Holst’s ‘The Planets’ would be a whole lot longer today

xkcd has an eye-opening graphic this week showing how many planets have been discovered. If you click on the image, it will open a full-size version of the cartoon. It was not so long ago that exoplanets (planets outside our own solar system) were hypothetical. That is, astronomers assumed other star systems could include planets, but there was no observational evidence. Technology has progressed to the point now that finding extrasolar planets is a walk in the park. Finding Earth-sized planets is more of a challenge, but at least we know they likely exist. Getting there, however … not so easy.

Transit of Venus 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — The planet Venus passed in front of the Sun today, but clouds here kept us from seeing it. This event happens only twice every century; the last was in 2004, and the next will be in another 105 years. Guess I’ll need to live to be 161 years old. This photo was taken in Hong Kong, using a camera with a special filter. (Source: Wikipedia) Astronomers of the 18th century used the 1769 transit to measure the distance of the Earth to the Sun, which enabled them to calculate the distances to the other planets known at the time. In the 1600s, a young British astronomer, Jeremiah Horrocks, calculated when future transits would happen and was the first astronomer (at the age of 21) to predict the 1639 transit. Interestingly, Horrocks was born just two years after Johannes Kepler published his revolutionary model of the solar system. Kepler himself, relying on inaccurate observation tables of Venus, had predicted a near-miss transit of Venus. Horrocks also determined that the Moon orbits in an ellipse around the Earth, as Kepler’s laws would predict.

Gorgeous amateur astrophotography images at the BBC website 1

The Royal Observatory at Greenwich and Sky at Night magazine sponsor an astrophotography contest each year. The 2011 winners are highlighted in a slide show at the BBC website. This is the overall winner, a mosaic of Jupiter with two of its moons, Io (left) and Ganymede. The details on all three images in this composite are amazing, and that’s what impressed the judges, too. Damien Peach used a Celestron 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a Point Grey Flea3 CCD camera to capture these images. I want to highlight this one at left, too, because it shows a feature of our solar system not commonly seen. It was the winner in the Newcomer category, and shows the zodiacal light from a farm in Texas. You have to have exceptionally clear, dark skies to capture the zodiacal light, which is the very faint reflection of sunlight from the gas and dust within our own solar system. Harley Grady took this image with a Canon EOS 5D Mk II DSLR camera with a 16-35mm lens, which shows what you can do with fairly simple equipment. All you need is a good tripod, or some other sturdy support, clear skies and some patience. Long ...

When you wish upon a (non-main sequence) star …

Don’t you just hate it when the star you wish on explodes?

Another photo of Supernova 2010lt

Another photo of Supernova 2010lt
JISHOU, HUNAN — This Jan. 3 photo is by New Mexico photographer Joseph Brimacombe. The tick marks at 12:00 and 3:00 mark Supernova 2010lt, which was discovered a few days ago by 10-year-old Kathryn Aurora Gray of New Brunswick, Canada. I have made a close-up of SN2010lt from his photo, which appears after the full photo. The detail shows the “fuzziness” typical of a galaxy, in this case UGC 3378, which is 240 million light-years away from us. The supernova is within the fuzziness (and the same distance from Earth), so it’s part of the galaxy. Here’s a news report of the discovery I found online.

I missed the eclipse, but not the solstice moon 3

I missed the eclipse, but not the solstice moon
JISHOU, HUNAN — I snapped this from my balcony window this morning around 6:50. It was misty here, as it is usually early in the day, but the moon looked so good hanging just above the mountains to the west that I grabbed my camera and squeezed off a few shots. These were two of the best. Technical details: Shot with a Nikon D60 with manual Nikkor 200 mm lens, ASA 400, f5.6, 1/100 sec Technical details: Shot with a Nikon D60 with Nikkor 18-55 AF-S DX lens, ASA 400, f5.6, 1/13 sec (braced against window frame)

Happy Winter Solstice!

It’s today, at 6:38 PM EST (6:38 AM Wednesday my time). I hope you got a chance to see the lunar eclipse, because I’m on the wrong side of the world for it. Just for the record, this is the shortest period of daylight in the northern hemisphere for the whole year. And the furthest south on the horizon that the sun will rise and set. Now the days will get longer, and the sun will move toward the north. Good reason for a celebration! Have some glögg! It’s a traditional holiday punch in Sweden and the other north lands. The really old fashioned way to make it was to leave out the sugar, and instead drink the punch while holding a sugar cube in your teeth. At least, that’s how my grandpa did it. Sugar was expensive way back when.

Ooooo … pretty! 1

This lovely image is of our home, the Milky Way galaxy, but in a way our mortal eyes cannot perceive it. It doesn’t show stars, but the stuff that makes (or will make) up stars and planets and whatnot — clouds of gas and dust. Our eyes can see only a tiny fraction of light — the visible spectrum, ROYGBIV (rainbow colors) — but the universe also glows in other kinds of light: gamma ray, X-ray, ultraviolet, infra-red, microwave and radio. And each frequency tells us something different. The atmosphere blocks some of those frequencies (fortunately for life in Earth), so to view the universe in this exotic light astronomers have to depend on telescopes out in space. The European Space Agency, for example, launched the Planck Surveyor telescope to capture images in the microwave range, like this one here. Microwave imaging gives us two important sets of information about the Milky Way and the universe we are in. First, the huge clouds of gas and dust in the galaxy (which are mostly invisible to our eyes) are what eventually turn into stars and planets (and all the stuff that ends up on planets). In the photo, those clouds are ...

CNN got it wrong. Or why everyone should take Astro 101

The snippet lasted only a few seconds, and I’ll bet most viewers didn’t even notice the mistake. It was during a CNN Special Investigation Report on food safety. The camera supposedly was trained on the Sun as it rises above the horizon. Diagonally. Toward the top left of the screen. In California. Well, it cannot have possibly happened, not in the Northern Hemisphere anyway. Clearly the cinematographer was just running a sunset backwards to create a “sunrise,” a geographically wrong sunrise. Here’s why. The Sun always rises in the east and sets in the west, no matter where you live, because the entire Earth rotates in the same direction. The path of the Sun across the sky, however, depends on your latitude, because the Earth is round. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, facing east, you will see the Sun rise over the horizon and follow a diagonal path toward the upper right (also known as the southern sky). At sunset, facing west, the Sun will slowly dive toward the horizon from the upper left (still the southern sky). The angle of that path relative to the horizon matches your latitude. (Where I live, that angle is about 38 ...
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