The Half-Astrophysicist Blog

The Crescent Moon, Mars and Mercury

Mercury is starting to climb up in the western sky for a pretty good appearance and tonight the crescent Moon joined Mars in the vicinity. I managed to get a few shots. I expected Mercury to be difficult to see low in the sky, but it was much easier to find than the higher Mars. In these shots, Mars is to the the right and just below the Moon. Mercury is below Mars and just a little to the right. There are a couple of planes drifting through this part of the sky so don’t be fooled by them!



April 20, 2015 Posted by | Astrophotography, Mars, Mercury, Moon, Pretty Pictures | Leave a comment

The Triple Planet Conjunction of May 2013

I have been posting some pics on facebook, twitter and google+ the last week of the current triple planet conjunction in the evening sky. Last night the three planets made their closes approach to each other. Mercury, Venus and Jupiter were all easily visible to the naked eye and this is a great time to be watching them. You can clearly see the movement from night to night as their relative positions change.  Here are some pics from Tucson last night.

First a close up of the trio.


Next some wide shots of the three. There were low clouds on the western horizon so I got to watch the three play hide and seek amongst the clouds.IMG_6829 IMG_6837 IMG_6843 IMG_6848

Although the night of closest approach is past, they will still be visible together after sunset and worth looking at for several more days as they continue to move away from each other. Jupiter will be lower each night while Mercury speeds higher and above Venus each night. Eventually Mercury will turn around and pass Venus as Mercury dives back toward the Sun and Venus continues to get higher in the sky (by this time, Jupiter will probably be too low to see easily).

Enjoy this one…we only get these triple conjunctions every few years.

May 27, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Conjunctions, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Observing, Solar System | | Leave a comment

The Moon Joins the Mercury-Mars Party

Although closest approach between Mercury and Mars was Friday night, the show is still going on and the Moon is joining the party. But before I get to that, sunset was particularly nice tonight. There were several nice flashes starting with green and even including blue and purple. Interestingly enough, last year on almost exactly this same date, I got wonderful pics of multicolored flashes as well. Wondering if there is something about this mountain that makes it particularly conducive to producing this phenomena. Click to see larger versions and look close for the colors.





After sunset, I was actually more interested in seeing the crescent Moon tonight. I knew it could be a challenge since new Moon occurred earlier today (12:22am MST) so the Moon would be less than 19 hours pas new. I finally spotted the Moon at about 6:43pm putting the Moon 18 hours and 21 minutes past new. At this time less than 1% of the Moon was illuminated.I probably could have found it a few minutes earlier, but I was looking a little too far south for it…I found it a little farther north than I was expecting (that will teach me to look up its azimuth before I go observing!) Here is a close up of the very young crescent Moon with a plane flying by.


As I said, Mercury and Mars are still fairly close together so I turned my attention to them. My real goal was to see if I could get Mercury, Mars and the crescent Moon. The Moon was rapidly setting at that time and I barely got it. Mercury is the brighter one toward the top and Mars is slightly beneath it. I got a plane in this one as well. The Moon is lower in the sky and its light is passing through more atmosphere so it doesn’t show up as well. Look to the lower right of the bright plane, just above the horizon. You have to look very close.


Tomorrow night the Moon will be much higher in the sky and easier to see. The Moon will be above and to the right of Mercury and about 3.8% illuminated, much easier to see. Mars will be the toughest of the three to pick out against the twilight sky, so have patience but don’t wait too long or they will set behind the western horizon before you see them!

February 11, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Atmospheric Physics, Conjunctions, Green Flash, Mars, Mercury, Moon, Sunset | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Mercury-Mars Conjunction

Tonight was the Mercury-Mars conjunction when they passed within about 0.25 degrees of each other. Well, closest approach was at 17:00UT (about 10am Tucson time) so these pics were about 8.5 hours after closest approach. That may not seem like much, but tonight Mercury is above Mars, the reverse of last night, so these guys were moving fast. Here are a few pics.

IMG_0684 IMG_0677 IMG_0666

February 9, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Conjunctions, Mars, Mercury | | Leave a comment

A Couple of Planets and the ISS

I got out tonight to photograph Mercury and Mars. They are rapidly converging for a very close encounter on Friday evening when they will be separated by about half the diameter of the full Moon (forecast is for cloudy in Tucson Friday so I figured I better get them when I can). I was lucky enough to get them just above Kitt Peak as they set. Mercury is the bright one on the bottom and Mars is fainter and higher in the sky.

IMG_0611I then headed out to Saguaro National Park East to get ready for an ISS pass. While waiting, I was experimenting and snapped a quick self portrait in front of a Saguaro. I pulled a little trick and got that dreamy effect where I appear to be transparent and you can see the clouds through me. I am sure photographers know how I did that (it was NOT a double exposure!)


I snapped a series of pics of the ISS pass. This pass was near maximum brightness. Click through the gallery for all the shots.

Enjoying the new camera. Hoping for clear skies for the next couple of nights for more Mercury/Mars pics!


February 7, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Conjunctions, ISS, Mars, Mercury | , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunset, the Moon, Mars and Saturn

The weather is clearing in Tucson so photography is happening on a more regular basis. First up, a sunset through low clouds.

Note the colors. Click for bigger versions and look for a cloudtop green flash.

Next up, the Moon and Mars were right next to each other and passing through some thing clouds for an interesting picture.

Finally, a zoomed out view where you can also glimpse Saturn to the right of the tree.

September 20, 2012 Posted by | Astrophotography, Green Flash, Mars, Pretty Pictures, Saturn, Sunset | , , , , , | Leave a comment

NASA MSL Tweetup: Launch Day

Okay, now to Saturday, November 26th: Launch Day! Launch was scheduled for 10:02 am. We had to get to the Cape by 6:45 for the morning festivities. Plenty of activity and excitement in the air.

My group went to the media center where we got a demonstration of NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System website. This site has really interesting visualization tools you can use to look at data from NASA missions. One of my favorite is recreating the flybys of various planets and moons by different missions. Definitely something I am going to spend a lot more time playing with.

We went back to the the twent where our special guests started showing up including astronaut Doug Wheelock (first astronaut to check in on foursquare from space and frequent space tweeter), Bill Nye and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. I joked it was getting hard to keep track of all the celebrities in the room.


And one more to come… of the Black Eyed Peas who is an advocate for science education. It looks like he may be tweeting!

Okay, only a few minutes from launch…

We all had out our cell phones listening to the final launch poll during the last hold at t-4 minutes. Heard nothing but “go, go, go, go, go!” during the poll. Promptly at 10:02am, liftoff!




The sound of the launch takes a while to reach us. It is not as loud as I would expect, but it is very deep and you can feel those low frequencies! It is very bright at that distance., that is just as surprising as the sound. It should be noted that we were several hundred yards closer than the VIPS who were watching from the media center!

I drove aross the state to visit my father. Stopped to see some manatees (in the wild) on the way there and finished the trip with a sunset and dinner on the beach with Venus and the crescent Moon hanging low in the western sky.


Can’t really say enough about the trip. NASA does a super job with these tweetups and I can’t thank them enough for the experience. They are planning more so I encourage you to apply if you can. Follow their twitter account or keep an eye on the tweetup web page.

December 1, 2011 Posted by | Atlas V, exploration, Launch, Mars, NASA, Space Flight | 2 Comments

NASA MSL Tweetup: Day 3

Okay, now I am up to Friday, November 25th, the day before the launch of Curiosity. Even though this is my third blog entry, it is the first day of the official tweetup. I picked up my badge on Wednesday morning, so I could drive straight to the media center. You kind of feel special driving up to the gate at KSC and flashing your badge and them letting you drive right on site.

Even before I went to the twent (tweetup tent) I had to stop and get a picture by the famous countdown clock. The clock wasn’t on yet…would take another pic the next day when the clock was actively counting down. Our twent was just across the field from the clock.

The first activity was introductions. I was really looking forward to meeting the rapper funky49.  Funky49 did the Fermilab rap video I blogged about a while ago and incorporates lots of science into his music. Even if you are not a rap fan, check it out if you are a science fan. I was also thrilled to meet Tom Tomorrow of This Modern World fame. Glad to say I got to chat with both.

After introductions, there was a break to enjoy and get ready for the main tweetup event at 11am. This part was televised and featured lots of speakers from NASA and JPL who worked on Curiosity. They talked about the science they hoped to accomplish, rover design and the launch vehicle. This part was televised and you can watch it online. At a tweetup it is not considered rude to be on your laptop/cell phone/iPad as long as you are tweeting about the speaker!

One of the really cool things during this section was a rover comparison. They brought out three wheels: one from the Sojourner Rover (1997), one from the current rovers (2003) and the third one from Curiosity (2011) to illustrate how much bigger this rover is than the previous generations.

After the formal program, we had a quick lunch and then it was off to our tours of the Cape. The first stop was the Saturn V center (different buses hit the stops in different orders..there were four buses taking us on tours). I saw it on Thursday, but it is always worth a second stop.

The one I was really looking forward to was the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). The VAB is where they stacked the Saturn V and Shuttles. It’s one of the largest buildings in the world (in terms of volume) and over 500 feet tall. Fortunately, I have a very wide angle fisheye lens for my camera, but it still cannot do the building justice!

But that’s not all…there was a real treat waiting around the corner!

That’s not a model! That is the real, flown in space, Shuttle Endeavor.  It is currently being readied to be transported to the California Science Center where it will be displayed.

Next stop was Launch Complex 41 where the Atlas V stood read with Curiosity waiting for the Saturday launch.

This particular Atlas V has four strap on boosters and a five meter faring at the top enclosing curiosity. We couldn’t go past the gate, but still got a great view of the rocket!

The last stop on the tour was a little more somber: Launch Complex 34. Complex 34 is the site of the Apollo I fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Grissom, Chaffee, and White. I found the understated plaque commemorating the fire especially moving.

After the tour, it was off to dinner in Cocoa Beach. Coming back from Cocoa Beach, I stopped on the side of 528 because the pad was nicely lit up. I had to take a couple of picks at different zooms. I had no tripod, so I had to settle for steadying my camera on the hood of my car.

Yep, another full day. Had to be at the Cape by 6:45am for the launch and I was having trouble getting to sleep!

December 1, 2011 Posted by | Atlas V, Launch, Mars, NASA, Solar System | Leave a comment

NASA MSL Tweetup: Day 1

I recently has the pleasure of joining 150 other twitter users at the tweetup for the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory named Curiosity. A lot happened so I am going to do several blogs breaking it down day by day.

NASA has hosted quite a few tweetups (I believe this was the 31st). Tweetups are gatherings of NASA’s twitter followers at a NASA center. Tweetups sometimes correspond to launches but have been held at other times as well. You always see a whole flurry to tweets from these events. The tweetup for the launch of Curiosity was held at the Kennedy Space Center for the launch. The launch was originally scheduled for November 25th which meant the tweetup would be on the 23rd, take the 24th off for Thanksgiving, and launch on the 25ht. A faulty battery pushed the launch to the 26th and the tweetup to the 25th. Therefore, when I arrived in Florida on the evening of the 22nd, I found myself with an extra free day. (Oh, there was a great dinner where all the tweeps met at Dixie Crossings on Tuesday night!)

The first thing I did was go to pick up my badge and swag. I knew they were giving us a free pass to the KSC Visitors Center that I planned to use Thursday, so I had to pick it up this morning. Met another tweep from Tucson at the hotel breakfast and drove over with her.

I spent the rest of the  day exploring a couple of areas adjacent to the KSC.  The Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge is immediately north of the KSC. This 140,000 acre refuge houses a wide variety of wildlife in marshlands and hammocks. Lots of great trails for hiking and observing wildlife. Note: bring bug repellant.

A path on Palm Hammock

Railraod tracks passing through the wildlife preserve used to bring rockets to the Cape.











A great drive is Bio Lab Road. Bio Lab Road actually goes through Canaveral National Seashore and comes out in the Wildlife Preserve. This road is a great place for birding.









I also went to the National Sea Shore. I only went to the southern part near KSC (it is huge). The beaches are wonderful, but you occasionally come across things like telescopes used to watch launches.









Fr0m the very southern end of the sea shore is the best place to get a view of launch pad 39B. 39B was used for shuttle launches but is the first pad to be converted for the next generation of NASA rockets.  The Ares 1-X test flight lifted off from 39B.

Tweetups are fun things. I went by myself but through twitter, managed to meet up with others throughout the day. I went to dinner that night with a bunch of tweeps at a local BBQ joint.

So you can see that even though there were not any formal tweetup activities that day, there was plenty to do! Stay tuned for day 2.

November 30, 2011 Posted by | Atlas V, Launch, Mars, NASA, New Media, Solar System | 2 Comments