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Cosmic Space

It’s prime time for the sky show in your backyard

Ready for a star party?

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on summer star parties and other public gatherings, and skywatching isn’t exactly the kind of thing best done via a Zoom session. But you can still experience the wonders of the universe, just by looking up into dark, clear skies.

“The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide,” a newly published handbook by science writer David Dickinson, can help you do it.

“I pitch it as a star party in a book,” Dickinson explained.

This week is the summer’s big week for skywatchers:

  • The Globe at Night campaign is asking citizen scientists to report what they see in evening skies, to assess the effects of light pollution.
  • The Perseid meteor shower peaks on the nights of Aug. 10-13.
  • Four planets are on view: Jupiter and Saturn after sunset, and Mars and Venus before sunrise.
  • Although now is not the best time for Americans to spot the International Space Station, you just might be able to track the latest batch of SpaceX Starlink satellites as the stream across the sky. (Plug in your coordinates on Heavens-Above.com to check viewing times.)

Dickinson’s guide is designed to cover the more established targets of the night sky, ranging from the constellations to star clusters, nebulae and galaxies.

Forty-four sky charts, organized by month, point out wonders that can be found with the naked eye, with binoculars or with a telescope like the one that Dickinson sets up in his backyard or on the top floor of a nearby parking garage.

“Your observatory is wherever you’re observing,” he said.

Backyard Astronomer's Field Guide
“The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide” is spiral-bound for convenient use in the field. (Page Street Publishing / Laura Benton)

Dickinson also provides context that goes beyond latitude and longitude: Which naked-eye stars have planets orbiting them? What are the myths behind the constellation’s names, and what did other cultures see in them? What makes a planetary nebula “planetary”?

The guide includes a list of online tools, websites and publications to help you plot out your observing strategy — including Stellarium, a free planetarium program that’s priceless.

So what are the best deep-sky objects to turn your telescope toward while you’re waiting for the Perseids? Dickinson recommends M13, a globular star cluster in Hercules, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, the variable star Algol (a.k.a. the Demon Star) in Perseus … and Epsilon Lyrae, the “double-double” star in the constellation Lyra.

The double-double is famous, but somehow it was left out of the deep-sky catalog created by French astronomer Charles Messier in the 1700s. “I was always amazed that he missed things like the double-double,” Dickinson said.

You’re unlikely to repeat Messier’s mistake, as long as you have Dickinson’s field guide sitting next to your lounge chair (preferably consulted by the light of a red flashlight to preserve your night vision).

To celebrate the summer’s big week for skywatching — and reward you for reading down this far — I’m giving away a copy of “The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide.” Just be the first to answer this Cosmic Log quiz question in the comment section below:

What is the name of the closest planetary nebula to Earth?

The first person to answer correctly, based on my assessment of the time stamp, will be eligible to receive the book by mail (U.S. postal addresses only). If I can’t get in touch with that person via email in a timely fashion, I’ll move on to the next person on the list.

Back in the old days, Cosmic Log was known for its community of commenters, and I’m hoping we can revive that spirit. If you have a favorite night-sky object to observe, or a favorite resource for skywatching, pass it along in a comment. Your recommendation may end up in a future Cosmic Log roundup.

Update for 11:25 a.m. PT Aug. 9: We have a winner! Boris Zuchner was the first to answer the quiz question correctly, with an assist by Professor Google. As revealed on page 160 of “The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide,” the closest planetary nebula to Earth is the Helix Nebula, a.k.a. NGC 7293. Assuming that Boris’ mailing address is in the United States, he’ll be able to look that fact up himself in the future, thanks to the book I’ll be sending him.

As I wrote in the comments, don’t be a stranger! It took me a while to approve the comments this time around, but I’ll try to be faster on the draw for the next book giveaway.

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Meteor outburst could be a bust in the West

Meteor shower viewing
This NASA chart gauges how many meteors are likely to be seen emanating from the Alpha Monocerotid radiant on Thursday night. Blue is good, red is not so good, and white means the radiant won’t be above the horizon during the expected peak of the meteor shower. (NASA Graphic)

Skywatchers say parts of the world could see a brief, brilliant meteor outburst known as the Alpha Monocerotids on the night of Nov. 21, but NASA notes that it’ll be at the wrong time for the U.S. West Coast.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

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Meteor impacts spotted during lunar eclipse

It’s pretty clear by now that a space rock ranging somewhere in size between an acorn and a football hit the darkened moon during Jan. 20’s total lunar eclipse. But were there two?

Confirmations of the first impact, and reports about the second, have been circulating through the scientific community and the Twitterverse over the past couple of days.

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Meteor flash gets mashed up with launch scrub

Rocket fans in California may have been disappointed by tonight’s scrub of a Delta 4 Heavy launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, but they received a nice consolation prize: a fireball that left what looked like a contrail hanging in sunset skies.

The bright squiggle in the sky may have mystified some, but savvy folks who spotted the flash recognized it as the signature of an exploding meteor, also known as a bolide.

It was pure coincidence that the fireball flashed at 5:34 p.m. PT, just before United Launch Alliance called off the launch of a classified spy satellite known as NROL-71 for the National Reconnaissance Office, due to elevated hydrogen levels that were detected during the countdown.

Video views captured from cars traveling in locales including Sacramento, Stockton and the San Francisco Bay Area helped solve the celestial mystery.

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The moon and meteors light up the night

Orionid meteor
An Orionid meteor flashes in a 2015 image captured by Marshall Space Flight Center’s all-sky camera in Alabama. (NASA / MSFC Photo)

Saturday night’s all right … for skywatching: Tonight’s mostly clear skies over Western Washington should provide a good opportunity to see the peak of the Orionid meteor shower, and a great opportunity to check out the nearly full moon on International Observe the Moon Night.

The moon is sure to one-up the meteors: With the full phase just a few days away, it’ll be in the sky nearly all night, washing out most of the Orionids’ fainter flashes. Nevertheless, the weekend timing and the sky cover forecast could make it worth your while to get out of town and see the show.

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How to catch a perfect Perseid meteor shower

Perseid over Mount Rainier
A Perseid meteor flashes above Mount Rainier in 2016. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

The outlook for this year’s Perseid meteor shower is checking all the boxes. Up to a meteor a minute? Check. Moonless sky? Check. Peaking during the weekend? Check. Clear weather? That even looks like a check mark for the night of Aug. 12-13 in Seattle.

Only two clouds hang over what’s traditionally the year’s most watched meteor display. One is literal clouds: The skies won’t always be totally clear for this weekend’s peak, although the National Weather Service shows the cloud cover forecast improving as the weekend wears on. There’s also the smoke from Western wildfires to contend with.

The other cloud has to do with expectations: Yes, the Perseids can produce a meteor per minute, but that’s at the very peak of the shower, under peak conditions. So don’t be disappointed if your meteor mileage varies.

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Meteorite-hunting ship picks up promising bits

Marc Fries
Cosmic dust expert Marc Fries examines tiny rock samples from the Pacific seafloor. (Ocean Exploration Trust / Nautilus Live Photo / Susan Poulton)

A research ship has recovered at least two bits of molten rock from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that scientists say could have come from a meteorite.

The preliminary findings are the result of an unprecedented survey conducted this week by the Exploration Vessel Nautilus in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) off the coast of Washington state.

If scientists are correct, the two flecks of rock identified today could be the first pieces of a meteorite recovered from the ocean after its descent was observed.

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Moon upstages Quadrantid meteor shower

Quadrantids
A Quadrantid fireball lights up the sky. (Jimmy Westlake Photo via NASA / Colorado Mountain College)

The good news is that the annual Quadrantid meteor shower is reaching its peak tonight with relatively clear skies in the forecast for Western Washington. The bad news? It’ll be hard to spot shooting stars, due to the night-long glare from a moon that’s just past its super-sized full phase.

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Prime time for the Geminid meteor shower

Image: Geminids
A Geminid meteor makes an impression in an all-sky photo captured in 2011. (Credit: NASA)

This year’s Geminid meteor shower is reaching its peak, and Seattle’s weather just might cooperate.

Tonight’s forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a low chance of precipitation, which is unusual for a Seattle holiday season.

That adds to the allure for this year’s Geminid display, which is expected to be out of the ordinary.

“With August’s Perseids obscured by bright moonlight, the Geminids will be the best shower this year,” Bill Cooke, who leads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, said in a news release. “The thin, waning crescent moon won’t spoil the show.”

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Hopes rise for a gem of a Geminid meteor shower

Image: Geminids
A Geminid meteor makes an impression in an all-sky photo captured in 2011. (Credit: NASA)

The buildup has begun for this year’s best meteor shower, the Geminids, and what makes it even better is that Seattle’s weather just might cooperate.

For the week leading up to the Geminids’ peak on the night of Dec. 13-14, the forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a low chance of precipitation, which is unusual for a Seattle holiday season.

That adds to the allure for this year’s Geminid display, which is expected to be out of the ordinary.

Get the full story on GeekWire.