A Lunar Eclipse and 2 Planet Conjunction

   Our Moon reaches full phase on July 5th and will be rising around sunset local time. Two of the giant outer planets, Jupiter and Saturn will be passed by the Moon over a two day period. On the 5th the full Moon will be about 6-7o to the west from Jupiter. The next day, July 6th, the waning gibbous Moon will have passed the two planets and the Moon will about 1-2o from Saturn. Both days should prove to be ‘binocular-worthy’ with the morning of the 6th having the Moon the closest to the planets.
   There will also be a partial penumbral lunar eclipse however this type of eclipse has the Moon passing through the faint outer shadow cast by the Earth. Even a total penumbral lunar eclipse is barely noticeable so as a partial do not expect to see much change in the Moon’s brightness.


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Morning Conjunctions

   This morning the 21-day old last quarter Moon was a few degrees from the outer planet Jupiter. As the Moon continues its eastward orbit, waning through the crescent phases, it will pass by Mars and Saturn, then 2 days later the waning crescent Moon will be close to the Dwarf Planet Ceres.

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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Congress Downsizes the Solar System

   The US Congress today, in an effort to rectify the current sequestration budget cuts has made a dramatic announcement. In an effort to reduce the NASA budget, a resolution was passed today to downsize the solar system. According to an unnamed congressional staffer, House Republicans felt there has been “too much redundancy in the solar system” and that streamlining the 4.5 billion year old planetary system is long overdue. Such action would give NASA fewer places to go and this would allow the agency to carry out its space exploration goals within the funding profile that the House proposed earlier this summer.

   “Look, we have four terrestrial planets” said Congressman Rip U. Apart (R, OK), “and only one of them really works! So why not get rid of at least two of the others and clean up the neighborhood?” Most subcommittee members felt that while downsizing was definitely in the cards, eliminating both Mercury and Venus, or even Mars, was going too far. “We have too many international commitments to Mars.” said another politician. “So I think we should keep Mars and dump Venus and Mercury. It’s too hot to live on Venus, and liberal Democrats keep using it as an example of what climate change can do. So from a political and practical point of view, Venus has got to go.”

   Definitely at risk is the planet Mercury which lacks support because of its small size and poor visibility from Earth. “Who needs it?” asked Congressman Newt Onian (R, N.C.). “Have you ever seen it? I haven’t. So what good is it? We just don’t need useless planets. And speaking of useless planets, what about the asteroids? If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. So I say we ought to get rid of the little boogers once and for all.”

   However, the downsizing recommendations do not stop with the terrestrial planets. The resolution also calls for a reduction in the number of gas giants which contain most of the planetary mass in the solar system. Most subcommittee members favor retaining Jupiter and Saturn, and eliminating Uranus and Neptune. “Jupiter employs the most molecules, and Saturn has those pretty little rings everyone likes.” said Rep. Con Mann (R, Fla.). “On the other hand, Uranus is a bore and its rings are dirty. And Neptune, for God’s sake, is just too far away.”

   The subcommittee was unanimous in its views towards Pluto which they deemed a moral misfit. “Now here’s a planet we can definitely do without.” continued Fornow. “Several years ago it was farthest from the sun (1979-1999), and now it’s not. It’s just too confusing. And now they tell me it’s really a Dwarf Planet. What the heck is going on here?”

   The resolution must now be presented to the entire House, where it is expected to pass easily since only a minority of Representatives have constituents on the affected planets. NASA Administrators have vowed to resist any further reductions to the solar system, saying that “NASA has expended considerable effort to make solar system exploration cheaper, faster, and better. Much of this work would be wasted if the solar system were downsized.”

   Critics say, however, that reducing the number of planets will not produce the expected savings to taxpayers. Textbooks, they note, would have to be revised to reflect the new arrangement, and facilities would need to be constructed to remove the planets themselves.

   April Fools!!


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.

A Lunar Conjunction with a Dwarf Planet

   Thursday evening March 2nd watch for the 4.5-day young waxing crescent Moon to be about 2o away from Dwarf Planet Ceres. Seeing Ceres with an apparent magnitude of around 8 may be difficult when the Moon is this close, especially using binoculars. 2march-tele
   However with a telescope Ceres should resolve into a small disc shape as this simulated view with a 25mm eyepiece on a 6″ reflector shows. There are two 6th magnitude stars on either side of Ceres that could be used as reference points for Ceres location if you are following the Dwarf Planet as it moves along its orbit.


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.

The 2015 Geminids

   After sunset on Sunday December 13th look toward the east or west for ‘shooting stars’, or meteors. Toward the east the short-lived streaks of light are radiating outward from the area of the Gemini Twins constellation. These are the annual Geminids – one of the best meteor showers each year, and at times rivaling the August Perseids. The Geminid Meteor Shower is named for the constellation that the meteors radiate outward from. This is the same for all meteor showers, and the ‘spot’ in the sky is known as the radiant. The Geminid radiant, as shown in the graphic, is just above the ‘twin’ star Castor, and under ideal viewing conditions an average of about 70 meteors per hour could possibly be seen. This year without the interference of moonlight will increase the chances of seeing the meteors.
   Meteor showers result from the Earth’s orbital path intersecting areas of comet debris. Comets, as they orbit the Sun, leave behind pieces of their icy, dirty, selves. If these debris clouds happen to be along the Earth’s orbital path then the Earth will regularly pass through the comet debris cloud. As this happens the small comet pieces hit our outer atmosphere and vaporize from the friction generated heat. We then see these as the shooting stars that make up meteor showers.
   There are, however, two exceptions to this. The January Quadrantid Meteors and the Geminids each come from their own respective asteroid rather than a comet. The source for the Geminids is Asteroid 3200 Phaethon
   Looking toward the south to southwest and adding to viewing the Geminids is an un-named meteor shower with a radiant just below the bottom of the ‘Square of Pegasus’, between the ‘square’ and the ‘Circlet’ pattern of stars forming the head of the Western Fish of Pisces the Fishes. This meteor shower originates from Comet Wirtanen, a short-period comet orbiting the Sun every 5.5 years. The comet was discovered in 1948 and according to some predictions the Earth may pass through this comet’s debris cloud for the first time since the comet’s discovery. This part of the sky is over the south at sunset and as this graphic shows the radiant is over the southwest as the Geminids radiant is over the eastern horizon.

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.

The Besta of Vesta

vesta-7oct   Yeah I know, the title is bad but it was the besta I could do at the moment.
   Asteroid Vesta, is the second largest asteroid in the main belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter. It is also the second most massive asteroid after the former asteroid, now dwarf planet, Ceres. Vesta is also the brightest and easiest of the main belt asteroids to see from Earth, and this month could be a good time to dust off the binoculars or telescope and take a look.

   Asteroid Vesta rises at around 8 pm local time and is currently located within the western side of the constellation Cetus the Whale, and over the next several days will be passing by a 2nd magnitude star, Iota Ceti. That is the ‘dot’in the center of the binocular field.

click on graphic to see it larger   To be fair, taking a look at an asteroid, even one like Vesta, is about like looking at a star. In one night the only apparent movement of the object is from Earth rotation. However careful observing, perhaps making a sketch or taking a picture of the area of the sky where Vesta is located every couple of days the motion of the asteroid should become apparent as it will be the only ‘star’ moving relative to the other stars in your sketch or picture.
This animated graphic using inverted colors is simulating a view with 10×50 binoculars. It shows the movement of Vesta daily between the 8th and 31st of this month. Click here to see the same graphic with the regular colors.

   Get very specific observing information for your viewing location from the Heavens Above web site. Choosing your viewing location is as easy as zooming in on the Google map and setting the marker where you view from. Click on update to set your location. Once you have set your viewing location you can then choose from many options. Obviously choose asteroids, then choose Vesta!

   Learn more about Asteroid Vesta and Dwarf Planet Ceres at NASA’s Dawn Mission web site.

   Traverse the Vesta terrain at NASA’s Vesta Trek web site.


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.

Far Out!

On Tuesday July 14th the New Horizon spacecraft makes it one and only flyby of Pluto coming the closest at 6:49 am CDT (11:49 UT) with a distance of 12,500 kilometers (7,750 miles). As it passes through the Pluto system that includes the dwarf planet Pluto, and 5 known moons the spacecraft will be traveling at approximately 14 km/second (31,000 miles per hour.)

NASA’s New Horizons web site
Pluto at Opposition
What’s Your Pluto Time?

Watch this short song/video written and performed by Dani Robinson, a student in my Astronomy class, this past year.

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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.

Siriusly Bright

   Seriously? Siriusly! “Bad it is,” as Yoda would say.
   The point of this is that it is during this time of the year when, for northern hemisphere observers, a large group of the brightest stars in our night skies are all above the horizon. These include the bright stars that make up what is called the winter hexagon, a six-sided shape connecting 6 different constellations. The stars, apparent magnitude, and constellation making up the Winter Hexagon are Rigel (0.15) in Orion; Aldebaran (0.84) in Taurus; Capella (0.06) in Auriga; The Gemini Twins, Pollux (1.15) and Castor (1.56); Procyon (0.37) in Canis Minor; and Sirius (-1.47) in Canis Major.
   Also adding to the seriously bright celestial group are our two brightest planets, Venus (-3.98) in the west, and Jupiter (-2.45) in the east.

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.

2015 Leonid Meteor Shower

   During the early winter months of A.D. 902, Chinese astronomers recorded what were probably the first written accounts of a meteor shower. This event was described as a time when the stars fell like rain.Click on graphic to see it full size. Centuries later, in November 1799, the stars again fell like rain during a spectacular display witnessed across the colonies by North American astronomers. The shower activity was also recorded by the famous German scientist and geographer Alexander von Humboldt while he was on an expedition in Venezuela. During one intense period, witnesses described seeing as many shooting stars as actual stars. Approximately 33 years later (November 12-13, 1833), the skies over eastern North America were streaked with so many meteors that during a nine-hour period, observers calculated the Zenith Hourly Rate (ZHR) to be a few thousand, totalling to about 240,000 meteors.

   Following the 1833 meteor storm, interest in and study of meteors increased tremendously. By studying records, astronomers noted that meteors originate from a specific area of the sky within a certain constellation; hence the Leonids, Perseids, and so on. Observers also noted that as the night wore on and Leo “moved” westward, the shower’s point of origin stayed with the constellation. Thirty years later, after much study, Yale astronomer Hubert Newton pieced together a history of the Leonid meteor storms.

   The Leonid meteor storms (periods during a meteor shower of intense meteor activity) have been recorded approximately every 33 years dating as far back as the A.D. 902 shower observed by Chinese astronomers. Hubert Newton and other renowned astronomers predicted that another meteor storm would occur during November of 1866 or 1867, 33 years after the recorded meteor activity in 1833. Coincidentally, in 1865-66, two astronomers working independently, Ernest Tempel and Horace Tuttle, discovered a faint comet, the source of Leonid activity, which was named Comet 1866I (now referred to as Comet 55P{Tempel-Tuttle). Comet Tempel-Tuttle’s orbital period around the Sun was determined to be about the same as that of the Leonids, 33 years.

leonid-meteor-storm   The Leonid shower’s spectacular peak nights during November of 1866 and 1867 validated the two astronomers’ prediction. (Different portions of the Earth may encounter Comet Tempel-Tuttle’s meteor trail in two consecutive years because of the Earth’s changing position.) In 1866, sky observers in Europe noted that the shower’s intensity reached an average of 5,000 meteors per hour; in 1867, observers in North America counted an average of 1,000 meteors per hour. Because Tempel and Tuttle had so accurately predicted the source of the 1866/1867 Leonid meteor storm, the storm of 1899 was much anticipated and promoted by the astronomical community. Unfortunately, the Leonids did not display spectacularly that year. As a result, public interest in the storm waned tremendously. Ironically, the following year, 1900, brought storm displays with peak ZHRs of 1,000. During November 1901, the Leonids averaged about 2,000 meteors per hour.

   The Leonids’ return in the 1930s was also disappointing. Astronomers were concerned because the source comet had not been sighted since its 1866 passage. This suggested that perhaps the comet had broken apart and that the comet debris cloud would no longer be refreshed providing the source for the meteors. However, peak night averages during the 1930s were still impressive with hourly averages in the hundreds.

comet-temple-tuttle   During the early 1960s, the Leonid meteor showers started showing an increase in the hourly rate, similar to the intensity of the showers during the 1800s. In 1965 Comet Tempel-Tuttle was rediscovered. That year the shower’s intensity climbed to over 100 meteors per hour. One year later on November 17, 1966, the most intense meteor storm recorded in history occurred over the Midwestern United States-its average intensity was several thousand per hour, and at one point the storm rates were estimated at more than 100,000 meteors during a 20-minute period.

   So here it is 2015, and we are about mid-way through the 33-year period for the Meteor Storm. So no storm this year or for the next several years. Expect to see a few meteors streaking outward from the radiant within the backward questions mark shaped asterism of Leo, but with an average hourly rate (ZHR) of 10-20 there are often long stretches of time between sightings. And remember that all meteor showers have a span of time before and after the peak when meteors will be visible. This year the activity for the Leonids is for about one week from November 14-21 this year with the peak time calculated for 4 UT 18 November (10 pm CST 17 November). The radiant is near the hook part of the ‘backward question mark’ shape.
   Best viewing for a meteor shower is during the hours before sunrise as the part of the Earth you are on is turning into the direction that the Earth is moving as it revolves around the Sun. In effect you are moving ‘head first’ into the cloud of cometary debris. In the Midwest United States where I live Leo rises at around 3am CST so the timing for viewing the Leonids around 94o west longitude is pretty good. And this with a thin waning crescent Moon rising after Leo rises.

cleardarkskieschart   Use this web site to see a forecast for how clear the skies will be for your location.

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.