ESA & Gaia Deliver!

Image credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC.

Launched on December 19, 2013, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia spacecraft has been hard at work observing, measuring and cataloging everything that it can and to say that its delivered would be an understatement. This mind blowing image is actually Gaia’s second data release and it covers collection dates between July 25, 2014 to May 23, 2016 and it has nailed down the exact positions of 1.7 billion stars, 1.3 billion of those have also had their proper motion (basically their motion) recorded as well. In addition to stars, Gaia had cataloged precise positions of 14,000 known asteroids in the solar system to better monitor them.  Roughly half a million quasars and half a million variable stars have also been cataloged.  As amazing as this release is, it’s important to remember that this is still just the beginning of what this fantastic ESA mission will accomplish.

ESA Gaia mission page:

Cosmos ESA Gaia page:

ESA Gaia page for this image:



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Reflection Nebula IC 4605

Image credit & copyright: Adam Block/Mt Lemmon Sky Center/University of Arizona.

Roughly 400 light years away in the constellation Scorpius the scorpion, and in the amazing Rho Ophiuchi Complex is this beautiful blue reflection nebula cataloged as IC 4605. With an apparent magnitude of 4.8, the star 22 Scorpii can be seen without aid but if you want to see the accompanying blue nebula you will certainly need some time collecting data so Adam Block did this for us as he’s done time and time again. It’s believed that this star doesn’t generate enough energy to ionize the region, rendering it aglow with a brilliant red hue. The blue that we see in this image is mainly from starlight being scattered throughout the area.

Name: IC 4605

What is it?: Star 22 Scorpii or HD 148605 w’ surrounding reflection nebula. The star is a B-type main sequence star with a stellar classification f B3 V.

How big is it?: Roughly 6 solar masses and 335 times the Sun’s luminosity

How far away is it?: About 400 light years

How old is it?: About 10 million years

Apparent Magnitude: 4.8

Where is it (general)?: Scorpius

Where is it (exact RA/Dec J2000)?: RA 16h 31m 12s / Dec -25°06’55”

22 Scorpii (HD 148605) SAO: 184429

Adam Block page for this image:

University of Arizona page for this image:

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Jupiter Nears Opposition

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Cassini/Space Science Institute. See below for more information to include data and trackers.

Those with telescopes and binoculars, now is the time to observe the King of the Planets. For many of you observations of Jupiter have already begun because from the Northern Hemisphere it’s been rising before the Sun the past few months. It technically reaches opposition on Tuesday, May 8, 2018 but generically the exact date and time doesn’t matter. This is your best chance to see Jupiter until it reaches opposition again on June 10, 2019 (About 400 days or 13 month cycles).

Jupiter will be primed for observing from now through June. At opposition Jupiter will be approximately 4.4 AU from earth (4.4 times the distance of Earth from the Sun) and will reach an apparent magnitude of -2.5 with a disk of 43.8” arcseconds in size (For example, Mars at opposition only reaches about 15” arcseconds in size and the average Full Moon is just over 2000” arcseconds). On any given night, if you have a pair of binoculars you can even make out the 4 tiny Galilean moons.

The Great Red Spot: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Voyager 2/Gerald Eichstädt/Sean Doran

Opposition, in planetary terms is when a superior (outer) planet, dwarf planet or planetary body reaches a point almost exactly opposite the Sun from Earth’s vantage point so we see its full, bright disk.  Another way to say it is Earth is positioned directly between the Sun and that object.  This occurs because as the outer planets orbit more slowly than the inner planets so every so often we come up on the inside like turn 1 at Laguna Seca, make the pass and we’re on our way until next time. Though Mercury and Venus can never reach opposition as seen from Earth; Earth reaches opposition as seen from them. Opposition also places the object near its closest point that it can get to the Earth in its orbit (perigee). Technically opposition and the actual closest point usually differ from a few hours to a few weeks.

Why opposition doesn’t also equal perigee or that body’s closest point to Earth?  Well, as I said above it pretty much does but you have to remember that orbits are elliptical and no two orbits mirror each other, so even though a planet may be directly opposite the Sun from us, the elliptical nature of orbits usually means that the actual closest point tend to be slightly before or after opposition.

Why oppositions have different distances from opposition to opposition? The reason is the same as the above paragraph; the orbits of the planets aren’t actually circular, they’re slightly elliptical. For example, Mars reaches opposition around the same time it reaches perihelion (closest point to the Sun) every 15 to 17 years so when that happens opposition is closer.  Conversely, if Mars reaches opposition at its furthest point from the Sun it will be a more distant opposition than if it were at its closest point.  Imagine if we happen to be at aphelion (Earth’s farthest point from the Sun) at the same time say, Mars is at its perihelion and opposition?  What a great sight that would be!

Also, during the immediate hours of opposition look for a phenomenon known as the Seeliger Effect; also known as Opposition Surge, Opposition Effect or Opposition Spike. This is a sudden brightening of the planet right before through right after opposition. This also happens with other celestial bodies including Saturn and the Moon. The main culprit for this phenomenon seems to be coherent backscattering and shadow hiding. Using the Moon as an example of shadow hiding; just hours before full moon the suns light is hitting the lunar surface squarely and almost all major shadows from our vantage point are gone. When this occurs the Moon can brighten by about 40 percent and lasts until a few hours after full phase. When this happens during an opposition of Saturn, the rings actually become brighter than the planet itself for those few hours.

The Rings of Jupiter NASA/JPL-Caltech/Voyager 2/Kevin M. Gill

Below I’ve listed important data as well as a bunch of my favorite links to use and abuse as they’re invaluable assets for sky watching and as always, if you have questions, please ask!  I don’t include Planet, Sun or Moon rise and set times because that’s different depending on where exactly you are but the resources are in the links below.

Jupiter Opposition 2018 Data:

Date of Opposition: Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Time of Opposition: 20:28 EDT (00:28 UTC on the 9th)

Where is it? (constellation): Libra

Where is it? (exact RA/Dec J2000): RA 15h 04m 2s / Dec -16°00’12.3”

Apparent Magnitude: A very bright -2.5

Apparent Size (Angular Size): 43.8” arcseconds

Altitude: Highest point will reach about 31 degrees for mid-northern latitudes

Distance from Earth: 4.4 AU or about 660 million miles

Opposition Frequency: Just over a year; 13 months or 400 days

Moon Phase: Waning crescent, 41% illuminated, 22 days old

Moon Location (constellation): Capricornus

Current Visiting Spacecraft: Juno

Former Visiting Spacecraft: Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Galileo, Ulysses, Cassini-Huygens and New Horizons.


Naked Eye Planets Jupiter Location:

Dominic Ford’s “In-The-Sky” page for this event:

In-The-Sky’s, Solar System Body Finder Chart:

U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO) Solar System Body Apparent Dimensions:

U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO) Solar System Body Rise & Set Times:

The Sky Live page for Jupiter:

The Sky Live, Jupiter Tracker:

The Sky Live, Jupiter Planetarium:

Chris Peat’s “Heavens-Above” Planet Summary:

The Planets Today (current solar system configuration):

Time and Date Sunrise and Sunset calculator:

Time and Date Moonrise and Moonset calculator:

Time and Date Lunar Calendar:

Moon Calendar:

Moon Giant Moon Phase:

Heavens-Above Moon Data:

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Happy 28th Birthday Hubble

Image credit: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Launched onboard STS-31 Discovery from KSC LC-39B on April 24, 1990; we are embarking on the legendary Hubble Space Telescope’s 28th birthday week. There may be other important telescopes throughout history but none have been quite as prolific as this one. It has captured our imagination and brought the universe into our homes and hearts now for a generation. Current funding for Hubble runs out in June, 2021 and is expected to be destroyed in Earth’s atmosphere sometime in the late 2020s. In May of 2009 STS-125 Atlantis went to Hubble as part of Hubble Servicing Mission 4 (SM4) and while they were there, an adapter called the Soft Capture Mechanism (SCM) was installed in the event some future mission wished to service it yet again, bring it home or give it one last push but this time, toward its demise. I vote for servicing and eventually capture and return where it can be displayed for generations to come.

Hubble being removed from STS-31 Discovery’s payload bay for deployment.

Hubble being released from STS-31 Discovery’s payload bay by Canadarm.

Now how about this image of a section of the Lagoon Nebula? The Lagoon Nebula is an emission nebula and HII star forming region that spans roughly 120 by 60 light years in diameter (this image spans a region of about 4 light years) and resides roughly 4,000 light years away in the constellation Sagittarius. Illuminating this ghostly scene is a monster as well. Herschel 36 is a star 32 times more massive, 200,000 times brighter, 8 times hotter and 9 times the diameter of our Sun. Those numbers create a volatile situation as its cosmic winds (radiation) are blasting away at the material that created it only about 1 million years ago. They say if you live fast you may die young and that’s certainly the case for Herschel 36.  Our Sun has a lifespan of about 10 billion years while this fusion reactor only has about 5 million years left. That’s a life expectancy of only 6 million years.

Goodbye Hubble; STS-125 Atlantis releases HST for the final time. The Soft Capture Mechanism (SCM) can be seen at the back of Hubble.

Name: Lagoon Nebula, Messier 8 (M8), New General Catalog 6523 (NGC 6523)

What is it?: Emission nebula and an HII star forming region

How far away is it?: Roughly 4,000 light years away

How big is it?: Roughly 120 by 60 light years in diameter though this image shows a 4 light year diameter portion

Apparent magnitude?: 6 or +6

Where is it (general)?: Constellation Sagittarius

Where is it (exact RD/Dec J2000): RA 18h 03m 37s / Dec −24° 23′ 12″

Hubblesite Lagoon Nebula 28th birthday image:

Hubblesite news release page for this image:

STS-31 Discovery: Hubble initial release image:

STS-125 Atlantis: Hubble final release image showing the Soft Capture Mechanism (SCM):


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NGC 5023; A Shower of Diamonds

Image credit & copyright: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

This beautiful edge-on spiral galaxy may only be roughly half the size of our Milky Way but the resolution that Hubble delivers is just amazing. What’s great about this image is that even at 33 million light years away you can still pick out 30,000 individual stars in this image should you have that kind of time and or desire.  That pales in comparison to the many tens of billions within the galaxy but it’s many times for than the 4,500-ish you can see in the night sky in a dark location.

NGC 5023 is a popular target for Hubble as it’s part of 14 galaxies in the GHOSTS survey which studies galactic halos and star clusters and it’s also one of six edge-on spiral galaxies observed in the Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS).

There are a couple things that I find interesting as I see this image. For one, there seems to be a lack of star forming regions to be seen. There are pockets of what appear to be nebulae and possible star formation but nothing widespread. Also, the disk of stellar material along the plane of the galaxy is pretty sparse as well.  Instead of the thick bands that we see in many galaxies to include our Milky Way, there is a faint band stretching through the nucleus.

Name: New General Catalog 5023, NGC 5023

What is it?: Edge-on spiral galaxy

How far away is it?: Roughly 33 million light years

How big is it?: Roughly 50,000 light years in diameter

Apparent magnitude?: A pretty dim 12.8

Where is it (general)?: Constellation Canes Venatici and part of the M51 group of galaxies

Where is it (exact RA/Dec J2000)?: RA 13h 12m 11.8s Dec +44° 02′ 17″

ESA Space Telescope page for this image:

Hubble GHOSTS survey:

SIMBAD data for this galaxy:

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SpaceX Falcon 9 TESS Mission Launch

Image credit & copyright: SpaceX.

LAUNCH ALERT! Wednesday, April 18, 2018 at 18:51 EDT (15:51 PDT & 22:51 UTC) a SpaceX Falcon 9 (core B1045.1) will be launching from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) to deliver Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) into orbit.

Stats: This will be SpaceX’s 8th launch of 2018 and the 59th SpaceX flight overall (5 Falcon 1, 53 Falcon 9, 1 Falcon Heavy). The parameters of this mission will allow for a landing on their East Coast Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY), allowing them to forego landing back at Cape Canaveral at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) (former LC-13) or losing the booster to the sea. To date there have been 23 landings overall; 12 on drone ships and 11 on land.

Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS): TESS is a planet finding mission and will monitor the brightness of about 200,000 stars over the course of two years. As planets transit their host stars they create a tiny dip in brightness that TESS will detect. It’s estimated that TESS will detect 1,500 exoplanets through mission completion.

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ULA Atlas V AFSPC 11 Mission from FL

Images credit & copyright: United Launch Alliance (ULA).

LAUNCH ALERT: Saturday, April 14, 2018 at 19:13 EDT (23:13 UTC) a United Launch Alliance (ULA), Atlas V-551 rocket designated (AV-079) will lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), Florida as part of the Air Force Space Command 11 (AFSPC-11) mission. The mission will carry the Continuous Broadcast Augmenting SATCOM (CBAS) and the ESPA Augmented Geostationary Laboratory Experiment (EAGLE) into geostationary orbits.

This will be the ULA’s 4th launch of 2018, 127th launch since its founding in 2006, the 77th launch of the Atlas V since its inaugural flight in 2002 and the 8th launch of the Atlas V in its 551 configuration.

551 Configuration Summary:

5 = 5 meter, two-shell fairing

5 = 5 external solid rocket boosters

1 = 1 Aerojet-Rocketdyne, Centaur second stage engine

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