Looking Forward – And Up – For 2017!

There are a lot of exciting things happening in 2017. Many are covered in detail on large astronomy web sites like Sea and Sky: http://www.seasky.org/astronomy/astronomy-calendar-2017.html

Here are just a few highlights to consider.

11 February 2017 – Lunar Eclipse

Following on from the full moon earlier on the same day, the moon will pass into the edge of the Earth’s shadow for a “penumbral lunar eclipse.” We should be in a great position to see the moon darkening in Ontario.  Here’s a link to a NASA PDF on the event: https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/LEplot/LEplot2001/LE2017Feb11N.pdf

1 April 2017 – Mercury at Greatest Eastern Elongation

The tiny planet Mercury will be visible in the evening sky in early spring; on 1 April it reaches its greatest eastern elongation, and will be visible in the evening sky at sunset.

7 April 2017 – Jupiter at Opposition

On 7 April the Earth will pass directly between Jupiter and the sun. The planet will be very bright in the night sky, rising at sunset. Even a small telescope should reveal the four Galilean moons of our solar system’s largest planet.

15 June 2017 – Saturn at Opposition

In mid-June Saturn and its magnificent rings will be as bright as possible this year. Like Jupiter in April, at opposition the Earth lies directly between Saturn and the sun. Rising at sunset, the planet will appear as a fully-illuminated disk through a modest telescope, nestled within its amazing rings.

cassini_saturn_orbit_insertion

Saturn will be worth watching in 2017 on another front. The Cassini mission is drawing to a close. Throughout the year, NASA mission controllers are swinging the wonderful car-sized spacecraft through Saturn’s rings for the first time, willing to take risks at the tail end of the voyage. Launched 20 years ago (1997), Cassini reached Saturn in 2004 and has been performing nearly flawlessly ever since. Later in 2017 the mission will be brought to an end and the spacecraft will be plunged into Saturn itself, a fiery demise to ensure that the environments of Titan and the other moons of Saturn are not contaminated. The feature image on this post is an artist’s rendering of Cassini and its attached Huygens probe undergoing the orbital insertion maneuver over Saturn in 2004 (Public Domain image; source NASA: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA03883).

21 August 2017 – The Great Eclipse

Perhaps one of the big events in 2017 will be the “Great Eclipse” – a total solar eclipse that will cross the continental United States from west to east coasts. On Monday 21 August 2017 the moon will pass directly between the Earth and the Sun, casting a vast circular shadow and giving millions of people a chance to see a true natural spectacle. Totality will pass through states like Kentucky and Tennessee, but from Ontario we will still see a great partial eclipse in the afternoon. Here’s NASA’s posting for eclipse information: http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEplot/SEplot2001/SE2017Aug21T.GIF

13 November 2017 – Close Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter

Just before sunrise Venus and Jupiter will be very close to each other in the sky – just 0.3 degrees apart, or less than the diameter of the full moon.

I hope you can get out and enjoy these and other exciting sky events in 2017! As we get closer to each I will post additional information on viewing – and when possible taking pictures of – these events.

 

Spotting Pluto From Down Here

As NASA’s New Horizons speeds through the Pluto system this July, it’s tempting to take a look into the sky from earth and think of what’s unfolding billions of kilometers away. The question is, where can you turn your gaze from earth and at least be pointing in the approximate direction?

Pluto is so far from earth that it does not change its position in the sky very quickly. At the present time (writing on 13 July 2015), Pluto is in the general area of the constellation Sagittarius. It’s not far from a famous asterism, the Teapot, that lies just off of the main band of the Milky Way.

Pluto highest altaz cropped labelled

The attached image was created by making a screen capture from Stellarium, set for the location of Hamilton, Ontaro, Canada, at the time when Pluto is highest above the horizon on the day following the close encounter on the 14th of July. This turns out to be at about 1 PM DST on the morning of Tuesday 15 July 2015. At that moment Pluto will be about due south and 25 degrees above the horizon.

From Hamilton, Ontario, on the day of the close encounter, Pluto will be rising at about 8 PM and will set the next day (the 15th) at about 5 AM. It’s extremely faint, of course. It will be extincted to a magnitude of about 14.5 on the 15th at its highest elevation.

The weather forecast for the 14th for the Hamilton area is for cloud and rain. In order to try to get a memento image, I have programmed one of the Sierra Stars Observatory Network telescopes to try to photograph the dwarf planet.

Happy Birthday Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan was a towering figure in science. He was born on November 9, 1934, in Brooklyn, New York, and died following a long battle with cancer on December 20, 1996, in Seattle, Washington. In between, in just 62 years, he reshaped public understanding of physics, astronomy, and space exploration. More than this, he was a leader in exploration and discovery, involved in many of the scientific teams behind truly ground-breaking space missions in the 1960s and 1970s, including the Apollo moon landings and the Viking missions to Mars.

I first started to encounter Carl Sagan as a popularizer of science while an undergraduate at University of Guelph, and wrote a couple of columns mentioning him for The Ontarion, the university’s newspaper, in the early 1980s. I briefly thought of pursuing grad work on exobiology but ended up continuing along with evolutionary ecology instead, at Guelph for a few more years. His influences are still all around us.

Visit the Carl Sagan Portal to experience a little of this amazing gentleman’s life and contributions: http://www.carlsagan.com/

Hang Out in the Galaxy Zoo

Would you like to contribute to something bigger than yourself? Have a few minutes every now and then, and access to a computer and the internet? You likely do if you’re reading this. If so, you too can help with research that is changing our understanding of the whole cosmos.

Galaxy Zoo is a new form of citizen science. Founded in 2007, the idea was very simple. Wonderful new telescopes and surveys of the sky were generating more information – more photographs of deep space – than the scientists behind the observing programs could possible classify. It’s not enough to just take a photograph of something to discover something new. You have to be able to “reduce” the observations into data – into a form that can be used to describe the scene statistically, or better, to test specific hypotheses.

Hubble Space Telescope image of deep space

An image of very deep space taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Everything in this image is a galaxy, from foreground to the most distant dot. Credit: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team. Source: http://hubblesite.org

Telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope (http://hubblesite.org/), and observing programs like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (http://www.sdss.org/) have imaged millions upon millions of very distant galaxies in certain areas of the sky. Some of these are billions of light years away. the challenge is that computers – so good at crunching information – are not yet very good at that “data reduction” step. In other words, you and I can look at a photo and tell right away if we’re looking at a photo of an elliptical galaxy (a little fuzzy blob of a thing), a spiral galaxy (a little fuzzy blob with distinct spiral structure), or something unusual (something that doesn’t fit the basic patterns).

So, in 2007 researchers reached out to the Internet – an early “cloud sourcing” exercise – for help. Now in its fourth iteration, Galaxy Zoo (http://www.galaxyzoo.org) lets users like you and me help with the mountain of galaxy images. In just a few minutes of preparation, you’ll be shown a photo of a galaxy and asked about its basic shape. A few other simple questions about what you see follows. All of your responses are taken by Galaxy Zoo by a simple “click on an icon” format. It’s a lot of fun, it’s real science, and some of the little galaxies you classify may never have been seen by anyone else (on Earth, that is). You can come back over and over, classifying more galaxies over time. You can also take on-line quizzes to test your knowledge about the universe.

As of 2012, the science team behind Galaxy Zoo have produced 25 scientific papers on the results of this effort. You can read all about the program, and also find links to the published results, at the Galaxy Zoo web site: http://www.galaxyzoo.org

Jump in! What are you waiting for?

 

Looking Forward to 2013

There are always lots of things happening in astronomy. Here are some anticipated highlights for 2013.

In the Sky

On 28 April 2013 the planet Saturn will be at opposition – the closest approach that the ringed planet makes to us during the mutual orbits of earth and Saturn. Will be the best time during the year to look at Saturn with a telescope. There’s also a partial (“penumbral”) lunar eclipse on the 18th of October, which might be visible in Ontario.

Nice meteor showers show up every year, assuming that the weather cooperates. Here are some of the more prominent ones:

  • Just after New Year, on January 3-4, the Quadrantids Meteor Shower is at its peak. A dark location after midnight is recommended; find the constellation Bootes to find the expected radiant point.
  • In August, the Perseids Meteor Shower presents its peak on the 12th and the 13th. This is always a favourite meteor shower, with as many as 60 meteors per hour showing up.
  • November has the Leonids Meteor Shower, peaking on the 17th and 18th. This shower looks like it’s originating in the constellation Leo, and will be best viewed after midnight.
  • In December, weather permitting, the Geminids Meteor Shower has its peak December 13-14. Best viewing will be after midnight, in the east.

Perhaps the most anticipated sights in 2013 are two comets expected to make interesting – and possibly spectacular – shows. Comet 2014 L4 (PanSTARRS) is currently being watched by astronomers in the southern hemisphere, but by March it should reach its greatest brightness and be visible up here in the north (http://cometography.com/lcomets/2011l4.html). 2014 L4 (PanSTARRS) is predicted to peak at a magnitude near -0.5 between 8-12 March 2013 (like a very bright star). Like the vast majority of comets, it will come no where near to the earth, never getting any closer than 0.3 AU – a third of the distance from the earth to the sun. By late May it should be very high in the night sky in the north – perhaps 5 degrees from Polaris – but will be much fainter too.

Great Comet of 1680.

A German engraving of the Great Comet of 1680. Some sources are prediction that Comet C/102 S1 (ISON) will be as spectacular… but only time will tell.

Also eagerly anticipated is Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON), (http://cometography.com/lcomets/2012s1.html). It was discovered this past September and might (emphasis might) be one of the greatest comets of recent memory. It will dip very close to the sun – about 0.1 AU or one tenth of the way from the earth to the sun – and may reach its maximum brightness on 28 November 2013. While very hard to predict, the size and orbit of the comet has some astronomers predicting a magnitude (brightness) of -13 for this beast. That’s brighter than the full moon! It may also have a very long tail. As comets are best described as irregular, big dirty snowballs, just how they behave when the sun starts to heat them up and generate their tails and other features is impossible to predict with precision. I’ll post updates (as will everyone interested in the sky, I’m sure!) as they become available.

(source of 17th C. illustration: http://ksj.mit.edu/tracker/2012/10/kehouflop-redux-out-near-saturn-monster).

On the Ground

This year the Hamilton Amateur Astronomers is hosting ASTROCATS 2013: The Canadian Astronomy Telescope Show, May 25th & 26th at the Sheridan College Athletics Centre, Oakville, Ontario. Unfortunately yours truly can’t attend, but it should be a great show, with a lot of vendors representing the best in astronomy gear (come to think of it, it’s likely a GOOD THING I can’t go. The national debt couldn’t take the strain): http://astrocats.ca/.

SkyFest is the annual three-day event put on by the North York Astronomical Association. August 8-11, 2013, held at River Place Park, RR 3, Ayton, Ontario (northwest of Mount Forest). It’s Canada’s biggest star party: http://www.nyaa.ca/index.php?page=/sf13/sf.home13.

Blogging as a Learning Experience

I’ve jumped into presenting the Pine River Observatory blog as a personal project this month. Now that I’ve a few posts under my belt perhaps a little commentary is appropriate.

I want to be upfront with everyone who’s taking a few minutes to read these posts (thank you, by the way). I am not a professional astronomer or physicist, and I don’t consider myself to be very experienced as an amateur astronomer, either.  Those of you who may know me personally will understand this point, but the question may still be in you minds: why, then, am I putting a blog out there for the world to see? What to I bring to the P.R.O. blog that might be worth-while for others to consider?

Hopefully you’ll be interested in the learning trajectory I have set for myself and may feel like following along.  The blog is a challenge to myself, to set up something that demands my attention and concentration, and that provides me with a chance to develop tools and ideas for my own application in astronomy and astrophotography. Critically, it gives me a ready platform to share some of the products of my creativity, in written and visual forms.

DAG_3075 cropped 1024

Looking north along the shore of Lake Huron toward Kincardine and the Bruce Nuclear Power Plant. A 30 second exposure taken 14 August 2012 at 11:30 PM, ISO 5000, f/3.5, Nikon D800 and 24mm wide-angle lens, with white balance set in the camera to a manual cool setting. Captured were a meteor (top left) and the Pleiades (M45; middle right).

I hope you will also enjoy the images I have been posting, and will continue to prepare and post. I am enchanted with viewing the night sky, and in capturing images of such a sweeping and inspiring nature.

What I do bring to the blog is a life-long passion for science, and a special interest in physics and astronomy that are nearly on a par with my professional fascination with biology and evolution. The two go hand in hand in many ways, and a certain synergy between these great branches of natural science will undoubtably creep into future postings. I envision that this blog will have a somewhat broader basis over time than “just” astronomy; it will not be an on-line log book of my own observations (although it might include such a feature at some point). I will be looking to add context to what I see in the sky, and to events as they unfold in science more generally, and I hope this will make the blog a richer experience for it. I also hope that you will feel free to provide me with feedback on the journey. Your thoughts are always appreciated.

© 2012, David Allan Galbraith

Light Pollution and Dark Skies

The world is full of the unintentional consequences of human activities. Light pollution is one of them. Where can you go to escape it?

We’re contending serious problems because of climate change, the release of chemical compounds into our environment that mimic hormones, the extinction of many, many species of animals and plants, and the list goes on. The overwhelming majority of these problems are unintentional. No one sat around thinking what a great idea it would be to lose a large portion of the earth’s biodiversity by accident. Light pollution is not on the same scale of problems as the present mass extinction crisis, but some species are badly affected by it (especially birds and insects). It has also been recognized as an issue of loss of cultural and scientific heritage.

On 5 December 2012, NASA released a series of images and videos of the earth’s surface as it looks at night, derived from photos taken by a NASA-NOAA satellite. The images have been dubbed “The Black Marble” and received a fair bit of press coverage (http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/NPP/news/earth-at-night.html). The images are beautiful, certainly, and you get a real sense of the mass – the spread – of the human population from them. We are truly a global species (David Suzuki has dubbed us a “SuperSpecies” – influencing the lives and fates of most, if not all, other species on earth).

They are also in a sense a map of “Dark Sky” areas – places where you can still hope to get a view of the night sky without the overwhelming warm glow of stray photons from street lamps, cars, highrises – well, you get the picture. Here’s Southern Ontario, a cropped view of one of NASA’s images, a stunning high-resolution composite covering much of North America (the source file is at: http://www.nasa.gov/images/content/712129main_8247975848_88635d38a1_o.jpg).

NASA Black Marble Cropped SO

Southern Ontario at night from space, cropped from a much larger image published by NASA in December 2012, part of the “Black Marble” project. Photo credit: NASA

So, where can you go in Southern Ontario to see dark skies? A great start are areas already designated as dark sky parks or preserves. Here are some main ones, plotted on an inverted version of the NASA photo:

 

Ontario Dark Sky Areas 2012

Prominent Dark Sky locations in Southern Ontario, plotted on an inverted image of the area from space at night. Dark areas represent highest concentrations of light pollution. Original photo credit: NASA

  1. Gordon’s Park, Manitoulin Island (the island follows practices to encourage a “dark sky” environment) –  Designated a Dark-Sky Preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada
  2. Bruce Peninsula Fathom Five National Marine Park, near Tobermory –  Designated a Dark-Sky Preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada
  3. Bluewater Outdoor Education Centre – Wiarton, ON
  4. Point Pelee National Park –  Designated a Dark-Sky Preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada
  5. Torrance Barrens – NE of Orillia. Designated a Dark-Sky Preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in November 2012
  6. Lennox-Addington Dark Sky Viewing Area – about 60 km NNW of Napanee, ON

Other areas recommended by some sources include:

  • Binbook Conservation Area – about 16 KM south of Hamilton, a favourite site of the Hamilton Amateur Astronomers
  • Fingal Wildlife Management Area, 30 km from London, Ontario.
  • Bon Echo Provincial Park, 100 km north of Prince Edward County
  • Charleston Lake Provincial Park, west of Brockville

UNESCO has a dark skies designation program underway, noting that dark skies are of scientific and also of cultural value. Royal Astronomical Society of Canada is also promoting the idea of Urban Star Parks – but there seems to only be one designation so far, in New Brunswick.

Links:

Text © 2012, David Allan Galbraith