Category Archives: observing

Answering What If? Friday in Bremerton

Planetarium events and a handful of astronomy club functions highlight the astronomy calendar for this week.

Pacific Planetarium in Bremerton plans shows titled “What If?” this Friday, July 15 at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 7 p.m. The sessions will take on some of the queries posed in the book What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) by Randall Munroe, the former NASA scientist turned cartoonist and creator of the comic xkcd. Admission to the programs is $5.

For those traveling to the planetarium from the east side of the sound, it is less than a mile from the Bremerton ferry terminal. Save the car fare and walk on!

Pacific Science CenterThe Willard Smith Planetarium at Pacific Science Center features daily programs on a variety of topics, and they have offerings suitable for all ages. Check our calendar, or theirs, for the schedule.

Astronomy club events

Olympic Astronomical SocietyThe Olympic Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 11 in room Art 103 at Olympic College in Bremerton. Talks on the agenda will cover the summer night sky, explosions in space, and core collapse super novae.

beaslogo_300The Boeing Employees Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting Thursday, July 14 in the Boeing “Oxbow” Recreation Center, Building 9-150, Room 201. The program will be “Juno to Jupiter: Piercing the Veil,” a presentation by solar system ambassador Ron Hobbs about the Juno mission, which arrived at Jupiter last week. A social half hour begins at 6:30 p.m. with the program slated for 7 p.m. All Boeing employees, friends and family are invited. Non-Boeing guests must be escorted, so please RSVP to BEAS president David Ingram.

You can get a preview of the program by reading our recent article with Hobbs or listening to the podcast directly below.

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyThe Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its free public nights for 9 p.m. Saturday, July 16 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The all-weather program will cover constellations and star-hopping. If the skies are clear club members will be on hand with telescopes for observing.

Up in the sky

Mercury and Venus will be very close together while Saturn and the Moon do a little dance on Friday. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance by Sky & Telescope have more observing highlights for the week.




Discussion of space security is highlight of week’s calendar

Several area astronomy clubs have meetings and star parties this week, and the University of Washington hosts a symposium about space security.

Jackson School of International StudiesDoctoral candidates and junior fellows in the Space Security Initiative at the UW’s Jackson School of International Studies have been examining the prospects of various international spacefaring nations, and will present a briefing about their findings at the University this Wednesday, June 8. Seattle Astronomy is among the participant panel of journalists, space company representatives, government officials, military, economic development specialists, and other space thinkers involved in the discussion of the future of space exploration and security. We’ll report back on the discussion in a future post.

Astro club activity

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyThe Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 7 in room 175 of Thompson Hall on the University of Puget Sound campus. Seattle Astronomical Society member Mark de Regt will give a talk about how he moved from observing the skies from his yard to remote imaging with equipment located in the South Australia desert. He gave a similar presentation to the SAS back in March. The Tacoma group also will hold one of its free public nights beginning at 9 p.m. Saturday, June 11 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. An all-weather program about aurorae will be featured, and club members will have telescopes on hand for observing if weather permits.

BPAAThe Battle Point Astronomical Association has a full evening of events planned for Saturday, June 11. The club’s popular BP Astro Kids program will celebrate its first birthday at 5 p.m. by revisiting its first year of fun kid projects in a relaxed, science-based, crafty evening! Participants can come by any time as there is no talk, just celebrations! The club’s monthly planetarium program follows at 8:30 p.m., this time focusing on “Pluto & Some Planets.” Astronomer Steve Ruhl will examine the latest data about Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft. They’ll also take a brief look at the three bright planets currently in the evening sky: Jupiter, Mars and Saturn. If the sky is clear, astronomers will be on hand with telescopes. The event is free to BPAA members, $2 donation suggested for nonmembers, $5 for families.

Olympic Astronomical Society has its monthly meeting scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 6 in room Art 103 at Olympic College in Bremerton. As of this writing the program had not been published.

Up in the sky

As the BPAA suggests, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn are all beautifully placed for viewing starting at dusk these days. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope list additional observing highlights for the week.


Planets galore this week

This week’s top astronomy events are up in the sky! Mars made its closest approach to Earth for the year on Monday and will be beautifully placed for viewing for the next several weeks. Saturn reaches opposition Friday and will be a good sight all summer. Jupiter is still high in the southwest as dusk hits. All three planets are easily visible.

Mars from HubbleWe had pretty good luck viewing all three planets on Monday night from the deck out back of Seattle Astronomy headquarters in West Seattle. We saw the ends of eclipses of two Jovian moons, and the Great Red Spot was plainly visible on Jupiter. Mars was quite a beacon; we could see the north polar cap, though it was a little hazy on Monday and we didn’t make out any other surface details. Saturn was still pretty low in the southeast when we turned in around midnight.

Uranus passes close to the Moon on Wednesday, June 1. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope have other observing highlights for the week.

TJO open house

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

The Theodor Jacobsen Observatory is the second oldest building on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

There will be an open house beginning at 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 1 at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Two students will give talks. At 9 p.m. Emily Farr will give an update about Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and explain what NASA has planned for exploration of this fascinating moon. At 9:30 p.m. Jason Lozo, a member of the newly formed Astronomy Undergraduate Engineering Group, will discuss the recent upgrades to the UW’s observatory at Manastash Ridge as well as other projects that the undergraduates are pursuing.

Farr’s talk is filled, though as of this writing there were still spaces left for Lozo’s. Reservations are always strongly recommended for the open houses, which are held on the first and third Wednesdays of each month from April through September.

Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society staff the observatory dome for tours and, if weather permits, views through its vintage telescope.

Spokane meeting

The Spokane Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 3 at the planetarium as Spokane Falls Community College. The program had not been published as of this writing.

Star Party

The Craters of the Moon Star Party, sponsored by the Idaho Falls Astronomical Society, runs from Friday, June 3 through Sunday, June 5 at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve near Arco, Idaho. It is the club’s 25th year doing outreach at Craters of the Moon.


Mars at opposition, AoT looks at weird objects

Mars from Hubble

Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured this striking image of Mars on May 12, when the planet was 50 million miles from Earth. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), J. Bell (ASU), and M. Wolff (Space Science Institute).

The season of Mars begins this week as the Red Planet reaches opposition on Sunday, May 22! That means that Mars will rise around sunset, be highest in the southern sky at around 1 a.m., and will be visible all night long. When Mars is at opposition it also is near its closest approach to Earth, which this year happens on Memorial Day.

This year’s apparition is a particularly favorable one for Mars, which will draw nearer to Earth than it has been in more than a decade. At closest approach on May 30 Mars will be just 46.8 million miles away from us; it will be at its brightest for the year and we will have our best chance to see surface details through our telescopes. After Memorial Day Mars and Earth will slowly get further apart and Mars will appear to grow dimmer. The best views will be through June, but Mars will be reasonably well placed for observation through the rest of the year.

This NASA site has good information about the Mars opposition and current activity on the Red Planet.

Space oddities

AoT Seattle May 25, 2016The next edition of Astronomy on Tap Seattle is coming up at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 25 at Hilliard’s Beer Taproom in Ballard. The monthly event organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington this time takes a look at real-life space oddities. UW astronomy professor Emily Levesque will talk about her research on “The Weirdest Stars in the Universe,” and grad student John Ruan will give a talk titled, “Citizen Discovers Strange Black Hole Echoes: The Science Behind Hanny’s Voorwerp.”

Astronomy on Tap also features trivia contests, good beer, good science, and a lot of fun. There are typically more participants than there are chairs, and the organizers suggest you can bring a lawn chair and create your own premium seating.

Fly above it all

Above and BeyondAbove and Beyond: The Ultimate Interactive Flight Exhibition opens May 28 and runs through September 10 at the Museum of Flight. It’s the west coast premiere for the exhibition, which explores the wonder of flight and the marvels of aerospace innovation, design, and technology. Above and Beyond is designed to be the most interactive touring exhibition on aerospace, with approximately 5,000 square feet of exhibition space, including a 180-degree immersive theater presentation, a high-tech media-rich historical timeline, a simulated space elevator ride, a challenge to design and test a supersonic fighter jet in a virtual high-speed flying competition, and an avatar-based motion-capture group experience that demonstrates flight like a bird.

Astronaut Tom Jones

Astronaut Tom Jones. Photo: NASA.

Seattle Astronomy plans to run a full-length preview of the exhibition later this week. It has been at the Smithsonian and in Abu Dhabi, and recently wrapped up runs at the St. Louis Science Center and the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina.

Shuttle astronaut Tom Jones will be at the museum Saturday to help kick off Above and Beyond. At 2 p.m. Jones will give a talk about what it’s like to fly in space. Afterward, he’ll sign copies of his book, Ask the Astronaut: A Galaxy of Answers to Your Questions on Spaceflight (Smithsonian Books, 2016). The lecture, and the exhibition, are free with admission to the museum.

Books by Tom Jones:

Up in the Sky

With Mars reaching opposition we have a pretty good three-planet show in the evenings. Jupiter was at opposition March 8 and these days is high in the south at dusk and sets around 2 a.m. Saturn will be at opposition June 3. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy have additional observing highlights for the week.


St. Louis on the edge for 2017 total solar eclipse

From Seattle we’ll have to drive about 200 miles south to get to the edge of the path of totality for the total solar eclipse that will cross the United States on August 21, 2017. The north edge of the path will cross I-5 near Aurora, Oregon. In St. Louis, the edge of the path cuts right through town. It sounds convenient, but Don Ficken, who chairs the St. Louis Eclipse 2017 Task Force, said there are disadvantages.

St. Louis Eclipse 2017“St. Louis is, in many ways, blessed by the fact that we have an eclipse coming through at least the southern part of the city,” Ficken said. “In other ways it’s a challenge. It’s not like Nashville where it’s going through the core; it’s basically just hitting the edge of the city.”

The northern edge of the path of totality almost cuts St. Louis in half, with the south and west sides of the city being in, while the north and east sides are not. Many big attractions in St. Louis, such as the Gateway Arch, Forest Park, Busch Stadium, the Zoo, and the St. Louis Science Center all lie outside the path of totality, while those inside the path will experience a shorter eclipse of a minute or less.

“When we talk with the main core of the city, it’s kind of hard for them to get real excited when they’re really on the edge of the eclipse,” Ficken said.

Thus, for the St. Louis area, the focus of eclipse planning has been on the more rural areas that are deeper into the path of totality of the eclipse. They began their work in 2014 but really got going in earnest at a workshop last fall.

“We decided up front that we were planning to inspire—in other words get people excited about it, educate and tell them about what’s going on, and then of course connect them to the resources, but we do not want to plan any events,” Ficken said. “We’re simply trying to raise awareness and do everything we can to get the region ready.”

The task force created teams that work with the many different counties and municipalities within the eclipse path. The St. Louis Astronomical Society, of which Ficken is a member, has been doing its part. Last weekend the club had a booth, for the first time, at the Spirit of St. Louis Air Show. They’re doing other outreach in an effort to reach at least 25,000 people with information about the eclipse. Part of the outreach is linked to their library telescope program, which has made 88 scopes available for checkout from area public libraries.

“We are doing programs, working with the public in the libraries right within their communities,” Ficken said. “Not only do we explain how the telescope works, but we talk about the solar eclipse coming up.”

Their best prop is a display map of the eclipse path, which Ficken said really grabs people’s attention and interest. They get to see what is coming their way.

“We’re going to be doing a ton of outreach to raise the visibility, which will then create, we think, more pressure to actually plan actual events,” he said. The work is beginning to pay off.

Don Ficken. Photo: LinkedIn.

Don Ficken. Photo: LinkedIn.

“Particularly the rural areas are so juiced on this thing; they’re excited, I mean really excited,” Ficken said. “This is like the biggest thing that’s probably ever going to happen to some of them and they’re on the map. Particularly little towns like Festus and Perry County; Perryville is just going bonkers down there with their planning. It’s like the biggest event forever for these guys down there.”

St. Louis is a great choice as an eclipse viewing destination, according to Ficken. As a major metropolitan area, there’s a lot to do there. Come eclipse Monday, it’s an easy drive to go south or west to get deeper into the path of totality, with center-line towns just 30 to 40 minutes away.

“You’ve got plenty of time to get where you want to, get all settled in, and just have some fun,” Ficken noted. “For those who want to just make an easy trip, have a great weekend, have some fun, add a third day on to make it a three-day weekend, we’re really perfectly suited for that.”

Many towns and businesses within the eclipse path have committed to having events for the eclipse, though a significant number of them haven’t settled on the details yet. As they’re confirmed, they’ll be posted on the St. Louis Eclipse 2017 website. Ficken expects the interest to snowball.

“We’re excited, we have lots of great stuff going on, but I expect a lot more to happen as we get into fall and the media starts picking up on this,” Ficken said. “It will be crazy.”

Podcast of our interview with Don Ficken:


Catching the Mercury transit from Seattle

The weather gods smiled on West Seattle Monday and provided relatively clear skies that allowed us to catch much of the first transit of Mercury across the disk of the Sun in ten years. The event served as a reminder of how hyper-local the weather can be, as many other locations around the area did not fare so well.

Viewing the Mercury transit.

After about 8:30 a.m. May 9 the clouds parted and we had excellent viewing of the transit of Mercury. Spencer (left) and Ryan take a peek through Spencer’s homemade Dobsonian. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

We thought we may have jinxed the weather when we wrote on Sunday in our weekly calendar post that, “(I)t’s pretty unlikely that we’ll see the transit constantly from sun-up to finish, but also looks pretty unlikely that we’ll get skunked.” I arrived with telescope in hand at Seacrest Marina Park just before 6 a.m. on Monday, and the clouds were solid. I was soon joined by Ryan “Tortuga” Carpenter and a young man named Spencer who brought his home-made Dobsonian telescope to the party. For a while we just watched the clouds roll by.

It was well after 7 a.m. before we got our first glimpse of the Sun, and Mercury in transit—a fleeting look that lasted less than a minute. For the next hour or so we had several similar quick peeks at the transit when the Sun found a hole in the clouds.

We finally got some longer looks after 8 a.m., long enough to actually snap photographs of the transit. Then, right about 8:30, we suddenly had clear, blue skies. We had a few interruptions from clouds after that, but these were brief and we had close to constant viewing of the transit until it ended around 11:40 a.m.

Other areas didn’t have so much luck, especially those sites east of the city. The Seattle Astronomical Society had a transit-viewing event scheduled from one of its preferred observing sites at Snoqualmie Point Park, but had already cancelled it by Sunday night because of inclement weather in the forecast. One member went there anyway and reported only brief views of the transit. Others reporting to the society’s Google forum, fittingly titled “Through the Clouds,” also noted limited success from Kent, Ellensburg, and Bellevue. The Green Lake neighborhood had decent weather and observers there reported more lengthy looks at the transit.

Transit of Mercury

If you click on this photo to see the larger version you can see Mercury just to the left of the center of the disk of the Sun, and a sunspot cluster to the right. Taken with a Canon PowerShot A530 through an 8-inch Dob at 48 power. Photo by Greg Scheiderer.

Our trio in West Seattle tried to do a little science, or at least figuring, at the end of the transit. We each clocked the time between third and fourth contact of the transit. Interestingly enough, our observations varied by about 15 seconds. Parallax doesn’t explain that; our telescopes were all set up within about 10 feet of each other! I would guess that the variation could be explained by differences in visual acuity, quality of telescope optics, and ability to find the start/stop button on the smartphone stopwatch. Carpenter did the math and said we were in the ballpark for determining the size of Mercury based on the length of time between the two contacts.

Mostly we just had fun seeing this rare celestial event, and sharing it with quite a number of interested passers-by. I chose the site because a lot of people are typically there, from those catching the West Seattle Water Taxi into the city to those just strolling in the park. Great weather was an unexpected bonus.

While there are only, on average, 13 transits of Mercury in a century, our next one is relatively soon: November 11, 2019. After that we’ll have to wait 13 years, until 2032, for another.


Transit of Mercury highlight of the week; maybe the year

The most anticipated observing event of the year happens Monday morning, May 9, as Mercury will transit across the face of the Sun. The transit begins at 4:13 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, so it will be under way when the Sun rises in Seattle.

NASA illustration.

NASA illustration.

The weather gods are taunting Seattle astronomers, as usual. After a pretty good run of mostly clear weather, we awoke to rain on Mother’s Day morning. The forecast is for mostly cloudy cloudy skies around sunrise Monday, turning to sunny by noon, when the transit will be over. So, it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll see the transit constantly from sun-up to finish, but also looks pretty unlikely that we’ll get skunked.

There are several transit-observing events that we know about. Seattle Astronomy will be down at Seacrest Park near the West Seattle Water Taxi dock with a telescope; join us and have a look! The Seattle Astronomical Society will hold an observing event at Snoqualmie Point Park near the town of Snoqualmie. (UPDATE: The SAS event has been cancelled due to inclement weather.) There will be transit viewing and programming at the Pierce College Science Dome in Lakewood. Rose City Astronomers and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry will be observing the transit from the OMSI site in Portland. Check the links for details.

A couple of things to keep in mind about the transit. First, don’t ever, ever, ever look at the Sun without proper protection. Regular sunglasses won’t do the trick. You need special eclipse glasses. Second, Mercury is so small that you will need magnification to see it, and that means a telescope also equipped with the proper solar filters. Be safe out there!

Read our preview article about the Mercury transit.

AstronoMay continues

Pacific Science CenterAstronoMay continues at the Pacific Science Center this week. There will be two interesting lectures on Saturday, May 14. At 10 a.m. Elena Amador, a graduate student at the University of Washington, will talk about the search for water on Mars. Then at 2:30 p.m. Dr. Sandeep Singh, a planetary scientist from the Bear Fight Institute in Winthrop, will speak about Saturn’s largest moon Titan. Singh has worked on NASA’s Rosetta, Cassini, and DAWN missions.

Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand much of the day Saturday with solar telescopes for observing the Sun, and the center is offering planetarium shows and other astronomy-related programming throughout the week. Check their calendar for details.

PacSci Podcast about AstronoMay:

Club events

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyThe Tacoma Astronomical Society will host one of its public nights beginning at 9 p.m. this Saturday, May 14 on the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The program will be about black holes, and there will be observing if the weather permits.

BPAAThe Battle Point Astronomical Association has several events on Saturday, May 14 at its Edwin Ritchie Observatory in Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island. At their BPAstro Kids shows at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. youngsters will build their own planets and check them for life. Following at 8 p.m. astronomer Steve Ruhl will examine exoplanets: How we see them, what they tell us about our solar system, and how we might know if there other habitable worlds out there.

Check out our recent article and podcast about BPastro Kids:

Up in the sky

The Mercury transit is the big astronomical event of the week. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope have other observing highlights for the week.