26 November 2014

Lunar Month Begins

Lunar Month Begins
Thanksgiving in the USA is accompanied by a young Moon,  a few days into the lunar cycle and the new lunar month. I enjoy the changing face of our nearest neighbor in the Solar System, a lovely sight early in its cycle. This week we'll see the Moon pass near Mars and then wander through the faint constellation Capricorn, en route to encounters with Neptune and Uranus. The San Francisco Bay Area is being graced with clear, crisp November nights so when the Sun sets after your Thanksgiving dinner, step outside and enjoy the view to the west, and a few hours later you'll also see the spectacular bright stars and constellations of winter rising in the east.

Image courtesy Sky & Telescope.

15 November 2014

Leonid Meteor Shower 2014

I enjoy the annual Leonids meteor shower for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is my birthday meteor shower, peaking on my birthday each year. The peak of the Leonids comes on the evening of November 17 into the early morning hours of November 18, and this year the Moon is a thin waning crescent in the early morning and won't disrupt the viewing of meteors. So, get a warm blanket and a clear view of the sky and enjoy this annual shower that promises

Leonid 'Radiant'
Like all meteor showers, they are caused by a remnant of a celestial object, most often a comet or asteroid that leaves a wake of particles that intercept the Earth's atmosphere on a predictable annual basis. The Leonids are caused by Comet Temple-Tuttle that orbits the Sun every 33 years. The debris stream from Temple-Tuttle is littered with sand-like particles that glow and shine in the upper atmosphere when they strike it at thousands of miles per hour, creating the beautiful 'shower' of light. Under dark skies you can see 10-20 Leonids per hour, so set your expectations appropriately and be patient. You can't hurry a meteor shower - let it come to you and present itself in all its splendor. This year Jupiter adds to the mix, now in a location near the center of Leo and therefore near the 'radiant' of the shower. Here's to clear skies and good viewing.

Here are more detailed write-ups. I found the Sky & Telescope article to be quite informative.



Image courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

08 November 2014

Shiny Pre-Dawn Sky

The Moon and Jupiter
Mornings are splendid this time of year, with plenty of darkness to make it easy to see the sky when you first get up, and so much to look at right now. Jupiter shines brightly high in the eastern and southern sky before sunrise, and all of the magnificent winter constellations dominate the sky to the south and above, glimmering in the quiet of the early morning. I savor the moments when I am up early and have a few minutes to take in the spectacle, starting my day on a good note.

Over the coming week, the waning Moon graces the southern and eastern skies and passes near Jupiter on the 14th.

Image courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

31 October 2014

Amazing Sunset and Sunrise Colors

Every sunrise and sunset provides a wide range of visual effects, ranging from the elongation of the disk of the Sun as it hugs the horizon, to the amazing range of colors you see in the minutes before and after the Sun’s passage through the horizon. One of my favorite effects is the curious coloration of the opposite horizon from the sunrise or sunset where one sees a colorful and rapidly changing band of sky called the Belt of Venus.

Belt of Venus at 35,000 Feet
Despite the name, the effect does not have anything to do with Venus the planet. Rather, the effect is due entirely to the shadow cast by the Earth into space, and our perception of that shadow as we observe the horizon from our vantage point along the Earth’s terminator. As we gradually rotate out of the darkness of night (at sunrise) or into the darkness (at sunset), we have a short-term view into the shadow of Earth which occupies the opposite horizon from the Sun. The colors are quite vivid with dark blue low along the horizon, and the refracted colors of the sunrise or sunset above that, creating a layered effect of blue and pink.

Belt of Venus on SF Bay
The images to the left and right show two interesting views I had of the Belt of Venus over the past many months. The first one was taken from 35,000 feet above the United States where I had the very unique vantage point of looking sideways into the sunset belt from high altitude rather than seeing it from sea level. I still cannot figure out why there is a white glow below the belt itself. The second image was taken from the Exploratorium in San Francisco, looking east after sunset toward Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge. The colors and pattern on the horizon were to be expected, but the rays of dark and light blue extending up into the sky were not. Here in this situation, I still cannot figure out the atmospheric phenomenon that would cause such an unusual ray of dark blue to extend upward into the sky. But in both cases the interplay of color and light was indeed remarkable and although pictures from an iPhone camera cannot do justice to the magnificence of the real thing, it’s something I felt compelled to document and write about.

So next time you are watching an amazing sunrise or sunset, be sure to turn around and take in the drama on the other horizon, or you will have missed out on some of the most beautiful parts of the sky.

04 October 2014

The Next Blood Moon: October 8, 2014

Total Lunar Eclipse of October 8th
We're in for the second of four total lunar eclipses in 2014-2015. Next week the Full Moon slips into the shadow of the Earth and reveals itself as a 'blood moon' in the early morning sky of Wednesday October 8th. You'll need to be up in the wee hours of the night, as the eclipse reaches total phase at 3:25 am pacific time, where it will remain in total eclipse for an hour. Given our good weather in San Francisco, this should be nicely on display and the view from the west coast should be nice, if you can get out to the beach. The Moon itself will not be a 'super moon' but will be larger than most Full Moons, so it should be an awesome sight.

You can find more details on the Sky & Telescope website. You'll need clear skies and a good view of the sky to the southwest. It should be a dramatic blood-red color, as the Moon will move deep into the umbral shadow of the Earth.

This infographic from Guy-AndrĂ© Pierre-Nicolas of astroshop.eu is an excellent resource that illustrates beautifully many facets of a lunar eclipse.

Image courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

24 September 2014

Red 'Stars' and White Moon

Slender Moon, Mars and more
For the next week, the twilight sky will feature a close alignment of two bright shiny red objects, Mars and Antares, and the slender Moon wending its way through the southwestern sky. The Moon encounters the ringed planet Saturn on Saturday 27th and then brackets the close pairing of orange-red Mars and the red supergiant star Antares in the constellation Scorpius. This first lunar cycle of autumn should start out beautifully with the waxing Moon and some lovely alignments. Look south and west shortly after sunset each evening for the best viewing.

Image courtesy Sky & Telescope.

10 September 2014

Luxury Star Gazing

Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay
Fall in the San Francisco Bay Area means clear skies and mild temperatures, and clear skies along the coast - a welcome change after the fog of summer. If you are in the Bay Area in the coming months, stop by the Ritz Carlton Hotel and Resort in Half Moon Bay for a Friday night star party. I am running star parties there a couple Fridays per month and love the setting, the reasonably dark skies, and the fun interaction with guests from all around the world. The patio is located on a stunningly beautiful stretch of California coast next to the 18th green of the Ocean Course. Hope you can make it. Click here for the schedule and more information.