SPECTACULAR TRIPLE CONJUNCTION CLOSES OUT JANUARY

by William J. Bechaver

With the amazing lunar eclipse fresh in our minds, let us continue our memorable views with a spectacular conjunction to close out the month.

This week, the two brightest planets in the sky had a near conjunction in the early morning hours.

As Venus reached its high point in the morning sky earlier this month, it is now slowly descending, lower day by day, still high in the eastern sky. It is now swinging around the far side of the Sun, and appears lower, or closer to the Sun, each morning.

In turn, Jupiter, the largest planet, swung around the far side of the Sun, and was out of view in late November. But now it has reemerged on the other side of the Sun, climbing higher in the eastern sky in the morning.

And as Venus is sinking, Jupiter rose to meet it in the early morning sky. Now, the two are slowly parting, growing a little further apart as the month progresses and draws to a close.

But on the last day of January, next Thursday, the Moon will join the pair in the early morning sky. In fact, the thin, waxing crescent Moon will be less than one degree away from brilliant Venus on that morning of close conjunction.

Take note of them the morning before, the distance between the two planets, and how far the Moon is above them. Then, on Thursday, the day of conjunction, notice how the planets are a little further apart, but the Moon has joined the pair in a beautiful grouping. That will give you a stark indication how slowly the planets move in relation to each other, and how quickly the Moon moves across the sky as it travels around the Earth.

The amazing pairing of Venus and the Moon will be enhanced by the nearness of Jupiter. The planets are only a couple of degrees apart still, with the Moon less than one degree from Venus.

Venus is brighter than larger Jupiter merely because it is much closer to Earth right now. Venus is still closer than the Sun. Even though Jupiter is much larger, it is much further away on the far side of its orbit, and far beyond the Sun. It is more than six times more distant than is Venus, and more than a half a billion miles distant from Earth.

Venus is a planet much the same size as the Earth. But since it orbits closer to the Sun than are we, it is always closer to Earth than Jupiter.

Jupiter’s orbit lies far beyond that of the Earth, far beyond Mars, beyond the Asteroid belt. Though it is nearly twelve times larger than Venus, Jupiter is always dimmer in our sky, due to its great distance from us. Its distant orbit takes it far beyond the Sun.

The Moon, Venus, and Jupiter will all come together in our early morning sky on Thursday 31 January. Jupiter will rise first, about twenty minutes before the Moon, and a half an hour before Venus. They will all be visible above the horizon just after four o’clock. The Sun doesn’t rise until just after seven, so you have three hours to enjoy the grouping.

They will climb high into the sky even before the sky begins to lighten, giving ample opportunity to view them. Go out and look in the south-eastern sky. First spot the fine crescent Moon, with unmistakable, brilliant Venus very close indeed, and Jupiter just above.

Watch as the morning progresses, and the grouping climbs higher into the sky. Even watch as the sky begins to lighten, and the stars fade away, yet Jupiter and Venus remain visible, almost until the moment the Sun rises, and the sky brightens to fade out the glow of the planets, leaving only the Moon visible during daylight hours.

It will be an amazing spectacle to witness, and it’s a memorable way to close out the month with a spectacular conjunction.

Thanks for all the positive feedback about our featured columns, and your continued interest in astronomy. If you have any questions or article requests, contact us at spacescape@rocketmail.com, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for updates and additional viewing opportunities.
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• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

A LARGE ECLIPSE AND A CLOSE CONJUNCTION

by William J. Bechaver

There is no astronomical event easier to observe than a total lunar eclipse.

The event isn’t that common, but in a lifetime one has several opportunities to view them. Unlike solar eclipses, they are seen by a great percentage of the people on Earth. And observing a lunar eclipse is as easy as going out on the night of a full moon, and looking up at the Moon.

We are graced with just such a special event this week. On the night of Sunday 20 January, the event will begin just after eight o’clock that evening, local Mountain Time.

At first, little change will be obvious as the Moon enters the outer part of Earth’s shadow. But the actual observable event will begin at 20:34, when the Moon begins to pass deeper into the dark part of the shadow.

It will look like a bite has been taken out of the Moon, the bite growing larger as the evening passes.

It will progress until totality is reached, when the Moon is fully inside Earth’s shadow.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon dives into the shadow of the Earth. More accurately, the Earth passes between the Sun and Moon, casting its shadow upon the surface of the Moon.

Totality will begin about an hour after the eclipse event begins, at 21:41.

During the total phase of the eclipse, you will notice a red hue to the Moon. That is caused by the light of the Sun being bent through the atmosphere of the Earth, shining a reddish light upon the lunar surface. It is basically the red glow of the sunrise and sunset on Earth, casting its glow on its satellite.

During totality, which will last just over an hour, the Moon will appear as a huge copper penny in the sky.

The druids once thought a lunar eclipse to be a portent of doom, thinking the Moon turned a blood red to predict a great disaster or war. Recently, the term “Blood Moon” has reemerged to describe the event.

But, though not common, lunar eclipses are not that rare either, and each one can not be predicting a catastrophic event. During my lifetime, we have had 48 total lunar eclipses, the most recent last July, though not visible from The United States. Last January we were able to view one from The Americas. Each were red, and obviously no sure indicator of certain doom.

This time around, the Moon will be at a position known as perigee, which means it is in the place in its orbit when it lies closer to the Earth on that very night. Therefore, the Moon will appear slightly larger than it does during some full moon phases.

Recently, they describe such a full moon as a “Super Moon”. The size difference from month to month isn’t all that noticable. Last year’s eclipse was huge! But for the largest lunar eclipse you’ll ever see, you will want to go out on this Sunday night! It will be super, indeed!

After the 62 minutes of totality, the Moon will begin to emerge from the Earth’s shadow at 22:43. The emergence from the shadow should take just over an hour, and by midnight, the entire event will be over, with the Moon in the outer shadow of the Earth.

The only thing keeping you from seeing this spectacular event would be bad weather, as it begins in the early evening, reaches its climax before ten, and concludes by midnight. And observing it is as easy as going outside, and looking up at the Moon!

There is also a planetary observing event of note this week, just two days later. On the early morning of Tuesday 22 January, go out and look to the east. You will be able to observe a near conjunction of the brightest planets in the early morning sky.

Venus will pass within two degrees of the planet Jupiter, making the spectacular pairing something to observe.

Go out every morning this week, and look for brilliant Venus in the south-eastern sky. Just below is larger, though more distant and fainter Jupiter. Jupiter will not shine as brightly as Venus because it is much further away, yet no less spectacular to observe.

During the week, the two planets will move closer to each other, as Venus is slowly descending, having reached its peak in the morning sky earlier this month, and Jupiter is slowly rising to meet it.

On Tuesday morning, they will be at their closest, making a magical pairing of planets in the predawn sky.

Next week, the crescent Moon, fresh off the eclipse, will join the pairing of planets, which will begin to move slightly apart by then, but with the Moon joining the pair, the trio will offer even more spectacular views.

Thanks for the positive feedback about our featured columns, and your continued interest in astronomy. If you have any questions or article requests, contact us at spacescape@rocketmail.com, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for updates and additional viewing opportunities.
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• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

NEW YEAR AND A NEW FRONTIER

NASA’S MOST DISTANT FLYBY
by William J. Bechaver

It’s been nearly two and a half years since I’ve updated us on the amazing New Horizons mission, back on 4 August 2016.

Back then, the tiny spacecraft had flown a year past Pluto, and scientists had just determined its next target, the very distant Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, now named Ultima Thule.

New Horizon was launched way back in January of 2006. Ultima Thule wasn’t even discovered until eight years after the launch.

When New Horizons flew past Pluto in the summer of 2015, they had not yet determined the spacecraft’s next target. A year later, when the target was determined and identified, I wrote that New Horizons wouldn’t reach the determined target until January of 2019.

Well, last week, New Horizons reached its destination. The spacecraft is now an astounding billion miles beyond Pluto. Traveling at about 18 times faster than the speed of a rifle bullet, it took it an amazing three and a half years to reach the next object.

As it happens, this week Pluto is directly opposite the Sun from Earth, at a position furthest from Earth on the far side of the solar system. It is over three billion, two hundred million miles distant.

Ultima Thule is at a distance of four billion, a hundred million miles away, and a billion miles from Pluto. A radio signal sent to the New Horizons spacecraft takes more than six hours to reach it from Earth, traveling at the speed of light.

What’s more, Ultima Thule is very tiny. It is only about nineteen miles across. Flying past the small object at such an incredible distance, at such an astounding speed, takes very precise calculations. To make course corrections in the flight path is nearly impossible. They had to get it right from the beginning, more than two years ago.

Ultima Thule was chosen not for its prominence in the Kuiper Belt. It was chosen as a target for its position in space. It was the only object that was within reach following the Pluto flyby in 2015, using minimal fuel for course adjustments after that encounter.

The Kuiper Belt is an area of space at the outer reaches of our solar system. It contains millions of objects, many more than The Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. But at such a great distance, it is a very vast area of space, and the objects are a billion miles apart, and many are only twenty miles across, or smaller.

The Kuiper Belt is the area of space lying just beyond the orbit of Neptune, and stretching far out beyond the furthest orbit of Pluto. It is an area twenty times wider than The Asteroid Belt. Many of the objects in The Kuiper Belt are considered Trans-Neptunian in nature, because their orbits actually cross that of Neptune.

The Kuiper Belt is also the home to many smaller planets, dwarf-planets, minor-planets, and planetoids, Pluto being the most famous and notable, with it’s five known moons. Pluto was the first to be discovered, and the first to be named. There are four other bodies out there with moons of their own, so Pluto is not unique in that distant region of space. Three of them are named Haumea, Quaoar, and Orcus. Other minor-planets have been identified in the region, including Makemake, Sedna, and one which hasn’t been named yet, currently being distinguished by the year of its discovery, as 2007 OR10. Ultima Thule was merely known as 2014 MU69, until it was chosen as a flyby target, and then tentatively named.

If you have never heard of any of these distant worlds, you are not alone. Casual observers are unaware that these objects are out there, because it is impossible to observe them with the naked eye, and even through the most powerful telescopes available to man, they are merely distant, faded points of light.

The most remarkable object out there, far beyond even Pluto, and sometimes beyond the reaches of The Kuiper Belt, is Eris. Eris is the most massive known object of the region. It is about the size of Pluto, but currently is far more distant. It is nearly three times more distant from the sun than is Pluto. It takes the light of the sun 5 hours to reach Pluto and 13 hours 30 minutes to reach Eris. Since it took us 9 years to reach Pluto using our latest and fastest technology in space travel, and another three to reach the next closest object, it would take us nearly 25 years to reach Eris. If we had our fastest probe ready to launch tomorrow, it would not arrive at Eris until the year 2044. No such mission is planned, and Eris most likely will remain out of reach for a long time.

On January first, New Horizons finally reached Ultima Thule. It sent back its first pictures, the signal taking six hours to reach us before we would know if the tiny spacecraft had hit its mark, and the mission was a success.

It is by far the most distant object NASA has flown past. It is the most distant object photographed up close, and the most remote body in the solar system we have had the opportunity to investigate. It is a remnant left over from the origin of our solar system, and the secrets it holds could reveal how our solar system formed over four billion years ago.

The pictures it has sent back so far are amazing. They show a tiny, binary world, like a giant icy snowman in space. It will take about eight months for the spacecraft to send back all the data it collected during the momentary flyby on New Year’s Day. During that time, we will come to know Ultima Thule better than we have known any other such object in our solar system.

What’s next for New Horizons. As it sends back the files of data it has collected, it continues to travel ever outwards and grows ever more distant. It’s primary mission now complete, it will continue on, and eventually follow its ancestors Voyager I and Voyager II, leaving the solar system and entering interstellar space. It has enough fuel to continue to send back a signal for at least twenty years.

Thanks for the positive feedback about our featured columns, and your continued interest in astronomy. If you have any questions or article requests, contact us at spacescape@rocketmail.com, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for updates and additional viewing opportunities.
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• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

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Ultima Thule as first photographed by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

KICK OFF THE YEAR WITH THE BEST METEORS

by William J. Bechaver

Over the past few months, we’ve enjoyed a couple of outstanding meteor showers.

This week, we will have another. And this one is promised to be the best of the year!

The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks on the late night of Thursday 3 January, and continues on into the early hours of Friday morning.

The new moon occurs on Saturday evening, meaning the Moon will be completely out of the sky for the entire night, having to contend with no moonlight interference for the duration of the peak meteor activity.

This is one meteor shower that astronomers can pretty accurately predict the peak time. The shower should be peaking at about seven o’clock local time.

The point in the sky from which the meteors appear to radiate doesn’t rise into our eastern sky until early in the morning, but still the far-reaching meteors should make an impressive and long glowing track across our evening sky.

As we learned before, the further from the radiant you look, the longer and more brilliant and impressive are the meteors, so the point of origin being below the eastern horizon may prove to be advantageous for us.

A meteor shower occurs when Earth, in its orbit, passes through a debris field of icy particles left behind by a passing comet. When those icy particles impact on the upper levels of our atmosphere, they burn up upon entry, making the fireballs and “shooting stars” we see on a clear, crisp January night.

During the peak times of this shower, one could see as many as 120 per hour. But, with the point of origin, just above the constellation Hercules, not rising until well after midnight, only about half the viewing field will be visible at the time of the peak. Still, with such a high average, with only half the opportunity, we can still see one or two every minute.

Remember, meteors are irregular, so you may see several in a single minute, then go several minutes without seeing any. Also, there may be several in our viewing area, and none below the radiant, so we may be missing none below the horizon.

With our clear and steady winter skies here, meteor watching is ideal this time of year, provided that we have crystal clear skies. With this meteor shower promising to occur during the darkest skies of the year, with no lunar interference, the best meteor shower of the year may prove to be the first, a mere two days into the New Year.

The peak time for this shower is hours in duration, so the peak night will be the best. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, the number of possible meteors the following night are greatly reduced.

As we kept an eye on the planets in the evening sky, and took our final look at Saturn about a month ago, it has since fallen into the light of the sunset and out of view.

On 2 January 2019, Saturn will lie on the far side of the Sun, directly opposite Earth. Slowly, over the next month, it will reemerge in the morning sky, to join Venus and Jupiter.

Now, only Mars remains in our night sky, falling further behind Earth in its orbit, and fading more with each passing night.

Venus is a gem in the early morning hours, climbing high before the Sun brightens the sky. Jupiter remains low to the eastern horizon, and hard to pick out of the early morning glare.

Thanks for the positive feedback about our featured columns, and your continued interest in astronomy. If you have any questions or article requests, contact us at spacescape@rocketmail.com, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for updates and additional viewing opportunities.
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• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

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