27 January 2011

Celestial Companions in the Cold Dark Morning

January mornings are dark times, and when the sky is clear it is certain to be chilly outside. So I find the sight of the old Moon reassuring, a warm light that fades a bit each successive morning and guides the way through bright stars and planets along the ecliptic to the soon-to-be-rising-Sun. You can see this spectacle at its finest the next few mornings as the Moon moves a bit further eastward each day and passes near to some distinct celestial companions.

The Moon is passing now through Scorpius and the grey-white of the Moon stands in stark contrast to the red-orange of the star at the heart of the Scorpion, Antares. Moving close to Antares on Friday morning, the Moon continues toward the brilliant planet Venus on Saturday morning, and then slowly fades into the glare of sunrise on Sunday morning. My kitchen window faces south-east so I see this changing landscape each morning and I look forward to the coming days with clear skies in the forecast. If you rise before sunrise, take a moment to look out toward the south-east and enjoy the calm of this morning celestial grouping of close companions in the heavens.

20 January 2011

KFOG Podcast - January 20, 2011

My monthly conversation with KFOG Morning Show's Irish Greg moved from the new Zodiac signs (such as Ophiuchus) to the Aurora Borealis to the big bold winter constellations such as Orion and bright stars such as Sirius. Click here to listen and get inspired to look up at the sky tonight!

09 January 2011

Northern Lights from 35,000 Feet – The Aurora Borealis

I had the privilege of seeing the Aurora Borealis today while on a flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt, Germany. The Aurora, or Northern Lights, is a beautiful, eerie glow in the sky caused by the light pressure (Solar Wind) from the Sun hitting Earth’s upper atmosphere and causing molecules to glow where the Earth’s magnetic field is concentrated in a circle around the North Magentic Pole.

A bit of science: "Auroral Ovals" are regions on the Earth around the magnetic poles where Aurorae are most likely to occur, and because the Magnetic North Pole is in Northeastern Canada, the auroral oval extends to other reaches of Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia and the Arctic region. The website Spaceweather.com has a daily update on the size and location of the auroral ovals (scroll down and look on the left hand side of the homepage). Since I knew I was going to be on a flight to Europe that would take me far north and near to this region of the Earth, I made sure I had a seat on the left hand side of the plane and once on board, watched the flight map to follow our progress. Like most international flights that travel east, the flight moved quickly into darkness and at about the halfway point at which we were at the Arctic Circle, I started looking out my window. Not surprising at all, I began to see a faint glow on the distant northern horizon. Over the next 30 minutes, the glow became bigger and before long the plane was in the midst of what appeared to be clouds of light, glowing a faint green among the backdrop of circumpolar stars. Luckily there was no moonlight to distract from the view this night.

There is no way to easily describe the Northern Lights except as beautiful curtain-like clouds that glow of their own light, rather than being illuminated by sunlight. The shapes change continuously, and in the more dense regions the wing of the plane outside my window actually was illuminated by the glow. Moving along at high speed the view was always unfolding, always bringing new shapes into view. I watched for about two hours until the intensity began to wane.

If you are traveling a route that takes you far north (any West Coast to Europe flight will do) and it is in the late Fall and early Winter months, you should acquaint yourself with the auroral oval on Spaceweather.com and get a window that faces north (left hand side) when flying east. Be patient, darken your seating area, and look carefully, as you would for any item of astronomical interest. You’ll be rewarded with an unforgettable, magical show.