Five planets arc across our skies this month but you have to get up early to see them

The positions of the five naked-eye planets and Moon are shown here as they will appear before dawn on June 20, 2022. Image via SkySafari 6 Pro.

It has been 18 years since Earthlings have been able to spy five planets in their skies, together and in order from Sun outward, but it’s possible now through the end of June. Want to take a look? Maybe you should. Yes, get up early — 30 to 45 minutes ahead of sunrise — find a spot where you can see the southern sky, and sweep your gaze from the east to the south.

Given clear skies low to the eastern horizon, look for a tiny star-like dot. If you’re lucky, you’ll have spotted planet Mercury, the most elusive of the worlds you’ll see due to its size and proximity to Sun. Moving westward, next comes Venus. You’ll have no trouble spotting Earth’s overheated sister as it will shine brilliantly even in early twilight.

Skipping Earth (it doesn’t count because you’re standing on it) Mars is next in line. Look for a little reddish light not far from brighter Jupiter. Moving across a bigger gap and looking south, we finally reach Saturn, the Lord of the Rings. The ringed world will appear as a slightly golden star.

Looking “down” on the Solar System, this diagram shows the field of view from Earth as it takes in the five naked-eye planets — the Solar System as it was known before the invention of the telescope. Image created via SkySafari Pro 6.

Binoculars will help, especially in finding tiny Mercury, but may also allow users to see Jupiter’s four Galilean Moons. A little visual aid may also help in confirming it’s Saturn that has been spotted — if the rings aren’t distinct, the planet will appear as a bright oval and not like a starry speck.

The planets will be joined by Earth’s Moon at various points along their arc, changing placement nightly from about June 18 — 28. A beautiful arrangement will occur on June 24 when the then-crescent Moon will float between Venus and Mars. Around the 28th, Moon will have drifted out of the arc entering its New (dark) phase.

The planets of our Solar System may appear to be close together at times when we see them from Earth but they’re not. Nor will their combined gravitational pull have any effect on Earth. Relax and enjoy the show! Image created via SkySafari 6 Pro.

At the end of June, Mercury will slip too close to Sun for it to be seen by casual observers, ending the celestial gathering. The four other planets, however, will remain in their arc though their relative positions will shift nightly and almost imperceptibly, until they no longer form a visual chain.

The five-planet dance was last seen in 2004 and it won’t happen again until 2040. Maybe you’ll be on your way to or from work. Perhaps the dog needs walking. You may even think it’s worth getting out of bed early on a clear, cool June morning so you can tell everyone you saw five planets all together. Whatever puts you under a clear starry sky, look up and enjoy our wonderful universe.

No Open Nights planned

Photo: Nearly Full Perigee (aka "supermoon") - November 13, 2016, 5:52 PM. Photo by James Guilford.

Due to issues with our observatory building, we have no planned public observing nights on our 2022 calendar at this time. Recent years have not been kind to our 1939 building, anticipated repair costs are high, and certain problems are interfering with basic operation.

For updates, check back here occasionally or follow us on Twitter (@StephensObs)

If you have specific questions, the fastest way to contact the observatory is via the email contact form you will find here: https://stephensobservatory.org/contact-us/

Midnight Total Lunar Eclipse May 15 – 16

On the night of May 15, the Moon enters Earth’s shadow, creating a total lunar eclipse, the first since May of 2021. The image below shows the changing appearance of the Moon as it travels into and out of Earth’s shadow, along with times at various stages.

The Moon moves right to left, passing through the penumbra and umbra, leaving in its wake an eclipse diagram with the times at various stages of the eclipse. NASA visualization by Ernie Wright.

The penumbra is the part of the Earth’s shadow where the Sun is only partially covered by Earth. The umbra, the deep central cone of Earth’s shadow, is where Sun is completely hidden. Though direct sunlight is blocked whilst in the umbra, Moon is illuminated by light refracted and filtered by Earth’s atmosphere, colored by all of the globe’s sunrises and sunsets.

The Moon’s appearance isn’t affected much by the penumbra but careful observers may note a change in the full Moon’s appearance. The real action begins when the Moon starts to disappear as it enters the umbra at about 10:28 p.m. EDT on the 15th. An hour later, entirely within the umbra, Moon is a copper, or red-orange color. Totality lasts for an hour and a half before the Moon begins to emerge from the central shadow. Throughout the eclipse, the Moon is found in the constellation Libra.

Shadows make an eclipse. This illustration shows how Earth casts a thin outer, and deep inner shadow that changes the Moon’s appearance during an eclipse. Credits: NASA / James Guilford

Although, for some, the midnight timing of the May total lunar eclipse is daunting, the good news is that North American watchers will be well-positioned to see the event in its entirety. Often, eclipses may be in progress as Moon rises or sets. For a visibility map, CLICK HERE.

Binoculars, small telescopes, or even your unaided eyes are all you need to enjoy viewing of this natural phenomenon. The one thing that may stand in our way is — you guessed it — the weather!

Stephens Memorial Observatory will not be open for this event.

New planet detected around star closest to the Sun

This artist’s impression shows a close-up view of Proxima d, a planet candidate recently found orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The planet is believed to be rocky and to have a mass about a quarter that of Earth. Two other planets known to orbit Proxima Centauri are visible in the image too: Proxima b, a planet with about the same mass as Earth that orbits the star every 11 days and is within the habitable zone, and candidate Proxima c, which is on a longer five-year orbit around the star.

A team of astronomers using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) in Chile have found evidence of another planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Solar System. This candidate planet is the third detected in the system and the lightest yet discovered orbiting this star. At just a quarter of Earth’s mass, the planet is also one of the lightest exoplanets ever found.

“The discovery shows that our closest stellar neighbor seems to be packed with interesting new worlds, within reach of further study and future exploration,” explains João Faria, a researcher at the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço, Portugal and lead author of the study published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics. Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Sun, lying just over four light-years away.

The newly discovered planet, named Proxima d, orbits Proxima Centauri at a distance of about four million kilometers, less than a tenth of Mercury’s distance from the Sun. It orbits between the star and the habitable zone — the area around a star where liquid water can exist at the surface of a planet — and takes just five days to complete one orbit around Proxima Centauri.

The star is already known to host two other planets: Proxima b, a planet with a mass comparable to that of Earth that orbits the star every 11 days and is within the habitable zone, and candidate Proxima c, which is on a longer five-year orbit around the star.

This chart shows the large southern constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur) and shows most of the stars visible with the naked eye on a clear dark night. The location of the closest star to the Solar System, Proxima Centauri, is marked with a red circle. Proxima is too faint to see with the unaided eye but can be found using a small telescope. This area of the sky is not visible from North America.

Proxima b was discovered a few years ago using the HARPS instrument on ESO’s 3.6-meter telescope. The discovery was confirmed in 2020 when scientists observed the Proxima system with a new instrument on ESO’s VLT that had greater precision, the Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO). It was during these more recent VLT observations that astronomers spotted the first hints of a signal corresponding to an object with a five-day orbit. As the signal was so weak, the team had to conduct follow-up observations with ESPRESSO to confirm that it was due to a planet, and not simply a result of changes in the star itself.

“After obtaining new observations, we were able to confirm this signal as a new planet candidate,” Faria says. “I was excited by the challenge of detecting such a small signal and, by doing so, discovering an exoplanet so close to Earth.”

At just a quarter of the mass of Earth, Proxima d is the lightest exoplanet ever measured using the radial velocity technique, surpassing a planet recently discovered in the L 98-59 planetary system. The technique works by picking up tiny wobbles in the motion of a star created by an orbiting planet’s gravitational pull. The effect of Proxima d’s gravity is so small that it only causes Proxima Centauri to move back and forth at around 40 centimeters per second (1.44 kilometers per hour).

“This achievement is extremely important,” says Pedro Figueira, ESPRESSO instrument scientist at ESO in Chile. “It shows that the radial velocity technique has the potential to unveil a population of light planets, like our own, that are expected to be the most abundant in our galaxy and that can potentially host life as we know it.”

“This result clearly shows what ESPRESSO is capable of and makes me wonder about what it will be able to find in the future,” Faria adds.

ESPRESSO’s search for other worlds will be complemented by ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction in the Atacama Desert, which will be crucial to discovering and studying many more planets around nearby stars.

An experience shared over 200 years

H.M Bark Endeavour. See page for author, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
H.M Bark Endeavour. See page for author, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

February 2022 — News is the remains of the scuttled ship Endeavour, commanded by Lt. James Cook, have been discovered in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island, where they lay for more than 200 years. The ship sailed to Tahiti to observe the June 3, 1769 transit of Venus. Endeavour was, of course, involved in far broader explorations of the South Pacific, but the news of her discovery reminded me of my own experience: the June 5, 2015 transit of Venus — observed 246 years after Cook — from Hiram at a public event we hosted.

James Cook's sketch of the "Black Drop" Effect observed as Venus began its transit of the solar disk.
James Cook’s sketch of the “Black Drop” Effect observed as Venus began its transit of the solar disk.

Recalling that day, the afternoon was cloudy and rainy and I thought we would miss out. But mere minutes before the silhouette of Venus was to appear on Sun’s face mists faded, clouds parted, and Sun shined brightly. I quickly finished setting up the telescopes, peered through the eyepiece to focus, and saw the same “black drop” phenomenon Cook sketched. My camera was set up too late (due to the aforementioned weather) to record the “black drop” for later sharing.

June 5, 2012 Transit of Venus photographed by James Guilford
June 5, 2012 Transit of Venus photographed by James Guilford

We hosted visitors at our mobile telescope site — the former location of Hiram Elementary School — until Sun sank below the treeline to our west, the transit still in progress. In the end more than 100 (estimated count lost) men, women, and children saw that big black dot moving across the sun. It was a lovely experience.

A transit of Venus is the passage of the planet across the face of our Sun as seen from Earth. Transits of Venus are rare; they come in pairs, 8 years apart, separated by approximately 120 years. Our next opportunity comes in December 2117. See you then?

NASA Article on Cook and the transit of 1769: https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2004/28may_cook

— James Guilford, Stephens Memorial Observatory

A Christmas Eve launch set for the James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope, the premier space science observatory of the next decade, is targeted for launch Dec. 24 from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, on the northeastern coast of South America. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

NASA will provide coverage of prelaunch, launch, and postlaunch activities for the James Webb Space Telescope, the world’s largest and most powerful space science telescope.

Webb is targeted to launch at 7:20 a.m. EST Friday, Dec. 24, on an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on the northeastern coast of South America.

Live launch coverage in English will begin at 6 a.m. on NASA TV, the NASA app, and the agency’s website. The public can also watch live on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Twitch, and Daily Motion. NASA also will offer a launch broadcast in Spanish beginning at 6:30 a.m. on the agency’s website and Spanish-language social media accounts.

The Webb mission, an international partnership with ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency, will explore every phase of cosmic history – from within the solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe, and everything in between. Webb will reveal new and unexpected discoveries and help humanity understand the origins of the universe and our place in it.

ESO telescopes reveal closest pair of supermassive black holes yet seen

Close-up view of the two bright galactic nuclei, each housing a supermassive black hole, in NGC 7727, a galaxy located 89 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Aquarius. Each nucleus consists of a dense group of stars with a supermassive black hole at its center. The image was taken with the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. Credit: ESO/Voggel et al.

Located in the galaxy NGC 7727 in the constellation Aquarius, the supermassive black hole pair is about 89 million light-years away from Earth. Although this may seem distant, it beats the previous record of 470 million light-years by quite some margin, making the newfound supermassive black hole pair the nearest us yet.  

Supermassive black holes lurk at the center of massive galaxies and when two such galaxies merge, the black holes end up on a collision course. The pair in NGC 7727 beat the record for the smallest separation between two supermassive black holes, as they are observed to be just 1,600 light-years apart. “It is the first time we find two supermassive black holes that are this close to each other, less than half the separation of the previous record holder,” said Karina Voggel, an astronomer at the Strasbourg Observatory in France and lead author of the study published online in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

“The small separation and velocity of the two black holes indicate that they will merge into one monster black hole, probably within the next 250 million years,” added co-author Holger Baumgardt, a professor at the University of Queensland, Australia. The merging of black holes like these could explain how the most massive black holes in the Universe come to be.

Voggel and her team were able to determine the masses of the two objects by looking at how the gravitational pull of the black holes influences the motion of the stars around them. The bigger black hole, located right at the core of NGC 7727, was found to have a mass almost 154 million times that of our Sun, while its companion is 6.3 million solar masses.

It is the first time the masses have been measured in this way for a supermassive black hole pair. This feat was made possible thanks to the close proximity of the system to Earth and the detailed observations the team obtained at the Paranal Observatory in Chile using the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, an instrument Voggel learnt to work with during her time as a student at ESO. Measuring the masses with MUSE, and using additional data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, allowed the team to confirm that the objects in NGC 7727 were indeed supermassive black holes.

Astronomers suspected that the galaxy hosted the two black holes, but they had not been able to confirm their presence until now since we do not see large amounts of high-energy radiation coming from their immediate surroundings, which would otherwise give them away. Our finding implies that there might be many more of these relics of galaxy mergers out there and they may contain many hidden massive black holes that still wait to be found,” said Voggel. “It could increase the total number of supermassive black holes known in the local Universe by 30 percent.”

The NGC 7727 galaxy, shown in this image from ESO’s VLT Survey Telescope (VST) in Chile. Located 89 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Aquarius, NGC 7727 is believed to be the result of a clash between two galaxies that occurred about one billion years ago. The consequences of this tremendous cosmic bump are still evident in the peculiar, irregular shape of NGC 7727 and the streams of stars in its outer regions.  Credit: ESO/VST ATLAS team. Acknowledgement: Durham University/CASU/WFAU

November 19th “near-total” lunar eclipse

2007 Total Lunar Eclipse. Photo by James Guilford.
2007 Total Lunar Eclipse. The November 19, 2021 eclipse will look much like this at its maximum. Photo by James Guilford

Taking place in the early hours of Friday, November 19 is what we will call a near-total lunar eclipse. When the eclipse reaches its maximum extent, about 97 percent of Moon will be within Earth’s deep umbra shadow. Much of the lunar disk would appear darkly colored but coloration would lighten across Moon’s face until, along one edge,

We say “would appear” because in Hiram, at least, skies are expected to be cloudy and delivering snow rather than views of our Moon’s show! Still, there’s a chance there will be a break in the weather and it’s good to know about these things.

A total lunar eclipse takes place when Moon completely enters the deep umbra of Earth’s cone-shaped shadow in space. The lunar surface is lit only by light that has passed through Earth’s atmosphere, coloring it shades of copper and red. Illustration Credit: NASA / James Guilford

A total lunar eclipse takes place when Earth’s Moon entirely enters the umbra portion of the planet’s shadow. There, lit only by light scattered through Earth’s atmosphere, Moon glows in beautiful colors ranging from deep red to bright copper. Naturally, to ancient peoples, the sight of the Full Moon changing from bright white to blood red caused fear and panic. Today, lunar eclipses are favorite targets for photography, and observations by astronomers. The November 19 event won’t technically be a total lunar eclipse but still well worth seeing!

This image illustrates the passage of Moon through Earth’s shadow the morning of November 19, 2021. When Moon is outside of the shadow, it will be in its Full phase. Entering the thin outer shadow or penumbra, the lunar disk will begin dimming. As it reaches the umbra, pronounced darkening begins and Moon will no longer appear as full. Strongest coloration appears as Moon, or portions of it, move close to the center of the umbra. Image via Fred Espenak.

Timing of the the November 19 eclipse is shown below and is accurate for areas surrounding Akron, Ohio. Those reading this article can get a localized timing table by visiting TimeAndDate.com

Timing of the the November 19 eclipse is shown below and is accurate for areas surrounding Akron, Ohio. Credit: TimeAndDate.com

We began this piece mentioning the unfortunate weather. It appears conditions will be worse to the northeast of Hiram and potentially better to the west and we can thank Lake Effect precipitation for that. So get up and check the skies around 4:00 a.m., if you want to take a chance, or just stay snug in bed. Either way know that a beautiful natural phenomenon is underway high above, happening just as it should, just when it should.

Our next opportunity to see a lunar eclipse? May 15 – 16, 2022, and it will be a total lunar eclipse. Totality will occur around midnight. Let’s hope for better weather chances then!

Happy Birthday, Cooley!

Photo: Vintage Observatory Telescope. Photo by James Guilford.
The Cooley Telescope at Stephens Memorial Observatory

On October 25, 120 years ago, Rev. Lathrop Cooley, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, presented a 9-inch Warner & Swasey telescope to Hiram College. He remarked, “This instrument is erected here so that you may climb the steep of heaven and walk among the stars.” The Cooley Telescope has resided in Hiram since its dedication, first at Teachout Library and Observatory then, following a building fire, at Stephens Memorial Observatory.

Dedicated at Hiram College in 1901, it is a fine and unique example of turn of the (20th) century astronomical telescope technology being complete as manufactured, including its functional weight-driven drive. As is customary, the telescope was named for the benefactor who provided it, Lathrop Cooley. See our History page for more about Mr. Cooley.

The telescope and its mount were made by the Warner and Swasey Company in Cleveland at their telescope factory located at Carnegie Avenue and East 55th Street. The outstanding optics were produced by the John Brashear Company, Pittsburgh. Over the years the Cooley Telescope has provided splendid views of Earth’s Moon, planets, nebulae, star clusters, comets, and even Sun, to many hundreds, perhaps thousands of visitors. Though the telescope remains operable, it is in need of mechanical overhaul and refurbishment.

We’re still observing restrictions meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but we hope it will not be very much longer before we can again share the wonders of the universe with visitors. After all, the Cooley Telescope is a gift that keeps on giving possibly for another century or so!

Dedication Plaque affixed to the Cooley Telescope
Dedication Plaque affixed to the Cooley Telescope

Our active Sun

The Sun, showing several sunspots/active regions. This image was made at 3:43 PM EDT/7:43 PM UTC on September 10, 2021 using the photographer’s personal reflecting telescope with safe solar filter, and DSLR camera body. Credit: James Guilford

After a long period of quiet during our Sun’s fairly predictable 11-year activity cycle, things have been happening. What was a bright, clear disk has become speckled with sunspots of late. The increased activity brings with it the chance of Earth-directed coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, which result in solar storms when they collide with our home planet’s magnetic field. Auroras, or “northern lights” for us, are one potential result of solar storms. The less pleasant effects can include disruption of radio communications and satellite operation, all the way to electrical grid failures at the extreme!

Several recent CMEs have missed Earth but one is headed in our direction as this blog entry is being written. According to SpaceWeather.com, “{A} CME is on the way following an explosion in the magnetic canopy of sunspot AR2864 on Sept. 8th. NOAA analysts believe Earth could experience a glancing blow or near miss late on Sept. 11th.” Those favored with clear skies and a good view to the north may want to be on the lookout for aurora, but the odds aren’t favorable … this time!

Here are two photos of Sun, shot by Stephens’ Director James Guilford, at 3:43 PM EDT (7:43 PM UTC). The first image shows the full solar disk. Notice not only the dark sunspots but also the lighter-colored “splotches” of additional active solar regions, most visible near the edges of the disk.

The second image is cropped to show the major concentration of the day’s sunspots with their official numerical designations. Both images have been color tinted.

A tightly-cropped portion of the day’s full-disk image shows three sunspot groups: AR 2866, AR 2868, and AR 2869. Sunspots only appear to be dark because they are significantly “cooler” than the surrounding solar atmosphere; they are actually quite hot. Sun’s shining photosphere has a temperature of 5,800 degrees Kelvin while sunspots have temperatures of around 3,800ºK (6,380℉). Nearly all of the dark features seen here are larger than planet Earth. Credit: James Guilford