Moon gives us a wink / Mars near and afar

Tonight (Oct. 25) the thin lunar crescent appears again at dusk low in the southwestern sky near the planet Saturn. This map shows the sky about 20 minutes past sunset. Source: Stellarium

After a splendid eclipse performance, the Moon returns at dusk this evening low in the southwestern sky after sunset. Reborn as a waxing crescent, it will slip away from the Sun in the coming days and gently light the night.

For those who like something much more challenging than spying the Moon, try finding Saturn about 3 degrees to its west. Binoculars required!

India’s Mars Orbiter tweeted this full-color photo of the planet earlier this month. It features the hemisphere of Mars rich in ancient volcanoes, the brown, circular structures that look like anthills.  The largest, Olympus Mons, is visible at far left center. The planet’s north polar region is covered in clouds. Credit: ISRO

Farther east, Mars, though low, is still an easy catch with the naked eye. Most of us gave up looking at it in a telescope several months ago, since the planet has shrunk to 5.6″ in diameter, not quite twice as big as Uranus’ apparent size. Mars is far from Earth and presently in in its “orange blip” phase. Even at 300x magnification, such a tiny disk shows little detail.

Little Phobos, only 10 by 14 by 11 miles (17 by 22 by 18 km), looks tiny indeed against the backdrop of the mother planet. Credit: ISRO

No matter. So many space probes now orbit the planet, close-up views are available at the click of a mouse. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) has sent back some excellent color images of the planet recently including one showing Mars’ small moon Phobos in orbit.


Photos taken by the Mars Curiosity rover on June 28, 2013 show the moon Phobos rising in the Martian sky. White dots are hot pixels and flashes are cosmic rays. 

Another view of Phobos taken by ESA’s Mars Express. This small, dark moon orbits 5,826 miles (9,380 km) above the planet. Credit: NASA

Pew! Rosetta’s comet has bad case of gas, halitosis

Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s jets of gas and dust shoot high above its surface into space in this photo taken on September 10 and released this week. As the comet slowly approaches the sun, scientists are seeing these dusty geysers all over the comet, not just the neck region. Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/ INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

I count at least 20 individual jets in this recently released photo of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. No doubt about it. As the comet wends its way toward the Sun, there’s been a clear increase in outgassing. Early photos showed several jets – pillars or geysers of rapidly vaporizing ice laden with dust and organic compounds – leaving the narrow neck of the comet. Scientists are now seeing jets everywhere on the icy nucleus. Like a bad pipe, the comet is springing leaks all over!

Close up of the comet taken on October 20 from a distance of just 4.6 miles (7.4 km). The frame is about 2,116 feet (645-m) across. Click to see a larger version worthy of a few minutes of armchair exploration. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

“At this point, we believe that a large fraction of the illuminated comet’s surface is displaying some level of activity,” says OSIRIS scientist Jean-Baptiste Vincent from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany.

Photographing jets means the much brighter comet nucleus has to be overexposed, the reason all the detail is washed out. 67P is now 292 million miles (470 million km) from the Sun or about three times Earth’s distance. Based on past comet behavior, jet activity should kick into high gear when it comes within 186 million (300 million km) of the Sun. That will happen in March 2015.

Another view of the comet from the same 4.5 mile distance. The frame is also 2,116 feet (645-m) across. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

The material shot out by the comet goes to create a mini-atmosphere around it called a coma. Since early August, the Rosetta Orbiter Sensor for Ion and Neutral Analysis (ROSINA) has been ‘sniffing the fumes’ of 67P/C-G with its two mass spectrometers. This device identifies molecules produced by the comet by how much their paths are deflected by a magnetic field generated by the instrument. Lighter particles are deflected more than heavier ones.

It appears Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko has a bad case of halitosis. If you could be there to sniff it yourself, you’d recoil at the smell of rotten eggs mixed with ammonia (think soiled kitty litter) and the pungent pickle tang of formaldehyde. Here’s how Kathrin Altwegg, principal investigator for ROSINA, put it:

 

High resolution mass spectrum from ROSINA taken on October 10 at a distance of  6.2 miles from the comet center. The plot shows the detection of hydrogen sulphide and the heavier isotope of sulphur, 34S. The plot shows intensity vs. the mass-to-charge ratio. Image courtesy K. Altwegg, University of Bern

“The perfume of 67P/C-G is quite strong, with the odor of rotten eggs (hydrogen sulphide), horse stable (ammonia), and the pungent, suffocating odour of formaldehyde. This is mixed with the faint, bitter, almond-like aroma of hydrogen cyanide. Add some whiff of alcohol (methanol) to this mixture, paired with the vinegar-like aroma of sulphur dioxide and a hint of the sweet aromatic scent of carbon disulphide, and you arrive at the ‘perfume’ of our comet.”

Using ROSINA, here’s a list of what’s been detected as of October 23.

Water (H2O)
Carbon monoxide (CO)
Carbon dioxide (CO2)
Ammonia (NH3)
Methane (CH4)
Methanol (CH3OH)
Formaldehyde (CH2O)
Hydrogen sulphide (H2S)
Hydrogen cyanide (HCN)Sulphur dioxide (SO2)
Carbon disulphide (CS2)

The first three ingredients on the list make up most of the volatile (prone to vaporize) portion of the the comet. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a chunk of 67P in a bottle where you could lift the lid and take a sniff now and again? Naw, come to think, my wife wouldn’t want that in the house.

Moon bites sun, mankind cheers!

The sun sets while still in eclipse as seen from Duluth, Minn. Thursday evening October 23. Credit: Bob King

I hope you all got at least a glimpse at the partial solar eclipse this afternoon. The weather cleared off just in time here for a beautiful view from over Superior Bay in Duluth, Minn. As expected, many of us couldn’t take our eyes off the magnificent sunspot group.

Sometimes clouds can be your friend. Credit: Stuart McDaniel

Although we looked at the eclipse through the telescope and camera back, my friend and I agreed the best views were at 1x magnification using nothing more than mylar and welder’s glass. Both the nibbling moon and sunspots were easy to see, and without a frame around the scene, the Sun felt closer, more natural.  Because we watched from an open site on a bay, dappled sunlight on water added a nice touch.

Fr. Larry Regynski’s niece creates pinholes with her hand and uses it to project crescent suns on the wall.  Credit: Fr. Larry Regynski

65% of the Sun was covered for us, and while Sun brightness normally drops off near sunset, there was no question that everything around us looked dimmer than normal with half the Sun gone.

Here are a few photos to enjoy. If you took one you’d like to share, please e-mail it to me at rking@duluthnews.com and I’ll put it up on the blog.

Still keeping an eye on possible auroras tonight. Right now, all is quiet, but I suspect that big sunspot group sooner or later will crank up the heat.

Eclipse season is over now – the next of note for the Americas will be a total lunar eclipse on April 4th next year.

This is how the eclipse looked in a small 3.5-inch refracting telescope. Credit: Bob King

Amateur astronomer Mike Sangster holds up a photographic solar filter over the eclipsed sun Thursday. Credit: Bob King

Gorgeous! Dimmed by haze and high clouds, the eclipsed sun sets in the west Thursday evening. Credit: Mike Sangster

Me with my head stuck in a telescope … as usual. To observe and photograph the eclipse I used a 94mm refractor fitted with a photographic solar filter. Most exposures were shot at 1/4000-second at f/14. Credit: Mike Sangster

Sweet sunset shot in Owatonna, Minn. taken with a 210mm telephoto at ISO 100, f/18 and 1/4000-second. Credit: Gary Johnson

Mike Sangster crossed one hand over the over to create small gaps that acted as pinhole projectors. He managed 3 crescent suns on the side of his car. Credit: Bob King

Two crescent suns almost lost in the woods. Left: From Duluth’s Skyline Parkway near Bardon Peak from Art Johnston. Right: From the Pike Lake boat ramp taken by Guy Sander

Biggest sunspot in 5 years may steal the show during today’s eclipse

Active region 2192 (AR 2192) is about the same size as the planet Jupiter or 87,000 miles end to end. This illustration is based on a photo of the  sunspot group taken October 22. Click for more information and animations. Credit: NASA/SDO/Alex Young

Wow, have you ever? Look at that sunspot group. If it seems bigger than any you’ve ever seen you’re right. At least in the last five years. Active region 2192 is the largest sunspot group recorded so far in Solar Cycle 24 which began in 2009. Solar cycles typically last about 11 years and chart the rise and decline of sunspots, flares and other solar activity.

The giant spot group 2192 faces Earth squarely today and should look spectacular during this afternoon’s partial solar eclipse.  Here we see many cooler, darker umbrae surrounded by the lighter penumbrae. The group has a magnetically complex beta-gamma-delta magnetic field ripe for flaring. Credit: NASA/SDO

Yesterday I grabbed my #14 welder’s glass and couldn’t believe how easy it was to see this behemoth. If you have a filter ready for today’s partial solar eclipse, use it to look at the sun anytime, and you’ll see what I mean.

Rarely do naked eye sunspots look like more than dark dots. Region 2192 stands apart. Look carefully through your filter and you’ll discern that the left side (eastern half) looks darker than the western side. That’s because most of the darker bits, called umbrae, are concentrated there.

The sun this morning Oct. 23 with our featured sunspot group facing toward Earth. Credit: NASA/SDO

Sunspots have two parts – a dark core (or cores) called an umbra surrounded by a pale, skirt-like penumbra. Each spot group marks a region on the sun’s fiery outer skin where magnetic energy is concentrated. The magnetic forces that permeate the Sun are the same as those that flow the magnets on your refrigerator but contain vastly more energy because they cover huge regions of the Sun’s surface or photosphere.

Strong magnetic fields within a sunspot group quell the turbulent churning of the photosphere, chilling the region by several thousand degrees. Sunspots appear dark against the Sun’s blazing disk because they’re cooler. If you could rip them away from the Sun and see them alone against the sky, they’d be glaringly bright.

The crazy big sunspot group unleashed an X-class flare around 9 a.m. October 22 seen in these photos taken in two “flavors” or far ultraviolet light by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA/SDO

Twisty fields of magnetic energy looping above sunspots can become unstable in the hot, turbulent environment of the Sun’s surface, which bubbles and boils like overcooked oatmeal in a microwave oven, and release their pent-up power in violent explosions called solar flares.

2192 has been no stranger to flares. Harboring a complex beta-gamma-delta magnetic field where the magnetic “north poles” and “south poles” lie side by side, they practically beg to explosively reconnect. Since Monday, the spotted beast has spewed two X-class (most powerful) and 8 M-class (medium strength) flares. So far though, none has been directed toward the Earth.


Watch the big group rotate onto the sun’s face and grow in the 72-hour animation made with NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory

That’s likely to change very soon since the group is now squarely facing the planet. Already, NOAA’s space weather forecast calls for a 95% chance for more M-class and 55% chance for X-class flare in the next 24 hours. Space weather is expected to be strong during the same period. That might mean auroras coming around as soon as this evening. I’ll keep you posted.

Not only will the sun be eclipsed this afternoon but the planet Venus shines just 1.1 degrees to its north. Venus is very close to superior conjunction which occurs early Saturday. In the photo, the planet is in the background well behind the Sun. Don’t count on seeing Venus – too much glare! This photo was taken from space by NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory this afternoon using a coronagraph to block the Sun from view. Credit: NASA/ESA

Good luck with today’s eclipse. If you need more information including viewing times for your city, please see my earlier blog on the topic.

Feel the bliss, don’t miss Thursday’s partial solar eclipse

The solar crescents show how much Sun will be covered at maximum for various locations across the U.S. and Canada during the October 23rd (Thursday) partial solar eclipse. Credit: Jay Anderson

Doing anything Thursday afternoon? Have a few minutes to spareThere’s a partial eclipse of the Sun visible across much of North America and of Mexico you might like to catch. For observers in the U.S. and Canadian West the whole event begins and ends in the afternoon before sunset. Those living east of the Great Plains will see the Sun set while still in eclipse.

During a solar eclipse, the orbiting Moon passes between the Sun and Earth, completely blocking the Sun from view as shown here. In Thursday’s eclipse, the moon will pass a little north of a line connecting the three orbs, leaving a portion of the Sun uncovered. To view a partial solar eclipse, a safe solar filter is necessary. Credit: Wikipedia

Solar eclipses occur when the Moon glides between the Earth and the Sun, temporarily blocking it from view. Total solar eclipses get most of the attention because the Earth- Moon-Sun alignment is perfect. Like a snug lid on a pot, the Moon blanks out the Sun completely to create a dramatic spectacle of a black, fire-rimmed disk set in a plush solar corona.

Partial eclipses happen because the Moon’s orbit is tipped a few degrees to the Sun-Earth line. Most months, it passes north or south of the Sun and misses it completely. But during a partial eclipse, the Moon’s close enough to that line to partially block the Sun from view. Unlike a total eclipse, all phases of a partial eclipse are unsafe to view unless you use a safe solar filter or view it indirectly via projection.

Map showing times and percentage of the Sun covered during Thursday’s partial solar eclipse. Times are Pacific Daylight – add 1 hour for MDT, 2 hours for CDT and 3 hours for EDT. Interpolate between the lines to find your approximate viewing time. The arc marked A shows where the eclipse begins at sunset; B = Maximum eclipse at sunset and C = Eclipse ends at sunset. Credit: NASA, F. Espenak,with additions by Bob King

As you can see from the map, nowhere will this eclipse be total. Maximum coverage will happen in Nunavut Territory in northern Canada where the musk oxen might catch sight of a fat solar crescent 81% covered by the moon at sunset. The farther north you live in the U.S. or Canada, the deeper the eclipse. Northern U.S. states will see around 60% covered compared to 40% in the deep south.

In Duluth, Minn. for example, the eclipse begins at 4:21 p.m., reaches a maximum of about 65% at 5:33 p.m. and continues into sunset at 6:06 p.m. Since the sun will be low in the western sky from many locations, be sure to get a spot with a wide open view in that direction.To find out times and coverage for your city, use these links:

* U.S. Cities
* Cities in Canada and Mexico 

Some of the different kinds of safe solar filters available. They work by reflecting or absorbing most of the light from the Sun, allowing only a fraction through to the eyes. NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN without one. Click photos for a supplier of eclipse glasses. Credit: Bob King

Solar filters come in a variety of styles from inexpensive eclipse glasses that use an optical polymer to glass welder’s filters to caps you place over the front end of a telescope. It’s important to use the correct kind – don’t stack a bunch of sunglasses and figure “it’ll do” or look through smoked glass. They still allow dangerous UV and infrared light to pass through and will mess up your retinas for life.

Because we’re on the heels of the eclipse, if you don’t already have a pair of eclipse glasses I recommend a #14 welder’s glass. It’s my favorite actually because it’s easy to stuff in a pocket and heavy-duty enough to take a few dings. You can pick one up for a few dollars at a welding supply shop. Only buy a #14 – lower numbers won’t cut it.

A piece of aluminum foil, a pin and a cardboard box are all you need to build a pinhole projector. The tiny hole creates a small image of the eclipsed Sun inside the darkened box which you place over your head. Remember to look at the projection of the sun on the inner wall of the box – not through the pinhole itself.

Projection provides a fine alternative to using a filter. You can mount a pair of binoculars (or small telescope) on a tripod and project the Sun’s image on a sheet of white paper or build your own pinhole projector using the instructions above.

You can mount binoculars on a tripod, cover one lens with a lenscap and project the sun’s image safely onto a sheet of white cardboard. Credit: Bob King

If leaves still cling to your trees this season, the narrow spaces between the leaves act like natural pinholes and will cast multiple images of the eclipsed Sun on the ground below.

You can even place one hand atop the other and let the sun shine through the gaps between your fingers to see the eclipse. Low tech as it gets, but works in a pinch.

Here are some other things to watch for during the eclipse:

* If you live where half or more of the sun will be covered, you may notice a change in the quality of daylight. To my eye, the light becomes “grayer”. What do you see?

* Telescope users will see the mountains and crater rims along the moon’s edge as tiny bumps and projections against the brilliant solar photosphere. You’ll also notice how much blacker moon is compared to sunspots. Guess what? We’ve got a huge sunspot out there right now – Region 2192. Perfect for comparison!

Partially eclipsed sun just before sunset seen from Island Lake north of Duluth in May 2012. Credit: Bob King

*  Those living where parts of the eclipse happen at sunset will get an extra special view of the sun with a big bite out of it right sitting atop the southwestern horizon.

I wish you excellent weather – good luck!

 

Mars orbiter sends close-up photos of Comet Siding Spring

High resolution image pairs made with HiRISE camera on MRO during Comet Siding Spring’s closest approach to Mars on October 19. Shown at top are images of the nucleus region and inner coma. Those at bottom were exposed to show the bigger coma beginning of a tail. Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona

They’ve done it again. NASA engineers and scientists successfully slewed the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter into position to get pictures of comet C/2013 Siding Spring during its close flyby on October 19. I think all of us were waiting for pictures more like this one which show more than a bit of fuzz. Not to disrespect fuzz. Fuzz or comet dust seeded the early Earth with important organic compounds and still makes for awesome meteor showers right up to the present day.

The top set of photos uses the full dynamic range of the camera to accurately depict brightness and detail in the nuclear region and inner coma. Prior to its arrival near Mars astronomers estimated the diameter of the nucleus or comet’s core at around 0.6 mile or 1 kilometer. But based on these images taken at much closer range, its true size is less than 1/3 mile or 0.5 km across. The bottom photos overexpose the nuclear region but reveal an extended coma and a short tail extending to the right.

The Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt extends outward from the plane of the planets, while the Oort Cloud encompasses the solar system in a spherical shell containing millions of comets. Long-period comets like C/2013 A1 Siding Spring often have diagonal orbits that cut across the plane.
Credit: NAOJ

Comet Siding Spring is a new visitor to the inner solar system, hailing from the distant repository of comets called the Oort Cloud far past Neptune and the icy asteroids that populate the Kuiper Belt.

It slid sunward on its cigar-shaped orbit for millions of years as the planets wheeled around the Sun like balls in a roulette wheel. By pure chance, Mars happened to lie only 87,000 miles from the comet on its journey toward the Sun.

Annotated photo of Comet Siding Spring taken by the Opportunity Rover on October 19 near closest approach. The comet passed comet passed much closer to Mars than any previous known comet flyby of Earth or Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./ASU/TAMU

Photographing a fast-moving target from orbit is no easy trick. You have to pan the MRO’s camera at the precise rate needed to shoot a time exposure without blurring the image. Engineers at Lockheed-Martin in Denver did exactly that based on comet position calculations by engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab. To make sure they knew exactly where the comet was, the team photographed the comet 12 days in advance. To their surprise, the orbital calculations were just a bit off. Using the new positions, MRO succeeded in locking onto the comet during the flyby. Without this earlier check, cameras may have missed seeing Siding Spring altogether!

I’ve also added a new, annotated version of the photo taken by the Opportunity Rover and used in the blog earlier today. From the rover’s point of view, the comet buzzed across the constellation Cetus at the time, while here on Earth we see it in the summertime constellation Ophiuchus.

NASA deserves a pat on the back for their great work in acquiring these images and getting them to us within 24 hours. There will be much more on the observational side (and hopefully more photos!) in the weeks and months to come.

Opportunity Rover takes first pictures of Comet Siding Spring from Mars

Comet Siding Spring photographed October 19, 2014 by the Opportunity Rover. Stars show as point and the streaks are probably cosmic ray hits on the sensor during the exposure. Click for original. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Darn rover’s been there more than 10 years and still producing firsts. Around 4:13 a.m. local time October 19, not long before the beginning of morning twilight, NASA’s Opportunity Rover pointed its panoramic camera at Comet Siding Spring in the constellation Eridanus and took a historic photograph – the first of a comet seen from the surface of another planet.

Another photo of the comet taken by Opportunity. Click for original. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Sure, it’s just a fuzzy spot, but like Galileo’s first look at Jupiter through his primitive telescope, remarkable all the same. I found the photos while digging through the raw images posted on the Opportunity website earlier this morning. There were only three of the night sky, one of which clearly showed a fuzzy object. If you look closely, the comet looks elongated. That might be from trailing during the time exposure or could be a hint of its tail.

Time exposure of the night sky taken by NASA’s Curiosity Rover on October 19. You can see real stars if you look closely but most of the specks are noise. No sign of the comet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Unfortunately I couldn’t find the comet in the several pictures returned by the Curiosity Rover. Each is heavily speckled with noise but no matter how I tried to tone and stretch the photos, no comet. Maybe NASA has other pictures it will offer after they’re cleaned up.

Map showing the landing sites of rovers and probes successfully landed on Mars. Opportunity is located 1.9 degrees south of the Martian equator in the dark feature called Sinus Meridiani. Credit: NASA

I should emphasize here that we’re still awaiting confirmation from NASA that these pictures really do show the comet, but it appears to be the real thing.

Next to a greatly overexposed Mars, we see Comet Siding Spring continuing on its way today October 20, 2014. Copyright: Rolando Ligustri

Mars probes A-OK after dramatic comet flyby

This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Mars orbiters lining up behind the Red Planet for their “duck and cover” maneuver to shield them from comet dust from the close flyby of comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) on Oct. 19, 2014. Credit: NASA

All three U.S. spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet reported back in good health after their close encounter with Comet Siding Spring this afternoon. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) took shelter behind Mars during the half-hour when the comet’s dust particles posed the greatest hazard for the probes. Each also gathered data on the comet before during and after the approach. Click on the links to check the mission status of each orbiter.

This illustration shows where the comet was in the sky above the rover when it was taking photos earlier this evening. Hopefully, we’ll see them soon. Credit: NASA

So far, so good. Meanwhile, NASA’s Curiosity Rover shot photos of fleeing, dirty ice-ball between 4-6 p.m. Central Daylight Time as skies darkened after sunset in Gale Crater. No pictures have been posted yet, but I’ve been monitoring websites and feeds like a mall security officer.


Come Siding Spring comes out the other side!

As for the comet, it survived its brush too. Photos and videos made during and after the encounter clearly show Siding Spring passing Mars intact. The video was made from still photos shot earlier this evening by Fritz Helmut Hemmerich from 3,900 feet in Tenerife in the Canary Islands.

Set the alarm and boil the tea, it’s time for the Orionid meteor shower

The Orionids peak Tuesday and Wednesday mornings Oct. 21-22 next week when an observer might see 20-25 meteors an hour from a dark sky. They’ll appear to radiate above Betelgeuse in northern Orion. Source: Stellarium

The coming week’s menu features a meteoric tossed salad of Taurid fireballs crossing paths with the annual Orionid meteor shower. While the Taurids are a broad, sparse stream coming in dribs and drabs throughout October and November, the Orionids peak on the mornings of October 21-22. Expect to see 20 meteors an hour emanating from a point of sky above the bright star Betelgeuse in the hunter’s shoulder.

Each streak of light you see signals the incineration of a flake of Halley’s Comet, the parent comet of the Orionids. Every year in late October, Earth cuts across Halley’s orbit and bits of dust shed by the comet from previous passes near the sun burn up as they strike the upper atmosphere at speeds of around 148,000 mph.

Composite of a recent Orionid meteor shower taken with an all-sky camera. Credit: NASA

It’s been a couple years since I’ve seen the shower due to clouds or moonlight, but to the patient observer they’re thrilling to watch. Orionids are extremely fast – most tear across the sky in a second or less. Don’t even bother to alert your observing companions if you see one. It’ll be long gone even as the words leave your mouth, though if you’re lucky, some meteors will leave glowing trails of ionized air or even a curl of cosmic smoke (dust) in their wakes.

“The Orionid meteor shower is not the strongest, but it is one of the most beautiful showers of the year,” says Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.

Composite photo of an Orionid meteor shower taken a few years ago. The constellation Orion is seen at lower right center. Credit: SLOOH

This year’s shower won’t be compromised by moonlight either. It may even be enhanced by it. On Tuesday morning, a fingernail crescent will attempt to steal the show as it rises in the east at the start of morning twilight. Which brings us to the best time to view the Orionids.

I’ve drawn the map above for 2 a.m. local time. That’s when the radiant is high enough in the sky for a good show to begin, but the hours just before dawn are a tad better as the radiant point is higher yet. The ideal time would be from 3-6 a.m. Find a place where light pollution is at a minimum and set up facing south-southeast for the best view. A comfy reclining chair and blanket or sleeping bag will help you stay relaxed and warm. It is almost November after all!

Monster sunspot could stir up auroras

The sun photographed this morning by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Telescope at 11:30 a.m. CDT this morning October 18. Credit: NASA

Not today and not tomorrow, but a monster sunspot group rounding the eastern limb of the sun could spunk up the fall aurora season. Active region 2192 harbors a Jupiter-sized sunspot that’s just now visible with the naked eye using a safe solar mylar filter or #14 welder’s glass. I spotted it very close to the southeastern edge of the sun today. In the coming days, it will rotate into better view, making for an easy catch with the naked eye or small telescope. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a safe filter. You can purchase one HERE for naked eye viewing or HERE for your telescope.

Coronal mass ejection shot out by flare activity in new sunspot group 2192 on October 14 before it even rounded the sun’s limb. Image from the SOHO coronagraph. Click for video. Credit: NASA/ESA

Even before the behemoth came into view, it spawned a brilliant coronal mass ejection on October 14 and several M-class medium strength flares. If we assume that the giant spot stays potent, the sun will rotate it around to face Earth in about 6 days. Flaring and other activity would then stream in our direction.

It will also spice up the partial solar eclipse next Thursday afternoon. Watch for the black limb of the moon to not only eclipse the sun but this sunspot too!

Update: Sunspot group 2192 unleashed an strong X-1 class flare around midnight Oct. 18-19. Any material it may have launched into space would have missed Earth by a wide margin because of the group’s position near the sun’s edge.