Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Evening planets greet the International Year of Astronomy 2009

As I type this, the IYA 2009 has already begun in the Western Pacific while others still have to wait another 24 hours. A parallel blog (in German, but with the majority of links going to websites in English) has covered IYA preparations throughout the year in 70(!) postings; for starters check the latest IAU Press Release - and watch (on TV, maybe) the new year fireworks in Rio which will have an astronomy theme. While there are a few sky highlights in 2009, including some eclipses, there won't probably be that big event uniting humanity looking up. At least the old year ends - and new one begins - with a three-planet (and Moon) line-up in the evening skies.
  • Dec. 31: This evening there is even a double conjunction with Venus & the Moon and Jupiter & Mercury pairing up; the latter pair is pretty close to the Sun, though. See below for the view on the past few evenings.

  • Dec. 31/Jan. 1: A leap second (some background and more, more, more, more, more, more and more stories) will delay the launch of the IYA ...

  • Jan. 1 ... which commences with the "Dawn of the IYA" worldwide solar observing event - everywhere at noon local time. Unfortunately the (white-light) Sun refuses to cooperate, so those having H-Alpha telescopes may be the only ones able to impress ...

  • Jan. 3: The Quadrantid meteors should peak around 12:50 UTC; the Moon is in first quarter.

  • Jan. 7: At 3:45 UTC the U.S. Opening Ceremony of the IYA begins - and will be webcast (something that's not guaranteed for the international kick-off on Jan. 15/16 or other national kick-offs).

  • Jan. 7: Jet another Pleijades occultation by the Moon for Europe, early in the evening.

  • Jan. 14: Venus reaches greatest Eastern elongation, 47° (and the Stardust s/c flies by the Earth; EPOXI visited us on Dec. 29).

  • Jan. 26: Annular eclipse of the Sun for SE Asia.

  • Jan. 30: And again Venus visits the Moon.
One possible 'star' of the IYA could be comet C/2007 N3 (Lulin) which has just emerged from the glare of the Sun: Pictures of Dec. 29 and Dec. 28 and visual observations of Dec. 30 (dito) and Dec. 28 put it at 7th to 8th magnitude right now, with hopes of 3 to 4 mag. in late February, well placed for Northern observers in Moon-free skies. • Comets 19P on Dec. 20, 29P on Dec. 28/29 and Dec. 27, 116P on Dec. 20, 144P on Dec. 29, Dec. 28, Dec. 26 and more pictures and C/2006 OF2 on Dec. 29 (with tail), Dec. 20 and more pictures. • There were few reports of 210P/Christensen = C/2008 X4 close to the Sun: The forward-scatter brightening was perhaps not so dramatic after all. • And a strange visitor to an automatic meteor camera ...

Pictures of the planets in the evening skies from several evenings, from Dec. 30 in Bavaria and Bonn, Dec. 29 in the U.S. (more), Austria, Würzburg, Hamburg and Japan (more and more pictures) and Dec. 28 from Colorado, Kansas, Arkansas and Europe. • Venus & Neptune on Dec. 28 and Venus close-up in the UV on Dec. 28 and Dec. 23 (more). • A "final numerical report" on Jupiter in 2007. • Meanwhile Saturn - with its rings nearly edge-on - has been imaged a lot: a fantastic collection and selected images of Dec. 28, Dec. 26 (more), Dec. 25, Dec. 24 (more), Dec. 22 and Dec. 20. • Finally some news about a Dark Sky Park in Scotland, a book on the 2008 TSE, nice pics of a green segment of the setting Sun, and pics & poems from the Romanian AstroTournament (and about comet McNaught 2 years ago) - plus splendid Hubble pics in large size. Happy new year!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Saturn rings as "edgy" now as you will seem them

While the actual ring plane crossing, "RPX" among planetologists, will happen only next September, now is the time to see the rings as narrow as possible - from Earth. On Dec. 27 the opening angle will reach a local minimum, 0.8°, and will then go up again; before it's once again that small, Saturn will be hidden behind the Sun, and when it returns in late 2009 the angle is again bigger. Already in mid-December the rings were a mere line (more and more pics). • With the nearing equinox mutual events of Saturn's satellite have begun: Here's a successful observation of such an event on Dec. 8. • And Titan has been filmed transiting Saturn's disk.

In other news the largest full Moon in 15 years (more, more, more, more and more previews) was observed widely (more and more pics). • The bright Moon hampered (more, more and more previews) visual observations of the Geminids 2008 though some nice pictures were obtained. • Talking about visitors from outer space another nonsensical story about a meteor(ite) setting off a fire in NZ was shot down there as well as here (check also the following message) and here.

• There is a detailled prediction that one of several recently recovered comets, normally faint, should "light up" tomorrow in the field of view of SOHO's coronagraphs due to extreme forward scattering. The comet is already in the C3 field but difficult to find at 7th mag. • A rendezvous of comets 15P and 17P on Dec. 8. • More pictures of C/2006 OF2, 205P (earlier) and 67P.

• A sky picture with 3 months exposure time, showing Sun trails. • A collection of solar corona pictures from the 1800s. • How the new solar cycle tries to take over. • A reconstructed butterfly diagram for the 18th century. • A solar flare surprise with a stream of perfectly intact hydrogen atoms shooting out of an X-class flare. • Not for the first time aurora watching as an incentive for travel.

• A call for observations for a rare event with EE Cephei. • Amateur variable work can actually lead to real science papers. • The winners of a regional astrophoto contest for South America and India. • And regarding the upcoming International Year of astronomy a new Dark Skies Awareness website with a special trailer, a new website on the Sun and details about the "100 Hours" event in April.

Monday, December 8, 2008

PHEMU09 begins tonight: a campaign of observations of the mutual phenomena of the satellites of Saturn

"Tonight (Monday 2008 Dec.08) at 23:50 UT will begin 'the campaign of observations PHEMU09 of the mutual phenomena of the satellites of SATURN in 2008-2010'," advises J.Lecacheux and refers to the PHEMU09 homepage for all details and in particular the interactive software linked there. "While trying it, you will remark that because of the late rise of Saturn tonight, the total occultation of ENCELADE (S II) by TETHYS (S III) will be observable from eastern or central Europe, but not from Great Britain, France or Spain." So what can an amateur do? "The duration of the mutual phenomena, often several minutes, allows some time integration in order to improve the SNR (Signal/Noise ratio), typically between 0.2 and 5 seconds, depending on the diameter of the telescope. Good SNR, good camera linearity and excellent UTC datation of the mid-exposures are the main requirements.

A modern CCD camera mounted at the focus of a large enough mirror is optimal regarding SNR and linearity, but often may induce variable time delay (sometimes more than 1 second) caused by the digital link between the camera and the computer in a multitask environment. In contrast video integration may provide poor linearity and modest SNR." There is a need to hurry: "In reason of the date of the conjunction of Saturn with the Sun (2009 Sep. 18), only a small number of 'phemus' will be observable from a given location during the next 18 months. Even worse : In reason of the Earth-Saturn current geometrical configuration, actually 65 % of the whole set of observable events will occur during the current month of December 2008, and the next one, January 2009!!! So please don't await that better weather condescend to return! If you possess convenient equipment, your immediate cooperation wouldbe very valuable! As early as tonight, if possible!"

In other news there was a -18 mag. fireball over Colorado early on Dec. 6, also observed elsewhere and now analyzed: It is unlikely but not impossible that the event (which was widely reported) has led to meteorites dropping. • Meanwhile the unconfirmed claim of a major (though sub-storm-level) Leonids outburst in 2009 is spreading to the most unlikely places - please refrain from distributing these "news" any further until another dust trail-ologist agrees. He actually got the 2008 Leonids at least as good as the other theorist - and sees only a modest outburst in 2009. • There was a minor panic in the comets community when someone could not find promising Lulin in SOHO images and another one couldn't either - but it is there as was eventually found out, as this image shows.

• Venus is now dominating the evening sky, together with Jupiter and later Mercury as this animation nicely shows. The Moon, which was joining the planet pair on Dec. 2, Dec. 1 and Nov. 30 (as was reported in great detail in the previous two postings) returns to the evening skies only at the month's end. Also enjoy these rare image composites of Venus in the sky (another apparition). • Mira has brightened to 3.9 mag. and is now easy to observe. • As is, apparently the lost astronaut's tool bag now flashing in the sky and discussed here - but not in the official NASA video of STS-126 ... • And finally unusual video of Orion rising.

It is also time for a reminder that this blog is being joined by a Twitter feed since nearly two months: There have already been 1018 "tweets" to date, most of them either linking to all kinds of space news and pictures practically in the moment I found them - or reporting "live" from space events on the web, be it launch broadcasts, press conferences or webinars. The usefulness of Twitter is notoriously hard to explain to the uninitiated (and yours truly had resisted the temptation to join this social network for two years - until personally given the kick by the 'voice of Phoenix' at a conference) - but once you're using the service it becomes clear pretty quickly. There are three levels of engagement possible: just check the Cosmos4U Twitter website occasionally for new tweets ("RT" there means 're-tweeting' someone else's stuff, "@" responds directly to another tweet which is then linked at the bottom), open your own account and subscribe to a few feeds (those which Cosmos4U "follows" are recommended) but stay quiet yourself (as a "twurker" = twitter lurker) - or simply join the party. Since you chose whom to listen to (other than Cosmos4U, of course :-), it's practically spam-free ...

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Lots more fine pictures, videos, image collections of the trio & conjunction - and a related detective story ...

have appeared since the first summary appeared here - it was actually linked to in this summary. Picture collections include big ones here, here and here and smaller ones like this and this. Individual pictures published or found since are from Dec. 3 from India and Australia, from Dec. 2 from Germany (scroll down) and Australia and from Dec. 1 from the U.S. (where others just saw it or didn't), Europe (more) with videos from the Netherlands and Austria and pictures from Austria (more, more, more, more and more), Germany (where many saw nothing, though), N. Ireland, Scotland and England, from Morocco and India, namely Mumbai and the Old Fort in Delhi (incl. the next two elements and a multi-day-picture).

And then there was this picture of Nov. 30 from Edwards AFB with the trio over Endeavour (just as it was seen that evening over LA). Originally NASA named this picture "The Setting Sun," and the caption claimed: "The setting sun casts long shadows over space shuttle Endeavour as technicians prepare to move the orbiter from the runway at Edwards Air Force Base where it landed Sunday, Nov. 30" - but how could one unmanipulated shot capture both the Sun and Venus and Jupiter? A big debate ensued on the German amateur astronomy mailing lists Astro and Planetenbeobachter where this blogger had raised questions about the image: First some claimed prematurely that such a picture would easily be possible "if you understood your camera" but the pictures they posted were in fact taken after sunset or poorly documented.

Then others found out that the bright light in the NASA picture could not be the Sun after all: it was in a wrong angle w.r.t. Endeavour's runway, the diverging shadow was evidence for close light source and the "Sun" was too close to the Moon & planets (as someone actually measured from the image). This blogger had already sent a request for details to the Dryden PAO and got a quick response from the actual NASA photographer which included the time the picture was taken: 5:09 PST. It was then easy to calculate that the Sun was 6° below the horizon: The bright light was thus a nearby floodlight and the visibility of Venus and Jupiter was what one would expect at dusk. "Sir, You are indeed correct! Thank you for pointing out that error," the Dryden PAO replied when told of the 'research' result: "I will work to get it corrected." Which has been done - the caption now says: "Floodlights cast long shadows, like a setting sun" ...

In other news here are many more pictures of the fresh Canadian meteorites which include a really big one. • The prognosis of 500 Leonids/hour in 2009 has now also reached NASA where it was apparently confirmed. • There is a Nova Sgr of perhaps 7th magnitude. • The NASA Circular on the two eclipses of 2010 is out as are the individual data for the ASE and the TSE - the weather statistics esp. for the ASE had already caused some debate in October. • Omega Centauri with really many pixels from an 2.2 m groundbased scope (also hailed here and here) - and M 13 from Hubble, also a new release without new science. • Finally another light pollution story in a normal paper - and a kind of sonification of the Arecibo message ...

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tons of marvellous pictures document cosmic trio, Venus occultation

The triple conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and the Moon, seen in the evening hours around the world yesterday has been observed, photographed and commented on as hardly any such "simple" sky show before. In Australia and Asia the two planets and the lunar crescent formed a "smiley face" as many - even some media - have commented, while half a day later the Moon was on the other side of the planets' line and the smile was gone (though not from the faces of successful observers).

For introduction here are some of the best images from Australia (the smiley over great landscapes), India (over Delhi's Old Fort), Austria (with the Jovian moons visible and - scroll down!!! - a superb video of occultation ingress while this report was online superfast) and the U.S. (with a striking timelapse widefield video). There was also a successful webcast from Cornwall. More images:This is, of course, just a small part of what's out there: SpaceWeather has early collections of the trio and the occultation; more collections come from the BBC (with picture 3 from Africa; note the shift of the Moon relative to Europe!)and the Sydney Morning Herald while the BBC has also collected comments from around the globe. The conjunction was also covered by the Bad Astronomy Blog, New Scientist, CSM, KolNews and the Himalayan Times - and there'll be certainly more stuff to link to in the next posting. Having been largely clouded out himself, this blogger likes to consider the amateur astronomy community around the world as a hundred-thousand-eyed superorganism, liked into a meta-brain via the internet: Last night we certainly succeeded bigtime ...