31 March 2011

Get Involved: Globe At Night, Lectures, California Academy of Sciences

There is always something to do if you are interested in getting a bit more involved in astronomy. Right now, you can learn at a lecture, attend a star party, or take part in a global project to record light pollution while learning about new constellations. Read on for details.

Here in San Francisco, the California Academy of Sciences hosts a lecture series on astronomy topics. The Dean Lecture Series features talks on some of the most riveting subjects in astronomy, and Monday April 4th is the next talk, presented by Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams, focuses on the most modern research in cosmology, that of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

The California Academy of Sciences also has a fun event every Thursday night with its "NightLife" series, transforming the museum into a fun party. Each week has a theme, and next Thursday April 7th is Yuri's Night, an annual celebration of the first man in space. If the skies are clear, you can find me on the Living Roof giving star tours alongside the docents of the museum showing off planets, nebulae and the Moon through telescopes.

If you don't live in San Francisco, visit the Night Sky Network website to find lectures and astronomy clubs in your area.

The Globe At Night project is now in the second phase, inviting Citizen Scientists around the world to support the effort to raise awareness of light pollution, learn about the night sky in your neighborhood, and pay attention to details of the constellation Leo the Lion. Take part - it only requires a few minutes and is an eye-opening experience.

19 March 2011

Vernal Equinox, Super Full Moon, and other astronomical musings

I enjoy sharing highlights of the sky with friends and have been blogging for several years now, pointing out events of astronomical interest here as The Urban Astronomer. I was surprised to see the excitement and questions about the Super Full Moon, the coincidence of nature that is leading to a full moon at perigee today. The fact that the general public is being scared into thinking something bad is about to happen is unfortunate, but the fact that people will be out tonight looking at the full moon is the good outcome that I wish for. Of course, there is absolutely nothing to be worried about. Every 29 days the Moon swings a bit closer to the Earth than other times of the month, and that pattern of perigee and apogee, full and new, repeats in a beautiful "super pattern" every 18 years, something now known (but likely not fully understood) by the many who are reading about the Super Full Moon being the biggest one in 18 years.

There are numerous patterns and cycles in the heavens. Tomorrow, March 20th, is the Vernal Equinox, the semi-annual moment when the length of the day is exactly 12 hours everyone on Earth. I like that dynamic, a twice-a-year event in which we are all given equal periods of sun above the horizon and below the horizon, regardless of your latitude, regardless of whether you are in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere. That is a moment of beauty in the grand annual rhythms of our home planet.

The pattern of lunar repetition that lasts for just longer than 18 years is also responsible for the cycle of lunar and solar eclipses that take place around the world. I witnessed a total solar eclipse in Europe in July 1999, and the celestial dynamics of that eclipse will exactly repeat in August 2017 when a wonderful total solar eclipse will sweep across the United States. For me, it will be a rare chance to be standing in the shadow of the Moon on the second passing of this particular alignment of Moon, Earth and Sun, one that will be far more dramatic and meaningful to me than any particular Super Full Moon you might encounter between now and then. But in the end, if you can find some meaning and solace looking up at the Moon tonight, savor the moment and mark your calendar for April 2029 when the conditions will align themselves and present you with a chance to relive this magic moment when you saw a particularly big and impressive full moon. That is something worth pondering, and the rest of the media hype you are hearing right now should be simply ignored.

Image courtesy NASA.

06 March 2011

Jupiter and Mercury: Prograde and Retrograde Motion

Elusive Mercury makes an appearance for the coming weeks in the evening sky, slowly progressing toward Jupiter as the two planets share the same space (from our point of view) just above the setting Sun. Although Jupiter is considerably farther away from Earth as Mercury, Jupiter's massive size more than makes up for that distance and makes it appear to us as a much brighter light on the horizon.

As Mercury rapidly arrives in the evening sky, it changes its location each evening quite a bit, and before long will be aligned with Jupiter, setting around the same time as Jupiter toward the end of March. As it reaches this point, it will then change its daily direction across the evening sky and move rapidly westward toward the Sun, something called "retrograde" motion. For a few weeks, people will say that "Mercury is in Retrograde" which is, from an astronomical point of view, very normal behavior for Mercury every few months. However, for many who follow astrology, this can be a very troubling time. Perhaps seeing Mercury with your own eyes changing location and moving gracefully across the sky, first in prograde motion (the basic motion of planets across the backdrop of stars, eastward), then in retrograde, will make its impact a little more friendly. Try it out for yourself and see.

04 March 2011

KFOG Podcast - March 4, 2011

As always, I had a good time at KFOG today talking with Morning Show co-host Irish Greg who has boundless enthusiasm for just about everything, including talking with me about all-things-astronomical. We even did some indoor stargazing (see photo) in the KFOG broadcast studio :-). Check out our podcast for the latest on what to see in the sky, and where to go to hear some excellent lectures and talks about astronomy.