22 November 2009

Jupiter and the Moon sparkle in the south

The next few days offer a chance to enjoy Jupiter and a waxing Moon together in the southern sky. I just showed this last night to a star party group and the view was exciting. The two objects sparkle in evening sky and provide a nice accent to an otherwise quiet part of the sky -- an area that is devoid of bright stars. So get out your telescope, enjoy a view of the craters of the Moon, and get a close-up of Jupiter and its moons while Jupiter is still bright and high in the sky after sunset.

16 November 2009

Leonid Meteor Shower 2009

The Leonids are reaching their peak tonight. This annual meteor shower peaks every time the Earth moves through the remnants of the comet Tempel-Tuttle. The meteor shower peaks when the Earth is directly intersecting the remnant streams ("filaments") from previous passes of the comet, and the peak for this year will be during the day of November 17th - unfortunate for those of us in the Western Hemisphere, but good for the night side of Earth at that time (primarily Asia).

Don't despair, however, as both the nights of Nov 16-17 and Nov 17-18 should provide some good meteor viewing even here in San Francisco. The Leonids appear to originate from the constellation Leo which rises in the east after midnight. As with all meteor showers, viewing gets better late at night into the early morning. Dress warmly and try to see a few. I'll be out early tomorrow to see what I can see.

09 November 2009

Moon, Saturn, Corvus, Virgo and Venus

Now that the sky is remaining dark later and later each day, I am enjoying the early morning interplay of Solar System and stellar objects. This week provides a series of lunar alignments with Saturn, the constellation Corvus, the bright star Spica in Virgo, and finally Venus -- if you have an exceptionally clear, low eastern horizon. Sunrise in San Francisco is from 6:45 to 6:50 am this week.

07 November 2009

Astronomical Pseudoscience and the 2012 Hoax

With the imminent release of the movie "2012" there is a blitz of pseudoscience on the internet that is helping to market the movie but is also unnecessarily fueling fears of "Doomsday." My view is that good science fiction is fun and entertaining, but the movie 2012 has opened a new chapter in viral marketing and the use of social media to misinform in the name of entertainment. The movie makes numerous (but inaccurate) claims of disaster based on changes to the Earth's magnetic poles, collision with planet Niburu, alignment of the Sun with the Galactic Center, and of course the prediction of this by the Mayan Calendar. Good science fiction is engaging and this movie could have been just that, but it is trying to do much more.

I've found a number of informative and helpful websites to counter the fears being propagated. NASA's astrobiologist David Morrison has been the primary spokesperson fielding questions for NASA from concerned citizens and has an excellent site. Andrew Fraknoi of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific rebukes a broad range of pseudoscience on the ASP website. The Universe Today has gathered a number of articles by Dr. Ian O'Neil that clarify the misconceptions associated with 2012. My favorite collection of information and debunking is on the 2012hoax website, which is a direct assault on the movie and the misconceptions.

I was particularly moved by the comments I heard by David Morrison on the SETI Institute podcast "Are We Alone" and by the 2012hoax website, both of which point out that vulnerable people will look at the 2012 marketing websites such as "The Institute for Human Continuity", the blog "After the IHC" and the blog "This is the End" as legitimate sources of information about doomsday, as a reason to give up, to commit suicide or worse. Anyone with a willingness to learn and understand real science won't be fooled by the blitz of pseudoscience. If you choose to see the movie, I am sure it will be engrossing. But don't think for a minute that it is based on real science. It's not even close.

There are genuine scientific projects underway that are on the lookout for real threats. Here is the NASA Near Earth Object program, cataloging and tracking potentially hazardous objects. Thank goodness for science!

04 November 2009

Dominating the Autumn Sky: Pegasus

In November, the nights grow longer and the sky changes rapidly. The Summer Triangle gradually fades into the west, and Orion and the winter constellations have not risen in the east to dominate the night sky. Instead, we see the less prominent (but no less beautiful) zodiac constellations of Capricornus, Aquarius and Pisces in the south, and directly overhead the large constellation Pegasus with the very distinctive asterism "The Great Square" in clear view. The sketch of the constellation Pegasus shown here is courtesy of the Battle Point Astronomical Association.

Pegasus is named after the Greek mythological character of the winged horse. Some constellations look a lot like their mythological namesake, but in this case I am always challenged to see the winged horse in the sky. But no matter, the shape of Pegasus is distinctive, and the Great Square makes it easy to find. This time of year Pegasus is high in the eastern sky after sunset and it moves almost directly overhead by 10 pm. I was out in my backyard a few minutes ago looking at it and to best see it I had to sit back on a chair. The Great Square is so striking because, yes, it is indeed nearly a perfect square, but more interesting is that there are virtually no other bright stars inside the square to disturb the shape. All around Pegasus, however, are a good number of bright stars, some of which form the head and feet of the winged horse, while the stars on the north side of the Great Square are actually part of Andromeda. In fact, I use Pegasus to help me find the constellation Andromeda and that points us to the Andromeda Galaxy (but that is a topic for another post).

For an excellent set of illustrations and tour of the Autumn sky, visit this webpage from the Smoky Mountain Astronomical Society.

01 November 2009

Close Encounter of the Pleiades and Moon

The Pleiades is one of the most beautiful star clusters in the sky. In Autumn it rises during the evening and its distinctive glow shines even for urban dwellers. The Pleiades, also known as M45 (from the Messier Catalog), is a collection of relatively young stars (only 100 million years old!) that shine with a blue color due to their hot temperature. The Pleiades are also known as the Seven Sisters and there is plenty of mythology describing each of the seven sisters. Despite the "Seven Sisters" mythology, most people see six stars when they look out at the Pleiades and describe the shape of the asterism as a small Little Dipper. Random fact: the Subaru car company logo is made up of six the stars, Subaru being the Japanese term for Pleiades.

This week on Tuesday evening the full moon passes very close to the Pleiades and in more southerly latitudes it actually occults (blocks out) several of the brightest stars in the cluster. For those of us in San Francisco, the evening of November 3rd should be especially interesting if you view the Moon through binoculars or a telescope. You will be able to notice how fast the Moon moves past the stars of the Pleiades. Although the very bright light of the full Moon will drown out nearly everything around it (including the blue nebulosity of the dust surrounding the Pleiades), all will be clear when you look closely with binoculars or a telescope.