If you got a new telescope under the tree this Christmas then there are plenty of planetary targets you can try hunting down thru the New Years Weekend and the following week. The easiest by far will be Jupiter. It shines as the brightest starlike object in the high southern sky just after local nightfall. Even the smallest of telescope will show off its cloud bands and four main moons. Even a pair of those newly gifted binoculars will show these moons off too, but just make sure you have a sturdy tripod mount holding it or if you don’t have one handy, prop yourself up against a ledge or wall so you minimize any shaking. You will be amazed at how much more detail you can see if you do that. Venus
Venus will be the next easiest target for newbie telescope users. Through high power magnification you will notice that Venus now looks not like full round disk but more like a mini version of the waxing gibbous moon.
And for those early bird skywatchers willing to take their scopes out in the cold winter morning – you get chance to see tiny Mercury, the rings of Saturn and the red coloured disk of Mars- all bunched up in a diagonal lineup starting low down in the southeast at dawn.
Sounds interesting? Then check out all the details in my National Geographic observers’ guide with starcharts
Posted in Planets, Solar System, Stargazing | 1 Comment »
As with all meteor showers, the Ursids are named after the constellation they appear to radiate out from in the sky – in this case Ursa Minor. Meteors appear to shoot out from a region of sky just above the bowl of the Little Dipper.
Considered a minor show – the Ursids only produce on average about 10 to 15 shooting stars per hour -rare times there are bursts of 30 or more per hour. The parent comet is 8P/Tuttle and Earth plows through the debris shed from this icy visitor between Dec.17 and Dec.23.
Best time to see the Ursids is about an hour before local dawn, and because most tend to be faint, they are best viewed from the dark countryside, facing toward the northern sky as this is where the Little Dipper can be found. This year looks to be favourable as the glaring crescent Moon will not be in the sky at peak time. For more details check out the American Meteor Society’s webpage.
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We have just gotten a whole lot closer to finding that Holy Grail in astronomy- that elusive sister Earth. NASA announced that its Kepler spacecraft has spied the telltale light signatures of two of the smallest planets ever found – Earth sized rocky planets around a sun-like star 950 light years from us in the summertime constellation Lyra.
NASA says that “Kepler-20e is slightly smaller than Venus, measuring 0.87 times the radius of Earth while Kepler-20f is slightly larger than Earth, measuring 1.03 times its radius.” Both planets call the five-planet system Kepler-20 home. But before we begin dreaming of vacations on these worlds, astronomers believe both have scorching surface temps measuring probably well over 600 degrees Celsius, orbiting their parent star way too close. So this means that neither planet is within the Goldilocks or habitable zone – and probably means it’s not ideal place for looking for any life there.
But this discovery is VERY exciting because it does signal the beginning of a whole new era in exoplanet hunting because now it has been proved that we have the technology and methods needed to find Earth-like planets. And i think the best is yet to come from Kepler. We might just see Earth’s twin being found in 2012.
“In the cosmic game of hide and seek, finding planets with just the right size and just the right temperature seems only a matter of time,” said Natalie Batalha, Kepler deputy science team lead and professor of astronomy and physics at San Jose State University. “We are on the edge of our seats knowing that Kepler’s most anticipated discoveries are still to come.”
Here is a great little NASA video summary of today’s announcement…
-with quotes from NASA/JPL news release
Tags: exoplanet, Kepler
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On Dec.19th and Dec.20th at least a half hour before your local sunrise you can check out the the waning crescent moon tuck underneath the planet Saturn low in the southern sky. On the 20th the pair will be closest together, separated by about 7 degrees – which is equal to about 14 full moon disks.
This may sound like a lot but to the naked eye it will be a pretty sight. Only a few days ago the Moon was hanging out with planet Mars – which BTW you can still see clearly to the far upper right of Saturn in the early mornings, shining with an orange hue.
The Saturn/moon pair will be within the Virgo constellation and in between the two there is another star – called Spica – the brightest member of Virgo and is located 263 light years from Earth. and in case you are wondering, Saturn is about 1.5 billion km distant while the moon is a mere 400,000 km from us.
If you have even the smallest telescope on hand then it’s worth your while to train it on Saturn and observe those magnificent rings that are titled just right so as to give a beautiful view of it’s flattened disk-like nature. The entire ring system spans about 260,000 km across – which would make the entire planet and its rings fit easily between the Earth and Moon. Look carefully and you may also see the ringed giant’s largest moons in its vicinity – buzzing around the planet like bees around a hive.
Titan is the largest moon of Saturn and the second largest in the entire Solar System – it will to the planet’s far upper right in a low magnification eyepiece view. Much closer in to Saturn (from left to right) will be icy moons Rhea, Tethys, and Dione – all of which are about the same brightness at around 10th magnitude – making them quite a bit fainter than Titan but still relatively easy to spot in 3 inch telescopes and up.
Tags: Saturn, The Moon, Virgo
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Worldwide Geminid observers are already reporting that they are seeing meteor numbers slowly beginning to rise the day before the scheduled peak. Early numbers from Europe from this morning are averaging about 40-50 shooting stars hourly! All this points to a great show night despite the glare from the near full moon. Check out the chart below which shows the meteor numbers as reported LIVE around the globe to the International Meteor Organization, the clearinghouse for shooting star observations.
Also NASA meteor expert will be online for a chat about the meteor shower starting tonight (Tuesday) 11 pm EST.
Cloudy where you are? You can also listen to the Geminid meteors burn up in the atmosphere
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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 light up the sky starting tonight (Tuesday) into Wednesday morning and evening (Dec 13 and Dec.14).
Astronomers are predicting that with the Moon rising around 8 to 9 pm local times best is to go out before so you get to see as many as 30 to 50 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 increase.
For more details on the shower read my National Geographic story
Stay tuned here for worldwide LIVE hourly meteor counts starting shortly!
Tags: Geminids, meteor shower
Posted in Meteors | 2 Comments »
Early Saturday morning, Dec.10th the last total eclipse of the Moon of 2011 and the last one until April 2014 will grace Earthly skies. All of western North America will have front row seats to the show as the Moon slips into Earth’s shadow and turns orange-red in colour. My advice is to get outside by 4:50 PST and look towards the western sky for a full moon and be patient as the partial eclipse gets underway and totality begins at 6:06 am PST- lasting a full 51 minutes.
Folks in Eastern Canada are out of luck this time as the moon will already have set below the horizon by the time the eclipse gets underway.
Check out my lunar eclipse story for National Geographic here – you will find a link to a LIVE telescope view of event too!
Here is a timetable for the lunar eclipse phases for different timezones (courtesy of Sky & Telescope magazine):
|Partial eclipse begins||12:45||6:45 a.m.||5:45 a.m.||4:45 a.m.|
|Total eclipse begins||14:05||—||7:05 a.m.||6:05 a.m.|
|Mid-eclipse||14:32||—||7:32 a.m.||6:32 a.m.|
|Total eclipse ends||14:57||—||7:57 a.m.||6:57 a.m.|
|Partial eclipse ends||16:18||—||—||—|
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NASA made a big announcement this week that it has confirmed the first detection of the smallest planet yet found orbiting a sun-like star in the zone where liquid water may exist! The planet which sits 600 light years away, dubbed Kepler 22b, is about 2.4 times larger than Earth – so it probably has a rocky surface – and takes only 290 days to orbit its G type sun-like star, putting it in the magical Goldilocks zone.
The find was made thanks to NASA’s Kepler spacecraft which has orbited Earth for about 2 years and has found over 2326 candidate planet detections. NASA says, “Of these, 207 are approximately Earth-size, 680 are super Earth-size, 1,181 are Neptune-size, 203 are Jupiter-size and 55 are larger than Jupiter.” This is only the first of these habitable zone planet candidates to be confirmed…so stay tuned.
So why all the hoopla? This world is in the right spot for liquid water to exist. Since we think H20 is key in recipe of life – this makes this alien world worth a closer look. Of course no one on the discovery team is saying this latest alien world discovery is an Earth-twin, but we are getting closer than ever – so it’s only a matter of time now that we track down a world nearly identical in size and orbit. Big question astronomers are asking now of Kepler 22b is if it has a gaseous or liquid covered surface… so…lots of work still to be done. I wouldn’t be surprised that dozens more like Kepler-22b will be confirmed in the coming months and years , with the Holy Grail exoplanet – Earth’s twin- possibly being discovered within the next 5 years.
I think this is such an exciting time to be alive in human history… the first generation that will most likely confirm the existence of an Earth-like world around a distant star.
Check out the video of the NASA press conference announcing this new Goldilocks planet…
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Want to know what to watch for in the starry skies this month? Then check out the main celestial events occurring all December long in this video put together by astronomy educators who run the Hubble Space Telescope.
EXTRA: Also don’t forget to check out the December Sky Calendar on the left hand column for date by date events…
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