Tag Archives: astronomy

Look skyward tonight for the ‘Tears of St. Lawrence’

August 12, 2011

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Each August, skywatchers are treated to the Perseid meteor shower — one of the best annual displays of “shooting stars.”

This year the Perseids peak on the night of Aug. 12-13, although the nearly full moon will interfere with your ability to see many meteors — debris left by Comet Swift-Tuttle through which the Earth passes. If you’re lucky, this year you might see as many as a few dozen per minute.

The shower gets its name from the location in the sky from which the meteors appear to radiate — in this case, a point near the border between the constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia, although the meteors might flash anywhere across the sky.

The Perseids are also known in some circles as the “Tears of St. Lawrence”  — named after the third-century martyr whose feast day, Aug. 10, typically falls when the meteor shower is most visible.

The easiest way to watch the Perseids is to lie back in a comfortable lounge-style chair with a blanket and snacks. Plan on staying outside for an hour or two for the best viewing experience.

For those in the Twin Cities area and western Wisconsin who would like to learn more about the Perseids and the night sky, the University of Minnesota astronomy department is hosting a free Perseid Meteor Shower Party from 9 to 11 p.m. Aug. 12 at William O’Brien State Park near Marine On St. Croix. The evening will include a short indoor presentation and then telescope viewing of celestial objects in addition to meteor shower watching. For more information, call 651-433-0500.

So pray the skies stay clear and make it a family night under the stars, planets and the Tears of St. Lawrence.

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Pope, astronauts talk about peace, prayer, the environment

May 21, 2011

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YouTube Preview ImagePope Benedict XVI spoke today via satellite linkup with 12 astronauts, including crewmembers from the space shuttle Endeavour, currently aboard the International Space Station.

“Humanity is experiencing a period of extremely rapid progress in the fields of scientific knowledge and technical applications,” the pope said according to a transcript of the event provided by Vatican Radio.

“In a sense, you are our representatives — spearheading humanity’s exploration of new spaces and possibilities for our future, going beyond the limitations of our everyday existence. We all admire your courage, as well as the discipline and commitment with which you prepared yourselves for this mission,” he said.

The pope also asked the crew several questions. Here are some highlights from the conversation:

Pope Benedict asked the astronauts if they ever wonder, as they fly over nations and continents, how science can contribute to the cause of peace in a world racked by violence. He noted that shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly’s wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was the victim of violence herself, and the pope expressed his hope that her health would continue to improve.

Kelly, a Catholic, responded:

“Thank you for the kind words, Your Holiness, and thank you for mentioning my wife Gabby. It’s a very good question: We fly over most of the world and you don’t see borders, but at the same time we realize that people fight with each other and there is a lot of violence in this world and it’s really an unfortunate thing. Usually, people fight over many different things. As we’ve seen in the Middle East right now: it’s somewhat for democracy in certain areas, but usually people fight for resources. And it’s interesting in space … on earth, people often fight for energy; in space we use solar power and we have fuel cells on the space station. You know, the science and the technology that we put into the space station to develop a solar power capability, gives us pretty much an unlimited amount of energy. And if those technologies could be adapted more on earth, we could possibly reduce some of that violence.”

Pope Benedict, citing environmental threats facing the planet, asked the astronauts what issues people needed to be more attentive to.

Space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. said: “On the one hand, we can see how indescribably beautiful the planet that we have been given is; but on the other hand, we can really clearly see how fragile it is. Just the atmosphere, for instance: the atmosphere when viewed from space is paper thin, and to think that this paper-thin layer is all that separates every living thing from the vacuum of space and is all that protects us, is really a sobering thought. …”

Garan said he was filled with hope to think that the international partnership that led to the construction of the space station could be applied to other issues. “That just shows that by working together and by cooperating we can overcome many of the problems that face our planet,” he said.

Pope Benedict asked the astronauts about the most important message they would like to convey, especially to young people, when they return to Earth.

Shuttle crewman Mike Fincke responded:

“Your Holiness, as my colleagues have indicated, we can look down and see our beautiful planet Earth that God has made, and it is the most beautiful planet in the whole solar system. However, if we look up, we can see the rest of the universe, and the rest of the universe is out there for us to go explore. And the International Space Station is just one symbol, one example of what human beings can do when we work together constructively. So our message, I think — one of our many messages, but I think one of our most important messages — is to let the children of the planet know, the young people know, that there is a whole universe for us to go explore. And when we do it together, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish.”

The pope then went on to ask the astronauts whether, in the midst of their work and scientific research in space, they ever have time to stop and reflect on the origins and destiny of the universe and humankind.

Shuttle astronaut Roberto Vittori, who brought along a coin given to him by the pope that shows the “Creation of Man” painted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, said that while work in space is intense, “we all have an opportunity, when the nights come, to look down on Earth: Our planet, the blue planet, is beautiful.”

Vittori added: “I do pray for me, for our families, for our future. I took with me the coin and I allow this coin to float in front of me to demonstrate lack of gravity. … I’d like to allow this coin to float to my friend and colleague [space station astronaut Paolo Nespoli]. He will make the return to Earth on the [Russian Soyuz capsule]. I brought it with me to space and he will take it down to Earth to then give it back to you.”

The pope then spoke in Italian with Nespoli, whose 78-year-old mother died in Italy at the beginning of May while he was serving on the space station. The pope said he prayed for the astronaut’s mother and asked how he was coping.

“Holy Father, I felt your prayers and everyone’s prayers arriving up here where outside the world … we have a vantage point to look at the Earth and we feel everything around us,” Nespoli replied in Italian, according to the Huffingtonpost.com.

Pope Benedict concluded the conversation by saying he would continue to pray for the astronauts and imparting his apostolic blessing.

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A month to learn more about the heavens

April 16, 2011

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April marks Global Astronomy Month — 30 days that annually bring together astronomy enthusiasts to cultivate interest in sky watching among the general public.

Astronomy clubs, planetariums, observatories, amateur observers and others around the world are sponsoring a host of GAM educational and viewing opportunities. There are online events and even an astropoetry blog.

GAM, organized by a group called Astronomers Without Borders, hopes to ride the wave of enthusiasm about space that accompanied 2009’s Year of Astronomy, an observance the Vatican said could help people better appreciate the beauty of God’s creation.

GAM is a great opportunity to introduce youth to the wonders of the universe. I realize that convincing kids to stand under the night sky to learn the constellations or peer through a telescope to spy the rings of Saturn may seem like a tough sell in an age when video games and multimedia entertainment options compete for young people’s attention.

I know because I have a 12-year-old son who, it seems, would spend all day playing computer games if you let him. But I have also heard him express awe at seeing sunspots through a telescope with a solar filter and shout with excitement as he watched the bright streaks of meteors flash across the sky. After such experiences, I typically field a litany of questions from him about the phenomena and why they happen.

Video games are fun, he once told me. But this cool stuff is real. And, he’s been hooked ever since.

I think other kids would get excited about astronomy, too, if they had a chance to experience it the same way. That’s what GAM is all about.

There is still time to take advantage of official GAM events, but you can do a lot on your own, too. Purchase an inexpensive star map and make it a family contest to see who can identify the most constellations. A simple guidebook will explain the mythological stories behind the star formations. (Astronomy magazine has a good website to help kids learn constellations.)

Looking at the moon though binoculars is a pretty awesome sight. The rings of Saturn currently are in position to be seen clearly with a small telescope. And, this month also brings the Lyrid meteor shower (The best viewing conditions will be under rural skies on the night of April 22/23.)

The Vatican had its own astronomy event this month when Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Vatican astronomer, gave a talk on faith and science April 7 at the American Academy in Rome.

It was on a hill in that location 400 years ago that Galileo gathered with the top scholars of his era to look through his telescope, an instrument he helped to perfect just a few years earlier. They saw the moons of Jupiter — no doubt an awesome sight for these privileged few.

Astronomy has come a long way since Galileo. Thanks to a variety of cheap and plentiful resources, sky watching is now accessible to anyone who is interested.

So, take advantage of GAM to learn more about heavens. If you have kids, pull them away from the video games for a while to show them the cool graphics God has waiting for them in the night sky.

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‘Supermoon’ will rise tonight, but don’t get too excited

March 19, 2011

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CNS photo / Andy Clark, Reuters

News has been circulating around the Internet in the last several days that tonight’s full moon — March 19 — will make a very close approach to earth and appear bigger and brighter than it has in 18 years. Some are dubbing it the “supermoon.”

Is it true? Or it is another false claim like last summer’s eye-roller that Mars was moving in its orbit close enough to earth to appear as big as the full moon?

This time, rest assured, the news is true. But don’t expect to see anything worth dragging your family and friends outside to see.

Tonight’s moon is at perigee — the point in its orbit when it’s closest to earth. It will be about 31,000 miles closer than when it’s at the farthest point in its elliptical orbit, called apogee. It’s a fairly rare event for the full moon to coincide with perigee.

But it really won’t look much different in the sky. Compared to last month’s full moon, it will appear just 2 percent bigger in diameter, according to Sky & Telescope magazine. Compared to a full moon at apogee, it will appear about 14 percent bigger — somewhat noticeable, but still not eye-poppingly different.

And, one rumor regarding the ‘supermoon,’ is not true: Geologists say concerns that tidal forces tonight will lead to major earthquakes and other natural disasters are unfounded.

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