Comet ISON isn’t the only comet that will be blazing across our sky this year. In March, a good seven months before ISON starts its slow approach in the night sky, Comet PANSTARRS will be – if it lives up to predictions – a bright naked eye object in the evening sky, possibly rivalling the famous Comet Hale Bopp back in1997.

Although the press is fond of saying that Comet ISON (due in Nov-Dec 2013) and Comet Pannstarrs (due in March 2013) are predicted to be brighter than a full-moon, most astronomers feel that this is premature. But whatever happens, the appearance of these two comets should make 2013 the best year for observing comets in a very long time, maybe even a century or more.

It’s time to add Mercury to the list of worlds where we can go ice-skating!  Yesterday a NASA spacecraft spotted vast deposits of water ice on Mercury, the planet closest to the sun, where temperatures  can reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit (427 degrees Celsius). Oddly enough, around the north pole, in areas permanently shielded from the sun’s heat, NASA’s Messenger spacecraft found a mix of frozen water and organic materials. Maybe there are little micro-organisms ice-skating on Mercury!

But seriously, the find is so exciting that NASA will direct Messenger’s observation toward that area in the coming months — when the angle of the sun allows — to get a better look at the area. Researchers also think that the south pole has ice, but Messenger’s orbit has not yet allowed them to obtain measurements of that region.

Messenger will spiral closer to the planet in 2014 and 2015 as it runs out of fuel and it’s orbit is degraded by the sun’s and Mercury’s gravity. Happily, this will let researchers peer closer at the water ice as they figure out how much is there.

Speculation about water ice on Mercury dates back more than 20 years.

In 1991, Earth-bound astronomers fired radar signals to Mercury and received results showing there could be ice at both poles. This was reinforced by 1999 measurements using the more powerful Arecibo Observatory microwave beam in Puerto Rico.

Back in 1991 radar pictures beamed back to New Mexico’s Very Large Array showed white areas that researchers suspected was water ice.

A closer view, however, required a spacecraft. Messenger settled into Mercury’s orbit in March 2011, after a few flybys. Almost immediately, NASA used a laser altimeter to probe the poles. And there it was. Little microbes on ice-skates!

Image: NASA/UCLA/JHUAPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington

 

 

Jupiter brightest “star” in the sky tonight.

Today, Dec 2nd, the Earth passes between the sun and Jupiter, which puts Jupiter exactly opposite the sun in our sky. This is what is meant when you hear that “Jupiter is in opposition”. The interesting this is that this opposition is Jupiter’s closest until 2021. Go outside tonight and look up. Jupiter shines more brightly than any star in the night sky. It’s a beautiful sight,  in an area of the sky filled with bright stars. That really bright reddish star just below Jupiter is Aldebaran. Take a look with binoculars if you want to see a really breath-taking sight. You should be able to see the four little moons of Jupiter, strung out in a line that passes through the planet. 

A massive Solar Flare Caused a Radioactive Carbon-14 Spike In 8th Century Japan.

Something earth-shaking  happened in the year A.D. 774.
Japanese scientists studying tree rings discovered a sharp increase in the amount of radioactive carbon-14  in the rings of ancient Japanese cedar trees that grew between the years 774 and 775.
Experts were at a loss to explain the event. Now a new team of scientists has shown that a massive solar flare could have caused the surge in carbon-14.
A massive solar flare on the sun would have released a huge and powerful blast of plasma into space which, when it slammed into Earth, could have sparked the creation of carbon-14. This is the theory  proposed by astrophysicists Adrian Melott of the University of Kansas and Brian Thomas of Washburn University, also in Kansas, in a paper published the Nov. 29 issue of the journal Nature.
It had been widely known that a jump in carbon-14 occurred in the eighth century, but researchers first pinpointed this rise and fall on a year-to-year basis by looking at tree rings in a paper by Fusa Miyake of Japan’s Nagoya University and colleagues, published in the June 14 issue of Nature.
“They found that whatever made that carbon-14 bump happened really fast, and took less than one year, which called out for some really major, powerful event,” Melott told SPACE.com.
Melott and Thomas say a solar flare is a reasonable explanation. A solar flare need have been only about 10 or 20 times more powerful than the greatest flare on record, the so-called Carrington event of 1859. If that flare happened today, it could easily be a doomsday event of Biblical proportions, wiping out everything electronic and bouncing civilization back into the Dark Ages.

Fantastic sight in Eastern twilight.

Jupiter and the moon in the Eastern sky.

Step outside tonight and face East. The moon and the planet Jupiter are only about one degree apart and make a beautiful pair in the growing twilight. They will remain like this in the sky all night, and slowly move apart over the next few weeks.

Space station crosses in front of the sun – photo!

Leonardo Julio drove 250km to Entre Rios, Argentina, to photograph the International Space Station at the moment that it passed in front of the sun. These transits are predicted by the website www.Calsky.org. If you go to the website and plug in your location, it will tell you when the ISS passes over your location, or when other satellites pass overhead as they silently transit the sky. It will even give you the exact timing of transits across the face of the moon. or other bright stars. You don’t need a telescope to see ISS transits during twilight. By the way, the sunspot at the bottom of the photo is the one we’ve been watching this week. It finally fizzled out, not producing any major flares.

Moonbow!

On the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, photographer John Gray snapped this photo of a “moon bow”, caused by bright moonlight reflecting from water droplets in distant rain clouds. What he was actually looking for was the aurora caused by the recent solar flare. The CME hit the earth on Nov. 23rd, but was weak, so there were only faint auroras. You can see the aurora just to the left of the moon bow.

Flare continues to erupt!

The sunspot that I photographed last week is now on the far side of the sun and is in a near-constant state of eruption. Magnetic instabilities in the sunspot’s magnetic canopy are hurling massive blasts of magnetized plasma into space. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory caught some of them emerging during the early hours of Oct. 2nd. Here’s a film they released, with a disc blocking the sun so you can see the plasma blast:(Copy and paste this into your browser window to see the film)

http://spaceweather.com/images2012/02oct12/smoke.gif?PHPSESSID=7fmmr6g1vl4hv7iespcam9u8c3

Two new earth-intrusive solar events!

An active region on the opposite side of the sun exploded last night, (Sept. 23rd), hurling a bright coronal mass ejection outward into space. Our Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite recorded the expanding cloud. The cloud is not directed toward Earth at the present time, but In two days the sun’s rotation will turn the blast site toward Earth. After that, eruptions could directly effect us.

Bear in mind that the sun is a sphere and solar flares can be directed in any direction, usually not toward the Earth. However, the sunspot that I have been watching is now pointed directly toward earth. The odds are low that it will produce a flare, but if it does, it will definitely be Earth-directed.

Effects can range from spectacular auroras (common) to worldwide electronic grid failures (rare).

Endeavor’s last flight.

En route to landing, James Young photographed the shuttle Enddeavor sailing over Palmdale, California.
The space shuttle Endeavour has landed for the last time. Piggy-backing atop a modified jumbo jet, the retired orbiter finally touched down at Los Angeles International Airport at 12:51 p.m. PDT, ending a cross-country ferry mission and returning to where it was constructed, the state of California.

Tonight, September 21st, Endeavour will be removed from the jumbo jet and placed on a special transportation system.It will be moved into a United Airlines hangar, where it will remain for several weeks. Eventually, it will be displayed at the California Science Center.