Sun's path

The Sun passes higher in the sky in summer than winter. This is roughly how things look from North Carolina. (Credit: United States Naval Observatory)

The temperature in Chapel Hill is 96-but-feels-like-100 as I write this. Astronomically speaking, though, it’s still spring here. Summer arrives to the northern hemisphere at 6:51 a.m. EDT this Saturday.

On that date, June 21, 2014

1) The Sun reaches its most northern point over Earth’s surface relative to the equator.

2) In the southern hemisphere, it’s the first day of winter—not summer. So it’s rather northern-centric of us to call June 21st the summer solstice. Instead, we might call it the June solstice.

3) The Sun rises and sets at its most northern points on the horizon relative to the east and west, respectively – that is, unless you happen to be reading this from north of the Arctic Circle, where the Sun won’t set at all (24 hours of daylight), or from south of the Antarctic Circle, where the Sun won’t rise (24 hours of darkness).

4) It’s the “longest day” (most hours of daylight) in the northern hemisphere (14 hours and 36 minutes in Chapel Hill), but…

5) …we don’t have our earliest sunrise or latest sunset of the year. In Chapel Hill, we’ve already had our earliest sunrises, at 5:59 a.m. And our latest sunsets, at 8:37 p.m., don’t start happening till later next week. Why don’t the earliest sunrise and latest sunset coincide with the summer solstice? Short answer: Because clock time and Sun time are not the same.

6) The Sun reaches its highest point in our midday sky for the year, but…

7) …the Sun does not pass directly overhead for us. For that to ever happen, you have to live in the tropics, between the latitudes of 23½° south and 23½° north. Chapel Hill’s latitude is 36° north.

What can you see in the sky this summer? Find out by attending these programs under the planetarium dome:

  • Star Families: Summer Skies – Saturday, July 12, from 3:30-4:15 p.m. For families with children ages 7-12.
  • Carolina Skies – every Sunday at 3:30 p.m. through August 24, 2014. For adults and for children ages 8 and older.

To view the real night sky, join Morehead for our free skywatching sessions this summer. If the weather permits, we’ll be at Jordan Lake on June 28, August 2, and September 6, 2014. Also join us in Raleigh at Historic Oak View County Park on August 9, 2014.

It certainly can FEEL as if the Sun is directly over North Carolina during the summer.

27 May 2014
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A constellation tour at Jordan Lake

People gather for a constellation tour at Jordan Lake. (Credit: Steve Andrews)

A plethora of planets awaits you at Morehead’s next skywatching session at Jordan Lake this Saturday, May 31, 2014. We’ll be at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area from 9-11 p.m. (weather permitting).

Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn all currently decorate the evening sky. To catch Mercury, come near the beginning of the session, since it’ll set over the lake around 10 p.m.

You may notice that the 4 planets look as if they’re lined up across the sky. That line (really more of an arc) is called the “ecliptic.” The ecliptic marks the path that the Sun appears to follow in front of the constellations of the zodiac as Earth orbits the Sun over the year.

You can also think of the ecliptic as the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, projected into space. Because the other planets in our solar system orbit the Sun in roughly that same plane, you’ll always see planets near the ecliptic.

A red arc marks the ecliptic in this all-sky view an hour after sunset on May 31, 2014. (Credit: Stellarium)

A red arc marks the ecliptic in this all-sky view an hour after sunset on May 31, 2014. (Credit: Stellarium)

In addition to planets, we’ll be observing the Moon and other celestial objects at the upcoming Jordan Lake skywatching session. Directions and Frequently Asked Questions are available at the Morehead website.

Check the Morehead website before you head out to the lake – just in case we’ve had to cancel because of clouds or rain.

What about Venus? Early birds can see it in the eastern dawn sky.

Amateur astronomer Robert Nielsen took this photo during a 2007 lunar eclipse.

Amateur astronomer Robert Nielsen took this photo during a 2007 lunar eclipse.

Willing to lose a little sleep the night of April 14-15, 2014? You could gain a big view.

That night, the full moon passes deeply into Earth’s shadow, resulting in the first total lunar eclipse since 2011.

What you’ll need to view this lunar eclipse:

  • A location that’s on the nighttime side of Earth during the eclipse. Being in North America, South America, or in much of the Pacific will do it. A lunar eclipse can happen only if the Moon is full, and a full moon is in the sky only at night.
  • A not-too-cloudy sky. Cleardarksky.com has Clear Sky Charts for locations throughout North America, including many in North Carolina.
  • An alarm clock—unless you’re already awake, perhaps because you’ve procrastinated on finishing your taxes. For North Carolina, the eclipse happens during the wee hours of Tuesday, April 15 (all times below are Eastern):
    • 1:58 a.m. – partial eclipse begins
    • 3:07 a.m. – total eclipse begins
    • 4:25 a.m. – total eclipse ends
    • 5:33 a.m. – partial eclipse ends
The Moon lies near Spica the night of the eclipse. (Credit: Stellarium)

The Moon lies near Spica the night of the eclipse. (Credit: Stellarium)

What you don’t need:

  • A telescope. Of course, the Moon will be a beautiful sight through a telescope or binoculars. But your eyes will do just fine.
  • A dark sky. Light polluted where you live? Don’t let that stop you. Although it will appear much darker than usual, the Moon probably won’t be too hard to find. During a lunar eclipse, Earth’s atmosphere bends some sunlight into the shadow, dimly lighting the Moon.

What should you look for?

  • The Moon generally darkens to a deep red or orange when eclipsed. Its exact color and brightness are affected by atmospheric conditions on Earth, such as any recent volcanic eruptions.
  • The bright bluish-white star Spica will appear to lie very close to the Moon.
  • Reddish Mars will shine brightly to the west (right) of the Moon, about one fist-width away when held at arm’s length.

This eclipse is the first of four consecutive total lunar eclipses over the next year and a half.

The next total lunar eclipse happens October 8, 2014.

Credit: Tyler Nordgren

Credit: Tyler Nordgren

On April 4 and 5, 2014, forty sites from the mountains to the coast will host skywatching sessions for the public, as part of North Carolina’s second annual Statewide Star Party. Hosts include astronomy clubs, parks, nature centers, planetariums, observatories, museums, and universities.

What might you do at a star party event?

1) Look through telescopes. Virtually all star party events will offer telescope observing, many of them with the generous help of local astronomy clubs.

2) Observe the Sun. Several sites will host daytime events with safe solar observing, including Catawba Science Center, Crowders Mountain, Howell Woods, Kathleen Clay Edwards Library, Marbles Kids Museum, Medoc Mountain State Park, and Yadkin County Park.

3) See the Moon. The waxing crescent Moon will be up during the afternoon and evening of April 4 and 5.

A skywatching event at Jordan Lake

Credit: Brian Owen

4) View Jupiter and Mars. Through a telescope, you can see up to four of Jupiter’s moons, too.

5) Gaze at the stars. Constellations such as Orion and Leo will decorate the evening sky.

6) Do other activities. Depending on which event you choose, you can hike on a dune, paddle on a lake, design an alien, build a moon phaser, test your astronaut skills, touch a space shuttle tire, check out robot driving races, or participate in a phases of the Moon basketball challenge.

Find a star party event near you at the NC Science Festival website. You can see detailed listings by filtering the online calendar for the event dates April 4 and 5. (Note: A couple of star party events have been re-scheduled for April 11 or April 12.) Most events are free. A few require advance registration.

NC Statewide Star Party events

Find a star party event near you at www.ncsciencefestival.org

Important! Most events are weather permitting. Check with individual sites about any back-up plans they may have in case of clouds or rain.

The NC Science Festival’s annual Statewide Star Party is made possible through the generous support of the NC Space Grant.

US Map stating Nation's First Statewide Science Festival

First again, NC

A few months ago, I challenged our event partners to get weird. They listened. This year’s line-up features some of the most fun and funky science events we’ve ever had. Here are a few (in no particular order)  to whet your appetite for the 17-day science madness that starts THIS FRIDAY.

10.  Cemetery Sleuths: People Are Dying To Try It!

The team at Raleigh’s beautiful and historic Oakwood Cemetery have started doing some incredible public outreach. This event features a science and history scavenger hunt.

9.  Big Toy Day at the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market

This event is my fault. Proudly, I might add. Why? Because A. I have a nephew who, whenever he sees any sort of big truck, completely freaks out and needs to be near it; and B. I attended a meeting where a power company official was saying that with proficiency in STEM, young people can earn $70K/year working on line trucks for utility companies.

By combining A & B, we get a great community outreach event where companies operating STEM trucks can show off what they do and TRUCKS! TRUUUCCKS, UNCLE JON!!!

8.  Mad Scientist Revenge Race

Crossfit fanatics, this one’s for you:  an epic obstacle course team challenge combining science and fitness. Let’s get ready to rumble!

7.  Rational Comedy for an Irrational Planet

Right there on April Fool’s Day, folks, Earth’s premier science comedian takes the stage at the Museum of Natural Sciences.

6. Science of Art Conservation

Like a little art with your science? A little science with your art? This event is being produced by the NC Museum of Art’s Contemporaries group and is a GREAT DATE MOVE. Trust me on that.

Lab kids

Life & Science's Meet a Scientist features bilingual experts (Spanish-English) and hands-on activities

5. Conoce a un(a) Cientifico(a)

Want to meet amazing scientists? Want to speak Spanish? Come do both at this fantastic bilingual event at Durham’s Museum of Life & Science. So grateful and impressed with the team over there!

4.  Terrapin Tally

People of NC, Science NEEDS YOU!  We’re huge fans of citizen science. This event is a training for a big diamondback terrapin count happening in May. If you don’t know what diamondback terrapins looks like, think of the cutest turtles ever. Now add polka dots. So adorable.

3.14. Carowinds Education Days

Thanks to their good work with Discovery Place, our favorite amusement park drops a little roller coaster science on you.

3.  Zucchini 500

It’s like a pinewood derby but with produce. So much fun and so many pun possibilities.

2.78.  SUMOBOTS!

This is like a glimpse of the future when all our sports are handled by our robots. Check out this youtube clip with an epic battle at about the 1 min mark.

2.  Surf-N-Science

Yuri's Night Logo

Yuri's Night: The Worldwide Space Party

Think all you need to surf is a sandy blonde mullet? Well, you’re wrong. You also need to know a little bit about physics.

1. Yuri’s Night

The worldwide space party is going down on April 12. Thanks to some enterprising UNC students, downtown Chapel Hill is in the mix.

And that barely scratches the surface. So many cool events this year. In fact, there are over 400 events that are completely searchable and share-able right from here. Find some near you. And– oh yeah—

The fun starts this Friday!!!

Jonathan

Jonathan Frederick directs the North Carolina Science Festival, an initiative of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. This year's Festival runs from March 28 - April 13, 2014.

That’s right:  towns. Which is probably the hardest thing to wrap your head around when conceptualizing our statewide science festival. Allow me to explain:

The fourth annual North Carolina Science Festival kicks off on Friday, March 28. For 17 straight days there are hundreds of science events happening all over the state. We’re basically putting a big circus tent on top of NC and throwing a big science party.

Map of festival events

Sneak peak at your 2014 NC Science Festival

All sorts of amazing partners are getting in on the act. Museums — not solely science museums, mind you — amusement parks, zoos, colleges, shopping malls, bars & restaurants, breweries (science of beer, anyone?), parks, businesses — you name it, we probably have an event if not in it, then near it.

At last count there are over 700 events on our calendar. (Our calendar… I’ll get back to that in a minute). Some of this year’s highlights include the return of our wildly successful Statewide Star Party, a visit from Mr. Cosmos himself, Neil deGrasse Tyson, a science-themed fitness race, over a dozen science expos (think “street fairs”), an April Fool’s Day science comedy night, and the return of our NC Science Summit. There’s literally something for everyone. And I literally mean literally.

When we started this Festival, we wanted to work hard to put high quality science events near every North Carolinian. This year, I think we’ve achieved our goal thanks to our partners, our sponsors, and the fantastic Morehead team.

I invite you to peruse our calendar and start picking out events to attend. Fair warning: the calendar is gigantic. Don’t let it overwhelm you. Our web team has put together a bunch of different ways to search for events you might like. You can find events by geography, topic, day/time, etc. So narrow it down and go crazy.

It’s Festival time!

Jonathan Frederick directs the North Carolina Science Festival, an initiative of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

Evidently, being scheduled to present Valentine’s planetarium shows does not qualify one as “emergency personnel” at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Were the University not closed (on February 14, 2014) because of the weather, one legend of love you could have heard at Morehead Planetarium’s now-canceled “Carolina Skies: Valentine edition” is the Estonian folktale of Lindu’s wedding veil.

Imagine the Milky Way as a really, really long wedding veil. (Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay (STScI/AURA).)

Imagine the Milky Way as a really, really long wedding veil. (Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay (STScI/AURA).)

Lindu is courted by several astronomical suitors, who one by one ask for her hand in marriage – and along the way, teach story listeners a few things about the sky.

First comes North Star, who resides above the North Pole, essentially unmoving day and night. “I would make a dependable husband,” he claims, “because you would always know where to find me.”

After Lindu rejects North Star (“he would never take me anywhere”), Moon glides out of the sky to propose. “I would make a romantic husband,” he says to Lindu. “With me, you will travel to a new place each night.”

But Lindu rejects Moon because his path is so narrow. Besides, he’s so changeable.

Next, Sun arrives to proclaim that “with me, you will light the day!” But Lindu worries that Sun’s harsh glare means she’d be lost in his shadow. She says no to Sun.

Finally, Prince Borealis, Lord of the Northern Lights, descends from the sky. His light is gentle, he says, and he travels, but on no narrow path. He comes and goes over the sky as he pleases!

Lindu agrees to marry him, perhaps not thinking through carefully enough the implications of a fiancé who runs completely on his own schedule.

After dancing across the sky with her, Prince Borealis fades away with the dawn, telling Lindu to prepare for the wedding. She begins to weave a wedding veil, awaiting his return.

But Prince Borealis doesn’t come back. As the nights go on, Lindu continues to weave, her veil stretching longer and longer. Eventually, Lindu’s veil drifts delicately from one end of the sky to the other.

Look up on the next clear night. If your sky is dark enough, you can see Lindu’s veil, also known as the Milky Way.

UPDATE 2/1/14: SKYWATCHING IS CANCELLED FOR TONIGHT. We’ll try again on March 8.

If the weather permits, please join us this Saturday (Feb. 1, 2014) for our next skywatching session at Jordan Lake. We plan to be at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Telescopes provided!

We’ll look at the waxing crescent Moon, the planet Jupiter, and other celestial wonders. Also planned are constellation tours and star storytelling. Come near the beginning of the session if you’d like to catch Mercury before it sets.

Saturn sign and image by Jack Roach.

Saturn sign and image by Jack Roach.

Thanks to local amateur astronomer Jack Roach, you may even see Saturn—in a way. He’s made a Saturn-like lighted sign to help mark the turnoff from the main road into Ebenezer Church Recreation Area at Jordan Lake. (You’ll have to wait till May to see the real Saturn during a Morehead skywatching session.)

See Morehead’s skywatching page for more information on our skywatching sessions at Jordan Lake and other sites, including links to directions and Frequently Asked Questions.

Important: Jordan Lake skywatching is weather permitting. Before you head out to a skywatching session, always check the Morehead website to make sure there’s not a cancellation notice.

Also mark your calendar for April 4 and 5, 2014, for the 2nd annual Statewide Star Party, featuring dozens of public skywatching events across North Carolina.

Jupiter is currently hanging out in the direction of Gemini, the constellation from which the Geminid meteors appear to originate. (Credit: Stellarium)

Jupiter is currently hanging out in the direction of Gemini, the constellation from which the Geminid meteors appear to originate. (Credit: Stellarium)

First, the good news about the 2013 Geminid meteor shower:

  • The peak night happens at a convenient time for many people, the beginning of the weekend:  Friday evening, Dec. 13, through Saturday morning, Dec. 14, 2013.
  • Even better for most of us, this meteor shower can provide good viewing in the evening hours.  It’s worth trying to spot Geminids as early as 9 or 10 p.m.
  • This is a strong, reliable shower, with up to one or two meteors visible per minute under dark skies.

Now, the not-so-good news:

  • Speaking of dark skies, for this year’s Geminids a waxing gibbous moon will be up most of the night. This means moonlight will wash out the dimmer meteors from view. Expect to see the most meteors (if it’s clear) on Saturday morning after moonset and before morning twilight. For those of you in the Chapel Hill area, your window is between roughly 4:45 and 5:45 a.m. Saturday. (Sorry.)

And finally, the potentially really bad news:

  • Your sky might not be clear. For the Triangle area, current forecasts call for clouds to arrive the night of Dec. 13/14.
Wait till this bright thing sets, and you’ll spot more meteors—that is, if it isn’t cloudy. (Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

Wait till this bright thing sets, and you’ll spot more meteors—that is, if it isn’t cloudy. (Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

So you might try looking tonight (Dec. 12/13, 2013) – the Geminids are already active, and it looks like North Carolina and most of the southeast U.S. will have clear skies. And one expert thinks that the peak will occur earlier, meaning that Friday morning the 13th could actually be the best time to look, after moonset (3:43 a.m. Friday for Chapel Hill) and before dawn.

If you decide to view Geminid meteors, try to find a dark place away from unshielded lights with an open view of the sky. Wear really warm clothes, and bring a reclining chair or sleeping bag. Look toward the darkest part of your sky, away from the Moon and any unshielded lights.

Geminid meteors appear to radiate away from the constellation Gemini, but you don’t need to know how to find Gemini to see the meteors. They can appear in any part of the sky.

If Friday the 13th turns into an unlucky night of clouds, don’t despair. As part of Morehead’s 2nd Friday event, Science on the Sundial, we’ll have an 8 p.m. Carolina Skies show, where we can simulate a meteor shower for you.

Under Morehead’s planetarium dome, the forecast always calls for comfortable temperatures and clear skies.

The Pleiades star cluster, aka “Seven Sisters” (Credit: NASA, ESA and AURA/Caltech)

The Pleiades star cluster, aka “Seven Sisters” (Credit: NASA, ESA and AURA/Caltech)

A giant grizzly bear chases seven little girls. In desperation, the girls scramble onto a low rock, but they know the bear will easily reach them there.

As the bear rears up on its hind legs, one girl prays to the spirit of the rock: “Rock, take pity on us! Rock, save us!”

The rock hears them. And it begins to grow.

The bear just misses the girls as it slashes out at them. Instead, its claws make deep scratches into the side of the rock.

Imagine that a giant bear scratched the deep grooves in this rock. (Credit: National Park Service, www.nps.gov/deto)

Imagine that a giant bear scratched the deep grooves in this rock. (Credit: National Park Service, www.nps.gov/deto)

As the girls keep praying and the rock keeps growing and lifting them, the bear jumps higher and higher, creating more deep grooves in the rock. The seven girls finally escape into the sky and become stars.

That’s a Kiowa version of how the Pleiades star cluster – also known as the “Seven Sisters” – came to be. You can see these stars, which look like they’re huddling together for safety, during most of the night this time of year.

The rock really exists, too, stretching more than 800 feet into the sky. It’s in Wyoming where it is known by various names, including Devils Tower. Blog readers of a certain generation may recognize this rock from the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It’s a good thing these girls escaped to the sky. (Painting by Herbert Collins, www.nps.gov/deto)

It’s a good thing these girls escaped to the sky. (Painting by Herbert Collins, www.nps.gov/deto)

To hear the full story about the scary bear, along with a few other star stories appropriate for the Halloween season, please join us for Scare-olina Skies:

  • Two evening shows are aimed at adult audiences (older teens welcome): Saturday, Oct. 26, and Wednesday, Oct. 30, both at 8 p.m.
  • Families with younger children should choose one of the afternoon shows: Saturday, Oct. 26, at 2:30 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 27, at 3:30 p.m.

A story about the Pleiades and Devils Tower will be told each time, but the Arikara version in the adult program will unfold quite differently from the Kiowa version.

Medusa also makes an appearance at Scare-olina Skies.