Morning Cosmic Spectacle

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 29, 2012 – 11:49 am -

Credit: Marc Ricard,  Warkwoth, Ontario

Credit: Marc Ricard, Warkwoth, Ontario

It’s worth waking up early these days to check out the amazing view in the eastern sky at dawn. Venus dominates the sky, while Jupiter to its upper right and the Pleiades star cluster complete the picture postcard view!.

Astrophotographer Marc Ricard captured the cosmic scene this week from Warkworth, Ontario using a Canon 60D DSLR with a single 19 second exposure and 35mm, f/1.4 lens. Look carefully and you can even see the strong light from Venus illuminating the clouds in front of it! Wow! The goddess of love is burning bright now.

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Meteors to Light up this Weekend

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 27, 2012 – 11:40 am -

Skywatchers get a chance to have their appetites whetted for the upcoming Perseids, with a small meteor shower peaking late tomorrow (Saturday) night.  Known as the southern-Delta Aquarids, this relatively little known event occurs annually and produces about 20 shooting stars at its peak time – around 10 pm tomorrow to 1 am (Sunday).  You may have already noticed above average number of shooting stars at night as we are leading up to the peak for this shower.

Read more about this reliable little shower and its parent comet – which you can also observe at the same time, at National Geographic News.

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Black Hole ‘Seeds’ at Milky Way Centre

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 24, 2012 – 12:37 pm -

More than 30,000 light years from Earth lying at the core of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, are weird clumps of warm, dense gas that may represent seeds that will grow into monster black holes one day, according to a new study.

A team of Japanese astronomers announced this bizarre finding this week using powerful radio telescopes. Their observations show that three of these masses are growing in size, thanks to supernovae explosions  estimated to have occurred 60,000 years ago.  What is even stranger is that the team calculated the power of that ancient eruption as being equivalent to 200 individual supernovae going off simultaneously!  Since no single star could cause such an epic blast, researchers believe that a massive star cluster  – equivalent to 100,000 times the mass of the sun – lies hidden behind the veil of one of these masses and is the source of the power.

teapot-smWhile backyard astronomers don’t have the technology to see these exotic objects, they can find its general location in the night sky. Face the south sky on any late summer night and look toward the horizon for the constellation Sagittarius. look for a bright asterism – or star pattern – in the shape of a giant teapot – that marks the main section of the constellation.  This also marks the general direction of the centre of the Milky Way – 30 thousand light years away!

Read more about this discovery here

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Hubble Photo: Galactic Star Factory

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 23, 2012 – 12:33 pm -

Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 4700 galaxy in Virgo. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

First discovered by famed British amateur astronomer William Herschel back in 1786, NGC 4700 is a giant edge-on galaxy located some 50 to 60 million light years away in the northern Springtime constellation Virgo. Through backyard telescopes in dark locations it looks like a faint patch of cloud about 4.5 x 0.5 min in size, shining at about 12.5 magnitude. however the Hubble’s keen eye above the blurring effect of Earth’s atmosphere manages to tease out fine details within the galaxy.

Look carefully at the photo and you can make out many pink colored clouds scattered across the galaxy. Known as HII regions by astronomers, these pink structures are where stars are born. Our own Milky Way has many examples of such star factories – the most famous of which is the Orion nebula.

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Watch Asteroid Close Encounter with Earth Today

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 22, 2012 – 1:42 pm -

An asteroid the size of a city block will be flying by the Earth- Moon system today (Sunday). Dubbed 2003 AM31 this 800 meter wide space rock will be zipping by at just under 14 times the Earth-Moon distance and there is no chance for collision. First spotted in 2003, astronomers have been tracking this flying mountain of rock using the exquisitely sensitive  Arecibo radio dish in Puerto Rico. The asteroid unfortunately is too faint, at 18.2 magnitude, to be seen by backyard scopes, however everyone around the world will get a chance to watch the encounter LIVE through the internet thanks to online telescope venture Slooh broadcasting views from giant observatories around the world.

Here is the official info:

Slooh’s Patrick Paolucci and Paul Cox will join Bob Berman from Astronomy Magazine and Matt Francis from Prescott Observatory.

Screenshot of LIVE broadcast credit: SLOOH

“One of our missions at Slooh is to provide the public with free, live views on fascinating celestial happenings,” says Patrick Paolucci, President at Slooh. “Near-Earth Asteroid 153958 (2003 AM31) represents 1 of approximately 9,000 whizzing past Earth at any given moment and we wanted to highlight this one as it’s only 13.7 lunar distances from Earth and well over one city block big – similar to Near-Earth Asteroid LZ1 which zoomed past us unexpectedly mid June .”

Bob Berman says, “Near Earth Objects are no longer treasures only for the paranoid, or for those who secretly and strangely are rooting for an early apocalypse. The entire astronomical community has reversed its thinking about them over the past few decades. Instead of living on an “island Earth” with little or no connection with other celestial objects, we now feel that collisions with comets or asteroids change the evolution of our biosphere, and maybe even seeded our world with the amino acids that started life long ago. In other words, these are important entities. Not to mention, there’s always that exciting little hint of danger.”

Two Shows on Sunday, July 22nd to coincide with close-approach:

Slooh will use Canary Islands Observatory off the coast of Africa for shows #1 and #2, and Prescott Observatory in Arizona for Show #2.

Show #1: 2012-07-22 23:30 UTC Times around the World:

Show #2: 2012-07-23 03:00 UTC Times around the World:

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Preview of Upcoming Mars Rover Landing

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 16, 2012 – 3:53 pm -

With only 20 days to go until NASA’s car-sized rover touches down on the surface of Mars, scientists and engineers working on the mission held a news conference today laying out some of the details on why this is the most challenging and exciting mission to the Red Planet yet!   Here is the official NASA story on what all the buzz was about…

“NASA’s most advanced planetary rover is on a precise course for an early August landing beside a Martian mountain to begin two years of unprecedented scientific detective work. However, getting the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars will not be easy.

“The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “While the challenge is great, the team’s skill and determination give me high confidence in a successful landing.”

The Mars Science Laboratory mission is a precursor for future human missions to Mars. President Obama has set a challenge to reach the Red Planet in the 2030s. To achieve the precision needed for landing safely inside Gale Crater, the spacecraft will fly like a wing in the upper atmosphere instead of dropping like a rock. To land the 1-ton rover, an airbag method used on previous Mars rovers will not work. Mission engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., designed a “sky crane” method for the final several seconds of the flight. A backpack with retro-rockets controlling descent speed will lower the rover on three nylon cords just before touchdown.

During a critical period lasting only about seven minutes, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft carrying Curiosity must decelerate from about 13,200 mph (about 5,900 meters per second) to allow the rover to land on the surface at about 1.7 mph (three-fourths of a meter per second). Curiosity is scheduled to land at approximately 10:31 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5 (1:31 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6).

“Those seven minutes are the most challenging part of this entire mission,” said Pete Theisinger, the mission’s project manager at JPL. “For the landing to succeed, hundreds of events will need to go right, many with split-second timing and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft. We’ve done all we can think of to succeed. We expect to get Curiosity safely onto the ground, but there is no guarantee. The risks are real.”

During the initial weeks after the actual landing, JPL mission controllers will put the rover through a series of checkouts and activities to characterize its performance on Mars, while gradually ramping up scientific investigations. Curiosity then will begin investigating whether an area with a wet history inside Mars’ Gale Crater ever has offered an environment favorable for microbial life.

“Earlier missions have found that ancient Mars had wet environments,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Program at NASA Headquarters. “Curiosity takes us the next logical step in understanding the potential for life on Mars.”

Curiosity will use tools on a robotic arm to deliver samples from Martian rocks and soils into laboratory instruments inside the rover that can reveal chemical and mineral composition. A laser instrument will use its beam to induce a spark on a target and read the spark’s spectrum of light to identify chemical elements in the target. Other instruments on the car-sized rover will examine the surrounding environment from a distance or by direct touch with the arm. The rover will check for the basic chemical ingredients for life and for evidence about energy available for life. It also will assess factors that could be hazardous for life, such as the radiation environment.

“For its ambitious goals, this mission needs a great landing site and a big payload,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. “During the descent through the atmosphere, the mission will rely on bold techniques enabling use of a smaller target area and a heavier robot on the ground than were possible for any previous Mars mission. Those techniques also advance us toward human-crew Mars missions, which will need even more precise targeting and heavier landers.”

View of Mt.Sharp rising 5 km above rover landing site

View of Mt.Sharp rising 5 km above rover landing site

The chosen landing site is beside a mountain informally called Mount Sharp. The mission’s prime destination lies on the slope of the mountain. Driving there from the landing site may take many months.

“Be patient about the drive. It will be well worth the wait and we are apt to find some targets of interest on the way,” said John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“When we get to the lower layers in Mount Sharp, we’ll read them like chapters in a book about changing environmental conditions when Mars was wetter than it is today.”

Scene from Xbox Mars landing game

In collaboration with Microsoft Corp., a new outreach game was unveiled Monday to give the public a sense of the challenge and adventure of landing in a precise location on the surface. Called “Mars Rover Landing,” the game is an immersive experience for the Xbox 360 home entertainment console that allows users to take control of their own spacecraft and face the extreme challenges of landing a rover on Mars.

“Technology is making it possible for the public to participate in exploration as it never has before,” said Michelle Viotti, JPL’s Mars public engagement manager. “Because Mars exploration is fundamentally a shared human endeavor, we want everyone around the globe to have the most immersive experience possible.”  –

Adapted from NASA news Statement

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Celestial Triangle Dazzles!

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 15, 2012 – 6:11 pm -

Conjunction between Jupiter, crescent Moon, and Venus in front of my house this morning. Credit: Andrew Fazekas

Conjunction between Jupiter, crescent Moon, and Venus in front of my house this morning. Look carefully to the right of Venus and you can see the orange star Aldebaran 65 light years away joining the sky show. Credit: Andrew Fazekas

View of Jupiter, Moons and Venus from my Montreal driveway July 15th at 4:50 am

View of Jupiter, Moons and Venus from my Montreal driveway July 15th at 4:50 am

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Discovery of New Moon for Pluto

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 15, 2012 – 3:01 pm -

This week Hubble Space Telescope spied a new moon circling the dwarf planet Pluto. Here is an interview I did Sunday July 15th on this new discovery…

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Sunday Morning Sky Show

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 14, 2012 – 6:22 pm -

Sky-watchers worldwide will be treated early Sunday to a striking celestial triangle as three of the brightest nighttime objects—Venus, Jupiter, and the moon—huddle together in the eastern sky. As an added bonus, there’s a chance to see some northern lights too.

Check out my viewer’s guide at National Geographic News


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Watch for Noisy Northern Lights?

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 13, 2012 – 12:06 pm -

A controversial new study was released this week that states observers of aurora borealis should really perk up their ears and listen for eerie sounds from these cosmic fireworks shows. A Finnish researcher has been able to record baffling ‘clapping’ sounds that appear to be directly connected to intense northern lights episodes.

While this new evidence looks quite convincing, the researcher believes that the best is yet to come. Within the next year the sun’s activity will continue to increase as it reaches its 11 year peak called solar maximum in 2013. Already this past year has seen a pretty noticeable  uptick in the number and size of sunspots and monster solar flares peppering the Sun’s surface. This has resulted in more frequent and intense auroras being visible in southerly latitudes that usually don’t see much sky activity.

Now the Finnish scientist is banking on this increased aurora activity coupled with the popularity of mobile recording devices like smartphones and iPads translating into more chances for skywatchers to hear and record something than ever before.

“One of the motivations in publicizing these new findings is to wake skywatchers up to keep their ears open and make those observations – using mobile devices and even their home video cameras,” says the researcher.

Read more about this novel research on noisy auroras and hear an actual clip of these eerie sounds in my new story at National Geographic News.

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