Four Planets and the Moon

This week the waning moon joined four planets in the eastern sky. Lowest to the horizon was Mercury with Saturn just above. The moon was located well above that pair. And high in the sky were Mars and Jupiter.

Earlier this month on 07 January 2018, Mars and Jupiter were in conjunction. The pair was only 0.25 degrees apart in the sky at its closest. By comparison, the full moon is approximately 0.50 degrees. And, then, on 13 January 2018, Mercury and Saturn were in conjunction—but not quite as close as the Mars-Jupiter conjunction.

On the 14th and 15th, the Moon was just above and just below the pair of Mercury and Saturn.

The waning crescent moon (~5% illuminated) sits above the planetary pair of Mercury and Saturn.
The waning crescent moon (~5% illuminated) sits above the planetary pair of Mercury and Saturn.
A wider view shows all four planets (Mercury and Saturn low; Mars and Jupiter high) plus the moon.
A wider view shows all four planets (Mercury and Saturn low; Mars and Jupiter high) plus the moon.

I had planned to photograph on both days but clouds intervened. All I got was this thin crescent Moon (~2% illuminated) that was visible for only a few minutes before it was obscured by clouds.

A thin crescent moon is visible for just a moment after moonrise.
A thin crescent moon is visible for just a moment after moonrise.

Coming up: at the end of the month there will be a total lunar eclipse that will be visible in the pre-dawn hours of the western states. I hope the skies are clear.

 

 

And, finally, we have some weather

It has been a very dry autumn and early winter around these parts—but that finally changed as a winter storm moved across the area yesterday and today. On Tuesday afternoon clouds began to increase across the area and there was a cap cloud draped across the San Francisco Peaks.

Clouds cover the San Francisco Peaks as a winter storm approaches Arizona.
Clouds cover the San Francisco Peaks as a winter storm approaches Arizona.

Most, but not all, of Arizona received precipitation including Flagstaff. We have been without any significant precipitation since September 27 when 0.07″ of rain fell. Since then, we’ve had 0.01″ on November 17 and a Trace on December 21. That’s it. It’s been the driest period on record and the second latest first snowfall of the season. And it’s been warm.

Water vapor satellite image of the winter storm approaching Arizona.
Water vapor satellite image of the winter storm approaching Arizona.

Rain began to fall around 7:30 P.M. Tuesday evening then switched to snow around 10:15 P.M. as the cold front moved across the area. Prior to frontal passage we had several rounds of thunderstorms. At least one of these thunderstorms exhibited extreme right-mover characteristics as well as some weak rotation suggesting it may have been a supercell.  With this winter storm Flagstaff received ~5″ of snow and 1.19″ of total water.

Location of lightning strikes as the cold front advanced across Arizona.
Location of lightning strikes as the cold front advanced across Arizona.

Although it was still mostly cloudy this morning, there was a gap in the clouds along the eastern horizon allowing sunshine to briefly illuminate the peaks shortly after sunrise.

San Francisco Peaks wrapped in early morning clouds.
San Francisco Peaks wrapped in early morning clouds.
Mormon Mountain and Mormon Lake at sunrise.
Mormon Mountain and Mormon Lake at sunrise.

The San Francisco Peaks are almost completely wrapped in clouds with only the summits visible. A few minutes later, the sun had risen high enough that it was above the clear gap and everything turned gray again.

This will be a short-lived episode as the forecast indicates a quick return to warm and dry conditions across the southwest.

Geminid meteor shower

The Geminid meteor shower peaked on the evening of 13 December and skies were incredibly clear all that day. Just as darkness was arriving, clouds were starting to approach from the north. Would I be able to get some photos of a few meteors in the early evening before the clouds arrived?

The clouds moved in about 45 minutes after I started shooting and remained through most of the evening. If I had been located a bit farther to the west or south, clouds might not have been a problem, as can be seen in this Infra-red satellite image.

Infrared satellite image from GOES-West at 0600 UTC (11 P.M. MST).
Infrared satellite image from GOES-West at 0600 UTC (11 P.M. MST).

Now, that’s just bad luck on my part.

I pointed the camera at the radiant and used my iOptron Skytracker to keep the camera pointed at the radiant as it rose higher in the sky during the evening. I was then able to combine several images showing a handful of meteors originating from the constellation Gemini.

The brilliant meteor in the upper right corner occurred while the sky was partly cloudy and, as a result, the beginning of the track was obscured by clouds. I didn’t see this bright flash as I was looking in another direction but it was so brilliant that it lit up the sky and landscape for a second or two.

Composite image showing several Geminid meteors.
Composite image showing several Geminid meteors.

The small number of meteors captured by the camera doesn’t tell the whole story. There were many more—some brilliant and many long-tracked—that streaked across the sky that evening. We had a wonderful time looking up at the sky.

Jupiter and Venus Conjunction—and the Moon

Earlier this week (13 November 2017) there was an opportunity to view a conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter in the pre-dawn sky. Venus is the brightest planet in the sky while Jupiter is the second brightest (and, of course, the largest). Pairings of these two planets in either the morning or evening sky are always an amazing sight. At closest approach, the distance separating the two planets was less than the diameter of the full moon. Jupiter was rising a bit higher each morning while Venus was dropping closer to the horizon.

Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in the morning sky.
Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in the morning sky.

For three mornings I shot photos of the morning sky. I then took the images from each day and created a layered image. Next, I shifted each image up/down, left/right until the planet Jupiter lined up. The result was that the composite contains a single image of Jupiter along with three images of Venus. This makes it easy to see how the two planets were shifting relative to each other over the course of three days.

Moon, Jupiter, and Venus in the morning sky.
Moon, Jupiter, and Venus in the morning sky.

But the show wasn’t over, yet. The waning moon was dropping lower in the sky each morning and on 16 November was located just above the pair of planets. About 4% of the moon is directly illuminated by the sun; the remainder is illuminated by Earthshine.

The photos were taken from Mars Hill where Lowell Observatory is located and look over the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, the worlds first International Dark Sky City.

Other planetary conjunctions of Venus and Jupiter have appeared on these pages before (26 May 2013; 18 August 2014).

Autumn hiking in Oak Creek Canyon

It’s been a relatively warm and very dry autumn so far across northern Arizona. For example, Flagstaff recorded 0.42″ of rain for the months of September and October combined—normal is closer to 4 inches (4.04″). This combination of warm and dry might be responsible for the less-than-stellar autumn colors in the aspens and other trees. Or, perhaps it was actually pretty colorful and I just happened to go out at the wrong times. Either way, it’s been a bit of a challenge for me this year to get the high-impact, really colorful photographs.

A previous post highlighted some of the photographs of aspens taken across the higher elevations and also provides some comparison with previous years.

More recently, I’ve been shooting images in Oak Creek where there are plenty of maple, oak, sycamore, and other types of trees to provide a nice mix of colors.

Maple leaves in Oak Creek Canyon.
Maple leaves in Oak Creek Canyon.

While wandering around looking for autumn colors, we saw this. I’ve walked by this rock face in Oak Creek Canyon several times and never noticed the name etched in the rock.

[Dr. B. Frankson Rugby, N.D.]
[Dr. B. Frankson Rugby, N.D.]
We also found ourselves hiking up the North Wilson Trail in Oak Creek Canyon with hopes for some maples. Those we did find were not particularly photogenic because they were surrounded by dead/burnt trees—courtesy of the Brins Mesa wildfire of 2006. On the other hand, I enjoyed this view from the Wilson Bench near the intersection of North Wilson and Wilson Mtn. Trails.

A view of Sedona from Wilson Bench.
A view of Sedona from Wilson Bench.

On our descent I enjoyed the quickly shifting patterns of light and shadow on the opposite side of Oak Creek Canyon. Perched high up on the canyon walls is the area known to rock climbers as “The Waterfall.” Visitors to Oak Creek Canyon during the spring snowmelt season have often looked up from the road to see water cascading down this rock face. They may not have known that it is also a world-class rock climbing site.

"The Waterfall" rock climbing area in Oak Creek Canyon.
“The Waterfall” rock climbing area in Oak Creek Canyon.

As we descended the North Wilson Trail I was able to see that some of the best color was—where else—along Oak Creek and in the parking lot from which we had started. We still had some time so down to the creek we went. The light was very soft with no hard shadows or bright spots and autumn colors were nicely reflected in the waters.

Oak Creek.
Oak Creek.
Oak Creek.
Oak Creek.

I’ve always skipped the North Wilson Trail in all the years of hiking around here. Now, I wonder why. It’s a steep trail, for certain, but very interesting views in all directions.