May 29, 2017

Mercury-Spotting during the First Elongation of 2013.

Mercury as seen by Messenger during its

3rd flyby in 2009.

(Credit: NASA/JPL).

I SEE IT! Catching a glimpse of fleeting Mercury can be an unforgettable experience; orbiting the Sun once every 88 days, the innermost planet never strays far from its perch low in the dawn or dusk sky. February offers your first shot at catching the world low in the dusk as it approaches its first of six elongations in 2013. Though not the best of 2013 for most viewers worldwide (see below), this month’s elongation does offer roughly equal prospects for both northern and southern hemisphere observers as the ecliptic approaches near-perpendicular to the horizon headed towards the March equinox. And as you’ll see, this apparition will set us up for some of the best prospects for catching Mercury later this spring. [Read more...]

AstroEvent: 2xBright Planets in the Dawn Sky.

Jupiter, Venus, & Mercury+a 1 degree FOV on the morning of May 11th.

(Created by the author in Starry Night).

The planetary conjunctions reach a climax this week, with a close apparent pass of the two brightest worlds in our solar system, Jupiter and Venus in the dawn sky.  These worlds seem to meet on the morning of May 11th, with Jupiter shinning at magnitude -1.9 about 0.5 degrees from -3.8 magnitude Venus. This will place both within the same field of view using a low power eyepiece, and may illicit queries of “what are those two stars low in the sky?” [Read more...]

AstroEvent: 4x Planets, 1xMoon, and a 12° FOV!

Looking eastward May 1st about 30 minutes before sunrise. (Created by the Author using Starry Night).

Where have all the planets gone? Four of the five classical naked eye planets are about to reveal themselves this week in a splendid fashion. As Venus sinks morning by morning towards the horizon, expect Jupiter, Mars and Mercury to emerge low in the dawn sky. The action culminates the weekend of April 30th-May 1st, when the waning crescent Moon approaches the grouping… use brilliant Venus as a visual “anchor” to guide your eyes to the fainter planets. On what date will you be able to spot each planet from your location? [Read more...]

AstroEvent: A Close Planetary Pairing +A Springtime Meteor Shower.

Looking eastward the morning of April 19th with a 5 degree FOV. (Created by the Author in Starry Night).

Where have all the planets gone? Well, with the exception of Saturn, they’ve all been hiding in the direction of the Sun. That’s all beginning to change this week, however, as Mars, Mercury, and Jupiter slip into the dawn sky to join Venus in what will turn into a splendid early morning multi-planet conjunction in early May. [Read more...]

30.03.11: Welcome to Mercury!

Brave New World; The extreme northern plains of Mercury. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

   A new resident has taken up orbit around the solar system’s inner most-world. Fresh from orbital insertion earlier this month, NASA’s Messenger spacecraft opened its eyes and began relaying images that have been a web sensation over the past 24 hours. Messenger is currently 6 light minutes from Earth; its looping orbit takes it from a periapsis of about 200 km to apsis at 1,500 km. [Read more...]

AstroEvent: The Best Appearance of Mercury in 2011.

Mercury+Jupiter in the dusk. (Photo by Author).

If you’ve never seen the inner-most world of our solar system, this week is your chance. On Tuesday, March 22nd, the planet Mercury reaches a greatest elongation of 19 degrees east of the Sun.  Due to the varying angle of our ecliptic during different times of the year coupled with an eccentricity of 0.21 for Mercury’s orbit, not all apparitions of the innermost world are equal. [Read more...]

17.03.11- Mercury: At Last!

Brave New World: Mercury as seen from Messenger during 2nd flyby departure.

 (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) 

Tonight marks a pivotal moment in solar system exploration. At 12:45 AM UTC on March 18th, NASA’s Mercury Messenger spacecraft will burn its engines for approximately 15 minutes to enter an elliptical orbit around the planet Mercury. Since its launch from Cape Canaveral on August 3rd, 2004, Messenger has flown by the Earth once and Venus twice for a gravitational assist, swung by the innermost world three times, sampled the near solar environment, searched for Vulcanoids, and even done a wide field pan for any tiny Mercury moonlets that may have been missed. [Read more...]

March 2011: Life in the Astro-Blogosphere.

Ahhhh, the Ides of March are upon us. Spring is the thing, as we approach equal daylight in all lands north to south. The month of March brings with it an early onset back to Daylight Savings Time for yet another eight months, a season for Messier marathoning, Mercury spotting, and more. Here’s a sneak peek at what’s on our radar this month at Astroguyz HQ:

Coming to a Sky Near You: The first week of March we feature the ternary star Beta Monocerotis. We’ll also look at what it takes to complete a Messier Marathon. Asteroid 72 Feronia completes a stellar occultation on 9th, followed by a lunar occultation of Mu Geminorum on the 13th. A rare Proxigean Spring tide and the largest Full Moon of the Year occur on 18th, followed by the Vernal Equinox marking the beginning of spring on the 20th. Another good stellar occultation by asteroid 224 Oceana occurs on the 20th, and planet Mercury makes its best evening elongation 22nd. Finally, we cap off the month with a very close Venus-Neptune 9’ conjunction on the 27th.

 This Month in Science: All eyes are on space exploration and research as Planetary Science decadal survey is planned for release sometime in March. The Orange Blossom star party, Central Florida’s premiere astro-get together occurs March 2nd-6th. Also, March continues to be a month of inner world exploration as NASA’s Messenger spacecraft enters orbit around Mercury 18th just days before the best evening apparition mentioned above. On the review radar, we look at Discoverers of the Universe and A Professor, A President, & a Meteor. Good times!

This Month in Science Fiction: This month in science fiction (we still spell it “Sci-Fi!”) we’ll take a look at Dwarf Stars 2010, with some of last year’s best in Sci-Fi short poetry. We’re also furiously reading The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, the exciting Steampunk follow up to The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack. Also out from Pyr Books, don’t forget to snag a copy of the newly released (and recently reviewed on this site) work, the Cowboy Angels. The Big Bang Theory, every science nerds favorite show about science nerds in the wild, has recently been picked up for three more seasons… and the BIG news for those of us that live in our laptops is that the show is FINALLY available to watch online!

Launches in March: Space Shuttle Discovery is in space one final time, and will land back at the Kennedy Space center March 7th. Meanwhile, Endeavour is back “at the ranch” beginning preparation for its April launch with the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station. A pair of classified payloads will also break the surly bonds this month, with the follow up flight of the Air Force’s super secret X-37B space plane from Cape Canaveral Air Station on the 4th & a ULA classified launch on 11th, also from CCAS. The European Space Agency launches an Ariane 5 Yahsat 1A with the Intelsat New Dawn on 29th, and over in the world of cosmodromes, a Soyuz TMA-21 manned launch to the ISS out of Baikonur occurs 29th, & a Proton rocket with SES 3 and Kazsat 2 also departs out of Baikonur on March 31st. As this goes to cyber-press, we have no word about the delayed launch of Glory, which is to occur “sometime in March…” Follow us @astroguyz on Twitter for all the space flight updates, astro-events, and other rambling astro-musings!

Astro Bloopers: Much terrible cyber-ink astronomy has come from the whole 13th zodiacal sign non-troversy that began earlier this year. Some of the true baddies have been the idea that astronomers somehow recently discovered Ophiuchus in 2009! Then there is the long diatribe of a certain astrologer who tried to extricate herself realm from reality with a long discussion on the tropical versus the sidereal year; it’s almost as painful for an astronomer to watch as an old Space: 1999 rerun.  

This Month in Astro-History: On March 24th, 1930 Pluto was officially named after a suggestion from Mrs. Venetia Burney Phair when she was aged 11. Mrs. Phair only recently passed away in 2009, and an outstanding documentary entitled Naming Pluto was recently made by director Ginita Jimenez about her life. It’s definitely worth searching out!

Astro Quote of the Month: “However long we live, life is short, so I work… and however important man becomes, he is nothing compared to the stars. There are secrets, dear sister, and it is for us to reveal them.”

-Caroline Herschel.

Photo image of M45 by Author.

AstroEvent: A Mutual Western Elongation.

January 8th, about a half hour before sunrise looking west from Tampa, Florida. (Created by the Author in Starry Night).   

One of the more unique events of 2011 occurs this weekend. The interior planets of Mercury and Venus both reach greatest western elongation within 24 hours of each other in the dawn skies. First, Venus reaches an elongation of 47° from the Sun on Saturday, January 8th at about 16:00UT/11:00 EST. Then, about 23.6 hours later, Mercury reaches the height of its morning apparition 23° west of the Sun. [Read more...]

Astro-Event: A Difficult Occultation.

Looking west from Tampa, Fl at about 5:40PM EST. (Created in Starry Night). 

   This week, interesting planetary goings-on are afoot low in the western dusk skies, if you have the patience to observe them. On the evening of Monday, December 6th, visual athletes will want to try and spot an extremely thin crescent Moon occult a fading planet Mars. [Read more...]

AstroEvent: A Challenging Dawn Conjunction.

Saturn & Mercury on closest approach. (Created by the Author with Starry Night).

Saturn & Mercury on closest approach. (Created by the Author with Starry Night).


   Set your alarm clocks; one of the closest but most challenging planetary pairings of the year happens this week in the early dawn skies. Mercury and Saturn will be within 1° degree of arc separation the morning of October 8th. Saturn is fresh from superior conjunction behind the Sun, and Mercury is currently undergoing a dawn apparition. Both will fit well in a binocular field of view or a low power eyepiece. The pairing will rise about 45 minutes prior to local sunrise, which for middle northern latitudes will occur around 7:45 AM local. [Read more...]

25.05.10- Ad-Hoc Imaging and the Tale of Copland Crater.

Copland Crater as imaged by Messenger. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Messenger).

Copland Crater as imaged by Messenger. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Messenger).


   Oh, how far we’ve come… time was when the family portrait of the solar system included blurry images snapped from world class observatories. Fast forward to the 21st century, and amateur astronomers now routinely delete pristine images from memory cards for tiny flaws that would have been the envy of astronomy text books a decade ago. Professional and amateur astronomers have always run a technological arms race of sorts, and the tale of the planet Mercury over the past decade is a good case in point. [Read more...]

03.04.10- Messenger and the Mysteries of Mercury.

Neutral & Ionized Sodium as seen by the Messenger spacecraft. (Credit: NASA).

Neutral & Ionized Sodium as seen by the Messenger spacecraft. (Credit: NASA).


   The history of the inner most planet is an enduring puzzle to planetary scientists. On September 29th of last year, NASA’s Messenger spacecraft passed within 142 miles of Mercury’s night side in an orbital “tweak” on its way to eventual orbital insertion on March 18th, 2011. During that pass, the spacecraft once again measured the trailing exo-sphere, a thin trailing wind made of sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. This “mercurial wind” is replenished either by solar radiation pressure, micro-meteoroid impact, or a combination of the two. The mystery is the ratios of calcium and magnesium observed that is significantly different than predicted. Mercury is a rocky iron world that is over half core and believed to have only a thin mantle and crust. Either Mercury formed that way early in its history, a young Sun boiled away a majority of silicates, or Mercury suffered a major crust stripping impact. Further evidence for the impact scenario comes from Messenger’s neutron spectrometer, which registered a conspicuous lack of low-energy neutrons emanating from the surface of the planet itself. This is highly suggestive of an iron and titanium rich surface similar to what’s found in basaltic rock on the lunar near side. Whatever the case, plenty of surprises await us as Messenger takes up permanent residence around Mercury next year!

28.03.10- Messenger Spies High-Energy Solar Neutrons.

A recent flare from a more terrestrial vantage point; the Astroguyz PST! (Photo by Author).

A recent flare from a more terrestrial vantage point; the Astroguyz PST! (Photo by Author).


   After a considerable hiatus, solar cycle 24 is now well under way. And this time, NASA has a key observing platform in the inner solar system; the Messenger spacecraft, bound for an insertion to orbit Mercury in March, 2011. In the intervening time, scientists at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona have been busying the spacecraft by monitoring the Sun from close proximity. On New Year’s Eve, 2007, the spacecraft was at about half an Astronomical Unit (A.U.) from the Sun when it had the unprecedented opportunity to study high-energy neutrons ejected from a massive solar flare. Unlike 1 minute bursts recorded in near-Earth orbit, Messenger was able to track and record these neutron bursts for 6 to 10 hours. This was accomplished by use of NASA’s Neutron Spectrometer aboard the spacecraft. From this, scientists have predicted a “decayed feedstock” of resulting protons from the flare in the 30 to 100 million electron volt range. Messenger could also clear up a long standing mystery; why do some coronal mass ejections produce huge numbers of energetic protons, while others emit relatively few? This puzzle is of more than casual interest; radiation from CMEs has damaged orbiting satellites in the past, and is of prime concern for space based astronauts. Once Messenger is in permanent orbit about Mercury, it will also have a prime vantage point to monitor the Sun close up for a year uninterrupted. And just in time for a peak in the solar maximum!

08.11.09:Does Cometary Mass Extinction Need to be Rewritten?

The disconnection event of comet 73P Schwassmann-Wachmann-3 as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope. (Credit: NASA/ESA/H. Weaver STScl.)

The disconnection event of comet 73P Schwassmann-Wachmann-3 as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope. (Credit: NASA/ESA/H. Weaver STScl.)

Comets are cause all mass extinctions in Earth’s history, right? Maybe not, if new research is correct. Simulations run by the scientists at the University of Washington now suggest that the giant planets of Jupiter and Saturn may do a much more through job of cleaning up incoming debris than is generally realized. Short period comets such as Halley’s are generally accepted to be denizens of the Kuiper belt, which extends out to 100 Astronomical Units (A.U.s), while much more numerous populations of long period comets are theorized to come from the Oort cloud, a massive solar system-engulfing sphere at a distance of 1,000 A.U. to up to 3 light years distant. Traditional cometary mass extinction theory states that when a star passes close enough to the shell of the Oort cloud, a rain of comets are pried free and the inner solar system becomes a celestial shooting gallery for a million years or so. Simulations, however, suggest no more than three impacts could have occurred over the last 500 million years or so, fuel for at best maybe a minor extinction event or two. Then there’s the pesky affair of some extinct species shown to exist above the K-T iridium layer… doubtless, the case of mass extinction is a thoroughly messy business. As reported earlier last month in this space, more than one impactor is suspected in the extinction of the dinosaurs. Examination of other inner solar system bodies should pin down the frequency, duration, and average number of killer comets, as the Moon, Mars and even Mercury have relatively little erosion and would be potential targets as well. Any incoming comet stands a 40% chance of having its orbit altered by Jupiter, as happened to Hale-Bopp in the late 90′s. Thanks, Jove!

22.10.09: Thank Relativity that We’re Here!

A very bad day...a Mars sized impactor strikes the Earth! (Credit: J. Vidal-Madjar/IMCCE/CNRS).

A very bad day...a Mars sized impactor strikes the Earth! (Credit: J. Vidal-Madjar/IMCCE/CNRS).

The next time you’re studying the Lorentz equation or are forced to account for Relativity on your Buzzard Ramjet trip to Sirius, thank Einstein that we’re here at all! Scientists Jacques Laskar and Mickael Gastineau at the Paris Observatory have been modeling orbital dynamics in our solar system and have come up with some “disturbing” results. It has long been known that Jupiter has a shepherding effect on the inner solar system, smoothing out planetary orbits while ejecting or sweeping up incoming debris. However, if you model the planetary orbits taking into account only classic Newtonian motion, the odds that Mercury goes out of whack in the Sun’s 10 billion year odd life span are about 60%. Throw in Einstein, and the effect shrinks to less than 1%. A careening Mercury would be a bad thing; if it impacted Venus, we would get showered with debris over a million year span, and if it hit us, well, it would just be a bad day. The best thing it could do is harmlessly impact the Sun. Even a near miss with the Earth could drastically alter our orbit, not to mention tinker with our stabilizing Moon. Fortunately, the tiny tweak that the Sun’s gravitational well gives Mercury’s eccentric orbit via General Relativity assures that a resonance keyhole with Jupiter’s orbit probably won’t happen. Keep in mind, we’re talking tiny effects that pile up over billions of years… every time an asteroid whizzes by, we launch a Space Shuttle, or LeBron performs a slam dunk, the Earth gets a tiny push. Over billions of years, tiny forces do add up (ever heard of the Butterfly Effect?) This is why astronomers cannot predict the positions of planets more than a million or so years into the future. Incidentally, the precession of Mercury’s orbit still stands as one of the great observational proofs of Relativity. One also wonders if such a perturbation might have been the fate of Theia, the Mars sized impactor that has been hypothesized to have struck a prehistoric Earth and created our Moon. So the next time you see gravity bend light at relativistic speeds, thank Einstein for protecting our home planet Earth!

The Moon joins a Planetary Three-Way.

Three planets and one Moon. (Credit: Stellarium).

Three planets and one Moon. (Credit: Stellarium).

Early risers this week will awaken to a fine sight; a three way dance between Mercury, Saturn, and Venus, joined by the waning crescent Moon on the 16th. Look towards the east, about a half hour before local sunrise. Mercury has just passed greatest elongation on the 6th of this month, and thus will be swiftly sinking back to the horizon morning by morning. Venus will continue to shine high in the east at dawn, and Saturn, fresh from conjunction with the Sun last month, will be the faintest and slowly slide upwards past the pair of inferior planets this week. [Read more...]

12 Very Special Events for the Century.

The Moon posed to occult Mars & Mercury in 2056! (Credit: Stellarium).

The Moon poised to occult Mars & Mercury in 2056! (Credit: Stellarium).

“Bizarreness” is part of our business in astronomy. We always get the top billing with the “how big, how far, how bright” records, but one thing that is hard to quantify is just how unique certain events are. Here, I present you a quick list, a baker’s dozen of astronomical oddities that are worth setting your alarm clock for in the coming century in chronological order. A sort of Astroguyz to-do list for the coming century!

-January 15th 2010: The Longest Annular Eclipse Until 3043: Coming right up after the new year is what’s billed as the longest annular eclipse of the millennium. An annular eclipse occurs when the New Moon is near apogee and the Earth is near perigee, and hence the angular diameter of the Moon is too small to fully cover the Sun. This is a direct consequence of the longest totality of this past summer, in which the situation was reversed. “Annularity” lasts for a whopping 11 minutes and 8 seconds, and the entire event spans an area from the horn of Africa to China. This eclipse is part of saros series 141.

-October 8th, 2011: A possible Draconid Outburst?: The Leonids aren’t the only shower prone to storm level outbursts. The Draconids, also known as the Giacobinids, are a little known shower that peaks around Oct 8-10th of every year and generally is of little notice to all but the most avid meteor observers. It has been prone to outbursts, most notably in the years 1998, 1985, 1933, (33′ must have been a good year for meteors!) and 1946, when the ZHR peaked at 10,000! Another date worth noting is 2018, when the debris trail we’re predicted to pass through is very close to the 1946 storm trail. The Draconids hail from comet Giabobini-Zinner.

-June 6th, 2012: A Transit of Venus: The second transit of Venus for this century and pretty much the last one for anyone currently alive (unless they perfect that putting-our-brains-in-cyborgs thing) occurs on this date. This transit favors the Pacific rim, with North America getting a sunset transit and central Asia receiving a sunrise one. Most likely, the world won’t end on this date. The next transit won’t occur for another 105 years!

Ganymede: New Horizons shows its stuff during a swing by of Jupiter. (Credit; NASA/JPL).

Ganymede: New Horizons shows its stuff during a swing by of Jupiter. (Credit; NASA/JPL).

-July 14th 2015: The New Horizons Pluto Flyby: We include this as the sole mission oriented event because its the last semi-planet to be recon’d by mankind. Launched in 2006, New Horizons completed a gravitational swing-by assist of Jupiter in 2007 and is now the fastest object ever launched by mankind, and will whiz through the Pluto-Charon system on July 14th, 2015 at 14km per second. After this date, those blurry Hubble images of Pluto will be forever replaced by real pictures! What surprises await us in the denizens of the frigid outer solar system? More moons? A ring? An alien etched “Astroguyz” logo? And will the “is Pluto a Planet?” debate once again rear its ugly head?

-August 21st, 2017: A North American Eclipse: Total eclipses seem to avoid North America, Japan and Europe like the plague and hang out in places like Djibouti and Outer Mongolia. The dry spell ends in 2017, bringing an eclipse for the suburban masses. Do you live in or near Markanda, Illinois? Then you will have the distinct privilege to host two eclipses in the span of seven years, as another eclipse passes over on April 8th, 2024! expect the population of 419 to expand exponentially…(Howard Johnsons take note…)

-April 13th, 2029: The Flyby of Apophis: Will the world end on a Friday the 13th? The asteroid 99942 Apophis will indeed whiz by the Earth on such a date, within the realm of the geosynchronous satellites. Apophis carries with it the distinction of being the first, and so far the only asteroid to reach a “4” rating on the Torino scale for a short time back in 2004. Will it hit that tiny 600 meter key hole for an impact in 2036? Vegas odds are 1 in 45,000 against…viewing for the pass will favor Europe and Africa, where Apophis will appear as a swiftly moving star. Will we have the gumption by then to launch a manned mission to scope it out?

- November 19th, 2034 A Leonid Storm: I should be collecting social security just in time for this one…a meteor storm can be the event of a lifetime. The Leonids have always been a surefire bet; usually a lackluster shower of around ten meteors an hour, this stream is prone to well documented bursts in access of 1,000 ZHR every 33 years or so. The 1998 storm was still one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen! The years leading up to 2034…(i.e., 2030-2033) should merit your early AM attention around this date, as the peak “storm” may arrive a year early or late!

A tight grouping of classical planets! (Credit: Stellarium).

A tight grouping of classical planets! (Credit: Stellarium).

-September 8th 2040: A Tight Planetary Group: This evening in 2040 brings a very special view; all of the naked eye classical planets plus the waxing crescent Moon in a 9.3 degree grouping! This the tightest assemblage of these worlds visually this century!

-October 1st, 2044: An Occultation of Regulus by Venus! Naked eye occultations of planets by bright stars happen maybe a few times a century, and this is one of the best. If you find yourself in Eastern Asia or the western U.S., be sure to check this out!

-February 13th, 2056: The Moon occults Mercury & Mars at the same time. OK, now for the truly bizarre. Sure, you’ve seen the Moon occult planets and bright stars; this happens a few times a year from any given locale…but how often does the Moon occult two planets at the same time? This very event, it turns out, it rarer than a total solar eclipse during a Metallica concert… rare enough to only occur once or twice a millennium. This rarest-of-the-rare will occur over western North America in daytime afternoon skies. Venus and Jupiter will be close by.

-November 22nd 2065 Venus Occults Jupiter. Live in Panama? You just might catch a planet occulting a planet on this not so far off date. The apparent diameters of the two worlds will be 10” and 29”, respectively. The rest of the world will see a very close conjunction. For you history buffs, this is the first planet-planet occultation since 1818, also featuring Venus and Jupiter!

-August 11th, 2079: Mercury Occults Mars. This is rare, in that the worlds involved are tiny and thus generally miss each other in their apparent paths. This time the Middle East is favored to view this rare event; Mercury and Mars will be at a diameter of 5” arc seconds each and the rest of the world will again see an extremely close conjunction in the dawn skies…will we be cyber-Tweeting in our sleep by then?

-December 31st, 2099: The Aliens Invade & Become our Masters… OK, maybe they’ll be tired of the bad press they get in cheesy Sci-Fi movies and this will happen long before then…

So there you have it, twelve reasons to look up at the night sky throughout the 21st century. This list is by no means exhaustive; its just a quick pic of our faves. If your favorite, I’m-selling-my-house-and-moving-to-Panama-just-to-see-it event didn’t make the cut, drop us a line! For further astro-nerdiness, I invite you to peek at the outstanding Ultimate Almanac, as well as the wiki on planetary occultations. Its gonna be a wacky century…perhaps some budding 3-year old junior Carl Sagan out there just might live to be the first to collect them all!

Don't miss the 2012 transit of Venus! (Credit: Jan Herold under Creative Commons).

Don't miss the 2012 transit of Venus! (Credit: Jan Herold under Creative Commons).