Thursday, April 30, 2015

Pluto SURFACE Features Photographed by New Horizons Spacecraft

Hey Space Placers!

Today (4/29/150 NASA released images from the New Horizons spacecraft that shows SURFACE features on Pluto.

(Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

The images strongly suggest the presence of a polar cap on Pluto and show the main moon of Pluto Charon in orbit around the dwarf planet - HOW COOL IS THAT!?

We are fast approaching July 14, 2015 when New Horizons will flyby the Plutonian system. Each day the view of Pluto gets bigger and better.

Stay tuned!

Sky Guy in VA

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

3 New Super Earths Discovered

Hey Space Placers!

Astronomers have found three new "Super Earths" orbiting a nearby star. The star, HD 7924, is located 54 light years away which is really close by.

Artist’s impression of a view from the HD 7924 planetary system looking back toward our sun, which would be easily visible to the naked eye. Since HD 7924 is in our northern sky, an observer looking back at the sun would see objects like the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds close to our sun in their sky. Art by Karen Teramura & BJ Fulton, UH IfA.

These extrasolar planets -also known as exoplanets -  orbit their star closer than our own planet Mercury orbits the Sun. They orbit their star in just 5, 15 and 24 days! By comparison Mercury orbits the Sun every 88 days.

Thousands of extrasolar planet candidates have been discovered and it is estimated that there may be at least a 100 billion extrasolar planets in our Milky Way Galaxy.

To date there has been no exoplanet discovery made of a planet like Earth in terms of size and mass. When we do find one will it be located in the "habitable zone" where liquid water can exist? Our precious planet's characteristics that support life are not necessarily unique in our Galaxy. But so far it seems to be somewhat uncommon in the zoo of planets beyond our solar system.

Sky Guy in VA

Monday, April 27, 2015

MESSENGER's Death Dive

Hey Space Placers!
 Please  Read my previous blog for background on NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft.

The spacecraft completed its final maneuver on April 24th. The spacecraft is predicted to impact Mercury on April 30th and make a crater 52 feet across. We will not be able to see this crater until there is another orbital mission, if ever, to Mercury.

UPDATE: The European Space Agency (ESA) has a mission to Mercury planned for launch in 2017 with an arrival of 2024

MESSENGER has been a very successful mission and has given us vast amounts of information, over 10 terabytes, about the planet closest to the Sun. It is now an explored world that will keep planetary scientists busy for quite awhile trying to understand all that MESSENGER has told us.

Well done MESSENGER.

Sky Guy in VA

Friday, April 24, 2015

Happy 25th HST!

Hey Space Placers!

Read my column on Hubble Space Telescope (HST) which was launched into orbit 25 years ago today.

HST's 25th Anniversary Photo
Sky Guy in VA

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Hunt For ET

Hey Space Placers!

"Are We Alone" was a famous book written decades again about the question of whether humanity is alone in the Universe. Countless sci-fi movies and TV series have occupied our thoughts and imaginations about whether other intelligent life in the Universe exists.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is being carried out world-wide but and NASA are front runners in the search for life elsewhere in the Universe.

A recent study of 100,000 galaxies revealed no signs of ET but the search will go on in a big, new way.

NASA's "Nexus for Exoplanet System Science" or NExSS may be our best bet. NExSS will be a multi-disciplinary approach to study the Universe for signs of life other than ours on Earth. Every applicable science discipline and spacecraft, instrument and telescope will be applied to this search.

For me personally I have publicly commented that "life always finds a way" and that I believe the Universe is full of life. But that life still has to operate within the laws of physics as we know it and therefore it is VERY difficult to get around between the planets and stars let alone galaxies.

Our 1st electromagnetic signal was transmitted when Marconi sent his radio message across the Atlantic on Dec. 12, 1901. That message has barely travelled over 114 light years into the Cosmos. Within that sphere of 114 light years from Earth (the speed of light and how far Marconi's radio signal has gone) there are only dozens of star systems.

Even if his signal was intercepted (it was a single letter "s" in Morse Code) by a civilization at this distance of 114 light years and a reply sent, we would not receive it until 2129. Now you get an idea of how hard communication across the Cosmos can be!

I think we will find life in the form of multi-cellular organisms within our solar system in the near future. I base this on the fact that water is EVERYWHERE in our solar system and there are places on Mars and the big moons of Jupiter and Saturn that could provide havens for life as we know it - carbon and water based - to exist.

I can think of no other discovery that would cause a re-evaluation of humanity and our place in the Universe than the discovery of life, let alone intelligent life, in the Universe. Stay tuned as the Universe always surprises us.

Sky Guy in VA

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

DOUBLE Sky Guy Viewing ALERT: Moon & Venus 4/21 - Lyrid Meteor Shower Peak NIGHT OF 4/22-23

Hey Space Placers!

A double Viewing ALERT.

Venus and the Moon will be a stunning sight in the sky after sunset on April 21 in the western sky. Be sure to check out this beautiful alignment:

Look for Earthshine on the Moon. Binoculars will help in the view.

The night of April 22/23 is the peak of the Lyrid Meteor Shower. This is worth a peek as it can produce some bright meteors.

You can read about the Lyrids here and here (including a live feed during the shower).

Here's to clear skies!

Sky Guy in VA

Saturday, April 18, 2015

MESSENGER Spacecraft on Death Watch

Hey Space Placers!

Been getting caught up with family the last couple of days after returning to the US.

NASA's highly successful MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft is on a death watch that is expected to conclude sometime on April 24th, 2015, when the spacecraft slams into the far side of Mercury at almost 9,000 mph.

Artist's View of MESSENGER over Mercury
Credits: NASA/JHU APL/Carnegie Institution of Washington
The biggest finding to me from MESSENGER is the fact that abundant water exists at the poles of Mercury in permanently shadowed regions (PSR's). PSRs are places in the solar system - our Moon has them at the poles - where sunlight has never reached. This has allowed for the deposit of water from countless asteroid and comet impacts, both of which contain lots of water, to accumulate in these frigid areas.

Mercury has enough water in its polar PSR's to cover an area the size of the state of Washington to a depth of two miles! That, is a LOT of water.

One other thing that I think MESSENGER has given us is POSSIBLY the ability to classify meteorites that may originate from there. We have 1 or 2 POSSIBLE rocks from space that MAY have similarities to Mercury. 

MESSENGER was able to map the chemical/geological make up of the surface of the planet closest to the Sun. This could potentially allow the chemical makeup of a meteorite to be compared to that of Mercury. We have done this before with the match up of a whole class of meteorites to the asteroid Vesta.

Finding a space rock from Mercury would be way cool as we have never returned samples from the planet, nor any other planet. We have returned samples from the Moon, an asteroid and comet (dust grains from the coma/tail).

Next week is a BIG week for NASA due to the demise of MESSENGER and the 25th anniversary of Hubble Space Telescope (HST)....stay tuned for more coverage of these events.

Sky Guy in VA

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Color Pic of Pluto & Charon

Hey Space Placers!

Here is a historic pic of far flung dwarf planet Pluto and its biggest moon Charon. It was taken at a distance of 71 million miles on 4/9/15 by the New Horizons spacecraft which is enroute to a flyby of the Pluto system on July 14, 2015.

The best news is that the view is only going to get BETTER as New Horizons gets closer! I can hardly wait.

Sky Guy in VA

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Latest (and UNREAL) Pics of Comet 67P from ESA's Rosetta Mission

Hey Space Placers!

I am back in the USA and am getting caught up on a LOT of space and astronomy news. I will try and get the highlights out in the next few days but I HAD to share the latest pics from ESA's Rosetta Mission of Comet 67P with you. Be sure to download the hi-res JPEG if you can - it is worth it.


The comet is 4 months from being closest to the Sun. It is starting to heat up as it gets ever closer to the Sun and we are beginning to see jets of material coming from the comet. We get excellent views as it rotates and from the Rosetta spacecraft orbiting very close to Comet 67P. The view is only going to get better and more amazing in the months to come.

Sky Guy Back in the USA

Monday, April 13, 2015

Meet Lucas

Hey Space Placers!

I gave my last presentation today, 4-13-15 on board Holland America’s Statendam. Titled “The Universe and You” I provide attendees a look at our planet, the solar system and the Universe as a whole. It is a far reaching topic that I hope broadens the knowledge and wonder of those who hear it.

I am ALWAYS humbled by the enormity of the Universe and our ability to ponder it with our telescopes, instruments, machines and most importantly, our minds. We know much but have so much farther to go in our understanding and true comprehension of our Universe. Perhaps the most profound  thought my audience leaves with is that we may be only one of MANY universes that exist simultaneously. 

The most amazing experiences (and there were many in this 1st time visit to these countries) that I am taking away from this 16 day cruise to Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico boils down to two: Mayan Cosmology and Lucas. 

I have to read up on Mayan Cosmology or their view of creation, the sky, and their place in it. The Mayan ruins at Iximche, Guatemala, were at 7,000+ feet (been awhile since I was on that high of ground) and consisted of an astronomical observatory and other ruins. We saw the actual stone circle where humans were sacrificed to the Mayan Sun God and learned of the violent and I must say gruesome rituals that took place involving Mayan royalty (genital mutilation for a start). I am not judging the Mayans as to their culture or rituals in the distant past but am merely commenting on its cost to living, breathing humans. 

Lucas is a two-year old rescued California Sea Lion that happily lives in “Dolphin Adventure” Park, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The park has rescued dolphins, sea lions and sea wolves (the Mexican name for California Sea Lions), free roaming Iguanas and a crocodile or two. These creatures have been rescued and saved from what would be an almost a certain death in the wild due to their injuries. 

Lucas was found as a pup in Mexican waters with a very bad injury to his side and weighed only 30 pounds - he surely would have died. He was brought to the park where he was cared for and eventually healed. It is doubtful that Lucas will be returned to the wild like many of the rescued animals are if they are deemed fit to do so. He will be an emissary to the human race that can spend time with him (40 minutes) in his clean and nurturing environment. Lucas will also help to increase his species by mating when he comes of age and is able to do so.

I got to spend a few precious minutes alone with Lucas in his very clean saltwater pool and felt an overwhelming affection and bonding with him. He is the first sea mammal I have ever been able to touch and have close contact with. Lucas likes humans - a testament to the love, respect and training that Mine, Lucas’s trainer, provides him. She is an animal lover that owns several dogs and is solely dedicated to Lucas.

Lucas never flinched or fully widened his eyes but actually closed them when he fully stretched out to let me stroke him nor did he ever try to pull away - he leaned in to me -  and used his large flippers to make and maintain contact with me.

Lucas and I hugged, yes, hugged, and he did flying leaps over me. For full disclosure Lucas also gave me several kisses on the cheek. He swam around me and showed me his incredible agility and speed in and out of the water. Lucas could jump 3-4 body lengths out of the water! I learned from Mine about Lucas, his species and how we humans need to care for the oceans and our planet.

I am an animal lover and Lucas stole my heart. He will live hopefully for at least 20-30 years and will meet many more humans as an emissary from hi species. 

I hope to follow Lucas as he ages and maybe one day get in the water with him again. I will never forget him.

Sky Guy in VA

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Sky Guy Viewing ALERT!!! 4/10-12/15 Venus & Pleiades

Hey Space Placers!

Starting on April 10th brilliant and beautiful Venus will be passing by the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters star cluster in the western sky after it gets dark. 

You do not need any observing aid to see this celestial spectacle as Venus is easily visible and will be just to the left of the Pleiades star cluster. Binoculars will really enhance the view and I highly recommend using them if you have them.

The light we see in the sky from the Sun, Moon, planets and stars all travels at 186,000 miles per second or 300,000 kilometers per second. This is the speed limit for light in the Universe as determined by Albert Einstein.

The Sun is 8 light minutes from Earth (93 million miles) , the Moon is 1.3 light seconds (about 230,000 miles) and the planets are light minutes and light hours from Earth while the stars are light years from us.  A light year is 6 TRILLION miles.

On April 10-12, Venus is about 100 million miles from Earth while the Pleiades are 440 LIGHT YEARS from us. If you look at your watch when you look at Venus and subtract 9 minutes and 20 seconds that is the time the reflected sunlight off of the cloud tops of Venus left the second planet from the Sun. The light from the stars of the Pleiades left in the year 1575.

People with good vision and dark skies and can see at least 7 stars in the Pleiades and they form a small dipper. Some people confuse the Pleiades with the much larger Little or Big  Dipper constellations in the Northern part of the sky. The 1000-plus stars of the Pleiades star cluster were all born about 100 million years ago from the same huge gas-dust cloud and are still wrapped in that gas and dust. You can see this nebulosity in my picture of the Pleiades.

Enjoy this multi-day event and watch Venus move above the Pleiades. This motion in the sky is caused by the movement of Venus and Earth in their orbits around the Sun. 

This pairing in the sky can be photographed by using a camera preferably mounted on a tripod. Using a starting ISO of 800 and a shutter speed of 2 seconds should get you some good pics. Take several and adjust your settings as needed. Try to avoid any lights that can ruin your shot. 

Take pics over the 3 day time frame and you will easily be able to see the moment of Venus in the sky.

Good luck and clear skies!

Sky Guy in the Pacific Ocean

Friday, April 3, 2015

Sky Guy Viewing ALERT: Total Lunar Eclipse 4/4/15

Hey Space Placers!

Sorry for this abbreviated Viewing Alert but I am at sea. The 4/4/15 lunar eclipse will be visible over a wide part of the U.S. and the Pacific. Check out these  articles to find out what you will see where you live.

I will try and observe/photograph the eclipse at sea on the Statendam starting at 4 a.m. local time. We will be just above the equator.


LUNAR ECLIPSE:  Sky watchers on the Pacific side of Earth can see a brief but beautiful lunar eclipse on Saturday morning, April 4th.  The Moon will turn red, and possibly turquoise, too, as the lunar disk passes through the shadow of our planet.  Totality lasts for less than 5 minutes, so it is important to be outside at the right moment.  Check for viewing times and more information.

Science News

Sky Guy in VA

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Down Under

Hey Space Placers!

I am ‘down under’ - below the equator, 12 degrees South  - and it has been a LONG time since I have done that, 33 years to be exact! 

I enjoyed seeing Lima, Peru, especially the birds and sea lions located on some islands just off the coast of the city.  We took a small motor launch out to the islands and it was quite the trip.

There were an estimated 10 THOUSAND sea lions frolicking in the water and laying out in the rare sunny day. They make quite the noise and I have listened to my video of them several times to hear them - quite the amazing memory I must say. Here you can see them in the water and on the island. 

There were also very large pelicans, Humboldt Penguins, yes Penguins (!!) to see as well as Turkey Vultures which I could not distinguish from my fave bird of prey in Virginia. They soared overhead in large numbers and in binoculars I could see the tell tale red head and white color of their feathers to ID them. There was also Peruvian Black Vultures which were different from our Black Vultures in Virginia as they seemed larger.

The weather has been a perpetual fog bank followed by very brief periods of somewhat clear skies. I have been able to see the Moon located about 50 degrees North of where it would be in Virginia and the brightest two stars in the night sky, Sirius and Canopus. Sirius is directly overhead, again due to being in the Southern Hemisphere.

We are headed North to Ecuador but I am still hoping for a clear night to see the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds - the largest dwarf galaxies orbiting our Milky Way Galaxy - and the Southern Cross.

Sky Guy at Sea Down Under