Be sure to look up Monday night (Jan. 21, 2013) to catch a close encounter of the Moon with Jupiter.

The view should be spectacular anytime that Monday evening, but to view these two objects at their closest, go out around 11:30 p.m. The waxing gibbous Moon and brilliantly shining Jupiter will be less than 1 degree apart. That’s less than the width of your pinky finger when you hold it all the way out, at arm’s length.

Although the Moon and Jupiter might seem very close that night, in reality they are very far away from each other. The Moon’s distance averages about 240,000 miles from Earth, whereas Jupiter lies roughly 500 million miles away.

To put it another way, the Moon is just over 1 light-second away (since light coming from the distance of the Moon takes just over one second to reach our eyes), but Jupiter’s distance is roughly 45 light-minutes.

And those stars that currently appear near Jupiter? The bright orange-ish one, Aldebaran, is 65 light-years away, which means you see the star as it looked when the light left it 65 years ago, shortly after the end of World War II.

Also “near” Jupiter is the Pleiades star cluster (the “Seven Sisters”). But really those stars are more than 400 light-years away.

Getting back closer to home:  If seeing the Moon inspires you to want to learn more about it or hear Moon stories from around the world, please join us under the planetarium dome for “Star Families: Moon Myths” on Saturday, Jan. 26, from 3:30-4:15 p.m.

If you miss this conjunction of Jupiter and the Moon, try again March 17, 2013, when they have another fairly close encounter.

Geminid meteors appear to originate from a point near the head of Castor, one of the Gemini twins (he’s the twin on the right).

One of the best meteor showers of the year—the Geminid meteor shower—peaks tonight (Thursday 12/13/12).

Although meteors are sometimes called “shooting stars,” they aren’t stars. The streaks of light are created when bits of cosmic debris are vaporized in Earth’s atmosphere. In the case of the Geminids, the debris has been left by a small asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. Every year around this time, Earth’s orbit takes us through this stream of particles.

When to look for the Geminid meteors:

  • It’s worth looking any time after about 9 p.m. tonight (Thursday 12/13/12) until dawn (Friday 12/14/12).
  • If you are determined to see the most meteors, you may wish to be out around 1 or 2 a.m., when you may see an average of more than one per minute from a dark site.

Where to go:

  • Morehead is hosting a public skywatching session tonight at Jordan Lake, at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. We’ll be there from 8 to 10 p.m. Find directions and FAQs on our website.
  • If you can’t join us at Jordan Lake, find a dark site, away from city lights and any unshielded lights. (Urban skywatchers will miss all but the brightest meteors.) You’ll also want an open view of the sky, and of course, a reasonably clear sky (the forecast looks good for all of North Carolina).

What to bring:

  • Really, really, really warm clothes. Think long underwear. Think layers. Think hats and gloves. Anyone used to being outside on cold nights for only the few seconds it takes to get between house and car may be surprised to discover how incredibly cold a night like this can start to feel when you’re out for a while not moving around much. Dress more warmly than you think you need to and it’ll probably work out just right.
  • A sleeping bag and reclining chair can make meteor watching more comfortable.
  • Thermos with a hot drink.
  • Your eyes. You won’t need (or want) a telescope or binoculars to see the meteors. But we will have telescopes at the Jordan Lake skywatching session so you can look at Jupiter and other celestial objects in between your meteor watching.

What to do:

  • Plan on staying out for a while. Your eyes need time to adapt to the dark, and the meteors may come in clumps—with none at all for several minutes, then a few right in a row.
  • Look up! The Geminid meteors appear to radiate away from a point near the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini, but you do not need to know how to identify Gemini to see the meteors. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky. You might try looking toward whatever is the darkest part of your sky.

If you miss the Geminids tonight, you might try tomorrow night (Dec. 14/15, 2012), although there likely won’t be as many meteors then.

This is a liveblog that I wrote during a free public lecture by Dr. Anthony Aveni on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010, at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill. Dr. Aveni’s lecture explored scientific research countering predictions that the world will end in December 2012. These predictions are based in part on the fact that the Maya calendar ends in December 2012.

Dr. Aveni is known worldwide as an expert on Maya culture and beliefs and has appeared on the Discovery Channel, NPR, PBS-Nova, the Today Show and other national media outlets to discuss Maya astronomy. Since 1963, he has taught at Colgate University, where he is the Russell B. Colgate Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology, serving dual appointments. He is considered by his peers to be a founder of the field of Mesoamerican archaeoastronomy and has written 13 books on Maya beliefs.

6:51 p.m.
With just a few minutes before the program begins, there are plenty of seats available in the room. Wonder what kind of crowd Aveni will draw. I’d expect a lot. The mythology about 2012 and its end-of-the-world prophecies is a popular theme with Morehead audiences. This is a younger crowd than I expected — 20s, 30s. Interesting that most people are sitting near the front, eager to hear every word.

6:53 p.m.
I see some backpacks. That’s usually a clue that professors have offered extra credit for students who attend the lecture. And this would be a good opportunity; Aveni has world-class credentials in astronomy, anthropology and maybe in archaeology, too. And he’s supposed to be entertaining: “Rolling Stone” magazine named him one of its “Top Ten College Professors.” Sure, that was nearly 20 years ago, but I still think he’ll be engaging.

6:54 p.m.
Suspicion confirmed. A young woman in the row ahead of me is talking to her friend about how many people from her class showed up.

6:59 p.m.
Here come the dignitaries, right on schedule. I see Aveni and his wife, along with Morehead’s director, Dr. Todd Boyette. There’s Dr. Vin Steponaitis, who heads UNC’s Research Laboratories of Archeology. Who else? Some reps from Lenovo, which is sponsoring Aveni’s lectures here and earlier this week at Appalachian State University.

7 p.m.
PowerPoint clicks on. Audience quiets.

7:02 p.m.
“Good evening. Welcome to Morehead ….” Boyette begins the introductions. About three-quarters of the seats are filled, and a few latecomers are streaming in.

7:05 p.m.
Aveni hits the stage and introduces a few friends, then launches headlong into his lecture. Energetic, upbeat, tossing darts and digs at his target (which, apparently, is anyone who buys into the 2012 mythology). Wonder how the audience will respond to that — are these people among the conspiracy-theory faithful?

7:06 p.m.
First, the basics. The “Long Count” of the Maya cycle ends on solstice, Dec. 21, 2012. Aveni describes it as a car odometer: The world doesn’t end, but the count rolls over into a new cycle. Some rustling in the crowd, some physical expressions of disbelief.

7:08 p.m.
Aveni puts a Lee Lorenz cartoon from the “New Yorker” on the screen: Two gloomy businessmen are walking down the street. One consoles the other, “It’s not the end of the world.” Around the corner, not yet in their line of vision, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride toward them. “It’s not the end of the world,” Aveni reassures us. This guy has an audacious, boisterous sense of humor.

7:11 p.m.
So what can we expect to happen in 2012? Aveni presents two schools of thought: “Blow Up” or “Bliss Out.” The world explodes, or we melt into a new age of euphoria. Either way, there’s change. But is it really going to happen?

7:14 p.m.
Here’s the astronomy part. “A solar flare releases more energy than all the nuclear power plants on Earth.” Hmmm. Yeah, that could be a blow-up.

7:18 p.m.
Aveni is skewering what he calls “2012 Gurus.” He cites their claims, incredulous: Don’t worry about retirement. Cleanse your colon to receive energy! Earth has acupuncture points, and one of them is Pike’s Peak. This must be the bliss-out part.

7:20 p.m.
Finally, on to the reality. Aveni shows photos of the Maya pyramids, tells us that the Maya were a sophisticated culture, comparable to the Greeks and the Romans in their achievements.

7:23 p.m.
Aveni emphasizes that many Maya books were burned by Christian explorers, intent on eradicating any evidence of what they considered pagan knowledge. Only a few writings remain of hundreds, maybe thousands that once existed. Today, we think of this ancient culture as revolving around astronomy and religious practices, but perhaps it appears that way only because the Maya writings we have found are about those topics.

7:25 p.m.
Now he’s describing one of the rituals depicting in the writings. It’s unpleasant. There’s blood involved.

7:26 p.m.
This is interesting. The words Aveni uses from the ritual don’t sound like anything from Latin America. They’re very harsh, gutteral. I assumed the Maya language would resemble Spanish, but of course it doesn’t. The Maya were present long before Spanish explorers appeared.

7:27 p.m.
Back to astronomy, plus religion and some mathematics. Maya writings establish the “Hearth of Creation” as a core belief (with a symbolic representation in every Maya home). This three-stone hearth, built by Maya gods, is reflected in the constellation Orion. Aveni tells us that the Maya gods descended to Earth frequently and interacted with Maya people often, according to the writings.

He outlines the time passages as marked by the Maya — too fast for me to keep up, but I do understand now that the Maya calendar is based on the number 20. (Aveni says it’s because the Maya counted on their fingers and toes but we only count on our fingers, since we typically wear shoes — what a jokester.) Each Maya month has 20 days, so there are 18 months in a Maya year.

7:31 p.m.
All of the known Maya writings (Aveni calls them “codices”) refer to rituals that must be performed to keep the world in balance. (This reminds me of the Balinese rituals that Elizabeth Gilbert outlined in “Eat Pray Love.”)

There are flood myths in Maya codices, he adds. “What culture doesn’t have a flood myth? You know about this from two weeks ago, when they got 22 inches of rain in Wilmington! Want to know more about floods? Go to the Ninth Ward [New Orleans].”

7:35 p.m.
Aveni’s on a rampage now, ripping through 2012 predictions one by one:

“Maya literature is either historical or ritual. It’s not prophetic. So where does this mythology come from?

“Planets go in and out of alignment. Go to the NASA website. You can see the planetary alignments in 10 seconds. I looked it up myself.”

“Gravitational pull and tides? The Moon’s pull creates a two-foot tide. The Sun’s pull, a one-foot tide. The next most powerful gravitational pull on Earth comes from Venus, and that’s only one five-hundredth of an inch.”

BOOM! He shot those down. There’s even an animation that shows the galactic convergence.

7:40 p.m.
People in China don’t care about this, Aveni says. You won’t find a culture of apocalyptic thinking in Russia or Africa. Americans are the only people in the world who believe this stuff (yes, “stuff” is Aveni’s word).

This predisposition toward apocalyptic belief began with the Pilgrims, continued with the Millerites in the mid-1800s and is strong today. Aveni cites 13 “end of the world” predictions for the year 2006 alone, including one earthquake, one comet collision, one planetary alignment and two nuclear winters, among other calamities.

The book “Hamlet’s Mill” suggests that major world events happen every time the Sun moves in position from one constellation to another constellation. And apparently Americans aren’t alone in their interest in destruction; Isaac Newton predicted the world would end in 2065.

There’s a flurry of PowerPoint slides reflecting different apocalyptic messages. Aveni mentions the “Heaven’s Gate” cult, too, known for a mass suicide in 1997. These people believed that Earth was due to be “recycled” and that they would be transported to a spaceship to travel to another dimension. [Apparently they left some of their cult members behind, though, because someone is still running their website.] Only in America ….

7:51 p.m.
Sacred tourism! That’s one reason that the Maya mythology remains, Aveni says. “Here’s Chichen Itza. If you’re there at sunset on the equinox, the snake will descend. Thousands of people come to see it. Why would you want to be there?”

7:55 p.m.
Lawrence Joseph again. This is the fifth or sixth time Aveni has mentioned Lawrence Joseph, who has written books about a 2012 apocalypse — he really loathes this guy. “People believe that science conspires against giving correct information.” As a scientist, Aveni’s not happy about that.

7:58 p.m.
Another quick look at the “bliss out” option. People expect “joy despite disaster” in fin de siecle (end of century) times.

8:02 p.m.
Aveni begins his close with a visual joke, an “Alien Time Line” (originally published in 1997 by “Skeptical Inquirer” magazine) that depicts the evolution of alien races as seen by the American moviegoer.

“We tend to put our hope in others to save us, to give us knowledge — Egyptians! Mayans! Aliens! Maybe the answers are not out there but in here.”

8:04 p.m.
Ask a Maya shaman, “What happens in 2012?” The answer: “We start another cycle.”

8:05 p.m.
Applause, polite, muted with a few pockets of enthusiasm. The students here for extra credit begin their exodus. Questions, fewer than I expected.

What about polar shifts?
“They happen. Our magnetic north is constantly on the move, in fact. But this doesn’t happen all at once — it’s a process that takes hundreds of years to complete, and it’s not going to happen in 2012.”

What about alien visits?
“That relies on some big Western assumptions: that [aliens] can communicate, that they want to visit us, that they want to give us knowledge.”

What about Fibonacci numbers?
“The spirals predict the growth of a shell, of a pine cone. But they aren’t predicting an apocalypse.”

Why do so many people believe in these Maya prophecies?
“American religion’s appetite for apocalypse comes to the forefront during times of fear. And we’re at war, there’s terrorism, there’s the economy — these are fearful times.”

8:10 p.m.
Boyette approaches the lectern, thanks the audience and Aveni. A few crowd around Aveni with more questions before the evening (but not the world) ends.

Morehead is planning a special "Carolina Skies: End of the World edition" for December 21, 2012.

ECU's Dr. Stan Riggs (at left) at October's Carolina Science Cafe

In true 2012 spirit, we officially kicked off our DOOMSDAY SERIES. Last night, we hosted the first of three science cafes focusing on dire issues and what Science has to say about them. Dr. Stan Riggs, a geologist from ECU, gave a passionate talk about the ways barrier islands are supposed to work when money isn’t a concern. Long story short: they’re supposed to move and get wrecked by storms and then they’ll rebuild (on their own tends to be best) and move again. This makes putting houses on them and planning for big-time tourism kind of tricky. Add climate change science and sea level rise to the equation and you get a recipe for unsustainable planning and constant (read: expensive) damage control.

But Dr. Riggs wasn’t all doom and gloom. There are workable solutions out there. (I personally enjoyed his discussion of people being miserable on Highway 12 until they get onto the ferries where they start to relax and have fun. So why not stop worrying about highways and make hi-tech ferries the way to get around?) His take home message: To find the best solutions, we have to be open to what scientists are telling us and use that info to work the problem. We can’t hide from the data.

Tough to argue with that.

Next month, the DOOMSDAY SERIES continues with a look into how

You probably won't have to dress like this for November's Plague & Bioterrorism science cafe

scientists are tackling our concerns relating to bioterrorism. Dr. Bill Goldman, chair of the department of microbiology and immunology in the UNC School of Medicine, will be talking about his research into the Black Plague and how understanding this sneaky contagion can help us be better prepared for deadly outbreaks. He received funding from a National Institutes of Health grant to the Southeast Regional Center of Excellence for Emerging Infections and Biodefense, which is headquartered at UNC-Chapel Hill.

See you on Thursday, November 1, 6 p.m. at Back Bar (part of Top of the Hill Restaurant). Get there a little early to enjoy free appetizers courtesy of our gracious sponsor, Sigma Xi. As always: bring a friend, bring questions, and enjoy.

–Jonathan

Jonathan Frederick is the director of the North Carolina Science Festival, a statewide initiative of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center

Skywatching at Jordan Lake

Join us for a skywatching session at Jordan Lake!

What happens at Morehead’s skywatching sessions at Jordan Lake?

A lot of fun! You get to enjoy being outside at night, meet nice folks, and look through telescopes brought by Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and members of the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS). Raleigh Astronomy Club (RAC) members often bring telescopes as well. If skies permit, a Morehead educator will give a constellation tour with a green laser—tours are announced during the session.

Where and when are the skywatching sessions?

Morehead hosts free skywatching sessions for the public nearly every month (weather permitting) at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area at Jordan Lake. The Jordan Lake sessions are usually on a Saturday evening, but may occur on a weekday if there is a special sky event, such as a meteor shower.

Occasionally, skywatching sessions are held at other sites, including Little River Regional Park. Check Morehead’s online skywatching calendar for the current schedule and directions.

What will I see at a skywatching session?

It depends on what’s in the sky that night. Typically, we schedule sessions so you can see the Moon. Usually at least one planet is visible. Expect to also see some objects outside our solar system, such as double stars, star clusters, nebulae, or even other galaxies. You might also see satellites and meteors.

If you’ve been to one skywatching session, you definitely haven’t been to them all! The stars and constellations change over the year as Earth orbits the Sun, and the Moon and planets move from night to night against the background of the stars.

Will I see the Milky Way?

Maybe. Jordan Lake offers better (darker) skies than many places in the Triangle, but the sky is still light polluted. Even so, we often see the Milky Way—the hazy band that’s the plane of our galaxy.

Do I have to make a reservation?

No, just show up. If you plan to bring a large group, such as an entire class or Scouts group, we’d appreciate a heads-up at (919) 962-1236, but it’s not required.

Is there a fee?

No, Morehead’s public skywatching sessions are free.

What if it’s cloudy? How do I know if the skywatching session is cancelled?

The telescopes can’t see through clouds, so don’t come if skies are overcast or it’s raining. We recommend checking Morehead’s website after 5 p.m. the day of the session, just to make sure there’s not a cancelation notice. We also often post updates on Facebook and Twitter.

Where do I park for the Jordan Lake sessions?

There’s plenty of parking at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. If you arrive later in the session, try to park at the nearer end of the lot, so that your headlights stay away from the telescopes. Please turn headlights off as soon as your car is safely parked.

What should I wear?

Bring layers. Unless it’s the warmest of summer nights, standing around outside at night can feel colder than you’d expect. Dress more warmly than you think you need to, and it’ll probably work out just right.

What about flashlights?

Regular white flashlights are fine to use in emergencies, and inside the restroom building. Otherwise, please use only red light, or even better, no light at all. Your eyes will take a number of minutes to fully adapt to the dark, but once they do, you’ll be amazed at how well you can see! Using white light—including light from cellphones or flash photos—will instantly ruin your night vision, as well as that of everyone around you, and will probably make the astronomers grumpy.

Are there restrooms?

Ebenezer Church Recreation Area at Jordan Lake has restrooms with flush toilets. The restrooms will not be lit, so this is where you’ll want your flashlight!

Is my pet welcome?

No pets, please. Pets (even on a leash) + lots of people + expensive telescopes + the dark = a bad combination.

Do I have to stay the whole time?

No, you can drop in any time. But what’s up in the sky will change during the session because of Earth’s rotation. If you arrive late, you might miss out on objects setting in the west. If you leave early, you might miss out on objects rising in the east. Those not staying the whole time may also miss out on a constellation tour.

Can I arrive before the scheduled start time? Can I stay after it ends?

If you arrive early, you may find that telescope operators are too busy setting up to have a conversation. The Jordan Lake rangers request that we pack up and exit at the scheduled end time.

Are skywatching sessions kid-friendly?

Yes! All ages are welcome. Very young children may not get much out of looking through a telescope, but those elementary-school-aged and older may especially enjoy the experience. Parents: We recommend you look through the telescope first—then you’ll be better able to help your child look.

Sometimes, children (as well as adults) want to grab hold of the telescope, potentially smudging the eyepiece or knocking the object out of view. Please teach children not to touch the telescope without the operator’s permission. You can ask children to place their hands behind their back as they approach the scope. Explain they’ll be using their eyes to look, not their hands.

How do I look through a telescope?

First, find the end of the line for a given telescope. When you get to the front, be sure not to grab on to the telescope or you may knock things out of alignment. Ask the telescope operator if you’re not sure where to put your eye. You may need to try moving your eye closer or farther from the eyepiece to get a good view. If you wear glasses, try looking with them first; if the image seems blurry, ask the operator for help.

Don’t see anything? Speak up! The operator may need to adjust the scope. Have questions after you look? The telescope operators would love to answer them! Please step aside to ask, so the line can keep moving.

Do I have to bring a telescope?

No. Morehead and local astronomy club members provide the telescopes. All you have to do is show up. You may look through any of the telescopes.

But what if I do bring my own telescope?

Please know that Morehead skywatching sessions are not “star parties” aimed at fellow amateur astronomers. Rather, they are public outreach sessions, and the public will be expecting to look through your telescope. Typically, up to 200 or more people attend our skywatching sessions at Jordan Lake.

If you would enjoy providing views to the public through your telescope, we suggest you join CHAOS or RAC (astronomy clubs), where you will meet a supportive community and receive updates about public and private observing sessions.

Are skywatching sessions a good place for me to learn to use my telescope?

Probably not. Daytime is a better time to get familiar with your telescope (of course, don’t point it at the Sun unless it’s equipped with a proper solar filter). And if you bring your scope to a Jordan Lake session, people will come up to you the entire time wanting to look through it.

The sessions can be a good place to ask a few questions of the amateur astronomers, but do keep in mind that Morehead staff and telescope operators may not have time to answer extensive questions from any one person. For more personal help, attend a “telescope tune-up clinic” hosted by the Raleigh Astronomy Club. Other advice related to choosing and using telescopes can be found in this blog post.

What about accessibility?

Skywatching sessions are in outdoor locations with varying terrain and darkness. If you have special accessibility needs, please contact Morehead ahead of time with your questions.

How can I prepare for what I’m going to see at the skywatching session?

No need to prepare, but a great way to learn more about what’s visible in the current sky is by attending live programs at Morehead Planetarium, such as Carolina Skies (recommended for ages 8 through adults), Starry Nights (adults and teens), or Star Families (families with children ages 7 to 12). For more information, check the Morehead website at http://moreheadplanetarium.org/ or call (919) 962-1236.

What if I have a question that wasn’t answered here?

Please reply to this blog post with your question, send an email to mhplanet@unc.edu, or call (919) 962-1236.

Last revised September 21, 2012

Amy Sayle coordinates Morehead’s skywatching sessions at Jordan Lake.

Perseid meteors are named for the constellation Perseus, which lies in the direction from where the meteors appear to shoot. Saturday evening (8/11/12) Perseus is low, and you won't see as many Perseids.

A summer fireworks show, the kind put on by nature, happens this weekend. The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks the night of August 11-12, 2012.

Conveniently for many of us, this is a Saturday night/ Sunday morning. Less conveniently, seeing the most meteors means staying up very late or getting up very early.

Expect to see more meteors after midnight than before midnight. And to see the most meteors (up to 1 per minute on average from a clear dark site), try the last dark hour before dawn. For the Chapel Hill area, that will be 4 to 5 a.m. on Sunday, August 12.

In the pre-dawn sky on Sunday morning (8/12/12), when Perseus is higher, you'll see more meteors as well as a bonus: two bright planets and the Moon.

Tips on viewing the 2012 Perseids:

1) Check the weather to make sure the skies won’t be overcast or worse and you’d be better off sleeping in. For predictions of cloud cover, see the Clear Sky Chart website (start with “Find a chart”).

2) Find a dark site, with a wide open view of the sky. Trying to view near unshielded city lights will mean missing all but the brightest meteors.

3) Take a reclining chair or sleeping bag so you can gaze up at the sky in comfort.

4) Bring layers. When you’re acclimated to 90 degrees, an August night can feel chilly.

5) Plan to be outside for more than just a few minutes. Your eyes need time to adjust to the dark, and there may be short periods with no meteors at all.

6) Look toward the darkest part of your sky and away from any sky glow created by light pollution. If the Moon has risen (moonrise is about 2 a.m. Sunday), keep it out of your field of view so moonlight doesn’t interfere with your meteor viewing. You do not need to know how to find Perseus to see the Perseids. The meteors will appear in all parts of the sky.

7) All you need are your eyes. Binoculars and telescopes restrict the area of the sky you can see, making it difficult to spot meteors.

Although meteors are sometimes called “shooting stars,” they are not stars. Meteors happen when cosmic debris interacts with our atmosphere, creating streaks of light in the sky. Perseid meteors come from tiny chunks of debris left in Earth’s path by the comet Swift-Tuttle. For more information about the Perseid meteor shower, see the American Meteor Society website.

If you’re not an after-midnight kind of person and you’d like to experience the Perseids as a community event, please join us this Saturday evening (Aug. 11, 2012). Weather permitting, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center will host a skywatching session at Jordan Lake, Ebenezer Church Recreation Area, from 9 to 11 p.m.

Early on, we’ll look through telescopes at Mars and Saturn, which currently form a striking trio with the bright star Spica low in the west; later on, we expect to see some Perseid meteors. The skywatching session is free and open to the public.

UPDATE: Due to weather forecasts, we’ve canceled Morehead’s skywatching session for Saturday evening. If the weather clears, we hope you’ll be able to see the Perseids from your backyard.

If you miss the Perseids, there's always the Geminid meteor shower in December. It might be cold, but seeing lots of Geminids doesn't require any of this 4 a.m. business.

This week, Dr. Sally Ride died from pancreatic cancer. In 1983, Dr. Ride was the first American woman to fly in space, becoming a role model for girls who wanted to pursue careers in science, mathematics and aeronautics.

What many people don’t know is that the first American woman in space could have been — and perhaps should have been — Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb, who was recruited by NASA for its astronaut program in 1959.

Jerrie Cobb

Jerrie Cobb was recruited by NASA as a pilot in 1959. Photo Credit: NASA

Cobb began flying airplanes as a teen-ager in Oklahoma and earned a commercial pilot’s license by her 18th birthday. She set world records for altitude and speed and was named one of the “100 most important young people in the United States” by Life magazine. She was named Pilot of the Year by the National Pilots Association.

In 1959, Cobb was chosen as the first woman to receive physical and psychological testing as part of the Mercury Astronaut Selection Tests. She passed all three tests with high marks and was one of 13 women who trained for space flight in NASA’s “lady astronaut” program.

Unfortunately, none of those women ever flew in space. In 1960, NASA established requirements that would keep women out of the the astronaut corps until 1978.

A woman did fly in space in the 1960s — a Russian woman, Valentina Tereshkova, who orbited Earth in 1963 — but it would be another 20 years before America provided that opportunity to a woman. Dr. Sally Ride finally achieved the prize that had been denied to Jerrie Cobb.

Jerrie Cobb was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981.

On June 5, 2012, witness the black silhouette of Venus slowly gliding in front of the Sun.

On June 5, 2012, witness the black silhouette of Venus slowly gliding in front of the Sun.

My all-time favorite case of “impossible astronomy” happens in the final scene of Dan Brown’s popular novel The Da Vinci Code.

First, Brown invents a new moon that rises soon after sunset. (New moons actually rise at sunrise.) Then, that new moon—which by definition wouldn’t be lit on the side facing Earth—somehow bathes a character in moonlight (“her face was beautiful in the moonlight”).

Brown also tampers rather dramatically with Venus, flinging the planet right out of its orbit! See if you can spot the scientific impossibility in this excerpt from his novel, in which the character Robert Langdon makes this observation:

The stars were just now appearing, but to the east, a single point of light glowed brighter than any other. Langdon smiled when he saw it. It was Venus.

Consider the time: Since “the stars were just now appearing,” it must be early evening. The Sun has recently set. And Langdon sees Venus in the east.

But if it’s shortly after sunset and Venus is in the sky, the planet has to be more or less in the west, the same direction where the Sun set.

That’s because Venus can only appear near the Sun in our sky. Venus orbits closer to the Sun than Earth does. So from our point of view, Venus appears to travel back and forth from one side of the Sun to the other, never straying too far from the part of the sky where we see the Sun.

Therefore, if you see Venus as an “evening star,” Venus must be in the west. If you see it as a “morning star,” it must be in the east.

For months, Venus has been shining brilliantly in the western evening sky, until recently, when it vanished into the solar glare. Later this month (June 2012), Venus will re-appear on the other side of the Sun, in the eastern morning twilight.

In the meantime, though, something unusual happens: On its way to becoming a “morning star” Venus will pass directly in front of—it will transit—the Sun on Tuesday, June 5, 2012. Over about six hours, the planet will look like a black dot gliding across the face of the Sun.

If Venus and Earth orbited the Sun in exactly the same plane, these transits would be common. But because the two planets’ orbits are inclined relative to one another, a transit of Venus is a rare event, one that occurs in 8-year pairs separated by more than a century. Since we just had one in 2004, this June 5th is your last chance ever to see a Venus transit. That is, unless you’re planning on still being around for the next transit on December 10, 2117, or perhaps moving to somewhere else in the solar system.

Morehead Planetarium and Science Center will host a viewing of this rare, historic event. (Important note: To view the transit of Venus directly, you MUST protect your eyes at all times with proper solar filters, properly used.)

Our special family science event for the Transit of Venus happens at our building, 250 East Franklin Street, Chapel Hill. On Tuesday, June 5, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., you can:

  • Safely view the transit with solar telescopes and “eclipse glasses” (weather permitting, else we’ll watch via the internet).
  • See a live planetarium show in our fulldome theater. Learn how Venus transits helped us measure the size of the solar system and how astronomers use the transit method to find exoplanets.
  • Tour the Morehead Observatory.
  • Learn about the Sun and Venus from NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassadors.
  • Participate in family-friendly hands-on activities: make a sundial, experiment with “sun beads,” design a sun mask, make a planet, hunt for exoplanets, and more.

Most activities are not weather dependent, so this event (which is FREE, by the way) happens rain or shine. Please join us!

Don't miss this! Your next chance to view a transit of Venus from North Carolina won’t be until 2125.

Morehead educator Amy Sayle is holding a pair of glasses that could save your vision … or destroy your eyes.

Amy Sayle holds damaged eclipse glasses

What's wrong with these eclipse glasses?

The glasses are eclipse glasses — a simple cardboard frame around a black polymer film. The film is designed especially to protect your eyes if you look at the Sun during an eclipse or a transit.

How are eclipse glasses different from regular sunglasses? They are much, much, much more effective at blocking visible light. Researchers measure this using VLT (Visible LIght Transmittance), a standard for comparing different types of glasses. Clear glass transmits more than 90 percent of visible light. Regular sunglasses can transmit anywhere from 15 percent to 30 percent of visible light. Mount Everest explorers, skiers and others who are outdoors in high altitudes might use extra-dark “glacier glasses,” which transmit from 4 percent to 10 percent of visible light.

Eclipse glasses surpass all other glasses in eye protection; they transmit less than 1 percent of visible light. They also block 100 percent of all UVA and UVB light, which is not visible. They are the only glasses that provide adequate eye protection for viewing the Sun during eclipses and transits.

To save your vision, you must use eclipse glasses correctly:

  • They must be in mint condition, with no holes or creases.
  • They must shield your eyes completely when you look at the Sun.
  • They must be used only for naked-eye viewing.

If you don’t use eclipse glasses correctly, however, you can destroy your eyes — literally!

Look closely at the photo. See the holes in the glasses? This is what happens if someone uses the eclipse glasses together with binoculars or a telescope to view the Sun. The magnification of the binoculars or telescope intensify the Sun’s light so strongly that it melts the film. Imagine what it would do to your eye. (Lesson learned: Don’t point regular binoculars or telescopes toward the Sun. Even if you aren’t looking through the lenses, the focused light could cause a fire.)

Clearly, it’s important to take precautions whenever you’re viewing an eclipse or a transit. That’s one reason that Morehead Planetarium and Science Center is planning a special family science event for the upcoming Transit of Venus on June 5.
It’s free, and it provides lots of different ways for you to view the transit safely:

  • Eclipse glasses
  • “Solar telescopes” that have special filters
  • Planetarium mini-shows that illustrate the transit
  • Live transit video images

The event includes presentations by NASA Solar System Ambassadors and hands-on activities for children, too.

Save your vision! View the transit safely with Morehead Planetarium and Science Center on June 5. And if you choose to view the transit from home, please remember: “Safety First” whenever you view a transit or eclipse.

Disclaimer: No eyes were melted during the making of this "what not to do" demonstration.

On June 5, 2012, Venus will look like a black dot that slowly moves across the Sun.

Thanks to the gloomy weather forecast, we have canceled the skywatching session scheduled at Jordan Lake for Saturday, April 21, 2012. Our next Jordan Lake skywatching session is set for Saturday, June 23 (again, weather permitting).

In the meantime, please mark your calendars for a big event on June 5. Venus will cross in front of (“transit”) the Sun—the last chance of our lifetimes to see a Transit of Venus!

From 5:30-8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 5, 2012, we’ll celebrate this rare astronomical event at the Morehead Planetarium building with hands-on educational activities, safe solar viewing, tours of Morehead Observatory, live mini-shows in the planetarium dome, and science talks. FREE. And this event happens rain or shine (we’ll watch the transit via internet if we have to). Please make plans to join us!

The next transit of Venus doesn’t happen until December 11, 2117.


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