EDITOR’S NOTE: For everyone who’s wished they had advance alert of an upcoming meteor shower/eclipse/etc. – and/or wondered “What’s that bright ‘star’ up there?” – this is for you – the third edition of our new monthly feature by West Seattle’s own Solar System Ambassador Alice Enevoldsen, famous for her solstice/equinox sunset watches and for the recent bout of Comet PanSTARRS watching. Speaking of which …
(Comet PanSTARRS’ ‘last hurrah,’ from WSB reader John Hinkey)
By Alice Enevoldsen
Special to West Seattle Blog
We had some amazing nights last month, despite it being March. Now that it is officially spring, it’s started raining again. This month we have two planets in the night sky, and solar activity continues to ramp up towards Solar Maximum in November. It’s Global Astronomy Month, according to Astronomers without Borders, as well as Astronomy Day and Astronomy Week towards the end of the month as declared by the Astronomical League.
Hey! What’s That?
Did you see something in the sky recently, and wonder what it was? There are several options, but I’m betting you probably saw Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. It twinkles and flashes like anything in the mid-low sky between southeast and southwest. You probably will even think it is an airplane at first, until you realize it isn’t moving.
The other prime options are Jupiter and Saturn, depending on when and where you’re looking. Both of them will appear extremely bright, but Jupiter is in among a number of similarly bright stars, and Saturn will be rising later in the evening.
Planets (and the rest of the Solar System)
What a nice segue into the planets visible now, if the skies clear.
We’ve had Jupiter for a few months now, not terribly far away from Orion in the West after sunset, and Saturn rises in the East a couple hours later in the same part of the sky as the bright stars Arcturus in Boötes and Spica in Virgo.
For a few fleeting moments at the end of the month you might catch Venus in the West just after sunset. Next month will be better for that.
It may not be a planet, but Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS to be exact) continues to be in the night sky, visible with a telescope. On April 6th or 7th it becomes circumpolar—visible all night long in the Northern sky for the rest of April. It is a good target for practicing astrophotography, point your camera north and leave the shutter open for 10-30 seconds. See what you get.
I hope you were able to join us for some of the fun comet-gazing nights last month, here are a couple pictures we’ve held in reserve, as thanks for braving the changing clouds and chilly winds of mid-March. I always love these people and stars photographs:
(Finding PanSTARRS with a telescope, from Jason Gift Enevoldsen)
(PanSTARRS, between the cart and the telescope, and comet gazers in Lincoln Park from Jason Gift Enevoldsen)
One more event within our Solar System: the Lyrid meteor shower peaks after midnight on April 21 (so, technically that is the morning of April 22). It’s not predicted to be a great year for Lyrids due to the bright waxing Moon, and in general this isn’t one of the more spectacular meteor showers. So, if you happen to be out and it happens to be clear, go ahead and look towards the Northeast. You can also expect to see a few more meteors than usual on the days around April 21.
Have you noticed how every day seems so much longer than the last this week? That’s springtime for you. The weather doesn’t seem it, but we’re irrevocably on our way to summer.
(Jason Gift Enevoldsen took this from our backyard using a white light solar filter on March 31, just before the weather turned. Never use an unprotected camera, telescope, or binoculars to look at the Sun. Use proper eye protection (not just sunglasses) when viewing the Sun directly.)
Unrelated to spring and summer, solar activity is also increasing, and because this is a solar maximum year, activity will continue to increase until at least November. If you have a hankering for aurorae, this is your year. We generally have about three days of warning before increased solar activity reaches the Earth and makes aurorae.
Here are some sources for good forecasts:
spaceweather.com – This is THE source for information about solar activity.
softservenews.com/Aurora.htm – I have found this to be a bit more readable than Spaceweather.com
gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/NorthAmerica – This picture shows you where the aurorae will be if there is activity.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Since Alice sent this in a few days ago, there has indeed been some indication of solar activity.)
Yuri’s Night is Friday, April 12th. This is generally a 21+ celebration of humankind’s first steps into space: Yuri Gagarin’s historic first manned flight into outer space occurred on April 12, 1961. The Museum of Flight is hosting an event, or you can host your own anywhere you like.
Astronomy Day is Saturday, April 20th. Pacific Science Center’s Track for Earth and Space Science Achievement teens (some of whom are local to West Seattle) will be hosting a celebration one week later on Saturday, April 27th.
April 18, First Quarter: the first quarter moon is ideal for late afternoon and early evening observation.
April 25, Full Moon: The full moon rises at sunset, and sets at sunrise.
May 2, Last Quarter: the week around the last quarter moon, it is visible in the early morning sky.
Stellarium: free planetarium software for your home computer. Bring up the sky for anywhere in the world, any time and date in history or the future.
Clear Sky Chart: the astronomer’s forecast for the next couple days. Cloudcover, darkness, and “seeing” which is how nice it is to view the stars, all on one handy chart.
USNO: dates and times of astronomical happenings.
International Dark Sky Association
Who is Alice?
Alice is many things and works and volunteers for a few different notable organizations, but the suggestions and opinions put forth in this article are her own and no-one else’s. You can find more about astronomy at alicesastroinfo.com.