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.

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.

Will you be up before dawn tomorrow morning (Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012)? If you have clear skies, step outside for two interesting sights:

1) In the east, Venus will appear to lie practically on top of the bright star Regulus.  Venus will be easy to spot, as it’s the brightest thing in the night sky other than the Moon. (Don’t confuse it with Jupiter, which will be higher in the sky and not as bright.) Regulus is a bright star in the constellation Leo the Lion, but the star may be hard to pick out from Venus’s glare—binoculars will help.

2) As a bonus, the International Space Station makes a visible pass over the Eastern United States on Wednesday morning. Starting at 6:12 (nearly 6:13) a.m. until 6:18 a.m., the ISS will travel from northwest to southeast, getting fairly high above the horizon along the way. It’ll look like a very bright star that is noticeably moving across the sky.Times and directions may vary a bit if you’re outside the Triangle area in North Carolina.

We’d love to hear from anyone who saw either of these sights. You can reply to this post.

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.

Look west at nightfall on Aug. 13, 2012, to see Saturn, Mars, Spica in a line.

An interesting line-up appears in the sky the next two evenings. Tonight (8/13/12) and tomorrow (8/14/12) three bright objects—Saturn, Mars, Spica—form a nearly straight line.

Look for this striking sight at nightfall low in the west-southwest. You can easily cover up all three with just your fist held at arm’s length.

Saturn, Mars, and Spica appear close together only because from Earth’s viewpoint they currently happen to lie in roughly the same line of sight. In reality, Mars and Saturn are millions of miles away from each other, and the star Spica is about 260 light years away.

As planets, Mars and Saturn noticeably move over time against the background of stars—Mars, especially. Watch Mars over the next few evenings and you’ll be able to tell it’s trekking eastward relative to Saturn and Spica.

By the following evening (Aug. 14), Mars has shifted, just a bit, toward the east (left) relative to Saturn and Spica. Can you see the difference?

As the Saturn-Mars-Spica configuration continues to change shape, one way to keep track of which object is which is by remembering that stars twinkle, but planets (generally) shine steadily. To tell the two planets apart, remember that Mars is called the Red Planet for a reason—it really does look a bit reddish in the sky—whereas Saturn is more of a pale gold.

On the evening of August 21, the waxing crescent Moon joins this star and planet grouping.