Cold Moon Rising

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 30, 2010 – 5:24 pm -

If you missed the show yesterday, Friday night, then  check out the near full Moon at its largest for the year this evening. Face towards the eastern horizon just after sunset and watch the silvery orb rise into the sky. Here is a quick snapshot I took yesterday of the full Moon with a star-like sidekick – Mars – you can see it to the left of the Moon. If you look carefully you will also notice the distinctive orange hue of Mars – that’s the iron-oxide rich sand dunes that covers the planet.

Mars and the full moon, Friday, Jan.29,2010

Mars and the full moon, Friday, Jan.29,2010

Posted in The Moon, Uncategorized | 10 Comments »

This Week in Space, New Episode

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 30, 2010 – 11:20 am -

This week Miles o’Brien checks in on NASA’s latest space telescopes,  and  interviews Mars rover Spirit’s principal scientist on its latest adventures.

Posted in Space Exploration | 125 Comments »

Biggest and Brightest Moon and Mars Tonight

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 29, 2010 – 6:51 pm -

If you can brave the cold weather then step outside after sunset tonight and take a gander at the full Moon – its the largest and brightest for 2010. Also just beside it is the planet Mars – which just happens to be at Opposition tonight as well – opposite to the sun in the sky- and at its personal best intil 2014.  The spectacular pair will be traveling across the southern sky all night long – so you have plenty of time.




Apparent Mars disk size through a small telescope

If you have a telescope that is at least 5 inches then you can see some nice details on Mars. The easiest will no doubt be the south polar cap and then some of the barren wind-swept darker regions. But even without any optical aid you can clearly see its distinctive ruddy colour which is caused by sunlight reflecting off the iron-oxide rich sand deserts that cover this barren world. Amazing to think that while the moon is less than 400,000 km away, that bright orange star beside it tonight is a planet more than 98 million km away!

A great double feature  for sure. For more info check out my article in National Geographic News.

Posted in Planets, The Moon, Uncategorized | 325 Comments »

Backyard Stargazers Discover Exploding Star

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 28, 2010 – 8:57 pm -

A discovery by two amateur astronomers in central Florida helped to set in motion a global network of ground- and space-based telescopes today, observing a violent explosion of a distant star in our Galaxy. The two astronomers, Dr. Barbara Harris of New Smyrna Beach and Shawn Dvorak of Clermont, were active participants in a global research campaign to monitor activity of the star U Scorpii. Their detection of this explosion in the early morning hours of January 28 served as the trigger for a number of satellites and ground-based telescopes waiting on this important event.

U Sco, an object known as a recurrent nova, had been predicted to outburst during a two-year window beginning in the spring of 2008. Both Harris and Dvorak had been conducting long-term monitoring as part of a campaign run by the American Association of Variable StarObservers (AAVSO). This campaign involved professional and amateur observers from around the world monitoring this star every night throughout that two-year window. Their persistence paid off early in the morning of January 28. Harris was first to detect the outburst shortly before 6 a.m. local time,with Dvorak’s independent detection arriving shortly afterward. The two near-simultaneous observations provided all the proof required to alert observers and observatories around the world and in space that USco’s outburst had finally occurred.

INTREGAL X-Ray satellite

INTERGAL X-Ray satellite

Within an hour, a global network of observatories were set in motion, and by the end of the morning, two X-ray satellites (the Rossi X-Ray Timing Observatory andthe INTEGRAL satellite) had already made observations. Over the next several months, astronomers will be monitoring the progress of this outburst at nearly all wavelengths of light from radio waves to X-raysusing a number of ground-based telescopes and spaceborne observatories.

Dr. Arne Henden, Director of the AAVSO, commented that “this again shows the real advantage of the worldwide distribution of amateur astronomers for detecting transient events like this. Harris and Dvorak could watch U Sco rise over the Atlantic, hours before professional astronomers in the Western U.S. would have a chance. Then, because of the winter weather for most U.S. professional observatories, amateurs continued monitoring U Sco from New Zealand and Australia, catching the important first hours of the outburst.”

The AAVSO’s Observing Campaign coordinator, Dr. Matthew Templeton,notes that amateur astronomers play an important role in time-criticalprojects such as this. “Amateurs have the option of observing what they want, when they want. Sometimes, the only source of observational data for projects such as this is the amateur community. The observers of the AAVSO have been working with the professional community for decades to provide this kind of help. It’s a key part of the process of doing scientific research, and the work of the amateur community makes it possible.”

Amateur astronomers around the world will continue to participate in the observing campaign, providing data to complement the observations made by larger ground- and space-based telescopes.

The progress of the U Scorpii outburst can be followed via the internet; the AAVSO ismaintaining a web page devoted to the event, and anyone can view observational data as they are submitted in real time through the AAVSO website.

More information on U Scorpii and the AAVSO campaign:

Update: U Scorpii went from 18th magnitude (large telescope object) the previous day to its current 8th magnitude (a binocular object). Experts predict that it will start fading in the next day or two possibly. Located in the constellation Scorpius, U Scorpii above the southeastern horizon in the predawn hour.

You want to watch the nova for yourself? Then check out the detailed finder’s charts  here.

Posted in Stargazing, stars | 117 Comments »

Mars at its Best for 2010

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 27, 2010 – 7:36 pm -

Perhaps you’ve noticed a ruddy, star-like beacon rising in the east at night. That’s the planet Mars and it’s been steadily growing bigger and brighter the past few months. Skywatchers are now watching the heavens with anticipation as the Red Planet heads for a close encounter with Earth later this week. First, tonight, the27th it reaches its closest point to Earth, passing within 99 million km and offering backyard astronomers their best views until 2014.

Two days later, on January 29, Mars will reach opposition – risias an added bonus for skywatchers on the night of it’s opposition Mars will pair up with the full Moon, gliding together across the night sky – separated by only 6 degrees – about 12 full moon disks apart.

As the two planets slowly converge along their orbits, earthbound telescopes have begun resolving ever finer details on the disk of Mars. You can see the round disk of the planet through binoculars and a small telescope about 5 to 6 inches will show details like the Martian South polar cap and other surface features.

Mars makes a close pass by Earth every 2 years and while this planetary encounter is not the tightest (2003 opposition was only 56 million km), our neighboring world is easy to spot even with the naked eye. When you see Mars rising above the eastern horizon after sunset this week, just think that its distinctive orange-hue is due to the sunlight relfecting off the iron-rich Martian deserts.

Also wrote a small article on this for National Geographic

Tags: ,
Posted in Planets, Solar System | 166 Comments »

Mars Rover Stuck for Good

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 26, 2010 – 3:46 pm -

NASA just announced that the intrepid Mars rover ‘Spirit’ is about to begin a new, and most likely, final chapter in its adventures. The poor little robotic geologist has been stuck in a sand trap since April of last year and despite numerous attempts to free it – it hasn’t budged much. So today JPL engineers have put up the white flag and are officially giving up trying to free it and have designated the dinner-table sized rover as a stationary science platform.

“Spirit is not dead; it has just entered another phase of its long life,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We told the world last year that attempts to set the beloved robot free may not be successful. It looks like Spirit’s current location on Mars will be its final resting place.”

Spirits wheels became embedded when they broke through a crusty surface April 2009 and churned into soft sand hidden underneath

Spirit's wheels became embedded when they broke through a crusty surface April 2009 and churned into soft sand hidden underneath

However the race is on to get the rover inched into the right orientation so that it can survive the approaching intense Martian winter. If it’s table-top solar panels can’t get the most solar energy possible, Spirit’s electronics will freeze to death.  “Getting through the winter will all come down to temperature and how cold the rover electronics will get,” said John Callas, project manager at JPL for Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity. “Every bit of energy produced by Spirit’s solar arrays will go into keeping the rover’s critical electronics warm, either by having the electronics onor by turning on essential heaters.”

But all is not lost in terms of science – far from it say scientists. It’s just going to be a different type of information we are going to learn about the Red Planet -which only a stationary robot could do. “There’s a class of science we can do only with a stationary vehiclethat we had put off during the years of driving,” said Steve Squyres,a researcher at Cornell University and principal investigator for Spirit and Opportunity. “Degraded mobility does not mean the mission ends abruptly. Instead, it lets us transition to stationary science.” One stationary experiment Spirit has begun studies tiny wobbles inthe rotation of Mars to gain insight about the planet’s core. This requires months of radio-tracking the motion of a point on the surface of Mars to calculate long-term motion with an accuracy of a few inches. “If the final scientific feather in Spirit’s cap is determining whether the core of Mars is liquid or solid, that would be wonderful– it’s so different from the other knowledge we’ve gained from Spirit,” said Squyres.

But it has been a great ride for Spirit and its twin Opportunity, which is on the other side of the Red Planet. Both robots landed in January 2004 and have been exploring for six years, far surpassing their original 90-day mission. Opportunity currently is driving toward a large crater called Endeavor and continues to make scientific discoveries. It has driven approximately 12 miles and returned more than 133,000 images.

For more information about Spirit and Opportunity, visit:

Tags: ,
Posted in Planets, Solar System, Space Exploration | Comments Off on Mars Rover Stuck for Good

New Night Sky Episode

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 23, 2010 – 9:33 am -

Check out my latest TV spot highlighting Sunday night’s lunar pass of a bright star cluster.

Posted in Stargazing, The Moon | 169 Comments »

NASA Taking Requests for Mars Photos

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 22, 2010 – 5:55 pm -

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

The most powerful camera aboard a NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars will soon be taking photo suggestions from the public. Since arriving at Mars in 2006, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has recorded nearly 13,000 observations of the Red Planet’s terrain. Each image covers dozens of square miles and reveals details as small as a desk. Now, anyone can nominate sites for pictures.

“The HiRISE team is pleased to give the public this opportunity to propose imaging targets and share the excitement of seeing your favorite spot on Mars at people-scale resolution,” said Alfred McEwen, principal investigator for the camera and a researcher at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Students, researchers and others can view Mars maps using a new online tool to see where images have been taken, check which targets have already been suggested and make new suggestions. “The process is fairly simple,” said Guy McArthur, systems programmer on the HiRISE team at the University of Arizona. “With the tool, you can place your rectangle on Mars where you’d like.”

In addition to identifying the location on a map, anyone nominating a target will be asked to give the observation a title, explain the potential scientific benefit of photographing the site and put the suggestion into one of the camera team’s 18 science themes. The themes include categories such as impact processes, seasonal processes and volcanic processes. The HiRISE science team will evaluate suggestions and put high-priority ones into a queue. Thousands of pending targets from scientists and the public will be imaged when the orbiter’s track and other conditions are right.

To make camera suggestions, visit

 More information about the MRO mission is at

Posted in Planets, Solar System, Space Exploration | 14 Comments »

The Purrfect Nebula

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 20, 2010 – 10:47 am -

click image to enlarge

Nebula lies just off the stinger's tip; click image to enlarge

Few objects in the sky have been as well named as the Cat’s Paw Nebula, a glowing gas cloud resembling the gigantic pawprint of a celestial cat out on an errand across the Universe. NGC 6334 lies about 5500 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Scorpius (the Scorpion) and covers an area on the sky slightly larger than the full Moon. The whole gas cloud is about 50 light-years across. The nebula appears red because its blue and green light are scattered and absorbed more efficiently by material between the nebula and Earth. The red light comes predominantly from hydrogen gas glowing under the intense glare of hot young stars. 

Best image ever of the Cats Paw Nebula; click image to enlarge

Best image ever of the Cat's Paw Nebula; click image to enlarge

British astronomer John Herschel first recorded NGC 6334 in 1837 during his stay in South Africa. Despite using one of the largest telescopes in the world at the time, Herschel seems to have only noted the brightest part of the cloud, seen here towards the lower left.This new portrait of the Cat’s Paw Nebula was created from images taken with the 2.2-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

NGC 6334 is one of the most active nurseries of massive stars in our galaxy and has been extensively studied by astronomers. The nebula conceals freshly minted brilliant blue stars — each nearly ten times the mass of our Sun and born in the last few million years. The region is also home to many baby stars that are buried deep in the dust, making them difficult to study. In total, the Cat’s Paw Nebula could contain several tens of thousands of stars.Particularly striking is the red, intricate bubble in the lower right part of the image. This is most likely either a star expelling large amount of matter at high speed as it nears the end of its life or the remnant of a star that already has exploded.

Click here to get this image for you desktop wallpaper.

– Adapted from a European Southern Observatory new release

Tags: , ,
Posted in Constellations, stars | 39 Comments »

Sunset Sky Show Act 2

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 18, 2010 – 6:16 pm -

Face the southweat sky just after sunset and enjoy the Moon’s encounter with Jupiter. You will have two hours after sunset to catch the pair before they too will set. By tomorrow the Moon will have moved off towards the south and away from the gas giant.

Posted in Planets, Solar System, The Moon | 68 Comments »