I don’t think there are too many out who read the rhubarb in this blog who haven’t figured out that a significant number of my waking hours are viewing pictures of space. Which may explain a lot.
Skywatchers (like me) are in for an end-of-year treat. What has become known popularly as the “Christmas Star” is an especially vibrant planetary conjunction easily visible in the evening sky over the next two weeks as the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn come together, culminating on the night of Dec. 21.
What makes this year’s spectacle so rare, then? It’s been nearly 400 years since the planets passed this close to each other in the sky, and nearly 800 years since the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter occurred at night, as it will for 2020, allowing nearly everyone around the world to witness this “great conjunction.” The pic below shows you how close:
Chart showing closeness of Jupiter and Mars
The closest alignment will appear just a tenth of a degree apart and last for a few days. On the 21st, they will appear so close that a pinkie finger at arm’s length will easily cover both planets in the sky. The planets will be easy to see with the unaided eye by looking toward the southwest just after sunset.
From our vantage point on Earth the huge gas giants will appear very close together, but they will remain hundreds of millions of miles apart in space. And while the conjunction is happening on the same day as the winter solstice, the timing is merely a coincidence, based on the orbits of the planets and the tilt of the Earth. [Click to see enlarged]
Chart showing how rare this conjunction is
n 1614, German astronomer Johannes Kepler determined that a series of three conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred in the year 7 BC. He argued (incorrectly) that a planetary conjunction could create a nova, which he linked to the Star of Bethlehem. Modern calculations show that there was a gap of nearly a degree (approximately twice a diameter of the moon) between the planets, so these conjunctions were not visually impressive. An ancient almanac has been found in Babylon which covers the events of this period, but does not indicate that the conjunctions were of any special interest. In the 20th century, Professor Karlis Kaufmanis, an astronomer, argued that this was an astronomical event where Jupiter and Saturn were in a triple conjunction in the constellation Pisces.
In 3–2 BC, there was a series of seven conjunctions, including three between Jupiter and Regulus and a strikingly close conjunction between Jupiter and Venus near Regulus on June 17, 2 BC. “The fusion of two planets would have been a rare and awe-inspiring event”, according to Roger Sinnott. Another Venus–Jupiter conjunction occurred earlier in August, 3 BC.
What to look for in the sky: ……… [Click to enlarge]
What to look for in the sky
And this is what you should see weather permitting. [Again click to enlarge]
The Anderson Valley Advertiser has , literally, hundreds of articles in its archives. I have been trying to read them all. (Anderson Valley is on Route 128 between Cloverdale on Route 101 and Route 1- the road that runs north/south along the Mendocino Coast. This article was written by Malcolm Macdonald,
“William Held and Dr. Case, of Ukiah, were riding northbound in a buggy on an early December evening, destination Centerville in the Potter Valley district. Their horses shied as a light flared from the darkness. Reining the team to a standstill the two men gazed skyward to the west, where they plainly saw the outline of an elongated craft suspended beneath what appeared to be a balloon or some sort of gas reservoir.
Jim Thornton also heading toward Centerville, but a few miles behind Dr. Case and Mr. Held, struggled with a startled team when he, too, saw a similar object. James Spotswood, of Pomo, and E.E. Holbrook, the proprietor of the Centerville Hotel, spied the strange craft, too, as a light disappearing into the distance at a wonderful speed.
Just another unidentified flying object? Perhaps, but this sighting occurred in the late autumn of 1896, seven years before the Wright brothers first flew. Yes, there had been hot air balloon flights dating to the initial one by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783; however, that trip was sans passengers. The next Montgolfier balloon flight did hold passengers: a basket containing a sheep, duck, and rooster.
The first manned, and non-tethered, free ascent of a hot air balloon occurred about six months later. Chemistry teacher Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes soared aloft over Paris for twenty-five minutes, traveling about five and a half miles. Ben Franklin was among those who witnessed the event. As is often the ironic case, de Rozier proved the first victim of a hot air disaster. In 1785 his attempt to cross the English Channel in a hydrogen filled balloon ended in a fatal explosion.
Of course, manned balloon flights in the late 18th century and on through the nineteenth century were performed with something like a basket, of varying size, secured beneath. What the witnesses around Potter Valley saw in 1896 was much more like the UFO sightings that became more and more common after the Roswell incident of 1947.
The Mendocino County residents of 1896 weren’t alone. In the same week, Case Gilson, a young electrician from Oakland noticed an unusual aerial traveler moving north then westward at what he estimated to be 1,000 to 1,500 feet above him. He described it as resembling “a great black cigar with a fish like tail. The body was at least one hundred feet long, and attached to it was a fish like tail, one apex being attached to the main body.”
Gilson sighted the craft twice, at 8 and 8:30 p.m. on a clear night with a brisk north wind blowing. He was accompanied by others who backed up his claims. Gilson’s description went on, “The surface of the airship looked as if it were made of aluminum, which exposed to wind and weather had turned dark. I saw all this distinctly, and I am willing to take any oath to the truth of what I say. The airship went at a tremendous speed. As it neared Lorin [south Berkeley] it turned quickly and disappeared in the direction of San Francisco. At half-past 8 we saw it again, when it took about the same direction and disappeared.”
Sightings were not confined to California. Similar descriptions of an airship near Mount Tacoma in Washington occurred in late November, 1896. As word of the unidentified object(s) spread, so did mistaken sightings. The San Francisco Call noted, “An amusing phase of the airship mystery was developed last night, when that inoffensive planet Venus, sinking in the west, was mistaken for the clipper of the clouds scudding across the empyrean.”
The airship phenomena had legs, beyond the west coast and into the following year. Folks in Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa viewed it in early April, 1897. Seemingly sober inhabitants of Chicago, Evanston, and other locales around Lake Michigan swore to the veracity of their descriptions of an airship with a white light in the front as well as green and smaller white lights on its side, along with more green lights extending at its tail end. In mid-April, two warehouse men, a pair of merchants, and four city officials claimed to see an airship above Clarksville, Tennessee. On the same night, at Russelville, Kentucky, a comparable report, emanated from a physician, a long time merchant, and several other reputable citizens.
Prior to that time, airships that vaguely resembled 20th century dirigibles had taken limited flight. In 1863, Solomon Andrews, a doctor, claimed to sail one in the sky above New Jersey as you would a sailboat. However, it must be noted that Andrews’ “ship” was closer to a basket than the type of elongated vessel described in 1896 and 1897.
There’s no clear cut answer to the airship mystery of 1896-97. Stories grew more fantastical during 1897 as the stories spread. Present day readers should note that this was an era of “yellow journalism,” when editors were sometimes prone to manufacturing the news rather than report it. A preponderance of the California stories started in the pages of one paper, the San Francisco Call.
Still, apparently normal citizens like the Mendocino County residents or the Bay Area electrician, Case Gilson, swore to the objectivity of their sightings. In April, 1897, an Aurora, Texas report claimed an airship crashed into a windmill. The occupant of the airship was dead and mangled beyond typical identification methods. The craft was supposedly made from a silver and aluminum mix, weighing several tons. Witnesses said that hieroglyphic like figures were visible on the outside of the wreckage.”
This pic I garnered from Lynn Catlett’s, “You know you’re from Mendocino if ……. ” It was taken at Albion. If you look carefully you can see the Albion Bridge, the Pacific Coast Highway and Albion River Campground. The photo was taken by FotoMendo. Click on the photo to see it in its majesty.
Neowise as seen from Albion on the Mendocino Coast
The first pictures from SoLO – the name of the spacecraft are stunning:
The sun’s surface with earth in the corner for scale
This picture of the Sun was taken just 48 million miles from its surface is the closest ever acquired by cameras. The picture comes from the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter (SolO) probe, which was launched earlier this year. Among the craft’s novel insights are views of mini-flares dubbed “camp fires” such as the one with arrow pointing at it in the above photo.
These are millionths of the size of the Sun’s giant flares that are routinely observed by Earth telescopes. Whether these miniature versions are driven by the same mechanisms, though, is unclear. But these small flares could be involved in the mysterious heating process that makes the star’s outer atmosphere, or corona, far hotter than its surface. “The Sun has a relatively cool surface of about 5,500 degrees and is surrounded by a super-hot atmosphere of more than a million degrees,” explained Esa project scientist Daniel Müller.
The Sun’s emissions have profound impacts at Earth that go far beyond just providing light and warmth. Often, they are disruptive; outbursts of charged particles with their entrained magnetic fields will trip electronics on satellites and degrade radio communications. SolO could help scientists better predict this interference.
“The recent situation with coronavirus has proved how important it is to stay connected, and satellites are part of that connectivity,” said Caroline Harper, the head of space science at the UK Space Agency. “So, it really is important that we learn more about the Sun so that we can predict its weather, its space weather, in the same ways we’ve learned how to do (with weather) here on Earth.”
SoLo’s 10 instruments will enable scientists to untangle what drives the sun
Solar Orbiter has been set on a series of loops around the Sun that will gradually take it closer still – ultimately to a separation of less than 43 million km. That will put SolO inside the orbit of the planet Mercury.
I am an addict for all stuff about the stars. I’m all in for stuff on the mathematics of the motions of the stars. I have a “permanent” link to the NASA site of pics taken by space telescopes. In April I learned that we might, just might, see a new, not previously known comet. So, if you don’t know about Neowise – that’s it’s name – here’s a heads up.
This is the best article I have found on “my” new comet and I found it on the MSNBC website:
“A comet spotted by a space telescope has suddenly brightened enough to be visible to the naked eye – giving new hope to skywatchers disappointed by recent comets that failed to be easily seen.
The new comet can be seen after sunset, just above the horizon in the northwest as it moves farther from the Sun.
BEIJING, CHINA – JULY 7, 2020 – Comet Neowise
The Comet NEOWISE as seen above Salgotarjan, Hungary, early on July 10, 2020.
It’s named after the Neowise space telescope that first detected it on March 27. Most comets are not bright enough to be seen from Earth, but Comet Neowise showed early promise.
“As soon as we saw how close it would come to the Sun, we had hopes that it would put on a good show,” said University of Arizona astrophysicist Amy Mainzer, the principal investigator for NASA’s Neowise mission.
Comet Neowise survived its closest approach to the Sun, when it was most in danger of breaking apart from gravitational forces, last Friday, July 3.
It will pass within 65 million miles of the Earth on July 22, before heading once more for the far reaches of the solar system on a roughly 6,800-year orbit.
The comet’s nucleus is a 3-mile wide “dirty snowball” left over from the formation of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago, said astrophysicist Karl Battams of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, who studies comets that near the Sun. “They’re collections of rock and dust, all bound together with frozen ices and gases,” he said.
As a comet gets closer to the Sun, on an orbit that can take tens of thousands of years, the frozen gases start to boil off, and the vaporized gas and dust spread out behind the nucleus to create its visible tail. Comet Neowise actually has two distinct tails, one of gas and one of rocky dust, that point in slightly different directions because they react differently to the movement of the comet and the solar wind of charged particles that stream from the Sun, Battams said.
The comet’s recent surge in brightness could mean that the Sun’s heat has reached volatile pockets near the surface of the nucleus, explained astronomer John Bortle of Stormyville, New York, who has studied comets for more than 50 years. Comet Neowise was at its brightest when it was closest to the Sun, but it is now entering a better position in the sky for observing it.
“Soon it will recede from the morning twilight in which it has been mired this week and become much better seen, perhaps making it look brighter temporarily to most observers,” Bortle said in an email. Two other promising comets in the last year fizzled out at this stage and never became bright enough to be easily seen.
But the new comet has already been seen by observers around the world and by astronauts on the International Space Station.
A video from the ISS of Comet Neowise rising above the Earth has also been released on YouTube.
Comet Neowsie is not expected to grow as bright as a “great comet,” such as Hale-Bopp in 1997, but it’s one of the brightest this century, outshone only by Comet McNaught in 2007. From July 11, the comet’s fuzzy nucleus should be visible to the naked eye soon after sunset, just above the horizon at north-northwest, while binoculars could reveal its much larger but faint tail pointing away from the Sun.
Over the following days the comet will climb higher in the northwestern night sky before it disappears to the eye in August, although it will still be visible by telescope.”
Rainbows are as rare as hen’s teeth along the Mendocino Coast. My grandma used to tell me that a rainbow meant it was a monkey’s birthday – don’t ask I don’t know. These pics are the result of several years of collecting. I’d like to thank those who took the pics – regretfully I can’t thank each personally.
Click on any photo to see full size and initiate the gallery.
Double Rainbow somewhere along the Mendocino Coast
Rainbow over the cliffs of Mendocino
Rainbow over the sea near Caspar
Rainbow over Point Cabrillo
Rainbow over Noyo Harbour
Rainbow over Mendocino
Rainbow over Fort Bragg
Rainbow over Albion
Rainbow near Mendocino
Rainbow looking out to sea from mouth of Big River