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2024 Messier Marathon

 

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Venus and Mars in Conjunction
February 22, 2024

Venus and Mars would reach conjunction in geocentric right ascension at 11 am EST on February 22, 2024, but their appulse (closest approach) would occur at 4:48 am in the constellation of Capricornus. This snapshot was captured from Marter Ave in Mt Laurel, NJ, about an hour later at 5:51 am, when the two planets had an apparent separation of 0.62. Brighter Venus (magnitude -3.9) is at 2.7 altitude while dimmer Mars (magnitude +1.3) is below-right of Venus at 2.3 altitude. Venus was at an ecliptic latitude of 0.4S and a line from Venus through Mars was essentially perpendicular to the ecliptic, which was oriented from lower left to upper right. Mouseover for labels.

This is from a single raw frame taken with a Canon EOS RP DSLM camera and a Canon 400 mm f/5.6L telephoto lens on a fixed tripod. It was exposed 0.6 second at f/5.6, ISO 3200, auto white balance, then slightly adjusted in Canon's Digital Photo Professional 4 and cropped to 77% of the original dimensions for a field 3.9 wide x 2.6 high. To the unaided eye, Venus was obvious while Mars could only be glimpsed with difficulty (but it was not difficult with 12x50 binoculars).

 

The image below was captured on February 25, 2024, and is shown in the same field size as the image above, showing the relative movement between Venus and Mars.

Venus and Mars at 5:48 am EST on February 25, 2024, also from Marter Ave in Mt Laurel, NJ, and three days after the picture above. Both planets have moved eastward in that time, but Venus more so than Mars such that Mars is about 1.6 to the right of Venus rather than below it. At the time, Venus was about 2.3 altitude and Mars 2.6 altitude. Mouseover for labels.

This is from a single raw frame taken with a Canon EOS RP DSLM camera and a Canon 400 mm f/5.6L telephoto lens on a fixed tripod. It was exposed 1/6 second at f/5.6, ISO 3200, auto white balance, then slightly adjusted in Canon's Digital Photo Professional 4 and cropped to 77% of the original dimensions for a field 3.9 wide x 2.6 high (the same field size as the previous picture). To the unaided eye, Venus was not difficult to see while Mars was not seen against the background twilight.

 

 

Morning Twilight at Thompson's Beach, New Jersey
February 8, 2024

On the morning of February 8, 2024, the planet Venus was low in the southeast, at 4.7 altitude over the vast marsh along the north shore of the Delaware Bay at Thompson's Beach, NJ, when this snapshot was taken at 5:56 am EST. It was captured as a single raw frame with a Canon EOS RP DSLM camera and a Canon 100 mm f/2.8L macro lens on a fixed tripod. It was exposed 1 second at f/4.0, ISO 3200, then mildly adjusted in Canon's Digital Photo Professional 4. It's uncropped for a field 20.4 wide x 13.7 high. Mouseover for labels.

Brilliant Venus (magnitude -4.0) was initially spotted at 5:30 am with 12x50 binoculars when it was at 0.7 altitude (note the reflection off the water). The sky along the eastern horizon was somewhat murky as seen in these photos. Mars was spotted at 6:04 am with 12x50 binoculars when it was at 1.5 altitude, 6 below-left of Venus, but it was faint at magnitude +1.3 against the brightening twilight (astronomical twilight started at 5:28 am and sunrise would be at 6:59 am). Initially, I did not think I captured Mars in any of the many frames taken, but on February 11, I finally found one where it showed reasonably well. The crescent Moon was sighted at 6:32 am with the 12x50s (see photo farther down), but magnitude -0.5 Mercury, about 7 left of the Moon, was never located with the 12x50s in the even-brighter twilight. I didn't have the opportunity to put the 88 mm scope back on the tripod for a better search. Besides ever-increasing twilight, I had to make a prompt exit around 6:45 am as the rising spring tide was flooding the small parking lot.

After I arrived about 4:15 am, 28F, and before the start of twilight, the first object observed was Omega Centauri with 12x50 binoculars at 4:21 am. I had already seen it on January 22, but I wanted to catch it during the week of the Winter Star Party (in Florida). Next I spotted comets 62P/Tsuchinshan in Virgo at 4:24 am with the 88 mm scope at 25x then the 12x50s, and C/2021 S3 (PANSTARRS) in Ophiuchus with the 88 mm at 60x (it was very faint). Near 62P and also in Virgo, I was able to detect the core of the host galaxy NGC 4216 with the 88 mm at 4:34 am (it looked like a fuzzy star), and at 60x with averted vision, I may have glimpsed supernova 2024gy, but it  was quite uncertain. The SN was certainly dimmer than my last observation on January 22, also from Thompson's Beach. Estimates at AAVSO have faded somewhat since then, from the peak about magnitude 12.8 to the mid 13's. Slow moving clouds finally moved enough that I was able to spot comet 12P/Pons-Brooks in Cygnus at 5:23 am with the 88 mm, then with the 12x50s.

The previous evening, February 7, I went to Wharton State Forest after sunset (5:25 pm, astronomical twilight ended at 6:56 pm). I was able to spot 12P at 6:28 pm with the 88 mm scope, then afterwards saw it with the 12x50s. With the 88 mm at 60x, I noticed a faint, vague haze extending towards a pair of eighth magnitude field stars, which matched the tail direction line on my SkyTools chart. At 6:40 pm, I spotted the asteroid/minor planet (4) Vesta between the horns of Taurus. Then at 6:53 pm, I located comet 144P/Kushida with the 88 mm at 60x, near the close pair of stars Theta 1 & 2 Tauri in the Hyades star cluster. 144P was rather faint, and when I first compared it to my SkyTools chart, it appeared to be in the wrong place, so I figured I didn't really see it. However, looking at the chart again, I realized I was looking at the comet symbol backwards at first, and once that was recitfied, 144P's position was spot on.

So, overnight February 7-8, 2024, I saw four (4) different comets, and one of them, 12P/Pons-Brooks, twice once before setting in the evening and then again after rising the next morning (so, 4 comets?). At about +38 declination, 12P was within 12 of the +50 declination threshold for being circumpolar at our nominal 40N latitude.

 

Venus had risen to 6.7 altitude at 6:09 am EST on February 8, 2024, when this snapshot was taken with Canon EOS RP DSLM camera and a Canon 100 mm f/2.8L macro lens on a fixed tripod. This image is from a single raw frame exposed 1/6 second at f/5.6, ISO 3200, then mildly adjusted in Canon's Digital Photo Professional 4. It is uncropped for a field 20.4 wide x 13.7 high. Mouseover for a label.

Usually in the morning before sunrise, the clouds along the horizon are dark, like the the one well below Venus, since they would be backlit. The white cloud must have been front lighted by the sun, and to be so, it must have been quite high in the atmosphere and/or very distant. It's reminiscent of a noctilucent cloud, but unlikely to be one since such clouds are rare at our latitude, let alone at this time of the year and looking southeast.

 

The thin crescent Moon, 3.3% illuminated, and some distant birds in flight, were captured at 6:38 am EST on February 8, 2024. This snappshot is from a single raw frame taken with Canon EOS RP DSLM camera and a Canon 400 mm f/5.6L telephoto lens on a fixed tripod. It was exposed 1/500 second at f/5.6, ISO 3200, then mildly adjusted in Canon's Digital Photo Professional 4. It was cropped to 77% of the width x 87% of the height for a field 4.0 wide x 3.0 high. Mouseover for labels. Here's a deeper crop, 32% of the original size for a field 1.65 wide x 1.10 high, to better show the diaphanous crescent, plus some birds (that crop would be the equivalent of a 1,250 mm focal length on the "full-frame" sensor of the RP).

The Moon rose at 6:26 am, and when the picture was taken 12 minutes later (after finding it with 12x50 binoculars), it was at 1.4 altitude, 127 azimuth and 35 hr 21 min before it would reach new phase at 5:59 pm on February 9. The Moon's solar elongation was 14, but because of the shallow angle of the ecliptic with respect to the horizon, about 33, and the 5.8S ecliptic latitude, much of the Moon's displacement from the Sun was horizontal rather than vertical, hence the low altitude in strong twilight. This resulted in a faint, low contrast crescent against the brightening background twilight, both in the picture and in the binocular view.

 

 

Supernova 2024gy on a Snowy Morning
January 20, 2024

We had a snowfall of about 4 inches during the day on January 19, 2024. After it stropped snowing and the sky cleared that evening, I wanted to follow-up on Supernova 2024gy in the galaxy NGC 4216 (Virgo) that I had tenuously observed on the morning of January 17 with my 88 mm (3.5 inch) spotting scope. The waxing gibbous Moon would set about 3 am on January 20, so I headed to Wharton State Forest with my 115 mm (4.5 inch) spotting scope for another look. At 3:30 am EST, I located NGC 4216 and I could make out a very faint elliptical shape (vs. just the core with the 88 mm scope) and unambiguously saw the SN with averted vision south of the core. I was even able to glimpse the SN with direct vision. Visual estimates at AAVSO were around magnitude 12.8. Bob King discussed this relatively bright supernova in his Sky & Telescope online article.

This picture was taken afterwards, at 3:52 am on January 20, 2024, with a handheld iPhone 11 through the windshield of my Toyota RAV4 heading down the Batona Trail towards the field in the forest. The 4WD negotiated the snowy ground as if there wasn't any snow, even without the snow setting. The view of the snow-festooned trees bracketing the back roads was spectacular, and occasional gusts of wind generated brief blizzards. While observing, the temperature was 19F.

Update: On January 22, 2024, I went to Thompson's Beach on the north shore of the Delaware Bay in Cumberland County, NJ. Looking at the dark sky over the bay, Using averted vision, I was confident that I saw SN 2024gy, and a wisp of the elliptical shape of galaxy NGC 4216, with my 88 mm spotting scope at 60x. I was also able to see comet 62P/Tsuchinshan with 15x56 binoculars and the 88 mm scope. With a clear sky all the way down to the sea-like marsh horizon, I was also able to easily see the great globular cluster, Omega Centauri, which only reaches 3.5 altitude from there. Finally, the planets Venus, Mercury and Mars were each picked up at less than half a degree altitude in the southeast; Venus with unaided eyes, Mercury and Mars with the 88 mm scope at 25x. Several other deep-sky objects were casually spotted with the 15x56s, e.g., M4, M80, M10, M12, M104, M66 and possibly M65.

 

 

Mercury, Venus and the Crescent Moon
January 8, 2024

The waning crescent Moon joined Venus and Mercury on the morning of January 8, 2024, when this snapshot of them was captured from Bishops Gate in Mt Laurel, NJ. This is a single frame taken at 6:33 am EST, with a handheld iPhone 11 resting on my spotting scope mount, 48 minutes before sunrise at 7:21 am. For reference, Venus is about 17 altitude at 137 azimuth (southeast).  It was automatically exposed 1/5 second at f/1.8, ISO 500. Except for cropping and some mild brightness enhancement of Mercury and the dimmer stars, it's unprocessed. Mouseover for labels.

Mars was spotted at 6:36 am with an 88 mm spotting scope near the treetops, three minutes after the picture was taken (my first sighting of it for this apparition; it was last seen on the evening of October 15, 2023). Earlier, at nearby Marter Ave, a lunar occultation of Alniyat (Sigma Sco) was observed with the 88 mm scope. Ingress was seen at 5:01 am and an abrupt egress at 5:36 am (at 2.6 and 7.5 altitude respectively). Later that day at the Barnegat Rd Observing Site in the NJ Pines, I saw the planets Saturn, Neptune, Jupiter and Uranus (from west to east) with 15x56 binoculars, all but Neptune with unaided eyes and all but Saturn with a 12.5 inch Dob. So, all seven planets (eight including the earth) were seen on a single calendar day, January 8, 2024. In addition, the asteroid/minor planet (4) Vesta and comet 144P/Kushida were seen.

 

 

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Last Update: Wednesday, February 28, 2024 at 05:38 PM Eastern Time