For those of you who checked yesterday’s blog, you already know that the German ROSAT (Roentgen X-ray satellite) burned up in the atmosphere last night between 8:45 and 9:15 p.m. CDT. To the best of my knowledge, after digging around various websites, it appears to have come down over the Indian Ocean north of the coral atoll Diego Garcia. Too bad there’s so much water on this planet otherwise we’d have lots more satellite parts and meteorites in our collections.
I wanted to share the most recent pictures of Comet Elenin with you. Amateur astronomers have been busy the past few mornings losing sleep photographing and trying to see the comet through their telescopes. The moon is out of the way and Elenin is presently high up in a dark sky after about 3 a.m. These are the conditions we’ve been waiting for for months! And finally, enough pictures have been taken to confirm that the comet is really there.
The photos show a faint, elongated cloud of spreading comet dust, the last gasp of what was to be fall’s best bet for a bright comet. Its ghostly appearance hints at how difficult it’s been to see with one’s own eyes in a telescope. To date, only one observer – Juan Jose Gonzalez – has spotted this wispy remnant from his mountaintop observing site in northern Spain using an 8-inch telescope. Jacob Cerny of the Czech Republic is the second person to observe it, but it was so challenging, he listed his observation as “uncertain”.
Take a look at Elenin’s morphology or form. It reminds me of the Headless Horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Indeed, the head of the comet is no longer a separate entity as it was before the August breakup. All is one galloping streak of light.
Comet Elenin will continue along its orbit as it slowly moves farther from Earth with each passing day, fading and expanding as it does and likely to never return. Even though this demure object has been wrongly credited with causing earthquakes and other mayhem, the bright side has been a lively discussion of comets and other topics astronomical. These are good things.
Several readers have mentioned or made reference to Arcturus in recent days. I thought it would be an opportune time to give the star – the 4th brightest in the sky after Sirius, Canopus and Alpha Centauri – one last evening farewell before we get up 11 hours later at dawn to welcome it back. What?
Arcturus, an orange giant star with a distinctive warm tint, hovers low in the northwestern sky off the handle of the Big Dipper on late October evenings. It’s best to catch it an hour or so after sunset during evening twilight when the star is high enough to see relatively easily. As dusk melts into darkness, try looking two outstretched “fists” directly above Arcturus for the little horseshoe-shaped constellation Corona Borealis the Northern Crown.
Arcturus makes its first evening appearance in late winter in the northeastern sky. By May and June, it’s high in the south at twilight’s end; its warm light has come to be associated with warming temperatures and the arrival of summer. In fall, the star drops off into the northwest and finally sets, but because nights are better than 12 hours long in late October, Earth’s rotation carries it back into view for observers in mid-northern latitudes. Watch for its winking red light in the northeast at dawn. In a sense, we never lose Arcturus.
The star’s northern location on the celestial sphere is also responsible for its continuous visibility. The closer a star is to the North Star – the pivot-point star due north that remains in one spot in the sky – the longer it remains visible. All stars within a circle with a radius the same as your latitude never set at all. They’re called circumpolar stars because they circle around the North Star day and night without ever touching the horizon. While Arcturus is not quite circumpolar for Duluth, Minn., the fortuitous combination of northerly location and long nights allow it to be seen every month of the year.