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All posts for the year 2009

Sunspots Are on the Rise?

My dad is an inveterate sunspot watcher. He once spent 11 years charting sunspots, drawing a solar chart with its sunspots for each day — he’s that into the phenomenon. Of course, he noticed right away that the motions of sunspots follow a path as the Sun rotates, and he charted the solar max and min for that time. He’s not a trained astronomer — he’s an acute observer and his fascination with the Sun and its activity is a marvelous thing.

Some years ago he had the chance to chat with then-director of AAVSO, the late Dr. Janet Mattei. He told her about his 11 years of hand-drawn charts and she was astounded at what he’d done — and remarked at how detailed his drawings were. Daddy and Janet had a long chat about sunspots and observing them and how the Sun is a variable star. I think that visit with Janet remains one of Daddy’s most treasured memories.  Well, that, and being able to visit Harvard Observatory for the Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin centenary that year.

Sunspot 1039 is making its appearance for the new solar cycle. Click to embiggenate.

We just spent a few days in Arizona for the holidays, and to celebrate Daddy’s 80th birthday. Even though he’s hospitalized right now, Daddy’s still going strong for sunspots — so much so that now I always think of them as “Dadspots”.

He’s not dragging the sunscope out so much, but nowadays does his sunspot-spotting via the World Wide Web. He mentioned to me the other day that he’d noticed more sunspots and we talked awhile about the coming rise in solar activity that always accompanies a solar maximum (in the 11-year cycle of solar activity).  He’d already noticed the sunspot group 1039, which is part of the new solar cycle 24 that will let us see a steady rise in activity over the next few years.  And, I expect Daddy’ll keep his attention focused on sunspots (Dadspots) — as long as he can.

How much activity can we expect? Even though December 2009 sunspot numbers were up, the new solar cycle is predicted to be below average in intensity compared to solar maxima of other years. Even so, the current rise in sunspots and solar activity (if it continues) will be a relief to solar researchers after the long sunspot drought we’ve had over the past couple of years. Everybody’s keeping an eye on the Sun (well, not literally — NEVER look at the Sun directly without proper protection) to see if the rise in spots will continue.

For my part, to honor my dad’s life-long interest in sunspots, I’m renaming this new cycle the “John H. Collins, Sr. Solar Cycle.” Of course, it’s completely unofficial, but if you’d like to use that name in blog posts and tweets, I’m sure he would be honored.  Let’s hope for more Dadspots!

Get Acquainted with the Night Sky

One of our yearly traditions at TheSpacewriter’s place is to send out holiday letters bringing our family and friends up to date on our lives. In keeping with our love of astronomy, we always include a little star chart on the back of the letter so that our BFFs can participate in what we always think of as the “Great Annual Family (and Friends) Star Party.”  This year is no different — the letters went out last week and we’re hoping that sometime in the next week or so, all our buds can go out and check out the sky.  I thought that I’d share it with all of my blog readers, too.  Whether you’re a grizzled stargazing veteran or a first-timer, there’s something here for you to look at.

First, here’s the chart. Feel free to download it and look at it on your computer. I made it using  TheSky, by Software Bisque.

The Great Star Party star chart (click to embiggen).  Oriented for northern hemisphere users, although southerners can use it, too.

The Great Star Party star chart (click to embiggen). Oriented for northern hemisphere users, although southerners can use it, too.

Next, the tour.  To see this scene, go out around 9:30 p.m. (2130 hours) and face south.  (Be sure and dress warmly even if you live somewhere warm — nights can get chilly anywhere!) You should be able to see the stars of the constellation Orion, the Hunter. The star Betelgeuse makes his upper left shoulder, and the bright star Rigel is his lower right knee.  There are three bright stars slanting through the middle of the constellation. These are the Belt Stars. If you draw an imaginary line down through the Belt Stars in a southeasterly direction, you’ll come to the bright star Sirius.  It’s the brightest star in our night-time sky.

Just below the Belt Stars you can — if you have a fairly dark skygazing site — be able to make out a fuzzy patch. That’s the Orion Nebula — a starbirth region that lies about 1,500 light-years away from us.  The light you see left that region around 1,500 years ago!

Now, next to Orion (the constellation) is another one called Taurus, the Bull. His face (or horns, depending on how you look at it) are traced out by V-shaped cluster of stars called the Hyades.  The bright star called Aldebaran is not really part of the Hyades — it just happens to be in our line of sight between Earth and the cluster.

Not far from the Hyades, look for a smaller cluster called the Pleiades. This little cluster really has several hundred stars, plus some x-ray and radio sources, and a few brown dwarfs!  Think about all that as you gaze on this little glittery cluster.

If you have a pair of binoculars, take them along with you to enhance your gazing. They may help you see a few more stars and details in the nebula and clusters. If you have a telescope — well, you can have a great time seeing these objects in greater detail for the first time — or through a revisit if you’re an old fan. Whatever you do — enjoy your stargazing and have a wonderful holiday season!