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

The Solar System

Goodbye 2012. Hello 2013!

happy new year

Fireworks display after the 2012 UP Lantern Parade in Diliman, Quezon City.

Sparkling, warm and heartfelt new year wishes for you and your loved ones. Happy New Year, folks! 😀

last sunset 2012

Last glimpse of the 2012 Sun featuring 2 sunspot groups – AR 1638 (center) and 1640 (right).

2012 has been a huge year for astronomy observing, with some rare and exciting things that took place including the transit of Venus, occultation of Jupiter, solar and lunar eclipses, planetary conjunctions, and many more.

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This 2013, a new comet is predicted to blaze brilliantly in the skies and is expected to reach naked eye visibility by early November 2013. If Comet ISON lucks out, we could well be raving about the Great Christmas Comet of 2013 by this time next year. Watch out for it!

Comet McNaught Over New Zealand. Credit & Copyright: Minoru Yonet

Comet McNaught Over New Zealand. Credit & Copyright: Minoru Yonet


Crescent Moon, Venus and Jupiter at Predawn on July 15th

Eastern sky at 4:00 am local time. Manila, Philippines. Image: Stellarium

Philippine sky observers will have a great chance to see all of the three  brightest objects of the night sky in close proximity to each other this weekend (weather permitting). On the morning of July 15th, the waning crescent moon will join the very bright “stars” Jupiter (upper) and Venus (lower) to form a nice celestial grouping, along with two prominent open star clusters — the Pleiades and the V-shaped Hyades —  in the constellation Taurus.

Venus has reached its greatest illuminated extent in Earth’s sky last July 12. Thus, it appears so dazzling now as a “morning star”  in our predawn sky, near Jupiter.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the globe, this celestial grouping event will be viewed as an occultation of Jupiter by the moon. An occultation is an event in which a celestial body covers another, farther away object, such as when the moon covers a star or a planet or when a planet or an asteroid covers a far away star. For this event, the moon will cover Jupiter for about an hour (the exact time and durtaion of the occultation is  dependent on the observer’s location). View the visibility map and timings of this event from IOTA.

Seeing Jupiter’s occultation is possible with the naked eye, but the look through a telescope, even using a small magnification, is marvelous. At first, two of Jupiter’s large moons (Io and Europa) will disappear behind the moon, then Jupiter will disappear and then the other two moons (Ganymede and Callisto).

Places close to the southeast will witness a ‘grazing occulation’ when Jupiter and its moons will skim the edge of the Moon. This will be well worth seeing through a telescope and Jupiter’s moons may be seen blinking in and out of view as they pass behind the lunar mountains. Further north and west a very close conjunction will be seen.

Don’t worry because even though we won’t be seeing this event in the Philippines this weekend, we are still lucky enough to see a very rare version of such an event next month, during the morning of August 12, 2012. That will be surely worth getting up to see!

jupiter-occultation-jul-201

Moon occulting Jupiter with its moons. Image: Stellarium

Observing occultations can also contribute to science. During the 80’s, Uranus occulated a distant star. Photos of the events showed that just before and after the occultation the star blinked several times. The theory then was developed that Uranus has a set of rings (like Saturn). When Voyager 2 reached Uranus it detected and photographed the predicted rings.

Don’t miss this event. Clear skies!

Related link: List of Notable Celestial Events in 2012


A Fifth Moon Around Pluto!

July 11, 2012: A team of astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope reported the discovery of another new moon orbiting the icy dwarf planet Pluto, meaning the dwarf planet now has 5 moons. So there is Charon, Hydra, Nix, P4 and Yet-to-be-named moon. The 4th moon, P4, was only discovered about a year ago.

The “new” moon is estimated to be irregular in shape and 6 to 15 miles across. It is in a 58,000-mile-diameter circular orbit around Pluto that is assumed to be co-planar with the other satellites in the system.

Pluto’s entire moon system is believed to have formed by a collision between the dwarf planet and another planet-sized body early in the history of the solar system. The smashup flung material that coalesced into the family of satellites observed around Pluto.

Scientists are searching for more possible moons orbiting Pluto and also signs of a possible debris field generated by the theoretical impact billions of years ago.

Meanwhile, this recent discovery has raised the hopes of many Pluto supporters that they call for its reinstatement as the 9th planet.

But would Pluto’s 5th moon make it a Planet?

Unfortunately, no.

This image, taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, shows five moons orbiting the distant, icy dwarf planet Pluto. The green circle marks the newly discovered moon, designated P5, as photographed by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 on July 7, 2012.Despite of some determined lobbying by die-hard supporters to change its dwarf planet status, more moons around Pluto  won’t change its classification.

According to Michael Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, the discovery of Eris, a rocky object about Pluto’s size with approximately 25% more mass, was a major factor in the IAU’s decision to reassess exactly what constitutes a planet. Hence, the controversial decision of demoting Pluto.

The IAU ruled that to be called a planet, an object has to meet three conditions:

  • It needs to be in orbit around the Sun.
  • It needs to have enough gravity to pull itself into a spherical shape.
  • It needs to have “cleared the neighborhood” of its orbit.
Pluto satisfied all the conditions, except the third one. Any object that doesn’t meet this third criterion is considered a dwarf planet. And so, Pluto is a dwarf planet.  Even with Pluto’s five moons , it doesn’t “clear the neighborhood.” There are still many objects with similar size and mass to Pluto lurking around in its orbit. And until Pluto gets rid of these objects by perhaps, crashing into many of them and gains mass, it will remain a dwarf planet.
Image credit: NASA

Mars at Opposition – March 2012

Mars will reach opposition (when it is directly opposite the Sun in the sky and brightest for this apparition) on the night of March 3rd 2012, positioned 5º.4 SSW of the star Coxa ( Leo or Theta Leonis, mag. +3.9) and 4º.5 West of Leonis. Mars is now brighter and closer than it’s been for two years – and brighter and closer than it will be again until 2014.

However, Mars’ perigee (closest point  to the Earth) will take place two days later – on March 5th – when it is 0.6737 AU (100.7 million kms or 62.6 million miles) from the Earth. This is due to the eccentricity of the orbit of Mars.

The motion of an outer planet, as seen from a "fixed" Earth. | image from cseligman.com

It’ll be hard to miss Mars because it’s the fourth-brightest star-like object to light up the night at this time, after the planets Venus and Jupiter, and the star Sirius.

You can find Mars in the eastern sky at nightfall and early evening, in front of the constellation Leo the Lion. Leo’s brightest star, Regulus, is to the upper right of Mars when they are in the east in the evening hours.

Looking for Mars | image: Stellarium

On opposition day this 2012, Mars will shine at magnitude -1.2 and will have an apparent disk diameter of 13″.9. This is not as bright nor as large (when seen through a telescope) as it was at its previous opposition in January 2010, when the planet reached magnitude -1.3 and had an apparent diameter of 14″.1.

Trivia: At opposition,  the Earth passes in between the sun and Mars, so that the sun, Earth and Mars lie along a line in space. During this event a superior planet like Mars rises around sunset, is visible throughout the night and sets around sunrise. Its highest point in the sky is reached when it crosses the observer’s meridian at local midnight (due South at midnight in the Northern hemisphere and due North at midnight in the Southern hemisphere).

Say “Hello” to the Red Planet

Through the Beauty without Borders program, Astronomers Without Borders (AWB) will bring together groups around the world to enjoy the event through observing, webcasts, activities, photography and poetry.

Beauty without Borders: Hello Red Planet

Mars will come into Opposition on March 3, 2012 in the constellation Leo with its face fully illuminated by the Sun and two days later, on March 5, 2012, the planet will have its closest approach to Earth during this apparition: 100.78 million km (0.6737 AU)—the best time to say “Hello” to the Red Planet.

For more info visit http://www.astronomerswithoutborders.org/projects/observing-activities/beauty-without-borders/1045.html

Join this event and share it with your friends!

Clear skies!

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Useful links:


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!  🙂


Lunar Transit Captured by SDO – March 4, 2011

 

There is the Moon eating away at the Sun! 🙂 Image credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO

 

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) satellite captured the dark moon creating a partial eclipse of the Sun last March 2-4, 2011.

More still images here.

Watch HD Video.

These images, while unusual and cool to see, also have practical value to the SDO science team. Karel Schrijver of Lockheed-Martin’s Solar and Astrophysics Lab explains: “The very sharp edge of the lunar limb allows us to measure the in-orbit characteristics of the telescope e.g., light diffraction on optics and filter support grids. Once these are characterized, we can use that information to correct our data for instrumental effects and sharpen up the images to even more detail.”

On October 7, 2010, SDO observed its first lunar transit when the new Moon passed directly between the spacecraft (in its geosynchronous orbit) and the Sun.


Another Impact on Jupiter captured by an Amateur | 20 August 2010

A third Jupiter impact event in thirteen months has been captured by yet another diligent amateur observer.

Japanese amateur astronomer Masayuki Tachikawa caught the possible fireball event in a video at 18:22 UT on 20 August as a brief, two second, brightening near the north edge of Jupiter’s Northern Equatorial Belt. The flash, likely a small asteroid or comet burning up in Jupiter’s atmosphere, was later confirmed by another Japanese astronomer Aoki Kazu. Astronomers watching Jupiter for two rotations after the event found no trace of the impact.

The flash bears a striking resemblance to that observed by Anthony Wesley from Australia and Christopher Go from the Philippines on 3 June this year, and follows the report of a larger impact event, also observed by Wesley in July 2009, that left a dark impact scar in Jupiter’s atmosphere exactly fifteen years after the famous collision of comet Shoemaker Levy-9 with the gas giant.

The observations not only demonstrate the importance of amateur observations for monitoring our Solar System environment, but also the relative frequency of impact events still occurring in our planetary neighborhood today 😀

Below are the videos taken by Go and Tachikawa:


Earth and Moon as seen from Mercury

A 'Double Planet' Seen From Mercury

A very amazing and humbling image 🙂

This was the latest view from NASA’s MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) spacecraft.

For the first time we see Earth as a fully illuminated superior planet 114 million mile outward from Mercury. Earth really looks like a double star because the moon is closely next to it.

Seeing our planet reduced to a pinpoint when photographed from elsewhere in the outer space reminds me of how little and insignificant we are compared to the vast size of the universe 🙂

“When I consider your heavens . . the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?” Psalm 8:3

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image credit: NASA


AstroUpdate: ‘Seven planets’ in new star system

Artist's impression of new star system (ESO)

A new planetary system just like ours has just been discovered! 😀

Astronomers have discovered a new solar system that appears to have almost as many planets as our own. They found up to seven planets orbiting a star that is of a similar type to the Sun, including one that is likely to be rocky and less than 1.5 times the size of the Earth.

The star, labelled HD 10180, lies 127 light-years away from us in the constellation of Hydra, the water snake. Its collection of worlds was detected using a giant telescope operated by the European Southern Observatory at La Silla on a mountaintop in Chile.

A highly sensitive  “planet hunter” called HARPS was used to analyse light collected by the telescope’s 3.6-meter wide mirror, or “eye on the sky” over six years.

The positions of the planets in the new solar system also follow a similar pattern to that generally followed by our own Sun’s family of eight worlds, with each planet in order from the star being roughly twice as far as its sibling.

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source: ESO.org: Richest Planetary System Discovered


Planetary Events — August 20, 2010

For Philippine sky gazers, the planets Venus and Neptune will make their greatest appearance for this year on the evening of August 20 😀

The brightest planet in the solar system, Venus  will appear especially prominent because it will climb to its highest point in the evening sky upon reaching its greatest elongation. It will lie 47° from the Sun, its maximum distance for this appearance.

Also on this night, the planet Mars will lie just 2° above Venus. (That’s approximately the width of one finger when held at arm’s length.) Using binoculars will help bring it to view because it glows less than 1 percent as Venus. The planet Saturn lurks approximately 10° to Venus’ right and the star Spica in the constellation Virgo sits 10° to Venus’ left. Both shine a little brighter than Mars but fall far short of dazzling Venus.

Although naked eyes and binoculars offer the best views of the evening scene, anyone with a small telescope will get a thrill from targeting Venus. At greatest elongation, Venus looks like a miniature version of a First Quarter Moon, with one half in sunlight and the other in darkness.

On the other hand, the planet Neptune will be in opposition (opposite the sun in the sky and closest to Earth) and will be highest in the sky at local midnight. This opposition is special because Neptune will be returning close to the spot where it was discovered in 1846, marking its first complete trip around the sun since its discovery.

To find Neptune,  look for the large but faint triangle of Capricornus, to the left of Sagittarius and the Milky Way around 1 a.m. this week. The two stars at the left end of the triangle point the way to Neptune, just a little bit short of and above the star Iota in the neighboring constellation Aquarius.

In a small telescope or even binoculars, Neptune will look just like a star; what gives it away is its distinctive blue-green color.

Happy planet hopping! 😀

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sources:  SPACE.com, Astronomy.com news, EarthSky.org


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.”

“NO ONE ALIVE TODAY WILL EVER SEE THIS AGAIN.”


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

Hoax-Slayer

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 😀

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image credits:

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

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