The Christmas Star

 
Last night was the “grand conjunction” of planets Jupiter and Saturn. The two planets were just .1 degree apart in the sky just after twilight. This is the closest conjunction of these planets since March 5, 1226. The most significant grand conjunction occurred in 7 B.C., and another in 3 B.C. , thus scientific support for the reference to this as a “Christmas Star.”

As twilight fades, stars of the night sky begin to appear, drawing attention to the magnitude of the brightness of these two planets in conjunction.

A pastor friend of mine offered the following information regarding the connection of this conjunction to Christmas:
“The last time a “grand conjunction” between Jupiter and Saturn occurred was 1226 A.D. Previous to that was 7 B.C., which was followed up by a very similar conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in 3 B.C. Johannes Kepler, a major figure from the scientific revolution which began in the 17th century, the scientist who first correctly explained the motion of the planets, referred to this as a “triple conjunction” because of the alignment of Jupiter, Saturn and the sun. He pointed out that this triple conjunction occurred three separate times in 7 B.C., a view confirmed by modern science. For dedicated, serious ancient stargazers like the Magi, this might have been just enough for them to saddle up their horses – or their camels – and take the long, long ride to Israel to check it out.”

The magnified conjunction, showing Jupiter and its four largest, most visible moons on the left, and Saturn to the right.

Gemenids

This year’s Gemenid Meteor Shower did not disappoint. Featuring a projected 103 meteors per hour, there were a few really spectacularly long, bright streaks across the Milky Way. Unfortunately, I was not able to capture those because of timing or camera orientation, but here are a few that did come across my lens on a chilly but clear midnight vigil:

Look carefully to find 6 meteors

As Neil deGrasse Tyson used to say on his nightly PBS show, “Keep looking up.”

The Perseid Meteor Shower

The Perseid meteor shower peaks in the early-morning hours. This is the finest meteor shower of the year for northern stargazers, with 40-60 meteors per hour visible at the peak in the hours before dawn on August 13. Once called the Tears of St. Lawrence, this meteor shower occurs as the Earth moves through a stream of debris left by Comet Swift-Tuttle.

This first image, captured about 2:00 a.m. on the morning of August 12, features the Milky Way and Jupiter setting just to the south of Santiago Peak, with three visible meteors, captured on a Canon 5D MkII with a 14mm lens, ISO 3200, 20 seconds @ f/2.8.

This year, the Moon is at third-quarter, not ideal for seeing the faintest meteors, but get started watching before midnight, away from city lights, and you will be rewarded with a bright meteor every few minutes or so.

Three metors above Santiago Peak, looking southwest about 2:30 a.m. Camera Canon 5D MkII, ISO 3200, 20 seconds @ f/2.8, 14mm lens.

The Perseids are also a long-lasting show, running from July 17 through August 25. So if you miss the peak, you still have a good chance to see some meteors.

Moon beginning to rise in the east, causing the Milky Way to face slightly and illuminate Santiago Peak and the Santiago Mountains with three meteors visible.
The light on the horizon, as well as on the mountains is not from sunrise, nor from sunset, but from moonrise, even though the moon is in its third quarter. Imagine the brightness if it had been a full moon. These images were from a Canon 6D, 14mm lens, ISO 3200, 20 seconds @ f/2.8.

So far this month, August 2020, we’ve been treated to Comet Neowise, Perseid meteor shower, and a bright planetary show of Jupiter, Saturn and Venus. In these times, there are still lots of reasons to be thankful for the world, and universe, around us.

August in the Desert

At summer’s midpoint, it seems appropriate to post a couple of images representative of the environment of the Big Bend region of Texas at this time of year.

First, an iconic critter with a badly maligned nickname of “horny toad.” Another name for his animal, taken from the 1887 yearbook of Texas Christian University and later adopted as the athletic mascot, “Hornfrogs” has stuck as another piece of misinformation. This wonderful little critter is neither a toad nor a frog, but is in fact a lizard, known officially as the Texas Horned Lizard, or (Phrynosoma cornutum).

The Texas Horned Lizard is listed as a threatened species in Texas, and its numbers were declining so fast in Oklahoma that the legislature tried unsuccessfully to have it listed as an endangered species. When threatened, it freezes perfectly still and does an amazing job of blending into its surroundings. Like all lizards, it’s a welcome addition to our yard, due to its ability to gobble up insects at an amazing rate. The biggest problem is that it tends to freeze motionless and blend into its surroundings, and is therefore difficult to see and avoid when walking around its territory.

Another summer icon of the desert is the rising full moon over Tabletop Mountain east of Marathon.

In addition to the full moon, late July and early August is a fantastic period of summer for stargazing. We were visited by the comet Neowise for several weeks, and one of the best meteor showers of the year is beginning now and increasing to its peak in the early morning hours of August 12-13. Also, Jupiter and Saturn are putting on a great show in the southeast, and the Milky Way is reaching its peak show for the summer during August and September. So, get outside after dark and KEEP LOOKING UP!

Comet Neowise Has Returned

After making its debut in the morning sky, as noted in my previous post, Comet Neowise disappeared for a couple of days, only to reappear in the evening sky, now in the northwest, if you’re in the northern hemisphere. Here are a few images taken Saturday night around 10:30, looking northwest from Marathon, TX, over the Glass Mountains.

Neowise will be with us through the end of the month, moving a little farther west each evening. Go outside and look just above the horizon. It’s the best show since Comet Hale-Bopp in 1995.