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.

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.

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.

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.

This image shows the relative positions of the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and the Pleaides star cluster the evening of March 26, 2012, but note that the real Moon will look like a thin crescent tonight. (Credit: Stellarium.org)

A stunning sight awaits you tonight (March 26, 2012): the waxing crescent moon will appear close to Venus.

This lovely pairing will be very easy to spot, as long as your view to the west isn’t blocked by trees or buildings. Just go out after sunset and look west to find the crescent moon. That absurdly bright star-like object just to the right of the Moon is Venus. It is difficult to over-emphasize just how bright Venus appears—in fact, the planet is so bright that it can be seen in the daytime if you know exactly where to look.

Once you spot Venus and the Moon, see if you can find the (much fainter) Pleaides star cluster above them. Also look below Venus and the Moon for Jupiter. Jupiter will look brighter than any star in the night sky, but not as bright as Venus.

Speaking of stunning sights involving Venus, mark your calendar for June 5, 2012, when Venus will transit (cross in front of) the Sun. This will be the last transit of Venus during our lifetimes. Learn more at http://transitofvenus.org/

March 6, 2012, 45 minutes after sunset

March 6, 2012, 45 minutes after sunset

Have you noticed those two bright “stars” forming a striking pair in the early evening western sky? They’re actually planets—Venus and Jupiter. They are so bright that you can spot them easily soon after sunset, before the sky is completely dark. Venus is the brighter of the two and currently lies to the lower right of Jupiter.

Over the next week watch Venus and Jupiter appear to creep closer and pass each other. Expect a particularly spectacular pairing the nights of March 12-14, 2012, when these two planets are at their closest all month (3° apart, or just a bit more than the width of your thumb when held at arm’s length).

March 12, 2012, 45 minutes after sunset

March 12, 2012, 45 minutes after sunset

Although Venus and Jupiter are the most noticeable planets right now, they have company. Currently, Mercury also appears in the west, but will be trickier to spot. If you can find a good western horizon (no trees or buildings), you may catch this elusive planet as it sets in the evening twilight. About 45 minutes after sunset, try looking for Mercury far below and a little to the right of Venus. Although the last several days or so have been the best time this year for seeing Mercury in the evening, don’t wait any longer—Mercury’s light fades rapidly over the next week.

Turn around and look to the east for a bonus. By sunset, Mars has already risen in the east, in the direction of the constellation Leo. Currently, Saturn rises in the east about three hours after sunset, in the constellation Virgo. By the end of this month Saturn will rise just an hour after sunset.

To learn more about the planets and stars visible this spring, please join us for one of Morehead’s “Spring Skies” programs. The program designed for adults (interested teens are welcome) happens Wednesday evening, March 21, 2012. The version designed for families with children ages 7-12 is Saturday morning, April 14, 2012.

On Saturday, March 24, the crescent Moon joins Venus and Jupiter in the same part of the sky—a lovely sight! From 8-10 p.m. that evening, Morehead will host a free skywatching session at Jordan Lake (weather permitting).

You can wave hello to these 6 people on the International Space Station, as they pass overhead tonight at about 17,000 miles per hour. (Credit: NASA TV)

You can watch the International Space Station pass over tonight. And unlike this morning’s Quadrantid meteor shower, which required finding a dark location in the freezing early morning cold, this skywatching opportunity requires only that you step outside wherever you are* for a few minutes before 6 p.m. tonight (Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012).

Viewing tips:

  • The ISS will look like a VERY bright star that is noticeably moving. It will be easily visible even though the sky won’t be completely dark yet.
  • Head outside by 5:54 p.m. and start looking toward the northwest sky. Don’t worry if you don’t notice the ISS right away. Recruit your friends, family, neighbors, or nearby friendly pedestrians to help look and increase everyone’s chances of seeing it. If all else fails, keep your eyes on the Moon—the ISS will appear to go just past it at 5:58-ish.
  • Between 5:54 and 6:00 p.m., the ISS will appear to move from northwest to southeast. At 5:57 p.m. it reaches its highest point above the horizon, in the northeast, not terribly far from the top of the sky.

*If you’re reading this from outside central North Carolina, see NASA’s spacecraft sighting opportunities website for better predictions of when and where to look.

What not to mistake the space station for:

  • A planet. (Venus and Jupiter are prominent in the current evening sky. Like the ISS, these planets are very bright. However, they will not noticeably move over a few minutes.)
  • An airplane. (The ISS does not have red or green blinking lights.)
  • A meteor, aka “shooting star.” (Meteors appear to streak through the sky quickly, whereas the ISS will take minutes to pass over.)

Tonight’s ISS pass is predicted to be the best (highest, brightest) for us in the early evening for the time being. But if you miss it, the next couple of weeks bring more chances. Check Heavens-Above or NASA’s spacecraft sighting opportunities website. For both sites, begin by indicating your observing location.

And please join Morehead for our next skywatching session, weather permitting, at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area at Jordan Lake on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012, from 6 to 8 p.m. Although the space station isn’t predicted to make a visible pass then, we will see the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and other celestial sights.

Amy Sayle plans to step outside tonight to wave hello to the crew members of Expedition 30 on the ISS.

If you’re willing to suffer a little (okay, a lot), you can see one of the best meteor showers of 2012.

Very late tonight—technically, early tomorrow morning, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012—is the peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower. The eastern half of North America is favored for this year’s shower.

The Quadrantids have a short peak, but it can be a good one. Estimates vary, but from a dark site, you may see up to 100 meteors (“shooting stars”) streaking through the sky per hour. The best time to look is between 3 and 6 a.m.

On top of that being ridiculously early for many of us, it’s going to be super cold around here. So dress really, really, really warmly. Then get away from outdoor lighting, especially unshielded lights, and look toward the darkest part of your sky.

For further information about the 2012 Quadrantids, see the web sites of Sky & Telescope and the American Meteor Society.

Prefer much warmer weather? You can hold out for the Perseid meteor shower in August.

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