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.

A radar image of asteroid 2005 YU55 (credit: NASA/JPL)

A radar image of asteroid 2005 YU55 (credit: NASA/JPL)

A space rock about a quarter-mile-across whizzes by Earth tonight (Nov. 8, 2011). The asteroid, called 2005 YU55, is coming closer than the Moon’s orbit.

But don’t bother taking cover—the asteroid will miss Earth by 200,000 miles when it reaches its closest point around 6:30 p.m. Eastern time. Its gravitational influence will have no detectable effect on our planet.

Although 2005 YU55 has been classified as a potentially hazardous object, NASA’s Near Earth Object Program says this asteroid poses no threat of colliding with Earth over at least the next hundred years.

The asteroid is way too dim to see with just your eyes. But if you have at least a 6-inch telescope, you could try to spot it. Sky & Telescope’s website has a good article about the asteroid with a link to a finder chart.

For something easy to spot with your eyes alone, try Jupiter. It's that bright "star" blazing away in the east after sunset.

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Perseus holds the head of Medusa, whose eye is marked by Algol, the "Demon star." (Credit: Stellarium.org)

A star perfect for Halloween currently lies in the northeast evening sky within the constellation Perseus. It’s Algol—the “Demon Star”—and it represents the eye of Medusa.

According to myth, if you looked at Medusa you’d turn to stone. Perseus managed to chop off Medusa’s head by looking only at her reflected image in his shield.

Algol looks like a single star to us, but it’s actually a multiple star system. From our point of view on Earth, two of the stars in the Algol system orbit each other such that one star periodically passes in front of (eclipses) the other, blocking its light.

When the light from this “eclipsing binary” dims every few days, you can imagine it as the eye of Medusa, still winking after the head has been cut off.

Head of Medusa

Sorry, but you've just been turned to stone.

If you’d like to hear the full story of Perseus and Medusa along with other tales of madness, murder, and mayhem in the night sky, please join Morehead Planetarium and Science Center for a special edition of our live planetarium program Carolina Skies.  In honor of Halloween, we will have several “Scare-olina Skies” shows:

  • Adult versions: Scare-olina Skies shows on Saturday night, October 29, 2011 (at 7:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.) feature themes designed for adults and older teens.
  • Family-friendly version: Scare-olina Skies on Sunday, October 30, 2011 (at 3:30 p.m.) is designed for children ages 5-12 and their families.

Watch out! Medusa will make an appearance on the planetarium dome during Scare-olina Skies.

This photograph of the International Space Station was taken from the space shuttle Discovery after the two spacecraft undocked on March 7, 2011. (Credit: NASA)

Pretty much everyone in the Eastern part of the U.S. who has clear skies can get a view of the International Space Station (ISS) tonight (Monday, October 17, 2011). To see it, be outside by 7:16 p.m.

Over the following six minutes the ISS’s orbit around Earth takes it over the East Coast. For our area, the space station is predicted to first appear between 7:16 and 7:17 p.m. low in the southwest. It will pass almost directly overhead at 7:19 p.m., and finally disappear low in the northeast at 7:22 p.m.

Look for a very bright white “star” that is noticeably moving. And wave hello to the three people currently onboard.

If you don’t notice the ISS in the first couple of minutes, don’t give up. You can increase your chances of spotting it by inviting friends to help scan the sky with you. You might also practice “ambush astronomy” and introduce nearby friendly pedestrians to one of the coolest things to see in the sky.

Although the space station orbits our planet about every 90 minutes, you won’t see every pass. According to predictions on Heavens-Above and NASA’s satellite sightings page, tonight’s ISS pass should be the easiest one to see from this area for the rest of October.

If you miss the real thing, you can see a simulated ISS pass by attending Morehead's Carolina Skies planetarium program. Just ask your presenter before the show.

This is the bad news. (Image credit: Luc Viatour)

Many people’s favorite annual meteor shower, the Perseids, will peak the night of August 12/13, 2011.

The good news: That’s a Friday night/Saturday morning. For many people, this is a convenient time of the week to be outside looking for meteors—those streaks of light (also known as “shooting stars”) created when cosmic debris interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere.

The bad news: The Moon will not be cooperating this year. On August 13 it’s full, meaning the Moon will be up all night, its bright light hiding the dimmer meteors from view.

Tips if you decide to view the Perseids this year:

  • To see most meteors, go out during the last dark hour before dawn.
  • Get the Moon out of your field of view, and look toward the northern half of the sky. You’ll want a view unobstructed by trees or buildings.
  • Take a chair to sit in, and look about halfway up the sky.

For more tips, see the American Meteor Society site.

If it’s too cloudy that night or you just don’t want to make the effort, you can still see some meteors (the simulated kind) by coming to Carolina Skies at Morehead this Sunday, August 14, at 3:30 p.m. At your request, the presenter can send a few meteors shooting across the planetarium sky.

Moonlight won't interfere with the peak of the Perseids in 2012.

Harry Potter would have needed magic to pass his astronomy exam in book 5.

J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, must be a bit of an astronomy buff. She named a number of her characters after stars or constellations, such as Bellatrix, Draco, Regulus, and Sirius. And in her book about Harry’s fifth school year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Rowling even gave Harry an astronomy exam.

What an exam, though! Harry appeared to have an impossible task that night—to note the location of the constellation Orion in the June sky.

Rowling had Harry successfully complete Orion on his star chart, but Orion wasn’t visible in the night sky from anywhere on the planet that month. In June, when viewed from Earth, the stars of Orion lie roughly in the same line of sight as the Sun. So Orion is above the horizon only in the daytime.

To see Orion in the middle of the night in June, Harry must have used some serious magic, possibly whipping the Earth to another place in its orbit around the Sun. Let’s hope he received extra credit.

This week, we’ll use Morehead magic to re-create the night sky on the planetarium dome for two programs about what you can see this summer:

Both programs are aimed at Muggles (non-magic people, in Harry Potter’s world) who want to learn to identify what’s overhead on North Carolina summer nights. Please register online in advance.

During the Summer Skies programs, we'll see Orion's enemy, Scorpius (another Harry Potter character, known to fans who have read to the very end of the series).

February 2008 lunar eclipse (credit: Jayme Hanzak)

The next time the Moon is full, it will pass into the Earth’s shadow, causing a total lunar eclipse. The action happens early Tuesday morning, December 21, 2010, between 1:33 and 5:01 a.m. Totality is from 2:41 to 3:53 a.m. (All times Eastern.)

So seeing it probably means inconveniencing yourself unless you work the night shift or will be in another time zone. (Lucky folks on the West Coast, for example, get to subtract three hours from all the times above.) If the skies are clear enough, here’s why it is worth losing sleep to see the eclipse:

1) You will see the Moon turn a weird color.

When the Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow, rather than disappearing altogether, it will probably turn red. Or maybe orange, or gray, or brown. The Earth’s atmosphere bends sunlight and sends it into the Earth’s shadow, so in effect you see light from all the sunrises and sunsets on Earth. The exact color of the Moon depends on what’s in our atmosphere as well as how deeply into the darkest part of the shadow the Moon passes.

2) You can prove to yourself the Earth is round.

When the eclipse is in a partial phase, you can see that the Earth’s shadow is curved.

3) You can imagine a ferocious dog taking a bite out of the Moon.

According to a Korean myth, a lunar eclipse happens when a king’s “fire dog” attempts to steal the Moon and bring its light to the Land of Darkness. When this huge, fierce dog bites into the Moon he finds it painfully cold. His mouth freezing and his teeth singing with pain, the dog then spits out the Moon.

4) You haven’t gotten to see a total lunar eclipse in nearly 3 years.

The night of February 20-21, 2008, was the most recent total eclipse of the Moon visible from anywhere on Earth.

5) …and you may have missed that eclipse anyway.

That week I was presenting a stargazing seminar for public school teachers at the Ocracoke campus of the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, where I remember good views of the eclipse. But members of the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS) reported cloud cover during the early stages.

6) …and your NEXT chance to see a total lunar eclipse from here won’t be until April 2014.

And its timing during the night isn’t any more convenient for the East coast than this Dec. 21 eclipse, so don’t wait for that reason.

To witness a simulation of the eclipse with no loss of sleep, and to learn more Moon-related stuff, please join me at the Moon Myths planetarium program:

  • A 90-minute version designed for adults and teens happens this Wednesday, Dec. 15, from 7:30-9:00 p.m. In addition to spending time under the planetarium sky, we’ll do a hands-on “moon dance” (no actual dancing required) to explore how the Moon’s orbit is related to phases and eclipses. And if the weather permits, we’ll spend a few minutes outside looking at the real thing through a telescope.

Register for either program at the Morehead Web site.

Amy Sayle is setting an alarm to catch the lunar eclipse.

Geminid meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini the Twins. (Credit: International Astronomical Union, Sky & Telescope)

The Geminid meteor shower peaks the night of December 13-14, providing its annual cosmic light show. Alas, our current forecast predicts temperatures dropping toward the teens that night. Here’s why it’s worth freezing yourself* to view the meteors (assuming you have reasonably clear skies):

1) The Geminid meteor shower is strong and reliable.

It’s actually already happening. The shower is active from December 4-16, with the peak on Tuesday morning, December 14.

2) You can watch the sky act out a mythological story.

The streaks of light you’ll see (also called, confusingly, “shooting stars”) result from debris from a rocky object called 3200 Phaethon. In Greek mythology, Phaethon’s disastrous attempt to drive the Sun chariot across the sky resulted in Zeus (Jupiter) hurling a lightning bolt that caused Phaethon to tumble out of the chariot “like a shooting star.” In addition to seeing meteors streaking through the sky and imagining Phaethon’s last ride, you will also see Jupiter—the planet, that is—if you are out before midnight. But let’s hope for no lightning bolts.

3) You don’t have to wake up insanely early.

Unlike most meteor showers, which require going outside at what most of us consider a ridiculous hour, the Geminids are worth looking for anytime after about 9 p.m. (Monday, Dec. 13). At that time you will also see Jupiter and the waxing gibbous Moon appearing close together—a lovely sight, though that moonlight may prevent you from seeing fainter meteors.

4) If you’re willing to go out to a dark site after midnight (early morning Tuesday, Dec. 14), you may see roughly a meteor or more per minute.

The single best hour is likely to be centered around 2 a.m. The Moon will have set, and high in the sky will be the radiant—the point in the constellation Gemini from which Geminid meteors appear to originate. Around that time, meteors will appear to fall down in all directions. To see the most meteors, you need a sky free from light pollution. Seek an open view as far away from city lights as you can.

5) All you need are your eyes. And warm clothes.

Do give your eyes at least ten minutes to adjust to the dark. You do not need to know how to identify the constellation Gemini. The American Meteor Society suggests that if it’s before midnight, try facing toward the east, keeping the Moon out of your field of view. Closer to 2 a.m., try looking about halfway up the sky, in whatever is the darkest direction for your location.

*So that you don’t actually freeze yourself, remember to dress really, really warmly, and wrap yourself in a blanket or sleeping bag.

Amy Sayle is looking forward to presenting "Moon Myths" this week in the climate-controlled planetarium theater.


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