It’s Spring!

Today is the March Equinox. Finally! The equinox occurred at 16:57 UTC.

For me, the winter has been long and cold, March alone has been 12 oC below normal. In fact it is still cold. Maple syrup producers have hardly made a drop so far.

A cartoon depicting the angle of sunlight lighting the Earth’s surface. Image by Przemyslaw “Blueshade” Idzkiewicz.

So the March equinox heralds longer days for the northern hemisphere and shorter days for the south. On the day of the equinox the tilt of the Earth is more or less balanced as you can see in the cartoon above.


late 14c., from Old French equinoce (12c.) or directly from Medieval Latin equinoxium “equality of night (and day),” from Latin aequinoctium “the equinoxes,” from aequus “equal” (see equal (adj.)) + nox (genitive noctis) “night” (see night). The Old English translation was efnniht. Related: Equinoctial.

Online Etymology Dictionary

Most of you have no doubt noticed the date of equal and night does not necessarily occur on the equinox (today for example). The day that comes the closest to 12 hours day and night depends on your latitude. For my latitude (~45 N) that day was this past Monday.  Here is a good explanation of why.

The image below attempts to show this day length / latitude relationship, and while it isn’t down to the minute or anything, it depicts how things progress during the year. That and I liked it.

Amount of daylight through the year at different latitudes. Image: Creative Commons

 I did not see the onslaught of feats of egg balancing on the equinox this year! :mrgreen:

Students Looking for a Project?

Continuing on this weekend’s theme:

13 years of Cassini for a Day! This is a great opportunity for both teachers and students, espeically students. Looking for a project? You could enter this and (or) use the essay at school. Surely an entry would earn some extra credit.

Students must be in grades 5 to 12 and the entry deadline is 17 April 2014. Note: that is a US deadline, other counties may have different deadlines which are not yet listed, typically they indeed different.  The International link on the site is not yet current but it will be shortly.

Check out the Cassini Scientist for a Day website.

The contest meets U.S. National English and Science Education Standards.

Cassini Scientist for a Day is an essay contest designed to give students a taste of life as a scientist.

Students study three possible targets that the Cassini spacecraft can image during a given time set aside for education. They are to choose the one image they think will yield the best science results and explain their reasons in an essay.

The three targets are:

  1. Target 1 is Saturn’s F ring. Cassini will be taking 70 images of the F ring using the spacecraft’s Narrow Angle Camera to make a movie showing how the F ring changes as it orbits Saturn.
  2. Target 2 is Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Cassini will be taking nine images of Titan’s north polar region using its Narrow Angle Camera. These images will be stitched together to form a mosaic.
  3. Target 3 is the planet Saturn. The Cassini spacecraft will use its Wide Angle Camera and its Narrow Angle Camera to image Saturn’s north pole, studying the hurricane at the north pole and the hexagon-shaped polar vortex.


No Planet X

The third closest star system to the sun, called WISE J104915.57-531906, is at the center of the larger image, which was taken by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). It appeared to be a single object, but a sharper image from Gemini Observatory in Chile (inset), revealed that it was binary star system, consisting of a pair of brown dwarfs. This is the closest star system to be discovered in nearly a century. The discovery was announced in March, 2013. Caption and Image: NASA/JPL/Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF/

The third closest star system to the sun, called WISE J104915.57-531906, is at the center of the larger image, which was taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). It appeared to be a single object, but a sharper image from Gemini Observatory in Chile (inset), revealed that it was binary star system, consisting of a pair of brown dwarfs. This is the closest star system to be discovered in nearly a century. The discovery was announced in March, 2013.
Caption and Image: NASA/JPL/Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF/

There seems to be no Planet X. There has been an ongoing idea of a planet outside the orbit of Pluto. Surveys by the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) turned up thousands of “new to us” stars and brown dwarfs within 500 light-years, but no Planets.

The outer solar system probably does not contain a large gas giant planet, or a small, companion star

– Kevin Luhman of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University, University Park, Pa., author of a paper in the Astrophysical Journal describing the results.

The recent study, looking at WISE data found no objects Saturn sized or larger to a distance of 10,000 A.U. and no Jupiter sized or larger out to 26,000 A.U. In rough terms 1 A.U. is about 150 million km / 93 million miles.

Read more about this at The WISE page at Berkeley, it is worth the visit I promise!.

Yuri’s Day

Yuri Gagarin and news of the first human in space.

Yuri Gagarin and news of the first human in space. Credit: NASA (linked below)

Today Yuri Gagarin would have been 90 years old. “Yuri” was a Soviet cosmonaut and pilot and became the first human in space, completing an orbit in his Vostok spacecraft on 12 April 1961.

Gagarin was killed in a training accident (March 1968) when the jet he was piloting crashed. Gagarin’s death was (and still is) was fodder for conspiracy theorists as it apparently completely isn’t certain. Official reports indicate weather was a factor.

Today the anniversary of significant space exploration milestones is marked by a worldwide celebration named for Gagarin – Yuri’s Night.

Yuri’s Night began on 12 April 2001, 40 years after the historic and world-changing flight. One of the main goals is to increase public interest in space exploration. It also happens that the flight of STS-1, the very first Space Shuttle mission was launched on 12 April 1981.

I always have fun on Yuri’s Night, after a long, cold winter it will feel good to get out.

Yuri’s night isn’t just big, it’s HUGE! Last year something like 350 star parties were held in almost 60 countries and many-many more on-line celebrations.

Look for a celebration near you:

Yuri’s Night – The World’s Space Party

The image above comes from NASA, see the caption and a link to archival Gagarin video here.




Cosmos Returns!

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Tomorrow is the premier of the updated version of the iconic television series, Cosmos. The original version is of course was hosted by Carl Sagan and aired in 1980, Cosmos: A personal journey.

The new version is hosed by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I was lucky enough to have seen the first episode and Tyson seems perfect for the role.

The 13-episode series is billed as “An epic Adventure in time, space and life”. Tyson has a line in the first episode that sums things up nicely:  “It’s time to get going again”.

One of the show’s producers is Ann Druyan, a producer known for Contact (1997) and was married to Carl Sagan from 1981 until his death in 1996.

I could not believe my eyes when I read another of the group of producers was Seth MacFarlane – yes THAT Seth MacFarlane. I’m not sure why this surprises me, although I am very pleased so see him on the team.

You can see this in FOX starting on 9 March 2014 and NatGeo on 10 March 2014. Check your local listings for times. The series premier is scheduled for 9pm Eastern 8pm Central on FOX (01:00 UTC if I did the math correctly).

Visit the official site: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

There is another show coming at weeks end “Live from the Space”, more on that about mid-week.

Lunar Impact

An image of the flash resulting from the impact of a large meteorite on the lunar surface on 11 September 2013, obtained with the MIDAS observatory. Credit: J. Madiedo / MIDAS

A meteorite with about the mass of a small car impacted the moon last September and it was seen by Spanish astronomers. I don’t often mention Spanish astronomers, more the pity and bad on me. Spain has some of the best observers and astronomers as there are anywhere.

In this case on 11 September 2013, Prof. Jose M. Madiedo was operating two telescopes in the south of Spain that were searching for these impact events. At 2007 UTC he witnessed an unusually long and bright flash in Mare Nubium, an ancient lava-filled basin with a darker appearance than its surroundings.

We are hearing about this now because the scientists involved published their description of the event in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.  By the way, video links are included below the fold.

The Spanish telescopes are part of the Moon Impacts Detection and Analysis System (MIDAS) system that monitors the lunar surface. This project is being undertaken by Prof. Jose Maria Madiedo, from the University of Huelva (UHU), and by Dr. Jose L. Ortiz, from the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC) and continues a pioneering program that detected sporadic lunar impact flashes for the first time.

Continue reading


Static image from OVATION. Click to go to the OVATION page with live images. Credit NOAA

The US Space Weather Prediction Center and the Space Weather Prediction Testbed recently introduced a new Auroral Foercast (test) product.

The Auroral Forecast product is based ont eh OVATION Prime model providing a 30 to 40 minute forecast on auroral displays and probabilities for both polar regions. The model itself was developed by P. Newell at the Johns Hopkins, Applied Physics Lab. Scientists at the NESDIS National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC) added further refinements to make the model run in real time.

The model uses data from the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satelite. For the displays, the model takes the ACE data and provides output in terms of energy per unit area and converts that into a relative intesity map and that is further translated into a probability of observation. The resulting images show where the aurora most likely will be seen and how intense it is likely to be.

The release of the OVATION product is timely as we should be seeing an increase in auroral activity.

What is the solar cycle progression shaping up? Quite close to predictions.

The image is a static image of the northern hemisphere, click it to go to the OVATION page and get a live look at both poles or you can click here.

Aurora Alert


The same Solar Radiation Storm that delayed the Cygnus launch on Thursday should provide some of us with an aurora. Note the Cygnus cargo ship HAS launched!!

I’m not sure this will be a huge display, it will however be one of the better displays in a long while.

Right now, not much is happening, but things should be getting going in a few hours, I for one am planning on being outside a few hours before daylight here and that would be about 08:00 or 09:00 UTC.

A visual from the SWPC page (it should be current)

The latest WWV Geophysical Alert Message:

Solar-terrestrial indices for 09 January follow.
Solar flux 184 and estimated planetary A-index 10.
The estimated planetary K-index at 2100 UTC on 09 January was 3.

Space weather for the past 24 hours has been strong.
Solar radiation storms reaching the S3 level occurred.

Space weather for the next 24 hours is predicted to be strong.
Geomagnetic storms reaching the G3 level are likely.
Solar radiation storms reaching the S2 level are expected.
Radio blackouts reaching the R1 level are expected.

A very nice concise page of data including all updates to the above message can be found at the SWPC and by clicking here.