Happy New Year!

It has been a very busy and successful year at the Beazley Planetarium. We saw one of our largest visitations in well over a decade, with over 25,000 guests in our theater. That is up to approximately 6,000 guests from the previous year. We hosted the first (and hopefully annual) Portsmouth Public Schools red carpet gala for their film and animation festival this past spring. We supported our summer museum camps and educational groups. We also took possession of two new titles for our show offerings. We are previewing the latest show offerings and will have something new for the spring. I feel fortunate every day for my position and love having a chance to demonstrate the magic that is the planetarium. We enter the new decade with great anticipation as we move towards our Children’s Museum of Virginia 40th Anniversary. We are planning new and exciting changes to enhance your visits to the museum and planetarium in this new year.

With the thoughts of the New Year fresh in our minds, let us consider some of the incredible sights you can see in your own sky this year.

  1. VenusVenus – brightest planet in the morning or evening sky will be the star of the spring. It reaches Western Elongation on March 24. That means it will be at the point furthest away from the sun in its orbit. It will appear 46.1 degrees from the sun and that means it will be visible long after the sun sets.. On July 8, 2020 reaches the greatest brightness. -4.5. When considering how bright an object is, the lower the number, the brighter the object. Negative numbers are SUPER bright. Brightness depends upon two factors: the distance to Earth and the phase of the planet. Inferior planets, those planets with orbits smaller than Earth’s place it closer to the sun, It is possible for the inferior planet to be invisible. When it is aligned with the Earth and sun, it appears like a new moon – that is the side facing us is not illuminated. It is nearly fully illuminated when almost passing behind the sun, but it would be obscured by the sun’s intense light. Venus reaches greatest brightness when it is a crescent phase because it is closer to Earth while still being able to reflect a great deal of the Sun’s light.
  2. Meteor Showers – Meteors are one of the most impressive sights in the nighttime sky. They are momentary streaks of light formed by debris from space captured by Earth’s gravity, falling through an ever thicker atmosphere, burning up due to friction. Showers of meteors occur when the Earth in its orbit passes through the remains of a comet’s orbit. Comets are giant dirty snowballs filled with chunks of rock. During a shower, as many as 100 meteors can be seen every hour. They are especially impressive when they occur with a new or crescent moon phase. The darker sky during these times enhances your ability to see meteors that would otherwise be too faint to be seen during a fuller moon phase. Also when a shower occurs makes a difference. Showers that begin near midnight offer better viewing as the sky will be darker in the early morning hours. The two greatest meteor showers usually occur in August with the Perseids and in December with the Geminids. Favorable conditions for viewing meteor showers can be found on:

April 22 – The Lyrids Expect up to 20/hour with the moon only 0.5% illumination

June 27 – The Bootids Expect up to 50/hour with a 41% moon illumination

August 12 – The Perseids Expect up to 100/hour with a 40% illumination of the moon

October 21 – The Orionids Expect up to 20/hour with a 32% moon illumination

November 17. – The Leonids Expect up to 20/hour with only 10% lunar illumination

December 14 – The Geminids Expect up to 120/hour! And on 0.1% lunar illumination (hopefully you will have clear skies to view this spectacle)

3. Eclipses – There are a total of six eclipses in 2020, two solar and four lunar in nature. However only one of them will be visible in Virginia. The alignment of Earth, Moon and Sun is responsible for the shadowy eclipses and things have to be just right. First, they need to happen when your location is facing the event so that a lunar eclipse can only be seen when on the night side of the Earth, and a solar eclipse can only be seen when your location is facing towards the Sun. It even gets a bit trickier as the moon casts a very small shadow on the Earth and you would need to have it pass directly over your location to see the eclipse. To further complicate the events, the distance between Earth and Moon will affect the eclipse. The moon doesn’t quite orbit in a perfect circle but rather is a bit of an ellipse. So sometimes the moon can be found further from Earth and will appear smaller (causing a ring-shaped annular eclipse) and sometimes closer to the Earth allowing for a fuller eclipse. Unfortunately, only one eclipse event will be visible from this part of Earth in 2020. There will be a partial lunar eclipse on July 4 -5, 2020.

4. The Mysterious Dimming of Betelgeuse – Betelgeuse is normally the brightest star in the winter constellation of Orion – The Hunter. It makes up the “armpit” of the hunter and its red tint gives us a clue to it temperature. Betelgeuse is a variable star; that is its brightness changes over time. However, it has dimmed more than usual in recent months. This graph is called the Hertzsprung – Russel graph. Betelgeuse can be found in the upper right hand of this graph of star’s temperature v. luminosity (brightness). This star is classified as a Red Supergiant. As you can see, Betelgeuse is bigger than our own Sun, much brighter but cooler. Stars evolve over time as their fuel source dissipates through fusion. As a star age, it generally swells and becomes a giant or supergiant star. Depending upon its original size, it may then either shrink and fade to a dwarf star OR it may explode as a supernova. Betelgeuse is no longer the brightest star in the constellation dimming significantly in recent months. You may notice that as you look up at the constellation in the evening sky. It is believed that this star, lying some 640 light-years from Earth is about 8.5 million years old. Some scientists suggest that the dimming of this star may signal a pre-supernova event, dimming before it collapses and dies in an explosion know a supernova. A supernova would be a most impressive sight in the night time sky. One such event in 1054 AD resulted in the Crab Nebula. That supernova was even visible during the daytime sky. Perhaps the event has already occurred. Since the star lies some 640 light-years from Earth, we are only seeing the light that left its surface that many years ago. If it did actually explode say 100 years ago, it would take another 100 years to get here for us to see. Stay tuned to learn of Betelgeuse’s plight.

Supermoons5. Supermoons – several times during the year, the moon reaches Supermoon status. That is the moon when at its full moon phase lies at perigee or the closest point in its orbit. Because it is closer to Earth at that time, it appears a bit larger than normal. The non-informed observer may not even notice the change, but to one with the trained eye, it will be a bit larger. Expect a Supermoon in February through May. All four full moons in this time period represent the larger Supermoon.

6. Moon aligns with Mars – On February 18, 2020 a few hours before dawn you may see a spectacular alignment of heavenly bodies know as an occultation. As you patiently watch you will see a star-like point of light, planet Mars, disappear directly behind the rising crescent moon. Look towards the southeast sky and keep your fingers crossed for clear skies.

What wonders await those that cast their gaze upward!

Never stop asking “What’s up?”

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