The Sky Tonight Update: Jan. 19, Mercury at Greatest Western Elongation

Mercury elongation

This January 19th, the planet Mercury reaches its greatest western elongation of 24.1 degrees from the Sun. This is the best time to view Mercury since it will be at its highest point above the horizon in the morning sky. Look for the planet low in the eastern sky just before sunrise.

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The Sky Tonight Update: Ursids Meteor Shower, Dec. 21-22 peak

The Ursids is a minor meteor shower producing about 5-10 meteors per hour. It is produced by dust grains left behind by comet Tuttle, which was first discovered in 1790. The shower runs annually from December 17-25. It peaks this year on the night of the 21st and morning of the 22nd.

The second quarter moon will block many of the fainter meteors but if you are patient, you might still be able to catch a few of the brighter ones. Best viewing will be just after midnight from a dark location far away from city lights. The Meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Ursa Minor, but can appear anywhere in the sky.

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The Sky Tonight Update: Supermoon #3, Dec. 14

December 14th will bring the third and last of what is known as the “supermoon.”  The Moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun and its face will be will be fully illuminated.  This full moon was known by early Native American tribes as the Full Cold Moon because this is the time of year when the cold winter air settles in and the nights become long and dark.

The third supermoon has also been known as the Full Long Nights Moon and the Moon Before Yule. This Moon will be at its closest approach to the Earth and may look slightly larger and brighter than usual.

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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!

ISS Celebrates 15 Years in Space- See if you can locate it while looking for Comet ISON

ZaryaandUnity

The connected Zarya and Unity modules after Unity was released from the Space Shuttle Endeavor’s cargo bay.

Fifteen years ago on  Nov. 20, 1998, the Roscosmos (the former Russian Space Agency) launched a Proton rocket that sent the Zarya module into space.  This was the first section of the International Space Station.  Two weeks later on Dec. 4, the United States launched the Unity module making the 2 modules a real international space station.

The ISS is now the third brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon.  If you know where and when to look you can easily see it without a telescope, and NASA’s Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston can tell you when and where.  Log onto Nasa.gov to receive e-mail or text alerts a few hours before the ISS will be passing over your area.  If you sign up soon you might even be able to spot it while “comet hunting” during the Thanksgiving holiday.

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.

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

What’s Astronomy Anyway?

So What is Astronomy?

I’ve been asked this question a lot over the years and I usually reply by saying the science of astronomy is more than learning a whole lot about stars. Astronomy actually comprises many different ways to look at the universe. At its simplest, astronomy is observation. You go out each night, look up at the sky and notice the star patterns, the planets, and the Moon… (if visible). But, astronomy also helps us understand how the objects we see formed. It answers questions such as “How are stars formed?” “How do stars end?” “Where do planets come from?” “How far away are the objects we see?” “How do galaxies form?” “When did it all begin?”

Astronomy is an ancient science – perhaps the first one humans invented. The names of stars come to us from ancient history. The constellations are ones that people have seen for thousands of years, and each culture made up stories about those star patterns.

To study faraway objects, people invented telescopes that extend our vision so that we can see dim, distant objects. You can start extending your own vision simply by using a pair of binoculars in your own backyard. They magnify the view and let you see things you can’t quite make out with your naked eye. If you want to see farther out to space, you need a telescope. Or, you can browse the Web to see what professional astronomers are finding out at the limits of the observable universe.

Astronomy is a very visual science and one that everyone can enjoy, even without knowing much of the science. So how do you “do astronomy”? The first step is simply to go out and look up. If you have a star chart, a pair of binoculars, or even an astronomy app on your smart phone you have at your fingertips incredibly powerful tools to help you explore on your own. So get out there and do some astronomy.

Mercury Up Close….

mercuryclose

Hopefully you were able to see Mercury in the twilight sky over the weekend! Now see the first planet from the Sun up close… This awesome image was taken by the Messenger Spacecraft a few weeks ago. The border between the night and day sides of a planet is called its terminator.  Look closely at the image… Notice in some of the craters there are central peaks. These happen when objects smash into the surface with exceptional force, this causes the land to deform downward then back upward again. (Imagine a droplet falling into a glass of water). Messenger is studying the topography of Mercury using lasers. Remember how Mercury wasn’t very bright in the sky? In this image you can see that Mercury’s surface is rough and somewhat dark, you can see that Mercury is not a very shiny planet.