A Tail of Two Comets

   April 1990 Comet Austin (1989c1) now getting brighter approaching naked-eye visibility.
   April 2020 Comet ATLAS (2019c1) predicted to brighten to naked eye visibility has now apparently broken apart.

   30 years ago, April 1990, I wrote the first of what was to become a continuing column about Earth and Space called Scope on the Skies for Science Scope Magazine. This is the Professional Journal for Middle School Science Teachers and is published by the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA)

   That April 1990 column, Comet Watch – “Comet Austin”, was about a potential naked-eye visible comet discovered by New Zealand Astronomer Rod Austin during December 1989. The comet was appropriately named Comet Austin 1989c1. The comet increased in brightness over the months following its discovery reaching around 4th magnitude and naked-eye visibility the following May of 1990.

   This month as Comet ATLAS (2019c1) was showing signs of becoming a bright comet it broke apart. This was reported a few days ago and the break-up has since been tentatively confirmed.


Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for monthly observing information, or here to return to bobs-spaces.

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A Disco Ball In Orbit!

   The Humanity Star satellite was launched from New Zealand earlier this month and has an orbital life expectancy of around 9 months – (spoiler alert!!) meaning it’s coming back down!
   The satellite is a 1-meter diameter geodesic dome shape made of highly reflective materials. While in orbit the Humanity Star will spin and reflect enough sunlight making it bright enough to be seen which means this could prove to be perhaps as fun as tracking ISS and Hubble. Right now the satellite is only visible from latitudes greater than 46 degrees north or south but the orbit will gradually change making it visible from all latitudes.
   The web site has an interactive tracking map.
      “The Humanity Star was created by Rocket Lab Founder and CEO Peter Beck. It was born of the desire to encourage people to consider their place in the universe and reflect on what’s important in their own lives and the lives of humanity as a species.”


Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for monthly observing information, or here to return to bobs-spaces.

Yuri’s Night 2017

yuri   April 12th 1961 Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to leave the surface of the Earth and orbit our planet. Coincidentally 20 years later, on the same date in 1981 the United States launched its first space shuttle, the Columbia. However April 12th is a date for celebrating the accomplishments of the Russian space program and the cosmonaut who became the first to orbit the Earth. So, on April 12th people around the world will take part in local events in what is known as Yuri’s Night. Use the link to the Yuri’s Night web site to learn more about this event and to see if there is a Yuri’s Night event in your area.

yuri   A few years ago during the 50th anniversary I had an opportunity to work with a group of musicians (Dark Matter) in producing a series of videos about the solar system and our home planet that were then projected as full-dome videos on a Planetarium dome ceiling. Accompanying the videos were two musicians playing their respective instruments (Flute and Clarinet) along with electronic notes, live sampling of their music, and sounds of the interior of a spacecraft. Below is a version of that performance that was entered into a worldwide contest – placed in the top five by the way.


Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for monthly observing information, or here to return to bobs-spaces.

ISS This Morning

   This morning I braved the chilly temperature and caught the International Space Station as it orbited a little to the north over my space on the surface.

         A great way to start the end of the year!

   This graphic is a screenshot from my cellphone showing the display from ISS Detector, an extremely useful APP for Android and IOS and tablets like my Kindle Fire.

   The track across the sky lasted about 7 minutes. It started in the west and then followed a path between the two ‘Dippers’ passing the Pointer Stars in the Big Dipper on the way toward Polaris, the North Star.

   Camera Settings: 18 mm; 3.5 sec. F5.6; ISO 1600


Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for monthly observing information, or here to return to bobs-spaces.

NSTA @ Nashville

   I’m in Nashville Tennessee for the next several days at the NSTA national conference. Planets and stars will still be in the skies but not as easy to see from downtown Nashville as it is where I live. On the morning of April 1st the waning waning crescent Moon will be within a few degrees from Dwarf Planet Pluto. Too dim to be seen without a large telescope it is, nonetheless, a neat idea that when you look toward the Moon you are also looking in the direction of Pluto. It’s out there!
   And here is a sequence of graphics showing the pre-sunrise morning sky at 5:30 am EDT for each day during the conference, and one night view on April 1st showing Jupiter. Both Pluto and the Moon are located just above and to the left from the handle of the teapot asterism for Sagittarius the Archer.


Caution: Objects viewed with an optical aid are further than they appear.
Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information for this month.

Iridium Satellite This Morning

A few seconds of an Iridium Satellite Flare.

A few seconds of an Iridium Satellite Flare.

   This morning I caught an Iridium satellite going through its ‘flare’ as it re-positioned itself reflecting light from the rising Sun in my direction. Part of the view toward the south included Mars, Saturn, and the bluish-white star Spica, and the reddish star Antares.

Caution: Objects viewed with an optical aid are further than they appear.
   Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information for this month.

Uranus at Opposition

Click on graphic to see full size

Click on graphic to see full size.

   While just saying this, “Uranus is at opposition” would certainly be the butt of many jokes, this seventh planet from the Sun, a gas giant nonetheless, has reached the point in its orbit around the Sun where it is at what is called opposition. Picture the arrangement of the Sun, Earth, and the full Moon, and this is the arrangement for an outer planet such as Uranus when it is at opposition. At opposition the outer planet rises at local sunset time and sets at local sunrise time and so is visible the entire length of night.
Click on graphic for help in finding Uranus.

Click on graphic for help in finding Uranus.

   Uranus has a magnitude that is just under 6 meaning that is at the edge of naked-eye visibility. However to see Uranus without any optical assistance would require extremely dark skies and some seriously good eyesight. With binoculars and telescopes this 7th planet from the Sun is visible as a pale greenish dot. Over time it is possible to follow its relatively slow motion as it moves past the stars in the background. Currently Uranus is within the boundaries of Picses the Fishes and below the ‘Square of Pegasus’. If you can find the ‘square’ use Alpheratz and Algenib as pointers to aim your binoculars or telescope toward Uranus. Uranus takes approximately 83 Earth years to orbit the Sun so each year it moves between 4-5 degrees, or about 0.01 degree each day. Not exactly jettin’ along! The point is that it will essentially stay in the same location relative to the surrounding brighter stars for next few months allowing for many observations of Uranus.

   Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information for this month.

October Qué tal Now Available

october que tal   As the subject line says the October issue is now online and available.
   Many interesting celestial events this month including one minor meteor showers, a partial penumbral lunar eclipse, and conjunctions with our Moon, planets, and stars. In the east before sunrise look for Jupiter to be the point of a right-triangle with the ‘twin’ stars. Mars will pass by the star Regulus in Leo and will have a temporary traveling companion – Comet ISON. Both will be within a couple of degrees from one another but will have very contrasting apparent magnitudes. Mars is naked-eye visible and the comet is not.

   Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information for this month.

Tracking Satellites – Online

   In planning for a photo opportunity with either or both the International Space Station and an Iridium Satellite flare I use each of the 3 web sites displayed in the slideshow below in addition to the information provided by the Kindle App, ISS Detector Pro. If my Knidle is not available I go online to the NASA Spot the Station web site for important viewing information including where and when the ISS is visible, and the duration of its visibility. The link here takes you to where you choose a location. Once selected the sighting opportunities will be calculated for that location.
iss-ani   Another online resource is the SATVIEW web site. Your ISP will be detected and used to determine your general location like latitude, longitude, and timezone. This information is then used by the web site to calculate satellite visibilities and other data for your location. You may select from a list of satellites to track and then watch its orbital path on a larger Mercator projection type map of the Earth. Superimposed on top of this map is an animated graphic that shows the satellite from above in motion as it orbits the Earth’s surface below. Below these maps is a data stream display of location information, speed, altitude and so on, and is constantly updating.
   The AstroViewer web site shows an animated graphic as if looking down from the ISS as it orbits above the Earth’s surface. It also displays a data stream of information about the ISS as well as the orbital path plotted on a world map. The ‘ground track’ shows the path the ISS is following and is updated every second. Clicking on the snapshot button opens a new browser window with a larger and more detailed graphic of what the ISS was orbiting above. Additionally you may get a visibility listing for a location similar to the list from the NASA web site.
   This particular web site, AstroViewer, requires the use of Java and if you have heeded any of the cautionary reports about using Java then your computer should either not allow Java and subsequently not show the animated graphics, or you will be prompted to allow the use of Java.

   Click here to read about and see additional pictures of the ISS and Iridium flares.

                              Move the cursor over any picture to bring up the controls.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

   Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information for this month.

InSight Into the Red Planet

Click on image to download a bookmark.

Click on image to download a bookmark.

   InSight or Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is the next NASA planned mission to Mars. Set for launch in March 2016 the lander will have a flight time of approximately 6 months with a scheduled landing during September of 2016. In order to learn more about how terrestrial planets form this mission will be studying the Martian interior rather than the surface as all previous lander and rover missions have done.
   As a lander the power will be generated with solar panels and in order to maximize the efficiency of the solar panels a location near the equator needed to be chosen. This led to helping decide the final landing area within the Elysium Planitia, a large relatively flat plain like feature that lies on the equator. However a decision on the specific landing spot has not been made yet.
Click on image to go to mission multimedia web page

Click on image to go to mission multimedia web page.

   On board will be two types of instruments that will be used for a variety of tests including the use of a seismometer, and a heat flow probe. Cameras will record daily events and operations. Precise measurements of the distance to the sun will be made that will enable scientists to determine how the planet wobbles as it is tugged on by the Sun’s gravity. The wobble of a planet is determined by how unevenly mass is distributed throughout the planet’s interior. Areas with a greater concentration of mass in one part of the interior will cause that part of the planet to have a greater attraction with the Sun than an area with a less dense lower concentration of mass. So as the planet rotates and revolves with respect to the Sun the gravitational attraction between the two varies slightly causing the wobble. Among other things this results in a better understanding of how the process of differentiating occurred within the planet and how that mass is distributed within the interior.

   Click here to go to the InSight mission web site for more information.

   Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information for this month.