Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997) spent the first fifteen years of his life on a farm near Streator, Illinois, and then his family moved to a farm near Burdett, Kansas (no wonder he got interested in astronomy!), and he went to high school there. Then, on February 18, 1930, Tombaugh, a self-taught amateur astronomer and telescope maker, discovered the ninth planet in our solar system, Pluto. It had been nearly 84 years since the eighth planet, Neptune, had been discovered, in 1846. And it would be another 62 years before another trans-Neptunian object (TNO) would be discovered.
Clyde Tombaugh was 24 years old when he discovered Pluto. He died in 1997 at the age of 90 (almost 91). I was very fortunate to meet Prof. Tombaugh at a lecture he gave at Iowa State University in 1990. At that lecture, he told a fascinating story about the discovery of Pluto, and I remember well his comment that he felt certain that no “tenth planet” larger than Pluto exists in our solar system, because of the thorough searches he and others had done since his discovery of Pluto. But, those searches were done before the CCD revolution, and just two years later, the first TNO outside the Pluto-Charon system, 15760 Albion (1992 QB1), would be discovered by David Jewitt (1958-) and Jane Luu (1963-), although only 1/9th the size of Pluto.
Pluto is, by far, the smallest of the nine planets. At only 2,377 km across, Pluto is only 2/3 the size of our Moon! Pluto has a large moon called Charon (pronounced SHAR-on) that is 1,212 km across (over half the size of Pluto), discovered in 1978 by James Christy (1938-). Two additional moons were discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in 2005: Hydra (50.9 × 36.1 × 30.9 km) and Nix (49.8 × 33.2 × 31.1 km). A fourth moon was discovered using HST in 2011: Kerberos (10 × 9 × 9 km). And a fifth moon, again using HST, in 2012: Styx (16 × 9 × 8 km).
Pluto has been visited by a single spacecraft. New Horizons passed 12,472 km from Pluto and 28,858 km from Charon on July 14, 2015. Then, about 3½ years later, New Horizons passed 3,538 km from 486958 Arrokoth, on January 1, 2019.
Only one other TNO comparable in size to Pluto (or larger) is known to exist. 136199 Eris and its moon Dysnomia were discovered in 2005 by Mike Brown (1965-), Chad Trujillo (1973-), and David Rabinowitz (1960-). It is currently estimated that Eris is 97.9% the size of Pluto. Not surprisingly, in 2006 Pluto was “demoted” by the IAU from planethood to dwarf planet status. (Is not a “dwarf planet” a planet? Confusing…)
My take on this is that Pluto should be considered a planet along with Eris, of course. The definition of “planet” is really rather arbitrary, so given that Pluto was discovered 75 years before Eris, and 62 years before TNO #2, I think we should (in deference to the memory of Mr. Tombaugh, mostly) define a planet as any non-satellite object orbiting the Sun that is around the size of Pluto or larger. So, by my definition, there are currently ten known planets in our solar system. Is that really too many to keep track of?
There is precedent for including history in scientific naming decisions. William Herschel (1738-1822) is thought to have coined the term “planetary nebula” in the 1780s, and though we now know they have nothing to do with planets (unless their morphology is affected by orbiting planets), we still use the term “planetary nebula” to describe them today.
In the table below, you will find the eight “classical” planets, plus the five largest TNOs, all listed in order of descending size. (The largest asteroid, Ceres, is 939 km across, and is thus smaller than the smallest of these TNOs.)
You’ll see that the next largest TNO after Eris is Haumea, and that its diameter is only 67% that of Eris.
I’ve also listed the largest satellite for each of these objects. Venus and Mercury do not have a satellite—at least not at the present time.
It is amazing to note that both Ganymede and Titan are larger than the planet Mercury! And Ganymede, Titan, the Moon, and Triton are all larger than Pluto.
Largest Objects in the Solar System
Should any other non-satellite objects with a diameter of at least 2,000 km be discovered in our solar system, I think we should call them planets, too.
In terms of bulk properties, Venus is the most Earthlike planet in the solar system. The diameter of Venus is 95% of Earth’s diameter. The mass of Venus is 82% of Earth’s mass. It has a nearly identical composition.
But…the average surface temperature of Venus is 735 K (863˚ F) and the surface atmospheric pressure is 91 times greater than Earth’s—equivalent to the pressure 3,000 ft. below the ocean’s surface. The present atmosphere of Venus is composed of 96.5% carbon dioxide (CO2) and 3.5% nitrogen (N2), plus a number of trace elements and compounds.
Venus was not always so inhospitable. What happened?
The cratering record suggests that nearly all of Venus has been resurfaced within the last 300 – 800 Myr. Before that, Venus probably was much more hospitable, even habitable, perhaps. The Pioneer Venus large probe and infrared spectral observations from Earth of H2O and HDO (deuterated isotope of water) indicate that the deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio in the Venusian atmosphere is 120 – 157 times higher than in water on Earth, strongly suggesting that Venus was once much wetter than it is today and that it has lost much of the water it once had to space. (Hydrogen is lighter than deuterium and therefore more easily escapes to space.) In addition to deuterium abundance, measuring the isotopic abundance ratios of the noble gases krypton and xenon would help us better understand the water history of Venus. These cannot be measured remotely and requires at-Venus sampling.
Venus receives 1.92 times as much solar radiation as the Earth, and this was undoubtedly a catalyst for the runaway greenhouse effect that transformed the Venusian climate millions of years ago.
We know that CO2 is a potent greenhouse gas, but anything that increases the amount of water vapor (H2O) in the atmosphere leads to global warming as well. As do clouds.
Climate modeling shows us that that the hothouse on the surface of Venus today is due to CO2 (66.6%), the continual cloud cover (22.5%), and what little water vapor remains in the atmosphere (10.9%).
Interestingly, if all the CO2 and N2 in the Earth’s crust were somehow liberated into the atmosphere, our planet would have an atmosphere very similar to Venus.
Venus is the easiest planet to get to from Earth, requiring the least amount of rocket fuel. There is so much we still don’t understand about how Venus transformed into a hellish world, and we would be well-advised to learn more about Venus because it may inform us about Earth’s future as well.
Tessera terrain covers about 7% of the surface of Venus. These highly deformed landforms, perhaps unique in the solar system, may allow us to someday sample the only materials that existed prior to the great resurfacing event.
If living organisms ever developed on Venus, the only place they could still survive today is 30 miles or so above the surface where the atmospheric temperature and pressure are similar to the surface of the Earth.
Even four billion years ago, Venus may have been too close to the Sun for life to develop, but if it did, Venus probably remained habitable up to at least 715 Myr ago.
Now for the bad news. All main-sequence stars, including our Sun, slowly brighten as they age, and their habitable zones move outward from their original locations. Our brightening Sun will eventually render the Earth uninhabitable, certainly within the next two billion years, and our water could be lost to the atmosphere and then space within the next 13o million years, leading to a thermal runaway event and an environment similar to that of Venus. Human-induced climate change could make the Earth uninhabitable for humans and many other species long before that.
One indication that water is being lost to space and surface warming is occurring is water vapor in the stratosphere. The more water vapor that is in the stratosphere, the more water is being forever lost to space and the greater the surface warming. Careful and continuous monitoring of water vapor levels in the Earth’s stratosphere is important to our understanding of climate change on Earth.
To conclude, Arney and Kane write:
“Venus teaches us that habitability is not a static state that planets remain in throughout their entire lives. Habitability can be lost, and the runaway greenhouse is the final resting place of once watery worlds.”
Arney, G., & Kane, S. 2018, arXiv e-prints, arXiv: 1804.05889
Bézard, B., & de Bergh, C. 2007, J. Geophys. Res., 112, E04S07, doi: 10.1029/2006JE002794.
Ostberg, C., & Kane, S. R. 2019, arXiv e-prints,arXiv: 1909.07456
I attended the 234th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), held in St. Louis, Missouri, June 9-13, 2019. Here are some highlights from that meeting.
Day 1 – Monday, June 10, 2019
Research Notes of the AAS is a non-peer-reviewed, indexed and secure record of works in progress, comments and clarifications, null results, or timely reports of observations in astronomy and astrophysics. RNAAS.
The Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society is the publication for science meeting abstracts, obituaries, commentary articles about the discipline, and white papers of broad interest to our community. BAAS.
We still have many unanswered questions about galaxy formation. The rate of star formation in galaxies and central black hole accretion activity was highest between 10 and 11 billion years ago. This corresponds to redshift z around 2 to 3, referred to as “cosmic high noon”. This is the ideal epoch for us to answer our questions about galaxy formation. Near-infrared spectroscopy is important to the study of galaxies during this epoch, and we are quite limited in what we can do from terrestrial observatories. Space based telescopes are needed, and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be key.
Galaxies are not closed boxes. We need to understand how inflows and outflows affect their evolution (“galactic metabolism”).
There are five international space treaties, with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 being the first and most important. The United States has signed four of the five treaties. The Moon Agreement of 1979 which states that no entity can own any part of the Moon does not include the United States as one of the signatories.
U.S. Code 51303, adopted in 2015, identifies asteroid resource and space resource rights, and states that “A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.”
So, unfortunately, U.S. law does allow a commercial entity to own an asteroid, but you have to get there first before you can claim it. The large metallic asteroid 16 Psyche is highly valuable and will probably be owned by some corporation in the not-too-distant future.
Space law often relies upon maritime law as a model.
Astronomer Vayu Gokhale from Truman State University gave an interesting iPoster Plus presentation on how he and his students are operating three automated and continuous zenithal sky brightness measurement stations using narrow-field Sky Quality Meters (SQMs) from Unihedron. Even measurements when it is cloudy are of value, as clouds reflect light pollution back towards the ground. Adding cloud type and height would allow us to make better use of cloudy-night sky brightness measurements. In a light-polluted area, the darkest place is the zenith, and clouds make the sky brighter. In an un-light-polluted area, the darkest place is the horizon, and clouds make the sky darker.
A number of precision radial velocity instruments for exoplanet discovery and characterization will begin operations soon or are already in operation: NEID, HARPS, ESPRESSO, EXPRES, and iLocater, to name a few.
Dark matter: clumps together under gravity, does not emit, reflect, or absorb electromagnetic radiation, and does not interact with normal matter in any way that causes the normal matter to emit, reflect, or absorb electromagnetic radiation. The ratio between dark matter and normal (baryonic matter) in our universe is 5.36 ± 0.05 (Planck 2018).
What is dark matter? It could be a new particle. If so, can we detect its non-gravitational interactions? It could be macroscopic objects, perhaps primordial black holes. Or, it could be a mixture of both. Another possibility is that a modification to the laws of gravitation will be needed to mimic the effects of dark matter.
How “dark” is dark matter? Does it interact at all (besides gravitationally)? Can dark matter annihilate or decay? Even if dark matter started hot, it cools down rapidly as the universe expands.
Primordial black holes could have masses ranging anywhere between 10-16 and 1010 solar masses. LIGO is possibility sensitive to colliding primordial black holes with masses in the range of a few to a few hundred solar masses. Primordial black holes are a fascinating dark matter candidate, with broad phenomenology.
The Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) is a nearly perfect blackbody with distortions < 1 part in 10,000. What this tells us is that nothing dramatically heated or cooled photons after 2 months after the Big Bang. Anisotropies are variances in the CMB temperature, and the angular power spectrum is variance of CMB temperature as a function of angular scale. CMB anisotropies are very sensitive to the ionization history of the universe. How the universe recombined plays a key role in CMB anisotropies.
Hydrogen: not such a simple atom.
The CMB is polarized. The polarization is caused by Mie scattering of photons.
At the NASA Town Hall, we learned about current and future missions: TESS, SPHEREx, HabEx, LUVOIR, Lynx, Origins Space Telescope (OST).
The highest image rate of standard CCD and CMOS video cameras for asteroid occultation work is 30 frames (60 fields) per second, providing time resolution of 0.017 seconds per field. Adaptive optics and autoguider imaging devices often have a higher sampling rate, and such a camera could perhaps be easily modified to be used for occultation work. A time-inserter would need to be added to the camera (either on-board or GPS-based), and improvements in quantum efficiency (because of the shorter exposures) would benefit from newer imaging technologies such as a Geiger-mode avalanche photodiode (APD); or the Single-photon avalanche detector (SPAD), which are frequently used in chemistry.
Gregory Simonian, graduate student at Ohio State, presented “Double Trouble: Biases Caused by Binaries in Large Stellar Rotation datasets”. The Kepler data yielded 34,030 rotation periods through starspot variability. However, the rapid rotators are mostly binaries. In the Kepler dataset, many rapid rotators have a spin period of the stars equal to the orbital period of the binary. These eclipsing binaries, also known as photometric binaries because they are detected through changes in brightness during eclipses and transits, need to be treated separately in stellar rotation datasets.
Granulation was discovered by William Herschel in 1801 and are vertical flows in the solar photosphere on the order of 1000 m/s, and 1000 km horizontal scale. Supergranulation (Hart 1954, Leighton et al. 1962) are horizontal motions in the photosphere of 300 to 500 m/s with a horizontal scale on the order of 30,000 km.
The amplitude of oscillations in red giants increase dramatically with age.
We’ve never observed the helium flash event in a red giant star, though models predict that it must occur. It is very brief and would be difficult to detect observationally.
Brad Schaefer, Professor Emeritus at Louisiana State University, gave a talk on “Predictions for Upcoming Recurrent Nova Eruptions”. Typically, recurrent novae have about a 30% variation in eruptive timescales, so predicting the next eruption is not trivial. Due to the solar gap (when the object is too close to the Sun to observe on or near the Earth), we are obviously missing some eruptions. However, orbital period changes (O-C curve) can tell us about an eruption we missed. U Sco and T CrB are well-known examples of recurrent novae. Better monitoring of recurrent novae is needed during the pre-eruption plateau. Monitoring in the blue band is important for prediction.
I had the good fortune to talk with Brad on several occasions during the conference, and found him to be enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and engaging. Perhaps you have seen The Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy (The Great Courses), and he is just as articulate and energetic in real life. Among other things, we discussed how the internet is filled with misinformation, and even after an idea has been convincingly debunked, the misinformation continues to survive and multiply in cyberspace. This is a huge problem in the field of archaeoastronomy and, indeed, all fields of study. People tend to believe what they want to believe, never mind the facts.
Astrobites is a daily astrophysical-literature blog written by graduate students in astronomy around the world. The goal of Astrobites is to present one interesting paper from astro-ph per day in a brief format accessible to its target audience: undergraduate students in the physical sciences who are interested in active research.
Helioseismology can be done both from space (all) and the ground (some). Active regions on the far side of the Sun can be detected with helioseismology.
All HMI (Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager) data from the Solar Dynamics Observatory is available online.
A good approach to studying solar data is to subtract the average differential rotation at each point/region on the Sun and look at the residuals.
The Wilcox Solar Observatory has been making sun-as-a-star mean magnetic field measurements since 1975.
It is possible to infer electric currents on the Sun, but this is much more difficult than measuring magnetic fields.
Future directions in solar studies: moving from zonal averages to localized regions in our modeling, and the ability through future space missions to continuously monitor the entire surface of the Sun at every moment.
Systematic errors are nearly always larger than statistical uncertainty.
Day 2 – Tuesday, June 11, 2019
It is probably not hyperbole to state that every star in our galaxy has planets. About 1/5 of G-type stars have terrestrial planets within the habitable zone. Life is widespread throughout the universe.
Gas-grain interaction is at the core of interstellar chemistry. Interstellar ices, charged ices, surface chemistry – there is more time for interactions to occur on a dust grain than in a gas. Grain collisions are important, too.
Hot cores are transient regions surrounding massive protostars very early in their evolution. Similar regions are identified around low-mass protostars and are called corinos.
Methanol (CH3OH) is key to making simple organic molecules (SOM). Evaporating ice molecules drive rich chemistry. Dust plays a key role in the chemistry and in transporting material from the interstellar medium (ISM) to planetary systems.
The Rosetta mission detected amino acids on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) is an ESA mission scheduled to launch in 2022, will enter orbit around Jupiter in October 2029 and Ganymede in 2032. It will study Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto in great detail.
The gravitational wave event GW170817 (two infalling and colliding neutron stars) was also detected as a gamma-ray burst (GRB) by the Fermi gamma-ray space telescope, which has a gamma-ray burst detector that at all times monitors the 60% of the sky that is not blocked by the Earth.
The time interval between the GW and GRB can range between tens of milliseconds up to 10 seconds.
The Milky Way galaxy circumnuclear disk is best seen at infrared wavelengths around 50 microns. Linear polarization tells us the direction of rotation. The star cluster near the MW center energizes and illuminates gas structures. Gravity dominates in this region. The role of magnetic fields in this region has been a mystery.
Pitch angle – how tightly wound the spiral arms are in a spiral galaxy.
Are spiral arms transient or long lived? They are probably long lived. There may be different mechanisms of spiral arm formation in grand design spirals compared with other types of spiral galaxies.
In studying spiral galaxies, we often deproject to face-on orientation.
The co-rotation radius is the distance from the center of a spiral galaxy beyond which the stars orbit slower than the spiral arms. Inside this radius, the stars move faster than the spiral arms.
The Sun is located near the corotation circle of the Milky Way.
The origins of supermassive black holes (SMBH) at the centers of galaxies are unclear. Were they seeded from large gas clouds, or were they built up from smaller black holes?
The black holes at the centers of spiral galaxies tend to be more massive when the spiral arm winding is tight, and less massive when the spiral arm winding is loose.
Spiral Graph is in review as a Zooniverse project and has not yet launched. Citizen scientists will trace the spiral arms of 6,000 deprojected spiral galaxies, and 15 traces will be needed for each galaxy. Spiral arm tracings will provide astronomers with intermediate mass black hole candidate galaxies.
Barred spiral galaxies are very common. 66% to 75% of spiral galaxies show evidence of a bar at near-infrared wavelengths.
Magnetic fields in the inner regions of spiral galaxies are scrambling radio emissions to some extent, but radio astronomers have ways to deal with this.
For me, the plenary lecture given by Suvrath Mahadevan, Pennsylvania State University, was the first truly outstanding presentation. His topic was “The Tools of Precision Measurement in Exoplanet Discovery: Peeking Under the Hood of the Instruments”. His discussion of the advance in radial velocity instrumentation was revelatory to me, as his starting point was Roger F. Griffin’s radial velocity spectrometer we used at Iowa State University in the 1970s and 1980s, giving us a precision of about 1 km/s. My, we have come a long way since then!
To discover our Earth from another star system in the ecliptic plane would require detecting an 8.9 cm/s velocity shift in the Sun’s motion over the course of a year.
Precision radial velocity measurement requires we look at the displacement of thousands of spectral lines using high resolution spectroscopy.
The two main techniques are 1) Simultaneous reference and 2) Self reference (iodine cell). Also, externally dispersed interferometry and heterodyne spectroscopy can be used.
Griffin 1967 ~ km/s → CORAVEL 1979 ~300 m/s → CORALIE/ELODIE 1990 ~ 5-10 m/s → HARPS 2000 ~ 1 m/s → ESPRESSO/VLT, EXPRES/DCT, NEID/KPNO, HPF/HET.
We cannot build instruments that are stable over time at 10 cm/s resolution or less.
You can track the relative change in velocity much better than absolute velocity because of the “noise” generated by stellar internal motions.
Measuring the radial velocity at red or infrared wavelengths is best for M dwarfs, and cooler stars.
High radial velocity precision will require long-term observations, and a better understanding of and mitigation for stellar activity. Many things need to be considered: telescope, atmosphere, barycentric correction (chromatic effects can lead to 1/2 m/s error), fibers, modal noise, instrument decoupled from the telescope, calibrators, optics, stability, pipeline, etc. Interdisciplinary expertise is required.
NEID will measure wavelengths of 380 – 930 nm, and have a spectral resolution of R ~ 90,000.
Pushing towards 10 cm/s requires sub-milli-Kelvin instrument stability high-quality vacuum chambers, octagonal fibers, scrambling, and excellent guiding of the stellar image on the fiber to better than 0.05 arcseconds.
Precision radial velocity instruments such as NEID and HPF weigh two tons, so at present they can only be used with ground-based telescopes.
Charge Transfer Efficiency (CTE): need CCDs with CTE > 0.999999. Other CCD issues that don’t flat field out accurately: CCD stitch boundaries, cross hatching in NIR detectors, crystalline defects, sub-pixel quantum efficiency differences. Even the act of reading out the detector introduces a noise source.
10 cm/s is within reach from a purely instrumental perspective, but almost everything has to be just right. But we need to understand stellar activity better: granulation, supergranulation, flares, oscillations, etc. We may not be able to isolate these components of stellar activity, but we will certainly learn a lot in the process.
1s time resolution is required to properly apply barycentric corrections.
Gene Byrd, University of Alabama, gave an interesting short presentation, “Two Astronomy Demos”. The first was “Stars Like Grains of Sugar”, reminiscent of Archimedes’ The Sand Reckoner. And “Phases with the Sun, Moon, and Ball”. He uses a push pin in a golf ball (the golf ball even has craters!). Morning works best for this activity. The Sun lights the golf ball and the Moon and they have the same phase—nice! Touching as well as seeing the golf ball helps students understand the phases of the Moon. Here’s a link to his paper on these two activities.
Daniel Kennefick, University of Arkansas, gave a short presentation on the 1919 eclipse expedition that provided experimental evidence (besides the correct magnitude of the perihelion precession of Mercury) that validated Einstein’s General Relativity. Stephen Hawking in his famous book A Brief History of Time mis-remembered that the 1979 re-analysis of the Eddington’s 1919 eclipse data showed that he may “fudged” the results to prove General Relativity to be correct. He did not! See Daniel Kennefick’s new book on the subject, No Shadow of a Doubt: The 1919 Eclipse That Confirmed Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
Brad Schaefer, Louisiana State University, gave another engaging talk, presenting evidence that the Australian aborigines may have discovered the variability of the star Betelgeuse, much earlier than the oft-stated discovery by John Herschel in 1836. Betelgeuse varies in brightness between magnitude 0.0 and +1.3 quasi-periodically over a period of about 423 days. It has been shown that laypeople can detect differences in brightness as small as 0.3 magnitude with the unaided eye, and with good comparison stars (like Capella, Rigel, Procyon, Pollux, Adhara, and Bellatrix—not all of which are visible from Australia—for Betelgeuse). It is plausible that the variability of Betelgeuse may have been discovered by many peoples at many different times. The Australian aborigines passed an oral tradition through many generations that described the variability of Betelgeuse. https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2019AAS…23422407S/abstract.
As a longtime astronomical observer myself, I have actually never noticed the variability of Betelgeuse, but Brad has. After his presentation, I mentioned to Brad that it would be interesting to speculate what would lead early peoples to look for variability in stars in the first place, which seems to me to be a prerequisite for anyone discovering the variability of Betelgeuse. His response pointed out that all it would take is one observant individual in any society who would notice/record the variability and then point it out to others.
If you haven’t looked at the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (NED) lately, you will find new content and functionality. It has been expanded a great deal, and now includes many stellar objects, because we don’t always know what is really a star and what is not. There is now a single input field where you can enter names, coordinates with search radius, etc. NED is “Google for Galaxies”.
I noticed during the 10-minute iPoster Plus sessions that there is a countdown timer displayed unobtrusively in the upper right hand corner that helps the presenter know how much time they have remaining. I think this would be a great device for anyone giving a short presentation in any venue.
Galactic archaeology is the study of the oldest stars and other structures in our galaxy to better understand how our galaxy evolved.
Day 2 ended with an evening presentation of “Cielo”, a documentary film by Alison McAlpine. Highly recommended!
I noted that “Cielo” was presented on the Documentary Channel in Canada. Too bad we do not have a channel like that here in the U.S.!
Day 3 – Wednesday, June 12, 2019
Day 3 began with what for me was the finest presentation of the entire conference: Joshua Winn, Princeton University, speaking on “Transiting Exoplanets: Past, Present, and Future”. I first became familiar with Josh Winn through watching his outstanding video course, The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know, from The Great Courses. I am currently watching his second course, Introduction to Astrophysics, also from The Great Courses. Josh is an excellent teacher, public speaker, and presenter, and it was a great pleasure to meet him at this conference.
Transits provide the richest source of information we have about exoplanets. For example, we can measure the obliquity of the star’s equator relative to the planet’s orbital plane by measuring the apparent Doppler shift of the star’s light throughout transit.
Who was the first to observe a planetary transit? Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) was the first to observe a transit of Mercury across the Sun in November 1631. Jeremiah Horrocks (1618-1641) was the first to observe a transit of Venus across the Sun in November 1639. Christoph Scheiner (1573-1650) claimed in January 1612 that spots seen moving across the Sun were planets inside Mercury’s orbit transiting the Sun, but we know know of course that sunspots are magnetically cooled regions in the Sun’s photosphere and not orbiting objects at all. Though Scheiner was wrong about the nature of sunspots, his careful observations of them led him to become the first to measure the Sun’s equatorial rotation rate, the first to notice that the Sun rotated more slowly at higher latitudes, and the first to notice that the Sun’s equator is tilted with respect to the ecliptic, and to measure its inclination.
An exoplanet can be seen to transit its host star if the exoplanet’s orbit lies within the transit cone, an angle of 2R*/a centered on our line of sight to the star. R* is the star’s radius, and a is the semi-major axis of the planet’s orbit around the star.
Because of the geometry, we are only able to see transits of 1 out of every 215 Earth-Sun analogs.
Space is by far the best place to study transiting exoplanets.
If an exoplanet crosses a starspot, or a bright spot, on the star, you will see a “blip” in the transit light curve that looks like this:
Are solar systems like our own rare? Not at all! There are powerful selection effects at work in exoplanet transit statistics. We have discovered a lot of “hot Jupiters” because large, close-in planets are much easier to detect with their short orbital periods and larger transit cones. In actuality, only 1 out of every 200 sun-like stars have hot Jupiters.
Planet statistical properties was the main goal of the Kepler mission. Here are some noteworthy discoveries:
Kepler 89 – two planets transiting at the same time (only known example)
Kepler 36 – chaotic three-body system
Kepler 16 – first known transiting exoplanet in a circumbinary orbit
Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) – Unlike Kepler, which is in an Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit, TESS is in a highly-elliptical orbit around the Earth with an apogee approximately at the distance of the Moon and a perigee of 108,000 km. TESS orbits the Earth twice during the time the Moon orbits once, a 2:1 orbital resonance with the Moon.
TESS has four 10.5 cm (4-inch) telescopes, each with a 24˚ field of view. Each TESS telescope is constantly monitoring 2300 square degrees of sky.
TESS is fundamentally about short period planets. Data is posted publicly as soon as it is calibrated. TESS has already discovered 700 planet candidates. About 1/2 to 2/3 will be true exoplanets. On average, TESS is observing stars that are about 4 magnitudes brighter than stars observed by Kepler.
The TESS Follow-Up Observing Program (TFOP) is a large working group of astronomical observers brought together to provide follow-up observations to support the TESS Mission’s primary goal of measuring the masses for 50 planets smaller than 4 Earth radii, in addition to organizing and carrying out follow-up of TESS Objects of Interest (TOIs).
HD 21749 – we already had radial velocity data going back several years for this star that hosts an exoplanet that TESS discovered
Gliese 357 – the second closest transiting exoplanet around an M dwarf, after HD 219134
TESS will tell us more about planetary systems around early-type stars.
TESS will discover other transient events, such as supernovae, novae, variable stars, etc. TESS will also make asteroseismology measurements and make photometric measurements of asteroids.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be able to do follow-up spectroscopy of planetary atmospheres.
Upcoming exoplanet space missions: CHEOPS, PLATO, and WFIRST.
Hot Jupiter orbits should often be decaying, so this is an important area of study.
Sonification is the process of turning data into sound. For example, you could “listen” to a light curve (with harmonics, e.g. helioseismology and asteroseismology) of a year’s worth a data in just a minute or so.
Solar cycles have different lengths (11-ish years…).
Some predictions: 2019 will be the warmest year on record, 2020 will be less hot. Solar cycle 24 terminate in April 2020. Solar cycle 25 will be weaker than cycle 24. Cycle 25 will start in 2020 and will be the weakest in 300 years, the maximum (such as it is) occurring in 2025. Another informed opinion was that Cycle 25 will be comparable to Cycle 24.
Maunder minimum: 1645 – 1715
Dalton minimum: 1790 – 1820
We are currently in the midst of a modern Gleissberg minimum. It remains to be seen if it will be like the Dalton minimum or a longer “grand minimum” like the Maunder minimum.
Citizen scientists scanning Spitzer Space Telescope images in the Zooniverse Milky Way Project, have discovered over 6,000 “yellow balls”. The round features are not actually yellow, they just appear that way in the infrared Spitzer image color mapping.
Yellow balls (YBs) are sites of 8 solar mass or more star formation, surrounded by ionized hydrogen (H II) gas. YBs thus reveal massive young stars and their birth clouds.
Antlia 2 is a low-surface-brightness (“dark”) dwarf galaxy that crashed into our Milky Way galaxy. Evidence for this collision comes from “galactoseismology” which is the study of ripples in the Milky Way’s disk.
The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), and the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy have all affected our Milky Way Galaxy, but galactoseismology has shown that there must be another perturber that has affected the Milky Way. Antlia 2, discovered in November 2018 from data collected by the Gaia spacecraft, appears to be that perturber.
Gaia Data Release 2 (DR2) indicates that the Antlia 2 dwarf galaxy is about 420,000 ly distant, and it is similar in extent to the LMC. It is an ultra-diffuse “giant” dwarf galaxy whose stars average two magnitudes fainter than the LMC. Antlia 2 is located 11˚ from the galactic plane and has a mass around 1010 solar masses.
A question that is outstanding is what is the density of dark matter in Antlia 2? In the future, Antlia 2 may well be an excellent place to probe the nature of dark matter.
Gravity drives the formation of cosmic structure, dark energy slows it down.
Stars are “noise” for observational cosmologists.
“Precision” cosmology needs accuracy also.
The Vera Rubin telescope (Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) in Chile will begin full operations in 2022, collecting 20 TB of data each night!
We have a “galaxy bias” – we need to learn much more about the relation between galaxy populations and matter distribution.
Might there be an irregular asymmetric cycle underlying the regular 22-year sunspot cycle? The dominant period associated with this asymmetry is around 35 to 50 years.
The relationship between differential rotation and constant effective temperature of the Sun: the Sun has strong differential rotation along radial lines, and there is little variation of solar intensity with latitude.
Solar filaments (solar prominences) lie between positive and negative magnetic polarity regions.
Alfvén’s theorem: in a fluid with infinite electric conductivity, the magnetic field is frozen into the fluid and has to move along with it.
Some additional solar terms and concepts to look up and study: field line helicity, filament channels, kinetic energy equation, Lorentz force, magnetic energy equation, magnetic flux, magnetic helicity, magnetohydrodynamics (MHD), meridional flow, polarity inversion lines, relative helicity, sheared arcade, solar dynamo.
We would like to be able to predict solar eruptions before they happen.
Magnetic helicity is injected by surface motions.
It accumulates at polarity inversion lines.
It is removed by coronal mass ejections.
Day 4 – Thursday, June 13, 2019
Cahokia (our name for it today) was the largest city north of Mexico 1,000 years ago. It was located at the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers. At its height from 1050 – 1200 A.D., Cahokia city covered 6 square miles and had 10,000 to 20,000 people. Cahokia was a walled city. Some lived inside the walls, and others lived outside the walls.
Around 120 mounds were built at greater Cahokia; 70 are currently protected. Platform mounds had buildings on top, and some mounds were used for burial and other uses.
Monks mound is the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas. Mound 72 has an appalling history.
Woodhenge – controversial claim that it had an astronomical purpose. Look up Brad Schaefer’s discussion, “Case studies of three of the most famous claimed archaeoastronomical alignments in North America”.
Cahokia’s demise was probably caused by many factors, including depletion of resources and prolonged drought. We do not know who the descendents of the Cahokia people are. It is possible that they died out completely.
The Greeks borrowed many constellations from the Babylonians.
One Sky, Many Astronomies
The neutron skin of a lead nucleus (208Pb) is a useful miniature analog for a neutron star.
Infalling binary neutron stars, such as GW 170817, undergo tidal deformation.
Minisatellite: 100-180 kg
Microsatellite: 10-100 kg
Nanosatellite: 1-10 kg
Picosatellite: 0.01-1 kg
Femtosatellite: 0.001-0.01 kg
CubeSats are a class of nanosatellites that use a standard size and form factor. The standard CubeSat size uses a “one unit” or “1U” measuring 10 × 10 × 10 cm and is extendable to larger sizes, e.g. 1.5, 2, 3, 6, and even 12U.
The final plenary lecture and the final session of the conference was a truly outstanding presentation by James W. Head III, Brown University, “The Apollo Lunar Exploration Program: Scientific Impact and the Road Ahead”. Head is a geologist who trained the Apollo astronauts for their Moon missions between 1969 and 1972.
During the early years of the space program, the United States was behind the Soviet Union in space technology and accomplishments. The N1 rocket was even going to deliver one or two Soviet cosmonauts to lunar orbit so they could land on the Moon.
Early in his presidency, John F. Kennedy attempted to engage the Soviet Union in space cooperation.
Chris Kraft’s book, Flight: My Life in Mission Control is recommended.
The Apollo astronauts (test pilots) were highly motivated students.
The United States flew 21 robotic precursor missions to the Moon in the eight years before Apollo 11. Rangers 1-9 were the first attempts, but 1 through 6 were failures and we couldn’t even hit the Moon.
Head recommends the recent documentary, Apollo 11, but called First Man Hollywood fiction, saying, “That is not the Neil Armstrong I knew.”
The Apollo 11 lunar samples showed us that the lunar maria (Mare Tranquillitatis) has an age of 3.7 Gyr and has a high titanium abundance.
The Apollo 12 lunar excursion module (LEM) landed about 600 ft. from the Surveyor 3 probe in Oceanus Procellarum, and samples from that mission were used to determine the age of that lunar maria as 3.2 Gyr.
Scientists worked shoulder to shoulder with the engineers during the Apollo program, contributing greatly to its success.
Apollo 11 landed at lunar latitude 0.6˚N, Apollo 12 at 3.0˚S, Apollo 14 at 3.6˚S, and Apollo 15 at 26.1˚N. Higher latitude landings required a plane change and a more complex operation to return the LEM to the Command Module.
The lunar rover was first used on Apollo 15, and allowed the astronauts to travel up to 7 km from the LEM. Head said that Dave Scott did remarkable geological investigations on this mission. He discovered and returned green glass samples, and in 2011 it was determined that there is water inside those beads. Scott also told a little fib to Mission Control to buy him enough time to pick up a rock that turned out to be very important, the “seat belt basalt”.
In speaking about Apollo 16, Head called John Young “one of the smartest astronauts in the Apollo program”.
Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17, was the only professional geologist to go to the Moon, and he discovered the famous “orange soil”. This is the mission where the astronauts repaired a damaged fender on the lunar rover using duct tape and geological maps to keep them from getting covered in dust while traveling in the rover.
When asked about the newly discovered large mass under the lunar surface, Head replied that it is probably uplifted mantle material rather than an impactor mass underneath the surface.
Radiometric dating of the Apollo lunar samples have errors of about ± 5%.
One of the reasons the Moon’s albedo is low is that space weather has darkened the surface.
The South Pole-Aitken basin is a key landing site for future exploration. In general, both polar regions are of great interest.
Smaller objects like the Moon and Mars cooled efficiently after their formation because of their high surface area to volume ratio.
We do not yet know if early Mars was warm and wet, or cold and icy with warming episodes. The latter is more likely if our solar system had a faint young sun.
Venus has been resurfaced in the past 0.5 Gyr, and there is no evidence of plate tectonics. The first ~80% of the history of Venus is unknown. Venus probably had an ocean and tectonic activity early on, perhaps even plate tectonics. Venus may have undergone a density inversion which exchanged massive amounts of material between the crust and mantle. 80% of the surface of Venus today is covered by lava flows.
A mention was made that a new journal of Planetary Science (in addition to Icarus, presumably) will be coming from the AAS soon.
I attend a lot of meetings and lectures (both for astronomy and SAS), and I find that I am one of the few people in attendance who write down any notes. Granted, a few are typing at their devices, but one never knows if they are multitasking instead. For those that don’t take any notes, I wonder, how do they really remember much of what they heard days or weeks later without having written down a few keywords and phrases and then reviewing them soon after? I did see a writer from Astronomy Magazine at one of the press conferences writing notes in a notebook as I do. I believe it was Jake Parks.
Anyone who knows me very well knows that I love traveling by train. To attend the AAS meeting, I took a Van Galder bus from Madison to Chicago, and then Amtrak from Chicago to St. Louis. Pretty convenient that the AAS meeting was held at the Union Station Hotel, just a few blocks from Amtrak’s Gateway Station. It is a fine hotel with a lot of history, and has an excellent on-site restaurant. I highly recommend this hotel as a place to stay and as a conference venue.
The bus and train ride to and fro afforded me a great opportunity to catch up on some reading. Here are a few things worth sharing.
astrometry.net – you can upload your astronomical image and get back an image with all the objects in the image astrometrically annotated. Wow!
16 Psyche, the most massive metal-rich asteroid, is the destination for a NASA orbiter mission that is scheduled to launch in 2022 and arrive at Psyche in 2026. See my note about 16 Psyche in the AAS notes above.
The lowest hourly meteor rate for the northern hemisphere occurs at the end of March right after the vernal equinox.
A tremendous, dynamic web-based lunar map is the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) Quickmap, quickmap.lroc.asu.edu.
I read with great interest Dr. Ken Wishaw’s article on pp. 34-38 in the July 2019 issue of Sky & Telescope, “Red Light Field Test”. Orange or amber light is probably better that red light for seeing well in the dark while preserving your night vision. You can read his full report here. Also, see my article “Yellow LED Astronomy Flashlights” here.
Jupiter and Saturn will have a spectacular conjunction next year. As evening twilight fades on Monday, December 21, 2020, the two planets will be just 1/10th of a degree apart, low in the southwestern sky.
The light curve of a stellar occultation by a minor planet (asteroid or TNO) resembles a square well if the object has no atmosphere (or one so thin that it cannot be detected, given the sampling rate and S/N), and the effects of Fresnel diffraction and the star’s angular diameter are negligible.
Astronomer Margaret Burbidge, who turns 100 on August 12, 2019, refused the AAS Annie Jump Cannon Award in 1972, stating in her rejection letter that “it is high time that discrimination in favor of, as well as against, women in professional life be removed, and a prize restricted to women is in this category.” In 1976, Margaret Burbidge became the first woman president of the AAS, and in 1978 she announced that the AAS would no longer hold meetings in the states that had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
During the days following the conference when I was writing this report, I received the happy news from both the AAS and Sky & Telescope that AAS was the winning bidder of S&T during a bankruptcy auction of its parent company, F+W Media. I believe that this partnership between the AAS and Sky & Telescope will benefit both AAS members and S&T readers immensely. Peter Tyson, Editor in Chief of Sky & Telescope, stated in the mutual press release, “It feels like S&T is finally landing where it belongs.” I couldn’t agree more!
If you’re an astronomy teacher that likes to put a trick question on an open book quiz or test once in a while to encourage your students to think more deeply, here’s a good one for you:
On average, what planet is closest to the Earth?
The correct answer is C. Mercury.
Huh? Venus comes closest to the Earth, doesn’t it? Yes, but there is a big difference between minimum distance and average distance. Let’s do some quick calculations to help us understand minimum distance first, and then we’ll discuss the more involved determination of average distance.
Here’s some easily-found data on the terrestrial planets:
I’ve intentionally left the last two columns of the table empty. We’ll come back to those in a moment. a is the semi-major axis of each planet’s orbit around the Sun, in astronomical units (AU). It is often taken that this is the planet’s average distance from the Sun, but that is strictly true only for a circular orbit.1e is the orbital eccentricity, which is a unitless number. The closer the value is to 0.0, the more circular the orbit. The closer the value is to 1.0, the more elliptical the orbit, with 1.0 being a parabola.
The two empty columns are for q the perihelion distance, and Q the aphelion distance. Perihelion occurs when the planet is closest to the Sun. Aphelion occurs when the planet is farthest from the Sun. How do we calculate the perihelion and aphelion distance? It’s easy.
Perihelion: q = a (1 – e)
Aphelion: q = a (1 + e)
Now, let’s fill in the rest of our table.
Ignoring, for a moment, each planet’s orbital eccentricity, we can calculate the “average” closest approach distance between any two planets by simply taking the difference in their semi-major axes. For Venus, it is 1.000 – 0.723 = 0.277 AU, and for Mars, it is 1.524 – 1.000 = 0.524 AU. We see that Venus comes closest to the Earth.
But, sometimes, Venus and Mars come even closer to the Earth than 0.277 AU and 0.524 AU, respectively. The minimum minimum distance between Venus and the Earth in conjunction should occur when Venus is at aphelion at the same time as Earth is at perihelion: 0.983 – 0.728 = 0.255 AU. The minimum minimum distance between Earth and Mars at opposition should occur when Mars is at perihelion and Earth is at aphelion: 1.382 – 1.017 = 0.365 AU. Mars does not ever come as close to the Earth as Venus does at every close approach.
The above assumes that all the terrestrial planets orbit in the same plane, which they do not. Mercury has an orbital inclination relative to the ecliptic of 7.004˚, Venus 3.395˚, Earth 0.000˚ (by definition), and Mars 1.848˚. Calculating the distances in 3D will change the values a little, but not by much.
Now let’s switch gears and find the average distance over time between Earth and the other terrestrial planets—a very different question. But we want to pick a time period to average over that is sufficiently long enough that each planet spends as much time on the opposite side of the Sun from us as it does on our side of the Sun. The time interval between successive conjunctions (in the case of Mercury and Venus) or oppositions (Mars) is called the synodic period and is calculated as follows:
P1 = 87.9691d = orbital period of Mercury
P2 = 224.701d = orbital period of Venus
P3 = 365.256d = orbital period of Earth
P4 = 686.971d = orbital period of Mars
S1 = (P1-1 – P3-1)-1 = synodic period of Mercury = 115.877d
S2 = (P2-1 – P3-1)-1 = synodic period of Venus = 583.924d
S4 = (P3-1 – P4-1)-1 = synodic period of Mars = 779.946d
I wrote a quick little SAS program to numerically determine that an interval of 9,387 days (25.7 years) would be a good choice, because
9387 / 115.877 = 81.0083, for Mercury
9387 / 583.924 = 16.0757, for Venus
9387 / 779.946 = 12.0354, for Mars
The U.S Naval Observatory provides a free computer program called the Multiyear Interactive Computer Almanac (MICA), so I was able to quickly generate a file for each planet, Mercury, Venus, and Mars, giving the Earth-to-planet distance for 9,387 days beginning 0h UT 1 May 2019 through 0h UT 10 Jan 2045. Here are the results:
As you can see, averaged over time, Mercury is the nearest planet to the Earth!
For a more mathematical treatment, see the article in the 12 Mar 2019 issue of Physics Today.
It may be rare for terrestrial planets to be accompanied by satellites, especially large ones. It is far too early for us to draw any conclusions about terrestrial exoplanets (as no terrestrial exoplanet exomoons have yet been detectable), but in our own solar system, only two planets have no satellites, and they are both terrestrial planets: Mercury and Venus. Mars has two small satellites that are almost certainly captured asteroids from the adjacent asteroid belt rather than primordial moons, and that leaves only the Earth among the terrestrial planets to host a large satellite, though it, too, is almost certainly not primordial. Only the giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) have large systems of satellites, at least some of which may have formed while the planet itself was forming.
Though neither Mercury nor Venus has any natural satellites, Venus is known to have at least four transient quasi-satellites, more generally referred to as co-orbitals. They are:
322756 (2001 CK32)
Comes close to both Earth and Mercury in its eccentric orbit (e=0.38). WikiJPLOrrery
Comes close to both Earth and Mercury in its eccentric orbit (e=0.41). WikiJPLOrrery
Comes close to both Earth and Mercury in its eccentric orbit (e=0.43). WikiJPLOrrery
Comes close to both Earth and Mercury in its very eccentric orbit (e=0.61), and is the only known trojan of Venus, currently residing near its L4 Lagrangian point. WikiJPLOrrery
2015 WZ12 is a possible fifth Venus co-orbital candidate. Observations during the next favorable observing opportunity in November of this year will hopefully better determine its orbit and nature.
Possible Venus co-orbital.
There is concern that there may be many more Venus co-orbitals, as yet undiscovered (and challenging to discover) that pose risks as potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) to our planet.
There are no known Mercury co-orbitals. If any do exist, they will be exceedingly difficult to detect since they will always be in the glare of the Sun as seen from Earth.
Asteroids orbiting interior to Mercury’s orbit (a < 0.387 AU) would be called vulcanoids. I say “would be” because none have been discovered yet, though in all fairness, they will be extremely difficult to detect.
A spacecraft orbiting interior to Mercury’s orbit looking outward would be an ideal platform for detecting, inventorying, and characterizing all potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) that exist in the inner solar system. A surveillance telescope in a circular orbit 0.30 AU from the Sun would orbit the Sun every 60 days.
The Parker Solar Probe, scheduled to launch later this year, will orbit the Sun between 0.73 AU and an extraordinarily close 0.04 AU, though it will be looking towards the Sun, not away from it. The Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) is a proposed mission to look specifically for PHAs using an infrared telescope from a vantage point at the Sun-Earth L1Lagrangian point.
de la Fuente Marcos, C., & de la Fuente Marcos, R. 2014, MNRAS, 439, 2970
de la Fuente Marcos, C., & de la Fuente Marcos, R. 2017, RNAAS, 1, 3
Sheppard, S., & Trujillo, C. 2009, Icarus, 202, 12
The most convenient time for most of us to observe the planets is in the early evening. With that in mind, I’ve prepared an ephemeris of favorable evening times to view each of the eight major planets of the solar system over the next ten years. Some interesting patterns emerge, which I will comment on.
With the exception of Mercury, what follows is a range of dates when each planet is at least 10° above the horizon at the end of evening twilight at latitude 43° N. Mercury, however, is never even above the horizon at the end of evening twilight.
Altitude at 43° N
Here is a list of dates when Mercury is highest above the western horizon at the end of evening civil twilight.
Dates – Highest Above
July 18, 2017
November 28, 2017
March 15, 2018
July 2, 2018
November 10, 2018
February 27, 2019
June 16, 2019
October 20, 2019
February 11, 2020
May 30, 2020
September 25, 2020
January 25, 2021
May 14, 2021
September 2, 2021
January 9, 2022
April 28, 2022
August 14, 2022
December 24, 2022
April 11, 2023
July 28, 2023
December 8, 2023
March 24, 2024
July 11, 2024
November 20, 2024
March 8, 2025
June 25, 2025
November 1, 2025
February 20, 2026
June 9, 2026
October 10, 2026
February 4, 2027
May 24, 2027
September 15, 2027
Mercury, the innermost planet, whips around the Sun every 88 days (116 days relative to the Earth—its synodic period). It never strays more than 28° from the Sun.
As you can see in the graph below, Mercury is presently highest above our evening twilight horizon when it reaches greatest eastern elongation in April, and lowest in October.
Similarly, greatest eastern elongations that occur in the constellations Taurus and Aries present Mercury highest above our evening twilight horizon, and Libra, the lowest.
Now, let us turn to Venus. Unlike Mercury, Venus usually spends a considerable number of days well above the horizon near greatest elongation. This occurs because Venus orbits further from the Sun—reaching a maximum angular separation of 47°— and because its orbital period is only 140.6 days shorter than the Earth’s: the Earth “keeps up” with Venus reasonably well as the two planets orbit the Sun (the synodic period of Venus is 583.9 days), so it is a long time between successive elongations. In the next ten years, we will see Venus high above the evening horizon during only three intervals, though for a generous three or four months each time.
Dates – At Least 10° Above the Horizon
at the End of Evening Twilight
January 2, 2020 – May 7, 2020
Cap – Tau
February 26, 2023 – June 3, 2023
Cet – Cnc
November 30, 2024 – March 2, 2025
Sgr – Psc
Now, we turn to the superior planets: Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. These planets are visible in our evening sky during and after opposition.
Mars has the longest synodic period of all the major planets—780 days—so it takes an unusually long period of time for the orbital positions of Mars and the Earth to change relative to one another. Approximately every two years we get the opportunity to see Mars at least 10° above the horizon at the end of evening twilight. The number of evenings Mars is visible varies quite a lot (due to its significant orbital eccentricity): 293 evenings during the 2018 perihelic opposition of Mars, down to 145 evenings during the aphelic opposition of Mars in 2027. In any event, Mars spends a considerable amount of time during these intervals very far away from Earth and therefore disappointingly small in our telescopes. The best time to observe Mars is during the early weeks of the intervals listed below when Mars is at or near opposition.
Dates – At Least 10° Above the Horizon
at the End of Evening Twilight
July 21, 2018 – May 10, 2019
Cap – Tau
October 5, 2020 – May 27, 2021
Psc – Gem
November 28, 2022 – June 11, 2023
Tau – Cnc
January 7, 2025 – June 22, 2025
Cnc – Leo
February 12, 2027 – July 7, 2027
Leo – Vir
Jupiter orbits the Sun every 11.9 years, so it is easy to see why it is in a different constellation along the zodiac each year.
Dates – At Least 10° Above the Horizon
at the End of Evening Twilight
March 30, 2017 – July 24, 2017
April 29, 2018 – August 29, 2018
May 28, 2019 – October 19, 2019
June 26, 2020 – December 10, 2020
July 30, 2021 – January 22, 2022
September 10, 2022 – March 1, 2023
October 21, 2023 – April 5, 2024
November 28, 2024 – May 5, 2025
January 1, 2026 – May 28, 2026
February 2, 2027 – June 16, 2027
The orbital periods of Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are 29.5, 84.0, and 164.8 years, respectively, so we can see why they take a successively longer amount of time to traverse their circle of constellations. You’ll also notice that the interval of visibility shifts later each year, but the shift is less with increasing orbital distance. The synodic periods of Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are 378.1, 369.7, and 367.5 days, respectively.
Dates – At Least 10° Above the Horizon
at the End of Evening Twilight
May 31, 2017 – October 25, 2017
June 10, 2018 – November 11, 2018
June 20, 2019 – November 28, 2019
June 30, 2020 – December 12, 2020
Cap – Sgr
July 12, 2021 – December 27, 2021
July 24, 2022 – January 9, 2023
August 7, 2023 – January 23, 2024
August 21, 2024 – February 4, 2025
September 5, 2025 – February 17, 2026
September 20, 2026 – March 2, 2027
Cet – Psc
Dates – At Least 10° Above the Horizon
at the End of Evening Twilight
October 2, 2017 – March 16, 2018
October 7, 2018 – March 20, 2019
October 12, 2019 – March 23, 2020
October 15, 2020 – March 27, 2021
October 20, 2021 – March 31, 2022
October 25, 2022 – April 4, 2023
October 30, 2023 – April 7, 2024
November 3, 2024 – April 12, 2025
November 8, 2025 – April 16, 2026
November 13, 2026 – April 20, 2027
Dates – At Least 10° Above the Horizon
at the End of Evening Twilight