See The Finest Sights Before You Die With “Wonders of the Night Sky”

Framed by stars reflected by water, a kayaker leans back to take in the grandeur of the night sky. The photo appears in my new book in the chapter titled “Stars on Water.” Credit: Bob King

After months parked in front of a computer, I’m thrilled to announce the publication of my new book. The full title is — get ready for this — Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die: The Guide to Extraordinary Curiosities of Our Universe. In a nutshell, it’s a bucket list of cosmic things I think everyone should see sometime in their life. 

I couldn’t live without the sky. The concerns of Earth absorb so much of our lives that the sky provides an essential relief valve. It’s a cosmos-sized wilderness that invites both deep exploration and reflection. Galileo would kill to come back for one more clear night if he could.

Cover of Wonders of the Night Sky. 57 different sights are featured.

To me, the stars are irresistible, but my sense is that many people don’t look up as much as they’d like. We forget. Get busy. Bad weather intervenes. So I thought hard about the essential “must-sees” for any watcher of the skies. Some are obvious, like a total solar eclipse or Saturn through a telescope, but others are just as interesting — if sometimes off the beaten path.

For instance, we always hear about asteroids in the news. What does a real one look like from your own backyard? I give directions and a map for seeing the brightest of them, Vesta. And if you’ve ever looked up at the Big Dipper and wondered how to find the rest of the Great Bear, I’ll get you there. I love red stars, so you’re going to find out where the reddest one resides and how to see it yourself. There’s also a lunar Top 10 for small telescope users and chapters on the awesome Cygnus Star Cloud and how to see a supernova.

You can see most of the sky wonders described in the book from the northern hemisphere, but I included several essential southern sights like the Southern Cross.

The 57 different sights are a mix of naked-eye objects plus ones you’ll need an ordinary pair of binoculars or small telescope to see. At the end of each chapter, I provide directions on how and when to find each wonder. Because we live in an online world with so many wonderful tools available for skywatchers, I make extensive use of mobile phone apps that allow anyone to stay in touch with nearly every aspect of the night sky.

For the things that need a telescope, the resources section has suggestions and websites where you can purchase a nice but inexpensive instrument. Of course, you may not want to buy a telescope. That’s OK. I’m certain you’ll still enjoy reading about each of these amazing sights to learn more about what’s been up there all your life.

Northern spectacles like the Perseus Double Cluster can’t be missed.

While most of the nighttime sights are visible from your home or a suitable dark sky site, you’ll have to travel to see others. Who doesn’t like to get out of the house once in a while? If you travel north or south, new places mean new stars and constellations. I included chapters on choice southern treats like Alpha Centauri, the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds, the closest and brightest galaxies to our own Milky Way.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the epilogue, where I share a lesson my dog taught me about the present moment and cosmic time. I like to joke that if nothing else, the ending’s worth the price of the book.

The author with his 10-inch Dobsonian reflector. Credit: Linda Hanson

The staff at Page Street Publishing did a wonderful job with the layout and design, so “Wonders” is beautiful to look at. Everyone who’s flipped through it likes the feel, and several people have even commented on how good it smells!  And for those who understandably complained that the typeface in my first book, Night Sky with the Naked Eye, made it difficult to read, I’ve got good news for you. The new book’s type is bigger and easy on the eyes.

“Wonders” is 224 pages long, printed in full color and the same size as my previous book. Unlike the few but longer chapters of the first book, the new one has many shorter chapters, and you can dip in anywhere. I think you’ll love it.

The publication date is April 24, but you can pre-order it right now at Amazon, BN and Indiebound. I want to thank Fraser Cain here at Universe Today for letting me tell you a little about my book, and I look forward to the opportunity to share my night-sky favorites with all of you.

Io Afire With Volcanoes Under Juno’s Gaze

An amazingly active Io, Jupiter’s “pizza moon” shows multiple volcanoes and hot spots in this photo taken with Juno’s infrared camera. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / ASI / INAF /JIRAM / Roman Tkachenko

Volcanic activity on Io was discovered by Voyager 1 imaging scientist Linda Morabito. She spotted a little bump on Io’s limb while analyzing a Voyager image and thought at first it was an undiscovered moon. Moments later she realized that wasn’t possible — it would have been seen by earthbound telescopes long ago. Morabito and the Voyager team soon came to realize they were seeing a volcanic plume rising 190 miles (300 km) off the surface of Io. It was the first time in history that an active volcano had been detected beyond the Earth. For a wonderful account of the discovery, click here.

Linda Morabito spotted the puzzling plume off Io’s limb in this photo, taken on March 8, 1979, three days after Voyager 1’s encounter with Jupiter. It really does look like another moon poking out from behind Io. A second plume over the terminator (border between day and night) catches the rays of the rising Sun. Credit: NASA / JPL

Today, we know that Io boasts more than 130 active volcanoes with an estimated 400 total, making it the most volcanically active place in the Solar System. Juno used its Jovian Infrared Aurora Mapper (JIRAM) to take spectacular photographs of Io during Perijove 7 last July, when we were all totally absorbed by close up images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

Io is captured here by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. Deposits of sulfur dioxide frost appear in white and grey hues while yellowish and brownish hues are probably due to other sulfurous materials. Bright red materials, such as the prominent ring surrounding Pele (lower left), and “black” spots mark areas of recent volcanic activity. Credit: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona

Juno’s Io looks like it’s on fire. Because JIRAM sees in infrared, a form of light we sense as heat, it picked up the signatures of at least 60 hot spots on the little moon on both the sunlight side (right) and the shadowed half. Like all missions to the planets, Juno’s cameras take pictures in black and white through a variety of color filters. The filtered views are later combined later by computers on the ground to create color pictures. Our featured image of Io was created by amateur astronomer and image processor Roman Tkachenko, who stacked raw images from this data set to create the vibrant view.

This map shows thermal emission from erupting volcanoes on Io. The larger the spot, the larger the thermal emission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Bear Fight Institute

Io’s hotter than heck with erupting volcano temperatures as high as 2,400° F (1,300° C). Most of its lavas are made of basalt, a common type of volcanic rock found on Earth, but some flows consist of sulfur and sulfur dioxide, which paints the scabby landscape in unique colors.


This five-frame sequence taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on March 1, 2007 captures the giant plume from Io’s Tvashtar volcano.

Located more than 400 million miles from the Sun, how does a little orb only a hundred miles larger than our Moon get so hot? Europa and Ganymede are partly to blame. They tug on Io, causing it to revolve around Jupiter in an eccentric orbit that alternates between close and far. Jupiter’s powerful gravity tugs harder on the moon when its closest and less so when it’s farther away. The “tug and release”creates friction inside the satellite, heating and melting its interior. Io releases the pent up heat in the form of volcanoes, hot spots and massive lava flows.

Always expect big surprises from small things.

Tiangong 1 Falls, Blue Moon Rises and Mars Takes Aim At Saturn

A couple watches the Moon rise from the icy shore of Lake Superior in Duluth earlier this month on March 1. Credit: Bob King

I apologize for the end-of-the-world title, but everything in it is true. And the world will still be here after it’s all done. On Friday (March 31) at 7:36 a.m. Central Time, the Moon will be full for the second time this month, which makes it a Blue Moon according to popular usage. Enjoy it. What with January’s Blue Moon and now this, we’ve chewed through all our Blue Moons till Halloween 2020.

I look forward to every full moon. Watching a moonrise, we get to see all manner of amazing atmospheric distortions play across the squat, orange disk. Once the sky’s dark, its outpouring of light makes walking at night a pleasure.

When a full moon occurs in spring, it hurries south down the ecliptic, the imaginary circle in the sky defining Earth’s orbit around the Sun. For northern hemisphere skywatchers, this southward sprint delays its rising by more an hour each night, forcing a quick departure from the evening sky. And that means blessed darkness for hunting down favorite galaxies and star clusters.


Tiangong 1 and a reentry simulation

As the Moon rolls along, the hapless Chinese space station Tiangong 1 hurtles toward Earth. Drag caused by friction with the upper atmosphere continues to shrink the spacecraft’s orbit, bringing it closer and closer to inevitable breakup and incineration. Since the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) lost touch with Tiangong 1 in March 2016, mission control can no longer power thrusters to de-orbit it at chosen time over a safe location like the ocean. The 9.3-ton (8,500 kg) station will burn up somewhere anywhere over a vast swath of the planet between latitudes 43°N and 43°S. Included within this zone are the southern half of Europe, the southern two-thirds of the U.S., India, Australia and much of Africa and South America.

Not until the day of or even hours before will have a clear idea of when and where the station will meet its fate. According to the latest update from the Aerospace Corp., which monitors falling spacecraft, reentry is expected on Easter Sunday (April 1) at 10:30 UT / 5:30 a.m. Central Time plus or minus 16 hours. This morning (March 29), the space station is circling Earth at about 118 miles (190 km) altitude. The lowest a satelllite can still make a complete orbit of the planet is about 62 miles (100 km). Below that, break-up begins.

A high definition TV camera on an aircraft took this photo of the cargo ship ATV-1 reentering the atmosphere in September 2008. Tiangong 1 is about the same size and will likely shatter and burn in similar fashion. Credit: ESA/NASA

For up-to-the-minute updates on when to expect Tiangong 1’s orbit to decay and the machine to plunge to Earth, check out Joseph Remis’ Twitter page. Most of the space station is expected to burn up on reentry, but larger chunks might survive all the way to the ground. Since much more of the Earth’s surface is water these remnants will likely end up in the drink … but you never know. If Tiangong-1 does come down over a populated area, observers on the ground will witness a spectacular, manmade fireball day or night.

Mars (right) and Saturn pair up in Sagittarius this morning, March 29 at dawn seen from Duluth, Minn. The two planets were 2.2° apart. Details: 35mm lens, f/2.8, 13 second exposure at ISO 800. Credit: Bob King

On the quieter side but nearly as eye-catching, Mars will overtake Saturn in the coming week, passing just 1° south of the ringed planet in a thrilling dawn conjunction on April 2. If the weather forecast doesn’t look promising that morning, the two planets will remain within 2° of each other now through April 6th, providing plenty of opportunities for a look.

You can easily tell them apart by color: Mars is distinctly red-orange and Saturn looks creamy white. Both are bright at around magnitude 0 though Mars is now a hair brighter by two-tenths of a magnitude. Will you be able to see the difference?

Mars passes close to Saturn on Monday, April 2. Look low in the southeastern sky shortly before and at dawn. Try getting a picture of the lovely couple by setting up your camera on a tripod and doing a series of time exposures from 5-30 seconds at f/3.5 and ISO 800. No fancy telephoto equipment is needed: a 35-55mm lens is perfect. Created with Stellarium

In most telescopes at low magnification both planets will comfortably fit in the same field of view. Saturn’s rings are tilted nearly wide open and quite beautiful. Mars appears gibbous and though still rather small, it’s brightening rapidly and drawing closer in time for its closest approach to Earth since 2003. Wishing you clear skies!

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Will Touch the Sun — So Can You

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will launch this summer and study both the solar wind and unanswered questions about the Sun’s sizzling corona. Credit: NASA

How would you like to take an all-expenses-paid trip to the Sun? NASA is inviting people around the world to submit their names to be placed on a microchip aboard the Parker Solar Probe mission that will launch this summer. As the spacecraft dips into the blazing hot solar corona your name will go along for the ride. To sign up, submit your name and e-mail. After a confirming e-mail, your digital “seat” will be booked. You can even print off a spiffy ticket. Submissions will be accepted until April 27, so come on down!

Step right up! Head over before April 27 to put a little (intense) sunshine in your life. Click the image to go there. Credit: NASA

The Parker Solar Probe is the size of a small car and named for Prof. Eugene Parker, a 90-year-old American astrophysicist who in 1958 discovered the solar wind. It’s the first time that NASA has named a spacecraft after a living person. The Parker probe will launch between July 31 and August 19 but not immediately head for the Sun. Instead it will make a beeline for Venus for the first of seven flybys. Each gravity assist will slow the craft down and reshape its orbit (see below), so it later can pass extremely close to the Sun. The first flyby is slated for late September.

When heading to faraway places, NASA typically will fly by a planet to increase the spacecraft’s speed by robbing energy from its orbital motion. But a probe can also approach a planet on a different trajectory to slow itself down or reconfigure its orbit.

The spacecraft will swing well within the orbit of Mercury and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come to the Sun before. When closest at just 3.9 million miles (6.3 million km), it will pass through the Sun’s outer atmosphere called the corona and be subjected to temperatures around 2,500°F (1,377°C). The primary science goals for the mission are to trace how energy and heat move through the solar corona and to explore what accelerates the solar wind as well as solar energetic particles.

The Parker Solar Probe will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the Sun, coming as close as 3.7 million miles (5.9 million km), well within the orbit of Mercury. Closest approaches (called perihelia) will happen in late December 2024 and the first half of 2025 before the mission ends. Credit: NASA

The vagaries of the solar wind, a steady flow of particles that “blows” from the Sun’s corona at more than million miles an hour, can touch Earth in beautiful ways as when it energizes the aurora borealis. But it can also damage spacecraft electronics and poorly protected power grids on the ground. That’s why scientists want to know more about how the corona works, in particular why it’s so much hotter than the surface of the Sun — temperatures there are several million degrees.

During the probe’s closest approach, the Sun’s apparent diameter will span 14° of sky. Compare that to the ½° Sun we see from Earth. Can you imagine how hot the Sun’s rays would be if it were this large from Earth? Life as we know it would be over. Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

As you can imagine, it gets really, really hot near the Sun, so you’ve got to take special precautions. To perform its mission, the spacecraft and instruments will be protected from the Sun’s heat by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield, which will keep the four instrument suites designed to study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and take pictures of the solar wind, all at room temperature.

Similar to how the Juno probe makes close passes over Jupiter’s radiation-fraught polar regions and then loops back out to safer ground, the Parker probe will make 24 orbits around the Sun, spending a relatively short amount of face to face time with our star. At closest approach, the spacecraft will be tearing along at about 430,000 mph, fast enough to get from Washington, D.C., to Tokyo in under a minute, and will temporarily become the fastest manmade object. The current speed record is held by Helios-B when it swung around the Sun at 156,600 mph (70 km/sec) on April 17, 1976.

A composite of the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse showing the Sun’s spectacular corona. Astronomers still are sure why it’s so much hotter than the 10,000°F solar surface (photosphere). Theories include a microflares or magnetic waves that travel up from deep inside the Sun. Credit and copyright: Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

Many of you saw last August’s total solar eclipse and marveled at the beauty of the corona, that luminous spider web of light around Moon’s blackened disk. When closest to the Sun at perihelion the Parker probe will fly to within 9 solar radii (4.5 solar diameters) of its surface. That’s just about where the edge of the furthest visual extent of the corona merged with the blue sky that fine day, and that’s where Parker will be!

Saturn Rides Bareback On The Galactic Dark Horse

The bright dot is Saturn and it shines on the back of the Galactic Dark Horse, a collection of dark nebulae in the constellation Ophiuchus that resembles a prancing horse. The head is to the right with a wisp of a tail to the left. The photo, taken on June 20, 2017, has been turned 90° to the right, so the horse stands upright. Credit: Bob King

I didn’t notice it with the naked eye, but as soon as the time exposure ended and I looked at the camera’s back display, there it was — Saturn riding barebacked on the Galactic Dark Horse! The horse, more of a prancing pony, is a collection of dark nebulae in the southern sky beautifully placed for viewing on late June evenings. The Dark Horse is part of the Great Rift, a dark gap that splits the band of the Milky Way in half, starting at the Northern Cross and extending all the way down to the “Teapot” of Sagittarius in the south.

The Great Rift appears to unzip the summer Milky Way right down the middle. Saturn and the Dark Horse are seen at lower right. Credit: Bob King

While appearing to be little more than empty, starless space, in reality the Rift consists of enormous clouds of cosmic dust and gas in the plane of the galaxy called dark nebulae that blot out the light of more distant stars. If you could suck it all up with a monster vacuum cleaner and expose the billions of stars otherwise hidden, the Milky Way would cast obvious shadows — even suburban skywatchers would routinely see it.

Saturn dominates the scene at left center in this photo taken on June 20. To its right you can see the prancing pony standing on its tail with legs sticking out to the right. Several bright Milky Way star clouds are also visible including the Small Sagittarius Star Cloud (left) and the Large Sagittarius Star Cloud below and left of Saturn. Antares in Scorpius is at upper right. Can you find the firefly that flashed during the exposure? Credit: Bob King

Tiny dust particles spewed by older, evolved stars and exploding supernovas have been settling in the plane of the galaxy since its birth 13.2 billion years ago. While the dust is sparse, it adds up over the light years to form a thick, dark band silhouetted against the more distant stars. Gravity has been at work on the dust since the earliest days, compressing the denser clumps into new stars and star clusters. But much raw material remains. Within the curdles of dark nebulae, astronomers use dust-penetrating infrared and radio telescopes to watch new stars in the process of incubation.

Dense cores of dust within the Pipe Nebula are collapsing to form new stars. We can’t see them yet because of obscuring dust. The left end of the Pipe forms the long back leg and rump of the Dark Horse. The much smaller Snake Nebula (shaped like the letter “S”) is visible at top center. Credit and copyright: Yuri Beletsky

There are more obvious parts of the Rift to the naked eye but few conjure up as striking an image as the Dark Horse, located about one outstretched fist to the left of the Scorpius’ brightest star, Antares. Saturn sits astride the horse’s back or eastern side. While it’s fun to see the horse as a single figure, astronomers catalog the various body parts as individual dark nebulae with separate numbers and even names. The largest part of the horse, the hind leg, is nicknamed the Pipe Nebula and lies 600-700 light years away. The Pipe is further subdivided into B59, B72, B77 and B78, from a survey of dark nebulae by early 20th century American astronomer E.E. Barnard.

You’ll need dark skies and averted vision to spot the Dark Horse. Let Saturn and Antares be your guides. The nebula is highest in the sky around 12:30 a.m. in late June as shown in the map above. Latitude shown is 40° North. Created with Stellarium

While the dark horse shows up well in time-exposure photos, you’ll need dark, rural skies to view it with the naked eye. It’s only a couple fists high for those of us living in the northern U.S. and southern Canada, but considerably higher up from the southern states and points south. The figure is large but faint, about 10° long by 7° wide, and stands due south and highest in the sky around 12:30 a.m. in late June. Allow your eyes time to fully dark adapt beforehand. Try for the dark rump and hind leg first then work from there to fill in the rest of the horse.

If we could see the Milky Way galaxy edge-on from afar, it would look similar to NGC 891 in Andromeda. Both have long bands of interstellar dust along their equators that appear dark against the bright, starry backdrop. Credit: Hunter Wilson

Once I knew what to look for, I could fleetingly see the entire horse with its various protrusions as a subtle darkness against the brighter Milky Way. Averted vision, the technique of playing your eye around the subject rather than staring directly at it, helped make it happen. Wide-field binoculars will show it easily and in greater detail against a fabulously rich star field.

The best time to horse around under the Milky Way happens from now till the end of the month, when the bright Moon sends the critter into hiding.

NASA Moves Up Mission to Metal Asteroid Psyche

This illustration depicts the spacecraft of NASA’s Psyche mission orbiting the metal asteroid Psyche (pronounced SY-kee). Solar power with electric propulsion will be used to propel the spacecraft to Psyche. The asteroid’s average distance from the sun is about three times the Earth’s distance or 280 million miles. Credit: SSL/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech

I’m getting psyched for Psyche, which is both the name of an asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter and NASA’s mission to the asteroid. Part of the reason for this excitement comes from learning today that NASA has moved up the launch one year to 2022, with a planned arrival in the asteroid belt in 2026 — four years earlier than the original timeline.

The mission team calculated a new trajectory to Psyche, one eliminating the need for an Earth gravity assist, that would get the probe there about twice as fast and reduce costs.


Fly over Psyche in this cool animation

“We challenged the mission design team to explore if an earlier launch date could provide a more efficient trajectory to the asteroid Psyche, and they came through in a big way,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This will enable us to fulfill our science objectives sooner and at a reduced cost.”

Campo del Cielo meteorites are heavy, metallic and dimpled with regmaglypts or “thumbprints” where softer materials melted away during the meteorite’s fall through the air. This small fragment was once part of a different planetary core similar to Psyche. Credit: Bob King

With a diameter of over 120 miles (200 km), Psyche is one of the ten most massive asteroids in the main asteroid belt.  Like certain meteorites found on Earth, it’s made almost entirely of nickel-iron metal. Metal is usually found as pepper-like flecks in stony meteorites, which represent the crust of an asteroid. Heat released during the formation of a large asteroid or planet causes the rock to melt, releasing heavier elements like iron and nickel which trickle downward under the force of gravity to form a metallic core. Radioactivity can also play a role in heating the rock.

A 3-D model of the asteroid Psyche based on its light curve, ie. variations in brightness as it rotates. Credit: Astronomical Institute of the Charles University: Josef ?urech, Vojt?ch Sidorin / CC BY 4.0

That’s why Psyche’s kind of weird. How do you get a 120-mile-wide body of exposed metal floating around space? Astronomers think it was the core of a developing planet — a protoplanet — and probably covered once upon a time by a mantle of rock. Through collisions with other asteroids, that rock layer was eventually blasted away, exposing the metal core. As such, it offers a unique look into the violent collisions that created Earth and the terrestrial planets.

Planets start as small planetesimals (10-100 kilometers across) and grow by gathering up material from new impacts until becoming large enough to serve as embryos for planets. Psyche may have started down the road of planethood only to be chopped down to size by hit-and-run impacts that broke away at its rocky envelope. Credit: Arizona State University

After a 4.6 year cruise that includes a Mars gravity assist flyby, the spacecraft will arrive at Psyche and spend 20 months in orbit mapping and studying the asteroid’s properties. The scientific goals of the mission are to understand the building blocks of planet formation and explore a new type of asteroid never seen up close before. The mission team will seek to find out whether Psyche is the core of an early planet, how old it is, what its surface is like and whether it formed in similar ways to Earth’s core.

Who knows, maybe we’ll learn it was once large enough to be considered a planet just like our own. You can stay in touch with mission developments on their Twitter site.

Comet Halley Plays Bit Part In Weekend Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower

Watch for the Eta Aquarid shower this week, so called because meteors will appear to radiate from near the star Eta Aquarii.  The meteors originate from fragments of Halley’s Comet strewn about its orbit. Every May, Earth crosses the stream and we get a meteor shower. At maximum on Saturday morning May 6, 25-30 meteors per hour might be seen from the right location under dark skies. Map: Bob King, Source: Stellarium

Halley’s Comet may be at the far end of its orbit 3.2 billion miles (5.1 billion km) from Earth, but this week fragments of it will burn up as meteors in the pre-dawn sky as the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. The comet last passed our way in 1986, pivoted about the Sun and began the long return journey to the chilly depths of deep space.

Comet Halley’s still hanging around in the evening sky a few degrees to the west of the head of Hydra the Water Snake not far from Procyon in Canis Minor. It’s currently 3.2 billion miles from Earth. Created with Stellarium

Today, Halley’s a magnitude +25 speck in the constellation Hydra. Although utterly invisible in most telescopes, you can imagine it below tonight’s half-moon near the outermost point in its orbit four Earth-sun distances beyond Neptune. Literally cooling its jets, the comet mulls its next Earth flyby slated for summer 2061.

Halley’s Comet follows an elongated orbit that takes 76 years to complete. Solar heating boils off debris that peppers the comet’s path coming and going.  Earth intersects the stream twice: first in May on the outbound portion of Halley’s orbit, and again in October, on the inbound leg. Each time, the planet plows into the debris at high speed and it burns up in our atmosphere. Credit: Bob King

Some meteor showers have sharp peaks, others like the Eta Aquarids, a broad, plateau-like maximum. The shower’s been active since mid-April and will continue right up till the end of this month with the peak predicted Saturday morning May 6. Observers in tropical latitudes, where the constellation Aquarius rises higher than it does from my home in northern Minnesota, will spy 25-30 meteors an hour from a dark sky in the hour or two before dawn.

Skywatchers further north will see fewer meteors because the radiant will be lower in the sky; meteors that flash well below the radiant get cut off by the horizon, reducing the rate by about half ( about 10-15 meteors an hour). That’s still a decent show. I got up with the first robins a couple years back to see the shower and was pleasantly surprised with a handful of flaming Halley particles in under a half hour.

A long-trailed, earthgrazing Eta Aquarid meteor crosses a display of northern lights on May 6, 2013. Credit: Bob King

While a low radiant means fewer meteors, there’s an up side. You have a fair chance of seeing an earthgrazer, a meteor that skims tangent to the upper atmosphere, flaring for many seconds before either burning up or skipping back off into space.

The Eta Aquarids will be active all week. With the peak occurring Saturday morning, you should be able to see at least a few prior to dawn each morning. The quarter-to-waxing gibbous moon will set in plenty of time through Friday morning, leaving dark skies, but cuts it close Saturday when it sets about the same time the radiant rises in the east.

The annual Eta Aquarids meteor shower captured from Otago Harbour at Aramoana in New Zealand. Eta Aquarids are fast, striking the atmosphere at more than 147,000 mph (66  km/ sec).  The photographer stacked multiple unguided 30-second exposures over 50 minutes taken with an 8mm fisheye lens @ f/3.5, Nikon D90, ISO 3200. Credit: Starman_nz

For best viewing, find as dark a place as possible with an open view to the east and south. I like to tote out a reclining lawn chair, face east and get comfy under a warm sleeping bag or wool blanket. Since twilight starts about an hour and three-quarters before your local sunrise, plan to be out watching an hour before that or around 3:30 a.m. I know, I know. That sounds harsh, but I’ve discovered that once you make the commitment, the act of watching a meteor shower becomes a relaxed pleasure punctuated by the occasional thrill of seeing a bright meteor.

You’ll be in magnificent company, too. The Milky Way rides high across the southeastern sky at that hour, and Saturn gleams due south in Sagittarius at the start of dawn.  If you’d like to contribute observations of the shower to help meteor scientists better understand its behavior and evolution, check out the International Meteor Organization’s Eta Aquariids 2017 campaign for more information.

Star-travel 5 Million Years Into The Milky Way’s Future


Two Million Stars on the Move

Gaze into Gaia’s crystal ball and you will see the future. This video shows the motion of 2,057,050 stars in the coming 5 million years from the Tycho-Gaia Astrometric Solution sample, part of the first data release of European Space Agency’s Gaia mission.

Gaia is a space observatory parked at the L2 Lagrange Point, a stable place in space a million miles behind Earth as viewed from the Sun. Its mission is astrometry: measuring the precise positions, distances and motion of 1 billion astronomical objects (primarily stars) to create a three-dimensional map of the Milky Way galaxy. Gaia’s radial velocity measurements — the motion of stars toward or away from us —  will provide astronomers with a stereoscopic and moving-parts picture of about 1% of the galaxy’s stars.

Think about how slowly stars move from the human perspective. Generations of people have lived and died since the days of ancient Greece and yet the constellations outlines and naked eye stars appear nearly identical today as they did then. Only a few stars — Arcturus, Sirius, Aldebaran — have moved enough for a sharp-eyed observer of yore to perceive their motion.

Given enough time, stars do change position, distorting the outlines of the their constellations. This view shows the sky looking north in 91,000 A.D. Both Lyra and the Big Dipper are clearly bent out of shape! Created with Stellarium

We know that stars are constantly on the move around the galactic center. The Sun and stars in its vicinity orbit the core at some half-million miles an hour, but nearly all are so far away that their apparent motion has barely moved the needle over the time span of civilization as we know it.

This video shows more than 2 million stars from the TGAS sample, with the addition of 24,320 bright stars from the Hipparcos Catalogue that weren’t included in Gaia’s first data release back in September 2016. The video starts from the positions of stars as measured by Gaia between 2014 and 2015, and shows how these positions are expected to evolve in the future, based on the stars’ proper motions or direction of travel across space.

This frame will help you get your footing as you watch the video. Orion (at right) and the Alpha Persei stellar association and Pleiades (at left) are shown. Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC

Watching the show

The frames in the video are separated by 750 years, and the overall sequence covers 5 million years. The dark stripes visible in the early frames reflect the way Gaia scans the sky (in strips) and the early, less complete database. The artifacts are gradually washed out as stars move across the sky.

Using the map above to get oriented, it’s fun to watch Orion change across the millennia. Betelgeuse departs the constellation heading north fairly quickly, but Orion’s Belt hangs in there for nearly 2 million years even if it soon develops sag! The Pleiades drift together to the left and off frame and then reappear at right.

Stars seem to move with a wide range of velocities in the video, with stars in the galactic plane moving quite slow and faster ones speeding across the view. This is a perspective effect: most of the stars we see in the plane are much farther from us, and thus seem to be moving slower than the nearby stars, which are visible across the entire sky.

Artist’s impression of The Milky Way Galaxy to provide context for the video. The Sun and solar system are located in the flat plane of the galaxy, so when we look into the Milky Way (either toward the center or toward the edge), the stars pile up across the light years to form a band in the sky. If we could rise above the disk and see the galaxy from the halo, we’d be able to look down (or up) and see the galaxy as a disk with winding spiral arms. Credit: NASA

Some of the stars that appear to zip in and out of view quickly are passing close to the Sun. But motion of those that trace arcs from one side of the sky to the other while passing close to the galactic poles (top and bottom of the frame) as they speed up and slow down, is spurious. These stars move with a constant velocity through space.

Stars located in the Milky Way’s halo, a roughly spherical structure centered on the galaxy’s spiral disk, also appear to move quite fast because they slice through the galactic plane with respect to the Sun. In reality, halo stars move very slowly with respect to the center of the galaxy.

Early in the the visualization, we see clouds of interstellar gas and dust that occupy vast spaces within the galaxy and block the view of more distant suns. That these dark clouds seem to disappear over time is also a spurious effect.

After a few million years, the plane of the Milky Way appears to have shifted towards the right as a consequence of the motion of the Sun with respect to that of nearby stars in the Milky Way. Regions that are depleted of stars in the video will not appear that way to future stargazers but will instead be replenished by stars not currently sampled by Gaia. So yes, there are a few things to keep in mind while watching these positional data converted into stellar motions, but the overall picture is an accurate one.

I find the video as mesmerizing as watching fireflies on a June night. The stars seem alive. Enjoy your ride in the time machine!

Meet Steve, A Most Peculiar Aurora

Nicknamed Steve, this unusual aurora feature is a 15.5-mile-wide (25 km) ribbon of hot gas flowing westward at about 13,300 mph, more than 600 times faster than the surrounding air. The photo was taken last fall. Copyright: Instagram.com/davemarkelphoto

This remarkable image was captured last fall by Dave Markel, a photographer based in Kamloops, British Columbia. Later, aurora researcher Eric Donovan of the University of Calgary, discovered Markel’s strange ribbon of light while looking through photos of the northern lights on social media. Knowing he’d found something unusual, Donovan worked sifted through data from the European Space Agency’s Swarm magnetic field mission to try and understand the nature of the phenomenon.

Swarm is ESA’s first constellation of Earth observation satellites designed to measure the magnetic signals from Earth’s core, mantle, crust, oceans, ionosphere and magnetosphere, providing data that will allow scientists to study the complexities of our protective magnetic field. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab

Launched on 22 November 2013, three identical Swarm satellites orbit the Earth measuring the magnetic fields that stem from Earth’s core, mantle, crust and oceans, as well as from the ionosphere and magnetosphere. Speaking at the recent Swarm science meeting in Canada, Donovan explained how this new finding couldn’t have happened 20 years ago when he started to study the aurora.

A beautiful aurora featuring green arcs near the horizon and many parallel rays lights up the northern sky last October. A small meteor appears to the right of center. Credit: Bob King

While the shimmering, eerie, light display of auroras might be beautiful and captivating, they’re also a visual reminder that Earth is connected electrically and magnetically to the Sun. The more we know about the aurora, the greater our understanding of that connection and how it affects everything from satellites to power grids to electrically-induced corrosion of oil pipelines.

“In 1997 we had just one all-sky imager in North America to observe the aurora borealis from the ground,” said Prof. Donovan.  “Back then we would be lucky if we got one photograph a night of the aurora taken from the ground that coincides with an observation from a satellite. Now we have many more all-sky imagers and satellite missions like Swarm so we get more than 100 a night.”

The Suomi NPP satellite photographed this view of the aurora on December 22, 2016, when the northern lights stretched across northern Canada. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen / Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. Colorized and labeled by the author

And that’s where sharing photos and observations on social media can play an important role. Sites like the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters and Aurorasaurus serve as clearinghouses for observers to report auroral displays.  Aurorasaurus connects citizen scientists to scientists and searches Twitter feeds for instances of the word ‘aurora,’ so skywatchers and scientists alike know the real-time extent of the auroral oval.

At a recent talk, Prof. Donovan met members the popular Facebook group Alberta Aurora Chasers. Looking at their photos, he came across the purple streak Markel and others had photographed which they’d been referring to as a “proton arc.” But such a feature, caused by hydrogen emission in the upper atmosphere, is too faint to be seen with the naked eye. Donovan knew it was something else, but what?Someone suggested “Steve.” Hey, why not?

Aurora researchers now us a network of all-sky cameras and multiple satellites to keep track of the ever-shifting aurora. Click to see the video. Credit: University of Calgary

While the group kept watch for the Steve’s return,  Donovan and colleagues looked through data from the Swarm mission and his network of all-sky cameras. Before long he was able to match a ground sighting of streak to an overpass of one of the three Swarm satellites.

“As the satellite flew straight though Steve, data from the electric field instrument showed very clear changes,” said Donovan.

“The temperature 186 miles (300 km) above Earth’s surface jumped by 3000°C and the data revealed a 15.5-mile-wide (25 km) ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6 km/second compared to a speed of about 10 meters/second either side of the ribbon. A friend of mine compared it to a fluorescent light without the glass.

Little did I know I’d met Steve back on May 18, 1990 in this remarkable, narrow arc that stretched from the northwestern horizon to the southeastern. To the eye, a “wind” of vague forms pulsed through the arc. The Big Dipper stands vertically at right. Credit: Bob King

It turns out that these high-speed “rivers” of glowing auroral gas are much more common than we’d thought, and that in no small measure because of the efforts of an army of skywatchers and aurora photographers who keep watch for that telltale green glow in the northern sky.

I spoke to Steve’s keeper, Dave Markel, via e-mail yesterday and he described what the arc looked like to his eyes:

“It’s similar to the image just not as intense. It looks like a massive contrail moving rapidly across the sky. This one lasted almost an hour and ran in an arc almost perfectly east to west. I was directly below it but often there are green pickets (parallel streaks of aurora) rising above the streak.”

This is the same May 18, 1990 streak as above but the eastern half. The bright star Arcturus is visible at upper right. Wish I’d had a fisheye! Credit: Bob King

I know whereof Dave speaks because thanks to his photo and Prof. Donovan’s research, I realize I’ve seen and photographed Steve, too! In decades of aurora watching I’ve only seen this rare streak a handful of times. On most of those occasions, there was either no other aurora visible or minor activity in the northern sky. The narrow arc, which lasted for an hour or so, pulsed and flowed with light and occasionally, Markel’s “pickets” were visible. Back in May 1990 I had a camera on hand to get a picture.

Goes to show, you never know what you might see when you poke your head out for a look. Keep a lookout when aurora’s expected and maybe you’ll get to meet Steve, too.

Earth Beams From Between Saturn’s Rings in New Cassini Image

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured the view on April 13, 2017 at 12:41 a.m. CDT. The probe was 870 million miles (1.4 billion km) away from Earth when the image was taken. The part of Earth facing toward Cassini at the time was the southern Atlantic Ocean. Look closely to the left of Earth; that pinprick of light is the Moon. Credit: NASA/JPL Caltech

Look at us. Packed into a gleaming dot. The entire planet nothing more than a point of light between the icy rings of Saturn. The rings visible here are the A ring (top), followed by the Keeler and Encke gaps, and finally the F ring at bottom. During this observation, Cassini was looking toward the backlit rings with the sun blocked by the disk of Saturn.

Cassini first photographed Earth from Saturn in July 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Seen from Saturn, Earth and the other inner solar system planets always appear close to the sun much like Venus and Mercury do from Earth. All orbit interior to Saturn; even at maximum elongation, they never get far from the Sun. Early this month, as viewed from Saturn, Earth was near maximum elongation east of the sun, thus an “evening star,” making it an ideal time to take a picture.

In this cropped view of the April 13 image, you can better see the Moon, located a short distance to the left of the Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunities to capture Earth from Saturn have been rare in the 13 years Cassini has spent orbiting the ringed planet. The only other photo I’m aware of was snapped on July 19, 2013. Each is a precious document with a clear message: we are all tiny, please let’s be kind to one another.

This graphic shows Cassini’s flight path during the final two phases of its mission. The 20 Ring-Grazing Orbits are in gray (completed) and the 22 Grand Finale Orbits are in blue. The final partial orbit is colored orange. The first of the Grand Finale orbits begins on April 22 at 10:46 p.m. CDT. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

We’ll soon miss the steady stream of artistic images of Saturn, its rings and moons by the Cassini team. The probe will make its final close flyby of the planet’s largest moon, fog-enshrouded Titan, at 1:08 a.m. April 22, at a distance of just 608 miles (979 km). That night at 10:46 p.m. CDT, Cassini will enter the first of its Grand Finale orbits, a series of 22 weekly dives between the planet and the rings. The first ring plane crossing is slated for midnight CDT April 25-26.


Cassini at Saturn and the Grand Finale

The coming week will be a busy one for Cassini. On each orbit, the probe will draw closer and closer to the butterscotch ball of Saturn until it finally tears across the cloud tops and burns up as a spectacular fireball on September 15. Scientists would rather see the craft burn up in Saturn’s atmosphere instead crash into a moon and possibly contaminate it.

Cassini will become a brilliant fireball streaking over Saturn’s cloud tops on the last day of its operation on September 15. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After nearly 20 years in space, seven of them spent traveling to the ringed planet, Cassini feels like family. It won’t be easy to say goodbye, but thanks to the probe, Saturn’s family album is bursting with remarkable images that will forever remind us the tenacity of this amazing machine and the vision and work of those who kept it operating for so many years.