Top Astronomy Events For 2019

Transit of Mercury

You might’ve heard the news. We wrote a book this past year: The Universe Today’s Ultimate Guide to Observing the Cosmos: Everything You Need to Know to Become an Amateur Astronomer.  Judging from reader feedback thus far, one of the most popular parts of the book is Chapter 10, where we list the top astronomical events by year for the coming six years. True story… we picked six (2019 to 2024) to stretch out the list to touch on the April 8th, 2024 total solar eclipse. Continue reading “Top Astronomy Events For 2019”

Get Ready for the 2018 Geminid Meteors

2018 Geminids

When it comes to meteor showers, the calendar year always seems to save the best for last. We’re referring to the Geminid meteor shower, one of the sure fire bets for dependable meteor showers. In fact, in recent years, the Geminids have been upstaging that other yearly favorite: the August Perseids. If the Geminids did not occur in the chilly (for the northern hemisphere) month of December, they’d most likely get a better rap. Continue reading “Get Ready for the 2018 Geminid Meteors”

SpaceX to Launch 64 Satellites, Including Orbital Reflector

orbital Reflector
An artist’s impression of Orbital Reflector unfurled in space. Credit: Orbital Reflector/Nevada Museum of Art

UPDATE – SpaceX has now set a firm date and time for the Spaceflight SSO-A launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base for Monday, December 3nd at 18:31 Universal Time (UT).

A unique smallsat mission promises to be the latest satellite “brighter than a Full Moon!” in the night sky… or not.

The Mission: We’re talking about Orbital Reflector, conceived by Trevor Paglen and fielded by the Nevada Museum of Arts. Dubbed as the “first art exhibit in space,” the $1.3 million dollar project seeks to put a smallsat payload with a deployable reflector in low Earth orbit. Continue reading “SpaceX to Launch 64 Satellites, Including Orbital Reflector”

New Comet V1 Machholz-Fujikawa-Iwamoto Takes Observers by Surprise

Comet V1 Machholz

You just never know when it comes to comets. Here it is mid-November, and we’d thought we had finished up writing about bright comets for 2018. That was until this past weekend, when a flurry of messages flashed across the Yahoo! Comets mailing list hinting that a new, possibly bright comet had been discovered. Come Monday morning November 12th, long period Comet C/2018 V1 Machholz-Fujikawa-Iwamoto was formally added to the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet list.
Continue reading “New Comet V1 Machholz-Fujikawa-Iwamoto Takes Observers by Surprise”

Exploring the Ice Giants: Neptune and Uranus at Opposition for 2018

Neptune

Have you seen the outer ice giant planets for yourself?

This week is a good time to check the most difficult of the major planets off of your life list, as Neptune reaches opposition for 2018 on Friday, September 7th at at ~18:00 Universal Time (UT)/2:00 PM EDT. And while it may not look like much more than a gray-blue dot at the eyepiece, the outermost ice giant world has a fascinating tale to tell. Continue reading “Exploring the Ice Giants: Neptune and Uranus at Opposition for 2018”

A Partial Solar Eclipse Down Under

partial solar eclipse
partial solar eclipse
A partial solar eclipse as seen from New York City on November 3rd, 2013. Image credit and copyright: Valentin Lyakhovich

Eclipse season in nigh… though most of us won’t notice the start this week. The second eclipse season for 2018 commences with the arrival of New Moon and Brown Lunation number 1182 at 3:01 Universal Time on (triskaidekaphobics take note) Friday July 13th, 2018. This eclipse is a shallow partial, just skimming the southern hemisphere of the Earth between the Australian and Antarctic continents.

The Eclipse

We doubt many eclipse chasers will make the pilgrimage to Tasmania to see such a slim partial, though we know of at least one, veteran eclipse chaser Jay Pasachoff who has expressed intent on the Yahoo! Solar Eclipse Message List (SEML) message board to head southward this week.

partial eclipse
The course of the July 13th, 2018 partial solar eclipse. NASA/A.T. Sinclair/GSFC

Tasmania gets the best view, with a maximum 9.5% obscuration of Sol as seen from the capital Hobart around 3:25 UT. The upper limit of the eclipse path just skims the southern coast of Australia across the Great Australian Bight and the southern Indian Ocean, and nicks the very southern tip of the south island of New Zealand and Steward Island at 3:48 UT with a barely discernible 1% eclipse before the lunar penumbra departs the Earth. If skies are clear, the very best view just might come along the coast of Antarctica, as the 33% eclipsed Sun rolls along the northern horizon.

Antarctic view
Looking northward along the Antarctic coast on July 13th. Credit: Stellarium

Perhaps a few lone penguins will notice, if they bother to look at the Sun filtered through the murk of the atmosphere along the horizon. France does have one permanently occupied research station in Antarctica named Dumont D’urville along the coast that will see a 30% eclipsed Sun on the horizon right around 3:00-3:15 UT.

We say that this heralds the start of eclipse season, as the ascending node where the Moon’s orbit intersects the ecliptic plane is very near the current position of the Sun. In fact, node crossing occurs at 18:50 UT on July 13th, just 24 hours after New Moon. Eclipses always occur in at least pairs, and the Full Moon two weeks later is close enough to the descending node for a nearly central total lunar eclipse on July 27th (more on that in a bit). This season, however, is special, with a third eclipse ending the cycle on August 11th, 2018, this time gracing the Arctic pole of the Earth along with Scandinavia and Russia.

We’re already seeing some hype surrounding this event as a “Supermoon eclipse,” as the Moon reaches perigee 5 hours 27 minutes past maximum eclipse. Note that this also sets us up for a Minimoon total lunar eclipse two weeks later, as the Moon is near apogee on July 27th.

The Moon’s orbit is tilted 5.145 degrees relative to the plane of the ecliptic, and the nodes make one full revolution around the Earth relative to the equinoctial points once every 18.6 years in what’s known as the precession of the line of apsides.

Viewing a Partial

A partial solar eclipse means that all safety precautions must be taken throughout all phases of the eclipse. This means using approved solar filters that fit snugly over the aperture of a telescope, and solar glasses with the approved ISO 12312-2 rating for solar viewing. We built a safe binocular filter out of a set of spare eclipse safety glasses for the August 21st, 2017 total solar eclipse last year.

Eclipse Safety
Practicing eclipse safety at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in North Carolina during the August 21st, 2017 Great American Eclipse. Image credit: Myscha Theriault

Unfortunately as of writing this, the disk of Sol is blank in terms of Earthward facing sunspots, and may be so on eclipse day. We’re currently headed towards a profound solar minimum and the Sun has already been spotless for more than half of 2018 thus far.

Don’t own a solar filter, safety glasses or a telescope? You can always use our tried and true method of projecting the eclipse using a spaghetti strainer.

It’s all in the gamma. This eclipse is partial only, because the dark inner shadow or umbra misses the Earth by 35.4% of the radius of the planet or about 1,400 miles. The gamma for an eclipse states how many Earth radii an eclipse deviates from central (where the Moon’s umbra is aimed straight at the center of the Earth) and Friday’s eclipse has a gamma value of 1.3541.

Tales of the Saros

Friday’s eclipse is part of an older saros series, member 69 of 71 eclipses for saros series 117. This saros started waaaaaay back on June 24th, 792 AD, and produced its last total solar eclipse on May 9th, 1910. This was also the last total solar eclipse for Tasmania until June 25th, 2131. This series only has two more eclipses to go, with its last event occurring briefly over the Antarctic on August 3rd, 2054. Perhaps, Friday’s event will be the very last one witnessed by human eyes for saros 117.

Tasmania eclipse
Mr. E. Carns Driffield’s drawing of Total Solar Eclipse of the Sun on 9 May 1910. Image credit: Joy Olney.

This also sets us up for the best of the three eclipses this season, the total lunar eclipse at the end of the month on July 27th. This eclipse will be widely visible across Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia—only the Americas miss out.

A Possible Views… “From Spaaaaaaace…”

The International Space Station also threads its way through the outer shadow of the Moon towards the end of the event Friday at ~3:50 UT. ESA’s solar observing Proba-2 spacecraft might just get a very brief view as well from its vantage point in low Earth orbit, around 3:09 UT.

proba-2
Proba-2’s brief view of the eclipse on July 13th at 3:08 UT. Credit: Starry Night.

And although most of us miss out on Friday’s eclipse, you can still try and spot the slender crescent Moon on the evening of Friday, July 13th. The U.S. East Coast is particularly well placed to try and spy the slim Moon low to the west, only 22 hours after New. After that, the Moon tours all of the naked eye planets, passing Mercury and Venus this weekend and passing Jupiter, Saturn and Mars en route to the July 27th total lunar eclipse.

Will anyone webcast the eclipse live? So far, no webcasts (not even from the venerable Slooh site) have surfaced… if anyone else is planning on featuring the July 13th partial solar eclipse, let us know!

It’s the biggest question when it comes to solar eclipses. When’s the next total? Well, just under a year from now, the next total solar eclipse crosses Chile and Argentina on July 2nd, 2019. Note that this event crosses over several major astronomical observatories at La Silla. How many newly minted eclipse chasers fresh off last year’s Great American Eclipse experience can’t wait until totality next visits the United States on April 8th , 2024 and plan to head to South America next summer?

partial eclipse
Partial eclipse rising over the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center on the morning of November 3rd, 2013. Image credit: Dave Dickinson.

A partial eclipse may not inspire many eclipse chasers to hop on a plane, but we can still marvel at the celestial ticks of a clockwork Universe carry on, right on schedule.

-Got the eclipse chasing bug? Read all about eclipse chasing, observing and photography in our new book, the Universe Today Guide to Viewing the Cosmos: Everything You Need to know to Become and Amateur Astronomer out on October 23rd.

Venus Returns to the Dusk Sky

Venus returns  – The changing phases of Venus, from the 2013 apparition. Credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad (@Shahgazer)

Where have all the planets gone? The end of February 2018 sees the three naked eye outer planets – Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — hiding in the dawn. It takes an extra effort to brave the chill of a February morning, for sure. The good news is, the two inner planets – Mercury and Venus – begin favorable dusk apparitions this week, putting on a fine sunset showing in March.

Venus in 2018: Venus begins the month of March as a -3.9 magnitude, 10” disk emerging from behind the Sun. Venus is already over 12 degrees east of the Sun this week, as it begins its long chase to catch up to the Earth. Venus always emerges from behind the Sun in the dusk, lapping the Earth about eight months later as it passes through inferior conjunction between the Sun and the Earth as it ventures into the dusk sky.

Follow that planet, as Venus reaches greatest elongation at 45.9 degrees east of the Sun on August 17th. Venus occupies the apex of a right triangle on this date, with the Earth at the end of one vertice, and the Sun at the end of the other.

Not all elongations of Mercury or Venus are equal, but depend on the seasonal angle of the ecliptic, and whether they occur near aphelion or perihelion. Credit: Dave Dickinson

Mercury joins the fray in early March, as the fleeting innermost world races up to meet Venus in the dusk. March 4th is a great date to check Mercury off of your life list, as the -1.2 magnitude planet passes just 66′ – just over a degree, or twice the span of a Full Moon – from Venus. Mercury reaches greatest elongation 18.4 degrees east of the Sun on March 15th.

And the Moon makes three on the evening of March 18th, as Mercury, Venus and the slim waxing crescent Moon form a line nine degrees long.

The Moon, Venus and Mercury – looking west at dusk on March 18th. Credit: Stellarium

It’s a bit of a cosmic irony: Venus, the closest planet to the Earth, is also eternally shrouded in clouds and appears featureless at the eyepiece. The most notable feature Venus exhibits are its phases, similar to the Moon’s. Things get interesting as Venus reaches half phase near greatest elongation. After that, the disk of Venus swells in size but thins down to a slender crescent. Venus’s orbit is tilted 3.4 degrees relative to the ecliptic, and on some years, you can follow it right through inferior conjunction from the dusk to the dawn sky. Unfortunately, this also means that Venus usually misses transiting the disk of the Sun, as it last did on June 5-6th, 2012, and won’t do again until just under a century from now on December 10-11th, 2117.

Small consolation prize: Mercury, a much more frequent solar transiter, will do so again next year on November 11-12th, 2019.

Amateur astronomers have, however, managed to tease out detail from the Venusian cloudtops using ultraviolet filters. And check out this amazing recent image of Venus courtesy of the Japanese Space Agency’s Akatsuki spacecraft:

Venus in the ultraviolet courtesy of JAXA’s Akatsuki spacecraft. Credit: JAXA/Akatsuki/ISAS/DARTS/Damia Bouic

It’s one of our favorite astro-challenges. Can you see Venus in the daytime? Once you’ve seen it, it’s surprisingly easily to spy… the main difficulty is to get your eyes to focus in on it without any other references against a blank sky. The crescent Moon makes a great visual aid in this quest; although the Moon’s reflectivity or albedo is actually much lower than Venus’s, it’s larger apparent size in the sky makes it stand out. Key upcoming dates to see Venus near the Moon around greatest elongation are April 17th, May 17th, June 16th, July 15th, and Aug 14th.

Apparitions of Venus also follow a predictable eight year cycle. This occurs because 13 orbits of Venus very nearly equals eight orbits of the Earth. For example, Venus will resume visiting the Pleiades star cluster during the dusk 2020 apparition, just like it did back before 2012.

Phenomena of Venus

When does Venus appear half illuminated to you? This stage is known as dichotomy, and its actual observed point can often be several days off from its theoretical arrival. Also keep an eye out for the Ashen Light of Venus, a faint illumination of the planet’s night side during crescent phase, similar to the familiar sight seen on the crescent Moon. Unlike the Moon, however, Venus has no nearby body to illuminate its nighttime side… What’s going on here? Is this just the psychological effect of the brain filling in what the eye sees when it looks at the dazzling curve of the crescent Venus, or is it something real? Long reported by observers, a 2014 study suggests that a nascent air-glow or aurora may persist on the broiling night side of Venus.

All thoughts to ponder, as you follow Venus emerging into the dusk sky this March.

Get Set For a “Super Blue Blood Moon Total Lunar Eclipse”

total lunar eclipse
total lunar eclipse
Totality! Not a “Super Blue Blood Moon Total Lunar Eclipse,” but the “Winter Solstice Total Lunar Eclipse” of December, 2010. Dave Dickinson

Can you feel the tremor in the Force? Early next Wednesday morning internet astro-memes collide, in one of the big ticket sky events of the year, with a total lunar eclipse dubbed as — get ready — a Super Blue Blood Moon total lunar eclipse.

Specifics on the eclipse: That’s a mouthful, for sure. This is the first eclipse of 2018, and only one of two featuring totality, lunar or solar. Wednesday morning’s eclipse favors the region centered on the Pacific Rim, with regions of Asia and Australia seeing the evening eclipse at moonrise, while most of North America will see totality early Wednesday morning at moonset. Only the regions of the Canadian Maritimes and the United States east of the Mississippi misses out on the spectacle’s climax, catching a partially eclipsed Moon setting in the west at sunrise.

eclipse
The path of the Moon through the Earth’s shadow and the circumstances for the January 31st, super blue blood Moon total lunar eclipse. NASA

2018 features four eclipses overall, two lunar and two solar. Paired with this eclipse is a partial solar eclipse on February 15th favoring the very southern tip of South America, followed by another total lunar eclipse this summer on July 27th. The final eclipse for 2018 is a partial solar eclipse on August 11th, favoring northern Europe and northeastern Asia.

What’s all the fuss about? Let’s dissect the eclipse, meme by meme:

Why it’s Super: Totality for this eclipse lasts 1 hour, 16 minutes and 4 seconds, the longest since April 15th, 2014. Full Moon (and maximum duration for this eclipse) occurs at 13:30 Universal Time (UT), just 27 hours after the Moon reaches perigee the day prior on January 30th at 9:55 UT . Note that this isn’t quite the closest perigee of the year in space and time: the January 1st Full Moon perigee beat it out for that title by 2,429 km (1509 miles) and 23 hours.

super blue blood moon
Worldwide circumstances for Wednesday’s super blue blood moon total lunar eclipse. NASA

Why it’s Blue: This is the second Full Moon of the month, making this month’s Moon “Blue” in the modern sense of the term. This definition comes down to us thanks to a misinterpretation in the July 1943 issue of Sky & Telescope. The Maine Farmer’s Almanac once used an even more convoluted definition of a Blue Moon as “the third Full Moon in an astronomical season with four,” and legend has it, used blue ink in the almanac printing to denote that extra spurious Moon… anyone have any old Maine Farmer’s Almanacs in the attic to verify the tale?

Note that Blue Moons aren’t all that rare… the month of March 2018 also hosts two Full Moons, while truncated February 2018 contains none, sometimes referred to as a “Black Moon”.

Why All the Blood: The cone of the Earth’s umbra or dark inner shadow isn’t completely devoid of light. Instead, you’re seeing sunlight from all the Earth’s sunrises and sunsets around its limb, filtered into the shadow of the the planet onto the nearside of the Moon. Standing on the Earthward facing side of the Moon, you would witness a solar eclipse as the Earth passed between the Moon and the Sun. Unlike the neat near fit for solar eclipses on the Earth, however, solar eclipses on the Moon can last over an hour, as the Earth appears about three times larger than the disk of the Sun. And although astronauts have witnessed eclipses from space, no human has yet stood on the Moon and witnessed the ring of fire surrounding the Earth during a solar eclipse.

Tales of the Saros: For saros buffs, this eclipse is member 49 of 74 lunar eclipses for lunar saros cycle 124, stretching all the way back to August 17th, 1152. If you caught the total lunar eclipse on January 21st, 2000, you saw the last eclipse in this cycle. Stick around until April 18th, 2144 AD and you can watch the final total lunar eclipse for saros 124.

Unlike total solar eclipses, lunar eclipses are leisurely affairs. The entire penumbral phase of the eclipse lasts for over 5 hours, though you probably won’t notice the subtle shading on the limb of the Moon until its about halfway immersed in the Earth’s penumbral shadow.

Not all total lunar eclipses are the same. Depending on how deep the Moon passes through the Earth’s shadow and the murkiness of the Earth’s atmosphere, the Moon can appear anywhere from a sickly orange, to a deep brick red during totality… for example, the Moon almost disappeared entirely during a total lunar eclipse shortly after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the early 1990s!

The color of the Moon during totality is known as its Danjon Number, with 4 being bright with a bluish cast on the outer limb of the Moon, and 0 appearing dark and deep red.

This is also one of the only times you can see that the Earth is indeed round with your own eyes as the curve of the shadow cast by our homeworld falls back across the Moon. This curve is the same, regardless of the angle, and whether the Moon is high above near the zenith, or close to the horizon.

Don’t miss the first eclipse of 2018 and the (deep breath) super blue blood Moon total lunar eclipse!

-Clouded out, or on the wrong side of the planet? Watch the January 31st eclipse live courtesy of the Virtual Telescope Project.