On the night of February 20th at about 6:15 pm, the evening sky was lit up across southern Ontario by a small meteor, otherwise known as a shooting star. Reports indicate that it may have been a baseball to basketball size space rock that burned up in the upper atmosphere at least 30 km in altitude. Events like these are not all that uncommon, but when they occur over populated areas during evening hours they do get noticed by hundreds if not thousands of people. Usually meteors are sand grain sized material that hits Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds and get burned up completely before ever hitting the ground. Sometimes larger rocks can produce what is known as a bolide – a bright fireball with a trail of smoke – and can actually make it to the ground. From the many dozens of accounts I have received it appears the February 20th meteor fall put on quite a light show.
Eyewitness from Ottawa region say it appeared as a bright flash nearly overhead while observers in the Toronto area describe a bright yellow/orange coloured streak lasting 2 to 5 seconds about 30 to 40 degrees above the southeastern horizon – heading south. So far there are no indications that any fragments made it to the ground.
Posted in Meteors | 51 Comments »
This Sunday evening take a gander at the first quarter Moon and look towards its lower right and you might notice a hazy patch of light. That stellar smudge is in fact one of the most famous night sky destinations for beginner skywatchers – called the Pleiades or seven susters.
It is rich star cluster located about 400 light years distant and it can easily be seen from even light polluted suburban skies. With even the bright Moon in play this weekend, the Pleiades can be spotted fairly easily.
If you are finding it hard to make out try using binoculars – they will bring out many more members of this cosmic nursery. More than 40 members belong to this young group and most can be seen with binoculars and small telescopes. But the naked eye will still pick out the brightest five to seven of its stars.
Posted in Constellations, Stargazing, stars | 48 Comments »
If you can get out of bed early enough over the next week or so then you have a great chance to see the International Space Station make an overhead pass. Looking like a gliding star in the predawn sky, it will appear to be very bright – thanks to the new module additions made by the shuttle crew.
So when and where to catch this football field sized lab zip by? Get your own viewing timetable for your city by clicking on the space station icon on the right-sidebar or just go to the Sky Tonight page and scroll down.
Posted in Uncategorized | 127 Comments »
One of the most celebrated targets for backyard astronomers is seen in a whole new way, thanks to a recently launched NASA space telescope. The immense Andromeda galaxy, also known as Messier 31 or simply M31, is captured in full in this new image from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The mosaic covers an area equivalent to more than 100 full moons, or five degrees across the sky.
WISE used all four of its infrared detectors to capture this picture (3.4- and 4.6-micron light is colored blue; 12-micron light is green; and 22-micron light is red). Blue highlights mature stars, while yellow and red show dust heated by newborn, massive stars.
Andromeda is the closest large galaxy to our Milky Way galaxy, and is located 2.5 million light-years from our sun. It is close enough for telescopes to spy the details of its ringed arms of new stars and hazy blue backbone of older stars. Also seen in the mosaic are two satellite galaxies, known as M32, located just a bit above Andromeda to the left of center, and the fuzzy blue M110, located below the center of the great spiral arms. These satellites are the largest of several that are gravitationally bound to Andromeda.
The Andromeda galaxy is larger than our Milky Way and contains more stars, but the Milky Way is thought to perhaps have more mass due to its larger proportion of a mysterious substance called dark matter. Both galaxies belong to our so-called Local Group, a collection of more than 50 galaxies, most of which are tiny dwarf systems. In its quest to map the whole sky, WISE will capture the entire Local Group.
-adapted from a NASA news announcement
Tags: Andromeda galaxy, m31, WISE
Posted in Satellites, Space Exploration, Stargazing, stars | 42 Comments »
This week there is a neat skywatching event going on just after sunset where the two planets Venus and Jupiter appear to huddle close together. And as an added bonus, the razor thin crescent Moon will be joining the pair in the southwestern sky tonight.
To see the two planets you must have a very clear line of sight, devoid of high trees or houses to the low southwestern horizon. I sometimes go onto highway overpasses (where there is a sidewalk) to catch a good, clear view.
Tonight the pair will be separated by just a little more than a 2 full moon disks, while Luna itself will be about 20 full moon disks above them. All three members of our solar systems will be in the part of the sky occupied by constellation Aquarius.
But by tomorrow, Tuesday at sunset Venus and Jupiter will appear their closest – only one full Moon disk apart - as the Goddess of Love moves a bit higher in the sky and King of all planets sinks a tad lower. But remember you have to be quick to spot them as they will set within a half hour or so after the Sun.
Tags: Aquarius, Jupiter, Venus
Posted in Constellations, Planets, Solar System, The Moon | 185 Comments »
Here is a pretty picture postcard from a corner of the universe we call the constellation Cassiopeia. This is a glowing cloud of hydrogen gas that happens to take on the familiar shape of a heart and so is called appropriately the Heart nebula. It spans about 300 light years across and lies 6000 light years from Earth. This magnificent emmision nebula is the birthplace of many still young massive stars seen scattered across this photo.
Tags: Cassiopeia, Heart nebula
Posted in Constellations, Stargazing | 164 Comments »
The Great Orion Nebula, one of the perennial favorite scenic wonders of the night sky has begun to reveal its innermost secrets. A new dramatic image of this giant gas cloud has been showcased by the European Southern Observatory’s new VISTA survey telescope. The telescope’s huge field of view can show the full splendor of the whole nebula and VISTA’s infrared vision also allows it to peer deeply into dusty regions that are normally hidden and expose the curious behavior of the very active young stars buried there.
The Orion Nebula is a vast stellar nursery lying about 1,350 light-years from Earth. Although the nebula is spectacular when seen through an ordinary telescope, what can be seen using visible light is only a small part of a cloud of gas in which stars are forming. Most of the action is deeply embedded in dust clouds and to see what is really happening astronomers need to use telescopes with detectors sensitive to the longer wavelength radiation that can penetrate the dust. VISTA has imaged the Orion Nebula at wavelengths about twice as long as can be detected by the human eye.
VISTA — the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy — is the latest addition to ESO’s Paranal Observatory. It is the largest survey telescope in the world and is dedicated to mapping the sky at infrared wavelengths. The large (4.1-meter) mirror, wide field of view and very sensitive detectors make VISTA a unique instrument. This dramatic new image of the Orion Nebula illustrates VISTA’s remarkable powers.
As in the many visible light pictures of this object, the new wide field VISTA image shows the familiar bat-like form of the nebula in the center of the picture as well as the fascinating surrounding area. At the very heart of this region lie the four bright stars forming the Trapezium, a group of very hot young stars pumping out fierce ultraviolet radiation that is clearing the surrounding region and making the gas glow. However, observing in the infrared allows VISTA to reveal many other young stars in this central region that cannot be seen in visible light. These youthful stars eject streams of gas with typical speeds of 700,000 km/hour and many of the red features highlight the places where these gas streams collide with the surrounding gas, causing emission from excited molecules and atoms in the gas. There are also a few faint, red features below the Orion Nebula in the image, showing that stars form there too, but with much less vigor. These strange features are of great interest to astronomers studying the birth and youth of stars.
Below is a cool video of the new look at Orion…
- Adapted from an ESO news announcement
Doorstep Astronomy: You can take a gander at this star factory for yourself with nothing more than your unaided eyes – even from light polluted suburbs! Just face towards the southern sky all evening long and look for Orion constellation’s distinctive row of three stars. This trio marks the belt of the mighty hunter. Just below the belt is Orion’s sword – which is a near vertical row of another three fainter stars.
Look closely at the middle star, and you will notice that it looks kind of fuzzy compared to the ones beside it. You have found Orion’s nebula – a giant cloud of gas and dust nearly 1400 light years away from us.
Binoculars and even a small telescope will begin to reveal the cloud’s beautiful flower-like structure composed of a tiny, tight cluster of blue-white stars surrounded by a grey-green mist. The French comet-hunter Charles Messier made an accurate sketch of its main features in the mid-eighteenth century and gave it the number 42 in his famous catalogue.
Tags: M42, nebula, Orion
Posted in Constellations, Stargazing, stars | 78 Comments »
For those of you who missed the 4:14 am EST launch of shuttle Endeavour this morning here is the video of the thunderous event. Mission STS-130 is taking up a habitat module ‘Tranquility’ to the space station and a giant bay window called a cupola where a robotic console will be installed aboard the ISS.
Posted in Space Exploration | 130 Comments »
Tonight take a look at the Red Planet climbing up the eastern horizon – you can’t miss it as the brightest star in the region of sky. It makes a conveninet guidepost to finding a great open star cluster that is a favourite amongst backyard astronomers. Known affectionately as the Beehive (see telescope image below) and more officially as M44, it is a loose grouping of what looks like about 40 stars buzzing around together through binoculars, but really explodes into a much larger group of a couple hundred stars in a small telescope under low magnifiation. It is fairly eas to spot with the naked eye from a dark location and has been known since ancient times – astronomers Hipparchos and Ptolemy made notes of the cluster as the ‘Little Mist’ 2000 years ago!
For those early birds out there tomorrow (Sunday) morning at dawn a striking crescent Moon will pay a quick visit to Mars’ rival – the orange hued, stellar giant called Antares. This 600 light year distant star’s name means ‘against Mars’ since it reminded ancients of the planet’s similar colour in the sky. Antares also is the lead member of the constellation Scorpius which is a favourite destinatino for stargazers when it sits in the southern sky in the late summer evenings.
The cosmic pair will look stunning together hanging low in the eastern horizon as the glow of the rising sun slowly washes over the morning sky. Definitely worth a look see even through your bedroom window.
Posted in Uncategorized | 212 Comments »