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Saturday, February 9, 2013

2013 Conjunction of Mercury and Mars

Mars and Mercury were in conjunction (closest together in the sky) on Thursday, February 7. Although I'm not usually an astrophotographer, I went out to capture the event. Since they would only be visible low in the west right after sunset, I decided to go up to the high plateau overlooking Machtesh Ramon to capture the event. It was definitely worth while, because not only did I get to glimpse them in the evening sky, I also got a wonderful view of the Weiss Observatory before sunset and the rarely seen Zodiacal Light after sunset.

Because Mercury and Mars were so close to the horizon immediately after sunset, I was only able to view them with binoculars, where they were hard to see against the bright afterglow of the sun. But once spotted, they were easy to hold.

Mars and Mercury set above the rim of Machtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater) high above the little Negev town of Mitzpe Ramon on February 7th. As you can see, you would need an absolutely clear western horizon to view this conjunction, since the two planets are so low in the sky.
It was a truly beautiful, silent night as the sun set, not very cold and quite still with no wind, and I was perched on the rim of the crater watching the sky darken. As it did I was treated to a rare sight: The Zodiacal Light. I had see it the previous week on a star tour and pointed it out to my guests. The Zodiacal Light is a pyramid of light that can be seen shining up from the horizon almost vertically 30 degress to 40 degrees into the sky, shortly after sunset, usually during January and February. It is the light that billions of tiny particles of interplanetary dust in our solar system back sctter towards us as they reflect the light of the sun. It is the primordial stuff of creation. It's easiest to see in January and February because the Zodiac, or the ecliptic as astronomers call it, the plane of the planets' orbit around the sun, makes a nearly vertical angle with the horizon in those months, raising the Zodiacal Light high into the sky and making it easy to see. You need a really dark and clear sky to see it, which is one reason why I never viewed it until I came to Mitzpe Ramon. Last Thursday night was only the third time in my life I have seen the Zodiacal Light!

The Zodiacal Light, a pyramidal shaped cone of light that rises from the horizon about 40 degrees into the night sky shortly after dark. The light is a reflection of sun light off myriads of tiny particles of interplanetary dust in our solar system, left over from the dawn of creation. The two red glows at the horizon to either side of the Zodiacal Light are distant towns in the Negev in the direction of the Sinai Peninsula.

As long as I was out I decided to try my hand at a little constellation and casual deep-sky photography. My first target was M31, the great spiral galaxy in the constellation Andromeda  This spiral galaxy is our nearest neighboring spiral galaxy at 2.5 million light years away. This is the most distant object you can see with your naked eye, and one of the naked eye treats of my star tours.

M31, the farthest object visible with the naked eye, 2.5 million light years from earth. Here it is seen as a cigar shaped smudge of light with a bright core. In the sky it subtends an angle of 4 degrees, eight full moon diameters, although it requires a telescope to see that much of it. To the naked eye it appears to subtend an angle of about 1/2 degree, or one full moon diameter.
One more photo. The Constellation Orion, one of the most popular constellations in the sky. Bright stars,  the Great Nebula (M42), and it actually looks like a giant hunter. What's not to like!?

The constellation Orion, a magnificent star forming region if the Orion-Cygnus spur of the Milky Way galaxy. Most of the stars are about 1300 light years from earth.

If you're looking for something to do in Mitzpe Ramon, why not try a star tour where you can see these wonders with your own eyes.

And remember...Keep on lookin' up!
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