Category Archives: Astronomy

JWST

There was some pretty significant news from the astronomical world today. If your Twitter feed is anything like mine, you’ve probably seen this image a LOT this afternoon:

Image from NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)

This is a “deep field” image from the newly commissioned JWST. I’m giving you the full-sized image, so feel free to click on it and blow it up to explore the details. The bright spots with the six-pointed star image are foreground stars (the reflections are internal to the JWST) but everything else is a galaxy. Thousands of galaxies.

In addition, you can see some that are smeared out into curved lines, some with mirror images side-by-side. These are galaxies that lie behind a much bigger galaxy or even a black hole but the light from them has been bent by the graviation of the larger object stretching the fabric of space. There are some gorgeous, bigger (i.e., nearer) spiral galaxies, as well as some tiny, dark red spots that are the oldest galaxies in the image, back close to 13,000,000,000 years old, close to the beginning of the universe.

This image was released by the White House tonight at a press conference with the President and Vice-President. JWST is going to be a big deal, as far beyond the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) as HST was beyond ground-based telescopes thirty-two years ago.

Better yet, tomorrow morning there’s a NASA press conference where they’ll be giving us our first views of other new images from JWST. I know you can see it on NASA-TV, it may also be viewable on other sites.

And if you want to see bits of JWST hardware in the clean room at Goddard Space Center from my NASA Social there in 2015, check out this memory.

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Full Strawberry Supermoon Rising

As you’ve no doubt heard, there was a “supermoon” tonight. All that really means is that there’s a full moon, which happens every 28 days like clockwork. But as the Moon orbits Earth its orbit is elliptical, not circular, so some times at full moon it’s a touch closer, sometimes a bit further away, so sometimes it looks a bit bigger, and sometimes a bit smaller. It’s not that big of a difference, but clickbait’s gotta click.

As with the lunar eclipse last month, moonrise here is through the trees to the southeast and up from behind the Santa Monica Mountains, about in the Sepulveda Pass and Encino area. On the lower half of the frame, especially on the right, you can just start to see a few of the lights of Tarzana and Woodland Hills.

The moon was looking very red and smoky at moonrise. Guess why??!! Yep, between the normal junk in the air at sunset along the coast, LA’s smog, and a growing amount of smoke from the first of the season’s brush fires, there’s a lot of crap in the air. But once it got up above the mountains, it was definitely a full moon, about fourteen hours or so past full at this point.

Expose to bring out the trees and you SERIOUSLY overexpose the moon, which despite being dusky and orange and down in the atmospheric soup, is still reflecting a TON of light. A really good photographer or graphics artist would take this picture and the one above, taken seconds apart, and simply insert that moon into that bright spot and get something spectacular that looks pretty much like what the human eye sees. I, unfortunately, am not that photographer or graphics artist.

But occasionally I do get lucky. In my last set of pictures for the night, at the right point in the sequence (bracketing the exposures from about 1/1000 second to about 4 seconds, knowing that a couple in the middle will be exposed properly) a 737 out of Burbank Airport turned right 180º after takeoff (probably toward Northern California), passed over Van Nuys Airport (-ish), and right between me and that full strawberry supermoon. Click on the image to see it full sized… can you see it? Just inside the left side, at about the nine o’clock position?

Better lucky than good!

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Moon Above The Belt

The waxing moon is bright in the sky just before sunset last night

…while at the horizon the Belt of Venus was very dark and purple (much more than shows here) with the bright pink band above it.

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MAYBE A Meteor “Storm” Tonight – MAYBE!

Posting this earlier than normal today so that some of you in the US and North America can get a bit of a head’s up…

You might have heard or seen some spectacular news report in the last day or two about a truly spectacular, amazing, mind-blowing, once in a lifetime Meteor STORM (OMG, Batman!! 🤩😲🤯) happening tonight. And it might be, so I’ll tell you what to look for. But I’ll also tell you that it might NOT be happening, and we simply don’t know. It’s a total crap shoot.

The short version – if you want, and if you have clear skies, around 22:00 PDT (01:00 EDT Monday morning), go find a dark spot. Get comfy and look for the bright star Arcturus. It’s going to be near the zenith (straight up) on the West Coast and a bit toward the west the further east you go. If you can find the Big Dipper toward the north, just follow the “handle” off about as far as the dipper is wide and the only real bright star in that area is Arcturus.

If you can’t find Arcturus, don’t sweat it! If the meteors come, they’ll be visible over a huge, wide swath of the sky. They’ll look like they’re coming from the general direction of Arcturus-ish, but if they’re there you’ll see them as long as you’re not lying face down, or asleep, or unconscious in some way.

These meteors will be fainter than other meteor showers, so don’t expect lightning-like flashes across the sky. They’ll be visible, but dimmer, and moving somewhat slowly. Almost like watching a jet passing overhead way up high, fading in, trailing along for a few seconds, then fading out.

The most likely probablility is that there might be 40 to 100 meteors an hour in a dark sky, which is only one a minute or so. If you’re not in a dark sky or if you have some haze, it could be a lot less.

BUT…

There’s this chance…

These meteors are dust and debris left over from a comet named 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, which disintigrated in 1995. That cloud of debris comes near our orbit about the time we’re here and in past years it’s been more of a “miss” than a “hit,” so it’s been a pretty minor meteor shower. You wouldn’t know it was happening unless you were looking for it and had a really dark sky.

But some of the astronomers tracking such things think there MIGHT be a possibility that this year we’ll go right through the middle of this cloud tonight. It’s an estimate based on a LOT of information with significant error bars, but there’s a chance that it could pay off.

For me, the worst case scenario is that I might spend an hour or so sitting out in the evening breezes and watching the skies, listening to the mockingbirds, coyotes, police cars, and jets going into Burbank. Not the worst fate. But if it pays off…

Some estimates are that, instead of 40 to 100 meteors an hour, we could have hundreds if not thousands.

So maybe you can go out, maybe you can’t. Maybe you see thousands of meteors – more likely you might, maybe, see a handful and get bitten by mosquitoes.

Put on some bug spray, just in case!

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Total Lunar Eclipse – Totality

When last we saw our plucky hero, he was cursing himself for staying at home where the rising, partially eclipsed full Moon was off behind a whole stand of pine trees. Our intrepid but well-meaning fool was dodging around the yard moving cameras and tripods to try to find holes through the trees to spot the Moon, as well trying to Livestream the whole chaotic mess on Facebook. (It’s still there – scan through the boring parts where I put the phone down to take these pictures, there are bits and pieces that didn’t suck completely!)

As the last bit of bright sunlight fades from the rim of the Moon and totality begins…

…and we see just how dark this eclipse will be. They vary, from being fairly bright to being quite, quite dark. On the darker ones (cause by more dust in the Earth’s atmosphere, blocking sunlight from making it through) the Moon can almost disappear in an urban setting with lots of light pollution. This eclipse was above average brightness.

To bring out the color I go to longer exposures, gathering more photons! Of course, since I wasn’t using my telescope as a humongous telephoto lens (if you thought using a tripod was a pain to use while bobbing and weaving through the branches to find a viewing angle, try it with an 8′ Newtonian on an equitorial mount!) and the camera wasn’t being guided (moving counter to the Earth’s rotation so that the Moon and stars seem to be still in the camera’s field of view) the images tend to blur just a bit.

You can definitely see some of the background stars from the constellations Scorpio and Libra. Once that bright, bright Moon is dimmed down by a factor of a couple thousand, the starts pop right out.

Of course, with the longer, untracked exposures, the background stars blur and trail a bit as well.

This would all be a lot easier to practice if these eclipses happened more than once every few years. Who do I talk to about getting that to happen?

The color was gorgous!

Even in the hazy, light-polluted skies of Los Angeles, this giant, glowing, orange ball in the sky was clearly visible and magnificent!

It’s finally sort of getting out from behind the trees, almost at the edge – and that bottom edge is starting to get awfully bright!

And there we’re done with totality as the bottom edge is awash in bright, reflected sunlight.

From here the brighter section got quickly much larger and more illuminated, while the eclipsed section got steadily smaller and harder to see as anything other than “dark.” After a bit less than an hour, the Moon was back to just being “full” and “incredibly bright.”

Time to wait a few more years for the next total lunar eclipse! Be ready when it comes, they’re pretty predictable, even if the weather won’t be.

 

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Total Lunar Eclipse – Partial

Poor planning. For whatever reason, when I had looked prior to the eclipse at where the Moon was rising and would be, I had it wrong. I thought it would be much easier to see from the back yard. Instead, I was fighting to find holes through the trees all night.

I knew that the Moon would already be in partial eclipse when it rose in Los Angeles. Celestial mechanics are out of my control, but if I had known then what I know now I probably would have packed up all of my gear and gone off to a local park where I had a good, clean, clear, flat, unobstructed view of the east.

C’est le vie!

As it was rising the Moon was orange, but that wasn’t because of the eclipse. That was because the light hitting it was going through a LOT of atmosphere as the sun set on the western horizon. Same thing that makes the sun look orange at sunset. But this Moon was just minutes away from full – it should have been 100% illuminated and round as round can be. Instead, half of it was in the Earth’s shadow, with more slipping into shadow by the minute.

The other effect you see from the Moon being so far down near the horizon and being seen through so much soupy, turbulent air was that it’s lumpy and uneven, distorted by the bubbles of hot air rising off the pavement and buildings of Los Angeles off to the east.

A few minutes later, when the Moon had risen a bit, you could more clearly see that it was still the same old white Moon that we’re used to, but with more and more of its surface covered by the Earth’s shadow.

About ten minutes before totality began, if I exposed for the illuminated part, the shadowed part seems to vanish…

…but if I expose for the shadowed part, the coppery orangish red color of the full eclipse starts to show through.

Pulling back from the closeup view, you can see the trees framing my view (as I was moving all over the yard to find holes to peek through) as well as the city below.

Finally, just a minute or so before totality, a long exposure to bring out the red color of the Moon as well as the city below. (THIS is a wonderful picture which I love dearly.)

Mere seconds before totality, the last little sliver of the Moon’s limb clinging to sunlight.

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Total Lunar Eclipse – Were You Watching?

I worried all day about clouds.

It’s been clear and a million for several days – today it was about 90% overcast when I went grocery shopping in the morning and stayed bad most of the day.

It turned out that the trees would be my nemeses. The clouds cleared about 16:00 and it was clear by the time that the moon rose about fifteen minutes after the partial phase of the eclipse began.

I had forgotten just how obstructed the view can be to the east. Here’s the wide view a half-hour or so into totality, viewed through a hole in the pines, with the west end of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley below, along with a video camera and my iPhone which was doing a Live Stream on FaceBook.

Zoomed in as far as the wide angle, “light bucket” lens will take us. Yes, the Moon was that much of a gorgeous, copper red tonight.

Now I’m exhausted and need to grab something to eat before collapsing into bed. I just got all of the equipment back into the house. I took a quick peek at the pictures from the camera with the telephoto lens and I think there’s some really good stuff in there for sharing later in the week.

There’s also that Live Stream on my FaceBook timeline. I pretty much left it running for over two and a half running, but most of that time it was unattended. I would come back to it and narrate and actually point the camera every ten or fifteen minutes, and there’s plenty of me blathering and nattering onward. There’s also long stretches where it may or may not show random anything but I think you can fast forward to the next good stuff. Your mileage may vary.

I hope you got to see the eclipse! If you didn’t, I hope you got to watch a NASA live feed or something from an observatory.

Finally, my undying thanks to everyone who took a minute to tune into my FaceBook Live feed! I hope you found something useful and/or entertaining there.

 

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Tomorrow Night! Total Lunar Eclipse!

About 24 hours from now, the primary part of a total lunar eclipse starts.

You’ll probably be seeing clickbait headlines all day tomorrow, especially online. “How To Watch Sunday’s Rare ‘Super Flower Blood Moon’ Total Lunar Eclipse!!!” While I’ll say that a total lunar eclipse can be beautiful and cool and amazing and awe inspiring, I sort of despise the over the top hype.

First of all, it’s not particularly rare. Unlike a solar eclipse that might happen at a particular spot on the planet every several thousand years, lunar eclipses happen every few years. For example, this blog has now just turned nine years old and I think this will be at least the fourth lunar eclipse that I’ve covered, might be the fifth. It’s a stretch in my book to call that “rare,” but maybe I’m just not easily impressed.

Secondly, unlike a solar eclipse which can only be seen along a very narrow strip across the planet for a minute or two, and which requires some eye protection to safely see the partial phases, a lunar eclipse can be seen by half of the planet at a time and requires nothing other than your eyeballs. If you’re on the lucky half of the planet where the moon is up while it’s happening, go outside, look. No further rocket science is necessary.

Finally, I don’t know what a “Flower Blood Moon” is. The moon during a total lunar eclipse will turn some shade of red, from brownish-red to coppery red to orangish red. That makes it “cool” to talk about a “blood moon,” but since we moved out the hunter-gatherer days a few thousand years ago, I prefer the wonder and beauty of the science and reality rather than this pseudo-Neolithic affectation.

So what should you expect? First of all, for your personal times, go here and put in your location or look up a city near you. For a more general overview of what’s going on, go here.

Big picture? The Earth’s shadow has a very dim and faint outer ring called the penumbra, and a much darker inner ring called the umbra.

  1. The Moon will start to enter the penumbra and it will be almost impossible to tell with the naked eye. You can ignore this part except for looking at how pretty and bright the 99.999999% full moon is.
  2. The Moon will start to enter the umbra (the partial eclipse begins). As it slowly moves in you’ll see a very noticeable, dark shadow moving across the moon until there’s just a sliver of the the moon fully illuminated. This takes an hour or so.
  3. The Moon will be completely inside the umbra (the beginning of totality) and will be some shade of red or orange or brown – it all depends on how the Earth’s atmosphere is, the amount of cloud cover at that moment, the amount of dust and water, etc. The shade, color, and amount of shading is highly unpredictable, one of the fun things to look for.
  4. The Moon will start to exit the umbra (the ending of totality) and we’ll just run this show backwards as the brightly lit portion of the moon starts to grow.
  5. The Moon finally exit the umbra (the partial eclipse ends) but still be in the penumbra for an hour or so. Again, you can ignore this.

Tomorrow night, those important times are:

  1. 21:32 EDT, 18:32 PDT (the Moon will still be below the horizon on the West Coast)
  2. 22:27 EDT, 19:27 PDT (the Moon will rise at about 19:40 PDT, so you’ll miss the first few minutes, but it’s not that big of a deal)
  3. 23:29 EDT, 20:29 PDT
  4. 00:53 EDT, 21:53 PDT
  5. 01:55 EDT, 22:55 PDT
  6. Go to sleep!

And examples of what it might look like?

A few minutes after the start of the partial eclipse in November 2021.

About halfway through the partial phase, just before the clouds completely covered up everything in November 2021.

Just before totality, September 2015. You can see how the coppery red color is covering about 90% of the Moon’s disc.

Totality from April 2015. You can see how the coloration and depth of the shadow can change from being lighter at the edge of the umbra (right side of this disc) to being much darker in the center (left side).

What will tomorrow look like? Who knows? Let’s hope that it’s not cloudy, wherever you are. Even if it is, I hope maybe you’ll catch a break in the clouds for a few minutes during totality to get a glance.

If you’re totally clouded out, check out some of the online coverage from NASA, Griffith Observatory, Lowell Observatory, or any number of other places that will be trying to livestream it.

Or check out my Facebook stream to see if I’m nuts enough to be trying to livestream it. Crazier things have happened!

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Wandering In Moonlight

First observation – a bit less than 48 hours before the moon goes into the Earth’s shadow and we get a full lunar eclipse, the moonlight is bright but soft, the breezes are calm, it’s comfortable, and an almost perfect evening out there.

Second observation – even when you’re just goofing around, the iPhone 13 will take a NICE picture using nothing but moonlight.

Third observation – some days it’s better to be lucky than good. Even on Friday the Thirteenth! With absolutely zero planning whatsoever, this picture lined up beautifully with the Big Dipper (upside down over my head with the bowl right over my head and the handle curving up toward the tree) and the two “pointer” stars at the end of the bowl pointing at Polaris, the North Star, which is just over my shoulder.

So, yeah, total lunar eclipse on Sunday night. If you’re in the Western Hemisphere and have a clear sky (or even a “clear-ish” sky) you’ll have a good view. It’s relatively early, it’s relatively high and bright. No telescopes or eye protection needed. (This is a lunar eclipse when the moon goes into the Earth’s shadow. For a solar eclipse, where the Sun goes into the Earth’s shadow, eye protection is critical. But this is the other one!) You don’t need to go to any special location.

Go outside. After dark. Look at the sky. Enjoy.

Binoculars might be nice if you have them. Maybe a lawn chair or a blanket. Bug spray if you’re someplace where there are mosquitoes. Or not! The Mark One eyeball works just fine, even if you’re just standing there or leaning against your car.

More information and times and details tomorrow. Showtime on Sunday night. For now, you can start with this.

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Prepare For Dancing

Similar to last night’s photo. 99% illuminated now, 388,422 kilometers away.

Ignore the little orange streak, that’s just an LAPD helicopter cruising by.

As I commented on a friend’s similar post on social media earlier, it’s almost like there’s a whole other world up there, almost close enough to touch.

Soon it will be warm enough to go out dancing in the moonlight. Grab a partner.

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