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2024 Messier Marathon

 

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Fire in the Pines
Wharton State Forest, July 10, 2024

On July 10, 2024, after afternoon clearing at home, I went to Carranza Field in Wharton State Forest, NJ, to look at comet 13P/Olbers in a darker sky. There was a fire in that area that made the news the previous week, closing the nearby Batona Trail and Campground, but I thought it was now history. The main sand road to the field, across from the monument, had no warning/prohibition signs that I could see, but 100 yd farther down Carranza Rd at the Batona trail, I saw some blue barrels at the entrance, so I drove down for a look. The barrels had signs indicating the Batona Trail was closed to Rt 532, but it looked like someone had pushed the barrels out of the way, so I took that route back to the field(this is little more than a skinny, sand two-track, but it has few dips, unlike the main road; here's a picture of it snow-covered in January 2024).

Going down the trail, I saw a small patch of flames just off the side of the trail/road, but when I got to the field itself, there was blue smoke wafting over the western end, and as I rounded the southwest corner, I could see some substantial flames in the trees to the south. There was no firefighting in progress. This snapshot of those flames was taken at 8:40 pm, twelve minutes after sunset, with a handheld iPhone 11. It was exposed 1/30 second at f/1.8, ISO 800. The only processing was a slight adjustment of the color balance.

A warning: With the recent hot, dry weather, and likely truck traffic from firefighters when they were active, the sand road passing the campground became really sugary. My RAV4 groaned a little on the way in with the default 4WD setting, but on the way out, I used the "sand" setting and it passed through with aplomb. I'd be concerned about trying to drive a non-4WD/AWD vehicle through it.

BTW, the astronomical viewing was a bust as clouds had moved in by time it got dark, so 13P was out of the question. I did see a nice crescent Moon early on, and around 9:40 pm, I noticed a bright satellite pass intermittently through cloud openings, moving from the SW to the NE. Back at home, I checked Heavens-Above and it was the ISS as I suspected, peaking at 72 altitude, magnitude -3.6.

 

 

The Crescent Moon & Mercury
Collins Lane Park, July 7, 2024

On July 7, 2024, the 2.1-day-old, 4.6% illuminated Crescent Moon was 2.8 above the planet Mercury at 9:18 pm EDT when this image of them was captured from Collins Lane Park in Maple Shade, NJ. Taken with a Canon RP DSLM camera and a Canon 400 mm, f/5.6L telephoto lens on a fixed tripod. It was automatically exposed 1/25 second at f/5.6 , ISO 12,800 using 4800 K white balance (the directly illuminated crescent is greatly overexposed). The only processing was a little boost in Mercury's brightness, and cropping this portrait orientation to a 3:4 ratio for a field about 3.2 wide x 4.2 high. Mouseover for labels.

 

 

The Young Crescent Moon
Bishops Gate, July 6, 2024

On July 6, 2024, I went to Bishops Gate in Mt Laurel, NJ, to look for the planets Venus & Mercury, comet 13P/Olbers and the young Crescent Moon. New Moon was on July 5 at 6:57 pm EDT, so at sunset on July 6, 8:32 pm, it would be 25 hr 35 min old. Arriving a little late, I spotted Venus just above the distant treetops at 8:44 pm with 12x50 binoculars. One minute later with the 12x50s, I found the sublimely thin lunar crescent 4 above Venus when it was just 25 hr 48 min old and 1.3% illuminated. At 8:56 pm, I spotted Mercury with the 12x50s about 10 from the Moon at the 10 o'clock position. As twilight deepened (but thin clouds were increasing), I found comet 13P/Olbers at 9:37 pm with my 35x115 spotting scope. In the meantime, I checked Corona Borealis with the 12x50s; I could see all the stars that make up the constellation's semi-circular stick figure, but there was no sign of the recurrent nova, T CrB.

This snapshot of the thin crescent was taken at 9:04 pm when the Moon was 26 hr 07 min old and 4.8 altitude, afocally through one eyepiece of the bino viewer on the 35x115 spotter using a handheld iPhone 11. It was exposed 1/30 second at f/1.8, ISO 800. The only processing was cropping and a slight adjustment of the color balance.

 

 

Thompson's Beach
July 1, 2024

On July 1, 2024, I went to the parking lot of the nature observation platform at Thompson's Beach, NJ, on the north shore of the Delaware Bay, about 2 miles east of East Point and the Maurice River Cove. My primary objective was to spot Venus, Mercury and comet 13P/Olbers, and to follow-up on the recurrent nova, T Coronae Borealis. These observations were successful, starting with Venus at 8:29 pm EDT, a minute before sunset. Before that, and continuing during twilight, I used my Swarovski 115 mm (4.5 inch) spotting scope with the 35x binocular eyepiece module to observe the Osprey over the marsh on the west side of the parking lot. Ten adults (five pairs) were seen, including a pair at the nest in the picture above (plus a chick in the nest) about 100 yd away. They were a splendid view in the scope. The birds are evidently accustomed to nearby humans as I could periodically see the adults closing they eyelids to take a nap. I discovered they (the adult and the chick) defecate the same as the Bald Eagles (adult and fledgling) back home in their nest on the cell phone tower at the Pennsauken Country Club (link at the top of the page).

This snapshot of the scene, looking west-southwest, was taken at 8:30 pm with a handheld iPhone 11. The scope's objective is to the right, with the sliding lens hood extended, The ribbed section near the middle is the focuser (it focuses like a typical telephoto camera lens). The 35x binocular eyepiece module is at the left end. I also have a 30 to 70x zoom eyepiece module (they attach via a bayonet mount) . The top of the this module includes a forehead rest and a short aiming tube (which I don't often use, especially after dark). Dangling below is the lens cover (mouseover for a view from the rear). The scope is mounted on a Foto-Pro gimbal head, the vertical arm of which can be tilted for better access to high elevations. As shown, it's at the 45 setting, so I can tilt the scope enough to observe the zenith. The mount sits on a heavy-duty Benro carbon fiber tripod.

 

 

The Moon and a pair of Moon Dogs
Bishops Gate, June 20, 2024

On June 20, 2024, I went to the field at Bishops Gate in Mt Laurel, NJ, to look for comet 13P/Olbers. Unfortunately, clouds along the northwestern horizon foiled that attempt, but about 10:30 pm EDT, as I sat under the open hatch at the back of my car facing southeast, I saw the nearly-full Moon (it would be full at 9:08 pm on June 21). Then I noticed a Moon Dog (paraselene) in a cloud to the right of the Moon. Shortly after, as another cloud moved into position, a second Moon Dog appeared on the left, so a pair of Moon Dogs (paraselenae) flanked the Moon, 22 on either side (checked with an outstretched thumb and little finger). Mouseover for labels.

This snapshot of them was captured at 10:34 pm with an iPhone 11 handheld while resting atop my spotting scope, which in turn was locked in place via its mount on a tripod. The EXIF data indicated it was exposed 1/2 second at f/1.8, ISO 1000 (although the exposure period was clearly longer than 1/2 second). Except for size reduction, no  processing was applied or adjustments made. The turquoise dot left of the greatly overexposed Moon is an internal camera reflection. The star well above and a little left of the Moon is second magnitude Sabik (Eta Oph). To the right of the Moon, and a little higher in the contrail shadow, is first magnitude Antares (Alpha Sco).

At the time, the Moon was 14.6 days old, 99% illuminated, 18.3 altitude, 158 azimuth (SSE) in the very southern part of the constellation Ophiuchus (just east of a line  between M19 and M62). The Moon's ecliptic latitude was 5.4, about as far south as it gets, so it would transit (12:13 am on June 21) at just 21.7 altitude for this nominal 40N-75W location.

 

 

Crescent Moon and Clouds
Atsion, May 11, 2024

The West Jersey Astronomical Society had a Public Star Watch scheduled for the evening of May 11, 2024, at Atsion Field in Wharton State Forest, NJ. However, a poor weather forecast precluded holding the event. Nevertheless, I took a ride there in case there were any stragglers present (none were). Here's a view of the clouds from inside the car looking west. I did not notice the crescent Moon peeking through the clouds at the time as I was seated in the car and it was probably blocked by the roof line. It was only the next day at home that I saw it near the top of the frame on my iPad.

 Taken through the windshield with an iPhone 11 at 8:08 pm EDT, five minutes after sunset, when the Moon was about 18% illuminated (three days old) and 43.5 altitude. Automatically exposed 1/50 second at f/1.8, ISO 80. It was mildly adjusted (exposure and color balance) and cropped a little with the iPad's photo gallery toiols.

 

 

Jupiter and Uranus
April 22, 2024

The distant planets Jupiter and Uranus were at formal conjunction in geocentric right ascension on April 20, 2024, at 4 am EDT per the USNO's MICA 2.2.2 software, with Uranus 0.53 north of Jupiter. Their appulse (closest approach) nominally occurs when the line between them is perpendicular to the ecliptic, when they have the same ecliptic longitude (the ecliptic is tilted about 23.4 to the celestial equator, so the appulse is not necessarily at the time of conjunction). For my nominal location of 40N-75W, the appulse occurred about midnight, April 20/21, 2024, when the two planets were about 30.5 arc minutes, or 0.51 apart, per SkyTools. Given Jupiter's orbital period of 11.8 years and Uranus' 84 years, their conjunctions occur at approximate 13 year intervals.

I observed the pair with my spotting scopes (88 mm, 25 to 60x, and 115 mm, 35x) low in the west during evening twilight on April 20, 21 and 22 when they were 0.51, 0.53 and 0.61 apart respectively. Bright Jupiter (magnitude -2.0) was obvious and its dim Galilean satellites (magnitude 5.3 to 6.3) were easy to spot nearby, but similarly dim Uranus (magnitude 5.8) was tougher to find, isolated in residual twilight through the thickening atmosphere down low.

This snapshot of them was captured on April 22, 2024, at 8:32 pm EDT under a clear sky from Wharton State Forest, NJ. It's 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 1/8 second at f/5.6, ISO 3200 with automatic white balance. It was mildly adjusted with Canon's Digital Photo Professional 4, and cropped to a 16:9 ratio (about 26% of the original frame's width and 22% of the height) for a field 1.32 wide x 0.74 high, then converted to this JPEG. At the time, Jupiter was about 7.6 altitude, Uranus about 7.5 altitude. Notice the change in relative position of the two planets compared to the picture below, taken 10 days earlier. Mouseover for labels in each case.

 

 

Comets 12P/Pons-Brooks and 13P/Olbers
April 13, 2024

Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks was 3.0 below the planet Jupiter, which in turn was 1.3 below the planet Uranus on April 13, 2024, as viewed from Thompson's Beach, NJ, on the north shore of the Delaware Bay under a clear sky, but with a 32% illuminated Moon about 48 above 12P. At the time, 12P was in the magnitude 4+ range. Taken at 8:48 pm EDT (when 12P was about 21.4 altitude) with a Canon EOS RP DSLM camera and a Canon 200 mm f/2.8L telephoto lens on a fixed tripod. It was exposed 2 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 4000, then mildly adjusted with Canon's Digital Photo Professional 4, and cropped to a field 5.3 wide x 6.3 high. Mouseover for labels.

Visually, the comet was initially detected with my 88 mm spotting scope at 8:24 pm, then easily seen with my 115 mm spotting scope using the 35x binocular eyepiece module. Subsequently, it was seen with 15x56 binoculars, but remained unseen with unaided eyes. Uranus was also seen with the scopes and the binoculars.

Update, April 15, 2024: Comet 12P was spotted on April 15 at 8:42 pm EDT from suburban Bishops Gate in Mt Laurel, NJ, with the 115 mm spotting scope and the 35x binocular eyepiece module. Update April 16: Despite some thin clouds towards the WNW and a 62% Moon in an otherwise clear sky at Wharton SF, NJ, using the 35x115 spotting scope, I located 12P at 8:41 pm, 6.4 altitude, and 13P at 8:52 pm, 20.0 altitude. Update April 20: 12P was spotted at 8:33 pm from Wharton SF with the 35x115 scope. It was a dim patch of haze (and with averted vision, a stellar core) at 6 altitude, just above mag 3.8 Xi Tauri, under a clear sky with a 92% waxing Moon. 12P was not seen with 15x56 binoculars. This is likely my last sighting of 12P. About 8 away at the 2 o'clock position, Jupiter and Uranus were about half a degree apart and easily fit in the same 1.8 field of the 35x115 scope. They would be at formal conjunction a few hours later, around midnight. Just after 9 pm, the star field around 13P was confirmed, and perhaps a small patch of haze was seen at 13P's expected position. Around 9:30 pm, the location of NGC 3621 in Hydra was found with the 35x115 scope, but neither the galaxy nor the approximate mag 12 SN 2024ggi in it were seen; too low and too much Moon.

 

After spotting comet 12P/Pons-Brooks, I looked for fainter comet 13P/Olbers, which was about 15.5 above 12P and 5.5 left of M45, the Pleiades star cluster. I was able to spot it as a small, faint patch of haze with the 35x115 scope, knowing the rough position from preparing charts early that day, then confirming the position on the chart after that sighting. At the time, 13P was in the magnitude 9 to 10 range. This snapshot was captured at 8:55 pm on April 13, 2024, from Thompson's Beach, NJ. It's a single raw frame taken with a Canon EOS RP DSLM camera and a Canon 200 mm f/2.8L telephoto lens on a fixed tripod. It was exposed 2 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 6400, then lightly processed in Canon's Digital Professional Photo 4. It was cropped to a field 7.4 wide x 5.0 high. Mouseover for labels.

The image below is the same raw/processed image as the one above, except that it's cropped to a field 2.0 wide x 1.3 high to better show the faint hazy spot of comet 13P. Mouseover for labels.

 

 

  

Penumbral Lunar Eclipse
March 25, 2024

The Full Moon was at the mid-point of a deep penumbral eclipse on March 25, 2024, when this image was captured at 3:13 am EDT from Maple Shade, NJ. This is a single raw frame taken under a clear sky with a Canon EOS RP DSLM camera and a Canon 400 mm f/5.6L telephoto lens on a fixed tripod. It was exposed 1/800 second at f/11, ISO 800 (the "Looney Eleven" rule-of-thumb for lunar exposure) and set to monochrome mode. Using Canon's Digital Photo Professional 4, contrast was enhanced and it was cropped to a 4:3 ratio using about 20% of the original frame dimensions for a field 1.0 wide x 0.75 high, then converted to this JPEG.

Visually, the darkening towards the bottom of the lunar disc was barely detectable with unaided eyes. Had I not known there was an eclipse in progress, it probably would have gone unnoticed.  With 15x56 binoculars, the darkening was slightly more apparent. Here's some more information.

 

 

T Coronae Borealis, the "Blaze Star"
March 13, 2024

Here's the semi-circle of stars comprising the stick figure of the constellation Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown) as seen on March 13, 2024, from Wharton State Forest, NJ. Mouseover for labels. In particular, it includes the recurrent nova, T Coronae Borealis, which is also known as the Blaze Star (not to be confused with the late New Orleans stripper, Blaze Starr). T CrB is expected to erupt in the near future from it's current brightness, nominally magnitude 10.5 visually, to potentially as bright as magnitude 2.0. There is an extensive article about this object in the March 2024 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, beginning on page 34, and an online Bob King article posted on June 26, 2024.

The purpose of this snapshot was to have a baseline "before" reference, while T CrB was in its quiescent state. It was taken at 2:30 am EDT with a Canon EOS RP DSLM camera plus a Canon 200 mm f/2.8L telephoto lens on a fixed tripod. It's a single raw frame exposed 2 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 10,000. It was not adjusted, just converted to this JPEG with Canon's Digital Photo Professional 4. The view is 6.9 wide x 10.3 high, but at that scale, T CrB is barely visible, so a magnifying crop was was extracted for a better view (see the image below). The zenith is towards the top, north is approximately at the 10 o'clock position and east is at 7 o'clock. Alphecca is magnitude 2.2, Epsilon CrB is magnitude 4.2.

T CrB was also seen visually with an 88 mm spotting scope at 60x. It was faint, but unequivocally there. Comparing it to nearby field stars, the brightness appeared consistent with contemporaneous AAVSO visual magnitude estimates around 10.5.

 

Here's the magnifying crop taken from the bottom of the same raw frame as the image above. Besides cropping to a field 2.5 wide x 1.6 high, no other adjustments were made (although a red-colored hot pixel was retouched). Epsilon CrB and T CrB are 63 arc minutes apart (1 03′).

 

 

Venus and the Old Crescent Moon
March 8, 2024

Venus and the crescent Moon would were just 6 apart as the rising Moon cleared the distant tree line in brightening morning twilight on March 8, 2024, as seen from Marter Ave in Mt Laurel, NJ, at 5:42 am EST, 39 minutes before sunrise at 6:21 am EST. Mars was about 5 above the Moon, but much dimmer and lost in the cloudy patch, or perhaps just outside the frame. At the time, Venus at 2.6 altitude, while the Moon was at 1.0 altitude (to the lunar center, including atmospheric refraction). The Moon was 5.6% illuminated and 46 hr 14 min before new on March 10 at 5:00 am EDT. That's almost two days, but because the ecliptic is now at such a shallow angle to the horizon before sunrise, about 28, and the Moon has a 5.2S ecliptic latitude, its solar elongation, about 27, is more sideways than upwards. Note that a leftward line perpendicular to mid-crescent (towards the Sun) slants just slightly down. Mouseover for labels.

This is a single raw frame taken with a Canon EOS RP DSLM camera and a Canon 70 to 200 mm f/2.8L telephoto zoom lens (on a fixed tripod), set to 135 mm focal length. It was exposed 1/25 second at f/5.6, ISO 1600, auto white balance, The only post processing was cropping it vertically to a 16:9 ratio for a field 10.1 wide x 5.7 high, then converting it to this JPEG in Canon's Digital Photo Professional 4, then slightly enhancing Venus in Adobe Photoshop Elements.

Venus was first noticed on arrival with unaided eyes just above the tree tops at 5:35 am, 0.8 altitude. The upper cusp of the lunar crescent was first noticed with unaided eyes rising out of the trees at 5:43 am. Here's a snapshot of it taken at 5:44 am using the same camera and lens, but cropped to a 2.9 wide x 1.7 high field. Here's the crescent at 6:05 am when it had risen into a blue sky, same camera but with a 400 mm telephoto lens, uncropped for a field 5.1 wide x 3.4 high. Both Venus and the Moon were still visible to unaided eyes at 6:08 am when I packed up. Dimmer Mars, magnitude +1.2, was not seen with unaided eyes, but it was briefly seen with 8x42 binoculars around 5:53 am through a thin patch of the persistent cloud above the Moon (the cloudy area at the top-right of the frame above).

 

 

Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks
March 3, 2024

On March 3, 2024, comet 12P/Pons-Brooks was captured from the Thompson's Beach, NJ, nature observation platform's parking lot near the north shore of the Delaware Bay. This comet had reached a nominal magnitude 6, such that this simple snapshot showed a greenish color and the fainter tail it was sporting. Taken at 7:11 pm EST with a Canon EOS RP DSLM plus a Canon 200 mm f/2.8L telephoto lens on a fixed tripod. It's a single raw frame exposed 4 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 5000. It was mildly adjusted, cropped to 64% of the original dimensions for a field 6.6 wide x 4.4 high, then saved to this JPEG with Canon's Digital Photo professional 4. EST. The light streak near the right edge is a satellite.

At the time, 12P was at 20.6 altitude in the constellation Andromeda, about 7 northwest of Alpheratz (Alpha And) and 11.5 southwest of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. In the image above, the faint tail extends about half-a-degree at a position angle of 16 (nominally north). Here's a wider-field view taken at 7:31 pm with the RP plus a Canon 100 f/2.8L macro lens on a fixed tripod showing these these objects. It was exposed 4 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 6400, then mildly processed in DPP4 and cropped to 12.4 wide x 18.5 high. Here's a labeled version.

12P was also observed visually, initially spotted with 12x50 binoculars at 6:49 pm, 54 minutes after sunset at 5:55 pm and 34 minutes before the end of astronomical twilight at 7:24 pm. After taking some snapshots, I put my 88 mm apo spotting back on the tripod and visually observed the comet. It was easily visible at 25x, and while the tail was much fainter than the coma, it was unequivocally seen.

Later, I was able to unequivocally see comet 144P/Kushida (magnitude 10) as a patch of dim haze with the 88 mm at 60x. It was in Taurus, about 4 southeast of Zeta Tauri. On February 29 from Wharton State Forest, NJ, I also saw the tail of 12p and detected 144P with the 88 mm scope at 60x, but in both cases, they were at he borderline of visibility. The dark sky over the Delaware Bay makes a difference. The primary reason I stopped at Wharton SF on the way home from Thompson's Beach was to watch the Falcon 9 second stage pass off the New Jersey coast, propelling the Crew-8 Dragon capsule to the ISS. The bright orange engine glow and the parabaloidal exhaust cloud were spectacular in 15x56 binoculars, filling the 4.5 FOV towards SECO (second stage engine cutoff). The cloud was visible, but less impressive, with unaided eyes. It first appeared out of the tree tops at 11:00 pm EST, ending near Spica just before 11:02 pm.

 

The image below shows the setting Sun from the Thompson's Beach parking lot at 5:53 pm on March 3, 2024, two minutes before sunset at 5:55 pm. The Sun was at 262 azimuth (almost due west, 270), 16 days before the northern hemisphere's Vernal Equinox on March 19 at 11:06 pm EDT, when the Sun actually rises in the east and sets in the west. Taken with an iPhone 11, handheld. The white streak near the top is an aircraft contrail.

 

 

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.

Update, July 7, 2024: After seeing a number of pictures at the Spaceweather photo gallery showing "artificial" noctilucent clouds from rocket launches, I searched the web and found there was a Falcon 9 launch out of Cape Canaveral at 1:33 am EST on February 8, 2024, carrying the PACE satellite into a polar orbit (98 inclination). Residual rocket exhaust from this launch may be the source of these bright clouds.

 

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: Saturday, July 13, 2024 at 01:51 PM Eastern Time