Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 31: Moon Meets Regulus

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

To see Regulus, just go out before sunrise and look East. The Moon is, of course, impossible to miss. As for Regulus, it's that bright star near Luna. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 30: Be Alert for Aurora


A few days ago, the Sun erupted in a big way. Now, the wave of highly charged particles that was blasted into space is set to impact the Earth's upper atmosphere, creating prime conditions for aurora (also known as Northern Lights) for people living at high latitudes. Though there is no way to predict how strong the aurora will be if they do appear, for anyone living at a high latitude who is looking to have a clear sky tonight, keep an eye on the sky above. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 28: The Sun Explodes


A couple of days ago, I said that there was  lot of solar activity and the Sun could erupt in a major way at any time. Well, that's just what happened in spectacular fashion. For some reference, it would 9 Jupiters to span the face of the Sun and 11 Earths to span Jupiter. Needless to say, those flames coming off the Sun are gigantic.

As of now, it's too early to tell if the resulting coronal mass ejection (CME) will up the odds of seeing Northern Lights here on EArth, so stay tuned . . . 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 27: 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.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Tonight's Sky For March 26: Active Sun



Sunspot AR2305 has twisted magnetic fields that NOAA say can produce a X-class flare and/or a coronal mass ejection (CME) into space. Either one of these events can produce aurora, also known as the Northern Lights. Needless to say, be alert for aurora in the coming nights, especially if you live in high Northern latitudes.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 25: Venus Sets 3 Hours After the Sun

Anyone wanting to view Venus of late has not had much luck thanks to the planet's close proximity to the Sun. However, things are getting better. This evening, Venus will be setting three hours after the Sun. To see Venus this evening, go out just after the sky starts to dim in the evening and look West. If it is clear, you will see a bright yellow 'star' that, is in fact, the planet.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 24: Moon and the Hyades


Want to see the Hyades star cluster in Taurus but don't know where to look? Well, tonight's your lucky night as the Moon will be parked right next to the star cluster tonight. To see the show, simply head out and find the Moon. Now, thanks to Luna's light, one may have to look with some effort but there will be a sideways 'V' of stars right next to the Moon. That 'V' is the Hyades, which transforms into dozens of stars with binocular aid. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 23: The Omen in the Sky? (1066)


It was on this date nearly 1000 years ago that a sight was first recorded as appearing in the sky that was interpreted as an omen of both fortune and doom. The date was March 23, 1066 and the sight: a comet, now known to be Halley's Comet.

Despite its orbit of 76 years, it is the appearance of 1066 remains the most famous for the reason that it was depicted on the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which depicted the Norman conquest of England at the Battle of Hastings, which took place on October 14, 1066. In addition to scenes of the battle, including England's Harold II taking an arrow to the eye, the intricately woven cloth also depicts the comet blazing overhead.

At the time, comets in the heavens were seen as isolated events (it was not until the 1600s when Edmond Halley realized that his now-namesake comet was a returning visitor) and, with the superstition prevalent at the time, often interpreted as omens for events here. While it is not recorded what England's then-ruling Anglo-Saxons thought of the comet, William, Duke or Normandy and later 'the Conqueror,' interpreted the comet as an omen of success.

While we now know that the comet had nothing to do with the success of the invasion, here's an interesting historical bit of trivia to consider: 1066 marked the last successful invasion of England. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 22: Moon Meets Venus


New to astronomy? Want to see the planet Venus but don't know where to look? Well, it's your lucky night as the Moon will be right next to Venus just after sunset low in the Western sky. .

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

In a binoculars, Venus looks far brighter than with the naked eye. In a telescope, Venus shows phases just like our Moon!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 21: Young Moon Meets Mars


New to astronomy? Want to see the planet Mars, but don't know where to look? Well, it's your lucky night as the Moon will be right next to Mars just after sunset low in the Western sky. .

To see Mars, just go out before sunrise and look East. 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, doesn't twinkle thanks to the fact that it shines from reflected light.

In a binoculars, Mars looks more reddish than with the naked eye. In a telescope, Mars is obviously not a star as a 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.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 20: Vernal Equinox (First Day of Spring) and New Moon

For anyone not keeping track of the calendar, spring 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 Vernal 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 Vernal Equinox, the lengthening of the days will continue (for us in the Northern Hemisphere) until the Sun finally reaches its most Northerly rise/set on the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, which is around June 20. From that point on, the Sun will only get weaker, once again having an Equinox, the Autumnal, around the 20th of September before culminating in its most Southerly rise of the year, the Winter Solstice, around December 20.


If that weren't enough for 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.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 18: Mars Sets 2 Hours After the Sun


Anyone wanting to view Mars of late has not had much luck thanks to the ringed wonder's close proximity to the Sun. However, things are getting better. This morning, Venus will be setting two hours after the Sun. To see Venus this evening, go out just after the sky starts to dim in the evening and look West. If it is clear, you will see a bright yellow 'star' that, is in fact, the planet.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 17: The Snake St. Patrick Missed


Today is St. Patrick's Day, which celebrates St. Patrick, patron saint or Ireland who, among other things, supposedly drove all the snakes from the land. 

Unfortunately, St. Patrick missed the biggest snake of all: one that spans over 100 degrees of sky.

Hyrda the water snake was the mythological snake Corvus the crow brought back to Apollo instead of a cup of water (see also:
constellations). Enraged, Apollo flung the snake (as well as the bird and empty cup) into the sky. To find Hydra, look below Cancer for a circle of stars that represent the snake's head. From there, go East, snaking (sorry) through the sky to Alphard, alpha star and heart of the snake, before continuing until the serpent's tail, which lies just West of Libra.   

Monday, March 16, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 16: Saturn Rises at Midnight


Tonight, the planet Saturn, sixth from the Sun and most distant planet visible to the naked eye will be rising about midnight. What does this mean for us who look at the sky? Well, come dawn, Saturn will be high in the Southern sky and well-placed for observing both visually and especially telescopically as meridian transits mean that a planet is at its nighest and that the observer has the least amount of atmosphere to look through. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 15: Venus and Mars Now Separated by 10 Degrees


Tonight, Venus and Mars, which were once within an angular degree (hold your little finger at arm's length to simulate) of each other just a few weeks ago, are now separated by about 10 degrees (hold your fist at arm's length to simulate) in the Western sky just after sunset. The good news is that this is an easy sight to spot thanks to the fact that Mars and Venus (especially Venus!) are the two brightest objects in that area of sky at the time. For the record, the planets will continue to be visible for weeks to come, albeit growing in apparent separation.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 14: Once a Century Pi Day


Today is Pi Day, which serves to celebrate the ratio of a circle's diameter to its circumference. Celebrated every year by math as well as science enthusiasts, this year's event is somewhat unique in that the date 3/14/15 corresponds to Pi's value to 4 decimal points: 3.1415. Normally, there's just the 3.14 but, thanks to this being 2015, we add the two decimal places for a once a century occurrence.

To celebrate, NASA has released this educational infographic as well as this one.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 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.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 12: Moon Meets Saturn


New to astronomy? Want to see the planet Saturn but don't know where to look? Well, it's your lucky night as the Moon will be right next to Saturn throughout most of the night.

To see Saturn, just go out during the latter half of the night and look for the Moon, which 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, it doesn't twinkle thanks to the fact that it shines from reflected light.

In a binoculars, Saturn looks oval in shape thanks to the rings. In a telescope, Saturn's rings pop out just like in text book pictures. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 11: Algol at Minimum at Midnight


Tonight, Algol, located in Perseus, will be at minimum right around midnight Eastern Standard Time. 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. Fortunately, it will be possible to see the event in entirety thanks to the timing of the minimum. Don't want to stay up all night? Well, you can go out before bed, look at Perseus, and then get up early to see Algol at regular brightness or go out at nightfall, see Algol as normal, stay up until the minimum, and then go to bed. 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. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 8: Moon Meets Spica


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

To see Spica, just go out before sunrise and look East. The Moon is, of course, impossible to miss. As for Spica, it's that bright star near Luna. 

Tonight's Sky for March 7: Daylight Savings Time Arrives

While technically taking place tomorrow, for most, the yearly ritual of “springing ahead” one hour for the return of Daylight Savings Time will take place tonight before bed. The result of the shift: a lost hour of sleep and sunset being pushed back an hour later into the evening, which is bad as most astronomers work a typical 9-5 shift and need to go sleep (to an extent) at night. Still, things being the way they are, there's no use whining, so why not try and quiz your friends with this cool DST trivia!

*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 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 early for church this morning!)

* The catalyst for starting DST: saving energy during World War I (the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies were first in 1916), after which it was dropped until, you guessed it, WWII. Funny how wars spur things to get done.

*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 (hardly standard if you ask, me, how about calling it Daylight Losing Time?)

Friday, March 6, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 6: Valentina Tereshkova Born (1937)

It was on this date in 1937 that Valnentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly into space, was born in the village of Maslennikovo. In her early life, Tereshkova was a textile worker before she became interested in skydiving. Following Yuri Gagarin's flight in April, 1961, it was decided that, having launched the first man into space, the Soviets should have a new goal:” launch the first woman into space. Beating out hundreds of other applicants and the other 4 finalists, Tereshkova launched into space aboard Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963. In all, Tereshkova would spend 3 days in space, orbiting the Earth 48 times, logging more orbital time than all the American astronauts up to that point combined.

However, there was an irony to Tereshkova's flight: the first female astronaut corps would never fly another member and would be itself disbanded in 1969. It would not be until 1982 when another woman would enter space.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 5: Mini Full Moon

Tonight, the Full Moon is about as small as it will ever get thanks to the fact that the Moon is at apogee, a point in its orbit that is farthest from 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 far from 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

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 4: Uranus Meets Venus


Want to see the planet Uranus, the first planet discovered with optical aid, but have no idea where to look? Well, you're in luck tonight (and tomorrow should it be cloudy) as the 7th planet from the Sun will be very near Venus, the brightest of all the planets. To see Uranus, you'll want medium power binoculars (about 10-12x). Binoculars in hand, center on Venus and, from there, start scanning the sky around it. The feature that gives away the planet's identity: its greenish color as there are no green stars. If you find Uranus, congratulate yourself for finding the planet that was seen but mistaken for a star (on multiple occasions) before its official discovery by William Herschel in 1781. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 3: Mercury Rises 1 Hour Before the Sun

This morning, the planet Mercury, first from the Sun and hardest of the classical planets to spot, will be rising an hour ahead of the Sun. Normally, this would result in a good appearance as Mercury never strays that far out of the solar glare. Unfortunately, thanks to the time of year, the ecliptic plane is at a very shallow angle in the morning, meaning that, as seen from Earth, Mercury will still hug the horizon despite its actual angular distance from the Sun. Needless to say, optical aid is recommended.  

Monday, March 2, 2015

Tonight's Sky for March 2: Moon Meets Jupiter, the Beehive


Tonight, there will be a 3 in 1 cosmic show that will be easy to spot for even the absolute beginner. The show: a meet-up of the Moon, Jupiter, and the Beehive Cluster. The key to the whole enterprise: the Moon, which is impossible to miss. Moon found, look for the bright 'star' very close to it. That 'star' is, in fact, the planet Jupiter. As for the Beehive Cluster, eagle eyes or low power binoculars are needed to resolve the large cluster of stars near the Moon and the planet. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The March Sky

With the month of March upon us, the lengthening of the days will be at its most noticeable as the Sun moves fastest near the equinox, which occurs on the 20th of the month. Besides the rapidly shortening nights thanks to the lengthening of the day, another dramatic loss in dark sky time will come on the 8th, which is when Daylight Savings Time returns. Needless to say, by month's end, there will be far less opportunity for observing as nightfall will come an hour and a half later than it did at the start of the month.

Cool Constellations
At the start of March, the first order of business should be getting a last look at the winter constellations under dark sky conditions as, with the advent of DST, most will be low in the Southwest come nightfall and, unless one has a good horizon, too low to observe very well. The early-month, early-evening observe list should include Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Perseus, Orion, Canis Major, and Canis Minor. A few other winter constellations, including Auriga, Taurus, Gemini, and the Pleiades are still reasonably well-placed, though. As Orion was to winter, the Big Dipper is to spring in that it is a signpost to the stars. Starting at the Dipper, follow the arc of the Dipper to bright orange Arcturus, alpha Bootes, and the brightest star in the spring sky. To the left of the kite-shaped Bootes, look for the arc of stars that is Corona, the crown. Next, speed onto blue Spica, alpha Virgo, and one of the brightest spring stars. Next, continue the curve to trapezoidal constellation Corvus, the crow. Finally, conclude in dim Crater the cup. Moving higher in the sky, zodiac constellations Cancer and Leo are well-placed as well. Speaking of Cancer, look just below the cosmic crab for a distinct ring of stars, the head of Hydra, the sky's biggest constellation, which snakes (sorry) through over 120 degrees of sky. For those who like to stay up late (or get up extremely early), there's mythological strongman Hercules and the Summer Triangle high overhead and, to the South, Ophiuchus, Serpens, and Scorpius

Planetary Perceptions
Like February, March is looking to be another 5 for 5 planet month. At dusk, Earth's two planetary neighbors, Mars and Venus, will continue to be easy dusk objects. As was the case last month, Venus will continue to climb out of the dusk twilight while Mars stubbornly hangs low in the Southwest, setting roughly 2 hours after the Sun all month long. Moving later into the night, Jupiter is up all virtually all night having reached opposition (the point when, as seen from Earth, a planet is 180 degrees distant from the Sun) last month. Additionally, Saturn continues to re-emerge from the Sun in the predawn sky. By month's end, the ringed wonder will be just about due South at dawn. Last but not least, speedy Mercury, which reached greatest elongation as a morning object in late February, will continue to hang around in early March. Unfortunately, thanks to the flattening ecliptic, the little planet will be very close to the horizon, making it very difficult to spot.

Young Moon Season
Want to find the Holy Grail of naked-eye astronomy? Well, you're in luck as March begins what could be considered the Young Moon season, which runs through June and features wire-thin, barely there crescents just after sunset. The funny thing: many people who call Full Moons light pollution will plan young Moon hunts weeks in advance. So, why the change in attitude?

Young Moons are, besides quite aesthetic, rare, very rare. To sight a Young Moon under 24 hours old (and even one under 30 hours old), all the conditions need to line up just right. If everything goes perfectly, on the day after New Moon, or even on the same day sometimes, just past sunset, a wire-thin crescent will pop out low on the horizon among the Sun's last rays. Needless to say, when dealing with a Moon less than 2% illuminated, binoculars are a must.
So here is why the Young Moon is so difficult to spot:

1. Timing. If New Moon is timed too close to sunset, it will be lost in the Sun's glare on the day of New Moon and will be way past a day old come the next night. A 36 hour Moon is no challenge, pure and simple.

2. Clouds. If it's cloudy, there's no seeing the Moon.

3. Light. Young Moon hunters are forced to fight twilight. With the Moon only 1-2% lit, just the act of spotting the Moon low on the horizon in such light conditions is a challenge because that is where the Sun is. A saving grace can be (and was for me both times) a nearby planet, Mercury and Venus, respectively. If you can use a bright planet as a marker, it is a lot easier to estimate where the Moon will appear once the sky gets dark enough.

4. Haze. Even more so than during the day, haze makes its presence known at dusk, looking similar to wispy clouds on the horizon. While the biggest problem during the summer, haze can even appear in winter, too. Even a crystal-clear day can produce haze on the horizon at dusk. While the haze will quickly dissipate come dark, that's too late for the Young Moon.

These difficulties compounded with horizon issues showcase why Young Moons are the Holy Grail of Lunar observers. Now for the good news: spring is Young Moon season. Because of the near vertical ecliptic at sunset, the Young Moon will hang higher in the sky now than any other time of year, which is good. For Young Moon Hunters, March through May (even June depending on time of month) is an ideal time to look. By the time July rolls around, the ecliptic is undeniably flattening too much to make observing the Young Moon really feasible.
Get out while you can!

Future thin crescents:
March 20: 17 hour Moon (telescope a must)
April 19: 31 hour Moon
May 18: 22 hour Moon
June 17: 36 hour Moon




Tonight's Sky for March 1: Venera 3 Impacts Venus (1966)
It was on this date in 1966 that Venera 3, which was set to become the first space probe to land on another planet (Venus), made a different bit of history when it crashed into the planet instead, taking the dubious distinction of becoming the first spacecraft to crash onto another planet.