Won’t You Come Out And Play?

Venus and the moon joined forces for a beautiful display at dawn today. Details: 35mm lens at f/2.8, ISO 400 and 2-second exposure. Photo: Bob King

When my wife got up early this morning because she couldn’t sleep, I did too. Then I made the wonderful mistake of pulling back the shade. Venus, Spica and the moon glowed in a bright triangle above the front yard as if inviting me, anyone to come out and play. So I brought out some toys – camera and telescope – and spent a half hour taking pictures and looking at each in turn.

No problem seeing part of Scorpius, including its bright star Antares and the globular star cluster M4, from outer space. This photo was taken by SOHO (Solar & Heliospheric Observatory) yesterday. The streamers surrounding the sun are part of its outer atmosphere or corona. SOHO orbits at a stable point in space 932,000 miles from Earth in the sun's direction. Credit: NASA/ESA

Tomorrow the moon will be a very thin crescent (just 6% sunlit) well below Venus but still easy to see. Watch for it around 6:30 a.m. The sun is comfortably housed in the constellation Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer where it will remain through the 17th before passing into Sagittarius the Archer. Ophiuchus? It’s sometimes known as the 13th zodiac constellation, but has never been recognized by astrologers, because the sun spends less than three weeks within its borders. In the world of astrology, the sun moves directly from Scorpius into Sagittarius, while in astronomy the serpent bearer keeps his rightful place. If Ophiuchus (off-ee-YOU-cuss) received the recognition I think he deserves, we’d all know at a glance how to pronounce it.

Got an clear view to the southwest this week? Watch for Mercury after sunset. Created with Stellarium

As long as we’re straying close to the sun, sky watchers wanting a challenge can try finding the planet Mercury very low in the southwestern sky about 20-25 minutes after sunset. It’s currently at “maximum elongation” or as far from the sun as it will appear this month. That and its brightness are the good news. The bad news is that the innermost planet will only be about five degrees or three fingers held together at arm’s length above the horizon. If you live in the southern U.S., your view of the planet improves considerably, because it’s pitched up at steeper angle to the horizon.

Mono (pronounced MOE-no) Lake in California, site of the remarkable discovery. Credit: Wiki

This afternoon at 1 p.m. CST, NASA is holding a press conference on an astrobiology finding that will affect the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life, but the cat already appears to be out of the bag. According to Wired Science, a new bacterial life form has been discovered whose DNA is different from anything currently alive.  And it’s thriving in California’s arsenic-laden Mono Lake. HOLY BUCKETS! Stop back later today for an update. More info HERE.

Astronaut Andrew S. W. Thomas, STS-114 mission specialist, takes a close look at tiles underneath the Space Shuttle Atlantis in the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center

Are you a teacher at a school or university? Would you like one of the space shuttles’ heat shield tiles for your classroom? With the retirement of the shuttle fleet coming very soon, NASA is offering 7,000 tiles to share with students and schools. The price tag can’t be beat — free plus a reasonable $23.40 shipping and handling fee. Schools can request their tiles by going to http://gsaxcess.gov/NASAWel.htm The lightweight tiles protect the belly of the shuttle from the extreme temperatures of re-entry. For more information on the program, check out this recent article. Grab one while you can!