Cosmic Canine in the Sky

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 28, 2010 – 5:06 pm -

Skywatchers heading out to walk their dogs these late evenings may have noticed a very bright star in the southern sky. This white beacon is Sirius, the lead star in the constellation Canis Major – the Great Dog. You can use the 3 belt stars of Orion the hunter, as a convenient guidepost that points directly to the Dog Star.

Sirius is the brightest star in our nighttime sky, and has a faint, tiny stellar companion called Sirius B or the celestial pup. The two stars revolve around each other every 50 years. Sirius A, only 8.6 light-years from Earth, is the fifth closest star system known.

White dwarfs are the leftover remnants of stars. They have exhausted their nuclear fuel sources and have collapsed down to a very small size. Sirius B is about 10,000 times fainter than Sirius A. You will need a mediaum sized telescope – at least or 10 inches to spot Sirius B next to the glare of its neighbouring behemoth. It’s amazing we can glimpse them at all, because a white dwarf is about the size of the Earth -12,000 km diameter, yet they still have about 90% of the mass of the Sun.

Somethings to think about next time your out walking your four legged friend out on the next clear night.

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Morning Moon Planet Shows

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 27, 2010 – 12:44 pm -

Crescent Moon positions itself next to Saturn in the dawn eastern sky on December 28.

Crescent Moon positions itself next to Saturn in the dawn eastern sky on December 28.

Early bird skywatchers will get a couple beautiful end of year sky shows at local dawn. First on Tuesday morning look towards the southern horizon about an hour to half hour before local sunrise. The crescent Moon will be pairing up with the ringed planet Saturn. Look for the creamy coloured star-like world to the upper left of the Moon. The cosmic duo will be positioned in the constellation Virgo. 

If you want to see the rings of Saturn then you need a small telescope. Does not have to be a big one – with magnification of about 20x will show them nicely. Look carefully through the eyepiece and you may even notice a tiny dot near the planet – that is its largest and brightest moon, called Titan.

As a bonus just look with your unaided eye to the lower left of Moon-Saturn for an even brighter beacon – which is the brilliant white planet Venus. The second innermost planet in the solar system is now dominating the southeastern skies in the early morning hours.


Moon glides next to the brilliant planet Venus December 31 morning

Moon glides next to the brilliant planet Venus December 31 morning

At dawn on New Year’s Eve, the Moon will have glided over to hang just below Venus. The pair will be located inside the constellation Libra and will make for a splashy sight low in the horizon.

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Mars Eclipse and Sunset in Action

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 22, 2010 – 5:42 pm -

A new Mars movie clip gives us a rover’s-eye view of a bluish Martian sunset, while another clip shows the silhouette of the moon Phobos passing in front of the sun. America’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, carefully guided by researchers with an artistic sense, has recorded images used in the simulated movies.  These holiday treats from the rover’s panoramic camera, or Pancam, offer travel fans a view akin to standing on Mars and watching the sky.

“These visualizations of an alien sunset show what it must have looked like for Opportunity, in a way we rarely get to see, with motion,” said rover science team member Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, College Station. Dust particles make the Martian sky appear reddish and create a bluish glow around the sun.

Lemmon worked with Pancam Lead Scientist Jim Bell, of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., to plot the shots and make the moving-picture simulation from images taken several seconds apart in both sequences.

The sunset movie, combining exposures taken Nov. 4 and Nov. 5, 2010, through different camera filters, accelerates about 17 minutes of sunset into a 30-second simulation. One of the filters is specifically used to look at the sun. Two other filters used for these shots provide color information. The rover team has taken Pancam images of sunsets on several previous occasions, gaining scientifically valuable information about the variability of dust in the lower atmosphere. The new clip is the longest sunset movie from Mars ever produced, taking advantage of adequate solar energy currently available to Opportunity.

The two Martian moons are too small to fully cover the face of the sun, as seen from the surface of Mars, so these events — called transits or partial eclipses — look quite different from a solar eclipse seen on Earth. Bell and Lemmon chose a transit by Phobos shortly before the Mars sunset on Nov. 9, 2010, for a set of Pancam exposures taken four seconds apart and combined into the new, 30-second, eclipse movie.

Scientifically, images years apart that show Phobos’ exact position relative to the sun at an exact moment in time aid studies of slight changes in the moon’s orbit. This, in turn, adds information about the interior of Mars.

The world has gained from these movies and from more than a quarter million other images from Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, since they landed on Mars in January 2004. Those gains go beyond the facts provided for science.

Bell said, “For nearly seven years now, we’ve been using the cameras on Spirit and Opportunity to help us experience Mars as if we were there, viewing these spectacular vistas for ourselves.

Whether it’s seeing glorious sunsets and eclipses like these, or the many different and lovely sandy and rocky landscapes that we’ve driven through over the years, we are all truly exploring Mars through the lenses of our hardy robotic emissaries.

“It reminds me of a favorite quote from French author Marcel Proust: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,'” he added.

– Adapted from NASA news annoucement

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Lunar Eclipse Lookback

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 21, 2010 – 1:54 pm -

Well the total lunar eclipse has come and gone and from all the reports I got from around North America it was a a real stunner! Check out this spectacular image taken early this morning …

Total lunar eclipse from southern Alberta. Photo courtesy Alan Dyer copyright 2010

Total lunar eclipse from southern Alberta. Photo courtesy Alan Dyer © 2010

Observers were having eclipse get togethers and sharing their views on social networking sites. My Facebook page was buzzing all night long and I think everyone had a lot of fun sharing this celestial treat! Many said that when the full Moon became totally engulfed in Earth’s shadow it turned a coppery orange to a rusty-brown colour.  Amazing to think that this colour is imparted on the face of the Moon by all the sunrises and sunsets around the the rim of the Earth- how poetic.


Consolation prize. Partial phase of lunar eclipse through thick clouds in Montreal. Photo by Andrew Fazekas

Next total lunar eclipse will occur on June 11, 2011 but will be visible on the other side of the world from this one – South Asia, Middle-East, and East Africa.  North Americans will have to wait until April 14-15, 2014 for the next lunar disappearing act!

From my Montreal suburban driveway I stood vigil all night as a thick cloud deck obscured most of the show. Most people wrote off the eclipse because of the poor weather forecast and went to bed,  but I think it was worth staying up because the partial eclipse was visible through the falling snow!

Totality was nonexistent but still got to see the curved shadow of the Earth engulf the Moon and that is still a great cosmic holiday gift for me!  Here is the best shot I got of the partial phase of the eclipse through the clouds…

Don’t  forget you can always get late-breaking, instant stargazing news anytime by joining my fanpage on Facebook, or get  email alerts sent directly to your inbox

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Lunar Eclipse TV interview

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 19, 2010 – 11:28 pm -

Here is an interview I did Sunday night for CTV National News about the total lunar eclipse on Monday overnight, Dec.20/21, 2010.

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Rare Holiday Lunar Eclipse

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 19, 2010 – 6:01 pm -

Total lunar eclipse

In the over night hours of December 20/21, the full Moon will pass through the Earth’s shadow for skywatchers all across the Americas. The total phase of the eclipse will last 1 hour and 12 minutes, and the Moon will be high in the southern sky and can be seen conveniently even from downtown and bedroom windows.

A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Full Moon passes into the shadow of the Earth. There is absolutely no danger when looking at a lunar eclipse with the naked eye or when looking at it through a telescope or binoculars, since an eclipse of the Moon only appears sometime after sunset — when the Sun is below the horizon and you are looking at the reflected sunlight off the lunar surface.

Animation of how the Moon, Earth and Sun are aligned during a total lunar eclipse. Note how the full moon enters the Earths shadow.

Animation of how the Moon, Earth and Sun are aligned during a total lunar eclipse. Note how the full moon enters the Earth's shadow.

Viewers are free to enjoy the potential brilliant colors of the Moon during the eclipse without taking any special precautions. Although you would expect the Moon to disappear completely when it enters the dark shadow of the Earth, the atmosphere bends some sunlight around the edge of the Earth so the Moon seems to change color as it moves into the shadow. The color of each total lunar eclipse depends on how much dust and pollution our atmosphere contains at that time, so the eclipsed Moon may appear dark brown, deep red, or bright orange. In December 1992, volcanic dust from the Mount Pinatubo eruption made the Moon completely disappear during the total lunar eclipse.

WHEN AND WHERE TO LOOK ON Monday night/Tuesday morning

This December eclipse will become visible to the naked eye when the Moon enters the umbral phase at 1:32 a.m. EST (Dec.21/Tuesday). The total eclipse begins at 2:41 a.m. and lasts 72 minutes. The moon finally emerges from the dark portion of the Earth’s shadow at 5:01 am Eastern.

If you can’t stay up and watch the entire event – it is a work day after all- then I would set my alarm clock to mid eclipse time (3:17 am EST) when the moon is in the deepest part of Earth’s shadow and most colourful.  And if it is cold where you are you can enjoy the event just by peeking out your home window – and stay warm! Remember the Moon will probably be near the overhead sky when this happens – so look way up!

The entire eclipse will be best seen from North America and western South America while skywatchers in most of Europe and Africa will only witness the moon set while the eclipse is in progress. None of the event is visible from south and east Africa, the Middle East or South Asia.

This total eclipse of the Moon is the first one visible in North America since February 2008. The next total lunar eclipse for North America occurs in 3 years, on April 14, 2014, weather permitting.

Note: This event is made that much more special with the total eclipse pairing up with the winter solstice within the same day. Winter officially begins at 6:38 pm Eastern Time Tuesday, Dec.21st and earlier that morning the eclipse occurs.  How rare is this event? The last time there was a December solstice-total eclipse was 372 years ago in 1638 AD!!

Lunar Eclipse Timetable, December 20-21, 2010

Event                   EST      CST        MST        PST
Penumbra first seen?  12:55 am   11:55 pm  10:55 pm   9:55 pm
Partial eclipse begins 1:33 am  12:33 am  11:33 pm  10:33 pm
Total eclipse begins   2:41 am  1:41 am   12:41 am   11:41 pm
Mid-eclipse            3:17 am  2:17 am   1:17 am   12:17 am
Total eclipse ends     3:53 am  2:53 am   1:53 am   12:53 am
Partial eclipse ends   5:01 am  4:01 am   3:01 am    2:01 am
Penumbra last seen?    5:35 am  4:35 am   3:35 am    2:35 am
Courtesy of Fred Espenak

Courtesy of Fred Espenak

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Meteor Shower Peaks Monday Night

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 12, 2010 – 4:58 pm -

Look towards the Northeast this week after 9 pm for the Geminid metoer shower radiating out from the Gemini constellation.

Look towards the Northeast this week after 9 pm for the Geminid meteor shower radiating out from the Gemini constellation.

While winter is just around the corner, get set for the night sky to kick off the holiday season a little early. The Gemini meteor shower will set the sky ablaze this coming Monday and early Tuesday morning (Dec 13 and Dec.14).

Astronomers are predicting that with the Moon being a no show on peak hours (between 1 am to 4 am local time), folks in the light polluted suburbs should see as many as 30 to 50 meteors per hour streaking overhead – pending clear skies of course. If you can get out of the city, into a dark countryside then these numbers may rocket up to as many as 100 shooting stars hourly the following morning.

Geminids get their name form their parent constellation they appear to radiate out from in the sky. In this case that is the famous zodiac constellation Gemini – the twins, which rises above the eastern horizon after 9 pm your local time. No need for binoculars or telescopes – just use your unaided eyes to scan the sky for brilliant flashed s of light that last only a second or two.  Geminids are known to be slower meteors because they are made of hard stony material that take longer to burn up in the upper atmosphere of Earth than most meteors we see. So they last longer and produce longer trails across the sky.

Mystery surrounds the origins of the Geminids. Unlike all other showers that are debris left behind by active comets, these meteors appear to originate from a large asteroid that orbits the Sun in the inner solar system.

More than 5 km wide, 3200 Phaethon is a strange object that may be an extinct comet that threw off a large cloud of sand-grain sized pebbles more than 2000 years ago to form the annual stargazing fireworks show we see today.

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Carbon Exoplanet Interview

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 12, 2010 – 2:41 pm -

This week astronomers announced finding a planet rich in carbon orbiting a star 1200 light years away. WASP12b is a gas giant 1.4 times the mass of Jupiter with atmospheric temperatures of 2300 degrees Celcius. Life is unlikely but it is the most carbon rich planet ever seen. This astronomers say have implications for finding life in the universe since carbon is a vital building block of life. It also shows that planet forming chemistry can be very different from how Earth and all the planets in our solar system formed. There is so much carbon on this planet that its interior may even include diamonds. Herei s an TV news interview I did this weekend on this discovery…

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New Night Sky Episode

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 11, 2010 – 11:24 am -

This week’s episode highlights the Geminid meteor shower peaking on December 14th.

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December Sky Highlights

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 5, 2010 – 1:22 pm -

Watch this month’s video podcast from NASA’s JPL featuring planets and a lunar eclipse – should be a greeat month!

Also check out the December Sky Calendar on the upper, left-side bar with all the astronomical events happening this month.  Also for more specific night sky info for December go to my Sky Tonight page.

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