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venus-pacific

Venus reflected in the Pacific Ocean

On February 16, 2017, here in the Western Hemisphere, Venus will reach its greatest illuminated extent. Those of you in Australia, New Zealand, Asia will see this on February 17.

You shouldn’t need an “event” to look up at the night sky in wonder, but this might be a reason to look up tonight and know a bit more about what you are seeing.

Look for Venus in the west after sunset and you will also see Mars nearby to the left (south) and a bit higher. That “evening star” is at its most brilliant because its day/illuminated side is covering more square area of Earth’s sky than in its 9.6-month appearance in the evening sky.

If you looked through a telescope, you would see that Venus’ disk is just a bit more than one-quarter illuminated by sunshine, and the full Venus is always on the far side of the sun from us. So, we are seeing Venus as a crescent at its greatest illuminated extent – and still, it is spectacular.

snow-moon-pixa

We can refer to tonight’s February Full Moon as the Snow Moon, Ice Moon, Hunger Moon, Old, Storm or Grandfather Moon. Most names for the month refer to very wintery weather. Of course, if you’re in a warmer climate, they may seem inappropriate.

Tonight’s Full Moon also coincides with a penumbral lunar eclipse. They are not as spectacular or as noticeable as a total lunar eclipse. When the Moon moves through the outer part of Earth’s shadow (which is known as the penumbra), the shadow blocks part of the sun’s rays. Therefore, the Moon will only appear slightly darker than usual.

To Colonial Americans, this was the Trapper’s Moon or simply the Winter Moon.

Tonight’s Full Moon will fall on a snow-covered Paradelle, so the moonlight should be quite bright, even with that Earth shadow.

solareclipse-pixa

We entered 2017 with a nice pairing of the planets of love and war in the sky. Venus and Mars were close together all through January. The Moon was right there too as the year began and it will work its way back to the planets – at least in our view – as the month ends January 31.

But the major astronomical event of 2017 will be a total solar eclipse. We have not had a total solar eclipse in the mainland U.S. since 1979.

It is two seasons away, but on August 21, 2017 the Moon will completely block the sun, and this solar eclipse can be seen across the United States.

But, you will have to be at the right place at the right time to see totality (when the sun is totally blocked by the moon). There is an area that is a narrow path about 75 miles wide between Oregon and South Carolina that will be prime viewing. You can view a detailed map of the eclipse online.  Perhaps, you should plan now for a little vacation in August to see the eclipse.

If that’s too far off to think about, or if you’re not ready to take an eclipse vacation, then here’s an alternative. On February 11, we will have a penumbral lunar eclipse. This is when the Moon enters the lighter shadow of the earth. But the effect is hard to notice and a lot less cool than the August event.

A total penumbral lunar eclipse dims the moon in direct proportion to the area of the Sun's disk blocked by the Earth. This comparison shows the southern shadow penumbral lunar eclipse of January 1999 (left) to the moon outside of the shadow (right) demonstrates this subtle dimming.

A total penumbral lunar eclipse dims the moon in direct proportion to the area of the Sun’s disk blocked by the Earth. This comparison shows the southern shadow penumbral lunar eclipse of January 1999 (left) to the moon outside of the shadow (right) demonstrates this subtle dimming.  Image via Wikipedia

 

 

roosters-pixa

The Lunar New Year is here. A time to gather with family and friends and celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Rooster.

The “Chinese New Year” has become a more global holiday and interest in the Lunar Calendar also seems to be growing. Google has been sharing some Lunar New Year traditions as videos and games from around the world.

This is a year of the Rooster (simplified Chinese: 鸡; traditional Chinese: 雞/鷄) which is one of the 12-year cycle of animals which appear in the Chinese and other zodiacal systems which are related to the Chinese calendar.

The rooster is the only bird included in the Chinese zodiac, but the Chinese term is more generic, and can apply to barnyard fowl of either sex. In the Tibetan zodiac and the Nepalese Gurung zodiac, the more generic “bird” is in place instead of the Rooster, but the image of the colorful rooster is often used to represent it.

Cleaning house to prepare for family visits is often a part of New Year’s prep, but this cleaning is also a way to cast away bad luck.

In Chinese astrology, each zodiac year is associated with an animal sign and also one of five elements: Gold (Metal), Wood, Water, Fire, or Earth. 2017 is a Fire Rooster year. Element-sign combinations recur every 60 years. It was last a Fire Rooster year in the Western calendar’s 1957.

I learned that according to Chinese astrology, the year of one’s birth sign is the most unlucky year in the 12-year cycle.

For many Americans, today might only be celebrated with some Chinese food. There are lucky dishes associated with the New Year. If the holiday motivates you to get together with family and friends, that is a plus, even if you don’t do a dragon dance, or cast a “Lo Hei” blessing by virtually shredding food.

I’m planning to go out with a childhood friend that I haven’t seen in a few years. My wife is going to do some stir fry for dinner with some longevity noodles (长寿面 Chángshòu Miàn). Their length and unsevered preparation are symbolic of the eater’s life. They are longer than normal noodles and uncut, either fried and served on a plate, or boiled and served in a bowl with their broth.

I wouldn’t mind launching a sky lantern tonight. We made those as kids without knowing it had anything to do with Lunar New Year.  You can also do that virtually on that Google site, which is probably safer but not as much fun.

The French scientist Jean-Bernard-Léon Foucault made his most famous pendulum when he suspended a 28-kg brass-coated lead bob with a 67-m-long wire from the dome of the Panthéon in Paris.

He set it in motion and to mark its progress he attached a stylus to the ball and placed a ring of damp sand on the floor below.

The audience was amazed to see the pendulum inexplicably appeared to rotate. It left a slightly different, but precise, trace in the sand with each swing.

Amazingly, they were witnessing that the seemingly motionless floor of the Panthéon was slowly moving. It was Foucault’s way of showing that the earth revolves on its axis.

At the latitude of Paris, the pendulum’s swing rotated clockwise 11° per hour, making a full circle in 32.7 hours. In the Southern Hemisphere it would rotate counterclockwise. If it was set up on the Equator, it wouldn’t revolve at all. In much more recent experiments with a pendulum at the South Pole, the period of rotation is 24 hours.

It is such a simple and elegant demonstration of a complex idea – precession as a form of parallel transport – that it fascinates children and adults.

Foucault pendulums are installed around the world, at universities, science museums and planetariums. The United Nations headquarters in New York City has one. The largest Foucault pendulum in the world, Principia, is housed at the Oregon Convention Center.

wolf-moon-pixabay

Tomorrow, January 12, the Moon will be full for this new month in the new year of 2017. This Wolf Moon is full at 6:34 ET for me.

The Scottish Gaelic word for January, Faoilleach, means “wolf month” and I believe this is the origin for the name, but Native Americans often used that name without any knowledge of it being used in other parts of the world. Many American full moon names follow names that tribes gave to the Full Moons hundreds of years ago when they kept track of the seasons by giving distinctive names to each recurring full moon.

“January” is a word that comes from the Roman god Janus. Janus had two faces and ruled over beginnings and endings and the past and the future. The ancient Romans believed this was a time to put aside the old, outdated parts of your life. It is a time to plans for new and better conditions, and that seems to have continued in our tradition of having new year’s resolutions.

American Indians named this moon for the wolf packs that howled hungrily outside their villages in the heart of winter.  Remember that for these northern and eastern tribes the Full Moon marked the beginning of a period (what we call a month), not a day. The period from this January moon until the next February moon is usually the toughest part of winter weather in those areas.

My own Wolf Moon posts over the life of this blog are always popular posts and I think it is the wolf that draws in readers.

wolf-pixabay

When Americans think of a “wolf,” we are seeing the gray wolf (Canis lupus). This species is also known as the timber wolf or western wolf. It is native to the wilderness and remote areas of Eurasia and North America.

It is still a controversial species. It is threatened and endangered in some areas and hated and hunted in other areas because it preys on livestock. The gray wolf is one of the world’s best known and well researched animals.

Though it was hunted because of its attacks on livestock, in native societies it was revered.

It rarely attacks humans and most reported cases have been attributed to animals suffering from rabies. Wolves try to live away from people, and generally have developed a fear of humans.

Part of our fascination with wolves probably is tied to our love for dogs. The domestic dog is now the most widely abundant large carnivore and is a descendant from one of the now-extinct wolf populations.

The gray wolf is a social animal. Their social unit is a mated pair, accompanied by the pair’s adult offspring. The average wolf pack consists of a family of 5–11 animals (1–2 adults, 3–6 juveniles and 1–3 yearlings) Sometimes two or three such families live together and exceptionally large packs consisting of 42 wolves have been studied.

They are also highly territorial animals. They generally establish territories far larger than they require to survive in order to assure a steady supply of prey. Native Americans respected that wolves guarded their territory.

The gray wolf is generally monogamous, with mated pairs usually remaining together for life. Upon the death of one mated wolf, pairs are quickly re-established. Since males often predominate in any given wolf population, unpaired females are a rarity.

I have heard the howling of wolves and coyotes in the wild and those sounds are very moving. Depending on the setting and your situation, it can trigger fear or admiration. It seems to me to connect with something ancient and primal inside of us.

wolf howling wikimedia

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