Your Sky Tonight


One of humanity’s greatest challenges is ambivalence toward night skies. Technology and light pollution erode inclination to gaze upward after sunset. Astronomical observations are the fabric of humanity, defining ancient monoliths, pyramids, temples and settlements. The cosmos gave us navigation, seasons, moon phases, the calendar and inexplicable feats of ancient architecture. Today, GPS points North, few know that “star” is actually Mars and Betelgeuse might as well be Beetlejuice. Sigh.

Rudimentary sky basics needn’t be elusive – ponder Time and Date night sky map and planets. Linked below –

https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/night/

Enter your location, voila! An instant interactive sky map tracks anything you fancy. View live, adjusted for current weather conditions. Scroll left or right to adjust time of day. Click on the Sun, Moon or planets, follow their path in relation to location and time of day. Curious about meteor showers like the Leonids peaking in a few days? Click on https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/meteor-shower/leonids.html

Time and Date is a valuable, uncomplicated resource. Give their night sky map a try.

See the source image

Orionid Meteor Shower 2020


Comet Halley is a prolific parent, matriarch responsible for the Eta-Aquarid meteors in May and October’s Orionid meteor shower. Every year between October 2 and November 7, Earth orbit encounters a elongated debris trail cast off by Halley – we know it as the Orionid meteor shower. This year Orionids peak the morning of October 21st.

Mountains with numerous thin white streaks in deep blue starry sky.

Composite photo of Orionid meteors over Montana in 2018, via John Ashley.

Orionid abhors flamboyance, preferring to stay the course with 10 -20 exclamations an hour radiating from constellation Orion. Orionid makes up for paltry frequency with dizzying speed ( 66 kilometers per second ) and roughly half the meteors leaving characteristic ionized trails lingering for several seconds in night skies.

Star chart showing radiant point of Orionids.

The Orionids radiate from a point near the upraised Club of the constellation Orion the Hunter. The bright star near the radiant point is Betelgeuse.

Constellation Orion is the radiant point, but meteors can appear over a wide angle view of dark skies. This year a waxing crescent moon delivers dark skies, ideal for Orionid watching. Best viewed between midnight and dawn.

Blue Moon, Red Mars On October 31, 2020


On October 31, 2020 a blue moon and red Mars will dominate night skies. This Halloween boasts the second full moon in a calendar month and closest approach of Mars to Earth in two years. Despite “once in a blue moon” folklore, blue moons aren’t that rare. The Moon completes a phase every 29.5 days, a hair shy of our calendar month. As such, every two to three years a 13th full moon occurs. We call it a blue moon. There won’t be another blue moon until August 31, 2023. Not another full moon on Halloween until October 31, 2039.

Astronomers regard Halloween as one of four annual cross quarter days. Cross quarter days fall midway between an equinox and solstice. Halloween being the midway point between the fall equinox and winter solstice. Halloween joins Groundhog Day (February 2), May Day (May 1) and Lammas (August 1) to complete cross quarter day’s roster. Cross quarter day blue moons are significantly rarer than run of the mill blue moons.

The phases of the moon by James Reynolds

https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/what-blue-moon-and-how-often-does-it-occur

Below – a bright Mars teaser from Abigail Atlenza at https://earthsky.org/

Moon and Mars rising above a ridgeline, with a glorious display of green northern lights filling most of the sky.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Abigail Atienza caught a waning gibbous moon – a moon just past full – and the red planet Mars (on the right) with the northern lights in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, on September 6, 2020. Thank you, Abigail! See more photos of bright Mars, recently at its best in 2 years.

Night Lights In Real Time


No matter how long the work day, disheartening the news or lousy the weather, Adrien Mauduit at Night Lights Films never fails to put things right. Treat yourself to real time aurora majesty coupled with Mauduit’s innate instinct to nail the perfect musical accompaniment.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCC0CLzCpM6nuLSAi1JNBjkA

Planet Patrol Wants You


Calling all citizen scientists, Planet Patrol wants you. NASA, SETI, the Space Science Telescope Institute and Zooniverse collaborated to launch Planet Patrol, a website urging citizen scientists to help find exoplanets. Planet Patrol site explains –

“NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission will take pictures of more than a million stars to search for planets orbiting them, called ‘transiting exoplanets.’ We expect this mission will see thousands of these transiting exoplanets when they pass in front of nearby stars and periodically block some of the starlight.

But sometimes when a star dims like that, it’s not because of a planet. Variable stars, eclipsing binary stars, blended stars, glitches in the data, etc., can cause a similar effect. We need your help to spot these imposters!

At Planet Patrol, you’ll help us check the data from the TESS mission, one image at a time, to make sure that objects we suspect are planets REALLY are planets.”

In a nutshell – anyone with a little spare time, set of fresh eyes and impetus to participate in cosmic discovery can be a citizen scientist. How cool would it be to identify a exoplanet? Check out the link below –

https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/marckuchner/planet-patrol/

Long curving line of varied planets with stars in background.
Scientists have discovered over 4,000 exoplanets so far, of many different kinds, as represented in this artist’s concept. With the public’s help, they should find many more as well. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ R. Hurt (SSC-Caltech).

Read https://earthsky.org/space/exoplanets-nasas-planet-patrol-citizen-science?utm_source=EarthSky+News&utm_campaign=40df63514c-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_02_02_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c643945d79-40df63514c-393970565 for more details. To date 3,968 citizen scientists are on board. What are you waiting for?

Mini Moon


Ponder this image – Earth is the blue dot, white circle is the Moon’s orbit, red squiggle is space object 2020 SO. Using the Pan-STARRS1 telescope in Maui, Hawaii astronomers sighted the object September 17, 2020 on approach to Earth, classifying it as an asteroid.

Graphic showing swooping and swirling incoming path of 2020 SO.

From https://earthsky.org/space/2020-so-mini-moon-asteroid-or-space-junk -“Asteroid or space junk? Strange space object 2020 SO was discovered on September 17, 2020 on approach to Earth. It’ll likely be captured by Earth, briefly becoming a mini-moon. In this image, the Earth is the blue dot in the center. The moon’s orbit is the white circle. Image via Tony Dunn (@tony873004 on Twitter”

From October 2020 until May 2021 approaching space object 2020 SO will briefly become a “mini” Earth orbiting Moon, courtesy low speed and trajectory being no match for Earth’s gravitational pull. Measuring 6 – 14 meters, 2020 SO will soon pass between Earth and the Moon at a speed of 3,025 km/h – in cosmic terms that’s remarkably slow. Slow enough to raise eyebrows when coupled with calculation of a 387 day Earth-like orbit of the Sun. Peculiarities suggesting a man made object launched from our planet.

Astronomers suspect asteroid 2020 SO could be the Surveyor 2 rocket booster launched on September 20, 1966. Surveyor 2 was a un-manned mission sending a second lunar lander to the Moon. Surveyor 2 left Cape Kennedy, Florida atop a Atlas Centaur rocket. Three days later a course correction failure caused mission control to lose contact. Unable to recover, Surveyor 2 lander crashed near the Moon’s Copernicus Crater.

Before the modern era of reusable rockets losing sight of one wasn’t unusual. Space archeologist Alice Gorman of Flinders University in Australia said –

“There are so many factors in the space environment, like gravitational factors and other things that affect movement, that it can sometimes be quite unpredictable.

You have to keep tracking these things, or you can just sort of lose sight of them really easily. And if they do something a little bit unpredictable, and you look the wrong way, then you don’t know where it’s gone. It is quite astonishing, the number of things that have gone missing.”

220px-Surveyor_2_launch.jpg (220×283)
Surveyor 2 launch September 20, 1966

Space is a busy place chock full of small asteroids and man made junk. Gravity isn’t shy about capturing temporary mini moons. Most recently – 2006 RH120 caught in Earth orbit between 2006 – 2007 and 2020 CD3, 2018 – 2020. Time will tell whether 2020 SO is asteroid or space junk. I’m hoping for space junk. Strikes me as very satisfying to welcome a mini moon launched in 1966.

Adrien Mauduit, Sept. 2020 Geomagnetic Storm Timelapse


From Senja, Norway Adrien Mauduit of Night Lights Films captured ethereal timelapse of geomagnetic storms between September 25 – 28, 2020.

As I write Earth orbit passes through a stream of gaseous plasma erupting from a “hole” in the Sun. Solar wind rages at 610 km per second. Predicted to spew well into tomorrow, fair skies could see auroras as far south as Montana and Michigan.

Treat yourself to mesmerizing respite courtesy Adrien Mauduit. Five minutes of bliss guaranteed to soften furrowed brows, smooth jagged nerves and gawk at majesty of the cosmos.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCC0CLzCpM6nuLSAi1JNBjkA

Follow Perseverance In Real Time


NASA launched Mars Rover Perseverance on July 30, 2020. Barring unforeseen calamity a six month journey culminating on February 18, 2021. Tasked with astrobiology as its key objective, Perseverance is primed to search for evidence of ancient microbial life. A specialized toolbox containing state of the art X-ray fluorescence technology is designed to map chemistry of dust and rock, hopefully identifying traces of ancient microbial fossils.

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/nasas-new-mars-rover-will-use-x-rays-to-hunt-fossils

Anyone who’s watched The Martian movie has an inkling of how far away Mars is. Theoretically the closest Earth and Mars can be is 54.6 million kilometers – sweet spot with Mars at perihelion (closest orbit to the Sun), Earth at aphelion (farthest orbit from Sun), but that’s never happened in recorded history. Closest recorded distance happened in 2003 at 56 million kilometers. At their farthest distance apart on opposite sides of the Sun, it’s a staggering 401 million kilometers between Earth and Mars. Average distance is 225 million km.

I can tell you light travels at 299,792 km/second. At closest possible distance, light from Mars would reach Earth in 3.03 minutes. Closest recorded approach is 3.11 minutes, 22.4 minutes at farthest approach, average time for Mars shine to reach Earth – 12.5 minutes. At 58,000 km/hour NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto was the fasted spacecraft ever launched. At that speed a spacecraft travelling in a straight line to Mars at closest approach would arrive in 39 days. Don’t get excited, the average is 162 days. Perseverance is travelling at 39,600 km per hour.

Daunting as distance and velocity might be, NASA created a interactive app to follow Perseverance in real time. https://eyes.nasa.gov/apps/orrery/#/sc_perseverance

Zoom in, zoom out, be one with Perseverance or peer at it from Pluto’s perspective. Once you get the hang of it, a cosmic pondering delight.

Drum-shaped spacecraft in space with orbits of planets shown in background.

Follow the 2020 Mars mission in real time here. Fully interactive, Eyes on the Solar System lets you track Perseverance in real time as it travels to Mars. Give Perseverance a spin, or use controls on pop-up menus to customize just what you see, from faraway to right “on board.” Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech.