Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 30: Mars Sets 3 Hours After the Sun


Mars is sinking, but don't panic! Tonight, the Red Planet, which reached opposition back in April, will now be setting 3 hours after the Sun, meaning that Mars will be well placed for viewing in the South-Southwestern sky as the sky gets dark. To see Mars, look low in the Southwestern sky. That bright reddish 'star' is, in fact, the planet Mars.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 29: Moon Meets Mars


Want to see the planets Mars and Saturn but don't know where to look? Well, tonight's your lucky night as the Moon, which is impossible to miss, will be parked right between Mars and Saturn in the early evening sky. To see the show, simply head out as the sky is getting dark and find the Moon. As for that reddish 'star' left of Luna, well, it's actually Mars and the bright one below and right of the Moon? That's Saturn.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 28: Saturn Sets 2 Hours After the Sun


Saturn is sinking, but don't panic! Tonight, the ringed wonder, which reached opposition on May 10, will now be setting 2 hours after the Sun, meaning that Saturn will be well placed for viewing in the South-Southwestern sky as the sky gets dark. To see Saturn, look low and that bright 'star' is, in fact, the planet Saturn. For more fun (and if you have an extremely low horizon), bring out the telescope just before the planet sets as even a 60mm department store scope will clearly reveal the planet's rings.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 27: Moon Meets Saturn


Want to see the planet Saturn but don't know where to look? Well, tonight's your lucky night as the Moon, which is impossible to miss, will be parked right next to Saturn at dusk. To see the show, simply head out at dusk and look low in the West to spot the Moon. See that bright 'star' right next to it? Well, that's Saturn.

Tonight's Sky for September 26: Jupiter Rises 4 Hours Before the Sun


Jupiter, 5th planet from the Sun and 4th brightest object in the sky, is now rising 4 hours before the Sun come this morning, which means that it is truly now realistically possible to catch the king of the planets under a dark sky if you get up early enough. To see the planet, simply go out in the early morning and look East (look high if you go out at dawn). As for finding the planet, it's easy as, discounting the now horizon-hugging Venus, it's easily the brightest thing in the Eastern sky before sunrise.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 25: Young Moon and Mercury


How thin of a Moon have you seen? How about one that's less than 2 days old and only 3% illuminated? Well, if you have never seen a Moon this thin, tonight's your chance to do so as such a Moon will be making an appearance in this evening's sky just after sunset.

To see the Moon, you'll need a good Western horizon. How good? One with less than 5 degrees of obstruction. To simulate this, hold your middle three fingers vertically at arm's length to simulate 5 degrees. Hint: if you can't think of a good location off-hand, scout out one during the day. Location found, head there at sunset and start looking, preferably with optical aid. The good news, if you have binoculars, you should be good to go, just remember to be patient as the Moon will often appear to suddenly pop into view out of thin air. On the other hand, if you're still looking 30 minutes after sunset, you missed the Moon.

AS an added bonus, Mercury will be level with and a few degrees left of the Moon.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 24: New Moon


Today, the Moon, second brightest object in the sky, has reached the New Moon phase, which means that it is directly between the Sun and Earth, and thus invisible for us Earthlings as of now.

As for lunar mechanics, the Moon is always half lit. The reason we don't always see it as such is thanks to orientation in relation to us. Right now, with the Moon directly between us and the Sun, we don't see any of the lit side, thus making the Moon invisible to us as seen from Earth.

After today, we will see more of the Moon each night as its lit side turns more toward from us and heads toward a new lunar cycle.  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 24: New Moon


Today, the Moon, second brightest object in the sky, has reached the New Moon phase, which means that it is directly between the Sun and Earth, and thus invisible for us Earthlings as of now.

As for lunar mechanics, the Moon is always half lit. The reason we don't always see it as such is thanks to orientation in relation to us. Right now, with the Moon directly between us and the Sun, we don't see any of the lit side, thus making the Moon invisible to us as seen from Earth.

After today, we will see more of the Moon each night as its lit side turns more toward from us and heads toward a new lunar cycle.  

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 22: Autumnal Equinox


For anyone not keeping track of the calendar, fall arrives today, which begs a question: why do we have seasons at all? Answer: it all has to do with the Earth’s 23 degree tilt.

If the Earth were spinning on its axis with no tilt at all, everyone would be treated to days of identical length every day of the year, with latitudes nearer the equator having longer days than those nearer the poles. However, with the tilt, the angle of the Earth relative to the Sun changes as or planet moves about its orbit. On the Autumnal Equinox, the Sun will rise/set exactly due East/West and the day and the night will be exactly 12 hours long (Equinox means 'equal night').

After the Autumnal Equinox, the shortening of the days will continue (for us in the Northern Hemisphere) until the Sun finally reaches its most Southerly rise/set on the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year., which is around December 20. From that point on, the Sun will only get stronger, once again having an Equinox, the Vernal, around the 20th of March before culminating in its most Northerly rise of the year, the Summer Solstice, around June 20.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 20: Moon Meets Jupiter


Want to see Jupiter but don't know where to look? Well, tonight's your lucky night as Jupiter will be parked near the Moon in t he predawn sky. To see the show, simply head out before the sky starts to brighten in the morning and look East. The Moon will be impossible to miss. As for that extremely bright 'star' near Luna, that's Jupiter, largest planet in the solar system. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 19: NASA Recovers its NERV (1960)


On this date in 1960, NASA successfully recovered the Nuclear Emulsion Recovery Vehicle (NERV), which provided vital practice for tracking and recovering a manned space capsule, which is something that NASA would be doing within a year. Obviously, if one is going to launch an astronaut, tracking the return capsule and picking up the astronaut is vitally important. With NERV, NASA launched a capsule over 1,200 miles into the air and 1,300 miles downrange and promptly recovered the vehicle. At the time, this was a new record.
 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 18: Final Vanguard Launch (1959)


In this date in 1959, the United States launched the final rocket of its Vanguard program, which was the forerunner to NASA's project Mercury. NASA having yet to be created at the time Vanguard began, this first rocket program was actually run by the United States Navy with Department of Defense supervision. The funding came by way of the National Science Foundation and the majority of the work was done from the Naval Research Laboratory. Despite the spectacular failure of Vanguard TV3 in December, 1957, the program went on to success and eventually placed 3 satellites in orbit.


Trivia:
Q: What is the oldest man-made satellite still in orbit?
A: Vanguard 1, launched March 17, 1958 (America's first satellite, third overall)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 16: Another Solar Storm


The third coronal mass ejection (CMEs) in a week is set to hit Earth's upper atmosphere today/early tomorrow morning. This comes on the heels of a pair of CMEs that hit last week and sparked displays of the Northern Lights (aurora) as far South as Arizona. As for the CME that is set to hit today, it is not as strong as last week's event but, needless to say, if your sky is clear, tonight's a good one to look up!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 15: Third Quarter Moon


Today, the Moon, second brightest object in the sky, has reached the Third Quarter phase, which means that it is exactly 270 degrees around its orbit of Earth.

As for lunar mechanics, the Moon is always half lit. The reason we don't always see it as such is thanks to orientation in relation to us. Right now, with the Moon at a 90 degree angle relative to the Earth and Sun, we see the Moon as half lit and half dark, leading to the popular, erroneous phrase 'half Moon.'

After today, we will see less and less of the Moon as its lit side turns more away from us and heads toward a new lunar cycle.  

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 14: Moon and the Clusters


Tonight, the Moon is going to be visiting a pair of cosmic clusters in the Eastern predawn sky. To see the show, simply head out in the early morning before the sky starts to brighten and look East. The Moon will be impossible to miss. Moon found, look to the right of it and try and spot a cloudy patch of sky larger than the Full Moon. This haze is actually the Pleiades, one of the closest star clusters to Earth. Also known as the Seven Sisters, try and see how many individual stars you can spot. Below the Pleiades, look for a sideways 'V' of stars set off by bright orange Aldebaran, alpha Taurus. This cluster is the Hyades, which makes up the cosmic bull's nose. The best part, no optical aid is required!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 13: NASA Gets into Astrobiology (1960)


It was on this date in 1960 that the first meeting of the NASA Advisory Council For Space Biology Meeting took place. In layman's terms, this meant that exactly 54 years ago, NASA made it a point to study astrobiology, or biology on other planets. At the time, the idea of life on planets other than the Earth was uncharted territory for scientists and purely in the realm of fiction writers as the only other world man had visited up to that point was the Moon by way of unmanned Soviet probes that returned only a few grainy pictures. In the time since, astrobiology has become a mainstream part of the greater science that is astronomy. One has to wonder whether the men at that first Committee meeting had any idea how far the science would come in the intervening 50+ years.  

Friday, September 12, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 12: Solar Storm, Round 2


The second of two coronal mass ejections (CMEs) hit Earth's upper atmosphere today. This comes on than ye the heels of another CME that hit yesterday and sparked displays of the Northern Lights (aurora) as far South as Arizona. As for the CME that hit today, it was slightly stronger than the one that hit yesterday. That, combined with the atmospheric 'aftershocks' still reverberating from yesterday's impact make tonight even more friendly for the possibility of seeing aurora. Needless to say, if your sky is clear, tonight's a good one to look up!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 11: Mars Global Surveyor Arrives at Mars (1997)


It was on this date in 1997 that the Mars Global Surveyor mission arrived at the Red Planet. Launched for Mars in On November 7, 1996, scientists had high hopes for this mission, especially thanks to its coming on the heels of the failed Mars Observer, which was lost in 1993. The goal: study Mars from the top of its barely-there atmosphere down to its surface and, for the first time, create a global map of the planet. Unlike Observer, Surveyor performed flawlessly, operating in Martian orbit for over 9 years. During that time, Surveyor mapped the planet, analyzed its atmospheric and surface composition, and scouted out possible landing areas for future surface missions among many other achievements.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 10: Moon Meets Uranus


Want to see Uranus, seventh planet from the Sun but don't know where to look? Well, tonight's your lucky night as the Moon will be parked right by the planet. To see the show, a telescope will be needed as Uranus shines at around magnitude +6.5, which makes it hard to distinguish from a star. The key to picking out the planet: it's blue-green color (very non-star like) and, at high powers, the clearly defined planetary disc that is the total opposite of the diffuse glow seen in stars. As for directions, Uranus is within two degrees right of the Moon. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 9: X Class Flare Alert


The Sun's recent period of inactivity is coming to an end in a big way as NOAA is reporting that there is a 30% chance for powerful X-class flares in the next 24 hours. While not an overly high chance, the trend is swinging toward increased solar activity, especially with ballooning sunspots AR2157 and 58.  

Monday, September 8, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 8: Full Moon


Tonight, the Moon will reach its full phase, which means that, as seen from Earth, it will appear fully lit. As for why it appears this way, read on! The moon is always half lit no matter where it is in its orbit. As seen from Earth, it does not always appear so thank to simple geometry. When the Sun is 90 degrees relative to Earth, it appears half lit as we can only see half of the lit side. At new phase, when the Moon is between the Sun and Earth, we can't see any of the lit side, which is why it appears to be invisible. At full phase, when the Moon is opposite the Sun and on the far side of Earth, we can see all of its lit side, which is why it appears to be “full.” 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 7: Asteroid 2014 RC Buzzes Earth


Tonight, a house-sized asteroid will come within 25,000 miles of Earth. Not to worry, there's absolutely no chance of a collision according to the experts at NASA. For more good news, at close approach, the asteroid will shine at about magnitude +11.5, which is well within reach of amateur astronomers with medium to large telescopes, provided that you know where to look in the constellation of Pisces. Needless to say, this ephemeris will be quite useful. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 6: Be Alert for Aurora


On September 2, the Sun unleashed an unusually slow moving coronal mass ejection (CME). Now, 4 days later, that CME is finally set to impact the Earth's magnetic field. While now overly powerful, the coming of aurora is notoriously unpredictable, with some much-hyped CMEs spawning no aurora at all and other, weaker blasts spawning spectacular displays. Bottom line: be alert for aurora tonight, especially if you live in Northern latitudes.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 5: Venus Meets Regulus


Fall may be right around the corner, but the predawn sky will offer one the opportunity to catch one of spring's brightest stars partnered up with the brightest planet in the solar system. To see the show, go out about a half hour before sunrise and look low, very low in the East. The good news is that Venus shouldn't be too hard to spot as it is the third brightest object in the sky and it is very close to blue Regulus, alpha Leo, which will require binocular aid to spot against the brightening dawn sky. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 4: James D Doolittle (of WWII Fame) Appointed to the NASC


Before there was NASA, there was the National Aeronautic and Space Council (NASC). On this date in 1958, one of the most famous American heroes of WWII, James Doolittle of Doolittle Raid fame, was appointed to this early body of advisers who were focused on the future of America in space. In time, the NASC would become a part of NASA, and for this reason, that is why almost no one knows about it nearly 60 years later.  

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 3: Steamed Cosmic Cheese


The featured sight two nights ago was Sagittarius, it's shape, and cosmic steam. Tonight's highlight: cosmic cheese (aka the Moon), which hangs right in the cosmic 'steam' that is the Milky Way.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tonight's Sky for September 2: First Quarter Moon


Today, the Moon, second brightest object in the sky, has reached the First Quarter phase, which means that it is exactly 90 degrees around its orbit of Earth.

As for lunar mechanics, the Moon is always half lit. The reason we don't always see it as such is thanks to orientation in relation to us. Right now, with the Moon at a 90 degree angle relative to the Earth and Sun, we see the Moon as half lit and half dark, leading to the popular, erroneous phrase 'half Moon.'

After today, we will see more and more of the Moon as its lit side turns more toward us as it heads for a straight line in Sun, Earth, Moon order, and thus Full phase.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The September Sky and Tonight's Sky for September 1

The coming of September also signals the arrival of the Autumnal Equinox, which means that, by month's end, the night will once again be longer than the day. Also, with the equinox upon us, the most dramatic differences in solar movement (and thus length of day) will also occur, which means that, at least at the start of the night, the September sky is not all that different than it is in August. In all, the shorter nights combined with the lingering presence of the summer stars and warmth makes for what is arguably the best time for astronomy in the entire year.

Cool Constellations
With the advent of September, the spring constellations are rapidly saying goodbye, with Virgo the next major constellation to disappear. Also getting low in the Southwest is Libra and Bootes and Corona are now just about due West at nightfall. In the North, the Big Dipper continues its dive, flattening out as it starts to approach the horizon. Perhaps the best part of the September sky is that one doesn't need to stay up late to see all the best sights of summer. At nightfall, Hercules is still near zenith, the Summer Triangle (Lyra, Cygnus, and Aquila along with hangers-on Saggita and Delphinus) is at zenith, Scorpius is due South with Ophiuchus and Sagittarius on either side, both still well-placed for observing. Also, the Milky Way is at its best positioning right after nightfall, too. For people who like to stay up late (or get up extremely early) a fall preview in the form of Pegasus, Pisces, Cetus, Andromeda, Aries, Capricorn, Aquarius, and even Perseus is on tap in the wee hours of the morning while, by month's end, the bright stars of winter in the form of Orion, Auriga, Taurus, and Gemini are visible, too. .

Planetary Perceptions
In terms of planets, September isn't shaping up to be all that great of a month despite all of the 5 classical planets being visible. Why? Most of the planets are rather close to the Sun. Starting in the evening, both Mars and Saturn are visible, though both are now pretty much dusk objects from all but the most unobstructed viewing locations. In the predawn sky, Venus is still rather well-placed at month's start but, nothing being forever, this exceptionally long apparition of Venus will be starting to come to a conclusion as the planet begins a dramatic drop toward the Sun's glare as the month unfolds. On the other hand, Jupiter, which just reappeared from behind the Sun as a morning planet in late July continues its rise out of the solar glare and is, by month's end, an easy telescopic target under dark skies for night owls and early birds in the Eastern predawn sky. Mercury? Well, it's up at the start of the month but, thanks to the angle of the ecliptic plane, it's about as bad as an appearance as is geometrically possible, barely popping over the Western horizon in a very poor evening appearance.





Tonight's Sky for September 1: Sagittarius Due South at Dark

Want to see the constellation of Sagittarius but don't know where to look? Well, early September finds the Zodiac constellation just about due South about the time the sky gets truly dark, namely about 1 to 1 ½ hours after sunset. To see the constellation, head out and look due South for the easy to recognize teapot shape. As an added bonus, if you live under relatively dark skies, look for the hazy Milky Way, which looks like cosmic steam emanating from the Teapot's spout.