As darkness falls on the first of November, brilliant Venus shines above the southwestern horizon, while Saturn and Jupiter, higher in the sky, straddle due south. Venus and Saturn bracket the Summer Milky Way, which begins setting as twilight turns to night.

The Summer Milky Way sets as darkness falls over Mission Chapel of Our Lady of Light, in Lamy.

 

The summer constellations Sagittarius and Capricornus are beginning to set in the WSW, while the three faint autumn zodiacal constellations, Aquarius, Pisces, and Aries, cover the eastern half of the sky.

But, the winter constellations are already starting to make their presence felt as the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus peeks over the ENE horizon, following Aries into the sky. In the northeast, Taurus’ companion, Auriga, has partially risen, its zero magnitude star, yellow Capella, shining just above the mountains.

By month’s end, Sagittarius will be half submerged below the horizon at the end of evening twilight, the autumn constellations will be high in the sky, and Taurus and Auriga will be fully risen.

November Planets:

Mercury begins the month as a dawn object in the constellation Virgo. It forms a nice pair with the waning crescent moon on the morning of the 3rd. The solar system’s innermost planet heads back toward the Sun and is not visible later in the month.

Early November finds Venus beginning its passage across the Summer Milky Way, which stands vertical in the southwest, as night falls.

By month’s end, Venus will have crossed the Milky Way and will form a line, with Saturn in the middle and Jupiter on the left.

Having passed behind the Sun, Mars is now a faint and distant dawn object in Libra. See how early in the month you can find the Red Planet, as it slowly escapes from the Sun’s glare.

Jupiter continues to shine brightly in the south as darkness falls. In the latter part of November, Venus will begin to approach Jupiter, the two brilliant planets dominating the early evening, with fainter Saturn sandwiched between them. Unfortunately, Jupiter and Venus won’t get real close until April 2022, when they form a tight pair in the early morning sky, with faint Neptune close by.

Saturn, in Capricornus, is just past due south as darkness falls in early November. Easily seen at magnitude 0.6, the ringed planet’s brightness is dwarfed by nearby Venus and Jupiter.

Uranus is at opposition to the Sun on November 4th. At magnitude 5.7, it’s barely visible to the naked eye in the constellation Aries. While Uranus is at its closest to Earth at this time, it’s still a distant object, a mere 1.7 billion miles away.

 

November Spotlight:

On the night of November 18-19, we’ll be privy to a partial lunar eclipse. A partial lunar eclipse occurs when a portion of the Moon’s face is covered by the Earth’s shadow.

During partial lunar eclipses, the portion of the Moon that’s within the Earth’s shadow often appears dark gray. But, since 97% of the Moon will be within the Earth’s shadow at maximum eclipse, at 2:02am MST on the 19th, there should be some reddening of the Moon’s image.

At maximum eclipse, the Moon might look like the planet Mars, with a brilliant white ‘polar cap’ contrasting with a dimmer reddish or pinkish disk. The actual color of an eclipsed Moon is determined by a number of factors, including clouds and dust in the Earth’s atmosphere, since some sunlight passes through our atmosphere and is refracted onto the surface of the eclipsed Moon. Without this refracted light, the eclipsed portion of the Moon would be invisible.

Photo of a lunar eclipse in 2014, reminiscent of the planet Mars. At maximum eclipse, major lunar features remain visible.

 

The eclipse will be visible to the naked eye, but binoculars or a telescope will increase the size of the image and show greater detail.

 

November Night Sky Events:

November 4: New moon.

November 4: The little observed planet Uranus reaches opposition on the 4th when it will be visible from approximately sunset to sunrise. Despite being closest to Earth at this time, the far away Uranus is barely visible to the unaided eye in Aries, at magnitude 5.7.

November 11-12: The Northern Taurid meteor shower peaks on the night of the 11th and pre-dawn of the 12th. The estimated peak is 4:36am MST on November 12th. This is not a very active shower with only about five meteors per hour seen under optimal conditions. However, what the shower lacks in volume, it makes up for in quality, with a number of Taurids appearing as fireballs (meteors as bright or brighter than Venus). These meteors are sometimes called ‘Halloween fireballs.’ The shower is long in duration, lasting from October 20th to December 10th.

A Taurid fireball flashed across the constellation Orion.

 

November 17-18: The Leonid meteor shower peaks on the night of the 17th and pre-dawn of the 18th. Approximately 15 meteors per hour can be seen under ideal conditions. The waxing gibbous moon will interfere with the viewing of this shower.

November 19: The full Beaver Moon occurs at 1:59am MST.

October’s Hunters’ Moon rose just as the Sun was setting.

 

November 18-19: A partial lunar eclipse will be visible, beginning at 11:02pm MST on the 18th. 97% of the Moon’s face will be eclipsed during maximum eclipse (2:02am MST).

November 30: Venus will form a short line with Jupiter (left) and Saturn (middle) in the southwest, as darkness falls.

 

The end of the Southwest monsoon season signals the return of cool, clear autumn skies. The bright summer constellations are setting as darkness falls and the winter constellations begin to rise after dark, Taurus leading the way.

The Pleiades in Taurus is visible between tree branches. This star cluster rises about 9pm MDT on October 1st.

 

Between the bright constellations of summer and winter lie faint autumn constellations, like Aquarius, Pisces, and Aries. But, while autumn stars may be fewer and fainter, there are still wonderful sights to see in October, with the naked eye, binoculars, and telescopes.

The Milky Way itself stretches from horizon to horizon, passing directly overhead. Venus is brilliant in the WSW after sunset, while Mercury climbs the dawn sky in the east. Jupiter and Saturn grace October skies, just east of south. Uranus is barely visible to the unaided eye, rising shortly after sunset.

October Planets:

Mercury becomes more easily visible as it rises in the east during dawn. It reaches greatest western elongation from the Sun on October 26th.

At magnitude -4.4, Venus continues to dominate the western skies during twilight and just after dark. It reaches greatest eastern elongation from the Sun on the 29th, appearing like a tiny first quarter moon in a small telescope.

Jupiter is the brightest object in the southern skies during twilight and after dark, still brilliant as it recedes from Earth after its opposition in August. A small telescope can reveal Jupiter’s four Galilean moon, endlessly orbiting the giant planet.

Like Jupiter, Saturn is still an easy object in the south after sunset, also receding from Earth after its closest approach in August.

As Uranus approaches opposition (November 4th), it’s visible for most of the night, rising just after dark in early October. At magnitude 5.7, this large outer planet is barely visible to the unaided eye on clear, dark nights. A star map is needed to identify it in the constellation Aries. Uranus will appear as a small, featureless, blue disk in small to medium telescopes.

October Spotlight:

October provides an opportunity to familiarize yourself with some of the lesser-known constellations visible in our skies. One of these is Cetus (pronounced, SEET-us), the fourth largest constellation in the entire sky, rising shortly after dark on the first of the month and during twilight at month’s end.

In Greek mythology, Cetus was a sea monster. Today, it’s mostly known as a whale. Visually, the constellation appears to have a diamond-shaped circle of stars, located beneath neighboring Aries, and a large ‘body’ below and to the west, connected by a long ‘tail.’ Depictions of the whale usually show the diamond-shaped circle of stars to be tail flukes, with the length of the tail connecting to the whale’s body and head.

The  constellation Cetus is often known as ‘the whale,’ with tail flukes on the left and the main portion of the tail in the center, connecting to the whale’s body and head on the right. The outline of the constellation is mostly comprised of third and fourth magnitude stars, making it a challenging constellation to identify.

 

Cetus is one of the ‘water constellations’ in this part of the sky. The fall water constellations include Delphinus (the dolphin), Capricornus (the sea goat), Aquarius (the water carrier), Pisces (a pair of fish), Piscis Austrinus (the southern fish), and Eridanus (the river), in addition to Cetus (the whale).

Exactly what the water constellations signify is unclear. Some say the term ‘water constellations’ refers to the section of the sky that’s vague and dim, like a pool of water. Some say they signify rainy seasons in certain parts of the world. Others suggest that the water constellations have some kind of connection to an ancient flood in the Tigris-Euphrates basin in western Asia.

Suffice it to say, the water constellations represent an area of the sky in which we look away from our galaxy, outward, into the universe at large.

Cetus is not one of the thirteen constellations of the zodiac (the constellations that the Sun passes through as the Earth orbits it – the Sun’s path amongst the stars is known as the ‘ecliptic’). However, the ecliptic almost clips a corner of the constellation. The Moon and the planets loosely follow the ecliptic, but often run slightly above or below it. As a result, the Moon and planets sometimes enter Cetus for brief periods of time.

At magnitude 2.0, Beta Ceti is brighter than Alpha Ceti (the brightest star in a constellation is usually designated ‘alpha’). Known as Diphda and, sometimes, Deneb Kaitos, Beta Ceti is the brightest star in Cetus. Marking the whale’s mouth, Diphda is a red giant star that has exhausted its hydrogen and is now burning helium. It’s also a variable star, meaning that its brightness varies over a period of time.

Alpha Ceti, magnitude 2.5, is the second brightest star in Cetus and is also a variable, red giant. Known as Menkar, this star marks one of the whale’s tail flukes.

The most interesting star in Cetus is Omicron Ceti or Mira (MEE-ra), yet another variable, red giant star. However, Mira, Latin for ‘astonishing,’ is no ordinary star, as its name implies.

To the naked eye, the star actually appears, disappears, and reappears over a period of 11 months. At its brightest, Mira’s magnitude can vary between 2.0 and 4.6. At its dimmest, Mira’s magnitude ranges between 8.6 and 10.1, well beyond naked eye visibility, even under the best of conditions.

As Mira varies in brightness, it expands and contracts and changes temperature. Near periods of maximum brightness, Mira is compact and hot. As the star pulses, it sheds gas and dust.  Since, like all stars, Mira moves through space, the material shed by the star trails out behind it. Mira’s very faint tail is more than 76 trillion miles long. This is truly an astonishing star!

An ultraviolet image of Mira’s bow shock (right) and tail, taken by NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer space telescope. Courtesy of the California Institute of Technology.

 

But, wait, there’s more! Mira also has a companion star. At magnitude 10.3, Mira’s companion is much smaller and dimmer than the primary star. These two stars revolve around a common center of gravity.

Mira is currently visible to the unaided eye. It just passed maxima (maximum brightness) in August. The photo used to create the map of Cetus (taken September 29th) clearly shows Mira.

Since Cetus is in an area of the sky unencumbered by the dust clouds of the Milky Way, numerous, distant galaxies can be seen within its borders. Unfortunately, viewing details of these deep sky objects are beyond the reach of most people’s equipment.

Two objects that are within reach of amateur equipment are the barred spiral galaxy Messier 77, magnitude 9.6, and a planetary nebula known as the Skull Nebula (NGC 246), magnitude 10.9. Long exposure photographs of these objects can bring out details that the unaided eye can’t see.

 

October Night Sky Events:

October 6: New moon.

October 7-8: The Draconid meteor shower peaks on the night of the 7th and pre-dawn of the 8th. Under optimal conditions, about 10 meteors per hour might be seen during the peak. The waxing crescent moon won’t interfere with viewing. The shower runs from October 6-10.

October 14: After sunset, view the waxing gibbous moon between the planets Jupiter (left) and Saturn.

October 20: The full Hunter’s Moon occurs at 8:57am MDT, near the Pisces-Aries border.

Last year’s Hunter’s Moon, setting behind the Jemez Mountains. The distortion of the Moon was caused by atmospheric turbulence.

 

October 21-22: The Orionid meteor shower peaks on the night of the 21st and pre-dawn of the 22nd. Under optimal conditions, about 20 meteors per hour can be seen during the peak, but the waning gibbous moon will hamper the viewing of fainter meteors this year.

October 25: Mercury reaches greatest western elongation from the Sun and is visible in the dawn sky in the constellation Virgo.

October 29: Venus reaches greatest eastern elongation from the Sun and is visible near the borders of Scorpius, Ophiuchus, and Sagittarius. The planet sets in dark skies around 8:30pm MDT. Since Venus is at elongation, it appears to be 50% illuminated, shining at magnitude -4.4.

The star-studded summer constellations are moving westward, making way for the fainter autumn ones rising in the east. The full Harvest Moon occurs on the 20th, while the first day of autumn occurs on the 22nd. The Milky Way remains well-positioned for evening viewing, spanning the entire sky on clear, dark September evenings.

The Milky Way, from Scorpius (bottom right) to Cygnus (top left), begins to set between the San Pedro Mountains (bottom right) and Cerro Pelon (a.k.a., the ‘Galisteo Wave’ – bottom center).

September is a feast for planet watchers, with seven planets visible before midnight. Mars, Uranus, and Neptune may need optical aid to see, but Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn are easily found with the naked eye after sunset.

September Planets:

As September opens, Mercury marks the midpoint of a line consisting of the three closest planets to Earth, with Mars to the west and Venus to the east. They’re visible in twilight, low in the WSW, in the constellation Virgo. By mid-month, Mercury is at greatest elongation from the Sun. At the end of September, Mercury will be back in the glare of early twilight, not far from first magnitude Spica.

Venus continues to dominate the western sky, setting shortly after dark, as it moves from Virgo into Libra. It’s in the waning gibbous phase. By the end of September, only 63% of its face will be illuminated. However, the planet actually brightens during September, from magnitude -4.1 to -4.2, as it gets closer to Earth.

At the beginning of the month, Mars sets around 8:00pm MDT, in the constellation Virgo. Binoculars may be needed to find the Red Planet in the glare of twilight. Mars will soon be too close to the Sun to be seen.

All month, Jupiter will be the brightest object in the night sky (with the exception of the Moon), once Venus sets. At sunset, Jupiter is already above the ESE horizon and it will remain visible almost all night in eastern Capricornus, close to the Aquarius border. Just past opposition, Jupiter remains extremely bright, but will fade slightly as the Earth pulls away from the giant planet.

Jupiter and its four Galilean Moons, viewed one week after Jupiter’s opposition.

Saturn, also just past opposition, is visible most of the night in the constellation Capricornus. Saturn’s rings remain wide open, but the planet’s rings and disk are shrinking as the Earth moves away.

Saturn and its rings can be seen in this image, taken with a 600mm lens (no telescope), three weeks after opposition.

Uranus, in Aries, is just visible to the naked eye in dark skies at magnitude 5.7.

At magnitude 7.7, Neptune reaches opposition at mid-month in Aquarius. Mounted binoculars or a telescope to will be needed to view it.

September Spotlight: Sagittarius

There are few areas of the sky richer in easily viewed deep sky objects than the constellation Sagittarius. Sagittarius, the Centaur of Greek mythology, is one of the thirteen constellations of the zodiac that the Sun appears to pass through as the Earth orbits it. The constellation is visible in the SSW as darkness descends on September evenings.

Many people, upon viewing Sagittarius in the night sky, see a tea kettle, with a handle on the left and a spout on the right. While the stars marking the constellation are beautiful, the real fascination comes from the many clusters and nebulae that lie within its boundaries, even visible to the naked eye on clear, dark nights.

Some of the deep sky objects in Sagittarius and neighboring Scorpius, many of which can be seen with the naked eye (the ‘spout’ of Sagittarius consists of the triangle of bright stars at the bottom center; two of the four stars of the ‘handle’ are visible at the lower left).

The center of our Milky Way galaxy lies within Sagittarius, not far from the tip of the spout. The galactic center is invisible to us because of all the intervening stars and clouds of dust that lie between Earth and the middle of our galaxy, 26,000 light-years distant.

But, while the galactic center eludes us, there are a plethora of easily visible objects that more than compensate. Let’s start with the Milky Way itself. The Milky Way is brightest in Sagittarius since we’re looking toward the center of the galaxy. The pale, ghostly light of myriad stars is visible near the end of the spout, turning dark on the right side of the glow. This bright patch of starlight is the Large Sagittarius Star Cloud; the dark lane to its right is part of an enormous cloud of gas and dust known as the ‘Great Rift’ (in the photo of the Milky Way at the top of this post, the Great Rift can be seen bisecting the glow of the Milky Way, from bottom right to top left).

The Large Sagittarius Star Cloud is just that – a cloud of stars. Lacking the gas and dust needed to create young, blue stars, the Large Sagittarius Star Cloud is full of older red giant stars. As a result, the cloud has a yellowish tinge, slightly different than neighboring parts of the Milky Way.

Not far from the Large Sagittarius Star Cloud is the Lagoon Nebula, also referred to as Messier 8 or M8 (Note: Charles Messier was a French astronomer who observed deep sky objects visible from Paris and published a list of them in the second half of the 18th century). The Lagoon Nebula is a stellar nursery – a giant cloud of gas and dust that coalesces into new stars.

Light from the nebula takes about 5,000 years to reach Earth. But, the nebula is so large (about 50 light-years x 110 light-years) that it’s visible to the naked eye as a tiny, 6th magnitude oval of light (whenever I see it, I think of the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’).

Just north of the Lagoon Nebula is the Trifid Nebula (a.k.a., M20), another star nursery. The Trifid Nebula is unusual in that it’s composed of three different types of nebulae – part of it is an emission nebula (a cloud that shines by ionization from a nearby star); part is a reflection nebula (a cloud that shines by reflecting light from a nearby star); and part is a dark nebula (a concentrated cloud of gas and dust that obscures the stars behind it). There’s also an open star cluster embedded in it. A telescope is needed to see some of the details of this beautiful and mysterious object.

Speaking of mysterious objects, Sagittarius is home to several globular clusters. A globular cluster is a group of hundreds of thousands of tightly spaced, old stars, bound by gravity. They exist in almost all galaxies and represent some of the oldest objects in their respective galaxies.

The brightest globular cluster in Sagittarius is Messier 22. With a magnitude of 5.1, it’s visible to the naked eye, appearing as a single faint star. A little magnification will reveal M22 to appear ‘fuzzy;’ greater magnification (and long exposure times with a camera) will begin to resolve the fuzzy star into individual stars around the edges.

The globular cluster in Sagittarius known as Messier 22 (M22). Photo courtesy of Universe Today.

While there are numerous other gorgeous deep sky objects in Sagittarius, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Messier 6 (M6) and Messier 7 (M7), two naked eye open star clusters visible in front of the spout, just across the border in neighboring Scorpius. M6 is the smaller cluster of the two – it’s known as the Butterfly Cluster and is aptly named. M7, called Ptolemy’s Cluster, is just to the lower left of M6. Open star clusters consist of stars that were born in the same cloud of gas and dust and are traveling together through space.

September Night Sky Events:

September 1-30: The Zodiacal Light (sunlight reflecting off of interplanetary dust particles) is visible in the east, about an hour before dawn.

The Zodiacal Light is the glowing cone in Gemini, above the garden gate. Orion is on the right; a meteor slashes through the front paws of Ursa Major on the left.

September 5: Venus passes above the first magnitude star, Spica.

September 7: New moon.

September 14: Mercury is at greatest elongation from the Sun, visible in Virgo and setting about 8:00pm MDT.

September 14: Neptune is at opposition in the constellation Aquarius, just inside the border with Pisces. Mounted binoculars or telescopes are needed to see this blue gaseous planet since it shines at magnitude 7.7, beyond naked eye visibility.

September 20: The full Harvest Moon occurs at 5:54pm MDT in the constellation Pisces. Take five minutes to listen to ‘Shine On Harvest Moon’ on this night (my favorite version is by Leon Redbone).

September 22: The autumnal equinox occurs at 1:11pm MDT. At this time, the Sun is directly above the equator, marking the first day of fall in the northern hemisphere.

The next full moon is only two days away (August 22nd at 6:02am MDT). The phase we see tonight is called the ‘waxing gibbous’ phase since it occurs after the first quarter phase and is moving toward full.

During the waxing gibbous phase, much of the Moon’s face pointing toward Earth is in lunar daylight. With the Sun high in the lunar sky, there’s not a lot of contrast between light and shadow, so what we see at this time are largely patterns of different shades… except on one part of the Moon. This is where my favorite lunar feature, the lunar terminator, comes into play.

The lunar terminator is the area of the Moon that separates day from night. During the waxing gibbous phase, the terminator marks the portion of the Moon that is experiencing sunrise (sunrise at a given location on the Moon occurs about every 27 Earth-days. This is because the Moon rotates once on its axis every 27.3 Earth-days – much slower than Earth’s rotational period of 24 hours).

From our vantage point on Earth, the lunar terminator slowly moves across the face of the moon from right to left. Shortly after ‘new moon’ (when the Moon is between the Earth and Sun and is not visible to us), we see a thin crescent moon in the western sky, shortly after sunset. The slim crescent is the portion of the Moon that we can see that’s in daylight (during the crescent phase, most of lunar daylight occurs on the far side of the Moon).

As the Moon moves in its orbit, the crescent gets wider, eventually becoming a first quarter moon. At first quarter, the right half of the Moon’s face is in daylight, the left half is in lunar night. Each night on Earth, the terminator (the ‘line’ between day and night), moves slightly to the left, eventually disappearing at full moon. After full moon, the sunset terminator appears on the right side of the Moon and marches toward the left. At this time, the Moon is in the waning gibbous phase, moving toward last quarter, the waning crescent phase, and then back to new moon.

Below are four photos of the waxing gibbous Moon, taken on consecutive nights in May 2020. If you look at each photo, the area of the Moon along sunrise terminator shows great sunlight and shadow contrast because the sunlight, as seen from the Moon’s surface, is low. Lunar features that are normally unremarkable stand out in vivid detail during this transition from night to day.

Photo 1. Waxing gibbous moon, taken May 2, 2020.

In Photo 1 above, taken on May 2, 2020, you’ll notice at the terminator, near the left edge of the photo, an arc of a crater wall that contains a flat area of lava (the crater wall looks like the letter C). The flat area is known as ‘Sinus Iridum’ or ‘Bay of Rainbows.’ Much of the crater wall surrounding Sinus Iridum is on the night side of the sunrise terminator, but it’s high enough to catch the light of the rising Sun, even though the lava plain below the wall is mostly still in night’s shadow.

Photo 2: Waxing gibbous moon, taken May 3, 2020.

On May 3, 2020 (Photo 2, above), Sinus Iridum and its surrounding crater wall are in full sunlight and new features have moved into view. For example, a large, round lava basin known as ‘Mare Humorum’ (the ‘Sea of Moisture’) has appeared at about the 6:30 position on the Moon. A younger crater named Gassendi, with a central peak, can be seen at the upper left of Mare Humorum. These features were in lunar night when Photo 1 was taken, but can now be seen in detail, given the interplay of light and shadow near the terminator.

Photo 3: Waxing gibbous moon, taken May 4, 2020.

On May 4, 2020 (Photo 3, above), the crater Gassendi is less obvious since the Sun is higher in its sky and the sunrise has brought other features, including the crater ‘Aristarchus’ into view. Aristarchus is the small, bright white crater, just inside the terminator, at the 8:00 position. Aristarchus is so white that it can be seen with the naked eye.

Photo 4: Waxing gibbous moon, taken May 5, 2020.

Finally, on May 5, 2020 (Photo 4, above), the sunrise terminator has moved far enough to bring the crater Grimaldi into view. Grimaldi is the large, dark-floored crater at the 7:00 position. It looks like the bottom third of a ‘snowman’ of craters that lies just inside the terminator.

Also, the large crater Clavius is now visible at the 5:00 position (it’s also about 5:00 from the bright, rayed crater Tycho). Clavius is the second largest crater on the visible side of the Moon. Because of the light and shadow contrast along the sunrise terminator, you can see at least one small crater on the floor of Clavius.

If you pick any feature in Photo 1 and find it in the following photos, you’ll notice that as the feature moves away from the terminator, it becomes less distinct as the contrasting light and shadows lessen. But, every night on Earth, the sunrise and sunset lunar terminators, with their low sunlight and deep shadows, bring new features into view, in sharp relief. A few moments observing along the terminator with binoculars or a telescope is a highly rewarding experience. Even if you do this regularly, you’re bound to find something you hadn’t noticed before.

The Perseid meteor shower is arguably the best meteor shower of the year. Under optimal conditions, 60 or more meteors per hour can be seen during the shower’s peak. The meteors are tiny particles of ice and rock, remnants of Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, whose orbit the Earth intersects every August.

While clouds hindered the viewing of the peak of the Perseid meteor shower this week, they didn’t ruin the show. Here are a few photos taken on three mornings this week.

August 7th: A faint Perseid slashes down toward the gate wall in the encroaching dawn.

August 12th: Close up of a Perseid fireball. This meteor’s brightness exceeded that of Venus as the cometary debris slammed into the atmosphere. The meteor started out in the red end of the spectrum (upper left) and transitioned to blue-white as it heated up and vaporized.

August 13th: Another Perseid appears above the gate, to the upper right of rising Orion (the meteor’s actually in the neighboring constellation, Eridanus).

August 13th: The meteor in the previous photograph left a ‘train’ that glowed for over 90 seconds. The glowing train is the result of vaporized rock and metal (likely iron and sodium), mixing with ozone in the upper atmosphere. This photo is a 30-second exposure, taken a few seconds after I saw the meteor. You can see the upper level winds are already beginning to contort its shape.

August 13th: This is the fourth and final photo of the meteor train (called a ‘persistent train’). It was a 20-second exposure, ending about 90 seconds after the beginning of the first meteor train photo (it was actually a few seconds longer since I paused between photos). If you compare this photo to the previous one, you’ll note that the train drifted (toward the bottom of the photo) against the background of the stars.

August 13th: Two meteors slide across the stars, one to the upper right of the gate, just below Orion’s belt, the other at the upper left of the photo. The meteor at the upper left is a ‘sporadic’ meteor – a meteor that’s not associated with the Perseid meteor shower.

The Perseid meteor shower is arguably the best meteor shower of the year (I’m partial to the Geminids, which can be viewed in the cold, clear skies of December). At the shower’s peak and under optimal conditions, you can expect to see about 60 meteors per hour, emanating from the constellation Perseus.

A Perseid meteor falls toward the bright stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini during dawn in 2018.

The Perseid meteors are particles cast off of Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. The shower is broad, so you can see Perseids every year, from July 17th until August 24th.

This year’s peak occurs on the night of Wednesday August 11th and predawn hours of Thursday August 12th. Several sources indicate that the shower peaks on the night of the 12th and morning of the 13th, but the American Meteor Society says the peak is on the 11th and 12th, so that’s what I’m going with. However, you should see ample meteors on both nights.

Conditions for watching the Perseids this week may be a mixed bag. The moon sets around 10pm MDT, so the sky will be dark all night. However, clouds and the continued layer of wildfire smoke that blankets New Mexico may interfere. Weather forecasts can be off, so don’t assume that clouds will hinder your viewing.

A faint Perseid slashes the sky above the garden gate on Saturday morning, August 7th.

While partly cloudy conditions can cut into the number of meteors seen, you can still view some, as the above photo shows (the sky that morning was about 40% cloudy). Find a spot with a clear view of the sky, lay back, and observe. Meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, so there’s no best place to look. If the sky’s partly cloudy, find the largest patch of clear sky and focus on that.

Enjoy the show.

The month of August offers incredible night sky events, weather permitting, of course.

The southwest monsoon season is in full swing this summer, compromising stargazing, but delivering much needed water to New Mexico. Photo taken July 6, 2021.

Saturn is in opposition to the Sun and closest to Earth on August 2nd. Jupiter’s opposition follows on the 19th. Both planets will be bright (Jupiter being the brighter of the two) and visible all night.

The Perseid meteor shower, one of the best showers of the year, peaks on the night of August 11th and pre-dawn of the 12th. With the waxing crescent moon setting around 10:00pm MDT, observing conditions will be perfect for viewing about a meteor per minute, weather permitting.

‘Stargazer’ watches a Perseid meteor explode as it slams into the Earth’s atmosphere. Photo taken August 12, 2020, Santa Fe, NM.

The Summer Milky Way is well-positioned for evening viewing on clear, dark nights. As darkness falls in early August, the Milky Way will span the sky from the southern to the northeastern horizons. By month’s end, it will have shifted a bit, reaching from the SSW to the NNE horizons, passing almost overhead. Darkness occurs about 40 minutes earlier than in early August, making the Milky Way visible earlier in the evening.

August Planets:

Mercury opens August behind the Sun. By month’s end, it’s visible during evening twilight in Virgo, setting an hour after the Sun. Since the ecliptic is tilted toward the southwest, Mercury doesn’t get very high during this evening apparition.

Venus begins the month easily visible in Leo. By the end of the month, it moves higher in the sky and shifts east, into Virgo, setting as night begins (about 9:05pm MDT).

Mars begins August near Regulus, in Leo, but it’s almost on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth and is thus faint and hidden in twilight glare all month.

Jupiter reaches opposition to the Sun and closest to Earth on August 19th. See ‘August Spotlight’ for further details.

Saturn reaches opposition on August 2nd and is visible all night in the constellation Capricornus. This month is the best time to view Saturn for the remainder of the year since it’s close to Earth and its rings are wide open.

Jupiter (the bright ‘star’ on the left) and Saturn (2:30 from Jupiter, above the horse sculpture) follow the Summer Milky Way into the night sky, as they both approach opposition in August. Photo taken July 8, 2021.

August Spotlight:

The planet Jupiter has attracted attention since humans began gazing at the night sky. It’s usually the second brightest object in the night sky, excluding the Moon (Venus is the brightest; once every 15-17 years, Mars can briefly outshine Jupiter).

Jupiter is exceedingly bright now because it’s almost at its closest distance to Earth. Opposition (the time when the Sun, Earth, and planet line up, with Earth in the middle) occurs on the 19th of August. At that time, Jupiter will shine in Aquarius at magnitude -2.9. The next few weeks offer our best chance to view Jupiter until it next reaches opposition in September 2022.

To the unaided eye, Jupiter shines like a brilliant white pearl, rising around sunset and setting around sunrise. A small telescope will reveal Jupiter’s four largest moons, called the Galilean Moons. These four large moons were discovered and determined to be satellites of Jupiter by Galileo Galilei, when he turned his new telescope on Jupiter in 1610. I find it rewarding to watch these moons nightly, since they slowly change position relative to Jupiter and to each other.

Jupiter and its four Galilean moons. Photo taken with a Canon digital camera and 600mm lens.

Ganymede, the largest of the four moons, is slightly larger than the planet Mercury. Calisto is smaller than Mercury, but much larger than Earth’s Moon. Io is about the same size as our Moon, while Europa is a bit smaller.

Since Jupiter orbits the Sun just beyond the asteroid belt, its gravity has captured a number of small asteroids that strayed too close to the giant planet. Currently, there are 79 known moons of Jupiter, all but the four Galilean Moons being small and beyond the reach of small telescopes.

Sometimes, Jupiter captures objects and gobbles them up. One well-observed instance occurred in the early 1990s, when a comet was gravitationally captured by Jupiter. The comet broke apart before colliding with the planet, leaving a series of black disturbances in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere.

The dark splotches in Jupiter’s atmosphere mark the sites where pieces of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 slammed into Jupiter’s atmosphere. The Great Red Spot is visible at the lower left. Photo by NASA Hubble Telescope and copied from scientificamerican.com.

If you look closely at Jupiter through a small telescope, you’ll notice that it’s a bit wider at the equator than it is at the poles. This is due to the rapid rotation of the planet. Even though Jupiter’s diameter is about 11 times Earth’s, it spins once on its axis (a.k.a., a day) in just under 10 hours, versus 24 hours for an Earth day. This rapid rotation causes Jupiter’s atmosphere to noticeably bulge at the equator.

You’ll also observe faint horizontal bands crossing the planet. These are cloud patterns at the top of Jupiter’s atmosphere, caused by the planet’s rapid rotation and high winds. While most of Jupiter’s atmosphere is composed of hydrogen and helium, the visible clouds at the top of the atmosphere are mainly ammonia. The dark colored atmospheric bands are called ‘belts;’ the lighter colored ones are ‘zones.’

Detailed photographs of Jupiter’s weather at the top of the atmosphere, taken with telescopes and satellites, reveal these belts and zones to be incredibly complex swirling patterns and colors. One atmospheric feature that can be seen in a small to medium-sized telescope is a reddish oval called the ‘Great Red Spot.’ The Great Red Spot is a storm that has been continuously observed from Earth for over 300 years.

A close-up of Jupiter’s dynamic atmospheric belts and zones, photographed by NASA’s Juno orbiter.

Some astronomers consider Jupiter to be a ‘failed star’ since its atmosphere is mainly composed of hydrogen and helium, similar to the Sun, but lacks sufficient mass and pressure for the process of atomic fusion to occur. While true, the planet developed from the accretion of rocks and ice, like other planets in the solar system, not the compression of gas and dust that leads to star formation, like the Sun.

Thus, the solar system’s largest planet shines by reflected sunlight, rather than by light produced by internal thermonuclear reactions. Regardless, Jupiter is a breathtaking sight, whether viewed with the unaided eye or a telescope. Enjoy observing the planet and its four largest moons while it’s close to Earth (a mere 365 million miles at its closest on the night of August 19th).

August Night Sky Events:

August 1-31: The Zodiacal Light is visible about an hour before dawn. The Zodiacal Light is sunlight from the not yet risen Sun reflecting off of interplanetary dust particles. Clear, dark skies are required to see this faint light.

Zodiacal light glows over Galisteo before dawn, June 30, 2020. Venus is rising in the center, below the Pleiades star cluster. Mars is the bright object in the upper right quadrant.

August 2: Saturn is at opposition to the Sun and closest to Earth, visible all night long in the constellation Capricornus.

August 8: New moon.

August 11-12: The Perseid meteor shower peaks on the night of the 11th and morning of the 12th. This could be a great shower this year since the Moon sets around 10:00pm on the 11th. At peak, the shower could produce in excess of 60 meteors per hour.

August 19: Jupiter is at opposition to the Sun, shining at magnitude -2.7, near the Capricornus-Aquarius border.

August 22: Full moon occurs at 6:02am MDT. Since this is the third of four full moons in a three month period, it’s known as a ‘blue moon’ (as in, “once in a blue moon”). Blue moons occur about every 2.7 years.

An almost full moon rises before sunset. Distant wildfires spewed small particles into the atmosphere, contributing to the Moon’s faded appearance and yellowish color. Photo taken July 22, 2021.

Here are some photos of the Moon taken over the last six days, as it progressed from the waxing gibbous phase to full to the waning gibbous phase.

Wednesday evening, July 21st: The waxing gibbous moon, 94% illuminated, broke through the clouds, about 20 degrees above the ESE horizon. Seen against the blue background of early twilight, you can see some relief in the craters along the sunrise terminator at the left edge of the Moon. The straw color was, in part, due to viewing the Moon through the denser atmosphere near the horizon; water vapor in the air, due to recent showers; and smoke particulates from distant wildfires.

Thursday evening, July 22nd: The Moon increased to 97% illuminated, as the sunrise terminator moved west. The dark oval crater, Grimaldi, can be seen just inside the terminator (its position is between 7 and 8 o’clock). Grimaldi’s invisible in Wednesday’s photo.

Friday evening, July 23rd: The full moon’s face is devoid of relief since the Sun is shining directly onto the entire visible surface, as seen from Earth. It’s early morning on the left side of the image; local noon at the center; and late afternoon on the right edge.

Saturday evening, July 24th: Now in the waning gibbous phase, the Moon played cat and mouse with the clouds along the ESE horizon. This photo was taken after dark, when the Moon had cleared the clouds that had massed along the ESE horizon. Notice that relief can now be seen on the upper right edge since the sunset terminator has now moved into view.

Monday morning, July 26th: Sunday night was cloudy, so I got up before dawn Monday and took some photos of the Moon in partly cloudy skies. This photo was taken around 6:30am MDT. Notice how the orientation of the Moon has changed since it’s now setting rather than rising. Also, now that the phase is well past full, you can see significant relief along the sunset terminator on the right — the sunlight is low on that section of the Moon and shadows abound. Despite the partly cloudy skies, the seeing (a measure of how turbulent the atmosphere is – turbulence degrades image clarity) was good to excellent, allowing for greater image clarity, as compared to the earlier photos.

MOON MOODS

During this period, the Moon exhibited different moods as it crossed the sky amidst monsoon clouds. Here are some of the moods created by the Moon.

Friday evening, July 23rd: A yellowish full moon rose in clear ESE skies. The scene filled me with a sense of awe. The photo was taken about 20 minutes after the Moon was exactly full.

Saturday morning, July 24th: The Moon was partially hidden by clouds as it began to set in the WSW. The scene reminded me of old horror movies. The only thing missing was the howling of our local coyotes.

Sunday morning, July 25th: The Moon seemed to sail behind a veil of cloud, lighting the landscape in an eerie half-light.

Sunday morning, July 25th: As dawn brightened, the color of the sky changed from dark to light blue and the Moon transitioned from stark white to pale yellow.

Sunday evening, July 25th: The waning gibbous moon rising behind a thin cloud cover reminded me of Halloweens past.

Monday morning, July 26th: The Moon and Jupiter made a nice pair in the sky. Jupiter was so bright (Jupiter’s closest approach to Earth is about three weeks away), that you could still see it (lower right) with the naked eye, several minutes after sunrise. At night, the Moon serves as a celestial lantern, illuminating the landscape with dim light. But, seen in daytime, the Moon serves no visible function, becoming an ornament in the sky.

Patience will be a virtue in the month of July since our night skies will likely be storm-laden much of the time.

Cloud-to-cloud lightning. Photo taken June 19, 2021.

This month, the summer Milky Way moves into prime time – easily viewed deep sky objects abound within it.

The Milky Way is visible all night in July. By the time dawn tinges the sky in the ENE, the Milky Way appears to dive into the WSW horizon. Photo taken July 1, 2020.

July Planets:

Mercury reaches its farthest apparent distance west of the Sun on July 4th. On that date, the solar system’s innermost planet rises in the ENE, near Taurus the Bull’s easternmost (lower) horn, about 4:35am MDT.

Venus dominates the western sky after sunset. On the first of the month, Venus is located near the Beehive Cluster (M44) in Cancer. On July 13th, Venus and Mars will be in conjunction, a mere 0.5 degrees from one another. On the 21st, Venus will pass 1.0 degrees from Regulus, the brightest star in Leo. By month’s end, the brightest planet will have traveled halfway across the constellation Leo, setting in the WNW near the end of twilight (about 9:40pm MDT).

Mars is now a second magnitude object and is falling deeper into the glare of evening twilight. It’s in conjunction with Venus on the 13th, separated by 0.5 degrees. On the 29th, Mars is in conjunction with first magnitude star, Regulus, separated by 0.6 degrees. Optical aid will be needed to pick the Red Planet and star out of the glare.

Saturn is a first magnitude object, visible for most of the night in July. Please see ‘July Spotlight’ for more information regarding the ringed planet.

Jupiter chases Saturn into the evening sky, brightening as it gets closer to Earth. In a telescope, the flattened disk of the planet (caused by its rapid nine-hour rotation) grows in size during July. Look for the atmospheric belts and Great Red Spot as the planet rotates during the night. I like to watch the dance of the four Galilean moons as they orbit Jupiter, changing position from hour to hour and night to night.

July Spotlight:

Now a first-magnitude evening object, Saturn rises just after sunset. On the first of the month, the ringed planet rises at about 10:15pm MDT in the constellation Capricorn. By month’s end, it rises about 8:15pm MDT, just a quarter-hour after the Sun sets.

Saturn (right of center, 3:30 from Jupiter) precedes bright Jupiter into the sky. Photo taken June 21, 2021.

Since ancient times, Saturn was known as one of the five ‘planetes’ – Greek for ‘wanderer.’ Saturn was observed to be relatively slow-moving, yellowish in color, bright, but not terribly so. The Romans named the planet ‘Saturn,’ after their god of agriculture and prosperity.

Notions of Saturn changed in 1610 (the year Santa Fe was founded as the capital of Nuevo Mexico) when Galileo Galilei pointed a telescope at the sixth planet from the Sun. What Galileo saw (or thought he saw) through his crude new optical instrument was a large disk, with two smaller disks, one on either side of the main body – a three body planet. Other astronomers saw a single, oval body. Several years later, Galileo observed Saturn and found that the two attendant bodies to the larger, middle body had disappeared.

In 1616, the planet’s attendants were back. Galileo sketched the planet, this time showing a main body with a ‘handle’ on either side, a dark space between the main planet and each handle. Confusion about the shape and composition of Saturn continued until the second half of the 17th century when Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch astronomer, proposed that the ‘handles’ were really a single, flat, solid ring that encircled the planet.

Today, we know that Saturn is a large gaseous planet with a core likely composed of iron-nickel and rock. Saturn is orbited by 82 known moons. Most of Saturn’s retinue of moons are small, but one, Titan, is the second largest moon in the solar system — larger than the planet Mercury. Titan’s the only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere and, with the exception of Earth, the only object known to support a permanent body of surface liquid.

The planet’s surrounded by a series of rings, mostly composed of ice particles, ranging from dust-sized specks to 30-foot chunks. The rings are about 70,000 miles wide, from the inner to the outer edges. The inner edge of the ring system orbits the planet about 4,000 miles above the cloud tops.

Despite the enormous spread of the rings, the rings are incredibly thin – less than 70 feet thick. If Saturn’s rings could be reduced to the size of a sheet of paper, the rings would be 100 times thinner than a comparable sheet of paper! Presently, Saturn’s rings are inclined toward Earth by 17 degrees, making them easily visible telescopically.

Saturn’s so far from the Sun that it takes 29.4 Earth-years to complete one orbit, making Saturn the tortoise of the five visible planets. The planet’s so wide that about 19 Earths could be placed side-by-side across its equator. Saturn’s rapid rotation (a day and night on Saturn lasts about 10.4 hours) causes the equator to bulge, making its appearance slightly oval when viewed through a telescope. The visible ‘surface’ of Saturn that we see is the top of Saturn’s atmosphere, which is banded by parallel atmospheric belts shaped by the planet’s fast rotation and strong upper level winds. Saturn’s yellowish color comes from ammonia crystals in its upper atmosphere.

Saturn and its ring system. Courtesy of Hubble/NASA.

If this spotlight peaked your interest, I encourage you to learn more about this uniquely beautiful planet that will be opposite the Sun and closest to Earth on August 2nd.

July Night Sky Events:

July 1: The pre-dawn zodiacal light is visible in the east all month. You must be an early riser to see this phenomenon since dawn begins about 4am MDT this month.

Zodiacal light (sunlight reflecting off of interplanetary dust particles) glows over Galisteo, June 30, 2020. Since the photo was taken less than two weeks after summer solstice, the zodiacal light is ‘bent’ toward the right. By the autumnal equinox, it will be more vertical to the horizon. Venus is just rising beneath the Pleiades; Mars is at the upper right; the Milky Way stands straight up on the left.

July 4: Mercury is at its farthest apparent distance from the Sun, visible in the dawn sky.

July 9: New moon.

July 23: Full moon occurs at 8:37pm MDT in the constellation Capricorn. Often called the ‘Buck Moon’ because male deer begin to grow their antlers in early summer, it’s also referred to by some Algonquin tribes as the ‘Thunder Moon’ in recognition of the thunderstorms that occur in summer. The Hopi people gave the July moon a name that translates to, ‘Raptor Moon.’

July 28-29: The Delta Aquariid meteor shower peaks on the night of July 28th and morning of the 29th. Under ideal conditions, 10-20 meteors per hour can be seen during the shower’s peak. While most meteor showers have short-lived peaks, the Delta Aquariid shower can remain near peak for a day or two on either side of the 28th/29th. Unfortunately, the waning gibbous moon will hamper late night viewing.

It was almost exactly a year ago when the naked eye comet named ‘NEOWISE’ graced the morning and evening skies of early summer.

A close up of Comet NEOWISE’s nucleus and coma, along with part of its tail. Photo was taken in July 2020.

Twice this week, I observed with the naked eye what looked like a comet in the partly cloudy western twilight.

Bright object pointing down toward the WNW horizon, about 9:15pm MDT on June 25, 2021.

The object wasn’t a comet, it was an atmospheric event that some refer to as a ‘Venus pillar.’ NASA says Venus pillars are rare occurrences. In fact, the phenomenon is so rare that it doesn’t have an agreed upon name, although ‘Venus pillar’ seems appropriate since it’s similar to a ‘Sun pillar.’

A Sun pillar (a.k.a., light pillar) is light from the Sun, located just above or below the horizon, reflecting off horizontal ice crystals floating in the upper atmosphere. The reflection results in a vertical shaft of light, slightly bulging at the Sun’s position. If the Sun is above the horizon, the Sun pillar can appear above and below the Sun. If the Sun is just below the horizon, the shaft of light will rise vertically above the horizon, from the point directly above the recently set Sun.

A Sun pillar stands over the Jemez Mountains. Photo taken in April 2021.

With this week’s unusually cool, moist weather, ice crystals formed in the upper atmosphere. On two occasions, the planet Venus was close enough to the horizon and bright enough to create a mini-light pillar, above and below the planet.

In the second photograph above (the ‘bright object’ photo), a thick cloud blocked the lower half of the Venus pillar, creating a comet-like effect. The two photos below show the Venus pillar in its entirety.

A Venus pillar seen on June 25th, around 9:30pm MDT. One could argue that this is a Sun pillar since the pillar is created by sunlight reflecting off of ice crystals in Earth’s atmosphere – the sunlight just happened to reflect off of Venus’ cloud tops first!

A second Venus pillar, seen on June 27th, about 9:40pm MDT. Note the gibbous phase of the planet. The pillar bulges a bit in the middle, then appears to taper at the tips like a candle flame.

In all my time watching the sky, I’d never seen a Venus pillar. Now, I’ve seen two in one week.