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Thursday, September 28, 2017

"May You Be Written and Sealed for a Sweet New Year"

Here these sentiments are expressed in this curious Yiddish New Year's card from the early 1900s. The banner says," “Children! You are looking at the New Year star. May your luck shine just as bright and clear.” A shooting star passes through the frame of the window, bidding the viewers “a sweet year,” written on the star itself.

Is Virgo teaching the girls a lesson for the New Year while wishing them a sweet one?

When I first saw this card, sent by a friend, I though the shooting star was a comet. You can't watch shooting stars with a telescope. They are strictly naked eye phenomena. But of course, the depiction is of a falling star/shooting star, as seeing them brings luck and we are supposed to make a wish on them that will come true. Appropriate for a New Year's greeting card.

Then why a telescope? Perhaps to add a touch of scientific authenticity to an otherwise astrological theme. A closer inspection of the photo shows how little the artist knew about telescopes. Although there is an eyepiece inserted at the end for the children to look through, the eyepiece is at the wrong end of the tube. Telescopes taper from the lens at the top to the eyepiece at the bottom. That's because the lens is always bigger. You'll notice that our artist has placed the eyepiece at the fat end of the tube, where the objective lens is! This telescope doesn't work at all.

Although astrological in theme there are a number of curiosities. Who is the woman dressed in angelic garb with wings and festooned with flowers? Perhaps Virgo, HaBesulah in Hebrew. The sun moves from Leo into Virgo around the time of Rosh Hashannah and perhaps this is illustrating that astronomical/astrological event. Virgo is often depicted with wings and flowers as a Maiden.

Why are the children all girls? Perhaps Virgo is trying to teach them a lesson about chastity and modesty in the New Year. That might also explain the curiosity of all the children bring female.

In any case we wish one and all a Chasivah v'Chasimah Tovah. May you all be written for a sweet year and your wishes granted, whether you see a shooting star or not!

/Ira, The Starman of Mitzpe Ramon

Monday, August 7, 2017

Partial Lunar Eclipse in Israel, August 7, 2017

A partial lunar eclipse will be visible in Israel on the night of August 7, 2017. The partial phase begins at 8:23PM. Mid-eclipse is at 9:20PM. The eclipse ends at 10:18PM. Since this is a partial eclipse only the southern part of the moon will be covered by the earth's shadow. The top half will remain bright. But the eclipsed southern part of the moon should show a nice ghostly red color. This eclipse is visible everywhere in Israel where the sky is clear. You do not need optical aid to see it, but even binoculars will enhance the view.

Timings for the partial lunar eclipse of August 7, 2017. Add 3 hours to UT (Universal Time) to get Israel Local Time.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Perseids Meteor Shower 2017 in Mitzpe Ramon

The Perseids Meteor Shower is visible from July 17-August 24, with a sharp peak of 60-90 meteors per hour on the night of August 12-13. This year the waning gibbous moon will interfere with visibility of the shower as it rises on August 12 at 10:30pm and on August 13 at 11:11pm. By August 15 the last quarter moon rises shortly after midnight giving us a dark sky for the two hours of our star tour from 9:30-11:30pm.

The moon will be quite bright and will interfere with the visibility of the dimmer members of the meteor shower. The brighter members of the shower will still be visible but it's hard to say how many of those will be seen. Add to that the fact that we've had very hazy skies this summer from the Chamsin-like weather we've had and the shower may disappoint this year. As you can see from the shower intensity graph below, the best nights to view the shower, ignoring the moon, are August 11-15.

Intensity of the Perseids Meteor shower, meteors per hour on each day of the shower. 

We never have star tours on Shabbat so our first star tour  of the shower period will be held on the peak night of the Perseids, August 12 starting at 10:30pm. (We will have our regular star tours the preceding week of August 6-10 at 9:30pm, but that is a full moon week and the bright moon will interfere with viewing all but the brightest members of the shower.) We are usually out for two hours, but if the shower is good we will stay out longer. Star tours from August 13 and onwards will start at our regular time of 9:30pm.

In past years Mitzpe Ramon has held its annual star party on the night of August 12, the peak of the meteor shower, turning off all the town lights and army-base lights in the vicinity. About 9,000-10,000 people used to come to Mitzpe for this event. The town is not doing that this year. Instead the town is hosting astronomy nights during the 4 weekends in August. Special astronomy events will be held in the Spice Routes Quarter of town. Local lights there will be turned off during these 4 weekends. That makes it possible to see the sky from there but does nothing to reduce the overall light from town - a bit disappointing but Mitzpe is still a very dark region of Israel. The problem for this year's Perseids is the waning gibbous moon, not Mitzpe Ramon's town lights.

You can find out more about Mitzpe Ramon's astronomy weekends in August here:


You don't have to come to Mitzpe Ramon to view the meteor shower. All you need is a dark sky with an open horizon. Just sit back or lie on the ground and look up. Watch the skies with your naked eye. No optical equipment required. While you can watch in any direction, looking east if you can't look straight up, is usually best, as that is the direction the radiant of the shower rises in the constellation Perseus, which gives the Perseids its name.


The nights of August 11-August 15 are best for viewing this year's Perseids Meteor Shower. A bright, waning, gibbous moon will interfere with seeing the dimmer members of the shower which will considerably reduce the hourly rate. The nights of August 14 and 15 may be a good compromise between intensity and darkness for early night viewers of the shower. Check the forecast for haze on the nights of August 11-15. Haze combined with a bright moon do not make for good meteor viewing.

Perseids Meteor Shower Update on August 10, 7:10PM

We have been out every night this week. So far, very few meteors observed, maybe 1-2 per hour from 8:00PM to 1:00AM every night. An occasional fireball, a really bright meteor, was observed. The moon has been incredibly bright, and haze has returned to our skies, scattering the moon's light across the sky and making even bright stars hard to see. None of this bodes well for the upcoming peak of the shower on Saturday night and Sunday morning.

Perseids Meteor Shower Update on August 13, 2:45AM

While we don't do a star tour on Shabbat, we did walk out to the edge of  the crater on Friday night, August 11, after dinner around 11:00PM. This was the first peak night. The sky was quite discouraging. There was a bright moon hanging in the sky accompanied by high haze. Worse, the crater was full of fog blocking the view of the many people we could see camping from the light of their fires. We didn't stick around for long and saw no meteors while we were out.

Saturday night August 12, the second peak night, we were out after Shabbat by 9:00PM to set up for our star tour. The sky was wonderfully clear. No moon yet and the haze had largely dissipated. Once our star tour began around 10:15PM we saw many meteors. Or should I say I heard them. I'm too busy doing the star tour to always watch they sky. We heard constant "Wows" from our guests until just after the moon broke the horizon at about 11:00PM and for about 30 minutes thereafter. I don't have any actual meteor count, but we were probably seeing on average about one meteor per minute, many of them quite bright and long. It was definitely a shower. As the moon rose higher the meteor count dropped until after around 1:00AM we no longer saw any. We may have been in a temporary lull, the peak may have ended or maybe the moon was just too bright. I don't know. In any case we will try again on Sunday night with a star tour at 9:30PM. It's a day past the peak, but the moon will rise 40 minutes later so we should have a dark sky for almost the entire star tour.

Contact to join one of our star tours.

Next year the shower's peak coincides with new moon, so no moon in the sky all night long. Mark your calendars now! August 11, 12, and 13 - Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights. It's the same date every year, folks!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Tour May’s Sky: Big Dipper Leads the Way

Tour May’s Sky: Big Dipper Leads the Way: Listen to May's astronomy podcast to learn why stargazers think of the Big Dipper as the 'Swiss Army Knife' of the late-spring northern sky.

The "sickle" of Leo

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Praise for the Starman of Mitzpe Ramon

…you were the highlight of our trip to the Negev. I was worried that a two hour plus astronomy talk would be a step too far....but it was truly fantastic and loved by us all. Was sorry when it ended. It is a must for all - you are a STAR man on many fronts.
C.K., April 2017
Fabulous program. Thank you so much!
H.B., April 2017

Having Ira as our guide for the stars was a privilege. He turned our night tour into an unforgettable experience where we could witness falling stars, constellations and planets. He is fun, patience, smart, kind and very kind. We learned a whole lot about the sky, the stars, and about ourselves. It was a fantastic -and musical- experience!

Aryeh, Tel Aviv, August 6, 2017


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