Sunday, October 31, 2010

November Skies and Events

November Skies
Planets grace the evening and morning sky this month. There are several skywatching events this month that will allow Space Place’ers to get out and enjoy the sky, including one that I will be participating in. Join me at George Mason University Observatory on Monday, November 1st at 7:00 p.m. Check here for more details and weather status

Tune into NASA for the scheduled last launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on the 3rd and the rendezvous of the Deep Impact/EPOXI spacecraft with Comet Hartley on the 4th. You can follow these missions at

Skywatching Highlights
Mercury moves low into the western sky during the first week of November and by the end of the month it is still pretty low to the horizon.

Brilliant Venus begins to grace the morning sky in the east before dawn as the month begins. Venus will start out low in the east-southeast early in the month but will climb higher each day. Because it is so bright, you have a pretty good chance of seeing the “Morning Star”. Venus will be up three hours before dawn on the 30th. Having a clear horizon free of trees and buildings will help the view.

Mars is hard to see low in the west at sunset.

Bright Jupiter is well up in the southeast at sunset and remains visible almost all night. If you have binoculars or a telescope you can watch the four main moons of Jupiter change their position night after night.

Saturn is in the eastern sky before sunrise and will be climbing higher each week. The waning crescent Moon will be just to the right of the ringed planet on the 3rd.

New Moon is on the 6th, First Quarter Moon is on the 13th and this month’s Full Moon occurs on the 21st. This month’s Full Moon is called the “Beaver’s Moon” as the beavers are active this time of year. Another name for this month’s Full Moon is “Snow Moon” but hopefully Mother Nature will not let the weather live up to this name! Last Quarter Moon is on the 28th.

Here are our down to Earth events for this month.
Open House at the Department of Astronomy at the University of Maryland, College Park Campus Observatory, will be at 8 p.m. on the 5th and the 20th.
Read More About It:

The National Capital Astronomers (NCA) have their monthly meeting on the 13th at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Maryland, College Park Campus Observatory. The speaker is Dr. Tamara Bogadanović (UM), Black Holes: Alignment of Spins, and Light From Mergers. Read More About It:

The National Capital Astronomers (NCA) will host a star party in Rock Creek Park on the 6th starting at 7:00 p.m. Read More About It:

The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC) will meet at 7 p.m. at George Mason University (GMU) on the 13th. The speaker is Professor Mike Summers from George Mason University and he will be discussing the Mars airplane project and how atmospheric biomarkers relate to the history of life on other worlds.
Read More About It:

NOVAC will host a public star party on the 6th at Sky Meadows and at CM Crockett Park on the 13th.These events are a great opportunity to get out under the stars and look through a wide variety of telescopes.
Read More About It:

The United States Naval Observatory (USNO) has Monday night tours but space is limited.
Read More About It:

The National Air and Space Museum (NASM) has several space related activities this month.
Read More About It:

There is also a NASM Skywatching event tonight, 6:00 pm to 9:00 p.m. at Sky Meadows State Park, near Paris, Virginia.
Read More About It:

The TriState Astronomers General Meeting will be held on the 17th, 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., at the William Brish Planetarium, Commonwealth Ave, Hagerstown, MD.

Read More About It:

Got a Topic That Interests You? I literally have a whole universe of topics to select from for my column. But I'm interested in hearing from MyFoxDC readers about what interests them. Feel free to contact me at skyguyinva@gmail.comwith your suggestions and comments. I also have a weekly column at WTOP News that you can follow at

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Power of Nature

Hey Space Placers!

The past two days have really reminded us of the power of Mother Nature.The planet had a 7.7 magnitude earthquake, causing a tsunami; there was also a volcano blowing its top; the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in the U.S. occurred yesterday and the weather in the midwest yesterday was the worst in 70 years.

I have told my students that we exist on this planet only because the climate and geology of the planet allow it. Change the geological or climatological conditions that exist today and there will be a possible impact on humanity. Civilization really has a pretty narrow band of conditions in which it can survive, let alone thrive.

Humans have to realize that we live in a very special place and time on this planet. It can change at any moment - comet/asteroid impact, super volcano eruption, climate change.

Some day perhaps humanity will appreciate the gift we have in this planet.....

Sky Guy in Beautiful VA

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

ISS Flyover Week

Hey Space Placers!

This week will be an excellent one to view the International Space Station (ISS)  if the skies are clear.

Check out this website and provide your location to get accurate sighting times:

 You can also see when Hubble Space Telescope and the Space Shuttle (when on orbit) pass your way.

Another feature to look at is "Iridium Flares". These big comm satellites have huge solar panels which catch the Sun's rays and "flare" into brilliance for a few seconds. They are quite stunning when they occur and can be a 100x brighter than Venus!

Be sure to check the site out and set it up for your observing location.

Sky Guy in VA

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Sky Lights Tutorial

Hey Space Placers!

I apologize if this is seemingly too basic, but a number of students and the public were not aware of the following.

When we look up at the night sky we see two basic type of objects - stars and solar system objects. The stars we see, just like the Sun, are visible because they are producing light and energy by the process of nuclear fusion. Nuclear fission, which is what powers our reactors and nuclear bombs, makes energy by breaking apart atoms. In nuclear fusion, the temperature and pressure at the core of a star is significant enough to fuse hyrogen atoms (and others) together and thereby make new elements plus energy.

All of the solar system objects except for meteors, are visible because they are reflecting sunlight off of their surfaces. Regarding meteors, we do not see the actual meteoroid body but rather the ionized trail in the atmosphere caused by the tremendous heat of entering the Earth's atmopshere.

The planets, their moons as well as ours, comets, and asteroids are all reflecting sunlight off of their surfaces. The measurement of their reflectivity is called albedo and the higher the number the brighter the reflected light.

Now when we see the Full Moon as we did last night, the Sun, Earth and Moon are aligned in a straight line. If the Earth passes in front of the Sun, we get an eclipse of the Moon.

When we look at the Moon it is reflecting sunlight even though we cannot see the Sun. So is brilliant Jupiter in the east at sunset. Because light travels at 186,000 miles per second, it takes about about 8 minutes for sunlight to illuminate the Earth and Moon having travelled roughly 93,000,000 miles. It takes another 1.25 seconds for the light from the Moon to travel to us - roughly 225,000 miles. Jupiter is is about 40+ light minutes away.

In case you are wondering, the stars (other than the Sun) are light years away - the closest is Proxima Centauri at 4.2 light years, or over 24 trillion miles distant. The most distant stars we can see with our unaided eyes are thousands of light years distant - they have to be very large and bright stars for us to see them. The farthest object we can see with our unaided eyes is the Andromeda Galaxy - visible in our night skies right now and about 2.5 million light years distant.

So all light we see in the sky is from the past. Whether it is the Sun, the Moon, or Andromeda Galaxy, we are looking into the past.

Take a trip into the past tonight.

Sky Guy in VA

Friday, October 22, 2010

Hunter's Moon Tonight (Oct 22)

Hey Space Placers!

Make sure you get outside tonight and check the Full Moon. Because it is the first Full Moon after the Harvest Moon it is traditionally known as the Hunter's Moon.

The name comes from the fields being harvested and therefore bare which would make it easy for hunters by the light of a brilliant Full Moon to hunt game. This was in a time when farmers and others would try to get fresh game for dinner.

Also, check out my on air interview with WTOP radio about yesterday's lunar news:

I hope to have a pic for you.

Sky Guy in VA

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Moon News - Water & More at the South Lunar Pole

Hey Fellow Space Placers!

The Moon is my favorite object and place in the Universe. I have been captured by its' beauty and potential utility for the human race for many decades. I grew up during Apollo and participated in several amateur lunar observing projects back in the late 60's. It remains my favorite observing and photography object.

In June 2009 I wrote a feature article for Sky and Telescope Magazine on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission that was launched that month to the Moon. This two-for-one mission was unique in that two separate spacecraft were launched with the same launch vehicle, an Atlas V, and were headed for the same destination - the Moon.

LCROSS was designed to shepherd the spent Centaur upper stage to the Moon and direct it to slam into a pre-selected lunar crater at one of the lunar poles. The idea was to kick up enough lunar regolith (soil) from deep within the perpetual darkness crater so that the tell tale presence of water could be detected by the shepherding spacecraft and LRO.

LCROSS spacecraft above the Moon's surface
LCROSS & the spent Centaur Stage

The impact took place as designed in Cabeus Crater located at the South Lunar Pole on October 9th, 2009. A great amount of data as well as photographs of the impact were obtained and have been studied for the past year.

Today the first science results were shared with the public and they are impressive. These results are featured in six papers to be published in the Oct. 22 issue of Science. Besides the presence of water in the impact plume - approximately 40 gallons - NASA reported that, "The suite of LCROSS and LRO instruments determined as much as 20 percent of the material kicked up by the LCROSS impact was volatiles, including methane, ammonia, hydrogen gas, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide."

NASA went on to state, "The instruments also discovered relatively large amounts of light metals such as sodium, mercury and possibly even silver. According to the scientists, these volatile chemical by-products are also evidence of a cycle through which water ice reacts with lunar soil grains."

Guess what, Space Placers. These are the same volatiles that help make up the composition of comets and asteroids!

We have known for some time about asteroid and comet impacts and the resulting formation of craters as a result. The LRO/LCROSS mission results however, confirm that the byproducts of these impacts have been stored deep within a lunar pole crater and probably others that have never seen the light of the Sun and are the coldest places in the solar system.

I had the privilege of interviewing the scientists and engineers who built, flew and acquired the data from the LRO/LCROSS missions. I got to see the spacecraft being built and was with 1-inch of the magnificent machines that were going to where I so wish I could go - the Moon. Iwas an experience I shall never forget and always cherish.

Read More About It:

LRO Web Site:

I'll have more on this in the coming days. Look at the Moon tonight and think of what the giant impacts must have looked like from Earth - wow - what a sight they must have been!

Sky Guy In VA

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Comet Hartley 2 Update

Hey Space Placers!

Comet Hartley 2 passed Earth today, October 20th, at a distance of 11 million miles. Observer reports indicate that the comet's coma (gaseous envelope) has gotten large but still remains dim. The near full moon interferes with observing the comet but it can be seen with binoculars and telescopes - it all depends on the Moon and local sky conditions of light pollution.

If you are familiar with the sky here is a star chart to help you find the comet:

It will be tough to see the comet with the Full Moon on Friday, the 22nd. I would recommend trying to look for it when the Moon is out of the sky, and you get a little more time to look before the Moon comes up starting on the 23rd.

I will be looking myself if the clouds ever end up clearing out.

Let me know if you have any luck.

All systems are still GO for the EPOXI-Hartley 2 rendezvous.

Sky Guy in VA

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Moon & Jupiter Tonight (Oct 19)

Hey Space Placers!

If you see a break in the clouds tonight be sure to look for the almost Full Moon. That big, bright "star"  below it is the planet Jupiter. The two will waltz across the sky and set in the west a few hours before dawn.


Sky Guy in VA

Monday, October 18, 2010

OK, SO It's Cloudy...What's a Sky Watcher to do???

Hey Space Placers!

Wanna' know how many times I have been "clouded out" from an astronomical gotta' see? TOO MANY TIMES, that's how many!!!

But the pursuit of the sky goes with the weather (weax as I call it) unless you happen to be a radio astronomer who can observe day and cloudy night.

My relief for such times is to make the most of reading or surfin' the astronomical related 'net. I want to give you a list of my astro-faves that I check on a daily basis.

Of course my blog is on this list so you know how to get to it ;-)    Main NASA site with science and mission updates  Astronomy Picture of the Day is a mainstay classic  for fellow lunatics like me, all things lunar   global warming DOES EXIST; check this out and see for yourself  the grand-daddy of them all when it comes to astronomy magazines  Vital resource for the Sun and space weather Another Moon Watcher mainstay classic  A vital source for observing Earth orbiting vehicles such as HST, ISS

In a future blog I will post additional web links to space related sites.

Share yours

Sky Guy in VA

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Countdown to Rendezvous

Hey Space Placers,

Asteroids have been in the news lately and now one of their icy relatives, Comet Hartley 2, is making a big splash in the astronomical and spaceflight communities – including our very own University of Maryland (UMD). This comet will not be a crowd pleaser as Comet Hale-Bopp was back in the late ‘90’s as it will be barely visible in the night sky. But that doesn’t mean it will not be of immense historical and scientific importance.

Comets are the left over debris, along with asteroids, from the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. These two classes of solar system objects are thought to be related as comets and asteroids can exhibit characteristics indicative of one another. Some asteroids could be "dead" comets in that they have lost all of the volatile and icy material that makes up comets while some comets are covered with significant layers of dust. Just recently two asteroids were found to contain water, a major component of comets.

Comet Hartley 2 is a small comet as its' nucleus (the actual body of the comet) is less than a mile across. The coma (the gaseous envelope created by outgassing of volatiles and dust from the nucleus caused by heating from the Sun) is rather large and very active. The coma is expected to increase in size and activity in the coming days, just in time for NASA/UMD's Deep Impact/EPOXI spacecraft cameras to capture it all up close.

This is the spacecraft's second flyby of a comet as it flew by and also impacted Comet Tempel 1 with a launched 800 pound copper impactor on July 4th, 2005. This was a spectacular mission and marked the first time in history that humanity had impacted a cometary body. Much was learned about the composition of a comet 's nucleus as large amounts of water and dust made up the debris ejected as a result of the impact.

Because there was so much debris from the impact the spacecraft’s cameras could not record the resulting crater and view the exposed sub-surface material. This was a disappointment as one of the mission objectives was to see how large the resulting crater was and to examine the crater’s internal and external structure. The images that were obtained were impressive in their detail.

Read More About Deep Impact:

Comet Hartley 2 is currently visible in binoculars and telescopes from dark sky sites and from NASA/UMD's Deep Impact/EPOXI spacecraft. The comet will be closest to the Earth on October 20th at a distance of only 11-million miles - close indeed – and may get to naked eye visibility away from city lights. The Moon will be getting brighter in the sky as well which will make the comet harder to see.

But the nearly Full Moon will not be an issue for NASA/UMD's Deep Impact/EPOXI spacecraft as the intrepid cometary explorer will flyby Comet Hartley 2 at a distance of only 435-miles on November 4th. The flyby will only be the 5th time humans have flown by a cometary nucleus. The others were Comets Halley, Borrelly, Tempel 1, and Wild 2. When you consider that there are billions, if not trillions of comets in the solar system, there is much we need to learn.

The spacecraft’s cameras will remain pointed at the comet’s nucleus during the flyby and will be exposed to impacts from the gas and dust making up the coma. This was not done in the Deep Impact mission. The resulting images are expected to be unprecedented in their detail and may allow us to see actual jets of material spewing forth from visible structures.

Read More About Deep Impact/EPOXI:

Asteroids and comets pose an impact threat to our planet so the more we learn about them the better we can defend ourselves against the threat they pose.

SkyGuy in VA

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Telescope Time!

Hey Fellow Space Placers!

If you have any questions or you want to write to me please do so by either leaving a comment or dropping me a line at I can also make public appearances before school groups or organizations.

This Monday, October 18th,  you can join me and George Mason University astronomers at the Observatory at 7:30 p.m. if the sky is clear. Check out this link for more details: We will have several telescopes available to look at the gibbous Moon, Jupiter and some pretty deep sky objects.

GMU expects to have its new 32-inch telescope completed by the end of the year which will be the largest  aperture telescope on a college campus in Virginia and possibly in the U.S. Please join us!

Although you don't need a telescope to enjoy the sky, it sure opens up a whole new perspective - literally. It takes time and effort to figure out what type of telescope - if any - you want to buy. But it is a real treasure when you have one.

I have had several telescopes so far, starting when I was 12. It was a department store refractor and I stepped up to the big time with a 6-inch Newtonian Reflector from Edmund Scientific when I was 16. Then followed two 8-inch telescopes, one I sold, one I kept for over 20+ years until I donated it to GMU. It now serves a variety of students. I still have a 4-inch "suitcase size" telescope that I grab and go with to have something to observe with. My current 10-inch is a dream and will be with me to the end of my days.

Before you get a telescope, spend some time checking out what you want to do with it.  You can write me and I can help you along with your decision making process. You can got to local astronomy clubs and "test drive" some 'scopes at a star party - events where amateur astronomers bring their telescopes out to dark sky sites to observe. I will post these events each month so you can check them out.

If you have binoculars use them to observe the Moon and the stars. These are handy to learn your way around the sky and enjoy the view while you are at it. If you don't have them, you should get a pair of 7x50's as you can use them at sporting events, during the day and then for skywatching.

This weekend Jupiter will dominate the night sky in the southeast right at sunset and the Moon will keep the king of the planets company as they move closer together in the coming days. Enjoy the view, the cool crisp air, and the changing leaves.

SkyGuy in VA

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hubble Space Telescope Catches Possible Asteroid Collision

Since we have been talking about asteroids the past two days, check this out.....

Look at this sci-fi-ish photo:

Astronomers think that HST has captured detailed images of what happens when two space rocks (asteroids) collide. The images were taken over a period of time and show the changes occuring within the collision remnant.

After some detective work astronomers think the collision occurred early last year and involved a smaller asteroid slamming into a larger one. The discovery photos looked all the world like a comet but HST showed the bizzarre and never before seen "X" pattern which ruled out the object being a comet.

The astro-collision took place in the busy solar system byway of the asteroid belt where millions of space rocks orbit the Sun. Such collisions are thought to take place about once a year but this is the first ever photo of such an event. Astronomers will look in on this "X-File" object next year to see how the crash scene is progressing.

Read More About It:

Sky Guy In VA

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

2010 TD54 Follow Up

A newly-discovered car-sized asteroid will fly past Earth early Tuesday.
NASA NEO Graphic showing the path of 2010 TD54

With additional observations the path of today's (Oct 12th) close flyby of mini-asteroid 2010 TD54 was refined. Singapore was the area where closest approach took place at 6:50 a.m. EDT. The space rock passed at a distance of 27, 960 miles above the surface of our planet.

2010 TD54 was discovered on October 9th at 3:55 a.m. EDT) during a routine sky patrol by a telescope of the NASA-sponsored Catalina Sky Survey north of Tucson, Arizona. NASA has several telescopes dedicated to finding Nearth Earth Objects (NEO's) that could pose a threat to our planet.  

Although this space rock did not pose a threat to our planet, it still carried quite a punch. If it had entered our atmosphere it would have probably disintegrated into pieces that might have survived to become meteorites. It also could have exploded high in the atmosphere with the force of a small nuclear detonation or the equivalent of tens of thousands of tons of TNT.

Read More About It:

Sky Guy in VA

Monday, October 11, 2010

Another Close Asteroid Flyby

Hey Space Placers,

By the time you probably read this we will have had a close, and I mean CLOSE, flyby of a 10 meter or so asteroid - a space rock. Named 2010 TD54 this chunk of debris left over from the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago will whiz by between 33,000 and 40,000 miles above our planet at 6:14 a.m. EDT, October 12th.

2010 TD54 was discovered by astronomers just a few days ago while on telescopic sky patrol looking for rocks just like this that could pose an impact threat. Fortunately this asteroid will miss us completely. A 10 meter or 33-foot spacerock would probably survive entry into our atmosphere and make a heck of a fireball in the sky. In all likelihood an object that size would breakup into fragments that would impact the Earth as meteorites. Based on whether this was an iron or stone asteroid would determine how big the surviving fragments would be.... and what kind of damage they would cause. This space rock's fragments could possibly cause some damage to cars, houses or heaven forbid, people if they were hit.

Earth is bombarded every single day with cosmic debris and some of it survives the heat and aerodynamic pressures of Earth's atmosphere. Cars, ships, houses and people have been hit by meteorites. We collectors call these special space rocks "Wammers".

We'll follow up on this story when more is known.

Sky Guy in VA

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Collecting Some Light Tonight.....

Hey Space Placers!

The sky will be clear tonight and I am getting my 10-inch Takahashi Mewlon telescope out. I will be observing and hopefully photographing Jupiter, Comet Hartley and a few other items of interest. If any pics turn out I will share.

Do you have a telescope? Do you want to get one?

Share your telescope and or what you want to get.

Sky Guy in Va

Sharing an Answer....

A good friend and colleague of mine sent me the following question:

"I have always been fascinated with "Space' and questions such as "Where does the Universe begin and where does it end?" Any comment?

Here is what I sent back to him and I thought I would share it with you:

Yeah, space is something else and it challenges us. Beyond the "big questions" it is so beautiful and peaceful to enjoy.

The questions you ask are indeed "big" and I will try to give you a simple answer. Our current best theory is that the Universe is 13.7 billion years old - having been created in an event we call the "Big Bang" - the moment in which all space and time erupted from literally out of nothing. Was there anything before the Big Bang? Some say this is a non-sensical question as the Big Bang created everything from a single event....others pursue the question on a purely mathematical basis.
The end of the Universe is a vexing question as we are still discovering new things all the time. Right now we know that the Universe is made of the stars and galaxies and people that we can see but that this is only a fraction of the mass (5%)that makes up the Universe. There exists far more Dark Matter (23%) than ordinary matter and we do not know for sure what Dark Matter is. There also exists Dark Energy (72%) - an unknown force that is accelerating the expansion of the Universe caused by the Big Bang.

Current theory states that the Universe is "flat" which means that it will expand "forever" and there will come a time when we will see no other galaxies due to the accelerating expansion. Stars have a finite life, and there is only so much raw material (gas and dust) to create new stars and planets, so at some point in the very distant future, all of the stars will have ended their lives and the Universe will grow dark. There is also a possibility that matter as we know it - atoms, electrons, quarks - has a finite life as well so the Universe ends up being nothing but a dark, vast graveyard of exotic ghost particles. Depresssing, indeed.

So, while there is light and life in the Universe we must make the most of it. Our own Sun will cease to exist in about 5 billion years as it will have used all of its hydrogen fuel and will become a Red Giant star, most probably enveloping our own Earth. Indeed, ashes to ashes, dust to dust will be the Earth's ultimate fate.

What do YOU think about this? I would like to know your opinion.....

Sky Guy in VA

Saturday, October 9, 2010

October 2010 Skies

Hey Space Placers!

Want to know "What's Up" for October??????

Check out all the sky and Earth-based happenings for the month at my WTOP column,

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

All You Have To Do Is......

Look up - safely ;-) - to enjoy the night sky.

Skywatching in its simplest form is what human beings have been doing since they first stood erect eons ago. They would have huddled together at night for warmth and safety. In a sky free of light pollution thousands of what we know to be stars would have been visible. And our own Miky Way Galaxy would have been quite a sight to them.

They didn't know what it was they were seeing but the same astronomical objects we see today, so did they. The sky of then is not significantly different from our sky of now except for light pollution in metrpolitan areas.

Did they wonder at night by moonlight? What did they think of when they saw the source of light and warmth disappear and the dark and cool begin to prevail? Solar and lunar eclipses, meteor showers, fireballs and bright comets must have been either wondrous or terrifying to our ancestors.

 Today we have the luxury of knowledge about the Universe and night sky. But skywatching is getting back to  basics. Looking at the sky is pleasing and not unlike fishing....cast your eyes skyward and you never know what you might see beyond the expected.

Try to find a safe and convenient place to look at the sky. Perhaps from your own bakyard or a nearby spot that offers a clear view of the sky and is free of trees and lights. As we go along I will have observing tips for you and events you can go to observe the sky with others - a star party.

The sky is for everyone to see and enjoy. Try to think of our ancestors next time you are out under the canopy of night. What thoughts would they have had in looking at the distant cold lights above them? What are yours?

Clear Skies

It doesn't take specialized knowledge or equipment.....

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hello Universe!!!

Dear Reader,

This is my first post for my very own blog!

I am sharing with you, future readers, what I hope I will accomplish - open a link between you and I so we can share the Universe together. You have questions, I will hopefully have the answers.

News about NASA missions, things happening in the day and night sky, my own sky pics, will all be here.

The Universe is ours to enjoy and explore!

Clear Skies!