The New Year’s Eve Sky

December 31, 2007

If you’re not out partying at midnight, and it’s clear where you are, step outside and take a look at the wonderful panorama that the sky is presenting at midnight.

The Midnight Sky
Click for a larger image

Mars is directly south at the midnight hour, shining with it’s ruddy light upon the winter scene. It is still the brightest object in the current night sky, barely beating out the star Sirius (which lies below Mars, to the lower left of the constellation Orion).

And even though Mars steals the show this year, the “star” of the New Years’ Eve sky belongs to the star Sirius.

Sirius is visible every night during the winter, and is the brightest star in the night sky. It makes it’s travels through the southern sky nightly, following the constellation Orion in the sky. Sirius, the “Dog Star” is part of the constellation “Canis Major”, or the “Big Dog.” The “Little Dog,” or “Canis Minor”, lies above Sirius between it and the constellation Gemini. These two constellations (Canis Major and Minor) are the two faithful dogs which help Orion as he hunts in the night sky.

But it is at midnight on New Years’ Eve that Sirius takes it’s prominent place in the sky.

On December 31st, Sirius reaches upper culmination (the highest point in it’s nightly travels in the sky) at midnight. Now, depending on your location in your local time zone, Sirius may or may not be exactly at its highest point, but on average it is. And, like the ball dropping in Time’s Square, the playing of “Auld Lang Zine”, the toasting of the New Year, Sirius comes by each and every year at this time.

So if it is clear, take your significant other outside and show them the wonderful night sky at midnight. And, while the strains of that classic song waft through the windows, share your New Years’ kiss under the stars. How can you beat that for a romantic setting?


The Opposite of Mars

December 24, 2007

In the sky is the Sun.

Today Mars is in “opposition,” which means that the planet is opposite the sun in the sky, with the Earth in between. So as the sun sets, mars will be rising in the northeastern , with the moon following shortly thereafter.

Graphic 

Last week Mars was at it’s closest to the Earth, and the time between sloe approach and opposition varies due to the eccentricity of the planets’ orbits.

Over the coming days and weeks, Mars will continue to rise earlier and earlier as the Earth passes Mars in its orbit around the sun. We – because we are closer to the sun – orbit faster than Mars, or any other of the “outer planets.”

If it is clear tonight, take a peek and see Mars rise as the sun sets.

And while you’re at it, glance at the moon as well, for you won’t see anything like it for sixteen years.

Tonight’s moon rides high on the ecliptic, like it does every December. But what’s interesting about this year is the moon won’t be this high in the sky until the year 2023.

So if you can make it outside, and it’s clear where you live, you will get to see two amazing things: Mars as close as it will be for the next nine years, and the moon the highest it will be for the next sixteen.

Isn’t the sky amazing?


December’s Full Moon

December 23, 2007

On Sunday evening at 8.15pm EST, the moon will be full, shining down on the wintry  landscape, casting its pale light on the snow-laden fields. And this year, it has company.

Tonight the planet Mars will be sailing along with the moon across the sky, and in mid-evening they will only be separated by 2/3rds of the moon’s diameter in the sky.

Graphic

This month’s moon is also the Full Cold Moon, when the moon is riding high in the longest nights of the year. The moon holds another surprise for tomorrow night, Christmas Eve…


The Winter Season Arrives

December 21, 2007

Despite the cold and snow of recent weeks, technically it was still Autumn (Fall). Well, that all changes at 1.08am EST on December 22nd, when the season officially turns to winter.

Welcome to the Winter Solstice.

At this time, the sun is at its lowest point in the sky for those of us in the northern hemisphere. The sun is 47° lower than when it was the Summer Solstice back in June. Want to know something interesting? That’s just about twice the amount  of the Earth’s axial tilt. After tomorrow, the sun will begin its northerly travels again, and the days will slowly get longer.

So take heart. Summer’s coming, if you are one of those people who don’t like the cold.  It will just take a while. But, in another interesting twist, the winter season is actually the shortest of all four seasons.


The Universe (The Milky Way)

December 18, 2007

The next episode of the amazing series The Universe continues tonight. The new episode is called “The Milky Way.” Here’s a preview…

We used to think that Earth was at the center of the universe, but now we know we’re not even at the center of our own galaxy. Countless wonders exist between where earth is situated and the massive black hole at the galactic center of our solar system. Within the Milky Way can be found the debris of old, dying stars fueling the birth of new stars and at the galactic center hypervelocity stars get catapulted clear beyond the Milky Way’s outer rim at unimaginable speeds. Come along for a guided tour of 100,000 light-year-wide family of stars and stellar phenomena we call The Milky Way.

Much has progressed in our understanding of our home galaxy, but in reality we haven’t even touched the surface. There are as yet unimaginable wonders waiting to be discovered in the “ribbon of light” that shines in the night sky. As usual, check local listings.


Mars – Close and Bright

December 17, 2007

This week – tomorrow actually – Mars will be at its closest approach to the Earth for this apparition. In fact, Mars won’t be this close to the earth for another nine years (2016). This year Mars is 55 million miles from the earth (88 million kilometers). and shines bright inthe northeastern sky after dark.

Graphic – Mars after sunset, December 18th

Mars is rising before 6.00pm now, and is easily seen as a bright reddish “star” rising in the northeast sky, outshining all of the stars in the night sky (Sirius being the brightest star).

Mars is in the constellation of Gemini, where it will stay until the end of the year, when it travels into the neighboring constellation Taurus on December 30th.

Even though this week Mars is at it’s closest to our planet, the next “event” is on Christmas Eve, when the Red Planet will be at opposition (opposite the sun from Earth’s position). And the night before, the Full Moon will be keeping Mars company all night long, making a striking pair.

At opposition, Mars rises at sunset and is at it’s highest near midnight, nearly 75° above the horizon. It then slowly travels westward, sinking to the western horizon at sunrise.

Mars will be conspicuous for the next month or so, but fades quickly as the winter season draws to a close. So if there are some clear nights, make sure to go out and take a look at the “God of War.”


Messages to Space

December 15, 2007

Have you seen the International Space Station (ISS) flying over during the (rare) clear evenings? Did you wave to them? Did you wish them Happy Holidays?

Well, if you didn’t do the third one, here is your chance. NASA has set up a page on their site so you can send your greetings to the crew of the ISS.

Simply go to NASA’s website and click on Send Holiday Greetings to the Station Crew.

Then, the next time you see ISS going overhead, you can be assured that the crew knows the people on earth are thinking about them.