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Stars Over X-ville

Attention sky-watchers! Tune in to “Stars Over X-ville” on KTHX-FM 100.1 every Tuesday morning at 7:45 a.m. for an update on happenings in northern Nevada’s skies, with Dan Ruby, Planetarium associate director.


Report for August 18, 2009

by Dan Ruby, associate director

Photo of the Ares 1 rocket.

Image credit: NASA

NASA finished building the rocket that is slated to be the space shuttle’s successor this week:  the Ares I. It is bigger than an assembled shuttle, and will be the platform that takes people to the International Space Station, back to the moon, and to Mars in the coming decades. It looks roughly like a shuttle booster rocket, largely because its design stems from those rockets. This one will launch on Halloween of this year if all goes as planned between now and then.

Jupiter is currently visible from dusk, bright and toward the east in the evening; by morning it is toward the southwest and joined by Venus (very bright) and Mars (dim but reddish, above Venus) before sunrise.

We also have a good Iridium flare coming up:
• Friday, August 21 at 9:17 p.m., due east and halfway up the sky.


Report for August 11, 2009

by Dan Ruby, associate director

Perseid Meteor Shower

On the mornings of August 12 and 13, head out early for the annual treat of the Perseid meteor shower, our most reliable and robust summer storm. Though roughly 60 meteors per hour are expected, the moon will be crashing the party and overwhelming some of the dimmer players, so I estimate that a fraction of that number will actually be visible. Additionally, though the exact peak is tough to calculate, it probably will happen right in the middle of daytime on August 12, so we’ll be catching either the prologue or epilogue during the prime meteor-spotting window of midnight to sunrise.

Despite the above, this shower should still be second only to December’s Geminids. Those will have (this year, at least) much better viewing conditions with respect to the moon, but the chances of it being overcast are higher then, and the chances of it being unbelievably cold out are something like 99.99 percent. If you want to see some rocks vaporizing at tens of thousands of miles per hour this week, then remember it’s all about location, location, location. Go somewhere really dark with an unobstructed view of the sky.


Report for August 4, 2009

by Dan Ruby, associate director

Iridium Flares

Earth has many artificial satellites that are visible at night as they orbit overhead; some estimates place the number of visible satellites well over 10,000!  Not all of these are working machines — robot cameras, radios, and so forth — there are a couple thousand operational satellites, and the remainder are pieces of space junk: satellites that don’t work anymore, leftover parts of rockets from earlier space missions, and bits of satellites that have collided.

With that many things going around the Earth, the chances are pretty good that you’ll see one pass over on any given evening. Since most satellites are relatively close to Earth in relatively low orbits, the best time to view them is within a couple hours of sunset or sunrise, before they too slip into the Earth’s shadow.
Illustration of a satellite as it orbits the earth and producing an iridium flare
Some satellites, including the International Space Station, are spectacularly bright, but none match the brilliance of an Iridium flare.

In the late ‘90s Motorola ambitiously launched a constellation of 60-something satellites for a global phone system. The phones were lackluster and outrageously expensive and the project soon folded, though the system was later purchased by a new company. 
The satellites themselves have three large door-sized antennas, which occasionally glint sunlight at just the right angle to cause them to flare up stunningly for just a few seconds.

Photo of a satellite in orbit

If you happen to be in the path of that narrow beam of reflected sunlight as it crosses the Earth’s surface, the resulting gleam can be brighter than most anything else in the night sky, rivaling (and occasionally exceeding) the planet Venus.

We have a couple great Iridium flares happening this week:
Wednesday, August 5:  10:26:16 p.m., Altitude: 33°, Azimuth: 66° (East-Northeast), Magnitude -7 (really bright!)
Thursday, August 6:  8:44:54 p.m., Altitude 67°, Azimuth 98° (East), Magnitude -7

These sightings are calculated from the “center” of Reno — the corner of Virginia Street and the Truckee River — so your mileage may vary depending on your distance from that location. Remember, these are fairly narrow beams of sunlight we’re talking about, so it’s best to go to to figure out the details for your exact location.

On a side note, I’ve used an Iridium satellite phone recently, and it was spotty at best; in most of the world, a cell phone works far better, so its uses are fairly limited. On another side note, I got to see an unanticipated Iridium flare earlier this summer;  I couldn’t figure out what bright object was in the sky until it faded out within a few seconds.


Report for July 28, 2009

by Dan Ruby, associate director

Meteor Showers
What: Two Meteor Showers
Where: Halfway up the southern sky (meteors), someplace dark (you)
When: Between midnight and sunrise (ideally around 1-3 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, July 29.

Normally I’m not one to be up in the wee hours of the morning, but 100+ temperatures (Fahrenheit, of course, in this backwards non-standard system) make me reconsider — which is well timed, as we have two meteor showers overlapping this week: the Delta Aquarids and the Capricornids.

As the Earth speeds around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour, the leftover trails of dust from comets that have passed by earlier in their swing around the sun hit our relatively thick air and burn up spectacularly, leaving glowing paths of ionized particles in our atmosphere. We tend to hit these trails at the same time in our orbit (i.e. the same time each year), so they are somewhat predictable, though it really depends on how thick the trail is, how new it is, whether we hit it head-on or glance the edge, etc.

Remember that meteor showers are always named from the constellation or point they appear to radiate from, so these are from Aquarius and Capricorn, respectively. This is good, as both constellations will be visible after the moon has set. The radiants will not be as high as we’d like, near the zenith away from the glow of light over the horizon, and as they’ll be toward the south, it’s advisable to find a place with a good view of the southern sky. Both showers are expected to bring bright yellow meteors at a rate just above what we normally see on an average night from a dark location (maybe 20 per hour as opposed to a dozen or so per hour).

The Delta Aquarids run the mornings of Tuesday, July 28, and Wednesday, July 29, and the Capricornids run Thursday, July 30, and Friday, July 31, so I’d put my money on going out early Wednesday morning for the best show of two showers combined. For meteor shower viewing, the best time is between about midnight and sunrise, and the best location is somewhere very dark (away from city lights). If you’re already planning on being out and about — camping, for example — I’d recommend checking these out, but if you don’t have the patience for mediocre showers, I’d wait until mid-August for the spectacular Perseids.


Report for July 21, 2009

by Dan Ruby, associate director

Bright Side of the Moon

Photo of Buzz Aldrin stepping down on the Moon.

July 20 at 1:17 p.m. our time marked the anniversary of the first manned moon landing via the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. By this time 40 years ago, the astronauts were on their way back to Earth, a couple-day return from the furthest humans have ever ventured from our own planet. 

Much has been written about the moon landing(s), but I’d like to add a few words of my own:

The Apollo missions were a direct outgrowth of an arms race between the US and USSR that, at one point, began replacing the tips of some intercontinental ballistic missiles with capsules for human payloads.

Comparison photo of a Spacecraft and Nuclear Missile


Apollo11 (and, to a much lesser extent, preceding human space exploration) put a positive face on the otherwise terrifying (at times) cold war and presented an alternative outcome for military-industrial evolution offering hope for the future rather than threatening nuclear annihilation.

Apart from the scientific advances gained by experiments conducted and samples collected during the Apollo program, and the cultural advances gained by perception of the Earth — through images captured of the globe in its entirety, from a distance — as a small, fragile, and lonely planet without visible geopolitical borders, I think the idea that Apollo was forging plows from swords — entirely within the military-industrial framework — is immensely valuable.

Photo of Planet Earth


The moon landings happened before I was born, but I remember clearly driving with my wife in our 1964 Plymouth Valiant and realizing that we were encased in roughly the same technology that took men to the moon. I am continually amazed that NASA accomplished this with slide rules and vacuum tubes, and surprised that it won’t happen again for another ten years.

Photo of Plymouth Valiant



NASA just released high-resolution images of the Apollo landing sites via their Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is pretty cool.

Photo of Apollo 14 landing site.

For those in the eastern hemisphere, the bigger news is a total solar eclipse this Wednesday. 

Image of solar eclipse across China and India.


Although it will be visible by a large chunk of the world’s population across China and India, we’ll miss it completely.  Our turn comes around in 2045, or 2017 if you don’t mind driving a few hours north.

Image of total solar eclipse: 2001-2050 for North America.


Report for July 7, 2009

by Dan Ruby, associate director

Nighttime Sky Shows Continue
Fireworks are always a bit of a gamble around this area. Since the do-it-yourself type are (understandably) illegal, we depend on the professionals to supply the nighttime sky shows on July Fourth, and those guys are at the mercy of wind and city budgets.  I personally got my burning-magnesium fix from a vantage point around the Sparks Marina this year, but if you were one of the many folks not so lucky elsewhere in the Truckee Meadows, I can offer some consolation with bright passes of the International Space Station (ISS) this week.

The Space Station is pretty bright now. All the major components are in place, specifically the large solar arrays that reflect sunlight back to our eyeballs to make the thing visible at night. With about an acre of flat mirror-like solar panels now, the Space Station rivals Venus in magnitude at times, and at least surpasses most everything else at others. Apparently it is possible to catch it in daytime under the right conditions.

For the past while, the best passes of the ISS have been early morning affairs, but we will have some decent, if not outright awesome, evening opportunities.

The following chart outlines the evening passes of this orbiting outpost for the next week. The Space Station usually doesn’t become visible until it’s significantly above the horizon, and really hits peak brightness around its maximum altitude. 

Remember that for magnitude, the lower the number (meaning the further below zero), the brighter, so I’ve highlighted the passes that I recommend as “best.”

Chart showing the best evening Space Station passes.


For tonight’s 9:35 p.m. pass, the Station should rapidly brighten within a few seconds of its maximum height, and then fade out well before it hits the horizon. At its peak during that pass, the ISS is oriented something like this:

Image of the International Space Station


The ISS is large now — about the size of a football field, all told — and only about 250 miles up, so it’s possible to make out details through very nice binoculars, although the thing is moving along nicely at about 17,000 mph, so tracking it can be tricky. Amateur imaging using digital cameras through modest telescopes has resulted in images like the following, but your mileage will vary.


Report for June 30, 2009

by Dan Ruby, associate director

Back to Earth (or at least the northern hemisphere)
Although it may have seemed like I dropped off the face of the earth for the past month, in actuality I was burrowing just below the surface of our planet approximately 4,000 miles away in an attempt to stay abreast of future Mars research.

But let me back up a minute.  In 2008, I was invited to participate in a NASA-sponsored research project called the Earth-Mars Cave Detection Project. Given that essentially this involved crawling through caves in a desert in South America for a month, I jumped at the chance.

The idea is that, by studying caves on Earth that may be similar to caves we may find on Mars, we can get a better idea of how caves work in a thermal sense, making them easier to study remotely (i.e. from a robotic orbiting spacecraft).

I was invited to return to the project again this year as lead cartographer to complete mapping a set of caves in the Atacama Desert of Chile, arguably the driest desert in the world and as such one of the closest analogs to the red planet on our own.

Photo of Dan Ruby looking up from the cave.cave

So that’s where I’ve been: squeezing through narrow dusty passages with mapping gear to help lay the foundation for Mars exploration in the coming decades.

Not only are the seasons flipped in the southern hemisphere, but the skies are different as well. Thanks to exceptionally cool and calm air, and little interference from city lights, I was able to catch outstanding views of the Milky Way (including the center), Magellanic Clouds, the Southern Cross, and a handful of meteors almost every evening from our rented backyard. 

Apparently all I missed in Reno was a few weeks of solid cloud cover, but I arrived to clear skies and a handful of evening treats.

Jupiter is visible up here toward the east after about midnight, and the bright Summer Triangle of Deneb, Altair, and Vega (in order of brightness) shines against the dim trail of light making up the part of the Milky Way currently visible to us.

Summer Triangle June 30th ISS image

For early risers, little red Mars is visible just above outstandingly bright Venus toward the east after about 4 a.m.

Finally, for those same morning folk, we have multiple passes of the International Space Station every day between about midnight and 5 a.m., so check for details on those.


Report for November 18, 2008

by Dan Ruby, associate director

There are two neat things to report this week. First, actual photos of planets orbiting other stars have surfaced. One image, taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, is of a planet orbiting a star we can see easily — Formalhaut — and shows a tiny dot (actually an object bigger than Jupiter) clearing a path through rings of dusty debris around its sun.

 Image of Fomalhaut

The other image is taken from the Keck ground-based observatory in Hawaii, and more clearly shows three planets (also larger than Jupiter) in orbit around a dim, distant star called HR8799. The Hubble image clearly illustrates the current thinking about solar system formation: planets picking up material by clearing their paths through the gas and dust clouds that have flattened into spinning disks around newly-formed stars. 

Image of HR8799 Planetary System

The second cool thing this week is a successful shuttle launch, with Endeavor’s takeoff on Friday evening to deliver more components to the now-mighty International Space Station. The new module adds a second toilet, a couple bunks, refrigerators, “food warmers,” and an all-important urine-to-drinking-water-recycling system, among other things. The upgrades are intended to double the station’s living capacity to six persons.
As always, the Shuttle/ISS pair makes for great viewing in our skies — the couple is big and bright. We get some fantastic evening passes of the two, with the best occurring on Thursday, November 20, from about 6:16 p.m. to 6:20 p.m., travelling west-southwest to northeast and hitting a maximum altitude of 66º.  This will be brighter than Jupiter (visible in the southwest at the same time), not quite as bright as Venus (also visible in the southwest then), and brighter than any star in the sky.  Look for the dot that moves, and if you have a decent pair of binoculars handy, check out the two distinct blobs of the shuttle and station connected to each other. 

November 20th ISS image


Report for October 14, 2008

by Dan Ruby, associate director

Jupiter is still our best bet as “coolest thing to look at in the evening skies” right now.  Last week a team of folks released the best (or sharpest, at least) picture ever of the largest planet in our solar system using a very large and very high-tech telescope:

Image of Jupiter
(image credit: ESO)

The image is false-color, as it was taken in the infrared part of the spectrum —invisible to humans. In the visible spectrum, we actually see a bit deeper into the clouds and haze of Jupiter — for example, we wouldn’t see the haze at the top or bottom of the planet with just our eyes.

The picture was taken over an exposure period of two hours with a large (15-foot diameter or so) telescope in Chile with adaptive optics: technology that allows a telescope mirror to change shape on the fly to compensate for the kind of air turbulence that normally causes stars to twinkle. 

Jupiter clearly (ha!) does not look this good through the kind of telescope you or I may have at home, and in fact with any telescope smaller than about 8-10 inches in diameter, not much (if any) detail can be resolved on the gas giant. 

However, Jupiter is easily visible to the naked eye, and its four largest moons (Io, Ganymede, Europa, & Callisto ) — called the Gallilean satellites because he saw them first — look good through even a pair of binoculars. I always find that amazing, given that Jupiter is roughly 500 million miles away from us right now!

Next week we’ve got the Orionid meteor shower going down, literally. The shower may pop up later this week, and should be okay from Monday through Friday of next week, but the peak is technically sometime around early morning on Tuesday, October 21. Unfortunately for us, during the beginning of the shower the moon is on the other side of the sky but pretty full and bright, and during the latter part of the shower the moon is less full — but right where we want to be looking for these fast meteors. 

As always with meteor showers, the best time to view is between about midnight and before sunrise; the best place is somewhere dark, away from city lights. In this case, you might want to camp out near a tree that serves to block out the moon.


Report for September 16, 2008

by Dan Ruby, associate director

HST image

First, let’s talk about a new thing discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope. Apparently, back in February of 2006, the HST imaged something that got brighter and dimmer over a couple hundred days. It wasn’t a supernova and isn’t located within any known galaxy, so it may not be stellar at all. Scientists have been baffled about it for a bit; it’s really not like anything ever seen before. And it’s hard to tell how far away it is — somewhere between 130 light years and 11 billion light years away, which is an almost uselessly big window.

Ideas about what it is have included: a failed black hole, some sort of visible interaction with another universe, and things much more crazy — but it is most likely really a new kind of object.

In any case, the ol’ Hubble Telescope is still beaming back great info, so it’s a good thing that NASA is performing some much-needed maintenance next month, when the space shuttle Atlantis takes off for the last servicing trip to the instrument before the shuttle fleet is retired.

The repairs are supposed to make Hubble more powerful than ever and extend its life another five years. In terms of stuff we can see with our own eyes, we’ve got a similar (but much faster) sight this Thursday at 8:29 p.m., when an Iridium satellite will appear to flare brighter than anything else in the sky that evening for a few seconds before fading back to invisible. It will be visible toward the east, about halfway up the sky, and coincidentally happens just after our monthly member event. This month’s Planet X will include a showing of our new large-format film SolarMax and a preview of our new U2 light show, as well as the usual goodies.


Report for July 15, 2008

by Dan Ruby, associate director

Planet Party Over (‘til 2010)
Mars (traveling about 54,000 miles per hour in its orbit) has passed Saturn (moving at a paltry 22,000 mph) on the inside track of our solar system, so the red planet is now climbing higher in the western sky after sunset, pulling away from the ringed planet as the summer progresses. In case you missed the pairing this past week, Mars will catch up to Saturn again in a couple years.

Easter Bunny now Makemake
A couple years ago, some objects were discovered past Pluto that made astronomers rethink the definition of planet, eventually demoting the poor ice ball to “dwarf planet” status. The most famous of those, Eris, is actually larger than Pluto, but there are a couple lesser-known dwarfs that are in the same neighborhood, in both their size and their location in our solar system. Known informally as Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, they were discovered around the time of Eris and catalogued as 2005 FY9 and 2003 EL61, respectively.

It’s hard to tell from this distance, but these two objects seem to be roughly 2/3 the size of Pluto, with Easter Bunny slightly edging out Santa Claus for size, making it the third largest dwarf planet, after Pluto and Eris.

Anyway, Easter Bunny received its official name, Makemake, and official “dwarf planet” status (joining Pluto, Eris, and a large round asteroid named Ceres) last week. For some arcane reasons dictated by the International Astronomical Union — the ruling body on such matters — the thing needed to be named after a creation deity, so the discovery team picked “Makemake,” the deity of creation from Easter Island myths. Get it? 
Below is a chart showing relative size of the current dwarf planets and their “minor planet” brethren.

Chart showing planets relative sizes.

Now to segue off the previous two topics in one stroke:  I will be off the radar to explore caves in Chile as part of a NASA project for the next few weeks. Basically we will be studying Mars by studying a place very much like Mars: the Atacama Desert in Chile, possibly the driest place on earth. So that takes care of the first topic —Mars/Mars. The second half of the connection is that, by sheer coincidence, I will be visiting Easter Island for a bit more work at the end of the trip.

I will have plenty to report on when I return, but in the meantime I hope you enjoy our summer skies!


Report for July 1, 2008

by Dan Ruby, associate director

Conjunction Junction
With the haze last week, any sights in the night sky would be an improvement, but we will be treated to some especially awesome meetings of celestial bodies this week.
Tonight (Tuesday, July 1) we continue to see a very close pairing of Mars and the bright star Regulus low in the west after sunset. Although they technically appeared a bit closer last night, they’re still less than a degree apart. Mars and Regulus are about equal in brightness (~magnitude 1.5) right now, but the contrast in colors — reddish Mars and bluish Regulus — should be spectacular. 

Image of planet alignment of Saturn, Mars, Regulus and the Moon on July 1, 2008

In the southeast after sunset, Jupiter is impressively brilliant, but the brightest object tonight will be an iridium flare at 11:30 p.m. on the dot, 30º up in the southwest.
The best event this Friday will be fireworks, of course, but the skies should be otherwise free for another neat lineup of Saturn, Mars, Regulus and a thin crescent Moon on Saturday:

Image of planet alignment of Saturn, Mars, Regulus and the Moon on July 5, 2008


Report for June 17, 2008

by Dan Ruby, associate director

We have a couple of neat groupings of astronomical objects tonight. In the west, Mars is getting closer to the bright pair of Saturn and Regulus (a bright star at the heart of the constellation Leo), and will pass within half a degree of the latter on June 30, and within half a degree of the former just a little more than a week later on July 10. Mars will be about as bright as Regulus and slightly reddish. 

Image of Saturn, Regulus and Mars astronomical groupings

Toward the south, we have Scorpius (a nice summertime constellation) rising in the evening, completely visible by about midnight. The full moon will be a few degrees to the left of Antares, the bright red giant heart of the scorpion.

Scorpius constellation image

Friday is the first official day of summer!  This is, incidentally, the date of the summer solstice — the point in Earth’s orbit where we in the northern hemisphere are most tilted toward the sun.  This means it’s the longest day of the year, with about 14 to 15 hours of daylight, depending on how much twilight you want to count on either end of sunrise and sunset. It also is the day the sun climbs highest in our sky (about 75º up at about 1 p.m. — it would be noon, except we’re off an hour for Daylight Savings Time).
Illustration: Summer Solstice
This is not the point in Earth’s very slightly elliptical orbit where it’s closest to the sun (that happens in early January), nor is it the hottest day of the year (that typically occurs in July).  It is, however, a decent reason to have a party, so join us this Thursday, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., at Fleischmann Planetarium for our monthly member event, Planet X.


Report for June 10, 2008

by Dan Ruby, associate director

Space is a busy place this week. We’ve got the Space Shuttle Discovery completing some upgrades to the now-mighty international space station, both visible this evening. We’ve also got the Phoenix Lander digging and testing samples of arctic soil on Mars.

Photo of Space Shuttle Discovery

First let’s talk about the shuttle/station duo: The shuttle crew has been working diligently for the past week attaching a new large laboratory module (a Japanese contribution) and hooking up all the necessary cables, as well as replacing various bits of equipment on the station. The two craft are currently docked and orbiting together a few hundred miles above our head, and we’ll get a decent view of them tonight starting at 8:43 p.m., passing in a west-northwest to south-southeast arc over a five minute period, hitting a maximum altitude of about 30º up in the southwest at 8:45 p.m. This may be a bit tricky to spot as it will still be fairly light out, but it’s the only chance we get ’til after the shuttle lands this weekend.

Next let’s take a look at the fantastic, recycled-from-an-earlier-project Phoenix Lander, getting busy digging clumps of dirt on Mars: 

Image of dirt on Mars

The best place to check out images and news is directly from the project site itself:

Finally, there is a minor meteor shower this weekend, but the forecast is poor:  the moon will be nearly full, bright enough to completely erase any possibility of seeing the maybe ten meteors per hour predicted for the week.


Report for May 20, 2008

by Dan Ruby, associate director

Full Moon image

Although last night was the full moon (that’s why everyone was nutty*), it’s not much smaller this evening. Whenever the moon is full and visible, it’s nearly useless to gaze at anything else in the night sky, so we might as well enjoy it.  Our moon rises at about 10:15 p.m. tonight, which means most of us will see it between 10:30 and 11 p.m. To the unaided eye, decent detail is visible, but with a pair of binoculars the sight can be awe-inspiring. On the left we can see the relatively smooth and dark maria (from the latin “sea,” though they’re actually long-cooled lava beds), and on the lower right we can see the spectacular streaks radiating from Tycho crater, site of an obviously impressive meteorite impact about 100 million years ago.


Mars Phoenix Lander

In figuratively bigger news, the Mars Phoenix Lander is on target for a Sunday landing, at 4:53 p.m. our time, with the first images hopefully available a few hours later at the official site. Actual dirt-digging will begin about 10 martian days later (very slightly longer than the same number of earth days). The prospect of near-real-time publication of images and data for this mission is exciting, especially if you’re fond of reddish-brown hues.

* There is no empirical evidence to support the idea that people are crazier under a full moon, but I’ve sure noticed it anecdotally myself.


Report for May 13, 2008

Saturn’s Rings

Along with approximately 60 moons, Saturn has millions of rocky, icy satellites circling its rather large equator (second in size only to Jupiter) that we see as diaphanous rings. Or I should say we now see them as rings.  When first discovered (by Galileo, around 400 years ago) they were mistaken for possible moons, which is understandable given that telescopes had just been invented the year prior:

Fuzzy image of Saturn

When Galileo looked for the fuzzy appendages again a couple years later, they had disappeared. This is because our solar system is irregular: planet orbits are not quite perfectly round, the orbital planes do not quite match up, and all of the planets are tilted a bit. In both the case of Saturn and the Earth, this axial tilt is around 25º; since we go around the sun at different speeds, Saturn’s rings appear to wobble over a several-year period.

Illustration of Saturn in different angles

The rings are razor thin, relatively, so they are basically invisible when viewed edge-on. By next year, the rings will be very difficult to see (at least for a year or two, so now is a good time to try to catch them while Saturn is easily visible.  The rings can even be seen through a decent pair of binoculars, but in that case they’ll look more like the first image above.
Tonight we’ll be able to see Saturn about 15º to the right of the half-full moon; if you don’t have any other measuring device handy, use an outstretched hand or just look for the brightest dot just to the west of the moon.

Illustration of outstretched hand on the Moon and Saturn


Report for April 29, 2008

Mysterious Lights in the Sky

Last week a strange phenomenon of mysterious lights over the skies of Phoenix was widely reported; eyewitness accounts described four red lights that slowly changed shape and floated away until going out one by one. Unsurprisingly, the UFO turned out to be an ingenious hoax, the result of roadside flares tied to helium balloons.

For a light show with truly extraterrestrial origins, we need only look to the pre-dawn sky early next week, as the eta Aquarid meteor shower will be going down. Or, more precisely, the Earth will be plowing through a trail of dust left by Halley’s Comet in one of its historical passes, and those bits of dust will burn up spectacularly as they collide with our relatively thick atmosphere, leaving pencil-thin trails of glowing gas.

Last year promised a spectacular shower from this group, but only partially delivered. This year will be much more serene, with rates of maybe a dozen meteors per hour at the peak. However, we luckily have a new moon that night, so there will be no moonshine to interfere.

The best time to catch this little show is just before dawn (say, 4 a.m.) on Monday, May 5, though one may also stumble across some shooting stars on the mornings before and after.

As always, the best place to be for a meteor shower is someplace dark; the glow from city lights will likely drown out most of them, so head a few minutes into the middle of nowhere if you want to see anything. If you’re already going to be in the middle of nowhere, and awake at oh-dark-hundred, just remember to look up.


Report for April 22, 2008

Planet Trio
Starting this week, we may be able to see Mercury in the early evening sky. While not rare, exactly, it’s still a nice treat. For a planet, it’s small — about the size of our moon — and with the demotion of Pluto in the past couple years, it’s the smallest of our solar system. Circling fairly close to our sun, it never appears to stray further than a few degrees ahead of or behind the sun in our skies, so it can be tricky to see. However, when it’s visible (always less than two hours after or before sunset), it’s a bright little guy, brighter than the brightest star in our night sky (Sirius). To catch Mercury, keep your eyes peeled to the west right after the sun dips behind the mountains. This will get easier as Mercury climbs higher in the sky over the next couple weeks, but since it “peaks” in mid-May, if you wait too long you’ll miss it.


After you either spot (or don’t spot) that dot, swing your head halfway up the western sky to find Mars, bright and orange, in the constellation Gemini, just below the Twins (Castor and Pollux, respectively).


To complete this planetary hat trick (totally possible in just a few seconds) tilt your head back to find Saturn about straight up, in the constellation Leo (the Lion), next to the bright star Regulus — the point of the backwards question mark that makes up Leo’s head, and the heart of the lion.



Report for April 15, 2008

Eye on Mars

No, I don’t mean a new rock feature (like the one resembling a face) has been discovered on the red planet; I mean I’ve got my eye on Mars this month, as do thousands of other people worldwide. Not only is the planet easily visible in our evening skies (see chart below), but final adjustments are being made to put the Phoenix Lander on course for a May 25 landing at a newly-picked site near the edge of Mars’ north polar ice cap:

Image of new landing site: Green Valley

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Washington Univ. St. Louis/Univ. of Arizona

The site, dubbed “Green Valley,” was picked because of its relative lack of rocks; as you can imagine, landing on boulders would make it very tricky for a lander to do its job of digging and poking around the Martian soil.

The Phoenix Lander is an exciting mission with a two-part focus. First, it will study water on Mars; and second, it will see if Mars is now, or ever was, possibly habitable for simple life forms (algae, bacteria, etc). It’s important to note that the Phoenix Lander is not looking for life, but just seeing if conditions on Mars are conducive to it. If the answer is yes, then I’m sure more specific critter-finding missions will ensue. 

This time around, the lander team has much more information about the landing site than any previous Mars mission, thanks to the incredible cameras aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which allow resolution of objects as fine as one meter across. We can now see whether a landing spot is really strewn with boulders, rather than guessing carefully as we did for past Martian surface missions.

Although you won’t be able to pick up such detail with your primitive eyeballs, they’re good enough to spot the planet itself tonight. At about 9 p.m. (dark enough to see it clearly), it’ll be up toward the west, about halfway up the sky. It will be about as bright as the brightest stars, but slightly orange.

Sky chart for April 15, 2008

Actually, the best time to head out might be at 9:26 p.m. on the dot, since we have an exceptionally bright iridium flare tonight. It will be due east, about halfway up the sky.  If you want to be really exact, it’s happening at 21:26:45.

Oh, and if Mars really isn’t your thing, Saturn is visible just to the right of the half-full (for you optimists) Moon tonight.


Report for March 25, 2008

Spring has sprung! The first day of spring this year was March 20 (for us northern hemisphere dwellers), as the vernal equinox occurred around 10:58 p.m. on March 19 our time (which was March 20 for most of the rest of the world). This means, for us, the first official full day of spring was March 20. 

The time and even date of the equinox varies from year to year, because the equinox is actually a location in space; it’s one of the two points in our orbit that the sun crosses the equator, and because of imperfections in both the earth’s orbit and perhaps more importantly, in our calendar system, the time of the equinox can happen within a couple-day period around March 21 each year. The other point in our orbit where the sun crosses the equator happens in fall, and is called the autumnal equinox. This is all due to the earth’s 23.5º tilt — let’s use an illustration here: Illustration: Earth’s 23.5 degree tilt
It’s minor, but interesting to note that day and night are not the same length on the equinox, as is widely believed; they’re close, but because of a number of factors (including the angular, or apparent, size of the sun and refraction in our atmosphere), that phenomenon actually occurred a few days ago, and will again occur a few days after the autumnal equinox later this year. Also, eggs are very difficult to balance on their ends, and the equinox doesn’t make that feat any easier.

So besides warmer weather and longer days, what does this mean for skywatchers?
We’ve got a new batch of constellations coming into view, including Ursa Major (which contains the Big Dipper) in the northeast, and Mars and Saturn are still easily visible.  Saturn is gaining on Mars, rising higher in the southeastern sky, heading toward a mid-July conjunction of the two planets. For now, they are both still bright (and similarly so) but gradually dimming as they recede from us. 

Sky chart for March 25, 2008

We also have  some great evening passes of the newly-upgraded International Space Station:

Wednesday, March 26

8:28 to 8:32 p.m., southwest to east/northeast

Max: 74º up, southeast

Friday, March 28

7:38 to 7:44 p.m., southwest to east/northeast

Max: 69º up, southeast


Report for March 18, 2008

The International Space Station (ISS) is currently circling the earth with Space Shuttle Endeavour in tow. This is an exciting shuttle mission as the astronauts are installing new components to the station, including a very cool Canadian robot that can traverse the outside of the station for remote repairs and inspections. The shuttle also is bringing back a French astronaut from his one-month stay on the station and replacing him with an American for a three-month stint. The crew includes a Japanese astronaut, making the space station seem truly international at this point. On a related note, I suspect the metric system is heavily used onboard, and I wonder if that’s ever slightly confusing. I know I would need conversion cheat sheets in every pocket, for sure. You can follow along with mission updates, including photos and video, at the NASA Shuttle site.

You can also track the shuttle and station pair yourself above the skies of the Truckee Meadows. There are a couple good passes every day through Saturday, but unfortunately they are all early morning; if you get up early, or feel like making a date of watching the extremely bright pair glide overhead, check out for exact times.

In other Space Station news, the European Space Agency (ESA) is currently testing their unmanned cargo ship, intended to deliver supplies to the station (which will be especially useful when the shuttle fleet is retired in a couple years). The 20-ton automated transfer vehicle (ATV) is named the Jules Verne in honor of the famous French author and is actually carrying some of his original notes aboard, appropriately enough. 

The ATV is scheduled to rendezvous with the station later today, meaning the ISS is a busy place to be.  Incidentally, we can see this vehicle in our skies as well; this morning it was just a minute-and-a-half ahead of the station, and tomorrow morning it will be visible about eight minutes ahead of the station along the same path.



Report for March 4, 2008

Avalanche on Mars

Image showing an avalanche in Mars.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Scientists using the amazing HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter took a nifty picture of an avalanche on Mars last week, at the edge of an icecap.  Apart from looking cool, this is another bit to pile on a mountain of evidence pointing to water on Mars in some form; in this case, blocks of ice that sublimate to gas, causing ice and dust avalanches. 

The HiRISE camera is a cool tool, already used for many discoveries on Mars, including possible caves on the Martian surface.  Students can suggest targets for the HiRISE camera, as well as help scientists analyze and report on the images.

In other Mars news, we’re on target for a May touchdown of NASA’s Phoenix Lander, which will dig for water and organic material at the edge of the north polar icecap.

The red planet can be seen easily tonight with the naked eye; just head out after about 7 p.m., look up, and search for an orange dot brighter than most stars.

Sky chart for March 4, 2008

Image Credit:
We also have a great Iridium flare tonight:
6:31 p.m., 53º up, due south.

These are extremely bright and ultra cool, but only really work if you’re directly in the beam of reflected sunlight from the satellite; for the above time, the location used for calculation is the center of Reno, at the corner of the Truckee River and Virginia Street. Your mileage may vary, depending on how far east/west you are. Your best bet, for maximum flare-age, is to plug your exact coordinates into the calculator at Heavens Above, an excellent astronomy resource.



Report for February 26, 2008

Last week was a busy week for sky events, so let’s take some time to bask in the relaxing knowledge that not too much is going on this week, and recap:

The total lunar eclipse was, itself, eclipsed by a wall of clouds for almost the duration. I caught about a two-minute break at around 6:45, but that was it. I admit that the following picture is entirely Photoshopped, but it still is pretty accurate:

Photo of a fuzzy lunar eclipse due to a wall of clouds.

I know it’s cliché to say that “it seems like it’s cloudy anytime something like this happens,” but it sure does seem that it’s cloudy every time something like this happens. Oh well — here’s hoping we have no clouds in December 2010, the next time we get an opportunity to see such an eclipse from our location.

The falling U.S. spy satellite was successfully (we think) shot down by a missile from a US warship at 7:26 p.m. Pacific time during the eclipse. Check it out:


This week, we have much more sedate night skies, likely still hidden behind clouds:

Sky chart for February 26, 2008

is bright, orange, and about straight up in the sky at 7 p.m. or so. Saturn is as bright, white, and just peeking above the horizon at the same time. The only star brighter is Sirius, just behind Orion, and the moon doesn’t rise until about 11 p.m. tonight, so the visible evening planets will appear as the two second-brightest stars up, significantly brighter than the others.

The rule of thumb that stars twinkle, planets don’t is usually true, but not always.  Stars tend to be very, very far away, and so always appear as points of light. Their apparent size in our sky is small enough that any turbulence and dust in the thick blanket of air between us and space is enough to make stars wiggle, blink, and even change color. Planets in our solar system, on the other hand, appear slightly larger, because although they are physically smaller they are much, much closer. Think a tiny dot of light versus a near-infinitesimal point. In calm, clear air, planets don’t twinkle. It takes a lot more dust and turbulence to make a planet appear to twinkle, but it does happen. 
Incidentally, getting out from this ocean of air, with its astronomically-interfering weather, is the primary reason for putting telescopes into space.

Report for February 19, 2008

Image of a total lunar eclipse
Total Lunar Eclipse

Wednesday, February 20
Period of totality: 7:01 p.m. to 7:51 p.m.

We are in for a semi-rare treat this week, as we are in a great spot to catch a total lunar eclipse. The last one visible to us was just a few months ago — August 28 — but the next one visible from our area won’t be for another couple years, so if you didn’t catch last year’s then this is your chance. This is going to be a better one, too — we’ll get to see the entire period of totality (when the moon is darkest) after the moon rises, where last year it was well underway by the time the moon popped into view. 

Lunar eclipses happen when the earth passes directly between the sun and the moon, and the moon falls into the earth’s (admittedly large) shadow. The edge of the earth’s shadow is unsurprisingly fuzzy; often the moon only glances the edge of the shadow (the penumbra) in a partial eclipse, instead of passing through the darkest spot (the umbra) in a total eclipse, so the latter instance is more rare.  

Illustration: lunar eclipse

The moon rises just after 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, and will appear dimmed as it will be will into the penumbra. It will pass totally into the umbra by 6:01 p.m., giving us almost an hour of totality, though the moon won’t be invisible; those familiar with total lunar eclipses know the deep orange-red hue the moon takes during this time. 

This dark orange color is a result of the sum of all the sunsets and sunrises happening around the world, casting their orange glow onto the surface of the moon. Thanks to some slick astronomy software (Starry Night™, the software we use in our dome theater) we can see what that would look like to an astronaut on the moon:

Sample image of the eclipse from the moon.


In other news, the tumbling spy satellite we talked about two weeks ago is now apparently going to be shot down before it can A) do any damage, or B) fall into nosey hands. This could happen as early as Wednesday (they’re waiting until the shuttle lands, at least), so maybe we’ll have a double feature that night of an eclipse and low-orbit fireworks. A similar test (blowing up a satellite with a missile) was conducted successfully by China last year, but it raised much ire in the international community thanks to the creation of a million bits of dangerous space debris for future satellites and astronauts to worry about. I believe the plan this time is to shoot it down in a way that avoids leaving such space junk in orbit, but I still feel like I’ve stepped into the plot of a bad sci-fi movie.

UPDATE:  The first attempt at shooting down the USA 193 satellite is planned for 03:30 Universal Time on February 21, which translates to 7:30 p.m. our time on February 20, during the lunar eclipse, as the moon is emerging from the darkest part of the earth's shadow! Unfortunately, I doubt we'll be able to see it, as it's happening about 150 miles above the Pacific Ocean, near Hawaii.  


Report for February 12, 2008

Look, up in the sky, it’s a… space shuttle!

Photo of International Space Station

The space shuttle Atlantis made it up Thursday without a hitch, so we now have the shuttle orbiting overhead with the International Space Station. The two will be linked together while the new lab module is set up and the astronauts do some minor maintenance, until next week.

This means we get some great passes of the ISS/Shuttle pair every evening. When together, these guys are bright — brighter than most stars, and even brighter than the two evening planets right now (Mars and Saturn). The best shot for us is on Friday, between 6:19 and 6:24 p.m., as the pair travels northwest to southeast, hitting a maximum of about 60º above the horizon at about 6:22 p.m. 

I believe the following fact has been reiterated nearly to death, but just in case: when the shuttle is docked to the station, one can make out the individual shapes of the craft easily with a pair of binoculars. 

So dust off that old pair, or, if they’re too dusty or nonexistent, come down to the Planetarium to get a new pair for 40 percent off. 

In the morning, we still have a nice pairing of Venus and Jupiter in the southeast; see last week’s post for more on that.

We missed a partial solar eclipse visible only to penguins in the Antarctic last week, but we’re looking forward to next Wednesday’s (February 20) total lunar eclipse, but we’ll save the details for next week’s installment.


Report for February 5, 2008

Wow, out sick for a week and I come back to a whole laundry list of space happenings. Let’s knock these out.

1) There is a large (but likely relatively harmless) U.S. spy satellite that will crash into Earth in the next few weeks. At first glance this seems scary, so let’s dispel any possible fears about this and look at the facts. 

  • A large Hubble-sized (which is to say, school bus-sized) satellite was launched in late 2006 and died shortly after reaching orbit a couple hundred miles up (as happens sometimes with extraordinarily complex machines like this), leaving it without the ability to be controlled.

  • Its orbit has slowly degraded (as happens with any satellite) without little puffs from little motors pushing it back up to place, so it will soon hit a point where friction from the atmosphere rapidly increases and it tumbles down, burning up partially along the way. 

Predicting where and when this will happen is a bit like forecasting the Super Bowl, which is to say very difficult. But it’s important to remember that our little planet is mostly covered in oceans, and that the remaining bits are largely uninhabited. The chances of it hitting anything significant are astronomically low, pardon the pun. I’m not a statistician, but I’d hazard a guess that a shark attack in Nevada is more likely. Yes, the rocket fuel likely onboard is Nasty Stuff (some kind of hydrocarbon ending in –zine), but on par with the Nasty Stuff that is unfortunately pumped into the air and oceans every day. This kind of thing has happened before many times (including the Russian space station MIR’s re-entry over the Pacific in 2001) with no problems.

In the meantime, enjoy the view. Like many other satellites, USA 193 is easily visible to the naked eye, and we can see it pass overhead a few times in the next few mornings, with the best upcoming pass on Saturday, February 9 at 6:04 a.m., passing west-northwest (WNW) to south-southeast (SSE), hitting a maximum altitude of 53º in the southwest (SW) at 6:06 a.m.

2) The space shuttle Atlantis has been rescheduled to launch on Thursday, February 7, to take up a new European lab module to the International Space Station (ISS). The folks at NASA are expecting rain, so it may be postponed again, but if not you can always follow along from home/work via the live NASA TV webcast.

3) Venus and Jupiter are still roughly aligned, meaning the two dots appear near each other in our morning skies. While the best day to catch this was last Friday, they still put on a good show in the southeast before sunrise. From here on out, Venus heads back down toward the horizon and Jupiter swings higher, not meeting up again until the evening skies of next winter. This is actually a pretty spectacular sight; I’ve received many calls about it of the “I’m not crazy, but I saw two lights in the sky this morning” variety.


Report for January 15, 2008

I have high hopes for clear weather this week, but current predictions are not matching what I see out my window; so much for relying on a weather widget.  However, if there’s a break, look for Mars (which, incidentally, will not be hit by an asteroid later this month) high in the east after sunset, and bright Venus in the east before sunrise.

In the meantime, you can dust off a pair of binoculars to search for either (or both) of the visible comets we’ve got.  Though they technically might be visible to the unaided eye from the absolute middle of nowhere, realistically you’ll need a decent pair of binoculars or a telescope to see ‘em. 

Constellation showing Perseus

17P Holmes is still supposedly visible, at about magnitude 4.3, in the constellation Perseus.  The best time to look will be as Perseus passes overhead (right near zenith, away from horizon glow) at about 7:30 p.m. or so.

Constellation showing Cetus

8P Tuttle reaches its highest point (about halftway up the sky) a bit earlier, around 6:45 p.m. or so, in the constellation Cetus (the sea monster).

Be warned that neither of these have spectacular tails, so you’ll be looking for dim smudges at best. If you attempt to find these dirty snowballs yourself, good luck. If you need a pair of binoculars, now is a good time to mention that all in-stock binoculars are 40 percent off in the Planetarium gift shop!


Report for January 7, 2008

Happy New Year!  The new year brings us longer days and shorter nights as we head away from the longest night of the year (December 21st — the winter solstice and first official day of winter) and toward the vernal equinox (March 19th — when day and night are equal in length, and the first official day of spring). It also brings us a few other things:

Mars is receding, but still very close, very bright, and very orange-red. Look for it in the east after sunset, above and to the left of Orion. If you tilt your head a bit sideways to make Orion “right side up,” then Mars appears to be directly above his head.

The possiblility of an asteroid collision looms on the horizon, though thankfully not ours.  There’s a small chance (3.6 percent, or about one in 28) that a good-sized rock (165 feet or so across) could slam into Mars sometime late this month, which would give scientitsts an unprecedented look at this sort of cosmic collision with tools such as the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter.

Finally, there may or may not be a visible comet in our skies. Again. I’m not sure myself, since it’s on the edge of being naked-eye viewable, and the weather hasn’t been conducive to checking it out myself in the past couple days, but if you’re interested in seeing comet Tuttle, either for the first time ever or for the first time since last time it was here in 1994, grab a pair of binoculars, wait for a break in the skies, and check here for specifics on where to look


Report for December 11, 2007

Geminid Meteor Shower

So far 2007 hasn’t quite delivered on its meteor shower expectations, but we’ve got one more chance for a decent show before the year is over. The Geminid meteor shower — so named because the meteors appear to radiate from a point in the constellation of Gemini — reaches its peak this Friday, Dec. 14. Although the peak technically happens a bit after sunrise (around 9 a.m.), the shower is steady, strong and reliable enough that we can look forward to a good show between about midnight and sunrise, as the leading edge of the Earth, plowing through the dusty specks of comet remnants, rotates overhead.

The moon will have set in the evening, so with clear weather and from a dark location, you should be able to see up to 100 meteors per hour.

Even if Thursday night / Friday morning is a bust with cloudy skies, the night after should be pretty good, too.

To best catch a meteor shower, it’s important to find a dark location; around western Nevada, my favorite places are near Pyramid Lake. The best time is around 2 a.m., when the radiant (Gemini) is directly overhead, but anytime between midnight and morning should be okay. 

From wherever you’re starting, venturing out will require bundles of warm clothes, jackets, and Thermoses, and maybe a jaunt to the middle of nowhere, but those adventurous enough to make the effort will be rewarded with plenty of beautiful multicolored shooting stars.


Report for December 4, 2007

The space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to launch Thursday, Dec. 6, 2007, to deliver the European Space Agency’s Columbus module. Columbus is based on an earlier Italian module and is packed with racks of laboratory equipment. It will significantly expand the station’s role as an orbiting science lab, and give the crew a bit more breathing space. This means that we’ll have some good passes of both the Shuttle and the ISS in the next week; each is brighter than most stars, and together they are dazzling — with a good pair of binoculars, two distinct linked points of light (the shuttle and station, respectively) and occasionally the shapes of the crafts, can be made out.

Illustration showing orbital path

We have a bright pass of the solo station tonight (Dec. 4) at 5:20 p.m.; it will travel  SSW to ENE, reaching a maximum altitude of about 30º above the horizon (about a third of the way up the sky) in the SE. If you miss it, the station comes around again about an hour-and-a-half (its orbital period) later, at 6:55 p.m., and every evening for the next few nights. Check for exact times and locations. After Dec. 9, 2007, the shuttle will be docked to the station for a few days, making for a real treat, so tune in for details next week, as well as details on the year’s best meteor shower, going down on the morning of Friday, Dec. 14. Links:


Report for November 20, 2007

According to Yahoo, the skies should be clear this evening and for the remainder of the week, though it will be much colder than it has been the past couple days.

The sun sets at about 4:30 p.m. or so, and Jupiter will remain visible in the southwest as the brightest “star” until it sets an hour later.

The moon is waxing (becoming fuller) and about half-full this evening, reaching its fullest point on Friday evening. The moon, when visible, washes out dimmer objects but presents a perfect opportunity to check out craters with a small telescope or binoculars.

The Leonid meteor shower peaked unimpressively on Sunday, but we may still see some stray shooting stars from that shower early this week from a dark location in the early morning. The Geminids in mid-December (peaking on the morning of Dec. 14) are a much better bet as the best meteor shower of 2007.

Bright reddish Mars rises around 7:45 p.m. in the east; as Earth passes Mars on the inside track (in mid-December), it appears brighter and slightly bigger. It is currently brighter than even the brightest star in the sky, Sirius.

For those lucky (or unlucky) enough to be up before the sun rises, we have a double treat of bright Venus in the east, with dimmer-but-still-bright Saturn just above.

There are no great Iridium Flares or Space Station passes this week, but feel free to check for yourself.