Tag Archives: Gemini

NASA Night Sky Notes for December 2018: Observe Apollo 8’s Lunar Milestones

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in December, 2018.

By David Prosper

December marks the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 8 mission, when humans first orbited the Moon in a triumph of human engineering. The mission may be most famous for “Earthrise,” the iconic photograph of Earth suspended over the rugged lunar surface. “Earthrise” inspired the imaginations of people around the world and remains one of the most famous photos ever taken. This month also brings a great potential display of the Geminids and a close approach by Comet 46P/Wirtanen.

You can take note of Apollo 8’s mission milestones while observing the Moon this month. Watch the nearly full Moon rise just before sunset on December 21, exactly 50 years after Apollo 8 launched; it will be near the bright orange star Aldebaran in Taurus. The following evenings watch it pass over the top of Orion and on through Gemini; on those days five decades earlier, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders sped towards the Moon in their fully crewed command module. Notice how the Moon rises later each evening, and how its phase wanes from full on Dec 22 to gibbous through the rest of the week. Can you imagine what phase Earth would appear as if you were standing on the Moon, looking back? The three brave astronauts spent 20 sleepless hours in orbit around the Moon, starting on Dec 24, 1968. During those ten orbits they became the first humans to see with their own eyes both the far side of the Moon and an Earthrise! The crew telecast a holiday message on December 25 to a record number of Earthbound viewers as they orbited over the lifeless lunar terrain; “Good night, good luck, a merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.” 50 years later, spot the Moon on these holiday evenings as it travels through Cancer and Leo. Just two days later the astronauts splashed down into the Pacific Ocean after achieving all the mission’s test objectives, paving the way for another giant leap in space exploration the following year.

The Geminids, an excellent annual meteor shower, peaks the evening of December 13 through the morning of the 14th. They get their chance to truly shine after a waxing crescent Moon sets around 10:30 pm on the 13th. Expert Geminid observers can spot around 100 meteors per hour under ideal conditions. You’ll spot quite a few meteors by avoiding bad weather and light pollution if you can, and of course make sure to bundle up and take frequent warming breaks. The Geminids have an unusual origin compared to most meteor showers, which generally spring from icy comets. The tiny particles Earth passes through these evenings come from a strange “rock comet” named asteroid 3200 Phaethon. This dusty asteroid experiences faint outbursts of fine particles of rock instead of ice.

You can also look for comet 46P/Wirtanen while you’re out meteor watching. Its closest approach to Earth brings it within 7.1 million miles of us on December 16. That’s 30 times the average Earth-Moon distance! While passing near enough to rank as the 10th closest cometary approach in modern times, there is no danger of this object striking our planet. Cometary brightness is hard to predict, and while there is a chance comet 46P/Wirtanen may flare up to naked eye visibility, it will likely remain visible only via binoculars or telescopes. You’ll be able to see for yourself how much 46P/Wirtanen actually brightens. Some of the best nights to hunt for it will be December 15 and 16 as it passes between two prominent star clusters in Taurus: the Pleiades and the V-shaped Hyades. Happy hunting!

Catch up on all of NASA’s past, current, and future missions at nasa.gov.

Caption: Earthrise, 1968. Note the phase of Earth as seen from the Moon. Nearside lunar observers see Earth go through a complete set of phases. However, only orbiting astronauts witness Earthrises; for stationary lunar observers, Earth barely moves at all. Why is that? Credit: Bill Anders/NASA

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Upstate NY Stargazing In April: The Lyrid Meteor Shower – Posted To syracuse.com And nyup.com

Greetings, fellow astrophiles!

The April, 2018 UNY Stargazing article is up for your reading and sharing pleasure at syracuse.com and newyorkupstate.com:

Links: newyorkupstate.com & syracuse.com

There are still random listserv mentions of hosted Messier Marathons among some of the local clubs. Be sure to check your local astronomy club to see if any events are being scheduled. I wasn’t sure if the article was going to come out before or after the Tiangong-1 final descent, so kept the opening discussion of potential problems with things “up there” general. On top of some excellent planetary viewing this month, The Lyrids make their yearly return, then we continue to zodiac discussion with Gemini – perfectly placed in the western skies this evening for some strain-free scope and bino observing.

The good, the bad, and the potentially ugly things that fall from space. Micrometeorites (IFLScience.com), a SkyLab fragment (from wikipedia), and the Chelyabinsk meteor trail (Alex Alishevskikh).

When asked to list the contents of our Solar System, some stop at the Sun, planets, and moons. Others will remember comets – a list of objects that grows much longer every year. For those looking for up-to-date info, see minorplanetcenter.net – we have comfortably cleared the 4000 comet mark. Some may add the asteroid belt – a region between Mars and Jupiter which looks less like the chaotic debris field from “The Empire Strikes Back” and more like oases of larger rocks separated by vast, empty deserts of tiny particles. Don’t forget the currently 18,000-long list of NEOs, or Near-Earth Objects.

These are among the more than 18,000 reasons why the late-great Stephen Hawking and others have championed the need for colonization beyond the Earth’s surface.

Changing positions in the sky is one thing – changing elevations is very different. Occasional bright flares make the news when captured on video. Events like Tunguska and Chelyabinsk remind us that there thing in space we might miss that could level cities. We are fortunate that most of the roughly 160 tons of debris from space that hits the Earth *each day* is in the form of micrometeorites that you could start collecting with a strong magnet and a flat rooftop.

The highly-anticipated demise of the Tiangong-1 over the weekend was a reminder that we may not be able to always rely on the “dilution-solution” of handling our garbage. Our planet is large, spherical, mostly covered in water, and largely unpopulated – but the number of satellites going to space will only increase as launches get cheaper. It remains to be seen if nations will opt to address the dangers of space junk before or after something serious – and unavoidable – happens here on the ground.

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Upstate NY Stargazing In March: Two Full Moons, Venus And Mercury After Sunset – Posted To syracuse.com And nyup.com

Greetings, fellow astrophiles!

The March, 2018 UNY Stargazing article is up for your reading and sharing pleasure at syracuse.com and newyorkupstate.com:

Links: newyorkupstate.com & syracuse.com

Note that March is the best month for planning your Messier Marathon. Be sure to check your local astronomy club to see if any events are being scheduled.

The best-of-winter constellations over Baltimore Woods in Marcellus, NY. The bright star at lower-center is Sirius in Canis Major. To its right and up, the belt of Orion, the five-star “V” of Taurus, and the Pleiades star cluster near the image edge. Photo by the author.

There were a few evenings this past February that were unexpectedly comfortable for the time of year, hopefully giving observers some unexpectedly long opportunities to take in some of the busiest regions of our nighttime sky. To have the grouping of the Winter Hexagon – Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Gemini, Canis Minor, and Canis Major – out and about at such reasonable hours means that anyone can see not only the brightest grouping of bright stars in our yearly sky, but also some of the closest groups of stars. The Hyades star cluster, made up of the “V” of the head of Taurus the Bull – but not including the bright eye star Aldebaran – is our closest star cluster at 150 light years. Just to the northwest of the Hyades lies the second-closest bright cluster of stars to our Solar System – the Pleiades.

If you can find the Pleiades and the patch of stars under Orion’s Belt, you can even scratch two of the 110 Messier Objects off of your list. The history and some key details of the Messier Objects were discussed in the March, 2017 article. In brief – these are the bright galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae that can all be found with little more than a quality pair of binoculars, dark skies, a good star chart, and a big cup of coffee. The time around mid-March and early-April is the only time of the year when, if you start VERY soon after sunset, you can find all 110 of these objects before sunrise the next morning. Astronomy clubs the world over often plan marathons as a group – these are great opportunities to learn from seasoned amateurs as well as to see how the same object may look in many different binoculars and telescopes.

The 110 Messier Objects through highest-quality optics. Images compiled by Michael A. Phillips.

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Also, in the event, February flew too quickly for the post. The February, 2018 article is linked to below:

Links: newyorkupstate.com & syracuse.com