Saturday, January 31, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 31: Cosmic Soccer, Pollux?


Tonight, there will be a bit of cosmic soccer, of sorts, as the Moon will be parked right next to the cosmic twins, Gemini, and more specifically, next to the foot of Pollux, the lower of the twins as seen when the constellation is just starting to rise in the East. As a second activity, if you have a telescope handy, turn it on Castor, the other twin as it is a binary (multiple) star system and see how many of the companion stars you can spot. For the record, Castor is a 6-star system. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 29: Skewered Cosmic Cheese


Tonight, the Moon is going to be in Taurus, more specifically, skewered on the cosmic bull's horn. The cheese part of the deal? The old wives tale that the Moon was made of cheese.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 28: The Challenger Disaster (1986)

It was on this date in 1986 that the space shuttle Challenger exploded, on live television.


As 1986 began, NASA was on a tear with its new space shuttle fleet, launching 25 missions in the program's first 5 years while utilizing an incomplete fleet (Columbia was first in 1981, Challenger next in April '83, Discovery in August '84, and Atlantis in October '85). By this time, spaceflight had almost become routine as NASA increasingly cut turnaround times and launched in colder weather. On January 12, 1986, Columbia completed the shuttle program's 24th official mission.

A few weeks later, on July 28, millions of eyes in both the United States and across the world were on shuttle Challenger because of the inclusion of teacher in space contest winner Christa McAuliffe. As the shuttle rose from the launchpad, it seemed another routine launch until, unnoticed by many at the time, a burst of flame erupted out of Challenger's right solid booster because of a failed o-ring. The booster came loose, impacted the rest of the vehicle, and ignited the escaped gasses. The orbiter itself fell from a height of over 60,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 7 astronauts aboard.

For a nation where anything seemed possible, the loss of Challenger was devastating, with the shuttles being grounded until 1988 until the investigation of the disaster was complete. The irony: engineers had objected to the launch before it took place on account of the cold (it was only 26 Fahrenheit), warning that the rubber o-rings could shrink and/or harden and fail, which is exactly what happened. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 27: The Apollo 1 Disaster (1967)

It was on this date in 1967 that astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffe were killed in a test of the Apollo space capsule in the lead-up to what would have been Apollo 1.

In retrospect, it's now clear that NASA was proceeding too fast into unknown territory. With just under 3 years left to fulfill President Kennedy's pledge to go to the Moon by decade's end, there was immense pressure on NASA to get an Apollo mission off the ground. Additionally, the Apollo space capsule was by far the most complicated ever constructed to that point. The result: corners were cut, many changes were made to the craft, and the crew was very nervous about the mission. Grissom, one of the Mercury 7, was especially vocal in his concerns.

During a routine plug-out test, where the ability of the craft to run off its own power was checked, a fire broke out at a point that was never determined. The fire, pure oxygen atmosphere, flammable materials inside the cabin, and inward-opening escape hatch held in place by a pressurized cabin all combined to doom the astronauts. The following investigation and changes to the craft design it demanded set back the Apollo program by over a year.

Ironically, even with this 1-year delay, we still fulfilled Kennedy's pledge. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 26: 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.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 23: Triple Galalean Moon Shadows on Jupiter


For people who own a telescope, this is an event worth marking on the calendar as, beginning at 10:11pm EST (add an hour for every time zone West you live), three of the four Galalean Moons of Jupiter will cast a shadow on the planet's surface. To see this event, a telescope and a high power magnification is a must as the moons' shadows are tiny when compared to the king of the planets. During the course of the event, one will be able to see all three tiny shadows transit the planet's face before disappearing back into the blackness of space. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 22: Moon Meets Mars


New to astronomy? Want to see Mars but don't know where to look? Well, it's your lucky night as the waning crescent Moon will be right next to the Red Planet this evening.

To see Mars, just go out before sunrise and look low in the Southwest. The Moon is, of course, impossible to miss. As for Mars, it's that bright 'star' right next to Luna. The way to tell that Mars is a planet? Unlike stars, it doesn't twinkle thanks to the fact that it shines from reflected light.

Unfortunately, thanks to the fact that it is moving away from us, Mars reveals no surface detail in a telescope and the only way to tell that it is obviously not a star as the planetary disc is very evident at high powers. As for what this means, look at Mars and notice its clear-cut edges. Then swing to a star and notice its diffuse edges.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 21: Young Moon Meets Mercury, Venus


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 Southwestern horizon. How good? One with less than 10 degrees of obstruction. To simulate this, hold a 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 about 45 minutes after sunset and start scanning the horizon with your binoculars.

Don't see the Moon right away? Don't panic, as the sky dims, the Moon will get easier to see, which means that it will often just suddenly 'pop' out of the darkness. Believe me, when it does, it's an exhilarating experience.


As a bonus, Venus and Mercury are nearby, too. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 20: 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.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 19: Old Moon


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, tonight'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.

Tonight's Sky for January 18: Easy to Find Comet Lovejoy


Unbeknownst to many, there is a comet up in the sky right now. Officially named C/2014 Q2 and better known as simply Comet Lovejoy, this celestial visitor has been a point of interest among serious amateur astronomers for the past few weeks. However, a combination of brightening magnitude and easy placement serves to make this comet an easy target for even the most inexperienced beginner.

So, how to find the comet?

To see comet Lovejoy, head out and look South just after sunset. First, find unmistakable, hour glass-like Orion. Orion found, follow the three belt stars up and to the right (West) toward bright orange star Aldabaran. From there, continue in the same general direction to a hazy patch of sky larger than the Full Moon, which is the Pleiades, one of the nearest star clusters to Earth. From there, go here for a detailed finder chart to zero in on the comet, which is at the edge of naked eye visibility from suburban locations with a magnitude estimated at around +3.5 to +3.8.

Can't see it? Even a pair of cheap binoculars with around a 7x magnification will reveal the fuzzy visitor from the outermost reaches of the solar system. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 16: Moon Meets Saturn

New to astronomy? Want to see Saturn but don't know where to look? Well, it's your lucky night as the waning crescent Moon will be right next to Saturn this morning.

To see Saturn, just go out before sunrise and look low in the Southeast. The Moon is, of course, impossible to miss. As for Saturn, it's that bright 'star' right next to Luna. The way to tell that Saturn is a planet? Unlike stars, doesn't twinkle thanks to the fact that it shines from reflected light.

In a binoculars, in binoculars, Saturn looks oval in shape. In a telescope (even a cheap one), Saturn's rings will be easily visible. 

Tonight's Sky for January 15: 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 winter this evening.

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. 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 after sunset, 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, January 14, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 14: Edmund Halley Dies (1742)


It was on this date in 1742 that English astronomer Edmund Halley, best known for predicting the return of the comet that now bears his name, died at age 85.

Born on November 8, 1656, Halley had an interest in mathematics and astronomy at an early age and published his first scientific papers while still an undergraduate student. Appointed assistant to the Astronomer Royal at the Greenwich Observatory in 1675, Halley traveled to the St. Helena and was so instrumental in mapping the Southern sky that he became known as 'the Southern Tycho' in tribute to the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, whose work marked the pinnacle of pre-telescopic astronomy. However, it is for a comet that Halley would be remembered.


Looking through astronomical records, Halley noticed that there seemed to be a pattern to sightings of a Great Comet, namely that one was seen every 76 years. Using the past to predict the future, Halley theorized that these several comets were, in fact, a single comet returning every 76 years. Halley then boldly predicted that a great comet would be seen again in 1758. Unfortunately, Halley died 2 years before he was vindicated.   

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 13: 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.  
  

Monday, January 12, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 12: Moon Meets Spica


Today, the Moon, second brightest object in the sky, will be very near Spica, the alpha (brightest) star in Virgo. To see the show, simply go out in the predawn sky and find the Moon. See that bright blue star near luna? Well, it's Spica. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 10-11: Mercury Meets Venus


Tonight and tomorrow night, Mercury and Venus, the first two planets from the Sun, will be very, very close to each other, as within half a degree. To simulate a degree of arc, hold your little finger out at arm's length. That's close!

To see the show, go out about 30 minutes after sunset and look low in the Southwestern sky. Venus should be easy to spot as it shines at -4 magnitude. Mercury, though shining at nearly -1 magnitude, will be much harder to spot as it is so close to the Sun. For Mercury, binoculars will be useful unless you have eagle eyes. With optical aid, the show will be easy to catch tonight and tomorrow.

Additionally, the planets will remain close for the coming week or so, too.
 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 9: Brightening Comet Lovejoy

Over the past few weeks, there has been a brightening visitor to out night sky: Comet C/2014Q2, better known as Comet Lovejoy. The good news: as is being reported by astronomers (both pro and amateur) all over the world, Comet Lovejoy has brightened into the realm of naked eye visibility, namely around -4 magnitude, which is around the naked eye limit from most suburban locations. To help find the comet, consult this handy finder chart

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 8: Moon, Jupiter, Regulus


Tonight, the Moon, Regulus (alpha Leo), and Jupiter will be making a rather close meet-up in the late night Eastern sky. To see the show, simply go out in the wee hours of the morning and look to the East. The Moon, of course, will be impossible to miss. Slightly above the Moon will be a rather bright blue star. This is Regulus, brightest star of the zodiac constellation of Leo the lion. Above Regulus will be an even brighter 'star' which, in reality, is Jupiter, largest planet in the solar system.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 7: Galileo Discovers Jupiter's Moons


It was on this date in 1610 that Galileo Galilei turned his primitive telescope on Jupiter and shattered the notion that everything orbits the Earth. Having recently constructed a telescope that he had based off of a Dutch design, Galileo turned it on the heavens and made discoveries that re-shaped the universe.

At the time, it was widely believed that everything orbited the Earth, a belief held virtually unchallenged since Classical Greece and only recently challenged (in theory only) by Copernicus. Turning his telescope in Jupiter, Galileo noted 4 small stars near the planet, nothing unusual. However, in the coming nights, Galileo noticed that the 'stars' moved relative to each other while remaining with the planet. The only conclusion: the 'stars' were moons. Now known as the Galilean Moons, they are, in order from Jupiter: Io, Europa, Ganymede (largest moon in the solar system), and Callisto. An easy way to remember this fact: I(Io) Eat(Europa) Green(Ganymede) Caterpillars(Callisto)!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 6: Lunar Prospector Launched (1998)


It was on this date in 1998 that NASA launched its Lunar Prospector space probe. Costing just $62 million, the Lunar Prospector was inserted into a low polar orbit on a mission that would eventually last 19 months. The goals of the mission: look for water ice and study the composition of the lunar surface. By the time the mission ended on July 31, 1999, it greatly expanded our understanding of what was on the lunar surface and where it was located.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 5: Algol at Minimum


Tonight, Algol, located in Perseus, will be at minimum at 12:07am EST (add an hour for every time zone West you live). No, the star is not going to 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. Unfortunately, it will be an all-night event thanks to the timing. However, you can go out before bed, look at Perseus, see Algol at minimum, and then get up early to see Algol at regular brightness before sunrise. 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. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 4: Earth at Perihelion and Full Moon


For people living in the Northern Hemisphere, it may be hard to believe but, right now, Earth is at a point in its orbit called perihelion, which is a fancy way of saying that it is as close as it will get from the Sun.

As for how Earth can be its coldest (at least North of the Equator) when it's at its closest to the Sun, it has nothing to do with distance, but everything to do with geometry.

The Earth's seasons are caused by the planet's 23.5 degree tilt relative to its axis. As Earth goes around the Sun, the angle of a location relative to the incoming solar rays changes. This is the reason why the Sun apparently takes a different path through the sky (high in summer and low in winter resulting in long and short days, respectively) during the year. It is this difference in angle (and resultant day length) that causes the seasons to change.

Oh yes, Earth is roughly 91 million miles from the Sun today rather than the 93 million mile average distance taught in schools.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 3: Quadrantid Meteor Shower Peaks


Tonight/tomorrow morning will mark the peak of the Quadrantid Meteor shower for 2015, thus marking the climax for the week-long event. Every December into January, Earth passes through the stretch of space junk shed by minor planet 2003EH, reaching the deepest concentration of debris tonight. According to some estimates, under ideal conditions (dark country skies), one can expect to see 100 meteors per hour. The reason the meteors are called Quadrantids is because the meteors seem to radiate from the now-defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis, which overlapped with Ursa Major and Bootes. The specific radiant location is right behind the Big Dipper's handle. The best time to view the shower is in the predawn hours as the radiant is at its highest then.

Don't want to stay up that late? Don't worry as the radiant is circumpolar/near enough so for us in the United States to have a chance to see the meteors all night, albeit that they will probably be 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.
Unfortunately, this year's Quadramntid peak coincides with the Full Moon. The good news: even the Moon won't be able to drown-out the brightest meteors with all its light.


Note: unlike many meteor showers that have long peaks lasting all night, the Quadrantids have a sharp peak, which can often result in only a few meteors all night, a sudden outburst, and then very few thereafter.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Tonight's Sky for January 2: Moon Meets the Hyades


Tonight, the nearly-Full Moon will meet the Hyades star cluster, which is located in the constellation of Taurus. As for finding the Moon, that's easy. As for the Hyades, look for bright orange Aldebaran, alpha Taurus an eye of the Bull. Next, look for a sideways 'V' of stars (containing Aldebaran), which represents the brightest stars in the cluster. Needless to say, optical aid will reveal far more stars. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The January Sky


With new month of January upon us, people in the Northern Hemisphere will still be treated to some of the longest nights of the year as, even after the solstice, the Sun won't be moving North very much anytime soon. Basically, January is still pretty much a story of steady 15 hour nights, give or take a few minutes at most. So, with all of this night, what's there to see?

Cool Constellations
By nightfall in January the fall constellations are all very well-placed for early (emphasis, early!) evening viewing. First up, we will have one last chance to see the Summer Triangle, provided you have a good West horizon. Hurry, though, it will quickly disappear (at least in the West) for good by month's end. Moving onto more mainstream celestial landmarks for this time of year, the Great Square of Pegasus is rapidly sinking in the West and the Big Dipper is starting to climb in the Northeast. Starting at the Great Square, look at the double string of stars coming of third base as they constitute Andromeda. High in the North is ‘W’-shaped Cassiopeia, house-like Cepheus, and a twisted ‘V’ of stars, the mythological hero Perseus. Below Perseus is the bright Capella, alpha Auriga, and below his feet, the cloudy patch that is the Pleiades. In the early evening, the Southwest is a dark void populated by the dim constellations of Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, and Cetus, all 4 of which are to soon disappear. If you stay up a little later as in a couple of hours after nightfall (which is no chore this time of year), you'll see all the winter favorite like unmistakable Orion in the South, which also serves as a winter signpost to the stars. From Orion, follow a line from his belt down to blazing blue Sirius, alpha Canis Major. Following that line up will bring one to Aldebaran, alpha Taurus the bull. Imagining a line starting at bright blue Rigel (Orion's left foot) through red Betelgeuse (Orion's right shoulder) will bring you to Castor and Pollux, alpha and beta Gemini. Other winter favorites to look for include Canis Minor, Cancer, and even Leo if you wait into the night a little longer. Early birds? Well, getting up just before the Sun will bring a spring preview in the form of Virgo, Bootes, Corona, Hercules, Corvus, and even Vega just ahead of the rising Sun.


Planetary Perceptions
On the planet front, January is looking to be the first true 5 for 5 planet month in some time. At dusk, the two planets closest to the Sun, Mercury and Venus, are barely visible at the start of the month. However, as the days pass, they will both start to dramatically rise, with Mercury reaching peak height at mid-month and Venus continuing to climb all month long. Additionally, Mars continues to hang low, barely moving relative to the stars, in the Southwestern sky, setting about 2 ½ hours after the Sun all month. Moving later into the night, Jupiter is up for most of the night as it moves toward opposition, which will take place next month. Last but not least, Saturn continue to re-emerge from the Sun in the predawn sky. By month's end, the ringed wonder is rising nearly 5 hours ahead of the Sun. The best part: thanks to the late sunrises this time of year, one need not get up obscenely early to catch it.

Fun Thing to Do
With the longest nights of the year upon us, this is the time when you can see the same star twice in one night, as is on the set in the evening and on the rise in the morning. Despite this being the first month of winter, the summer stars are still visible in the sky at dusk. The stars of the Summer Triangle make perfect targets because of their brightness. As for what to do, simply go out and observe the stars of the Triangle (Vega is best as it is the brightest and will be first to rise in the morning). That done, either go to bed or stay up and enjoy the night until just before sunrise. At that point, go out and look in the Northeast for your chosen star's return to the sky. How many people can say they saw the same star twice in one night that way?





Tonight's Sky for January 1: Ceres Discovered (1801)
It was on this date in 1801 that the largest asteroid, Ceres, became the first asteroid to be discovered.

At the time, there was a hypothesis known as the Titus-Bode Law (since discredited), which states that distances of planets from their parent star and relative to each other can be determined by mathematical formula. With the 5 classical planets, the pattern seemed to hold true save a gap between Mars and Jupiter. When Uranus was discovered, by pure chance, it fit the pattern, increasing belief in the Titus-Bode Law and causing a renewed interest in finding the missing planet that was hypothesized to be located between Mars and Jupiter.

It was on New Year's Day 1801 that Giuseppe Piazzi discovered this 'planet,' which he named Ceres after the Roman goddess of agriculture. The largest body in the asteroid belt, Ceres contains about a third of the Asteroid Belt's mass and its diameter is about a third that of the Moon.

Initially classified as a planet, Ceres retained that status for about 50 years. The turning point: the discovery of more small bodies in the same region, which eventually caused astronomers to realize that a whole new class of objects, asteroids (meaning 'star-like') existed in this region. In time, Ceres was reclassified as an asteroid and became officially known as 1 Ceres for the fact that it was the first asteroid ever discovered. Come 2006 and the whole Pluto reclassification/definition of 'planet' controversy, Ceres was reclassified also, getting promoted to dwarf planet. To date, Ceres is the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system.