Moon Meets the Cobra

Written by The Night Sky Guy on November 24, 2010 – 9:02 pm -

Moon helps find King Cobra star cluster this Friday; click image to  enlarge

Moon helps find King Cobra star cluster this Friday; click image to enlarge

Thanks to the nearby waning gibbous moon ,this Friday night is a great opportunity to hunt down a beautiful star cluster – known as the King Cobra or Messier 67.  The pair will appear close to each other in the constellation Cancer for binocular and telescope skywatchers.

About an hour or two after the Moon rises  (local time 8 pm-ish) Scan the sky to the right of the Moon for the open star cluster. At  magnitude 6.3  King Cobra cluster  should be an easy target in a steadily held pair of binoculars even from suburbs.

King Cobra cluster up close and personal. Courtesy of

King Cobra cluster through a telescope - up close and personal. Courtesy of

Astronomers estimate that there are about 500 stars that make up this stellar group more than 2800 light years from Earth. Of particular scientific interest with M67 is that most of these stars are fairly old – about 4 billion years of age – nearly as old as our Sun – okay maybe 1 billion years younger – but close enough so that some experts believe that this  should be a prime location to hunt for Earth-like planets whirling around these solar type stars.

Binocular view of M67 star cluster and Moon this Friday. Click image to enlarge.

Binocular view of M67 star cluster and Moon this Friday. Click image to enlarge.

For most backyard stargazers the M67 is usually the forgotten sibling of the nearby, brighter Beehive cluster in Cancer. Look closely with a small telescope however and try and make out the coiled form of a snake this cluster makes – this may take a bit of imagination – but hey, that’s part of the fun!  What you are looking for is a distinct backwards S – shape that, as astronomer Stephen O’Meara – who coined this asterism says,  has a”swollen (hazy) midsection that reminds me of a king cobra that has just swallowed a meal.”  The head, made up of a clump of stars in the form of an arrowhead is in the southern section of the cluster.

Enjoy hunting down this stellar slithery foe!

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Montreal Space Lecture

Written by The Night Sky Guy on November 17, 2010 – 7:06 pm -

This week on Thursday November 18th at 8 pm  there will be a special public lecture on a really hot topic in the astronomical world these days:  the search for sister Earths. If you happen to be in the Montreal area then come and join the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada for this exciting talk!

Title: Where will Avatar 2 be set? The real science of real exoplanets

Talk Summary: People have been visiting alien worlds in the movie theatres for more than 100 years, since Georges Melies took audiences on “A Trip to the Moon” in 1902.  But it has only been since 1995 that astronomers have been able to explore alien worlds around Sun-like stars (remotely, with telescopes) after the discovery of the “hot Jupiter” exoplanet 51 Pegasi b.  And only recently that exoplanets have been found whose masses and sizes approach those of the Earth. And very soon, the idea of an exoEarth will no longer be science fiction but science fact.

Are there Pandoras out there?  Are there Goldilocks Planets? What’s a Goldilocks Planet? And is one of them Gliese 581g?  That sounds like a boring name for an alien world that could support life, and one that could inspire the setting of the next Avatar film.  But it might not even be a real world with a warm watery surface.  Now you see it; now you don’t.  Has Goldilocks turned into the Cheshire Cat?  And have astronomers fallen down the rabbit hole?

A few years ago, the subject of life on other planets seemed like a fairy tale (or an X Files rerun).  Today, we’re on the verge of finding exoEarths (Earth-sized planets in Earth-sized orbits around Sun-like stars).  How do we search for alien worlds?  What have we found?  How will we look for evidence of life on these planets? Find out on November 18th.

Speaker: Jaymie Matthews is the Mission Scientist leading the Canadian Space Agency’s MOST space telescope project, and a Professor of astrophysics in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of British Columbia.

He is trying to revise the biography of our Sun – past and future – by studying its neighbours in our galactic city, the Milky Way. His research sounds more like astromedicine than astrophysics: performing “ultrasound” on stellar embryos, checking on the hyperactivity of a pre-teen sun, and taking the pulses of stars in their twilight years.

Dr. Matthews and his team are also using MOST to forecast the weather on planets beyond the Solar System, and they have begun the search for Terra Nova – alien Earths around other stars.

Date and Time: November 18, 8 pm EST

Location: Vanier College, room B-223, 821 Ste-Croix Ave., Ville St-Laurent, Montreal

ACCESS: By car,

by bus lines 121 ans 117,

by Metro Cote Vertu and a short 5 minute walk

by commuter train, station Montpellier, and bus #121 westbound or a 15 minute walk.

PARKING: FREE in lots P-6 and P-7 ONLY!

Directions to Vanier College:

If you go East on Cote Vertu from Decarie and pass Boul. Ste. Croix / O’Brian, (3rd intersection on the right), then turn right at the next street (Rue Basile Moreau) – on the left about 100 metres in there is an entrance to parking lots P6-P7.

When you walk out of the parking lot toward the campus buildings, you will pass the Sport Complex and be facing the “A” building with 2 stairways, one to either side of a set of glass doors on the bottom floor and doors at the top of the stairs.

Go up the stairs, through the doors, then straight along the corridor until you get to a small cross corridor that says Amphitheatre B223.

Hope to see you there!

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Modest Meteor Shower this Week

Written by The Night Sky Guy on November 16, 2010 – 7:21 pm -

Update Nov.17: As of  Wednesday afternoon Eastern Time – Leonid meteor counts stand at around 25 per hour – the average taken from many global observers.  If you want to listen in on what the shooting stars sound like, then you can click here to hear the eerie ping sounds each meteor makes as it gets ionized in the upper atmosphere above a radar station in southwest USA. Particularly fun when you get clouded out!

The Leonids are known to be like a temperamental rock star in the meteor shower world.  Sometimes it puts on a mediocre performance but some years it just totally rocks out! It is one of the most active showers with shooting star rates going as high as 1000 per hour on rare occasions. This year it will put on a very modest show but still should be fun to watch.

The peak time for the shower will occur around 4 pm Eastern Time on November 17th which means your best bet will be to see it in the predawn hours on that date and the following morning as well. From a dark site away from light polluted cities expect to catch upwards of 20 to 30 shooting stars per hour in the early morning hours. Skywatchers will also have to contend with a near full moon earlier in the night – but fortunately it will be setting a couple of hours before sunrise , just in time for when the Leonids will be locally at their best.

Best way to watch meteor showers is to lay back comfortably on a lawn chair – facing northeast.  The Leonids take their name from the constellation they appear to originate from in the sky – Leo the lion – which rises in the northeast after midnight this time of the year.

For more detailed information check out my National Geographic story.

Don’t forget to take some hot chocolate with you and bundle up – it’s getting pretty nippy out there this time of the year.

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Meteors Seen from Comet Hartley?

Written by The Night Sky Guy on November 4, 2010 – 3:25 pm -

Closeup view of comet Hartley from EPOXI probe

Closeup view of comet Hartley from EPOXI probe

Did Earth encounter pieces of an alien visitor Wednesday night? Apparently so! It appears tiny pieces of Comet Hartley 2 may have presented a spectacular and startling sky show across the country. NASA meteor experts had predicted it was a long shot, but the evenings of November 2nd and 3rd might display a meteor shower from dust which puffed off this visiting comet as it passed within twelve million miles of Earth. And indeed, the Center for Astrophysics has collected several sightings of bright meteors called fireballs, which result when comet dust burns up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Helga Cabral in Seascape, California, reported after 9 pm Wednesday  night, “I saw a bright white ball and tail, arcing towards the ocean. It was quite beautiful and it looked like it was headed out to sea and so picture perfect it could have been a movie!” Three thousand miles away just north of Boston, Teresa Witham witnessed a similar cosmic event.

Reports say that Wednesday nights bright shooting star looked a lot like this image of a bright meteor seen streaking across Texas skies earlier this year

Reports say that Wednesday night's bright shooting star looked a lot like this image of a bright meteor seen streaking across Texas skies in 2008: Howard Edin (c)2008

“I was in the Revere area about 7:15 last night, driving north on Route 1, when a brilliant object with a tail passed in front of me — very similar in appearance to a shooting star but it appeared much lower to the Earth than a typical shooting star would be. If it weren’t for the fact that I had my daughter with me, I’d begin to believe I’d imagined it.”

Comet Hartley 2 has put on quite a nice show for amateur astronomers over the past few weeks, sporting a vivid green coma or halo around it and a golden auburn tail of dust. NASA’s Deep Impact/EPOXI probe will present dramatic close-up images of the comet when it zooms past the nucleus on November 4th.

When a comet approaches the Sun, it heats up unevenly, throwing off dust, ice and bits of rock. When the Earth encounters some of this space debris, it is seen as a beautiful meteor shower.

“Many people don’t realize that the famous periodic meteor shower in August, the Perseids, is the remains of Comet Swift-Tuttle and the Orionids, appearing in late October, are leftovers from Comet Halley,” said Tim Spahr, Director of the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, MA.

So for the next two evenings, we may see more of Comet Hartley 2. And if you have dark skies and a small telescope or binoculars, try to find Comet Hartley 2 itself. It will be near the bright star Procyon in the constellation Canis Minor near Orion the Hunter, which will be high overhead in the early hours before dawn.

– adapted from a news announcement from: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

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Comet Encounter Hours Away

Written by The Night Sky Guy on November 3, 2010 – 3:11 pm -

NASA’s EPOXI mission continues to close in on its target, comet Hartley 2, at a rate of 12.5 kilometers (7.8 miles) per second. On Nov. 4 at about 10:01 a.m. EDT (7:01 a.m. PDT) the spacecraft will make its closest approach to the comet at a distance of about 700 kilometers (434 miles). It will be the fifth time that a comet has been imaged close-up and the first time in history that two comets have been imaged with the same instruments and same spatial resolution.

You can view all the action LIVE online on NASA TV at this link.

Also here is a great video put together by the mission team that describes the how and why of this really cool mission to taste a comet.

Posted in Solar System, Space Exploration | 6 Comments »

November Sky Highlights

Written by The Night Sky Guy on November 2, 2010 – 11:38 am -

Watch this month’s video podcast from NASA’s JPL featuring the planet Venus and two meteor showers.

Posted in Meteors, Planets, Solar System, Stargazing | 6 Comments »