By Don Pablo

After months of grey skies that inhibited views of the cosmos for earthlings in this part of the world, the clouds have finally dispersed. As we approach summer, the clear skies come bearing gifts for sky gazers to make up for the lost months. It’s late October in Nairobi and a lot is happening in the sky. Between now and the solstice on December 21st, sky gazers in Kenya will see the brightest planet in the solar system reaching its pinnacle in brilliance, a solar eclipse and a potentially super bright comet.

As if sensing the astronomical thirst we have had to endure, the skies have wasted no time in putting up a show for us. Planet Venus has been lighting up the sky as it beams mightily in the west at dusk, living up to its ‘evening star’ moniker. The evening star is the brightest planet visible from earth and the third brightest celestial body after the sun and moon. Venus dominates the western sky and is visible for two hours after sunset before setting in the western horizon. That it’s visible in the early evening sky makes it particularly easy to view.


Position of Venus in the evening sky. Antares is the brightest star in the Scorpius constellation (c/o

Venus has been visible for the better part of the last three months. It was particularly dazzling three nights ago when perched right at the ‘tail’ of the Scorpius constellation, one of the twelve constellations of the Zodiac. Identifying Venus should help you see the Scorpius constellation given their proximity at this particular time in this part of the world. As you can tell from the name, the Scorpius constellation resembles a scorpion as shown in the image below.


Venus (in red) and the Scorpius constellation

Having curtain raised for its more illustrious celestial bodies, Venus leaves the stage for the Sun and Moon to enchant us. On the 3rd of November, the moon will pass between the Earth and the Sun, partially blocking out the Sun and putting on a spectacular celestial show for people who are in the right place to see it. This particular solar eclipse has received a lot of coverage in Kenya and rightly so. The Turkana region offers some of the best views of the eclipse anywhere in the world.

When the Moon passes directly between the Sun and Earth, the usual outcome is either a total or partial solar eclipse. But the event on November 3rd is something of a hybrid. A hybrid solar eclipse occurs when the Moon is almost too close to the Earth to completely block the Sun. This type of eclipse will appear as a total eclipse to some parts of the world and will appear as a partial eclipse to others.

The eclipse path will begin in the Atlantic Ocean off the eastern coast of the United States and move east across the Atlantic and across central Africa.


Turkana region lies directly in the path of the total eclipse (c/o

Totality will be visible only from a narrow track of earth, stretching from Gabon in the west to Kenya and Ethiopia in the east. In this very narrow path across Africa, there will be a total eclipse when the moon covers the sun completely, with darkness descending and the stars coming out! In every other place of Africa beyond that narrow band of totality, everyone will see a partial eclipse including folks in Nairobi and Mombasa.


Path of the solar eclipse (click to view gif) – c/o

Kenya will be a particularly popular destination for astro tourists seeking to enjoy this rare occurrence. While the eclipse duration locally is only 11 seconds or less (compared to more than a minute in Gabon), the northwest region of Kenya has excellent weather prospects with clear skies expected.

(Please note that it is dangerous to look directly at the sun without the aid of a solar filter to block the sun’s harmful rays. It may cause “eclipse blindness,” a serious eye injury that can leave temporary or permanent blurred vision or blind spots at the center of your view. If you cannot access a solar filter, try get your hands on a welder’s protective glasses. Used camera films aren’t of much help so you might want to reconsider using that as well).

Fast forward to November 28th and newly discovered comet ISON will make its closest approach to the sun. If the comet survives its encounter with the sun, it could be one of the brightest comets in recent memory. Some astronomers estimate that it could even be bright enough to be seen during the day!

The big question mark however is whether the comet will stay intact, or shatter in spectacular fashion. If the comet survives, it will be visible in the early morning and early evening sky and could be nearly as bright as the full Moon. Some astronomers are already calling it the comet of the century.

The end of the year marks the beginning of summer in the Southern hemisphere. On December 21st, the South Pole of the earth will be tilted toward the Sun, when it ‘reaches’ its southernmost position in the sky and will be directly over the Tropic of Capricorn at 23.44 degrees south. This is the first day of winter (winter solstice) in the Northern Hemisphere and the first day of summer (summer solstice) in the Southern Hemisphere.

Given our position on earth, we are lucky enough to witness some spectacular celestial events in the coming weeks. If you are lucky enough to be able to travel to Turkana, savour the moment and please share your pictures and experiences with us. If you can’ travel to Turkana, you can enjoy the sights from the relative comfort of the home. Wherever you may be, enjoy these sensory delights and  marvel at the wonders of the universe.

Categories: Astronomy | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


It’s late January in Nairobi, at the height of summer in this corner of the world. Nairobi is located a degree below the equator hence experiencing southern hemisphere summer which starts from December 21st to March 21st. As is the norm in summer, daytime skies are almost always devoid of clouds, a blue hue hugging the horizons from sunrise to sunset.

The phenomenon of the sky sans cloud cover extends into the night to the delight of sky gazers. This year, the sky gazing experience has taken a spectacular dimension, with a rare pile up in celestial traffic easily visible through the naked eye. Just after sunset, Venus can be clearly seen in the western sky. That Venus is the 3rd brightest celestial object in the sky (after the sun and moon) and the brightest of the eight planets makes it easily identifiable in the night sky. The planet is visible for about an hour after sunset, slowly descending into the western horizon and getting brighter before setting.The image below shows how you can identify Venus on the evening of January 26th 2012.

Venus and moon on the evening of January 26 2012. (Image c/o

Joining Venus in lighting up the evening sky is the solar system’s largest planet Jupiter. Jupiter, the fourth brightest heavenly body, has been clearly visible in Nairobi right after sunset for the better part of the past three months. Look out for a bright object directly overhead after the sun sets. With Venus setting an hour after sunset, Jupiter monopolizes the western half of the sky before setting at around midnight.

At around 11pm, the third planet visible without aid rises in the eastern sky. Mars is approaching its closest position relative to our planet Earth in two years, making it seem brighter and redder than usual. This is the best time to view the red planet. Mars is visible throughout the night, perching itself low in the western sky just before sunrise.

To add to the excitement, Jupiter and Venus are heading for a spectacular conjunction reminiscent of the famous smiley 🙂 phenomenon of December 2008. Each day, Venus climbs higher up the sky taking a longer time to set than the previous day. As such, Venus is seen for a few more minutes each day than the previous day. The opposite is true for Jupiter as it descends down the sky, visible for fewer minutes than the previous day. To put it simply, the distance between Venus and Jupiter at sunset reduces each day as the ‘edge closer’ to each other. This will culminate in the two planets visually appearing to be next to each other or even ‘colliding’ with each other.

Illustration of Venus and Jupiter conjunction, December 1st 2008.

Those are three planets effortlessly visible and including earth, four of the eight planets in our solar system seen through the naked eye. I don’t know about you but seeing half of the solar system in one night is something to get excited about. Add this to the fact that the greatest concentration of stars and constellations in the sky (including the famous Orion and the brightest star Sirius) is visible in southern latitudes makes for the some of best sky gazing experiences I have indulged in. With the moon being two days old and setting soon after sunset, tonight would be a good day to make your sky gazing debut soon after the sun sets. Seize the chance. Enjoy.

Categories: Astronomy | Tags: , , , | 10 Comments

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