Wandering through the realms of the cosmos, pondering its huge vastness

Constellations

Moon, Mars and Leo – Feb. 8, 2012

Mars in the eastern sky at 9:51 pm | Quezon City, Philippines

We were sitting on one of those weird benches surrounding the trees in the open-air space of UP-Ayala Technohub after having a rewarding dinner when I noticed a red-orange star in the eastern sky infront of us. My brain told me that, based on its brightness and location it had to be Mars.  It was hardly recognizable at first because the waxing gibbous moon was shining close to it. Moreover, we were situated in a very light-polluted area that my eyes were struggling to see those faint celestial objects near the horizon.

The red planet is back in the eastern sky at nightfall on these evenings. It is now in fact, one of the brightest “stars” (around -0.9 mag) in the night sky. It is growing even brighter and more prominent, especially towards the end of the month as it comes close to opposition to the Sun and its nearest pass to Earth.

Moon, Leo and Mars

Mars started to retrograde (move westward) toward the star Regulus in the constellation Leo last January 24. That happens whenever Earth is about to pass between the sun and Mars, which will happen on March 3, 2012. Mars has been brightening ever since retrograde motion began.

By the end of February, Mars will rise only 20 minutes after the Sun sets, so it will be easily seen by the time the sky darkens and will shine all-night long. By then Mars will have brightened to magnitude -1.2, nearly as bright as Sirius.


The Solitary Star

Fomalhaut, the Solitary star

Have you ever noticed the loneliest star?

Fomalhaut (or Alpha Piscis Austrini) is the brightest star in the faint constellation Piscis Austrinus – the Southern Fish – and the 17th or 18th brightest in the sky. It can be seen low in the southern sky during these evenings.

Fomalhaut, sometimes called the Autumn Star, appears in a part of the sky that is largely empty of bright stars. For this reason, it is also often called the Lonely One or Solitary One.

But, it’s been less lonely since the discovery of its planet ‘Fomalhaut b’ in 2008. Fomalhaut b – the first extrasolar planet to be imaged at visible wavelengths – orbits the loneliest star.

Fomalhaut is also one of the first known to have a disk of dust around it, a sign that more planets might be forming there.

Image taken last October 31, 2011 at 8:31 pm.


Triangles of the Night Sky

Here are images of the two famous triangles of the night sky — the Summer Triangle and the Winter Triangle — that I took last October.

Winter Triangle - October 5, 2011 3:42 am. This triangle is formed by the three first magnitude stars Sirius in Canis Major, Procyon in Canis Minor, and Betelgeuse in Orion. This shape is a nearly perfect equilateral triangle.

Summer Triangle - October 4, 2011 11:00 pm. This asterism sets in the west shortly after sunset around now. It consists of three bright stars: Vega in the constellation Lyra, Deneb in the constellation Cygnus, and Altair in the constellation Aquila.

These two serve as a stellar calendar, marking the seasons.

The Summer Triangle is the signature star formation of summer. Likewise, the Winter Triangle is a landmark of the winter night sky.

Though December is just around the corner, the Summer Triangle still lights up these autumn evenings. It will continue to shine after dark throughout December and January.

Meanwhile, as the Summer Triangle descends in the west around mid-evening, the Winter Triangle can be seen rising in the east.

Isn’t it amazing that these stars that make up these celestial triangles just happen to be positioned the way they are in the night sky? :)

Both photos were taken from our suburban place in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan. 


Bye bye, Mr. Teapot

Sagittarius (plus a faint apparition of the Milky Way?) over our local suburb. Click on image to enlarge.

 As summer time has already ended, the constellation Sagittarius, along with the other Summer constellations sets earlier during the month of October.

Sagittarius is believed to have originated with the Babylonians. He was their god of War, and he stands with his bow aimed at the heart of Scorpius, the scorpion. Like Centaurus, he is a half man, half beast creature.

We in modern times may not be able to imagine the stars of Sagittarius as a Centaur. Instead, many stargazers know the stars of Sagittarius as a “Teapot”. This asterism is really easy to recognize.

Sagittarius is an important constellation in that it marks the direction of the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. It also contains more Messier objects than any other constellation in the sky.

Earlier this evening, I took the chance to take an image of the “Teapot” before it disappears in the night sky. I was also planning to image Scorpius but it was already too low in the south west. As I looked at the image more closely, I began to noticed something interesting. On the right (just above its lid), there is a faint cloud-like patch that resembles the Milky Way. I got surprised. :)

Could it be really possible to see a faint apparition of the Milky Way in this light-polluted suburb?

Perhaps, yes.


Orion, Jupiter and the Pleiades

This morning, I went outside again at around 4:30 AM to check the sky condition. I’ve been doing this for about a couple of days now in hopes of  seeing a clear sky despite the continuous rains over the past few weeks.

It’s really creepy out there — wind’s blowing strong & it’s totally dark! But thank God it wasn’t too cloudy and I was able to do some timelapse photography just before the stars start fading away against the blue sky at dawn.

An image of the constellation Orion [The Hunter] as it marched through the zenith at 5:21 AM local time, 2 October 2011 (SJDM, Bulacan)

The planet Jupiter & the star cluster M45 (Pleiades) separated by about 20 degrees in the western sky at 5:02 AM, 2 October 2011  (SJDM, Bulacan)

I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the coming weeks. :) Clear skies!


Happy Birthday Neptune!

On Tuesday, July 12, 2011, the planet Neptune will complete its first revolution around the sun since its discovery on September 23, 1846. As it takes Neptune 164.79 Earth-years to go full circle through the constellations of the Zodiac, it is only now completing its first full orbit since its detection by humans. Hence the anniversary celebration.

Neptune, the 8th planet outward from the sun, is presently the most distant planet in the solar system. That’s because the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto as a “dwarf planet” in 2006. By the way, Neptune circles the sun three times for every two times that Pluto does.

There is much to commemorate — Neptune’s discovery marked a turning point in astronomy. Its existence was revealed, not through a serendipitous observation by an astronomer but by the careful work of mathematicians. They calculated that perturbations in the orbit of Uranus, then thought to be the sun’s most distant planet, could only be explained by the existence of another, even remoter world whose gravity was affecting Uranus’s path.

The mathematicians – Englishman John Adams and Frenchman Urbain Le Verrier – made their calculations separately. Both agreed, however, where in the sky astronomers would pinpoint the planet causing those perturbations. But they dealt with the information very differently, says historian Allan Chapman of Wadham College, Oxford.

As Neptune is too faint to be seen by the naked eye,  a pair of binoculars or a telescope is needed to view this world if you know where to look.   This  detailed sky chart will help you to find Neptune’s place in the sky — it will be located in Aquarius, the constellation where astronomers discovered the blue planet.

Next month Neptune reaches opposition and is a decent target for observers.

Happy Birthday, Neptune!  :)


Night Sky Gazing in June

In the Philippines, the rainy season usually starts in the month of June and runs through about November. During this period,  thunderstorms and typhoons which generally affect a wide area (sometimes half of the archipelago) are common. In fact, only this June three typhoons (namely Dodong, Egay and Falcon) have already visited the country along with heavy rains.

Clear skies were seldom visible for most of the month of June was so stormy. Hence, having an opportunity to spot this season’s prominent constellations during clear nights was  really a blessing to an amateur astronomer like me. :)

The sky was moonless on the first week of June. So I took this chance to set up the tripod and the Panasonic Lumix digital camera to get nice constellations images. Thanks to Aaron Misayah for loaning his camera to me. :)

The  Lumix camera features a ‘starry night’ scene mode — a setting which allows you to capture long exposures, with 15, 30, and 60 second shutter speed options. I selected the 60 sec exposure and point to regions of some of my favorite constellations.

Note that the Lumix didn’t have ISO control when in starry night mode. If I set the camera to manual mode (where I do have access to the ISO settings), I don’t have access to the exposure time.  The longest exposure time I have in manual mode is 1/8 seconds. But after I looked at the pictures in manual mode (ISO 1600, 1/8 seconds exposure), I notice that there are a lot of noise.  I think they’re trying to hide the fact that the Lumix is very noisy in high ISO mode so they made it not selectable when you’re using long exposures.

Anyway, below are some of the photos I took from our residential area in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan. I used Photoshop to add the constellation lines.

1 June 2011
camera settings: 6mm, f/2.8, 60 sec. exposure time, ISO-80

Bootes – 12:01 AM 
northwestern sky

Scorpius – 12:30 AM

Zooming into the photo above will reveal vertical streaks (not the star trails). These unnecessary streaks have occurred because I forgot to use the self timer on the camera for this shot. By clicking on the shutter button, even a slight vibration from the finger would create blur on the picture, even when you are using a tripod.

5 June 2011
camera settings: 6mm, f/2.8, 60 sec. exposure time, ISO-80

Leo and Leo Minor – 9:23 PM
Corvus – 9:27 PM
Big Dipper – 9:54 PM

By the way, I am living from a suburban site. The limiting magnitude for such a location is frequently close to 4 . This means that the apparent magnitude of the faintest star that could  be visible to the unaided eye is about magnitude 4.

The original images were a bit darker but I increased the brightness and contrast in the post processing to find out the dimmest star recorded. I found that every star that was visible with the naked eye was in the image, which is good! The results of each shot have actually far exceeded my expectations.  I never thought that a little humble compact camera could go a long way.

I have also tried using this camera in shooting landscape and scenery pictures and it also produced good results. Click here to see my previous post about it.  At about 30-45 minutes after the sunset, the sky is not completely dark yet, but the colour appears to be more intense with traces of natural light still available. It would also be nice to take sky photos during this time.

Perhaps, this could be an interesting camera at a truly dark sky site. I have yet to try that when I still have the opportunity. :)

Clear skies!


Skywatching Highlights: April 2011

This month’s highlights:

  • Saturn in the evening sky
  • The 2011 Lyrid Meteor Shower
  • Four Planets and a Crescent Moon in the morning sky
Date Event Time (in PHT, UT+8)
3 New Moon 22:30
5 Saturn at Opposition 

– The ringed planet will be at its closest approach to Earth and its face will be fully illuminated by the Sun. This is the best time to view and photograph Saturn and its moons.

09:50
6 Jupiter in conjunction with the Sun 23:00
10 Mercury in inferior conjunction 04:00
11 First Quarter Moon 20:05
17 Moon at perigee (nearest distance to Earth) 14:00
18 Full Moon 10:45
21-22 Lyrid Meteor Shower* 

– The Lyrids are an average shower, usually producing about 20 meteors per hour at their peak. These meteors can produce bright dust trails that last for several seconds. The shower usually peaks on April 21 & 22, although some meteors can be visible from April 16 – 25. This year, the gibbous moon will hide most of the fainter meteors in its glare. Look for meteors radiating from the constellation of Lyra after midnight, and be sure to find a dark viewing location far from city lights.

22 Mercury-Venus-Mars-Jupiter visual alignment 

– Visible from April 25 to May 30

dawn
23 Venus at Uranus at minimum separation (0.9 degrees) dusk
25 Last Quarter Moon 10:45
27 Neptune 6 degrees south of the Moon 21:00
29 Four Planets and Crescent Moon in the morning sky 

– On the last two mornings of the month, given a clear low eastern horizon, there will be four planets and a thin crescent Moon visible just above.   You will need binoculars, so cease looking when the Sun has risen.

dawn
31 Moon at apogee (farthest distance to Earth) 02:00

*Check out the following links for more info:

Lyrids Quick Facts:

The red dot shows the "radiant" for the Lyrid meteor shower. The radiant is the spot in the sky that the meteors seem to fan out from. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Lyrid meteor streaks | Image credit: Wally Pacholka

A video guide on finding the constellation Lyra:

HubbleSite – Tonight’s Sky: April 2011

 

Clear skies to all and happy observing! :)

 

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References:


Waxing Gibbous Moon in the Winter Hexagon

 

Moon and the Winter Hexagon directly above at 9 PM local time

Tonight’s waxing gibbous moon resides inside the Winter Circle – an incredibly large star configuration made of six brilliant winter stars.  Be sure to notice the variety in the colors of these stars.

The Winter Circle – sometimes called the Winter Hexagon – is not one of the 88 recognized constellations. Rather, it’s an asterism – a pattern of stars that’s fairly easy to recognize. Our sky chart cannot adequately convey the Winter Circle’s humongous size! It dwarfs the constellation Orion the Hunter, which is a rather large constellation, occupying the southwestern part of the Winter Circle pattern.

Clear skies!

 

reference: EarthSky.org


Moon and the Winter Constellations

Tonight’s sky (January 17, 2011) —- Find the waxing gibbous Moon (96% illuminated) surrounded by the stars of the bright Winter Constellations (Auriga, Taurus, Orion, Canis Minor, Canis Major, and Gemini). This beautiful celestial view will climb up to the zenith at around 10 PM local time.

Image: Stellarium (You may download this free planetarium software here.)

Clear skies!


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