Category Archives: Astronomy

Venus and Jupiter Tonight, March 9, 2012

The image above shows Venus and Jupiter at 6:25 p.m. CST on March 9, 2012. Watch the two get closer to each other during the next few nights. For more details see this month’s skywatching update.

Sky Watching, March 2012

Moon Phases:

Full Moon — 3/8
Last Quarter — 3/14
New Moon — 3/22
First Quarter — 3/30

Daylight Saving Time begins for most states in the U.S. on March 11 at 2 a.m. local time.  Advance clocks 1 hour.

The Vernal Equinox occurs on March 20 at 12:14 a.m. CDT, signalling the beginning of Spring.  Daylight increases for three months until late June.  At this time, the sun appears directly above the equator, meaning that individuals living at the equator have the sun appear directly overhead.  The sun does not appear directly overhead from the Chicago area.

The month opens with the spectacular Venus-Jupiter gathering in the western sky, just after sunset.  With binoculars and a clear horizon, locate Mercury low in the sky early in the month. 

By mid-month, Jupiter and Venus appear close together.  While millions of miles apart, the two planets appear about 3 degrees (six full moons) apart.  The chart above shows the pair on March 12, one of the nights they appear closest.  Notice the view is one hour later as daylight saving time (advance your clock one hour) on March 11.

The animation above shows Venus and Jupiter each night during March 2012 in the early evening sky.  Watch to two planets appear to converge then separate.

After the closest pairing of Jupiter and Venus, the moon appears in the western sky with them in late March.  Here’s what to look for at approximately 8:15 CDT in Chicago:

March 24:  The waxing crescent moon appears below Jupiter and Venus, near the western horizon.
March 25: Jupiter and the moon are paired nicely, with the moon appearing slightly higher and to the right of Jupiter
March 26:  Tonight, Venus and the moon are nicely paired with both objects appearing about the same height above the western horizon.  This is the night to catch a classic photographic view of the moon and Venus together.
March 27:  The moon stands above Venus and Jupiter as the planetary pair continues to separate.

At the same time that the brilliant group gleams in the western sky, Mars lies low in the eastern sky.  It is the brightest starlike object in this part of the sky, but it dramatically under shines the bright duo in the west.  Mars appears slightly red-orange and its color can be distinguished with binoculars.  On March 3,Earth passes between the sun and Mars — an opposition.  At this time, Mars is about 60 million miles away.  An opposition for Mars occurs about every 25 months.  Because Mars’ orbit is moderately elliptical, this opposition occurs when Mars is farthest from the sun (aphelion), it is not as close or as bright as several previous oppositions.

The waxing gibbous moon appears near Mars on March 6 and March 7.

A few days  later, the Moon appears near Saturn and Spica.  Saturn rises just around midnight in the southeastern sky.  The chart above shows the planet-star pair with the moon for March 10 and March 11.  The constellation Corvus is nearby.

The chart above shows the planets at mid_March 2012. Notice that an imaginary line extended from Earth to Venus goes to Jupiter. That is why the two planets appear close together in our sky, but they are widely separated in space. Additionally notice that our planet is between Mars and the sun — they are on opposite sides of Earth.

Venus, Jupiter and the Moon, Feb 2012

There’s a bright “you shouldn’t miss this” event occuring during the late February, 2012.  The objects are so bright that casual sky watchers can view this grouping of planets and the moon without a telescope or binoculars.  During the next few evenings, look for the moon, Venus, and Jupiter in the western sky, just after sunset.  The chart above shows the western sky at about 6:45 p.m. in the Chicago area.  Venus is the brightest starlike object in the evening sky.  Jupiter, a little dimmer than Venus, stands (east) above and to the left (south) of Venus.  Here are the events to watch:

  • February 24:  The waxing crescent moon appears below (west) and to the right (north) of Venus.

Image Credit

  • February 25:  In one day the moon moves so that it appears to the upper right of Venus.  During these evenings the nighttime side of the moon is illuminated by sunlight reflected from our planet, as the image above shows.  This gently illuminates the night portion of the moon in a similar effect to when a full moon illuminates the ground here.  From the moon, the earth’s phase is just past full.
  • February 26:  The moon appears higher and to Jupiter’s lower right.
  • February 27:  Jupiter appears beneath the moon.

During the next few weeks watch Jupiter and Venus pass in the early evening sky.  More in the March 2012 sky watching update that will be published here soon.

February 2012 Skywatching


Orion, winter’s flagship constellation, is in the southern skies during the evening hours of February.  The pattern is easily found by locating three stars of nearly equal brightness and equal spacing about halfway up in the southern skies.  This represents Orion’s belt.   The reddish star Betelgeuse can be found above the belt stars and bluish Rigel below.  The two stars are display contrasts of star color.  Compare the two stars’ colors through binoculars.  The colors indicate temperatures.  Rigel is much hotter than Betelgeuse.  In addition, Betelgeuse is very large.  The sun and  inner solar system could fit inside an empty Betelgeuse.
While you have your binoculars, look for the Great Orion Nebula among the stars of Orion’s sword.  The nebula has a distinct, greenish glow.  The fantastic colors in photographs do not appear to the human eye.   Film and electronic photography have the ability to collect light over long time periods where the colors are revealed.
During February, we experience about 1 hour of additional sunlight in the Chicago area.  By month’s end the sun sets around 5:40 p.m. and rises around 6:30 a.m.  This year we add a day to the calendar to account for the earth’s revolution around the sun.  To keep our calendar matched with the seasons, we add a day.  If we do not reset the calendar every four years, eventually the coldest days of the year would occur when the calendar reads July.  See the US Naval Observatory for a longer description.
Moon Phases
Full — February 7
Last — February 14
New — February 21
First — February 29

As the sky darkens during early February 2012,  two bright planets dominate  the sky.  Venus shines brightly in the western sky, standing above the horizon and Jupiter gleams from the southern skies.  Early in the month, the moon is east of the planets and outside the view shown above.

At night only the moon outshines Venus in brilliance. In turn Venus easily outshines Jupiter, appearing about 6 times brighter than the solar system’s largest planet.  Venus is our planet’s nearest neighbor and its clouds are highly reflective as they return over 70% of the sunlight that reaches them.

Jupiter takes nearly 12 years to orbit the sun once.  As we revolve around the sun each year, stars appear in the morning sky just before sunrise.  Each day they rise earlier than the previous day.  Each week they appear farther toward the west at the same time.  This westward movement of the stars reflects our revolution to the east in our planet’s orbit.  Because Jupiter revolves so slowly, its location in the sky reflects the westward movement of the stars in general, with some differences.

Several weeks after appearing in the morning sky, the stars and Jupiter appear in the east around sunset.  Looking each week at the same time, we notice that the stars are higher in the east.  Several weeks later, the stars are in the south at sunset, continuing to appear farther west at the same time.  As Earth revolves, the stars appear in the west as the sky darkens, and then reappear in the eastern sky just before sunrise, repeating this annual cycle. 

As this westward match continues, watch Jupiter during February approach Venus.  Late in the month, the moon passes in the region of Venus and Jupiter as indicated on the chart above, February 24-27.

As an extra, with binoculars or at low power in small telescope, look for the planet Uranus near Venus on February 9.  With optical aid, Uranus will display a bluish-green disk while the stars will appear as points.  The chart above shows a magnified view of the area around Venus.  Uranus is just at the limit of human eyesight in a dark sky, so some magnification through a binocular or small telescope will be needed.

With binoculars on February 22, look for Mercury and the moon low in the west at 5:45 p.m.  Locate a view spotting with a good view of the natural horizon, away from houses and trees.

Mars shines brightly from the eastern evening skies during the month near Denebola, the star that represents Leo’s tail, although it is one-third the brightness of Jupiter and only about one-tenth the brightness of Venus.  During the month Mars will increase in brightness as our planet approaches and passes the Red Planet.  On the evening of February 9, the moon appears nearby.

A few nights later, the Moon appears near the star Spica and Saturn with constellation Corvus nearby.  The chart above shows the view at 1 a.m.  As the night progresses, the moon and other objects will appear to rise, appearing in the southern skies around sunrise.

The chart above shows the positions of the planets in the solar system at mid-month.  With the planets moving in a counter clockwise motion, Earth is catching up and readying to pass Mars.  Venus moves faster than Earth and it is slowly catching up with our planet.

Take a look at the sky this month!

January 2012 Sky Watching

Taurus the Bull is visible high in southern skies during January

January opens with a sky full of stars and planets in the evening sky.  Taurus the Bull appears high in the southern skies during January’s evening hours.  Two bright star clusters, known as the Hyades and the Pleiades, help construct the constellation.  The “V” shaped cluster forms the bull’s head and face, although the bright reddish star Aldebaran that forms the bull’s eye is not part of the cluster.  Aldebaran is one of the largest stars in our part of the galaxy.  If placed in our solar system, it would extend beyond the orbit of Mars.  The Pleiades ride on the bull’s back.  The Taurus region of the sky is best explored with the low power of binoculars.  The stars in the clusters are so widely spread that they are best viewed with at low power.

Moon Phases

First Quarter:          January 1 & January 31
Full Moon:                January 9
Last Quarter:           January 16
New Moon                January 23

Our planet, Earth, reaches perihelion — its closest point to the sun — on January 4 at 6 p.m. CST.  At this time we are 91,401,967 miles from the sun. 
Along with the bright stars, Venus and Jupiter shine brightly in the clear January skies. 
Venus can be seen low in the western sky throughout the month.  As the planet slowly catches up to our planet, Earth, in its orbit, it rises higher in the sky and gets brighter each evening.  The moon is nearby on January 25 and 26.  Only two other objects are regularly brighter than Venus:  the sun and the moon.  It can be easily mistaken for the bright lights on an airplane.
The moon passes Jupiter early in January 2012.The moon makes a return pass by Jupiter later in the month.
The moon passes Jupiter a second time in late January 2012.
Jupiter shines brightly, although not at bright as Venus, from the southern skies during the early evening.  Venus shines about 4 times brighter than Jupiter.  The moon passes Jupiter twice this month as the charts above show, first early in the month (January 2) and then again on January 29 and 30.
Morning Sky

Mercury opens 2012 low in the southeastern sky before dawn.  The planet is difficult to locate without a good horizon and binoculars.  Antares and Sabik are nearby.  Mercury disappears into the bright sun’s glare during the second week of the month and is invisible until it appears in the evening sky in late February.

Mars rises in the eastern sky around midnight this month, appearing near Denebola — Leo’s tail.  On January 13, its identification is easier when the moon is nearby.

A few days later, the moon is near Saturn.  At 5:30 a.m. on January 16, the moon appears near the planet and Spica.

On the morning of January 19, the moon makes a nice configuration with Antares and the stars of Scorpius around 5:30 a.m.

The chart above shows the positions of the visible planets at mid January 2012.  Mercury is headed for superior conjunction (behind the sun) and Mars for opposition (Earth is between Mars and the sun.)  Saturn and Jupiter are nearly on opposite sides of the their planetary orbits from each other.

Skywatching, December 2011

Image Credit

The Sun reaches its southern-most point in its yearly travels at 11:30 p.m. CST on December 21, signalling the beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere and the beginning of summer for southern latitudes.  This is the Winter (December) Solstice.

The Moon  is in total lunar eclipse on December 10, but the best parts of the eclipse are not visible from the Chicago area.  The eclipse begins at 5:33 a.m. CST, when the moon enters Earth’s penumbra.  The lunar darkening is largely unnoticed by most observers.  At 6:45 a.m. CST, the moon enters the darker shadow where the partial eclipse begins.  The moon is very low in the western sky, setting only 25 minutes later.  The sky is brightening as the moon sets with sunrise.  Farther west in the U.S. more of the eclipse is visible, although the full eclipse is visible from the Pacific, Australia and Asia.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon crosses into the earth’s shadow.  The moon’s orbit is tilted slightly compared to the earth’s orbit.  The moon does not cross into the shadow each month.  The next total lunar eclipse visible from the Chicago region is April 15, 2014.  Parts of a partial lunar eclispse are visible  June 4, 2012.

Moon Phases

First Quarter — 12/2
Full Moon — 12/10
Last Quarter — 12/18
New Moon — 12/24


Mercury moves rapidly past Earth (inferior conjunction) on December 4 and into the morning sky.  During the last half of the month it makes an appearance low in the eastern sky somewhat near the star Antares.  The chart above shows Mercury, the moon, and Antares at 6:30 a.m. on December 22.  Find a place with a clear view of the horizon to see the widely spaced trio.  Binoculars will help locate Mercury and Antares.

Venus is the bright “star” in the southwest, just after sunset.  Its brilliance can be easily confused for an airplane.  Late in the month, the moon appears near Venus as displayed on the chart above.

Mars is a reddish “star” that rises around 10:30 p.m. during this month.  It is near the stars of Leo (Denebola and Regulus).  On December 16 and 17, the moon is nearby and is identified on the chart above in the southern skies at 5 a.m.

As the sky darkens each evening with Venus in the west, bright Jupiter is in the eastern sky.  Jupiter rises during the daytime and is high in the southeast by 8 p.m.  The chart above shows Jupiter and the moon for December 5 and 6.  Jupiter appears to move westward as  our planet rotates, setting in the western sky around 3 a.m.

Saturn rises during the predawn hours and is visible low in the southeast around 5 a.m.  It is near the star Spica.  The constellation Corvus is nearby.  One December 19 and 20, the moon helps with the identification of Saturn and Spica.

Viewing the morning sky, three planets (Mercury, Saturn, and Mars) line up across the sky in late December.  At 6:40 a.m., Mercury is low in the east, Saturn is in the south, and Mars is higher in the southwest.  The chart above shows the three planets at this time.

Viewing the solar system from above, the trio described above are on the same side of the sun as Earth, appearing in the morning sky.  Venus and Jupiter are in the other side appearing in the evening sky.

As the daylight continues to shrink, the bright winter sky appears earlier and stays longer, giving observers an opportunity for some skywatching.

November Sky Watching

The immense Andromeda galaxy, also known as Messier 31 or simply M31, is captured in full in this new image from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The mosaic covers an area equivalent to more than 100 full moons, or five degrees across the sky. WISE used all four of its infrared detectors to capture this picture (3.4- and 4.6-micron light is colored blue; 12-micron light is green; and 22-micron light is red). Blue highlights mature stars, while yellow and red show dust heated by newborn, massive stars.  More details.

NASA Photo

November evening skies are a transition between the bright stars that dominate summer and winter skies.  Our summer view of the Milky Way is shifted towards the west and the winter section appears in the eastern sky later in the night.  This permits views of celestial wonders beyond the bounds of our home galaxy.  The magnificent Andromeda Galaxy,also known as M31, is nearly overhead throughout the month.  Binoculars will reveal a fuzzy patch of light.  The photo above shows a satellite view of the galaxy revealing stars of varying ages.

Moon Phases

First Quarter November 2
Full November 10
Last Quarter November 18
New November 25

As for the planets visible this month from the Chicago area and across the globe at northern mid-latitudes,  Mercury and Venus are low in the southwest during evening twilight.  The accompanying video shows their positions each evening for the month.  The video repeats twice.  To locate this pair, find a location with a clear horizon.  With binoculars locate them in the southwest sky.  Mercury moves very quickly.  It is visible near Venus for most of the month then disappears into the sun’s glare.

 At month’s end Venus appears near a crescent moon on November 26.

Daylight Saving Time ends 2 a.m. Central Time for the time zone on November 6.  During the month we lose another hour of daylight as the sun appears farther to the south.

A solar eclipse occurs on November 25, but it is visible from the southern hemisphere (South Africa, Antarctica, Tasmania, and New Zealand).

Mars is a morning planet that is visible high in the southeast before sunrise.

Early in the month, Mars appears to pass Regulus.  Watch Mars’ rapid eastward motion compared to Regulus by looking each clear morning.  They appear closest on the morning of November 10.

 About a week later, the moon appears near Mars and Regulus.  In the diagrams above, notice how far Mars has moved past Regulus, since their closest appearance.

Jupiter appears in the east at sunset.  It is brighter than all celestial objects in its vicinity, except when the moon appears nearby on the evenings of November 8 and 9.  The planet is in the south around midnight and in the west during morning twilight.

Saturn rises in the east before sunrise, appearing near Spica.  The moon is nearby on November 22.

The planets’ positions in their orbits are shown for mid-November 2011.

Share your observations in the comments section.

Sky Watching — August 2011

A Perseid Meteor

The player above is for the Abrams Planetarium Podcast for August 2011

August is Perseid Meteor Shower time.  Each year during the summer months (mid-July through late August), the earth crosses the track of Comet Swift-Tuttle.  The path is full of dusty debris that has been scattered along the comet’s orbit.  These fine particles are orbiting the sun and they hit our atmosphere.  The meteor events occur when the particles enter the atmosphere and they vaporize.  We see a quick flashes of light — meteors, shooting stars.   Perseid meteors can been seen anywhere in the sky, but they seem to emerge from the constellation Perseus and are named for that radiant point.  Perseids are best observed after midnight when the radiant constellation rises high in the northeastern sky.  On the peak morning, August 13 this year, about 60 meteors per hour are visible.  This year, the moon is full and in the sky when the shower peaks.  Only the brightest meteors are visible.  On August 11, the moon sets around 3:30 a.m. and at 4:30 a.m. on the next morning.  On these two mornings, a large number of Perseids can be seen before twilight begins.
In the photo above, the single Perseid meteor streaks across the field of view during a long time exposure as the stars appear as parallel arcs.

Moon Phases









Mercury and the Moon
Mercury can be seen with a waning cresecent moon on August 27, 2011.

Let’s start this month’s sky watching with an “extra for experts.”   Mercury is an elusive planet and usually very difficult to see.  It is best seen during either autumn mornings or spring evenings when the plane of the solar system makes a very favorable angle with the horizon.  Mercury is visible late in the month about 30-45 minutes before sunrise.  With binoculars and with a good view of the natural horizon, look for it low in the eastern sky.  A thin crescent moon is nearby about 30 minutes before sunrise on August 27.

Venus is not visible during August.  It is at superior conjunction on August 16; that is, it is behind the sun and lost in the bright sunlight of daytime.

The moon and Mars in the morning sky
Look for Mars in the predawn skies among the stars of Gemini. Late in August, the moon appears nearby.

Mars is a morning star in front of the stars of Gemini, starting to rise early enough to be seen in a dark sky in the east.  While visible throughout the month in the predawn eastern sky, it rises around 3:30 a.m. at mid-month, later earlier in the month.  On the morning of August 25, the moon is nearby as shown in the chart above.  Castor and Pollux, the Gemini Twins, are nearby throughout the month.

The moon appears near Jupiter on August 20, 2011.

Jupiter shines brightly in the predawn sky throughout the month.  It easily outshines the other stars in that region of the sky.  On the morning of August 20, the moon appears near Jupiter and Hamal, the brightest star in Aries.

Skywatching August 3, 2011
Look for the Moon and Saturn on August 3, 2011 after sunset.

Saturn shines from the western sky throughout August.  The moon passes near Saturn early in the month as shown in the diagram above.  The bright star Spica is nearby.

This chart shows the positions of the visible planets on August 15, 2011.

The chart above shows the planets on August 15, 2011.

The moon passes Antares on August 7, 2011 in the evening sky

In early August the moon passes in front of the stars of Scorpius during the early evening hours.  One bright star, Antares, makes a nice pairing with our lunar neighbor on the evening of August 7th.  The stars do not have vivid colors, although Antares shines in a ruddy color.  The star’s name is sometimes translated as the “Rival of Mars.”  Ares is the Greek version of the god of war (Mars).

Antares is quite unusual.  Its distance is measured at about 600 light years.  A star like our sun is not visible at that distance without the assistance of a telescope.  Antares is known as a red supergiant.  In the final stages of its life cycle, it shines at the brightness of 65,000 suns.  It is enormous with a volume that, if empty, would hold over 500 million stars the size of our sun.  Placed in our solar system, its volume would extend into the vicinity of Jupiter, some 480 million miles from the center of our solar system.

Video Credit

Antares lies to on the west side of the Milky Way, the greatest density of stars, that outlines the plane of the galaxy by the same name.  The Milky Way stretches high in the eastern sky and then  into the north.  As August evenings progress, the great mass of stars rises higher in the sky.  The faint Milky Way glow can be seen during times when the moon is dimmer, such as before First Quarter and after Last Quarter, and in the countryside that is free from the glow of bright streetlights.  The time-lapse video above shows the Milky Way rising.  In the movie look carefully for Antares as it rises and it is low in the sky to the west (right) of the Milky Way.  The movie is made in the spring when Antares and the Milky Way rise later in the night.

Take a look at the sky events and tell us what you are observing on the comments section of this posting.

Observing the Sky in July 2011

 NASA Photo
This month:
There is a partial solar eclipse visible only from the ocean south-east of Africa. It is not visible from anywhere in North America.

Moon Phases

New 7/1 & 7/30
First Quarter 7/8
Full 7/15
Last 7/23

July has two new moons.  As infrequent as two full moons in a month, popularly known as a “blue moon,” the two-new-moon month has no official astronomical name.  The “blue moon” designation has no official astronomical name, but somewhat goes along with the “once in a blue moon” phrase.  Additionally, sometimes after volcanic eruptions, ash in the atmosphere gives the moon a bluish cast.  Since these eruptions are infrequent, the blue moon color effect related to these events is also very infrequent.  The second new moon in a month is sometimes called a “black moon” in some circles — though again this event has no official name.

Look for the Moon and elusive Mercury after sunset early in the month. This diagram and other B&W Diagrams from Sky Calendar. Used with permission.
 Early in the month, Mercury appears in the western sky during evening twilight.  This planet is difficult to see and it never appears in a dark sky.  As with the clustering of the planets in the morning sky in May, use binoculars to view the planet.  At around 9 p.m. in the Chicago area, locate a viewing spot with a good western horizon.  On Saturday, the moon appears to the lower left of Mercury appearing the West-NorthWest sky.   On Sunday, July 3, the moon appears at about the same altitude as Mercury but farther to the left.
Support the Sky Calendar:  Get a monthly calendar depicting daily astronomical events.  Subscribe to the Sky Calendar at any time for $11 per year at Sky Calendar, Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan 48824.
 As the moon approaches First Quarter, it appears near the star Spica and the planet Saturn.  Distinctly yellow, Saturn’s rings can be seen through a small telescope.  Close inspection will reveal shadows of the rings on the planet’s cloud tops and Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, in the same plane of the rings.   The chart above shows the waxing moon, Spica, and Saturn on July 7.
July 12, Happy Birthday Neptune!  The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has declared this date as the anniversary of the discovery of Neptune based on Neptune’s orbit.  The planet was first observed on the night of September 23/24, 1846.  The planet takes nearly 165 earth-years to orbit the sun.  On July 12, the planet completes one solar orbit, and one Neptunian year since its first observation from Earth; that’s 6+ human generations!  So let’s go with RASC’s declaration!  Happy Discovery, Neptune! 
July 20, a special date1969 — Apollo 11 moon landing.  1976 — Viking 1 martian landing.
On July 24, the moon appears near Jupiter during early morning hours.
As the moon moves past its full phase and into its waxing phases, it passes Jupiter on  the mornings of July 23 and July 24.  Look for the moon near the Pleiades on the Morning of July 25.
 As the moon moves toward the new phase, it appears near Mars on the predawn hours of July 27.  A thin crescent moon appears to the upper right of a distinctly red-orange Mars.
Report here on what you are seeing in the sky in our comments section.  The section is there for questions so that we can include answers in future postings.
Happy Viewing!