Free public planetarium show this Saturday

planetarium

The next regularly scheduled free public planetarium show is this Saturday, November 18, at 8 PM. After the hour-long show, if skies are clear, please join us for views of the real night sky as seen through a variety of telescopes. For more information, consult our website.

 

Advertisements

When you wish upon a… piece of Halley’s Comet?

orionids

Have you ever heard the superstition that you should wish upon a falling star? If you do that this week, you might just be wishing upon a piece of Halley’s Comet burning up in our atmosphere! Falling or shooting stars have nothing to do with stars. Instead, what scientists call meteors are flashes of light caused when a tiny piece of a comet enters our atmosphere and burns up. Imagine your car driving into a swarm of insects and watching them go splat on your windshield. That’s not a bad analogy for the earth running into a swarm of meteoroids, debris liberated by a comet as it orbits the sun. When earth passes through the orbit of a particular comet (which, for any particular comet, will occur at the same time each year), many of these meteoroids burn up, creating a meteor shower. A meteor shower is named not after the comet whose particles create it, but rather where in the sky the meteors seem to radiate from, or the radiant. The brightest constellation in the region usually lends its name.

We are currently in the midst of the Orionid meteor shower, whose radiant lies between Orion’s bright shoulder star Betelgeuse and the bottom stars of Gemini (see above). Depending on how the meteoroid field is configured (for example, the size and number of particles, and the width of the meteoroid field), a meteor shower can last for a few days up to a few weeks, but there is usually a narrow window where we hit the densest part of the stream and hence see the largest number of meteors per hour. This year the Orionids are expected to peak in the predawn hours of Saturday, October 21.

The Orionids are certainly not the best meteor shower of the year (at peak you might only see 20 per hour, and each meteor is not particularly bright), but it has a unique romantic charm due to the identity of its parent comet, Comet P/Halley, or as most people know it, Halley’s Comet. While the comet itself won’t be in our neighborhood again until 2061, each year we actually get two meteor showers from the material it left behind on previous journeys around the sun – the Orionids in mid-October and the Eta Aquarids in early May.

If you find yourself up before dawn this week, why not take a peek out your window in the direction of Orion, and see if you can make a wish on an Orionid – mine will certainly be to be alive when Halley’s Comet returns in 2061 so I can become a member of the Halley’s Comet two-timer club!

 

Explore the Cosmos at CCSU Family Day

CCSU Family Day is Saturday, October 7, and the Copernican Observatory and Planetarium and Geology & Planetary Science Club have free activities that are out of this world! Planetarium shows run at 11:30 AM and 2 PM, and join us in the library-side foyer of Copernicus Hall for free geology and astronomy activities suitable for children of all ages. Between 11 AM – 2 PM can construct a starfinder or a model of Saturn to take home, examine rocks and minerals from Connecticut, try your hand at making craters, touch real meteorites and fossils,  and observe sunspots (weather permitting).

It’s the end of the world – again…

Going-on-an-adventure-2

… if Internet sources are to be believed (which they aren’t, but more on that later). Friday September 22 marks the first day of Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, and Frodo and Bilbo Baggins’ birthday (for you fellow Tolkien fans), but it is the day after that has some hunkering down in their bunkers waiting for the beginning of the end.

According to one David Meade, this Saturday marks the countdown (conveniently of an unknown duration) to the end of Planet Earth. His “evidence” is the fact that September 23 marks the 33rd day after the solar eclipse (itself superstitiously considered an omen of the end) and that a number of the planets appear relatively near each other in the sky on either side of the sun, centered on the constellation Virgo. According to this individual’s personal interpretation of Revelation, this is a “clear” sign that the end is nigh. How will the actual end come about? According to Meade and other doomsday soothsayers who are piggybacking on this pseudoscience train wreck, the infamous (and apparently invisible to all astronomers) rogue planet/alien spacecraft “Nibiru” is finally on its often-claimed-but-never-observed supposed collision course with Earth.

Sigh. And I thought I was done with this after December 21, 2012 passed with a whimper and not a bang.

Let’s BRIEFLY debunk this, point by point. Please consult the embedded links for more information.

  1. The total solar eclipse on August 21 was not a harbinger of anything. There have been many total solar eclipses before (some with paths very similar to the one we enjoyed in the US) and there will be many more to come – until, in the distant future, the moon has slowly drifted far enough away from the Earth to no longer cover up the sun and cause a total eclipse. That will be a sad day indeed!
  2. While several planets do appear in a nice arrangement on either side of the sun (called a conjunction), there is absolutely nothing unusual about this. The fact that this is happening in the constellation of Virgo is also common. Nothing to see here folks, move along….
  3. Nibiru (sometimes called Planet X) is a figment of the imagination of one Zechariah Sitchin that was co-opted by various Internet alien conspiracy theorists and is equal parts bad astronomy and bad archaeology. There is zero evidence for its existence. Nada. Nothing.

    I-am-not-saying

Having said this, is it possible that the end of the world will be brought about through the influence of outer space? Actually I’d say the odds are 100%, but billions of years from now when the sun swells up into a red giant and turns the inner solar system into a rather unpleasant inferno. But in the meantime, we all have to go to work, pay our taxes, clean the litterboxes, and do the dishes. Life is too short to waste it worrying about pseudoscience. Instead, unplug from the Internet for an hour, go outside, and enjoy the real night sky without worrying that Planet Earth has a large red bull’s-eye painted on it. Like Twinkies, our expiration date is FAR in the future.

Cassini Saturn Mission to go out with a BANG!

After a nearly 20 year adventure, the Cassini spacecraft will go out with a bang on Friday, September 15, when it plunges into the atmosphere of Saturn and burns up. This fiery farewell is necessary because the probe will soon run out of the fuel needed to make orbital corrections, and NASA is concerned that in the future a dead and drifting probe might accidentally crash into (and pollute) one of the icy moons, such as Enceladus or Titan. But even in its death, Cassini will increase our understanding of Saturn’s cloud layers. For a summary of all the historic discoveries made by this amazing mission, see the NASA website.

Saturn is still visible in the night sky, visible in the south above and to the left of the bright red star Antares in Scorpius directly after sunset. If you have a telescope, even a small one, why not view the ringed planet for yourself before Cassini’s demise and wave fond farewell in the direction of one of the finest spacecraft ever sent into the outer solar system!

Weather permitting, the Copernican Observatory will view Saturn this Saturday night (September 16) after the regularly scheduled free public planetarium show. The planetarium show begins at 8 PM. For more information, consult our website.

 

Reliving the Total Solar Eclipse

[Pinhole projections of the partial phase as well as the diamond ring after the total phase of the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse as seen from Marion, IL.]

Viewing a total solar eclipse is an extremely emotional experience, whether it is your first (in Jess’s case) or your fifth (in Kris’s case). We attempted to shoot a Facebook Live video with a cellphone of the minutes before totality until the internet connection cut out about halfway through totality. Although the visual portion is questionable at best, the audio gives you an accurate portrayal of the raw emotion that comes with witnessing a total eclipse after the years of planning, hundreds or thousands of miles of travelling, and nail-biting hours of wondering if the clouds will thwart all your hard work. Enjoy!

— Kris Larsen and Jessica Johnson

[Note: although the video is set as Public, it may not play on certain browsers]

Copernican Observatory Recognized for its Halloween Fun

pumpkinobservatorystory

The Copernican Observatory was highlighted in a recent article in the Astronomical League’s Reflector magazine, as shone above, in a story about Halloween observing. For several years, astronomy professor Kristine Larsen and then student (now alumna) Jessica Johnson decorated the observatory dome each Halloween. The Great Pumpkin isn’t so great compared to our festive (and now famous) Jack-o-lantern dome.