Four Planets in the Morning Sky

For several weeks the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn have been visible in the same portion of the morning sky. These are all bright and easily visible even during twilight hours. Nestled in between these bright planets lies the minor planet Pluto.

Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto.
Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto.
Stellarium star chart showing positions of the planets in the morning sky.
Stellarium star chart showing positions of the planets in the morning sky.

So I thought it would be interesting to photograph Pluto. Pluto is much too faint (currently Mag. 14.3) for me to find with my camera/lens setup. However, Pluto and Mars passed very close to each other (~10 arc minutes, or less than the diameter of the Moon) on 23 March 2020 making it easier to find one based on the location of the other. Clouds forced me to shoot this image a day later on 24 March 2020, when they were farther apart.

Pluto and Mars.
Pluto and Mars.
Pluto.
Pluto.
Stellarium chart showing Pluto and neighboring stars.
Stellarium chart showing Pluto and neighboring stars.

I used Stellarium as a guide to hopping from one star to another—comparing the photographs with Stellarium star charts—until I finally located Pluto. As a magnitude 14.3 object, this was near the limit of what could be resolved with my Nikon 180mm AI-s f/2.8 lens shot wide open.

Images were shot at f/2.8, ISO 1600, and 30s. The best images were stacked to reduce noise. Post processing included large values of Unsharpen Mask to help sharpen the dimmest stars and Pluto—with the undesired side effect of creating halos around the brighter stars.

Check the video to see how much Mars moves in just 15 minutes.

I was able to capture four planets in the morning sky. In the previous post, I was able to capture four planets in the evening sky. It was a challenging project that I wanted to do and have now completed.

Maybe I should get a telescope.

Starlink cluster.
Starlink cluster.

Oh, one final point. Once again I was photo-bombed by a cluster of Starlink satellites. Sadly, the day is coming soon when night photography will be very difficult because of these satellites.

Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter

The planet Venus has been quickly rising higher in the sky each evening so that it approached Jupiter in a planetary conjunction.

Venus and Jupiter in November 2019.
Venus and Jupiter in November 2019.

Here are the planets Jupiter and Venus on the evenings of 22 November, 23 November, and 24 November—the evening of closest approach. In this 3-image composite Jupiter is held fixed and the daily motion of Venus is shown relative to the planet Jupiter.

The next image shows the two planets and their reflections in the waters of Lower Lake Mary.

Venus and Jupiter and their reflections in November 2019.
Venus and Jupiter and their reflections in November 2019.

Here is another example of Venus and Jupiter except this was in the morning twilight and the crescent Moon was also present. And then there was this triple planetary conjunction of Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter in 2013.

Transit of Mercury 2016

On Monday, 09 May 2016, Mercury transited the Sun. The transit or passage of Mercury across the face of the Sun is a relatively rare occurrence and there are approximately 13 transits of Mercury each century. The next transit will be in 2019. If you missed this one, you don’t have to wait too long for the next one. But if you miss that one, you will have to wait until 2032 for another chance.

A typical transit lasts several hours. During a transit, Mercury can be seen as a very small black disk moving across the face of the Sun.

The transit was already in progress as the sun rose across the western states. This meant that I could capture an image of the sun with Mercury in transit and have some interesting foregrounds as a dark silhouette. I had hoped to capture images as the sun moved between the spires of Cathedral Rock but the geometry didn’t quite work out. The location with the best alignment also had obstacles in the way. So, on to a second choice. This option had the sun rising from the southern edge of Cathedral Rock.

The first image shows the rising sun with rocks and trees on Cathedral Rock forming a dark silhouette. Mercury can be seen as a faint dark spot just above the outline of the tree.

Mercury transiting the sun as it rises from behind Cathedral Rock.
Mercury transiting the sun as it rises from behind Cathedral Rock.

The second image is a composite of two images taken ~3 hours apart showing the movement of Mercury across the face of the sun. I took photos for about 15–20 minutes after sun rise then put the equipment away so that we could do a trail run in the area. When we returned, the transit was still in progress and I took a few more images—allowing me to create the composite.

Composite image showing the motion of Mercury.
Composite image showing the motion of Mercury.

These images were taken with a “consumer-type” zoom camera (Panasonic Lumix FZ150) which has a maximum zoom of 600 mm (equivalent) focal length. I used a 10-stop neutral density filter (ND3.0) which blocks ~99.9% of the light allowing a reasonable exposure (ISO 100; f/6.3, 1/2000 s).

Mercury is small. Even with the large (equivalent) focal length, the planet in transit makes only a very small dot in the image. Compare this with Venus, which transited the sun in 2012 and is more easily visible against the disk of the sun.

The next few transits of Mercury are in 2019, 2032, and 2039. The next transit of Venus is in 2117. Yes, 2117! So I’m happy to have seen the Venus transit in 2012 and the Mercury transit in 2016. They are more rare than total eclipses of the sun. The next total eclipse of the sun across North America is 2017.

Milky Way rises above a moonlit Cathedral Rock

The Milky Way rises above Cathedral Rock which is lit by the setting crescent moon. To the right, the triplet of Mars, Saturn, and Antares in the constellation Scorpius stand out as the brightest points of light. In the center of the triangle formed by these three objects lies the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, a nebula of gas and dust that appear in the image as dark bands.

Milky Way and Cathedral Rock.
Milky Way and Cathedral Rock.

This is a composite of two images. The first was taken of Cathedral Rock as the moon was setting in the west. An exposure of 120 seconds at ISO 400 and an aperture of f/4 was used. The second image was taken a short time later after the moon had set allowing the fainter stars in the night sky to appear. This image was 8 minutes at ISO 400 and an aperture of f/4. To prevent streaking of the stars an iOptron Sky Tracker was used. The two images were then blended together.

There will be several more opportunities during the spring and early summer for images like this as the moon sets in the west and the Milky Way rises in the east.

Rho Ophiuchi.
Rho Ophiuchi.

As twilight began in the east and the stars began to fade I switched lenses to a short telephoto to zoom in on Rho Ophiuchi to better show the dark dust present in this nebula. This is a 120-second exposure at f/2.8 and ISO 400 using an 85 mm lens.

A Lunar occultation of the planet Venus

There was an interesting astronomical phenomenon that occurred a few days ago that was worth viewing. On that morning, the crescent moon slowly moved towards and then in front of the planet Venus. This is known as a lunar occultation. For several hours that morning, folks could look up in the sky and quickly spot the crescent moon and then, a moment later, the bright point of light that was Venus.

Venus is bright enough to be seen in the daytime sky but is usually hard to locate. When it is near the moon—as it was on that morning—it becomes much easier.

I took a series of photographs every few minutes as the two celestial bodies drew closer together until, finally, the moon slid in front of Venus. It actually took about 30 seconds for the moon to move completely across the disk of Venus and, as it did so, the bright point of light grew dimmer until it blinked out.

A few hours later, the process reversed itself as the moon moved away and Venus appeared on the other side.

Lunar occulation of Venus.
Lunar occulation of Venus.

While I was taking images, I also had a pair of binoculars set up on a tripod and invited others to look through and view the pair. Most did not know that Venus could be seen in the day. All were amazed at the sight through the binoculars.

The images presented here were taken about 5 minutes before occultation, beginning of occultation, and a few minutes after Venus reappeared.