Conjunction of Mars and Uranus

The planets Mars and Uranus will at their closest in the evening sky on 20 January 2021. Unfortunately, the Moon will also be very close to these two planets which could make it difficult to see Uranus. Mars, however, is bright enough to be easily viewed even with the Moon. Currently, Mars has a magnitude of 0.16 while Uranus is considerably dimmer at magnitude 5.76 — making Mars ~175 times brighter than Uranus.

Mars and Uranus in the evening sky
Mars and Uranus in the evening sky

I chose to shoot the two planets a few days early to avoid any issues with the Moon and clouds from an approaching winter storm. Besides, the appearance a few days either side of the date of conjunction would not look too much different.

 

Winter Sunrise on the San Francisco Peaks

A weak winter storm brought small amounts of snow to northern Arizona earlier this week. Storms have been rare this autumn and winter so I was motivated to shoot some sunrise photographs.

Early morning sunlight illuminates new fallen snow on the San Franciso Peaks.
Early morning sunlight illuminates new fallen snow on the San Franciso Peaks.

A look at satellite imagery early in the morning showed that clouds were still plentiful across a lot of the area except that there was a broad clearing to the east. This meant that the sun had a chance to shine on the peaks as it was rising.

And it did. For about eight minutes the sun illuminated the peaks and new snow. And then, as it rose higher, it was obscured by clouds and the morning light disappeared.

 

It was brief. It was cold (-9C, 16F). It was worth it.

The Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn

Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (21 December 2020)
Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (21 December 2020)

On 21 December 2020, Jupiter and Saturn passed a tenth of a degree from each other in what is known as a Great Conjunction. Great Conjunctions are not rare and occur every 20 years. But the apparent separation between the two planets varies with each event and this one was the third closest in over 800 years (1226 and 1623 were closer) but only one of these was visible; the other was lost in the bright glare of twilight.

Great Conjunction with labels of Jupiter and Saturn (21 December 2020)
Great Conjunction with labels of Jupiter and Saturn (21 December 2020)

The images shown here used a 300mm telephoto lens—which is barely sufficient to resolve the rings of Saturn. The rings can be seen as making Saturn appear oval shaped.

The first image is from 1803 MST on 21 December 2020, just a few hours after closest approach. The second image has labels for the brightest moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Below is an image showing the daily movement of Jupiter relative to Saturn. It is also easy to see the motions of Jupiter’s four largest moons as they appear in different locations for each of the three Jupiter positions.

Three-day sequence of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.
Three-day sequence of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.

Finally, NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day has a very nice image of the two planets. Telescope required.

Using Satellite Data to Anticipate a Great Sunset

This sunset from a few weeks ago was pretty spectacular. Drivers were pulling off the highway into the overlook area to get photographs. I overheard one person claiming this was a one-in-a-million sunset. That was probably an overstatement of several magnitudes. More likely, this was a one-in-a-hundred event, meaning you could see a sunset this great a few times a year.

Sunset viewed from Mormon Lake.
Sunset viewed from Mormon Lake.
Sunset details.
Sunset details.

I had been looking at satellite data that afternoon and saw a nice streak of high cirrus clouds moving across northern Arizona. The orientation of the clouds suggested that the sun might briefly appear below the clouds and illuminate the bottoms around and shortly after sunset.

Satellite image showing streak of cirrus clouds moving across northern Arizona.
Satellite image showing streak of cirrus clouds moving across northern Arizona.

So I headed out to Mormon Lake Overlook where there is a good view of the western sky and waited.

It worked out pretty well.

Coyote Buttes and The Wave

My first and only visit to Coyote Buttes and The Wave was in June 2004. A coworker had permits for two back-to-back days but was unable to use them. The BLM permit system was quite different then from what it is now. Getting multiple-day permits was not unusual. Nowadays, getting a permit at all requires a fair bit of luck and perseverance.  I consider myself fortunate to have had a chance to visit this amazing location.

Coyote Buttes North.
Coyote Buttes North.

We arrived at the trailhead in mid-day with temperatures, as I recall, in the upper ’90s. It was mid-June and the North American Monsoon and rainy season had not started. Even so, there were clouds and a few rain showers in the area.

Pools of water near Coyote Buttes.
Pools of water near Coyote Buttes.
Narrow passageways at Coyote Buttes.
Narrow passageways at Coyote Buttes.
Textured landforms at Coyote Buttes.
Textured landforms at Coyote Buttes.

We hiked out to the rocks and made good time arriving in the late afternoon. There were a few other visitors but they left after a short time and we had the place to ourselves for the next several hours. Really—there was no one else there. Hard to believe!

Drifted sand at Coyote Buttes.
Drifted sand at Coyote Buttes.
Clouds and showers develop around Coyote Buttes.
Clouds and showers develop around Coyote Buttes.

We wandered around for hours taking photographs and picnicking and enjoying the solitude. For a few brief moments, one of the rain showers produced a rainbow but I was too slow to move the camera gear and get the shot.

Clouds drift away and the sun returns in late afternoon at Coyote Buttes.
Clouds drift away and the sun returns in late afternoon at Coyote Buttes.
Afternoon sun makes shadows on the walls.
Afternoon sun makes shadows on the walls.
Surfing The Wave.
Surfing The Wave.

As the sun dropped in the west and temperatures began to cool we finally left and began the hike back to the car. Somewhere along the way we realized we were on a different trail—or perhaps no trail at all—but our starting point was still obvious and we continued on.

Flower petals in sand.
Flower petals in sand.
Late afternoon light illuminates the rocks on our hike out of Coyote Buttes.
Late afternoon light illuminates the rocks on our hike out of Coyote Buttes.
The old sign showing trails to Coyote Buttes and Buckskin Gulch.
The old sign showing trails to Coyote Buttes and Buckskin Gulch.

The next morning we decided we did not want or need to hike out there again so we did not use our 2nd day permit. Instead, we travelled down Buckskin Gulch—a place we had heard about but not yet had a chance to explore. It was a great hike and we did not regret our choice.

Here are photographs (shot on Fuji Provia slide film and recently scanned) from the afternoon that we spent at Coyote Buttes and The Wave.