There’s a LOT going on “up there” over this New Year weekend… here are the three pieces I wrote for the Society for Popular Astronomy Facebook page, describing how you can see the Moon passing a pair of planets, a binocular comet AND Mars and Neptune passing each other…
MOON AND PLANETS
If you have clear skies after sunset during the coming New Year weekend, there’s a chance to see a very striking line-up of celestial objects in the south-west. Over several nights you’ll be able to see the Moon – growing from a fingernail-clipping thin crescent which might need binoculars to pick it out from the bright sky, to a more obvious crescent – hopscotching up and along a line formed by Venus, Mars and Neptune, although Neptune will be too faint to see with the naked eye and will only be visible through binoculars or a small telescope. To add even more interest, there’s a faint comet in the very same part of the sky too – but so you don’t get too confused and try to see too many things at once we’ll tell you about that in a separate post…
So, let’s start on New Year’s Eve. As soon as it starts to get dark you’ll be unable to miss Venus shining brightly up there. If you wait a little while longer, until around 5pm, you’ll notice a very thin crescent Moon to the lower right of Venus, and a fainter but still pretty obvious “star” to the upper left of Venus. This is actually the planet Mars. If you can’t make out the Moon straight away don’t worry, you can either wait for it to get a little darker, or sweep the area to Venus’s lower right with binoculars until the Moon pops into view. The Moon won’t be very obvious on New Year’s Eve, but if you have a good view in that direction, and a clear sky, this line up of the Moon, Venus and Mars will look quite pretty.
…but it will look more striking on the following evening, after sunset on New Year’s Day, because by the the Moon will have skipped further to the east and be much closer to Venus and a larger, brighter crescent too. So, if you have clear sky on Sunday evening, make sure you take a few minutes to go out into the garden, look west, and take in this lovely view.
The next evening – Monday January 2nd – will see the best arrangement of these objects. By then the Moon will be sitting between Venus and Mars, and it should be a beautiful sight, with the dark portion of its disc illuminated by faint purple-blue “Earth-shine”. If you have a camera please try and take some photos of this. Don’t worry about being too technical, just snap away, trying different exposure times and ISO settings until you take something you like! (It will really help if you can steady your camera on a tripod, but if you don’t have one just improvise by propping it up on a coat or something scrunched up on a wall or the ground..)
Finally, on Tuesday (January 3rd) the Moon will have hopscotched to the top of the line, and will be to the upper left of Mars. By now the Moon will be a lot bigger and brighter than it was on New Year’s Eve, and will probably overpower Mars with its brightness, but it will still be worth a look.
We mentioned Neptune earlier on, and yes, that planet will be visible too. Over this coming weekend it will appear to “pass” Mars as seen from Earth, but you’ll need a good pair of binoculars or a telescope to see it. The charts given in the comments below will help you figure out where to look. Just be aware that there will be background stars visible around Mars too, so the only way you’ll be able to tell which dot is Neptune is to compare the view on different nights.
Fingers crossed for clear skies over the coming weekend – the Moon shining close to bright planets is always a lovely sight, and it will be a great way to begin 2017.
A BINOCULAR COMET
In the previous post we told you how you can enjoy looking at a gathering of planets, and the Moon, in the sky over this New Year weekend. In fact, there’s something else worth hunting for after dark – something which will require a bit more work on your part…. ok, a LOT more work… but it will be worth it if you succeed…
There’s a comet in the evening sky, coincidentally in the same part of the sky as the Moon and planets. Its full name is “Comet 45P/ Honda-Mrkos-Padjusakova” but we’ll just call it 45P from now on.
You might even have heard about this already; many newspapers and websites are breathlessly telling their readers about “the New Year Comet” which is “blazing” in the sky as 2016 drifts into 2017. Unfortunately this hype is both misleading and unhelpful. For a start, the comet isn’t “blazing”! That suggests it’s a) very bright, and b) moving swiftly across the sky. It’s actually neither. Comets don’t ‘blaze’, they glow very softly and serenely in the sky. And they certainly don’t move swiftly across the sky; they change position a small amount (often a really tiny amount) from night to night, and so they linger in the sky for weeks, sometimes even months.
And 45P is definitely not bright, not as non-astronomers understand that word anyway. It is a relatively bright comet as far as comet observers are concerned, but it is still too faint to see without a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, so, unlike the Great Comets of the past, 45P is not something you can find in the sky just by looking up and having it jump out at you! But that just means that if you do manage to find it you’ll have achieved something really special – so why not give it a go?
Many newspapers and websites are also proclaiming how rare comets are, and suggesting 45P is a herald of the New Year and perhaps even momentous events to come. Again, all those things are untrue. On any night of the year, if you know exactly where to look with a telescope, you can see at least several comets, but they only look like tiny out-of-focus stars. A comet bright enough to be seen with the naked eye is rare, but 45P is not a naked eye comet right now and probably won’t get any brighter than it is now, although predicting the behaviour of any comet is unwise.
As for heralding future events… no. Just, no. We stopped believing in that kind of thing a long time ago. So any earthquakes, deaths or disasters that occur while 45P is in the sky were going ti happen anyway, there’s absolutely no link.
Right – where is 45P, and what does it look like?
As far as comets go, 45P is relatively easy to find, simply because it’s in roughly the same part of the sky as the planet Venus, which is a bright object in the south right after sunset. And to make 45P even easier to find, the young Moon will be close to it over the next couple of evenings too. The problem is, at sunset 45P is already low in the sky, and getting lower every minute, so we only have a short window in which to look for and find it before it sets. The best time to look for it will probably be between 5.00 and 5.30; before then the sky will be too bright, after then the comet will be too low. So, if you have a clear sky in that window, that’s when you want to be getting out there and starting your comet hunt.
To improve your chances of success, you should be somewhere with an uncluttered and low horizon in that direction, because any trees, buildings or hills will probably hide the comet from your view. And, very importantly, get away from as much light pollution as you can: 45P is so faint that its soft glow will be overpowered by any streetlights or artificial lights in its part of the sky.
The charts given as Comments below will help you pin down the location of the comet over the next few nights. It basically comes down to finding the right area of the sky – to the lower right of Venus – and very, VERY slowly and patiently scanning around that area with your binoculars, or small telescope, looking for the comet. GO SLOWLY, don’t sweep your binoculars or telescope back and forth like a machine gun… take it easy, move your binoculars or ‘scope at an absolute snail’s pace. If you think you’re going too slowly, you’re not. Slow is good. Slow will help you catch your comet!
What will 45P look like? Well, you’ll have seen lots of beautiful photographs of comets, with bright heads and long glowing tails streaming away from them like silvery-blue banners fluttering from the top of fairy tale castle towers… unfortunately, comets don’t look anything like that in binoculars or a telescope, not even the really bright ones, and certainly not 45P. Why? Because those photos were all taken using a combination of either a long lens or a telescope, a very long exposure time, and a very high film speed, all of which work together to enhance the brightness and colours of a comet and bring out the fine detail and structure in its tail. The eye isn’t sensitive enough to see those colours or detail, so all we see through binoculars or a telescope is a less detailed, grey-white trail, like a small detached section of airplane vapour trail. In fact, most comets don’t even develop an obvious tail, and only ever look like a smudgy, out of focus star.
Photographs taken of 45P by experienced astro-photographers show it has a tail, and a beautiful slim one at that, but too faint to be seen with the naked eye, and probably too faint to be seen with binoculars and a small telescope, unless you are observing from somewhere really dark. What you need to be looking for as you slowly sweep your binoculars across the sky to the lower right of Venus is something that looks like a star, but not *exactly* like a star… something a bit bigger than a star and a bit smudgy, a bit out of focus, maybe even a bit elongated, and with a hint of blue-green about it too. If you spot something like that, congratulations, you’ll have found Comet 45P!
If you *don’t* find it, don’t worry. Because of its low brightness and its low altitude in a twilight sky, 45P won’t be easy for beginners to find. You can always try again the next night! And if you still don’t find it, you can try again in February when it will be better placed in the sky.
Finding 45P will be a challenge, no doubt about it, but it is doable if you take your time and put some effort and thought into it. Tonight (New Year’s Eve) and tomorrow night (New Year’s Day) the Moon will try its best to help you, too. And what a way to say goodbye to 2016 and welcome 2017 – spotting an ancient, dusty iceberg, far, far out in space…!
Good hunting – and whether you find 45P or not be sure to let us know; we’d love to hear about your experiences.
MARS AND NEPTUNE IN A CLOSE ENCOUNTER OF THE PLANETARY KIND
As if having a line-up of the Moon and a pair of planets in the evening sky *and* a binocular comet to look for wasn’t enough, as 2016 drifts into 2017 we also have a chance to see a rare, very close encounter of the planetary kind, as the planets Mars and Neptune appear to move past each other – at their closest, close enough to both fit into the same low power telescope eyepiece! Of course, the two worlds aren’t actually passing each other – they’ll be separated by 4,311 MILLION kilometres, but because they lie on the same line of sight for us here on Earth they will appear to move past each other over the next couple of evenings.
How do you see this?
Start by looking south after sunset, and you’ll spot Venus shining brightly in the sky in that direction. After the sky has got a little darker you’ll spot Mars – fainter, and a more orange hue – to the upper left of Venus. Neptune will be very close to it, but your naked eye won’t be able to see it because it is much, much fainter than Mars and is below your eye’s detection limit. You’ll need help to see it, a pair of binoculars or a telescope.
Zooming in on Mars with your binoculars or telescope you’ll see Mars looks much brighter and more obvious than it did to your naked eye. You’ll also see quite a few stars around Mars, much fainter. One of these “stars” is the planet Neptune – but which one? Experienced observers will be using detailed star maps to pick out the planet from the dots around Mars, and they’ll be able to use those charts to tell exactly which “star” is really the distant world. If you;re a less experienced observer – and that’s not a derogatory term, everyone has to start somewhere! – the only way you’ll know for sure which dot is Neptune is by checking which one of them moves in relation to the others, and that means checking on more than one night. The charts given as Comments below will help you pick out Neptune from the background stars.
If you have a camera with a zoom lens, why not have a go at photographing this close encounter? After putting your camera on a tripod to keep it steady, zoom in on Mars with a lens of 200mm focal length or so, set your camera’s ISO on a high figure (1600 ISO or higher) and take some exposures of different lengths (say between 5 and 10 seconds). Mars will look like a bright “star” on your image, with lots of fainter stars around it. Then you can use the charts below – or maybe an astronomy app on your phone – to identify which “star” is Neptune.
Why should you take the time to drag yourself away from your New Year’s Party to go and look for this? Is it scientifically useful? No, not really, it’s just a chance alignment of planets as seen from Earth. The appeal lies in seeing something rare with your own eyes, rather than just witness it through the photos taken by others. And when you look at those two dots it will be humbling and exciting to think that they are actually two planets: Mars – a next door neighbour, “only” 247 million kilometres away, and Neptune, a very distant cousin, 4,558 million kilometres away, more than eighteen times further away than Mars… that beats sitting by the TV waiting for midnight to come and go, surely?
To all you planet-watchers, comet-hunters and stargazers out there, a very Happy New Year!
HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE! 🙂