Watch This Asteroid Not Hit Earth

Earlier today the near-Earth asteroid 2013 NJ sailed by, coming as close as 2.5 lunar distances — about 960,000 km/596,500 miles. That’s a relatively close call, in astronomical terms, but still decidedly a miss (if you hadn’t already noticed.) Which is a good thing since 2013 NJ is estimated to be anywhere from 120–260 meters wide (400-850 feet) and would have caused no small amount of damage had its path intersected ours more intimately.

Luckily that wasn’t the case, and instead we get watch 2013 NJ as it harmlessly passes by in the video above, made from images captured by “shadow chaser” Jonathan Bradshaw from his observatory in Queensland, Australia. Nice work, Jonathan!

Keep tabs on known near-Earth objects on the JPL close pass page here.

Guide to Safely Viewing Comet ISON on Perihelion Day, November 28

The day of truth is fast approaching. Will Comet ISON’s sungrazing ways spark it to brilliance or break it to bits? How bright will the comet become? Studying the latest images from NASA’s STEREO Ahead sun-watching spacecraft, it’s obvious that ISON remains healthy and intact. The most recent pictures taken from the ground confirm that no major breakup has occurred. Assuming that ISON doesn’t crumble apart on Nov. 28, when it passes just 730,000 miles (1.2 million km) from the sun, it could brighten to -4 magnitude or better in the hours leading up to and after the moment of perihelion at 12:24:57 p.m. CST (18:24:57 UT).

This beautiful photo of Comet ISON was taken from a mountaintop observatory with a 300mm lens by Juan Carlos Casado of Spain on Nov. 24, 2013. Casado “stacked” or composited four photos to enhance the brightness of the comet against twilight. Click to enlarge.
This beautiful photo of Comet ISON was taken from a mountaintop observatory with a 300mm lens by Juan Carlos Casado of Spain on Nov. 24, 2013. Casado “stacked” or composited four photos to enhance the brightness of the comet against twilight. Click to enlarge.

For comparison, the planet Venus hovers around -4 magnitude and is routinely visible visible with the naked eye in broad daylight if you know exactly where to look. For the sake of establishing a baseline, let’s imagine that ISON will match Venus in magnitude during its crack-the-whip fling around the sun. Naturally, this would put the comet within range of naked eye visibility smack in the middle of the day. Well, maybe. ISON presents us with a little problem. While it may grow bright enough to view in daylight, it will be very close to the sun on perihelion day. Not only will it be difficult to tease from the solar glare, but with the sun only a degree or two away, there’s a real danger you could damage your eyes if you stray too close.

Comet ISON swings rapidly around the sun on perihelion day Nov. 28. Times shown are CST with north up and west to the right. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
Comet ISON swings rapidly around the sun on perihelion day Nov. 28.  Positions are shown hourly with north up and west to the right. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

During the early morning hours of the 28th, ISON will lie approximately 2.5 degrees from the sun’s limb or edge. At the time of perihelion that separation narrows to less than 1/2 degree or one solar diameter.  This is likely when the comet will shine brightest, but with the sun so close, it will be next to impossible to spot it with naked eye or binoculars at that time. Matter of fact, don’t even try – it’s not worth the risk of damaging your retinas. An expert observer with a carefully-aimed telescope might pick it up, but must use extreme caution that sunlight not enter the field of view. Come sunset, the distance widens again to a somewhat more comfortable 2.5 degrees.

Once, when following Venus as a crescent through inferior conjunction, I dared track it within 2.5 degrees of the sun. THAT was almost too close for comfort. I had to avert my vision from a brilliant wedge of internally reflected sunlight along one side of the view and wear sunglasses to temper the brilliance of the “safe zone” where Venus appeared.. Red and polarizing filters can help reduce glare and increase contrast for near-sun viewing of comets and planets.

Comet McNaught on Jan. 13, 2007 photographed with a 500mm lens. "Comet was easily visible by naked eye," said photographer Mark Vornhusen of Gais, Switzerland. Click to enlarge
Comet McNaught on Jan. 13, 2007 photographed with a 500mm lens. “Comet was easily visible by naked eye,” said photographer Mark Vornhusen of Gais, Switzerland. Will ISON give us a similar show? Click to enlarge. Credit: Mark Vornhusen / Wikipedia

In mid-January 2007, Comet C/2006 P1 McNaught had a similar close brush with the sun and peaked around magnitude -5. For several days around perihelion on Jan. 12 it was plainly visible with the naked eye in broad daylight. I spotted it 5.6 degrees from the sun at magnitude  -3.5 (twice as faint as Venus) at 10 a.m. on Jan. 13 and 5 degrees from the sun the following day when I estimated its magnitude at -4.5. While close, 5 degrees is a much more comfortable distance for comet and inner planet viewing.

Example using a rooftop to block the sun so you can search near it for any sign of the comet. If using binoculars, BE SURE you focus them at infinity before daytime comet hunting otherwise there's no way to know if the comet will be in focus. I use clouds (the best) or a distant treeline. Credit: Bob King
Example using a rooftop to block the sun. When using binoculars for daytime comet hunting, BE SURE you focus them first at infinity otherwise there’s no way to know if the comet will be in focus. I use clouds (the best) or a distant treeline. Credit: Bob King

Whether naked eye, binocular or telescope, the favorite method for finding Comet McNaught in 2007 remains the best for Comet ISON in 2013. Block out the sun by placing something with a crisp edge in its way. Power poles, street lights (finally a good use for them), buildings, roof gables, church steeples and even clouds make ideal sun filters. They effectively remove the sun and allow you to look as close as is safe. Safety is critical here – never look directly at the sun. The damage to your retina will be swift and painless. No comet is worth losing your precious sense of sight.

As Earth rotates, the sun slowly moves across the sky. When using binoculars, if you start to see a bright reflection from approaching sunlight in the field of view, shift your position and re-cover the sun. I’ve been asked if  you can simply hold an appropriate solar filter over your eye to dim the sun. Yes you can, but the filter will also completely block your view of the much, much fainter comet. Use the filter instead to dim the sun so you can hunt nearby for the comet.

Use these little pictures to help you know in what direction from the sun to look for Comet ISON every 2 hours from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. CST Thursday Nov. 28. Stellarium
Use these little pictures to help you know what direction from the sun to look for Comet ISON between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. CST Thursday Nov. 28. Add one hour for Eastern time; subtract 1 hour for Mountain and 2 hours for Pacific. Be sure to face the direction shown when using the diagrams and completely block the sun from view.  Stellarium
Our final view shows the comet shortly before sunset in the southwestern sky when it lie about 2.5 degrees directly above the sun.
Our final view shows the comet shortly before sunset in the southwestern sky when it lie about 2-2.5 degrees directly above the sun. Time is 4 p.m. CST

 

Since ISON will be 2.5 degrees from the sun in the early morning and again just before sunset, those might be the best times to find it. Compared to the hour or two around perihelion, the glare will be less though ISON will likely be a little fainter.  You can use the diagram above, suitable for mid-northern latitudes, to know in what direction from the sun to look for the comet. If ISON becomes at least as bright as Venus and your sky is deep blue and haze-free, you might just see it on Thursday before sitting down to that Thanksgiving turkey dinner. But of course much depends upon the comet.

Comet ISON will be under constant view Nov. 27-30 in the SOHO coronagraph, an instrument that blocks the sun so scientists can study the near-solar environment. Click to see images. Credit: NASA/ESA
Comet ISON will be under constant view Nov. 27-30 in the SOHO coronagraph, an instrument that blocks the sun so scientists can study the near-solar environment. Click to see images. Credit: NASA/ESA

Don’t fret if it’s cloudy. Head over to the Solar and Heliospheric (SOHO) website. There you’ll have a ringside seat Nov. 27-30 as Comet ISON makes its death-defying turn around the sun. Thereafter it will appear risk-free in the morning sky with what we hope will be a beautiful tail.

Why Is Comet ISON Green?

Undoubtedly, you’ve been seeing the recent images of Comet ISON now that it is approaching its close encounter with the Sun on November 28. ISON is currently visible to space telescopes like the Hubble and amateur astronomers with larger telescopes. But you might be wondering why many images show the comet with a green-ish “teal” or blue-green color.

Amateur Astronomer Chris Schur has put together this great graphic which provides information on the spectra of what elements are present in the comet’s coma.

For the conspiracy theorists out there, the green color is actually a good omen, and lots of comets display this color. The green color is a sign the comet is getting more active as gets closer to the Sun – meaning it is now putting on a good show for astronomers, and if it can continue to hold itself together, it might become one of the brightest comets in the past several years.

“ISON’s green color comes from the gases surrounding its icy nucleus,” says SpaceWeather.com’s Tony Phillips. “Jets spewing from the comet’s core probably contain cyanogen (CN: a poisonous gas found in many comets) and diatomic carbon (C2). Both substances glow green when illuminated by sunlight in the near-vacuum of space.”

Comet ISON on October 4, 2013 as seen over Arizona, viewed with a 12.5" telescope, over an hour exposure time. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur.
Comet ISON on October 4, 2013 as seen over Arizona, viewed with a 12.5″ telescope, over an hour exposure time. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur.

Both are normally colorless gases that fluoresce a green color when excited by energetic ultraviolet light in sunlight.

And if those poisonous gasses sound dangerous, don’t worry. They are spread out in space much too thinly to touch us here on Earth. So don’t fall prey to fear mongers who are out to bilk the masses – like people did in 1910 when Comet Halley made a return to the skies and swindlers pitched their ‘gas masks’ and special ‘comet pills’ for protection. And of course, nothing happened.

But back to the color. Chris Schur provided this info along with his graphic:

Your readers may appreciate knowing why comets can appear this color. The background image is the shot I took with my 12.5″ and an ST10xme CCD camera for 20 minutes in mid-October. A pale coloration of the front of the coma is seen. To the lower left is a shot with the same instrument but with a 100 lpmm (line pair per millimeter) diffraction grating in front of the CCD chip to break out the spectra of the objects in the entire field.

Here ISON is faintly seen to the left of center, and the first order spectra a band to its right. But the real answer comes when we use the software called Rspec to analyze this band of light. The result is on the lower right. Normally reflected sunlight is rather flat and bland, and mostly that is what ISON is right now, reflected from dust. But labeled are two humps in the blue and green parts of the spectrum labeled “C2” for a carbon molecule. This blue/green emission pair is what gives ISON the color.

Chris notes that as the comet nears the Sun, astronomers and astrophotographers will be able to resolve more spectral details in the comet. “It will be exciting to watch the changes as more molecules pop out,” Chris said via email, “and possibly when it is closest to the Sun, we just may see some metal lines like iron or magnesium from MELTED vaporized rock. How exciting!”

And for those who insist there is something nefarious about Comet ISON, take a look at this FAQ from our friend Stuart Atkinson, who hosts the great site Waiting for ISON. He addresses the many conspiracy theories that are out there regarding this comet.

ISON FAQ Sept 9 jpg

Observing Alert: Rare Triple Transit Of Jupiter’s Moons Happens Friday Night (Oct. 11-12)

Talk about a great fall lineup. Three of Jupiter’s four brightest moons plan a rare show for telescopic observers on Friday night – Saturday morning Oct. 11-12. For a span of just over an hour, Io, Europa and Callisto will simultaneously cast shadows on the planet’s cloud tops, an event that hasn’t happened since March 28, 2004.

Who doesn’t remember their first time looking at Jupiter and his entourage of dancing moons in a telescope? Because each moves at a different rate depending on its distance from the planet, they’re constantly on the move like kids in a game of musical chairs. Every night offers a different arrangement.

Jupiter and its four brightest moons seen in a small telescope. Credit: Bob King
Jupiter and its four brightest moons seen in a small telescope. Credit: Bob King

Some nights all four of the brightest are strung out on one side of the planet, other nights only two or three are visible, the others hidden behind Jupiter’s “plus-sized” globe. Occasionally you’ll be lucky enough to catch the shadow of one of moons as it transits or crosses in front of the planet. We call the event a shadow transit, but to someone watching from Jupiter, the moon glides in front of the sun to create a total solar eclipse.

Since the sun is only 1/5 as large from Jupiter as seen from Earth, all four moons are large enough to completely cover the sun and cast inky shadows. To the eye they look like tiny black dots of varying sizes. Europa, the smallest, mimics a pinprick. The shadows of Io and Callisto are more substantial. Ganymede, the solar system’s largest moon at 3,269 miles (5,262 km), looks positively plump compared to the others. Even a small telescope magnifying around 50x will show it.

Jupiter on Sept. 24 with its moon Europa (at left) casting a pinhead black shadow on Jupiter's clouds. Credit: John Chumack
Jupiter on Sept. 24 with its moon Europa (at left) casting a pinhead black shadow on Jupiter’s clouds. Credit: John Chumack

The three inner satellites – Io, Europa and Ganymede – have shadow transits every orbit. Distant Callisto only transits when Jupiter’s tilt relative to Earth is very small, i.e. the plane of the planet’s moons is nearly edge-on from our perspective. Callisto transits occur in alternating “seasons” lasting about 3 years apiece. Three years of shadow play are followed by three years of shadowless misses. Single transits are fairly common; you can find tables of them online like this one from Project Pluto or plug in time and date into a free program like Meridian for a picture and list of times.

Because Io, Europa and Ganymede orbit in a 4:2:1 resonance (Io revolves four times around Jupiter in the time it takes Ganymede to orbit once; Europa completes two orbits for Ganymede's one) a "quadruple transit" is impossible. Credit: Matma Rex / Wikipedia
Because Io, Europa and Ganymede orbit in a 4:2:1 resonance (Io revolves four times around Jupiter in the time it takes Ganymede to orbit once; Europa completes two orbits for Ganymede’s one) it’s impossible for all three to line up – along with Callsto – for a “quadruple transit”. Credit: Matma Rex / Wikipedia

Seeing two shadows inch across Jupiter’s face is very uncommon, and three are as rare as a good hair day for Donald Trump. Averaged out, triple transits occur once or twice a decade. Friday night Oct. 11 each moon enters like actors in a play. Callisto appears first at 11:12 p.m. EDT followed by Europa and then Io. By 12:32 a.m. all three are in place.

Catch them while you can. Groups like these don’t last long. A little more than an hour later Callisto departs, leaving just two shadows.  You’ll find the details below. All times are Eastern Daylight or EDT. Subtract one hour for Central time and add four hours for BST (British Summer Time):

* Callisto’s shadow enters the disk – 11:12 p.m. Oct. 11
* Europa – 11:24 p.m.
* Io – 12:32 a.m.
** TRIPLE TRANSIT from 12:32 – 1:37 a.m.
* Callisto departs – 1:37 a.m.
* Europa departs – 2:01 a.m.
* Io departs – 2:44 a.m.

Looking at Jupiter from high above the plane of the solar system, we can picture better how shadow transits and eclipses happen. Credit: Garrett Serviss from "Pleasures of the Telescope" (annotations: Bob King)
Looking at Jupiter from high above the plane of the solar system in this diagram from more than a century ago, we can better picture how shadow transits and eclipses happen. The tiny disk of Io and the shadow of Ganymede are seen in transit; Callisto is about to be eclipsed by Jupiter’s shadow.  Credit: Garrett Serviss from “Pleasures of the Telescope” (annotations: Bob King)

The triple transit will be seen across the eastern half of the U.S., Europe and western Africa. Those living on the East Coast have the best view in the U.S. with Jupiter some 20-25 degrees high in the northeastern sky around 1 a.m. local time. Things get dicier in the Midwest where Jupiter climbs to only 5-10 degrees. From the mountain states the planet won’t  rise until Callisto’s shadow has left the disk, leaving a two-shadow consolation prize. If you live in the Pacific time zone and points farther west, you’ll unfortunately miss the event altogether.

From the Eastern Time Zone Jupiter will be well-placed in the eastern sky around the time of mid-transit. Created with Stellarium
From the Eastern Time Zone Jupiter will be well-placed in the eastern sky during the transit. Created with Stellarium

Key to seeing all three shadows clearly, especially if Jupiter is low in the sky, is steady air or what skywatchers call “good seeing”. The sky can be so clear you’d swear there’s a million stars up there, but a look through the telescope will sometimes show dancing, blurry images due to invisible air turbulence. That’s “bad seeing”. Unfortunately, bad seeing is more common near the horizon where we peer through a greater thickness of atmosphere. But don’t let that keep you inside Friday night. With a spell of steady air, all you need is a 4-inch or larger telescope magnifying around 100x to spot all three.

The March 28, 2004 triple transit. Shadows from left: Ganymede, Io and Callisto. You can also see the disks of Io (white dot) and Ganymede (blue dot) in this photo taken in infrared light by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA
The March 28, 2004 triple transit. Shadows from left: Ganymede, Io and Callisto. You can also see the disks of Io (white dot) and Ganymede (blue dot) in this photo taken in infrared light by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA

If bad weather blocks the view, there are two more triple transits coming up soon – a 95-minute-long event on June 3, 2014 starring Europa, Ganymede and Callisto (not visible in the Americas) and a 25-minute show on Jan. 24, 2015 featuring Io, Europa and Callisto and visible across Western Europe and the Americas. That’s it until dual triple transits in 2032.

 

More Amazing High Speed Images and Video of Sprite Lightning

When we first checked in with graduate student and astrophotographer Jason Ahrns earlier this month, he had the chance to be part of an observing campaign to try and photograph red sprite lightning from the air. Using a special airplane from the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Aircraft Facility in Boulder, Colorado, Jason was part of a team that used high-speed video cameras and digital still cameras to learn more about this mysterious lightning. They flew over the central part of the US, such as over Colorado, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.

Named for the mythological sprites, which were known for being elusive, this lightning flashes quickly at high altitudes of 65-75 km (40-45 miles), but often as high as 90 km (55 miles) into the atmosphere. They are difficult to see from the ground, thus this airborne observing campaign.

Here are more images and video (some at 10,000 frames per second!) taken by Jason and his team:

Red sprite lighting, taken on August 12, 2013 over Red Willow County, Nebraska, US as part of a sprite observing campaign. Credit and copyright: Jason Ahrns.
Red sprite lighting, taken on August 12, 2013 over Red Willow County, Nebraska, US as part of a sprite observing campaign. Credit and copyright: Jason Ahrns.

Jason said on his blog, documenting the observing campaign, that “Most of what we saw were C-sprites, short for ‘Column sprites’ or ‘Columnar sprites’ – it just refers to their shape as tall, single columns.”

Sprites appear as luminous reddish-orange flashes, and sometimes look like jellyfish with “legs” that reach down into the clouds. Besides the columnar shapes, they also can be shaped like carrots and crowns, but why they take different shapes is unknown. They are thought to be triggered by the discharges of positive lightning between an underlying thundercloud and the ground. They were discovered by accident in 1989 when a researcher studying stars was calibrating a camera pointed at the distant atmosphere where sprites occur.

Sprite lighting, taken on August 12, 2013 over Red Willow County, Nebraska in the US. Credit and copyright: Jason Ahrns.
Sprite lighting, taken on August 12, 2013 over Red Willow County, Nebraska in the US. Credit and copyright: Jason Ahrns.

Above is an image, and below is the video of the same sprite slowed down by about 500 times:

See more information and images/videos on Jason’s Flickr page and his website.

Update on the Bright Nova Delphini 2013; Plus a Gallery of Images from our Readers

Since showing itself on August 14, 2013, a bright nova in the constellation Delphinus — now officially named Nova Delphini 2013 — has brightened even more. As of this writing, the nova is at magnitude 4.4 to 4.5, meaning that for the first time in years, there is a nova visible to the naked eye — if you have a dark enough sky. Even better, use binoculars or a telescope to see this “new star” in the sky.

The nova was discovered by Japanese amateur astronomer Koichi Itagak. When first spotted, it was at about magnitude 6, but has since brightened. Here’s the light curve of the nova from the AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers) and they’ve also provided a binocular sequence chart, too.

How and where to see the new nova? Below is a great graphic showing exactly where to look in the sky. Additionally, we’ve got some great shots from Universe Today readers around the world who have managed to capture stunning shots of Nova Delpini 2013. You can see more graphics and more about the discovery of the nova on our original ‘breaking news’ article by Bob King.

The new nova is located in Delphinus alongside the familiar Summer Triangle outlined by Deneb, Vega and Altair. This map shows the sky looking high in the south for mid-northern latitudes around 10 p.m. local time in mid-August. The new object is ideally placed for viewing. Stellarium
The new nova is located in Delphinus alongside the familiar Summer Triangle outlined by Deneb, Vega and Altair. This map shows the sky looking high in the south for mid-northern latitudes around 10 p.m. local time in mid-August. The new object is ideally placed for viewing. Stellarium

If you aren’t able to see the nova for yourself, there are a few online observing options:

The Virtual Star Party team, led by UT’s publisher Fraser Cain, will try to get a view during the next VSP, at Sunday night on Google+ — usually at this time of year, about 10 pm EDT/0200 UTC on Monday mornings. If you’d like a notification for when it’s happening, make sure you subscribe to the Universe Today channel on YouTube.

The Virtual Telescope Project, based in Italy, will have an online observing session on August 19, 2013 at 20:00 UTC, and you can join astronomer Gianluca Masi at this link.

The Slooh online telescope had an observing session yesterday (which you can see here), and we’ll post an update if they plan any additional viewing sessions.

There’s no way to predict if the nova will remain bright for a few days more, and unfortunately the Moon is getting brighter and bigger in the sky (it will be full on August 20), so take the opportunity this weekend if you can to try and see the new nova.

Now, enjoy more images from Universe Today readers:

Nova Delphini 2013 from August 16, 2013 at 0846 UTC. Credit and copyright: Nick Rose.
Nova Delphini 2013 from August 16, 2013 at 0846 UTC. Credit and copyright: Nick Rose.
The bright nova in Delphinus when it was at magnitude 6.1 on August 14, 2013, as see from Yellow Springs, Ohio USA. Credit and copyright: John Chumack/Galactic Images.
The bright nova in Delphinus when it was at magnitude 6.1 on August 14, 2013, as see from Yellow Springs, Ohio USA. Credit and copyright: John Chumack/Galactic Images.
Proving that Nova Delphini 2013 is now a bright, naked-eye object, this fun image shows not only the nova, but the surrounding landscape in Sweden of the photographer, too. Credit and copyright: Göran Strand.
Proving that Nova Delphini 2013 is now a bright, naked-eye object, this fun image shows not only the nova, but the surrounding landscape in Sweden of the photographer, too. Credit and copyright: Göran Strand.
Nova Delphinii 2013 as seen on August 15, 2013. Credit and copyright: Andre van der Hoeven
Nova Delphinii 2013 as seen on August 15, 2013. Credit and copyright: Andre van der Hoeven
Nova in Delphinus from Ottawa, Canada on August 14, 2013. 13 second exposure under heavy light pollution with Nikon D80. Credit and copyright: Andrew Symes
Nova in Delphinus from Ottawa, Canada on August 14, 2013. 13 second exposure under heavy light pollution with Nikon D80. Credit and copyright: Andrew Symes
Image of Nova Delphini 2013, on 15 Aug. 2013, via the Virtual Telescope Project/Gianluca Masi.
Image of Nova Delphini 2013, on 15 Aug. 2013, via the Virtual Telescope Project/Gianluca Masi.
Annotated image of Nova Delphini 2013, as seen from Hawaii. Credit and copyright: Bryanstew on Flickr.
Annotated image of Nova Delphini 2013, as seen from Hawaii. Credit and copyright: Bryanstew on Flickr.

Ralf Vandebergh shared this video he was able to capture on his 10-year-old hand-held video camera to “demonstration of the brightness of the nova and what is possible with even 10 year old technique from hand.”

Bright New Nova In Delphinus — You can See it Tonight With Binoculars

Looking around for something new to see in your binoculars or telescope tonight? How about an object whose name literally means “new”. Japanese amateur astronomer Koichi Itagaki of Yamagata discovered an apparent nova or “new star” in the constellation Delphinus the Dolphin just today, August 14. He used a small 7-inch (.18-m) reflecting telescope and CCD camera to nab it. Let’s hope its mouthful of a temporary designation, PNVJ20233073+2046041, is soon changed to Nova Delphini 2013!

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This map shows Delphinus and Sagitta, both of which are near the bright star Altair at the bottom of the Summer Triangle. You can star hop from the Delphinus "diamond" to the star 29 Vulpecula and from there to the nova or center your binoculars between Eta Sagittae and 29 Vul. Stellarium
This map shows Delphinus and Sagitta, both of which are near the bright star Altair at the bottom of the Summer Triangle. You can star hop from the top of Delphinus to the star 29 Vulpeculae and from there to the nova.  Or you can point your binoculars midway between Eta Sagittae and 29 Vul. The “5.7 star” is magnitude 5.7. Stellarium

Several hours later it was confirmed as a new object shining at magnitude 6.8 just under the naked eye limit. This is bright especially considering that nothing was visible at the location down to a dim 13th magnitude only a day before discovery. How bright it will get is hard to know yet, but variable star observer Patrick Schmeer of Germany got his eyes on it this evening and estimated the new object at magnitude 6.0. That not only puts it within easy reach of all binoculars but right at the naked eye limit for observers under dark skies. Wow! Since it appears to have been discovered on day one of the outburst, my hunch is that it will brighten even further.

I opened up the view a little more here and made a reverse "black stars on white" for clarity. Stars are shown to 9th magnitude. Magnitudes shown for 4 stars near the nova. The nova's precise position is RA 20 h 23' 31", Dec. +20 deg. 46'. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap
Here’s a reverse “black stars on white” map some observers prefer for greater clarity. Stars are shown to 9th magnitude. Tycho visual magnitudes shown for 4 stars near the nova. The nova’s precise position is RA 20 h 23′ 31″, Dec. +20 deg. 46′. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

The only way to know is to go out for a look. I’ve prepared a couple charts you can use to help you find and follow our new guest. The charts show stars down to about 9th magnitude, the limit for 50mm binoculars under dark skies. The numbers on the chart are magnitudes (with decimals omitted, thus 80 = 8.0 magnitude) so you can approximate its brightness and follow the ups and downs of the star’s behavior in the coming nights.

Despite the name, a nova is not truly new but an explosion on a star otherwise too faint for anyone to have noticed.  A nova occurs in a close binary star system, where a small but extremely dense and massive (for its size) white dwarf  grabs hydrogen gas from its closely orbiting companion. After swirling about in a disk around the dwarf, it’s funneled down to the star’s 150,000 degree F surface where gravity compacts and heats the gas until it detonates like a bazillion thermonuclear bombs. Suddenly, a faint star that wasn’t on anyone’s radar vaults a dozen magnitudes to become a standout “new star”.

Model of a nova in the making. A white dwarf star pulls matter from its bloated red giant companion into a whirling disk. Material funnels to the surface where it later explodes. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss
Model of a nova in the making. A white dwarf star pulls matter from its bloated red giant companion into a whirling disk. Material funnels to the surface where it later explodes. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

Novae can rise in brightness from 7 to 16 magnitudes, the equivalent of 50,000 to 100,000 times brighter than the sun, in just a few days. Meanwhile the gas they expel in the blast travels away from the binary at up to 2,000 miles per second. This one big boom! Unlike a supernova explosion, the star survives, perhaps to “go nova” again someday.

Closer view yet showing a circle with a field of view of about 2 degrees. Stellarium
Closer view yet of the apparent nova showing a circle with a field of view of about 2 degrees. Stellarium

I’ll update with links to other charts in the coming day or two, so check back.

See info on the Remanzacco Observatory website about their followup images of the nova.

What You Can See in the Sky While Waiting for Fireworks on The 4th Of July

The sky can be a showy stage with big-time events like eclipses, meteor showers and the occasional bright comet, but most nights have a quiet beauty that whispers instead of shouts. The contrast between hype and hush is no more apparent than on the 4th of July – American independence day celebration – when we gather at a park or hilltop to watch the fireworks boom and flash across the heavens.

But there are other interesting things — some quiet fireworks — you can see in the sky to see while you are waiting for the holiday fireworks.

You can watch a less flashy but equally satisfying July 4th event as soon as tomorrow morning about the time the first bird lifts its voice at dawn. Look northeast to find a thin crescent moon dangling below the Seven Sisters star cluster. Also called the Pleiades, the cluster is a highlight of the winter evening sky. Though it seems out of place now at the height of summer, the Sisters remind us that nothing stands still. With the solstice behind us, winter’s already buckling his boots.

As you relax before the fireworks begin, look for two bright stars and two bright planets in the west and southwest skies. You can fit about three fists held at arm's length between Saturn and Arcturus.
As you relax before the fireworks begin, look for two bright stars and two bright planets in the west and southwest skies. You can fit about three fists held at arm’s length between Saturn and Arcturus.

While you’re waiting for the show to begin tomorrow night, take a look around the twilight sky and see how many celestial luminaries you can spot. If you’ve got kids in tow, share the view with them, too.

The brightest natural object in the sky will be Venus, glimmering low above the western horizon. Much further up in the southwest, look for a tall, skinny triangle outlined by orangy Arcturus, highest of the three, along with Saturn and Spica.

Facing east brings the three bright stars of the Summer Triangle in to view.
Facing east brings the three bright stars of the Summer Triangle in to view.

Twist around to face east to find another triangle, this one named after the summer season. Halfway up is Vega, the 5th brightest star in the sky, shining white and bright as burning magnesium. Below it you’ll spot the other Summer Triangle members, Altair in Aquila the Eagle and Deneb in Cygnus the Swan better known as the Northern Cross.

These bright stars and two planets coalesced from gas and dust millions to billions of years ago. Much has happened beneath their gaze, from the first stirrings of humankind to the crackle and boom of fireworks on a starry evening.

Dark Skies – Good For Fireflies And People Alike

Bioluminescent stars flash across the night landscape these July nights. Fireflies or lightning bugs provide a source of wonder for many of us living in the eastern half U.S. and Canada. Did you know dark skies may be as important to them as they are to you and I?

To stoke their yellow-green fires, the bugs – they’re really beetles – cook up light through a series of chemical reactions within their abdomens.

Adult Photurus firefly.  Fireflies produce a cool light by combining oxygen in the air with the chemical luciferin. Credit: Bruce Marlin
Adult Photurus firefly. Fireflies produce a cool light by combining oxygen in the air with the chemical luciferin. Credit: Bruce Marlin

Oxygen from the air combines with a chemical fittingly named luciferin. Luciferin next hooks up with the energy molecule ATP to form another molecule that when combined with oxygen yields a flash of green, yellow or amber light, depending upon the firefly species.

Fireflies June 30 2013 C
Fireflies compete with the stars from a dark location near Duluth, Minn. two nights ago. Each species has its own specific flash pattern. Credit: Bob King

The males perform the flash-dance moves, wiggling and zigging about to attract the females, who typically remain on the ground hidden among blades of grass. Each species has its own flashing pattern. When a female finds a male’s flashes suitably alluring, she winks a flash back. Back and forth communications soon bring the two together to make more fireflies.

Firefly light emits no heat, making it one of the most efficient light sources known. A standard incandescent light bulb converts electricity into 10% light and the rest as heat; fireflies transform 100% of their chemical energy into light. These insects do not waste photons.

One of my favorite memories from childhood was running around on summer nights collecting fireflies in a glass jar.  Credit: Bob King
One of my favorite memories from childhood was running around on summer nights collecting fireflies in a glass jar. Credit: Bob King

Every night I’m out under the July stars at least one firefly manages to land within the telescope tube and create a surprise supernova. If I inadvertently switch my LED flashlight on and off at the right rate, more than a few of them will land right on top of the device in a futile attempt to mate.

Urban sprawl and accompanying light pollution is an issue for both astronomers and fireflies. This view shows the light dome from the city of Duluth, Minn. 20 miles north of town. Credit: Bob King
Urban sprawl and accompanying light pollution is an issue for both astronomers and fireflies. This view shows the light dome from the city of Duluth, Minn. 20 miles north of town. Credit: Bob King

One thing fireflies and skywatchers have in common is love of the night. To appreciate the twinkling heavens, we either escape to the countryside or do our best to contend with the lights in town. Firefly numbers are declining across the U.S. and the world, and though no one’s certain yet why, there’s both anecdotal and scientific evidence suggesting that loss of habitat and light pollution are to blame.

Example showing poorly shielded light fixtures. With nothing to contain or direct the light, it shines where it's not needed - straight up! Credit: Bob King
Example showing poorly shielded light fixtures. With nothing to contain or direct the light, it shines where it’s not needed – straight up! Credit: Bob King

Urban sprawl has comprised the habitats of many wild creatures not just fireflies. Sprawl also brings increased lighting, much of it poorly shielded and on all night. Fireflies avoid heavily lit areas for obvious reasons – light pollution interferes with their ability to see each others’ flashes. Even car headlights can throw them off rhythm. According to a 2008 story in the Boston Globe, controlled experiments have shown that brighter lighting levels cause fireflies to mate less often.

Full cutoff lighting fixtures like these put light where it's needed - on the road - and not out to the sides or up in the sky.  Credit: Bob King
Full cutoff lighting fixtures like these put light where it’s needed – on the road – and not out to the sides or up in the sky. Credit: Bob King

We all can help ensure our favorite bioluminescent buddies remain around for a long time. Turning off your own yard light not only helps you to see more stars but makes it easier for fireflies to find their mates. If you absolutely need illumination, consider one of these efficient shielded light fixtures that puts light where you want it while eliminating the glare that frustrates fireflies and stargazers alike. To learn more about good lighting and keeping the sky dark, check out the International Dark Sky Association.