Summer is the season for Noctilucent Clouds

Full Moon and Perigee Moon converge for a Supermoon

Track down two asteroids, Ceres and Vesta

Planetary pairings of Saturn and Mars, Jupiter and Venus

The Perseid meteor shower peaks

The Equinox restores balance to days and nights

Mars meets its rival, Antares

An early Harvest Moon occurs in September

Look out for Noctilucent Clouds
Full details in the Sky Guide » »

Tips for Hosting a Star Party

Posted by Kelly on August 14th, 2013
Kids at the Telescope

Kids getting their first view of the moon through a telescope. Credit: Sarah Giffin

Last night I hosted 21 kids and 14 adults for a star party. Even though the sky was filled with puffy cumulus clouds all day, by sunset they began to dissipate, and we had two good hours of viewing before the fog creeped in across the meadow and brought dew to the telescopes. I was able to show them the moon, Saturn with its rings and its moon Titan, the gibbous phase of Venus, the globular cluster M13, two passes of the International Space Station (ISS), and as a bonus we caught a few Perseid meteors. The kids and adults all had a great time and went home with a new experience and more knowledge about space.

If you want to host your own star party, here are a few tips: Read the rest of this post …

The Dog Days of Summer

Posted by Kelly on July 29th, 2013
When Sirius joins the Sun in summer, the Dog Days are said to begin. Credit: NASA ESA G. Bacon (STScI)

When Sirius joins the Sun in summer, the Dog Days are said to begin. Credit: NASA ESA G. Bacon (STScI)

The “Dog Days of Summer” is a term used to refer to the hottest time of the hottest season. It may make you picture a dog lying in the shade and panting, but the original reference is from the Dog Star, Sirius.

For those who have a general idea of what stars are visible at what time of year, it may seem strange that the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, which brightens cold winter nights, is associated with summer. It’s not even visible for almost the entire summer. And therein lies the answer. Read the rest of this post …

Saturn, the ISS, and Something in the Dark

Posted by Kelly on June 21st, 2013
A UFO photo from the 80s or a poor shot of Saturn? You decide.

A UFO photo from the 80s or a poor shot of Saturn? You decide.

My 12-year-old son and I were the only ones home tonight, so we decided to observe Saturn through my 8-inch telescope. We found it easily enough even though the gibbous moon was encroaching on the view a bit. It got worse as the hour grew on because the sky became hazy and the light suffused throughout the region of the moon like a dusty shroud.

We could easily see Saturn’s largest moon Titan to the right of the planet (in our inverted telescopic view). We watched the rings and waited for moments of great seeing until the planet became crisper. I find it easier to see the planet when it is dead center in the eyepiece rather than after it has floated off to one side, but that means a lot of readjusting. I was also able to snag the planet for just a second through my iPhone camera while holding it up to the eyepiece and got off a crummy picture that looks a lot like the reported UFO sightings of the 80s. Read the rest of this post …

Astronomy’s Magnitude Scale

Posted by Kelly on May 27th, 2013
Solar Eclipse

At magnitude -26.7, the Sun is too bright to look at without optical aid. Credit: ESO

In astronomy, the brightness of objects is measured by a term called “magnitude”. The lower the number, the brighter the object. The category of first magnitude objects are those that range from magnitude 0.51 to 1.50, with second magnitude 1.51 to 2.50, and so forth. Certain objects are even brighter than first magnitude, peaking in negative numbers at their brightest.

Without optical aid, the human eye can see objects to around 6th magnitude. There are ten natural solar system objects you can see with the unaided eye. (This does not count manmade objects, such as satellites and the International Space Station.)

Here are the top 10 brightest solar system objects, in order from brightest to dimmest: Read the rest of this post …

Observing by Degrees

Posted by Kelly on April 18th, 2013
In this image of Jupiter, the Moon, and Venus taken on February 26, 2012, Jupiter and the Moon are less than five degrees apart and the Moon and Venus (below) are about 12 degrees apart.

In this image of Jupiter, the Moon, and Venus taken on February 26, 2012, Jupiter and the Moon are less than five degrees apart and the Moon and Venus (below) are about 12 degrees apart. Credit: Kelly Kizer Whitt

Often when I’m discussing what gorgeous sky events you should be on the lookout for, I describe them in terms of degrees. Perhaps Jupiter is just three degrees away from the Moon, or Saturn and Venus have a close encounter placing them only a half degree apart in the sky. But what, exactly, is a degree?

The sky is split up into 360 degrees. To get a general idea of how to measure degrees, amateur astronomers use their fist held at arm’s length. Extend your arm out from you, make a fist, and the distance from the top of your hand to the bottom is about 10 degrees. This works even though people have different size hands, because a child with a smaller hand will have a shorter arm length and therefore still block out about 10 degrees of sky with this trick. To check it for yourself, extend your arm and fist out toward the horizon. Then place your other arm and fist on top of the first and alternate them until you have counted to nine. You have just measured 90 degrees and your arm should now be straight up over your head, as it is 90 degrees from the horizon to the zenith. Read the rest of this post …

Catching Comet Panstarrs

Posted by Kelly on March 14th, 2013
Photo of Comet Pan-STARRS alongside a beautiful crescent Moon

This photo was taken by Michael Rael on March 12, 2013 in Conejos, Colorado, USA.

The elusive comet had started edging into northern skies days earlier, but every sunset brought solid clouds. It wasn’t until March 13 that the day was perfectly clear (and cold), leaving me optimistic for a chance to grab the comet that night.

The Sun was setting as I was having dinner with my kids, and even though I knew I had a bit of time, I got up regularly to look out the window with my binoculars in case it showed early. A layer of distant clouds hung like a curtain across the lowest edge of the horizon, which would be the area where the comet would be once the skies were dark enough to catch it. But I stayed optimistic. Read the rest of this post …

Russian Meteors and Near Earth Asteroids

Posted by Kelly on February 15th, 2013

Perhaps it’s because Russia is the biggest country on Earth, or perhaps meteors just look at it from above and find it might be a nice place to visit, but another meteor has exploded over the skies of Russia.

On the morning of February 15, 2013, a meteor estimated at 1 meter across and 10 tons, barreling into Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of at least 54,000 kph, is believed to have exploded above the Ural Mountains of Russia, 29 to 51 kilometers above the ground, according to the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Hundreds of people were injured when they rushed to their windows in the cold winter morning to watch the meteor’s amazing light show. Moments after the meteor’s entry, a shockwave or sonic boom burst windows across the area, spraying observers with glass. Read the rest of this post …

Best Night Sky Objects for Binoculars

Posted by Kelly on January 30th, 2013
M44, Venus and Moon

The Beehive Cluster is a dim patch to the left of Venus and the Moon in this photo by John Chumack.

Observing nights are few and far between during winter where I live. Not only is it unbearably cold, it is usually cloudy, too. So on an evening that has temperatures above freezing, it’s worth hauling the telescope out for clear skies or stepping out with binoculars on partly cloudy nights to jump from target to target.

With bright comets predicted to light up our skies this year, it’s an especially good time to locate those binoculars. You can get a peek at the comets in advance and be ready to track them as they enter the range of unaided eyes. March will be the prime month for the first comet of the year, but while you’re waiting for Comet PANSTARRS, there are a number of other good targets outside right now.

Here are some of my favorite binocular objects:

Read the rest of this post …

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