TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE
Number one on the list is an incredible experience to see day turn into night and view the atmosphere of the Sun as the Moon blocks out its disk. Best viewed with a pair of binoculars or a wide field telescope. I took this image in China in 2009. The next one in the United States is on August 21, 2017, but not in Pennsylvania. Go on vacation to stand in the shadow of the Moon- you'll never forget the experience!
The distance from the Earth to the Moon varies and as a result sometimes the Moon is farther away and smaller in the sky. You probably wouldn't notice it with your eyes, but it is very evident during an eclipse when the Moon passes in front of the Sun. The smaller Moon doesn't cover the entire disk of the Sun leaving behind an annulus or ring of light. I took this image from the Grand Canyon on May 20, 2012.
TOTAL LUNAR ECLIPSE
The Full Moon in the shadow of the Earth- the next one in the Boyertown area will be on April 15, 2014. The central part of the eclipse will be at 3:46 AM EDT and will be near the bright star Spica and the planet Mars.
PENUMBRAL LUNAR ECLIPSE
Yes it's subtle. This is a slight darkening of the Moon as it goes into the lighter penumbral shadow of the Earth. Both images were taken at the same exposure for comparison. My friend Gary Becker suggests to wear sunglasses to see the event for better contrast. A good idea.
------------ATMOSPHERIC PHENOMENA --------------
The northern lights is a special treat that can be viewed in this area when the Sun is very active. This animation was taken from my backyard in 2004. The best description I've heard is from my nephew who described it like standing in a bowl of shimmering colored jello! You can get the latest updates on when it will occur at Space Weather.
A sun pillar a narrow column of light that rises up from the sun at sunrise or sunset. It is caused by the reflection of millions of ice crystals and take on the color of the sun and clouds. This picture was taken just before sunrise on the first day of Spring 2013, so the Sun is also rising due east.
Sun dogs are sometimes called "mock suns" and form in a horizontal line 22 degrees away from the Sun; the technical name is "parhelia". They are caused by sunlight passing through ice crystals at a 22 degree angle and are best seen in the winter with lots of cirrus clouds around. They sometimes show a slight spectrum of color and can have tails that point away from the Sun (look at the one on the right side). Sometimes you can see the halo and an additional sundog above the Sun. Don't forget to check for Moon dogs at night!
I photographed this sun halo on a rather "moist" day in the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place on the planet, A halo around the Sun (or Moon), is due to very high cirrus clouds in the atmosphere which usually means precipitation within the next two days, The ice crystals in the clouds refract (or split) the light from the Sun and also reflect the light to create the halo.
Ice crystals can also refract and reflect the Moon's light to create a halo. To capture it on film you need a longer exposure which really overexposes the Moon. This is a 5 second exposure of a waning gibbous moon. Compare it carefully to the solar halo above. Look closely at this one and you can see some stars in the image.
EARTH'S SHADOW and the BELT OF VENUS
The next time you look at a beautiful sunset, turn the opposite direction and look eastward. Low in the sky you'll see the Earth's shadow extending up from the horizon and topped by a pinkish/ red layer called the Belt of Venus. Picture it in your mind, the Sun has just dipped below the horizon in the west and the Earth's shadow starts creeping up in the east covered by a back scattering of red light from the atmosphere. It's easy to see every night- and for early risers, look for it in the west at sunrise. I took this image at the Mars Desert Research Station Musk Observatory.
The only thing better then one rainbow is two. Look for a second rainbow just outside the primary rainbow and notice the colors. You'll find them reversed. This second rainbow is caused by light reflecting twice inside the water droplets. This image is a detail from the previous rainbow picture.
Be on the lookout for atmospheric phenomena; they can be quite beautiful and also change quickly. I saw this "glory" during a plane flight. Fortunately I had my camera and was able to get a few pictures. It's called a glory because it resembles a halo about your head. The center shows exactly where I was seated on the plane- as you can see I was riding coach. A glory resembles a small circular rainbow and is only visible if you are directly between the Sun and a cloud of refracting water droplets.
-----------------THE SKY -----------------
In a very dark location this is the brightest thing in the night sky and is stunning. Go out on a moonless night to the mountains, deserts or ocean and prepared to see the heavens like never before. This image was taken at a Mars hab in a remote part of Utah. Cherry Springs, Pennsylvania is our closest outlet for these kind of views.
I first saw the zodiacal light in Zambia in 2001, and my second in Chile in 2015. The first time I saw one in the northern hemisphere was at the Mars Desert research station one early October morning in 2017. As I posed for my selfie I was thrilled to see a fireball join the party. The zodiacal light is caused by sunlight reflecting on the small bits of ash and dust left in the plane of the solar system since it's early formation. As you can see I'm pretty excited about this, all you need is a dark sky right after sunset or right before sunrise.
SUNRISE and the SEASONS
Because the Earth is tilted on its axis, the Sun doesn't always rise at the same location every day. It moves slowly along the horizon as the seasons change. This is a compilation of three images that I took in 2000 showing the sunrise on the first day of Summer (left), Autumn (center) and Winter (right). On the first day of Spring the sunrise will be in the same place as Autumn and rises due east and sets due west. The Sun reaches its farthest point to the northeast in Summer (longest day) and in the southeast in Winter (shortest day).
INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION
It's bright, moves across our sky quite often and is filled with people. To find out the dates and times when you can observe the space station and other satellites go to Heavens-Above.
Iridium communication satellites are relatively small in size, but due to three highly reflective panels can become incredibly bright. Sometimes they are bright enough to see in the daytime. You have to known exactly where and when to look. This image was taken at a Boy Scout camping trip to the Pulpit Rock Astronomical Park in 2013 and shows the Irridium 6 satellite which reached a brightness of -7.8 during that pass. To find out the dates and times when you can observe Iridium flares and other satellites go to Heavens-Above.
For the northern eastern seaboard of the United States we now get to enjoy rocket launches courtesy of Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia. You can check out their website for the latest launch schedule: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/wallops/home/index.html This picture was taken 165 miles from the launch site and shows a Minotaur I rocket carrying the DOD's Operationally Responsive Space-3 satellite on November 19, 2013
------------- MOON and PLANETS -----------------
Did you ever notice that you can see your shadow due to the brightness of the Moon? If you were an astronaut on the Moon you could see your shadow from the brightness of the Earth. This reflected light is so bright you can even see it from the Earth itself and it's called earthshine. Look for it when the Moon is at the thin crescent stage. Binoculars give a beautiful view.
MOON and VENUS
They are two brightest objects in the night sky and make a beautiful pair when they get together. Look for them whenVenus is available either in the west after sunset or in the east before sunrise. Lots of opportunities for this one as the Moon swings around each month, but it is always a wonderful sight. Since the Moon will be a crescent when they meet it's a good time to observe earthshine as well. This image was taken on March 26, 2012.
VENUS and the PLEIADES
You can't go wrong with the brightest planet and the most beautiful star cluster. Binoculars are a must for this beautiful view. This only occurs every 8 years so get ready for the next one in April 2020!
Conjunction means "grouping", and in this case two planets. This image was taken in 2015 when the two brightest planets, Venus (the brighter) and Jupiter, moved to within 1/3 of a degree of each other. I happened to be on Easter Island and caught the image with a Moai (giant head looking on).
---------------- COMETS and METEORS -------------------
There is nothing quite like the sight of a stranger among those familiar stars; a visual comet is a special treat. Comets are "dirty snowballs" that melt as they approach the Sun. The sunlight pushes the melted ice and ash back to make a beautiful tail. Some don't melt very well, but for those which do it is a spectacular visual sight. This is Comet Hyakutake passing close to Polaris, the North Star in 1995.
We call those bright streaks of light shooting stars or falling stars, but the technical name is a meteor. Think of it as a grain of sand that is travelling so fast that the air glows around it. Although you can never predict when or where you're going to see one they do occur in the sky every night. The longer you look up the better your chances.
The easiest time to see a meteor is during a meteor shower. This is when the Earth passes through the left over debris from the tail of a comet. The ice and ash of the tail create meteors that seem to emanate from a single spot in the night sky. Meteor showers occur every month of the year, but some are better than others. The highest counts are from the Perseid shower in August and the Geminid shower in December. This picture was taken from the Orionid shower and show left over pieces of Comet Halley entering the atmosphere. Notice how they are travelling in the same direction. Check out the International Meteor Organization for a meteor shower calendar and additional information.