In September, your binoculars will reveal the rusty surface of Mars, iconic rings of Saturn, the waxing Moon—and the comet Giacobini-Zinner, which passes through the constellation of Auriga.
Find out more about what you can see from your backyard, front stoop, or local park by viewing this monthly program. “Tonight’s Sky” is produced by HubbleSite.org, online home of the Hubble Space Telescope.
This November 24, the planet Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation of 22.0 degrees from the Sun. This is the best time to view Mercury since it will be at its highest point above the horizon in the evening sky. Look for the planet low in the western sky just after sunset.
This November 13, a spectacular conjunction of Venus and Jupiter will be visible in the evening sky. The two bright planets will be extremely close, appearing only 0.3 degrees apart. Look for this impressive pairing in the Eastern sky just before sunrise.
The Taurids is a long-running minor meteor shower producing only about 5-10 meteors per hour. It is unusual in that it consists of two separate streams. The first is produced by dust grains left behind by Asteroid 2004 TG10. The second stream is produced by debris left behind by Comet 2P Encke. The shower runs annually from September 7 to December 10. It peaks this year on the the night of November 4. Unfortunately the glare from the full moon will block out all but the brightest meteors. If you are extremely patient, you may still be able to catch a few good ones. Best viewing will be just after midnight from a dark location far away from city lights. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Taurus, but can appear anywhere in the sky.
This January 19th, the planet Mercury reaches its greatest western elongation of 24.1 degrees from the Sun. This is the best time to view Mercury since it will be at its highest point above the horizon in the morning sky. Look for the planet low in the eastern sky just before sunrise.
The Ursids is a minor meteor shower producing about 5-10 meteors per hour. It is produced by dust grains left behind by comet Tuttle, which was first discovered in 1790. The shower runs annually from December 17-25. It peaks this year on the night of the 21st and morning of the 22nd.
The second quarter moon will block many of the fainter meteors but if you are patient, you might still be able to catch a few of the brighter ones. Best viewing will be just after midnight from a dark location far away from city lights. The Meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Ursa Minor, but can appear anywhere in the sky.
December 14th will bring the third and last of what is known as the “supermoon.” The Moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun and its face will be will be fully illuminated. This full moon was known by early Native American tribes as the Full Cold Moon because this is the time of year when the cold winter air settles in and the nights become long and dark.
The third supermoon has also been known as the Full Long Nights Moon and the Moon Before Yule. This Moon will be at its closest approach to the Earth and may look slightly larger and brighter than usual.
Orion, the hunter, is one of the most popular constellations in the night sky; so you may have already seen him this winter or in late fall. Throughout the year, no matter the season, when I am in schools with our Discovery Dome portable planetarium someone often asks me to point out Orion. The mighty hunter is also one of the largest and easiest constellations to find. Most people find it by locating the three stars that make up Orion’s “belt” which is an asterism or recognizable group of stars that are part of a constellation. The names of the three stars that make up Orion’s belt are Alnitak, Alnilam and Minatka. One of the brightest stars in the sky is on Orion’s right shoulder. It’s called Betelgeuse.
Orion’s belt is the only group of three stars that are spaced so evenly making them very easy to recognize. Once you have found the belt, the hunter easily pops into view especially when it is right overhead during the cold evenings of winter.
Besides being easy to spot, the constellation Orion is also where you will find one of the most beautiful objects in the night sky, the Orion Nebula. Count down to the third bright object in Orion’s sword and you will find not a star but the Orion Nebula. With binoculars focused on this object, you will find many stars rather than one.
So the next time you look for Orion in the night sky be sure to also take a look at the third object in his sword for the giant cloud of gas and dust that makes up this birthplace or stars and solar systems.
The Orion Nebula from the Hubble Space Telescope.
The Geminid Meteor shower occurs each December, and this year we can expect to see up to 50 meteors each hour. Check out this awesome timelapse that I wish I could say I did, but someone else made it…. This timelapse was taken of the Geminids last year over the Pacific Coast.
Meteor showers are caused when Earth passes through the orbital path of a comet, the debris left behind by the comet falls into Earth’s atmosphere creating many shooting stars. The Geminid shower is different. Scientists have determined that this shower occurs when Earth passes through a debris field of an asteroid. This asteroid is called 3200 Phaethon. Observations show that this object is strange indeed, and sometimes behaves similar to a comet. Its orbit brings it in close to the Sun, and then back out again. Jets of dust and gas have been seen spewing from the asteroid at times. Tiny pieces of dust and rock are left behind by 3200 Phaethon as it travels through space, and these cause the Geminid Meteor Shower. The tiny arrows in the image below point to 3200 Phaethon, this image was created by combining multiple images over the span of 20 minutes to show the asteroid’s movement relative to the background stars.
Meteor showers are named for constellation that their radiant lies in. The radiant is the point from which the meteors appear to radiate from in the sky. The constellation Gemini will rise above the horizon around 9 PM Central Time tonight (December 13th). It will be nearly overhead around 2 AM. This year the moon will also be visible in the sky, which will make it more difficult to see the fainter meteors.
While Baton Rouge forecasts are saying rain throughout this evening, some reports indicate that the sky will clear a bit after midnight. Incidentally this is the best time to go out and find meteors! Meteor watching requires patience and sharp eyes, each year the number of meteors changes. Happy viewing!
The connected Zarya and Unity modules after Unity was released from the Space Shuttle Endeavor’s cargo bay.
Fifteen years ago on Nov. 20, 1998, the Roscosmos (the former Russian Space Agency) launched a Proton rocket that sent the Zarya module into space. This was the first section of the International Space Station. Two weeks later on Dec. 4, the United States launched the Unity module making the 2 modules a real international space station.
The ISS is now the third brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon. If you know where and when to look you can easily see it without a telescope, and NASA’s Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston can tell you when and where. Log onto Nasa.gov to receive e-mail or text alerts a few hours before the ISS will be passing over your area. If you sign up soon you might even be able to spot it while “comet hunting” during the Thanksgiving holiday.