MESSENGER took this image of Mercury on September 29, 2009, during its third flyby.  This image shows portions of the planet’s surface never seen before by spacecraft.  (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

MESSENGER took this image of Mercury on September 29, 2009, during its third flyby. This image shows portions of the planet’s surface never seen before by spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Early tomorrow morning (Thursday, October 8th) will be a good time to spot a rarely seen planet—Mercury.

About 45 minutes before sunrise, look for Mercury low in the east and hanging out just a smidgen below and to the right of Saturn. You’ll need an unobstructed horizon because even at its best placement in the sky, Mercury never appears far from the Sun.

Mercury is not only rarely seen by humans, it hasn’t been seen much by our spacecraft either.  NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, which recently flew by the planet, is only the second to visit Mercury, and in March 2011, it will be the first to orbit it. Mercury’s first visitor, Mariner 10, flew by the planet in 1974-75.

The scientific goals of the MESSENGER mission include answering questions such as why is Mercury so dense and what is its geological history and the nature of its magnetic field. You can learn more about this mission at NASA’s MESSENGER Web site.

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 project manager. She's considering setting her alarm clock for 6:30 a.m. to see Mercury.

Moonlight (and possibly clouds) will interfere with early morning viewing of the 2009 Perseid meteor shower.

The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks this Wednesday (August 12).

Last year I recommended going out to view the Perseids at the ridiculous hour of 4 a.m. I vividly remember both the many meteors I saw between 4 and 5 a.m., as well as the effort involved in staying awake at work in the hours that followed.

This year, you and I can justify not trying so hard for two reasons:

(1) The weather. The forecast doesn’t look terribly clear for the Triangle.

(2) The Moon. After about 11 p.m., moonlight will wash out the dimmer meteors from view. The almost last quarter Moon rises within a few hours after sunset and stays up the rest of the night.

Meteors are also known as “shooting stars,” but they’re not related to stars. Meteors are caused when Earth travels through space debris (that left by Comet Swift-Tuttle in the case of the Perseids). When the debris interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere, a flash of light is created.

Perseid meteors appear to radiate away from the constellation Perseus, but you don’t need to know how to find Perseus to see the meteors. Take a lawn chair or sleeping bag to a spot away from city lights, and look about halfway up the sky. Choose a direction that’s dark.

If skies are clear, the best times to look for Perseid meteors include Tuesday evening to Wednesday before dawn, and Wednesday evening to Thursday before dawn. The most activity will be between midnight and dawn. If you’re watching after the Moon has risen, look away from it to a darker part of the sky. After giving your eyes 15 minutes or more to adjust to the darkness, you may see a Perseid meteor every few minutes.

If the weather permits, Morehead will hold a special Perseids skywatching session from 9 to 11 p.m. this Wednesday, Aug. 12, at Jordan Lake (Ebenezer Church Recreation Area).

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 manager.

31 Jul 2009
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BlogMorehead Planetarium and Science Center is committing to writing more blogs. Denise Young, Jonathan Frederick and Amy Sayle will be contributing writers. Look for their blogs beginning in August.

Denise is our director of education. Jonathan is the science programs manager and has responsibility for Current Science Forums and summer camps. Amy will blogging about the night sky and Science 360.

Jeff Hill is Morehead's director of external relations

Earth, Moon and Sun\'s New CoyoteExciting news at Morehead. We’ve received our new portable planetarium and started taking it on the road last week. A grant from the Chatham Foundation helped us purchase the dome and is helping us pilot the portable planetarium program in western North Carolina in Wilkes, Alleghany, Surry and Yadkin counties.

It’s exciting for us to be able to deliver astronomy content with the portable planetarium program now. A lot of teachers won’t even consider bringing their classes to Chapel Hill because it’s too far away for a field trip (Imagine a group of third graders on a bus for four hours each way). This portable planetarium will allow us to take the experience to them.

By the way, you may remember Jay Heinz posting some info about our new production of “Earth, Moon and Sun” a while back. Well, that’s the show that we are featuring in the portable planetarium. Check out the new coyote from the new version. If you’ve ever seen the old version of EMS, you can see that he’s gotten quite the facelift. This new version of EMS will be available in our dome in Chapel Hill after we complete renovations and technological upgrades.

Jeff Hill is Morehead's director of external relations

05 Aug 2008
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MPSC will not be holding a skywatching session for the Perseid shower this year since moonlight will interfere during our usual session hours.
(Continue Reading)

Mickey Jo Sorrell is Morehead's planetarium educator.


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