A Promising Start To The Year? Some 2017 Observations

By Richard Harvey

After a very cloudy 2016 winter, we’ve at last been afforded a handful of clear skies for the first few months of 2017. For some reason, Wednesdays seem to be the night we’ve had the most clear skies, with the weekends typically clouded over. This is most irritating for those for astronomers with 9-5 weekday jobs, it seems we’re always at the whims of nature!

Venus through 8” Skywatcher in January and February 2017
Photo 1 – Venus through 8” Skywatcher in January and February 2017

Venus has been putting on a superb show in the early evening sky, rising very high through February, and presently, (I’m writing this on 17th March), is heading lower in the Western sky. When it’s so visible, most amateur astronomers often get friends asking “what was that bright star I saw last night?” I’ve been asked several times over the past couple of months.

I took some photos of Venus through my 8” Skywatcher in January and February, and was pleased to be able to capture the both the changes in the apparent size and phases of the planet, as it gets nearer to us on its journey round the sun, (photo 1). On the 5th January it was approx 111,000,000 km away from the Earth, and on 26th February approx 54,000,000km away. It always fascinates me that Mercury and the Venus are the only planets that show Moon-like ‘phases’, being closer to the Sun than us.

Moon and Jupiter rising over Wolverhampton
Photo 2 – Moon and Jupiter rising over Wolverhampton

Staying with the planets, I was very pleased this week to see Jupiter rising at a decent observable hour. On Tuesday 14th March, it was visited by an almost full, waning moon. I took this shot from my often visited lay-by near Albrighton, as the Moon and Jupiter rose over Wolverhampton. It was a very pretty sight indeed, (photo 2), made all the more pleasant by the surprisingly warm evening.

Jupiter and its moons through an 8" Skywatcher with 2x Barlow
Photo 3 – Jupiter and its moons through an 8″ Skywatcher with 2x Barlow

The same evening, back in Chapel Ash, I managed to get the first decent telescopic observations of Jupiter since last August, (it’s like visiting an old friend!). The planet is not too low in the sky, climbing higher nightly towards the South at the moment, (look for a bright, un-twinkling cream-coloured star). At 10pm on the 14th, all four moons were on display, and I took this single, shot with 2x Barlow, (photo 3). I’m hoping to get some much more detailed shots of this amazing planet over the summer months, by filming it and ‘stacking’ the frames.

The Winter constellations Canis Major, Orion and Taurus
Photo 4 – The Winter constellations Canis Major, Orion and Taurus

Whilst reading the Sky At Night book ‘How To Read The Solar System’ this week, I was reminded that Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede is actually larger than Mercury, but of course, it’s rated as a moon, rather than a planet. The Sky at Night book, by the way, was only £4.00, new and hardback from The Works bookshop, Wolverhampton, which is a real bargain! They’ve still got stock, well recommended.

The Winter constellations are making their journey Westward as the Spring approaches (photo 4). Canis Major, Orion, Taurus, will soon be lost in the twilight. They’re pictured here looking towards Telford, in early March, before midnight, (the light sky is a bit deceiving, it was actually quite dark but I used a 20 second exposure time with my Fuji compact camera).

The Moon’s Southern highlands
Photo 5 – The Moon’s Southern highlands
Canon 750D SLR with 2X barlow attached by a T-ring to 8" Skywatcher
Photo 6 – Canon 750D SLR with 2X barlow attached by a T-ring to 8″ Skywatcher

We had a good run of clear skies around early January, and I was pleased to get this quite clear shot of the Moon’s Southern highlands on the 6th January (photo 5). Seasoned Moon-gazers will recognise the familiar chain of craters, which include the Ptolemaus chain. This photo, along with the Venus and Jupiter shots, were single shots, taken with a Canon 750D SLR with 2X barlow attached by a T-ring to my 8” Skywatcher (photo 6).

I’ve enjoyed some binocular observations of globular star-clusters in the constellation of Auriga recently, (Auriga is seen in photo 7, with the Pleiades and Perseus, pictured from Tong, near Albrighton in January). Callum Potter’s fine WOLVAS lecture on globular clusters in February inspired me to find a few during that month. With a pair of 10×8 binoculars I was able to find several of the brighter clusters. Auriga has several clusters with Messier numbers that are easily visible if you know where to look.

Auriga with the Pleiades and Perseus, pictured from Tong, in January
Photo 7 – Auriga with the Pleiades and Perseus, pictured from Tong, in January

So, although I haven’t had chance to take the telescope out to a dark sky site for some serious deep sky observations, 2017 has started out quite nicely indeed, as the Winter finally comes to an end and the ever-changing night sky prepares itself for the cosmic jewels of the spring and summer.