Jupiter-Saturn Great Conjunction: Watch Best View Since Middle Ages!

by Lance D. Davis


Stargazers get ready for a nice treat as we are about to witness a super-rare planetary alignment not seen for almost 800 years!

Our solar system’s two biggest worlds – the mighty Jupiter followed by the glorious ringed Saturn – will appear in the sky next to each other at their closest since 1623 and closest visible from Earth since the Middle Ages in 1226. This will happen on Dec. 21, 2020, during an event called a “great conjunction.”

Astronomers use the word conjunction to describe close approaches of planets and other objects on our sky’s dome. They use great conjunction specifically for Jupiter and Saturn because of the planets’ top-ranking sizes.

view of the 2020 great conjunction through the naked eye just after sunset
A graphic made from a simulation program, showing a view of the 2020 great conjunction through the naked eye just after sunset at approximately 5:15 p.m. (EST) on Dec. 21.
Credit: NASA

Great conjunctions between Jupiter and Saturn happen every 20 years, making the planets appear to be close to one another. This closeness occurs because Jupiter orbits the Sun every 12 years, while Saturn’s orbit takes 30 years, causing Jupiter to catch up to Saturn every couple of decades as viewed from Earth.

The last conjuction between these planets took place on May 28, 2000. This year’s conjunction occurs on Dec. 21, which coincidentally is also the date of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. The 2020 conjunction is unique because of how close Jupiter and Saturn will appear. In most conjunctions, Jupiter and Saturn pass within a degree of each other. This year, they will pass 10 times closer to each other – the closest in nearly 400 years.

view of the 2020 great conjunction through a telescope
A graphic made from a simulation program, showing the view of the 2020 great conjunction
through a telescope at approximately 5:15 p.m. (EST) on Dec. 21. Credit: NASA

Currently, you can watch Jupiter and Saturn get closer in Earth’s sky each evening until their grand finale on Dec. 21. Just look for them shortly after sunset, shining brightly and low in the southwestern sky. Also, tune in to NASA Science Live or NASA Facebook on Dec. 17 at 3:00 p.m. EST (2:00 p.m. CST) and learn how to see Jupiter and Saturn’s great conjunction.

During the great conjunction, the giant planets will appear just a tenth of a degree apart – that’s about the thickness of a dime held at arm’s length! This means the two planets and their moons will be visible in the same field of view through a small telescope. Truly, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event!

Some astronomers suggest the pair will look like an elongated star and others say the two planets will form a double planet. To know for sure, we’ll just have to look and see. Either way, take advantage of this opportunity because Jupiter and Saturn won’t appear this close in the sky until 2080!

Additional Information & Resources:

Learn how to photograph the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction.
Read about mission visits to Jupiter and Saturn.
Find an astronomy club or event near you!

The Geminids: Best Meteor Shower of the Year!

by Lance D. Davis

The Geminids are widely recognized as the best annual meteor shower a stargazer can see, occurring between Dec. 4 to Dec. 17. We will broadcast a live stream of the shower’s peak Dec. 14-15 (changed dates from 13-14 due to weather) from a meteor camera at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, (if our weather cooperates!) from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. CST on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page.

The parent of the Geminids is 3200 Phaethon, which is arguably considered to be either an asteroid or an extinct comet. When the Earth passes through trails of dust, or meteoroids, left by 3200 Phaethon, that dust burns up in Earth’s atmosphere, creating the Geminid meteor shower.

The Geminid rate will be even better this year, as the shower’s peak overlaps with a nearly new moon, so there will be darker skies and no moonlight to wash out the fainter meteors. That peak will happen on the night of Dec. 13 into the morning of Dec. 14, with some meteor activity visible in the days before and after. Viewing is good all night for the Northern Hemisphere, with activity peaking around 2:00 a.m. local time, and after midnight for viewers in the Southern Hemisphere.

Why are they called the Geminids?

All meteors associated with a shower have similar orbits, and they all appear to come from the same place in the sky, which is called the radiant. The Geminids appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Gemini, hence the name “Geminids.”

How fast are Geminids?

Geminids travel 78,000 mph (35 km/s). This is over 1000 times faster than a cheetah, about 250 times faster than the swiftest car in the world, and over 40 times faster than a speeding bullet!

2019’s meteor camera data for the Geminids.
An info graphic based on 2019’s meteor camera data for the Geminids. Credit: NASA

How to observe the Geminids?

If it’s not cloudy, get away from bright lights, lie on your back, and look up. Remember to let your eyes get adjusted to the dark – you’ll see more meteors that way. Keep in mind, this adjustment can take approximately 30 minutes. Don’t look at your cell phone screen, as it will ruin your night vision!

Meteors can generally be seen all over the sky. Avoid watching the radiant because meteors close to it have very short trails and are easily missed. When you see a meteor, try to trace it backwards. If you end up in the constellation Gemini, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a Geminid.

When is the best time to observe Geminids?

The best night to see the shower is Dec. 13/14. The shower will peak around 01:00 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). Sky watchers in the Northern Hemisphere can see Geminids starting around 7:30 – 8:00 p.m. local time on Dec. 13, with rate of meteors increasing as 2 a.m. approaches. In the Southern hemisphere, good rates will be seen between midnight and dawn local time on Dec. 14. Geminid watchers who observe from midnight to 4 a.m. should catch the most meteors.

How many Geminids can observers expect to see Dec. 13/14?

Realistically, the predicated rate for observers in the northern hemisphere is closer to 60 meteors per hour. This means you can expect to see an average of one Geminid per minute in dark skies at the shower peak. Observers in the southern hemisphere will see fewer Geminids than their northern hemisphere counterparts – perhaps 25% of rates in the northern hemisphere, depending on their latitude.

Where will NASA stream the Geminids meteor shower?

We will broadcast a live stream of the shower’s peak Dec. 13-14 from a meteor camera at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, (if our weather cooperates!) from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. CST on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page.

Meteor videos recorded by the All Sky Fireball Network are also available each morning to identify Geminids in these videos – just look for events labeled “GEM.”

Happy viewing stargazers!

Total Solar Eclipse to Cast Shadow on South America

by Lauren Lambert

What is a Solar Eclipse?

A solar eclipse is a natural phenomenon that occurs when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth. This event happens when the Moon completely blocks the Sun and the Moon’s shadow falls onto a portion of the Earth’s surface.

There are three types of solar eclipses: total, partial and annular. During a total solar eclipse, observers can witness daytime twilight because the disk of the Moon blocks 100% of the Sun. During a partial solar eclipse, the Moon is not entirely covering the Sun and you will likely not notice any difference in light intensity. You may only notice a subtle difference if the partial eclipse is close to total and you go outside at maximum eclipse.  Lastly, an annular eclipse can be observed when the Moon is at apogee, or the farthest from Earth within its elliptical orbit. This causes a ring of light, or annulus, to be visible around the Moon, which is sometimes referred to as the “ring of fire.”

total solar eclipse image
During the total solar eclipse, the Sun’s visible-light corona (meaning crown), only visible at maximum eclipse from within the path of totality, is seen here as a crown of white light extending from around the edge of the eclipsing Moon. The red loops of material also seen around the edge, are called prominences, in which magnetic fields enclose hot solar material. Credit: NASA/Armstrong’s Gulfstream III.

Total eclipses are of particular interest to solar scientists, because with the Moon blocking the bright light of the Sun, you can see the Sun’s atmosphere from the ground.  Solar scientists at Marshall Space Flight Center, and around NASA, make use of telescopes called coronagraphs that block the Sun so they can see the dim atmosphere, the corona, around it. But — given how perfectly the Moon lines up with the Sun — you can see the atmosphere closer to the surface of the Sun than we even can with our telescopes in space.

The shadow of the Moon on a planet during an eclipse can be described using three terms: umbra, antumbra and penumbra. The umbra is the shadow that is cast when the Moon completely covers the Sun and is where the path of totality falls. If the Moon is further away from the Earth, it is unable to block the Sun entirely. The Sun appears as a ring of light around the Moon. In this case, the shadow is known as the antumbra, or path of annularity, and occurs during an annular eclipse. Similarly, a partial solar eclipse can be observed when only a portion of the Moon blocks the Sun and creates a shadow referred to as the penumbra. The penumbra also occurs surrounding the umbra during a total eclipse, effectively covering those regions on the planet that only have a view of a partial eclipse.

Crescents of light from solar eclipse
Crescents of light are projected onto the ground during the partial phases of a solar eclipse due to light from the Sun passing through gaps between the leaves of trees, a pinhole effect. This is a safe and indirect way to view a solar eclipse. Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

Solar eclipses happen at least twice per calendar year, with total solar eclipses occurring about once every year and a half. But the possibility of seeing them is rare if you’re not in the right place at the right time. Additionally, since Earth is made up of mostly water, the path of totality, or the area receiving total blockage of the Sun, may not necessarily fall on land.

The year of 2020 sees two solar eclipses. The first occurred on June 21 and was an annular solar eclipse, visible from the continents of Africa and Asia. The second will be a total solar eclipse, occurring on Dec. 14, visible from South America. The path of totality crosses over Chile and Argentina, but some of their areas outside of the path of totality will experience a partial solar eclipse. The total eclipse will also be visible in Antarctica, South Africa, as well as the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. Observers will be able to witness the total solar eclipse for about 2 minutes.

If you are not within the path of totality, watching the total solar eclipse from a virtual location is an option as well. You can view it on NASA TV and the agency’s website, beginning at 10:30 a.m. EST on Dec. 14.  Be sure to check it out, as the next total solar eclipse won’t be happening until Dec. 4, 2021.

Top 5 Solar Eclipse Viewing Tips:

  1. Do not stare directly at the Sun. Wear safety approved, protective solar eclipse-viewing glasses to directly view the event or use some indirect means (see below). For more information here are some NASA Safety tips.
  2. To indirectly view the eclipse, create a pinhole camera or box projector. Learn how to build your own here.
  3. Stand under a tree and look at the ground. The trees act as pinhole projectors and will project hundreds of crescent shapes right at your feet.
  4. To capture an eclipse with binoculars, a telescope, or a camera, you must use a safety-approved, protective solar filter on your lens.
  5. Keeping with the theme of 2020 Observe the eclipse virtually! It will be streamed live here.

Sky Watching Highlights for December 2020

In the month of December, stargazers get ready for some excitement in the sky! Catch the year’s best meteor shower, the Geminids, in the middle of the month. Then, witness an extremely close pairing of Jupiter and Saturn that won’t be repeated for decades. And mark the shortest day of the year on the northern winter solstice. Check out the video below produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to learn more!

Sky Watching Highlights for November 2020

Are you ready for November’s sky watching highlights? Cool autumn evenings are a great time to look for the Pleiades star cluster. You’ll also have a couple of great opportunities to observe the Moon with Jupiter and Saturn. Plus, check out the phenomenon known as Earthshine. Learn about all that and more from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s video below!

‘Once in a Blue Moon’ Coming Soon

by Lauren Lambert

There’s an extra special treat coming Earth’s way – a Blue Moon on the night of Oct. 31 for Halloween.

What is a Blue Moon?

According to modern folklore, it is a phenomenon where a Full Moon appears twice in one calendar month. Typically, each month has only one, as Full Moons occur about 29 days apart.

Our first Full Moon of the month – known as a Harvest Moon – occurred on Oct. 1. This is a name given to the Full Moon happening closest to the autumnal equinox – the first day of fall. The Blue Moon coming up is respectively known as the Hunter’s Moon.  Rising in the early evening, the Hunter’s Moon was given its name because it provided plenty of moonlight for hunters to gather meat for the long winter ahead.

One way to make a Blue Moon is by using a blue filter. That's what a photographer did back in 2004 when he photographed this Full Moon rising over Brighton, Massachusetts. Credit: Kostian Iftica
One way to make a Blue Moon is by using a blue filter. That’s what a photographer did back in 2004 when he photographed this Full Moon rising over Brighton, Massachusetts. Credit: Kostian Iftica

While the informal phrase “once in a Blue Moon” refers to something that rarely happens, the same definition rings true for the skies this Halloween. These moons are of significance because they only come every two or three years. In fact, the last Blue Moon occurred on March 31, 2018.

Contrary to its name, a Blue Moon has nothing to do with the Moon having a blue hue. However, very rarely there are actual blue-tinted Moons due to particles thrown into the atmosphere by natural catastrophes. In 1883, an Indonesian volcano called Krakatoa had an eruption so large that it was compared by scientists to a 100-megaton nuclear bomb. Lots of ash from the Krakatoa explosion rose into the atmosphere. Many of these ash particles were about 1 micron in size, which could scatter red light and act as a blue filter. This resulted in the Moon appearing blue.

Blue-colored Moons appeared for years following the 1883 eruption. Many other volcanos and even wildfires throughout history have been known to affect the color of the moon. As a rule of thumb, in order to create a bluish Moon, dust or ash particles must be larger than ~0.6 microns, which is the wavelength of red light. Having said that, what we call a Blue Moon appears pale grey and white – just like the Moon on any other night. Having a second Full Moon in one given month does not change its color.

October’s Blue Moon, however, will be the first Blue Moon to appear on Halloween since 1944. This moon occurred one month following the introduction of the Aggregat 4, or the V-2 rocket. This rocket was the first vehicle capable of reaching the edge of space. In years following, the Apollo Saturn V became its direct descendant.

As we approach October 2020’s Blue Moon, the Artemis Generation prepares to explore the Moon’s surface from a lunar base. NASA’s Artemis program is named after the twin sister to Apollo, the Sun god in Greek mythology, and she is known as the goddess of the Moon. There hasn’t been this much momentum to return to the Moon’s surface since the Apollo missions.

The next Halloween Blue Moon will occur in 2039. By then, the Artemis Generation will hopefully look at Mars from that same lunar base – perhaps passing the torch to an Ares Generation bound for the Red Planet.

It’s All About Mars in October

by Lance D. Davis

NASA is developing a path for an exciting journey to Mars – a rich destination for scientific discovery and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system. This month of October brings an amazing night-sky view of the Red Planet.

Mars is currently visible, reaching its highest point in the sky around midnight. Earth’s closest neighbor is also at its brightest and will remain that way well into November.

Two illustrations contrasting Mars’ position when it reaches opposition and conjunction. During opposition, like in October 2020, Earth passes near Mars – which is easily visible and bright. During conjunction, Mars and Earth are far from each other, so Mars appears small and faint.
Two illustrations contrasting Mars’ position when it reaches opposition and conjunction. During opposition, like in October 2020, Earth passes near Mars – which is easily visible and bright. During conjunction, Mars and Earth are far from each other, so Mars appears small and faint. Credit: NASA

Right now, Mars is the third brightest object in Earth’s night. The Moon and Venus are the two brightest objects, and usually Jupiter is third. But for this season, Mars is passing close enough to Earth to outshine Jupiter. This great visibility of Mars coincides with an event known as opposition, which happens every two years and two months.

Opposition occurs when the orbit of a planet, such as Mars, takes it near the Earth. Just like runners passing each other on a track, the faster, inner planets, such as Earth, can approach and overtake slower-moving outer planets like Mars. When the planets pass each other during this opposition, Mars’ proximity means it will appear larger and brighter in our sky. Because the Sun, Earth, and Mars are lined up during this passing, Mars will rise at sunset, having a high overhead at midnight. This is the closest the Red Planet will come to Earth for the next 15 years, or until September 2035.

At its furthest, Mars reaches about 250 million miles (400 million km) from Earth. During the October opposition, it will be as close as 40 million miles (60 million km) – nearly seven times closer. Although Mars will still look like a bright star to the unaided eye, it will grow dramatically in size when seen in a telescope. This year, Mars’ closest approach to Earth happens just a week before the opposition on Oct. 13, giving the Red Planet its biggest, apparent size of the 2020’s.

When it comes to observing Mars around opposition, telescopes will show more of the planet’s details, such as dark and light regions on Mars’ surface, and the prominent south polar ice cap, which will be tilted towards the Earth. Due to the turbulence of our atmosphere, these details can be hard to see, especially in smaller telescopes.

Many amateur astronomers use a color video camera attached to their telescope, running special software that selects the best frames to stack into a single image. This helps in negating the blurring caused by the air.

The most striking thing about Mars’ appearance – whether seen with the naked eye or through a telescope – is its red color. This color is caused by iron in the rocks on Mars’ surface – the same thing that causes the red color in sandstone formations in the southwestern US.

So, when you spot Mars, keep your eye on it and enjoy its fiery, red brightness!

 

Sky Watching Highlights for October 2020

There’s plenty to see in the sky for October! The Moon will be full not once, but twice this month. It’s also a great time for viewing Mars and trying to spot the galaxy of Andromeda. Learn more from the video below produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

International Observe the Moon Night 2020

by Lance D. Davis

International Observe the Moon Night is a worldwide public event encouraging observation, appreciation and understanding of our Moon and its connection to NASA exploration and discovery.

This is a great time to celebrate the Moon with enthusiasts and curious people all over Earth as excitement grows about NASA’s Artemis program, which will send the next man and first woman to the Moon.

International Observe the Moon Night 2020
Image Credit: NASA/Jennifer Baer

Since 2010, the celebration has occurred annually in September or October when the Moon is around first quarter – a great phase for excellent viewing opportunities.

You can join NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for a live planetarium show Saturday, Sept. 26 at 6:30 p.m. CDT – available online to everyone via YouTube and Facebook. Interviews with planetary and citizen scientists will also be included.

This virtual event is brought to you by the Planetary Missions Program Office at Marshall and U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

Whether it’s outdoors, at home, online, or wherever you may be, you are encouraged to be a part of International Observe the Moon Night. Please remember to follow your local health and safety guidelines.

Learn more and find other events here.

The Autumnal Equinox is Near

Happy equinox, Earthlings! Sept. 22 marks the fall equinox, when day and night are nearly equal.

“However, that day/night length depends on where you are on Earth,” said NASA solar scientist Mitzi Adams. “For example, at the North and South Poles, the length of the day and night is six months!”

At the North Pole, the Sun will sink below the horizon for a kind of twilight from now until sometime in October when it will be completely dark, explained Adams. Spring twilight begins a few weeks before the vernal, or spring, equinox in March, when the Sun rises above the horizon again.

Autumnal Equinox
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This only happens twice in Earth’s year-long trip around the Sun. The rest of the year, the Sun shines unevenly over the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. That’s because Earth’s axis is tilted with respect to the Sun-Earth plane. But on these special days – the spring and fall equinox – the Sun shines equally on both north and south.

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the first day of astronomical fall. From now until the beginning of spring, nighttime hours will last longer than daylight as the Sun travels a shorter arc across the sky each day. The Sun has its shortest path of the year at the time of the winter solstice — the shortest day and longest night of the year — when sunrise and sunset are as far south as they can go (at any one location). It’s just the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere, where September 22 kicks off astronomical spring.

The equinox—meaning “equal night” in Latin—occurs at 8:31 a.m. CDT.