This has been quite a year. Now, add to this a bright new comet, and it gets a little better, yes? Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE: Named after the Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer’s asteroid hunting mission [https://neowise.ipac.caltech.edu/], this comet has become visible to the unaided eye, and, for now, is a morning object rising just before the Sun in the northeast sky. By the week of July 13th, the comet will be more of an early evening object, and it should also be getting fainter as it heads both away from Earth and the Sun.
Weather here in New Hampshire is not forgiving to astronomers. In July we typically have high humidity and heat. Add to that some vertical temperature instability, and thunderstorms will be the rule followed by wet foggy mornings once dew point is reached. We did have one clear morning this week, and that allowed for some quick imaging of comet NEOWISE. Be sure to click on the images to see in larger format.
Nikon D-810a with 28-300mm zoom lens at 150mm at f/3.5 and Optolong L-Pro light pollution reduction filter.
There has been a lot of buzz on the net about the star, Betelgeuse, Alpha Ori… the red supergiant in Orion’s shoulder (or armpit as people might prefer). It is a well known, bright red, supergiant, and it is a well known variable with a long period. Of late, it has been fading rather unusually for its regular patterns of ups and downs in brightness. This fading has everyone charged up…. you see, the star is old, near the end of its life. Stars of this high mass are supposed to supernova… BOOM! The trick is to know when. We have little idea on that, so any changes seen in stars like this make us get realllllly focused. Below is a snap of the latest observations of Betelgeuse’s brightness in V taken from the AAVSO. You can go see this data for yourself at www.aavso.org, and entering “Alfa Ori” sans quotes into the “Pick a star” field on the lower right of the page. Select plot light curve after that.
AAVSO V filter light curve of Betelgeuse
Where is Betelgeuse located? Here’s a chart as seen from mid northern latitudes tonight at 9:00pm
Orion with Betelgeuse as it would appear at 9:00pm from mid-northern latitudes tonight (January 15)
One of the best meteor showers of the year is rapidly approaching. Peaking on the night of December 13/14, the Geminids put on a good show with peaks averaging at 120 meteors per hour. Now, with the moon being just past full that night, many of the fainter meteors will be drowned out by moonlight. Don’t be discouraged, though: we still expect to see some 30 meteors per hour. The best time to watch? After midnight, usually around 2:00am is best, but you can start seeing them after 10pm easily enough. Gemini will be high in the sky, and the night time side of Earth will be heading into the meteor stream.
The source of these meteors is from asteroid 3200 Phaethon, named after the son of Helios… Phaeton swings very close to the Sun in its orbit, being one of the Apollo asteroid members. Does it pose a threat to Earth? Not for the next 400 years or so, which is as far as our high-level orbital analysis shows. The asteroid has a 30 year orbit… so maybe in the distant future we might have to worry about this one.
Looking east at about 9pm local time, the constellations Orion and Gemini will be well above the horizon. Alas, the moon will also be in Gemini and just past full phase. Rather than looking at the moon-lit Gemini, look straight up and all around in the sky for the Geminid meteors.
Each August, the Earth passes through a stream of comet debris from Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. The comet will not be back our way until 2126… so… I wouldn’t wait up for that one. Along the orbital path, the comet has left behind small bits and pieces, most no bigger than a grain of sand. These run into our planet’s atmosphere and burn up due to friction. The result of this friction-filled reentry is a meteor, a rapid streak of light through the sky. This shower usually gives us about 60 meteors per hour at peak, and many fireballs: bright meteors that can even be bright enough to cast a shadow. How to see it?
Pick a clear night closest to the peak, which is on August 11th/12th/13th.
Go to a dark sky site: avoid lights and cities. The darker, the better.
Bring something comfortable to lie down on: sleeping bags are good.
Bring food, drink, and bug spray if needed for your location.
Spend the night time hours looking up at the sky! No optics required other than your eyeballs.
Avoid lights! No cell phones. No flashlights. Your eyes take between 30-60 minutes to become dark adapted, and you lose that dark adaptation instantly if you see a light. Avoid lights!
The shower appears to come from a spot in the sky in the constellation Perseus. This rises just before midnight, so best observing will be after that, into the morning hours.
We have a splendid opportunity to see a total lunar eclipse this January. It will be taking place late on a Sunday night into the early hours of Monday morning. That Monday is also Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the USA, so many schools will not have classes that day. Eclipse timings are given in the above graphic, in Universal Time. Converting that to the various USA time zones:
Usually the real eclipse visibility starts to take place late in the penumbral phase approaching the first contact of the umbra. If you have not seen a lunar eclipse before, it is quite a special event. The moon will appear to have a charcoal chunk missing from it as the eclipse progresses. Deeper into the eclipse, the moon will take on a rusty red hue caused by the sunlight passing through the earth’s atmosphere before arriving at the moon. Telescopes are not required, as one can see the whole event easily with the eye. Binoculars and telescopes will offer a nice closeup view. Photography of the event is a relatively simple affair. A good tripod and telephoto lens will work well with the moderate shutter speeds required. Tracking is not needed. An example of a series of photos I took of the last total lunar eclipse is below. The camera was a Nikon D7000 with 200mm telephoto on a tripod. Click for a larger image.