Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!  Since I'll be off tomorrow, preparing to enjoy the holiday with my family, I figured I'd post a day early, and keep it all on the Thanksgiving theme.

As you've likely come to expect from this blog, there also needs to be a generous dollop of humor, so in honor of Thanksgiving and with apologies to David Letterman...

From the home office in Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, here's my Top Five List of spacey things I'm thankful for this Thanksgiving.

5. The Abbitt Planetarium
Yep, I'm thankful for my job!  And not just for the usual it-pays-the-bills reasons either.  I'm one of those lucky people who truly has their dream job.  I get to work with people of all ages and share with them my love of the universe.  I get to exercise my creative drives and make shows in the planetarium on numerous different topics.  It's like being a Hollywood director without the pressures of Hollywood.  What more could I ask for?  And thank you to all of you who come to visit us and make it possible for me to continue to do what I love.

4. The Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble is truly one of the most remarkable spacecraft ever launched.  It's the telescope with 9 lives (at least!) and has provided us with innumerable stunning images of the cosmos.  It has survived not only the rigors of being launched into space aboard the space shuttle, but also numerous servicing missions designed to repair and upgrade its instruments.  When the initial flaw in the primary mirror was discovered shortly after launch, many people figured the Hubble was a loss.  Thanks to some amazing work by both engineers and astronauts, Hubble's flaw was repaired and for over 20 years this school-bus-sized scope has continually made our jaws drop with its incredible images.

Dying star V838 Mon.  Courtesy STScI/NASA.

Jupiter and its moon, Ganymede.  Courtesy STScI/NASA

Supernova 1987A.  Courtesy STScI/NASA.

Hubble is in decline now, since NASA has retired the space shuttle - the only vehicle which could be used to service the telescope.  Over the coming years, Hubble's systems will slowly degrade, until a final critical failure of some kind renders it useless.  Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is mired in funding problems as NASA struggles to maintain itself in these fiscally trying times.  Whether JWST makes it up or not, when Hubble images its last, I for one, will shed quite a few tears.  No other instrument, before or since, has done what Hubble can - inspire us all with wonder at the visions of the universe it provides.

3. The Apollo Missions to the Moon
We've been to the Moon.  Men from Earth have stood on the surface of the Moon and looked up at the fragile blue planet we call home.  It was real, we went there.  It was not, as so many people believe, an elaborate hoax.  And it is one of the most inspiring stories of human exploration ever.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface.  Courtesy NASA.

Exploration is always challenging.  But in reaching for the Moon, we had to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  There is no water or air on the Moon.  Gravity is dramatically less, so machines behave in different and unexpected ways.  We had no idea what the surface of the Moon was like, or how men would react - physically and psychologically - to being in space or on the lunar surface.  And yet, in the space of a decade, we went from dreaming about it to being there.  I hope one day, NASA will be able to have that kind of drive and vision again.  If you don't know the story of our journey to the Moon - check it out.  It's worth it.

2. The Night Sky
There's something entirely captivating about a dark night sky.  Looking up at the stars is a wonderful, peaceful thing to do in a world that sometimes overwhelms us with activity.  And sharing it with someone you love, or even someone you're never met, makes the experience all the more special.  My daughter and I have looked at the sky since she was a tiny baby.  If you've never enjoyed a dark night sky - here's a goal for the new year.  Attend a star party.  Look through a telescope for the first time.  Just go outside one night and look up for a while.  And when you do, remember that all of humanity shares that sky with you.  No matter how far away, no matter how long ago they lived, everyone everywhere has seen the same stars that you can see just by looking up. (I miss you, Dad.)

The arc of the Milky Way in California photographed by Tony Hallas.  Courtesy Astronomy Picture of the Day.

We're in danger of losing our night skies forever as we turn on more and more nighttime lights.  Losing the sky means losing a powerful part of our heritage.  Don't wait too long to see it - or it might not be there for you to enjoy.

And the Number One spacey thing I'm thankful for this Thanksgiving...

1. The Mars Curiosity Rover
We're headed back to Mars!  Mars is a simply fascinating planet, and our exploration of it has only made it seem more intriguing.  While we've found no canals or war-like Martians, we have found tantalizing evidence of massive amounts of water having once covered the Martian surface...and even indications that there once may have been...and even yet may still on our rusty red neighbor.  The Curiosity rover is due to launch on November 25th, with a eye to landing on the Red Planet this fall.  I can't wait to see what amazing new discoveries it will show us.  Stay tuned!

The Curiosity Rover.  Courtesy NASA/JPL.

I wish you all a safe, happy, and joyful Thanksgiving!
Carpe Noctem!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Month They Call November

My friends, if you know the song that the title know some obscure music.

But I confess November is my favorite month.  I can't help it.  I love the fall, with cool temperatures and beautifully colored leaves.  I love the early sunsets and long dark nights, growing ever longer as the month progresses.  I love the holiday season, with Thanksgiving leading right into Christmas.

Okay, you got me.  I also love November because I was born in it!  ;D  So let's talk a little about what you can expect to see in the skies during this wonderful month.

You've got some great opportunities for planet watching this month.  Mercury and Venus are putting on a lovely show in the early evening sky, just after sunset.  The trick is you need a super-flat western horizon to see them.  But oh boy, the view is worth it!  If you can get outside on the evening of the 13th or 14th, Mercury and Venus will be very close to one another, and about as far from the Sun as Mercury is going to get for a while.  Give it a try - seeing Mercury even with the unaided eye is something most people have never done!  Let brilliant Venus guide your eye (it is the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon).  Mercury will be a smaller star-like object within 2 degrees (about 2 fingers-width) of the bright planet, closer even than in the image below.

Venus and Mercury at sunset on April 5, 2010 by Manu Arregi Biziola.  Image from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Jupiter also graces the evening skies, looking like a stunning bright white star.  The largest planet in the solar system is rising near sunset, and so it is visible nearly all night long.  You've probably seen Jupiter in the evening sky already - it's pretty darn hard to miss!  It's hovering around between the constellations Aries, Pisces and Cetus...and none of those constellations have any bright stars in them.  So Jupiter is shining all alone in a fairly dark area of sky, which only makes it look that much more impressive.  To give you a sense of how bright Jupiter is, check out the picture below. 

Jupiter seen with the Full Moon in 2009 by Jens Hackman.  Image from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Even with a Full Moon ablaze in the sky, Jupiter stands out quite nicely.  Imagine how amazing it will look when all alone!  We'll be observing Jupiter for sure at our star party this weekend.  You haven't really seen Jupiter until you've seen it through a telescope!  Observing begins at sunset on November 12th here at the Abbitt Observatory, and as always, it's free!  Here's hoping for clear skies!

If you're hoping to see Saturn or Mars, you'll need to go outside during the pre-dawn hours...and now that we've changed back to Eastern Standard Time, that means being outside in the very early morning...perhaps around 4:30AM.  Your reward for bring an early riser will be a view of the Red Planet shining in the south, and the golden-yellow "star" of Saturn appearing low on the eastern horizon just before the Sun.  It's interesting to see these two planets in the same sky, since they both exhibit such distinct colors.  Towards the end of the month, they'll even be about the same brightness, so see if you can notice the color difference between Mars and Saturn.  Even if you can't, they will both be quite beautiful, as you can tell from the image below.

Saturn (left) and Mars (right)  flank the Beehive Cluster in June of 2006 by Tunc Tezel.  
Image from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Maybe you prefer something more showy than just planets hanging around in the sky.  Well November can oblige.  The annual Leonid meteor shower peaks on November 17th every year, and this year is no exception.  You may remember the Leonids from the meteor storms of the early 2000s.  While no storm is predicted for this year, we will still pass through a stream of debris left behind by Comet Tempel-Tuttle, resulting in a higher-than-normal rate of meteors being visible all coming from the direction of the constellation Leo.  Since Leo rises around midnight at this time of the year, put the East at your back and watch for shooting stars any time after sunset on November 17th.  Your best view is likely to be had during the wee morning hours of November 18th.  Since the Moon will be on the wane, it too will rise late, giving you some time to see the meteors against the backdrop of a dark sky.  No telescope required for this event - you want to be able to see as much of the sky as possible.  Patience is the key with meteor showers - set up a lawn chair and watch the sky.  The longer you watch the more meteors you will see as your eyes adjust to the darkness.  Enjoy!

The 1999 peak of the Leonid meteor shower by Juan Carlos Casado.
The image is a 20 minute exposure and captured several meteors.
Image from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Until next time...
Carpe noctem!