SkyNews - Astronomy & Stargazing Magazine of Canada
SkyNews, the magazine of astronomy and stargazing, is your guide to observing the night sky. On our website you can find out what's up in the sky this week and a collection of resources for amateur astronomers.
Last January’s lunar eclipse demonstrated there’s a fine line between enthusiasm and hype.
SUPER, BLOODY AND BLUE The hype surrounding the January 31 total lunar eclipse threatened to eclipse the event itself. Photo by Gary Seronik
“This message may be a scam,” my computer warned me when an e-mail from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi arrived. The press release proclaimed the January 31 total lunar eclipse as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” because it occurred when the Moon was both “blue” and “super” at the same time, yielding a “super, blue, blood Moon.” Wow!
Sadly, Texas A&M wasn’t the only source hyping the eclipse. Even NASA got in on the “super, blood, blue Moon” game. And once credible organizations join the hype brigade, it’s game over. The sensationalism is repeated and amplified downstream by media outlets that get their astronomy information secondhand. The hyperbole is baked in, along with whatever errors happen to creep into the mix. One “fact” I saw repeated over and over was that a “supermoon” is 14 percent larger than usual. It’s not true. Owing to our satellite’s elliptical orbit, the Moon is 14 percent larger at perigee than at apogee, when it’s smallest. Since the Moon usually isn’t at one of these extremes, the difference between a supermoon and an average one is at best around 7 percent. Indeed, for all of 2018, the difference spans just 6 percent. Not that exciting in either case.
Within the parameters set out in its press release, Texas A&M’s description of a “once-in-a-lifetime” lunar eclipse wasn’t exactly wrong, but it also wasn’t right. Every single day, each of us does trivial things that could be described as “once in a lifetime,” yet we tend not to take note of them. In other words, a rare event isn’t necessarily an important one. The crux of the matter regarding last winter’s eclipse concerns whether the two secondary factors resulted in something not only unusual but significant in some way.
Don’t get me wrong—I think lunar eclipses are simply amazing. They’re always visually arresting and a wonder to behold, particularly when we consider the celestial mechanics behind them. Isn’t that enough? Was the experience of watching the January 31 eclipse greatly enhanced because the Moon happened to be full for the second time that month or because the Moon was slightly closer than usual the day before? Not to my eye.
So why does any of this matter? Anyone familiar with the fable of the boy who cried wolf (or, the astronomical version, The Boy Who Cried Kohoutek) knows the answer. It’s understandable that as astronomy enthusiasts, we want to share our sense of wonder and excitement with others. It’s fun and often very rewarding. And the universe undeniably is amazing. But when people’s expectations fall out of sync with reality, everyone loses. We in the astro community lose credibility, and the public becomes incrementally more cynical not just about space science but about science in general. When observable reality and “this message may be a scam” become indistinguishable, trouble follows. We live in a time when more people need to become engaged with science so that we can properly grapple with the many complex environmental challenges that confront us. While overselling a lunar eclipse isn’t going to lead directly to an existential crisis, it’s one more straw on the proverbial camel’s poor aching back.
Check out the May/June 2018 issue of SkyNews for an expanded version of Gary’s Editor’s Report.
As solar activity continues to wane, so does the frequency of northern lights displays. But from time to time, a good show still occurs. And the farther north you are, the more often you’ll get to witness one.
This striking corona-type aurora was captured just outside Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, by Cathleen Mewis, in the predawn hours of May 28, 2017. She recorded the 4-second exposure at ISO 800 with a Canon EOS Rebel T5i DSLR camera fitted with a 11-16mm zoom lens set to 11mm and f/2.8.
2018 is a big year for the red planet. At the end of July, Mars will swing closer to Earth than it has at any time since 2003. Indeed, it will be a conspicuous sight all summer long, spending most of its time in the southern constellations Capricornus and Sagittarius.
While in Chile last March, Quebec imager, Sam Berrada, captured this shot of Mars neatly positioned between two of the Sagittarius Milky Way’s best known deep-sky attractions: M8 and M20. The large nebulous mass below Mars is M8, also known as the Lagoon Nebula, while M20 (the Triffid Nebula) is north of the planet.
Sam recorded this single, 4-minute frame on March 19, 2018, with a Nikon D810A DSLR camera (set to ISO 1250) and a Borg 90FL refractor telescope, working at f/4.
One of the winter sky’s undisputed showpieces is the Orion Nebula, also known as M42. This magnificent object can be enjoyed even in early spring when weather conditions are usually more favourable. The Orion Nebula is among a handful of deep-sky wonders that look good in anything from basic binoculars to a monster Dobsonian telescope. It also happens to be wonderfully photogenic, as this wide angle shot by Frédéric Caron of Sainte-Christine, Quebec, illustrates. In addition to M42, Frédéric’s beautifully detailed image captures the much smaller nebula M43 immediately north of M42, plus a complex of stars and nebulosity further north collectively catalogued as NGC1973-75-77 and, finally, the sparse open cluster NGC1981. Together with M42, these objects form the spectacular Sword of Orion.
For this four-degree-tall portrait of the region, Frédéric amassed a total of 4 hours exposure recorded at ISO 1600 over three nights with a Takahashi FSQ-106N apochromatic refractor telescope and Sony α7S mirrorless digital camera (modified for “full spectrum” response) equipped with an internal IDAS HEUIB-II filter.
In mid-March, the innermost planet, Mercury, was at its best for 2018. That’s when the swift little world shone brightly and hovered (relatively) high above the western horizon at dusk. On the evening of March 18, Mercury was part of a particularly attractive gathering that also included Venus and a thin crescent Moon, the three objects forming a slanted, evenly-spaced line. The scene was captured in the in the beautifully composed image above, by Luc Bellavance of Rimouski, Quebec. Even at its best, Mercury can be elusive and tricky to recognize. In Luc’s photo, the planet is the star-like point of light near the top of the frame, above and to the right of much brighter Venus. In the foreground, chunks of ice float in the Saint Lawrence River.
Luc used a Canon EOS 450D DSLR camera and 50mm lens (at f/3.8) for this single, 1/6-second exposure at ISO 800.
Spring is just around the corner and, as every deep-sky observer knows, that means galaxy season is also coming. As the bright stars of winter slip into the west, the dimmer constellations of spring take their place at the meridian. Among them are swarms of galaxies. Two of the finest spring galaxies are the Ursa Major duo of M81 and M82. One is a large, elegant spiral (M81) and the other a smaller, “irregular” galaxy (M82) misshapen by tidal forces from its neighbour. Both objects are moderately easy targets for small telescopes used under dark skies—their contrasting shapes are evident even in backyard scopes. The celestial odd couple is presented nicely in this monochromatic photo by Ontario astrophotographer Doug Nan Jiang.
Nan’s deep and detailed portrait of the Ursa Major pair consists of a total of 10 hours of Luminance data captured with a QHYCCD 814 A camera and Offcina Stellare Veloce RH 200 8-inch f/3 astrograph.
What distinguishes a routine aurora photo from a memorable one? Composition. With modern digital cameras, recording the northern lights has never been easier, but making a compelling photo is as difficult as ever. Choosing a compelling location that includes an interesting foreground helps elevate wide-angle night-sky shots from ordinary to exceptional. This sublime photo by Gerry Pocha is a good example. More than simply a record of an auroral display, Gerry’s carefully arranged portrait is packed with otherworldly atmosphere and surreal beauty.
Gerry captured this scene last May near Vanscoy, Saskatchewan, with a Canon EOS 6D DSLR camera and a Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens. The exposure was 6 seconds at ISO 640 and f/1.4.
Most of us keep our feet on the ground when enjoying astronomical wonders, but increasingly, there are options aloft.
TAKING IN THE VIEW Several Learning Vacations visitors watch a fine display of northern lights at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on March 6, 2016. PHOTO BY ALAN DYER
What are the most awe-inspiring astronomical sights you’ve ever witnessed? I suspect more than a few short lists were revised after August 21, 2017. Certainly, a total eclipse of the Sun ranks right up there as one of the greatest spectacles in all of nature astronomical or otherwise. I’ve been able to stand in the path of the Moon’s shadow five times, and the experience remains as startlingly thrilling as ever. It tops my list. Beyond that, the ranking is apt to reflect individual interests.
For me, I’d include a very bright naked-eye comet (Hyakutake in 1996 and Hale-Bopp the following year are the two finest I’ve seen), a total lunar eclipse (I’ve enjoyed quite a few) and the sight of Jupiter or the Moon in a big telescope on a night of really steady seeing. But there’s one more item—and it certainly belongs near the top of every skywatcher’s hit list: a great display of northern lights. As with eclipses, however, witnessing a top-notch aurora display can be easier said than done.
For residents of northern Canada, the aurora borealis is an impressive and frequent sight. Unfortunately, most of this magazine’s readers live far enough south that the shimmering show is a rare treat. An even bigger factor has little to do with latitude—it’s the all-too familiar scourge of light pollution. City lights make the aurora difficult to appreciate on the rare occasions it extends far enough south to be visible. So what is a resident of Vancouver or Toronto or Halifax to do? Hit the road (or the air)!
Over the past several decades, various forms of astronomical tourism have become increasingly popular and necessary. Obviously, to see a total solar eclipse, you’re typically going to have to get on a plane and depart for some far-flung corner of the globe. Today, a growing number of skygazers are travelling to observe the northern lights as well. Indeed, such expeditions have become standard fare on the astro-tourism menu. I myself have led several aurora tours to Iceland with a company called TravelQuest International. SkyNews contributor Paul Deans has done likewise (most recently on a cruise ship sailing among the fjords of Norway) and will do so again in Iceland this October. Happily, though, you don’t always have to embark on such a long trip. For example, Churchill, Manitoba, is a world-renowned destination for aurora watching. Our own Alan Dyer has conducted several “learning vacation” sessions at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
Recently, the RASC Yukon Centre partnered with Air North and Tourism Yukon to offer airborne aurora viewing on a chartered Boeing 737. This is another observational aspect that the northern lights share with solar eclipses. Veteran eclipse chasers know that you can usually book an airplane seat to witness totality above the clouds. Now you can also chase auroras in a jet. By all accounts, the inaugural Yukon flight this past November was a great success—the expedition sold out, and the northern lights cooperated by putting on a fine show. There are plans afoot for a second “Aurora 360” flight, perhaps as early as this spring. Similar excursions have taken off from the U.K. and New Zealand (for the aurora australis).
Although I’ve never watched an eclipse from an airplane, I’ve seen northern lights while in the air. Ironically, one such occasion was on a flight from Seattle to Reykjavik, on my way to Iceland, where I was to lead an aurora and eclipse tour for TravelQuest. Talk about an auspicious beginning! Because Iceland is more or less directly under the auroral oval, you’re almost guaranteed to see something if you’re there for a few nights. What isn’t guaranteed, however, is clear skies. Icelandic weather has a well-deserved reputation for being, shall we say, exciting. Of course, at the altitude of an airliner, every night is a clear night—so perhaps this novel approach will allow more skywatchers to add the aurora to their list of “best sights ever!”