Today the planet Neptune will pass through opposition, directly opposite the Sun in our sky. The planet will be well placed for observation all night long, rising at sunset, transiting at midnight, and setting at sunrise. If you are looking to observe Neptune, it is currently shining at magnitude 7.8 in eastern Aquarius.
As the outer planets Uranus and Neptune move so slowly across the sky, the timing of oppositions is driven by the Earth’s orbit and occur each year at nearly the same time. Neptune’s orbital period is 164.8 years, taking over a century and a half to circle the celestial globe once. As Neptune was discovered in 1846, it has completed a little over one orbit since discovery.
We have a bright comet in the dawn sky for a few days. Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE has brightened rapidly over the past few weeks, now about 1st magnitude it can just be seen against the glow of dawn.
I took along Hodepodge to serve as a tracking mount for the TV-76mm scope and a couple cameras to do some comet shooting. The Canon 6D would go with the small ‘scope, the EOS-M5 with a tripod for wide angle shots.
Driving up Waikoloa road I was troubled by a bank of clouds in the Waimea saddle, thus I elected to head for the Humuʻula saddle instead. I ended up in the lava fields along the Mauna Loa access road. The view was perfect, and I had just enough time to get the mount and camera setup as the comet rose.
Today is February 29th, that odd date that only occurs every four years.
The reason for a leap day inserted into the calendar, the existence of February 29th, is ultimately astronomical. Perhaps a little explanation is in order…
We originally defined days as the time it takes the Earth to rotate. While we define years as the time it takes the Earth to orbit once around the Sun. The problem is that these values do not divide evenly into one another.
The Earth takes about 365.24219 days to obit the Sun, when measured by the Sun’s position in the sky, what is called a tropical year. There are different ways to measure a year, but if one is concerned with keeping the seasons in sync with your calendar, then you are interested in tropical years.
It is that bunch of decimals, the 0.24219 etc., that is the problem, every four years the count drifts out of sync by roughly one day. The insertion of an extra day every four years helps bring the calendar back into synchronization with the orbit of the Earth and with the seasons.
Even leap years do not quite fix the problem as 0.24219 is close, but not quite 0.25 or one quarter of a day. Thus additional corrections are needed… Enter leap centuries.
Our current calendar was instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, setting up a standard set of corrections for the fractional difference between the length of a year and the length of a day. Scholars knew that errors had been accumulating in the calendar for centuries, resulting in a drift of several days.
Religious authorities were concerned that this drift had displaced important celebrations in the church calendar, in particular the celebration of Easter. After much argument it was decided to reform the calendar. The current solution was devised by a number of astronomers, including Aloysius Lilius, the primary author of the new system.
The Gregorian Calendar uses an extra day in February every four years, unless the year is divisible by 100, then there is no leap leap day that year. However, if the year is divisible by 400, then it is a leap year. While this may sound odd, it does create a correction much closer to the ideal value of 365.24219 days per year.
I am a geek, so let us put that into code…
Even this is not perfectly precise. The correction is close but will drift given enough time. The length of a tropical year also changes slowly over time. We will eventually have to add another correction to keep the calendar and the seasons in sync. But not for a few millennia, good enough, for now.
As 2020 is divisible by four and not divisible by 100, there will be a leap day added to the end of this February… Today.
Today Mercury is passing through maximum elongation, the furthest it will rise above the rising Sun in the dawn sky. After today the planet will slide back into the Sun’s glare headed for superior conjunction on January 10th.
This is a modest apparition, with the planet only 20° from the Sun.