Planets putting on a show for the new year

Moon, Venus, Jupiter & Mercury in conjuntion

In case you missed it over the last few nights ( See this, this and this ) the planets Venus, Jupiter and Mercury, along with the Moon, are putting on a fantastic show in the South-East (for us in the Northern Hemisphere) at sunset for the start of the International Year of Astronomy 2009.   So get outside tonight, December 31, 2008 and enjoy the show!

Most impressive, of course, is Venus at Mag -4.27, and nearing it’s maximum elongation (which occurs on January 14th) and maximum apparent magnitude (which occurs between January 30th and February 8th at Mag -4.45).     Venus will pop into visibility almost as soon as the sun sets.  Because of the elongation (tonight it will be 46° 34′ 4″ away from the sun) it will appear about 34° up from the horizon.  Depending on sky conditions, and your eyes, you may be able to pick it out in daylight by using the moon as a guide.

The moon will be a waxing crescent just above Venus, shining at Mag. -9.22.

Jupiter and Mercury will be down close to the horizon, so you’ll only have a few minutes to catch them.  Jupiter will be the brighter of the two at Mag. -1.50, and Mercury will shine at a none-too-shabby -0.78 (brighter than all stars except two; Sol and Sirius).

If you have a telescope handy, you can also catch Uranus and Neptune in the sky close to Venus.

Tavi Greiner has photos from Monday here, here and here.

UPDATE: The sun is getting into the act.  See the prominences here.

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Happy IYA Eve!

2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, celebrating 400 years since Galileo first turned his telescope to the sky.   The IYA 2009 is a global initiative by the International Astronomical Union and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the Universe through the day- and night-time sky.

A series of global events is planned, some in real life, some on the web.   2009 is the year to get out and discover the universe!

I’ll be participating in the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast (February 13).  If you’re an amateur astronomer, this is just one of they ways you can get involved.   Other ways include Project Astro, or volunteering to provide astronomy related resources to local schools.   Here in California astronomy is taught in the 5th grade, so start calling the schools in your area and asking the teachers if they’d like you to get involved.

I’ve been doing classroom talks for almost three years now (Since January 2007) and I’ve found them to be fun, and the kids to be attentive and involved, and found the teachers to be gateful. Be prepared to be asked questions like “What would happen if you fell into a black hole?”  (the single most common question I’ve ever gotten either in classrooms or at Fremont Peak).

One of the changes here will be the addition of a ‘resources’ page where some of the material I’ve used in classrooms will be posted, as well as a link to my 365 Days of Astronomy podcast episode (my first ever podcast…woot!) and transcript.

So remember, the Universe is yours to discover in 2009!

Galaxy Zoo identifies ‘red spiral’ galaxy populations

In an article on Space.com, Clara Moskowitz writes that the Galaxy Zoo project ( a project where volunteers from the general public help classify images of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey ) and a separate project called STAGES (Space Telescope A901/902 Galaxy Evolution Survey) identified significant populations of red spiral galaxies.

These galaxies are thought to be a transitional phase between young hot spiral galaxies and older mature elliptical galaxies.  Up until now there were not enough of them found to establish them as a common stage in galaxy evolution.