Sunday, July 5, 2009

What's Up? Quick and Easy Viewing

Welcome back to What's Up?

NASA returned to the moon last month with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the first mission to the moon in almost 40 years. This robotic mission will orbit the moon, map it in great detail, image the Apollo landing sites, and look for pockets of water ice hidden in deep craters. It will also look for good landing sites for the manned moon missions that will take place a decade from now.

There are many exciting spacecraft missions going on right now as well as giant telescopes taking beautiful images of distant planets, stars, nebula, and galaxies. Although reading about all of the great observations and discoveries of distant worlds is fascinating, sometimes seeing is believing.

What can be seen with just your eyes or maybe through a small pair of binoculars?

With only your eyes, you can check out the constellations, see the five brightest planets, and even spot a few of the brighter nebulae (plural of nebula) and star clusters. The nebulae and star clusters will look like dim smudges but being able to see these objects that are so far away (it takes thousands of years for their light to travel here) is quite remarkable.

On a clear night, a dark sky site (anywhere on PEI a few kilometers away from a large town) will show you the Milky Way as a faint band of light stretching across the sky, thousands of stars, and a few smudges of light that are the nebulae and star clusters.

A personal favourite dark site of mine is at the International Children's Memorial Place (in Scales Pond provincial park). The skies there are extremely dark, the trees don't block too much of the sky, and the air is very still. Frost and dew can be an issue but the darkness and stillness allow for some of the best viewing I've ever had.

Recently at the International Children's Memorial Place the dam overflowed and finally burst, creating a large hole in the dam wall. What used to be a beautiful pond is now nothing but a trickle of water through a silt-laden mess. The silt is a lot like quicksand and poses a serious hazard. Hopefully the government will fix the dam as soon as possible and return the pond to its natural state.

Once you've found a nice spot to view the sky you can start to find many things in the sky. At the moment Saturn is low in the Western sky right after sunset.

If you have a pair of binoculars, now is the time to get them out. All binoculars have two numbers, such as 7x35, for example. The 7 stands for how many times bigger the object will look and 35 is the diameter of the lens. 8x50 or 10x50 binoculars are preferred by most amateur astronomers.

Saturn through 10x50 binoculars may yield a hint of the rings around Saturn, but a small telescope will show them as a little donut around the planet. Through a larger telescope you may even be able to see a gap in the rings. This gap is called the Cassini division.

Later in the month, you'll be able to spot Jupiter rising in the West around 10:30. It will be the brightest object in the sky at the time, except for the moon. Jupiter displays very little color to the unaided eye, but may appear yellowish.

Through 8x50 binoculars, Jupiter will appear as a small white-yellow disk. What is really neat about viewing Jupiter is its four moons. These moons, called the Galilean moons, are named after the man who discovered them 400 years ago, and appear as four tiny stars in a line nearby Jupiter. The position of the moons can be seen to change noticeably night by night.

Carefully looking through a small telescope, some detail on Jupiter's disk may be apparent. There will likely be two stripes going across the planet. These are giant bands in Jupiter's upper atmosphere.

You may also see the Great Red Spot (a storm three times the size of the Earth that is at least 400 years old). Although the Great Red Spot used to be easily visible, it has faded in recent years and is very hard to spot.

If you do see the Great Red Spot you'll be able to see spot run across Jupiter's disk through the night because Jupiter rotates in only 8 hours.

Earth's moon is full on July 7th and will diminish to a New Moon by July 21st.

Space Shuttle mission STS-127 with Canadian astronaut Julie Payette onboard is scheduled to launch on July 11th.

July 20th marks the 40 anniversary of the first man walking on the moon. It was the first of six successful moon landings from 1969 to 1972.

The Athena Community Astronomy Club will continue its weekly viewing sessions. We'll be set up every clear Wednesday evening on the Summerside boardwalk by the shipyard market building.

To finish off the month is the Athena Community Astronomy Club's monthly meeting. As usual, it will be held the last Sunday of the month on July 26th.

Until next month, just look up!

Hey Kids...
July 20th marks the 40th anniversary of humankind first stepping on the moon. Did you know that the astronauts were put in a small chamber for three weeks when they got back to Earth? They were isolated like this because there were fears that the astronauts could be carrying deadly germs from the moon. We now know that there is no life on the moon and that the moon is definitely not made of cheese!