At the edge of the solar system, there is a cloud of small, icy objects that are left over from the formation of the solar system. They’re too small to see from Earth, and much too far to visit, and yet they are like a deep=freezer full of evidence of how our solar system formed, preserved in the cold of deep space. Luckily, every so often one of these icy bodies gets bumped or deflected into a new orbit that carries it towards the inner solar system. Right now, you can see one of these tiny bodies in the sky with nothing more than a pair of household binoculars.
The object in questions is called Comet 2021 A1 (Leonard) – it was the first comet discovered in 2021, by Greg Leonard, a senior research specialist working at the Catalina Sky Survey at the University of Arizona. Catalina scans the sky looking for new things, so it finds a lot of comets, and this isn’t the first Comet Leonard, either. However, this comet Leonard may be bright enough to see without a telescope later this month.
How Do I Find It?
The comet is currently sitting in the morning sky between the Big Dipper and the constellation Bootes the Herdsman, and it has been seen in binoculars from a dark location (read: outside the city, without any nearby lights or the Moon to interfere). You can use the detailed chart below to zero in on where the comet will be each night – its orbit carries it around the sun fairly quickly and it’s in a different spot every night.
What Will I See?
If you’re using binoculars, you will probably see a faint round ball of grey light, perhaps with the hint of a tail sticking upwards. Try not looking directly at the comet, but direct your eyes slightly away and get the more sensitive parts of your retina involved – this technique of averted vision is key in seeing fainter objects.
If you have a DSLR camera, try sticking it on a tripod and taking some time exposures of the sky – use ISO of 800 or higher and exposure times of 1 second up to about 10 seconds, and see what you get. (You might get something with other kinds of cameras or cell phones, but probably not.)
I’m not gonna lie, seeing a faint fuzzy ball in the sky isn’t going to make you jump up and down because of the physical appearance of the object. It’s a challenging observation of an object that humans may never see again, and a chance to see an object that is older than anything on our planet. Plus, comets have a way of being unpredictable, sometimes surging in brightness unexpectedly or even breaking apart into multiple pieces. You never know what you’re going to see.
Finding a comet with binoculars is something we can’t do very often – maybe once a year or even less. It’s also perfect practice for using a telescope – many of he skills you develop finding Comet Leonard will help you out if you aspire to use a telescope at some point. But for me, the chance to see such a fleeting celestial visitor is a magical experience, one that really makes me feel connected with the cosmos.
Now, all we need are some clear skies…
August brings the Perseids meteor shower, an annual event that gets many people looking skyward. In recent years, social media has been hyping (and sometimes overhyping) celestial events, since they tend to generate a lot of interest (and thus “clicks”, “likes”, and “shares”), so it can be hard to know what you can actually expect to see. Here is the Manitoba Museum Planetarium’s guide to the 2021 Perseids meteor shower.
Perseids Meteor Shower 2021
Start of activity: July 17
Peak activity: early morning of August 12
Peak rate: 50-75 meteors per hour from a dark sky
Lasts until: August 24
A meteor is the formal name for a “shooting star” or “falling star” – it’s a streak of light that flashes across the night sky. They happen when a tiny piece of dust or grain of sand from space crashes into the earth’s atmosphere at thousands of kilometers an hour. The speed of the dust particle gets turned into heat and light energy, and creates the visible flash we see. The piece of dust is totally vaporized while still high up in the atmosphere dozens of kilometers above Earth’s surface.
This actually happens all the time, but most of us don’t notice. If you went out on a dark, moonless night you’d probably see a half-dozen metros per hour if you watched the sky continuously. But they only appear for a second and they’re gone – so look down at the wrong time and you’ll miss them.
The source of this dust is perhaps surprising – it’s leftover material from the formation of the planets. There’s dust spread throughout the solar system, each piece in orbit around the sun like a tiny planet. The earth as it orbits the sun sweeps up some of this dust, and each one becomes a meteor.
Several times a year, though, the earth goes through an extra-thick area of dust – like a cosmic dust bunny. These dust bunnies are left behind by comets – “dirty snowballs” a few kilometers across that orbit the sun in oval-shaped orbits. When comets get close to the sun, the snow melts and leaves the dust behind in a trail. If that trail happens to cross the orbit of the earth, we will see a meteor shower every year on that date.
The Perseids meteor shower is probably the best-known meteor shower (although it’s not the best one of the year) because it happens during summer vacation time for the northern hemisphere. Its peak is around August 12th each year, although the date varies by a day or so. The Perseids are dust left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle, which loops around the sun every 133 years or so. The meteor shower is named after the constellation that the meteors seem to come from – the constellation Perseus.
How and When to Look
The best way to see meteors is to get outside the lights of the city. Some of the meteors will be faint, and so you will miss them if the sky is too bright from nearby streetlights, houses, or other sources of illumination. A park or parking lot outside the city is a good place to head. This year, the light from the Moon will not interfere either because the moon will set in early evening, so this is probably one of the better years to see the Perseids.
Meteor showers are the ultimate in low-tech observing. Take a blanket or reclining lawn chair along, and set up with your feet pointed away from any nearby lights or light pollution. (For southern Manitobans, this generally means putting your back to Winnipeg’s lights.) You don’t need binoculars or a telescope – you want to be able to see as much sky at once as you can, since the meteors can appear anywhere in the sky. A telescope would just narrow your view too much.
Turn off your phone – the light from a mobile device will ruin your eyes’ ability to see faint stars and meteors. Even a quick glance will make it hard to see for a few minutes, so resist the inclination to check the web. Spend the time with the stars instead.
As for when the look – it depends on what you want to see. If you go out before midnight, you will see only a few meteors, but the ones you do see will probably be big bright ones. If you want to see lots of meteors, you want to watch from about 2am to dawn on the morning of the 12th. In the run-up before dawn, your part of the earth is heading straight into the trail of dust, and you’ll see the most meteors.
This is why some people have been disappointed by meteors showers (in addition to the social media hype). Meteor showers have a slow fade-in period of a few weeks, then a peak that might only last a few hours, followed by a slow fade-out. On the night before or after the peak, meteor rates are often less than half of what the peak is, and the rate drops quickly as you get farther from the peak.
This year, the Perseids are definitely worth the drive out of town for the peak. I plan to be out from dark on the 11th until dawn on the 12th with our all-sky camera system to record what we can. Follow the Manitoba Museum on social media for updates and live broadcasts during the meteor shower (weather permitting).
While you’re out counting meteors, there are lots of other sights to see: constellations, planets, satellites, and the year’s best views of the Milky Way. Visit the planetarium in person to see The Sky Tonight, a live sky tour, to learn more (showtimes here). You can also check the Manitoba Museum’s Manitoba Skies page for current night sky information.
From Winnipeg, the rising sun on June 10, 2021 will appear similar to this view, shot during the 2017 eclipse. [Image: Scott D. Young]
On the morning of June 10, 2021, early risers across Manitoba will see a partial eclipse of the sun from most of Manitoba.
TO VIEW THE ECLIPSE YOU MUST USE ONE OF THE SAFE METHODS DESCRIBED BELOW.
The eclipse is already underway by the time the sun rises, and only lasts about an hour after sunrise, so this will be an early morning event on June 10.
What is happening? As the moon orbits the earth, it sometimes crosses the sun from our point of view in an event called a solar eclipse. When the moon only covers part of the sun we see a partial eclipse – this is what we will see from Manitoba. From other areas of the earth, the moon will appear to cross the center of the Sun, blocking out most of the sun’s rays in an annular or “ring” eclipse. This occurs because this eclipse happens when the Moon is near its farthest point from the Earth and so doesn’t appear quite big enough to cover the entire sun. When an eclipse happens when the moon is near its closest point to earth, the moon’s disk can cover the entire solar disk and a total solar eclipse results. A total solar eclipse is one of the true spectacles of nature, worth traveling to see. A total solar eclipse crossed the central United States in August 2017. Manitoba last witnessed a total solar eclipse on February 26, 1979.
For more details on the mechanics of eclipses, see NASA’s explanation here.
How can I observe the eclipse safely? The sun is always too bright to observe directly without special eye protection. Sunglasses are not sufficient – a specially-made solar filter is required to prevent permanent eye damage. Eclipse glasses purchased for the 2017 total solar eclipse are sufficient as long as there are no scratches or holes in the silver Mylar material. A #14 welder’s glass (available at welding supply shops) will allow you to view the sun safely. No other materials should be used – while dark plastic or Mylar balloon material may dim the sun’s image in the visual range, the invisible ultraviolet and infrared light can still enter your eye and cause irreversible damage or even blindness.
Due to COVID restrictions over the past year, the Museum’s shop is not open, and we do not have any eclipses glasses for sale.
If no appropriate filter is available, you can use a pair of household binoculars to project an image of the sun using the method described here. Note: DO NOT LOOK AT THE SUN THROUGH BINOCULARS! Make sure you follow the instructions carefully, including the part about turning the binoculars away from the sun every few minutes to let them cool down. The Museum is not responsible for any injury or damage due to solar viewing; if you’re uncertain it’s best to watch the event online.
If you have a telescope, do not look at the sun with it or you will instantly and permanently blind yourself. Safe solar filters that fit over the front of the telescope are available for telescopes through mail order, but they will cost $100 or more and at this point are unlikely to arrive before the eclipse. You can use your telescope to project an image of the sun similarly to the binocular method shown above, but the increased heat may damage your telescope. This is not recommended unless you already know how to observe the sun properly.
When and where should I look?
All of Manitoba can see the partial eclipse, although most of it occurs before sunrise; we catch just the end of it. The annular or ring phase is only visible from a path that starts in northwestern Ontario, goes up over the north pole, and down into eastern Russia. With provincial and international borders closed at the time of writing, Manitobans will have to be content with a partial eclipse and an online view of the annular portion.
For all of Manitoba, the eclipse is already underway as the sun rises – check your local newspaper or heavens-above.com for sunrise and sunset times for your location. In Winnipeg, the sun will be about half-eclipsed when it rises at 5:27 am CDT in the northeast, and the moon will uncover the sun as they both rise. By 5:55 am CDT (less than a half-hour after sunrise) the eclipse will be over from Winnipeg.
Points farther north in Manitoba will have better views. From Churchill, Manitoba, the sun rises at 4:08 am CDT with the eclipse beginning 4 minutes later. At 5:09 am CDT the sun reaches a maximum of 85% eclipsed before the moon moves on and uncovers the sun. From Churchill the eclipse ends at 6:08 am CDT. Flin Flon will see a maximum 75% eclipse just after sunrise; Thompson reaches 85% about 10 minutes after sunrise.
https://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/map/2021-june-10?n=265 – eclipse times and simulated views for any location
https://eclipsophile.com/ase-2021/ – maps and weather prospects for the eclipse
NASA.gov brings you the latest images, videos and news from America’s space agency. Get the latest updates on NASA missions, watch NASA TV live, and learn about our quest to reveal the unknown and benefit all humankind.
As you may have heard, on December 21st the planets Jupiter and Saturn will be very close together in the sky, an event called a conjunction. Because this coincidentally is happening on the same day as the winter solstice, and only a few days before Christmas, a lot of media have dubbed this the Christmas Star. There’s been some confusion about what exactly that means and how you can see this event, so here’s a handy reference guide to the whole thing.
What is happening?
The planets Jupiter and Saturn will appear very close together in the sky, almost touching, on the early evening of December 21st, 2020. This kind of event happens about every 19 years, when Jupiter passes Saturn as seen from the Earth, while all three planets are in their orbits around the Sun. However, usually the passage isn’t this close – so, we haven’t had a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction this close since the middle ages.
When can I see it?
It’s actually in progress already – Jupiter and Saturn have been visible in the evening sky for months, slowly moving closer together as Jupiter catches up to slower-moving Saturn. Over the weekend of December 18-20 the two are already closer together than the apparent size of the Moon in the sky. Each night they will be closer together, leading up to closest approach on the evening of Dec. 21st, 2020. After the 21st, Jupiter will move farther away from Saturn night after night. The Manitoba Museum will be doing a live-stream telescope event on the early evening of December 21st so you can see the planets up close and in detail.
What will it look like?
With the unaided eye, you can see Jupiter as a bright white “star” in the southwestern sky right after sunset. Saturn is quite a bit fainter, and has more of an off-white colour. In the days before closest approach you’ll easily distinguish them as separate objects. On the evening of closest approach, most people will still probably be able to see them as two separate objects(unless you have less than 20/20 vision).
In a small telescope, you’ll be able to see both planets at the same time in a low-power eyepiece. As the sky darkens, you’ll also see some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn appear. The Manitoba Museum will be doing a live-stream telescope event on the early evening of December 21st so you can see the planets up close and in detail.
What’s all this about a Christmas Star, then?
That’s… complicated. The common image many people have of the Christmas Star comes from many different sources. The Christian Biblical story of the “Star of Bethlehem” actually doesn’t say much about what the “star” looked like, but centuries of art and Christmas card images have turned it into a huge blazing beacon in the heavens. This event will not look like that. (See “What will it look like?” above.) The Star of Bethlehem actually wasn’t something that everyone saw – it was only the Magi, the “wise men from the East” who saw it. That alone tells us it probably wasn’t as simple as a bright light in the sky.
There are some theories that suggest that the “wise men from the east” were astrologers, and so they would have been excited about things like planetary conjunctions, things that were seen as significant but not immediately noticeable to the casual viewer. Things like planetary conjunctions would have been highly significant to the Magi, especially if they were rare events or repeated events. If we run with this hypothesis, there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. – actually, there were three of them, in an even-rarer triple conjunction. This actually times out fairly well to match the Biblical account, since we know that the 8th-century monk who did the math to calculate the year 1 A.D made some errors and was off by a few years – the Nativity story probably actually occurred a few years before 1 A.D. in our current calendar. For example, King Herod, who was alive during the Nativity story, actually died around 4 B.C., so we know the story had to take place before then.
If this idea is correct, the wise men saw the triple conjunction in 7 B.C., interpreted it to mean there would be a royal birth in Judea, and traveled to the land of King Herod. King Herod had no idea what they were talking about – his court astrologers had not seen a “star” that they thought was important. (Neither did Chinese astronomers of the day, who took meticulous observations of any new objects like comets, new stars, and the like.) The wise men leave Herod and travel to Bethlehem, arriving sometime in 6 B.C. or perhaps a bit later.
None of this is certain, of course – there are other possible explanations for the Star of Bethlehem, like a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in 2 B.C. that would have been the brightest star in the sky. And given the nature of the Nativity story, there isn’t enough evidence to even say whether the Star was an astronomical object, a divine inspiration, an interpretation by the wise men, or an idea added in later revisions of the Bible throughout the ages. And really, not everyone feels the Star of Bethlehem needs an explanation in the first place. As I said, it’s complicated.
So, because it’s possible that the Star of Bethlehem was inspired by a rare triple conjunction of planets in 7 B.C., and because this year we are seeing a single conjunction of the same planets Jupiter and Saturn, which happens to occur in December, the Great Planetary Conjunction of 2020 has been dubbed the Christmas Star. And so many people are expecting the Christmas Card version of the event: a huge light in the sky.
To some, the actual Planetary Conjunction of 2020 will fall short of their expectations. To others who attach religious significance to the idea of a Christmas Star, it might disappoint as well. But consider what is happening: humans, a part of the universe that has become alive and aware, are standing on a ball of rock hurtling through space, looking out at the two largest planets in our solar system. On December 21st, 2020, those two planets will be lined up from our viewpoint, so that they will both be visible in a telescope at the same time – a very rare and pretty cool event to watch. In the days before and after, we can watch the clockwork of the heavens tick forward night after night, as the relative position of the Jupiter, Saturn, and Earth change as they orbit the Sun. Right now, a human-made robotic spacecraft is in orbit around Jupiter, beaming back close-up pictures of a gas giant planet covered with storms larger than the Earth. On some of the moons of the two planets, there may in fact be some form of primitive life, living there now: in the underground oceans of Europa, for example, or the thick atmosphere and methane seas of Titan. And we can participate in these grand cosmic events just by going outside and casting our eyes upwards on a clear winter’s night. I think that qualifies as a miracle of sorts, no matter what your beliefs are.
UPDATE 25 Jul 2020: The comet has faded below naked-eye visibility but it still visible in binoculars as a small fuzzy patch. The tail has shrunk but it still visible in photos. With the moon entering the evening sky and the comet fading, this object is well past its prime. We’ll have to turn our attention to the upcoming Perseid meteor shower, which peaks on August 11th and 12th, and the planets Jupiter and Saturn, both visible in the southeast as darkness falls. Visit the Planetarium’s current night sky page here.
Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE has become the brightest comet in years, and it will be getting better this week. The comet is best seen in the early morning sky for the next few days, but quickly swings over into the evening sky, making it much more convenient for sky watchers to get a glimpse.
What is a comet?
A comet is a ball of ice and rock a few kilometers across, orbiting the sun in a very oval-shaped orbit that keeps it far away from us for most of its lifetime. When the comet nears the sun, much of the ice melts, and the dust and gas are released into a beautiful tail that streams behind the comet and away from the sun. There are a half-dozen comets visible in large telescopes at any given time, but it’s rare that we get one bright enough to see with the unaided eye.
Comet NEOWISE C/2020 F3 is named after the satellite that discovered it, and it needs extra numbers tacked on because the NEOWISE satellite discovers a lot of comets. (We’ll call the comet “Neo” for short in this article.)
“Neo” passed close to the Sun on July 3rd, which has caused an outburst of activity that makes the comet much brighter than expected. Although the activity should subside as the comet moves farther away from the Sun, the comet’s orbit actually carries it closer to earth until July 22. This closer distance may offset the lower activity. All of which to say, we have a bright comet to look at for the next two weeks.
As of July 9th, “Neo” was visible to the unaided eye in the morning sky, and a nice sight in binoculars. Binoculars are your instrument of choice for viewing this object, because the comet’s tail too big to fit into the typical field of view of a telescope.
Due to its position in the northern sky, the comet is visible in both the evening and morning sky, although the morning views will be better until about July 11th. After that, the comet’s rapid motion northward will make the evening views better (and more convenient). Use the charts below for the time you’re observing (we’ll add more as time goes on).
How Do I See It?
First, consult the weather to make sure the sky will be clear, since any clouds will ruin your chances of spotting “Neo”. Use the local weather forecast, but also check out cleardarksky.org, which does special astronomy weather forecasts for thousands of locations.
Next, decide on an observing site. City lights, buildings, and other obstructions can make it hard to spot “Neo”. Get out of the city if you can, or at least to a location where you have a clear, flat northern horizon. If you’re observing in the evening, you want a good view to the northwest; morning observers need a good northeastern view. Bring along binoculars if you have them, and a camera and tripod if you have those. Both can help you spot the comet in the twilight whent he sky isn’t fully dark.
“Neo” moves, but not over the course of your observing session – it doesn’t flash across the sky (those are meteors). So, it will be in the same spot relative to the stars for hours at a time. Use the appropriate chart as a guide. Spot the bright star Capella first – it’s the best signpost to start from. (Morning observers need to make sure they don’t confuse Capella for much-brighter Venus, which is farther to the east.) Focus your binoculars or camera on Capella – the star should appear as a tiny sharp pinpoint, not a fuzzy blob.
Now, hold your first out at arm’s length. The distance from the bottom of your fist to your thumb spans about 10 degrees on the sky – so you can have a reliable measuring tool in the sky. One “fist” is marked to scale on each of the charts. The comet is generally one fist or less above the horizon, so make sure you don’t have any trees of buildings higher than that blocking your view.
Scan the area indicated on the chart with binoculars first – once you can see it in binoculars, it makes it easier to spot with the unaided eye.
If you are taking pictures, you’ll need to set your camera to manual, and take exposures of a second or more – hence the need for a tripod. It’s unlikely that camera phones will provide a great image, but try them anyway – you never know. The more you know about your camera and how it works, the more likely you’ll be able to get a good picture when the time comes, so break out the manual or find an online tutorial for your brand of camera.
Comets like this can appear at any time, but usually one a decade is about the expected rate. Get out and take a look before “Neo” fades away, which could happen before the end of July.
We’d love to see any images you get – flag them with #manitobamuseum or post them to our social media pages. You can find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Sky charts created with Stellarium, a free astronomy software package available at http://stellarium.sourceforge.net/
There’s a pretty bright comet in the morning sky right now, with the poetic name of NEOWISE C/2020 F3. The NEOWISE satellite is the Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, a NASA satellite that looks for comets and asteroids that come close to Earth. NEOWISE finds so many new objects that they just get a serial number instead of a proper name. For the purposes of this article, we’ll just call the comet “Neo”.
“Neo” is a ball of ice and rock orbiting the Sun. It passed closest to the Sun on July 3rd, and all of the heat has melted some of the ice and blown the material back into a nice tail. It seems like this is the comet’s first trip through the inner solar system, and so we don’t know exactly how it will behave – often, first-time comets like this either don’t survive their close approach to the Sun, or they do but don’t brighten as much as we expect. Several recent comets have turned out to be duds after some initial rosy predictions, so it’s nice when things go the other way.
We should characterize what we mean when we say, “a pretty bright comet”. “Pretty bright” in this context means you should be able to spot it in binoculars or take a picture of it if you have a decent camera on a tripod. Most comets are only visible in a telescope, and the public don’t even hear about them.
As of July 7th, 2020, “Neo” is visible in binoculars and the unaided eye, and sports a short tail that shows up in amateur photographs. It’s definitely the nicest comet we’ve had in several years.
The View From Manitoba – How Can I See It?
First thing to do is to set your alarm early. For the next week, this is a morning object, visible in the northeast just before sunrise. Find a spot with a good, clear view of the northeastern sky, without any trees, buildings, or city lights to obstruct the view. You should aim to be at your observing site by about 4:30 am. BY about 5:00 am, the sky will have brightened too much to be able to spot the comet. So, you have a narrow window of opportunity. (It goes without saying, you also need a sky free of clouds or haze.)
Looking northeast, the first thing you’ll spot is the brilliant planet Venus. Venus outshines everything else in the sky except the Sun and Moon, so it’s pretty unmistakable. Just below Venus is a star called Aldebaran. If you can see Aldebaran in your binoculars, you should be able to glimpse the comet, too.
The comet is about the same “height” as Venus is above the horizon, and off to the left. Use the charts below and the bright star Capella as a signpost to try and triangulate on where the comet is. It moves from night to night, so make sure you’re using the correct map!
With your binoculars, sweep the sky in the general area of the comet. You’re looking for a fuzzy patch of light – the tail might not be visible to the eye. Once you spot it in binoculars, see if you can see it unaided. It may be challenging, or it may be amazing, depending on whether the comet flares up in brightness or fades away.
If you have a camera and tripod, you can use it to try and capture an image, even if you can’t see the comet visually. Turn off autofocus and manually set your focus to infinity, and try exposures ranging from 1 second to 6 seconds. You will need a tripod to hold the camera steady enough to get a decent image. It’s doubtful that the camera on your mobile device will be able to image the comet, although you never know. There are apps that allow you to take star pictures with your camera that might be useful to try. If you’re artistically inclined, you can draw or sketch the comet using pencil, charcoal, or even watercolours. We’d love to see your images!
Image Credit: Dr. Jennifer West, Dunlap Institute for Astronomy, University of Toronto
Sky charts created with Stellarium, a free astronomy software package available at http://stellarium.sourceforge.net/
International Astronomy Day is Saturday, May 2, 2020, and we’re celebrating with online programming and a virtual telescope party. See the schedule below.
Astronomy Day was founded in the 1973 as a day when professional and amateur astronomers around the world would bring the wonder of the universe to the public. Astronomy clubs, planetaria, science centres, and universities have traditionally run public events during the day, and telescope viewing parties at night. This year, things are moving online, and the Manitoba Museum is joining our colleagues across the country to getting people “looking up”.
We’ll be doing Facebook live events at the following times (you don’t need a Facebook account to view the events, but you would if you want to join in the chat). We’ll also make the recorded video available through the Museum’s YouTube channel after the fact.
1:00pm – 1:20pm – Astronomy Day Kick-Off! Join Senior Planetarium Producer Scott Young for an introduction to skywatching. Discover what Astronomy Day is all about, and learn how you can find the stars and planets in the night sky.
3:30pm – 3:50pm – Make a Sky Clock (Hands-On Activity): Make your own Sky Clock to tell time at night using the Big Dipper. Download the instructions and materials list here.
4:30pm – 5:00pm – Q&A/Live Telescope Viewing of the Sun: See the sun live through the planetarium’s solar telescope, and ask all of your astronomy-related questions!
8:30 pm – 10:00pm Live Telescope Party (Weather Permitting): Join us for close-up views of the sun, moon, and planet Venus. We’ll have live video views through a variety of telescopes, tour the visible constellations, and also watch for satellites and northern lights. (Note: this event requires clear skies; check the Facebook event page on Saturday morning for a forecast update!)
Stay up-to-date by joining the Manitoba Museum on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @ManitobaMuseum. The Facebook event link is here: https://www.facebook.com/events/672437023556336/
See you on Astronomy Day!
submitted by Science Communicator Claire Woodbury
Welcome to spring! Or at least it’s supposed to be… astronomers tell us that spring in the northern hemisphere began on March 19th, but with all this snow, it looks more like Winter 2.0. Why do seasons on the calendar not quite match up with seasons in the weather and why are we colder in winter anyway?
You probably know that the earth’s revolution around the sun causes the seasons. So here’s a question for everyone, when it’s winter in Manitoba, where is the earth in relation to the sun? Is it closer to the sun or farther away?
During a Manitoba winter, the earth is actually closer to the sun then in summer! Whaaaaat!? It is a common misconception that the earth is farther away from the sun in winter and closer to the sun in summer.
How does it work then? Well, it’s not about whether a planet is closer or farther from the sun, but whether it is tilted away or towards the sun.
The Earth is spinning on its axis, kind of like a top or a Beyblade. But it’s not spinning directly “up and down” relative to its orbit around the sun: it’s on a slight angle, about 23.5°. This means that as Earth travels around the sun, one hemisphere is tilted towards the sun while the other is tilted away.
In the summer the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the sun and receives more sunlight directly.
The sun’s rays are a form of energy that provides us with light and heat. The direct line of the sun during summer gives us optimal growing conditions with lots of light and heat. Plants need sunlight in order to create their food as well as warm temperatures so they don’t freeze. And in turn animals have food to eat and habitat to live in. (And humans get to hit the beach) Along with that light and heat there is also energy we can’t see in the form of ultraviolet radiation. This kind of energy is what causes people to get a suntan or burn.
In the winter, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, so it receives sunlight less directly. We get colder temperatures and less U.V. radiation. While the Northern hemisphere is experiencing winter, the southern hemisphere is experiencing summer and vice versa. If you live near the equator, you’re pretty much experiencing direct sunlight all year round and so have more stable warm temperatures.
This brings us back to our question, when does winter stop and start anyway?
The calendar says winter starts around December 21, the winter solstice. The winter solstice is when we have the least amount of daylight and therefore the shortest “day”. We get a short day because we are angled the farthest from the sun and the sun appears very low in the sky for only a few hours.
Here in Manitoba it feels like winter starts in October and goes through to March (or even to May!) Depending on where you live, the coldest part of the year doesn’t always fall directly when astronomical “winter” falls on the calendar. That’s because the calendars we use today are based on ones made in ancient Rome, which is surrounded by water. Water absorbs a lot of heat and releases it slowly, keeping temperatures very mild. In ancient Rome, the coldest part of the year really didn’t start until the Winter Solstice. Here in Manitoba we don’t have the moderating effect of the Mediterranean Sea, so we usually have more extreme differences between summer and winter.
For more fun with seasons see “Why Seasons Make No Sense” from PBS on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0oX9YJ5XLo
To see what stars and planets are up in the sky during each season see our current night sky page: https://manitobamuseum.ca/visit/planetarium/manitoba-skies/
Winnipeg residents have been reporting some unusual sightings in the night sky over the past few days. Bright star-like objects have been seen moving across the sky, following each other in a train. Sometimes half a dozen or more of them are visible at the same time. What are these?
Unfortunately, they won’t be “unusual” for very long. These are the StarLink satellites, launched by Elon Musk’s Space-X to deliver internet to remote corners of the globe. 60 satellites at a time are put up by the company’s Falcon-9 rocket, and they slowly spread out in a circle around the earth. For the first couple of weeks after launch, they are relatively close together, and all appear to travel in the same path across the sky. As of today, there are 362 of these satellites, but the plan is for 12,000 of them. As in, twice as many satellites as the number of stars you could see from a perfectly dark location.
And did we mention that each one is one of the brightest objects in the sky? They shine at about magnitude 1 or brighter, which means they’re brighter than the stars of the Big Dipper and as bright as the brighter stars. Only the planets and the moon, and maybe a few stars, will outshine a StarLink satellite.
It’s pretty easy to spot these satellites when they happen to be going over your town. Visit www.heavens-above.com and set it to your location, and you’ll get a list of all of the satellites visible that night. StarLink will make up a big chunk of that list. For example, from Winnipeg between 9:25pm and 9:45pm on Monday night, March 30, there will be 44 StarLink satellites visible (plus a few other satellites). The sky is getting to be a busy place!
StarLink has brought criticism from astronomers, who are already finding interference with the satellites getting into their field-of-view while trying to do science. Those concerned with the amount of space junk in orbit are also concerned, as none of these satellites has a re-entry plan and will just stay up there, cluttering orbit and posing a risk to any other satellites launched, including any attempts to send robots or humans to the other planets. We’re basically building a cage around the Earth, with StarLink satellites as the bars.
This month brings skywatchers a rare sight: a total eclipse of the red planet Mars by our Moon. The event is visible across much of North America, and is the only event of its kind all year.
As the Moon orbits our planet, it gets in the way of all sorts of other celestial objects that are farther away. When the moon blocks out the sun, we call it a solar eclipse, but a more general term is occultation. (“Occult” means “hidden”, so it makes sense. One object is hiding another.) The moon occults dozens of stars every month, but it’s fairly rare that things line up just right so that the Moon occults a planet. This month, we’ll see the thin crescent Moon occult Mars, early on the morning of Tuesday, February 18th. Here’s how to spot it yourself.
First thing: this is an early morning event! You want to be outside and ready to watch by about 5:50 am Manitoba time. Find an observing spot that has a clear horizon to the southeast. The thin crescent moon and Mars will be right beside each other, very low in the southeast. By this time, the sky is already starting to brighten with the first gleam of twilight, so you might have trouble seeing Mars clearly. Bring along a pair of binoculars or a telescope if you can.
As you watch, you will see two motions occur. First, everything will be slowly rising up higher into the southern sky. This is caused by the planet you’re standing on (earth, for most of us) rotating, and tilting the horizon “down” to uncover more of the sky. At the same time, Mars and the Moon will be getting closer together. This is almost all due to the Moon’s orbital motion around the earth; Mars is so far away in comparison that its motion really doesn’t matter much.
As the minutes tick by, the bright crescent of the moon will get closer and closer to Mars. Depending on the sky conditions and if you’re using any optical aid, you might lose track of Mars when it’s very close to the Moon. At some point, the moon’s edge will start to cover up Mars. Over the next 14 seconds, Mars will dim as it is slowly covered up, eventually disappearing completely behind the bright edge of the moon. Mars is in eclipse!
If you have a telescope, crank up the magnification as high as you can and you will be able to see Mars as a tiny disk, almost fully illuminated. At high power, you can watch the edge of the moon actually move across Mars over those 14 seconds. Eclipse should happen about 6:02 am Manitoba time, plus or minus a minute or so depending on where you are in the province.
Then it’s time to wait around for an hour or so, as the Moon continues its orbital motion and the earth continues its rotation. The moon will rise higher into the southern sky; the sky will brighten, and sunrise twilight will approach. But, about 7:19 am Manitoba time, Mars will begin to reappear from behind the dark edge of the moon, slowly fading in over the 14 seconds or so of the occultation.
If you have a telescope, you can probably take pictures of the event with your phone held up to the eyepiece. Post your images to the Manitoba Museum’s Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts – we’d love to see them!