The Crown’s Jewels, the First Quarter Moon Meanders through Bright Planets, Jupiter bears Black and Red Spots, and Neptune Kisses a Star!
The Moon and Planets
If last week was the best week for skywatchers worldwide, this is the week for lunatics — the lovers of our natural satellite, Luna! Between now and next Sunday, the moon will March across the evening sky worldwide, waxing in phase and visiting two bright planets. Meanwhile, we have a minor meteor shower underway, and we can enjoy summer constellation sights in evening, autumn ones at midnight, and our winter treats during the pre-dawn hours. Here are your Skylights!
The moon will begin the week as a delicate waxing crescent visible over the western horizon after sunset. Watch for Earthshine — sunlight that has reflected off the seas and white clouds of Earth and is illuminating the unlit portion of the moon’s near side. The bright, white star that you see below the moon (or above it, if you live south of the Equator) on Sunday and Monday evening is Spica, the brightest star in Virgo (the Maiden). Note how the moon moves with respect to that star from one night to the next.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the now healthy crescent moon will pass through the modest stars of Libra (the Scales). The moon never wanders far from the Ecliptic, the imaginary line that traces the sun’s path through the zodiac constellations. So the moon is usually within those familiar constellations, allowing you to see where they are — even after the moon has moved away from them.
Thursday will bring the First Quarter Moon phase — when the angle formed by the sun, Earth, and moon forms a right-angle, causing the moon to appear half-illuminated, on its eastern side. (East and west on the moon are opposite to sky directions on Earth.) First quarter moons always rise around noon time, allowing you to see them in the afternoon. Evenings around first quarter are the best ones for viewing the moon in binoculars and backyard telescopes. The topography along the terminator — the pole-to-pole line that divides the lit and dark halves — is being lit by low-angled sunlight which produces breathtaking vistas of bright mountain peaks and crater rims, and the deep black shadows they cast. Moon phases are shared by everyone around the world.
Thursday night will also begin the moon’s dance with the gas giant planets. Look for the moon in the southwestern sky, and positioned less than four finger widths to the right (or 4 degrees to the celestial northwest) of the bright planet Jupiter. The moon and Jupiter will both fit within the field of view of binoculars. If you watch the pair over several hours, starting at dusk, you will see the moon’s orbit carry it closer to the planet. Look for the bright reddish star Antares “the Rival of Mars” twinkling below the moon. That is the heart of Scorpius (the Scorpion). To the west of Antares, three little white stars in a vertical line and each separated by three finger widths from the next one, represent the critter’s claws. Remember that Jupiter will stay with the scorpion after the moon moves away — all autumn, in fact.
On Friday night, the waxing gibbous (i.e., more than half-full) moon will hop to sit on the east side of Jupiter. Then, on Saturday night, the moon will land immediately above the Teapot-shaped stars of Sagittarius (the Archer), and a palm’s width the right (or celestial west) of Saturn. As with Jupiter, the moon will hop to the other side of Saturn on Sunday night — and the ringed planet will stay near the Teapot for the rest of this year.
Mercury, Venus, and Mars are out of sight — hidden in the sun’s glare, for now. But the two fast inner planets will bring them into view in the evening sky next week.
As the sky begins to darken this week, look for the giant planet Jupiter sitting less than a third of the way up the southwestern sky. Hour by hour, Jupiter will sink lower — then set in the west before midnight local time. Jupiter is spending the rest of this year between Ophiuchus (the Serpent-Bearer) and Scorpius (the Scorpion). Normally a planet becomes harder to see when it reaches the southwestern evening sky. But the earlier sunsets and the planet’s brilliance will keep it in view for some time to come.
On a typical night, even a backyard telescope will show you Jupiter’s two main equatorial stripes and its four Galilean moons — Io, Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede looking like small white dots arranged in a rough line flanking the planet. If you see fewer than four dots, then some of them are in front of Jupiter, or hidden behind it. Good binoculars will show the moons, too!
From time to time, the small, round, black shadows cast onto Jupiter’s surface by those four Galilean moons become visible in amateur telescopes as they cross (or transit) Jupiter’s disk. On Wednesday, September 4 from 9:21 to 11:33 pm EDT, observers in the Americas can watch Io’s shadow transit Jupiter, accompanied by the Great Red Spot!
Due to Jupiter’s rapid 10-hour rotation period, the Great Red Spot (or GRS) is only observable from Earth every 2nd or 3rd night, and only during a predictable three-hour window. The GRS will be easiest to see using a medium-sized, or larger, aperture telescope on an evening of good seeing (steady air). If you’d like to see the Great Red Spot in your telescope, it will be crossing the planet on Monday evening from dusk to 11 pm EDT, on Wednesday from 9:20 to 11:30 pm EDT (accompanied by the Great Red Spot), and on Saturday from dusk until 10 pm EDT.
Yellow-tinted Saturn is prominent in the southern evening sky, too — but it is less bright than Jupiter. The ringed planet will be visible from dusk until about 2 am local time. Saturn’s position in the sky is just to the upper left (or celestial east) of the stars that form the teapot-shaped constellation of Sagittarius (the Archer). To find Saturn, look about 3 fist diameters to the left (east) of Jupiter. The Milky Way is between them.
Dust off your telescope! Once the sky is dark, even a small telescope will show Saturn’s rings and several of its brighter moons, especially Titan! Because Saturn’s axis of rotation is tipped about 27° from vertical (a bit more than Earth’s axis), we can see the top surface of its rings, and its moons can arrange themselves above, below, or to either side of the planet. During this week, Titan will migrate counter-clockwise around Saturn, moving from the upper left of Saturn tonight (Sunday) to below the planet next Sunday. (Remember that your telescope will flip the view around.)
Tiny, blue Neptune will rise at dusk this week, and then it will climb the eastern sky until it reaches its highest point, due south, at about 1:30 am local time. The planet is among the stars of Aquarius (the Water-Bearer). Recently, Neptune has been sitting just to the left (celestial east) of a medium-bright star named Phi (φ) Aquarii. Neptune is actually moving slowly toward that star and will “kiss” it on Thursday and Friday nights this week, helping you to find the dim planet!
Astronomers call such an event a conjunction. Being so close together, both the star and Neptune will appear together in the field of view of a telescope. But blue Neptune’s light has been travelling for 4 hours to reach your eye, while the warmly-tinted light of Phi Aquarii has been journeying for 202 years! After this weekend, the distance between the two objects will increase due to Neptune’s eastward orbital motion.
Blue-green Uranus will be rising in the east just before 10 pm local time this week; and it will remain visible all night long. Uranus is sitting below (celestial south of) the stars of Aries (the Ram) and is just a palm’s width above the head of Cetus (the Whale). At magnitude 5.8, Uranus is actually bright enough to see in binoculars and small telescopes, under dark skies — and it really does look blue! You can use the three modest stars that form the top of the head of the whale (or sea-monster in some tales) to locate Uranus for months to come — that’s because that distant planet moves so slowly in its orbit.
Aurigids Meteor Shower
A minor meteor shower named the Aurigids is underway. It peaks today (Sunday) and ends next weekend. Look for several of these meteors per hour. They’ll be moving away from the northeastern horizon, where the constellation that gives them their name, Auriga (the Charioteer), rises in late evening.
The Northern Crown is in the West
Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown) can be spotted halfway up the western evening sky in early September. The constellation actually sits about midway along the imaginary line that joins the two bright stars Vega and Arcturus. The earlier autumn sunsets extend our opportunity to explore Corona Borealis. This incomplete circlet of medium-bright stars is roughly 7 degrees across (a generous palm’s width). It is both a constellation and an asterism (an informal star pattern). Corona Borealis’ brightest star Alphecca is a white, A-class star located 75 light-years from the sun. Alphecca’s placement in the constellation is reminiscent of a diamond in a ring. The star’s name derives from the Arabic expression for “broken”, referring to the incomplete ring.
While the Northern Crown is poor in deep sky objects, it contains several interesting jewels — double and variable stars. Alphecca itself is an eclipsing binary system that varies in brightness by a tiny amount every 17.36 days, similar to the behavior of the star Algol in Perseus (the Hero). Eruptive variable stars are named for R Coronae Borealis, which is located about three finger widths above (or 3.5 degrees to the celestial northeast of) Alphecca. R Corona Borealis is a hydrogen-deficient and carbon-rich supergiant star. From time to time, it’s usual visual magnitude of 5.8 drops to as little as magnitude 14, possibly due to the formation of opaque carbon dust that blocks visible light, but passes infrared wavelengths. Another star named S Coronae Borealis exhibits the same range of variability, but with a 360-day period. The Blaze Star (T Coronae Borealis) is a cataclysmic variable star, also called a recurrent nova-type. Normally shining between visual magnitude 10.2 and 9.9, on rare occasions it has brightened to magnitude 2 in a period of hours, caused by a nuclear chain reaction and the subsequent explosion.
Astronomy Skylights for the week of September 1st, 2019 by Chris Vaughan.
Keep looking up, and enjoy the sky when you do. I love questions and requests — so, send me some!