27 May 2009

Blue Neptune

A first for me: Early this morning before sunrise was the first of three conjunctions between Neptune and Jupiter. The rare "triple conjunction" started this morning with a close passage of Jupiter near Neptune in Capricorn. The separation was less than half a degree (less than a moon-width) and the difference visually between giant Jupiter and its four moons and blue Neptune was dramatic. Neptune looks essentially like a dim blue star through binoculars -- and is invisible to the unaided eye.

I had never taken the time to look for Neptune in the past. Because it is so dim and nearly impossible to resolve to anything but a pinpoint of light, I had never been motivated to seek it in a field of dim stars. But with Jupiter as my guide, it was an easy find and a magical moment to see those two solar system objects in one field of view. The alignment of two very distant planets - one 450 million miles away, the other almost 3 billion miles away - in a compact cluster less than half a degree apart was nothing short of remarkable. Now that the two planets have lined up once, they will soon reverse course and move in retrograde motion across the sky and will have the second conjunction on July 13th. Then they will return to prograde motion and have their final conjunction on December 20th. This long slow process is rare indeed, but as Jupiter speeds eastward away from Neptune after December 20th, it will soon arrive near to Uranus and will have a triple conjunction with Uranus starting in June 2010. I'll be sure to catch that one as well - because - yes, because I haven't ever seen Uranus either!


Sidewalk Universe said...

Good for you Paul! I remember my first view of Neptune, and it was a very moving experience. It is a lovey blue ball set against the back ground stars in a medium scope.

After years of attempts I was finely able to spy Neptune's captured dwarf world Triton with my dob from my backyard - that was pretty cool.

Thanks for another super posting!

The Urban Astronomer said...

Hey there Richard - thanks for the note.

I have renewed motivation to set up my scope for a proper Neptune viewing. I have two challenges: the weather here in SF has been getting foggy now that the inland is warming up, and adding to that is the ever-earlier sunrise.

I'll try this weekend to get up at 4:00 (!) to see the duo up close. Would be cool to resolve Neptune into a disc. And to think that you found Triton - wow, that is inspiration.

Sidewalk Universe said...

You must seek out Uranus - even with a modest scope 6-8 inch you can pick out it's principle Shakespearean named moons! Just use S&T's moon tracker for Neptune's Triton and Uranus moons and have a go at it. Just wait for good seeing at the eyepiece and you will catch'em bro! If I can catch them anyone can!

I totally enjoy these two worlds in the telescope - and I would like you to post how it goes for you as you seek to resolve them in your scope!