Get up early this weekend to see five planets in the sky

January 23, 2016 Leave a comment
five planets in sky, 2016 - courtesy EarthSky.org

This image shows the five planets as they will appear in the sky. Courtesy EarthSky.org.

This weekend offers a big payoff if you can drag yourself out of bed before dawn. For the first time in more than a decade it will be possible to see five planets in the sky.

It is best to go outside to see the planets between 30-60 minutes before sunrise.

Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter are visible in the eastern sky. Venus and Jupiter are the brightest of the five planets.

The moon will join the five planets in the sky on Jan. 28.

Mercury is closest to Earth, about 80 million miles away, while Saturn is more than one billion miles distant from our planet.

You do not need either a telescope or binoculars to see the celestial spectacle, which will remain available for your viewing pleasure until Feb. 10.

Categories: astronomy Tags: ,

Blue Origin again lands sub-orbital rocket

January 23, 2016 Leave a comment

The race to develop a rocket that can land itself after traveling to Earth orbit continued Friday as Blue Origin successfully returned a vehicle to the planet’s surface for the second time.

Blue Origin’s feat marks the first time that re-use of a rocket has been demonstrated to be feasible.

The launch of the Jeff Bezos-owned company’s New Shepard rocket occurred in west Texas. After traveling 101.7 kilometers into the atmosphere, the rocket landed vertically at spot near its launch location.

“The very same New Shepard booster that flew above the Karman line and then landed vertically at its launch site last November has now flown and landed again, demonstrating reuse,” Bezos said in a statement posted on the Blue Origin website.

Bezos was referring to an altitude generally regarded as the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.

Blue Origin had previously launched and landed the same rocket in November 2015.

The company has not yet matched the altitude achievement of rival SpaceX. On Dec. 21 that firm  returned a rocket that had traveled to orbit to a safe landing on Earth’s surface.

More recently SpaceX experienced a setback when an attempt to land a rocket at sea failed. One of the legs on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket collapsed when the vehicle touched down Jan. 17 on a floating barge, causing the rocket to tip over and explode.

Best viewing of Lyrid meteor shower next week

April 17, 2015 Leave a comment
This composite photo shows meteors of the Lyrid meteor shower over New Mexico in April 2012. Photo courtesy NASA, Marshall Space Flight Center, photo by Danielle Moser.

This composite photo shows meteors of the Lyrid meteor shower over New Mexico in April 2012. Photo courtesy NASA, Marshall Space Flight Center, photo by Danielle Moser.

Skywatchers will have the chance next week to see the first obvious meteor shower of the year as the Lyrids reach peak visibility.

The show will take place on the night of April 22 and early in the morning on April 23. The crescent moon on that night will set around midnight, local time, leaving the possibility of a relatively dark night sky in which to see the meteors.

Meteor showers occur as Earth, as it moves through its orbit, passes through debris left behind by comets. The Lyrid meteor shower is the product of Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1).

According to a website maintained by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, Comet Thatcher has a period – the time it takes to orbit the sun – of about 415 years.

This year’s April encounter with Comet Thatcher’s remnants will occur between April 16-25 as the meteors move at a velocity of about 110,000 miles per hour.

The Lyrid meteor shower, like all meteor showers, gets its name from the constellation from which its radiant appears to originate.

The constellation Lyra (the harp) is most obvious in the northern hemisphere during the summer months, but it can be seen in spring lower in the sky.

The constellation’s brightest star, Vega, is about 25 light years away. It is the second-brightest object in the northern hemisphere’s night sky.

Friday’s March equinox to be accompanied by total solar eclipse, “supermoon”

March 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Friday will offer the opportunity in some regions of the globe to observe a rare trifecta of celestial events: the March equinox will be accompanied by a total solar eclipse and a “supermoon” in the night sky.

This image of a 1999 total solar eclipse is provided courtesy Wikimedia.

This image of a 1999 total solar eclipse is provided courtesy Wikimedia.

The eclipse will be visible in its totality only in some parts of the Asian Arctic and northern Europe. Most of the rest of Europe and parts of Africa will experience a partial solar eclipse on Friday.

Total solar eclipses are not uncommon, as they occur about once every 18 months, but they occur only when the moon moves in front of our star and is aligned with the Earth during its orbit about our planet.

The moon’s orbit is inclined at about 5 degrees to the Earth’s orbit around the sun. That means the moon most often passes beneath or above the plane of the sun during its orbit of Earth.

Syzygy, as the alignment of the moon with both Earth and the sun is known, can only take place during a new moon.

While the sun is hundreds of times larger than the moon, the moon is hundreds of times closer to the Earth than the sun. The shadow cast by the moon during the total eclipse, called an umbra, will block out nearly all of the sun’s light and could persist on Friday for as long as about seven minutes.

During a partial solar eclipse a part of the moon’s shadow called the penumbra is cast over a portion of Earth.

According to a website maintained by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, residents of North America will not have another opportunity to see a total eclipse of the sun until Aug. 21, 2017.

The occurrence of a total solar eclipse on the same day as the March equinox is unusual. One recent post at EarthSky.org reported that this confluence of the two events will happen this century only this year and in 2034, 2053, and 2072.

The “supermoon” is really just the appearance of a larger moon. In reality, the phenomenon occurs when Earth’s satellite reaches the perigee of its orbit. When the “supermoon” occurs, the moon is about 52,000 kilometers closer to Earth than it is at the apogee of its revolution.

Because the moon is that much closer at its perigee, its angular diameter appears from Earth to be about six one-hundredths of a degrees greater than it does at apogee.

The March equinox marks the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere and of autumn in the southern hemisphere. On that day both hemispheres receive an equivalent amount of sunlight.

Any person who plans to look at the sun during an eclipse should use a pinhole camera to do so. An alternative is shade 14 arc welder’s glasses.

It is not safe to look at an eclipse through ordinary sunglasses, film negatives, or polarizing camera filters.

This NASA website is a useful resource for information about safe viewing of the sun during an eclipse.

Mission to exploration of Earth’s magnetosphere launches tonight

March 12, 2015 Leave a comment
An Atlas V rocket sits on the pad at Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Thursday evening, March 12, 2015. Image courtesy NASA.

An Atlas V rocket sits on the pad at Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Thursday evening, March 12, 2015. Image courtesy NASA.

NASA is set to launch this evening a probe to study Earth’s magnetosphere. The Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission will launch at 8:44 pm MDT.

NASA: Ganymede joins roster of water moons

March 12, 2015 Leave a comment
This image of Ganymede, the solar system's largest moon, was obtained by the Galileo space probe. Image courtesy NASA.

This image of Ganymede, the solar system’s largest moon, was obtained by the Galileo space probe. Image courtesy NASA.

Ganymede, the largest moon of Jupiter, is a water world.

Researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope have confirmed an ocean beneath Ganymede’s icy crust that are likely ten times deeper than Earth’s oceans.

The moon may have more liquid water beneath its surface than there is on Earth.

To reach this conclusion, scientists measured fluctuations in the moon’s aurorae. Aurorae, which are electrified ribbons of heated gas, are generated when a planetary body’s  liquid metal core produces a magnetic field.

On Ganymede, the aurorae around its north and south poles move, influenced by fluctuations in Jupiter’s huge magnetic field.

Scientists used computer modeling to verify that the only explanation for the extent of the “rocking” of Ganymede’s aurorae is the presence of a saline ocean, which would cause Ganymede’s magnetic field to offset to some extent Jupiter’s magnetic impact.

Several measurements indicated that the aurorae moved by about two degrees, but without the presence of an ocean Jupiter’s influence would have caused movement of about six degrees.

“When there is an electrically conductive ocean present, this counteracts Jupiter’s influence,” Joachim Saur, a professor geophysics at Germany’s University of Cologne and the lead researcher, said.

Saur explained that four independent measurements with HST verified the two-degree movement of Ganymede’s aurorae.

This graphic shows Ganymede's magnetic fields. Graphic courtesy NASA, European Space Agency, (c) A. Feild, Space Telescope Science Institute.

This graphic shows Ganymede’s magnetic fields. Graphic courtesy NASA, European Space Agency, (c) A. Feild, Space Telescope Science Institute.

Scientists had speculated for several decades that Ganymede could be an oceanic moon. The Galileo probe, which flew by the moon several times during its 1995-2003 mission, provided further grist for that supposition when it measured the moon’s magnetic field. But those flybys did not last long enough for scientists to detect the movement of Ganymede’s aurorae.

“The flybys lasted only 20 minutes each,” Saur said. “In the new Hubble observations we have seven hours of data, so we do not have the ambiguity anymore.”

Ganymede’s sea may also be impacting the surface of the moon. Mapping of the satellite by the U.S. Geological Survey reveals areas of the surface that are smoother and less cratered than other areas, which could indicate the presence of tectonic forces that permit movement of sea water from beneath the icy crust.

This illustration of Ganymede's interior shows a layered structure. It is based on observations by the Galileo spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as theoretical models.  Graphic courtesy NASA, ESA, (c) A. Feild, STSci.

This illustration of Ganymede’s interior shows a layered structure. It is based on observations by the Galileo spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as theoretical models. Graphic courtesy NASA, ESA, (c) A. Feild, STSci.

“These lighter shaded regions are believed to be formed by flooding on the surface by water coming to the surface by faults or even cryovolcanoes,” Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, said.

Ganymede is Jupiter’s largest moon, with more mass than Mercury. It joins fellow Galilean moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus on the list of moons known to have water oceans.

Another of Jupiter’s four largest moons, Callisto, is also thought likely to have liquid water.

“Every observation that we make, every mission that we send to various places in the solar system, is taking us one step closer to finding that truly habitable environment, a water-rich environment in our solar system,” Heidi Hammel, executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, said. “Everywhere we look there’s water.”

Comet Lovejoy flies close enough to Earth for naked-eye view

January 24, 2015 Leave a comment
This photo of Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy was taken in late December 2014 at an approximate magnitude of 5.6. Photo courtesy Wikimedia, photo by Paul Stewart.

This photo of Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy was taken in late December 2014 at an approximate magnitude of 5.6. Photo courtesy Wikimedia, photo by Paul Stewart.

Earthlings had their last chance for 8,000 years to see Comet Lovejoy Saturday night.

The opportunity to look up and see its green glow came when the comet was six days away from perihelion. On Jan. 30 the comet, formally known as Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy, will be 193 million kilometers from the sun.

The comet actually passed closest to Earth on Jan. 7, when it was 70.2 million kilometers away.

It will be about 13,000 years before Comet Lovejoy is again close enough to Earth to be seen without the aid of a magnifying device.

How do scientists know how long it has been since a comet was visible with only the eyes from the surface of our planet?

The answer involves mathematics. Among the laws of planetary motion discovered by Johannes Kepler is the equation necessary to determine a comet’s period, or the amount of time needed to complete an orbit, if its semi-major axis is known. The semi-major axis of an ellipse, which is the shape that most objects in orbit around the sun follow, is best thought of as the radius of the ellipse at its two points that are most distant from each other.

This graphic shows the semi-major and semi-minor axes of an ellipse. Courtesy Wikimedia.

This graphic shows the semi-major and semi-minor axes of an ellipse. Courtesy Wikimedia.

Kepler determined that the square of the ellipse’s period is equal to the cube of the semi-major axis’ length.

Another interesting feature of Comet Lovejoy’s orbit is its orientation relative to the plane of Earth’s and the other planets’ orbits. As Phil Plait explained at Bad Astronomy, the comet sits about 80 degrees off those trajectories.

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