Mars and the Milky Way

Campgrounds are offer good occasions to observe the night sky; away from the city lights or industrial parks.  And with little more than a camera on a tripod, some fantastic pictures can be taken.

But there are two drawbacks:
1) Campers make campfires that create a haze near the ground.
2) Trailers and vehicles often have lights on that ruin the show.

Mars (left) and the Milky Way - Benoit Guertin

Mars (left) and the Milky Way – Benoit Guertin

This Weekend: 4 Planets in Plain Sight

If you are able to get out of bed early before sunrise and the sky is clear, you can catch a view of our three closest planets, and if you include Earth that makes 4.  Mercury was at the greatest elongation on September 12th (furthest from the Sun when viewed from Earth) which makes it a good time to spot without the glare of the Sun.  But it happens that Mars and Venus are also on that same side of the Sun, making a chanced planetary alignment.

The sky map below [click for larger] shows the position of Mercury, Mars and Venus for the morning of the 16 to the 19 of September.  Bright star Regulus and our Moon are also there to make this a worth-while event, especially on Monday the 18th.

September_AlignmentMars and Mercury will be closest on the 16th, while the 18th will probably be the most photogenic as the Moon will be a thin crescent in the middle of this alignment.

Tomorrow Evening: Moon, Mars and Venus

Great photo opportunity tomorrow evening, January 31st, with a thin crescent Moon in a close formation with Mars and Venus.  As the sky darkens simply look between South-West and West and you won’t miss them.  However don’t wait too late, by 9pm they will have disappeared below the horizon.

Early Evening Sky (7pm) - Look WSW for this close formation

Early Evening Sky (7pm) – Look WSW for this close formation

The Moon will be a thin crescent.  Here it is as photographed of the Moon tonight at 5:40pm just a little less than 3 days old.

Crescent Moon - 30-JAN-2017 (5:40pm)

Crescent Moon – 30-JAN-2017 (5:40pm)

No high-resolution photo for this one.  Took it quickly through an open window simply by hand-holding the telescope, and using Venus to quickly find focus through the camera view-finder.

Skywatcher 80ED
Canon XTi (1/50s at ISO400)
Registax6 to align, stack and wavelet on the best 3 frames (out of a dozen)

The Moon, Mars and Venus

It’s not often that the Moon finds itself between two planets nicely lined up and within a 12 degree field of view.  Just yesterday at around the same time, the Moon was located below Venus.  The image below is a two second exposure at ISO 800 with 53mm lens at f/5.6 on a tripod. I cropped the image to remove a street lamp and light pillars from other light sources further in the distance.

02-Jan-2017: The crescent Moon between Mars and Venus

02-Jan-2017: The crescent Moon between Mars and Venus

The toughest part was actually finding a spot around my block where there was less glare from street lights or annoying power and utility lines in view.  Luckily I found a spot with two extinguished street lamps and setup in between.

A little earlier I quickly snapped the image below from the bedroom window on the 2nd floor.  The sky wasn’t dark yet, and as the camera was hand-held, 1/4sec was the lowest I could go.  Nevertheless with the rooftops in the foreground, it provides for a sense of scale and location in the sky.  The orange-red horizon from the setting sun is a nice touch.

Moon with Venus and Mars in the evening sky

Moon with Venus and Mars in the evening sky


Easily Locate Neptune on December 31st

December 31st will be your opportunity to easily locate and observe Neptune with a telescope as it will be within 1/3 degree of Mars low in the western part of the Sky.  Mars will present a reddish magnitude 1 disk while Neptune will be much smaller, essentially a dimmer magnitude 7.8 dot.  Large telescopes should reveal the blueish hue of Neptune when placed slightly out of focus.

Neptune and Mars 1/3 degree - December 31

Neptune and Mars 1/3 degree – December 31 (1 degree circle)

In the image above I’ve marked magnitude 7.9 star just outside the 1 degree circle to assist in the orientation.

However don’t wait too late in the evening, best may be shortly after 7pm once the Moon is below the horizon.  Starting from the horizon you’ll able to easily locate bright Venus and about 10 degrees above will be Mars and Neptune.  Bright stars Fomalhaut and Altair will be located east and west along the horizon.

Neptune Mars and Venus setting in the West - December 31

Neptune Mars and Venus setting in the West – December 31 (7pm)

Autumn – Darker Skies and No Mosquitos

I hadn’t taken the telescope out since April. With other projects and hobbies I just didn’t bother setting up the equipment.  But a few nights ago looking at a dark blue evening sky I noticed a nice crescent Moon and a triangular star formation over the horizon. The kids weren’t in bed yet so I grabbed my gear and made a quick set-up for observation with the 80ED telescope.

After an observation of the Moon, spending time examining the lights and shadows across the lunar craters and valleys I looked at the triangular star formation and suspected that at least one was a planet.  Slewed the telescope over and discovered Mars. Tried different eye pieces and settled for an Orion Edge-On 9mm planetary with Televue 2x Barlow.

With the kids off to bed I changed the set-up for webcam imaging before Mars could dip below the horizon. Follow up processing that evening wasn’t very rewarding.  Mars is some distance with Earth therefore appeared rather small compared with other times I pointed the telescope and with the heavy atmospheric turbulence imaging at such a low altitude it blurred the scant details I could have captured.

But that evening I broke the ice and got the gear out. And since I’ve been enjoying the night sky when weather permits. With the galactic plane crossing the sky it’s a great time for wide angle shots. It’s also much faster to set-up and more forgiving to an incorrect polar alignment. I got three photo sessions to analyze and hope to have some good shots to show in the next few days.

Autumn,  with cooler nights, dark skies and no mosquitos it’s prime time to enjoy the night sky.

ExoMars March 14th Lift Off, The Sign of a Earth-Mars Close Approach?

In the early in the morning of March 14th, 2016, a joint EASA-Roscosmos mission blasted off from Kazakhstan on top of a Proton launch vehicle.  The space vehicle will take 7 months traveling through space before arriving to Mars around October 19th.  The mission is actually composed of two vehicles, which will separate 3 days prior to the Mars arrival: Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli, the later entering the martian atmosphere and landing on the surface.

ExoMars 2016 Launch campaign

ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016

I wondered if the launch signaled an upcoming Earth-Mars close approach.  A space program wanting to reach Mars on a budget would select a launch date at a time when both planets are at their closest to reduce the fuel required, and time spent traveling through space.  Sure enough, the next Earth-Mars close approach is May 30, 2016, a few days after opposition of May 22nd.  An upcoming great opportunity to turn the telescope to Mars and hopefully capture some of the planet’s features.  Mars’ angular size varies from as little as 3.5″ to an easy observing 25.1″ which is quite dramatic.

Earth-Mars close approach happen roughly every 26 months, and often coincide to Mars missions launches.  The following list from NASA of recent Mars mission launches show a lovely two year interval.

2001:      Mars Odyssey
2003:      Mars Exploration Rovers
2005:      Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
2007:      Mars Phoenix Lander
2009:      (skipped opportunity)
2011:      Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Rover
2013:      MAVEN

The last one in 2013 was in November, hence a Mars 2016, 28 months later falls within that window of opportunity.  The ExoMars program actually has two space vehicles.  The next one is planned for… you guessed it 26 months later: May 2018 launch.