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.

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).

05 Mar 2012

0

By Stephanie Baber

It’s that time of year again — time to choose summer camp experiences for your children. And if you work in the Research Triangle Park, you have a new summer camp option for your children of RTP workers.

Morehead Planetarium and Science Center is expanding its popular science camps to a new RTP site at Kestrel Heights Charter School. Morehead Summer Science Camps provide a fun and educational way for children to spend their summer, with hands-on learning activities, science-themed crafts and outdoor recreation.

The new RTP site is conveniently located near the intersection of N.C. 54 and N.C. 55, perfect for busy parents who work in Research Triangle Park. Morehead offers one-week, full-day sessions from July 9 through Aug. 3, with drop-off beginning as early as 7:45 a.m. and pick-up continuing through 5:30 p.m.

Each camp session pairs a morning theme with a afternoon theme:

  • Grades K-1

    “Dinosaur Detectives” and “Magic Tree House Explorers”

    “Aquatic Addresses” and “Bodies in Motion”
  • Grades 2-3

    “Cricket Coding” and “Me and My Shadow”

    “Secret Formulas” and “Magic Tree House Researchers”
  • Grades 4-5

    “Fizz! Bang! Boom!” and “Test Pilots”

    “LEGO Lab” and “Sky Searchers”
  • Grades 6-8

    “Rocket Science” and “Moon, Mars and Beyond”

    “Astronomical Wonders” and “LEGO” Lab Challenge”

Morehead Summer Science Camps present science to kids in new and exciting ways. Camp curricula are developed by science educators at Morehead and presented by camp counselors who are science and education majors at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Registration for these camps is open now through Morehead’s website. And if you’re a Morehead member, you’re eligible for a $30 discount on each camp session.

And if you don’t work in RTP? Morehead still offers a full summer of its “kid-tested, parent-approved” one-week, half-day camps at its original site on the UNC campus.

Stephanie Baber is a junior in UNC's School of Journalism and Mass Communications and a public relations intern with Morehead's marketing department.

OK, the title may be a bit dramatic but since moving to North Carolina there is one pressing issue that has caught my attention.

Like so many, I love my coffee in the morning. I watch the sun slowly waking up my world as the coffee slowly wakes me up; it really is one of my favorite things. Because of this, I decided a while back to take my coffee making to another level. I purchased a French press. 

For those who don’t know, to use a French press one needs ground coffee and boiling water. The coffee is placed in the carafe followed by boiling water.  A screen/filter/plunger is then used to push the grounds down, thus allowing this barista to enjoy his coffee!  

Upon arriving in North Carolina, however, I found a glitch in the system. Water seems to take FOREVER to boil here! I know a watched pot never boils but this is a little ridiculous. How did the move to North Carolina change a seemingly simple operation?

It turns out there is quite a large difference, a little more than 3,500 feet to be exact. As a child I heard people taking about high altitude cooking directions and I thought they were crazy—up until now. As I agonize over the extra minutes of not having my coffee, I can’t help but think more about this.  

We moved from an elevation of 4,100 feet above sea level to an elevation of 564 feet above sea level. What this boils down to is the temperature at which water boils. I was taught it boiled at 212 degrees F or 100 degrees C and this is true, under specific circumstances. One of these is to be at sea level. The higher the elevation, the lower the temperature at which water boils.  In fact, every 500 feet lowers the boiling temperature by about 1 degree F.

In doing the calculation, this means water boils at 204 degrees F in our previous home, Helena Montana.  Eight degrees may not seem like that much of a difference, but when you are waiting on your coffee, I assure you it feels like hours!

Pressure is responsible for disrupting my morning coffee procedure. At sea level there is about 14.696 pounds of pressure per square inch pushing on you, water, everything. The amount of pressure in Helena (depending on where you are standing) is around 12.228 pounds.

We are accustomed to feeling the air “pushing” on us so we do not notice it unless we change elevations quickly–like driving over a mountain pass or flying in an airplane.

This affects the boiling point of water because at the higher elevations, water molecules are not held together as tightly as they are under the more weight.

Having come to the realization that there is really nothing I can do to make my water boil faster, I have given up my French press. That and I broke it, but still, lesson learned! C’est la vie!

Kyle Hunter is afterschool coordinator for Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

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.

Are you considering buying a telescope?  Check out these resources so that your new telescope is right for you (or the person you’re giving it to), and won’t end up collecting dust in the garage:

  • Advice from the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society: On the CHAOS home page, look for the “Starting Right” link. This article by Jon Stewart-Taylor explains why unaided-eye observing is the way to start an astronomy hobby, explores why binoculars are a good next step, and provides tips for choosing a telescope that meets your needs, as well as advice on what NOT to buy.
  • Advice over email: Additionally, CHAOS and RAC are collaborating on an advice service for people who are considering buying a telescope. You can email your questions to help@chaosastro.com.

To see a variety of telescopes in action, please join Morehead for our monthly skywatching sessions at Jordan Lake (Ebenezer Church Recreation Area). Members of CHAOS and RAC help Morehead educators present these free, informal sessions for the public. Our next skywatching session (weather permitting) is Saturday, January 28, from 6-8 p.m.

You can also jumpstart your astronomy hobby by learning what’s up in the winter skies. On Wednesday evening, December 21, we’ll have “Starry Nights: Winter Skies,” a 90-minute class for adults and teens. A version designed for families with children ages 7-12 – “Star Families: Winter Skies” – will be offered Saturday, January 28, from 9:30-10:15 a.m. Please register in advance at our website, or call (919) 962-1236 for more information.

After shivering through the December skywatching session, Amy Sayle is looking forward to teaching "Starry Nights: Winter Skies" under the climate-controlled planetarium sky.