Orion nebula. Photo © NASA

Orion nebula. Photo © NASA

Ring Nebula. Photo © NASA

Ring Nebula. Photo © NASA

Next weekend, a few hardy members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Victoria chapter will mark the start of spring with a little-known ritual. Clear skies willing, they will stay up until dawn on Sunday to participate in an astronomical test of endurance, knowledge and night-sky navigation skills.

Their marathon differs from most. Instead of running long distances, participants will spend the night hunched over their telescope eyepieces, twiddling knobs and adjusting their instruments by hand.  They seek not to cover territory on the ground, but in the sky. Their goal is to locate 110 very specific heavenly objects before dawn. The objects were first catalogued by a French astronomer named Charles Messier more than two centuries ago….

Read the rest of this editorial at the Victoria Times Colonist….

Supermoon. Photo © Robert Hensley (photography.roberthensley.com), via creative commons and flickr

Nature Boy calls it a peri-gee whiz moon, because “gee whiz, doesn’t the moon look big!”

That’s not its official name, of course.

Neither is it a peri-Cheez Whiz moon, another moniker bandied about the household in recent weeks. When a massy-looking full moon last appeared—just last month, on the night of July 12—it bore the fake-cheese colour.

Tomorrow night, anybody who steps outside and looks moonwards will see a similarly bloated orb. It is the second in a sequence of three oversized full moons we will be treated to this year, and is the biggest looking of them all.

The official name of the moon that we can view tomorrow night describes the event much more ploddingly than our alternatives. Because the Earth sits off centre within the moon’s egg-shaped path around our planet, once every month the moon approaches Earth about 50,000 km closer than when it swings out on the other, long side of its orbit.

That closer encounter is called the moon’s perigee.

When the timing of the perigee coincides with either the full or new phase of the moon, pointy-headedness truly comes into ascension. No doubt only after considering all the possibilities within the classical languages that science usually draws on and pondering innumerable likely references to laws of nature, wonders of the universe, and marvels of artificial cheese and other foodstuffs, Astronomy chose to label the phenomenon a “perigee moon”….

Read the rest of this editorial at the Victoria Times Colonist….


Comet ISON, photographed April 2013 by NASA, may present the biggest sky show of 2013.

A massive object is hurtling towards me.

It’s not Nature Boy racing to get the last of the pumpkin pie from the fridge.

No, the massive object in question is a giant snowball whizzing through space towards the sun. With its tail as big as a kite, Comet ISON provides the exclamation point on a year filled with objects appearing out of the great black yonder….

Read the rest of this column in the Victoria Times Colonist….

Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, on Little Saanich Mountain, Victoria, BC. Photo © Caylin (plums_deify, flickr)

No lights shine at the Centre of the Universe today.

The staff who ran the interpretive centre at Little Saanich Mountain’s Dominion Astrophysical Observatory cleaned out their desks yesterday, turned the light out, and vacated the building. So ends 12 years of educational programming about astronomy and Canada’s place in scientific research.

The National Research Council, which operates the centre, had the unenviable choice this year of cutting outreach or cutting even deeper into research.

It was one of many challenges the federal agency faces. The government recently adjusted the NRC’s research priorities to match private sector goals that focus on applied, or practical, research

Applied research is important. It can lead to patents, jobs, manufacturing, and all that good economic stuff.

However, the shift at the observatory is ironic.

In 1910, when astronomers suggested Canada’s government build a new, bigger, better national observatory, they specified it be purpose-built for studying astrophysics.

Not astronomy. Astrophysics….

Read the rest of this editorial at the Victoria Times Colonist….

Dallas Road dog park. Photo by Martin…T (flickr)I find the recent cooler days and periods of rain a relief. My garden does, as well, but more to the point, the cooler weather means things smell better. The effect is particularly noticeable along the dog-park section of Dallas Road and at Thetis Lake’s unsanctioned dog beach.

I realize dogs (and their owners) need a place to be dogs (and owners) and to socialize with their kind, but after 30-plus days of blue skies and warm temperatures, the resulting accumulations of ammonia, methane and, well, toilet can make the driest eyes water and the strongest stomach clench.

Rain and cooler temperatures help dampen the fumes of the dog days of summer.

But let’s get something straight. The phrase “dog days” does not refer to Fido or his doo-doo. Nor does it describe Rover’s snooze-all-day-in-the-shade summer behaviour.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed Sirius — the Dog Star, not the radio satellite — influenced summer weather.

When I mentioned this to Nature Boy, he looked at me blankly, then burst out: “That’s impossible. Sirius (the star) is a winter star. At this time of year, it’s barely over the horizon.”

Yup. Sirius is the largest and brightest star in Canis Major, and this, the Big Dog constellation, chases the constellation Orion the-hunter-with-the-studded-belt across the winter sky.

At this time of year, the sun’s light hides Sirius, except just before dawn. At that time of day, at this time of year, if you peer toward the east, near where the sun will first peep over the Earth’s curve, a bright, party-coloured star glimmers just above the horizon.

That’s Sirius, the Dog Star, the bright, glowing heart of the Big Dog constellation.

The observant ancients noticed the hottest days of the year coincided with the star’s appearance in the same part of the sky as the sun, just before dawn.

They concluded that the celestial canine must exert some constructive force on our star. The word “Sirius” comes from the Greek for “scorching” or “glowing.”

Because it lies so close to the horizon at this time of year, you see it through a shallower angle of atmosphere than the stars above. The water and dust and everything else in the atmosphere act like a gelatin filter on a stage light, altering Sirius’s colour and causing it to twinkle. It shimmers and glints, and can glow green, red, yellow or white.

This changeability led the ancients to believe Sirius not only made the sun go into heat, but caused people down here on Earth to go off their rockers.

Anybody working in an office without air conditioning or cooling breezes this July knows that heat can make concentration difficult and patience in shorter supply.

Many hot-climate cultures accommodate this effect of heat on productivity by institutionalizing longer lunch breaks that push the end of the work day into cooler, more productive hours of the evening.

Noel Coward captured the sentiment with “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” and acknowledged that the English, and most northern cultures, “detest-a the siesta.”

Although Sirius appears to be a single point of light to us, it’s actually two stars dancing in tight orbit around each other. We see Sirius A, the bigger, brighter star. Its companion is a much dimmer white dwarf star, nicknamed the Pup.

Preceding Canis Major in pursuit of Orion-the-hunter across the sky is another marker named for our loyal, four-legged friends: Canis Minor, or the Small Dog constellation.

The dog days of summer might refer to celestial phenomena, not our pets, but long-ago European sky-watchers commemorated the likes of Fido and Rover in the heavens.

Long before orbiting cremation satellites and space burials became possible or even affordable, as was announced this week by new high-tech memorial startup Elysium Space, the ancients affected a general glorification for all canine companions in our lives — whatever the season.

Or the temperature.

Read this editorial in the Victoria Times Colonist….

1.73-m Plaskett Telescope mirror, photo by "Scratch" @ Scratchley.org

Two developments occurred recently to advance large telescopes and the study of the universe around us. Scientists in the U.S. completed the first of seven 8.4-metre mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope, under construction in Chile. Six of the mirrors will be arranged petal-like around the seventh, central mirror.

When construction is finished, the telescope will have four times the light-gathering capacity of instruments used today.

An event closer to the hearts of Victoria astronomers involves the Thirty-Metre Telescope. In November, state officials in Hawai’i recommended construction of the telescope on the state’s highest peak, Mauna Kea, be approved. The recommendation is a key step in the long, complicated process required to build atop Hawaii’s volcanoes.

The Thirty-Metre Telescope will feature a light-collecting mirror that is—surprise!—30 metres across. When it begins operation in 2020, it will be one of the world’s most powerful optical and infrared telescopes.

With telescopes, size matters.

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More info:

Thirty-Metre Telescope

Giant Magellan Telescope

Plaskett Telescope

John Stanley Plaskett

Hooker Telescope