Archive for the ‘Comets’ Category

June’s Nighttime Sky   Leave a comment


Credit: earth

Look up, folks!

This month proves to be a bonanza for Mars and Saturn fans! Take a look in the southeast and you’ll notice the giant fishhook that is Scorpio. You can’t miss it and if you glance at the top three stars, they form a crooked line. Here’s a better example of the constellation:


Credit: H.A. Rey, “The Stars”

Mars slips across the southern sky, so incredibly bright, you can’t miss it. If you’ve been keeping your eye on it, you’ll notice every night it’s in a different spot, competing with Scorpio’s Antares (magnitude: 1.22). Mars is a fair distance ahead of Antares, so you can’t get them confused.

Saturn isn’t in as much of a hurry as Mars, but still commands attention. During June, the ringed planet is its closest to the Earth, and, as an added bonus, has its rings nicely tipped at a 26 degree angle, showing them off nicely for you. It, too, is in Scorpio, just above it.

Scorpio also happens to be one of my favorite constellations, glimmering all summer long. When I see it rise, in earnest, in May, I know summer isn’t far behind. It glimmers and shimmers. It never rises that high, but you can’t miss it when it’s here.

In the early morning sky, you can also see Comet Pan-STARRS near the constellation Capricorn low in the souther sky. It comes into view around 4:00 am.

If you happen to have a telescope, all of these are worth seeking out. Even a strong pair of binoculars make a difference, especially with the comet.

Here’s a brief video from NASA JPL with more details regarding Mars, Saturn and Comet Pan-STARRS. Take a moment this weekend and look south – nature will reward you with its charming beauty!



Best. Present. Ever.   Leave a comment


Andrew’s wonderful Christmas present to me…

have to trumpet the best present I’ve ever longed for and received – a brand spankin’ new telescope!  And not just any telescope, my own Celestron NexStar 130SLT! I’ve always lusted after one of these, and now, I OWN ONE. Just in time to see Comet Lovejoy!  I’d like to take it outside tonight, as it’s nearest to the earth, but we’ve had some snow and I don’t know if the sky’s going to clear in time.  That, and it’s WELL below freezing tonight.  Still, that’s the optimal time to gaze at the heavens, because there won’t be any of that nasty haze interfering with the brilliance of the winter nighttime sky.

For those of you who own or have access to telescopes, the best thing about them is how it changes your perspective on what’s up there in the nighttime sky.  I had my first one at 12, but then it fell off the roof when I was trying to focus in on Comet Kohoutek.  That ended that.  Over the years I’ve belonged to astronomy clubs and peeked through fellow amateur astronomers.  Now, for the first time in years, I have one that’s powerful enough for me to zoom in on not just the planets, but Messier objects, novas, galaxies, double stars – the works!

My husband used to look up at the evening stars with his father back in his native England.  Their back garden in Launceston, Cornwall offered a terrific view, since it was near the top of a hill, without much to obscure the stars.  After life at 40.7127° N, 74.0059° W for years, I had a chance to see things at 50.6350° N, 4.3540° W.  My eyes, formerly trained to look at my favorite celestial objects at a lower latitude now had to focus somewhere else.  That only took a moment, but it also meant that I couldn’t see a few constellations I’d grown used to seeing skirting the horizon at my latitude.

It’s fair to say Andrew’s into this scope just as much as I am.  He’s a photographer and this Celestron has the capability for nighttime picture taking.  I personally can’t wait to get the thing outside and pointed upwards.  Truth be told, I don’t care where I look.  There’s sure to be something wonderful when I peer into the eyepiece, and I can’t imagine being disappointed at what I’ll see.



Incredible!   Leave a comment


Credit: ESA, Artist’s Impression

OMG, this is a BFD!

I, along with everyone else who keeps their eyes on these things, shouted a big hoot of delight this morning when I saw Philae Lander put on a real showstopper of a landing on a duck-shaped comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko just after 11:00 am, EST in the USA.  Released from Rosetta, it marked a real victory for a huge gamble that will reap large rewards for anyone who’s interested in the miracles of our solar system.   I’m sorry, but I’m at a loss for words to describe what an amazing accomplishment this for the ESA, for science, and for our futures, so excuse the sap.

The New York Times posted a series of tweets that a very excited Philae, who couldn’t wait to touch down on the surface of 7P/C-G after journeying ten years to get there (do you blame it?).  The newspaper also has a series of incredible photos that document the comet as detail its landing place.

What makes this such a special event?

Landing on a relatively small target from a great distance notwithstanding, it’s ESA’s and the world’s first opportunity to scientifically examine, up close, just exactly how a comet operates, what it sees, where it goes and what it does for a living.  The pictures indicate that its shape isn’t anything to brag about, but again, it’s the first time anyone has ever set foot on such a heavenly object and it’s a premiere learning experience for all.  NASA has also contributed three instruments to the lander mission, so what makes this even better its international, offworld educational opportunity.

Philae’s got a big job ahead of it.  With only 64 battery hours to get through its tasks initially, it will depend upon solar batteries to provide it with power until March.  That, and it has an awful lot of tweets to send us to let us know how it’s doing!

For a laugh, check out xkcd’s comic on the event.

Comet Con   Leave a comment

Who doesn’t have a fascination with comets?

Mercurial, fickle, entirely dramatic in all ways, these nomads of the heavenly sky form bonds with our souls.  From expectation to delivery, these babies take years to put in appearances in our nighttime skies, and, like any baby, one never quite knows what to expect until its head pops out.


Sure, who doesn’t remember Hale-Bopp?  Back in my Manhattanite days, I lived a stone’s throw from the Empire State Building.  Out my bedroom window, there was the perfect view of H-B in the fading daylight, competing with the city’s electric glow, pulsing with energy and brilliance.  I knew just where to look, and trained my eye in that sweet spot until its head poked from behind the dark curtains and the hazy feathers of its tail teased its way into the night.  From its heavenly stage, it delivered a show guaranteed to enthrall the most jaded of Broadway critics.  And when it departed after its celebrated run, Hale-Bopp imparted the warmest of memories, leaving an unforgettable performance in its wake.


Queen of the Night: Hale-Bopp in 1997

But as fans of ISON know, it ain’t all grand, despite the promises of glory.

My first experience with disappointment, comet-wise, occurred during the sixth grade.  For months I climbed up my brother’s ham radio tower to access the relatively lower dining room roof and perched up there, looking for something, anything, in the dusk along the horizon.  Nothing.  Then bit by bit, tiny wisps of something resembling a pinhead with a tiny thread appeared.  Is…that…IT? I remembered thinking, even dragging my mother up there (well, she peeked out of an upper floor window) hoping it grow larger and start wiggling that ginormous tail.  But it never did, and eventually it faded, returning to the cosmos from whence it came.


 Comet Kohoutek, as promised but not delivered 

Let’s jump to 1986.  My grandfather, then well into his 80s, used to tell us when he, as a kid, remembered beautiful Halley’s Comet dominating the evening skies, literally stopping people in their tracks to observe its majestic tail.  “Oh, it shimmered like you can’t imagine,” he’d say, and in the relative darkness of the area of Pennsylvania mining country where he lived, there were few people who didn’t take in a lengthy stare in wonderment of nature.

So when he read in the paper that he’d still be present for its return, he lit up like the comet he remembered.  “You’ll see nothing like Halley!” he promised.  “Never thought I’d be around long enough to see it again, but I am, and I can’t wait!”

He shuffled out in the backyard of our New Jersey home, looking up towards the heavens only to see this tiny smudge, barely visible to the naked eye.  “Really?” he said, as I pointed it out to him.  “C’mon.  That’s not it; that’s a plane.”  As I assured him that blurry patch was not a plane but indeed the major disappointment of the decade, he sighed and said, “Well, at least I saw the real thing.  Shame you won’t,” and went back inside.  He’s right, you know, because as much as I’d like to hope I’d be around in 2061, the get-real part of me says I won’t.


What Grandpa saw and I didn’t: 1910 Halley’s Comet

So what other comets lie in wait for us out there?  Well, literally dozens of comets are discovered every heart.  Most one can’t see without a telescope or a good set of binoculars, but there’s generally a decent selection from which to choose.  On October 19, 2014, Mars has a good chance of being brushed by the tail of Comet A1 Siding Spring’s tail – a great event and excuse to beg, borrow or steal a telescope.

And who knows?  You might be in for a memorable treat!  Cross your fingers and wish upon a star…

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