Category Archives: observing

Sun streak ends! Whither Mercury?

All good streaks must come to an end, like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Cal Ripken, Jr.’s consecutive games-played record of 2,632. This morning Seattle Astronomy‘s personal mark of successful astronomical observations of Sun-related events was snapped at a modest four when we failed to spot Mercury during its transit across the face of the Sun.

Waiting for Mercury
Conditions looked semi-hopeful shortly after sunrise that we’d see the Mercury Transit. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Hope of spotting Mercury remained alive until the bitter end. I arrived at Seattle’s Seacrest Park just before sunrise when the transit had already been under way and below our horizon for a couple of hours. We got a few glimpses of the Sun during the morning, most not enough to register even a glimmer of light through properly filtered optics. Then came proof that Mother Nature can be cruel and sadistic, especially to those who would practice astronomy in Seattle. With the transit slated to end at about 10:04 a.m. PST, the clouds parted a bit at about 10:02, setting off a mad scramble to point, focus, and look. I thought I caught the barest edge of Mercury leaving the disk of the Sun, but I couldn’t be sure. There were lots of clouds in the view. The Sun was there but Mercury, true to his fleet-of-foot reputation, was gone. I count it as a nice try.

Not everyone who came to our viewing event was skunked. Seattle-based Associated Press photographer Elaine Thompson caught this shot during a brief clearing:

It pays to be prepared! The day was not a total loss. Many folks enjoyed a look at the Mercury-free Sun after the transit, a nice woman named Liz brought some Top Pot donuts to share, and hanging around at the beach waiting to spot Mercury with some new friends was not a bad way to spend a Monday morning.

I’d successfully seen four recent Sun events: the August 2017 total eclipse of the Sun, the Mercury Transit in May 2016, a partial solar eclipse in 2014, and the transit of Venus in June 2012. Off to start a new streak.

There will not, however, be another Mercury transit until 2032, and not one visible from North America until 2049. See you down at Seacrest Park in thirty years!

###

Please support Seattle Astronomy with a subscription through Patreon.

Mercury transit tomorrow!

The weather forecast is decidedly iffy for folks in Western Washington to view the transit of Mercury across the Sun on Monday morning, November 11. But a number of groups, including Seattle Astronomy, are planning to be out and waiting for breaks in the clouds in order to catch a glimpse of this relatively rare astronomical event.

Transit of Mercury
Our photo of the 2016 Mercury transit from Seattle. 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.

Typically there are 13 Mercury transits visible in any given century, and there will be 14 of them during the 21st Century. We last had one visible from Seattle just over three years ago, in May of 2016. Tomorrow’s will be the last until 2032, but that one and the next won’t be visible from North America. Our next chance to see a Mercury Transit from Seattle will be in May of 2049.

Thus we’ll be down at Seacrest Park in West Seattle near the Water Taxi dock in hopes that we won’t have to wait 30 years or travel halfway around the globe to see Mercury in transit. We’re aware of a handful of other viewing opportunities tomorrow in the Northwest:

Watch our calendar page for others; we’ll add them if we hear about them for the rest of the day.

There are a couple of things to consider when viewing the transit. First, the requisite warning not to look at the Sun without eclipse glasses or a properly filtered telescope. Second, you’ll not likely see Mercury without some magnification; it’s pretty small. Third, don’t try to use eclipse glasses with a telescope or binoculars; the equipment itself must be properly filtered or severe eye damage will result.

Alan Boyle of Geekwire has a good article about the 2019 transit that includes some links for viewing the event online should our weather fail to cooperate.

###

Please support Seattle Astronomy with a subscription through Patreon.

Jacobsen Observatory resumes open houses this week

TJO

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at the UW. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Spring has sprung, and one of the many wonderful manifestations of that is the resumption of bi-monthly open houses at the University of Washington’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. The first of the year will be held beginning at 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 2. Future open houses will be held on the first and third Tuesday of each month through September.

The day of the week is a change. The open houses have been held on Wednesday evenings ever since we can remember.

The open houses typically include a couple of astronomy talks by UW students. This week Aislynn Wallach will talk about The Future of Telescopes and Aleezah Ali will discuss Binary Stars. Unfortunately, reservations for these free events are usually snapped up pretty early, and the April 2 event is already listed as full. The observatory classroom in which the talks are held only holds 45 people. You can check out future topics and make reservations on the TJO website.

Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society staff the observatory dome on open house evenings and, weather permitting, give visitors a look through the vintage 1892 telescope, which has a 6-inch Brashear objective lens on a Warner & Swasey equatorial mount.

###

Please support Seattle Astronomy with a subscription through Patreon.

Become a Patron!

Total lunar eclipse visible from Seattle

Seattle astronomy buffs are downright pessimistic about seeing celestial events, even those that happen during our good-weather months. (And we have them.) Thus in the week before the total lunar eclipse of January 20, 2019, I posted this on the Seattle Astronomy Facebook page.

Amazingly enough, at about mid-day on eclipse day the clouds actually did begin to part a little, and a check of the Seattle Clear Sky Chart revealed a prediction that we’d have just 30 percent cloud cover come eclipse hour, and that it would be downright clear late in the evening.

One learns not to trust these things, but when the full Moon actually got up above the trees and into a clear sky out back of Seattle Astronomy headquarters, I decided this was going to happen and hauled the telescope out of the basement and onto the back deck. As the eclipse began I snapped a quick photo in order to express my amazement.

I am not an astrophotographer, as people who evaluate the entries for the Seattle Astronomical Society‘s quarterly photo contest always remind me. This one was shot with my smartphone, though when using it with the telescope I find it devilishly difficult to get the proper aim through the eyepiece (must pick up one of those gadgets from Cloud Break Optics soon.) My other “astro” camera is an old Canon Powershot A530, which is pretty easy to just stick up to the eyepiece and shoot.

I used the phone to get a pretty OK, if somewhat pixellated, pic at totality, too.

Interestingly enough, I found that the color of the “blood Moon” wasn’t quite so pronounced through the telescope and camera is it was in my naked-eye view. I think the magnification diffuses the color a bit, and the camera isn’t really made for that sort of work.

Even my sweetie, who is not normally prone to looking through telescopes at night in January, or any other month, for that matter, went out quite a few times for a magnified look, and we both spent most of the eclipse watching from a warm environment inside behind the glass of the French doors.

I hope you got a chance to see the eclipse wherever you were. The next one visible in Seattle will happen in May of 2021.

Please support Seattle Astronomy with a subscription through Patreon.

Become a Patron!

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!

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.

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