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An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Night Sky

Enjoy the starry night skies
Be a considerate neighbor. Reduce nighttime glare. Shield your outside lights downward. Let the stars light up the night.

May 2014 night sky

—Charlie Christmann

Too close

We are nearing the peak of the solar eleven-year cycle. Solar scientists do not know exactly when that has or will happen until they look back at data showing an extended decline in activity. What scientists use to determine activity is the number of sunspots seen on the Earth-facing disk of the sun.

The current indications show the peak in this cycle, called Cycle 24, is only about two-thirds the previous cycle’s strength. Some thought the peak occurred in early 2012, but like the previous cycle, this cycle is showing a double hump. Mid 2014 could be the peak—we should know for sure in 2015 when all the data is in.

Even though this is a weak peak cycle, it does not mean the sun is not active. In July of 2012, the sun let go a massive Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) traveling at seven million miles per hour. CMEs are enormous explosions caused by magnetic fields in and around sunspots. Each CME carries a piece of the sun, billions of tons of gas, and a magnetic bubble.

The famous of these CMEs was named the Carrington Storm of 1859 and was the largest CME we know of in our recent history. While most CMEs miss Earth, the Carrington event hit us full force, causing telegraph lines to spark and fires to start in the telegraph offices. Auroras were seen as far south as Hawaii. Traces of the event left chemical fingerprints in our polar ice packs.

The 2012 CME was most likely just as large. Fortunately, the bubble of star stuff crossed our orbit in the place Earth would have been one week later. That is a very near miss. NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft, orbiting ahead of us in space, was in the right place to capture the event. It usually takes two to three days for a CME to reach our orbit. The 2012 CME made the trek in about 18 hours.

Today’s world has changed since 1859. Power lines and phone lines crisscross the globe; satellites orbit providing GPS and communications services. A direct hit by something like the 1859 or 2012 events would likely destroy much of our electrical grid, literally blowing up large transformers in the substations scattered around the world. Many satellites would not fare any better.

There is technology to help protect our ground-based power and phone systems but it is expensive and not foolproof. Let us hope that it does not take a direct hit and a crash of our infrastructure to spark innovation and action towards protecting our technology from solar events in the future.

Sky show 2014

Astronomers are buzzing about a possible meteor shower that has the potential to reach storm levels on May 24. Comets are the cause of most meteor showers. As comets orbit the sun, they leave a trail of dust and small rocks behind, creating the tail. If Earth passes through one of these dust trails, some of the dust enters and burns up in the atmosphere, leaving a glowing trail behind that we call a meteor.

An old, but recently discovered comet, named 209P/LINEAR, is responsible for the predicted May event. Discovered by an automated sky survey in 2004, it follows a looping but relatively tight path that carries it just inside Earth’s orbit every 5.04 years. Observations of recent passes show that 209P is a dying comet with little ice and dust. Its trail contains a larger than normal number of pebbles. Pebbles are good for big, bright trails in the sky.

Astronomer Jérémie Vaubaillon (IMCEE, France) has done some calculations: “All the trails ejected between 1803 and 1924 cross Earth’s path in May 2014. As a consequence, this shower might as well be a storm.” Best of all, this shower favors the United States. The radiant (apparent point of origin) is in the constellation Camelopardalis, not far above the northern horizon. The waning Moon, only a few days from being New, will not interfere with the show. The peak is expected around 1:00 a.m. MDT. If predictions hold, there may be an above average number of bright meteors on tap. Start looking earlier though; activity will ramp up in the hours preceding the peak. It will definitely be worth losing some sleep for a look.

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