Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Starry Sky on New Year's Eve

Jupiter in the Night Sky
 December was a busy month with the holidays and lots of things going on. I didn't get to bird very much and when I did there wasn't much to report so I was not inspired to post. Hopefully I'll do a recap some point soon with some pictures.  But I decided I needed to do something cool to end the year, even if it wasn't birding.

So I turned towards the night sky.

Having received two astronomy apps as gifts, my interest was piqued. I kept observing the stars. On a hike on Christmas Day while visiting family, I learned that the bright star in the west was indeed the Evening Star, or Venus, see the Nahanton Park blog for more on Venus. (As a birding tangent, my favorite bird of the day was a Belted Kingfisher.) The next night I went outside later in the evening and the brightest star I could see was actually Jupiter. I raised my binoculars and could make out a couple of pinpricks next to it: moons.

I have known for a few years that I could see the moons of Jupiter in my binoculars, but now with a new camera and lens, I was wondering if I could catch them in a photograph. On January 5th, Jupiter's and Earth's orbits will be at there closest, so New Year's Eve was going to be a great time to view the planet. And I was going to be awake anyway! So just before 10pm I bundled up, grabbed my camera and tripod, and headed into the back yard (an article on viewing Jupiter).

Jupiter and the Galilean Moons:
Ganymede, Io, Europa, and Callisto
(starting near Jupiter in order of increasing distance)
Finding Jupiter was the easy part. Getting my camera pointed at it and then finding good settings was the hard part. My fingers went numb. The image at the top is overexposed and uncropped to give a sense of relative size and position. The field of view is so small no major stars are visible, but some of Jupiter's moons can be seen. Also there is an interesting green streak that I'm going to try and figure out.

I kept trying and finally managed to capture a decent image. But what was most amazing was that I could find all 4 of the Galilean Moons. I could never hold my binoculars steady enough to see all of them before. The Galilean moons are the major moons of Jupiter and are named after Galileo Galilei, who may have first seen them, but was definitely the first person to realize that they were orbiting Jupiter, and not independent stars. This was the first time objects were observed orbiting a body that wasn't the Sun or Earth. This work was done 403 years ago this January.

The moons orbit Jupiter very quickly, with Io the fastest at 1.7 days and Callisto the slowest at 16.7 days. So every night the moons will be in different locations. (Here is a webpage that gives details on the locations of the moons in relationship to Jupiter.)

After having so much fun with Jupiter and its moons, I was curious what else I could point my camera at. So I chose to look for the Orion Nebula, which is located in the middle of the sword in the Orion Constellation. I'll end with this last image (centered on the Orion Nebula), but needless to say, I had a lot of fun on New Years Eve!
Orion Nebula