The Sky This Month - January 2019

The Total Lunar Eclipse

The year 2018 ended with two great celestial events. We had the Geminid meteor shower that peaked on the night of December 13/14 as well as the great appearance of Comet 46/P Wirtanen. The comet was closest to the earth on December 16 and was near the Pleiades star cluster. Wirtanen is now moving towards Ursa Major and fading rapidly.

On the night of January 20/21 there will be a total lunar eclipse and Canada is well placed to see the entire show. In contrast to a solar eclipse when special filters are required for safety reasons, a lunar eclipse is completely safe to see and photograph. Prior to the lunar eclipse, the Sun, Moon and Earth will produce a partial solar eclipse on January 6 over North East Asia and the North Pacific.

As the full Moon sinks deeper into our planet’s shadow, it first darkens and then takes on an orangey colour. This is a result of sunlight refracting or passing through Earth’s atmosphere. This eclipse is also referred as the “Super Blood Moon”. The term “Super Moon” was derived by an astrologer in the 1970’s and refers to the combination of the full or new Moon along with its closest approach to the Earth in its elliptical orbit around us.

If you were on the moon during mid totality, you would see the same orange colour ring around the Earth. From this vantage point you would witness every sunset occurring on the left side of the Earth and every sunrise on the right side at the same time.  Although the Earth witnesses total and partial eclipses a couple of times a year, it will be a few year before the entire country will see the eclipse from beginning to end. The following times are local:

                                                      EST                  CST                   MST                 PST

Partial eclipse begins at:            10:34 p.m.            9:34 p.m.          8:34 p.m.          7:34 p.m.

Total eclipse begins at:               11:41 p.m.         10:41 p.m.           9:41 p.m.          8:41 p.m.      

Mid eclipse at:                             12:12 a.m.         11:12 p.m.         10:12 p.m.          9:12 p.m.

Total eclipse ends at:                 12:43 a.m.         11:43 p.m.         10:43 p.m.           9:43 p.m.

Partial eclipse ends at:                  1:51 a.m.        12:51 a.m.         11:51 p.m.         10:43 p.m.  

The thin crescent Moon will not interfere with the annual Quadrantid meteor shower. The shower runs from January 1–10 and peaks on the night of January 3-4. An expected 40 meteor meteors per hour will strike the atmosphere about 80 kilometres above the Earth and can produce bright fireballs. The radiant for the Quadrantids is located in an area half way between Draco and the top star of Bootes named Nekkar.

Along with Orion the Hunter, Taurus the Bull rules the winter sky. Within its boundaries we have the even popular Pleiades star cluster. M45 is a fantastic sight in binoculars, a telescope or just with your eyes. Also referred as the Seven Sisters, this cluster also represents the mythical heart of the bull, We then have the “V” shaped Hyades star cluster forming its head and accented by the star Aldebaran, the angry “eye” of the bull. Aldebaran is a actually a foreground star and not part of the cluster.

Follow the long imaginary horn closest to Orion to its end. Not far from here is the first object on Messier’s list. This is M1 or the Crab Nebula and is the remains of a supernova that occurred in the year 1054 A.D. This explosion was so bright, it outshone the moon for a couple of weeks. The Crab Nebula has long since faded to a dim smudge in a telescope eyepiece. It has a pulsar at its centre spinning at 33 times a second.     

The planet Venus still lights up the south east morning sky. It attained greatest elongation (appearing farthest from the Sun as seen from Earth) on December 15 and will be seen a bit lower in the sky each morning. Meanwhile Jupiter is climbing higher throughout the month and on the morning of January 25 both will meet, appearing as “spooky eyes” in the eastern sky. The 16% crescent Moon will be seen between the two on January 31 making a great digital moment.

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

Twitter: @astroeducator

Author: Gary BoyleeNews date: Tuesday, January 1, 2019Category: Northern SkiesTweet::  Pages

Create a Logo for CASTOR and Win!

Create a Logo for CASTOR and Win!

Canadian astronomers have established themselves in space-based astronomy by using space telescopes such as Hubble and Chandra. In 2003 Canada’s MOST (Microvariability and Oscillations of Stars) space telescope was launched, and now Canada is a full partner in the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Hubble and Chandra are nearing the end of their lifetimes, and JWST won’t have the long lifetime of Hubble, so Canadian astronomers are already looking at what comes after JWST. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is developing WFIRST (Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope) and the European Space Agency is building Euclid.

Since both WFIRST and Euclid will operate in the infrared like JWST, ultraviolet and visible light capabilities in space will be lost when Hubble ceases operations. Because of this problem, many Canadian astronomers are supporting a proposal for a new Canadian space telescope, CASTOR, the Cosmological Advanced Survey Telescope for Optical and ultraviolet Research.

CASTOR is planned to have a primary mirror of a metre in diameter inside a spacecraft weighing about 500 kg. Its camera is planned to have a similar resolution to Hubble, but it would be able to cover a much larger part of the sky than Hubble. 

CASTOR would provide unique data in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum to complement data from JWST, WFIRST and Euclid, assisting in the search for dark energy. It would also challenge and stimulate Canadian industry and Canadian science.

The Canadian Space Agency is conducting a study of CASTOR that Canadian astronomers hope will lead to approval of the mission. While CSA would lead CASTOR, other space agencies would be involved, including NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization, which would provide the launch vehicle.

Now Canadian astronomers are seeking a logo for CASTOR, whose name pays tribute in French to Canada’s national animal, the beaver.

Members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the Fédération des astronomes amateurs du Québec are invited to submit their designs for a CASTOR logo.

Entries can be sent before February 1, 2019, to: RASC National Office at 203-4920 Dundas St West, Toronto ON M9A 1B7 or at nationaloffice@rasc.ca

They will be judged by a panel of astronomers selected by mission scientists, RASC and FAAQ.

The winner will receive a prize of merchandise from Ingenium: Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation.

Author: Randy AttwoodeNews date: Wednesday, December 19, 2018Category: AnnouncementseNews Tag: Castor contestTweet::  Pages

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