February 1, 2012

Maryland observatory to hold open house

From The Sun's print editions:

Baltimore Sun reporter Candus Thomson offers this guest post: 

Don’t have a dog in this year's Super Bowl fight? Learn about the heavens from the experts.

The University of Maryland Observatory is having an open house at 8 p.m. on Feb. 5 at the Metzerott Road facility in College Park. A short lecture will be followed by a tour and, weather permitting, a peek at the night sky with the astronomers. Parking and seating are limited, so don't be late.

If you can't make this event, there’s another one set for Feb. 20.

Posted by Kim Walker at 6:52 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: From the Sun's print edition, Sky Watching

January 12, 2012

'Stars of the Ancient Sky' on Friday

From The Sun's print editions:

Baltimore Sun reporter Candus Thomson offers this guest post:   

Dr. Rommel Miranda of Towson University's Department of Physics, Astronomy and Geosciences will be discussing "Stars of the Ancient Sky" Friday night at the Oregon Ridge Nature Center in Cockeysville. The program, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., will employ the portable StarLab Planetarium.

The professor received the university’s 2011 Excellence in Teaching Award. If the weather cooperates, Miranda will lead everyone outside for some star gazing. The cost is $4 for members and $5 for non-members. Call 410-887-1815 to make reservations.

Posted by Kim Walker at 6:11 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: From the Sun's print edition, Sky Watching

January 3, 2012

Quadrantids meteor shower

Between the clouds and the moonlight, I'm not sure how much you'll see, but the Quadrantids meteor shower will happen overnight. According to NASA, the Quadrantids have a maximum rate of about 100 per hour, varying between 60-200. Peak time will be in the early morning hours, so if you can't sleep, take a look out the window.
Posted by Kim Walker at 3:49 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Notes, Sky Watching

December 24, 2011

Tracking Santa with NORAD

From The Sun's print editions:

Baltimore Sun reporter Candus Thomson offers this guest post:    

It's time to track Santa's approach to the Greater Baltimore metro area. Doing the honors as it has every year since 1955 is NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, with help from private contributions.

It's worth every penny. According to the NORAD Santa website, the detection system consists of 47 radar installations, satellites with infrared sensors to detect the heat from Rudolph's red nose, high-speed Santa cams and chase planes.

To see all the ways you can follow along, Google: NORAD Tracks Santa.

Posted by Kim Walker at 6:28 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

December 9, 2011

Westminster Astronomy Club gathering

The Westminster Astronomy Club will be preparing star-gazers for the month's activities on Saturday night with a program at Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area in Owings Mills.

The two-hour get together begins at 8 p.m. Club members will talk about the lunar eclipse and the Geminid Meteor shower, considered by many to be the best meteor show around. The radiant point for this shower will be in the constellation Gemini. Best viewing is usually to the east after midnight. The program is free.

Posted by Kim Walker at 6:48 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Sky Watching

November 12, 2011

Leonid meteor showers coming next week

From The Sun's print editions:

Baltimore Sun reporter Candus Thomson offers this guest post:  

They won't look like much this year, but on this day in 1833 the Leonid meteor showers gave startled scientists something to investigate. With skies much darker than they are today, thousands of fireballs made people sit up in bed and take notice. Some folks believed it was the end of the world while others guessed they were gaseous explosions from plants killed by frost. The peak this year is Nov. 17 and 18, but a waning moon and the constellation Leo will make viewing tough.

Posted by Kim Walker at 6:30 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: From the Sun's print edition, Sky Watching

November 10, 2011

Views of asteroid 2005 YU55


Mike Potter sent along this photo of asteroid 2005 YU55 he shot from his observatory in Baltimore:

"The picture I sent you was one of maybe 75 that I got of the object last night.  It was tough to follow since the mount does not have the ability to track objects based on orbital elements.  So I had to keep moving the telescope to a location just ahead of it and wait for it to arrive. It took about 7 or 8  5-second exposures for the object to cross the 8.5 arcminute (about a quarter the moon's apparent diameter) field of view."

Thanks, Mike!

And NASA posted a video on their site of the flyby as viewed from Swift's Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT). Check it out here.    

Posted by Kim Walker at 5:22 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

November 8, 2011

Moon and Jupiter pairing tonight

The asteroid 2005 YU55 is getting all the buzz, but tonight is a perfect opportunity for stargazers to see a Jupiter-moon pairing. Skies should be clear enough to see the planet appearing as "bright star" near the moon.

Thanks, Frank, for the tip. 

Posted by Kim Walker at 11:49 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

October 25, 2011

Auroral display was visible in Maryland

A blast of solar particles and magnetic energy from the sun struck the Earth Monday afternoon. The impact compressed the Earth's magnetic field on the sunward side of the planet and triggered bright displays of the aurora borealis - the Northern Lights.

The displays were visible across the U.S., as far south as New Mexico, Arkansas and North Aurora, Shawn MaloneCarolina. Observers in Maryland spotted them, too, although, sadly, I was not among them.

An iReporter from Potomac, Md., named Kaidi, on, said, "I saw said aurora is underway and very strong. So I took my Canon 10D and went out to the deck. I can see some reddish color in the northwestern sky and aimed my camera at that direction. Each photo is exposed for 10 to 15 seconds." Here are her images.

Some observers said the display was the brightest they had ever seen. Here is a gallery of images from around the world.

If you missed the display, as I did, you can sign up for text alerts from so you can catch the next ones.  They are not free, as stated in an earlier version of this post. It will run you $4.95 a month. On the other hand, you wouldn't have missed last night's display.

If you saw the display last night it, drop a comment here and share the experience with the rest of us poor unfortunates. Thanks! 

The geomagnetic storm was triggered by a large coronal mass ejection from the sun over the weekend. The storm is subsiding now, but it might be worth another look tonight if our skies stay clear. 

(PHOTO: Shawn Malone, in Marquette, Mich. Used with permission)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:49 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Sky Watching

October 24, 2011

The galaxy awaits; have a look, Friday in Dundalk


Andromeda GalaxyHave you taken a good look at your galaxy lately? You really need to pay more attention to it. And if the skies cooperate, you’ll get another chance this Friday evening.

The Dundalk Observatory, at the Community College of Baltimore County, will hold another of its autumn observing sessions, starting at 8 p.m. on the CCBC campus, 7200 Sollers Point Road.

Jupiter will be rising in the east. If clouds threaten, call 410 282-3092 after 7:15 p.m. for a go/no-go check.


Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:05 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: From the Sun's print edition, Sky Notes, Sky Watching

October 17, 2011

Space Station! Tonight!

Space Cadets!  Looks like skies will cooperate this evening, providing us with a nice view of the International Space Station as it soars up the East Coast.

International Space StationLook for the ISS, rising above the southwest horizon, at 7:17 p.m. EDT. If you see colored lights, or flashing strobes, it's an aircraft. Keep looking. (Kids do this well. Get yours off their duffs and drag them outside to help.)

The length and width of a football field, the ISS as it appears from the ground is a bright, single, steady light - all of it reflected sunlight. It has no "running lights" and the windows are too small to emit enough light to be seen at these distances.   

At 225 miles above the Earth's surface, the ISS will be over Georgia when we first spot it from Central Maryland. It will be two-thirds of the way up (66 degrees above) the southeast horizon by 7:20 p.m., almost directly over Ocean City.

From there, the station will move out over the Atlantic at 17,500 mph, entering the Earth's shadow at 7:22 p.m. as it approaches Nova Scotia from the southwest. Just rising above the eastern horizon at that moment will be the bright planet Jupiter, which currently dominates the night sky.

As always, come back here after the show, leave a comment and share the experience.

(IMAGE: NASA)     

Posted by Frank Roylance at 4:20 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Sky Watching

October 6, 2011

Rise and shine for space station flyby tomorrow


Space Cadets! If our skies stay clear we’ll have a nice opportunity early Friday to watch the International Space Station fly by. If you’re up early for work, take a run or walk the dog, look to the northwest at 6:01 a.m. EDT. Watch for a bright, steady, star-like object rising into the sky as the ISS passes over the Great Lakes. It will climb to more than halfway above the northeast horizon, passing high over New York City at 6:04 a.m., before disappearing in the southeast at 6:07.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:03 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: From the Sun's print edition, Sky Notes, Sky Watching

October 4, 2011

Early risers spot blue/green fireball

Starting to receive comments from early risers in Central Maryland and Northern Virginia who spotted a bright blue or green fireball of some sort just before 4:25 a.m. EDT on Tuesday (10/4/11). Eric House reported:

"At almost exactly 4:23 am I was driving south bound I95 before exit 85 and observed large green fire ball south / southeast. It was much larger than anything I've seen before.  It disappear from my view to the southeast because of trees. It was seemed so large I was waiting on the sound of an impact."

The National Weather Service received this report:

"Dear NWS, Sterling: Everybody in the park-and-ride (exit 6 route 66) and about a 5-mile radius saw a very bright blue flash this morning. I thought it was a double flash, one less bright that the other. I checked radar but there vwere no storms in the vicinity. It was definitely not weather related. - Eric Peterson"

And Dan Hewins, in Catonsville, sent this report:

"I went out to run at 4:20 a.m. this morning in Catonsville, Md. Tues. Oct. 4. As I started to run my normal 5 miles, the sky lit up as if there was a lightning strike nearby, a storm approaching. The next second the light weas so bright in the sky, it was as if someone was taking my picture with an extremely large flash bulb, it blinded me for a brief second. The next second I saw a red and gold fire ball go from the south to the north/northwest, then disappear."

Did anyone else see it? Please be sure to say where you were, what the time was, which direction you were looking, where the fireball appeared, which direction you were looking, how high in the sky it was, for how long, and in which direction it was moving. 

All of this information is useful to those who study and track these events.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:25 AM | | Comments (20)
Categories: Sky Watching

August 31, 2011

Clouds may obscure Thursday's space station flyby

Space Cadets! The International Space Station will be passing over Baltimore shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday evening. It's predicted to be a very bright pass, but the weather forecast isn't very promising, so this is a web-only alert.

ISS/Heavens-AboveNWS/Sterling is forecasting "mostly cloudy" skies tonight. But on the off chance that they're wrong, here's the scoop on the flyby.

Look for the ISS to appear in the northwest at 8:20 p.m. EDT, as the station and its crew fly over the central Great Lakes. It will look like a bright, moving star. If it blinks or has multiple, or colored lights, it's an airplane. Keep looking.

It will fly through the bowl of the Big Dipper, rising to 61 degrees above the northeast horizon (about two-thirds of the way from the horizon to the zenith (straight up) at 8:23 p.m., as it passes over central New Jersey.

From there the ISS will pass very close to the bright star Deneb, in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. Deneb is part of the Summer Triangle, an asterism in the shape of a right triangle. The other points of the triangle are Altair and Vega.

FInally, the station will move off to the east-southeast, disappearing over the Atlantic at 8:25 p.m.


Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:57 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Notes, Sky Watching

August 18, 2011

One comet a future threat, another is not


Comet EleninComets in the news: U.S. astronomer and comet tracker Peter Jenniskens says meteors in an unexpected shower last February may have been debris from an unknown, long-period comet. Also unknown is whether the comet has already passed Earth or is still en route. But it does appear the comet’s orbit could one day be a threat to Earth.

Another comet, Elenin, will pass 22 million miles from Earth Oct. 16, posing no such threat, said NASA comet expert Donald Yeomans.

(NASA PHOTO: by STEREO spacecraft, Aug. 6, 2011)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:05 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: From the Sun's print edition, Sky Watching

August 17, 2011

Int'l Space Station over Baltimore this evening

If the clouds hold off this evening, we should get a nice look at the International Space Station as it cruises by north and west of Baltimore.

ISSIf you want to see a 100 billion of your tax dollars in motion, look to the west at 8:26 p.m. EDT. Watch for a bright, steady, star-like object moving toward the northeast as it flies up the western side of the Appalachians. It will pass through the upward-pointing handle of the Big Dipper at about 8:28 p.m., at which point it will be about 500 miles from an observer in Baltimore.

From there the ISS will slide off to the northeast, over New England and New Brunswick, Canada, before disappearing at 8:31 p.m.

There are six crewmembers, including two Americans, on board as the station circles the globe once every 90 minutes. It's moving at about 17,500 mph, currently traveling at an altitude of about 240 miles. 

(NASA PHOTO: Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov works outside the ISS)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:03 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

August 15, 2011

Int'l Space Station over Baltimore tonight


Space Cadets! The International Space Station is back in the evening sky. If clouds are sparse enough, there’s a great opportunity tonight to watch it fly directly over Baltimore.

Watch for the star-like ISS and its crew of two Americans, three Russians and one Japanese rise above the southwest horizon at 8:45 p.m. EDT as they fly high over Georgia. ISS will reach the zenith (straight up) at 8:48 p.m. From there it will sail off to the northeast, fading out at 8:51 high over Nova Scotia.


Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: From the Sun's print edition, Sky Notes, Sky Watching

August 12, 2011

Full moon will dull tonight's Perseid meteors


The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks tonight. It’s most everybody’s favorite, thanks to the pleasant summer weather. Some clouds are likely. Worse, many of this year’s Perseids will be washed out by the glare of tonight’s full, Green Corn moon. But it’s still worth a try. Perseids are fast, bright and some leave persistent trails. Get as far as possible from urban lights. Best time to look is 2 to 4 a.m. Saturday. Then you can go home and sleep late.

And here's an online bonus. If you stay out a bit longer, at 4:33 a.m. the International Space Station will appear out of Earth's shadow, high in the northwest. A steady, star-like object, it  will move briskly toward the southeast, passing almost directly in front of the planet Jupiter, the brightest object in the southeastern sky. At 4:36 a.m., the station will fade from view.  

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: From the Sun's print edition, Sky Notes, Sky Watching

August 5, 2011

Solar storm smacks Earth; aurora possible

The biggest solar eruptions to date of the current solar cycle have crossed the solar system and smacked into the Earth's magnetic field on Friday afternoon. The collision of solar particles with the Earth's atmosphere could trigger the aurora borealis, or "Northern Lights" tonight.

"My estimate is we will probably get aurorae in the northern tier of the U.S.," said Brian J. Anderson, a research physicist at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab near Laurel. "We might be able to see it in the Baltimore-Washington area if it [the magnetic field in the solar storm] turns due south."

Coronal Mass Ejection Aug. 4, 2011That's not a guarantee, he cautioned. "If the magnetic field doesn't cooperate, this thing could be a dud... That happens half the time."

The sun is currently on the upswing of its 11-year solar activity cycle, and after a long, unusually quiet period at the solar "minimum," eruptions of solar particles and magnetic energy are becoming more common.

The website reported that a large sunspot on the sun, numbered 1261, has hurled out three large flares in recent days, the latest on Thursday. The flares were imaged by NASA'a twin STEREO spacecraft. And as the blast of solar particles and magnetic energy, called a coronal mass ejection (CME) sped toward Earth, they were measured by the SOHO and Advanced Compositions Explorer (ACE) spacecraft.

"The first of these events, the plasma associated with it, the magnetic cloud, arrived yesterday at about 6 p.m.," Anderson said on Friday afternoon around 4 p.m. "The second one, the first hint of it arrived about two hours ago. Then the major piece of it arrived about an hour ago" as measured by instruments in geosynchronous Earth orbit and on the ground.

This kind of solar storm, rated a medium-sized "M-class" flare, can set the Earth's magnetic field ringing like a bell, accelerating ions and adding solar particles to the flow of energy around the planet. That can disturb the Earth's ionosphere and disrupt shortwave communications. It can also disrupt or disable communications and GPS satellites and electric grids. The solar blast can expand the Earth's atmosphere and bring down space junk from low orbits, and disturb the orbits of working satellites. It can also raise Aurora seen from Int'l Space Stationradiation levels aboard manned spacecraft and trigger northern lights in far northern and southern latitudes.

Analysts at the Goddard Space Flight Center said the CME has compressed the Earth's magnetic field on the sunward side of the planet to near the altitude of geosynchronous satellites, potentially exposing communications satellites to the solar wind. That could trigger outages. 

"We are seeing enhancement of the electric currents in the atmosphere as indicated by magnetic field readings in polar regions," Sullivan said. There may be more effects noted in the next day or two. "We're in the early stages of this event."

Cloudy skies and high humidity would, of course, make it impossible to observe any aurorae that do occur. But there will likely be more opportunities ahead.

"In a solar cycle there are perhaps 10 or 20 events of this size," Anderson said. "This is not a once-in-a-century type of thing. I'd say it's the first really strong one we're seeing out of this solar cycle."

Anderson is currently engaged in a research project called AMPERE, funded by the National Science Foundation. He is measuring solar-induced electric currents surrounding the Earth, using equipment on board 70 satellites flown by the Iridium satellite telephone system. In time, he said, he hopes the technology can be used to provide commercial interests, such as electric utilities, with site-specific warnings on potential impacts from solar storms.

(PHOTO: Top: Solar Dynamics Observatory, Aug. 4, 2011; Bottom: Aurora seen from Int'l Space Station, NASA/ISS, May 2010))

Posted by Frank Roylance at 4:18 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Sky Notes, Sky Watching

July 15, 2011

Who remembers the Milky Way?

Keith Young, of Baltimore, wrote to me a while back with a poem he'd written. It was about the night sky, and how little of it we can see in these days of obsessive security concerns and excessive urban lighting. (Have your kids EVER seen the Milky Way? I wonder how many haven't.)

The fact is, we don't need all the night lighting we've installed. Much of it is wasted because it's directed upward, illuminating only the undersides of clouds and migrating geese, or sideways, Milky Way, Afghanistanlighting up the neighbors' bedroom. We've washed out the stars.

More full cut-off light fixtures would not only keep the lights aimed where they're needed and bring back the stars. They would also save us lots of electricity and loads of money. Most communities badly need better outdoor lighting ordinances. You can learn more about the issue from the International Dark Sky Association.

But I digress... Here's

(AFP PHOTO: Dimitry Kostyukov, Helmand Province, Afghanistan)

how Keith came to write his poem: 

"One night a while back I found myself fighting an episode of insomnia and sitting up in bed and having a million thoughts race uncontrollably through my head. One of those thoughts had to do with my misfortune of not being able to see some recent astronomical event because I live in the city.

"I was thinking of the words 'night' and 'city light' when all of a sudden I said to myself, 'those words rhyme!' and then ... began to compose a short poem about skywatching and urban light. When morning finally came I wrote down what I had remembered and later added a line or two and made a hundred or so revisions to create the final work that appears below."

And here it is:

Continue reading "Who remembers the Milky Way? " »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 3:40 PM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Sky Watching

July 5, 2011

Low-level NASA flights today

NASA officials say they expect to be flying their P-3B Orion over Central Maryland today (Tuesday), part of their July air-pollution sampling campaign.

NASA P-3B OrionThe notice says the four-engine turbo-prop will be in the skies over the Baltimore-Washington region from dawn until 1:30 p.m. The aircraft is expected to fly over I-95 between the Washington and Baltimore beltways.

So, first, if you see the plane buzzing the interstate at 1,000 feet, don't panic. It's the government, and everything is under control. And second, drop us a comment here and describe what you saw.

Are these flights really unsettlingly low? Or do they blend in pretty well with the usual approaches and departures for BWI-Marshall Airport? 

(PHOTO: NASA handout)


Posted by Frank Roylance at 9:54 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Sky Watching

June 30, 2011

Did you see last night's rocket launch?

The Sun's Jessica Anderson reported that the satellite launch went off Wednesday night just after 11 p.m. from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia. A couple of people commented on the article as well as on this blog, sharing what they saw.

Anyone else see it last night? Tell us about it in the comments. 

Posted by Kim Walker at 12:29 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Sky Watching

June 28, 2011

A look at NASA's Orion P3 airplane

We told you yesterday that NASA postponed their plans to send low-flying aircraft over the Baltimore-Washington area to measure air pollution levels so they can raise more awareness of the project. They held a media day today, and videographer Leann Adams went to check it out. Her video is below. And here's the full story Frank Roylance wrote about the project.

Posted by Kim Walker at 7:24 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

June 27, 2011

NASA overflights postponed

NASA's plans to send low-flying aircraft over the Baltimore-Washington area to measure air pollution levels have been postponed to allow more time to increase public awareness of the flights.

The first test flights of the Discover-AQ campaign were to have begun Monday morning, with a four-engine turboprop aircraft making passes over portions of I-95, the Baltimore Beltway and the NASA P3 OrionBaltimore-Washington Parkway. Science flights are still set to begin July 1 and will continue through the month.

Parts of the day-long flights will be just 1,000 feet above the ground. And as they begin those low-level segments, pilots will be spiraling their Orion P3 airplane toward the ground from higher altitudes. That raised some concern that people on the ground, including motorists, might be startled or worried by the unusual maneuvers.

Rani Gran, a spokeswoman for the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, said NASA officials decided they "needed to create more awareness with the public."

So, NASA has invited local news media to BWI-Marshall Airport Tuesday for a "plane and pilot availability." That will yield more coverage of the flights on the evening news, and the added public awareness the space agency is seeking.

The first test flights are now scheduled for Wednesday or Thursday, depending on the weather, which for now looks quite sunny.

The airborne air pollution measurements are part of Discover-AQ. It's an effort by NASA to improve the reliability of its satellite-based air quality monitoring, which has difficulty detecting pollutants near the ground.

By studying the movement of air pollutants on the surface and at various altitudes - and as it evolves during the day - NASA expects to be able to improve the air quality models used to process satellite data. That should improve air quality forecasts, and will also be used to inform the design of the next generation of satellites. 

Posted by Frank Roylance at 2:18 PM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Sky Watching

Weather problematic for Tuesday launch at Wallops

Preparations continue for Tuesday night's planned launch of a four-stage Minotaur 1 rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. But the forecast carries a 60 percent risk of showers and MARS spaceportthunderstorms during the evening launch window.

If weather or some other issues scrub the launch attempt Tuesday evening, they'll try again nightly through July 10, except for a three-day window around the planned launch of the shuttle Atlantis from Cape Canaveral, in Florida. That's still scheduled for July 8. NASA's Wallops tracking systems are needed for shuttle launches, which fly up the East Coast.

Forecasters say the storms are due ahead of a cold front that's expected to cross the region Tuesday. That will bring us cooler (low 80s) and drier weather for the balance of the workweek. If so, a delayed launch would have a better shot at liftoff starting Wednesday night.  The weekend looks headed for the 90s, with a return of showers and storms, as high pressure moves off the coast. 

Once skies are clear and the Minotaur launch goes ahead, the rocket's climb toward orbit with an Air Force ORS-1 battlefield imaging satellite aboard could be visible from North Carolina to Massachusetts, and as far west as West Virginia. Here's our weekend story on the project, in case you missed it.

If you're not at the beach this week, and you can't make the drive down to Wallops Island on Virginia's Eastern Shore (or even if you can), you can follow the launch preparations via Webcast, Twitter and various other media. Here, on the jump, are the specifics, which didn't make it into Saturday's print story. 

(PHOTO: Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport - MARS)

Continue reading "Weather problematic for Tuesday launch at Wallops" »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:47 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

June 14, 2011

Tomorrow's lunar eclipse won't be visible here

There will be a total eclipse of the moon on Tuesday, but unless you're living in eastern South America, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Southern or Southeast Asia, Australia or floating in the Lunar eclipse Baltimore 2004Indian Ocean, you won't see any of it.

Now, one person in a fine position to watch the eclipse is my old friend and regular WeatherBlog reader Jack Starmer, director and founder of HealthCare Nepal, who is currently leading a medical mission to that mountain republic.

He and his team should take a break from their work at 18:23 UT and watch the moon drift into the shadow of the Earth. The eclipse will become total at 19:22 UT, and end at 22:04 UT.

Should be a spectacular sight with the moonlight on the Himalayas.

For the rest of us, the next total lunar eclipse visible in full from the mid-Atlantic states will be on April 15, 2014.

(SUN PHOTO: Karl Merton Ferron, 2004)


Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:48 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Notes, Sky Watching

Two chances to see Int'l Space Station ... maybe

Marylanders headed for tonight's Flag Day celebrations at Fort McHenry (and anyone else who happens to be outdoors this evening) may get a glimpse of the International Space Station as it ISS and Endeavoursoars up the Eastern Seaboard. The flyover could come just after the fireworks display.

Unfortunately, the weather forecast calls for isolated thunderstorms, and "mostly cloudy" conditions Tuesday night. We may get a better look on Wednesday evening, when skies are expected to be only "parly cloudy." Here are the particulars:

TUESDAY: Stick around after the fireworks, and at 9:10 p.m. EDT, start looking for a bright, steady, star-like object rising above the southwest horizon. It will pass just below yellowish Saturn, climbing about halfway up the southeastern sky, above the rising almost-full moon at 9:13 p.m. From there, the ISS will fly off toward the east, disappearing at about 9:16 p.m.

WEDNESDAY:  If the weather fails to cooperate Tuesday night, try again Wednesday evening. Look for a slightly less bright ISS to appear above the southwest horizon at 9:41 p.m. EDT, climbing to about halfway above the northwest horizon by 9:44 p.m. From there it will drift off toward the northeast, disappearing at 9:47 p.m.

And as always, stop back here and share the experience.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:09 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

June 4, 2011

Some sights in the early June night sky

Crescent moon BaltimoreFROM TODAY'S PRINT EDITIONS:

If predicted storm clouds hold off, tonight will be a good opportunity to step out and get your bearings in the night sky.

After 9 p.m. or so, look to the west as the crescent moon – just three days past new – begins to set. The two bright stars just above and to the right are Castor and Pollux, the heads of the Twins in Gemini.

High in the southeast is bright, orangey Arcturus, guardian of the Great Bear. Below Arcturus, and to the right, about halfway up the southern sky, is yellowish Saturn.

(SUN PHOTO: Karl Merton Ferron, 2001)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: From the Sun's print edition, Sky Notes, Sky Watching

May 30, 2011

Catch ISS and Endeavour in Baltimore pass

If skies are clear overnight, Marylanders may be able to catch the International Space Station and the shuttle Endeavour as they fly almost directly over Baltimore. It may be the last chance any of us ever gets to see a space shuttle in flight. After Endeavour, only one more flight is scheduled - Atlantis, in July.

Unfortunately, it will mean some lost sleep.

Look for the pair to appear almost directly overhead at 3:38 a.m. Tuesday morning. Because they will be passing over well before sunrise, they will not be in a position to reflect sunlight until they are high overhead. But they should appear, one after the other, just east of the zenith (straight up), in the middle of the constellation Cygnus, the Swan.

I'm not sure, at this writing, which will appear first - the ISS or Endeavour. But hedge your bets and be outside a minute or two early, just in case, and stick around a minute or two after the first goes by.  The ISS will be by far the brighter of the two.

From there. Endeavour and the ISS will head northeast, disappearing at 3:41 a.m. as they pass over Nova Scotia. The shuttle is scheduled to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday.

Good luck.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 2:45 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

May 14, 2011

Saturn patrols the night sky


NASAWith Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter all gathered in tight formation in the dawn sky this month, the only naked-eye planet left to patrol the night sky is Saturn. Weather may spoil the view this weekend, but if and when skies clear, the planet is easily visible high in the southeast each evening. Look for a bright, yellowish object. If we get lucky tonight, look for Saturn about a hand’s width above the moon. It’s also a good time for a look through a telescope at Saturn’s iconic ring system.


Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:01 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Notes, Sky Watching

May 5, 2011

Int'l Space Station crosses B'more skies tonight


NASASpace Cadets! The forecast looks promising tonight for a good view of the International Space Station as it flies from high over the Great Lakes, across the Jersey Shore and out to sea.

Look for a bright, steady, star-like object, rising above the northwest horizon at 8:21 p.m. EDT. It will climb more than halfway up above the northeast horizon, passing through the handle of the Big Dipper at 8:24 p.m. Then it zips off toward the southeast at 17,500 mph, disappearing at 8:27.


Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:01 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Sky Notes, Sky Watching

March 13, 2011

Mercury, Jupiter in close conjunction this week


JupiterThis week stargazers have a rare chance to see a closeMercury pairing of the planets Jupiter and Mercury. Jupiter is the bright “star” already visible low in the west, about 45 minutes after sunset. Starting tonight, if skies are clear, Mercury should be visible as a dimmer “star” below and to the right of Jupiter. Each evening Mercury will climb nearer, passing Jupiter Tuesday evening — just 2 degrees apart. After that, Mercury climbs to Jupiter’s upper right, as the giant planet sinks slowly into the sunset.

(PHOTOS: Left, Jupiter, NMASA/ESA/Hubble; Right, Mercury, NASA/Johns Hopkins, APL)


Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:01 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Notes, Sky Watching

March 8, 2011

Space Station, shuttle Discovery in flyby tonight


Space Cadets! If the clouds hold off tonight, we’ll see a really interesting flyover by the International Space Station. The ISS will rise above the northwest horizon at 7:23 p.m., moving toward the zenith (straight up). If our timing is right, the (dimmer) shuttle Discovery will appear just ahead of the ISS, as its crew prepares for landing Wednesday. The ISS will pass almost directly overhead at 7:26 p.m., then slip into the Earth’s shadow at 7:27, vanishing near the bright star Procyon.

(Above: NASA Photo)

UPDATE, Wednesday, 10:20 p.m.: Here's a 60-second exposure showing the shuttle Discovery passing over Catonsville on Tuesday evening. Thanks to Travis "the Shorts-Wearing Shoveler." Used with permission.

Shuttle Discovery Catonsville, MD

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:01 AM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Sky Notes, Sky Watching

February 22, 2011

Int'l Space Station in flyover tonight

Sky Watchers! (A reader told me she thought "Space Cadets!" was derogatory. What do you think?) The International Space Station will fly up the East Coast this evening under cold, but otherwise ideal conditions for viewing.

On this pass the ISS will rise out of the southwestern sky at 5:59 p.m. and climb about halfway above the southeastern horizon as it makes its way from the coast of southern Georgia, to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Look for it as it passes through the constellation Orion (photo) at 6:02 p.m., just below the bright star Betelgeuse on The Hunter's right shoulder. From there the station and its crew of six will pass below Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini. Then they will move off to the northeast, over the Nova Scotia coast before disappearing from our view at 6:06 p.m.

The seeing should be good, with cold, dry, clear skies.

UPDATE, 7 p.m.: Well, the station was pretty easy to see, even in very bright dusky skies. But, of course, no stars were visible until a half-hour later. Next time I need to pay more attention to sky brightness in these flyby forecasts. Anyone else get a look?  

NASA is preparing to launch the shuttle Discovery on Thursday afternoon to catch up with and resupply the ISS. It is the final flight for Discovery, and the third-to-last for the shuttle fleet before it's retired. 

Posted by Frank Roylance at 4:02 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Sky Watching

February 6, 2011

If clouds part, moon and Jupiter grace the evening


If the clouds back off in time, tonight offers a nice opportunity to see a pleasing conjunction of the crescent moon and Jupiter. The moon is just four days past new, still a slender crescent, hanging in the west just after sunset. It’s at apogee tonight, 250,400 miles from Earth, its most distant this month.

Just to the left of the moon, that bright, star-like object is the giant gas planet Jupiter (photo). Uranus stands to Jupiter’s lower right, but is too dim to see.

(NASA/Hubble Space Telescope)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: From the Sun's print edition, Sky Notes, Sky Watching

February 3, 2011

A rush-hour meteor; did you see it?

Found this note in my email this morning. Did anyone else spot this rush-hour meteor Wednesday evening?

"Frank, I saw a rather bright meteor this evening as I neared home on the west side of Baltimore.  I was driving East on I-70, about a half mile before I got to 695 when I saw the meteor around 10-15 degrees to my left from my direction of travel.  It appeared to be dropping almost straight down. 

"I saw it at about 6:18 PM.  There was nothing particularly notable about the meteor other than the time of day (when a lot of people are out driving) and the fact that it was pretty bright white.

"Anyway, I don't know if you got other reports of one but I figured if you did, you might be interested. -Perry Heinrich

Posted by Frank Roylance at 7:30 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Sky Watching

January 23, 2011

ISS leads sky tour over B'more Monday morning

Are you going to be up early Monday morning? If so, take a few minutes and step outside  for a look at the International Space Station as it makes a pass high over Baltimore.

If skies are clear, this one will lead the observer on a neat little tour of the early morning sky.

First thing you'll notice when you get outside is the planet Venus, the brilliant star-like object in NASA/ISSthe southeastern sky. It has been dazzling early risers for a couple of months now.

The waning moon will be hanging in the southwest. Watch in that general area at 6:14 a.m. as the ISS climbs up from the horizon. If the sun angles are right, its reflected sunlight will make it look like a bright star, moving quickly into the sky. If it's blinking or has colored lights, that's an airplane. Keep looking.

The station will pass almost directly in front of the moon, and then just to the right of Saturn. By 6:17 it will pass very close to a bright star called Arcturus in the constellation Bootes, near the zenith - straight up.

From there the ISS will move off to the northeast, passing close to another bright star called Altair, in the Summer Triangle, and through the nearby constellation Cygnus, the swan. That region of the night sky may be washed out by the gathering dawn.

By then the station and its crew of six, traveling at 17,500 mph, will have passed over Cape Cod and Nova Scotia before disappearing from our view at 6:20.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:03 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

January 13, 2011

Int'l Space Station over Baltimore this evening


ISS/NASASpace Cadets! Step out tonight as the International Space Station makes a pass almost directly over Baltimore. Watch as it soars from high over Lake Michigan, to Ocean City and out to sea. If skies are dark enough and clear, the ISS will rise above the northwest horizon at 5:17 p.m. and be 218 miles over your head by 5:20 p.m. The station, with its crew of six, will seem to skim past the moon before fading out in the southeast at 5:23.  


Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:01 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Sky Notes, Sky Watching

January 3, 2011

Promising skies for Quadrantid meteors tonight

High pressure and clearing skies provide some hope that Marylanders will get a look at the annual Quadrantid meteor shower tonight.

The Quadrantids are one of the best showers of the year. They'd be more popular than the Perseids in August if it weren't so darn cold out there. And the fact that they occur this year simultaneously with the New Moon means moonlight will not dim the view.

According to Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar for 2011 (has yours arrived yet?), the Quadrantid radiantQuadrantids are active from Jan. 1 until the 5th, peaking tonight at 60 to 200 meteors an hour under ideal seeing conditions - dark, rural and cloudless skies. They enter the atmosphere at about 25 miles per second. European observers will have the best view of this brief peak.

The Quradantids were so-named because they appear to radiate from the obscure constellation Quadrans Muralis, in the northeast after 11 p.m. Look just below the end of the handle of the Big Dipper. (NASA sky map at left)

All the Quadrantids will appear to fly away from that point in the sky. The radiant will be highest in the sky in the hours before dawn, making that the best time to look.

Until recently, the origin of the Quadrantid meteors was unknown. They are now believed to be the remnants a disintegrated comet called 2003 EH1.

Forecasters are calling for "partly cloudy" skies tonight, with partly sunny skies Tuesday. Overnight lows will be in the mid-20s at BWI. 

Colder temperatures are back for a while, with highs this week near 40 degrees- a shade below the long-term averages. Nighttime lows will sink to the mid-20s.

We'll see a couple of cold fronts slide by - a dry one late on Tuesday, followed by another on Friday. That one could spin up a coastal storm, and forecasters at Sterling have posted a 30 percent chance for snow on Thursday night, with more cold and windy weather behind it.  

As always, if you venture out to watch, stop back here and share the experience.  

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:26 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

December 29, 2010

Space Station flyover tonight

Forecasters predict partly cloudy skies for tonight's flyover by the International Space Station. But maybe we'll get lucky.

The giant tinkertoy is making an early evening appearance in dusky skies just northwest ISS cupola viewof Baltimore. Look for a bright, steady, star-like object rising above the western horizon at 5:03 p.m. EST as it tracks northeastward along the Appalachian mountain chain.  If it blinks, or has colored lights, it's an airplane. Keep looking. 

The ISS will climb more than halfway - 56 degrees - above the northwest horizon by 5:06 p.m., then slide off to the northeast, disappearing into the Earth's shadow at 5:10 p.m.

There are currently six people aboard the station, five men and one woman. There are two Russians, two Americans (including the lone female), a Latvian and an Italian. The station is larger than a five-bedroom house, and weighs more than 816,000 pounds. It is orbiting about 218 miles above the Earth, at a speed of about 17,500 mph.

As always, after you've dragged the kids and the neighbors out to watch, stop back here and leave a comment. Share the experience. 

Posted by Frank Roylance at 3:28 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

Bright Md. meteor spotted Tuesday evening

I came back today to two reports of a bright meteor visible from Maryland Tuesday evening, Dec. 28, 2010. Details are still very sketchy. But 25-or-so other people from Virginia to New England spotted something similar at about the same time, according to fireball reports to the American Meteor Society web site.

If you spotted it, too, we'd love to get your descriptions.

Please leave a comment, and describe where you were, the time and date you saw the meteor, the direction you were looking and the direction of the meteor's duration, movement and approximate angle above the horizon.  As an example: "Meteor moved from 40 degrees above the northeast horizon to 20 degrees above the southeast horizon before disappearing..."  (On the horizon is zero degrees; straight up is 90 degrees.) Also include any color, visible trail or sounds.

The first report to us came from G. Mitchell, who emailed us at 9:18 p.m. Tuesday:

"Spotted a large geren meteor tonight, approx, 6:50 p.m., moving east to west, lasting about 6 sec. with a shower of green sparks following my location 5 miles south of Pocomoke City, Md."

The second came from a former Evening Sun colleague, Charles "Hap" Hazard. Still trying to reach him directly, but he left a message Tuesday night reporting a "bright red" meteor that "shot across the sky."  Hazard was "near the Beltway and Reisterstown Road."

I need more detail than that, Hap. Put on your reporter's hat and call me. Everyone else, please leave a comment below. And, obviously, if you happened to capture it on a security camera, still image or video, send it along! Thanks! 

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:40 AM | | Comments (62)
Categories: Sky Watching

December 21, 2010

Eclipse is now total, under starry skies

From the WeatherDeck in Cockeysville, it looks like Baltimoreans must be getting a great view of tonight's total eclipse of the moon. Skies are cold and clear and full of stars.

UPDATE: Did you miss the eclipse? There's a time-lapse video of the whole thing, in just 2 minutes, here:   

From where I sit, the moon stands just above the winter bones of an old oak. Below, to the left, is the constallation Orion, with its well-recognized belt of three stars. Below the belt is the pale smudge of the Orion nebula, a nursery of young stars. Over my right shoulder is the Big Dipper.

Lunar eclipse 12/21/10I woke with a start, and immediately feared I'd slept through the eclipse. Checked the clock radio and was relieved to see it was 1:59 a.m. I'd set my phone alarm for 2 a.m. Guess I didn't need it.

Checked the sky from the deck in my PJs, saw that it was clear and that the eclipse was well underway, so I threw on some warm clothes, grabbed the 10x50 binoculars from the closet and headed outdoors.

Already more than half the moon was in shadow. The sunlit half was very bright, the shadowed half glowing in a dull ochre color. As I watched, the curved shadow of the Earth, slid slowly across the moon's craters and maria. Now the eclipse is total.

I'm always struck by how three-dimensional the eclipsed moon looks, not the flat white disk of most full moons. A beautiful night. Hope you got the kids up to watch. My grown daughter is texting me as sheEclipse, Mike Himowitz watches through her skylight. This stuff still gets her going, 20 years after I first got her and her little brother up to watch a lunar eclipse in Baltimore.

"I will never forget that night," she said. "I remember ... being disappointed that it didn't disappear entirely. Like it was lazy and didn't finish."

Please share your impressions. Tell us who's with you and how everyone is reacting. And if you're taking pictures, email a copy to me and I'll post it.

In the meantime, here's a gallery from Here's what people are saying on Twitter.

It's a night to remember.

(PHOTO: Top: Alin Tolea, 1.3s at ISO 100, using a Canon 5D MKII through a homemade 80 mm achromatic refractor telescope. Bottom: Mike Himowitz, "with my little Canon.")

Posted by Frank Roylance at 2:42 AM | | Comments (23)
Categories: Sky Watching

December 20, 2010

Eclipse forecast improving

Worries that increasing clouds leading to possible snow on Tuesday seemed to be easing Monday morning, giving renewed hope for Marylanders eager to see tonight's total eclipse of the moon.

Lunar eclipse 2004Forecasters out at Sterling, in their morning forecast discussion, said it looks like we'll get an opening in the clouds tonight just long enough to catch at least part of the eclipse:

"Low-level stratocumulus will linger into the evening before clearing out. High clouds ahead the approaching front will begin to overspread the area late tonight. Therefore, most of the [forecast area] should have a mostly clear look at the lunar eclipse tonight."

Okay, so it's not quite unequivocal. But it's a pretty good forecast. I know I'll be out there to watch. Here, again, are the key times:

Partial eclipse begins: 1:32 a.m. The full moon begins to slide into the Earth's shadow.

Total eclipse begins: 2:41 a.m. The moon is now in total shadow, taking on what may be an eerie coppery color. It always looks strangely three-dimensional, too, at least to me. 

Mid-eclipse: 3:17 a.m. This is the darkest part of the eclipse.

Total eclipse ends: 3:53 a.m. The moon begins to re-emerge from the Earth's shadow.

Partial eclipse ends:  5:01 a.m. The moon is now back in full, direct sunlight.

Be sure to stop back here after the show and share your impressions. Did you wake the kids for a look? How did they react? My grown kids still remember when I got them up for a lunar eclipse back in the '80s. It makes an impression.

The next lunar eclipse visible from Maryland is in 2014.

(SUN PHOTO: Total lunar eclipse, October 2004, Karl Merton Ferron)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:53 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Sky Notes, Sky Watching

December 13, 2010

Oops! Geminid meteors peak tonight, not tomorrow

Your calendar-challenged weather blogger has an apology to make. In Sunday's Maryland Weather blog post, I listed Tuesday night/Wednesday morning as the peak of the annual Geminid meteor shower.

The actual peak, it's finally dawned on me, is Monday night/Tuesday morning. My bad. I read "midnight Tuesday" in my astronomical calendar as the hour when Tuesday ends, not the one where it begins.

Anyway. I'm owning up to my error now so that anyone hardy enough to brave the bitter cold tonight can get out there in time to see the Geminid shower at its best.

That is, of course, assuming the skies clear in time. Tuesday/Wednesday actually promises better seeing conditions for Central Maryland. And meteor counts will still be pretty high, although not at Monday/Tuesday morning's peak. Rhiannon Blaauw, at NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, in Huntsville, Ala., said meteor rates Tuesday/Wednesday night should be 30 to 50 an hour between 1 a.m. and 3 a,n, under dark skies.  

Here's more on the event, below. Again, my apologies.

Continue reading "Oops! Geminid meteors peak tonight, not tomorrow " »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 1:47 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

December 7, 2010

Beautiful crescent moon tonight

NASAOn Wednesday night we will witness the earliest sunset of the year, at 4:43 p.m. in Baltimore. We're also just two days past the new moon, and skies should be clearing.

That means Tuesday and Wednesday evenings will be great times to pause and look west right after sunset to see the young moon as the thinnest crescent, with "Earthshine" dimly illuminating the rest.

We're also now just two weeks from the next full moon, the one that will be be fully eclipsed early on the morning of Dec. 21. Later that day we will mark the winter solstice and the beginning of winter.

We'll have more here on the eclipse as the day grows nearer.

(NASA PHOTO: Andy Skinner)

Text SKY to 70701 to get SKY NOTES posts like this one sent to your mobile device.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:52 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Notes, Sky Watching

November 16, 2010

Weather gloomy for Leonid meteor shower

The annual Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak in the hours before dawn Wednesday. But the weather forecast is pretty discouraging for those who might have been willing to get up before dawn (or stay up late tonight) to watch.

The Leonids occur every year around this time as the Earth, in its orbit around the sun, passesLeonid meteor/NASA through the dusty debris cast off by Comet Tempel-Tuttle during ITS orbit around the sun. As the planet plows through the dust, like a car through a swarm of bugs, the dust grains smack into the atmosphere, vaporizing and heating the gases until they light up in a bright trail.

The Leonids have a history of some spectacular "storm" years, with hundreds of meteors per hour as the Earth moves through some especially thick clouds of comet dust. But this is not expected to be one of those years. Counts are likely to be average, around 20 an hour in dark (and clear) locations.

It would have been a pretty good year for this shower, with the waxing moon setting several hours before the peak hours before dawn. But the forecast calls for rain showers and possibly some thunderstorms overnight.

There's some chance skies could clear in time; the forecast for Wednesday has improved, calling for mostly sunny skies eventually. But it will pay to check the sky before you throw on your clothes to go out and watch.

If we do get lucky, look for a dark place to watch the show. Urban light pollution will wash out all bu the brightest meteors. The meteors will appear to radiate away from the constellation Leo (the direction of the Earth's current motion along its orbit), high over head in the hours before dawn. So you can spread out on the grass or stretch out on a lounge chair and look in just about any part of the sky.

And, while Wednesday morning is the peak, there may well be more straggling Leonids to see on Thursday morning. Same instructions. Doubtful forecast.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 4:29 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

November 11, 2010

Mystery aircraft over Reisterstown


Doug Warner, in Reisterstown says.This summer/fall I have seen a drone-type aircraft fly over the area west to east. They’re a shiny silver color with a pusher engine. Any idea where they’re from and where they’re going?AAI Corp. in Hunt Valley, makes several unmanned aerial vehicles for the military and NOAA. But AAI says UAVs are not allowed in civilian airspace. Other possibilities? There are one-man ultra-lights with pusher motors. And some radio-controlled models are nearly as big as some military drones.

(NOAA photo)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 6:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Sky Watching

November 10, 2010

Sunny skies, starry nights, lovely moon

Can't think of much to say about the weather this week in Central Maryland. There's nothing but sunshine in the forecast until early next week. That stubborn storm spinning off the New England coast has sent a few clouds across our skies this morning. But with high pressure dominating, we're not likely to hear any complaints.

NASA Images EarthshineIn addition to the warm sunshine and blue skies, we're enjoying really clear, starry nights this week, too. If you missed Tuesday evening's slim crescent moon, you missed a beautiful sight. Just three days past "new," the moon was a Cheshire Cat's smile in the southwest around dinnertime.

And if you looked closely, you could see the faint glow of "Earthshine" on the portion of the moon's disk that was not catching direct sunlight. Earthshine occurs during the first days after a new moon, when sunlight reflected off the Earth illuminates - faintly - the portion of the moon in shadow. 

Think of it: Light from the sun streams across the 93-million-mile gulf between the sun and Earth, bounces off the day side of the planet, back across 240,000 miles to the "night" side of the moon, then back again to our eyes. And we see Earthshine. 

Pretty cool.

Anyway, it's a great week to spend some time outdoors in the evening. There's the moon, maybe some Earthshine for another day or two, Jupiter - still a gleaming beacon high in the south in the evening - and loads of stars.

Take the kids outside with you. Mine are all grown up but they still notice things in the night sky. My daughter texted me last evening to tell me about the crescent moon. Drop back here and share what you're seeing with the rest of our readers. Maybe it will get some of them off their Barca-Loungers and outdoors under the night sky.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:33 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Sky Watching

October 28, 2010

Space station back in our evening skies


NASASpace Cadets! The International Space Station is back in the evening sky and Baltimore is in line for two fine passes this week. Look tonight for the ISS to rise above the southwest horizon at 7:11 p.m. EDT, climbing high in the northwest by 7:14 before sliding off to the northeast and disappearing at 7:16 p.m. The track will be almost identical Saturday evening. If skies aren't too bright, look for the station a bit further west at 6:29 p.m., climbing into the northwestern sky by 6:31, before fading in the northeast at 6:35.  

(NASA Photo)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 6:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

October 22, 2010

Astronomers see most distant galaxy yet

Speaking of objects in space that are too faint to see with the naked eye, astronomers using a telescope in Chile report in the journal Nature that they've identified the most distant light source NASAever detected.

It's a primitive galaxy, seen as it appeared 13.1 billion years ago, no more than 600 million year after the Big Bang that scientists believe marked the birth of the universe.

Detection of the galaxy - barely a smudge on an image from the Hubble Space Telescope that contains a zoo of odd-looking early galaxies - pushes back scientists' view of the early universe, and enhances their understanding of the conditions that dominated at the time, and the timing, location and nature of the changes that were taking place as the first stars and galaxies formed.

Here's the New York Times' take on the findings. Here's a link to Nature.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:01 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

Hunter's Moon rises over B'more tonight


There will be a full moon over Baltimore tonight, reaching precise “fullness” at 9:37 p.m.Hunters Maryland EDT. Moonrise in the city will be at  6:19 p.m. EDT. If you’re still out on the beaches, look for it to pop up over the ocean at 6:15 p.m.

The second full moon after the fall equinox, this one’s known variously as the Hunter’s Moon (lighting the woods for hunters), the Frost Moon (around the time of first frost), or the Beaver Moon (um, lighting the pond for nocturnal rodents building winter lodges?). 

(SUN PHOTO: David Hobby 2004)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

October 19, 2010

Galactic beauty in the Big Dipper

On clear, dry nights - the kind we often see at this time of year in Maryland - it's nice to look upBig Dipper and see familiar constellations. One of the most familiar, of course, is the Big Dipper. The big rectanglular bowl and long, curved handle are easy to pick out in the northern sky at any time of year.

The Big Dipper constellation is also known as Ursa Major, the "Big Bear." The Greeks saw a bear in the pattern, and so did some native North American tribes. The Dipper also has much to offer backyard stargazers.

Galaxy NGC 3982For example, the star at the bend of the dipper's handle - Mizar - is actually a double star. Its companion is Alcor. They're sometimes used as a test of visual acuity. People with the sharpest eyesight may be able to see two stars there without magnification. For the rest of us, binoculars can easily separate the pair. 

The two stars on the side of the bowl farthest from the handle point to the North Star - Polaris - which stands five dipper-heights from the top of the bowl.

You can also use the dipper's handle to find the bright star Arcturus. As the old memory aid says, just "follow the arc [of the handle outward] to Arcturus." Let your eyes trace the handle's arc, continuing beyond the end to the first bright star you come to. That's Arcturus, the third-brightest star in the night sky.

But there's lots we can't see. And there's a striking new image out from astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to prove the point. It's a photo of a beautiful spiral galaxy, called NGC 3982. The galaxy is in Ursa Major, 68 million light-years from Earth. 

About a third the size of our own Milky Way galaxy, NGC 3982  is 30,000 light-years across, which means it takes 30,000 Earth years for light to travel from one side of the spiral to the other. NGC 3982 is located in a cluster of galaxies, called the M109 Group, located on the lefthand corner of the dipper base.

Here's more on the new Hubble image.

(PHOTOS: Top: NASA. Bottom: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team/STScI/AURA)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:37 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

September 21, 2010

Celestial three-fer: Harvest Moon, equinox and Jupiter

It's not often that so many celestial events come together at nearly the same time. But from Wednesday night to Thursday morning, we can enjoy a bundle of them.

The only glitch may be the weather. The forecast calls for "mostly cloudy" skies Wednesday night as this cool, dry, high-pressure system moves east and pumps in more heat and humidity for Wednesday and Thiursday. But Wednesday and Thursday are both expected to be sunny, or mostly so. So perhaps we'll get Harvest Moonlucky. Here's the rundown:

Wednesday night will be the night of the full Harvest Moon. Moonrise for Baltimore will occur at 6:26 p.m. EDT. If you're still enjoying this glorious extended summer at the beach, look for the moon to pop over the Atlantic horizon a bit earlier, at 6:20 p.m.

The moon won't be perfectly full until 5:18 a.m. Thursday morning. But no one will be able to tell the difference. It's still, officially, the night of the Harvest Moon. So enjoy.

The Harvest Moon, by the way, is defined as the full moon closest in time to the autumnal equinox. That, as it happens, occurs 11:23 p.m. EDT on Wednesday evening, so it would be hard to get a much more definitive Harvest Moon.

Also appearing on this busy evening is the planet Jupiter, which many skywatchers have been admiring for weeks (see posts below) as it gleams brightly in the eastern sky after sunset. Jupiter was at opposition early this morning, directly opposite the sun as seen from Earth.

The Earth reaches opposition with Jupiter once a year, as both planets orbit to the same side of the solar system. That also makes it their closest approach of the year. Jupiter/NASA

And it takes Jupiter 12 years to circle the sun once. So once on each of Jupiter's orbits of the sun, it passes perihelion - the point in that slightly lopsided orbit that is closest to the sun and therefore also to the inner planets, including Earth.

This year, opposition and Jupiter's perihelion are occuring at nearly the same time. That makes this the nearest Earth and Jupiter will be until 2022. Amateur astrophotographers are having a field day with Jupiter. There's a gallery of their images here.

So if you have a pair of binoculars, or a small telescope, or if you can find one of Baltimore's street-corner astronomers, take a few minutes to get a look at Jupiter. Even in binoculars, Jupiter appears as a round disk, not a point of light. And if you hold the glasses steady enough, you should be able to pick out as many as four of the planet's Galilean moons, strung out like tiny beads on either side of the planet.

Even if you just step outside this evening, or Wednesday evening, and look with only your eyes, you're sure to be impressed by Jupiter's brilliance in the evening sky, and the moon's. Jupiter remains in the sky all night this month, rising from the east to its highest point at midnight, before moving toward the western horizon before dawn.

Which brings us to the third event of the night of Sept. 22/23. Soon after the Harvest Moon begins climbing into the eastern sky, look for Jupiter to rise close behind it. The two brightest objects in the sky this month will be in "conjunction" on this evening, separated by about the width of your hand held at arm's length.

No charge. Enjoy.

(PHOTOS: Top: AP PHOTO, Tom Thompson, Peninsula Daily News, Port Angeles, Wash., 2004. Bottom: Jupiter in 2009, AP/NASA)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:32 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

September 18, 2010

Beautiful night under the moon and Jupiter

Just back from dinner in Fells Point, where my wife and I ran into Baltimore's Street-Corner Astronomer, Herman Heyn.

Jupiter and Galilean moonsHerman had Jupiter in his sights this evening, along with all four Galilean moons, strung out like beads on either side of the planet's disk. (Photo left)

Even with the naked eye, passersby could see the planet rising above the Recreation Pier, the brightest object in the sky, except for a VERY bright three-quarter moon.

Too many people walk by Herman, a familiar figure on the Baltimore waterfront for decades. Herman has introduced thousands people to the night sky, amazing kids and grownups - on the square in Fells Point, or at Harborplace - with what is often their first look at a planet, directly, with their own eyes.

Whether it is striped Jupiter with its moons, ringed Saturn or a crescent Venus, those who stop for a minute and look are invariably impressed, often wowed.

Herman asks no more than a word of thanks (though donations are welcome). Next time you see him andMoon his telescope, stop and say hello, and ask him what's up in the sky tonight. You won't be disappointed.

Anyway, after getting a long look at Jupiter and the moon through Herman's eyepiece, I went home and hauled my little telescope onto the front sidewalk.

The sky was clear and dry, around 65 degrees, a perfect evening for hanging out under the stars. I grabbed my little point-and-shoot Canon, stuck the lens into the eyepiece of my telescope, snapped the shutter and hoped for the best.

Here's how they turned out. Not bad for an backyard astronomy hack like me.

(SUN PHOTOS: Frank Roylance, Meade ETX-90, Canon Powershot SD1100 IS)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:22 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Sky Watching

September 13, 2010

Int'l Space Sta. due over Baltimore Tues. night

Space Cadets! It would be hard to find a better opportunity to watch the International Space Station fly over Baltimore than the one we're expecting Tuesday evening.

The Heavens-Above web site shows the flight track carrying the giant tinker toy from Lake Michigan, almost directly over Baltimore, Heavens-above.comand then southeast to the Delaware Shore before heading out over the Atlantic.

The weather forecast looks favorable. There's a cold front due to pass through the region tonight, bringing some mid-level clouds with it. But they should clear away during the day Tuesday as high pressure builds into the region behind the front.

UPDATE, 4:50 p.m. Tuesday:  Forecast is holding up. Here's the latest Clear Sky chart.

A few more clouds may move through late Tuesday night. But generally the forecast calls for a sunny day Tuesday and partly cloudy conditions Tuesday night. It may be a close call on the arrival of the clouds Tuesday evening. Fingers crossed.

If skies stay clear, look for the ISS to appear above the northwestern horizon at 7:29 p.m. Tuesday. Look for a bright, star-like object climbing briskly. If it has multiple, blinking or colored lights, it's an aircraft. Keep looking. The station will move through the stars of the handle of the Big Dipper, reaching the zenith (straight up) at 7:32 p.m. From there, it will move off toward the southeast, fading to black at 7:36 p.m.

The station is moving at 17,500 mph, about 220 miles above the Earth. There are currently three NASA ISSother spacecraft docked with the station, including two Russian Soyuz vehicles that will bring the current crews home, and two Russian Progress supply craft - one of which arrived Sunday. The next (and next-to-last) U.S. shuttle flight to the station is scheduled for Nov. 1.

There are six crew members on board. They include three Russian men - a Russian Air Force colonel, a rocket engineer and a mechanical engineer born in Georgia; also three Americans - a U.S. Army colonel with an engineering degree, and two American women - one a chemist and the other a physicist.

If the weather cooperates, be sure to stop back here and leave a comment about the spectacle. I like to think it helps get more people out to look with their children, and maybe that will inspire someone's kids to pursue a career in science.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:31 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Sky Watching

August 24, 2010

Fruit moon rising tonight

          Full moon Baltimore                              

Clouds will likely spoil the view, but if you happen to be airborne above the clouds Tuesday evening you can watch the full moon rise above the eastern horizon.

The third full moon after the summer solstice, this one is called the Fruit Moon in some traditions, providing illumination for harvest into the evening as fruit trees ripen around this time of year.

The moon will be officially full at 1:05 p.m. today, but won't be visible in Baltimore until moonrise at 7:34 p.m. EDT, and then only if skies clear. If you're at the beaches (with better weather) look for moonrise over the Atlantic at 7:27 p.m.

(SUN PHOTO by Karl Merton Ferron, 2004)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

August 4, 2010

Solar eruption: Second wave due tonight

Travis J. Novitsky 

Charged particles from Sunday's solar flare swept over the Earth last night, triggering colorful displays of the "Northern Lights" across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Norway and other locations across northern latitudes as the blast encountered the Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field.

The photo above was taken by Travis J. Novitsky, of Grand Portage, Minn., who told "Well, the aurora made a pretty good showing last night! It sounds like most everyone in Minnesota had cloudy skies but lucky for me the clouds didn't move in to my area until after the aurora faded. These images were all captured between 11:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m. At about 11:45 I noticed the moon was coming up, so I made a couple of exposures of the moon as well as the northern lights. These were all shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II."

Scientists say a second wave is still en route across the 93-million-mile gulf between the sun and the Earth, and should reach us tonight.

Maryland appears to have been too far south to give us a view of last night's auroral displays. AndNOAA/GOES14 the skies were too murky anyway, as is common here at this time of year. You need clear, dark skies to see auroral displays, especially this far south.

Tonight's forecast doesn't look any better for Central Maryland. But if you're reading this in northern New England, the Great Lakes states or points north, spend some time outside tonight and give it a try. Catching the Northern Lights is always an experience you won't forget.

For the rest of us, photos from last night's display are coming in to the galleries. On the site you can also sign up for telephone alerts. For a monthly fee, they will call you when there is another big solar eruption, and when auroral displays are occurring at your location.

(PHOTO: Top: Travis J. Novitsky/ Used with permission)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 1:20 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Sky Watching

August 2, 2010

Solar blast could trigger aurora Tuesday night

A large solar eruption early Sunday morning launched tons of ionized atoms toward the Earth, and solar scientists say that wave of charged solar debris could trigger auroral displays across the northern United States this week.

The eruption was rated a C-3, comparatively small, but it launched a large filament of solar material into space.

NASA"This eruption is directed right at us, and is expected to get here early in the day on Aug. 4th," said astronomer Leon Golub, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The sun, which has an 11-year cycle of activity, is just beginning to rebound from an unually long and quiet "solar minimum," so eruptions on this scale have not been seen for several years. 

Called coronal mass ejections, the blasts are monitored by spacecraft and solar observatories, including NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, launched in February. 

"We got a beautiful view of this eruption," Golub said. "And there might be more beautiful views to come if it triggers aurorae."

When the charged particles strike the Earth's upper atmosphere, they cause the air molecules to glow, often in a variety of colors. Common in far northern latitudes, the aurorae, or "Northern Lights" are rarely seen in  the middle latitudes. But when the solar eruptions are big enough, they can sometimes be seen in Maryland, and even farther south.

Unfortunately, the weather forecast for late Tuesday and early Wednesday morning is not very good. The last aurora easily seen from Maryland was in November 2004.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 4:18 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

July 30, 2010

Moon and Jupiter in midnight rendezvous


Plan to be up late this evening? Step outside around midnight and find a spot with a clear view to the east. Dominating the sky in that direction, if skies stay clear, is the waning moon and a very bright planet Jupiter. They’ll be separated by a little more than the width of your hand, held at arm’s length, with the moon above and to the left of the giant gas planet. The moon is about 252,000 miles from Earth tonight. Jupiter is about 400 million miles beyond.

(NASA/Cassini Photo)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 6:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

July 28, 2010

Dance of the planets in the western sky

Jeff Reckseit, a volunteer at the Davis Planetarium, writes from Phoenix: 

Planetary conjunction"A planetary conjunction is occurring over the next few weeks. Look in the western sky just after sunset any night this week.

"Your eyes will immediately be drawn to the brilliant planet Venus – it's brighter than any night sky object except the moon. When it gets dark, around 9:30, Saturn and Mars will be visible. Saturn is in conjunction with Mars on July 31, with the planets less than two degrees apart, to the left of Venus.

[Here's a sky map from Sky &]

"Venus, Mars and Saturn will move gradually, night after night, into a tight triangular grouping in the early evening sky. On Thursday night, Aug. 5, the three planets will be closest together, forming a tight triangle that will easily fit in the field of binoculars.

"The triangular shape nearly goes equilateral from Aug. 6 to10. On Aug. 8, all three planets will be within 5° of one another. A thin waxing crescent moon will then pass the "evening stars" on Aug. 13." 


(PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons, planetary conjunction 2008)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:37 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

July 11, 2010

Eclipse of the sun today, for the South Pacific


If you’re reading this, you’re probably not in the South Pacific for today’s total solar eclipse. Me neither. Too bad. The new moon will slide in front of the sun’s disk beginning at 2:15 p.m. EDT, casting a circular shadow on the Earth. The only land it will cross are Mangaia in the Cook Islands, Easter Island, a few scattered atolls, and southern Chile and Argentina. The next total solar eclipse in the continental U.S. is Aug. 21, 2017. Be there.  

For webcasts of this eclipse, find links at

(AP PHOTO: Aaron Favila, January 2009)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 6:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

July 10, 2010

ISS to vanish tonight over Baltimore


Space Cadets! If skies are clear enough tonight we’ll have a chance to watch a very interesting pass by the International Space Station as it flies right over Baltimore. Look for a bright, star-like object rising at 10:24 p.m. EDT above our northwest horizon as the ISS passes over Lake Michigan. Just to the left, very low on the horizon, you’ll see bright Venus, with Mars and Saturn strung out farther to the left. At 10:27 p.m., the station will fly into Earth’s shadow, disappearing from view almost directly over our heads.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 6:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

June 27, 2010

Bootid meteor shower peaks tonight


The annual Bootid meteor shower peaks tonight. It’s not one of the better showers of the year, but it came to mind after Orioles fans reported a bright fireball over the stadium at about 9:45 p.m. during Thursday’s O’s/Marlins game. The Bootids are active from June 22 to July 2. They occur as the Earth passes through the dust trail of a comet called 7P/Pons-Winnicke. Bootid meteors radiate from the constellation Bootes, high overhead at 10 p.m. in June, traveling at about 11 miles per second.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 6:00 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Sky Watching

June 25, 2010

Meteor during Thursday's Orioles game?

Just received this note from a member of the Howard Astronomical League:

Perseid fireball"Frank,
"Not sure if you have heard yet or not, but at tonight's (June 24) Orioles game around 9:45PM there was an extremely bright meteor (bolide) in the sky that went over the city. I was sitting on the first base side and the meteor flew overtop the Hilton Hotel (left field of the stadium). It was heading roughly westward and for being over the city was very very bright! Unfortunately it was between innings and I had put my camera down.
"I would hope though that with all the photo and tv cameras that someone must have gotten a picture or video.
"Just wanted to let you know in case you were interested. - James Willinghan"
Sure, I'm interested. Did anyone at the stadium (or anywhere else in the region) spot this object? If so, leave a comment here. Better yet, if you managed to get a photo or video, let me know and we'll post it and replace the one above.
Remember, it's very important to include detailed information describing the object, where you were, which direction you were facing, which direction the object was traveling, how high above the horizon it was and how long it was visible.
(PHOTO: 2006 Perseid fireball/ Pierre Martin, Ontario)
Posted by Frank Roylance at 7:29 AM | | Comments (53)
Categories: Sky Watching

June 22, 2010

Space Cadets! ISS flyby Wednesday night

There will be several promising opportunities this week for residents of Central Maryland to spot the International Space Station as it flies over the state. The air is so humid that clouds may obscure the view. But if we get a break, the station is certainly bright enough to shine through a thin summer haze.

Drag the kids out with you. It will inspire them to pursue a career in math and science. Accost the joggers and dog-walkers and make them look, too. They will be astonished by your scientific ISS NASAawareness.

The first opportunity comes Wednesday evening, as the station flies northeast from high over Alabama toward New Brunswick in eastern Canada.

Look for it to appear above the southwest horizon at 10:46 p.m. EDT. Watch for a bright, star-like object climbing swiftly into the western sky. It will pass just to the left of Saturn, rising high in the northwestern sky. By 10:49 p.m. it will be about two-thirds of the way from the northwest horizon and the zenith (straight up). From there the station and its crew of six (three Russians and three Americans, two of them female) will hustle off toward the northeast, disappearing there at 10:52 p.m.

If we're clouded out on Wednesday, there will be an almost identical pass on Friday evening. The forecast looks much more promising for this one.

Watch for the station as it rises into the western sky at 10:04 p.m. EDT. It will pass between Mars (to its right) and Saturn (to the left).  By 10:07 p.m. it will be more than halfway up the northwestern sky, passing through the handle of the Big Dipper. From there, the ISS will move toward the northeast horizon, disappearing at 10:10 p.m.

As always, stop back here after the show and share the experience with others. I'll post the comments as soon as I can.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:10 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Sky Watching

May 10, 2010

Early risers spot green fireball over Central Md.

Reports are beginning to arrive about what sounds like a rather spectacular fireball meteor over Central Maryland just before dawn Monday morning. Not sure how many people would be outside to see this at such an hour, but let's see what other accounts might come in. 

Here's what we have so far. (The file photo is probably close to what these people saw):

"I had a major meteorite sighting over Cockeysville at 0445 hrs this AM. Large green fireball with pieces Fireballbreaking off and burning off. From the northwest to the southeast.  Way cool- first one ever!" - John Selway, White Hall, Md.

"I was headed east on Rt. 23 (East West Highway) in Forest Hill this
morning at about 4:40am.  When I reached the intersection at Conowingo
Road, I noticed an amazing bright streak of green light falling
diagonally through the sky.  I lost sight of it as it appeared to go
behind the buildings at the intersection.  I've never seen anything like
it in my life.  When I arrived at work, I immediately started searching
on atmospheric sightings and came across your blog.  Can a meteor have
this type of color?"
Anyone else? Please leave a comment. It's important to include details about where you were, the time, the direction of the meteor's movement, its altitude above the horizon at the beginning and the end of the observation (in degrees, if possible; the horizon is zero, straight up is 90 degrees), its color and anything else you can remember. Also try to remember the duration of the event. Count "Mississippi 1, Mississippi 2, Mississippi 3" to estimate seconds).
Meteor scientists and meteorite hunters can use the information to calculate the meteor's direction, altitude, and the rough location of any parts of it that may have reached the surface.
Posted by Frank Roylance at 8:01 AM | | Comments (84)
Categories: Sky Watching

April 29, 2010

Clear skies likely for tonight's space station flyby

Space Cadets! Step outside Thursday evening and catch a glimpse of billions of the world's tax dollars as they fly over Baltimore aboard the International Space Station.

The ISS will make an especially bright and high pass over Central Maryland shortly after 9 p.m.Progress supply ship/NASA The forecast calls for clear skies, so the station will be easily visible from just about anywhere in the region with a broad view of the sky, even in downtown Baltimore. Be sure to take the kids, and grab the attention of any joggers or dog-walkers that happen by. Point out the station to them and they'll think you're a genius. Or a total geek.

Give yourself a few extra minutes on either end of this flyby. On Wednesday just after noon EDT, the Russians launched an unmanned Progress supply ship (photo, right) which is scheduled to dock with the ISS on Saturday with tons of food, water, oxygen and other cargo. There's a chance we'll be able to spot Progress flying a few minutes ahead of, or behind the ISS during this pass. Being smaller than the ISS, Progress will reflect less sunlight and appear dimmer in the night sky. It may be harder to spot amid urban lighting.

Look for the ISS to rise above the southwest horizon beginning at 9:12 p.m. EDT. It will look like a steady, bright star, climbing into the sky at a brisk pace. If you see something that blinks, or sports multiple or colored lights, it's an airplane. Keep looking.

The station will pass very close to Pollux, the southernmost of the twin stars of Gemini. Just south of Pollux and the ISS you can find reddish Mars. Venus will be shining very low in the west.

NASA/ISSAt 9:15 p.m. the ISS will reach its highest elevation of this pass, about two-thirds of the way from the northwest horizon to the zenith (straight up). At that moment, it will be 238 miles from observers in Baltimore.

There are currently six astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the outpost - five men and one woman. Three are Russians, two are Americans, and one is Japanese.  

From there, watch as the station passes by the lip of the Big Dipper, and sails off toward the northeast, disappearing into the Earth's shadow at 9:19 p.m.

The ISS is nearly complete. It now has a mass of more than 800,000 pounds. It has been occupied continuously since November 2000. It circles the globe 16 times a day at 17,500 mph, eventually passing over 90 percent of the Earth's surface.  To explore the station through an interactive NASA "photosynth" display, click here.

Good luck. And, as always, drop back here after the flyby, leave a comment, and let other readers know where you were, what you saw and how everybody reacted.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:11 AM | | Comments (30)
Categories: Sky Watching

April 23, 2010

Before the rains, see Mars, Saturn and more

It looks like the clouds and rain that are bearing down on the region may hold off long enough to allow stargazers to enjoy at least one night under a clear sky this weekend.

If so, you'll want to head for the Community College of Baltimore County's Dundalk campus tonight (Friday) for the free public viewing. Telescopes will be out so that visitors can get a close-up look at the Orion Nebula, the moon, double stars and the planets Mars, Saturn and Venus if Amateur astronomythings go well.

Be sure to bring the kids. Their first view of Saturn and its rings could inspire them to pursue a career in astronomy, physics, math or science. Or they could take the easy way out and become a science writer. You'll get a thrill, too.

The event starts at 9 p.m. Call 410 282-3092 after 7 p.m. for any last-minute information about weather. Click here for directions.

The event at the Dundalk campus is the first of three for stargazers this weekend. At 10 a.m. Saturday there will be a planetarium show, "The Little Comet," at the CCBC's Catonsville campus's Banneker Planetarium. Click here for directions.

On Saturday, at 8:30 p.m., there will be another opportunity to stargaze with CCBC telescopes. It's planned for a spot near the baseball field at the Catonsville campus. But the weather forecast for Saturday evening is not promising. Call 443 851-0364 after 7 p.m. to check for cancellations before you go. 

(SUN PHOTO/Larry C. Price, 1998)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 5:41 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

March 23, 2010

Mercury coming into view after sunset

Some accounts say Copernicus (painting), the guy who worked out the math that showed how the planets all revolve around the sun, never actually saw the planet Mercury. An article in the April edition of Sky & Telescope magazine casts doubt on that notion.

But it's very true that Mercury is the most difficult of the five naked-eye planets (six, if you countNicolaus Copernicus Earth) to see.

That's because, as the nearest planet to the sun, it never wanders far from the sun's glare for observers on Earth. It becomes visible only at the extremes of its orbit, on one side of the sun or the other. That places it in our view every few months, low in the east just before sunrise, or low in the west just after sunset. Sometimes it's easier to see than other times, depending on the geometry.

Whenever skies clear in the next three weeks or so, we'll have our best chance in 2010 to see Mercury - which we rarely name without the adjective "elusive"  in front.

Look first for Venus, low in the west, about 30 minutes after sunset. It is both nearer to Earth than Mercury, and bigger. That makes it much brighter in the sun's reflected light. Venus has only recently returned to the evening sky. It will get brighter each night as it rises out of the sun's glare.

Mercury/MessengerYou should find Mercury just to the right of Venus, and a bit below. Binoculars will help, but if skies are clear and dark enough, it should pop into view without magnification. The two planets will appear closest together - the width of three fingers held at arm's length - on April 3 and 4.

The relative positions of the two planets will change each night as Mercury rises, turns, then falls back toward the sun as it races along its orbit. By mid-April, Mercury will be much dimmer and falling fast into the sunset, while Venus continues to climb.

With patience and persistence, you'll find it. Copernicus did.

(PHOTO/Mercury/Messenger mission)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 2:41 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

March 19, 2010

Two chances to watch Int'l Space Station

Stargazers will get two opportunities in the coming days (or rather, nights) to watch the International Space Station fly across Baltimore's skies. Both are very bight evening passes, high over head, with plenty of other stuff in the sky to add variety to your time under the stars.

The weather looks pretty good for Saturday night, but Monday evening could be dicey, with "mostly cloudy" skies forecast. Check for weather updates. Urban lighting and thin clouds shouldn't hurt any. The ISS is very bright on these passes.

The first event comes Saturday evening, as the station passes over Lake Michigan and becomes visible from Central Maryland. Look for a very bright, star-like object rising in the northwest at 8:12 p.m. EDT. If it's blinking, has multiple or colored lights, it's an airplane. Keep looking. 

The ISS and its crew will climb high overhead, passing just above the moon in the western sky. It will climb as high as 69 degrees - more than two-thirds of the distance between the southwestern horizon and the zenith (straight up) by 8:15 p.m.

NASAFrom there, the station will pass below the planet Mars in the southeast, disappearing over the Atlantic at 8:17 p.m.

The second pass comes on Monday evening, and it will look very much like Saturday's flyby. The station will rise in the northwest again, this time at 7:26 p.m. EDT. It will pass below the moon, 65 degrees above the southwestern horizon at 7:29 p.m.

From there it will slide off toward the southeast, passing between Mars and Sirius, the bright star to the lower left of the Constellation Orion, before vanishing at about 7:31 p.m. As always, drop back here after the show and share the experience.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 7:48 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Sky Watching

March 5, 2010

Return of fair weather reveals the night sky

The National Weather Service has hoisted a string of sun and moon icons across the five-day forecast today. It's a reminder that there is plenty to see up there if we would just lift our eyes Sunny iconabove the grimy snow piles and glaring street lights.Mostly clear

The weather forecast looks pretty good, right through the middle of next week. Sterling is looking for sunny days in the 50s by this weekend, and partly cloudy to mostly clear nights.

It's an opportunity to get reacquainted with the night sky after a month of cold and snow and ice.

Venus/Hubble Space TelescopeOn the way home the other night I noticed that Venus has returned to the evening sky. It's still very low in the west, setting about an hour after the sun. And it's not yet as brilliant as it will be by the end of March, when it will set more than an hour and a half after sunset.

But it's been quite a while since we've had Venus (left, in ultraviolet) as our evening star, and it will be a welcome sight for commuters and evening dog-walkers. Late in March we'll get a chance to see Mercury rise out of the sun's glare and get pretty close to Venus prior to a nice conjunction in early April.Mars/Hubble Space Telescope

Mars (right) is fading this month, but it remains a prominent presence high in the eastern sky each evening. Look for it just below the twin stars of Gemini - Castor and Pollux. It is noticeably redder than the bright stars of the winter constellations, and hard to miss.

And in case you missed Thursday's night's flyover by the International Space Station, the ISS will make a very similar pass on Saturday evening. Thursday's appearance was notable for the station's ability to gleam right through the scattered thin clouds that ISS/NASAspread over much of the Baltimore area.

Look for the ISS again Saturday evening as it rises above the southwest horizon at 6:08 p.m. This pass will be nearly as bright as Thursday's, but probably with fewer clouds. The station will climb  even higher - to within 3 degrees of the zenith at 6:11 p.m. From there it will slide off toward the northeast, disappearing from view at 6:14 p.m.

Saturn, too, is visible in the evening sky this weekend as it nears opposition on the 22nd. Look for it low in the east southeast later in the evening, say, 10 p.m. It has a steady light and a slightly yellowish tint compared with the stars.  

Clear skies!    

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:02 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

March 4, 2010

Bright pass by Int'l Space Station this evening

Space Cadets! If skies stay clear enough, we'll have a fine opportunity this (Thursday) evening to watch the International Space Station fly almost directly over Baltimore.

The ISS will be cruising up the East Coast around dinner time. We'll catch our first glimpse as it NASA ISSpasses 220 miles over Georgia, and we'll be able to watch it until it disappears in the Earth's shadow off the coast of Maine.

Look for a bright, star-like object rising above the southwest horizon at 6:53 p.m. If it has multiple lights, colored or blinking lights, it's an aircraft. Keep looking.

The ISS will climb toward the zenith, passing above the bright winter constellation Orion at about 6:56 p.m. From there, the station will fly above the twin stars of Gemini and - just below Gemini in the eastern sky, reddish Mars - before vanishing in the northeast at about 6:58 p.m.

As always, take the kids outside with you. They're great at spotting this thing. And then come back here and leave a report to share the experience.

Got the stargazing bug? Head out to the Community College of Baltimore County, this Friday evening for a Star Party being thrown by the school's Astronomy Dept. Here are the details:

"Star Party, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Observatory at CCBC, 7200 Sollers Point Road. If conditions appear cloudy, rainy or snowy, please check for cancellations by calling 410 282-3092 approximately 45 minutes before the scheduled start time.

"Visit the CCBC Web site for additional information about star parties, or call 443 840-4216." The star parties are free.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:52 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Sky Watching

February 19, 2010

Space station, shuttle in Sunday morning pass

No guarantees here, but this may be an event worth crawling out of bed for on Sunday morning.

The space shuttle Endeavour is wrapping up its business at the International Space Station today, having assisted in the installation of the station's new observation dome (NASA photo). Now the shuttle crew is preparing for undocking this evening and a landing in Florida Sunday night, weather permitting. Between now and then, the shuttle and the ISS will be flying in rather close formation, ISS observation windowaffording us a chance to see them both cross our skies, one after the other.

It's an opportunity that will soon become a bit of space history. The shuttle fleet is scheduled to be retired by fall, with just four flights left on the manifest. The sight of a shuttle and the ISS crossing the sky together will be a memory worth pursuing. You can read more about it here.

So, here's the deal: Our best chance to see the two spacecraft from Maryland will come at 5:43 a.m. on Sunday. The ISS will rise above the north northwest horizonas it crosses above the northern Great Lakes. It will look like a bright, moving star. It will climb less than halfway between the north northeast horizon and the zenith (straight up), rising to just 37 degrees at 5:45 a.m. as it flies over the northern Hudson River Valley.

From there, the space station will glide off toward the east southeast, disappearing at 5:47 a.m.International Space Station

The flyby is not one I would normally alert readers to, because of the hour, the cold and its relatively low arc across the sky. But skies are forecast to be only partly cloudy, and because of the diminishing opportunities to see the two craft together, I figured it would be worth the shot.

If you do go out to watch, allow several minutes on either end of the listed times. I'm not sure at this moment whether the shuttle will be flying ahead of the ISS or behind. (You can tell them apart because the ISS is much brighter.) But they should pass over in fairly quick succession. There has also been talk of raising the station's orbit, which also could affect the timing a bit.

Good luck. And as always, if you spot them, please drop back here and leave a comment describing the scene. I'll post them as soon as I can.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:03 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Sky Watching

January 29, 2010

Lorton meteorite falls into ownership fight

You knew this had to happen: The Lorton, Va. doctors whose office was drilled by the meteorite that fell from the sky Jan. 18 are now in a battle with their landlord over the ownership of the Lorton meteoritespace rock.

The docs donated the meteorite to the Smithsonian, and according to this morning's Washington Post, the Smithsonian gave them $5,000 as an expression of their gratitude (and recognition that the stone is worth far more on the commercial market).

But now the landlord is asserting his rights as the owner of the land where the meteor fell. He claims the rock is his, and he may have the law on his side. For now, the Lorton meteorite remains at the Smithsonian.

Four-and-a-half billion years drifting in space, and it ends in an all-too-human scrap over property and money.

(PHOTO/Sally Sennert/Smithsonian Institution)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 1:22 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Sky Watching

January 20, 2010

Monday's meteor fell on Lorton, Va. doctors' office

A Washington DC television station is reporting an apparent meteorite fall in Lorton, Va. The space rock, which has been taken to the Smithsonian Institution, crashed through the roof of a doctor's office at around 5:45 p.m. on Monday, narrowly missing patients and staff.

NOTE: An earlier version of this post erroneously referred to the office as a dental office. Although there is a dental office in the building, the doctors who found the meteorite are in a family medical practice. The Weatherblog regrets the error.

Lorton meteoriteThe reported time of the fall matches closely the time that scores of people from New Jersey to southern Virginia reported they saw a bright meteor fall, leaving a writhing smoke trail in the twilight sky. The Baltimore Sun's WeatherBlog has received more than 100 reports of the fall from observers.

The story on the Web site of WUSA9 in Washington says the mango-sized meteorite crashed through the roof and acoustical tiles of the Williamsburg Square Family Practice office in Lorton. Dr. Frank Ciampi told the station the crash was so loud he thought bookshelves had toppled.

Experts at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, interviewed by the station, confirmed the fractured meteorite was a stony "chondrite" meteorite, with a dark fusion crust formed by the heat of its passage through the atmosphere.

Professional meteorite hunter Steve Arnold says he is on his way to Virginia. "I hope to find some other pieces," he said in email to the WeatherBlog. Arnold, TV's "Meteorite Man," also took part in the apparently unsuccessful hunt for fragments of the meteor that fell somewhere along the Mason-Dixon line north of Baltimore last July 6.  That fall was accompanied by a sonic boom that startled residents in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The Smithsonian museum's Linda Welzenbach said the Lorton meteorite is believed to be only the fourth confirmed meteorite fall in Virginia's history.

UPDATE: Meteorite hunters have been using readers' comments to the WeatherBlog to calculate the entry path of the meteorite. They've been scouring the comments, especially, for descriptions of the altitude and angle of the meteor's arrival last Monday evening. Not everyone included that information in their comments. There's still time. Here's a note I received Monday, Jan. 25 from Rob Matson. You can contact him directly at :

"Hi Frank,

"I've been following the posts on your blog by witnesses to the
Lorton fireball in the hopes of finding someone, *anyone*, who
viewed the fall "from the side" as opposed to roughly inline
with it (someone that wasn't NNE or SSW of Lorton). It's a
shame that not one of the witnesses from well east or well
west of the meteor made mention of the *slope* of the meteor's
path relative to the horizon. This is a critical piece of
information as far as reconstruction of the 3D track. I was
really hoping that one of the easternmost observers (e.g.
Rehoboth Beach, DE; Ocean City, MD) would have commented
about the slope since it most definitely did not fall
vertically toward the horizon from these vantage points. Even
better would have been a single picture of the smoke trail
from one of these side-viewing vantage points. Surely in
this age when everyone has a cell phone camera, someone must
have taken such an image?

"If you have any images or even sketches of the bolide's path
(or its smoke trail taken as soon after the fall as possible),
I would love to see them. Even one such image where the path
wasn't vertical would allow a crude reconstruction of the
entry angle, aiding in the recovery of additional specimens
from the fall. - Best wishes, Rob"

This request for help was answered by several readers. Matson has since sent the following:

 Hi Frank,


Thanks very much for posting my message on your blog. As a result, I've already received one image from one of your readers (Columbia, MD vantage point) which is the most useful along-track view of the smoke trail I've seen to date, as it contains both the track and the crescent Moon. Used in conjunction with the smoke trail image taken from Silver Spring (would love to know the precise location for that image, btw), I can construct a crude 3D track solution.

But I'm still holding out hope for an image from the Chesapeake or anywhere along the DelMarVa peninsula.


Thanks again,





Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:01 PM | | Comments (39)
Categories: Sky Watching

January 19, 2010

Twilight meteor reported Monday in Maryland

UPDATE: This meteor appears to be the one that drilled through the roof of a Lorton, Va. dental office Monday evening. Read more here

The Tuesday morning mail contained the following report from a reader in Reisterstown, Md. He and his wife spotted a bright meteor to their south after sunset on Monday evening. The crescent moon and planet Jupiter were visible in the southwest.

Here's his report, including a meteor photo he says resembles what he saw. If anyone else spotted the same object, please leave us a comment and describe what you saw. Please include the time, your location, the direction you were looking, the direction of flight, the object's approximate height above the horizon (in degrees, if possible; zero degrees is on the horizon, 90 degrees is straight up) and anything else you can remember.


"Hi Frank,
"My wife and I believe we saw a fireball meteor yesterday. It was at 5:38 Monday afternoon, January 18. It was twilight and only the moon and one planet were visible in the sky, which was still blue and not yet black. For about 3 to 5 seconds, the meteor descended down in the south, looking from Reisterstown, MD towards the BWI area.
When I saw it, I said to my wife, "Look there!" And she quickly turned her head and was able to see the trail. "What was that?" she said, astonished. Usually, meteor don't last that long.
"We weren't sure if it was some space debris, a meteor or a firework. The smoke trail last about four minutes.
"I have enclosed a picture I found on the web that looks like what I saw. I too saw a brilliant bluish area that shed off secondary streams of light. Again, this is not my picture, but represents what I saw.
"There was no sonic boom as in your report from a year or two ago. Have other people seen this? - HenryJan. 18, 2010 meteor Simoni-Wastila"
Thanks, Henry. I don't think this was space debris re-entering the atmosphere. It seems to have been moving too rapidly. And while it may have appeared to be descending over BWI, the meteor was probably much higher and much farther from the observer than it seemed. So it's likely observers in Southern Maryland, Virginia and perhaps even North Carolina saw the same thing, slightly higher above the horizon.
So, if you saw this thing, drop us a comment. Thanks.
UPDATE: Here (right) is a photo of the smoke trail left by last night's meteor, used with permission from the photographer, Anthony Nugnes, of Silver Spring, Md. (I increased the contrast a bit to make the trail more clearly visible.)  He writes:
"I consulted with William E. Smith (astronomy buff) of Bowie, MD and he stated the following: 'Good shots of the trail. Looks like you've witnessed a bolide, a possible member of The Coma Berenicid meteor shower which peaks tonight. (1/18)'"
Property owners in Maryland with security cameras that face toward the west or southwest may want to check their tapes to see if they caught the fireball. If so, send the video files along and I'll post them.  Thanks.

Continue reading "Twilight meteor reported Monday in Maryland" »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 8:20 AM | | Comments (188)
Categories: Sky Watching

January 15, 2010

This morning's solar eclipse captured

Annular eclipse

I was going to say, "...caught on film," but I suspect few these days are using actual film. Anyway, there was an eclipse of the sun this morning. It was an "annular" or ring eclipse. The moon, being unusually far from the Earth at the moment, on the far end of its lopsided orbit around the Earth, appears smaller in the sky and its disk was unable to completely cover the sun's disk.

So, along the path of "totality" - from East Africa to Burma and China - it appeared as a ring of sunlight around the rim of the moon's disk.

Outside the path of totality, across a wide swath from Central Europe, to Central Asia and South Africa, it was a partial eclipse, with the moon blocking a slice of the sun.

There are lots of photos here, with more coming. 

The American Southwest will be treated to a similar annual eclipse of the sun in May 2012.

(AP PHOTO/Alexander F. Yuan/Annular eclipse from Kaifeng, Central China/1/15/2010)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:38 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

January 8, 2010

If clouds clear, a peek at the Int'l Space Station

When I stuck my head outside this morning, I spied stars overhead, and I thought we'd get lucky with an early departure of the snow clouds.

But things seem to have clouded over again at mid-day, so there's some concern that this evening's flyover by the International Space Station might be obscured.

The forecast from Sterling does leave some hope. It calls for skies to clear to only partly cloudy tonight. So, just in case, here are the particulars for tonight's pass by the ISS, in the hope some of us will get lucky, brave the cold and wind, and step outside for a look.

NASA/ISSThis will be a very bright pass for the ISS, with a forecast magnitude of -3.0. That's as bright as Jupiter at its best, so we should have no problem spotting the station from anywhere in the region, even if there is a thin veil of clouds.

Look for the contraption to appear above the southwest horizon, to the right of Jupiter, at 5:42 p.m. It will appear like a bright, moving star. If you see colored lights, flashing strobes or multiple lights it is an aircraft. Keep looking (The kids are great at this.)

It will climb into the northwest sky, pass Cygnus the Swan and the Summer Triangle, and rise almost two-thirds of the way from the horizon to the zenith (straight up) by 5:45 p.m. 

ISS is orbiting at 17,500 mph, and at its highest point will be about 250 miles from observers in Baltimore. Be sure to wave. There are five people on board at the moment, including two Russians, two Americans and a Japanese astronaut.

From there it will zip off toward the northeast, disappearing at about 5:47 p.m.

As always, if you see the flyby, stop back here, leave a comment and share the experience with readers who missed it. Good luck.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:52 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

November 18, 2009

Western "fireball" may have been small asteroid


A brilliant meteor that startled residents across parts of Idaho and northern Utah early Wednesday morning may have been a small asteroid, scientists say. It exploded in the atmosphere with a force equal to a thousand tons of TNT. reports:

"Witnesses in Colorado, Utah, Idaho and elsewhere say the fireball "turned night into day" and "shook the ground" when it exploded just after midnight Mountain Standard Time. Researchers who are analyzing infrasound recordings of the blast say the fireball was not a Leonid.  It was probably a small asteroid, now scattered in fragments across the countryside.  Efforts are underway to measure the trajectory of the asteroid and guide meteorite recovery efforts."

Security camera footage of the event shows a flash that brightened the sky so much that a street light operated by a light sensor winked out for a time before the sky grew dark again.

Here's a video from local TV.

If this was a small asteroid (or a big space rock of some sort) entering the atmosphere, it would be second one in recent weeks to make news.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 5:22 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

November 16, 2009

Forecast hopeful for Leonid meteor shower tonight

With the moon entering its "new" phase tonight, the skies should be ideally dark for viewing Tuesday morning's peak of the annual Leonid meteor shower. And the weather forecast, while not ideal, calls for partly to mostly clear skies. With cooler air moving in with a high-pressure system out of the Great Lakes, our skies should be drying out from this morning's foggy humidity. That will help clear the atmosphere for the best view of the "shooting stars." 

The Leonids occur each November when the Earth, in its annual orbit around the sun, passes through remnants of the dust trails left behind by the passage of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which passes through this area of the solar system every 33 years. Astronomers say the trails we'll be intersecting tonight were laid down by the comet in AD 1466 and 1533.

Here's more from Sky & Telescope.

Leonid meteor/Mike HankeyUPDATE: Here (left) is a meteor captured by amateur astrophotographer Mike Hankey, in northern Baltimore County, during the Leonid shower. It may be a "sporadic," rather than a Leonid. Still a nice shot, better than anything I've ever managed. Mike said:

"At the time I was focused on Procyon and shooting continuously and waiting and watching. I saw a meteor radiate directly out of [the bright star] Procyon and was like, NO WAY! But I check the camera screen and couldn't see anything. I didn't realize I caught it until this morning when I was reviewing the pics.

"It was much brighter in person, it's a little faint in the pic. Still really happy I caught it."

Here's Mike's Web site.

Earlier post resumes here:

Some Leonid showers have reached "storm" proportions, with counts of more than 1,000 per hour in some locations. This year's show, for eastern North America, is expected to produce rates of a more conventional 20-30 per hour. But any time you can spend an hour under the night sky and see 20 meteors, some with persistent trails, is a memorable night out.  

The best time to look will be in the hours before dawn - say, 3 or 4 a.m. until the dawn begins to brighten the sky.

Intrepid meteor watchers should find the darkest location they can, as far from urban light pollution as possible. Look for a place with a broad view of the sky. The shower's "radiant" is the constellation Leo - the place in the sky from which the meteors seem to emerge as the Earth plows into them. 

Leo rises in the northeast after 11 p.m. By 4 a.m. it will be high overhead, and the meteors will appear to be flying away from it in all directions. So you can look anywhere for them.

When it's over, as always, come back here, leave a comment and let everyone share the experience. Good luck!

Posted by Frank Roylance at 2:52 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Sky Watching

November 7, 2009

Heads up! Space Station flyby Sunday evening

The International Space Station is back in our evening skies, and on Sunday evening the big contraption will be flying up the East Coast and almost directly over Baltimore. (And even more directly over Ocean City.) 

The weather forecast is quite promising for this pass, and the station will appear especially bright, even in badly light-polluted urban settings. It's also a convenient early-evening pass, so sky watchers will have no excuse not to step outside with the kids and get a look at your (and their) tax dollars at play.

The only hitch is that on this pass the ISS will fly into the Earth's shadow and disappear well before reaching the northeast horizon, cutting short our view, which of course depends entirely on sunlight reflecting off the hardware.

Watch for the station as it rises above the southwest horizon at 6:14 p.m. It will appear like a bright star, hustling across the sky. If you see blinking strobes, multiple or colored lights, that's a airplane. Keep looking.

NASA ISSThe ISS will pass well above the planet Jupiter, which is now the brightest object in the southern sky. It will reach a maximum elevation of 70 degrees above the southeastern horizon at 6:17 p.m., and soon after that fade quickly away as it enters the Earth's shadow - another brief nighttime for crew aboard the station.

There are currently six crew members aboard the ISS. They include two Americans (one male, one female); two Russians; one Belgian (the first European expedition commander) and one Canadian, all male.

They are currently preparing for the scheduled arrival of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on Nov. 16. The flight, to deliver spare parts to the station, is one of the last six shuttle flights on the NASA manifest before the fleet is retired in 2010. After that, under current plans, the U.S. will have to rely on Russian vehicles to support the station and its crew. 

Note to Bucket Listers: If you have never seen a shuttle launch in person, start planning now to get down to Florida to watch one of these spectacular events before it's too late. TV images of a shuttle launch do not do the experience justice. You can't see that blinding flame, hear the crackling engines, or feel the sound in your chest.

And, with the cameras focused on the shuttle, you lose all sense of the space ship's acceleration and speed as it leaps into the air and disappears from view. You simply can't believe that people willingly ride that monster. Be there.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

November 5, 2009

See the universe ... from Dundalk

The forecast is promising for Friday evening, a good opportunity to see the stars from the Comunity College of Baltimore County's Dundalk campus.

The Department of Astronomy in the School of Mathematics and Science will have its big Celestron 14-inch CGE 1400 XLT (sounds impressive, doesn't it?) telescope set up to provide the public withNASA a close-up view of the heavens. One prominent target, I expect, will be the planet Jupiter, which is shining brightly high in the southern sky this month. Here it is in this NASA photo, with four of its moons.

This will be the first in a series of Friday evening observing sessions for the public in Dundalk this fall. Here's when and where and how:

Nov. 6, 7-9 p.m.

Nov. 20, 7-9 p.m.

Dec. 11, 7-9 p.m.

If the skies look iffy, give them a call, 45 minutes before the start of the session, at 410 282-3092 to see if it's still on.

Address: 7200 Sollers Point Road, Dundalk. Turn into CCBC Dundalk from Sollers Point Road and take the first right into the parking lot. Walk to the observatory.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:48 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

November 3, 2009

Leonid meteors are up next

Astronomers are predicting an exceptional year for the annual Leonid meteor shower, which will peak two weeks from today. The Leonids are among the best meteor displays on the astronomical calendar. November nights (with luck) can be clear and crisp, and this shower has occasionally ramped up to very high - even storm - rates.

This year's viewing, assuming the weather cooperates, will be enhanced by the total absence of moonlight; the moon will be "new" that night.

But the best hope for sky watchers is that the people who have learned to forecast these things seem to be in broad agreement that the Earth this year will be passing through the core of some heavy streams of dust left behind by the comet Tempel-Tuttle in past centuries.

Leonid meteors 1998If they're right, observers in central and eastern Asia will have the best view, with meteor rates forecast to exceed several hundred per hour as we slip through the dust left by the comet during its passes through the inner solar system in the years 1466 and 1533.

That will occur 12 to 14 hours after the best viewing time for those of us stuck here in eastern North America, according to an article on

Here, in the hours between 3:30 and 5:30 a.m. Nov. 17, the Earth will pass through a separate stream of comet dust, spread by Tempel-Tuttle during its pass through the region in the year 1567. Forecasters anticipate "modest" meteor rates of 25 to 30 per hour. Not spectacular, but a very nice display if they're right.

And if we're clouded out, we'll get another chance early on the 18th. The Leonids are typically active a few days before and after the peak on the 17th and 18th.

The best thing about these meteors, forecasters say, is that many will leave persistent trails as they streak into the atmosphere. A couple dozen of those during a morning's watch would be something to remember.

And in the meantime, if you just can't resist getting out of bed to stand around in the cold at midnight or later, the annual Taurid shower is about to begin. It peaks between the 5th and 12th of November and, while not nearly as numerous as the Leonids, the Taurids can and do produce some spectacular fireballs. 

As with all meteor showers, you'll need clear skies and a dark location far from urban lighting. And if you're successful, be sure to come back here, drop us a comment, and let everyone know where you were, and what you saw. Clear skies! 

(AP Photo/Leonid meteors, Nov. 17, 1998)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:18 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Sky Watching

October 28, 2009

NASA: Indonesian air blast probably an asteroid

NASA officials are saying Wednesday that the blast reported in the atmosphere over an Indonesian island on Oct. 8 was probably a small asteroid - about 10 meters in diameter - that detonated in the atmosphere. The force of the blast has been estimated at 50 kilotons - the equivalent of 100,000 tons of TNT.

There is You Tube video of the aftermath of the event. It shows what is described as a smoke trail left behind by the space rock's entry into the atmosphere, and some panic among the people on the ground.

Don Yeomans and other scientists with NASA's Near Earth Object program say the detonation was detected by sensors around the world - devices set up to detect low-frequency sound waves generated by atmospheric nuclear weapons testing.

"Assuming an estimated size of about 5-10 meters in diameter, we would expect a fireball event of this magnitude about once every 2 to 12 years on average. As a rule, the most common types of stony asteroids would not be expected to cause ground damage unless their diameters were about 25 meters in diameter or larger," they said.

The real question is why the Near Earth Object searches never spotted this object as it headed for our planet. 


Scientists are now tracking more than a thousand potentially threatening near-Earth asteroids. One of them passed the Earth on Oct. 17, skidding by inside the moon's orbit - less than 240,000 miles from the planet. It's size? About 35 kilometers in diameter.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 1:55 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Sky Watching

October 26, 2009

Moon and Jupiter converge in tonight's sky

We'll be battling increasing cloudiness all day today, with rain due to settle in for the next few days as a variety of low-pressure systems slop through the region.

Moon and JupiterBut if this change in the weather holds off just long enough, we may get a look at a lovely pairing of the waxing moon and the planet Jupiter this evening. The conjunction should be bright enough to seep through a hazy sky like we have this (Monday) morning.

For more, visit Sky &

UPDATE: Here's a shot of the moon and Jupiter (tiny white dot to the left of the moon) taken around 11 p.m. Monday night. (Hey, it's a point-and-shoot...)

Jupiter has been a bright presence in the evening sky for months now in the southeast and south. It is the brightest star-like object up there and impossible to miss when the weather cooperates. The moon is on its way to full on Nov. 2, moving eastward each night, closer to Jupiter's position in the southern sky in the evening.

In addition to tonight's conjunction, the moon's trek toward its full phase will provide lots of moonlight for Saturday's little tricksters and beggars - although the forecast at this five-day distance calls for mostly cloudy skies by the 31st.

Part of our wet weather in the next day or two will be influenced by another coastal low - the sort that tends to draw moisture in off the ocean and bring us damp, chilly east winds, significant rain and - when it's cold enough - snow storms. El Nino winters like the one coming up tend to produce more such storms. And that seems to be the pattern we're already seeing this fall, with several rainy spells powered at least in part by coastal lows.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:08 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

October 20, 2009

Orionid meteor shower peaks tonight

 Jefferson Teng photo

With no moonlight to interfere, this should be the best night for stargazers to get a look at the annual Orionid meteor shower. Forecasters are calling for "mostly clear" skies tonight, with calm winds and lows in the 40s.

Observers say Orionid activity has been picking up in recent days, with a strong showing in some places, and several bright fireballs. This same shower last year produced an impressive fireball seen from Elkridge. The photo above was taken early today by Jefferson Teng, in Shanghai, China. (Used with permission.) You can easily see the constellation Orion in the top center of the photo.

"I woke up early in the morning to observe the shower through my bedroom window," says Teng. "This one was quite bright considering the light pollution in Shanghai."

This shower is active from early October through early November. The meteors arrive as the Earth, making its annual trek around the sun, passes through the dusty trail of Halley's Comet, which last passed through the inner solar system in 1986. Like bugs on the windshield, the comet dust strikes the atmosphere at high speed, heating the air as the grains streak in, causing it to glow. About half will produce persistent trails.

Here is a gallery of a few of the first 2009 Orionid meteor photos. Here is the 2006 gallery.

The Orionids average around two dozen an hour under dark-sky conditions. But since 2006, observers report the shower has produced counts of up to 60 an hour. The people who calculate these things say the increased activity is occurring because the Earth happens to be passing through several old streams of Halley's dust, left behind during some of the comet's early periodic passes through this part of the solar system - specifically, during its appearances in 1266 BC, 1198 BC and 911 BC. Orionids' radiant in Orion

We passed through the same region in 2006, 2007 and 2008, with plenty of meteors, and this year is expected to be similar.

The best time to look is after the constellation Orion (Left, NASA sky map) rises in the east, around 11 p.m. But if you can manage it, the most promising hours are those before dawn. If you miss the show tonight, try again on Thursday morning. Friday looks like it will be cloudy or rainy.

The meteors will appear to emerge from Orion, but may appear anywhere in the sky, so find a dark spot with a good view in all directions. Dress for the cold. A lounge chair and a warm sleeping bag will make things a bit more pleasant.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:01 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Sky Watching

September 20, 2009

Light in the sky was Wallops rocket experiment

I know, I know. I dropped the ball. That nocticlucent cloud experiment we wrote about here early last week was postponed on Tuesday night due to bad weather. And when it finally got the green A Black Brant rocket at Wallops/NASAlight on Saturday, I was asleep at the switch, trying to have a life away from work. Mea culpa.

Anyway, the launch at around 7:45 p.m. produced the predicted artificial cloud in the the sky, which was visible from many locations on the East Coast.

Here is the CNN story, and another from Here is a Flickr post showing what the cloud looked like, although the shooter had no idea what it was.

Finally, here is some You Tube video of the actual event, shot from Eldersburg, Md. The very bright, steady light in the sky is the planet Jupiter.

(NASA photo)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 7:04 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

September 14, 2009

Wallops rocket to release artificial cloud Tues.

noctilucent clouds/NASAUPDATE: 8:00 p.m. Tonight's launch attempt was scrubbed due to bad weather. No word yet on when they will try again. Earlier post follows:

Sky watchers in the mid-Atlantic region may get a look at an odd artificial cloud Tuesday night after it's released from the fourth stage of a rocket set for launch from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore.

The cloud of aluminum particles from the rocket's exhaust is expected to provide scientists with insights into the physics of "noctilucent clouds," the highest natural clouds (around 50 miles up) that form in the Earth's atmosphere. That's a NASA photo of such clouds, above.

The experiment, called "Charged Aerosol Release Experiment" (CARE), is being conducted by the Naval Research Laboratory and the Pentagon's Space Test Program. Also involved are NASA, the University of Michigan, the Air Force Research Laboratory, Clemson, Stanford and Penn State universities, the University of Colorado and MIT.

The launch window for the experiment opens at 7:40 p.m. Tuesday, and closes at 7:57 p.m. Weather forecasters gave the launch a 60 percent chance of favorable weather. Clear skies are needed up and down the coast to provide multiple camera locations with a view of the cloud.Black Brant sounding rocket

Backup dates for the launch are each evening Sept. 16-20, but the weather is expected to deteriorate this week. The next opportunity would come next month.

The experiment is being carried by a 65-foot Black Brant 12 rocket, a sub-orbital vehicle used frequently by scientists at Wallops. The rocket is programmed to climb 180 miles above the Earth - much higher than the altitude of natural noctilucent clouds - and 98 miles down range (east) from Virginia's Eastern Shore.

Observers should watch for the cloud to be released about six minutes after launch. If skies are clear, the sinuous white cloud should become visible in the eastern sky after its release.

To follow the launch via Webcast,  For Twitter updates, go to Or call the recorded updates at 757-824-2050.

And as always, any WeatherBlog readers who see it are invited to come back here and leave comments describing the event for those who miss it.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 6:04 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

September 8, 2009

Double pass by ISS and Discovery Weds. ... maybe

If the clouds would only part for a little while Wednesday evening, Marylanders would get a rare opportunity to watch as the International Space Station and the shuttle Discovery fly over Baltimore, one right after the other.

Discovery and its crew undocked today (Tuesday) from the space station, in preparation for their return to Earth Thursday evening. In the meantime, they will be flying more or less in tandem with the station.

ISS and Discovery undockIt's not immediately clear which would pass over first. But here (below) is the information for the ISS flyby. My advice would be to step outside a few minutes earlier in case Discovery drops to a lower orbit and gets out in front of the station. Or, hang around for a few minutes afterwards and watch for Discovery to follow in the station's wake.

But the tracks should be the same. If you see both at the same time, Discovery will be the dimmer of the two. I've seen that twice. It's a kick.

Here's a photo of Tuesday night's pass, shot from Ontario, Canada, by Kevin Fetter. Discovery seems to have been out in front of the ISS.

For Baltimore Wednesday evening, the space station will rise above the western horizon at 8:05 p.m., moving swiftly toward the northeast like a bright, steady star. It will climb to about two-thirds of the way between the northwest horizon and the zenith (straight up) by 8:08 p.m., then head off toward the northeast, disappearing at about 8:12 p.m.

The Baltimore forecast, unfortunately, isn't very promising. But maybe the coastal storm will move far enough east to allow our skies to clear a bit. We have seen a few sunny breaks today.

Good luck, and come back here after the show and let others know what they missed.

(NASA Photo)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 4:47 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Sky Watching

September 5, 2009

Amaze your friends with Labor Day ISS flyby!

UPDATE, Monday Sept. 7: Obviously, the weather forecast has changed over the weekend. Our next best opportunity to see the ISS fly over Baltimore would be Wednesday, but the prospects aren't very good for that evening, either. We'll keep trying. Earlier post follows.

Expecting a crowd for a Labor Day barbecue? Or maybe you're going to someone else's place and you need a conversation-starter. Well, this will make you the life of the party. Amaze everyone by predicting and pointing out a bright flyby by the International Space Station. Here's how:

The ISS, with 13 spacefarers on board and still docked with the space shuttle Discovery, will be flying almost directly over Baltimore Monday evening. You will be looking at a record number of International Space Stationhumans in space at once - 13. Skies should be clear, so you have a pretty good shot at seeing this event no matter where you are in the area.

If you're at the beach, look a little farther west. At Deep Creek lake, it will fly almost directly overhead.

From Baltimore, look to the southwest at 8:51 p.m. Watch for a very bright, steady, star-like object rising above the horizon like a swiftly moving star. If you see multiple lights, colored lights or flashing strobes, it's an airplane. Keeping looking. (NASA photo)

The ISS, moving at 17,500 mph and 216 miles up, will climb high into the sky over Baltimore, rising to 71 degrees above the northwestern horizon at 8:54 p.m., just below the bright star Vega, part of the Summer Triangle asterism. (The other points are Altair and Deneb. See if you can find them.)

From there, the $100 billion contraption will head off toward the northeast, but watch closely.NASA/Jupiter/Cassini About a minute after reaching its highest point in the sky, at 8:55 p.m., the station will vanish, flying into the Earth's shadow. Out of direct sunlight, it can no longer reflect the direct sunlight we need to be able to see it. The shuttle Discovery is due to return to Earth on Thursday.

Here's a bonus: That bright "star" in the southeast in the evening this month isn't a star. It's the planet Jupiter (right), currently about 381 million miles away. Take a look with a good pair of binoculars. Steady them against something solid and see if you can spot any of its four Galilean moons, tiny dots of light laid out in a line on either side of the planet. That's what Galileo saw when he discovered them 400 years ago. 

That's it. Be sure to get the kids involved. No kids? Borrow the neighbors' little angels. They can usually spot the ISS before anyone else. Who knows? Maybe one of them will be inspired and become an astronomer, or an astronaut. Or a science writer!

Anyway, enjoy, and be sure to stop back here afterwards and leave a comment. Let everyone else know what they missed.

Clear skies!

Posted by Frank Roylance at 5:17 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

September 1, 2009

Space Cadets! Rise and shine with the space station

Early riser alert! Did you get up before dawn Monday morning to see the International Space Station fly nover Baltimore, only to find skies clouded over and the view impossible?

Heavens-Above.comWell, here's your second chance: The ISS, with the space shuttle Discovery attached and a total of 13 humans on board for only the second time in history, will fly almost directly over Baltimore before dawn Wednesday morning.

This will be the brightest pass for at least the next 10 days, so, provided skies are clear, it should be easy to spot from any location, even downtown Baltimore. And the forecast is promising, thanks to this cool, dry Canadian air.

The catch, of course, is that you have to be up and outside by 5:30 in the morning. 

So here's the drill: Look for the ISS to appear above the northwest horizon at 5:32 a.m., as the ISS/Discovery complex passes 217 miles over Lake Michigan. It will climb through the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia, rising nearly to the zenith (straight up) at 5:35 a.m. as it passes just north of Baltimore.

From there, the station will head off toward the southeast, past Mars and high above bright Venus rising low in the east, finally disappearing in the southeast at 5:37 a.m. as it flys over Cape May, N.J. and out over the Atlantic.

The next bright and easy-to-spot evening pass by the ISS will be next Monday evening, Sept. 7. There will be another on the 9th. Come back here for details. You can also make your own ISS flyby calculations at

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:27 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

August 16, 2009

Sky show: Crescent moon, Venus and space station

Plan to be up before dawn Monday? Maybe the dog needs walking? Or perhaps you just have an early commute, or a date with your running shoes? Well, keep your eyes open. If skies stay clear early risers will be treated to a fine show by a crescent moon, the planet Venus and a bright, early pass by the International Space Station.

All three should be visible from urban settings, IF skies are clear. Sunrise isn't until 6:21 a.m.

Here's the deal: The moon and Venus will be up above the eastern horizon by 4:30 a.m. The moon will be easy enough to spot, and Venus will be the bright "star" just below and slightly to the left of the moon.  Here's a sky map from

Then, watch for the International Space Station to emerge from the Earth's showdow and rise above the southern horizon at 5:12 a.m. It will be a very bright, steady white light, like a moving star or an aircraft (only without multiple lights or flashing strobes). It will move toward the northeast, climbing more than halfway from the southeastern horizon to the zenith (straight up) by 5:13 a.m.

The ISS will fly just above the constellation Orion, and very close to the moon and Venus before disappearing at 5:16 a.m. 

Great show, if you can get out of bed for it. If you do, drop back here and describe what you saw for all the sleepyheads. 

Posted by Frank Roylance at 6:23 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

August 11, 2009

Moon, clouds may dim Perseid meteors tonight

The annual Perseid meteor shower - one of the year's most-watched night-sky events - will be dimmed some by a 72-percent-illuminated moon tonight. When skies are clear, the shower is always worth a few hours of sky-watching on a pleasant summer night. But unfortunately, the forecast tonight is not too promising, either.

Perseid watchThe Perseids occur each summer as the Earth, making its way around the sun on its annual trek, passes through the broad dust trail left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. Although the peak of the shower occurs on the night of Aug. 11-12, the rate at which the dust particles strike the Earth's atmosphere (think of bugs smacking into your windshield) has been rising for weeks, and will take weeks to settle down again to background levels.

Astronomers say we will be slicing through a denser-than-normal patch of the dust trail tonight, with meteor rates as high as 200 per hour possible for short periods of time. But these things are notoriously fickle. Here is a gallery of some of last summer's Perseids.

Given the moonrise at around 10:30 p.m., meteor watchers would be well-advised to get outside to a dark location after sunset. The best time might be between 9 and 11 p.m. After that, we'll have to stand with our backs to the moon and take whatever we can get in the moonlight. The dimmest meteors will be washed out, but bright ones should break through.

The best time to watch, if there were no moon, would normally be in the hours before dawn Wednesday morning. 

All that's needed to spot meteors are a dark location, as far from urban lighting as you can get; a comfortable place to stretch out - a beach lounger, a blanket or sleeping bag - and a broad stretch of sky. Although the meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus, in the northeast before midnight, you should be able to spot them anywhere in the sky. Evening hours will be best for catching "Earth-grazers" as they skim across the sky at the top of the atmosphere, like stones skipping across a pond.

If clouds cancel the party, try again any night this week. Rates will be diminished, but a night out under the stars, with whatever meteors occur, is always worthwhile. Jupiter is brilliant in the southeast in late evening; the moon, Mars and Venus rise and follow the giant planet into the sky  by 3 a.m.

(SUN PHOTO/Karl Merton Ferron/August 2007)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:24 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

August 4, 2009

More video of July 6 meteor surfaces

Another sequence of what appears to be the July 6 "Mason Dixon meteor" has turned up on YouTube, and it has meteorite hunters jazzed up. It was shot from a site near Pittsburgh. Meteorite hunters may be able to use the new images, with others that have surfaced, to help pinpoint the location of any space rocks that made it to the ground. Here's a comment from Rob Matson, posted to the listserve:

"This is indeed the Pennsylvania bolide! This is definitely going to help improve the impact point prediction as the quality of the video is superb compared to the York Water video.

"The reason I know this is the same Pennsylvania bolide is that the trajectory is very close to agreeing with what my existing 3D solution looks like when you view it from Pittsburgh. Right down to the location of Jupiter (the bright object on the right side of the image).

"I'd really like to have the source video at full resolution so that I could do a detailed astrometric solution for the bolide position with time.


"Thanks to Jupiter and the star, we know exactly which way the camera was pointed, and the image scale. The question is whether someone can find out the camera location to reasonable accuracy. - Rob"

Continue reading "More video of July 6 meteor surfaces" »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 5:38 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

July 21, 2009

Space Cadets! Space station cruises Baltimore skies


The International Space Station will be making quite a few evening passes over the region during the coming week. And while most are too short or too low to the horizon for a rewarding view, two flybys will be especially bright and high in our skies.

And, it's a two-fer. You get to see the ISS, along with the shuttle Endeavour, which is docked with the station until its scheduled return to Earth on July 31.

So pick up the babies and grab the old ladies, and everyone step outside for a look at a hundred billion of your (and many other countries') tax dollars as they soar overhead. There are 13 people up there now, including the six members of the ISS crew, and seven members of the shuttle Endeavour crew. That's a record - the most people ever to fly in space at the same time, and the biggest crowd ever in orbit.

On Thursday evening, watch for the ISS/Endeavour to rise above the northeast horizon at 9:45 p.m. It will look like a very bright star, hustling briskly toward the east. When we first pick it up it will be flying about 216 miles  the Great Lakes. It will pass just "above" the North Star, rising more than halfway up the northeastern sky by 9:50 p.m. Then, it will slide off toward the east, disappearing into the Earth's shadow at 9:51 p.m.

If you miss that pass (or if skies are cloudy), you'll get a second chance on Saturday as the ISS and Endeavour make an almost identical pass, a bit earlier in the evening. Watch for them in the northwest again, appearing at 9:01 p.m. The pair will reach their highest point above the northeast horizon at 9:04 p.m., then head off toward the eastern horizon, disappearing there at 9:06 p.m.

Enjoy. (And whatever you do, don't tell my wife I'm blogging on vacation time.)

(NASA Photo)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 5:27 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

July 13, 2009

Meteor hunt isn't over yet

 Mike Hankey meteor

The search for any fragments of last Monday's fireball meteor is continuing, although not as intensely as last week. I received the following email on Saturday from Steve "Meteorite Man" Arnold:

"Hello Frank,

" A personal situation brought me back to Arkansas today. I hope to get back there very soon.

"I am still fielding reports, a good one from Lancaster, and West Philly, also a great one from NJ.

"Also, the York Water Co. had a second video (that I haven't seen, but Jeff gave me a very detailed description) that could put the end of the fireball at the south side of Lancaster. But no new videos, after all this effort.

"I actually did some door-knocking yesterday [Friday] walking into businesses with cameras facing the right way, with no luck.

"I would love to zero in on a tight area before encouraging locals to devote time looking, but the peak of interest will be coming down pretty quick, I would guess.

"But NBC's 'Meteor' 4-part mini-series starring Jason "George Castanza" Alexander starts tomorrow [Sunday] through Wednesday, and 'Meteorite Men' airs four times this next week over on Science Channel, so who knows?

"It is a bit tough as much of the interest is down your way, and the rocks, no doubt, are up in Penn.

"Hey, there is a new debate now that the still photo of [Mike] Hankey's (above) is of a jet and not the meteor. It will be interesting to see how that plays out, especially with Sky and Telescope wanting to run it. Without that data my zone probably doesn't change too much, but it makes soime of it a bit more fuzzy ...  - Steve"

And this morning, I received the following additional information from Arnold:

"A 'rocket scientist' type friend of mine was able to crunch the numbers and get them to me about 3am today.  He has taken both the Hankey photo and the YWC video and extrapolated a real tight fall zone."

For more astro photos by Mike Hankey, visit:  He's also posted a letter from Richard Kowalski, at the University of Arizona, a leading asteroid hunter who had initially expressed doubts that Mike had photographed the meteor. But he's now convinced it's the real deal.

The hunt continues ...

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:36 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Sky Watching

July 10, 2009

Meteorite Man asks blog posters' help

"Meteorite Man" Steve Arnold is still looking for those key eyewitness reports that could point him toward any remnants of the July 6 Mason-Dixon Meteor that may have survived the fall to Earth.

Arnold has read through more than 100 comments from Weather Blog readers who saw or heard the meteor, and he's singled out more than 30 that were detailed enough to suggest that just a little more information might help point him to the impact zone.

That's Arnold below on Wednesday, kneeling in front of the Water Co. security apparatus that captured video of the meteor as it fell east of York, Pa. Monday morning. (Click here to see the video.)

The camera itself is the dark gray object attached to the bottom of the silver box. The videographer at right is TV producer Bob Melisso, who is filming Arnold's search on behalf of the Science Channel program "Meteorite Men."

Here's what he's asking for. And below his note are the names of the commenters he wants to hear from.

"For those of you that saw the fireball, please reply with the following details: Meteorite Man Steve Arnold     The address (including city and zip code) where you saw it?

    What direction you were facing when seeing it?

    If you were indoors, and saw it through a window, what direction the window was facing?

    What direction the fireball appeared to be heading from your perspective?

    If you saw the fireball burn out, could you pinpoint exactly (or close to) the direction it extinguished?

    Was there a landmark between you and the fireball that helped you positively pinpoint the direction it was from you when it quit burning? 

   If you heard a sonic boom, how long was it between seeing the light and hearing the sonic boom.    What other details that are relevant."

Please send the details directly to Steve at 

The WeatherBlog commenters he'd like to hear from are:

Siobhan, in West Chester, Pa.; M Gaines, in Lancaster, Pa.; Matt B, in Bel Air; Melissa Tillery, who was driving on I-70 near Hagerstown; Sam Luther, who was camping near Delta, Pa.; John, in rural northwest Harford, Co.; Diane, in Port Deposit; Chuck and Nikki, in Port Deposit;

Raquel, in Bergen County, N.J.; Nicole Green, in Pikesville; Myranda Warfield, in Jefferson; Mike and Julie, in Forest Hill; DJ, in Bel Air; Kimberly, in Forest Hill; DCD, in Littlestown, Pa.; Lisa Ewing, in Port Deposit; Karen Haney, in Hickory, north of Bel Air; Jenny Gresock, in Seven Valleys, Pa.;

Frank Memmo, in Churchville; Ashley Simpson, in Arnold; Chris, in Conowingo area of Cecil County; Kristen B., in Forest Hill; Dale, in Forest Hill; Tom D., who was southbound on I-83 in York, Pa.; Matt Bureau, in Greensburg, Pa.; Timothy Jones, in Philadelphia;

Chelsea, in Forest Hill; Terry, in Earlesville; Sue, in White Marsh; and HC, who was southbound on I-83 near Glen Rock, Pa.

Thanks. We'll keep you posted on any progress in the meteorite hunt.

And while we're on the topic, NBC on Sunday night will air yet another movie about a meteor headed for the Earth, and beautiful scientists racing to save the planet. It's called, "Meteor," of all things, and it starts at 9 p.m. on WBAL Channel 11 in Baltimore.

Jason Alexander ("Seinfeld's" George Castanza) is among the cast.

Come back here after it's over and let's see how many scientific errors we can list.

(SUN PHOTO By Frank D. Roylance)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:31 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

July 7, 2009

Four evenings beneath the Int'l Space Station

 NASA ISS Cupola

There is always a chance that clouds and storms will interfere. But if we get lucky, there should be plenty of opportunity to spot the International Space Station this week as it passes over the mid-Atlantic states.

The long hours of northern daylight at this time of year are keeping the station in direct sunlight later into the evening, and earlier in the morning, so there are actually more than 20 flybys that observers in the Baltimore area could catch in the next nine days if they were so inclined. But many are in the wee hours of the morning, and other passes are low to the horizon and harder to see.

In this post I'll highlight just four passes, all of them very bright, evening opportunities at least halfway up the sky from the horizon. Here goes:

Tuesday evening, July 7: Look for the ISS as it rises above the southwestern horizon at 9:32 p.m. EDT. It will pass through the Summer Triangle, climbing to 43 degrees above the southeastern horizon by 9:35 p.m. From there it will cruise off toward the northeast, disappearing at about 9:38 p.m. UPDATE: Good pass, very bright, no clouds. The unmanned Russian Progress supply ship trailed the ISS by about 15 seconds.

Wednesday evening, July 8: On this pass, too, the ISS will rise from the southwest at 9:57 p.m., passing just above Saturn. Then it will travel through the stars of the Big Dipper, about 48 degrees above the northwestern horizon at 9:59 p.m. From there it will head off toward the northeast as it flies over New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces and disappears at about 10:02 p.m.

Thursday evening, July 9:  This pass will begin in the southwest at 8:46 p.m. EDT. The ISS will appear like a bright, moving star, rising 46 degrees above the southeast horizon at 8:49 p.m. From there it will fly off toward the northeast and vanish at 8:52 p.m.

Friday evening, July 10: Watch for the space station to rise out of the western sky at 9:10 p.m. EDT, passing just below Saturn this time, then climbing to 46 degrees (halfway up) from the northwestern horizon. It will pass along the bottom edge of the Dipper stars at 9:13 p.m. before moving off toward the mortheast, where it will fade away at 9:16 p.m.

As always, come back here and let us know how you did. Take the kids out to watch. One of them might decide to become an astronaut. Or a science writer. 

The image above, by the way, is the expected view through the ISS Cupola that astronauts will carry to the station and install sometime next year. 

Posted by Frank Roylance at 3:05 PM | | Comments (15)
Categories: Sky Watching

Wallops to test crew escape system Wednesday A.M.

There's an interesting launch planned for early Wednesday at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, down on Virginia's Eastern Shore. It's not one that will be visible for hundreds of miles around, but it does mark an important milestone for manned space flight. The weather forecast is promising.

At 6:15 a.m. EDT, NASA will attempt to launch its Max Launch Abort System, a rocket-propelled mechanism that's designed to pull astronauts and their crew capsule away from their boosters in the event of a failure at, or near, the launch pad. If there's a delay, the launch window is open until 10 a.m.

UPDATE: Launch (photo) was successful. Anyone see it?

The idea recalls the tall escape towers that topped the old Mercury and Apollo capsules. They were essentially small rocket engines designed to yank the crew capsule to safety and provide time for its parachutes to deploy and lower the crew safely to the ocean.MLAS launch NASA

If the space shuttle had had a similar system, the Challenger crew might have made it to safety as their booster rockets and liquid fuel tanks blew up after launch in 1986.

The MLAS system is being developed for possible use with NASA's planned Orion spacecraft, the Apollo-like capsule that will carry astronauts to the International Space Station by 2015, and on to the moon in 2020, if all goes according to plan.

Anyway, the launch from Wallops Wednesday morning will be a short one - two minutes. The MLAS rocket is expected to carry a simulated Orion capsule no more than a mile into the sky, and a mile out to sea. But it would sure be something nifty to watch if you happen to be nearby.

The test vehicle is 33 feet tall and the whole system weighs 45,000 pounds. The weather forecast for the area is good.

For more information, visit the Wallops Web site. Their launches can be followed on Twitter @NASA_Wallops.


Posted by Frank Roylance at 2:09 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

July 5, 2009

Space Station flyover Monday night

Space Cadets! There will be an unusually nice opportunity Monday evening to watch the International Space Station fly by on its way from the Louisiana coast to the Canadian International Space StationMaritime provinces.

If skies are clear, we'll pick it up at 10:43 p.m. EDT, rising out of the southwest as it passes over northern Alabama. Look for a bright, star-like object hustling toward the northeast, rising about halfway up the northwestern sky by 10:46 p.m. At that moment, it will be somewhere over central Pennsylvania, about 280 miles from viewers in Baltimore, moving northeast at 17,500 mph.

From there it will pass through the handle of the Big Dipper and race off toward the northeast, disappearing from view at 10:49 p.m. as it flies over New Brunswick, Canada.

Sure, it's a bit late. But hey, it's summer. Take the kids outside with you and let them try to be the first to spot the station. That's their money up there, too. Here's more on what they're doing up there.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 7:01 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

June 19, 2009

Space station flyover early Sunday

International Space StationI was going to use this item for the P. 2 print weather page comments on Saturday morning, but I don't trust the skies to be clear. Besides, the summer solstice arrives Sunday morning, so I used that instead.

So here is a skywatching opportunity for our online readers, on the off-chance anyone is out of bed before dawn and finds the skies full of stars:

Sleepless in Baltimore? Rise and shine before 5 a.m. Sunday and, if skies are clear, watch a very bright, very high pass by the International Space Station. Watch for it at 4:50 a.m. climbing out of the southwest, as bright as Jupiter (nearby, in the south). The station will be high overhead at 4:52 a.m., then zoom off toward moonrise in the northeast. Venus is brilliant, low in the east.

There are currently six crew members on board the station. They're orbiting at 17,500 mph, currently at an altitude of about 216 miles and sinking. The next shuttle mission, when it finally gets off the ground (July?), will carry seven astronauts to the station, temporarily placing 13 people in orbit at the same time, a new record.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 3:52 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

May 28, 2009

Same space station, twice the crew

When the International Space station flies over Baltimore Friday night, it may look the same to us as it did on Wednesday evening, but there will be twice as many eyeballs looking back down at NASA/Soyuz docks with ISS 2002us. Sometime around 8:30 a.m. Friday, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft (like the one at left), launched Wednesday, will dock with the station and unload the next three crew members to man the orbiting outpost. That will make six people on board.

NASA hopes the larger crew will enable additional scientific research aboard the station. With just three aboard, they spent most of their time just keeping the place going.   

If skies clear in time, the flyover will be almost as bright as Wednesday's pass, which was probably the brightest I've ever seen it in years of observations. The trajectory will be nearly the same as Wednesday's.

Watch for the ISS to appear above the northwest horizon at 8:37 p.m. EDT as it passes over Lake Michigan.

From there it will climb above the crescent moon and Saturn, lower in the southwest, rising nearly to the zenith (straight up) at 8:40 p.m. From there - high over Washington DC - it will slide off toward the southeast, disappearing far out over the Atlantic at 8:44 p.m.

If you see it, stop back here and leave us a comment.  

Posted by Frank Roylance at 8:43 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

May 27, 2009

Bright pass by space station tonight


If our skies stay clear this evening we may get a good look at the International Space Station as it flies directly over Baltimore en route from high over Lake Michigan to the Delmarva Peninsula and out to sea.

Look for a bright, star-like object to appear above the northwest horizon at 9:21 p.m. EDT. It will be moving briskly toward the southeast at an orbital speed of 17,500 mph. It will slip just beneath the cup of the Big dipper and pass almost exactly through the zenith (217 miles straight up) at 9:24 p.m. From there it will move southeastward, disappearing at 9:26 as it enters the Earth's shadow.

This is a very bright pass, so the ISS should be easily visible from urban locations, and even through thin clouds. Take the kids. If you see it, drop back here and leave us a comment.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 5:36 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Sky Watching

May 20, 2009

Minotaur rocket launches ... finally

Orbital Sciences Corp. finally got its Minotaur 1 rocket (below, left) off the ground at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility yesterday evening. It carried an Air Force TacSat-3 technology satellite, a NASA biotech satellite and three other "birds" to orbit. It was only the third successful launch to orbit ever from the Eastern Shore.

Here's the YouTube video from the launch site.

NASA/WallopsAs advertised, the launch - 20 minutes late at 7:55 p.m. EDT - was visible from Baltimore, as well as Fall River, Mass. and many other locations from the mid-Atlantic states to New England.

The word is the satellites made it to orbit and were in contact with their creators.

But the rocket wasn't all that easy to spot from 115 miles away. My daughter and I posted outselves at the foot of Bond Street in Fells Point. When we saw nothing at the scheduled launch time of 7:35, we called home, got a Web check, and learned the liftoff was delayed to 7:55. When that time arrived, we scanned the southeast horizon. I got nothing, but very soon my daughter spotted the rocket's flame rising above Tide Point. When the long, thin, white contrail appeared, I finally picked it up. And, with binoculars, I followed the Minotaur much higher above the horizon than I expected - maybe 45 degrees - before I lost it.

If they had delayed liftoff until 9 or 10 p.m., and skies at the surface had been darker, I think we would have seen more. But we've had quite a few comments from readers saying they saw the launch just fine and got a kick out of it.

Matt Schroeder/Mt. Airy

Above is an image sent to me by Matt Schroeder, who photographed the launch from Mt. Airy. Here's what he had to say:

"Frank: My friend Ben called me around 7:50 p.m. tonight to tell me a rocket was about to be launched from Wallops Flight Facility.  My son Jacob (age 5) and I ran outside and looked to the southeast.  We live about 7 miles north of Mount Airy, Maryland.  Amazingly we saw the rocket as it sped into the sky!  Jacob thought that was pretty cool (and so did I) ...  After taking the picture I also noticed a small plane in the upper right side of the image. - Best regards, Matt Schroeder"


His shot is better than the ones I got with my point-and-shoot from downtown Baltimore (below). You can just barely make out the white smoke trail rising through the brown smog at the bottom-center of my image.

SUN PHOTO/Frank Roylance


Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:24 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

May 19, 2009

Virginia rocket launch "GO" for tonight

The U.S. Air Force will try again this evening to launch its TacSat-3 satellite from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Weather conditions are expected to be favorable, with only a 10 percent chance that bad weather would stop the countdown.

UPDATE 4 p.m.: Weather is now 100 percent GO for launch.

Two attempts to launch the satellite earlier this month were stopped by bad weather. A third attempt ended 2 minutes before liftoff because of a technical problem. The only "issue" controllers were watching was a potential conflict in the use of the launch range. Not clear whether that's still an issue this morning. 

NASA/WallopsThis week's clear weather will make this a terrific opportunity for Marylanders to see the launch from wherever they are. The high-pressure system that moved in late yesterday has cleared the skies, providing ideal conditions for long-distance observation of the launch. It could be visible for hundreds of miles, from the Carolinas to southern New England, and as far west as eastern Kentucky.

The launch window at Wallops opens at 7:35 p.m. and lasts until 11:30 p.m. All we will need here in Baltimore is an unobstructed view toward the southeast. If the launch comes early enough in the launch window - even well after sunset - the sun should illuminate the rocket's smoke trail quite nicely. Later on, we may only get a view of the 69-foot Minotaur's fiery plume as it rises toward orbit.

Here's a delightful YouTube video of a Minotaur launch in California in 2006. It gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect. And here's Joe Rao's blog from the Hayden Planetarium on the first attempt on May 5. It includes a picture of a previous Minotaur launch that also gives you an idea of what to look for.

If successful, this launch will be only the third satellite to be sent into orbit from Wallops - both atop Minotaurs. The first was in December 2006, in a launch that was clearly visible from Baltimore. The second was in April 2007, but clouds obscured the view from here. An earlier attempt, in October 1995, ended in a spectacular failure as the Conestoga rocket went awry and had to be destroyed high over the Virginia beaches.

The Minotaur rocket was assembled by Orbital Science Corp. The lower two stages come from a decommissioned Minuteman ballistic missile. The upper two stages include motors from Orbital's Taurus and Pegasus rockets.

Continue reading "Virginia rocket launch "GO" for tonight " »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:42 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Sky Watching

May 12, 2009

Space station flyby tonight

Skies should be clear tonight, so Marylanders who are willing to step outside for a few minutes  just after 9 p.m. will have a fine view of the International Space Station as it flies from high over northern Mississippi to Maine.

Because the space shuttle Atlantis, launched yesterday, is headed for the Hubble Space Telescope this time, and not the space station, we will not be treated to a two-fer. But while the shuttle is NASAnot visible this week from Maryland, the space station will be making a very bright pass that should be visible to anyone - even in city lights - who can find an unobstructed view of the northwestern sky.

The ISS will be following nearly the same track it flew on Sunday evening. It will first become visible at 9:13 p.m. EDT, low in the western sky, just below Castor and Pollux, the twin stars in Gemini. From there, it will sweep across the northwestern sky like a steady, white, moving star. It should be the brightest object in that part of the heavens. It will rise more than halfway to the zenith (straight up), passing below the cup of the Big Dipper at about 9:16 before heading off toward the northeast, slipping close by Polaris, the North Star, and then disappearing at 9:18 p.m. EDT

The ISS currently has three crew members on board. That's Koichi Wakata, flight engineer, of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, in the photo. Now that the station has its full complement of solar panels, there are plans to increase the crew soon to six people. Construction is scheduled to continue into 2010, until the space shuttle fleet is retired.

Until then we can marvel as the huge contraption soars silently across the sky at 17,500 mph, reflecting the sun's light and reminding us where billions and billions of our tax dollars have gone.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:22 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Sky Watching

May 8, 2009

Rocket launch from Virginia scrubs a third time

This time the countdown got to within 2 minutes and 15 seconds of liftoff, but a low-voltage reading from somewhere inside the Minotaur 1 rocket or its payload last night aborted the count at about 10:43 p.m. It was the third time this week attempts to send five small satellites into orbit from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia fell short. The first two attempts were halted by bad weather.

Launch managers decided not to try a fourth time Saturday evening. The tracking facilities at Wallops will now be transitioned to assist with the planned launch of the space shuttle Atlantis from Cape Canaveral in Florida. That launch is planned for 2 p.m. Monday. The Atlantis crew is headed for the Hubble Space Telescope for a week of repairs and upgrades.

The Minotaur 1 launch, if successful, would be only the third flight to orbit from the NASA launch center on Virginia's Eastern Shore. The payload includes an Air Force TacSat-3 technology experiment, a NASA biological experiment and three "pico-satellites" built by university and commercial owners.

If skies are clear, the Minotaur launches from Virginia can be seen for hundreds of miles.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:09 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

Weather promising for Va. launch to orbit Friday

The latest weather briefing this afternoon projects an 85 percent chance the Air Force will be able to launch its TacSat-3 satellite atop a Minotaur rocket tonight. The launch window is currently set to open at 7:35 p.m. 

UPDATE 6:35 p.m.: One hour to go and everything looks fine for launch at 7:35 p.m. Range control personnel are shooing boaters from the area. No one wants rocket parts to fall on people if things go badly.

UPDATE 6:50 p.m. : Count is holding at T-45 minutes. Some sort of problem with launch support equipment.

UPDATE 8:40 p.m.: Count is still holding while troubleshooters work on a power supply problem at the pad. If the count resumes, it would take the launch to the end of the window at 11 p.m.   Thunderstorms and severe weather are due at the pad by 1 a.m. 

UPDATE 9:40 p.m.: New launch time is 10:40 p.m. The clock is running again.

UPDATE: 10:35 p.m.: T-10 minutes and counting. Cloud cover will be a problem for many of us.

UPDATE:  10:55 p.m.:  Launch scrubbed again, this time for a technical problem just 2 minutes 13 seconds before liftoff. Wallops has ruled out a fourth attempt on Saturday evening. Next try will come after the Atlantis shuttle mission to Hubble Space Telescope, preparing to launch Monday

NASA/WallopsBut while there are no storms threatening the launch at the moment, there are plenty of clouds around to spoil the view from Baltimore. Here's the radar loop.

Things may thin out some before the rocket takes to the air, so it's definitely worth watching for. But there are no guarantees. Look toward the southeast, low on the horizon.

The best place to be is clearly down on the Eastern Shore, in OC or Chincoteague.

Once again, you can follow the countdown via the NASA Wallops Webcast. But remember that it typically runs at least 15 seconds behind the actual events, so be sure to start watching for the launch a minute or so before the Web countdown reaches zero.

You can also folow the events via Twitter, at

If you see the launch, please come back here and leave us a comment. Tell us where you were and what you saw. Thanks!

QUERY: Anyone having trouble getting on Twitter?

Posted by Frank Roylance at 5:50 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

Storms again threaten Minotaur launch

More showers and thunderstorms are forecast for the Eastern Shore Friday and Saturday nights, which will be the last opportunities for what could be weeks for the launch of a 69-foot Minotaur rocket from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility.

NASAThe launch, only the fourth attempt to put satellites in orbit from Virginia, could be visible for hundreds of miles if skies are clear. Two attempts this week have been scrubbed due to bad weather.

UPDATE at 4 p.m.: Launch window will open early, at 7:35 p.m., in an effort to get the rocket off before bad weather moves in. There is a 50 percent chance of another scrub. Earlier post resumes below.

If the rocket doesn't get off during tonight's 8-11 p.m. launch window, the launch team will regroup for another attempt on Saturday night. After that, NASA will need to reconfigure the facility to support Monday's planned launch of the space shuttle Atlantis from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Atlantis and its crew of seven astronauts are headed for an 11-day mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope.

Keith Koehler, spokesman for Wallops, said that once Atlantis has landed, the Wallops tracking station will be needed again to support another Florida launch. He wasn't sure which that was. The only one I could find that's coming up on the NASA launch schedule in Florida is the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observing and Sensing Satellite, set for a tandem launch on June 2. The two spacecraft are being sent to the moon to scout potential landing sites, and search for water near the north and south lunar poles.

There's another shuttle launch - Endeavour - scheduled for June 13.  How Wallops will slip the Minotaur 1 and its Air Force TacSat-3 satellite into the mix will depend on when Atlantis actually launches and when it returns. 

Our forecast for the next two nights looks about the same as last night's. Ditto for the Virginia Shore. That means a threat of showers and thunderstorms as solar heating stirs up all this humidity and kicks off convection. Bad weather has already scrubbed two Minotaur launch attempts on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Last night, the launch pad had to be cleared because of nearby lightning. And heavy rains swept the rocket as it stood on the pad just before the game was called at around 10 p.m.

Continue reading "Storms again threaten Minotaur launch " »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:50 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

May 7, 2009

Tonight's Minotaur launch weather improving

A weather briefing at T-minus 3 hours and counting finds the forecast for tonight's planned Minotaur 1 launch from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility is improving. Meteorologists now predict a 70 percent chance of good weather as the three-hour launch window opens at 8 p.m. down on the Virginia Eastern Shore.

The only potential show-stopper they see are some storm cells drifting their way from the DC area this afternoon. The storms could spoil the launch, or they could weaken and dissipate as another one did this afternoon. Here's the radar loop.

The view from Baltimore still looks pretty cloudy. We may well have too much cloud between us and Wallops to see this shot. But it's sure worth a look this evening. The rocket plume would be bright enough to shine through thin clouds. But these big cumulus heaps? Maybe not.

You can follow the countdown via Twitter and a NASA Webcast. Details in the previous post. Remember, these Webcasts are delayed as they find their way to your computer, so the online countdown lags behind the real thing by 15 seconds or more. Get outside and start looking a minute or two before the Web countdown gets to zero, at least.

By my watch - which is linked by radio to the NIST atomic clock in Colorado (such a geek) - the Wallops Webcast is currently running 16 seconds behind the true time.

Here's how the cloud cover looked from orbit this afternoon.



Posted by Frank Roylance at 5:08 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

May 5, 2009

Clouds may spoil view of Wallops launch

The U.S. Air Force plans to launch a new satellite tonight from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore. If skies were clear, the evening launch of the Minotaur 1 rocket would be visible for hundreds of miles. I watched one in December 2006 from the front room of my house in Cockeysville.

NASA/USAFBut alas, the clouds that have socked us in here for 40 days and 40 nights also threaten to obscure our view of the launch.

UPDATE: Chance for a weather delay Tuesday put at 85 percent.

UPDATE 9 p.m. Tuesday: Launch has been postponed due to bad weather at Walops. No immediate word on when the next attempt will be made. 

UPDATE Weds. 7:45 a.m.: Latest from Wallops:  The next attempt will be Thursday, May 7. Launch window 8 - 11 p.m. Earlier post resumes below...

With some luck, the clouds will be thick enough to delay the launch itself, perhaps to a date when skies have cleared. One can only hope. Here's how a recent Minotaur launch from California looked to a man and his son. A sweet moment neither will ever forget. 

I spoke this morning with Wallops spokesman Keith Koehler. He says the launch criteria call for a cloud ceiling of at least 5,000 feet, or 3,000 feet if the clouds are thin, "so folks can still see the burn." If something goes wrong, the launch team needs to have a photographic record of it.

There will be a new weather briefing at noon Tuesday. Yesterday's forecast put the chances for meeting launch weather criteria at 50 percent.

For now, the launch is set for sometime between 8 and 11 p.m. The Minotaur 1 rocket will carry the Air Force Research Laboratory's Tac-Sat 3 satellite, and four others, including several university research satellites. For more on the payload, click here.

You can check the status of the launch on the Wallops Information phone line: 757 824-2050.

You can also get status Tweets from

For the launch Webcast, go to

If you decide to drive down to Wallops for the launch, the Visitor's Center will be open. And once you're in range, you can pick up the launch broadcast on your car radio at 760 AM on your dial.

Finally, if a miracle occurs, and skies clear, you can track the countdown on the Webcast, and NASA/Wallopswatch for the liftoff low in the southeastern sky (as seen from Baltimore).  But remember to start looking a minute or so before the Web countdown gets to zero. The Webcast is delayed, something I discovered while watching for the rocket back in 2006.

By the time I finally looked out the window at the daytime launch, the Minotaur was already climbing toward orbit. It looked like a rising vertical jet contrail - topped by a bright light - that was quickly being twisted and contorted in the winds aloft. 

This is actually the third Air Force Minotaur launch from Wallops, which hopes to become a busier location for orbital flights. The first was the 2006 launch I watched. There was a second in April 2007, but long-distance observers were foiled by clouds.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:23 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

April 24, 2009

Sky show after sunset Sunday

If skies remain clear across Maryland, as they should, we may be able to catch an unusual gathering of celestial objects in the western sky after sunset on Sunday.

UPDATE: Here's a gorgeous shot of this event.

Sun Photo/Karl Merton FerronThe first of the crowd to appear will be a slender crescent moon, just above the western horizon about 45 minutes after sunset. Sunset for Baltimore on Sunday will be at 7:55 p.m. The moon will be barely 24 hours past "new," and just about as slim a sliver of moon as you will ever see.

Next, as the dusk continues to deepen, just below the moon, you should be able to see a tiny "star" pop into view. Binoculars will help while the sky remains fairly bright. It's not actually a star, but the always-elusive planet Mercury, which is about as far to the east of the sun this month as it gets, and therefore easiest to spot.

Now, as the darkness gathers, and the moon and Mercury sink closer to the horizon, watch immediately below the moon for a delicate cluster of stars called the Pleiades to appear. This star cluster is called Subaru by the Japanese. It's also known as the Seven Sisters because it appears to the unaided eye to contain seven stars in a close grouping. With binoculars, many more appear. In a small telescope, there are hundreds. They're all in a tight bunch, fairly close by astronomical standards - about 415 light years away. (One light year - the distance light travels in a year - is about 5.9 trillion miles.) 

The moon, by comparison, will be a mere 228,000 miles away on Sunday, while Mercury currently stands about 82.7 million miles from Earth. Here's the sky map, from NASA.


Posted by Frank Roylance at 4:40 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

April 21, 2009

Bad luck on Lyrid meteors, Venus occultation

Sun Photo/Karl Merton Ferron

Tomorrow morning could have been a triple jackpot for stargazers in Maryland - a nice, spring meteor shower, a rare close encounter of Venus and the crescent moon, and a nice flyby by the International Space Station - all in the hours before dawn. But, alas, bad luck in the form of clouds are conspiring to spoil the view.

The annual Lyrid meteor shower occurs as the Earth plows through the dusty trail of the comet Thatcher. As the sand-grain-sized bits of comet dust strike the atmosphere, they heat up the air around them and create fleeting trails of light across the sky.

NASAThe Lyrid meteors appear to emerge from the constellation Lyra, the lyre, because that's the direction toward which the Earth appears to be moving at this time of year. It's like snowflakes in the headlights. If the forecast were for clear skies, we could all gather in some dark place far from city lights, in the hours before dawn, and watch 10 to 20 meteors per hour - with higher rates possible if we got really lucky. 

But forecasters are calling for showers before 3 a.m., and mostly cloudy skies and a chance for more showers Wednesday morning.

The other attraction before the dawn on Wednesday was to be a close conjunction of the planet Venus and the waning crescent moon, low in the eastern sky around 5 a.m. For observers in the western U.S., the moon will actually pass in front of Venus, eclipsing its light for more than an hour. It's called an occultation. Here's a video of a recent one. For Marylanders, it is only a very close encounter, probably best observed with binoculars.

But given the forecast, the most practical equipment may be an umbrella. 

Finally, the International Space Station, appearing daily in the morning sky this week, will make a very bright pass just north and west of Baltimore on Wednesday morning. If skies were to clear in time, you could look for the ISS to appear above the western horizon at 5:32 a.m., rising like a bright, steady star to more than halfway up the northwestern sky by 5:35 a.m. before slipping off to the northeast and disappearing at 5:38 a.m.

All this information is for the optimists who may be willing to rise and shine and give it a go. For the rest, sleep tight.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:49 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

March 30, 2009

Virginia fireball was not Russian booster rocket

There has been plenty of debate today about the nature of the fireball spotted around 9:40 p.m. Sunday in the southern sky (as seen from Maryland). But I'm now convinced that it was a natural meteor, and not space debris.

Geoff Chester, spokesman for the U.S. Naval Observatory got out in front early on this story, saying he was "99.44 percent" sure the object was a Russian rocket booster, falling to Earth after the launch of the Russian Soyuz space capsule en route to the International Space Station.

I don't think so. Man-made space debris is traveling at orbital velocities, and re-enters the atmosphere at a fairly slow speed compared with meteors. We all remember the painful video images of the space shuttle Columbia breaking up on re-entry in 2003, with the loss of its crew. It is very slow compared with meteor entries.

Eyewitness descriptions of Sunday night's event said they watched this object for only a few seconds before it vanished. Here's a eyewitness comment we received this morning:

"I live along the coast on the Eastern Shore of MD. I too saw this amazing fireball. From my vantage point the bright orange ball of fire just suddenly appeared at approximately 9:40 PM. It was definitely larger than a refrigerator, as reported. It fell downward and slightly east then seemed to burn out. It only lasted about 5 seconds; however, this was the most spectacular site I have ever seen!  - Jill Schline"

Dear Frank,

The object was 2009-015B / 34670, the SL-4 rocket body from the recent Soyuz-TMA 14 launch to ISS. Geoff Chester of the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. expressed certainty that its decay is what was seen last night, but he is mistaken:

The U.S. Strategic Command's final report on this decay, predicted decay over 24 N, 125 E, [near Taiwan] on 2009 Mar 30, within 1 minute of 03:57 UTC (11:57 PM EDT).

It did pass within sight of the Virginia and Maryland Sunday night, but at about 9:26 PM EDT, about 2.5 hours before decay. It was 137 km high, but that is far too high to have begun burning. Burning begins a little below 100 km. The object was in Earth's shadow, so it was invisible, because it was not burning yet.

But clearly it was a meteor, based on its high angular velocity.

I observed a satellite decay five years ago, and the object took about 90 seconds to cross from a point low above the SW horizon to a point low in the SE.

That is much faster than a normal satellite, but nowhere near as fast a meteor, which could traverse the same angle in about one tenth the time.

Best regards,

Ted Molczan


Continue reading "Virginia fireball was not Russian booster rocket" »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 4:38 PM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Sky Watching

Booming fireball rattles lower Chesapeake

Residents of Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina were startled Sunday night by what appears to have been a sizable meteor, complete with bright flashes and a sonic boom, at about 9:40 p.m.

That explanation is not official, but from the descriptions finding their way onto the Internet, that sounds like a likely explanation. Here is more on the fireball phenomenon. This log of sightings reported to the American Meteor Society will give you an idea of how common they are.

Here are more eyewitness reports.

The WeatherBlog would welcome any comments, photos or video from readers who witnessed last night's event. Be sure to tell us where you were, what direction you were looking, the time, and what you saw or heard. Here's a gallery of Leonid meteors from 2001

Here's a description of Sunday's event from Bryan Bonner, of Carroll County, passed along to me this morning:

"Saw a huge fireball at 940 pm sunday night in south souteast sky. It started at 45 degrees and descended straight down, tail covered entire path. Began white hot and went through the color spectrum before disappearing just above the horizon. It seems like it was too big to have burned up completely. I`ve lived in carroll all my life and have seen many a falling star as it were, but never anything like this."

And here is a FAQ page on the pheneomenon of meteoric fireballs.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:35 AM | | Comments (21)
Categories: Sky Watching

March 27, 2009

Scariest shuttle re-entry you never read about

The space shuttle Discovery is set to return to Earth Saturday with a clean bill of health on its heat-deflecting tiles. NASA has been ultra-careful about inspecting the heat tiles after reaching orbit so as to avoid a repeat of the Columbia accident in 2003 that cost the lives of seven astronauts. Columbia's wings were damaged by a fragment of insulation during launch, and the spacecraft was destroyed during re-entry.

NASA/STS-27 at launchNASA has not always been that careful. A 1988 flight of the shuttle Atlantis - the second mission after the Challenger disaster - nearly ended in disaster after 700 of the heat tiles were damaged during launch (left). One was kocked out entirely.

The crew spotted it, but were unable to communicate their worry - fear - to mission control in Houston because of restrictions imposed by the Department of Defense. They were flying a classified spy satellite mission and were barred from sending clear photos of the damage.

The crew knew it looked bad - likely fatal. But the guys on the ground couldn't see it. They gave the crew a green light to come home.

So the crew crossed their fingers and headed home. They made it, by a whisker. Everybody was astonished by the damage they found after landing. If they had burned up on re-entry just two flights after Challenger, it likely would have ended the shuttle program.

It's a helluva yarn, told by CBS's Bill Harwood, and posted online by

Posted by Frank Roylance at 6:29 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

March 19, 2009

Maryland astronaut Ricky Arnold starts spacewalk

Ricky Arnold, the Maryland-born-and-raised former middle-and high-school teacher has begun his first spacewalk. Launched into space aboard the shuttle Discovery earlier this week, Arnold is busy NASAthis afternoon attaching the final truss segment on the International Space Station. Later, he and astronaut Steve Swanson will install the fourth and final pair of ISS solar panels on the truss.

Right out of the hatch, Arnold marveled at his view of the moon high overhead, but he went quickly to work.

You can watch the spacewalk live on NASA TV. Click here.

As they worked, the ISS passed over Europe not long after sunset there. Satellite observer Leo Barhorst watched it fly over Holland. Here's his report, from the SeeSat discussion group:

"Just saw ISS and the shuttle making a beautifull pass.

"It passed above Sirius (alpha CMA) and was just a bright, but more yellower.

"When it moved to the east ISS became brighter and was brighter than Venus shining low in the west.

"Before it would disappear behind houses ISS entered shadow."

UPDATE: 6:30 p.m. The truss is installed and the new solar arrays have begun to unfurl. Mission accomplished. 

Posted by Frank Roylance at 2:06 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

March 16, 2009

Forecast improving for space station flyby Tuesday

Our skies will be clearing off by Tuesday evening - just in time for Marylanders to get a fine view of the International Space Station as it flies high over Baltimore. The flyby begins at 7:39 p.m. EDT, only about two hours after the shuttle Discovery is scheduled to pull up alongside the ISS and dock. NASA

UPDATE: Tuesday 5 p.m. Here's a picture of the pair just before they docked, snapped from Holland.

The Discovery crew of seven includes Maryland native and former Waldorf science teacher Richard Arnold (right). There are three crew members aboard the ISS, for a total of 10 humans zipping up the Eastern seaboard, passing 220 miles over Baltimore at a speed of 17,500 mph. Imagine Arnold's two daughters looking up and seeing Dad soaring over like a star!

Look for the ISS and Discovery to appear above the southwest horizon at 7:39 p.m., like a bright, moving star, rivaling Venus in its brilliance. It will be barely 25 minutes after sunset in Baltimore, so the sky will still be quite bright. But observers should have little difficulty spotting the station, which wiNASA/artists concept ll be reflecting the light from the just-set sun.

From there it will fly very close to the bright star Aldebaran, the reddish "eye" of Taurus the Bull, which may or may not be visible in the dusk. It will move close (86 degrees) to the zenith - (90 degrees) straight up - at 7:42 p.m.

Then it's off toward the northeast, passing just beneath the bowl of the Big Dipper before disappearing at 7:46 p.m. Those stars may not be visible, either, depending on where you are.

With luck, Discovery will be slow, and late in pulling up beside the ISS. That would give us an opportunity to see the two objects as separate dots of light - one brighter (ISS), the other dimmer (Discovery). I've seen that twice, and it's quite a spectacle.  

Posted by Frank Roylance at 5:26 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

February 23, 2009

Md. skies clear, dry tonight for Comet Lulin

 Photo by Gary Honis, Conyngham, Pa

Except for the cold, the forecast out of Sterling this morning could not be better for those of us hoping to catch a glimpse of Comet Lulin as it makes its closest approach to Earth - a "mere" 38 million miles. Lulin should be visible high in the southern sky around 1 a.m., but you may be able to spot it earlier - say, after 11 p.m., if you look a little lower in the southeast.

Here is a sky map to guide you. The photo above was shot last week by Gary Honis, in Conyngham, Pa. Used with Gary's permission. You can explore the comet's orbit in 3D with this interactive tool.

Observers in recent days have said Lulin has brightened to a magnitude of 5.35. That's just a shade brighter than 6, which is considered to be the limit of naked-eye visibility. By contrast, Venus, high in the western sky after sunset, is a brilliant minus-4 at the moment. (The lower the number, the brighter the object.)

I would not count on being able to see the comet as a naked-eye object from urban or suburban locations tonight without binoculars, at least. A small telescope is even better. But if you can flee the urban corridor, you should be able to pick out the comet as a fuzzy blob or light alongside the planet Saturn. With binoculars or a telescope, you should be able to capture both comet and Saturn within the same field of view. A rare treat! 

But if you're going out tonight, bundle up. The forecast low for BWI is 21 degrees. Today's gusty winds, which in combination with very low humidity, has increased the fire hazard this afternoon, should have died down by the time comet-watchers are venturing out.

If you can't bring yourself to venture out into the cold tonight (or even if you can), you can also watch the comet online. The Coca Cola Space Science Center in Columbus, Ga., will be Web casting the encounter after 11:30 p.m. tonight., You can join in by clicking here.

And here is a large and growing photo gallery of Lulin images. Some astronomers have assembled time-lapse movies of the comet moving in front of background stars. 

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:47 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

February 20, 2009

Skies promising for Comet Lulin

Comet Lulin/Gregg Ruppel, Ellisville, Mo./used with permission 

You can never be sure about weather forecasts. But stargazers looking for Comet Lulin in the coming days will be encouraged by the predictions coming from NWS Sterling this morning. The forecast calls for mostly clear skies tonight, and again early next week - prime time for Lulin hunters.

As you may already have read, Lulin - a lovely green comet discovered in 2007 by astronomers in Taiwan and mainland China - has made its turn around the sun this winter and is now speeding off into deep space. That's Lulin in Gregg Ruppel's Feb. 6 photo above, just above the bright star Zubenelgenubi in Libra. (Ya gatta love a star named Zubenelgenubi! Sounds like Obi wan Kenobi.) 

On Monday evening, Lulin will be "only" 38 million miles from Earth - its closest approach, and therefore the best opportunity for Earthlings to get a glimpse. Here's on the comet. And here's an article from Sky & Telescope.

Lulin, like so many comets, is a visitor from the Oort Cloud, a realm of icy objects far beyond the orbits of the outermost planets. Something - perhaps a collision - sent or hurtling inward toward the sun. In January, the sun's gravity grabbed it and hurled back out toward the Oort Cloud, and it is only now passing our general vicinity, outbound.

Astronomers who have calculated Lulin's trajectory say it is parabolic, rather than elliptical, which suggests that it has never visited the inner solar system before. And that, they say, may explain why the comet's icy nucleus is spewing such large volumes of gas and dust. Solar heating and the stream of solar particles called the "solar winds" have been activating the comet's ices and dust and sending them off into space in the form of a large halo, or "coma" around the nucleus, and several "tails" of gas and dust.

Astronomers have been watching Lulin for months through their telescopes. Here is a beautiful gallery of their photos. And in recent weeks, as Lulin has drawn closer to Earth, it has been brightening to naked-eye visibility - at least from locations far from urban light pollution. But binoculars will be your best bet for finding the comet wherever you are.

Continue reading "Skies promising for Comet Lulin" »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:50 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

February 6, 2009

Space Station will "buzz" Venus this evening

So how's your view of the southwestern sky? If you can get a clear view in that direction early this evening, you can look forward to a very nice flyby by the International Space Station as it passes over the eastern U.S. from high over Chicago to the South Carolina coast.

This pass is lower - closer to the horizon as seen from Baltimore - than those I usually mention here. It can be hard for some people to get a clear view past trees and buildings when the flyovers are less than 45 degrees above the horizon. And the lighting geometry can make these passes dimmer, and harder to see.

Heavens-Above.comBut this one caught my eye for several reasons: It is an early-evening pass, when many Marylanders will be able to pause on their way to their cars after work, or step outside to watch before dinner goes on the table. The station will also fly very close to brilliant Venus from our perspective (the red dot at left), drawing attention to the planet, which has dominated the evening sky for many weeks.

And, the skies should be clear.  

So, set your cell phone alarms, and look for the station to rise above the western horizon at 5:41 p.m.. It will pass just below Venus, about 37 degrees above the southwestern horizon at around 5:44 p.m. At that point the station will be about 360 miles from Baltimore, traveling at about 17,500 mph.

From there it will slide off toward the southern horizon, disappearing at 5:47 p.m., to the right of the bright winter constellation Orion, rising in the east.  

As always, we urge you to take the kids and let their young eyes help you spot the station. And, drop back here afterwards and share the experience with those who missed it. 

Speaking of the ISS, here's an astonishing photo of the station, snapped from California, just as it was passing in front of the moon.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Sky Watching

January 26, 2009

"Annular" eclipse photos show "ring of fire"

NASA annular eclipseAcross the Indian Ocean today, from South Africa to Indonesia, the sun and moon put on a spectacular display. It was an "annular eclipse" of the sun, where the moon is too far from the Earth to completely cover the sun's disk. That leaves a blazing "ring of fire" shining around the moon as it passes in front of the sun from Earth's perspective. Here's more.

Farther outside the path of totality it looked like a bizarre crescent sun. Sunlight filtered through leafy trees left thousands of little crescents projected onto the ground and buildings. Here's a remarkable gallery of photos from today's eclipse.

Cue Johnny Cash.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 6:09 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

January 20, 2009

Space Station replay tonight

If you missed the International Space Station when it passed over Baltimore Sunday evening, you may get a second chance tonight, if skies remain clear as the giant tinker toy passes just north and west of the city.

Actually, some observers did manage a glimpse of the station Sunday. There was a layer of thin clouds over the region, and no stars were visible. But Venus could just barely be seen through the haze. And if you can see Venus in the southwest after sunset, you will likely be able to see the ISS. They're just about the same brightness these days. And sure enough, we did spot the station as it passed just right of Venus and crossed the sky from southwest to northeast.

Tonight's flyby will follow a very similar track, offset just a bit to the north and west. 

Look for a bright, steady, star-like light to rise over the west southwest horizon at 5:40 p.m. It will pass well to the right of brilliant Venus and reach its maximum elevation - about two-thirds of the way up the northwestern sky - at 5:42 p.m.  Then it will pass by the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia and zip off toward the northeast, disappearing at 5:46 p.m.

You can get ISS flyby predictions for your location - and much more - at


Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:13 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Sky Watching

December 30, 2008

New Year's sky show in the west

NASAIt's been a month since the great Dec. 1 triple conjunction of the moon, Venus and Jupiter in the western sky. The moon has orbited the Earth once since then, so it's back in the western sky for another rendezvous with Venus.

Look to the west after sunset tonight, and especially tomorrow night - New Year's Eve - for another lovely conjunction of a very slender crescent moon and the brilliant planet Venus. Tonight (Tuesday, Dec. 30) Venus will be high over the southwestern horizon. The moon, just past "new," will stand well below, to the right.

Tomorrow, the moon will have a bit more thickness to it, and it will be right above Venus. (The NASA photo above shows another close conjunction of the moon and Venus, with a different configuration.)

Jupiter is still there, too, but far closer to the horizon now and perhaps lost in the air pollution, twilight or obstructing trees and buildings. If you manage to find it, binoculars may bring out Mercury, which will be close beside Jupiter (from Earth's perspective) tonight and tomorrow night.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 9:04 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Sky Watching

December 12, 2008

Tonight's Long Night Moon is closest in 15 years

The full moon that rises over Baltimore tonight is the last before the winter solstice, which makes it the Long Night Moon. Some also call it the Moon Before Yule.

NASABut this full moon is even more notable for the fact that it will be the closest Earth's only natural satellite has come to its mother planet in 15 years, and the nearest until 2016. If there were an easy way to compare it side-by-side with a more average full moon, it would even appear visibly nearer - and larger. Maybe you'll notice anyway. It's said to be as much as 14 percent wider and 30 percent brighter than your run-of-the-mill full moon. 

This event is called "perigee," the moon's closest approach to the Earth for the month as it moves along in its 28-day elliptical orbit of the Earth. In this case, that translates to about 221,559 miles at 5 p.m. this afternoon. That's about 25 minutes after moonrise in Baltimore. If the clouds clear off soon enough, we may actually get a look at it. 

The Maryland Science Center will be offering even closer views of the moon, 5:30 to 9 this evening, weather permitting, through their Crosby Ramsey Memorial Observatory telescope, where it is Stargazing Friday. No charge.  For information, call 410 685-5225.

For the period from the year 1750 through 2125, the nearest perigee was 221,441 miles, on Jan. 4, 1912. The farthest apogee will be 252,724 miles, on Feb. 3, 2125. So during tonight's perigee the moon will be just 118 miles farther away than the closest perigee of that entire 375-year period. Cool!

This perigee also comes just a few hours after the moon is precisely full - at 11:38 EST this morning. And when the full moon and perigee coincide, we can anticipate unusually high tides, although wind and weather conditions may blunt the effect. You can track the tides in real time here.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:23 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Sky Watching

December 2, 2008

Moon, planets' show continues

Johannes KeplerOkay, so how cool was that? After the clouds blew off last evening, the triple conjunction of Jupiter, Venus and the crescent moon in the southwest jumped out against a very dark sky. It was hard to miss. Here's a gallery from CNN iReports.

And the show isn't really over.

The moon's orbit will carry it a bit farther east each night this week after last night's close encounter. Venus will climb even higher as Jupiter sinks toward the sunset. Watch the dancers as they shift their relative positions each night. It's Kepler's celestial mechanics on display, all week long. (That's Johannes Kepler at left.)

Here's more from 

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:17 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

December 1, 2008

Weather iffy for tonight's sky spectacular

Heather McLaughlin/Foster City, CA 

I can see a few rays of sunshine warming the rock walls of the State Penitentiary this morning. And that suggests the clouds may clear enough late this afternoon to give Marylanders a peek at tonight's sky spectacular. Here's the official forecast - for "mostly cloudy" skies.

The event is a striking triple conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter, with the crescent moon. They will form a beautiful triangle after sunset, hanging just above the southwest horizon. All three will be plenty bright enough to spot from anywhere skies are clear (or more-or-less clear toward the southwest), even in light-polluted urban settings.

Photographers have already been busy snapping pictures of the two planets, with the moon approaching from the lower right. That's Heather McLaughlin's shot above, taken from Foster City, Calif. (Used with permission.) Here is a gallery from

By tonight, the moon will have moved just to the left of Venus and Jupiter.

If you're reading this in Europe, you will have an even more astonishing show to watch if your skies aren't clouded up. From your perspective, the moon will move in front of Venus in what astronomers call a "lunar occultation."

UPDATE: The clouds cleared, and we had a good look at this conjunction, around 6 p.m., from the roof of the Sun garage, looking southwest toward the Basilica. I tried a snapshot with my point-and-shoot (below). It's more than a little blurry, but you get the idea. I expect others will have better images online by morning.

Photo by me

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:24 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Sky Watching

November 24, 2008

Triple conjunction will dazzle stargazers

Whenever evening skies are clear this week, take a moment to step outside and catch a glimpse at one of the year's most striking events in the night sky.

Each night, the brilliant planets Jupiter and Venus - now dazzling in the southwestern sky after sunset - will draw closer together.

NASAThey're headed for a spectacular triple conjunction with a very young crescent moon on Monday, Dec. 1 (left). On that evening, Jupiter and Venus will stand just 2 degrees apart in the evening sky - the width of two pinky fingers held at arm's length.

Jupiter - now above and to the left of Venus - will have moved by Dec. 1 to a spot immediately above and to the right of Venus.

The crescent moon will hang just above and to the left of Venus, forming a lovely, delicate triangle.

If skies are clear, the spectacle is sure to grab the attention of anyone who happens to glance that way - evening commuters, dog walkers and folks out for an after-dinner stroll. You won't need to find dark skies. This celestial event will be visible everyplace that isn't clouded in. 

Don't miss it!

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:12 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

November 21, 2008

Clearing skies offer view of Space Station

Building high pressure is clearing the air over Central Maryland, and while we may not beJustin Cowart Photo/Used with permission cloudless Saturday evening, skies should be clear enough to catch a glimpse at the newly enlarged International Space Station as it soars over Baltimore with the space shuttle Endeavour docked alongside.

The precise timing may be a little squishy. (Times in the print edition of The Sun this morning may be a minute too early. NASA planned to boost the ISS's orbit a few miles, as it must from time to time, and in Earth orbit, getting higher slows your speed relative to the ground, which changes the timing of these flyovers. So allow a minute or so on either side of the times we're posting here, just in case.

The good news is that this will be one of the brightest flyovers we've seen. The shuttle delivered a new living quarters  module to the station in preparation for adding three more full-time crew members (bringing total to six). And with Endeavour attached, that makes plenty of additional surface to relfect sunlight. The prediction is that ISS/Endeavour will be brighter than Jupiter, which hangs over the southwestern horizon after sunset this week, but somewhat dimmer than Venus, which stands lower and to the right of Jupiter.

Look for the ISS to rise above the southwestern horizon at 5:30 p.m., just to the right of and Jupiter (visible in the time-lapse photo at right by Justin Cowart, in Carbondale, Ill.; used with permission). The station is headed northeast, from high over Louisiana toward the skies of Nova Scotia. It will climb right through the Summer Triangle, passing very close by Deneb in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. (Print edition says Vega. Wrong again.)  At that moment - 5:33 p.m., it will be about 223 miles over your head.

Be sure to wave. That's a passle of your tax dollars flying by. Even more amazing, between the ISS crew of three and the Shuttle crew of seven, that's a small village of 10 people soaring over at 17,500 mph. 

You can generate ISS flyby predictions tailored to your location anytime by visiting   That's where the map at right came from. There's much more, too. 

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Posted by Frank Roylance at 4:46 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Sky Watching

November 20, 2008

"Light pillars" may explain aurora report

NBC10/Jeff Ceccola 

The WeatherBlog received an excited report last night from Jeff Ceccola, in suburban Philadelphia:

I believe I [saw] the Northern Lights right here in West Chester, Pa.  There was perhaps up to 100 tubes of vertical light ranging from an aqua blue to a magenta all throughout the east through the southern sky.  The lights were not moving but I am unsure what else this phenonem could have been.  I spoke to all 4 Philly news stations and they said they have had dozens of reports.  Any sightings down there? Regards, Jeff."
Before I had a chance to respond, Jeff heard from one of the Philly TV weather guys, and he (Jeff) got back to me with this explanation:
"Per Glenn "Hurricane" Schwartz NBC 10 Philadelphia, he theorized the lights were merely snow flakes reflecting in the moon light.  Oh well, pretty nonetheless."
I think Glenn is close. It would be very unusual, this far south, to see the Northern Lights, especially in the eastern and southern skies.
But my guess is that the atmospheric display Jeff saw was most likely what are referred to as "light pillars." They're caused by ground lighting reflecting off flat snow crystals descending through very cold air. Because it's man-made lighting, the light will consist of any number of different colors, which would explain what Jeff saw. In the up-shining beams of light, the descending crystals appear to form colorful columns or tubes.
Here's a link to a site with some amazing photos of a variety of atmospheric light phenomena. Scroll to the bottom for images of artificial light pillars.
Jeff wrote back this morning and agreed:
"Yes, that certainly seems to be the consensus.  I fear my unbridled excitement interfered with my logic.  Nonetheless, nature once again provided a show that I will not soon forget.  It really was beautiful.  I have attached a picture that someone sent to the NBC 10, it is a perfect facsimile of what I was seeing last night."
That's the photo at the top of this post. We're always happy to get reports of unusual phenomena in the sky, aurora borealis among them.
Here's a link to a gallery of true aurora borealis images taken in recent days around the Far North. To see these spectacular displays, you need to get yourself beneath the "auroral oval" - the region around the Earth's north magnetic pole where the solar particles raining down on the Earth strike the upper atmosphere and kick off the light shows. (Yellow band in the image below.)
That oval is currently in far northern Canada. But it does occasionally expand farther south. To check on its current position, click here, and scroll down the lefthand column.
The best chance for seeing the aurorae is during periods of high solar activity. We are currently just emerging from the latest solar "minimum," so we may have to wait a while to have even a slim chance to see them this far south. The last time that happened that I can recall was in November 2004.
Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:23 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

October 30, 2008

Spooky skies for Halloween

Tony Hallas/ 

As if the news on the ground weren't scary enough, this Halloween season is producing some really creepy images from the skies and even outer space.

The image above, used with permission from Tony Hallas at, shows glowing gas clouds in the star-forming region of the great nebula in the constellation Orion. I see a blood-red monkey face on the right, and the gaping jaws (and sparkling teeth) of a silvery ghost on the left (turn your head sideways, to the right). How about you?  

And here is a gallery of photos of ghostly Northern Lights displays from around the northern latitudes. You can see all sorts of spooks and wraiths there if you use your imagination.

Finally, as you're Trick or Treating with the kids (or the parents) tomorrow night, sneak a look at the western sky. You should see the bright planet Venus hanging above the first sliver of the very young crescent moon down near the western horizon.  It will look even better Saturday night. That's bright Jupiter high in the southwestern sky.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 2:46 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

October 29, 2008

Fireball over the Northeast

Hearing about another fireball meteor, this one spotted last evening in the northeastern sky. Here's a report from Bowley's Quarters, in eastern Baltimore County. Did anyone else spot this one? 
"Hi there, last night about 7pm I believe - Bowleys Quarters- there was an amazing fireball I saw through clouds traveling north in the north eastern sky. I  haven't seen anything else on this- I know meteors are common but this was so bright and through the clouds I was amazed. Have you heard anything on this?  Thanks, Marcie"
There were more reports of a similar fireball over Colorado at around 7:00 p.m. Mountain Time last night. Not the same event, obviously, but here's a description from an observer named Thomas Ashcraft, in New Mexico, clipped from

"I am pleased to report that I just eye-witnessed a major fireball event out my window. This fireball was traveling east to west, possibly over central Colorado. It was long trailed, turquoise and green, and shed sparks ... It looks like this fireball may have been at least 300 miles north of my location."

Here's a photo of the Colorado fireball, from  Be sure to click on the videos, too.

Continue reading "Fireball over the Northeast" »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:08 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Sky Watching

October 21, 2008

Fireball spotted over Elkridge

Dennise Cardona writes with the following report. Did anyone else see this meteor? 

Hi, I saw something this morning, October 21, 2008, in the sky that I thought was strange, and was wondering if anyone else has reported seeing the same thing. At 5 a.m. on Tuesday morning, I saw a fireball in the sky over Elkridge, MD. I was looking down at first, as I was running, and the sky lit up like it would in a lightening storm, that?s when I looked up and saw and object the size of a softball (scaled compared to the size of the stars behind it) far up in the distant sky explode in a yellow/white bright light, then shoot upwards, leaving a foot long trail of white behind it before disappearing into a thin trail of dust.

Just curious if anything has been reported on this?

FR: Quite likely part of the annual Orionid meteor shower, which peaked this morning. Not normally a big deal, the Orionids were supposed to have been an even less impressive show this year because of the bright moon currently in the early morning sky. But they have been surprising observers in recent days with an unusually vigorous display. The Orionids are named for the constellation Orion, from which the meteors appear to radiate. They are bits of dust left behind by Halley's Comet, which last visited the inner solar system in 1986. They may remain active for another day or two, so early-morning joggers and dog walkers should keep an eye peeled before dawn. You can read more, and see several photos, here

The photo below shows an Orionid meteor, snapped this morning in Poland by Przemek Zoladek and used with his permission. The big white light is the moon. And here's link to a video of a fireball similar to the one described above, taken this morning in California. Notice how it lights up the area near the final explosion.

Przemek Zoladek

Posted by Frank Roylance at 12:46 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Sky Watching

October 7, 2008

Predicted meteor may have been sighted

A large meteor reportedly was sighted last night by a KLM airlines pilot near the time and place predicted by astronomers hours earlier. It was the first time astronomers have ever identified an Earth-bound space rock and predicted its arrival. (See previous post.)

Here's the report, from an online rumor network for professional pilots:

"The following potentially confirming report comes from Jacob Kuiper, General Aviation meteorologist at the National Weather Service in the Netherlands: "Half an hour before the predicted impact of asteroid 2008 TC3, I informed an official of Air-France-KLM at Amsterdam airport about the possibility that crews of their airliners in the vicinity of impact would have a chance to see a fireball. And it was a success! I have received confirmation that a KLM airliner, roughly 750 nautical miles southwest of the predicted atmospheric impact position, has observed a short flash just before the expected impact time 0246 UTC. Because of the distance it was not a very large phenomenon, but still a confirmation that some bright meteor has been seen in the predicted direction."

Another pilot reported the following:

"Yes, I saw it from over central Europe - a bigger brighter trail than the usual shooting star, terminated by an explosion. All over in about a second, but definitely an unusual event."
Here's more from And here's a time-exposure image of the asteroid taken yesterday just hours before it reached Earth.
Posted by Frank Roylance at 7:27 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

October 6, 2008

Small asteroid likely to strike Earth tonight

This just in from

"A small, newly-discovered asteroid named 2008 TC3 is approaching Earth and chances are good that it will hit. Steve Chesley of JPL [NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory] estimates that atmospheric entry will occur on Oct 7th at 0246 UTC over northern Sudan [Africa].

"Measuring only a few meters across, the space rock poses NO THREAT to people or structures on the ground, but it should create a spectacular fireball, releasing about a kiloton of energy as it disintegrates and explodes in the atmosphere. Odds are between 99.8 and 100 percent that the object will encounter Earth, according to calculations provided by Andrea Milani of the University of Pisa."

If the estimates of a 2:46 UTC entry are correct, that translates to 10:46 p.m. EDT tonight. Here's a link to the asteroid's 3-D orbit diagram. It may take some time to load.  And here's a link to the circular for this asteroid from the Minor Planet Center of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, MA. And here's more from NASA.

Amazing. I can't remember ever seeing an alert like this before, and the NASA release says it's the first time one has ever been issued. It shows the search for "near-Earth asteroids" is beginning to provide us with real, useful warnings. A much bigger asteroid could explode over a populated area and do tremendous damage, like the Tunguska blast a century ago in Russia. It might also be misinterpreted as an enemy attack, triggering a retaliatory strike. This sort of warning could head off such a tragedy.

In this case, of course, there wasn't much warning. The asteroid was only discovered earlier today. But it will be fascinating to see how this plays out, and how accurate the prediction turns out to be. Stay tuned. In the meantime, here is an account of a similar event in 2003 near Chicago. And here's a pretty cool video of another over Australia. 

Continue reading "Small asteroid likely to strike Earth tonight" »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 5:13 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

First-quarter moon crowds Jupiter tonight

NASAThey should be a striking pair this evening, as bright Jupiter and October's first-quarter moon dominate the southern sky.

As the clouds clear off this evening, step outside after sunset and feast your eyes. Low on the southern horizon, the moon stands just west of, and below, the planet Jupiter (left), the largest planet in the solar system. Jupiter, looking like a bright star, is currently about 470 million miles from the Earth - about five times the Earth's distance from the sun.NASA/GSFC

The moon, a week past new, stands 250,700 miles from Earth. That makes Jupiter about 1,872 times more distant than the moon.

Now turn to the west. If it's soon enough after sunset and you have a clear view to the west, you should be able to spot the planet Venus (right), shining like a bright star, low on the western horizon. Venus is currently about 127.5 million miles from Earth. It is just coming around from the back side of the sun, so it is still farther from us than the sun itself, which is about 93 million miles away.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 3:49 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

September 30, 2008

Where have all the sunspots gone?


Solar scientists are marveling at how quiet the surface of the sun has been this year - 200 days (through 9/27) with no sunspots visible. They're saying it's the quietest year on the sun since the Space Age began. The quietest since 1954 to be precise. The image above shows the sun as it looked on Saturday. And we still have three months to go.

It's not exactly a surprise that the sun has been spotless this year. We are at the minimum point in the current 11-year solar activity cycle, and sunspots - with all the flares and prominances that come with the maximum periods of solar activity - are typically scarce during solar minimums.

What's unusual is how very, very quiet the sun has been. This year has seen the fewest sunspots since 1954, and the seventh-fewest in the last century, according to NASA. It's a boon to solar scientists, who get to study our nearest star without the usual tumult on its surface. At the time of solar maximum, like 2001, the sun looked like this:


 What's really fascinating, though, is that this quiet sun coincides with the dimmest sun scientists have ever recorded, and a low in solar wind pressure. The lull in solar irradiance is only a tiny percentage below normal, but it is something to watch if our sun continues to dim. And the slowing of the solar wind actually began several years ago. But the confluence of changes has solar scientists on the run looking for links and explanations.

Who says there's nothing new under the sun? You can read more here. 

Posted by Frank Roylance at 6:31 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Sky Watching

September 25, 2008

How dark is your sky?

I received an email message the other day from Mike Shriver, in Linthicum. He was outside stargazing one morning recently. The sun was not up yet, and Mike spied Orion, The Hunter, rising in the east.

Orion is usually thought of as a winter constellation. Its bright trio of stars at The Hunter's belt is easy to spot, and it's surrounded by other bright stars - Betelgeuse, Rigel and Bellatrix are the best-known. The belt includes Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak. Great names, all.

Sailors, I've heard, hated to see Orion reappear each autumn, because they knew it's return meant the advent of violent winter storms. Or was it Capella?

But for backyard stargazers, Orion is an old friend, easy to find, and a kind of pointer for other treasures of the winter sky. Off to the east is Sirius, the brightest true star in the sky. To the west lie the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, a jewel-box of a star cluster, especially in binoculars. And just below Orion's Belt lies the Orion Nebula, a cloud of glowing gas and young stars just visible to the naked eye, and a complex wonder through even a small backyard telescope.

Anyway, the sight of Orion sparked a memory in Mike's head.

"It made me think of an article I saw in the Sunpaper maybe two or three years ago. Maybe you had something to do with it. Maybe not. Anyway, if I recall correctly some organization was doing a study on air and light pollution. As part of the article, there was a diagram of the stars in Orion and they were asking readers to cut out the diagram. Then they were to go outside on a clear night and circle the stars on the diagram that they could actually see, and then mail it in. Apparently (once again, if I recall correctly) the results were going to be tabulated in some fashion and then published. I was wondering if this rings a bell with you. I would have been curious to see the results."

Good memory. It was the Enlighten Maryland project. We ran a story in The Sun in February 2002, along with a star chart of the constellation Orion. Readers were asked to go outside and find Orion, then circle only the stars on the chart that they could see with the naked eye. The thought was that, where light pollution was the worst, fewer of the stars would be seen. By piecing all the returns together, the project could construct a map of light pollution in Maryland.

I never heard anything about the results, either, at the time. I called Max Mutchler, at the Space Telescope Science Institute on Thursday and asked him about it.

Enlighten MarylandHe said the project received 1,130 returns (some of them at left), and ernest efforts were made to convert the data into a contour map of the light pollution in Maryland. But the reporting turned out to be inconsistent, perhaps because such a broad range of observers participated -  from school kids to amateur astronomers. Anyway, he was never able to put together a map that looked right to him.

"It was fun to try to refine the data and see if the results made any sense, but I wouldn't want people to read too much into it," he said. So, for whatever it's worth, here's what they came up with. Credit goes to Max Mutchler, Brian Eney and Melissa Jan, of Enlighten Maryland. The lighter colors represent the brighter skies and higher light pollution levels. The darker colors represent darker skies and better stargazing.

Enlighten Maryland

Continue reading "How dark is your sky?" »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 3:40 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

September 17, 2008

See the International Space Station this weekend

Attention Space Cadets! The International Space Station has been a regular visitor lately for those hardy souls who are up and outside before dawn breaks. For the rest of us, the ISS is returning this weekend to the more user-friendly evening sky.

NASAFriday marks the beginning of a fine series of flyovers by the growing, and increasingly brilliant manned space laboratory. If you have never seen it go by, or have not rousted the kids out from behind their computer games to see it, make a resolution to do so this weekend. The weather looks promising. And who knows? The spectacle might inspire the videoheads to crack the science books and become astronomers, or astronauts, or (if things go badly) newspaper science writers.

The ISS, traveling at an orbital velocity of about 17,500 mph, circles the planet once every 90 minutes, so there are more opportunities to see it than I will note here. I'll spare you the passes that are very close to the horizon, and liable to be lost in the clutter of trees, rooftops and urban air pollution. I also skip those that are rather short - when the station rises above the horizon, for example, and quickly plunges into the Earth's shadow, and disappears from sight.

Here then, are the brightest and best four opportunities for the coming weekend. If skies are clear, or mostly so, just step outside at the stated times, look in the right direction, and you will see the station. For the uninitiated, it will rise above the horizon looking like a steady white star, except it will be moving higher into the sky at a brisk clip. It's traveling at about 17,500 miles per hour, and will usually cross the entire sky in just 4 or 5 minutes.

If you see something moving with multiple lights, or flashing lights or colored lights, it's an airplane. Keep looking. What you're seeing of the station is actually sunlight, reflected off the ISS's reflective solar panels, or shiny metal shell. And as the ISS has become larger during the construction of the last few years, the more sunlight it's been reflecting. It is bright enough now to shine through hazy skies and thin clouds. And it can be seen even before the sky is totally dark. Some satellite enthusiasts have spotted it in the daytime.

There is a crew of three on board. Here's more on them and what they're up to.

If you want to see more of the station, you can get flyby predictions online from  Just sign in, punch in your location, and it will provide all sorts of information, from ISS flybys to maps of the night sky. Try it. Those are your tax dollars up there.

So, without further ado, here are the specifics for the best ISS passes for the Baltimore area from Friday through Monday evenings:

FRIDAY: The ISS will appear above the southwestern horizon at 7:59 p.m. as it soars up the East Coast from Florida to the Outer Banks, it will appear from Baltimore to fly just above and very close to the bright planet Jupiter in the southern sky. It will be not quite halfway up the southeastern sky at 8:01 p.m., moving just below the bright star Altair, the southernmost member of the Summer Triangle. From there, the station will move off toward the eastern horizon, disappearing into Earth's shadow at 8:03 p.m.

SATURDAY: This time, the ISS will be flying a parallel track to Friday's, but farther to the west, flying up the Appalachian mountain chain toward New England. From here, it will appear above the southwestern horizon at 8:25 p.m., climbing to about 50 degrees above the northwest horizon - more than halfway up the sky and well above the Big Dipper, if you can see that constellation. From there it will zip off toward the northeast, vanishing near the "W"-shaped constellation Cassiopeia at 8:29 p.m.

SUNDAY: This pass will be almost identical to Friday's, except the times will change, and it will be slightly higher in the sky. Look for the station to rise above the southwestern horizon at 7:16 p.m., flying above the planet Jupiter - the brightest object in the southern sky. It will pass just beneath Altair again, then head off toward the northeast, disappearing close to the horizon around 7:24 p.m.

MONDAY: This will be a pass much like Saturday's, as the station once again flys up the Appalachian chain toward the Canadian maritime provinces. Look for it above the western horizon at 7:43 p.m., rising to about halfway above the northwestern horizon by 7:45 p.m. Then it will fly off toward the northeast, disappearing at 7:49 p.m.

If you're really into this stuff, there will be opportunities this weekend to spot the much smaller and fainter, 22-ton European spacecraft Jules Verne. It recently left the ISS and is headed for a fiery re-entry later this month. Here are the specs on Jules Verne's passes over Baltimore, along with the ISS.

Good luck. Be sure to come back here after the show and leave a comment. Share the experience.   

Posted by Frank Roylance at 1:22 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

September 10, 2008

Cloud curtain sliding south


Have you noticed the clouds? Driving south from Cockeysville late this morning I noticed it was very sunny, with clear blue skies to the north. But as I drove south to the Beltway, I slid beneath the cloud cover. And on arriving downtown, it was quite gray.

What was so striking was the very sharp and well-defined east-west boundary, then just north of the city, between the clear skies to the north, and the clouds to the south. And it's all very apparent in the satellite image above.

You don't often notice such a clear boundary between weather systems. If you haven't stepped out side to look, you should. To the north of the cloud line, clear, dry air presses in on the warmer, wetter air to the south. Between them is a cloudy cold front - the one that triggered yesterday's clouds and rain showers.

That cold front stretches this morning from southern New Jersey to Winchester, Va., and from there all the way down the Appalachians to Atlanta, Ga. As I write, the sunshine is beginning to reach downtown Baltimore. Still cloudy to the south.

There are still some showers around to our south, in Central Virginia. The advance of the drier air and sunshine toward the south will be slow, as the northern edge of the clouds is dried up and dissipated. Forecasters expect it to stall out somewhere to our south. Temperature peaks today will depend on where you are relative to the sunshine and the clouds - warmer to the north of the cloud line, and cooler to the south.

All the clouds and moisture gradually return late in the week as a warm front. Forecasters are looking for a chance of showers again Friday and Saturday, with highs stuck in the 70s until Sunday. Then we pop back into the 80s.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:11 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

September 9, 2008

Moon, Jupiter and a fireball outburst

NASA/Marshall/Bill CookeLooks like we  were clouded out this morning, but sky watchers elsewhere in the U.S. had an unexpected treat as a rare outburst of "September Perseid" meteors - a flurry of fireballs - put on quite a show. For somebody else.

That's a photo of the outburst at left - actually a "stack" of images combined to show all the fireballs over the Marshall Space Flight Center's All-Sky camera over 4 hours. Thanks to

The September Perseids are caused by debris from the dust trail of an unknown comet. Every few years they produce an outburst of meteors, and fireballs like these. Nobody is sure why. The same thing happened in 1936, 1986, 1994 and now in 2008. And we missed it. 

They said the fireballs were about as bright as Jupiter. There's some small chance that the outburst will continue tonight. Look after midnight when the constellation Perseus rises above the northeastern horizon.

We may have to settle for a look (if skies clear enough) at Jupiter itself, which will be very close to the moon this evening as seen from Earth - less than the width of three fingers held at arm's length. A very striking sight in the southern sky.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 4:00 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

August 15, 2008

Lunar eclipse Saturday, on the Web

Tomorrow's full moon will be partially eclipsed as it slips through the shadow that the Earth casts into space.

Space Telescope Science Inst.The bad news is that the eclipse will occur during our daytime, while the Americas are facing the sun. The next total lunar eclipse visible here will be on Dec. 21, 2010. The good news is that, through the magic of the Internet, we'll be able to sit at home, in front of a computer screen, and watch the eclipse unfold on the night side of the planet.

At the height of the eclipse, more than 81 percent of the moon's disk will be in deep shadow. The rest will remain in bright sunlight. That will yield a weird, two-toned lunar disk. The whole event will last about three hours. Web coverage will begin at 3:30 pm EDT Saturday, Aug. 16.

Here are the specs on this eclipse, from Fred Espenak's NASA Eclipse Page.

Here is a pretty darn cool set of animations on the eclipse.

This is a link for an eclipse Webcast from the Netherlands. Here's one from Norway, although the forecast wasn't so great there. But here's one from the Canary Islands, which looked better. Thanks to for the links.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 2:28 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

August 11, 2008

Weather looks good for tonight's meteor shower

High pressure and dry air out of Canada is the recipe we want for viewing tonight's Perseid meteor shower. Too often in the Chesapeake region we get nominally clear skies for this reliable annual event, but high humidity still washes out much of the display.

NASA/Perseid meteorNot this time. Forecasters out at Sterling say the upper-level low responsible for yesterday's clouds and storms is pulling away off the Jersey coast. It's being replaced by all this terrific cool, dry air. It's still just 73 degrees at The Sun as I write, up from an overnight low of 63 degrees. The airport dipped to 58 degrees overnight. This seems to be the mid-August break in the weather we've been waiting for. And it's here just in time for the Perseid shower.

That's not to say things are perfect this year. For the early part of the night we still must contend with the glare of the moon, now just four days short of full. It won't set until 1.47 a.m. in Baltimore.

Still, the skies should be clear, and the brightest meteors should begin to be visible after Perseus - the constellation from which the meteors seem to emerge - rises well above the northeastern horizon around 11 or 12 midnight tonight.

The best time to look will be between moonset and dawn tomorrow morning. Here's a nifty photo gallery of last year's Perseids.

The Perseid shower occurs each year as the Earth, in its annual trip around the sun, crosses the dusty trail of the Comet Swift-Tuttle. The comet itself, on its 130-year orbit around the sun, is cruising somewhere out near the orbit of Uranus this year. But the dust it leaves behind is still orbiting all along the comet's path. And this is the night when the Earth crosses the densest portion of that trail.

As our planet smacks into those dust  grains and pebbles, they streak into the thin air at the top of the atmosphere at 37 miles per second, heating the air and making it glow until the dust is vaporized. We see it as a bright, fleeting trail across a portion of the sky.

The Perseids are remarkably reliable, producing as many as 60 meteors an hour at their peak. And because mid-summer is a pleasant time to be out under the stars, this is probably the most-watched annual meteor shower of the year - although it is not usually the best.


Continue reading "Weather looks good for tonight's meteor shower" »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:53 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Sky Watching

July 28, 2008

Did you see Friday sky spectacle?

Just back from a week on the high seas, and I found this letter in my email inbox. Did anyone else notice this spectacle? Sounds like space junk returning from orbit, because if Jay had time to summon his family to watch, it could not have been moving at the speeds normally expected of meteors. A re-entry from orbital speeds seems more likely.
Here's a YouTube video of some space debris re-entering the atmosphere.
If you saw it, leave us a comment. Be sure to say where you were and when you saw it, and in what direction it was moving. I'll see if I can find other reports.  
"I've been a reader of your blog for a few years now and I just saw and AMAZING event.  While walking my dog in the backyard(Millersville), approximately a dozen orange balls, loosely spaced but in a group, approached from the SW and continued overhead toward Baltimore at ~2134 on 7/25. It was almost like watching 12 orange ISSes but brighter. They did not fade nor give off debris or a trail like meteors I've seen in the past. I called up to my family in the house and we were able to watch the cluster move off to the N/NE until they moved below the treeline. Has anyone else posted an account? I was so amazed and excited - plus calling my kids down to see this - that I didn't get any photos/videos. By far the most amazing/unusual meteor event I've ever witnessed. - Jay Ellwood
Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:56 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

July 17, 2008

Bright space station flyby due


As long as this relatively clear, dry weather holds up, Marylanders should make plans to catch a good, long look at the International Space Station Friday evening as the giant Tinker Toy flies up the east Coast.

This will be an unusually bright pass by the station, at Magnitude minus-2.4. The sun angles are nearly ideal, and the reflected light will make the station nearly as bright as the planet Jupiter, which has been brilliant the last few nights in the southern sky.

So grab the kids, bang on the neighbors' door and get everybody out to watch for the station. Those are your tax dollars at play up there, after all.

Look for the ISS to rise above the southwestern horizon at 9:48 p.m. Put the kids and their young eyeballs on the case. I'm betting they spot it first, although this flyby will be so bright I can't imagine anyone missing it. It's likely to shine right through any summer haze or thin clouds.

Anyway, the station and its crew of three will climb about halfway up the southeastern sky by 9:51 p.m., passing directly above Jupiter, which is quite low in the southeast.

From there, it will slide off toward the northeast as the station passes off the Delmarva coast and heads on up the Atlantic Seaboard (What is a 'seaboard,' anyway?) toward Nova Scotia. Watch as it passes through the Summer Triangle, the right triangle formed by the bright  stars Vega, Deneb and Altair, which hangs in the eastern sky on summer evenings.

After you've enjoyed the show, drop back here and leave a comment. Let everybody know how cool this really is. 

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:16 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

July 16, 2008

Jupiter dominates summer sky

This fine spell of dry weather is providing Marylanders with a great opportunity for stargazing. We got home late last night after dinner with the honeymooners and I couldn't help noticing what a great show the moon and Jupiter were putting on in the southern sky.

The moon is nearly full. It will be officially full just before 4 a.m. Friday. This will be the Hay Moon, or the Thunder Moon, if you prefer, for reasons that seem clear enough. But it's already quite beautiful, low in the southern sky late in the evening.

Why so low? It's because the Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun in the northern summer. By extension, that means the night side of the planet tilts away from the side of the solar system opposite the sun - the night side.  And that's where the moon is when it's full. So, we're leaning away from the full moon, placing it very low in the southern sky in summer. (In winter it's the reverse - sun low in the day, full moon very high overhead at midnight.)

Anyway, the southern sky is also where we find Jupiter this month. We're just past Jupiter's opposition on July 9. That's when it stood directly opposite the sun, rising in the southeast as the sun sets in the west. Opposition is also when Earth brings us to our closest approach to Jupiter of the year, about 384 million miles.

And that means it's the best time of the year to catch a glimpse of the giant gas bag. Which brings us back to me and my favorite schoolteacher, getting home late last night.

I stepped inside and immediately excused myself. I grabbed the 10x75 binoculars from the closet, switched off the porch light and headed back outside.

Jupiter is impossible to miss this week. It gleams big and bright in the southern sky in the late evening, the brightest star-like object out there. In the binocs, I could just make out at least two of the planet's four Galilean moons. They're tiny pinpricks of light on either side of Jupiter's disk. And Jupiter does appear as a disk in binoculars at opposition, not just a point of light, like the stars caught in the same field of view.

The moon and Jupiter will be closest together Thursday evening, a very striking pair for anyone out walking the dog or just enjoying the night air. Unfortunately, the moon will not pass directly in front of Jupiter this week, as it does in the NASA animation below. 

Weather forecasters say this unusually dry summer weather will continue through Friday. So stargazers can enjoy some particularly pleasant time outdoors under the stars. Mars and Saturn are still in view, very close together and low in the western sky after sunset.  


Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:32 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

July 9, 2008

Prime time for Jupiter

Jupiter, the King of the Planets, reaches opposition tonight, its closest approach and brightest appearance of the year. Or, it would be if we could see through the clouds and murky skies we're enduring at the moment.

No matter. Planets move slowly in the sky, and the view won't change much for the next few weeks. The message here is that Jupiter is big and bright this month. Look for it low in the southeast after skies darken in the evening. If your horizon is clear and low, you can't miss it. Jupiter is the brightest star-like object in the sky.

Jupiter from Assateague/

Here's a gorgeous shot by Jeffrey Berkes (, taken late last month on Assateague Island. That's Jupiter glowing low on the horizon. Photo used with permission.

Opposition means that Jupiter is "opposite" the sun in the sky as seen from Earth, rising in the east (or, southeast) as the sun sets in the west. Looking down on the solar system, you could draw a straight line from the sun, through the Earth, and on out to Jupiter.

At opposition, Jupiter is "only" about 387 million miles from Earth, the closest we'll get all year.

NASAAt this distance, it's a great opportunity to catch a glimpse of Jupiter through binoculars or a small telescope. With a a car or a tree to steady your binoculars (and clear skies - not so easy in a Chesapeake summer), you should be able to make out as many as four of Jupiter's largest moons. They're lined up on either side of the planet's disk like tiny diamonds alongside a huge central stone.

Those are the moons that Galileo first spotted late in 1609. Watch them over a series of nights and you can see them change position as they orbit the planet. For more visit

And while you're out stargazing, look low in the west after sunset and see Mars and Saturn in close conjunction. That's Saturn at upper left, Mars less than the width of your finger (held at arm's length) away to the lower right, and the bright star Regulus a bit farther down to the right. Binoculars will help there, too.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:26 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

June 12, 2008

Pa. park wins "dark sky" designation

Pennsylvania's little-known, but much-beloved (by amateur astronomers) Cherry Springs State Park has been named an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association. It Photo by Jeff Ballis only the second park to win that honor. The first (last year) was Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah.

The best thing about Cherry Springs is that it is so far east, perhaps the last best refuge of the natural night sky east of the Mississippi. Almost everywhere else, Baltimore included, urban light pollution has washed out the star-choked night sky that our ancestors knew so well. Few of today's children have ever seen what the night sky really looks like. Ask your kids of they have ever seen the Milky Way. Ask yourself.

While it's not exactly an easy day trip for Marylanders, Cherry Springs is only a five-hour car ride away, in north-central Pa. And there's plenty to do once you get there, even with that pesky sun in the sky. And once night falls, the view on a clear night is stupendous. And the park folks have worked hard for years to keep it that way. It's a real astro-tourist draw. The photo of the Milky Way at left was shot by Jeff Ball at Cherry Springs. A long exposure exaggerates its beauty, but you won't be disappointed.

Here's the full release on the new dark-sky kudos for Cherry Springs Park:

Continue reading "Pa. park wins "dark sky" designation" »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 3:50 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

June 5, 2008

Space Station may dodge clouds tonight

Okay, Space Cadets, this is an iffy one. The International Space Station will fly high (like, 240 miles high) over Lake Superior tonight, then southeast over New York City and out to sea. That's easily close enough to be seen from the Baltimore area if the weather cooperates.

The forecast isn't great - mostly cloudy and a chance of thunderstorms.  But hey, we might get lucky. It's a nice pass and well worth looking for if we're not totally socked in. Remember - the NASAISS just got a big new module, delivered from Japan to orbit courtesy of the space shuttle Discovery, which remains docked to the station. That means the whole gigantic Tinker Toy assembly is brighter than ever as sunlight reflects off all that added surface area. So it may even be visible through haze and thin clouds.

Here's the skinny: Watch for the space station to rise out of the northwestern sky, rising above the horizon at about 9:59 p.m.  Look for a really bright, steady, star-like object. If it blinks or has multiple or colored lights, it's an airplane. Keep looking. Better yet, take a kid along. Young eyes are great at this.

By 10:02 p.m. the station will be 56 degrees above the north-northeast horizon - more than halfway between the horizon and the zenith (straight up).

From there it will slip off toward the east, passing just above the bright star Vega, apex of the Summer Triangle. ISS, Discovery and their combined crew of 10 will then slip into the Earth's shadow and disappear from view at 10:03 p.m.

If you miss this pass, or we get clouded out, there are two more almost-as-bright flybys this weekend, and the weather looks more promising. We'll have details on The Sun's print Weather Page Saturday and Sunday. (Also available at  And, you can calculate your own ISS flyby predictions for your location at,  source of the map below.

See you out there.


Posted by Frank Roylance at 3:23 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

May 21, 2008

Skies improving for space station flybys


Marylanders should have a decent and improving chance to see the International Space Station Thursday and Saturday evenings as skies begin to clear up in the wake of the latest round of May rain showers. Grab the kids, the neighbors, the neighbors' kids, and amaze them all with your knowledge of the night sky.

The first good opportunity will come Thursday evening as the ISS makes its way along an orbit taking it about 240 miles over New Orleans, Baltimore and Nova Scotia. The forecast here calls for partly cloudy skies. But the station will be reflecting plenty of sunlight, and should be bright enough to spot, even if you have to catch it between the clouds, or through thin clouds, or amid urban light pollution.

Watch for a bright, star-like object rising above the southwestern horizon at 9:30 p.m. If it's blinking, or sports colored or multiple lights it's an airplane. Keep looking. Skipping along at 17,500 mph, the ISS will climb past the closely-paired planet Saturn and bright star Regulus, in the constellation Leo. It will rise 75 degrees above the northwestern horizon at its highest by 9:32 p.m.. That's almost directly overhead as seen from Baltimore.

heavens-above.comFrom there the station and its crew will pass directly "through" the stars of the Big Dipper, and head off toward the Northeast, disappearing at 9:35 p.m.

Saturday's flyby will follow a very closely parallel orbit, tracking north and east up the East Coast of the United States.

The forecast is better than Thursday's. Watch for it rising again above the southwestern horizon - this time at 8:39 p.m. It will pass midway between Saturn and Mars and zip once again through the stars of the Big Dipper at about 8:43 p.m. Then it will fly off toward the northeast, disappearing at 8:45 p.m.

You can get your own ISS predictions - and more - from  They're customized for your location. The Heavens Above sky map here shows the ISS's Thursday path across the sky as seen from Baltimore.

Remember to stop back here after the show and share the experience with those who just don't GET it.

Shuttle astronauts are preparing for another visit to the station, with launch of the shuttle Discovery set for May 31 - next Saturday.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:58 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

May 13, 2008

Clouds are gone; go look for Mercury

Okay Space Cadets ... here's your assignment for tonight. Our long nightmare of endless overcast is over, and the planet Mercury is making one of its best appearances of the year. I want you all out there after sunset tonight to look for it.

Messenger - NASA/APL

It can be tricky. This is no project for the easily discouraged stargazer (or, in my case, Stargeezer). Mercury is the nearest planet to the sun, so it never strays far from the glare of Old Sol. When we see it at all, it is shortly before sunrise, or shortly after sunset.

Throw in air pollution and clouds, which can obscure the view low on the eastern or western horizon, and the trees and buildings that often block our view, and catching a glimpse of Mercury can be difficult. That's why the planet is so often described here as "the elusive" planet Mercury. Here's how Mercury looked on Friday when a very young crescent moon moved in alongside it.

But my Clear Sky Alarm went off this morning, indicating favorable viewing conditions this evening around Baltimore. So I will be out there to get another firsthand look at the planet that scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab have ben studying with NASA's Messenger spacecraft.

Find a spot with a clear view of the western sky, with as little clutter - trees, garages, hills - on the horizon as possible. Look for a small, steady, star-like point of light hovering over the horizon. Here's an article from Sky & Telescope, with a sky map (below) to guide you.Sky &

Take the kids. Take a pair of binoculars. The kids and their sharp eyes will help you spot it. The binoculars will get you a little closer. 

Oh, and while you're out there, raise your eyes a little higher and find Mars, Pollux and Castor (the two bright stars in Gemini) all in a row, left to right, above the southwestern horizon. Mars will be in the news in two weeks as NASA attempts to land the Phoenix spacecraft in the Martian arctic to search for water. 

Then turn left a bit toward the south and look for a close pair of "stars." The brighter of the two is actually Saturn, where NASA's Cassini spacecraft continues to orbit and send back spectacular images of the ringed planet and its moons. The dimmer of the pair is Regulus, the bright star in the Constellation Leo.

When you're done, come back here, leave us a comment and share the experience. Good luck!  

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:43 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

April 14, 2008

Noon today is REALLY noon

Dennis Barnes is setting up a beautiful instrument in his garden in Abingdon. It's called an armillary Galileo sundial. He wrote to me yesterday because he is preparing to "set" the sundial today, taking advantage of the fact that today - April 15 - is one of only four days on the annual calendar when solar noon - the moment when the sun is highest overhead - is the same as noon according to "mean solar time," or clock time.

To astronomers, it's the day when the "equation of time" equals zero. At other times of the year, the sun can be as much as 14 minutes "fast" or 16 minutes "slow" relative to clock time.

But of course this is astronomy, so nothing is as simple as we'd like.

Here's Dennis's problem: First, the equation of time (the difference between mean sun time and clock time) is only zero today along the "standard meridian" in each time zone. For us here in Eastern Time, that's 75 degrees west longitude, which runs north and south just off the beaches at Ocean City. So, all of Maryland is actually west of the standard meridian. Solar noon reaches us late as the sun moves across the sky from east to west.

Still with me? Dennis was aware of the problem, but he wasn't sure how far west of 75 degrees he is, or how that would affect his "local solar noon." I took the question to Geoff Chester, at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington. He told me that the sun is about 4 minutes "late" for every degree of longitude west of the standard meridian. 

Continue reading "Noon today is REALLY noon" »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 5:22 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

April 9, 2008

Big yellow thing appears over B'more

NASA - Spitzer Space Telescope 

It looks vaguely familiar, but somehow odd...  Our familiar gray skies seem to have turned an odd shade of blue this afternoon. And some sort of brilliant orb has appeared - a blinding yellow disk that gives off infrared radiation - heat.

So take cover. Venture outdoors only at your peril. And by all means, do NOT look directly at this freakish apparition. Astronomers assure us it will disappear in time, probably by 7:40 p.m. if not sooner.

Maybe it has something to do with this hole in the clouds over central Maryland. If so, it should pass. The gray will return. Be calm.



Posted by Frank Roylance at 4:06 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

March 29, 2008

The space station and a bonus ... Maybe

Skies over Baltimore look a bit more promising tonight - at the end of a disappointing week for those who like to catch a glimpse of the International Space Station as it flies over Maryland with our money. ESA - Jules Verne ATVAnd this time, the sharp-eyed among us may get a bonus - a glimpse of the European Space Agency's Jules Verne automated transport vehicle - a cargo drone on a test run to the ISS this weekend. That's it at left. Here's more, with a video.

The forecast says partly cloudy. I guess we'll have to wait and see which part is cloudy, and whether we get enough of a break to spot the ISS. The station itself is plenty bright to be visible in hazy, twilight skies, but the Jules Verne is much smaller and therefore dimmer. And, it will be flying within about 10 miles of the ISS, so we may not be able to separate the pair except perhaps with binoculars.

Anyway, here are the specifics for tonight.

Watch for the ISS to rise above the western horizon at about 7:57 p.m. It will look like a bright star, except that it will be moving briskly toward the northeast. It will climb as high as 47 degrees above the northwestern horizon - that's about halfway between the horizon and the zenith (straight up) at 7:59 p.m. At that moment the station will be about 300 miles northwest of Baltimore.

From there is will zip off toward the northeast, passing above the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia, and north of the Big Dipper. It will disappear from view at about 8:04 p.m. If you spot it, come back and leave us some comments.

Here's a link to more information about the Jules Verne. This will be our last shot at the ISS for a while. The forecast ahead looks rainy, and evening passes by the ISS will be very brief and low on the horizon, at least through April 7.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 3:34 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

March 28, 2008

Space Station flyover tonight, if skies clear 

No promises here. The forecast is still not very encouraging. But if we get lucky, the International Space Station should be visible over Baltimore just after 7:30 this evening.

Here's the scoop:  The ISS, with three astronauts on board, will be tracking northeast tonight, from North Florida to Cape Hatteras, and then out to sea. It may sound geeky, but lots of people have gotten a kick out of watching their tax dollars zip across the sky. Drag the kids away from their video games and get them to help you watch for the flyover. They're often the first to spot it. Young eyes.

As seen from Baltimore, the ISS will first appear above the southwest horizon at 7:34 p.m. Watch for what looks like a steady bright star, moving brisky toward the east. If it has multiple, or colored lights, it's an airplane. Keep looking.

It will reach it's highest point - about halfway between the southeast horizon and the zenith (straight up) at 7:37 p.m. From there, the station will track toward the northeast, appearing to pass very close to the planet Saturn and the bright star Regulus, which are side-by-side above the eastern horizon at that hour. The ISS will then disappear on the southeast at about 7:40 p.m.

Regular satellite watchers say the ISS has become very much brighter since astronauts have added new modules, solar panels and radiators. It can be the brightest object in the night sky.

After watching the flyover, come back here and leave us a comment, and share the experience with those who missed it. If this one is clouded out, we'll have a better shot tomorrow night. Stay tuned.

Remember, you can calculate ISS predictions for your own location at

Posted by Frank Roylance at 7:47 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

March 25, 2008

Space station views this week washed out

And here I thought I'd have a nice series of bright flyovers by the International Space Station to enjoy during my vacation. Alas, the arrival of a cold front tonight - and forecasts that it will stall over the region with clouds and showers for the rest of the week - have washed out those plans.

The astronauts aboard the ISS will be flying over a solid deck of clouds. And we'll be beneath it. We might even have caught a glimpse of the shuttle Endeavour, which has undocked from the ISS in preparation for the ride home.

Had the forecast been for clear skies over the next few nights, we could have enjoyed nightly, early-evening flyovers. Instead we get this

That's the cold front - the blue line draped along the Ohio Valley on this weather map. It extends from a low now over eastern Canada. Once it gets here, it will hang around way too long. There's no sunshine predicted again until Sunday.

Our temperatures will depend on which side of the front we find ourselves on. Could be in the 60s. Or, not.  The forecast discussion suggests there is a "potential for a huge bust in temperature forecast given usual uncertainties with exact position of front..."

Bummer. I'm takin' a nap.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 2:20 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

February 28, 2008

Space Cadets! Rise and shine for ISS passes

The forecast isn't perfect, but we've got a good shot at clear skies for two fine passes by the International Space Station in the next few days. All you need is a willingness to roll out of bed earlier than anyone should have to on a weekend, or a Monday morning.

UPDATE at 5:15 p.m. Friday: Actually, the Saturday morning forecast has deteriorated. They're calling for snow or rain before noon. Too bad. Monday still looks good. Earlier post follows.

NASAThe ISS is brighter than ever these days, thanks to the shiny new Columbus module transported to the station this month by astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, and new solar panels and radiators added in other recent flights. Here's a cool video, shot by amateurs from the ground, of Atlantis approaching the station.

And here, speeded up by time-lapse video, is how it looks to the naked eye.

Even at ranges of several hundred miles, the station can be nearly the brightest object in the night sky, except for the moon. It's not hard to see even in the fading light of dusk, or the brightening skies before dawn. And it's always a kick to watch it soar over Baltimore, with three crew members on board, at about 17,500 mph. So much money spent; so few people paying any attention. 

The ISS is visible early every morning for the next week, but most of the flyovers appear low on our horizons, making them difficult, or inconvenient to watch. But two will be especially bright, and high over Maryland skies.

Here are the specifics:


Continue reading "Space Cadets! Rise and shine for ISS passes" »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 10:16 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

February 20, 2008

Sky is clear, eclipse is under way

The Clipper has moved offshore, and skies over Baltimore have cleared. So throw on a coat and head outside for a fine view of tonight's total lunar eclipse. It's the last one we'll see until Dec. 21, 2010. And we may get clouded out for that one.

So don't miss it. Take the kids out. They'll never forget it. Bring the binoculars. You can even watch from any east-facing window. The partial phase began at 8:43 p.m. or so, and the Earth's shadow is already creeping across the moon's disk. Totality will last from 10:00 p.m. until 10:52 p.m., and the event will be over by 12:09 a.m. For more information, check out the earlier posts and links.

When you come back in, leave a comment here and share the experience with everyone who figured it was snowing and went to bed without getting to see this celestial spectacular. Total eclipses of the moon, visible from start to finish under clear skies at a convenient hour are rare. Don't miss this one.!


Posted by Frank Roylance at 8:45 PM | | Comments (27)
Categories: Sky Watching

February 19, 2008

Ready for Wednesday's eclipse?

 NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

If tomorrow's predicted "Clipper" storm gets through the area in time, we could get enough clearing to catch at least part of the total lunar eclipse ocurring during much of the evening.

Wednesday's Sun will include a story on the event. For now, here are some online resources you can use to learn more about eclipses in general, and this one particularly.

Here is NASA's eclipse page, with loads of data on this eclipse and many others in the past and future. NASA has also posted a page and some videos explainers for this event. Click here

Never seen a lunar eclipse before? Here's a gallery of photos of past eclipses.

Have you heard about the lunar eclipse that saved Christopher Columbus and his crew? You can read all about it here.

And, if we;re clouded-out here, you can watch the eclipse live through the magic of Web video  - and explore a lot more eclipse lore - at

This is the first total eclipse of the moon visible from Maryland from start to finish since October 2004, and the last visible anywhere until Dec. 21, 2010. (That's 12/21/2010 for you numerologists.)

Lunar eclipses occur when the sun, the Earth and the moon line up, in that order. The full moon, in its orbit around the Earth, slides into the Earth's shadow and gradually grows dimmer and reddish in color. The transition moves from one side of the moon's disk to the other as seen from Earth. After a period of totality, the moon begins to emerge again from the shadow, and slowly regains its usual brilliance.

Here are the important times to remember fo this event: The partial phase of the eclipse begins at 8:43 p.m. EST. The moon will begin to slide into the Earth's "umbra," the darkest core of the shadow the planet casts into space. Over the next hour and a quarter, the moon will be gradually swallowed up by the shadow, and grow dimmer.

At 10 p.m., the moon's disk will be totally in shadow, taking on an eerie, reddish glow and strikingly spherical appearance. Binoculars will enhance the view.

Totality will last until 10:52 p.m., when the moon will begin to emerge again from the Earth's shadow. It will be restored to full, direct sunlight by 12:09 a.m. Thursday morning.

A number of local astronomers, groups and observatories are planning public viewing events. Here are some links to information:

Howard Astronomical League

Maryland Science Center

Maryland Space Grant Observatory at Johns Hopkins

Baltimore's Streetcorner Astronomer Herman Heyn will set up in the 3100 block of St. Paul St., in Charles Village, at 9 p.m., weather permitting. Here's hoping.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 4:57 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

February 18, 2008

New times for spy satellite flyover

The predictions for tonight's flyover by the doomed USA-193 spy satellite have changed a bit from the times we published in the paper on Saturday. This is not unexpected, since the satellite's orbit is decaying rapidly. It is losing altitude, and speeding up enroute to a plunge into the atmosphere on or about March 11 - unless the Navy blasts it apart before then. The photo shows USA-193 at launch in December 2006. It failed soon after.

USA-193 at launch, Dec. 2006 - NROThe weather forecast calls for "partly cloudy" skies tonight and tomorrow, so we have at least some chance of seeing this thing amid the clouds. Wednesday and Thursday look "mostly cloudy" from here, so our chances diminish as the week goes by.

So here are the latest times from Heavens-Above, calculated for Baltimore. To be sure not to miss it, be out there looking at least 5 minutes on either end of the sequence, just in case. Those who have already spotted USA-193 say it is brighter and faster than they anticipated. Good luck.

Tonight: (Monday) Look for USA-193 to appear above the southern horizon at 6:19 p.m., climbing more than halfway up the southeastern sky to pass straight through the constellation Orion at 6:21 p.m. From there it slips off to the northeast, disappearing at 6:23 p.m.

Tuesday: This will be a challenging observation, as the spy sat passes low to the horizon from west to south between 6:08 p.m. and 6:12 p.m. It will never get more than 18 degrees above the horizon.

Wednesday: USA-193 will rise above the western horizon at 6:04 p.m., move about halfway up the northwestern sky - just below Cassiopeia - by 6:06 p.m., then fly off toward the Big Dipper in the northeast.

Thursday: Another difficult pass, low in the northwest. Look for USA-193 to rise above the western horizon at 5:56 p.m., climbing no more than 27 degrees above the northwestern horizon by 5:58 p.m. From there it will slide off to the northern sky, and through the Dipper's handle by 6 p.m. This is the day the Navy plans to take its first shot at USA-193, so it may be space litter before this flyby.

If you spot it, please come back here, leave a comment and let us know what you saw. Thanks.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:42 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Sky Watching

February 15, 2008

Space station, spy satellite, to buzz Baltimore

When it rains, it pours. If the clouds part at the right times in the next few days, Marylanders will have an opportunity to observe not only the very big, very bright and easily spotted International Space Station during passes over Baltimore, but also USA 193 - the now-notorious, formerly "secret" spy satellite.

ISS - NASAUSA 193 is out of control, and the Pentagon said yesterday it has elected to try to shoot it down in the coming weeks, using a modified missile. They're hoping to break the thing up so that it doesn't fall, whole, on people - a risk estimated at 1 percent. Critics worry that by blasting the satellite apart, the military will instead be creating thousands of smaller but still dangerous fragments that will plague satellites and manned spacecraft for years to come.

Whatever. The rest of us can only hope to get a glimpse of these space toys as they glide across our evening sky in the next few days. Here's how.


Continue reading "Space station, spy satellite, to buzz Baltimore" »

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:27 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

February 8, 2008

Clear skies tonight; space station a no-show

My clear-sky alarm went off this morning, alerting me to good star-gazing conditions in Baltimore after 9 p.m. tonight. Unfortunately, the International Space Station will not be in our skies, so we will NOT have an opportunity to watch the ISS and the shuttle Atlantis soar over Baltimore one after the other.

Still, the clear weather offers us a good chance to see Mars again - high overhead, still a bright, ruddy "star" in the evening sky. And pale-yellow Saturn is rising earlier each night. It's low in the east by 9 p.m., moving toward opposition on the 24th. At that point it will be rising at sunset, and climbing high in the sky by midnight. By month's end, Saturn will be as close as it will be all year, prime time once again for viewing the majestic planet and its rings through backyard, streetcorner or observatory telescopes. You'll never forget your first look at this iconic orb.

University of Hawaii 

In any case, these cold, crisp winter evenings are always a great time to go outside and re-acquaint ourselves with the bright stars and constellations of the northern winter sky. Orion, left, with its easy-to-spot three-star "belt" and, just below it, the fuzzy smear (red in this image; binoculars help) of the Orion nebula; brilliant Sirius (the brightest true star) below and to the left of Orion; lonely Procyon higher and more to the left; the twins of Gemini, Castor and Pollux.

For those who have come to enjoy watching $100 billion of your hard-earned tax dollars at play in the night sky, the International Space Station and attached shuttle will make several convenient evening passes over Baltimore next week, between the 13th and the 16th. If NASA uses Atlantis to boost the station's orbit, as expected during this mission, the flyby times will change somewhat from their current predictions. So watch this space next week for details.

The weather? Look for a chance of showers tomorrow, and a sharp, quick cold snap Sunday night and Monday. But before and after that, we can expect mostly seasonable temperatures. There is some talk of snow showers to our north and west, but nothing to worry about down here in the urban corridor. Still no real winter in sight.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 11:05 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

February 1, 2008

ISS flyover tonight, if skies clear by 6

Okay, Space cadets... I have my doubts about whether this storm will clear out in time, but here are the specs for tonight's Baltimore flyover by the International Space Station. If we can see it, it will be a very fine pass. The ISS will follow the same track as Wednesday's flyby, but this time it will be brighter, and it will be visible across the entire sky.

If the clouds part, look for a bright, star-like object rising above the southwest horizon at 6:07 p.m. and climbing almost two-thirds of the way up the northwestern sky. (If it has multiple lights, colored lights, or a blinking strobe, it's an airplane. Keep looking.)

The ISS will pass through the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia at about 6:10 p.m., and head off toward the northeast, disappearing from view near the Big Dipper at 6:13 p.m.

The station, with three people on board, is orbiting the Earth at 17,500 mph, just over 200 miles above the surface. As we pick it up here, it will be high over northern Alabama, passing northwest of Baltimore and moving off toward coastal Maine, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. Here's the ground track map, from

Posted by Frank Roylance at 2:51 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

January 29, 2008

Skies may clear for space station flyover

Attention Space Cadets! The forecast is beginning to look more hopeful for a clear view of tomorrow evening's flyover by the International Space Station.

NASAIt's not an ideal situation. Although it is an evening event, making it more convenient for most people, the flyby is comparatively late in the evening, which means the Earth's shadow is high in the sky. So, the ISS will fly into the shadow near the highest point in its passage and disappear abruptly from our view. So expect a short view. A much better flyby is expected Friday evening, but the weather looks problematic.

So, here are the details. You should leave the house a few minutes early, to allow for any inaccuracies in your clocks, or in the orbital predictions:

The ISS will appear above the western horizon at about 7 p.m. Look for a bright, star-like object moving briskly toward the northeast. It will rise to more than halfway up the northwestern sky, and head for the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia. There, at about 7:03 p.m., it will suddenly disappear from view. To an astronaut on board, the sun will appear to set, the windows will go dark, and the ISS will move into the "night" side of the Earth.

We'll watch for the forecast for Friday, and if it looks promising, we will post ISS viewing details here. The map below shows the path the ISS (red arrow) will take Wednesday evening. You can calculate ISS flyover predictions for your location at

Posted by Frank Roylance at 1:48 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Sky Watching

January 19, 2008

Moon and Mars Show, tonight!

If you're out in the cold tonight, and if the skies clear off enough, look for a striking conjunction of the moon and the planet Mars, high in the eastern sky after sunset (and almost directly overhead in the late evening hours).

The two orbs will be separated by less than a half-degree. That's less than the width of your finger held at arm's length.

Mars is only a month past its closest approach to the Earth for this year, and still very bright, and still rather reddish compared with the bright, white stars of the winter constellations. Imagine - sunlight streams outward from the sun, bounces off the surface of Mars, gets tweaked by the iron oxide in the dirt up there such that the reflected light we see - 60 million miles away - appears slightly reddish. Amazing.

If you miss it tonight, or if skies are too cloudy, try again Sunday night. The moon won't have moved too far east of the moon and, while not as striking as tonight's view, it will still be worth a look. Here's more.

Several faithful readers emailed me last month after they spotted a similar - though not so close - conjunction of the full moon and Mars on Christmas Eve. This one is better, even though the moon is not quite full this time. Enjoy.


Posted by Frank Roylance at 1:33 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

January 8, 2008

Fireball over Baltimore

I'm starting to receive reports of a fireball southwest of Baltimore Monday evening. Here are two of them:

From Donna Caudle: "My husband and I were driving last night (1/7/08) through Perry Hall, MD when we spotted a blue-green fall fireball speeding to some site not far from us ... We were traveling near the area of Magdlet Rd in Perry Hall and Joppa was closed for some accident. I would say we were facing north west when we spotted it falling the the direction of Carney or Towson. The time was about 8:50 pm last night ,Monday the 7th of Janurary "

And,  from Jeff Ceccola, who has reported before: "Frank, I was lucky enough to see another fireball tonight (1/7/08). Twice in a 2 months. I fear my friends are going to think I'm fibbing when I tell them about this one.

This one was to the southwest, in front of the constellation Cetus. It had a greenish hue, with a magnitude of about a -4, lasting no more than 3 seconds.

I was in West Chester, Pa., the event occurred about 8:40 PM.  From my POV, it was to the SW at about a 30 degree angle, falling from SW to W.

Since my first event, I've been doing a lot more star gazing and have studied sky maps. I'm sure my increased interest is why I was lucky enough to see yet another fireball..

Let me know if anyone has seen this one. Look for you in the Sun. -Jeff"

UPDATE: More reports, from Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, are now appearing on the American Meteor Society log. The broad area where this object was visible gives you an idea of how high and far away from Baltimore it actually was. Observers frequently describe such things as falling "just beyond the trees," or in the next town. In fact, they are usually quite distant, very high in the atmosphere, and rarely reach the ground.

If anyone else out there saw this object, please send me a comment. Be sure to include the time you saw it, where you were, which direction it was going relative to your location, any sounds that seemed to accompany the event, and any other descriptive details you have. Here is more on what to include.

You can also file a fireball report with the International Meteor Organization, or the American Meteor Society.

Never seen a fireball? Well, here's one in a terrific image captured Nov. 2, 2005, by Mark Vornhusen of Germany and published by NASA. It is NOT Monday's object. But if you got a picture of it, send it to me and I'll replace this one with yours.

NASA fireball

Posted by Frank Roylance at 9:52 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Sky Watching

January 3, 2008

Quadrantid meteor shower Friday AM

Readers are reminding me to pitch tomorrow morning's annual Quadrantid meteor shower to those inclined to be out in the cold before dawn in January. Brrrrr!

If you're among them, this looks like a particularly good year for the Q's, which are active during the first five days of January. They can produce meteors at rates - under very dark skies - anywhere from 60 to 200 meteors per hour. A waning crescent moon will stay out of the way most of the night, rising after 4 a.m. The weather forecast is good.

The year's peak works best for the eastern U.S. So get out there in the hours before dawn, when the radiant is high in the northern sky. Dress warmly and good luck.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 1:03 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

January 2, 2008

Stargazing; where the dark skies are

Just received an alert from my Clear Sky Clock, letting me know that skies will be clear enough tonight in the Baltimore area some fine stargazing.

If you're looking for a good place to go, within reasonable driving distance of Baltimore, for some reasonably dark skies and decent stargazing, consider this map. It shows where the worst urban light pollution is, and isn't. You can click on the Google Earth overlay feature for a more detailed map. Good luck.

If you're into this stuff, consider the Clear Sky Clock. You can use it to email you an alert when skies in your location look clear enough for stargazing. Works for me.

While we're on the subject, be sure to visit the new Science Matters blog for some marvelous photos of Comet 8P/Tuttle, which just slid past the M33 spiral galaxy this week.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 3:10 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Sky Watching

December 20, 2007

Space Station flyover tonight

If the clouds part, Marylanders will get a chance to watch tonight as the International Space Station flys over Baltimore. There will be another opportunity on Saturday evening, but the weather forecast for that one is even less promising. There's a note about it all on the Weather NASAPage of today's Sun, but I managed to edit in an error last night that some will find confusing. Here's how it should read:

"At 6:18 p.m. today, the station will appear in the northwestern sky, fly past the bright star Vega and climb high overhead before disappearing into the Earth's shadow at 6:21 p.m.   On Saturday, the station rises in the northwest at 5:25 p.m. and flies directly over Baltimore at 5:28 p.m. before vanishing in the southeast."

My apologies for the goof.

For those who haven't tried to watch the ISS on its passages over Baltimore, you are looking for a bright, steady, star-like object that is moving briskly across the sky, at about the speed of an airliner at high altitude. If it blinks, or has multiple, colored lights, it's an airplane. Keep looking.

The station is about 240 miles above the Earth's surface, orbiting at 17,500 mph. There are three astronauts on board. One of them is flight engineer Daniel Tani, whose mother was killed yesterday when her car was struck by a freight train. She was 90. Tani was informed by Mission Control. He will not return to Earth until January at the earliest.

Posted by Frank Roylance at 8:26 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Sky Watching

December 18, 2007

Mars is closest tonight; cool Hubble video

The planet Mars, which has been growing bigger and brighter in the northeastern sky each evening for months, tonight makes its closest approach to Earth since 2003, and the nearest until 2016.

A forecast for "mostly cloudy" skies threatens to obscure the view tonight. But Mars will continue to dominate the evening sky for several more months, even as Earth's faster orbital track begins to speed us farther and farther away.

Hubble Space4 TelescopeWhen the clouds do part, anyone can spot Mars, gleaming high above the northeastern horizon after sunset. Its reddish hue sets it apart from the bright stars of the winter constellations in that part of the sky.

Because of peculiarities of Mars' orbit, tonight's close approach comes six days before Mars reaches "opposition,"  that is, opposite the sun as seen from Earth's perspective. That means Earth's orbit around the sun has brought it around to the same side of the solar system as Mars, which is farther from the sun, and therefore moving more slowly along its orbital track. Earth is, in effect, "lapping" Mars on