Mercury Transit of November 11, 2019

Well, It’s over and there won’t be another one until 2032. From my vantage point, the morning started out cool with high clouds. I tried to get a picture, but the clouds blocked out Mercury and with no Sunspots, it was just a blank ball. I had all but given up hope when a large patch of blue started spreading toward the Sun and I hoped that it would reach the Sun before Mercury left the scene. I was in luck. The clouds moved out, clear skies moved in, and the result was Mercury crossing the Solar disk. Do you see it? The little dot in the upper right hand portion of the disk. I hope your viewing was as eventful (or more) than mine.

Interstellar visitor

First, what does “Interstellar” mean? Interstellar means outside of our solar system. So, what is “visiting” us from outside of our solar system? It appears to be a comet (it appears to have a coma and maybe, a short tail). It was discovered by amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov of the Ukraine on Aug. 30th, using an 11″ telescope. It is approaching our area of the solar system from beyond Mars. The comet is named C/2019 Q4 (Borisov).

UPDATE: On Sept. 9th, the Gemini Telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano has verified that it is a comet.

According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, Comet Borisov will make its closest approach to the sun, at 2 AU, around Dec. 7th. It is expected to make its closest approach to Earth, also 2 AU, near the end of December, three weeks later. At present, the comet is around magnitude +18. How bright it may become by December is anyone’s guess.

Because of its distance from the Sun at its closest approach and its speed (68,700 mph), the Sun will not be able to “capture” it by its gravity. Therefore, it will simply continue on its way, back out of our solar system.

For more detail, including orbital elements and a diagram of the orbit, visit Thank you

Iridium Flares Vs Starlink Flares

For a long time now, we’ve been accustomed to watching Iridium “Flares” in the night sky as the iridium communication satellites reflect sunlight off of their antennae at an angle directed toward Earth. The “flare” lasts only seconds, and covers a very limited “path” across the face of the Earth. So, being in the right place at the right time was critical to seeing one.

The iridium satellites are being replaced by new communication satellites, named Starlink. On May 23rd, Space X launched 60 satellites (all at the same time), the first installment of a total of about 12,000. As the iridium flares were “naked eye” visible, so are the Starlink flares. The flares are the result of Sunlight being reflected off of flat Earth-facing surfaces, as were the iridium flares. But there is a difference. At this time, there is a “lead” satellite and “trailing” satellites. The resulting flares, appear as a single track followed by a number of other simultaneous tracks. The photo below shows a sighting from the Netherlands.

One of the purposes of the new satellites is to provide broadband internet world-wide. Sounds good, right? Well, that’s one good thing. However, imagine taking a time exposure of some deep sky object, and ending up with “satellite streaks” across the frame. I mean, 12,000 satellites are a lot.

Well, here it is: Starlink streak pollution. An amateur astronomer captured a supernova in Galaxy NGC5353 (left side below). Astronomers at the Lowell Observatory trying to study the same supernova, photographed (tried to photograph) the supernova for light curve study. Here’s what they got (right side):

This type of supernova supplies information useful in determining the rate of expansion of the universe (when it can be photographed). Is this what we can expect astro photos to look like? The IAU (International Astronomical Union) is calling for some kind of regulation to lessen the possibility of this becoming a disaster for astronomy.

If you’re interested, you can see the “flyby” predictions at Happy viewing.

Send Your Name to Mars

Remember when NASA was taking names to put on a chip to put on the Parker Solar Probe to send to the Sun? If you sent your name in, it has gone through the Sun’s corona two times as of this date.

Well, now they’re taking names to go to Mars. Names will be etched on a silicon chip and placed on the Mars rover, which is, as of now, planned for a possible July, 2020 launch date from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and land on Mars in February, 2021.

The opportunity to send your name to Mars comes with a souvenir boarding pass and “frequent flyer” points.

This is part of a public engagement campaign to highlight missions involved with NASA’s journey from the Moon to Mars. Miles are awarded for each “flight,” with corresponding digital mission patches available for download. More than 2 million names flew on NASA’s InSight mission to Mars, giving each “flyer” about 300 million frequent flyer miles. From now until Sept. 30, you can add your name to the list and obtain a souvenir boarding pass to Mars at: https://go.nasa.go

NASA will use Mars 2020 and other missions in preparation for human exploration of the Red Planet. Another step in that direction is returning American astronauts to the Moon in 2024. The project is a cooperation of government, industry and international partners in an effort to build
and test the systems needed for human missions to Mars and beyond. Don’t wait, be sure to get a good seat.


New Private Moon Lander

There’s a PRIVATE MOON LANDING TODAY: When (if) humans ever return to the Moon, it may not be by NASA. America’s next Moon rocket is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, but a small Israeli company is poised to touchdown on the Moon today. Their robot named “Beresheet” is scheduled to land on Mare Serenitatis (the Sea of Serenity) today, April 11, around 3 pm Eastern time. The private group, SpaceIL, will livestream the lunar landing.

Solar Minimum Update

Updated November 17, 2019: See the BOLD print below for the latest.

Has anyone noticed anything different about the Sun? Anything unusual? Well, there’s nothing different, nothing unusual. The Sun is just going through its normal cycle. So, if you’ve looked lately, you’ve probably noticed that Sunspots are becoming rarer. The Sun goes through cycles. These cycles are measured by the number of Sunspots seen on the Sun’s surface, that is, the Earth-facing side. Each cycle lasts for about 11 years, with slight variations of time in each cycle.

The solar cycle was discovered in 1843 by Samuel Heinrich Schwabe, and using other observations, reconstructed the cycle back to 1745. Prior cycles were reconstructed from observations going back as far as Galileo and others in the early 1600’s. We are presently in cycle 24.  Right now, the Sunspot number is decreasing, and it has been for some time. Let’s look at the numbers.

Cycle 24 peaked in April, 2014 with 101 Sunspots, the weakest in a hundred years. There was only 1 day in 2014 with no Sunspots. 2015 had 0 spotless days. 2016 had 32 spotless days. 2017 had 104 spotless days.

At the end of 2018, there were 221 total spotless days, yielding a yearly percentage of 61%. The Sun produced a small group of Sunspots on the first day of 2019, and they rotated all the way around the Western limb of the Sun.  All of February was spotless. We have now had 240 total spotless days, yielding a 2019 yearly percentage of 75% so far. If you consider that it takes 11 years to go through a solar cycle, you may think that things don’t change quickly. Think again! After waiting 28 days for Sunspots to show up, on November 1st, we had a small spot starting to grow, and it was part of the new solar cycle (see below). Between November 2nd & 3rd, that spot disappeared and a new one appeared, and that spot belonged to the old cycle. Maybe November will surprise us. Well, No surprise! After just 1 day, that new Sunspot disappeared and we went back to zero spots. Then on the 12th, a new “spot” (polarity for new cycle 25) showed up at the very edge of the solar disk, but had not been given a number by NASA, then disappeared after 2 days. And nothing on the Sun for 4 days now. 

Sunspots have a magnetic North and South Pole. The poles align with the Sun’s equator. Every solar cycle, the Sun’s poles reverse, as do the sunspot’s poles. On March 5, a small magnetic disturbance started to appear and was oriented perpendicular to the Sun’s equator. The pole of one sunspot in January was oriented opposite to the Sun’s poles. This wasn’t the first, so does this mean that the poles are about to reverse and usher in a new solar cycle (cycle 25)? Maybe. The spot of November 1st & 2nd, in the Southern hemisphere, had the polarity of the new cycle 25. But already, the today’s new spot, belongs to the old cycle 24.

But even with this minimum, there is still some activity to be observed. There is still the infrequent small (some large) prominence, flare or CME (Coronal Mass Ejection). And then there are the “holes” in the Sun’s atmosphere (coronal holes) that let stronger than normal streams of solar wind (charged particles), target the Earth’s atmosphere and produce those awesome auroras in the high latitudes. And on rare occasions, auroras have been seen in the upper US states. So if you have a solar telescope, keep watching, it’s not hopeless.

Keep checking back, we’ll keep you updated.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen










The comet is now at about magnitude 5. That’s just bright enough to be seen without optical aids under a dark sky. If you don’t have dark skies, you can still see it with only binoculars. The above picture comes from the Czech Republic, taken on December 9th. It was a 30 second exposure, proving that you don’t have to have a big telescope for astro photography.

You can see Orion just above the horizon in the lower left of the photo and Taurus in the upper left. The comet will be at its closest point to Earth on Dec. 16th and located in Taurus just West of the Pleiades.

So get your camera, binoculars or scope, and, happy hunting.

Another Martian Landing

Have I (Astronut) been missing something, or is space travel so commonplace now that “they” don’t bother to talk much about it? What am I talking about?

I’m talking about the latest Mars lander by NASA. I admit, I don’t watch a lot of news, and every once in a while, someone will ask me about something they saw on the news, and I missed it. I also admit, that when I do see, or hear, something about space, it usually amounts to about only a 1-2 minute “blurb”.

So, what’s NASA up to now? There’s a new Mars Lander on it’s way to Mars. It’s scheduled to arrive on November 26. Every lander so far has relied on the lander itself to send back information after landing. Or none if it crashes. This time, there are 2 cubesats accompanying the lander, named Insight. The cubsats will be deployed before Insight begins its descent into the Martian atmosphere and monitor Insight’s descent and landing. This way, we’ll have near real time information coming back. They won’t have to wait for hours to know if Insight made it safely to the surface or is laying in a heap. This is a first.

Insight is scheduled to land on Mars about 3 pm on Monday, November 26. NASA is planning to televise coverage of the event beginning at 2 pm.

Launched on May 5, InSight marks NASA’s first Mars landing since the Curiosity rover in 2012. The landing is the start of a two-year mission in which InSight will become the first spacecraft to study Mars’ deep interior. Insight will drill into the Martian soil, but more importantly, using seismic instrumentation, Insight will explore and “test” the sub-surface structure for the first time.

A number of European partners, including France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES and the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP) provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument, with significant contributions from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany, the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH) in Switzerland, Imperial College and Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and JPL. DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument, with significant contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the wind sensors.

Thanks guys.

Stay tuned for updates.

New Comet for astronomers

Wow! Another new comet (a first timer). This comes from

Newly-discovered Comet Machholz-Fujikawa-Iwamoto (C/2018 V1) has sprouted two tails.  A photograph from Nov. 18th shows the comet moving through the star fields of Virgo at magnitude 9.0 (:

So, why the fuss about two tails? Almost all comets have two tails. The sun-warmed nucleus of a comet spews a mixture of dust and gas into space. Quickly, the mixture separates into two distinct tails: The gaseous “ion tail” is pushed straight away from the sun by solar wind. The weightier dust tail resists solar wind pressure and aligns itself more or less with the comet’s orbit. In the above video, the long ion tail points up and left; the stubby dust tail points up and right.

Comet Machholz-Fujikawa-Iwamoto is plunging toward the sun on a nearly-parabolic orbit that will take it just inside the orbit of Mercury. Closest approach to the sun (0.38 AU) is on Dec. 3-4; closest approach to Earth (0.67 AU) is Nov. 27th. Amateur astronomers can find it–and its two tails–shining like a star of 8th magnitude in the constellation Virgo in the pre-dawn sky (see details below).


Looking for a Scout Leader

I have been informed that a Scout leader was asking if we could do a program with their group for the astronomy badge. My apologies for the miscommunication.  I understand that you are asking for a presentation around December 28/29. The answer is a resounding “Yes”. I am a registered badge councilor and have a PowerPoint presentation explaining what is required for the participants to earn their astronomy badge (whether Cub Scout’s patch and/or academic pin or the Boy Scout’s badge). And since part of earning the award is looking through a telescope, we will have ours there. Unfortunately, I have no contact information for the Scout leader. So, I’m hoping you will see this post and contact me through our website. Just go to the left hand side of the “Home” page, click on “Contact” and fill in the information. I will get the message and we can make arrangements.

I also heard that our Astronomy Night at Colt Creek on October 13th was a great success. I’m sorry I could not personally have been there to experience it.

Oh, by the way, let me reiterate: we do presentations/observing sessions for any group (schools, Scouts, church, birthday party, private community, etc.); you name it, we do it. Remember, “We bring the universe to you”.

Clear skies,

Keep looking up,


President, Imperial Polk Astronomical Society