18 October 2023

Lunar X and V on October 21st


The Moon is a fantastic target for anyone with a telescope or binoculars. There is so much richness to see and on any night the Moon presents an ever-changing landscape, each night different from the previous one. I particularly like first and last quarter moons, as you get a side view of the terminator and can observe the long shadows in the craters. But those shadows and the rapidly changing lighting effects on and near the terminator create striking patterns for those with a good telescope. 

Lunar X and V
The Lunar X and V are two striking patterns that appear monthly on the surface of the first quarter Moon. Visible through a telescope at moderate magnification, these two patterns are visible for a few hours, one after the next, but of course you need to have the good luck of the Moon being above the horizon at that exact time each month. So it is a somewhat rare occurrence and a fun target for amateur astronomers, or just about anyone who wants to put in the time to find it. Enlarge the image to the right for a close-up look. 

This month the view is favourable where I live, here in Munich, Germany. On Saturday October 21st the X and V features will be visible just at sunset and for an hour or two afterwards. I will host a star party in the Englischer Garten in Munich for the public and I hope that many will join to see this unique spectacle.  

19 April 2023

Total Solar Eclipse in Australia: watch live

As an Eclipse Chaser, I often travel long and far to see a total solar eclipse. Today is no exception, as I find myself in Western Australia to witness the Ningaloo Solar Eclipse from Exmouth. There are several live streams: 


Australian Geographic 

Happy viewing. I'll post comments later. 

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Here is my report from later on 20 April: it was an impressive eclipse, with a very sharply defined corona. The prominences were like I have never seen before, with one very extended prominence and one beautifully curved prominence that had a broken filament. The sky was crystal clear and the spectators at my site here in Exmouth were quite excited by the whole thing. 

I have added two photos from the photographers next to me. The one above shows the Diamond Ring effect, and the one below totality with the solar corona. 

14 May 2022

Total Lunar Eclipse: 15-16 May 2022

A total lunar eclipse takes place on the evening of May 15th, continuing into the early morning of May 16th. It favors the Western Hemisphere, with best viewing conditions in the evening and late night of Sunday May 15th. For those on the West Coast of the US, the Moon will rise in deep partial eclipse and reach total phase at 8:29 pm pacific time, just after sunset in Los Angeles. Further east, the full eclipse will be visible in darkness. In eastern time zone, the partial eclipse starts at 10:28 pm and reaches totality at 11:29 pm. Totality lasts 1 hour and 25 minutes. Unfortunately for those in Europe, the eclipse will start in the early morning hours (4:28 in Germany) and will reach totality just as the Sun is about to rise, so it will be interesting but not nearly as impressive as when seen in darkness. 

No special viewing locations are needed, just a clear view to the south (and for the west coast of the US, a clear view to the east), and good weather. There are many factors that can affect the appearance of the eclipsed moon at totality ... largely due to weather conditions on Earth. And the 85 minutes of totality also can change in appearance from the start to the middle to the final moments before direct sunlight returns to the lunar surface. 

Sky and Telescope has an excellent write up for this event, with great details about many aspects of lunar eclipses. 

I wish you clear skies and a fun time viewing this special moment. 

Image courtesy of Sky & Telescope

10 August 2021

Perseid Meteor Shower 2021

The Perseid radiant

The Perseids are upon us, literally. As the Earth sweeps around the Sun in its orbit, we gently glide through a region of space dust and debris, the remnants of a comet that passes through Earth's orbit every 133 years or so. And lucky for us, all of this debris is far too small to cause any damage to us on Earth, but big enough to light up the night sky every year. 

The Perseid Meteor shower in 2021 takes place over a two-day window on 11-12 August (through the morning of August 13th). The peak is expected to be late on the night of August 11th-12th. At the peak with very clear skies and dark conditions, you could see up to a meteor per minute. But that is an average, and sometimes you can have many minutes go by without any meteors, and then suddenly 2 or 3 all at once. So the best way to see the Perseids is to be patient, find a location with a broad horizon, and my favorite thing -- to do this in a group (even a group of two will do) since more eyes will see more meteors. I enjoy setting up the group to be looking in all different directions so we don't miss any meteors and even though no one person will see 100% of the meteors, we can all enjoy the excitement and fun with friends. Having a comfortable lounge chair and a blanket are a bonus and will enhance your viewing. 

As with every meteor shower, the viewing gets better after midnight when more meteors are flying into the atmosphere, so get lots of rest the night before and be ready for a long, relaxing night viewing one of the best meteor showers of the year. 

Lucky for us, we have a dark night for viewing the meteors, as the Moon is just a few days past New Moon phase and will set early in the evening. No light from the Moon makes the whole experience better. 

This article from Sky and Telescope is an excellent overview of the Perseids, not only tips how to best observe the shower, but why it happens every year and other interesting science. 

Image courtesy Sky and Telescope

24 May 2021

Total Lunar Eclipse of 26 May 2021 - with a Supermoon!

Eclipse Details (universal time)
This week the Moon will slip into the Earth's shadow for a brief but exciting total lunar eclipse while the Moon is at its nearest to Earth, what we call a Supermoon. By chance, this week I am in New Orleans and will be able to see some of the partial eclipse in the pre-dawn hours. But those further west in the United States will have a chance to see the total phase as well. This interactive map from Time & Day is quite helpful. Just search for your city and you will have the local timeline for the eclipse as visible from your location. I typed in San Francisco and see that the eclipse starts at 2:45 am, reaches totality at 4:11 am, and exits totality at 4:26 am. This is a very short eclipse, as the Moon just grazes inside of the dark (penumbral) shadow of the Earth. But it should be no less exciting to see, and if you don't mind a little time awake in the middle of the night, it should be an impressive sight. 

More can be found in this Sky & Telescope article, as well as this Earth-Sky article. 

Happy Viewing, and clear skies! 

Image courtesy of Sky & Telescope

13 February 2021

Red-Orange Stars and a Planet: Betelgeuse, Aldebaran and Mars

Mars is making a splash in the evening sky this winter, and it's near two stars that appear quite similar in color and brightness. Mars is presently in the constellation Aries, which is next to the next Zodiac constellation Taurus and the bright orange-giant star Aldebaran. The two objects are quite similar and at a glance, one can see the colors shining through. But if you move just a little further east along the line that connects Mars to Aldeberan, you will find the bright red-supergiant star Betelgeuse, which marks the upper left shoulder of the giant constellation Orion. Betelgeuse is one of the largest objects in the Milky Galaxy, a truly giant star that would encompass the orbits of the planets nearly out to Saturn if it was in the same place as our Sun. 

Mars is slowly working its way eastward across the sky, such that in a few weeks it will be very close to the Pleiades and continue its march across Taurus and then through Cancer. Mars has had a busy year, with its closest approach to Earth last year and now getting ready to host three new spacecraft that will land there in the coming days, the UAE Hope spacecraft, the Chinese Tianwen-1 spacecraft, and the NASA Perseverance lander with a new rover ready for further exploration and discovery on Mars. 

Image courtesy Sky & Telescope

17 December 2020

The Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn - Dec 21st, 2020

We will witness a very rare and beautiful spectacle in the coming days. On December 21st, Jupiter and Saturn will be less than one-tenth of a degree apart from each other as seen from Earth, a rare alignment that happens only every 400 years at this extremely close separation. 

The Great Conjunction
Great Conjunction: Conjunctions occur often in the heavens, as heavenly bodies pass near each other, on in the less common scenario where the Moon covers stars and occasionally planets, and as planets and asteroids cover stars. In any case, a conjunction is usually a fascinating thing to see, particularly up close if you have binoculars or a telescope. When Jupiter and Saturn pass near each other every 20 years, we have a 'Great Conjunction' in which the two massive planets are very near each other. But every 400 years, the alignment is extremely good and we have both objects in one telescopic field of view, as portrayed in the image to the right. 

How to See It: The two planets will be visible only for a short while after sunset, and you will need a clear view to the west to see this. Look directly to the southwest of the point of sunset an hour after the sun goes down. If you have a telescope or binoculars, this is definitely the time to get them out and put them to work. If you can, look for the pair on Saturday 19th or Sunday 20th to get an idea where to find them. They will be in roughly the same place on the 21st, but through the telescope or binoculars the difference from one night to the next will be dramatic. 

Learn More: There are excellent articles online if you want to learn more about this rare and exciting event, on Scientific American or Earth-Sky. I find all of the detailed planetary geometry fascinating, and fun to understand how such alignments occur and can be accurately predicted. 

I wish you clear skies and happy viewing! 

Image courtesy Earth-Sky. 

09 December 2020

Geminid Meteor Shower 2020

The Geminid Meteor Shower peaks on Sunday 13th and Monday 14th. This year, it will be especially well timed with the New Moon, meaning that there will be no moonlight to brighten the sky, leaving the sky dark and at its finest for a meteor shower. 

What causes a meteor shower? Every day, there are dust particles and small objects flying into the Earth's atmosphere from space, sometimes randomly, sometimes predictably, causing a 'shooting star' in the night sky. And sometimes with great surprise, a larger piece of an asteroid will fly into the atmosphere and become visible as a Fireball, as was the case two weeks ago in Japan. The Geminids are predictable, one of many annual meteor showers that are caused when the Earth travels through the remnants of a comet or asteroid that has orbited the Sun sometime in the past, leaving a debris stream in its wake. 

What causes the Geminids? Every year on December 13th and 14th, the Earth travels through such a wake (of an asteroid named 3200 Phaethon) and we have a lovely meteor shower, as the dust and sand particles impact the Earth's atmosphere at high speed and heat up the air, causing it to glow as the meteor hurtles toward Earth. Nearly all of the particles in a meteor shower never reach the surface of the Earth, but those that do (called Meteorites, once they've landed) are of great scientific interest. 

How to see the Geminids: For any meteor shower, you want to find a dark location where you have a wide horizon. You don't need to look in any one direction, but ideally relax on a blanket or chair and simply look up, and have patience. And of course, for most of us it's winter and it's cold, so you need to dress extra-warm. 

If you want to learn more, this helpful article from Astronomy Magazine provides a great deal of information about the Geminids. 

Happy Viewing, and stay warm! 

Image courtesy of ESO.