Amazing Stargazing Sights This Week

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 10, 2014 – 3:31 pm -

Credit: Spaceweather.com

Credit: Spaceweather.com

On this very special week we celebrate Valentine’s Day the sky is full of romance too with the moon pointing to a giant  lion’s heart and the mythical goddess of love shining at its most brilliant.

Over the course of the next few days there is a whole line-up of stargazing targets for both the unaided eyes to backyard telescopes.

The brightest planets in the sky remain both Jupiter and Venus. Meanwhile you can still catch Mercury as it is fading fast low in the evening twilight in the southwest horizon.  Your best chance to see the innermost planet now is with binoculars.

Mars aficionados will have to wait until near midnight for it to rise in the east and will be at its highest in the south in the pre-dawn hours. If you have good atmospheric conditions a telescope will show off some of its largest surface features. Best views of the Red Planet though will be in April when its apparent diameter will be 50% wider.

Finally Saturn rises around local 1 am  and climbs to its highest point in the southern sky by dawn.  You can get a two-for-one deal since Mars will be its far right.

Get all your observing details for these and other sky events this week at my weekly skywatching column at National Geographic News.

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, also on Twitter and Facebook


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Constellations, Planets, Solar System, Stargazing, stars | Comments Off

Galaxy Mapping Space Scope Snaps First Stellar Portrait

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 7, 2014 – 7:05 am -

Open Star Cluster NGC 1818 sitting some 180,000 light years from Earth is Gaiai ission's first test image. Credit: ESA/DPAC/Airbus DS

Open Star Cluster NGC 1818 sitting some 180,000 light years from Earth is Gaia mission's first test image. Credit: ESA/DPAC/Airbus DS

Europe’s new space telescope named Gaia, launched in December 2013, finally opened its eyes and snapped its first test image.

And what a stunner!  The new image shows off a  dense open cluster of stars, called NGC 1818 sitting some 180,000 light-years from Earth in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way.

Seeing the first magnificent images from Gaia’s UK-built billion pixel camera first of all generates a huge vote of thanks to all those scientists and engineers who have worked so hard to make this happen. Second, it provides just a tiny taste of the excellence and challenges ahead, to turn Gaia data into human understanding of the Milky Way’s origins. One substantial step for astronomy, one huge leap still to come,”  said astronomer Gerry Gilmore, from the University of Cambridge and UK Principal Investigator for Gaia mission said in an online statement.

Gaia was launched on 19 December 2013, and is orbiting around a virtual point in space called Lagrange 2, located some 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.

Gaia’s goal is to create the most accurate map yet of the Milky Way. It will make precise measurements of the positions and motions of about 1% of the total population of roughly 100 billion stars in our home Galaxy to help answer questions about its origin and evolution.

NGC 1818 is an open cluster located in the southern constellation Dorado anshines at a magnitude 9 making it visible in small backyard telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere. Credit: Starry NightSoftware / A.Fazekas

NGC 1818 is an open cluster located in the southern constellation Dorado and shines at magnitude 9 making it visible in small backyard telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere. Credit: Starry Night Software / A.Fazekas

Repeatedly scanning the sky, Gaia will observe each of its billion stars an average of 70 times each over five years. In addition to positions and motions, Gaia will also measure key physical properties of each star, including its brightness, temperature and chemical composition.

To achieve its goal, Gaia will spin slowly, sweeping its two telescopes across the entire sky and focusing the light from their separate fields simultaneously onto a single digital camera – the largest ever flown in space, with nearly a billion pixels.

While all one billion of Gaia’s target stars will have been observed during the first six months of operations, repeated observations over five years will be needed to measure their tiny movements to allow astronomers to determine their distances and motions through space.

As a result, Gaia’s final catalogue will not be released until three years after the end of the nominal five-year mission. Intermediate data releases will be made, however, and if rapidly changing objects such as supernovae are detected, alerts will be released within hours of data processing.

Eventually, the Gaia data archive will exceed a million Gigabytes, equivalent to about 200 000 DVDs of data. The task of producing this colossal treasure trove of data for the scientific community lies with the Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium, comprising more than 400 individuals at institutes across Europe.

source: UK Space Agency


Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Glimpse Giant Asteroid Glide Through Taurus

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 6, 2014 – 4:22 pm -

A giant asteroid, first seen 110 years ago, is making a rare appearance for backyard astronomers this month.

Usually so far away from Earth that only very large telescopes can spot it, 532 Herculina will be coming closer to Earth than usual, thereby allowing small backyard scopes to observe it as it sails through the horns of Taurus, the bull constellation in the evening skies.  Making the hunt even easier, the 230 km wide space rock will be gliding past a naked-eye star this week and then a famous supernova remnant- the Crab nebula.

Path of asteroid Herculina within Taurus Constellation in February 2014

Path of asteroid Herculina within Taurus Constellation in February 2014

Despite its high asteroid number – referring to the order of its discovery – Herculina probably ranks in the top 10 in terms of mass. The giant rock has also been at a center of a mystery surrounding the possibility of it having an orbiting satellite asteroid. Despite multiple observations by amateur astronomers watching Herculina during occultations of stars back in the late 1970’s and 80’s, Hubble Space Telescope failed to find any evidence of a moon when it looked in 1993.

Miss this encounter with Herculina and you will have to wait until 2019.

Check out my full viewer’s guide with finder charts at National Geographic News.


Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted in Meteors | Comments Off

Night Sky Hits for February

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 4, 2014 – 3:45 pm -

While February nights are down-right cold, its crisp, clear skies offers some of the best stargazing of the year.

Look for amazing cosmic pairings between some of the brightest objects in the night-time sky, courtesy of the brilliant Moon.

On February 10, face towards the high southern sky for brilliant Jupiter perched above the waxing gibbous moon. The pair will appear about 5 degrees from each other – equal to the width of your fist at arm’s length.

The gas giant is the largest world in our solar system and shines bright throughout the month in the zodiacal constellation Gemini- the twins. Jupiter looks great – with tis cloud bands and moons- through small telescopes and conveniently sets well after midnight.

On February 18 gaze towards the eastern sky near midnight for the waning gibbous Moon gliding by stellar beacon Spica.  The lead star of the constellation Virgo, the blue-white giant star will appear less than 2 degrees from the Moon and form a squashed triangle with nearby Mars.

The moon near Spica and Mars in the constellation Virgo this month. Credit: Starry Night Software / A.Fazekas

The moon near Spica and Mars in the constellation Virgo this month. Credit: Starry Night Software / A.Fazekas

Of course these close encounters are just an optical illusion -set up thanks to our viewing perspective here on Earth. While the Moon is no more than 400,000 km away, Mars sits at a respectable 133 million km and Spica is placed 262 light years from Earth.

Amazing to think that light we see from this star left on its journey the same year that Benjamin Franklin flew a kite and key in his famous experiment to prove lightening is electricity, and Canada’s first newspaper was published.

On February 21 and 22, the majestic last quarter Moon will pay a visit with the lord of the rings, Saturn high in the southern sky at dawn. If you have a telescope, check out the beautiful rings. They are made of billions of chunks of ice and rock - everything from house-size down to a the size of a particle of dust. Looking like an old style phonograph  record the rings are about 250,000 km wide, which would make the entire planetary system fit snugly in between the Earth and the Moon.

The moon finishes its planetary rounds for the month on the 26th when early bird sky-watchers get a chance to see a spectacular pairing between the crescent moon and the brightest of all planets, Venus. Look high in the southeast for the cosmic duo about an hour before sunrise. The will appear so close together that you can easily cover both worlds with your thumb at an outstretched arm’s length.

Credit: NOAO

Credit: NOAO

Finally on moonless nights take a gander at the brightest and closest star clusters visible with the naked-eye. After nightfall anytime this month, look towards the high southwest for the Pleiades open cluster – which looks like a small, fuzzy patch of seven stars. Sitting at 400 light-year away binoculars will reveal a jewel-box of white diamonds huddled together in the sky.

It’s amazing to think that the Pleiades – also known as the seven sisters – from ancient Greek mythology, contains about 100 hot blue stars. Astronomers estimate these hot, young stars sky formed less than 100 million years ago, making them young teenagers. That may seem a long time, but remember that our own Sun is a middle aged- having lived already for about 5 billion years.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Amazing Stargazing Sights This Week

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 27, 2014 – 9:10 pm -

m41

Sitting more than 2,100 light years from Earth, the Little Beehive Cluster shines bright in the evening sky this week. Credit: NOAO

As we head towards the final days of January, the night sky is filled with cosmic wonders, from a supernova explosion, Mercury at its best, and Martian close encounters.

For the naked-eye observers nothing beat the moon gliding past bright planets – and this week Luna’s close encounter with Venus will be a beauty. For binocular observers – the forth brightest asteroid is fairly easy to hunt down in Pisces constellation in the evenings, while a stunning open star cluster hits prime-time  in backyard telescope with scores of diamond-like stars huddling together.

Get all your observing details for these and other sky events this week at my weekly skywatching column at National Geographic News.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Solar System | Comments Off

Sun Erupts and Storms Heading Towards Earth

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 8, 2014 – 7:52 pm -

x-flare-sdo-jan7-2014 Next few nights sky-watchers around the world  may get a chance to witness a colorful light show in the form of auroras.

The Sun erupted with a massive solar flare directed towards our planet on January 7th. Now space weather forecasters are predicting that a resulting coronal mass ejection -a giant cloud of charged particles – may hit Earth in the next day or so.

What will be the possibly effects? Read the rest of my story and see some cool videos of the erupting solar flare at National Geographic News.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Preview of Top 5 Sky Sights of 2014

Written by The Night Sky Guy on January 6, 2014 – 9:44 pm -

telescopes-sky

As we turn to a new calendar year sky-watchers can expect scores of new celestial delights. Ranging from eclipses of the moon and sun, to meteor showers and stunning close encounters between bright planets, there is something for everyone in the night sky in 2014.

Check out my picks for the top 5 stargazing events in store in the coming months at my story in National Geographic News.


Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Little Bear Meteors Run!

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 20, 2013 – 3:49 pm -

In your local pre-dawn hours of  Sunday, December 22, a minor meteor shower peaks in the northern skies.

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, the little bear. Meteors appear to shoot out from a region of sky just above the bowl of the Little Dipper.

While the Ursids only produce on average about 10 to 15 shooting stars per hour at 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 December 17 and 23.

This year meteor watchers will have to contend with a waning gibbous moon which rises the night before at around 9 pm. So expect to see more modest numbers than usual, somewhere around 5 to 10 per hour.


Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

NASA Plans to Grow Veggies on the Moon

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 6, 2013 – 6:10 am -

Imagine turnips and carrots sprouting on Earth’s closest neighboring world.

May sound a bit far-fetched but if humans ever want to live and work on the the moon for not just days but months and years- growing plants will be a big part of of the adventure. Now NASA is working on a project to send a tiny, automated greenhouse to the moon that will eventually lay the foundation for setting up permanent lunar gardens.

Read the rest of my Moon garden story at National Geographic News


Tags: , ,
Posted in Solar System, The Moon | Comments Off

Saturn’s Giant Hex At Its Best

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 5, 2013 – 6:02 pm -

A mysterious hexagon-shaped weather pattern on the planet Saturn had its most detailed portrait taken this autumn, courtesy of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

Monstrous jet streams on the ringed gas giant has given birth to a six-sided formation that has stumped researchers for many year but thanks to new, crystal clear imagery it looks like we are getting to understand better what makes weird weather on other worlds tick. Amazingly current theories hold that this bizarre wind generated pattern may have been around for decades, if not longer.

Read my full story on the Hex -shaped pattern on Saturn at National Geographic News


Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off