Wandering through the realms of the cosmos, pondering its huge vastness

Astro Trivia

Photographing the Lunar ‘X’

Today I had a nice opportunity  to spot the “Lunar X” on the First Quarter Moon! The Lunar “X” is a well-known “optical feature” on the Moon, which resembles the letter “X” when the lunar terminator is along just the right lunar longitude. The intersecting crater walls of Purbach, La Caille and Blanchinus make the illusion “X” that is only visible for a short time.

Based on my observations during the past few months, it is possible to see the Lunar X when the moon is nearly 54% illuminated.This is why you cannot see it every month. In fact, the last time I was able to image it was during October 2012.

By the way,  I refer to Stellarium, a free planetarium software, to determine the lunar phase and illumination  during a particular date and time for my location. Note that the values given by Stellarium may not be very exact, but they are still very useful as guides for amateur astronomers.

lunar x - january 19 copy

My first image of the Lunar X:

Lunar X copy

Both images were taken using my Canon Powershot SX40 HS camera.

Paschal Full Moon and the Astronomy of Easter

The image shown above was last night’s Full Moon called the Paschal Full Moon.

In Christianity, the first astronomical full moon after the vernal (spring) equinox is usually designated as the Paschal Full Moon or the Paschal Term. Traditionally, Easter is observed on the Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon.

Image taken via afocal method (Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH2 on my Galileoscope)

Related links:

The Solitary Star

Fomalhaut, the Solitary star

Have you ever noticed the loneliest star?

Fomalhaut (or Alpha Piscis Austrini) is the brightest star in the faint constellation Piscis Austrinus – the Southern Fish – and the 17th or 18th brightest in the sky. It can be seen low in the southern sky during these evenings.

Fomalhaut, sometimes called the Autumn Star, appears in a part of the sky that is largely empty of bright stars. For this reason, it is also often called the Lonely One or Solitary One.

But, it’s been less lonely since the discovery of its planet ‘Fomalhaut b’ in 2008. Fomalhaut b – the first extrasolar planet to be imaged at visible wavelengths – orbits the loneliest star.

Fomalhaut is also one of the first known to have a disk of dust around it, a sign that more planets might be forming there.

Image taken last October 31, 2011 at 8:31 pm.

Halloween Celebration and Astronomy

IC 2118 (Witch Head Nebula) in Orion. Original image credit: NASA/STScI Digitized Sky Survey

Did you know that Halloween is a significant day on the astronomical calendar?

Surprising, isn’t it? Halloween means more than just a day for spooky stuff, costumes and candy treats. This celebration is actually a cross-quarter day which means it falls approximately half way between the Autumnal Equinox, the astronomical start of fall and Winter Solstice, the astronomical start of winter.

Red crosses mark the year’s cross-quarter dates. Credit: NASA

It’s no coincidence that Halloween has a dark side. Halloween is believed to have originated with the ancient Celtic harvest festival Samhain. Samhain roughly translates to “summer’s end”. It was the date that signaled the start of winter when most plant life is dead. A season where food would be limited and living conditions would be less than favorable. It was a day of celebration and of dread, the line between the living summer and the dead winter.  It was not until middle ages that the day was associated with the Christian holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Days.

This year’s Halloween has  a bit of something for everyone. This is because the eastern sky during late October nights is filled with deep sky treats for stargazers of all types.

For the naked eye observer, the first of the brilliant stars of winter start to peek over the eastern horizon: Capella and Aldebaran. Three of the nearest galactic star clusters are visible to the naked eye: the Pleiades, the Hyades, and the Perseus Moving Cluster.

Halloween Sky Treat — eastern sky on Oct. 31, 2011 (around 9:30 PM)

Want more? Check out these links to see a gallery of eerie and spooky space images:

Happy Halloween! 🙂

The ‘Mini’ Full Moon of 2011

October’s Full Hunter’s Moon nearly coincides with the apogee of the moon’s orbit, or the point at which the moon is farthest from Earth. That makes October’s full moon appear smaller than usual, the opposite of the “supermoon” effect that occurred earlier last March when the moon was full during its closest approach to Earth.

October’s (almost full) Hunter’s Moon surrounded by thick gray clouds. This was the smallest, farthest full moon in 2011.

The moon reached its peak fullness at 2:06 a.m. UT last Oct. 12. Shortly thereafter, the moon was at its farthest point from Earth, which it reaches once a month. The moon’s orbit is elliptical rather than perfectly circular, which is why the distance from Earth to the moon varies by tens of thousands of miles depending on the time of month and year. The moon’s orbit is also always slightly changing because of differing effects of the sun’s gravity.

Though we couldn’t notice with our own eyes, the Moon’s apparent size changes throughout the year and this is because of the phenomenon called Lunar libration, or the wobbling of the Moon.

Below is an animation which demonstrates this effect. It shows the geocentric phase, libration, position angle of the axis, and apparent diameter of the Moon throughout the year 2011, at hourly intervals.

Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

Clear skies!

Bye bye, Mr. Teapot

Sagittarius (plus a faint apparition of the Milky Way?) over our local suburb. Click on image to enlarge.

 As summer time has already ended, the constellation Sagittarius, along with the other Summer constellations sets earlier during the month of October.

Sagittarius is believed to have originated with the Babylonians. He was their god of War, and he stands with his bow aimed at the heart of Scorpius, the scorpion. Like Centaurus, he is a half man, half beast creature.

We in modern times may not be able to imagine the stars of Sagittarius as a Centaur. Instead, many stargazers know the stars of Sagittarius as a “Teapot”. This asterism is really easy to recognize.

Sagittarius is an important constellation in that it marks the direction of the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. It also contains more Messier objects than any other constellation in the sky.

Earlier this evening, I took the chance to take an image of the “Teapot” before it disappears in the night sky. I was also planning to image Scorpius but it was already too low in the south west. As I looked at the image more closely, I began to noticed something interesting. On the right (just above its lid), there is a faint cloud-like patch that resembles the Milky Way. I got surprised. 🙂

Could it be really possible to see a faint apparition of the Milky Way in this light-polluted suburb?

Perhaps, yes.

Happy Birthday Neptune!

On Tuesday, July 12, 2011, the planet Neptune will complete its first revolution around the sun since its discovery on September 23, 1846. As it takes Neptune 164.79 Earth-years to go full circle through the constellations of the Zodiac, it is only now completing its first full orbit since its detection by humans. Hence the anniversary celebration.

Neptune, the 8th planet outward from the sun, is presently the most distant planet in the solar system. That’s because the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto as a “dwarf planet” in 2006. By the way, Neptune circles the sun three times for every two times that Pluto does.

There is much to commemorate — Neptune’s discovery marked a turning point in astronomy. Its existence was revealed, not through a serendipitous observation by an astronomer but by the careful work of mathematicians. They calculated that perturbations in the orbit of Uranus, then thought to be the sun’s most distant planet, could only be explained by the existence of another, even remoter world whose gravity was affecting Uranus’s path.

The mathematicians – Englishman John Adams and Frenchman Urbain Le Verrier – made their calculations separately. Both agreed, however, where in the sky astronomers would pinpoint the planet causing those perturbations. But they dealt with the information very differently, says historian Allan Chapman of Wadham College, Oxford.

As Neptune is too faint to be seen by the naked eye,  a pair of binoculars or a telescope is needed to view this world if you know where to look.   This  detailed sky chart will help you to find Neptune’s place in the sky — it will be located in Aquarius, the constellation where astronomers discovered the blue planet.

Next month Neptune reaches opposition and is a decent target for observers.

Happy Birthday, Neptune!  🙂

Happy Summer Solstice!

Diagram showing the different positions of the Earth throughout its elliptical orbit around the Sun

According to PAGASA, Philippine nights are at their shortest and daytimes are at their longest around the Summer solstice, which falls on June 22 at 1:16 A.M. (Philippine Standard Time). This is the time when the Sun attains its greatest declination of +23.5 degrees and passes directly overhead at noon for all observers at latitude 23.5 degrees North, which is known as the Tropic of Cancer.

The Sun rises farthest from the east, sets farthest from the west and reaches its northern limit during the summer solstice. Image credit: Andrew Fazekas

Sol + stice derives from a combination of Latin words meaning “sun” + “to stand still.” As the days lengthen, the sun rises higher and higher until it seems to stand still in the sky.

Celebrating the Summer Solstice

Amazed by the great power of the sun, civilizations have for centuries celebrated the first day of summer otherwise known as the Summer Solstice, Midsummer (see Shakespeare), St. John’s Day, or the Wiccan Litha.

Perhaps the most enduring modern ties with Summer Solstice were the Druids’ celebration of the day as the “wedding of Heaven and Earth”, resulting in the present day belief of a “lucky” wedding in June.

Today, the day is still celebrated around the world – most notably in England at Stonehenge and Avebury, where thousands gather to welcome the sunrise on the Summer Solstice.

Sunrise over Stonehenge on the summer solstice, 21 June 2005 (image: Wikipedia)

Whatever religious, mystical or spiritual elements were central to Stonehenge, some archaeologists say that its design includes a celestial observatory function, which might have allowed prediction of eclipse, solstice, equinox and other celestial events important to a contemporary religion.

As a matter of fact, when one stands within Stonehenge (facing north-east through the entrance towards the Heel stone or Sun stone one sees the sun rise above the stone at summer solstice.

Red Moon in June: Public Stargazing and Total Lunar Eclipse Observation

The University of the Philippines Astronomical Society (UP AstroSoc) invites everyone in observing the spectacular total lunar eclipse on June 15 – 16!

After the moon got super huge last March 2011, this coming June 16 2011, the moon will once again be spectacular to watch as it turns red because of the total lunar eclipse.

The first of the two eclipses of 2011 will occur on the said date and it will start at around 1:25AM and will end at around 7AM but the fun part where it turns red will be on its totality at around 4AM.

What is more special about this eclipse is that this will be the darkest lunar eclipse in almost 100 years as the centers of the sun, the earth and the moon would nearly be on one straight line. This also means that the Moon will pass deeply through the Earth’s Umbral Shadow which will make the totality phase last about 100 minutes.

This event is open to all. Come and invite your family and friends, and witness this wonderful sky show.

Clear skies, everyone!

Spring’s First Full Moon Along Galaxy Street!

April’s Moon reached its full phase last April18 at 10:45 AM PST (2:45 AM UT).

During Palm Sunday in the Philippines last April 17, 2011, I and some friends spotted the 99.5% full Moon rising at dusk. It looked like a big ball of cheese hanging up in the sky along a street named Galaxy Street in Panorama, Marikina City.

It seemed larger near the horizon during moonrise than it does while higher up in the sky.

According to EarthSky.org, this is the first full moon of springtime for the northern hemisphere. We in this hemisphere call it the Pink Moon, to celebrate the return of certain wild flowers. Other names are Egg Moon, Sprouting Grass Moon, or Easter Moon.

The first Full Moon of spring is also usually designated as the Paschal Full Moon or the Paschal Term. In most years, the Christian celebration of Easter is observed on the Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon. If the Paschal Moon occurs on a Sunday, Easter is the following Sunday.

Interesting Fact:

For those living in the Southern Hemisphere, the autumn counterpart of the Paschal Full Moon is called Harvest Moon, the closest full moon to the autumnal equinox. 

What sets the Harvest Moon apart from the others is that instead of rising at its normal average of 50 minutes later each day, it seems to rise at nearly the same time for several nights.

However, in direct contrast to the Harvest Full Moon, the Paschal Full Moon appears to rise considerably later each night.

Here are the other photos taken by me and two of my fellow UP AstroSoc folks, Andre Obidos and Bea Banzuela.

A combination of the overexposed (1/8 sec exp., ISO-1600) and underexposed (1/320 sec. exp., ISO-400) photo of the Moon.

Cameras used:
*First 2 photos — Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS7 10.1 MP Digital Camera
*Wide angle photos — Canon PowerShot SX20 IS

All images can be clicked to see high-res versions.

Celebrating 50 Years of Space Flight

Google and Youtube are celebrating 50th Anniversary of Space flight! 😀

The Google Doodle’s art wizards have created a distinctly 1960s-looking version of the famous logo. 🙂

The first letter ‘o’ has been replaced with a drawing of Gagarin in his space suit while the second ‘o’ has become the planet Earth.

Charmingly, when you first see the logo, an animated spaceship launches from the planet’s surface. If you want to see it take off again, just hit refresh.

The Gagarin Google Doodle is the latest in a long line of artistic logo variations that the search engine has produced.

Yuri Gagarin: 50th Anniversary of First Human Spaceflight

Gagarin made history when his Vostok 1 spacecraft took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and completed a 108-minute orbit of the Earth on Tuesday April 12, 1961.

Unsurprisingly, he became a national hero and was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union.

Gagarin’s flight spurred the international space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, leading President John F. Kennedy to set the goal of being the first to land on the moon.

Seven years after Gagarin’s first journey into space, he was killed on a routine training flight. His pioneering legacy is remembered at Star City, Moscow’s oldest space-flight training facility.

Gagarin's Soviet Vostok-1 spaceship blasts off in Kazakhstan in 1961 (Picture: AFP/Getty)

Having a blast-off: Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin inside the Vostok 1 command capsule (Picture: AFP/Getty)


“What beauty. I saw clouds and their light shadows on the distant dear earth…. The water looked like darkish, slightly gleaming spots…. When I watched the horizon, I saw the abrupt, contrasting transition from the earth’s light-colored surface to the absolutely black sky. I enjoyed the rich color spectrum of the earth. It is surrounded by a light blue aureole that gradually darkens, becoming turquiose, dark blue, violet, and finally coal black.”

—  Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, Soviet pilot and cosmonaut
9 March 1934 – 27 March 1968



Astronomy Jokes

DID YOU KNOW that a new constellation has just taken hold of the sky, much to the surprise of many sky gazers? The constellation of Ollie the Owl has suddenly started dominating the southern hemisphere, as shown above. The constellation is taking the place of Wrinkles the Rhinoceros, who was unexpectedly voted off they sky by the other constellations.

April Fools! 😀

OK, folks. April 1 which is a day of practical jokes, leg pulling, parody and pranks in Western culture was just over —  but I since I found this APOD image while looking for April Fools’ Day pranks on the Internet I decided to compile a few astronomy and space related humor, including jokes, riddles, and cartoons to tickle your funny bone. By the way, those guys at APOD posts images like this every year.

Yeah, even astronomers play pranks, too. 😛

The pictured above, a bird was photographed taking the Tololo All Sky Camera (TASCA) as a perch, a situation that would be even funnier if the bird’s talons hadn’t scratched the plastic enclosing dome.

Have fun!

(images can be clicked to see hi-res versions)

Q: What did the astronaut cook for lunch?

A: An unidentified frying object.

Q: Why didn’t the dog star laugh at the joke?

A: It was too Sirius.



Q: How does the solar system holds up its pants?

A: With an asteroid belt.

Q: What kind of cartoons do Martians watch?

A: Loonertunes.


Q: If a meteorite hits a planet, what do we call the ones that miss?

A: Meteowrongs


Q: What did the boy star say to the girl star?

A: I really glow for you.


Q: Why was the baby constellation sillier than the daddy constellation?

A: Because he was a little dipier.


Q: What do you call a crazy moon?

A: A Luna-Tick.

Q: What kind of songs do the planets like to sing?

A: Nep-tunes.


Q: What kind of light goes around the Earth?

A: A satel-lite.



Q: What did Saturn say to Jupiter when he asked if he could call him?

A: Don’t call me, I’ll give you a ring.


Q: How does the man in the moon cut his hair?

A: Eclipse it.



A spiral galaxy walks into a pub. The landlord says “Sorry mate, you’re barred”.


It is estimated that 3.71 X 10^10 “first-star-tonight” wishes have been wasted on Venus.


Can’t get enough of funny astronomy cartoons? Visit this site!

Also, check out Popcorn Astronomy Page on Facebook to view cool astronomy stuff.  🙂



Happy March Equinox!

Before I forgot… Happy Equinox, everyone! 🙂

The word “equinox” derives from the Latin words meaning “equal night” and refers to the time when the sun crosses the equator. At such times, day and night are of nearly equal length everywhere in the world.

While the March equinox marks the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, it is the start of autumn in many parts of the southern hemisphere.


an illustration of the March Equinox, not to scale

During the equinox, the length of night and day across the world is nearly, but not entirely, equal. This is because the day is slightly longer in places that are further away from the equator, and because the sun takes longer to rise and set in these locations. Furthermore, the sun takes longer to rise and set farther from the equator because it does not set straight down – it moves in a horizontal direction.

Moreover, there is an atmospheric refraction that causes the sun’s disk to appear higher in the sky than it would if earth had no atmosphere.

How high the Sun gets in your sky, and how long it is above the horizon during the day, depend not only on the season, but also on your latitude.


Related links:

“Learn Astronomy in a Fun Way!” — Popcorn Astronomy

Get to know more about Astronomy in a more fun and interesting way through Popcorn Astronomy!

Popcorn Astronomy's logo by Ronald Buenaflor.

Like Popcorn Astronomy on Facebook!

A friend and fellow amateur astronomer from the University of the Philippines Astronomical Society (UP Astrosoc), Ronald Buenaflor coined this term to describe learning seemingly difficult astronomical concepts through an easier, interesting and “digestible” manner. According to him, “It’s like eating popcorns while looking up the sky”. Popcorn Astronomy’s Facebook page aims to share trivia and other fun stuff related to astronomy to make it more fascinating for everyone.

Astronomy is a cool science. Whether you are simply a gazer of stars or an avid student of astronomy, there is always something new to learn about our galaxy and beyond. The study of astronomy gives us essential information about the universe that is used for practical and scientific applications.

Despite astronomy being the scientific study of the heavens, you don’t have to be a scientist to be an astronomer. Anyone with the proper know-how, determination, and persistence , with or without  equipment,  can make contributions to the field of astronomy. In fact, astronomy is one of the fields whose body of knowledge can and is regularly enlarged by the efforts of amateurs. This is especially true when it comes to observing and documenting transient phenomena, where professional astronomers simply may not be available to observe them.

Astronomy is simply amazing that’s why I love it. 😀 It’s beautiful, it ignites our curiosity, it’s extreme, and it tells a lot about our past and future.  😀

To the stars!

Ophiuchus — A New Zodiac Sign???

Hey, have you checked your daily horoscope? 😀

Well, think again because you might be surprised to learn that you are no longer a Gemini, an Aquarian or whatever you call yourself as an individual who is under one particular sign of the zodiac based on Astrology.

Please don’t get me wrong. I haven’t convinced myself to shift my interest in astronomy into studying and forecasting the future of people according to stellar and planetary movements.

Though they may sound the same, Astrology and Astronomy are pretty much different from each other. “Astronomy deals with the study of celestial objects (such as stars, planets, comets, nebulae, star clusters and galaxies) and phenomena that originate outside the Earth’s atmosphere (such as the cosmic background radiation). Astrology on one hand, are set of beliefs and traditions which hold that the relative positions of celestial bodies and related details can provide information about personality, human affairs and other “earthly” matters”.” (Wikipedia)

I was just overwhelmed to see how this news about the “new zodiac sign” – which was supposedly not news anymore especially to astronomy buffs – spread like wildfire all over local television and the Internet. Below are some of the links I found which contained the topic.

Yahoo News: Earth’s rotation causes new zodiac sign assignments

Yahoo News: Horoscope Hang-Up: Earth Rotation Changes Zodiac Signs

ABS-CBN News: What’s your sign? Double-check ‘new’ zodiac before answering

A Pakistan Times: New Zodiac Signs 2011

CBS News: Zodiac: What’s Your New Sign?

NewsTube: New Zodiac sign dates: Don’t switch horoscopes yet

There are a lot more of these that you could find online. According to these news, a certain Parke Kunkle of the Minnesota Planetarium Society said that because of the moon’s gravitational pull on Earth, the alignment of the stars was pushed by about a month which prompted new consideration of a new sign — Ophiuchus —  into standard zodiacs.

“Astronomers from the Minnesota Planetarium Society have found that the moon’s gravitational pull on the Earth changed our planet’s position in relation to its axis, making the original alignment of the stars, the basis for the zodiac signs, “off” by about a month. Thus, a thirteenth zodiac sign, Ophiuchus, was added to the original 12.” (Yahoo News)

Precession—the change in orientation of the Earth's rotational axis. (Source: NASA)

Read more about precession and its effects here.

If you’re gonna ask me whether this is true or not, I would definitely say yes, it is true. But here’s the catch: this truth has been established a long time ago and in fact, there’s really nothing new about it.

The constellation Ophiuchus

Ophiuchus was recognised as a part of the zodiac by the  International Astronomical Union in 1930, during the time when IAU set the official constellation boundaries. Each constellation was published as a set of specifications that reads like a surveyor’s plot of irregular parcels of land. The redrawing of the boundaries is what caused this addition of a constellation to the Zodiac.

However, the fact is that Ophiuchus was recognized as a zodiacal constellation at least 1700 years before the IAU even came into existence. Even Ptolemy’s “Almagest”, written in the 2nd century A.D., recognised Ophiuchus as a part of the zodiac.

The Zodiac, the constellations that lie on the plane of the ecliptic through which the Sun passes in the course of a year, now has 13 constellations* – not 12 – including Ophiuchus or “the Serpent Bearer”. The Sun is in front of its stars during the first half of December and as it turns out, most Sagittarians are really Ophiuchans.

*Note: The signs are named after twelve of the constellations that coincide with the ecliptic, though they no longer correspond well to them due to precession. The zodiac is a celestial coordinate system, or more specifically an ecliptic coordinate system, taking the ecliptic as the origin of latitude, and the position of the sun at vernal equinox as the origin of longitude.

Below is a list of constellations and the dates the Sun now appears in front of those stars in the 21st century.

Constellations of the Zodiac (Google Images)

SAGITTARIUS December 19 – January 20
CAPRICORNUS January 21 – February 16
AQUARIUS February 17 – March 13
PISCES March 14 – April 19
ARIES April 20 – May 15
TAURUS May 16 – June 21
GEMINI June 22 – July 21
CANCER July 22 – August 10
LEO August 11 – September 17
VIRGO September 18 – October 31
LIBRA November 1 – November 24
SCORPIUS November 25 – November 30
OPHIUCHUS December 1 – December 18

So why do we have a new astrological sign, Ophiuchus? It turns out that the answer is far less scientific.  Back in ancient times, when the dates of the astrological signs were solidified, astrologers divided the sun’s path through the stars into twelve equally-spaced segments.  Each of the twelve segments was assigned to a different constellation.  But the fact of the matter is that these constellations are not equally sized.  In fact, the “size” of a constellation isn’t even very well defined, since what is a constellation but a set of stars that’s supposed to look like something (but usually doesn’t really). As I what I have written above, It was only then in 1930 that these constellation boundaries were made specific.

Going back to those articles, I found out that Parke Kunkle is indeed a professional astronomer, a Minneapolis professor and MnPS board member. He was first interviewed by the Star Tribune regarding this topic on the additional zodiacal constellation. Here is the link to the original article. However, contrary to what it appears like, this guy is a no fanatic of Astrology.

“There is no physical connection between constellations and personality traits,” said Kunkle, who teaches astronomy at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. “Sure, we can connect harvest to the stars,” he said. “But personality? No.”

Historically, people looked at the sky to understand the world around us,” he said. “But today I don’t think people who are into astrology look at the sky very much.” (startribune.com)

I also got to find this part of a note from the Facebook Fanpage of Minnesota Planetarium Society which contained his statement about the spreading of this news:

In science we deal with a long tradition of fact based investigation. We are not in the business of interpreting  the purported relation between the positions of planets and human affairs.”

From this I could say that this particular issue must have been another product of biased reporting and sensationalism caused and spread by improper media coverage. Complex subjects and affairs like this one, are often subject to sensationalism.

Anyway, If you happen to be a proud Ophiuchan, your constellation has several astronomical splendor that actually exist in the sky. First of all it contains seven Messier globular clusters- M9, M10, M12, M14, M19, M62 and M107- making Ophiuchus pretty much a good spot for globular clusters. Also, NGC 6240, the strange remnant of a merger between two smaller galaxies, resulting in a single larger galaxy, with two distinct nuclei and a highly disturbed structure. The high proper motion star and one of the closest stars to the Sun, Barnard’s Star can be found in Ophiuchus, as well as RS Ophiuchi, a recurrent nova thought to be teetering on the brink of becoming a Type 1A supernova.

It’s fun to learn the meaning and the legends behind all the astronomical names, made up by people thousands of years ago as they looked to the sky in amazement at celestial patterns and motions they didn’t understand.  But it’s a lot more fun to observe the heavens through the eyes of a 21st century critically thinking human being, capable of understanding to a great extent, the origin, history and fate of our universe. The universe is beautiful, amazing and mysterious without the mumbo-jumbo. 😀


Enjoy November’s Blue Moon

This month’s full moon on the 22nd is a Blue Moon, but don’t expect it to be blue — the term has nothing to do with the color of our closest celestial neighbor.

In the 21st century, the term Blue Moon has two meanings. According to the popular definition*, it is the second Full Moon to occur in a single calendar month. The Old Farmer’s Almanac on the other hand defined a Blue Moon as the third full moon in a season with four full moons. Both definitions are now widely accepted.

The November 22, 2010 Blue Moon is the third of four full moons between the September 2010 equinox and December 2010 solstice.

The relative rarity of this phenomenon is the reason why the idiomatic expression “once in a blue moon” is used to describe the rarity of an event.

Blue moons have no astronomical significance, Greg Laughlin, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz told Inquirer.net. “‘Blue moon’ is just a name in the same sense as a ‘hunter’s moon’ or a ‘harvest moon,’” according to him.

However, this month’s Blue moon will be more notable because the spectacular open star clusters, the Pleiades and their sisters the Hyades would be seen just about 10 degrees away from the Full Moon on that night.

Blue Moon, the V-shaped Hyades and the blue stars of Pleiades on Nov. 22, 2010 at 8 PM local time (Click to enlarge)

To most meteor shower enthusiasts and lunar photographers, a Full moon is less interesting because it interferes with meteor shower observations due to its brightness. This also makes the moon look flat, making the shadows of the lunar craters and mountains hard to see.

Anyway, here are ways to enjoy a Full Moon’s night from amateur astronomer, AstroBob .

Full Moon during the Partial Lunar Eclipse last June 26, 2010

There’s always so much interesting history to learn about the Moon and how we view it from Earth, and learning about it makes me appreciate the Moon just a little bit more each time I look at it.
So relax and enjoy the gorgeous sight of this month’s Blue Moon and try to do something special to mark this event on the night of November 22. 😛

* The idea of a Blue Moon as the second full moon in a month stemmed from the March 1946 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine, which contained an article called “Once in a Blue Moon” by James Hugh Pruett. Pruett was using a 1937 Maine Farmer’s Almanac, but he simplified the definition. He wrote: “Seven times in 19 years there were — and still are — 13 full moons in a year. This gives 11 months with one full moon each and one with two. This second in a month, so I interpret it, was called Blue Moon.”

Later, this definition of Blue Moon was also popularized by a book for children by Margot McLoon-Basta and Alice Sigel, called “Kids’ World Almanac of Records and Facts,” published in New York by World Almanac Publications, in 1985. The second-full-moon-in-a-month definition was also used in the board game Trivial Pursuit.  source: EarthSky.org

Jupiter and Uranus Aligns with the ‘Super Harvest Moon’ on the night of Autumnal Equinox

In the Philippines, this year’s autumnal or fall equinox will occur on September 23, 2010 at 11:oo AM (UTC+8).

Equinox is the time when  the length of night and day across the world is nearly, but not entirely, equal. The real time when there would be exactly 12 hours of sunlight and 12 hours of night usually occurs a few days after an equinox  — this time it will happen on October 1. After this, Philippine nights will be longer as the Sun approaches the celestial equator.

The full moon during the night of the equinox will be extra special because for the first time in almost 20 years, northern autumn is beginning on the night of a full Moon which is called the ‘Super Harvest Moon”.

Usually, the Harvest Moon (the name for the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox) arrives a few days to weeks before or after the beginning of fall. It’s close, but not a perfect match. The Harvest Moon of 2010, however, reaches maximum illumination a mere six hours after the equinox. This has led some astronomers to call it the “Harvestest Moon” or a “Super Harvest Moon.” There hasn’t been a comparable coincidence since Sept 23, 1991, when the difference was about 10 hours, and it won’t happen again until the year 2029.

On the same night, the Harvest Moon can be found soaring high overhead with the bright planet Jupiter and fainter Uranus beside it. These objects in the night sky will be in spectacular conjunction to mark the change in seasons.

You can easily catch them in the eastern sky just a few minutes after sunset. Keep an eye on the Moon as it creeps above the eastern skyline. The golden orb may appear strangely inflated but his is just the lunar illusion at work. For reasons not fully understood by astronomers or psychologists, a low-hanging Moon appears much wider than it really is. A Harvest Moon inflated by the moon illusion is simply gorgeous.

Jupiter (still shining at -2.79 magnitude) will be less than 1 degree from fainter Uranus. You need telescopes or binoculars to see Uranus though. The full moon will be just about 10 degrees apart from these two.

Clear skies and happy viewing! 😀

Eid’l Fitr – An Astronomical Date

In the Philippines, September 10 was declared as a non-working holiday to give way for the celebration for the end of the Muslims’ holy month of fasting, the Ramadan.

Eid” is an Arabic word meaning “festivity” while “Fiṭr” means “to purify.” The holiday is thus a symbol of purification after completing the fasting month.

According to a fellow Filipino amateur astronomer, Eid’l Ftr has its own astronomical roots. Below was quoted from his original post.

I read about the Astronomical basis of the date of Eid’l Fitr and this is what I learned. To those more knowledgeable than me, please correct me if something here is wrong.

Eid’l Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, a whole month of fasting which starts on the first day of the 9th month of the Islamic calendar. Thus, Eid’l Fitr is celebrated every first day of the 10th month of the Islamic calendar.

The Islamic calendar (or the Hijri calendar) is based on the synodic month* and starts on a New Moon. It consists of 12 synodic months. As computed, it is 10 to 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar we widely use. Thus, Eid’l Fitr is celebrated 10 to 11 days earlier each year. Next year, it will be on the 31th of August.

*The synodic month is the period it takes the moon to reach the same exact phase. (e.g. one new moon to another new moon) It lasts for 29.531 days. Thus, 12 synodic months consists of 354.372 days.

Sometimes it’s also fun to learn the role of astronomy in several cultural practices of different societies. 😀

The Mars Hoax: Double Moon on August 2010

We can never see Mars as big as this without the aid of telescopes

“On August 27th … Mars will look as large as the full moon.”


It’s August once again and so it marks the annual return of the Mars Hoax. The Mars Hoax Season reaches its height in August when emails are flying around the internet claiming Mars will be as big as the full Moon.

Well, the truth is, Mars can never appear as large as a full moon as seen from Earth.

I first received a forwarded email about this during 2003 or 2005 and almost every year, I see a copy of the same message in my inbox, with its contents being recycled and recirculated.

According to some analysis done by researchers, the email began circulating since 2003. The original message somewhat looks like the one below:

“The Red Planet is about to be spectacular! This month and next, Earth is catching up with Mars in an encounter that will culminate in the closest approach between the two planets in recorded history. The next time Mars may come this close is in 2287. Due to the way Jupiter’s gravity tugs on Mars and perturbs its orbit, astronomers can only be certain that Mars has not come this close to Earth in the Last 5,000 years, but it may be as long as 60,000 years before it happens again.

The encounter will culminate on August 27th when Mars comes to within 34,649,589 miles (55,763,108 km) of Earth and will be (next to the moon) the brightest object in the night sky. It will attain a magnitude of -2.9 and will appear 25.11 arc seconds wide. At a modest 75-power magnification Mars will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. Mars will be easy to spot. At the beginning of August it will rise in the east at 10 p.m. and reach its azimuth at about 3 a.m.

By the end of August when the two planets are closest, Mars will rise at nightfall and reach its highest point in the sky at 12:30 a.m. That’s pretty convenient to see something that no human being has seen in recorded history. So, mark your calendar at the beginning of August to see Mars grow progressively brighter and brighter throughout the month. Share this with your children and grandchildren. NO ONE ALIVE TODAY WILL EVER SEE THIS AGAIN.”

Well, some of the things mentioned here are true. During 2003, when this hoax started, Mars really did come within 35 million miles of Earth, the closest in recorded history.  That really was an unusually close approach and Mars appeared much brighter than usual.  The problem is that the original article had a line about when viewed through a telescope at 75x (75 times actual size) Mars would appear the same size as the full Moon.  In other words, Mars to the unaided eye, would be 1/75 as large as the full Moon (not nearly as impressive).It will look like a bright red star, a pinprick of light, certainly not as wide as the full Moon.

Moon and Mars comparison

If Mars did come close enough to rival the Moon, its gravity would alter Earth’s orbit and raise terrible tides.

Mars has a very elliptical orbit so sometimes we have closer approaches than others.  The most recent opposition (closest approach) occurred on January 29th, 2010 and Mars was about 99 million kilometers (about 60 million miles) away. However, Mars was not as bright at the 2010 opposition as it can be. Depending on the opposition, Mars can be as close as 35 million miles from Earth just like the case in 2003, when Mars came minutely closer to Earth than it had been in almost 60,000 years. These very close martian oppositions happen every 15 or 17 years. They happen when Earth passes between the sun and Mars within a few weeks of Mars’ perihelion (the point in its orbit when it is closest to the sun).

Still, Mars is fascinating to look at. This month, Mars can be spotted in the western sky after sunset with the other naked eye planets Saturn, Venus and Mercury.

For further reading, the following articles may be useful:

Beware the Mars Hoax

Mars August 2010


How can you see Mars in July and August 2010

As a piece of advice, when you receive some emails you really feel compelled to forward, read again, google it and confirm its authenticity before forwarding them 😀


image credits:

(Mars) http://www.hubblesite.org

(Moon and Mars) Mars NASA/STSci; Moon David Le Conte.  Graphic: David Le Conte.

List of common misconceptions in Astronomy

– It is commonly claimed that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from the Moon. This is false. None of the Apollo astronauts reported seeing any man-made object from the Moon. The misconception is believed to have been popularized by Richard Halliburton decades before the first moon landing.

– Black holes, unlike the common image, do not act as cosmic vacuum cleaners any more than do other stars. When a star evolves into a black hole, the gravitational attraction at a given distance from the body is no greater than it was for the star. That is to say, were the Sun to be replaced by a black hole of the same mass, the Earth would continue in the same orbit (assuming spherical symmetry of the sun). Due to a black hole’s formation being explosive in nature, the object would lose a certain amount of its energy in the process, which, according to the mass–energy equivalence, means that a black hole would be of lower mass than the parent object, and actually have a weaker gravitational pull.

– When a meteor lands on Earth (after which it is termed a meteorite), it is not usually hot. In fact, many are found with frost on them. A meteor’s great speed during entry is enough to melt or vaporize its outermost layer, but any molten material will be quickly blown off (ablated), and the interior of the meteor does not have time to heat up because rocks are poor conductors of heat. Also, atmospheric drag can slow small meteors to terminal velocity by the time they hit the ground, giving the surface time to cool down.

– It is a common misconception that seasons are caused by the Earth being closer to the Sun in the summer than in the winter. In fact, the Earth is actually farther from the Sun when it is summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Seasons are actually the result of the Earth being tilted on its axis by 23.5 degrees. As the Earth orbits the Sun, different parts of the world receive different amounts of direct sunlight. In July, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun giving longer days and more direct sunlight; in December, it is tilted away. The seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, which is tilted towards the Sun in January and away from the Sun in July. In tropical areas of the world, there is no noticeable change in the amount of sunlight.

– It is a common misconception that it’s easier to balance an egg on its end on the first day of spring. In fact, the ease or difficulty of balancing an egg is the same 365 days a year. This myth is said to originate with the egg of Li Chun, an ancient Chinese folk belief that it is easier to balance an egg on Li Chun, the first day of spring in the Chinese lunar calendar. In Chinese Li=setup/erect; Chun=spring/egg. Setup spring is a Chinese solar term, literally interpreted as erecting an egg for fun. It was introduced to the western world in a Life article in 1945, and popularized once again by self-titled ‘urban shaman’ Donna Henes, who has hosted an annual egg balancing ceremony in New York City since the mid-1970s.

– Mars will look as big as the Full Moon. Not only is this statement untrue, but, like the Energizer bunny, it keeps going and going. Mars makes a great telescopic sight when it’s closest to Earth. However, it will never appear as large as the Full Moon to the naked eye.

via Stars and Constellations Face book Fan Page 🙂