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09 Jun A New Comet

There’s a new Comet McNaught in town (well, in the sky, actually) and it might actually be visible to the naked eye. (Comets can be unreliable, so no one knows for sure.) Look for it low in the northeastern sky before dawn, in the constellation Perseus. This coming weekend should be a good time to check it out, because there’ll be a new moon on the 12th. More info on Comet McNaught, pictures and star charts here at Universe Today.

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26 Mar An Astronomical Opportunity

Not many people have seen the planet Mercury. It’s easy to find Venus and Mars and Jupiter and even Saturn, but Mercury’s small and close to the sun and elusive. According to Renaissance gossip (and I do love Renaissance gossip) Copernicus himself never saw Mercury.

However! Now’s your chance! For the next couple of weeks Mercury and Venus will appear unusually close together (they’re actually on opposite sides of the sun, but stargazing is tricksy like that). Because Venus is one of the brightest objects in the night sky you can use it as a marker to help you find Mercury. Just look in the lower western sky about an hour after sunset. The brightest star you see? That will be Venus. Look down and to the right for Mercury. Have a pair of binoculars or a small telescope? Even better. They’ll appear closest together on April 3rd and 4th, and the conjunction will continue through about April 10th.

Why bother? Well, Mercury, the planet of communication, is going into retrograde again around the middle of April. Communication snafus, here we come. So at least this time we can look Mercury straight in the eye and say, “Not with my queries/submissions/revisions, you don’t.”

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11 Nov The Leonids are Coming!

A medieval illustration of the astrological LeoThe Leonid meteor shower has produced some of the most spectacular meteor displays in history; in fact, the Leonid display of November 1833 was so brilliant it produced the science of meteor astronomy (no pun intended) overnight.

The Leonids generally begin on November 13th and end on November 21st, with the largest numbers of observable meteors generally streaking across the sky during the night of November 17th/18th. This year the new moon falls on the 16th so there will be virtually no moonlight to impede viewing.

Bundle up and plan your Leonid-viewing party now! You can find everything you ever wanted to know (and more) about the Leonids at

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09 Sep Chiaroscuro

Boo with morning sun and telescope

I haven’t posted a beagle picture for a while, so here’s one from this morning: Boudin, sleeping peacefully in front of the back door, striped by the morning sun. He’s lying in one of his favorite spots, the space created by the three legs of my telescope tripod. Boo, the stargazing beagle! What next?

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19 Jul Morning Thoughts

A beautiful dawn this morning. I was up unusually early because Cressie decided to bark and bark and bark—she was bored and wanted someone to play with. So we went out into the back yard together. The sky was just lightening, slate blue shading to gray, with feathery brushstrokes of pink-gold clouds. High over the treetops swam the waning, almost-new moon, the thinnest of silver-gold crescents, with bright Venus glimmering beside it.

Cressie quartered the yard, inspected the fence and garden, sniffed all the delicious early-morning smells and stopped by every few minutes to touch her little muzzle to my leg—“Just checking in, Mama.” I watched the sun come up, and the moon and Venus fade into the light. There is an unsettling combination of delight and sorrow in my life right now, and looking out into the sky helps me keep it all in balance.

That delicate touch of a beagle girl’s muzzle against my leg doesn’t hurt, either.

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03 Jun The Stars of June

Stars, stars, stars of June

June’s a morning kind of month this year—if you’re not an early riser you’ll miss most of the stargazing fun. If you like to stay up late, well, you could always just stay up till dawn.

  • June 6th. One evening treat. The Moon, one day off full, will rise in the heart of Scorpius, the Scorpion. In many parts of the United States, the Moon will actually occlude Antares, the spectacular orange star that usually marks the Scorpion’s heart.
  • June 7th. The full Moon of June. Will post more about the lore of the June Moon (to which we croon a tune) on the seventh itself.
  • June 19th. Look to the east at dawn (which for some reason makes me think of Luke Havergal, although he was supposed to go to the western gate at twilight) and you will see the crescent Moon with Venus and Mars.
  • June 20th. At first light, the Moon, the Pleiades, and the planets Venus, Mars, and Mercury will form an arch in the east. Unusual and beautiful. I’d like to try to get a picture of this.
  • June 21st. The Summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.
  • June 27th. Back to the evening. Saturn, which will look like a golden star, is to the upper right of the Moon. Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo, is to the lower right.
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02 May The Stars of May

The fickle Flower Moon of May, with all her starry suitorsThe Flower Moon of May 2009 will have lots of starry (and planet-y) companions. On the evenings of the third and fourth, look for Saturn close to the Moon. On the sixth, the bright star close to the Moon at nightfall is Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, representing the sheaf of wheat in the virgin’s hand. (“Spica” means “ear of grain” in Latin.)

On the tenth, the Moon moves from virgins to scorpions—it will rise together with Antares, the vibrant reddish brightest star in the constellation Scorpio. On the sixteenth and seventeenth, on the other hand, the Moon will team with Jupiter, which looks like a bright yellow-white star.

And as if the Moon hasn’t been fickle enough so far, on the twentieth and twenty-first it will line up with Venus and Mars first thing in the mornings. Venus is the morning star this month and so bright you can’t miss it. Mars is fainter and redder. Look for it just below the Moon on the morning of the twenty-first.

On the twenty-ninth, Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo, is just to the upper right of the Moon. If you want to amaze your friends with your astronomical knowledge, explain that what we see as the star Regulus is actually a system of four stars, the blue-white Regulus A and its white-dwarf companion, plus another pair, Regulus B and Regulus C.

In addition to being called the Flower Moon—April showers having theoretically brought May flowers—the full Moon of May also called the Milk Moon and the Corn Planting Moon. Look for it on the ninth.

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25 Apr The Blob at the Edge of the Universe and the Shaman Queen of Ancient Japan

Could anything be more irresistible? It seems an international team of astronomers have discovered what’s called an extended Lyman-Alpha blob so far away that what they’re seeing (given the speed of light) is something that happened at the dawn of the universe. It doesn’t look like much but to astronomers it’s a mysterious and fascinating object.

It has been named Himiko, after a queen in ancient Japan, said to be a sorceress. Quoted from Japan in the Chinese Dynastic Histories: Later Han Through Ming Dynasties by Tsunoda Ryusaku, tr. 1951:

She occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitching the people. Though mature in age, she remained unmarried. She had a younger brother who assisted her in ruling the country. After she became the ruler, there were few who saw her. She had one thousand women as attendants, but only one man. He served her food and drink and acted as a medium of communication. She resided in a palace surrounded by towers and stockades, with armed guards in a state of constant vigilance.

Even more intriguing:

When Himiko passed away, a great mound was raised, more than a hundred paces in diameter. Over a hundred male and female attendants followed her to the grave. Then a king was placed on the throne, but the people would not obey him. Assassination and murder followed; more than one thousand were thus slain. A relative of Himiko named Iyo, a girl of thirteen, was [then] made queen and order was restored.

Makes me want to write a young-adult historical with the shaman princess as the heroine.

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01 Apr The Skies of April

And speaking of stargazing: this month the Moon finds its way from planet to planet, with a star cluster thrown in for good measure; and the Lyrids return.

  • April 6: Saturn, which will look like a bright gold-colored star, appears close to the Moon tonight. Observe them together and meditate on the vast distance that actually separates them.
  • April 18: Jupiter appears a little to the lower left of the Moon in the very early morning, low in the southeast.
  • April 21: Meteors! The Lyrid meteor shower is at its best tonight. For more information click here. Meteor showers are a law unto themselves, sometimes dazzling, sometimes virtually unnoticeable. Bit of historical goodness: in 1095, an April meteor shower (almost certainly the Lyrids) was so spectacular that one Gislebert, Bishop of Lisieux, took it as a sign of heavenly approval for what became the First Crusade.
  • April 22: The Moon, Venus, and Mars appear close together low in the east, just as it begins to get light. The Moon will actually occult Venus, hiding it briefly from view.
  • April 26: The Moon, the planet Mercury and the Pleiades align low in the west-northwest as night falls. Mercury will look like a fairly bright star. The Pleiades star cluster is a little below the Moon, sandwiched between the Moon and Mercury.

Happy sky-watching!

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05 Mar The Stars of March

After all the excitement last month—comets! conjunctions! occultations! penumbral eclipses!—this month is quieter. There is some good planet viewing, however, particularly of Saturn.

  • March 8th: the moon, just two days to full, rises in the east at nightfall, just above the star Regulus (Alpha Leonis, the brightest star in the constellation Leo) and the plant Saturn.
  • March 9th: the moon rises between Regulus and Saturn, with Regulus above it and Saturn below it. A moon sandwich!
  • March 10th: the full moon rises below both Regulus and Saturn. Saturn is at its brightest for the year. One of my favorite childhood memories is the awe I felt the first time I observed Saturn and its rings through my little 60x telescope.
  • March 20th: the Vernal Equinox occurs at 6:44 a.m. Central Daylight Time, marking the beginning of Spring (yay!) in the Northern Hemisphere.

And speaking of Saturn: just this week it was reported that scientists found a moon hidden in one of Saturn’s outer rings. How cool is that? Saturn has a lot of moons (sixty-one, counting the new one) in addition to its rings, but there’s something about an unknown and mysterious moon hidden away within a ring. How could that be worked into a story?

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23 Feb Stargazing Update

Don’t forget to keep an eye out for Comet Lulin tonight and tomorrow night. It’s kind of cloudy here right now and I’m hoping the clouds blow off by tonight.

The coolest thing about Comet Lulin (besides being backwards and green, both of which are both pretty cool in themselves) is that this is its one trip around the sun. Most comets have orbits and return periodically, even if their periods are hundreds of years. Lulin, however, appears to have enough velocity to escape from the solar system entirely on its way out, and disappear forever into deep space. So we are the only people, in the whole history of mankind and the entire future of mankind, to see it.

Stargazing is just pretty incredible.

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10 Feb The Cloud Moon

The full moon of February 9, 2009, photographed through a haze of clouds at Casa LoupasThe February full moon was last night. As you can see, the February stargazing score is now clouds two, Elizabeth zero—all I saw was a fuzzy-looking disk (no, that’s not the camera, it’s the clouds) high over the gables of our house. This full moon is usually called the Snow Moon or Hunger Moon. Colonial Americans called it the Trapper’s Moon and in medieval England it was sometimes called the Storm Moon. The Chinese refer to it as the Budding Moon (and some of our trees are already budding—it’s in the seventies today, although we’re under a tornado watch at the moment) and the Celts called it the Ice Moon. This year I’m calling it the Cloud Moon!

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05 Feb An Unordered List

  • I didn’t get to see the occultation of the Pleiades by the gibbous moon on Tuesday night. It was cloudy. Boo hiss clouds. One of the hazards of stargazing.
  • I don’t know how people manage 10,000 steps a day on pedometers. The best I’ve been able to do is about 6,000, and that includes a walk with the doggies.
  • What I am reading right now: The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin. I loved Mistress of the Art of Death and I love this one, too. The story of “Fair Rosamund” has always intrigued me and I’m willing to suspend all sorts of disbelief to immerse myself in Franklin’s evocative, texture-rich tale.
  • Flat Stanley update: “Flat” is about to conclude his adventures in Texas and return home. Yesterday he helped me glue together a birdhouse.
  • Many thanks to everyone for the congratulations and well-wishes on signing with Fox Literary. Welcome to the new visitors to the blog! It’s up to Barbara now, to make her way in the world.
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31 Jan The Skies of February

Here’s my stargazing schedule for the coming month:

February 3rd: the gibbous moon will pass north of the Pleiades, eclipsing (well, the real term is occulting) some of the brightest stars. The dark side of the moon will cover the stars first, and then they will reappear from the moon’s bright side. Pretty cool.

February 9th: the full moon, called the Snow Moon. On that same night, there’ll be a penumbral lunar eclipse, which means the moon will pass through the edge of the Earth’s shadow. Truth be told, you won’t really see anything, but why not watch and imagine?

February 24th: Comet Lulin, a unique two-tailed comet, will reach its peak of brightness. Lulin was discovered in July 2007, and is named for the Lu-lin Observatory on Mt. Front Lu-Lin in Taiwan.

February 27th: the crescent moon and the bright planet Venus will be only a degree and a half apart. I am going to try to take a picture of this. I managed a fair picture of the “sad face” moon-Venus-Jupiter conjunction on December 2nd:

Conjunction of the moon, Venus and Jupiter, December 2, 2008

The crescent of the moon is a little blurry, but as the Broadcasting Legend™ says, 252,000 miles is a pretty long focal length for our little backyard camera. One day I’m going to buy the adapters and gadgets I need to attach the camera to my telescope. Although I don’t really want my stargazing to get too professional. What I love about it the most is the mystery and the history—the sense of millenia of people looking up at the sky and seeing the same things.

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14 Jan Six Things That Make Me Happy

Tagged again! This time, it’s Bryn Greenwood’s doing. I really have to learn to run faster. Heh.

All right. Six things that make me happy.

  1. My first cup of coffee in the morning. Strong strong coffee with milk. It’s not really lattè because the milk isn’t steamed or foamed, but I call it lattè anyway. So report me to the lattè police.
  2. Taking a siesta after lunch. Piling into bed with both doggies and the Broadcasting Legend™ if he’s not on the road and drowsing deliciously through Everyday Italian and Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network.
  3. Hugs from little children.
  4. Going to church. Singing For All the Saints or one of the other great processionals as the scrubbed acolytes (more little children) and the choir stream into the sanctuary, and almost crying as the sopranos launch into the high, soaring descant on the last verse of the hymn.
  5. Flower scents. Real flowers, not perfumes or oils. Lilies of the valley, lilacs, old-fashioned clove pinks. Our English roses—Jude the Obscure, Eglantyne, Winchester Cathedral.
  6. Standing in the back yard and looking up at the sky. Picking out the constellations I learned when I was a little girl at the lake. Trying to work my mind around the inconceivable distances.
  7. Opening a thick, tantalizing new book to the first page.
  8. Reading Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Oh wait. That’s eight. And I haven’t even gotten to chocolate.

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07 Jan Lists

I love to make lists. I live and die by my daily lists—I have a little gadget on my Vista sidebar where I can make a list with checkboxes, and check things off as the day progresses. Another holdover from my corporate days, I suppose, when I kept comprehensive lists of things to do on yellow legal pads, crossing off and dating things as they were done and saving the pads when they were full, just in case. Those pads came in handy sometimes.

This is just a list of things I’m thinking about at the moment.

  • Christmas decorations are put away, all safe in their beds, for next year.
  • No stargazing for the past few nights—it’s been cold, cloudy and rainy. I miss it.
  • Revisions of Duchess are proceeding apace. Some really good stuff is happening, I think.
  • I’m re-reading The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge. It started to call to me after I wrote up my post about Goudge being part of my fantasy writers group. What an extraordinary book.
  • Time to start thinking about this summer’s garden. Also to order a new rose bush from David Austin Roses. We have a spot where an ancient Peace rose gave up the ghost last summer.
  • Did I mention that revisions are going really well?
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22 Dec Winter Stars

Auriga from Urania's MirrorOne of my lifelong avocations is stargazing—not in a serious astronomical sense, but just to see the pictures in the sky and learn their fascinating historical lore (I’m always a sucker for historical lore). This week’s constellation is Auriga, the Charioteer or Wainman. At the left we see him as he appeared in Urania’s Mirror, a set of hand-painted cards published in London around 1825. (The scan is courtesy Ian Ridpath.) The constellation was first described in ancient times along the Euphrates River, in much the same form as we imagine it today.

Auriga appears in the sky as a pentagon shape, which represents the Charioteer himself. Alpha Aurigae, or Capella, is a first-magnitude (very bright) white star representing a she-goat the Charioteer is carrying in the crook of his left arm, and the three smaller stars forming a long triangular shape beneath Capella are the she-goat’s kids. Auriga Sky

Why is a Charioteer carring a goat and her kids? There’s no one explanation. Some say that the unusual formation of bright Capella with her three kids beside her came first, and the Charioteer was later imagined around them. In any case, if you look directly overhead around midnight on a winter evening (if you are in the US—in other parts of the world the positions of the constellations will vary) it will be easy to pick out bright Capella and her triangular cluster of three kids, and consider the fact that you are seeing the same stars the Babylonians saw, and the same picture they imagined.