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Science Gallery & Planetarium

Science Gallery & Planetarium

07/09/20

Comet NEOWISE Update

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.

Clear skies!

Sky charts created with Stellarium, a free astronomy software package available at http://stellarium.sourceforge.net/

07/06/20

Comet in the Morning Sky

Dr. Jennifer West, Dunlap Institute for Astronomy, University of Toronto

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/

05/01/20

Astronomy Day 2020 is Saturday, May 2

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!

04/03/20

What season is this again?

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.

The Earth’s tilt as it orbits the sun causes our four seasons. (Image: NASA)

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/main/visit/planetarium/manitoba-skies/

03/30/20

Satellites in a train

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.

 

 

 

02/13/20

A total eclipse… of Mars?

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!

01/04/20

Manitoba Skies for January 2020

This winter hasn’t been as cold as usual for Manitoba, so it’s a great time to get out and see what the January sky has to offer. Check out our Current Night Sky page for information on celestial events visible in the Manitoba skies. You can read the full article here.

If you’d like some in-depth help on becoming a backyard astronomer, there’s still space in our Introduction to Skywatching course, beginning January 15th. The course runs four consecutive Wednesday evenings and will provide you with everything you need  to feel confident finding the planets and constellations and exploring the universe from your own backyard. You can register online to make sure you get a space.

11/20/19

Possible meteor outburst – November 21, 2019

Thursday, November 20, 2019 may provide a rare meteor outburst – but only for a few minutes.

The annual Monocerotid meteor shower normally produces about 1 or 2 meteors per hour – and that’s if the sky is dark with no moon. It’s not something some skywatchers would even bother to put on the calendar. In the last couple of decades, however, astronomers have begun to understand meteor showers in more detail, and can predict when activity may pick up. This year, an outburst is predicted to occur at 10:50 p.m. Central Standard Time, and southern Manitoba is predicted to be cloud-free. So what’s going on?

A meteor (or shooting star, or falling star – they all mean the same thing) is caused when the Earth slams into a piece of interplanetary dust about the size of a grain of sand. Space isn’t totally empty – besides planets, and asteroids, and comets, there’s also smaller stuff, down to the size of microscopic dust particles. These tiny particles burn up when they hit the earth because they’re travelling at 40,000 km/h. Just the friction of passing through the air heats them up so much that they vaporize and create a trail of light that we can see from the ground. On a given night, you might see a half-dozen of these per hour if you watch the sky carefully from a dark location. Most of the time, we don’t notice these because we’re not watching the sky carefully, or nearby lights interfere and make it hard to see them.

So, one piece of dust = one meteor. It doesn’t take much of a logical leap to see that more dust means more meteors. If the earth goes through a big cloud of dust, a whole bunch of meteors will happen all on the same night. That is a meteor shower. Each year on the same night, Earth is in the same spot, and goes through the same dust bunny, creating an annual meteor shower.

Through careful analysis, astronomers have determined that the Moncerotid meteor shower has a very dense clump in it, that usually the earth just skims the edge of. But, as gravity adjusts the particles each time the Earth goes by, things change, and so this year we’re expected to hit the dense clump head-on.

How do I see it?

For the best view, you want to dress up warm, and head out of the city to a dark location. Bring a reclining lawn chair or something so you can lean back and look at at the whole sky at once. (Try to stay off the ground, which will suck heat out of you and make you cold very quickly.) Point your feet generally southeast (towards Orion the hunter, if you know your constellations) and look straight up. Don’t look at your phone, because even a quick peek will kill your night vision and maybe make you miss the whole thing.

The time is somewhat uncertain, so be prepared to stay outside in Manitoba November night temperatures for a couple of hours. I’m going to start watching about 10pm and watch until midnight (or until t happens).

What will we see?

Short answer: we won’t know for sure until it happens. But, if the prediction is correct, you’ll see the stars at first. Orion will be visible in the south, and other constellations of the winter sky as well. The brightest star in the sky, Sirius, will be just rising below Orion.  Farther left (almost due east) is another bright star, Procyon. Occasionally, you will see a shooting star flash through your field of view. As the time gets closer, you’ll see meteors more often, and the interval between them will shrink. One every 5 minutes, then 1 every couple of minutes… then two or three a minute. If you trace them backwards, they all seem to radiate from a point near Procyon. If the prediction pans out, at the peak you might be seeing 5-10 meteors per minute for several minutes around 10:50 p.m. Then, the rate will subside, back to a couple a minute, and then one every few minuets, and then back to one every 10 minutes or so.

Or, maybe nothing will happen – the Earth might miss the dust bunny completely.

Or… maybe the dust bunny is even denser than we thought, and we’ll see even more meteors than predicted. Who knows?

For more information on this shower, visit the International Meteor Organization’s page. You can also find info there on how to count meteors and contribute to the science of understanding these rare and unpredictable natural spectacles.

 

 

11/01/19

What’s Up in November’s Sky

November brings several minor meteor showers and a chance to see all five planets visible to the unaided eye. There’s also a rare transit of Mercury and a spectacular conjunction of the two brightest planets. Discover it all in the Manitoba Museum’s Manitoba Skies update for November 2019, contributed by Science Communicator Leigh McKinnon.

09/03/19

September Skies

September is a great month for stargazing. The nights are long enough that it gets dark at a reasonable time, and yet we can still see the summer constellations and Milky Way in the early evening. See what celestial sights are in store this September at the Manitoba Museum’s Manitoba Skies sky update.

Scott Young

Manager of Science Communications and Visitor Experiences

See Full Biography

“Scott oversees Science Gallery exhibits and Planetarium shows, and collaborates on content development for Museum Galleries exhibits. He has been an informal science educator for twenty years, working in the planetarium and science centre field both at The Manitoba Museum and also at the Alive G. Wallace Planetarium in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Scott is an active amateur astronomer and a past-President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.”