California fireball drops rare meteorites

Robert Ward holds a piece of the meteorite from the fireball that streaked across central California and Nevada Sunday morning. Thanks and credit to Dave Gheesling

The first fragments of the California-Nevada daylight fireball were recovered Tuesday by Robert Ward, one of the most prolific meteorite hunters in the world. Ward lives in Arizona and has been fascinated by meteorites since witnessing a fireball as a boy in 1986. In the late 1980s he found his first meteorite and today his collection of personal finds includes space rocks from almost 500 localities. You can read more about Ward in this story by fellow meteorite hunter David Gheesling.

Ward and other meteorite hunters would be looking for black stones that stand out from the native rocks. Freshly-fallen meteorites are coated in a thin layer of black, melted rock called fusion crust from heat generated  by friction and pressure with the air as they fall to Earth. He may also be using a metal detector as many meteorites contain specks of iron-nickel metal.

After a preliminary assessment, it appears that the California fall is a particularly rare type of meteorite called a CM carbonaceous chondrite. I know that’s a mouthful so bear with me. CMs are rich in carbon and contain water and complex organic compounds including amino acids. Here on Earth, amino acids are used by our cells to build the proteins that make and power our bodies.

A fragment of the Murchison meteorite that fell in Australia in 1969. The vial contains microscopic diamonds also found within the rock.

One of the most famous CM chondrites (KON-drites) fell on September 28, 1969 near the town of Murchison, Australia. Some 254 lbs. or 100 kg of specimens were recovered from the Murchison fall.

Local people who picked up the pieces right after the fall said the meteorite smelled like methanol (a form of alcohol), a sure sign that it contained organic compounds.

Closeup of the first meteorites found by Robert Ward from the California fall. Notice the bumpy fusion crust on the piece at right. Credit: Dave Gheesling

Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environments Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., estimates that the meteoroid was about the size of a minivan and weighed in at around 154,300 pounds before it struck the atmosphere.  At the time of disintegration it released energy equivalent to a 5-kiloton explosion.

While most meteorites trace their origins to asteroids, CM chondrites like the California fall might be fragments of a comet, which are rich in water and have similar compositions.

Comet Hale-Bopp from April 1997. It was one of the brightest, easiest to see comets in decades. Credit: E. Kolmhofer, H. Raab; Johannes-Kepler-Observatory, Linz, Austria

At the center of all comets is a several-mile-diameter, irregularly shaped “nucleus” made of ice and dust. And it’s as black as a charcoal briquette. Everything we associate with a comet – the glowing head and bright tail – are created when heat and light from the sun boil off and illuminate ice, dust and other rocky materials from the nucleus.

Comets are fragile and known to regularly break into pieces under the stress of solar heat and gravity. CM chondrites like the California fall are also nearly black inside and out. Perhaps, just perhaps, they’re pieces from a long ago shattered comet.

They sure look like chunks of asphalt, but no, these are two additional meteorites from the California fall. The white, circular flecks are chondrules, some of the earliest solid matter to form in the solar system. Credit: Dave Gheesling

There’s been some talk that the meteor – especially given its possible connection to a comet – may be related to the Lyrid meteor shower that peaked this weekend. It’s not. The fireball came from the east in roughly the direction of the sun; the Lyrid radiant was high in the western sky at the time of the fall.

The daylight fireball that streaked over California and Nevada around 8 a.m. this past Sunday. It broke up as it traveled, dropping meteorites onto the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near the small town of Coloma. Credit and copyright: Lisa Warren

The meteor's flight path recorded by Doppler weather radar. Ground track is shown below it.

Auroras possible again tonight April 24-25

The current Kp index graph as of 9 p.m. CDT. When the bars reach "5" and higher, an auroral storm is in progress. Credit: NOAA

Aurora is out this evening even if we can’t see it here in Duluth, Minn. because of clouds. The Kp index has shot up to “5″ as of 7 p.m. CDT just like it did last night when auroras lit up the sky across the northern U.S. This means that a minor geomagnetic storm is in progress.

According to NOAA’s Space Weather Scales, minor storm effect from the high-speed solar wind particles blowing our way include:

* Weak fluctuations in power grids
* Minor impact on satellite operations possible
* Migratory animals are affected at this and higher levels; aurora is commonly visible at high latitudes (northern U.S.)

Be sure to get outside for a look at the northern sky before going to bed tonight. You might just see northern lights.

UPDATE 10 p.m. CDT: Activity dropped off a smidge to “4″.

Smelt run, auroras blaze and Saturn’s rings glitter

Smelters use nets to scoop up smelt running in the Lester River in Duluth last night. Photo: Bob King

I was fortunate to be outside last night photographing the annual smelt run at Lester River and Park Point beach when the aurora first appeared. Like a flower ready to open, it began as a glow behind a distant cloud bank. When the clouds finally moved out, the entire northern sky had bloomed into a wall of bright, diffuse light slowly pulsing with soft rays.

Ever been overwhelmed but don’t know when to quit? My work continued until nearly midnight, but all the while I had my eye on those lights and planned to make a drive to a dark sky when done. I called it quits around midnight, but by then clouds had returned. For a change I got a few hours of sleep. The lights raged on all night for those lucky enough to have clear skies.

The auroral oval, one of two regions of auroral activity centered on Earth's magnetic poles, crept southward last night grazing the northern U.S. and southern Canada. The red line is a conservative estimate of the aurora's visibility. Click image to see the current extent of the oval. Credit: NOAA

Don’t tuck your camera and warm coat away yet. NOAA space weather forecasters predict another hit from the sun Thursday the 26th. There’s also a small chance for continued activity tonight.

Saturn’s and its bright “companion” Spica are now well up in southeastern sky at the end of twilight. The Cassini probe, which has been photographing and studying the planet and its many moons since 2004, continues to send us delightful surprises.

This set of six images obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows trails that were dragged out from Saturn's F ring by objects about a half mile (1 kilometer) in diameter. Scientists have seen more than 500 of these kinds of trails in over 20,000 images collected by Cassini from 2004 to 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/QMUL

NASA scientists working with Cassini images recently discovered strange, half-mile-sized objects punching into Saturn’s distant F-ring. The objects collide with icy ring particles at around 4 mph and draw bits of material out into glittering streamers or trails. Scientists are calling them “mini-jets”; they range from 20 to 110 miles long. In 20,000 images surveyed, 500 showed the jets.

Video with great imagery that provides more details on how the mini-jets form.

The clumps of material that do the pulling appear to be manufactured on the spot by gravitational interactions between the moon Prometheus and the F-ring. Prometheus, 53 miles across, warps and compresses parts of the ring forcing ice particles to stick together into temporary bodies. Some later break up while other persist, plow into the F-ring and create the mini-jets. Smelt, aurora, mini-jets at Saturn – is this a wonderful universe or what?

Keep your eyes peeled for auroras tonight April 23-24

It's here! A huge "tongue" of bright aurora speared by faint rays covered the northeastern sky around 10:30 p.m. Monday night seen from the Lester River in Duluth, Minn. As of midnight Mon-Tues. the aurora was still visible through mostly cloudy skies. Photo: Bob King

The effects of an earlier coronal mass ejection from the sun arrived today, jazzing up Earth’s magnetic field and setting the stage for possible northern lights tonight. The Kp index has been at “5″ since this afternoon meaning it’s time once again to put on your tin hats and head out for a look. Observers in the northern U.S. have the best chance of seeing the aurora’s green glow. Find a place with a clear, dark view of the northern sky for the best view.

A coronal mass ejection from July 2002. Solar flares send billows of solar wind particles into space, some of which arrives at Earth and excites the upper atmosphere to glow with auroras. Credit: NASA

You can keep up on activity by clicking the Kp link above and checking the extent of the aurora at the Ovation Auroral Forecast site. Auroras are typically – but not always – most active around midnight to 1 a.m.  Good luck and let us know if you spot any.

While you’re out, you can also catch the last set of space station passes for the area this week. We’ll soon enter a short hiatus of daylight-only passes before the station returns to the morning sky. The times below are for the Duluth, Minn. region. For times for your town, please log in to Heavens Above or plunk your zip code into Spaceweather’s Satellite Flyby page.

The station first appears in the western sky and travels toward the east. If you see it fade midway through a pass, it’s moving into Earth’s shadow and blocked from sunlight.

Lisa Warren of Reno photographed the daylight fireball Sunday morning (April 22) while she and her husband, Rick, were walking their dogs north of the city. Credit and copyright: Lisa Warren

I also updated today’s earlier blog about the California-Nevada daylight fireball and included a link to a set of spectacular photos taken by Lisa Warren of Reno, one of which is featured above. Here’s the link again

Space station passes this week:

* Tonight Monday April 23 starting at 8:57 p.m. and passing almost overhead several minutes later. Very bright!
*  Tuesday April 24 at 9:36 p.m. when it’s very close to the crescent moon in the west. Moves across the southern sky before fading in the southeast.
* Wednesday April 25 at 8:40 p.m. Another brilliant overhead pass
* Thursday April 26 at 9:20 p.m. Cruises across the southwestern sky
* Saturday April 28 at 9:03 p.m. Low pass across the southwest

California fireball excitement plus sweet sights in the western sky

A Lyrid fireball blazes across the sky over Ozark, Ark. Sunday morning during the shower's peak. Vega and the meteor radiant are at top center. Thanks and credit to Brian Emfinger. Click photo to visit Brian's website for more photos.

I managed one Lyrid this morning at the start of dawn. A white spark shot out of Lyra when I looked up from the scope to take in the Milky Way and Summer Triangle. Twilight and clouds soon took over, but I was happy and surprised to see my solo sparkler. Lyrid activity drops off quickly after maximum.

Others with clear skies during Sunday morning’s peak reported a good shower with counts of 10-20 meteors per hour and a few fireballs to boot. The International Meteor Organization results show a peak as high as 30-45 meteors around 8 p.m. CDT April 21 before settling down to 15-20 per hour on the 22nd before dawn.

Lisa Warren of Reno photographed the daylight fireball Sunday morning (April 22) while she and her husband, Rick, were walking their dogs north of the city. Credit and copyright: Lisa Warren

People in California and Nevada yesterday didn’t have to bother looking to know a meteor crashed through their sky. Yesterday around 8 a.m. a fireball brighter than the full moon shot across the sky at supersonic speeds creating a sonic boom that rattled windows and nerves alike. Check out the complete sequence of incredible photos taken by Lisa Warren over Reno.

Most meteoroids – what meteors are called before they burn up as meteors – are the size of chocolate chips or small pebbles, but the ones the size of baseballs and softballs we call fireballs. You’ll never forget the sight if you’re lucky enough to see one.

Another fireball, this one from an earlier Perseid meteor shower in August 2006. Credit: Pierre Martin of Arnprior, Ontario, Canada / NASA

Eye witnesses described the fireball’s brightness as somewhere between the full moon and sun. You know it had to be bright because the meteor was seen in full daylight around 8 a.m. Many witnesses reported loud booms that shook their homes. Check out the American Meteor Society’s Fireball Reports and you’ll see that more than 40 people hopped online to share their impressions.

Like objects in your side view mirror, most meteors appear closer than they are. That’s all the more true when they’re exceptionally bright. Studies show however that meteors burn up at least 50 miles overhead. If big enough to survive and land on the ground, the pieces go completely dark 5-12 miles high during the “dark flight” phase. Only if you see a fireball directly overhead would it lie within that distance. Most sightings are well off toward one direction or another, so you have to add your horizontal distance to the meteor’s height to get a true distance. While some meteors are bright enough to make us think they landed over the hill, almost all are many miles away.

According to Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Envronment Office, the source of the blast was a meteoroid about the size of a minivan. Did any fragments survive and land as meteorites? Hard to say just yet. It may have completely disintegrated. I suspect meteorite hunters will now be on the ground talking to eyewitnesses and studying Doppler weather data to determine a trajectory and possible fall site. Fireball sightings aren’t uncommon and many don’t lead to meteorites, but some do. If this is one of those, I’ll be touch with news of the hunt.

As the moon waxes from a thin to a thick crescent over the next few days, it rises up from the west to meet and pass the planet Venus. Created with Stellarium

I’m sure some of you are wondering if the fireball was connected to the Lyrid meteor shower which peaked early Sunday. Most likely it was a coincidence. Meteor shower meteors are generally small bits of grit and dust and don’t produce large fireballs that could reach the ground. Still, the Lyrids are known for there occasional bright meteors, so it remains a possibility.

Last night some of you may have attempted to see the very thin lunar crescent low in the west above the planet Jupiter. Tonight it will be higher up and easier to see as it glides upward to meet Venus on Tuesday.

I drew the map for 45 minutes after sunset to include both planets, but you can go out later if you like when the sky’s darker and Venus still up. The Pleiades or Seven Sisters star cluster will lie to the right of the moon tonight.

During crescent phase only a sliver of the moon is illuminated by sunlight; the rest is “darkly” lit by indirect light. Light is reflected from Earth toward the moon and then reflected from the moon back to us. Called earthshine, think of it as a game of ping pong with light.

There’s no place like home on Earth Day

Ice still clings to a wall along the Caribou River north of Duluth yesterday. Water in all its forms makes Earth special among the known planets. Photo: Bob KIng

What’s a guy gotta do to get a clear night around here? We were cloudy overnight in Duluth for the annual Lyrid meteor shower. I haven’t heard what the counts were like, but I hope some of you had clear skies and ventured out for a view. While the shower peaked Sunday morning and activity typically drops off quickly, you may still see a few Lyrids per hour over the next several nights.

Next up are the Eta Aquarids on May 7. This shower produces about 30 meteors per hour for observers in the southern hemisphere; northerners will only see a third as many.

Northern hemisphere observers will have to wait until the Delta Aquarids of late July and Perseids of mid-August for a significant show. That’s OK. There’s plenty to keep us occupied until then including an eclipse of the sun (May 20), partial eclipse of the moon (June 4) and a rare transit of Venus on June 5. Busy times ahead!

Five minutes of short time-lapse videos of Earth seen from the International Space Station. The firecracker thunderstorms rock. For a cool video of stars rising over the Pacific Ocean, click HERE.

Today is Earth Day, when we celebrate and appreciate our living planet. Though the focus of this blog is the sky, it’s really always been about Earth. We cock our heads in wonder at the firmament from this big, blue mobile observatory. Everything we learn about the vastness of the universe and the heartless vacuum of space tells us how good we have it here where our feet touch the ground. As Dorothy repeated over and over in the Wizard of Oz: “There’s no place like home.”

The sun photographed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory earlier this morning. Lots of spots could mean additional aurora-creating solar flares this week. Credit: NASA

Clouds in the neighborhood also mean no sunshine today. Too bad. At least five good-sized sunspot groups dot the sun’s face, many of them cooking up modest flares over the past few days. If you have a telescope with a safe solar filter take a look at all the action. With this many groups spread out far and wide, you can also easily follow the sun’s day to day rotation.

Since the sun is not a solid body like the Earth but a sphere of hot gas,  it rotates differentially – faster at the equator and slower at the poles. It takes 27 days for a complete rotation at the equator and 31 days for the polar regions. Jupiter and Saturn also consist mostly of  gas – cold gas – and like the sun their rotation rate varies with latitude. Jupiter’s equatorial zone spins around in 9 hours 50 minutes, the polar regions in 9 hours 55 minutes.

The western sky tonight about 35 minutes after sunset. Once you've spotted the moon, look below it for Jupiter. Created with Stellarium

So did you think like me that Jupiter had disappeared from the evening sky to leave Venus shine in solo splendor? Well, think again. A super thin day-old crescent moon might be enough to drag you out for one last look at the solar system’s biggest planet.

If you face west a half-hour to 45 minutes after sunset tonight, the moon will lie about a fist held at arm’s length above the horizon. Below it, fighting for its life in the bright twilight, Jupiter begs to be noticed one more time. Take along binoculars in case your sky is hazy. Good luck in your attempt.

PS. For lots more great videos and stills of Earth from space, stop by the Gateway of Astronaut Photography of Earth.

A boulder bounces down a slope on Mars – so what?

Tracks left by boulders bouncing down a slope of a 12-mile wide crater on Mars were photographed in May 2010 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Change excites us, perks us up, makes us pay attention. Our senses come into sharp focus at a million things. A bird flies past a window, an eyebrow is raised, a house creaks at night, and we’re suddenly present. Change redirects your thinking and provides an opportunity to experience the unexpected.

I love observing comets, planets and variable stars exactly for that reason –  you never know what might show up in the eyepiece that night. A dust storm could brew up on Mars or a comet crack to pieces. Being alive, we sense life in changes we see in the outside world even if the object is nonliving like a black hole teething on a star.

By February this year, winds on Mars have nearly covered over the boulder tracks. Click photo to see a large version.Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

That’s why I like this photo of tracks left by boulders bounding down the slope of a crater on Mars. The first picture was taken two years ago in May and shows fresh impressions left by rocks tumbling down the incline. Each bounce caused the older, finer dust to slide away and expose dark, larger-grained dust beneath. Martian winds went to work immediately and by mid-winter this year had nearly covered the depressions in bright dust.

Erosion, decay and dissolution take things apart so other processes can use the pieces to make mountains, meteors, clouds and living beings. Change resonates in all of us.

Lyrid meteor shower will make you think big

A brilliant meteor flashes across the sky. Will this weekend's Lyrid meteor shower shower us with a few of these beauties? Lyrids are known for their occasional fireballs. Credit: John Chumack

The annual Lyrid meteor shower peaks tonight (Saturday) through Sunday morning April 21-22. While a minor shower, the Lyrids serve as a “season opener” to the bigger shows coming in mid-August and December.

Lyrid meteors originate from grains of dust shed by Comet Thatcher, which was discovered by A.E. Thatcher on April 5, 1861.

Every year in April Earth passes through the dust and debris left behind by past visits of Comet Thatcher. Illustration: Bob King

The comet takes 415 years to make a single trip around the sun, so there’s no hope of any of us seeing it in our lifetimes. But we can see little bits of it that were left behind long ago.

Each time a comet swings by the sun, it drops lots of dust, fluffy ice and pebbly pieces in its wake.  The third week of April every year Earth plows through debris ranging in size from sand grains to small pebbles left behind during Thatcher’s previous flybys. When a lucky mote strikes the atmosphere, it vaporizes in a flash of light called a meteor or shooting star.

When you’re out watching the show, consider that the average speed of a Lyrid meteor is 30 miles per second or 108,000 miles per hour. At that velocity, a bit of dust or small pebble burns to ash through friction. The luminous trail we call a meteor is mostly light given off by atoms in the upper atmosphere some 70 miles high. The fast-moving comet debris excites or ionizes the atoms; when they return to normal microseconds later they emit billions of photons of light we see as a bright streak or “falling star”.

In a flame test, sodium burns a brilliant yellow. Sodium is common in some meteorites. Credit: Soren Wedel Nielsen

A typical meteor trail is less than 3 feet in diameter but tens of miles long. Think of it as glowing tube overhead.

When the comet particle burns up, it can give off different colors depending on its composition. Sodium flares bright yellow; magnesium is blue-white and nickel a lovely emerald green to name a few. Speed also factors into color. The faster the meteor, the more energy it imparts to the air and the whiter and bluer the streak will be. Slower meteors blaze orange and red.

The Lyrids are named after Lyra the Harp, the constellation from which they appear to originate. The origination point is called the radiant, and you can see from the map it’s not far southwest of Lyra’s brightest star Vega, making it easy to pinpoint. The radiant is the direction Earth is moving toward as it slices through Comet Thatcher’s debris.

Snow appears to radiate from straight ahead as seen through your windshield when you drive into a storm. Meteor showers appear to radiate from one point in the sky because Earth is traveling "into the storm" just like your car. Photo: Bob King

Similar to seeing snow or rain appear to originate from a point ahead of you when you’re driving straight into it, the meteors stream out and away from the radiant. Lyrids closest to the radiant are short, slow stubs of light while those further off stretch into longer streaks.

News is all good for this year’s Lyrids. No moon to interfere and the shower maximum occurs Sunday morning, which for many of us is the weekend. From a dark sky expect to see 10-12 meteors per hour. If you have any doubt as to whether they’re Lyrids or just random meteors, trace their paths backwards and if they point toward Vega, you’ve caught one.

This map shows the sky early Sunday morning with Vega and the Lyrid radiant well up in the eastern sky. Face your lawn chair east or south for the best view. Created with Stellarium

To see the shower best Vega and the radiant should be well up in the northeastern sky. For observers in the U.S. and Canada, you can start watching around 12:30-1 a.m. Sunday.      Numbers should pick up as the radiant rises higher and higher until dawn.

I like to flop out in a folding chair under a warm blanket. Don’t get too comfortable though – you might fall asleep! Having a friend join you is a great way to stay alert. It also puts the conversation in a larger, more cosmic context. I’ve found that almost everyone thinks bigger thoughts under a starry sky than when seated inside a building.

In a related story, this weekend, NASA scientists, amateur astronomers, and astronaut Don Pettit on board the International Space Station will attempt the first-ever 3D photography of meteors from Earth and space. Read about it HERE.

Gemini twins still shine in shimmer of Venus

The sky around 9:30 p.m. local time as you face west. Orion is setting but Gemini and Auriga are easy to spot above the planet Venus. Maps created with Stellarium

It may seem silly to talk about winter constellations with spring so far along, but I have my reasons. Gemini the Twins is associated more with the bitter cold of January, when it holds sway in the southern sky along with Orion the Hunter. It’s just possible you missed it back then because you didn’t feel like freezing the tip of your nose off. Let me introduce the boys a second time now that nighttime temperatures are more bearable.

Gemini dominates the western sky during early evening hours in April along with the pentagon-shaped Auriga the Charioteer. Both constellations make their last stand before fading away in mid-May twilight.

We start with blazing Venus, located in Taurus below Auriga in the northwestern sky after twilight. If you can take your eyes off the planet and look upward about two fists held against the sky, you’ll bump into Capella, Auriga’s brightest star. Using Capella as your anchor, it’s easy to “connect the dots” of the 5-sided constellation Auriga.

The mythological figures of the Gemini twins will help you better visualize them among the stars. The two brothers are from ancient Greek mythology. Castor was mortal (son of the King of Sparta) while Pollux was a son of Zeus and immortal.

From the top of Auriga we swing another “two fists” to the upper left and land at Pollux and Castor, the twin brothers of ancient Greek mythology. Despite being so closely related, you’ll notice that Pollux shines more brightly than his sibling. Both stars form a short line parallel to the western horizon.

A trickle of fainter stars below Pollux and Castor form the twins’ stick-like bodies, outstretched arms (you can picture them in a shoulder hug) and feet that point out in either direction. Under rural skies, you can see the complete set of legs for each twin; those under more typical skies will see only a single leg per brother. That’s enough to get the picture.

Have a telescope? Point it at Castor, a close and beautiful double star. And if binoculars are your thing, see if you can find the rich star cluster M35 a little above Castor’s foot. Look for a fuzzy patch peppered with tiny stars. I know Venus is a powerful attractor but there’s more in the west these froggy nights. Give Gemini a try.

Venus is so bright it created an aureole of light in passing clouds last night. At lower left are Aldebaran (bright star) and the Hyades star cluster. Photo: Bob King

Tomorrow I’ll have a guide and tips for watching this weekend’s Lyrid meteor shower. See you then.

Air Canada pilot dodges Venus; new aurora video simply spectacular

Is it a plane, a UFO, a sign? No, it's just Venus being its brilliant self. The planet looks so much bigger than the rest of the stars because it's so much brighter. Its nearest rival, Sirius, shines 15 times fainter. Photo: Bob King

Bright as a sapphire in the western evening sky, Venus grabs our attention this month. News came yesterday of an Air Canada pilot who mistook Venus for an approaching plane on Jan. 14 this year. While it’s not unusual to mistake the beacon-like planet for an aircraft or even a UFO, the pilot took the unusual step of putting the plane into a steep 400-foot dive to avoid the planetary menace. Passengers flew out their seats and hit their heads on the ceiling as a result of the maneuver. Worse, the dive brought the plane within 1,000 feet of hitting a U.S. Air Force cargo plane.

If only the officer had taken a community ed astronomy class, the incident could have been avoided. Any one of my students could have calmly explained that the bright light ahead was Venus. Read the full story HERE.

Mercury and the moon are a challenging catch for observers in the northern U.S. (left) 45 minutes before sunrise tomorrow. Southerners will have an easier time of it (right). The moon returns as an evening crescent early next week. Created with Stellarium

Our class looked at Venus through a telescope last night before the clouds rolled in. The overbright planet is currently in its buttery croissant phase. Truly adventurous skywatchers can attempt to spot the solar system’s other inner planet in the morning sky. Mercury and a very thin crescent moon will lie just a few degrees above the eastern horizon 40-45 minutes in the east before sunrise. Bring binoculars! I find that if I don’t see something first with my naked eye, a scan with binoculars will show it and help me know exactly where to look. If you live in the northern states, this will be a challenge. Southerners have the advantage since the pair will be higher up in a slightly darker, less hazy sky.

A single frame from Ole Salomonsen's new Celestial Lights video. Click the image to watch it. Credit: Ole Salomonsen

Aurora photographer Ole Salomonsen just released a new online video called Celestial Lights created from 150,000 pictures he’s taken of some of the most spectacular northern lights of his life. All the photos were shot between September 2011 and April 2012 with Canon 5D Mark II and 5D Mark III cameras and a variety of wide-angle lenses.

Another of the 150,000 images Salomonsen shot of the northern lights from Norway. Credit: Ole Salomonsen

Salomonsen lives in northern Norway not far from the auroral oval, a permanent cap of auroral centered on Earth’s north magnetic pole.  Auroras there are frequent and often spectacular. Judging from the variety of scenes in the video, Salomonsen hasn’t wasted a single clear night. You’ll love the variety of scenes, and the high-def image quality imparts a very visceral “you’re there” feeling. Click the link, hit the full screen button, turn up the volume and enjoy!