“C-God” 13.8 Billion Years Old

Yes, it has been confirmed:  13.8 billion years old.

That is the age of our entire known Cosmos (C) or Universe from the very first millisecond it exploded into existence until today. Or for the hard-line Faithers out there, “Yahweh” or “God” or “Allah” or whatever your personal supreme being is named, it is without question 13.8 billion years old.

There have been several techniques to calculate and estimate the age of the Universe. Over the last century four methods of approximation have been used:

  1. The Hubble Constant
  2. Decay of radioactive elements/objects – can also be applied to gases, but with less accuracy
  3. Age of White Dwarf stars, locating the faintest/oldest
  4. Age of ancient star clusters/globulars

Fortunately, and for all prosperity and posterity, science has a fifth and final method ending any debate about the Universe’s age. It is remarkably accurate to within less than 1-percent.

Incorporating method #4 above with the compiled data of NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) launched in 2001, and the European Space Agency’s Planck-satellite launched in 2009, we can determine exactly how long our known, visible Cosmos has been around. Watch NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) two-minute video here explaining in layman terms just how this measuring and time-dating works.

NGC 3603 star-cluster

NGC 3603, an open star cluster and starburst region in the Carina spiral arm of the Milky Way around 20,000 light-years away from the Solar System

∼ ∼ ∼ § ∼ ∼ ∼

If those four common measurements are not enough to convince you or other doubters, then perhaps Cosmologist and graduate of Yale and Rutgers Universities in Physics, Mathematics, Astronomy, and Astrophysics, Dr. Neelima Sehgal, currently Associate Professor in Physics & Astronomy at Stony Brook University, NY, can assist your unlearned hesitation. From Stony Brook University’s research journal:

The Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT) team in Chile confirmed previous measurements of ancient light-clusters extracted from the Planck satellite data.


Neelima Sehgal - ACT

Dr. Neelima Sehgal, ACT and Stony Brook University

Obtaining the best image of the infant universe, explains Professor Sehgal, helps scientists better understand the origins of the universe, how we got to where we are on Earth, the galaxies, where we are going, how the universe may end, and when that ending may occur.


The new ACT estimate on the age of the universe matches the one provided by the standard model of the universe and measurements of the same light made by the Planck satellite. This adds a fresh twist to an ongoing debate in the astrophysics community, says Simone Aiola, first author of one of the new papers on the findings posted to arXiv.org.

“Now we’ve come up with an answer where Planck and ACT agree,” says Aiola, a researcher at the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics in New York City. “It speaks to the fact that these difficult measurements are reliable.”

Eternal is Not So Eternal

Oddly enough, it seems now there is actually a beginning and an end to eternal. The Greek words and concept the Alpha and Omega (Rev 21:6; 22:13) are in purely astrophysical terms seemingly truer than ever. Maybe. So it follows then that there is no such thing as forever, timeless, or Eternal. From the above five methods of dating the age of the Cosmos, we now have other fascinating inferences and deductions by astrophysicists, cosmologists, astronomers, and advanced mathematicians about the end or death of our Universe or Creator-God. There are three or four probabilities.

The Big Freeze
This is the death of all differences in heat, or thermodynamics. As the Universe/Cosmos continues expanding at an increasing rate, eventually all forms of energy (heat) will dissipate over time until everything—all celestial bodies, i.e. stars/suns, galaxies, planets, etc.—are just a fraction above absolute zero degrees. The universe will be so spread out over millions, billions, then trillions of light-years, and continuing, that it will become deader and emptier with every millenia.

The Big Crunch
If there is enough or too much stuff in the Universe, i.e. celestial bodies with mass, the expansion of the Cosmos will slow then stop. More stuff means more gravity. The more mass all the bodies gain means more stronger gravity, which means everything gets pulled back in, contracting inward until the Universe becomes so compact, so dense with mass that an astounding inferno occurs, the Big Crunch.

The Big Change
If our Universe is expanding and its expansion is accelerating as most scientists today agree, then matter and energy as we normally understand them could not allow the Universe to continue behaving in this basic manner. In 1998 teams of astrophysicists examining Type 1A supernovae for the Hubble Constant discovered that expansion wasn’t slowing down, but actually accelerating.

Even more bizarre was the expansion had been decelerating, as once thought, until 7-8 billion years after the Big Bang. At that point, for reasons yet to be learned, a puzzling “anti-gravity force” began to dominate, taking over the gravity-induced contracting placed on expansion and then reversed the slowdown and began accelerating. This was dubbed Dark Energy. This energy pulls everything in the Universe apart,  and turns it upside down. The basic building blocks of fundamental particles like electrons and Quarks could be entirely different, radically overhauling our rules of chemistry and maybe impeding the formation of atoms and molecules. It would be quite an inhospitable Big Change. If that were to happen, then plants, animals, humans, even planet and stars would be destroyed. Dark Energy currently makes up about 68% of all energy in the Universe and that percentage is growing each day.

Accelerating Universe - Big Change & Rip

Different possible fates of the Universe, with our actual, accelerating fate shown at the far right. After enough time goes by, the acceleration will leave every bound galactic or supergalactic structure completely isolated in the Universe, as all the other structures accelerate irrevocably away. (NASA & ESA)

The Big Rip
The Big Rip is a more remote, unlikely ending, but nonetheless cannot yet be ruled out. Dark Energy could be more destructive, more powerful than scientists know right now. Here’s the very weird part.

While the Cosmos is expanding, Dark Energy’s (DE) density remains fixed. What this also means is that with increasing volume, more DE pops into existence over time in order to maintain the constant density. What’s even more extraordinarily freaky is that if the density of DE increases as the Universe keeps expanding, then what would happen if DE enlarges faster than the Universe is expanding? In other words, DE’s speed of growth surpasses the speed of light! 😲 This theoretical model is called phantom dark energy and its mechanism is called the Big Rip. Fortunately for our super distant descendants, if this rip were to happen, it would be a horrifically instant death occurring so fast our brains could not process anything that was happening. Woosh! Gone.

And So the Purpose of Consciousness and Life

Everything we mortal humans eventually learn is that all things in life have a beginning, a middle, and an end. All experience, all evidence we have and understand of life indicates a start and a finish. Nothing, not even an original cause or imagined “Creator” is timeless or eternal. It too was born 13.8 billion years ago. He/She/It is growing obese, quicker than before, and will die a final death. Not only is the word eternal fictitious and conceived from ancient, mortal Earthlings’ crude ineptitude passed on transgenerationally, but it is also fruitless, unrewarding for the present. Therefore, I think James Oppenheim had much to say about our life, existence, and the human condition: The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance, the wise grows it under his feet.

There are countless forces that we know dictate our individual lives, significant portions of our lives at the start, most of all with our biological parents. Theirs was also significantly dictated by their biological parents or guardians, and family members. No one has any control whatsoever about who and what their ancestors would be. Earth too is fated to follow external forces. She is just one planet of nine gravitational bodies within our one tiny solar system among billions and trillions of galaxies with millions of other star systems. Our Sun and Jupiter are heavy, major influencers upon Earth’s condition! At the risk of sounding silly and stating the obvious, no one, let alone the entire human species, has the ability (yet?) to make our Sun or Jupiter do anything we wish. And as we’ve now learned from interdisciplinary science, particularly cosmology and astrophysics, the clock is ticking. There will indeed be a final, universal end that not even our man-made God(s) can escape. Is that the Coup d’état of ultimate nihilism? Or is it, as I believe, the epitome of liberation and empowerment, here and now? A tranquility from accepting our place and definitive demise of us, of all things then, now, and that will ever be?

I exist as I am, that is enough. If no other in the world be aware I sit content. And if each and all be aware I sit content. One world is aware, and by the far the largest to me, and that is myself. And whether I come to my own today or in ten thousand or ten million years, I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness, I can wait. Walt Whitman


Live Well — Love Much — Laugh Often — Learn Always

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Every 405,000 Years

Geo-core samplesFor decades astronomers have theorized that like our Moon impacts our tides, over tens of thousands of years our closest and largest planets in our solar system (Venus and Jupiter) have influenced Earth’s climate. Since Serbian astrophysicist Milutin Milanković hypothesized his Earth orbital-cycles of variations in the 1920’s affected Earth’s climates, there simply hasn’t been any sufficient physical proof for his cycles theory. Until last month.

With the further advanced technology and methodologies used on geological formations and strata (magnetostratigraphy) in correlation with the Newark–Hartford APTS (Astrochronostratigraphic Polarity Timescale) published May 7, 2018 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, now:

…provide[s] empirical confirmation that the unimodal 405-kiloyear orbital eccentricity cycle reliably paces Earth’s climate back to at least 215 million years ago, well back in the Late Triassic Period.

This conclusion was based on the geological research of three different cores:  two from two different sites of ancient lake beds in New Jersey and New York, and one rock core 1,500-feet long from the Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park.

The geologists noticed that lake sediment cores would disclose a consistent pattern of ancient lakes drying up then refilling over the course of hundreds of thousands of years forming different geological strata. This suggested cyclical changes in climate. The difficulty was that at the time they lacked the extensive methods to accurately date those climatic shifts. Fortunately, the Arizona Petrified Forest core, contained layers of ash from volcanic eruptions. These could definitely be dated because they contained radioisotopes.

Scientists compared and aligned the Arizona core dates to the NJ-NY ancient lake cores using bands found in all of the cores, indicating reversals in Earth’s magnetic fields. Yes, “reversals”! This allowed them to more precisely study the records. The analysis then demonstrated that the climate swings did indeed take place every 405,000 years for at least the last 215-million years, which is back through the Late Triassic Age when dinosaurs walked the Earth.

What does all this have to do exactly with Venus and Jupiter? Understanding gravitational forces by mass, Venus — the closest planet to us at 24-million miles — tugs us slightly closer to the Sun, and Jupiter — the largest planet in our solar system at 318-times more massive than Earth — tugs us slightly further from the Sun. At the peaks of those infrequent elliptical orbits, Earth has indeed historically experienced (the last 215-million years) hotter summers and colder winters with more extreme times of rain-flooding and dryer droughts

antarctic ice-strata

Antarctic ice strata also determines Earth’s climate millions of years in the past

Dr. Dennis Kent at Columbia and Rutgers Universities, specializing in paleomagnatism, states:

Scientists can now link changes in the climate, environment, dinosaurs, mammals and fossils around the world to this 405,000-year cycle in a very precise way. The climate cycles are directly related to how the Earth orbits the sun and slight variations in sunlight reaching Earth lead to climate and ecological changes.

Beyond Earth’s ancient past and astrophysics this study is a substantial breakthrough for the methods in which geologists are able to date cores and present a reliable more accurate timeline of Earth’s geologic past. It will also assist in many other scientific domains!

Paleontologist of the University of Edinburgh, Dr. Steve Brusatte:

[With the aid of APTS and newest magnetostratigraphy it] is a really important study for clarifying the Triassic timescale and untangling the sequence of events that occurred as Pangea began to split up and the dinosaurs originated and then diversified. It’s mostly a study of how to tell geological time rather than of how changes in climate relate to evolution.

Most people want to know the more immediate concern: Where are we currently in the Venus-Jupiter climate-cycle? And could Venus’ and Jupiter’s tug-cycles be responsible for our current climate-changes?

Bad news climate-change deniers. Astronomers and astrophysicists calculate that we are about in the middle of the 405k cycle. Earth’s orbit is very close to circular, not elliptical, and presently not near enough to cause disruptions in climate or global warming. The changes we have been experiencing come from some 238-years of outsized human output and input in the release of greenhouse gasses.


Live Well — Love Much — Laugh Often — Learn Always

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After Dark – Part 3

Did you know that if planet Earth were invaded by angry hungry aliens from a distant Death Star ship, the best offering to avoid possible violence or slavery believe it or not would be to hand over our silicon-based sand and rocks?  Which way do all of our planets in our Solar System rotate?  Have you ever wondered why comets such as Halley’s Comet, Pons-Gambart, and Ikeya-Zhang Comets take 75, 188, and 366 earth-years respectively to come around?

Questions like these and their answers fascinated me camping outside as a boy looking up into the night sky with astonishment.  How far away is that star, I would ask myself, which lead to another question and another.  Limitless.

* * * * * * * * * *

To enlarge click image

To enlarge click image

A 100-foot telescope and multi-million dollar observatory are not necessary to begin an intermediate knowledge of the celestial.  Your outstretched arm, hand and fingers can suffice in determining an object’s angular size.  Clamp your hand in a fist.  Across your knuckles is about 10 degrees.  Don’t believe me?  Taking that fist and starting at the horizon count how many “fisted-hands” it takes to count upwards to straight up, or zenith (the top of the sky).  It will be about nine hands, or 90 degrees.  Three fingers together are about 5 degrees across and one finger, like the pinky finger, will be about 1 degree.  A full moon then, when using this form of measurement will be about a half-degree (0.5°).

Finding the position of an object in the sky is a bit more difficult.  If you don’t carry around a Cross Staff, or Astrolab, or even what amateur golfers use today:  a GPS app; if you can find due north then you can still navigate the sky with your hand.  The azimuth, or angular measurement parallel to the horizon in a spherical coordinate system, determines the cardinal points:  north, south, east, and west.  North is of course 0 degrees, east will be 90 degrees, south is 180 degrees, and due west will be 270 degrees.  The angle above the horizon will be, you guessed it, altitude.  Keeping our basic sky-gazing simple, when measuring from the horizon to the zenith, only 0-90 degrees is needed.  Now you have the quickest most convenient tools to examine the never-ending sky.

A simple pair of binoculars can reveal more of the heavens beyond your naked eye.  If you surveyed the full moon, you could easily find many craters or the four brightest moons of Jupiter.  With the same binoculars you might be able to find Saturn’s brightest and biggest moon:  Titan.  If you want to see even more of the night sky, you will have to have binoculars stronger than 7x (times); in other words massively big and expensive type binoculars that will require a tripod or something steady and stationary to mount your 8x plus binoculars.  Beyond high-powered binoculars gets us into complex telescopes and well beyond the scope of this post.

* * * * * * * * * *

Under the Stars

Some star-maps, a flashlight, items to keep you comfortable or warm, and some patience will be all you need to find stars, constellations, and other sorted celestial performers.  The further away from light-pollution you can get (i.e. large towns or cities) the better.  Finding cardinal points is easiest with a compass or map; they both work fine.  If you can remember where on the horizon the Sunset took place, then you have a general idea which direction is west.  Keep in mind though the seasonal factors:  during winter the Sun recedes a little south of due west and during summer it sets a little north of due west.  In spring and fall, the Sun sets quite close to due west.

camping&stargazingIf you can view your sky maps with a red-lighted flashlight, then your pupils won’t close up in its light.  A normal white flashlight will cause your views from map-to-sky and back again to be greatly hindered by your widening and retracting pupils causing delays in their adjustments and testing your patience.  Having red-lenses to cover the bulb or flashlights using a “red-LED” bulb can be purchased at most camping-sporting stores.  Also, when you’ve been out a few times and can easily locate previous stars and/or constellations, moving on to unexplored areas becomes quicker and easier as your mapping-spotting skills improve.

One more star-gazing tip:  A clear sky is usually pretty cold relative to your latitude.  The further away you are from the equator, the colder the clear sky will be and the quicker your sitting-still body will get.  Dress warmer than normal, a toboggan or hat might be good, and even bring along a Thermos of hot soup or tea, or as I often do, a warm stout toddy!  If you want to “impress” a certain co-stargazer, bring along reclining folding-chairs and a quilt.  He or she will be in for a superb relaxing long evening of fun.

The following four seasonal sky maps are near 35 degrees north latitude in North America; in other words, a straight line from Lompoc, CA to Fayetteville, NC.  Sky maps from your particular location can be found on the internet or from a local nearby planetarium store.  The six bi-monthly descriptions below are incorporated into the flow or movement of the sky maps.

Sirius:  The Five-month King of Stars


This map shows the winter sky at 2am December 1; midnight January 1; and 10pm February 1. Image – Roen Kelly, astronomy.com

From late December through mid-April, in the southeasterly sky, the brightest star of all stars in our sky is Sirius.  It is the brightest because it is the closest star to Earth:  about 8-light years away and closing.  Yes, you read correctly, Sirius is getting closer to our Solar System and will be noticeably brighter in about 50,000 to 60,000 years.  After that it will begin moving away, but for the next 200,000 years or so it will always be the King of All Stars.  During winter and spring Sirius is a great reference point if you are just starting out as a new astronomer.

Serving King Sirius and moving to the west and slightly up is his Viceroy Rigel, then further up are Viceroys Betelgeuse (better known as Beatlejuice), Procyon to the east, and finally back toward the west and near straight up is  Aldebaran.  Straight up, or near zenith, and more north is his lone Viceroy Capella.  These five stars represent magnitudes about 2.5 times less than Sirius but are so bright they can all be spotted in a large city with light-pollution.  King Sirius’ “court” is the primary reason the winter skies are the favorite season for stargazers; they jump out to you!

Galaxies Galore and A New Prince

Heading into spring (March – early May) you’ll notice that Sirius and his viceroys have moved toward the western horizon.  Back to the southern horizon is a darker starless sky by comparison.  Yet due east near the horizon comes the newest viceroy or Prince:  Arcturus which has been led by the largest cluster of galaxies – almost halfway up to the zenith – called the Virgo Clusters.  They include more than 1,300 galaxies.  Off toward the north and halfway to zenith you can find the Big Dipper.

Another Viceroy and King Sirius Departs


1am March 1; 11pm April 1; 9pm May 1. Add one hour for daylight-saving time. Image – Roen Kelly, astronomy.com

While Sirius drops down behind the western horizon and Procyon and Capella soon follow, the newest member to the court arrives:  Viceroy Vega.  Almost to the northeastern horizon, Vega’s brightness equals that of his predecessors and brings with him the Northern Cross with Deneb (touching the horizon) as its crown.  It is now May through early July.  Move to the southeastern horizon close to Earth’s surface, and the claws of Scorpius have appeared with Antares as its heart.  Near the zenith sits Arcturus, 2nd in command for about two-plus months, while Sirius vacations in his summer palace doing “unseen” kingly jollies for the next four.

The Milky Way’s Majesty


1am June 1; 11pm July 1; 9pm August 1. Add one hour for daylight-saving time. Image – Roen Kelly, astronomy.com

July and August are the best times to see the center of our galaxy particularly with binoculars.  Like a following royal parade, Vega brings along in the eastern sky not only Altair, a star slightly brighter than the previous Deneb, but also the globular-cluster M13 near zenith, and the star-clusters M11, M39, and the best clusters M6 and M7.  And as if that wasn’t enough, the nebulas M8, M20, and M17 between Scorpius and Sagittarius to the south (about 10° up from horizon), round off the fat center of our majestic Milky Way.

Fall’s Tranquility?

The gaudiness of summer and the Milky Way drift into the southwest horizon causing many astronomers to say the night sky is the tamest from September through late October.  It is perhaps no coincidence then that fall and October are celebrated as Halloween, or hallow the dead and dying.  The Viceroy Arcturus has all but vanished behind the western horizon, leaving only Prince Vega near the zenith.  The return of Capella and the first of King Sirius’ court are probably not yet visible to the northeast.  A seemingly dark “blanket” ensues.


1am September 1; 11pm October 1; 9pm November 1. Add one hour for daylight-saving time. Image – Roen Kelly, astronomy.com

Not to worry, as all great exciting events take place to the south – sexual overtones intended – magnitude 1.16 star Fomalhaut rises out of Earth’s vagina to remind us that with persistence comes birth… and for better or worse, MANY MORE THINGS to come!  Can I get an Amen!?  Because Fomalhaut is the lone bright star in this part of the sky, many space agencies and orbital spacecraft engineers use the star as a point of reference for their machines.  Their computerized satellites or crafts are programmed to find Fomalhaut and then align themselves.  There is less of a chance for other mistaken bright stars nearby; a computer optic no-brainer if you will.

Because the heavens are darkest during this time of year, many scientist and expert stargazers use their high-powered telescopes to search out darker phenomena.  This goes to show that a certain darkness is needed to truly see the stars.

The Mira and Algol Light Show

As King Sirius’ court of brightest stars rise again in the east, with a set of binoculars (certainly a telescope) a dance or battle can be seen more clearly between two stars; technically between the star Mira “The Wonderful” and the double-star system Algol “The Winking Demon.”

Mira_AlgolMira is in the middle of Cetus the Whale, a quiet faint constellation of stars about 45 degrees up from the southeast horizon between Aquarius (to the southwest) and Orion (to the lower east) and the returning Aldebaran, Rigel, and Betelgeuse.  Mira fades from a semi-bright magnitude 2 to a very dim magnitude 10 in less than eleven months.  Mira means “the Wonderful” in Arabic and signifies her dramatic leaving and return.  This happens due to her near-death lifespan and being unstable, pulsating prior to burn-out.  When Mira is big and cool, most of its light is only visible in the infrared spectrum.  When she is small and hot, she radiates most of her light at the far end of the visible spectrum; red in a telescope.  Mira has quite possibly already turned into a planetary nebula then white dwarf, but we won’t witness this for another 35,000 Earth-years because she is about 350-light years away.

Algol in Arabic means “the Demon” and they called the double-star system this because astonishingly one star eclipses the other every 2.87 days!  This makes its brightness dip from a 2.2 magnitude to a 3.5 magnitude creating the winking demons.  This change can be seen by the naked eye.  Algol can be located up about 60 degrees from the easterly approaching the zenith during mid-November to mid-January.

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Other Resources

As you may have noticed, it is impossible to include all the major fascinating parts of stargazing and our cosmos in a 1,000 word blog-post – the commonly recommended length.  This post is around twice that long.  Therefore, I am including further website resources to explore should you want to know more, even become a well-informed astronomer.

www.astronomy.com  The site I used for the sky maps.

For the serious star-preneur, astronomy software for purchase:
Starry Nightwww.starrynight.com
The Skywww.bisque.com  for the mega-serious!

(paragraph break)

P.S.   To answer the two initial questions in the beginning all our planets rotate counter-clockwise around the Sun.  And about those once-in-a-lifetime comets and why they take so long to return and why they keep coming back… it is because of our Sun’s gravitational control.  It extends out to the Kuiper Belt which is well beyond the outer planet Neptune, or about 2.8 billion miles from our Sun.  Perspective:  and our Sun is one of the smallest Suns in the galaxy and cosmos!

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After Dark – Part 2

For astronomers, cosmologists, astrophysicists, or the amateur stargazer, the years 2013, 2014, and 2015 are three of the more active years for Earth’s heavens, the Moon, and our solar system!  In Part One I covered some stargazing basics, how the night sky is arranged in our two hemispheres and some short history behind the naming of two constellations Orion and Virgo.  In this second part let’s explain why these next three years are so extraordinary.

The Celestial Shows Are Here!

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Ringmaster opens, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, turn your eyes to the heavens!  The most extraordinarily rare spectacular-spectacular is happening for the next three years!


Earlier this year between March and April the comet Pan-STARRS was visible with a good pair of binoculars or amateur telescope.  However, in an area of medium-to-heavy light-pollution Pan-STARRS would have been hard to locate.  May 24th through 30th you would have watched Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter dance around each other in the west-northwest twilight sky shortly after sunset.  Every evening they were changing positions noticeably with Venus and Jupiter separated by about 1-degree on May 28th and Venus outshining Jupiter by six times.

On June 23rd at 6:00 a.m. CDT, the moon was as close to Earth as it will ever be in 2013 and at 6:32 a.m. it was brightest and fullest, known affectionately as a Super Moon.  Larger than normal ranges in ocean tides occurred for several days.  In 2014 it will arrive even closer than this year.

August 12th will be the annual Perseid Meteor Shower.  At a rate of up to 90-meteors-per-hour it is considered one of the best displays of meteors for a single observer.  Summer campers love the annual shower as it resembles a non-stop array of white bottle-rockets everywhere in the night sky.

Comet-ISON-peri-in-westMid-November through December is perhaps the biggest event in astronomy for 2013.  The Comet ISON will travel less than 750,000 miles above our sun’s surface, making it a very bright “sungrazer” on Nov. 28th, Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.  ISON could very well be easily visible in broad daylight at its closest point to the sun.  Then ISON will travel toward Earth getting as close as 40-million miles in December.  Because the comet will be ideally placed in the morning and evening sky from the Northern Hemisphere, it will most likely be one of the most watched and photographed comets of all time.

The entire month of December will be a stargazer’s extravaganza!  Venus will put on the most brilliant “evening star” show of 2013 and 2014 combined; evening or morning…doesn’t matter.  She fills the southwestern sky for 3 hours of bravos after sundown in early December, and 1.5 hours after sundown by New Year’s Eve.  And if that were not enough, a crescent moon will pass above and to the right of the goddess Dec. 5th and on the 6th she will give her grand finale!  She will not be as spectacular again until 2021.

On December 13th and 14th a most entertaining show will take place:  the Geminid Meteor Shower.  Most astronomers and meteorists give it top accolades as it surpasses even the brilliance and reliability of August’s Perseid annual showers.  Our near full moon will dilute most of the smaller fainter meteors, however, right after the moon sets (4:30 a.m. EDT), it will leave the sky completely dark for an hour or so, and that is your chance to witness as much as 2 meteor sightings per minute, or 120 per hour!  Indeed, the night sky will look like an American 4th of July fireworks show!


March 27th Perihelion – Comet Holmes.  After almost two days in Oct. 2007, the Holmes comet became a half-million times brighter on its way to becoming the largest object in our solar system.  Yes, larger than our Sun.  Comet Holmes will be one of the more spectacular comets at its perihelion in 2014.

Path of Comet 209P/LINEAR

Path of Comet 209P/LINEAR

March 29th Perihelion – Comet Faye.  Discovered in 1844 by a French astronomer it is a periodic comet but will be minor in comparison to the year’s other comets.

May 6th Perihelion – Comet 209P/LINEAR.  If astronomers are correct, Earth will pass through the tail of 209P/Linear on its way back out from the Sun between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. GMT on May 24th, resulting in a meteor storm of 100-400 meteors per hour.  Canada and the U.S. will have the best viewing.  This date is a must on your calendar!

August 10thSuper Moon.  “According to NASA, a full moon at perigee is up to 14% larger and 30% brighter than one at its farthest point, or apogee.  The full Moon, occurring less than one hour away from perigee, is a near-perfect coincidence that happens only every 18 years or so.” [Wikipedia]

Possible view of Comet C/2013-A1 from NASA Mars rover

Possible view of Comet C/2013-A1 from NASA Mars rover

August 12th – 14th will be the annual return of the Perseids Meteor Shower and its 60-meteors per hour at its peak on the 13th and 14th.  Some of the early and late meteors arrive from July 23rd through Aug. 22nd.  It radiant point, or source spot, will be in the Perseus constellation in the northeast sky after midnight.

October 19th – 25th is shaping up to be the biggest event of 2014:  Comet C/2013-A1, aka Siding Spring.  Astronomers currently calculate a 1 and 8,000 chance that C/2013-A1 will hit the surface of Mars on Oct. 19th.  The comet will pass, following its normal path, about 73,000 miles from the surface of Mars.  As the date nears and further observations are made, scientists will refine the orbit predictions.  Nevertheless, preparations are already being made to develop high-tech observations both around Mars as it approaches the planet, and on Earth as it approaches the Sun.  Mars vs. C/2013-A1 comet.

December 13th – 14th and the annual Geminids Meteor Shower won’t be as spectacular as 2013, but it will produce about 60 multicolored meteors per hour at the peak on the 13th and 14th.  The radiant point or source spot will be in the Gemini constellation in the eastern sky after midnight.

Rosetta European spacecraft.  In January 2014 Rosetta will awake from hibernation to fire-up its engines and get within 3,000 km of comet CG as it starts its return orbit back to our Sun.  In 2010 Rosetta flew within 3,000 km of asteroid Lutetia closely examining its surface and makeup.  Since then Rosetta has been cruising through the deepest parts of our solar system – a billion kilometers from the Sun – where that distance generates such little solar power she had to go into hibernation until comet CG approached.  In January 2014 after Rosetta nears CG, it will literally harpoon it so it can place the robot Philae on its surface.  As comet CG returns to our solar system to head towards our Sun, Philae will send scientific data back to Earth.


January 30th Perihelion – Comet 7P/Pons-Winnecke.  The Pons-Winnecke comet is a Near Earth Comet (NEC) and will pass Earth’s surface only about 3.5 million miles away, or about fifteen times the distance to the Moon.  It probably won’t be visible by the naked eye, but a good pair of binoculars will assist in seeing this faint comet that comes around every 6.36 years.

February Dawn spacecraft.  NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is the first of its kind to use the highly efficient ion propulsion engine.  Ion thrust engines must be in an environment devoid of any other ionized particles – deep space is the perfect example of such an ideal environment for this engine system.  During February Dawn will rendezvous with one of two large asteroids (Vesta in 2012 and Ceres) classified as dwarf planets in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.  Dawn will spend several months examining Ceres and its surface sending back to Earth the first close-up images of a dwarf planet in our Solar System.

February 22ndThe Union of Venus and Mars.  Conjunctions of planets are rare events and occur only when the very long large planets and their orbits seem to join or cross.  Like lovers, Venus and Mars will be within a half degree of each other in the western sky just after sunset.

March 2nd Perihelion – Comet d’Arrest.  Discovered in 1851, the d’Arrest comet has an orbital period of 6.54 years around the Sun so it is a frequent visitor.  Like Pons-Winnecke it too will be very faint to the naked eye.

July 14thNew Horizons spacecraft.  Launched in January 2006, NASA’s spacecraft New Horizons arrives at the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons after a nine and a half-year journey.  It will capture the first close-up images of the planet and moons then continue out to the Kuiper-belt for images of icy objects at the outer edge of our Solar System.

August 12th – 14th is again the annual Perseids Meteor Shower.  See 2014 information above.

2015 conjunction will look like this May 2013 conjunction!

2015 conjunction will look like this May 2013 conjunction!

October 28thPlanetary Ménage à Trois.  A conjunction of three planets is very rare event and will be quite the spectacle in the early morning eastern sky before sunrise.  Venus, Mars, and Jupiter will be in a tight 1-degree triangle of consummation!

November 17th – 18th is the return of the Leonids Meteor Shower with an average of 40 meteors per hour at its peak.  During its 33-year cyclic peak hundreds of meteors are produced per hour.  This last occurred in 2001.  Some of its early arriving then late arriving meteors can be seen between Nov. 13th and 20th.  The radiant point can be found in the constellation Leo after midnight.

December 13th – 14th is again the annual Geminids Meteor Shower.  See 2014 information above.

(paragraph separation)

“Perchance to Dream”

It will be a 1-in-a-million lifetime jaw-dropping event to see.  Well, actually in less than 1-million years.  Yes, sadly we won’t be around to witness it, but the Betelgeuse Supernova will be brighter, much brighter than our own full Moon!  It will be easily visible in daytime for several months so don’t be fooled into thinking it’s the second coming with another Star of Bethlehem, but instead the wonder of the cosmos with the Star of Betelgeuse!

The star is well-known among avid stargazers because it is the second brightest star in the Orion constellation and because of its size, color, and placement.  It is the red supergiant star in Orion’s “right shoulder” and ranks as the eighth brightest star in our entire night sky.  For some perspective, Betelgeuse is so huge that if it were our own Sun, its outer edges would touch Jupiter!  It is approximately 640 light years away from our Sun.  If it were to explode at night in our lifetime, it might look something like this…

Cosmologists and astronomers predict it will go super-nova in 1-million years or less because it is a “runaway star”.  In other words, due to its super size and mass, it will burn-up, collapse on itself, and create such an explosion that from even 640 light years away, it will be well beyond the brightest super-nova EVER recorded in Earth’s history!  If you can imagine any major global event throughout all of history, Betelgeuse will dwarf that.  For those several months, Earth’s night sky will seem like endless twilight until sunrise!  Wouldn’t that be the most remarkable thing in life to witness?

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In the final part of this three-part series, I will explain how simple tools and methods can map the night sky, locate major seasonal celestial highlights and their historical backgrounds, and explain why and how humanity will gaze the heavens just as the ancients did without any man-made light-pollution.  If you have enjoyed this part, please let me know by commenting, and check-in every so often for Part 3.

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After Dark

Milky Way in clear skies in remote America

When the sun’s light completely recedes, I bet you had no idea that with your naked eyes or a pair of inexpensive binoculars you can gaze upon constellations, nebulas, star clusters, planets, double stars, and even one galaxy that is only two million light-years away.  With summer approaching many might be traveling west to our National Parks where very little to no extraneous light washes out the splendor of our night-time cosmos.  This post is Part One of a three-part series.  Check back later for part two.

Our moon is one of the brightest objects to gaze, however, there are many others.  Our surrounding atmosphere has several phenomena and all the planets can be seen with the naked eye or binoculars except Pluto.  Asteroids, meteors, and comets can be detected as well.  And even further away you can spot star clusters, nebulas, and constellations including that one galaxy 2-million light-years away.  Yet, most star-gazers do not realize there is a nightly twilight phenomena which is closer than our moon.  It is closer than our own atmosphere.  It is Earth’s shadow.

Just as the Sun sets look opposite of it (easterly) close on the horizon.  Within minutes you will start to see a dark blue band begin to rise just above the horizon.  This is when the band is darkest.  As it starts to move upward, it will fade, until it disappears into the night sky at the ending of twilight.  This dark band marks the edge of the shadow of Earth’s horizon.  Red light from our Sun illuminates our atmosphere above the band.  The band is blue due to the blue part of sunlight which has been scattered into the shadow by dust particles.  If you see Earth’s shadow vividly, then there is little dust or humidity in the air.

We are of course inside the Milky Way galaxy.  The Milky Way is approximately 80,000 to 100,000 light-years across!  Our Sun rests 30,000 to 35,000 light-years from the center.  There are more than 1,000 clusters of stars within our galaxy, all of which are easily visible with binoculars.  Beyond the Milky Way is a bunch of empty space, and then a lot more galaxies.  The Milky Way is part of a group of galaxies called the Local Group and the flagship of this group is the Great Andromeda Galaxy.  The Andromeda Galaxy is so large and massive that it is the only galaxy we can see with the naked eye.  Out beyond our Local Group are more clusters of galaxies, as many as you could ever count in 50 lifetimes!  In fact, it makes no difference what direction you look with whatever size telescope you view, all you can see are galaxy upon galaxies.

Stargazing Basics

Visible Stars TableOne or three nights of viewing the night sky will not turn you into an expert astronomer.  However, there are four basic principles to help you and your fellow sky troopers understand what you’re viewing in the after hours.

BRIGHTNESS  The brightness of a particular star is measured by its magnitude.  Its magnitude is governed by how bright it actually is and how far away it is from Earth.  The brightest star in our night sky, Sirius, shines at a magnitude of 1.4, but its actual brightness is much less.  It is less because it is very close to Earth, just a mere 8.2 light-years away.  How exactly is magnitude determined?  It depends on your location.  If you are inside or near a large city, your 22 visible stars will be only a 1-magnitude or brighter.  On average, stars of the 2nd magnitude are actually 2.5 times dimmer than those of the 1st magnitude, and so on down the line.  In a moderately dark sky, you can view stars of about the 5th magnitude.  On super dark nights (no moon) we can most likely find 6th and 7th magnitude stars (see table above).

COLOR  A star’s color can reveal a lot about its nature.  Generally speaking, the more blue a star appears, the hotter it is, and the redder it is, the cooler it is.  We typically do not see stars easily with our naked eye, but the colors are a lot more obvious through binoculars.  And kids see star colors a lot better than adults.

EVERYTHING’S MOVING  It takes at least 15 minutes for our eyes to adjust to the darkness.  During that time, pick the brightest object you can see near one of the horizons.  Take note of its position relative to a tall tree, mountaintop, or building.  Once your eyes have adjusted, notice the object is moving up if you’re looking east, down if you’re looking west, or mostly left to right if you’re looking south.

DISTANCE  Because outer space is so unimaginably vast, it makes little sense to measure distances in miles or kilometers.  Instead, astronomers use how far the speed of light travels in an amount of time.  The Moon is about 240,000 miles away, but astronomers say it is 1 1/3 light-seconds away.  Our Sun is 93,000,000 miles away, but 500 light-seconds, or 8 1/2 light-minutes away.  When Jupiter is closest to Earth, it is 35 light-minutes away; in other words, when its reflection reaches us we are seeing 35 minutes into Jupiter’s past.  Now here is a mind-blower:  astronomers have determined that our Universe is approximately 13.8 billion years old.  What this means is we cannot see any further than 13.8 billion light years beyond Earth, because the light from whatever’s farther out hasn’t had time to reach our eyes yet!

Celestial Assembly

Looking up into the night sky it seems as if everything is painted onto an enormous black sphere that’s far away.  Astronomers call this the celestial sphere and find positions on it in similar ways we denote positions here on Earth.  There is a celestial equator too, just like the Earth’s equator but projected up onto the celestial sphere.

Image courtesy of burro.astr.cwru.edu

Seasonal Big Dipper. Image courtesy of burro.astr.cwru.edu

As mentioned earlier, objects appearing to move in the sky from night to night (or, in the case of meteors and man-made satellites, a lot faster), are all inside our Solar System.  To us, our Sun appears to move across the sky along a line we call the ecliptic.  This term is used because eclipses of the Sun and Moon are related to this line.  Tomorrow evening April 25th, 2013 there is a partial lunar eclipse.  Since the nine planets all move in nearly the same plane as the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, they too appear to move about the night sky near the ecliptic.  This is why on star maps they include the ecliptic as the narrow yellow belt.

Most modern astronomers do not use identifiable constellations such as the Big Dipper or Little Dipper to locate objects.  There are 88 recognized constellations that divide up the sky, many of which we never see here in the United States.  They are too far south.  Here in the northern hemisphere there is about 25% of the sky that is invisible to us.  For example, Americans cannot see the Southern Cross.  Only people close to the equator in tropical latitudes in the northern hemisphere can view the Southern Cross for a few brief hours during winter and spring.  Conversely, for viewers in places like Australia, they never see the northernmost 25% of our sky or the Big and Little Dippers which Ferris-wheel around Polaris, the North Star.

Cassiopeia as seen by naked eye

Cassiopeia as seen by naked eye

Just as southern constellations never rise above our horizon, others never set.  Even when the day’s Sun is drowning out the stars, there are constellations which despite the season never vanish.  These are called circumpolar constellations.  As seen in the image above, the Big Dipper is always visible to us in the northern hemisphere 24/7.  During the Fall it is just above the horizon and in Spring highest above the horizon.  For thousands of years ancient travelers of both land and sea used these circumpolar anchors to guide their way.  They too used the “dippers” to orient themselves, but often they included the constellation CassiopeiaCassiopeia is always opposite the Big Dipper and is noted for its “W” shape.

Most all of the constellations tell a story, a mythical story of the ancients.  This is why so many are fond of astronomy and stargazing:  you can impress your friends with stories of gods and goddesses behaving badly or saving mankind.

Well before the time of TV and video games, ancient cultures had to find their amusement wherever they could.  These myths, given by the stars to mankind, were most definitely the plots and schemes of the first “soap operas.”  Because most of Earth’s landmass lies in the northern hemisphere, the southern constellations represent scientific tools which seafaring navigators used.  And, of course, the 12 constellations that hug our ecliptic are the signs of the zodiac in astrology.

Some constellation figures like the Egyptian Orion, are fairly convenient to recognize, and others are simply “gap-fillers.”  And despite those old stories reminding us of a bunch of angry child-like behaving deities, they are fun to share and find in the night sky.  They connect us to our distant past.  And if your friends, spouse or romantic lover isn’t that impressed by your vast knowledge of the sky, these cultural backgrounds are certainly justification for learning the constellations.  No one should presume they can actually trace out a “reclining virgin” (aroused for an evening) when you are looking at the constellation Virgo!  One must know what you are looking at and how to find it if you are to be a true romantic lover!

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In Part Two of this series, I will give a quick guide to the remarkable celestial shows and events arriving between 2013 and 2015.  Grab your drinks, popcorn, lounge-chairs, and stargazing buddy.  It’s going to be quite a show!

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