The night sky is pretty much a mystery to most City Dwellers. The glare of city light drowns out all but the brightest stars – and planets don’t do much better. If you are interested, I can tell you where to look to see these far-off worlds. If you were not interested, you would have stopped reading after the first sentence.
There is an “eyes only” comet currently in the Northern Hemisphere skies that will soon be near Mars.
As many of us urban dwellers can attest, “eyes only” means other people can see it.
However, if “Seeing” is good and a good reference body is to be had, binocular-equipped viewers in the worst of urban glare may well be able to pick out the comet in about two weeks and change.
Below is a sky chart from the point of view of Houston observers for February 10, 2023. Since Mars moves slowly through the sky, this will suffice to show the relative positions of the constellations and Mars for the four-day period I am analyzing here. The chart is calculated at 2200 (8 PM CDT) and everything will be moving to the West (right) until things start setting in the West, around 1 or 2 AM. All images credit: Heavens-Above.com
Once you have located Mars, get out those binoculars – or use those keen eyes if you are in dark skies. Use the dated charts below to find where to look for the Comet.
Contact me with any questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally published in American Thinker on October 7, 2017. I see that in AT’s archive, my article has lost its graphics – which were a major part of the story. I am reprinting the article now (Sept. 28, 2022) because of the recent Hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico and the unprofessional, unscientific and untruthful reporting of same by the Global Warming Press.
You will see story after story in the news about how hurricanes are stronger and more frequent. They will tell you that Harvey and Irma are the worst-ever storms and are unprecedented. They will scare up the looming threat of “Global Warming” as if it were a proven fact. They will say that Al Gore predicted this a decade ago in his movie An Inconvenient Truth (2006).
Do not be fooled. That is all a lie. While Harvey and Irma were devastating, they were far from “the worst”. Global Warming has proven to be a myth. Al Gore was dead wrong then and now. What Gore predicted was the exact opposite of what happened. Hurricanes are right now less frequent and milder on average than they were when Vice President Al Gore made that movie.
The data on hurricanes is widely and freely available. So, there is no excuse for the panic-mongering regarding this subject.
Accumulated Cyclone Energy — An index that combines the numbers of systems, how long they existed and how intense they became. It is calculated by squaring the maximum sustained surface wind in the system every six hours that the cyclone is a Named Storm and summing it up for the season. It is expressed in 104 kt2.
This is basically a measure of seasonal hurricane strength as it varies from year to year and should definitively answer the question of whether hurricanes are stronger and more frequent, or not.
The chart below shows the data for 1985 to 2016:
Accumulated Cyclone Energy 1985 to 2016
While there was indeed a peak in 2005, the index has been substantially less – not only in the actual year of Al Gore’s movie debut, but also in every year since then.
To address the frequency of hurricanes, let us examine another NOAA dataset.
The graph below shows the number of days between major hurricane landfalls in the United States. Major Hurricanes are defined as category 3,4 or 5.
Days Between Landfall of Major Hurricanes in the U.S. Credit NOAA
You see that the dates of the original graph (produced by Roger Pielke Jr.) were from 1900 to June 15, 2017. A new record gap between storms had occurred at that time. This author has added (the orange parts) the intervening time to show the end of the Great Hurricane Absence. You see that this gap (nearly twelve years) is almost twice as long as the previous record in 1900. The “trend” (red line) is now toward slightly longer gaps between storms. i.e., Strong hurricanes are less frequent now.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the international body for assessing the science related to climate change… The main activity of the IPCC is to provide at regular intervals Assessment Reports of the state of knowledge on climate change. The latest one is the Fifth Assessment Report which was finalized in November 2014.
With that in mind, here is the IPCC’s statement on hurricane frequency:
Current datasets indicate no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century … No robust trends in annual numbers of tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes counts have been identified over the past 100 years in the North Atlantic basin.
The deadliest hurricane in American history was the 1900 storm in Galveston, Texas. Speaking from my own family’s oral history:
My great-grandfather Ben was visiting his brother in Galveston when all were trapped by a rising storm surge that reached the attic of the two-story house before it broke apart. Ben was washed across Galveston Bay to Hitchcock, Texas in the midst of that devastating tempest. By then, Ben had lost his brother and all his brother’s family, who died along with six to ten thousand others on the island and the mainland (Galveston had less than 38,000 inhabitants at the time). Ben barely survived by clinging to a wooden bedstead while being torn by building debris with lots of exposed nails.
Ben told his tale and showed his horrible scars to his little granddaughter who later told her son – that’s me. This makes the 1900 storm very real to this author.
Now that you have the real story, read and watch as the alarmists try to tell you that Harvey or Irma is the worst storm ever and these hundred-year storms are happening every year.
You can tell them of the “Great Hurricane Absence” and show them these graphs. You can quote the IPCC, a group founded to study (allegedly objectively) the idea of manmade climate change. You can tell them that the deadliest hurricane in American history was the 1900 storm in Galveston, Texas.
When you tell the alarmists, they will not believe you because it does not fit their narrative of “Global Warming.” To them, nothing that happened before they were born was real. And nothing since then that does not fit their myth, is fact.
As a lifelong Astronomy Nerd (perhaps not at birth, but not long after) I cannot help but notice how Planetary Science has advanced over the last half century. To say that much has been discovered is a ridiculous understatement. This theme of Solar System Astronomy can also be noticed in my other Categories (Comets, Planets, Asteroids, Urban Astronomy, Science and occasionally even in Going Walkabout, Energy, One Climate Fact and Humor*.
This is a summary of what I knew about this fly-by of 2014 MU69, going into the Lunar and Planetary Conference (LPSC) of 2019. I subsequently wrote a “post conference” summary and many editions and deletions later, the foreshortened, simplified result appeared in Ad Astra Magazine: STILL SEEKING NEW HORIZONS: Ad Astra – Summer 2019 page 48.
A great deal of the detail that I included in this preliminary draft was left out of the final product. The length, format and tone were, of course, the choice of the editor. Since this early pre-conference composition contains but little of the final result, I take the liberty of presenting it in my own publication (again Goingwalkabout.blog.)
I will also be adding original commentary and explanation, so I reckon that it is original material by any definition. My intention is to also present (later) the post-conference story – partly in original form – which contained quite a bit of detailed and interesting information that did not fit Ad Astra’s “tone and format”. Not to criticize Ad Astra, you understand, but only to display my own interest and enthusiasm for richer detail. And, I want to present some of that in my own publication, free to read (and – alas – to write for) though it may be.
Before the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in 2019
New Horizon Fly-by of Kuiper Belt Object (486958) 2014 MU69 (a.k.a., Ultima Thule)
By Steve Campbell
After a successful fly-by of Pluto in July 2015 (to read more, please see Sneaking Up on Pluto, Part Iand Part 2), the New Horizons space probe followed up with another encounter on New Year’s Day 2019. This target was a much smaller body known as 2014 MU69 and frequently referred to by its nickname “Ultima Thule” (and subsequently “officially” called 486958 Arrokoth – as of late 2019)
The first opportunity for publication and presentation of those results will be the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference and will take place between March 12th and March 18th, 2019. The limited data transmission capability from New Horizons had the result that less than 1% of encounter data had been received when the LPSC abstracts for presentations were due. As one abstract’s introduction states,
“Therefore, many new, quite substantial results not available at the time of this abstract submission will be presented in the actual review talk.” (4)
Pluto and MU69 are both Kuiper Belt Objects. I will now explain what that means.
The Kuiper Belt
As of the 1930’s, the Solar system had been thought of as divided into the realm of the planets and the distant Oort Cloud. Dutch astronomer Jan Oort deduced this spherical “halo” of objects by studying the movements and behavior of long-period comets. A third zone between those two was later postulated to explain the many “short-period” comets that tend to be near the planetary plane and have periods of 200 years or less. Since the discovery of Pluto it had been suspected that a torus of such small bodies existed. It was named for Gerard Kuiper (1905 – 1973) who was a Dutch-born American astronomer and planetary scientist of great distinction. In an appropriate coincidence, Jan Oort was one of Kuiper’s teachers in Holland in the early years of the 20th Century.
Subsequent discoveries of Kuiper Belt objects (now in the thousands) have led to a more detailed division of zones within and near the belt. KBOs are distinct from comets only because they are so far from the sun that they do not produce the comas or tails.
Centaurs: These are KBOs orbiting in the zone of the outer planets, thought to have been scattered there from the Kuiper Belt by the gravitational influence of (primarily) Neptune. From there they may be further thrown sunward by the other giant planets.
Resonant: This applies to a KBO whose orbit crosses that of Neptune. These will not be thrown sunward further since their orbital periods are such that they always find themselves far from Neptune. Pluto is the prototype Resonant KBO and has an orbit that takes it around the sun twice for every three orbits of Neptune.
Cold Classical KBOs: These are KBOs that stay in the zone outside Neptune’s influence and thus avoid being re-directed by that planet. The “Cold” qualifier refers to the fact that these orbits are not inclined to the orbits of the planets and are near-circular.
Hot Classical: Similar to the “Cold” bunch, but these KBO’s have elongated orbits that tend to be substantially inclined.
Scattered: As you might expect from the name, none of the restrictions applied to the other categories apply to this bunch. These are the population that wind up as Centaurs or short-period comets.
New Horizons Probe
The idea of a Pluto exploration was not as a “flagship” mission like the Voyagers (Grand Tour) or the Cassini Saturn orbiter. Its goal was to target a fly-by of Pluto directly, but also to carry on into the Kuiper Belt and visit other, as yet undiscovered bodies. The budget was a shoestring compared to many previous missions and while the instruments were advanced and powerful, many compromises were made to balance the launch and timing of the mission, the way data were collected and transmitted and the cost and reliability of hardware. The vast distance to Pluto was compounded by the fact that the multiple gravity-assists enjoyed by the Voyager probes, were not possible. Only Jupiter was reasonably positioned for the “slingshot effect” — and that only for a limited time.
The result was a small spacecraft, launched away from Earth by the most powerful rocket available, adorned with extra strap-on boosters and outfitted with a third stage to achieve a record-fast trajectory.
The probe pointed its instruments by rotating the whole spacecraft – meaning that all data collection was done while the antenna that would transmit to Earth was pointed off at deep space. The images and data for the entire fly-by of Pluto and later 2014 MU69 had to be recorded and “played back” later when instrument-pointing was no longer in operation and contact with Earth could be restored. Payload considerations limited the size of the high-gain antenna, and hence, the data transmission rate. As with Pluto before, the entirety of the MU69 fly-by data will not be on Earth until well over a year after the fly-by (August/September of 2020). Besides the slow data rate, there was an additional delay because the probe had slipped behind the Sun, as viewed from Earth, in January.
Figure 1: The New Horizons Probe. Credit: NASA
The instruments are described here as quoted from the New Horizons web site (1):
“The New Horizons team selected instruments that not only would directly measure NASA’s items of interest, but also provide backup to other instruments on the spacecraft should one fail during the mission. The science payload includes seven instruments:
Ralph: Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer; provides color, composition and thermal maps.
Alice: Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer; analyzes composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere and looks for atmospheres around Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).
LORRI: (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) telescopic camera; obtains encounter data at long distances, maps Pluto’s farside and provides high resolution geologic data. SWAP: (Solar Wind Around Pluto) Solar wind and plasma spectrometer; measures atmospheric “escape rate” and observes Pluto’s interaction with solar wind.
PEPSSI: (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation) Energetic particle spectrometer; measures the composition and density of plasma (ions) escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere.
SDC: (Student Dust Counter) Built and operated by students; measures the space dust peppering New Horizons during its voyage across the solar system.”
The alert reader will note that the same antenna (REX) that returns data to the Earth is also listed as an instrument. It was used to measure the changes in an Earth-NH transmission as the signal was eclipsed by Pluto’s atmosphere and surface and the same situation was also measured at Charon.
The data capacity of the probe is only 8 Gigabytes. While that is not impressive in today’s realm of technology, it must be remembered that New Horizons was launched in 2006. And, as is typical in spacecraft design, the technology designated for use in the probe was “frozen” some years before that.
To put that in perspective, available memory for the Voyager probes (Launched in 1977) was actually on a ½ inch, 8 track magnetic tape with a total capacity of about ½ Megabyte and a top baud rate of 56kilobits per second (2). Since the technology was frozen five years before launch, it was some, 17 years out-of-date by the time Voyager 2 flew past Neptune in 1989.
2014 MU69 (AKA Ultima Thule)
The New Horizons space probe was a resounding success as it flew by Pluto. The long-patient team of planetary scientists were then eager to find new targets. After all, the probe was still in good shape, with enough fuel to change its direction somewhat and find more distant targets in the Kuiper Belt. There was, however, no known object in a suitable position to arrange that.
Extensive observations by ground-based telescopes found more KBOs but none within reach of the probe. So, a Hubble Space Telescope survey was commissioned by the New Horizons team and found three valid candidates – of which 2014 MU69 was targeted. (5)
Before the encounter this KBO was examined by telescope observations and distant examination by the spacecraft itself, whose battery of instruments includes a telescope (LORRI), which while not nearly as powerful as the major observatories on Earth, it had the advantage of being very much closer.
There was also a campaign of occultation observations to characterize the shape of the body and assist in targeting by precisely measuring the orbit. This is a time-tested method to characterize the shape and refine measurement of an asteroid by precisely timing the disappearance of a star that is expected to pass behind the target. The “shadow” of such a small body – itself, so very far away – is about the same size as the KBO to be measured. It is nonetheless miniscule and fleeting on the face of the Earth and is best measured by teams of observers, spaced appropriately – in this case about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles apart). They must travel to the expected path of said shadow, bring their own portable equipment and deal with weather, geography and bureaucracy. Four such occultations were observed with varying success and were, taken together, sufficient to pin down the rate of movement of MU69 and to indicate that the KBO was either a pair of close-orbiting bodies or an elongated shape, possibly a “contact binary”. For results, please see figure 2, below.
Figure 2: Results of occultation observations indicated a close binary, elongated shape or a contact binary nature of the KBO. The latter proved to be true. Credit NASA
So, rather ironically, to pin down the parameters needed to make the fly-by a success required the efforts of observers – all the way back on the Earth – mostly armed with 16-inch telescopes and other equipment that (the author estimates) could be purchased for the price of a late-model used car.
The orbit of MU69 around the Sun is so nearly circular that the difference is less than 5 percent. This would seem to indicate that this is a primordial object, formed where it is found now and not a displaced asteroid that might have been ejected from the inner solar system, for example.
Because it is a Classical KBO, the two bodies making up the object are thought to be formed where they currently are and gently captured into a binary system where they eventually merged to form a “contact binary”. Even at this early stage the KBO is being referred to as “pristine”.
In other words, this is not something that was formed elsewhere and then cast out by gravitational interactions the outer planets. Nor was it altered much since its formation.
The spectral analysis revealed that the composition is similar to Pluto. That “dwarf planet” has been altered a great deal by differentiation as a planetary body, by an acquired atmosphere and by interaction with it large satellite, Charon.
Distant, low resolution images sent to Earth by the probe — just before the encounter – pictured the target planetoid as a close binary. The initial images (at better, but still lower resolution) pictured MU69 as a “contact binary”. That is, two planetoids so close in orbit around a common center that they are in physical contact. Please see Figure 3.
Figure 3: MU69 Credit: Nasa
The KBO is much darker than all the images herein indicate. Those pictures are “stretched” to show the difference in brightness. The true colors range from dark red to really dark red. The red color is contributed by nitrogen-rich organic compounds called tholins, which are described by the following quote from NASA
“…in the late 1970s, scientists made an organic substance in the laboratory that matched the reddest asteroids. The substance’s color spectrum ranged from yellow to red to black, and was termed “tholin” by Carl Sagan in 1980. Scientists measured and modeled the optical properties of tholins, and found that the tholins matched the observed red color of the majority of the most distant asteroids.”
The New Horizons probe has been determined to be approaching from almost a “pole-on” direction. This will limit the imaging of the other side which is mostly unilluminated at this point in the KBO’s orbit around the sun.
A great deal more data, images and analyses were presented at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston on March 18 – 22, 2019.
The night sky is pretty much a mystery to most City Dwellers. The glare of city light drowns out all but the brightest stars – and planets don’t do much better. If you are interested, I can tell you where to look to see these far-off worlds. If you were not interested, you would have stopped reading after the first sentence. So, at this point, I know my audience. 😉
Our story so far: Your Humble Reporter has shown you Saturn and Jupiter and Mars in October– in both cases using the moon as a pointer. This time the crescent moon will be the landmark for Venus – and possibly Mercury. I include a sky map for November 12 at 6:00 (6 AM) – from Heavens-Above.com – below.
The moon is always near “crescent” phase when it is over by those planets, because they are always near the Sun. I will pause now while y’all think about that! 😉
The sky map can be used by printing it out and holding it (or your phone, with the chart displayed) over your head. You need to orient the chart with the sky, of course. If you know where the North Star is, use that – or there are more than one compass apps for your phone to be downloaded for free.
In the early-to-mid part of the Twentieth Century, it was thought that Venus might be a steamy jungle-covered planet – beneath the all-concealing clouds that made such speculations plausible. An alternate speculation was that Venus was covered with a vast ocean of soda water – created by absorption of the thick carbon dioxide atmosphere. Carbons dioxide does not rule out life – quite the reverse! Plants love the stuff! Also, the exact composition of the atmosphere was not known until relatively recently (if you are as old as I am) 😉
All that interesting imagination did not come close to the real story, which is a crushing, thick atmosphere, dry as a bone and hot enough to melt Lead on the surface.
There is a more welcoming place on Venus, however. This is an exert from my article “Habitability” (as yet unpublished):
“So, if by “habitable” we mean: A natural environment where we could walk around “in shirt-sleeves” (as they say) while breathing the unaltered atmosphere: No, there is no such place beyond Earth.
Well, perhaps if we allow that we might have to bring our own air, but keep the “shirt-sleeve” aspect? There are some interesting possibilities. What’s needed is something like the atmospheric pressure that we tolerate here and that can actually be found at Venus. Not on any surface, you understand, but high in the atmosphere. 
At about 50 kilometers (30 miles) above the surface of Venus, the atmospheric pressure is about half that of Earth at sea level. The temperature is roughly 27 °C (81° F). This should be survivable while breathing air that you’ve brought with you. The temperature changes with altitude as the pressure does and some combination of the two might be found where outdoor activity might be possible. Details of what sort of oxygen/nitrogen (helium?) mixture to breathe at what pressures will have to be determined. High-altitude aerospace engineers and deep-sea divers could probably work this out in no time.
The alert reader will notice that this CO2 rich environment – with its Earthlike pressure and temperature (and sunlight) could well support unprotected plant life. There is no reason that a crop of fast- growing plants could not supply food, as well as the oxygen required for breathing and buoyancy.
*Note that this “outdoor” activity will be limited to walking around on exposed decks in some sort of zeppelin – we had such vehicles in the early years of the previous century. No great leap of technology there. This hypothetical airship – suspended by balloons filled with any combination of oxygen or nitrogen – would float in the heavier CO2. There is, however a haze of sulfuric acid in the carbon dioxide of the Venusian atmosphere that must be considered.”
Habitability – Steve Campbell
Back to the viewing on Nov 12: The elusive Planet Mercury may also be visible – about half-way between the Moon and the horizon. Not for me, mind you, since I have the enormous, glaring Houston Metroplex to the East of me – but maybe for you. Once again, you can change the viewing location on theHeavens-Above.commap to depict your own sky.
Mercury, back in the “old days” was thought to be “tidally locked” (always with the same side to the Sun). Mercury is in an elliptical orbit and it turns out that it is weirdly revolving in a 2/3 resonance that is also a stable response to tides. They thought Venus was “tidally locked”, as well. The truth about Venus is that its day is longer than its year. So weird is this story that I don’t have time to explain it. This is another illustration of how Scientists are always right, except when they are wrong. When somebody wants to talk to you about “Settled Science” read them this article! 😉
Mercury’s rotation axis is almost perfectly oriented at 90 degrees to its orbit, which means that the craters at its poles are permanently shadowed from the Sun. Observations of those polar regions of Mercury have produced evidence of water ice in those always-dark craters. So, the closest planet to the Sun has been proven to have water ice, as does the third planet (that’s us!). Yet, the second planet is the hottest and driest (i.e., no water- solid or liquid but perhaps some gas). Again, nobody thought so until it was made obvious to them.
Before we sent space probes to those planets in the 60’s and 70’s (as witnessed by your Science Nerd Humble – and Ancient – Reporter), we didn’t know this stuff and what we thought we knew turned out to be wrong.
The night sky is pretty much a mystery to most City Dwellers. The glare of city light drowns out all but the brightest stars – and planets don’t do much better. If you are interested, I can tell you where to look to see these far-off worlds. If you were not interested, you would have stopped reading after the first sentence. So, at this point, I know my audience. 😉
The moon will be near full at the time. Mars happens to be near its closest to the Earth right now, as well. The sky map can be used by printing it out and holding it (or your phone, with the chart displayed) over your head. You need to orient the chart with the sky, of course. If you know where the North Star is, use that – or there are more than one compass apps for your phone to be downloaded for free.
When this reporter was young (an era also referred to as the Cretaceous Period), it was thought that Mars must certainly harbor life – at the very least, plant life – since it showed seasonal changes that were attributed to vegetation. After a fly-by passage of the space probe Mariner 4 past Mars, it became apparent that Mars more closely resembled the crater-covered surface of our own moon. Measurements of the atmospheric pressure on the Red Planet also made it quite unlikely that life as we know it – could survive on Mars. Subsequent orbiters and landers have all failed to produce evidence of life on Mars. The seasonal changes are now known to be dust patterns. While the seasonal ice caps at the poles do contain water ice, they also are composed of carbon dioxide ice frozen out from the mostly CO2 (and extremely low-pressure) atmosphere. Despite what many ill-informed Mars enthusiasts think, a human would need – for a walk on Mars – a space suit just like those used by Moonwalkers of the 1960’s/70’s. Still, Mars would be “A Nice Place to Visit”.
Mars is where the moon is and about as bright as it ever gets. Ya’ can’t miss it!
Notice that Jupiter and Saturn are still hanging around at 8 PM – both are not far from where they were previously. You should be able to spot them unaided, but use the skymap, if not.
Mars and the moon will be up all night, not just at 8 PM, so don’t try to use that as an excuse! 😉
Despite this reporter’s career as a Geophysicist, he was an Astronomer by education. These fields of study overlap when the Astronomy is “planetary”, since Geophysics involves the study of a particular planet to be found under the feet of a standing Astronomer.
Your Humble narrator also has the habit of swimming – the only form of exercise he can manage to “stick to”. If one can manage to show up at the pool early in the morning, a single-use swimming lane is to be obtained. Large swimmers are particularly disadvantaged when “sharing” lanes – and said narrator is large.
Reporters are often instructed – by Editors – to refer to themselves in the third person (as above). Since I am my own Editor here, I am now putting an end to that.
If I can snag a lane in the outdoor pool, I am able to swim alone and in relative darkness, but even so there is considerable urban lighting with which to contend – not to mention the glaring lamps in the sides of the pool. Nevertheless, the Astronomer/Swimmer takes note when there are visible stars and planets available for viewing.
A few months back, it happened that there were four planets visible from the outdoor swimming pool. My natural tendency is to point things like this out perfect strangers. However, some of the people around at this time of morning know me – by sight at least. And we are all eccentric individuals, or we would not be swimming at 5 AM. Since having four “Eyes Only” planets in the sky at once is a fairly rare thing, I pointed these out. The average reaction was one of surprise. They had no idea of what was over their heads.
The oldest Astronomer joke in the world is to promise to point out one more than the number of planets actually visible. So, I promised five and pointed out four. The punch line of this ancient bit of comedy relies on the audience to ask where the fifth one might be. Then the Astronomer replies, “You’re standing on it!”. Of course, no one asked about that fifth planet and the joke went flat. Don’t you people have any curiosity? Yes, it is an old joke, but none of them ever heard it before – because it is so old.
Now, the interesting part about that stale humor – if you think about it – is the point it makes. Specifically, that all those small round lights that this Swimmer is pointing out are actually massive worlds – a lot like the one we are standing on. Some of them are stunningly larger, some smaller than our own planet. Some are closer to – or farther from – the Sun. There are places where “the world” is profoundly different from the “world” we experience. With those thoughts, the human imagination is expanded beyond the mundane existence of day-to-day life.
The night sky is pretty much a mystery to most City Dwellers. The glare of city light drowns out all but the brightest stars – and planets don’t do much better. If you are interested, I can tell you where to look to see these far-off worlds. If you were not interested, you would have stopped reading after the first paragraph. So, at this point, I know my audience. 😉
Some description of how far apart objects in the sky is needed, and “degrees” are another unfamiliar subject for Urbanites. Extend your thumb and put it at arm’s-length and close one eye. Now your thumb covers one degree of sky. For Apollo 13 fans – this is why Jim Lovell was making the same weird gestures. He was, in fact measuring the sky in degrees.
Most Sophisticated Urbanites are also unfamiliar with compass directions. The moon shows up pretty well, however. So, I will use the moon to “landmark” where you Urbanites should look to find points of interest in the sky. Those will be planets mostly, since at least four of same are bright enough to be seen in the City Glare. The moon moves quickly across the starry sky, so pay attention to the dates and times. This first installment is for the night of October 22nd at 20:00 (8PM).
At that date and time the moon will be near Jupiter and Saturn in the South-Southwestern sky. Jupiter and Saturn are approaching a conjunction which will peak in December when the two planets will be within a tenth of one degree of each other – in the Earth’s sky, only. They will actual be separated by about five Astronomical Units. And – an AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun (about 93,000,000 miles).
All of my description, the thumb-and-one-eye-closed bit and the skychart are just illustrations. This is Urban Astronomy – just look where the moon is! 😉
Steve Campbell November 2015 – Updated: July 7, 2020
Sunspots have been studied for over 400 years by such notable scientists as Galileo. Many earlier observers had noticed that the sun was occasionally marked with darker spots. But, Galileo spread the word about sunspots and many of his contemporaries subsequently took up regular observations of same.
Observation of Sunspots
Right here is where I will repeat a warning that you may have heard a hundred times before: Do not look directly at the Sun and especially DO NOT look at the Sun in a telescope. The only exception to that last part is where a Qualified Astronomer is using a proper solar filter or is projecting an image from a telescope onto a screen.
That Galileo made use of a telescope around this time was strictly coincidental. Observations of the Sun were done during sunrise and again at sunset when it is possible to notice large sunspots with minimum damage to the eye. The sunlight passes obliquely through the atmosphere and is very much attenuated.
An image of the sun can be projected by a “camera obscura” which is essentially a darkened room with a tiny opening – literally, a “pin hole”- through which the sunlight enters. For reasons we won’t go into here, a pin hole acts like a lens and focuses light. By careful placement of a screen of cloth or paper, a focused image appears, large and bright enough to sketch. The astronomer Johannes Kepler was known to have used this system to view the sun. In an interesting side note, Kepler thought he was seeing the planet Mercury passing between the Earth and the Sun, instead of a spot on the sun itself. Had he checked on the following day, he would have seen the same spot and because he knew that a Mercury transit would not last a day, he would have seen his error.
The method of projecting an image from a telescope onto a screen was developed by a protégé of Galileo named Benedetto Castelli.
“It was Castelli who developed the method of projecting the Sun’s image through the telescope, a technique that made it possible to study the Sun in detail even when it was high in the sky”. (1)
The following quote explains a bit about the “Sunspot Number” which was established as the metric of sunspot activity.
“Continuous daily observations were started at the Zurich Observatory in 1849 and earlier observations have been used to extend the records back to 1610. The sunspot number is calculated by first counting the number of sunspot groups and then the number of individual sunspots.” (2)
I would be remiss if I did not include actual images of sunspots with this discussion. Figure A shows a recent image of the sun taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). This is a NASA space probe that orbits between the Sun and the Earth constantly monitoring the Earth-facing side of the Sun.
By the method described (Count the groups and multiply by ten then add the number of individual spots), I would estimate the sunspot number to be between 35 and 45. Don’t quote me. I know there are limits to how small individual spots can be and still be counted, but I don’t know what those rules are.
Figure B shows an image of the Sun during the Cycle 23 Maximum.
I am not sure of the origin of this image, it may not be from the SOHO probe, but in any case, it illustrates the difference between high and low sunspot counts. Again, I don’t do this for a living, but I would guess the count here to be well over 100.
Update April 8, 2020:
The solar minimum continues unabated. This count is obviously zero and is typical lately. Some spots from the next solar cycle have shown up, but they don’t last long. In this image, the count is zero.
Update 07/07/2020: Spotless Days plot:
The following graph confirms the continuing solar minimum, but requires some explanation. For the complete version, go to the SILSO Spotless Days Page
For the mercifully short version read my explanation, below the graph.
The solar cycle, in all its years of observed activity, has had (arguably) two types of cycles. Those with large peaks and short minimums between – and those with small peaks and long minimums between. The graph above segregates the two types as averages (the solid red and blue lines) and plots the number af spotless days accumulated in the current cycle (solid green line). The dotted pale blue and magenta lines are the “standard deviation” plots for the low-peak minimua (cyan) and high-peak minima (magenta). “Standard deviation” is what science nerds say instead of “what is reasonable to expect”. As you see, the current Solar Minimum has made it obvious that this is a major departure, not just from the big-peaks variety, but also it is the outlier from the big minimum/low maximum cycles. In short, like nothing in living memory.
Summary: Confirmed: Expect colder temperatures for the next decade or three.
The following is from the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center
Below: The latest is still from Dec 2019. Your humble narrator predicts that the double peak will again show up. – no doubt with greater separation as indicated by the last 3 cycles. (see figure D)
Updated July 7, 2020
The following prediction by Irina Kitiashvili at the NASA Ames Research Center predicts even less activity for Solar Cycle 25 – the least in 200 years. It turns out to be a bit before the NOAA prediction, but not by much.
So, the “experts” disagree. But, there is undoubtedly something unprecedented going on.
Figure below shows the accumulated sunspot numbers over the last 400 years of solar observations.
It is ironic that Galileo took an interest in sunspots and popularized such observations just in time for the Maunder Minimum when sunspots gradually became rare phenomena. The Maunder Minimum is associated with the Little Ice Age, when weather was cooler than today. The numbers of that time are yearly averages due to the sparsity of observations. From about 1750 onward monthly averages are plotted – results of sustained, systematic observation. The Maunder Minimum is still a valid conclusion, but the data cannot be said to be “high resolution”. The later Dalton Minimum is much better defined and typically associated historically with “Dickensian Winters”. In recent years, those types of winters are returning to England.
Magnetism and the Climate Connection
It is the changing magnetic field of the Sun that drives the existence or absence of sunspots. The Solar magnetic field changes on a long time scale and with different periods of oscillation. The most obvious of these is an eleven-year cycle that dominates in Figures C &D. The magnetic properties actually reverse in polarity in each new cycle, which makes it a twenty-two-year cycle in reality. Periods of high sunspot activity are associated with high magnetic field strength and a dearth of sunspots is an indication of low magnetic intensity.
A plot of terrestrial magnetic field strength in Figure E demonstrates the cyclical nature of the terrestrial magnetic field as influenced by the sunspot cycle. (3)
As indicated by the note in the seventies, periods of lower terrestrial magnetic field strength are associated with colder weather. This effect has been explained by the work of Henrik Svensmark (6) who demonstrated that magnetism effectively blocks cosmic rays. But, when the field strength is low, the increase of cosmic rays makes cloud formation increase and global temperatures drop. Now that the Ap index has dropped to unprecedented lows and the global temperatures have failed to increase as predicted by many, this association would seem to be confirmed.
The fact that ”official” temperatures have not actually dropped may have something to do with the manipulation of those datasets by certain individuals who have reduced the number of weather stations averaged from over 6000 to about 400 and shifted the average latitude of those stations from that of Oklahoma City to that of Hawaii (5). Please note that before they began eliminating stations (circa 1975), the average was indeed, dropping! See figure F.
An examination of sunspot trends clearly indicates a new Solar Minimum (of Dalton or Maunder proportions) is in the works. A cooler environment is to be expected in the coming decades.
When climate considerations come into a subject, a thorough search always seems to reveal data manipulation has occurred. All with the same result – a cooler past and a warmer present.
Some of you readers are aware that I have been working as a Telescope Operator at the George Observatory at Brazos Bend State Park. There are three domed instruments that are open to the public for viewing on Saturday nights – weather permitting. I get to operate the smallest to these — a 14 inch Schmidt Cassegrain instrument. For non-Astronomy Nerds, the 14 inch number refers to the diameter of the mirror that is inside the big, black tube.
BTW: Brazos Bend State Park, where the George Observatory is located, was closed for flooding until early July. It re-opened just briefly but is now closed for long-overdue renovation. So, this activity of mine is “on hold”. I volunteered over at the Museum of Natural History – more about that later
We might have forty or more visitors on an average night, but even so there are occasional intervals when I can make some photographs. There was one night when the atmospheric conditions made the “seeing” miserable, but I still managed to catch some images of Saturn. Most detail of the planet and rings was lost, but a couple of satellites were captured in one long time-exposure where the planet and rings were overexposed. You might need to zoom to see the moons.
More recently, on a night with better seeing, the Orion Nebula was captured in a series of different exposure times. I include two below.
There are methods, these days, to stack (combine) multiple images and get far more impressive results. I am looking in to that.
I don’t want to say that young people today are spoiled by modern conveniences – mostly because it makes me sound like a stereotypical curmudgeon. But, it is absolutely true and it was true for me as well in those long-ago days when I could be described as “young”. You, too. And our parents, and theirs and so on, ad infinitum. There is only one way to make young people appreciate the technological heritage they have. The progress from a less complex technology to their time has to be described to them by us involuntary immigrants from the past.
Perhaps only an early-adopter “Space Nerd” from the middle Twentieth Century could explain the early days of the exploration of the Solar System. That would be Your Humble Narrator and I am stepping up on this occasion to review a Netflick Video about that very subject. I followed the Voyager missions from their launch in 1977 to the flyby of Neptune in 1989 – and beyond.
Before there was Voyager, the outer planets were only vaguely known. In 1977 there had been some probes sent to the outer planets – most notably the Mariner and Pioneer probes, which were not insignificant. But, this documentary is an appreciation of Voyager – the “Game Changer” in Solar System exploration – and its very momentous accomplishments. It was the most ambitious and significant exploration of the Solar System of that time and the facts and images gathered are a fundamental part of planetary science to this day.
Because Jupiter is the largest and nearest – at “only” five times the Earth’s distance (One Astronomical Unit (AU)) from the Sun – it was the best known. Even at that, all that was known was some bands of clouds and a “Great Red Spot”. We knew that Jupiter had four large moons. Your average Astronomy Nerd – like Your Humble Narrator – could drag the telescope out of the Garage and show you the Bands and the Spot and the four moons. He would tell you their names – “Io, Europa, Ganymede and Calisto” – and show you four dots of light surrounding a small dimly striped Jupiter where the Great Red Spot might be barely visible.
The more enthusiastic Nerd will have an even bigger telescope and will almost certainly show you Saturn. He will twist your arm (literally, if necessary) to show you Saturn! That is because Saturn is the stunning little toy in the eyepiece that everybody loves to see. They might look at a picture made by a great observatory and appreciate it, but when they see it in a telescope with their own eye*, it is always a stunning epiphany. Saturn’s largest moon Titan and a few of the smaller ones are visible in a large amateur ‘scope About twenty years ago, I showed my mother Saturn and Titan, Rhea and Tethys. It is a great lumbering 12 inch Dobsonian that has no clock drive to track the planet. I had to constantly re-adjust the aim and then tell Mom, “Okay – look quick!” and duck out of her way. She could glimpse Saturn for a scant few seconds until the Earth’s rotation took it out of view. Then I would step back in to find it again, describe what to look for and where and jump back out of the way. She was fairly impressed when I told her that very few people on Earth – one in many millions, perhaps – have personally looked through a telescope and seen these.
*With very few exceptions, telescopes are “monocular”.
The next two targets of Voyager Uranus and Neptune were – even with the best telescopes of the day – were still not much more than small indistinct discs of light.
I told you all that so I could tell you to see “The Farthest: Voyager in Space” on Netflix.
The Story of Voyager
The story begins with the engineers who built the thing. Things, actually – there were two of them. What they modestly describe is really a miracle of concentrated effort and talent, innovation and adaptation. Those engineers and planetary scientists that participated in the effort are interviewed, but not in any simple question-and-answer format. Rather, their responses are woven into the narrative to make a smoothly-flowing saga.
The tale continues. Once the craft were assembled and packaged on their rockets, they were summarily thrown off their native planet – never to return – in dramatic, suspense-filled launches.
The spacecraft encountered, recorded and sent back to Earth discoveries that, on the one hand confirmed long-held ideas of the nature of the Solar System. On the other hand, they relayed stunning new revelations that nobody – in their wildest dreams – had imagined could exist.
Each planetary encounter at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune -and the decisions and the problems – is chronicled and described by the people involved. There is archival video from the encounter operations where you will recognize younger versions of the interviewees. After Neptune, the continuing mission of the probes is described. And all through the narrative, the sounds and pictures of the famous “golden record” (a Human message to the Universe) are heard and displayed.
Doubt me if you must, but this story is a compelling drama, complete with comedy, tragedy, euphoric glory and devastating failure. A well-written, well-produced timeless chronicle of a stunning achievement for all mankind.
This video has become my new “Saturn” moment. I dragged (figuratively, figuratively!) my Wife to see it with me and she was fascinated by what she had never known. I am working on appointments to watch it again with First and Second Sons.