Adrian Dening's
Stars Over Somerset

 

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My weekly articles about what can be seen in the night sky over Somerset are broadcast every Thursday to Sunday at various times, on Yeovil's local community radio station Radio Ninesprings.
 
 
Since 2022, Greg Perkins has been broadcasting the articles on Apple FM in Taunton.
 
 
BBC Somerset also transmits Stars Over Somerset on Luke Knight's Friday evening show.
 
 
Please click on the link below to hear the interview that I gave BBC Somerset:
 
Adrian Dening & Luke Knight Interview MP3
 

 

 

Monday 26th February to Sunday 3rd March 2024
 

How about a bit of asteroid hunting?  On the evening of Saturday 2nd March at around 8pm, the constellation of Leo will be located towards the east.  Just below Leo will be the minor planet or asteroid known as Juno.  You will need a telescope to find it as the magnitude is currently around +8.6 making it invisible to the naked eye.

 
 
 

Juno was first discovered in 1804 and was actually only the third asteroid ever identified.  Officially, its correct full name is "3 Juno" as a result.  Initially it was classed as another regular planet, but in the 1850s Juno was downgraded to the status of being a minor planet or big asteroid!

 

Juno is actually the tenth largest asteroid, with a diameter of approximately 250Km.  Being part of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, its orbital period (or the length of time it takes to go around the Sun) is 4.3 times longer than ours.  The Earth's orbital period is 365 1/4 days, but a year is rounded down to 365 days to keep it simple.  What do we do with the missing quarter days.....every four years we add one extra day, 29th February and call it a leap year.

 

I have provided a star chart to help you try and locate Juno above together with an image of it below captured by the Very Large Telescope / Sphere Team at the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

 
 

Alternatively, a much easier target will be a Last Quarter Moon which at 5am on Sunday 3rd March will be located towards the south, with the red giant star Antares to the left of it.

 

 

 

Monday 19th to Sunday 25th February 2024
 

How about a bit of observing during daylight hours?  Around 4pm on Monday 19th, a 79%-lit Waxing Gibbous Moon will be located towards the east and it should be visible even though the Sun will have not yet set below the horizon.

 
 
Just before 4pm that day is the optimum time to spot the Clair-Obscur visual effect known as the "Jewelled Handle" on the Moon's surface.
 
 

In the art world, the technique known as "Chiaroscuro" refers to the use of strong contrasts between light and dark and the technique is often associated with the Renaissance Period, being employed by artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt.

 

In the astronomy world, the French translation of "Clair-Obscur" refers to extreme contrasts on the lunar surface where sunlight falling on the landscape produces obvious shapes at certain times of the month, when the Moon is in a particular phase and light from the Sun is hitting it at a specific angle.

 
Sticking with the daylight theme, if you look towards the south east around 7am on Thursday 22nd, it should be possible to observe a magnitude -3.8 planet Venus just above the horizon.  At the same time, a magnitude +1.3 Mars will be just below and to the right of it.  This will be quite a challenge, but please don't be tempted to use a telescope or binoculars though, as the Sun will be in the process of rising beside them!
 
 

 

 

Monday 12th to Sunday 18th February 2024
 

If you venture outside around 7pm on Wednesday 14th and look towards the south west, Jupiter will be very easy to spot at a magnitude of -2.1, with a waxing Crescent Moon a little to the right of it.  Turning your gaze to the left and looking south, you will be greeted by the constellation of Orion.  Half way between Orion and Jupiter (and slightly higher in the sky) is the Pleiades open cluster of stars.  To the left of Orion and slightly lower will be the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius.

 
 

If you go out again at the same time the following evening, on Thursday 15th, you will have pretty-much the same view except that the Moon will be a little above and to the left of Jupiter.  This is because the Moon is very close to us compared to everything else and it is orbiting around the Earth a quite a speed!  Our natural satellite is actually travelling at 2288 miles per hour and at that speed, it takes just over 27 days to go around us, travelling just under one and a half million miles while it does so!

 

At the same time on Thursday 15th, planet Uranus will be located just to the left of the Moon.  It only has a magnitude of around +5.8 so you would really need binoculars or a small telescope to stand any chance of spotting it.

 
 

Finally, around half past midnight in the early morning of Saturday 17th is the optimum time to spot the Clair-Obscur visual effect known as the Lunar X and Y on the Moon's surface with your telescope.  The Moon will be setting towards the west, with the Pleiades just to the right of it and the red giant star Aldebaran to the left.

 
 

 

 

Monday 5th to Sunday 11th February 2024
 

How about a couple of observing challenges?  If you are outside and look towards the south east at around 7am on Wednesday 7th, you will see a magnitude -3.9 planet Venus.  Well that's not much of a challenge as a magnitude of that level is very bright.

 
 

At the same time, just to the right of Venus, a very thin 10%-lit Waning Crescent Moon will have just risen above the horizon.  Now that is more of a challenge, but we're not finished yet..........

 

Around that time, the Chinese space station "Tiangong" will be visible.  It appears over the west horizon at 7.05am.  The space station doesn't climb very high in the sky and by 7.10am it will have passed just above Venus in the south east.  At 7.12am it disappears below the horizon to the east south east.

 
 

Tiangong will have a brightest magnitude of around +1.4 as it passes above Venus so should be visible with the naked eye.  It will look like a star that is silently moving.  Please don't be tempted to use binoculars to follow its progress though, as it dips below the horizon in exactly the same spot as the Sun will be rising!

 

Tiangong is known as a 3rd Generation space station, meaning that it has modular construction, like the International Space Station and it was built in three stages between 2021 and 2022.  It currently has a crew of three astronauts on board.  The name translates to mean "Sky Palace" and its inhabitants conduct scientific experiments with the mission being controlled from Beijing.

 

 

 

Monday 29th January to Sunday 4th February 2024
 

It's a bit quiet on the astronomy front next week, with nothing particularly remarkable to see, but of course there are always plenty of regular targets to spot.  Probably the most obvious are the various constellations of stars.

 

Now what exactly is a constellation?  A constellation is defined as an area of the sky that contains visible stars forming a perceived pattern or shape.  They date back to early mythology with different countries and cultures inventing their own.

 

Probably one of the most obvious is the constellation of Orion that is very easy to identify at this time of year.  If you venture outside around 7pm, Orion will be located towards the south east, with the constellation of Gemini to the left of it and Taurus above.

 
 

In Greek mythology, Orion is "The Hunter".  In contrast, Indian culture considered the constellation to represent Nataraja, "The Cosmic Dancer" and some European cultures it is referred to as an "Archer".

 
 

To solve all this confusion, back in 1922 the International Astronomical Union formally accepted 88 different constellations.

 

Astronomers also talk about "asterisms" and these are just small patterns of stars that look like particular shapes.  They might be located within a constellation.  For example, the "belt" of Orion with the stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka is considered to be an asterism, as is the "Sword of Orion" that hangs below the belt with the Great Orion Nebula M42 contained within it.

 

 

 

Monday 22nd to Sunday 28th January 2024
 

On the evening of Thursday 25th we have our first Full Moon of 2024.  If you venture outside around 8pm, the Moon will be located towards the east, with the constellation of Orion to the south east.  Below Orion will be the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, that I talked about the other week.

 
 

This first Full Moon of the year is also known as a Wolf Moon, the name dating back to medieval times when it was thought that wolves howl at the full Moon.  Funnily enough, there is some truth to the myth as when wolves howl to mark their territory, they look towards the night sky so that their heads are tilted upwards and the sound travels further!

 

Remember I am always warning about catching an accidental glimpse of the Sun in a telescope because it is very bright with a magnitude of around -26.0 and this would cause instant blindness.  Well the Full Moon is a pretty bright target too - it has a magnitude of about -13.0 which is not enough to cause permanent damage, but it can be uncomfortable.  Most astronomers will use something called a Neutral Density Filter in front of their eyepiece to make everything dimmer, but this only works for the Moon - a Neutral Density Filter is definitely NOT good enough to observe the Sun!

 

Planet Mars hasn't received much of a mention recently.  Well if you are up at daybreak on Sunday 28th and look towards the south east around 7am, a magnitude -0.2 Mercury will have just risen above the horizon, with a magnitude +1.3 Mars just to the right of it.  Venus will be further to the right and higher up.  Please don't risk using that telescope, because the Sun will be rising directly behind them!

 

 

 

Monday 15th to Sunday 21st January 2024
 

On the evening of Monday 15th, the gas giant planet Neptune reaches conjunction with the Moon, when the two appear closest together.

 

Look towards the south west around 6pm and you will see a 24%-lit Waxing Crescent Moon.  To find Neptune, you will need a telescope because the planet currently only has a magnitude of around +8.0    Aim your telescope just a little above the Moon. 

 
 

At the same time, a much brighter target will be Saturn, located below and to the right of the Moon.  The planet itself is obvious to the naked eye, but if you point your telescope in that direction, you should be able to see the stunning rings of dust and you could have a go at trying to identify some of Saturn's numerous moons.

 
 

On the evening of Friday 19th, it's the turn of Uranus to be in conjunction with the Moon.  Look towards the south at 6pm to find a 67%-lit Waxing Gibbous Moon.  Uranus will be just below it and as the planet will only have a magnitude of around +6.0, it's telescope time again!

 
 

Easier targets to find that evening will be Jupiter sitting to the right of the Moon and the Pleiades open cluster of stars to the left of the Moon.

 

Finally, the early hours of Sunday morning 21st, say around 1.30am, is an optimum time to spot the Clair-Obscur effect known as "The Jewelled Handle" on the lunar surface.  At that time, the Moon will be located towards the west and I have provided a diagram at starsoversomerset.com to help you find the visual effect.

 

 

 

Monday 8th to Sunday 14th January 2024
 

At daybreak on the morning of Tuesday 9th there is the chance to see Mercury and Venus forming a triangle with a dimly-lit 6% Crescent Moon.  Look towards the south east around 7am.

 
 

Mercury will be shining at a magnitude of around -0.1 while above and to right of it, Venus will be easy to find with a magnitude of -3.9

 

To the right and lower than Mercury, a hard-to-spot Moon will have just risen above the horizon.  Further again to the right will be one of the brighter stars in the night sky - the red supergiant Antares.

 

The star is about twelve times the mass of our own Sun and is so large that if it was placed at the centre of our Solar System, the star would swallow up everything out to as far as Jupiter!

 

I'll repeat my usual warning about using a telescope or binoculars for this observing opportunity.  The Sun will be rising in the same direction and you must never risk catching even the briefest glimpse of it in any optical instrument because it would cause instant and permanent blindness!

 

If you would like to learn more about the night sky, I'm holding the next of my talks at the Ham Hill Visitor Centre on the evening of Friday 26th January.  Booking is via the Visit South Somerset website and I have provided a direct link to the booking page below:

 

 

 

Monday 1st to Sunday 7th January 2024
 

I would like to take the opportunity to wish everyone a prosperous New Year.  Now I'm not going to suggest going out stargazing on New Year's Eve, but it you venture outside the following evening on New Year's Day, say around 11pm, there will be several interesting things to see.

 

Look towards the south and you will be facing the constellation of Orion.  At the same time, planet Jupiter will be located towards the south west, with the constellation of Taurus and the Pleiades open cluster of stars halfway between Orion and Jupiter.

 
 

Turn your gaze a little down and to the left of Orion and you will see the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius.  Sirius is part of the constellation Canis Major and it shines at a magnitude of -1.46 so no telescope needed!

 

The star is also one of the closest to us, being only 8 light years away.  Sirius is actually a binary star system, but its white dwarf companion known as Sirius B is hard to see with a magnitude of +8.44

 

The main star, Sirius A, is about twice the size of our Sun while Sirius B is around the size of the Earth. 

 

The Egyptians used the rising of Sirius above the horizon in the east just before dawn to indicate the annual flooding of the Nile mid-July.  The ancient Greeks observed that the appearance of Sirius as the morning star heralded the not and dry summer and feared that the star caused "plants to wilt and me to weaken"!

 

 

Monday 25th to Sunday 31st December 2023
 

Firstly, some very exciting news for Christmas morning.  I have seen Father Christmas' flight schedule for Christmas Day and if you are up around 7am to open those presents, it should be possible to see his sleigh passing overhead.

 

Look towards the west at 7.25am and you will see the sleigh appear as a pinpoint of light, like a star that is moving.  Because he is travelling so fast, it will only take about six minutes for him to pass almost directly overhead, before disappearing to the east on his way home.  It won't be possible to see the individual reindeer though, as they are too small to show up even in the most powerful telescope.

 

When the pass has finished, turn your gaze back towards the south east to see planet Venus shining very brightly, a bit like the Christmas "Star of Bethlehem".

 
 

It will be daylight shortly afterwards, so please don't risk aiming a telescope or binoculars at the planet as you must never risk accidentally catching even a glimpse of the rising Sun through an eyepiece.

 

If you are desperate to use that telescope you received for Christmas, wait until the evening of 27th and aim it towards the east from around 7pm where there will be a bright Full Moon to observe, with the constellation of Orion that contains the red giant star Betelgeuse to the right of it.

 

 

 

Monday 18th to Sunday 24th December 2023
 

If you stay up late on the evening of Tuesday 19th, Ganymede which is Jupiter's largest moon, will be occulted or hidden by the planet.  Look towards the south west at 11.30pm and Ganymede will be just starting to disappear.  It reappears again at around 1.15am on the Wednesday morning.

 
 

Friday 22nd is the winter solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere.  This is when the Earth's north pole is at its maximum tilt away from the Sun, resulting in the shortest period of daylight hours and the Sun will be at its lowest maximum elevation above the horizon at midday.

 

If you venture outside just after midnight on the morning of Sunday 24th and look south west, there are several objects to see with the naked eye.  There will be a 91%-lit Waxing Gibbous Moon with the Pleiades open cluster of stars above it and Jupiter below, forming a straight line.  To the left of the line will be the bright red giant star Aldebaran.  Further left again you will find the constellation of Orion with the red giant Betelgeuse.  Keep going left and almost due south will be the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius.

 
 

The original Christmas "Star of Bethlehem" has been the subject of much debate over the centuries - some people believe it was a massive supernova where a star explodes, others think it was a comet and there are several theories about it actually being a close conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn that created the visual "star" effect!

 

On that note, I would like to wish everyone a peaceful Christmas and the clearest of skies for the coming year.

 

 

 

Monday 11th to Sunday 17th December 2023
 

I'll start next week's report with the evening of Tuesday 12th, when it is the turn of Ganymede to be occulted by Jupiter.  If you look towards the south east at 8pm, the Galilean moon will be just about to disappear behind the planet.

 
 

Moving on to the night of Thursday 14th into the early hours of Friday morning 15th, we have the peak of the annual Geminids meteor shower.  Around midnight, the constellation of Gemini will be located towards the south east with the familiar shape of the "Twins" looking as if one is above the other.  The radiant point of the shower, where the meteors seem to originate from, will be a little above the bright star Castor which marks the head of the top twin.

 
 

Staying with the astronomical theme of observing objects appearing to be on top of one another, at 7.30pm on Sunday 17th, a 27%-lit Waxing Crescent Moon will be sitting just below a magnitude +0.8 Saturn if you look towards the south west.

 
 

An hour and a half later, at 9pm, the Galilean moon Callisto will be directly below Jupiter's south pole if you turn your telescope towards the south.  You should be able to see all four of the Galilean moons simultaneously, forming a line stretching away from the planet.

 
 

If you try doing that, be careful as you will be making the same observation that Galileo did back in 1610, when he realised that our Solar System was "Heliocentric" with the Sun in the middle - an observation that found him to be "vehemently suspect of heresy" and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life!

 

 

Monday 4th to Sunday 10th December 2023
 

I've spoken several times recently about "transits" where one of Jupiter's moons passes in front of the planet, casting a shadow.  On the evening of Thursday 7th there is an opportunity to see the opposite effect - an "occultation" where a moon passes behind the planet and is obscured from our view.

 
Approaching 9pm, Jupiter will be located towards the south, with the constellation of Orion to the left of it and Saturn low on the horizon to the right.
 
 
At 9pm, the Galilean moon Io will be just starting to disappear behind the gas giant.
 
 

It will reappear again from behind the other side of Jupiter just after midnight.

 
 

If you would prefer an early morning, a little before daybreak, say around 6am on Saturday 9th, a 14%-lit Waning Crescent Moon will be visible towards the south east, with Venus just to the left of it, shining very brightly at a magnitude of -4.0 so an excellent chance to observe it.

 
 

Remember that the magnitude scale works back-to-front, so the more negative the figure, the brighter an object appears.  With the naked eye from a dark location, you can see down to a magnitude of +6.0 and anything fainter than that needs binoculars or a telescope.  The brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, has a magnitude of around -1.4 so it is very easy to see.  To put that into perspective, our Sun (which doesn't really count because you don't see it in the NIGHT sky) would have a magnitude of -26.  That's why you NEVER try looking at it through a telescope!

 

 

 

Monday 27th November to Sunday 3rd December 2023
 

It's a fairly quiet time for astronomical events during the coming week, so I'm going to take the opportunity to talk about something that has been in the news a lot lately - the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis.

 

We all know that the Sun gives off loads of light, but it radiates other energy as well, including the Solar Wind that is a plasma stream of electrons and protons originating from the upper atmosphere of the Sun, an area known as the Corona.  This stream can be travelling at up to 750Km per second.

 

The Earth has a magnetic field around it known as the Magnetosphere.  When the Solar Wind hits our Magnetosphere, the wind creates disturbances in it and the resulting ionisation creates the amazing light that you see.

 
 

Magnetosphere diagram courtesy of Wikipedia

 

The disturbance is concentrated around the poles, so the visual effect is normally seen in the polar regions, but when the aurora is super strong, it can reach further down and we have a chance to observe it here in the south west of England.  Auroras around the North Pole are known as the Aurora Borealis, but there is also an Aurora Australis around the South Pole.

 
 
Aurora image courtesy of Wikipedia
 

On a totally different subject, my astronomy talk and star party at the Ham Hill Visitor Centre in December sold out very quickly, so I have agreed two more dates for the New Year.  The dates for your diary are Friday 26th January and Friday 8th March.  Booking is via the Visit South Somerset website, accessible by clicking on the images below:

 

 

Monday 20th to Sunday 26th November 2023
 

How about seeing two things at once?  Well there are a couple of opportunities to do that next week without having to stay up late.

 

Firstly, during the evening of Monday 20th, a First Quarter Moon will make a great target for your binoculars or telescope with Saturn just above and to the right of it.  If you venture outside around 6pm, the pair will be located towards the south.

 
 

By 11pm they will appear to have moved across the sky and will be disappearing below the horizon towards the south west.

 

Go outside at 6pm on Saturday 25th instead and an almost Full Moon will be located towards the east, with Jupiter just to the right of it.

 
 

The actual Full Moon occurs a couple of days later and this period is not the best for observing faint deep sky objects because a Full Moon is the ultimate source of light pollution!  The whole of November is brilliant for studying Jupiter though as it reaches a nice high elevation in the sky and is visible for most of the night, so if you can't sleep and feel the urge to whip out your telescope at 2am, the gas giant will still be there waiting for you!

 

Finally, there is one good opportunity to observe the International Space Station passing silently overhead on the early evening of Wednesday 22nd.  It will appear above the horizon to the west at 5.57pm and will be visible for five minutes before disappearing towards the east.  Sunlight reflecting off the ISS solar panels make it look like a bright star, except that it doesn't twinkle and it's moving!

 

 

Monday 13th to Sunday 19th November 2023
 

On Monday 13th, planet Uranus reaches opposition when it will be shining at its brightest.  With a magnitude of around +5.6 it could just be seen with the naked eye from a very dark location that has zero light pollution.

 

If you look towards the east around 6pm, Jupiter will be easy to spot due east, with the Pleiades open cluster of stars to the left of it.  Uranus will be located half way between the two.

 
 

It may be difficult to identify the planet amongst the background stars, so I have provided a star chart to help you select the correct pinpoint of light!

 
 

The early morning of Saturday 18th sees the peak of the Leonids meteor shower, so named because the radiant point where the meteors appear to originate from is near the head of the lion in the constellation of Leo.

 

From 1am on the Saturday morning, Leo will have risen above the horizon towards the east.

 
 

By 4am, Leo will have moved towards the south east and a very bright planet Venus will be rising towards the east with the constellation of Virgo as its backdrop.

 
 

At its peak, the Leonids meteor shower can produce up to 12 shooting stars per hour which are debris left by comet Tempel-Tuttle entering the Earth's atmosphere at speeds of up to 70 km/s.

 

 

Monday 6th to Sunday 12th November 2023
 

It looks like next week is going to be "Jupiter Week" as there are several things to spot with your telescope on what is the largest planet in our Solar System.....that's if the weather plays ball!

 

Firstly, from 10.20pm on the evening of Monday 6th, the Galilean moon Io transits the gas giant planet.  Underneath Io itself, you may be able to see the shadow that it casts on Jupiter's surface.  Around that time, Jupiter will be nicely placed towards the south east and very easy to spot because it is so bright.

 
 
 

Then from around 6pm on Friday 10th it is Ganymede's turn to transit the planet.  Because it is earlier in the evening, Jupiter will be located more to the east.

 
 
 

The transit will be finished by 7.45pm so then you could turn your telescope southwards to take a look at Saturn's rings.

 

Finally, Saturday 11th around 8.45pm is an optimum time to observe the Great Red Spot on Jupiter's surface.  Again, Jupiter will be easy to spot towards the south east, a little to the right of the Pleiades open cluster of stars.

 
 

The Great Red Spot is actually a storm in Jupiter's atmosphere that has been blowing for over 350 years with wind speeds up to 270 miles per hour.  It is about the same size as the whole of our Earth and appears to rotate around Jupiter every ten hours.  And you thought we had it bad!

 
 

Great Red Spot - Earth Comparison image courtesy of Wikipedia

 

 

Monday 30th October to Sunday 5th November 2023
 

On Friday 3rd Jupiter reaches opposition, when it will be at its brightest and shining at an impressive magnitude of around -2.8

 

By 6pm the planet will have risen above the horizon to the east and if you look to the left of Jupiter you will find the Pleiades open cluster of stars.

 
 

Aiming a telescope at Jupiter will reveal all four of its Galilean moons.  Sometimes you won't see all four of them, if one is hidden from view as it passes behind the planet.

 
 

Turn your telescope towards the south east and you will find Saturn with its dust rings.

 
 

You could even try to identify some of Saturn's numerous moons.

 
 

If instead you venture outside around 11pm on Saturday 4th, a 53%-lit waning Gibbous Moon will have risen above the horizon to the east.

 
 

Just to the right of the Moon will be the Beehive open cluster of stars, also known as M44 in the Charles Messier catalogue.  M44 is one of the closest clusters to us and it comprises around 1000 stars.  To the naked eye it will resemble a fuzzy blob, but it may be difficult to see at all without a telescope because of light pollution from the nearby Moon.

 

 

 

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Screenshots courtesy of Stellarium

 

Copyright Adrian Dening and Radio Ninesprings 2024

 

To enquire about local astronomy talks and star parties
please contact Adrian Dening
 
07545 641068
info@starsoversomerset.com

 

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