The wire thin crescent moon sure surprised me yesterday evening. I saw it around 5 through the window at work. Wow, nice! Historically and personally, a lunar crescent has often been associated with rebirth and renewal. Perhaps you feel the same as I do when it first appears in the west after sunset. There’s a sense of starting over, beginning again. Nature is rich with metaphors of renewal. They give us points of departure for picking ourselves up and risking something new. As humans, we need as many as we can find.
If you missed the moon last night, it will of course still be a crescent tonight, though a little thicker and considerably higher in the west after sundown, making it easier to find than yesterday.
Back over on the other side of night, I got up this morning at 5:30 and took a look at Saturn, hoping to see the big storm that’s been raging in the planet’s northern hemisphere since early December. In a word, it was not easy, even though I was using a 10-inch telescope magnifying 250 times. Air turbulence made the image jump around, but there were enough moments of steadiness over a half hour’s time to discern a lighter colored band with a subtly brighter spot along the northern edge of Saturn’s North Equatorial Belt.
I wish I could say the storm jumped out at me, but I can’t. What did jump out was the fantastic brightness of Venus in the southeastern sky, and an attractive pairing of Saturn and Spica in the south. Ringed planet and star will be only a few “fingers” apart and nearly matched in brightness this month. If you look two fists at arm’s length above them, you can add Arcturus to your morning gem collection. Keen-eyed sky watchers may even be able to spot Antares in Scorpius as the light from the coming sun gathers strength in the east. Despite the cold, I felt comforted by these lights of dawn.
I received the February issue of Sky and Telescope magazine in the mail yesterday. In it was an article about one of most powerful solar storms in history – a massive flare and coronal mass ejection in 1859 that so tweaked our planet’s invisible magnetic bubble (magnetosphere), that auroras were visible nearly to the equator and the then-new telegraph technology was completely disrupted. If the Earth got hit with the same particle storm today as back then, nearly the entire power grid of the U.S. and Canada would be knocked out for weeks, if not longer. It made for a great if unsettling read.
One of the ways scientists study the northern lights is to shoot a rocket laden with sensing instruments right through it. That’s what happened this past December 12 when the NASA-funded Rocket Experiment for Neutral Upwelling (RENU) was launched from Norway 200 miles high over the island Svalbard to study the flow of particles, energy and heat associated with the aurora. The entire flight lasted just 13 minutes with the rocket landing in the ocean 900 miles from the launch site.
The solar wind, a constant stream of high-speed electrons and protons from the sun, creates electrical currents in the Earth’s ionosphere which heats the atoms, causing the atmosphere above to expand by hundreds of kilometers. A more expansive atmosphere is literally a drag on orbiting satellites, slowly altering their orbits and shortening their lifespans. The mission also examined how the ‘polar cusps’, two funnels in our magnetic bubble, allow the solar wind to reach the upper atmosphere directly and create the northern lights.Â Click on link above to learn more about the project. Click HERE for an enlarged photo of the dramatic night rocket launch.