Extreme Planet Hunter: The Dwarf Planet Ceres

Location of Ceres the night of January 25th, 2018.

January 25th, 2018, 11:15 p.m. local time

On Thursday night, a few hours after I photographed the Orion Nebula, I searched for the asteroid and dwarf planet known as Ceres.  Ceres was nearing its current close distance to Earth, so this was an ideal time to find it.

I had to wait until the location was high in the East, almost approaching Zenith, due to my blocked Eastern view.  Specifically, I wanted to ensure that I could identify the front of Leo the Lion, to act as my lower guide, with the stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini framing the top.  Though the top of Leo is not very bright, Regulus is, so once I found Regulus, it was easy to star hop to the tip of Leo.

The “tip” star of Leo, as shown above as the last star in Leo connected by the blue lines, is called Algenubi, magnitude 2.95.  Looking very carefully, I then found Alterf, a 4.3 mag star, and after that a 4.45 mag double star, as shown by the orange lines.  I now knew approximately where Ceres should be.

(It’s worth recalling here that the higher the magnitude number, the fainter the star.  The Sun is about -27 magnitude and Pluto around 9, for comparative reference.)

Enter my binoculars, as I had already taken my telescope in for the night because I wasn’t sure if I would still be awake by this time.  Consulting with Stellarium, I knew Ceres’s magnitude that night was 6.89, well within my binoculars’ view.  Near and above Ceres were a 6.00 mag pulsating variable star (top left, below) and a 5.4 mag star (top right, below), forming an isosceles triangle with the dwarf planet.  No other objects in this immediate area were close to Ceres’s 6.89, so identifying this triangle would logically reveal Ceres.  And it did turn out to be so, as Stellarium showed:

This was another “first” in that I had never seen an asteroid before.  If this were the early 19th century, I’d be saying I had seen one of our 11 or 12 planets in the Solar System.  But being 2018, I will settle for witnessing the largest object in the asteroid belt.


Four Nights, One Lamp, Four Phases

Click for larger image.

November 28th, 2017, 6:00 p.m. local time
November 29th, 2017, 6:00 p.m. local time
November 30th, 2017, 6:00 p.m. local time
December 1st, 2017, 6:00 p.m. local time

On Tuesday, November 28th, I disembarked from my normal train home from work.  It was a clear night with the Moon high above.  I decided to take a picture with the only camera I had available, which of course was my smartphone.

On Wednesday, November 28th, I disembarked from my normal train home from work.  It was a clear night with the Moon high above.  Standing in the same spot as the night prior and at roughly the same time, I look a picture of the Moon again.

On Thursday, November 29th, I disembarked from my normal train home from work.  It was a clear night with the Moon above.  Standing in the same spot that I did on the prior two nights, I look a picture of the Moon again.

On Friday, December 1st, I disembarked from my normal train home from work.  It was a clear night with the Moon towards the East.  Standing in the same spot that I did on the prior three nights, I look a picture of the Moon again.

This format was unintentional at the start, but by Thursday I decided to trek along with the experiment for as long as the clouds would stay away.  In the end, I had four image sets, each 24 hours apart, pointed in the same direction.

The walkway light proved an excellent anchor to align the images day by day.  Obviously, they are not 100% exact.  I tried to stand in the same spot each night, but as this wasn’t a controlled environment exercise, the Moon’s path and location is ever so slightly off, but hardly noticeable.

Keep in mind that the Moon moves backward every day from its position the prior day.  This was demonstrated quit visibly in August as the Moon past over the Sun from right to left.

Here is the same image with each day’s date tagged to its Moon phase:

Morning Moon and Jupiter

Click for the full-sized image.

December 14th, 2017, 5:05 a.m. local time

In a partial attempt to stargaze earlier than Jim R for one morning, I caught a great view of a very Waning Moon rising in the East, with a bonus of Jupiter following along.  You can see Jupiter a bit to the lower right of the Moon as it peeks just above a tree branch.

Frequent readers of this blog know that I mention my view of the East being blocked by trees.  Here you get scope of that blockage, which of course alleviates some in the Winter months.  I enjoy watching Orion and later Sirius ascend through this netted mosaic on clear December evenings.

Morning Moon Before the Front

Click for the full-sized image.

December 8th, 2017, 9:50 a.m. local time

My location was quite different from where I photographed the Moon last night.  The venue changed from the evening darkness of my yard to the bright, expansive view from my place of work.  In nearly twelve hours, the Moon traveled across sky via its elliptic, and was now settling into the West.  All this time, the Moon gradually crept closer East towards the Sun, even though the general movement direction is East-to-West.

Notice the Moon high in the middle, with the approaching clouds from the Northwest.

This picture was taken with my smartphone and edited for some minor post-processing.

Night Owl Moon

December 7th, 2017, 10:10 p.m. local time

On this very cold but very clear night, the aging Waning Moon shown brightly from the East.  I could see it easily despite my trees.  All their leaves are gone, opening up views to me normally blocked during the warmer times of the year.

This is what I would call a rare-angle Moon, as it catches the light of a Sun still over eight hours away from reaching the horizon.  Clouds and snow return tomorrow, but if the view is still open by morning, I will try to take another picture.  I’m guessing the Moon at this point in time tonight was no more than 30 degrees off the horizon.

Oh, and I almost forgot…this was taken with my DSLR camera only, using the long lens for higher magnification.

Jupiter is back! For me, at least…

Position of Jupiter and its moons on December 5th, 2017 06:25 CT.

December 5th, 2017, 06:25 a.m. local time

Tuesday brought in a very clear morning sky.  For the past several weeks, as I’ve let my dog out in the mornings, I have been scanning the East dawn sky for Jupiter.  I finally found it, sticking out high above my largest tree.  Welcome back, old friend.

If you observe Jupiter and stars for any amount of time, you learn that Jupiter is “big” compared to any star.  This is not a trick of its brightness.  As seen from Earth, Jupiter has an angular diameter roughly between 29″ and 51″.  For comparison, Betelgeuse in Orion has a angular diameter never above 0.060″.  So at Jupiter’s smallest, you would still have line up over 483 Betelgeuses to reach the diameter of Jupiter (as seen from Earth)!

I thought I saw a cluster of light immediately to the right of Jupiter.  Could that have been a moon?  Later, I looked up the Jovian moon positions for this exact time, and I found it interesting that Io, Europa, and Callisto were all clumped together on Jupiter’s right, at that moment.  I am not entirely sure if I really saw the combined light of three moons, but it is pretty cool to think that I may have.

What’s So Odd About a Young Moon in Late Fall?

November 20th, 2017, 5:10 p.m. local time

A bitter, windy chill was in the air tonight, with calm and clear heavens in strong deference.  The young crescent Moon made its Monthly debut in the West.  Few will notice before it sets.

The Moon has now passed by the Sun three times in the sky since the Great North American Eclipse of 2017.  Summer turned to Fall.  Fall is rapidly giving way to Winter.  The wonderful sites of the cosmos are available on nights like these for those who wish to seize the opportunity.  But don’t wait too long, for the Sun and Moon and stars wait for no one as their eternal journey carries on.

Most trees framing this evening’s Moon have already started their annual hibernation.  But amazingly, here in the Midwest in late November, many trees are stubbornly holding onto their leaves, though they usually would have been shed weeks ago by now.  Notice the one tree in the background still full as if in mid September.  I do not know what’s up with the trees this year, but they do need to hurry up if they don’t want to miss Winter.

Halloween Moon

October 31st, 2017, 9:00 p.m. local time

Ghostly clouds and autumn leaves bring you tonight’s Moon on this last day of October.

The Moon and a Plane

October 25th, 2017, 6:01 p.m. local time

Sometimes the quickest astrophotography snaps yield surprises.  I was not even trying to include the plane, honest!