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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Geminids Meteor Shower Peaks on the Night of December 13, Morning of December 14

The Geminids meteor shower peaks this Saturday night and early Sunday morning. You can expect to see 60-80 meteors per hour under dark skies after midnight on Saturday night. However, the last quarter moon also rises then, and its light will block out the dimmer members of the shower. The Geminids, however, are known for many bright meteors so the show will go on despite the moon. (By the way, did you now that the full moon is 9 times brighter than the quarter moon? Well, now you do!)

The best way to view the shower is lying on the ground, looking straight up, with your naked eyes. Meteor showers are whole sky phenomena, so optical aids are not called for. You don't even need to know where the "radiant" is, although it helps in understanding meteor showers.

Meteor showers occur when the earth crossesthe orbit of an old comet or asteroid. Parts of the comet or asteroid are left behind as it orbits the sun, kind of like a messy family throwing garbage out of their car. When the earth encounters this debris as it orbits the sun, the bits of the comet or orbit fall to earth at great speed and burn up from friction, creating the light of the meteorite (also called a "falling star" or a "shooting star", since that's what they look like). Due to a perspective effect the meteors all appear to originate at a single location in the sky, if you draw a line back along their path. That location is callled the "radiant" the point from which the meteors appear to originate. In the case of the Geminids, they appear to originate near the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini, hence the name of this shower. But you need not look directly at the radiant to get a good view of the shower. The Geminids originate from a small asteroid, 3200 Phaeton, which is the named asteroid with the closest approach to the sun.

The radiant of the Geminids meteor shower lies near the bright star Castor, one of the Twins in the constellation Gemini. Pollux is the other.

If you are down Mitzpe Ramon way, I will be having a free star party and star tour on Saturday night, starting at 9:30pm. No charge, come one come all. I will be at an observing location behind Mitzpe Ramon on the road to the Alpaca Farm and the Wise Observatory. It's the continuation of the main entrance to town, Ben Gurion Blvd., which begins at the traffic circle entrance to Mitzpe on Route 40.

The red "X" marks the spot of the star party on Saturday night, December 13.
I usually drive around to the hotels to pick people up for my star tours but will not be able to do so for this open star party. If you get lost call me at 052-544-9789. If I don't answer, I'm in the middle of doing part of my star tour

To find the star party: The location is marked by the red "X" in the above map. Drive up Ben Gurion Blvd., the main street in Mitzpe Ramon. Keep following it into the dark behind town toward the Alpaca Farm and Field School. In about 1 mile there is an intersection for the Alpaca Farm and Field School. Do not turn off. Drive through the intersection. In about 3/4 of a mile you will come to a small forest of pine trees on the left, easy to see in daylight, hard to see at night. You will probably see campfires on the left as there are likely to be people camping there to see the meteor shower. Drive to the end of forest and turn left on the unmarked, unpaved dirt road. Go around the forest to the far side. You will see me set up there. If you come to a dead end at the observatory you went too far on the paved road.

Happy Meteor hunting!!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Love Under the Stars (Again!)

Astronomy Israel notches another proposal as Ben Waldhaus proposed to his bride-to-be, Joy, on the night of August 31. Joy is from France and enjoys the songs of Edith Piaf, so we had a little musical interlude of her songs during and after Ben's proposal.

Here is the couple pictured below just after Ben proposed. My bad for taking so long to post the news and wish the couple a big Mazal Tov!

Ben Waldhaus proposes to Joy on a star tour on August 31, 2014

Partial Solar Eclipse of October 23, 2014

The partial solar eclipse on October 23, 2014 was not visible from Israel. :'(  But observers in the US had a good view. My good friend Linda in Iowa sent me this unusual photo of the partially eclipsed sun reflected in her window. The sun is still too bright in the direct image to be captured properly. It is overexposed, hiding the notch to the lower left. The image reflected in the window is dim enough for the total disk of the eclipsed sun to be seen. Nice job, Linda!

Partially eclipsed sun, seen from Iowa on October 23, 2014

Full Moon Wins the Battle of The Perseids

The full moon totally dominated the sky on the peak of the Perseids meteor shower this August. We saw only about three meteors over a span of several hours, instead of the usual 60-90 per hour. Lesson learned. The full moon always wins the battle with the meteor shower.

The Orionids, which peaked this week on October 21-22, was very weak on the peak night. We saw only a handful of shower members, instead of the usual 20 or so per hour. But the nights of the 16th and 23rd of October, well before and just after the peak, were very active. I didn't keep count but we were amazed by many bright and frequent members of the shower over the course of star tours on both nights. And that is the marvel of meteor showers. They keep their own counsel and do their own thing.

Meteors on a meteor shower night

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Perseids Meteor Shower Star Party 2014 in Mitzpe Ramon

The Perseids meteor shower peaks on Monday night August 11/Tueday morning August 12 this year. On a good year upwards of 100 meteors per hour can be seen. 2014, however, is not a good year since this date coincides with a nearly full moon that will be in the sky all night, making dimmer members of the shower difficult to see. Because of this, Mitzpe Ramon decided not to hold the town's usual Perseids Star Party which usually attracts over 9,000 people.
After much back-and-forth deliberation and some phone calls from people who asked me to have a star party, I have decided to continue my tradition of hosting my own star party in Mitzpe Ramon on Monday night August 11 starting at 9:00PM. Only the brighter members of the meteor shower that outshine the moon will be visible, but it should still be a memorable event.

I will have telescopes, giant binoculars and chairs set up at a location where you can camp for the night. I will start my star tour presentation at 9:30PM and continue remarks throughout the night. Bring binoculars, camp mats, and sleeping bags to stay comfortable at night, especially if you want to stay the night. This location has no water or bathroom facilities (other than the great outdoors), so plan accordingly. And remember that the desert is always cold at night, even on the summer.

I will be located at an easy to find camp ground above and behind Mitzpe Ramon.

Enter Mitzpe Ramon at the main entrance at the traffic circle/round about on Route 40. You are on Ben Gurion Boulevard. Continue through town on that street and on behind town on a narrow road into the dark. You will pass Silent Arrow on your right, then the turn off to the Alpaca Farm and the Field School. Continue going straight for about 1 km. You will see a forest on your left. Just past a yellow sign on the right that asks you to dim your lights for the Observatory, you turn left onto a short dirt road and go around the forest. I will be set up on the plateau about 100 yards down. If you come to the end of the road at the Observatory, you went too far. Turn around (carefully) and go back about 1/4 of a mile.

What: Perseids Star Party 2014 in Mitzpe Ramon
When: August 11, 2014, Monday night
Where: Mitzpe Ramon (See map above)
Time: 9:00pm
Cost: 50nis/person; no charge under 8 years old
Contact: machefsky at gmail dot com
Phone: 052-544-9789
Reservations recommended

Sunday, May 18, 2014

May Camelopardalids - A New Meteor Shower

A new meteor shower may be in the offing at the end of May. Predicted to peak the night of May 23 and early morning May 24, this new shower is the result of the earth's encountering the orbit of periodic comet 209P/LINEAR. 

While the US and Canada are in the best position to see the peak of the shower, it should be visible from anywhere in the northern hemisphere. As with all ephemeral astronomical events, we won't know for sure what it is like until it happens. The only way to know is go out and watch. Some astronomers are predicting a meteor storm, where over 1,000 meteors per hour could be seen. 

Meteor showers are named for the constellation from which they appear to radiate: the point in the sky where all of their trails would converge if drawn backwards. In our case, this is the ancient constellation Camelopardalis, located near the North Star, named for a mythical camel/leopard chimera. Today it is just called The Giraffe. You don't need to look at or even near the radiant to see shower members. They can appear anywhere in the sky. Just keep on lookin' up!

According to models the best time to observe the peak will be early in the morning of May 24, close to sunrise, but while it is still fully dark. Unfortunately for us, this is a Shabbat morning so we won't be doing any observing. But do let us know what you see if you are out for the event.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Aurora Alert for April 1 and 2

A powerful X-flare emitted by the sun on March 29 is scheduled to give earth a glancing blow on the nights of April 1 and 2. There is a 60% chance of auroras being produced by it, according to These auroras should only be visible from higher latitudes, so Israel will probably not experience any. Still, it's worth going outside to check. We will!

Here is a short video of the X-flare, a coronal mass ejection (CME) as recorded by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). 

March 29, Solar X-flare by NASA SDO

Friday, January 24, 2014

Saw the Supernova in M82 Last Night!

Although there were thin, high cirrus clouds in the sky last night, we went out to try to see the supernova in M82. And there it was! Dim, visible only with averted vision, but a distinct bright dot towards the edge of the galaxy: an old star that blew itself to smithereens 12 million years ago, but just now visible due to the finite speed of light. I was using my 5" (130mm) APO refractor and had a hard time seeing it, but that was probably just due to the cirrus cloud cover. This supernova will continue to be visible for the next coupld of weeks and is still brightening!

Supernova in Galaxy M82, 12 million light years distant. The closest supernova to us in 28 years.
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Thursday, January 23, 2014

New Supernova Erupts in Galaxy M82

A new supernova has erupted in M82, a nearby galaxy just 12 million light years away. The supernova has already reached magnitude 11.0, bright enough to be seen in small backyard telescopes. This is a Type 1a supernova which occurs when an old, super-dense white dwarf star pulls gas from a nearby companion star. When the mass of the white dwarf reaches 1.4x the mass of our sun the star blows itself to smithereens in a spectacular nuclear fusion event that releases more light and energy than over 400 billion stars. This is one bad explosion you don't want to be anywhere near. Fortunately, at a distance of 12 million light years we are safe.

This is one of the few times that such a bright supernova is easily seen in the northern hemisphere's night sky. It is the closest supernova to us in years. Supernovas are usually spotted in far distant galaxies, hundreds of millions or even billions of light years away, making them difficult to see without huge telescopes. This one in M82, just 12 million light years away, should be easy to see in backyard telescopes.

M82 is well positioned all night long after about 8:00 PM. You can find it along the line that diagonally connects the two bowl stars of the Big Dipper, Phecda and Dubhe.

Find M82 by running a diagonal line from Phecda to Dubhe in the bowl of the Big Dipper. Then extend that line an equal distance into the sky along the diagonal. That's where M82 is.
I do not know if the supernova is visible in binoculars. I will try to check tonight. But it should easily be visible in small telescopes. M82 is well placed all night long since the Big Dipper will be rising in the eastern sky shortly after sunset.

This is an annimation of M82 before and after the appearance of the Supernova.

Supernovas are nature's most powerful explosions. The bright dot you see above is just a single star, 12 million light years away, that has blown itself to smithereens in its old age. We should only die so gracefully. Try searching for it tonight. It is a rare wonder to behold such massive power at work in the universe.

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Friday, January 17, 2014

Love Under the Stars! finally happened. After two years of offering a free star tour adventure to anyone who proposed on one, Pinhus Dashevsky from Teaneck, New Jersey finally took us up on our offer. On Monday, February 13 Pinhus proposed on a star tour to his bashert, Lara Porter. They were in Israel on a school break holiday. Pinhus had sent me email in advance to arrange the details. I had their special songs and played one on my iPad as I walked I walked away to give them some privacy. I still managed to hear Pinhus excitedly ask, "Will you marry me?" (I always wondered how that was done, and No, I wasn't eavesdropping; he said it very loudly, so excited was he.) I didn't hear her answer but it must have been Yes, as I was soon called back, and we celebrated with a champagne L'chaim under the desert sky.

Pinhus Dashevsky and Lara Porter are engaged under the starry skies of Mitzpe Ramon.
Did I say we had a star tour? Actually, it was more like a moon, Jupiter and cloud tour, since those were the only celestial sights visible on this unusually cloudy night. But the clouds were unusual and quite beautiful, as we got to enjoy another ring, besides the engagement ring - a ring or halo around the moon caused by ice crystals in the cirrus clouds high above us.

A lunar halo around the moon, caused by ice crystals in high cirrus clouds. Toward the bottom left, inside the halo, a bright dot which is Jupiter, just barely shinning through the clouds. This was the first ring we got to see.
Pinhus presented Lara a beautiful triple stone, diamond engagement ring. It was truly stellar! The second ring we got to see that night.

The "stellar" engagement ring Pinhus offered Lara.
After the star tour we returned to the Green Backpacker where we continued our L'chaim with a chocolate engagement party cake. We made Lara and Pinhus blow out the two candles together.

The engagement cake. "Couple for life!"

Writer Abigail Klein Leichman picked up the event and provided a nice write up in

I guess this now makes us officially the most romantic thing to do in Israel for Valentines Day and Tu b'Av. 

The offer still stands. A free star tour if you propose to your beloved on one!! Come on down and take us up on our offer.

Ira "Star Man" Machefsky

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