December 16, 2017

Astro event: A Close Planetary Conjunction.

Mars & venus at closest conjunction. (Created by Author in Starry Night).

Mars & venus at closest conjunction. (Created by Author in Starry Night).

 

   The dusk planetary action continues this week with a close conjunction of the planets Mars and Venus. Our two nearest planetary neighbors in space have been playing a game of apparent cat and mouse in the dusk skies, approaching each other within two degrees of arc July 31st, receding, and then approaching again. Closest approach is around August 19th, when both planets are within 1° 45’ of each other as seen from our Earthly vantage point. This is one of the better planetary conjunctions of the year, and a good study in comparative planetary characteristics and orbital mechanics. [Read more...]

Astro-Event: Venus at Greatest Elongation.

Venus earlier this year as seen from Astroguyz HQ. (Photo by Author).

Venus earlier this year as seen from Astroguyz HQ. (Photo by Author).

 

   Our nearest planetary neighbor is about to put on a brilliant dusk showing. The planet Venus reaches greatest elongation, or its maximum separation from the Sun as observed from the Earth on August 19th. From there, it will begin a long dive towards inferior conjunction with the Sun on October 28th, slendering in phase from half-lit to crescent and increasing in angular size as it does so. Venus is now the brightest object high in the west at dusk. Tonight on August 13th, a nice grouping of Venus, Mars, Saturn and the three day old Moon occurs after sunset. [Read more...]

Review: 2010: The Year we Make Contact.

This week, we here at Astroguyz are going retro with our review. Way back in my pre-historic high school days (like, 1984), my friend and I went to see 2010: The Year We Make Contact in our local theater. At the time, the actual year seemed unimaginably distant, a far future that we would never actually, well, live in… Well, 2010 is now here. So jJust how well does the movie stack up to reality? Of course, 2010 was the hugely successful sequel to Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which dealt with space travel, artificial and alien intelligence, and the next step in human evolution. The concept was based loosely on the Clarke original short story The Sentinel, and the concept was that an alien intelligence played a hand in human evolution and had placed artifact(s) in the solar system that we would only discover when we were sophisticated enough to find them. Similar themes are further developed in Clarke’s outstanding Childhood’s End. In 2010, the film picks up nine years after the original mission of Discovery One, as a joint US and Soviet expedition is sent to salvage the site. The Jupiter system had yet to be reconnoitered by the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft when 2001 was made; 2010, however, incorporated images and data that by the 80’s were known.  The first movie also departed from the book, in that the final action sequence originally revolved around Saturn and its bizarre moon, Iapetus; the book 2010 centers, like the movie, around the Jovian system; the movie leaves out, however, the side plot of the Chinese landing on Europa.

The joint crew of the Alexei Leonov dock with Discovery, which is now coated with sulfur and spinning lazily above the surface of Io. 2010 is much more politically charged than 2001; it, like Ben Bova’s Millennium and Larry Niven’s Footfall are very much a product of the end of the Cold War era and seem somewhat dated by today’s standards. It’s as if the world expected the Cold War standoff to be a natural state of affairs, ad infinitum. A cool nod to Clarke and Kubrick to this effect can be briefly seen in the flick, as both are depicted on a Time magazine news cover!

Of course, we’ve yet to reach Jupiter via manned spaceflight, or get back out of Low Earth Orbit, for that matter. We do have a continuous manned presence in space via the International Space Station, but the now defunct TWA has yet to offer commercial flights to the Moon. Of course, some things have come to pass; the average IPad now dwarfs the intelligence of HAL9000, and nearly everything is made of plastic… in fact, it’s amusing to see the scene with Dr Heywood Floyd on the beach, with what looks to be a mini Apple IIE as what was envisioned as the ultimate in computing portability…. and of course, 2010, like most science fiction, totally missed cell phones, the Internet and the rise of Twitter which was just around the corner.  (Interesting side note: pay special close attention to the video monitors in both movies; 2001 made use of flat screen projection, while 2010 saw a reversion back to CRTs!)

Of course, both flicks predicted the rise of “video-phones” which we now have via webcams… like much technology; however, this didn’t take into account the human factor. People like the perceived anonymity that phones, cars, and comment boxes such as those that grace this site provide them; most only converse via teleconferencing when only absolutely necessary.

The film climaxes with an extraordinary event; the collapse of Jupiter to form a new sun in our solar system. Of course, whatever super-advanced intelligence performed this feat didn’t do it for our benefit, although it does avert a super power confrontation. As per consultations for 2001 with Dr Carl Sagan, alien intelligence is implied, but never seen. This saves both flicks from a perceived campiness that plagues much of Sci-Fi. “I was glad to see that some of my suggestions were taken to heart,” Carl was quoted in saying upon review of 2001. While stunning, just how a relatively low mass object such as Jupiter could sustain a fusion reaction even after ignition isn’t addressed, but I doubt the Europans care as they are now suddenly the mystery aliens’ favorite sons…

Do catch 2010 if you haven’t had an opportunity to do so; it’s currently up for instant viewing on Netflix. And to see how the drama ultimately plays out, be sure to read Clarke’s two additional novels in the saga, 2061 and the somewhat anti-climatic 3001. The future is may be now, as the calendar reads 2010… any Vegas odds on when we’ll make contact?

Astro Event: The Closest Full Moon of the Year.

(Editor’s note: Due to a flurry of astronomical events, February’s events of the week will be released on an accelerated schedule; hang on!)

Amid the opposition of Mars, two launches out of the KSC and the Cape next week, and an exceptionally fine elongation of Mercury in the early morning skies, this weekend brings us a special treat; the closest Full Moon of the year. This Moon, known also as the Full Wolf Moon, is technically full at precisely 06:00 Universal time on Saturday morning, the 30th of January. This comes only 3 hours prior to perigee, when the Moon is closest to Earth in its orbit. At this time, the Moon will be only 217,862 miles distant, and appear 34.1’ arc minutes in size, as opposed to 29.3’ arc minutes at apogee. An added plus is that this Full Moon occurs at a very northerly declination in the constellation Cancer, and hence will be riding high for northern hemisphere viewers all night. And don’t forget ruddy Mars, just 7° degrees north of the Moon!

The astro word for this week is albedo. Think that bright silvery Full Moon is bright? Science says otherwise. Albedo is the measure of the percentage of light reflected back by an astronomical object; 100% is a full mirror, optimal reflection, and 0% is pitch black. On Earth, fresh snow reflects about 85% of the light that falls on it, and the average albedo of Earth is about 30%, depending on the amount of cloud cover and the percentage of land versus ocean presented to the Sun. In fact, this phenomenon of reflectivity may play a key role in a lesser known effect impacting global climate; that of global dimming. Now for the real shocker; the average albedo for the Moon is about 10%, slightly less than worn asphalt! Ask the Apollo astronauts; the Moon is in fact, a very grey-to-black place! The reason that this weekend’s Full Moon looks bright is that you are seeing the sum of 5% of the Sun’s reflected light crammed into an area tinier than a fingernail at arm’s length. In fact, anyone who has stood under a 99% percent eclipsed Sun, as occurred earlier this month, will tell you that even 1% of the sun’s output is still pretty bright!

Astro-Event: Mars at Opposition.

Contrary to the once-every-August viral emails soon to be clogging your inbox, Mars will not appear as “large as a Full Moon” on this or any other year… but Mars will reach opposition this week on Friday, January 29th. Unfortunately, this apparition isn’t a particularly favorable one; Mars will only reach 14.1” arc seconds in apparent diameter, a far cry from the excellent 2003 opposition where it reached 25.1”, very close to the possible max. This is due to the fact that while Earth reached perihelion earlier this month, Mars is also very close to aphelion in its relatively eccentric orbit. In fact, although Mars approaches us every two years or so, the next really good opposition won’t be until 2018 (24.3”).  Still, any opposition of the Red Planet is worth viewing, as it is rare that Mars reveals any detail at all! Mars is currently in the constellation Cancer, and rises low in the east after sunset. Shining at magnitude -1.2, Mars is unmistakable for its orange-to red glow. Do things look a bit yellowish? A planet wide dust storm could be underway, as it is entering spring on the northern hemisphere of Mars.

[Read more...]

Event of the Week: A New England Occultation.

Lunar occultations are always cool events; now you see a star or planet, now you don’t. The way they “wink in” and “wink out” with an improbable abruptness reminds us of the colossal velocity of the Moon about our planet. But beyond being just plain cool, they also still have scientific value; close double stars have been discovered this way, as they “wink out” in a step wise fashion. If enough observers are placed along the graze line, an accurate profile of the limb of the Moon can even be ascertained.

[Read more...]

2009: The Year in Science Fiction and the Look Ahead.

2009 was an interesting year in the realm of science fiction. Sure, we had our predictable, (and sometimes regrettable) run of video games and toys turned into a two hour special effects gags, but some indie and foreign flicks made minor inroads into our sci-fi consciousness. The SyFy channel shortened its name for greater texting ease, while hip publishers like Pyr and podcasts like Escape Pod and the Drabblecast continued to gain ground in terms of exponential coolness. [Read more...]

Top Astronomy Events for 2010.

Ah, it’s that most hallowed time of year yet again; a time to look ahead at what astro- wonders await in 2010. Here’s a quick month-by-month rundown of the curious, unique and bizarre coming to a sky near you. Like last year, rather than bore you with a laundry list of every obscure wide conjunction and moon phase, we distilled ‘em down to the best of the best.

[Read more...]