Are you ready for a remake of the Christmas Star story? Depending on how much stock you put in historical hypotheses, this year’s solstice on Dec. 21 could bring a replay of the phenomenon that the Three Kings saw in the Gospel of Matthew.
That’s when Jupiter and Saturn can be seen incredibly close together in the night sky. If the skies are clear, the two planets will be hard to miss in southwest skies just after sunset, as seen from mid-northern latitudes. Jupiter will sparkle brighter, and Saturn will be shining only a tenth of a degree to the upper right. With a small telescope, you might be able to see both planets and their moons in a single field of view.
“Some astronomers suggest the pair will look like an elongated star, and others say the two planets will form a double planet,” NASA says in a blog posting about the Dec. 21 conjunction. “To know for sure, we’ll just have to look and see. Either way, take advantage of this opportunity because Jupiter and Saturn won’t appear this close in the sky until 2080!”
The stars have aligned for this weekend’s peak of the annual Geminid meteor shower. Now let’s hope that the weather aligns as well.
Skywatchers rank December’s Geminids alongside August’s Perseids as the year’s highlights for meteor shows. Under peak conditions, sharp-eyed observers can see two meteors a minute. NASA notes that the shooting stars are bright and fast, and tend to be yellow in color.
But the strength of the show is highly dependent on viewing conditions. In some years, the moon’s glare washes out the night sky so that few meteor streaks stand out.
One of the few good things about 2020 is that the moon won’t interfere this year. It’s nearly a new moon, which means skywatchers will see only a thin crescent that rises in the east just before dawn.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on summer star parties and other public gatherings, and skywatching isn’t exactly the kind of thing best done via a Zoom session. But you can still experience the wonders of the universe, just by looking up into dark, clear skies.
Four planets are on view: Jupiter and Saturn after sunset, and Mars and Venus before sunrise.
Although now is not the best time for Americans to spot the International Space Station, you just might be able to track the latest batch of SpaceX Starlink satellites as the stream across the sky. (Plug in your coordinates on Heavens-Above.com to check viewing times.)
Dickinson’s guide is designed to cover the more established targets of the night sky, ranging from the constellations to star clusters, nebulae and galaxies.
Forty-four sky charts, organized by month, point out wonders that can be found with the naked eye, with binoculars or with a telescope like the one that Dickinson sets up in his backyard or on the top floor of a nearby parking garage.
“Your observatory is wherever you’re observing,” he said.
Dickinson also provides context that goes beyond latitude and longitude: Which naked-eye stars have planets orbiting them? What are the myths behind the constellation’s names, and what did other cultures see in them? What makes a planetary nebula “planetary”?
The guide includes a list of online tools, websites and publications to help you plot out your observing strategy — including Stellarium, a free planetarium program that’s priceless.
So what are the best deep-sky objects to turn your telescope toward while you’re waiting for the Perseids? Dickinson recommends M13, a globular star cluster in Hercules, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, the variable star Algol (a.k.a. the Demon Star) in Perseus … and Epsilon Lyrae, the “double-double” star in the constellation Lyra.
You’re unlikely to repeat Messier’s mistake, as long as you have Dickinson’s field guide sitting next to your lounge chair (preferably consulted by the light of a red flashlight to preserve your night vision).
To celebrate the summer’s big week for skywatching — and reward you for reading down this far — I’m giving away a copy of “The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide.” Just be the first to answer this Cosmic Log quiz question in the comment section below:
What is the name of the closest planetary nebula to Earth?
The first person to answer correctly, based on my assessment of the time stamp, will be eligible to receive the book by mail (U.S. postal addresses only). If I can’t get in touch with that person via email in a timely fashion, I’ll move on to the next person on the list.
Back in the old days, Cosmic Log was known for its community of commenters, and I’m hoping we can revive that spirit. If you have a favorite night-sky object to observe, or a favorite resource for skywatching, pass it along in a comment. Your recommendation may end up in a future Cosmic Log roundup.
Update for 11:25 a.m. PT Aug. 9: We have a winner! Boris Zuchner was the first to answer the quiz question correctly, with an assist by Professor Google. As revealed on page 160 of “The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide,” the closest planetary nebula to Earth is the Helix Nebula, a.k.a. NGC 7293. Assuming that Boris’ mailing address is in the United States, he’ll be able to look that fact up himself in the future, thanks to the book I’ll be sending him.
As I wrote in the comments, don’t be a stranger! It took me a while to approve the comments this time around, but I’ll try to be faster on the draw for the next book giveaway.
This summer’s sky spectacle is a shooting star that was discovered in March by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Explorer, or NEOWISE. Comet NEOWISE (also known as C/2020 F3) zoomed around the sun last week, and is now visible to the naked eye. But only if you know exactly where, when and how to look.
But if you’re angling to see this season’s most-talked-about sky show with your own eyes, here are five strategies to maximize your chances:
Go late or go early: Because it’s so soon after the northern solstice, the celestial alignments make it theoretically possible to see Comet NEOWISE in morning or evening skies, with emphasis on the word “theoretically.”
For the next few days, the comet will be higher in the sky in the morning, which means predawn viewing is preferred. The best time is around 3 to 4 a.m.; the farther north you are, the earlier you should get up. Around July 15, the comet’s outward trajectory from the sun will turn it into more of an evening star, with prime time coming at 10:30 p.m., about an hour and a half after sunset.
Look north: Your viewing spot should have an unobstructed view to the northern horizon — to the northeast for morning viewing, or to the northwest for the evening. To find optimal views of the horizon, scan Google Maps (with Street View). And to figure out exactly where to look in the sky, study the charts from Sky & Telescope, SpaceWeather.com, The Sky Live, Heavens Above and EarthSky.
Comet NEOWISE should be visible in the northeast by 3 a.m. July 11 — close to the horizon and to the left of Venus, the brightest object in eastern skies.
Seek clarity: The fact that NEOWISE is so close to the horizon means that sky conditions are crucial. There’s a good chance the comet could be lost in hazy or humid skies. And if there are clouds stretching across the horizon, that could be a deal-breaker. Finding out you’re clouded out at 3 a.m. is a truly rude awakening.
To determine if the forecast is favorable, click on over to Digital.Weather.gov, focus in on your viewing area and select “Sky Cover (%)” from the drop-down menu. Then move the slider bar to your planned viewing time (for example, “At Jul 11, 3 a.m.”) and check whether conditions are expected to be blue (set your alarm) or gray (sleep in).
Bring binoculars: Although NEOWISE is bright enough for naked-eye viewing, your naked eyes will see it pretty much as a fuzzy star. To make out the comet’s tail clearly, you’ll probably need to break out the binoculars or a telescope.
Skywatchers have been putting up some impressive pictures of NEOWISE and its double tail — a curving tail of cosmic dust illuminated by the sun, plus a dimmer, bluish tail of ions streaming straight out. You just have to remember that those photos are typically enhanced or stacked to bring out details you won’t be able to see with your own eyes.
Even if you miss seeing NEOWISE with your naked eyes, you can still connect with the comet by checking out the views from the space station, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe and the scores of dedicated comet-hunters whose photos appear on SpaceWeather.com, EarthSky and other online galleries.
Update for 2 p.m. PT July 13: I discovered that 4 a.m. is really too late to look for the comet in northern-latitude locations (like Seattle). I totally missed seeing it at 4 a.m. on July 11 — but had much better luck at 3 a.m. on July 13, when it was still dark enough to spot NEOWISE in advance of the predawn glow. I’ve changed the time references in this story for the benefit of those still trying to catch sight of the comet before dawn.
The retired commander of the U.S. Strategic Command says the tens of thousands of satellites that SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon are planning to put into orbit over the next few years will require a new automated system for space traffic management — and perhaps new satellite hardware requirements as well.
The planets will be aligned on Nov. 11 for a rare astronomical event known as the transit of Mercury, and skywatching fans are sure to see it even if the skies are cloudy, thanks to this little thing called the internet.
For folks in Western Washington, watching the action online will be the best bet when the tiny black dot of Mercury’s disk crosses the sun. Mercury will make its first contact at 4:35 a.m. PT, when the skies will still be dark in Seattle. It’ll be another two and a half hours before the sun creeps over the Cascades. By that time, the transit will be almost half-done.
Seattle-based Spaceflight says it’s handling the pre-launch logistics for a Japanese satellite that’s designed to spray artificial shooting stars into the sky.
Tokyo-based ALE’s spacecraft is just one of seven satellites due to be sent into orbit from New Zealand as early as Nov. 25, aboard a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle.
It’ll be the 10th Electron launch, earning the nickname “Running Out of Fingers.” It’ll also be the first launch to test the guidance and navigation hardware as well as the sensors that Rocket Lab will eventually use to help make the Electron’s first stage recoverable.
No recovery will be attempted during this mission.
The shooting-star satellite, ALE-2, is already making headlines in New Zealand. It’s designed to release particles from its sun-synchronous orbit below the International Space Station’s altitude, according to a timed schedule. When the particles re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, they’re supposed to burn up and create the appearance of meteors as seen from the ground.
In addition to the entertainment factor, ALE says scientists participating in the Sky Canvas project will be able to study the path of the particles during re-entry. That could lead to more accurate predictions of the path of satellites during orbital decay, and perhaps contribute to studies of weather and climate change.
“This launch gets us much closer to realizing the world’s first man-made shooting star,” ALE’s CEO, Lena Okajima, said in a news release. “We really appreciate Spaceflight`s support and attention to our mission, and we’re honored to take this big step with them.”