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07/04/2022 – Ephemeris – Space firsts, or attempts, on our nation’s birthday

July 4, 2022 Comments off

This is Ephemeris for Independence Day, Monday, July 4th. Today the Sun will be up for 15 hours and 28 minutes, setting at 9:31, and it will rise tomorrow at 6:03. The Moon, 2 days before first quarter, will set at 12:53 tomorrow morning.

To celebrate our nation’s 200th birthday, NASA attempted to land the Viking 1 lander on the planet Mars on July 4th, 1976. The Viking was a combination orbiter and lander and had a twin spacecraft arriving almost two months later. Viking 1 entered orbit on June 19th and began to survey the prime landing area, that radar from the Earth suggested would be smooth, to land on the day of the Bicentennial. However, images from orbit showed too many obstructions, so another area was surveyed. The mission planners from JPL found a spot and sent the Viking lander down to land on Mars on another historic date, July 20, 1976, the 7th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon.

The astronomical event times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan (EDT, UT – 4 hours). They may be different for your location.

Addendum

Model of the Viking lander

Model of the Viking lander. Credit NASA/JPL.

First Mars image from Viking 1

The first Mars image from the Viking 1 lander, taken moments after touchdown. The Viking landers used rockets to land, after a parachute descent, because the parachutes would not slow the lander enough in the thin Martian atmosphere. The reason to photograph the landing pad was to see how far it would sink into the surface. Credit NASA/JPL.

NASA did finally make a historic landing on July 4th,

the Mars Pathfinder mission, with the first rover to operate on Mars, the Sojourner rover, landed on July 4, 1997. It was a microwave sized rover. The mission on the surface lasted 85 days.

Pathfinder_collage

Pathfinder collage, Left to right, the collapsed Sojourner rover attached to one of the lander’s tetrahedron petals; 24 inflated airbags, attached 6 to a side of the Pathfinder tetrahedron; launch of the Delta II rocket carrying Pathfinder to Mars. Credit NASA/JPL.

Sojourner rover investigates Yogi

Sojourner rover investigates a rock named Yogi with its Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer to determine its composition. Credit NASA/JPL.

Pathfinder Lander from Sojourner

The Pathfinder Lander/Base Station and its deflated airbags from Sojourner. All communications from Sojourner to Earth is relayed through the Base Station. Credit NASA/JPL.

03/08/2022 – Ephemeris – International Women’s Day

March 8, 2022 Comments off

This is Ephemeris for International Women’s Day, Tuesday, March 8th. Today the Sun will be up for 11 hours and 32 minutes, setting at 6:39, and it will rise tomorrow at 7:06. The Moon, 2 days before first quarter, will set at 1:25 tomorrow morning.

The planet Venus is the only major planet named after a goddess. Satellites of the planets are named after both male and female deities. When asteroids were discovered between Mars and Jupiter they began to receive female deity names, however errant asteroids that that came close to the Earth’s orbit received male names. Venus, named after the Roman goddess of love, by convention, has female names for its land forms. But before that convention was adopted the first bright radar feature found on Venus, in 1967, was Maxwell Montes, named after James Clerk Maxwell whose work in the 19th century predicted radio waves. It is by reflected radio waves (radar) by which that feature had been found using the Arecibo radio telescope.

The astronomical event times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan (EST, UT – 5 hours). They may be different for your location.

Addendum

Venus Map

Radar map of Venus produced by the radar altimeter of the Pioneer Venus Orbiter, 1978-1992. Note Maxwell Montes at the top, part of Ishtar Terra, a continent-like land mass. Another large land mass is Aphrodite Terra in the center right. Click on the image to enlarge it.  Credit: NASA.

02/28/2022 – Ephemeris – Ancient Egypt’s most important star

February 28, 2022 Comments off

This is Ephemeris for Monday, February 28th. Today the Sun will be up for 11 hours and 7 minutes, setting at 6:29, and it will rise tomorrow at 7:20. The Moon, 2 days before new, will rise at 7:17 tomorrow morning.

The Ancient Egyptian agricultural year began with the flooding of the Nile, which was announced by the heliacal rising of the brightest nighttime star, Sirius. A heliacal rising is the first appearance of a star in the morning twilight after disappearing in evening twilight some months before. The Greeks called the star Sothis, while the ancient Egyptians called the star Sopdet. The heliacal rising would occur on July 20th had our calendar been in use back then. The relationship between the summer solstice and the heliacal rising of Sothis, 29 days later, stayed the same for nearly three millennia, from at least 2900 BCE to 12 CE, despite precession* of the Earth’s axis moving the Sun from the middle of the constellation Leo at the summer solstice to the western edge of Cancer one and a half constellations west. Sopdet was personified by a goddess, who was the consort to Sah, who is what they called Orion.

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The astronomical event times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan (EST, UT – 5 hours). They may be different for your location.

* Precession of the equinoxes. The slow, 26,000 year wobble of the Earth’s axis which causes the Earth, most of the time, to not have a pole star. We’re lucky to live at a time to have a bright star within a degree of the north celestial pole. That star is, of course, Polaris. Precession also changes the point in the sky, along the ecliptic and zodiac, where the Sun appears on the first day of spring, or any season. These points move westward along the ecliptic (the plane of the earth’s orbit of the Sun) one degree every 72 years.

Addendum

The Egyptian used the heliacal rising of Sirius as a signal that the flooding of the Nile was imminent, starting their agricultural year. The Greeks called the star Sothis, while the Egyptians themselves called it Sopdet, a goddess, and consort of the god Sah, our Orion.
Part of my presentation, December 2021 of Ancient Astronomy of the Egyptians and Babylonians.

02/21/2022 – Ephemeris – The time President Abraham Lincoln visited the US Naval Observatory

February 21, 2022 Comments off

This is Ephemeris for President’s Day, Monday, February 21st. Today the Sun will be up for 10 hours and 46 minutes, setting at 6:19, and it will rise tomorrow at 7:32. The Moon, 2 days before last quarter, will rise at 12:09 tomorrow morning.

In August 1863, during the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln and his secretary John Hay rode out to the Naval Observatory, where it was back then in Foggy Bottom. The astronomer there, Asaph Hall, showed them the Moon and the star Arcturus through the observatory’s telescope. A couple of nights later Lincoln came out alone to ask the astronomer some questions about what he saw, in including why the Moon was upside down in the observatory telescope while the telescope he used gave a right side up image.* Fourteen years later, Asaph Hall, still at the Naval Observatory, discovered the two satellites of Mars through the observatory’s then larger telescope.

The astronomical event times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan (EST, UT – 5 hours). They may be different for your location.

Addendum

9.6 inch refractor

The 9.6 inch telescope through which Lincoln viewed the Moon and Arcturus on the night of August 22, 1863. From the Astronomy.com website.

Old Naval Observatory

The old Naval Observatory. From the Astronomy.com website.

* Most telescopes naturally create an upside down image. The spyglass type telescope President Lincoln was probably familiar with was a Galilean telescope that didn’t form an image within it. Telescopes like binoculars use prisms to erect the image. Astronomers don’t care if the image is upside down. Whatever is used to turn the image right side up reduces the amount of light that makes it through the telescope. For astronomers, the name of the game is to capture more light and increase the ability to see fine detail, which are both functions of the primary’s diameter. That’s why modern telescopes are measured by the diameter of their primary mirrors or lenses.

12/03/2021 – Ephemeris – Learn about the astronomy of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians

December 3, 2021 Comments off

This is Bob Moler with Ephemeris for Friday, December 3rd. Today the Sun will be up for 9 hours even, setting at 5:02, and it will rise tomorrow at 8:03. The Moon, 1 day before new, will rise at 8:33 tomorrow morning.

This evening yours truly will present one of my annual holiday programs starting at 8 p.m., at the monthly meeting, via Zoom, of the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society. The talk is a new one: The ancient astronomy of the Egyptians and Babylonians. It’s amazing how these ancient astronomers devised accurate calendars and eclipse predictions and even helped develop our alphabet, through the study of the heavens. If clear, we’ll have a virtual star party starting around 9 pm. Instructions and a link is on gtastro.org by 7 pm. Our binocular comet Leonard is still approaching the Sun in the morning sky. Tomorrow morning it will be a bit less than the width of a fist held at arm’s length above and a bit to the left of the bright star Arcturus in the eastern sky.

The astronomical event times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan (EST, UT – 5 hours). They may be different for your location.

Addendum

The Egyptian used the heliacal rising of Sirius as a signal that the flooding of the Nile was imminent, starting their agricultural year. The Greeks called the star Sothis, while the Egyptians themselves called it Sopdet, a goddess, and consort of the god Sah, our Orion. Part of my presentation.

09/13/2021 – Ephemeris – The Greeks knew the size and shape of the Earth and estimated the distance to the Moon a long time ago

September 13, 2021 Comments off

This is Bob Moler with Ephemeris for Monday, September 13th. Today the Sun will be up for 12 hours and 37 minutes, setting at 7:56, and it will rise tomorrow at 7:20. The Moon, at first quarter today, will set at 11:57 this evening.

The Ancient Greeks used lunar eclipses to determine that Earth is a sphere, and worked on determining the distance to the Moon. From ancient times, the Greeks knew that an eclipse of the Moon was caused by the Earth’s shadow falling on the Moon. Since the Earth’s shadow was always circular, no matter where the Moon was in the sky during an eclipse, the Earth must be a sphere since that’s the only three-dimensional body that always casts a circular shadow. They also used the size of the Earth’s shadow to estimate the distance to the Moon. The lunar distance, on average, is 60.8 times the Earth’s radius away. The first estimates were about one third of that. Hipparchus in the 2nd century BC got much closer. It got even better from there.

The astronomical event times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan (EDT, UT – 4 hr). They may be different for your location.

Addendum

Partial Lunar Eclipse showing arc of the Earth's shadow

Partial Lunar Eclipse showing circular arc of the Earth’s shadow. Taken 04:15 UT August 17, 1970. Credit: the author.

The size of the Earth was unknown until Eratosthenes did in 240 BC. He came up with the circumference of the Earth to a fairly high degree. The Circumference is equal to the radius of a sphere or circle by 2πr.

09/07/2021 – Ephemeris – The constellation of Cepheus the king

September 7, 2021 Comments off

This is Bob Moler with Ephemeris for Tuesday, September 7th. Today the Sun will be up for 12 hours and 55 minutes, setting at 8:07, and it will rise tomorrow at 7:13. The Moon, 1 day past new, will set at 8:53 this evening.

There’s a faint constellation in the northeast above the W shaped constellation of Cassiopeia. It’s a nearly upside down church steeple of a constellation called Cepheus the king, and husband of queen Cassiopeia. Cepheus’ claim to modern astronomical fame is that one of its stars, Delta (δ) Cephei, is the archetype for the important Cepheid variable stars. Delta is the bottom most of a trio of stars at the right corner of the constellation. In the early 20th century, Henrietta Leavitt discovered that Cepheids in the nearby galaxy the Large Magellanic Cloud varied in brightness with a period that was related to their average brightness. This meant that Cepheids could be used as standard candles to measure the great distances to other galaxies.

The astronomical event times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan (EDT, UT – 4 hr). They may be different for your location.

Addendum

Cassiopeia and Cepheus finder animation

Cassiopeia and Cepheus finder animation looking in the northeast at 9-10 pm or about an hour after sunset. Created using Stellarium and GIMP.

Delta Cephei finder for September at 9-10 pm, looking northeast. Created using Cartes du Ciel (Sky Chart).

Delta_Cephei_lightcurve

Light Curve of Delta Cephei. The pulsation period is 5.367 days. Note the Magnitude vertical axis, the lower the magnitude the brighter the star is. Blame that on the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, 2nd century BC. It’s like golf scores, the lower the score, the better the golfer. Credit: Thomas K Vbg – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13887639.

07/23/2021 – Ephemeris – The first exoplanet* found

July 23, 2021 Comments off

This is Bob Moler with Ephemeris for Friday, July 23rd. Today the Sun will be up for 14 hours and 58 minutes, setting at 9:18, and it will rise tomorrow at 6:20. The Moon, at full today, will rise at 9:35 this evening.

In 1995 the first planet was found that orbits another star. It was 51 Pegasi b. That’s the star labeled number 51 in the constellation Pegasus, the flying horse. It was found because it tugged on its star as it orbited it. The planet was detected by the Doppler method, the same method that the police can tell if you’re speeding. A planet doesn’t orbit the center of the star, but the center of their combined mass. It turned out That 51 Pegasi b is a very large planet, half the mass of Jupiter, orbiting its star every 4 ½ days. Its discovery threw everything we thought we knew about planetary system evolution into a cocked hat. Planets just don’t stay nicely in their orbits like we thought. They move in and out! As this planet moved in toward its star, it would have ejected any of the inner planets out of the system.

The astronomical event times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan (EDT, UT – 4 hr). They may be different for your location.

* A planet was found several years before, orbiting a pulsar, which is a neutron star. Apparently, planets orbiting dead stars don’t count.

Addendum

Pegasi 51b artist's visualization

An artist’s depiction of what exoplanet Pegasus 51b and its star might look like. Credit: ESO (European Southern Observatory) / M. Kornmesser.

06/14/2021 – Ephemeris – Images of the Moon: Then and now

June 14, 2021 Comments off

This is Bob Moler with Ephemeris for Flag Day, Monday, June 14th. Today the Sun will be up for 15 hours and 33 minutes, setting at 9:29, and it will rise tomorrow at 5:56. The Moon, 3 days before first quarter, will set at 1 am.

The waxing crescent Moon shows its cratered highlands and flat lava plains that early telescopic astronomers fancied as water filled and called them seas, so the nomenclature stuck, and we call them seas to this day. When I grew up in the 1950s I was captivated by the moonscapes painted by Chesley Bonestell with their sharp rugged mountain peaks. The actual lunar landscape turned out to be softer, more rounded. The Earth’s surface features are younger than the Moon’s due to plate tectonics, something few geologists in the 1950s believed in. The Moon’s features are generally billions of years old and erosion by meteoroid impacts and ejecta have covered the landscape with a fine dust, over the eons, that smooths out its features.

The astronomical event times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan. They may be different for your location.

Addendum

Chesley Bonestell moonscape

A Chesley Bonestell moonscape. Note the sharp detail including an arch at center right and an overhang at right. Such was the state of our ignorance before spacecraft like Ranger, Surveyor, Lunar Orbiter and Apollo reached the Moon. Click on the image to enlarge. Credit Chesley Bonestell.

Moonscape photographed by JAXA (Japan) spacecraft Kaguya

Moonscape photographed by JAXA (Japan) spacecraft Kaguya with about the same orientation as the Bonestell painting, except from orbit. Click on the image to enlarge. Credit JAXA/NHK.

Image from Apollo 17 showing lunar erosion

Image from Apollo 17 showing lunar erosion. Even the rocks in the foreground show that they were eroded. The image also shows astronaut Dr. Harrison “Jack” Schmidt. Click on the image to enlarge. Credit NASA.

04/26/2021 – Ephemeris – There’s a full supermoon tonight

April 26, 2021 Comments off

This is Ephemeris for Monday, April 26th. Today the Sun will be up for 14 hours and 2 minutes, setting at 8:41, and it will rise tomorrow at 6:38. The Moon, at full today, will rise at 8:19 this evening.

The full moon tonight is the full Pink Moon, and a supermoon. As down as I am about full moons due to the fact that they light up the sky and flood out the dimmer objects in the sky, I once in a while stop and view it. The time of the full moon is 11:31 tonight, so when it rises tonight we will be looking at the moon from very nearly the direction of the Sun, so there will be few shadows to be had. The crater Tycho is near the bottom or south end of the moon and has long rays of tiny ejecta craters. The full moon is the best time to see these rays, which are easily visible in binoculars, through which Tycho itself looks like a bright dot. In telescopes Tycho looks like a small bright crater with a dark ring around it. The full moon is super bright. It’s daytime over there.

The astronomical event times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan. They may be different for your location.

Addendum

High contrast full Moow
The full Moon 7 hours before it was officially full. The contrast was greatly enhanced to bring out Tycho’s ray system. The crater Tycho is at the south part of the Moon and appears bright with a dark ring around it. Credit Bob Moler.
Tycho and Kepler
Tycho and Kepler. Artist for Tycho: Eduard Ender (1822-1883). Artist for Kepler, unknown. Source: Wikipedia

Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler are inexorably linked in astronomical history. Tycho was famously stingy with the results of his observations. It was only after his death that Kepler was able to have access to them. Mars was the planet that was hardest to model in both the Ptolemaic geocentric and Copernican heliocentric universes, since both assumed the planetary orbits were circular. So both resorted to epicycles in an attempt to tweak their models in an attempt to fit with observational reality.

Both Tycho and Kepler have craters named for them on the Moon. Tycho gets a splashy crater on the southern part of the Moon. Kepler, however, gets a small crater on the plains of Oceanus Procellarum west of the crater Copernicus on the left side of the Moon, as we see it