The graphic below illustrates the five planets as they are visible, with the naked eye, from Huntsville, Alabama. It shows their positions in the sky around 6:30 AM during the week of January 18 and continuing for the next few days. Mercury will be close to the Sun, over in the East, and Jupiter will be over in the West, with Venus, Saturn, and Mars between the two. Pluto is near Mercury, but is invisible to the eye, requiring a telescope for viewing.
The last time an alignment such as this occurred was about 10 years ago. This pre-sunrise configuration will be similar for other northern latitudes.
In the graphic, the yellow line is the ecliptic, which is the plane of the Earth’s orbit. The orbits of the major planets lie close to this plane, which is why they appear close to the ecliptic in the night sky.
On Tuesday, June 30, there will be a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. A conjunction is a celestial event in which two planets or a planet and the moon or a planet and a star appear close together in the night sky. Conjunctions have no real astronomical value, but they are nice to view. While conjunctions aren’t as rare as one might think, this conjunction of Jupiter and Venus will be more impressive than most.
The casual backyard observer may have noticed that these two planets have been moving closer together for the past few weeks. On June 30, they will be so close that one will be able to hold a finger up and cover both Jupiter and Venus at the same time. In reality, the planets are hundreds of millions of miles apart. On June 30, Venus is about 46 million miles from Earth, and Jupiter is 560 million miles from Earth. Looking up at the sky, Venus appears to be much brighter than Jupiter. That is only because Venus is so much closer to Earth. Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, is actually over 11 times bigger than Venus, but it is dimmer when looking at the sky because of its great distance from our planet.
Typically the best conditions for stargazing involve a dark sky, so getting away from urban areas will make stars and faint objects like nebulae and galaxies more visible. The Jupiter and Venus conjunction will be easily bright enough to see from any location, even large cities. The best hours for viewing will be during evening twilight and up until 10:30 PM local time, when the planets will set behind the western horizon.
The skies were clear over New Mexico last night — Oct. 6, 2010 — so Rhiannon Blaauw of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., captured this image of Comet Hartley 2 at a distance of “only” about 14 million miles from Earth.
Hartley 2 has passed out of the constellation Cassiopeia and is now traveling through the constellation Perseus. On October 20th, the comet will come within 11 million miles of Earth. Since comets rarely come this close, it will be faintly visible to the naked eye in the early morning sky. The comet has an orbital period — or time to travel once around the sun — of approximately 6.5 years.
For those interested in astronomy photography, the image was taken with a single shot color filter with 300-second exposure via a remote-operated telescope located in Mayhill, N.M.
We’re tracking Hartley 2’s journey as it approaches Earth, so stay tuned for more photos!
Image courtesy of Rhiannon Blaauw, NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
In this image taken on the evening of Friday, Oct. 1, Comet Hartley 2 can be seen in the constellation Cassiopeia (north-east sky, not far from horizon).
Hartley 2 will only be in Cassiopeia for a few more day before traveling through the constellation Perseus. It’s a Jupiter Family Comet that we can’t see right now because it’s too tiny at approximately 1.2 km across. In this image, the comet was still 16,500,000 miles from Earth.
On October 20th, Hartley 2 will will come within 11 million miles of Earth, and since comets rarely come this close, it will be visible to the naked eye in the early morning sky. The comet has an orbital period, or time to travel once around the sun, of approximately 6.5 years.
For those interested in astronomy photography, the image was taken with a single shot color filter with 300-second exposure. It was captured by Rhiannon Blaauw of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., via a remote-operated telescope in Mayhill, N.M.
We’ll be keeping an eye on Hartley 2 as it approaches Earth, so stay tuned for more photos!
Images courtesy of Rhiannon Blaauw, NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.