What’s Up: September 2017

It’s September and a wonderful time to enjoy the night sky. In northern latitudes, the length of night is generally outpacing the upcoming winter chill. Spring and Fall are great times to become reacquainted with the cosmos.

Here’s a brief run-down of what to expect in the September skies (note: this information is tailored to those of us in the Northern Hemisphere).

What’s that planet?:
If it’s in the evening, it’s most likely Jupiter. If it’s in the morning, you might be seeing Venus, Mercury or Mars.

This month, Jupiter is its bold, bright self, but it’s tracking fairly close to the Sun and setting in the southwest. You’ll see it shortly after sundown, earlier and earlier the further north you are. In October, Jupiter will be outside of our view until its return in November. On September 21 and 22, Jupiter will appear very near to a thin crescent Moon. Saturn is also up during September nights, though you’ll want to consult a star chart or skymap app to find it due to it being hard to distinguish from stars. Speaking of Saturn, September 15 marks the grand finale of the Cassini spacecraft. After 20 years of astonishing service, Cassini will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere and end one of the most successful space missions imagined.

On September mornings, keep an eye out for Venus, Mars, and Mercury. Venus is hard to miss, it’s the brightest object in the sky following the Sun and Moon. Keep an eye to the east about two hours before sunrise (closer to sunrise the later we get into the month) for our bright sister planet.

If you’re fortunate enough to live on the mid-northern latitudes, you might get to witness a fantastic conjunction of Mercury and Mars. (If you’re as far north as Alaska, you’ll need a clear view of the horizon.) On September 16, Mercury and Mars appearing extremely close to each other in the morning sky. Use this website to get a custom report for your viewing location.

If you need help finding out when a planet rises and sets for your location, this website is fairly indispensable.

Happy viewing!

First Star of the Season

I live in Alaska. When you’re this far north, summer daylight is never-ending. We go months without seeing a star other than our sun. It’s no coincidence that this blog essentially goes into hiatus during the summer months. After a very long and dark winter, my interests naturally shift back to things on the Earth, rather than above it.

With autumn comes darkness, bringing the added benefit of it still being warm enough to spend plenty of time comfortably observing the night sky. Last weekend, I watched the first stars wink on since Spring. The first star of my stargazing season was the brilliant cornerstone of the constellation Aquila (the Eagle), Altair.

Aquila

Image Credit: Till Credner, AlltheSky.com

Altair is our relative neighbor, at only 16.8 light years from our solar system. Its proximity, size (1.8 times the mass of the Sun) and luminosity (11 times that of our host star) make it one of the brightest stars in the night sky.

Altair is rapidly-rotating, completing a revolution around every 9 hours. For contrast, our sun completes a revolution about once every 30 days. This rapid spinning actually influences the star’s shape, flattening it out slightly and giving it a more oval shape–think about how pizza dough flattens out when a pizza chef spins it overhead.



For me, Altair marks only the beginning of a long winter of dark skies. I’m looking forward to it.

Flashing the ISS

In case you missed this story from earlier this week, I wanted to point out an interesting historical event.

For years, people have wondered if the astronauts aboard the International Space Station could see a flashlight, or perhaps laser pointer, pointed at it from the Earth’s surface. While it was theoretically possible and tried a number of times, it had never been done successfully… until March 4, 2012.

Texan amateur astronomers of the San Antonio Astronomy Association and the Austin Astronomy Society put together a plan to prove the possibility. On March 4, these amateur astronomers implemented their experiment. They left the urban lights for dark skies (and as importantly, a dark ground from the vantage point of the ISS) at the Lozano Observatory. There, they set up a one-watt blue laser and a pair of bright spotlights, complete with a simple, yet effective, system to strobe the spotlights: people holding wooden boards. Timing had to be calculated precisely for a couple of reasons. Not only did the ISS have to pass their dark location overhead at night, but it had to be such that the ISS had a view of the Earth without the Sun blinding their view; after all, it is the bright sunlight reflecting off of the ISS that makes is so bright and visible to us on Earth.

Their timing, and a few months of planning, paid off. As the ISS came overhead of the anxious amateur astronomers, they flipped on the laser and began alternating the spotlights on-and-off in two-second intervals. ISS Expedition 30 Flight Engineer, Don Pettit, had been involved in the planning of the experiment and had been communicating with the group in the days leading up to the attempt. At the time that the ground crew began their attempts to flash the space station, Pettit was situated in the ISS Cupola, eyes peeled with his camera snapping pictures. The ISS pass was complete within a few minutes, and the group had to anxiously await feedback from Pettit. The next day, their confirmation came.
Image showing the flash experiment from the ISS.

(Click image for larger size / Image Credit: Don Pettit/Fragile Oasis)

Success! According to Keith Little, Marketing Director of the San Antonio Astronomical Association, Don Pettit told him that not only could he see the spotlights, but easily saw the laser by itself!

It’s wonderful when astronauts orbiting the Earth can work together with amateur astronomers to collaborate on experiments such as this, and its icing on the cake when they make history in the process.

For more information about the event, you can view a video of the experiment from the ground here and listen to an episode of 365 Days of Astronomy pertaining to the event.


Majestic Conjunction

Have you seen the wondrous show that’s been taking place in the night sky recently? Maybe you noticed what appeared to be some especially bright stars, glittering near a crescent Moon. Perhaps you haven’t been looking up at the night sky lately (shame on you) or conditions have been too cloudy to give it a look (I live in a coastal city in Alaska, I feel your pain). Whether you’re looking or not, there’s a fantastic conjunction taking place, starring (pardon the pun!) the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus.

I took the following photo shortly after sunset on February 28, 2012, from within Joshua Tree National Park. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lens to give me a wider field of view, but the top of a Yucca Plant provides a nice touch.
Moon, Jupiter, and Venus conjunction, labeled.

[Click image for larger and unlabeled version / Credit: Ryan Marquis/46BLYZ]

This cosmic spectacle will continue over the next few days, so get out and enjoy it while you can.

Also in the night sky this month:
While the Moon will have moved away from the planets, Venus and Jupiter will be within three degrees of each other on March 12. That’s approximately the same “width” as three fingertips held at arm’s length… The planets will appear quite close to one another!

Mars also refuses to be left out of this month’s planetary attention. Look for the red planet in the Eastern sky, just a few hours after the sun sets.

Clear skies!


Sunday Matinee – Aurora Borealis and North America at Night


[Video Credit: Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center]

This video was taken by the crew of Expedition 29 on board the International Space Station. The sequence of shots was taken October 18, 2011 from 07:09:06 to 07:27:42 GMT[.]

This video compacts about 18-and-a-half minutes of ISS travel into about 30 seconds.

What I particularly enjoy about this video is that it starts looking directly to the area of the planet I occupy. Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula is easily distinguishable, especially due to the city lights of Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, and Seward. South of that you can see Kodiak Island. Immediately north of the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage is brightly lit; Fairbanks can be seen even further to the north. The video travels east across the United States, as you find yourself struggling to decide on whether you should watch the aurora borealis (northern lights) to the north, or try to guess all of the cities you can see due to the concentrated man-made light. Clouds obscure much of the view between Alaska and the Rockies, but they break in time to offer great Canadian views of Calgary and Edmonton.

Following that, Minneapolis/St.Paul stand out, just before Chicago takes center-stage at around 24 seconds in, brilliantly lit, just south of Lake Michigan. You can catch the flashes of a lightning storm as we continue east towards the East Coast of the United States. You might notice how populated and electrified the East Coast is, compared to the Mid-West and the central United States. The video ends just after our view heads east over the coast of Florida, and above the shallow waters of the Bahamas.


Quadrantids Coming

Northern Hemisphere observers are in for a treat if they stay up real late on January 3rd (or wake up real early on the 4th). That’s your opportunity to view the Quadrantids meteor shower will occur. Unlike other meteor showers that might be visible over the course of a few nights, the Quadrantids have only a very narrow window of time to be seen; however, the shower is a very active one that you’ll want to make an effort to catch.

Quadrantid

(NASA/MSFC/MEO/B. Cooke)

So, where to look? Like other meteor showers, the Quandrantids take their name from the constellation they appear to radiate out of (Leonids via Leo, Geminids via Gemini, etc.). What’s that? You aren’t familiar with a “Quadrant” constellation? That’s because this meteor shower was named after a constellation that is no longer recognized as such (Quadrans Muralis). Constellation or not, the Quadrantids exist and can be found radiating out of the constellation  Boötes. To find  Boötes, look left of the handle of the Big Dipper and before  the head of Draco. You’ll easily be able to identify Boötes by the very bright star, Arcturus.

Diagram of Boötes

(Source: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg) via Wikipedia)

But remember one of the most important tips for viewing meteor showers: Looking at the radiant point isn’t the best place to stare. In fact, you’ll miss quite a few and probably catch a few more only through your peripheral vision. While if you imagined charting every meteor and extending their lines across the sky, the majority will intersect at the radiant point; however, they often don’t “light up” until they’re way away from the radiant point.  You might look towards, say Polaris, which is a great star to look at if you’re going to spend a few hours looking up — there’s just something spending a night watching everything rotate around the North Star.

There will be a waxing gibbous Moon to contend with, but for most in the United States it will set near 3am. Up as far North as I am, it won’t be setting until closer to 5am. That said, don’t let the Moon intimidate you; the Quadrantids are a very active shower — up to between 100 – 200 per hour! — and the Moon, if it is still up when you’re observing, should be outside of your field of view while spotting meteors.

 

Clear skies!


Quadrantids Tonight!

The Quandrantids meteor shower peaks tonight. A nearly New Moon should make for dark skies, depending on cloud coverage.

Normally, you can tell which constellation the shower will appear to radiate from by the name of the shower. e.g. Leonids = Leo, Orionids = Orion, Geminids = Gemeni, etc.

The Quadrantids radiate from Quadrans Muralis, which is no longer considered a constellation. So, where should you look? The constellation Bootes (Arcturus is a bright star in this constellation) would be a good point to consider the radiant. But don’t get too hung up on looking at the radiant point, or you’ll miss many of them. If you were to take pictures of each meteor tonight, and extend the lines they trace across the sky, the radiant is the place where most of those lines would intersect. Polaris (the North Star) would be a good spot to look at; if the skies are clear, that’s where my camera will be pointing.

For more specifics, check out this website.

Happy Observing!

Total Lunar Eclipse

If you have clear skies, be sure to take the opportunity to view the total lunar eclipse of December 20/21, 2010. My forecast isn’t looking good, but I’m holding out hope that I’ll get a clear view and get some photographs of the event. The following image does a great job of detailing when to look, and what you can expect:
Total Lunar Eclipse of December 2010
*Note, the times listed on this image are for Alaskan time, which is 4 hours earlier than Eastern time.
I got the image from Mr. Eclipse who not only explains what you’re seeing, but provides a wealth of other information, including how to photograph it.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon enters the shadow of Earth. This can only happen during a full moon, but not every full moon coincides with an eclipse. Why? Because the Moon’s orbit is inclined about 5.1° to the Earth. So a lunar eclipse will occur when a full moon also happens to be on the same plane, or 0°, as the Earth.

If you’re plagued by cloudy skies, you can still watch it and participate in a live chat, courtesy of NASA/JPL.

So there you have it, no excuses. If you miss this one and reside in the North America, you won’t have another chance until 2014.

Happy observing!