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Monday, February 28, 2011

March 1 - Venus and the Moon Together in the Morning Sky

Heads up skywatchers. Don't forget that Venus will be just 2 degrees to the right and slightly below the waning moon in the early morning hours of Monday, March 1. (Two degrees  is about two thumb thicknesses at arms length.) The pair will make a lovely sight in binoculars, but also, once you find Venus, you should be able to see it in the daytime sky with the naked eye. This will be something to brag about to your friends.

The image below shows what the sky will look like from Israel on Monday morning at 8:00AM. The moon moves its own diameter (1/2 a degree) eastward in the sky about every 50 minutes (call it an hour). So you can adjust the relative position of the moon and venus accordingly. But don't wait too late, since Venus will become harder to find as the moon moves farther away.

The sun, moon, and Venus in the morning sky of Israel at 8:00AM, IST, March 1, 2011. (Click for full size image.)

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How Dark Are My Skies?

We are participating in the Globe at Night citizen-science project going on now through March 6. This is a project to estimate the amount of light pollution world-wide by comparing star maps of the constellation Orion with what is visible in the local night sky. Light pollution is not only bad for star lovers, but it also has a deleterious effect on wild life, and has recently been found to increase the incidence of caner. We have posted five magnitude estimates for the darkness of the skies in Israel: One from the beach in Ashdod and four from Mitzpe Ramon.

We were in Ashdod for Shabbat, and as we left on Saturday night, we made a stop in the parking lot by the beach so I could do a magnitude estimate on the constellation Orion. There had been a dust storm Friday and heavy winds on Shabbat whipping up white caps and large breakers on the beech. By Saturday night the wind had abated, but the sky was quite hazy over the Mediterranean, so I don't think my estimate of a limiting magnitude of 3 was accurate for the area. It is probably at least limiting magnitude 4 by the beach, although Ashdod, as Israel's 4th largest city, has plenty of light pollution.

My next darkness estimate was at my regular observing location above Mitzpe Ramon. Here I judged the limiting magnitude as 6, generally considered the naked eye limit, although the comparison sky charts provided by the Globe at Night go down to magnitude 7. This is a very dark location, despite its proximity to the town of Mitzpe Ramon. The magnitude limit is not even across the sky, since there is a light pollution dome from Mitzpe to the east, although some of it is blocked out by desert hills. Looking out south and west, as well as at the zenith, the sky is quite dark, probably Bortle Zone 2-3.

Since I do almost all of my observing from around Mitzpe Ramon, I wanted to plot the darkness/light pollution from a number of locations. So, my next stop was Har Gamal, a camel shaped promontory on the edge of town that overlooks the Machtesh. From here the bright lights of the town are visible, as well as some lights from a new area under development. Despite this, I was surprised to find that the skies were magnitude 5. I expected them to be much worse, perhaps eve magnitude 3. I think it is because the area around Mitzpe Ramon is so dark, that the lights from the city have as little effect as they do.

I then journeyed over to the Visitor Center, now under reconstruction, which sits at the edge of town by Route 40 and the new Bereshit hotel. Light pollution is significant here, and I found, as I expected, that the limiting magnitude was about 4.

To round out my mapping of the light pollution around Mitzpe Ramon I wanted to get a reading from within the town itself, so I chose an empty field across from the CafeNeto. It is surrounded at a distance by street lights, but none shine directly in the eye from nearby. Here was my biggest surprise, because the limiting magnitude here, as at the Visitor Center was 4, although there were many more lights surrounding me. I expected the limiting magnitude here to be 3 or even 2. I can only conclude that the small size of Mitzpe Ramon, fewer than 5,000 people, and the generally clear and very dark surrounding skies kept the sky darker than I expected. All in all, I believe Mitzpe Ramon continues to have some of the darkest skies in Israel.

Teide Volcano, Snow, Lightning, and Orion (Click for full-size image)

Finally, above is a remarkable photo of the constellation Orion and Auriga as seen from the Canary Islands after huge storms have passed through. At the bottom left is the Teide volcano whose flanks are covered with snow from the passing storm, while the entire scene is lit with cloud-to-cloud lightening.

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Seeing Venus in the Daylight

The planet Venus is so bright it can be seen in the daylight. But in order to see it you have to know exactly where to look. On Monday morning, March 1, the waning crescent moon, just 10% illuminated, will be just a few degrees north of Venus, making the planet easy to spot in binoculars. Once you've seen it in binoculars, you should be able to see it with your naked eye. It may help to hide the sun behind a tree or building to reduce its glare.

Chart courtesy of Sky and Telescope Magazine

At 9:00AM local time on the morning of March 1, the moon will be about 30 degrees above the horizon and just north and east of Venus. This will be well observed in Israel with the position of the moon relative to Venus at that time about 2/3rds of the way between "Dehli" and "London" in the diagram above, which is about 3 degrees above and to the left of Venus. You may need binoculars to see the moon, since it is very near to new. Venus should be an easy sight below and right. Let us know if you succeed.

And remember to Keep on looking up!

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Monday, February 21, 2011

How Dark Are Your Skies?

Here is an opportunity to contribute to science, have fun, and learn about your local sky conditions. The sixth Globe at Night 2011 Campaign kicks off on February 21 and lasts until March 6. In this citizen-science project contributors from around the world will estimate how dark their skies are by comparing what they see from their location with star charts that show stars at different limiting magnitudes. The constellation chosen for this campaign is Orion, one of the most prominent and brightest constellations in the winter sky. There is even a smart phone web app that allows you to compare the sky to charts you see on the screen, fill out the form on your phone, and submit the report in real time. How cool is that!

You can do this as many nights from as many locations as you please. Or just do it once and enjoy contributing to a world wide environmental science project. The Globe at Night will integrate all of the data into a map of sky brightness around the world which will be viewable from the project's web site. This should just take a few minutes a night and will give you a chance to become familiar with one of the oldest and most beautiful constellations in the heavens.

Do this project with your children or your class, if you are a teacher. Sky brightness can vary widely over a small area, so you can compile your own map of local sky brightness. You can use it to keep track of the growing threat of light pollution in your community and even use it for an action agenda to help mitigate the effects of light pollution.

And while engaged in this project, you won't have to remember to Keep on looking up!

Globe at Night reports from 2010

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Standard Model of Cosmology - Simplified

The BBC's "Horizon" series has a fascinating hour long show presenting the ideas of the Standard Model of Cosmology - atoms, dark matter, and dark energy - in a simplified, easy to understand format. I recommend it highly. It brings together a lot of very abstruse material and makes it understandable to the non-scientist. Also unusual is its way of handling "talking head" shots, by setting scientists in unusual milieus for their interviews. According to the Standard Model of Cosmology the universe is composed of 4% baryonic matter (atoms and their sub-particles that make up the visible universe), 23% dark matter (a mysterious, heretofore undetected substance that interacts with baryonic matter only through its gravitational force), and 73% dark energy (a mysterious, so far undetected energy that is responsible for the acceleration of the expansion of the universe).

In keeping with George Gilder's ruminations in "The Israel Test", I will note that something like 8 of the 10 modern scientists instrumental in advancing the Standard Model of Cosmology are Jewish. One of them, Vera Rubin at The Carnegie Institue, who discovered the flat-rotation curve of spiral galaxies, is an observant Jew who chose her field of research so she could stay home, be a good Jewish wife, and raise her four children, all of whom became scientists in their own right. Sometimes a narrow discipline, instead of an abandonment, is the gateway to great discoveries. On the possible conflict between religion and science she said in an interview: "In my own life, my science and my religion are separate. I'm Jewish, and so religion to me is a kind of moral code and a kind of history. I try to do my science in a moral way, and, I believe that, ideally, science should be looked upon as something that helps us understand our role in the universe."

In the early '70s, research on black holes was all the rage but required traveling to distant, large telescopes. Instead, Vera Rubin gave up the pursuit of the sexy topic of the day and focused her attention on something she could do close to home. Like Henrietta Leavitt, her Congregationalist predecessor who in 1908 discovered Cephid variables, now the "standard light candle" of astronomy, Rubin's discovery served as the observational foundation on which the Standard Model of Cosmology has been built. Even the main opposition to the Standard Model is led by a Jew, Prof. Mordechai Milgrom of the Weizmann Institute in Israel, who has proposed nothing less audacious than a modification of the laws of gravity to explain the flat-rotation curves of spiral galaxies.

If all of this sounds rather daunting, the video will soon make it clear.

Having trouble watching the embedded video? Go here:

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Great Backyard Bird Count - This Weekend

Many star watchers are also bird lovers. This wekend, from Feb. 18-21, you can participate in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This is a wonderful way to participate in Citizen Science, where your observations become a significant source of information about the bird population in North America. It's also a fun family activity and a great way to introduce your children to the scientific method and what can be done with something so seemingly simple as a count of birds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site will show real-time updates of the count and results of research based on it. Your count sheet is also worth saving. I have looked back on mine over the years, and it brings back many happy memories of the day. So get in on the fun now.

One tip to see as many birds as possible: Start putting out bird seed now to attract birds to your back yard. (No, this is not cheating!) You don't even need a bird feeder. Many birds are ground feeders, so they won't even come to your backyard bird feeder. The best seed is just plain sunflower seed that can be bought in 5-10+ pound bags in the grocery store. Many so-called "song bird mixes" have waste seed that the birds will not touch. They are not a good buy. But just about every backyard bird in America will eat plain sunflower seed. Just throw out a few handfuls, preferably near bushes, as birds like a protected area to feed from. But, if you have an outdoor feeder, that's OK, too.

Unfortunately, the GBBC is only hosted in the United States. We need someone to start this up in Israel. Any takers out there?

Keep on looking up, and, this weekend, out!

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Heads Up for Aurora Watchers

The largest solar flare in 4 years and the first X-flare of the current solar cycle peaked at 3:56 AM Israel Standard Time on February 15th. The flare, which released a huge burst of ultraviolet light, was followed by a coronal mass ejection (CME) which is expected to reach earth Feb. 16 and 17.

An X2 class solar flare peaked on Feb. 15, 2011, at 3:56AM IST. (Click for animated image)

Coronal mass ejections can cause electromagnetic disturbances and auroras visible world-wide. Auroras are usually only visible from high northern latitudes, but a disturbance as large as a CME can create auroras when the charged particles of the sun's atmosphere interact with the earth's magnetic field that are even visible from far southerly latitudes.

The coronal mass ejection was captured by NASA's STEREO-B spacecraft.

It will pay to keep on looking up! when you are out the next few nights to look for any auroral displays. The waxing gibbous moon will interfere but a bright aurora can be seen nevertheless.

Remember to Keep on looking up!

Update on 2/18/2011: It looks like the coronal mass ejection missed the earth and there will be few electromagnetic or power disturbances. There may still be enhanced auroral activity, so keep your peepers ready. (

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Monday, February 14, 2011

What Do You Think of Our New Logo?

We are working on a new logo with an Israeli design firm. It is still in progress. What do you think of it currently? It's the new logo on top of our home page! Comments welcome here or on Facebook.

Our new logo

Our original web banner

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Chez Eugene - A Boutique Hotel and Restaurant in Mitzpe Ramon

Chez Eugene has to be my favorite hotel in Mitzpe Ramon (or maybe anywhere for that matter). It is small and elegant, Gallic charm without French hauteur. The rooms are expansive and decorated with a keen eye for color, texture and shape. Architectural touches, such as see-through, room long fireplaces that give onto elegant, footed bath tubs make for romantic vistas. Some rooms have sky-lights over the bed; others have private terraces and outdoor jacuzzis. The hotel is small -- only 6 rooms, with 2 for families in a secluded location so as not to disturb other guests. If you've ever been to Israeli vacation-spot hotels with screaming kids running around, you will doubly appreciate this.

The hotel seems unaccountably out of place, located in the industrial area of Mitzpe Ramon. But once you walk through the doors, you are in another world - un petit arrondissment. Arnaud Rodrigue, the owner and frequent presence, and his staff pay meticulous attention to their guests and are always thinking of ways to please them and make their stay special. The hotel and restaurant feature local desert products, and the hotel was even built by artisans and workers from Mitzpe Ramon.

A wall-length, see-through fireplace romantically separates the bath from the other rooms.

The elegantly appointed bath room.

Le Roi Soleil: A beautiful pair of turquoise chairs grace the corner of a room.

A view with a room and a cozy heat stove in the corner.

Yair Feinberg is the star chef at Chez Eugene's restaurant, having studied under the likes of Paul Bocuse. The restaurant features European cuisine with a Mediterranean touch, sourcing local products from the desert and Israel.

Chef Yair Feinberg and waitress Lotem.

The restaurant at Chez Eugene

Chez Eugene from its corner view.

(Chez Eugene) Shhhhh...a secret place in the desert.

You can find out more about (Chez Eugene) here.

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Monday, February 7, 2011

A Jewish Geography Moment

It happens so often that I hate to bring it up. I'm sure a statistician could explain why it isn't uncommon. We had a Jewish Geography Moment last week at Astronomy Israel. We met Leslie Weinberg and her daughter Sharon (and Sharon's boy friend Ariel) at Chez Eugene to go up for an astronomy tour. As I discovered on the phone before we met in person, Pam (my wife) was good friends with Leslie's mother and father who, among other things, had helped found the nursery school at the Tenafly, NJ JCC where Pam was the 2-year old director for many years before we moved to Israel. (Was that too hard to follow?) In any case, Pam insisted on my giving Leslie a card for her Mom, together with a soap made in Mitzpe Ramon's own soap factory, all packaged in a tidy little brown bag with handles, which made me laugh at Pam because who has room for such things in their suitcase? However, the joke was on me since Leslie's suitcase was empty as she had just brought a bag full of goodies to her daughter who had recently moved to Israel.

The point of all this is that we already had the basis of a relationship before we even met, so we had a rollicking good time on the plateau where I take our guests. Just by chance, it was night in which we saw many sporadic meteors and random satellites. This is always a thrill and resulted in a contest between Leslie and Sharon to see who could count the most. This is when I keep reminding our guests to "keep on looking up". You can't see anything if you're not watching the sky. I think Sharon trounced her mom, or perhaps my memory fails me. In any case, it got so heated that they began accusing one another of cheating. What fun!

Sharon, Ariel, and Leslie Weinberg on site with Astronomy Israel.

Sharon's beau, Ariel, came up with one of the best back handed complements I have ever heard. Being familiar with Hubble Telescope photos he said, upon looking through my 4" refractor, "I will lower my expectations to increase my pleasure." A rather wry comment that got a good laugh from us all and an admonition from me that he might not want that sentiment to linger in the mind of his possible future mother-in-law.

Keep on looking up!
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Crepuscular Clouds

Sun's rays shine out from a crepuscular cloud in Mitzpe Ramon.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

"Time Out Israel" Likes Astronomy Israel

We got a great write-up in the February edition of Time Out Israel, the "Israel for Lovers" issue. We are together with our patron hotel, Chez Eugene, the finest hotel and restaurant in Mitzpe Ramon. See page 17 of the digital edition for the full article.

Our page in the February issue of "Time Out Israel". (Click for full size)

Mitzpe Ramon's desert sky makes for a fantastic star gazing night...Machefsky leads the personalized tours in English and points out the constellations, stars and planets with passion. - Time Out Israel

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How Dark are the Skies in Mitzpe Ramon?

Mitzpe Ramon proper has quite bright lighting, unfortunately, but just a few kilometers out of the city and you are back in the desert where the sky is quite dark. How dark? John Bortle developed a standardized scale for evaluating sky darkness which has become widely adopted. It has been used in the World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness to color code a world map to show light pollution.

Mitzpe Ramon on a Bortle Scale map of Israel. Black-gray-blue-green-yellow indicate increasing light pollution. White is the most light polluted.

Bortle dark sky classes

Mitzpe Ramon is located at the border of a Bortle Scale gray/blue (Class 2/3) zone which is described as "typical truly dark site/rural site". Only Class 1, black, "excellent dark sky site" has darker skies. As you can see, much of tiny Israel suffers from light pollution, with only a small area of the central Negev classified as "truly dark". This is where Mitzpe Ramon lies (see map).

But the Negev's dark skies are under constant attack. Mitzpe Ramon itself, a town of about 5,000, does not do enough to mitigate light pollution. A new training facility for IDF officers just outside Mitzpe Ramon throws bright light unnecessarily across the desert. Gas stations along Route 40 are lit like sports stadiums. Tourist lodgings like Hawarim Farm have spot lights that light up the surrounding desert like a prison, and then there is Nafha/Ramon Prison which is lit like a prison because, well, it is one. Unless care is taken the little dark sky that remains in Israel will soon be swallowed by lights that are completely unnecessary.

Institutions like the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) are designating places official "dark sky" locations in recognition of their efforts to control light pollution and encourage astronomy tourism. The Channel Island of Sark, in the English Channel, is the first destination to be so named. Wouldn't it be great if Israel could work towards protecting and extending the dark skies of the Negev to become the first area in the Middle East to be named a "dark sky" destination!

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