I Do Not Fear Missing the Solar Eclipse

The great solar eclipse of North America has gotten a lot of publicity recently, and rightly so.  It is a script written for movies, a stark event to be witnessed by large areas of a large country.  Everyone from the professional astrophysicist to the completely uninitiated layman will appreciate it.

There is just one small hitch though – the weather.  Cloud cover may potentially block some or all of the eclipse.  This is not unusual for an astronomical affair, with the main casualty here being the lost opportunity due to the infrequency of this particular one’s chance.  The last solar eclipse in North America was over ninety years ago.  The next will be in seven.  After that, likely none of us today will be alive for the solar eclipse of 2099.

Last year, in May 2016, was the latest transit of the planet Mercury across the Sun.  This too is a rare event, though with a frequency of about once every 13 years.  While location on Earth is important, there is still a decent chance you can witness a Mercury transit over the course of 30-40 years.

I was in a prime location for the Mercury transit and had a full seven hours to observe it.  Unfortunately, the clouds that day were like a mockery from the gods, with the densest cover short of a severe thunderstorm.  My days of preparation and planning with telescope and solar filter and camera were fruitless.

Now being days away from the August 21st eclipse, I watch the weather forecasts for Monday like a hawk.  Currently they foretell party cloudy, muggy, with a chance of a thunderstorm, but with an uncomfortable encroachment of rain first in the evening and now late afternoon.  In my area, the eclipse will be at its peak around 13:20 and over by 14:45.

Will I be disappointed if the weather does not cooperate?  Absolutely.  Fortunately, there are a few mitigating perspectives.

First as a practical matter, cloud cover does not necessarily mean the eclipse will not be observable.  The Sun is very powerful and can pierce a variety of cloud formations.  I have taken pictures of star and planets through cloud cover when they were invisible to the eye alone, and have imaged the Sun through clouds as well.  Clouds can actually provide an artistic effect through a solar filter when imaging.

The second is a much longer perspective.  I hope those unfamiliar with astronomy take this as an opportunity to begin their own personal explorations of the cosmos.  A solar eclipse it just one event, but there is so much more to see, so much more to wonder at!  Every clear night offers something spectacular if you know how to observe the sky.

The Moon, the planets, meteors, nebulae, star clusters, galaxies, binary stars, constellations.  Conjunctions, oppositions, Jovian moon transits.  They are all there, if not all the time then at least for long durations annually, every night for the taking.

This will also be a useful opportunity to push the cause of light pollution.  Though the wonders of the cosmos are out there, too much of our planet is poisoned by the sickly orange sky glow that ranks with any other pollution source.  Few people know about it, as it is not easy to realize, but artificial lighting at night distorts ecosystems.  If you don’t believe me, try sleeping with your bedroom light on, every night.

So even if the weather forces me to miss the eclipse, I know it will not be the end-all, because of all the amazing things in the sky and all the other astronomical events, including eclipses, to come.  The clouds cannot win every time!

The Backwards Moon

August 13th, 2017, 04:15 a.m. local time

Farmers and early risers will disagree, but I think of the Moon’s waning phases as backwards.  I have been use all my life to seeing the waxing Moon in the evenings.

Attempting to view meteors on Sunday gave me a rare opportunity to photograph a healthy looking backwards Moon at its midpoint sky travel that day.  As I had already prepared my digital camera and tripod for meteor hunting, it was not much effort to first attach a longer lens for the Moon.  Today’s picture is from Sunday morning with only minor touch-ups performed in PaintShop Pro.

Of course, this monthly cycle has special significant as this particular Moon phase gradually creeps Eastward every day to rendezvous with the Sun for the North America solar eclipse on Monday, August 21st.

Starlight and Einstein and Solar Eclipses

Much talk is in the media these recent days about the upcoming North America solar eclipse.  Anyone following the world of astronomy for the past year at least has been aware of it, but suddenly the mass population is waking up to the pending reality of the event too.  Their focus is on traffic jams and hotel rooms and possibly defective solar glasses.

Having prepared for August 21st months ago, I am now waiting just like most of you, and watching the weather forecasts with an interest usually not provided to the television personalities.  I will not be using glasses, in part because I enjoy doing things differently than most.  So while millions will gaze up with open mouths at the Moon and Sun with their 3D-esque eyewear, I will be leveraging my telescopes along with simple cardboard holdouts to measure the event.

This waiting time is a good time to reflect on the eclipse and what it means beyond the covering of the Sun.  The eclipse will bring darkness and with darkness comes stars.  I am in the 88% coverage range and have no idea what it will look like, though I assume at least bright Venus towards the West will be visible.

Those in the path of totality will have a special treat as the sky should go dark to the point stars appear.  It was this phenomena that helped prove Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity true, or at least as a superior theory to explain the universe over Isaac Newton’s gravitational theories.  If you want to read the details of how it was done, do an Internet search for the 1919 solar eclipse to find many articles.  Here is one from space.com that summarizes it nicely.

I am neither astrophysicist nor physicist, just a backyard astronomer.  But I feel I know enough to explain the 1919 solar eclipse experiment in the simplest terms.  Consider first a typical clear evening on the planet Earth, with stars shining and the Sun well out of the way on the other side of the globe.

Figure 1 (not to scale)

With no large cosmological objects in the way, starlight in aggregate gets to Earth mostly on a straight line.  Whether Einstein was correct or not was not crucial for this part.  There is a path of light from a star to here, and we can assume a straight line for this path.

Now consider what happens during a solar eclipse.  The Sun (and Moon) have gotten into the path of some of that starlight, but for other stars their light will skirt past the Sun and still reach Earth.  Einstein asked, “will the gravity of our massive Sun alter course of light from those stars?”  His theories said yes, and the 1919 eclipse was used to prove him and his theories correct.

Figure 2 (not to scale)

Figure 2 shows a few things happening.  First, the Moon is between the Sun and Earth, hence blocking the Sun’s light.  The Sun of course is enormous in size compared to the Earth and Moon, but the Moon’s proximity to us and the Sun’s distance make them approximately the same apparent size in the sky.  If one were to make an argument that the ancient gods set up the universe so that their sizes looked the same, you would probably have difficultly coming up with a sound rebuttal for why this is so, beyond coincidence.

Next, the Sun blocks some, a very small amount, of starlight that is directly behind it.  I suppose you could say that the Earth, Moon, Sun, and any stars hidden behind the Sun will be in conjunction on August 21st.

Lastly, there is starlight with paths that will approach the Sun.  As proven in 1919, the Sun’s gravity will effects this starlight as it travels past the Sun, altering the starlight’s course.  This is happening all the time in the daylight, but we cannot observe it due to that -27 magnitude star close by.

When the masses of millions look at Monday’s eclipse, few will be thinking about Einstein.  But some yearning, bright individuals will.  Perhaps the next Einstein will be among them, awaiting the inspiration to change our fundamental understanding of the cosmos once again.

Meteor Hunting, 2017 Edition

No meteors, but how many constellations do you see?

August 13th, 2017, 04:30 a.m. local time

In what is becoming an annual event for me, this morning I got up at 4 a.m. to check out what I could of the Perseid Meteor Shower.  Though the sky was mostly clear lest a few stray clouds, the waning Moon’s brightness was the only unfortunate circumstance compared to last year’s.  Within about an hour I saw two meteors, a long one to the West and a short one close to the Perseid radiant point, very roughly between the constellations Cassiopeia and Perseus.

And speaking of constellations, I did set up my digital camera and took a bunch of long exposures in hopes of capturing a meteor digitally.  Unfortunately this did not pan out, but I did get some interesting and surprising wide-field views of an August early morning sky.

The above image is not stacked, just a 30-second exposure at ISO 3200 pointed at the Perseid Meteor Shower’s radiant point.  I can clearly see Cassiopeia and Perseus, as expected, but then I was surprised at all the other goodies in the photo.

The Pleiades was the first unexpected capture.  I thought my favorite little star cluster was too far East to be in-range of my picture, but there it is, sitting in the very corner.

(Yes, the Pleiades are not a constellation.  They are actually part of Taurus.)

Next I saw the bright stars of Auriga.  At first, I thought one of these was Venus, but upon consulting my sky map app, Venus was much closer to the horizon at this time, hence below my picture.

The extremely faint constellation Camelopardalis is also here.  Since this one isn’t exactly the hot topic of dinner conversations and cocktail parties, I drew it out for you and your friends’ reference, so you can indeed have something to gossip about at that next party.

Part of Cepheus is also visible.

The very last noteworthy object I discovered is Polaris.  So counting Ursa Minor, that’s seven constellations in one picture!  Below is the same picture with all these interesting sky objects called out.  I recommend clicking the image to enlarge it.

Click to enlarge.

Moon Rising Above the Clouds

August 1st, 2017, 6:00 p.m. local time

Sometimes the Moon fights despite the Earth’s turbulent weather.  Here we have an example of our satellite breaking free from eastward-moving cloud cover, with a nice patch of blue sky to frame.

This was taken with my smartphone, proving again that these devices have some marginal value beyond looking at pictures of Cheerios.