May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Celestial Highlights, August Through October 2015

Posted: Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

by Robert C. Victor and Robert D. Miller

Venus and Jupiter, about to depart in the west, are slowly separating after their spectacular pairing on June 30, while Saturn passes its high point in the south at dusk in July. Telescopic views of a thin crescent Venus, Jupiter and its four bright Galilean moons, and the rings of Saturn can make an exciting evening for students, so we hope you’ll arrange it

This summer, there are many strikingly beautiful events involving the Moon, planets, and stars, some at dusk and some at dawn, plenty to keep students well engaged during vacation. Publicize these events to encourage your current students and their families to continue watching the sky.

We include information on the spectacular events of September and October, to encourage you to plan sky watching early in the new school year.

Galileo, over four centuries ago, observed and described phenomena you and your students can also witness in the evening sky this summer, including the phases of Venus, the moons of Jupiter, the Milky Way, details on the surface of the Moon, and more. Galileo challenged the authorities of his time, at great risk to himself. A Leader in Science Education? Let your students consider this as they read from The Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, translated by Stillman Drake.

Venus and Jupiter remained easy to spot during evenings for most of July 2015, because they far outshined all nighttime stars. Just five weeks after reaching peak brilliance, Venus passes inferior conjunction, nearly between Earth and Sun, on August 15.

The crescent phase of Venus can be resolved with just a pair of binoculars, by avoiding the planet’s glare against a darkened sky: The best occasions in 2015 are in the late afternoon or around sunset from mid-June until late July/early August, and around sunrise or soon afterward from late August until mid-October. The late afternoon and early evening of July 18 and the morning of September 10, with Venus near greatest brilliancy and close to a crescent Moon, provide excellent opportunities to easily locate and observe Venus in the daytime.

Saturn appeared at opposition to the Sun and was up all night on May 22, as Earth passed between that planet and the Sun. Now in the months after opposition, Saturn remains visible in the evening sky, reaching its high point in the south about half an hour earlier each week, crossing due south at dusk in July. Saturn will remain in view until setting in the southwest at dusk in early November. In this year’s observing season, steady Saturn appears not far from the reddish twinkling first-magnitude star Antares, heart of the Scorpion, and outshines that star by as much as a magnitude. (Why does Antares twinkle and Saturn not?) Through a telescope, we get fine views of Saturn’s rings, now tipped 24° from edge-on. On evenings in August, Earth moves into position to allow our best view of the shadow of the planet cast on the rings, giving the scene a beautiful 3-D appearance.

The Moon can be followed one hour after sunset daily on the following dates through summer 2015, as it waxes from a thin crescent, through First Quarter phase (half full and 90° east of Sun), to Full, and about one additional day past Full: July 18-August 1; August 17-30; and September 15-28. Students can be encouraged to keep diaries or logbooks of their observations of the sky, recording date, time, observer’s location, directions of objects viewed, and comments. Drawings of the arrangement of Moon and surrounding objects, such as planets and bright stars, and of gatherings of planets and stars, can be a most important element of the students’ sky diaries.

Students can watch the western sky within an hour after sunset to try to follow the planets and bright stars until their latest possible dates. In late July 2015, Venus, Jupiter, and Regulus bid farewell, although binoculars can extend the visibility of the bright planets into early August. Spica will depart in early or mid-September, Antares in late October, Arcturus in early November. For observations of objects near the horizon and of last or first appearances, it would be helpful to have access to an open field, or a handy ziggurat near home or school. (See June’s article.)

Disappearances of stars occur annually, on nearly the same dates each year, as a result of the Earth’s revolution around the Sun. Planets follow different schedules, not on an annual cycle like that of the stars, but students can keep records of their sightings of planets, as well

Mornings during summer and fall of 2015 will also be fascinating for sky watchers. Those who check the eastern sky regularly about an hour before sunrise can watch for the first appearances – called heliacal risings – of planets and first-magnitude stars. Procyon and Sirius will appear by mid-August; Venus before the end of August; Regulus and Jupiter before mid-September; and Arcturus and Spica by the end of October.

This is a great year for the Perseid meteor shower. The peak, in dark moonless skies on the night of August 12-13, nearly coincides with New Moon. Best viewing is from late evening until first light of dawn.

2015-2016 School Year, Part I: Highlights of September-October

Get your students into sky watching early in the new school year! When Venus next rules as “morning star” from late August 2015 into March 2016, the Moon passes by the planet seven times. The first of these monthly events will be on Sept. 10, when, one hour before sunrise, Venus will gleam in the eastern sky just 4° upper right of a 7-percent sunlit crescent Moon graced by earthshine illuminating its upper non-sunlit side. About 6° to Moon’s lower left is dim red Mars, and 9° farther to lower left is Regulus, heart of Leo, the Lion. Within 15 minutes later, look 6°-7° lower left of Regulus for Jupiter, just rising. The entire span of objects from Venus to Jupiter takes up just 23°

Venus on the morning of Sept. 10 appears ¾ of an arcminute in diameter, compared to the Moon’s 30 arcminutes, or half a degree. Viewed through a telescope at 40-power, Venus will appear as large as the Moon does to unaided eye! The crescent Venus, then 18 percent sunlit and nearing greatest brilliancy, will be very striking! As morning twilight brightens, or in the daytime at your schoolyard near the start of your school day, the crescent Venus will be resolvable even with 7-power binoculars, and easy to find 4°-5° to the Moon’s upper right. Predawn or daytime, Thursday, Sept. 10 will be an impressive morning for outdoor astronomy!

The Moon will be visible 45 minutes before sunup again the next morning, Sept. 11, about 3° south (lower right) of Regulus, 16° lower left of Venus, and 7° upper right of Jupiter. The Moon is New in late evening California time on the 12th, and not visible on that date, neither at dawn nor at dusk.

By the evening of Sept. 14, 25-30 minutes after sunset, the thin crescent young Moon should be visible to unaided eye about 3° up and 8° south of due west, from places with a clear, unobstructed view. Binoculars may show Mercury 6° farther left and a bit lower. Observers in southern California will have the easier view.

On Sept. 15, the Moon will be easier, 3° up in WSW 45 minutes after sunset, with Spica visible in binoculars 3° to Moon’s lower left

For the next 12 evenings, look nightly for the Moon about 45 minutes to an hour after sunset, and watch it change its phase (fraction illuminated) and move toward the place where it has an appointment with Earth’s shadow on Sept. 27.

On Friday, Sept. 18, an hour after sunset, the crescent Moon is in SW, with Saturn just 2° to its lower left. Note the red supergiant star Antares, heart of the Scorpion, twinkling 12° farther to the left of Saturn and a little lower.

The next evening, Saturday, Sept. 19, the fat crescent Moon is 9° nearly directly above Antares, while Saturn, to the Moon’s lower right, is 12° from the other two bodies, forming an isosceles triangle.

On Sunday evening, Sept. 20, the Moon is in the SSW one hour after sunset, 17° upper left of Antares and 87° (nearly a quarter of a circle) east of the Sun. The Moon has widened its distance from the Sun to nearly a quarter of a circle since passing the Sun during New Moon phase late on Sept. 12. This evening the Moon is nearly at First Quarter phase and appears slightly less than half full. (Exact First Quarter phase will occur later tonight, at 1:59 a.m. on Sept. 21, after the Moon has set.) This evening, on Sept. 20, we have just one week to go until a very special Full Moon!

Early in the evening on Sunday, September 27, 2015, there will be a total eclipse of the Harvest Moon. Partial eclipse will already be underway at moonrise, 3-4 minutes before sunset in California. Much media hype will be given to this eclipse, because it coincides with a so-called “Supermoon”, the closest Moon of the year. The Moon will be in total eclipse from 7:11 p.m. until 8:23 p.m. PDT, and the concluding partial eclipse will end at 9:27 p.m. This is the last deep lunar eclipse for California sky watchers until a pair of winter events nearly a year apart: A predawn total lunar eclipse on January 31, 2018, and a late evening total eclipse on January 20, 2019. So be sure to encourage your students to catch this September’s eclipse, occurring at a very convenient, family-friendly time!

On the next few evenings after the eclipse, watch moonrise nightly until it occurs too late for convenient viewing. By Oct. 2 from southern California, moonrise occurs nearly four hours after sunset. For each evening’s observation, note the time you first saw the Moon, its phase, color, and position along the horizon. If you can, observe the Moon from the same location each evening.

You can also conveniently begin observing the Moon daily one hour before sunrise starting on Sept. 28, the morning after the eclipse. An hour before sunup on that morning, the Moon, nearly Full, is low in west, 14° left of 3rd-mag. Gamma in Pegasus, the left corner of the Great Square. On Sept. 30, the 92-percent Moon is much higher, and 14° left of 2nd-mag. star Alpha in Aries. On Oct. 1, the 84-percent waning gibbous Moon is high in WSW, 10° lower left of the Pleiades star cluster. On Oct. 2, the 75-percent Moon is very high in SW, very closely lower right of first-magnitude Aldebaran, with an occultation about to take place! On Oct. 3, the 64-percent Moon is SSW of overhead, between Orion and the horns of Taurus. On Oct. 4, the Moon is very high in SE to SSE, just over half full and nearing Last Quarter phase On Oct. 5, the fat crescent Moon is high in ESE to SE, just W of a line joining Pollux in Gemini to Procyon in Canis Minor. On Oct. 6, the 33-percent crescent Moon is well up in ESE, 13° N of Procyon. On Oct. 7, the 24-percent crescent is in E to ESE, nearly halfway from horizon to overhead and 14° upper right of Venus. Note the lineup of Venus-Mars-Regulus-Jupiter extending to Moon’s lower left.

Abrams Planetarium A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11. http://www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar/Index.html

Abrams Planetarium
A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11. http://www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar/Index.html

Less than two weeks after the lunar eclipse, on the mornings of Oct. 8-11, the Moon, in the foreground, descends through a lineup of four planets, starting with Venus. An hour before sunup on Oct. 8, the 17-percent crescent is 3° upper right of Venus. On Oct. 9, the 10-percent crescent is 3°-4° south (lower right) of Mars, 8°-9° below Venus-Regulus, and 4°-5° upper right of Jupiter. That same morning, Venus passes 2.5° S of Regulus. On Oct. 10, a slender 5-percent crescent is low in east, 8°-9° below Jupiter and 10° upper right of Mercury, which has just returned to the morning sky. Finally, on October 11 an hour before sunrise, a very slender last old crescent Moon, 2 percent full, is just 2° up in east and 2° below Mercury.

Starting on Oct. 12 (the date of New Moon), you will no longer see the Moon in the morning sky, but planet viewing will grow even more exciting, with three close pairings and a compact trio. On Oct. 17, Mars passes just 0.4° north (upper left) of bright Jupiter. Venus gleams within 7° to upper right of the pair, while Mercury shines 22° to the pair’s lower left.

Abrams Planetarium A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11. http://www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar/Index.html

Abrams Planetarium
A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $11. http://www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar/Index.html

On mornings of October 25 and 26, Venus and Jupiter will form a spectacular close pair fitting within a telescope field, similar to the evening event on June 30. And for eight consecutive mornings, Oct. 22-29, Venus, Jupiter, and Mars, in a rare trio high in the eastern sky, will fit into a 5° field of view of binoculars. For much of October, Mercury appears lower left of the trio, bringing the total to four naked-eye planets visible simultaneously. With daylight saving time in effect, it’s possible to hold predawn planet-watching sessions, from 1½ hours to ¾ hours before sunrise, a reasonable time not excessively early by the clock. We encourage you to make plans to get out with your students on at least one clear morning in October 2015, to observe the spectacular displays of solar system bodies!

A few days after Venus-Jupiter-Mars expand beyond the allowed 5° limit to remain a trio, Venus passes just 0.7° south of Mars on November 3, with Jupiter shining 7° to their upper right. (But starting the first Sunday of November, we’re back on standard time, so you’ll have to get out earlier by the clock.) The Moon drops through again, the waning crescent appearing within 2.5° south of Jupiter on Nov. 6, and within 1.7° lower right of Venus on Nov. 7.

On Nov. 9, the old crescent Moon passes 4° north of recently-emerged Spica. On the 10th, we’ll have one last chance in this lunar cycle to spot the old Moon, rising 12° lower left of Spica

Resources:
Sky Calendar: Get a sample issue and subscribe online, at www.abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar/

Two sets of all-sky charts (for lat. 40° N, best for northern California, but useful throughout the state), tracking positions of the naked-eye planets and stars of first magnitude or brighter in evening twilight through July 2015, and in morning twilight during August 2015-March 2016, with brief descriptions for each chart, are available at www.abramsplanetarium.org/msta/

You’ll even find three pages there about the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 2061, with viewing tips. Students can begin waiting for it in eager anticipation now!

Activity: Modeling seasonal visibility of stars and visibility of the planets. As stars and planets come and go in morning and evening skies and display beautiful pairings and groupings, students can model these changes and explain their observations with the aid of these four items:  two planet orbit charts, Mercury through Mars and Mercury through Saturn, a table of data for plotting planets on orbit diagrams, and an activity sheet with a set of 15 questions on star and planet visibility in 2014-2016 and beyond.

For more information on sky events in 2015, see this article:
http://www.classroomscience.org/celestial-highlights-for-2015
(Includes a selection of twilight sky charts, best for use in southern California, during months of the best planet gatherings.)

Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight charts and the planet orbit charts, did graduate work in Planetarium Science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.

One Response

  1. Robert,

    My old friend, how have you been. I haven’t talked to you in ages. Reach out to me and lets catch up….

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