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

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!

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