The Strangely-Named “Worm Moon” of March 12, 2017

Full moon of March 12, 2017, the so-called “Worm Moon.” Taken with Canon EOS Rebel T5i (©Ian O’Neill)

“Super Moon,” “Harvest Moon,” “Blood Moon,” “Super-Blood Moon” … we have a lot of weird names for the moon’s phases depending on the time of year and today plays host to yet another kind of moon. Ready for it? (drumroll) Introducing the “Worm Moon,” possibly my favorite moon name.

So what is it? Courtesy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac:

March’s Full Moon is traditionally called the Full Worm Moon by the Native Americans who used the Moons to track the seasons; Colonial Americans also used these names, especially those of the local Algonquin tribes who lived between New England and Lake Superior. At the time of this Moon, the ground begins to soften enough for earthworm casts to reappear, inviting the return of robins and migrating birds.

So there you have it, the Worm Moon is the first full moon of March and I was able to get a nice view of it from my backyard late last night. Enjoy!

Sir Patrick Moore (1923-2012)

Sir Patrick Moore
Sir Patrick Moore

“I’m only a four-dimensional creature. Haven’t got a clue how to visualise infinity. Even Einstein hadn’t. I know because I asked him.”Sir Patrick Moore

The Sky at Night: Curiosity at Mars (Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott):

Patrick Moore interviews Carl Sagan (h/t @megschwamb):

BBC News: Sir Patrick Moore: Chris Lintott’s tribute
Discovery News: Astronomer Patrick Moore Dies at 89

The Discovery Channel Telescope Is ONLINE!

M104, "The Sombrero Galaxy" as seen through the DCT. Credit: Lowell Observatory/DCT
M104, “The Sombrero Galaxy” as seen through the DCT. Credit: Lowell Observatory/DCT

Since I started working as Space Producer at Discovery News in 2009, there’s always been a major project humming in the background. But on Saturday, that hum evolved into a monster roar when astronaut legend Neil Armstrong spoke at Lowell Observatory, near Flagstaff, Ariz., to introduce the $53 million 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope. Seeing photographs of the ‘scope and its “first light” observations gave me goosebumps.

But this is only the beginning. As the fifth largest optical telescope in the continental USA, the DCT has a packed science schedule and I am in a very privileged position to report on the exciting discoveries that will be made by “our” telescope.

Congratulations to everyone at Lowell Observatory on a job well done!

BIG PICS: The DCT First Light Gallery.
PHOTOS: Get a behind-the-scenes tour of the Discovery Channel Telescope.
INTERVIEW: Unlocking dwarf galaxy mysteries with the DCT — Discovery News talks with Lowell Observatory astronomer Deidre Hunter.

Cosmic Log — Alan Boyle — Telescope opens a brand new window on Discovery
Bad Astronomy — Phil Plait — Discovery Channel telescope sees first light!

When Venus Transited the Sun

The Venus transit taken with my iPhone 3GS through a telescope eyepiece atop Mt. Wilson on June 5, 2012.
The Venus transit taken with my iPhone 3GS through a telescope eyepiece atop Mt. Wilson on June 5, 2012.

After the historic Venus transit and my involvement of the Astronomers Without Borders live webcast of the event from Mt. Wilson, I jetted off to Florida to give a talk at the 7×24 Exchange meeting in Orlando, so I had little time to post my transit photos on Now that my feet are (partially) back on the ground, I’ve found some time to upload them.

Interestingly, my favorite photos were taken using my trusty old iPhone 3GS through the eyepieces of random telescopes (pictured top), but here are some more from that awesome day.

For more, read my recent Discovery News articles based on the 2012 Venus transit:

Astrology Shakeup: What’s Your New Sign? (FOX News Interview)

I join FOX News host Megyn Kelly (center) and astrologer Constance Stella (right) on America Live.

Today’s horoscope says: Expect some angry emails.

Early this morning I get the call from Lori, my Director at Discovery News, saying, “You’re appearing on FOX this morning!”

My morning-addled brain started wondering why. Was it because of the tech article I wrote about dousing superconductors in wine? Or was it about the Playboy Playmate picture that flew to the moon in 1969? Or had some massive piece of space news broken while I was asleep? Perhaps FOX News needed a space expert to explain some uber-cool cosmic discovery!

Alas, no.

They wanted me to explain an article I nearly didn’t bother writing: “Your Star Sign Just Got Rumbled.”

I nearly didn’t bother writing about this as I didn’t consider it “news.” I just saw a lot of fuss on Twitter about a change in the Zodiac and did some investigating. I won’t go over this non-news event again (you can read my article for the details), but for some reason the fact that astrology is bunk seemed to surprise people.

“I’m so depressed. How do I tell my wife that I’m now a Taurus?” — too funny.

The FOX News chat was fun, but there wasn’t nearly enough time to go into all the gory details. Have a watch, I thought it was quite entertaining. (I’ve heard that this YouTube video might not be available beyond the U.S. — let me know if you have problems.)

The upshot is that astrology isn’t a science. Astronomy is. So when scientists try to find some astronomical link between how the stars can influence our everyday lives — even shape our personalities — we will ultimately be disappointed. This frustration is evident in my article.

Astrologers acknowledge that there is a zodiacal shift — they’d be silly not to, there’s an obvious precession in the Earth’s rotation, or 26,000 year “wobble” — but this shift is in the “sidereal zodiac.” Astrologers have side-stepped this out-of-sync problem by pointing out that they use the “tropical zodiac” which is based on the seasons and not the positions of the constellations — Constance Stella touches on this in the FOX News interview. Hence why everyone getting worked up about a change in their star sign is erroneous. Sure, this fixes the problem, ensuring they keep 12 signs of the zodiac (avoiding the “extra” 13th constellation, the now famous Ophiuchus), but it begs the question: What’s the point in astrology if astrologers don’t care if there’s a drift between the traditional zodiac (written up by Babylonian astrologers 3000 years ago) and today’s corrected zodiac?

(Also, isn’t there another way of predicting future events through the seasons, split into 12 sections? Oh yes, it’s a… calendar.)

I think all this confusion only adds doubt in people’s minds about the validity of modern horoscopes. They are nothing more than fairy tales.

Before I get flamed in the comment boxes about me “trampling” on people’s beliefs and that astrologers have done nothing wrong, consider this. Astrology will always be here so long as people want to hear positive things about their future, regardless of the fact that it’s complete and utter nonsense. Most will call it “entertainment,” while others will spend a fortune getting “detailed forecasts” of junk from the likes of Jonathan Cainer. Where there’s belief in some supernatural “force” (not a real force by the way), there’s money and plenty of modern astrologers who will be able to make a living.

So there you go. A non-news event that culminated in an appearance on national television. While fun, I think I’ll be getting back to the science now…

The White House Astronomy Night: Change, Delivered

In agreement with Phil Plait, this video made me smile too. A lot.

President Obama (now a Nobel Peace Prize recipient) hosted an astronomical party on the White House lawn on October 7th for an audience of 150 middle school students from the Washington area and some guests of honour (including Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator and Buzz Aldrin, Apollo legend). It looked like a really exciting event for all the school kids involved.

This was my favourite bit:

So, there are a lot of mysteries left, and there are a lot of problems for you students to solve, and I want to be a president who makes sure you have the teachers and the tools that you need to solve them. That’s why we’re working to reinvigorate math and science in your schools and attract new and qualified science teachers in your classrooms, some with lifetimes of experience […] That’s how we’ll move American students to the top of the pack in math and in science over the next decade to guarantee that America will lead the world in discovery in this new century.” –President Barack Obama, Oct. 3rd.

Was there ever an astronomy party on the White House lawn during the previous administration?

Venus is Lonely. Very, Very Lonely


Venus is a hellish world. Although the planet is nearly the same size of Earth, that’s where the similarities end. Having said that, it does have an atmosphere, but it’s not the kind of atmosphere you would ever want to spend time breathing in. Composed of a dense carbon dioxide/nitrogen mix where clouds are made from sulphuric acid, you can forget about Venus as a tropical holiday destination. Even if you found a way to ‘breathe’ on Venus, you’d need to prepare yourself for the scorching 470°C surface temperatures and bone crushing pressures 100 times the pressure we are used to on Earth.

Doesn’t sound like a very nice place does it? Certainly an interesting world, providing us with invaluable science (after all, the reason for the extreme temperatures on Venus is due to a run-away greenhouse effect, it could help us understand the growing problems we are facing with our comparatively mild global warming woes), but an unlikely candidate for human colonization (unless we lived in the clouds).

Venus might not be a popular world for mankind to live on, but it doesn’t seem to be a popular world for natural satellites to orbit around either. It doesn’t have any moons, and astronomers are a little confused as to why this is the case. The only other planet without moons is the innermost terrestrial planet, Mercury. Every other planet in the Solar System has at least one natural satellite.

For hundreds of years, astronomers have been on the lookout for anything orbiting Venus but they’ve had little luck. However, some of the earliest observations of Venus appeared to indicate the presence satellites (in 1645, F. Fontana mentioned the possibility of a satellite discovery, followed by further observations in the late 1600’s and 1700’s). Since 1768, there have been no further reports of any satellite sightings. 1956 was the last published survey for Venusian satellites, using photographic plates, and that survey (published by Gerard Kuiper in 1961) drew up blanks for any satellites measuring over 2.5 km wide.

The lack of Venusian moons is puzzling, as a Venus-moon interacting mechanism has often been invoked as the reason why Venus has a retrograde spin (i.e. viewed from the ‘top’ of the Solar System plane, Venus has a clockwise rotation, whereas the rest of the planets, apart from Uranus — that spins on its side, bizarrely — have an anti-clockwise, or prograde, spin). Perhaps Venus once had a moon, but it has since been lost due to gravitational interactions with other Solar System bodies, or due to tidal instabilities, the innermost terrestrial planets collided with their large satellites a long time ago.

This is where Scott Sheppard from the Carnegie Institution of Washington and Chadwick Trujillo from the Gemini Observatory (Hawaii) step in. In a recent publication titled, “A Survey for Satellites of Venus,” Sheppard and Trujillo pick up where Kuiper left off, and carry out a systematic survey searching for any natural satellites around Venus. Only this time, by using the cutting-edge 6.5 meter telescope and IMACS wide-field CCD imager at Las Campanas observatory in Chile, they looked for objects only a few hundred meters in diameter.

The researchers scanned the interior of the Venusian ‘Hill Sphere’ to see if any undiscovered tiny moons were lurking. The Hill sphere is the volume of space surrounding a planetary body where natural satellites can orbit without being destabilized by the gravitational effects of the Sun. If there are any unforeseen moons, they should be found in stable orbits within the Hill sphere.

Sheppard and Trujillo have drawn blanks. Although a few errant asteroids were detected, no natural satellites down to a diameter of 600 meters were discovered. They surveyed 90% of the Venusian Hill sphere, and 99% of the inner Hill sphere (0.7rH) — the volume of space predicted to contain the stable orbits of natural satellites.

This new survey improves the non-detection of satellites down to a factor of 50 on previous studies, thereby proving Venus either, a) never possessed any satellites over 1km in diameter, or b) the orbits of past large satellites have become unstable and crashed into Venus or flung into space.

Either way, Venus remains alone, with only the ESA Venus Express for company

Source: A Survey for Satellites of Venus, Sheppard & Trujillo, 2009. arXiv:0906.2781v1 [astro-ph.EP]

Hubble and Atlantis Transit the Sun (Photo)

The Hubble Space Telescope and Shuttle Atlantis pass in front of the blank Sun. Can't see their silhouettes? Click on the image for the large version and look in the bottom-left-hand corner. That's no sunspot pair... (©Thierry Legault)
The Hubble Space Telescope and Shuttle Atlantis pass in front of the blank Sun. Can't see their silhouettes? Click on the image for the large version and look in the bottom-left-hand corner. That's no sunspot pair... (©Thierry Legault)

Thierry Legault is one highly skilled astrophotographer. The transit of the Hubble Space Telescope and Space Shuttle Atlantis took only 0.8 seconds to clear the disk of the Sun, so Legault rapidly took four pictures per second, starting his series of pictures two seconds before the pair were predicted to pass in front of the Sun.

STS-125 Atlantis and Hubble Solar Transit. The image was captured from Florida at 12:17pm EST on May 13th as the Shuttle approached the orbiting telescope at 600km from Earth (©Thierry Legault)
STS-125 Atlantis and Hubble Solar Transit. The image was captured from Florida at 12:17pm EST on May 13th as the Shuttle approached the orbiting telescope at 600km from Earth (©Thierry Legault)

In the image above, the 35 meter-long Atlantis is easily identifiable, but the tiny speck of the 13 meter-long Hubble isn’t so easy to define, but the result is superb. According to Legault’s website, this is the only picture of the STS-125 and the observatory, orbiting at an altitude of 600 km.

Back in July 2008, Astroengine reported on the transit of the International Space Station across the disk of the Sun. Fortunately, in both cases, the Sun’s face was blank, and no sunspots are prominent enough to ruin the view.


Sources: NASA on Flickr, Astrosurf

Space Station Flare Captured On Film

I’ve been watching this short video clip over and over. It may only be two seconds long, but it is such a unique view of the space station that I find it mesmerizing. Each time the animated GIF loops, another detail seems to reveal itself.

The ISS flare, as observed by Nicolas Biver from Versailles, France, on April 28th (©Nicolas Biver)
The ISS flare, as observed by Nicolas Biver from Versailles, France, on April 28th (©Nicolas Biver)

It’s also kinda hypnotizing in a rhythmic way; the space station appears to turn and boost away into the black of space, but just before its massive solar arrays capture the sunlight, dazzling the observer with a flash.

Is it me, or are those solar panels reminiscent of the sails hoisted up the masts of canon-touting battleships before the age of iron-hulled vessels and steam-powered engines? These slightly fuzzy images could even be from the turn of the 20th Century, when one of the first movie cameras filmed a ship steering out of port.

Of course, this isn’t a wooden ocean-going ship, it’s the space station, in orbit. And the video was taken with a modern digital camera through a 16-inch Dobsonian telescope by a highly skilled amateur astronomer called Nicolas Biver from Versailles, France. The reason why the station appears to “turn” is because the perspective of the observer changes as the station flies overhead, he did a great job of tracking it.

On April 28th, Biver tracked the space station through his ‘scope. Whether it was intentional or not, he was fortunate to capture an intense flare as the space station’s solar panels reflected sunlight at his location. The resulting flare was much brighter than Venus (after the Moon, the station is the second brightest object in the night sky). Usually when I hear about observations of flares made by stuff in orbit, I usually think of Iridium flares that occur at predictable times and locations, providing a target for observers on the ground to capture a meteor-like streak across the sky. The Iridium satellite network provides a great chance for astronomers to see the reflected light when the angle between them, the satellite’s solar panels and Sun is just right.

My astronomer friend Tavi Greiner (who has just joined the Astrocast.TV team as host of Our Night Sky, be sure to check it out!) is very skilled at observing the Iridium flare-ups, and as can be seen in this image, those things are bright.

However, on the 28th, it was the space station’s turn to reflect some light for Nicolas Biver.

In March, Space Shuttle Discovery completed the construction of the ISS solar arrays during the STS-119 mission. Over a series of space walks, the solar array had its area boosted to 16,000 square feet. With this extra surface area, comes the potential for very bright flaring events.

For the chance to view the ISS and possible flaring, check out’s Simple Satellite Tracker.

Source: Space Weather

Listen to Brian Cox on BBC Radio 4: A Tribute to Carl Sagan (Update)

Listen to Brian Cox’s Tribute to Carl Sagan – it is fantastic »

Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking lander (NASA)
Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking lander (NASA)

News just in from Gia Milinovich via Twitter:

Physicist and broadcaster Brian Cox presents a tribute to his science hero, the American astronomer Carl Sagan, the man who many people describe as the greatest populariser of science of all time. His landmark television series Cosmos was seen by more than 600 million people worldwide and inspired a generation of young scientists to regard the universe with wonder and awe. — Synopsis about Brian’s show on BBC Radio 4

I’m a huge fan of Brian’s work, he’s a fantastic and entertaining communicator of all things scientific, so this is the perfect tribute to legendary astronomer and presenter, Carl Sagan. I’ll be sure to tune in… with my late-morning coffee. According to Gia, Brian thinks this is the best show he’s done, so if that’s anything to go by, this is one event you cannot miss!

Catch the BBC Radio 4 stream at 8pm GMT (in the US, that’s midday PST or 3pm EST).

We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.” –Carl Sagan