Using SOHO to see the impossible scene

The passing of solar system objects near our Sun in our skies should be an unobservable event, but, you, intrepid reading of blogs, may already know our secret for actually viewing these events; we can ‘cheat’ by using the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. SOHO is designed to look for faint solar wind phenomena near our Sun, which is exciting all by itself. The pages with the SOHO solar viewer is at .

The SOHO spacecraft is a million miles from Earth in the direction of the Sun, and doesn’t have to deal with pesky things like atmospheric turbulence or our Moon photobombing the shot. This kind of photo is hard to take from Earth, unless you have a total solar eclipse (next in the USA in 2024!), which is a good kind of lunar photobombing.

In March 2019, Mercury, Neptune and minor planet Vesta pass through the widest viewing frame, known as C3.  The United States’ Navy Research Laboratory has a finder chart for these passes (for some reason, the site is not listed as secure by our browsers, so you may want to skip following this link until we find out what’s going on there): . But, I’ve borrowed the graphic for 2019, right here:

Field of SOHO’s C3 camera, marked with where and when solar system objects will pass through in 2019.

A recent example of using the SOHO viewer, to see when Saturn passed near our Sun from our point of view, is at:

Happy hunting – report results in the comments, if you like!


Heads UP! for February 2019

We start today with a new moon, and we’ll wait a few days for the banana moon to appear and ripen.  In the meantime. . .

The early morning sky looks like someone pulled the fire alarm.  Jupiter is soaring out to the upper right of Venus bailing to the exit to the lower left.  Saturn is staggering in from the lower left, as if bewildered.  It’s all happening low in the southeastern sky, to the right of where the sun will rise.  Folks further south will have a better view of the proceedings.  The sunrise time will keep moving later, more rapidly as the month progresses, so it’s a good idea to check this scene out while you’re still starting your day in the dark.

The best evenings to see the International Space Station flying over the tri-state area will be on the 7th and the 8th.  The ISS will appear to pass almost overhead on those dates.  On the 10th, the ISS will pass near the Moon and Mars just before 6pm.  The sky will be pretty bright at that time.  Get out early and find our Moon, then Mars, then watch that area for the ISS.  That’s likely to be the best strategy for stalking the station that night.  Go to for a full list of sightings and to get details on the path the ISS will take through our evening twilight skies. The evening passes end on the 12th.  The ISS joins the morning fun starting the 20th

The International Space Station sails past Mars and the Moon on the evening of Sunday, Feb. 10th, just before 6pm EST.

Mars still stands high in the evening sky, like a party guest that has nothing much to offer (it’s hard to see any details in most of our telescopes), but refuses to leave.  The Moon comes by on the 10th to remind Mars of better days.  See how early after sunset you can find Mars with our Moon as a pointer.  Mars makes itself useful by passing a degree from Uranus on the 13th.  Uranus appears about half the width of Mars in a telescope and the color contrast – reddish/blueish – could be very nice.

Mercury doesn’t get far from the Sun, but in contrast to the shallow sky in the morning, its trip up from the horizon is almost vertical.  It’ll be Mercury’s best evening sighting for the year for the northern hemisphere.  Greatest elongation is on the 26th at 18 degrees east of (following) the Sun.  After that, Mercury appears to tail off the right as it swings back toward the solar glare.  Get a preview of Mercury in the SOHO spacecraft’s C3 view now through the 9th.

More about the morning – From the 17th though the 20th, Saturn tries to recreate the super sight of January’s view of Jupiter with Venus.  Saturn is 2½ magnitudes dimmer than Jupiter, so the Saturn/Venus conjunction will not be quite as spectacular as Jupiter/Venus was.  Our Moon, Venus and Saturn group up in the morning sky in early March. In the meantime, see if you can get a selfie with the Jupiter/Venus/Saturn planetary arc, especially later in the month.  

Due to the way the IAU set the boundaries of the constellations, Jupiter is not in a zodiac constellation this year – it’ll be in Ophiuchus (I pronounce it ‘that harder-to-see constellation above Scorpius’).

Make sure you get a look at the superest Moon of 2019!  The closest Full Moon of the year occurs on the 19th just four hours after the closest lunar perigee of the year about 5am.  This should make for some great photos of the setting Moon that morning.

Sunday Air Quality Advisory for Philadelphia Metro Area

UPdate noon Sunday: Air quality Unhealthy for Sensitive Individuals (orange) and Unhealthy (for everyone, red) in Pennsylvania, especially the Lehigh Valley. See for updates.

Forget the groundhog. Air quality forecasting continues to improve as weather forecasts gets better. But as emissions of pollution have decreased, it can be more challenging to predict when air quality will cross the line into unhealthy concentrations.

The state and local air quality offices have issued an advisory for people who are sensitive to particulate pollution. Some areas of southeastern Pennsylvania had code orange concentrations already on Saturday.

Particle pollution is a combination of smoke from combustion and sulfates and nitrates formed in the air. Everything that burns fuel – cars, trucks, power plants, open fires – makes smoke. And they make sulfate particles from sulfur impurities in our fuels. Taking sulfur out of our oil and gasoline reduces the amount of particles that get into our air and hurt our lungs, especially the developing lungs of children.

This weekend, as temperatures increase aloft and some areas have snow on the ground keeping the surface cool, we have conditions that keep pollution trapped near the ground. The cold air is denser than the warm air, so the warm air aloft keeps the cold air down. After the last week of bitter cold air, we’ve all had the experience of warm air rising and the cold air sitting on the floor near our freezing feet. So it is outdoors.

The Naval Research Center works to understand how smoke and dust form and move around the globe. They don’t like the idea of our naval forces not being able to see folks sneaking up on our ships in fog, smoke, dust or haze. So, they forecast the formation and transport of these particles. Here’s the forecast from Saturday through mid-next week:

The maximum concentrations of sulfate are forecast over the New York City metropolitan area, but perhaps the higher concentrations of particles overall and the more stagnate weather conditions are further south near Philadelphia? Sulfates are only one part of the mix of particles known as particulate matter.

The whole groundhog thing.

On my grumpier days, the whole Weather Channel hoopla about the Pennsylvania groundhog is a bit much for me. [Wait a minute, the Weather Channel has a cool job opening in NYC.

I take back every bad thing I ever said about TWC! (Really, I actually like TWC, especially Weather Underground.) ]

Back to the ground hog. The hole groundhog thing is a Nationwide joke that we are all part of. It’s played for all the camp they can and it’s really better to enjoy the ride and not be hot and bothered over it, no matter how cold it is out.

One point – is there science in any of this? Let’s take a minute and see this from the groundhog’s point of view and the overall weather picture. If we see a groundhog shadow in early February, it likely to be on a clear, sunny day. Most winter clear days are clear and cold due to an arctic air mass. If this day is indicative of the general flow of the jet stream, we would be in for more arctic air masses and ‘six more weeks of winter’. If the shadow is not visible, it’s likely because it’s cloudy out and that means warmer, moister air is likely to be riding northward. So, if that continues, winter is “over”.

I have not researched if the groundhog cares a whit about this. Of course, this is an oral weather tradition passed on (by people) in a concise story format.

Note the present weather situation in North America, where the central and eastern United States are in a polar deep freeze and the jet stream is predicted play ‘crack the whip’ and bring a +55 degree change in temperature by early next week. I’ve seen rapid changes in temperature in the past (story for another day), but perhaps this groundhog thing and persistence of conditions from early February into March is a thing of the past as the new abnormal caused by humans playing with the climate thermostat means larger week to week changes are more likely?

Stay tuned.

Wed Jan 30 Snow Squall for Northeast USA

UPdate: Snow squall warning for West Virginia! Note this link will expire when the warning expires, but look for new warnings at

A polar cold front with a line of snow squalls will swing through the northeastern United States this afternoon, bring bitter cold air in its wake.

Here’s the 11:30ET radar map, which shows the squall line starting to form. Below is high resolution computer model forecast for the afternoon. The look a lot alike.

The squalls may be all done for NYC metro area and points south by 4 or 5 pm ET.

From DuPage Meteorology Lab

Tropical moisture to bring heavy rain today to eastern seaboard of the USA

Plume of tropical moisture headed up the eastern seaboard today. The mid-night run of the weather forecast model prediction of precipitable water (that’s how much rain would fall if all the moisture in the lower atmosphere fell on us at once – don’t obsess about the actual value – just know these higher values are tropical and rarely come this far north in winter.)

Then go to:
and look at the rain and storms from Florida to Canada.

Midnight Supermoon Total Lunar Eclipse

Weather update for the Midnight Supermoon Total Lunar Eclipse*:

Looks like clearing skies for much of the eastern seaboard, but the prospect of intensely cold windchills has dampened plans for any kinds of communal viewing.

Here’s the link to the forecast for White Plains, NY and the plot of the data : and the clear sky chart (find one for your area):

Clear enough to see the moon most of the time. The moon will be high enough in the sky that you’ll need to step outside and view it. Get a spot shielded from the wind and dress warmly. Go out a few times at critical moments: before 10:30pm to see the moon only faintly in shadow, between 10:30 and 11:30 to see the moon partly in shadow and around 12:15am to see the maximum eclipse. Keep lights to a minimum. If you do these three or four times outside looking at the moon for a few minutes, I say you have earned your lunar eclipse merit badge (if there is one!). Use binoculars, but don’t stress if you don’t have them. If you are snowed in, don’t despair! Look out in a dark part of a snowbank – an area only lit by the moon at various times, noting the changes in the brightness of the snow.


  • Wolf moon? With respect to the original owners of our United States, “Wolf” doesn’t say anything about the moon we’ll be seeing. Blood moon? Really. This isn’t the apocalypse. It’s the second largest full moon of the year and on the east coast it’s at midnight !

Sunday / Monday January 20/21 2019

Get ready for the colorful total lunar eclipse on the night of January 20th / 21st when our moon will be sliding through the northern part of the Earth’s shadow.  Our moon will be deepest in the Earth’s shadow around 12:14am Eastern Time.  It’ll be visible at the same time everywhere, but the time on your clock will depend on your time zone. For example, folks on the Pacific Coast will see the peak eclipse at 9:14 Pacific Time, right in TV Prime Time.  Many people will have a day off on Monday for the Martin Luther King Day holiday. 

Our moon’s cratered southern edge never quite gets to the center of the Earth’s shadow.  Colors may range from reddish on the southern part of the moon to a brighter white or bluish northern edge that almost seems to be outside the shadow.  As a pre-teen watching one of my first lunar eclipses in the late 1960s, I was upset when my parents made me come in halfway through an eclipse just like this one.  I thought (wrongly) the moon hadn’t reached totality; so don’t be disappointed if it the moon never seems to appear totally dark.

I’m not a bit fan of the term ‘supermoon’, since the original definition was any full moon closer to the Earth than average.  That means we can have 5, 6, maybe 7 ‘supermoons’ a year.  Not so super.  However, the eclipse is maximum just 15 hours before our moon is closest to Earth for January. Only February’s full moon is closer in 2019.  High in the southern sky, the moon will not look noticeably larger than usual.  In fact, the optical illusion of the jumbo moon looming over the horizon dissipates when we crane our necks to see our moon stuck like a piece of gum high on the celestial sphere.  This night, we’ll follow it from the start of the partial lunar eclipse at 10:34pmEST at 61 degrees above the southeastern horizon to the deepest eclipse at 12:12am 69 degrees high in the south.

Therefore, this won’t be a look-out-your-living-room-window eclipse, unless you have a skylight in the direction of the moon or a car with a moon roof (Will a Sun roof work as well?). This is a get dressed, get out in the middle of the night, find the moon and lay back and watch as your eyes pick up fainter stars while the moonlight turns down like on a rheostat to a reddish glow.  Around 10pm, the Earth’s shadow will be a light gray shading on the southeastern quadrant of the moon.  After 10:30, darkness descends on the edge of the moon and engulfs the disc through midnight and edges off the moon just before 2am.

Use a lounge chair to aim yourself up at our moon and a sleeping bag to keep warm as the dew condenses on you.  No optical aid is needed, but a pair of binoculars can give an even better view.

Eclipse Predictions by Fred Espenak, NASA’s GSFC

 9:36pm EST: P1: Enter Partial Lunar Shadow

10:34pm EST: U1:Enter Full Lunar Shadow

11:41pm EST: U2:Enter Total Eclipse

12:12am EST: Deepest Eclipse

12:43am EST: U3:End of Total Eclipse

1:51am EST: U4: Exit Full Lunar Shadow

2:48am: P4: Exit Partial Lunar Shadow

The next total lunar eclipse visible from the eastern United States will be on May 15/16, 2022, so see this one if you can!