Super moon!?! Come on…

There is a perigee moon every month, and once a year it is near the time of full moon. The difference between a perigee full moon and an apogee full moon is noticeable when you compare images side by side, but without comparison you can’t tell the difference.

In the case of a perigee new moon  and apogee new moon the difference becomes apparent in eclipses… Like the one on May 20th. We see an annular eclipse because the moon is near apogee, if it were near perigee we would see a total eclipse, as Australians will in November. Here size matters, but with a full moon in the night sky? Perigee and apogee discussions belong with eclipses, not full moons.

When I hear the news reports about the Super Moon I know that potential stargazers are being set up for a disappointment. It wouldn’t be the first time. I was suckered in with the “Comet of the Century” – Comet Kohoutek – back in the ’70s. I passed along exaggerated information – then I went out to see the comet low in the sunset sky. It was there,
but it was not the “Comet of the Century”.

Do you remember the claims of Mars appearing as big as the full moon? Disappointed public and a loss of credibility.

I post astronomical events on our museum website. What I post is the moon phases, when the moon is passing a bright planet, and when to look for shooting stars. I get the dates from the RASC Handbook, and then I check the visibility with Starry Night before posting. I will not tell someone about something they can not see. If I disappoint them, I lose credibility.

I have held back on sensational claims, maybe a little more than I should and then again, maybe not. I would rather tell someone that the best time to look at the moon with binoculars is near first quarter because you can see craters along the boundary between day and night – it is something they actually can see. At star parties, I set the telescope on bright clusters or planets, not galaxies so dim you need to know about using averted vision to get a hint that they are in the field of view. The viewers leave the telescope excited by what they saw.

There are some events that are more difficult to see, but are significant because they really are rare – June’s Transit of Venus falls into this category. The average person does not have the ability to see this event on their own – but a planetarium, museum, or astronomy club hosted viewing session can offer the opportunity to see the event.

It’s time to get real about what we claim as astronomically significant events. Now I have to go run a show about how to find constellations using a star map.

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Solar Eclipse – May 20, 2012

On Sunday, May 20th, the new moon will pass in front of the sun making a solar eclipse. In Southwestern Michigan the eclipse will be partial, and occur just as the sun is setting. At the moment of sunset about one-third of the sun’s surface will be covered.

If you are interested in viewing this partial solar eclipse, the best viewing sites will be along the Lake Michigan shoreline, where the lake presents an unobstructed horizon.

There is just one catch. It is very bad for your eyes to look directly at the sun. There are safe ways to view the progress of the event, and some of them are very easy to do.

The simplest way to view the eclipse is with a pinhole projection. Any object with a small hole will cast an image. Objects with multiple holes, like the key card in the illustration, will cast multiple images.

To make a simple pinhole projector, take two pieces of stiff paper (paper plates are excellent for this), and make a pinhole in one piece. Hold the pinhole up to the sun and let the light that passes through the hole fall on the other to form an image of the eclipsed sun. This will show the curved edge of the moon covering the sun.

A pinhole box will give you an even better view, as long as you don’t feel silly sitting with a box over your head. It works the same way as the two cards, but by shielding the viewing screen from outside light it gives a clearer image.

Take a large box (the larger it is, the larger the image will appear) and cut a small hole in one corner. Tape a sheet of aluminum foil over the hole and make a pinhole in the foil. On the inside of the box, opposite the pinhole, tape a sheet of white paper to serve as a screen for the image. Place the box over your head with the pinhole facing the sun… an image of the sun is projected on the screen inside the box.

For more information about safely viewing the eclipse, come to the program Crossing the Sun at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum planetarium – now showing Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat & Sun at 3:00 PM.


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Spring arrives

On the morning of Tuesday, March 20th at 1:14 AM the sun will cross the Celestial Equator from South to North. This event marks the beginning of spring.

The place where the sun crosses the equator is called the First Point of Aries, and it is the zero point for the celestial coordinate system astronomers use to locate objects in the sky.

Objects in the sky have positions described in Right Ascension and Declination. The First Point of Aries has the Right Ascension of 0 hours 0 minutes, and a declination of 0 degrees o minutes.

Right Ascension and Declination are the Longitude and Latitude of objects in the sky. The position of any star can be given by using its Right Ascension and Declination, for example the bright springtime star Arcturus has a Right Ascension of 14 hours 16 minutes, and a Declination of +19 degrees 7 minutes. The value of Right Ascension is the time difference between the moment when the First Point of Aries crosses the meridian and the moment when the star (or object) crosses the meridian. The value of Declination is the angle of the star (or object) North or South of the Celestial Equator, measured from the center of the Earth.

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Right now I am working on a new program for the planetarium. It will be a show about the Solar System, so I am gathering all the facts and details about the planets. This show will be a mixture of prerecorded segments and live commentary by a presenter, and a lot of audience interaction using the seat keypads and a Kinect interface with the planetarium computers.

I have written many, many solar system shows – so many that they all run together. So this time, I am looking for a little help… Answer a question or two here to guide me along…

1) What is the most interesting thing you know about any planet in our Solar System?

2) Which planet would you like to visit most, and why?

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The sky is falling, and it isn’t snow.

Keep an eye out for shooting stars tonight and tomorrow morning. The Quadrantid meteor shower is at its peak, although subdued by bright moonlight. In the evening, shooting stars race away from the head of Draco, located on the northern horizon. The shower should improve around 5:00 AM when as moon sets and Draco climbs halfway up the eastern sky.

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If it wasn’t snowing….


The moon is still in Pisces tonight, but it has moved to the east and is nearer to Jupiter. Jupiter appears as a bright star below the moon. Look at Jupiter with binoculars, and then look at a bright star with binoculars. Jupiter is magnified into a tiny ball, but the star remains a tiny pinpoint. Now hold the binoculars really steady by bracing your elbows or putting the binoculars on a camera tripod, and just maybe you will see some of the four biggest moons that circle Jupiter. From night to night they change places as they orbit around the planet.

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Early morning viewing of Saturn.


The moon has waned into a crescent in the morning sky, and this morning it is in Virgo, near the planet Saturn. Around 4:00 AM look for the moon and to the upper left, Saturn.

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Can you find Curiosity’s Destination?


The last quarter moon rises around 1:30 this morning, below the stars of Leo. Look to the left of the moon for the reddish planet, Mars. In late November the Mars Science Laboratory, also known as the Curiosity Rover, began a nine month journey to the crater Gale on the Martian surface.

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Geminid Meteor Shower

The waning gibbous moon rises around 9:30, and will interfere with the peak of the Geminid meteor shower tonight, but you may still see a few bright shooting stars. Let us know how many you see.

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What constellations can you find?

The moon is full tonight, rising in Taurus as the sun sets. It will light the sky, hiding faint stars so that it will be a little easier to pick out constellations. Download our winter star map and take it out to see what constellations you can find.

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