Category Archives: Observations

Five Planets in View

Five planets adorn the morning sky this week — the same quintet of “wanderers” (Mercury to Saturn) our ancient ancestors recognized as being different from the background stars. Head outside about 45 minutes before sunrise and you will see the solar system objects spread out across approximately 110°.

Start with Jupiter in the southwestern sky, then pick up Mars nearly due south, Saturn climbing in the southeast, brilliant Venus to its lower left, and lastly Mercury hanging low in the twilight. The view of the five improves over the next week or two as Mercury climbs higher and grows brighter.

Bright and Early

By the time morning twilight starts to paint the sky, both Venus and Saturn appear prominent in the southeast. Venus shines brilliantly at magnitude –4.0 — the brightest point of light in the sky.

Although Venus may be brighter, there’s no denying the charms of neighboring Saturn. The ringed planet shines at magnitude 0.5 and lies 15° to Venus’ upper right. When viewed through a telescope, Saturn shows a 16″-diameter disk surrounded by a stunning ring system that spans 36″ and tilts 26° to our line of sight.

The Red Planet has also now brightened considerably since the start of the New Year, shining at magnitude 0.8. Mars’ rapid motion nearly matches the Sun’s pace, so the world rises only about a half-hour earlier at January’s close than it did on New Year’s Day.

Mars was a telescopic dud during 2015 because its diameter never exceeded 5.5″. That starts to change in January because the planet pulls significantly closer to Earth. By month’s end, it appears 6.8″ across and may start to show some subtle surface markings through larger scopes. Conditions will improve quickly this spring as Mars approaches opposition in May, when it will appear bigger and brighter than at any time since 2005.

Mercury approaches Venus as this week progresses. The innermost planet stands 9° high in the southeast a half-hour before sunrise on the 31st, when you can locate it 7° to Venus’ lower left. It shines at magnitude 0.0 and should show up clearly through binoculars. Of academic interest only, Mercury passes 0.5° north of Pluto (invisible in twilight, of course) on the 30th.

The waning gibbous Moon pokes above the eastern horizon around 9 p.m. (CDT) Wednesday, just a few minutes after Jupiter. The planet remains within a few degrees of the Moon from the time they rise until morning twilight is well underway. Shining at magnitude –2.3, Jupiter stands out even in the presence of our satellite, though it grows more conspicuous as the Moon moves over the next several nights. A telescope reveals the gas giant’s 42″-diameter disk and at least two parallel dark belts in its dynamic atmosphere.

The Moon will then pass above the star Spica on Jan. 30, before approaching Mars on Feb. 1 and Saturn on Feb. 3. It sits above both Venus and Mercury on Feb. 6.

The evening sky also hosts the outer two major planets, Uranus and Neptune, which were too faint for our forebears to see.

(This post originally appeared on

Jupiter Mutual Events

Hey folks

Check out!

Jupiters four Galilean satellites continue to perform mutual eclipses and occultation’s among themselves. These events will continue until Jupiter sinsl into the sunset this summer. Jupiter is at opposition in February, so observers in any given part of the world can now see lots of them while Jupiter is well up in a dark sky. Most, howveer, involve only a slight dimming of the satellites’ light however some will cause a complete ‘blinking out’ of a satellite.



It’s dark at Millers Ferry.

Which constellations?

We went camping a weekend ago now at the Millers Ferry Corp of Engineers campground near Camden, Alabama. Its located at 32.11583, -87.38972 and its listed as one of the Clear Sky Clock locations. It is a Bortle scale 2! More info on the Bortle scale can be found here, but to summarize: the scale goes from 1 to 9, with a 1 being the bottom of a coal mine and a 9 being downtown New York City. Again, this place is a Bortle scale 2. You have to drive incredible distances to get a marginal improvement on this. And its right here in Alabama! There are no 1’s but I have found three other dark spots so far here in the Southeast that are also 2’s.  One of them is French Camp, MS. This is the location for the Mid South Star Gaze coming up in a few weeks so think about attending if you haven’t already made plans.

The attached photo was taken there with a simple point and shoot camera attached to a tripod. See if you can tell what the constellations are.

I’ll put together a presentation on this for one of our monthly meetings.


The Thirty-Minute Astronomer Observing After Midnight with the ETX 90RA


It was just too clear last night. Moon or no moon, it was time to do some observing. I set the ETX up in the driveway and began to look about. Transparency and seeing were very good. The moon was getting low in the west and it really was a pretty night. M81 and M82 were high enough to take in. M81 a soft glow with a central core slightly brighter and M82 a ghostly streak almost a degree above M81. No I did not see the “cigar band” on M82. I turned to Gamma Leonis (Algieba) in the mane of Leo. This is an easy split and the stars look yellow to me.

M3 was just out of the trees and tried real hard to resolve but with only 90mm to work with it wasn’t going to happen. Iota Cancri had a hint of color without too much FAV.  M41 was all over the eyepiece and M67 was very much there, despite the moon, and about half the size of the Beehive. At this point I got cold and went in! Went out, saw all this, and was back inside in right at 30 minutes. Not bad.


Great Armchair Astronomer Site

Check out Cloudy Nights ( In  Forums/Announcements and News/Celestial Events there is a monthly post by Dave Mitsky titled “Celestial Calendar”. It gives a great summary of upcoming celestial sights. For example, this month he mentions a double Galilean transit of Jupiter’s Ganymede and Io for tomorrow night. He also notes ” The Curtiss Cross, an X-shaped illumination effect located between the lunar craters Parry and Gambart, is predicted to occur at 2:33″ on January 28th. Neat stuff and fun to ramble through while planning what to observe.


Did see a couple of Quadrantids this morning

I’m still trying to recover from Christmas. I woke up this morning around 3AM and couldn’t go back to sleep and since the sky was clear that meant a little star gazing before work. Transparency around 7 or 8. Didn’t check the seeing. With no moon that meant pretty decent suburban skies. 

I checked email first and commented on Ed’s additions to the website. Ed is starting out the year doing another  excellent job. Thanks Ed! ( We didn’t beat him up too bad for being absent at the Christmas party)

I was looking for M102. Yes, I know some folks don’t acknowledge this but I like to use NGC5866, the Spindle Galaxy, as a substitute. There is another Spindle Galaxy in Sextans (Caldwell 53) whick is also visible this time of year so don’t get them confused. 🙂 I set me XT6 up on the front walk and looked northeast between Draco and Bootes for the small mag 5.2 star HIP73909 in Bootes.  This makes for an easy star hop to M102. There is a small faint 3/4 degree triangular asterism just north of this star. M102 is found just east of the northern most star in this asterism. 

After a minute or so I found a faint but definitely-there-with-direct-vision elongated smudge – M102.

Around 3:30 while I was getting oriented I saw two early Quadrantids. One lasted for 10 to 15 degrees and flared twice nice and bright. The second one lasted about half the distance and was much fainter. Both radiants could be traced to an area between Bootes and Draco, right where the old and defunct constellation of Quadrans Muralis was located.

Not a bad way to start the day.


Solar Activity

Solar activity is low, but it’s not zero. Consider, if you will, the following: On Sept. 5th, Jean-Paul Godard of Paris, France, was watching some prominences gently wave over the edge of the sun when, suddenly, a plasma blob rocketed into view:


The blob does not appear to have escaped the sun. Indeed, it might not have been a blob at all, but rather a plasma wave traveling up a magnetic flux tube–and ‘breaking’ when it reached the top. Whether it was a rocketing blob or breaking wave, it shows that even the quiet sun is worth watching.