All posts for the month November, 2008

Or Something Closer?

Distant galaxy or something more familiar?
Distant galaxy or something more familiar?

Now this is an intriguing image.  It looks like a distant cosmic explosion, perhaps a long-ago galaxy collision or star tearin itself to bits and sending material across light-years of space. There’s interesting structure here, including that mysterious string that seems to be flailing around the lower left-quadrant of the central light cluster.  What do you think it is?

Think about it and then check out the answer below. (Click and drag between the ( ) signs to see the answer.

(It’s the city of London, as seen at night in an image taken on orbit by one of the astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Courtesy NASA/ISS (see the Gateway to Astronaut Photography,

Let Me Show You Them

Maybe if enough of us write about this on our blogs and magazine websites and online newspapers, the woo-woos of the world will think twice before they start calling all the observatories and planetariums in a dead panic over the appearance of bright lights shining in the western sky and assuming that this “mysterious apparition” means that aliens are coming.

Well, I can only hope.

A finder chart for the next few nights. Courtesy

A finder chart for the next few nights. Courtesy

Truth is, you can step out tonight, tomorrow and for the next few nights and see the planets Venus and Jupiter appearing very close to each other in the west-southwestern sky after sunset. This is perfectly normal and nothing to get wiggy about. It happens because planets orbit the Sun and we can see them from the surface of Earth.

And, the Moon gets in on the action, too. On December 1, 2008, folks in the Americas should be able to see a thin crescent Moon just above the horizon, making this an amazingly beautiful triple-play in the sunset skies.

This will be a gorgeous sight, provided the weather doesn’t get in the way. I note that there’s a storm front moving into my area just in time to cover up this blazing celestial display, but that’s not true everywhere. And, it turns out that Venus and the crescent Moon will reprise their act (without Jupiter) on December 31, New Year’s Eve!

So, make a note of this (the finder chart should help you identify what you’re seeing — remember, if you have clear skies and a good view to the west, you should have NO trouble spotting two planets for the next few nights. They’ll be joined on December 1 by the crescent Moon. (As far as I know, there will be NO words in the sky…)

Plan to step outside after sunset on Sunday and Monday and check out the view. It’s worth bundling up for because it will be pretty!  If it’s clear I plan to take a look.

Thankful for Many Things

Sad About the News

I spent yesterday doing the Thanksgiving Holiday thing here. For most of the world it was just another Thursday; here in the U.S. it was a day to cook a big meal, eat it, and then feel thankful about things. It’s something of a personal holiday for me — I spend time thinking about what I’ve accomplished in my work and career and in my life as a whole. It’s a time of reflection about many things, including the astronomy and space science topics that I get to write about.

I’m not going to get all space-girl gushy here and say that I’m thankful for our orbiting space station or missions to Mars or all the wonderful things we do in astronomy, not just in the U.S. but around the world. Those are wonderful things and they show just how inventive and achievement-oriented people can be when we bend our considerable talent and expertise toward good accomplishments in all realms of science. I’m glad we do them. And, what I AM grateful for is that so many people do them so well!  And, through their efforts we have an incredibly advanced level of technology on this planet that lets us do a lot of things that our forefathers and foremothers would never have dreamed of.

I also spent yesterday tracking the awful events in India, using my computer and Twitter and various online news agencies for the task. I am something of a news junkie, so it’s not uncommon for me to have a few different screens open to various news stories throughout any day I’m at work.

It’s at once striking and saddening that the same technologies that let us watch as distant space robots explore moons or follow along as scientists circling overhead in the ISS do their work, also let us have first-hand front-row seats on some of the worst things that humans can do to each other in the name of ideology. Will this “instant access” give us (as a species on this planet) a chance to bring an end to such violent acts and find ways to make peace on this planet?

Good question.