VENUS GLEAMS IN THE EVENING SKY

by William J. Bechaver

Though the Moon doesn’t get extremely close to Venus this month, no closer than six degrees, the two have been forming a beautiful pair in the evening sky this week.

Primarily because Venus is so high in the sky, and remains high long after sunset, when the sky has completely darkened, it is a prominent and noteworthy apparition with the Moon this week.

The two are closest together tonight, as the crescent Moon climbs up to meet it. With such dark skies, look to see the dark side of the Moon as well.

The crescent of the Moon is lit by light from the Sun, of course. But the dark side will be slightly illuminated by a phenomena known as Earth Shine. The light reflected from Earth actually can be seen reflecting off the dark portion of the Moon, dimly illuminating the entire lunar disk. As moonlight from a full Moon illuminates our nights here on Earth, so does the full Earth shed light on the night side of the Moon.

When the Moon swings around again next month, Venus will be near its highest point in the evening sky, but the Moon will not get as near to it as it does this month.

The Moon makes its closest approach to Venus tonight, Thursday 27 February. Go out just after sunset and you can spot Venus and the Moon forming a beautiful pair in the evening sky. Look again tomorrow to see how far the Moon moves in a single day, and look closely to catch the Earth’s light shining on the dark side of the Moon.

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.

Astronomical Times And Distances of naked-eye objects for this weekend.

Sun Set = 5:52 p.m.
7 minute later than last week
92.10 million miles from Earth
149,993 miles further than last week
Venus Set = 9:32 p.m.
13 minutes later than last week
82.59 million miles from Earth
4,694,286 miles nearer than last week
Moon Set = 11:37 p.m.
6 hours 39 minutes later than last week
248,645 miles from Earth
1,565 miles nearer than last week
Mars Rise = 3:17 a.m.
7 minutes earlier than last week
158.75 million miles from Earth
5,317,081 miles nearer than last week
Jupiter Rise = 3:54 a.m.
23 minutes earlier than last week
535.42 million miles from Earth
7,946,699 miles nearer than last week
Saturn Rise = 4:25 a.m.
25 minutes earlier than last week
997.16 million miles from Earth
7,000,130 miles nearer than last week
Mercury Rise = 5:52 a.m.
45 minute earlier than last week
58.81 million miles from Earth
2,933,573 miles nearer than last week
Sun Rise = 6:29 a.m.
10 minutes earlier than last week
92.11 million miles from Earth
150,421 miles further than last week
11,628 miles further than last night

First Quarter Moon occurs on Monday, March 2nd, at 12:57 p.m.

Note: Times are local Mountain Time. Actual sundown is about ten minutes earlier than calculated sunset. Along the front range, differing times vary depending on your distance from the mountains.
________________
• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

– –

The planets and their relative positions in the solar system for this weekend.–

Planet sizes and distances are obviously not to scale.

WHERE ARE OUR INTREPID VOYAGERS

by William J. Bechaver

Way back in August and September of 1977, NASA launched the two Voyager spacecraft.

Within just over three years, Voyager 1 had encountered Jupiter and Saturn and their many satellites, moons, and ring systems. Then, it headed out of the solar system, taking an upward trajectory away from the plane of the solar system, heading away, off into space.

Voyager 2 continued on for nine more years, encountering Uranus, and then Neptune, before continuing off into deep space.

It took the two many more years before they actually left the solar system.

Voyager 1 didn’t leave the heliosphere until September 2012.

The heliosphere is the area of space under the gravitational and magnetic influence of the Sun.

Voyager hadn’t entered interstellar space until it had successfully crossed that barrier. It was the first man-made object to do so, to leave the solar system.

Voyager 2 successfully crossed the barrier into interstellar space in 2018.

Both spacecraft have continued to operate, sending back signals to NASA. Both are currently in their forty-third year of operation.

With dismay, NASA lost contact with Voyager 2 at the end of last month. With analysis, they determined that it had gone into some form of standby mode.

Amazingly, they have announced that Voyager 2 is now back on line and operating once again.

It has now been speculated that Voyager 2 may have put itself into a protection mode, to conserve the limited amount of energy that remains. Two of Voyagers instruments may have been operating at the same time, triggering a programed shutdown.

The programming analyzed the energy output, and determined it was too great a drain on the vehicles remaining power. So Voyager performed a controlled shutdown to conserve energy, and preserve its life. A final analysis of the problem has not yet been released by NASA.

But last week, NASA did announce that the cause of the problem had been determined, and corrected, and that the vehicle had been successfully rebooted and reactivated.

So, NASA managed to reactivate the most distant object by radio signal, and at Voyager 2’s immense distance, that is no easy feat.

Voyager 1 is the most distant object made by man. Currently at a distance of more than 13.82 billion miles from Earth, it is currently more than four times more distant than Pluto right now.

With the current distance of Voyager 2, it takes radio signals more than 17 hours to reach the vehicle. Radio signals travel at the speed of light, but to communicate with the Voyager spacecraft, it takes 17 hours for the light signal from Earth to reach them, and then takes 17 hours for the reply signal to return to Earth, a minimum of 35 hours to know if a signal sent to Voyager is successful.

And currently, Voyager 2 is traveling at nearly 34,400 miles per hour, or a speed 13 times faster than the muzzle velocity of a rifle bullet on Earth.

So, with a vehicle the size of a small car, using a signal about as strong as a small lightbulb, sending it over such a vast distance with a vehicle racing through space at such tremendous speeds, NASA was still able to analyze the problem, and turn Voyager 2 on again.

A return signal has been successfully received, indicating that the spacecraft is operating at its normal deep-space capacity.

So, with both vehicles successfully back on line, they continue to communicate with us, periodically sending us information about interstellar space.

With their current power supply thus conserved, it is estimated that they can continue to operate until sometime in 2025, when their power will at last be depleted, and they will shut down, growing silent forever.

Don’t forget to check out Venus and the Moon in the west in our evening sky later in the week, for they will provide beautiful views indeed.

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.

Astronomical Times And Distances of naked-eye objects for this weekend.

Sun Set = 5:45 p.m.
8 minute later than last week
91.95 million miles from Earth
140,298 miles further than last week
Mercury Set = 6:18 p.m.
40 minute earlier than last week
61.74 million miles from Earth
12,687,789 miles nearer than last week
Venus Set = 9:19 p.m.
12 minutes later than last week
87.28 million miles from Earth
4,576,660 miles nearer than last week
Mars Rise = 3:24 a.m.
6 minutes earlier than last week
164.09 million miles from Earth
5,317,081 miles nearer than last week
Jupiter Rise = 4:17 a.m.
22 minutes earlier than last week
543.36 million miles from Earth
7,244,789 miles nearer than last week
Saturn Rise = 4:50 a.m.
25 minutes earlier than last week
1.00 billion miles from Earth or
1,004.16 million miles from Earth
6,042,034 miles nearer than last week
Sun Rise = 6:39 a.m.
8 minutes earlier than last week
91.96 million miles from Earth
140,976 miles further than last week
11,201 miles further than last night

New Moon occurs on Sunday, February 23rd, at 8:32 a.m.

Note: Times are local Mountain Time. Actual sundown is about ten minutes earlier than calculated sunset. Along the front range, differing times vary depending on your distance from the mountains.
________________
• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

– –

The planets and their relative positions in the solar system for this weekend.

Planet sizes and distances are obviously not to scale.

THE MOON HIDES MARS

by William J. Bechaver

This week, the Moon will find all the visible outer planets in the morning sky. But what’s more impressive, for a time, it will hide one of them.

During the early morning hours of Tuesday 18 February, the Moon will actually pass in front of the planet Mars, and everyone in the western United States is perfectly located to witness this amazing planetary event.

Just after three-thirty in the morning, the Moon will rise, followed only six minutes later by the planet Mars, just below and to the left of the Moon.

The planet is distant so will be dim, just below the bright limb of the crescent Moon, so it may be useful to use a pair of binoculars to better view the red planet next to the brightness of the Moon.

As the two rise higher into the sky, the Moon will slowly move over lower Mars, and the planet will pass behind the edge of the Moon.

Watch for the Moon to cover Mars about an hour after they rise, at 04:40 local Mountain Time. It will take about fifteen seconds for the entire disk of Mars to be covered behind the edge of the Moon.

Mars will remain concealed behind the Moon for about an hour and twenty minutes, until it will emerge from the darkened side of the Moon, at 06:00, about forty-five minutes before sunrise.

In Colorado, the sky will begin to lighten slightly before the event is over, at six o’clock, so with the lightening sky, it will be prudent to also use binoculars to watch the emergence.

The following morning, Wednesday 19 February, the Moon will be very near Jupiter. The crescent Moon will rise just after 04:20, with Jupiter rising about ten minutes later, to its lower left. The Moon will get closer to the gas giant as they rise higher, and are finally lost to the glare of the morning sky two hours later, before sunrise.

The Moon will actually pass in front of Jupiter that day, also. But you would have to be in Antarctica or on the southern tip of South America to witness that event. There is no place on Earth to witness both events.

And the following morning, Thursday 20 February, the Moon will rise just after 05:10, about ten minutes after Saturn, which though dim, will appear above and to the left of the ever thinning crescent Moon. You will have about an hour and a half to view the rising pair before the Sun rises. See how long you can discern the ringed planet next to the fine Moon, as the gap between the two closes before dawn.

So, this week, the Moon will actually point the way to all of the planets visible in the morning sky, and on Tuesday, it will actually hide one for a time. All three pairings will be spectacular, with Tuesday’s rare event being the most memorable and noteworthy.

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.

Astronomical Times And Distances of naked-eye objects for this weekend.

Sun Set = 5:37 p.m.
7 minute later than last week
91.81 million miles from Earth
123,259 miles further than last week
Mercury Set = 6:58 p.m.
1 minute earlier than last week
74.43 million miles from Earth
17,848,230 miles nearer than last week
Venus Set = 9:07 p.m.
13 minutes later than last week
91.86 million miles from Earth
4,458,365 miles nearer than last week
Moon Rise = 1:17 a.m.
8 hours 19 minutes later than last week
235,589 miles from Earth
10,756 miles further than last week
Mars Rise = 3:30 a.m.
6 minutes earlier than last week
169.40 million miles from Earth
5,278,895 miles nearer than last week
Jupiter Rise = 4:39 a.m.
22 minutes earlier than last week
550.61 million miles from Earth
6,477,253 miles nearer than last week
Saturn Rise = 5:15 a.m.
25 minutes earlier than last week
1.01 billion miles from Earth or
1,010.21 million miles from Earth
5,012,734 miles nearer than last week
Sun Rise = 6:47 a.m.
8 minutes earlier than last week
91.82 million miles from Earth
124,821 miles further than last week
10,522 miles further than last night

Third Quarter Moon occurs on Saturday, February 15th, at 3:17 p.m.

Note: Times are local Mountain Time. Actual sundown is about ten minutes earlier than calculated sunset. Along the front range, differing times vary depending on your distance from the mountains.
________________
• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

– –

The planets and their relative positions in the solar system for this weekend.–

–Planet sizes and distances are obviously not to scale.

MERCURY’S QUICK SWING AROUND THE SUN

by William J. Bechaver

Despite being so close to the Earth, Mercury is the hardest of the inner planets to see.

Two factors affect the difficulty to spot it. One is its small size. The other is its proximity to the Sun.

Mercury is a very small planet. Its mean diameter is only 3,032 miles, that’s only 874 miles larger than that of Earth’s Moon.

This week, Mercury will climb highest in the western sky, before it begins to descend back toward the Sun.

Mercury has an extremely elliptical orbit. The farthest point from the Sun is nearly twice as far as when it passes closest.

During this week’s viewing, as it climbs furthest from the Sun that it will be, it happens to be on the very day it is closest to the Sun it its orbit. So, during this passage, it will only be eighteen degrees from the setting Sun, the lowest high point it can have. It will only be 28.53 million miles from the Sun on that evening.

Usually, we would use the Moon to locate Mercury to make it easy to find. But this month, such an opportunity doesn’t present itself. By the time the crescent Moon arrives again in the evening sky, Mercury will be gone, too near the Sun to view.

Mercury, being in such a tight path around the Sun, makes one complete orbit in only 88 days. Being on the short side of its tight orbit this week, it will take only a couple of weeks to descend and be lost in the Sun’s glare.

On the evening of Monday 10 February, Mercury will be at the highest point in the western sky, the furthest it will appear from the Sun as viewed from Earth, on the evening it is closest to the Sun in its orbit. A mere fifteen days later, on Tuesday 25 February, Mercury will pass closest to the Earth, directly between the Earth and Sun, though it will be lost to sight from Earth.

Mercury’s closest approach to the Sun on February 10th will be only 28.53 million miles from the Sun. On that evening, it will be highest in the evening sky, but 87.10 million miles from Earth. In two weeks, when it passes between the Earth and Sun, it will be only 59.14 million miles from Earth, and 33.22 million miles from the Sun. At its greatest distance from the Sun, one month later, it will be 43.41 million miles from the Sun, but 83.86 million miles from Earth.

So, Mercury has an extremely elongated orbit, and travels around the Sun very quickly, making it very difficult to view during this pass, because it remains so close to the Sun when viewed from Earth. It will climb higher when it reemerges in the morning sky during the next couple of weeks, climbing to twenty eight degrees on March 23rd, just two days after encountering a crescent Moon in the morning sky, at a point almost furthest from the Sun. We’ll have a better opportunity to view it then.

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.

Astronomical Times And Distances of naked-eye objects for this weekend.

Sun Set = 5:30 p.m.
8 minute later than last week
91.69 million miles from Earth
99,137 miles further than last week
Mercury Set = 6:59 p.m.
25 minutes later than last week
92.28 million miles from Earth
16,458,085 miles nearer than last week
Venus Set = 8:54 p.m.
14 minutes later than last week
96.32 million miles from Earth
4,337,327 miles nearer than last week
Mars Rise = 3:36 a.m.
6 minutes earlier than last week
174.68 million miles from Earth
5,229,981 miles nearer than last week
Jupiter Rise = 5:01 a.m.
22 minutes earlier than last week
557.08 million miles from Earth
5,662,403 miles nearer than last week
Saturn Rise = 5:40 a.m.
24 minutes earlier than last week
1.01 billion miles from Earth or
1,015.22 million miles from Earth
3,933,146 miles nearer than last week
Moon Set = 6:41 a.m.
5 hours 53 minutes later than last week
224,833 miles from Earth
21,959 miles nearer than last week
Sun Rise = 6:55 a.m.
7 minutes earlier than last week
91.70 million miles from Earth
100,847 miles further than last week
8,960 miles further than last night

Full Snow Moon occurs on Sunday, February 9th, at 12:33 a.m.

Note: Times are local Mountain Time. Actual sundown is about ten minutes earlier than calculated sunset. Along the front range, differing times may vary depending on your distance from the mountains.
________________
• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

– –

The planets and their relative positions in the solar system for this weekend.–

–Planet sizes and distances are obviously not to scale.

AWA

OUR BEST CHANCE TO SEE A NEARBY SUPERNOVA

by William J. Bechaver

Orion is perhaps the most recognizable and easily identifiable constellation in our night sky.

It is certainly the most distinct star formation in our winter skies, visible almost any time of the night, and all night, and from virtually every location on Earth.

For millennia the three stars almost equally spaced and nearly in a straight line, have been identified as the Hunter’s Belt.

The other most distinct star in the constellation is Betelgeuse, the armpit of Orion, not only because of its dominant brightness, but also for its prominent red color.

And yet, over the past few months, Betelgeuse has begun to dim noticably. The cause of the rapid dimming has been the focus of much speculation amongst the scientific community.

Betelgeuse is a red supergiant, a star so massive that it is 700 million times the volume of our own Sun. In fact, if you were to put Betelgeuse into the center of our solar system, it would completely consume all of the inner planets, out beyond the orbit of Mars, most of the asteroid belt, almost to the orbit of Jupiter.

It appears so bright because it is a mere 642 light years from our own solar system. That means, it takes the light an amazing 642 years to reach Earth from Betelgeuse. But being so massive, that’s why it still shines so prominently in our night sky.

Until recently, Betelgeuse was generally considered the tenth brightest star in our night sky. Now, with its recent dimming, it is currently not even in the top twenty!

Red supergiant stars live fast, burning up tremendous amounts of energy at one time. As a result, they usually have short lives, compared to smaller yellow stars such as our own Sun.

During their lifetimes, red giants expand as they burn up their fuel. When their fuel it almost completely expended, they begin to dim, and as they slowly die, a red giant will begin to collapse in upon itself, a victim of its own immense gravity.

As it collapses, ultimately its mass will explode in a blinding flash of light, known as a supernova. Following such a cataclysm, the star will be no more, leaving behind only the remnants of gases and dust.

Is the dimming we’ve witnessed recently in Betelgeuse a foreshadowing of the end of its life? Is it burning out, about to collapse, and become a supernova?

If so, at only 642 light years distant, it would be the brightest supernova ever witnessed from Earth in the history of mankind.

The brightest supernova ever witnessed from Earth in recorded history was way back in 1054, by Chinese astronomers, in the constellation Taurus. But it was at the astounding distance of 6,523 light years away, greater than ten times more distant than is Betelgeuse. What was left behind was what is now identified as the Crab Nebula, a gaseous cloud of dust and debris, which is a supernova remnant.

So if the dimming of Betelgeuse is a precursor of its demise, we could see the brightest supernova ever witnessed by mankind. And it could happen tomorrow!

Though scientists deem that unlikely, it is also not impossible. Of course, if it happened 642 years ago, we would see it tomorrow, for it would take the light from the event that long to reach Earth. If the supergiant actually went supernova tomorrow, we would not know it, or even see it from Earth, for another 642 years.

Scientists warn that there could be other causes for the dimming of Betelgeuse. It has always been a variable star, its luminance pulsing brighter and dimmer on a regular basis.

Of course, the fluctuation and dimming of the star has never been witnessed to such a dramatic degree, over such a short period of time, leading some to believe a significant event could be imminent.

But the dimming could also be the result of an outpouring of gasses and matter, which are simply coming between the star and us, simply blocking some of the light to be obscured behind a massive dust cloud.

If it were to happen in the coming weeks or months, it would be a spectacular sight to behold. It would shine so brilliantly, it would completely obscure the other stars in Orion for a considerable amount of time.

If it happens during the summer months, when Orion is generally not visible in our night skies, we would still be able to see it. It would shine so brightly that it would easily be visible in the daytime sky as well.

It would shine for a time more brightly than the full moon, and remain about ten times brighter than Venus.

How long the spectacle of the supernova will last is also hard to predict. But it is expected that it would shine brightly in our sky for several months, slowly dimming until then, it would be seen by the naked eye no more.

It would result in another astounding change. Not only would there be another bright body shining in our day and night skies for several months, but then when it finally does fade from view, Betelgeuse will be no more, and the constellation of Orion will be forever altered, lacking one of its most recognizable and distinctly beloved features.

In its place would be another supernova remnant, only visible through telescopes where once the mighty giant had roamed.

Simply, we don’t know what is causing the sudden dimming of Betelgeuse. Scientists do agree that the massive star will one day supernova. It could be tomorrow, or it could be in 100,000 years. The fact that the event will happen is undisputable. Unfortunately, the timeline for such an occurrence is a little harder to predict and pin down.

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.

Astronomical Times And Distances of naked-eye objects for this weekend.

Sun Set = 5:20 p.m.
9 minute later than last week
91.59 million miles from Earth
79,467 miles further than last week
Mercury Set = 6:32 p.m.
34 minutes later than last week
108.73 million miles from Earth
12,114,075 miles nearer than last week
Venus Set = 8:40 p.m.
15 minutes later than last week
100.65 million miles from Earth
4,251,677 miles nearer than last week
Moon Set = 12:50 a.m.
6 hours 46 minutes later than last week
246,792 miles from Earth
789 miles nearer than last week
Mars Rise = 3:45 a.m.
5 minutes earlier than last week
179.91 million miles from Earth
5,166,725 miles nearer than last week
Jupiter Rise = 5:26 a.m.
21 minutes earlier than last week
562.75 million miles from Earth
4,800,702 miles nearer than last week
Saturn Rise = 6:08 a.m.
24 minutes earlier than last week
1.01 billion miles from Earth or
1,019.15 million miles from Earth
2,805,963 miles nearer than last week
Sun Rise = 7:04 a.m.
6 minutes earlier than last week
91.59 million miles from Earth
80,034 miles further than last week
7,250 miles further than last night

First Quarter Moon occurs on Saturday, February 1st, at 6:41 p.m.

Note: Times are local Mountain Time. Actual sundown is about ten minutes earlier than calculated sunset. Along the front range, differing times may vary depending on your distance from the mountains.
________________
• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

– –

The planets and their relative positions in the solar system for this weekend.–

–Planet sizes and distances are obviously not to scale.

AWA