Sunday, May 18, 2014

May Camelopardalids - A New Meteor Shower

A new meteor shower may be in the offing at the end of May. Predicted to peak the night of May 23 and early morning May 24, this new shower is the result of the earth's encountering the orbit of periodic comet 209P/LINEAR. 

While the US and Canada are in the best position to see the peak of the shower, it should be visible from anywhere in the northern hemisphere. As with all ephemeral astronomical events, we won't know for sure what it is like until it happens. The only way to know is go out and watch. Some astronomers are predicting a meteor storm, where over 1,000 meteors per hour could be seen. 

Meteor showers are named for the constellation from which they appear to radiate: the point in the sky where all of their trails would converge if drawn backwards. In our case, this is the ancient constellation Camelopardalis, located near the North Star, named for a mythical camel/leopard chimera. Today it is just called The Giraffe. You don't need to look at or even near the radiant to see shower members. They can appear anywhere in the sky. Just keep on lookin' up!

According to models the best time to observe the peak will be early in the morning of May 24, close to sunrise, but while it is still fully dark. Unfortunately for us, this is a Shabbat morning so we won't be doing any observing. But do let us know what you see if you are out for the event.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Aurora Alert for April 1 and 2

A powerful X-flare emitted by the sun on March 29 is scheduled to give earth a glancing blow on the nights of April 1 and 2. There is a 60% chance of auroras being produced by it, according to These auroras should only be visible from higher latitudes, so Israel will probably not experience any. Still, it's worth going outside to check. We will!

Here is a short video of the X-flare, a coronal mass ejection (CME) as recorded by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). 

March 29, Solar X-flare by NASA SDO

Friday, January 24, 2014

Saw the Supernova in M82 Last Night!

Although there were thin, high cirrus clouds in the sky last night, we went out to try to see the supernova in M82. And there it was! Dim, visible only with averted vision, but a distinct bright dot towards the edge of the galaxy: an old star that blew itself to smithereens 12 million years ago, but just now visible due to the finite speed of light. I was using my 5" (130mm) APO refractor and had a hard time seeing it, but that was probably just due to the cirrus cloud cover. This supernova will continue to be visible for the next coupld of weeks and is still brightening!

Supernova in Galaxy M82, 12 million light years distant. The closest supernova to us in 28 years.
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Thursday, January 23, 2014

New Supernova Erupts in Galaxy M82

A new supernova has erupted in M82, a nearby galaxy just 12 million light years away. The supernova has already reached magnitude 11.0, bright enough to be seen in small backyard telescopes. This is a Type 1a supernova which occurs when an old, super-dense white dwarf star pulls gas from a nearby companion star. When the mass of the white dwarf reaches 1.4x the mass of our sun the star blows itself to smithereens in a spectacular nuclear fusion event that releases more light and energy than over 400 billion stars. This is one bad explosion you don't want to be anywhere near. Fortunately, at a distance of 12 million light years we are safe.

This is one of the few times that such a bright supernova is easily seen in the northern hemisphere's night sky. It is the closest supernova to us in years. Supernovas are usually spotted in far distant galaxies, hundreds of millions or even billions of light years away, making them difficult to see without huge telescopes. This one in M82, just 12 million light years away, should be easy to see in backyard telescopes.

M82 is well positioned all night long after about 8:00 PM. You can find it along the line that diagonally connects the two bowl stars of the Big Dipper, Phecda and Dubhe.

Find M82 by running a diagonal line from Phecda to Dubhe in the bowl of the Big Dipper. Then extend that line an equal distance into the sky along the diagonal. That's where M82 is.
I do not know if the supernova is visible in binoculars. I will try to check tonight. But it should easily be visible in small telescopes. M82 is well placed all night long since the Big Dipper will be rising in the eastern sky shortly after sunset.

This is an annimation of M82 before and after the appearance of the Supernova.

Supernovas are nature's most powerful explosions. The bright dot you see above is just a single star, 12 million light years away, that has blown itself to smithereens in its old age. We should only die so gracefully. Try searching for it tonight. It is a rare wonder to behold such massive power at work in the universe.

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Friday, January 17, 2014

Love Under the Stars! finally happened. After two years of offering a free star tour adventure to anyone who proposed on one, Pinhus Dashevsky from Teaneck, New Jersey finally took us up on our offer. On Monday, February 13 Pinhus proposed on a star tour to his bashert, Lara Porter. They were in Israel on a school break holiday. Pinhus had sent me email in advance to arrange the details. I had their special songs and played one on my iPad as I walked I walked away to give them some privacy. I still managed to hear Pinhus excitedly ask, "Will you marry me?" (I always wondered how that was done, and No, I wasn't eavesdropping; he said it very loudly, so excited was he.) I didn't hear her answer but it must have been Yes, as I was soon called back, and we celebrated with a champagne L'chaim under the desert sky.

Pinhus Dashevsky and Lara Porter are engaged under the starry skies of Mitzpe Ramon.
Did I say we had a star tour? Actually, it was more like a moon, Jupiter and cloud tour, since those were the only celestial sights visible on this unusually cloudy night. But the clouds were unusual and quite beautiful, as we got to enjoy another ring, besides the engagement ring - a ring or halo around the moon caused by ice crystals in the cirrus clouds high above us.

A lunar halo around the moon, caused by ice crystals in high cirrus clouds. Toward the bottom left, inside the halo, a bright dot which is Jupiter, just barely shinning through the clouds. This was the first ring we got to see.
Pinhus presented Lara a beautiful triple stone, diamond engagement ring. It was truly stellar! The second ring we got to see that night.

The "stellar" engagement ring Pinhus offered Lara.
After the star tour we returned to the Green Backpacker where we continued our L'chaim with a chocolate engagement party cake. We made Lara and Pinhus blow out the two candles together.

The engagement cake. "Couple for life!"

Writer Abigail Klein Leichman picked up the event and provided a nice write up in

I guess this now makes us officially the most romantic thing to do in Israel for Valentines Day and Tu b'Av. 

The offer still stands. A free star tour if you propose to your beloved on one!! Come on down and take us up on our offer.

Ira "Star Man" Machefsky

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ginormous Panorama of the Night Sky by Nick Risinger

Nick Risinger, a 28-year old amateur astrophotographer, trekked 60,000 miles across the western US and South Africa to create this enormous 360-degree panorama of the night sky.

360-degree panorama of the night sky. The Milky Way, our home galaxy, cuts through the center of the photo with its bright arms, glowing gas, and dark nebulae.
It doesn't get really impressive until you click-in to the massive, scrollable panorama here:

Then it becomes OMG! Be sure to turn on constellations and identification of objects. This is one of the best sky maps I have ever seen. Congratulations to Nick! A formidable accomplishment.
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