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Thursday, May 31, 2012

"Manhattanhenge" - Tonight!

Here we are in the US, not far from Manhattan, with the celebrated "Manhattanhenge" event, as named by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, about to occur.

This event occurs around Memorial Day every year when the setting sun aligns with the canyon towers of the Big Apple, casting its sunset glow from west to east across the island. In homage to the great rocks in England at Stonehenge which were used to mark the summer solstice, physicist Tyson named this occurrence in Manhattan after them.

The event should be visible at
8:16 pm this evening at sunset.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:Booth Ave,Englewood,United States

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Last Transit of Venus in Your Lifetime (Probably)

A transit of Venus occurs when that planet passes exactly between the earth and the sun, obscuring part of the sun with its disk and allowing Venus to be seen as a dark globe crossing the face of the sun. Such transits occur in pairs about every hundred years. The last transit was in 2004. The next transit will occur in Israel on the morning of June 6, 2012. The transit will already be in progress when the sun rises that morning and will end between 7:37AM and 7:55AM that morning with interior and exterior egress of the planet. The next transit will not occur until the year 2117, probably not in the lifetime of anyone now living, except perhaps for Ray Kurzweil.  :-)

This chart shows the circumstances of the transit of Venus as seen from Mitzpe Ramon. (Play with it here.)
The transit of Venus used to be important because Sir John Herschel correctly predicted, in the 18th century, that the distance of the earth to the sun could be determined by measuring the transit times from far apart places on the earth and using some trigonometric calculations together with Kepler's laws to determine the distance. He was correct, but the accurate measurement that was required was difficult to achieve because of the vast distances that had to be travelled, the challenging political and natural hazards of that era, as well as a phenomenon that came to be called "the black drop effect", wherein the orb of Venus appeared to be connected to the limb of the sun by a thin black thread (an optical effect, not a real connection), making accurate timings almost impossible to achieve. These days the transit is important because scientists hope to use the event to find out more about how to search for exoplanets as they transit the disk of their distant suns.

The were many great adventures, triumphs and tragedies that resulted from these early attempts, including the hook up of Mason and Dixon, who later went to the United States to measure a boundary that would bear their name and become famous for dividing the slave from the free states in the US. These stories are well worth reading about.

In the era of the Internet, there are apps that will attempt to crowd-source the timings, and they will be fun and enlitghening to use, even if you don't view the transit or participate in making timings. More about them and the transit here.

Unfortunately, your Starman of Mitzpe Ramon will not be in Israel for this event, so, sadly, you are on your own. Remember, never look at the sun without adequate and proper optical protection. You will permanently damage your vision if you do. This event is best seen with a telescope with a solar filter, although with your (properply protected) naked eye you should be just be able to make it out, although not with enough detail to perform any timings. There are a number of places to buy eye protection to view the sun in Israel including Bareket Observatory and the retailer Cosmos. Bareket observatory should also be able to tell you where public viewing of the transit will be done in Israel.

Good luck seeing the last transit of Venus this century. We will miss you. And remember...Keep on Lookin' Up!

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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Wise Observatory Open House

The Wise Observatory lies high in the hills above Mitzpe Ramon. It is the only working research observatory in the Middle East, owned and operated by Tel Aviv University. I frequently get calls from people who either think I am the Wise Observatory or that I can give tours of it. Alas, neither is the case. The observatory is closed to the public every day of the year except one, Yom Haatzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, when the Astronomy Club of Tel Aviv University hosts an open house.

This Yom Haatzmaut was no exception, and the observatory was open from 4:00PM to 10:00PM. A good crowd totaling about 2000 showed up for the event. Amateurs from the astronomy club were there with telescopes for a star party and inside the observatory garduate students gave astronomy talks. I don't know if the 40 inch scope was available to see, but unfortunately, all of the observing was done with the much smaller amateur scopes outside. Next year, could we please get a look through the 40 inch reflector!
As I ascended the road to the Wise Observatory, these people were setting out on a sunset horse ride from the Alpaca Farm in Mitzpe Ramon.
Approaching the observatory from below
Wise Observatory flying Israel's colors on Yom Haatzmaut

The observatory on its hill from inside the grounds.
The 18 inch all digital telescope near the entrance. Very fast f-ratio of about 1.8.

A close-up view of the 18 inch scope.
Enjoying the star party. The telescope was pointed at Venus, very easy to see in the day time sky.

This old pad will soon be home to a new 28 inch telescope and dome.

Heading up to the observatory from below.
View of the surrounding desert and the far rim of Machtesh Ramon on the right from the observatory entrance.
Presentation about the composition of the universe. Yes, it's made of bubble gum.
The observatory at night.

If you didn't make it this year, try for next year. And by the way, the domes you see from Route 40 just north of Mitzpe Ramon do not belong to the observatory. Those are radar domes of the IAF.

Remember to Keep on Lookin' Up, and clear skies and Happy Observing to you all.

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Supermoon Over Machtesh Ramon

Just 16 hours after the perigee full moon, we saw it rise again, this time over the desert landscape above and beside Machtesh Ramon. It rose like a huge orange pumpkin in the sky, slowly climbing to illuminate our observing plateau. Another wonderful sighting of this special moon.

Supermoon on Sunday, May 6, rising 16 hours after perigee above the rim of Machtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater). 

Perigee full moon rising above Mitzpe Ramon, not exactly Ansel Adams.

"Moonrise Over Hernandez, New Mexico", Ansel Adams

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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Did You See the Supermoon?

Last night's Supermoon did not disappoint. We went out to the Machtesh overlook around 7:30PM, a bit later than I had wanted to be there, but there was the full moon hanging low in the sky, having risen about an hour earlier, big and bright. There were young students sitting on the floor of the Bird's Nest Lookout singing Shalos Seudos songs, while behind us the boys from the high school yeshiva were singing their Shalos Seudos songs. A few tourists stood at the edge with us watching the moon rise. There was still sunset light in the west and the combination of it and the full moon gave the carter a glorious glow, especially the distant rim where Shein Ramon jutted out from the edge. Venus was in the west and my wife noticed a bright star very close by, which turned out to be El Nath, the end of one of Taurus the Bull's horns, doing double duty as one of the stars of Auriga's pentagram.

Later that nigh, actually the morning of May 6th, I went outside around 4:00AM local IDST and found the moon hanging  low near one of the tall trees in the park near our apartment. I couldn't resist taking this photo below. I hope you had a chance to enjoy it as much as Pam and I did.

Supermoon of May 6, 2012. 4:00AM local time, as seen from Mitzpe Ramon. Photo by Ira Machefsky.

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Friday, May 4, 2012

Big Fat Moon of Iyar

The full moon of Iyar, coming on the night of Saturday May 5, will be much larger and brighter than usual. This full moon coincides with the moon's closest approach to earth, called its perigee, when it will appear 14% bigger and 30% brighter than the average full moon. This is because the full moon will occur with the moon at a distance of just 221,802 miles (356,955 km) from earth, while the average distance is about 230,000 miles (384,400 km).

Go outside around 7:00 PM near the end of Shabbat, and you will see this Supermoon rising in the east as twilight ends. Since there are no measuring sticks in the sky it can be hard to notice that this moon is bigger than an ordinary full moon. But when the moon is near the horizon it looks extra big anyway, for reasons that still baffle astronomers and psychologists, but on the night of a Supermoon, you should still be able to notice how much larger a Supermoon looks as it rises close to the horizon. Later in the evening it will be harder to tell that this moon is bigger and brighter than normal.

Above the moon, bright Saturn shines next to Spica, the lucida of Virgo (Ha'btulah). Cruising high overhead in the constellation Leo (Ari) is ruddy Mars, casting its baleful glow over our "darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night." To the west, the brilliant Venus shines above the setting sun, like a diadem in the crown of night. 

This full moon also coincides with the peak of the Eta Aquarids meteor shower, a remnant of Halley's Comet, where the earth sweeps through the debris field left by that comet in its orbital wake. The full moon will blot out most of the meteors from this shower, usually peaking at around 60 meteors per hour, but brighter members may still be seen. In any case, it should add a nice sparkling touch to the evenings stellar affairs. 

This special moon, planets and meteor shower should make for a memorable night of star gazing.

We held a star party for a group from Wind River Systems last night. One of their number captured this image of the moon, 2 days from full, with his iPhone through our telescope. 

Nearly-full moon iPhone photo through Celestron C8 by Samuel Panijel

Remember to Keep on lookin' up and happy stargazing on Saturday night!


The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land, 
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in. 

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow 
Of human misery; we 
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

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