29 July 2008

Total Solar Eclipse in China

Friday August 1st is the date of the next Total Solar Eclipse. Like lunar eclipses, solar eclipses happen frequently but total solar eclipses are somewhat less common and furthermore, to see a total solar eclipse you generally have to travel to a narrow track (unlike Lunar Eclipses which are visible from just about anywhere on the night side of the earth).

The eclipse this week follows a very narrow track across the arctic regions of the globe and finishes across Siberia and western China. The Exploratorium of San Francisco is sending a crew to report on the eclipse including a live video linkup and webcast from the ground in China. For the hard core eclipse fans who want to feel some of the excitement without leaving the Bay Area, the Exploratorium is having an all night party. The Exploratorium did this for the last total solar eclipse in Turkey (both broadcasting live from Turkey and having a party at the Exploratorium). I had the good fortune to travel to Turkey and witness that solar eclipse from Side on the Mediterranean coast.

Given that the eclipse happens during the afternoon in China, it will be very early Friday morning here in California (4 am). For those who want to watch it live on the internet, you will have to get up early. And for those who are into long-range planning, the next Total Solar Eclipse is in July 2009 in Asia and the Pacific, and in 2017 in the United States.

27 July 2008

Changing Perspectives

I spent last week at the Stanford Sierra Camp at Fallen Leaf Lake near Lake Tahoe. At nearly 6400 feet elevation with dry clear skies, the view of the night sky was excellent. I hosted two stargazing sessions during the week in which fellow campers took in the view of deep space objects such as the Lagoon Nebula, Swan Nebula and Andromeda Galaxy plus some riveting views of Jupiter's most prominent cloud belts and the four Galilean Moons. All of this was possible using a 5 inch telescope under the right conditions. The view from the boat dock at Sierra Camp faces east, motivating me to get better acquainted with a few constellations I had never fully appreciated such as Andromeda, Pegasus, Delphinus, Aquarius and even Aquila, because many of the stars in these constellations are not visible in the city. The dark skies gave me a chance to see them in their entirety. It's never too late to see something new so if you get out in the dark this summer, take a star chart and make a few discoveries.

Growing up in Los Angeles I saw summer concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and noticed that even in the bright lights of LA, you can see the Summer Triangle shining above the stage at the Hollywood Bowl. That perspective never has escaped me and whenever I see the Summer Triangle during July or August in the early evening, I can visualize myself looking at the stage at a Hollywood Bowl concert. Last night I was watching Steely Dan at the Berkeley Greek Theater and learned a new view, that of the stars over the Berkeley Greek at night. Above the stage to the left was Scorpio, rising higher as the concert went on. To the right were the stars of Leo (with Mars and Saturn still nearby in the glowing sky after sunset). Just above the stage is Spica (the brightest star in Virgo) and Arcturus (the brightest star in Bootes). Most of the other stars in Virgo and in nearby Libra are too washed out by city light and moisture in the air to be seen above the Greek theater stage, but there were still plenty of bright stars and planets to enjoy. Later in the evening Jupiter, now visible in Sagittarius, rose in the east (above the stage to the left) and dominated the sky. I enjoyed getting to know a new night sky above a popular venue and look forward to the memories of that concert every time I see this particular lineup of stars.

05 July 2008

Planets fading into the sunset

The evening sky has been graced by the sight of Saturn and Mars over the previous months and as the two slowly fade into the glare of sunset they are making one last beautiful show with the Moon and with each other. On July 5th and 6th Mars and Saturn create a beautiful group next to the crescent Moon and they slowly move closer to each other until Thursday July 10th when they are separated by a mere 0.7 degrees, slightly more than width of a full Moon. Mars, being much closer to Earth than Saturn, appears to move a small amount to the east each evening and has been gradually drawing closer to Saturn. It's quite a finale to see these two worlds so close to each other from our point of view. By month's end they will be nearly out of sight.