Planetarium Newsletter - January 2018

Cosmic Curiosities

“To me, NASA is kind of the magical kingdom. I was sort of a geek, and you go there,
and there are just these wondrously strange things and people.”

~ Mary Roach, American Author

What’s a Super Blue Blood Moon?

lunar eclipseIt’s coming. Early in the morning on January 31 will be a Super Blue Blood Moon!

It’s the third super full Moon in a row. “Super” means the full Moon will be a little bigger than normal -- about seven percent. That’s not really noticeable to sky viewers, which makes the name a bit misleading.

The “blue” component is strange. The Moon will not turn blue (unless you’re wearing some funky blue-filter glasses). A Blue Moon is the name given to the second full Moon in the same month. It started back in 1946 in an article in Sky and Telescope based on the fact that every 19 years, there are seven years that will have 13 full Moons. Since there are 12 months in a year, one month is going to have two full Moons. Doing the math, we have a Blue Moon once every 2.7 years. Thanks to shrunken February, we have 2 Blue Moons this year! Another occurs on March 31, 2018, and the next on October 31, 2020.

“Blood” Moon means a total lunar eclipse, during which the Moon turns a red-orange color -- so this name works! Get up early to see it. Unfortunately, the totality of the eclipsed Moon will not last too long here in Milwaukee. The west coast will see more, and the east will see less or none at all.

lunar eclipse geometry

Weather permitting, the eclipse will be visible very low in the western sky. It starts with the Earth’s dark shadow (the umbra) covering the Moon at the upper left (about the 11 o’clock position). Dawn will start shortly afterward as the Moon sinks lower and lower in the western sky. The total eclipse starts with the Moon barely above the horizon and sets shortly afterward.

Times for Wednesday, January 31, 2018 Lunar Eclipse

  • Partial Begins: 5:48 a.m.
  • Total Starts: 6:51 a.m.
  • Ends at Moonset 7:06 a.m.
  • Sunrise 7:08 p.m.

lunar eclipse path

To see the eclipse through a telescope, join us atop the tower at the Urban Ecology Center (UEC)  from 5:30 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. on eclipse morning, January 31. Event will be canceled if skies are cloudy.


NASA Turns 60

Nasa logoBefore OMG (Oh my goodness) and DYK (Did you know?), there was the original acronym: NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). DYK acronyms are ancient? Some of my favorites are A.M. (ante meridiem) and P.M. (post meridiem), to mark before and after midday. These two have been around for hundreds of years as part of our 12-hour clocks.

NASA will celebrate its 60th birthday this year! On July 29, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill making NASA official. And on October 1 of that same year, NASA started operations.

Vanguard_rocket_explodesNASA was organized to be civilian and accessible. Its goal was to develop peaceful applications of space science. NASA grew out of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which started back in 1915. NACA was a civilian agency designed to help America effectively compete in the new field of aeronautics. Although the Wright Brothers were first in flight, the United States trailed Europe in airplane technology back in those early days.

In similar fashion, America was in crisis mode after the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957. USA rocket technology had to catch up—and fast! At that time, rockets were being developed by both the Navy and Army. The Navy tried to launch their Vanguard rocket shortly after Sputnik, but failed appallingly. On December 6, 1957, the rocket failed two seconds after liftoff, exploding in an ego-busting fireball.

van allen beltsFinally, on January 31, 1958, America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, was launched successfully with a Jupiter-C rocket—from the Army. It even made a scientific discovery! Detectors on the satellite found the Van Allen belts, a place where tiny charged particles from the Sun are captured by the Earth’s magnetic field.

Sensing the best way to beat the Russians in the new space race, a central civilian agency was needed. Thus, NASA was born. It could pool together both the Army and Navy’s top technologies and people.

For 60 years now, NASA has been dazzling Americans with countless discoveries and new technologies. It is also extremely popular with the public. A Pew Research survey back in 2015 showed that 68% of the people had a favorable view of the space agency, while only 17% saw it as unfavorable. For a federal government agency, that’s impressive.

NASA is so amazing it’s outgrowing its acronym status and becoming a word. Sort of like the ZIP (“Zone Improvement Plan”) in “Zip Code.”


Some “Sirius” Twinkling

I often think the star Sirius should be more familiar; it has grown trendy. They named a satellite radio network after it. Harry Potter’s godfather was named after this bright stellar beacon.

constellationsEven with its non-scientific fame, Sirius, the brightest star in the entire night sky, is not very well known. Only the Sun tops its brilliance, star-wise. The Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and sometimes Mars outshine Sirius – that’s still top five in heavenly status, most of the time. To make sure you spot this humble star, find the belt of Orion the Hunter and follow the three stars to Sirius, or the “Dog Star.”

Regardless of its popularity, January is a great time to see Sirius twinkle up a storm. Early in January, look for the bright star rising about 7:00 p.m. CST. As it rises, you will notice a myriad of colors. As you take in this spectral starlight, ponder the journey.

sirius twinklingThe very narrow beam of starlight from Sirius has traveled over eight light-years away from the constellation Canis Major -- that equals some 50 trillion miles! In its last split second before it reaches your eyes, the light from Sirius slams into the Earth’s atmosphere. The straight shaft of light is suddenly smashing its way through billions upon billions of atoms of oxygen and nitrogen. These invisible particles do slow down the star’s light, but only by the tiniest fraction. What they do more is refract the light—bend it—like a clear water glass does to a straw placed inside. A star’s light consists of a rainbow: Each has a different energy level, meaning each bends differently when slamming into the ocean of air molecules. All these stellar ricochets produce the colorful twinkling of Sirius.

As Sirius rises a bit higher in the sky, you’re looking through less atmosphere and the star twinkles less and glows a more white color.


Preview the 2018 Sky & Space Calendar!

Sky Sights

january 1-7 sky map

In early January, Mars  and Jupiter  pass each other in the southeast sky before sunrise. Watch faster Mars close in on slower Jupiter each morning as the New Year begins. On January 6, the two planets will be only 1/3 of a degree apart—a little less than the width of the full Moon.

january 10-12 sky map

Speaking of the Moon, look for it to pass these planets—and the “Zubee” stars--from January 10-12.

Venus  is out of sight all month.

Saturn becomes much more visible in the morning sky as January progresses. It will be tough to spot it with Mercury on January 13 because of their low location in the southeast. They will be very close at 0.6 degrees apart. By the morning of the lunar eclipse on January 31, Saturn will be easy to spot up at month’s end in the southeast, rising over two hours before the Sun.

Star Map

Download the January Star Map.  

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See the Universe through a telescope! Join one of the Milwaukee-area astronomy clubs and spot craters on the Moon, the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter, and much more.

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