Be a Citizen Scientist

Now, at 7am EST, here north of New York City, the wind is light, temperature is a nice 50 degrees F and a few tiny raindrops are falling. These benign conditions belie the intense changes predicted for the eastern United States today, Tuesday, November 12th, 2019.

In the early days of our country, many of our leading citizens recorded what they saw about the world around them. Some were farmers looking for a weather edge they could exploit to grow better and more crops and learn about signs of upcoming storms that could ruin a season’s work in the fields. Some had access to instruments and wrote down their observations. Ben Franklin found out who had seen a total lunar eclipse and deduced a storm that affected Philadelphia hit Boston after it went through Philadelphia. Logically, one could make a case the weather should come from the direction the wind was blowing. In a nor’easter with northeast winds, that would mean the storm would be in Boston first. But not so, as Ben figured out and now we know.

You can help the National Weather Service verify the weather they see in their weather observations, radar and satellite measurements. Download mPING from your app store and select the weather you observe and add your observation to thousands of citizen reports across your city and across the country.

Here’s a screenshot from the mPING map for the USA this morning.

But, wait, there’s more!

If you have any weather instruments, take notes on the outside temperature and the barometer readings and make notes on the wind and whether it’s raining, snowing or nothinging outside. Maybe you’ll find it fun to continue to do, but even reporting your conditions on mPING and taking a few notes on the changing weather today can answer someone’s question ‘when did that wind start blowing so hard?’ or ‘when did the rain change to snow?’ or ‘did we really have the highest temperature when we left for work this morning?

Happy observing and stay safe!

Transit of Mercury Across the Sun

Details added:

Arriving at Rye Playland’s boardwalk, I was just overjoyed (jumping up and down overjoyed – I must have looked like a nut) to have a clear view of the transit after my failure to see through thin clouds at the last transit of Mercury, solo.
The rolls of thick clouds that formed after 8am dissipated, despite the forecast, leaving thin high clouds that slowly thickened around noontime.
The view in my dob was great.  I used my strongest two-inch-wide eyepiece, making 40x.  I thought we’d need 70x or more to pick out Mercury.  I guess the larger diameter objective made a difference?  I know a dob with a solar filter isn’t the best way to get great views of the Sun, but today, it was wonderful.
Mercury was a tiny, tiny, tiny but intensely black dot.  Yep, just like that period at the end of the last sentence!  That’s what it looked like.  I was sad we didn’t have any sunspots to see.   Focus was critical and varied from person to person.  I think the two- inch-wide eyepiece gave people the chance to get their eye in a good spot to see the whole picture.  The ‘ahhh’ when they found Mercury was proof we were seeing the same planet.  This was one of the days of greatest joy I’ve had as a public astronomer.  
As we passed 12 noon, Mercury got harder to pick out.  I guess it was the thickening high clouds, Mercury approaching the solar limb, and a fogging eyepiece (only one kid tried to use it as a touchscreen).
When we got to 12 noon and my body started to tell me I had not really eaten much in my excitement, I realized we were running a marathon – how many times have we done an event that ran over five hours at full tilt?  And here we were in the fifth hour!   I was relieved when the transit ended at 1:04pm, but I lingered to savor the win with my fellow winners. 
There are always some things I could have done, like stopped for a bit and done some prime focus photography.  The iPhone photo (below) looked better at first glance than it really was.  Mercury was darker in real life.  Facebook compressed it so much it pretty much hid Mercury when I posted it during the transit.  It was great to have the team of people with various scopes.  I should have looked through the others a bit more.   If we had a clear day (I knew we wouldn’t ), I would have tried for Venus.  Larry gave it a shot, but the high clouds made it impossible.
All in all a great day for observational astronomy and for the Westchester Astronomers! 

Here’s a snapshot with the iPhone. Right click and ‘view photo’ to enlarge.

Mercury is the tiny dot just to the upper right of center.

Below, iPhone photo with Mercury, circled.

Below is the set of photos from the SOHO solar observatory with Mercury moving from left to right.

My 8-inch dobsionian reflector telescope as set up on the Rye Playland boardwalk for the transit of mercury across the sun. Note fact sheet attached to scope to brief our guests.

Funny thing was the uncropped iPhone photo had a portion of my head reflected in the glass of the eyepiece. I guess I almost did do a selfie with the transit of Mercury!

Weather for the transit of Mercury across the Sun

There has been so much written about how to see the transit of the planet Mercury across the Sun, that I won’t say much here about how and more about how to find out if you might be able to. Let’s talk about the kind of weather forecast that will be most useful to astronomers wanting to see this event or show it to others.

Of course, here’s the obligatory black box warning:

I think the most useful forecast for Monday’s transit is the National Weather Service aviation forecast – it gives the amount of cloud cover in broad categories, at various altitudes.  That information can be useful for us as we figure out if we will be looking around low clouds or trying to see through higher clouds.

Here’s the forecast as of 5pm Sunday evening, for the Westchester County airport (KHPN) north of New York City:

KHPN 102035Z 1021/1118 23007KT P6SM SCT070 BKN100
  FM102200 25005KT P6SM FEW070 BKN100
  FM110400 VRB03KT P6SM FEW070 BKN100
  FM111600 19005KT P6SM SCT060 SCT100 BKN250 AMD NOT SKED

Here’s the translation of the important bits:

HPN: Westchester County Airport forecast issued on the 10th at 2035UTC:

Visibility 6 miles or more, scattered (< 6/10 of the sky covered) clouds at 7,000 feet, a broken deck of clouds at 10,000 (broken is 6 to 9 tenths coverage.  Few is a tenth or less, ovc is overcast.

So on Monday from the 11th day of the month at 0400GMT (11pm EST on the 10th), we are forecast to go from Few at 7,000 and Broken at 10,000 becoming by 1600UTC (11amEST) scattered at 6,000, scattered at 10,000 and broken at 25,000. 

In other words lots of middle clouds through sunrise, later in the morning becoming scattered but with more high clouds.

For the latest forecast, go to,ar&lon=-99.9728&lat=38.8343&zoom=5&map=topo&priority=8&hover&full&panRefreshzoom in to the NYC area (or anyplace you are viewing from) and click on the airport name.  Most have a forecast, some just have observations. 

The forecasts at airports closest to Rye Playland are HPN and BDR.  Playland is where the Westchester Astronomers will be supporting the 2024 Totality group’s set up to observe the transit.

Nationwide cloud cover forecast: Attached is an example for 7am Monday morning, produced Sunday afternoon.

Heads UP! for November 2019

Saturn and Jupiter are joined by Venus in the evening sky 

Venus is very low in the sky after sunset, despite moving further left from the Sun this month.  Draw a line with your mind from Venus to Jupiter to Saturn and you’ll see how shallow the path of the planets (the ‘ecliptic’) is in our northern hemisphere skies. Venus doesn’t get more than 10 degrees from the horizon by dusk all month, even when it exceeds 25 degrees away from the Sun.  Don’t worry, we’ll see Venus in the evening sky through next June.  Jupiter-set goes from 7pm Standard Time on the 8th to 6pm by the end of the month.  Saturn follows half an hour later.

Venus scoots under Jupiter, closest to each other on the 22nd.  The two brightest planets (from Earthlings’ point of view), so close in the sky, so low, should startle quite a few people who chance upon them.  If you can, compare Venus and Jupiter in a telescope.  Venus is vastly brighter, but one-third the width of Jupiter. 

Transit of Mercury

Mercury photobombs our Sun as seen from Earth from 7:35am to 1:04pm EST on Monday the 11th, a federal holiday in the United States.

Then, as if burned by the Sun, Mercury races into the morning sky, reaching 20 degrees east of the Sun by the 28th.  Also in the pre-dawn sky, compare the colors of Mars and nearby Spica low in the southeast.  They are closest around the 10th.  The Moon points the way to Mars and Mercury on the 24th and 25th.  Mercury never gets up to Mars’ altitude above the horizon.

Traveling for Thanksgiving?  

Thanksgiving weekend, bring your host the gift of showing them the crescent Moon low in the southwest, appearing to hover over three bright planets (from left to right) Saturn, Venus and Jupiter.  

Thanksgiving Evening.
Southwestern sky, right after sunset, just to the upper left of where the Sun sets.

Will it be dark enough to see Sagittarius before it dives on to your neighbors’ houses?

If you are traveling westward by aircraft just after sunset, watch for Venus low in the southwest, its setting prolonged by your rapid westward travel offsetting some of the speed of the Earth’s rotation.

Ice giants Uranus and Neptune

Out there floating amid the lesser lights of Aries and Aquarius, are Uranus and Neptune, respectively.  Follow the upper right side of the Square of Pegasus down to Neptune and the lower right side of the Square to Uranus.  It’s a bit of a trip, so finder charts are useful when you approach their neighborhoods.  Once you get there, these blue brothers are definitely non-stellar when viewed in a telescope. 

Leonid Meteors and the Moon

The Leonid meteors peak about and after midnight on the 17th/18th. The waning gibbous moon is up, so it’s a washout for the dozen or so meteors an hour.  Leonids were a legend in their day.  In 2001, I counted over 150 in an hour and a half while laying out near the bright lights of a hotel parking lot in North Carolina.

Lunar Peek-A-Boo

Pluto and Saturn are hidden by the Moon twice this month, and Jupiter once.  None of these invisibility events are visible from USA. 

Swing Low, Big Dipper

The Big Dipper swings as low as it can go in the evening sky as we end the month.  This past month, just before dawn, I could see it in the northeastern sky, framed by my storm door window, doing a handstand on its handle.  Since it never sets at our latitude, you can look for it both evenings and mornings.

Getting Up in the Morning

Sunrise jumps from 7:26 to 6:28am when we “fall back” to standard time on the 3rd. The Sun still rises after I get up in the morning, so the time change doesn’t help me to get out of bed but now I can’t see the stars when I get up. L

The International Space Station is visible mornings through the 14th and in the evening starting on the 20th.


Go to Guy Ottewell’s blog to see Venus’ loop across the evening sky for the next eight months:

Beware Friday Nov 1 Weather Change

Update: 3pm Oct 31:

For updated forecasts, it’s best to go the National Weather Service local forecast graphic or here and click for your location or to the hourly aviation forecasts for Westchester County Airport or other locations here. Modify as needed for your location. Stay safe!

I’ve been watching the medium-range weather forecast computer models for the last several days. As I’ve been watching, each time the National Forecast Center have run the model for the past week, for Friday morning, the model has predicted mild weather, followed by a sharp change in a three hour period by rain, colder, drier air and strong winds. I wondered if the model was over-reacting and waited for a run that would smooth out the sharp change. But it keeps showing the sharp change.

Friday morning, people might go to work or school in mild weather and then, quickly they could get drenched, chilled and blow-dried in a few hours. We’ll see if it really happens that way, but people should be prepared. People who look out the window Friday morning and dress for what they see and don’t hear the forecast could be surprised by a drastic change.

See for yourself using the output prepared by the people (I guess really their computers) at, who use a computer to convert computer model data to weather conditions we can see and feel. Look at the sudden change in conditions Friday morning. These charts are from Monday afternoon’s run of the models.

USA’s Global Forecast Model output for the next 10 days.

Look at the temperature predicted to fall from 70 degrees to 58; 0.4 inches of rain, winds of 25mph gusting to over 50mph.

Below is the model’s weather map for 7am on Friday, showing the green area of rain along the east coast of the USA ahead of the cold front.

Here’s the rain forecast for 4 to 7am Friday morning.

Perigee Moon 41 hours before New Moon

Beautiful crescent Moon with Earthshine this morning.

Canon XS on tripod. 250mm zoom lens at f/7.1 . Exposure 2 seconds at ISO400.
The star to the lower right of the Moon is Porrima in Virgo at magnitude +2.7.

Moon’s perigee (closest approach for the month) at 6:42 am EDT (half hour after I took these photos) and New Moon is late Sunday night (in Eastern time zone) at 11:39pm. So, this is 29 hours before New Moon. Because the Moon is straight up over the Sun, it’s easier to see so close to New Moon. If you can see it Sunday morning before sunrise, it’ll be one of the closest sightings to the time of New Moon in history. More on this from Astro Bob (Bob King) at here and here.

Data from Guy Ottewell’s Astronomical Calendar:

October 26, 6:42am EDT Moon at perigee; distance 56.65 Earth-radii
Oct 26 SAT 21UT Moon 4.2° NNE of Mars; 19° and 18° from the Sun in the morning sky
. . .
Oct 27 SUN 12UT Moon 7.0° NNE of Spica; 11° and 10° from the Sun in the morning sky
October 28 3:39UT (11:39pm EDT) New Moon

Shorter exposure (cropped just to show the Moon) shows craters on the edge of the terminator and mountains and valleys near the South Pole (on the right) breaking up the edges of the sunlit crescent.

Canon XS zoom lens at 250mm focal length.
1/15 second exposure at f/7.1 and ISO400.
Cropped from original to just show the Moon.

53 (nope – 65 hours) hours to a new moon

Some high clouds this morning. It was harder do pick up the Earthshine on our Moon. But the red dawn was impressive. Here are some shots with the wide lens on the Canon XS and through the 8-inch (200mm) dobsionian telescope.

Not much for Earthshine, but this is an uncropped photo with the 250mm telephoto lens.

Moon floating in a wavy sea of high clouds.
Canon XS on tripod 250mm zoom lens.
f/7.1 1/30 second ISO800
Canon XS on tripod.
18mm variable lens, 1/200 second f/5 ISO800.
Moon is above the utility pole.
Moon with Canon XS attached at prime focus of 200mm Dobsonian telescope.
1/30 second at ISO800

Best photo of Earthshine. From a larger scenery photo with the 50mm lens.

Canon XS on tripod 50mm lens.
1/80 second f/2 ISO800
Cropped from larger photo.

Update: Miscalculated the time to New Moon! Corrected in the heading 9am Sat Oct 26. See my next post for the 41 hours before New Moon photos.