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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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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Century's Longest Lunar Eclipse July 27, Tu B'Av!

The century's longest lunar eclipse is on Friday night July 27, Tu B'Av on the Jewish calendar. And lucky you if you live in Israel because you will have one of the best front row seats. Those living in the Americas and Canada, sorry! The eclipse ends before moon rise in your part of the world. So grab your best guy or gal, get an airplane ticket, and celebrate the Jewish night of romance with them under the totally eclipsed moon in Israel.

The chart below shows the timings and circumstances of the eclipse:

Total lunar eclipse of July 27, 2018
Timings and circumstances of the total lunar eclipse of July 27, 2018

Timings  of  the total lunar eclipse for Israel, with local Israel Daylight Times in parenthesis. In other words, the lunar eclipse begins at 9:24PM local time on Friday night, July 27, peak darkness is at 11:22PM on July 27, and ends at 1:19AM the morning of July 28.

2018 July 27
Partial eclipse begins: 18:24  UTC ( 21:24 Israel Daylight Time)
Total eclipse begins: 19:30  UTC (22:30 Israel Daylight Time)
Greatest eclipse: 20:22 UTC (23:22 Israel Daylight Time) 
Total eclipse ends: 21:13  UTC (00:13 Israel Daylight Time)
Partial eclipse ends: 22:19 UTC (01:19 Israel Daylight Time)
This is such a long eclipse because as you will note from the chart above, the moon passes almost directly through the very center of the earth's shadow, its widest part, spending the longest time of the 21st century in eclipse! This is also a Micromoon full moon, the opposite of a Supermoon. A Micromoon full moon occurs when the full moon is at apogee, its greatest distance from the earth, so it appears smaller in the sky. Hence it also spends more time in the earth's shadow. Aren't we lucky to be alive on this date and living in Israel for a front row seat!

Take some time while watching the eclipse to note the moon's darkness, called its Danjon Number during an eclipse. 0 is darkest, 5 is brightest. When the moon passes centrally through the  earth's shadow it's farthest from the edges of the shadow, so less sunlight gets refracted onto its surface during the eclipse.  During some very dark eclipses the moon may completely disappear. But this also depends alot on the earth's atmosphere at the time. The denser or cloudier it is around the globe the more sunlight gets refracted onto the moon and the brighter the eclipse. This is hard to predict so it should be fun to look for how dark this eclipse is and estimate its Danjon number. You can find out more about the Danjon Scale here.

All lunar eclipses occur during full moon, when the moon is opposite the sun with the earth in between. July 27th's eclipse falls out on the full moon of the Jewish month of Av, or Tu (meaning 15) B'Av, often referred to as Jewish Valentine's Day, since on this day in ancient times the girls used to dress in their finest and dance in the fields to encourage matches with the boys. A happy time after the fast and mourning of the 9th of Av, Tisha B'Av. So, what could be better than going out with your Bestie to enjoy the romance of the longest lunar eclipse of the 21st century? I will leave it to the astrologers if this is a good or bad omen, the eclipse of the light of love or its revelation in the darkness of the moon. In any case this should not be one of those famous "blood red" moon eclipses since it is so central in the earth's shadow and little refracted sunlight, which causes the red color, should be evident. In any case be sure to take in all the planets that will be visible during the night, and especially during the darkness of totality. (See our previous post on the summer planets.)

You need no optical aid to the view a lunar eclipse but even small binoculars enhance the view and will show you details on the moon that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye.

There are many events being held to view the lunar eclipse in Mitzpe Ramon, but since this is a Shabbat night we will not be holding our usual star tour. You can look those events up online  if you want to come down here. But a full moon and eclipse is usually so bright that you should be able to watch it from almost anywhere in Israel from the beaches of the Mediterranean to Diezengoff Square.
When I complained to a friend  that the longest lunar eclipse of the century was falling on Shabbat and I wouldn't be able to hold a star tour, he told me, "Relax, it's Gd's way of telling you to just enjoy yourself for once." And so I shall. I hope you do,too!

To find out more about this eclipse see here.

Friday, July 6, 2018

2018: Best Summer I can Remember for Viewing Naked Eye Planets

This is the best summer  I can remember ever for viewing the naked eye planets. All five, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, are all visible in the early evening sky, sometimes as many as four at one time! These are all the planets known to  the ancients, the sixth, Uranus, not being visible to the naked eye had to await the invention of the telescope and was discovered by the famous British astronomer Sir William Herschel on March 13, 1781.

Start off your evening of planet watching at 8:30pm looking west. You can't help but see the brilliant luminary Venus high in the western sky, looking like a beacon of light. In fact during war times it has frequently been mistaken as an incoming enemy aircraft and shot at by anti-aircraft gunners. They missed. Below and to the right of Venus, about 2/3rds down a diagonal line connecting Venus to the sunset point, is much dimmer Mercury. Around 8:30pm on July 6-12 it is the only other bright object visible in the sky, about 15 degrees above the horizon, WNW. Can you see it's distinctly yellow color compared to creamy white Venus?

Venus and Mercury in the western sky about 8:30pm on July 6, 2018.
Later in mid-July the new moon will appear near Mercury and make it easier to find if you haven't found it yet.

Venus and Mercury during mid-July with the new crescent moon right next to Mercury.
Don't wait too long to look for elusive Mercury it will start sinking lower in the sky at dusk after mid-month as it heads back towards the sun. This is a particularly good apparition of the planet with it so high in the sky and making it so easily found.

While you're watching Mercury set turn Eastward to find the ringed gas-giant planet Saturn rising about 15 degrees above the horizon in the southeast, right above the bow of the constellation Sagittarius. While the dimmest of all the planets in the sky now, besides Mercury, it is still the distinctively brightest object in that region of the sky. It kind of distorts the shape of the Archer's bow as it lies just above and left of its top-most star.

Now turn and face due south. It's hard to miss the brightest object now high in the sky at about 50 degrees above the horizon, the brilliant gas-giant Jupiter. After Venus sets about 10:00pm it is distinctively the brightest object in the sky.

You have now seen four of the five naked eye planets simultaneously in the  sky, a rare occurrence. I can't remember the last time I saw so many.

But wait! It get's better. Around 10:15pm be sure to look due east where you will see the brilliant red planet Mars rise at the horizon. This is the best apparition of Mars since 2003, so it is a brilliant red orb in the sky, brighter even than Jupiter, another rare occurence. Be sure to watch it as it rises and see if you can feel the earth move beneath you. I never can!

You have now seen all five naked eye planets in the sky in the span of just two hours. I have no idea when this will happen again so enjoy it now while you can.

For a real thrill why not join us for a star tour in Mitzpe Ramon where you can see the planets through our telescopes, as well as the star clouds of the Milky Way with the ringed planet Saturn in the foreground. Click the link below for a reservation.

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