21 More: Stars

O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

If it’s not stormy, fall and winter nights can be excellent for star gazing. It’s dark early and sometimes the skies can be crisply clear.  To give your star gazing muscles a gentle stretch, try looking for the brilliant stars that make up the constellation Orion, The Hunter.

orion2For a bigger challenge, look for M42, the Messier object called the Great Orion Nebula. On a really clear and dark night you might see it with the naked eye as a bit of a blur. With binoculars or a small telescope you’ll have more luck.  Look below Orion’s belt at his “sword” to find the nebula (see squared area below).m42Related note: I hope the Orion launch goes smoothly tomorrow after being cancelled today. I don’t think I can handle getting up at 7:05 a.m. ET (4:05 a.m. my time) to see if it works but good luck, NASA!

23 More: Sounds

As I write I’m listening to my favorite recording of Handel’s Messiah: Boston Baroque‘s 1992 performance. Period instruments and the select musicians really make it for me. [What’s your favorite version of Messiah?]  I had to start with the Hallelujah Chorus (doesn’t everybody?) but I then started at the beginning. Just now “For unto us a Child is born” finished playing and we’re into the Pifa. So amazing, so relaxing.  Yet Handel wrote the whole thing in a period of three weeks from August 22, 1741-September 14, 1741. His librettist, Charles Jennens was rather disappointed by the speed, saying that Handel had “made a fine Entertainment of it, tho’ not near so good as he might and ought to have done.”

MessiahOh, and speaking of sound: I’ve been reading Imperfect Harmony by Stacy Horn (haven’t finished yet but so far, so good) which led me to the research of astronomer Dr. Mark Whittle who has made primordial sound audible today. Awesome. The sounds aren’t particularly musical but do check out the audio files and accompanying text on Whittle’s website.


I was so excited by the Philae probe’s landing on Comet 67P. And so disappointed that it’s been unable to recharge its batteries. I hope it’ll be possible to revive the probe in future. How cool that, after a 10+ year mission, it did successfully land on a hunk of space ice. I also love that the probe was named after the Philae obelisk while its carrying satellite was named after the Rosetta Stone. Both were essential to the understanding and translation of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.


Comet ISON

I’m looking forward to the premier of the PBS special on Comet ISON. The show premieres Wednesday, November 20th. Check your local listings for Comet Encounter.

Comet ISON

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

And then, don’t forget to go outside at night now until the day before Thanksgiving. If you have a good pair of binoculars and are at a dark site, look to the East during early morning. November 28th may be the end for Comet ISON. No one knows if it will survive it’s close encounter (perihelion) with the sun at that point. It will either break up after the 28th or keep on glowing and become visible to the naked eye. I really hope the latter happens. If it does, prepare for a show in early December.

Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks on Saturday

If you’re lucky enough to be where the sky is clear and there’s not too much light pollution, go outside late on Saturday night/early Sunday morning.  You should be able to see the Orionid meteor shower–especially after the moon sets around midnight.  Expect about 20 meteors per hour.  They’ll look like they’re originating from the constellation Orion (hence the name) but you’ll see them all over the sky.

The Perseids

Don’t forget to go outside and watch the Perseid meteor shower tomorrow night.  Best viewing will be late Saturday/early Sunday (August 11/August 12) around midnight to 1 a.m.  The moon rises after that but it shouldn’t hinder you much since it’ll be at waning crescent.  Constellation PerseusThey’re called the Perseids because they appear to originate in the constellation Perseus (see the labeled image–click it to make it big enough to actually read–above generated using Stellarium).  You can look all over the northeastern portion of the sky, however.  Expect about 20-30 meteors per hour.  You’ll have better luck if you can find the darkest area possible from which to view; urban light pollution will just make it hard to see anything.

It’ll still be pretty warm around here even at that late/early hour (Saturday’s forecast is for 107° F, Sunday only 106°) so I sure won’t need a sweater.  Even heat waves might have an up side.

Drop us a comment if you see any meteors.  Good luck!

Transit of Venus

For you astronomy buffs, today’s the transit of Venus.  That’s when you’ll see the silhouette of the planet as it passes in front of the sun.  It should start just after 3 p.m. PDT for western North America–if you’re in Asia, Australia, or most of Europe the transit is on June 6.  Don’t look at the sun without the proper protection!  Sunglasses are not proper protection.  Here are Sky & Telescope’s tips for viewing the transit.  If you miss this one, the next one will be in 2117 (so don’t miss this one).

The Day the World Discovered the Sun by Mark Anderson

Related book note: there’s a new book out, The Day the World Discovered the Sun: An Extraordinary Story of Scientific Adventure and the Race to Track the Transit of Venus by Mark Anderson regarding the June 1761 & 1769 transits of Venus.  Kirkus called it “a scientific adventure tale” and I have to agree.  Good reading!