Skywatch Line for Friday, October 16, through Sunday, October 18, 2015

This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Friday, October 16, through Sunday, October 18, 2015.

The Moon was new last Monday and will reach first quarter next Tuesday so much of the weekend’s nights will be dark and moonless. The Moon sets at 8:37 pm Friday, 9:22 pm on Saturday, and 10:12 pm on Sunday.

Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Mercury now grace the morning sky. Mercury is not far above the horizon and can be hard to spot, but the other three are easily seen and will form an increasingly tight grouping during the coming days.

At 6 am Saturday morning Mercury will be 4 degrees above the eastern horizon (a pinkie held at arm’s length spans 2 degrees). You’ll need a good clear view of the eastern horizon to spot the elusive inner planet. Brilliant Venus, outshining everything else in the predawn skies, will be obvious and easy to spot, just less than 30 degrees above the eastern horizon. Jupiter and Mars will be below and a bit left of Venus, with bright Jupiter just under 7 degrees from Venus. Fainter, reddish Mars will be just half a degree to the upper left of Jupiter.

If you can’t spot Mercury, try again at 6:15 am, when it will be almost 7 degrees above the horizon.

Look at the planetary grouping again Sunday and Monday mornings, and you’ll find Venus is moving closer to Jupiter and Mars, while Mars is pulling away from Jupiter. Keep an eye on the trio during the coming week.

The weather was not very cooperative for last weekend’s star parties at Landis Arboretum. Friday’s was canceled and Saturday’s was held under rather hazy skies. Fortunately, this weekend offers star parties at two locations.

Dudley Observatory will hold a public lecture and star party at 7 00 pm on Friday, October 16, at the Octagon Barn. The barn is located at 588 Middle Road, Delanson, New York 12053. The talk, “Do Black Holes Destroy Information?” by Dr. Oleg Lunin from the University at Albany, will be held rain or shine. If the skies are clear, it will be followed by a star party, where telescope will be set up to provide guests with views of various celestial showpieces. The Octagon Barn is a lovely, dark location for enjoying the night sky, both by eye and through a telescope.

The Albany Area Amateur Astronomers, in association with NYS Parks, will hold a public star party at 6:45 pm on Friday, October 16, at the Deerfield Pavilion in Grafton Lakes State Park. Telescopes will provide guests with views of galaxies, nebulae, star clusters, and double stars.

All ages are welcome and there is no admission charge. For directions visit this web site, call the Park office 279-1155, or use the address 100 Grafton Lakes State Park Way, Grafton, NY, 12082.

The star party will be canceled if the skies are mostly cloudy. If it is canceled and the weather permits, it will be rescheduled for 6:45 pm on Saturday, October 17. (It will only be held Saturday if the Friday event was canceled.) In case of possible cancelation, or for more information, call one of the coordinators, Ray (658-3138) or Bernard (658-9144).


Skywatch Line for Wednesday, October 14th and Thursday, October 15th

This is the Dudley Observatory Skywatch Line for Wednesday, October 14th and Thursday, October 15th written by Louis Suarato

Wednesday evening, just after sunset, the 3% illuminated, waxing crescent Moon will be low on the west-southwestern horizon. The Moon will set a few minutes after 7 pm. To the south, about 10 degrees over the horizon, Saturn offers its final evening views of the year. Look for Saturn to reappear in dawn’s twilight in mid-December. Saturn will be closer to the thicker 8% illuminated crescent Moon Thursday night. Look for Saturn 8 degrees to the left of the crescent Moon after Thursday’s sunset. 

Thursday morning features four planets 28 degrees apart. Venus will be highest, and brightest, rising first. Dimmer Mars will be approximate 8 degrees below Venus, and just 1 degree above Jupiter. October 15th is the birth date of astronomer Asaph Hall, who in 1877, discovered and named the two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, and calculated their orbits. Mercury is the last to rise, and can be found about 20 degrees below and left of Jupiter. Mercury reaches its greatest western elongation at 18 degrees at 11 p.m. Thursday night.

Take advantage of the moonless night to hunt for some galaxies near the handle of the Big Dipper. During the early evening, the Big Dipper’s handle is parallel to the northwestern horizon. About 7 degrees above the last two stars of the Big Dipper’s handle is the Pinwheel Galaxy, also known as M101 or NGC 5457. The Pinwheel Galaxy, with a magnitude of 7.70, was first discovered by Pierre Méchain on March 27, 1781. It is roughly the size of the Milky Way, with a diameter of 170,000 light-years. About 4 degrees below the last star of the Big Dipper’s handle, Alkaid, is the Whirlpool Galaxy, or M51. The Whirlpool Galaxy was discovered on October 13, 1773 by Charles Messier. Its companion galaxy, NGC 5195 was discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1781. At magnitude 8.40, the Whirpool Galaxy is about 23 million light-years from our Milky Way galaxy. M51 is best seen through an 8 to 10 inch telescope.

The Dudley Observatory will be hosting an Octagonal Barn Lecture and Star Party beginning at 7 pm on Friday, October 16th. The lecture, “Do Black Holes Destroy Information?” will be given by Oleg Lunin, Ph. D., Assistant Professor of Physics, University at Albany. The Octagonal Barn is located at 588 Middle Road, Delanson, NY. The Albany Area Amateur Astronomers will also be hosting a Star Party this Friday at Grafton Lake State Park. If this event is cancelled, it will be rescheduled for Saturday night.

Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday, October 12th and 13th

This is the Dudley Observatory Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday, October 12th and 13th written by Joe Slomka.

The Sun sets at 6:18 PM; night falls at 7:52. Dawn begins at 5:32 AM and ends with the Sun rising at 7:06.

The Moon officially turns “New” on Monday night; Tuesday sees a very young Moon very low on the western horizon, which sets at 6:49 PM.

The twilight sky reveals only one bright planet, Saturn. Saturn is now low on the western horizon and sets at 8:21 PM, two hours after sunset. It becomes lower daily. Our turbulent atmosphere is now smearing the view of the famous rings. The best time to observe Saturn is as soon as possible after the Sun sets.

Nightfall reveals three dimmer Solar System members. Neptune still resides in Aquarius. At magnitude 7.8, it requires dark skies, telescope and detailed sky charts. It sets after 10 PM.

Uranus rose in Pisces shortly before Sunset; it is brighter at magnitude 5.7. It is visible in binoculars, for those who know where to look. Uranus is best observed at about 12:39 AM, and sets at Sunrise.

Finally, as we mentioned last week, sixth magnitude asteroid Vesta can be found in the constellation Cetus. It lies near the star Iota Ceti; it remains in this neighborhood all month. It is best observed around Midnight.

All three can be found with the aid of astronomy magazines, websites and apps.

Tuesday, the bright star Algol, in Perseus, dims at 1:06 AM. A much dimmer companion eclipses the main star every 2.87 days.

Dawn bring four bright planets onto the scene. Venus rises first at 3:14 AM.  At magnitude minus 4.5, it is the brightest object in the sky, appearing beneath Leo’s belly.

The Red Planet Mars is next to rise at 3:47 AM, appearing about eight degrees to Venus’ left. Finally, Jupiter rises at 3:58 AM, and is about two degrees to Mars’ left. These three planets are slowly converging toward conjunctions this month.

Mercury rises in Virgo at 5:34 AM. At minus 1 magnitude, it should be visible about eleven degrees above the eastern horizon.

Monday is Columbus Day. Most people are familiar with the story of Columbus sailing west to reach China. When he landed in the Caribbean, he thought he had found Japan. How could he have made that mistake? Finding latitude is easy, sight on the Pole Star and measure its height above the horizon. But longitude could not be calculated without very accurate sea-borne clocks; such clocks were not invented for another 200 years. Two ancient Greeks measured the Earth. Eratosthenes accurately estimated the Earth’s diameter; Claudius Ptolemy underestimated it. Arab scholars provided other approximations of Earth’s size. They used a smaller Arabic mile, which Columbus mistook to be equal to nautical miles. Using “dead reckoning,” a navigational estimation of a ship’s course, it was natural for Columbus to mistake the island of Jamaica for Japan.

Skywatch Line for Friday, October 9, through Sunday, October 11

This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Friday, October 9, through Sunday, October 11, written by Alan French.

The Moon was at last quarter this past Sunday and is now moving toward new, so a waning crescent Moon rises during the early morning hours.

Saturday morning’s sky will feature a lovely grouping of Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and the old, crescent Moon. Look toward the east at 6:00 am. Brilliant Venus will be highest, with bright Jupiter lower and a bit to its left. Between the pair is fainter, reddish Mars. A lovely Moon will be below this trio. If you have a good view to the east and the horizon is free of haze and clouds, look for Mercury, below and a little left of the Moon, and just three degrees above the horizon.

By Sunday morning the Moon will be a bit lower than Mercury and a little to the planet’s left – requiring clear skies down to the horizon and a good view east.

The Albany Area Amateur Astronomers will take advantage of the dark moonless skies this weekend to hold public star parties at Landis Arboretum in Esperance. The star parties will be at 8:00 pm on Friday, October 9, and Saturday, October 10. At star parties club members set up telescopes to show guests a variety of celestial sights – galaxies, nebulae, star clusters, and double stars. All ages are welcome and there is no admission charge, although we encourage guests to make a modest donation to our fine hosts, Landis Arboretum.

Landis Arboretum is on Lape Road and there are good signs leading there starting at Route 20 and Charleston Street. Turn up Charleston and follow the signs (when driving into Esperance on Route 20 from the east Charleston is the first right after crossing the Schoharie Creek). You can also find directions on their web site. After reaching the farmhouse on the right and parking lot on the left continue up Lape Road for 100 yards. Turn right into the the Meeting House field driveway. It will usually be marked with a “Star Party” sign.

For newcomers there will be a brief introductory talk at 8:30 pm. Gather in the south side of the gravel parking area next to the Meeting House. The talk will include hints about using and enjoying the telescopes and a brief tour of the brighter constellations.

Star parties are canceled if the skies are mostly cloudy or if it’s raining. If in doubt, please call 374-8460 to insure the event is being held. If no one answers the phone, wait for a message.


Skywatch Line for Wednesday, October 7th and Thursday, October 8th

This is the Dudley Observatory Skywatch Line for Wednesday, October 7th and Thursday, October 8th written by Louis Suarato

The 22% illuminated, waning crescent Moon sets at 3:39 p.m. Wednesday afternoon. A slightly thinner crescent Moon will rise again at 2:31 a.m. Thursday. Thursday morning’s crescent Moon will be joined by Venus and the constellation Leo’s brightest star, Regulus, less than a half hour later. Venus and the Moon will be less than a degree apart, while Venus and Regulus will be 2.6 degrees apart with the Moon to their upper right. Mars and Jupiter join the party at 3:54 and 4:15 a.m. respectively, and will be 4 degrees apart. Mercury rises around 6 a.m., but may be a challenge to see with the morning glow of the Sun. The crescent Moon, four planets, and the bright star Regulus should provide a wonderful photo opportunity. Friday morning, a 10% illuminated, crescent Moon will be 3 degrees to the side of Mars.

October 7th is the anniversary of the first photos taken of the dark side of the Moon. In 1959, the Russian spacecraft, Luna 3, looked back of the side of the Moon never seen before, and transmitted 29 photos back to Earth. Although the photos were of poor quality, they did provide details of 70% of the side of the Moon that never faces our planet. The far side of the Moon was first seen directly by human eyes when, during the Apollo 8 mission, astronaut William Anders said “The backside looks like a sand pile my kids have played in for some time. It’s all beat up, no definition, just a lot of bumps and holes.”

The Albany Area Amateur Astronomers will be hosting public star parties at the Landis Arboretum in Esperance, NY on Friday, October 9th, and Saturday, October 10th. These star parties provide a great opportunity to learn about the night sky’s constellations and deep sky objects such as galaxies, nebulae, star clusters and asterisms. Amateur astronomers are also available to discuss and demonstrate the various types of telescopes on the market. Directions to the arboretum can be found at .

Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday October 5th and 6th

This is the Dudley Observatory Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday October fifth and sixth written by Joe Slomka.

The Sun sets at 6:30 PM; night falls at 8:04. Dawn breaks at 5:24 AM and ends with the Sun rising at 6:58.

The darkening sky reveals a host of bright stars, but only one bright planet – Saturn. Saturn is getting lower daily, and our turbulent atmosphere begins to smear the details of its rings. Saturn sets at 8:47 PM.

Nightfall reveals distant Solar System members Neptune and Uranus. They remain in their usual places, Aquarius and Pisces, respectively. Neptune fades slightly this month, while Uranus is actually at peak brilliance. Finder charts can be found in astronomy magazines, websites and apps. Neptune sets at 10:35 PM. Uranus is best observed at 1:07 AM and remains up the rest of the night.

The waning Moon rises at 12:53 AM on Tuesday, and 1:51 AM on Wednesday. It occupies the constellation Cancer on both nights. The Moon’s brilliance unfortunately blots out two binocular star clusters, the Beehive, also called M44, and M67. Note the Moon’s location and, when it is far away from Cancer, try spotting these star clusters in your binoculars.

At Dawn, three bright planets, all in Leo, join the Moon. Venus is the first to rise, at 3:14 AM. By Dawn, Venus is moderately high in the eastern sky, and appears lower left of the Moon. Venus is second to the Moon in brightness. With high-powered binoculars or a telescope, an observer will see that both Moon and Venus display phases. Tuesday, both are illuminated the same; Wednesday sees the Moon as thinner than Venus. Venus also lies three degrees from the bright star Regulus, the main star in Leo. Mars rises next, at 3:52 AM, and appears under the Lion’s belly. Finally, Jupiter rises at 4:18 and appears between the Lion’s rear legs. Early risers should track the progress of these planets as they slowly converge.

One other Solar System member is visible in tonight’s sky – Vesta. Vesta is an asteroid, just past opposition. It is best observed about 12:30 AM, when it shines at magnitude 6.2 It is located in Cetus, near the star Iota Ceti.

Vesta is the fourth dwarf planet to be discovered. It orbits the Sun every 3.6 years. Like the first three asteroids, Vesta was temporarily named a planet, until astronomers realized their small size. Vesta is the brightest. It can be seen in binoculars from a dark, rural site. Those seeking Vesta should consult magazine articles and web sites to identify the asteroid amid similar looking stars.

Vesta is the goddess of the hearth. Roman homes had hearths for cooking and heat; in fact the hearth was her shrine. Romans said daily prayers to her in thanksgiving for food and heat. The household fire must never go out. Should the fire go out, a new fire could only be started from another holy hearth or Vesta’s temple fire. At the temple, six Vestal Virgins, unmarried women, tended to the sacred fire day and night. Vestalia was a religious festival when the Vestal Virgins would clean the temple and relight the flame with a magnifying glass.

Skywatch Line for Friday, October 2, through Sunday, October 4

This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Friday, October 2, through Sunday, October 4, written by Alan French.

The Moon reaches last quarter on Sunday afternoon, so a waning gibbous Moon rises late in the evening on Friday and Saturday, and it will be a waning crescent when it rises Sunday night. The Moon rises at 10:10 pm Friday, 11:02 pm Saturday, and 11:57 pm Sunday.

In the early evening the Milky Way, that hazy band that is the combined light of many distant stars in the plane of our galaxy, stretches high across the sky. It may be invisible to people in or near the city, where the lights brighten the sky, but it is a lovely sight from the dark skies away from town. Around 8 pm it stretches roughly from the south southwest to the north northeast. It is brightest and broadest in the south, a beautiful sight as it passes overhead through Cygnus, the Swan, and its luster diminishes as it reaches the distinctive “W” star pattern of Cassiopeia, the Queen, high toward the northeast.

Dark skies are not the only requirement for your best views of the Milky Way – your eyes should also be thoroughly adapted to the dark. You’ve certainly noticed that your eyes gradually get used to the dark, allowing you to see better with time. There are two changes. The pupil opens wider within seconds, allowing more light into the eye. There is also a chemical change which greatly increases your eye’s sensitivity. The full transformation takes 30 to 40 minutes.

White light ruins your dark adaptation and the process has to start again. To preserve their night vision amateur astronomers use dim red lights, which allow reading star charts and notes without ruining one’s night vision. Red plastic or construction paper can easily turn a regular flashlight into an astronomer’s flashlight – but remember it should be just bright enough to read charts when you are completely used to the dark.

A reclining lawn chair is ideal for exploring the Milky Way, and there is even more to see with binoculars.

We often recommend observing the Moon with binoculars or a telescope when it is near first quarter. It is a similarly great target near last quarter – but the timing is not convenient for most people. If you’re an early riser the Moon, just past last quarter, will be high in the southern sky at 6:00 am Monday morning. When the Moon is high in the sky the views tend to be steadier and detail better seen. Monday morning the sunset line or terminator is near the center of the Moon’s disk, ideally placed for viewing. Along the terminator shadows are long and details stands out in bold relief.

If you took advantage of National Observe the Moon Night last Saturday, just before first quarter, you probably noticed the Moon was not very high in the sky then.

Skywatch Line for Wednesday, September 30th and Thursday, October 1st

This is the Dudley Observatory Skywatch Line for Wednesday, September 30th and Thursday, October 1st written by Louis Suarato

The 88%, illuminated waning gibbous Moon rises at 8:17 p.m. Wednesday night. Rising 15 degrees to the Moon’s northeast will be the Pleiades star cluster. Thursday night, the Moon will below the Pleiades and about 5 degrees to Aldebaran’s upper right. Further to the northeast will be the constellation Auriga’s brightest star, Capella. Capella is the 6th brightest star in the sky and the third brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere. It is also the brightest yellow star that can been seen in our sky. Capella is the nearest to the Pole of all 1st magnitude stars. Capella, also known as Alpha Aurigae, is a multiple star system consisting of a pair of binary stars. The brightest pair consists of two stars with radii 10 times larger than our Sun. These two giant stars have been designated as Capella Aa and Capella Ab. These two bright giant stars orbit each other once every 104 days. Their faint companions are known as Capella H and Capella L. This multiple star system is estimated to be 42.8 light-years from Earth.

To the lower right of Capella are three open star clusters. The nearest is M38, or The Starfish Cluster. Discovered by Le Gentil in 1749, M38 has over 100 stars within its cluster. Approximately 2.3 degrees to M38’s southeast is the open cluster, M36, also designated NGC 1960. M36 and M38 can be seen in the same field of view of a low-power, wide angle telescope. M36 is the smaller of the two clusters, but brighter, containing about 60 stars of magnitudes 9 to 14. The open star cluster M37, or NGC 2099, is located about 3 degrees below M36. C.E. Barns described M37 as a “diamond sunburst”. M37 was discovered by Giovanni Batista Hodierna before 1654 and contains about 60 stars.

Thursday’s pre-dawn sky features the planets Venus, Mars and Jupiter rising over the eastern horizon. Leo’s brightest star, Regulus, will be found below Venus and above Mars. Continue to follow these planets during October as they draw closer.

Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday, September 28th and 29th

This is the Dudley Observatory Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday, September 28th and 29th written by Joe Slomka.

The Sun sets at 6:42 PM; night falls at 8:16. Dawn beaks at 5:15 AM and ends with sunrise at 6:50.

The darkening sky reveals only one bright planet – Saturn. Saturn appears moderately low in the southwestern sky. It appears between Libra and the head of Scorpius and is slowly closing in on the Scorpion. Saturn sets at 9:21 PM.

Nightfall reveals Neptune still keeping station in Aquarius. Finder charts, found in astronomy magazines, websites and apps, assist in locating this distant world. Neptune sets at 4:30 AM.

Normally visible Uranus, in Pisces, may not be observable on Monday and Tuesday evenings. The Moon, which experienced an eclipse last night, has parked itself less than two degrees from Uranus. The overwhelming lunar brilliance will probably drown Uranus by its light and make observation of the planet difficult. The sixteen-day-old Moon rose after 7 PM on both nights and sets during daylight, appearing nearly full on both evenings.

Astronomical Dawn introduces three new characters on stage, in Leo. Brilliant Venus rose at 3:18 AM, second in brightness only to the Moon. In high-powered binoculars or telescopes, Venus appears about one-third illuminated and keeps shrinking in size. First magnitude Mars is next to rise, at 3:57 AM; it lies about eleven degrees from Venus, but only three degrees from Leo’s brightest star, Regulus. Its rusty color distinguishes it from the white star Regulus. Jupiter is the last to rise, at 4:38 AM. It is quite low on the eastern horizon, about seven-an-a-half degrees to Mars’s lower left. All three remain up well into daytime and, in the coming months, will populate the pre-sunrise sky.

Since Autumn began last week, let us consider the Fall constellations. Some “Summer Constellations” are misnamed. They rise in early summer, but are best seen in late summer or early fall. Between nightfall and midnight, the Andromeda saga is displayed. Her parents are Cepheus and Cassiopeia. Cepheus is house-shaped and points to the North Star. Cassiopeia looks like a “W” or “M”. Andromeda is depicted by a chain of stars that flow from the upper left of the Great Square of Pegasus, the horse. Perseus is a constellation below Cassiopeia with a long and a short leg. Cetus, the sea monster, swims low on the horizon. These constellations together account for twelve percent of the celestial sphere. Also visible are Lacerta, the lizard and Triangulum, the Triangle. All are in excellent position to be seen tonight.

Skywatch Line for Friday, September 25, through Sunday, September 27

This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Friday, September 25, through Sunday, September 27, written by Alan French.

This is an exciting weekend for amateur astronomers and casual sky watchers – we have a total lunar eclipse on Sunday night. The eclipse is well timed for the eastern United States, with the eclipse visible from start to finish.

When the Moon is full it is on the opposite side of our Earth from the Sun. Earth casts a shadow into space, and usually the Moon passes above or below the shadow and we simply enjoy a lovely full Moon. When the Moon moves through the shadow, we have a lunar eclipse. On Sunday night the Moon will move completely into the darkest part of the shadow, so we’ll have a total lunar eclipse.

The Earth’s shadow is composed of two parts. The lighter, outer penumbra is where Earth only blocks part of the Sun’s light. The darker, inner umbra Is where the Earth blocks all of the Sun’s direct light. Light, however, is bent or refracted as it travels through our atmosphere. It is also scattered, with the blue end of the spectrum scattered the most. The result is that the light bent into the darker part of our planet’s shadow is mostly red, so a totally eclipsed Moon may appear reddish. How colorful and how bright the eclipsed Moon appears depends on how many clouds are around the edge of the Earth, as seen from the Moon, and how many particulates are in our atmosphere. (Forest fires, volcanoes, and man-made pollution can darken an eclipse.) The Moon is illuminated by the sunrises and sunsets around the Earth.

The Moon will enter the penumbra, the brighter part of the shadow, at 8:12 pm, but it will be some time before the subtle penumbral shading will be visible on the Moon. You might spot it around 8:40 pm.

The Moon will move into the umbra at 9:07 pm and this darkening will be almost immediately obvious. By 10:11 pm the lunar orb will be entirely in the umbra and the eclipse will be total. The Moon will be in the southeast. The Moon will be deepest into the umbra at 10:47 pm and will start leaving the umbra at 11:23 pm, ending totality. It will slip completely out of the umbra at 12:27 am Monday morning, and the last subtle penumbral shading will be visible around 12:55 am. At 1:23 am the Moon will be completely out of the penumbra and the eclipse will be over.

As the Moon moves fully into and through the umbra look for color, perhaps red or copper. Also notice the darkness of the eclipsed Moon. The northern part of the Moon is deeper into the umbra, so it will probably look darker.

No special equipment is needed to watch and eclipse. It is lovely by eye. It can be interesting to watch with any modest optical aid too – binoculars or a small, lower power telescope.

If you’d like to join other people and have telescopic views of the eclipse, consider going to miSci for Dudley Observatory’s Night Sky Adventure: Total Lunar Eclipse. There is a modest admission charge.