This week on the Weather Network I give a rundown on why the Lyrid meteor shower happens, what to expect to see, and how best to enjoy this annual celestial event. Check it out…
Tags: Lyrids, meteor shower
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Skywatchers should get ready for some April showers but of a cosmic kind. The annual Lyrid meteor shower is set to peak overnight from April 21 into April 22, and for those that head out to dark skies away from city light pollution should be able to see as many as 15 to 20 shooting stars per hour if sky conditions hold up during peak time.
Get all your observing tips at my article on National Geographic News
Tags: Lyrids, meteor shower
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If you have clear skies in your neck of the woods over the weekend of April 13th then step outside and look west for a beautiful pairing between the Moon and some of the brightest stars and planet in the night sky.
While conjunctions like thee are not rare by any means, they do make for a great opportunity to track down some celestial objects that otherwise may be a challenge to find for beginner stargazers. And for those more experienced navigating the heavens, this cosmic close encounter makes for a pretty photo op.
Read all the details about the Moon-planet-star event, including detailed star charts, at National Geographic News
Tags: Aldebaran, conjunction, Hyades star cluster, Jupiter, Pleiades, Taurus
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Skywatchers should be on the lookout for Northern Lights starting April 11th, Friday night into Sunday morning thanks to the most massive solar flare this year so far. The Sun threw off a huge cloud of charged particles a few days ago and it is expected to arrive sometime over the weekend of April 13th.
Latest NOAA forecast reports indicate there is a %60 chance of geomagnetic storms in the early morning hours of Saturday (April 13). The large sunspot group AR1719 is Earth-facing and is quite active still with 15% chances of it producing an x-class solar flare (strongest possible) in the next 24 hours. So this means there may be even stronger solar storms on the way soon. We will just have to wait and see what happens. Stay tuned…
Read the rest of my solar storm story at National Geographic news.
Tags: Auroras, CME, northern lights, solar clare
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Another amazing example of the power of the internet and citizen science came to light this week when NASA announced that an online community of space geeks from Russia may have found the Soviet Mars 3 probe – which has been sitting silent on the surface of the Red Planet since 1971. Thanks to the super high resolution imagery from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, tantalizing new evidence of the old spacecraft’s hardware is clearly visible.
Read the rest of my story on this amazing discovery at National Geographic News
Tags: Mars, Mars 3 lander, NASA
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For skywatchers springtime traditionally brings quiet skies, but not this year. Two of the largest planets in the solar system, along with a meteor shower a couple of comets too highlight April nights.
While the Moon is definitely the brightest celestial object that will catch your eye, you can’t miss Jupiter- the next brightest sky object in the early evening. The gas giant is so large that a 1000 Earth’s could easily fit inside and is covered eternally with highly reflective clouds, so despite it being more than 700 million km away, it shines like a super-bright star in our skies.
Look for Jupiter high in the west after sunset sitting in the winter constellation Taurus – the bull constellation. They will be setting by midnight at the beginning of April but will do so a bit earlier every night as the days go by. By May the giant planet will quickly become hidden by the glow of the sunset.
As a convenient guidepost a striking crescent Moon will pose next to Jupiter on April 14 – a beautiful photo op.
Don’t’ forget to train your binoculars or small telescope on Jupiter and you can also spy its four largest moons – looking like tiny stars – lined up on either side of the planet. Can’t see all four? That because each moon can go in front or behind Jupiter’s disk as they orbit. You can actually notice their movement over the course of just a few hours of observation.
As Jupiter begins to make its final cosmic bows, it’s time for Saturn to take centre stage. The ringed planet rises in the east in the early evening and will rise earlier and get brighter as it nears opposition on April 28- when Earth lines up with Saturn, as both circle the Sun. Even a small telescope will reveal its magnificent rings. On April 25 the Full Moon will park itself below Saturn.
If skies are clear the night of the 21st and the moonless predawn hours of 22nd, look up for the Lyrid meteor shower. Meteors will appear to radiate out from the east in the evening, and the south in the predawn sky. This small annual shower is expected to produce modest number of shooting stars - falling at rates of 15 to 20 per hour.
Finally, skywatchers can get their final views of comet Pan-STARRS after nightfall the first two weeks of April, as it slowly fades. Over the course of March the icy visitor has continued to get fainter but as compensation it is easier to spot with binoculars as it glides northward away from the sunset glow. It is plowing through the constellation Andromeda and heeding toward Cassiopeia and will become visible all night long as we near the end of April.
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It never fails to amaze me whenever one of our great observatories manages to capture the beauty that fills our night skies. Here is one of those picture postcards…. “This intriguing new image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope shows the glowing green planetary nebula IC 1295 surrounding a dim and dying star located about 3300 light-years away in the constellation of Scutum (The Shield). This is the most detailed picture of this object ever taken.
Stars the size of the Sun end their lives as tiny and faint white dwarf stars. But as they make the final transition into retirement their atmospheres are blown away into space. For a few tens of thousands of years they are surrounded by the spectacular and colourful glowing clouds of ionised gas known as planetary nebulae.
This new image from the VLT shows the planetary nebula IC 1295, which lies in the constellation of Scutum (The Shield). It has the unusual feature of being surrounded by multiple shells that make it resemble a micro-organism seen under a microscope, with many layers corresponding to the membranes of a cell.
These bubbles are made out of gas that used to be the star’s atmosphere. This gas has been expelled by unstable fusion reactions in the star’s core that generated sudden releases of energy, like huge thermonuclear belches. The gas is bathed in strong ultraviolet radiation from the aging star, which makes the gas glow. Different chemical elements glow with different colours and the ghostly green shade that is prominent in IC 1295 comes from ionised oxygen.
At the centre of the image, you can see the burnt-out remnant of the star’s core as a bright blue-white spot at the heart of the nebula. The central star will become a very faint white dwarf and slowly cool down over many billions of years.
Stars with masses like the Sun and up to eight times that of the Sun, will form planetary nebulae as they enter the final phase of their existence. The Sun is 4.6 billion years old and it will likely live another four billion years.
Despite the name, planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. This descriptive term was applied to some early discoveries because of the visual similarity of these unusual objects to the outer planets Uranus and Neptune, when viewed through early telescopes, and it has been catchy enough to survive . These objects were shown to be glowing gas by early spectroscopic observations in the nineteenth century.
This image was captured by ESO’s Very Large Telescope, located on Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, using the FORS instrument (FOcal Reducer Spectrograph). Exposures taken through three different filters that passed blue light (coloured blue), visible light (coloured green), and red light (coloured red) have been combined to make this picture.”
- adapted from a ESO press release.
Tags: IC 1295, planetary nebula, Scutum
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Astronomers announced this week that they have witnessed a titanic explosion of a star where the light from the blast has taken more than 10 billion years to reach Earth. The faint, near-infrared speck of light from this ancient beacon, dubbed UDS10Wil, now pushes back the previous record-holder by 350 million light-years. The new-found supernova, along with seven other stellar blasts more than nine billion light-years out, is part of a three-year Hubble survey of faraway supernovae which will offer new clues as to the nature of dark energy.
One of my expert sources I interviewed for this story put this amazing discovery in perfect context by explaining it this way…
“If we step back from the scientific impact, just as a human being the idea is profound. This supernova exploded 10 billion years ago, 5 billion years before the Earth or Sun even existed. Another star was here, died, and from its ashes the Sun and Earth were formed. Life evolved, then humans, we developed telescopes, even space telescopes, and then used them to catch a few precious photons from this supernova that is older than anything we’ve ever known. You think dinosaur bones are old? The Grand Canyon? They are babies compared to these photons!“
- Andrew Howell, Astrophysicist at University of California at Santa Barbara.
Read all the details about this exciting new cosmic discovery that may help unlock some of the deepest mysteries about the Universe at National Geographic News.
Tags: Hubble, supernovae
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Because of light pollution, the artificial brightening of the night sky, less than a third of Earth’s population lives under natural, starry skies.
International Dark Sky Week (April 5-11) draws worldwide attention to the problems associated with light pollution and highlights the simple solutions to mitigate it. Reducing light pollution is a win-win situation. Directing light downward to only where it is needed, in just the amount needed, saves money, energy, and reduces greenhouse gases — all while protecting the environment, wildlife, and improving human health.
Some of the many ways to participate in International Dark Sky Week include:
* Check around home. Shield outdoor lighting, or at least angle it downward, to minimize “light trespass” beyond your property lines. Use light only when needed. Motion detectors and timers can help. Use only the amount of illumination you need; try reducing lamp wattage.
* Attend or throw a star party! Many astronomy clubs and International Dark Sky Places are celebrating the week by holding public events under the stars.
* Talk to neighbors. Explain that poorly shielded fixtures waste energy, produce glare and reduce visibility. Give them an IDA brochure from the IDA website.
* Become a Citizen Scientist with GLOBE at Night or the Dark Sky Rangers and document light pollution in your neighborhood and share the results. Doing so contributes to a global database of light pollution measurements.
* Photograph the sky and enter the 2013 International Earth and Sky Photo Contest.
* Download, Watch, and Share “Losing the Dark,” a public service announcement about light pollution.
* Explore Online. Join the staff of the International Dark-Sky Association and others on social media to learn about the impact of light pollution.
Details on these ideas and more are available on the International Dark-Sky Association’s International Dark Sky Week webpage. Find it here: http://www.darksky.org/idsw
- adapted from media release put out by the International Dark-Sky Association
Tags: IDA, International Dark Sky Association, light pollution
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Sometimes celestial objects line-up in the sky so that they produce an amazing sky show. That is exactly what is happening in our evening skies this week as comet PanSTARRS and the famous Andromeda galaxy have a close encounter. The cosmic pair will be quite a sight through binoculars and small backyard telescopes, and of course create a magical photographic opportunity not to be missed.
Tags: Andromeda, comet, comet PanSTARRS, galaxy, m31
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