelgeuse.
Currently, the Orion constellation appears ahead of us in our journey around the sun and has not completely risen above the eastern horizon until after 11 p.m. local daylight time. At its best several hours later, at around 5 a.m., Orion will be highest in the sky toward the south.
But to see the greatest number of meteors, don’t look in the direction of the radiant, but rather about 30 degrees from it, in the direction of the point directly overhead (the zenith). Your clenched fist held at arm’s length is roughly equivalent to 10 degrees wide, so looking “three fists” up from Betelgeuse will be where to concentrate your view. null
Best times to watch
Orionid visibility extends from Oct. 16 to Oct. 26, with peak activity of perhaps 15 to 30 meteors per hour coming on the morning of Oct. 21. Step outside before sunrise on any of these mornings and if you catch sight of a meteor, there’s about a 75% chance that it likely is a byproduct of Halley’s Comet. The very last Orionid stragglers usually appear sometime in early to mid-November.
The best time to watch begins from about 1 or 2 a.m. local daylight time until the first light of dawn (at around 5:45 a.m.), when Orion stands highest above the southern horizon. The higher in the sky Orion is, the more meteors appear all over the sky. The Orionids are one of just a handful of known meteor showers that can be observed equally well from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
Orionid meteors are normally dim and not well seen from urban locations, so it’s suggested that you find a safe rural location to see the best Orionid activity.
“They are easily identified … from their speed,” authors David Levy and Stephen Edberg wrote in their book, “Observe Meteors: The Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers Meteor Observer’s Guide” (Astronomical League, 1986). “At 66 kilometers (41 miles) per second, they appear as fast streaks, faster by a hair than their sisters, the Eta Aquarids of May. And like the Eta Aquarids, the brightest family members tend to leave long-lasting trains. Fireballs are possible three days after maximum.”
Undoubtedly this is connected in some way to the makeup of Halley’s Comet.
Comets are the leftovers of the earliest days of the solar system, the odd bits and pieces of simple gases — methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide and water vapor — that went unused when the sun and planets came into their present form. Meteoroids that are released into space out of this cometary debris are the remnants of a comet’s nucleus. All comets eventually disintegrate into meteor swarms and Halley’s is well into that process at this time.
These tiny particles — mostly ranging in size from dust to sand grains — remain along the original comet’s orbit, creating a “river of rubble” in space. In the case of Halley’s Comet, its dirty trail of debris has been distributed more or less uniformly all along its entire orbit. When these tiny bits of comet collide with Earth, friction with our atmosphere raises them to white heat and produces the effect popularly referred to as “shooting stars.”
And Halley’s Comet has left a legacy that is visible to us in the form of not just one, but two annual meteor showers. This is because its orbit closely approaches the Earth’s orbit at two different places. One intersection point (alluded to by Levy and Edberg) is in the early part of May, producing a meteor display known as the Eta Aquarids. The other point comes right now, in the middle to latter part of October, producing the Orionids.
At this moment in time, Halley itself is nearing the far end of its long elliptical path around the sun, out beyond the orbit of Neptune. Its last visit through the inner solar system was in the winter of 1986. It will arrive at aphelion — its farthest point from the sun, 3.28 billion miles (5.28 billion km) — in early December 2023. Thereafter, it will begin its long journey back toward the sun, due to return in the midsummer of 2061. If you were born any time after 1983, you probably have a better than 50-50 chance to catch it on its next return.
But for folks like myself — who will probably not be around when it returns — the Orionids will give us a chance to at least catch a view of some of the cosmic debris Halley has left behind in its wake.
'Tis the season to stargaze! 🌠 Tuesday until Thursday the Perseids will be at their peak, with the best time for viewing in the pre-dawn hours of Aug 12. Make sure you are in a dark area and give your eyes at least 30 minutes to adjust. #PAwxpic.twitter.com/vR2q0cJ8Cs
The spacecraft may have found where the colorless gas has been hiding on the solar system’s biggest planetary inhabitant.
New results from NASA’s Juno mission at Jupiter suggest our solar system’s largest planet is home to what’s called “shallow lightning.” An unexpected form of electrical discharge, shallow lightning originates from clouds containing an ammonia-water solution, whereas lightning on Earth originates from water clouds.
Other new findings suggest the violent thunderstorms for which the gas giant is known may form slushy ammonia-rich hailstones Juno’s science team calls “mushballs”; they theorize that mushballs essentially kidnap ammonia and water in the upper atmosphere and carry them into the depths of Jupiter’s atmosphere.Get the Latest JPL News: Subscribe to the Newsletter »
The shallow-lightning findings will be published Thursday, Aug. 6, in the journal Nature, while the mushballs research is currently available online in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.
Since NASA’s Voyager mission first saw Jovian lightning flashes in 1979, it has been thought that the planet’s lightning is similar to Earth’s, occurring only in thunderstorms where water exists in all its phases – ice, liquid, and gas. At Jupiter this would place the storms around 28 to 40 miles (45 to 65 kilometers) below the visible clouds, with temperatures that hover around 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius, the temperature at which water freezes). Voyager, and all other missions to the gas giant prior to Juno, saw lightning as bright spots on Jupiter’s cloud tops, suggesting that the flashes originated in deep water clouds. But lightning flashes observed on Jupiter’s dark side by Juno’s Stellar Reference Unit tell a different story.
“Juno’s close flybys of the cloud tops allowed us to see something surprising – smaller, shallower flashes – originating at much higher altitudes in Jupiter’s atmosphere than previously assumed possible,” said Heidi Becker, Juno’s Radiation Monitoring Investigation lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and the lead author of the Nature paper.
Becker and her team suggest that Jupiter’s powerful thunderstorms fling water-ice crystals high up into the planet’s atmosphere, over 16 miles (25 kilometers) above Jupiter’s water clouds, where they encounter atmospheric ammonia vapor that melts the ice, forming a new ammonia-water solution. At such lofty altitude, temperatures are below minus 126 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 88 degrees Celsius) – too cold for pure liquid water to exist. https://www.youtube.com/embed/tq_6DClZ0Ns
This animation takes the viewer on a simulated journey into Jupiter’s exotic high-altitude electrical storms. Get an up-close view of Mission Juno’s newly discovered “shallow lighting” flashes and dive into the violent atmospheric jet of the Nautilus cloud. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill
“At these altitudes, the ammonia acts like an antifreeze, lowering the melting point of water ice and allowing the formation of a cloud with ammonia-water liquid,” said Becker. “In this new state, falling droplets of ammonia-water liquid can collide with the upgoing water-ice crystals and electrify the clouds. This was a big surprise, as ammonia-water clouds do not exist on Earth.”
The shallow lightning factors into another puzzle about the inner workings of Jupiter’s atmosphere: Juno’s Microwave Radiometer instrument discovered that ammonia was depleted – which is to say, missing – from most of Jupiter’s atmosphere. Even more puzzling was that the amount of ammonia changes as one moves within Jupiter’s atmosphere.
“Previously, scientists realized there were small pockets of missing ammonia, but no one realized how deep these pockets went or that they covered most of Jupiter,”said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “We were struggling to explain the ammonia depletion with ammonia-water rain alone, but the rain couldn’t go deep enough to match the observations. I realized a solid, like a hailstone, might go deeper and take up more ammonia. When Heidi discovered shallow lightning, we realized we had evidence that ammonia mixes with water high in the atmosphere, and thus the lightning was a key piece of the puzzle.”
This graphic depicts the evolutionary process of “shallow lightning” and “mushballs” on Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/CNRS › Full image and caption
A second paper, released yesterday in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets,envisions the strange brew of 2/3 water and 1/3 ammonia gas that becomes the seed for Jovian hailstones, known as mushballs. Consisting of layers of water-ammonia slush and ice covered by a thicker water-ice crust, mushballs are generated in a similar manner as hail is on Earth – by growing larger as they move up and down through the atmosphere.
“Eventually, the mushballs get so big, even the updrafts can’t hold them, and they fall deeper into the atmosphere, encountering even warmer temperatures, where they eventually evaporate completely,” said Tristan Guillot, a Juno co-investigator from the Université Côte d’Azur in Nice, France, and lead author of the second paper. “Their action drags ammonia and water down to deep levels in the planet’s atmosphere. That explains why we don’t see much of it in these places with Juno’s Microwave Radiometer.”
“Combining these two results was critical to solving the mystery of Jupiter’s missing ammonia,” said Bolton. “As it turned out, the ammonia isn’t actually missing; it is just transported down while in disguise, having cloaked itself by mixing with water. The solution is very simple and elegant with this theory: When the water and ammonia are in a liquid state, they are invisible to us until they reach a depth where they evaporate – and that is quite deep.”
Understanding the meteorology of Jupiter enables us to develop theories of atmospheric dynamics for all the planets in our solar system as well as for the exoplanets being discovered outside our solar system. Comparing how violent storms and atmospheric physics work across the solar system allows planetary scientists to test theories under different conditions.
JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built and operates the spacecraft.
The comet is currently bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye, if you know where to look. It’s already delighting sky-watchers across the Northern Hemisphere who have been rising before dawn to gaze at the glowing celestial traveler.
Chris Schur, an astrophotographer based in Payson, Arizona, describes the comet as “gorgeous.” When he trained his binoculars on it on the morning of July 7, he estimated that its tail spanned about five degrees in length, which is about 10 times the apparent size of the full moon. If the tail continues to grow, which astronomers say is possible, “it could be very dramatic,” Schur says.
For the next week or so, NEOWISE will be strictly a predawn target. To see it, head outside at least 45 minutes before sunrise and look just above the northeastern horizon. The bright star Capella can serve as a marker, as the comet lies just below it, while the brilliant planet Venus is visible to the east. In about a week’s time, the comet will transition to the evening sky, making it even easier to spot. Beginning around mid-July, the comet will be visible in the northwestern sky after sunset, arcing slowly upward beneath the stars of the Big Dipper.
Comet NEOWISE was captured over Lebanon in this composite image, composed of photos taken on July 8.Photograph by Maroun Habib
To have the best chance of glimpsing the celestial transient, a little planning goes a long way. “It’s not like you’re just going to glance up and, Oh wow, there it is!” says Dave Schleicher, a senior astronomer at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. “You need to have a good idea of where to look—and binoculars will help.”
Named for the space telescope used to discover it in late March, the comet’s full official moniker is C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). It made its closest approach to the sun, known as perihelion, on July 3, and the fact that the comet is still visible at all has sky-watchers breathing a sigh of relief. Many comets don’t survive the heat of a close approach to our host star. Comets, often described as “dirty snowballs,” are made up of rock, dust, gases, and ice—a combination that doesn’t always hold together in extreme temperatures. https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html?n=0
“As it comes closer to the sun, it heats up, it blows off all kinds of material, and you get a spectacular tail,” says Laura Danly, curator of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. “But sometimes they just fall apart completely, and they disappear.”
NEOWISE seems to be a survivor, emerging from its encounter with the sun sporting a long tail of gas and dust. “We’ve already gone past that point of closest approach, and the comet is still there,” Danly says. “So we can hope for another month of good viewing.”
Several factors determine the comet’s brightness. Having passed the sun, it’s now reflecting less of the star’s light toward us, but it is also getting closer to Earth. NEOWISE will make its closest approach on July 22, when it comes within 64 million miles of our home planet. After that, it will gradually fade from view as it heads back to the outer reaches of the solar system. https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html?n=0
To catch the best view, should you get up early to see the comet this week, or wait until later in the month when it’s more conveniently positioned in the evening sky? Many sky-watchers, fearing that the comet’s show may be fleeting, suggest setting a morning alarm and seeing the comet as soon as possible. And with many people feeling a bit stir-crazy due to the pandemic, a passing comet might be the perfect excuse to get outside and engage with nature, Danly says.
“Get your kids up early, if you have them, or get yourself up early, and go see this beautiful sight,” she says. “And maybe stay for the sunrise.”
The next full Moon will be early Sunday morning, July 5, 2020, appearing opposite the Sun at 12:44 a.m. EDT. This will be a partial penumbral eclipse of the Moon, visible from most of North America.
The next full Moon is called the Buck Moon, Thunder Moon, Hay Moon, Mead Moon, Rose Moon, Guru Moon, and Dharma Day. There also will be a partial penumbral lunar eclipse.
The next full Moon will be just after midnight on Sunday morning, July 5, 2020, appearing opposite the Sun (in Earth-based longitude) at 12:44 a.m. EDT. The Moon will be close enough to opposite the Sun that its northern edge will pass through the partial shadow of the Earth — called a partial penumbral eclipse.
Although visible from the Americas, this slight dimming of part of the Moon should be difficult or impossible to notice without instrumentation. The Moon will appear full for about three days around the eclipse, from Friday evening into Monday morning, making this a full Moon weekend.
The Maine Farmer’s Almanac first published “Indian” names for the full Moons in the 1930’s. According to this almanac, as the full Moon in July and the first full Moon of summer, the Algonquin tribes of what is now the northeastern United States called this full Moon the Buck Moon. Early summer is normally when the new antlers of buck deer push out of their foreheads in coatings of velvety fur. They also called this the Thunder Moon because of early summer’s frequent thunderstorms.
As usual, the wearing of suitably celebratory celestial attire is encouraged in honor of the full Moon.
Europeans called this full Moon the Hay Moon for the haymaking in June and July, and sometimes the Mead Moon (although this name and “Honey Moon” were also used for the previous full Moon). Mead is created by fermenting honey mixed with water, sometimes adding fruits, spices, grains, or hops.
Another European name is the Rose Moon, although some use this name for the previous full Moon. Some sources indicate the name “Rose Moon” comes from the roses that bloom in late June. Others report that the name comes from the color of the full Moon this time of year.
The orbit of the Moon around the Earth is almost in the same plane as the orbit of the Earth around the Sun (only about 5 degrees off). When the Sun appears highest in the sky near the summer solstice, the full Moon opposite the Sun appears low in the sky. For Europe’s higher latitudes, the full Moon nearest the summer solstice shines through more atmosphere than at other times of the year, making it more likely to have a reddish color (for the same reasons that sunrises and sunsets are red).
For 2020, this full Moon in early July is closer to the summer solstice and will be lower in the sky than the full Moon in June. For the Washington, D.C. area, on the morning of July 5, 2020, the full Moon will reach only 26.2 degrees above the southern horizon at its highest for the night, about 1.5 degrees lower in the sky than the full Moon was in early June.
For Hindus this is the Guru Full Moon (Guru Purnima) and is celebrated as a time for clearing the mind and honoring the guru or spiritual master. For Buddhists, this full Moon is Dharma Day, also known as Asalha Puha or Esala Poya. For Theravada Buddhism this is an important festival celebrating Buddha’s first sermon.
In most lunisolar calendars the months change with the new Moon, and full Moons fall in the middle of the lunar months. This full Moon is the middle of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar and Tammuz in the Hebrew calendar. In the Islamic calendar the months start with the first sighting of the waxing crescent Moon after the New Moon. This full Moon is near the middle of Dhu al-Qidah, one of the four sacred months during which warfare is prohibited.
Since this is the Thunder Moon, a quick note on lightning safety. Most of the lightning that strikes the ground arcs from the negatively charged bottom of the storm to the ground underneath the storm. Much rarer is positive lightning, which arcs from the top of a thunderstorm to strike the ground up to eight miles away. Positive lightning can sometimes strike areas where the sky is clear (hence the term “bolt out of the blue”). Because it arcs across a greater distance it tends to be 5 to 10 times more powerful than regular ground strikes. Because it can strike dry areas outside of the storm, positive lightning tends to start more fires than negative lightning. Although positive lightning is rare (less than 5% of all lightning strikes), the lack of warning combined with its greater power tends to make it more lethal.
A good rule to follow is, if you can hear the thunder, you can be struck by the lightning. As a former bicycle commuter (before I retired from NASA), I am well aware that the inch or so of rubber tire between my metal bicycle and the ground will make little difference to a bolt that can arc across miles of air from the top of a thunderstorm to where I am riding.
As usual, the wearing of suitably celebratory celestial attire is encouraged in honor of the full Moon. Be safe (especially during thunder storms), avoid starting wars, and take a moment to clear your mind.
As for other celestial events between now and the full Moon after next:
As summer begins, the daily periods of sunlight begin to shorten. For the Washington, D.C. area (using the location of NASA Headquarters), on the day of the full Moon (Sunday, July 5, 2020) morning twilight will begin at 4:37 a.m., sunrise will be at 5:49 a.m, solar noon will be at 1:13 p.m. when the Sun reaches its maximum altitude of 73.8 degrees, sunset will be at 8:36 p.m., and evening twilight will end at 9:48 p.m. By the day of the full Moon after next (Monday, Aug. 3, 2020) morning twilight will begin at 5:06 a.m., sunrise will be at 6:11 a.m, solar noon will be at 1:14 p.m. when the Sun reaches its maximum altitude of 68.4 degrees, sunset will be at 8:17 p.m, and evening twilight will end at 9:22 p.m.
Jupiter and Saturn Watching
On the evening of July 4, 2020 (the evening before the full Moon after midnight on July 5), as evening twilight ends, the bright planet Jupiter and the fainter planet Saturn will appear in the east southeast, with Jupiter to the right about 6 degrees above the horizon and Saturn on the left about 3 degrees above the horizon. The bright star closest to appearing directly overhead will be Arcturus, appearing 64 degrees above the southwestern horizon. The three bright stars of the “Summer Triangle” will appear towards the east, with Vega appearing 55 degrees above the horizon in the east-northeast, Deneb about 35 degrees above the horizon to the lower left of Vega, and Altair in the east about 26 degrees above the horizon.
As the lunar cycle progresses, the background of stars and planets will appear to shift towards the west. This summer should be a great time for Jupiter and Saturn watching, especially with a backyard telescope. Jupiter will be at its closest and brightest for the year on July 14, 2020, while Saturn will be at its closest and brightest on July 20, 2020, (called “opposition” because they will be opposite the Earth from the Sun). Both will appear to shift towards the west over the summer months, making them visible earlier in the evening sky (and friendlier for backyard stargazing, especially if you have young ones with earlier bed times). With clear skies and a small telescope you should be able to see Jupiter’s four bright moons, Ganymede, Callisto, Europa, and Io, shifting positions noticeably in the course of an evening. For Saturn, you should be able to see the brightly illuminated rings as well as the motions of Saturn’s moons, particularly the largest moon, Titan.
We may have a naked eye comet visible in the evenings later in July 2020. However, we had two other promising comets this year [C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) and C/2020 F8 (SWAN)] that both broke up as they got closer to the Sun and did not end up being visible. This current comet, C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE), was discovered on March 27, 2020. It will make its closest approach to the Sun on July 3, passing closer to the Sun than Mercury. If (and this is a big if) it does not break up, in its current orbit it should make its closest pass by the Earth on July 23. For the Washington, D.C. area, we may be able to see it near its closest on July 22 after moonset (at 10:14 p.m. EDT), when it will be about 20 degrees above the horizon in the northwest, but before the comet sets in the north-northwest just after 1 a.m. on July 23, 2020.
This comet was discovered by NASA’s Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE). NEOWISE was launched as the WISE mission on Dec. 14, 2009, using stored liquid hydrogen to keep its long-wavelength and far infrared detectors cold for astronomy observations. After this stored cryogen ran out, it observed for four months using only its mid-wavelength infrared detectors. The spacecraft was put into hibernation in February 2011. In September 2013 it was revived to make observations in the mid-wavelength infrared looking for Near Earth Objects (NEOs). So far, NEOWISE has discovered 28 comets and 313 near Earth asteroids (NEAs), including 57 potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) that might someday make threatening close approaches to the Earth.
By the evening of the full Moon after next on Aug. 3, 2020, as evening twilight ends (at 9:22 p.m. EDT for the Washington, D.C. area), the bright planet Jupiter and the fainter planet Saturn will appear in the southeast, with Jupiter to the right about 19 degrees above the horizon and Saturn on the left about 18 degrees above the horizon. The bright star appearing closest to overhead will be Vega, the brightest of the stars of the “Summer Triangle,” appearing 72 degrees above the eastern horizon. The other bright stars of the “Summer Triangle” are Deneb, which will appear about 50 degrees above the horizon in the east-northeast, and Altair, which will appear about 43 degrees above the horizon in the east-southeast.
On the morning of the full Moon on Sunday, July 5, 2020, as morning twilight begins (at 4:37 a.m. EDT for the Washington, D.C. area), four visible planets will be above the horizon (Neptune and Pluto will also be above the horizon but are not visible without a telescope). Venus will be the brightest, appearing about 11 degrees above the horizon in the east-southeast near the bright star Aldebaran. Next in brightness will be Jupiter appearing about 18 degrees above the horizon in the southwest. Saturn (the faintest of the four) will appear to the upper left of Jupiter at about 23 degrees above the horizon. Mars, third in brightness, will appear about 42 degrees above the horizon in the southeast.
Venus and Mercury Watching
Wednesday morning, July 8, 2020, will be when the brightest of the planets, Venus, reaches its greatest brilliancy (a geometric approximation of its greatest brightness). The bright star appearing to the lower left of Venus will be Aldebaran. Also around July 8, 2020 (depending upon viewing conditions), the planet Mercury should begin emerging from the glow of dawn about 30 minutes before sunrise, appearing low on the horizon in the east-northeast. Venus and Aldebaran will appear at their closest to each other on the morning of Sunday, July 12, 2020, about 1 degree apart. Starting the morning of Thursday, July 16, 2020, the planet Mercury will be above the horizon at the time morning twilight begins (at least for the Washington, D.C. area), making all five of the naked eye planets visible (if you have a clear view of Mercury on the horizon in the east-northeast and Jupiter and Saturn on the horizon in the southwest). Mercury will appear at its highest above the horizon at the time morning twilight begins on the morning of Sunday, July 26, 2020 (3.5 degrees above the horizon in the east-northeast for the Washington, D.C. area), after which Mercury will begin shifting towards the glow of dawn again. Monday, July 27, 2020, will be the last morning that Jupiter will be above the horizon at the time morning twilight begins (for the D.C. area, at least).
By the morning of the full Moon after next on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020, as morning twilight begins (at 5:06 a.m. for the Washington, D.C. area), the brightest of the visible planets, Venus, will appear about 25 degrees above the horizon in the east. Jupiter will have already set, so next in brightness will be Mars, appearing 54 degrees above the horizon in the south-southeast. Almost as bright as Mars, Mercury will appear only about 1 degree above the horizon in the east-northeast. The faintest of the visible planets, Saturn, will just be setting in the west-southwest, and this will be the last morning that Saturn will be above the horizon at the time morning twilight begins.
If you happen to find yourself in a place with clear, dark skies, away from city lights, especially if the Moon has already set and it is after midnight but before the sky starts to show any sign of dawn, keep a look out for meteors. Last month I mentioned the June Bootids, which peaked on June 27 and are expected to end by July 2, so I won’t write much more here. The Southern Delta-Aquariids are expected to be active from around July 12 to Aug. 23, peaking on July 27, 2020. Under ideal conditions (a clear, dark night in the southern hemisphere) near this peak you might be able to see 25 meteors per hour, although fewer meteors are expected be visible for us in the northern hemisphere. The best time to look should be on Monday morning, July 27, 2020, after moonset (12:20 a.m. EDT for the Washington, D.C. area) and before any sign of dawn (before about 4:17 a.m.), but only if the weather is clear with no clouds or high hazes, you can find a place that has a clear view of a wide expanse of the sky especially towards the south, and it is a place that is far from any light sources or urban light pollution.
If you do go out looking for meteors, be sure to give your eyes plenty of time to adapt to the dark. The rod cells in your eyes are more sensitive to low light levels but play little role in color vision. Your color-sensing cone cells are concentrated near the center of your view with more of the rod cells on the edge of your view. Since some meteors are faint, you will tend to see more meteors from the “corner of your eye” (which is why you need a view of a large part of the sky). Your color vision (cone cells) will adapt to darkness in about 10 minutes, but your more sensitive night vision will continue to improve for an hour or more (with most of the improvement in the first 35 to 45 minutes). The more sensitive your eyes are, the more chance you have of seeing meteors. Even a short exposure to light (from passing car headlights, etc.) will start the adaptation over again (so no turning on a light or your cell phone to check what time it is).
The Perseids are expected to be active from July 17 to Aug. 24, peaking on Aug. 12, 2020. Since this peak will be after the full Moon after next, I’ll write more next month.
Even though they are not usually visible, I include in these Moon missives information about Near Earth Objects (mostly asteroids) that may pass the Earth within 5 lunar distances, because I find it interesting that we have discovered so many. Early on Monday morning, June 29, 2020, at 12:09 a.m. EDT (2020-Jun-29 04:09 UTC), Near Earth Object (2020 JX1), between 46 and 103 meters (152 to 339 feet) across, will pass the Earth at 3.3 lunar distances, traveling at 5.00 kilometers per second (11,180 miles per hour).
July 1, 2020
On Wednesday afternoon, July 1, 2020, at 4:27 p.m. EDT (2020-Jul-01 20:27 UTC), Near Earth Object (2020 MK3), between 18 and 41 meters (60 to 135 feet) across, will pass the Earth at 1.8 lunar distances, traveling at 8.35 kilometers per second (18,670 miles per hour).
July 2, 2020
On Thursday night, July 2, 2020, the bright star Antares will appear to the lower right of the waxing nearly-full Moon.
July 4, 2002
Saturday morning, July 4, 2020, the Earth will be at aphelion, its farthest from the Sun in its year-long orbit. The Earth will be 3.4% farther from the Sun than it was at perihelion in early January. Since light intensity drops off as the square of the distance from the light source, the sunlight reaching the Earth at aphelion will be about 6.5% less bright than sunlight reaching the Earth at perihelion.
July 5, 2020
As mentioned above, the next full Moon will be early Sunday morning, July 5, 2020, appearing opposite the Sun at 12:44 a.m. EDT. This will be a partial penumbral eclipse of the Moon, visible from most of North America, but the slight reduction in brightness on part of the Moon will be difficult to notice with the human eye. The Moon will start to enter the partial shadow on Saturday night, July 4, 2020, at 11:07 p.m. EDT. On Sunday morning at 12:30 a.m. (the peak of the eclipse) about 35 percent of the Moon will be in the partial shadow. The Moon will finish exiting the partial shadow of the Earth at 1:52 a.m.
On Sunday night into Monday morning, July 5 to 6, 2020, the full Moon and the planets Jupiter and Saturn will form a triangle. The Moon will appear in the southeast at about 3 degrees above the horizon as evening twilight ends, with Jupiter above the Moon and Saturn to the left of the Moon. The Moon will reach its highest in the sky for the night on Monday morning (at 2:11 a.m. EDT for the Washington, D.C. area), with Jupiter to the right and Saturn above, and the Moon will be about 19 degrees above the horizon in the southwest as morning twilight begins (at 4:38 a.m. EDT).
July 8, 2020
Wednesday morning, July 8, 2020, will be when the brightest of the planets, Venus, will reach its greatest brilliancy (a geometric approximation of its greatest brightness) for this apparition. The bright star appearing to the lower left of Venus will be Aldebaran. For the Washington, D.C. area, Venus will rise in the east-northeast at 3:29 a.m. EDT, Aldebaran will rise around 3:40 a.m., morning twilight will begin around 4:40 a.m., but Venus should be bright enough to remain visible well into dawn. Since Venus will be near aphelion (its farthest from the Sun in its orbit), Venus will not be as bright this apparition as it can be in other apparitions.
Also Wednesday morning (depending upon viewing conditions), the planet Mercury should begin emerging from the glow of dawn about 30 minutes before sunrise, appearing low on the horizon in the east-northeast (rising at 5:21 a.m. EDT for the Washington, D.C. area). Mercury passed between the Earth and the Sun on June 30, 2020.
July 11, 2020
On Saturday morning, July 11, 2020, the planet Mars will appear to the left of the waning gibbous Moon. For the Washington, D.C. area, Mars will rise about 8 degrees to the left of the Moon at 12:21 a.m. EDT and they will appear to move closer together until Mars is lost in morning twilight, which will begin at 4:42 a.m.
July 12, 2020
By Sunday morning, July 12, 2020, the waning gibbous Moon will appear to have shifted to the other side of the planet Mars. For the Washington, D.C. area, the Moon will rise in the east at 12:38 a.m. EDT with Mars appearing about 5 degrees to the upper right of the Moon, and morning twilight will begin at 4:43 a.m.
Also Sunday morning, Venus and Aldebaran will appear at their closest to each other, about 1 degree apart. For the Washington, D.C. area, Aldebaran will rise to the lower right of Venus in the east-northeast at 3:24 a.m. EDT and they will appear about 15 degrees above the horizon at the time morning twilight begins (at 4:43 a.m.).
Sunday afternoon, at 3:27 p.m. EDT, the Moon will be at apogee, its farthest from the Earth for this orbit. Sunday evening, the waning Moon will appear half-full as it reaches its last quarter at 7:29 p.m. EDT.
July 14, 2020
On Tuesday morning, July 14, 2020, the planet Jupiter will appear opposite the Sun as seen from the Earth (called “opposition”). Jupiter will be at its closest and brightest for this apparition, effectively a “full Jupiter,” rising around sunset and setting around sunrise.
July 16, 2020
Starting the morning of Thursday, July 16, 2020, the planet Mercury will be above the horizon at the time morning twilight begins (at least for the Washington, D.C. area). This will make all five of the naked eye planets visible (if you have a clear view of Mercury on the horizon in the east-northeast and Jupiter and Saturn on the horizon in the southwest).
July 17, 2020
On Friday morning, July 17, 2020, the brightest of the planets, Venus, will appear near the waning crescent Moon and the bright star Aldebaran. For the Washington, D.C. area, Venus will rise in the east-northeast at 3:11 a.m. EDT, with the crescent Moon to the upper left and the bright star Aldebaran to the upper right. By the time morning twilight begins (at 4:48 a.m.) Venus will be about 18 degrees above the horizon in the east, after which it will become harder to see Aldebaran and the crescent Moon as the sky lightens with dawn.
July 19, 2020
Sometime around Sunday, July 19, 2020 (2020-Jul-19 05:32 UTC with 1 day, 12 hours, 59 minutes uncertainty), Near Earth Object (2016 DY30), between 2 and 5 meters (7 to 15 feet) across, will pass the Earth at between 2.0 and 34.7 lunar distances (nominally 9.0), traveling at 15.09 kilometers per second (33,760 miles per hour).
Also Sunday morning, if you have a very clear view of the horizon in the east-northeast, you might be able to see the waning crescent Moon to the left of the planet Mercury. For the Washington, D.C. area, the pair will rise a few minutes before morning twilight begins, and will become more difficult to see as they rise farther and the sky brightens with dawn. If you use binoculars to look for the pair, be sure to stop looking well before sunrise!
July 20, 2020
Monday afternoon, July 20, 2020, at 1:33 p.m. EDT, will be the new Moon, when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun and will not be visible from the Earth. The day of or the day after the New Moon marks the start of the new month for most lunisolar calendars.
The planet Saturn will appear opposite the Sun as seen from the Earth (called “opposition”). Saturn will be at its closest and brightest for this apparition, effectively a “full Saturn,” rising around sunset and setting around sunrise.
July 21, 2020
The sixth month of the Chinese calendar starts on Tuesday, July 21, 2020 (at midnight in China’s time zone, which is 12 hours ahead of EDT).
Sundown on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, will mark the start of Av in the Hebrew calendar. In the Islamic calendar the months traditionally start with the first sighting of the waxing crescent Moon after the New Moon, although many Muslim communities now follow the Umm al-Qura Calendar of Saudi Arabia, which uses astronomical calculations to start months in a more predictable way.
Sunset on Tuesday evening will probably mark the beginning of Dhu al-Hijjah, the twelfth and final month of the Islamic year, a sacred month that is the month of the Hajj. Making the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia at least once in your life is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saudi Arabia has imposed considerable restrictions on the Hajj to protect the health and safety of all involved.
July 22, 2020
On Wednesday morning, July 22, 2020, the planet Mercury will reach its greatest westward separation from the Sun as seen from the Earth, called greatest western elongation. Because the angle of the Sun-Mercury line and the horizon is becoming more perpendicular, the date when Mercury appears highest above the horizon as morning twilight begins will be after when Mercury and the Sun appear farthest apart as seen from the Earth.
On Wednesday evening, if you have a clear view of the horizon in the west-northwest, you might be able to see the thin, waxing crescent Moon above the bright star Regulus. For the Washington, D.C. area, evening twilight will end around 9:36 p.m. EDT, Regulus will set about 18 minutes later at around 9:54 p.m., and the Moon will set around 10:14 p.m.
July 23, 2020
Keep an eye on the news, as this may change, but we might have a naked eye comet visible in the evenings in July 2020. Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was discovered on March 27, 2020, and will make its closest approach to the Sun on July 3, 2020, passing closer to the Sun than Mercury. If (and this is a big if) it does not break up as it passes close to the Sun, in its current orbit it will pass its closest to the Earth on July 23, 2020. For the Washington, D.C. area, on Wednesday evening, July 22, 2020, we may be able to see this comet near its closest between moonset at 10:14 p.m. EDT when it will be in the northwest about 20 degrees above the horizon (and the light of the Moon will no longer interfere with comet viewing) and around 1 a.m. on July 23, 2020, when the comet will set in the north-northwest.
July 25, 2020
Early Saturday morning, July 25, 2020, at about 1 a.m. EDT, the Moon will be at perigee, its closest to the Earth for this orbit.
July 26, 2020
On Sunday morning, July 26, 2020, Mercury will appear at its highest above the horizon at the time morning twilight begins (3.5 degrees above the east-northeast horizon for the Washington, D.C. area), after which Mercury will begin shifting towards the glow of dawn again. Because the angle of the Sun-Mercury line and the horizon is becoming more perpendicular, Mercury will appear highest above the horizon as morning twilight begins four days after Mercury appeared farthest apart from the Sun as seen from the Earth.
On Sunday evening, the bright star Spica will appear about 7 degrees below the waxing, nearly half-full Moon. They will appear in the southwest as evening twilight ends and Spica will set first in the west-southwest (at 11:38 p.m. EDT for the Washington, D.C. area).
July 27, 2020
Monday morning, July 27, 2020, will be the last morning when Jupiter will be above the horizon at the time morning twilight begins (for the D.C. area, at least). The Moon will appear half-full as it reaches its first quarter at 8:33 a.m. EDT.
The Southern Delta-Aquariids are expected to be active from around July 12 to Aug. 23, peaking on Monday, July 27, 2020. At the peak, under ideal conditions (a clear, dark night in the southern hemisphere) you might be able to see 25 meteors per hour, although fewer meteors will be visible for us in the northern hemisphere. If the weather is clear with no clouds or high hazes, you find in a place with a clear view of a wide expanse of the sky (especially towards the south) that is far from any light sources or urban light pollution, the best time to look should be on Monday morning, July 27, 2020, between moonset (after 12:20 a.m. EDT for the Washington, D.C. area) and any first signs of dawn (before about 4:17 a.m.).
July 29, 2020
On Wednesday night into early Thursday morning, July 29 to 30, 2020, the bright star Antares will appear about 5 degrees below the waxing gibbous Moon. For the Washington, D.C. area, evening twilight will end around 9:28 p.m. EDT when the Moon will be 30 degrees above the horizon in the south. Antares will set before the Moon in the southwest Thursday morning at about 1:34 a.m.
Aug. 1, 2020
On Saturday morning, Aug. 1, 2020, if you have a clear view of the horizon in the east-northeast, you might be able to see the bright star Pollux about 7 degrees to the upper left of the planet Mercury. For the Washington, D.C. area, Mercury will rise at about 4:49 a.m. EDT and will be only about 2 degrees above the horizon at the time morning twilight begins at 5:04 a.m.
Saturday also is Lammas Day, a Christian holiday celebrated in some English-speaking countries that may have derived from earlier pagan celebrations. We currently divide the year into four seasons based upon the solstices and equinoxes, with summer ending on the autumnal equinox in September. This approximates summer as the quarter of the year with the warmest temperatures. The Celts and other pre-Christian Europeans celebrated “cross-quarter days” halfway between the solstices and equinoxes, and divided the seasons on these days. Using this definition, summer was approximately the quarter of the year with the longest daily periods of daylight, with summer traditionally ending August 1st (the middle of our summer). Names for this end of summer and start of fall harvest season include Lughnasadh, Lughnasa, Lúnasa, Lùnastal, and Luanistyn.
Aug. 2, 2020
On Saturday night into Sunday morning, Aug. 1 to 2, 2020, the bright planet Jupiter will appear above the waxing gibbous Moon with Saturn appearing to the left to form a triangle. For the Washington, D.C. area, the Moon will be about 17 degrees above the horizon in the southeast as evening twilight ends at 9:24 p.m. EDT. The Moon will reach its highest in the sky for the night just after midnight on Sunday morning (at 12:01 a.m.), and Jupiter will set first in the west-southwest at 4:35 a.m., followed by the Moon (at 4:49 a.m) and Saturn (at 5:14 a.m.).
Aug. 3, 2020
Monday morning, Aug. 3, 2020, will be the last morning that Saturn will be above the horizon at the time morning twilight begins (for the Washington, D.C. area, at least).
Sometime around Monday, Aug. 3, 2020 (2020-Aug-03 23:36 UTC with 1 day, 14 hours, 25 minutes uncertainty), Near Earth Object (2018 BD), between 3 and 6 meters (8 to 19 feet) across, will pass the Earth at between 3.8 and 24.4 lunar distances (nominally 7.5), traveling at 9.41 kilometers per second (21,060 miles per hour).
The full Moon after next will be mid-day on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020, appearing opposite the Sun in Earth-based longitude at 11:59 a.m. EDT.
4th of July eclipse to kick off busy month for astronomy
Mother Nature will be providing the fireworks in July as the new month brings the chance to see three unique astronomical events, capped off by dueling meteor showers at the end of the month.
This will be the perfect month for people with a new telescope to learn how to use it with the moon, Jupiter and Saturn all serving as easy and interesting objects to find and observe through the eyepiece of a scope. However, no telescope is required for any of the events.
Here are the top three astronomy events to look for in July:
1. Lunar Eclipse When: July 4-5
The first weekend of the month will feature a lunar eclipse that will be visible in areas of the world that missed out on the lunar eclipse that happened in early June.
On the night of Saturday, July 4, into the early hours of Sunday, July 5, the moon will graze Earth’s shadow to create a penumbral lunar eclipse.
This will be the perfect astronomical event for people of all ages across the United States following Independence Day firework displays.
The eclipse will begin on July 4, at 11:07 p.m. EDT and last until 1:52 a.m. EDT. The best time to look will be around 12:30 a.m. EDT during the middle of the event.
The moon will once again be the center of attention on the night after the eclipse as it passes extremely close to Jupiter and Saturn. The trio will be packed together so tightly that they may appear in the same field of view of some telescopes or binoculars.
2. Jupiter and Saturn reach peak brightness When: The middle of July
The two biggest planets in the solar system will be the highlight of the night sky in July as the planets shine brighter than they will throughout the rest of the year.
Around the middle of the month, both Jupiter and Saturn will reach opposition, or the point in their orbits when they are closest to the Earth. As a result, it is the best opportunity to observe the planets both with and without a telescope.
Jupiter will reach opposition first on July 14, followed by Saturn a few nights later on July 20.
This is a great opportunity for people to learn the ins and outs of a new telescope as the planets will be easy to spot in the southern sky all night long. The mild summer nights will also make it comfortable for many onlookers outside under the heavens.
The end of July will present skywatchers with something that has not been seen in months: A meteor shower.
The night of July 28 into July 29 will feature a pair meteor showers with the Alpha Capricornids and the southern Delta Aquarids both peaking on the same night. The last time that a moderate meteor shower took place was in early May.
Meteor showers can be thought of as nature’s fireworks as they put on dazzling, sometimes multi-colored, displays in the night sky. The colors are caused by the different elements that make up the meteor.
As many as 20 meteors per hour will be visible during peak night, with the Alpha Capricornids bringing an added bonus for some lucky onlookers. “What is notable about this shower is the number of bright fireballs produced during its activity period,” the American Meteor Society said.
The best time to watch the dueling meteor showers will be after 1 a.m. local time after the moon has set. The lack of moonlight will make the sky appear even darker, making it easier to spot the fainter meteors.
The June solstice marked the official start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere on Saturday, June 20, at 5:43 p.m. EDT, while those south of the equator transitioned from autumn to winter. Just hours later, a “ring of fire” solar eclipse darkened the sky over Africa and Asia, the first of two solar eclipses this year.
The solstice also brought the perfect conditions for noctilucent clouds to be visible for the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. This type of cloud can only be seen around the summer solstice and is created by meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere.
A “ring of fire” solar eclipse will briefly appear in parts of Africa and Asia this weekend, and if you aren’t out there in person, you can take in the spectacular show online.nullnull
Sunday’s solar eclipse is what is known as an annular eclipse, in which the moon does not completely cover the sun as it passes between the star and Earth as seen from our planet. Instead, a ring of sunlight will still shine around the outer edge, hence its nickname: a “ring of fire” eclipse.
The time of maximum eclipse, when that “ring of fire” event happens, will be at 2:40 a.m. EDT (0640 GMT)Sunday, June 21, when the moon crosses into the center of the sphere of the sun, from Earth’s perspective. The eclipse starts at 11:45 p.m. EDT Saturday, June 20 (0345 GMT Sunday) and ends at 5:34 a.m. EDT (1034 GMT) June 20, according to NASA.
The eclipse will happen just a couple of hours after the moon enters the “new moon” phase. Because the moon will be near its apogee or farthest part from Earth, the size of the moon’s disk will not be quite enough to cover the sun. The small ring of sunlight still visible will make this an “annular” eclipse (from the Latin annulus, meaning ring-shaped.)
Regions in the path of visibility include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, the Red Sea, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the Gulf of Oman, Pakistan, India, China, Taiwan, the Philippine Sea (south of Guam), northern Australia and the north Pacific Ocean.
IMPOWhile you will need to take precautions to protect your eyes if you are there in person, online the solar eclipse is perfectly safe to view with unprotected eyes. There are several options available.null
Astronomy broadcasting service Slooh will have a virtual star party starting at 1 a.m. EDT (0500 GMT). You can watch it live here on Space.com, courtesy of Slooh.
While the general public can also stream the show on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, paid Slooh members (individual membership annual prices start at $20 USD) can join a live discussion together at Slooh.com.
“Slooh will feature live streams of the eclipse from several partner observatories in the Middle East, India, and the Far East,” Slooh said in a release. “Members will be able to snap photos of the eclipse throughout the live coverage. They can load their images into Slooh’s new Eclipse Quest, which will automatically generate a superb memento poster of the event.”
Time and Date
Time and Date, a website that tracks skywatching events, will start its own webcast at 1 a.m. EDT (0500 GMT).
“Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, our original plan of sending our mobile observatory to Oman had to be scrapped,” representatives stated about the broadcast. “While we are sad about not being able to go, we are working hard to make sure that we still bring you stunning live images and commentary of this extraordinary astronomical event.”
The Virtual Telescope Project
The Virtual Telescope Project will begin its webcast at 1:30 a.m. EDT (0530 GMT). The company is based in Rome, but will partner with imagers and videographers in Africa and Asia “thanks to very generous people willing to share their views with the world,” said founder Gianluca Masi in a statement.
“Yes, it will be somewhat unique; the … solar eclipse will happen soon after the solstice, making the event even more fascinating,” Masi added.
Participants in The Virtual Telescope Project’s webcast so far include Masi himself, Ahmed Saad (Karachi, Pakistan), the Taqwa Observatory in Pakistan, Space India, the Astronomical Society of Somalia, Abu Dhabi’s International Astronomical Center, Ali Abdullah (Lahore, Pakistan) and Lij Tuha (Dodola, Ethiopia.)
While the path of the eclipse is long — going across two continents and 14 countries — the path of greatest visibility is quite narrow, Time and Date said. In West Africa, the path reaches its maximum width of 53 miles (85 kilometers) wide and the “ring of fire” lasts for about 1 minute and 20 seconds.
Sunday’s “ring of fire” solar eclipse comes amid the so-called eclipse season of 2020, which features three eclipses (two of the moon and one of the sun) in the space of one month.
The first event was a relatively minor penumbral lunar eclipse on June 5. After Sunday’s solar eclipse, another minor lunar eclipse will occur overnight on July 4 and 5.
Editor’s Note: If you snap an amazing night sky picture and would like to share it with Space.com’s readers, send your photos, comments, and your name and location to email@example.com.
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Scientists are getting a better look at Jupiter’s atmosphere and the planet’s Giant Red Spot thanks to photos from two telescopes and the Juno spacecraft. Author: Erin Patterson (TEGNA) Published: 9:57 AM EDT May 11, 2020
WASHINGTON — Scientists have been getting an even better understanding of Jupiter’s massive storms with help from the Juno spacecraft, the Hubble Space Telescope and the ground-based Gemini North telescope in Hawaii.
The collective efforts by this team have given researchers new insights into turbulent weather on the planet more than 500 million miles away from Earth, according to NASA. null
Hubble and Gemini watch the planet from afar, capturing high-resolution global views of the planet that are key to interpreting Juno’s close-up observations. Juno can probe deep into the planet’s atmosphere by detecting high-frequency radio waves. The telescopes can then take that information and learn how deep the clouds are over Jupiter.
One of Jupiter’s most recognizable features is its Red Spot. It’s a massive storm, that according to NASA is twice the size of Earth, and swirls around the planet.
And new photos from Juno show that the Great Red Spot has dark features that appear, disappear and even change color and shape over time within the storm. However, researchers weren’t exactly sure if the dark material was caused by something in the clouds or if it was holes in the clouds.
With the ability to compare Hubble’s visible-light images to Gemini’s thermal infrared images, researchers have learned that they are indeed holes in cloud layers.
NASA, ESA, and M.H. Wong (UC Berkeley) and team
“It’s kind of like a jack-o-lantern,” said Michael Wong at the University of California, Berkeley. “You see bright infrared light coming from cloud-free areas, but where there are clouds, it’s really dark in the infrared.”
In could-free regions on Jupiter, heat from the planet is emitted in the form of infrared light — otherwise blocked by high-level clouds.
“What’s important is that we’ve managed to collect this huge data set that supports the Juno mission. There are so many applications of the data set that we may not even anticipate. So, we’re going to enable other people to do science without that barrier of having to figure out on their own how to process the data,” Wong said. null
NASA says the storms on Jupiter are “gigantic” compared to Earth’s thunderstorms. These storms can reach more than 40 miles with lightning packing a punch with ‘”flashes that are three times more energetic than Earth’s largest ‘superblots.'”
Scientists have learned that the lightning on the far off planet is in conjunction with three different cloud structures. These include deep clouds made of water, large convective towers caused by upwelling of moist air and clear regions presumably caused by downwelling of drier air.
NASA, ESA, M.H. Wong (UC Berkeley), A. James and M.W. Carruthers (STScI), and S. Brown (JPL)
Measuring the deepwater clouds on Jupiter gives researchers an idea about how much water is in the atmosphere. This is an insight into how Jupiter and the other gas and ice giants formed. Hopefully, giving researchers a better idea of how the solar system formed.
“Because we now routinely have these high-resolution views from a couple of different observatories and wavelengths, we are learning so much more about Jupiter’s weather,” said Amy Simon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This is our equivalent of a weather satellite. We can finally start looking at weather cycles.”
The second meteor shower in as many weeks will dazzle the eyes of stargazers around the globe tonight.
The second meteor shower in as many weeks will dazzle the eyes of stargazers around the globe, but the light show will be battling against the glow of a nearly full moon when it reaches its peak.
The Eta Aquarids is an annual meteor shower in early May, and this year, reaches its climax on Monday night and the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday morning.
“This shower happens to be one of if not the best in the Southern Hemisphere,” AccuWeather Astronomy Blogger Dave Samuhel said. “It is a moderate shower for the Northern Hemisphere.”
People living south of the equator may count as many as 40 shooting stars per hour at the height of the celestial light show, the American Meteor Society (AMS) said. This includes Australia, New Zealand, Africa and South America.
“From the equator northward, they usually only produce medium rates of 10-30 per hour just before dawn,” the AMS added.
This year, the meteor shower will be peaking just two nights before the final supermoon of 2020. The bright moon may make it difficult to see some of the fainter meteors, but it should not completely wash out the shower.
Of course, weather and cloud cover will significantly factor into how well sky gazers in different parts of the country are able to witness the meteor shower.
Onlookers across the southern U.S. and the interior West are forecast to have the best viewing contains for 2020’s iteration of the Eta Aquarids. Mainly clear conditions are also on tap for parts of New England and into Quebec.
A storm gathering over the central U.S. will spread disruptive clouds over much of the Midwest and into parts of Appalachia, obscuring the night sky.
Clouds could also spoil the meteor shower over the Pacific Northwest as a storm moves into the region.
The Eta Aquarids will be active on the nights leading up to and immediately following the peak, so people that have cloudy weather on Monday night may be able to spot some shooting stars later in the week when the clouds clear.
No special equipment is needed to watch a meteor shower, although people should pack some patience when heading out to spend some time under the stars.
“Give yourself a solid hour to look for meteors. Get comfortable. Lay down on a blanket, or a reclining chair,” Samuhel said.
People should also avoid looking toward the moon, which will be above the horizon for most of the night. Looking at the moon can make it harder to see meteors, so try to focus in the darkest part of the sky.
Where to see the Aquarids in 2020. AccuWeather
The best time to watch the meteor shower will be after midnight once the shower’s radiant point climbs above the horizon.
The radiant point is simply the part of the sky where the meteors originate, but you do not need to look in this direction so spot meteors. However, as the radiant point climbs higher in the sky, more and more meteors will able to be seen.
Many of the meteor showers throughout the year are caused by debris left behind by comets when they visit the inner solar system. When this debris enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it burns incredibly bright for a few brief seconds.
“The majority of visible meteors are caused by particles ranging in size from about that of a small pebble down to a grain of sand, and generally weigh less than 1-2 grams,” the AMS said.
The debris that causes the Eta Aquarids is actually dust left behind by one of the most famous comets – Halley’s Comet.
Halley’s Comet only orbits the sun once every 75 years, but each year in early May, the Earth passes through some of the debris that it left behind.
“The Eta Aquarids are one of two meteor showers sparked by Halley’s comet. The other being the Orionids in October.”
What are shooting stars? This graphic explains. AccuWeather
People that miss out on the Eta Aquarids will need to wait a few months before the next opportunity to catch a meteor shower.
According to the AMS, the next major meteor shower will not peak until late July.
You may not be able to see the moon in the sky tonight, but if you look up for long enough at a dark, clear sky, you may catch some “shooting stars.”
The annual Lyrid meteor shower peaks overnight tonight (April 21) and into the early hours of Wednesday (April 22), less than a day before the new moon. Without any glaring moonlight to obstruct the view, skywatchers will have an excellent view of the Lyrids this year — weather permitting.
From a dark, clear sky, observers in the Northern Hemisphere can expect to see as many as 10 to 20 meteors per hour during the shower’s peak. Because the shower is active from mid- to late April, some Lyrid meteors may still appear before and after the peak, but tonight will be your best chance to see them.
The shower’s peak will last for a few hours, but maximum activity is expected to occur around 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT) on Wednesday, according to the Observer’s Handbook of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. That’s about 20 hours before the moon reaches its new phase at 10:26 a.m. EDT (0226 GMT). That tiny sliver of a nearly-new moon still won’t be visible in the night sky, because the moon will be below the horizon. In New York City, for example, the moon sets at 6:23 p.m. local time tonight and rises again at 5:50 a.m. tomorrow.
To spot the Lyrids, find a dark sky away from light pollution and look up — ideally while lying on your back, so you don’t strain your neck. Lyrid meteors will appear to originate from a point in the sky on the border between the constellations Hercules and Lyra (home of the bright star Vega). This apparent point of origin, known as the meteor shower’s radiant, will be in the northeast after sunset and almost directly overhead in the hours before dawn.
Once you’ve located the radiant, don’t just stare at that spot all night. Longer streaks tend to appear farther from the shower’s radiant, so you might miss the best meteors if your eyes are glued on that singular spot all night (also, focusing on a single point in the dark for so long might strain your eyes).
So, since lying down on the ground is both more comfortable and will give you the best view of the entire sky, we suggest you kick back and relax to make the most of this brilliant, cosmic event.Click here for more Space.com videos…
Editor’s note: If you snap a great photo Lyrid meteor shower that you’d like to share for a possible story or image gallery, send photos, comments and your name and observing location to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Asteroid 2020 GH2 is about between 43 and 70 feet (13-70 meters) wide, or about the size of a detached house, according to data from the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the agency’s Asteroid Watch Twitter account. It was first discovered on Saturday (April 11) and is being tracked by astronomers at several observatories, including the Catalina Sky Survey at Mount Lemmon in Arizona, according to the Minor Planet Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Asteroid 2020 GH2 poses no impact risk to Earth during its flyby. While flying inside the moon’s orbit sounds like a close shave by an asteroid, there’s actually a lot of room.
In a March 31 video shared on Twitter by NASA’s Asteroid Watch Twitter account, Kelly Fast of the agency’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office demonstrated just how much space is out there. She used a tennis ball as the moon and a basketball as the Earth, placing them 25 feet (7 meters) apart in a hallway — the scale distance between the Earth and moon. At that scale, a huge asteroid like the one that doomed the dinosaurs would be the size of a grain of salt, Fast said.
That’s not to say that near-Earth asteroids don’t represent a potential threat to Earth. Scientists with NASA’s Planetary Defense Program and around the world regularly observe the skies for new and known asteroids that might pose a danger to Earth.
Any asteroid about 500 feet (140 m) or larger with an orbit that brings it within 4.7 million miles (7.5 million km) of Earth is classified as a potentially hazardous asteroid, NASA officials have said. As of 2019, scientists have discovered about 19,000 near-Earth asteroids, with about 30 newfound asteroids added each week.
Correction: This story was updated on April 15 to reflect that NASA’s Asteroid Watch is an outreach arm online on Twitter and this website and not a planetary defense program. The agency’s Planetary Defense Program is overseen by the Planetary Defense Coordination Office at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
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The predawn hours this week will sparkle as Jupiter, Saturn and Mars dance around the moon on consecutive mornings.
On Tuesday morning (April 14), the moon will be moving toward the largest planet in our solar system, giant Jupiter. Then, on Wednesday (April 15), the moon will meet up with the ringed wonder of our planetary system, Saturn. Finally, on Thursday (April 16), it will be the turn of the god of war, Mars, to have a summit meeting with the moon.
Of course, such alignments are all just a matter of perspective. Our moon will be about 243,000 miles (390,000 kilometers) away from Earth during these encounters, while Mars stands 125 million miles (200 million km), Jupiter is 473 million miles (761 million km) distant, and Saturn is even farther out in space at 936 million miles (1.51 billion km).
Early Tuesday morning at around 3 a.m. local daylight time, look low toward the southeast horizon and you will see the rising of the “half,” or last-quarter, moon. Located about 8.5 degrees to its lower left and shining brilliantly will be Jupiter. By around 5 a.m., both the moon and the planet will be considerably higher up in the south-southeast part of the sky. (Reminder: Your clenched fist held at arm’s length covers about 10 degrees of sky.)
If you have a telescope, the best time to check out Jupiter will be just after the break of dawn, when the planet will appear at its highest above the horizon. The gas giant provides a feast of detail, especially in moderately large telescopes, and provides at least a few grey cloud belts (not to mention its four large Galilean moons) even for small telescopes.
In fact, if you check out Jupiter Tuesday morning, you’ll see all four moons “strung out” in a nearly straight line on one side of the big planet. They are, in order of distance from Jupiter: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Add our own moon and you’ll have five for the price of one!Image 1 of 2
Jupiter will come close to the moon in the early hours of April 14, 2020.
Jupiter and its moons in a “string of pearls” formation on April 14, 2020.
Jupiter will come close to the moon in the early hours of April 14, 2020.
Jupiter and its moons in a “string of pearls” formation on April 14, 2020.
Moon and Saturn
On Wednesday, if you can stay up until the last lonely hours before dawn again, you’ll see a slightly slimmer, waning crescent moon rise low in the southeast at 3:30 a.m.; sitting about 3 degrees to its upper right will be a star-like object shining with a sedate yellowish-white tint. That will be Saturn.
At a magnitude of -2.2 Jupiter stands out like the proverbial sore thumb, even when close to the bright moon. Saturn, at magnitude +0.6, is about 13 times dimmer. The ringed planet might not immediately call attention to itself, although it will be the brightest object in the moon’s vicinity Wednesday morning. You might notice that Jupiter, Saturn and the moon combine to make a rather eye-catching isosceles triangle, with the lengths of the Jupiter/Saturn and Jupiter/moon “legs” equal to 5.5 degrees, while the Saturn/moon “base” is 3 degrees wide.
As with Jupiter, you should wait until 5 a.m. to check Saturn out with a telescope, although the planet will appear lower than Jupiter and as such its image might appear a bit distorted due to atmospheric turbulence. The great ring system is tilted 22.5 degrees to our line of sight and can be glimpsed in a small telescope or high-powered binoculars with magnifications as low as 25 power.
Moon and Mars
Finally, on Thursday morning, the moon will visit Mars, passing 3.5 degrees below and to the left of the Red Planet. Start looking low to the east-southeast horizon soon after 4 a.m. as the pair slowly ascends.
Have you noticed how much brighter Mars is becoming as it continues to approach Earth? Currently, Mars shines at magnitude +0.6, but it will increase nearly 20-fold in brightness between now and early October, as it comes roughly 500,000 miles (800,000 km) closer to us each day.
As we have previously noted, Jupiter and Saturn are currently separated by 5.5 degrees in our sky, but in the coming months, this situation is going to change dramatically. At roughly 20-year intervals, Jupiter and Saturn engage in a conjunction, coming quite close to each other in Earth’s sky, after Jupiter’s faster motion around the sun allows it to overtake Saturn in our sky.
The last time this happened was in May 2000; later this year it will happen again. Usually, when Jupiter and Saturn “meet,” they approach to within a degree or two of each other in our skies. But what will happen in December will be nothing short of extraordinary. On Dec. 21, Jupiter and Saturn will come to within six arc minutes, or 0.1 degree of each other.
That’s just one-fifth the apparent diameter of the moon. It will be by far the closest that these two planets have appeared relative to each other since the year 1623 — and so close together that if you use a telescope and a high-power eyepiece, you will be able to fit both planets in the same field of view!
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The coronavirus pandemic may have restricted our movements, but our eyes and minds can still roam the heavens. And there’s a great reason to look up over the next few evenings.
Venus and the Pleiades star cluster, commonly known as the Seven Sisters, have come together in a dramatic conjunction that occurs just once every eight years. That conjunction will peak Friday evening (April 3), when Venus and the Pleiades star Alcyone will be separated by a mere 0.25 degrees. (For perspective: your clenched fist held at arm’s length covers about 10 degrees.)
Look in the western sky after sunset; bright Venus will be very hard to miss.
“Venus’s glare will practically overwhelm the cluster for naked-eye observers when it is closest, but binoculars and wide-field telescopes will show both the planet and the cluster beautifully,” Space.com skywatching columnist Joe Rao wrote Thursday (April 2) in a story about how to observe Venus this month.
Venus and the Pleiades have conjunctions every year, but these extra-close ones are special; they occur every eight years, always in early April. And these sky shows will keep getting better and better over the next few decades, according to Rao.
“As Venus continues to pass a little farther north, it will actually go right through the main Pleiades stars in the years 2028, 2036, 2044 and 2052,” he wrote in Thursday’s story.
That’s some small consolation for the folks who miss the current conjunction. But don’t let that be you! On Friday evening, pause “Joe Exotic,” or whatever show you’re binge-watching, go outside and soak up this rare celestial spectacle.
And, in case you’re clouded out or otherwise thwarted from seeing the conjunction firsthand, the online Virtual Telescope Project will provide a live webcast Friday, starting at 1:30 p.m. EDT (1730 GMT).
Meet the unknown female mathematician whose calculations helped discover Pluto
By Meghan Bartels
Ninety years ago today (Feb. 18), astronomer Clyde Tombaugh gathered the data that proved the existence of what would eventually be dubbed Pluto — but it wouldn’t have been possible, astronomers have since realized, without the calculations of a mathematician whom history has forgotten.
That mathematician was Elizabeth Williams, who worked for astronomer Percival Lowell, who first theorized the existence of a ninth planet. Lowell died before his successor, Tombaugh, finally spotted the elusive Pluto, but both men relied on calculations that Williams made. But the math got lost in the discovery it enabled, and so did Williams.
“There isn’t much about her, which is very unfortunate,” Catherine Clark, a doctoral student in astronomy at what’s now known as Lowell Observatory, told Space.com. “There’s so much about Percival Lowell and Clyde Tombaugh, and not so much about the computers who were actually doing the day-to-day calculations.”
Related: Photos of Pluto and its moons
Those calculations were vital for the quest that eventually resulted in Tombaugh identifying Pluto. The logic motivating the search was based on observations of Neptune and Uranus. “Percival Lowell first noticed that the orbits of Neptune and Uranus were not exactly what they should have been,” Clark said. When Lowell saw those differences, he knew that astronomy’s map of the solar system was incomplete.
But finding the missing world required math — very complex math, and that’s where Williams and other mathematicians came on the scene. Before the invention of calculators, so-called human computers — often women, since it was unglamorous work — did all the complex math that astronomers required, by hand. For Lowell’s research, Williams calculated where he should look for how large of a missing object, all based on the discrepancies in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus.
Lowell never spotted Pluto, and the quest languished for a few years before Tombaugh picked up the work. And then, there it was: In 1930, those calculations paid off when Tombaugh caught sight of an object moving through the solar system. “There’s a specific result that came of her calculations, so that’s pretty exciting,” Clark said.
But Williams wasn’t there to see it, Clark said. In 1922, Williams had married and Lowell’s widow had fired her because she felt it inappropriate to employ a married woman. The pair took jobs at a Harvard observatory in Jamaica. In 1935, Williams was widowed herself and moved to New Hampshire, where she died in poverty.
NASA’s New Horizons probe provided the most detailed view of Pluto to date in 2015. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
Clark gave a presentation about Williams and her work at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu last month based on her collaboration with Lowell Observatory historian Kevin Schindler. She told Space.com that what stood out to her about Williams’ story was “understanding where women first came into this field and what they were allowed to do in the very beginning. And also just these crazy calculations that I don’t think I could do by hand.”
Williams herself was particularly talented in her work, Clark added. “On top of these incredible calculations, really advanced math that she was doing, she was also ambidextrous and writing simultaneously with both hands,” she said. “She would write in cursive with her right hand while printing with her left.”
Decades after Williams’ work, of course, astronomers don’t need humans to calculate orbital mysteries. “We rely so heavily on modern machine computers these days to do our work and we’re able to do some really crazy awesome science with that,” Clark said. But learning how astronomers worked in the past, she said, “really takes you back to the history of it and makes you grateful and thankful for these people, particularly these women, who were doing these calculations in the first place.”
The erasure of Williams’ work is also a reminder of the ways that women have been excised from the story of the history of science. “Even though they were in the shadows,” Clark said, “[women] were contributing to this field.”
Pluto flyby anniversary: The most amazing photos from NASA’s New Horizons
Destination Pluto: NASA’s New Horizons mission in pictures
Pluto’s heart: A cosmic Valentine in photos
Email Meghan Bartels at email@example.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
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During the first half of February, Mercury will complete its best evening appearance for mid-northern latitude observers during 2020, climbing higher in the west-southwestern sky every evening.
During the first half of February, Mercury will complete its best evening appearance for mid-northern latitude observers during 2020, climbing higher in the west-southwestern sky every evening.
Mercury is often cited as the most difficult of the naked-eye planets to see. Because it’s the closest planet to the sun, it is usually obscured by the light from our star.
“Mercury has been known since very early times, but it is never very conspicuous, and there are many people who have never seen it at all,” legendary British astronomer Sir Patrick Moore wrote in “The Boy’s Book of Astronomy,” (Roy Publishers, 1958). “The reason for this is that it always seems to keep close to the sun in the sky, and can never be observed against a dark background.”
Although that’s mostly true, there are times during the year when Mercury can be surprisingly easy to spot. And we are in just such a period right now.
Mercury is called an “inferior planet” because its orbit is nearer to the sun than Earth’s is. Therefore, Mercury always appears, from our vantage point (as Moore wrote), to be in the same general direction as the sun. That’s why relatively few people have set eyes on it. There is even a rumor that Nicolaus Copernicus — who, in the early 1500s, formulated a model of the universe that placed the sun, rather than Earth, at the center of the solar system — never saw it.
Yet Mercury is not really hard to see. You simply must know when and where to look, and find a clear horizon.
For those living in the Northern Hemisphere, a great “window of opportunity” for viewing Mercury in the evening sky opened up in late January. That window will remain open through Feb. 17, giving you a number of chances to see this so-called elusive planet with your own eyes.
When and where to look
Currently, Mercury is visible about 35 to 40 minutes after sunset, very near to the horizon, about 25 degrees south of due west. Your clenched fist held at arm’s length measures roughly 10 degrees, so approximately 2.5 “fists” to the left of due west, along the horizon, will bring you to Mercury.
On the evening of Monday, Feb. 10, Mercury (orbit shown as red curve) will reach its widest separation, 18 degrees east of the sun. With Mercury sitting above a nearly vertical evening ecliptic, this will be the best appearance of the planet in 2020 for Northern Hemisphere observers. The optimal viewing times fall between 6 and 7 p.m. local time. Viewed in a telescope (inset), the planet will exhibit a waning half-illuminated phase.
On the evening of Monday, Feb. 10, Mercury (orbit shown as red curve) will reach its widest separation, 18 degrees east of the sun. With Mercury sitting above a nearly vertical evening ecliptic, this will be the best appearance of the planet in 2020 for Northern Hemisphere observers. The optimal viewing times fall between 6 and 7 p.m. local time. Viewed in a telescope (inset), the planet will exhibit a waning half-illuminated phase. (Image credit: Starry Night)
You can also use brilliant Venus as a benchmark. Just look the same distance — 25 degrees — to Venus’ lower right, and you’ll come to Mercury. If your sky is clear and there are no tall obstructions (like trees or buildings), you should have no trouble seeing Mercury as a very bright “star” shining with a trace of a yellowish-orange tinge. Tonight (Jan. 31), Mercury will be shining at magnitude -1.0, which means that only three other objects in the sky will appear brighter: the moon, Venus and Sirius (the brightest star in Earth’s night sky).
In the evenings that follow, Mercury will slowly diminish in brightness, but it will also slowly gain altitude as it gradually moves away from the sun’s vicinity.
It will be at greatest elongation, 18.2 degrees to the east of the sun, on Feb. 10. Look for it about 45 minutes to an hour after sundown, still about 25 degrees to the lower right of Venus. Shining at magnitude -0.5 (just a smidge dimmer than the second-brightest star in the sky, Canopus, in the constellation Carina), it sets more than 90 minutes after the sun, making this Mercury’s best evening apparition of 2020.
While viewing circumstances for Mercury are quite favorable north of the equator, that is not so for those in the Southern Hemisphere, where this rocky little world will hang very low to the horizon while deeply immersed in bright twilight, making the planet very difficult to see. Southern Hemisphere observers will get their chance to spot Mercury in late March and early April, when the elusive planet will appear to soar high into the eastern sky at dawn.
Mercury, like Venus and the moon, appears to go through phases. Soon after it emerged into the evening sky in January, Mercury was a nearly full disk, which is why it currently appears so bright. By the time it arrives at its greatest elongation, or its greatest separation from the sun, on Feb. 10, it will appear nearly half-illuminated. The amount of the planet’s surface illuminated by the sun will continue to decrease in the days to come. When Mercury begins to turn back toward the sun’s vicinity after Feb. 10, it will fade at a rather rapid pace. By Feb. 14, it will dim to magnitude +0.2, nearly as bright as the star Rigel, in the constellation Orion.
By the evening of Feb. 17, Mercury’s brightness will drop to magnitude +1.6 — about as bright as the star Castor, in the constellation Gemini, but only about 9% as bright as it appears now. In telescopes, Mercury will appear as a narrowing crescent. This, in all likelihood, will be your last view of the elusive planet this month, for the combination of its lowering altitude and its descent into the brighter sunset glow will finally render Mercury invisible in the evenings that follow. It will arrive at inferior conjunction, meaning it will pass between Earth and the sun, on Feb. 25. It will reappear in the morning sky in late March and early April.
Swift, with a dual identity
In ancient Roman mythology, Mercury was the swift-footed messenger of the gods. The planet is well named, for it is the closest planet to the sun and the swiftest of the solar system. Averaging about 30 miles per second (48 kilometers per second), Mercury makes a journey around the sun in only 88 Earth days. Interestingly, it takes Mercury 59 Earth days to rotate once on its axis, so all parts of its surface experience long periods of intense heat and extreme cold. Although its mean distance from the sun is only 36 million miles (58 million km), Mercury experiences by far the greatest range of temperatures: 800 degrees Fahrenheit (426 degrees Celsius) on its day side, and minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 173 degrees Celsius) on its night side.
In the pre-Christian era, this speedy planet actually had two names, as astronomers did not realize that it could alternately appear on one side of the sun and then the other. The planet was called Mercury when it was in the evening sky, but it was known as Apollo when it appeared in the morning. It is said that Pythagoras, in about the fifth century B.C., pointed out that they were one and the same.
Rare Mercury transit, the last until 2032, thrills skywatchers around the world
The most enduring mysteries of Mercury
Surprise! Dust ring discovered in Mercury’s orbit
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers’ Almanac and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
With many of us living in urbanized areas, where street lights, neon-lit signs and high-rise buildings are common, gazing up at a sky full of stars is not always a given. But there’s still hope for those who take pleasure in looking upwards, envisaging life on another planet and forming images of celestial activity. Here’s our list of the best locations for stargazing in the US. They range from the solitude of US National Historical Parks to towns, cities and historical places that are members of the International Dark Sky Places.
Night sky nature inspiration landscape
This remote park is a prehistoric archaeological site and on clear nights you can appreciate the starry skies as our ancestors did thousands of years ago. Great effort is made to not only make stargazing possible for tourists but also for the park’s wildlife, some which need darkness to survive. The Chaco Night Sky Program runs between April and October and features astronomy workshops for everyone from school children to astronomers.
Milky Way Bryce Canyon
One of the things that will instantly grab your attention upon arrival to Bryce Canyon is how dry and pollution free the air is. This combination makes it among the darkest places in the country. So if you fancy tracing the Milky Way from one horizon to the other then this is the place to do so. The week of and prior to the new moon are the best times, but thousands of stars still twinkle on moonless nights. Check the Astronomy and Night Sky Programs for events.
Night Sky Milky Way Galaxy at Devils Tower Monument
The landscapes of Devil’s Tower are as ethereal as you are likely to experience and you’ll feel like you are sat on a far-off planet when stargazing here. It is so otherworldly that Steven Spielberg used it as a setting for Close Encounters of the First Kind. Come in the summer for the best chance of seeing the Milky Way curve over the centerpiece monolith. There’s some excellent trails that take you to secluded spots away from the campgrounds.
Lone Tree Flagstaff, Arizona
Flagstaff has the honor of being the first city to become a designated International Dark-Sky City. It even has its own dark sky preservation program, called Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition. Simply by standing on an unlit city street you’ll have a good chance of viewing hundreds of constellations and the Milky Way. If you take your astronomy more seriously then pass by the Lowell Observatory for a guided tour.
Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis
While the Headlands may not compete with some of the more remote parks, its location on the northwestern shores of Lake Michigan serves up a different perspective. Besides the stars, watching the full moon illuminate the lake is unforgettable. And there’s the added bonus of being able to witness the enchanting Northern Lights. Just keep an eye out for updates on the park programs and events.
Milky Way over Joshua Trees
Nights rarely get darker in southern California than at the Joshua Tree. After a spectacular sunset, countless stars, planets and meteorites begin to appear above the park’s high and low desert landscape. There’s superb stargazing to be enjoyed around the nine campgrounds. Emblematic landmarks, such as Arch Rock, make interesting foregrounds for photos of the galaxy. Visit in November for the Night Sky Festival.
Mountain Trail Under the Milky Way
On Hawaii’s Big Island is Mauna Kea, a towering dormant volcano and the island state’s highest point. Lauded by astronomers as one of the world’s best stargazing destinations, the visibility is helped by an inversion cloud layer that protects the summit from the damp sea air. You can hike or drive by 4WD to the summit, where international astronomy teams conduct research round the clock. The Maunakea Visitor Information Center runs free programs without the need to go all the way to the top.
From as early as he can remember Bradley was road-tripping across the UK, France and Spain with his family. Since then he’s visited 40-plus countries and lived on four continents. Today he divides his time between Buenos Aires and the beaches of Punta del Este, Uruguay and puts his wanderlust to good use by writing about his travels.
“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” - Blaise Pascal. "There is but one straight course, and that is to seek truth and pursue it steadily" – George Washington letter to Edmund Randolph — 1795. We live in a “post-truth” world. According to the dictionary, “post-truth” means, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Simply put, we now live in a culture that seems to value experience and emotion more than truth. Truth will never go away no matter how hard one might wish. Going beyond the MSM idealogical opinion/bias and their low information tabloid reality show news with a distractional superficial focus on entertainment, sensationalism, emotionalism and activist reporting – this blogs goal is to, in some small way, put a plug in the broken dam of truth and save as many as possible from the consequences—temporal and eternal. "The further a society drifts from truth, the more it will hate those who speak it." – George Orwell “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” ― Soren Kierkegaard