Mars is Back!

by John Hlynialuk


The close approach of Mars to Earth in 2003 is being repeated this year. The orbit of Mars is an ellipse and only ever 20 years or so do the distances line up so that we get a better than average separation from the Red Planet than average. From 2018 onwards, oppositions of Mars gradually get farther and farther so this year is the time to get out and pay some serious attention to the planet.

One or two viewing occasions are not going to do it, however. The planet is not as high in the sky as it has been at other oppositions so our atmosphere will play a significant role in your not seeing Mars at its best. You need to be persistent and get out often as you pursue Mars. You need a combination of dark, clear skies, good seeing and maximum altitude above the horizon to be rewarded with better than average views.

The map/diagram below from Sky&Telescope shows the main features of the planet. But there are other sources of detailed information as well.

Mars viewing guides can be found here:
SkyNews Mars Guide and here from Cosmic Pursuits: Cosmic Pursuits Mars Guide as well as here: Sky&Telescope Mars viewing

On the down side a big dust storm started up in mid-May and continues to shroud the entire planet. Features of the surface have been pretty much obliterated and will remain so until the dust settles. Details of the storm’s development can be found here:
Martian Dust Storm


An Aurora named STEVE???

A new “auroral” phenomena named STEVE
by John Hlynialuk

A new type of auroral feature has been identified and it goes by the initials “S.T.E.V.E” standing for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement. It has likely been around for a long time but only drew professional astronomers’ interest in July 2016. As it turned out I caught it on camera 4 years before that and 5 years before its nature was sorted out by satellite measurements in 2017.

Two years ago, a group of aurora photographers out west named the Alberta Aurora Chasers (avid imagers from all walks of life) came to the attention of a University of Calgary auroral scientist, Prof. Eric Donovan. The Aurora Chasers had been photographing aurora for years and occasionally imaged an unusual ray of purplish light that sometimes appeared along with normal aurora. It often showed up with multiple green “fingers” dubbed a “picket fence” nearby. The AAC member who showed such an image to Prof. Donovan thought he had captured a proton arc, but these features are sub-visual as the professor pointed out. Donovan had no idea what it was but he was intrigued and gave it the name “Steve” a whimsical label signifying something unknown (from an animated film where some animals name a forbidding hedge “Steve” to make it less ominous). Only later was the phenomena given the “backronym” STEVE as mentioned in the first paragraph.

Prof Donovan was able to get measurements of the gases in STEVE and detected a large increase in temperature and a westward velocity of the materials (the “T” and the “V” in STEVE’s official name). Undoubtedly, STEVE had been observed in the past but scientists did not have the all-sky cameras on the ground or satellites in orbit that could take Steve’s temperature and other vital signs. Neither had the community of amateur scientists (citizen scientists as they are now called) alerted professionals that there was something new in the heavens that needed explanation. Equally as important was the fact that cameras sensitive enough to easily photograph the faintest phenomena in the night sky had come into the hands of ordinary folks. A lot of them were trying them out taking pictures of star trails, the Milky Way, and also northern lights. A lot of factors came together, and as a result, STEVE’s time had come.

Canon 50D image by John H. with 10 mm WA lens (140° fov) at f/2.8, ISO 1250 Steve is the two purplish rays and green picket fence structure upper centre of image.

After I heard about STEVE, I went back and searched my own photo archives and found some images of what I called a “strange aurora” that appeared on Apr 25, 2012. Turns out it was STEVE! I was at the Fox Observatory and just closing up at 11:18 pm when I noticed this strange light in the sky. Thanks goodness I had my camera with me and before the display ended around midnight, I had taken about 5 dozen images. The image included here was made at 11:38 pm and showed the narrow purplish ray as well as the green picket fence feature that are characteristics of STEVE. That aurora was the second one in two weeks that I imaged from the ES Fox Observatory and there was no sign of STEVE on the previous occasion.

Canon 50D image with 10 mm WA lens (140° fov) at f/2.8, ISO 1250.

One of about 5 dozen images of an aurora that developed rather quickly on April 25 around 11:15 pm. It lasted less than an hour but during that time STEVE appeared in about half of the images. The narrow feature in purple above is the Strong Thermal Emission and Velocity Enhancement that gives STEVE its name.

The green “picket fence” features also accompany this new aurora type but may be a separate phenomena. There appear to be two rays, a prominent one near the horizon at centre and a fainter one that runs along the left edges of the pickets in centre giving an overall appearance of a large bird’s wing. A four-day old crescent Moon is just setting in the west behind the cloud bank and Procyon is the brightest star just above the horizon to the left of the clouds. STEVE is in front of Gemini with Castor and Pollux behind the some of the pickets just to the right of STEVE. The faint line crossing STEVE left to right is a contrail. See if you can pick out Leo (head down) just below the left centre of the image. Don’t let Mars throw you off since it was 5° to the east of Regulus on this date in 2012. Venus was also visible 13° to the right of the Moon but it has set in this image.

Further research is being done by Donovan’s aurora group. Interestingly enough, it turns out that although STEVE looks like an auroral ray, it is not actually an aurora per se. This also brings into question whether the picket fence features are not aurora as well, but that is still to be determined.

The story is told by the Professor himself in this TED talk: . Have a look.

Supernova Betelgeuse?

Keep an Eye on Betelgeuse
by John Hlynialuk

Next to the Big Bang that started the whole shebang, the most energetic event in the universe is a stellar explosion called a supernova. The most colossal of the several types of supernovas involve giant stars, so the explosion (a Type II supernova) is even more awesome than it might be otherwise. The amount of energy released is totally unimaginable, -in a month or so the equivalent of all the energy released during the entire lifetime of our Sun! It is just another way that the Universe can kill us. (Spoiler alert: we are far enough away from any star that could go boom and our Sun is a pretty ordinary star not prone to explode.)

Betelgeuse is one of a few stars big enough to show a disk to Earth-based telescopes
(the big ones anyway)
Betelgeuse imaged in ultraviolet light by the Hubble Space Telescope and subsequently enhanced by NASA.
The bright white spot is likely one of this star’s poles. Image via NASA/ESA.

When a really massive star goes supernova, for a time it can outshine its entire home galaxy of several billion stars and be seen from billions of light years away. Astronomers detect over a hundred supernova per year on average from the billions of galaxies that exist outside our own Milky Way. Within our home galaxy, we see only one or two per century but there would be some hidden on the other side of the dusty central area, so there is no way to give an accurate estimate, -one every 50 years is a lower limit.

This a composite color image of the Herschel PACS 70, 100, 160 micron-wavelength images of Betelgeuse.
Credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS/L. Decin et a

Planets orbiting these exploding stars and even objects within about 50 light years of the supernova can be “affected” (meaning destroyed) by the explosion. The intense shock wave and extremely energetic pulse of X-rays can disrupt neighbouring stars and strip off the atmospheres of planets around them or just plainly vaporize them if they are too close. Luckily for us there are no supernova candidate stars close enough to our solar system, so death by supernova is less likely than death by comet or asteroid and even those odds are smaller than death by car accident. There is very good evidence that dinosaurs and many other species on Earth were snuffed out by a comet about 65 million years ago, so these are the time scales we are talking about, long by human lifetime standards, but pretty short in the 13.5 billion year lifetime of our universe.

Thankfully, there are no pre-supernova stars within the 50 light-year distance from Earth, but go farther afield, about 10 times farther and we find one very likely candidate for a spectacular explosion, the star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion. It may happen a million years from now or perhaps tomorrow, astronomers have statistics, but no specific dates. But they are pretty certain that it will go off before a million years go by.

The star Betelgeuse (pronounced “beetle juice” ) is easy to find in the evening sky in February and later in the spring as well. Orion, the Hunter, as a constellation is recognizable by his Belt, a line of three evenly spaced, equally bright stars in the centre of a rectangle of similarly bright stars. Betelgeuse is the one in the upper left corner and has a slightly reddish tinge associated with its red giant status. Compare it to the star Rigel at the lower right corner which is a little whiter, even a bit blue. The diagrams below from Sky Safari 5 show Orion as it would appear above the southeastern horizon at 7 pm EST presently and then at some point in the future with SN Betelgeuse.

Orion Feb pm

Sky Safari 5 Orion as it appears now (above) and with SN Betelgeuse (below)


Should Betelgeuse explode “tomorrow” keep in mind that the event actually happened over 400 years ago (the current best guess for distance to Betelgeuse is 430 light years) since the light from the supernova would have had to travel from the star to us. Rest assured that we are at a safe distance regardless.

Still, it would be a pretty spectacular sight! Betelgeuse the supernova, shining at its peak would, for several weeks or even months, be the brightest object in the night sky, -perhaps as bright as the full Moon, and visible even in the daytime. Astronomers, both professional and amateur are especially excited about a Betelgeuse supernova since we would have a ring-side seat at the most spectacular phenomenon in the universe! Thank goodness we are far enough away to safely watch the show!

Local Eclipsers Snowed Out!

Most of Ontario and much of eastern Canada saw no lunar eclipse Jan 31 due to poor weather. However, NASA TV did broadcast the eclipse from 4 sites, and only one, the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii was clouded out. Griffith Observatory near Los Angeles and Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB as well as the Mt Lemmon Observatory north of Tucson AZ had clear conditions. NASA was able to supply high quality images from start to finish as the Moon set in the west around 7 am MST. Even in the most western locations in North America (except Alaska), the Moon set just after or a bit before the last bit of umbra had departed the face of the Moon.

The full Moon was visible through thin, quickly moving clouds for a time after moonrise in Owen Sound and climbed above the escarpment to the east of my location.


Composite image of Jan 30 full Moon only 12 hours before eclipse. Last time we saw it from Owen Sound was around midnight.
Canon 60Da with 100 mm lens (eff=160mm) ISO 3200 f/4.5 1/15 s (background) plus FM at 1/800 s at 6:18 pm EST (John H. Image)

But even then the clouds hid the moon for 20% of the time and by 9 pm, there was significant cloud cover. When I rose at 5:45 am to check the skies, there was a barely perceptible disk of moonlight and by 6 am, it was snowing in Owen Sound and the Moon was invisible. NASA TV to the rescue!

Images below from NASA TV were broadcast live and viewers got to see it from different locations (Griffith Observatory and Armstrong Flight Research Center near Los Angeles, Mt. Lemmon Observatory (N. of Tucson AZ) and the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii. The latter location was clouded out. Here is a sampling of images.


The fully eclipse Moon was right next to the Beehive Cluster in the centre of Cancer at right. The original image was a screen capture of the NASA feed and was slightly enhanced in PS to bring out more stars in the cluster. Mt. Lemmon Observatory near Tucson AZ.

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This image was taken just before the inset of totality from Griffith Observatory north of Los Angeles.

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Another Griffith Observatory image around mid-totality.

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 9.08.16 AM

Totality is just over and the edge of the Earth’s umbra is starting to appear at lower left.

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Partial phase is underway after umbral eclipse ends in this image from Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edward’s AFB

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 9.45.25 AM

Partial is still underway as daylight approaches and the Moon sets below the western horizon at Edward’s AFB.

Griffith Observatory has put together a time-lapse video here: Griffith Time-Lapse

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At the risk of adding to the “super Moon” hype, allow me to point out that both full Moons in January are “super”. The Jan 1 full Moon is more super than the full Moon at month-end by a mere 2 429 km, but the full Moon on Jan 31 is also a so-called “blue” Moon. Adding to the hype, the Moon is supposed to turn “blood red” during a lunar eclipse that morning. So on Jan 31, we are due for a Super, Blue, Blood Red Moon! Sheesh.

The “blood red” label appears to be a relatively recent development, a result of two prophets of doom that thought four lunar eclipses in a row (ending with the Sep 27, 2015 eclipse) meant something special. It did not. The apocalypse did not happen in 2015, just like the other 20 times doomsday was predicted since Jan 1, 2000. By the way, there are three dates (so far) on which the world will end in 2018. I would watch out for the doomsday of May 20, a date supposedly guaranteed in the Bible (or your money back).

The Earth’s shadow in space has two parts, a dark circular core called the umbra, which is about 3 times the diameter of the Moon, and an invisible outer shadow called the penumbra which is even larger. It is only the umbra that we see progressing across the Moon during an eclipse, making it appear to go through its monthly cycle of phases in a just a few hours. See our website for a neat graphic depicting this.

Moon colour during lunar eclipses is caused by our atmosphere filtering out blue light the same way it does whenever the Moon or Sun are near the horizon. For any of the lunar eclipses I have seen, “blood red” would not be a colour description I would have used. I have seen “reddish-brown”, “orange”, “yellowish-orange”, and even “gray” the one time that volcanic ash in our atmosphere filtered out all the colour from the light getting to the Moon. That time, the eclipsed Moon was invisible to the naked eye and only just detectable in binoculars, appearing like a black hole among the stars. Furthermore, the central part of Earth’s shadow is darker so the Moon’s colour changes as the eclipse progresses. Colour-wise, no two lunar eclipses are ever exactly the same and hardly ever do we see “cherry” or “blood red” colours, -except after some Photoshop “enhancement” also known as “astro-fake-it-ography”.

The total lunar eclipse just before sunrise on Jan 31, 2018 will be visible all over the western hemisphere more or less. For us here in Bruce and Grey county, it will be less than more. Folks in the Prairie provinces get more, and those farther west in Calgary or Kelowna, for example, will see the entire event.

The hour-long passage of the full Moon through Earth’s shadow is the most interesting part of a lunar eclipse, but unfortunately this time, all of eastern Canada misses it. Locally, the Moon sets below our western horizon 10 minutes before totality begins and we will see only a bright “crescent” Moon with a bit of redness to the darkened portion like the image provided here of the Sep 27, 2015 lunar eclipse. Seeing conditions will have to be perfect to see anything like this and the Moon will be dimmed because sunrise is at the same time as moonset.


Sep 27 Total Lunar eclipse by John H. at prime focus (TeleVue NP101) eff.foc.len. = 864mm
Exposure 1/20 s at ISO 2000

For Bruce-Grey, the first umbral contact occurs at 6:48 am EST with the full Moon only 8 degrees above the western horizon (about the width of your out-stretched hand). A darkening at upper left should be noticeable by 6:45 am or so and it will progress across the Moon until the Moon sets at 7:44 am EST below our western horizon. For those in the Pacific Time Zone, totality starts at 4:52 am PST (7:52 EST), and lasts for 76 minutes until 6:08 PST. The eclipse ends when the last bit of the full Moon reappears by 7:11 am PST. You need to be west of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border to see all of totality before the Moon sets.

The Bluewater Astronomical Society will make the best of the event locally with telescopes at a location with a good view to the western horizon. We will be scouting locations along the Lake Huron shore where snowbanks are manageable. Assuming weather co-operates, check our website as the time approaches for last-minute confirmation of viewing site. Fingers crossed for clear skies!