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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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