Winter got you down already? Sample spring and a lovely conjunction at dawn

The crescent Moon, just a few days before new, sits atop Virgo’s brightest star, Spica tomorrow morning at dawn. This map shows the sky facing southeast about 50 minutes before sunrise. Stellarium

November nights are long, long, long. You can start the evening with the Summer Triangle, catch wintery Orion at midnight and by dawn it’s already spring! Celestially speaking anyway. Here at 47 degrees north latitude in Duluth, Minn. night takes up the lion’s share of the day with nearly 15 hours of the dark stuff between sunset and sunrise.

If winter’s already nudging into your comfort zone, why not head outside tomorrow morning for a dose of spring stars and a beautiful conjunction of the crescent Moon and Virgo’s brightest luminary, Spica? You can see them even earlier than the map shows when the sky is still dark.

The Moon, just 3 days before new phase, resides in the springtime constellation Virgo. Not far off you’ll also see the little trapezoid of Corvus the Crow. Higher up to the left or north, sparkling Arcturus sputters and twinkles in the cold air.

You can’t stop the Earth from rotating. Once the Sun’s well up in the east, the early summer stars come into view, or they would, if there was no atmosphere. They’re there alright but hidden by scattered sunlight that colors the sky blue. By mid-day, summer’s in full swing. Come sunset, the cycle repeats itself again. And that’s how we roll.

Guess who’s up before midnight? By Jove, it’s Jupiter!

Brilliant Jupiter now rises in the northeastern sky before midnight. The waning gibbous Moon will join the planet Thursday November 13th. This map shows the sky facing east at midnight in mid-November. Stellarium

If the sky’s seemed devoid of evening planets of late, you’re right. Mars still hangs on in Sagittarius, but it’s so low and sets so early, few notice. Most telescopic observers have long since abandoned the planet. With an apparent diameter of three-one-thousandth’s that of the Moon, it’s just too tiny to eke out any details.

Venus is also “officially” an evening planet but still much too close the Sun to view. Enter Jupiter. This jolly bright planet joins the evening crew with a bright flourish, rising in Leo the Lion. In the days of Daylight Saving Time it rose around 1 a.m. but now catches our eyes a little before midnight low in the northeastern sky.

Jolly Jove on November 8, 2014. The two big stripes are the North (top) and South Equatorial Belts. The Great Red Spot is seen along with a cluster of smaller oval storms. Credit: Christopher Go

Earth’s revolution around the Sun causes the stars and planets in the eastern sky to rise 4 minutes earlier each evening, while those in the west set 4 minutes earlier. Over time, stars in the west get pushed out of the way as those in the east rise higher and take over the sky. It’s the astronomical equivalent of seeing each older generation swept away by the little babes whose job it is to replace us.

My point is that Jupiter, while low now, will rise an hour earlier by Thanksgiving  (16 nights x 4 mins. = 64 minutes) and nearly 3 hours earlier by Christmas. We’re soon to see a lot more of this planet. So goes the cycle of the sky.

Three of Jupiter’s four bright moons will be visible in small telescopes tonight. This view shows them around midnight (CST) tonight. North is up. Stellarium

Not only is Jupiter a pleasure to see with the naked eye – it’s so darn bright – but its dynamic weather and four bright moons offer telescope users something new to see every time we look through the eyepiece.

Because Jupiter’s 11 times larger than Earth, it presents a huge disk compared to most planets. Even with a 3-inch scope you can watch the moons shuttle back and forth and spy the largest clouds belts. The Great Red Spot, an enormous hurricane-like storm, has been shrinking over the last decade but can still be spotted in 6-inch and larger instruments.

The 2014-2015 apparition of Jupiter is special because Earth crosses through the planet’s orbital plane. Since the four brightest moons orbit almost exactly around Jupiter’s equator, we’ll get to see them eclipse and occult one another. Eclipses are especially interesting to watch – over a few minutes time you can actually watch a moon temporarily fade away. I’ll have more on these fascinating events soon.

Aurora alert tonight through Monday night Nov. 9-10

Aurora smolders beneath the Big Dipper tonight November 9th around 7 p.m. Credit: Bob King

Around 7 p.m. this evening, just before moonrise, a smoky green glow fired up beneath the Big Dipper low in the northern sky. The Moon rose and clouds soon followed, but we might be in for a couple nights of northern lights.

Cirrostratus clouds at moonrise this evening refracted moonlight into a pretty halo. Caught in the semi-circle is the Hyades star cluster (lower right). The Pleiades are at upper right. Credit: Bob King

A coronal mass ejection that launched from the Sun on November 7th will arrive overnight and could produce minor to moderate (G1-G2) geomagnetic storms now through midnight Monday night. The strongest activity is expected between 3-9 a.m. (CST) tomorrow morning.

A blast of high-speed electrons and protons from the Sun on November 7 looks like it may affect Earth overnight and into Monday. Credit: NASA/ESA

Tonight’s little taste will hopefully be a sign of more to come.

Will the Full Frosty Moon give you the shivers?

The Full Moon returns to an eastern horizon near you tomorrow evening. Click to find your moonrise time. Credit: Bob King

November’s the last month that still carries a connection to fall. Once December arrives, there’s no going back. Tomorrow at 4:23 p.m. (CST) the Full Beaver or Frosty Moon will rise near sunset and stay up all night.

This month we notice how much higher the Full Moon is than during the summer months. Why is that? Think where the Sun is right now. Have you noticed how much lower in the sky it is compared to June and July?  As our star hunkers down to its winter lair in Sagittarius, the Full Moon, directly opposite the Sun in the sky, moves into Taurus and Gemini. These are the very constellations the Sun occupies during the summer months when it blazes nearly overhead and cooks skin red if we’re not careful.

The Full Moon rises in the northeastern sky near the border of the constellations Cetus and Taurus. Taurus is one of the zodiac constellations and features the famous Pleiades star cluster about a fist to the right of the Moon. Stellarium

You needn’t worry about a moonburn. Although the Moon shines by reflected sunlight, it’s a dusty mirror covered in cobwebs. For all it takes in, our satellite delivers only 12% of the light back. Brilliant to the eye, it’s more than 165,000 times fainter than sunny Sol.

But as the Sun abandons us, Luna comes to the rescue. Despite its wimpy reflectivity, it’s the brightest object in the night sky. Once we allow our eyes to adapt to the dark, the Full Moon provides more than enough light to see our way around, pick out details of the landscape and even sense color. This is especially true now through early spring when the Moon climbs high in the sky where absorption of light by our atmosphere is least.

Clear November nights usually mean frost as the dew point drops below freezing. Don’t be surprised to see tomorrow night’s Full Moon illuminating your lawn as if it were a plush white carpet. Illustration: Bob King

From the countryside I’ve distinguished green leaves, the red of stop signs and other colors though they’re muted and occasionally take some convincing.

The quality of moonlight fascinates. Shadows are summertime short but black and stark. Contrasts are accentuated. A patch of dark behind a rock becomes a lurking animal. There’s just enough light to get around but not enough to provide the information we need to contain our imaginations. But hey, that’s half the fun.

Light passing through the eye’s lens and adjustable iris stimulates rod and cone cells the retina allowing us to see both at day and night.

Our retinas are equipped with two types of cells that respond to light — cones and rods. Cone cells, which are concentrated in the center of our visual field, are very good at color vision and detecting fine detail but only work well in bright light.

Rods are very sensitive to low light but not sensitive to color. We use them for night vision, peripheral vision and detecting fine motion. Because our “high-def” cone cells aren’t active in low light, the rod cells take over. While they’re great in moonlight, our vision lacks the kind of definition provided by the cones. Everything looks grainy at night like pictures shot at high ISO.

Like the other animals with whom we share the planet, we’re creatures of Earth’s day-night cycle; our vision has evolved to accommodate both brilliant sunlight and the tepid light of night.

Earth and Moon captured together in amazing new photo

Chang’e 5 took this splendid photo of Earth and Moon together while it passed over the lunar far side on October 28, 2014. The Moon reflects far less light than Earth and appears darker.  Click to grab a large version. Credit: CNSA / Xinhua News Agency

A friend alerted me to this wonderful photo of Earth and Moon in the same single image taken by China’s Chang’e 5 lunar test vehicle. The spacecraft is conducting an 8-day mission to the Moon and back to refine the technology needed for a planned sample return mission in 2017. Launched on October 23, this is China’s fourth volley to the Moon; the spacecraft will return to Earth on November 1 according to Xinhua News.

View of Earth taken by the Chang’e 5 test vehicle on October 28 after rounding the far side of the Moon. Australia is easy to see in the clearing. Credit: CNSA / Xinhua News Agency

As it swung high above the far side of the Moon – the hidden half of the lunar globe out of sight from Earth – the solar array monitoring camera on the craft snapped this incredible image. While not the first ever taken of the pair, it’s one of the best composed images and possibly the first to clearly feature the lunar far side along with Earth. You can easily see how much more cratered the Moon’s hidden hemisphere is. And that dark splotch? That’s Mare Moscoviense (Sea of Moscow), one of the very few dark maria or seas on the far side.

View of the Moon by Chang’e 5 on October 28 shows the dark lunar “sea” called Mare Marginis. This patch is visible along the western edge of the moon from Earth. Credit: CNSA / Xinhua News Agency

Chang’e 5 did not enter lunar orbit but kept its camera humming to shoot separate close-ups of Earth and Moon. Like seeing Earth and Moon from afar? Check these out:


Earth and Moon dance a pirouette in these images taken by the Jupiter-bound spacecraft Juno on Oct. 9, 2013

The European Space Agency’s Mars Express captured this image of Earth and the Moon on July 3, 2005 when it was 5 million miles ( 8 million km) away. Credit: ESA

Earth and Moon in 1992 as Galileo photographed the duo on its way to Jupiter. Credit: NASA

Earth is the brightest “star” in Mars’ western evening sky as seen and photographed by the Curiosity Rover on Jan. 31, 2014. Credit: NASA

A single frame from high-definition video of the full Earth over the lunar limb taken by Japan’s Kaguya spacecraft on April 6, 2008. Credit: JAXA/NHK

Earth and Moon from Mars, imaged by Mars Global Surveyor on May 8, 2003. Credit: NASA

Earth rises over the barren lunar landscape photographed by the Apollo 8 crew on December 24, 1968. Credit: NASA

Earth and Moon become a single dot in this photo taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft from a distance of 4 billion miles (6.4 billion km) on February 14, 1990. Credit: NASA/JPL

Found! Fresh moon crater from LADEE spacecraft impact

Before and after photos show the new crater blasted out by the impact of the LADEE spacecraft. It’s the white spot a short distance to the upper right of the prominent crater in the center and measures less than 10 feet (3-m) across.  Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

I’d love to see that ad on Craigslist. Using before and after photos taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), Mark Robinson, LROC principal investigator, discovered a tiny crater within one-fifth of a mile (300-m) of the predicted impact zone. And I do mean tiny. The impact of the refrigerator-sized spacecraft at the relatively leisurely speed of 3,800 miles an hour (1,699 meters per second) excavated a hole under 10 feet across or as big as your bathroom.

LRO close up photo of the LADEE impact site on the eastern rim of Sundman V crater. The bright area highlights what has changed between the time of the two images, specifically the impact point and the ejecta. The ejecta pattern spreads to the northwest, consistent with the direction the spacecraft was traveling when it smacked into the surface. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

NASA’s LADEE or Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Explorer’s mission studied dust hovering in the Moon’s extremely rarefied atmosphere called the exosphere. Much of the dust sputters off the surface during meteorite impacts, but some may be lofted into the sky by electrostatic forces active when the sun rises along the day-night borderline called the terminator. As the probe used up the last of its fuel, engineers lowered its orbit to study the lunar environment in ever greater detail. Variations in lunar topography and gravity soon brought it crashing to the surface on April 17 this year on the farside of the Moon.

LADEE only had so much fuel to conduct operations at the moon. When that was used up, the mission was complete. The vending-machine-sized probe broke apart as it heated up upon impact. Credit: NASA Ames/Dana Berry

The small size of the LADEE crater relates to the relatively slow impact speed (meteorites strike at a much higher velocity) as well as the craft’s small size and low density. To find it, investigators had to develop special software that compared before and after images to find the slightest changes between them. The impact popped into view much the same way before and after images of the sky are compared to detect moving asteroids.

Despite the crater’s tiny dimension, the crashing spacecraft managed to eject a plume of bright lunar dust 656-984 feet (200-300 meters) from the impact site. Future astronauts will likely find metal shrapnel from the probe mingled with lunar dust downstream from the impact.

“I’m happy that the LROC team was able to confirm the LADEE impact point,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager at Ames Research Center in California. “It really helps the LADEE team to get closure and know exactly where the product of their hard work wound up.”

In a memorable mess of an impact that will remain visible for millions of years.

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

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!

 

Earth and Mars, space pals forever

This single shot of Earth and Mars together was taken on May 24, 2014 with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft as it orbited the moon. Click to see full, hi-res photo. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Yesterday we watched the total lunar eclipse from Mercury. Today, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) expands our gaze to encompass both Earth and Mars together in space.

LRO’s viewing post was none other than the moon located 240,000 miles from Earth. On May 24th, instead of staring down at the lunar surface, NASA engineers sent commands to the spacecraft to point its Narrow Angle Camera toward Earth. On that date the two worlds were in conjunction from LRO’s perspective.


Mars and Earth from lunar orbit

Mars was about 70 million miles away (112.5 million km) away at the time or 300 times farther away from the Moon than the Earth. That’s why it’s only a tiny dot in the sky.

Moon-facing hemisphere of Mars on May 8, 2014 seen from lunar orbit. Instruments on LRO sometimes use stars and planets for calibration or other special observations. During one of these off-Moon observations, LROC imaged Mars. The planet is so small in LRO’s camera it could only make out the two larger features shown above. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

I know a commercial photographer who takes pictures of babies when they’re asleep. She has to invest a lot time into each of her photos, much of it spent waiting for the children to fall asleep! Likewise the LRO team. To make sure they got the timing and exposure right, the team practiced on Mars weeks in advance.

Seeing the two planets in the same frame seems to shrink the distance between them and tempt us to shove off from home on an exploratory visit.

The LRO folks put it this way:

“The juxtaposition of Earth and Mars seen from the Moon is a poignant reminder that the Moon would make a convenient waypoint for explorers bound for the fourth planet and beyond! In the near-future, the Moon could serve as a test-bed for construction and resource utilization technologies. Longer-range plans may include the Moon as a resource depot or base of operations for interplanetary activities.”

Ever seen a lunar eclipse from Mercury? Me neither … till now


Wednesday’s lunar eclipse photographed by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft at Mercury

As millions of us awoke at dawn and trundled outside to watch the total lunar eclipse this week another set of eyes was keeping tabs from afar. 66 million miles away, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft turned its camera toward Earth to capture several images of the moon disappearing into our planet’s shadow. Laced together, they make for a brief but fascinating glimpse of planetary bodies in motion.

Two of the still images showing Earth and moon before and during Wednesday morning’s total eclipse. Credit: NASA

The animation was constructed from 31 images taken two minutes apart from 5:18 to 6:18 a.m. EDT. The images start just before the Moon entered the umbra, the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow.

“From Mercury, the Earth and Moon normally appear as if they were two very bright stars,” noted Hari Nair, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in Laurel, Md. “During a lunar eclipse, the Moon seems to disappear during its passage through the Earth’s shadow, as shown in the movie.”

MESSENGER photographed Earth and moon on May 6, 2010 from 114 million miles (183 million km) away. Credit: NASA

Because the moon is so much darker than Earth its brightness has been increased 25 times to show its disappearance more clearly. I’ve included another picture of the Earth and moon against the starry backdrop of deep space also photographed by MESSENGER. Sure puts things in perspective. While not as breathtaking as photos of Earth taken by the Apollo astronauts, seeing our tiny home floating in the void effectively communicates how improbable our existence is. Thank goodness life got a grip and kept it. After 3.5 billion years of evolution the double helix has proven itself a force with which to be reckoned.

The 133-mile-wide double ringed crater Vivaldi captured at sunrise. The low sun highlights valleys and chains of secondary impact craters radiating away from it. Credit: NASA

MESSENGER has been in orbit around Mercury since March 2011 studying the chemical composition of the surface, measuring planet’s magnetic field, mapping polar ices and of course taking pictures. Enjoy a few recent ones.

Hollows on the floor of an unnamed crater on Mercury. Hollows may be areas “eaten away” by the ceaseless bombardment of particles in the solar wind. Or they may form when heat from volcanic activity melts away softer rocks. No one knows for sure. Credit: NASA