Trifid Gets Close Up

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 30, 2009 – 11:47 am -

 Astronomers this week released a new image of the Trifid Nebula, showing just why it is a firm favorite of astronomers, amateur and professional alike. Made with the Wide-Field Imager camera attached to the 2.2-meter telescope at European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in northern Chile.  This massive star factory is so named for the dark dust bands that trisect its glowing heart, and is a rare combination of three nebula types, revealing the fury of freshly formed stars and presaging more star birth.

Courtesy of ESO, click image to enlarge

Smoldering several thousand light-years away in the constellation of Sagittarius (the Archer), the Trifid Nebula presents a compelling portrait of the early stages of a star’s life, from gestation to first light. The heat and “winds” of newly ignited, volatile stars stir the Trifid’s gas and dust-filled cauldron; in time, the dark tendrils of matter strewn throughout the area will themselves collapse and form new stars.

The French astronomer Charles Messier first observed the Trifid Nebula in June 1764, recording the hazy, glowing object as entry number 20 in his renowned catalogue. Observations made about 60 years later by John Herschel of the dust lanes that appear to divide the cosmic cloud into three lobes inspired the English astronomer to coin the name “Trifid”.

– adapted from an ESO news annoucement

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Doorstep Astronomy: Tonight (Sunday) you can use the Moon as a guidepost to show you where Sagitarius and the Trifid Nebula are located in the southern sky. First look for a giant Teapot pattern of stars low to the southern horizon. This marks the brightest stars in the constellation Sagittarius, the Archer. Coming out of the Teapot’s spout, like celestial steam, is the glow of the Milky Way galaxy. in fact when you stare at this region of the sky you are looking towards the centre of our galaxy more than 30,000 light years away. With telescopes and binoculars you will notice that this whole area is packed with countless number of stars.  However, if you scan with binoculars up – about 14 full Moon disks – from the Teapot spout you will find two fuzzy patches of light – the lower one is the Lagoon nebula – about 5000 light years away, and then just to its upper right- about 3 full moon disks away – is the Trifid nebula, about 5200 light years distant. Two of the most beautiful deep-sky treasures of the late summer sky.

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Posted in Stargazing, stars | 110 Comments »

See Luna’s Straight Wall Tonight

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 28, 2009 – 4:27 pm -

Every month just after the first quarter phase of the Moon, like it is tonight (Friday) is the best time to hunt down in a small telescope, one of the most striking features on the lunar surface called the Straight Wall or Rupes Recta. As the name implies, this giant 120 km long lunar fault looks like a straight dark line through the eyepiece.

The view is so dramatic right now because the rising sun is casting a long deep shadow the entire length of this steep cosmic cliff. Current estimates are that the cliff is about a 400 meter sheer drop. 


First described by 17th century astronomer Christian Huygens, the straight wall lies in the Mare Nubium and is impressive in any sized telescope you have.  

You can have another chance to see the Straight Wall during last quarter Moon when the setting sun illuminates the face of the long cliff, making it appear as a bright, white straight line – equally as dramatic.


You want to know what kind of other cool features you can track down tonight on the Moon? Check out the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Moon – a very detailed website dedicated to showing you exactly what you can see on the surface of the moon – generated for every day of the calendar.

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Posted in Solar System, The Moon | 289 Comments »

Shuttle Launch LIVE

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 28, 2009 – 3:30 pm -

UPDATE Aug 28: Everything is a GO for a third attempt at a launch tonight. Weather looks good and technical glitches look like have been solved. Watch it happen LIVE below…

Watch as space shuttle Discovery prepares for a rare nighttime launch towards the International Space Station to add a new European module Leonardo.

Posted in Space Exploration | 64 Comments »

Moon and Mars’ Rival Clash Today

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 27, 2009 – 12:57 pm -

Skywatchers across eastern North America will get to watch the bright Red Giant star Antares slip behind the dark side of the quarter Moon late this afternoon at around 4:30 pm EDT. The occultation event is best seen through binoculars or a small telescope – so as to counter the wash out effect from the daytime blue sky and bright Moon.  Illustration on right shows what this kind of close encounter between the Moon and a star looks like.

For those in the western half of the continent, the lead star of the constellation Scorpius will appear to just brush by the right side of the Moon. Detailed viewing time tables available here.  Let’s cross our fingers for clear skies.

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Posted in Solar System, stars, The Moon | 140 Comments »

Don’t Get Fooled by Mars Hoax Today

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 27, 2009 – 10:39 am -

It’s late August and like clockwork everyone around the world is being bombarded by a bogus stargazing email, the contents of which have become an urban legend of sorts and never fails to peek peoples interests – I am talking about the annual Mars email hoax landing in your inbox. Every year since 2003 a chain email makes its rounds throughout the internet that touts that on August 27th the planet Mars will be closer than ever before to Earth and it will appear as big as the full moon in the sky to the naked eye.Thank goodness this is not true for if the Red Planet was indeed that close its gravitational pull would wreak havoc with our own planet. But the email is based on some reality.

Mars did in fact have a very close encounter with Earth back in the summer of 2003 when it was only 56 million km away – the closest it had come to us in over 60,000 years. The planet however still only appeared as a very bright reddish star in the sky. But those who had a telescope trained on it noticed that even at low magnification Mars appeared as big as the full moon does through the telescope. This observation was relayed from one amateur astronomer to another that year and it got sent on to other people and so on. Unfortunately, as is the case with many stories, some of the crucial facts were left out along the way and the story got twisted into a hoax.

Read my National Geographic News article published yesterday.

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Posted in Planets, Solar System | 251 Comments »

Jupiter Gets Some Spots Tonight

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 26, 2009 – 6:07 pm -

Stargazers with at least a 4 to 6 inch telescope at hand are in for a treat tonight as two of Jupiter’s moons Europa, and Ganymede, pass in front of the planet – which astronomers call a transit. The tiny moons will cast dark dot-like shadows on the cloud tops of the gas giant that are easily visible in backyard scopes under high magnification. You can find Jupiter shining like a beacon in the southern sky on any clear night. You can’t miss it because it looks like the brightest star-like object in that part of the sky. The show is a double bill because the moons will be visible along with their shadow trailing behind them, making for a spectacular sight – which even Galileo would marvel at 400 years ago!


Below are the viewing times of each event as they happen 780 million km away from us.

09:24 p.m. ET

Ganymede transit starts .

09:43 p.m.

Europa begins transit across Jupiter.

10:21 p.m.

Europa’s shadow begins transit across Jupiter.

10:41 p.m.

Ganymede’s shadow begins transit across Jupiter.

12:35 a.m.

Europa leaves Jupiter’s disk.

01:02 a.m.

Ganymede leaves Jupiter’s disk.

01:12 a.m.

Europa’s shadow leaves Jupiter’s disk.

02:20 a.m.

Ganymede’s shadow leaves Jupiter’s disk.

Tip of the hat to for viewing info and times. Check out a computer-generated illustration of what the transits will look like.

Posted in Uncategorized | 19 Comments »

Radio Show: Aurora Watching

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 26, 2009 – 2:11 pm -

Did you know that it’s charged particles from the Sun, traveling at speeds of a million km per hour, that cause the colourful display of the aurora borealis? Coming up on my next CBC Radio One column today (Wednesday) we chat about the dance of the Northern Lights, it’s mysteries, and how best to hunt them down.   

Tune in to the drive-home show between 3 pm and 6 pm on your city’s local CBC Radio One station.

For more info on auroras check out these links..

sign up for alerts about imminent aurora activity at

check out the latest solar images from NASA’s solar satellite SOHO

A primer on what Northern Lights

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Canada Takes IYA to Space

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 24, 2009 – 12:16 pm -

Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk has recorded a video message to commemorate International Year of Astronomy and encourage everyone to step outside and enjoy the night sky and the wonders of the Universe. Check it out…

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Radio Show: Battle for the Night Sky

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 19, 2009 – 11:27 am -

Did you know that two-thirds of the world’s  population can’t see the Milky Way from where they live?Coming up on my next CBC Radio One column today (Wednesday) we chat about the bane of all astronomers – light pollution and the fading beauty of the Milky Way.  Find out how both amateur and  pro stargazers are waging a battle to save the starry skies and get some tips on what you can do too. 

Tune in to the drive-home show between 3 pm and 6 pm on your city’s local CBC Radio One station.

For more info on light pollution check out these links..

Latest Canadian efforts by RASC Light Pollution Abatement program
Research study that assesses how bad light pollution is around the world.
International Dark Sky Association offers great info, internatinoal efforts, and tips.
NASA story on the fading Milky Way, and  beginner’s guide entitled A Milky Way Primer
check out an article I wrote about Quebec creating a new Dark Sky Preserve


Posted in Stargazing | 2 Comments »

Manned Missions Beyond the Moon?

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 18, 2009 – 10:27 am -

With just a few days away from a special committee report being handed over to the White House on the future of U.S. human speceflight, rumblings are that NASA’s plans to return humans on to the surface of the Moon by 2020 may not fly in terms of current budget restrictions.  So alternatives are being offered and one of them is using the yet-to-be-built Orion spacecraft (BTW – looks a lot like the old Apollo-era capsules – except bigger) to take a human crew to nearby asteroids. Tip of the hat to for this find.

These far-off trips would definitely be a move in the right direction in my opinion for a number of reasons.  Firstly, they would not only be the next logical step in terms of humans moving farther into deep space by testing technologies used for long-term, long-disance spaceflight, but it would also do humanity a great service – possibly help save our lives even. By studying near-Earth asteroids, we can characterise possible threats from impacts. We can also better understand possible ways of deflecting them in case one of them has Earth in its cross-hairs. After all its not a matter of if an asteroid will hit us, but when. Wouldn’t it just make sense for us to understand these threats and be ready for when we need to act?  i know robotic spacecrafts are cheaper but they just can’t do everything a human can do in terms of exploring and analyzing. And honestly if there is going to be a human space program then lets have a goal that serves the greater good and really push the envelope in terms of our understanding of the cosmos.

Finally I think such a bold mission would simply capture people’s imagination.  Think of a 3 to 4 week long expedition out to many millions of km from Earth – maybe 10 to 20 times farther than the moon is.  Asteroids are the next pitstop in touring the solar system on the cheap.  And in the economic and environmental crisis we are facing, it just makes sense to have alternative plans to the Moon that are more useful scientifically, technologically, and economically.  It takes a lot more bucks to set up shop on the Moon – and we have been there and done that! Let’s move on to the next step on our way to going to Mars and beyond. Asteroids just make sense.

Astronauts  could even land easily, without too much technological challenges in the way, on the asteroid itself because of their extremely weak gravity. We would learn how to live at long distances away from the protection of our planet – a set us up for even more ambitous missions to other planets – which are much more demanding.   An exploratory mission like this could even lead to major economical spinoffs down the road in terms of mining asteroids for their rich mineral resources.

If we think out of the box a bit more, an even more exciting possiblity woudl be to set up camp on or around an asteroid and letting it take you for a ride around the solar system as it orbits the Sun. No extra fuel needed – just let the asteroid do the work.  By hitching a ride on an asteroid, it could take us to destinations within our solar system that are out of reach. We could use it as a home base, as it flies by other worlds. Possibilities are endless. It will be interesting if this pitch for refocusing on an asteroid mission will get traction.

Read more ont he asteroid option being discussed in a article and check out this cool video from Lockheed-Martin on what the Orion spacecraft could do beyond low Earth orbit.

Posted in Solar System, Space Exploration | 6 Comments »