21 April 2014

The Moon in the Morning Sky

Waning Moon
I enjoy the waning phases of the Moon, seeing it out my kitchen window as the light of dawn fills the eastern horizon and the shiny Moon offers itself in a gradually-decreasing shape each morning. Today at Last Quarter phase, the half-lit Moon was distinctive and dominant from the first light of dawn until the Sun had risen. But each day as the remaining disk of the Moon diminishes and the location moves farther east and nearer to the sunrise, the Moon will become harder to find in the glare of the first light of the day. It's a fitting end of the cycle for this amazing orb that brings such drama and intrigue to the night sky, from the blood moon a week ago to the amazing solar eclipses that arise from time to time.

Look east for the final phases of the waning Moon later this week. It will make a lovely pass by the brilliant planet Venus on the 25th and 26th.

Image courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

08 April 2014

KALW Broadcast - April 8, 2014

I stopped by KALW to talk about some cosmic topics, including the new findings on Inflation, the new Cosmos TV series, and the upcoming Total Lunar Eclipse. It's in the middle of the KALW news show "Crosscurrents" with host Ben Trefny. Click here to listen.

03 April 2014

Get Involved: Star Parties on Mt. Tam and the Ritz Carlton

It's spring and time to get back out and about with public events, known as Star Parties. First, the monthly lecture and star party on Mt. Tam opens for the season this Saturday April 5th. Mt. Tam is a great spot high above the lights of San Francisco where the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers (SFAA) and the Friends of Mt. Tam collaborate with the State Park System to create an unforgettable evening of science combining lectures, star tours and telescope viewing. The events take place approximately every four weeks through October, so dress warmly and come out for a fun evening.

Ritz Carlton deck
Last year I tried out an experiment doing star parties at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay and it went well, so I am back this spring conducting star parties and telescope viewing at this magnificent hotel on the coast. Come out for an elegant evening in the hotel and outstanding views of the night sky on the deck. I'll be there twice in April (4th and 25th), and twice in May (2nd and 16th). Hope to see you there.

27 March 2014

Preview of the Aug 21, 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

August 2017 Eclipse Path
I am a fan of total solar eclipses, and although it is a long time in the future, I want to provide some resources for those who want to learn about an incredible eclipse that will cross the entire North American continent in August of 2017. This summertime spectacle tracks from the Oregon coast to South Carolina and affords good views for up to 2 minutes and 40 seconds of breathtaking totality. The summer climate is mostly reliable along the eclipse track and the interstate freeway system ensures that local climate problems will be manageable should there be inclement weather in spots along the eclipse path. Here are some of the best online resources for planning to see the eclipse that I have found so far:

NASA's Eclipse Resource Center
Eclipse2017.org
Eclipse Chasers

Each of these sites offer tips and suggestions for getting to the right place and being ready for seeing an eclipse. Since weather plays such a critical role in the success or failure of an eclipse expedition, you'll need to carefully study Jay Anderson's excellent analysis. Jay is a legendary eclipse chaser and I was on his mission in 1991. I have come to respect his analysis as the best around.

24 March 2014

An Old Moon encounters Venus

Old Moon and Venus
The Moon travels its 29.5 day path around the Earth each month, presenting us with its changing phases and sweeping around the sky encountering planets and stars as it moves on its steady eastward course. With the onset of daylight savings time, mornings are again dark and I can see much in the morning sky before I get in my car to drive to the office. Today I spied the waning Moon at last quarter phase, and I look forward to the graceful encounter with Venus later this week. The image shows where to find the Moon and Venus, but a chart is hardly necessary this week since the southeastern sky is so overwhelmed by the beaming bright Venus. If your southeastern skies are clear this week, check out the beauty of the old Moon and the brilliant planet in its midst.

16 March 2014

Urban Astronomy video from the Exploratorium

The Exploratorium is one of the finest science museums anywhere, a place I've found exciting and fun to visit for years. They bring science 'hands-on' to the visitor and provide endless learning moments where the visitor can discover something new and unique about science in a fun and engaged way. They have been building a video series for some time now, called "Science In The City" and I was recently invited to be a contributor to their feature on Urban Astronomy.

Producer Jim Granato created a 10-minute piece that brings to life the ways in which one can experience astronomy even in the confines of a big city like San Francisco, a theme near and dear to my heart. I really enjoyed how Jim put together sequences of Adam Esposito of the Exploratorium showing off the night sky right on the waterfront of the City, and how people react when they get a close up look at heavenly bodies. I am a huge fan of John Dobson and what he did to bring low-cost telescopes to the world, and appreciate what the Chabot Space & Science Center bring to the masses with their array of telescopes, star parties and telescope-making workshops. And I enjoyed contributing my own opinions and perspectives on urban astronomy to the video, sharing some thoughts on how to enjoy the night sky right from your own backyard.

Click here to watch the video. It's a refreshing look at the subject.

08 March 2014

Sidewalk Astronomy and John Dobson

Have you ever been stopped by a person on a city street who is standing next to a telescope inviting you to look up at Jupiter or the Moon or Saturn or even sunspots? Sidewalk Astronomers enjoy doing just this, planting themselves at busy intersections or interesting locations with a telescope and a smile and willingness to share the cosmos with anyone who happens across them. There is no special membership needed to be a sidewalk astronomer, just a 'scope and a socially-minded demeanor.

There is a worldwide association of Sidewalk Astronomers
Huge Hand-Made Dobsonians
, a loosely organized bunch of urban guerrillas who enjoy standing on the street corners of the world sharing their love of the heavens. I've done this myself from time to time, although I tend to focus more on public 'star parties' and events such as the Mt. Tam Astronomy Nights or Yosemite National Park where I connect with visitors and share the night sky. But all of the amateur astronomers around the world owe a debt of gratitude to John Dobson, the first sidewalk astronomer. John was passionate about sharing the sky with everyone on the planet, did so with countless hours on the sidewalks of San Francisco and elsewhere, and revolutionized the world of amateur astronomy with the development of a telescope design that now bears his name, a design that is relatively easy to construct from low cost materials and yet provides a spectacular view of the heavens. Dobsonians are now commonplace in the world of amateur astronomy and are even sold commercially. John loved looking up at the sky and being dazzled by what he saw, and the Dobsonian is a living legacy of his passion and commitment to bring that sense of wonder to millions.

John passed away earlier this year at the ripe old age of 98. He's remembered fondly by many, including the San Francisco amateur astronomy community where he was a fixture for many of his years as a sidewalk astronomer. I only met him on two occasions, but as is the case when you brush with greatness, you know that this person is unique and special in a deep way and you come away from that encounter with a feeling that something greater was before you. I stand in awe and respect for John and am glad to be an astronomy evangelist, inspired in part by the pioneering work he did for all people on the planet.

05 March 2014

Moon and Winter Stars and Star Clusters

Moon visits the Winter Circle
The March evening sky features the bold constellations and bright stars of Orion, Gemini, Taurus, Canis Major and Canis Minor. Jupiter is currently occupying a prominent position and this week the Moon passes through this rich part of the sky, enhancing the view with its close encounters with stars and star clusters. On March 7th the Moon will be passing through the Hyades star cluster and two days later through the band of the Milky Way between Orion and Gemini. If the weather permits, take in the view and watch the Moon make its grand procession through the Winter Circle. Binoculars will enhance the view.

Image courtesy of Sky & Telescope.