Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Zero In on Mercury

Hey Space Placers!

For the next few days NOW is the time to see the elusive planet Mercury. It has been said that fewer than 1% of the planet's total population throughout time has ever seen AND recognized the "star" in the sky that is Mercury.

Join that elite 1% by doing the following - I did this last night to make sure of your success:
  • Find a clear view of the western horizon;
  • Start your search at 6:45 p.m. by finding brilliant Venus high in the western sky;
  • From Venus, draw an imaginary diagonal line to the lower right of the bright planet - use Jupiter above Venus to give you a good alignment for this diagonal;
  • Go about 3 fist widths down towards the horizon along this imaginary line;
  • Mercury WILL be visible as a fairly bright golden-yellow "star" - it is the brightest object in that location in the sky.

Evening twilight view

Right now we have Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, the Moon and at 8 p.m., Mars, all along the ecliptic - the imaginary line in the sky where all of the planets, Moon and the Sun are located as they move through the sky during the year.

Let me know if you find Mercury. You have about a week to see it as Mercury will start get lower in the sky and become harder to see.

Good hunting!

Sky Guy in VA

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Space Shuttle Discovery Coming to N. Virginia

Hey Space Placers,

The National Air and Space Museum (NASM) JUST announced this monring (Feb. 28)  the schedule for the Space Shuttle Discovery coming to Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA. Discovery will fly into Dulles International Airport atop the NASA 747 Shuttle Ferry aircraft on April 17.The official transfer of Discovery to the NASM will be on April 19 and will initiate four days of space related activities.

The dates are weather dependent. This is one event not to miss as this will probably be the last time we see such a spectacle in the Washington D.C. area.

Space Shuttle Discovery Flies Atop 747

Here is the website where you can follow the progress of Discovery, take a look inside the flight deck and cargo bay, and get further information:

I can hardly wait for her arrival. I plan on seeing this in person. Hoe sbout you?

Sky Guy in VA

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Sky Show Isn't Over!

Hey Space Placers!

What a great weekend for sky watching!

The show is not over as Venus and Jupiter will continue to get closer to one another by a finger width a day and Mars will start gracing our evening skies all night long when it gets to opposition (directly opposite the Sun) on March 3rd.

Mars is bright orangish-red and is in the east at 8 p.m.

Saturn rises in the east around 10 pm so we have planets aplenty.

Oh, and don't forget Mercury in the west about a fist-width above the horizon in the west. It is bright yellowish-white and to the lower right of Venus by several fist widths.

Evening twilight view

Sky Guy in VA Watchin' the Sky

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Hey Space Placers!

Round two of our skywatching weekend. Jupiter and the Moon dance tonight after sunset in the west with Venus and Mercury looking on. This will be a pretty sight to see and enjoy.

Find a clear view of the western horizon and abut a half hour after sunset look for golden-yellow Mercury  about a its width above the horizon. The planet closest to the Sun will be to the lower left of Venus several fist-widths.

Venus will be beautiful and brilliant to the lower left of the crescent Moon and Jupiter.

As an extra bonus, Mars is now gracing the eastern sky during the early evening hours. Look for orangish Mars at 8 p.m. It is the brightest object in that portion of the sky.

Enjoy the view tonight!

Sky Guy in VA

Saturday, February 25, 2012

See Venus During the Day

Hey Space Placers!

Did you know that it is possible to see Venus in broad daylight? The key is to have Venus as far from the Sun and its glare as possible and have a bright blue sky. It also is a big help when you have a celestial beacon nearby such as the Moon to help you spot the second planet from the Sun.

Today is a day to try and spot Venus. Find the crescent Moon in the sky around 1 p.m. or later and then using diagram below, look for Venus. Use binoculars to help zero in on the Moon and then Venus but make sure you look with your own eyes so you can exclaim to all that you saw Venus in broad daylight.
Read More About It:

Venus and the Moon, February 25, 2012

Read yesterday's blog and get out and see the Venus-Moon conjunction tonight after sunset. I'll have pics if the weather cooperates. Try taking your own pictures using your DSL and a tripod.

Clear skies and good hunting!

Sky Guy in VA

Friday, February 24, 2012


Hey Space Placers!

Be sure to get out tonight (2-24), tomorrow and Sunday night for the celestial dancing of the cresecent Moon, Venus and Jupiter. This will be something to see. Check out my blog of 2-17-12 to get all of the details.

The view soon after dark 

 If it is cloudy for your area, try tuning in to Slooh as they will be carrying the events live as stated in their press release: "Slooh Space Camera will broadcast a free, real-time feed of the Venus/Moon and Jupiter/Moon conjunctions on Saturday, February 25, and Sunday, February 26, starting at 02:30 UT / 6:30 p.m. PST / 9:30 p.m. EST. Slooh will provide multiple observatory feeds, including from Arizona and the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. The broadcast can be accessed at Slooh’s homepage - - or by visiting Slooh’s G+ page, where you will be able to see the panel interact live via G+ Hangouts On Air."

Sky Guy in VA

Thursday, February 23, 2012

February Fireballs

Hey Space Placers!

I have been a skywatcher for decades and one of the most thrilling and awe-inspiring things you can see is a bright fireball streaking across the sky. I have seen perhaps a dozen really good ones and have heard them explode (yes, HEARD them explode), seen all sorts of colors from green to red to white to purplish. They literally take your breath away when you see them in the distance or make you almost duck when they are overhead.

Fireballs are caused by space rocks that can range from the size of basketballs to buses and originate from the asteroid belt. They can sometimes be large enough in size and survive entering the atmosphere to produce meteorites - space rocks that fall to Earth and are found.

NASA has noticed the number of fireballs reported and recorded in the month of February, this year and others, seems to spike compared to other months. In fact, we had our own February fireball in our area just about two weeks ago which was seen in our neighboring states and others further north and south of us. There is no way to tell if this fireball was part of the spike or an "ordinary" event.

But NASA is hoping to find out by installing more all sky monitoring cameras that patrol the skies automatically to record fireball events. Once the entire network is established it will be possible to calculate the orbit of the incoming space rock and pinpoint from where they came from. The perhaps we will have an answer to the "Fireballs of February."

By the way, it has been about 15 years since my last dazzler fireball. I am way overdue and scan the skies a lot during my daily/nocturnal routine. I look forward to sharing an event with you.

Read More About It:

February Fireballs (splash, 558 px)

Sky Guy in VA

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

80,000(!) Mercury Photos

Hey SPace Placers!

Check out the latest crop of AMAZING Mercury photos obtained by NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft. 80,000 photos and counting. This planet is really something to look at and ponder what exactly we are seeing beyond the craters/geological features.

See for yourself:

Sky Guy in VA

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

An Active Moon?

Hey Space Placers!

Research based on high resolution lunar images obtained by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has discovered strong evidence that indicate the Moon is still active geologically. As related by NASA, "the moon's crust is being stretched, forming minute valleys in a few small areas on the lunar surface. Scientists propose this geologic activity occurred less than 50 million years ago, which is considered recent compared to the moon's age of more than 4.5 billion years."

What the researchers found was described as follows, "the LRO images show small, narrow trenches typically much longer than they are wide. This indicates the lunar crust is being pulled apart at these locations. These linear valleys, known as graben, form when the moon's crust stretches, breaks and drops down along two bounding faults. A handful of these graben systems have been found across the lunar surface."

Lunar scientists think that the Moon is in a state of cooling of a still hot interior. They estimate that the Moon has shrunk 300 feet from the center to the surface. The graben were found in the highlands of the far side. Researchers plan on looking for more graben and evidence of an active Moon.

This shows the largest of the newly detected graben found in highlands of the lunar farside. The broadest graben is about 500 meters (1,640 feet) wide and topography derived from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) stereo images indicates they are almost 20 meters (almost 66 feet) deep. (Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University/Smithsonian Institution)
Sky Guy in VA

Monday, February 20, 2012

Friendship 7 at T +50 Years

Hey Space Placers!

Today, February 20th, is the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's historic Friendship 7 Mercury flight. I remember watching his liftoff, the 3rd Mercury Program manned launch, as he was the first astronaut to ride the not so reliable Atlas booster. He was the first American to orbit the Earth. The Russians had already done it.

His flight orbited the Earth three times and was nearly flawless. His orbital flight was cut short due to a sensor alarm that indicated his heat shield had deployed while he was in orbit. The decision was made for Glenn to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere leaving the retro-fire pack (containing the 3 solid rocket motors that fired to slow his spacecraft down) attached to the heat shield. As history shows, he was successful in his descent but it was a harrowing time watching Walter Cronkite and praying to hear that John Glenn had made it back.

One of America's true heroes - Marine Corps fighter ace, retired Colonel, long time Senator, a wonderful human being - John Glenn also holds the record as the oldest human to fly in space. He flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998 at the age of 77.

Someday I hope we see American astronauts once again heading towards space and beyond low Earth orbit riding a towering pillar of flame like see you below.

Thank you John Glenn for all you have done for the country and humanity. Read More ABout It:


Sky Guy in VA
Hey Space Placers!

Tonight, Monday, February 20th, weather permittng, the Observatory at George Mason University will be open to the public at about 6:45 p.m.

We will have the new 32-inch and other telescopes available for enjoying the sky and looking at a variety of objects including Venus and Jupiter. The great nebula in Orion and a star cluster or two will round out our observing pleasure.

Check out this link for more information:

Hope to see you there!

Sky Guy in VA

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Sun is Innocent as to Global Warming

Hey Space Placers!

With the "Weird Winter" we are having - see my blog of the same title - it was interesting to read about a recent NASA study that has concluded convincingly "that greenhouse gases generated by human activity -- not changes in solar activity -- are the primary force driving global warming."

The study involved measuring the amount of energy that the Earth received during the past six years and comparing that to how much energy is radiated back into space. The resulting Earth's energy imbalance is either positive or negative. Positive means more energy is absorbed while negative means less.

The study showed that even though the the Sun was going through the longest Solar Minimum recorded in the spacecraft era and was providing less energy overall to each square meter of the Earth's surface, the planet was absorbing more energy. The only way to account for this is the presence of greenhouse gasses.

Learn About the 11 Year  Solar Cycle:

It was important to rule out the Sun as a dominant factor in global warming because it leads to the real culprit - greenhouse gasses generated by human activity. For those who believe in science and not mindless speculation fueled by 30 second sound bites played to "care less about the facts audiences" - this is a significant finding.

As stated by the study's leader, "The fact that we still see a positive imbalance despite the prolonged solar minimum isn't a surprise given what we've learned about the climate system, but it's worth noting because this provides unequivocal evidence that the sun is not the dominant driver of global warming." 

Read More About It:

Sky Guy in VA

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Weird Winter

Hey Space Placers!

As I write this we are preparing for the first true winter storm that will arrive starting tonight (Saturday) and last into tomorrow and Monday according to the current forecast. We may get 4-8"of heavy, moisture laden snow coming up from the south in Texas here in central Virginia. Right now at 10:15 am it is currently 65 degrees and will get even warmer perhaps!

By all accounts this has been a very weird winter.....Los Angeles was warmer in January than July, the western ski resorts have been bare ground and hundreds have died from a frigid cold snap in Europe. If you saw the movie "The Day After Tomorrow" you can't help but wonder what is going on?

NASA is in the weather monitoring business and has come up with some interesting data and conclusions on what is happening with this winter. It all has to do with "Arctic Oscillation".

Europe Hammered (splash)

This map shows temperature anomalies for Europe and western Russia from January 25 to February 1, 2012, compared to temperatures for the same dates from 2001 to 2011. The anomalies are based on land surface temperatures observed by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite.

Read More About It:

We'll let you know how it goes weather-wise tomorrow.

Sky Guy in Sunny (for now) VA

Friday, February 17, 2012

Venus-Jupiter Show

Hey Space Placers!

We in the D.C. area are going to be clouded out starting tomorrow (Saturday) for a few days (possibility of snow on Sunday) SOOOO get outside tonight at sunset to check out the Venus and Jupiter show in the west. The solar system's two brightest planets are getting closer each night and to truly appreciate the upcoming finale in March, you need to start watching now.

NASA has a great guide to it all right here:

I'll try and post a pic tomorrow and I will have an interesting story for you about this winter.

Sky Guy in VA

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Venusian Slow Down?

Hey Space Placers!

Here's a news flash from Venus.....the planet's rotation may be slowing down. Venus is currently visible high in the west right after sunset. The cloud covered world has been visited by several spacecraft over the years and the Russians actually landed probes on the hellish surface.

The European Space Agency's (ESA) Venus Express spacecraft has discovered that Venus is indeed rotating slower than was previously measured. The latest measurements were made of surface features that showed they weren't exactly where they should have been based upon the established rotation rate of the planet. There was a displacement of 20 km.

The established rotation rate was determined by NASA's Magellan spacecraft in the 1990's and using that rate Venus Express found that the rotation rate now, some 16 years later, is 6.5 minutes longer. Further studies will help refine the rate and determine why this is happening.

Read More About It:

Venus Express
ESA Venus Express (ESA)

Sky Guy in VA

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

NASA'S FY 2013 Budget

Hey Space Placers!

NASA's budget for Fiscal Year 2013 has just been released. NASA gets $17.7 billion for everything it does in aerospace, aeronautics and planetary science....that is very little money in the scheme of things involving a $1.3 trillion federal budget.

As described by NASA, "the budget includes $4 billion for space operations and $4 billion for exploration activities in the Human Exploration Operationsmission directorate, including close-out of the Space Shuttle Program,and funding for the International Space Station, $4.9 billion for science, $669 million for space technology and $552 million for aeronautics research. The budget supports NASA’s continued work to develop the Space Launch System, a new heavy-lift rocket to carry astronauts to destinations such as an asteroid and Mars, and the Orion crew capsule in which they will travel. Included are resources for final preparation and manufacturing milestones for Orion’s 2014 Exploration Flight Test 1and preliminary design reviews of major Space Launch System elements."

Sky Guy in VA

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Alien Matter" in Our Solar System

Hey Space Placers!

Our Sun and the solar system created by it all reside in the Milky Way Galaxy. But true interstellar space - the space that exists outside the boundary of our star's influence - is being studied by the Voyager spacecraft as they approach that boundary and NASA's IBEX spacecraft.

Recent research indicates that our solar system is not like the "outside" realm beyond the Sun. As provided by NASA: "We’ve detected alien matter that came into our solar system from other parts of the galaxy--and, chemically speaking, it’s not exactly like what we find here at home.” says David McComas the principal investigator for IBEX at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas."

Read More About It:

Sky Guy in VA

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Black Hole Munchies

Hey Space Placers!

Maybe you knew that a supermassive black hole resides at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. Known as Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A* for short),  this intriguing object has been observed by NASA's Chandra X-Ray Telescope spacecraft in detail. Using a million seconds of accumulated observing time Chandra has given us the most detailed view to date of this multi-million solar mass monster that lies 26,000 light years away.

It is thought that most galaxies have similar beasts residing at their centers but many of these are far more "active" - that is they are fueled by incoming matter to be far more luminous than Sgr A*.  Sgr A* does however undergo X-ray flare events on an almost daily basis - that is the region flares up due to the consuming of some type of matter.

Astronomers think they have the answer - Sgr A* is eating asteroids and comets. It is thought that a cloud containing hundreds of trillions of asteroids and comets that were stripped from their parent star is feeding the beast and causing these flare events.

We can see the perfect analogy of this process with our own Sun and its interaction with sun grazing comets. Averaging a rate of once every couple of days a comet spirals in to the Sun - we saw this recently with Comet Lovejoy.

Chandra will be looking at Sgr A* in 2012 to help acquire more data and thereby learn more about this intriguing area of our home Galaxy. Read More About It:


Sky Guy in VA

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sun Dance

Hey Space Placers!

As we saw last month during the largest solar radiation storm since 2005 (see my blogs) we have incredibly capable spacecraft monitoring our star in real time. I check in on the Sun every day at various mission web sites and every once in awhile I see a video or photograph that I have to share with you.

I spotted this one which shows the Sun in extreme ultraviolet light and is a closeup of dark plasma filaments literally "dancing" above the Sun's surface. These filaments usually go off into space or loop back down into the Sun. But if you watch this sequence a few times you see the plasma filaments doing all sorts of wild and wonderful gyrations.

The sequence was made up from 30 hours of observations on February 7-8 by the Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) spacecraft . Truly amazing to watch:

Sky Guy in VA

Friday, February 10, 2012

Watching a Galaxy Grow

Hey SPace Placers!

Out own Milky Way Galaxy has a number of small, dwarf galaxy companions. The two most famous and visible are the Large and Small Magellanic Cloud in the southern hemisphere. It has been pretty much a cosmological given that over eons of time smaller dwarf galaxies are absorbed by the largest galaxy in the group and thereby help that galaxy grow larger.

Astronomers have found a dwarf galaxy where this process is occurring and have obtained some great images and data that will help us understand the building of a bigger galaxy. The image below is of dwarf galaxy NGC 4449 and is the first ever to show a the stream of stellar material that is merging with it
Read More About It:

Sky Guy in VA

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Hey Space Placers!

Been outside at dusk lately or up around 11 p.m.? If you haven't now is a good time to do so.

In the west two bright planets are starting to make their journey towards one another - Venus is the bright planet in the west and Jupiter is to the east of Venus. Over the next few weeks these two luminaries are going to get closer and closer so you want to start watching now.

Mars is getting brighter by the week and is up in the eastern sky by 10 p.m. On the 9th Mars will be just to the left of the Moon. Watch Mars over the next few weeks get brighter and brighter.

If you have a camera mount it on a tripod and take pics of these 3 planets at 1-5 seconds at ISO 200. Keep them so you can see how the view changes over the next few weeks.

Clear Skies to all!

Sky Guy in VA

Monday, February 6, 2012

Home Galaxy News - Pt 3

Hey Space Placers!

If you could transport yourself to the Great Galaxy in Andromeda, about 2.3 million light years' distant and the largest neighbor of our Milky Way Galaxy, what would "we" look like?

In the 1st part of this mini-series we could an idea from the great HST photo of a barred spiral galaxy, NGC 1703. But have you wondered what COLOR our home galaxy would be?

As described by University of Pittsburgh astronomers, the color would be “a very pure white, almost mirroring a fresh spring snowfall.”. They came to this conclusion by finding galaxies silmilar to the Milky Way Galaxy - see some of the galaxies used in the picture below - and measured their color and other spectral (light) properties.

Based upon their analysis, they were able to determine not only our galaxy's color, but the fact that in a few billion years our galaxy will stop making stars because it will have run out of the needed hydrogen gas necessary to do so,

Read More About It:

Sky Guy in VA

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Home Galaxy News-Part 2

Hey Space Placers!

In our second of three parts about our home galaxy, the Milky Way, we get magnetic! I am sure almost everyone knows something about magnetism. For instance, that the Earth has a North and South magnetic pole, that magnetic field lines play a big role in the lives of sunspots and as we learned recently, solar flares.

Magnetism plays a part in our galaxy's existence and has been mapped to great precision as described in a Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) press release: "this project brings together over 30 researchers with 26 different projects and more than 41,000 measurements across the sky. The resulting database is equivalent to peppering the entire sky with sources separated by an angular distance of two full moons." This incredible volume of data results in a new, unique all-sky map that gives scientists the ability to measure the magnetic field structure of the Milky Way in unparalleled detail. The new, high-precision map not only shows the Galactic magnetic field's structure on large scales, it also reveals small-scale features that help scientists better understand turbulence in the Galactic gas."

While it was known that our galaxy, along with others, has magnetic fields, what is the source or mechanism causing them was, and is, a mystery.This new map will help astronomers study our galaxy's magnetic properties and perhaps come up with the answer to the mystery.

Read More About It:

Image of the sky map showing the Faraday effect caused by the magnetic fields of the Milky Way.

 In this map of the sky, a correction for the effect of the Galactic disk has been made in order to emphasize weaker magnetic field structures. The magnetic field directions above and below the disk seem to be diametrically opposed, as indicated by the positive (red) and negative (blue) values. An analogous change of direction takes place across the vertical center line, which runs through the center of the Milky Way.(Image Credit: Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics)

Part three tomorrow.....

Sky Guy in VA

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Home Galaxy News-Part 1

Hey Space Placers!

If you have ever been in a dark sky site in summer or winter you probably noticed the faint band of light that crosses the sky during those seasons. You may have wondered what you were looking at or already knew that you were seeing a portion of our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

Not named for the candy bar, but for its appearance in the sky, the Milky Way was named by the ancients who had a really good view of the sky before lights and massive population took away the dark. These cultures of long ago envisioned the band of light that they could see so plainly - it really is bright when there are no lights or Moon to interfere with the view, especially in summer - as being a milky colored river running across the sky.

Today we know that what we are seeing when we see this band of light is literally the collective light of millions of stars that comprise some of the arms of the Milky Way, a barred spiral galaxy. It is difficult to discover the nature of the Milky Way because we live inside of it. Our Sun is but one of hundreds of billions of stars and Earth is just one of hundreds of billions of planets. We are located in one of the Galaxy's spiral arms and are about 75,000 light years from the center of the Galaxy.

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has taken a photograph of a galaxy, NGC 1073, a barred spiral like the Milky Way Galaxy, located 55 million light-years away in the constellation of Cetus, that is thought to be very close to what we would like when viewed from afar. Studying similar galaxies like this will help us learn more about our own home galaxy.

I'll have more Milky Way Galaxy news tomorrow.

Sky Guy in VA

NGC 1073

Friday, February 3, 2012

HST Spots Bright Lensed Galaxy

Hey Space Placers!

Hubble Space Telescope (HST) found a very bright and distant glaxy thanks to the gravitational lensing of an intervening galaxy cluster. As explained in the news release, "A so-called gravitational lens is produced when space is warped by a massive foreground object, whether it is the Sun, a black hole, or an entire cluster of galaxies. The light from more-distant background objects is distorted, brightened, and magnified as it passes through this gravitationally disturbed region."

The galaxy is the brightest lensed galaxy found to date and it represents a time when the Universe was about 1/3 of its present age. The picture below shows the compnents of the lenses galaxy's image and what the galaxy looks like without the gravitational lensing distortion.


Astronomers will study this galaxy further to learn more about galaxies as they existed so long ago.

Sky Guy in VA

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Take a Look at the Lunar Far Side!

Hey Space Placers!

NASA's GRAIL A & B Mission to the Moon, the twin spacecraft are now called Ebb and Flow, made history on Januray 19, 2012 by taking the first-ever video of the lunar far side. The 30 second video shows Ebb coming in over the lunar north pole and heading towards the south lunar pole.

The video is from the onboard MoonKAM and a similar video camera is on Flow. The video shows the Moon in fair detail and famous features such as Mare Orientale are visible. I watched it a couple of times and enjoyed the view we never get to see. The frame below shows the area of the south lunar pole.
South pole of the far side of the moon as seen from the GRAIL mission's Ebb spacecraft.

The MoonKAMs will be used by thousands of fourth to eight grade students to study the Moon by taking photos of selected areas they submit requests for. It will be interesting to see what their obtained photographs and resulting studies reveal.

Read More About It and see the cool video!

Sky Guy in VA

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

New Theory on Sunspots

Hey Space Placers!

With all of the attention we have been paying the Sun lately, it is timely that a new theory has emerged regarding susnpots. The National Solar Observatory just released a new theory about how molecular hydrogen might help form sunspots and play a role in their evolution.

Read More About It:

Sky Guy in VA