The moon, no less super although not full, will pair up with a couple objects earlier in the month providing for decent photo-ops. On June 10 the crescent moon is to the left of Venus and Mercury. On June 18 catch the moon just to the left of Spica, while Saturn observes from just a bit farther away to the moon's left.
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The Big Bang, the current theory behind the universe's existence, kind of sounds like a spaceship descending alongside you and hovering overhead -- or maybe a protracted electronic whoopee cushion.
Physics professor John G. Cramer of the University of Washington in Seattle originally created an aural interpretation of the Big Bang a decade ago, according to the university. (The 2003 version sounds like a sound effect from '60s-era Star Trek.)
Armed with data from the European Space Agency's Planck mission, which currently maps relic radiation from the Big Bang, Cramer produced the latest audio rendition of our universe's infancy. The data's higher frequency spectrum gave Cramer a more accurate representation of the expanding universe, which he likens to the sound of a bass.
"The expanding universe 'stretches' the sound wavelengths and thereby lowers their frequencies," Cramer writes. "To account for this effect, the program shifts the waves downward in frequency to follow the expansion in the first 760 thousand years of the universe."
Hear the Big Bang rendering as 20-, 50-, 100-, 200-, or 500-second recordings on Cramer's UW site. Cramer recommends listening to the 100-second version.
Jupiter has been high in the west after sunset all year, and as May opens it is clearly beginning to sink toward the horizon with the winter constellations that surround it. But Venus is coming to greet it
before it disappears near the sun. Venus has to contend with the glow of sunset as it lugs itself upward each night. On May 10, can you spot Venus just two degrees away from a newborn crescent moon? On the next night the crescent moon will appear about halfway between Jupiter and Venus.
Two comets are in the nighttime skies in April, one lingering after sunset and one appearing before sunrise. Comet PanSTARRS made its debut appearance in the Northern Hemisphere in March as it began to appear in the sunset’s glow midmonth. The comet is dimming as it moves out of the solar system, so use binoculars or a telescope to try to track it down. In April it will be crossing through the region of Andromeda, heading toward the North Star.
Comet PanSTARRS's biggest event of the month will be on April 3, when it passes a few degrees from the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. Binoculars or a wide-field telescope will give the best view of this fuzzy pair of objects.
Comet Lemmon is the second good comet of the year, also beginning its show in the Southern Hemisphere before moving into northern skies around April 19. The comet is expected to shine around 4-5th magnitude, similar to a dim star.
Both Comet PanSTARRS and Comet Lemmon will occupy the same region of sky but at different times. Comet PanSTARRS passes through Pisces, moving from left to right in March in the west at sunset. Comet Lemmon also passes through Pisces, moving from right to left in late April in the east at sunrise. Both comets are once-in-a-lifetime for Earthly observers, with Comet Lemmon’s first chance of returning 11,000 years from now, and Comet PanSTARRS 110,000 years from now, if it returns at all.
Comet 2011 L4 (PanSTARRS) makes its closest pass by Earth on March 5, but at this point it will still be mostly a southern hemisphere object. PanSTARRS has already been showing itself to southern hemisphere observers (along with another comet, Comet Lemmon, which will enter northern skies in April). Try looking to the southwest right after sunset each evening in March.
After March 5, the odds of spotting the comet become better as Comet PanSTARRS moves higher into the sky and brightens. The current brightness estimated for PanSTARRS is around second or third magnitude, similar to the stars in Cassiopeia, the W-shaped constellation above and to the right of the comet. Once the comet rises 15 to 20 degrees above the horizon, it will move horizontally across the sky, passing from the constellation Cetus into Pisces. It passes closest to the sun on March 9/10. On March 12 the comet will lie to the left of a crescent moon and a more-difficult-to-spy Uranus only half a degree below, and on April 3/4 the comet skims past M31, the Andromeda Galaxy.
Saturn enters the late evening sky in early March with the moon lying beside it on March 1 and the star Spica close by. The moon returns to Saturn by the end of the month, slipping in between Saturn and Spica on March 28 and displaying a fat gibbous phase. The full moon occurs on March 27 at 2:27 a.m. PDT.
The always-tricky-to-catch Mercury creeps up into the evening sky in February. It will remain low to the horizon, fighting against the glow of sunset for most of the month. Mercury and Mars lie less than a degree apart after sunset on February 8. A flat, unobstructed western horizon will be needed to see them, along with an absence of light pollution.
On February 11 you can try to spot the 4-percent-lit moon, just a day past new, setting in the west after the sun. Mercury, at magnitude -0.9, will be below the moon and an even dimmer Mars will be below that. The weekend of February 16 and 17 brings Mercury highest into the sky but it will already be dimming, down to magnitude -0.3, and will grow darker on succeeding evenings as it falls back toward the horizon.
For an easy planet to bag in February, Jupiter will be shining brightly among the stars of Taurus. On February 17 and 18 a first quarter moon lies on one side and then the other of the giant planet. Take some time with binoculars to explore Jupiter and its moons, our moon, and the nearby cluster of the Pleiades. All three objects are some of the best targets for binoculars and are a great way to bring new observers into the hobby. Ask a new observer how many stars they can count in the fuzzy Pleiades cluster with their eyes alone and then show them the dozens more that pop into view through binoculars.
February’s full moon reaches its peak at 12:26 p.m. PST on February 25. The moon will be just below Leo the Lion as the sky gets dark. Late on February 28, look for the 87-percent-lit moon rising in Virgo in the east, and the constellation’s brightest star, Spica, about 1 degree away from the moon.
Small solar system objects seem to be flinging themselves in our direction lately, begging for attention. The asteroid that will make its close approach to Earth on February 15 at around 11:30 p.m. PST is named Asteroid 2012 DA14. At only 45 meters across, it’s not going to be a good observing target for the amateur astronomer.
However, another object headed our way, Comet 2011 L4 (PANSTARRS), will pass close to the sun in March and is brightening every day. Making its closest encounter past Earth on March 5 and its closest encounter past the sun on March 10, the comet could become bright enough to rival the brightest stars in the sky. Comet PANSTARRS will be in the west after sunset passing from Cetus into Pisces. On March 12 the comet will appear to swing past Uranus, an opportunity to catch that distant planet in binoculars. More precise information on the comet’s brightness will be available closer to March.
Photo by John Chumack. Peering out the observatory window, Orion lies below Jupiter in Taurus. The Hyades cluster is below Jupiter and the Pleiades cluster floats above.
Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.
On January 1 at 9 p.m. PST the Earth passes closest to the sun in its yearly orbit, or perihelion. During perihelion, the Earth is 0.9833 AU from the sun, as compared with aphelion, when Earth is 1.0167 AU from the sun. The difference is about 5,000,000 kilometers between the two, out of a distance that averages around 150,000,000 kilometers. This small variation is not what causes the differences in our seasons, but the angle of the sun’s rays as they strike our tilted Earth. Because perihelion happens to coincide with the winter season in the north, it is possible for the coldest day of the year to be the day we are closest to the sun, and vice versa.
The year begins with Mars low in the southwest at sunset and Jupiter high in the southeastern sky in Taurus. Mars shines at magnitude 1.2 with an orange hue and Jupiter is an eye-catching point of light at magnitude -2.7.
Jupiter is lying between two star clusters, the tightly knit Pleiades and the V-shaped Hyades. A reddish star named Aldebaran is the brightest of the stars that make the V-shape of Taurus’s head. Over the course of the evening on January 21, a gibbous moon will pass between Jupiter and the Hyades with Aldebaran. The moon will come within about a degree of Jupiter, making for a nice photo-op.
Jupiter has been drawing the eye to the east for those outside in the evenings. The giant planet is shining brightly as it rises in the constellation Taurus with the compact Pleiades cluster to its upper right.
Jupiter reaches opposition in December, which is the best time for observing a planet because it rises at sunset and sets at sunrise, staying visible all night. Binoculars will show the planet’s four largest moons as they change positions each night, and a telescope will reveal the stripes on Jupiter's cloud tops and perhaps the Great Red Spot. Jupiter gives us a little gift on Christmas when it has its closest approach with the moon for the month, lying one full-moon-width away from a 95%-lit gibbous moon. The full moon occurs a couple days later, at 2:21 a.m. PST on December 28.
November has a little something for everyone, including a different array of planets for night owls versus for early birds and a total solar eclipse for Australia to the South Pacific to South America.
Jupiter and Mars are the planets to watch in the evening. On November 1, the moon will rise just below Jupiter in Taurus. Jupiter is arriving earlier in the evening now and that will be sped up by one hour after Daylight Saving Time ends on November 4. Rising in the east-northeast, Jupiter's four largest moons and the Great Red Spot can be spotted through even small telescopes.
The moon pairs up with Jupiter for a second time at the end of the month, on November 28, the night of the full moon. The moon will be at apogee on this date, its farthest point in its orbit around Earth, making it the most distant and smallest full moon of the year.
Mars stays low to the horizon after sunset. The Red Planet crosses in front of the Milky Way during November, passing deep-sky objects that make great telescopic targets. On November 23, find the Red Planet next to M28, a magnitude-6.9 globular cluster. On November 27 and 28, Mars is near the magnitude-5.2 globular cluster M22. Mars also pairs with a much more visible target, the moon, on November 15 and 16.
The planets are sticking close to the horizon during prime viewing hours for most of October, making them more of a challenge to see. After sunset on October evenings, look to the left of where the sun was to catch Mars (and maybe even Saturn) low on the horizon. Saturn is sinking and joining the sun, where it reaches conjunction toward the end of the month, but the Red Planet will stay just above the horizon for the rest of the year. On October 1, Mars will be in Libra, heading toward the claws of Scorpius.
The moon can guide you to some of the planets in mid-October. Try spotting Mercury on October 16 and 17. Mercury shines at magnitude -0.1, making it brighter than Mars, but its location closer to the sun leaves it in the sunset’s bright glow as the evening begins. On October 16, Mercury is just to the upper left of the slender crescent moon. On October 17, the moon is between Mercury (to the moon's lower right) and Mars (to the moon's upper left). On October 18, the crescent moon will lie to the upper left of magnitude 1.2 Mars, with the Red Planet’s reddish rival Antares (the Anti-Ares) shining a bit brighter at magnitude 1.0 just below Mars.
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