Friday, September 23, 2005

Clouds Win Again

Sorry, folks, but the satellite images show that this cloud cover over Central California is probably going to last most of the night, so there goes the star party. We'll try again on Friday, Oct. 21. See you then!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Return of the Long Nights

Return of the Long Nights
by Dave Adalian

Summer is taking an early departure this year, folding away her brown mantle and allowing the cool days and chill nights of autumn to come quickly as the leaves begin to fall.

This is fitting as (on Sept. 22, 2005) at 2:23 p.m. PDT the Sun crosses south of the celestial equator, reaching equinox and marking the moment when autumn begins and the days shorten while nights grow long and cold.

When the Sun sets this evening, it will fall directly west and rise again tomorrow due east, silhouetting the crags of the Sierra Nevada. Though the periods of light and dark won’t be perfectly equal as the Latin term equinox implies, the time between sunset tonight when half the Sun’s disk is below the horizon and sunrise tomorrow when half the disk is above the horizon will be just eight minutes shy of 12 hours.

The equinox is the moment when the Sun crosses the dividing line that splits the sky into two equal northern and southern halves, creating some special effects here on Earth.

At the equator on the days of the March and September equinoxes, the Sun not only rises and sets at the points of true east and west, it also passes directly overhead when it reaches its highest point in the sky, something it never does at more northern or southern latitudes.

At the poles, the effect is far more dramatic.

At the North Pole, the September equinox signals a plunge into six months of darkness, with the Sun dropping below the horizon not to be seen again until the end of March.

On the bottom of the planet, the effect is reversed, with the Sun finally returning to the sky for six uninterrupted months of daylight. Instead of rising and falling as it does elsewhere, during the months-long period of day the Sun skims along the icy horizon, climbing higher in the sky as the solstice approaches.

Were it not for the killing cold of the arctic winter, the North Pole would be a Moon-lover’s delight. During the six-month darkness, the Moon rises above the horizon not to set again for two weeks. The Moon moves through its cycle in unashamed plain sight before dipping again below the horizon for a fortnight’s absence.

Late Sept. 21 and 22 here at home, the Moon will put on a beautiful display in the east, joining the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades, the V-shape of the Hyades and a bright and ruddy Mars.


Join the Tulare Astronomical Association for a public star party this Friday, Sept. 23, 8:30-10:30 p.m. at the Arthur L. Purcell Observatory, 9242 Ave. 184, south of Tulare and 2.1 miles west of Highway 198.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Deep Impact Reveals Comet's Secrets

The first findings from the Deep Impact collision with Comet Tempel 1 back in early July have been announced and the mission's results are going to change the way astronomers think about comets in a lot of ways. We've assumed comets were dirty snowballs, but it's looking more like they're icy dirt balls made mostly of powder and have the consistency of a soufflé, so don't slam the oven door or your comet may collapse.

Here's a great article on the findings from Science News.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Soak In Some Earthshine

When a very slim crescent moon joins Jupiter, Venus and Spica on the western horizon tonight just after sunset, be sure to look for the Earthshine, too.

The Sun is the only source of bright light in our solar system. All the light coming from the planets and their moons is just a reflection of our home star. When the Moon is only a couple of days past its new phase it presents a large dark limb, and the light that makes that dark limb visible is Earthshine, light from the Sun that strikes the Earth, reflects back to the dark portion of the Moon and then shines back on the Earth.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Venus and the Virgin

The sky show continues tonight on the western horizon after sunset with Spica, the alpha star of Virgo the Virgin, shining less than two degrees southwest (down and to the left) of Venus. Jupiter is about four degrees to the right. For those with a clear view to the west, a very young new moon is just above the horizon and will set by about a quarter after 8 o'clock local time. The Moon will be right in the midst of this grouping tomorrow night 30-45 minutes after the Sun goes down.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

One Hundred Billion Failed Stars

For every star shining in our galaxy there's another one that didn't make it. Astronomers at Arizona State University working from Hubble Space Telescope infrared data have discovered the Milky Way has as many brown dwarf bodies as it does stars -- 100,000,000,000 of them and every one without enough mass to begin nuclear fusion, the process that makes the stars shine. These dark bodies weigh anywhere between 13 to 75 times as much as Jupiter, so their combined mass isn't enough to account for all of the galaxy's so-called missing matter by a long shot.

Here's's article announcing the discovery.