Bright Comet 46P/Wirtanen skims past Earth just 30 lunar distances away on 16 December when it could become a diffuse magnitude +3 object almost a degree wide located between the Pleiades and Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus. Grab your binoculars and find a dark sky location well away from streetlights to enjoy this Christmas comet before the glow from a waxing Moon gets too bright from 17 December.
Observers in Western Europe should try to locate Venus low in the western sky an hour after sunset. The 3-day-old slim crescent Moon acts as a convenient guide, located some 12½ degrees (or half the span of an outstretched hand at arm’s length) to the upper left of the brightest planet on 18 April. Prominent star Aldebaran lies in the same low-power binocular field of view as the Moon too.
The Seven Sisters, as they were known to the ancient Greeks, are now known to modern astronomers as the Pleiades star cluster – a set of stars which are visible to the naked eye and have been studied for thousands of years by cultures all over the world. A new algorithm to analyse data from NASA’s Kepler telescope has revealed insights about the behaviour of the stars.
Mercury attains a greatest easterly elongation of 19 degrees from the Sun on 1 April. This solar separation combined with a favourable inclination of the ecliptic to the western horizon an hour after sunset, means that the period 25 March to around 8 April offers the year’s best evening showing of the innermost planet for Northern Hemisphere observers.
As dusk fades to dark on the evening of Tuesday 15 November, observers in the British Isles and Western Europe can see the rising 16-day-old Moon less than 2 degrees away from Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus. While an occultation of the star occurs around 17h UT for observers in Japan, central Asia and the Middle East, skywatchers in the UK will have to settle for a near miss.
Like cosmic ballet dancers, the stars of the Pleiades cluster are spinning, but all at different speeds. By watching these stellar dancers, NASA’s Kepler space telescope has helped amass the most complete catalogue of rotation periods for stars in a cluster. This information can provide insight into where and how planets form around these stars, and how such stars evolve.
Physicists and astronomers from the University of Texas at Arlington have used advanced software to accurately date lyric poet Sappho’s “Midnight Poem,” which describes the Pleiades star cluster in the constellation of Taurus having set at around midnight, when supposedly observed by her from the Greek island of Lesbos more than 2,500 years ago.
Have you ever seen Mercury with the naked eye? If not, now is the time to check the elusive innermost planet off your list. Mercury reaches greatest easterly elongation from the Sun on Monday, 18 April, the highlight of a very favourable dusk apparition in the west-northwest for observers in Western Europe and the British Isles.