The Sky This Month - December 2018

Two Grand Events

This year ends with two fantastic celestial sky shows. First is the long anticipated return of Comet 46P/Wirtanen. Discovered in January 1948 by Carl Wirtanen at the Lick Observatory and one of three he discovered, this 1.2 km wide ice rock was found to have an orbital period of 6.7 years. Close passes in 1972 an 1984 with the planet Jupiter altered its path to its present 5.4 year orbit. Comet Wirtanen comes unusually close this month to within 11.4 million km of earth (0.078 AU) on December 16. This will be just four days after passing the sun. This places Comet Wirtanen in the top ten closest approaches of a comet to the earth in the space age and twentieth in history.

This small and hyperactive comet is now an easy binocular object low in the southern horizon and is climbing quickly. The green coma has already been measured to be larger than the full moon and it is expected to double in size over next coupe weeks. The comet might peak as high as 3rd magnitude making the comet a possible naked eye target from the suburbs and a spectacular object from the countryside. However, comets can be unpredictable in their brightness estimates. On December 15, Wirtanen will be nicely positioned between the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters. The moon will set around midnight local time that night allowing for dark conditions for astrophotographers. On its trek up the sky, the comet comes very close to the star Capella on December 23.

We then have the annual Geminid meteor shower. I consider the Geminids to be the best shower of the year. Factors include its rate of 120 meteors seen per hour and a slow re-entry speed of only 35 km/sec compared to the Perseids seen in August at twice that speed. The Geminids have been known to produce fireballs as larger sized particles completely burn up in the upper atmosphere producing long yellow streaks that can light up the ground. Origin of the meteors or the radiant is located near the star Castor. The shower peaks on the night of December 13/14 with the best viewing time after midnight until dawn. The 36% Moon sets around 10 p.m. local time so the night will remain dark. The only draw back is obviously the cold. As long as the wind stays calm, you should have a great night observing. With wide angle photography centred on the comet, you might capture a Geminid or two in the same field of view.  

The winter sky with Orion the Hunter takes centre stage. Amongst the constellations of Orion, Auriga, Gemini, Canis Minor, Canis Major and Taurus, we see a dozen bright stars. With Orion’s belt located on the celestial equator, the Hunter is perfectly placed to be seen in both the northern and southern hemispheres of the world. Along the imaginary sword the hangs off his belt (3 stars) is a fantastic birthplace of stars – the Orion Nebula. Located 1,500 light years away, this area of gas and dust is slowly forming hundreds of stars.

Mars is still visible low in the western sky and sets at midnight on the 1st.  Compared to is great show this past summer when it was 59 million km on July 31, the red planet is now more than 152 million km from us as we are separating at 12 km/sec. Venus is extremely bright in the morning sky at magnitude -4.9. In a telescope you will see a lovely 27% crescent. On the morning of December 3, the crescent moon will be located north of Venus. Using the moon as a guide, try to follow Venus throughout the day in binoculars or if the blue is a deep blue – with the unaided eye. I once had superb seeing conditions in Kelowna BC years ago and found it a few hours before sunset.

And if a telescope is on your shopping list for yourself or the young astronomer, may I suggest to seek out reputable telescope dealers in your area or on the Internet and try to stay away from camera and big box stores.  

The winter solstice occurs on the 21st at 22:23 Universal Time. New moon occurs on December 7 and the full Cold Moon on the 22nd.

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

Author: Gary BoyleeNews date: Saturday, December 1, 2018Category: Northern SkiesFile:  IMG_9552 reduced.jpgTweet::  Pages

The Sky This Month - November 2018

Cassiopeia – The Queen

One of the most familiar and recognizable constellations is Cassiopeia the Queen. In mythology she is the wicked mother who along with King Cepheus sacrificed their daughter Andromeda to the sea monster – Cetus. The “W” in the sky is your guidepost to the Double Cluster in the constellation Perseus, our hero in this story. In a low power eyepiece, two distinct open clusters greet you. The combined light of both members equal that of a fourth magnitude star. Keep in mind this is stretched over a wide area. They are estimated to be 7,100 and 7,400 light years (ly) from us. Viewing the Double Cluster under very dark conditions is like seeing diamonds on black velvet.

A very large target for astrophotographers is the Heart and Soul Nebulas. Located about 4.5 degrees east of the Double Cluster, we first come across the Heart Nebula. Catalogued as IC 1805 it is located some 6,500 ly away and with dimensions of 5 by 5 degrees. Radiation from a young cluster of stars called Melotte 15 at its centre causes the red glow. Next to the Heart, the Soul Nebula (IC 1848) also lies at the same distance. It measures 5 by 2.5 degrees and has a few open star clusters embedded in its structure.

One and three quarter degrees from the Alpha star named Shedar is NGC281, the Pacman Nebula. Measuring the size of the full moon, this emission nebula has a reddish glow due to active hydrogen molecules. NGC281 is fairly bright and can be glimpsed in binoculars under superb dark conditions. The Pacman contains several Bok Globules. These are dense regions of dust and gas that might form stars.       

Earlier this year we had the good fortune of seeing all five visible in the night sky. But that is now reduced to just Mars and Saturn. The ringed planet is close to the horizon and disappears from view by 7:30 local time. Mars is dimming and can still be observed until midnight. Both Venus and Spica will be glimpsed in the eastern sky before dawn starting early in the month..

The annual Leonid meteor shower peaks on the night November 17-18. The parent Comet Tempel-Tuttle orbits the sun every 33 years and makes its return in 2031. This is a moderate shower that only produces 15-20 meteors per hour and is far from the meteor storm in the late 1990’s. Best time to observe is after moonset and before dawn.

Comet 46P/Wirthaner is moving north through Fornax and on its way for a great show mid December. The beginning of November sees the comet around magnitude 7.2 but could reach as bright as third magnitude next month. More to come about comet Wirtaner in next month’s article.  

Most places will see Daylight Saving Time end as the clocks move back one hour on November 4 at 2 a.m. Also remember to compensate when using Universal Time. New Moon occurs on the 7th while the full Beaver Moon occurs just after midnight eastern time on the 23rd.

Till next month – clear skies everyone

Gary Boyle

Author: Gary BoyleeNews date: Thursday, November 1, 2018Category: Northern SkiesTweet::  Pages

Governor General Julie Payette Becomes Patron of RASC

Governor General Julie Payette Becomes Patron of RASC

The Governor General of Canada, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, has agreed to become Viceregal Patron of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

Viceregal patronage is granted for the length of a Governor General’s time in office. The first Governor General to be Viceregal Patron of the RASC was Ms. Payette’s predecessor, David Johnston.

The RASC was granted its “royal” designation in 1903 by His Majesty King Edward VII.

“We in the RASC are especially gratified that Ms. Payette is serving as our patron, since we know her from her path-breaking work as a Canadian astronaut,” RASC President Chris Gainor said. “Ms. Payette has done a great deal of work over the years promoting space science and astronomy with large numbers of Canadians.”

Ms. Payette has also sent greetings to the RASC on the occasion of its 150th anniversary this year. Her statement will appear in the December 2018 issue of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.


Chris Gainor

RASC President


Author: Chris GainoreNews date: Tuesday, October 9, 2018Category: AnnouncementsTweet::  Pages

An open letter of congratulations to Dr Donna Strickland

Dear Dr Strickland

On behalf of the members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada from across the country, I am delighted to offer my warmest congratulations to you on winning the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics.

I know that this prize will inspire many Canadians, particularly women, to look at studies and careers in physics and related sciences such as astronomy. I also note that lasers are becoming an important tool for astronomers, for example in the form of adaptive optics.

I also wish you the best in your continuing scientific work. 


Christopher Gainor, Ph.D.
Royal Astronomical Society of Canada
250-655-6445     cgainor@shaw.ca


Author: Chris GainoreNews date: Tuesday, October 2, 2018Category: AnnouncementsTweet::  Pages

Youth Outreach Coordinator Hired

I am pleased to announce that we have hired a new staff member at the RASC Society office: Jenna Hinds has been appointed Youth Outreach Coordinator.

Jenna has a BSc from Mount Allison in Marine Biology and a Masters of Science in Science Communication and Public Engagement from the University of Edinburgh.

She has worked at the Ontario Science Centre for the past 2.5 years as a planetarium host, giving live shows on various aspects of astronomy.

Jenna’s prime responsibility will be to engage young people across the country in astronomy programming. She will be working with Centres to assess existing youth programming and will review astronomy educational programs offered by external organizations across the country. The top five to ten youth activities and best practices will be determined and shared nationally. Activities and resources will be posted on our website.  

Creating a communications network with youth advocates in RASC Centres and other astronomy groups is an important planning component. In this way, Jenna will effectively share youth programming and resources with many groups serving children and youth. 

The anticipated outcome is that hundreds of young people across the country will be newly introduced to the excitement and wonder of astronomy and become fascinated with learning how to navigate the sky. It’s expected that many will join the RASC and that some youth will take their interest further and find future careers in science.  

We thank the Trottier Family Foundation for providing funding for this position for three years.

Please join me in welcoming Jenna to the RASC!  Starting October 15th, she can be reached at jenna.hinds@rasc.ca  and phone: (416) 924-7973 Ext 4 

J. Randy Attwood

Executive Director

Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

Author: Randy AttwoodeNews date: Tuesday, October 2, 2018Category: AnnouncementsTweet::  Pages

The Sky This Month - October 2018

Fall Nights

As our Canadian nights get cooler and longer, the summer Milky Way is sinking fast in the south western sky. This is your last chance to enjoy the Lagoon Nebula along with the ringed planet Saturn. At the beginning of the month, they disappear by 10 p.m. local time. Even Jupiter disappears from sight by 8:20 p.m. but we still have Mars till about 1 a.m. Although our distance still increases with every passing night, its global dust storms is subsiding and allows us to observe and photograph its surface detail. Venus is getting close to the dangerous solar glare and will be at inferior conjunction on the 26. Although we say farewell to most of the naked eye planets as they are lost in the solar glare how about trying to locate the farthest planet of our solar system – Neptune. Discovered in 1846, Neptune’s magnitude is 7.82 and requires a telescope or at least binoculars to see this fuzzy blue object.

Once the sky is dark, look for the bright star Fomalhaut rising in the southeast. Shining at first magnitude, it is the brightest star in the constellation Pisces Austrinus. Due to its low declination of -29.3 degrees, Fomalhaut rises around 7:30 p.m. local time and sets after 3 a.m. At a distance of 25 light years, it is home to the first ever directly-imaged exoplanet. Fomalhaut b was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in November 2008 and has been officially named Dagon. There is still controversy in the scientific community if Fomalhaut b is actually an exoplanet.

The Saturn Nebula, NGC 7009 is a planetary nebula located an estimated 5,000 light years away. Its internal structure is produced by ultraviolet radiation from the hot core. The central star is in the process of becoming a white dwarf. Moving over to the Helix Nebula, we see another planetary nebula but is much closer to us than the Saturn Nebula. At a distance of only 695 light years and close to three light years across, the Helix shows amazing structure and is sometimes referred to as the “Eye of God”.

On the heels of the return of Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner in its 6.6 years orbital period around the sun, this year’s annual Draconid meteor shower might be worth observing. This shower will peak on the night of October 8-9 with the estimated 10-15 meteors per hour but recant years have shown a short outburst with higher numbers. This might be worth checking out. At the same time the South Taurids peaks ion the night of Oct 9-10 with only 5 meteors seen per hour.

Upcoming in December, Comet 46P/Wirtanen discovered in 1948 orbits the Sun every 5.4 years. This object falls into the class of “hyperactive comets” and could be as bright as third or fourth magnitude on December 16. It  will come as close as 11.6 million kilometres from Earth. This will make a great photo opportunity when it passes the Pleiades that same night.

The zodiacal light is again visible in the eastern sky for a two week period starting from October 12. This faint angled column of light is the sun reflecting off interstellar dust. The light is seen around fall and spring. New moon occurs on the 9th (lunation 1185) and the full Hunter’s moon on the 24th.

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

Author: Gary BoyleeNews date: Monday, October 1, 2018Category: Northern SkiesTweet::  Pages

The Sky This Month - September 2018

Pegasus The Winged Horse

The constellation Pegasus is easily identified by its large square of stars. When rising in the east, its takes on the appearance of a giant baseball diamond. With 1,121 square degrees of sky Pegasus ranks 7th in overall size. It is also one of the original constellations listed by the astronomer Ptolemy back in the 2nd century.

On our imaginary baseball diamond, the third base star name Alpheratz is also deemed alpha Andromeda. This is a (B8) subgiant blue star with a surface temperature of 13,000 K or a little more than twice that of the Sun. Located 97 ly away, Alpheratz has a luminosity about 200 times that of the Sun.

Located in these two constellations are a few great targets at should be on your observing list. Towards the northern portion of Pegasus there is NGC 7331. Known as the Deer Lick Galaxy, this impressive spiral is located 48 million ly from us and shows many areas of young blue star clusters as well as red emission nebulas. This 9.3 X 3.8 arc second galaxy glows at magnitude 9.4.

Located off to the side of this lovely spiral are a few very remote galaxies. NGC 7335, 7336, 7337, 7340 are located 310, 430, 320 and 310 million light years respectively from us. Move south to the illusive group of galaxies known as Stephan’s Quintet. Ranging from magnitude 13.9 to 16.4, these reside in the range of 290 million ly except NGC 7320 which is a foreground galaxy and not part of the group.

Now move your telescope to the closest galaxy to our Milky Way. The Andromeda Galaxy aka M31 is located 2.5 million ly and can be seen with the unaided eye from dark skies on a moonless night. Along side of the Andromeda are two satellite galaxies, M32 and M110. A telescope will show a few dust lanes of M31 as well as its star cloud. Edwin Hubble imaged the Andromeda galaxy on October 6, 1923. Observing a predictable fading and brightening of the Cepheid variable star known as “V1”, it was determined the Milky Way was not the only galaxy in the universe. Latest measurements have revised the number of galaxies to two trillion in the known universe.

From the first discovery of an exoplanet around a sun-like star back in 1995, thousands or exoplanets have been discovered orbiting distant stars. Two of these parent stars can be seen with the unaided eye. At the time of its historic discovery, 51 Pegasi b was unofficially dubbed Bellerophon and later named Dimidium. It is located 50 ly away from us and orbits the magnitude 5.4 star in only 102 hours. We can also see the magnitude 4.1 Upsilon Andromeda at 44 ly away that have a family of four planets around it.

Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner is now putting on a good show reaches perihelion in early September. It could be as bright as magnitude 7 and pass within 0.39 astronomical units from Earth. The comet will pass the star Capella in Auriga on September 3 and the Cone Nebula on the 24th. This small 2 kilometre wide comet returns every 6.6 years and is the parent comet of the Draconids meteor shower that will peak next month on the 8-9. Only a few meteors are seen per hour but past history has shown an explosion of hundreds per hour has occurred so this is a shower to watch – just in case.

This year’s fall equinox occurs on September 23 and for a few weeks when moonlight is absent will be the best time to see the zodiacal light in the eastern sky before dawn. Here we see sunlit dust particles left over from the early solar system. It is fairly faint so dark sky conditions is a most. The pillar of faint light stretches on an angle pointing to the upper right from the horizon.

The planet Venus is sinking very close to the western horizon. It is now moving between the Sun and Earth and is showing some beautiful phase structure. On September 1 it sets at 7:54 p.m. Jupiter with its fantastic cloud structure and Galilean moons now sets just after 10 p.m. at the beginning of the month and by 8 p.m. by month’s end. Saturn is still located near the Lagoon Nebula in the Milky Way and by 4 a.m. local time. New moon will occur on Sept 9 with the full Harvest moon on the 26th.

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

Author: Gary BoyleeNews date: Saturday, September 1, 2018Category: Northern SkiesTweet::  Pages

New Youth Outreach Coordinator position announced

Recently the RASC successfully obtained a grant from the Trottier Foundation.

The grant is $75,000 a year for three years. The money is to be used to hire a Youth Outreach Coordinator.

The job was posted Friday on the Charity Village website



Attracting younger people to join the Society has long been a challenge.

This new hire will be responsible for developing and running youth programs across the country.

The goal is to reach more young people and introduce them to astronomy.


Our centres are actively running excellent outreach programs and reach thousands of young people each year.

This coordinator position is meant to support these volunteers and share resources across all 28 centres.

We hope Centres will participate in this program as it is meant to be a national effort.


The position includes the following activities:


  • Conduct an inventory of current youth astronomy programming, activities and resources
  • Assess and identify best practices and materials to be used in a national youth astronomy program
  • Recruit a youth committee for program development, promotion and implementation
  • Develop RASC astronomy youth programming, educational materials and web content
  • Establish connections and long term relationships with local communities, schools etc
  • Disseminate and promote youth programs and resources to centres, members and the general public
  • Deliver national youth programming
  • Monitor and evaluate impact/effectiveness of the youth program
  • Develop partnerships with other youth /astronomy / science organizations to achieve program goals
  • Assess and evaluate outcomes

We hope to set aside time at the GA in Toronto next June to run training sessions with those interested in running these programs at their centres.

I am very excited about this project – it is the first time the Society has obtained a grant to hire a skilled individual to develop a specific national astronomy education program.

Please let me know if you have any questions about this program or are interested in participating in it.


J. Randy Attwood

Executive Director

Royal Astronomical Society of Canada






Author: Randy AttwoodeNews date: Monday, August 20, 2018Category: AnnouncementseNews Tag: youth outreach coordinatorjobTweet::  Pages