12 December 2015

Geminid Meteor Shower 2015

The Geminid Meteor Shower is one of the year's finest displays of meteors but you have to brave the cold to see it. The peak is Sunday December 13th and Monday December 14th, and with very little moonlight to distract, the viewing should be quite good. The constellation Gemini rises at 7:00 pm so the radiant of this shower should be high in the sky by late evening and the meteors visible in every direction.

The best way to enjoy a meteor shower is to find a dark open space, bring lots of blankets and warm clothes, and to be patient and enjoy the view directly overhead into the heavens. Although the meteors will appear to originate from the constellation Gemini, they scatter in all directions across the sky so your best view is looking upwards. Bring friends and enjoy the moment together.

Happy Viewing!

26 November 2015

Full Moon Setting and Other Morning Sky Wonders

Planetary Lineup
The Full Moon is a delight to see rising in the evening, but as we have long nights in November and December, I find the moonset to be equally engaging. This morning the Moon was blazing in the west an hour before sunrise (around 6:00 here in the San Francisco Bay Area) and the 'belt of Venus' shrouded the horizon just below the Moon. And facing east, the recent planetary conjunction has stretched into a planetary lineup across the sky.

If you are up early and the sky is clear, take in the sights facing east and west. You won't be disappointed.

Image courtesy Sky & Telescope.

28 October 2015

KFOG Broadcast - October 28, 2015

Today's conversation started out 'auf Deutsch' as Renee and I chatted a bit together in German language. But then we turned our attention to the magnificent morning sky and the conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Click here to listen.

22 October 2015

Planetary Conjunction Shines in the Morning Sky

Planetary Conjunction
With the late onset of sunrise, many people that don't normally see the heavens in the morning are getting a glimpse of a striking alignment of planets that shine high in the eastern sky, rising well ahead of the morning sun. The three planets are Mars, Jupiter and Venus, in order from bottom to top. The top planet, Venus, is by far the most brilliant, a piercing white light that outshines every other object in the entire night sky, with yellow-white Jupiter paler by comparison but nonetheless quite bright itself. Below the two is faint Mars, harder to detect but a beautiful red-orange that completes the trio.

Over the next few days, the trio changes position rapidly, with an extremely close encounter between Jupiter and Venus on Sunday morning October 25th. Check out the changes daily and enjoy this spectacular alignment.

Sky & Telescope has an excellent write-up and diagrams. One of the images is reproduced here.

14 October 2015

Saturn Fades in the West

Crescent Moon graces Saturn
After a long and glorious run in the night sky, Saturn is gradually fading into the west and will fade out of view in the coming weeks. Just before it is gone, the waxing crescent Moon will pass near it this week. For me, the evening sky with a young crescent Moon is always quite beautiful, a gentle curved glow that sometimes includes 'Earthshine' on the unlit part of the Moon visible to Earth.

Find a good southwestern horizon this week and enjoy the Moon as it graces the planet Saturn. Get out your binoculars or telescope for maximum effect!

Image courtesy Sky & Telescope.

24 September 2015

KFOG Broadcast - September 24, 2015

Stopped in at the KFOG studios to talk with Mike, Greg and Renee about the upcoming eclipse and the supermoon. Click here to listen.

22 September 2015

Total Lunar Eclipse of September 27, 2015 - in San Francisco!

Sunday September 27 we experience a total lunar eclipse visible from North America and of course here in San Francisco. This eclipse features the Moon passing nearly through the center of Earth's shadow, meaning that the Moon will remain in eclipse for over an hour and should be fairly dark, at least on one side. And from San Francisco we will see the unique situation of a Moonrise that is of a nearly fully eclipsed Moon, an unusual sight.

Total Lunar Eclipse - geometry
The eclipse takes several hours to occur, from first touch of the Earth's penumbral shadow to last contact, but the main part of the eclipse is the most exciting part, that of 'Totality' when the Moon's surface is fully darkened by the shadow of the Earth. From the west coast, totality starts at 7:13 pm and ends at 8:22 pm. Given that the Sun sets at 7:01 pm, the local conditions should lead to a very interesting Moonrise (just moments after the sunset) with nearly all of the Moon eclipsed.

The San Francisco Amateur Astronomers (SFAA) will be set up at Pier 15 along San Francisco's Embarcadero (just next to the Exploratorium) for public viewing, as the rising Moon should make a lovely picture just above Treasure Island and the San Francisco Bay. We will be there from 6:30 until 8:30 pm.

Here are several excellent resources on the eclipse:

EarthSky: http://earthsky.org/?p=51212

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_2015_lunar_eclipse

NASA: http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/lunar.html 

09 September 2015

This Week Facing East

This Week Facing East
The dawn sky is punctuated this week with a spectacular lineup of some of the brightest celestial objects in the heavens. The waning crescent Moon is the centerpiece of the eastern horizon in the hour before sunrise, shimmering next to Venus, currently a blazing gem of a ‘morning star’ due east, piercing the darkness of the horizon well before the first light of day, and remaining brilliant until the glow of sunrise washes out the planet.

Fall is a great time for seeing the morning sky since the days are getting shorter and the darkness lingers longer each morning, giving early risers like me a chance to get in some astronomy before starting my day in earnest. Each morning this week as I step out of my front door facing east, I await the spectacle of some of the brightest stars in the entire night sky and the wandering visitor Moon this week, taking the stage with Venus to amaze me and all who take a moment to savor this sight.

Image courtesy Sky & Telescope. 

04 September 2015

Change of the Season

Late Summer is a time when the heat waves set in, giving everyone a last taste of the warmth that longer days and warming landscapes bring. However, as Earth approaches the Autumnal Equinox, the days are becoming noticeably shorter as sunrises arrive later in the morning while sunsets arrive earlier in the evening. The dual effect is most pronounced around the time of the Equinox, as the amount of time the Sun spends above the horizon shrinks most rapidly in this period.

Change of the Season
Every day throughout the year, the time of sunrise or sunset changes slightly, extending the number of hours of sunlight from December until June, and reversing course from July until December again. However, the mid-points of this gradual change are the Equinoxes, the point at which the change is at its greatest (tip for the mathematically inclined: it is the maximum point of the first derivative of the duration of the day, a sine wave that is passing through an intercept J).

What does this feel like? Take note of this for the coming weeks as you experience your daily routine, and notice the time when brightness arrives in you morning and when darkness sets in each evening. The change is quite pronounced, with the amount of daylight diminishing by up to 30 minutes in a single week in mid-September, at mid-northern latitudes as we have in San Francisco. If you are located further north in latitude (Canada, Northern Europe) the effect is even more pronounced, with up to an hour in a single week! I find this fascinating and marvel every year at the dramatic changes that we all take for granted in our environment. Fall is indeed a season of great change. Savor the moments.

19 August 2015

Get Involved: Star Parties in the Bay Area

Get out and see the night sky in the company of other interested people and with amateur astronomers. That is my advice for those who say "I'd love to get out from time to time and look through a telescope at the heavens."

There are plenty of opportunities, starting here in San Francisco with the SFAA (San Francisco Amateur Astronomers). We have two upcoming events, Saturday August 22nd on Mt. Tamalpais and Tuesday August 25th in the Presidio. More information on the SFAA Website.

There are weekly star gazing opportunities every clear Friday and Saturday evening at Chabot Observatory in Oakland.
Chabot's "Nellie" Telescope

The San Mateo County Astronomical Society hosts events in San Carlos twice a month at Crestview Park. Check the site for details.

Outside of the Bay Area you can find local and regional events with the NASA Night Sky Network locator for astronomical events across the USA.

08 August 2015

Perseid Meteor Shower 2015 - August 11-12-13

August means warm nights and the return of one of the year's best meteor showers, the Perseids. This shower peaks on the night of August 12-13 but takes place over a number of days before and after, so start looking up each night and you'll begin to spot more and more. The best nights are August 11, 12 and 13, even more favorable in 2015 due to the lack of moonlight this year.

A Perseid Meteor
To see a meteor shower you don't need to look in any particular direction but up. Meteors enter the Earth's atmosphere and heat up and become visible to us in every direction of the sky, so your chances of seeing more meteors are enhanced by having a big clear horizon and by lying on your back and letting your eyes rest. Some will streak right into your field of view and be brilliant, but many will be off to one side or another, a shimmer in your peripheral vision. You can't rush the process of viewing a meteor shower, so the more time and patience you invest, the more you will see. My experience is that more heads are better than one, so viewing with a friend or two means you will collectively see a lot more and hey, who doesn't like some company on a dark summer's night?

The other factors that are central to an enhanced experience are to get to a dark-sky location if possible, and regardless of whether you find the perfect dark sky location or simply settling into your backyard or rooftop for a view, you want to minimize the lights in your immediate surroundings. So turn off house lights that illuminate your viewing space, and get into the 'shadow of streetlights' if you are in a city, so your eyes have the best chance of adapting to the dark. If you want to see faint objects whizzing across the sky, you should let your eyes have the 10-15 minutes they need to really adjust themselves to your ambient conditions.

Here are two excellent articles about the 2015 Perseid Meteor Shower.

My favorite: Sky & Telescope. And the always-good resource EarthSky.

Image courtesy of EarthSky.

21 July 2015

Southern Summer Skies

Facing South in the Summer
Facing south in the summer reveals a rich region of the night sky featuring the heart of the Milky Way and several excellent zodiac constellations. If you have a clear horizon to the south, the constellation Scorpius dominates the space with a long curving shape that winds around the horizon back to the tip of the tail of the scorpion, a feature called the Cat's Eyes, Shaula and Lesath.

For the next few months, Saturn is lurking next to the head of the scorpion, adding a bright highlight to the pattern. Scorpius and neighboring Sagittarius (to the east) are found directly in the center of the galaxy so there are numerous deep space objects to be found in the vicinity, making it one of the best places to enjoy with binoculars. You can move from spot to spot and never run out of interesting objects to see. This week the gibbous Moon drifts through that region of the sky so the darkness will be somewhat spoiled, but I find it good to get to know constellations when there is moonlight as well as when you have complete darkness. With moonlight you can learn the basic outline of the constellation, and without moonlight the deeper objects will emerge and reveal themselves to the careful viewer.

Image courtesy Sky & Telescope. 

13 July 2015

Pluto and New Horizons

As an amateur astronomer, Pluto is a tantalizing target to find, but one that is quite out of reach for all except the most committed amateur astronomers with the best possible equipment. And even if you locate it in a telescope it will be an extremely faint pinprick of light. So it has never entered my interest until this week. Instead of viewing it from a distance, humanity has finally launched a probe to fly by the planet (ok, dwarf planet) and offer up a close-up during its close passage.

Almost 10 years after launching, New Horizons arrives at Pluto this week. The initial pictures are promising, and I am confident we will be overwhelmed with new data and new discoveries in the days ahead, and in the weeks and months that follow as the vast collection of sensor data is gradually transmitted back to Earth. I loved every major interplanetary mission growing up, watching Pioneer and Voyager vastly expand our knowledge of the Solar System. New Horizons will provide the icing on the interplanetary cake; with our first ever close up of a dwarf planet and a peek into the Kuiper Belt.

Stay tuned to NASA for a busy week of discovery: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html 

29 June 2015

The Great Conjunction

The Great Conjunction
When the two brightest celestial objects in the night sky (excepting the Moon) pass next to each other, this is a grand event on an astronomical scale. Jupiter and Venus are doing just that, passing less than a Moon's diameter from each other in a great conjunction, peaking on Tuesday June 30th. A casual spectator should have no trouble seeing the pair, particularly after the glare of sunset subsides (around 9:00 pm or later on the west coast of the USA).

Enjoy this rare and beautiful pairing, made more special by the fact that it's the Queen of Love and the King of the Solar System in close proximity. Who knows what might come of that!

Image courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

27 June 2015

Three Summer Stars in the Milky Way

The arrival of the warm and long days of summer also marks the return of the Summer Triangle and three of the brightest stars in the night sky, Deneb, Altair and Vega. I wax poetically about these sparkling gems when I give a star talk during warm summer nights, with each of the three stars bringing us a unique perspective. All three are in or near the band of the Milky Way, so a close up look at these through binoculars reveals the depths of our home galaxy. This week the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) featured detailed descriptions of these stars and an excellent photograph shown here. Their article says it best.

Three Stars of the Summer Triangle
From APOD: "Rising at the start of a northern summer's night, these three bright stars form the familiar asterism known as the Summer Triangle. Altair, Deneb, and Vega are the alpha stars of their respective constellations, Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra, nestled near the Milky Way. Close in apparent brightness the three do look similar in these telescopic portraits, but all have their own stellar stories. Their similar appearance hides the fact that the Summer Triangle stars actually span a large range in intrinsic luminosity and distance. A main sequence dwarf star, Altair is some 10 times brighter than the Sun and 17 light-years away, while Vega, also a hydrogen-fusing dwarf, is around 30 times brighter than the Sun and lies 25 light-years away. Supergiant Deneb, at about 54,000 times the solar luminosity, lies some 1,400 light-years distant. Of course, with a whitish blue hue, the stars of the Summer Triangle are all hotter than the Sun."

It's easy to spot the majestic asterism of the Summer Triangle rising out of the east after the late sunsets of June. Take a few minutes to appreciate the three stars that make up this distinctive pattern in the night sky.

Image and text courtesy of NASA and Rogelio Bernal Andreo.

18 June 2015

Approaching a Conjunction

Evening Trio
Each day the planets Venus and Jupiter are drawing closer together in the evening sky, as Jupiter gradually sinks into the western twilight and Venus holds course. The two will have a close encounter (conjunction) on June 30th, but already the two are a striking pair in the evening sky, made more interesting by the waxing crescent Moon this weekend. Look for the trio just after sunset (around 8:45 pm in San Francisco) and watch them become more and more brilliant as the sunset sky turns to dusk and eventually to darkness.

Image courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

31 May 2015

Jupiter and Venus Closing In

Jupiter and Venus
The two brightest objects in the night sky (after the Moon) are closing in for a very close encounter in June. Each evening you can watch the gradual change as Jupiter descends in the west toward Venus. As both planets are on the same line of travel across the sky (the Ecliptic), they pass near each other typically once per year. This is going to happen in 2015 in late June. For now, check out the daily movement in the west after sunset. I'll write more about the close encounter in the month of June.

Image courtesy Sky & Telescope.

18 May 2015

Get Involved: Star Parties and Astronomy Lectures

Each month, the public is welcome to join regional events affiliated with the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers (SFAA). The club supports local 'star parties' and hosts lectures of deep scientific interest. These events are free and open to the public.

SFAA Lectures: Each month, the SFAA club meeting includes a lecture by a prominent astronomer or astrophysicist on a topic of general interest. Topics have included exo-planet research, dark matter, space telescopes, stellar research, and more. Check the SFAA website and join the club on the third Tuesday of each month at the Presidio of San Francisco.

Lectures and Star Parties on Mt. Tam: Each month (May-Oct) the SFAA joins with the Friends of Mt. Tam and the California State Park System for an evening of astronomy talks and star gazing on the west peak of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County. The evenings are a wonderful, family-friendly experience that feature star gazing with extraordinary telescopes brought up to the mountain by members of the SFAA for public viewing. The conditions on Mt. Tam are quite dark and feature great views of deep space objects, planets, and other objects in the night sky.

City Star Parties: Each month the SFAA hosts star parties in San Francisco at one of three locations; Lands End, the Exploratorium, and the Presidio. These star parties are focused on astronomy learning and viewing of brighter objects such as the Moon and planets. The schedule is on the SFAA website.

Hope to see you at an upcoming event.

29 April 2015

The Springtime Constellation Bootes and M3

Bootes, Arcturus and M3
Spring marks the arrival of the constellation Bootes and the brilliant orange giant star Arcturus. Looking east shortly after sunset, Arcturus is immediately visible as the brightest celestial object in that part of the sky, and Bootes is easy to spot alongside the star and bordering the Big Dipper.

Bootes is an ancient constellation named for a herdsman, and it's his twin brother that drives the plough in the Big Dipper (as the constellation is referred to as a plough in some cultures). Bootes himself is marked by the familiar pattern to the right, sometimes called an ice-cream-cone-shape or a kite with Arcturus at the tip of the tail of the kite.

One of the features of Bootes is that it is a quick guide to one of the most impressive globular clusters visible from the Northern Hemisphere, M3. This cluster is in the halo of the Milky Way galaxy and like its famous neighbor M13 (the Great Globular Cluster), is a densely packed region with half a million stars, 34,000 light years above the disk of the Milky Way. In binoculars or a telescope it is a marvelous sight and one that is a worthwhile endeavor to seek on a dark night.

Astro Bob has an excellent article on Bootes so enjoy his view for another perspective.

Image courtesy Astro Bob.

11 April 2015

Brilliant Venus and the Pleiades

Venus and Pleiades
Venus is the dominant celestial object of the evening sky now and for the coming months. As its brilliant light pierces the western sky long after sunset, it is passing near to different areas of interest along the ecliptic, this week passing near the well-known star clusters the Pleiades and the Hyades. These open clusters of stars are very near the ecliptic and as a consequence has many visitors throughout the year. Binoculars bring out the best in the Pleiades and Hyades so if you have a moment look west after sunset and enjoy the spectacle.

Image courtesy Sky & Telescope.

02 April 2015

Viewing Party for the April 4th Total Lunar Eclipse

Total Lunar Eclipse
The San Francisco Amateur Astronomers are hosting a public event to view the April 4th Total Lunar Eclipse at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Details are found in this Press Release and on the SFAA website. And here is some great information and ideas about the eclipse from Sky & Telescope Magazine. We hope to see you in the early morning hours of Saturday April 4th.

31 March 2015

Total Lunar Eclipses Explained: Videos from NASA and the California Academy of Sciences

A picture is worth a thousand words, and a video ten thousand. Here are some excellent video resources that provide solid science and fun learning about Lunar Eclipses:

California Academy of Sciences, courtesy of Bing Quock.

Science At NASA.

NASA Goddard: Understanding Lunar Eclipses

22 March 2015

The Spring 2015 Eclipse Season

We are in an Eclipse Season, a period of time approximately every six months when we experience 2 or 3 eclipses in a short period of time. Just a few days ago Europe experienced a Total Solar Eclipse far in the north of the continent, and by coincidence I was in the region on a business trip and experienced a partial eclipse. Being there reignited the love I have for eclipses and now that I am back in San Francisco, I am counting down the days to the next Total Lunar Eclipse on the early morning hours of April 4th. This is the third in a 'Tetrad of Total Lunar Eclipses' that started in 2014 and conclude later this year.

Lunar Eclipse April 4
The upcoming Lunar Eclipse will be visible from the west coast of the United States in the pre-dawn hours, starting at 3:17 AM and reaching totality from 4:58 until 5:03 AM. This should be a unique eclipse due to the very short duration of totality. As the Moon will barely be fully engulfed in the umbral shadow of Earth, the color will likely be quite unusual. The past few Lunar Eclipses have produced 'blood red' Moons, but I expect this one will be a more shallow shading with more light on the limb of the Moon and not the dark or ruddy color that is often seen during totality. I look forward to a high-speed Lunar Eclipse. In many ways it will be reminiscent of a Total Solar Eclipse, in that we will only experience a tantalizing short few minutes of totality - something I am quite used to when it comes to Solar Eclipses, but not used to for Lunar.

The San Francisco Amateur Astronomers are planning a public viewing event at Ocean Beach in San Francisco on April 4th. Come join us for a fun time viewing this unique eclipse at the beach.

Image courtesy Fred Espenak.

09 March 2015

Saturn and Scorpius in the morning

Saturn and Scorpius
With the onset of daylight savings time, there is plenty of darkness in the morning to step outside and appreciate the view to the south, with the constellation Scorpius dominating the southern horizon. Over the past months, the planet Saturn has slowly moved from Libra into Scorpius where it will spend the next two years on a slow journey eastward across the constellation. The Moon joins the pair for the next few days in a lovely showing in the pre-sunrise sky.

Image courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

06 March 2015

Comet Lovejoy still visible

Path of Comet Lovejoy
Comet Lovejoy has been a good target for binoculars over the past months. It remains a nice celestial object this month, gradually heading north toward Polaris. In the coming weeks you can find it in the northern constellation Cassiopeia, a faint but distinctive smudge of light that glows against the background stars. I have seen Lovejoy over the past months and enjoy the glow of its coma and tail. Comets don't often remain visible for this long, so if you have a moment and clear skies to the north, enjoy!

Image courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

20 February 2015

A Fantastic Conjunction: Moon, Mars and Venus

This evening three celestial objects form an impressive tight grouping: Venus, Mars and the Moon. On Friday they are all in a group, and on Saturday the Moon moves on but Venus and Mars are even more closely aligned in a conjunction. All you need is a clear western horizon and the rest will take care of itself.

More details on Sky & Telescope's website. Image courtesy of Sky & Telescope.

07 February 2015

The King of the Night Sky

Jupiter has taken its place as the dominant object in the night sky, outshining everything else around it for the coming months. It just reached 'opposition' as it has its closest approach to the Earth for the next year. At opposition, Jupiter and the Earth and Sun are in a straight line, and Jupiter is visible for the entire night, rising in the east as the Sun sets in the west, towering high overhead during the night, and setting in the west just as dawn breaks.

Details of Jupiter
The disk of Jupiter is at its maximum visible size, a clear ball with dominant cloudtops in backyard telescopes, with the four moons visible every night in an interplay that changes hourly. It's one of my favorite telescope objects because there is so much richness and visual beauty in the sight of this giant planet with its equatorial bands shining through.

Take a moment to appreciate the King of the Night Sky, currently passing through Leo the Lion. Jupiter's orbit takes it around the Sun in 12 of Earth's years, so each year we see it move to the next zodiac sign (Cancer in 2014, Leo in 2015, and Virgo in 2016).

Image courtesy Sky & Telescope.

21 January 2015

KFOG Broadcast: January 21, 2015

Had a good show with Renee, Irish Greg and No Name at KFOG. The Morning Show is always a lot of fun, with twists and turns along the way. We talked about Astronomy apps, Aliens, Star Parties, Orion, Comet Lovejoy, Pluto and New Horizons, and more. Click here to listen.

20 January 2015

Moon and Venus in the West

lender Moon and Venus
Wednesday January 21st, a very slender young Moon and Venus form a compact group immediately after sunset. You'll need binoculars to spot this grouping, as the thin crescent Moon will be easily lost in the glare of the sunset sky, but bright Venus should be easier to spot. There's something magic about the sight of the thin crescent Moon, just barely glowing as a small bit of its illuminated side is visible to us, and that small light has to be seen through the glowing atmosphere with the refracted sunlight still filtering through it.

In San Francisco, the Sun sets around 5:20 pm so the view here should be accurate for 6:00 pm. You'll need a clear horizon due west to see this. Best of luck and happy viewing!

If you miss the view on Wednesday, look again on Thursday as the Moon sweeps past Mars.

09 January 2015

Close Encounters

Close Encounters
The evening sky features a close encounter with the two inner planets, Venus and Mercury. When two celestial objects align, the visual effect is usually quite brilliant. Venus is 100s of times brighter than smaller and more distant Mercury, but nonetheless the two make an impressive pair this weekend. You'll need a clear view to the south-west just after sunset. Binoculars will make it faster and easier to locate the pair. The two planets will remain in close proximity for several days. And next week, the old Moon and Saturn will also have a close encounter. There's always much to see in the sky.

Happy Viewing!

Image courtesy Sky & Telescope.

04 January 2015

Comet Lovejoy arrives in the night sky

Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy has arrived in the night sky for viewers in the Northern Hemisphere, and in the coming days promises to be a fine sight especially through binoculars or a telescope, shimmering in green light with a slight tail. The comet is on a trajectory around the Sun and will pass nearest to Earth on January 7th, but given the geometry of its path, it will be ideally placed for viewing over the next few weeks as it rises high into the southern sky and as the Moon moves from Full to Waning phase. The finder chart, courtesy of Sky & Telescope, shows the daily movement of the comet across the backdrop of stars.
Path of Comet Lovejoy
I had good success finding it on January 1st despite the glow of the Waxing Moon, and look forward to tracking it down as soon as the moonlight begins to fade in a week. Stay tuned for updates. 

More information can be found in this excellent article from Sky & Telescope: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/observing-news/spot-comet-lovejoy-tonight-122920141/