Jupiter Rules the Night

Appropriately for the king of the planets, giant Jupiter dominates the night sky beginning this month (and well into the spring as well).  And as January opens, it gets off with a bang sky-wise with a meteor shower.  Throw in the bright winter constellations like Orion now in full view and you have a wonderful way to spend a clear cold evening!

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This Year’s Best Meteor Shower!

The 2012 Geminid Meteor Shower promises to be the most spectacular of all this year’s major annual displays of “shooting stars.” Be sure to mark Thursday evening into early Friday morning, December 13th to 14th, on your calendar and plan to head outdoors if skies are clear.  The total absence of the Moon and an early evening start to the event combine to make ideal conditions for meteor watching this month.

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Observing The Aurora Borealis

With our “Daytime Star” now revving up for another sunspot maximum in 2013, displays of  the beautiful Aurora Borealis are becoming increasingly numerous. They are considered nature’s grandest light show and if you’ve never witnessed one, be prepared to be “wowed”!  And the best part is that no equipment is needed-just your eyes (with their amazing “all-sky” viewing capability) and a clear night.  Continue reading

The Amazing “Coathanger” Asterism

The night sky is full of wonders of many kinds.  One of the most common and surprising are the groups of stars known as “asterisms.” These are distinctive stellar patterns lying within a constellation or, in some cases, one made up of those from two or more adjoining constellations.

Some are so unusual and artificial-looking that they seemingly couldn’t possibly be real!  One of these is the famed “Coathanger” asterism, now well placed for viewing with your Edmund binoculars on October evenings. Continue reading

An Ideal Meteor Shower!

There are several annual major displays of “shooting stars” that skywatchers look forward to with eager anticipation, and we have previewed them in this column a number of times over the years.  Unfortuntely, at least one or more are typically spoiled by clouds, bright Moonlight flooding the sky, or peaking during daylight hours or on weekday nights when staying up late isn’t an option for those who must rise early for work.  Except for the always unpredictable weather, one of the year’s best-known showers is ideally made to order this month. Continue reading

So You Want to Become a Stargazer?

Amateur astronomy is one of fastest growing hobbies today, as more and more people attempt to escape the stress and problems of our troubled society by looking skyward.  It’s also one of the most exciting of all avocations, dealing as it does with the awesome wonders of the universe. And it’s one of the least expensive and easiest to get started in.  In fact, as famed telescope-maker John Dobson says, we’re all already stargazers at heart!

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The Transit of Venus!

A very rare celestial spectacle will occur on the late afternoon of Tuesday, June 5th, when the planet Venus will transit the face of the Sun—an event that can be seen even with the (protected) unaided eye!   These transits happen in pairs separated by 8 years (the last one having been in 2004) and then not again for more than a century. The next pair won’t occur until 2117 and 2125, so this one is not to be missed! Let’s take a closer look at the transit itself.

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Annular Solar Eclipse

On the late afternoon of May 20th, most of the United States and Canada will have an opportunity to watch an eclipse of the Sun.  Nearly everywhere it will be a partial solar eclipse—but for those living in a narrow band across the southwestern part of this country, the event will be seen as an “annular eclipse.”  In either case, solar eclipses are relatively rare in any given location, and if skies are clear that day it should not be missed!

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Sky Talk April 2012: Venus Kisses Pleiades Star Cluster!

As mentioned in last month’s column, following its striking conjunction with the planet Jupiter, radiant Venus made a beeline right for the famed Pleiades Star Cluster (popularly known as “The Seven Sisters”). On the evenings of April 2nd and 3rd, our lovely “Evening Star” will move through (across) portions of this glittering stellar jewelbox, the combo looking like a brilliant gem set amid sparkling blue-white diamonds!

Be sure to mark Monday and Tuesday evenings, April 2nd and 3rd, on your calendar. About 45 minutes to an hour after sunset if skies are clear, you’ll see the brilliant planet Venus hovering in the western sky just under (or on top of, depending on your latitude) the lovely Pleiades Star Cluster. While an intriguing sight with the unaided eye (a matter of how sharp your vision happens to be!), this pairing will be an ideal target for your 7×50 or 10×50 Edmund binoculars, which will easily encompass both planet and cluster with plenty of sky around them. So too will a wide-field telescope like the Edmund Scientifics’ Astroscan with its amazing 3-degree field (that’s six Full-Moon diameters of sky!) at 16x.

The Pleiades itself is the best-known and brightest open cluster in the sky, containing dozens of stars as seen in binoculars — and hundreds viewed in larger telescopes. Venus’ slow motion across the cluster will be noticeable over a period of hours, especially in the latter glasses. There’s also the possibility of seeing Venus actually cover up (or occult) and then uncover some of the cluster members, but this will definitely require a telescope using enough magnification to show its brilliant disk well (50x to 100x is recommended here). If you see the planet close to a star, carefully watch it to determine if it’s heading right for it. The chance of actually witnessing an occultation is remote (none are predicted) and depends heavily on your geographic location. But just seeing Venus in close proximity to the cluster’s stars will be exciting in itself.

There’s an added treat here for skywatchers. It turns out that Venus will be at its greatest brilliancy in April. And contrary to logic, it’s not brightest when fully illuminated — because it’s then on the opposite side of the Sun from us, and quite distant and small. It actually appears the brightest in our sky when in the crescent phase! That’s when it’s on “our side” of the Sun, relatively close to us, and displays a huge crescent which reflects much more sunlight Earthward than does its tiny disk when fully illuminated. The bottom line here is that the crescent Venus will be a beautiful sight in telescopes even at low powers, and it can also be glimpsed through carefully-focused and steadily-mounted (or image-stabilized) binoculars.

One other April event worth mention is that of the annual Lyrid Meteor Shower, which peaks on the night of the 21st-22nd. While not a rich display, it has on occasion surprised observers with many more “shooting stars” than normal. And this time, maximum occurs on the same night as the New Moon, so moonlight will not interfere at all with visibility.

— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of eight books on stargazing.