Conserving Africa’s Dark Skies

Written by The Night Sky Guy on May 30, 2012 – 9:26 am -

This past week saw a big step towards preserving the dark night skies in one of the last unspoilt regions on Earth.  Skywatchers wanting to experience some of the darkest skies anywhere in the world have a new dream destination in Africa.

This week the Arizona-based International Dark Sky Association (IDA), a  night sky preservation advocacy group announced that one of southern Africa’s largest privately own reserves, NamibRand Nature Reserve in Namibia is not only the world’s newest International Dark Sky Preserve but the continents first.

Read the rest of my story on this exciting new night sky conservation effort at National Geographic News


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Two Meteors Make Close Approach

Written by The Night Sky Guy on May 28, 2012 – 3:05 pm -

Earlier Monday (May 28) a 26 meter wide, newly discovered asteroid dubbed 2012 Kp24 safely zipped by Earth at about 14,000 miles distance.  At its closest point it was more than one full diameter of Earth away from us. Earlier in the day backyard astronomers managed to snag an image of the interloper while it was still 350,000 km from Earth using his telescope and CCD imager.

Hot on the heels is a fresh discovery made in the early hours of Monday that is even a closer call,  a smaller asteroid 2012 KT42. While the orbital data is still preliminary it looks like this mini-van sized space rock will pass unusually close to Earth – about 8,700 miles above our atmosphere. This puts it at about 5% the distance of the Moon and makes it the 6th closest approach of an asteroid ever recorded by NASA.

Check out the full table of close calls here.

At its closest approach to Earth at about 3 am ET May 29th it will become about 12th Magnitude and be in the constellation Pisces , putting it in the range of backyard telescopes and an easy target for scopes with CCD imagers.  For those interested in plotting it on sky charts here are its orbital elements. Also fro more images and animation of the meteor click here. Its moving so fast – at about 2 arc-minutes per second – that you should be able to detects movement at the telescope eyepiece.

Here are two wide-angle star charts to give an idea where in the sky it will be traveling . Viewing Tip: Best chance to catch this small asteroid is to use a medium to large telescope (8 to 16 inches) at peak brightness. Which means that the Pisces constellation needs to be above your local horizon at 3 am Eastern Time (12 am Pacific Time)…

2012KT42-wide

2012KT42

UPDATE:  forgetaboutit.. updated orbital data makes transit unviewable as disk is 0.006″ not 6″!  Also reports indicate that the asteroid will transit in front of the sun at 10:10 UT May 29th. It’s silhouette would be teeny-tiny at only 6 arc-seconds…about as small as the disk of planet Mars can appear through a telescope.

Here is where it would be visible:

credit: Aldo Vitagliano

While this all sounds scary to some folks, there is really not much to worry about with this rock. Even if the orbital data does end up being tweaked such that it is on a collision course – it’s way to small to cause any damage as it would probably break up in the atmosphere before it makes it to the ground. Observers would mostly likely only experience a super-bright meteor- that’s it.

Also this two back to back findings may seem odd at first glance but the reason we are hearing more about these close call asteroids is that our telescope surveys are becoming more sensitive to smaller objects farther out than ever before and are able to hunt down those that are only the size of cars to houses- which there are many, many more of than the larger, potentially dangerous ones.

While we did not get much warning about this asteroid , just remember it’s too small to hurt us.  But today is a great proof of concept for these telescopic surveys that catalog potentially hazardous asteroids – they do in fact work. And when there is the ‘big one’ heading our way – the idea is that they find it in time for us to do something about it.

You can think of today’s close call as target practice for asteroid hunters.


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Solar Eclipse Sunday

Written by The Night Sky Guy on May 18, 2012 – 11:58 am -

credit: astrochild@gmail.com

credit: astrochild@gmail.com

If you haven’t heard already there is an awesome solar eclipse happening on May 20th that will be visible from China, Japan and throughout most of western and central North America.  This is an annular eclipse – where the Moon’s disk is smaller than the sun’s apparent disk in the sky so a ring of sunlight can be seen around the moon. A very cool event indeed!  If you want to see the full eclipse then you will need to be a long a 300 mile wide corridor that runs across the U.S. southwest. Picturesque places like Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks will have front row seats to this spectacular ring of fire eclipse.

UPDATE: Scroll down to see LIVE video of the solar eclipse as it happens starting from 6:30 pm Eastern Time May 20th (Sunday)

Most of the rest of the continent however will get to see some of the show in the form of a partial eclipse. How much of a bite you see taken out of the sun depends on where you are located. The farther away on either side of the path of annularity you are, the smaller the portion of the sun that will appear covered.

Read my general guide to this Sunday’s solar eclipse at National Geographic News…

Want to know where and when the eclipse is visible from your neck of the woods? Check out this super interactive Google-based map. All you have to do is drag your mouse to your location and click on your locale on the map.  A pop up window will appear with your personalized eclipse viewing info.

Viewing timetable for U.S. Cities via Sky & Telescope.

Full Annular Eclipse Visibility Table

City                   Annular eclipse begins        Annular eclipse ends      Duration     Sun’s altitude

Medford, OR               6:24:33                                 6:27:19                       2m 46s             21°

Eureka, CA                   6:25:50                                6:29:50                      3m 59s              21°

Redding, CA                6:26:21                                 6:30:56                     4m 35s              20°

Reno, NV                      6:28:32                                6:32:58                     4m 26s              17°

Grand Canyon, AZ     6:34:01                                 6:37:26                      3m 17s              10°

St. George, UT            7:32:17                                  7:36:30                      4m 13s              11°

Albuquerque, NM      7:33:39                                 7:38:05                      4m 26s              5°

Lubbock, TX               8:33:55                                 8:38:08                      4m 13s              1°

For skywatchers in Canada the consolation prize will be a beautiful partial eclipse visible from the west coast in Vancouver/Victoria – where up to 75% of the sun will appear covered at mid-eclipse, through to the east  where in Montreal where only 3% of the sun will be covered just as the sun sets. Those in the Atlantic provinces will be out of luck for this eclipse as the Sun will have set by the time it gets underway. They get their break next year on Nov.3, 2013 while other Canadians will see the next eclipse on Oct.23, 2014.

Here is my May 20, 2012 Timetable for Canada:

may20-eclipsetimetable

Info credit: SkyNews & RASC Observer's handbook

More detailed Viewing Timetable for Canada & Asia via Sky & Telescope

NOTE: Remember to NEVER look at the sun directly (even during an eclipse) without eye protection in the form of approved solar filters or a #14 arc welder’s glass filter. As an alternative you can use pinhole projection by poking a hole in a piece of cardboard and projecting the sun’s image on a wall.

Also there will be astronomy clubs across Canada setting up telescopes outfitted with safe solar filters to watch the eclipse. Visit the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s website to see if there are any events near you.

Here are a  LIVE video feed of the eclipse as it happens….

Here is a nice feed from Okinawa, Japan….


Live stream videos at Ustream

Another LIVE video from Japan, this time from Toyoma and its a more magnified view…


Video streaming by Ustream

The feed is from from Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, N.M – starts at 9 pm Eastern Time.

This one is from University of Colorado’s observatory in Boulder,Colorado

Video streaming by Ustream

Here is another LIVE feed from Slooh.com with scopes in Japan and USA (starts 6:30 pm Eastern Time)

Live Video app for Facebook by Ustream

Check out this great background video from NASA of the May 20th solar eclipse:

Here is a short TV interview I did the day before the eclipse for CTV National News

If you have cloudy conditions or just are not in the right place  at the right time to soak in the eclipse then you can still watch it online!  Slooh Space Camera will broadcast a free, real-time feed of the annular solar eclipse live from telescope feeds in Japan, California, Arizona, and New Mexico.


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“Shocking” Finding On Solar System’s Shield.

Written by The Night Sky Guy on May 10, 2012 – 8:56 pm -

Hubble image of distant star with gaseous bubble-like shield

According to a new discovery by NASA probe, our sun is moving through our part of the galaxy slower than previously thought,

From its orbit around Earth, the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) satellite measured the speeds of interstellar particles entering at the fringes of our solar system, 9 billion miles (14.5 billion kilometers) from the sun.

Plugging the new data into computer models, the IBEX team calculates that the sun is moving at about 52,000 miles (83,700 kilometers) an hour—about 7,000 miles (11,000 kilometers) slower than thought.

Why is this shocking for scientists and what does this mean for our search for life? Read the rest of my story on National Geographic News


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2012 Supermoon Rising – A Grand Spectacle

Written by The Night Sky Guy on May 7, 2012 – 4:39 pm -

Here is my shot of the May 5th supermoon rising above the St. Lawrence river off the island of Montreal. I was fortunate enough to  be with over hundred people gathered by a local dock to enjoy the event. It was nice to see so many people interested enough to get outside with their families and enjoy nature at its best!

credit: Andrew Fazekas

credit: Andrew Fazekas

While many in astronomy circles debate all the unnecessary hype given in the general media to this somewhat regularly occurring lunar event the fact is that it got people to look up at the heavens who might otherwise not have. As an astronomy popularizer I would say that while yes it may be a ‘non’event’ to professional eggheads – it is something that everyone, ie. casual skywatchers -  in the world can connect to and enjoy. It also offers a wonderful educational opportunity to space geeks like me to explain the real science that is going on behind what they are seeing. It also offers the chance to get folks excited about stargazing and the wonders of the universe.

I mean, just look at how poetically beautiful that full moon looked this weekend. Makes you start pondering what the silvery orb actually is and how humans have gazed at it for countless generations and even walked on it. Having been a skywatcher for 30 years now i can tell you it gets me excited still.

I recommend everyone at one point to take the time and look at a full moon rising. It’s a beautiful and awe-inspiring thing. So in my opinion -  while all the hype might be a little overboard – in the end it’s all worth it when you are outside with your family and friends soaking up all the moonlight.


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Saturday’s Supermoon: What’s all the Hype?

Written by The Night Sky Guy on May 3, 2012 – 5:30 pm -

supermoon-risingSkywatchers looking up this Saturday night (May 5) at the full moon may sense it’s a bit more striking than usual- and they won’t be imagining it. Thanks to coincidental timing of the moon being at its closest approach to Earth for 2012 while in its full phase, our planet’s companion will appear 16% larger and 30% brighter than usual. While some are calling it a supermoon, astronomers say that the hype surrounding its supposed ’super-effects’ on Earth are unwarranted.

For thousands of years connections between the motion and phase of the moon have been made with various happening here on Earth from timing of harvests to ocean navigation, so making the leap that the Moon not only reflects, but actually controls natural occurrences is very understandable, astronomers say. But now we have physics and astronomy on our side and we know pretty well what’s possible and what is not.

Read the rest of my Supermoon story at National Geographic News

Also check out this great NASA video explaing the details of Supermoons.


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Night Sky Hits for May 2012

Written by The Night Sky Guy on May 2, 2012 – 3:10 pm -

credit: Greg StevensWhen it comes to stargazing, clear May nights are among the best with the cool but pleasant nighttime air.

As soon as the sun sets on May 5, check out the full moon rising in the east. It’s traditionally known as the flower moon by some Native American cultures. This month, however, it has also taken on the popular name of “supermoon” because it may appear more impressive than usual.

The moon will be at its closest approach to Earth in its orbit for the month – known as perigee by astronomers – and, in fact, closest it will get to our planet at 356,955 kilometres, until 2014!

This closeness will also make the moon appear a bit bigger in the sky than usual, hence the name “supermoon.” While the visual effect may not be all that “super” to the unaided eye, it will offer some great photo opportunities with telephoto lenses, as it rises above your local horizon at sunset on the 5th.

Let’s just hope for clear skies.

Also worth a quick mention is the Eta-Aquarid meteor shower that peaks on the 5th as well. Skywatchers int he southern hemisphere will get a better show as the radiant is quite far south. While its main claim to fame is that the meteors we see are actually parts of Halley’s comet shed centuries ago, the fact that the full moon is in the sky at the same time as the peak of the shower, means that we won’t get much of a show this year. According to Spaceweather.com the best time to look will be in the hours before sunrise on Sunday, May 6th with expectations of under 30 shooting stars per hour from locales far from city light pollution.

The grand sky event for this month will be an annular solar eclipse on May 20th – the first visible from the U.S. in 18 years. An annular eclipse is different from a total in that when the moon slips in front of the sun it does not cover the entire solar disk – leaving visible a ring of sunshine – what is called the ‘Ring of Fire’. According to eclipse-maps.com (get great eclipse charts here) after moving over China and Japan, the eclipse shadow sets down in North America at “the California/Oregon border, passes in the late afternoon over Nevada, Utah, Arizona, a corner of Colorado, New Mexico, and ends at sunset in Texas.”

Considering local sky conditions at this time of the year – the best chance of seeing it will be from the southwestern U.S. region – not to mention the spectacular local scenery that can act as a backdrop for the event.

Meanwhile much of Western and Central US.S. and Canada will get to have a consolation prize of experiencing a partial solar eclipse. According to SkyNews magazine, if you want to see the biggest bite taken out of the Sun you will want to head as far south and west as possible (Ex: Vancouverites will see 73% eclipse, while Torontonians get to observe only 18% of the sun’s disk covered by the moon).

Remember never to look directly at the Sun even when eclipsed as it can seriously damage your eyes. Always use proper solar filters on eyeglasses, binoculars or telescopes.

In terms of planet watching, two neighbouring planets – Mars and Saturn – dominate high in the southern sky long after dusk all month long.

Look just to the lower right of orange hued Mars and find the 78-light-yeardistant brilliant white star named Regulus, the brightest member of the constellation Leo.

Saturn is to the far lower left of Mars in the southern sky after sunset. The ringed planet appears as a brilliant yellow coloured star. Amazing to think that we see this 1.5-billion-kilometre-distant gas giant, like we do all the other planets on display, due to sunlight reflecting of its surface.

may28-2012Just like the Red Planet, Saturn is also paired with a bright star; its companion, shining just below is 263-light-year-distant Spica, in the constellation Virgo.

As an added cosmic treat, watch for the first quarter moon to first pair up with Mars on May 28. Then with Saturn on May 31.

Meantime, Venus is still the brightest in the western evening skies.

As the month progresses, observers will notice that it is making a steady plunge toward the glow of the sunset each progressive night. But by training a steadily held pair of binoculars or a small telescope at the planet, it’s crescent shape is easily revealed under high magnification.

By the end of the month, the goddess of love will be lost in the sun’s afterglow as it heads for a historic transit across the sun’s disk on June 5.  The rarest of astronomical events that won’t repeat until the year 2117!

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

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