NASA Probe Detects Matter From Interstellar Space

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 31, 2012 – 9:08 pm -

NASA astronomers made a stunning announcement today that they’ve discovered that alien particles from distant regions of the Milky Way are bombarding our solar system.

The new observations, made thanks to the IBEX satellite, not only gives us a glimpse of what exists in the so-called interstellar medium—the matter between stars—but also offers clues to the anatomy of our local galactic neighborhood.

How did these alien particles make it to Earth’s vicinity and what does this say about habitability of exoplanets? Read the rest of my story at National Geographic News.

Here is NASA video capsule on what IBEX spacecraft has found….

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Posted in Solar System, Space Exploration, Sun, stars | 1 Comment »

Catch Sight of Elusive Lunar X

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 29, 2012 – 4:07 pm -

Werner X lunar formation visible every month.

Werner X lunar formation visible every month.

Monday, January 30th around 5 pm local time, just before the moon enters its quarter phase, like it does every month, a weird formation magically appears for only a four hour period- a tiny letter X formation – visible with the smallest telescope and steadily held binoculars even.

Nothing artificial about it however, this conspicuous X is formed by the walls of three craters clustered together. While the crater floors are in total darkness and sunlight hits the craters rims just at the right angle, they create this optical illusion for observers. Not many have observed it because it’s only visible for those four hours each month.

Start your hunt for the Lunar X about a third of the way up from the heavily cratered, southern limb of the Moon, along the terminator line.

You’ll find a good finder charts with observational details in this article and also check out this visual montage of various low and hi magnifications of the moon showing where to find the lunar X.

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Watch the Moon Join Jupiter and Stars

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 28, 2012 – 3:58 pm -

jan28-2012Over the course of the next few evening the waxing crescent Moon will be gliding by some bright star-like objects in the southwest sky. As the Moon heads higher in the sky as it goes through it’s monthly cycle it regularly has close encounters with planets and some of the brighter more conspicuous stars.

For casual skywatchers it can sometimes be hard to differentiate which bright pinpoint of light in the sky is either a planet or an alien sun light years away. After all both look pretty much the same in the night sky, don’t they? Well this is where the Moon on specific dates, can point certain planets and stars out for us.

On Saturday, Jan.28th look towards the southwest as night falls and you can watch the Moon appear sandwiched between two widely separated bright stars – forming a striking, diagonal line titled towards the left. The creamy coloured star shining above the moon is Jupiter, sitting at 748 million km away while the brighter, white star below Luna is Venus, located 170 million km from Earth. BTW the Moon is only 398,000 km distant.

jan30-2012By Sunday and Monday, Jan.29th and 30th the Moon will have floated up to pay a visit to Jupiter. The pair will appear to be very close to each other at only 5 degrees apart – that’s equal to the width of 3 middle fingers held at an outstretched arm.

Of course their proximity is just an illusion since the planets themselves are separated by hundreds of million of kilometers of space. They just happen to be aligned one in back of the other in a near straight line to provide this special view for us Earthbound observers.

feb1-2012Finally on Wednesday, Feb.1st the waxing gibbous moon will tuck itself underneath a stellar jewel box known as the Pleiades star cluster.

Because the glare of the moon may filter out some of the light from this group of seven naked-eye stars – it’s worth pointing your binoculars at the cluster. This way you can get to see some of the dozens of fainter stars that make up this young stellar association – and should really show off this 400 light year distant stellar treasure!

The bright moon can be the bane of astronomers, but for beginner stargazers it can really be one of the best guides to finding your way around the heavens. So remember the next few evenings to go outside if its clear and look up for some cosmic eye candy.

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Did Earth Dodge Solar Storm Bullet this Week?

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 26, 2012 – 1:18 pm -

Our planets is recovering from the largest solar storm recorded in more than eight years, thanks to a giant wave of charged particles from the sun that slammed into Earth’s magnetic field Tuesday morning. (See pictures of auroras generated by the solar storm.) The action started in the early hours on Monday when NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory caught an extreme ultraviolet flash from a solar flare, which was followed by a giant coronal mass ejection, or CME—a cloud of superheated gas and charged particles hurled off the sun.

The cloud headed toward Earth at a speed of about three million miles (4.8 million kilometers) an hour, reaching the planet a mere 35 hours after it had been unleashed. planes were rerouted and radio communication in some places were affected too. But space weather forecasters say, while the solar radiation storm was a strong one, it could have been much worse and a lot of our technological assets may be at risk.

Read the rest of my National Geographic news story to find out what’s at risk from solar storms, why scientists think we may have just dodged a bullet, and why we may not be so lucky next time.

Posted in Auroras, Solar System, Sun | 1 Comment »

Winter Stars Come Out to Play

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 23, 2012 – 4:41 pm -

Any any clear night next few weeks check out the brightest star of the entire year, Sirius, shining like a lone beacon in the southern sky. The lead member in the constellation Canis Major or Big Dog,  it’s so brilliant because it is one of the closest stars to Earth at just over 8 light years away.

Winter's stellar crown jewels marked by Sirius in the low SE evening sky

Winter's stellar crown jewels marked by Sirius in the low SE evening sky

Surrounding it is a crown of stellar diamonds that are the hallmark of winter skies. To its upper right is the granddaddy of all stellar figures, Orion the hunter – where you’ll find blue coloured Rigel, orange Betelgeuse and its belt of 3 stars in between.  Meanwhile to the upper left of Sirius you can see the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux, and just below it, Canis Minor’s Procyon.

Mars and Saturn are two planets dominating the early morning SW skies

Mars and Saturn are two planets dominating the early morning SW skies

Turning to planets, Mars glows faintly as an orange star in the southeastern sky late nights just below the rump of Leo and within the constellation Virgo . If you wait until dawn, the Red Planet will have glided over to the low southwest. As Mars begins to get closer to Earth in the next few months, it will slowly begin to brighten and rise earlier in the evening as we head into Spring in a couple of months. If you have a telescope handy then you may begin to see surface features on the planet as it increases in apparent size in the sky. By far the easiest to spot will be the bright white north polar cap of Mars, which is tilted towards Earth.

Also worth checking out with a telescope at dawn is the ringed planet Saturn. It now shines , high in the south to the upper left of Virgo’s brightest star Spica.

Moon visits Venus on Jan.25 and 26 in SW evening sky

Moon visits Venus on Jan.25 and 26 in SW evening sky

Can’t forget our closest celestial neighbour,  the moon, since it will be involved in two must see events in the coming weeks.  While Venus has been dominating the western sky at sunset these past couple of months it will be joined by a crescent moon on Jan.25th and 26th making for a great photo-op.

The king of all planets, super-bright Jupiter high in the south at dusk gets its turn to dance with the first quarter moon on the evening of the 30th.

Finally, keep an eye on both Venus and Jupiter over the course of the next few months. You will see that they are slowly approaching each other as they head for a striking close encounter in March.

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Ancient Antarctic Lakes Point to Alien Life?

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 23, 2012 – 1:54 pm -

There’s a race going on at the bottom of the world and its heating up fast. Two teams of polar researchers from England and Russia are racing to drill down into two vast Antarctic lakes buried under miles of ice for millions of years. When the expeditions break trough, they may not only tap into a pristine ecosystem that has been untouched for millions of years but may find clues to finding life beyond Earth.

How are they drilling and what do they hope to find when they break through to the lake? Listen to my CBC Radio Science column from this past week

Posted in Space Exploration | 2 Comments »

Help Track Light Pollution

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 20, 2012 – 9:26 pm -

A recent university survey estimates that two-thirds of the world’s population cannot see the hazy band of stars in the overhead night sky. Light pollution has without a doubt turned night into day and has robbed an entire generation out of a sky filled with stars.  It is a global threat that not only ruins our views of the cosmos, but also wastes money and natural resources.

Globe at Night campaign hopes to help change the course by getting you involved the battle to save the night sky. By utilizing the power of the internet coupled with handheld devices like tablets and smartphones – it now becomes and fun and easy project for entire families to participate and become aware of the natural heritage we are all being robbed of.

For more details on how you can participate then read my blog post at National Geographic News.

Posted in Stargazing, stars | 1 Comment »

Scorpion Stares Down Moon

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 17, 2012 – 3:21 pm -

On Thursday (Jan.19) morning the waning crescent moon will park itself just off to the upper left of the bright orange star Antares low in the southeastern sky. Representing the eye of Scorpius, the scorpion,  Antares is a super red giant star 600 light years from Earth and shines as the 16th brightest star in the entire sky. Nearly 900 times the diameter of our Sun, if Antares were placed at the center of our solar system, its outer atmosphere would almost reach out to Jupiter’s orbit- meaning Earth would be a cinder block within the belly of this stellar monster.

Antares and the moon will be separated by only 3 degrees – equal to the width of your first three fingers at an outstretched arm. Best time to see their close encounter will be about an hour before local sunrise – and make sure you have a clear line of site as close to the horizon as possible.

Look SE at predawn on Thursday to see the moon join Antares. Credit: Starry Night Software

Look SE at predawn on Thursday to see the moon join Antares. Credit: Starry Night Software

Nominate Andrew Fazekas for a social media award in the Shorty Awards!

Nominate Andrew Fazekas for a Best in Science
social media award
in the Shorty Awards

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Luna and Lord of the Rings Dance

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 15, 2012 – 4:58 pm -

If you are willing to get up at dawn on Jan.16, Monday morning and Tuesday too, you get to see the moon pay a visit to planet Saturn. Face the southern sky about half hour before sunrise and you can observe the quarter phase moon glide just underneath the ringed planet.

Skywatchers at dawn can observe the Moon visit Saturn beginning of this week. Credit: Starry Night Software

Skywatchers facing South at dawn on Jan,16 can observe the Moon visit Saturn in Virgo constellation. By next morning the moon will be more to the left of Saturn. Credit: Starry Night Software

To the naked eye Saturn will look like a bright yellow-tinged star, but a small telescope can reveal its rings easily – even some of its larger moons, like Titan. Joining the moon and Saturn will be the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. Spica, despite being  263 light year away from Earth shines as one of the brightest stars in the sky and will complete a triangle pattern with Saturn and the Moon on Monday morning. Look for Spica  between the moon and the planet, off to their right. How close will these cosmic players appear in the sky to each other?

On Monday morning the Moon will appear about 2 degrees away from Spica – which is equal to the width of your thumb at an outstretched arm, and the moon will also be 6 degrees from Saturn – a tad wider than your first 3 fingers at an outstretched arm.  All in all a nice clustering of heavenly objects to wake up to!

Nominate Andrew Fazekas for a social media award in the Shorty Awards!

Nominate Andrew Fazekas for a Best in Science
social media award
in the Shorty Awards

Posted in Constellations, Planets, Solar System, Stargazing, The Moon, stars | 1 Comment »

Star Wars Planets For Real

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 14, 2012 – 4:14 pm -

It seems that an alien planet from the fantasy world of Hollywood might be more real than we thought. Coming only a day after astronomers at major scientific conference announced that worlds with two suns can be Earthlike, a new study now suggests our galaxy alone holds millions of “Tatooines”—nicknamed after the Star Wars planet with two suns.

Many of us remember that Star Wars scene where Luke Skywalker is walking on his home world of Tatooine and looks off into the sunset and there’s not one but TWO suns sinking towards the horizon. Well now scientists have found three such bizzare planets- each with a pair of orbiting suns.Using the Kepler Space Telescope, a team of astronomers now believe that double-sun worlds are common across the universe and may represent an entirely new class of worlds, called circumbinary planets.

How did the planet hunters come to this startling conclusion and what does this mean for our search for sister Earths? Read the rest of my story at National Geographic News

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