Have you noticed the dazzling red star high in the East during late evening? That’s the planet Mars and it’s now nearing opposition on October 13th, offering some of the best naked eye and telescopic views possible.
Opposition is when Mars and Earth reach their closest approach to each other with respect to their independent orbits around the Sun. For Mars and Earth, this happens every 2 years and 2 months.
With the planet’s relatively high altitude and closeness around opposition, current views of the planet even with moderately powerful telescopes should be striking, perhaps revealing dim surface features and polar caps.
These images from Instagram’s @nightskyflying show the dramatic size and clarity change of Mars over a period of many months. If you don’t have a telescope it’s still worth looking up to appreciate the brightness of Mars as a naked eye planet at the moment.
All eyes are now on planet Venus, our bright morning and evening star.
In the 1950s Venus was one of the most dreamed of and speculated about planets in the solar system. Science fiction portrayed it as a swampy planet covered in rain forests and abundant with strange alien life. Then, after the Soviet Venera missions discovered the hellish conditions on the surface, interest waned somewhat and attention shifted to Mars.
With recent discoveries of Phosphine gas in the planet’s atmosphere, Venus looks set to recapture all of its human wonder and fascination.
Venus has always had the potential to harbour life high in its atmosphere. While its surface is baking hot with crushing pressures, its upper atmosphere is a relatively warm and clement environment.
So far we can’t imagine a natural process which could produce such high concentrations of phosphine gas in the Venus atmosphere but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an explanation that precludes life. Meanwhile we are left to speculate about the many possibilities, including the most tantalising of all, that some form of ancient anaerobic microbial life exists, or has existed, within Venus’s upper atmosphere.
A direct image of an alien solar system orbiting a Sun like star, over 300 light years away!
I remember growing up in the 1980s hearing about the ‘high probability’ that other stars had orbiting planets, but there was very little evidence then, only some tantalising hints from the gravitational wobbles observed from specific stars.
Since then thousands of new exoplanets have been confirmed using the transit and radial velocity detection methods. I wrote a blog article about this a while back.
These methods are indirect ways of determining the existence of planets, and it’s very rare to actually be able to ‘see’ the planets themselves.
This image is therefore pretty incredible and for me suddenly normalises the idea that these star systems are real places we could, theoretically at least, visit in the distant future.
The image was captured by the European Southern Observatories Very Large Telescope and shows a young Sun like star (only 17 million years old) with two clearly defined giant planets in orbit. (The dots of light closer to the star are background stars and therefore not part of this particular planetary system)
These planets orbit the star at 160 and 320AU (1 AU is the Earth to Sun distance) so they’re much further away from the star than any planet in our solar system.
A rare opportunity to observe a Venus and Mercury conjunction over the next few days.
From tonight (Monday) Mercury will appear progressively closer to Venus in the NW sky after sunset, leading to conjunction on Thursday and Friday night. An excellent chance to see Mercury in binoculars or observe the phase of both planets in a garden telescope.
Mercury is much dimmer and more challenging to see than Venus so my advice is to use Venus as a reference for finding Mercury in your binoculars or telescope. Those, like myself, living in the north of Scotland might need to wait a little longer after sunset to see the planets (due to pervading daylight). This makes it more of a challenge as both planets will be closer to the horizon by then.
Moreover, as both planets will only be around 10 degrees above the horizon at conjunction you’ll need to get away from tall trees or buildings that might obscure your view NW. Hopefully those pesky clouds stay away too.
This is how low Mercury grazes the horizon at the moment. A superb shot of Venus and Mercury from Will Cheung this evening.
If you want to sight Mercury for yourself the best chance is right now in the early evenings just after sunset. Using Venus as a guide, scan the low horizon with binoculars or naked eye. An unobstructed horizon like the one in the picture above is essential.