WHAT'S UP THIS MONTH - SEPTEMBER 2020

(Link to What's Up October 2020)

(Link to What's Up August 2020)

Return to Front Page

THESE PAGES ARE INTENDED TO HELP YOU FIND YOUR WAY AROUND THE SKY

The chart above shows the whole night sky as it appears on 15th September at 22:00 (10 o'clock) in the British Summer Time (BST). As the Earth orbits the Sun and we look out into space each night the stars will appear to have moved across the sky by a small amount. Every month Earth moves one twelfth of its circuit around the Sun, this amounts to 30 degrees each month. There are about 30 days in each month so each night the stars appear to move about 1 degree. The sky will therefore appear the same as shown on the chart above at 11 o'clock BST at the beginning of the month and at 9 o'clock BST at the end of the month. The stars also appear to move 15º (360º divided by 24) each hour from east to west, due to the Earth rotating once every 24 hours.

The centre of the chart will be the position in the sky directly overhead, called the Zenith. First we need to find some familiar objects so we can get our bearings. The Pole Star Polaris can be easily found by first finding the familiar shape of the Great Bear ‘Ursa Major' that is also sometimes called the Plough or even the Big Dipper by the Americans. Ursa Major is visible throughout the year from Britain and is always quite easy to find. This month it is in the north west. Look for the distinctive saucepan shape, four stars forming the bowl and three stars forming the handle. Follow an imaginary line, up from the two stars in the bowl furthest from the handle. These will point the way to Polaris which will be to the north of overhead at about 50º above the northern horizon. Polaris is the only moderately bright star in a fairly empty patch of sky. When you have found Polaris turn completely around and you will be facing south. To use this chart, position yourself looking south and hold the chart above your eyes.

Planets observable in the evening sky: Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Mars and Uranus.

EXPLORING THE NIGHT SKY THIS MONTH

The Southern Night Sky 15th September 2020 at 22:00 BST

The chart above shows the night sky looking south at about 22:00 BST on 15th September. West is to the right and east to the left. The point in the sky directly overhead is known as the Zenith or Nadir and is shown at the centre of the chart. The curved brown line across the sky at the bottom is the Ecliptic or Zodiac. This is the imaginary line along which the Sun, Moon and planets appear to move across the sky. The brightest stars often appear to form a group or recognisable pattern; we call these ‘Constellations'.

Constellations through which the ecliptic passes this month are Sagittarius (the Archer), Capricornus (the Goat), Aquarius (the Water Carrier), Piscis (the Fishes), Aries (the Ram) and Taurus (the Bull) is about to rise over the eastern horizon.

Just disappearing over the south western horizon is the constellation of Sagittarius (the Archer). It is really a southern constellation but we can see the upper part creep along the horizon during the summer. The central bulge of our galaxy is located in Sagittarius so the richest star fields can be found in the constellation along with many of the beautiful and interesting deep sky objects that we seek out.

The summer constellations are still prominent in the night sky lead by Hercules (the Hunter). Following Hercules is the Summer Triangle with its three corners marked by the bright stars: Deneb in the constellation of Cygnus, Vega in Lyra, and Altair in Aquila. The Summer Triangle is very prominent and can be used as the starting point to find our way around the night sky. The Milky Way (our Galaxy) flows through the Summer Triangle passing through Cygnus, down to the horizon in Sagittarius. The Milky Way flows north from the Summer Triangle through the rather indistinct constellation of Lacerta (the Lizard), past the pentagon shape of Cepheus and on through the ‘W' shape of Cassiopeia (a Queen).

All the Superior Planets (those orbiting the Sun outside Earth's orbit) are visible in the south during the night. Jupiter and Saturn are most prominent as Jupiter is very bright in the south with Saturn very close by. The Gas Giant Planets are followed across the sky by Neptune the most distant planet then the distinctly orange and bright Mars and completing the parade of planets is Uranus. The outermost planets Uranus and Neptune do really need a good pair of binoculars to find and a telescope to see as small blue discs. Mars rises over the eastern horizon at about 20:30 BST (8:30 pm). It is bright at the moment and getting brighter until on 13 th October it will be at its brightest this year.

Planets observable: Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Mars, Uranus (in the evening) and Venus (in the early morning).

THE SOUTHERN SKY AND THE SUMMER TRIANGLE

The Southern sky at 22:00 on 15th September

The chart above shows the night sky looking south at about 22:00 BST on 15th September. West is to the right and east to the left. The point in the sky directly overhead is known as the Zenith and is shown, in red, at the centre of the chart. The curved brown line across the sky at the bottom is the Ecliptic or Zodiac. The brightest stars appear to form a group or recognisable pattern that are joined up as ‘Stick Figures'; we call these ‘Constellations'.

The summer constellations are still prominent in the night sky lead by Hercules (the Hunter). Following Hercules is the Summer Triangle with its three corners marked by the bright stars: Deneb in the constellation of Cygnus, Vega in Lyra, and Altair in Aquila. The Summer Triangle is very prominent and can be used as the starting point to find our way around the night sky. The Milky Way (our Galaxy) flows through the Summer Triangle passing through Cygnus, down to the horizon in Sagittarius.

The Milky Way flows north from the Summer Triangle through the rather indistinct constellation of Lacerta (the Lizard), past the pentagon shape of Cepheus and on through the ‘W' shape of Cassiopeia (a Queen).

Disappearing off the top, centre/right of the chart above is the fairly faint constellation of Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) also called the Little Dipper by the Americans. Although Ursa Minor may be a little difficult to find in a light polluted sky it is one of the most important constellations. This is because Polaris (the ‘Pole' or ‘North Star') is located in Ursa Minor. See the whole sky chart at the top of this article. Polaris is the star that is located at the approximate point in the sky where an imaginary line projected from Earth's North Pole would point to. As the Earth rotates on its axis, the sky appears to rotate around Polaris once every 24 hours. This means Polaris is the only fairly bright star that appears to remain stationary in the sky.

East (left) of the Summer Triangle is the constellation of Pegasus (the Winged Horse). The main feature of Pegasus is the square formed by the four brightest stars. This asterism (shape) is known as the Great Square of Pegasus. The square is larger than might be expected but once found is easier to find again.

EXPLORING THE SKY AROUND THE SUMMER TRIANGLE

 

The chart above shows the sky around the Summer Triangle. The term ‘Summer Triangle' was suggested by Sir Patrick Moore and has now become the best known feature of the summer night sky. The corners of the imaginary triangle are positioned on the three obvious bright stars: Deneb in the constellation of Cygnus, Vega in Lyra, and Altair in Aquila. The Milky Way (our Galaxy) flows through the Summer Triangle and passes through Aquila and Cygnus.

THE CONSTELLATION OF AQUILA (the Eagle)

The constellation of Aquila (the Eagle) is found at the bottom corner of the Summer Triangle. There are no interesting objects in Aquila but the one bright star, Altair, has a fainter star above and below it that makes it quite easy to find.

The constellation of Aquila

THE CONSTELLATION OF CYGNUS (the Swan)

The constellation of Cygnus (the Swan) is located at the top of the Summer Triangle. The brightest star in Cygnus is Deneb which denotes the upper point of the Summer Triangle and represents the Swan's tail. The wings spread from the star Sadr and the head is marked by Albireo. Deneb is one of the largest and brightest stars in our vicinity in our galaxy the Milky Way and is classified as a Supergiant. It is about 25 times more massive than our Sun and has a diameter 60 times that of our Sun. It is located 3000 light years away. As it is so much larger than our Sun it consumes its Hydrogen fuel much faster and consequently shines 60,000 times brighter.

The constellations of Cygnus and Lyra

Cygnus (the Swan) does actually resemble the swan it is supposed to represent. We start at the bright star Deneb which marks the tail of the swan. From the fairly bright star Sadr the wings are spread out to each side and the long neck of the swan stretches on to Albireo.

Albireo can be seen as a beautiful double star when viewed through a telescope. One star is bright and gold in colour the other is fainter and distinctly blue. This is not a true pair they just happen to be in the same line of sight. Although the blue star is much bigger and brighter than the golden coloured star it is a lot further away from us. This type of double star is much rarer than a pair of stars that are associated and linked by their common gravity and orbiting a common centre of gravity.

The double star Albireo in Cygnus

THE CONSTELLATION OF LYRA (the Harp)

The constellation of Lyra (the Harp) is located to the west (right) of Cygnus but is much smaller. The most obvious feature of Lyra is the very bright star Vega that is located the top right corner of the Summer Triangle. Vega is the fifth brightest star in our sky with a magnitude of 0.4. It is located at a distance of 25.3 light years from us and is thought to be 3.2 times the diameter of our Sun and 58 times brighter. Inferred detectors on the IRAS satellite have detected a ring of dust around Vega that may indicate planets are forming around the star.

The constellation of Lyra (small harp)

The main asterism (shape) of Lyra is composed of a line of three stars with Vega in the centre and a group of four fainter stars that form a parallelogram shape that is better known as the ‘Lozenge'.

To the south east of the very bright star Vega is the lozenge shaped asterism comprised of four stars . Between the two lower stars: Sulafat and Sheliak is the Messier object M57. This is a ‘Planetary Nebula' which has nothing to do with a planet. It is in fact a dying star that was similar to our Sun but older. The star had used most of its Hydrogen fuel and expanded to form into a Red Giant. After passing though that red giant phase it gently collapsed to become a White Dwarf. The very thin outer mantle of the red giant drifted away into space as the star collapsed. The white dwarf is now surrounded by a bubble of gas and dust. It looks like a small ‘smoke ring' when seen through a telescope but can't be seen using normal binoculars.

Messier 57 (M57) the Ring Nebula

There are two other constellations that are located within the Summer Triangle. They are both small and comprised of relatively faint stars but are worth seeking out using just our naked eyes or binoculars.

SAGITTA (the Arrow)

Sagitta is good fun to find using binoculars because it really does look like an ‘arrow'. It is composed of three stars that look like the shaft of the arrow and two stars that resemble the flight feathers.

The constellation of Sagitta

The real beauty of Sagitta is how it looks using binoculars but it does host one messier object this is M71 also known as NGC 6838. This is a rather nice but small and faint Dwarf G lobular C luster that does need a medium sized telescope to see well.

A telescope will show Messier 71 (M71) in Sagitta. It is not the most spectacular Globular Cluster but does look nice in a medium to large telescope.

Messier 71 (M71) in Sagitta

A Globular Cluster is thought to be the core of a small galaxy that has ventured too close to our Giant Spiral Galaxy (the Milky Way) and had its outer stars stripped away by the powerful gravity of the Milky Way. There about 100 Globular Clusters around our Galaxy.

VULPECULAR (the Fox)

The constellation of Vulpecula

Vulpecula is a quite indistinct constellation located in the Summer Triangle, see the chart above. It has a bright Planetary Nebula (M27) that can be seen using a good pair of binoculars. It is also known as the Dumbbell Nebula but looks more like a butterfly. It is a similar object to M57 but has two interesting lobes.

Messier 27 (M27) a planetary Nebula in Vulpecula

There is another interesting object to look for in the constellation of Vulpecula using binoculars. This is an asterism (a recognisable pattern of stars) called the Coat Hanger. It is also known as Brocchi's Cluster or Collinder 339. It is a random group or cluster of 10 fairly bright stars and about 30 fainter stars. They appear to be an associated group that does look like a Coat Hanger.

The Coat Hanger (asterism) in Vulpecula

The Coat Hanger can just about be seen with the ‘naked eye' on a very clear night and from a very dark observing site but is best seen using binoculars. It is located half way between the ‘tail feathers' of Sagitta (the Arrow) and the most westerly of the three stars that comprise the recognised shape of Vulpecula. See the chart in the opposite column. To find the Coat Hanger, use binoculars to find the tail feathers of Sagitta then slowly sweep up and right towards the right star of Vulpecula.

DELPHINUS (the Dolphin)

Just to the east (left) of the lower part of the Summer Triangle is the lovely little constellation of Delphinus (the Dolphin). It is small but can be seen easily with the unaided eye from a dark area when the sky is a clear.

Delphinus (the Dolphin)

The asterism (shape) of Delphinus is comprised of a four stars that form a neat diamond shape and a fifth star a short distance from the diamond shape that completes the dolphin's body and tail. With a little imagination it does look remarkably like a dolphin leaping out of the water. It can be easily seen with the naked eye or using a smaller pair of binoculars.

THE INNER SOLAR SYSTEM - SEPTEMBER 2020

The mid month morning sky at 09:00 showing the positions Mercury and Venus

MERCURY will not be visible this month as it is in the bright morning sky. See the chart above (the sky has been darkened to allow the planets to be seen).

VENUS will be observable in the east before sunrise. It rises over the eastern horizon at 02:30 so will be observable from 03:00 until sunrise. Venus passed through Inferior Conjunction (between Earth and the Sun) on 3rd June. It then appeared as a large narrow crescent that became wider and smaller as the planet moved away from the Sun. Venus reached its greatest western elongation (at its furthest apparent distance from the Sun) on 14th August.

Venus as it will appear on 15th September

It is now moving back towards the Sun and will appear smaller but ‘fuller' as it moves into Superior Conjunction (behind the Sun) on 25th March 2021. After passing through Superior Conjunction Venus will reappear in the evening sky in the west after the Sun has set.

It will first appear close to the Sun and will be round when viewed using a telescope. As it will be located on the other side of the Sun it will fully illuminated but will become larger and crescent shaped as it moves out and away from the Sun towards us.

MARS rises in the east at about 20:30 and is starting to look larger at about 20 arc-seconds. Earth is catching up with Mars on their orbits around the Sun. This is because Earth's orbit is inside the orbit of Mars and is consequently travelling faster. Earth will catch up and overtake Mars on 13th October and this is called its Opposition. At opposition Mars will be in direct line with Earth and the Sun as shown in the chart below.

Mars at Opposition on 13th October 2020

At opposition Mars will be at it its closest point to Earth on this orbit. It can be seen on the chart above that the orbit of Mars is quite eccentric. The closest and furthest points possible are marked on the orbit. This opposition brings the two planets quite close together so Mars will appear significantly larger than it would appear at the ‘furthest' possible point on its orbit. So Mars will be a good size for looking at using a telescope or for imaging.

A beautiful image of Mars taken by Peter Tickner Reading Astronomical Society

There is some good news for this opposition. The Ecliptic (the imaginary line that the planets appear to move along) will be high in the night sky so this means Mars will also be quite high in the sky and in good stable air for viewing.

 

THE OUTER SOLAR SYSTEM – SEPTEMBER 2020

 

JUPITER and SATURN The chart shows the positions of the planets observable in the night sky this month. Jupiter and Saturn were both at Opposition in July, Jupiter on 14th July and Saturn on 20th July. Opposition was the exact time when Earth overtook (to be more precise ‘undertook') Jupiter and Saturn on their orbits around the Sun.

When the planets were at Opposition they were due south at midnight 01:00 BST (00.00 GMT) during the night of the dates shown in the previous paragraph. At these times the planets were at the centre of the night sky in the south and at their maximum altitude on the Ecliptic above the horizon. Earth was located in a direct line between Jupiter (or Saturn) with the Sun on the opposite side of Earth at midnight. See below.

Jupiter at Opposition and Saturn approaching Opposition

So on these nights the two giant planets were at their very best but unfortunately the Ecliptic was at its lowest at midnight in the summer (and highest at midday).

Therefore Jupiter and Saturn were low in the sky and close to the southern horizon where the air is thickest and most turbulent therefore appeared very unsteady. However all is not lost Jupiter and Saturn still have a treat for astronomers this year.

Jupiter and Saturn appear close together in the night sky this month but the pair will be doing something even more interesting in the coming months. They will be moving closer together and will be very close in December.

When two or more celestial bodies (Stars, Planets or moons) they are said to be in ‘Conjunction'. This term has a wide meaning it can refer to a planet or moon being close to a star including planets being close to our Sun. It is also used when two moons (perhaps of Jupiter) appearing close together. Most interestingly it is also used when planets in our solar system appear to be close in our night sky. So we have a conjunction taking place at the moment with Jupiter and Saturn appearing close together. See the chart below.

 

Jupiter and Saturn as they appear September 2020

The chart above shows the positions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the middle of September. They are still moving closer together and will be so close together in December that they will appear to be one bright object. This is because Jupiter and Saturn are moving into a very close ‘Conjunction' at the end of this year. This is a fairly rare event so it will be very interesting to watch.

This interesting event, involving Jupiter and Saturn, will develop and become even more interesting through the months from now until the end of this year. Jupiter and Saturn are located close together in the sky at the moment and this is what astronomers call a ‘Conjunction'. This is interesting already this month and makes an excellent photo opportunity just using a camera or even a mobile phone.

The two Gas Giant Planets have appeared close together in the sky all summer and will continue to move even closer together until the end of the year. The orbital paths of the planets are shown on the chart below.

The converging orbital paths of Jupiter and Saturn 21st December

The orbital paths of the planets are show as red for Jupiter and brown for Saturn. It can be seen on the chart above that the orbital paths a getting closer towards the end of the year as the planets move west.

Jupiter and Saturn will not be any closer to each other than they normally are and will still be moving around their established orbits. This conjunction is just a ‘line of sight' effect from our point of view on Earth. The two planets will actually be as far apart from each other as Earth is from Jupiter (about 750 million kilometres).

Jupiter is approaching Saturn as it is moving faster than Saturn along its orbital path and will overtake Saturn from our point of view on 21st December. From our point of view they will appear very close together so at this time the two planets will be at their closest conjunction.

Jupiter and Saturn at their closest conjunction on 21st September

The chart above shows how the two planets and their moons will appear using a telescope around the 21st December. They should fit into the field of view of most small telescopes and some larger telescopes using a low power eyepiece.

Like all astronomical events the weather must be kind to us and we will need a clear view towards the western horizon. The conjunction will unfortunately also be in the bright sky in the west at sunset.

URANUS will not be easy to see this month as it will be close to the southern eastern horizon. It will rise at about 20:00 and be visible for the rest of the night. It will require a clear view to the horizon and modest telescope to see.

NEPTUNE will rise at about 19:00 but will not be easy to observe this month as it and will be close to the south eastern horizon and requires a larger telescope.

 

THE SUN

The Sun rises at about 05:30. A pair of small sunspots were seen around 8th August. These are the latest of the very small number of sunspots seen over the past couple of years since the Sun entered its minimum.

Any activity on the Sun can be followed live using the day to day images of the Sun in detail by visiting the very good SOHO website at: http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/ .

A pair of small sunspots (2770) on 8th August image from SOHO

 

THE MOON PHASES DURING SEPTEMBER

As the Moon orbits Earth about once a month the Sun illuminates different areas of the surface as we see it from our position on Earth. We call these different views ‘Phases'.

When the Moon is in the same direction as the Sun the side facing us is dark and we cannot see the Moon. As the Moon moves away from the Sun we see a thin slither of the illuminated side, we call this phase ‘New Moon'.

A week later the western (right) half of the Moon will appear to be illuminated we call this phase ‘First Quarter'.

Two weeks after Full Moon the Moon will be on the opposite side of Earth to the Sun and the whole of the Moon is illuminated so we call this phase ‘Full Moon'.

Three weeks after New Moon the eastern half of the Moon appears to be illuminated we call this phase ‘Last Quarter'. Here the opposite side to the First Quarter is illuminated as the Moon moves back towards the Sun.

Full Moon will be on 2nd September

Last Quarter will be on 10th September

New Moon will be on 17th September

First Quarter will be on 24th September

Back to top of page

RETURN TO HOME PAGE