Monday, November 30, 2015

Tonight's Sky for December 30: Venus Rises 3 Hours Before the Sun


This morning, Venus, second planet from the Sun and third brightest object in the night sky, will be rising 3 hours before the Sun. Now, while not as early as the 4 hours before the Sun rise that was taking place last month, any morning planet rising 3 hours before the Sun mean t hat it will still be pretty high come the predawn hour.  

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 29: Jupiter Rises 6 Hours Before the Sun


Jupiter is getting more viewer-friendly by the day as it continues to climb a little higher in the sky every night as it heads towards its eventual opposition, which is not set for until March. As of tonight, the King of the planets is rising 6 hours before the Sun, meaning that it is getting high in the Southeast come dawn. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 28: Mariner 4 Launched (1964)


It was on this date in 1964 that NASA launched its Mariner 4 spacecraft, which was the first spacecraft to make a successful Mars flyby. Returning two dozen tantalizing pictures of Mars in 1965, Mariner 4 also shattered the long-held belief that Mars was a hospitable world the could be home to advanced life.

It may be hard to believe now but, in 1964, there was no proof that Mars couldn't be home to advanced civilizations. At the time, the polar ice caps looked decidedly Earth-like and the changing surface of the planet was interpreted by some as the growing and dying of seasonal vegetation. This, combined with the famous canals, conspired to paint a picture of a planet friendly to life that served as inspiration for hundreds of science fiction comics, books, and films despite the fact that advances in science since the time of Percival Lowell and HG Wells were, stroke by stroke, painting a picture of a cold, dry world.

Still, the only way to know anything for sure was to visit Mars for a close-up look.

Upon flyby in 1965, Mariner 4 revealed a cold, desolate, virtually airless world totally incapable of supporting advanced life as we know it. Still, 50 years later, while some still cling to the hope for microbial life, it's clear that there is no advanced life on Mars, forcing sci-fi writers of the present to set their works in other solar systems rather than this one.  

Friday, November 27, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 27: Algol at Minimum at 9:04pm EST


This evening, Algol, located in Perseus, will be at minimum at 9:04pm 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 9:04, 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.' 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 25: Full Moon Meets the Clusters


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.


On top of that, the Moon forms a triangle with the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters, too. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 24: Be Alert for Aurora

Tonight, NOAA is estimating a 40% chance of geomagnetic storms at high latitudes, which means that people living in the Northern U.S. and similar latitudes should keep an eye on the sky for aurora tonight. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 23: Can You See Comet Catalina?


It's finally here! After spending its time giving Southern Hemisphere observers a show, Comet Catalina went around the Sun and has now reappeared in the Northern sky. As of now, the comet, estimated to be around +7 magnitude, is a challenge as it is very close t the Sun and the window to catch it between its rising and being out-shone by the rising Sun is very small. However, that will change as the days progress. In fact, come New Years Day, the comet will be within ½ degree of bright Arcturus, alpha Bootes, which will be very high in the predawn sky. So yes, you may not be able to catch it now but, in the coming weeks, keep your eyes out for Comet Catalina, which is expected to brighten to +5 magnitude by Christmas.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 22: Remembering NASAs Greatest Champion


It was on this date in 1963 that NASA lost its greatest champion when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. When boldly declaring that America would go to the Moon by the end of the decade, President Kennedy kicked the Space Race into high gear and made it a matter of national pride to get to the Moon. Result: NASA was given pretty much anything it needed to make the president's dream a reality.


Today, it is a common misconception that NASA is a huge part of the federal budget, with some respondents to surveys stating that they believe that NASA could account for as much as 20% of the federal budget. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. As of 2015, NASA's budgetary allowance was only about 0.5% the federal budget. In the 60s? The story was very different. In the lead-up to Apollo, NASA got a lot more money, peaking at 4.4% of the total federal budget in 1966.

Today, such a thing would be unheard of but today, the idea of an entire nation, regardless of political affiliation, rallying behind the space program, is just as unheard of, too. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 21: Alpha Monocerotids Peak


Tonight will mark the peak of the Alpha Monocerotid Meteor shower for 2015, thus marking the climax for the 2-week event. Every November, Earth passes through the stretch of space junk shed by a comet of still unknown origin, reaching the deepest concentration of debris tonight. Of all meteor showers, this one is among the weakest, only often producing a few meteors per hour but, curiously, there is a tendency by the Alpha Monocerotids to have outbursts on years ending in 5. Some of these outbursts, while often less than an hour in duration, result in va rate of hundreds of meteors per hour.. The reason the meteors are called Alpha Monocerotids is because the meteors seem to radiate from the constellation Monoceros, specifically its alpha (brightest) star. The best time to view is anytime since Monoceros is up all night.

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 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..

Friday, November 20, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 20: Mars at Aphelion

Today, Mars is as far as it will ever get from the Sun thanks to the fact that it is at aphelion, a point in its orbit that is farthest from Sun.

What many people may not realize is the fact that Mars (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 Mars, this variance in orbital distance to the Sun amounts to about 26 million miles, a difference of roughly 13 million miles from its average distance from the Sun, 143 million miles.


Additionally, Mars is as slow as it will get today, too. Why is this? As a planet locked in an orbit gets farther from the Sun, the Sun's gravitational force on the planet lessens and the planet will slow down. Then, as the planet round the aphelion point and begins to move closer to the Sun, its speed will increase as the distance to the Sun decreases, culminating at maximum speed at, you guessed it, perihelion. This fact was first discovered in the early 1600s by Johannes Kepler and serves as his 2nd law of planetary motion, the law of equal areas.  

Tonight's Sky for November 19: 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, November 19, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 18: Venus Rises 4 Hours Before the Sun


Venus may not be as high as it once was in the predawn sky, but it's still very well-placed, as evidenced by the fact that it is still rising 4 hours before the Sun. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 17: Leonid Meteors Peak

Tonight will mark the peak of the Leonid 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 Tempel-Tuttle, reaching the deepest concentration of debris tonight. According to some estimates, under ideal conditions (dark country skies), one can expect to see 20-30 meteors per hour. The reason the meteors are called Leonids is because the meteors seem to radiate from the constellation Leo. The best time to view the shower is in the predawn hours, as Leo 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 Leonid 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.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 16: Last Chance to Catch Saturn


Anyone wanting to catch the planet Saturn before it disappears into the Sun's glare had better do so now as the ringed wonder is setting only an hour after the Sun. In practical terms, that means that a pair of binoculars is in order and that one had better go out about 15 minutes after sunset and look very low in the West-Southwest. With a good horizon, you should be able to find Saturn. Don't see it right away? No problem, planets are often hard to spot at dusk and when they do finally pop out of the twilight, it is almost as though a light was flipped on as you'll have probably scanned that area of sky several times beforehand. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 15: Perseus at Zenith at Midnight


Tonight at midnight, mythological Hero Perseus will be at zenith (straight up). This constellation is an interesting one for several reasons, so let's examine them. First up, its alpha (brightest) star is Mirfak and it, along with Fomalhaut, are the only stars brighter than 2nd magnitude in the entire fall sky. Second, Perseus' beta (2nd brightest) star is Algol, and it's an eclipsing binary star. What does that mean? When the dimmer companion moves in front of the brighter main star, Algol will show a noticeable drop in brightness over the course of several hours. This so creeped out the ancients that the very name Algol means “the ghoul” in Arabic. The star is also known as the Winking Demon Star. Third, above Perseus and about half way to W-shaped Cassiopeia ;lies the Double Cluster, a dazzlingly beautiful pair of open clusters populated by blue stars. High power binoculars or a low power eyepiece in a telescope work best here.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 14: Fomalhaut Due South at Dark


You may have noticed that the fall sky does not have a lot of bright stars when compared to summer. In fact, the fall sky does not have a single star in the 0 or brighter magnitude range. The star that does come closest at magnitude +1.1 is Fomalhaut (pronounced “foam a lot”), and it is just about due South when the sky gets truly dark, which is about an hour and a half after sunset. Fomalhaut is the alpha (brightest) star of Pisces Australis, the Southern Fish. Adding to Fomalhaut's prominence is the fact that, at mid-Northern latitudes, there are no bright stars in the Southern sky with the stars of the Great Square (2nd magnitude) being the most Southerly stars of any real brightness. For that reason, many people think Fomalhaut s brighter than it actually is. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 13: Leonid Storm (1833)


In November, 1833, meteor showers were recognized, though their exact origin had yet to be  determined at that time. Through centuries of observation, scientists and amateur sky watchers noticed that showers always seemed to take place on the same dates over the course of decades. In time, the showers became known by the name of the constellation from which they seemed to radiate from. So, when meteors started to appear from the constellation Leo in the middle of November, no one was surprised.

Then came the morning of November 13.

On the night of the 12th, many sky watchers noticed that there seemed to be an unusually high number of meteors in the sky heading into the morning of the 13th. Suddenly, as if someone turned on a switch, the sky filled with meteors to the tune of, according to the high estimates, over 200,000 per hour! That translates to over 3,000 per minute or, even more mind boggling, 50 meteors per second. All across North America, people were woken by their bedrooms suddenly becoming filled with light (the electric light was over 40 years in the future) thanks to the light of all the meteors. Now, the kicker: this lasted for 4 hours until the Sun started to rise.

Needless to say, reactions to the shower, which just about turned night into day, were quite varied. Naturally, those well-versed in the sciences were excited as no meteor shower of anywhere near this magnitude had ever been seen before. On the other hand, for a lot of the less well educated, panic ensued as many thought that Judgment Day was at hand, that the stars were falling, and that the earth would soon be destroyed.

As night gave way to morning, some of the meteors were so bright as to be seen by day, a true rarity for meteors. However, while the shower lasted only about 4 hours at its outburst phase, its implications were much more long-lasting as this event, more so than any other to that time, did much to drive knowledge and make the study of meteors and meteor showers a true scientific study.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 12: Young Moon Meets Saturn


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.

To make things easier, Saturn is nearby, too.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 11: 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, we 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.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 10: 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. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 9: Carl Sagan Born (1934)


It was on this date in 1934 that Carl Sagan, perhaps the most famous astronomer of the 20th century, was born. Sagan's 'personal voyage' into discovery began at a young age with a question: what are the stars? It was this quest to find the answer to this question that set the course of Sagan's life and propelled him into a 30+ year career as a scientist that is, ironically, often overlooked thanks to his iconic Cosmos TV series and accompanying book. Cosmos, unlike Sagan's academic work, Cosmos presented no new ideas nor validated any old theories, but rather made the science of astronomy understandable to the masses. It was for this reason, his ability to communicate complex ideas in a way that anyone could understand, that Sagan became to be seen as a star educator rather than a scientist, per se. Sagan would continue to be viewed in this light until his death in December, 1996. To date, his shoes have gone unfilled to millions the world over.  

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 8: Be Alert for Aurora


Yesterday, a coronal mass ejection (CME) impacted Earth's atmosphere, triggering a display of aurora, also known as the Northern Lights. Tonight, NOAA is reporting that there is a 50-60% chance for continued geomagnetic storms (and thus aurora) tonight for those of us living at high latitudes, so keep an eye on the sky!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 7: Moon Meets Venus, Mars


It was Jupiter yesterday and today, it's Venus and Mars meeting with the Moon, with Luna parked only slightly more than a degree from Venus. Mars, which should appear reddish, is also close by as is beta Virgo.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 5: 5-Body Cosmic Lineup


This morning, one will be treated to a very unique meet-up of celestial bodies along the Ecliptic Plane that consists of 3 planets, a star, and the Moon.

So, what's there to see?

First of all, to see the show, go out in t he predawn hours and look East. That done, find the Moon, which is the second highest object in the line. Moon found, look above to find a bright blue star, which is Regulus, alpha Leo. Dropping below the Moon, the three bright 'stars' are actually planets, more specifically Jupiter, Mars, and Venus in that descending order.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 4: Venera 14 Launched (1981)

It was on this date in 1981 that the Soviet Union launched its Venera 14 spacecraft. Like its twin, Venera 13, Venera 14 was equipped with color cameras and a spring-loaded arm to measure how compressible the ground was. However, the arm experiment failed thanks to the fact that the arm landed right on a lens cap that popped off (by design) from one of the cameras, meaning that the arm measured the compressibility of the lens cap rather than the soil.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 3: Venus and Mars Within Half a Degree, Third Quarter Moon

They've been converging for the past week or so and, tonight, Venus, second planet from the Sun and second brightest object in the night sky, will be within half an angular degree of Mars, fourth planet from the Sun. To see the pair, simply go out in the predawn hours and look East. Venus? It's the brightest thing in the sky. Venus found, that dim, reddish 'star' right next to it is, in fact, Mars. 

If that weren't enough, the Moon is also at Third Quarter phase today, too.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Tonight's Sky for November 2: Summer in November

The calendar may say November (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 thanks t o falling back an hour. Needless to say, it won't be hanging around for much longer, so make it a point to get out and look up soon!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The November Sky

With new month of November upon us, the nights are coming increasingly early on account of both the Sun's motion and the big event of the month: the return to Standard Time, which occurs on the morning of the 1st. Also by November, the fall sky has firmly taken its place high overhead by nightfall (not to be confused with sunset), which will be happening at its earliest time of the year late this month thanks to some odd celestial.

Cool Constellations
By nightfall in November the fall constellations are all very well-placed for early (emphasis, early!) evening viewing. First up, with the return to Standard Time, we will have one last chance to see the summer constellations, provided you have a good South and West horizon. Hurry, though, they'll quickly disappear for good for the year, though. Moving onto more mainstream for the time of year sights, the Great Square of Pegasus is high overhead, the Big Dipper is scraping the Northern horizon, and the Summer Triangle is starting to dive in the West. Starting at the Great Square, look at the double string of stars coming of third base as they constitute Andromeda. High in the Northeast 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 South, save bright Fomalhaut, all the constellations, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, and Cetus, are very dim. If you stay up later into the middle of the night, you'll see bright Orion, Gemini, and Canis Major. Early birds? Leo and Virgo will be headlining the spring (it's only 4 ½ months away!) constellations.

Planetary Perceptions
On the planet front, if you want to see any of our solar system neighbors, you had better be an early bird because 4 of the 5 naked eye planets make their appearances in the predawn morning sky. For starters, Jupiter and Mars both continue their climbs in the predawn Eastern sky while Venus continues dropping, which is what it began to do in October. At the start of the month, Mercury will still be hanging around low in the Eastern predawn sky but not for long as it will quickly drop into into the Sun's glare and out of sight for the remainder of November. Lastly, there's Saturn, the sole evening planet, which presents a last chance to view it as it will disappear into the Sun's glare by mid month.


Last but not least, mark your calendars for the morning of the 26th, which is the day the Moon will occult (eclipse) Aldebaran around 5:30am EST. While lunar occultations of stars are not overly rare, an occultation of such a bright star is a bit of a rarity. To see the show, go out about 5am and train your telescope on the Moon. To get exact time Aldebaran will suddenly blink off (there being no atmosphere on the moon, there will be no dimming, only an abrupt disappearance) go to this website and plug in your latitude and longitude. As the time approaches, tare into the eyepiece and wait for the eye of Taurus to abruptly vanish. Another idea: hook up a video recording device to the telescope and record the event as it happens! Yes, it comes at anything but a convenient hour for most people but this is an event worth getting up early for! 



Tonight's Sky for November 1: Cross-Quarter Day, “Standard” Time Returns
Today marks 2 interesting dates for astronomers in that November 1 is a cross-quarter day, which is a fancy way of saying that it represents the mid-point of a season. For the ancient farmers, timekeeping was a matter of life and death and cross-quarter days provided a more precise way of dividing the year into parts (8) than seasons (4). For that reason, a cross-quarter day marking the mid point of a season was very important to our distant ancestors.


Additionally, “Standard” (it only lasts 4 months and is hardly “standard” if you ask me) Time returned at 2am this morning. Hopefully you set back your clocks before bed last night!