The Great Conjunction of 2020

On December 21, 2020 Jupiter and Saturn will appear closer in our sky than they have since the year 1623 — only .10º apart. By way of comparison, Earth’s Moon covers about .50º on average! In fact, the two planets will have so little visual separation that they may appear as one bright “star” in our evening sky. As with many objects we see in our night sky, planets Jupiter and Saturn will only appear to be near to each other; they will will be physically separated by about 456 million miles.

The position of the planets as they will be at 7:00 PM EST, December 21, 2020. The bright green line represents the sight line from Earth to Jupiter and Saturn. Image Credit: SkySafari / James Guilford

Here’s why the planets will appear so close in our sky:

Viewed from Earth and looking out toward Jupiter and Saturn we see the planets as if they were in the same orbit — like watching runners in their separate lanes as one overtakes the other. Viewed from “above” we can see that the planets remain well apart.

Viewed closer to the orbital plane of the planets we see how Jupiter and Saturn appear closer together against the background of space. The green line represents the sight line from Earth to the planets. Image Credit: SkySafari / James Guilford

As we drop lower and closer to the orbital plane it becomes more difficult to separate Jupiter and Saturn until, on December 21, 2020, we won’t be able to see them as discrete objects without the use of a telescope!

Jupiter and Saturn appear to merge, on December 21, 2020 as viewed from Earth and depicted here just above the orbital plane of the planets. Image Credit: SkySafari / James Guilford

While the previous extremely close conjunction took place in 1623, Jupiter and Saturn were too close to the Sun to be observed. The last time they could actually be seen so close together was even longer ago: on March 4, 1226. Great Conjunctions take place just short of 20 years apart and most are not so close as this year’s — the next will take place on October 31, 2040, when Jupiter and Saturn will be separated by 1.1º which will be close, but not so amazing as 2020.

Jupiter and Saturn may be seen in the same narrow field of view during 2020’s Great Conjunction. This simulation depicts the position of Jupiter’s Galilean Moons and Saturn’s giant satellite, Titan. Image Credit: SkySafari

If you plan to take a look, you’ll need clear skies (of course!) and you’ll need to be timely — the planetary pair will become visible low in the southwestern sky with the fading twilight and will set in the west by 7:20 PM, December 21. To see the individual planets during their close encounter will require a telescope — a small one will do — or a decent telephoto lens on a camera mounted on a tripod. Given good optics and clear skies, viewers will be able to make out the Galilean Moons of Jupiter and, perhaps spy Titan, Saturn’s brightest moon.

Before and after the 21st, Jupiter and Saturn will appear close together as they first approach, and then recede from the conjunction, continuing to move along their orbital paths. The historic astronomical event will be one night and one night only in our lifetimes. Clear skies, please!

July Fourth weekend brought sky events great and small

Little difference can be seen between an earlier stage and the maximum eclipse state of the July 4 - 5, 2020 penumbral lunar eclipse. Photos by James Guilford.
Little difference can be seen between an earlier stage and the maximum eclipse state of the July 4 – 5, 2020 penumbral lunar eclipse. The images were made with identical camera and Photoshop settings. Photos by James Guilford.

There was much ballyhoo surrounding the penumbral lunar eclipse that would take place the night of July 4 – 5, 2020. We joined in just to explain a little about what was going on and what might be expected. Penumbral lunar eclipses take place when the Moon passes through the thin outer shadow Earth casts out into space; they are often very subtle, slight, and in this case, nearly undetectable. Just witness the photo above that shows the Full Buck Moon about one-half hour before maximum eclipse and the Moon at maximum. Casual observers saw no change across the entire event and it’s hard for us to see the difference even in photos that can be made to emphasize features! So we apologize if you waited up to see what we called the  “subtle” eclipse but, if you did, you saw a beautiful Full Moon!

Then there was the much-less-promoted Sunday night, July 5, conjunction of Earth’s Moon, with planets Jupiter and Saturn… a lovely sight! We went out to photograph it an hour after moonrise and spied a brilliant orange Moon lighting up the scattered clouds with Jupiter shining through and Saturn making a somewhat dimmer appearance. A conjunction is when two or more celestial objects appear close together in our skies — emphasis on appear since Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn are separated by hundreds of millions of miles. We were surprised to see, in the photo below, that even Jupiter’s four Galilean Moons can be seen. The stars and planets appear oblong or as short streaks due to Earth’s rotation and the length of the camera exposure.

Conjunction of Earth's Moon, with planets Jupiter (bright dot above), and Saturn (less bright dot to the left at the edge of a cloud), the night of July 5, 2020. Photo by James Guilford.
Conjunction of Earth’s Moon, with planets Jupiter (bright dot above), and Saturn (less bright dot to the left at the edge of a cloud), the night of July 5, 2020. Photo by James Guilford.

New Hubble portrait of Jupiter

Photo: Jupiter as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope June 27, 2019.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals the intricate, detailed beauty of Jupiter’s clouds in this new image taken on June 27, 2019 by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, when the planet was 644 million kilometers from Earth — its closest distance this year. The image features the planet’s trademark Great Red Spot and a more intense color palette in the clouds swirling in the planet’s turbulent atmosphere than seen in previous years. The observations of Jupiter form part of the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) program. Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley)  — Click image to view full-size!

 
Among the most striking features in the image are the rich colors of the clouds moving toward the Great Red Spot. This huge anticyclonic storm is roughly the diameter of Earth and is rolling counterclockwise between two bands of clouds that are moving in opposite directions toward it.

As with previous images of Jupiter taken by Hubble, and other observations from telescopes on the ground, the new image confirms that the huge storm which has raged on Jupiter’s surface for at least 150 years continues to shrink. The reason for this is still unknown so Hubble will continue to observe Jupiter in the hope that scientists will be able to solve this stormy riddle. Much smaller storms appear on Jupiter as white or brown ovals that can last as little as a few hours or stretch on for centuries.

The worm-shaped feature located south of the Great Red Spot is a cyclone, a vortex spinning in the opposite direction to that in which the Great Red Spot spins. Researchers have observed cyclones with a wide variety of different appearances across the planet. The two white oval features are anticyclones, similar to small versions of the Great Red Spot.

The Hubble image also highlights Jupiter’s distinct parallel cloud bands. These bands consist of air flowing in opposite directions at various latitudes. They are created by differences in the thickness and height of the ammonia ice clouds; the lighter bands rise higher and have thicker clouds than the darker bands. The different concentrations are kept separate by fast winds which can reach speeds of up to 650 kilometers per hour.

These observations of Jupiter form part of the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) program, which began in 2014. This initiative allows Hubble to dedicate time each year to observing the outer planets and provides scientists with access to a collection of maps, which helps them to understand not only the atmospheres of the giant planets in the Solar System, but also the atmosphere of our own planet and of the planets in other planetary systems.

July 13: Two favorite sights… The Moon and Jupiter

Jupiter and its Galilean Moons as they will appear the night of July 13, 2019. Labels for Ganymede and Io overlap. Simulation via "Gas Giants".
Jupiter and its Galilean Moons as they will appear the night of July 13, 2019. Labels for Ganymede and Io overlap. Simulation via “Gas Giants”.

 

WRAP-UP: We played peek-a-boo through clouds with Moon and Jupiter all evening. When they first became visible from behind neighboring trees, viewing of our Moon and the planet was fair to poor. As time passed and the atmosphere settled down, seeing became better and late visitors were treated to excellent views of Moon and fair to good views of Jupiter with his four Galilean Moons and even the Great Red Spot (GRS). In fact, just before we closed for the night, the GRS showed not just as a thickening in the Southern Equatorial Band but as a definite shape with red coloration! Saturday’s was not the best view we’ve had of Jupiter but in the end, it was pretty good. Thanks to the 34 visitors who came out on a muggy and buggy night to enjoy the sights!

Stephens Memorial Observatory of Hiram College will host a Public Night Saturday, July 13, from 9:30 to 11:00 PM. On the observing list are two Stephens favorites: Earth’s Moon, and planet Jupiter with its moons. Other objects of interest may also be viewed using the Observatory’s 1901 vintage telescope. Given good viewing conditions, organizers say, the telescope delivers outstanding detail of the Moon and impressive views of Jupiter including, when it’s in position as it will be July 13, the planet’s Great Red Spot feature.

Organizers hope for clear skies since recent weather conditions have made scheduled observing impossible. Cloudy skies at the scheduled starting time cancel the event in which case, the observatory will not open. No reservations are required and there is no admission fee for observatory public nights.

The Observatory is located on Wakefield Road (Rt. 82) less than a quarter of a mile west of Route 700 in Hiram. There is no parking at the Observatory. Visitors may park on permissible side streets near the Post Office, a short distance east of the observatory.

Updates on programming are available via the Observatory’s Twitter feed: @StephensObs or its website: StephensObservatory.org.

July 21 Open Night: Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn!

Image: Saturn and a few moons as it will appear the night of July 21. Simulation by "Gas Giants."
Saturn and a few moons as they will appear the night of July 21. Simulation by “Gas Giants.”

 

Stephens Memorial Observatory of Hiram College will be open for public observing Saturday, July 21, from 9:30 to 11:00 PM. Given good skies, visitors will see wonderful views of the Moon, giant planet Jupiter with moons of its own, and the “ring world” Saturn. Other objects of interest, such as star clusters, will also be sought, using the Observatory’s vintage telescope.

Cloudy skies at the scheduled starting time cancel the event and in that case, the observatory will not open. No reservations are required and there is no admission fee for observatory public nights.

The Observatory is located on Wakefield Road (Rt. 82) less than a quarter of a mile west of Route 700 in Hiram. There is no parking at the Observatory. Visitors may park on permissible side streets near the Post Office, a short distance east of the observatory.

 

Image: Jupiter and moon Io as they will appear at about 10 PM on July 21, 2018. The Great Red Spot will be front-and-center. Image: Gas Giants simulation.
Jupiter and moon Io as they will appear at about 10 PM on July 21, 2018. The Great Red Spot will be front-and-center. Image: Gas Giants simulation.

June 23 Public Night: A belated season opener

FINAL — 8:59 PM: Event canceled due to near-Overcast conditions and nearby rain showers. We will try again in July.

UPDATE – June 23, 4:00 PM: Sky conditions are very changeable but prospects look generally poor for tonight’s scheduled Open Night as clouds dominate and isolated showers roam the region. We will make a final go/no-go decision this evening and announce it here and via Twitter.

Stephens Memorial Observatory of Hiram College will be open for public observing Saturday, June 23, from 9:00 to 11:00 PM. Given good skies, visitors will see wonderful views of the Moon and giant planet Jupiter with moons of its own. Other objects of interest, such as star clusters, will also be sought, using the Observatory’s vintage telescope.

Jupiter and Moons - June 23, 2018, 10 PM - Simulated View
Jupiter and Moons – June 23, 2018, 10 PM – Simulated View

The June event represents a late start to our public outreach season caused by an operational problem with the observatory building constructed in 1939. The problem has been corrected and we hope to present a full season’s schedule of public events.

Cloudy skies at the scheduled starting time cancel the event and in that case, the observatory will not open. No reservations are required and there is no admission fee for observatory public nights.

The Observatory is located on Wakefield Road (Rt. 82) less than a quarter of a mile west of Route 700 in Hiram. There is no parking at the Observatory. Visitors may park on permissible side streets near the Post Office, a short distance east of the observatory.

Beautiful end to a strange and frustrating evening

Photo: Storm over Portage County, Ohio, June 24, 2017 - by James Guilford
Storm over Portage County, Ohio, June 24, 2017 – by James Guilford

 
Saturday night’s Open Night presented “interesting” situations. Shortly after arriving at the observatory, we saw rain arrive and heard thunder. Rain stopped, then started again as another compact thunderstorm passed over the village of Hiram. To the north we could see clear sky just outside the borders of the storm. To the south, over Garrettsville and Manuta, we could spy towering cumulus clouds and radar revealed intense rainfall. All of this weather around 8:30 to 9:00 and even a bit later. But at the appointed hour of 9:30, the sky began to clear overhead and we opened the dome.

There, in the southern shy, was Jupiter shining brightly. Hope? Nope! Storm delays and perhaps a bit of spring growth allowed Jupiter to slip behind the upper branches and leaves of a neighboring tree! Visitors arrived and we looked at mushy images of Jupiter pulled through little gaps between tree leaves. Surprisingly, occasional glimpses were had of the giant planet’s distinctive cloud bands and blurry dots of light — the Galilean Moons — could be seen. Then nothing, as Jupiter arced deeper into the branches. We fished around for a while, looking at a couple of bright stars through the murky atmosphere to the south. Saturn was lost in other trees and the messy air.

The faint, fuzzy Ring Nebula would be impossible, no? No. The sky to the east-northeast, inhabited by Lyra and the Ring, was crisp and clear. We rotated the dome, swung the big scope into position, and quickly found Messier 57 – the Ring Nebula. Of the night’s 19 visitors, those who were able to wait out the passage of clouds and darkening of sky were rewarded with clear, bright views of the famous planetary nebula; the beautiful end to a strange and frustrating evening.

June 24: “Rings” Open Night

Photo: The Ring Nebula (aka Messier 57). Credit: Walker County Observatory / Science@NASA - http://science.nasa.gov
The Ring Nebula (aka Messier 57). Credit: Walker County Observatory / Science@NASA – http://science.nasa.gov

Stephens Memorial Observatory of Hiram College will be open for public observing Saturday, June 24, from 9:30 to 11:00 PM. Featured that night will be Saturn, Jupiter, and the Ring Nebula. Other objects of interest may also be viewed.

The night’s observing depends upon clear skies and those have been in short supply this season! Cloudy skies at the starting time cancel the event and, in that case, the observatory will not open. No reservations are required and there is no admission fee for observatory public nights.

The Observatory is located on Wakefield Road (Rt. 82) less than a quarter of a mile west of Route 700 in Hiram. There is no parking at the Observatory. Visitors may park on permissible side streets near the Post Office, a short distance east of the observatory.

Courtesy Juno: Spectacular new view of Jupiter

Photo: This image shows Jupiter's south pole, as seen by NASA's Juno spacecraft from an altitude of 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles
This image shows Jupiter’s south pole, as seen by NASA’s Juno spacecraft from an altitude of 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

 

This image shows Jupiter’s south pole, as seen by NASA’s Juno spacecraft from an altitude of 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers). The oval features are cyclones, up to 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) in diameter. Multiple images taken with the JunoCam instrument on three separate orbits were combined to show all areas in daylight, enhanced color, and stereographic projection.

JunoCam’s raw images are available at www.missionjuno.swri.edu/junocam for the public to peruse and process into image products.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.

More information about Juno is online at http://www.nasa.gov/juno and http://missionjuno.swri.edu

May Open Night? Still battling the weather … and forecasts!

The scheduled May Open Night looked to be another “no-go” due to weather right up until about 90 minutes ahead of opening. Forecasts had, for days, called for overcast skies and inclement weather, and the day of the event bore that out. Then, defying forecasters and expectations, the sky began to clear. What looked to be another canceled Open Night turned into a decent time to look at Jupiter and the Hercules Star Cluster! With little advance publicity we hosted 10 observatory visitors, mostly local people but one couple drove all the way from Warren to participate.

Illustration: Jupiter and Moons
Simulated View: Jupiter and Galilean Moons as they appeared through our telescope Saturday Night, May 20, 2017. – SkySafari Pro

Though the sky was mostly-clear, seeing conditions were only fair to good. Through the grand Cooley Telescope at about 129X magnification, we were able to observe Jupiter and the planet’s distinctive north and south equatorial belts, the four Galilean Moons shining brightly in space nearby. As the night progressed we observed Jupiter’s Great Red Spot slowly rotate into view and even glimpsed its red color now and again! These were not the best views we have had of the “King of Planets,” but they were interesting, nonetheless.

The second object of the night was the Hercules Star Cluster (Messier 13) which, at first glance, looked like a cloudy smudge in the telescope’s wide-angle eyepiece. Now and again, however, with moments of good seeing and a little averted vision, we gained the impression of “graininess” as perhaps some of the globular cluster’s brighter stars stood out.

Photo: Baby bird inside observatory.
Saturday Night Alive: It happens every spring; baby birds of various ages get inside the observatory and most die. We captured this little one and put it in an area where we hope its parents find and care for it.