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False Dawn

on Tuesday, 02 September 2014.

Zodiacal Light

False Dawn

Two of my favorite sky phenomena are the Belt of Venus and Zodiacal Light.  I've written about the Belt of Venus in the Night Sky News and will likely write again about it here but right now, I'm going to focus on the "false dawn".

Zodiacal Light can be seen almost anytime during the year and anywhere on Earth (depending upon the ecliptic)  but it is most starkly evident during the Spring and the Fall. It's a rare sight in populated areas but here in Central Oregon, outside of the cities, we are perfectly situated to enjoy this magical light.

This morning, while driving east through the desert, I was treated to what appeared to be the light from a town reflecting up into the clear sky.  It was about 4:30 AM and, for what it's worth, the closest town to the east of me, Burns,  was about 100 miles away.  There was no light coming from Burns at all.  This cone of light was a "false dawn" or Zodiacal light.

Zodiacal Light can be seen anywhere that is very dark and usually about two hours before dawn or about two hours after sunset. It is caused by grains of cosmic dust in our solar system that reflect the light from the sun. It is very faint and even the slightest glow from city lights and or the moon can make it invisible.

I could go into a long, pseudo-scientific description and reason for why this light occurs but suffice it to say that it is magical to our eyes and a lovely addition to a clear dark sky (unless you are doing astro-photography).  It often appears as a pyramid of faint light that extends from the horizon to zenith.  

If you can see the Milky Way, you are likely to see the false dawn or the evening version depending on the time of the year.  It's worth hunting down and a wonderful "add" to your bucket list of Night Sky objects.

Summer Ends with a Comet!

on Tuesday, 26 August 2014. Posted in Observatory Articles

Summer may be coming to a close at the Oregon Observatory, but that does not mean we are finished. Following Labor Day the Observatory will be open three nights a week (Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays) for evening viewing starting at 8PM, and on Saturdays for solar viewing from 11AM-2PM. Although the sky is shifting as we drift towards a new season, there are plenty of objects to see, and even a few new ones rising in the east.

Saturn and Mars are still a treat as they approach the western horizon as a bright pair. As they set, Neptune and Uranus break from the east and start their winter tour in the constellations of Aquarius and Pisces, respectively.

Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques has risen high enough in the northern sky to be spotted during our evening program! Come join us at the Oregon Observatory to get a view of this wandering ice ball that will not return to the inner solar system for 19,000 years. Heaven's Above has an excellent page for locating the comet here.

Summer at the Oregon Observatory

on Wednesday, 18 June 2014.

The Oregon Observatory at Sunriver is now operating on it's summer schedule! We are open six nights a week from 9PM-11PM (every night but Monday) and every day for solar viewing from 11AM-2PM until Labor Day. Come join us for a night of star gazing that is truly out of this world.

Jupiter is making a dash towards the western horizon and soon will be too close to the sun for us to see during our evening program. If you want to catch a glimpse of the largest planet in our solar system join us before July! In mid-July Earth's faster orbit will put the Sun between us and Jupiter and several weeks later Jupiter will be visible in the morning sky before sunrise.

No need to fear as Saturn is here! As Jupiter slips away Saturn is moving into prime position for viewing. Saturn will be visible during our evening program for most of the summer. Come check out the glorious rings of this gas giant as well as a sampling of some of it's 65 moons.

Not to be left out, Mars, is also gracing our skies for the majority of the summer. The red planet is bright and easily about halfway up the sky nearly due south shortly after sunset.

We are also currently approaching third quarter Moon, which provides excellent dark skies for viewing the fainter objects like galaxies and nebulae. New Moon will be on June 27, and the days that follow the new Moon are an excellent time get a great view of the closest object to the Earth as well as the faint distant galaxies!

Kids classes are available for the summer as well. Come build and launch your own rocket or telescope. More information on our kids classes can be found here.

Hope to see you out here under clear skies!

May and Meteor Showers

on Saturday, 26 April 2014.

One established shower and possibly an OUTRAGEOUS new one

May and Meteor Showers

May has two meteor events well worth checking out and one of them may be outrageous!

Early in the month, May 5-7, 2014, the Eta Aquarids come to the forefront.  The predicted peak for this shower is May 6, 2014 but this meteor shower's maximum is one that actually spans over several nights.  Expect to see ten to twenty bright meteors per hour from this event (likely on the lower end).

The best time to view the Eta Aquarids is in the predawn hours around 4 am and the moon is going to cooperate for this event with a first quarter moon setting prior to the peak hour. This will set up potentially an amazing light show of meteors for those who care to (or need to) rise at such an early hour.  The radiant (apparent area where a meteor shower appears to originate) for this shower is around the star Eta in the constellation Aquarius.

Late in May, there is a real possibility for a brand new meteor show for all of us on Earth.  In 2009, Comet Linear passed near the Sun and will pass near it again in early May, 2014.  Later in May, as the Earth passes through Linear's debris field there is a chance of a fine, very, VERY fine and new meteor shower. 

The date predicted is May 24, 2014 was first registerd in 2012 by astronomers and meteor experts Esko Lyytinen of Finland and Peter Jenniskens at NASA Ames Research Center.  Other researchers and scientists have used the term, "meteor storm" while others have been more conservative and have predicted "strong meteor showers."

Jeremie Vaubaillon of The Institut de Mecanique Celeste et de Calcul des Ephemerides in France told space.com: 

So far, given the observations, we estimate a ZHR (zenithal hourly rate) of 100/hr to 400/hr, which is an excellent outburst! But this shower can become an exceptional one. Indeed, given the current orbit of the comet, all the trails ejected between 1803 and 1924 do fall in the Earth’s path in May 2014! As a consequence, this shower might as well be a storm.

The more recent, less optimistic calculations come from Quanzhi Ye and Paul A. Wiegert, both at University of Western Ontario. Their work was published online in November 2013. In a report on their work at skyandtelescope.com, John Bochanski wrote that Ye and Wiegert’s work suggests a rate of 200 meteors per hour under ideal conditions.

Bochanski wrote:

But Ye and Wiegert warn that, given the current relatively weak dust production of the comet, rates could be much lower. With the low dust production, as well as the team’s lower estimate of how many debris streams from the comet’s previous passes are hanging around in this region of space, it’s highly unlikely that we’re in for a meteor storm (1,000 per hour) — although the team couldn’t quite rule it out.

Whichever theory is right, it sounds like Comet Linear's meteor shower on the night of May 24, 2014 will be something that shouldn't be missed!  200 meteors per hour is an amazing sight; 500 meteors per hour will be absolutely incredible.  There's no way to know for sure.  As with ANY meteor shower, the only real way to tell is to go out on the night of the peak of the shower and look up!  Fingers crossed!!!!





Turn up the lights! MARS

on Monday, 07 April 2014.

Mars is brightest object in the sky other than the moon this mid-April 2014.

Turn up the lights!  MARS

Have you seen that bright red star that rises in the eastern sky after dark?  No? Look more closely, you can hardly miss it.  Of course, it's not a star but our handsome neighbor, Mars. 

Mars is brighter (and bigger) in our view than it has been since 2007.  No, it's not bigger than a full moon (more on that below), but it's very bright.  That's because  it's closer to us than it has been in nearly seven years.  On April 8, Mars will be in opposition (the closest point to Earth when Earth passes between Mars and the Sun) at about 57.4 million miles (in 2007, Mars was closer and at about 55 million miles). Remember, the Sun is about 93 million miles from Earth so Mars is approaching half that distance.

On April 13-14, Mars will pair up with a full Moon.  Then we can test the theory that it isn't nearly as big as a full Moon and in case there was any doubt, we'll see a vivid reminder of that (smile). On the following evening (April 14-15) , a blood-red Mars will be beside a blood-red Moon in total eclipse.  It should be quite the sight!  Get your telescopes, binoculars and cameras or iPhones ready.  I bet there is going to be some fantastic photos published. The lunar eclipse begins about 9:50 pm PDT with the totality occurring about 12:45 am PDT on the 15th of April.  A lunar eclipse is special anytime but with Mars about 9° to the northwest of the moon and far outshines Spica which will be about 2° to the west.  To add to the beauty of this blood-red festival, Antares will be about 30° to the north of the Moon.  Should be quite a show.

Oh and by the way, through a telescope at about 120 magnification, Mars will appear as big as a full moon is TO THE NAKED EYE!  Have you ever wondered how that email got started?  There's the answer!