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Monday, November 27, 2017

Geminids Meteor Shower 2017 in Israel

Did you get skunked by the Leonids meteor shower last month? Me, too. The run up to the peak was disappointing with only a handful of meteors seen in the early evening up to the day before the peak. The peak occurred on Shabbat when we don't go out, so we don't know what it was like, but the denouement the following days was also sparse with meteors.

You get to try again with the Geminids meteor shower which peaks this year during Chanukah on the night of December 13 and December 14. The actual peak itself is forecast to fall at 8:30AM, Israel Standard Time, on the morning of December 14, in other words in daylight. But the previous night of the 13th and the night of the 14th itself should still be very good, especially since this year there is no bright moon in the sky to interfere with the shower.

The Geminids is one of the most reliable showers of the year with the peak showing up to 120 meteors per hour. It is also a good shower for children since the radiant of the shower, the point in the sky from which the meteors appear to emanate, is already high overhead early on winter evenings, starting around 9:00 to 10:00PM. The radiant is in the constellation Gemini from which the shower, like all meteor showers, takes its name. It is already high up early in the evening. All meteor showers show best after midnight, since then the earth is turning in the direction of its orbit around the sun, increasing the entry velocity of the meteoroid particles into the earth's atmosphere. But it isn't necessary to wait until after midnight to see lots of meteors if the shower performs as expected.

The radiant of the Geminids meteor shower lies in the constellation Gemini. It lies near the bright star Castor in Gemini. It isn't necessary to look at teh radiant when observing but since meteors come from all sides of it, one generally sees more meteors when lookin in the direction of the radiant. For the Geminids look northeast before midnight. After that, follow the constellation as it crosses the sky in the early hours of the evening.

Meteors are bright streaks of light made by tiny particles of dust and rock from comets or asteroids. As these particles fall to earth they burn up from the heat of friction in the earth's atmosphere. Most of these particles are the size of a grain of sand, so  obviously we are seeing the brilliant light they make as they incinerate themselves in the earth's dense atmosphere, not the particle itself. So meteors are very much local phenomena, becoming visible some 75-150 miles in the air above us.

Although meteors can be seen every night throughout the year, a meteor shower occurs when the earth passes through the path of an ancient comet or asteroid as it orbits the sun. Then all of the debris of the comet or asteroid falls to earth at roughly the same time, creating showers of particles in our atmosphere. Meteor showers are whole sky phenomena and not only is optical  aid unnecessary it is detrimental to viewing the shower. Your unaided vision gives you the widest field of view of the sky.

A meteor shower occurs when the earth crosses the path of an ancient comet or asteroid and the debris from the object rains down on the earth simultaneously.
The Geminids meteor shower originates not from a comet but from  3200 Phaethon, an asteroid discovered in 1983 that circles the sun every 3.3 years. In fact, recent observations suggest that Phaethon might be a "rock comet" that sheds particles when its surface heats up roughly to 1,300 degrees F (700 degrees C) at each perihelion.

We will have star tours every night of Chanukah, including of course the peak shower nights of December 13 and 14. Come on out and enjoy the show.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Leonids Meteor Shower 2017 in Israel

The Leonids Meteor  Shower peaks on the night of  November 17 and early morning November 18. The night of November 16 should also be good. The peak number of meteors visible at maximum, the Zenith Hourly Rate (ZHR), is 20 meteors per hour. This is when the radiant of the shower, in the constellation Leo, is overhead. The radiant is the point in the sky where the meteors seem to emanate from when a line is drawn back from their path of travel in the sky. These lines converge at a point in the sky called the radiant. For this meteor shower it is located in the constellation Leo, hence the name of the shower.

The ZHR is a predicted maximum. Most meteors during a shower are quite dim, so very few people every see the theoretical maximum for the shower. Even far more intense showers than the Leonids frequently show far fewer numbers than the peak rate, especially if you miss the exact maximum or do not have fully dark skies. There is no moon in the sky during the peak of the Leonids this year, so it should put on a nice show if you can get to a dark location.

Meteors are bits of rock from comets or asteroids that fall to earth at very high speeds and burn up in the earth's atmosphere. Most are quite tiny, about the size of a grain of sand. We see the bright light they make as they burn up from the heat of friction in the earth's atmosphere, not the body itself. The comet from which the Leonids result is Comet Tempel-Tuttle.

We will be having a star tour on Thursday night, November 16, 2017 at 9:30pm. We don't go out on Shabbat and won't be having a star tour on Saturday night November 18. November 19 and 20 should also have some shower activity, but it's difficult to tell how intense it will be. If you'd like to join us that would be delightful.

Status Update:
As of the evening of November 16, nothing major to report. Only a handful of meteors seen on star tours up through and including Thursday night, November 16.

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The radiant of the Leonids meteor shower lies within the boundary of the constellation Leo. You don't have to be looking directly at it to see shower members. They can appear anywhere in the sky. But since Leo will be rising in the East for much of the peak night, it's best to lie on the ground facing eastward. No optical aid is required. Meteor showers are entirely naked eye events. This is the sky at about 5:30am on November 18, 2017. It will look substantially the same the entire week of November 12, except for the moon which will get smaller and smaller and closer and closer to the horizon as the week progresses. It is new on November 19.

If you stay up until dawn the week of November 12 you will be treated to the sight of Venus and Jupiter in conjunction with each other and the waning crescent moon getting ever closer to them morning by morning. This is the sky at 5:31am on November 17, just before dawn, which is when Jupiter, Venus and the moon will start to become visible above the eastern horizon. What a treat  to see them all together with the peak of the Leonids meteor shower!

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Venus and Jupiter Meet in the Morning Sky November 13, 2017

You may have read this somewhat misleading post on Facebook about Jupiter and Venus “passing” each other in the morning sky on November 13.

Another misleading Internet astronomy post. You will not see Venus and Jupiter move as you watch them. They are, however, close together in the sky all week long, not just Monday morning. You will also see the red planet Mars above them with the crescent moon hanging above the entire tableau. Look East/Southeast before dawn. The attached image shows where to look and what you will see. You will need a very clear Eastern horizon as Jupiter and Venus are low in the sky and appear just before sunrise. The diagram below is at 5:31am on Monday morning. The moon will continue to move closer to the pair throughout the week and will be closest on Friday morning when the trio will form a spectacular sight at 5:30am.

Jupiter and Venus are in conjunction on the morning of November 13, 2017. They continue to be a close pair in the early dawn sky all week long.

The crescent moon accompanies Venus and Jupiter later the week of November 13.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

"May You Be Written and Sealed for a Sweet New Year"

Here these sentiments are expressed in this curious Yiddish New Year's card from the early 1900s. The banner says," “Children! You are looking at the New Year star. May your luck shine just as bright and clear.” A shooting star passes through the frame of the window, bidding the viewers “a sweet year,” written on the star itself.

Is Virgo teaching the girls a lesson for the New Year while wishing them a sweet one?

When I first saw this card, sent by a friend, I though the shooting star was a comet. You can't watch shooting stars with a telescope. They are strictly naked eye phenomena. But of course, the depiction is of a falling star/shooting star, as seeing them brings luck and we are supposed to make a wish on them that will come true. Appropriate for a New Year's greeting card.

Then why a telescope? Perhaps to add a touch of scientific authenticity to an otherwise astrological theme. A closer inspection of the photo shows how little the artist knew about telescopes. Although there is an eyepiece inserted at the end for the children to look through, the eyepiece is at the wrong end of the tube. Telescopes taper from the lens at the top to the eyepiece at the bottom. That's because the lens is always bigger. You'll notice that our artist has placed the eyepiece at the fat end of the tube, where the objective lens is! This telescope doesn't work at all.

Although astrological in theme there are a number of curiosities. Who is the woman dressed in angelic garb with wings and festooned with flowers? Perhaps Virgo, HaBesulah in Hebrew. The sun moves from Leo into Virgo around the time of Rosh Hashannah and perhaps this is illustrating that astronomical/astrological event. Virgo is often depicted with wings and flowers as a Maiden.

Why are the children all girls? Perhaps Virgo is trying to teach them a lesson about chastity and modesty in the New Year. That might also explain the curiosity of all the children bring female.

In any case we wish one and all a Chasivah v'Chasimah Tovah. May you all be written for a sweet year and your wishes granted, whether you see a shooting star or not!

/Ira, The Starman of Mitzpe Ramon

Monday, August 7, 2017

Partial Lunar Eclipse in Israel, August 7, 2017

A partial lunar eclipse will be visible in Israel on the night of August 7, 2017. The partial phase begins at 8:23PM. Mid-eclipse is at 9:20PM. The eclipse ends at 10:18PM. Since this is a partial eclipse only the southern part of the moon will be covered by the earth's shadow. The top half will remain bright. But the eclipsed southern part of the moon should show a nice ghostly red color. This eclipse is visible everywhere in Israel where the sky is clear. You do not need optical aid to see it, but even binoculars will enhance the view.

Timings for the partial lunar eclipse of August 7, 2017. Add 3 hours to UT (Universal Time) to get Israel Local Time.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Perseids Meteor Shower 2017 in Mitzpe Ramon

The Perseids Meteor Shower is visible from July 17-August 24, with a sharp peak of 60-90 meteors per hour on the night of August 12-13. This year the waning gibbous moon will interfere with visibility of the shower as it rises on August 12 at 10:30pm and on August 13 at 11:11pm. By August 15 the last quarter moon rises shortly after midnight giving us a dark sky for the two hours of our star tour from 9:30-11:30pm.

The moon will be quite bright and will interfere with the visibility of the dimmer members of the meteor shower. The brighter members of the shower will still be visible but it's hard to say how many of those will be seen. Add to that the fact that we've had very hazy skies this summer from the Chamsin-like weather we've had and the shower may disappoint this year. As you can see from the shower intensity graph below, the best nights to view the shower, ignoring the moon, are August 11-15.

Intensity of the Perseids Meteor shower, meteors per hour on each day of the shower. 

We never have star tours on Shabbat so our first star tour  of the shower period will be held on the peak night of the Perseids, August 12 starting at 10:30pm. (We will have our regular star tours the preceding week of August 6-10 at 9:30pm, but that is a full moon week and the bright moon will interfere with viewing all but the brightest members of the shower.) We are usually out for two hours, but if the shower is good we will stay out longer. Star tours from August 13 and onwards will start at our regular time of 9:30pm.

In past years Mitzpe Ramon has held its annual star party on the night of August 12, the peak of the meteor shower, turning off all the town lights and army-base lights in the vicinity. About 9,000-10,000 people used to come to Mitzpe for this event. The town is not doing that this year. Instead the town is hosting astronomy nights during the 4 weekends in August. Special astronomy events will be held in the Spice Routes Quarter of town. Local lights there will be turned off during these 4 weekends. That makes it possible to see the sky from there but does nothing to reduce the overall light from town - a bit disappointing but Mitzpe is still a very dark region of Israel. The problem for this year's Perseids is the waning gibbous moon, not Mitzpe Ramon's town lights.

You can find out more about Mitzpe Ramon's astronomy weekends in August here:


You don't have to come to Mitzpe Ramon to view the meteor shower. All you need is a dark sky with an open horizon. Just sit back or lie on the ground and look up. Watch the skies with your naked eye. No optical equipment required. While you can watch in any direction, looking east if you can't look straight up, is usually best, as that is the direction the radiant of the shower rises in the constellation Perseus, which gives the Perseids its name.


The nights of August 11-August 15 are best for viewing this year's Perseids Meteor Shower. A bright, waning, gibbous moon will interfere with seeing the dimmer members of the shower which will considerably reduce the hourly rate. The nights of August 14 and 15 may be a good compromise between intensity and darkness for early night viewers of the shower. Check the forecast for haze on the nights of August 11-15. Haze combined with a bright moon do not make for good meteor viewing.

Perseids Meteor Shower Update on August 10, 7:10PM

We have been out every night this week. So far, very few meteors observed, maybe 1-2 per hour from 8:00PM to 1:00AM every night. An occasional fireball, a really bright meteor, was observed. The moon has been incredibly bright, and haze has returned to our skies, scattering the moon's light across the sky and making even bright stars hard to see. None of this bodes well for the upcoming peak of the shower on Saturday night and Sunday morning.

Perseids Meteor Shower Update on August 13, 2:45AM

While we don't do a star tour on Shabbat, we did walk out to the edge of  the crater on Friday night, August 11, after dinner around 11:00PM. This was the first peak night. The sky was quite discouraging. There was a bright moon hanging in the sky accompanied by high haze. Worse, the crater was full of fog blocking the view of the many people we could see camping from the light of their fires. We didn't stick around for long and saw no meteors while we were out.

Saturday night August 12, the second peak night, we were out after Shabbat by 9:00PM to set up for our star tour. The sky was wonderfully clear. No moon yet and the haze had largely dissipated. Once our star tour began around 10:15PM we saw many meteors. Or should I say I heard them. I'm too busy doing the star tour to always watch they sky. We heard constant "Wows" from our guests until just after the moon broke the horizon at about 11:00PM and for about 30 minutes thereafter. I don't have any actual meteor count, but we were probably seeing on average about one meteor per minute, many of them quite bright and long. It was definitely a shower. As the moon rose higher the meteor count dropped until after around 1:00AM we no longer saw any. We may have been in a temporary lull, the peak may have ended or maybe the moon was just too bright. I don't know. In any case we will try again on Sunday night with a star tour at 9:30PM. It's a day past the peak, but the moon will rise 40 minutes later so we should have a dark sky for almost the entire star tour.

Contact to join one of our star tours.

Next year the shower's peak coincides with new moon, so no moon in the sky all night long. Mark your calendars now! August 11, 12, and 13 - Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights. It's the same date every year, folks!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Tour May’s Sky: Big Dipper Leads the Way

Tour May’s Sky: Big Dipper Leads the Way: Listen to May's astronomy podcast to learn why stargazers think of the Big Dipper as the 'Swiss Army Knife' of the late-spring northern sky.

The "sickle" of Leo

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Praise for the Starman of Mitzpe Ramon

…you were the highlight of our trip to the Negev. I was worried that a two hour plus astronomy talk would be a step too far....but it was truly fantastic and loved by us all. Was sorry when it ended. It is a must for all - you are a STAR man on many fronts.
C.K., April 2017
Fabulous program. Thank you so much!
H.B., April 2017

Having Ira as our guide for the stars was a privilege. He turned our night tour into an unforgettable experience where we could witness falling stars, constellations and planets. He is fun, patience, smart, kind and very kind. We learned a whole lot about the sky, the stars, and about ourselves. It was a fantastic -and musical- experience!

Aryeh, Tel Aviv, August 6, 2017

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

NASA Shares the Highlights of January 2017 in the Night Sky

First Meteor Shower of the Year Peaks January 4

The Quadrantids meteor shower peaks tonight, January 4th. The greatest number of meteors will be seen after midnight, but they can also be seen earlier in the evening. During last night's star tour we watched for Quadrantids but only saw a handful. On a good year as many as 40 per hour can be seen. All you need is a dark sky, a relatively clear horizon, and your naked eyes. Just look up! We'll be looking for them again on tonight's star tour.

NASA explains more about the Quadrantids meteor shower.

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