The Sky This Month - December 2019

Sky This Month – December 2019
By: Gary Boyle, Ottawa

The Geminid Meteor Shower

Winter in Canada has its obvious challenges of keeping the snowy walkway clean as well as driving in snow and ice during our daily commute. And even though a clear moonless night reveals a gorgeous starry sky, the cold can cut short or even ruin a perfectly good observing session. This scenario often occurs during one of the best meteor showers of the year – the Geminids.

This shower peaks on the night of December 13/14 and over the past years when it was clear, wind chills reached -25C back in 2017. But bundling up and heading outdoors is worth the battle to stay warm. At its peak, the Geminids can produce up to 120 graceful bright meteors that must be experienced. They vaporize at only 35 km per second or half the speed of the Perseids seen in August.

The radiant or area where the meteors appear to come from is located north of the star Castor. Wide-angle photography would easily catch many great meteors. This requires the camera shutter to be opened for a few minutes to hopefully catch the fiery cosmic dust. But there is a catch this year. The Full Cold Moon occurs on December 12 and will still be 96% lit and in the constellation Gemini which will overexpose a long exposure. But still, the fun is witnessing it live with family and friends.

During the nights when the moon does not light up the sky, the Hyades cluster with its “V” formation represents the head of the mythological Taurus the Bull. This wide group of stars is only 150 light-years from us whereas bright star Aldebaran is a foreground star and not part of the cluster is only 67 light-years from us. Its long horns extend to the east and link up to the stars Alnath which is also part of the constellation Auriga and Zeta Tauri located 134 and 440 light-years away respectively.

From Zeta, move your telescope a bit north to the first object on Messier’s list, M1. Know as the Crab Nebula, it is the remains of a supernova that occurred in the year 1054 AD and first noticed by Chinese astronomers. The blast outshone the moon for about three weeks when it exploded. It is now a dim object located 6,200 light-years away but is a must to observe and photograph.

As the planet Jupiter disappears behind the horizon, Venus now owns the western sky for the next few months. Saturn is also low in the sky, the two will be closest on the night of December 10 when they are less than two degrees apart and will make a great digital moment. Venus is about 11 light minutes from us whereas light from Saturn is an hour and half-light travel.

Winter Solstice occurs on December 22 while the southern hemisphere celebrates Summer Solstice. The Full Cold Moon occurs December 12 while New Moon (lunation 1200) occurs on December 26.

It is that time of year we buy gifts for our friends and loved ones. When it comes to the budding astronomer or a novice that wishes to upgrade their equipment, I would like to suggest when it comes to telescopes, to stay away from big box stores and seek out reputable telescope dealers in your city or on the internet.

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

Author: Gary BoyleeNews date: Sunday, December 1, 2019Category: Northern SkiesTweet::  Pages

The Sky This Month - November 2019

The Transit of Mercury

For thousands of years, the naked eye planets have been observed as they slowly moved across the starry sky. The word planet comes from the Greek meaning “wanderer” and for good reason. Today’s telescope transforms these dots into detailed worlds such as the rings of Saturn, the polar caps on Mars and the four Galilean moons orbiting the banded clouds of Jupiter.

This month the planet Venus is coming out of the solar glare and climbing higher in the western sky while Jupiter is sinking closer to the horizon. Venus will be 1.4 degrees south of Jupiter on November 24 low in the west. A great digital moment comes four nights later when the slender 6% crescent moon is located one degree above Venus with Jupiter off to the right and appearing as “spooky eyes”.

Planets and moons reflect sunlight off surfaces and cloud tops but on rare occasions, we can see then in a different light – their dark side. Throughout our lives, we only have a handful of chances to witness a transit of Mercury and Venus across the Sun’s disk. Venus did this in 2004 and again in 2012 to only repeat in the years 2117 and 2125. Mercury, on the other hand, crosses more often and there have been nine transits since 1960 with the next one on November 11.

The Remembrance Day transit begins with first contact around 7:36 a.m. EST with the transit ending around 1:06 p.m. EST. The next Mercury transit will occur on November 13, 2032. Needless to say, you will need a solar filter to observe and photograph the event in safety but Mercury is tiny as seen in the image below. A transit is one of the methods astronomers use to detect exoplanets in other star systems. The Kepler Telescope imaged more than 150,000 stars every 30 minutes to detect minute dips in brightness as a planet crossed its parent star’s disk.

Joe Bonner captured the May 5, 2016 transit with his Meade 8" LX90, 0.65 focal reducer and a full aperture mylar filter. He used a Canon T2i set at ISO100 and took three 1/1000 second frames then stacked with Registax 5.

There are three meteor showers this month with very sparse zenithal hourly rates (ZHR). The South Taurid meteor shower peaks on November 6 with only 5 meteors seen per hour. Next, is the North Taurid meteor shower peaking on November 12 with also a low 5 meteors per hour rate and the Full Beaver Moon to contend with.

However, the Leonids will produce a bit more activity with a ZHR=10-15. It peaks on the morning of November 18 but is far from the meteor storm of 1933, 1966 and 1999. I remember the night of the 2001 shower when Earth passed through two debris fields on the same night. At one point we were at a ZHR=2,100. The parent comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle measures only 3.6 kilometres across and returns in the year 2031 on its 33-year orbit around the sun to replenish dusty debris to hopefully produce another storm the following year or so. One of the most intense displays occurred in 1833 where hourly rates reached 140,000 or 40 per second.

Daylight Saving Time ends on November 3 at 2 a.m. as we set our clocks back an hour. New moon or lunation 1199 will occur on the 26th.

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

Author: Gary BoyleeNews date: Friday, November 1, 2019Category: Northern SkiesFile:  2019 - 11 image 1 copy.jpgTweet::  Pages

The Sky This Month - October 2019

The Great Square of Pegasus

Autumn is a fantastic time to enjoy the night sky. With longer night time hours, the lack of mosquitoes and decent temperatures, we can take advantage of late summer and early winter observing. Fall is a great time to locate the many objects of Pegasus. Taking on the appearance of a baseball diamond, the “Great Square” can be seen low in the east.

The magnitude 2.4 star Enif is 670 ly away and represents the nose. It is a spectral type K supergiant star with a surface temperature of 4,460 Kelvin making it cooler than the sun but ten times more massive. If we were to substitute Enif in place of our sun, it would take up forty degrees of sky or the distance between the stars Alkaid (tail end of the Big Dipper) and Polaris (tail end of the Little Dipper). Enif is fusing helium into carbon and oxygen indicating it is at the end of its life.

Not far from Enif is the only globular cluster in this constellation. M15 is a wonderful magnitude 6.2 object and is a nicely resolved and a must for your next observing session. At a distance of 33,600 ly, it appears to measure 175 ly in diameter and takes about half a lunar width of sky. Starting from the star Scheat at the top of the square, move eight and a half degrees further north to NGC 7331. Commonly known as the Deer Lick Galaxy, it measures 10 X 3 arc minutes with a magnitude of 9.5. With an estimated distance of 40 million ly, NGC 7331 is seen with five 15th magnitude remote galaxies off to its left. The Deer Lick is an excellent guide to locate the ever-challenging Stephan’s Quintet. Here we see a group of four galaxies: NGC 7317 and NGC 7318 measuring 280 million ly away, NGC 7319 at 320 million ly away with the foreground galaxy NGC 7320 only 47 million ly away. 

The brightest and closest neighbouring galaxy to the Milky Way is located just east of the Great Square. The Andromeda Galaxy aka M31 is a naked eye object from the countryside on a moonless night. From binoculars to large telescopes, the sight of this object is beyond words. Moderate size telescopes will reveal a couple of the galactic arms as well as the star cloud NGC 206, situated at the west end of the main galaxy. M31 also possesses two satellite galaxies called M32 to the west and about 25 arc minutes from NGC 206 as well as M110 to the north of M31’s core.

Both these satellite galaxies are elliptical and glow at magnitude 8.2 and 8.0 respectively. However, since M110’s area is spread out over a wide area – it appears fainter than M32. The parent galaxy possesses many globular clusters with observers with a large telescope can see. 

The planet Venus can be glimpsed low in the western sky as it emerges from the solar glare. It will climb higher each night into April 2020. We still have a few hours each night to enjoy brilliant Jupiter that sets before 10 p.m. local time at the beginning of the month and fainter Saturn setting a couple of hours later. 

Two years ago, news broke that our solar system had received an interstellar visitor Oumuamua and was the strangest object ever discovered. It has now been confirmed that a second interstellar object and the first interstellar comet will visit us. Comet 2I/Borisov was discovered on August 30, 2019, and is quickly moving towards the southern horizon. Believed to be from the star system Kruger 60 located 13.1 ly away in the constellation Cepheus comprising of two red dwarfs. The comet reaches perihelion on Dec 7 at a top speed of 44 km/sec. It is currently 17th magnitude and will be a difficult object to hunt down. When it passes Earth on December 28, it might become brighter but will be too far south to see. For a list of other comets visible in binoculars and a telescope, click here.

The annual Draconid meteor shower will peak on the night of October 8 with only 5 meteors seen per hour. Although this shower seems dull, it has exploded into a storm of thousands back in 1933 and 1946. Europeans also witnessed about 600 meteors per hour in 2011. On September 10, 2018, the shower’s parent Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner came closest to the Earth than it did in the last 72 years. Who knows if we will witness an outburst?

The Orionid meteor shower will peak on the night of October 21/22. Generated by periodic comet 1P/Halley, the Orionids only produce 10 to 20 meteors per hour. However, some years have seen a spike in numbers from 50 to 75 per hour. 

The full Hunter’s Moon occurs on October 13 and will be the smallest for 2019. New moon, (lunation 1198) occurs on Oct 27. After this date will be your last two weeks window to observe the zodiacal light in the east.  

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

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

Ad Astra Giveaway

Ad Astra Giveaway!

We have movie passes to give away to the Ad Astra premiere this Sept 18 in five cities across Canada!

Check out the social media accounts of RASC National (Toronto), Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal and Vancouver for more information about contest requirements.

Contest Rules and Regulations

1) Read contest instructions on this page and;
2) Follow instructions on the applicable contest posts on centre social media pages.No purchase necessary.

Contest is open to legal residents of Canada.

Winners will be selected from the pool of entrants who have met the contest requirements.

The contest closes on Thursday, Sept 12th at 11:59 local time. The odds of winning are dependent on the amount of entries at time of winner selection.

Winners will be notified via Facebook or Twitter direct message and may in some instances be required to provide full name and mailing address.

The RASC reserves the right to disqualify or re-draw a winner if a notified winner does not respond within 48 hours of notification. Notification time can vary but will be no later than 48 hours before the movie screening.

In some instances where a supplier is to provide merchandise to the winner or where movie screenings are oversold, the RASC has no obligation to replace the value of the prize.

An entry in this contest confirms your agreement to these rules and regulations and the RASC will not be held legally responsible or hold legal liability for the operation of this contest.

Author: Jenna HindseNews date: Monday, September 9, 2019Tweet::  Pages

The Sky This Month - September 2019


The constellation Aquarius is one of the original forty-eight constellations catalogued by Ptolemy in the 2nd century and appears on the ecliptic (zodiac). Also known as the “Water Carrier or Cup Carrier” this constellation is found in the southern part of the sky and measures less than 1,000 square degrees in area. The brighter stars that make up the asterism range in magnitude from 3.1 to 4.5, allowing Aquarius to be seen from the suburbs. 

A great object to observe and photograph is the Helix Nebula. Catalogued as NGC 7293 or Caldwell 63, this magnitude 7.6 planetary nebula measures 14 by 12 arc minutes, roughly half the size of the full moon. At a distance of only 650 lights years, the Hubble Space Telescope had to take multiple images and digitally stitch them together to produce its stunning portrait. When its central star exhausted its fuel some 10,600 years ago, vast amounts of material was cast off into space to form the envelope of material we see today. The Helix is located a third of the way between the stars 59 and 47 Aquarii. 

As its name suggests, NGC 7009 dubbed the Saturn Nebula is an irregular planetary with a Saturn like disk. The nebula is located 3,200 light-years from us and glows at magnitude 7. Measuring only .5 by .4 arc minutes, this object might be a bit more difficult to locate. NGC 7009 is situated 1.3 degrees north-west of the star Nu Aquilli.

A challenge object is globular cluster NGC 7492. This cluster is an outlying globular that resides a staggering 86,000 light-years from us, on the other side of the Milky Way Galaxy. The cluster is thought to be some 200 light-years wide with a very loose association of stars and no dense concentration towards the middle. Even though the overall magnitude is 11.3, individual stars are difficult to resolve with the brightest members being in the 15th magnitude range. Before leaving Aquarius, be sure to look at the planet, Neptune. At magnitude 7.8, it appears as a fuzzy bluish star whose light takes four hours to reach us.

The bright first magnitude star Fomalhaut ;located below the constellation Aquarius is a parent sun to an exoplanet that has been directly imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope The star is about 25 light-years away with its sibling Dagon orbits the star every 1,700 years.  

Although Neptune is a telescopic object, there are still two naked-eye planets still available for part of the night. Jupiter is well up after sunset and is on the meridian. You can still follow its orbiting moons and observe their transits and shadows with the help of the RASC Observers Handbook page 235 and 236. Jupiter sets at 1:45 a.m. local time at the beginning of the month. Saturn has its stunning ring system and you can follow the configuration of its five closest moons on page 240 of the Handbook.

This year’s Fall Equinox occurs on the 23rd at 7:50 UT and from that point on, nighttime hours will exceed day time hours. It seems only astronomers are happy with this statement. Another product of the Equinox is the zodiacal lights also known as the ‘false dawn’. For two weeks after the 26th when the moon is not a hindrance, scan the eastern skies before dawn. This faint glow can appear about 45 degrees above the horizon and is sunlight illuminating the dusty debris of the plane of the solar system.

The full Harvest or Moose Calling Moon occurs on the 14th at 4:33 UT and new moon (lunation 1197) will occur on the 28th at 18:26 UT. 

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

Author: Gary BoyleeNews date: Sunday, September 1, 2019Category: Northern SkiesTweet::  Pages