The Universe: Rewind

August 31, 2007

For those of you who have read this site before, you know that I have been letting people know about the history Channel show “The Universe.”

I’d like to just post a quick note here and say that if you have missed any episodes, the History Channel will be showing a bunch of them on Sunday September 2nd and Monday September 3rd. Check your local listings, or the History Channel website.


The Universe (Search for ET)

August 28, 2007

The new episode of The Universe for this Tuesday is “Search for ET.” Here’s a preview…

In a galaxy filled with a billion stars, in a universe filled with a hundred billion galaxies–are we alone? SETI–the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence–is a privately funded project using radio telescopes and optical telescopes to scan the stars for signals. NASA is planning missions to Mars, Jupiter’s sixth moon, Europa, and Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to look for primitive, microbial life in ice concentrations. Whether we discover primitive or intelligent life, how will that knowledge impact humankind’s view of itself? Cutting-edge computer graphics are used to bring the universe down to earth to show what life would be like on other planets, and to imagine what kind of life forms might evolve in alien atmospheres.

I’m pretty sure this episode won’t have much about wrinkly little aliens, kids named Eliot, or famous Hollywood directors. But it will be a good show. As we’ve said before, “check your local listings” for a show time near you. This excellent series is a rarity on television these days. You won’t be disappointed.

Mars on August 27 – Not that Impressive

August 26, 2007

So tonight’s the night. Tonight at 12.30am, according to the hoax email that has been circulating, “Mars comes within 34.65M miles of earth.” That is wrong.

At 12.30am, the planet Mars is actually more than 100 million miles from the earth, three times the distance from what is in the hoax email.

Another line from the email: “It will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye.” This is incorrect as well.

On the 27th, with Mars over 100 million miles away, to the naked-eye it looks just like any other star in the sky, it’s that far away. The moon, on the other hand, is only 240 thousand miles away – much closer than Mars – and takes up more area in the night sky.

There is no way that Mars will ever be “as large as the full moon to the naked eye” from earth. Never. Which means the next part of the email: “it will look like the earth has 2 moons.” must be incorrect as well. Which it is.

Here’s a fact: at 12.30am on the 27th, our moon isn’t even “full.” Full Moon this month is the next morning, the 28th, at 6.35am (and will be in the earth’s shadow).

Here’s another fact: at 12.30am on the 27th, Mars is not even above the horizon! How can it look like there are two full moons, when both objects aren’t even in the sky?

(By the way. 12.30am where on earth? The email never says that. Eastern US time? In London? In New Delhi? Perth?)

Here are a couple of images of the sky on the 27th of August…

The Moon on August 27th
(The Moon in the southern sky at 12.30am. Mars is nowhere to be seen)

Mars on August 27th
(Mars the eastern sky on August 27th)

There are some interesting Mars facts, despite the hoax email.

On the 27th, Mars rises at the same time as the star Aldebaran, in the constellation Taurus. Aldebaran is a reddish colored star, and is regarded as the “eye of the Bull” of the Taurus constellation. With Mars next to it, it becomes the”second eye,”making a striking pair in the eastern sky.

In addition, the nearly global-wide dust storm on Mars is subsiding, allowing the rovers Spirit and Opportunity to begin working again. Because of the dust storms, both rovers had to hunker down and conserve as much power as they could, lest they get too cold and stop working forever. Some days they didn’t even contact Earth, they were in such a power-saving mode. Fortunately the storms are mostly over, and both rovers can resume their explorations of the Red Planet.

For other information about Mars and the hoax email, please check out one of the links below…

Let’s Talk Mars in August
Mars Viewing? Not this Summer

Oh yes, there is one small, partial fact in the hoax email: Mars will be “brightest in the night sky” – in December. At that time, when Mars is at opposition, it will “blaze forth against the dark background of space with a splendor that outshines Sirius and rivals the giant Jupiter himself.” (quote by Percival Lowell).

Veen Observatory Visitors’ Night for August 25

August 25, 2007

With the promise of clearing skies from the gloom and rain of the past few days, tonight (Saturday night) the James C. Veen Observatory – located south of Lowell, MI – will be open for public tours and telescopic observations. Here are the particulars:

Time: 9.00pm – Midnight
Admission: $3 – Adults, $2 – kids 17 and under, under 5 free

Full information on Visitors’ Nights can be found on the Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association website – Just click on the Visitors’ Night link in the menu.

There you will find a map showing directions to the observatory, and a FAQ about visitors’ nights. On the main page of the site, click on the OPEN sign, and you will be taken to a page with particulars about the specific night detailing what objects will be featured through the telescopes.

Tonights main feature will be the planet Jupiter. The solar system’s largest planet hangs low in the southern sky, and a telescope will show clouds bands on the planet, plus four of it’s moons. In addition, we will be looking at the farthest planet from the Sun, Neptune, as well as the bright gibbeous moon, it’s light being obvious as it drowns out dimmer stars. In addition, there will also be selected brighter deep sky objects like star clusters.

If you go out to the observatory, we’d love to hear your thoughts about the experience. You can leave comments here, or drop an email to graaa @

The Red Moon of August

August 24, 2007

The full moon for the month of August will be a special one: it will be red for part of the world.

Yes, you read correctly. Red. That’s because there is a Total Eclipse of the Moon on Tuesday August 28th. This will be a morning event for those of us in the United States, and for us in Michigan, the moon will set in the west during totality.

An eclipse of the Moon can only take place at Full Moon, and only if the Moon passes through some portion of Earth’s shadow. The shadow is actually composed of two parts, the penumbra and the umbra. The outer shadow or penumbra is a zone where Earth blocks some (but not all) of the Sun’s rays. In contrast, the inner shadow or umbra is a region where Earth blocks all direct sunlight from reaching the Moon.

Lunar Eclipse
The Moon during totality (image © Kevin Jung)

The full moon will be at 6.35am EDT and sets at 7.07am. The moon will be “totally eclipsed” starting at 5.53am, and sets during mid-eclipse. If you are farther west, you will get to see more of the total portion of the event.

There are several factors that will come into play that will decide just how bright or dark the totally eclipsed moon will be. A big part is just how close to the center of the earth’s shadow the moon travels through.

The other factor is strictly environmental. Depending on the levels of dust, dirt, and pollution in the atmosphere, the moon could be very dark indeed. While some eclipses have a coppery red color, some – during times of volcanic activity, large forest fires, etc., – will have an extremely dark hue to them, and almost impossible to pick out amongst the background stars. However, due to the time of the year, the position in the shadow, and the lack of major atmospheric pollutants, this one could be quite bright.

If you miss this evening eclipse due to clouds or whatnot, there will be another total eclipse in February 2008, and then not again until December of 2010. And you know how common clear skies are during those months.

So make your plans now to enjoy one of the best astronomical highlights of 2007. Put the date on your calendars, and get ready for a wonderful experience. Those of us who have observed lunar eclipses before can attest to the splendor.

Google Astronomy

August 22, 2007

There’s a new application for all astronomy enthusiasts and people interested in the night sky, and it comes from the well-known people at Google.

From the same people that brought you Google Earth and Google Mars, comes Google Sky.

All you need is the latest version of Google Earth, and in it you will find a new add-on application that allows you to view the night sky from your location. You can zoom in on galaxies, stars, nebulas, etc. The more you zoom in, the more detail you will see. You can even bookmark constellations and other objects of interest.

So go ahead. Download Google Earth, and start exploring space. And once you do that, go out and see what the real stars look like (which we do at our observatory).

For other views of this application from astronomers, we invite you to read Dr. Pamela Gay’s Star Stryder blog and Dr. Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog.

Endeavour Touches Down

August 21, 2007

The space shuttle Endeavour landed at 12.32 pm EDT today at the Kennedy Space Center, ending a 13 day mission to the International Space Station. The mission was cut short by one day due to the possibility of Hurricane Dean causing problems with NASA centers in Texas. They added a truss segment to the station, and brought up supplies and items for future missions.

This mission featured Barbara Morgan, who was Christa McAuliffe’s backup in the “Teacher in Space” program in the 1980’s. She had since been trained as an actual astronaut, and has finally fulfilled the mission that her and other teachers have dreamt about for decades.

Locally, we have the Community Media Center to thank, as they broadcast NASA-TV on local cable channel 24 (Livewire). The GRAAA sponsors NASA-TV locally.