Astronomy Newsletter

 


April Skies

 We are in for a treat this month as almost all of North America will be able to witness a total Eclipse of the Moon! The fun begins on the evening of the 14th at 11:20 p.m. MDT. That will be first contact with the penumbral shadow of the Earth. At 11:58 p.m. MDT is the first contact of the Moon with the Earth’s umbra and at 1:07 a.m. MDT the eclipse begins totality. Mid-totality is a 1:46 a.m. and totality ends at 2:25 a.m. giving us a whopping one hour and eighteen minutes of totality. The fun finally ends at about 4:10 a.m. Adjust these times plus or minus depending on your time zone.

 If you have binoculars or a small telescope there are some fun things to look for. During totality you can actually watch the Moon move as stars disappear behind one limb of the Moon or reappear from behind the other. One of the neat things to watch for is the appearance of a deep red glow during totality. This color is derived from all the sunsets and sunrises around the Earth during totality. The Earth’s atmosphere refracts some of the sunlight that passes near the edge of our globe and bends it into the umbra. That light passes through a pretty good chunk of the Earth’s atmosphere turning it red. It is the same effect that we see on the horizon during sunrise or sunset.

Jupiter is still dominating the early evening sky and is well placed during that time for viewing through binoculars or a small telescope. Mars comes into opposition with the Sun on April 8th and will be visible all night long rising in the east at sunset. Reaching magnitude -1.5, Mars will be at its closest to the Earth on the night of the 14th.

Saturn rises around 10:30 and will be at its brightest, magnitude +0.1, during April. One reason for this brightness is that its magnificent rings have opened to 22 degrees from edge on and will offer a spectacular sight in a small telescope. Venus rises a little before the first light of dawn but it is still only about 10 degrees above the horizon. With its magnitude -4.3, it is easily spotted in the southeastern sky.

The Moon is first quarter on the 7th, full on the 15th, last quarter on the 22nd and new on the 29th. On the 7th, about one hour after sunset, the first quarter moon will be found slightly below and to the left of the giant planet Jupiter. Looking east-southeast on the 14th, about an hour after sunset, the almost full Moon will be below the red planet Mars and just slightly above the bright star Spica in the constellation Virgo. About an hour before dawn on the 25th the waning crescent Moon will be above and to the right of brilliant Venus.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo

New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club

2014

March 2014

 Jupiter will be easily visible just after sunset high overhead. The giant planet will fade a bit from magnitude -2.4 to -2.2. Nevertheless it is well placed for early evening viewing through binoculars or small telescopes. Its 4 large moons, the Galilean satellites, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto should also be easily visible with binoculars or a small telescope.

 Mars is approaching opposition to the Sun which means that it rises about 3.5 hours after sunset at the beginning of the month and during twilight at the end of the month. As the red planet gets closer to Earth, its visible disk grows larger causing its apparent brightness to increase from magnitude -0.5 to -1.3. This will be the best season we’ve had to observe Mars in 7 years. Those of you who have telescopes of 6 inch diameter or larger should easily be able to see the north polar ice cap.

Saturn rises just before midnight and brightens slightly from magnitude +0.4 to +0.3. Saturn’s magnificent rings are still wide open at 18 degrees tilt and will offer excellent viewing through a small telescope.

Venus and Mercury are near the east-southeast horizon about an hour before sunrise. Dazzling Venus will be pretty easy to find, but poor Mercury not so much. Mercury will be below and to the left of Venus and may require binoculars to find. After the 18th, Mercury will be lost from view.

The Moon will be new on the 1st, first quarter on the 8th, full on the 16th, last quarter on the 23rd and new again on the 30th. On the 9th and 10th the first quarter Moon will bracket and be slightly below the giant planet Jupiter. On the 19th, about an hour before sunrise, the Moon will be to the left of the red planet Mars. On the 27th, about an hour before sunrise, the waning crescent Moon will be just above and to the left of brilliant Venus!

On Sunday March 9th at 2 a.m. we “spring forward” as daylight savings time begins for most of us in North America. Don’t forget to set your clocks ahead one hour when you go to bed Saturday night! On the 20th we celebrate the Vernal Equinox for the northern hemisphere as the first day of spring arrives at 10:57 a.m. MDT. As explained in last month’s column the “Zodiacal Light” will again be prominent on the western horizon during March and easily visible starting a couple of hours after sunset.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
March 2014

February 2014

February Skies

 Early spring brings us opportunities, once again, for viewing the Zodiacal Light. To see it, find a nice dark viewing spot and wait until it is completely dark after sunset. In the spring you look to the western horizon to see sunlight reflected by interplanetary dust particles. Look for a tall, left sloping wedge of diffuse light rising up from the horizon.

Mercury makes both early evening and early dawn appearances this month. From the 1st through the 4th of the month look west-southwest about 45 minutes after sunset and about 5 degrees above the horizon. After the 4th Mercury sinks fast and disappears, passing through inferior conjunction on the 15th, and reappearing in the early morning skies at the end of the month. Try looking to the southeast about 30 minutes before sunrise. You may need binoculars to find it.

Jupiter continues to dominate the night skies although it dims a little to magnitude -2.4. High in the night sky Jupiter will afford those with small telescopes excellent opportunities to discern atmospheric features. Mars rises around 11 p.m. at the beginning of the month and by 9:30 at the end of February. Mars brightens from magnitude +0.2 to -0.4 during the month. This should allow those with telescopes to begin to discern some surface features.

Saturn will be a prime target for planet observers this month, especially so for those with telescopes. The ringed planet rises around 1:30 a.m. as it approaches western quadrature with the sun on the 11th. The result for us is to be able to view the maximum extent of the planet’s shadow that is cast upon the rings. The rings are temporarily at a maximum tilt of 23 degrees and offer excellent telescopic viewing as well.

Venus now continues to dazzle us with a maximum brightness of magnitude -4.9 in morning skies. During this appearance Venus will only be about 18 degrees above the eastern horizon. The best viewing will be about 30 minutes before sunrise.

The Moon will be first quarter on the 6th, full on the 14th and last quarter on the 22nd.  Looking west-southwest on the 1st, and about 45 minutes after sunset, the new crescent Moon will be about 10 degrees above and to the left of Mercury. On the 10th the nearly full moon will be just to the right of Jupiter in the constellation Gemini. Looking southwest on the 29th, about one hour before sunrise, the waning moon will be very close to the bright star Spica in Virgo and below and to the right of Mars. Look to the southeast about 30 minutes before sunrise on the 26th to see the waning crescent Moon just below and to the right of dazzling Venus.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
February 2014

January 2014

January Skies

This month Venus does an apparent magic act by disappearing and reappearing during the same month! Early in the month it will rapidly sink in the western sky heading for an inferior conjunction with the Sun on the 11th. But, it will not be lost from view for very long as it will reappear shortly thereafter in the early morning sky. By the end of the month, about 45 minutes before sunrise, Venus will climb to 14 degrees above the horizon and once again shine at a brilliant magnitude of -4.8.

Mercury, having passed through superior conjunction with the Sun appears late in the month about 10 degrees above the southwestern horizon. On the 31st you might be able to catch a very slender crescent Moon a few degrees to the right of this tiny planet.

On the 5th Jupiter reaches opposition from the Sun and thus will rise in the east at sunset and shine all night long. Shining at magnitude -2.7 Jupiter is well placed high in the night sky for viewing with binoculars or small telescopes.

Mars rises around midnight at the beginning of the month and at about 11 p.m. by month’s end. It also begins to brighten dramatically from magnitude +0.9 to +0.3. Early in the month it reaches aphelion which is the point in its orbit farthest from the Sun.

Saturn rises around 3 a.m. early in the month and at 1:30 a.m. by the end of the month. Saturn is worth waiting up to see as its magnificent rings are tilting at a stunning 22 degrees. Well worth the view in a small telescope!

The Moon will be new on January 1st, first quarter on the 7th, full on the 15th and last quarter on the 24th, and new again on January 30th.  Looking southwest on the 2nd, and about 45 minutes after sunset, the new crescent Moon will be slightly above and to the left of dazzling Venus. On the 14th the nearly full moon will be just to the right of Jupiter in the constellation Gemini. On the 28th, about one hour before sunrise, the waning moon will be very close to Saturn in the south-southeastern sky. On the 28th the waning crescent Moon will be slightly above and to the right of Venus.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
January 2014

2013


December 2013

December Skies

Will Comet ISON live up to its billing as the comet of the century? No one is quite sure but to do so it must survive its close encounter with the Sun on November 28. On that date it will come very close to grazing the Sun’s corona. It could be completely disrupted by the combination of the million degree gases in the corona and the Sun’s gravity. Nobody seems willing to predict what is going to happen so we’ll just have to wait and see.

If it does survive it will appear to have been flung in a northerly direction. If so it will certainly be visible in the early morning hours and may even be visible in the early evening hours. As to how bright it will be will depend on whether or not it is ripped apart by the Sun and how much of it survives the encounter.

If it survives, the best viewing should be from the 7th through the 11th. Look east-southeast about an hour before sunrise. The key will be to find the planet Saturn which will be about 10 degrees above the horizon. Then look about 10 to 15 degrees left of Saturn at about the same elevation. If everything goes perfectly well, ISON has the potential to be nearly as bright as the full Moon. My guess is that you’ll need a pair of good binoculars to see it if it survives the Sun.

Venus continues to dazzle us in the southwestern sky just after sunset. Early in the month it will shine at a maximum apparent brightness of -4.9. This is as bright as Venus ever gets! Beginning at an elevation of 20 degrees above the horizon it will appear to slowly sink towards the horizon heading for inferior conjunction with the Sun in early January.

Jupiter rises around 8 p.m. hanging out in the constellation Gemini “the Twins.” It will brighten to magnitude -2.7 during the course of the month as it heads for opposition in January. By late evening it will have risen high enough above the horizon as to make it well positioned for viewing with binoculars or small telescopes.

Mars rises around midnight and slowly brightens to magnitude +0.9. However it is too far away to see much surface detail, even with small telescopes. Saturn rises around 5 a.m. While it is still pretty low on the southeastern horizon, its rings have opened to an astounding 21 degrees. If the air is clear and stable you might get lucky with a small telescope and have a good view of the beautiful rings. Mercury, shining at magnitude -0.8, can be found below and to the left of Saturn. It will appear lower each morning and then quickly will be lost from view.

The Moon will be new on December 2nd, first quarter on the 9th, full on the 17th and last quarter on the 25th.  Looking southwest on the 5th and about one hour after sunset, the new crescent Moon will be slightly above and to the right of dazzling Venus. On the 14th the nearly full moon will be to the right of the Pleiades and on the 15th, smack in the middle of the “V” (lying on its side) that forms the head of Taurus “the Bull.”

Looking east-northeast on the 18th, the Moon will be in Gemini and just to the right of Jupiter. About 1 hour before sunrise on the 28th and 29th, look to the southeast to see the Moon bracketing Saturn on those two dates. The shortest day of the year, in the northern hemisphere, ushers in the winter solstice at 10:11 a.m. Mountain Standard Time on December 21st.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo

New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club


November 2013

November Skies

This month Comet ISON should become visible to the naked eye in the early morning about an hour before sunrise. It is still not clear about how bright ISON eventually will be so early morning comet watching might offer us a clue. Consult the paragraph below for specific dates and locations. Please remember that comets tend to be diffuse objects with their brightness spread out over an area larger than that of a planet or a star.

As Venus catches up with Earth during November it will still remain about 20 degrees above the southwestern horizon at sunset. Venus will continue to brighten during the month reaching an awesome magnitude of -4.8! Folks with binoculars and small telescopes will be treated to a crescent of Venus as it goes from 50% to about 30% illumination.

Jupiter will rise at about 10 pm daylight time at the beginning of the month and by 7 pm standard time at month’s end. Jupiter will also brighten reaching a magnitude of -2.6 by the end of the month.

Mars rises at about 2:30 in the morning daylight time at the beginning of the month and around 1 a.m. standard time at the end of the month. Found in the constellation Leo, “the Lion”, Mars, although still a long way away, finally begins to brighten noticeably reaching magnitude +1.2 by the end of the month.

Both Mercury and Saturn are at inferior conjunction with the Sun early in November but become visible to us later in the month. First to appear is Mercury. Look for it in the east-southeast about 30 minutes before sunrise, beginning on the 9th and watch as it rises and brightens to magnitude -0.7 by the 20th. Mercury reaches its peak elevation on the 18th after which it begins sinking towards the horizon. This will be the best morning apparition of Mercury this year. Saturn begins being visible around the 22nd and begins its climb into the early morning sky. On the 26th Saturn and Mercury will pass each other by less than one degree. At that time Saturn will appear to be one third the brightness of Mercury.

The Moon will be new on the 3rd, first quarter on the 10th, full on the 17th, and last quarter on the 25th.  Looking southwest on the 6th, the crescent moon should be above and to the right of brilliant Venus. Looking southeast, about 45 minutes before sunrise, on Nov. 29 through the 1st of December the waning crescent Moon will be just above the bright star Spica, then above and to the right of Saturn and finally between Saturn and Mercury low on the horizon.

ISON watch: For all of these dates look for ISON in the east-southeast. On the16th, about an hour before sunrise, ISON will be found above and to the right of the bright star Spica in Virgo. On the 19th look about half way between Spica and the planet Mercury. On the 22nd it will be just to the right of Mercury.

Beginning on the 24th, about 30 minutes before sunrise it will be found below and to the right of Saturn and Mercury. By the 26th it will be hugging the horizon. You might also notice that while ISON becomes visible another event is happening nearby. Saturn and Mercury are nearing each other and are less than 1 degree apart on the 25th and 26th.

Remember that Daylight Savings Time ends at 2 a.m. on November 3rd as we “fall back” one hour. Remember to set your clocks back and enjoy the extra hour of sleep!

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
November 2013


October 2013

October Skies

 This month most of the planet watching will be concentrated around early evening or early morning hours. Venus brightens to an incredible magnitude of -4.5 as it hangs about 10 degrees above the southwestern horizon in the early evening hours. A special treat will be on the 16th when Venus will be only 1.5 degrees above the bright red star Antares in the constellation Scorpius.

Saturn is edging ever closer to the southwestern horizon. By mid-month binoculars will be needed to pick it out of the afterglow of sunset. Mercury puts in a brief evening sky visit early in the month. Even though it is brighter than Saturn it will be closer to the horizon and therefore you will probably need binoculars to find it. The best opportunity will be on the 7th.  Point your binoculars toward the southwest horizon and to the lower right of the crescent Moon. You might get lucky and see both Saturn and Mercury hanging just above the horizon with Saturn being about 5 degrees above Mercury.

Jupiter rises around midnight on October first and two hours earlier by the end of the month. It also brightens to magnitude -2.4. Jupiter reaches quadrature, 90 degrees west of the Sun on the 12th. Because of the lighting angle with the Sun, this is a great time to view the shadows of the 4 large Galilean moons as the shadows transit the surface of the planet. To view these transits you will need a moderate sized amateur telescope.

Mars rises about 4 to 5 hours before the sun and spends most of the month hanging out in the constellation Leo, “the Lion.” About one hour before dawn on the 14th, Mars will be only one degree above the bright star Regulus. While all this is happening, a third object will be hurrying to join Mars and Regulus, Comet ISON.

During October, Comet ISON will brighten from magnitude 10 to magnitude 7, still too faint to be seen with the naked eye. It will pass 2 degrees north of Regulus on the 16th and should be visible through a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope. Mars and ISON will track along about 1 degree apart from the 16th through the 19th.

The Moon will be new on the 4th, first quarter on the 11th, full on the 18th, and last quarter on the 26th.  Looking east on October 1st, about one hour before sunrise, the waning crescent Moon will be just below and to the right of Mars. Around 6 a.m. on the 25th and 26th, looking high in the southern sky, the waning Moon will bracket Jupiter in the constellation Gemini, “the Twins.”

Turning our attention to the west-southwest on the 7th through the 9th, a waxing crescent Moon will pass just above brilliant Venus as it climbs into the evening sky.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Enchanted Skies Star Party. It will be held from October 2nd through the 5th in Socorro, New Mexico. We’re pulling out all the stops this year and we have an exciting lineup of events. Go to www.enchantedskies.org to preview events and for on line registration.

Clear Skies!
Jon Spargo

New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
October 2013


September 2013

September Skies

 September offers some unusual observing in that the “Zodiacal Light” should be visible above the eastern horizon in the dark hours before dawn. The glow from the Zodiacal Light is caused by sunlight reflected off of tiny dust particles in the ecliptic, the general plane followed by the planets as they orbit the Sun. These particles are the debris left over after the formation of the solar system. Imagine a thin disk with the sun at its center spinning around the sun in the same plane as the planets. Most of the light we see is scattered off of particles that are inside the Earth’s orbit.

 In the spring and fall this disk is nearly vertical on the horizon. In the fall look for along slender triangular glow rising into the eastern sky. You’ll need to find a really dark site and, of course, a moonless night. Try looking about 2 hours before the first hint of dawn.  To see it in the spring you have to look to the western horizon.

 Venus will continue to hang in the southwestern sky and will brighten slightly to magnitude -4.2. Venus has three close encounters this month. On the 5th and 6th you may be able to spot the bright star Spica just below Venus. On the 8th, the crescent Moon forms a close pair with Venus and on the 17th and 18th Saturn will be found only 3.5 degrees above Venus.

 Saturn continues its western trek through the sky setting only an hour behind the sun at the end of the month. Unless you have an unusually clear and stable atmosphere, good telescopic views of the ringed planet will be hard to come by.

Jupiter will rise just after local midnight and is pretty high in the sky by dawn. It will also brighten from magnitude -2 to -2.2 by the end of the month. Mars comes up around 3 a.m. This month Mars has two interesting encounters. The first is with the “Beehive” star cluster on the mornings of the 8th and 9th. Binoculars or a small optical telescope will let you see the cluster more clearly.

As many of you know there is an approaching comet (Comet C/2012 S1 ISON) which is supposed to put on a spectacular show for us in early December. On the morning of September 27th the comet will pass 2 degrees to the north of Mars. At that time the comet is supposed to have brightened to 10th magnitude. This will be a good opportunity for you serious comet hunters to brush up on your comet finding skills with a moderate size telescope. It certainly won’t be a visual object and probably too diffuse for standard binoculars.

The Moon will be new on the 5th, first quarter on the 12th, full on the 19th, and last quarter on the 26th.  Looking east on August 31 through September 2, about one hour before sunrise, a super thin waning crescent Moon will be just above and to the right of Jupiter and then continue on, passing to the right of Mars on the 2nd. This show will repeat itself on the 26th through the 29th at about 5 a.m. in the eastern sky. This time the Moon will be just past last quarter.

Turning our attention to the west-southwest on the 7th through the 9th a waxing crescent Moon will pass Venus and Saturn as it climbs into the western sky.

Autumn begins in the northern hemisphere when we reach the Autumnal Equinox, the first day of fall, at 2:44 p.m. MDT. Our friends in the southern hemisphere will celebrate their first day of spring.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo

New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club

September 2013

August 2013

August Skies

The August show stopper will be the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. This year the shower has two things going for it that should make meteor watching a fun event. The first is that the waxing crescent Moon will set about mid-evening leaving the skies dark for meteor watching. The second is that the actual peak of the shower will occur during daylight hours on the 12th for North America. What this means is the shower should be visible on the night of August 11-12 and again during the night of August 12-13.

This year the predicted high numbers are for about 100 meteors per hour. However, since that will occur during the day, expect lower numbers for both nights. As always the best time to see the Perseids will be just after midnight and up to the pre-dawn hours. That is when the radiant (point of origin) will be high in the northeastern sky. This will probably turn out to be an average year for the Perseids which originate from the debris trail of comet Swift-Tuttle. Swift-Tuttle last came by in the early 1990s and is not due back again until 2122.

Venus will continue to dominate the early evening sky. Shining at magnitude -4.0 it hangs on the western horizon setting about 1.5 hours after the Sun. Venus will spend the month moving toward the bright star Spica (in Virgo) ending the month only 5 degrees from the star.

Saturn is heading west. At the beginning of the month its separation from Venus is more than 53 degrees in the early evening sky. By the end of the month Saturn and Venus will be separated by only 18 degrees and it will set only 2.5 hours after the Sun. Early August will be the last best chance for you ring watchers to see the rings through a telescope. Saturn remains to the east of Spica for the entire month.

If you are an early riser then you are in luck as Mercury, Mars and Jupiter will provide some interesting planet watching. Mercury brightens during the first half of August but appears lower each morning. We will lose sight of it around mid-month.

Jupiter rises around 3:30 a.m. followed by Mars about a half hour later. At 5 degrees apart, both planets can be found in Gemini (the Twins). On August 18th Mars will pass by the bright star Pollux in Gemini. The two planets rise a bit earlier each morning and by the 31st Mars is fully 25 degrees above the horizon with Jupiter even higher.

The Moon will be new on the 6th, first quarter on the 14th, full on the 20th, and last quarter on the 28th.  Looking east on the 3rd, about 45 minutes before sunrise, the waning crescent Moon will be just above and to the right of Jupiter. On the 4th the thin crescent Moon will be slightly below and to the left of Mars. A day later on the 5th a barely visible crescent Moon will be below Mercury.

Looking west-southwest 30 minutes after sunset on the nights of the 9th through the 12th, the new crescent Moon passes below Venus on the 9th. On the 11th the Moon will be just below and to the right of the bright star Spica (in Virgo) and finally on the 12th it will be just below and to the left of Saturn.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
August 2013

July 2013

July Skies

 In the early evening skies, Venus continues to bedazzle us with its brilliance at magnitude -3.9. At about 10 degrees above the western horizon it sets about an hour and a half after the Sun. One thing to watch for is its close encounter with the bright star Regulus in Leo “The Lion.” On the evenings of July 21 and 22 Regulus will be just one and one-quarter degrees from Venus. At magnitude +1.4, Regulus will be 130 times dimmer than Venus. Nevertheless, a good pair of binoculars should reveal this close encounter.

 Saturn spends July hanging out near Spica in the constellation Virgo. On the 24th it reaches quadrature (90 degrees east of the Sun). Because of this the shadow of the ringed planet is projected onto its rings on the eastern edge of the planet. This should prove to be quite a sight in small to medium sized amateur telescopes.

This month the planetary landscape becomes really interesting just before dawn. Mars begins the month is roughly 8 degrees above the eastern horizon at about a half hour before sunrise. Slightly below and to the left of Mars, Jupiter peeks up just above the horizon. Jupiter continues to climb towards Mars and by the 22nd the two planets will be only three quarters of a degree apart!

But wait, the show gets even better. Mercury joins the planetary parade and climbs to within about 7 degrees below Mars & Jupiter. Mercury begins to brighten rapidly at the middle of the month and is shining at magnitude zero by the 30th. The end of the month should be prime time for some early morning planet viewing about an hour before sunrise.

Let’s not forget our home planet. Earth reaches aphelion, its farthest distance from the Sun, on July 5th. Its distance from the sun will be 94,509,959 miles from the Sun which is about 1.7 % farther than average. Even so, please remember to use your sun block when you head outdoors!

The Moon will be new on the 8th, first quarter on the 15th, full on the 22nd, and last quarter on the 29th.  Looking east on the 4th, about an hour before sunrise, the waning crescent Moon will be just below the Pleiades (Seven Sisters). Two days later on the 6th, the thin sliver of the Moon will be just below and to the right of Mars and just above and to the right of Jupiter.

Looking at the western horizon on the evening of the 10th, the crescent new Moon will be just below and to the left of brilliant Venus. On the 16th Saturn will shine just above the Moon with the bright star Spica to the right.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
July 2013

June 2013

June Skies 

Going, going gone! Jupiter passes Venus on May 28th and then is lost to visible sighting as it enters the glare of the setting Sun June 4th. Jupiter reaches conjunction with the Sun on its far side on June 19th.

Venus will continue to hover just above the west-northwest horizon for most of the month gaining only a couple of degrees in elevation by the end of the month. However, given a cloudless horizon Venus, at magnitude -3.8, should be easy to spot. One benefit of this low position all month is that Venus will make an excellent reference point to find Mercury.

Mercury is putting on a great show with this month being its best evening apparition for 2013 and will be visible well past mid-month. At first, it will be above and to the left of Venus but will gradually sink and will be only 2.1 degrees due left of Venus on the 18th. On the 19th it will be its closest to Venus at only 1.9 degrees below and to the left. By this time however, Mercury will have dimmed considerably and you might need a pair of binoculars to get a good look at the tiny planet.

Saturn, will continue to dominate the evening sky and can be found just east of the bright star Spica in Virgo. An easy way to find it is by finding the big bear, Ursa Major (Big Dipper). Then by following the arc of the tail (or handle) you “arc to Arcturus” (the next bright star to the south) and “speed on to Spica.” Then take a little jog to the left to find the ringed planet. The rings are still open and will make for some great viewing through a small telescope.

Finally, Mars reappears in the morning sky about a half hour before sunrise on June 1st. At magnitude +1.4 it will be difficult to spot until the end of the month when it will be found about 7 degrees above the horizon. If you are lucky, wait ten more minutes after spotting Mars with your binoculars and you might catch a fleeting view of Jupiter peeking up over the horizon.

The Moon will be new on the 8th, first quarter on the 16th, full on the 23rd, and last quarter on the 30th.  Looking west-northwest about 45 minutes after sunset on the 10th, the very thin crescent Moon is just to the right of Venus with Mercury forming a triangle just above. Looking south, about halfway up around 10 p.m., the waxing Moon will bracket Saturn on the nights of June 18 and 19.

The summer solstice officially begins at 11:04 p.m. MDT (10:04 PDT) on June 20th giving us the shortest night of the year in the northern hemisphere.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
June 2013

May 2013

May Skies

This month we are offered an amazing trio of planets in the early evening sky. As the month progresses, Jupiter begins sinking toward the western horizon while Venus slowly begins to climb in the western evening sky. Beginning around mid-month, Mercury joins in on the fun as it rises above the western horizon. On the 19th, the three bright planets form a line less than 13 degrees long. Mercury is about 3 degrees above the horizon about a half hour after sunset (you may need binoculars to see it) with Venus about 4 degrees higher and to the left and Jupiter about 9 degrees higher and to the left of Venus.

The fun really begins over a 6 night stretch from May 24th through the 30th. Over this 6 night period the three planets, while moving relative to each other, the will always fit within a 5 degree circle! Mercury shining at magnitude -0.9, with Venus at -3.9 and with Jupiter at -1.9 should form a brilliant trio above the western horizon.

On the 31st things change rapidly as Jupiter sets less than half an hour after the sun. At this time the trio forms another diagonal straight line. Venus is 4.5 degrees lower and to the right of Mercury and Jupiter is 3.5 degrees below and to the right of Venus. Jupiter will soon be lost in the glare of the Sun.

Saturn rises just before Sunset at the beginning of the month and will be visible, at magnitude +0.3 for most of the night. Its beautiful rings remain open so as to offer spectacular views through small telescopes. Look for Saturn in the south-southeast about 15 degrees from the bright star Spica in the constellation Virgo. Mars is still lost in the glare of the early morning Sun.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 2nd, new on the 9th, first quarter on the 18th, full on the 25th and last quarter again on the 31st. Looking west about 30 minutes after sunset on the 10th through the 12th, the very thin crescent Moon is very close to Venus on the 10th (you might need binoculars for this) and brackets Jupiter on the 11th and 12th.

Clear Skies!
Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
April 2013

April 2013

April Skies 

As April begins, comet PanSTARRS is still hanging around in the western sky just after sunset. It has faded to magnitude +3. Look to the northwest about 45 minutes after sunset and at about 10 degrees above the horizon. A pair of good binoculars will be helpful in finding PanSTARRS. For more information I refer you to the chart on page 51 of the April Sky & Telescope magazine or go to skypub.com/panstarrs.

April brings the Lyrid meteor shower. This show is quite unpredictable but has been known to peak at 90 per hour. This year the best time for viewing will be in the early morning hours of April 22nd. If you wait until the bright Moon sets in the west you will have a narrow window of opportunity for about a half hour before the first glimpse of dawn. Look to the northeast toward the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra “the Harp.”

Jupiter will dominate the early evening sky and is in a great position for viewing with binoculars or a small telescope. By months end it will have moved far enough west so that images will not be as sharp because of viewing through more of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Venus will move past superior conjunction with the Sun and be just barely visible above the west-northwest horizon on April 30th. Mars reaches its superior conjunction with the Sun on the 18th and won’t be visible to us for several months to come.

The planetary star this month will be Saturn. On the 28th is reaches opposition with the Sun and also its closest approach to Earth. Thus it will be visible all night long. As the month progresses it will brighten to magnitude +0.1 and the rings, at 18 degrees tilt, will remain a spectacular target for small to medium sized telescopes. At the beginning of the month it rises about a half hour after nightfall in the southeast and ends the month rising at sunset.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 3rd, new on the 10th, first quarter on the 18th and full on the 25th.  Looking west on the 14th about an hour after sunset, the crescent Moon will be found a bit above and to the left of Jupiter. On the 20th the Moon will be just below the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo “the Lion.”

Look to the southeast on the 24th and 25th about an hour after sunset. On the 24th the nearly full Moon will be just below the bright star Spica in Virgo. On the 25th, the full Moon rises just below and to the right of the ringed planet, Saturn. On the 26th the Moon moves a bit farther east and is to the left of Saturn.

Clear Skies!
Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
April 2013

March 2013

March Skies 

There is lots of excitement this month with the appearance of the first of two comets that will be visible this year. Comet PanSTARRS will become visible beginning about March 7th, low on the western horizon about 30 minutes after sunset. By the 20th it will have risen to about 10 degrees above the horizon and should be easy to find about an hour after sunset.

The comet will slowly move to the northwest and then north gaining altitude until it is fully 40 degrees above the northern horizon in late May passing just east of Polaris, the North Star. It is predicted to reach magnitude -0.2 on March 10th thereafter fading to magnitude 8.7 by the end of May. I would like to offer a word of caution about the brightness of comets. Since they are large and diffuse it means their brightness is spread over a larger area than that of a star or planet and therefore they may not appear as bright as you might expect.

As a result you will probably need a small telescope or binoculars to find the comet toward the middle to end of April. Also, predictions of cometary brightness are difficult because they depend on how much material is blown off the comet’s nucleus by the solar wind. I would also like to point out that the positions and times given for the comet’s path are based on placing the observer at 40 degrees north latitude. You may need to adjust your viewing times depending on whether you live north or south of 40 degrees. Don’t fret if you miss PanSTARRS, as we have a doozy of a comet due in December.

March is also a great time to view the Zodiacal Light. Look west on a clear moonless night a couple of hours after sunset. You should see a band of very diffuse light rising from the horizon and tilting slightly to the left. This is sunlight reflecting off of interplanetary dust in the ecliptic, which is the plane of the solar system. The dust mostly comes from the breakup of short period comets.

Jupiter remains high in the night sky at sunset. During March its brightness will diminish slightly from magnitude -2.3 to -2.1. Against the background of stars Jupiter will appear to move eastward passing just north of Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus.

In early March the ringed planet Saturn will rise between 10 and 11 p.m. and by the end of the month less than an hour after twilight. At an average of 19 degrees tilt, the rings remain a magnificent sight! Venus, Mars and Mercury are all too close to the sun and will elude us for a while longer.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 4th, new on the 11th, first quarter on the 19th and full on the 27th.  On March 17th, looking up and to the west, the waxing Moon will be found between Jupiter and the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus. On the 23rd and 24th, looking high to the southeast, the moon will bracket the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo “the Lion.” On the 28th, look low in the southeast around 11 p.m. The Moon will be above and to right of the ringed planet Saturn.

Two noteworthy events coming up include the beginning of Daylight Savings Time on March the 10th at 2 a.m. Don’t forget to SPRING FORWARD and set your clocks ahead one hour. Also, the first day of spring (Vernal Equinox) begins at 5:02 a.m., Mountain Daylight Time on the 20th.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo

New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club

March 2013

February 2013

February Skies

Tiny Mercury puts in a brief but very bright appearance during early to mid-February. It reaches its greatest elongation from the sun on the 16th. Shining at magnitude -0.6 a small telescope will reveal its tiny disk exactly half illuminated. Thereafter it rapidly dims and sinks below the western horizon.

Mars, shining at magnitude +1.2 can be found below Mercury but you’ll likely need good binoculars or a small telescope to spot it.

Jupiter continues its association with Taurus, dimming slightly as the month progresses. High in the early evening sky it reaches quadrature (90 degrees east of the Sun) on the 25th. This is a good time to search for the shadows of the Galilean moons on the planet. You’ll need a moderate sized telescope for this quest.

Saturn rises in the east about 2 hours before Jupiter sets in the west. Saturn’s rings are tilted a whopping 19.3 degrees from edge on. This will be the greatest tilt of the rings this year. For those with access to a small telescope, this is a good time to look for the shadow of the rings cast upon the planet.

Venus, heading for conjunction with the Sun in March, will be very low on the east-southeast horizon soon to disappear from our view.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 3rd, new on the 10th, first quarter on the 17th and full on the 25th.  Looking south-southwest about an hour before sunrise, the last quarter Moon will be below and slightly to the left of the ringed planet Saturn. About 45 minutes after sunset on February 11th, the new crescent Moon will hang just above the west-southwest horizon and above and to the right of the planet Mercury.

At about 7 p.m. on the 17th and 18th the waxing gibbous Moon will be found on either side of the giant planet Jupiter which is still hanging out in Taurus near the bright red giant star Aldebaran. Looking south-southeast on the 28th around 11 p.m., the Moon will pass very close to the bright star Spica in the constellation Virgo. On the following night it will be close to Saturn.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo

New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club

February 2013

January 2013

January Skies

This month Mars will finally disappear into the sunset after hanging above the western horizon for most of the late summer and fall. Shining at magnitude +1.2 it will be difficult to spot and will appear as a tiny, fuzzy red dot. Binoculars will definitely be needed to find the red planet.

Having reached opposition in December, Jupiter will spend most January nights high in the sky and well placed for telescopic viewing. Fading slightly to magnitude -2.5 it will nevertheless outshine everything else, except the Moon. You will find it hanging out on the northern edge of the Hyades star cluster. Most of us recognize part of this cluster as the “V” of Taurus “the Bull” which includes the bright orange/red giant star Aldebaran.

Saturn rises around 2 a.m. at the beginning of the month and two hours earlier by month’s end. This month will be one of the best viewing months for the rings since 2006. The rings have opened to 19 degrees from edge-on. Saturn has now reached quadrature (90 degrees west of the sun) which means that it will be lit from the side. A consequence of the lighting angle is that the shadows of the rings should be prominent on the planet’s surface. The shadows should be easy to see with a moderate size telescope.

Mercury will be invisible to the unaided eye all month long while Venus is starting to sink towards the eastern horizon as it ends its current morning apparition. By the end of the month the brilliant planet will only be a degree and a half above the horizon.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 5th, new on the 11th, first quarter on the 18th and full on the 27th.  Looking south on the 6th, about an hour before sunrise, the waning Moon will be to the right and just below Saturn. On the 8th, about 40 minutes before sunrise, the waning crescent Moon will be just to the left of Venus only a few degrees above the horizon.

On the 13th, about an hour after sunset, the new crescent Moon will be a few degrees directly above the red planet Mars which will be only about 10 degrees above the horizon. On the 21st the waxing gibbous Moon will again be very close to giant Jupiter. In the southern hemisphere Jupiter will be occulted by the moon.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
January 2013

2012

December 2012

December Skies

 

 We lead off this month with the Geminid meteor shower. This year the new moon will not hinder meteor watching as the peak of the shower will occur on the night of December 13-14. This year the shower is predicted to produce about 120 meteors per hour (two per minute). Look to the east in the direction of the bright star Castor in Gemini. This should appear to be the radiant (origin point) for the shower. Bundle up as this should be one of the best showers this year. Actually you may see quite a few Geminids for a couple of days before and after the peak.

Jupiter reaches opposition on December 2nd. Rising at sunset, it will be visible all night long. This will be one of Jupiter’s closest oppositions in many years and it will shine at a very bright apparent magnitude of -2.8. Late night and early morning will place the giant planet high in the sky and ideal for viewing in small telescopes.

Saturn rises around 4 a.m. at the beginning of the month and its westward trek will have it rising by 2:30 a.m. at the end of the month. The beautiful rings are once again opening to our view and are tilted 19 degrees from edge-on throughout the month.

Mercury will have one of its best apparitions for mid-northern latitudes beginning on the first and lasting through the end of the month! Looking east, about an hour before sunrise, Mercury and Venus will keep close company for the first half of the month separated by only 6.3 degrees on the 6th.

Venus begins the month only 5 degrees from Saturn but the separation grows as Saturn climbs higher in the early morning sky and Venus begins it decent toward the horizon. At magnitude -3.9, Venus easily outshines everything in the pre-dawn sky.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 6th, new on the 13th, first quarter on the 19th, and full on the 28th.  Looking to the southeast about an hour before sunrise on December 9 through 11, the waning crescent Moon will pass the bright star Spica in Virgo on the 9th, followed by the ringed planet Saturn on the 10th and finally just below and to the right of dazzling Venus on the 11th.

Looking east on Christmas night, about an hour after sunset, the nearly full Moon will be just one degree from the giant planet Jupiter and above the bright star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus.

In the northern hemisphere winter officially begins at 4:12 a.m. MST on December 21.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo

New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club

December 2012

November 2012

November Skies

Mars continues to hang in the early evening sky but only 10 degrees or so above the horizon. At magnitude +1.8 it is likelyyou will need a pair of binoculars to see it.

Jupiter will continue to be our nighttime planetary star for most of the month. It rises about 2 hours after sunset on the 1st and will already be well above the eastern horizon at twilight by the end of the month. As it brightens to magnitude -2.8 it will be well placed for binocular and small telescope viewing during the entire month.

While the early morning hours continue to be dominated by brilliant Venus, we will also add two more planets to the early morning skies. Saturn begins its ascent into the early morning sky and should be readily visible by the 15th. On the 23rd through the 30th, Saturn and Venus will be less than 10 degrees apart. Remember that 10 degrees is the width of your fist at arm’s length. On the 26th the two planets will be separated by less than one degree!

Mercury makes one of its better apparitions during the last week of the month. It will brighten from magnitude +1.6 on the 23rd to -0.3 on the 30th. You will find Mercury below and to the left of Venus and Saturn.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 6th, new on the 13th, first quarter on the 20th, and full on the 28th.  Looking east-northeast on the 1st of November, around 10 p.m., the waning gibbous Moon will be just above the giant planet Jupiter. On the 16th, about a half hour after sunset, the crescent Moon will be just above and to the left of the red planet Mars.

At dawn on the 11th, about 45 minutes before sunrise and looking east-southeast, the waning crescent Moon will be slightly below and to the right of brilliant Venus. The following morning on the 12th, the very thin crescent Moon is very near the horizon and to the right of Saturn. On the 28th the full Moon once again aligns with Jupiter but this time much closer. Look to the east-northeast about an hour after sunset.

Worth mentioning, because of the absence of the Moon, is the Leonid meteor shower which should peak during the predawn hours on the 17th.  Expect perhaps 20 meteors per hour but be aware that the Leonids have been known to surprise us from time to time.

We all get an extra hour of sleep on November 4th as Daylight Savings Time ends. Remember to fall back and set your clocks and watches (cell phones do it automatically) back one hour.

Clear Skies!

 

Jon Spargo

New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club

November 2012

October 2012

October Skies

 Mercury puts in a brief appearance in the middle of the month but barely makes it to 3 or 4 degrees above the horizon. Shining at magnitude -0.1 it will be hard to pick out of the glow of twilight, even with binoculars. Saturn is lost in the glow of twilight as it heads for conjunction with the Sun on the 25th.

Mars will be found about 12 degrees above the horizon and although dimmer (magnitude +1.2), it will be easier to find than Mercury. Because of its eastward motion in the sky it will continue to set about 2 hours after sunset for the rest of the year. The bright red star Antares (which means the rival of Mars) will be only 3.5 degrees below Mars on the 20th. This will be a good opportunity to contrast the colors of these two objects.

The evening planetary star will be Jupiter which rises around 10 p.m. at the beginning of the month and by 8 p.m. at months end. Brightening from magnitude -2.5 to -2.7 the giant planet will be high in the southeastern sky and well placed for telescopic viewing by midnight.

Venus continues to outshine everything in the sky in the early morning hours. Blazing away at magnitude -4.0 it rises about 3 hours before the Sun for most of the month. From the 1st through the 7th Venus will be within 5 degrees of the bright star Regulus in Leo “the Lion.” This is close enough so that both will be in the same field of view using binoculars. On the 3rd Venus and Regulus will be separated by a scant 0.2 degrees! This is their closest approach since 1959 and should be quite a sight through a pair of binoculars or small telescope. In 1959 Venus actually occulted (passed in front of) Regulus.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 8th, new on the 15th, first quarter on the 21st, and full on the 29th.  Looking east at about 11 p.m. on the 5th, the waning gibbous Moon will be found just below and to the left of the giant planet Jupiter. About one hour before sunrise on the 12th, the waning crescent Moon will be just to the right of the brilliant planet Venus.

On the 16th through the 18th we have a triple header involving the Moon and two planets. On the 16th the barely visible crescent Moon will be just barely above the horizon and keeping company with Mercury which will be slightly above and to the left of the Moon. On the 17th the crescent moon will split the difference as it will be found about halfway between Mercury and Mars. On the 18th the crescent Moon will above and to the left of Mars and the giant star Antares in Scorpio. The best time to see these events will be about 30 minutes after sunset. A pair of good binoculars will help you find these objects, particularly Mercury.

Clear Skies!
Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
October 2012

September 2012

September Skies
Mars and Saturn will be found in the early evening about 10 degrees above the southwestern horizon. By the end of the month Saturn will be only visible in the glow of twilight and will soon be lost from view. Mars on the other hand, because of its eastward motion in the sky, will continue to set about 2 hours after sunset long after Saturn has disappeared from view. Mercury is lost in the glare of the Sun for the entire month.

The best planet viewing this month will be in the early morning where both Venus and Jupiter will be very prominent. Jupiter actually rises a little before midnight at the beginning of September and by 10 p.m. at the end of the month. Reaching quadrature (90 degrees west of the sun) on September 7th, the giant planet will brighten from magnitude -2.3 to -2.5 by the end of the month.

Venus rises about 3.5 hours before the Sun all month. Blazing away at magnitude -4.2, about half of Venus’ disk is illuminated. The best views will be through a good pair of binoculars. As it moves across the starry background, Venus will met and pass many well know stars and clusters such as Castor an Pollux (the 6th), M44 the Beehive cluster (12th & 13th) and seems to be homing in on the bright star Regulus in Leo, the lion. Reserve the morning of October 3rd for a close encounter of the Regulus kind! (More about this next month)

The Moon will be last quarter on the 8th, new on the 15th, first quarter on the 22nd, and full on the 29th.  Since this will be the first full Moon after the autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere, it will be the “Harvest Moon.” At about 1 hour after sunrise on the 8th the first quarter Moon will be just above Jupiter high in the southeastern sky. Folks in the southern hemisphere will see the Moon occult (pass in front of) Jupiter.

Looking east about one hour before sunrise on the 12th, the waning crescent Moon will be slightly above and to the right of Venus. On the 19th, about 45 minutes after sunset, the waxing crescent Moon can be found very near the “red planet” Mars. Once again lucky folks in the southern hemisphere will get to see the Moon occult Mars.

Autumn begins in the northern hemisphere at 8:49 a.m. MDT on the 22nd. Residents of the southern hemisphere get to enjoy the first day of spring!

Clear Skies!
Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy
September 2012

August 2012

August Skies
This month we will have two special events to look forward to. The first is the well-known Perseid meteor shower. This year the peak should occur just after midnight on the night of August 11-12. This shower should produce about one or two meteors per minute. However, the rates should increase as you approach dawn until daylight begins to interfere.

As well, a waning crescent Moon will rise between 1 and 2 a.m. While not terribly bright, it will be a bit of a nuisance for die hard meteor counters. In truth, Perseids can be seen as early as mid-July and as late as mid-August. To know if a meteor is a Perseid, follow its path backwards across the sky. If that line passes between the constellations of Cassiopeia and Perseus, it is a Perseid meteor.

The second is a rare event. It is a daytime occultation of Venus by the waning crescent Moon. It will take a bit of effort to locate the Moon during daylight. Look about 50 degrees (5 fist widths) west of the Sun. It will also be best viewed through a telescope or good binoculars. Folks in the western half of the U.S. will have the best views of this event. Those of you on the east coast may be able to see the initial disappearance but that will be about it.

The fun begins shortly after 2 p.m. MDT (add or subtract hours for your time zone). The exact start time will be determined by your latitude (north or south). In the northeast you’ll see the disappearance about 4:40 p.m. However, the altitude of the Moon above the western horizon will only be about 3 degrees. Folks in the west will be able to see the whole thing starting about 2:40 p.m. but will suffer from a higher Sun angle. The occultation will last about an hour. It also might be a good idea to start a bit early so you can find the moon during bright daylight. For more information go to: skypub.com/aug2012venusoccultation.

Mars and Saturn are headed west! Mars will pass between Saturn and the bright star Spica, in Virgo, about the middle of the month. On the 21st, Saturn, Mars and Spica form a nice triangle just above the crescent Moon. Early August will be the better time to view Saturn and its rings through binoculars or a small telescope.

Early morning planet watchers will see Jupiter rise between 1 and 2 a.m. and about 2 hours earlier by the end of the month. Venus rises about 3 a.m. all month long. By the 15th the dazzling planet will appear half lit through a telescope or binoculars as it rises 46 degrees west of the sun.

Mercury puts in a brief appearance during the middle two weeks of the month. Look for it low on the eastern horizon about an hour before sunrise.

This month we will be treated to a rare Blue Moon (two full moons in one month). The Moon will be full on the 2nd, last quarter on the 9th, new on the 17th and first quarter on the 24th and full again on the 31st. On the 11th through the 13th the waning crescent Moon will visit Jupiter first and then Venus in the early morning sky. Look to the east-northeast around 3 a.m.

Looking east about 45 minutes before sunrise on the 13th through the 15th, the waning crescent Moon will pass Venus and then approach Mercury. On the 21st, the crescent Moon will be between and just below Mars and Saturn. Look to the west-southwest about an hour after Sunset.

Clear Skies!
Jon Spargo
|New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
August 2012

July 2012

July Skies

This month there is a noticeable shift in our planet parade. Jupiter and Venus have made it back into the morning sky. As well, they will spend most of the month in fairly close proximity to each other. The fun starts on the first of July about 1 hour before sunrise.

Looking east-northeast, about 12 degrees above the horizon, (remember your fist held at arm’s length is about 10 degrees) both planets can be found between the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) and the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus (The Bull). On the 10th Venus will be a scant 2.5 degrees above Aldebaran. Venus blazes away at magnitude -4.7 while Jupiter shines at a respectable magnitude of -2.1. Since they are so close together it will be interesting to compare their brightness.

On the 15th, Venus, Jupiter, Aldebaran and the Moon will form a tight grouping that will be a really neat sight. As the month continues, both planets will rise higher in the early morning sky. Additionally, the spacing between the two planets will grow larger.

However, the evening sky still contains some excellent planetary viewing. We start with Mercury which will be visible at 8 degrees above the west-northwest horizon for about the first week of July. Find a low clear horizon and look for it about 45 minutes after sunset.

Mars and Saturn are high in the southwest sky just after sunset. It will be interesting to watch the distance between the two shrink as the month progresses. Starting at 24 degrees separation they will be within 8 degrees of each other by the end of the month.

Saturn will be of special interest to those with small to medium sized telescopes. Having reached quadrature, the sun angle on the ringed planet will make it appear almost three dimensional. One result of this is that the shadow of its rings on the planet should be quite pronounced and visible.

The Moon will be full on the 3rd, last quarter on the 11th, new on the 19th and first quarter on the 26th. On the 15th the waning crescent Moon will be between and slightly to the left of Jupiter and Venus in the early morning sky. On the 24th and 25th the waxing Moon will pass Mars first and then Saturn.

Clear Skies!
Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy
July 2012

June 2012

You may have noticed that Venus has been plunging lower and lower and is soon to be gone from the evening sky. But, before it transits into the morning sky, it has one more spectacular trick up its sleeve. On Tuesday, June 5th, most of us in North America will be able to witness the transit of Venus across the Sun. You will want to be sure to watch this event because it will be the last time it happens until 2117!

First contact will begin at 22:05 UT which translates into 4:05 MDT and will last until sunset. The best viewing for this event will be through a properly filtered small telescope. As always, proper care must be taken when looking at the sun. #14 welding glass makes a good filter for looking at the sun with your unaided eyes. In Socorro, the New Mexico Tech Astronomy club will be hosting a Venus transit event at the Etscorn Campus Observatory beginning at 4 p.m. We will watch the transit of Venus until sunset and then continue with a star party. Everyone is welcome.

Mercury puts in a really nice evening sky appearance beginning about the middle of the month until the middle of July. Shining at magnitude 0.0, Mercury sets about an hour and a half after the Sun in the West-Northwest during the last half of June. Mars and Saturn will both be easy to find high in the Southwestern sky. At magnitude +0.5 both outshine the nearby bright star Spica in Virgo. Saturn’s rings have closed, temporarily, to a tilt of 12.5 degrees from edgewise.

Jupiter has come out from behind the sun and is now a morning object rising about 45 minutes before sunrise at the beginning of the month. By month’s end it will rise two hours before the sun. Shining at magnitude -2.0 you will find it about half way between the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) and Aldebaran in the Hyades (Taurus) star clusters.

Not to be outdone by Venus, the Moon has another event that will be visible to most of us in North America early in the morning of June 4th. Beginning at 04:00 MDT you will be able to view a partial lunar eclipse. About an hour into the eclipse about 40% of the Moon will be covered by the umbra of the Earth’s shadow. The eclipse will end around 6 a.m. MDT.

The Moon will be full on the 4th, last quarter on the 11th, new on the 19th and first quarter on the 27th. Looking East-Northeast about a half hour before sunrise on the 17th the waning crescent moon will be just to the left and slightly below Jupiter. Looking West-Northwest about 45 minutes after sunset on the 21st, the thin crescent Moon will be just above the horizon below and to the left of Mercury.

On the 25th through the 27th, looking West-Southwest, the waxing first quarter Moon will first pass by Mars and then Saturn. For those of you that missed it, this is what the annular eclipse looked like on May20th from 10,000 feet atop Sandia Peak east of Albuquerque (Photo courtesy of N.G. Chakhtoura).

Clear Skies!
Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
June 2012

May 2012

The superstar of the skies this month is none other than the Moon! So we’ll lead off this month by saying that the Moon will be full on the 6th, last quarter on the 12th, new on the 20th and first quarter on the 28th. On the 6th the full moon should appear larger than normal. That is because the Moon’s orbit around the earth is elliptical. It happens that on the 6th, the full Moon will coincide with the Perigee of the Moon’s orbit, closest to the Earth at 220,160 miles, as opposed to the Apogee at 249,182 miles.

The next big event for the Moon will be on the 20th when those of us who live in parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California will get to witness an annular eclipse of the Sun. Annular means “ring like.” The moon will be far enough from the earth that it will not cover the entire sun resulting in a bright ring surrounding the Moon during totality.

The timing of this event is such that most of us will only get a brief glimpse of totality which will occur at 6:30 p.m. PDT, 7:30 p.m. MDT and 8:30 p.m. CDT for northern Texas.  This means that totality will occur just above the western horizon. In addition to the usual warnings about using appropriate UV filters to watch a solar eclipse, don’t be fooled about the annular ring. You MUST have PROPER EYE PROTECTION at all times! If you live outside the eclipse area may I suggest you come to New Mexico? The centerline runs almost directly through Albuquerque and the weather prospects for viewing the eclipse are excellent!

We are not quite finished with the Moon yet! On the 4th, about an hour after sunset the nearly full Moon will be below Saturn and the bright star Spica in Virgo. On the 22nd the crescent Moon will be found just above the western horizon and to the left of Venus. On the 30th the Moon will once again visit Saturn and Spica.

With Jupiter heading towards conjunction with the Sun on the 13th, Venus will continue to dazzle us in the early evening western sky. At 36 degrees elevation and magnitude -4.7 we will see it, for the first part of the month, with almost 30% of its clouded atmosphere illuminated. However, breath taking changes are coming. Shortly after the beginning of the month Venus will appear to rapidly plunge toward the western horizon. By the end of the month it will be barely visible above the western horizon as it heads for a historic transit across the face of the Sun. More about that in next month’s column.

Mars will continue to appear high in the early evening sky shining at about magnitude 0.0 at the beginning of the month. By the end of the month it will fade slightly to magnitude +0.5. Because of its elevation in the night sky this is the best time to make telescopic observations of the red planet.

Saturn is also well placed for telescopic observations appearing at 25 degrees elevation in the southeast just after sunset. Keeping company with the bright star Spica in Virgo its magnitude will fade from +0.3 to +0.5 as the month progresses. The rings will also close slightly as Saturn continues its slight retrograde motion in the sky.

Clear Skies!
Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
May 2012

April 2012

Venus will continue to dazzle us with its brilliance in the early evening sky. A special treat happens this year on the night of April 2nd when Venus will skim through the left side of the Pleiades star cluster about an hour after sunset. This will be fun to watch through binoculars or a small telescope.

Jupiter will continue to hurry toward its disappearing act setting only 15 minutes after sunset on the 30th.Be sure to observe it in the early evening twilight hours

As Jupiter fades it will be replaced by the ringed planet Saturn. Saturn reaches opposition on the 15th meaning that it will rise at sunset and be visible all night long. The rings will narrow slightly from 14 to 13 degrees but still make for good binocular or small telescope viewing. Saturn can be found in Virgo not far from the bright star Spica.

Mars is now high in the early evening sky in the constellation Leo, not far from the bright star Regulus. It is winter in Mars’ northern hemisphere and a good dark night with good seeing and a moderate sized telescope may reveal Mars’ north polar ice cap of frozen carbon dioxide

Mercury will put in a very brief morning appearance on the 18th. This will be its poorest morning apparition of the year and it will be tough to find even if you have binoculars.

The absence of moonlight during the night of April 21-22 may afford us a good look at the Lyrid Meteor Shower. The best time to look for the Lyrids will start around midnight and last into the early morning hours. Facing northeast the meteors will appear to be coming from the constellations of Hercules and Lyra. The norm for this shower is about a dozen or so per hour. However, you never quite know what to expect because on occasion it has been known to be as high as 90 per hour.

The Moon will be full on the 6th, last quarter on the 13th, new on the 21st and first quarter on the 29th. On April 3rd, a nearly full Moon will be found below and to the right of Mars and directly below the bright star Regulus in “Leo” the lion. On the 6th the full Moon, the bright star Spica in Virgo and Saturn will form a nice straight line

On April 24th the crescent new Moon will be found in the west just below and to the right of Venus. A few nights later on the 30th the Moon again catches up with Mars and Regulus

Clear Skies!
Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
April 2012

March 2012

March starts with a fine apparition of Mercury lasting from the 1st through the 10th. The best viewing will be on the 1st through the 4th. Looking west-southwest, about an hour after sunset Mercury, at magnitude -0.5, will appear about 30 degrees (three fist widths) below and slightly to the right of Venus.

Throughout the month mighty Jupiter and dazzling Venus will draw ever closer together until they pass each other on the night of March 12-13. This will also afford you the opportunity to make a comparison of apparent visual magnitudes. As they pass, Venus at magnitude -4.3 is nearly double the brightness of Jupiter shining at magnitude -2.2.

If you can find a really dark location, there is another elusive sight to look for during the early evening hours. From the 10th through the 24th look due west about 90 minutes after sunset. Rising from the horizon, like a faint glowing pyramid of light, will be the Zodiacal Light. This glowing pyramid is caused by sunlight reflecting off of dust particles in space that trail in the Earth’s orbit and seemingly align with the zodiac. It should be seen passing up through Venus, Jupiter and the Pleiades.

Mars reaches opposition from the Sun on the 3rd meaning that it will rise in the east at sunset and be visible in the sky all night long. At magnitude -1.2 it has just past aphelion and is 63 million miles from Earth, the farthest opposition since 1995.

Saturn rises about 4 hours after sunset in early March and only about one hour after sunset by the end of the month. Although slowly closing the rings are still well suited for observations with binoculars or small telescopes. It can be found near the bright star Spica in Virgo.

The Moon will be full on the 8th, last quarter on the 14th, new on the 22nd and first quarter on the 30th. On March 7th a nearly full Moon will rise above the eastern horizon just below the red planet Mars. Look for the pair about 45 minutes after sunset.

Looking west on the 25th and 26th, the crescent Moon will pass close to Jupiter on the 25th and Venus on the 26th. Look for both events about an hour after sunset.

Daylight savings fans should look forward to Sunday, March 11 when daylight savings time returns for most of North America and Canada. Spring forward by remembering to set your clocks ahead one hour. March 19-20 brings us the equinox marking the first day of spring for the northern hemisphere and the first day of fall for our friends south of the equator. This will occur at 1:14 a.m. EDT on the 20th and 10:14 PDT on the 19th

Clear Skies!
Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
March 2012

February 2012

Venus and Jupiter will continue to dominate the early evening sky in the west. Venus continues its climb into the western sky while Jupiter progressively sets a little earlier each evening. At magnitude -4.3, Venus will dazzle us, being almost twice as bright as magnitude -2.2 Jupiter.

Mercury, at magnitude -1, appears low in the early evening sky on the 22nd. During the next 6 days it climbs into the western sky reaching 10 degrees above the horizon by the 28th. Look to the western horizon about 30 minutes after sunset. To find it on the 22nd, look below and to the right of Venus. You can also use the old trick of extending your arm and making a fist. Mercury should be slightly less than 3 fist widths below Venus. A good pair of binoculars will also help. One fist width equals approximately 10 degrees. This holds true for everybody because of the ratio of arm’s length to fist size.

Mars charges dramatically into the evening sky in the east. At the beginning of the month it rises at 8:30 p.m. By month’s end it will rise as early as 6 p.m. During February it will almost double in magnitude from -0.5 to -1.2. As it approaches opposition to the sun in early March, surface features will require a small telescope to discern. This is because Mars is approaching aphelion in its orbit (farthest distance from the Sun).

One of the best telescopic and binocular sights this month will be the mighty ringed planet Saturn. This month you will want to concentrate on the rings as they are now tilted 15 degrees from edge on. At this angle the Cassini division in the rings should be easy to spot. Don’t miss this opportunity as the rings will close slightly over the next 4 or 5 months. At the beginning of the month it will rise around 11:30 p.m. and will rise at 9:30 p.m. by month’s end. Its magnitude will brighten from +0.6 to +0.4.

The Moon will be full on the 7th, last quarter on the 14th, new on the 21st and first quarter on the 29th. Yes, that’s right, the 29th! 2012 is divisible by 4 making this a leap year!

On the 9th, a nearly full Moon will rise above the eastern horizon just to the right of and at about the same as the red planet Mars. Look east between 8 and 9 p.m. Looking west on the 22nd, about 30 minutes after sunset, an ultra thin crescent Moon will be found just above the horizon and to the left of Mercury. By the 24th the Moon will have risen to a position below and slightly to the right of Venus.

On the 25th and 26th, shortly after dark, the crescent Moon will visit Venus and then Jupiter in the western sky. From there it will continue on to pass both the Pleiades and Hyades (Taurus) clusters on the 25th and 26th.

Clear Skies!
Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
February 2012

January 2012

We begin this month with have and have not events. Recently there has been quite a buzz about Comet Lovejoy to include some spectacular photos from the International Space Station. Alas, we in the northern hemisphere will miss this spectacular comet unless you pack your bags in a hurry and head south of the equator.

However, the surprise of the month might just be the Quadrantid meteor shower. This is a rich meteor shower which can produce 60 to 200 meteors per hour! Most folks miss it for a variety of reasons the chief one being that the peak of the shower lasts only 2 to 4 hours. This year, because of the position of the moon, will be a good year to try and see them. But bundle up because the peak is expected around midnight to 2 am Mountain Standard Time on January 4th. Look to the northeast as the radiant for the meteors will be just above the horizon in that direction.

Venus at magnitude -4.0 continues its climb into the early evening sky. Jupiter at magnitude -2.6 is also a very bright sight high in the southern sky just after sunset. These two dazzlers will dominate the early evening sky for the entire month.

Mars rises around 10 pm on New Year’s Day and by 8:30 pm at the end of the month. This month Mars will double its brightness to magnitude -0.5. Through a small telescope its disk will also grow larger which may make some surface features visible.

The ringed planet Saturn rises around 1:30 am at the beginning of this month and at 11:30 pm by month’s end. The rings have now opened to 15 degrees from edgewise. A good telescopic target in the rings is the Cassini division, which should be readily visible.

The Moon will be first quarter on the 1st, full on the 9th, last quarter on the 16th, new on the 22nd and first quarter again on the 30th. Looking high in the southern sky on the night of January 2nd the waxing first quarter Moon will be just above the giant planet Jupiter. However if you miss this date, the show will be repeated again on the night of January 30!

On the 19th, about an hour before sunrise the waning crescent Moon will be slightly above and to the left of the red giant star Antares in the constellation Scorpius. Finally, on the nights of the 25th and 26th the crescent Moon will bracket the planet Venus. Look to the west-southwest about an hour after sunset.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
January 2012

2011

December 2011

Venus continues its climb into the early evening sky. At magnitude -3.9 it will be easy to spot on the western horizon as it rises higher into the evening sky with each passing week. As we head into 2012 Venus will continue rising as it heads for a spectacular apparition in the spring.

Jupiter is almost halfway up in the southeastern sky at sunset. This month its apparent magnitude fades a bit from -2.8 to -2.6. Nevertheless, it is superbly placed in the night sky for viewing by naked eye, binoculars or a small telescope. Jupiter’s 4 large moons continue to please as they whir around the giant planet changing their positions from night to night.

Mars will brighten very noticeably as the month progresses as its disk appears to grow larger. By the end of the month it should be possible to start seeing some surface features in moderate sized amateur telescopes. At the start of the month it will rise around 11:30 p.m. As it brightens from magnitude +0.8 to +0.2 it will also rise a full hour earlier by month’s end.

Saturn continues to rise a little earlier each night and its beautiful rings open to 15 degrees! This is the best view we’ve had of the rings since 2006. Look for it in the east two or three hours after midnight. Mercury becomes a morning planet this month and reaches its greatest elongation from the sun on the 23rd. At that time if will rise a full hour and a half before the sun and become easy to spot when you look to the southeast.

The Moon will be first quarter on the 2nd, full on the 10th, last quarter on the 17th and new on the 24th. Looking east on the nights of the 6th, 7th and 8th the waxing gibbous Moon passes Jupiter and the Pleiades (Seven Sisters). Looking southeast on the 19th and 20th, about an hour before sunrise, the waning Moon passes Virgo. Above the Moon on the 20th you will find the bright star Spica and the ringed planet Saturn. On the 22nd the waning crescent moon can be found, about 45 minutes before sunrise, very near the head of Scorpius and a few degrees to the right of Mercury. On the evening of the 26th the new crescent Moon will be to the right and slightly below dazzling Venus. The best time for viewing will be about 1 hour after sunset.

With December comes the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere as we reach the winter solstice at 10:30 p.m. MST on the night of 21-22 December. It is all uphill after that as the Sun begins to slowly climb back north with each day being just a little bit longer.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
December 2011

November 2011

Venus begins its ascent into the evening sky reaching an elevation above the horizon of 14 degrees by the end of the month. Shining at magnitude -3.8 it will still be hard to locate in the first few minutes after sunset. However, for those with good binoculars or a small telescope, there is a special treat awaiting you on the 11th. Looking to the southwest about 30 minutes after sunset, Venus, Mercury and the bright star Antares will be stacked in a nearly vertical line with Venus on top.

Mercury will continue to hang close to Venus during most of the month but will fade from view during the last 10 days of the month. Jupiter reaches opposition on the 29th and will be visible all night long. Shining at a brilliant magnitude of -2.8 it will be placed for optimum viewing around 10 p.m.in the evening. Mars now rises around 1 a.m. and will slowly but steadily grow in magnitude to +0.7 by the end of the month. Mars will keep company with the bright star Regulus, in Leo the Lion, for most of the month approaching to within 2 degrees of Regulus on the night of Nov. 10-11.

By the end of the month Saturn will rise around 3:30 a.m. It will then be about 25 degrees above the horizon which is still a bit iffy for telescopic viewing. However, the rings are really beginning to open up and will reach 14 degrees by the end of the month! This may tempt many observers to have a go at Saturn during the early morning hours.

Each year in November we look forward to the Leonid meteor shower. In past years this has proven to be a spectacular display. Unfortunately this year it is predicted to be a rather modest shower. On the morning of the 18th (after midnight) the shower will reach its peak. This year there is an added problem of glare from a last quarter Moon. Therefore only the brightest meteors will be visible.

The Moon will be first quarter on the 2nd, full on the 10th, last quarter on the 18th and new on the 25th. Looking east at about 9 p.m. on the 9th, about 1 hour after sunset, the waxing gibbous Moon can be found just to the left of Jupiter. Looking to the southeast on the 22nd, about an hour before sunrise, the waning crescent Moon will just to the right of the bright star Spica. A little further to the left of Spica will be the ringed planet Saturn. On the 26th, about 30 minutes after sunset, look to the southwest. The crescent Moon will be found between Venus and Mercury. Venus will be above and to the left of the Moon and Mercury below and to the right very near to the horizon. A good pair of binoculars will help you to locate Mercury.

With summer gone and fall nearly over it is once again time to set our clocks back to standard time. Sunday, November 6th is the day we set our clocks back and get an extra hour of sleep! A reminder that times quoted in the column after the 5th will refer to standard time.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
November 2011

October 2011

October marks the return of Venus to the evening sky. At the beginning of the month it can be seen shining at magnitude -3.9 very close to the horizon in the west. By the end of the month it will slowly climb in the western sky and visible for more than an hour after sunset. This is the beginning of a grand apparition of the cloud covered planet as it climbs higher in the evening sky this winter and next spring.

Mercury puts in a very brief appearance at the end of the month and can be found just below Venus. However it is so close to the horizon that you will probably need binoculars to see it.

Jupiter rises earlier each night as the month progresses. The giant planet reaches opposition to the sun on the night of October 28-29. Rising just at sunset it will visible all night long. This year its closest approach on the 27th will nearly equal that of last year. At roughly 369 million miles, Jupiter will blaze away at magnitude -2.9. This close approach will offer small telescope viewers a wealth of detail in the Jovian atmosphere as well as excellent views of the Galilean moons.

Mars fans will want to be sure to find the red planet in the southeast on the morning of October 1st; at about 5 a.m. Binoculars and small telescopes will reveal Mars to be smack in the middle of M44, the famous “Beehive” star cluster. At the end of the month Mars will pull to within 6 degrees of the bright star Regulus in “Leo” the lion. At magnitude +1.1 it will barely outshine Regulus.

Saturn will pass through conjunction with the Sun at mid month and will quickly climb in the pre dawn sky. At the end of the month it can be seen almost 10 degrees above the horizon in the east-southeast about 30 minutes before sunrise. The rings will have opened to 12.5 degrees but will be hard to view in the pre dawn light.

The Moon will be first quarter on the 3rd, full on the 11th, last quarter on the 19th and new on the 26th. Looking east at about 9 p.m. on the 13th, the waning gibbous Moon can be found a mere 5 degrees to the left of Jupiter. Looking to the southeast on the 20th, about an hour before sunrise, the Moon will be about 5 degrees to the right of Mars.

On the 28th, about 30 minutes after sunset, look to the southwest. The crescent moon will not be far from the red star Antares. If you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of both Venus and Mercury to the right of the Moon and just barely above the horizon.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
October 2011

September 2011

Saturn hangs very low in the west at twilight sinking ever closer to the horizon and becoming invisible to the naked eye by the middle of the month. Venus continues to be lost in the glare of the sun and will not become visible to us in the evening sky until October.

Jupiter is now the nighttime planetary superstar rising around 10 p.m. at the beginning of the month and just after twilight at month’s end. At magnitude -2.8, Jupiter will be well placed for naked eye, binocular and telescope viewing by 11 p.m.

Mars rises in the east by about 2 a.m. throughout the month. The Earth is catching up to Mars and as a result the red planet’s magnitude will begin to brighten reaching magnitude +1.3 by the end of the month. It is still pretty small to be a good telescopic object but that will change in the coming months as the Earth catches up.

Mercury puts in a brief appearance early in the month by rising quickly in the east about 1.5 hours before sunrise. As it does, it will quickly brighten to magnitude -1.0 and should be easy to spot in the pre dawn sky. By the 3rd week of September it will have again sunk below the horizon as it heads for a superior conjunction with the Sun on the 28th.

The Moon will be first quarter on the 4th, full on the 12th, last quarter on the 20th and new on the 27th. On the 3rd through the 5th, looking south-southwest about one hour after sunset, the first quarter moon will pass through the head of Scorpius “the Scorpion” and then hover above the spout of the teapot otherwise known as Sagittarius. On the 5th this will place the Moon very near to the center of our very own Milky Way Galaxy.

Looking east about 90 minutes before sunrise on the 23rd, the waning crescent Moon will be to the right and just below the red planet Mars. September 23rd also brings us to the equinox (days and nights of equal length) which occurs at 3:05 a.m. MDT. This marks the first day of autumn in the northern hemisphere and the first day of spring to our friends south of the equator.

The Enchanted Skies Star Party begins this month on the 28th and continues through the first of October. There is an exciting lineup of speakers this year and the Saturday night chuck wagon dinner, campfire Indian sky stories and dark sky viewing moves to historic Ft. Craig south of Socorro. For detailed information please visit www.enchantedskies.org.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
September 2011

August 2011

Normally in August those of us who love to watch meteor showers eagerly wait for the arrival of the peak of the Perseid meteor shower on the 12th and 13th. Alas, this year we will be thwarted by a very bright full moon allowing only the very brightest of the Perseids to be visible.

August finds Saturn beginning its decent toward the western horizon. At the beginning of the month it will be seen about 25 degrees above the horizon at the onset of darkness. By the end of the month it will be only half as high. The good news is that the rings have opened to 9 degrees. For those with telescopes there are two things of interest. You should be able to see the shadow of the planet cast upon the rings. For some months now there has been a curious storm raging in the northern hemisphere. It appears as a turbulent band at a fairly high latitude. Some amateurs have photographed it. Remember that viewing it through a reflecting telescope will invert the image.

As Saturn heads west the planet Jupiter takes over the night sky. Rising around midnight, the giant planet shines at magnitude -2.5. By the end of the month it will rise as early as 10 p.m. The best viewing will be in the early morning hours when Jupiter is well above the horizon. Mars now rises around 3 a.m. but remains only at magnitude +1.4. For those of you with telescopes, Mars will be on the 6th & 7th, only one half degree from the large star cluster known as M35.

This month Venus is lost from our viewing as it reaches superior conjunction (passing behind) with the Sun on August 16th. Mercury will put in a very brief appearance during the final few day of August. Look east about 45 minutes before sunrise. On the 31st it will shine at magnitude +0.3 and rise about 1.5 hours before the Sun.

The Moon will be first quarter on the 6th, full on the 13th, last quarter on the 21st and new on the 28th. On the 3rd, looking west about one hour after sunset, the crescent Moon will be found directly below Saturn which is still in Virgo. The next night the crescent Moon will be just below the bright star Spica in Virgo.

Near midnight on the 19th, while looking east-northeast, the waning gibbous moon will be found directly above Jupiter. Near 1 a.m. on the 22nd the waning last quarter Moon will appear to be just below the Pleiades (seven sisters) star cluster and just above Taurus, “The Bull.” Finally, looking east on the 25th about 45 minutes before sunrise, the waning crescent moon will be just to the right of the red planet Mars.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
August 2011

July 2011

Those of us in the northern hemisphere will get a nearly month long look at Mercury low in the western sky about 45 minutes after sunset. Not rising much above 5 degrees above the west northwest horizon, the best times for viewing will be early in the month. After the 20th it will rapidly fade from view.

Saturn is still putting on its nightly show in Virgo. Early in the month it will be a scant ½ degree from the double star Porrima (Gamma Virginis). The rings are beginning to open up again and will reach 8 degrees tilt by the end of the month. Saturn will reach quadrature (90 degrees east of the Sun) on the 3rd. Therefore, a small to medium sized telescope should offer a great view of the planet’s shadow cast upon the rings.

Jupiter rises about 2 a.m. at the beginning of the month and by midnight at month’s end. During the month its apparent magnitude will brighten from -2.2 to -2.4. Just before dawn it can be easily spotted high in the southeast.

Mars and Venus continue to be early morning objects. Mars will spend most of the month hanging out in the constellation Taurus but will shine with a modest apparent magnitude of +1.4. Venus is slowly sinking in the east and will rise only ½ hour before the Sun by the end of July. Even though it will shine at a brilliant magnitude of -3.9 it will be hard to find in the bright pre-dawn sky.

In this column I often refer to the “apparent magnitude” of an object. Estimating the brightness of an object is tricky business because of the differences in distance to celestial objects. That is why astronomers have adopted a scale of apparent brightness or magnitude. Simply, it measures the brightness of objects as seen by us with our naked eyes here on Earth.

It is an inverse scale. This means the lower the number the brighter the object. For example, an object of magnitude +1 is many times brighter than an object of magnitude +4. Some objects are apparently so bright that the scale dips into negative territory. One of the brightest objects we can see during the night, other than the full Moon, is Venus which can weigh in at an astounding magnitude of -4.0!

To put things further into perspective about the dimmest things that can be seen by the human eye, assuming a perfectly clear and dark sky, are at magnitude +6. For a comparison the full Moon is at -12.5 and the Sun at an astounding -26.5!

The Moon will be new on the on the 1st, first quarter on the 8th, full on the 15th, last quarter on the 23rd and new again on the 30th. On the 3rd, looking west about 45 minutes after sunset, the crescent Moon will be found slightly above and to the left of the planet Mercury. On the 6th and 7th The Moon will be seen bracketing the ringed planet Saturn.

Around 2 a.m. on the 23rd and 24th, the Moon will bracket the giant planet Jupiter. A few days later at about 4 a.m. on the 27th, the Moon will be found in Taurus and just above and to the right of Mars!

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
July 2011

June 2011

Mercury passes superior conjunction (directly behind the Sun) on the 12th and then appears in the evening sky low in the southwest beginning on the 22nd. It will remain low for the rest of the month. On the 30th Mercury will be lined up in a straight line with Castor and Pollux in Gemini. Look west-northwest about 45 minutes after sunset. A pair of binoculars will increase your chances of seeing this alignment.

Saturn appears high in the Southern sky in Virgo and will be 30 degrees above the horizon at month’s end as it continues to move to the west. The rings reach a minimum tilt of 7.3 degrees but then begin to open again heading for a tilt of 10 degrees in September.

Jupiter, Mars and Venus remain in the early morning sky. By the end of the month Jupiter, at magnitude -2.2 will rise a full 4 hours before sunrise. Mars, at magnitude +1.3, will be far to the lower left of Jupiter and Venus at magnitude -3.8 will be below and to the left of Mars.

The Moon will be new on the 1st, first quarter on the 8th, full on the 15th and last quarter on the 23rd. Looking at the western horizon about one hour after sunset on June 4th, a thin crescent Moon will be found just to the left of the constellation Gemini. From the 9th through the 11th the waxing gibbous Moon will move through Virgo and just below the planet Saturn.

On the 13th & 14th a nearly full Moon will bracket the giant red star Antares in the constellation Scorpius. On the 29th, about 30 minutes before sunrise, a thin waning crescent Moon will be found about halfway between Venus and the red planet Mars as you look east-northeast.

If you like eclipses there will be two this month. However, you’ll need to make your travel plans as neither will be visible for most of North America. On June 1st a solar eclipse will transit the Arctic so you better head for the North Pole! On the 15th there will be a total eclipse of the Moon. This will be visible almost everywhere except North America. That should make your travel planning a little easier.

On June 21st the Sun arrives at the solstice at 11:16 a.m. MDT. This marks the official beginning of summer for us and winter for our friends south of the equator.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
June 2011

May 2011

Saturn will continue to dominate the night sky although its magnitude will decrease slightly to +0.7. This is because the rings have closed to a narrow 7 degrees from being edge on.

However the really spectacular show will be in the morning hours roughly ½ to one hour before sunrise all month long. The players, Mercury, Mars, Venus and Jupiter will perform an intricate celestial dance changing their apparent positions with each other as the month progresses.

Beginning on the first, Venus rises about an hour before sunrise. Mercury rises about 10 minutes later followed by Jupiter and Mars (separated by less than ½ of a degree) 10 minutes after that. From the 7th through the 15th Venus, Jupiter and Mercury form an interesting trio and all are within 5 degrees of each other.

On the 15th a second trio emerges as Venus, Mercury and Mars get together. This trio will last until the 25th. On the 21st the three planets will be only 2 degrees from each other. Later on the 23rd Venus will be only 1 degree from Mars.

During the last few days of the month these 4 planets will appear to move rapidly apart. If you are an early riser this will certainly be a spectacular show to watch. I would advise you to use a good pair of binoculars in order to make the most of it.

The Moon will be new on the 3rd, first quarter on the 10th, full on the 17th and last quarter on the 24th. Looking at the eastern horizon about 20 minutes before sunrise on May 1st, we pick up where we left off in April and see the waning crescent Moon just above Mars and Jupiter. Again, binoculars will probably be necessary to pick out dim Mars.

This show will be repeated on the 29th through the 31st of the month. However, Jupiter and Mars will have risen much higher and should be easier to find. On the 31st, you may be able to see tiny Mercury just below the crescent Moon about 30 minutes before sunrise.

Look to the west on May 4th about 45 minutes after sunset and you’ll be able to find the waxing crescent Moon about mid-way between the Pleiades and Hyades (Taurus) star clusters.

Clear Skies!
Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
May 2011

April 2011

Our parade of planets leads off with Saturn. It will reach opposition on the night of 3-4 April which means it will be visible all night long. Shining at magnitude +0.4 it will be at its brightest for 2011. Saturn will be best viewed during the middle of the night when it is high in the sky. Its rings, now open to about 9 degrees, will close slightly as the month progresses. Because of ring closure, its magnitude will also decrease slightly.

Venus continues to rule the early morning sky rising about 80 minutes before sunrise at the beginning of this month. At magnitude -3.9 it will continue to dazzle us in the east-southeastern skies before sunrise.

Because the Earth has moved a little further along in its orbit, the planets Mercury, Jupiter and Mars will be visible near the eastern horizon beginning in the middle of the month. Because they are so low and near the horizon they will be difficult to view, even with binoculars. This situation will improve as we approach the end of the month. On the morning of the 19th, speedy little Mercury will be a mere ¾ of a degree from Mars.

This will be a challenge for you to see, even with binoculars as you’ll need to look about 15 minutes before sunrise. As well, Mercury will be shining only at magnitude +2.5. By then end of the month things will greatly improve as Mercury will be both higher and its magnitude will brighten to +0.9. At that time Jupiter will join the grouping shining at a respectable magnitude of -2.1. Mars will be a bit tougher to find at magnitude +1.2. However on the 30th it will be only ½ degree up and to the right of Jupiter.

The Moon will be new on the 3rd, first quarter on the 11th, full on the 18th and last quarter on the 25th. On March 31st and April 1st the waning crescent Moon can be found near Venus, low on the eastern horizon about ½ hour before sunrise. On April 6th and 7th the waxing crescent Moon will bracket the Pleiades star cluster. Look west about an hour after sunset.

Looking southeast on the 16th a nearly full Moon will be found just below and to the right of Saturn. However I’ve saved the best for last. In the morning, about ½ hour before sunrise on April 29th, April 30th, and May 1st, the waning crescent Moon will pass by Venus, Mercury, Mars and Jupiter! All but Venus will be close to the horizon and you’ll undoubtedly need a pair of binoculars to see them all. More on this morning cluster of planets is coming in May Skies.

Clear Skies!
Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
April 2011

March 2011

Jupiter is fast sinking in the western evening sky and will soon be lost. But not before putting on a spectacular show as the giant planet combines with tiny Mercury to provide a visual treat from March 13 through March 16. On the 15th the two planets will be about 2 degrees apart. Shining at magnitude -1.0, Mercury will be easy to spot on those days as it closes in on Jupiter which will have an apparent magnitude of -2.1. Although Mercury will be easily visible from the 12th through the 19th, it will fade enough to be only visible with binoculars by the end of the month.

As the month progresses Jupiter will set earlier and earlier and will be lost in the glow of sunset by the end of the month. An interesting note is that both Mercury and Jupiter will reach perihelion (closest to the sun in their respective orbits), Mercury on the 16th and Jupiter on the 17th. While this happens fairly frequently for Mercury, it only happens once every 12 years for Jupiter!

The real star of the night sky will be Saturn. At the beginning of the month it rises about 2 hours after sunset and will rise at just about the time of sunset by the end of the month as it heads towards reaching opposition in early April. The rings are narrowing slightly and will be about 9 degrees from edge on by the end of the month. Shining at magnitude +0.4 this will be the brightest appearance of Saturn this year.

As our “morning star” we find brilliant Venus hanging low in the pre-dawn sky, rising about 2 hours before sunrise. At magnitude -4.0 it will pass just 9 minutes south of the planet Neptune at 1 hour UT (universal time) on March 27th. With a telescope you may be able to pick out 8th magnitude Neptune in spite of its being outshone by a factor of 60,000 by Venus.

The Moon will be new on the 4th, 1st quarter on the 12th, full on the 19th and last quarter on the 26th. If you look to the east-southeast, just before dawn on March 1st, a beautiful waning crescent Moon will be found just to the left of Venus. Looking west on the 6th about 20 minutes after sunset, a waxing crescent Moon will be found just to the right and slightly above Jupiter. Returning to the morning skies, a waxing crescent Moon will again be keeping company with Venus about 40 minutes before sunrise on the 29th through the 31st.

There are two events this month that remind us of the approach of spring and warmer weather. On March 13th at 2 a.m. remember to “spring forward” by setting your clocks ahead one hour for the beginning of Daylight Savings Time. For us in the Northern Hemisphere the Vernal Equinox (first day of spring) will be reached at 5:21 p.m. MDT on Sunday, March 20.

Clear Skies!
Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
March 2011

February 2011

Our winter of a plethora of planets has dwindled somewhat with only three planets being readily visible during February. As Jupiter progresses through the early evening sky its magnitude diminishes slightly to -2.1. If you are of the red spot hunting sort, February will offer the last really good opportunity, until July, to make telescopic observations of the giant planet’s atmosphere.

Saturn rises in the east around 10:30 pm at the beginning of the month and by 8:30 at month’s end. Its magnificent rings have opened to 10 degrees and will be a good telescopic sight when the ringed planet is at its highest around midnight.

Mercury will be briefly visible from the 1st through the 4th in the early morning hours just before sunrise. Mars reaches conjunction with the Sun on the 4th and will not be visible to us.

Venus has begun slowly to move east now rising about 2 hours before sunrise. It too will lose a bit of brightness fading to magnitude -4.1 as the lighted part of its disk begins to shrink. Nevertheless it will continue to be a dazzling sight in the early morning sky.

The Moon will be new on the 2nd, 1st quarter on the 11th, full on the 18th and last quarter on the 24th. Looking southeast on February 1st a pair of binoculars may be needed to catch the thinnest of crescent Moons hanging just above Mercury about 15 minutes before sunrise. Looking west on the 6th the waxing crescent moon will be found keeping company with Jupiter.

On the 21st the waning Moon will be just below Saturn about 45 minutes before Sunrise. The bright star Spica will be to the left and above the Moon. On the mornings of the 25th through March 1st, looking southeast about one hour before sunrise, you can watch as the waning Moon does a grand parade past the constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius ending up by keeping company with Venus.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
February 2011

January 2011

For the past few months we’ve seen a slow transition of planets from the evening sky into the morning sky. With the exception of Jupiter, this transition is nearly complete. Jupiter is still found in the evening sky high in the south-southwest. Uranus is still hovering nearby barely a half of a degree north of Jupiter. This will be the last opportunity to see these planets so close together until 2038! Binoculars or a small telescope should offer excellent views of both planets.

During the month Saturn transits the midnight hour. At the beginning of the month it rises at 12:30 but by month’s end you will see it rise at 10:30. Saturn’s magnificent rings have opened to a tilt of 10 degrees which is the best since 2007.

Dazzling Venus, at magnitude -4.5, will rise as much as 3.75 hours before the sun and climb to almost 20 degrees above the horizon before sunrise. Mercury reaches its greatest elongation on the 9th rising about one and one half hours before the Sun. At magnitude 0 it should be easy to spot below and to the left of Venus during the first two weeks of the month.

The Moon will be new on the 4th, 1st quarter on the 12th, full on the 19th and last quarter on the 26th. On the 1st, the waning crescent Moon can be found, about one hour before sunrise, in the southeast halfway between Venus and Mercury in the early morning sky about one hour before sunrise.

On January 8th and 9th the crescent Moon will be keeping company with Jupiter in the west. On the 25th at about 1 a.m., look for the waning Moon just below and to the right of the ringed planet Saturn. In the early morning hours of the 28th through the 30th the waning crescent Moon will be found parading past Antares and Venus.

For you orbital mechanics, the Earth will reach perihelion on January 3rd. This marks its closest approach to the Sun at about 91.4 million miles.

Clear Skies!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
January 2011

2010

December 2010

This month we’ll lead off with news of a spectacular Lunar Eclipse that will be visible from all of North America during the night of December 20-21! This is going to be a beauty with totality lasting for one hour and twelve minutes. We will be able to see the entire eclipse from beginning to end. Mark your calendars because this won’t happen again for North America until April 2014.

The fun starts at 10:55 p.m. Mountain Standard Time (MST), on the 20th when the Penumbra will first be visible. At 11:33 p.m. MST the partial eclipse begins followed by totality beginning at 12:41 a.m. MST on the 21st. Mid-eclipse occurs at 1:17 a.m. MST and totality ends at 1:53 a.m. MST. The partial eclipse ends at 3:01 a.m. and the Penumbra will be last visible at 3:35 a.m. MST.

Remember to add or subtract hours to the times stated above if you live in a different time zone. During the total part of the eclipse the Moon will take on a reddish orange color which is the result of the red light from sunrises and sunsets, elsewhere on Earth, which is bent by the Earth’s atmosphere sending the red light into the Earth’s shadow.

Another fun eclipse activity is to watch faint stars through a small telescope as they disappear and appear as the Moon moves across the sky.

This month also brings the Geminid Meteor shower during the night of the 13th and 14th. The Moon will be just past first quarter and will set around midnight. This is one of the more productive meteor showers and can rival the Perseids for the number of meteors seen. The Geminids will appear to originate from near Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini. The peak should be about 2 a.m. on the 14th when you could see an average of about 2 meteors a minute!

This month Jupiter, Uranus, Saturn and Venus are the stars of our planetary show. Jupiter is high in the southern sky at sunset. At the beginning of the month Uranus is 3 degrees east of Jupiter. By month’s end Jupiter will have moved to within a mere 40 arc minutes of Uranus making it a great opportunity to see both planets with a small telescope.

Saturn rises around 2 a.m. and its rings have opened to a tilt of 10 degrees, the best in several years. Venus, at magnitude -4.9, rises about 3 hours before the Sun and will knock your eyes out with its dazzling brilliance! A small telescope will reveal that the percentage of illumination of the planet will grow to about 45% by the end of the month.

The Moon will be new on the 5th, 1st quarter on the 13th, full on the 21st and last quarter on the 27th. On the 1st, the waning crescent Moon can be found, about one hour before sunrise, below and to the left of the ringed planet Saturn. On the second the Moon will be keeping company with dazzling Venus.

On the 18th through the 20th, the nearly full Moon will be found skimming past the Pleiades and the Hyades (Taurus) clusters winding up between the two stars that form the tip of Taurus’(The Bull) horns. Owing to the brightness of the Moon it will be a challenge to see these constellations and stars. A good pair of binoculars will help.

The night of the 21-22 December will be the longest night of the year for those of us in the northern hemisphere and will mark the Winter Solstice which begins at 4:38 p.m. Mountain Standard Time on the 21st.

Clear Skies and Happy Holidays!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
December 2010

November 2010

The famous Leonid meteor shower will peak on the nights of the 17th and 18th of this month. Because of a bright waxing Moon the best viewing of the Leonids will be from about 3 a.m. (after the moon sets) until the first light of dawn. Expect rates of approximately 20 Leonids per hour with perhaps a few Taurids thrown in for good measure.

Jupiter will continue to dominate the early evening sky and at magnitude -2.7 will be visible as soon as the sun sets. High in the sky, it is well placed for binocular and small telescope viewing.

Uranus continues to hang out near Jupiter and is 3.5 degrees east of Jupiter at the beginning of the month. Due to Jupiter’s slight retrograde motion, the distance between Jupiter and Uranus will shrink to 3 degrees by the end of the month.

Mars is sinking ever closer to the western horizon but can be seen with binoculars about a half hour after sunset. Mercury makes an early evening appearance in the southwest early in the month. However, for us in North America, the viewing angle is quite shallow and as a result Mercury will never get more than 6 degrees above the horizon during this appearance.

Saturn rises a bit before sunrise on the 1st but will rise as early as two or three a.m. by the end of the month. Saturn’s magnificent rings have now opened to 9 degrees. At magnitude +0.9 it should be a great telescopic subject in the early morning hours.

Venus will begin a quick ascent into the early morning skies starting on the second of the month. It will appear as a brilliant thin crescent which will get steadily thicker as it rises into the early morning sky. By the end of the month Venus will rise about 3 hours before the Sun and will reach 15 degrees above the horizon by dawn.

The Moon will be new on the 6th, 1st quarter on the 13th, full on the 21st and last quarter on the 28th. On the 3rd, about a half hour before sunrise, the waning crescent Moon will be just above and to the left of Saturn. Below and just above the east-southeast horizon, brilliant Venus makes a morning appearance.

On the 7th and 8th a new crescent Moon can be found in the southwest just above and to the right of Mars and Mercury. For a bit of a challenge, the full Moon on the 21st will be found between the Pleiades and Hyades (Taurus) clusters.

On the 7th daylight savings time ends for most of us in North America at 2 a.m. Do not forget to “fall back” by setting your clocks and watches back one hour.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
November 2010

October 2010

This month another comet will work its way, west to east, across the northern sky. Comet Hartley 2 (periodic comet 103P) will require binoculars to be seen. On October 1st it will be found passing 1.5 degrees south of Alpha Cassiopeia. On the 9th it will pass just south of the famous double star cluster in Perseus. On the 19th it passes just south of the bright star Capella. For November and December maps go to: www.skyandtelescope.com/hartley2.

Remember the Deep Impact spacecraft that hit comet Temple 1 in 2005? Well, the main part of the spacecraft is still functioning and NASA has redirected it to fly by Hartley 2 on November 4 and take pictures of the comet’s nucleus. You can use the same link as above to check on the progress of that mission.

Venus has entered its crescent phase and at magnitude -4.8 is a bright as it will get. Soon to disappear from the evening sky it will be a great object to view through binoculars as it approaches the western horizon early in the evening.

Mars will also disappear into the glow of sunset by the end of the month. Look for it a few degrees above Venus. At magnitude +1.5 binoculars will be a must.

Jupiter will continue to dominate the night sky with pale blue Uranus lurking nearby. For most of the month Uranus will be two to three degrees west of Jupiter. Binoculars or a small telescope should easily reveal the small blue ball of the 7th planet.

Saturn makes its appearance again in the pre dawn sky. By the middle of the month it will have climbed high enough to be easily visible in the morning sky about an hour before sunrise. As an added bonus, since Saturn is now on the far side of the Earth’s orbit, it’s beautiful rings will now be opening up to give us a great view.

The Moon will be new on the 7th, 1st quarter on the 14th, full on the 22nd and last quarter on the 30th. The waning crescent Moon can be found near the eastern horizon on the 4th, 5th and 6th, with tiny brilliant Mercury just peeking above the horizon about a half hour before sunrise. Looking to the southwest on the 9th, the new crescent Moon will be found near the horizon, bracketed by Mars just above and Venus just below. Binoculars may be needed to see this trio as it happens about 20 minutes after sunset and just before Venus sets.

Looking east-southeast on the 19th the Moon will be found about 6 degrees above Jupiter. From the 24th through the 27th, the Moon works its way past the Pleiades and Hyades (Taurus) clusters. On the 25th it will be just below and very near to the Pleiades.

Finally, I would like to remind everybody about the upcoming Enchanted Skies Star Party. It will be held here in Socorro from October 6th through the 9th. There is an exciting line up of events this year which you can learn more about by visiting www.enchantedskies.org.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
October 2010

September 2010

This month Mercury swiftly passes inferior conjunction with the Sun and emerges as a morning object on the 13th about 8 degrees above the east-northeast horizon and a half hour before sunrise. By the 19th it will be visible up to an hour and a half before sunrise and shine as a brilliant white dot at magnitude -0.4.

Venus, Mars and Saturn continue to sink towards the western horizon. Venus will reach its peak brightness of magnitude -4.8 late in the month. On the first of the month look to the southwest about a half hour after Sunset to observe a close clustering of Venus and Mars with the bright star Spica

Mars will continue to hang with Venus for most of the month. Because it is so much dimmer than Venus you probably will need a good pair of binoculars to see it.

Saturn will be even harder to see and by mid month will be lost in the glare of the Sun as it heads for conjunction with the Sun on the 30th. Early in the month you may be able to find it with binoculars. Look for it low in the west and much to the right from Venus.

Jupiter will be the star of the night sky for the whole month. The giant planet will reach opposition on the 20th and will be visible all night long. At magnitude -2.9 it will be the brightest object in the sky (other than the moon and after Venus sets) and this will mark its closest approach to Earth between 1963 and 2022!

All month Uranus will be very close to Jupiter with a separation of only 0.8 degrees on the 18th. A good pair of binoculars or a small telescope should reveal the planet as a small pale blue green dot.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 1st, new on the 8th, 1st quarter on the 15th, full on the 23rd and last quarter on the 30th. On the night of the 10th, the thin crescent Moon will be just above and to the left of Venus on the western horizon. On the evenings of the 13th and 14th the Moon will appear close to the bright orange star Antares in Scorpius. On the 22nd the nearly full Moon will be just above Jupiter.

For you equinox watchers, the Autumnal Equinox begins this year at 9:09 p.m. MDT on September 22nd. Therefore the first full day of fall, the 23rd, nicely coincides with September’s full Moon. As the Earth orbits the sun there are two times (due to the Earth’s tilt of 23 degrees) when both the northern and southern hemispheres of our planet receive equal amounts of daylight and darkness, spring and fall. These are the equinoxes. In September, northern hemisphere folks can look forward to the fall season while folks south of the equator can enjoy spring!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
September 2010

August 2010

Before we dive into the planet parade I thought I’d spend some time talking about the Perseid Meteor Shower. This year’s shower will take place on the 11th through the 13th and we will have excellent viewing conditions since there will be no moonlight to interfere.

The Perseid shower usually lasts for several days. This year the peak is predicted to occur in the early morning hours of the night of the 12th-13th. The best viewing time will be from about 11 pm on the 12th until sunrise on the 13th. However, the predicted peak should not be set in stone, as the nights before and after the peak may also produce some decent numbers of meteors.

If you are lucky enough to find a really dark site you may be able to see as many as 100 meteors per hour during the peak. The best way to watch is from a reclining chair and by looking straight up or toward the northeast along the radiant from which the meteors will come. In other words, find the darkest patch of sky and stare at it! If you are in a cool place remember to have some warm clothes. If in a ‘buggy’ place, don’t forget insect repellant!

Our planetary gathering in the west will continue during most of the month with some interesting combinations of positions. As the month progresses they will draw ever closer to the western horizon, soon to disappear in the afterglow of sunset.

Venus will continue to outshine everybody and actually brighten a bit reaching magnitude -4.6 by the end of the month. Mercury will also be barely visible from the 1st through the middle of the month. However it will spend most of that time very close to the western horizon and hard to find by naked eye. Binoculars will be the preferred way to find this tiny planet.

Saturn and Mars begin the month shining above and to the left of Venus. As the month progresses Venus will pass below both of these planets and by the 31st Venus will be within 1 degree of the bright star Spica (in Virgo) and Spica, Mars and Venus should form a new grouping that should last into September.

Jupiter and Uranus will rise together at about 10:30 p.m. daylight time at the beginning of the month and by 8:30 p.m. at the end of the month. During this time the gap between Jupiter and Uranus will close to less than two degrees. If you look just west of Jupiter with a small telescope or a good pair of binoculars, you should be able to pick out the tiny blue orb of Uranus. At magnitude -2.9 Jupiter will be a very fine sight to behold in a small telescope.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 3rd, new on the 9th, 1st quarter on the 16th and full on the 24th. On the nights of the 11th through the 13th, the thin crescent Moon will move past our western planet lineup. The best night will be the 12th when it will be just below the Venus-Mars-Saturn grouping. On the 4th and again on the 31st, the waning crescent Moon will be above and to the right of the Pleiades (Seven sisters) star cluster.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
August 2010

July 2010

We are told that the word ‘planet’ is Greek in origin and translates into ‘wanderer.’ This month a better term to describe our planetary parade might just be groupies or congregation. All of the action seems to be happening in the western sky, just above the horizon and about an hour after sunset.

The fun begins on the 1st and starts with brilliant Venus shining at magnitude -4.2. From Venus you can draw an imaginary straight line up and to the left that will encounter the bright star Regulus in Leo and continue on to both Mars and Saturn.

As the days progress, and using the star Regulus as a reference, watch as the planets change positions relative to each other. On the 9th Venus will catch and pass Regulus seemingly exchanging positions in our imaginary line. On the 13th we can add tiny Mercury to our planetary lineup.

Mercury will put in a fairly extensive appearance although it will never get much more than 7 degrees above the horizon. On the 27th Mercury will be about ½ degree from the bright star Regulus and can be found about 10 degrees below and to the right of Venus.. However, you will probably need binoculars to pick out this pair which are near the horizon.

Not to be left out, Saturn and Mars will form a close pair at the end of the month. Separated by 2 degrees on the 29th they will be the closest, 1.8 degrees, on August 1st. As it moves slowly toward the western horizon Saturn will be worth viewing through binoculars or small telescopes as its rings continue to slowly open.

With all of the early evening activity in the west, we shouldn’t forget magnificent Jupiter. At the beginning of the month Jupiter rises around midnight, about the same time Saturn sets, and will rise around 10:30 p.m. by the end of the month. Shining at magnitude -2.7, Jupiter will be spending most of the month well placed above the celestial equator. If you have a decent pair of binoculars, look 2 to 3 degrees west of Jupiter and you’ll probably be able to pick out the planet Uranus.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 4th, new on the 11th, 1st quarter on the 18th and full on the 25th. On July 8th, about an hour before sunrise, the waning crescent Moon will be found about 2 degrees below the famous Pleiades (the 7 sisters)star cluster. During the early evening hours of the 13th through the 16th the waxing crescent moon passes below a congregation of planets that include Mercury, Venus, Mars and Saturn. On the 30th the waxing gibbous Moon will be about 6 degrees above Jupiter.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
July 2010

June 2010

June will be a busy month for sky watchers. A couple of events will require binoculars or a small telescope but will be worth the effort. The first is the appearance of Comet McNaught. This object will be visible during the early morning hours beginning around June 1st as it makes its way through the constellations of Andromeda, Perseus and Auriga. The best viewing will be mid month as it passes through Perseus.

If it follows predicted magnitudes it should begin the month at magnitude 8 and brighten one or two magnitudes by the middle of the month. Its path will begin low in the east and move toward the northeast. A detailed finder chart can be found in the June issue of Sky & Telescope Magazine. An on-line search might also lead you to a finder chart.

Venus will continue to dazzle us in the early evening hours. On the evening of the 11th about an hour after sunset, Venus and the bright stars Pollux and Castor, in Gemini, will form a virtual straight line. Another great sight, for those who have binoculars, will be on the evenings of the 19th and 20th. At that time Venus will be less than one degree from M44, the famous Beehive star cluster.

Mars will spend most of the month hanging out in Leo, “The Lion.” On June 5 & 6 Mars will be found less than one degree from the bright star Regulus which is the last star or at the base of the handle of the “Sickle of Leo.” Some folks refer to this grouping as looking like a backwards question mark.

Saturn appears slightly dimmer this month as the Earth is steadily pulling away from the ringed planet. As the month progresses the rings will begin to open up a bit which is another artifact of the Earth’s changing position with relation to Saturn. During May the rings closed to 1.7 degrees and appeared nearly edge on. We won’t see the rings this thin again until 2024!

Jupiter will be an early morning target for planet watchers. A bonus this month is a conjunction with the planet Uranus. From the 1st through the 16th the two planets will be within one degree of each other. On the 8th they will reach conjunction and will be less than ½ degree apart! Rising around midnight low in the east-southeast, the best viewing of this planetary pair will be just as dawn begins to brighten. Needless to say a good pair of binoculars or a good small telescope will afford the best views of Uranus.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 4th, new on the 12th, 1st quarter on the 19th and full on the 26th. On the morning of the 6th, about one hour before sunrise and looking east southeast, the waning Moon will be just above and to the left of Jupiter. On June 14, looking west-northwest about an hour after sunset, the crescent Moon will be just below and to the left of Venus.

There will also be a partial eclipse of the Moon in the early morning hours of the night of 25-26 June. Unfortunately this eclipse will only be partially visible to folks in the western half of the US. Folks in Hawaii should have a grand view of the entire event. The partial eclipse will begin at 4:17 a.m. MDT and 3:17 PDT. In both time zones the Moon will set at sunrise ending eclipse viewing.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
June 2010

May 2010

Venus will continue to dominate the early evening sky. Shining at magnitude -3.9 it will maintain about the same position throughout the month. Look for it just after sunset above the west-northwest horizon.

Mercury spends a good deal of the month transiting behind the sun putting in a dim appearance in the early morning sky at the very end of this month.

Mars will be eminently viewable during the month. High above our heads at sunset, Mars continues to move slowly eastward coming to within 4 degrees of the bright star Regulus on the 31st.

About midway between the bright stars Regulus in Leo and Spica in Virgo you will find Saturn shining steadily at about magnitude +1.0. As the month progresses, its magnificent rings will close to a tilt of a mere 1.7 degrees from being seen edge on. This is the last time for almost a decade that the rings will be this narrow. So now is your chance. Folks with good binoculars or small to medium sized telescopes may be able to pick out some of the dim moons of Saturn as they move along with the material in the rings.

Jupiter will be visible in the early morning sky but by the end of the month will rise around 2 a.m. shining at magnitude -2.3. Jupiter is headed for a rendezvous with the planet Uranus in early June. More about that in next month’s column.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 6th, new on the 13th, 1st quarter on the 20th and full on the 27th. On the 9th, about an hour before sunrise, look for the waning crescent Moon just above the planet Jupiter on the eastern horizon. On the 15th and 16th, the crescent moon will bracket the planet Venus on the western horizon about 45 minutes after sunset.

If you look southeast around 11 p.m. on the night of May 27 the full Moon will be a scant one degree above the bright star Antares in the constellation Scorpius.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
May 2010

March 2010

Venus begins its steady climb into the early evening sky. By the end of the month it will be about 12 degrees above the western horizon one half hour after sunset. Shining at magnitude -3.9 all month we can welcome the dazzling planet back to the night sky.

Mars continues to dominate the evening sky although it will fade slightly in magnitude to +0.1 by the end of the month as the Earth has passed by it and is now increasing the distance to Mars. Through a small telescope its disk will still appear to be about 10 arc seconds wide, which will allow decent views of some surface features and the polar ice cap.

Saturn is placed for prime time viewing during the month rising just after sunset on the first. It will reach opposition on the 21st thereby being visible all night long. Shining at magnitude +0.5 it will easily rival the nearby bright stars Arcturus and Spica. Ring watchers should concentrate on the early part of the month when the rings are inclined at and angle of 4 degrees. By the end of the month they will close slightly to 3 degrees.

Mercury will be briefly visible on the 31st and will be seen about 3.5 degrees lower and to the right of Venus. Shining at magnitude -0.9, Mercury will get even closer to Venus in April.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 7th, new on the 15th, 1st quarter on the 23rd and full on the 29th. This month the Moon can be used to help you locate a couple of constellations as well as some planets. From March 6 through 10, about one hour before sunrise, the waning Moon moves from the head of Scorpius passing the entire constellation and also the constellation Sagittarius (Teapot) on successive mornings.

30 minutes after sunset on the 16th and 17th the crescent Moon will help you find the planet Venus about 5 degrees above the western horizon.

Spring begins on the 20th at 11:32 a.m. MDT as we reach the Vernal Equinox. This is a special time of the year for small telescope owners. With some hard work it is possible to view all 109 Messier objects in a single night’s observing from dusk to dawn. Happy hunting!

Charles Messier was a French nobleman about 250 years ago who owned a small telescope about equivalent in size to a 5 inch reflector. His ‘thing’ was hunting comets. So, on most clear nights he was out trying to find them. He knew two things. One was that comets appeared to him as fuzzy blobs. He also knew that they belonged to our solar system and therefore would move and change position from night to night.

Each night he would often find fuzzy blobs but they remained in the same place in the sky and therefore were not comets. He would find these same blobs over and over. Finally in exasperation he compiled a catalog of 109 fuzzy blobs that never moved and therefore were not comets. He didn’t know what the blobs really were because his telescope wasn’t that good. Today we know they are objects ranging from star clusters to nebulae to galaxies. A couple of the more famous ones are M42 which is the star forming region in Orion’s sword and M31 which is the great spiral galaxy in Andromeda. The next time you have a chance to look through a modern small telescope have a go at finding some of these objects.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
March 2010

February 2010

As Venus reappears in the evening sky, it will join Jupiter as it gets closer to the horizon. Beginning on the 14th the two planets will be only 2 degrees apart just above the west southwest horizon. By the end of the month Jupiter will be lost as it reaches conjunction with the sun. This will leave Venus alone as the ‘evening star’ as it begins its climb into the evening sky.

For you die hard Jupiter fans the last opportunity for a good view will be at the beginning of the month while the giant planet is still 12 degrees above the horizon. By the end of the month Venus will have climbed to about 5 degrees above the horizon and should be easy to find about a half hour after sunset.

Mars will continue to dominate the evening sky. On the 4th it will pass about 3 degrees north of the famous ‘Beehive’ cluster otherwise known as M44. Having been passed by the Earth, in their respective orbits, Mars begins to lag behind. The consequence is that it will begin to fade in apparent magnitude as the Earth begins to pull away losing about ‘ of a magnitude by the end of the month.

Saturn is working its way ever higher into the late evening sky rising by 9:30 at the beginning of the month and by 7:30 at the end of the month. The rings are still getting narrower and will continue to close for a while before opening again.

Mercury will be visible for the first few days of the month just above the southeastern horizon. It will be best viewed about a half hour before sunrise.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 5th, new on the 13th and 1st quarter on the 21st and full on the 28th. Looking southeast about a half hour before sunrise the waning crescent Moon will help you find tiny Mercury on the mornings of the 10th, 11th and 12th. Looking west southwest on the 14th, 15th and 16th about 15 minutes after sunset, the crescent Moon will help you locate Jupiter and Venus. On the 25th a nearly full gibbous Moon will be keeping company with the red planet Mars.

On February 5th the New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club will host a star party at the Etscorn Campus Observatory beginning at 6 p.m. Special guests for this event will be the students and their families from the Cottonwood Valley Charter School. To reach the Observatory, take Canyon Road past the golf course. At the 4 way stop turn right on Buck Wolfe Drive and follow the signs. The public is cordially invited.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
February 2010

January 2010

January and February will provide the best viewing of the planet Mars this year. To us Mars will appear bigger and brighter than it has since 2008 or will until 2012. Reaching opposition on the 29th Mars will rise at sunset and be visible all night long peaking at a magnitude of -1.3. On the 27th Mars will make its closest approach to Earth at a mere 61.7 million miles! As the Earth overtakes Mars, the red planet will move westward (retrograde motion) from Leo “the Lion” about 10 degrees toward the Beehive Cluster.

Jupiter continues to dominate the early evening sky. The best viewing will be just after dark while it is still high enough in the sky to give a good stable binocular or telescopic image. By month’s end it will be significantly lower in the western sky. On January 1st Jupiter will be only 2 degrees east of Neptune and would be a good reference point for your hunt for the blue planet with binoculars or a small telescope.

Saturn returns to the night sky rising around 11:30 p.m. on the 1st. By the end of the month it will rise two hours earlier. On the 8th Saturn’s rings will reach a maximum tilt of about 5 degrees and then will start to close again.

Tiny Mercury has zipped around the Sun and will make an early morning appearance in the southeastern sky from the 15th through the 30th. Look for it at about 10 degrees above the horizon 30 minutes before sunrise.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 7th, new on the 15th and 1st quarter on the 23rd and full on the 30th. On January 2nd a waning gibbous Moon will be found to the right of Mars. Looking southwest in the early evening hours of the 17th and 18th, the Moon will bracket Jupiter. Again on the 30th the full moon will be found near Mars, this time to the left and slightly below the red planet.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
January 2010

2009

December 2009

Tiny but bright Mercury puts in an evening appearance this month for about the first three weeks. Shining at magnitude -0.5 it will be best viewed around the 12th when is should be seen as a bright dot about 6 degrees above the southwestern horizon about a half hour after sunset.

Jupiter still shines brightly in the early evening sky but will set around 8:30 p.m. by the end of the month. The best viewing will be early evening while it is still relatively high in the sky. For a good part of the month a bonus will be that the planet Neptune will be within one degree of Jupiter and only 0.6 of a degree for several days surrounding the 21st. For those with telescopes, the tiny blue sphere of Neptune will be found slightly above and to the right of Jupiter.

Venus continues to sink in the eastern sky rising about 45 minutes before sunrise at the beginning of the month. Beginning about the middle of the month the planet will be lost to us in the bright glow of dawn just before sunrise.

Now is the time to view Mars in spite of all those bogus emails that flooded the Internet last summer. Mars will continue to rise earlier each evening and by the end of the month will do so only 3 hours after sunset. We can also watch as Mars’ brightness grows to magnitude -0.7 as the Earth begins to catch up to Mars. However, the closest approach of the Earth to Mars (in January) will see Mars appear only half as big as it did in the summer of 2003. So, if another bogus Mars email shows up in your inbox you can happily tell the sender that it isn’t true!

Saturn will rise as early as 11:30 p.m. by the end of the month and will be best viewed in the morning just before the first light of dawn when it is fairly high in the sky. The rings continue to open with their tilt reaching 4.9 degrees from the horizontal by the month’s end.

The Moon will be full on the 2nd, last quarter on the 8th, new on the 16th and 1st quarter on the 24th and full again on the 31st making this a Blue Moon Month. On the 5th and 6th a waning Moon will bracket the red planet Mars as you look east just above the horizon around 10 p.m. On the 20th and 21st the crescent moon will bracket Jupiter.

On December 21st we will experience the shortest day of the year as the winter solstice begins at 10:47 a.m. MST. For folks down under it’s put another shrimp on the barbie mate, summer has officially begun!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
December 2009

November 2009

Jupiter will still dominate the early evening sky shining high in the southwest. The best observing will be in the early evening before it gets close to the western horizon. If you have a moderate sized telescope you might hunt for the dark scar low in the southern hemisphere that appeared last July when a comet or asteroid struck the giant planet.

Saturn rises in the early morning hours and is best viewed when it is the highest about 45 minutes before sunrise. Saturn’s rings are beginning to open rapidly and will reach 4 degrees from being edge on by the end of the month.

Mercury reaches superior conjunction with the Sun on the 5th as it passes directly behind the Sun’s disk.

Venus begins to slowly sink in the eastern sky. Early this month it rises about an hour and a half before the Sun. By the end of the month it will rise less than an hour before the Sun and will be difficult to find in the bright glow of dawn.

Mars charges boldly into the evening sky rising shortly after midnight on the 1st but as early as 9:30 on the 30th, reaching a magnitude of -0.1. Chart its progress during the month as it grows both in size and brightness

November also brings the Leonid meteor shower. Last year the experts were fooled as the shower was more productive than expected. This year there are many predictions. Some confusion arises because the Earth will pass through two of Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle’s debris trails, one on the 17th and another on the 18th. The best viewing will be in the early morning hours and will be aided by the lack of a bright Moon. If the most optimistic predictions come true we might be in for a spectacular show. However, the event on the 18th favors folks living in Asia and Eastern Europe.

The Moon will be full on the 2nd, last quarter on the 9th, new on the 16th and 1st quarter on the 24th. On the 3rd, around 8 pm, a nearly full Moon will cross the southeastern part of the famous Pleiades star cluster. At 11 pm on the 8th a waning gibbous Moon will be just below the planet Mars as it peaks above the east-northeastern horizon. On the 12th about 30 minutes before sunrise, the Moon will be found keeping company with Saturn and finally on the 23rd an almost first quarter Moon will be about 3 degrees above the planet Jupiter.

Don’t forget that on November 1st Daylight Savings Time ends we get to “fall” back one hour.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
November 2009

October 2009

Brilliant Jupiter, shining at magnitude -2.6, will be at its highest point in the south just after dark. Well placed for optimum viewing through binoculars or a small telescope, its 4 Galilean moons and atmospheric bands should be a real treat for early evening viewing.

Saturn reappears in the morning sky this month. On the 13th it will pass a scant 1/2 degree north of Venus which will be at least 100 times brighter than the ringed planet. Although Saturn’s rings are still nearly edge on it will be hard to see them with the planet just above the horizon. By the end of the month Saturn will manage to climb to almost 20 degrees above the horizon.

Mercury will also make an early morning appearance during the first half of the month. On the 6th about 45 minutes before sunrise look for it slightly to the left and about 6 degrees below Venus.

Mars rises around midnight and its tiny orange-red disk is starting to grow larger as the Earth begins to catch up to Mars. It can be found in the constellation Gemini about 6 degrees from the bright star Pollux. As the month progresses Mars begins an eastward migration among the stars and will be found near the center of M44, the famous “Beehive Cluster” on Halloween night!

The Moon will be full on the 4th, last quarter on the 11th, new on the 18th and 1st quarter on the 25th. The full Moon on the 4th will be this year’s “Harvest Moon” which is defined as the full Moon closest to the September equinox. On the 16th a waning crescent Moon will be about 6 degrees to the right of Venus about 45 minutes before sunrise. Using the Moon as your guide on this date will net you three planets with Saturn being about 3 degrees above Venus and Mercury about 8 degrees below Venus. On the 26th a waxing gibbous Moon will be about 4 degrees above and the right of Jupiter.

The period of October 17 through the 25th will bring the Orionid Meteor Shower. This shower is the result of the passage of Halley’s Comet. Even though the comet has a 76 year period the shower seems to have a peak about every 12 years. 2009 could be a good year with the peak on the night of 20th/21st. This year the Moon will not be a factor and rates of up to 30 meteors per hour could be visible as you look to the east between midnight and dawn.

October also brings the Enchanted Skies Star Party to Socorro. This year it will run from October 14th through the 17th. This year’s exciting lineup of speakers and workshops feature a keynote address by Astronomer/Astronaut Dr. John Grunsfeld. A veteran of 5 space shuttle flights, Grunsfeld’s latest was his third and final flight to service the Hubble Space Telescope. The mission was a huge success as judged by recent Hubble images released by NASA. The new camera is revealing details never before seen. His address promises to be an exciting one as he will talk and show fabulous pictures about the mission.

The keynote address will be held on Friday, October 16th beginning at 7 p.m. in the 3rd floor ballroom of the Fidel Student Center on the New Mexico Tech Campus. The address is free to the public but come early to get a good seat! Star Party T-shirts will be available and you just might get an astronaut’s autograph on one! For more information about the Enchanted Skies Star Party go to www.enchantedskies.org or call the Socorro Tourism Office at 575-835-8927.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
October 2009

September 2009

Jupiter, just past opposition, will provide us with a very unique opportunity on the night of September 2-3 here in North America. Between the hours of 10:43 pm and 12:29 am MDT all four of Jupiter”s Galilean moons will be invisible! This is because they will either be in front of or behind the giant planet. Io and Callisto will be behind Jupiter while Europa and Ganymede will pass in front. This is the last time this will happen until 2019!

The phrase that best describes Saturn”s appearance this month is going, going gone! Barely 5 degrees above the western horizon at the beginning of the month, Saturn will be tough to find in the glare of sunset. If you have a good sized telescope and get lucky you may be able see the rings edge on as the Earth crosses the ring plane on the 4th. This is the first time this has happened since 1996 and the last time until 2025. Try finding Saturn about 15 minutes after sunset.

Mercury will be about 13 degrees to the left of Saturn at about the same elevation above the horizon. Both Mercury and Saturn will be visible for the first few days of the month. Both are heading for conjunction with the Sun and will next appear in the morning sky.

Nothing much changes for Mars as it will rise around midnight. During the course of the month its brightness will increase slightly from magnitude +1.0 to +0.8. Mars can be found in the constellation Gemini and will approach the bright star Pollux by the end of the month. Venus, blazing away at magnitude -3.9, rises about 3 hours before sunrise. On the 20th it will be only ? degree north of the bright star Regulus in the constellation of Leo the Lion.

Many times it is difficult to estimate just how close or far objects are from each other or from the horizon. There is an easy and useful trick you can use to determine the angular distances involved. Make a fist and hold it at arms length in front of your eyes. The width of your fist at that distance will equal about 5 degrees. This works for everybody because it turns out that the ratio of the size of the fist to the length of the arm is about the same for all people, regardless of size.

The Moon will be full on the 4th, last quarter on the 11th, new on the 18th and 1st quarter on the 26th. On September 2nd the Moon will be slightly above and to the left of Jupiter. This position of the Moon will be almost exactly repeated on the night of the 29th. In the early morning hours of the13th a waning crescent Moon will be about 4 degrees above Mars and on the 16th about 4 degrees to the right of Venus.

The Sun will reach the Autumnal Equinox at 3:15 on September the 22nd signaling the first day of autumn in the northern hemisphere. Folks below the equator get to welcome spring.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
September 2009

August 2009

August brings us one of the best annual meteor showers, the Perseids. This is a fairly reliable shower however, this year there are a couple of mitigating factors. The first is that the origin of the shower, comet Swift-Tuttle last passed this way in the early 90s. The result is the debris trail has thinned considerably resulting in fewer meteors. The second factor is that this year a waning last quarter Moon will make counting meteors more difficult. The best nights for viewing the Perseids will be the 11th-12th and the 12th-13th. It should be noted that this shower will show some activity for several days before and after the peak.

As Saturn?s rings approach being edge on, those of us with a good view of the western horizon, clear skies and a good small telescope may be able to watch the progression of ring closure for the first half of the month. After that the planet will be too low on the horizon and lost in the bright glare of sunset.

Mercury puts in a brief appearance in the early evening sky from the 6th through the 18th. Look for it about 5 degrees above the western horizon about a half hour after sunset.

Jupiter will begin its dominance in the night sky by rising in the early evening twilight low in the southeast. It reaches opposition from the sun on the 14th and will be visible all night long. At magnitude -2.9 it should offer great late night viewing of its atmospheric features for those with small telescopes.

Mars rises around midnight and will be best viewed in the morning sky about an hour before sunrise. At magnitude +1.0 the red planet will appear as red dot. Venus, on the other hand, will continue to dazzle us blazing away at magnitude -4! Binoculars or a small telescope will reveal that close to 75% of the cloud covered planet will be illuminated.

The Moon will be full on the 5th, last quarter on the 13th, new on the 20st and 1st quarter on the 27th. Looking east one hour before sunrise on the 16th and 17th the Moon will help you to find Mars and Venus. On the 27th, the waxing first quarter Moon will occult, pass in front of, the bright star Antares in the constellation Scorpius. This will be visible for most of North America but the challenge will be that it is a daytime event! Nevertheless, it should be easily visible with a good pair of binoculars. For timing information for your area go to: lunar-occultations.com.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
August 2009

July 2009

We only get fleeting glimpses of Mercury this month. For the first couple of days of the month it will be barely visible in the bright morning twilight below and to the left of Venus. We then lose it in the Sun’s glare until it appears in the western sky during the last week of July. Look to the west-northwest on the 23rd, about 30 minutes after sunset and just a few degrees above the horizon. You might need a good pair of binoculars.

Saturn is also low in the west sinking to only 10 degrees above the horizon by the end of the month. The rings are closing again and will only be tilted by 1.9 degrees on the 31st. The will go edgewise to us by September 4th but, alas, Saturn will be to far into the Sun’s glare for us to see them edge on!

Jupiter continues to rise slightly earlier each evening as the month progresses. It also remains close to Neptune. Jupiter will brighten to an impressive magnitude of -2.8 by the end of July as it heads for opposition in mid August. Neptune at magnitude 7.8 should be visible in a small telescope. If you go to www.skyandtelescope.com/neptune you will find some handy charts to help you find the blue planet.

Mars and Venus continue their early morning show. Venus rises abut 3 hours before the sun and dazzles us at magnitude -4.1! Mars at magnitude +1.1 is a hundred times dimmer and can be found above and to the right of Venus. As the month progresses it will be fun to watch both planets as they slowly climb through the Hyades (Taurus) and Pleiades star clusters.

The Moon will be full on the 7th, last quarter on the 15th and new on the 21st and 1st quarter on the 28th. On the 4th, after you have watched fireworks, see if you can spot the Moon next to red Antares in the constellation Scorpius. One hour before sunrise on the 18th the Moon will help you to find Mars and Venus. 30 minutes after sunset on the 24th the Moon will help you find Saturn.

It is time to start planning for this year’s Enchanted Skies Star Party (ESSP). ESSP is scheduled for October 14th through the 17th. This year the keynote address on October 16th will be given by Astronomer/Astronaut Dr. John Grunsfeld. His topic will be his third and final visit to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in May of this year. For more information go to the Enchanted Skies website or call 575-835-8927.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
July 2009

June 2009

The other day a good friend asked me when the moon would come up. By that he meant what time will it rise and in particular how much later each night will it rise. Turns out he is an excellent amateur photographer and one thing he likes to do is catch the full moon just as it rises. I’ve seen some of his pictures and they are spectacular.

Because of his question, I thought it might be fun to devote most of this month’s column to the Moon. Some well known and not so well known Moon facts. First we’ll answer my friend’s question. Since the moon travels in an elliptical orbit around the Earth the time that it rises each day will vary from between about a half hour to one hour depending on where it is in its orbit. The average period of rotation around the Earth, one lunation, turns out to be 29.5 days. If you would like to know the exact time of moonrise at your location, go to the following web site. Fill in the blanks for your town and you’ll get a moonrise/moonset chart for the complete year! There is also a sunrise/sunset chart available at this same web site.

Some other Moon fun facts about its orbit and timings can be found on the Orbit of the Moon Wikipedia page. Did you know that there is a name for the full Moon each month? We are all familiar with the term Harvest Moon. This is usually given to the full Moon nearest the Autumnal Equinox in September. The common definition for a “Blue Moon” is when you have two full moons in one month. Blue Moons occur on average once every 2.75 years. The last one was on May 31, 2007 and the next one will December 31st this year!

There are multiple names for monthly full moons and they are drawn from Native American and folklore sources. Here are the more commonly used ones. January = Old Moon; February = Snow Moon; March = Crow Moon; April = Grass Moon; May = Planting Moon; June = Rose Moon; July = Thunder Moon; August = Green Corn Moon; September = Harvest Moon; October = Hunter’s Moon; November = Frosty Moon; and December = Long Night Moon. Most are pretty descriptive. You might have some fun poking around on the Internet to find out some of the other names.

When working with elementary students I am often asked why we always see the same side of the Moon. To understand the reason you must first realize the gravity of the situation. The Moon is tightly locked into a gravitational dance with the Earth, like two dancers holding hands and spinning in a circle. This gravitational dance causes the Moon’s rotation to be synchronized with its journey around the Earth. It is called “synchronous rotation” and is why we always see the same side.

The Moon will be full on the 7th, last quarter on the 15th and new on the 22nd and 1st quarter on the 29th. This month you can use the new Moon to find Jupiter in the southeast on the 13th at about 1 a.m. Likewise, the waning Moon will be near Venus and Mars about 45 minutes before sunrise on the 19th and finally the waxing Moon will help you find Saturn in the western sky on the 27th.

Another neat Moon event occurs on the night of June 6-7. A nearly full moon will occult (pass in front of) the bright star Antares in the Constellation Scorpius. This event will be seen by most of us in North America with the exception of the northwestern states. A lot of this event takes place in the twilight so a good pair of binoculars will help you to see Antares. To find the times of disappearance and reappearance for your location go to.

Last but not least, June is the month when summer is upon us. The Summer Solstice, the official start of summer occurs at 11:46 p.m. MDT on the 20th!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
June 2009

May 2009

May marks the first time in a long time that it will be possible see all of the planets during the course of one month. However, you will not be able to see them all during one night and you will need a telescope to see some of the outer planets.

Tiny Mercury will still be visible at 10 degrees above the western horizon about a half hour after sunset during the fist four evenings of May. After that it will be lost to us for the rest of the month as it swings through inferior conjunction (between us and the Sun). A good pair of binoculars should reveal Mercury as a thin crescent. If you have a good wide field pair of binoculars or small telescope, the Pleiades star cluster can be seen about 2 degrees to the right of the planet.

The early evening hours are still dominated by the ringed planet Saturn. It can be found still hanging out in the southeastern part of the constellation of Leo, the Lion. During this month the rings will open up ever so slightly to a tilt of about 4 degrees. This will be their maximum tilt. From now on they will close until they appear to us to be edge on in early September.

Jupiter now rises in the early morning around 3 am daylight savings time at the beginning of the month and by 1 am at the end of the month. On the 17th a small telescope will reveal the shadows of two of its large moons, Io and Callisto, as they pass in front of the giant planet. This month Jupiter can also be used to view one of the more elusive outer planets, Neptune. From May 22nd through June the 2nd Jupiter will be within ½ degree of the blue planet. Neptune, at 8th magnitude, will require a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope to see and will appear as a small blue dot.

Venus and Mars are in the early morning sky low on the eastern horizon and should be visible about an hour before sunrise. Binoculars may be necessary to see the orange spec of Mars and binoculars will also be useful to discern the crescent shape of Venus. As the month progresses the percentage of the illuminated portion of Venus will grow from about ¼ to ½ of its planetary disk.

Uranus can be found in the constellation of Pisces about 30 degrees below and to the left of Jupiter/ Neptune near the end of the month. It will then be about 20 degrees above the horizon and should be visible about 90 minutes before sunrise. Again, a good telescope will aid you in finding this outer planet. A telescope will also be necessary if you would like to see Pluto! It can be found in the constellation Sagittarius. If you go on line to Sky and Telescope magazine you can view a finder chart for Pluto.

The Moon will be 1st quarter on the 1st, full on the 9th, last quarter on the 17th and new on the 24th. On May 21st, a waning crescent Moon can found in the east just above Venus and Mars about an hour before sunrise. About an hour after sunset on the 26th, the Moon can be found keeping company with the twins of Gemini.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
May 2009

April 2009

Having completed the process of passing by the Earth, Venus can now be seen in the early morning sky shining very low on the eastern horizon. As the month progresses, it will gain some altitude and brightness. At the beginning of the month binoculars will reveal a very thin crescent that will steadily grow as more of the planet becomes visible. On the 18th the rising Venus will pass 5.5 degrees north of Mars.

The real fun will be on the morning of the 22nd when the waning crescent Moon will occult (pass in front of) Venus. For most of us this will happen after sunrise and during daylight. Nevertheless, a good pair of binoculars should make it easy for you to follow the progress of the occultation. If you are interested in following this event and want to know when you should look, timings are available at the following web site.

Tiny but speedy Mercury appears in the early evening sky beginning mid-month. Look to the west-northwest about 10 degrees above the horizon and 45 minutes after sunset from April 16th through May 4th.

Jupiter rises earlier and earlier as the month progresses doing so 3 hours before sunrise by the end of the month. This year we are near enough to Jupiter’s equatorial plane so that we can see the 4 large Galilean moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, eclipsing and occulting one another. The best views will be later in the year and really good views will require excellent binoculars or a good small telescope.

Saturn is still hanging out by the hind foot of Leo “the Lion” and is clearly visible in the early evening hours. Because its rings are only tilted at an angle of 3 to 4 degree a large amount of the planet’s disk is visible. For those with a telescope, it is a good time to try and pick out some subtle features in Saturn’s atmosphere. It is also a good opportunity to hunt for some it its smaller moons.

Mars, at magnitude +1.2 remains a bit elusive in the early morning twilight. Look for it in the east about 40 minutes before sunrise. If you really feel adventurous, get your binoculars or telescope out on the morning of the 15th. Once you have located Mars, look about half a degree to the north of the red planet (upper left) and you should be able to see the planet Uranus shining at magnitude +6.

The Moon will be 1st quarter on the 2nd, full on the 9th, last quarter on the 17th and new on the 24th. On the 6th the waxing gibbous moon will pass not far from the planet Saturn. On the 19th the waning Moon will pass Jupiter in the early morning sky. The waxing crescent Moon will pass close by the Pleiades and Mercury on the evening of the 26th.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
April 2009

March 2009

This month the planet Venus will undergo some dramatic changes. As Venus overtakes the Earth and passes it by we will see it plunge in the western sky fading from our view only to reappear in the early morning sky in early April. At the beginning of the month it will be found in the evening sky about 25 degrees above the horizon. We here in the northern hemisphere will also be in for a rare viewing of the planet.

From our vantage point Venus will pass just north of the Sun. This means that the planet will be visible both in the early evening and the early morning for at least three days centered on March 23rd. Look due west with a pair of good binoculars about 10 minutes after sunset and east northeast about 10 minutes before sunrise.

As it overtakes the Earth its brilliance will begin to fade. A view through some binoculars will reveal a crescent phase that will grow smaller as it moves toward the western horizon. The reverse of the fading crescent will also be visible as Venus climbs into the early morning sky in April.

Don’t look now but there is a comet among us! Comet Lulin, C/2007 N1, has been working its way westward passing Saturn on February 23rd. At magnitude 5.0 it is just barely visible to the naked eye if you are in a dark location. A view through binoculars will reveal a small fuzzy blob as this comet is not as spectacular as some of the more prominent ones that have wandered by our part of the solar system in recent years. The best way to find Lulin is to go to the following web site where you will find numerous charts for various date ranges.

On March 8 the planet Saturn will pull an “all nighter.” On that date the ringed planet will reach opposition and, rising around sunset, will visible all night long. It is still found near the hind foot of Leo “the Lion” and its rings have ever so slowly opened to a tilt of just 2 to 3 degrees and should be visible as a thin bar crossing the planet.

When last we left Jupiter, Mars and Mercury they were engaged in a dance of sorts in the early morning sky about a half hour before sunrise. This dance will continue for the first few days of March with the best view being on March 1st. Again, a good pair of binoculars will be needed to sort things out particularly if you are interested in Mars and Mercury. In this case the further south in latitude you are the higher they will appear. Look to the east southeast.

The Moon will be 1st quarter on the 4th, full on the 10th, last quarter on the 18th and new on the 26th. From the 22nd through the 24th the waning crescent moon will encounter both Jupiter and Mars in the early morning sky. On the 28th through the 30th a waxing crescent moon can be found in the early evening sky as it passes the Pleiades and Taurus “the Bull.”

The spring equinox begins in the northern hemisphere 5:44 am MDT on the 20th. Note the time is MDT for on Sunday, March 8 most of us in the Northern Hemisphere will begin Daylight Savings Time. Remember to “spring ahead” by setting your clocks ahead one hour.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
March 2009

February 2009

This month most of the planetary fun shifts to the early pre dawn hours. Having disappeared from the evening skies, Mercury, Mars and Jupiter emerge in the east-southeast about a half hour before sunrise. Since the pre dawn sky will start to brighten you may wish to use a good pair of binoculars to help you spot this trio.

On the 16th Jupiter and Mars will only be 0.9 degrees apart! The bright dot of Mercury will appear a few degrees above and to the right of this closely spaced pair. Binoculars should easily reveal Jupiter and Mars in the same field of view.

Between the 16th and end of the month a planetary dance of sorts will take place as all three planets will shift their positions relative to each other. On the 23rd all three will be relatively close with Mercury just 1 degree to the right of Jupiter and Mars just three degrees to the left. This planetary ballet should provide for some excellent early morning viewing particularly if you have a good pair of binoculars.

Venus will continue to dazzle us in the early evening sky. Reaching a brightness of magnitude -4.8 this jewel of the evening sky will be hard to miss as it reaches an altitude of 40 degrees above the horizon for us here in the northern hemisphere.

Saturn continues to rise earlier each evening doing so by 7 pm at the end of the month. Its rings will open slightly from their nearly edge on presentation last month and that will cause the planet to brighten slightly. Saturn can be found creeping slowly westward near the hind foot of the constellation Leo, “The Lion.”

The Moon will be 1st quarter on the 2nd, full on the 9th, last quarter on the 16th and new on the 24th. On the 21st through the 23rd, the waning crescent Moon, low in the east-southeast, can be used to help find the trio of Mercury, Mars and Jupiter. On the 27th the waxing crescent Moon will pass within 2 degrees of the bright planet Venus.

On February 3rd the waxing first quarter moon will again occult (pass in front of) some of the stars in the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster.

Observers in northern North America will have the best view of this event. For the timing of this event in your area, visit the Lunar Occultations web site.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
February 2009

January 2009

Venus continues to dazzle us in the early evening hours remaining above the horizon for nearly 4 hours. Brightening to magnitude -4.7 it will also climb to 36 degrees above the horizon by the end of the month. For those with good binoculars or a small telescope, Venus will serve as a guide to finding the planet Uranus. On January 22nd Uranus can be found about 1.5 degrees south of Venus. 1.5 degrees is about the width of your “pinky” finger held at arms length. It should be easily seen in the field of view with Venus through a good pair of binoculars. A small telescope should reveal the small round globe of this blue world.

Jupiter and Mercury will put on a nice show on New Year’s Eve and again on the evening of the first. After its early December encounter with Venus, Jupiter continues to head west passing within 1.25 degrees of Mercury on New Year’s Eve. Mercury will remain above the horizon for the first ten evenings of January. By the 24th Jupiter will be lost from view as it passes behind the Sun.

Saturn comes into prominence this month rising by 10:30 at the beginning of the month and at 8:30 by month’s end. This should allow you to see both Venus and Saturn at the same time but on opposite sides of the sky! Saturn can be found just below the feet of Leo, “The Lion.” The best views of Saturn will be through a small telescope as the rings have closed to a tilt of less than 1 degree as viewed from Earth. The rings will appear as just a thin line of light. Because of this Saturn’s brightness has slipped to magnitude +1.0.

Mars will be difficult to find in the morning glow of sunrise until the very end of the month. Mercury, having scooted across in front of the Sun reappears in the early morning sky just before sunrise. If you can find Mercury in southeast you might be able to find Mars, just below it, using a good pair of binoculars.

The Moon will be 1st quarter on the 4th, full on the 10th, 3rd quarter on the 17th and new on the 26th. A waxing crescent Moon will be in the neighborhood of Venus on the nights of the 27th through the 30th.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
January 2009

2008

December 2008

A good deal of the planetary action this month will occur at dusk just after sunset. As pointed out in last month’s column, November 30th will be quite unusual in that Jupiter and Venus will be separated by a scant 2 degrees in the sky! But it gets even better because on December 1st the two brilliant planets will be joined by the crescent Moon just above and to the left of the two planets. The best time for viewing will be about one hour after sunset.

If you like a bit of a challenge, it should be possible to see all three during the daytime. Try it by looking with binoculars about 15 to 20 degrees east of the Sun. that is about the width of two of your fists held at arms length. If you can find the trio it will be even more compact than when you view them after sunset. Please remember not to look directly at the Sun with your binoculars!

As the month progresses Venus will rise higher in the evening sky moving from 19 to 30 degrees above the western horizon by the end of the month. Jupiter will continue its western movement to a rendezvous with tiny Mercury on the 28th. Mercury will be about 3 degrees to the right and below Jupiter on that date. On the 29th the crescent moon will again join the action to form a second trio. This time however, the grouping will not be as tight as the trio on the first of the month. On the 31st Jupiter and Mercury will be even closer with only 1.3 degrees separation. Look for the trio about 40 minutes after sunset.

During December Saturn starts rising before midnight. Its magnitude will only be about +1.0 due to the fact that the rings have closed to a thin line of light. On the 26th they will have closed to 0.8 degrees from being edgewise. However, it won’t be until September of next year that we will have the rare view of the rings being exactly edge on to us.

The Moon will be first quarter on the 5th, full on the 12th, last quarter on the 19th and new on the 27th. The Moon also has a couple more tricks up its sleeve this month. Beginning on the night of the 10th-11th the nearly full Moon will move across the Pleiades star cluster occulting most of the bright stars. But, because the Moon is approaching being full and is so bright, you will need a small telescope to see the stars disappear and reappear as the Moon passes in front of them. The event begins at 2:30 a.m. EST, 1:30 a.m. CST, 12:30 a.m. MST and 11:30 p.m. PST. For accurate timings for your city go to www.lunar-occultations.com/iota/pleiades08/pleiades.htm. On the very next day the Moon is full and will be at its closest to the Earth for the year at 221,560 miles! As a warning to our coastal friends this could result in some unusually high tides!

I would also remind you to bundle up because the first day winter, and the longest night of the year (20th-21st) arrives on the 21st at 5:04 a.m. MST.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
December 2008

October 2008

The early evening skies this month are still dominated by Jupiter and Venus. October is the warm up for these two dazzlers as they head for a very close encounter in late November.

Venus begins the month hanging low on the west-southwest horizon slowly climbing to 12 degrees above the horizon by month’s end. Twice this month Venus will have a neat conjunction with the crescent Moon. On October 1st look for the thin crescent Moon just below Venus. If you miss that one, try again on the 31st. An added bonus will be the proximity of the giant orange star Antares, the “Heart of the Scorpion” just to the right of the Moon. On the 25th, Venus and Antares will be just 3.5 degrees apart.

Jupiter continues its westward march keeping company with the “Teapot” in Sagittarius. By the end of the month the giant planet will have narrowed the gap between itself and Venus from 64 degrees to 31 degrees as it heads for the close encounter in November.

During the recent Enchanted Skies Star Party I had the privilege of viewing Jupiter through the 20 inch telescope at Etscorn observatory. An ultra clear and steady atmosphere and a high power eyepiece led to some breathtaking views of its atmosphere. The color cloud bands and the “Great Red Spot” were easily seen. Our clear fall skies and Jupiter’s position in the sky make for some great viewing. Enjoy it while you can.

Saturn can be found in the early morning hours hanging out near the hind feet of “Leo the Lion.” Saturn rises just before sunrise at the beginning of the month and around 3 am by the 31st. Saturn has dimmed considerably because its rings are closing rather dramatically. From our point of view they are tipped at an angle of only 3 degrees.

Mercury reappears in the early morning skies on the 15th. It will steadily brighten to magnitude -0.9 by the 31st. Look just above the eastern horizon far below Saturn in the early pre-dawn hours. This will be the best dawn apparition of the year for this dazzling little planet.

The Moon will be first quarter on the 7th, full on the 14th, last quarter on the 21st and new on the 28th. For you occultation fans the Moon will make its fifth Pleiades occultation of the year on Friday morning the 17th. Observers in the western half of North America will be favored for this event as dawn will interfere for easterners. The Moon clips the northeastern part of the cluster with the star Maia being occulted for most observers.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
October 2008

September 2008

Our planet parade begins the month at dusk on the 1st through the 3rd with Venus, Mercury, Mars and a crescent Moon all hugging the western horizon. Apart from the Moon, Venus and Mercury will be the easiest to find as compared to Mars at magnitude 1.7. To catch this grouping of planets a pair of binoculars will come in handy especially if you want to see Mars.

Look to the west-southwest about 30 minutes after sunset. Mercury will be about 3.5 degrees to the left and slightly below Venus. Mars will be about 4 degrees above and to the left of Mercury. For the first 3 days of the month all three planets will fit within a 5 degree circle. This tight grouping will amazingly last for over half of the month and all 3 planets will fit within a 3.75 degree circle from the 6th through the 13th!

Giant Jupiter begins each evening high in the sky just above the handle of the Teapot (Sagittarius) where it will remain for most of the month. At magnitude -2.5 Jupiter will be quite a sight in a small to medium sized telescope. Interestingly there is something strange going on in Jupiter’s atmosphere. For some time now there has been a second red spot, dubbed “Red Junior,” not far from the Great Red Spot.

Recently, a third red spot has appeared and astronomers are at a loss for an explanation. Many amateur astronomers are assisting the professionals by monitoring the progress of development of Red III. There is some speculation that the color is related to chemicals being dredged up from the lower atmosphere by these rotating storms.

The latter half of the month will see Saturn reappear from behind the Sun in the early morning sky. By the end of the month it will appear a full two hours before the Sun comes up. On the 27th look for it about 5 degrees to the left of the waning crescent Moon.

The Sun will reach the Autumnal Equinox at 9:44 a.m. MDT on September 22nd as we officially begin fall in the northern hemisphere. The Moon will be first quarter on the 7th, full on the 15th, last quarter on the 22nd and new on the 29th.

This year, September in Socorro, NM brings us the 15th annual Enchanted Skies Star Party (ESSP). For a list of events, fees and schedules you should visit the web site athttp://enchantedskies.org/  or call the City of Socorro Tourist Center at 575-835-8927. This year’s ESSP has an exciting line up of events including an observing session at 10,000 ft on Magdalena Ridge, an insider’s tour of the VLA and the legendary chuck wagon dinner and entertainment at the El Camino Real International Heritage Center.

The grand prize this year is a night’s observing at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
September 2008

August 2008

If it is August it is time for the Perseids! This annual meteor shower will peak on the 12 th in the early morning hours. This year you will have to dodge a waxing gibbous Moon that will set around 2 am. This should give you two or three hours of solid darkness before the first evidence of dawn. However, the brightest of the Perseids should be visible in the moonlight. The peak of the shower will be between 11 and 14 hours Universal Time. That translates to 7 to 10 am EDT, 6 to 9 am CDT, 5 to 8 am MDT and 4 to 7 am PDT.

For this reason folks in the western US will have a better chance of seeing numerous meteors. The jury is out about how many per hour will be visible. The most optimistic prediction I’ve seen is for 100 per hour. It should be noted that this shower is not just a one night event. Perseids should be visible for a week to 10 days before and after the peak. Find a nice dark site, a comfortable lawn chair or sleeping bag and enjoy the show!

Since we will be dodging the Moon it will be helpful to know that the Moon will be new on the 1 st, first quarter on the 8 th, full on the 16 th, last quarter on the 23 rd and new on the 30 th.

There will be an interesting line up of three planets in the early evening hours on August 2 nd and 3 rd. On those evenings look low in the west about a half hour after sunset. Dazzling Venus, at magnitude -3.9 will be closest to the horizon. A couple of degrees to the left of Venus will be the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo “the Lion.”

A few degrees above and to the left of Venus will be Saturn, much dimmer at magnitude +0.8. Still dimmer at magnitude +1.7, Mars can be found a few degrees above and to the left of Saturn. On the nights of the 2 nd and 3 rd a thin crescent Moon can be used to help find this planetary trio.

As the month progresses tiny, brilliant Mercury joins the show to form a quartet! For the next two weeks beginning on the 5 th it will be interesting to watch this planetary ballet as their positions change relative to each other. On the 15 th, Venus, Saturn and Mercury will be clustered together fitting within a 3 degree circle. This will be the tightest grouping of planets until May of 2011 when Mercury, Venus and Jupiter will all fit within a 2 degree circle!

You should be warned that since these planets will remain low on the horizon for most of the month, it will be difficult to pick them out twilight glow unless you have some good binoculars or a small telescope. Nevertheless the tight grouping should be quite a sight!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
August 2008

July 2008

Mars, Saturn and Regulus will continue their celestial ballet for most of the month. On the 1 st Mars will be 0.7 degrees from Regulus and 4.4 degrees from Saturn. The celestial dance continues as Mars continues its rapid motion toward Saturn. On the 5 th it will have moved to a point about halfway between Saturn and Regulus. On the 10 th Saturn and Mars will be separated by a scant 0.7 degrees. This is the closest since June of 2006. This will also be the closest conjunction of the two planets until April of 2022! On the evenings of the 9 th and 10 th you should be able to fit both planets in the same field of view using a small telescope with low to medium magnification. It should be quite a sight!

Beginning on July 1 st Mercury reaches its greatest western elongation from the Sun at 22 degrees. If you have some binoculars, look for it in the predawn morning sky towards the east-northeast about 45 minutes before sunrise. It will remain nearly in the same place for the first two weeks of the month and should be found just below and to the left of the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus. Shining at magnitude +0.5, binoculars will reveal this tiny planet to be about 37% illuminated.

Venus begins its slow return to the evening sky by the end of the month. The bright planet can be found about 5 degrees above the western horizon 15 minutes after sunset.

Jupiter, still hanging out in Sagittarius, will reach opposition from the Sun on the 9 th. This means that the giant planet, at magnitude -2.7, should be visible all night long. A few years ago a second red spot dubbed “Red JR,” appeared in Jupiter’s atmosphere not far from the famous “Great Red Spot.” Well, something must be brewing in Jupiter’s atmosphere because recently a second small red spot has been discovered not far from Red JR! It will take a telescope to find these spots and a table of transit times for the spots can be found in the July issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.

It has been well established that the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is not a perfect circle but rather a shallow ellipse. However, as the Earth moves along its orbit its distance from the sun does not remain the same at all points of the ellipse. There is a small but measurable variation and it is due to the gravitational dance between the Earth and the Moon.

In July the Earth reaches “aphelion,” the farthest distance from the Sun. This year the Earth will be at its farthest point from the Sun for the entire decade and second farthest for the century! However, this interesting orbital tidbit may be of little comfort during our hot summer days and nights!

The Moon will be new on the 2 nd, first quarter on the 10 th, full on the 18 th and last quarter on the 25 th. On the night of July 5 & 6 look for the crescent Moon at dusk as it moves past Saturn, Mars and Regulus.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club

June 2008

Mars and Saturn will put on a good show this month in the early evening sky. On the 7th the crescent Moon will be just 2 degrees below Mars. On the 8th, the Moon will have moved to the vicinity of the bright star Regulus in Leo and nearby Saturn. Mars, not to be outdone will spend the rest of the month racing towards the Leo/Saturn pair. On the 30th Mars will be a scant three quarters of a degree from Regulus. This triple play of Saturn, Mars and Regulus should provide some interesting viewing through binoculars or a small telescope.

With Mercury in front of the Sun and Venus directly behind it, we’ll have to wait a bit before we can see them again in the night sky. Mercury will reappear in early July and Venus will appear in the early twilight sky in late July.

Jupiter begins the month rising around 11 p.m. daylight time. By the end of the month it will rise even earlier and should become visible about a half hour after sunset. Because Jupiter’s track across the sky lies well to the south this year, you’ll have to wait until the middle of the night to obtain the best views of the giant planet.

Apart from the controversy as to its planetary status, Pluto has proven to be an elusive target for both professional and amateur astronomers. I bring this up because 30 years ago in June of 1978 Pluto’s moon, Charon (pronounced CARE-on), was discovered by James Christy. Since then the Hubble Space telescope has found two more very small moons, named Nix and Hydra, in orbit about this tiny “minor planet:”

A couple of years ago and in deference to Prof. Clyde Tombaugh of New Mexico State University, Pluto’s discoverer, the New Mexico State Legislature passed a resolution stating that when Pluto is in the sky over New Mexico it shall be known as a planet! I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Right now Pluto is at opposition from the sun and therefore overhead all night long. You’ll need an 8 inch telescope or larger to find Pluto at magnitude 14! You’ll also need a good finder chart which can be found in the current issue of Sky and Telescope Magazine.

The Moon will be new on the 3rd, first quarter on the 10th, full on the 18th and last quarter on the 26th. On the night of the 19th you can find the nearly full Moon just east of the handle of the “Teapot” (a.k.a. Sagittarius) and close to the planet Jupiter. The night of June 20-21 will be the shortest night of the year in the northern hemisphere as the first day of summer (summer solstice) begins at 5:59 p.m. MDT on the 20th.

On June 20th there will be a public star party at Etscorn Campus Observatory beginning at 9 p.m. Special guests will be a group of travel writers visiting from Mexico. To reach the Campus Observatory take Canyon Road past the golf course. At the 4-way stop turn right onto Buck Wolfe Drive and follow the signs.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
June 2008

May 2008

This month we might subtitle this column as “Planets visit Clusters.” Tiny, brilliant Mercury starts off this month putting on quite a show. This will be one of the best appearances of Mercury in many years. It will be visible from the 1 st through 26 th with the best viewing time being between the 1 st and 19 th. Find a place with a good view of the west-northwest horizon and start looking about a half hour after sunset. On the 12 th it will be a full 10 degrees above the horizon. Mercury will be easier to spot as the twilight deepens. An added treat is that from the 1 st through the 3 rd, Mercury passes less than 3 degrees from the famous Pleiades (seven sisters) star cluster.

Not be outdone, Mars will move right through the “Beehive” cluster in the constellation Cancer “The Crab.” The fun begins on the evening of the 22 nd when Mars contacts the cluster on the northwestern side. For the remainder of the night and the following night, Mars will move through the cluster. The Beehive to the naked eye appears as fuzzy patch about half way between Gemini and Leo. A good pair of binoculars or a small telescope should enable you to track Mar’s progress as it moves through the cluster.

While Venus is still hiding behind the Sun, Saturn is still in full view high in the evening sky. As the month begins Saturn is only two and a quarter degrees east of the bright star Regulus in Leo “The Lion” but will slowly begin to move further eastward away from Regulus as the month progresses. If you have some binoculars or a small telescope this will be the best time to view the rings. At almost 10 degrees from edgewise they will not be this open again until 2010! But, there will be a superb ring event in December of this year as they close to being less than one degree from edge on.

Jupiter is working its way into the evening sky rising a bit before midnight by the end of the month. The best time for viewing is when it is high in the sky in the early morning hours. It can be found just east of the “Teapot” in the constellation Sagittarius.

The Moon will be new on the 5 th, first quarter on the 11 th, full on the 19 th and last quarter on the 27 th. On May 6 th the thin, crescent Moon will be two and a half degrees above Mercury. On the night of May 23-24 a waning gibbous Moon will pass just 4 degrees from Jupiter.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
May 2008

April 2008

Officially spring has sprung! In the spring, life stirs anew and many animals come out from their winter’s hibernation. Bears are an often cited example and as it turns out, it is also true, astronomically speaking.

High in the northeastern skies Ursa Major, the great bear (a.k.a. the Big Dipper) comes into prominence after a winter spent north of the pole star. Followed by Ursa Minor, the little bear, it appears that mama and her cub are out for us to watch.

But, someone else is watching too! To the south and east is Bootes “The Herdsman” which is marked by the 4th brightest star, as seen from Earth, Arcturus. To find this bright star we employ the old saying based on the handle of the big Dipper. Remember to follow the curve of the handle and “arc” to Arcturus (and speed on to Spica!).

Arcturus “The Bear Watcher” follows Ursa Major around the pole. Arcturus is derived from the Greek word “arktos” which means bear and is where our word “arctic” is derived from.

Arcturus, only 37 light years distant, is a very old star that has completed the burning of its hydrogen fuel and has swelled to one and a half times the diameter of our Sun. Its chemical makeup is different from other nearby stars and some have suggested that it was captured from a small galaxy that “merged” with our Milky Way some 5 to 8 billion years ago.

Well, now that we have completed this “bear” of a tale and before this becomes un-“bear”-able we should find out what is happening with the planets and Moon this month.

Mercury spends the first part of the month scurrying around the Sun only to make one of its best evening appearances of the year. As the month ends look for it low in the west-northwest just above the horizon about 30 minutes after sunset.

At the beginning of this month Mars is still playing “footsie” with the Gemini twins. As the month progresses Mars will be on the move and will wind up “holding hands” with Gemini passing just 5 degrees south of the bright star Pollux.

The night sky will be dominated by Saturn found high in the south-southeast at dusk and approaching the bright star Regulus in the constellation of Leo “the Lion.” Saturn’s rings continue to open and it will be quite a sight in a small telescope.

At dawn Venus is slipping away from us and becoming ever harder to see. This is the last we will see of it until July when it reappears low in the southwestern sky. Jupiter, on the other hand, remains a good target for viewing fairly high in the southeastern sky and is still keeping company with the “teapot” in Sagittarius.

The Moon will be new on the 5th, first quarter on the 12th, full on the 20th and last quarter on the 28th.

There will be a public star party at the Etscorn Campus Observatory on Friday, April 4th beginning at 8 p.m. special guests will be the participants in the New Mexico State Science and Engineering Fair at New Mexico Tech on the 4th and 5th. To reach the Campus Observatory take Canyon road past the golf course to the 4-way stop. Turn right and follow the signs to the observatory.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
April 2008

March 2008

Mars appears high overhead at nightfall near the feet of Gemini. During the month it will continue to fade and grow dimmer reaching a magnitude of +0.8 by the end of the month.

Saturn, just past opposition, will be visible for most of the night. Its rings will continue to open slightly until the end of April. As the month passes it will pull to within three degrees of the bright star Regulus in Leo and outshine it by a full magnitude.

Jupiter rises a few hours before sunrise in the south-southeast and can be seen hanging out in the constellation Sagittarius (a.k.a. the Teapot).

The best early morning show will be when Mercury and Venus hook up. On the 1st and second they will be within 2 degrees of each other. By the 3rd, Mercury will have climbed to its greatest elongation and will have 56% of its surface illuminated. Venus is also nearly full and the two planets will put on quite an early morning show for a good part of this month. Look for the pair low on the horizon in the southeast about 40 minutes before sunrise.

This is also a good time of the year to look for the “Zodiacal Light.” This light, more correctly identified as a glow, is the result of sunlight reflecting off of a myriad of tiny particles, the debris from countless meteors and comets as they pass through the inner solar system.  These particles orbit the Sun in roughly the same planes as the Earth and other planets.

We refer to this plane as the ecliptic and it is where the ancients imagined all of the constellations of the Zodiac to reside. During March the plane is nearly perpendicular to the western horizon. If you go out on a dark night about 80 to 120 minutes after sunset you should look due west. The Zodiacal Light should be visible above the horizon looking like a pyramid or wedge of diffuse light pointing up and leaning slightly to the left during the spring months.

The Sun arrives at the March equinox at 11:48 p.m. MDT on the 19th marking the official arrival of “Spring” in our hemisphere! Observant readers will note the use of MDT. That is because Daylight Savings Time begins at 2 a.m. on the 9th of March. Don’t forget to set your clocks ahead one hour.

The Moon will be new on the 7th, first quarter on the 14th, full on the 21st and last quarter on the 29th. The Moon will also make nearby visits to some of the planets this month.  A very thin, waning crescent Moon will form a triangle with the planets Mercury and Venus on the 5th. On the 14th -15th the Moon will pass one degree north of the planet Mars! On the evening of the 18th and 19th it will be very near the planet Saturn and the bright star Regulus in “Leo the Lion.”

On Saturday, March 1st, there will be a star party at the Etscorn Campus Observatory beginning at 7 p.m. Special guests will be the students and families from the Cottonwood Valley Charter School. To reach the Observatory, take Canyon road past the Tech Golf Course. Turn right at the 4-way stop onto Buck Wolfe Drive and follow the signs to the observatory.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
March 2008

February 2008

The premier event this month will be a total lunar eclipse on the night of February 20-21. This will be the last total eclipse of the Moon for almost three years! Here in the Mountain Time zone the penumbral shadow should be first visible at about 6:05 p.m. just after moonrise. The Moon then enters the Earth’s umbral shadow at 6:43 p.m. and totality begins at 8 p.m. The Moon remains in totality for 52 minutes which should give us a great opportunity to see its ruddy red disk against a beautiful starry background.

The Moon will be found in the constellation Leo “the Lion” and will be flanked by the bright star Regulus above and the bright planet Saturn, below and to the left. Saturn, which is nearing opposition, will be a good bonus for those with small to medium telescopes as its rings have opened to a tilt of 8 degrees. Saturn is approaching its maximum brightness for the year at magnitude +0.2. Medium sized telescopes, 8 inch diameter or larger, should reveal ring structure and some atmospheric banding on the planet.

Venus and Jupiter continue their early morning spectacular display. On February 1 st they will be a mere 0.6 of a degree separating them! Look for them low in the southeast about one hour before sunrise. As the month progresses Venus continues is eastward movement as Jupiter, in the constellation Sagittarius, moves slowly higher in the sky.

But, the fun with Venus isn’t quite over yet. Speedy little Mercury will spend most of the month zipping around the Sun to reappear in the early morning sky late in the month. On the 27 th it will be easy to find as it will be only 1.2 degrees from Venus! Look to the southeast in the early morning sky on the 27 th about 45 minutes before sunrise. Mercury will be a brilliant point of light just above dazzling Venus.

Mars begins this month very high in the night sky in the eastern part of the constellation of Taurus “the Bull.” At magnitude -0.6 it should be very easy to pick out. However, you should do your Mars observing early in the month because Mars will fade to magnitude +0.2 (the same as Saturn) by the end of the month.

There will be an “Eclipse Party” at Etscorn Campus Observatory on the evening of February 20 beginning around 6 p.m. The public is cordially invited to view the total lunar eclipse from the observatory. As well, telescopes will be available to look at other celestial sights during the evening. To reach the Observatory, take Canyon Road past the Tech Golf Course. At the 4-way stop turn right onto Buck Wolfe Drive and follow the signs to the observatory. Be sure to dress warmly!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
February 2008

January 2008

Little Mercury makes one of its better appearances of the year this month. From the 19 th through the 26 th look for the tiny planet low on the west-southwest horizon about 30 minutes after sunset. Mercury will appear as a brilliant point of light about 10 degrees above the horizon.

Having just passed opposition, Mars will be visible almost all night long during January. The Red planet will be very prominent in the eastern evening sky shining at magnitude -1.5 (slightly brighter than the bright star Sirius) at the beginning of the month. However, as the month progresses and Mars gets further from the Earth, its magnitude will decrease, fading one whole magnitude by the end of the month. Early January will be your best bet for looking at surface features through a telescope.

Saturn has worked its way back into the evening skies again and rises around 9 p.m. early in the month and can be found in the constellation of Leo the Lion. By month’s end it will reach a magnitude of +0.4. Also Saturn’s rings, which have been almost edge on, will begin to open up some during the month.

The most spectacular show this month will be at dawn on the 31 st! During the month Venus, which has dominated the early morning skies, will move steadily lower toward the southeastern horizon. Jupiter will begin the month almost invisible just above the southeastern horizon. It will steadily climb higher as the month progresses. The two will seemingly meet on the morning of the 31 st being only 1.2 degrees apart! The two bright planets should be quite a sight on that morning with Jupiter being just below and to the left of Venus.

The Moon will be new on the 8 th, first quarter on the 15 th, full on the 22 nd and last quarter on the 30 th. The Moon will visit several of the planets this month. On the 4 th the waning crescent Moon will make a triangle with Venus and the bright star Antares. On the 9 th a thin crescent Moon will be near Mercury low in the southwest just after sunset. On the 19 th the Moon will be very close to Mars in the early evening hours and on the 24 th it is Saturn’s turn to be visited by the Moon.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
January 2008

2007

December 2007

The Geminids, one of the most “reliable” of all meteor showers, will occur on the evening of the 13th-14th for North America. A waxing crescent Moon will set early allowing good viewing in the late evening hours. While the peak of the shower will occur during the following day, the Geminids should provide good viewing from late evening onwards. Observers should be able to see meteors at a rate of about one per minute or 60 per hour. The radiant (point of origin) of the shower is a point in the constellation Gemini “The Twins” just above the bright stat Castor. As Gemini rises look to the northeast. Don’t forget to bundle up!

An added treat will be the nearby presence of the red planet Mars! If you tire of looking for meteors grab a small telescope and look for some surface features on Mars! For most of the month Mars can be found just above the feet of Gemini, “The Twins.” Peaking at a magnitude of -1.6 Mars will be a mere 54,783,000 miles from Earth on the 18th at around 5 p.m. MST. This will be its closest approach until 2016! On the 23rd the full Moon will be very close to the red planet. Mars reaches opposition on Christmas Eve rising around sunset and setting at sunrise in Christmas morning.

Saturn is moving ever closer to being an “evening planet”. By the first of the month it will rise around midnight and as early as 10 p.m. by the end of the month. The rings are now tilted at a mere 7 degrees and are closer to being seen edgewise than for the past 10 years!

Jupiter is lost in the Sun’s afterglow and reaches conjunction with the Sun on the 23rd. We will not see the giant planet for a while until it reappears in the early morning sky.

Venus continues to shine brilliantly at magnitude -4.2 in the early morning sky rising roughly 3 full hours before the Sun. Telescopic viewers will see its disk grow from 66 to 76% illumination. Even so its magnitude will decrease slightly as the planet’s distance from Earth increases.

The moon will be last quarter on the 1st, new on the 9th, first quarter on the 17th and full on the 23rd.  The longest night of the year will occur on the 21st-22nd when we greet the winter solstice at 11:08 p.m. MST on the 21st.

Happy Holidays!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
December 2007

November 2007

Our first order of business this month is to “fall back.” On November 3-4 we end daylight savings time and get an extra hour of sleep! Don’t for get to set your clocks!

Venus, our brilliant “morning star,” is now rising a full four hours before the Sun. At a dazzling magnitude of -4.2 it will remain high in the early morning sky for the entire month.

Another early morning treat will be the appearance of Mercury. Beginning on the first this tiny bright planet will rise about 1.5 hours before sunrise and can be found just to the left and slightly below the bright star Spica in Virgo. At first it will appear to be about the same brightness as Spica but that will quickly change. As it approaches maximum elongation (from the Sun) on the 8 th it will brighten dramatically to magnitude -0.5 with 58% of its surface being lit.

Saturn spends the month in company with the bright star Regulus in Leo the Lion, rising a little after midnight. At magnitude +.08 the best views will be in the early morning hours when it is high in the eastern sky. Viewing through a small telescope will reveal the rings closer to being edge on than they have been in a decade!

Mars will steal the late night show as it rises earlier each evening. It will be its brightest in two years and the view through a small telescope should reveal a planetary disk growing to 14 seconds in diameter as the distance between Earth and Mars decreases. For the next few months then, Mars should offer us a chance to glimpse surface features through small telescopes as it climbs higher into the late evening sky.

Jupiter is fading fast and is found low in the southwestern sky just after sunset. By month’s end it will set only 70 minutes after the sun.

This year the famous “Leonid Meteor Shower” is predicted to be a weak one. Nevertheless, you may be able to see a few bright ones on the morning of the 18 th two to three hours before sunrise. The waxing first quarter moon will have set which will afford better viewing. Predictions are for a maximum of about 10 meteors per hour.

The moon will be last quarter on the 1 st, new on the 9 th, first quarter on the 17 th and full on the 24 th. Again this month the moon will make an excellent planet finder as it passes close by Saturn on the 3 rd and 4 th, Venus on the 5 th, Jupiter on the 12 th and Mars on the 26 th.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
November 2007

October 2007

Most of the planetary action this month will be in the early morning hours. If you are an early riser you are in for a treat. The two major planetary players in the morning skies this month will be Saturn and Venus.

Brilliant Venus will spend most of the month about 30 degrees above the eastern horizon coming up a couple of hours before sunrise. Saturn begins the month slightly below and to the left of Venus. Again, its brightness is somewhat diminished because the rings are now at less than 10 degrees.

There will be two very interesting configurations involving these two planets this month. About one hour before dawn on October 7 th, Venus, Saturn, the waning crescent Moon and the bright star Regulus, in Leo, will form a nice little group within a circle about 5 degrees wide. This will be an excellent grouping to look at through binoculars!

On October 20 th, again about one hour before dawn, Saturn, Venus and Regulus will again be grouped together. This time however, both Venus and Saturn will have moved such that Saturn will be above Venus and between the brilliant planet and Regulus.

Mars continues to be a late evening object but will rise a little earlier each evening. On the 3 rd, Mars and the waning last quarter Moon can be found playing “footsie” with the Gemini twins!

Jupiter is still in the early evening sky but just barely, setting within an hour after sunset.

Antares, Jupiter’s seeming companion for the summer, sets even earlier. On October 15 th, the waxing crescent Moon passes just 5 degrees below the giant planet.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 3 rd, new on the 11 th, first quarter on the 19th and full on the 25 th.

You can enjoy some of these sights and even more by attending the 14 th Annual Enchanted Skies Star Party (ESSP) which is scheduled for October 10-13 this year. This year’s highlights include an observing night on South Baldy in the Magdalena Mountains, tours of the VLA and the GEODSS deep-space surveillance facility at White Sands Missile Range and the famous Saturday night Chuck Wagon dinner!

This year our Saturday night program will be held at the El Camino Real Cultural Heritage Center! This year’s campfire lecture features the return of G.B Cornucopia from Chaco Culture National Park to tell his Navajo Sky stories. For more information about ESSP visit the web site at: http://www.socorro-nm.com/starparty/ or call the Socorro Tourism Center at 835-8927.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
October 2007

September 2007

The combination of the Earth moving a little further along in its orbit around the Sun and Venus leaving inferior conjunction in its orbit have conspired to transform Venus into the “morning star.” Look due east around an hour and a half before sunrise early in the month. By month’s end it will be visible three and a half hours before sunup. It will also brighten considerably reaching the astounding magnitude -4.8, fully 12 times brighter than Jupiter.

Mercury is being a bit of a tease for us here in the northern hemisphere. It will be just barely visible deep in the glow of sunset all month. With a good pair of binoculars you may be able to spot Mercury passing just a half degree from the bright star Spica on the 21 st. Good hunting and good luck.

Saturn too emerges in the early morning sky appearing close to the bright star Regulus in the constellation “Leo the Lion.” As the month progresses it will steadily rise and become easier to see. When you see Saturn it should appear a bit dimmer. That is because its rings have closed tilting at a mere 9 degrees, the smallest tilt since 1998.

Jupiter still shines brightly in the early evening sky. But its westward march means that it will be setting a bit earlier each evening. By the end of the month it will set around 10 PM.

Mars rises in late evening and has brightened to magnitude 0.0! Its disk has also apparently grown such that a good view through a small telescope will reveal some surface features of the Red Planet.” On the mornings of the 16 th and 17 th Mars will pass M1, the famous “Crab Nebula” in the constellation Taurus, by less than one degree.

The Crab Nebula is a supernova remnant, the remains of an exploded star. This titanic blast first appeared to us around the 4 th of July 1054! It was noticed by humans of several cultures around the world. The closest such example is a pictograph in Chaco Canyon which you can see after a modest hike from the visitor center.

When first noticed it was so bright that it could be seen during the day! Over time it has faded into a very diffuse object and now takes a decent sized telescope to see in any detail. Nevertheless it is one of the most intensely studied supernova remnants and a pulsar has been found at its core.

The pulsar is the remains of the very large the star that exploded (a supernova). Imagine a ball of neutrons about 20 kilometers in diameter that spins (rotates about its axis) 30 times a second! The spinning neutron star organizes a beam of radio energy that sweeps by us, similar to a beam of light from an airport beacon, producing a pulse that can be measured by a radio telescope. A teaspoon of the material in the spinning ball would weigh over 1 million tons!

The Moon will be last quarter on the 4 th, new on the 11 th, first quarter on the 19th and full on the 26 th.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
September 2007

August 2007

This month will begin with some brilliance. Then we’ll throw in some fireworks but it will end in a big shadow! I’ll explain.

Brilliant Venus is just about gone in the early evening sky. You might be able to glimpse it low in the western sky just after sunset. As it passes through inferior conjunction (on the same side of the sun as us) it will appear in the very early morning sky at the end of the month low on the eastern horizon, just before sunrise. As a thin crescent it will be a shadow of its former self but well worth looking at through a small telescope.

Mercury will still be visible before sunrise for the first couple of days this month but then quickly ducks below the eastern horizon. Saturn is in superior conjunction with the sun (on the opposite side from us) and will not be visible all month.

The fireworks will come on the night of August 12-13. For the first time in a while a new moon will afford us a night long chance to view the famous Perseid Meteor Shower! The Earth should pass through the densest part of the trail left by Comet Swift-Tuttle at about 5 hours Universal Time. That translates to 1 am EDT, Midnight CDT, 11pm MDT and 10 pm PDT. While the spectacular displays of the 90s are over, you should nevertheless expect to see 60 to 90 meteors per hour during the peak of the shower.

The best way to see the speedy Perseids is to relax in your favorite lawn chair while facing somewhat northeast in the direction of the constellation of Perseus. That is the radiant of the shower and hence its name. If you lack a dark spot to view the shower, please come join us at the Etscorn Campus Observatory on the evening of the 12 th beginning at 9 pm. Bring your own lawn chair! If you get bored watching meteors the Observatory’s telescopes will be available to view other celestial delights.

With Venus doing its disappearing act, Jupiter will dominate the night sky with its brilliance. Just 5 degrees above the bright star Antares, Jupiter appears 20 times brighter than the red giant star. Yet another planet will have an affinity for a red giant star this month. Rising around midnight Mars will be twice as bright as Aldebaran, in Taurus, as it passes just 4 degrees north of the red giant star on the 22 nd.

But, I promised a big shadow and you shall have one! All you have to do is go out in the early morning hours of the 28 th to witness our second total eclipse of the Moon this year! Visible for most of North America you will see different aspects of the eclipse depending on your time zone. Folks on the east coast will see the moon set during totality. On the extreme west coast you should be able to witness the entire eclipse. In between the moon will set while leaving the umbral shadow in the Central Time zone and while leaving the penumbral shadow in the Mountain Time zone. Totality will last about 30 minutes and begins at about 1:51 am in the Mountain Time zone.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 5 th, new on the 12 th, first quarter on the 20th and full on the 28 th.

The public is cordially invited to the Perseid Party at Etscorn Campus Observatory on the evening of August 12 beginning at 9 pm. To reach the observatory, take Canyon Road on the Tech Campus past the golf course. At the 4-way stop turn right and follow the signs to the observatory. Remember to bring a lawn chair!

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
August 2007

July 2007

Speedy little Mercury has zipped around the Sun and during the latter half of this month, the 18 th through the 28 th, will put on a fine show in the early morning sky. This will be one of the best early morning appearance of Mercury as it will climb as high as 10 degrees above the east-northeast horizon. Mercury reaches elongation 20 degrees west of the Sun on the 20 th and with 37% of its surface visible and at magnitude +0.3; it should be very easy to spot about a half hour before sunrise.

Venus’ close encounter with Saturn continues for the first few days of the month. On the 1 st they will be separated by only 0.7 degrees! It is quite a contrast with Venus appearing to be 100 times brighter than Saturn! However, our great evening Venus show will slowly come to an end. As the month progresses Venus will reach its peak brightness, at magnitude -4.7, about mid-month. Then it will slowly start to dim and begin setting a little earlier each evening.

Saturn will slowly move to the west pulling away from Venus and setting a little earlier each evening. This will be your last real chance to get decent telescopic views of the ringed planet until it appears again in the early morning skies.

At magnitude -2.5, Jupiter continues to shine brightly in the early evening sky as it keeps company with Antares, the “Heart of the Scorpion,” all month long. On the evenings of the 24 th and 25 th, the pair is again visited by a waxing Moon which passes just south of Antares. For people with small telescopes, the giant planet is well placed to view the 4 large moons and some atmospheric features. Good luck with red spot hunting!

While we have all been admiring the bright planets, Mars has slowly been working its way back towards an appearance in the evening sky. The red planet can be found rising in the east-northeast sky around 2 am. By month’s end it will brighten from magnitude +0.7 to +0.5 and will appear at 1 am.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 7 th, new on the 14 th, first quarter on the 22 nd and full on the 29 th.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
July 2007

June 2007

As the month begins Mercury is still visible in the west northwestern sky below and to the right of Venus. But hurry as Mercury will be fading fast will be gone a few days later.

Venus continues to dominate the western sky reaching greatest elongation on the 8 th. At that time it will appear to us at 45 degrees above the horizon. Brilliant as ever, Venus seems to be the center of attention this month. Not only can we use it to find Mercury but it will be very close to Gemini. If you look to the right of Venus the two bright stars are Pollux and Castor that mark the heads of the Gemini twins. And don’t look now, but here comes Saturn!

As the month progresses, Saturn will move steadily toward Venus and on the last day of the month, there will be only two thirds of a degree separating the two planets. Through binoculars or a small telescope, both planets should be visible in the same field of view. It should be quite a sight!

Not to be outdone, Jupiter parades itself into the evening sky. The giant planet arrives at opposition on June 5 th rising just after sunset in the south southeast. When it reaches opposition it will visible all night long. On the 27 th Jupiter, the bright red star Antares in Scorpius and a nearly full Moon will all be quite close together.

But we’re not quite done using the Moon as a planet finder. On the 18 th a crescent Moon will be found about halfway between Venus and Saturn.

June also heralds the official beginning of summer as the Sun reaches the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, at 11:06 am Mountain Daylight Time on June 21 st.

The Moon will be last quarter on the 8 th, new on the 14 th, first quarter on the 22 nd and full on the 30 th. The Moon will also present us with another interesting event on the evening of June 19. It will occult (pass in front of) the bright star Regulus in the constellation of Leo, “The Lion.”

However, this occultation will present a bit of a challenge as it will occur entirely during daylight for us here in the western U.S. Folks in the east will not see it at all. The event should be visible to you if you have good binoculars or a small telescope.

One of the fun things to do is time the disappearance and reappearance of the star as it passes behind the dark limb of the Moon and the pops out about an hour later on the other side. Since the dark limb may not be visible, Regulus will appear to wink out as the Moon passes in front of it. For us here in New Mexico, the approximate time for disappearance is 0:10 UT (Universal Time) or 6:10 pm MDT (Mountain Daylight Time). Reappearance will be around 1:30 UT or 7:30 MDT.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
June 2007

May 2007

Are there “Extra-Galactic Aliens” among us and can we see them? The answer to both of these questions appears to be yes! Our “Milky Way” galaxy is a large barred, spiral galaxy roughly 100,000 light years in diameter with about 200 billion stars plus lots of gas and other materials. All of this combines to give our galaxy a pretty sizeable gravitational field, strong enough to attract other nearby objects.

In recent years astronomers have found a number of small, irregular, “companion” galaxies near our galaxy. The most famous of these are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, visible to the naked eye from Earth if you live in the southern hemisphere. There is also growing evidence that the number of these “companion” galaxies was much larger in the past. But where did they go?

The answer is that the Milky Way seems to have been practicing “cannibalism” for billions of years and the stars and materials of these small galaxies have been gravitationally drawn into the Milky Way and thus have become the “Extra-Galactic Aliens” among us! There are a couple of measuring techniques that have led some astronomers to this conclusion.

First, sophisticated proper motion measurements have allowed astronomers to back track the paths of certain stars and have revealed a stream or trail taken by the stars being pulled in by our galaxy. The method by which stars are selected as alien candidates stems from the analysis of their chemical makeup. The chemical characteristics of these stars does not match that of other stars in their stellar neighborhoods and presumes that all of the stars seen were born at about the same time and from the same cloud of gas.

There is one such star, that we are all very familiar with that may, in fact, be an “Extra-Galactic Alien.” It is the bright star Arcturus now visible in our early evening sky. To find Arcturus, first find the Big Dipper. Then we follow the curvature of the handle as we “Arc to Arcturus.” However, we may want to pause there for a bit to wonder about the origin of this bright star before we “Speed on to Spica!”

Venus will continue to dazzle us in the evening sky remaining about 40 degrees above the western horizon. Mercury puts in an appearance later this month as it rises to 10 degrees above the north-northwest horizon. Look for it to the lower right of Venus from about the 18 th through the end of the month.

Saturn begins moving slowly towards Venus shrinking the gap to 24 degrees by the end of the month. Look for it above and to the left of Venus. Jupiter is rising earlier each evening. It comes up from the south-southeast horizon at 11 pm at the beginning of the month and just after sunset at month’s end. Headed for opposition from the Sun in early June, Jupiter will be visible for most of the night.

The Moon will be full on the 2 nd, last quarter on the 10 th, new on the 16 th, first quarter on the 23 rd and full again on the 31 st! A special treat will be on the 19 th when the Moon and Venus will be separated by only ¾ of a degree at 8:30 pm MDT.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
May 2007

April 2007

To paraphrase a goofy old childhood poem; Spring has sprung the grass has riz, Let’s use the Moon to find where the planets is! The Moon will be full on the 2 nd, last quarter on the 10 th, new on the 17 th and first quarter on the 24 th. On various dates this month the Moon will pass near Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Saturn. Talk about a handy dandy planet finder!

About one hour before dawn on the 8 th the waning Moon will pass below the planet Jupiter. At about 45 minutes before sunrise on the 13 th and 14 th the Moon will be close to Mars, the “Red Planet.” Just after dusk on the 19 th the crescent Moon will pair up with brilliant Venus in the western sky. Finally, if you haven’t managed to find Saturn yet, mark April 24 th on your calendar. Looking to the southwest, the Moon will be just to the right of the ringed planet.

Reaching 40 degrees above the horizon Venus will continue to shine like a bright beacon in the western sky. On the 11 th it will pass about 2 degrees south of the famous Pleiades (Subaru in Japanese) star cluster. On the 18 th it will pass to the north of the Hyades cluster. This cluster is much larger and includes the familiar “V” of the head of Taurus, The Bull.

Saturn will continue to prominently shine high in the south just after dark. At 15 degrees, the ring tilt will now begin to be less each month. We won’t see them this open for another 5 years! So, this will be a good time to get out that telescope or go to a star party to see its beautiful rings before they begin to close.

Owing to daylight savings time Jupiter rises at about 1 AM at the beginning of the month and by 11 PM at months end.

Mars continues to be an elusive object in the early morning sky. Look for it low in the east-southeast about 45 minutes before sunrise. On the 13 th and 14 th the Moon may be of great help in locating the “Red Planet.”

This month there are 4 star parties scheduled for the Campus Observatory. On Friday the 13 th no less, there will be a star party in conjunction with the State Science Fair at New Mexico Tech. On the 18 th, 19, and 20 th there will also be star parties. On the 20 th our special guests will again be the students, parents and staff of Zimmerly Elementary School. This is a reschedule for Zimmerly to make up for the “cloud” party we had last month! All star parties this month will begin at 8:30 PM. To reach the Etscorn Campus Observatory take Canyon Road past the golf course. At the 4-way stop turn right on Buck Wolfe Drive and follow the signs to the observatory.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
April 2007

March 2007

March will bring us a number of events beginning with the advent of Daylight Savings Time which will occur on Sunday the 11 th. Remember to spring forward and set your clocks ahead one hour! On the 20 th of March we reach the Vernal Equinox, the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere, at 6:07 PM Mountain Daylight Time.

But, to kick off the month, we will be able to witness the end of a total Lunar Eclipse on the evening of March 3 rd. When the Moon rises in the Mountain Time zone totality will have ended but we will be able to observe the penumbral shadow until about 6:50 PM. Folks in the Eastern Time zone will see the moon rise totally eclipsed. Totality, for them, will begin around 5:44 PM. So, head east if you really want to see this eclipse!

The Moon will be full on the 3 rd, last quarter on the 11 th, new on the 18 th and first quarter on the 25 th. Twice during this month the Moon will pass within ¼ of a degree of the planet Saturn. The first pass will be on March 1 st at about an hour after sunset and again on the 28 th at about 8:48 PM. On those evenings the Moon will provide a sure fire way to locate Saturn. Another pretty sight will be the crescent Moon just below and then just above the planet Venus on the evenings of the 20 th and 21 st.

Venus will continue to dazzle us as it climbs even higher into the evening sky. By the end of the month it will set a full three hours after the Sun! At magnitude -3.9 it will be pretty hard to miss as it shines high in the west-southwestern sky!

Saturn will continue to prominently shine high in the east in the early evening sky. During the month viewing through a small telescope will show it s rings opening up a little more as well as being able to see 6 or 7 of its brightest moons.

Jupiter will come up around midnight by the end of the month and is situated well above and to the left of the bright star Antares in the constellation Scorpius. Look for both in the south-southeastern skies.

Mars will continue to be hard to spot at it comes up low in the east-southeast about one and three quarter’s hours before sunrise. It will be a while before the Red Planet comes into prominence again.

On March 6 th and again on the 21 st there will be star parties at Etscorn Campus Observatory. On the 21 st special guests will be students and their families from Zimmerly Elementary School. To reach the Campus Observatory take Canyon Road past the golf course. At the 4-way stop turn right on Buck Wolfe Drive and follow the signs to the observatory.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
March 2007

February 2007

Venus will continue to dominate the early evening hours as it climbs a little higher in the southwestern skies. At magnitude -3.9, this dazzler should be very easy to spot as it climbs to about 19 degrees above the horizon. It is so bright that you should be able to pick it out right at sunset! Viewers with small telescopes should see a very bright, nearly round ball.

For those with telescopes, Venus can also be your guide to finding the 6 th magnitude planet Uranus! The dim planet will lie about 7 tenths of a degree north of Venus at about 7 PM on the 7 th of this month. Normally hard to find, this may be a great chance to add Uranus to your planet viewing.

Mercury continues to be visible for about the first two weeks of the month. On February 7 th it reaches maximum elongation from the Sun, shining at magnitude -0.7. While this is nearly 3 magnitudes dimmer than Venus, you should have no trouble finding it about 6 degrees lower and to the right of Venus.

On February 10 th, Saturn reaches opposition from the Sun. This means it will rise in the east just after sunset and be visible all night long. Still found in the constellation Leo it is moving slowly but steadily westward (retrograde motion) towards the constellation of Cancer. Tilted at an angle of 14 degrees, Saturn’s rings will offer a good view to those with small telescopes.

Jupiter is still an early morning object rising at 3:30 AM at the beginning of the month and at 2 AM by month’s end. Due to its southerly declination it will appear to be rather low in the southeastern sky. However, at magnitude -1.9, nearly six times as bright as Saturn, Jupiter, the “King” of planets, should be pretty easy to see.

During the month Mars will rise low in the east-southeast about one and a half hours before sunrise. At magnitude 1.4 it will appear as a red spec and most likely will require binoculars to see.

The Moon will be full on the 2 nd, last quarter on the 10 th, new on the 17 th and first quarter on the 24 th.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
February 2007

January 2007

For sky watchers south of about latitude 34 degrees we are once again approaching what I like to call the “ Canopus hour.” This is a narrow window of time, 2 to 3 hours where you can see the second brightest star viewable from Earth, Canopus! The key is to find Sirius, the Dog Star and the brightest star seen from Earth! It is the bright star in Canis Major (large dog) the follows the constellation Orion.

When Sirius is directly south of your position, look further south just above the southern horizon. The bright star you see will be Canopus.

Whizzing along in its tight orbit around the sun the fleet footed Mercury is now on the opposite side of the sun but will be seen again in late January in the southwestern skies. At the end of the month it can be found below and to the right of brilliant Venus. The two bright planets should put on quite a dazzling show on the 31 st of January!

At magnitude -3.9, Venus is still fairly low on the southwestern horizon. However, as the month progresses it will steadily rise higher and higher and will be visible for almost two hours after sundown by month’s end.

Jupiter continues to rise earlier each morning. Due to its position in the southeastern skies it will, at magnitude -1.8, be a bit difficult to find above the horizon. On January 9 th it passes 5 degrees north of the orange/red supergiant star Antares in the constellation Scorpius.

Mars, not far behind, begins to slowly rise higher in the early morning twilight. You will probably need binoculars to get a good view of it below and to the left of Jupiter at the end of the month.

Saturn, situated 6 degrees west of the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo, rises at about 8 pm at the beginning of the month and two hours earlier by month’s end. As it approaches opposition in early February, Saturn will become a prime target for telescopic or binocular viewing in the early evening hours. Its rings, tilted toward us at 13 degrees, will continue to open up more as the month progresses.

The Moon will be full on the 3 rd, last quarter on the 11 th, new on the 18 th and first quarter on the 25 th.

Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club
January 2007