Make Plans Now to View a Rare Astronomical Phenomenon

Solar eclipse viewing. By Skoch3 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Solar eclipse viewing. By Skoch3 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

During my college years, I witnessed an event that was new to me: A solar eclipse. I made a pinhole projector to watch the moon pass over the sun on a piece of white paper and have to admit, the darkening during midday was quite interesting. However, it was not a total eclipse so there was still some sunlight slipping around the moon. Hence using the pinhole projector to preserve my eyesight.

Next year on August 21, the United States will experience a total solar eclipse. While I will be able to see the solar eclipse in Wisconsin, I will not experience a total eclipse. In fact, I will need to head south and west to states like Nebraska, Kentucky and Missouri to reach part of the US where the moon will fully block the sun. Why is everyone talking about the 2017 Solar Eclipse in 2016? So you can plan your vacation of course!

Have a relative or friend you haven’t seen in a while conveniently located in the total eclipse zone? Ask if they would be willing to cohost a Solar Eclipse party. Alternatively, just ask to stay with friends or family and join up with any public observations of the solar eclipse. You need to plan a family vacation anyway, right? Why not conveniently plan to stay in a location where hey, there’s a total solar eclipse today. Let’s watch! Fun and educational for everyone.

Don’t forget your eclipse viewing glasses (so attractive in cardboard chic) or add filters to telescopes and binoculars for magnified viewing pleasure. Bonus to a total solar eclipse? You can gaze at the moon-blocked sun with your naked eyes for up to 2.5 minutes, depending on location. Just don’t look too long to preserve your retinas.

So if you need an excuse to plan a unique vacation (and maybe appease some rarely seen friends and relatives), consider placing yourself in the swath of the country where the moon will obliterate your view of the sun (for less than three minutes). And if these locations don’t appeal to you, just wait until 2024 when the eastern portion of the US will be treated to a total solar eclipse. Different cities in which to vacation and other relatives to visit!

Summer Friday Blog: Journey into Outer Space for the Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower

11156716_lThis week we travel to outer space, the Final Frontier, to catch a glimpse of the Southern Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower. But don’t worry, you don’t have to leave your backyard. Just grab a blanket and find a place without too much light pollution, and you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of this worldwide phenomenon.

The Southern Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower is an annual summer occurrence that spans July and August, but this weekend marks its nominal peak in activity. From July 26th through August 1st, give or take a couple of days because nature is lovably fickle, we can expect a maximum hourly rate of 15-20 meteors. That might not sound like much, but a special angle of atmospheric entry gives Delta Aquarid meteors long, lingering trails that seriously set this shower apart.

Most meteor showers are created by comets. As a comet circles our Sun, it sheds a rocky dust stream along its orbit. When Earth travels through this space litter, the result is a meteor shower. Astronomers believe that the Southern Delta Aquarids originated from the breakup of two sungrazing comets, Marsden and Kracht.

Shooting stars, as they’re lovingly called, can appear anywhere in the sky, but if you trace the tails it becomes clear that each shower has a definite epicenter. The showers are named after these radiant points, taking the name of the constellation dominating that particular region of the sky. The Delta Aquarids, as you can probably guess, pay homage to the constellation Aquarius. Look for the star Skat within the “water bearer” constellation, the point where Delta Aquari meteors are born.

For every time zone and all continents, the hours between midnight and dawn will be the best time to glimpse these brief celestial bodies. Those of you in the southern hemisphere and southerly latitudes in the northern hemisphere will get a better show, as is typical with this particular shower, though all observers are bound to see activity. Unfortunately, this year the waning crescent moon rises around midnight and will drown out dimmer meteors. But we’ll still see the big ones, and those are arguably the most thrilling.

Meteors are really just bits of interplanetary debris traveling tens of thousands of miles per hour, igniting as they vaporize in Earth’s upper atmosphere, but they sure are pretty. For a preview, take a look at this video of last year’s meteor shower, filmed August 2 by Canadian Geographic.

Star Light, Star Bright… Wait! That’s a Comet!

Image credit: NASA.gov

Image credit: NASA.gov

I don’t know a lot about astronomy, but I do love to look at the stars. In grade school, we learned many constellations and the stories behind them. My dad loved looking for the planets and used to point out Mars, Jupiter and some constellations for me when I was a kid. Even though I live in an extremely light-polluted area, I still love to hunt for seasonally-visible constellations, and do my best to catch the occasional meteor shower. This year, we will get a couple of rare treats if we’re lucky. There are two comets that will be visible to the naked eye! Apparently, experts say that we are usually lucky to catch a comet with the naked eye only once every five or ten years! One is traveling close to Earth right now called C/2011 L4 a.k.a. PANSTARRS because it was discovered in June of 2011 by the Pan-STARRS telescope (source: Wikipedia). Your best chance to see it may be March 12 because it is not that bright. If you want to try to catch it, experts say you should look close to the western horizon just after sunset. You might have better luck with binoculars or a telescope, but if you’re lucky, you can catch it with your own two eyes!

If you miss out on C/2011 L4 you might get a second chance in late November when C/2012 S1 a.k.a ISON (discovered in 2012 by the International Scientific Optical Network) enters perihelion (i.e., makes its closest approach to the sun). To learn more about C/2012 S1, check out this cool Infographic at space.com.

If you want to learn more about the stars, I highly recommend visiting http://solarsystem.nasa.gov. It has lots of cool pictures, easy to understand articles and educational resources! I’ll leave you with this neat video that describes exactly where to look for these comets. It also describes the Rosetta Mission, which is attempting to orbit and land on a comet! Happy stargazing.