Saturday, October 31, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 31: Galileo Half Off the Hook (1992)

It was on this date in 1992 that the Vatican admitted that it had made “errors” in its handling of Galileo and his teachings over 3 ½ centuries earlier when it brought the famed astronomer before the Inquisition on charges of heresy for teaching that the Earth is not the center of the solar system. However, while admitting “errors,” the Vatican would not admit that it had been wrong. Still, for many in the scientific community, this was a move in the right direction a long, long time in the making.

Don't Forget:
Set your clocks back an hour tonight before bed as Standard Time will return at 2am tomorrow (Sunday). So, knowing you'll be gaining an hour, please take the time to check out some cool time change trivia because, after all, doing so will only take a few seconds!

*Many ancient civilizations divided their days into 24 hours just like us, but adjusted the 'hours’ lengths so that there would always be 12 hours of day and 12 of night (this had to make setting up a date really suck). 

*While he did not propose DST, Benjamin Franklin, while serving as envoy to France, anonymously published a letter, a rather tongue in cheek one at that, suggesting people rise early (and thus go to bed earlier) to economize on candles and make use of natural sunlight. So no, don't blame Ben Franklin for our having to change the clocks (and you being an hour late for church this morning if you forgot to do so!)

*Around the year 1900, two men would bring the idea of an actual time change (rather than the wake up/go to bed time change proposed by Franklin) to the public forefront. In England, prominent builder/outdoorsman William Willet, like Franklin, hated the idea that people were sleeping half their mornings away and, on a personal note, hated having to cut his rounds of golf short due to early nightfall. At the same time, New Zealand entomologist George Vernon Hudson proposed the same thing. Hudson's personal stake: extra daylight would allow more time for specimen collection. The idea failed to gain traction in either hemisphere.

* The catalyst for starting DST: WWI. The idea: push night an hour later so there would be less coal usage and the money saved on coal could be spent on the War. In summer 1916, the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies) agreed to set the clocks ahead for an hour as a means for achieving this goal. The other belligerents quickly followed suit. The United States, which entered the war in 1917, adopted a time shift in 1918. After the War, DST was dropped until, you guessed it, WWII, after which it largely remained in use around the world.

*While we shift by an hour today, twenty and thirty minute shifts, and also two hour shifts, have been used in the past and are currently used in different places over the world.

* The Uniform Time Act of 1966 standardized DST start/stop dates for the United States even though it doesn't require states to observe DST (Arizona and Hawaii don't).

*Even now, start/end dates aren’t standard around the world

*Switch dates are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere

*In some areas, voters have rejected use of DST altogether while in other areas, there are pushes to eliminate Standard Time and have DST all year long (thus making DST the new Standard Time).

*'Standard' Time only lasts 4 months of the year thanks to DST being extended by 3 weeks in spring and 1 week in fall back in 2007 (hardly standard if you ask, me, how about calling it Daylight Losing Time?)

Friday, October 30, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 30: Venera 13 Launched (1981)

It was on this date in 1981 that the Soviet Union launched its Venera 13 Venus probe. Upon landing on March 1, 1982, Venera 13 would transmit the first color pictures of Venus back to Earth, revealing a world bathed in filtered, orange light.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

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.   

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 28: NASA Launches Aries I-X (2009)

It was on this date in 2009 that NASA launched its Aries I-X prototype rocket, which was very similar to the Aries I, which was to be used in the Constellation Program, which was launched by then-president George W. Bush and designed to return Americans to the Moon by the late 2010s. Of course, as anyone familiar with NASA known, incoming president Obama canceled Constellation and this launch would go down as the only launch for anything related to Constellation. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 27: Full Moon

Tonight, the Moon will reach its full phase, which means that, as seen from Earth, it is directly opposite the Sun in the sky as seen from Earth and is at the half way point in its current orbit.

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, 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.” In the coming nights, we will start to see less of the Moon as its lit side starts to turn away from us as seen from Earth and heads toward Third Quarter. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 26: Jupiter Meets Venus

In a second act to the October 8-10 series of conjunctions, we now have a close meet-up between the two brightest planets in the night sky: Venus and Jupiter, which will pass about 1 angular degree from each other. Yes, while not overly close, a conjunction of the two brightest planets will certainly be worth a look. To see the show, simply go out before sunrise and look East. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 24: The Awesome Great Andromeda Galaxy at Zenith at Midnight

Tonight, the Great Galaxy (there are many) in Andromeda will be at zenith (straight up) at midnight. This is an interesting sight for three cool facts that many people do not even know about..

First up: being a lover of trivia, the Great Galaxy is the most distant (2.7 million light years) object capable of being seen under all but the darkest skies (eagle-eyed observers may be able to see more distant galaxies under the darkest of skies, of which none exist East of the Mississippi). To put that in perspective, when the photons of light that you see radiating from Andromeda tonight left the galaxy, there were no humans, although our distant ancestors were starting their long journey from ape to human. Not only do astronomers see across space, they see through time. Another big thought: if the galaxy were to fall into the monster of all black holes (no black hole is that big) tonight, we wouldn't know about it for another 2.7 million years. 

The night sky in a couple billion years.

Second: we are looking at a crash of cosmic proportions in progress. Our own Milky Way Galaxy and Andromeda are gravitationally bound together, being by far the largest members in our galactic neighborhood, known as the Local Group of galaxies. Unfortunately, these two titans are on a collision course. In about 4 billion years, the Milky Way and Andromeda will 'crash' into each other at a combined speed of around 250,000 mph (or about 70 miles per second). Why the quotes? While the galaxies will run into each other, the chance of two stars actually hitting each other are virtually non-existent thanks to the immense distances that separate the stars. What will happen according to current models is this: the collective gravitational interaction of the two galaxies moving through each other will fling stars in all directions and the stars not flung out into space will eventually slow down and form a combined galaxy.

Third: as another fun point of trivia, the Great Andromeda Galaxy was the subject of one of the first deep-sky astrophotos. Photography as we know it was invented in 1827 and shortly thereafter astronomers started pointing camera-equipped telescopes at the Moon, with impressive results. Below is the first known photograph of the Moon, taken by JW Draper in March, 1840 with a daguerreotype camera. 

The 1st known picture of the Moon.

However, while quick lunar snaps were easy to master, long exposures required to gather enough photons to produce an image of a dim deep sky object required both advances in camera (more sensitive media) and observatory (more precise tracking) technology. Result: the first photos of a deep sky object (M42 and the Pleiades) was not taken until 1886 by Issac Roberts, who would go on to photograph Andromeda in the following year. That photo is below.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 23: Mole Day

Today is Mole Day. Why? Because today is 10-23, which is the latter half of the equation of 6.02x1023, which is the latter half of the equation representing Avogadro's Number, which in itself represent the number of atoms in 1 Mole (Mol) of any given substance Why the fascination with the Mole for chemists? One mole of any substance contains Avogadro's Number of molecules or atoms of that substance, making the Mole a handy unit of measure to uses when doing chemical calculations. This fact was discovered by Amadeo Avogadro (1776-1858). While started by chemists, Mole Day is now commonly celebrated by science enthusiasts in general.

Mole Day Joke:
Papa mole sticks his head out of his hole. What does he smell? Nothing.
Mama mole squeezes out of the hole next to Papa. What does she smell? Nothing.
Junior mole tries to stick his head out but can't get out. What does he smell? Molasses.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 22: Venera 9 Arrives at Venus (1975)

It was on this date in 1975 that the Soviet probe Venera 9 arrived at Venus. While having lost the manned space race, the Russians claimed a major pair of firsts with this mission. First: the orbiter was the first man-made object to orbit Venus and the lander was the first man-made object to return images from the surface of another planet. All told, the lander would operate for 53 minutes and, in addition to pictures, would return valuable data about surface conditions on Venus that were found to be, to say the least, hellish. The orbiter would operate for nearly 2 months, conducting 17 experiments studying the planet's upper atmosphere and acting as a relay for the short-lived lander. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 21: Orionid Meteors Peak

Tonight will mark the peak of the Orionid Meteor shower for 2015, thus marking the climax for the 2-week event. Every October, Earth passes through the stretch of space junk shed by 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 predawn hours, as Orion is at its highest then.

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 First Quarter Moon, which means that nature's night light will be a non-issue as it will have long since set by the time the predawn hours arrive.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 20: 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 and is one quarter finished with its current orbit.. 

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-Sun line, we only see half of the lit side.

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

Monday, October 19, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 19: Be Alert for Aurora

Yesterday spawned a spectacular display of aurora, also known as the Northern Lights, for people living at Northerly latitudes. The source: a region of active sunspots known as AR2436. This region remains active today and till poses a chance for spawning X-class solar flares, which could spawn future displays of the Lights in the coming days.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

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. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 17: Jupiter Meets Mars

Tonight, Jupiter and Mars will be making an extremely close pass in the Eastern predawn sky. How close? A quarter angular degree of separation, which can be a good test for one's vision without optical aid. To see the show, simply head out in t he predawn sky and look East for the second brightest (Venus is the brightest) object in that area of sky to find Jupiter. That much dimmer 'star' next to the planetary king? That's Mars, the Red Planet. For some fun, turn a telescope on the pair at low power (30x or less) in order to really bring out the color difference.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 15: Algol at Minimum at 9:50pm

This evening, Algol, located in Perseus, will be at minimum at 9:50pm Eastern Standard Time. No, the star does not turn off and on again like a light bulb, but it will gradually dim and then brighten again, going from magnitude +2.1 to +3.4 and back to +2.1 over the course of a couple of hours. Good companion stars with which to compare Algol are Gamma Andromeda (magnitude 2.1) to Algol's right and Mirfak (magnitude 1.8) above and left of Algol. Fortunately, it will be possible to see the event in entirety thanks to the timing. To see the show, go out as soon as it gets dark, then at around 9:50, then a few hours later. Try and spot the difference. 

The reason for this change in brightness? Algol is not a single star, but a two star system, as many stars are. However, what sets Algol apart is that, as seen from Earth, the dimmer companion eclipses the main, brighter star. The result: a dramatic change in brightness that earned the star its name ('Algol' is Arabic for 'the ghoul') and the nickname 'the winking demon star.'

Needless to say, this change in brightness really creeped out the ancients. 

Tonight's Sky for October 14: Mercury at its Best

Want to join a small club of people who have seen the planet Mercury? Well, here's your chance as the first planet from the Sun will be making its best appearance of the fall this morning.

Of all the Classical Planets (those known to the Ancient Greeks and Romans), Mercury is by far the hardest to spot because, as seen from Earth, it never gets very far away from the Sun. As a result, Mercury is often obscured from view by the Sun's glare.

As of today, Mercury has reached a point in its orbit called greatest elongation, which is a fancy way of saying that, as seen from Earth, Mercury is as far from the Sun as it will get on this orbit and making its best morning appearance of the year. How good is it? So good that Mercury sets about an hour and a half after the Sun! So good that, even 30 minutes after sunset, Mercury is still about 10 degrees up from the horizon. To simulate, hold your fist vertically at arm's length. While that may not seem overly high, for elusive Mercury, that's quite good.

So, take a moment or two, go out just before dawn, and try to spot Mercury. If you are successful in spotting the speedy planet, you are accomplishing something that the great astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (who rediscovered the idea of a sun-centered solar system) supposedly never did. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 13: Young Moon

How thin of a Moon have you seen? How about one that's just barely over 2 days old and only 5% illuminated? Well, if you have never seen a Moon this thin, this is 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 10 degrees of obstruction. To simulate this, hold your fist vertically at arm's length to simulate 10 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, and start scanning the sky. The Moon may not be visible at first, often seeming to suddenly pop into visibility as if it were flipped on like a light.

Believe me, when this happens, it's an exhilarating experience.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 12: 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 the Earth and Sun, e can't see any of its lit side.

After today, we will see more of the Moon each night as its lit side turns more toward from us and heads toward first quarter.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 8-10: Moon, Stars, and Planets Meet in the Morning

Tonight and the next 2 mornings will feature several interesting combinations involving Venus, Mars, Jupiter, the Moon, and Regulus (Alpha Leo) in the Eastern sky.. If it's looking to be clear all 3 nights, all the better as you'll have a front row seat to the Moon moving amongst the other heavenly bodies. Photo shoot, anyone?


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 7: Saturn Sets 2 Hours After the Sun

Anyone wanting to get a look at Saturn had better hurry up as the ringed planet and, at least for now, the only naked eye planet visible in the evening, is now setting just two hours after the Sun. To see Saturn, look low in the Southwest sky after the sky starts to dim. In the general vicinity, there will be a pair of 'stars' around 1st magnitude. The red one is Antares, alpha Scorpius, and the other is Saturn.

As an interesting aside, this presents a great opportunity to observe how one can tell a star and planet apart with just the naked eye since these bodies are close to each other and close in magnitude. What's the difference? A star will twinkle because it shines from its own light and a planet will not thanks to the fact that it 'shines' from reflected light.

Don't believe this? Well, go out this evening and take a look! 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 6: Can You See Mercury Yet?

You may have noticed that there was little mention of Mercury, first planet from the Sun in awhile. Why? Well, it was simply obscured by the Sun's glare, but now, that's about to change. While Mercury will be at its best come mid month, it's already up (albeit low) in the predawn Eastern sky. To see Mercury, scout out a location with virtually no obstruction near the horizon, which is where the speedy planet will appear. How low will you need to look? About three degrees up from the horizon. To simulate, a little finger held at arm's length spans about a degree of sky. Needless to say, binoculars are a must!

Monday, October 5, 2015

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. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 4: 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.  

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 3: Winter in October

The calendar may say October (and thus fall), but don't tell that to the stars as the winter sky is now well-up come the arrival of dawn's first light. Depending on where you live, it may be a good idea to get out and view the winter sky now before the cloud machine kicks into high gear.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Tonight's Sky for October 2: Summer in October

The calendar may say October (and thus fall), but don't tell that to the stars as the summer sky is still well-placed come the arrival of dark skies. Needless to say, it won't be hanging around for much longer, so make it a point to get out and look up soon!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The October Sky

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 and, as a result, the evening October sky isn't all that much different than it was in September. Morning? That's a different story altogether.

Cool Constellations
With the advent of October, 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. The place where the October sky differs from that of September is in the later half of the night and 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
On the planet front, if you want to see any of our solar system neighbors, you had better be a night owl or an early bird because 4 of the 5 planets visible this month make their appearances during the wee hours of the night and into the predawn morning sky. For starters, Jupiter, Venus, and Mars, all of which disappeared a few months ago, are all now finding themselves reasonably well-placed for predawn viewing in the Eastern sky, especially come month's end. During the course of the month, there will be some planetary ballet dancing between the planets, too. If that weren't enough, Mercury will be making its best morning appearance of the year this month starting around the 5th and will continue to be visible most of October. Lastly, there's Saturn, the sole evening planet, which hangs very low in the Southwest sky just after sunset for the duration of the month.

Fun Trivia
The letters in the title of the movie October Sky, which is about the life of rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard (who was born on October 5), can be rearranged to spell 'rocket boys.'

Tonight's Sky for October 1: Moon Meets the Bull
Tonight, the Moon will be in a very unique place: right on the head of a cosmic bull. Tonight, the Moon will move directly into the Zodiac constellation of Taurus the bull, more specifically, into its head.

To see the sight, go out and look East. The Moon, of course, will be impossible to miss. Moon found, look for a sideways 'V' of stars (set off by bright orange Aldebaran), the Hyades star cluster, which represent the base of the bull's head. 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.