Sunday, January 11, 2015

Rebirth and Lovejoy

Ever since I started this blog back in 2009, I have focused my posts on the exciting critters and plants that I found while exploring the outdoors. Then college happened. My time to write posts was greatly reduced, and more importantly, it became more difficult to spend time outdoors and away from the city.

As somewhat of a resolution for 2015, I've decided to revive The Baypoll Blog. While I will still  write about nature as I have for years, this rebirth will allow me to expand my blog to my other interests. I have a passion for photography, other aspects of science, and music to name a few.

One such interest is astronomy, and there happens to be something new in the nighttime sky right now!

I first heard about Comet Lovejoy in an online post last week. The article showed a brilliant image of a bright green comet with a thin, turquoise tail behind. Intrigued, I headed outside with binoculars in hand on a recent clear night. I scanned the sky between Orion and Taurus until...

taken with a 400mm lens
There it is. That fuzzy green spot. After seeing all the dramatic pictures online, I was hoping for a little more than a blurry dot, but it was not to be. I suppose it makes sense that something 44 million miles away doesn't look too interesting through binoculars.

I have not seen many comets in my lifetime. I can only think of three. Vague memories remind me of my dad pointing out Hale-Bopp when I was quite young, then I saw Comet PanSTARRS almost two years ago:

Comets are interesting, as they come and go. I was lucky enough to see Hale-Bopp, but that particular ice and rock chunk won't come close to Earth for another two millennia or so. PanSTARRS may take over 100,000 years.

Meteor showers and comets convince people to peer into the night sky, but many of the fascinating interstellar phenomena that are visible every night are generally ignored! To me, seeing a galaxy full of stars and planets situated millions of light years away from Earth is more exciting than a small piece of rock that burns up as it enters our atmosphere! While I was out taking a look at Comet Lovejoy, I took a moment to find a few of my favorite space objects that are visible this time of year.

The first was Jupiter, which was sitting fairly low in the eastern sky. I became familiar with Jupiter in my senior year of high school, when I worked on a project that involved photographing Jupiter and its four Galilean moons. Here is a photo series taken over one night of observation, which shows Jupiter and its moons. With images like this, I was able to plot the sine curves that modeled the periods of Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto (and from there, it is possible to approximate some physical properties of Jupiter).

Jupiter hasn't changed much, but it is always incredible to look up and see what Galileo first noticed at the beginning of the 17th century.

Jupiter and two of its moons

Orion is a favorite constellation of many. His distinctive belt makes him easy to find—especially this time of year, when he stands at the southern horizon at dusk, then moves higher up in the southern sky through the night. 

The three stars lined up on the top left constitute Orion's belt

Despite Orion's popularity, few people know about the nebula that sits right about where his knees should be. 

A cropped version of the image above, showing the Orion Nebula

A nebula is a cluster of gas and dust, which acts as a center for the formation of new stars. This particular nebula resides with us in the Milky Way. The faint coloration of the nebula comes from the gas composition inside the cluster—primarily hydrogen and helium.

During my second semester at Harvard, I had a chance to explore another interesting interstellar object, supernova SN 2014J, which was located within the Cigar Galaxy (M82). I was able to use the fancy Clay Telescope to observe and photograph this exploding star.

The Cigar Nebula with SN 2014J

After reaching its brightest in January 2014, the supernova faded dramatically over the next few months. This GIF shows a similar view of M82 before and after the supernova:

source: Wikipedia

The next time you're out trying to find a comet or enjoying a meteor shower, take some time to consider and appreciate all that you've been missing in the nighttime sky. I've shared a few of my favorites, but there is much, much more to see. If Terry Lovejoy is any indication, maybe you'll find something new...

1 comment:

Julie Zickefoose said...

I'm so glad you've resolved to blog again. Amazed at the Jupiter images. And then you leave me behind with sines and cosines. But that's OK. We marveled at Lovejoy too. Hale-Bopp was awesome, but Hyukatake (sp?) was my favorite--aqua green.