Friday, December 21, 2012

Ending Superstition on December 22, 2012

The Un-pocalypse — or false Mayan “End of the World” — of December 21, 2012, is the most widespread cultural phenomenon of the year. Some joke about it, others fear it, but everyone knows about it.

There is no planet coming to destroy us, but we hold a widespread fear of the dark, unknown universe, a cosmophobia. Our reaction to apocalyptic myths reveals our true cosmic compass. What we make of the Mayan calendar doesn’t tell us anything about the Maya. It speaks volumes about us. Some look on the Maya with the same fear and superstition that pervaded the Spaniards of the 16th century. How we decode the ambiguous Mayan writings exposes in what century our mindsets dwell.

When death fails to come from the skies on Friday, I would like us to truly be 21st- century humans. If we have any doubts, make this pledge before the end of December 21 regarding the purported ends that were predicted by us (not the Maya).

“I solemnly swear that if on December 21, 2012 (Eastern Mayan Time), we are not destroyed by:

Meteors, comets, or the rogue planet Nibiru;
Super Sun storms;
Magnetic poles flipping;
The entire Earth flipping;
Earth ceasing to rotate;
Planets lining up;
An eclipse (solar or lunar);
Or Earth lining up with the black hole in the center of the galaxy,

I will be more trusting of scientists and astronomers and less taken in by superstition and doomsday charlatans.”

Let’s welcome December 22, 2012, as the dawning of a new age: an age of reason.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Know Your Seven Sisters

This is a great time to view the Seven Sisters open star cluster in the night sky. Look high in the west for a small cloud the size of the full moon. Upon closer examination your eye can catch the individual stars in the cloud and you can start counting. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6... and maybe 7 stars (if you have really good eyesight) in the cluster.
These are the Seven Sisters, or Pleiades (their family name). They are the children of a Titan named Atlas (the guy that holds up the world) and a sea-nymph named Pleione. The names of the Seven Sisters are: Alcyone, Maia, Taygeta, Celaeno, Merope, Sterope, and Electra. On a clear night you can see Alcyone, Maia, Taygeta, Merope, and Electra along with one or both of their parents.
Most people with 20/20 vision can only make out 6 stars in the cluster. What happened to the 7th? One legend says that in the ancient Greek days (2500 years ago) they could see all seven. But one star suddenly got dimmer. To explain this phenomenon, the Greeks believed that one of the sisters (Electra in some stories, Merope in others) was sad and covered her face with her hands - thus shielding her beautiful light from the world.
With any binoculars you can see much more than 7 stars in the cluster. In total the cluster contains over 1,000 members resting about 440 light years away that were all formed from the same nebula. Click on the pictures for close-up views. Try to find them tonight and see how many you can catch.

"Seven Sisters" a painting by Helen Gerro

Monday, November 26, 2012


For the last year I've been recording weekly, "What's Up in the Sky" pieces for WXIX Fox19 news in the morning.  These 1-minute pieces called The Stargazer Report will get you ready for upcoming astronomical events and stuff you can see even without a telescope.  The bad news is that they air at 4:20am on a Monday morning.  The good news is that I don't record them live...

The even better news is that now you can watch them whenever you want - no need to set the Tivo, DVR or anything.  Go to:  and watch what's coming to a sky near you this week.


Taurus the Bull is easy to identify even in light polluted skies. This year you have a extra bright clue to help point your way.  The giant planet Jupiter is hanging out in the bull's horns and you can't miss it.  Look east after sunset and Jupiter will be the brightest starlike object.

Just to the right of Jupiter is a bright star that should look a little orange.  That's the Bull's Eye star called Aldebaran.  Fainter stars nearby make a "V" shape with Aldebaran and represent the bull's face.  Aldebaran means "the follower," but what is it following? If you look about 15 degrees above Aldebaran you will see a little cloud of stars.  Those are the Seven Sisters (aka the Pleiades).  As the night goes on, Aldebaran follows the Seven Sisters through the sky.

See the "V"?
Inside the "V" are a lot of stars. This is called the Hyades star cluster (in Greek mythology five of these were the half-sisters to the Pleiades) ((wait a second... seven plus five... that's a lot of kids for the god Atlas to raise!)). The Hyades are the closest open cluster to Earth at only 150 light years distant. You can observe dozens to hundreds of these stars with a good pair of binoculars. Aldebaran is not a Hyade, though. It is much closer to the Earth and just appears in the same neighborhood.

In November and December you can see Jupiter and Taurus all night long. In the evening they'll be in the east.  Around midnight they'll be high in the south.  And before dawn, they'll be setting in the west.  Check them out and watch Aldebaran "following" those Seven Sisters!

Shameless, eye-catching picture of Jupiter

Friday, October 19, 2012


This has been a busy month for extrasolar planet discoveries.  First amateur astronomers discovered a planet orbiting four stars.  That's right, if you lived there you'd have up to four suns in the sky (of course when you visit, some of them may have set ;).  This planet is about the size and composition of gaseous Neptune - so you couldn't actually stand on the planet.  But imagine the view!    

Second, the planet around Alpha Centauri is doubly cool - first because Alpha Centauri the closest star system to us - and second because it is really a triple star system, two big stars orbiting each other with a tiny third one nearby.  Alpha Centauri A is a star just slightly larger than the Sun and Alpha Centauri B is a smidgen smaller than ole Sol.  The third star is Proxima Centauri which happens to be slightly closer to Earth than the others.  So finding a planet around a triple star system was unheard of just a few months ago.  This planet orbits around Alpha Centauri B every 3.2 days only 3.6 million miles from the star.  It's though that the surface is rocky but boiling at an average temperature 2,240 degrees F!  Hopefully, this is just the first of many discoveries we make in our stellar neighborhood. 

Artist rendition of planet Alpha Centauri Bb
Now before you start packing your bags for Alpha Centauri Bb, remember that it is still over 25 trillion miles away.  The New Horizons space craft would take over 74,000 years to get there!

Monday, October 8, 2012


This small constellation is one of my favorites to find in the summer sky. It can only be seen on very clear nights through the summer haze - a rarity for city dwellers.  But now that the crisper, fall skies are here, you may get lucky and see it.  The Dolphin looks like a small diamond-shape of four stars with an extra star off to the side for a tail.  In fall, it's just above the longest side of the Summer Triangle. With some imagination you may see a faint dolphin, arching its back, jumping out of heavens.  Of course, it's upside-down too!

Delphinus was said to be the messenger of Poseidon. Delphinus won great acclaim for saving Arion’s life (Poseidon’s son) when his ship was attacked at sea. The ancients attributed the Dolphin with great wisdom (I wonder how they knew dolphins were so smart), and also a love for humans. Dolphins were a sailor’s best friends and often got shipwrecked folks out of trouble.

Delphinus also helped Poseidon get a date from a the beautiful Nereid named Amphitrite by delivering her a message in the Atlas Mountains.  I'm not sure how this dolphin-gram reached her since he couldn't exactly swim it there! 

The two brightest stars in Delphinus have an interesting history. They are:

SUALOCIN and ROTANEV - both blueish-white

These stars are the reverse spelling of the name Nicolaus Venator who was an assistant to the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi – the discoverer of the first asteroid. What a creative way to get your name in history.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Located high in the southern sky and in a rich part of the Milky Way, Aquila the Eagle was thought to be Zeus' favored pet. Many Greek myths indicated that Aquila carried the thunderbolts Zeus frequently hurled at troublesome humans. In fact since eagles seemed to be the fastest creatures, the Greek associated them with lightning strikes. In other Greek myths Aquila swooped down to carry away a mortal named Ganymede who Zeus fancied. Zeus to his servants: “I’m so busy today. Send my eagle around to pick him up.”

Another gruesome Greek tale involved Prometheus and the Eagle. The gods punished Prometheus for stealing fire from Mt. Olympus and sharing this powerful gift with us lowly humans. As a punishment he was chained to a rock while a giant eagle came to feast on his liver. But having this happen only once wasn’t good enough. The gods magically restored his liver every day so that the eagle could return to torture Prometheus for eternity. Wow, that’s harsh. What was poor Prometheus thinking as he awoke in the morning, whole, only to hear the ominous flap, flap, flapping of the eagle’s wings coming ever closer?  Prometheus was finally freed from the tortuous existence by Hercules who killed the eagle with an arrow. Fire anyone?

Aquila’s Main Star:

Rapidly Rotating Altair

ALTAIR - “Flying Eagle” in Arabic
One of our closest neighbors at 17 light years away
Part of the Summer Triangle with Deneb in the
constellation Cygnus and Vega in the constellation Lyra.

Easily identified for its brightness as well as two sentinel stars on each side of it, Alshain and Tarazed. These stars get their names from the Persian name for Aquila, Shahin Tara Zed, or the Star Striking Falcon.

“She (Altair) steals into the sky timidly and seems to tremble there as if half afraid and shyly reveals her beauty to us before we are scarcely aware of her presence.”  Altair spins so fast that it's squished at the poles!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

BLUE MOON of Cincinnati

Blue Moon over Cincinnati (open in new window for a bigger pic)
On August 31 we had a "Blue Moon."  It didn't appear blue in color or anything it's just a strange label for insignificant full moon.  But anything to get people looking at the Moon!

What is a Blue Moon?

It depends on who and when you ask.  Today a Blue Moon refers to the second full Moon in a calendar month. The term, as we now know it, only dates back to a 1946 Sky and Telescope magazine article by James Hugh Pruett. The term did not become mainstream until 1980 when the radio program StarDate used the Pruett definition - and the meaning has stuck ever since.

The earliest reference to a Blue Moon dates back to a sixteenth century poem.

    If they say the Moon is blue
    We must believe that it is true.

Here the term Blue Moon means something that never happens. Calling the Moon blue is like calling the Sun cold. You would have to be blind to call the Moon blue. Ironically, the joke that the Moon is made of green cheese also originated in the 1500s.

Of course the term “Blue Moon” has appeared in several popular songs dating back to the 1930s. Blue Moon of Kentucky was written by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe in 1944. And who can forget Elvis singing Blue Moon? In these songs, the term refers to a time of loneliness and sorrow, not the second full Moon in a month.

The Moon can actually appear blueish on very rare occassions.  When enough particles are in the atmosphere, like after a volcanic eruption, the Moon can appear a little tinted as in this picture.

On the flip side, what do you call it when you have two New Moons in one month? So far there is no such term. I suggest calling it a Black Moon. That would actually make sense.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lyra the Harp

This constellation represents the musical instrument invented by the messenger god Hermes. It has also been visualized as an Eagle or Vulture. Although small, Lyra holds many bright stars including the fifth brightest star in the sky, Vega.

Vega is the brightest star in the Summer Triangle and is high overhead during the fall evenings. This blueish star is only 25 light years away and will replace Polaris as our Pole Star in about 12,000 years. Vega will be our distant ancestors' new North Star. Vega is also the place where an alien message originated in the fiction movie and book Contact.
Also called the “Queen of the Summer Skies”
“Falling Vulture” (Arab)
“Spinning Maiden” (Chinese/Korean)
“King Arthur’s Harp” (Britons)
“Fiddle in the Sky” (Bohemia)
Worshipped by ancient Egypt as early as 6000 BC

The Greek Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus was a tremendous harp player. He was the best that ever walked the Earth. His music was so sweet and pure that even the trees bent over to listen. The river ceased flowing, wild beasts became tame, even mountains listened with pleasure when Orpheus played his magical music.

One day he met a beautiful nymph named Eurydice. She too was mesmerized by Orpheus’ music and they fell in love and got married. Unfortunately, soon after the marriage, Eurydice was bit on the heel by a serpent and died. Orpheus was deeply saddened by her death and vowed to never play music again.

Well, no one was happy by this. Not even the gods. So the gods came to Orpheus and told him how he could cross over through the gates of death and retrieve his love Eurydice. Orpheus jumped at the idea and made the journey to the Underworld.

But first he had to deal with Hades, god of departed spirits. Hades was never anxious to let anyone leave his realm. But Orpheus began to play his harp, and Hades was so moved by the music that he agreed to release Eurydice to him on one condition (there’s always a condition). Orpheus had to walk in front of Eurydice all the way back to the land of the living. He was not allowed to turn around and look at her until they crossed through the gates of death.

Of course, Orpheus, being so much in love with this woman, could barely contain himself. They walked out of the Underworld in single file, Orpheus constantly listening for his beloved's soft footsteps. Upward and upward he marched never sure if Eurydice was there behind him. And he saw the end of the tunnel ahead - he had almost reached the light of day. But then doubt entered his head. Eurydice’s footsteps fell silent. Was she really there? Was he tricked by Hades? And if he went outside could he ever come back? Orpheus finally couldn't take it any longer and turned to look at his beloved. There she was, as radiant as he remembered her. And in another moment, her smile faded, faded, and she vanished forever.

Lyra, Orpheus’ harp remains in the sky as a reminder of true love, love lost, and why death is so hard to cheat.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


Eclipses, Transits, Blue Moons, Supermoons - 2012 has it all.

Add an occultation to the list.  This is when the Moon or a planet goes in front of something else (a star, other planet).  I have only seen three of these in my life (compared to nine lunar eclipses).  So the rarity of these is way up there. 

On Monday August 13 the Moon will occult (go in front of) the planet Venus.  The good news is we'll see it from the Cincinnati area (and across the country west of us).  The bad news is that it will happen during the daytime.  The main event will be between 4:41-4:42 PM EDT.  That's all the time it will take for the Moon to cover Venus. 

To find it, look west at 4:15pm for the waning crescent moon.  You might just barely be able to make it out in the afternoon skyglow.  If you have eagle eyes, see if you can see a dot to the upper left of the Moon.  That's Venus.  In the spring I was able to find Venus in the daytime sky with the naked eye - when the Moon was nearby as a reference. 

Then at 4:30pm get out your telescopes and aim them at upper left part of the Moon.  You should be able to see Venus there as well.  It will look like a little half moon in a telescope (it goes through phases too).  In apparent size, Venus will be dwarfed by the huge-looking, much closer Moon.  Then watch as the Moon gets closer and closer until... occultation.

Unfortunately in Cincinnati we won't be able to see Venus pop out the other side because the Moon will have set by then.  So tell people on the west coast about it and they'll see both the entry and exit of Venus behind the Moon.

Enjoy the Lunar Occultation of Venus.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Cygnus the Swan

Cygnus the Swan is also known as the Northern Cross since it resembles, well, a cross. It is mostly a summer constellation but does appear standing up on Christmas evenings (as a symbol for the season).  Look for the Swan inside the Summer Triangle.

Deneb is one big star
The swan is located in a rich part of the Milky Way. In some cultures, they considered the Milky Way to be the river in the sky and the swan, a water bird, is naturally flying along it. The Milky Way appears to split near the brightest star Deneb which means “Tail” in Arabic.  Deneb is the farthest star you can see with the naked eye - around 3,000 light years away!

One Greek legend says that the big cheese himself, Zeus, fell in love with a mortal woman named Leda (This was a regular thing for the romantic Zeus. In fact Leda was his third mortal crush that week!). Anyway Zeus decided that sending Leda flowers would be too boring. She deserved a more creative approach. After all she was the Queen of Sparta. So Zeus disguised himself as a swan to gain Leda’s love. This swan would appear at Leda’s window everyday and she thought, “My, there is something strange about that swan. He’s certainly not like the other swans. He seems more dynamic."

Zeus was saying to himself, "Yeah, baby.  I'm a swan.  Check me out." 

Maybe it was the feathers or the way he threw thunderbolts, but as strange as it sounds, Leda fell in love with the swan. Much to her surprise the swan turned back into Zeus and they lived happily ever after - until Zeus met someone else that next week.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


During the heart of summer three bright stars make a large, noticeable triangle in the sky (Vega, Deneb, and Altair). This Summer Triangle can be seen even from the most light polluted skies. Although it makes a nice urban constellation, each star is really part of its own heavenly picture.

High up in the sky is bright, blue Vega. Vega is where the aliens from the movie Contact were calling from. Not too far away (only 25 light years), Vega is part of the constellation called Lyra the Harp. Lyra looks like a small parallelogram.

Down and to the left is dimmer star called Deneb. Deneb is a whopping 3,000 light years away - making it the farthest star you can see with the naked eye. This is the tail of the swan, the constellation Cygnus - and these stars actually look like a swan with a stretched out neck going to the right and wings up and down. Cygnus is also called the North Cross because, well, it looks like a cross jutting into the center of the Summer Triangle.
To the right is bright, white Altair. Altair is the head of the constellation Aquila, the Eagle. Although the Eagle might be tough to imagine from the stars, Altair is easy to find because it has two dimmer stars bracketing it.  And it's so bright because it's only 17 light years away.

Look for the Summer Triangle hight in the eastern sky after sunset - closer to overhead later at night.

Monday, July 9, 2012


I'm hosting a short piece for WXIX, channel 19, our local Fox TV station, called, "Stargazing Report."  I will tell you about the highlights of the week - what to see, where to look, and when.  You don't need a telescope or binoculars to find the Moon, planets, and bright stars.  The piece runs almost as an accessory to the weather every Monday at 4:20am (yes, they have a show that early).  Luckily they are pre-recorded - so I don't have to get up that awful early.

For night owls like me who can't wake up that early, (or if you miss it) Fox 19 has added the feature to their website.  Now you can watch it anytime to see what's coming up.  Open this link in a new window and let me know if you have any astronomical questions:     The show for the week of July 9-15 is below.  We have Jupiter, Venus, and the bull's eye star, Aldebaran making a nice triangle in the morning sky all week.  Then the waning crescent joins the triangle on Sunday morning.  Check it out! 

Thursday, June 28, 2012


The constellation Libra is up in the sky after dark... but where? 

It's a small constellation with mostly dim stars so it's hard to find.  The easiest way to do it is to find the zodiac constellations that are bracketing it: Virgo the Maiden on its right, and Scorpius the Scorpion on its left.

Virgo is recognizable by her bright blue star called Spica.  Spica is below a yellow "star" of similar brightness.  That star is really the planet Saturn.  Maybe Virgo is like Lady Justice holding the nearby scales?  She must have some good balance because Libra is at her feet!

Libra and Scorpius have a long history.  In fact, the two brightest stars in Libra (Zubenegenubi and Zubeneschemali) mean the "Claws of the Scorpion."  And it makes sense since the Scorpion's head, heart, body, and stinger are in the stars.  Why not some claws?  Plus I like to say "Zubenelgenubi," and Zubeneschemali!" 

Libra is the only non-living thing in the zodiac.  Since the zodiac means, "Ring of Animals," it definitely stands out.  Try to find the scales tonight in the southern sky after dark.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Today, June 20 is the Summer Solstice which means that the Sun appears the farthest north for the year.  You know how the Earth is tilted 23.5 degrees?  Well, the northern hemisphere is tilted most directly at the Sun today and we're soaking up solar energy to the max. 

But we are we tilted 23.5 degrees to?  It's two factors - our daily rotation on our axis, and our year revolution around the Sun.  Our axis is tilted 23.5 degrees to the plane of our orbit - the path we take around the Sun.  So our entire Earth spins a little on our side as we orbit the Sun. 

BTW, the word solstice means, "Sun Standing Still."  Now that doesn't mean that the Sun stops for a second or two.  Our ancestors noticed that on a few days in the summer and a few days in winter that the Sun rose from the same spot in the northeast and set over the same spot in the northwest.  Other times of year, they could see the Sun rise and set in slightly different places each day.  But not on the solstices!  So it's the Sun's Path that stands still for several days, not the Sun.  Civilizations around the world  marked these special days with monuments that tried to capture those rising and setting sun rays like at Stonehenge, Serpent Mound, Fort Ancient, and Chaco Canyon.

Go check it yourself.  See where the Sun rises and sets over the next few days and you'll see what I mean.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Thoughts on a Twice in a Lifetime Event

Tuesday’s Transit of Venus was the last time I will see the beautiful planet cross in front of the face of the Sun. I already miss her.

Sure I’ll be able to see Venus again in only a few short days as she pops out into the pre-dawn skies but she won’t be the same. A Transit of Venus has transformed her. This rarest of astronomical events changes your perspective not only the planets but the history of the universe.

A Transit of Venus only occurs when the planet Venus comes directly between the Earth and Sun. Much more subtle than a solar eclipse, the Transit of Venus is unique because of its precision, its history, and its rarity. The Sun, with Venus as a small beauty mark marching slowly across its behemoth face, has been noted just seven times in human history.

For the Transits of the 1700s and 1800s, astronomers sailed around the world to catch a glimpse of it. In 2004 I drove my Geo Metro to New Hampshire to see it over the Atlantic Ocean at sunrise. And on Tuesday I flew on a Delta jet to Arizona to witness the event over the stark, high desert. Millions of people watched the various Transit webcasts from around the world. My journeys in 2004 and 2012 and those virtual journeys would have been unthinkable to those viewing the Transit of 1882.

After the Transit of 1882, the last one prior to 2004, an editorial ran in the New York Times musing about the future when “the June flowers are blooming in 2004.” It said, “When the last transit season occurred the intellectual world was awakening from the slumber of ages and that wondrous scientific activity which led to our present advanced knowledge was just beginning. What will be the state of science when the next transit season arrives God only knows.”

Our scientific knowledge in astronomy progresses so rapidly that discoveries are made daily. The next Transit of Venus won’t be until the year 2117 and even that one won’t be visible from Cincinnati. Our ancestors will have to travel to Asia, Australia, or Africa to see it. How will they get there? What will life be like 105 years from now? In the 22nd century will space tourists watch Transits of Venus far above the Earth any day they choose?

Even as an astronomer it’s hard to wrap my mind around distances, cycles, and expanses of time that are, well, astronomical. But I am reassured that no matter what may happen on Earth, the Transit of Venus will occur again on December 10, 2117 and December 8, 2125. To those witnessing the next pair of Transits in the 22nd century under the December Sun, in a future I can’t begin to imagine, I wish you clear skies and the same spectacular view that we had twice in the 21st century.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


On the morning of June 4, 2012 there was a partial lunar eclipse only visible in the western United States.  As chance would happen, I was visiting Flagstaff, Arizona in route to see the Transit of Venus the very next day.  What an added bonus to be able to see a lunar eclipse followed by a Transit of Venus all within a 36-hour span!

I took some pictures of the eclipse and it got me thinking...  Whenever I teach students about the Moon phases I try to demonstrate that they are not caused by the shadow of the Earth.  The Earth casts a round shadow on the Moon so how could it make a gibbous Moon?  It's impossible - the dark part is curved the wrong way.  In fact when I ask students to draw a gibbous Moon and they give me an eclipsed Moon - ouch, I give them double-points off! 

Below I have a normal gibbous Moon on the left and the eclipsed Moon on the left.  Notice the difference?  Right click on the picture and open it in a new window for a close-up view.

Gibbous Moon                   and                   Partial Lunar Eclipse

Thursday, May 31, 2012


Last Transit of Venus this Century

On Tuesday June 5, the planet Venus will go in front of the Sun.  Although not as dramatic as a solar eclipse, a Transit of Venus is so rare that it has only been noted six times in human history!  The Earth, Venus, and Sun have lined up for astronomers in 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874, 1874, and 2004.  And the next one will be 2117 (do you get the pattern?). 

In 2004 I traveled to New Hampshire to see it as the Sun rose.  I was met by fog that blocked out the Sun!  I almost panicked (okay, I did panic), but luckily the fog parted enough for me to view the very end.  That's the picture I took through a telescope with a solar filter.  It's like a little black spot on the Sun.  Now I want another shot at it...

The timetable for June 5th is this:
       Transit begins at 6:04pm EDT
           It will slowly march across the disc of the Sun until...
                   Check your local sunset for exact times and make sure to have a clear view to the north-western horizon.

It's never safe to look at the Sun so always use proper solar filters.  For six cool, safe ways to view the event, see:

If it's cloudy where you are on June 5, you can watch the Transit of Venus on a live webcast at:  

Everyone in the United States and most of Canada will be able to see the event.  I'm heading to Arizona in the hopes of making use of the clear, desert skies (with no fog).  Hopefully I'll have some great pictures to share after June 5 because I'm not gonna make it until 2117.

Happy Transit of Venus!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Annular Solar Eclipse

Report From Reno, Nevada

Sunday May 20, 2012 I traveled to Reno, Nevada to see the annular solar eclipse.  An annular eclipse occurs when the Moon is too far from the Earth to appear big enough to block the entire Sun.  It's like a ring around the Moon.  The cosmic ballet between Sun, Moon, and Earth is so fine that it was only visible from a narrow path from Northern California to West Texas.  Reno was perfect!

The local planetarium and amateur astronomy group hosted an eclipse viewing party at the Redfield Campus of the University of Nevada.  It was a picturesque scene with the snow-capped mountains of Lake Tahoe along the western horizon.  About 1000 people witnessed the event with some very creative ways of viewing the Sun safely.

Casting Pinhole Eclipse Shadows
When the eclipse started at 5:15 PDT only a small cheer rose from the crowd.  Clouds were hovering above the mountains and we were all a little anxious about them.  The clouds blocked the view before annularity off and on, but mostly stayed out of the way.  As the eclipse progressed, we could see crescent suns projected through leaves down onto the ground.  I was viewing with #14 welder's glass and a PST, trying to take pictures whenever I could.  The light got very eerie especially when the 85% eclipsed Sun went behind a cloud.  And then annularity came - with a small, pesky cloud nearby.  We saw it for 20 seconds before the cloud got it. "BOOOO!" the crowd yelled as if they could move the cloud with their contempt.  Then the cloud moved and there it was.  WOW!  I was struck speechless.  Through the welder's glass it was incredible - almost like a total eclipse. 

I managed to take these pictures in between wows.  Right click on them and "Open Link In New Window" for a bigger view.  Ah, I love being an eclipse chaser!  Next up: Transit of Venus on June 5... 


Friday, May 11, 2012


Hydra is the largest of the 88 officially recognized constellations in the sky. Finding the huge water snake will be a little difficult because the constellation has only one bright star. But it’s not hopeless. One method to locate Hydra is to find the two bright stars in Gemini. Connect the dots of those two stars and continue a line to the south. This line of sight will take you to Hydra’s many heads - it should look like five or six dim stars together. Trace down the coils to the left and you will find Alphard (also a Harry Potter character), the snake’s heart, and the rest of his long body.

Alphard Black
The Arabs named this star Alphard meaning “The Solitary One” because it seems to sit low in the southern sky all by itself. Alphard is an orange giant which is an appropriate color since it is supposed to mark the heart of the snake.

Another way to find Hydra is to first locate Leo the Lion. Find the backwards question mark that is Leo’s head. The lion is facing Hydra so look where Leo is looking and you should find either the six-starred head or bright heart of Hydra.

The Greeks believed that Hydra was a terrible monster with seven, eight, or even nine heads that lurked in the swamps of Lerna. Each head had a different scary face - with long teeth, fangs, or gums. Okay, maybe not gums. But people had tried to kill the Hydra before and discovered that every time you cut off one of her heads, two more would grow back in its place!

What do you do? 
Call Hercules. 
Tune in next week for the exciting tale!

Friday, May 4, 2012


Although Corvus is a small constellation, it’s relatively easy to find in the sky. Look for his distinctive square/trapezoid shape low in the southern sky riding on the back of Hydra the water snake. In an area of few bright stars Corvus stands out in the late spring and early summer evenings.

The Greeks associated this constellation with a story about the god Apollo. Apollo often used a crow as a messenger - to pick up his lunch, dry cleaning, etc. One day, Apollo sent Corvus out with a golden cup to gather some water for him. The crow took the cup in his beak and flew off toward the river. But along the way, Corvus became distracted by a grove of fig trees. He decided to stop of and eat some of these delicious fruits.

 Well, Corvus completely lost track of time while chowing down, and began to panic. “Oh no. Oh no. Apollo is going to kill me for returning so late,” he cried. “I must find an excuse.” So Corvus flew around and spotted a humongous water snake swimming in the river. Corvus swooped down and grabbed the snake in his claws to carry back to Apollo as an excuse.
"What? Don't you believe me?"
When he returned, Apollo was furious. “Where have you been!” he screamed. “You see, your most worshipness,” Corvus whimpered, “I was delayed in bringing you your water to quench your divine thirst. But it wasn’t my fault. It was this accursed water snake. He wouldn’t let me get you any water. So I picked him up and brought him here for you to see.”

“Oh, I see,” said Apollo softly. Because Apollo could sense this tale for what it was. It was a lie – and not even a very good lie. In a fit of rage, Apollo banished the crow, the cup, and the water snake to the sky forever. And as a final punishment to Corvus, he must ride on the snake’s back for eternity with the cup of water just out of his beak’s grasp - forever thirsty. And to this day crows are cursed with such rough, raspy voices.

"So thirsty..." Click on it for a larger picture of Corvus, Crater (the cup) and Hydra

Monday, April 30, 2012


Right click on this and open in a new window and try to find the Earth!

The rings of Saturn are open for business.  As we head into May, the plane, its 170,000 mile-diameter ring system, and multitude of moons are back in prime-time for you to see this month.

You don’t need a telescope to find Saturn.  It shines like a steady, yellow “star” in the southeast near a blue star called Spica.  Here's how you find it:

First find the Big Dipper high in the northeastern sky.  Connect an arc through the handle stars of the Big Dipper and continue that arc to a really bright star called Arcturus ("Follow the Arc to Arcturus!").  Then keep going in a straighter line along the horizon and bingo you'll find Saturn and Spica ("Speed on to Saturn").

A Saturnian Storm
Now to see the rings, you’ll need to look through a good telescope.  Then you can witness the opening season of the solar system’s greatest wonder.  You can see the planet, the rings, the shadow of the rings, the gaps in the rings, the moons... Okay, I'm getting a little excited here, but this is the best planet ever.  When I first saw Saturn in a telescope it changed my life.  There it sat, a perfect cartoon-planet in a sea of blackness.  I knew then that I was destined to be an astronomer.  Check it out tonight!