Category Archives: Space

Venus and Jupiter Conjunction: Three Views

Venus and Jupiter Conjunction June 30, 2015

On June 30, 2015, Venus and Jupiter lined up very closely in the night sky as seen from Earth, just 0.3 degrees apart — closer than the diameter of the full moon!

The day of the conjunction was muggy and cloudy, and I really didn’t expect to see them at all. To my surprise and relief, it cleared up and cooled off after nightfall.

You really don’t notice how much brighter Venus is than Jupiter until they’re right next to each other. Jupiter is much bigger, so it reflects a lot more sunlight, but it’s also a lot farther away.

Also, that conventional wisdom about how stars twinkle, but planets don’t? Not true. In turbulent air, planets absolutely twinkle.

Venus and Jupiter two days after the conjunction

Two nights later on July 2, I walked outside facing west. The sky near the horizon was still orange, but the two brightest planets were clearly visible against the deepening blue.

And just to show you how fast Venus moves across the sky, here’s the view 10 days before the conjunction, on June 20:

The moon, Venus and Jupiter over Mimi's Cafe

I didn’t have a tripod handy that night, so I used the top of the car, which conveniently lined up with Jupiter and the chimney.

Working Around a Solar Eclipse (Oct 2014)

I literally found out yesterday about today’s partial solar eclipse. Unlike the last one visible from Southern California in 2012, which was conveniently on a weekend, this ended up being right in the middle of the work day. Add in a lot of other stuff going on, and I didn’t have time to do anything like go out to a prime viewing spot or make a giant pinhole camera.

My original plan was to take a late lunch, see what I could see, then try to head back outside at the point of greatest eclipse. I sat on a bench in the courtyard, surrounded by trees, checking a tiny pinhole camera I’d made from a tea box at the last minute and also looking for a good spot with images projected through the tree leaves.

After about half an hour I started to wonder why I wasn’t seeing any signs of eclipse, and looked up the times again. Apparently the calculator I used didn’t account for daylight saving time. The good thing about that: I was early, not late. The bad thing: Greatest eclipse was actually going to be during/shortly after a production switchover at work that I needed to be on hand for.

So I headed back outside around 2:50 to look at the clusters of eclipsed suns projected by the leaves in the shady courtyard.

Solar eclipse projected through tree leaves.

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Lunar Eclipse = Front-Yard Astronomy (Photos)

One of the nice things about a lunar eclipse is how accessible it is. You don’t need binoculars or a telescope (though it helps). You don’t need protective gear. You can see it from a city street with lights on. You don’t need to be in exactly the right spot to see it, since the viewing area is measured in multiple continents rather than a narrow track. And since it lasts longer than a solar eclipse, if the clouds roll in moments before totality (which they did), you can wait a few minutes and you might still be able to see something!

The last time a lunar eclipse was visible in our area, I woke up at ridiculous-o’clock in the morning and went out to watch, first across the street, then trying to find a clear view in the west before sunrise and moonset drowned everything out.

This time I just walked out into the front yard.

Lunar eclipse mosaic
Four stages of the eclipse. I’m not sure what the star next to the moon is. As Sam points out, the star is Spica. The phone line bisecting the second view looked interesting, so I went with that rather than an unobstructed shot. In retrospect, I should have tried to frame it to look like the Death Star trench.

My son is almost 3 1/2 now, just old enough to appreciate this sort of thing, so I spent the last few days talking it up. We went out to look at the full moon early in the evening. We read a kids’ book on stargazing that he likes. I showed him pictures of what to expect, and diagrams showing how an eclipse happens. He’s been wanting to play with a tent ever since I mentioned the phrase “camping stuff” a few days ago, so we found the tent in the garage and set it up in the front yard. He had as much fun playing in the tent as he did watching the earth’s shadow move across the moon.

Katie stayed inside most of the time and came out a few times to check on progress.

At one point, an airplane flew across the sky leaving a sharp, bright contrail just next to Mars.

Moon Mars Power Lines and Contrail

We were all out just before totality around midnight…when a cloud started forming right in front of the moon. Mars, not too far away in the sky, was perfectly clear, but the moon got blurrier, and blurrier, until the razor-sharp sliver of a few minutes before was a blob of white. It reminded me of the time we saw about that much of an eclipse in San Simeon on the way up to (coincidentally) WonderCon when it was in San Francisco.

Fortunately the cloud started breaking up again after a few minutes, and all we had to do was hold up our hands to block the streetlight across the street and we had a clear view of the fully eclipsed moon. (We could see it without blocking the light, but it was a lot clearer without the competition.)

I should probably mention that while the pictures here look red, it looked brown to the naked eye. Maybe it was because the streetlight kept our eyes from adapting to the dark. Maybe the camera is more sensitive to red light. Katie remarked that without the sunlight shining on it, it really does look like what it is: a big ball of rock.

Eclipse Lineup

After a few minutes we went back inside. Neither of us wanted to stay up until two to watch the same thing in reverse…or manage an increasingly tired and distracted three-year-old while doing so.

Gray Moon Rising

A few nights ago I watched the moon rise. This isn’t actually very common, just because hills and buildings mean that I rarely get a clear view of the horizon, but I had been working late and drove past LAX, which gave me a long flat stretch off to the east.

The weird thing is: it was gray.

I’m used to the moon looking white when it’s up high in the sky, yellow when it’s low, sometimes orange when it’s near the horizon, especially when there’s smoke or smog. A few months ago while the Colby Fire raged in the mountains to the northeast, I reached the top of a hill and had a fantastic view of a deep red moon through the smoke.

But gray? That was a surprise. It looked just like photos of the moon that are taken at the right exposure level to show you details instead of washing everything out. Squished a bit, of course, because it was so low.

As I kept driving, I passed more buildings and lost sight of it. A few minutes later, I caught another glimpse after it had climbed a little higher, and it looked slightly yellowish, just like I’d expect it to at that height.

I don’t know if it was something about how my eyes had adjusted, or if there was something in the haze above Los Angeles or even just nearby that counteracted the normal effect of scattering.

It did, however, remind me that the next full moon will feature a lunar eclipse, visible from our neck of the woods…the first since my son is old enough to (maybe) appreciate it. That should be fun.

Planetary Triangle

Planetary Triangle

Last night I had a perfect view of the conjunction of Jupiter, Venus and Mercury, but only a phone. Tonight I had a more obstructed view, but I think the power lines ended up making it a bit more interesting than a plain photo with this camera would have been.

It’s also astonishing how quickly Mercury moves. No wonder they named it after the god of speed.