Friday, October 31, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 31: Happy Halloween/Cross Quarter Day


Today is not only Halloween, but a cross-quarter day. What is a cross-quarter day? It's the mid way point of any season and was, like the solstices and equinoxes, an important time for early civilizations as these days served as another natural way to divide up the year into periods of time, which became a matter of life and death with the advent of large scale agriculture around 5000BC. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 30: 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.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 29: John Glenn Returns to Space (1998)


It was on this date in 1998 that John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth (1962), returned to space at age 77 aboard the space shuttle Discovery as part of the STS-95 mission. Because of the high publicity surrounding Glenn's participation in the mission, this was the first shuttle launch televised coast-to-coast. Additionally, the mission saw the first Spanish-born astronaut in space as Pedro Duque also took part on the mission. In addition to solar and the standard life science experiments, special focus was put on Glenn and the study of the aging process, both on Earth and in orbit. In all, the mission lasted just under 9 days. AS for Glenn, he not only made it through the mission without any medical issues, but he also has stated that he really enjoyed his return to orbit, too.    

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 28: Moon in the Milky Way


Anyone even slightly familiar with the night sky knows that the Zodiac constellation Sagittarius looks like a teapot and the Milky Way, which seems to rise from the spout, looks like steam. So, what do you get when you add the Moon to the mix? How about steamed cosmic cheese.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 27: Saturn Sets an Hour After the Sun


Saturn is sinking! Tonight, the ringed wonder, which reached opposition on May 10, will now be setting just 1 hour after the Sun, meaning that it's now or never to see Saturn 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.

Tonight's Sky for October 26: Venus at Superior Conjunction


It's officially over: the exceptionally long morning appearance of Venus has concluded today as the planet has reached superior conjunction. What does that mean? In layman's terms, Venus will be directly opposite the Sun as seen from Earth in a Venus, Sun, earth alignment. End result: the planet will be at its worst point for viewing. Unfortunately, unlike the inferior conjunction of Mercury a few days back, superior conjunctions result in longer periods of invisibility.   

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 25: Thin 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. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 24: Monster Sunspot AR2192


Last evening brought a partial solar eclipse, which in itself was a decidedly interesting event even though it was not of the total variety. For anyone looking at eclipse pictures, one thing will be very obvious: a huge dark region near the solar equator. Well, that thing is a giant sunspot formally called AR2192 and it is over 200,000 miles across (Jupiter is 88,000 miles across, Earth is only about 8,000 miles). As for what sunspots are, they are regions of twisted magnetic fields that conspire to lower the surface temperature of the Sun, resulting in the dark appearance. In practical terms, AR2192 poses a threat for X-class flares, which commonly produce Northern Lights here on Earth. Needless to say, stay tuned here as, if the spot erupts, I'll be reporting on it!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 23: Partial Solar Eclipse


This afternoon, sky watchers all across North America will be treated to a very interesting sight: a partial solar eclipse So, what will you see?

Sol
ar eclipses occur when the Sun, Moon, and Earth fall exactly into line in that order. Unfortunately, because the Moon orbits the Earth on a slightly tilted axis, the Moon rarely falls directly into the line but, every now and then, at a point on its orbit called a “node,” the Moon comes directly between the Earth and Sun, thus resulting in an eclipse.
So, what can one expect to see?

IMPORTANT:
Never look at the partially-eclipsed Sun without eclipse shades or a #14 or darker welder's shield


Unfortunately, if you want to see afternoon turn into midnight for a few minutes, you're out of luck as a total solar eclipse will not occur until 2017. See also: complete list of solar eclipses for the United States until 2100. However, what you will see is this: the Moon obscure a part of the solar disc, resulting in a Sun that looks very similar to Pacman.

As for when you can see it, for people on the Eastern Time Zone, the eclipse takes place at sunset with those living in more Western areas having a wider viewing window ranging from late afternoon to sunset.

Tonight's Sky for October 22: Old Moon Meets Mercury


How thin of a Moon have you seen? How about one that's just barely a day before New and only 2% illuminated? Well, if you have never seen a Moon this thin, now's your chance to do so as such a Moon will be making an appearance in this morning's sky just before sunrise.

To see the Moon, you'll need a good Eastern horizon. How good? One with less than 3 degrees of obstruction. To simulate this, hold two fingers vertically at arm's length to simulate 3 degrees. Hint: if you can't think of a good location off-hand, scout out one during the day. Location found, arrive there about 15 minutes before sunrise and start looking, preferably with optical aid. The bad news: you'll have to hurry because, as soon as the Sun clears the horizon, you can forget about seeing the Moon.

As an added bonus, Mercury will be below and to the left on the Moon, too.

Good luck!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 21: Orionid Meteors Peak


Tonight will mark the peak of the Orionid Meteor shower for 2014, thus marking the climax for the 2-week event. Every October, Earth passes through the stretch of space junk shed by Halley's Comet, reaching the deepest concentration of debris tonight. According to some estimates, under ideal conditions (dark country skies), one can expect to see 10-15 meteors per hour. The reason the meteors are called Orionids is because the meteors seem to radiate from the constellation Orion. The best time to view the shower is in the pre-dawn hours, with 3-6am being best, as Orion is at its highest then.

Don't want to stay up that late? Don't worry, Leo clears the Eastern horizon around midnight and will climb higher as the night progresses. However, unless one lives out in the country, the early post-midnight hours will probably involve Orion being low in a light dome. To improve odds of seeing meteors, travel out of the city and to the country if you can. In the suburbs, just going from the front to back yard can make a dramatic difference as this will eliminate glare from those pesky street/house lights to a large extent.
Fortunately, this year's Orionid peak coincides with the New Moon, which means that nature's nightlight will be a non-issue.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 20: Can You See Mercury Yet?


5 days ago, Mercury was at its worst spot for visibility but now, not even a week later, it is possible to see the tiny planet rising just ahead of the Sun in the Eastern predawn sky. To see the tiny planet, go out and look East-Southeast about 15 minutes before sunrise. Granted, you'll need an exceptionally good horizon with about 5 degrees of clearance (simulate by holding 3 fingers at arm's length) but the good news is that haze is far less likely to present a problem than in the evening.  

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 19: Comet Siding Spring Makes Close Pass of Mars


All robotic eyes on and around Mars will get quite a sight today as Comet Siding-Spring will pass within 81,000 miles of the Red Planet. For comparison, that's only about a third as distant as the Moon orbits the Earth. Since this is the first time in history that robotic explorers will be able to see a comet pass so close by a planet (or pass a planet at all), no one knows what to expect. However, with seven robots (5 orbiters and 2 rovers) in position to watch, all 'eyes' will be on the Martian sky.

Oh yes, here's an awesome graphic simulating the comet as seen from Mars!  

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 18: Galileo Launched (1989)


It was on this date in 1989 that the Galileo space probe was launched for Jupiter by way of the space shuttle Atlantis aboard the STS-34 mission after a 3-year delay resulting from the Challenger disaster in January, 1986. At the time of its arrival at Jupiter in December, 1995, Galileo was the first space probe to ever orbit an outer planet. Besides returning mountains of data about Jupiter including information on its atmosphere, magnetic field, and ring system, Galileo also made extensive observations of the Jovian moons, providing far more data than the Voyagers did with their quick flyby almost 2 decades beforehand. The mission ended in 2003 when, almost out of fuel, the probe was steered into Jupiter's atmosphere in order to avoid the risk of contaminating the Moons should the probe crash there. To date, Galileo is the last mission to Jupiter.  

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 17: Continued Chance for Northern Lights


For the second day in a row, NOAA is forecasting possible aurora activity on the heels of a coronal mass ejection that hit the Earth's atmosphere two days ago and was then amplified by Earth moving through a hole in the heliospheric current sheet. End result: up to a 40% chance for continued aurora activity today for people living at high latitudes. 

Tonight's Sky for October 16: Mercury at Inferior Conjunction


Want to see Mercury? Well, forget about it tonight as the speedy first planet from the Sun will be at inferior conjunction. What does that mean? In layman's terms, Mercury will be directly between the Earth and Sun in a Sun, Mercury, Earth alignment. End result: the little planet will be at its worst point for viewing. So, while this is more of a what not to see tonight event, mark this date on your calendar as we all will soon see how the planet got its name in the coming weeks . . .  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 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.  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 14: the Scary Man in the Sun


While the photos may now be a week old, NASA released some decidedly spooky-looking pictures of the Sun. While the Sun doesn't have a 'face' like the Moon as seen in visible light, when viewed at specific wavelengths, the plain (save sunspots) solar disc transforms into a seething cauldron, which can exhibit some weird patterns. While I could go into great detail explaining the pictures, just go to space.com and see for yourself!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 13: Explorer 7 (1959)


It was on this date in 1959 that NASA launched its Explorer 7 satellite. The purpose of the satellite was to measure incoming solar radiation. Additionally, by the time the mission ended, Explorer 7 had also established the importance of clouds in absorbing solar radiation and is today considered the first climate-studying satellite.  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 12: Moon Meets the Bull


Tonight,the Moon will be in a very unique place: right between the horns of a cosmic bull. Tonight, the Moon will move directly into the Zodiac constellation of Taurus the bull, more specifically, between its horns.

To see the sight, go out and look low in the Eastern sky about midnight for night owls or high in the South before dawn for the early birds. The Moon, of course, will be impossible to miss. Moon found, look for a sideways 'V' of stars, the Hyades star cluster, which represent the base of the bull's horns. Extending the lines of the 'V' out, you will run into a pair of stars of roughly 2nd magnitude (though on opposite ends of the scale) that signal the end of the horns.


Cosmic picture realized, there's the Moon, smack in the middle. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 11: Pioneer 1 (1958)


It was on this date 56 years ago that the Pioneer 1 space probe was launched with a planned destination of the Moon. The bad news: the probe never came anywhere near reaching the Moon. The significance: this was the first mission overseen by the newly-created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The good news: in its 43-hours in orbit, Pioneer 1 returned some useful scientific data, most notably evidence that Earth was surrounded by bands of radiation.  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 10: Venera 15 Arrives at Venus (1983)


On this date in 1983, the Soviet Venera 15 space probe arrived at Venus. Together with Venera 16, which arrived shortly thereafter, Venera 15 helped create a map of about 25% of the planet's surface. Two features that made the twin space probes unique for the time: the use of radar as a mapping tool and the on-board computer that stored all the data.  

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 7&8: Total Lunar Eclipse


Tonight/tomorrow morning (hence October 7 and 8's feature), sky watchers all across North America will be treated to one of the most spectacular, and rare, of all celestial sights: a total lunar eclipse. So, with the eclipse coming within a day, why not start understanding what you will see and why you will see it now?
Total lunar eclipses occur when the Sun, Earth, and Moon fall exactly into line ion that order. Unfortunately, because the Moon orbits the Earth on a slightly tilted axis, the Moon rarely falls into earth's shadow, thus becoming eclipsed. Or perhaps this is a good thing as, if there was an eclipse at every Full Moon, eclipses wouldn't be all that special, would they? Okay, personal opinions aside, every now and then, at a point on its orbit called a “node,” the Moon crosses into the Earth's shadow, thus resulting in an eclipse.
So, what can one expect to see?

First, the eclipse takes place over the course of several hours. First up: the penumbral phase where the Moon moves into the lightest part of Earth's shadow, called the penumbra. At this point, one may or may not notice a slight darkening of the Moon.

See also: Start to finish lunar eclipse gallery.

Next up: the partial stages. In the partial phases, the Moon starts moving into the darkest part of the Earth's shadow, called the umbra. In this phase, the Earth's shadow will start to eat into the corner of the Moon, eventually coming to the point where the Moon looks like a crescent, but at an otherwise impossible angle. In time, more and more of the Moon will disappear into the Earth's black shadow until the entire lunar disc is consumed.

Phase 3: totality. Near the point where the Moon completely disappears into the Earth's shadow, it will begin to take on a very distinctive, reddish color thanks to the scattering of light rays caused by our atmosphere. Basically, the particles in the air scatters all the colors of the visible spectrum, with the exception of the reds, away into space, thus only allowing the red light to fall on the Moon. Totality can last for around an hour, give or take a few minutes either way. For something interesting, compare the number of stars you can see during totality to the number you can see when the Moon is full. Basically, totality is effectively a Moonless sky. For the record, deepest eclipse will take place about 6:30am EDT on the morning of the 8th. Live West of the Eastern Time Zone? Well, subtract an hour for each time zone West you reside.

After totality ends, the Moon will again go through partial phases, becoming more and more exposed as time progresses. In time, the partial stage will end, the second penumbral stage will begin, and the the Moon will eventually go back to normal.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 6: Perigee Moon


Tonight, the Moon is about as big as it will ever get thanks to the fact that the Moon is at perigee, a point in its orbit that is closest to Earth.


What many people may not realize is the fact that the Moon (and all other celestial bodies) do not orbit their parent bodies in circles, but ellipses, which are slightly elongated circles. Result: any given day of an orbital period, any orbiting body will be at a slightly different distance from its parent body. As for the Moon, this variance in orbit amounts to about 20,000 miles.

As for tonight, the Moon will be about as close to Earth as it is going to get. When it comes to practical implications, the difference will be hard to notice with the naked eye to all but an experienced observer but, in a telescope,
the difference will be obvious

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 5: Robert Goddard Born (1882)


It was on this date in 1882 that Robert Goddard, widely considered to be the father of rocket science, was born. Inspired from dual childhood experiences of building toy rockets and reading science fiction novels of traveling to other worlds. Interestingly enough, Goddard recorded the date of his inspiration to build a machine that could travel to another world in his journal: October 19, 1899. Earning a doctorate in physics, Goddard devoted his professional life to the advancement of rocket technology and thus cemented himself in history as the father rocket science despite often being ridiculed in the United States for his proposing of the use of rockets as a means to travel to other worlds. Before his death in 1945, he was even rebuffed by the military when willing to offer his expertise in developing weapons. Ironically, it was the German scientists who developed the terrifying V-2s during WWII and who later traveled to America to work for NASA who would bask in the glory that was so owed Goddard.  

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 4: Sputnik Launched (1957)


It was on this date in 1957 that the world changed forever when the Soviet Union launched its beeping, basketball-sized Sputnik satellite. The world's first artificial satellite and clearly no threat in and of itself to American national security, the launch of Sputnik created great fear in America because it (1) showed that Soviet rocket technology was superior to ours and (2) showed that it was theoretically possible for the Soviets to rain nuclear weapons on us from orbit. The last major impact: Sputnik was the green flag to the Space Race, which culminated 12 years later when America landed Apollo 11 on the Moon and returned its crew safely to the Earth.  

Friday, October 3, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 3: Mars and its Rival


Tonight (and the next few) present a unique opportunity to catch two cosmic twins twins that are anything but twins, Mars and Antares. Mars is, of course, the 4th planet from the Sun and Antares is the alpha (brightest) star of the zodiac constellation of Scorpius. Interestingly enough, 'Antares' means 'rival of Mars' in Ancient Greek. The name obviously comes from its reddish appearance. To see the pair, look Southwest at dusk for two bright red 'stars,' the right one is the star and the left one is the planet.  

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Tonight's Sky for October 2: Venus Rises a Half Hour Before the Sun


Venus has been putting on a good show in the predawn sky for the spring and summer, remaining largely stationary in the sky for several months. However, as always happens, the show won't last forever and, right now, it's now or never for Venus, which is now rising just a half hour before the Sun. Despite shining around magnitude -4, optical aid may now be required. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The October Sky and Tonight's Sky for October 1


It's a new month and that means a new sky, at least for the trailing end of the night. Last month saw the Autumnal Equinox, the first day of fall. Around the turn of fall, the days shorten at their fastest pace, peaking at a loss of around 4 minutes a day. As a result, the October sky isn't all that much different than it was in September until just before the increasingly delayed dawn. So, to delay the onset of carpal tunnel as much as possible, just follow this link to the September sky guide from last month. My hands thank you!

Cool Constellations
The place where the October sky differs from that of September is in the early morning/predawn time frame, which allows for one to see the winter constellations earlier and even get a quick peek at the spring ones, too. With the increasingly delayed sunrise coupled with the weeks just prior to the return of Standard Time, October presents a great opportunity to get a spring (yes, spring!) preview before we let the clocks fall back and, in turn, kill any opportunities for early morning observing, at least for a few weeks. In October, Leo makes its return, bright blue Regulus appearing just ahead of the rising Sun in the morning. Just before the sky starts to get light, look for the head and front of Hydra peeking up over the Eastern horizon. By now, the Big Dipper is climbing and vertical, too.

Planetary Perceptions
Like September before it, October 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. By month's end, Saturn will have disappeared into the Sun's glare. In the predawn sky, Venus hangs just above the Eastern horizon in the predawn sky but October heralds the end to this exceptionally long apparition of Venus that began back in the spring. On the other hand, Jupiter is visible for pretty much the second half of the night, coming to its meridian transit at dawn come month's end. Mercury? Well, the bad news is that one can pretty much forget about seeing it for the first three weeks of the month. The good news: come the last week of October, it will quickly pop out from the Sun's glare in the predawn sky in what will be its best morning appearance of the year, which will take place around Halloween.

Mark Your Calendar Days
October also brings two days that should be marked on your calendars if you live in North America: the night of the 7th into the 8th and the 23rd. Why? Both dates bring eclipses that will be visible in North America. On the night of the 7th/morning of the 8th (depending on whether you prefer to stay up late or get up early), there will be a total lunar eclipse visible for all of North America. The bad news is that only the West coast states will get to see the event from start to finish but the good news is that even New England states will get to see totality just before the Moon sets in the morning. Two weeks later on the 23rd, there will be a partial solar eclipse that will be visible in the entire continental United States as well as Alaska and Canada. At maximum eclipse, the Sun will appear similar to about a 3-day old Moon. As always, one should never look at the Sun without proper eye protection, whether in the form of a #14 or darker welder's shield, eclipse glasses, or solar filters for binoculars/telescopes.

And an Oddity . . .
While not two Full Moons, October of 2014 is notable for the fact that it contains two First Quarter Moons, one on the first and the other on the last day of the month.




Tonight's Sky for October 1: 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.