Viewing the Best Meteor Shower of the Year

Meteorwatch

It is time for the annual Lyrid meteor shower and this year it will be better than usual.  The peak of this spectacle will be the night of April 22 and will continue through the dark morning hours of the 23rd.  The moon will be in its waxing crescent phase and will set around midnight local daylight time, leaving the prime viewing hours before dawn moon-free.

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Catch the Total Lunar Eclipse on April 4th

TLE

This April 4th, 2015, most of North America, South America, Asia, and parts of Australia will be able to view a Total Lunar Eclipse.  The moon will be eclipsed in totality for about 5 minutes.  The entire event will take place, from beginning to end, for 3 hours and 29 minutes.

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New Images of Dwarf Planet Ceres from the Dawn Spacecraft

ceres

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has traveled roughly 3 billion miles at this point and it’s finally set its sights on the dwarf planet Ceres.  Images of Ceres were released back in December, but those images were just for calibration.  Dawn’s recently captured pictures are about 27 pixels across, about three times better than what it took last month.

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Partial Solar Eclipse This Thursday

Partial solar eclipse

In the evening hours of this Thursday October 23, 2014 a partial solar eclipse will be visible here in Baton Rouge, weather permitting.  A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes directly between the Earth and Sun, thereby totally or partly obscuring the image of the Sun for a viewer on Earth.  On Thursday, the center of the Moon’s shadow will miss the Earth, but a partial eclipse will be visible before sunset across most of North America.  If you want to see a total eclipse you’ll have to wait a few more years.

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SPECTACULAR METEOR SHOWER……. MAYBE.

North America is predicted to have the best view of a possible new meteor shower from Comet 209P/LINEAR Friday night through Saturday morning (May 23-24, 2014). (Deborah Boyd-EarthSky)

We have had some astronomical disappointments of late but we might just see a really nice meteor shower this Friday night into Saturday morning. 

Where to see the Camelopardalid meteor showerMeteors from the May 24th’s early-morning display can appear anywhere in the sky, but they will appear to originate from a point (called the radiant) in the constellation Camelopardalis, the Giraffe. Stars are plotted for 2 a.m. local daylight time as seen from mid-northern latitudes. Sky & Telescope illustration.

I plan on being up with my Nikon and mosquito spray to hopefully get some nice shots of the unexpected astronomical display.   What a nice late spring surprise and who knows, maybe an nice annual event. I will share photos here on Saturday… if all goes well.

Total Lunar Eclipse – April 15

Take a late night break from doing your taxes!

lunareclipse

View an eclipse of the moon on April 15!

April 15 – 2 am. Central Time

In the morning of Tuesday, April 15, the full moon will pass through earth’s shadow producing a total lunar eclipse visible across North America.  Lunar eclipses are perfectly safe to view, and an exciting family event.

The total lunar eclipse phase begins at 02.06 am when the edge of the moon first enters the darkest part of earth’s shadow.  The moon will be completely within the shadow for 78 minutes, ending at 3.34 am.

For people in the United States, this eclipse is the first in an extraordinary series of lunar eclipses in what astronomers call a lunar eclipse tetrad—a series of four consecutive total eclipses occurring at approximately six month intervals. The total eclipse of April 15 will be followed by another on Oct. 8, 2014, and another on April 4, 2015, and another on Sept. 28 2015. All four total eclipses will be visible over most of the U.S.  Although lunar eclipse tetrads are rare, they have frequently occurred in the past and there are nine sets of tetrads occurring during the 21st century.

On average, lunar eclipses occur about twice a year, but not all of them are total. There are three types:

A penumbral eclipse is when the moon passes through the pale outskirts of earth’s shadow. It’s so subtle that sky watchers often don’t notice an eclipse is underway.

A partial eclipse is more dramatic. The moon dips into the core of earth’s shadow, but not all the way, so only a fraction of moon is darkened.

A total eclipse, when the entire moon is shadowed, is best of all. The face of the moon turns sunset-red for up to an hour or more as the eclipse slowly unfolds.

Usually, lunar eclipses come in no particular order. A partial can be followed by a total, followed by a penumbral, and so on. Anything goes. Occasionally, though, the sequence is more orderly. When four consecutive lunar eclipses are all total, the series is called a tetrad.

Weather permitting; this Tuesday’s total eclipse will turn the moon red. Why red?

Total lunar eclipses occur only when the moon passes completely through the shadow of the earth, and if you imagined yourself standing on the dusty lunar surface during just an eclipse and looking up at the sky, the shadow of the earth would completely block out the sun.  You might expect earth seen in this way to be utterly dark, but it’s not. The rim of the planet is on fire! As you scan your eye around earth’s circumference, you’re seeing every sunrise and every sunset in the world, all of them, all at once. This incredible light beams into the heart of earth’s shadow, filling it with a coppery glow and transforming the moon into a great red orb.

Mark your calendar for April 15th and let the tetrad begin.

It’s Time to Look for Orion, the Mighty Hunter

ImageOrion, the hunter, is one of the most popular constellations in the night sky; so you may have already seen him this winter or in late fall. Throughout the year, no matter the season, when I am in schools with our Discovery Dome portable planetarium someone often asks me to point out Orion. The mighty hunter is also one of the largest and easiest constellations to find. Most people find it by locating the three stars that make up Orion’s “belt” which is an asterism or recognizable group of stars that are part of a constellation. The names of the three stars that make up Orion’s belt are Alnitak, Alnilam and Minatka. One of the brightest stars in the sky is on Orion’s right shoulder. It’s called Betelgeuse.

Orion’s belt is the only group of three stars that are spaced so evenly making them very easy to recognize. Once you have found the belt, the hunter easily pops into view especially when it is right overhead during the cold evenings of winter.

Besides being easy to spot, the constellation Orion is also where you will find one of the most beautiful objects in the night sky, the Orion Nebula. Count down to the third bright object in Orion’s sword and you will find not a star but the Orion Nebula. With binoculars focused on this object, you will find many stars rather than one.

So the next time you look for Orion in the night sky be sure to also take a look at the third object in his sword for the giant cloud of gas and dust that makes up this birthplace or stars and solar systems.

Image

The Orion Nebula from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Credit: NASA

 

The Geminid Meteor Shower

The Geminid Meteor shower occurs each December, and this year we can expect to see up to 50 meteors each hour. Check out this awesome timelapse that I wish I could say I did, but someone else made it…. This timelapse was taken of the Geminids last year over the Pacific Coast.

Meteor showers are caused when Earth passes through the orbital path of a comet, the debris left behind by the comet falls into Earth’s atmosphere creating many shooting stars. The Geminid shower is different. Scientists have determined that this shower occurs when Earth passes through a debris field of an asteroid. This asteroid is called 3200 Phaethon. Observations show that this object is strange indeed, and sometimes behaves similar to a comet. Its orbit brings it in close to the Sun, and then back out again. Jets of dust and gas have been seen spewing from the asteroid at times. Tiny pieces of dust and rock are left behind by 3200 Phaethon as it travels through space, and these cause the Geminid Meteor Shower. The tiny arrows in the image below point to 3200 Phaethon, this image was created by combining multiple images over the span of 20 minutes to show the asteroid’s movement relative to the background stars.

3200paetheon

Meteor showers are named for constellation that their radiant lies in. The radiant is the point from which the meteors appear to radiate from in the sky. The constellation Gemini will rise above the horizon around 9 PM Central Time tonight (December 13th). It will be nearly overhead around 2 AM. This year the moon will also be visible in the sky, which will make it more difficult to see the fainter meteors.

Gemini

While Baton Rouge forecasts are saying rain throughout this evening, some reports indicate that the sky will clear a bit after midnight. Incidentally this is the best time to go out and find meteors! Meteor watching requires patience and sharp eyes, each year the number of meteors changes. Happy viewing!