Comet Enthusiasm

002 (1024x685)
Our view of the western sky from the top of the sledding hill last night. (No, you can’t see the comet in this photo. It would be just above that center group of trees.)

I have been interested in comets since I was a kid, going back to a series of comet-related events when I was in elementary school.

  • When I was in second grade, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke into fragments and smashed into Jupiter. Second-grade me was deeply impressed.
  • When I was in fourth grade, Comet Hyakutake buzzed path Earth, bright enough to be clearly visible with the naked eye at night.
  • When I was fifth grade, Comet Hale-Bopp passed by, even brighter. I remember being able to see it through the kitchen windows while we ate dinner. Two years in a row of naked-eye comets was very unusual.
  • Fifth grade was also the year I studied comets for my independent research project for gifted class.
  • In sixth grade, I broke my arm. This is significant because that was the year I met Caroline Shoemaker of Shoemaker-Levy 9, and she signed my cast. (I had already met David Levy.)

What surprises me is when I mention Shoemaker-Levy 9 or Hale-Bopp to other people my age and they have no idea what I’m talking about. They were such a big deal in my family! What do you mean you weren’t watching comet fragments hitting Jupiter on CNN when you were in second grade? I have to remind myself that most people’s parents are not amateur astronomy enthusiasts and most second-graders do not watch CNN. (My parents also kept me home from school one day in second grade to watch an annular solar eclipse.)

I had been looking at the photos of Comet Pan-STARRS (named for the telescope array that discovered it) that people in the southern hemisphere had been taking for weeks. Finally this past week it arrived in the skies of the northern hemisphere, where it would only be visible for a short time before getting too close to the sun, but the weather wasn’t cooperating. Tuesday night was supposed to be the best night to see it and we had clouds and snow showers.

Wednesday morning, though, I woke up to clear sunny skies.


Easy Astronomy Resources

If the weather stays clear, I’m going to be doing my first astronomy night of the semester with our students tonight, so I thought I’d shift gears a bit and share some of my favorite online astronomy resources with you. I’m fortunate enough to have access to a 10″ reflecting telescope for the informal programs I do, but there’s plenty to check out in the night sky even if all you have is your eyeballs.

  • the front page is kept updated with current space “weather” (solar storms, etc.), but the most useful part of this site is the section on flybys. Click on the Flybys tab, enter your zip code or Canadian postal code, and it will tell you when the International Space Station (ISS) and other satellites of note will be passing over you. When the ISS appears it basically looks like a very bright star moving across the sky. (It also provides a link to a global version if you’re outside the U.S. and Canada.)
  • How Many People Are In Space Right Now?: Once you know if you’ll be able to see the ISS anytime soon, make this site (literally your next stop. It tells you how many people are in orbit at the moment and provides a link to more information about the current mission.
  • Aurora Borealis Activity: If, like me, you’re lucky enough to live in a part of the northern hemisphere that occasionally experiences the aurora (or northern lights), add this to your list of bookmarks. Once you use the maps to figure out what the Kp level needs to be to see the aurora in your area, you’ll be able to judge at a glance how likely it is to be visible where you are at the moment.
  • This Week’s Sky at a Glance: this page from Sky & Telescope gives you a handy night-by-night summary of what to keep an eye out for in the sky, focusing mostly on stuff you can see without a telescope. Always worth checking before you head out.

Have you used any of these before? Grab some friends and have an astronomy night of your own!


Aurora (Or Should I Say #Aurora)!

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@rebeccanotbecky) ┬ámay have noticed that I get excited when the “northern lights,” also known as the aurora, are visible. Before I moved to northern tip of Wisconsin I’d only seen the phenomenon once in my entire life, one memorable night when I was a kid and the geomagnetic activity was so strong it was visible down in Ohio. Being able to see the aurora is still really novel and amazing to me, and I love that I’ve moved north just as the sun is entering an active phase and spewing out all the stuff that causes it to flare up.

Anyway, last night was particularly gorgeous – I sat by myself on the end of the dock, looking north across the pond to where green bands of light were slowly moving across the sky above a stand of pine trees. Spring peepers called all around me and Barred and Great Horned Owls hooted from the woods. It was one of those moments where I couldn’t believe that this is really my life, that I am this lucky, that I have this right outside my door. (Eventually I’m going to have to live in a town or a suburb like a normal person, and it will be a hard adjustment.)

Imagine how happy I was this evening, then, to discover a project that combines aurora-watching with two of my favorite things – citizen science and social media. A few people have put together a map of aurora visibility that is updated in real time as people report their sightings via Twitter. All you have to do is fire out a tweet in the following format: #aurora (your postal code) (rating out of 10 on visibility where you are) (any comment you want to add). For example, last night I would have tweeted #aurora 54487 8/10 gorgeous view over the pond! It works for Canadian, UK, and South African postal codes as well as American – check out the link for details, including some guidelines for assigning marks out of ten. You can contribute even if you can’t see the aurora – if there’s activity going on but you can’t see it from your location, just report 0/10. Negative data is still data.

For updates on the current level of aurora activity I recommend this site, which also posts alerts on Twitter here. Happy sky gazing!


Twelve Hundred Grand Canyons on the Moon

I’ve been slacking a bit on blogging. I apologize. It’s an occasional result of taking a full load of graduate courses while working the equivalent of a full-time job. Today was divided between tearing my hair out over the survey I was sending out for my master’s degree project and teaching shelter building and cross-country skiing to seventh graders from inner city Milwaukee, and I’m a little tired (by which I mean I’m exhausted).

BUT, I did get to spend part of yesterday evening conducting my own little astronomy program, lining up twenty-one of said seventh graders single file and showing each of them the moons of Jupiter and the craters on our own moon through a telescope. Most of them had clearly never looked through a telescope before, and it’s always wonderful to see and hear the reactions: “Wow!” “Whoa!” “Tight!” (“Tight” is like “cool” but even better, if you haven’t spent any time around city kids lately.) One boy kept looking from the image in the eyepiece of the telescope to the moon in the sky and back again, unable to believe what he was seeing. And the best was the boy who saw the craters and exclaimed, “It looks like there’s, like, twelve hundred Grand Canyons on the moon!”

So at least if my job is sometimes exhausting, it’s also a lot of fun. Happy leap day tomorrow, everyone.


Starry Skies

Last night was the first really clear night all week, and I got out the school telescope for the handful of kids here that are interested in astronomy. After puttering around for a while looking at Jupiter and various deep sky objects, we ended up just lying on the ground looking up at the Milky Way and watching for meteors and satellites (and ended up seeing the International Space Station, purely by luck, since I hadn’t thought to check to see whether it was going to pass over). The kids took turns making up their own constellations and pointing them out to each other with the green laser – a tree! An elephant! A pooping duck! They’re a creative group of teenagers.

Friday night a couple of them took advantage of a brief period of clear skies to collect data for the Great World Wide Star Count, a citizen science project sponsored by the National Earth Science Teachers Association. Friday was the last night to collect data for 2011, so unfortunately it’s too late for anyone reading this to contribute, but the idea is that you count how many stars in the constellation Cygnus are visible from your location and submit the data to the website. It’s a way of comparing limiting magnitude and light pollution levels around the world. Unfortunately the website doesn’t have much information on what, if anything, the data is actually being used for, but the kids still had a great time pouring over the map and looking at the information people had submitted from different areas of the world. If you click through to it we’re the only data point in northern Wisconsin!

Now, of course, we’re back to gray skies and rain. Always rain. When are we going to get more SNOW?