Why is Comet ISON Green?…. and other updates

Great news, everyone! Astronomers world wide have confirmed that in the last day or so, ISON has increased in brightness to the point where it is visible to the naked eye. You still have to look closely, as it is still on the border of visibility. Astronomers expect the comet to brighten as it continues to approach the Sun, but no one can know for sure. Through telescopes the green color of the comet is visible.


So why is the comet green? It isn’t uncommon for comets to glow green. This is due to the presence of certain chemicals inside the comet that are released as the nucleus sublimates away into space. Most often these chemicals are cyanogen (CN) and diatomic carbon (C2). Both of these chemicals emit greenish-blue light when in a vacuum (like outer space) and exposed to large amounts of energy (which they are getting from the Sun).

Today I came across this awesome interactive website that allows you to track ISON (as well as other Solar System objects) through the sky from different points of view. I’ll be using  it to see where ISON will be over the next view weeks, it also gives you key dates and info. Click the picture below to visit the site:


Unfortunately for us here in Baton Rouge, the next few days have a lot of clouds in the forecast! There will still be time to view the comet early next week once the sky clears… Between now and November 28 the comet is approaching the Sun. From Earth it will be getting closer and closer to the horizon in the early morning sky. If you can, try and view it before Thanksgiving.  All you have to do is:

1. Wake up very early, around 5:00 AM!

2. Find a place with a clear view of the eastern horizon.


3. Find the constellation Virgo (outlined in the image above), it will be nearly due east.

4. Look for a faint fuzzy object

5. If you’re feeling up to it, bring the camera out and snap a picture. Click here for a past article about astrophotography tips, it is for a meteor shower, but similar rules apply.

6. While you’re out, don’t miss Saturn, Mercury, and Mars.

Astronomers are unsure of ISON’s fate after it’s close approach to the Sun (which will occur on Thanksgiving Day), it is possible that the Sun’s gravity will cause ISON’s nucleus to break apart. If ISON survives its close encounter with the Sun, it will be visible once again in the morning sky around December 6th. Cross your fingers for ISON’s safe passage around the Sun, and happy viewing!

Make Your Own Spray Paint Space Painting In One Minute!

1 minute space painting by Brandon McConnell

Brandon McConnell has been making some very cool looking spray paint space paintings for quite some time now.  Like so many other artists, his artistic journey began by doodling things on paper during the school hours.  I’m sure he got in trouble with this from time to time but it did set the ground work for him to win first prize in his High School art contest for his ink and airbrush art.  Then one day, during a day trip to Mexico, he came across a street artist doing paintings with spray paint.  After buying some of the street artist’s pieces he was able to study them at his home and learn the  methods used to create them.  The next day he went out, bought some spray paint cans, and started making his own space art.

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Pale Blue Dot

NASA just released a panoramic image of Saturn and some of its closest moons, but it also includes the tiny, blue dot we call home – planet Earth, some 900 million miles away.  Taken by the Cassini probe now orbiting Saturn, the image also captures our companion worlds Venus and Mars.  The panorama was pieced together from natural-color photographs taken in July.

Each pixel in the photograph represents about 45 miles. Seven out of Saturn’s 53 known moons are visible in their planet’s seven rings. There’s Prometheus, Pandora, Janus and Epimetheus near Saturn’s slim F ring. There’s Enceladus in the bright blue E ring. There’s Tethys, a yellow bulb, and Mimas, just a crescent, wedged between rings.

Cassini at Saturn 1

Venus is located to Saturn’s upper left, which is seen as a bright, white spot.  Mars, a pale red dot, is above and to the left of Venus. There are 809 stars captured by Cassini’s lens in this image.  And we Earthlings are on the blue dot at Saturn’s lower right.

This cosmic portrait had been planned for months and on July 19, NASA announced that all the conditions were right for such a picture, including that on this date, Saturn completely eclipsed the sun, allowing Cassini’s sensors to image this portrait.  The cosmic photo is a composite of 141 images taken over four hours, selected out of 343 images total. The photograph was then digitally enhanced to pull from the blackness Venus, Mars, Earth, Saturn’s moons, and all the stars in the frame. Most of the objects in the photograph, including Earth, were brightened by 8 times relative to Saturn; some of the stars were brightened by as much as 16 times.

This was also the first time that humans were told in advance that Earth was being put before a camera. So, in what was called NASA’s “Wave at Saturn” campaign, the Cassini’s Imaging team asked us all to turn out for the July 19 picture day to wave and smile for the camera in the cosmos.

Cassini at Saturn 2



“On July 19, 2013, in an event celebrated the world over, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft slipped into Saturn’s shadow and turned to image the planet, seven of its moons, its inner rings — and, in the background, our home planet, Earth.”(NASA)

Remember when we wrote about the Casini Spacecraft photographing the Earth from the other side of Saturn?   Well, now all the data and pixels have been put together with a lot of hard work from the project scientists and the amazing result is here:


Go look at the amazing image from across the solar system. You will be amazed…. Zoom in and look at the planets and other objects in the background.

Comet ISON is Coming!

Comet ISON is Coming!

Get ready everyone! Comet ISON is approaching the Sun, and is expected to be visible in the pre-dawn sky as early as this weekend. Check back with us for all things Comet ISON: comet updates, photography tips, and more. Don’t forget to come visit LASM to view “Vagabonds of the Solar System: Comets Past and Present” exhibition opens November 19th!

Antique Jewelry Inspired by Comet Halley

As part of our upcoming comet exhibition at LASM, the museum acquired a collection of very interesting pieces of jewelry.  The staff and I are quite fascinated by them. Their simple design is easily overlooked at an antique store if one isn’t familiar with the style. I will definitely be on the look out next time I’m at an antique store!!

halleys-comet-1986In the late 1700s and early 1800s one might say that the astronomical community was gripped by “comet fever”. Many astronomers, including Charles Messier spent many nights at their telescopes hunting for comets. Messier himself discovered over ten comets, as well as many star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies (Later known as the Messier Objects) that he cataloged as “non comets.” “Comet Fever” also took the public by storm, leading to many interesting pieces of artwork.

My particular favorite are the Halley’s Comet pins. Inspired by the unique shape of a comet in the sky, these pins are often simple in design. They are often a horizontal brooch style pin usually about an inch and a half long, with a gem placed at one end to represent the comet itself, and a thin bar to represent the tail. To the untrained eye, the pins appear asymmetrical and somewhat strange. These pins were quite the trend in the mid 1800s to the early 1900s. They range in intricacy, type of metal, as well as type of gemstone.

Earlier pins tended to have highly ornate metal working in the “tail segment”.


The style evolved into a more streamlined, modern look in the early 1900s.

The comet pin underwent a radical change in the mid to late 1900s, pins became large and more compex.

Below is one of the pins from the LASM collection.


The pins in our collection all date back to around 1835. Note the detail in the metal tail.

The exhibition “Vagabonds of the Solar System: Comets Past and Present” opens at LASM on November 19th! Visit the museum to view our collection of comet pins and vintage comet memorabilia, and to learn the historical and scientific significance of comets.

Backyard Astronomy

Clear November night skies offer several good reasons for bundling up and spending some time stargazing, even when it’s from your backyard. For early morning risers, Comet ISON should reach naked eye brightness toward the end of this month, but until then its visible in small telescopes low in the east-southeast sky before sunrise. ISON passes closest to the Sun on November 28 and is expected to become as bright as the planet Venus.

ISONNov20If you’re having trouble seeing ISON, try looking for the ring planet Saturn, along with the closest planet to the Sun – Mercury, near the horizon. Saturn is a pale, yellowish object that will rise higher in the early morning sky beginning in December and a sight not to be missed if you’re out before sunrise. But the solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter, is a much easier object to locate primarily because it,s big and bright – visible in the east shortly after 8 pm. and high overhead by midnight; it’s the brightest object in the eastern sky. Even throiugh a pair of binoculars, you should be able to observe its four brightest moons and from night to night notice that these tiny moons change position as they orbit Jupiter.
A must see object in the eastern evening fall and winter night sky is the Pleiades star cluster, easily visible even in an urban setting without any optical aid. The cluster is located in the constellation Taurus the Bull and is best when seen through a pair of binoculars.

Fall and early winter skies are usually clear and less humid, making backyard observing very rewarding, even without binoculars.

And You Thought Daylight Savings Time Was Confusing: Computer Time For International Space Ventures

Daylight Savings Time for Space

You can thank Benjamin Franklin for the concept of Daylight Savings Time.  The story goes that in 1784, serving as Ambassador to France, that he awoke one morning at 6 a.m. and found many of the Parisians were still in bed with the shutters closed to keep out the light.  As a result, they were sleeping into the daylight hours and burning candles into the night.  Now, much of the United States, Canada, and Europe all embrace Daylight Savings Time.  So every fall and every spring we have to go through the whole “spring forward, fall back” scenario and adjust our clocks.  We all get the phone calls from Mom and the emails from work to remind us to reset our clocks.  And, of course, it still takes time for us to get to all the clocks around the house: the microwave, the stove, the bedroom clocks, the car stereo.  It can be a bit confusing at times, “It’s already 3 o’clock?…oh, I forgot to change that one.  It’s only 2.  I’ve still got an hour.”

Well, if you thought Daylight Savings Time is confusing wait till you see what Astronomers have to go through.

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How many habitable planets?

Looking at the latest analysis of the data from the Kepler Spacecraft the number of habitable planets are potentially now one in five. 

Habitable zones are neither too hot nor too cold

Analysis by UC Berkeley and University of Hawaii astronomers shows that one in five sun-like stars are potentially habitable.

“When you look up at the thousands of stars in the night sky, the nearest sun-like star with an Earth-size planet in its habitable zone is probably only 12 light years away and can be seen with the naked eye. That is amazing,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Erik Petigura, who led the analysis of the Kepler data.

When the  James Webb Space Telescope is launched, hopefully in 2018, it should be able to look at these habitable plants and see in even more detail the surface of the planets. One of the four James Webb science themes is Planetary Systems and the Origins of Life.

It’s just a matter if time until we discover that first other ‘Blue Marble.’