As it heads towards the outer depths of the Solar System, comet Lovejoy remains visible with small telescopes and even good binoculars during March. Although now fading and past its best the comet has been a delight over recent months and should remain well within amateur astronomer range for some time to come. For a number of days in late December / early January it even was visible to the naked eye (peak mag. +3.9).
Lovejoy was the fifth comet to be discovered by prolific Australian comet hunter and amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy. He captured it on August 17, 2014 using nothing more than a 200mm (8-inch) scope with a digital camera attached. The subsequent set of time-lapsed images revealed nothing just a faint point of light (mag. +15) that moved slightly from image to image.
Location and star chart
Comet Lovejoy is now very much a Northern Hemisphere object as it continues to move in the direction of the North Celestial Pole. It spends the end of February in Perseus before crossing into Cassiopeia on the last day of the month. Magnitudes of comets are notoriously difficult to predict but we estimate on March 1st it will shine at +6.0 and therefore at the limit of naked eye visibility but easily seen with binoculars and small telescopes. For those located at southern temperate latitudes the comet is too far north to be seen at all.
From latitudes of at least 35 degrees north Lovejoy never sets during March and is visible all night. It's best seen during the middle two "Moonless" weeks of the month. Highlights include on March 10th when the comet passes 1 degree east of the brightest open cluster in Cassiopeia, NGC 457 the Owl Cluster (mag. +6.4). At magnitude +6.5, Lovejoy is fractionally fainter than the splendid open cluster. A few days later on March 16th it passes 0.1 degrees west of Ruchbah (δ Cas - mag +2.7). As the comet is expected to be more than 4 magnitudes fainter than the star it will probably be difficult to spot against the bright stellar glare. However, it should be easier to see over the next few evenings when it passes just west of two more bright open clusters, M103 (mag. +7.4) and NGC 663 (mag. +7.1). At closest separation Lovejoy is 1 degree from M103 and 3 degrees from NGC 663. It should be noted that Messier Catalogue hunters often mistakenly identify NGC 663 as M103!
The finder charts below show the positions of the comet from January 28th to April 1st, 2015.
NGC 2506 is a magnitude +7.6 rich open cluster located in the constellation of Monoceros. Although its member stars are faint the cluster itself appears quite bright and can be seen with a pair of binoculars. Through telescopes it's an impressive object and of all the Monoceros open clusters is probably the finest. With an age of 1.1 billion years old this is an old cluster. For comparison, M45 (The Pleiades) in Taurus is a youthful 115 million years old with the Hyades cluster 625 million years old. However, NGC 2506 is not nearly as old as the 4 billion years of M67 in Cancer.
William Herschel discovered NGC 2506 on February 23, 1791. Locating the cluster can sometimes be a bit tricky as it's positioned in an area of sky devoid of bright stars. It can be found 5 degrees east-southeast of alpha Mon (α Mon - mag. +3.94) the brightest star in Monoceros. Located 19 degrees southwest of NGC 2506 is the brightest star in the sky, Sirius (α CMa - mag. -1.46). Although α Mon and Sirius are the brightest stars in their respective constellations the difference in apparent brightness between them is enormous; more than 100x.
Large open cluster M48 lies 6 degrees northeast of NGC 2506 with open cluster pair M46 and M47 positioned 6 degrees southwest of NGC 2506. They are best seen during the months of December, January and February.
NGC 40 is a planetary nebula located in the northern constellation of Cepheus. It was discovered by William Herschel on November 25, 1788 who described it as "a 9th magnitude star, surrounded with milky nebulosity". Herschel used his 475mm (18.7) inch telescope to make the discovery but for today's amateur astronomers such a large scope isn't required; it can be glimpsed with just a 100mm (4-inch) instrument. NGC 40 is also known as the Bow Tie nebula, a nickname it shares with another planetary nebula, NGC 2440 in Puppis.
NGC 40 is located just over 17 degrees from the North Celestial Pole and therefore circumpolar from most northern latitudes. It's one of the finest examples of its type in the far northern part of the sky. The best time to look for the nebula is during October, November and December when it appears highest in the sky during early evening. The Bow Tie nebula is also visible from most tropical locations although lower down. However, from southern temperate latitudes it's not visible at all.
Locating NGC 40 can be precarious as it's positioned in a star poor region of eastern Cepheus. One method to find it is by imagining a line connecting Errai (γ Cep - mag. +3.21) and γ Cas (mag. +2.15). The planetary lies approximately one-third of the way along this line.
The Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) is a large and famous planetary nebula located in the faint zodiac constellation of Aquarius. Also known as Caldwell 63 it's one of the nearest objects of its type; a beautiful remnant of a dying star containing a double ring structure not unlike two coils of a spring, hence the popular name "The Helix Nebula".
Although the immediate area surrounding the Helix Nebula is devoid of any particular bright stars, the region can be easily located by star-hoping. NGC 7293 lies roughly halfway along an imaginary line connecting Fomalhaut (α PsA - mag. +1.2) the brightest star in the southerly constellation of Piscis Austrinus and ι Aqr (mag. +4.3). Just over one degree to the east of the Helix Nebula is υ Aqr. At magnitude +5.2 this star is visible to the naked eye under dark skies, simplifying the search for the Helix Nebula.
NGC 2392 is a 9th magnitude bipolar double shell planetary nebula located in the constellation of Gemini. Resembling a person's head surrounded by a parka hood, it's commonly known as the "Eskimo Nebula" or "Clown Face Nebula". William Herschel discovered it from his observatory in Slough on January 17, 1787, describing the planetary nebula as a 9th magnitude star with a bright centre surrounded by equally dispersed nebulosity.
Locating the Eskimo Nebula is relatively easy; it's positioned just east of centre of the bright zodiacal constellation of Gemini, "the Twins" and close to Wasat (δ Gem - mag. +3.5). The easiest way to find Gemini is by identifying its two brightest stars Castor (α Gem - mag. +1.58) and Pollux (β Gem - mag. +1.16). They are positioned east of the familiar "V" shaped asterism of Taurus and to the northeast of the bright prominent constellation of Orion.
Imagine a line extending from Pollux - the brighter of the twins - towards the southwest in the direction of Orions belt. Positioned just over 8 degrees along this line is Wasat and 2.3 degrees southeast of Wasat is NGC 2392. The planetary nebula is positioned next to a mag. +8.2 yellow white star. At first glance through a telescope the pair appears like a wide double star, separated by about 100 arc seconds.
NGC 869 and NGC 884 are two bright open clusters in the constellation of Perseus that are separated by only half a degree of apparent sky. Together, they are commonly known as the "Double Cluster", and form a famous showpiece object that is easily visible to the naked eye and a wonderful sight in binoculars and telescopes. The two clusters are so easy to spot that they have been known since antiquity and probably pre-historically. Greek astronomer Hipparchus first catalogued them around 130 B.C. Early celestial cartographers named them as "h Persei" (NGC 869) and "χ Persei" (NGC 884).
The Double Cluster is located in the far northwest part of Perseus close to the border with Cassiopeia. With a declination of 57N they are circumpolar and therefore never set from most northern latitudes. To locate the Double cluster, draw an imaginary line from Mirfak (α Per - mag +1.8) in a northwest direction towards the centre of the famous "W" of Cassiopeia. The Double Cluster lies just over halfway along this line.
NGC 2775 is a magnitude +10.5 spiral galaxy located in the constellation of Cancer, close to its border with Hydra. The galaxy is unusual in that it contains a very smooth nucleus with multiple spiral arms extending outwards from the central region. What makes the spiral arms interesting is their incredibly complex detail, tightly wound structures and active star formation. Amateur astronomers should also keep their eye on this galaxy; it's been host to 5 supernovae explosions in the past 30 years and you never know when the next one will go off!
To find NGC 2775 look for the head of Hydra "the Sea Serpent". The asterism of stars that forms the head are ω Hyd (mag. +5.0), ζ Hyd (mag. +3.1), ρ Hyd (mag. +4.4), ε Hyd (mag. +3.4), δ Hyd (mag. +4.1), σ Hyd (mag. +4.5) and η Hyd (mag. +4.3). None of the stars are particularly bright but all can be seen with the naked eye. The galaxy is positioned a few degrees east and slightly north of this grouping.
NGC 2775 was discovered by William Herschel in 1783 and is best seen during the months of February, March and April. The galaxy is located 55.5 million light-years from Earth and has an actual diameter of 70,000 light-years. It's estimated to contain 100 billion stars.
IC 2497 is a spiral galaxy located about 650 million light-years distant in the small northern constellation of Leo Minor. Although similar in size to the Milky Way galaxy it appears very small and faint due to its vast distance from us. At apparent magnitude +15.8, the galaxy is beyond the reach of most amateur backyard scopes and seemingly just one of the many thousands of faint galaxies populating the night sky. However a few years ago IC 2497 made international news not because of the galaxy itself but due to a new strangle object that was discovered next to it - Hanny's Voorwerp.
In 2007, Dutch school teacher Hanny van Arkel signed up to the newly created on-line citizen science project Galaxy Zoo. The project enlisted help from the public to classify vast numbers of galaxies based on their physical appearance. The original dataset used was obtained from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and contained almost 1 million galaxies. With so many galaxies it was thought that the analysis would take years but the organisers were in for a pleasant surprise - within 24 hours the website was receiving almost 70,000 classifications an hour and the site even crashing temporarily due to the intense traffic.
Within a few days of signing up Hanny van Arkel while classifying galaxy IC 2497 noticed a blue object just below the galaxy. She asked if anyone knew what it was, and nobody did! The new object became known as "Hanny's Voorwerp" - Voorwerp the Dutch word for object. It turns out to be a giant gas cloud located next to IC 2497 that's as large as the Milky Way and believed to have been illuminated 100,000 years or so ago by a powerful quasar event at the centre of the galaxy. From recent X-ray and light measurements it appears that the quasar has at sometime within the last 70,000 years either "turned off" or even switched energy states and therefore no longer operating as it was. Whatever has happened, Hanny's Voorwerp and IC 2497 are incredibly interesting objects for professional astronomers.
Location and observing
IC 2497 is located in the western section of Leo Minor and close to the Lynx border. It's positioned 4 degrees directly east of α Lyn (mag. +3.1) and 0.5 degrees southwest of star 13 LMi (mag. +6.1). To spot it at least a 350mm (14-inch) aperture scope is recommended. In total, the galaxy spans just 0.6 x 0.3 arc minutes of apparent size and even with the largest amateur scopes IC 2497 appears small, faint and lacking in detail.
If you think the galaxy is faint, the Voorwerp pushes this to another level. At about magnitude +19, it's incredibly dim! However, a few amateur astronomers with massive Dobsonian reflectors have managed to glimpse it as a ghostly glow hanging off the galaxy. It has been seen with scopes as small as 750mm (30-inch) in aperture!!
Aries "the Ram" is a medium sized northern constellation of the zodiac that lies in a rather barren part of the sky. It contains mostly faint inconspicuous stars and is bordered by Taurus to the east, Perseus and Triangulum to the north, Pisces to west and Cetus to the south. The constellation was one of the original 48 constellations plotted by second century astronomer Ptolemy and today remains as one of the modern 88 constellations defined by the IAU (International Astronomical Union).
In Greek mythology, Aries represents the golden ram that was sent to rescue Phrixos and Helle, the children of King Athamus of Boeotia and his first wife Nephele. The King's second wife, Ino, was resentful and wanted the children, in particular, Phrixos killed. She induced a famine in the Kingdom and then falsified a message to the King indicating Phrixos must be sacrificed in order to save the land. Athamus was about to sacrifice his son when Aries - sent by Nephele - arrived. The ram managed to rescue Phrixos but Helle didn't survive. Phrixus then sacrificed the ram to Zeus with its Golden Fleece presented to King Aeëtes of Colchis. In a later myth, Jason and the Argonauts who actively sought the fleece, eventually managed to steal it. In ancient Egyptian astronomy, Aries was associated with the god Amon-Ra, who was depicted as a man with a ram's head and represented fertility and creativity. The Arabs knew Aries as a sheep and the Chinese as a dog.
The constellation contains a single second magnitude star, a third magnitude star, three fourth magnitude stars and over a dozen fifth magnitude stars. It contains no Messier objects and no bright deep sky objects. However, in its boundaries are numerous faint galaxies within the range of medium/large amateur scopes. For small scopes there are a handful of nice double stars with some bright ones.
Two thousand or so years ago Aries contained the vernal equinox, the point where the Sun annually passes from south to north across the celestial equator. This occurs on or about March 20th and signals the start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. Due to precession - the slight wobble of the Earth in space - the Vernal Equinox has now moved into neighbouring Pisces.
Aries covers 441 square degrees of sky ranking it 39th in overall size. It's best seen from Northern Hemisphere latitudes during October, November and December. There are several meteor showers that radiate from Aries, including the Daytime Arietids and the Delta Arietids.
Hamal (alpha Ari) – at mag. +2.01 is the brightest star in Aries. It's a K2 orange giant about twice as massive as the Sun that's located 66 light-years distant. The star is variable although the range is extremely small (mag. +1.98 to +2.04). From 2000 BC to 100 BC, Hamal was positioned at the Vernal Equinox.
Sheratan (beta Ari) – is a spectroscopic binary system located 59.6 light-years from Earth. The primary star is a white A5V type main sequence star that completes a highly elliptical orbit with its companion every 107 days. The secondary star is intrinsically fainter and although its spectral type has not been accurately determined it could be F type or even G type similar to the Sun. The stars shine with a combined magnitude of +2.64.
Mesartim (gamma Ari) – is a striking double star consisting of equally bright (mag. +4.5) white-blue components. With a separation of 7.6 arc seconds the two stars are resolvable with any size scope and are widely considered to be one of the prettiest equal pairs. The combined magnitude is +3.9 and the stars lie about 164 light-years away.
Mesartim was one of the first double stars to be telescopically identified. English scientist Robert Hooke accidentally stumbled across it while searching for a comet in 1664.
Epsilon Ari (ε Ari) – is a challenging double of two almost equally bright white stars. Together they shine at magnitude +4.6 but are separated by only 1.4 arc seconds. Telescopes of 100mm (4-inch) should split them but nights of steady transparency are required. A magnification of 200x or so should suffice.
The Epsilon Ari system is located 330 light-years distant. Both stars are classified as A2 V with the primary at magnitude +5.2 and the secondary magnitude +5.6. When first identified as a double by F.G.W. Struve in 1827 the two stars were separated by just 0.5 arc seconds.
Lambda Ari (λ Ari) – mag. +4.8 is located 2 degrees west of Hamal (α Ari). This wide separated double (40 arc seconds) is easily split with small telescopes. The primary star is white (mag. +4.9) and the fainter secondary yellow (mag. +7.7). The pair can be resolved with 7x50 binoculars although the task is much easier with 10x50 models due to increased magnification.
Lambda Ari is located 129 light-years distant.
Pi Ari (π Ari) – is a multiple star system about 800 light years distant. The main star is a magnitude +5.3 blue giant star that's separated by 3.3 arc seconds from its magnitude +8.5 companion. For small telescopes owners this is a challenging split due to the faintness of the secondary and the closeness of the pair. A good quality 100mm (4-inch) refractor on good nights should do the trick but needs to be pushed towards the higher end of its magnification range.
A third fainter star with a separation 25.2 arc seconds (mag. +10.8) is visible in larger scopes. In addition, the primary itself is a spectroscopic binary making this a 4 star system.
30 Ari – a 6th magnitude wide double for small scopes. Both stars are white in colour (mag. +6.5 and +7.0). With a separation of 38 arc seconds they are resolvable with any size scope. The primary component is also a spectroscopic double itself and therefore it's a triple star system.
33 Ari – consists of a primary pure white star of magnitude +5.4 with a magnitude +8.4 companion separated by 24 arc seconds. With a combined magnitude of +5.3, it's just about visible to the naked eye. A small scope 80mm (3.1-inch) scope at about 50x magnification will easily split the pair.
41 Ari – at mag. +3.6 is the brightest star that makes up a small faint naked eye triangle along with 35 Ari (mag. +4.7) and 39 Ari (mag. +4.5). This grouping formed the basis of the short-lived and now obsolete constellation of the "Northern Fly" Musca Borealis. The fly hovered over the back of Aries was finally swatted for good at the beginning of the 20th century when the modern 88 constellations were defined.
A number of faint stars surround 41 Ari making it a multiple star but all except one are due to line of sight effects. The only true companion is separated from the main star by just 0.2 arc seconds and can't be seen visually but can be detected by spectroscopic methods.
The fainter surrounding stars visible through medium sized amateur scopes are of magnitudes +8.8 (sep. 121 arc secs), +10.6 (sep. 27 arc secs) and +11.0 (sep. 33 arc secs).
U Ari – is a Mira type variable star that varies between magnitudes +7.2 and +15.2 over a period of 371 days. At its brightest it's easily visible with 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars. When faintest, a minimum 300mm (14-inch) scope is recommended to spot it.
It's located 1630 light-years distant.
R Ari – is another Mira type variable star that's 4100 light-years away. It varies between magnitudes +7.4 and +13.7 over 187 days. When at its brightest and like U Ari the star is easily visible with 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars.
SX Ari (56 Ari) – is an unusual variable star worth mentioning. It varies in brightness by only 0.1 magnitudes over a period of about a day. What makes this star interesting is it's a rotating helium variable star and the prototype of its class. About 50 such stars have so far been identified.
With an apparent magnitude of +5.8, SX Ari is faintly visible to the naked eye but the brightness variations are far too small to be noticed visually.
NGC 772 – is the largest and brightest of the galaxies in Aries. It's a magnitude +10.3 type SA(s)b unbarred spiral galaxy visible in small scopes and in total spans 7.2 x 4.3 arc minutes of apparent sky. Located 105 million light-years from us, NGC 772 is an extremely large galaxy with an actual diameter of 220,000 light-years. For comparison this is twice the size of our Milky Way and 1.5 times the size of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) the largest Local Group galaxy. NGC 772 is estimated to contain at least 1 trillion stars.
Locating NGC 772 is quite easy. The galaxy is positioned 2 degrees east-southeast of Mesartim (γ Ari) and forms a small right-angle triangle with Mesartim and Sheratan (β Ari). A 100mm (4-inch) telescope at low powers reveals a faint oval misty patch of light spread over 3 arc minutes. On nights of good seeing the nucleus appears well defined and surrounded by a hazy nebulosity representing the spiral arms. It's possible to glimpse the spiral arms using a 200mm (8-inch) scope but they are much easier to see in larger backyard scopes of 300mm (12-inch) aperture or more.
As a result of gravitational tidal forces probably from nearby satellite galaxy NGC 770 one of the spiral arms in NGC 772 is more developed that the others. It appears longer and slightly elongated in shape and as a result Halton Arp included NGC 772 in his Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies as Arp 78.
To date, two supernovae SN 2003hl and SN 2003iq have been observed in NGC 772.
NGC 770 – observers with very large backyard scopes maybe able to spot NGC 770 in the same field of view as NGC 772. This is the largest satellite galaxy of NGC 772 but its small and faint, shining at a feeble magnitude +14.1 and spanning only 1.1 x 0.8 arc minutes. A 400mm (16-inch) scope reveals an object that looks like an out of focus star. At high magnifications it’s possible to notice a small amount of detail such as the nucleus.
NGC 821 – is a mag. +10.8 type E6 elliptical galaxy located in the far southern section of Aries close to the border with Cetus and Pisces. It's positioned 2.5 degrees north of star ξ1 Cet (mag. +4.3) and can be spotted with 100mm (4-inch) scopes appearing as a small faint round nebulous patch of light. NGC 821 has an apparent size of 2.5 x 1.7 arc minutes. When viewed with larger backyard scopes the surface appears uneven in brightness with some mottling visible.
The galaxy is 80 million light-years distant with an actual diameter of 60,000 light-years.
NGC 972 – is an inclined spiral galaxy at the northern section of the constellation. It's positioned 3.5 degrees northwest of double star 41 Ari (mag. +3.6). Located just off an imaginary line connecting NGC 972 and 41 Ari is star 35 Ari (mag. +4.7).
At magnitude +11.4, NGC 972 is best seen with at least a medium sized scope. Through a 200mm (8-inch) instrument it appears as an elongated misty envelope of nebulosity with a brighter centre just north of a faint double star. The galaxy covers 3.3 x 1.7 arc minutes but has a reasonably high surface brightness.
NGC 1156 – is another galaxy located near to star 41 Ari but this time in the opposite direction to NGC 972. It's an irregular object positioned 3 degrees southeast of the star. At magnitude +11.7 you would probably not expect much from NGC 1156 but be in for a pleasant surprise. Even small scopes show some details including a faint ghostly like halo surrounding a brighter core with a number of foreground stars also visible in the same field of view. On nights of good seeing, a 200mm (8-inch) scope reveals mottling with larger instruments displaying subtle texture in the halo.
NGC 877 – mag. +11.8 is a spiral galaxy 1.5 degrees southeast of 19 Ari (mag. +5.7). There are two 8th magnitude stars adjacent to NGC 877 and the galaxy appears in the same low power field of view as one of the stars. A 200mm (8-inch) scope shows little detail except for a slightly brighter core. Increasing the aperture does not significantly enhance the view although the galaxy appears larger and hints at structural details. It's located 180 million light-years distant.
NGC 678 and NGC 680 – are a pair of 12th magnitude galaxies very close together in the eastern part of the constellation close to the Pisces border. They are separated by only 5 arc minutes of apparent sky, which corresponds physically to about 200,000 light-years. NGC 678 and 680 are currently interacting with each other resulting in shape distortions. They are part of the NGC 691 group of galaxies and are both located 125 million light-years away.
Of the two, NGC 680 is an elliptical galaxy and the brighter at magnitude +11.9. It measures 1.8 x 1.6 arc minutes. Although larger in both apparent and absolute size, NGC 678 is not as bright as NGC 680. This spiral galaxy shines at magnitude +12.5 with an apparent size of 4.5 x 0.8 arc minutes. It appears almost edge on from our perspective.
Both galaxies are visible in medium sized telescopes but are fairly faint. What's noticeable are the different shapes; NGC 680 is essential round, NGC 678 needle like. A prominent dust lane bisects through NGC 678 and can be seen in larger amateur scopes.
NGC 697 – is a barred spiral galaxy with an apparent magnitude of +12.0 that's located 2 degrees northwest of Sharatan (β Ari). A 200mm (8-inch) scope reveals a highly inclined thin elongated patch of light. It stands out quite well due to a reasonably high surface brightness. There is a 12th magnitude star positioned at the eastern edge of NGC 697.
The galaxy NGC 674 is widely believed to be a mistake entry in the NGC catalogue and though to be the same object as NGC 697.
Mercury reached inferior conjunction on January 30th and consequently was too close to the Sun to be observable. However, since the planet moves fast it takes less than two weeks before it reappears as a morning object for observers at tropical and Southern Hemisphere latitudes. Mercury then climbs higher in the sky each subsequent morning until peaking on February 24th, when it reaches greatest elongation west (26.7 degrees from the Sun). From northern temperate latitudes, the angle of the ecliptic is not favourable and during this time the planet is unsuitably placed for observation.
As often is the case with Mercury apparitions, one hemisphere of the Earth is favoured over the other. On this occasion it's the Southern Hemisphere with the added bonus that this also happens to be the most favourable morning apparition of the year. With an extended period of visibility the opportunity to spot the illusive planet over the next few weeks is superb.
For example, from latitude 35S (approx. equal to Sydney, Cape Town and Santiago) Mercury (mag. +0.3) will appear 13 degrees above the eastern horizon 45 minutes before sunrise on February 14th. The planets altitude continues to improve slightly each subsequent morning until February 24th when it peaks at 16 degrees above the horizon. Mercury shines at mag. 0.0 on this day.
The diagram below shows the February and March apparition of Mercury from latitude 35S. The thin waning crescent Moon passes 3.5 degrees north of Mercury on February 17th.
From northern temperate latitudes, Venus is a brilliant evening object visible above the west-southwestern horizon after sunset. At the start of the month the planet sets over 2 hours after the Sun from such latitudes increasing to over 3 hours by months end. Even though it's currently languishing towards the lower end of its brightness scale (mag. -3.9) Venus is always brighter than any other planet.
During September the phase of Venus decreases from 92% to 87% with the apparent diameter increasing marginally from 11 to 12 arc seconds. From the Southern Hemisphere, Venus appears low down above the western horizon and sets just over 1 hour after the Sun.
On February 21st, Venus passes less than 0.5 degrees south of Mars. At magnitude +1.3 the "Red planet" is over one hundred times fainter than brilliant Venus! The waxing crescent Moon is nearby on the same day making a lovely grouping in the early evening sky.
Mars remains an early evening object towards the west during February. The fourth planet from the Sun continues its rapid direct eastward motion against the background stars. It starts the month in Aquarius before crossing into Pisces on February 11th where it remains for the rest of the month. At magnitude +1.2, Mars is not that bright and there are currently 17 night-time stars brighter! Mars will be very close to Venus on the evening of February 21st with the Moon also nearby.
By months end, Mars sets 2.5 hours after the Sun from northern temperate latitudes but only 1 hour for those located further south.
Jupiter reaches opposition on February 6th and therefore visible all night. On this day, the giant planet rises in the east when the Sun sets in the west and then sets in the west as the Sun rises again for the new day. At magnitude -2.6, Jupiter is far brighter than any night-time star and unmistakable due to its brilliance.
This year at opposition, Jupiter is located 4.346 AU (650.18 million kilometers or 404.01 million miles) from Earth, which gives it an apparent size of 45 arc seconds. The planet is currently moving retrograde and spends the first few days of the month in Leo before crossing the constellation boundary into Cancer on February 4th. Jupiter's current declination of +16 degrees favours Northern Hemisphere based observers with the planet appearing higher in the night sky and visible for a longer period of time.
To the naked eye Jupiter appears creamy or off-white in colour. Unlike the brightest stars it doesn't twinkle at all. Compare the planet (or any other bright planet) with Sirius (α CMa - mag. -1.45) the brightest star in the night sky. Sirius twinkles and flashes many different colours particularly when close to the horizon but Jupiter doesn't twinkle at all.
A pair of 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars will reveal the planets disk although it's small. Also visible are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, the four large Galilean moons. As they orbit Jupiter they constantly change position; sometimes all four are visible but often some or all of the satellites will be temporarily obstructed and hidden as they pass behind or in front of Jupiter's disk.
When viewed through a telescope, Jupiter is an awesome sight. A 80mm (3.1 inch) scope shows the main northern and southern equatorial cloud belts and finer details along with the Galilean moons. Larger telescopes reveal much more detail including smaller belts, ovals, festoons, darkenings and of course the famous "Red Spot".
On February 4th, the full Moon passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter.
Saturn is now a morning object moving direct in northern section of Scorpius "the Scorpion". The planet is located a few degrees northwest of Antares (α Sco mag. +1.0) the brightest star in the constellation. Saturn is currently far better seen from the southern latitudes where by months end it rises well before midnight. From northern temperate locations Saturn rises around 1:30am at the end of February.
Saturn brightens from mag. +0.6 to +0.5 as the month progresses with its apparent size increasing marginally from 16 to 17 arc seconds. On February 13th, the last quarter Moon passes 2 degrees north of the planet.
Uranus, mag. +5.9, remains an early evening object during February. The distant ice giant is visible towards the west as soon as it's dark enough. The planet is easily visible with binoculars but by months end sets less than 3 hours after the Sun.
Uranus is currently located in Pisces close to the Cetus border and about 20 degrees southeast of the Great Square of Pegasus. At the end of the February, Venus (mag. - 3.9) and Mars (mag. +1.3) are less than 10 degrees southwest of the much fainter Uranus.
On February 21st, the waxing crescent Moon passes 0.3 degrees north of Uranus and an occultation is visible from southeast Canada and northeast America at 22:16 UT.
Neptune reaches solar conjunction on February 26th and therefore is not visible this month.
The brightest comet that can be seen in the night sky at the moment is comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2). At the end of December it was a superb binocular/telescope sight, faintly visible to naked eye as it moved through the southern constellations of Columba and Lepus. The comet then continued to brighten until peaking at magnitude +3.9 during closest approach to the Earth on January 7th. On this day it was 0.469 AU (70.2 million km or 43.6 million miles) distant from our planet and although the bright Moon somewhat interfered, the comet was easily visible with binoculars and small scopes as a large hazy circular patch of light. When imaged or photographed it displayed a long thin wispy green tail that extended over 10 degrees in length.
Now fading Lovejoy remains excellently placed for observation from the Northern Hemisphere during February. As the month progresses it's expected to fade from magnitude +4.8 to +6.3. For the first part of February the comet should still be visible to the naked eye and will remain an easy binocular and small telescope target for quite sometime to come.
From southern latitudes the comet maybe glimpsed low down above the northern horizon at the start of February. However, for these observers it isn't long before it disappears from view completely. On January 30, Lovejoy reaches perihelion (closest point to the Sun) at 1.2908 AU equivalent to 193.1 million kilometres or 120 million miles.
Location and star chart
During February, Lovejoy continues its northwesterly motion against the background stars. The comet starts the month in southeastern Andromeda close to the border with Triangulum and Perseus. On February 1st it's located 4 degrees southeast of star Almach (γ And - mag. +2.1) and is expected to shine at magnitude +4.8. Over the next few nights the comet moves closer to Almach and on February 5th the two objects are separated by only 0.5 degrees.
Although Lovejoy is now moving away from the Earth and heading into deep space it still moves reasonably quickly against the night sky backdrop. It's possible to notice its motion from one night to the next and even in a single observing session. On February 20th/21st the comet passes less than half a degree west of M76, the Little Dumbbell nebula in Perseus. At magnitude +10.1 and spanning 2.7 x 1.8 arc minutes this planetary nebula is one of the faintest, smallest and difficult objects in Messier's catalogue.
February offers an excellent opportunity for northern-based observers to follow comet Lovejoy. It based high in the sky and should be visible through binoculars or small scopes as a fading fuzzy nebulous patch of light that may even appear slightly greenish with a small tail.
The finder charts below show the positions of the comet from January 18th to March 1, 2015.
Jupiter the Solar System's largest planet has been well placed for observation for a few months now as it moves retrograde amongst the stars of Leo. Since the end of last year the planet was visible in early evening, appearing as a spectacular dazzling object. On February 6th, Jupiter is at its best for 2015 when the giant planet reaches opposition. On this day, it will rise in the east as the Sun sets and then set in west as the Sun re-rises on the opposite side of the sky. With a magnitude of -2.6, the "King of the planets" is unmistakable and far brighter than any nighttime star.
Jupiter stars the month in western Leo before crossing the constellation boundary into Cancer on February 4th where it remains for the rest of the month. Positioned 12 degrees southeast of Jupiter is Regulus (α Leo - mag. +1.4) the brightest star in Leo with the Gemini twin stars of Castor (α Gem - mag. +1.6) and Pollux (β Gem - mag. +1.2) located 25 degrees northwest of Jupiter. Although all three stars are bright, Jupiter far outshines them being about 35x brighter than Pollux and 40x brighter than Castor and Regulus.
The current northern declination of Jupiter slightly favours Northern Hemisphere observers, but even from southern latitudes where the planet appears lower down it's still unmistakable due to its brightness.
At opposition, Jupiter is located 4.346 AU (650.18 million kilometers or 404.01 million miles) from Earth. Although Jupiter is slightly further from Earth than during the last few oppositions its apparent size is still an impressive 45.4 arc seconds. Of all other planets only Venus - on rare occasions - displays a greater apparent size than Jupiter. At very favourable oppositions, when Jupiter is closest to Earth, it can reach magnitude -2.9 with an apparent size of over 50 arc seconds.
Popular 7x50 and 10x50 binoculars will reveal the disk of Jupiter. It appears off white or creamy coloured but no surface details are visible. Also visible are the four large Galilean moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto). The moons continuously change position as they orbit Jupiter and sometimes all four are visible, but on other occasions some or all of the satellites will be temporarily obstructed and hidden as they pass behind or in front of Jupiter's disk.
NGC 4236 is a tenth magnitude barred spiral galaxy in Draco that's visible through small telescopes, although best seen with larger instruments. The galaxy was discovered by German born British astronomer William Herschel on April 6, 1793 and is a member of the Ursa Major or M81 group of galaxies that contains at least 34 galaxies, including spectacular M81 (Bode's galaxy) and M82 (Cigar galaxy).
NGC 4236 is located in the far northern constellation of Draco about 15 degrees north of the seven stars that form the famous "Plough" or "Big Dipper" asterism of Ursa Major. The galaxy is positioned two-thirds of the way along an imaginary line connecting stars lambda Dra (λ Dra - mag. +3.8) and kappa Dra (κ Dra - mag. +3.9). Star HD 106574 (mag +5.7) is 0.75 degrees directly north of NGC 4236.
Due to its high northerly declination, NGC 4236 is a Northern Hemisphere object. The best months to look for it are March, April or May although from most northern locations it's visible all year round and never sets. It can be seen from the Southern Hemisphere but only from latitudes north of 20 degrees south and even then appears low down above the northern horizon at best.
The New Year is off to a fine start for astronomers with comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) now bright enough to be seen with the naked eye. When it was discovered on August 17, 2014 the comet was predicted to reach about magnitude +8 and hence within binocular range but too faint to be seen with the naked eye. However, Lovejoy has exceeded expectations and is now bright enough to seen without optical aid from a reasonably dark site.
On January 7th, Lovejoy reached closest approach to Earth at 0.469 AU (70.2 million km or 43.6 million miles). On this day it shone at magnitude +4.5 in the constellation of Eridanus just west of magnificent Orion. Since it was two days after full Moon, spotting the comet with the naked eye was difficult but easy with binoculars, appearing as obviously non-stellar hazy patch of light. Photographically, Lovejoy appeared green in colour with a long thin tail. Prospects for the remainder of the month are even better, the Moon has now past full and although the comet is now receding from Earth, it should remain within naked eye visibility for a few weeks to come.
Location and star chart
Comet Lovejoy started January in the constellation of Lepus moving on a northwesterly trajectory. On January 2nd, it moved into the large winding constellation of Eridanus remaining there for a week before crossing into Taurus on January 9th. Continuing northwards, Lovejoy crosses into Aries on January 16th and then Triangulum on January 24th. At the very end of the month it moves into Andromeda.
From northern locations the comet is superbly placed throughout January. It's visible almost all night and at its highest appears above the southern horizon at about 11pm. Those located at southern latitudes can follow the comet for most of the month although towards the end January it will appear low down above the northern horizon. It's expected to have faded to magnitude +5.3 on January 31st.
Over the next few weeks Lovejoy should be a fantastic sight for all those who are able to see it. The finder charts below show the positions of the comet from January 6th to January 30th, 2015.
NGC 2362 is a small compact young open cluster in Canis Major that surrounds bright star Tau Canis Majoris (τ CMa - mag. +4.37). This attractive grouping of 60 stars is packed into an area spanning just 6 arc minutes of apparent sky. The apparent magnitude of the cluster is given as +4.1, however the value is misleading as its skewed significantly because of the brilliance of τ CMa. The remaining members of NGC 2362 are much fainter, the brightest being of 7th magnitude.
Finding NGC 2362 is not difficult. It's located 2.75 degrees northeast of Wezen (δ CMa - mag. +1.83) the third brightest star in Canis Major. Sirius (α CMa) the brightest star in the night sky (mag. -1.46) is positioned 11 degrees to the northwest. Tau CMa a spectroscopic multiple system that shines with a combined light of tens of thousands times that of the Sun is the stand out cluster member and bright enough to be seen with the naked eye. For comparison, the Sun at the same distance would shine at a feeble magnitude +15.
NGC 2362 was discovered by Giovanni Batista Hodierna sometime before 1654 and then re-discovered by William Herschel on March 4, 1783. It's best seen from southern latitudes during the months of December, January and February.
NGC 2261 is a curious variable reflection nebula in Monoceros that's known as Hubble's Variable Nebula. It was discovered by William Herschel in 1783 and is illuminated by variable star R Monocerotis (R Mon). The nebula is unusual in that it changes shape over just a period of days and can vary by up to 2 magnitudes in brightness. The variations are believed to be due to periodic changes in the amount of dust surrounding R Mon, thus affecting the amount of light that reaches us. With an apparent magnitude of +9.0, it can be spotted with binoculars under dark skies.
The variability of R Mon (between magnitudes +10 and +12) was discovered at the Athens Observatory in 1861 but it wasn't until 1916 that Edwin Hubble realised that the nebula also changes in brightness. The variations are such that even on images taken days apart structural changes can be observed.
NGC 2261 was chosen as the "first light" photograph on January 26, 1949 for the 200-inch (5.1 m) Hale reflecting telescope under the direction of American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble. At the time, the newly constructed Hale telescope was the largest telescope in the World and remained so until 1976.
Mercury reaches greatest elongation east on January 14th (19 degrees @ mag. -0.7). From northern temperate and equatorial locations the closest planet to the Sun can be glimpsed low down above the southwestern horizon for about the first 3 weeks of the month, with the visibility period about a week less for those located further south.
This is not a particular good elongation of Mercury; even on the day of greatest elongation it appears only 5 degrees above the horizon 45 minutes after sunset. From about January 9th to 12th, much more brilliant Venus is close by and aids in finding its more illusive neighbour.
Mercury's magnitude fades from -0.8 to 0.0 between January 1st and 20th. The planet reaches perihelion on January 21st when it's located 0.308 AU (approx. 46.1 million kilometres or 28.6 million miles) from the Sun. On January 30th, Mercury passes inferior conjunction.
During January, Venus becomes a brilliant evening object for observers located at northern latitudes. At the beginning of the month the planet is visible for about 45 minutes above the southwestern horizon but by months end the visibility increases noticeably with the planet setting over 2 hours after the Sun. At magnitude -3.9, Venus is unmistakable, a dazzling beacon of light that's so bright it's often reported as a hovering UFO! Venus is also visible from southern temperate latitudes this month but always appears low down above the western horizon. It sets just over 1 hour after the Sun.
The phase of the planet decreases slightly from 96% to 92% as the month progresses with its apparent size increasing marginally from 10 to 11 arc seconds. On January 22nd, the thin waxing crescent Moon passes 6 degrees north of Venus.
Earth reaches perihelion on January 4th at a distance of 0.98333 AU (approx. 147.096 million kilometres or 91.402 million miles) from the Sun (6:36 UT).
Mars remains an early evening object located towards the western / southwestern horizon. At the beginning of January, the planet sets about 3.5 hours after the Sun from northern locations and about an hour or so less for those located further south. The "Red planet" is moving direct and continues its rapid motion against the fixed background stars, spending the first part of the month in Capricornus before crossing the border into Aquarius on January 9th. It then remains here for the rest of the month.
Mars is continuing to distance itself from the Earth and it exceeds 2 A.U. (299.2 million kilometers or 185.9 million miles) on January 7th. As a result, the planet shines at only magnitude +1.1 and has an apparent diameter of less than 5 arc seconds - too small for any detailed telescopic observations.
On January 23rd, the waxing crescent Moon passes 6 degrees north of Mars.
Jupiter is now a spectacular object moving retrograde amongst the stars of Leo and closer to the Cancer border. The planet rises a couple of hours after sunset on January 1st and by months end is practically visible all night as it closes in on a February 6th opposition date. The current northern declination of Jupiter slightly favours Northern Hemisphere observers, but even from southern latitudes where the planet appears lower down it's still unmistakable due to its brightness.
During January, the apparent diameter of Jupiter increases from 43 to 45 arc seconds with the planet marginally brightening from mag -2.5 to -2.6. A pair of binoculars is all that's needed to reveal the planets disk although it's small. Also visible are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, the four large Galilean moons. As they orbit Jupiter they are constantly changing position. Sometimes all four are visible but on other occasions some or all of the satellites will be temporarily obstructed and hidden as they pass behind or in front of Jupiter's disk.
When viewed through a telescope, Jupiter is a stunning sight. Even a small 80mm (3.1 inch) scope will shows the main northern and southern equatorial cloud belts and other finer details on the planets disk. Larger telescopes reveal much more including smaller belts, ovals, festoons and of course the famous "Red Spot".
On January 8th the waning gibbous Moon passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter.
Saturn (mag. +0.7) is now an early morning object. It begins January moving direct amongst the stars of Libra rising more than 3 hours from the Sun from northern temperate latitudes and only slightly less for those located further south. The visibility period of "Ringed planet" increases as the month progresses with the planet rising a few minutes earlier each subsequent morning.
When viewed through a telescope Saturn is one of the outstanding objects in the night sky. Even a small refractor will show the planets rings with larger scopes displaying them in supreme glory along with subtle details on the planet's surface and many of its brighter moons also visible.
On January 16th, the waning crescent Moon passes 2 degrees north of Saturn.
Uranus is an evening object moving direct amongst the stars of Pisces. During January the planet is visible as soon as it's dark enough but now sets before midnight by months end.
Uranus is currently positioned about 15 degrees south and 20 degrees east of the centre of the "Great Square of Pegasus". It's bright enough to be easily spotted with binoculars or a small telescope and is also just about visible to the naked eye but this is a challenging task, requiring dark skies.
The almost first quarter Moon passes 0.6 degrees north of Uranus on January 25th and an occultation is visible from Southern Europe, North Africa and Russia (11:52 UT).
Neptune, mag. +8.0, located in Aquarius is visible for a short time after sunset during January. The planet appears low down above the western horizon. January represents the last chance to catch a glimpse of the most distant planet before it reaches solar conjunction in February. It's not visible with the naked-eye but can be seen with binoculars when the sky is dark enough.
On January 19th, an interesting conjunction occurs when Mars passes just 0.2 degrees south of Neptune (mag. +8.0). The pair should be visible in the same field of view through a small telescope of the order of 100mm (4-inches) low down above the western horizon as soon as it's dark enough.
The waxing crescent Moon passes 4 degrees north of Neptune on January 23rd.
The Quadrantids meteor shower peaks on night of January 3/4, 2015. At maximum around 120 meteors per hour can be seen, which is comparable to the other great annual meteor showers the Perseids and the Geminids. However, the Quadrantids has a narrow peak activity window lasting only a few hours and consequently is not as well observed. Prospects for this year's event are not so good as the almost full Moon in northern Orion will significantly interfere. Therefore, if you can glimpse even just a few of these illusive meteors it will be a fine start to the new astronomical year!
Meteor showers are named after the constellation (or nearby star) where the radiant is located, but you may have difficulty figuring out the associated region for the Quadrantids; the reason is that the constellation no longer exists.
Today, the Quadrantids radiant is located in the northern constellation of Boötes, not far from the tail of Ursa Major. When the shower was discovered by Adolphe Quetelet of the Brussels Observatory in the 1830s, the radiant was located in the now obsolete constellation of Quadrans Muralis, hence the name "The Quadrantids".
Quadrans Muralis was originally created by Joseph Jerome de Lalande in 1795. This constellation, located in what is now the northern part of Boötes, represents the mural quadrant, a wall mounted astronomical instrument he used for measuring star positions. Although no longer recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), Quadrans Muralis is one of the more widely known obsolete constellations due to its association with the meteor shower.
Since the peak of the Quadrantids is exceedingly sharp compared to other major showers, then the stream of particles that produces the shower must be relatively narrow. The recently discovered asteroid 2003 EH1 was proposed by Dutch astronomer and NASA senior research scientist Peter Jenniskens as the parent body of the Quadrantids. The asteroid is likely to be an extinct comet and may even be related to the comet C/1490 Y1, which was observed by Chinese, Japanese and Korean astronomers some 500 years ago.
Along with the Geminids, the Quadrantids are the only major meteor showers not originating from a comet.
As we head into the New Year, comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) remains superbly placed for observation as it continues to brighten into January. The comet that was discovered by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy has so far exceeded expectations and has been well seen from southern and tropical latitudes. For most of December, although Lovejoy was just beyond naked eye visibility it was an easy binocular and small telescope target, moving northwesterly through the southern constellations of Puppis, Columba and Lepus. By Christmas Day, Lovejoy had brightened to magnitude +5.4 and therefore within naked eye visibility. It's expected to peak at about magnitude +4.5 during the middle of January.
Northern Hemisphere based observers haven't had much of a look at Lovejoy but that's going to change. During the last days of December it can be spotted low down above the southern horizon with visibility continually improving as it climbs higher each subsequent evening. From southern latitudes, Lovejoy remains observable in excellent condition until late January.
Location and star chart
Comet Lovejoy started December in Puppis moving on a northwesterly trajectory. It then passed into Columba on December 17th where it remains until December 27th before crossing the border into Lepus. It passes close by globular cluster M79 on December 29th. On January 2nd, the comet moves into the large constellation of Eridanus remaining there for a week before crossing into Taurus on January 9th. It's expected to be close to peak brightness at this time and hopefully a nice naked eye sight with a long tail. As it continues to head north, Lovejoy moves into Aries on January 16th, Triangulum on January 24th and the into Andromeda on the last day of the month. Although still bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, Lovejoy is predicted to have faded to magnitude +5.3 by the beginning of February.
Many comets are often seen at their best either above the western horizon just after sunset or above the eastern horizon just before sunrise. Lovejoy is different in that it's positioned almost on the opposite side of sky to the Sun and therefore visible for much of the night. Adding to the splendour; from about January 5th to 13th the comet passes about 15 degrees west of probably the most famous constellation of the sky, Orion "the Hunter".
Over the next few weeks it will be very interesting to follow Lovejoy. It's already brighter than originally predicted and could brighten even further still. As with all comets, they are extremely unpredictable objects where anything can happen - and often does - so keep watching!!
The finder charts below show the positions of comet Lovejoy from December 3, 2014 to January 11, 2015.
Lynx is home to the fascinating globular cluster NGC 2419. Although visually faint and small what makes NGC 2419 special is its distance; at 275,000 light-years it's one of the furthest known Milky Way globulars. In fact, twentieth century American astronomer Harlow Shapley nicknamed it "The Intergalactic Tramp" believing it to have possibly broken away from the Milky Way and headed off into deep inter galactic space. However, recent observations indicate Shapley hypothesis was incorrect and NGC 2419 is still gravitationally bound to the Milky Way just moving in a highly eccentric orbit.
NGC 2419 or Caldwell 25 was discovered by William Herschel on December 31, 1788. It's located 275,000 light-years from the Solar System and about 300,000 light-years from the galactic centre, almost twice as far away as the Large Magellanic Cloud. At such a distance it's estimated it will take about 3 billion years to complete a single orbit around the centre of the galaxy.
NGC 2419 is positioned 7 degrees north and slightly east of Castor (α Gem - mag. +1.58) the second brightest star in Gemini. About 4 arc minutes west of NGC 2419 is a mag. +7.2 star with a double star of mag. +7.9 a few more arc minutes further west. Even Herschel with his super telescopes of the time couldn't resolve NGC 2419 into stars. William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, using his 72-inch (1.83 m) reflecting telescope at Birr Castle in Ireland - the largest optical telescope in the world at the time - was first the first to do so in 1850.