Great gathering of four planets this week

I've been asked about the gathering of planets in the sky a few times the past several days and especially today since Sun published an article in Dhivehi on their website. Here's some information that may be useful for those curious to catch it in the sky and hopefully clears up some of the misinformation floating about...

Four of the planets in our Solar System (Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter) have been inching closer together since the second half of last month and will appear in the tightest clustering on the 10th and 11th of May. Unfortunately, the four planets first show themselves on the horizon from the East at 4:15 AM in the Maldives. The best hope of catching them all together is around 4:50 AM - 5:05 AM but the glow of the rising Sun, which is following the four planets closely in the sky, may quickly hinder your ability to observe them so near the horizon. There is a good chance of seeing Venus as it is the brightest, followed by Jupiter while the other two planets may be very hard to spot with the naked eye.

Conjunction of planets - 10th May 2011
View of the four planets from Maldives at 4:50 AM on 10th May 2011
(Generated using Stellarium).

Conjunctions of planets like these happen quite often but a conjunction of 4 planets this close together is considered to be rare. The planets appear to be so close together for us observing from the Earth because all the planets in our Solar System have nearly the same plane of orbit and their orbits around the Sun have lined them them up closely within Earth's perspective - for the moment (see image below).

Solar system as on 10th May 2011
The position of the planets on 10 May 2011
(Generated using the NASA Solar System simulator)

A helpful way to demonstrate or imagine this might be to lay a large object on a table (to represent the Sun), and lay five other small objects (to represent the four planets and the Earth) at different distances away from the large object to represent planets in their orbits. Choose the third small planet object away from the large Sun object, which represents the Earth, and arrange the other small objects so they line up while looking from the perspective of the Earth object but still lie on their own orbital path.

Remember, there is a total lunar eclipse that is visible in the Maldives next month with the penumbral phase beginning at 22:25 PM of 15th June and the total phase beginning at 00:22 AM of 16th June!

Saturn Watch event on 2nd April at Artificial Beach, Male'

The Maldivian Association for the Advancement of Science (MAAS) will host a Saturn Watch event on 2nd April to participate in the series of similar events being held across the world to mark the Global Astronomy Month (GAM). The event will run from 8pm to 23:30pm at the abandoned stage area South-East of Mr. Chico's at the Artificial Beach in Male'. The event features an opportunity to view Saturn through a telescope, listen to presentations and explore the planets and night sky through interactive media.

Saturn, the 6th planet from the Sun and 3rd planet from the Earth, is a very unique planet in our Solar System and shines bright in the night sky with a reddish tint. Saturn is classed as a gas-giant as it is mostly made up of Helium and Hydrogen gas and not solid matter like the Earth - which does mean that you would not be able to stand on it and there is no surface to stand on as such. It takes Saturn about 30 Earth years (nearly 11,000 days!) to complete a revolution around the Sun. Saturn has beautiful prominent rings around it, made up of particles of mostly water ice, that is both surreal and humbling to look at through a telescope. Also beautiful to see is Titan, one of Saturn's 62 moons, which can be seen to be hanging speck of light just a little bit away from Saturn.

The Global Astronomy Month, which has its roots in the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) which was celebrated internationally in 2009, is dedicated to astronomy and observing the sky and is organised by Astronomers Without Borders. There is a host of global events scheduled for GAM2011 and MAAS will be participating in several with local events.

Come and join us on the day to get a glimpse of Saturn, its surreal rings and at least one of its moons! And if you are keen on stargazing and would like to learn a few constellations, remember to ask about the Crux (Southern Cross), Scorpio and the Big Dipper which are currently visible in the night sky.

View Saturn Watch Event in a larger map

Total lunar eclipse on 21 Dec: Not visible in Maldives

Shame. The last eclipse for 2010, a total lunar eclipse, to occur on the 21st of December will not be visible in the Maldives. The entire 72 minutes of totality will be visible for North America and parts of it visible to South America, UK, most European countries, East Asia and much of Australia.

The next earliest eclipse visible in the Maldives will be a total lunar eclipse occurring on 15 June 2011 with the penumbral phase beginning at 10:25PM. The next solar eclipse visible in the Maldives isn't due to occur until 2016.

More info on the 21st Dec eclipse:
- Eclipse event page at NASA
- Eclipse path and visibility

Orion: A view from the Maldives

At some point in your life, when you looked up at the night sky, chances are you spotted the unforgettable three bright stars in a line that make up the "belt" in the Orion constellation. It was the first constellation I learnt when I was a kid and started to grow a fascination towards the cosmos. Male' has too much light pollution to take a decent picture of the night sky so I took the chance to snap a shot of the constellation which stood out of the dark night canopy when I made a stopover at GA. Nilandhoo recently. Orion and Hyades are both distinctly visible in the picture.

The three stars which make up the Belt of Orion lie at different distances from the Earth despite appearing to be in the same line-of-sight. The reddish coloured star in the constellation is Betelgeuse (pronounced beetle-juice) and is one of the most brightest stars in the night sky. It is nearing the end of its life and is expected to be so bright when it explodes that it would be visible during the day!

Partial Lunar Eclipse visible in Maldives on 31 December

A partial lunar eclipse will occur on 31 December 2009, right before the new year rolls on, and is to be visible in the Maldives. This partial eclipse involves the Moon just barely passing through the Earth's umbral shadow and hence will be only very minor. You are likely to not notice the eclipse unless you are actively watching out for it.

The penumbral phase of the eclipse starts at 10:15 PM on 31 December 2009 and ends 2:30 AM on 1 January 2010, Maldivian time. The umbral phase, which you will see, starts 11:51 PM on 31 December 2009 and ends 12:55 AM on 1 January 2010, Maldivian time.

More details can be found at NASA's "Eclipses during 2009" page.

International Year of Astronomy event by the Maldives Science Society

As you may already know, this year is being celebrated worldwide as the International Year of Astronomy. The effort, an initiative of the International Astronomical Union and UNESCO, intends "to help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the Universe through the day- and night-time sky, and thereby engage a personal sense of wonder and discovery". And now, thanks to the hard work from the newly formed Maldives Science Society (MSS), Maldives will be joining in too.

MSS has organised for Dr. Kavan U. Ratnatunga, a Sri Lankan astronomer and Senior Research Scientist at Carnegie Mellon University (US), to travel to the Maldives and deliver a presentation. His presentation titled "The Universe as viewed through the Hubble Space Telescope" will center around the Hubble Space Telescope. It is a topic he is very much qualified to lecture - he has worked at NASA and has authored numerous research papers on various analyses and investigations of Hubble's snapshots of the universe.

The presentation is scheduled for 8:30pm - 11:00pm, 11th of February at the MCSE Seminar Room, Male'. If you are in Male' and interested in science and astronomy then it probably will be worth your while to attend the presentation. More details of the event are on the MSS Facebook event page and I presume updates will appear on the MSS website as well.

I commend the guys at MSS for putting so much of their time and their own money into making this event a reality. I hope they can make arrangements to participate in atleast some of the IYA cornerstone projects. The IYA Galileoscope project, which has developed a high-quality low-cost telescope kit, holds a lot of promise for MSS to make it possible for the public, especially kids and teens, to truly experience the universe through the lens of a real telescope. I, for one, had tears well up in my eye the first time I saw the rings of Saturn up close on a telescope... how will you react?

Browsing the sky with WorldWide Telescope (and Google Sky)

I am hooked... to WorldWide Telescope! I love Google Sky and am an avid fan of it, but this new software from Microsoft Research kicks it all up a notch. WWT gives access to images of the sky from various different databases including the DSS optical, infrared and even the WMAP microwave imagery in a really slick, smooth interface. I've spent a good few hours today browsing through the sky, literally, and reading up.

Here is an image of the Orion belt I snapped from WTT. These three stars are part of the Orion constellation and are among the most prominent and easily identifiable stars in the skyscape. In fact, any Maldivian who has ever looked up at the night sky should recognize them. It is one of the first star constellations that I had learnt of and was a source of great wonder when I was a kid.

And here is an image of the planet Mars - the (almost) unmissable bright red dot in the sky. Many Maldivians seem to have a special relationship with Mars - as demonstrated by a habit of falling for the Mars sunrise-from-west doomsday fantasy hoax and the Mars as-large-as-Moon hoax. I think it might be appropriate for all those people to see the planet up close. :-)

It is amazing that through modern technology, merely equipped with free software like the WWT or Google Sky (and its web version), that anyone of us can now zoom on these and other objects in the sky and enjoy a whole new level of awe and appreciation of the world around us...