Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Find your sunset view now!

A reminder to find a good spot to watch the sunset from, because that's where all the action is in this month's sky.

With Venus so low and Jupiter getting lower, you need a good view to the southwest to see them. I finally saw them last , on the way to an event we passed along a road with a great view over the river. My house has a lot of trees and houses between me and the setting sun, so I haven't been able to see Venus from my house yet this season. With a clear horison, though, I spotted Venus right away. It's one of my favorite views: the brilliant white beacon against the fading colours of sunset. Jupiter was visible almost immediately thereafter, to Venus' left and slightly higher in the sky.

It's only two weeks to the "big show", when Jupiter and Venus and the crescent moon will cluster in the southwest after sunset - a sight not to be missed. Make sure you find a spot to observe from now, free of trees and houses and too many bright lights. The best view will be December 1st and 2nd, but anytime leading up to that or afterwards will be a good view as well (although the moon will be out of the picture). Binoculars are a nice addition but not required for this event.

Clear skies!


Saturday, November 1, 2008

November Skies

Manitoba Skies - November 2008

In this issue:

  • Dance of the planets
  • How to buy a telescope
  • Daylight Savings Time ends

There are lots of events going on in the sky, but some are only observable with special equipment or are not of general interest. The events listed here are chosen so anyone can observe them. This is NOT an exhaustive list of what’s going on in the sky! For mroe details, you can visit the Planetarium at The Manitoba Museum. You can also pick up Sky News magazine (http://www.skynews.ca/) or consult The Observer’s Handbook 2008, available from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

Dance of the Planets

Best seen: evening twilight all month (special events Nov. 3, 29, 30, Dec. 1)

There’s a celestial ballet going on in the western sky after sunset this month. The giant planet Jupiter has been visible all summer and is slowly sinking lower into the western sky. Meanwhile, brilliant Venus is rising out of the bright sky near the sun and becoming more prominent. The two are the brightest objects in the sky besides the sun and moon, becoming visible well before any of the other stars. You can watch them draw closer each night, as the combined motions of Jupiter, Venus, and our own Earth alter our perspective on the scene.

On November 3rd, the crescent Moon hangs just below Jupiter, low in the south-southwest. Go out about 6:30PM, when the sky is dark enough to show the pairing but they haven’t sunk too low to be visible. The pair will be a bit less than degrees apart (equivalent to about six times the moon’s diameter), and will fit nicely into the field of view of binoculars. The “dark” side of the Moon will also be faintly visible, as sunlight reflects off of the Earth and back to the Moon. The group sets soon after 8:30 for observers in Manitoba.

The Moon moves on in its regular orbit around the Earth, leaving Jupiter behind by the next night. By November 13 the moon is nearly full and on the other side of the sky. The Pleiades star cluster will be about 3 degrees to the Moon’s right, but they’ll be hard to see in the bright moon’s glare.

At the end of the month, Jupiter and Venus draw ever closer together. On Nov. 29th, Venus shines 2.5° directly below Jupiter in the evening sky. The next night, Venus has moved slightly towards the left relative to Jupiter. If you have an unobstructed horizon you may glimpse the thin crescent moon below and to the right of the pair, very close to the horizon.

The highlight occurs on December 1st, when the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus are all within a 4° circle in the southwest after sunset. This grouping of the three brightest nighttime objects is one of those events you should keep your calendar clear for. Once again, binoculars will give the best view – a telescope will show details of each object individually, but most don’t’ have a wide enough field of view to contain the entire scene. Try taking pictures with a digital camera if you have one – the “twilight” mode often works acceptably for planets against the sunset colors.

How to buy a telescope
Special Seminar Sunday, Nov. 23rd at The Manitoba Museum's Planetarium

As the holidays approach, people often look at a telescope as a gift for themselves or a loved one. There are so many choices that it can overwhelm the new skywatcher. Often, people just buy whatever telescope they find first that’s in their price range.

Sadly, these telescopes usually wind up being a disappointment, and are relegated to the closet after a few bad experiences under the stars. It’s not the fault of the observer - the telescopes carried in most department stores, camera stores and big box stores usually are usually heavy on appearance, but don’t actually do the job. Some beginner’s telescope sold today border on false advertising!

I recommend that you purchase any telescope from someone who knows and uses telescopes – a science or nature store, a science centre or planetarium, or a dedicated telescope store. Experienced staff who are also astronomers will be able to tell you what features you need and which telescopes are not going to perform. After all, you probably wouldn’t buy a car from someone who doesn’t even know how to drive!

If you want to learn about choosing a telescope, The Manitoba Museum's Planetarium is hosting a special seminar on Sunday, November 23rd from 1 to 4 PM. Held in the Auditorium, the seminar will demonstrate various types of beginner’s telescopes and show you what to avoid. You can also see the telescopes the Planetarium has available for sale – we are an authorized Orion dealer and carry a full line of beginner, intermediate and advanced telescopes, binoculars and accessories. To register, email skyinfo@manitobamuseum.ca with your name, email and phone number. The seminar is $15 for Museum members and $25 for non-members, and includes a package of telescope references, star maps, and resources for sky watching.

Daylight Savings
Ends Sunday, Nov. 2 at 2AM

Finally, DST ends this month. The range of time we observe Daylight time has been extended in recent years, so it’s nice to see the sun setting when Nature says it should rather than when the Time Police determine! Set your clocks one hour earlier when you go to bed Saturday night.

The Planets
Mercury is still visible this month in the pre-dawn sky, appearing as a fairly bright “star” in the east-southeast before sunrise. It sinks lower each night and is lost in the sun’s glare after the first week of November. If you’re using binoculars, watch for the star Spica to Mercury’s upper right – it is fainter than Mercury.

Venus is visible in the evening sky this month as detailed in “Dance of the Planets” above.

Mars is too close to the Sun to be visible this month.

Jupiter is moving towards Venus, as detailed in “Dance of the Planets” above.

Saturn rises in the east about 2:30AM Standard time, and climbs halfway up the sky in the southeast by sunrise. For the first few days of November, Saturn is very close to the star Sigma Leonis, the back leg of Leo the Lion. The rings are still visible, but our perspective is becoming almost edge-on, and so Saturn is fainter than usual.

Uranus is only visible to the unaided eye in very dark conditions. Binoculars and small telescopes show it as a pale green “star” with no details. Neptune is even fainter, and only visible with a telescope. The dwarf planets Pluto and Eris are unobservable without a telescope. For locator charts, consult the Observer’s Handbook of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

Phases of the Moon:
Full Moon November 2, 2008 at 2:14 PM CST
Last Quarter November 9, 2008 at 9:56 AM CST
New Moon November 16, 2008 at 1:14 PM CST
First Quarter November 24, 2008 at 3:39 PM CST

Note: Phases of the Moon given here are in local time and date for Manitoba (CST after Nov 2 at 2AM) ; they may differ by what is on your calendar because calendars often use “Universal Time”, the time and date at the Greenwich meridian in England. Greenwich time is 6 hours ahead of Central Standard Time and 5 hours ahead of Central Daylight Time. Sometimes this pushes the date of an event to the previous day for Manitoba.