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WHAT'S IN THE SKY?

JIM WHITE IS KLICKITAT COUNTY'S LOCAL ASTRONOMER.  HE AND HIS WIFE KATHY LIVE IN TROUT LAKE, WA.  EACH MONTH HE WRITES A NEWS ARTICLE INFORMING US WHAT WILL BE  ON VIEW IN OUR SKIES 

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What’s in the Sky
May 2024

Welcome to May!  The last full month of spring, with summer just around the corner.  No exciting eclipses this month, and the bright planets are still not in the evening sky.  But we do have a nice morning lineup of Mars, Saturn and the Moon in the morning of May 4, the Eta Aquarids meteor shower, and a conjunction of Saturn and the Moon on the morning of May 31.  There Is still plenty to see once the skies darken.  Look between 5 and 6 am.  Around 6am, you may also be able to see Mercury, to the lower left of Mars.

The Eta Aquarids meteor shower will peak on May 4.  This shower consists of dust and debris in the orbital path of famous comet Halley.  This is an early morning event, which will be best between 2 and 4 in the morning.  OK, if you are up that early on May 4, be sure to check out the Moon in the eastern morning sky.  To it’s left will be the planet Mars, and to the right Saturn.  

I did not travel to see the April 8 eclipse at totality, but I was able to show the partial eclipse to students at Trout Lake School.  We used a telescope with a solar filter, enabling people to see the Moon “taking a bite” out of the Sun, and also several large sunspots.  It was chilly, and clouds blocked our view for a time, but all enjoyed the event.

I was able to see comet Pons-Brooks last month, although it was not easily visible.  I could see it with binoculars, but did not see it with the naked eye.  The comet has disappeared below our western horizon in May.  Similar to comet Halley, Pons-Brooks will return in about 70 years.

A bit of news I picked up recently involves Voyager 1, the space probe that is the farthest thing from Earth that we have launched.  We still are able to communicate with Voyager, even though signals take about 22 hours to reach us.  Last year communication from Voyager became garbled, but NASA was able to fix things recently.  The news made me think about Voyager’s immense distance from us, and the incredible scale of our solar system, the distance to other stars, and the size of our Milky Way galaxy.

It is amazing that we are still communicating with Voyager.  It was launched in 1977!  Jimmy Carter was President, and “Star Wars” was the most popular movie.  The majority of Americans living today were not born yet.

Voyager visited Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in 1980, snapped the famous “Pale Blue Dot” photo of a distant Earth in 1990, and entered interstellar space in 2012.  Even at a speed of some 38,000 mph, it took that long, about 35 years, for the probe to leave the solar system.  

So, Voyager’s next visit will be a nearby star, you might say?  It will be a while.  Our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, is about 4.25 light-years distant.  Voyager, in almost 50 years, has covered about two-tenths of one percent of a light year.  At that speed, it will take Voyager some 7 million years to cover the distance to our nearest neighbor star!

Another way to think of this immense distance is by a scale.  Imagine if we could shrink our Sun to the size of a basketball.  At that scale, Proxima Centauri would be (roughly) another basketball, over 4,000 miles away.  Space is quite empty!  Even more staggering is the size of our Milky Way galaxy, about 100,000 light-years in length.  Imagine if we were to shrink our entire solar system down to the size of a quarter.  At that scale, the Milky Way would cover most of the United States.

So, enjoy May’s dark skies, be it the meteor shower, a glimpse of the Moon and planets, the glow of Earth’s beautiful Moon, or the change of constellations with the seasons.  But also, simply take in the view, and consider with humility the simple immenseness of our Universe.

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What’s in the Sky
April 2024

Welcome to April, our first full month of spring.  The month features shorter but warmer nights and generally a few more clear nights as we approach summer.  And this year we have the chance to spot a comet, and view a total solar eclipse!

The big event of April is that solar eclipse, on April 8.  Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ve certainly heard about it.  The path of the total eclipse, the narrow corridor where you can experience totality, stretches from Mexico northeast across Texas and a number of other states, into Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick in Canada.  Many people will be travelling to see the eclipse, especially to the south (Mexico or Texas) where the chance of clear skies is greater.  In our area, only about 25 percent of the Sun will be blocked by the Moon.  For us, the eclipse starts at about 10:30am, reaches its peak at about 11:15am, and ends at about 12:30pm.

To view the eclipse safely, you will need to have eclipse glasses, which block most of the light of the Sun.  Under no circumstances should you attempt to look at the Sun directly.  You may be able to purchase them online, and get quick delivery.  Check online.  You can also view the eclipse online at the NASA website, at https://plus.nasa.gov/scheduled-video/2024-total-solar-eclipse-through-the-eyes-of-nasa/?linkId=351284624.  

You can also make a simple pinhole camera, allowing you to view a projected image of the Sun.  The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory has some good instructions.  

OK, now about that comet.  If you read my column in March, you know that it will be visible at the end of that month.  It will also be visible in early April.  It will be very low in the west, right after sunset, during the first half of the month.  Although it may be “naked eye” visible, you’ll likely need binoculars.  Sunset in early April is at about 7:40pm, so check after 8pm, around 8:30.  You’ll need a good view of the low western horizon to see it.  Look for Jupiter, the brightest object low in the west, and go from there to the right and a bit lower.  Use the map with this column to help.

The bright planets are again not in good viewing position during evenings this month.  As already mentioned, Jupiter is visible, but very low in the west.  Mercury is below Jupiter, in the first few days of April, but barely visible, and quickly drops below the horizon.  Venus, Mars, and Saturn are all visible in the morning, just before sunrise.  On April 10, Saturn and Mars come very close together, very low in the east.

April’s new Moon comes – you guessed it – on April 8, with the solar eclipse.  Full Moon follows on the 23rd of the month.  On the 10th, the Moon will lie between Jupiter and the bright star cluster Pleiades.  On the 14th, the Moon will be just below the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux, a great time to identify the stars and their parent constellation.

One of my favorite things to view in spring is the Zodiacal Light, a faint band of light in the western sky, visible after skies get quite dark.  Interstellar dust is a bit more concentrated along the path of Earth’s orbit, and that path stands up almost vertical against our horizon in the spring.  After sunset, the dust particles reflect sunlight, hence we see the band.  There is dust outside of the path as well, but we see it as more concentrated, and brighter, along the orbital path.  You need clear, dark skies to see it, and dark-adapted eyes.  Look in the western sky, below the star cluster Pleiades, in the area where Jupiter is located now.  In the southwest, you will also see the skyglow of Portland/Vancouver.  The Zodiacal light will be fainter, and located to the right of the skyglow.  Look in early April; after about April 12, the brightening Moon will “wash out” the faint glow of the Zodiacal light.  It is a phenomenon that most people have never seen, give it a try!

Laurene says....."I can hardly find the Comet in this drawing.  I suspect I will not find it in the sky."

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Jim's photo of Zodiacal light that he took a few years ago

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What’s in the Sky, March 2024

March is here!  Lengthening days, daylight savings time, and the first of spring.  Yes, you’ll have to stay up later to see the stars, and cloudy skies will undoubtedly dominate, but nights will not be as cold, and there should be a few more clear nights.  A good month to view the night skies when you can!

Daylight savings starts on Sunday, March 10.  “Spring ahead” by setting clocks forward an hour.

Spring begins on March 19, when the Sun is directly over the equator, and night and day are about equal in length.  Some may think “boy, I thought spring started on the 21st”.  Well, it was that way for most of the 20th century.  But the last time spring started on the 21st was in 2007….and it won’t happen again in this century.  Since our year is slightly more than 365 and ¼ days, our calendar gets out of synch with the seasons over time.  We “reset” every 4 years with leap years, but that does not completely fix things. A full “reset” occurs in 2400, when we skip a leap year.  I’m not going to wait up for that one……

New Moon will come on March 10, with full Moon following on the 24th-25th.  There will also be a Lunar eclipse, although it will be hardly noticeable.  Only an outer portion of the Earth’s shadow will eclipse the Moon, and it will hardly be noticeable.  It will start at about 10pm on the 24th, and will end at about 2:30am on the 25th.  The maximum will be at about midnight.

Jupiter remains in our evening sky in March, located low in the southwest.  Saturn is gone though.  The ringed planet will be lost in the glare of the Sun, reappearing late in the month, low in the eastern morning sky.  

Venus is a brilliant “morning star” easily visible in the east before sunrise.  Venus is so bright that, with a little luck, you can spot it in the daytime on a clear day.  

Mars is now on the other side of the Sun, and like Saturn, is very low in the east before sunrise, pretty difficult to see.  Mars will spend 2024 growing steadily closer to us, before its next opposition in January, 2025.

It may be difficult to see, but on the morning of March 21 there will be a conjunction (close approach) of Venus and Saturn, very low in the morning sky, just before sunrise.  The two planets will appear to be only about ½ degree apart.  ½ degree is about the diameter of the Moon as we see it in the sky, so the two will be very close.  If you have a clear view of the eastern horizon, look for the conjunction at about 7am (sunrise is at about 7:05am that day).

March presents a couple of good opportunities to see the International Space Station, with the Station zooming high overhead.  On the 16th at about 8:35pm, look for the “ISS” to pass near the Moon and the bright star Capella.  On the 17th, at about 7:45pm the ISS should again skim near the Moon, and from our vantage point go between the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux.  Check out Heavens-above.com as time gets closer to get more accurate times for the crossings.  Times may be updated and more accurate.

March is still a good time to catch those bright winter constellations, like Orion and Taurus.  The dim constellation Aries can easily be found now – bright Jupiter is in it!  Aries’ brightest star, Hamal, is just to the right of Jupiter. 

Look in the east to see spring constellations rising above the horizon.  Leo, the Lion, is easily recognizable.  Look for a “backwards question mark” with a bright star, Regulus, at its base, and you’ve found Leo.  If you have trouble, look for the familiar Big Dipper.  Leo is “under” the bottom of the dipper.

And finally, we may have a naked-eye visible comet in late March!  Comet Pons-Brooks should be located very close to Hamal, that same bright star mentioned above, near Jupiter.  This will be very low in the west, so you’ll need a good view of the low western horizon.  Look for it around 8:30pm on March 30 or 31.  Binoculars should help.  Comets are always difficult to predict; it may be too dim to see, or bright enough to see with the naked eye.  As astronomer David Levy once said, “Comets are like cats.  They both have tails and they both have minds of their own!”

Enjoy the skies of March!

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