What’s Up this Week: February 26 – March 4, 2007

Sombrero Galaxy. M104. Image credit: Hubble/SpitzerMonday, February 26 – Today is the birthdate of Camille Flammarion. Born in 1842, he became a widely read author in astronomy and conceived the idea that we were not alone – the idea of extraterrestrial life. Yet, Flammarion was just a little bit more than the great-grandfather of SETI. In 1877, Flammarion had an unusual chance that most of us only dream of. He had his hands on a personal copy and notes of the Messier Catalog. Using it as a reference, he later revised it, but his studies led him to identify M102 with NGC 5866 before 1917. By 1921, Flammarion had added M104 – now known as NGC 4594 – to the catalog as well, and it became the first of many additions.

This evening will be your opportunity to have a look at the crater named for Flammarion. Located just south of Sinus Medii, the walk isn’t an easy one because the Southern Highlands contain so many craters. How about some help?

(1) Flammarion, (2) Herschel, (3) Ptolemaeus, (4) Alphonsus, (5) Davy, (6) Alpetragius, (7) Arzachel, (8) Thebit, (9) Purbach, (10) Lacaille, (11) Blanchinus, (12) Delaunay, (13) Faye, (14) Donati, (15) Airy, (16) Argelander, (17) Vogel, (18) Parrot, (19) Klein, (20) Albategnius, (21) Muller, (22) Halley, (23) Horrocks, (24) Hipparchus, (25) Sinus Medii

After that, it’s time to relax and enjoy the Delta Leonid meteor shower. Burning through our atmosphere at speeds of up to 24 kilometers per second, these slow travelers will seem to radiate from a point around the middle of Leo’s “back.” The fall rate is rather slow at around 5 per hour, but they are still worth keeping a watch for!

Tuesday, February 27 – Today is the birthday of Bernard Lyot. Born in 1897, Lyot went on to become the inventor of the coronagraph in 1930. By all accounts, Lyot was a wonderful and generous man who sadly died of a heart attack when returning from a trip to view a total eclipse.

Tonight’s bright skies are brought to you by the Moon! Have you noticed how difficult it is to see any stars belonging to Monoceros with these conditions? Don’t worry. We’ll be back. For now, let’s continue onwards with our lunar studies as we locate the emerging “Sea Of Islands.”

Mare Insularum will be partially revealed tonight as one of the most prominent of lunar craters – Copernicus – now comes into view. While only a small section of this reasonably young mare is now visible southeast of Copernicus, the lighting will be just right to spot its many different colored lava flows. To the northeast is a lunar club challenge: Sinus Aestuum. Latin for the Bay of Billows, this mare-like region has an approximate diameter of 290 kilometers, and its total area is about the size of the state of New Hampshire. Containing almost no features, this area is low albedo – providing very little surface reflectivity.
Now let’s take a look and see what we can identify!

(1) Mons Wolf, (2) Eratosthenes, (3) Gay-Lussac, (4) Montes Carpatus, (5) Copernicus, (6) Reinhold, (7) Mare Insularum, (8) Gambart, (9) Apollo 14 landing site, (10) Frau Mauro, (11) Bonpland, (12) Parry, (13) Lalande, (14) Ptolemaeus, (15) Herschel, (16) Flammarion, (17) Mosting, (18) Sinus Medii, (19) Triesnecker, (20) Murchison, (21) Pallas, (22) Bode, (23) Ukert, (24) Sinus Aestuum, (25) Stadius

Happy Hunting!

Wednesday, February 28 – With the Moon moving further east each night it has now passed Pollux and is headed towards Saturn. Even though it’s not full yet, can you see the effect that it has on nearby stars? Now that it is further from Orion and Taurus, those primary stars are beginning to appear again – yet there are still none visible to the unaided eye in Monoceros. Even 4.6 magnitude Beta doesn’t show!

Tonight let’s return again to the lunar surface to study how the terminator has moved and take a close look at the way features change as the Sun brightens the moonscape. Can you still see Langrenus? How about Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catharina? Does Posidonius still look the same? Each night features further east become brighter and harder to distinguish – yet they also change in subtle and unexpected ways. We’ll look at that in the days ahead, but tonight let’s walk the terminator as one of the most beautiful features has now come into view – “The Bay of Rainbows.”

Sinus Iridum’s C-shape is easily recognizable in even small binoculars – yet there are a wonderland of small details in and around the area for the small telescope that we’ll study as the year goes by. Take the chart with you tonight and see how many of these features you can identify and add to your lunar challenges!

(1) Alpine Valley, (2) Plato, (3) Mare Frigoris, (4) Philolaus, (5) Anaximenes, (6) J. Herschel, (7) Sinus Roris, (8) Bianchini, (9) Sinus Iridum, (10) Promontorium Heraclides, (11) Promontorium LaPlace, (12) Helicon, (13) Leverrier, (14) Straight Range, (15) Mons Pico, (16) Mons Piton, (17) Montes Spitzbergen, (18) Archimedes, (19) Apollo 15 landing area, (20) Mare Imbrium

Thursday, March 1 – In 1966 Venera 3 became the first craft to touch another world as it impacted Venus. Although its communications failed before it could transmit data, it was a milestone achievement. If you’re up before dawn, be sure to have a look a Venus and say Spaseba!

George Abell was born on this day in 1927. Abell was the man responsible for cataloging 2712 clusters of galaxies from the Palomar sky survey, which was completed in 1958. Using these plates, Abell put forth the idea that the grouping of such clusters distinguished the arrangement of matter in the universe. He developed the “luminosity function,” which shows relationship between brightness and number of members in each cluster, allowing you to infer their distances.

Abell also discovered a number of planetary nebulae and developed the theory (along with Peter Goldreich) of their evolution from red giants. Abell was a fascinating lecturer and a developer of many television series dedicated to explaining science and astronomy in a fun and easy to understand format. He was also a president and member of the Board of Directors for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, as well as serving in the American Astronomical Society, the Cosmology Commission of the International Astronomical Union, and he accepted editorship of the Astronomical Journal just before he died.

If you live in the Americas, be on alert tonight for the Moon occulting Saturn. This event crosses international date lines!!

Friday, March 2 – Celestial Alert! Today is going to be very unusual as two occultation events are about to occur – one with Saturn, and the other with Regulus.

At roughly 02:21:00 UT a great many observers the world over will get a unique opportunity as the Moon slips over Saturn. While no special equipment is needed to see the event, binoculars will allow you to see the bright planet right up until the last second. For telescope users, here’s an opportunity you won’t want to miss.

Many observers will use this opportunity to spot an exterior ring on Saturn, while others will take critical timings to better understand the Moon’s topography and position. If conditions are right, you may even get to see one of the “Ring King’s” satellites occulted as well.

Did you know you can take pictures with very little practice and even with a disposable camera? This method is called “parfocal,” and can be done with any 35mm camera – or a camcorder! Focus for 20/20 vision in a wide field, low power eyepiece and circle your thumb and index finger around the top of the barrel taking care not to touch the interior lens. Then “mate” the camera lens to the eyepiece, hold as steady as possible – and shoot! The results can sometimes be very astonishing. For camcorders, this is exceptionally pleasing because you can use both the focus and zoom of the camera to get more details.

An occultation of Saturn is well worth trying!

At roughly 22:00 UT, Regulus will also be occulted – making this a very rare event and a great deal more dependent on your location. Be very sure to check IOTA information which will give precise times and locations for your area. You won’t want to miss it!

Saturday, March 3 – Tonight will be another astronomical celebration as western Australia, Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas have an opportunity to view a total lunar eclipse with totality lasting one hour and fourteen minutes. Be aware this event crosses international date lines and those in the Far East will see this occur in the early morning hours of March 4 as the Moon is setting. Viewers more centrally located, such as those in Africa and western Europe will have a view of the entire eclipse, while the eastern Americas will see it in progress as the Moon rises. For observers in the western portions of the Americas, you will see the event ending as the Moon rises in your location.

While it might not seem like a big deal, a total lunar eclipse is a wonderful example of the precision of orbital paths. The relationship between the Sun, Earth and Moon now become apparent as our satellite passes through our cone of shadow – instead of just above or just below. A round body, such as a planet, casts a shadow “cone” through space. When it’s at Earth, the cone is widest at 13,000 kilometers in diameter, yet by the time it reaches the Moon it has narrowed to only 9,200 kilometers. Considering the distance to the Moon is 384,401 kilometers, that’s hitting a very narrow corridor in astronomical terms!

Regardless of whether or not you can experience the whole event, there is something very wonderful about viewing an eclipse and watching the clockwork movements of orbit. It is both enlightening and spiritual.

Enjoy this peaceful experience…

Sunday, March 4 – In 1835, Giovanni Schiaparelli opened his eyes for the very first time and opened ours with his accomplishments! As the director of the Milan Observatory, Schiaparelli (and not Percival Lowell) was the fellow who popularized the term “Martian canals” somewhere around the year 1877. Far more importantly, Schiaparelli was the man who made the connection between the orbits of meteoroid streams and the orbits of comets almost eleven years earlier!

While the excitement of the last two days are going to be hard to best, let’s use the very brief time before the Moon overpowers the sky and have a look about a fistwidth north-northwest of Sirius – for Beta Monocerotis.

Discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1781, Beta is perhaps one of the most outstanding triple systems in the sky, with each of its three bright, white components near equal magnitude. Residing about 100-200 light-years away, these identical spectral type stars are separated by no more than 400 AU and don’t appear to have changed positions since measured by Struve in 1831.

Although you won’t be able to split this system with binoculars, even a small telescope will pick apart their brilliancy and make Beta a star to remember!