What’s Up?

Updated February 7, 2019

The recent total lunar eclipse featured a meteor impact flash seen and imaged widely. This event took place just as totality was getting started. One of the many imagers, Nicolas Lefaudeux, posted his images to his website. These images feature realistic views of recent total lunar eclipses as well as the meteor impact flash and other types of images. A nice montage of the total lunar eclipse was assembled by Doug Holland, it can be viewed at this website.

Evenings are graced by the waxing crescent Moon which gets higher and brighter with each progressive evening. The Moon lies low in the West Southwest at nightfall and moving closer to Mars, passing the Red Planet on Sunday the 10th. Mercury will be making an appearance in the evening sky later this month, going through one of the best evening apparitions of the year. Aside from the Moon, Mars, and Mercury, the only other major planets in the evening sky are Uranus and Neptune, each of which need binoculars and a finder chart to spot.  Mars is much fainter than it was during its peak last summer, now glowing at +0.8 magnitude, down from its peak of -2.6 from last July.

As the sky darkens these February evenings the first star to appear is bright Sirius, low in the southeast at dusk. It forms a corner of the “Winter Hexagon” asterism, which extends from east to south. Going clockwise from Sirius, the other corners are marked by Procyon, Pollux and Castor, Menkalinan (beta Aurigae), Capella, to Aldebaran, then to Rigel in Orion’s foot, then back to Sirius. The bright star Betelgeuse is situated off center inside the Hexagon. The belt stars of the Big Dipper point more-or-less toward Aldebran and the V-shaped Hyades pattern. Continuing from there gets you to the Pleiades. Compare the colors of Aldebaran and Betelgeuse and see if you notice a difference. Aldebaran is an “orange giant” of K spectral type and surface temperature of 3910 Kelvin; Betelgeuse is an M1 type “red giant”, with a surface temperature of 3,590 Kelvins. Next compare their redness to the redness of Mars, off to the southwest. Which of these three appear the reddest to you?

By mid-evening the Big Dipper asterism stands on its handle well up in the northeast. In the northwest the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia stands on end, at about the same height. As the latter sinks towards the horizon, the former rises higher in the sky as the night progresses. Also at mid-evening, Regulus is appearing in the eastern sky at nightfall. Extending from it to the upper left is the Sickle of Leo, shaped as a backwards question mark. Leo is one of the traditional “springtime constellations” that will get higher and higher each evening as we move toward Northern Hemisphere spring.

In the western sky the constellations of fall are making their departure. The Great Square of Pegasus is perched on a corner in the western sky. Advance to the predawn hours and we see bright Jupiter and Venus, a couple weeks after their conjunction, dominating as two “morning stars”. They continue to get further and further apart with the “summer constellations” of Scorpius and Sagittarius as the backdrop. In fact just before the onset of dawn the summer constellations are already well up in the eastern sky. Joining the pair of “bright morning stars” is the planet Saturn, a fainter, more golden colored “star” reappearing after solar conjunction.

Due to construction of the observatory addition we have not been able to do any further work on the solar observatory telescope. Once this project is complete, the Prairie View Observatory Complex will house 3 domes, including the existing Solar Observatory, and two new domes. For updates on this progress check out https://www.pvamu.edu/pvso/cosmic-corner/project-summary-2/. Also, more information and images about the expansion (along with the existing Solar Observatory) at https://sites.google.com/view/saganti-astro/home. The two new domes will house our Meade 16-inch advanced telescope and a new 0.6 meter (24-inch) PlaneWave Corrected Dall-Kirkham telescope. The design features these two domes situated east and west of a visitor’s center, which is immediately north of the existing Solar Observatory. First light for the new observatory could happen as early as Spring 2019. Keep checking back for updates.

Juno made its 16th perijove flyby of the planet Jupiter October 26th and continues to send back spectacular images. You can find them at https://earthsky.org/space/juno-spacecraft-image-nov-2018-eichstadt-doran and  https://www.missionjuno.swri.edu/junocam/processing?ob_from=&ob_to=&phases%5B%5D=PERIJOVE+15&perpage=16. Last year, Juno flew closer to the Great Red Spot on Jupiter than any spacecraft in history, and this year it has been approved to continue orbiting Jupiter until at least July 2021.  For more information about this mission in general visit www.nasa.gov/juno. You can also visit http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/30/health/juno-jupiter/index.html which has some additional interesting facts about the mission.