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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Taurid and Leonid Meteor Showers Light Up November Skies

Two meteor showers, the Taurids and the Leonids, light up November's skies. Just a few nights ago we were doing a star tour with a group and talking about fireballs, a meteor as bright as the full moon that lights up the entire area. I said that seeing one was quite rare and that most people go their entire lives without seeing one. Well, the Taurids are well known for fireballs. Shortly after I said this a Taurid fireball flashed through the sky, lighting up the desert all around.

While I can't promise you will see a fireball, chances are good to see at least some meteors this November. And some people have never even seen one of those. Come on down for a star tour and we'll see what the sky dishes up. 

More information on the Taurid and Leonid meteor showers here: 

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Total Lunar Eclipse of September 28, 2015

Early in the morning of September 28 a total eclipse of the moon will be widely visible around the world. In Israel the moon begins to enter the penumbra of the earth's shadow at 3:11AM IDT, however the darkening of the moon will probably not be visible until the moon enters the umbra of the earth's shadow at 4:07AM IDT. Totality begins at 5:11AM IDT with mid eclipse occurring at 5:47AM IDT, just before sunrise.

Lunar Eclipse Events, Israel Daylight Time (IDT)

03:11:46  Moon enters penumbra
04:07:12  Moon enters outer edge of umbra
05:11:11  Moon completely in umbra
05:47:09  Mid-eclipse
06:23:07  Moon begins to emerge from umbra, after moon set in Israel
07:27:06  Moon completely out of umbra, after moon set in Israel
08:22:33  Moon leaves penumbra, after moon set in Israel

View to the West with the moon half-eclipsed at 4:31AM IDT
View to the West during totality, just before sunrise at 5:46AM IDT. This should be spectacular over the Mediterranean.

Timing of the circumstances of the lunar eclipse. Add 3 hours to the times shown to get local Israeli time.

This eclipse is notable for a number of reasons. 1) It's the fourth in a series of total lunar eclipses in two years. 2) It occurs when the moon is closest in its orbit to the earth, called the "perigee" of the orbit, and in modern times referred to as a "supermoon", although in reality it will only appear about 15% larger than a regular full moon in the sky. Nevertheless, everyone will marvel at how large it is, although this is not really observable unless you can compare the two moons side-by-side. 3) It is the Harvest Moon, the fulll moon closest to the Autumnal Equinox, used by farmers to extend the time they can see in the dark to conduct their harvest. 4) It is called a "blood moon", turning red from the diffraction of light around the edge of the earth into the shadow on the moon, essentially projecting all of the sunsets and sunrises into the shadow of the earth on the moon. The darkness of the eclipse and the reddening of the moon vary widely from eclipse to eclipse, depending on weather conditions on our planet and how central the eclipse is, i.e. how deep into the shadow of the earth the moon goes. Finally for Jews, this full moon occurs on the first night of Succot, no coincidence since the beginning of Succot always falls out on the 15th of Tishrei, the night of the full moon, as does Pesach in the month of Nissan.  A lunar eclipse can only happen when the moon is full and opposite the sun in the sky. Some have made alot of this "blood moon" hearkening back to the Prophet Joel (2:31) "The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD." I will let those better equipped to deal with Astrology deal with that one.

Since this eclipse occurs during the first day of Succot I will not be doing an early morning star tour but will merely be enjoying it personally. Star tours will continue normally during Chol Hamoed.

Want to photograph the moon? Here are some tips on how:

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Perseid's Meteor Shower Star Party in Mitzpe Ramon - August 12, 2015

We are on the run-up to the great Perseid's Meteor Shower Star Party in Mitzpe Ramon, Israel, starting at sunset on August 12 and running into the wee hours of the morning of August 13. The star party is held on the infield of the soccer stadium at the main entrance to town. Admission is free. There will be dozens of Israeli astronomers present with their telescopes, and presentations are held throughout the night in Hebrew. The town turns out all of its lights, as do all of the military facilities in the area, making our already dark skies darker than ever. Thousands of people attend, and it is all a great party and fun celebration. If you haven't heard 10,000 people cheer when a bright meteor flashes overhead, you just haven't lived!

I will be there with my telescopes and will be holding a drawing to give away genuine meteor fragments every hour from 8pm to 12pm, 5 chances to win the no-cost lottery. All you have to do is show up at my booth, get a lottery ticket and get lucky!

Join Starman Ira at the Great Perseid's Meteor Shower in Mitzpe Ramon on August 12, 2015, sunset to whenever...Free drawing to give away a meteorite fragment every. hour from 8:00pm - 12:00pm in my booth

Of course, the "star" of the star party is the Perseids Meteor Shower which peaks that night with up to 60 meteors per hour visible in the wee hours of the morning. Please join us for this fun and entertaining event. Lear about meteors and meteorites, and if you're lucky, take a piece of star dust home!

The Great Mitzpe Ramon Perseid's Meteor Star Party, August 12, 2015

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Oliver Sacks: My Periodic Table

The night sky of Mitzpe Ramon from Four Trees

By Oliver Sacks, from the New York Times:

"A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.
I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”
“We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.
I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars."

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

We Finally Know the Size of Pluto

The New Horizons spacecraft is finally close enough to Pluto for its size to be accurately determined: 1,473 miles or 2,370 km in diameter. It is the largest object in the Kuiper Belt, the region of our solar system beyond the planet Neptune. Will this be enough to promote it back to planet from dwarf-planet status? Only time will tell, as it requires a vote of the International Astronomical Union, which demoted the diminutive planet to dwarf-planet status in 2006. Stay tuned and watch for updates from the New Horizons Mission as the satellite flies past Pluto in its closest approach today, July 14, 2005.

Pluto (right) and its largest moon Charon as New Horizons satellite approaches the system. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Lyrid Meteor Shower Peaks April 22-23

The Lyrids, the best meteor shower of the first half of 2015 peaks this Wednesday night and in the early hours of Thursday morning, Yom Haatzmaut. Peak rates are around 20 meteors per hour after midnight, although in some years the shower has surprised with peak rates of over 100+ per hour. A meteor shower occurs when the earth passes through the orbit of an old comet that has shed rocky and dusty debris as it orbits the sun. As the earth passes through the debris field bits of cometary particles burn up from friction with the earth's atmosphere, leaving behind a bright train of ionized particles we see as the "shooting star". Most cometary particles are no bigger than a grain of sand, bright meteors perhaps the size of a pea. The meteors appear to emirate from a region of the sky called the radiant. The shower takes its name from the constellation that contains the radiant, in this case the constellation Lyra. You need not be looking at the radiant to view the shower. Just lie down in a comfy spot on the ground or a reclining chair, stay warm with a blanket, and watch the sky. Keep count and see how many meteors you observe each hour, or fraction of an hour. No optical instruments required. In fact, they get in the way since you want as wide a field of view as possible which only your naked eye can provide.

I will be having a star tour the night of April 22. Call or email for a space. The weather is forecast to be clear that night, turning inclement the next day and night.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Solar Eclipse Visible from Israel on Friday, March 20

An eclipse of the sun will be visible across Israel on Friday March 20, coinciding with the first day of Spring, or the Vernal Equinox as astronomers call it. The eclipse will just be partial in Israel, with just 5% of the sun's disk being obscured by the moon. The eclipse will not be visible at all in the US.

The eclipse begins in Israel at 11:17am local time and ends at 12:39pm local time. Maximum eclipse occurs at 11:58am, when just a tiny sliver of the sun, just 5% will be covered by the moon.

Be careful observing the sun. You always need special filters to view the sun with optical aid. They cannot be home made. Observing the sun without proper eye protection with binoculars or a telescope wil result in immediate and permanent damage to your eyes. The same is true if you stare at the sun with your naked eye. Don't do that. You can make a home made pinhole projector to observe the sun, or else use a #14 welders glass, no other value. But the welders glass, if you have one, should only be used with the naked eye, not in front of optics.

If you want to watch totality, go to, an online telescope where the total eclipse will be shown from the Faroe Islands, weather permitting.

And, of course, the astrologers have to make their appearance, too:

Good viewing and Happy Spring!

Table of times for the partial solar eclipse of March 20, 2015, visible across Israel. The diagram at the top shows the small sliver of the sun that will be obscured by the moon. See the text above for proper eye protection needed to view the sun. Without it you can permanently damage your vision.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Did You Catch the Triple Conjunction at the End of February?

Most people around the world in the Northern Hemisphere probably missed the triple conjunction of the moon, Mars and Venus at the end of February. We certainly did in Israel where the winter has been cloudy, windy, rainy, snowy and cold. We even had two snow days in February alone in Mitzpe Ramon! It's been weeks since I've been able to do a star tour.

For those who missed the sight here's a photo of the triple conjunction from Palm Springs, California, looking toward the San Jacinto mountains in the West.

Moon to the right, Venus to the bottom left, Mars between, as seen on Feb. 23 from Palm Springs, California. Photo by Kendigitize.

Triple conjunction over Manhattan by Stan Honda

Friday, February 20, 2015

Venus, Mars and Moon Triple Conjunction

Weather permitting, observers in Israel will have the opporunity to see a beautiful triple conjunction of Venus, Mars and the new crescent moon of Adar on Friday evening, February 20, at dusk. The three celestical bodies will then be within half a degree of each other in the western sky. Half a degree is the diameter of the full moon in the sky. Such close approaches make for very memorable and beautiful displays. Of course, these celestial bodies only appear close together as they align in our line of sight in the sky. The moon is about 230,000 miles away, Mars about 142 million miles away, while Venus is 67 million miles away.

The next night, Saturday February 21, the crescent moon will have moved to the upper left of Venus and Mars, but the two planets will remain impressively close together for the rest of the month. See if you can distinguish them by color. Venus is creamy white, Mars a pale red.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Photographic Finder Chart for Comet Lovejoy

Here's a nice photographic finder chart for Comet Lovejoy through January 19.

Comet Lovejoy, Hyades, Pleiades, Astronomy Israel
Comet Lovejoy is currently passing close to the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters, easy to find through most of the night.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Comet Lovejoy as Seen from Mitzpe Ramon on 1-12-15

I made an attempt to photograph Comet Lovejoy last night from Mitzpe Ramon. While it was quite easy and bright in my 10x30 binoculars and telescopes, this photo barely captures it as a smudge. In my 5" APO refractor it had a bright tiny nucleus, a large fuzzy coma, and a very short stubby tail, all slightly greenish in color. It should remain easily visible in binoculars and telescopes through January.

Comet Lovejoy, Pleiades, Hyades, Mitzpe Ramon, Astronomy Israel
Comet Lovejoy can just barely be seen immediately to the left of its label.

Mercury and Venus Set Beside the Dome of the Weiss Observatory in Mitzpe Ramon

Venus Mercury Weiss Observatory Mitzpe Ramon
Venus, upper left, and mercury set next to the dome of the Weiss Observatory in Mitzpe Ramon, Israel.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Venus and Mercury Close Together in Mid-January Sky

Venus and Mercury are putting on a nice show in the mid-January sky. The two planets are quite close together just as the sun sets in mid-January. Venus is to the upper left while Mercury is just below to the right. The two are a pretty sight. Dim Mars appears as the reddish object far above and left of Venus. Here in one g are the three closest planets to earth.

Mercury and Venus are always seen in the dusk or dawn sky since they orbit the sun interior to the earth, hence we are always looking in the direction of the sun when we observe them. Mercury is by far the most elusive of the twilight pair since it is closest to the sun and id usually lost in the suns glare. Go out the next few nights and see Venus and Mercury together. Mercury is so elusive that even Copernicus was said to never have observed it himself.

Mercury Venus Mars evening sky
How to locate Mercury, Venus and Mars in the evening sky of mid-January 2015.
Mercury Venus Mitzpe Ramon
My own attempt to capture Venus (upper left) and Mercury as they set over a desert landscape in Mitzpe Ramon.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Murmurs of Earth

One of the most moving and beautiful astronomy and space books of all time was Carl Sagan's "Murmurs of Earth", an account of the Voyager 1 space mission and the gold record that was attached to signal to anyone who might find it eons in the future that WE WERE HERE. This gold record had symbols impressed upon it that would convey who had made it and where they lived. The record itself had tracks that were audio recordings of sounds from our planet. Yes, it was an audio analogue record, basically an LP pressed out of gold. It just goes to show how much technology has changed in the last 50 years. There were no images or videos on it, at the time (September 5, 1977) a technology beyond what was then capable.

Voyager 1 has now left the confines of our solar system and travels in interstellar space, much as Elvis has left the room, the first and only Earthling-made object to have achieved that distinction. But it lives on, still sending data back to us, long after it was to have ceased operating. Now you can listen to the tracks on the gold record, courtesy of the World Wide Web. How ironic that the first voice on it is of the hidden Nazi, Kurt Waldheim, at the time Secretary-General of the UN. Message to future aliens: If you came looking for us and we weren't here, it was because of what institutions like the UN became and what men like Kurt Waldheim were - mass murderers posing as guardians of humanity. Tell us , Oh Aliens, are you as barbaric as some of us were or have you solved that problem? Well....assuming you are there to listen.

Voayager 1's Golden Record tracks
Tracks from the golden record sent on Voyager 1 (September 5, 1977) to explore the outer planets of the solar system. The record had sounds from planet earth and images of earthlings and our location impressed in the disk, in case it might be picked up by aliens eons into the future.

New Children's Book on Rosh Chodesh Featuring The Starman of Mitzpe Ramon

Somehow I let it slip by that there is a new book just out written by well known Israeli children's author Allison Ofananasky about the new moon and Rosh Chodesh. The story is set in the desert around Mitzpe Ramon and features The Starman of Mitzpe Ramon as the childrens' guide to the New Moon and the new month. Teach your children why the moon has phases and how they determine when Rosh Chodesh occurs. Photographs by Eliyahu Alpern.

Rosh Chodesh, New Month New Moon, Ira Machefsky, Starman of Mitzpe Ramon
"New Month, New Moon" - A new book by Allison Ofananasky explaining the moon's phases and their connection to Rosh Chodesh. Featuring The Starman of Mitzpe Ramon, Ira Machefsky.

You can buy it here from

Comet Lovejoy Now at its Brightest

Comet Lovejoy is now at its predicted brightest, magnitude 4.9, where it is forecast to remain through January 12. Magnitude is the measure of the brightness of celestial objects. Lower numbers are brighter, higher numbers are dimmer. From there it will continue to dim to magnitude 5.9 on January 22. Magnitude 6 is considered to be the dimmest object visible to the naked eye in a totally dark sky. Yet, even if you can't view it with your naked eye, and you need extremely dark skies to see a magnitude 4.9 object with your naked eye, it should still be easily visible even in small binoculars in a suburban sky throughout the month of January.

Here is another finder chart with tick marks for date and magnitude on each date. Comet Lovejoy is now moving through Taurus, and its path runs roughly parallel to the dim stars that make up Orion's shield or bow, as it is sometimes depicted. Let us know if you have any luck finding it.

Comet Lovejoy path through the constellations
Follow Comet Lovejoy as it passes through the constellations Orion and Taurus. Tick marks show its position at 0h UT on each date as well as its magnitude. Higher magnitude numbers are dimmer. It should be easily visible in suburban skies with even small binoculars.

Now all we need in Israel to have a go at it is the end of the storms that have pummeled us for the last few days and made it impossible to see anything at all in the sky.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

What would the planets look like at the distance of our moon?

I love depictions of celestial bodies that show the vast difference in their sizes. Here's one of the planets in our solar system seen down the end of a dark highway if they were the same distance away as our moon, around 230,00 miles or 300,000km on average. Of course the gas giant planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, have immense gravitational fields that would make short work of us on earth at that distance, but let's hold gravity in abeyance for a while while we contemplate the awesome difference in the size of the objects in our solar system.

Earth's moon and the planets of our solar system seen at the distance of the moon, 230,00 miles/300,000km

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Comet Lovejoy is Looking Very Good!

We were out with a group tonight and saw Comet Lovejoy/Q2 2014 for the first time. And Boy! is it looking good. Despite the full moon and winter haze in the sky is bright and easy to see. Once identified with binoculars I could just make it out with the naked eye! That probably makes it a 4th magnitude object, much brighter than I had expected. In fact Lovejoy is the best comet I have seen in over 10 years! In the binoculars it looked like a faint, fuzzy, greenish glow. In my telescope I could see the solid nucleus surrounded by the coma and just a hint of tail in the bright, moonlit sky.

It will continue to brighten throughout January, and once the full moon is out of the sky by January 9 it should be dazzling. Here, again, is a star chart with Comet Lovejoy's position marked for each night of January 2015. Be sure to go out an look for it. It is well placed in the night sky a few hours after sunset and for the rest of the night. Let us know if you see it and your impressions of it.

Comet Lovejoy should be an excellent sight in the Israeli sky once the moon is gone after January 9. Use this finder chart to see it. This is the sky in the Southeast and South a few hours after sunset. It is an easy binocular object now and may brighten to easy naked eye visibility as January progresses.  

Monday, January 5, 2015

Who is the Starman of Mitzpe Ramon?

A Stunning Time Lapse Video of Comet Lovejoy

Comet Lovejoy screen grab from this video
Comet Lovejoy 2014 Q2

What is a Star Tour?

Everyone wants to know - what are these star tours that the Starman of Mitzpe Ramon is famous for?

Well, this blog is full of information about what we do on our star tours, but in brief:

 Thanks for your interest in my star tours. My tours last about two hours, usually starting at 9:30pm or sometimes 6:00pm/6:30pm in the winter. The first half we do naked eye observing of the sky, identifying constellations, learning star lore, understanding how the sky works; the second half we go to the telescopes to view the best sights of the night. I set up my "portable observatory" in the desert behind Mitzpe Ramon, meet people at their hotels and guide them up to my observing location. We provide chairs and blankets for everyone, and No, no walking is required. The planets and stars are too far away! We let our eyes do the walking. I can usually take people in my own car up to my observing location. But if my car is full I may ask you to follow me in yours the short distance to my observing location (about 3 kilometers) behind town. No four-wheel drive required.
We go out every clear night, except Shabbat (Friday night) and Jewish holidays.
Mitzpe Ramon has some of the darkest, most easily accessible skies in Israel. There is some light pollution here, but on a dark night the Milky Way is bright and easily visible, and the sky is star studded. The best nights to come if you want to see the sky that way is when there is no moon in the sky. See the Moon Phase Calendar on this site for dates of the dark of the moon. Of course, if your schedule does not allow this, we still go out every clear, non-holiday night and have a star adventure non pareil.
The cost is 150nis/adult, 75nis/child 6-12, no cost for children under 6yo, max charge of 750nis/nuclear family. Please pay in shekels or Israeli checks, but if you have Greenbacks, Euros, or Pounds, I can take those in a pinch. Ask about special prices for larger groups.
It is cold in the desert at night, even in the summer, so I recommend people dress warmly year round, very warmly in winter. I also bring blankets for people. My star tours are group activities.
I do not do exclusive tours. Size of the group is highly variable. Could be only you; could be as many as 20 people. Holidays are usually the busiest time of year. Whatever the size, the sky is large so everyone gets a front row seat. 
I sometimes experiment using different equipment and different modes of observation. When something works, it becomes a permanent part of the tour. For large groups I sometimes use my astrovideo camera which displays what the telescope is viewing on a TV monitor.
    Contact us at:
                            ira.machefsky (Skype)

To make a reservation call or email with the following information --

Size of group with ages of children:
Date(s) of desired star tour:
Your email address:
Hotel where you will be staying:
Mobile number where you can be reached in Israel:
Will you have your own transportation:

Looking forward to seeing you under the starry skies of Mitzpe Ramon!

Ira "The Starman of Mitzpe Ramon" Machefsky
We make the mysteries of the Cosmos easier to understand than this!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Don't Miss Comet Lovejoy in Israeli Skies this January!

Comets are fickle creatures. They seem to know when we are hyping them and deliberately put on a disappointing show. Comet ISON of November 2013 was one such beast. Sometimes hyped as a "Comet of the Century" it flew too close to the sun and disintegrated into a cometary dust heap, leaving sky watchers around the world disappointed. On the other hand, more modest and unheralded comets can surprise with a bright display. Comet Lovejoy, now visible in Israeli skies, is an example of one such modest, surprising comet that is putting on a good show. (It can actually be seen well from most places on earth but since this is "Astronomy Israel" I will focus my remarks for Israeli sky watchers.)

Comet Lovejoy is now a naked eye object in the southern night sky, but at around magnitude 6 just barely. Magnitude 6 is the dimmest visible with the naked eye, and not even Mitzpe Ramon has magnitude 6 skies. However, with the aid of a modest pair of binoculars it should be easy to see. It should continue to brighten throughout the month of January, although it is difficult to say exactly how bright it will become.

The word "comet" means "hair" in Latin, because comets look like "hairy stars" or fuzzy stars. Only really bright comets have long, easily visible tails. Astronomers call comets "dirty snowballs", primitive aggregations of ices, dust and rocks left over from the earliest days of the creation of the solar system. Most are 4 1/2 plus billion years old. As they orbit the sun and approach closer to it they begin to melt, emitting a gas and dust tail that we see as the "hair" of the comet.

Comet Lovejoy as seen at the end of November 2014. This is a time lapse photo through a large telescope. You will not see this in your binoculars or even a backyard telescope. But this is what the beast looked like at the end on November.
Comet Lovejoy will be in the south/southeast sky after sunset and into the evening near the easily found constellations of Orion and Taurus the Bull. This is a close approximation of what it might look like in your binoculars.

Comet Lovejoy as it is likely to look through your binoculars on a dark, moonless night.
 One of my favorite photos of Comet Lovejoy is this one taken from Shanghai.

Comet Lovejoy as seen over Shanghai skies in early January. This is a three-photo mosaic.
The moon is full in early January, and Israeli skies are full of clouds and predicted sand storms through the week of January 4-10. When the full moon is out of the sky and skies clear we should have our best opportunities to spot the comet. Below is a sky chart with the position of the comet for each day in January.

Position of Comet Lovejoy each night through the month of January
The constellations Orion and Taurus are bright and easily seen, rising in the east/south east and culminating in the south around midnight. The 5-sided constellation Auriga will be nearly overhead when Orion crosses the meridian around midnight.

Let us know if you see Lovejoy and share any photos!


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