Quiet aurora – so far – in upper Midwest tonight June 1-2

The northern lights at 12:30 a.m. Sunday morning June 2. Low clouds at left glow orange from city light pollution. One faint ray stands above a low, double arc. Photo: Bob King

The sky has finally cleared here in Duluth, Minn. and I can see a low glow that looks like the start of dawn in the northern sky. Yes, the aurora is out, but it’s pretty quiet tonight. A greenish arc is hunkered down near the horizon; now and again a faint ray appears and then fades away.

I wanted to send out this brief report despite the late hour for all those aurora seekers out there.

Keep watch for the northern lights tonight June 1-2

Eric Anderson of Omaha, Nebraska took this gorgeous shot of last night’s display. “Just had an epic aurora borealis photo shoot west of Lyons, Neb. I didn’t increase colors on this at all. 20″ exposure.” Credit: Eric Anderson

Last night’s aurora crept up out of nowhere. Space weather forecasters predicted a very small chance of a minor auroras for mid-latitudes, but a sudden change in the direction of the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) set Earth’s magnetic field a-jitter, sparking a nice display of northern lights. The storm’s still raging across Siberia this afternoon with no sign of letting up.

The interplanetary magnetic field, created by a wind of solar plasma entwined with magnetic fields, whirls from the sun in the shape of a gigantic spiral. As waves of varying strength, density and direction pass by Earth, our planet’s magnetic field occasionally hooks up with the sun’s, making auroras likely. Credit: NASA

The IMF is a part of the sun’s magnetic field carried into interplanetary space by the solar wind, a high-speed outflow of subatomic particles, mostly electrons and protons. Scientists call this soup of charged particles a plasma. Because the sun rotates, solar plasma travels away from the sun in grand spirals much like water spraying from one of those rotating lawn sprinklers.

Click to watch a video of the solar wind linking up with Earth’s magnetic field behind the planet, sparking a particle cascade and auroras in our upper atmosphere.

Embedded within the sun’s plasma swirls are portions of its magnetic field. As the IMF sweeps past Earth, it normally glides by, deflected by our protective magnetic field, and no one’s worse for the wear. But when solar magnetic field points south – what’s called a southward Bz – it can hook up with Earth’s northward-pointing magnetic field. Once linked, the IMF dumps its baggage of high-speed particles into our atmosphere to light up the sky with aurora and set satellite operators on edge.

That’s exactly what happened yesterday evening. The Bz turned sharply south and Earth’s private space was invaded by a particle horde. Coronal mass ejections and constant fluctuations in the solar wind can tip the Bz this way and that and set the scene for northern lights.

Last night’s bright aurora photographed from Beecher, Wis. by Brian Larmay. Click to see more aurora pix on his website.

Last night’s storm rated a G2 or moderate on NOAA’s space weather scale. G2s not only produce auroras but can cause fading of radio transmissions at high latitudes, drag on satellites and even trigger voltage alarms on power grid stations.

The aurora often begins as little more than a low, greenish arc in the northern sky. If conditions are right, multiple arcs and rays can form and sometimes fill the entire sky. Photo: Bob King

The aurora will likely continue through this evening, so be on the watch. Check the Kp index and if it’s up to “5” or higher (in the red zone), chances are decent you’ll see aurora at least from the northern U.S. Another cool tool is the Ovation aurora site that displays a beautiful graphic representation of the complete auroral oval. When you see the oval’s edge creep up to or over the northern U.S. auroras are almost certain to show. Of course you’ll need a clear sky, which is often the trickiest thing to find.

How about mixing your aurora up with a nighttime thunderstorm? Rob Rustvold shot the spectacular dual display along the northern horizon in Fort Dodge, Iowa last night. Credit: Rob Rustvold

I’ll update the blog this evening if and when auroras come back to green-wash the sky.

Auroras happening right now May 31-June 1

The aurora borealis is busy tonight painting the northern sky green. Even with clouds in the way, the lights were obvious. This photo taken at 11:40 p.m. May 31. Photo: Bob King

Clouds are thick tonight but not enough to blot out the northern lights. A storm’s in progress right now with a big old green glow covering most of the northern sky. If your skies are clear, head out for a look. This might just be the night you’ve been waiting for. The Kp index, an indicator of magnetic activity around the Earth, has shot up to “5” indicating a geomagnetic (aurora) storm is in progress.

The auroral oval has expanded toward the northern U.S. this evening and now covers half the sky as seen from Duluth, Minn. Credit: NOAA

The auroral oval, that Cheerio-shaped cap of permanent aurora around the north magnetic pole, now extends all the way down to N. Minnesota, Michigan and North Dakota. The “viewing line” where sky watchers can spot at least some aurora in the sky reaches across Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and West Virginia.

Check out the sky at your place, and if it’s clear, see if you spot the northern lights. This might be the night you’ve been waiting for.

Radar reveals asteroid 1998 QE2 has a moon!

Radar images taken by the JPL’s Goldstone radar antenna were stacked to create this video of 1998 QE2 and its new moon

Radar images made on May 29, 2013, when the Earth-approaching asteroid 1998 QE2 was about 3.75 million miles (6 million km) from Earth show a bright moon circling papa. The pictures also reveal several large, crater-like concavities in the main asteroid.

Main belt asteroid Ida is trailed by its dog-like companion Dactyl. Inset shows an enlargement of the moonlet. Credit: NASA

Binary asteroids are somewhat uncommon but not rare. To date we know of 230 with companions, nine of which are triple systems. About 16% of asteroids 655 feet (200 m) or larger are binary. One of the most famous is the pair of Ida and Dactyl discovered in images taken during Galileo space probe flyby in August 1993. Ida’s about 34 miles (54 km) across and its wee follower Dactyl only 4,600 feet wide (1.4 km).

A still frame from the video shows the moonlet as well as several dark crater-like features on 1998 QE2. Credit: NASA

The preliminary estimate for the size of the asteroid’s satellite, or moon, is
about 2,000 feet (600 meters) wide. It’s “papa” is 1.7 miles (2.7 km) end to end.

How to zero in on asteroid 1998 QE2 during Friday’s flyby

Radar images made on May 29, when 1998 QE2 was about 3.75 million miles from Earth, show a brand new moonlet circling its papa. Click image to see a video and read more about the discovery. Credit: NASA

So we got this hefty asteroid approaching Earth tomorrow. 1998 QE2 will pass a safe 3.6 million miles (5.8 million km) or 15 times the distance of the moon at 3:59 p.m. Central time tomorrow afternoon.  The 1.7 (2.7 km) mile wide space rock was discovered in August 1998 and while it still has no formal name, we’ll become closely acquainted via optical and radio telescope over the next several nights.

Many asteroid approach Earth much more closely but QE2 is exceptional because it’s larger than your average Earth-approacher and is making its closest pass for at least the next two centuries.

Many separate telescopic images were combined to create this animation of asteroid 1998 QE2 moving through a star field earlier this month. Credit: Ernesto Guido and Nick Howes

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., will show live images of the asteroid on NASA TV and host a discussion with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and experts from JPL and the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex from 12:3-1:30 p.m. CDT today May 30. Scientists at Goldstone will be using radar to track and image the asteroid. You can watch it on NASA TV or Ustream.

The orbit of asteroid 1998 QE2. Its closest point to the sun is similar to Earth’s; when farthest it’s 353 million miles from the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Be aware that the live images will show 1998 QE2 as a slowly moving “star”. It’s much too small and far away to show any detail in optical telescopes. Pictures created using the 230-foot Goldstone radio dish to ping the asteroid with radio waves will show details as small as 12 feet (3.75m), but these won’t be available in real time. They require time for processing.

Asteroid 1998 QE2 slices across Libra over the coming nights. Sky watchers with 4-inch or larger telescopes can use the detailed charts (below) to spot it. Click for hi-res version of map. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap program

From 7-9 p.m. CDT tonight Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., will host an online chat on 1998 QE2. Click the link a few minutes before 7 p.m., log in to the chat module that appears on the page and ask away. You can also watch it live during closest approach on SLOOH starting at 4 p.m. CDT tomorrow May 31.

If you’re game, you can even see the asteroid for yourself. You’ll need at least a 4-inch telescope and reasonably dark skies. Unfortunately it’s not visible with the naked eye or standard binoculars. For the next few nights 1998 QE2 will shine around 10.5 – 11 magnitude as it exits the constellation of Hydra and moves through the zodiac constellation Libra.

This map shows 1998 QE2’s position every hour starting this evening at 10:30 p.m. CDT. Remember to convert that time to your own time zone. North is up and east to the left; stars are shown to about 11th magnitude. The star patterns I’ve drawn will help you find the asteroid – especially tonight – since it won’t be near any obvious bright stars. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap program

Libra’s well up in the south-southeast for much of the northern and southern hemisphere as soon as the sky gets dark. No setting the alarm for some ungodly hour. The farther south you are, the higher in the sky the asteroid will be.

The wide-view map shows the asteroid’s position at 10:30 p.m. CDT now through early June. At closest approach tomorrow, 1998 QE2 will move about one degree (two full moons side by side) every 3 hours, a motion you easily detect in just a few minutes using low power in your scope. You’ll be looking for a faint “star” that won’t stay put but slowly moves to the east as the seconds and minutes tick by.

Map of the asteroid’s travels tomorrow and Saturday nights. Once again, north is up and east to the left. Friday night you can see that QE2 passes near several brighter stars plotted on the wide angle map (above) making it easier to find. Click to enlarge. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

I usually “lay a trap” and find a relatively bright star or stars the asteroid will pass through some minutes ahead of time. Then I stare into the eyepiece and wait for the asteroid to enter the field of view. The maps should work for most locations on the planet, but don’t be surprised if 1998 QE2 arrives a bit early (or late) and tracks a bit north or south of the plotted path. Look around a little instead of staring at the exact spot you’re expecting to see it.

Once you find it, hold on tight for the ride. Don’t let go – at least for a few minutes. It’s fun to  jump on an asteroid and go for a cruise across the star fields. You may even see its light vary as tiny world rotates on its axis, presenting first one side and then another to your eyes. My favorite moments are when an asteroid passes really close to a star, making its motion obvious in seconds. Zoom!

To get hi-res versions of all three maps that you can print out and use at the telescope, just click each image. That’ll take you to my Flickr site. Right-click each map and select “Original” and then make a print out. If you have your own night sky program, go HERE to grab 1998 QE2’s orbital elements and create your own charts.

Good luck and may you find your lucky asteroid.

Shadows run and hide at Lahaina Noon

Alex Dzierba, Jr. figured out a great way to capture  “Lahaina (lah-HI-nah) Noon” in Honolulu on May 26. A level standing upright casts no shadow. Lahaina means “cruel sun” in the old Hawaiian language. Credit: Alex Dzierba, Jr.

Notice anything odd about this photo? It was taken earlier this week in Honolulu, Hawaii. The sun is out – you can see that – but something’s missing. Look around the bottom of the level … hmm, what’s happened to its shadow?

Land of enchantment and short shadows. This painting of the port of Honolulu was made in 1816 by Louis Choris

In Hawaii they have a special name for this time of hidden shadows – Lahaina Noon – and it happens every year in late May and mid-July. Shadowless conditions only occur when the sun is directly overhead, and Hawaii is the only U.S. state where you can experience it. Vertical objects that make contact with the ground cast none at all which is why people in Honolulu walk around staring at flagpoles on May 26.

Craig Miyamoto of Honolulu photographs his shadow under the Lahaina Noon sun on May 28, 2011. Miyamoto explains: “I don’t have a beach ball on my head. That’s my stomach that’s protruding out in front and my big ol’ butt hanging out the rear.” Click photo to go to Craig’s blog

The rest of us in 49 remaining states never get to see the sun pass overhead because we’re all too far north. Even Key West, Florida. Only in the tropics does the sun ever sit directly on top of your head during the noon hour. Just the thought of it makes me sweat.

The sun’€™s position at noon on the first days of winter, spring and summer 2013. The sun climbs upward or north starting on the first day of winter and reaches its maximum height above the horizon on the first day of summer. That’s when it’s closest to the zenith or overhead point. From lowest to highest, the sun’s position changes by 47 degrees over the year. Created with Stellarium

Specifically, any place with a latitude between 23.5 degrees north and 23.5 degrees south will see the sun beam from the zenith twice a year – the first time when it’s moving northward (higher) in the sky during spring and a second time when it’s dropping southward (lower) after the summer solstice.

This zone of latitude lies between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Some of you might remember those lines from that old grade school globe of the Earth. Besides making good book titles, they mark the location around the globe where the sun is directly overhead at noon on or around the winter solstice (Capricorn) and summer solstice (Cancer). Any city within that band will see the sun cross the zenith twice a year.

Everyone gets into the fun in a Lahaina Noon event at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum on May 27, 2011. Click photo to find this year’s Lahaina Noon dates for locations in Hawaii. Credit: Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

23.5 degrees is a familiar number, right? That’s the angle at which Earth’s axis is tilted. Seen from our tipped planet, the sun travels from  23.5 degrees south of the celestial equator (an extension of the real equator into space) on the first day of winter to 23.5 north of the equator on the first day of summer. Add it up and you get 47 degrees or about five fists held at arm’s length against the sky. That’s the full range of the sun’s up and down movement in the sky over the course of a year.

Here in Duluth, Minn. at latitude 47 degrees north the sun never gets any closer than 26.5 degrees (47 minus 23.5 = 26.5) from the overhead point. That’s why power poles hold no allure in my town on June 21. Things are better in Key West where the latitude is 24.5 degrees. Let’s do the math again: 24.5 minus 23.5 = 1 degree. That’s darn close to the zenith with only a thin rim of shadow coating the edges of an old man’s cane.

If you live outside the tropics, you can determine how close the sun gets to your zenith by simply finding the difference between your latitude and 23.5. This works for all latitudes outside the tropics. For Honolulu, cozily situated at 21 degrees north latitude, Lahaina Noon will occur again on July 15. Cities farther north or south of the Honolulu experience the overhead sun a few days later in May and earlier in July.

At the north and south poles, even on the summer solstice, the sun never gets any closer than 66.5 degrees from overhead. Anyone wanting to celebrate Polar Noon would have to be content with the sun only 23.5 degrees above the horizon. Ah, but there’s compensation for this pitiful altitude – the sun’s up all night 6 months in a row.

Coming tomorrow: How to find asteroid 1998 QE2 when it passes Earth this weekend

Comet PANSTARRS – Hit me baby one more time

Comet L4 PANSTARRS on May 27 when Earth cut directly through the comet’s orbital plane giving us an edge-on view through the broad but narrow cloud of dust shed by the comet over the past few months. Click to enlarge. Credit: Martin Mobberley

If you’re looking for nature’s version of a straight-edge, look no further than Comet PANSTARRS. We had the opportunity to see its millions-mile-wide dust fan edge-on this weekend. Well, not all of us did. Moonlight spoiled the visual view but astrophotographers found ways around the moonlight to produce spectacular images.

Another view of PANSTARRS taken on May 28. The incredible tail gives the comet the appearance of a streaking fireball. The anti-tail measures about 7.5 degrees. Click for giant version. Credit: Michael Jaeger

Tail lengths estimates varied, but wide-angle amateur photos show it extending up to 16 degrees long. That’s 32 full moons side by side. The physical tail length captured in the photos is about 23 million miles (37.5 million km) long, but since it’s projected at an angle to its orbit, the full extent is considerably longer, likely approaching 93 million miles or the Earth-sun distance.

Too big for one photo, Jost Jahn took multiple pictures to create this mosaic of the PANSTARRS’ tail. Click to be taken to an interactive view. Credit: Jost Jahn

The beam-like tail is called an anti-tail because it points toward the sun in the opposite direction of a normal comet tail. It’s composed of dust particles shed over the past several months.

Not only do those bits of dust and rock line its orbital track, they also migrate outward into a vast sheet or cloud extending beyond PANSTARRS’ orbit. The short, broader tail is the normal dust tail, where dust particles are being pushed away from PANSTARRS in real time by the pressure of sunlight.

While the comet is still visible in 50mm binoculars in dark, moonless skies, the tail(s) will shorten and fade in the coming weeks as the distance between it and Earth widens.

Jupiter (left), Mercury (top) and Venus make an appearance between clouds over San Diego in this photo taken when the three were closest on May 26. Credit: Kevin Baird

Jupiter, Mercury and Venus are still clustered together low in the northwestern sky after sunset for the next few nights. My sky was mostly cloudy and I never got more than a glimpse of the three over the weekend.

Jupiter, Mercury and Venus framed by two apartment
buildings in Hamilton, Ontario Sunday night. Credit: Alex Sokolow

Others were more fortunate. Alex Sokolow saw them squeezed between two apartment buildings when the three were in their most compact arrangement on the 26th.

Even if you got hit with bad weather or circumstance this weekend, you can still see our planetary friends together the next few nights. Jupiter is dropping fast but passes closest to Venus tonight – the two will be just a degree apart.

Before Jupiter departs the scene it has its closest encounter with Venus this evening. This map shows the sky facing northwest about 30-45 minutes after sunset. Mercury’s about one “fist” high at that time. Created with Stellarium

Have you ever seen Mercury? If not, this is the best evening opportunity this year to do so for northern hemisphere sky watchers.

Lunar peaks may be spattered with exotic asteroid fragments

Olivine and spinel have been found in the central peaks of the 58-mile-wide lunar crater Copernicus. See closeup photo below. Credit: Paolo R. Lazzarotti

Minerals seen in some of the moon’s craters may not belong to the moon at all but instead were likely delivered by asteroids or possibly even the Earth. Unusual minerals like spinel (ruby-like red gemstone) and olivine (olivine-green gemstone) have been found on the floors and especially in the central peaks of several larger lunar craters including the familiar Tycho, Copernicus and Theophilus using instruments like NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper. Scientists assumed they were seeing material excavated from deep below the moon’s surface.

A bird’s eye view of some of the Copernican mountain peaks photographed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Peaks form during rebound of the crater’s floor after impact. Copernicus is about 900 million years old. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

Maybe not. These very same minerals are also common in meteorites. A recently published study in the journal Nature Geoscience by a team of scientists from the U.S. and China used computer models to fling simulated asteroids and meteorites at the moon with speeds under 26,820 mph (43,160 kph). Some 30% of asteroidal debris striking the moon travels below that speed according to the study.

Tycho, one of the most prominent craters on the moon, is 51 miles (82 km) across and formed when a small asteroid struck the moon relatively recently – only 110 million years ago. Like Copernicus, olivine has been found atop its central peak. Credit: William Wiethoff

When these slower-moving space rocks slam into the moon, the researchers found that fragments survived the impact. If the newly formed crater was 12 miles (20 km) wide or larger, asteroid material sent flying outward toward the crater’s rim would later fall back through gravity into the crater’s central peak. Peaks form in big craters when material that’s crushed and compacted by the incoming asteroid rebounds or rises back up in the crater’s center after impact.

An LRO photograph of Tycho’s 1.2-mile-high (2 km) central peak. The mountain complex measures 9.3 miles (15 km) from side to side. Resting near the summit is a large boulder 400 feet (120 m) wide. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA Goddard/Arizona State University

“This observation may explain recent observations of exotic Mg-rich spinels and olivine in the central peaks of craters too small to have excavated the deep crust or mantle of the Moon,” they wrote. By extension, the team suggests that crater peaks on Mars and Vesta may also preserve remnants of exotic minerals delivered by asteroids.

A tighter view of the boulder in the photo above. The scene is 3/4 mile (1.2 km) wide. How such a large object ended up intact atop a mountain isn’t know for certain, but it probably rolled out of the impact debris forming the rising summit. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA Goddard/Arizona State University

It’s generally assumed meteorites vaporize upon impact and leave only tiny fragments in crater floors, but if the impactor moves below a critical speed, the results of the study show it can leave bigger pieces. That means scientists must be cautious when deciding if the rock in the moon’s peaks really do represent samples excavated from deep down in the moon’s mantle or whether they’re alien rocks left by potshot asteroids.

Steps in the formation of a crater’s central peak. Small impact make simple, bowl-shaped craters; larger ones have peaks. Credit: JAXA

More intriguing is the possibility that some of those olivines and other exotic minerals came from Earth. Our planet got whacked as much or more than the moon several billion years back. More than 170 named lunar meteorites have been found on Earth, and studies have shown that delivery of “Earth meteorites” to the moon via impact is easily accomplished. You never know – there may even be the hardened, glassy remains of stromatolites, one of the planet’s earliest life forms dating from as early as 3.5 billion years ago, sparkling atop some lunar mountain. In simulations, materials leaving Earth would have melted on the outside but remained intact within.

Cosmic patterns provide delight and insight

A 22-degree halo circled the sun this past Friday afternoon. Halos like this one form in high cirrostratus clouds composed of microscopic hexagonal (6-sided) pencil shaped ice crystals. Sunlight refracted through billions of them spreads into a circle with a radius of 22 degrees. Click to learn more. Photo: Bob King

There’s always something happening in the sky. It’s a big place after all with many dimensions. There are near-space phenomena like ice halos and weather and a much deeper dimension that includes the most distant galaxies in the universe and the entire history of time.

If I were to pick one night to view the three bright planets at dusk, it would be tonight. Look very low in the northwestern sky starting about 40 minutes after sunset. Venus is the brightest of the three. Created with Stellarium

Patterns abound as well. Solar halos form when billions of ice crystals refract or bend sunlight and planets align when they appear along our line of sight. If you still haven’t seen the Jupiter-Venus-Mercury gathering in the evening sky, tonight’s the best night. All three worlds will fit inside a circle just 3 degrees (6 full moons) wide. Get lucky with a clear sky and wide-open view to the northwest and you’re good.

Saturn’s north polar hexagon photographed by the Cassini spacecraft. Each side of the hexagon measures about 8,600 miles long. The feature has persisted for at least 20 years. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Speaking of patterns, especially hexagons, I’m continually amazed by the quality of planetary photos taken by amateur astronomers. Philippine astrophotographer Christopher Go recently shared images of Saturn that blew me away. In them you can discern the planet’s north polar hexagon, a mysterious six-sided wave pattern centered on Saturn’s north pole.

You can easily make out the straight sides of Saturn’s north polar hexagon in this May 25, 2013 image taken through a 14-inch telescope. Credit: Christopher Go

It was first discovered during the Voyager flybys of the 1980s. Back then the pole was in sunlight. Until recently it was tilted away from the sun in shadow during the 7.5-year-long winter season in Saturn’s northern hemisphere. Now the hexagon’s back out in sunshine and the Cassini spacecraft has taken stunning photos of this only partially understood feature.

Photo taken by the Cassini probe last February shows Saturn’s polar hexagon emerging from shadow into sunlight during northern hemisphere spring. The Earth is shown for comparison. About 4 Earths would fit inside the feature. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The hexagon may be what physicists call a standing wave pattern. You can picture this by imagining two people holding either end of a jump rope and shaking it in sync. If done carefully, the rope will form a regular pattern of oscillating up and down waves that travel in place. Perhaps wavelike movements of air in the polar atmosphere create the standing hexagonal wave.

Animation of Saturn’s north polar hexagon. Credit: NASA/JPL/U. of Arizona

Ana Aguiar and her team at the University of Oxford have an alternative explanation. It turns out there’s a steep contrast in wind speeds on the planet at 78 degrees north latitude – the hexagon’s perimeter – that’s perfect for inducing instabilities in the atmosphere leading to the formation of oddball waves and eddies. They recently re-created a similar 6-sided pattern using fluorescent dyes in a dual-speed water tank in the laboratory. For a fascinating write-up on their experiment, please check out the Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla’s blog on the topic.

Searching for the underlying cause of the patterns in nature has always been one of humanity’s specialties. Our lives have depended on it since the beginning when we tracked animals for food and followed the movement of the sun to forecast the seasons. That same spirit brought Saturn’s hexagon into the lab.

Cool moon, hot sun and a laser-like PANSTARRS comet

Click to watch the nearly full moon cover the bright star Beta Scopii last night.

I caught a glimpse of the moon last night but clouds ruled soon after. Too bad. Like some of you I’d hoped to see the bright star Beta in the constellation Scorpius pinned to the moon’s edge. Others were luckier including Dave Dickinson, who watched the event from Hudson, Florida. You can watch the moon slowly edge up to the star and cover it in his video above. All these broiling and boiling you see along the moon’s edge is due to air turbulence.

The sun photographed this morning at 10:15 a.m CDT by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Sunspot groups 1755 and 1756 are magnetically complex and could produce moderately powerful M-class flares. The groups are approaching the center of the sun’s disk, a great place to let loose with flares that could lead to auroral displays on Earth. Credit: NASA

Billows of high-speed particles shot out during from recent solar flares arrived yesterday afternoon (U.S. time) and overnight. Any auroras that might have been visible had to compete with moonlight in northern European skies and again this morning around 1-2 a.m. Central time here in the northern U.S. and Canada. There remains a 20% chance for a minor auroras for mid-latitudes tonight.

Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS on May 23 displays a long, “laser beam” tail due to our unique perspective on the comet. Click to enlarge. Credit: Michael Jaeger

By Monday night (May 27), the moon will be out of the sky for at least a little while at nightfall. During this  dark window I encourage sky watchers with 50mm or larger binoculars or a telescope to point it toward Comet PANSTARRS, the comet that keeps on giving. Earth passes through PANSTARRS’ orbital plane Sunday-Monday affording us a unique perspective.

From our perspective on Earth we view the dust boiled off from Comet PANSTARRS’ nucleus edge-on this weekend. It all stacks up to create a very narrow, long and relatively bright tail. Seen broadside, it would appear as a wide, faint fan. Illustration: NASA with additions by Bob King

Normally we look at comets off to one side or another and see the dust left behind in its orbit as a broad glowing fan or fan-shaped tail. This weekend however we’ll face PANSTARRS’ debris edge-on. All the dust spewed in the past few months lines up one particle in front of the other to create a thin streak of a tail many degrees long. The photo shows the effect beautifully. You can read more about Earth and PANSTARRS in my article in Universe Today. Click HERE for a map to find the comet.