Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Star Wars" Laser Methods Help Detect Greenhouse Gases

Written by Tammy Plotner

It may have looked like a futuristic scene from Star Wars, but ESA's latest technique for aiding space exploration might shed some "green light" on greenhouse gases. A recent experiment involving the Spanish Canary Islands was conducted by shooting laser beams from a peak on La Palma to Tenerife. The two-week endeavor not only increased the viability of using laser pulses to track satellites, but increased our understanding of Earth's atmosphere.

Known as infrared differential absorption spectroscopy, the laser method is an accurate avenue to measure trace gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. It is accomplished by linking two Earth-orbiting satellites - one a transmitter and the other a receiver - and examining the atmosphere as the beam passes between the two. As satellites orbit, they both rise and set behind Earth and radio occultation occurs. It's a time-honored way of employing microwave signals to measure Earth's atmosphere, but new wave thinking employs shortwave infrared laser pulses. When the correct wavelength is achieved, the atmospheric molecules impact the beam and the resultant data can then be used to establish amounts of trace gases and possibly wind. By different angular repetitions, a vertical picture can be painted which stretches between the lower stratosphere to the upper troposphere.

While it all sounded good on paper - the proof of a working model is when it is tested. Enter ESA’s optical ground station on Tenerife - a facility built on a peak 2390 meters above sea level and part of a larger astronomical installation called the Observatorio del Teide run by the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC).With equipment placed on two islands, the Tenerife location offered the perfect setting to install receiver hardware grafted to the main telescope. The transmitter was then assigned to a nearly identical peak on La Palma. With nothing but 144 kilometers of ocean between them, the scenario was ideal for experimentation.

Over the course of fourteen days, the team of researchers from the Wegener Center of the University of Graz in Austria and the Universities of York and Manchester in the UK were poised to collect this unique data.

While the infrared beam wasn't visible to the unaided eye, the green guidance laser lit up the night during its runs to record atmospheric turbulence. Gottfried Kirchengast from the Wegener Center said, “The campaign has been a crucial next step towards realising infrared-laser occultation observations from space. We are excited that this pioneering inter-island demonstration for measuring carbon dioxide and methane was successful.”

Armin Loscher from ESA’s Future Mission Division added, “It was a challenging experiment to coordinate, but a real pleasure to work with the motivated teams of renowned scientists and young academics.” The experiment was completed within ESA’s Earth Observation Support to Science Element.

Nice shootin'!

For the best in space and astronomy news, be sure to visit Universe Today! Original Story Source: ESA News Release. Image Credits: ESA.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Product Spotlight - Meade Series 4000 Eyepiece and Filter Set

Written by Tammy Plotner

Are you itching to add some accessories to your telescope - but don't know where to start? Then you should really check out the Meade Series 4000 Eyepiece and Filter Set. It's more than just a collection of "stuff"... It's well thought-out quality. Come over here and let's talk for a minute...

To begin with, Meade Series 4000 eyepieces have a long-running reputation as excellent optics. While they don't posses the widest field of view or the most superior eye relief, they will match up - and surpass - any other eyepiece in their class and price range. The bottom line is the Meade Series 4000 eyepiece performs. In this kit you'll get the focal lengths you'll find yourself using the most: 40mm and 32mm for extended views, 15mm and 12.4mm for the intermediate magnification you'll need for larger deep sky objects that require some magnification, and 9.7mm and 6.4mm for high magnification when needed for double star, lunar and planetary objects. What's more, a 2X barlow lens is also included to "fill in" every possible focal length you might want or need. For example, your 40mm would become a 20mm - or a 15mm a 7.5mm with great eye relief! These Meade eyepieces are just the right combination for every working situation.

But that's not all... There's filters, too. To be honest, you won't find yourself using filters for visual work all that often - but when you do want one, it's pretty specific. One highly needed example is a moon filter - and that's #1 on the included list. Yellow, Light Red, Green and Blue are also included in the kit, and you'll find yourself using these to help draw out lunar details and specific features on Saturn, Jupiter and Mars. You also might surprise yourself by using many of these filters in "combinations" to reveal things like the phases of Venus and Mercury... or to add details to white light solar filters. The Meade Series 4000 filters are also quality and match perfectly with the eyepieces.

Last, but not least is the 1.25" barrel size. This is an absolute standard for most telescopes. While there are many telescopes that have 2" focusers, 2" eyepieces are quite an investment and there may be times when you'd hesitate to use them for daily observing or public outreach work. The answer is just to adapt them - and almost all 2" focusers have a 1.25" adapter included. The Meade Series 4000 Eyepiece and Filter Set will take the hesitation factor of using a good eyepiece for grunt observations out of the equation. They give outstanding images, improve the view of less expensive telescopes and are absolutely so durable that they'll stand up to cleaning and the kind of abuse that you need "work horse" eyepieces to provide. I can say this because I own Meade Series 4000 eyepieces and I use them extensively.

So what's the final word on the Meade Series 4000 Eyepiece and Filter Set? Do the math. Buying just a couple of these eyepieces or filters as stand-alone adds up to the total package price - and that means you're getting extra equipment for free and a dandy aluminum storage case to protect your investment besides. Even if you own a fairly inexpensive telescope, you'll be delighted with the performance of a Meade Series 4000 eyepiece and - if properly cared for - they'll last a lifetime.

If you're interested in purchasing a Meade Series 4000 Eyepiece and Filter Set, they're currently available at OPT!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Weekly SkyWatcher's Forecast - November 26 - December 2, 2011

Written by Tammy Plotner

Friday, November 26 - Today in 1965 marked the launch of the first French satellite - Asterix 1. Today is also the seventh anniversary of the discovery of the meteorites SAU 005 & 008: the "Mars Meteorites." These meteorites are known to be of Martian origin because of gases preserved in the glassy material of their interior. They were hurled into space some 600,000 years ago when a probable asteroid impact on Mars tossed them high enough to escape the planet's gravity, and they were captured by our gravity these many thousands of years later. They are just two of the 32 meteorites found on Earth which have been positively determined from their chemical compositions to be of Martian origin.

Tonight let's return again to Cassiopeia and start at the central-most bright star, Gamma. Four degrees southeast is our marker for this starhop, Phi Cassiopeiae. By aiming binoculars or telescopes at this star, it is very easy to locate an interesting open cluster, NGC 457, because they will be in the same field of view.
This bright and splendid galactic cluster has received a variety of names over the years because of its uncanny resemblance to a figure. Some call it an "Angel," others see it as the "Zuni Thunderbird;" I've heard it called the "Owl" and the "Dragonfly," but perhaps my favorite is the "E.T. Cluster," As you view it, you can see why! Bright Phi and HD 7902 appear like "eyes" in the dark and the dozens of stars that make up the "body" appear like outstretched "arms" or "wings." (For E.T. fans? Check out the red "heart" in the center.)

All this is very fanciful, but what is NGC 457, really? Both Phi and HD 7902 may not be true members of the cluster. If 5th magnitude Phi were actually part of this grouping, it would have to have a distance of approximately 9300 light-years, making it the most luminous star in the sky, far outshining even Rigel! To get a rough of idea of what that means, if we were to view our own Sun from this far away, it would be no more than magnitude 17.5. The fainter members of NGC 457 comprise a relatively young star cluster that spans about 30 light-years. Most of the stars are only about 10 million years old, yet there is an 8.6 magnitude red supergiant in the center. No matter what you call it, NGC 457 is an entertaining and bright cluster that you will find yourself returning to again and again. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 27 - Tonight let's take advantage of early dark and venture further into Cassiopeia. Returning to Gamma, we will move towards the southeast and identify Delta. Also known as Ruchbah, this long-term and very slight variable star is about 45 light-years away, but we are going to use it as our marker as we head just one degree northeast and discover M103. (And speaking of degrees, today is also the birthday of Anders Celsius - born in 1701.)

As the last object in the original Messier catalog, M103 (NGC 581) was actually credited to Mechain in 1781. Easily spotted in binoculars and small scopes, this rich open cluster is around magnitude 7, making it a prime study object. At about 8000 light-years away and spanning approximately 15 light-years, M103 offers up superb views in a variety of magnitudes and colors, with a notable red in the south and a pleasing yellow and blue double to the northwest.

Viewers with telescopes and larger binoculars are encouraged to move about a degree and half east of M103 to view a small and challenging chain of open clusters, NGCs 654, 663 and 659! Surprisingly larger than M103, NGC 663 is a lovely fan-shaped concentration of stars with about 15 or so members that resolve easily to smaller aperture. For the telescope, head north for NGC 654, (difficult, but not impossible to even a 114mm scope) which has a bright star on its southern border. South of NGC 663 is NGC 659 which is definitely a challenge for small scopes, but its presence will be revealed just northeast of two conspicuous stars in the field of view.

Sunday, November 28 - Tonight we'll start off with binoculars in the northeast quadrant of the Moon for a more detailed look at Mare Crisium - the "Sea of Crises" - home to a gravitational anomaly called a mascon. This "mass concentration" could possibly be fragments of the asteroid or comet whose impact with the lunar surface created the basin buried beneath the lava flow. How do we know it is there? A mascon creates an area of high gravity and causes changes in the orbits of lunar probes. This excess gravity has even been known to cause low orbiting lunar satellites to either crash land or be flung out into space!

Once again utilizing early darkness, let's go back to Cassiopeia. Remembering Alpha's position as the westernmost star, go there with your finderscope or binoculars and locate bright Sigma and Rho (each has a dimmer companion). They will appear to the southwest of Alpha. It is between these two stars that you will find NGC 7789 (RA 23 57 24.00 Dec +56 42 30.0).

Absolutely one of the finest of rich galactic opens bordering on a loose globular, NGC 7789 has a population of about 1000 stars and spans a mind-boggling 40 light-years. At well over a billion years old, the stars in this 5000 light-year distant galactic cluster have already evolved into red-giants or super-giants. Discovered by Caroline Herschel in the 18th century, this huge cloud of stars has an average magnitude of 10, making it a great large binocular object, a superb small telescope target, and a total fantasy of resolution for larger instruments.

Tonight in 1659, Christian Huygens was busy at the eyepiece - but he wasn't studying Saturn. This was the first time any astronomer had seen dark markings on Mars! And speaking of the planets, did you notice just how close Jupiter is to tonight’s Moon? Keep watching as the planet moves to the other side tomorrow night!

Monday, November 29 - Today in 1961, Mercury 5 launched Enos the Chimp into fame!

We begin our binocular and small telescope explorations tonight by looking near the center of the lunar terminator to identify and take a closer look at Mare Fecunditatis. Its expanse covers 1463 kilometers in diameter. The combined area of this mare is equal in size to the Great Sandy Desert in Australia—and almost as vacant in interior features. It is home to glasses, pyroxenes, feldspars, oxides, olivines, troilite and metals in its lunar soil, which is called regolith. Studies show the basaltic flow inside of the Fecunditatis basin perhaps occurred all at once, making its chemical composition different from other maria. The lower titanium content means it is between 3.1 and 3.6 billion years old. Stretching out across an area about equal in size to the state of California, the Sea of Fertility’s western edge is home to features we share terrestrially – grabens. These down-dropped areas of landscape between parallel fault lines occur where the crust is stretched to the breaking point. On Earth, these happen along tectonic plates, but on the Moon they are found around basins. The forces created by lava flow increase the weight inside the basin, causing a tension along the border which eventually fault and cause these areas. Look closely along the western shore of Fecunditatis where you will see many such graben features. They are also bordered by parallel fault lines and are quite similar to such terrestrial features as Death Valley in the western United States.

Now aim towards the earthen shore of Mare Fecunditatus and identify the flat, bright oval of a previous study, Langrenus. This is an opportunity to challenge yourself by identifying two small craters just slightly northwest of the mare’s central point – Messier and Messier A – named for the famous French comet hunter – Charles Messier. Scan along the terminator over Mare Fecunditatis about 1/3 its width from west to east for a pair of emerging bright rings. These twin craters will be difficult in binoculars, but not hard for even a small telescope and intermediate power. The easternmost crater is somewhat oval in shape with dimensions of 9 by 11 kilometers.

At high power, Messier A to the west appears to have overlapped a smaller crater during its formation and it is slightly larger at 11 by 13 kilometers. For a challenging telescopic note, you’ll find another point of interest to the northwest. Rima Messier is a long surface crack which runs diagonally across Mare Fecunditatis’ northwestern flank and reaches a length of 100 kilometers. Keep the Messiers in mind, for in a few days you will see a pair of “rays” extending out from them.

Now how about journeying with me once again to Cassiopeia? We will start our studies with the western-most of the bright stars - Beta. Also known as "Caph," Beta Cassiopeiae is approximately 45 light-years away and is known to be a rapid variable. Viewers with larger telescopes are challenged to find the 14th magnitude optical companion to Caph at about 23" in separation. Tonight, using our previous study stars Alpha and Beta, we are going to learn to locate a Messier object with ease! By drawing an imaginary line between Alpha and Beta, we extend that line the same distance and angle beyond Beta and find M52.

Found on September 7, 1774 by Charles Messier, this magnitude 7 galactic cluster is easily seen in both binoculars and small telescopes. Comprised of roughly 200 members, this open cluster is roughly 3,000 light-years distant and spans approximately 10-15 light-years. Containing stars of several different magnitudes, larger telescopes will easily perceive blue components as well as orange and yellow. Also known as NGC 7654, M52 is a young, very compressed cluster whose approximate age is about the same as the Pleiades.

For those with large telescopes wanting a challenge? Try spotting a faint patch of nebulosity just 36' to the southwest. This is NGC 7635, more commonly known as the "Bubble Nebula." Best of luck!

Tuesday, November 30 - Just as a curiosity, on this day in 1954, Elizabeth Hodges was struck by a five kilogram meteorite in Alabama. Duck!

On the lunar surface tonight, let’s begin with a look at Mare Serenitatus – the “Serene Sea”. On its northeast shore, binoculars will have no trouble spotting the shallow ring of crater Posidonius. Almost flat from eons of lava flows, this crater shows numerous variations in texture along its floor in small telescopes. This huge, old, mountain-walled plain is considered a class V crater and could be as much as 3 billion years old. Spanning 84 by 98 kilometers, you can plainly see Posidonius is shallow – dropping only 2590 meters below the surface. Tonight it will resemble a bright, elliptical pancake on the surface to smaller optics with its ring structure remaining conspicuous to binoculars throughout all lunar phases. However, a telescope is needed to appreciate the many fine features found on Posidonius’ floor. Power up to observe the stepped, stadium-like wall structure and numerous resolvable mountain peaks joining its small, central interior crater. It has its own interior rimae that is especially prominent to the east and a smashing view of trio Posidonius O, I and B on the north crater rim. Adding crater Chacornac to the southeast makes things even more interesting! Did you spot the small punctuation of Daniell to the north?

Now, look a bit south of and east of Posidonius and almost parallel to the terminator for a curious feature known as the Serpentine Ridge, or more properly as Dorsa Smirnov and the accompanying Dorsa Lister. Can you detect the very tiny crater Very in its center? This thin, white line wanders across the western portion of Mare Serenitatus for a distance of about 134 kilometers. In some places it rises as high as 305 meters above the smooth sands. This lunar “wrinkle” is an amazing 10 kilometers wide! Power up in a telescope. The northern portion of the Serpentine Ridge is Dorsa Smirnov until it branches west and becomes Dorsa Lister. If the shadow play is good at your time, you might be lucky enough to resolve Dorsum Nicol, which connects the two. Only about 51 kilometers long, Dorsum Nichol will appear almost as a circular, crater-like feature – but it isn’t. As part of the Mare Serenitatis / Mare Tranquilitatis border, it’s not much more than a just an area where the two distinct lava flows cooled and contracted, causing the surface to heave up, but you’ll also find it’s connected to the Rima Plinius as well.

Tonight when the Moon has sufficiently set, we will haunt Cassiopeia one last time - with studies for the seasoned observer. Our first challenge of the evening will be to return to Gamma where we will locate two patches of nebulosity in the same field of view. IC 59 and IC 63 are challenging because of the bright influence of the star, but by moving the star to the edge of the field of view you may be able to locate these two splendid small nebulae. If you do not have success with this pair, why not move on to Alpha? About one and a half degrees due east, you will find a small collection of finderscope stars that mark the area of NGC 281 (RA 00 52 25.10 Dec +56 33 54.0). This distinctive cloud of stars and ghostly nebulae make this NGC object a fine challenge!

The last things we will study are two small elliptical galaxies that are achievable in mid-sized scopes. Locate Omicron Cassiopeiae about 7 degrees north of M31 and discover a close galactic pair that is associated with the Andromeda group - NGC 185 (RA 00 38 57.40 Dec +48 20 14.4) and NGC 147 (RA 00 33 11.79 Dec +48 30 24.8).

The constellation of Cassiopeia contains many, many more fine star clusters, and nebulae - and even more galaxies. For the casual observer, simply tracing over the rich star fields with binoculars is a true pleasure, for there are many bright asterisms best enjoyed at low power. Scopists will return to "rock with the Queen" year after year for its many challenging treasures. Enjoy it tonight!

Wednesday, December 1 - Tonight on the lunar surface, all of Mare Serenitatis and Mare Tranquillitatis will be revealed, and so it is fitting we should take an even closer look at both the “Serene” and “Tranquil” seas. Formed some 38 million years ago, these two areas of the Moon have been home to most of mankind’s lunar exploration. Somewhere scattered on the basalt landscape on the western edge of Tranquillitatis, a few remains of the Ranger 6 mission lie tossed about, perhaps forming a small impact crater of their own. Its eyes were open, but blinded by a malfunction…forever seeing nothing. To the southwest edge lie the remnants of the successful Ranger 8 mission which sent back 7137 glorious images during the last 23 minutes of its life. Nearby, the intact Surveyor 5 withstood all odds and made space history by managing to perform an alpha particle spectrogram of the soil while withstanding temperatures considerably greater than the boiling point. Not only this, but it also took over 18,000 pictures!

Now let’s go to the southwest edge of Tranquillitatis and visit with the Apollo 11 landing area. Although we can never see the “Eagle” telescopically, we can find where it landed. For telescopes and binoculars the landing area will be found near the terminator along the southern edge of Mare Tranquillitatis. No scope? No problem. Find the dark round area on the lunar northeastern limb – Mare Crisium. Then locate the dark area below that – Mare Fecundatatis. Now look mid-way along the terminator for the dark area that is Mare Tranquillitatis. The bright point west where it joins Mare Nectaris further south is the target for the first men on the Moon. We were there! Telescopically, start tracing the western wall of Tranquillitatis and looking for the small circles of craters Sabine and Ritter which are easily revealed tonight.

Once located, switch to your highest magnification. Look in the smooth sands to the east to see a parallel line of three tiny craters. From west to east, these are Aldrin, Collins, and Armstrong – the only craters to be named for the living. It is here where Apollo 11 touched down, forever changing our perception of space exploration.

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Born today in 1811 was Benjamin (Don Benito) Wilson. He was the namesake of Mt. Wilson, California - home to what once were the largest telescopes in the world - the 60" Hale and the 100" Hooker. Later, three solar telescopes were added on the mountain - two of which are still in use - as well as the CHARA array and active interferometers. It was here that Edwin Hubble first realized the "nebulae" were distant galaxies and discovered Cepheid variables in them. As we approach the end of our SkyWatching year together, let us wait until the Moon sets and pretend the skies are still as dark as they were on Mt. Wilson as we aim our binoculars and telescopes towards one of the most elusive galaxies of all - M33.

Located about one-third the distance between Alpha Triangulum and Beta Andromedae (RA 01 33.9 Dec +30 39), this member of our Local Group was probably first seen by Hodierna, but was recovered independently by Messier some 110 years later. Right on the edge of visibility unaided, M33 spans about 4 full moon widths of sky, making it a beautiful binocular object and a prime view in a low power telescope.

Smaller than the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy, the Triangulum galaxy is about average in size, but anything but average to study. So impressed was Herschel that he gave it its own designation of H V.17 after having cataloged one of its bright star forming regions as H III.150! In 1926, Hubble also studied M33 at Mt. Wilson with the Hooker telescope during his work with Cepheid variables. Larger telescopes often "can't see" M33 with good reason - it overfills the field of view - but what a view! Not only did Herschel discover a region much like our own Orion Nebula, but the entire galaxy contains many NGC and IC objects (even globular clusters) that can be seen with a larger scope.

Although M33 might be 3 million light-years away, tonight it's as close as your own dark sky site...

Thursday, December 2 - The Moon will dominate the early evening hours, but why not enjoy its features as we scan the terminator in binoculars to enjoy the Caucasus Mountains and outstanding craters Aristillus and Autolycus to the north. Just south of this outstanding pair is a rather curious dark area known as Palus Putredinus, or the “Rotten Swamp”. On September 13, 1959 European observers witnessed the impact of Lunik 2 in this area.

Today in 1934, the largest mirror in telescope history began its life as the blank for the 200" telescope was cast in Corning, NY. The 200" would play another important role as Edwin Hubble continued on at Palomar Observatory. Thanks to his work there, we now understand "Hubble's Law" - the expansion of the Universe. Tonight – when the Moon has sufficiently set - let us honor that great mind as we take a look at a galaxy that's receding from us - NGC 1300.

Located about a thumb's width north of Tau4 Eridani (RA 03 19.7 Dec -19 25), this is probably the most incredible barred spiral you will ever encounter. At magnitude 10, it will require at least a 4.5" telescope in northern latitudes, but can probably be spotted with binoculars in the far south.

At 75 million light-years away, NGC 1300's central bar alone is larger than the Milky Way, and this galaxy has been intensively studied because the manner of its formation was so similar that of to our own. Although it is so distant, it is seen face-on - allowing us a look at how this formation occurs without looking through the gas and dust which block our own central view. Enjoy this one's fantastic structure!

Image Credits: NGC 457 - Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF, Serpentine Ridge - Peter Lloyd and "Lunar History" courtesy of Lunar Phase Pro. Thank you for sharing!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Product Spotlight - Orion Limited Edition SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Bundle

Written by Tammy Plotner

Are you looking for a very unusual telescope to add to your fleet? How about one that doesn't look like a cookie-cutter version of the dob next door? Then you have got to check out the ruby-red Orion Limited Edition SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope!

With 203mm (8") aperture, this classic reflector telescope is going to deliver a limiting stellar magnitude of 14.2. That means from your favorite dark sky site that you'll be calling up faint galaxies with ease! And the 1200mm focal length operating at focal ratio of f/5.9 means your favorite eyepieces are going to be comfortable here. What's more, the sweet, well-done optics of the Orion SkyQuest Limited Edition XT8 is offering up a 0.57 arc second resolution, too. Don't just look at a fuzzy... Look at a well resolved globular cluster, dustlanes and arm structure in distant galaxies and razor sharp images on lunar a planetary subjects when the atmosphere allows!

Orion SkyQuest Dobsonian Telescope

There's no worries when you choose this model. The reality check is the Orion Limited Edition SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope is a tried and true design with years of service under its astronomical belt. When it comes to buying a telescope that you'll have and use season after season, this one is it. And if it's your first telescope? Then don't worry about needing to add extras, the Orion LE SkyQuest XT8 comes ready to go out of the box and features a bundled package that includes a 2" Crayford focuser that accepts both 1.25" and 2" accessories, and Orion EZ Finder II reflex sight, a quick collimation cap, 35mm Orion DeepView telescope eyepiece (2"), Orion Shorty 2x Barlow lens (1.25"), 25mm Orion Sirius Plossl telescope eyepiece (1.25"), dust caps for the reflector telescope tube and focuser, and a special edition of Starry Night astronomy software and a SkyTheater DVD!

When it's all said and done, this is one great telescope for the beginner. The Orion Limited Edition SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope is extremely easy to assemble and the optical tube only weighs about 20 pounds, so it's light enough for the ladies and children. The 19" diameter base is also light, too... And also tips the scales at about 20 pounds. There's nothing complicated to learn about the mount - you just swivel, point and go! There's no computer programs to learn or complicated set up routines. It's just a pure, comfortable telescope that fits easily into smaller spaces - but gives some wide open views of space!

If you're interested in the Orion Limited Edition SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Bundle, it's currently in stock at OPT!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Weekly SkyWatcher's Forecast: November 19-25, 2011

Written By Tammy Plotner

Friday, November 19 - Tonight let’s head less than a degree south-southeast of Delta Ceti (RA 02 43 40.83 Dec -00 00 48.4) to have a look at a galaxy grouping that features the magnificent M77.

Discovered on October 29, 1780 by Pierre Mechain, Messier cataloged it as #77 around six weeks later as a “nebulous cluster” – an accurate description for a small telescope. It wasn’t until 1850 when Lord Rosse uncovered its spiral nature that we began to view it as the grand structure seen in today’s modern telescopes.

Around 47 million light-years away, larger instruments will reveal its wide spiral arms where the older stars call home, and the concentrated core region where gigantic gas clouds move rapidly and new stars are being formed – a core which contains such a massive energy source that it emits spectrum of radio waves. After decades of study, the highly active nucleus of this Seyfert galaxy is known to have a mass equaling 10 million suns and a 5 light-year wide disc which rotates around it, which has intense star forming regions. This is one of the brightest known, and was cataloged by Arp as number 37 on his list of peculiar galaxies.

While even binoculars can spot the core, and modest scopes can reveal M77′s glory, larger telescopes will also spy 10th magnitude, edge-on NGC 1055 about half a degree north-northwest and 11th magnitude, face-on NGC 1073 about a degree north-northeast. Enjoy them tonight!

Saturday, November 20 - Today celebrates another significant astronomer's birth - Edwin Hubble. Born 1889, Hubble became the first American astronomer to identify Cepheid variables in M31 - which in turn established the extragalactic nature of the spiral nebulae. Continuing with the work of Carl Wirtz, and using Vesto Slipher's redshifts, Hubble then could calculate the velocity-distance relation for galaxies. This has become known as "Hubble's Law" and demonstrates the expansion of our Universe.

Tonight we're going to head just a little more than a fistwidth west of the westernmost bright star in Cassiopeia to have a look at Delta Cephei (RA 22 29 10.27 Dec +58 24 54.7). This is the most famous of all variable stars and the granddaddy of all Cepheids. Discovered in 1784 by John Goodricke, its changes in magnitude are not due to a revolving companion - but rather the pulsations of the star itself.

Ranging over almost a full magnitude in 5 days, 8 hours and 48 minutes precisely, Delta's changes can easily be followed by comparing it to nearby Zeta and Epsilon. When it is its dimmest, it will brighten rapidly in a period of about 36 hours - yet take 4 days to slowly dim again. Take time out of your busy night to watch Delta change and change again. It's only 1000 light-years away, and doesn't even require a telescope! (But even binoculars will show its optical companion...)

Sunday, November 21 - Tonight let's continue our stellar studies with the central-most star in the lazy "W" of Cassiopeia - Gamma...

At the beginning of the 20th century, the light from Gamma appeared to be steady, but in the mid-1930s it took an unexpected rise in brightness. In less than 2 years it jumped by a magnitude! Then, just as unexpectedly, it dropped back down again in roughly the same amount of time. A performance it repeated some 40 years later!

Gamma Cassiopeiae isn't quite a giant and is still fairly young on the evolutionary scale. Spectral studies show violent changes and variations in the star's structure. After its first recorded episode, it ejected a shell of gas which expanded Gamma's size by over 200% - yet it doesn't appear to be a candidate for a nova event.

The best estimate now is that Gamma is around 100 light-years away and approaching us a very slow rate. If conditions are good, you might be able to telescopically pick up its disparate 11th magnitude visual companion, discovered by Burnham in 1888. It shares the same proper motion - but doesn't orbit this unusual variable star. For those who like a challenge, visit Gamma again on a dark night! Its shell left two bright (and difficult!) nebulae, IC 59 and IC 63, to which we will return at the end of the month.

Monday, November 22 - Tonight’s astronomical adventure will be about exploring an ancient and well renowned star cluster — the Pleiades! Easily found from a modestly dark site with the unaided eye, the Pleiades can be spotted well above the north-eastern horizon within a couple of hours of nightfall. To average skies, many of the 7 bright components will resolve easily without the use of optical aid, but to telescopes and binoculars? The M45 is stunning…

First let’s explore a bit of history. The recognition of the Pleiades dates back to antiquity and it’s known by many names in many cultures. The Greeks and Romans referred to them as the “Starry Seven”, the “Net of Stars”, “The Seven Virgins”, “The Daughters of Pleione” and even “The Children of Atlas”. The Egytians referred to them as “The Stars of Athyr”, the Germans as “Siebengestiren” (the Seven Stars), the Russians as “Baba” after Baba Yaga, the witch who flew through the skies on her fiery broom. The Japanese call them “Suburu”, Norsemen saw them as packs of dogs and the Tonganese as “Matarii” (the Little Eyes). American Indians viewed the Pleiades as seven maidens placed high upon a tower to protect them from the claws of giant bears, and even Tolkien immortalized the stargroup in the “Hobbit” as “Remmirath”. The Pleiades have even been mentioned in the Bible! So, you see, no matter where we look in our “starry” history, this cluster of seven bright stars has been part of it.

Tuesday, November 23 - Tonight in 1885, the very first photograph of a meteor shower was taken. Also, the weather satellite TIROS II was launched on this day in 1960. Carried to orbit by a three-stage Delta rocket, the "Television Infrared Observation Satellite" was about the size of a barrel, testing experimental television techniques and infrared equipment. Operating for 376 days, Tiros II sent back thousands of pictures of Earth's cloud cover and was successful in its experiments to control the orientation of the satellite spin and its infrared sensors. Oddly enough, a similar mission - Meteosat 1 - also became the first satellite put into orbit by the European Space Agency, in 1977 on this day.

Where is all this leading? Why not try observing satellites on your own! Thanks to wonderful on-line tools from NASA you can be alerted by e-mail whenever a bright satellite makes a pass for your specific area. It's fun!

Wednesday, November 24 - Tonight let’s have a look at Beta Perseii – the most famous of all eclipsing variable stars. Now, identify Algol and we’ll learn about the “Demon Star”.

Ancient history has given this star many names. Associated with the mythological figure, Perseus, Beta was considered to be the head of Medusa the Gorgon, and was known to the Hebrews as Rosh ha Satan or “Satan’s Head”. 17th century maps labeled Beta as Caput Larvae, or the “Spectre’s Head”, but it is from the Arabic culture that the star was formally named. They knew it as Al Ra’s al Ghul, or the “Demon’s Head”, and we know it as Algol. Because these medieval astronomers and astrologers associated Algol with danger and misfortune, we are led to believe that Beta’s strange visual variable properties were noted throughout history.

Italian astronomer Geminiano Montanari was the first to note that Algol occasionally “faded” and its methodical timing was cataloged by John Goodricke in 1782, who surmised that it was being partially eclipsed by a dark companion orbiting it. Thus was born the theory of the “eclipsing binary” and it was proved spectroscopically in 1889 by H.C. Vogel. At 93 light years away, Algol is the nearest eclipsing binary of its kind and is treasured by the amateur astronomer for it requires no special equipment to easily follow its stages. Normally Beta Persii holds a magnitude of 2.1, but approximately every three days it dims to magnitude 3.4 and gradually brightens again. The entire eclipse only lasts about 10 hours!

Although Algol is known to have two additional spectroscopic companions, the true beauty of watching this variable star is not telescopic – but visual. The constellation of Perseus is well placed this month for most observers and appears like a glittering chain of stars that lay between Cassiopeia and Andromeda. To help further assist you, locate Gamma Andromedae (Almach) east of Algol. Almach’s visual brightness is about the same as Algol’s at maxima.

Thursday, November 25 - While Cassiopeia is in prime position for most northern observers, let's return tonight for some additional studies. Starting with Delta, let's hop to the northeast corner of our "flattened W" and identify 520 light-year distant Epsilon. For larger telescopes only, it will be a challenge to find this 12" diameter, magnitude 13.5 planetary nebula I.1747 in the same field as magnitude 3.3 Epsilon!

Using both Delta and Epsilon as our "guide stars" let's draw an imaginary line between the pair extending from southwest to northeast and continue the same distance until you stop at visible Iota. Now go to the eyepiece...

As a quadruple system, Iota will require a telescope and a night of steady seeing to split its three visible components. Approximately 160 light-years away, this challenging system will show little or no color to smaller telescopes, but to large aperture, the primary may appear slightly yellow and the companion stars a faint blue. At high magnification, the 8.2 magnitude "C" star will easily break away from the 4.5 primary, 7.2" to the east-southeast. But look closely at that primary: hugging in very close (2.3") to the west-southwest and looking like a bump on its side is the B star!

Dropping back to the lowest of powers, place Iota to the southwest edge of the eyepiece. It's time to study two incredibly interesting stars that should appear in the same field of view to the northeast. When both of these stars are at their maximum, they are easily the brightest of stars in the field. Their names are SU (southernmost) and RZ (northernmost) Cassiopeiae and both are unique! SU is a pulsing Cepheid variable located about 1000 light-years away and will show a distinctive red coloration. RZ is a rapidly eclipsing binary that can change from magnitude 6.4 to magnitude 7.8 in less than two hours. Wow!

Enjoy your observations and we'll see you next week!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Leonid Meteor Shower Peaks – November 17-19, 2011

Written by Tammy Plotner

Are you ready for a good, predictable meteor shower? Then break out your favorite skywatching gear because the 2011 Leonid meteor shower is already sparkling the skies…

In the pre-dawn hours on the mornings of November 17-19th, the offspring of Comet Temple/Tuttle will be flashing through our atmosphere at speeds of up to 72 kilometers per second - and enticing you to test your meteor watching skills against partially moonlit skies. Although the waning Moon will greatly interfere with fainter meteor trails, don’t let that stop you from enjoying early evening observations, or enjoying your morning coffee with a handful of "shooting stars" which will be emanating outward from the constellation of Leo.

Where in the skies do you look? For all observers the constellation of Leo is along the ecliptic plane and will be near its peak height during best viewing times. When? Because of the Moon, earlier evening observations are favored (before local midnight), but just a couple of hours before local dawn is the best time to watch. Why? Read on!

Although it has been a couple of years since Temple/Tuttle was at perihelion, don’t forget that meteor showers are wonderfully unpredictable and the Leonids are sure to please with fall rate of around 20 (average) per hour. Who knows what surprises it may bring! Each time the comet swings around our Sun it loses some of its material in the debris trail. Of course, we all know that is the source of a meteor shower, but what we don’t know is just how much debris was shed and where it may lay.

"The Moon is going to be a major interference, but we could see a rate of about 20 per hour," said Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environments Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "Some models, including ours, indicate that particles may encounter Earth on November 16 at around 5:30 p.m. EST [2230 GMT], where we could see anywhere from 100 to 200 meteors per hour. So, we could get a Leonid outburst, but unfortunately it is not favorably placed for viewing from the United States."

As our Earth passes through the dusty matter, it may encounter a place where the comet let loose with a large amount of its payload – or it may pass through an area where the “comet stuff” is thin. We might even pass through an area which produces an exciting “meteor storm” like the Leonids produced in 1883! For those in the know, the Leonid meteor shower also made a rather incredible appearance in 1866 and 1867 – dumping up to 1000 (not a typo, folks) shooting stars recorded even with a Moon present! It erupted again in 1966 and in 1998 and produced 3000 (yep. 3000!) video recorded meteors during the years of 2001 and 2002. But remember, human eyes may only be able to detect just a few. So what's a realistic guess?

According to Cooke; "We could see rates of about five meteors per hour," he explained. "If people want to see the Leonids, it might be good to watch the nights of November 16th and 17th. Instead of just going out one night, you might want to go out twice."

And to make this year's show twice as nice, you'll have a hard time not being distracted with the Moon and Mars being right on the radiant! You won't be able to miss the Red Planet as the Moon slides along south... First to Mars' west and then to the east on the nights of November 18th and 19th.

What a terrific show!

About the Images: (as seen at top) Leonid meteors seen from 39,000 feet aboard an aircraft during the 1999 Leonids Multi-Instrument Aircraft Campaign (Leonid-MAC). Comet Tempel-Tuttle provides the cometary debris for the Leonid meteor storm, which takes place in mid-November. Credit: NASA/ISAS/Shinsuke Abe and Hajime Yano. (as seen in text) Constellation Chart courtesy of Your Sky.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Happy Birthday, Sir William Herschel!

Written by Tammy Plotner

On this day in 1738, an astronomy legend was born - Sir William Herschel. Among this British astronomer and musician's many accomplishments, Herschel was credited with the discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781; detecting the motion of the Sun in the Milky Way in 1785; finding Castor's binary companion in 1804 - and he was the first to record infrared radiation. Herschel was well known as the discoverer of many clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. This came through his countless nights studying the sky and writing catalogs whose information we still use today. Let's take a brief, closer look at just who he was...

Born as Frederick William Herschel, this Hanover, Germany native had nine brothers and sisters. During his teenage years, he and his brother, Jakob, were oboists in a military band. When war ensued, his father sent the pair to England to escape. Once there, Herschel continued his musical career by playing cello and harpsichord - eventually composing 24 symphonies, a handful of concertos and religious music. He continued to be a musician, with many appointments, until middle age. Most of his family also migrated to England, the most famous of which is his sister Caroline, who came to live with him in 1772.

But it wasn't music that was Herschel's passion. After he met English Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, he began construction on his own reflector telescope, spending up to 16 hours a day grinding and polishing the speculum metal primary mirrors. By age 35 he'd began his astronomical journey in earnest - and a year later he began recording his observations from the Great Orion Nebula to the rings of Saturn. Sir William's interest was taken by the study of double stars and with a 160mm telescope of his own construction, he began a systematic search for binaries among "every star in the Heavens" in October, 1779 and continued listing discoveries through 1792, eventually compiling three catalogs.

During this time he continued to support himself and his sister with his music. In her biography, Caroline recounts how he would rush home between acts to scan the skies - and how she often had to clean pitch from mirror-making from his clothes to make him presentable. From 1782 to 1802, Sir William swept the skies, recording all he saw and sharing his discoveries with other astronomers. So devoted was he, that he even gave Caroline her own telescope in 1783, encouraging her to also make her own observations and discoveries. Herschel published his discoveries as three catalogues, a walloping 2400 entries, filled with distant nebulae and cosmic wonders. Over the time of his astronomical career, Herschel constructed more than four hundred telescopes - the most famous of which had an almost 50 inch diameter mirror and a 40 foot focal length!

In later years, he and Caroline moved on to Windsor Road in Slough... a residence which would eventually be come to known as "Observatory House". It was during this time he married and eventually had a son - John. Caroline also moved on, yet continued to be his secretarial assistant. Sir William's astronomical career was quite illustrious - so much so that this article only highlights a few of his accomplishments. He observed and recorded the satellites of his discovery, Uranus, along with more obscure moons belonging to Saturn. He did work with infrared radiation, popularized the term "asteroid", studied the martian polar caps - revealing them as seasonal - and may very well have been the first to discover the rings of Uranus. His lack of a formal "astronomical education" never slowed Sir William Herschel down!

"I have looked further into space than ever human being did before me. I have observed stars of which the light, it can be proved, must take two million years to reach the Earth."

Herschel's life ended at a ripe old age of 84... Passing on at his beloved Observatory House. His son, John Herschel, would carry on in his father's footsteps and also became a famous astronomer. While few of us will ever be able to match Herschel's passion for astronomy, at least we can take a moment to look at the stars and wish this astronomy "great" a very happy birthday!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Educator's Corner - Exploring the Moon Educator Guide

Submitted by Tammy Plotner

Exploring The Moon

Greetings, Educators!

Are you looking for some classroom material that you just can't find anywhere else? Then check out the "Exploring the Moon Educator Guide". It's designed for all audiences, but focuses on the curriculum requirements for grades 4-12.

The activities in this NASA Moon Guide promote problem solving, communication skills and teamwork. Earth and space science subjects include lunar geology and regolith, distance to the Moon, Apollo landing sites and life support systems.

Exploring the Moon Educator Guide [7MB PDF file]

Individual sections:

Introductory Materials
National Education Standards Charts
The Moon -- Gateway to the Solar System Teacher's Guide
Moon ABCs Fact Sheet
Rock ABCs Fact Sheet
Progress in Lunar Science
Nearside of the Moon -- Apollo Landing Sites
Pre-Apollo Activities
Distance to the Moon
Diameter of the Moon
Reaping Rocks
Learning From Apollo
The Lunar Disk
Apollo Landing Sites
Regolith Formation
Lunar Surface
Impact Craters
Clay Lava Flows
Lava Layering
Lunar Landing Sites
Lunar Roving Vehicle
Moon Anomalies
The Future
Lunar Land Use
Life Support Systems
Lunar Biospheres

Product Spotlight - Vixen Ascot Super Wide 10X50 Binoculars - Porro Prism

Written by Tammy Plotner

Are you ready to be blown away? Then kick back and take a rocket ride to the stars with the new Vixen Ascot Super Wide Binoculars. Imagine yourself drinking in starlight along the Milky Way with an incredible 85.0° apparent field of view! See celestial scenery like you never have before... Capture wildlife in full panorama... Sweep the stars for comets... Indulge yourself!

Vixen Ascot Super Wide 10X50 Binoculars

These Vixen Ascot 10X50 Binoculars are the pefect size for astronomy applications. What's more, they're engineered with only the finest Bak 4 prisms and then fully-multicoated for bright, color-rich images without annoying reflections. The Vixen Ascot Binoculars weigh in at a healthy two pounds and measure 6x7x3 inches. This super-wide design is capable of a 25.0 brightness level and deliver 7mm of eye relief over a 8.5° true field. Central focus makes handling easy and tripod adaptability makes this great Vixen binocular series peform for your every whim...

From here on Earth - right up to the stars!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Weekly SkyWatcher's Forecast: November 12-18, 2011

Written by Tammy Plotner

Saturday, November 12 - Wouldn't we all have loved to have been there in 1949 when the first scientific observations were made with the Palomar 5-meter (200-inch) telescope? Or to have seen what Voyager 1 saw as it made its closest approach to Saturn on this date in 1980? To watch Space Shuttle Columbia launch in 1981? Or even better, to have been around in 1833 - the night of the Great Leonid Meteor Shower! But this is here and now, so let's make our own mark on the night sky as we view the waning Moon.

This evening have a look at the lunar surface and the southeast shoreline of Mare Crisium for Agarum Promontorium. To a small telescope it will look like a bright peninsula extending northward across the dark plain of Crisium's interior, eventually disappearing beneath the ancient lava flow. Small crater Fahrenheit can be spotted at high power to the west of Agarum, and it is just southeast of there that Luna 24 landed. If you continue south of Agarum along the shoreline of Crisium you will encounter 15 kilometer high Mons Usov. To its west is a gentle rille known as Dorsum Termier - where the Luna 15 mission remains lie. Can you spot 23 kilometer wide Shapely further south?

While skies are fairly dark be sure to keep watch for members of the Pegasid meteor shower - the radiant is roughly near the Great Square. This stream endures from mid-October until late November, and used to be quite spectacular. Watch for the peak on November 17.

Sunday, November 13 - Today is the birthday of James Clerk Maxwell. Born in 1831, Maxwell was a leading English theoretician on electromagnetism and the nature of light. Tonight let's take a journey of 150 light-years as we honor Maxwell's theories of electricity and magnetism as we take a look at a star that is in nuclear decay - Alpha Ceti.

Its name is Menkar, and this second magnitude orange giant is slowly using up its nuclear fuel and gaining mass. According to Maxwell's theories of the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces, W bosons must exist in such circumstances - this was an extremely advanced line of thinking for the time. Without getting deep into the physics, simply enjoy reddish Alpha for the beauty that it is. Even small telescopes will reveal its 5th magnitude optical partner 93 Ceti to the north. It's only another 350 light-years further away! You'll be glad you took the time to look this one up, because the wide separation and color contrast of the pair make this tribute to Maxwell worth your time!

Monday, November 14 - Ready to aim for a bullseye? Then follow the “Archer” and head right for the bright, reddish star Aldebaran. Set your eyes, scopes or binoculars there and let’s look into the “eye” of the Bull. Known to the Arabs as Al Dabaran, or “the Follower,” Alpha Tauri got its name because it appears to follow the Pleiades across the sky. In Latin it was called Stella Dominatrix, yet the Olde English knew it as Oculus Tauri, or very literally the “eye of Taurus.” No matter which source of ancient astronomical lore we explore, there are references to Aldebaran.

As the 13th brightest star in the sky, it almost appears from Earth to be a member of the V-shaped Hyades star cluster, but this association is merely coincidental, since it is about twice as close to us as the cluster is. In reality, Aldebaran is on the small end as far as K5 stars go, and like many other orange giants, it could possibly be a variable. Aldebaran is also known to have five close companions, but they are faint and very difficult to observe with backyard equipment. At a distance of approximately 68 light-years, Alpha is “only” about 40 times larger than our own Sun and approximately 125 times brighter. To try to grasp such a size, think of it as being about the same size as Earth’s orbit! Because of its position along the ecliptic, Aldebaran is one of the very few stars of first magnitude that can be occulted by the Moon.

This evening on the Moon we will be returning to familiar features Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catharina. Why not take the time to really power up on them and look closely? Curving away just to the southwest of Catharina on the terminator is another lunar challenge feature, Rupes Altai, or the Altai Scarp. Look for smaller craters beginning to emerge, such as Kant to the northwest, Ibn-Rushd just northwest of Cyrillus and Tacitus to the west.

Tuesday, November 15 - Today marks a very special birthday in history. On this day in 1738, my personal hero William Herschel was born. Among this British astronomer and musician's many accomplishments, Herschel was credited with the discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781, the motion of the Sun in the Milky Way in 1785, Castor's binary companion in 1804; and he was the first to record infrared radiation. Herschel was well known as the discoverer of many clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. This came through his countless nights studying the sky and writing catalogs whose information we still use today. Just look at how many we've logged this year! Tonight let's look towards Cassiopeia as we remember this great astronomer...

Almost everyone is familiar with the legend of Cassiopeia and how the Queen came to be bound in her chair, destined for an eternity to turn over and over in the sky, but did you know that Cassiopeia holds a wealth of double stars and galactic clusters? Seasoned sky watchers have long been familiar with this constellation's many delights, but let's remember that not everyone knows them all, and tonight let's begin our exploration of this Cassiopeia with two of its primary stars.

Looking much like a flattened "W," its southern-most bright star is Alpha. Also known as Schedar, this magnitude 2.2 spectral type K star was once suspected of being a variable, but no changes have been detected in modern times. Binoculars will reveal its orange/yellow coloring, but a telescope is needed to bring out its unique features. In 1781, Herschel discovered a 9th magnitude companion star and our modern optics easily separate the blue/white component's distance of 63". A second, even fainter companion at 38" is mentioned in the list of double stars and even a third at 14th magnitude was spotted by S.W. Burnham in 1889. All three stars are optical companions only, but make 150 to 200 light-year distant Schedar a delight to view!

Just north of Alpha is the next destination for tonight...Eta Cassiopeiae.

Discovered by Herschel in August of 1779, Eta is quite possibly one of the most well-known of binary stars. The 3.5 magnitude primary star is a spectral type G, meaning it has a yellowish color much like our own Sun. It is about 10% larger than Sol and about 25% brighter. The 7.5 magnitude secondary (or B star) is very definitely a K-type: metal poor, and distinctively red. In comparison, it is half the mass of our Sun, crammed into about a quarter of its volume and is around 25 times dimmer. In the eyepiece, the B star will angle off to the northwest, providing a wonderful and colorful look at one of the season's finest!

Wednesday, November 16 - Today in 1974, there was a party at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, as the new surface of the giant 1000-foot radio telescope was dedicated. At this time, a quick radio message was released in the direction of the globular cluster M13.

And now the annual Leonid meteor shower is underway! For those of you seeking a definitive date and time, it isn't always possible. The meteor shower itself belongs to the debris shed by comet 55/P Tempel-Tuttle as it passes our Sun in its 33.2 year orbital period. Although it was once assumed that we would merely add around 33 years to each observed "shower," we later came to realize that the debris formed a cloud that lagged behind the comet and dispersed irregularly. With each successive pass of Tempel-Tuttle, new filaments of debris were left in space along with the old ones, creating different "streams" that the orbiting Earth passes through at varying times, which makes blanket predictions unreliable at best.

Thursday, November 17 - If you didn't stay up late, then get up early this morning to catch the Leonids. Each year during November, we pass through the filaments of debris - both old and new - and the chances of impacting a particular stream from any one particular year of Tempel-Tuttle's orbit becomes a matter of mathematical estimates. We know when it passed... We know where it passed... But will we encounter it and to what degree?

Traditional dates for the peak of the Leonid meteor shower occur as early as the morning of November 17 and as late as November 19, but what about this year? On November 8, 2005 the Earth passed through an ancient stream shed in 1001. Predictions ran high for viewers in Asia, but the actual event resulted in a dud. There is no doubt that we crossed through that stream, but its probability of dissipation is impossible to calculate. Debris trails left by the comet in 1333 and 1733 look the most promising for this year, but we simply don't know.

We may never know precisely where and when the Leonids might strike, but we do know that a good time to look for this activity is well before dawn on November 17, 18 and 19th. With the Moon mostly out of the way, wait until the radiant constellation of Leo rises and the chances are good of spotting one of the offspring of periodic comet Tempel-Tuttle. Your chances increase significantly by traveling a dark sky location, but remember to dress warmly and provide for your viewing comfort.

On this day in 1970, the long running Soviet mission Luna 17 successfully landed on the Moon. Its Lunokhod 1 rover became the first wheeled vehicle on the Moon. Lunokhod was designed to function three lunar days but actually operated for eleven. The machinations of Lunokhod officially stopped on October 4, 1971, the anniversary of Sputnik 1. Lunokhod had traversed 10,540 meters, transmitted more than 20,000 television pictures, over 200 television panoramas and performed more than 500 lunar soil tests. We'll take a look at its landing site in the days ahead. Spaseba!

Friday, November 18 - If you got clouded out of the Leonids yesterday morning, there is no harm in trying again before dawn! The meteor stream varies, and your chances are still quite good of catching one of these bright meteors.

Tonight let's head toward an optical pairing of stars known as Zeta and Chi Ceti, a little more than a fistwidth northeast of bright Beta. Now have a look with binoculars or small scopes because you’ll find that each has its own optical companion!

Now drop south-southwest less than a fistwidth to have a look at something so unusual that you can’t help but be charmed – the UV Ceti System (RA 01 39 01 Dec -17 57 01).

What exactly is it? Also known as L 726-8, you are looking at two of the smallest and faintest stars known. This dwarf red binary system is the sixth nearest star to our solar system and resides right around nine light-years away. While you are going to need at least an intermediate-size scope to pick up these near 13th magnitude points of light, don’t stop observing right after you locate it. The fainter member of the two is what is known as a “Luyten’s Flare Star” (hence the “L” in its name). Although it doesn’t have a predictable timetable, this seemingly uninteresting star can jump two magnitudes in less than 60 seconds and drop back to “normal” within minutes – the cycle repeating possibly two or three times every 24 hours. A most incredible incident was recorded in 1952 when UV jumped from magnitude 12.3 to 6.8 in just 20 seconds!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Asteroid 2005 YU55 - Caught In The Act!

Written by Tammy Plotner

Were you clouded out last night for Asteroid 2005 YU55's closest approach? Then don't be disappointed... Just take a look at what we caught here in Ohio!

This awesome footage was captured by John Chumack. Says John...

"The little dash line in each image is the Near Earth Asteroid 2005 YU55 passing between the Moon and the Earth last night at a very close 201,700 miles. This was the closest one in 35 years.

This was captured with my homemade 16" scope & QHY8 CCD camera binned 2x2, These were 10 second exposures, from my observatories in Yellow Springs, Ohio Captured at 07:18 pm E.S.T. I had to ambush it, sit ahead of the track and wait until it enter the FOV as the Asteroid was running a few minutes ahead of JPL's published ephemeris schedule!

Thanks to my FAA friend Melchor from OKC who was here visiting my observatories, he helped a lot by repeatedly reading off jump coordinates quickly, so I could punch them into my telescope control software (The Sky) and ambush the Asteroid! The Asteroid was really moving fast and was out of my FOV in 1.5 minutes."

Amazing video... Thank you for sharing!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Asteroid 2005 YU55 Gets Closer to Earth; “No Chance of an Impact”

Written by Jason Major

Yes, it's coming. Yes, it's big. Yes, it will be even closer than the Moon. And yes... we're completely safe. YU55, acquired in April 2010. Credit: NASA/Cornell/Arecibo.

The 400-meter-wide asteroid 2005 YU55 is currently zipping through the inner Solar System at over 13 km (8 miles) a second. On Tuesday, November 8, at 6:28 p.m. EST, it will pass Earth, coming within 325,000 km (202,000 miles). This is indeed within the Moon's orbit (although YU55's trajectory puts it a bit above the exact plane of the Earth-Moon alignment.) Still, it is the closest pass by such a large object since 1976... yet, NASA scientists aren't concerned. Why?

Because its orbit has been well studied, there's nothing in its way, and frankly there's simply nothing it will do to affect Earth.


2005 YU55's miniscule gravity will not cause earthquakes. It has no magnetic field. It will not strike another object, or the Moon, or the Earth. It will not come into contact with cometary debris, Elenin, a black dwarf, Planet X, or Nibiru. (Not that those last three even exist.) No, YU55 will do exactly what it's doing right now: passing through the Solar System. It will come, it will go, and hopefully NASA scientists – as well as many amateur astronomers worldwide – will have a chance to get a good look at it as it passes.

Scientists with NASA’s Near-Earth Objects Observation Program will begin tracking YU55 on Friday, November 4 using the 70-meter radar telescope at the Deep Space Network in Goldstone, California , as well as with the Arecibo Planetary Radar Facility in Puerto Rico beginning November 8. These facilities will continue to track it until the 10th.

This close pass will offer a great opportunity to get detailed radar imaging of YU55, an ancient C-type asteroid literally darker than coal. Since these objects can be difficult to observe using visible light, radar mapping can better reveal details about their surface and composition.

To help inform the public about YU55 NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena recently hosted a live Q&A session on Ustream featuring specialists Marina Brozovic, a Goldstone Radar Team scientist, and Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program. They fielded questions sent in via chat and Twitter... a recording of the event in its entirety can be seen below:

Video streaming by Ustream

Undoubtedly there will still be those who continue to spread misinformation about 2005 YU55. After all, they did the same with the now-disintegrated comet Elenin. But the truth is out there... and the truth is that there's no danger, no cover-ups, no "plots", and simply no cause for concern.

"It's completely safe... no chance of an impact."

– Don Yeomans, JPL

Read more about YU55 on our previous post or  on NASA's Near-Earth Object Program site.

UPDATE: JPL has released a brief video about YU55 featuring research scientist Lance Benner, who specializes in radar imaging of near-Earth objects:

Although classified as a potentially hazardous object, 2005 YU55 poses no threat of an Earth collision over at least the next 100 years. However, this will be the closest approach to date by an object this large that we know about in advance and an event of this type will not happen again until 2028 when asteroid (153814) 2001 WN5 will pass to within 0.6 lunar distances. – Near-Earth Object Program, JPL

Monday, November 7, 2011

Product Review: The Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetarium

Written by Tammy Plotner

My initial reaction to the Celestron SkyScout was why in heaven – and on Earth – would someone want a personal planetarium when they have the real deal at their disposal? Like most folks my age, I can’t resist new technology and the more I read and heard about what the Celestron Sky Scout could do, the more I wanted to examine one. Could a little piece of equipment provide as much information, knowledge and entertainment as a live astronomer? Could an electronic box take the place of a book? But most of all… What can the Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetarium really do?
Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetarium

When I saw the Celestron SkyScout in person, the young man who let me examine it told me, “Ma’am? You’d be much better off getting a book of star charts or finding someone to teach you about the stars.” Ultimately, I love it when someone doesn’t recognize me or simply sees the blond hair and doesn’t think there’s much going on underneath it. Although a secret part of me agreed with him, I simply flashed him my best vacant smile and gave him the line that all of us techno geeks use when we’re caught out buying a new toy… “It’s a present.”

Grinning wickedly, I snatched the box from him and hurried off where I could examine the SkyScout in private. On the way, I picked up a jumbo package of batteries and sat down to see how much of its operation was intuitive and how often I’d have to refer to the instructions. Surprisingly enough, anyone who has mastered an iPod and has at least a passing knowledge of the written English language would be well on their way to using a Celestron SkyScout. My second point of curiosity was its resemblance to a digital camcorder… Another techno-gadget I’m familiar with. After a quick consultation with the instructions, all I needed was dark.

Personal Planetarium? Snort. Show me what you can do…

Turn it on and GPS technology takes over. Within minutes, the Celestron Sky Scout had pinpointed my location on Earth and was aware of every movement in right ascension and declination of the unit. It knew where I was at, and it knew where it was pointed. Aiming the Celestron SkyScout is precisely like using a camcorder. Inside of its viewfinder you’ll see a red “bullseye” that’s adjustable in brightness so it doesn’t overpower dimmer stars. When you get the object you’re aiming at centered, you just push a button on top and it fixes the position and displays a screen of options as to what you’re looking at. Well, duh! I know it’s Mars… But when the soothing, melodic female voice started whispering stories in my ear? I knew I was hooked.

Needless to say, I took off on my own tour of the heavens with the Celestron SkyScout, happily eating up all of the information it gave me. Not all things have audio to accompany them, only 200. But, for many of us having RA, Dec, magnitudes and more at the push of a button is simply the cat’s asteroid. While you’ll never visually see all 6000 objects the Celestron SkyScout is capable of, what matters most is that it’s in there… And just waiting on you to release it.
Celestron SkyScout

Next up? Show me tonight’s “Must See” list. With the cool, calculated precision that only a data base could deliver, the Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetarium gave me a tour that even I would have been proud of. It virtually walked me star by star through constellation lessons that impressed even me. What’s best? I know that it can also tell me when the ISS is passing by or where the latest comet is located. How many friends can you carry around in a backpack that can tell you that? True. These are all things I know, things I present in astronomy outreach programs, but the Celestron SkyScout is much more than that.

For seasoned astronomers? Don’t laugh the Celestron SkyScout off. Instead, tell me how many times you’ve had difficulty distinguishing Pi and Xi Draconis from background stars. If you’re a star hopper, what would you give if you could just point a little box at the star in question and have it immediately tell you that it is indeed Delta Librae you’re aimed at and you’re ready to head to your charts? Ah… You’re getting the real picture now, aren’t you?!

But, I told you these Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetarium thingies were a lot more didn’t I? Yes. And I meant it. My teenage son once enjoyed telescoping with me, but there came an age when it simply wasn’t “cool” to be seen with Mom, and I understood. Yet, when I handed him the SkyScout, he and his girlfriend took off in the dark together and had a wonderful astronomy experience alone that I couldn’t give them. At star parties, I’ve handed the Celestron SkyScout to people that I knew were too afraid to ask questions… and hours later they’d hand it back with the most wonderful smiles on their faces. They’d tell me how much they enjoyed using it and how much they learned. Even the most hard-core astronomers I know have found something undeniably “cool” about this gadget.

Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetarium

So why the Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetarium and not some other type of electronic gadget that displays the night sky? Reality check. I use the astronomy equipment I buy and I use it hard. I buy the brands I want and I put them to the test. Over the years I’ve dropped, I’ve kicked, I’ve banged, I’ve slammed, I’ve traveled, I’ve shared, I’ve abused and I have absolutely loved and appreciated the long term durability and quality of Celestron products. Why should the Celestron SkyScout be any different? Eight months and countless hands later…

It’s still on the original batteries.

The Celestron SkyScout has the ability to have a green laser attached to it and external speakers so it can do a “show and tell” program for large groups... even a free download which will allow you to change languages! But the most awesome feature of all is the Celestron SkyScout really will put the Universe in your hands.

Why wait to order one for yourself or a family member? OPT has the Celestron SkyScout in stock now!

Product Spotlight: The Orion SteadyPix iPhone Adapter

Written by Tammy Plotner

Are you ready for a really cool, new product? Then you've got to check out the Orion SteadyPix iPhone Adapter! This dandy little piece of equipment is a felt-lined clamp which attaches right to any 1.25" eyepiece (and barrels up to 1.5") and works with the original iPhone, iPhone 3, 3GS, 4 or iPhone 4S. The bracket holds the iPhone camera lens directly over the "sweet spot" of your telescope's eyepiece and allows you to take great pictures of things like bright deep sky objects, the planets, the Moon and sunspots. Now you don't have to be a professional, or have a lot of expensive equipment to do some astrophotography!

Orion SteadyPix Telescope Afocal Adapter for iPhone

The Orion SteadyPix Telescope iPhone Afocal Adapter even lets you display a live view of the image projected by your telescope on your iPhone screen so it acts like a "real time" monitor. This is a great idea for those who like to share the view with family and friends. The monitor mode is also great for outreach and allowing those with mobility issues to easily see what the telescope sees. What's more, the SteadyPix iPhone Adapter can even let you attach your iPhone to a photo tripod for wide-field pictures without a telescope.

Be the first kid on your block to have the Orion SteadyPix iPhone Adapter! Order yours at OPT today!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Weekend SkyWatcher's Forecast - November 5-6

Written by Tammy Plotner

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! With a lovely gibbous Moon taking over the sky, now is the time to really enjoy some "high power" observations. Are you ready? Then let's take a look at what's happening this weekend...

Saturday, November 5 - Today in 1906, a man named Fred Whipple was born. If that name doesn’t ring a bell for you – it should. Thanks to Dr. Whipple’s work we have a clearer understanding of the orbital mechanics of comets and their relation to meteoroid streams. Not only that, but he founded the SAO observatory in Arizona, discovered six comets, made invaluable contributions to research in the upper atmosphere, and was the first to call a comet a “dirty snowball.” His guess about the outgassing properties of comets was proved true when the first flyby of Comet Halley was made!

To honor Dr. Whipple a bit, let’s have a look at a beautiful optical pair/multiple system as we journey to the southernmost star in the “Circlet” – Kappa Piscium (RA 23 26 55.9553 - Dec +1 15 20.189) - the "k" symbol on our map.

Easily split in even binoculars, this lovely green and violet combination of stars may have once belonged to the Pleiades group. 5th magnitude Kappa is a chromium star – one with unusual spectral iron properties – which rotates completely in around 48 hours. It shows lines of uranium, and the possibility of a very rare element known as holmium. Both the uranium and osmium content could be the result of a supernova explosion in a nearby star. Enjoy this colorful pair tonight!

Now aim binoculars towards Gamma – the “Y” symbol on our chart. Gamma is a yellow-orange giant star located about 130 light years distant. Oddly enough for a giant, it only puts out about 61 times more light than our Sun – but with good reason… it’s currently fusing it’s core to carbon. Right now, it is waiting to become a white dwarf, but that’s not what distinguishes Gamma – it is its speed. Apparently Gamma came from outside our Milky Way Galaxy altogether! According to its low metal content and cyanogen-weak spectral signature, Gamma had to have originated outside the galactic disc and it is still traversing the sky at over three-quarters of a second of arc per year!

Sunday, November 6 - "Now that she's back in the atmosphere, with drops of Jupiter in her hair..." Oh! Hey, there! Come on over and have a seat. Yeah, I really like that "Train" song, too. While the Moon is putting the brakes on deep sky observing, why don't you take a look though the magnificent eye of the 9" TMB refractor of Dietmar Hager and we world-wide friends can spend a little quality time together with Jupiter. (For a 3D impression, just look at the above image and cross your eyes. Focus on the image you'll see in the center... and you'll see 3D!)

Here... You look through the eyepiece of a little telescope for awhile and I'll tell you some of the things we know about this giant planet.

What's that you say? Yes. Jupiter is big... Big enough to hold the mass of 1,000 Earths and about 1/10 the size of our Sun. Its a heavy-weight, too... But, believe it or not, Jupiter's density is only about 1/4 of that of Earth's. Scientists think this means the giant planet consists mostly of hydrogen and helium around a core of heavy elements. That means Jupiter more closely resembles a sun instead of a planet! Yeah... It's hot there, too. As a matter of fact, Jupiter is putting out twice as much heat as it receives from Sol. Near the core temperature may be about 43,000 degrees F (24,000 degrees C)... Even hotter than the surface of the Sun. Hot enough to get a burn? Darn right. Those subtle tones of red and brown are chemical reactions much like what happens when we humans get a sunburn.

I see you smiling in the dark. Are you starting to notice details Jupiter's cloud bands? Even a small telescope shows these areas called "zones". This is where chemicals have formed colorful layers of clouds at different heights. The white belts are made of crystals of frozen ammonia and they are positioned much higher than the dark belts. Of course, you know all about the "Great Red Spot", but sometimes it's pretty hard to see unless you know when to look. Jupiter makes a complete rotation in about 10 hours, so even if you can't see something right now - you can wait awhile and it will come around.

Speaking of coming around, did you notice how close one of Jupiter's moon is getting to the edge of the planet? Then keep watching because we're about to see a transit happen. Jupiter has at least 60 moons, but 4 of them are bright and very easy to see even in binoculars. They were discovered by Galileo, and that's why you'll sometimes hear them called the "galiean moons". When they zip around behind Jupiter in their orbit, it's called a occultation - but when they go in front of the planet from our point of view, it's called a transit. The really fun part is that you can not only see the little moon going across the surface, but a few minutes later? You can see the shadow, too! Here's a little bit of magic from another friend of ours named Sander Klieverik.

Click on image to open a new window and start animation.

Isn't that just the coolest? You're going to be hearing a lot about Sander's work here in the near future. In the meantime, why don't you keep practicing timing galiean events and seeing them? Here's a handy Jupiter Moon Tool, and Sander has also prepared a Jupiter Almanac as well!

"But tell me, did the wind sweep you off your feet? Did you finally get the chance to dance along the light of day... And head back to the Milky Way? And tell me, did Venus blow your mind? Was it everything you wanted to find? And did you miss me while you were looking for yourself out there?"

Now, quit bogarting that eyepiece... It's my turn!

Many thanks to the one and only Dietmar Hager, Jupiter Video courtesy of Northern Galactic and the up and coming Sander Klieverik's "AstronomyLive". Song lyrics - "Drops of Jupiter" are from the artist "Train" and thanks to Universe Today. Let's keep on rockin' the night!