Approaching Mars this December

November 28, 2007

In less than one month Mars will be at it’s best for the year, being at “opposition.” This means that the planet is opposite the sun from the earth (earth being in between), and will be visible all night long.

Currently Mars rises around 8pm, and is located in the constellation Gemini, where it will reside for the next few months. It’s about the brightest “star-like” object in the night sky, and will only get brighter over the next few weeks. Right now Mars is around 60 million miles from Earth, and will be ~5 million miles close at it’s closest on December 18th. A week later, on the 24th, is when Mars is at opposition, and rises at sunset.

Although Mars won’t be as close as it was in 2003, this year has an advantage because it will be higher in the sky, and the visibility will be better. When you look up at the night sky, the higher you gaze above the horizon, the less amount of atmosphere you are looking through. When Mars was extremely close in 2003, it was low in the south, and consequently we had to look through more of the atmosphere, which also meant more turbulence, air pollution, and other factors which reduced the visibility. But with Mars high in Gemini this time, these factors have been reduced. So while the Red Planet itself will appear smaller, the view could be a lot better.

Unfortunately, due to orbital mechanics, the views of Mars will be steadily more and more unfavorable for the next several apparitions, so go out, brave the cold, and take a look at Mars this year (and through early 2008).

And don’t worry… this time, even Grover’s Mill, New Jersey is safe.


The Universe (Alien Planets)

November 27, 2007

The second season of the amazing series The Universe begins this Tuesday. The new episode is called “Alien Planets.” Here’s a preview…

Have planet hunters finally found proof of other Earthlike worlds? Astronomers have now discovered over two hundred alien worlds, beyond our solar system, that were unknown just a decade ago. Discover planets that rage with fiery hurricanes and bizarre planets covered by water so dense that it forms a kind of hot ice. Among these weird worlds, Earth actually seems like the oddball with the right conditions for life.

With the announcement last week of a fifth planet orbiting a specific star, this is a timely episode. So please “check your local listings” for a show time near you. You won’t be disappointed.

November’s Full Moon

November 24, 2007

This Saturday morning (November 24), at 9.30am EST, the moon will be full, shining down on the now bare trees and stark late autumn landscape. Did you notice where it rose, and – if you were up in the morning – how far north it set?

As the year goes on the full moon steadily rises further north of east through December, when it is at it’s northernmost point. During the cold nights of November through January the full moon glides high above the ground. And this is due to the moon’s orbit around the earth, and it’s position on the ecliptic.

The ecliptic is the apparent path the sun (and most solar system objects) take during its journey through the sky. Because the Earth’s poles are tilted 23.5 degrees, you see the sun at various positions in the sky depending on the time of the year. In the summer months the sun is high in the noon sky, but in the winter months it rides low on the horizon.

The moon follows the ecliptic as well, but with the added difference of an extra 5° of inclination as it orbits the earth. So at times the moon can be either higher or lower than the position of the sun, depending on several factors. And since the full moon is opposite the sun in the sky (by 180°), when the sun rides low, the moon rides high in the sky. That is why you will see the full moon in June low in the southern sky, and the full moon in December gliding high above your head.

This month’s moon is also the Beaver Moon, when trappers try to get as many pelts and furs as possible for the cold winter months.So if it’s clear around the full moon during the cold winter months, bundle up, go outside, and see how the landscape glows in the pale, cold moonlight.

The Universe: Season 1 DVD Set

November 20, 2007

If you liked – or didn’t catch – the History Channel’s show “The Universe” when it was shown last summer, now is your chance to own the monumental first season, which has been released on DVD today.

The 4-disc set gives you all 14 episodes it letterbox format. Check your local store to see if they have a copy.

Season Two of The Universe begins on Tuesday, November 27th at 9pm EST. Check your local listings.

The New King of the Solar System

November 16, 2007

So what is the largest object in the solar system? If you said the sun, you’re correct. Well, normally you would be — but not right now.

Measurements from the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy have determined that Comet 17P/Holmes, which underwent a dramatic outburst back in October, is now slightly larger than the sun, making it the largest object in the solar system. The comet’s dusty coma/atmosphere is now 1.4 million kilometers (0.9 million miles) wide, making it larger in area that the sun. The coma is continuing to expand at a regular rate.

Here is a link to more information and a comparison image.

Here is a sky map for November showing the position of the comet, which is still easily seen from your backyard.

Here is a Gallery from of comet images that have been taken by astronomers.

The Moon in Hi-Def (HD)

November 13, 2007

Stunning images have come back from the Japanese Kayuga spacecraft orbiting the moon, showing the Earth rising over the moon’s south pole region, in an image stunningly reminiscent of the famous Apollo 8 image of Earthrise in December of 1968.


The Kayuga orbiter was launched in September, and is tasked to obtain scientific data of the lunar origin and evolution and to develop the technology for the future lunar exploration. More information, plus HD movies of the moon, can be found at the mission website. And also, if you’re curious as to the color of the moon in the images, it is correct. The moon is actually quite dark. The moon is not as reflective as the earth is, only giving back approximately 1/2 of the light shining on it. One can only hope there will be some Blu-Ray DVD’s of these hi-definition movies in the future.

Astronomers Discover a Multiple-Planet Star System

November 6, 2007

Astronomers announced the discovery of a fifth planet orbiting another star. This makes this star system the largest extrasolar planetary system.

The star in question is 55 Cancri, a star in the constellation Cancer that is the same age and mass as our sun. The planet which was newly announced lies in the “habitable zone” around the star, orbiting every 260 days. It is the fourth planet from the star. Now, before you say “hey, it’s another earth-type planet!” be aware that from reports this planet seems to be 45 times the mass of the Earth, and could be more of a Jupiter or Saturn-type gas giant.

Just think. In 1995 the only planets were knew of were the ones orbiting our sun. now, a scant twelve years later, there have been over 250 planets discovered orbiting other stars.

For more information about this, please read the news release at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.