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!

 

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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.

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]

Eclipse is Life-changing Experience for CCSU Alumna

 

[Jessica Johnson looking excited at 4:30AM on the bus to see totality; Diamond ring photo by Justin Motta]

Editor’s note: Jessica Johnson, CCSU alumna, posted the following to Facebook shortly after experiencing her first total solar eclipse. She graciously allowed us to share it with you

Words cannot describe what I have just experienced. It was dodgy early on and we drove almost 4.5 hours this morning to get out of the way of a nasty frontal system. We made it to Marion, IL and only had to bribe a few towering cumulus clouds to leave. I have never seen an eclipse before and I still don’t know if I am composed enough to describe it or even process what I have just witnessed. Seeing the total eclipse, corona, and everything else associated with it has rendered me speechless (which doesn’t happen too often). It was like an amazing dream and it was worth the wait. I just sat there and cried; staring at something that was so beyond what pictures or stories could ever give. If there was ever a time or an experience where I was physically/emotionally reminded that I was a part of something so much larger than myself this eclipse exceeded it and happily reminded me of the star dust in which I was born and will return to. Just so wonderful and awe inspiring, I am still emotional and will remember this for the rest of my life. Thanks to Kris Larsen for making this a reality for me. I can’t wait for the next one! I have no pictures because I wanted to just experience it, but I have friends who will share pics with me and I will share with you [See above picture from Justin Motta].

— Jessica Johnson, CCSU Class of 2016

What to do with those eclipse glasses now

[NASA eclipse glasses donated to the Burlington Library by NASA Solar System Ambassador Kris Larsen; empty box that once house the 1000 pairs of eclipse glasses Kris Larsen bought and donated to the public for the eclipse]

Now that the Great American Eclipse is over, what do you do with those eclipse glasses? Given the pains many of you went through to get them, it seems a shame to just discard them. You can put them in a safe place until the April 8, 2024 eclipse (which will be 90% partial in Connecticut, and total in parts of New England and New York state). If you do this, you should examine them for any holes or defects BEFORE the 2024 eclipse (in case you need to get new pairs). You can always use them to view large sunspot groups. Only large groups are seen with just eclipse glasses and the eye, so it will not be an everyday event. To monitor sunspot activity, I recommend the Spaceweather website.

If you want to pass on to someone else the excitement you felt at observing the eclipse, you can donate your glasses (if they are in good condition) to Astronomers Without Borders, who will redistribute them to schools in South America for the next two total solar eclipses. Please follow the directions on their website.

Of course, you might just hang on to them as a memento!

More eclipse adventures!

[Left: partial eclipse as viewed from CCSU; Right: 350 million year old crinoid fossils collected in Missouri]

Don’t forget to visit our sister blog, ccsugeologyrocks.wordpress.com, to see more eclipse adventures, both at home and on the road!

Coming to this blog soon (after we recover!) a very personal reflection on her first eclipse experience by alumna Jessica Johnson, and a rather humorous overview of the eclipse expedition by Kristine Larsen.

Astronomy Goes Old School – REALLY Old School

[Left: Medieval scholars learn how to use a cardboard astrolabe at the 2017 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI; Right: CCSU Students in a Cultural Astronomy class learn how to use astrolabes]

Astronomy has rightly been called the oldest science. From using the phases of the moon to record the passage of time and make calendars to monitoring the position of the sun at sunrise to determine the summer solstice, humans have been studying the heavens throughout recorded history. Technology such as the telescope and sensitive cameras (not to mention space probes!) has greatly enhanced our ability to understand the universe around us. But one particular type of astronomical technology is decidedly old school – really old school! The origins of the astrolabe are lost to history, but probably date back to around the 6th century CE. Part calculator, part star map, part surveying and navigational tool, and part work of art, the astrolabe has been used for centuries to calculate the time from the position of the sun or stars, estimate one’s latitude, and measure the heights of buildings and trees, among other uses. Although they were largely replaced by more “modern” technologies by the 18th century, they are still an excellent tool that can be used to teach basic astronomical concepts, as well as demonstrate the close connections between astronomy, history, art, and religion (as they were used to calculate prayer times by both Christians and Muslims in medieval times).

chaucerastrolabe

[So-called Chaucer Astrolabe in the British Museum]

I have greatly enjoyed teaching students how to use simple cardboard astrolabes, both in a Cultural Astronomy course as well as as a guest lecturer in a Medieval History class, as well as giving lectures and workshops at other universities and numerous conferences. If you ever get the chance, peruse the astrolabe collections at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and the Oxford University Museum of the History of Science. I have been fortunate to have seen both these collections in person and they are quite simply out of this world!

— Kris Larsen