Summer Shooting Stars

August 9, 2008

The Perseid meteor shower for 2008 peaks in the morning hours of Tuesday, August 12th. The best views will be after 2.00am when the moon sets.

This is called the “Perseid” meteor shower because, from our view, the meteors seem to come from the area in the sky which includes the constellation Perseus. This constellation rises around 11.00pm and will be high in the northern skies all night.

If it’s a good shower, you might get to see sixty meteors an hour.

What you need to observe them:

Darkest skies possible. If you can, get as far away from the city (and any lights) as you are able.

Despite it being summer, it gets chilly late at night. Bring a jacket, blanket, etc.

Bug spray. Skeeters love to bite.

You can either bring a reclining lawn chair or lay on the ground, it’s your call.
(We always bring some tunes, plus snacks and drinks).

Bring a red-filtered flashlight. The red light won’t ruin your night vision like a white-light will. You want your pupils to be as dilated as possible to see as much of the sky as you can.

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Star Light, Star Bright… Oops, That’s Not a Star!

June 28, 2008

You know the old rhyme “Star Light, Star Bright. First Star I See Tonight.” But what if the first “star” you saw, wasn’t?

That would be the case if you were looking to the southeast just after 11pm (EDT) these days. You would see a brilliant white “star” above the SE horizon, easily outshining everything else in the sky. You might even think at first glace it was an airplane’s landing lights. No, what you are seeing is the planet Jupiter.

Apart from Venus, Jupiter is the brightest planet in out sky. And it should be, considering Jupiter is the solar system’s “King of the Planets.” Only the Sun is larger than Jupiter in our solar system.

Jupiter is currently in the constellation Sagittarius, and makes a wonderful showpiece to the stars surrounding the planet in the sky. When you are looking towards Sagittarius, you are looking towards the center of our Galaxy.

Here are some facts about Jupiter:

  • Jupiter is five times as distant from the Sun as the Earth.
  • You could fit over 1000 Earths inside Jupiter.
  • It takes Jupiter nearly twelve (Earth) years to orbit the Sun once.
  • Jupiter has sixty-three moons.
  • One “day” on Jupiter is only ten hours.
  • If you weighed 100 lbs on Earth, on Jupiter you would weigh 214.
  • Jupiter is extremely large, but it is not as dense as the Earth.

Jupiter is going to dominate the night skies for the rest of the year, rising earlier and earlier each evening. In fact, on July 9th, Jupiter will be at a point in its orbit called “opposition” and will rise at sunset. It is “opposite” the Sun from Earth, so we see it all night long.

Jupiter will also be one of the featured objects at Public Nights at the James C. Veen Observatory this year. It’s an amazing sight in telescopes.


Good Old Summertime!

June 20, 2008

Ah yes… the wonderful joyous season of summer! The trees are fully in leaf, the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing. There’s warm weather abounding, and no thoughts of cold and snow.

Welcome to summer (the Summer Solstice).

The term “Solstice” is Latin for sun (sol) and to stand still (sistere). On this day – and on the Winter Solstice, the sun stops it’s north/south travels and “stands still” in declination.

For the northern hemisphere, summer officially began at 7.59pm EDT today (Friday the 20th). At that time, the sun was at its highest point visible from this hemisphere, 70.5° high in the sky at local noon. If you were in a more tropical setting, say 24.5° latitude (North) the sun would be directly over your head. You would be at the “Tropic of Cancer.”

And if you were farther north, say above 66.5° latitude, you would be living in the “Land of the Midnight Sun” as the sun would never set for weeks.

So go out and enjoy the warm weather… the green grass… the sounds of nature. If it’s clear at sunset, take a long look at the first sunset of the season.


Amazing Images from Mars

May 30, 2008

Well, everyone in the astronomical community has been following the amazing images and data coming down from Mars since Phoenix landed last Sunday. So in case you missed it, here are some of the most amazing images you will see.

The first image is taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the HiRISE camera. It shows Phoenix as it is descending beneath its parachute!


Click for a larger image

The second image was taken as Phoenix descended, but from a different point of view. The crater is referred to as “Heimdall” and the lander is descending not into the crater, but past it. The POV can fool you.


Click for larger image

This third image shows the Phoenix lander sitting on the surface of Mars, and you can also see where the heat shield, parachute, and backshell have landed as well.


Click for larger image

Aren’t those images amazing? The image of Phoenix descending past the crater is something never before seen in the decades of space travel and missions to other worlds. It is truly a one-of-a-kind shot.

And if these weren’t enough, how about some sound? Yes, you read correctly!! The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter was monitoring the landers’ radio transmissions as it approached the Martian surface, and you can actually hear this audio for yourselves.

Pretty cool, eh?

We hope you will continue to follow the mission (as all of us are) and be amazed and transfixed by the science coming to us from millions of miles away in space.

Links to Image Pages

Phoenix and Parachute
Phoenix and Crater
Phoenix Lands
Phoenix Sounds


Don’t Forget to Look Up This Week

May 26, 2008

With the great, excellent news about the successful landing of Phoenix on Mars last evening, and the cool images and news coming from that mission, it’s easy to forget there are things going on quite a bit closer to home this week.

The International Space Station (ISS) is continuing its series daily (evening) multiple flyovers. Using the link on the right-hand menu for Heavens Above Grand Rapids predictions, you can see that each night has 2-4 visible passes by the station, each one brighter than most of the stars in the night sky. All you need is clear skies (and we all know who to blame if there aren’t clear skies, right?), and the predictions to see it. And if you want to see it really bright, like last week Friday, make sure you watch on June 4th, 6th, and 8th, as the station will outshine every object in the night sky as it passes over. Plus, by then the space shuttle Discovery will have arrived, adding to the brightness.

Speaking of the shuttle, it’s scheduled to launch on Saturday the 31st at 5.02pm EDT. Discovery will be heading to the ISS to deliver the largest payload to date, the Kibo module.

Stay tuned right here for the latest on the Phoenix mission, the space station, the shuttle, and other things of interest in the night sky and space. We’ll have the latest, most accurate, and up-to-date information available, which you won’t get anywhere else.

Just another word about the Heavens Above site. If you’re not in Grand Rapids, or want to get a more specific location for your area, you can do that on the site as well. you just need your latitude and longitude. We have predictions for the Veen Observatory, and the author even has predictions for his front yard.

So go and and enjoy the night sky.


Phoenix Arrives at Mars

May 25, 2008

Update @ 7.54pm!!!
Phoenix has successfully landed on Mars!!!!!

Later Sunday evening, the Phoenix mission will arrive at Mars, entering the atmosphere for a scheduled landing near the north pole of the Red Planet.

The Phoenix mission launched from Cape Canaveral last August. It’s mission is the search for water ice under the surface of Mars, and to study the geology of the polar regions. All of this will be of great assistance in understanding the makeup of the Martian environment, as a prelude to eventual manned missions to Mars.

Mission managers call the EDL phase (Entry, Decent and Landing) the “Seven Minutes of Terror” as they wait for the signals announcing the successful landing on the surface. So many things have to go right for the craft to land: thrusters have to finre on time, parachutes must deploy correctly, etc. Any one thing going wrong will spell disaster which, unfortunately, has happened in the past. Of all the missions to Mars, 55% of them have ended in failure. But hopefully Phoenix will succeed, where some of its predecessors have failed.

Here are some times of interest on Landing Day (all times Eastern)…

Entry into Martian atmosphere: 7.46pm
Parachute Deploy: 7.50pm (legs 40 seconds later)
Touchdown: 7.53pm (40 seconds after thrusters fire)

Unfortunately we will not get confirmation for a while afterwards, which includes the first images. Spacecraft orbiting Mars, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Express, and Mars Odyssey will all be sending their own data back to Earth about the landing, including possible images.

The first images from Phoenix will be nearly two hours later. These first views will be of the solar arrays, to assure proper deployment. Then, if all reads well, the mission will begin.

You can find out more about Phoenix at several sites, including the University of Arizona, where the mission is being led from, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

You can watch the landing events unfold on NASA television. Locally NASA TV is on Comcast Channel 24 (Livewire), but unfortunately will not be available during landing due to previous other transmission commitments. However, NASA TV is available online.


May’s Full Moon

May 19, 2008

The third Monday in May brings the full moon for the month. This time the moon will attain “full” phase at 10.11pm Eastern Time on the 19th. May’s full moon is called the “Full Flower Moon” and you can readily see that by the number of flowers blooming in yards and gardens everywhere.

This month’s event will have even more significance, due to the position of the moon in its orbit around the Earth. When it is full, the moon will be just under twelve hours from its apogee (furthest from the earth) and will appear smaller in the sky. It will be the “smallest” full moon of the year, over 12% smaller visually than the full moon of December, which will be near perigee (closest to the Earth).

You will also notice that the moon is lower on the horizon than previous months. That is due to many factors, some of which include the moon’s orbit around the Earth, and Earth’s orbit around the Sun. More on this next month for the June Full Moon report.