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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EarthKam Week

   This past week I had the privilege of working with two dynamic teachers and their Science classes in participating in the Sally Ride EarthKam Mission. As with previous missions the students work with a Google Earth type of map that shows the different orbital tracks the ISS will follow during the week. I remind them that is is sort of a ‘Forest Gump’ activity because like with the box of chocolates, you never know exactly what your picture will look like. How? Because of the weather or how accurately the location is selected. As a result of 176 requests 77 did not get taken and only 42 of the remainder of requests showed land features. The rest were clouded over.

   Below are the pictures as a slide show. Hover the cursor over a picture to see any information from the requester. SL is Summit Lakes Middle School and WVE is Westview Elementary School. This may be followed by requester name and possibly name of picture request location.

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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.

Uranus at 2017 Western Quadrature

orbital-positions   Friday July 21st the position of the planet Uranus, with respect to the Earth and the Sun, places this ringed planet at what is called western quadrature. At that orbital position Uranus, and actually any outer planet, is at a 90 degree angle from the Earth as this graphic shows, and the banner graphic at the top of the page shows. Think third quarter Moon as that is a fair comparison of the relative positions of Earth, Sun, and Uranus.

    At western quadrature Uranus leads the Sun across the sky from east to west as the Earth is rotating, meaning that Uranus rises before the Sun and also sets before the Sun.

   This is a short video clip from a much longer video that I made as part of a live musical performance called “Orbit” at the Gottleib Planetarium in Kansas City Missouri during May 2011.


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

It Was An EarthKam Week

   This past week was an EarthKam week. During the week participants are able to view the daytime orbital path for the International Space Station and request a picture to be taken of whatever the ISS happens to be passing over. This could be your hometown if the ISS happens to have an orbit that passes over where you live. The one time, so far, that there was an orbit over where I live we had completely overcast skies and rain. Nonetheless as you can see from these pictures, there is a lot of the Earth to see from the perspective of the International Space Station.
    Click on any picture to see it, or any of the rest of the pictures larger. The picture may also be viewed at its full size, which for some pictures will show an amazing amount of detail. If you are familiar with Tucson Arizona look at the picture labeled tanque verde and speedway.


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.

Waxing Crescent Moon Passes Jupiter

   Over the next two days, July 8th and 9th, the waxing crescent Moon will pass by the planet Jupiter as this animated graphic shows. For most of us around the world we will see (weather permitting!) the Moon come within a few degrees from Jupiter on the 9th.
   However if you happen to be in the area of Southern Africa or the island of Madagascar you will be able to see an occultation of Jupiter by the Moon.


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

An EarthKam Mission

iss_flyover-ani   This coming week, the last one in January, is going to help make this month a more memorable month than I had previously thought.
How so?
Firstly January marks my 200th monthly column of Scope on the Skies for Science Scope Magazine, the NSTA‘s Professional Journal for Middle School Science Teachers. In that column I wrote about Earth viewing missions.”A New Year, A New Earth View”. take-pics   Secondly, and very coincidentally, earlier this month an opportunity came up to apply to take part in the next scheduled Sally Ride EarthKam Mission. I was accepted and so this week will be for requesting images on the orbits between Sunday and Friday.
“Doing this alone?” You ask.
I have teamed up with two Science Teachers at Summit Lakes Middle School here in Lee’s Summit Missouri, and starting Monday morning students will begin making their requests. Also my college Astronomy class students will be requesting images as part of a lab lesson on tools Astronomers and Earth Science (among others) use.
Making requests is a simple 10 or so step process beginning with logging in to the web site. However the Teacher first needs to register at the mission website, and then register for the next mission. The teacher will receive a list of codewords a few days ahead of the actual mission dates. Each codeword may only be used once; one codeword = one picture request. I’ve prepared a guidebook of sorts using screen captures that steps through the process of logging in and making a request. A more detailed and useful guidebook is the one prepared by the Sally Ride EarthKam Mission folks. Some time ago I wrote a short blog about the EarthKam mission.

Our week looks promising for getting pictures of the southern hemisphere according to the mission orbit plotter. That is weather permitting. By clicking on the desired orbit group the map will then display the paths for that group. Remember that red lines show where it will be daylight and only when pictures could be taken.

Using Google Earth means that you are able to zoom in to better place your marker for a picture. There are limits to getting a ‘good’ picture, one taken from as directly overhead as possible. Specifically it is the distance from the ISS orbit path. The further away from the orbit path the lower the ISS will be relative to the horizon.

I’ll share the pictures sometime next week after we get them.

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.

Solar Eclipse – Not for the USA — Actually It Was!

Click on picture to see full size original

Click on picture to see full size original

   4 November: Not sure if I owe an apology or just say “My bad!” but clearly I got my description of the solar eclipse wrong. It was visible shortly after sunset for many along the U.S. eastern coastline as this picture shows from New York City taken by Chris Cook.

   On Sunday 3 November the rising Sun and new Moon as we see them from Earth will intersect or be aligned so that the Moon pass in front of the Sun briefly giving us a solar eclipse. However the circumstances for this solar eclipse are such that the eclipse starts as an annular eclipse where the Moon’s disk silhouetted against the Sun will not completely cover the Sun at the moment of mid-eclipse. This type of eclipse, a combination annular and total, can happen at either sunrise or sunset when the Moon’s umbral shadow does not quite reach the Earth’s surface. However for this eclipse very shortly after sunrise, less than one minute later, the Moon’s disk covers the Sun giving rise to a total solar eclipse for the duration of the eclipse.

   At sunrise along the parts of the east coast of the United States the eclipse will already be in progress and will really not be one that the U.S.A. should get ready for. Use the NASA prepared eclipse map for a ‘google-like’ interactive map that shows the eclipse path. Click anywhere on the map to get viewing information, if any, for that location clicked on. africa-eclipse-aniAs the map shows the Moon’s shadow follows a path that begins in the North Atlantic Ocean and ends on the east coast of Africa.
   Best viewing of this eclipse, at or near mid-eclipse, will be for the residents of western Africa at around mid-day local time. This animated graphic shows the eclipse as it would be seen from the west coast of Africa in the city of Dakar, a coastal city in Senegal. At mid-eclipse nearly 80% of the Sun will be covered.

eclipse-ani   What cities in the United States are involved? None. Click here to see or download a PDF document that shows a table listing local circumstance times for the eclipse. As the table shows, for all of the United States cities listed, the eclipse is already in progress and the Sun is at an altitude of 0 degrees – on the horizon. From the eastern coast of the United States maximum eclipse actually occurs before sunrise and the eclipse more or less is over within the next 30 minutes or so – which is about the time for local sunrise.

   Click here to see a static map of the eclipse path that includes contact times.

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

June Solstice

Sun's Apparent Motion Along the Ecliptic

Sun’s Apparent Motion Along the Ecliptic – from Taurus to Gemini

   Northern hemisphere spring comes to an end and its summer begins at 12:04 am CDT (05:04 UT) on 21 June as the Sun ‘reaches’ the celestial coordinates of 23.5oN and 6 hours right ascension. With respect to the Earth’s surface the Sun is described as over the Tropic of Cancer, 23.5oN of the Earth’s equator. At this same time the Sun is still within the boundaries of the constellation Taurus the Bull – but just barely. Interestingly 9 hours later, (9:00 am CDT – 14 UT), the Sun ‘will move’ into the region of Gemini as it crosses the boundary between Gemini and Taurus.
   We know that it is the Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun giving rise to the sun’s apparent eastward motion amongst the stars in the background. This is how the Sun ‘reaches’ a celestial coordinate, how it ‘crosses’ the boundaries between constellations, or how it is ‘in‘ a constellation.
   With respect to the southern hemisphere this is the end of their summer and start of their fall season so thinking globally my preference has been to use the name of the month to designate the season change. Hence the use of the term June Solstice rather than the limited to northern hemisphere term summer solstice.

   Follow the seasons by observing how vegetation changes during 1 year. The video below was produced by an Earth orbiting satellite operated by the NASA/NOAA Suomi National Polar Orbiting Partnership (NPP). It is a really interesting narrated tour of the Earth from orbit over a variety of geographic features and landscapes.

Just had to include this!!

Just had to include this!!


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

Explore Icy Worlds Contest

   “NASA Essay Contest Examines Missions to Icy Worlds
   NASA is inviting U.S. students in grades 5-12 to participate in an essay contest about proposed missions to explore Saturn’s moon Titan and Jupiter’s moon Europa.
   To enter, students must describe in 500 words or fewer why one of the proposed missions to these icy worlds is the most interesting of the bunch. Winning essays will be posted on a NASA website, and winners and their classes will be invited to participate in a video conference or teleconference with NASA scientists.
   The proposed missions include exploring Titan with an orbiter and balloon and investigating Europa with a lander. Both missions would have science instruments to study their subjects — an exciting prospect for astrobiologists. Students are encouraged to include details of the science instruments they might include on these spacecraft to help with key investigations.” (web links added by me)

   Contest Entry Deadline is 28 February 2013
   This contest is open to all students in the United States who are in grades 5 to 12.

   Click here to go to the NASA contest web site to watch videos about the proposed missions.
   Click here to go to the NASA web site for information about the contest.

   Take a short tour of Jupiter, Saturn, and some of their moons by way of a video I produced as part of a live performance at a local Planetarium. This is a 6-minute cut from a longer video that has an original music score written by Daniel Eichenbaum. Flute is by Rebecca Ashe and Clarinet by Cheryl Melfi. Electronics by Richard Johnson. We performed under the group name Dark Matter.

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