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

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pass the Astronomy, Please

Happy Day Before Thanksgiving!

I'm in a food mood, folks.  I'm looking forward to Thanksgiving this year.  Maybe because I don't have to do all the cooking myself this time!  Or maybe because the Mythbusters took on some classic food myths - including that turkey tale of tryptophan.  But whatever it is...let's take a moment to explore some ways to bring a little astronomical fun to the holiday.

Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is just get outside!  After the massive meal and the inevitable 4 hours on the couch to recover, get up and head outdoors.  It will be dark by then, and maybe you'll be treated to some lovely sights!  As early as 6pm, the Moon will be climbing high towards the south, being just a bit past first quarter at that point.  This will be a great time to get out the binoculars or a telescope and sweep along the terminator - the line of shadow that separates day and night on the Moon (or any other celestial body) - and explore the wonders of the lunar surface.  The deep shadows to be found at the terminator make for an excellent view of mountains, craters, and other magnificent features.

The Moon's terminator.  Note the strong detail visible thanks to the deep shadows.  Courtesy

By 9:30pm, Jupiter will be a blazing beacon of white light in the eastern sky.  It will be tantalizingly close to the red right eye of Taurus the Bull, Aldebaran.  The color contrast should be quite lovely.  And here again, a telescope or binoculars will provide some extra excitement, showing you several Jovian moons and maybe a couple of cloud bands on the massive planet.

Jupiter and its 4 largest moons as seen through a small telescope.  Courtesy Universe Today.

But perhaps you're just not going to be able to get up off that couch.  Maybe we'd better add some astronomical fun to the meal itself, or there's no chance you'll get anything spacey in at all.

One easy way to stellar up any meal is with a little starfruit!  When you slice this unique little fruit correctly, the pieces come out star-shaped.  Scatter them around as garnish on almost any dish - they have a mild, white-grape like flavor which is very pleasant and goes with almost anything.

Star fruit, shown whole and sliced.  Image courtesy

For those who really want to do up the astronomical flair - may I suggest a little pizazz during the pie course?  Big round things always put me in mind of the planets.  Perhaps an apple pie might be topped with a red-food-coloring tinted top crust and become the surface of Mars!  Or the whipped cream on top of the pumpkin or coconut cream pie might be striped to look suspiciously like the clouds of Venus or Saturn.

Gracious, I've just given a whole new meaning to "The Face on Mars," haven't I?

However you celebrate, be it astronomically or not, have a wonderful and peaceful Thanksgiving.
Carpe noctem!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Hooray!  The election is over!

Okay, sorry, I couldn't help myself.  Whether your favored candidate won or lost, I think we can all agree it's been a long and rough election season.  I confess I am happy to be done with political ads, phone calls, and mail.  The holidays are just around the corner, and that is indeed my favorite time of year.

But before we get into the holiday season, we've got something fun coming up this Saturday!  Yes, it is once again time for our monthly Star Party and Laser Light Night here at the Virginia Living Museum.  While the flood damage has stopped us from using our lower level, the observatory is in great shape, and the planetarium is running just fine.  So we hope you'll be able to join us for some great sky watching and planetarium and laser shows this weekend!  Here's a quick preview of what we'll be looking at in the night sky (weather permitting, of course!).

Actually, I can pretty much sum it up in one word - Jupiter.  The largest planet of the solar system has once again returned to the evening skies and we cannot be more excited!  Mars (technically) remains low in the southwestern sky after sunset, but let's face's nothing to write home about.  Even on the flattest western horizon you'll have difficulty finding our little neighbor planet.  It's not very bright, it's a dull orangey color, and at only half the size of Earth it's not particularly big, even in a telescope.  On the other hand, Jupiter is the second brightest of the planets (behind only Venus, now dominating the early morning skies), at ten times bigger than Earth it shines like a brilliant white star and shows amazing amounts of detail in a telescope, and rises in the early evening to then spend the rest of the night crossing the sky.  You can bet we'll have a telescope or two trained on Jupiter throughout the star party.  Join us to see how many Jovian moons we can spot, whether the Great Red Spot is facing towards us, and how many dark cloud bands can be seen on the face of the mighty planet

Jupiter, largest planet of the solar system.  Courtesy NASA

We often spend time hopping around various deep sky objects as well...galaxies, globular clusters, open star clusters and nebulae are frequent sights in our eyepieces.  There's also a chance you might see something impressive without even needing a telescope.  The North Taurid meteor shower will peak in the wee hours of Monday November 12...but it's not unthinkable that we might see a few early shooting stars on Saturday November 10.  The Taurids occasionally produce some brilliant fireballs, so if we do see a meteor, it's likely to be a doozy. 

A Taurid Fireball from 2005 photographed in Japan.  Courtesy NASA.  Photograph by Hiroyuki Iida

In the planetarium we'll be featuring the night sky and lots of great music.  At 7:30pm, I'll take you on tour of the evening sky with Virginia Skies.  Once you've seen the stars in the planetarium, step outside and check out the real thing!  Bring the kids for our 8:30pm laser show: iPop.  It's a great mix of some of today's hottest pop stars...including some of those super-popular teens from the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.  Hoping for some music more to an adult's taste?  No problem - stick around until 10pm for the psychedelic sounds of Laser Doors...and keep the trip rolling on with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon at 11:30pm.  It all kicks off at sunset with FREE observing of the night sky...shows are $6 person, or any two for $10.  Members always get their tickets half price.

Okay, in the interests of full disclosure...there's another reason why I'm so excited for the star party this's happening on my birthday, which I share with two wonderful people...a dear friend of mine (Happy Birthday, John David!) and Martin Luther, architect of the Reformation.  I suppose I could nail my doctoral thesis to my church door...nah, it wouldn't make much the doors are made of glass anyway...

Until next time...
Carpe noctem!