Upstate New York Stargazing – April, 2017

Upstate NY stargazing in April: Comet hunting and the Lyrid meteor shower

One-hour motion of Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak (left) within Ursa Major, including M108 (the "Surfboard Galaxy", upper right) and M97 (the Owl Nebula, lower right). Image by NY photographer Brad Loperfido on March 22, 2017

Updated: Mar. 31, 2017, 6:04 p.m. Published: Mar. 31, 2017, 5:04 p.m.

Special to nyup.com

By Damian Allis, Contributing Writer

In last month's article, we discussed the Messier Objects – bright galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters visible with little more than a quality pair of binoculars on dark nights. Charles Messier, the catalogue's namesake, may have had an interest in their origins and composition, but his real targets were the many comets just becoming visible to observers with what passed in the 18th century as "quality telescopes."

Those who know the story of "steel-drivin' man" John Henry can appreciate what technology has done recently to alter the rate of comet discovery by the professionals. Collaborative projects such as WISE, SOHO, LINEAR, and pan-STARRS have identified an unprecedented number of new comets in recent years while not intentionally comet-hunting! With cameras, telescopes, and even satellites set up to observe anything and everything, these missions are the first to observe new, distant comets before many, but not all, amateurs. So far this year, four new comets were discovered by amateur astronomers Elenin, Barros, Borisov, and Lovejoy. They may hear the gears of those astronomical steam drills being spun, but they certainly aren't ready to pack up and quit anytime soon.

There are many places online to keep up-to-date on comet discoveries and observing opportunities. Yearly predictions are provided by such astronomy magazines as Sky & Telescope, while much more information about missions and scientific findings can be found on the www.nasa.gov/comets website. Those wanting to take in comet discussion within the amateur astronomy community can even tune into CometWatch, one of many radio shows on the 24-hour astronomy and space science online radio station astronomy.fm.

April lectures and observing opportunities

New York has a number of evenly-spaced astronomers, astronomy clubs, and observatories that host public sessions throughout the year. Many of these sessions are close to the New Moon, when skies are darkest and the chances for seeing deep, distant objects are best. These observers and facilities are the very best places to see the month's best objects using some of the best equipment, all while having very knowledgeable observers at your side to answer questions and guide discussion. Many of these organizations also hold monthly meetings, where seasoned amateurs can learn about recent discoveries from guest lecturers, and brand new observers are encouraged to join and begin the path towards seasoned amateur status.

Announced public sessions from several respondent NY astronomy organizations are provided below for April. As wind and cloud cover are always factors when observing, please check the provided contact information and/or email the groups a day-or-so before an announced session. Also use the contact info for directions and to check on any applicable event or parking fees. Note that some groups will also schedule weather-alternate dates.

Astronomy Events Calendar

OrganizerLocationEventDateTimeContact Info
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper LakePublic Star GazingApr. 78:00 PMemail, website
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper LakePublic Star GazingApr. 218:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadySenior Science DayApr. 33:00 – 4:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyNight Sky AdventureApr. 187:00 – 8:30 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyAAAA MeetingsApr. 207:30 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyOctagon Barn Star Party & LectureApr. 218:00 – 10:00 PMemail, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterASRAS Messier MarathonApr. 17:00 PM – 1:00 AMemail, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterASRAS Meeting & LectureApr. 77:30 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterWolk Observatory Open HouseApr. 2312:00 – 4:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalKAS Monthly MeetingApr. 57:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night Lecture & ObservingApr. 77:30 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night Lecture & ObservingApr. 217:30 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night Lecture & ObservingApr. 287:30 PMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Stargazing @ Waterville Public LibraryApr. 18:15 – 10:30 PMemail, website

The Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF) is happening April 8/9 at Rockland Community College in Suffern. This as the place for astronomers to be in April, where vendors from around the world will have astronomy gear for sale, several organizations make themselves available for information on such topics as astronomy outreach and light pollution, and frugal astronomers can take in two days of lectures and two afternoons of the NEAF Solar Star Party.

Lunar Phases

New:First Quarter:Full:Third Quarter:New:
Mar. 27, 10:57 PMApr. 3, 2:39 PMApr. 11, 2:08 AMApr. 19, 5:56 AMApr. 26, 8:16 AM

The Moon's increasing brightness as Full Moon approaches washes out fainter stars, random meteors, and other celestial objects – this is bad for most observing, but excellent for new observers, as only the brightest stars (those that mark the major constellations) and planets remain visible for your easy identification. If you've never tried it, the Moon is a wonderful binocular object.

Evening and nighttime guide

The view looking southwest at 8:00 p.m. on April 15th (except for the changing Moon position, this mid-month view is accurate for all of April). Click for a larger view.

Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing most anywhere in New York state. The longer you're outside and away from indoor or bright lights, the better your dark adaption will be. If you have to use your smartphone, find a red light app or piece of red acetate, else set your brightness as low as possible.

Southern Sights: There's a thin cloudy band in the southwest that runs through Canis Major, Monoceros, Orion, Gemini, and Auriga. That cloudiness is the plane of the Milky Way itself, filled with billions of stars. By comparison, the summer band of the Milky Way is much more pronounced and full of astronomical objects. Whereas we're looking into the core of the galaxy in summer, we're staring away from the center when looking at the winter/spring band.

If you want strong evidence that the Milky Way is a flat disk, you need look no further than the lack of that cloudy band in the direction of Leo, Hydra, and Virgo this month.

The view looking northeast at 8 p.m. on April 15. Click for a larger view.

Northern Sights: The Big Dipper remains prominent in our nighttime sky, providing an easy marker for Ursa Minor and Polaris. To the east, the bright star Arcturus in Bootes (Pronounced Boo-oh-tes) is visible soon after sunset. Hercules and its bright globular cluster M13 also clear the northeast horizon in time for some late-night observing. See its discussion in the October 2016 article for M13's location.

Planetary Viewing

Mercury, Mars, and company on April 3rd. Click for a larger view.

Mercury has swapped places with Venus as our early-setting planet this month, but its rapid motion will have it setting on or before sunset by mid-month. Your best chance to see Mercury is April 3rd, when it will set close to 9:15 p.m. After the first week or so, Mercury's light will be drowned out by the setting sun as it leaves the boundary of the constellation Aries. Mercury next graces our skies as a morning object that will rise very close to sunrise at month's end.

Venus has transitioned from being a brilliant sunset object in the west to an equally brilliant sunrise one in the east. It will rise a few minutes earlier each night this month, clearing the horizon around 5:45 a.m. on April 1st and 4:25 a.m. on the 30th. On the morning of April 23rd, Venus and a very thin waning crescent moon will be in close proximity, perhaps with a few leftover Lyrid meteors in the sky to coax observers out of bed early.

Mars and the Moon within Taurus on April 28th. Click for a larger view.

Mars remains an excellent target for late-evening observers, hitting most tree lines close to 10 p.m. each night this month. Mars begins with Mercury in Aries before moving into Taurus towards the Hyades star cluster. Mars will have one close encounter with the Moon on April 28, when some of the best of winter will all be clustered in the same piece of sky.

After sunset, you'll find the Moon just above Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull, then Mars between Taurus' head and the small Pleiades star cluster.

Jupiter and the Moon meet within Virgo on April 10. Click for a larger view.

Jupiter clears the eastern horizon soon after sunset on April 1st and is already in the sky before sunset by month's end. Those looking to test their binocular aptitude can give a go at finding Jupiter in the pre-sunset skies this month – just make sure the binoculars stay pointed to the east and NOT anywhere near the setting sun.

Low power binoculars are excellent for spying the four bright Galilean moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – and several online guides will even map their orbits for you so you can identify their motions nightly or, for the patient observer, even hourly.

Jupiter and the very full Moon will come well within the field of view of a pair of 10×50 binoculars on April 10th inside the torso of the constellation Virgo and above the bright star Spica.

Saturn and the Moon in the southern sky on the early morning of April 16. Click for a larger view.

Those wanting to see Saturn this month will pay the price at work that morning. A very early riser throughout April along the border between Sagittarius and Ophiuchus, Saturn clears the southeastern horizon at 1:40 a.m. on April 1st and just before 11:45 p.m. at month's end. Saturn will more than make up for this in the months to come, when it will be ideally positioned during reasonable hours for all to observe from the beginning of summer until well into November.

ISS And Other Bright Flyovers

Satellite flyovers are commonplace, with several bright passes easily visible per hour in the nighttime sky, yet a thrill to new observers of all ages. Few flyovers compare in brightness or interest to the International Space Station. The flyovers of the football field-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays can be predicted to within several seconds and take several minutes to complete.

April includes an abundance of flyovers in the first two weeks, then the ISS will disappear completely from NY nighttime skies until early May. All of the visible flyovers are bright enough to be obvious under clear skies, and seven April nights include the ability to see the station twice at roughly 90-minute intervals – the time it takes for the ISS to go once around the Earth. Simply go out a few minutes before the start time, orient yourself, and look for what will at first seem like a distant plane.

ISS Flyovers

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart DirectionApprox. EndEnd Direction
4/1moderately8:53 PMW/NW8:58 PMNE
4/1somewhat10:30 PMNW10:31 PMNW
4/2very8:00 PMW8:06 PMNE
4/2moderately9:38 PMNW9:41 PMN/NE
4/3moderately8:45 PMNW8:50 PMNE
4/3somewhat10:22 PMNW10:23 PMN/NW
4/4moderately9:30 PMNW9:33 PMN/NE
4/5moderately8:37 PMNW8:42 PMNE
4/5moderately10:14 PMNW10:15 PMN/NW
4/6very9:21 PMNW9:24 PMNE
4/7moderately8:29 PMNW8:34 PME/NE
4/7moderately10:05 PMNW10:07 PMNW
4/8extremely9:13 PMNW9:16 PMNE
4/9very8:20 PMNW8:26 PME/NE
4/9very9:56 PMW/NW9:59 PMW/NW
4/10extremely9:04 PMNW9:08 PME
4/11extremely8:11 PMNW8:18 PME
4/11very9:48 PMW/NW9:50 PMW/SW
4/12extremely8:55 PMW/NW9:00 PMSE
4/13moderately9:40 PMW9:43 PMSW
4/14very8:47 PMW/NW8:52 PMS/SE
4/16somewhat8:39 PMW/SW8:42 PMS/SW

Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com. Times later in the month are subject to change – for the most accurate weekly predictions, check spotthestation.nasa.gov.

Meteor Showers: Lyrids active April 18 to 25, peaking on April 22

Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through the debris field of a comet or asteroid. As these objects approach the warming sun in their long orbits, they leave tiny bits behind – imagine pebbles popping out the back of a large gravel truck on an increasingly bumpy road. In the case of meteor showers, the brilliant streaks you see are due to particles usually no larger than grains of sand. The Earth plows through the swarm of these tiny particles at up-to 12 miles-per-second. High in the upper atmosphere, these particles burn up due to friction and ionize the air around them, producing the long light trails we see. We can predict the peak observing nights for a meteor shower because we know when and where in Earth's orbit we'll pass through the same part of the Solar System – this yearly periodicity in meteor activity is what let us identify and name meteor showers well before we ever had evidence of what caused them.

The Lyrid Meteor Shower radiant, roughly between the bright star Vega and the southern elbow of Hercules. Click for a larger view.

The name of each meteor shower is based on the constellation from which the shooting stars appear to radiate – a position in the sky we call the radiant. The radiant for the Lyrids is precariously close to the funny bone of the troubled Hercules, but still considered within the official borders of Lyra the Harp. Finding the radiant is as easy as finding the bright star Vega, which rises to the northeast just before 9:00 p.m. on the active nights of the Lyrids. Those staying awake until 1:00 a.m. are treated to the complete Summer Triangle – an asterism discussed in several previous articles and a reminder that the summer constellations are well on their way.

How to observe: The Lyrids peak in the presence of a sliver of a waning crescent Moon. This is excellent news for observers annoyed by the many washed-out 2016 meteor showers, as the Moon will not be bright enough to dull bright Lyrid trails. One thing you'll be sure *not* to see this year is the comet producing the Lyrids – Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1) has a 415-year orbit as was last in our part of the Solar System in 1861, just a bit too early for anyone to even attempt capturing it on a photographic plate. Instead of spying Thatcher, consider trying to catch the wispy nebulosity of Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, which should be bright enough to see under dark skies with good binoculars. To find it on the 22nd, place the eastern two stars of the head of Draco, known as "the lozenge," in your binocular field of view – Comet 41P/TGK should lie just towards the center.

To optimize your Lyrid experience, lie flat on the ground with your feet pointed towards Lyra and your head elevated – meteors will then appear to fly right over and around you. Counts and brightness tend to increase the later you stay out, with peak observing times usually between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.

Learn a constellation: Ursa Minor

Ursa Minor, the "Little Dipper" and Comet 41P/TGK on April 15 at 10 p.m. Click for a larger view.

Ursa Minor, the "Little Bear," is neither large or bright. Its close proximity and resemblance to fellow kitchen-aid the Big Dipper has earned it the appropriate nickname the "Little Dipper." While three of its stars are easy to pick out under most skies, seeing all seven stars in the constellation requires fairly dark skies. Fortunately, the tip of the handle and the back two stars of the bowl are the brightest three, helping you to frame out your search for the other four. Finding Polaris is made easier by the Big Dipper – drawing a straight line from the edge bowl stars of the Big Dipper and away from the open face of the bowl will lead you to a star that is not particularly bright, but is a stand-out because there are so very few prominent stars in its vicinity.

Much of the extra attention paid to Ursa Minor is due to Polaris, the "North Star." At present, Earth's rotation axis is pointed very close to this star. That is to say, if you stared at this star all night long, you'd see it stay put while everything else seemed to spin around it. Patient observers with clear skies can even point their cameras at Polaris, walk away with the shutter open for several hours, and produce images of long star trails. Stars closest to Polaris leave the shortest trails, while stars further south get stretched out into longer and longer arcs.

Polaris is actually a busy system on its own – it is a triple star system, with a massive yellow-white supergiant at its center and two companion yellow-white stars around it. Polaris is also what is known as a Cepheid variable star – the brightest in our nighttime sky. Its brightness varies periodically by a small amount every 4 days. The bowl of the Little Dipper will just barely fit within the field of view of 10×50 binoculars. The bright bowl star Kochab is an orange giant featuring at least one exoplanet – a gas giant six times more massive than Jupiter that orbits in 522 days. Its neighbor Pherkad has what appears to be a small companion star, similar to what one sees with the stars Mizar and Alcor in the handle of the Big Dipper. In the case of Pherkad, this pair is what we refer to as an "optical binary," meaning they appear close together as we look in the sky, but the dimmer Pherkad companion is actually almost 100 light years closer to us than Pherkad.

Dr. Damian Allis is the director of CNY Observers and a NASA Solar System Ambassador.

Original Posts:

Tags:

CNYO Observing Log: The Winter Of Lovejoy – Green Lakes, Jamesville Beach, And New Moon Telescopes HQ – January 9 to 14, 2015

A re-post from the CNY Observers website (www.cnyo.org).

2015jan22_stephen_shaner_lovejoy_small

Caption: Comet Lovejoy imaged on January 10th by the ever-impressive CNY astrophotographer Stephen Shaner. From his CNYO Facebook Group post: Last night was the first in over three months it was clear enough to shoot, but it worked out well because Comet Lovejoy is at its peak. Here's a quick process of about 40 minutes of exposures between 8-9 PM as it crossed the meridian. FOV is roughly three degrees. Distinct pale green coma in the eyepiece but unable to make out a tail or see it naked eye.

The 2015 skies are going to be full of comets. Well, at least six, to be exact, that will be either naked eye- or binocular-visible. That's still quite a few to those keeping track! The amateur astronomy community has taken heroic efforts to scientifically identify and track new comets in the last, say, 400 years. The rise of, for instance, the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (or panSTARRS) as a method for finding and tracking both comets and near-earth asteroids (or, lumped together, "objects," for which you might hear the abbreviation "NEOs") has greatly increased the number of accounted-for fuzzy objects in our fields of view (and provided us a giant leap in our existential risk assessment infrastructure to boot). Quite simply, we've more + better eyes on the skies, meaning we're bound to continue to find more and more comets and asteroids. You can even subscribe to NASA twitter feeds that announce the passing-by of these hopefully passers-by (see @AsteroidWatch and @NasaNEOCam).

The discovery of NEOs may or may not qualify as a modern John Henry-ism, as amateur astronomers are still discovering objects at a decent pace thanks to improvements in their own optics and imaging equipment. Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, is one such recent example discovered by famed modern comet hunter Terry Lovejoy (who has five comets to his name already).

Comet Lovejoy And More In CNY

Comet Lovejoy has made the winter sky that much more enjoyable (and below freezing cold that much more bearable) by reaching peak brightness in the vicinity of the prominent winter constellations Taurus and Orion. Visible soon after sunset and before the "really cold" temperatures set in (after 10 p.m. or so), Lovejoy has been an easy target in low-power binoculars and visible without equipment in sufficiently dark skies. Now on its way out of the inner solar system, its bright tail will shrink and its wide coma (that gives it its "fuzziness") will disappear as the increasingly distant Sun is unable to melt Lovejoy's surface ice. Those of us who dared the cold, clear CNY skies these past few weeks were treated to excellent views, while the internet has been flooded with remarkable images of what some have described as the most photographed comet in history (a title that will likely be taken from it when a few other comets pass us by during warmer nights this year).

2015jan22_greenlakes_tiki

Caption: The tiki lounge at Green Lakes State Park, 9 January 2014.

The first observing session around Syracuse this year happened at Green Lakes State Park on January 9th. Bob Piekiel, one of CNY's best known and most knowledgable amateur astronomers, had his Celestron NexStar 11 in the parking lot behind the main office, which was fortunately kept open for attendees hoping to warm up between views. To Bob's C11 was added my Zhumell 25×100's, providing less magnification but a wider field of view to take in more of the comet's core, tail, and nearby stars.

2015jan22_lovejoyfromgreenlakes_small

Caption: A very prominent Orion and arrow-ed Comet Lovejoy from the Green Lakes parking lot. Photo by Kim Titus.

The Friday night skies were only partially on our side, offering a few short-lived views of the Orion Nebula and Lovejoy. Jupiter was just bright enough to burn through some of the cloud cover to our East, giving us slightly muddled but otherwise decent views of it and its four largest satellites for about 10 minutes. By our 9 p.m. pack-up and departure, the skies were even worse – which is always a good feeling for observers (knowing they didn't miss a chance for any additional views by packing up early).

The night of Saturday, January 10th turned into a much better night for observing, offering a good opportunity for some long-exposure images to try to capture Lovejoy just past its luminous prime. The following image was taken from one of the parking lots at Jamesville Beach – the same spot where Larry Slosberg, Dan Williams and I observed the nova in Delphinus. Light pollution aside from the 30 second exposure, the brightest constellations are clearly visible and a fuzzy, bright green star is clearly visible in the full-sized image. Click on the image below for a larger, unlabeled version of the same.

2015jan22_jamesvillebeach_small

Caption: An array of Winter's finest from Jamesville Beach, 10 January 2014, 8:00 p.m. Click on the image for a full and unlabeled version.

The imaging continued in Marcellus on January 10th, with Bob Piekiel producing a zoomed in view of Lovejoy.

2015jan22_lovejoyfrommarcellus_small

Caption: An unmistakable view of Comet Lovejoy. Image by Bob Piekiel.

As with all astronomical phenomena (excluding solar viewing, of course), the best views come from the darkest places. A third Lovejoy session was had up in West Monroe, NY on Wednesday, January 14th with fellow CNYO'er Ryan Goodson at New Moon Telescopes. Putting his 27" Dob to use, the green-tinted Lovejoy was almost bright enough to tan your retina. With dark skies and no observing line, we then attacked some subtler phenomena, including the Orion Nebula in Orion, the Eskimo Nebula in Gemini, and the Hubble Variable Nebula in Monoceros. The images below are our selfie with Lovejoy and the best of Winter, a snapshot near the zenith (with Jupiter prominent), and the Northern sky (click on the images for larger, unlabeled versions).

2015jan22_nmt1_small

Caption: Ryan and I pose for 30 sec, our fingers completely missing the location of Lovejoy (red arrow). Click for a larger view.

2015jan22_nmt2_small

Caption: Some of Winter's finest from NMT HQ, including a prominent Jupiter just to the west of (and about to be devoured by) the constellation Leo. Click for a larger view.

2015jan22_nmt3_small

Caption: A view of NMT's opening to the North, including Cassiopeia at left (the sideways "W"), the Big Dipper in the middle, and Jupiter at the right. Click for a larger view.

A Clothing Thought…

As we can all attest to, the nighttime temperatures this month have oscillated between bitterly cold and painfully cold. The pic of my Element's thermometer at my midnight departure from West Monroe read -12 F (and the tire inflation warning light stayed on until I hit 81 South), yet with the exception of the tips of my toes, I wasn't very bothered by the cold.

2015jan22_nmt_tempair

2015jan22_nmt_layersIt's one of the cold realities of amateur astronomy – you never realize how cold it can get outside until you're standing perfectly still at a metal eyepiece. The solution is as old as the sediment-grown hills – layers! The top half of my outfit for the evening is shown below, featuring six (yes, six) layers from turtleneck to final coat. My bottom half featured three layers that decorum permits me from showing here. For those wondering how the blood still flows below the belt, the answer is simple – buy yourself an outer layer two or three sizes larger than you usually wear. In my case, my outer coat's a bit baggy and my outer pants are a very tightly-meshed pair of construction pants with a 40" waist (from a trip to DeJulio's Army & Navy Store on Burnet Ave. in Syracuse).

And don't worry about color coordinating. The nighttime is the right time for the fashion unconscious.