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.
 
BBC Somerset also transmit the articles 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 6th to Sunday 12th February 2023
 

Through January, I made several mentions of comet C/2022 E3 ZTF and it can still be seen at the beginning of February.  The comet will have a magnitude of around +6.0 so you will need binoculars or a small telescope.

 

It can be quite challenging to locate the comet, but if you venture outside around 1am on Saturday 11th and find planet Mars in the west, the comet will be a little above and to the left of the planet.  If you venture outside the following night, at 1am on Sunday 12th, the comet will then appear a little below and to the left of Mars.

 

Do you remember the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission that was unable to land in the Fra Mauro Highlands on the Moon because their Oxygen tank exploded en route?  Later, Apollo 14 landed there instead and the rock samples they took indicated that the area was hit by a meteorite over 4.5 billion years ago.

 

Well the early hours of Sunday 12th is an ideal opportunity for you to take a look at the crater Fra Mauro and the surrounding highlands yourself.  After you have finished trying to see the comet, turn your gaze towards the south east, where by 1am a Quarter Moon will have risen above the horizon.

 
 

If you imagine the surface of the Moon as a clock face, the Fra Mauro region is towards what would be the 7 o'clock position, a little down and left of centre.

 
 
 
Fra Mauro images courtesy of astronomer Andrew Planck

 

 

Monday 30th January to Sunday 5th February 2023
 

If you stay up late past midnight, into the early hours of Monday morning 30th, there are several things to see looking towards the west.  At 1am a 64%-lit Gibbous Moon will be about to set below the horizon and a little above it will be the Pleiades open cluster of stars.

 
 

Above and a little to the left of the Pleiades you will find planet Mars shining quite brightly at a magnitude of around -0.3 and to the left of Mars, the bright star Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus.  Further left again is the constellation of Orion with its red giant star Betelgeuse at the top and the much younger and hotter star Rigel towards the bottom.

 

Draw an imaginary line to the left of Orion's belt and you will come across the brightest star in the night sky - Sirius.

 

If late night observing isn't your thing and you prefer an early start, at daybreak on Monday 30th, planet Mercury will be at its greatest western elongation or in other words, it's furthest separation (about 25 degrees) from the rising Sun.  If you go outside just before 7am, Mercury will be rising above the horizon towards the south east.

 
 

The planet will easily be visible to the naked eye, so please don't be tempted to use binoculars or a telescope to obtain a better view - the Sun will be appearing very shortly afterwards and you must never risk catching even a split-second glimpse of the Sun through any optical instrument.

 

 

Monday 23rd to Sunday 29th January 2023
 

Just after sunset on Monday 23rd, there is an opportunity to see Venus and Saturn close together, just before they set below the horizon.  They will be joined by a very thin 5%-lit Crescent Moon to the left of them.  Around 6pm, the trio will be located towards the south west.

 
 

Two days later, on the evening of Wednesday 25th, the Moon will be close to Jupiter if you look south west, again around 6pm.  By then the Crescent Moon will be 21%-lit.

 
 

Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF will be getting brighter throughout this coming week.  On Friday 27th it will appear close to the star Kochab in the constellation of Ursa Minor and by Sunday 29th it will be nearer Polaris, the Pole Star, with its brightness increasing to around +4.9 

 
 
 
Comet diagrams courtesy of Pete Lawrence and Sky At Night Magazine
 

I am delivering one of my astronomy lectures at the Ham Hill Visitor Centre on the Friday evening and if skies are clear, we will be venturing outside afterwards for a little star party.  In addition to observing usual favourites like the Andromeda Galaxy, Pleiades open cluster of stars and the Great Orion Nebula, we will have a go at hunting down the comet ourselves.

 

If you would like to attend the event, booking is through the visitsouthsomerset.com website: 

 
www.visitsouthsomerset.com
 
I will be holding another event at the Centre on Friday 17th February, although by then the comet will be out of view so we will go exploring other targets that evening.

 

 

Monday 16th to Sunday 22nd January 2023
 

Last week I mentioned the Moon's "libration" or wobble as it orbits around the Earth every 27 days.  It means that at certain times, different bits of the surface are tilted a little more towards us.

 

On Wednesday 18th, the western edge of the Moon is slightly more visible and this is a great chance to spot the Mare Orientale.  Mare are large dark basaltic plains and early astronomers thought that they were actually seas, hence the Latin name for them.  Mare Orientale resembles a large "bullseye" and it is normally hard to see as it's on the edge between the nearside and darkside of the Moon.

 

If you're an early riser, at around 6am on 18th, a Crescent Moon will be close to the horizon towards the south east.  I have provided a diagram below to help you locate the Mare together with a photograph of it that was taken by NASA's Lunar Orbiter 4 probe back in 1967.

 
 
 

If early mornings are not your thing, then you could go outside at 6pm on Sunday 22nd and look towards the south west horizon.  Venus and Saturn will appear to be very close together just before they set.  Venus will be the lower of the two pinpoints of light.

 
 

If you're tempted to use your telescope or binoculars for a better view, please remember not to aim in that direction until the Sun has completely disappeared below the horizon as you must never risk accidentally catching even a brief glimpse of the Sun through them!

 

 

Monday 9th to Sunday 15th January 2023
 

On Monday 9th, we will have just gone past a Full Moon and the Moon's "libration" or slight wobble as it orbits around the Earth means that its southern polar region will be tilted slightly towards us - an ideal opportunity to hunt for some of the many craters on that part of its surface with your telescope.  If you venture outside around 9pm on 9th, the Moon will have risen above the horizon to the east.

 
 

The last month has been a great time to observe Mars while it has been at its brightest and closest to the Earth.  Things are changing now and although the coming week is still good to go looking for those elusive Martians, by Sunday 15th the planet will have dimmed to a magnitude of around -0.7 and will look slightly smaller in your eyepiece.

 

Curiously, on Thursday 12th, Mars reaches a stationary point in the sky.  What on Earth does that mean!  Planets don't stop moving!  Up until the 12th, its motion has been "retrograde" meaning that each night its position has been shifting west against the background of stars.  From Thursday, its motion will be "prograde", or in other words, moving east which is what you would normally expect.  At 9pm on 12th, Mars will be located towards the south, between the constellation of Orion and the Pleiades open cluster of stars, a little above the bright star Aldebaran.

 
 
Remember that anytime this month is a good opportunity to spot comet C/2022 E3 ZTF that was only first-discovered last year.  By Sunday 15th, the comet will have increased its magnitude to about +6.3 so it will almost be visible to the naked eye.
 
 
 
Comet diagrams courtesy of Pete Lawrence and Sky At Night Magazine

 

 

Monday 2nd to Sunday 8th January 2023
 

I suggested trying to find comet C/2022 E3 ZTF with your telescope or binoculars on Christmas morning, when it would be located within the constellation of Corona Borealis.  It will actually be possible to see the comet throughout the whole of January and as the days go by, it will appear to move from the edge of Corona Borealis towards Ursa Minor and progressively become brighter.

 

The optimum viewing will be during the night of 27th / 28th January, when the comet will be fairly close to the star Kochab in Ursa Minor and its magnitude will be around +4.8, so potentially even visible with the naked eye from a dark sky location.  As a bonus that night, the Moon sets a little after midnight so there will be no light pollution from that source.

 
I have provided diagrams below showing the comet's position through the month, courtesy of Pete Lawrence and Sky At Night Magazine:
 
 
 

The evening of 27th January is also the date for the first of this year's talks and star parties I am holding at the Ham Hill Visitor Centre, so assuming the skies are clear and we can venture outside, after we have looked at the usual favourite targets of the Andromeda Galaxy, Pleiades open cluster and Great Orion Nebula, then we might be able to go comet-hunting!

 

The second of those talks will be on February 17th and places for either of the events can be booked through the visitsouthsomerset.com website:

 
www.visitsouthsomerset.com

 

 

Monday 26th December 2022 to Sunday 1st January 2023
 

I gather that Santa Claus has been exceptionally busy this year delivering all the Christmas presents; so busy in fact that he is going to be very late getting home to the North Pole!

 

If you go outside early on Boxing Day morning and look towards the west at 6.23am you should be able to see his sleigh shooting across the sky as he heads home.  He will take about 5 minutes to pass overhead, before disappearing to the east.  The sleigh will look like a star that is moving.

 

I've mentioned the Clair-Obscur visual effects that occur on the lunar surface before and the evening of Friday 30th is the optimum time to spot the "Lunar X and V".  Best to aim for around 9pm, when the Moon will be located towards the south west with Jupiter a little below it and to the right.

 
 

The first NASA Artemis un-manned mission returned safely from lunar orbit last week and while you are pointing your telescope at the Moon, to the right of the Lunar X and V is the Sea of Tranquility where Apollo 11 landed back in 1969.  The descent stage of the lunar lander and the astronauts' footprints are still there, but they are way too small to be seen from Earth even with the most powerful telescope.

 
 

If Father Christmas brought you a new telescope this year and you want to learn how to use it, I am holding another couple of talks at Ham Hill on Friday 27th January and Friday 17th February.  Booking is through the  www.visitsouthsomerset.com  website and the last events sold out very quickly, so I'd advise getting online as soon as possible to guarantee a place.

 

 

Monday 19th to Sunday 25th December 2022
 
Wednesday 21st is the winter solstice, when the northern hemisphere is tilted furthest away from the Sun and we have the shortest day - great for astronomers who prefer the longer nights.
 

The evening of Wednesday 21st is also the best opportunity to observe planet Mercury just above the south west horizon shortly after sunset.  The planet will have a magnitude of -0.4 so will be easy to spot with the naked eye - no need to risk using a telescope or binoculars.  Mercury will appear to be at its greatest elongation or distance away from the Sun.

 

The evening of Thursday 22nd sees the peak of another meteor shower.  This time it's the Ursids, that appear to radiate from near the star Kochab in the constellation of Ursa Minor.  Any shooting stars you see are debris left by comet Tuttle.  Polaris, the pole star, is located at the end of Ursa Minor, so you will be looking due north.

 
 

Talking of comets, there is a treat for binocular or telescope users on Christmas Day if you're up early, before you tackle that turkey!  Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF will have a magnitude of around +8 and will be located inside the constellation of Corona Borealis.  At 6am, the constellation will be towards the east.  Find Ursa Minor and the pole star, then go right until you see the constellation of Bootes, quite high up, with the bright star Arcturus.  Corona Borealis is situated a little below Bootes. 

 
 
The comet was first discovered only earlier this year, by the Zwicky Transient Facility at Palomar Observatory, hence the "ZTF" in the name.
 
 
Image courtesy of Stuart Atkinson / Sky At Night Magazine
 

At 7.08am on Christmas morning, I am reliably informed that Santa Claus will be passing over the UK in his sleigh.  He will look like a star that is moving, initially appearing in the west and then disappearing towards the east seven minutes later because he is going so fast!

 
 
Very Merry Christmas everyone!

 

 

Monday 12th to Sunday 18th December 2022
 

The night of Tuesday 13th / Wednesday 14th is close to the peak of the Geminids meteor shower, so named because the radiant point where the shooting stars appear to originate from is close to the constellation of Gemini "The Twins".

 

The actual peak of the shower is at 1pm on 13th, but of course you won't see anything then because it will be daylight!  If you are outside just before midnight on 13th, the constellation will be located towards the south east.  Unfortunately a very bright waning Gibbous Moon will be to the east, creating some light pollution and spoiling your view of any meteors a bit.

 

Maybe the Moon can make up for this by revealing one of its unusual features the following evening, on Thursday 15th.  Known as the "Straight Wall", it is a linear fault or escarpment on the Lunar surface.  Don't be misled, as Sir Patrick Moore once said, "it is neither straight, nor a wall".  It is quite distinctive though.

 

The Straight Wall is best viewed 1 or 2 days after a First Quarter Moon or a couple of days before the Third Quarter, so the late evening of Thursday 15th is ideal.  The Moon will be located towards the east and I have provided a diagram below to show how find the feature courtesy of Jodrell Bank.

 
 

If you aim your telescope in that direction, you will be looking at a fault line that is only 110Km long and between 2 - 3Km wide.  It looks like a steep cliff because the sunlight falling on it casts a shadow.  In reality it is not very steep at all - it's a trick of the light!

 

 

 

Monday 5th to Sunday 11th December 2022
 

It's a period of occultations!  Sounds like a series of sinister black magic ceremonies are going to be taking place, so I'd better explain..........

 

In astronomical terms, an "occultation" occurs when one celestial body appears to pass in front of another, temporarily blocking it from our view.  Next week, the Moon is the culprit, with Uranus and then Mars being the victims.

 

Firstly, between 4.50pm and 5.20pm on Monday 5th, the Moon (that will be located towards the east) will occult Uranus.  It will take about 20 seconds for the Moon's north west edge or "limb" to cover the planet and the same time for it to reappear behind the Moon's north east limb half an hour later.  In other words, the northern area of the Moon's surface will appear to hide the planet.

 
 
 

Of course, Uranus is a small target for your telescope or binoculars, currently shining at a magnitude of only +5.6 and the Moon will be almost at its full phase, so creating a lot of light pollution.

 
If you are up early on Thursday 8th around 4.50am and look towards the west, you can catch the Full Moon occulting Mars.  The Red Planet will take 37 seconds to disappear behind the north west limb of the Moon at 4.57am and 37 seconds to reappear from behind the south east limb a whole hour later.
 
Because Mars is so bright, shining at a magnitude of -1.9, the event can even be viewed with the naked eye!
 
 
 

In a twist of fate, Mars reaches opposition, when it is at its absolute brightest, while it's behind the Moon at 5.36am that morning!

 

 

Monday 28th November to Sunday 4th December 2022
 

It really is the best time to aim your telescope towards Mars as the planet is only one week away from opposition, when it will be at its very brightest.  Next week, it will be shining at a magnitude of around -1.8 and if you are outside around 9pm, the planet will be located towards the east, a little above the constellation of Orion and below the Pleiades open cluster of stars.

 
 

Also Mars reaches an altitude of 60 degrees in the sky which provides better viewing as the light reflecting from the planet's surface is entering our atmosphere at a sharper angle and so travels through less of it to reach your eyes.  When an object is lower in the sky, the light travels through a thicker layer of atmosphere and this distorts everything.  It's the same reason why stars twinkle - they don't really, but the faint light coming from them gets scattered as it travels through our air.

 

Some stars do vary in brightness though.  Look to the left of the Pleiades and find the constellation of Perseus.  Then identify the star Algol, also known as the "Demon Star".  It is actually an eclipsing binary star system where two stars orbit around each other.  The pair normally has a steady magnitude of +2.2, but every 2.86 days it drops to +3.4 as one star appears to pass in front of the other over a period of ten hours.

 
 

An ancient Egyptian calendar of lucky and unlucky days, composed 3200 years ago, is the earliest known documentation of Algol's discovery and they associated it with a demon-like creature.

 

 

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Screenshots courtesy of Stellarium

 

Copyright Adrian Dening and Radio Ninesprings 2023

 

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

 

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