Monday, May 20, 2013

Mother of a Prom

interrupting the planetary overview.
lot's of solar activity on mother's day
here's a close up with the bright disk blocked out to emphasize the faint prominence:

still working on full disk versions

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


will skip earth and the moon for now
and move on to the 4th planet from the sun
Mars aka the red planet

mars is a small planet, about half the size of the earth
with mass equivalent to mercury

Mars is the only planet who's surface detail can be seen from the earth
(detail seen on other planets is related to clouds)

The red-orange appearance of the Martian surface is caused by iron oxide (basically rust) in the soil
as well as a reddening effect due to dust in the atmosphere.
many areas have blue tinted rocks altering the surface color.

the squiggly line upper right of center is a giant dust storm on the surface.
the white dot upper left is a melting polar cap
made of carbon dioxide and some water ice.

the polar caps change with the martian season
and can be followed in the telescope when mars is in view:

the orbit of mars is relatively close to the earth's
as a result detail in mars is only visible through telescopes
as the earth approaches mars in it's orbit
this occurs every 20 months (approximately)
and lasts for 4 to 6 weeks, with the best viewing for only 2 weeks
so folks get excited when this occurs
the next will be in april 2014 :(

this of course is the time when mars goes into retrograde motion
as the earth passes mars
(which we all learned about in earth science and promptly forgot)

more stuff

mars has two moons
Phobos and Deimos
Phobos is in a decaying orbit, slowly falling to the surface
which brings up an interesting tangent

classic example of the Roche limit:
as Phobos descends to the surface of mars, the gravitational force acting on it will increase.
gravitational strength varies with distance.
so at some point during the descent the gravitational pull on the near side of the moon will by *much* greater than the pull on the far side.
stronger than the force holding the moon together.
the net result is that the moon will break apart, potentially leaving a ring on the way down.
this point is known as the Roche limit

an extreme example of this occurs near black holes where matter is torn apart in strings pointing towards the black hole
a process known as spaghettification
which is fun to say

lastly, the sci-fi book red mars
considered "hard" sci-fi
gives what seems like a very real depiction of how mars could be colonized
has a feel similar to 50's sci fi accurately predicting space flight and moon walks
with lots of detail on martian planetology, whether, etc
very dark book, heavy on planetology, weak on biology


Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Venus, about the same size as earth
the second planet from the sun

rocky, but covered with white clouds
which make it one the brightest planet
appearing brighter than any star

like mercury, it's close to the sun
and never strays far from it
it can only be seen in the evening just after sunset
or in the morning before sunrise
but get's much higher in the sky than mercury
as a result it's know as the dawn star
and the dusk star
depending on where it is in it's orbit
some have suggested that it took the ancients quite some time
to figure out that the dawn and dusk star were the same thing

gallileo was the first to view venus through a telescope
and note it has phases like the moon (see below)
the phases convinced him that the sun was the center of the solar system
not the earth
which was correct
but got him in trouble with the church

the cloud layer on venus
is rich in carbon dioxide causing a greenhouse effect
making venus the hottest planet in the solar system
far hotter than mercury although further away

the similarity in size and carbon dioxide content between earth and venus
lead many to conclude that earth will eventually become like venus
with no water due to the run away greenhouse effect

here are a few images at the "half moon" phase
viewers looking through a telescope for the first time
mistake it for the moon

and here's a shot of venus as it crosses in front of the sun

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


continuing with the planet tour

closest planet to the sun
fastest in orbit circling the sun in 88 days
named after the fleet footed messenger god mercurysmall, rocky, hot, no atmosphere
surface covered with craters
even though extremely hot, some craters near the poles cast shadows creating areas never touched by sunlight.  there appears to be water--ice in these areas

since it's so close to the sun it can only be seen just before sunrise or just after sunset
as a reddish dot near the horizon seen through turbulent atmosphere:

it has phases like the moon
a bit of imagination suggests a dark shadow upper left similar to a gibbous moon

on rare occasions mercury can pass directly in front of the sun, leaving a dark spot where the sun's rays are blocked:

note the sun spot lower left is much bigger than the planet mercury


Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Planets

a few past emails i've sent out seemed appropriate for the start of the blog so here we go...

someone asked for info on the planets for their child, so i thought i'd spam the list with some of my older pictures.

since pluto was demoted in 2006, there are only 8 planets in our solar system. 
in august 2003, mars was closer to the earth than usual due to the aligment of the orbits of the two planets.  it will not be this close for another 60,000 years. 

this event was widely popularized in the press (astronomers love to popularize rare events--seems like they come up with a different one every month).  the original story included the following message: "At a modest 75-power magnification Mars will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye".  interestingly, this event spurred my interest in astronomy, causing me to purchase a telescope to show my 5 year old son. 

since then, every august a bogus email comes out stating that mars will be as large as the full moon in august (omitting the telescope part). 

just for fun, one august, i stayed up all night, taking pictures of all the visible planets at the same image scale.  so here are the planets as seen from earth except saturn and mercury which were behind the sun.  i used photoshop to place them all in a row on the right.  in order of appearance during that night, from top to bottom we have Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus, Mars, and Venus.  

the Moon of course is seen on the left, too big to fit entirely in the frame--clearly *much bigger than mars*.  sharp-eyed viewers may note two small specks to the left of jupiter--two of it's moons--pay no attention to photoshop artifacts. 

about the photo: this one made it to the finals of an amateur photo contest, spawning many copy cat compositions.  the president of my astronomy club implied i was too sarcastic in a reply to someone making the giant mars claim which included this photo...MOI?