This photo is right side up—the projector is mounted at an angle.

This photo is right side up—the projector is mounted at an angle.

How many planetarium people does it take to change a light bulb?

If we’re talking about the bulbs in the projectors that run Morehead’s planetarium shows, the answer is 3:

  • 1 person to crawl into tiny spaces behind the walls of the planetarium theater and crouch for minutes at a time while dealing with hard-to-reach screws and bolts.
  • A 2nd person to keep parts of the projector from falling onto the 1st person’s head.
  • A 3rd person to ferry tools back and forth and to entertain the first two people by attempting (and completely failing) to come up with good light bulb jokes.

3 is also the number of hours it takes to change the four bulbs in the two projectors.

Careful! Each bulb costs $1,650. And can explode if not handled correctly.

Careful! Each bulb costs $1,650. And can explode if not handled correctly.

It takes 3 people to change the bulbs and then many thousands of visitors to enjoy the results.

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.

The Moon on Friday morning, Sept. 27, 2013

What the Moon will look like at 9 a.m. EST Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 – but picture a blue sky as the background. (Credit: “Dial-A-Moon”; NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

If you have not seen the Moon in the daytime lately, the next couple of mornings provide a good opportunity.

At its current phase — last quarter — the Moon rises roughly around midnight and sets around noon. Tomorrow (Friday, Sept. 27, 2013), the Moon reaches its highest point in the sky in the south around 7:30 a.m. After that, the Moon slides westward, finally setting around 2:30 p.m. It’s worth looking Saturday, too (add about 45 minutes to those times).

So you might step outside to look for the Moon after you wake up tomorrow, or during your morning commute (unless you’re the driver!), or during lunchtime. The Moon will appear about half lit, on the side facing the Sun.

But don’t wait too many more days to look for the daytime Moon. Although the Moon rises and sets later each day, providing more daytime hours to potentially see it, it also appears less and less lit each day from Earth’s point of view as the Moon’s phase heads from last quarter to waning crescent. On October 4, 2013, it’ll be New Moon – when it’s up all day (and only in the day). But it’s only the side facing away from Earth that’s lit. So you won’t see it.

Want to learn more about the Moon? Mark your calendar for International Observe the Moon Night, on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013. That evening, from 7 to 9 p.m. (weather permitting), Morehead will host a skywatching session at Jordan Lake, at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. The Moon will be just past first quarter on October 12 and visible in the afternoon and evening sky.

In addition to telescopes and binoculars, the session will feature a few Moon-related demos as well as Moon stories shared by storytellers from UNC’s School of Information and Library Science. This event is free. Join us!

Weather permitting, you have another skywatching opportunity: this Friday (9/27/13) from 8-10 p.m. at Little River Regional Park. No Moon but plenty else to see through the telescopes.

This is the view looking in the northeast sky from Chapel Hill at 4:30 a.m. on Monday, August 12.

Perseid meteors appear to radiate away from the constellation Perseus.

The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks on August 12, 2013. Viewing tips:

1. What you’re seeing. Although meteors are sometimes called “shooting stars,” they are not stars. Instead they are bits of cosmic debris interacting with Earth’s atmosphere and creating a streak of light. In the case of the Perseid meteors, the debris has been shed by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle.

2. Why the Perseids are called that. Trace the streaks of light back to where they started, and (assuming they were Perseids and not other types of meteors) you’ll find they appear to have radiated away from a point in the direction of the constellation Perseus.

3. When to look. The best nights to see the 2013 Perseid meteor shower will likely be the nights of August 11-12 and August 12-13. Check the forecast, and pick the clearer night.

If you want to see the most Perseids, go outside between 4 and 5 a.m. on Monday morning, August 12, 2013 (unless skies are overcast – in that case, sleep in). From a clear dark site you may see an average of up to one Perseid per minute. Because of light pollution, urban stargazers should expect to see fewer.

Did you wince in pain when you read that phrase “between 4 and 5 a.m.”? There are other options! You can also try going out after midnight on the mornings of August 12 and 13. Or you could even try as soon as it gets dark on August 11 and 12. But the later you go out, the more meteors you will see.

4. Where to go. Find a dark site away from unshielded lights; you’ll miss dimmer meteors if you are near badly designed lights that spray light up into the sky. You also want a reasonably open view of the sky, unobstructed by buildings or trees.

5. What direction to look. Look towards the darkest available direction, about halfway up the sky. You do not need to know how to identify the constellation Perseus to see the Perseids. The meteors can appear in any part of the sky.

6. What to bring. Your neck will thank you if you take a reclining chair or sleeping bag to lie on. That sleeping bag, or a blanket, will also help you stay warm. Lying outside in the dark can get chillier than you might think, even in summertime.

7. What to do. Look up at the sky! This might seem obvious, but people frequently miss meteors because they were looking at their friends, their phones, or the ground.

8. What not to do. Be sure to avoid white light (such as from cellphones or flashlights), and don’t give up too soon on your meteor watching. Your eyes need time to adjust to the dark to allow you to see the most meteors.

Now let’s hope we get some clear skies.

If you’re willing to do the 4-5 a.m. thing, you get a bonus: Jupiter and Mars low in the east-northeast.

Look closely at this Mercury crater – it is smiling at you! (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

For early birds, the next week or so is a good time to try to spot Mercury low in the eastern dawn twilight. Look about 40-60 minutes before sunrise. Mercury will appear close to reddish Mars and bright Jupiter.

If observing Mercury has you fantasizing about taking a trip there, you might consider what you should pack. Four possible items:

1)      A really good spacesuit. The high temperature on Mercury can reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

2)      Long underwear. Although you would be absolutely scorched on the side of Mercury facing the Sun, Mercury doesn’t have a thick atmosphere to retain that heat. So the temperature on the nighttime side can drop to way, way below freezing.

3)      Ice skates. The MESSENGER mission has found compelling evidence that there is abundant water ice in permanently shadowed craters at Mercury’s poles.

4)      Birthday candles. If you take a vacation that’s long enough, you’ll celebrate a birthday on Mercury. This speedy planet completes a trip around the Sun much faster than Earth does. One year on Mercury is the equivalent of only 88 days on Earth.

You can learn more about Mercury at NASA’s Solar System Exploration site.

Since you can’t actually vacation on Mercury, you’ll have to settle for seeing the planet from Earth.

Forget about a sunny vacation on perpetually overcast Venus

Today’s forecast on Venus: Cloudy. And very, very, very hot. (Credit: NSSDC Photo Gallery)

Why might a vacation to the planet Venus seem like a fun idea?

  • There’s lots to see: Volcanoes! Craters! Sand dunes!
  • Just a single day would seem very long because Venus rotates so slowly. 1 day on Venus = 243 Earth days.
  • Unusual sunrises and sunsets. Venus’ rotation is backward compared with Earth’s. From Venus, the Sun would rise in the west and set in the east. (But forget about a sunny vacation on perpetually overcast Venus.)
  • It’s like going on an automatic weight-loss diet. Venus’ gravity would make you weigh 9% less than you do on Earth.

But as you pack for your Venus vacation, be sure to leave one thing at home:

Your last will and testament.

That’s because you will definitely not survive your vacation to Venus. Although Venus has been called Earth’s twin because the two planets have about the same size, mass, density, and composition, the similarities end there.

What will kill you first on Venus? Probably one of the following:

1)      Heat.

If you find 90 degrees Fahrenheit to be uncomfortably hot, try to imagine the approximate high today on Venus: 900 degrees. That’s hot enough to melt lead. And you.

2)      Toxic air.

The atmosphere of Venus consists mainly of carbon dioxide, with clouds of sulfuric acid droplets—the stuff in battery acid.

3)      Crushing atmosphere.

The surface pressure on Venus is 90 times that of Earth. Every spacecraft sent to the surface of Venus has been crushed by the intense atmospheric pressures.

4)      Strong winds.

Venus has super-hurricane-force winds, and the winds have been getting even faster.

Brilliant (but lethal) Venus graces our evening skies for the rest of the year. You can look at Venus safely from Earth, where it shines at nightfall low in the west.

There’s no place like home. Take a “staycation” on Earth instead.

On May 26, when the grouping is tightest, you can almost cover the triangle of planets with your thumb at arm’s length. (Stellarium.org)

A slow-motion planetary pile-up begins in the sky this week. From May 24 to 29, 2013, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter appear within 5 degrees of one another (half the width of your fist held at arm’s length), low at dusk in the west-northwest.

Why go out to look for these planets?

1) You won’t get another sight quite like this for 13 more years. This is the tightest grouping of three planets visible without binoculars until 2026, according to Sky & Telescope.

2) This is an excellent opportunity to spot the most elusive of the naked-eye planets, Mercury. Perhaps you are like my skeptical officemate and have become convinced that Mercury does not actually exist because you’ve never seen it. This is your chance to have two other planets—bright ones—to help point the way.

3) You’ll get the sense that planets really do move. Watch each night and witness the ever-changing configurations of Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter.

Tips for seeing this planetary grouping:

  • When: Any clear evening between May 24 and 29, from about 30 to 45 minutes after sunset. Choosing that time balances two considerations: a) the sooner it is after sunset, the brighter the sky will be, making it more difficult to pick out the planets, and b) the longer it is after sunset, the lower the planets will be in the sky, which can also make them difficult to see; if you really wait too long, these planets will disappear below the horizon.

Arrgh, a tree is in the way! To see the planet trio, be sure to find an unobstructed view to the west-northwest. (Stellarium.org)

  • What direction: Over the spot where the Sun set (west-northwest)
  • Where to go: Somewhere with an unobstructed view in the direction the Sun went down
  • What to bring: Just your eyes are needed. But if you have binoculars, you will probably be able to fit all three planets in the field of view. If you can hold the binoculars steady (or use a tripod), you may also glimpse some of Jupiter’s moons.

Of course, the planets aren’t really piling up on top of one another. Even when planets lie in roughly the same line of sight from our perspective on Earth, they are still many millions of miles apart.

Be part of North Carolina’s first-ever Statewide Star Party on Friday, April 5, 2013!

There are 45 star party sites across the state – hosted by astronomy clubs, parks, universities, planetariums, museums, nature centers, and others – who are providing telescopes and other activities for the public on April 5th.

Find a star party site near you at the NC Science Festival website (search the online calendar for April 5).

[Important: Before heading out to an event, we recommend confirming with the event host that the event is still on. Most events are weather-dependent. Although current predictions are for clear skies Friday evening across much of the state, at least one site decided to change to a later date based on earlier forecasts.]

So what are the top 3 reasons you should attend the April 5th North Carolina Statewide Star Party?

This sight—Jupiter and its moons through a telescope—is reason enough to attend the Statewide Star Party.

This sight—Jupiter and its moons through a telescope—is reason enough to attend the Statewide Star Party.

1) You can join others in enjoying the wonders of the night sky.

Virtually all sites are providing telescopes for you to look through. Many feature other activities as well. Depending on which star party event you choose, you may be hiking, canoeing, or making outer space crafts. Rumor has it that Galileo plans to attend one event.

1a) At a few events, you can also enjoy a wonder of the daytime sky: the Sun. Sites planning safe solar observing—if the weather permits—include Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center, Marbles Kids Museum, Medoc Mountain State Park, Pender High School (at Moore’s Creek Battlefield), and Yadkin County Park.

2) You can be a citizen scientist.

Thanks to funding from NC Space Grant and materials provided by GLOBE at Night, star party sites have been given kits that include a light pollution and shielding demo and information on how you can contribute to a worldwide map of light pollution.

How dark is your sky? Leo can tell you. (Credit: Stellarium.org)

How dark is your sky? Leo can tell you. (Credit: Stellarium.org)

By observing how many stars you can see in the constellation Leo the Lion, you can document the darkness of your sky—perfect timing for International Dark Sky Week, April 5-11. Learn more about the GLOBE at Night citizen-science project at a star party event, or on your own, and then go home to collect and report data on the darkness of the sky in your own neighborhood.

3) You can celebrate the kickoff of the 2013 North Carolina Science Festival.

The Statewide Star Party is just the beginning of more than two weeks of events celebrating science across the state. Check the NC Science Festival website for events near you happening between April 5 and 21, 2013.

Most star party events are free! Please note that some events require advance registration and a few are already at capacity.

07 Mar 2013
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Does Orion look like this to you? You must be looking from a dark site, such as Ocracoke Island, NC. Or there is a massive power outage.

How dark is your sky? The constellations will tell you. The more stars you can see in a given constellation, such as Orion or Leo, the darker your sky.

By going outside at least one hour after sunset and making simple observations about the stars you can see, you can participate in a worldwide citizen-science project to map light pollution around the globe.

Everything you need to know can be found at the GLOBE at Night website. The site has activity packets designed for families and teachers.

This is how Orion looked tonight from outside Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, NC, where many outdoor lights are unshielded, washing out the fainter stars—and failing to light the ground effectively and efficiently.

Through March 12, you can use Orion to collect your data. For later campaigns — March 31-April 9 and April 29-May 8 — use Leo instead. (If you stumbled across this blog from the southern hemisphere, you can use Crux, the Southern Cross.)

Submit your data online with GLOBE at Night’s web app. Your data helps create an interactive map of observations worldwide. Then you can compare your results with others’ reports.

Want to learn more about dark skies? Join us for “Our Vanishing Night” at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center on Saturday, March 9, 2013, from 3:30-4:15 p.m.

Orion has lost his belt and is unrecognizable. Perhaps you are in Manhattan. (Orion images from globeatnight.org)

You’ll learn how to identify the stars of Orion, Leo, and other constellations; hear a cultural star story or two; see a light shielding demo that will amaze you; and experience the planetarium sky at varying levels of light pollution, including a pristine dark sky lit only by thousands of stars and the Milky Way.

Amy Sayle was the 6,384th Citizen Scientist to submit data to GLOBE at Night.

06 Feb 2013
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Composite image of Mercury taken by the MESSENGER mission (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Want to catch a glimpse of a planet few people have knowingly seen? For viewers at mid-northern latitudes, next week offers 2013’s best evening apparition of Mercury. About 45 minutes after sunset, try looking for Mercury as a pinpoint of light low in the west, above the spot where the Sun set.

It will be easier to see Mercury starting around Feb. 9, 2013, but if skies are clear where you live it’s definitely worth trying Feb. 7 and 8, when Mercury meets up with Mars in evening twilight. Look low in the west about a half hour after sunset, and use binoculars to help you spot dimmer Mars. Both those evenings the two planets are well within one degree of each other—less than the width of your pinky finger when held at arm’s length.

Why is Mercury usually a difficult planet to observe? As the innermost planet to the Sun, Mercury never appears to stray far from the Sun in our sky. So it can become visible only low in the west just after sunset, or low in the east just before sunrise.

To join the club of people who have knowingly seen Mercury, please join Morehead for a skywatching session the evening of Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. Weather permitting, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. we’ll be at Jordan Lake, at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. This site provides an excellent view of the western horizon over the lake. To see Mercury before it sets, arrive near the beginning of the session.

If you miss Mercury in the evening sky this month, try again in late May through mid-June.


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