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CURRENT MOON

Saturn

Saturn came into opposition back on June 11th and so will be seen in the southwest as darkness falls and sets late evening. It shines initially at magnitude +0.4 falling to +0.5 during the month and has an angular size of ~16.5 arc seconds. With an angle of 26.8 degrees inclination to the line of sight, the rings are virtually as open as they ever can be. Their maximum tilt, at 27 degrees, will come in October - the first time since 2002. It is sad that Saturn, now lying in the southern part of Ophiuchus between Sagittarius and Scorpius, only reached an elevation of ~17 degrees above the horizon when due south, so hindering our view of this most beautiful planet. If imaging Saturn (or Jupiter), Registax 6 has a tool to align the red, green and blue colour images to largely remove atmospheric dispersion from the image. At somewhat over £100 one can purchase the ZWO atmospheric dispersion corrector which uses two, contra rotating, prisms to carry out an even better correction - and which can also be used for visual observing.

Jupiter

Jupiter. Now five months after opposition, Jupiter can still just be seen very low in the southwestern sky after nightfall, lying at an elevation of some 10 degrees 45 minutes after sunset. By month's end it will be at an elevation of just 4 degrees at dusk. With a magnitude of -1.7 and an angular size of ~31 arc seconds it will be at its dimmest and smallest during this year's apparition and is too low for any reasonable telescopic views. At the start of September, Spica, Alpha Virginis, lies some 4 degrees to its lower left. Jupiter, moving eastwards passes 3 degrees to the upper right of Spica on September 11th. Now moving down towards the lower part of the ecliptic, next year it will only have an elevation of 25 degrees when due south whilst for the following two years an elevation of just 18 degrees.

Mars

Mars has now become a morning object at the start of its new apparition. Lying in Leo, and still not easily seen in the pre-dawn sky, it forms a tight grouping with Mercury and Regulus on the 5th some 15 degrees to the lower left of Venus. During the month, Mars has a magnitude of 1.8 and an angular size of just 3.6 arc seconds so no details will be seen on its salmon-pink surface. As the month progresses Mars rises higher in the sky before dawn and moves closer to Venus which is now moving back towards the Sun.

Venus
Venus is visible in the east before dawn this month, rising around 2 hours before sunrise. Its magnitude remains at -3.9 during the month as its angular diameter shrinks from 12.4 to 11.2 arc seconds. However, at the same time, its illuminated phase increases from 84% to 91% - which explains why its magnitude does not change.

Mercury

Mercury has now become a morning object and will form a very tight grouping with Mars and Regulus, in Leo. on the morning of the 5th. They will lie about 15 degrees below Venus. Binoculars will be needed to observe them in the bright twilight but please do not use them after the Sun has risen. Rising in elevation durig the first part of the month, by the 10th it will have brightened to zero magnitude and lie just half a degree to lower right of Regulus. Mercury reaches greatest elongation, some 18 degrees from the Sun on the 12th - its best morning apparition this year. On the 14th, it lies 11 degrees to the lower left of Venus whilst, before dawn on the 16th, it closes to just 0.3 degrees from Mars. In the final week of September, moving back towards the Sun, it will be lost in the Sun's glare.

The Night Sky In and Around Swindon September 2017

Slide Presentation

The following presentation was given at our meeting on the 15th September, 2017 by Rob Slack

The constellation Hercules

Between the constellation Bootes and the bright star Vega in Lyra lies the constellation Hercules.The Red Giant star Alpha Herculis or Ras Algethi, its arabic name, is one of the largest stars known, with a diameter of around 500 times that of our Sun. In common with most giant stars it varies its size, changing in brightness as it does so from 3rd to 4th magnitude. Lying along one side of the "keystone" lies one of the wonders of the skies, the great globular cluster, M13. Just visible to the unaided eye on a dark clear night, it is easily seen through binoculars as a small ball of cotten wool about 1/3 the diameter of the full Moon. The brightness increases towards the centre where the concentration of stars is greatest. It is a most beautiful sight in a small telescope. It contains around 300,000 stars in a region of space 100 light years across, and is the brightest globular cluster that can be seen in the northern hemisphere.



The Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules.
Image by Yuugi Kitahara

The constellations Lyra and Cygnus
This month the constellations Lyra and Cygnus are seen almost overhead 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. (see sky chart above)

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 Lyrae
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"!

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 - The 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.

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
September - A good month to observe Neptune with a small telescope

Neptune in Aquarius
Image: Stellarium/IM
Neptune comes into opposition - when it is nearest the Earth - on the 2nd of September, so will be well placed to spot this month. Its magnitude is +7.9 so Neptune, with a disk just 3.7 arc seconds across, is easily spotted in binoculars lying in the constellation Aquarius as shown on the charts. It rises to an elevation of ~27 degrees when due south. Given a telescope of 8 inches or greater aperture and a dark transparent night it should even be possible to spot its moon Triton.
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.


M97 - The Owl Planetary Nebula

Lord Rosse's 1848 drawing of the Owl Nebula
September 16th - before dawn: three planets below the Moon

Looking East - Venus, Mercury and Mars
Image: Stellarium/IM
Before dawn on the 20th, Venus will be seen over to the left of a very thin waning crescent Moon. Aldebaran, lying in front of the Hyades Cluster, will also be seen to the upper right of the Moon.
An interesting valley on the Moon: The Alpine Valley

The Alpine valley and the crater Plato
These are good nights to observe an interesting feature on the Moon if you have a small telescope. Close to the limb is the Appenine mountain chain that marks the edge of Mare Imbrium. Towards the upper end you should see the cleft across them called the Alpine valley. It is about 7 miles wide and 79 miles long. As shown in the image a thin rill runs along its length which is quite a challenge to observe. Over the next two nights following the 28th the dark crater Plato and the young crater Copernicus will come into view. This is a very interesting region of the Moon!

[Note: you might wonder how the above dates were found. There is a excellent free program called "Virtual Moon Atlas" which allows one to see what will be visible on any night - one then simply finds when the terminator will be close to the object of interest.]
26th September - after sunset: Saturn below the crescent Moon

Saturn below the Moon
Image: Stellarium/IM

After sunset on the 26th, Saturn will be seen lying below the Moon.

Compiled by Ian Morison - Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics