Dec 13

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – December, 2014

Comet Landing Highlights December’s Other Stellar Events

I’ll be honest. I was hoping that I would be reporting on exciting new discoveries from the surface of a comet in this column. But, although there are, indeed, historic activities taking place, the risks and unknown factors of space exploration played a major role in this month’s landing of a probe on the surface of a comet.

As the Rosetta spacecraft continues to orbit Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P for short), the little Philea lander had a rough time of it and is currently sleeping it off. Apparently the lander encountered a bit of bad luck when it came to rest in the shadow of a cliff. Lacking sufficient sunlight, the spacecraft’s batteries drained and she is now in a deep sleep.

The good news is that Philea was still able to collect valuable data and take some photos from the surface of the comet. And there is a chance that, as the comet approaches the Sun, the lander will receive sufficient sunlight to once again become operational.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of Philea, the fact that we were able to actually land a probe on the surface of a comet is an outstanding achievement in itself. And the Rosetta spacecraft will continue to follow the comet as it makes its closest passage to the sun.

On a more down to earth level, there are some promising sights to behold this month. On the evenings of December 13 and 14, check out the Geminid meteor shower. A nice display of shooting stars is possible near the midnight hour. The shower lasts a few days, so watch for several nights around the peak. Look toward the southeast after dark and you may spot an “Earth-grazer”, a meteor that hits our atmosphere at a shallow angle and leaves a long, bright trail.

Another favorite observation of mine is to see the Northern Cross upright near the western horizon after sunset around Christmas. It seems very appropriate that the symbol of Christianity be so well placed for viewing at this time of year.

The crescent Moon puts on its best show next month just before Christmas. Look to the west one half hour after sunset on Monday, December 22, and you will see (weather permitting) the thin crescent Moon just to the right of the bright planet Venus. Two days later, on Christmas Eve, the now larger crescent Moon is right next to the planet Mars.

One can only imagine what the ancients would have made of such a significant event up in their skies.

This month in history:

Dec. 4: Mars Pathfinder launched – 1996
Dec. 8: Galileo makes first Earth flyby – 1990
Dec. 14: Gene Cernan, Apollo 17 astronaut, is last human to walk on Moon – 1972
Dec. 17: Orville Wright makes first powered flight – 1903
Dec. 24: Apollo 8 astronauts give us inspirational moment from lunar orbit – 1968
Dec. 25: Isaac Newton born – 1642

Nov 05

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – November, 2014

Asterisms and You

We batted .500 for October with the lunar eclipse being spectacular under clear skies but the partial solar eclipse last Thursday being invisible through clouds that appeared on the scene about an hour prior to the start of the eclipse.  And that was after a beautiful, clear day.

November does not have anything that spectacular to witness but there still is a lot of cool stuff up there.  Although most fall constellations are dim, it can be interesting to watch the stars of summer give way to the winter constellations.  Looking southwest just after sunset, you should spot the Summer Triangle.  Look up.  It’s big.  The stars are the brightest in the region and each is in a different constellation with Deneb in Cygnus, the Swan, Altair in Aquilla, the Eagle, and Vega in Lyra, the Lyre.  Right now Deneb is almost overhead but Altair and Vega are about halfway to the horizon.  Watch all three sink in the west as the month progresses.

The summer triangle is an example of an asterism.  In astronomy, an asterism is a recognizable group of stars, usually forming a portion of a constellation or composed of stars from different constellations.  The Big Dipper is an example of the former (it’s part of Ursa Major, the Great Bear) and the Summer Triangle is an example of the latter, as described earlier.  There are a number of asterisms visible in this part of the sky near the Summer Triangle.

Start with the Great Square of Pegasus.  It lies just to the left of the Summer Triangle and is also big – about two fists held at arm’s length wide.  Below it is the Circlet, depicting the head of the western fish in Pisces.  It’s a little smaller – only one fist wide – and its name is self descriptive.  To the right and slightly below the Circlet look for the sideways Y of Aquarius also known as the Urn or the Water Jar.  Being small and faint, binoculars are recommended.

Continue toward the west almost to the Summer Triangle and look for the little constellation Delphinus.  The four bright stars that make up the dolphin’s body are also known as Job’s Coffin.  Further west is one of my favorite asterisms because it looks just like its name. Known as the Coat Hanger, you will know it when you see it.  It lies about one third of the way from Altair to Vega, along a straight line.

A note of caution: other than the Triangle and the Square, we are talking about small, faint groupings of stars.  Binoculars are a must and I recommend looking these things up with a phone app or Google before going out to observe.  You will definitely be rewarded for your efforts when you are able to find some of the best things up in the sky.

This month in history:
Nov. 3:      The dog Laika is first living creature to orbit Earth aboard Sputnik 2 – 1957
Nov. 9:   Carl Sagan born. – 1934
Nov. 16:  Interstellar message broadcast from Arecibo radio telescope – 1974
Nov. 20:  Edwin Hubble born – 1889
Nov. 27:  First photograph of a meteor shower – 1885
Nov. 30:  Ten-pound meteorite strikes and bruises Alabama woman, Elizabeth Hodges  – 1954

Oct 01

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – October, 2014

Eclipse Month

A week from tomorrow, Wednesday, October 8, will begin with a celestial show that many readers have witnessed in the past.  The Moon will pass through the Earth’s shadow, resulting in a total lunar eclipse.  You will have to get up early, however, to see it because the first stage will begin at 5:15 a.m.  Not to worry.  It doesn’t really get very interesting until about 6 a.m.  when the Moon will be well-engulfed in darkness with a golden crescent still showing.  The total eclipse phase will occur between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. with the greatest eclipse at 6:55 a.m.

What makes this eclipse interesting is that the full Moon (lunar eclipses always occur during a full Moon) will set while still partially eclipsed.  That means the best place to watch this is on the lakeshore.  Realistically, very few of us have a view of Lake Michigan at 6 a.m. so make it your goal to at least see the Moon at some point during the total phase of the eclipse.  You won’t be disappointed.

While you are at it, direct your gaze to the southeast, halfway between the horizon and the zenith (directly overhead) to see the planet Jupiter,  You can’t miss it as it will be the brightest thing in the sky until the Sun comes up.  Use binoculars or a small telescope to see its four largest satellites.

Two weeks later, on Thursday, October 23, another eclipse occurs, this time involving the sun.  Unfortunately, it will  only be a partial solar eclipse. We have to wait until August 21, 2017, to see a total solar eclipse here in the USA (you heard it here first).  Regardless, a partial solar eclipse is still pretty cool as long as you DO NOT look directly at it.  The bad news is that it will also set during the eclipse so here’s what to do.  Around 6 p.m. take a pair of binoculars and a piece of white poster board (any white paper will do) and point the binoculars at the sun WITHOUT looking through them.  Project the resulting image onto the poster board and adjust the distance between the binoculars and the white board until the image is sharp.  You should see the sun with a bite taken out of it.  Again, DO NOT look through the binoculars because you will burn your retina.  It is not always safe to look directly at what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:
Oct. 1:  Yerkes Observatory dedicates 40 inch refractor – 1897
Oct. 4:  Space Age begins when Sputnik 1, first artificial satellite, is launched  – 1957
Oct. 9:  Johannes Kepler observes supernova – 1604
Oct. 14: Chuck Yeager breaks sound barrier – 1947
Oct. 19: Subramanyan Chandrasekhar born – 1910
Oct. 24: William Lassell discovers Uranus moons Umbriel and Ariel – 1851

Sep 01

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – September, 2014

Close Encounter of the Comet Kind

After having participated in educators’ conferences at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (through the support of Fennville Public Schools) for the Voyager 2 flybys of Uranus and Neptune, it was with high expectations that I returned to JPL in December of 1999 to witness the touchdown of the Mars Polar Lander on the “Red Planet”.  I will never forget the looks on the scientists’ faces as the signal never arrived and it became increasingly clear that the spacecraft had been lost.

Last January, at the European Space Agency’s Mission Operations Center in Germany, scientists were again anxiously awaiting the signal from a spacecraft.  This time it was the Rosetta spacecraft, due to wake up after more than two and a half years in deep space hibernation.  After waiting 15 minutes one scientist described the mood as “tense factor level 10” and another responded, “it goes to 11”.  Finally, after 18 minutes the signal appeared and the room erupted with much cheering and fist pumping.  It was back!

Launched in 2004, Rosetta became the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet on August 6.  For nearly two years it will remain in orbit around the comet (named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko) as it flies past the Sun.  It will study the nucleus and its environment and plant a lander on its surface, another first.

The spacecraft is named after the famous Rosetta Stone discovered almost 200 years ago that led to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics.  The lander, Philae, is named for the island in the river Nile where an obelisk was found containing an inscription in two languages that enabled Egyptologists to decipher the Rosetta Stone.  Just as these discoveries enabled us to understand ancient Egypt, it is hoped that these spacecraft will give us a better understanding of comets and the early Solar System.

Such a detailed study requires an advanced laboratory and since we can’t bring the comet to the lab, we sent a lab to the comet.  In fact, there are two laboratories on this mission: there are 11 instruments on the orbiter and 10 on the lander.  They will study the gas and dust surrounding the nucleus.  They will take pictures and study spectra.  They will work in a wide range of wavelengths including infrared, ultraviolet, microwave, and radio.  The lander has instruments that will actually drill into the surface and analyze samples.

It is very tricky to pre-plan a comet mission as things change as it approaches the Sun.  We don’t know where and when jets will erupt on the nucleus, or how strong they will be.  Nor do we know where on the surface we will find a spot for the lander.  So mission control will have its hands full this November when it is scheduled to touch down.

So stay tuned for updates on this mission that will further our understanding of what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:
Sept. 01:  Pioneer 11 is first spacecraft to fly past Saturn – 1979
Sept. 03:  Last two Apollo Moon landings canceled by NASA – 1970
Sept. 08:  Voyager 1 launched – 1977
Sept. 10:  Surveyor 5 lands on Moon – 1967
Sept. 21:  Galileo mission ends – 2003
Sept. 23:  Carolyn Herschel discovers NGC 253 – 1783
Sept. 30:  End of daily communication with Pioneer 11 – 1995

Aug 01

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – August, 2014

King and Queen at Dawn

August’s best observing is usually the Perseid meteors.  This year, though, the bright Moon will drown out all but the brightest streaks so I recommend a different pre-dawn party this month.

Starting on the morning of August 15th,  pay attention to the two brightest objects above the eastern horizon.  That would be Venus and Jupiter.  Now watch at the same time each morning and you will notice the separation between the two decrease each day until the 18th when they will appear to be less than one half degree apart, a distance roughly equal to the apparent diameter of a full Moon or about half a pinky finger held at arm’s length.  That’s really close for planets!  Five days later the separation will have increased and the two will be joined by a thin crescent Moon making a lovely trio in the pre-dawn sky.

Sunrise is a little before 7 a.m. this time of year so the best time to observe this pairing is between 6 and 6:30 a.m.  The later you look, the higher in the sky they will be but the sky will also become brighter so you will need to find a balance.  Use binoculars if it is too bright out.

Regular readers will know that this is one of my favorite types of observation because you get to witness the motion of objects in space.  All the planets move against the background stars from night to night, but it is difficult to notice unless they happen to appear close to another object such as a star or, as in this case, another planet.  And this time the separation changes a lot each day and is therefore easily noticeable.

Back to the Perseids.  Since the Moon will be bright on the night of August 12, rather than trying to see as many meteors as possible, why not try to see a few really cool bright ones that streak across the entire sky from horizon to horizon.  These are called “earthgrazers” and can last for up to a minute as opposed to regular meteors that streak across in a second or two.  Earthgrazers are meteor that skim through the earth’s atmosphere rather than plunge directly into it.  And early in the evening of a meteor shower is the best time to observe them.

So whether you’re a morning or late night person, there’s good stuff to see this month up in the sky.

This month in history:
August 01: Production of Saturn V rocket ends – 1968
August 06: Mars Science Laboratory rover lands on Mars – 2012
August 12: Echo 1 satellite launched – 1960
August 18: Helium discovered in the Sun – 1868
August 25: Voyager 2 flies past Neptune – 1989
August 28: Galileo spacecraft flies past asteroid Ida – 1993

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