Thursday, January 13, 2011

Comet Storm of December 2010

This is way cool: over ten days in December, 25 comet fragments dove into the sun, the most dramatic concentration yet seen by the SOHO cameras, which provide unprecedented images of the sun and its immediate vicinity. Some astronomers wonder if this may herald a truly dramatic sungrazer, perhaps on par with the incredible Comet Ikeya-Seki (left), which was visible even in daylight in 1965.

This article from NASA fills in the details. Brian Marsden, well-known in comet-watching circles (and who passed away last year) was the first to realize that Ikeya-Seki and many other sun-grazers and comets like the recent small ones that dove into the sun, were all part of one family of comets, likely fragments of the famous Great Comet of 1106, the earliest comet to show up in historical accounts.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Coming Around: The Moon as Signpost

We've been here fact, every month we can use the moon as the first stepping-stone toward our three-dimensional experience of the cosmos.

Last night, she was right behind us, a perfect half-moon. As ever, this means the moon was "beside" us in space, following along behind the earth in its (earth's) orbital path. We were there, where the moon is, roughly three hours ago....


Just after sunset, we view the sky from the very early edge of the "night" side of the earth (see rotation of earth in the diagram). As we look from here, on the trailing terminator of the earth, we see the leading terminator of the moon, following along behind us. (in the diagram above, the earth's orbit around the sun keeps us moving toward the top of the image).

Combined with our observation of the crescent a few days back, we begin to "feel" the moon swinging out around earth, now at its extreme side-swing, and about to head around behind us.

While every month offers this chance to see the phases of the moon as a handle toward feeling its 3D motion around earth, anchored by the monthly moment when the "moon is behind us" in space, this night of looking behind us also offers a chance for a longer-term orientation to the star field. This month (late winter), as we look back at the moon, we see Orion just up to the left, and Sirius beyond. Gemini is up there as well, with Leo rising in the east. Just noticing these landmarks is Step One toward appreciating the annual path of the earth around the sun, and the ever-changing view that affords us from the night-time side of the planet.

BTW, I really don't know why we call this "first quarter"; if it IS a quarter (a quarter way through the month; we see a quarter of the moon lit?), then the full moon should similarly be called a half moon....I insist on seeing this as the half moon. So there.


Friday, February 27, 2009

Venus and the Moon, at it Again

As the moon begins its monthly swing out around the Earth, last night's tiny crescent below Venus brought its three-dimensional journey into focus, and tonight, I continue following its path.  Not "around" the Earth, but this time seeing it moving "out to the side" of us, just starting that move, and tonight's crescent, twice as wide as last night's slender arc, "catching more sun", or perhaps better "showing more sun," brings that more alive for me.

Meanwhile, Venus also is nicely positioned for appreciating its place in the 3D spin of things: it has just recently started moving toward us, after reaching greatest elongation (farthest point from the sun in the sky) about three weeks ago.  It's easy to see it just starting in toward us, on the very beginning of its circling between us and the sun.

There's a great animated gif that shows the growing Venus, courtesy of a NASA news piece well worth reading.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

the beauty just keeps shaking me

Image Credit: Beth Katz,,

Oh, my my. The moon completes its journey from crescent as it passed Venus to near full now at Mars.... HIgh overhead in the middle of the night, the brilliant moon sails past bright clouds, the carnelian shimmer of Mars hanging directly underneath, the two travelling together across the sky. Patches of light clouds, shining white in a full moon sky sparse with stars, give the two exiherating, illusory bursts of speed as they pass by. Just as I walk outside, the Moon speeds away from the shadowed edge of one, while Mars shines through then it, too, finds freedom sprinting into the dark sky.

This round moon a mirror for the sun, nearly directly opposite it in the sky, now far beneath our feet, noontime in India. As always at the days around full moon, we look past it into deep space, our backs to the solar heart. Mars out there too, and Saturn rising high now in the east, somewhat ahead of us as we begin to catch it on our inside orbit, seemingly so distant (far beyond Mars, the asteroids, and even great Jupiter, only the far distant outer planets beyond it). And winter's stellar glory also drifing across the southern sky now as we enter the wee hours: Orion, his lines and angles, brilliant stars of blue, red, and white, trailed by his trusty Dog Star, Sirius, close to directly behind us in the great turning body of the Milky Way. Hard to see tonight, the winter wash of galactic arms erased by the moon, but in coming months during the dark of the moon, this will come clear again.

On and on, then, this annual turning to look out of the galaxy's disc, as in summer we gaze into its heart. On, too, the monthly guiding gaze of the moon, reminding us of our orientation to the sun, and so also to space.

And again as always, these mental pictures, these classroom models of the sky come alive a fraction more, my body steps a tad more boldly into the body of the solar system, and imagines a sliver more vividly the body of the galaxy, which is indeed larger than the infinity I can find a way to hold. So far.

The sky opens wide at night.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Cassini Rocks

Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI. See for full caption and larger image.
The Cassini probe, the one that dropped the parachuted probe onto Titan, continues to circle Saturn, and to send back consistently breathtaking photos of this most beautiful planetary system. This shot, taken in September, shows three of Saturns moons, Dione, Tethys, and Pandora, against the background of the rings. For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit . The Cassini imaging team homepage is at

Monday, November 07, 2005

Cradled by the Lights

I'm starting to really sink into this evening cradle we're being held by, the brilliant light of Venus on the one hand (riding above the twilight), the big ol' orange glow of Mars on the other (way over there on the eastern horizon). And for the next fortnight, the moon'll be making its way around us, from Venus (sweet crescent now) on overhead to Mars (by then it'll be nearly full).

For the past few years I've been gradually cultivating a Really Big sense of place, one that takes the palpable awareness we build up of how the mountain ranges, watersheds, high plateaus, blankets of forests, all link together and become a continental-sized Home, so that we know what's over those mountains on the horizon, can sense the whole body of the continent because we've walked and driven it. This bigger picture is like that, expanded to the solar system's body, and the place of the solar family in the galactic whirl.

So here now maybe I get to anchor in some new concrete feeling of the way that Earth spins here around the sun, between our two closest siblings.... watching the sunset move rapidly across the starfield as we spin around in our orbit..... Venus, too, following 'round on its inside track, in fact catching up to us and passing between us and the sun by sometime in December.... Mars, taking its slower time out there beyond us; over the coming months it'll stay more or less with the stars itis now travelling with, and all that will move across the sky as we leave it in our wake on our speedier orbit. It's up now in the evening because we just passed by it on our way around (when we are directly between the sun and an outer planet or a constellation, that means it'll be in astronomical/astrological "opposition" to the sun and rise at sunset, ya?)

With just a bit of creative awareness, we can really see--and feel--the tilted disc of the solar sytem in this sky-scape. Especially if the glow of the sun is still in the western sky, we start there, the sun just below the horizon. Swing up to Venus (coming around the sun inside us), across to Mars (following along outside us as we pass it), with the moon adding a landmark in the plane of the solar system. Take a few moments to "see" the solar disc suspended here in the starfield. And what's with that picture above?? Well, it gives a palpable sense of the global perspective on "dusk": when we're looking at the sky after sunset, we're just a bit into the dark part there, looking toward the sun as our place on the earth rolls back, away into night. Venus is up there just above the sun, as our gaze skims the earth's disc toward the west. And Mars is way over the other way, just above our tangental view into space over the dark eastern horizon.....

That's some of the threads that can be woven into our awareness of the solar system body over the next month.... but then again, so far I gotta admit when I've been out there looking from Venus, to Mars, and back, and around, it's been nothing more or less than just a chance to feel a dose of wonder, a deep breath of beauty. That'll do.

Monday, March 06, 2000

Solar Dance 1: Entering a Living Cosmos

(Image credit: a beautiful coronal mass ejection captured Feb. 12 by SOHO's C2 coronagraph, from

The sky is alive. All around us, from our solar body’s heart, the sun, center of our family of planets, on outward toward infinity, earth is forever spinning within a grand dance, one that humans have glimpsed at moments during our history. From Incan astronomers who first charted the 24,000 year precession of the equinoxes (thus offering to them the experience of the way our solar system wobbles in Long Time within the galactic turning), to pueblo skywatchers carving spirals in rock to announce the coming and going of the sun and moon (and so honoring our daily dance partners), we have explored a fascination with our greater context.

For most modern humans, the sky is a beautiful tapestry cast overhead, one of earth’s more sublime wonders. But while the sky is appreciated, our experience of it is vastly simplified, distorted by our tendency to let mere abstractions replace any sense of bodily connection. For the cosmos, from the solar disc to the galaxy and beyond, is NOT simply a pretty dome spread overhead, with planets, comets, and constellations appearing now and again on the cue of some invisible director—it is a vast landscape of gargantuan physicality. It is bodies, bodies made of smaller bodies, cauldrons of creation and forges of destruction. To begin to have a palpable physical experience of the sky is to enter into life at a scale that is reminiscent of profound spiritual reverie. To feel the fires of starbirth in Orion, to exclaim in joy with the adolescent exuberance of the Pleiades, to marvel at the power of age in a red giant like Aldeberon, and to actually feel yourself on a planet spinning at a tilt around the sun, is to enter into a sensuous connection with life that is altogether new.

These short essays will offer glimpses of this expanded view, various perspectives, fragments that, when taken as a whole, will, hopefully, synergize to help open an awareness of a three-dimensional sense of place, in space. To enter into this view, where the sense of direction you are familiar with on the planet’s surface is stretched into space (first to the solar family’s circles upon circles, then on into the galactic immensity within which we move in even larger circles), you need not devote yourself in any strenuous way. Simply going outside for a few minutes, a few times a month, will be enough. Heck, if you only get inspired enough to go out on those few crescent moon evenings and dawns, you’ll be able to go far. Each time, you will look for one or a few tidbits of direct connection with that starry expanse overhead. And by the time summer settles in, you’ll be living in a world much larger than the one you now inhabit. Come along for the show. . . . .