The major meteor event in December is the Geminids but there's another shower later in the month that's doesn't make quite as many headlines but on occasions can be quite good - the Ursids.
With the radiant located close to the North Pole Star, the Ursids are a Northern Hemisphere shower. They are much less dramatic than the Geminids with only about 10 meteors per hour visible but on several previous occasions they have shown significant bursts of activity and a re-occurrence may happen anytime.
This year's Ursid peak occurs on the night of December 22nd/23rd and the good news the Moon is new and therefore won't interfere.
The comet that sources and therefore responsible for the Ursid meteor shower is 8P/Tuttle (also known as Tuttle's Comet or Comet Tuttle). It has a period of 13.6 years and during the last perihelion on January 27, 2008 it was visible telescopically. The comet passed Earth at a distance of 0.25282 AU (37,821,000 km or 23,501,000 miles) on January 1, 2008 and anticipation was high that the 2007 and 2008 showers may produce much increased activity, but this was not to be. In the end only a small increase was noted.
The radiant for the Ursids meteors is located in the far northern constellation of Ursa Minor, "The Little Dipper". With a declination of +76 degrees, the Ursid radiant is circumpolar from most northern sites and conversely fails to rise from most southern sites. It is positioned just a few degrees northwest of Kochab (β UMi).
NGC 752 is a large spawling open cluster in the constellation of Andromeda. With an apparent magnitude of +5.7, it's visible to the naked eye from a dark site appearing as a large unresolved fuzzy patch of light. The cluster is one of the finest large open clusters in the sky and contains over 70 stars spread across a huge 1.25 degrees of apparent sky. Due to its size, NGC 752 is best observed with binoculars or through wide field telescopes at low powers.
NGC 752 is located 5 degrees south and slightly west of outstanding double star Almach (γ And - mag. +2.1), the third brightest star in the constellation. It was discovered by Caroline Herschel on September 29, 1783 although it was probably observed sometime before 1654 by Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Hodierna. Caroline's brother William Herschel subsequently added it to his catalogue a couple of years later. It's best seen from northern latitudes during the months of October, November and December.
NGC 2360 is an open cluster visible with binoculars in the constellation of Canis Major. It was the first deep sky discovery made by Caroline Herschel - the younger sister of William Herschel - on February 26, 1783. She described it as "a beautiful cluster of pretty compressed stars near 1/2 degree in diameter." It's also known as Caroline's Cluster, Caldwell 58 and Melotte 64.
William included the cluster in his 1786 catalogue of 1000 clusters, crediting his sister as the discoverer. At magnitude +7.2, NGC 2360 is not visible to the naked eye but it's an easy binocular object and a fine sight through small telescopes. The cluster is positioned 8 degrees east-northeast of the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius (α CMa - mag. -1.47) and lies 3.5 degrees directly east of gamma CMa (γ CMa - mag. +4.1). At the western edge of NGC 2360 is an unrelated star, HD 56405 (mag. +5.5).
NGC 457 is the brightest open cluster in Cassiopeia and one of the finest objects of its type in the northern sky. At magnitude +6.4, it's just beyond naked-eye visibility but easily seen with binoculars and a beautiful sight through telescopes. The brightest cluster stars are arranged in prominent lines and curves lines appearing to resemble an Owl shape, hence the popular name "the Owl Cluster". It's located 7,900 light-years distant.
NGC 457 was discovered by William Herschel in 1787. Finding the Owl Cluster is easy; it's positioned two degrees south-southeast of eclipsing binary star system Ruchbah (δ Cas - mag. +2.7). This star is one component of the characteristic "W" asterism of Cassiopeia. The brightest star inside NGC 457 is Phi Cas (φ Cas - mag. +5.0). Despite not being a member of the cluster, this foreground star is visible to the naked eye. Together with another non-cluster star - seventh magnitude HD 7902 (HIP 6229) - they form the bright eyes of the Owl, greatly adding to the splendour of the view through backyard scopes.
NGC 457 is best seen from Northern Hemisphere latitudes during August, September and October. It appears high in the sky and even overhead from many locations. From latitudes greater than 32N, the Owl is circumpolar and never sets.
The Geminids or "Winter Fireworks" is widely regarded as the richest and most active of the annual meteor showers with this year spectacle peaking on night of December 13th/14th. During peak activity up to 120 meteors per hour - many of them bright - can be seen under perfect conditions. Of the other annual showers only the August Perseids come close to attaining such highs.
In 2013, the glare from a waxing gibbous Moon significantly interfered with the Geminids around peak time, but this year's prospects are more favourable; the last quarter Moon doesn't rise until after midnight on peak day. By keeping the Moon out of view the most intense period of the shower can be observed with little interference.
The Geminids are unusual in that the source object is an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. Together with the Quadrantids, they are the only major meteor showers not originating from a comet. Phaethon has an unusual orbit that brings it closer to the Sun than any other named asteroid, although there are several unnamed asteroids that do approach closer. At perihelion - the point of closest approach to the Sun - Phaethon is only 0.14 AU distant and much closer to the Sun than innermost planet Mercury.
On the other side, at aphelion (the point of furthest distance from the Sun) Phaethon moves out to 2.4 AU and therefore beyond the orbit of Mars. It's perhaps a little strange that no cometary activity has ever been associated with Phaethon, but nevertheless the Earth passes through the dust field, resulting in the Geminids meteor shower.
Phaethon was the first asteroid to be discovered using images from a spacecraft. While investigating data from the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), Simon Green and John Davies discovered Phaethon on October 11, 1983. Its diameter is only 5.1 kilometres (3.2 miles).
The Geminids radiant or the point in the sky where the meteors appear to emerge is very easy to find. At the time of peak activity it's located very close to Castor (α Gem), a multiple star system that has a combined apparent magnitude of +1.6 and one of the brightest stars in the sky. Even brighter at magnitude +1.1 and located only a few degrees southeast of Castor is Pollux (β Gem), the brightest star in Gemini.
Comet Lovejoy (C2014/Q2), the fifth comet to be discovered by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy on August 17, 2014, has now brightened sufficiently to move with binocular range. As it continues to increase in brightness, it should soon be visible to the naked eye and is expected to peak at about magnitude +4.5 during the middle of January.
Since the comet is located quite far south of the celestial equator it's well placed for observation from southern and tropical latitudes during December. For those located at northern temperate latitudes it's not visible until the second half of the month but after that it's observable in excellent condition.
Location and star chart
Comet Lovejoy starts December in the constellation of Puppis moving in a northwesterly direction. It then passes into Columba on December 17th where it remains until December 27th before crossing the border into Lepus. The comet is expected during this time to increase from magnitude +7.6 to +5.2 and therefore move from binocular to naked eye range.
Over the next few months it will be very interesting to follow Lovejoy as it's already a couple of magnitudes 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 chart below shows the positions of comet Lovejoy from December 3rd to December 29, 2014.
The Hyades is a very large loose naked eye open cluster located in Taurus that spans 5.5 degrees of sky, equivalent to 11 times the diameter of the full Moon. At a distance of 153 light-years it's the nearest open cluster to us - the Ursa Major Moving Group is closer but it's extremely scattered and more of a cluster like object than an open cluster. Consequently, the Hyades is one of the most studied open clusters of all.
The Hyades are easily found since they circle around first magnitude orange giant star Aldebaran (α Tau - mag. +0.87), the brightest star in Taurus. It's not unreasonable to assume that Aldebaran is a member of the Hyades, but it's not. The star is purely a foreground star; an interloper located only 65 light-years distant that happens to be in the same line of sight. As a naked-eye object, the Hyades have been known since prehistoric times.
The cluster is best seen from northern latitudes during the months of November, December and January.
Mercury remains unsuitably placed for observation for most of December. The planet is currently on the far side of the Sun, passing through superior conjunction on December 8th and staying out of view until the very end of the month. It then re-appears as a difficult early evening object low down above the west-southwest horizon from tropical and southern latitude locations.
For example, on December 31st from latitude 35S (approx. equal to Sydney, Cape Town and Santiago), Mercury shines at mag. -0.8 appearing only 4 degrees above the west-southwest horizon 30 minutes after sunset. Positioned a couple of degrees above Mercury is much more brilliant Venus. From Northern Hemisphere latitudes, the planet is too low down to be seen this month.
Mercury reaches aphelion on December 8th when it's located 0.467 AU (approx. 69.9 million kilometres or 43.4 million miles) from the Sun.
Venus is also an early evening object for observers in the tropics and Southern Hemisphere. It's visibility improves as the month progresses although the planet remains low down above the west-southwestern horizon. However, at magnitude -3.9 it's unmistakable due to its brilliance.
Venus starts the month amongst the stars of Ophiuchus before moving into Sagittarius on December 7th where it remains for the rest of the month. Since the planet is positioned in the southern section of the sky, it's currently not as well placed for observation from northern temperate locations. However, observers at these locations will be able to glimpse it at the very end of the month.
On December 27th, Venus reaches aphelion and is located 0.728 AU (approx. 109 million kilometres or 67.7 million miles) from the Sun.
Mars remains an early evening object during December although it's faded to magnitude +1.1. The planet is moving direct, spending the first few days of the month in Sagittarius before traversing the constellation boundary into Capricornus. From northern locations it sets about 3.5 hours after the Sun, slightly less for those located further south. To the naked eye, Mars appears somewhat like an unremarkable reddish star above the western horizon. Telescopically it appears small; spanning only 5 arc seconds in diameter and even large amateur scopes at high magnifications won't show much detail.
On December 12th, Mars reaches perihelion at a distance of 1.38 AU (approx. 206.6 million km or 128.4 million miles) from the Sun. When opposition occurs around perihelion time - the last occasion in 2003, the next 2018 - Mars appears brilliant. Its magnitude can reach -2.9 with an apparent size of around 25 arc seconds.
Later in the month (Dec. 25th) the waxing crescent Moon passes 6 degrees north of Mars.
Jupiter is located in Leo and continues to increase in brightness and apparent size as it heads towards opposition in February next year. The largest planet in the Solar System rises before midnight at the start of the month, improving by a couple of hours by months end.
During December, Jupiter brightens from magnitude -2.2 to -2.4 and it's apparent size increases from 40 to 43 arc seconds. The planet reaches its first stationary point on December 9th, which signals the start of the 2014-2015 opposition period. Afterwards it begins retrograde motion.
On December 12th, the waning gibbous Moon passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter.
Saturn is currently located amongst the dim stars of Libra. It passed through solar conjunction last month and subsequently re-appears towards the southeast before sunrise during December. The beautiful ringed planet currently shines at magnitude +0.7.
By months end Saturn rises more than 3 hours from the Sun from northern temperate latitudes and only slightly less for those located further south. On December 19th, the waning crescent Moon passes 1.5 degrees north of Saturn.
Uranus, mag +5.8, is now two months past opposition but still remains well placed for observation. During December, the seventh most distant planet from the Sun is visible as soon as it's dark enough until after midnight.
Uranus starts December moving retrograde in Pisces. It then reaches its second stationary point on the 22nd - signaling the end of this year's opposition period - after which direct motion is once more resumed. The planet is faintly visible to the naked eye under dark skies but if you can't spot it, it's easy with binoculars.
This month there are two Uranus-Lunar occultations. The first occurs on December 2nd at 00:01 UT and is visible from visible from the Arctic, eastern Alaska and western Canada. The second occurs on December 29th at 04:59 UT, visible from Alaska, northern Canada, Arctic Ocean and northeastern Russia.
Neptune, mag. +7.9, visible with binoculars and small telescopes is moving direct in Aquarius. The most distant planet in the Solar System is positioned a couple of degrees west of Sigma (σ) Aqr (mag. +4.8) and can be seen during the first half of the night.
On December 26th, the almost first quarter Moon passes 4 degrees north of Neptune.
The first item in the Caldwell catalogue is NGC 188 an open cluster located in the far northern constellation of Cepheus. It was discovered by John Herschel - the son of William Hershel - on November 3, 1831. He originally recorded it as h 34 in his 1833 catalogue and then included it as GC 92 in his subsequent General Catalogue of 1864. The cluster finally became NGC 188 in John L.E. Dreyer's New General Catalogue of 1888.
NGC 188 is the northernmost open cluster in the sky; it's positioned only 4.75 degrees from the North Celestial Pole. Located at such a northerly declination means the cluster is circumpolar from almost the entire northern hemisphere. It can be seen from the Southern Hemisphere but only from latitudes north of 5 degrees south. Even then it never climbs more than a few degrees above the northern horizon.
The Chained Woman
Andromeda is located in the northern part of the sky away from the plane of the Milky Way. It 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). Andromeda is named after the princess in Greek Mythology who was the daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia. Legend has it that she was chained to a rock on the coast to be sacrificed in order to save the land from the large sea monster Cetus. Returning Perseus came across the shackled princess and lay waiting for the monster before killing it and then marrying the princess.
For amateurs, Andromeda contains one famous galaxy, many faint galaxies, a selection of nice double stars, a couple of bright open clusters, a few variable stars and a beautiful planetary nebula. The deep sky object that dominates the constellation is the spectacular Andromeda galaxy (M31) - the largest member of our "Local Group of galaxies". At 2.54 Million light-years, M31 is the most distant object in the night sky that's easily seen with the naked eye.
Andromeda is best seen from Northern Hemisphere latitudes during the months of October, November and December.
Alpheratz or Sirrah (alpha And) - is a binary star consisting of a luminous blue-white (type B8) primary in close orbit with a white (type A3) secondary. Together they shine with a combined magnitude of +2.07, but are too close together to be separated optically.
Although officially part of Andromeda, Alpheratz is the northeastern star of the prominent "Great Square of Pegasus" asterism. Previously it was assigned to both constellations and consequently also known as delta Pegasi (δ Peg). Nowadays it's referred to only as α And; the δ Peg reference was officially dropped by the IAU when fixing the modern constellation boundaries.
The Alpheratz system is 97 light-years distant.
Mirach (beta And) - is a red giant star of type M0. It's varies in magnitude from about +2.01 to +2.10, which means at its most luminous it's the constellation brightest star. When not, Alpheratz holds the crown.
Mirach is located 197 light-years distant. Faint lenticular galaxy NGC 404 - known as Mirach's Ghost - is positioned just seven arc minutes northwest of Mirach.
Brightest Stars, Multiple Star
Almach (gamma And) - is a four star system located 358 light-years distant. It appears through small scopes as an outstanding colourful double star consisting of a yellow or slightly orange primary (mag. +2.3) - separated by 9.4 arc seconds - from a fainter blue secondary (mag. +5.0). They are widely regarded as being the second best colour contrast double in the sky, surpassed only by stunning Albireo in Cygnus.
Of the main two stars, the fainter blue secondary star is actually a triple star. Through amateur scopes it can be split into components of magnitude +5.1 and +6.3. With a separation of only 0.3 arc seconds, apertures of at least 250mm (10-inch) along with excellent seeing conditions are required. The brighter member of the pair is also a spectroscopic double.
Pi And (π And) - is a blue white star of magnitude +4.3 with a magnitude +7.1 white companion. They are separated by 36 arc seconds and are easily resolvable with small telescopes. A fainter 11th magnitude star is also visible in larger scopes (sep. 55 arc seconds).
56 And - Located just southwest of open cluster NGC 752 is 56 And, a magnitude +5.7 double star. This wide spaced double can be easily split with binoculars - separation almost 3.35 arc minutes (201 arc seconds). The component stars are very similar in appearance, both yellow in colour and of almost equal brightness (mag. +5.8 and mag. +6.1). This double is a chance alignment of stars and not a true gravitational bound binary.
Struve 3050 - is a challenging double for owners of 80mm (3.1-inch) scopes but relatively easy with a small increase in aperture. Like 56 And, Struve 3050 consists of two almost identical brightness yellow components of magnitudes +6.5 and +6.7 but separated by only 2.4 arc seconds. With a magnification of about 150x, a 150mm (6-inch) scope will easily split them and on nights of good seeing a 100mm (4-inch) scope should also do the job.
36 And (Struve 73) - a nice double to test the quality of your optics and seeing conditions. It consists of magnitude +6.1 and +6.5 components separated by 1.1 arc seconds. It can be split with a 150mm (6-inch) scope under excellent seeing conditions; high magnifications of between 250 and 300x should do the trick.
59 And (Struve 222) - is an outstanding double for small scopes that's located 4 degrees south-southeast of Almach. Both stars are pure white (mag. +6.1 and +6.7) in colour and separated by 16 arc seconds. A magnification of 40x will split them.
Struve 79 - another fine double star for small scopes and easy to locate, only 4 degrees northeast of the Andromeda Galaxy. Both stars are white, magnitudes +6.0 and +6.8, with a separation of 7.9". Use powers of about 70x to easily resolve it.
Groombridge 34 - One of the closest double stars to Earth at 11.7 light-years distant. Although not bright or spectacular Groombridge 34 is an interesting double since it consists of two red dwarf stars in near circular orbit. Spatially about 147 AU separates them, roughly equal to five times the distance between the Sun and Neptune. The red dwarf stars are separated by 35 arc seconds and shine at magnitudes +8.1 and +11.1. They are easily within the range of medium size scopes. In August 2014, a planet orbiting Groombridge 34 was discovered.
R And - is a long period variable star of the Mira type that changes between magnitude +5.3 and +15.1 over a period of 409 days. At its brightest it's visible to the naked eye and easily seen with binoculars. R And can be found just northeast of a triangle of faint naked eye stars consisting of theta And (θ - mag. +4.6), rho And (ρ - mag. +5.2) and sigma And (σ And - mag. +4.5). It's located 1730 light years distant.
W And - another good example of a Mira type variable star is W Andromedae. It varies from magnitude +6.7 to +14.6 over a period of 397 days and at it's brightest - although not visible to the naked eye - is easily seen with binoculars.
OS Andromedae - or Nova Andromedae 1986 reached magnitude +6.3 in December 1986 and for a few days was visible with binoculars.
M31 (NGC 224) - the Andromeda Galaxy is a spectacular spiral galaxy and one of night-sky's most celebrated deep-sky objects. At magnitude +3.4 it's easily visible to the naked eye, appearing as a large elliptical fuzzy patch of light. It's more prominent with binoculars and small scopes. The observational history of galaxy goes back a long time. It was seen and recorded by Persian astronomers in 964 AD and was almost certainly known for many years before that. Our ancestors - who were blessed with dark unpolluted skies - would have had no problem spotting M31 on clear dark Moonless nights.
A small scope of 80mm (3.1-inch) aperture on nights of good seeing will also show the main dust lanes that span across the galaxy with larger scopes displaying finer details. Also visible are M32 and M110 the two main satellite galaxies of M31, which are equivalent to our Magellanic Clouds. M32 is positioned 0.5 degrees south of M31's core with M110 located over 1 degree northwest of the core.
M31 is located 2.54 Million light-years from Earth and is the largest member of our "Local Group" of galaxies. It's the most distant object easily visible to the naked eye. In total, M31 covers 3.2 x 1.0 degrees of apparent sky and is estimated to contain 1 trillion stars. The full extent of the galaxy is only revealed in images and long exposure photographs.
M32 (NGC 221) - is a dwarf elliptical galaxy that's the brightest satellite galaxy of M31. It was discovered by Guillaume Le Gentil on October 29, 1749. Shining at magnitude +8.1 and with a high surface brightness, M32 is visible with binoculars and an easy object for small scopes. It's appears oval shaped but without much detail. The galaxy covers 8.5 x 6.5 arc minutes and is located 0.5 degrees south of M31's core.
M110 (NGC 205) - at magnitude +8.7, M110 is the second brightest satellite galaxy of M31. Like M32 it's a dwarf elliptical galaxy but unlike M32 it suffers from low surface brightness and therefore much more difficult to spot. Through telescopes it appears as a large oval nebulosity with a slightly brighter centre.
M110 was discovered by Caroline Herschel on August 27, 1783. It was not included in Messier's final catalogue version but added much later in 1967. It total it covers 22 x 11 arc minutes of apparent sky.
NGC 404 - an easy galaxy to find in Andromeda is small dwarf lenticular NGC 404. It's located 7 arc minutes northwest of second magnitude Mirach (β And). NGC 404 glows at magnitude +11.9, has a high surface brightness and therefore within the range of medium size scopes. The observational difficulty with NGC 404 is the overpowering glare from nearby Mirach. On dark nights, a 150mm (6-inch) scope at low powers will show the galaxy and the star in the same field of view. You can then move Mirach out of view and push up the magnification for a closer look at NGC 404.
Because of its faint wispy appearance and close proximity to Mirach, NGC 404 is often referred to as Mirach's Ghost. In total it covers 3.5 arc minutes of apparent sky but appears about half this size through amateur scopes.
NGC 7640 - is a near edge on barred spiral galaxy for medium and large telescopes. The galaxy is located 4 degrees southwest of planetary nebula NGC 7662, the Blue Snowball Nebula. NGC 7640 shines at magnitude +11.6 and when seen through a 200mm (8-inch) scope appears as a very slim needle of nebulosity with a brighter central bulge. A very large 16-inch (400mm) aperture instrument reveals dust bands, mottling and fine details around the nucleus.
NGC 891 - also known as the Silver Sliver is one of the best edge-on galaxies in the sky. It's an unbarred spiral galaxy that's located 30 million light-years distant and covers 11.7 x 1.6 arc minutes, representing an inclination of about 1.5 degrees from our perspective. Although it shines at magnitude +10, the galaxy is easy to find since its located 3.5 degrees directly east of bright star Almach (mag. +2.1). However, NGC 891 is a difficult small telescope object due to its magnitude and low surface brightness. A 150mm (6-inch) or 200mm (8-inch) scope shows a thin needle of nebulosity with a bright central core. On nights of good seeing it's possible to spot a narrow dust lane bisecting the galaxy's long axis. Large amateur scopes show variations in the dust band with many foreground stars populating the view.
NGC 891 was selected to be the first light image of the Large Binocular Telescope at Mount Graham International Observatory in Arizona, USA.
The Leonids is a famous meteor shower that's peaks this year on November 17th. Although 2014 hasn't been a particular good year for meteor showers, this shower promises to be a good one as the Moon won't significantly interfere. For the Leonids, just over a dozen meteors per hour can normally be seen under ideal conditions. However in the past it has produced some of the most spectacular meteor storms ever seen; one particular outburst in 1833 being of incredible proportions.
The comet that is the source of the Leonids is 55P/Tempel-Tuttle or more commonly known just as Temple-Tuttle. It is a periodic comet discovered by Ernst Tempel on December 19, 1865 and independently by Horace Parnell Tuttle on January 6, 1866. With an orbital period of only 33 years, it can pass close to the Earth and on such occasions, the chances of a witnessing a super meteor storm are high indeed.
The first reported Leonid storm was made in 902 AD by Chinese astronomers and observers in Egypt and Italy. Many more spectacular Leonid storms followed, but one, the superlative storm of 1833 cemented itself in folklore. This storm was a phenomenal sight, witnessed by many and visible over the entire region of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. At the peak it was estimated that up to 200,000 meteors per hour rained down from the heavens. Not only was the storm a spectacular sight, but it also helped to significantly develop the scientific study of meteors. Previously meteors had been thought to be atmospheric phenomena, but the 1833 great storm helped change ideas.
The Leonids meteor storm returned in 1866 with reduced rates, but still of the order of thousands per hour. Unlike in 1833, this time the storm was visible over Europe and the sheer number of meteors startled observers, who scrambled to count them and determine the radiant position. An orbit was calculated for the meteors of 33 years, which tied in exactly with the recently discovered comet Tempel-Tuttle.
There was great anticipation for the return of the meteors in 1899, but to massive disappointment the storm failed to materialise. It was widely believed that the dust had moved on and storms were now a thing of the past. There was no luck either in 1933, but this may have been more down to bad weather rather than lack of a storm. After two disappointing cycles, the Leonid meteor storm returned with vengeance in 1966, as many thousands of meteors were seen across the North American sky. A spectacular display also occurred in 1999. Although not as prolific as that of 1966, hundreds to thousands of Leonid meteors per hour were still visible.
But what can we expect in the years between storms, like this year. Although we won't see anything like a super storm the good news is the waning crescent Moon won't significantly interfere. In most years the meteor shower produces a maximum zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) of only 10-15 meteors per hour. This year will probably be no different.
The best time to look for the Leonids is after midnight on the night of November 17/18. The radiant is located about 10 degrees northeast of brilliant Jupiter and about 10 degrees north of first magnitude star Regulus . At magnitude -2.2, Jupiter dominates that part of the sky and is unmistakable.
The Northern part of the Taurid meteor shower peaks this year on the night of November 11/12th. Although the Zenith hourly rate (ZHR) or the number of meteors that can be seen per hour under ideal conditions is low, the Northern Taurids often produces fireballs that are a spectacular sight as they pass by. However, this year's event will be affected by the 75% lit waning gibbous Moon - located in neighbouring Gemini - which will wash out all but the brightest meteors.
Parent Comet and Radiant
The Taurids have long been identified as an old meteor stream, with the first recorded observations made as far back as 1869. Although frequently seen during the remainder of the 19th century, it was not until 1918 that it was realised that a new meteor shower had been found. The Taurids are a little unusual in that they now have two separate shower radians caused by the gravitational effect of the planets, especially Jupiter. Although originating from the same parent comet, overtime they spread out to form two individual meteor showers, now known as the Northern Taurids (NTA) and the Southern Taurids (STA). Both Taurids have low Zenith hourly rates (ZHR), with the Southern Taurids peaking a week before the Northern Taurids. The Southern Taurids peaked last week but visible meteor numbers were significantly impacted by the full Moon.
Despite the low numbers for both the Northern and Southern stream it's worth looking out for them as they often produce spectacular fireballs! In fact, when bright Taurids come, authorities are usually in for a busy night from a flurry of UFO reports!
The meteors are associated with periodic comet Encke (2P/Encke), which orbits the Sun once every 3.3 years - the shortest period of any known comet. Comet Encke and the Taurids are believed to be remnants of a much larger comet, which has disintegrated over the past 20,000 to 30,000 years.
The radiant for the Northern Taurids is large and centred at +3h 52m and +22 degrees. This part of the sky is located in the northwest section of the Taurus and only 3 degrees to the southeast of the famous naked eye open cluster, M45 or the Pleiades. Northern hemisphere observers are best placed to spot the meteors although they can be seen from locations much further south as well. As with all meteor showers the best time to look is after midnight.
Mercury reaches greatest elongation west on November 1st. On this day the planet is located 19 degrees from the Sun and consequently well placed as an early morning object for observers at northern temperate and tropics latitudes. This also happens to be the most favourable morning apparition of the year from the Northern Hemisphere.
For example, from latitude 52N (e.g. London, England) Mercury will start the month 11 degrees above the east-southeast horizon at 40 minutes before sunrise. Shining at magnitude -0.6 it will be possible to spot the planet for a short time as it rises before it's finally lost to the bright twilight glare. The planet appears slightly lower down each subsequent morning - although at the same time marginally increasing in brightness - until about the third week of the month when it will be no longer visible.
From the southern hemisphere, the angle of the ecliptic is unfavourable and therefore Mercury is unsuitably placed for observation this month.
Venus (mag. -3.9) passed through superior conjunction on October 25th. During November the planet remains unsuitably placed for observation except for observers at tropical locations who should be able to glimpse it after sunset at the very end of the month. Venus will appear low down above the southwestern horizon just before setting.
Mars continues to keep pace ahead of the Sun in the early evening sky. The planet spends November moving direct through Sagittarius decreasing slightly in brightness from mag. +0.9 to +1.0 as the month progresses. To the eye, Mars appears as an inconspicuous star that sets about 3.5 hours after the Sun from southern latitudes but an hour or so less for those located further north.
On November 26th, the waxing crescent Moon passes 7 degrees north of Mars.
Jupiter is now a brilliant object amongst the stars of Leo. The "King of the planets" rises after midnight at the start of the month from northern temperate latitudes, improving to before midnight by months end. For locations much further south, Jupiter rises about an hour later. The giant planet is unmistakable, dominates the morning sky and remains visible until dawn.
During November, Jupiter brightens from magnitude -2.1 to -2.2 with its apparent size increasing from 36 to 40 arc seconds. A pair of 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars reveal a small disk that appears off-white in colour. Also easily visible are the four large Galilean moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, which constantly change position as they orbit the planet. Sometimes all four are visible at once but often moons will be temporarily obstructed and hidden from view as they pass behind or in front of Jupiter's disk.
When viewed through a telescope, Jupiter is an awesome sight. An 80mm (3.1 inch) scope easily shows the main northern and southern equatorial cloud belts. Larger telescopes reveal much more finer details, including smaller belts, ovals, festoons, darkenings and of course the famous "Great Red Spot".
On November 14th, the last quarter Moon passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter.
Saturn reaches solar conjunction on November 18th. The planet is positioned too close to the Sun and therefore not visible this month.
Uranus has just passed opposition (October 7th) and remains well placed for observation during November. The seventh planet from the Sun can be spotted above the eastern horizon - amongst the stars of Pisces - as soon as it's dark enough. It remains visible until the early hours of the morning.
Uranus fades very slightly from magnitude +5.7 to +5.8 during November. Although just about visible to the naked eye, it's much easier to detect with binoculars. To reveal the planets disk a telescope is required; a small 80mm (3.1-inch) scope at high magnification will show a small greenish disk but even the largest amateur scopes don't reveal much more.
Of Uranus's 27 known satellites, four can be seen in medium to large sized amateur telescopes. The largest pair, Titania and Oberon can be glimpsed with apertures as small as 200mm (8 inches) but usually a larger scope is required. The next largest two, Umbriel and Ariel are much closer to the planets glare and therefore more difficult to spot, requiring larger scopes.
On November 4th, the waxing gibbous Moon passes 1.3 degrees north of Uranus.
Neptune, mag. +7.9, located in Aquarius is visible as soon as it's dark enough and remains so until after midnight. The planet is positioned about 30 degrees southwest of the Great Square of Pegasus and just a few degrees west of star sigma (σ) Aqr (mag. +4.8).
Neptune is too faint to be seen with the naked eye, however it's relatively easy to spot with binoculars. A small to medium sized telescope at high magnifications will show the planet as a bluish disk, although with an apparent diameter of only 2.3 arc seconds, it appears very small.
On November 2nd, the waxing gibbous Moon passes 5 degrees north of Neptune. On November 16th the planet reaches its second stationary point, signaling the end of this year's opposition period. It then resumes direct motion. At the end of the month (Nov. 29th), the first quarter Moon passes 5 degrees north of Neptune.
The annual Orionids meteor shower peaks this year on October 21st and the prospects are excellent as the Moon will not interfere. Generally regarded as a strong shower, the Orionids or Orionid meteor shower is active between October 2nd and November 7th, although most activity is at peak date or a few days before or after it. In the past, rates of up to 70 per hour have been observed but normally the shower is not so active; a figure between 20 and 25 is more the normal at the moment.
The Orionids parent comet is the most famous of all, Halley's Comet (1P/Halley). There are two annual meteor showers associated with Halley's Comet, the Eta Aquariids shower that occurs in May and the then the Orionids. Of the two the Orionids is far the more prolific.
Although Halley is now in the outer solar system and will not return close to Earth until 2061, it's worth remembering that Orionids meteors stem from particles leftover from Halley's Comet apparitions every 76 years. Every observed Orionid is actually a small part of the famous comet streaking through and subsequently burning up in the Earth's atmosphere.
The radiant of the Orionids is located in the northeastern part of the constellation Orion, not far from the Gemini border. Since Orion straddles the celestial equator, the Orionids are one of the few annual showers that are well placed for observation from most locations on Earth (exception the polar regions).
Comet PanSTARRS (C/2012 K1) now well placed from southern latitudes, visible with binoculars and small telescopes
Comet PanSTARRS (C/2012 K1) has now passed perihelion and is once again visible in the morning sky. The comet made its closest approach to the Sun on August 27, 2014. On this date it passed approx. 1.05 AU (157 million kilometres or 98 million miles) from the Sun; a similar distance to that of the Earth/Sun.
PanSTARRS was discovered using the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) telescope located near the summit of volcano Haleakala on the Hawaiian island of Maui. At discovery, the comet was very dim (mag. +19.7) and located 8.7 AU (1.3 billion kilometres or 800 million miles) distant, far beyond the orbit of Jupiter and almost as distant as Saturn.
Location and star chart
During October, the comet appears high in the sky before sunrise from equatorial and southern latitudes. It started the month heading in a southwesterly direction through the largest constellation of all Hydra. On October 3rd, PanSTARRS crossed into Puppis where it remains for the rest of the month.
It's predicted that the comet will hover around magnitude +6.5 during October and therefore within the range of binoculars and small telescopes. On October 23rd, PanSTARRS wanders through open cluster Collinder 135 (Cr 135), also known as the Pi Puppis cluster. This small grouping consists of four stars, all of which are visible to the naked eye. The brightest component is Pi Pup, an orange supergiant star of mag. + 2.73.
From mid northern latitudes, PanSTARRS is also visible but only for about the first three weeks of the month and nowhere near as well placed; it appears low down towards the southern sky during morning twilight.
The finder chart below shows the positions of PanSTARRS from October 10 to October 24, 2014.
Ice giant planet Uranus comes to opposition on October 7th. The distant outer planet shines at magnitude +5.7 amongst the stars of Pisces and therefore bright enough - but only just - to be spotted with the naked eye from a dark site. However, this year it will be impossible to spot Uranus with the naked eye at opposition since the nearby full Moon interferes.
A good time to try and spot the planet without optical aid is about a week after opposition when the Moon has moved out of the way. If you can achieve this feat you will join an exclusive group of people. If not, don't worry Uranus is a very easy binocular target. The planet is currently positioned about 25 degrees southeast of the centre of the "Great Square of Pegasus". Stars ε Psc (mag. +4.3) and δ Psc (mag. +4.4) positioned 2 degrees northeast and 2 degrees northwest of Uranus respectively.
At the beginning of October observers at southern latitudes should be able to catch Mercury low down towards the western horizon just after sunset. However, it won't be long before the planet is lost to the bright twilight glare as it draws in towards the Sun. Mercury then passes through inferior conjunction on October 16th. The planet is such a fast mover that observers at equatorial and northern temperate latitudes will be able to spot this elusive world low down towards the east just before sunrise during the last week of October. From southern temperate latitudes, Mercury is unsuitably placed for observation during this time.
The planet increases in brightness from mag. +0.8 on October 25th to -0.5 at the end of the month.
Venus is currently located on the opposite side of the Sun and passes through superior conjunction on October 25th. As a result the planet is not suitably placed for observation during October.
Mars remains an evening object during October but the "Red planet" has now faded to mag. +0.9, down from a peak of -1.5 during opposition last April. On September 27th, the planet passed 3 degrees north of its "rival", red supergiant Antares (α Sco - mag. +1.0) the brightest star in Scorpius. At magnitude +0.8, Mars was fractionally the brighter but otherwise to the naked eye they appeared similar. The planet is now "speeding" away from Antares as it continues its direct motion through Ophiuchus before moving into Sagittarius on October 21st.
From northern temperate latitudes Mars sets about 2.5 hours after the Sun. From locations further south, planet watchers can follow the planet for about 4 hours before it disappears.
On October 26th, Mars reaches its most southerly point at approx. 25 degrees south. A few days later the waxing crescent Moon passes 7 degrees north of Mars (Oct 28th).
Jupiter is a now brilliant object that dominates the morning sky. From northern temperate latitudes the planet rises 4 hours before the Sun at the start of October improving to around midnight by months end. For those located further south the period of visibility is not quite as good, but only about a couple of hours less.
The great planet starts October in Cancer at magnitude -1.9 with an apparent size of 34 arc seconds. Moving direct it then crosses the constellation boundary into Leo on October 14th where it remains for the remainder of the month. At months end, Jupiter shines at magnitude -2.1 with an apparent size of 36 arc seconds.
Even when viewed through a small telescope a wealth of surface details are visible on Jupiter. These include cloud bands, twists, knots and storms; the most famous of all being "The Great Red Spot". Also easily visible, but not always at the same time are the four bright Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
On October 18th, the waning crescent Moon passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter.
Saturn, mag. +0.6, is visible towards the southwest sky as soon as it's dark enough. The planet is currently moving direct in Libra. It's better seen from southern latitudes where it sets some 3 hours after the Sun at the start of the month, decreasing to an hour by the end of October. From northern locations the visibility period is shorter and by months end Saturn will be lost to the Sun's glare.
On October 4th, dwarf planet Ceres (mag. +9.0) passes 0.4 degrees north of Saturn. The thin waxing crescent Moon passes a degree north of the planet with an occultation visible from the northern Atlantic on October 25th.
Uranus shines at its best this month; it reaches opposition in Pisces on October 7th. The seventh planet from the Sun has a magnitude of +5.7 and therefore is just about visible to the naked eye. However, dark moonless skies are required along with good seeing conditions in order to spot the distant ice giant. For those without such fortunate seeing conditions, the planet is an easy binocular catch.
Uranus was discovered by Sir William Herschel on March 13, 1781 from the garden of his house at 19 New King Street, Bath, England. At opposition this year, the planet will be located approx. 19.041 AU or 2844.5 million km (1767.5 million miles) from the Earth, which results in an apparent diameter of 3.7 arc seconds. A small telescope at high magnification will show the planet as an obviously non-stellar small green disk. However, even when viewed through the largest amateur telescopes it's difficult to make out any details on the surface of Uranus.
An extremely rare event occurs on October 8th when the full Moon in total eclipse occults Uranus. Unfortunately, its unlikely many people will be able to observe this conjunction as it occurs during daytime and is only visible from remote Greenland.
Neptune, mag. +7.8, continues to move very slowly retrograde in Aquarius during October. Although now passed opposition the planet remains well placed for observation this month, visible as soon as it's dark enough until after midnight.
Neptune is far too faint to be seen with the naked eye but it's relatively easy to spot with binoculars once the correct region of sky has been identified. On October 5th, the waxing gibbous Moon passes 5 degrees north of Neptune.
M87 is a supergiant elliptical galaxy that's a prominent member of the Virgo cluster of galaxies. It's one of the largest and most luminous galaxies known and a strong source of radiation, particularly radio and X-ray emissions. At the centre of M87 is a supermassive black hole with a jet of extremely energetic plasma extending outwards for at least 5000 light-years. The galaxy is therefore an interesting object for both professional and amateur astronomers alike.
With an apparent magnitude of +8.6, M87 is the second brightest of the Virgo cluster galaxies; only M49 at mag. +8.4 is brighter. On dark moonless nights it's visible with 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars, appearing as a faint hazy patch of light. The galaxy was one of eight discovered by Charles Messier on March 18, 1781. On this day he also re-discovered fine globular cluster M92.
M87 lies at the heart of the Virgo cluster. It can be found by imagining a line connecting Denebola (β Leo - mag. +2.1) with Vindemiatrix (ε Vir - mag. +2.8). Just over half way along this line is M87. Faint elliptical galaxy M89 is positioned just over a degree east of M87 with galaxy pair M84/M86 located 1.5 degrees northwest of M87.
The Virgo galaxies are best seen during the months of March, April and May.
M88, mag. +9.6, is a fine spiral galaxy located in Coma Berenices that's a member of the Virgo cluster of galaxies. It has a reasonably high surface brightness - partly due to its favourable inclination of 30 degrees - and therefore a nice small telescope object. It appears somewhat like a much smaller and fainter version of M31, the spectacular Andromeda Galaxy.
M88 is one of the brightest Seyfert galaxies in the sky. These types of galaxies exhibit extremely active quasar like nuclei and are strong emitters of electromagnetic radiation with highly ionised spectral emission lines present. They are named after 20th century American astronomer Carl Seyfert who first identified them. Galaxies M51, M66, M77, M81, M87 and M106 also belong to this class of object.
M88 was one of the eight Virgo cluster galaxies discovered by Messier on his most productive night, March 18, 1781. Messier's description of M88 was of a "nebula without star between two small stars and one star of the sixth magnitude, which appear at the same time as the nebula in the field of the telescope". He also remarked that it was similar in appearance to M58. William Parsons the 3rd Earl of Rosse was the first to recognise the spiral shape and listed M88 as one of 14 "spiral nebulae" discovered to 1850.
As with some of the Virgo galaxies, locating M88 can be challenging since there are no bright stars located in the vicinity. The galaxy is positioned about a degree north of the Coma Berenices-Virgo constellation boundary with the general area of sky located midway between stars Denebola (β Leo - mag. +2.1) and Vindemiatrix (ε Vir - mag. +2.8). Tenth magnitude barred spiral galaxy M91 is located just east of M88.
The best time of year to look for the Virgo galaxies is during the months of March, April and May.
M89 is another member of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. It's a small magnitude +10.0 elliptical galaxy (type - E0) discovered by Charles Messier on March 18, 1781. On this bumper night for Messier he also discovered seven other Virgo galaxies and re-discovered globular cluster M92 in Hercules. Recent observations indicate that M89 may be nearly perfectly spherical in shape. This is unusual because all other known ellipticals are elongated. However, it's possible that the spherical nature of M89 is purely a visual affect resulting from its orientation from our perspective.
The galaxy is not as bright as some other group members and therefore a challenging small telescope object. Messier's original discovery observation acknowledges this: "extremely faint and pale and it's not without difficulty that one can distinguish it". The galaxy is best seen with large telescopes but generally featureless and rather unexciting through most amateur instruments.
M89 is located in Virgo just south of the Virgo-Coma Berenices constellation boundary. It's positioned roughly 60% along an imaginary line connecting stars, Denebola (β Leo - mag. +2.1) and Vindemiatrix (ε Vir - mag. +2.8). Slightly brighter spiral galaxy M90 is 0.75 degrees northeast of M89. One degree southeast of M89 is fine barred spiral galaxy M58 with supergiant elliptical galaxy M87 located about a degree west of M89.
The Virgo galaxies are best seen during the months of March, April and May.