31 July 2017

Perseid Meteor Shower 2017

The annual Perseid Meteor Shower will peak August 11 - 13, offering patient viewers a chance to see 10s or even 100s of meteors per hour if you view from a dark location. The Perseid shower is one of the year's best meteor showers, reliably delivering the twinkling and elusive flits of light that dash across the sky in sheer silence, sometimes in the north, south, east or west. Meteor showers are not for the impatient, but rather require a viewer to relax and enjoy the glorious summer night sky and simply stare up and wait while the Earth plunges through a rich meteor stream. From your location on the planet you need to simply have a big view (the more unobstructed, the better) and somewhat or very dark skies, and then some degree of focus on .... well ... nothing. Just by looking up and gazing, you will see the meteors.

Meteor Shower
Meteors have a delightful and tantalising way of appearing with a burst of light, moving at incredible speed for maybe 1/4 or 1/2 second, and then vaporising and flickering out as fast as they arrived. During a shower like the Perseids, you can rest assured that they are happening all around you all the time but the majority are just too small and too faint for our eyes to perceive. And you can also rest assured that many more are happening outside of your line of sight, as they may appear behind you or to your left or right and elude detection. So one of my favourite ways to see a meteor shower is with a group where you have many pairs of eyes on the sky and many reports of 'ooh, look at that' or 'wow, that was great' happening all around you. It is a wonderful communal activity that keeps the momentum strong since meteor showers, when viewed alone, can go for many minutes without producing anything. Teamwork ensures that no meteor is left unseen. So if you have a chance, join a group (or just find a few friends) who will be staying up to see what they can see.

The Perseids this year will be competing with moonlight each night. In San Francisco, the waxing gibbous moon rises at 10:37 pm on Friday 11th, 11:12 pm on Saturday 12th, and 11:49 pm on Sunday 13th. So take in the view while the moon is below the horizon and enjoy a few hours of meteors each evening. Meteor showers tend to get better as the night goes on, so Saturday and Sunday offer better chances of seeing meteors than Friday. Best of luck, enjoy, and have fun!

29 June 2017

The Summer Sky Awaits

The magnificent summer sky awaits, with dazzling views into our home galaxy, a host of first magnitude stars that enhance some of the finest constellations in the night sky, planets that shimmer in a telescope or binoculars, a meteor shower, and of course this year only (!) a Great Eclipse.

The Milky Way: although the cloudy band of stars that make up the central plane of our home galaxy is not visible in cities, binoculars still reveal many of the fine structures to be found in the Milky Way, albeit less spectacular and colorful than the dark sky view. Nonetheless, a leisurely tour from due south (between Scorpius and Sagittarius) to zenith (directly overhead) will reveal numerous clusters, nebulae and colourful groupings of stars.

Summer Highlights (click to expand)
First Magnitude Stars: The Summer Triangle features Vega, Deneb and Altair in a bright triangle rising from the east to tower overhead in mid-summer. Other top-10 stars include Arcturus and blue-white Spica in the west and orange-red Antares in the south. 

Planets That Shimmer: Jupiter continues to dominate the southwest sky, gradually moving toward the west as summer wears on. Saturn, just past opposition and glowing a bright milky white near Antares, is visible nearly all night tracing out a low arc across the southern sky from east to west. 

A Meteor Shower: the Perseid Meteor Shower peaks on Aug 11-12, and the waxing moon will be a distraction but not a particularly bad one given the circumstances. It's always a pleasure to find a dark spot and a blanket or easy chair for enjoying the bright flashes and streaks of light that punctuate the warm summer night. 

A Great Eclipse: Need I say more? So much has been written about this once-in-a-lifetime event on August 21st already but if you can't get enough then check out this website. And just do it. Drive to the Centerline. Really. 

Enjoy the many highlights the summer has to offer! 

Image courtesy of Universe2Go

30 April 2017

Now is the time to view Jupiter

Hubble Image April 2017
Jupiter is the brilliant 'star' that is currently dominating the evening sky, outshining all other celestial objects except the Moon. The largest planet in the Solar System, Jupiter is on the Top 10 viewing list for every backyard astronomer because it is easy to find and offers such richness when viewed with magnification, and of course it is dazzling whether viewed from the darkness of a country setting or the bright lights of an urban setting. And having just passed opposition in early April, Jupiter is well positioned for viewing shortly after sunset and is above the horizon nearly the entire night; being just past opposition also means that Jupiter presents the greatest surface area for viewing. A casual glance toward the south-east in the evening is all you need to find Jupiter.

Intricate Details on Jupiter
The image on the right from Sky & Telescope shows the intricate details visible on the surface of the planet. Any telescope of good quality will reveal the major bands on Jupiter's Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and a CCD will capture the Great Red Spot and some of the patterns in the clouds. The four largest moons of Jupiter add a dynamic and ever-changing view to the planet, with regular transits and eclipses adding live drama to an evening focused on just one celestial object. Sky & Telescope has an excellent article that highlights many of the things you can see on Jupiter - it's worth a short read. It also includes links to detailed timings of the transit of the Great Red Spot and the Jovian moon transits and eclipses.

NASA recently pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at Jupiter as part of its ongoing planetary exploration looking at not only the planet but its moons, each of which has an interesting geological history and aids in understanding the formation of the Solar System. This short video on HubbleSite provides further details on their work.

Jupiter is presently in the constellation Virgo just above the bright star Spica and slowly moving retrograde toward Porrima in the coming two months. Given the relative orbital speeds of the Earth and Jupiter, we see Jupiter in a different sign of the Zodiac each opposition; approximately every 12 months Jupiter has moved to the next sign. That means in a year Jupiter will be found in the constellation Libra, and a year later in Scorpius.

Images courtesy NASA and Sky & Telescope.

04 March 2017

The Spring Nighttime Sky Beckons

Spring Sky Highlights
Spring arrives on Monday March 20th and with it the ever-changing night sky with all it has to offer. The upcoming three months offer many celestial wonders, from Moon + Planet pairings to Meteor Showers to the arrival of Leo and Virgo high overhead as Orion and the winter beacons gradually fade into the western sky. Mercury makes a strong showing in April while Venus fades out of the evening and emerges in the morning sky.

The Infograph from Universe2Go showcases these highlights quite nicely. Look ahead for opportunities to get out under the night sky in the coming months and savor all that the universe has to show you.

09 February 2017

Penumbral Lunar Eclipse of February 10, 2017

Penumbral Eclipse
Friday evening the Moon will have a close encounter with the Earth's shadow 240,000 miles out in space. As the Moon reaches its full phase just after sunset (from the west coast), it will darken somewhat as it passes through the light outer shadow of the Earth. This shadow is called the 'Penumbra' and is not as dark as the central 'Umbral' shadow so this won't be a blood Moon or anything even close to that. But for the careful observer it will be an interesting sight as the Moon rises in mid-eclipse and displays a darkening on its upper limb as it enters the Earth's penumbral shadow. The Moon rises at 5:45 pm for viewers in San Francisco and will already be well along in the eclipse for viewers in the eastern USA and Europe.

This eclipse marks the start of an 'Eclipse Season' in which we will experience one Lunar Eclipse (in this case a Penumbral Eclipse) and two weeks later a Solar Eclipse (in this case an Annular Eclipse visible only in the southern hemisphere). Eclipses come in waves approximately every six months and this particular Eclipse Season is the last one before the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017 across the United States.

Sky & Telescope has an excellent online article detailing the February 10th Penumbral Eclipse in much more detail.

Image courtesy Sky & Telescope.

23 January 2017

Solar Eclipses and the Saros Cycle

Moon's Ascending and Descending Nodes
Eclipses are the outcome of a chance series of alignments between three bodies: the Sun, Moon and Earth. Orbital mechanics and the laws of Kepler ensure that these bodies circle each other in a beautiful series of harmonious ellipses, near perfect circles each with their own periodicity and in the case of the Moon, with its own orbital inclination. The interplay between the various cycles of the Moon orbiting the Earth, the Earth orbiting the Sun, and the Moon’s gradually changing orbital inclination lead to patterns that repeat over short, medium and long periods of time as these three bodies align.
Eclipses of Saros 145

One of the overall epicycles of these orbits is called the Saros Cycle. At any given time there are many Saros Cycles occurring coincidentally and the Great Eclipse on August 21st is a member of Saros 145. What does this mean? A Saros is an 18 year cycle in which three of the Moon-Earth cycles repeat nearly perfectly, the end effect of which is to create a near duplicate eclipse in this long period of time. The eclipse across Europe in August 1999 was a member of Saros 145, the most recent one of that Saros series until this coming August. In the intervening 6585 days there have been many other lunar and solar eclipses, but none with the exact geometry and timing that we saw in August 1999. So if you get a chance to see the eclipse in August 2017, know that it is virtually identical to the one experienced by observers in Europe 18 years ago. I was in Hungary for the 1999 eclipse and look forward to seeing the Great American Eclipse this summer, a chance to see an old friend again, a pleasant 2 minutes and 40 seconds where I am aligned with the Sun, Moon and Earth but not only just aligned, but in the specific geometrical arrangement that I witnessed 18 years prior. 

For a somewhat deeper look into the Saros Cycle, here are the basic three motions. (1) The Moon’s orbit around the Earth combined with the Earth’s orbit around the Sun leads to the well-known phases of the Moon that repeat every 29.5 days, the time from New Moon to New Moon, and we call that the Synodic Month. (2) At the same time, the Moon’s elliptical orbit around the Earth means we have a close approach and a more distant approach every month and the time between two successive closest approaches (Perigee) is 27.55 days, a time period that is called the Anomalistic (Perigee) Month. (3) Finally the Moon orbits the Earth on a slightly inclined orbit so at times the Moon is ascending from below to above the plane of the solar system (‘ascending node’) or descending from above to below the ecliptic plane (‘descending node’). The time period from one ascending node to the next is called a Draconic Month which is 27.21 days. If you combine all three of these time periods, they nearly perfectly repeat after 18 years and 10 or 11 days (depending on the number of Leap Years between the two years in question), constituting the repetition period of consecutive eclipses in a Saros Series. Saros 145 eclipses took place on August 11th 1999 and on August 21st 2017. And of course the next Saros 145 eclipse will arrive on September 2nd 2035, right on schedule!

For more on this subject, Wikipedia has an excellent write up

Images courtesy NASA. 

02 January 2017

Seeing the Andromeda Galaxy

Pegasus and Cassiopeia
While out under the night sky I frequently point out that everything we can see with the naked eye is located in our home galaxy, the Milky Way. The thousands of stars that shine in a dark night sky are, relatively speaking, local stars in our own galaxy. The Milky Way is vast, stretching 100,000 light years from end to end. To see anything beyond our own galaxy means we are seeing well past 100,000 light years.

The Andromeda Galaxy is a neighboring galaxy in our 'Local Group' and is the nearest fully-formed galaxy. Despite its size (about 50% larger than our own Milky Way galaxy) and overall brightness, it is located 2.2 million light years away so it is an object that only under very good conditions can be glimpsed by the naked eye, but even then is challenging to spot and is best viewed with some magnification. My preference is to find Andromeda with binoculars and in the winter it is a good target because it is located directly overhead. With warm clothes and a comfortable blanket or pad, you can lie on your pack and look up with binoculars, and with some attention and focus you can see beyond our galaxy into Andromeda.

The Andromeda Galaxy
My way to find the galaxy is to look between on the Great Square of Pegasus and Cassiopeia, finding the galaxy in the space between the two. The first image (above) shows the overall proximity of the Andromeda constellation between Pegasus and Cassiopeia. The second image (right) shows a more close up view for pointing your binoculars. As you search this part of the sky under reasonably dark conditions you will be able to see the glow of Andromeda come into view in your binoculars.

Images courtesy of Sky Safari.