March comet comes to (low) northern skies

Image: Mid-March sky positions for Comet PANSTARRS. Credit: NASA
For those in search of comet L4 PANSTARRS, look to the west after sunset in early and mid-March. This graphic shows the comet’s expected positions in the sky. Image credit: NASA

Comets visible to the naked eye are a rare delicacy in the celestial smorgasbord of objects in the nighttime sky.  Scientists estimate that the opportunity to see one of these icy dirtballs advertising their cosmic presence so brilliantly they can be seen without the aid of a telescope or binoculars happens only once every five to 10 years.  That said, there may be two naked-eye comets available for your viewing pleasure this year.

“You might have heard of a comet ISON, which may become a spectacular naked-eye comet later this fall,” said Amy Mainzer, the principal investigator of NASA’s NEOWISE mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., and self-described cosmic icy dirtball fan.  “But if you have the right conditions you don’t have to wait for ISON. Within a few days, comet PANSTARRS will be making its appearance in the skies of the Northern Hemisphere just after twilight.”

Discovered in June 2011, comet 2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) bears the name of the telescopic survey that discovered it — the less than mellifluous sounding “Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System” which sits atop the Haleakala volcano in Hawaii.

Since its discovery a year-and-a-half ago, observing comet PANSTARRS has been the exclusive dominion of comet aficionados in the Southern Hemisphere, but that is about to change.  As the comet continues its well-understood and safe passage through the inner solar system, its celestial splendor will be lost to those in the Southern Hemisphere, but found by those up north.

“There is a catch to viewing comet PANSTARRS,” said Mainzer. “This one is not that bright and is going to be low on the western horizon, so you’ll need a relatively unobstructed view to the southwest at twilight and, of course, some good comet-watching weather.”

Well, there is one more issue — the time of day, or night, to view it.

“Look too early and the sky will be too bright,” said Rachel Stevenson, a NASA Postdoctoral Fellow at JPL. “Look too late, the comet will be too low and obstructed by the horizon.  This comet has a relatively small window.”

By March 8, comet PANSTARRS may be viewable for those with a totally unobstructed view of the western horizon for about 15 minutes after twilight.  On March 10, it will make its closest approach to the sun about 28 million miles (45 million kilometers) away. As it continues its nightly trek across the sky, the comet may get lost in the sun’s glare but should return and be visible to the naked eye by March 12. As time marches on in the month of March, the comet will begin to fade away slowly, becoming difficult to view (even with binoculars or small telescopes) by month’s end.  The comet will appear as a bright point of light with its diffuse tail pointing nearly straight up from the horizon like an exclamation point.

What, if any, attraction does seeing a relatively dim naked-eye comet with the naked eye hold for someone who works with them every day, with file after file of high-resolution imagery spilling out on her computer workstation?

“You bet I’m going to go look at it!” said Mainzer. “Comet PANSTARRS may be a little bit of a challenge to find without a pair of binoculars, but there is something intimately satisfying to see it with your own two eyes.  If you have a good viewing spot and good weather, it will be like the Sword of Gryffindor, it should present itself to anyone who is worthy.”

NASA detects, tracks and characterizes asteroids and comets passing relatively close to Earth using both ground- and space-based telescopes. The Near-Earth Object Observations Program, commonly called “Spaceguard,” discovers these objects, characterizes a subset of them, and predicts their paths to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet.

Article courtesy JPL

Convention thank-yous!

by William Murmann, CAA President

We would like to acknowledge and thank the organizations and businesses that helped support our 2012 Annual CAA Convention by donating door prizes for our event. These organizations and companies offer many quality products and services for amateur and professional astronomers. Many thanks to our Secretary Steve Spears who solicited the donations and to the following for their support:

Orion Telescopes
www.telescope.com/orion

Oceanside Photo & Telescope
www.optcorp.com

Astozap- Joe Golias
www.astrozap.com

JMI Telescopes
Jim’s Mobile, Inc.
www.jimsmobile.com

Astronomy Magazine
www.astronomy.com

NOAO
Kitt Peak National Observatory
www.noao.edu/kpno

Bob’s Knobs
www.bobsknobs.com

Vixen Optics
www.vixenoptiics.com

Software Bisque
www.bisque.com

Sky & Telescope Magazine
www.skyandtelescope.com

Green flash puts in an appearance over Lake Erie

Photo: Sunset with possible green flash. Credit: Jay Reynolds
At the bottom edge of the setting Sun, here, there may be a green flash.

The “green flash” is not a new Marvel Comics superhero but a subtle and interesting phenomenon sometimes seen just before sunrise or just after sunset; a green-colored ray or spot is seen just above the horizon. CAA member Jay Reynolds observed and photographed an occurrence of the green flash on Aug. 6 from Kelleys Island.

“Unfortunately, as these predictions go, the possibility of seeing it was well announced by TV meteorologists…” said Reynolds, “but this occurrence was subtle and not easily detectable.” In other words, many looked for the flash but few saw it!

“In photo number one, there is a possible green flash visible at the bottom of the sun. It is unfortunate that the shot is overexposed to the point of saturation” he said. “Suzie Dills deserves the credit for detecting it during the photo review.”

Photo: Green flash is visible just after sunset August 6, 2012. Credit: Jay Reynolds
Green flash is visible just after sunset August 6, 2012. Enlarge to best see color.

“Photo number two is the best of the main sequence,” said Reynolds of his images. Viewed in a larger size, the green coloration is easily visible.

“It still was an outstanding Lake Erie Sunset shared by all!”

Photo credit: Jay Reynolds.

Drizzle then delight: The 2012 Transit of Venus

Photo: Transit of Venus by Matt Fraduto
Venus begins its transit. Photo by Matt Franduto.

June 5 began cloudy, even rainy in places…the worst possible conditions for a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event: the transit of Venus! Since most recent transit took place in 2004 and the next will not be seen until the year 2117, it was today or never for everyone who had an interest.

Photo: Transit of Venus by Joe Hamlin
Second contact during the transit of Venus, by Joe Hamlin.

As it turned out, however, barely in time for the 6:04 PM EDT start of the transit, skies began to brighten, then clear! Thousands across the North Coast region were treated to excellent views of Earth’s would-be solar system twin in silhouette against the boiling surface of our nearest star.

A special celebration was staged at Edgewater Beach State Park and was the largest event of its kind in the area. Based upon controlled distribution of free solar viewer cards, event coordinator Jay Reynolds estimated as many as 8,000 people may have attended. Smaller public and private observing sessions took place around Northeastern Ohio including Black River Astronomical Society in Lorain, the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center in Bay Village, Hiram College in Hiram, and the Aurora Astronomical Society in Streetsboro.

Photo: Transit of Venus by James Guilford
Transit of Venus 2012 with sunspots and photosphere granulation visible. Photo by James Guilford.

Members of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association, the Cleveland Astronomical Society, and others provided a good number and selection of telescopes, sharing their views of the transit with the public. Equipment ranged from the newest computerized models to beautiful, brass instruments likely a century in age — telescopes, unlike people, can survive to see more than just a couple of Venusian transits.

WKYC TV-3 staffer Ryan Haidet shot and posted a good number of still photographs of the Edgewater event. To see them individually or as a slide show, Click Here!

WEWS TV-5 Meteorologist Jason Nicolas wrote an article describing his impressions and how the crowd reacted to the “magical moment” in time defined by the transit of Venus. To read the article, Click Here.

Photo: Sunset over Lake Erie by Christopher Christe
Sunset ended viewing of the transit but a star party took place after dark. Photo by Christopher Christe.

Now all we need is clear skies

Photo: The Sun as it appeard the morning of May 24, 2012. Photo by James Guilford.
The Sun with (center) sunspot #1486 and (upper-right) sunspot #1484. Converted to monochrome.

“I spent some time this morning experimenting with solar photography. On June 5 the transit of Venus will take place and, since the next one after that won’t happen for another 115 years, I thought I should try for this year’s! Call me impatient. I discovered to my dismay that my very expensive, modern-design, Herschel Wedge won’t work for photography with my six-inch refractor telescope and DSLR. I could not crank the camera “in” close enough to achieve focus with the wedge in place. Rats! I’m going to make quick queries to see what I can do to resolve the issue if I’m to use the wedge any time soon … and June 5 is soon!  So with the telescope still set up in the mid-morning sunshine, I removed the wedge and covered the telescope’s objective lens with the very inexpensive AstroZap filter made using Baader AstroSolar film. I connected my trusty (and light-weight) Canon Digital Rebel XT to the scope’s eyepiece holder for prime-focus imaging and made several bracketed exposures. Later I discovered the results were very good though not quite as good as shots made with my Canon EOS 50D and Canon 400mm telephoto. The difference in quality may be attributed to seeing conditions –the images were made days apart– but either setup will do just fine for recording the upcoming historic celestial event. Now all we need is clear skies on that day!” — James Guilford

Our (very) partial eclipse

Photo: Partial Eclipse at Sunset, May 20, 2012. By Dianna Lewis.
Partial eclipse at sunset from Cahoon Park, Bay Village. Photo by Dianna Lewis.

Sites along the US West Coast enjoyed a beautiful annular eclipse on Sunday, May 20, as did observers in China. We did not see much of an eclipse from Northeastern Ohio. We were, however, treated to some beautiful sunset views! Late-day clouds threatened to block the event entirely from view but, in some cases, contributed to the aesthetic.

Photo: Observers setting up to see partial eclipse of the Sun. Photo by Tim Campbell.
Observers setting up at Edgewater to see partial eclipse of the Sun. Photo by Tim Campbell.

A group of CAA members gathered at Cleveland’s Edgewater Park for a view of the sunset event over water — as distant an horizon as we can get here. Others viewed and photographed the partial eclipse individually from other locations.

Photo: Cloudy sunset during partial eclipse. Photo by Christopher Christe.
Cloudy sunset during partial eclipse. Photo by Christopher Christe.

Pillars of the Sun

Photo: Brilliant sky with a sun pillar rising over trees. Photo by James Guilford.
A sun pillar rises into a firey December morning sky.

In the mornings and evenings of the cold seasons we are occasionally favored with glorious sunrises and sunsets. A few of those beautiful moments boast something beyond colored clouds and sky; they host sun pillars! Unknown Object

Sun pillars are the result of low-angle sunlight reflected from flat plate-shaped ice crystals suspended high in the air. Pillars can extend from approximately where the Sun sits, near the horizon, to points straight up and high above.

Monday morning, December 13, presented one of those fleeting moments as I drove to the office. I hurriedly pulled into a parking lot, extracted my camera from its case, and shot a few photos of the beautiful sky. A few minutes later, with the Sun slightly higher and the clouds slightly heavier, the fiery colors had faded and the sun pillar was gone.

Pillars, such as I saw, can also occur at night in the colder months. Lights from streetlamps, parking lots, buildings, and so forth can be reflected by atmospheric ice and produce delicately beautiful light pillars that are often mistaken for auroras.

So as you start or end your day, take the occasional glance at the sky. Perhaps you, too, will see the pillars of the Sun!