• Luke

Updated: Nov 28, 2020

Keep your astronomy experience going all year long! Astrotours.org has made two calendars to keep you in awe of the night sky all year long. The "Astronomy Calendar" has star charts and info on what you can view in the sky each month, and the "Space Calendar" is full of high resolution space pictures which will keep you in awe of the heavens. Both have important dates of eclipses/meteor showers/other rare celestial events, and both are 13 month calendars lasting from Jan 2021 thru Jan 2022.

Choose the "Astronomy Calendar" for a year long voyage thru the cosmos from your back yard. Each month has a star chart calibrated to display what the night sky will look like just after sunset in North America. Star charts are accompanied with an explanation of the most notable features of the night sky for that month. No equipment necessary! This calendar highlights the best of the night sky that can be seen by the naked eye. Binoculars/telescope owners will also benefit from instructions on how to find incredible features hiding just a little deeper in the night sky.

Astronomy Calendar sample months:

Buy the Astronomy Calendar here!

Choose the "Space Calendar" for the office/indoor/daytime use as it is full of stunning space photos that can be enjoyed hanging on a wall anytime of day. Each photo is high resolution and has a small explanation for context. The Space Calendar is also slightly cheaper!

Space Calendar sample months:

Both can be shipped anywhere, making excellent gifts, and both have holidays and dates of astronomical significance listed such as; meteor showers, eclipses, full/new moon (including the names of the full moons), oppositions, best date for viewing each planet, and more. Both also cover 13 months lasting from Jan 2021 thru Jan 2022, giving you overlap to help with transitioning to your 2022 calendar.

Month samples (same in both calendars):

Use the discount code BFCM30 at checkout before 4am Nov 30th for 30% off

Buy the Astronomy Calendar here! & Buy the Space Calendar here!

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

No matter where you are now, where you call home is under the same set of stars. I have been feeling down about not being able to see my family for the holidays but I still do my tours and although it is an exceptionally safe activity I still feel like I would be exposing my elderly extended family to unnecessary risk. However, I had the thought, on the phone with my grandma, that she could look out in her backyard and see the same things I am seeing. Knowing that although we aren't under the same roof these holidays, we are under the same sky. Though we are not close in terrestrial terms, we are right next to each other in cosmic terms.

So I wanted to make this guide for others so we can share the cosmic perspective this holiday season. If you are sharing thanksgiving dinner over a video chat, you can still feel closer by sharing the sky with each other.

I've made a list of 10 things to check out with your remote family ordered from easiest to hardest. Just send this list to your relatives, start with number one and keep going until it's too difficult/not fun.

About what the sky should look like after sunset on Thanksgiving day Nov 26th 2020 ~5:30

1) Compare the weather. It’s amazing how much weather can change even just across town, especially in Colorado. It’s been raining and windy in Boulder but calm and clear in Aurora (only 20 miles away!) where my mom lives.

2) Compare time zones. Just ask what time it is and see how different the sky might look. For example: California (PST) is one hour behind Colorado (MST). Meaning my family in California will be seeing the sky how it looked to me (in Colorado) one hour ago and my family in Arkansas (CST) will be seeing the sky I will be seeing in one hour. So if it’s just after sunset (5:30p MST) in Colorado I can stargaze with my family in Arkansas where it’s well after sunset (6:30p CST) but I can’t stargaze with my family in California where the sun will still be out (4:30p PST)

US time zones

3) Compare light pollution. If one household is rural when the other is in an urban setting you can still stargaze as most of the things we will be looking at are very bright, however it is interesting to see if you can notice the difference. Honestly the moon will be big and bright just after sunset on both Thanksgiving day and Christmas day so no matter where you are you will have to deal with the natural light pollution of the moon.

country vs. city, light pollution

4) The Moon! Just after sunset on thanksgiving day (~5:30p Nov 26th 2020) the Moon will be over the eastern horizon and fairly full. This will be the easiest thing that you can all look out at! Have everyone show or tell how high the moon is above the eastern horizon. This will give you a good idea of how offset everyone’s time zones are. If everyone is in generally the same area you won’t notice much difference however, if you are on opposite sides of the country you will notice a huge difference. Observing at the same moment someone in New York City will be seeing the moon just rising above the horizon at 3:30(EST) (the moon will be bright enough to see even with the sun still out) where Denver CO will see it about halfway up the eastern horizon at 5:30(MST) and someone in Seattle WA will see it nearly over head at 6:30(PST)

Map of Moon Landings

5) Mars! Just above the moon will be a bright red dot. This is the planet Mars. Now is the best time to see Mars for the next three years so if you can get a pair of binoculars it will be a rare sight.

6) Saturn and Jupiter! In the south west sky just after sunset will be one bright dot (Jupiter) and one dimmer yet still fairly bright dot (Saturn) this might be tricky to see together as they are low on the horizon and will be setting at around 7:30 so if someone in California (PST) they will be missing it at 7:30(PST) where someone in the central US (CST) will be in the best time in the evening to see them at 5:30(CST)

Pro tip: if you are having difficulty finding your directions remember that the moon should be in the more or less eastern sky so facing the moon to your right will be south to your left will be north and behind you is west.

7) The Big Dipper. This will show you how far north/south you are from each other. If you are in the north half of the US (in or more north than Denver CO/Salt Lake City UT/Springfield IL/Philadelphia PA/further north, aka more than 40 degrees north) you will see the Big Dipper very easily low on your northern horizon however if you are in the south SoCal/Texas/Florida/Etc. You will probably not be able to see the big dipper at all, and anyone in Alaska/Canada will see it very easily high in their northern sky

8) The North Star. This will be difficult for most people to find so have patience with your relatives. The North Star is fairly easy to locate using the Big Dipper with the two stars at the end of the vessel of the dipper pointing right at it (see picture below). Of course this only works in the northern US/Canada where the Big Dipper is visible. In the South you can use the “M” of Cassiopeia which is high in north sky and the middle bump of the “M” points downward towards the North Star (see pic below). However you might just have more luck using a star map app on your smartphone “star tracker lite” (simple) or “sky safari” (little less simple) are my faves currently but download whatever the top few free ones are currently and see what you like best.

If you are able to find the North star, hold your hand out at a full arms length and see how many fingers you can fit between the north star and the horizon. This is a rough measurement of latitude and will be very different depending how far north/south you are. Someone in New Orleans LA will see the North Star just 30 degrees above their northern horizon (about three fists length’s stacked on top of each other), in Denver CO it’s 40 degrees above the horizon (4 fists stacked on top of each other) and in Seattle WA it’s about 50 degrees (5 fists)

9) Using this 'handy' measurement system of hand symbols take a measurement of how high the moon is where you are vs your relatives (you can also simply use your shadow if it’s dark enough that the only thing casting your shadow is the moon). Once you are done with dinner check again where the moon is. If you first looked at 5:30 (MST)/4:30(PST) after dinner at 6:30(MST)/7:30(PST) the people in the west coast (PST) should have the same measurement for the height of the moon as someone in Colorado(MST) did prior to dinner.

10) the Seven Sisters. If you have very dark skis you can see the seven sisters low on the eastern horizon below the Moon. you can see who has the best night sky by who can see them best in NYC you probably won’t see them at all but in rural farm land they will pop right out as a small grouping of stars tightly packed together.

Hope you enjoyed stargazing! if you want to stargaze in person with giant telescopes I have a few tours coming in the next few months, be sure to book here. I also have made two 2021 calendars! One with star charts and info so you can keep stargazing all year long no mater where you are and learn the night sky for 2021 buy it here. One with phenomenal space pictures each month buy it here. Both can be shipped anywhere and make great gifts! Learn more about both calendars here.

  • Luke

In the eastern sky there is a bright distinctly red spot of light that comes out fairly quickly after sunset. I’m sure you’ve guessed already this is the planet Mars! This year Mars has been particularly bright red for a few reasons and is the brightest it will be for fifteen years!

The true color image of Planet Mars, shot by Rosetta in February 2007

Mars takes 2 years to go around the Sun where it takes the Earth 1 year. This means about every 3 years we catch up with mars and pass by it. When this happens it is called ‘opposition’. Opposition means an alignment of the Sun the Earth and one of the outer planets (outer planets are planets that are further from the Sun than us: Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune). You can see when this happens by watching the sky at sunset, because the Sun, Earth and another planet is in alignment the planet is on the opposite side of the of the sky from the Sun. After you watch the Sun set in the west, turn around and see the planet that is in opposition rise in the east, for that night that planet will be as above the eastern horizon as the Sun is below the western horizon (the same phenomenon can be seen at full moon too). This will happened on October 13th 2020 for Mars. Because opposition is happening this year that means we are closer to mars then we will be for another ~3 years.

Mars will be in opposition on October 13th 2020.

To visualize why this makes Mars so much brighter lets talk about Astronomical Units. An Astronomical Unit (AU) isn't just hyperbole but actually a defined scientific unit that is useful for talking about distances within our solar system. 1 AU is defined as the distance from the Earth to the Sun. The distance from Mars to the Sun is 1.7 AU because mars is 70% further from the Sun than Earth is. Now to help visualize this let's shrink the solar system down to something we can manage if we shrink 1 AU to equal 10m (~10 yards) saying the Earth is ~10 yards away from the Sun (Earth would be about 1mm big at this scale, about the size of a grain of sand, The Sun is 110 times the diameter of earth so it would be 110mm about the size of a grapefruit) Mars would be 1.7 AU ~ =17 yards away from the Sun at this scale (Mars is about 1/2 the diameter of Earth so it would be .5mm at this scale, a small grain of sand). So now if Mars was lined up with Earth on the same side Mars would only be 7 yards away, but if Mars was on the opposite side of the Sun Mars would be 27 yards away from Earth. Something as small as a grain of sand would look a whole lot easier to look at if it was only 7 yards (.7AU) away rather than 27 yards (2.7AU) away. That's why years like this year where we are in "opposition" with Mars and on the same side of the Sun as Mars, it becomes much brighter and easier to see in the night sky.

In addition this year we are actually even closer to Mars than usual because both the Earth's and Mars's orbits are not perfect circles but slightly more like an oval meaning sometimes we are slightly closer or further from the Sun. It just so happens this year we are reaching opposition at the same time that both we are slightly further from the Sun than average and Mars is slightly closer to the Sun than average meaning the Earth will be even closer to Mars this year than it was last time we were in opposition. Actually we will be closer this year than we will for the next 15 years worth of oppositions. However I would mitigate expectations here by saying this will be much like the "supper Moon" where it's talked up as being a big deal but it's not exactly easy to tell the difference between the super moon and a normal moon.

NASA image showing comparison of a supermoon (left) and a micromoon (right)

Because we are so close to Mars Astronomers have been planning to do a lot of research on mars this year. You may have seen that this last July three probes were sent to Mars. One from the United States, one from the United Arab Emirates, and one from China. Because we are so much closer to mars this year it's cheaper to send the probes the shorter distance to Mars this year. The one from the US is NASA's Mars 2020 rover (it was named before we knew how much of a disaster 2020 was) and is set to land on mars on 2021 deploying the "Perseverance" rover and a helicopter drone named "Ingenuity" hopefully filling the hole left from when the Opportunity rover died in 2018.

(right) Ingenuity will scout for points of interest for the Perseverance rover to study.

(middle) Perseverance rover with seven scientific instruments labeled.

(left) The cruise stage will carry both spacecraft to Mars taking measurements along the way.

In 2018 there was a major dust storm on Mars which threatened the Opportunity rover by blocking out the sun so that the solar panels could not provide the power the rover needed to operate. The dust storm is well over now but NASA still hasn’t been able to contact the Opportunity rover. NASA suspects that dust has accumulated on rover's solar panels during the storm preventing them from charging the rover. This brought to an end a rover with over 14 years of operation, that had broke many records and made some amazing discoveries in that time. The Curiosity rover however has been operational this entire time as it relies on a nuclear power source which is also true for the Mars 2020 rover.

A penny the Curiosity rover uses to calibrate its camera. On the right is a photo from about a month after it landed and on the left is a picture 6 years from when it landed, just after the dust storm.

Setting in the south-west sky soon after sunset there is a star Anterries in the constellation Scorpio which is the red heart of the scorpion. I bring Anterries up as Anterries is Arabic and means ‘rival to mars’, this is because like mars it too is red. The rivalry comes when comparing the brightness between Mars and Anterries Mars is truly winning the rivalry currently but this is not always true. Actually usually Mars loses the rivalry 2 years out of 3 (when mars is further away, or on the other side of the Sun, as Anterries is always the same brightness). People will often come to me and point to Anterries or Aldebaran (a red star, currently below Mars and rising late in the night {~10:30p currently} that makes up the eye of Taurus the bull) or Betealgeuse (the red star you might be familiar with in Orion, currently appearing in our sky around midnight) and ask if it is mars and I have to tell them no… This year is different because we are passing so close to Mars, Mars is truly winning the rivalry and being the brightest red point in our night sky, you can't help but to point out as being Mars.

In a telescope or a good pair of binoculars mars appears as a red disk, where any of the red stars I mentioned will still be just a point of light. If you have a good telescope you might be able to see the white ice cap. With a really good telescope and a trick called occulting where you block out the light of mars you might be able to see mars's two faint moons Phobos and Deimos. Phobos and Deimos are small and irregularly shaped leading us to think they are most likely captured asteroids.

Mars in my best telescope.

Mars has captured our imaginations a lot through the ages starting with the Sumerians who likened it's red appearance to blood and saw it as an omen of war and blood shed. the Greeks and Romans went along with this naming it after their gods of war Aries and Mars (Marmor being an alternate name) respectively.

In modern times Mars is often the site of many scifi novels, movies, and art. This is owed in part to a wealthy and influential astronomer Percival Lowell who in 1906 claimed to see canals on mars that he thought were so straight they must of been engineered. Lowell wished to find life on mars so much that he started to. This hallucination was contagious and many other astronomers picked up on the canals. the story took off and inspired two generations of scifi writers and artist (Burroughs, Bradbury, Weinbaum, to name a few) who created works that went on to be inspirations for many artists to this day (Andy Weir, Kim Stanley Robinson, David Bowie and countless more). Lowell's observation was before photography when all astronomy was done by eye which leads many to say the canals were in the eye of the beholder, literally, as the drawings Lowel produced resemble retina of the human eye. We know now that there are no canals on mars but it wasn't until the Viking and Mariner probes of the 60s and 70s that hopes of canals on mars was finally put fully to rest.

Martian canals depicted by Percival Lowell.

Even without canals Mars is still an amazing place that captivates the imagination. Valles Marineris which is a system of naturally formed canyons that reaches 4 miles deep and would stretch across mainland United States if it was on earth. If human eyes ever see Valles Marineris up close I’m sure it will be a jaw dropping sight putting the grand canyon to shame. Mars is also home to Olympus Mons an extinct volcano reaching 72,000ft making it the largest mountain in our solar system (there is a case to be made for Rheasilvia a mountain on the asteroid Vela to be bigger). With science supporting the idea of frozen carbon dioxide (dry ice) snow storms, some have thought about skiing down Olympus Mons and getting lots of air with Mars’s low gravity (about a third of the gravitational force we have on earth). Along with volcanoes and canyons mars also has many impact craters that scar its surface. Mars is home to the greatest diversity of impact crater types of any planet in the Solar System.

Olympus Mons

Hope you enjoy observing Mars this evening. If you want to see it up close in my telescope I will be holding a tours through October.

18 views0 comments