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.

06 Dec 2011
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I recently donated blood for the first time. It was an interesting experience because, not only did I feel like I did something good, it also raised a lot of questions.

To donate blood, they stick you in the arm with a needle that is connected to a tube that takes the blood from your body to a collection bag.  I was watching my blood flow into the bag when I wondered, if I am donating a pint of blood, how, where, and when will I replenish what I am donating to get back to my body’s normal supply of about 10–12 pints?

When they took my blood, they took whole blood which includes red and white blood cells, plasma, and platelets. 

All of the components of whole blood are made in bone marrow, the flexible tissue found inside hollow bones like our skull, sternum and pelvis.   Interestingly, each type of blood cell has a different life span. Red blood cells, for instance, can last for four months whereas platelets only survive about nine days. 

Under normal conditions, one’s donated pint of blood is completely replenished in about 6 – 8 weeks, and when one is healthy and well prepared, there’s really nothing to it. 

When I had finished giving my blood, I felt pretty good and walked to the “recovery room” which consisted of tables with pizza, soda, cookies, and candy. I sat down and started talking with my friends. All of the sudden my head started spinning and I did not feel so good!  I tried to shake it off but  the next thing I knew I was in being laid down on the ground in someone’s arms with them yelling, “Kyle, Kyle!” 

As I said, this was my first time donating blood. 

I did not know I was supposed to do so on a full stomach and well hydrated with plenty of water and juice.  I showed up having consumed my normal morning breakfast of yogurt and two cups of coffee.  

This was less than ideal for a couple reasons.

First, we rely on glucose—sugar–to keep us functioning because it is the main source of energy for the cells in our body. We get glucose from foods we eat.  Second, without having consumed enough liquid, and then losing more liquids through the donation, my blood pressure dropped and me with it.  The reason?  Not enough blood was getting to my brain, so my rescuers lowered me to the ground and got my legs up, to increase the blood flow to my brain! 

To aid my recovery, I ate some pizza and drank some soda and was my chipper self again in no time!  

Will I donate blood again?  Yes!  I learned so much from doing it this time; I can only imagine what I will learn next time if I eat and drink enough beforehand so I don’t faint!

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

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.

27 Oct 2011
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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.

Check out the trailer for our newest show – Solar System Odyssey. This show is a character-driven adventure set in the future, in a time when humans have depleted the resources of their home planet. A business tycoon recruits our hero, Jack Larson, on a mission to discover a new home for humans to colonize.

Join Jack Larson and stowaway, Ashley Trout, on a wild ride through our Solar System as they look for answers to these questions: How are the worlds of our Solar System alike? How are they different? What must those worlds have in order for humans to live there?

The journey takes the audience on an exciting exploration of our cosmic neighborhood, including the icy rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s volcano-ridden moon IO and the sub-zero methane lakes of Saturn’s moon Titan.

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager.

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.

Have you explored the Rotunda of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center? It’s on the west end, adjacent to the Science Stage, and you enter through the UNC Visitors Center. The Rotunda showcases one of John Motley Morehead III’s gifts to UNC, a memorial to his wife: the Genevieve Margaret Birkhead Morehead Art Gallery.

The gallery features 11 portraits, mostly by 17th- and 18th century artists. Of these, perhaps the portrait of Liesbeth van Rijn is most famous — not because of what it is, but because of what it isn’t.

Portrait of Leisbeth van Rijn

Liesbeth van Rijn

Liesbeth (or Lijsbeth, following the Dutch spelling) van Rijn was a sister and a favorite model of master painter Rembrandt van Rijn. For hundreds of years, the Liesbeth painting at Morehead was considered to be an original Rembrandt portrait. It was purchased and displayed as a Rembrandt, not only in the Morehead gallery (where it arrived in 1949) but at galleries and in private collections beginning in the 1700s.

About 30 years ago, the Rembrandt Research Project identified Liesbeth as the work of another painter in Rembrandt’s workshop, probably his student Isaac de Jouderville. With her newfound notoriety as a faux Rembrandt, Liesbeth has earned quite a bit of publicity for herself, and this month she travels to the North Carolina Museum of Art to participate in a groundbreaking exhibit of paintings by Rembrandt and other artists in his workshop. You can read about Liesbeth’s road trip in this recent article from The News & Observer.

Beginning in a few weeks, you can view Liesbeth in Raleigh at the NCMA’s Rembrandt exhibit, or you can wait until she returns home in a few months and see her in the gallery here at Morehead. Be sure to check out her “neighbors” in Morehead’s gallery:

  • Capt. David Birrell, painted by Sir Henry Raeburn
  • Lord Mountjoy Blount, painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck
  • John A. M. Bonar, painted by Sir Henry Raeburn
  • Genevieve Morehead, painted by Nichola Michailow
  • Edmund M. Pleydell, painted by Thomas Gainsborough
  • The Scribe, painted by Aart de Gelder
  • Paulus van Beresteyn, painted by Michiel Jans Mierevelt
  • Gen. George Washington, painted by Rembrandt Peele
  • Martha Washington, painted by Rembrandt Peele
  • James Watt, painted by Sir William Beechey

In addition to these portraits, the Genevieve Margaret Birkhead Morehead Art Gallery features a larger-than-life statue of U.S. President James K. Polk, who was graduated from UNC in 1818. The statue was created by artist and UNC alumnus Stephen H. Smith in 1997. The gallery also houses a unique pendulum clock and barometer, both decorated with sculpted images from the constellations of the Zodiac.

And the origin of Liesbeth isn’t the only mystery that’s been solved in the gallery. There are 16 columns supporting the Rotunda, each carved from a single piece of green marble from the Ozark Mountains. One of these monolithic columns was cracked around its circumference when the columns were installed during construction. Can you spot which column was cracked?

Yes, we're the science specialists, but we like art too.

Did you feel tremors during yesterday’s East Coast earthquake? Did you think “Earthquake!” or “Hmmm, maybe a construction crew is working nearby” or even “Are we under attack?”

USGS "Shakemap"

The US Geological Society uses data to develop "Shakemaps" like this one.

Here at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, we thought, “The education team must be working on the Science LIVE! Earthquakes presentation again.”

Morehead offers several different versions of Science LIVE!, its interactive science demonstration show. In the Earthquakes version, the Science LIVE! presenter shows the audience how a seismograph works — and since Science LIVE! is an interactive presentation, that means the Science LIVE! presenter asks the audience to jump up and down, creating vibrations. Those vibrations can be measured by a simple accelerometer as the Science Stage auditorium shakes from the impact of dozens of people jumping up and down.

Science LIVE! is presented in our Science Stage auditorium, and Morehead staff member Jeff Hill has an office directly under the Science Stage. This summer, Jeff became accustomed to his office shaking every day around 2:45 p.m., as another audience participated in Science LIVE! Earthquakes. Visitors to Jeff’s office looked alarmed as the office began shaking, but Jeff explained calmly, “They’re just making an earthquake upstairs.”

So you can understand why Morehead staff thought “Science LIVE!” instead of “Earthquake!” yesterday. But that tremor wasn’t caused by a Science LIVE! audience. We’re actually closed for maintenance right now, which gives us a chance to update and fine-tune our programs.

That’s important, because scientific knowledge changes every single day. Right now, researchers are studying data from yesterday’s earthquake. We’re following their research (and research in other science disciplines, too) so we can bring you the most up-to-date scientific content in Science LIVE! and other educational programs at Morehead.

When we reopen on Sept. 17, come experience a Science LIVE! presentation. You may find yourself making an explosion, making snow or, yes, making an earthquake. And we’ll make it fun!

Friends in California are saying, "Earthquake? What earthquake?"

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.