Category Archives: observing

I looked through a telescope the other day

The weather gets to amateur astronomers from Seattle sometimes. I had several conversations at the Seattle Astronomical Society’s annual banquet back in January with attendees who, like me, fessed up to not doing much observing these days. It’s so cloudy so often that we tend to forget about the telescope, waiting patiently in the corner down by the door to the wine cellar. So it was fun on a string of clear evenings recently to get out and get some scope time.

I even announced it on Twitter.

The views of Jupiter on that night were a little murky, though the Great Red Spot occasionally popped into sight as plain as the cyclone on your face. The next evening seeing and transparency were about as good as they get in West Seattle, and I enjoyed some of the best views of Jupiter I’ve ever had.

I also took a look at Saturn, which was at opposition June 27, but on that evening it was still awfully low in the southeast sky and thus looked pretty fuzzy. I’m looking forward to some better views of Saturn as it comes around a little earlier in the evening each day. I took a few peeks at Venus, too.

While Jupiter and Saturn are among my favorite observing targets, the big show of the summer will be put on by Mars. The Red Planet will reach opposition on July 30, and this particular apparition will be an outstanding one. Mars will be the closest it has been to Earth since 2003, which was its closest approach in 60,000 years! It was that event that pushed me to get more involved in observational astronomy. This summer we’ll have great opportunities to see surface details on Mars.

As I write this, at 1 p.m., it’s looking pretty clear outside, though some clouds are in the forecast for the early morning hours. I shouldn’t even think this, lest to jinx clear skies, but I think I’ll get out again today and see how Saturn is looking.

###

Please support Seattle Astronomy with a subscription through Patreon.

Become a Patron!

Share

Tomorrow morning: Super blue blood Moon

A total lunar eclipse is a pretty cool event in its own right. Add in a blue moon and a super moon and you’ve got three celestial treats in one. Tomorrow morning we on the west coast may enjoy the first super blue blood moon visible in North America since 1866—if the weather cooperates.

Greg at KING TV

Seattle Astronomy writer Greg Scheiderer talked about the super blue blood moon on the KING 5 television program New Day Northwest January 30. His planets tie was a hit with the studio audience. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

A lunar eclipse isn’t all that rare. They can happen two or three times a year, but tomorrow’s will be the first visible (theoretically) from the Seattle area for a couple of years. The blue moon, under the generally accepted modern definition of the second full moon in a calendar month, isn’t quite so rare as the phrase “once in a blue moon” would suggest. On average, a blue moon happens once every 2.7 years. This year is a bit of an oddity, as not only will we have a blue moon tomorrow, but there will be another in March as well, and February has no full moon at all! Yes, there’s a name for that, too—black moon. And that’s also the name for a second new moon in a month.

Finally, the super moon—when full moon occurs near the perigee of the Moon’s orbit around Earth—happens about every 14 months, though we’re on a streak now; our December and early-January full moons were super as well. Blood moon is just a nickname for a lunar eclipse because the Moon often looks orange to deep red when totally eclipsed. None of these things, then, is unusual in and of itself, but getting them all to line up on the same day is quite a trick. The last super blue blood moon was 35 years ago (and I bet it wasn’t called that then), and the next won’t happen until 2037.

Tomorrow’s timeline

Super blue blood moon timeline

Image: NASA

For the super blue blood moon on January 31, 2018, the penumbral eclipse begins just before 3 a.m., but this is subtle and difficult to spot even with telescopes or binoculars. The real show starts just before 4 a.m., when the darker part of Earth’s shadow, the umbra, begins to work its way across the face of the Moon. The Moon will be totally eclipsed at about 4:51 a.m., and will stay that way until 6:07 a.m. The umbral eclipse will end at 7:11, and the Moon will set about 7:45.

To see it—presuming it’s not cloudy—simply go outside and look west. The Moon will be fairly high in the sky at the start of this, but closer to the horizon towards the end.

Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer talked about the eclipse on KING 5 television today with Margaret Larson on the station’s program New Day Northwest; video of the segment is attached below.

The Seattle Astronomical Society plans a viewing event at Solstice Park in West Seattle for those interested in a group experience. In the event of clouds, don’t despair; NASA will be live-streaming the eclipse, though that’s never as cool as the real thing.

Share

Solar eclipse dispatch from Monmouth–Totality!

My biggest concern about viewing today’s total solar eclipse was that, after doing 14 podcasts and at least 25 blog posts about the event over the last 19 months, it would be underwhelming.

Greg

Greg Scheiderer of Seattle Astronomy snapped a selfie while watching the eclipse from Western Oregon University.

Silly me.

I’ve seen Saturn hundreds—thousands?—of times, but I still do a little gasp whenever I get the planet into the field of view of my telescope. There it is! Crank that up about a thousand times, and that’s what I felt when I saw first contact of my very first total solar eclipse from “The Grove” at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon, and again when the diamond ring went away and the whole campus went dark as if a light switch had been thrown, revealing the Sun’s shimmering white corona for a glorious two minutes.

The intervening hour and 13 minutes (or so) between the onset of the eclipse and totality offered plenty of chances to observe interesting natural phenomena, tricks of light, and human behavior. The university had a number of semi-official viewing spots, on the football stadium and other athletic fields, mostly. But some hundred of us chose The Grove, with nice trees providing shade from the diminishing summer Sun, and also leaving easy access back into the lawn for a view of the progress of the eclipse.

My favorite eclipse watcher, or non-watcher, perhaps, was a young lad of seven or eight who kept stomping off from his family group muttering, “It’s not that impressive.” Some time into the eclipse another kid was heard informing the elders that he needed a bio break. Mom loudly exclaimed, in order to make the point emphatically, that you shouldn’t poop during an eclipse. She soon relented and escorted the kid to the loo, no doubt considering the consequences. Many of the kids in attendance—one of the weekend activities was a camp for children—seemed far more interested in play than in some dumb-ass sky thing the adults wanted to see. Where are the water-powered rockets when you need them?! Other kids were totally along for the ride, watching through their eclipse glasses or goggles and declaring, “It’s awesome.”

Mini eclipses

Mini eclipses project through oak leaves during the eclipse.

We saw the little mini eclipses projected through the gaps between oak leaves in The Grove. We noticed bright Venus popping out in splendor several minutes—an hour? Time moves at a different pace during an eclipse—before totality. It got considerably cooler. I kept looking west for a glimpse of the Moon’s shadow. I noticed that deep, twilight purple of dusk relatively high in the sky; was that the umbra, above us but not yet reaching ground? I’m not sure. Then—BAM! Just like that it was dark and there was that amazing corona. I’ve since seen social media posts from people who took photos, and the corona looks round in those images. I saw almost wing-like structure reaching out a couple of solar diameters on either side. The eye and the camera see very different things. As a total solar eclipse newbie, I took the advice of many: Don’t try to photograph totality; just watch and enjoy.

I was expecting to see more stars, but they didn’t really appear. I thought I saw Mars, just for a moment or two, but it was pretty close to the Sun, and it might have been a trick of the light. I couldn’t spot Mercury. I really just kept going back to the corona. I can see all of that other stuff most any time. I also didn’t catch any animal behavior. There are a few squirrels on campus, but I didn’t spot any of them going eclipse crazy.

Then, in what seemed like way less than the two minutes we were promised, the Sun came back out from the other side of the Moon. The glasses went back on, for most. Others began to pack up and head on their way. Said one kid: “Can we go play now.” But I can’t help thinking that the “It’s not that impressive” kid will wind up with a Ph.D. in astronomy. Old Sol works in mysterious ways. We stayed and watched as the Moon slowly slipped away, and in another hour the eclipse was really over. The light and warmth came back and everything was as it was, even though everything had changed. I will always remember this amazing natural spectacle, watched from a lawn at Western Oregon University.

I can’t wait for the next one, and already have a great plan for the eclipse of 2024.

Scenes from around Monmouth–Total Solar Eclipse 2017

Share

Solar eclipse dispatch from Monmouth

Seattle Astronomy is in Monmouth, Oregon for the total solar eclipse. As of this writing, just after 1 p.m. on eclipse eve, the weather outlook is highly optimistic for eclipse viewing from Salem and environs. We noted that Cliff Mass named Salem number one in a Thursday article about eclipse weather, and stuck with that analysis in updates on Friday and Sunday.

MonmouthWe arrived in Monmouth at just after noon on Saturday, August 19, having set out from West Seattle at 8:04 a.m. after breakfast at Luna Park Café. Our goal: get to Salem ahead of the slackers, though it has been suggested that we actually ARE the slackers! Traffic problems were nil on Saturday morning. We took the I-205 route to avoid downtown Portland, and the only traffic delay we encountered on the trip south was a brief slowdown right near the PDX airport.

We’ve seen several reports of clear sailing on the highways from others headed into the path of totality, both here in the I-5 corridor and also in Eastern Oregon. It made us wonder if predictions of eclipse-ageddon traffic were merely ways to discourage the faint of heart from making the trip. This morning we’ve also seen reports that officials are now worried that previous light traffic means a super crush later today and on eclipse morning. We shall see; a big part of the job of “officials” is to worry, and we had some discussion of this in our blog and podcast with Jim Todd of OMSI last year. In any event, we’re here early and enjoying this college town.

Path of Totality IPAWe’re in Monmouth because we’re bunking at Western Oregon University. Greg is giving a talk about chasing the Sun at 3 p.m. today, Sunday, at the Wine Country Eclipse event. We’ll also be watching the eclipse there on Monday morning. Our original plan was to be at the OMSI event at Salem Fairgrounds until Orbit Oregon offered us the speaking gig at the festival.

A few local businesses are embracing the eclipse to a degree. Portland-based Breakside Brewery has created Path of Totality IPA, and several pubs in town are carrying the eclipse-themed brew. (We’ve been doing exhaustive research on this.) As we enjoyed a burger and a couple of pints over lunch at Main St. Pub & Eatery in downtown Monmouth, there was just a trickle of foot and vehicle traffic in mid-afternoon.

Monmouth would qualify as a small town at population just over ten thousand. We’ve seen no sign yet that the town and its infrastructure will be over-run with eclipse-watchers, though our wait at breakfast was a bit long this morning and many of the folks at J’s Café were wearing eclipse t-shirts of various designs, a sure mark of a tourist. We probably made the wait a bit longer for locals coming in for their Sunday breakfast! There are definitely more people around that there were on Saturday, but it’s hardly a crunch.

Even Monmouth City Hall is getting into the act; they’re not opening until 1 p.m. on Monday so that everyone can enjoy the eclipse.

We hope you do, too! Tell us about your eclipse destination in the comments!

 

Share

Late-breaking eclipse and lodging opportunities in Oregon

There are people who have been planning for the August 21 total solar eclipse for 20 years or more. If you’re more of a procrastinator, there are still outstanding opportunities popping up for us ten days ahead of the much-awaited event.

Two of these are available from our friends at Orbit Oregon, the Portland-based publisher of The Big Eclipse and The Big Eclipse Activity Book, a great pair of eclipse guides for kids and families. (Check our article and podcast about The Big Eclipse.)

The Big Eclipse Family Weekend will happen August 19–21 at Western Oregon University in Monmouth. In addition to viewing of the eclipse on Monday, August 21, the camp includes lodging and meals, a t-shirt, eclipse glasses, and copies of the book and activity book. The camp is best recommended for kids ages 5–12 and their families, and will include hands-on activities related to eclipses and space science.

Check out the website for tickets and more information.

The other event is a little more adult-oriented. The Wine Country Eclipse is a three-day music and wine festival that will take place at the Polk County Fairgrounds in Rickreall, Oregon. It is a benefit for Solar Oregon, a not-for-profit organization bringing solar energy to the state.

The best news for those in need of lodging is that a festival ticket can include a room at Western Oregon University or tent or RV camping accommodations at the festival site. Check the website for tickets and more information.

Planned activities include:

  • Live music all three days
  • A square dance lesson on Saturday
  • A sing-along to eclipse tunes on Sunday
  • Wine and spirits tastings
  • The Totality Tent – a 21-and-over wine garden near the concert stage featuring wine, beer, and special cocktails including Totality Punch, Sungria and Moonaritas
  • Local artisan fare and crafts for sale
  • Displays featuring solar and renewable energy
  • Educational seminars about wine, astronomy, and eclipse photography

That last item is especially exciting because it includes a talk titled “Get Offa My Cloud: Adventures in Seeking a Glimpse of Old Sol,” by Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer. You don’t want to miss that!

As with all things eclipse related, tickets for these events are likely to be snapped up quickly, so hurry!

 

Share

Don’t forget about the Perseid meteor shower

The astronomically growing hullabaloo about this month’s total solar eclipse is threatening to outshine one of our coolest annual celestial events: the Perseid meteor shower. The shower has actually been going on for a couple of weeks now, but will reach its peak this weekend. The best viewing of the shower is expected late Friday evening, August 11 through the wee hours of Saturday morning, and again on Saturday night and into Sunday morning.

Perseids

Image: NASA

The Perseids are so named because they seem to originate from the constellation Perseus. The meteors are specks of material left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle that burn up as they hit Earth’s atmosphere.

There’s good news and bad news about this year’s Perseids. The good is that it looks like we’ll be going through a particularly dense part of the comet’s debris tail, so we could get more meteors than usual. The bad news is that the waning gibbous Moon will be casting its bright light in the early morning hours, washing out some of the fainter meteors. But even with a bright Moon out, the most robust of the meteors can be spotted, even from city skies.

I’m often asked where to go to see the Perseids. In answer to that, I’ve created a Stargazing Sites page on Seattle Astronomy. The page features maps of stargazing spots in Seattle and around the Northwest. This has been up in “soft launch” mode for a while now, so this is our first public call-out. Check the maps for a site near you, and please feel free to ping me with your own favorites.

The short story for Perseid watching: get as far away from city lights as possible. I first saw them when I was about 12 years old and on a backpacking trip in the dark wilderness near Holden, west of Lake Chelan. The show in pitch-black skies was spectacular. I didn’t know there was such a thing as the Perseids; it was just luck being in the right place at the right time. If you have to stay in the city, find a spot away from street lights for the best prospects.

This article from EarthSky has some useful tips for viewing the Perseids. Good luck!

Share

Four star parties, three astro club meetings this week

It’s a busy week for local astronomy clubs, which have meetings and star parties galore on the docket as we roll into October.

Astronomy clubs

Olympic Astronomical SocietyOlympic Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, October 3 in room Art 103 at Olympic College in Bremerton. Presentations will include a look back at the New Horizons mission and a recap of the club’s recent Camp Delaney Star Party.

Tacoma Astronomical Society plans its monthly meeting for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 4 in room 175 on the campus of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. Discussion topics had not been posted as of this writing.

The Spokane Astronomical Society will meet at 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 7 in the Planetarium at Spokane Falls Community College. Guest speaker Sukanta Bose, a member of the physics and astronomy faculty at Washington State University, will discuss the first direct detection of gravitational waves, and how the discovery is changing astronomy.

Astronomy night at MOF

MOFThe Museum of Flight will celebrate Astronomy Night as part of its free first Thursday event beginning at 5 p.m. October 6. The evening’s activities will include programs and family activities that tour the galaxies. Local science and astronomy clubs will be on hand to share their knowledge of the heavens and views through their telescopes. Celestial wonders will shine in the museum’s portable planetarium, and NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador Tony Gondola will give a special presentation at 7 pm.

Star parties

There are three star parties on the calendar for this week. The Covington Community Park Star Party is set for Friday, October 7. It’s a cooperative venture between the Boeing Employees Astronomical Society, Seattle Astronomical Society, and Tacoma Astronomical Society. We note a little confusion about the start time, as the SAS website has it at 8 p.m. and BEAS lists 7 p.m.

Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its free public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, October 8 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor program will be the movie Cosmic Collisions. If the weather cooperates club members will have telescopes out for observing.

The Seattle Astronomical Society’s free public star parties are set for 7 p.m. Saturday, October 8 at two locations: Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Bad weather cancels these events so watch the club’s website or social media for updates.

Up in the sky

Watch for the Moon near Venus during twilight on Monday and near Saturn on Wednesday evening. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy have more observing highlights for the week.

Share