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Thursday, February 21, 2019

SpaceX to Launch Israeli Moon Lander Beresheet on February 21/22, Thursday Night/Friday Morning

Elon Musk's SpaceX will launch Israeli Moon Lander Beresheet on Thursday February 21 at 8:45PM EST (February 22 at 3:45AM IST, 1:45 GMT February 22) on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral. If the mission is successful this will make Israel just the 4th nation to land on the moon after the US, China, and the Former Soviet Union.

Read full details and real-time streaming sites here:

Israel shoots for the Moon with Beresheet lander

Eitan, a volunteer with SpaceIL on tonight's star tour.

Real time location of lunar lander Beresheet and simulation of orbit to the moon:

Highlights of SpaceX Falcon 9 launch

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Total Lunar Eclipse in Israel, January 21, 2019

Early Monday morning, January 21, 2019, a total eclipse of the moon will be visible from Israel and most of the Western Hemisphere. Here are the timings of the eclipse in Israel:

Timings of the January 21, 2019 lunar eclipse. These timings are exact for Tel Aviv but virtually the same throughout the country. 

This eclipse occurs very close to moonset and during dawn. Totality occurs just after moonset so a tiny sliver of the moon remains uneclipsed when the moon sets. Since the eclipse begins close to moonset you will need a very clear western horizon to view the event. Even better would be a high location with a clear horizon. In the East, Jupiter and Venus will be the bright pair of objects rising in the East, almost in conjunction with each other. (Actual conjunction will occur the next day, January 22, when the two planets are closest together in the sky.)

Since the moon will be so close to the horizon, the dense atmosphere may make it hard to see as the eclipse progresses and darkens. Binoculars will be useful in that situation.

The lunar eclipse begins at 4:36AM in Israel, with the moon setting in the Weat. This is an all-sky photo from the SkySafari Pro app.

Timings of the event are pretty close to those in Israel from everywhere in the world in Israel’s time zone which is GMT+2. You can look up your exact time and circumstances of the eclipse here:


Because totality occurs at moonset (6:39am) in Israel a very rare event called a "Selenelion" may be visible. Sunrise is at 6:37am; total eclipsed moon sets at 6:39am. Celestial geometry says the sun and totally eclipsed moon should never be visible simultaneously in the sky, since the moon is eclipsed because it passes through the earth’s shadow with the sun opposite in the sky. But due to refraction caused by the earth’s atmosphere when objects are near the horizon, both the sun and moon appear higher in the sky than they actually are. Thus you can see them both at the same time, the sun rising in the east, the eclipsed moon setting in the west. You must be viewing an eclipse at just this right time, as occurs in Israel and other similar time zones during this eclipse to see a Selenelion. 

Super Full Blood Wolf Moon

You may have read that this full moon (the moon can only be eclipsed when it is full with the earth between the sun and moon) is being called a Super Full Blood Wolf Moon. Kind of scary. In modern times a full moon at perigee, it’s closest approach to earth, has come to be called a Supermoon because it appears larger in the sky. (Actually only about 10% larger than a normal full moon). This is the first of three consecutive full Supermoons in 2019. Every full moon has a name from indigenous cultures and the Native Americans called the first full moon of January the Wolf moon, possibly because the wolves could be heard howling at it in the winter night. Eclipsed moons are frequently called “blood moons” because of the red color they take on when fully eclipsed, hence the name “Super Full Blood Wolf Moon”.

Now for the bad news. Skies are expected to be cloudy throughout Israel the morning of January 21. But you may still be able to see the eclipsed moon peeking out from between the clouds. Good luck!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Comet 46P/Wirtanen Shines Brightly in December Skies

Comet 46P/Wirtanen, the brightest comet of 2018, puts on a good show in winter skies this month. It is well placed for viewing through most of the night. It should be visible to the naked eye in reasonably dark skies and with even small binoculars or a telescope in even light polluted skies. Below is a finder chart showing the stars and constellations of winter from December 13-17.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen finder chart for December 9-17. The comet is about 4th magnitude and slowly moves through the sky between the Hyades star cluster and the Perseids star cluster December 14-17. It is brightest on December 16, the night before its closest approach to Earth.
Take a look at more photos and information about the comet here:

December 13 is the peak of the Geminids meteor shower, so the sky should also be putting on a good display of meteors for your enjoyment.

Astronomy Israel will be having its usual star tours in Mitzpe Ramon Sunday-Thursday and some Saturday nights throughout the month of December and beyond. Sign up by clicking a "Book Now" button.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Astronomy Projects for Children this Fall

The main spectacle in the night sky this summer and on into winter has been the presence of (at times) all 5 of the naked eye planets in the sky simultaneously. Right now there are “only” 4 as Mercury has moved into the dawn sky, but I can’t remember ever seeing so many naked eye planets simultaneously in all my years of observing. Starting at sunset, around 8:00pm, from West to East, you can see brilliant Venus setting, bright Jupiter high in the sky, Saturn culminating at the Meridian, and brilliant red Mars rising high in the east. The contrasting colors of creamy white Venus setting and red Mars rising are especially striking. See here for photos are more information: 

Since these are all bright naked eye planets all you need is your own eyes to observe them. They will be in the sky through September (all 4) with their slow change with the seasons and their motion around the sun. 

Many projects for children are possible. The night sky is very colorful. See if you can detect the color differences in the planets. It’s one way to identify them. 

The planets also move through the sky as they orbit the sun. The word “planet” in Greek means wanderer. See if you can detect the motion of the planets as they “wander” against the background of “fixed stars” of the constellations of the Zodiac. Using a star map try to identify these constellations and their pictures in the night sky. If you go out regularly you can draw your own star map and trace the path of the planets. See if any stop and move backwards in the sky (from east to west) called retrograde motion. This used to blow the minds of ancient astronomers because it was hard to explain. 

If you have a pair that of binoculars or small telescope you should be able to see some of the 4 (bright) moons of Jupiter. You can watch them change position from night to night as they orbit the planet. A miniature solar system! Try drawing their positions the way Galileo did 408 years ago! He discovered them as the first person to observe the sky with a telescope and record his observations. You can be a 21st century Galileo!

These planets will be in the sky for most of the fall and are the main spectacle of fall nights. 

Finally, in December the Geminids meteor shower peaks on the night of December 13. Quoting from my calendar: “Planning on staying up late (or waking up early) for this one. The Geminids is the "king" of the meteor showers. It is considered by many to be the best shower in the heavens, producing up to 120 multicolored meteors per hour at its peak. It is produced by debris left behind by an asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon, which was discovered in 1982. The shower runs annually from December 7-17. It peaks this year on the night of the 13th and morning of the 14th. The first quarter moon will set shortly after midnight leaving dark skies for what should be an excellent early morning show. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Gemini, but can appear anywhere in the sky. “

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Review of the Perseids Meteor Shower Star Party

Well, the Perseids have come and gone for the year. The night was beautifully clear and dark. One of the best I have seen this year. The Alpaca Farm set up a wonderful location for the star party, dark skies and plenty of space to sit or lie down and watch the sky. About 100 people, including children, were in attendance. Ziv lead the Hebrew tour and I led the English tour. We were out from about 8:00pm to 3:00am. The meteor shower got off to a slow start, and we didn't start seeing lots until after midnight. But then the show picked up and we were sometimes seeing several every 10 seconds. But meteors fall in bursts, not continuously. I don't think we ever reached the maximum rate of 100 per hour but around 2:00am, near the peak time, we were probably averaging around 30 per hour. Most were short, bright bursts of light.

I held my meteorite raffle lots more than once per  hour, and many happy people went home with their own meteorites. I'm already looking forward to next year's show. In the mean time stay tuned for the next star party on December 13 (Thursday night) when the King of the Meteor Showers, The Geminids, peaks.

Perseids over Stonehenge

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Perseids Meteor Shower Star Party Sunday August 12, 2018

The best meteor shower of the year, the Perseids, peaks this year (2018) on Sunday night August 12 into early Monday morning August 13. The shower has peak rates of over 100 meteors per hour, and since it occurs in the warm summer months is a popular summer star gazing activity. To help celebrate the event Mitzpe Ramon is turning off all its town lights after  10:00pm and hopefully the other lights from military bases in the area to create an especially dark sky. The darker the sky, the more meteors we see. Mitzpe also holds a town star party which this year will be located in the Machtesh to avoid  over crowding the town with the thousands of people who usually come to see the event. During the day up to 20:00 there will be various astronomical events and free lectures around town. Details here. Hotels fill up quickly so if you are coming you should reserve your rooms immediately.

Astronomy Israel will be having its own star party on August 12 with special star party pricing of 75nis/person over the age of 6, no charge under 6. This is a big discount from our regular star tour prices, but we want every one to be able to come and enjoy the show. We will be out most of the night from dusk until whenever. This is an especially good year for the Perseids since there is no moon in the sky, as the moon is new on Sunday night and sets with the sun. A bright moon severely interferes with seeing the dimmer meteors in a shower. This year we will be doing both Hebrew and English tours of the night sky during the star party, with my co-pilot Ziv handling the Hebrew tour.

We are pleased to be holding this year's star party in conjunction with the Alpaca Farm of  Mitzpe Ramon who will be hosting the star party and providing camping accommodations to guests. They will also be selling drinks, snacks and, food. Camping at the Alpaca Farm is 120nis, including Alpaca Farm entrance fees. (Bring your own sleeping bags and tent, the Alpaca Farm is just providing the space.) A super-special discount for the star party: 25nis/person (6 years old and up, no charge under 6) if you sign up for the star tour together with camping at the Farm. Contact the Alpaca Farm to arrange for camping with them, not me. Mention the star party if you want to sign up for the special Alpaca Farm star party price. Those staying elsewhere should sign up directly for the star party at my booking site. The cost is 75nis/person (6 years old and up) if you are staying elsewhere.  No entrance fee to the Farm if you book the star party directly at my booking site. To contact the Alpaca Farm:
Phone: +972-52-897-7010
Web site:

The Alpaca Farm is just 5 minutes behind Mitzpe Ramon, down Ben Gurion Boulevard, the main road into Mitzpe Ramon.

To book the star party directly if you are staying elsewhere, click the button below:
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Other campgrounds around Mitzpe Ramon for viewing the meteor shower:

Meteors are what most people call "shooting stars" or "falling stars", but they are neither. They are bits of rock and debris from outer space that fall to earth and burn up from the heat of friction with the earth's atmosphere. It's their light generated by friction with the earth's atmosphere that we see. Usually these rocks from space just fall randomly so we only see a few per night. But sometimes the earth passes through the orbit of an ancient comet, which disintegrates as it orbits the sun and leaves a debris trail behind. As the earth passes through this cometary debris trail scores of particles fall to earth simultaneously creating a meteor shower. Really good showers like the Perseids can have peak rates in excess of 100 meteors per hour. Of course most of these are quite dim, but many bright ones are also visible creating "Ooohs" and "Ahhhs" from the onlookers.

Comet orbit
As the earth passes through  the orbit of an ancient comet debris rains down of our planet creating a meteor shower.
Israel is ideally placed this year to view the shower as the peak falls during the early morning hours of August 13 in this part of the world. Meteor scientists are also predicting a mini-peak around 11:00PM on August 12 as the earth passes through a small stream of particles left behing by Comet Swift-Tuttle, the comet that is the origin of the debris that makes up the Perseids Meteor shower. Make sure to be out by then.

Most meteors are quite tiny, minuscule even, about the size of a grain of sand. Of course, we don't  see an object that small in the sky, we just see the tremendous light generated as they burn up from friction. They begin to become visible at heights of around 50 miles to 175 miles high. But sometimes enormous objects fall to earth. Most recently the Great Chelyabinsk Meteor fell to earth on February 15, 2013, over the town of Chelyabinsk Russia. It was 60 feet in diameter and weighed over 12,000 tons when it entered the earth's atmosphere at a speed in excess of 100,000 MPH. It was the largest meteor to fall to earth in over 100 years and was captured by numerous dashboard cameras. I put together a compendium of the videos on YouTube, and it is one of the most dramatic astronomical events of recent memory:

If meteors are large enough they can survive their fiery fall through the earth's atmosphere and hit the ground, as the Chelyabinsk Meteor did. They then change their name to meteorites and can be found, collected and researched. They are primordial pieces of the solar system, over 4 billion years old. As usual I will have my large bag of magic "rocks from space" with me, and you will be able to hold real "shooting stars" in your hand. Also, as usual, we will be raffling off free meteorites every hour (retail value 50nis), and Yes, if you don't win one and really want to take one home we will sell them to you if you insist.

Two of the meteorite pairs we will be raffling at the star party: A Tektite (left)) and a fragment of the Campo del Cielo (right).
Meteors can be observed from any dark sky location and no optical equipment is needed or even desirable. They can appear anywhere in the sky so the best place to see them is a dark sky location with open horizons. Just lie down  on the ground and look up. That's why Mitzpe Ramon is such a popular location for viewing them. People often ask me where is a dark sky location besides Mitzpe and my answer is, "I don't know." I do almost all my observing from Mitzpe. You know your own area better than I do.My impression is that in the center of the country along Route 35 and 38 there are a number of parks where  the sky may be suitably dark, but I've never observed from there myself.

If you trace the path of meteors in a shower back from their source they appear to emanate from a single location in the sky, a particular constellation, called the "radiant" of the shower. The Perseids appear to emanate from the constellation Perseus, just below Cassiopeia. as the radiant rises higher in the sky more meteors are seen. That happens after midnight in August which is why the early morning hours are usually the best for viewing the meteor shower.

Perseids meteors
Time lapse photo of meteors appearing to emanate from the "radiant" in the constellation Perseus.
Although the peak of the shower is very sharp there is also a great increase in the number of meteors a few days before and a few days after the peak. This chart is an illustration of the the prediction of the rates for the shower in 2016:

Perseids ZHR
Predicted Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of the Perseids in 2016

As you can see from the above chart while the peak is quite sharp, which is why people try to come on the night of the peak, these is still quite an uptick in meteors 3-4 days before and after the peak and sometimes even longer than that, with rates in the 30 or so per hour, still far more than are seen on an average night. Of course most of these are quite dim, but there are still a few bright ones, fireballs, that make the night memorable, so it is also worth coming for a look at the shower a few days before or after the peak, although predicting what you will actually see then is impossible. But the sky will still be quite dark as there will still be no bright moon in the sky.

You can book our Perseids Star Party Tour by clicking this button:

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