Editor’s Note: There’s always something going on in the night sky, and summer is a wonderful time to get out and gaze at the stars. Each week here on Now Habersham, we’ll give you a glimpse of the night sky. Weather forecaster and astronomer Tyler Penland will highlight major celestial events as well as a handful of specific celestial objects that you can see with and without a telescope. So keep an eye on Now Habersham for our new weekly feature, “Look at the Sky”.
We start our Watch the sky series with a very exciting week.
Partial lunar eclipse: A lunar eclipse will be visible on Wednesday morning. For the western 2/3 of the country, a total eclipse will be in progress at moonset. For us on the east coast, we will only be able to see the partial stages of the eclipse.
The eclipse begins at 5:45 a.m. when the moon is about 7 degrees above the horizon. When the moon sets around 6:25 a.m. Wednesday morning, it will be about 50% covered by Earth’s shadow. Since this eclipse occurs so close to moonset, you will need to have a low, unobstructed view to the west during those wee hours of the morning.
The next lunar eclipse will be almost 97% full coverage on November 19 this year and finally another total lunar eclipse next May.
Planet show in the evening: Venus, Mercury, and Mars all hang out in the evening sky this week putting on a show. Mercury recently reached its farthest point from the sun, allowing it to briefly become visible to the naked eye against the glare of twilight. It is very easy to find right now as it is located just a little above Venus.
Venus is very bright and slowly moves away from the sun. With the sun setting around 8:30 am, Venus remains bright (magnitude -3.9) for over an hour after sunset. For those with a telescope or powerful binoculars, Venus will not appear quite round, but just slightly gibbous. This is because, just like the moon, Venus has phases. During some parts of its orbit it appears as a crescent and others as a solid disc.
Mars also makes an appearance during the evening and appears as the red dot above and to the left of Venus and Mercury. It is currently shining brightly at a magnitude of 1.7.
Jupiter and Saturn both wake up early in the morning around 2 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. respectively. At dawn, they’re located high in the sky, so look for them before you head to work or school before dawn this week. They have moved away from each other a lot since their conjunction last December.
Featured Naked Eye Object of the Week – Regulus: Regulus is the brightest star in the constellation Leo. It is currently located high in the sky during the early hours of the night. Its technical name is Alpha Leonis, but its common name of Regulus means “little king”.
Regulus has stood out from astronomers for thousands of years, but these early astronomers could never have guessed that it was just one of three interacting stars. A pair of little white dwarfs can be seen through a large telescope that orbits Regulus every 130,000 years or so.
Regulus is also a weird star because it spins extremely fast, almost fast enough to tear itself apart. It appears blue-white to our eyes and can be easily spotted in “the sickle” or part of the constellation Leo the lion that looks like an upside down question mark. It is the 21st brightest star in the sky, making it a good target for binoculars, telescopes or just your eyes! Be sure to take a look at this weird object on the evening of this week.
Featured Telescope Item of the Week – Beehive Cluster: As we move forward into the summer months, many of the best telescope items will appear. Many more dimmable objects will be blocked by the brilliant glare of the moon which is lit most of the night, but there are still plenty of large telescope targets to be found.
This week, we’re going to take a look at an object well out of the way of the moonlight: the hive cluster. Also known as M44 or Messier 44, this is an open cluster of stars located in the constellation Cancer. When the sun goes down, you can find this cluster above and to the left of the planet Mars, quite close to the naked eye object of the week Regulus. It is visible to the naked eye as a small nebula-like area, but appears as a beautiful collection of very tightly packed stars, even through a pair of powerful binoculars.
Galileo has the first documented cataloging of this cluster, although it has been observed since ancient times. It was later included in Charles Messier’s famous catalog of night sky objects. Galileo was able to see at least 40 distinct stars, but modern large telescopes reveal some 1,000 stars, all gravitationally related. The origin of the name “beehive” is unknown, but it certainly evokes this emotion when viewed through binoculars or a powerful telescope.
Make sure to get outside this week and take advantage of the dry weather.
And as my former professor of astronomy, Dr. Joseph Jones, says: Look at the sky!