Seems like this week is packed with planetary news – hard to keep up with what’s going on in the Cosmos! First off we heard at the beginning of the week that the oldest material in the solar system was discovered lodged inside a North African meteorite. Based on the anaysis of a pea-sized mineral found inside the space rock the new age of the solar system is 4,586.2 million years old – pushing back the age by 2 million years. May not sound like much when we are talking about billions of years – but it makes a huge difference in terms of helping bolster the theory that a nearby ancient supernova explosion may have seeded our solar system with heavy metals and helped give birth to our sun and planets. The late astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “we are all made of starstuff”. This now really holds true – just think that all the iron that is in our bodies was forged inside a massive star that exploded 5 billion years ago!
Next story to make the news mid-week was that an alien star about 127 light years away hosts five to seven planets the size of Neptune. What is really interesting here is that one of the planets may be the least massive one every detected-roughly about 1.4 times the mass of Earth. This has yet to be confirmed, but this planetary system may turn out to be the most similar to our own solar system ever discovered. It will be worth keeping tabs on this story and see what develops when researchers may confirm this potential terrestrial-like world.
Finally on Thursday afternoon, NASA announces that its planet-hunting probe, Kepler, has discovered two Saturn-sized planets orbiting the same sun-like star. Here again they are saying that there are hints of a third possible, Earth-sized planet lurking.
I think we are getting pretty close to hearing the first confirmed detection of an Earth-sized planet. Maybe within the year? Crossing my fingers.
Exciting times we live in!
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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 pique 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 last time this hoax made its rounds on the net.
Also check out the NASA story too.
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A Japanese backyard astronomer reports seeing a distinct flash in the upper cloud deck of Jupiter on Friday August 20th. The optical flash was recorded through his 6 inch refracting telescope using a webcam.
So far no other observers have seen any remnants of an impact. Stay tuned for more details as they become available.
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Some sad news in the astronomy world today….Known to millions across Canada and the US as PBS television’s Star Hustler, Jack Horkheimer has died at his Miami, Florida home Friday at the age of 72 after a lengthy illness. Always a flamboyant showman, Jack was a true inspiration for generations of backyard stargazers with his weekly late night 5 minute show about upcoming naked-eye astronomy highlights. Each and every one of his some 1,700 shows he would end with his signature sign-off, “Keep Looking Up!”
He was a one-of-a-kind, funny and passionate advocate of astronomy who just loved to spread the word about the hobby through his show and as director of the Miami planetarium.
I had the good fortune to interview him for the last time earlier this year for a story I was writing about observing our Moon and he was simply a joy to chat with. His deep love for the night sky and desire to communicate its many wonders was readily apparent to me and despite his respiratory illness he was battling, he never lost any of his eloquency and excitement for the universe.
Being an astronomy popularizer myself for nearly 20 years, I can say that Jack was a trailblazer and opened the cosmic door to the mass media and made astronomy cool to the public at large. I know he taught me a lot about public communication of science – how to convey astronomy jargon in simple and entertaining ways, and I think he set an example of how to be a passionate ambassador of the starry heavens. Thank you Jack!
You can see his final shows in the coming weeks on your local PBS station or online. The last episode with Jack will air the first week of September and talk about the Summer Triangle. Reading his online bio, Jack wrote a funny epitaph for himself which I think reflects well his quirky personality…“Keep Looking Up was my life’s admonition, I can do little else in my present position.”
Here is this week’s episode for your enjoyment…
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Check out a real pretty celestial get together in the evening sky tonight, Tuesday, about a half hour after sunset. By that time the sky will start to become dark enough to reveal the orange-hued star Antares next to the crescent Moon . Lying more than 600 light years from Earth, Antares is the lead star in the constellation Scorpius and it’s name literally means – Anti-Mars – given to it by ancient Greek astronomers because it reminded them of the Red Planet in the sky. Check out this spectacular pairing for yourself int he southern sky tonight.
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The Perseid meteor shower has come and gone and reports coming in to the International Meteor Organization (IMO) say that from dark locations, rates at peak time on the night of August 12th were about 140 shooting stars per hour. However most people I talked to from city suburbs, rates were much more modest – around 20 to 60 meteors per hour. That is still a great showing, thanks to the moon not being in the sky at peak times. Here are a few photos …
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This week we talk about the Perseid meteor shower performance and weekend outlook for more shooting stars and a pretty planet, moon lineup.
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Get set for a great show! Skywatchers worldwide are reporting that the pre game show night before the peak, meteor counts were averaging up to 40 per hour from some locales. These higher numbers were probably from observers in dark locations away from the light pollution of cities, and so many of the fainter metoers were visible. But still this bodes well for even those caught within city limits – tonight’s main act peak numbers should at least double! Check out the worldwide Perseid meteor count chart in my previous entry below, courtesy of IMO. How best to watch the meteor shower? Check out my guide here. Stay tuned for updates…
Also here are some cool links just underneath to some great meteor shower online resources – in case you are stuck indoors or clouded out. Tip of the hat to Spaceweather.com.
- Live Meteor Radar — listen to Perseid radar echoes
- 2010 Perseid Photo Gallery — from Spaceweather.com
- Perseid Fireball Cam — flashes in the night, from NASA
- Planet Triangle Show Tonight — from National Geographic
- Viewer’s Guide to Perseids – from National Geopgraphic
- Perseid Twitter Feed — from NASA meteor expert
Tags: meteor shower, Perseids
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Last nights numbers of pre-peak Perseids are very encouraging. About 48 hours before the predicted peak observers reported seeing on average around 20 to 30 meteors per hour! …With any luck those number should double or triple by Thursday night.
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