Missed Conjunction

The evening of August 27, 2016, was scheduled to feature the conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter shortly after sunset, a marvellous mere ½ degree apart, the same as the apparent diameter of the Moon, which is pretty darn close in a big, big sky. That’s a must-see in my book! As a last minute decision I went for the best nearby vantage point I could think of, which was the west side of Slottsfjellet (“Castle Mountain”) in Tønsberg, a mere 20 minute drive from home. I was gonna shoot me some planets!

Hiding behind them there cloudses

Although the sky was mostly clear and outstandingly beautiful with the sunset and all, I missed the conjunction on account of lovely but otherwise annoying clouds on the horizon. On the upside, on account of wearing shorts, I have several brand new mosquito bites to keep me entertained the next few days.

Screenshot from Star Walk overlayed on camera view

I followed the planets until they were well below the horizon. Not only were they hiding behind clouds the whole time, the sky was still bright enough that they probably wouldn’t have been very visible anyway.

According to Space.com, “the next time Venus and Jupiter will get this close will be in November 2065,” by when I will be a whopping 96 years young. Bring it on!

In the mean time I’ll just leave you with this.

Screenshot from Star Walk overlayed on camera view

The sky beneath my feet.
Darkness and light.
And grass.



Planets Hugging Virgo

The celestial trio of Venus, Mars and Jupiter are spreading wider apart, but they are still slightly dominating their part of the south to south-eastern sky in the last hour before sunrise. Right now they’re pretty much hugging the constellation Virgo. Here is what my daughters and I spotted on our way to our respective buses to school and work in the early morning hours of December 15th, with a cool and clear sky above us.

Photos © Bjørnar Andre Haveland
Click images to see larger versions.

VMJ spanning Virgo

The original iPhone 5s shot, at 07:48 (my attempt to use the Nikon was thwarted by the bus arriving right on time for a change). On most screens this will show up as far too dark to see much more than the bright specks of Venus (left) and Jupiter (right). With a bit of luck, optimal illumination, fabulously good eyesight and an impressively clean monitor, you’ll just possibly spot Mars as a barely distinguishable pixel somewhere in the middle.

VMJ spanning Virgo

With the exposure adjusted in the extreme, however, Mars and a neighbouring star both show up reasonably clearly, Mars being the upper right of the two, almost precisely smack bam in the middle between Venus and Jupiter.

VMJ spanning Virgo

Labels, for clarity, because mostentimes a bright dot in the sky looks just like any other bright dot in the sky, of which there are a good many. The one labelled Spica is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, and as far as I can tell from diagrams, lacking a degree in stellar anatomy, it seems to constitute the left hip joint of the virgin in question, assuming she is facing us, otherwise it has to be the right hip joint and we’re looking at her bum. Shame on us!

VMJ spans Virgo

Screenshot from astronomy app Star Walk, showing the same section of the sky, with the planets and surrounding stars in their respective locations, for reference. Incidentally, the bright white orb to Mars’ immediate left is the asteroid 1998 KY26, about 15 metres across, which passed within 800,000 km from Earth on June 8, 1998, but is now about 1.51 AU away, almost as far as Mars, at 1.84 AU. And no, I’m afraid you won’t be able to spot it with the naked eye (in comparison, the Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013 was estimated to be about 20m across).


Within the next couple of weeks Venus will drift even further away from the others, so that around December 30th, Mars will be precisely dead center. At that time, the waning Moon will also come swooshing through the trio, possibly making for some nice conjunctions as its crescent grows thinner. On January 6th, the Moon, with just a sliver of a crescent left, catches up with Venus and Saturn, so if you can actually see Saturn, it’ll likely be a lovely little group.

VMJ spans Virgo - meteor composite

We also saw not one but two shooting stars in that precise part of the sky, a few minutes apart, probably leftovers from the Geminids shower during the night. Now, I hasten to point out that this is a composite of the above original, and a meteor trail taken from another picture. Seeing as meteors wait for no man, and to first spot and then photograph one in the same take requires more time than any meteor is willing to hang around for, I had to resort to low-level Photoshop cheating in order to illustrate the event. My apologies.

Planetary Diagonal

2015 © Bjørnar Andre Haveland. Click for larger image.

Eastern sky at 05:51 today (above). Had a lovely view of the crescent moon, with several planets all lined up as if begging to be taken pictures of. Now, in a hurry, as always, to get to the bus to work on time, I couldn’t spare the moments I would have needed in order to fish out the Nikon and play with settings, so this iPhone shot was the best I could do under the circumstances. Terribly annoying, to be honest. Of course the iPhone can in no way do the actual sight any justice at all.

This near 45° line-up consists of (from bottom left) the moon, Venus (brightest), Mars (that barely visible wee li’l smudge of light above and left of Venus) and Jupiter at the upper right.

The thin, crescent moon was precisely the right brightness for this group picture. It’s a shame my equipment wasn’t up to it. I can always try again tomorrow, and make sure I bring both the time and the tools required for the job, but the moon moves quite a distance in the sky from day to day, counter-clockwise*, so tomorrow at this time it will still be well below the horizon. I’m sure that yesterday and the day before that, it was even better, but I wasn’t there to see it. Timing, alas, is everything.

* Clockwise would have been so much better, in which case I would simply have quietly decided to wait and instead bring you the splendidest pictures I that could muster tomorrow.

2015 © Bjørnar Andre Haveland. Click for larger image.

Here (above) I’ve boosted the exposure and contrast somewhat to make Mars a little more visible next to Venus. It’s still barely more than a bright pixel, almost lost in noise, but at least a bit more noticeable than the faint smudge in the first picture.

2015 © Bjørnar Andre Haveland. Click for larger image.

Off the bus, an hour and a half later, give or take, even though I had sufficient time before starting work to take more pictures, the sky had grown far too bright for it. Mars was not at all visible, and Venus and Jupiter just barely so, even the moon was struggling to make itself known against the morning light. They’re still there, though, except for Mars. Can you find them?

Still, weather permitting, I’ve half a mind to bring the tripod for the Nikon tomorrow, along with a few minutes extra time, and at least capture the planets, if not the moon.

If the Moon gave its place to …

I stumbled across this little animated gif (on right), posted by my friend The Old Wolf on Facebook.

I thought it looked neat, but I seriously wanted a better look at it, and so I set out to find the original on YouTube, and here it is, in somewhat better quality:

Photographer Ron Miller had something of the same idea, using still photos, but beautifully done. Click the photo below to watch the whole series at dailymail.co.uk.

It brought me in mind of Larry Niven’s novel “World Out Of Time“, in which the Earth, in a very distant future, has been relocated to an orbit around Jupiter.

But it made me wonder where the Earth would actually be located in relation to the planets in question. I mean, Jupiter is pretty big. Would we be skimming its upper atmosphere? And would we be ice-surfing the rings of Saturn? How about colliding with the bigger moons of those giants?

So I looked up orbits and planet measurements on Wikipedia, and put together this little schematic. Click for full size view.

I haven’t bothered with the smaller moons yet, but we’re well clear of the bigger ones. The closest we get is a fly-by with Io. But I would be worried about the increased gravitation and the most likely catastrophic consequences that would have for ocean tides. Living along the coastlines could become more of a hairy business than it is now.

Except with Pluto, of course, because that one is even smaller than our own Moon 😉


Update: So, whether or not you actually signed up for the one-way mission to Mars, you might still want a look at how far it actually is. In that case distancetomars.com might do the trick for you.

Venus Transit 2012 – The Event

“So I was standing on the third rock from the Sun, watching the second rock from the Sun, on the Sun.”


If my looking forward to this for some time has been a secret, it has been badly kept. After all it’s a once in a lifetime happening event, and I’ve pretty much felt like a nine year old waiting to be taken to the fun fair. With the time frames in play, chances are that our children’s children won’t see the next one, 105 years from now, but their grandchildren, my great grandchildren, may. Weather permitting.

Note: All time references are in 24 hour format, so no AM/PM.
Sorry about that, Americans

These days the media make it easy to watch such an event even if you’re in a place that makes direct observation impossible or awkward, there’s a plenitude of other observers elsewhere in the world, and some are equipped with cameras broadcasting the whole thing on the Internet. I watched the beginning of the Transit on the live camera feed from the Mt Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii, since it happened at a time when the sun was below the horizon here.

Venus Transit 2012 Montage
Click image for larger sizes on Flickr.com.


From where I sit, the transit started just four minutes after midnight, and the sun didn’t rise until 04:15, when Venus was well two thirds into its crossing. By that time, however, I was ready with tripod, camera, a 300mm lens and a home-made solar filter. A few annoying clouds were in the way, but stayed low on the horizon. By 05:03 the sun was clear of them and I could start taking pictures. All in all I spent three early morning hours on the east balcony, adjusting focus and exposure, capturing several steps of the planetary journey across the burning face of Sol.

Transit camera setup

Which brings me to the pictures. I made several exposures, picked the 14 best or most significant ones and put them together in a montage. The top two images show the clouds that were in the way at sunrise. I had planned to shoot the sun and Venus as they touched the branches of the rightmost tree, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. The leftmost image on the upper row of sun pics is green because I took it through a welding mask filter (a 60×110mm plate of nearly opaque glass) attached to the lens with two bits of tape. It didn’t come out as crisp as I had hoped, but I couldn’t be bothered with tweaking the exposure settings, so I replaced the welding filter with a pair of solar eclipse glasses, mounted on a cardboard frame with a hole cut for one eye and similarly taped to the lens. This worked much better. All the time stamps are in local time, UTC plus two hours (Oslo time, which is GMT + 1 hour + Daylight Savings).

As reasons for sleep deprivation go, I’ll rank this as one of the better ones 🙂

The Sun isn’t very big at a distance of an entire Astronomical Unit (150 million kilometres, 93 million miles). This is how it looks in a full camera frame using the 300mm lens at full zoom.

This is the full pixel size at 05:17. The entire width of the Sun spans a mere 435 pixels in this 10 megapixel picture (3872×2593 pixels total). What really excited me about this is that I managed to capture sunspots!

So why do I bother taking pictures of an event like this, when half the world is doing the same, producing millions upon millions of photographs practically identical to or far better than mine? I think it is because it makes me feel that I am a part of the Universe around us. The distances and the powers in the Cosmos, even those in our nearest planetary neighbourhood, are beyond the imagination of most humans if not all. To capture such an event takes me a little closer to it all, in a way that way that cant’t quite be matched by looking at someone else’s pictures, even if they’re far, far better than my own.

I consider myself lucky for having had the opportunity to witness and photograph not just one but two Venus transits. This was the second. The previous one was on June 8th, 2004, and my photo kit at that time was far less sophisticated, but nevertheless quite functional, which goes to show what you can do even with pretty simple tools.

Fast rewind to June 8, 2004

at 11:57 CET (DST)

The transit started around 07:20, and lasted until 13:20, totally six hours. This picture was taken about 2/3 into the transit. Equipment used was a Canon Digital Ixus 400 camera, a pair of 8x pocket binoculars, a tripod and a pair of solar eclipse protective sunglasses.

She looks so little against the face of the Sun. Just a tiny shadow walking across the yellow circle. It is hard to imagine that she is almost as big as our own Earth. Or is it too frightening a thought that our Earth is just as small? And just moments later, she is lost in the darkness again.

This morning did not look promising at all. Totally overcast, not a shadow anywhere, you couldn’t even tell which general direction the Sun was shining from. That was 7:20. Four hours later, at 11:30, the scene had changed completely. The sky was about 75% clear, and although the Sun was playing hide-and-seek behind the few clouds that were left, it did come out in the open quite often.

I have to say that even though taking pictures like this one, with a pair of binoculars instead of a proper tele, is doable, it is also a pain. It’s absolute vital that you hold the binoculars steady as a rock, and focusing isn’t all that simple. This was my seventh attempt, and the only one that came out close to good – and my arms were going silly trying to keep it all steady and locked.

On hindsight, though, it was definitely worth it!

(08.11.2015) This post has been updated with the Venus Transit of 2004.

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