January 6, 2012

The latest sunrise


Although the days are getting longer here in the northern hemisphere, we’re having the latest sunrises of the year now. While the shortest day (total hours of daylight) was winter solstice on December 22nd what I call the “solstice season” doesn’t happen all at once. The cycle is earliest sunset, shortest day, latest sunrise. The earliest sunsets occured in early December followed by the “shortest” day. It all seems to happen at solstice because most people see, or are more aware of, the sunsets.

Of course the opposite is true for people in the southern hemisphere where the December solstice marks the longest day and the sequence reverses at summer solstice.

By way of example I compared the sunrise/sunset tables for Louisville, central Wyoming and southern California. I live near the former and have family at the latter locations. It’s all about latitude. Louisville latitude is 38 north. I plotted locations in Wyoming at 42 north and southern California 34 degrees north. Earliest sunrise in Louisville was 5:23 pm EST November 30-December 13. In Wyoming it was 4:41 pm MST December 3-13 and 4:47 pm PST December 1-10 out in southern California. As I write this on January 6th sunrise is 15 minutes later here near Louisville (5:38 pm), and 17 minutes later in Wyoming and California.
By January 31st sunset will come at 6:05 pm here or about 45 minutes later than in early December at the places I’ve listed.
On the morning side, the latest sunrise in Louisville, 8:00 am EST, happens December 30-January 7. Its 7:46 am MST at 42 N and 7:04 am PST on the west coast at 34 N. By month’s end sunrise will be 11 minutes earlier here. 14 minutes earlier in Wyoming and 6 minutes earlier in Ventura.
You might also find it interesting to learn that we (planet Earth) are closest in our annual circle about the Sun right now. Perihelion, Earth’s nearest point to our star, occurred January 4th. Because our orbit is slightly oblong we’re about 2% closer to the Sun. This may seem counter intuitive because its winter but remember we have seasons due to the tilt of Earth’s axis. The northern hemisphere is “leaning away” from the Sun now.
Also, I suggest you watch and make note of where the Sun and Moon rise and set. This exercise will help with our next observing exercise.

For your local sunrise/sunset tables visit the US Naval Observatory Portal Click USNO, then Sun/Moon rise/set table for one year

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January 2, 2012

The Quadrantids meteors peak Wednesday morning


If you can brave the cold, bundle up and watch the Quadrantid meteors Wednesday morning, January 4th.

Best viewing time will be between 3 AM local time, when the moon sets, and dawn. The “radiant”, the apparent point of origin of the meteor stream, will be above your northern horizon near constellation Draco.

Image above: False-color image of a rare early Quadrantid, captured by a NASA meteor camera in 2010. (NASA/MEO/B. Cooke)

Wear several layers of clothing and watch the darkest part of your sky. For more NASA Quadrantids

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The Best of 2011

As 2012 dawns, I’ve been reflecting on my “Best Astronomy Experiences of 2011″. Here they are.

The first “Best” was on New Year’s night, January 1st. 2011 was getting off to a great start! I was in Wyoming visiting family over the holidays. Although the outdoor temp was -12 F we loaded our classic Coulter Odyssey reflector and headed a few miles out of town to a dark site in a nearby canyon at 9000 ft above sea level.
We were wearing several layers of clothing and managed to endure the cold for nearly two hours. That night the views of M42, the Orion Nebula, M31, Andromeda and M33, the Triangulum were amazing. We had a great night and I think my feet thawed in late April


In March I was honored to join a panel of speakers at the Louisville Science Center for a program on the future of human spaceflight. Panelists included June Scobee Rodgers, Ph.D. the widow of Challenger Space Shuttle Commander Dick Scobee and Founding Chair for the Challenger Center for Space Science Education

In April the “Yuri’s Night” event celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first human orbital spaceflight of Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin at the LVL-1 “hackerspace”. Friends from a local astronomy club were there with telescopes and we enjoyed a film re-creation of the flight which included footage shot by Gagarin combined with footage taken aboard ISS

In early May there was a “great conjunction” of Venus, Mercury, Jupiter and Mars at dawn. Unfortunately I was very busy with work at the Kentucky Derby and the conjunction was very low in the sky, so I never saw it! I’m not sure why it’s on this list!


Memorial Day weekend Space Shuttle Endeavour was wrapping up mission STS-134, its final trip to the International Space Station and next to last Shuttle flight. On Monday morning, May 30th, a few minutes before 5 AM Shuttle and Station had undocked a few minutes before making a visible pass over my home in southern Indiana
I took this image as the two spacecraft orbited overhead. Click the image to enlarge it and you’ll notice there are two distinctive “streaks”. The upper, brighter streak is the ISS and the lower, fainter one is Endeavour. A day or two later Endeavour made her final landing

In June I was invited to narrate the “Skies of Summer” program at Louisville’s Rauch Planetarium. We had a full house for the premiere of the show and I was thrilled to have many friends in attendance. That program will return to Rauch this summer


Summer, 2011, marked Neptune’s “first birthday” since its discovery in 1846. We told the fascinating story of Neptune’s discovery and celebrated its anniversary with several birthday star parties. Image of Neptune and moon Triton by Ron Yates

In early August two Russian cosmonauts deployed a ham radio satellite, ARISSat-1 during a spacewalk. ARISSat-1 carried a digital voice message player, an amateur radio transponder and digital camera system. I heard and recorded the satellite’s digital voice and managed to download part of an image of Earth taken out one of the tiny satellite’s “windows”

One Saturday night in September after an evening hosting a public “star party” at an astronomy club event I spent a delightful hour observing the Moon with a 16 inch observatory telescope. Late that night I enjoyed observing lunar features I’d not seen before

Through the summer and fall seasons I enjoyed mentoring dozens of Scouts toward earning their Scout Astronomy merit badge. This was very gratifying work

NASA Exploration milestones of 2011

2011 brought the completion of the construction of the International Space Station and the conclusion of NASA’s Space Shuttle program. The DAWN mission arrived at asteroid Vesta, the compact car sized CURIOUSITY rover is on the way to Mars, JUNO is enroute to an encounter with Jupiter in 2015. A team of astrophysicists won the Nobel prize in physics for research that indicates expansion of the Universe is speeding up, not slowing down. NASA’s Kepler mission discovered the first planet in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star and Earth sized planets outside our solar system

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