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Constellations of the month

 

 
CURRENT MOON

Saturn

Saturn, was at opposition on the 27th of June and so will be visible during all the (few) hours of darkness. It will highest in the south around midnight as July begins and a little earlier by month's end. Its disk has an angular size of 18.4 arc seconds falling to 18.0 during the month. Its brightness reduces from +0.0 to +0.2 magnitudes as the month progresses. The rings were at their widest some months ago and are still, at 26 degrees to the line of sight, well open and spanning ~2.5 times the size of Saturn's globe. Saturn, lying in Sagittarius, is close to the topmost star of the 'teapot' slowly moving in retrograde to within a few degrees of M8, the Lagoon Nebula, and M20, the Trifid Nebula. Sadly, it will only reach an elevation of just over 15 degrees above the horizon when crossing the meridian.

Jupiter

Jupiter can be seen due south soon after sunset at the start of the month and over towards the southwest as the month progresses. It shines at magnitude -2.3 (falling to -2.1 during the month) and has a disk some 41.5 (falling to 38) arc seconds across. Jupiter's equatorial bands and sometimes the Great Red Spot (see 'highlights' for the times when it crosses Jupiter's central meridian) and up to four of its Gallilean moons will be visible in a small telescope. Sadly, moving slowly westwards in Libra during the month, Jupiter is heading towards the southern part of the ecliptic and will only have an elevation of ~20 degrees when crossing the meridian.

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Mars

Mars, in Capricornus,is moving in retrograde motion westwards as it moves towards its closest approach to Earth since 2003 on the night of July 30th/31st. Mars begins the month rising about 2 hours after sunset shining at magnitude -2.2 but its brightness peaks at -2.8 during the final week of July. Its angular size reachs 24.3 arc seconds at closest approach but will exceed 24 arc seconds from July 24th until August 8th. With a small telescope it will be possible to spot details, such as Syrtis Major, on its salmon-pink surface. From the UK, it will only reach an elevation of ~14 degrees when due south and so, sadly, the atmosphere will hinder our view.

Venus

Venus, can be seen low in the west after nightfall sinking towards the horizon as the month progresses. During July, its illuminated phase thins from ~70% to ~57% but, at the same time, the angular diameter of its disk increases from 16 to 20 arc seconds. The surfac area reflecting the Sun's light thus stays roughly constant and so the brightness stays at around -4.2. On July 9th Venus is close to Regulus in Leo and on the 15th to a waxing crescent Moon.

Mercury

Mercury shining at around zeroth magnitude early in the month reaches greatest elongation west of the Sun on July 12th. It will be then be seen about 15 degrees down to the lower right of Venus but will have dimmed to magnitude +1 by the 17th and and then rapidly fade from view into the Sun's glare.

The Night Sky In and Around Swindon July 2018

Slide Presentation

The following presentation was given at our meeting on the 18th May, 2018 by Rob Slack

The constellation Ursa Major

The stars of the Plough, shown linked by the thicker lines in the chart above, form one of the most recognised star patterns in the sky. Also called the Big Dipper, after the soup ladles used by farmer's wives in America to serve soup to the farm workers at lunchtime, it forms part of the Great Bear constellation - not quite so easy to make out! The stars Merak and Dubhe form the pointers which will lead you to the Pole Star, and hence find North. The stars Alcor and Mizar form a naked eye double which repays observation in a small telescope as Mizar is then shown to be an easily resolved double star. A fainter reddish star forms a triangle with Alcor and Mizar.

Ursa Major contains many interesting "deep sky" objects. The brightest, listed in Messier's Catalogue, are shown on the chart, but there are many fainter galaxies in the region too. In the upper right of the constellation are a pair of interacting galaxies M81 and M82 shown in the image below. M82 is undergoing a major burst of star formation and hence called a "starburst galaxy". They can be seen together using a low power eyepiece on a small telescope.


M81 and M82

Another, and very beautiful, galaxy is M101 which looks rather like a pinwheel firework, hence its other name the Pinwheel Galaxy. It was discovered in1781 and was a late entry to Messier's calalogue of nebulous objects. It is a type Sc spiral galaxy seen face on which is at a distance of about 24 million light years. Type Sc galaxies have a relativly small nucleus and open spiral arms. With an overall diameter of 170,000 light it is one of the largest spirals known (the Milky Way has a diameter of ~ 130,000 light years).


M101 - The Ursa Major Pinwheel Galaxy
Though just outside the constellation boundary, M51 lies close to Alkaid, the leftmost star of the Plough. Also called the Whirlpool Galaxy it is being deformed by the passage of the smaller galaxy on the left. This is now gravitationally captured by M51 and the two will eventually merge. M51 lies at a distance of about 37 million light years and was the first galaxy in which spiral arms were seen. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1773 and the spiral structure was observed by Lord Rosse in 1845 using the 72" reflector at Birr Castle in Ireland - for many years the largest telescope in the world.

M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy
Lying close to Merak is the planetary nebula M97 which is usually called the Owl Nebula due to its resemblance to an owl's face with two large eyes. It was first called this by Lord Rosse who drew it in 1848 - as shown in the image below right. Planetary nebulae ar the remnants of stars similar in size to our Sun. When all possible nuclear fusion processes are complete, the central core collpses down into a "white dwarf" star and the the outer parts of the star are blown off to form the surrounding nebula.
Owl Nebul
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M97 - The Owl Planetary Nebula Lord Rosse's 1848 drawing of the Owl Nebula
The constellation Virgo

Virgo, rising in the east in late evening this month, is not one of the most prominent constellations, containing only one bright star, Spica, but is one of the largest and is very rewarding for those with "rich field" telescopes capable of seeing the many galaxies that lie within its boundaries. Spica is, in fact, an exceedingly close double star with the two B type stars orbiting each other every 4 days. Their total luminosity is 2000 times that of our Sun. In the upper right hand quadrant of Virgo lies the centre of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. There are 13 galaxies in the Messier catalogue in this region, all of which can be seen with a small telescope. The brightest is the giant elliptical galaxy, M87, with a jet extending from its centre where there is almost certainly a massive black hole into which dust and gas are falling. This releases great amounts of energy which powers particles to reach speeds close to the speed of light forming the jet we see. M87 is also called VIRGO A as it is a very strong radio source.


The Giant Elliptical Galaxy M87
Below Porrima and to the right of Spica lies M104, an 8th magnitude spiral galaxy about 30 million light years away from us. Its spiral arms are edge on to us so in a small telescope it appears as an elliptical galaxy. It is also known as the Sombrero Galaxy as it looks like a wide brimmed hat in long exposure photographs.


M104 - The Sombrero Galaxy

July - observe Saturn


Saturn photographed by Damian Peach
Damian Peaches Website

Saturn reached opposition on the 27th of June, so is now low (at an elevation of ~14 degrees) in the west-southwest as darkness falls lying above the 'teapot' of Sagittarius. Held steady, binoculars should enable you to see Saturn's brightest moon, Titan, at magnitude 8.2. A small telescope will show the rings with magnifications of x25 or more and one of 6-8 inches aperture with a magnification of ~x200 coupled with a night of good "seeing" (when the atmosphere is calm) will show Saturn and its beautiful ring system in its full glory.

Compiled by Prof. Ian Morison
July 27th to 28th - Total Lunar Eclipse

Total Lunar Eclipse

On 27 July 2018, Mars will be at opposition and a total lunar eclipse will be visible over most of Europe and Asia, Australia and South America.

An eclipse of the Moon occurs when the Earth lies directly between the Sun and the Moon and the Moon lies in the shadow of the Earth.

Those in the UK will not be able to see the start of the lunar eclipse as the Moon will still be below the horizon at this time. However, the Moon will already be in the Earth’s umbra (the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow) and so will already start to look red.

Maximum eclipse: 9.21pm, eclipse ends: 10:13 (Moon rises 8.50pm low in the south-east)

Read more HERE

The planets this month
The thing that makes Saturn stand out is, of course, its ring system. The two outermost rings, A and B, are separated by a gap called Cassini's Division which should be visible in a telescope of 4 or more inches aperture if seeing conditions are good. Lying within the B ring, but far less bright and difficult to spot, is the C or Crepe Ring. Due to the orientation of Saturn's rotation axis of 27 degrees with respect to the plane of the solar system, the orientation of the rings as seen by us changes as it orbits the Sun and twice each orbit they lie edge on to us and so can hardly be seen. This last happened in 2009 and they are currently at an angle of 26 degrees to the line of sight. The rings will continue to narrow until March 2025 when they will appear edge-on again.
The constellations Lyra and Cygnus

This month the constellations Lyra and Cygnus are rising in the East as darkness falls with their bright stars Vega, in Lyra, and Deneb, in Cygnus, making up the "summer triangle" of bright stars with Altair in the constellation Aquila below.

Lyra

Lyra is dominated by its brightest star Vega, the fifth brightest star in the sky. It is a blue-white star having a magnitude of 0.03, and lies 26 light years away. It weighs three times more than the Sun and is about 50 times brighter. It is thus burning up its nuclear fuel at a greater rate than the Sun and so will shine for a correspondingly shorter time. Vega is much younger than the Sun, perhaps only a few hundred million years old, and is surrounded by a cold,dark disc of dust in which an embryonic solar system is being formed!

There is a lovely double star called Epsilon Lyrae up and to the left of Vega. A pair of binoculars will show them up easily - you might even see them both with your unaided eye. In fact a telescope, provided the atmosphere is calm, shows that each of the two stars that you can see is a double star as well so it is called the double double!
The Double Double


Epsilon Lyra - The Double Double
Between Beta and Gamma Lyra lies a beautiful object called the Ring Nebula. It is the 57th object in the Messier Catalogue and so is also called M57. Such objects are called planetary nebulae as in a telescope they show a disc, rather like a planet. But in fact they are the remnants of stars, similar to our Sun, that have come to the end of their life and have blown off a shell of dust and gas around them. The Ring Nebula looks like a greenish smoke ring in a small telescope, but is not as impressive as it is shown in photographs in which you can also see the faint central "white dwarf" star which is the core of the original star which has collapsed down to about the size of the Earth. Still very hot this shines with a blue-white colour, but is cooling down and will eventually become dark and invisible - a "black dwarf"! Do click on the image below to see the large version - its wonderful!
M57 - The Ring Nebula

M57 - the Ring Nebula
Image: Hubble Space telescope
M56 is an 8th magnitude Globular Cluster visible in binoculars roughly half way between Alberio (the head of the Swan) and Gamma Lyrae. It is 33,000 light years away and has a diameter of about 60 light years. It was first seen by Charles Messier in 1779 and became the 56th entry into his catalogue.

M56 - Globular Cluster
Cygnus

Cygnus, the Swan, is sometimes called the "Northern Cross" as it has a distinctive cross shape, but we normally think of it as a flying Swan. Deneb,the arabic word for "tail", is a 1.3 magnitude star which marks the tail of the swan. It is nearly 2000 light years away and appears so bright only because it gives out around 80,000 times as much light as our Sun. In fact if Deneb where as close as the brightest star in the northern sky, Sirius, it would appear as brilliant as the half moon and the sky would never be really dark when it was above the horizon!

The star, Albireo, which marks the head of the Swan is much fainter, but a beautiful sight in a small telescope. This shows that Albireo is made of two stars, amber and blue-green, which provide a wonderful colour contrast. With magnitudes 3.1 and 5.1 they are regarded as the most beautiful double star that can be seen in the sky.


Alberio: Diagram showing the colours and relative brightnesses
Cygnus lies along the line of the Milky Way, the disk of our own Galaxy, and provides a wealth of stars and clusters to observe. Just to the left of the line joining Deneb and Sadr, the star at the centre of the outstretched wings, you may, under very clear dark skys, see a region which is darker than the surroundings. This is called the Cygnus Rift and is caused by the obscuration of light from distant stars by a lane of dust in our local spiral arm. the dust comes from elements such as carbon which have been built up in stars and ejected into space in explosions that give rise to objects such as the planetary nebula M57 described above.

Deneb,the arabic word for "tail", is a 1.3 magnitude star which marks the tail of the swan. It is nearly 2000 light years away and appears so bright only because it gives out around 80,000 times as much light as our Sun. In fact if Deneb where as close as the brightest star in the northern sky, Sirius, it would appear as brilliant as the half moon and the sky would never be really dark when it was above the horizon!

There is a beautiful region of nebulosity up and to the left of Deneb which is visible with binoculars in a very dark and clear sky. Photographs show an outline that looks like North America - hence its name the North America Nebula. Just to its right is a less bright region that looks like a Pelican, with a long beak and dark eye, so not surprisingly this is called the Pelican Nebula. The photograph below shows them well.


The North American Nebula
Brocchi's Cluster An easy object to spot with binoculars in Gygnus is "Brocchi's Cluster", often called "The Coathanger",although it appears upside down in the sky! Follow down the neck of the swan to the star Alberio, then sweep down and to its lower left. You should easily spot it against the dark dust lane behind.

Brocchi's Cluster - The Coathanger
July 24th after sunset: Saturn close to a waxing Moon
After sunset on the 24, Saturn will be seen, if clear, to the lower left of the waxing Moon
Mars Outshines Sirius
It's official. Mars is now brighter than any star in the sky. Two weeks ago, the Red Planet surpassed Sirius in apparent luminosity. If you wake up before dawn, you can't help noticing Mars burning through the morning twilight with a distinctive orange glow. What's happening? Earth and Mars are converging for a close encounter--the best one in 15 years. On July 27th, Mars will be at opposition. Oppositions of Mars happen roughly every 2 years, but this one is special. It is a "perihelic opposition." Mars will be near perihelion, its closest approach to the sun. Perihelic oppositions also bring Mars extra-close to Earth.

Courtesy of Spaceweather.com
Compiled by Ian Morison - Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics