In the Sky this Week- October 17, 2017
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A wafer-thin waning crescent Moon is very close to Mars before sunrise on October 17th; there was earthshine from my location – morning drivers heading east got a real treat! The distance between Venus and Mars in the morning sky continues to grow; Venus getting lower, and Mars getting higher each day. Venus will disappear from the morning sky in Mid November. Saturn is still a good observing target after dusk in the southwestern sky, but it is getting a lit lower in the sky each day. A wafer-thin waxing crescent Moon will accompany Saturn on October 23rd. The Orionids Meteor Shower peak will occur on October 21-22; best times to view the shower are after midnight, and before dawn on October 22nd. For a second week there are no sunspots visible from Earth, but the lingering coronal hole in the Sun’s northern region has gotten its own article and video at the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) website: The Inner Solar System … Continue reading

In the Sky this Week- October 10, 2017
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The waning gibbous Moon is high in the southern sky before dawn; The Moon will be at third quarter on the 12th, traveling eastward and a bit lower each morning, it will be a waning crescent from the 13th through the 19th. The Moon will occult the star Regulus before sunrise on Oct. 15th. For a map and timing of the occultation for your location, click this link. Venus and Mars continue to appear close together, low in the eastern predawn sky. The Moon will appear very close to Mars on the morning of Oct. 17th. On October 14th, asteroid 2012 TC14 will pass by the Earth at 0.13 Lunar Distances – that’s WELL inside Earth’s geosynchronous satellite ring; the asteroid is estimated to be 8-26 meters in diameter. Earth’s gravity will bend the orbit of the asteroid as it passes by. There are currently no sunspots visible from Earth, but the coronal hole that has been hanging around for … Continue reading

In the Sky this Week- October 3, 2017
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Venus and Mars will appear close together, low in the eastern predawn sky, all week long. As I was seeing my wife off to work early this morning, she looked up and exclaimed “Oh WOW!” It was an exceptionally clear morning, and the skies appeared crisp and bright; the winter stars of Taurus, Orion, and Canis Major shone brightly. The waxing gibbous Moon and Saturn make great observing targets in the southern sky after sunset on October 3rd. The Moon will be full on October 5th. On the morning the October 5th, Venus and Mars will be VERY close to each other in the eastern predawn sky. On the 6th, Venus will appear below Mars, and will continue a slow descent toward the horizon each morning. The Sun has a couple large sunspots; Spaceweather.com says that they all have stable magnetic fields, and are unlikely to produce strong solar flares. The Sun’s corona has several beautiful large coronal loops on … Continue reading

In the Sky this Week- September 26, 2017
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Winter stars are getting higher and higher in the predawn skies; if you are an early-riser, the Orion Nebula is visible for several hours before dawn in the southern sky. Regulus, Venus and Mars aligned in the predawn sky on Sept. 26th. The waxing crescent Moon will be very close to Saturn after sunset on the 26th; the next few days will be excellent for telescope observing. The first quarter Moon will be on Sept. 27th; the Moon will still be fairly close to Saturn that evening. The Moon will almost be full by the beginning of next week; it should be a great observing target all week long. Venus and Mars will be very close to each other in the predawn on Oct. 2nd. The Double Cluster is high in the northeastern sky after sunset. The Double Cluster (NGC 869 and NGC 884) is two open star clusters which appear close together in the constellation Perseus. Both visible to … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Reaching out
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This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2015 Eighty years ago, on September 29, 1935, Pope Pius XI dedicated new quarters and telescopes of the Vatican Observatory in his summer palace in Castel Gandolfo. To celebrate the anniversary,in September 2015 we held a symposium in Castel Gandolfo, including a visit to the old domes that Pius XI had dedicated. The party ended in a private audience in Rome with Pope Francis (less than 24 hours before he left for Cuba and the US). After giving us a short address, the Pope looked up and caught my eye. He smiled, and said, “Ah! The New Director!” It’s true. As of that day, I became the new director of the Vatican Observatory. (I actually didn’t completely believe it until I heard him say it.) Would I continue to write articles like these (for the Tablet)? Yes, as long as there’s a place for me. It’s not only because I love being … Continue reading

Goodbye – Cassini’s Last Splendiferous Hurrah
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        The English language is lacking in positive affirmations glowing enough to encompass the significance of the Cassini Mission to Saturn. Side winding its way into my mind in the effort to find the right words came a memory of an old TV variety show. In the show, the host announces the artists to perform by pronouncing very large words in rapid precision. Each word is preceded by a judgemental gavel blow. The hyperbolic introductions primed the audience to welcome the splendiferous offerings of the forthcoming show. The pulchritudinous (excellent) nature of the mission has produced an abundance of most noteworthy images. The collection can spectacularly stimulate our senses to levitate our minds and souls. Cassini therefore invites us to relish the beauty of Saturn and its many moons. NASA has magnanimously offered the images videos and gifs to all who wish to enjoy the resplendent wonder of this epic mission. If the same host was to … Continue reading

Across the Universe: The Church of UFO
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This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2014 “Preparing for Discovery,” a two day symposium at the US Library of Congress to discuss the possible impact on society of finding life in space, was my destination [September 2014]. Discovering life outside Earth would be a major advance in understanding biology; finding intelligent life would colour how we understand being human. But it’s a magnet for our hopes and fears. The field of astrobiology still has a hard time escaping the taint of “little green men.” Thus nearly all the speakers went out of their way to emphasize that they were Serious Scientists, viewing life and intelligence from a purely secular and, indeed, materialistic viewpoint. Constant reference was made to the “N=1” problem: how can you define life, much less intelligence, when the number of planets known to harbour life only equals one? Still, the laws of physics do provide some guideposts. And understanding the origin of that one … Continue reading

In the Sky this Week – September 12, 2017
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Mercury is about as high as it’s going to get in the eastern predawn sky on the 12th, and will start getting lower each morning. Sirius is high in the sky, and the constellation Canis Major is now fully visible above the southeastern horizon before sunrise. Mercury and Mars will appear very close to each other in the eastern predawn sky on the 16th. Saturn continues to be a great observing target in the southern sky after sunset. The Moon will be in conjunction with the star Aldebaran on the morning of the 12th, and will appear between(ish) the stars Aldebaran and Betelgeuse on the 13th. The eastern predawn sky on the 18th should look pretty interesting: Mercury, Mars, a sliver of a waning crescent Moon, the star Regulus and Venus will all appear in a line. Sunspot AR2680 has rotated into view; this sunspot is about the same size as AR2673 was from last week – which ballooned out and blew off … Continue reading

Become a Volunteer NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador
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NASA/JPL is looking for highly motivated volunteers to communicate the science and excitement of NASA’s space exploration missions and discoveries to the people in their communities. Each September, the volunteer NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program has a recruitment drive for new volunteers; there are currently volunteers from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam, the District of Columbia and the US Virgin Islands. SSAs are required to do a minimum of four events over the year, and log them on the SSA website; events can include: lectures, workshops, star/eclipse parties, hands-on activities, etc. The SSA program hosts frequent teleconferences with NASA scientists, mission specialists, and engineers covering a HUGE range of topics; presentation materials and media for each teleconference are made available for SSAs to use. When it can, the program also provides freebies; my wife and I received 1000 solar glasses and distributed them far and wide before the eclipse. Applicants that are accepted into the program are required to … Continue reading

In the Sky this Week – September 5, 2017
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Mercury and Mars make a reappearance very low in the eastern morning sky – so low in fact, you may have trouble seeing them if you have low shrubs; atmospheric turbulence and light pollution may also make them difficult to spot. Over the week, Mars will not get any higher in the sky, but Mercury will get visibly higher each morning. Mercury will be very close to the star Regulus in Leo on Sept. 10th. Catch Mercury while you can – by next week, Mercury will start getting lower in the sky, and will vanish entirely by late September. The full Moon rises in the east with the sunset on Sept. 5th; Saturn remains high in the southern sky, after sunset. Polaris, the North Star, is visible above the northern horizon before dawn. Two of Polaris’ three stars can be made out in a modest sized telescope; Polaris A, the primary component of the trinary is a Cepheid variable star, … Continue reading

In the Sky this Week – August 29, 2017
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The eastern sky before sunrise is getting busy! Venus is accompanied by several bright stars, and the easily recognizable constellation of Orion is higher each morning; winter stars are on their way! There will be a conjunction of Saturn and the Moon in the southern sky on the nights of the 29th and 30th; the first quarter moon will be very close to Saturn, and likely wash it out a bit when observing through a telescope. The Constellation Cygnus is overhead after sunset, and the star Albireo, makes for a very interesting object through a small telescope. To the naked eye, Albireo appears to be a single star; in a telescope, it resolves into a beautiful gold and blue double star. Tip: If you slightly unfocus your telescope when observing Albireo, the colors will spread out, and you can see them a bit better. It is unknown if Albireo is a true binary star, or an “optical double” – a … Continue reading

In the Sky This Week – August 22, 2017
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Sirius, the “Dog Star,” accompanies Venus low in the eastern predawn sky. Jupiter sets shortly after dusk and will vanish from view entirely in a early September. Saturn is high in the southern sky, and with the planet’s northern hemisphere tilted towards us at about 26°, Saturn is just a spectacular observing target. The Moon, fresh from the eclipse, will be in conjunction with Jupiter in the west at dusk on August 24th and 25th. The Moon will be a waxing crescent in the west at dusk, growing larger each evening until it is at first quarter on August 28th; the later part of this week will be excellent nights for star parties. Sirius, the brightest star in Earth’s sky, is a binary star system about 8.6 light years away. Sirius A is a bright and hot main sequence star, with a faint white dwarf companion: Sirius B. Sirius A is class A0 star about twice the mass of the … Continue reading