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.

Spectacular new Comet visible in Fall of 2013!

This year a comet called Ison will put on a once in a lifetime show. The comet is expected to be visible to the naked eye in December of 2013, and could at times be brighter than the Moon. It will be visible from all around the world. Comet C/2012 S1 ISON, its formal name, was found by Russian amateurs Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok of the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON), a network of observers who track man-made space debris.

The Great Comet of 1680 over Rotterdam painted by Lieve Verschuier.

Was this Comet ISON? The photo shows the Great Comet of 1680 over Rotterdam painted by Lieve Verschuier. Some of the people are using cross-staffs to measure the comet’s altitude and tail length. Astronomers think this comet may have been the an early  visit by Comet C/2012 S1 ISON.

Spectacular Christmas show!

CHRISTMAS NIGHT: The Moon and Jupiter are converging for a heavenly sky show on Dec. 25, 2012. I prepared this drawing of the event. Got a telescope? Everyone can see the show, even people living in light-polluted cities. Getting a telescope for Christmas? Even a small scope or a binocular will show the four Galilean moons of Jupiter, strung out in a straight line around the planet (see inset). The planet will be near the moon for two days, so you have more than one chance of seeing this beautiful apparition.

The Geminid meteor shower is well underway! Dec. 13th.

International observers are counting as many as 50 meteors per hour as Earth plunges into a stream of debris from the tail of comet Phaethon. Rates could double, or more, when the shower peaks tonight and tomorrow morning (Dec 13-14). The best time to look is during the dark hours very late Thursday night and Friday morning. A second meteor shower, recently identified by NASA, will add to the display. And then there’s the near-earth asteroid 2012XB112, at it’s closest approach to earth that night. It will shoot by earth closer than the moon. Meteor photo by Ron Shawley of Johnstown, PA. taken last night on Dec. 12th.

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
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.

Massive sunspot suddenly appears!

I just went out in my backyard and snapped this photo (12:15pm 11/26/12). Yesterday, the sunspot in center right was barely visible. Today it has suddenly grown bigger than a six planet Earths! This sunspot has a beta-gamma magnetic field that harbors energy for strong flares. Because of the sunspot’s proximity to the center of the solar disk, forecasters predict that Earth would be in the line of fire of any eruptions. I don’t think so. The more it slides off to the right, the less it is pointed at earth. The forecast may have been made when it was directly in the center of the sun’s disc. Forecasters estimate a 30% chance of M-class (medium intensity) solar flares in the next 24 hours.