Situational Awareness

A few days ago I told you about one of my favorite apps for Sun and Moon data, LunaSolCal (found at the bottom of July 30th article). Today I’d like to share a few more of my favorite apps and websites that I find extremely useful, especially when observing the sky.

One of the first things I look at when planning an observing session is the weather. There are many excellent weather web sites and apps out there; you probably already have your own favorite. I most frequently refer to Weather Underground for general weather forecasts. You can see anything from hourly forecasts to 10 days into the future. In addition to the usual temperature, cloud cover, humidity, wind speed and direction, and precipitation data, they have pollen, air quality and UV Index data, and more. The site does have annoying ads, but for a few bucks a year you can access the site ad-free.

My other go-to weather site is NOAA’s National Weather Service. Along with the usual weather data you can find radar maps, satellite imagery, and fire weather predictions. In particular I’m a big fan of their SKYWARN Program, in which the NWS partners with local emergency managers to hold classes for the general public in which they receive storm spotting training. These storm spotters send their reports in to the NWS, supplying valuable data on severe storms. If you’re interested in participating in the SKYWARN program, check out this video on YouTube.

Another website I refer to constantly is ClearDarkSky. Aimed at amateur and professional astronomers alike, this site uses a numerical weather model to predict hourly percentage of cloud cover for over 5300 observatories and observing sites in North America. In my experience this site is very accurate.

This discussion wouldn’t be complete without a shout-out to the Magdalena Ridge Observatory’s weather web page. You can see current weather conditions at the MRO Interferometer’s central weather tower and the 2.4m telescope. You can find out information on our weather stations and view weather statistics over various periods of time, and see our Environmental Monitoring Systems’ current data (this ties in with Shelbi’s blog post this past Monday). If you’re tired of looking at charts and graphs, take a look at our live webcams!

Since I’m a lightning and storm photographer as well as an astrophotographer, I use a couple of different apps to track storms, NOAA Weather Radar (free) and RadarScope ($9.99). Both of these apps display high resolution radar data as well as severe thunderstorm and flash flood warnings. My favorite web site for viewing lightning activity is Real Time Lighting Maps, where you can see the location of lightning strikes in real time for locations worldwide. One of my favorite features of this site is the thunder predictor — when a lightning strike occurs a little red dot appears on the map, then immediately a circle appears around and concentric with the dot and starts growing larger and larger until it fades away. This growing circle shows the thunder sound front, so you can see on the map when you’re going to hear the thunder at your location. How cool is that!

That’s it for my favorite situational awareness apps, as I call them. Next up are the sky mapping apps and websites. I have so many of those I use that the subject deserves its own blog post, so stay tuned for that in the near future! Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about your favorite apps and websites, please share in the comments below!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

The Road to the Ridge

Up to this point all of the blog posts for Astro Daily have been written by yours truly. But I thought it was high time that you get a break from me and hear from another member of the MRO staff. Today’s article is written by MRO Outreach Assistant Shelbi Etscorn. Thanks for your contribution, Shelbi!
M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

Driving up the long and winding road to the Ridge that serves as home to the Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO), it’s hard to keep one’s nose a respectable distance away from any windows that look down over the rolling hills and plummeting cliff faces. Nestled within the strikingly wild and untamed face of the Magdalena Mountains is the well maintained road made of winding switchbacks and light dirt that contrast the dark trees nearly as much as its manufactured appearance contrasts the untamed landscape that surrounds it.

It may be easy to not give much thought to those switchbacks when preoccupied with the natural beauty of the mountains, but maintaining the road to keep its treacherousness at a manageable level is no small feat.

MROI staff drive the road every single day to make sure it’s in the best condition for anyone venturing to the mountain’s peak. In the winter, many hours are spent clearing the road of snow and ice. This task isn’t only necessary from a practical standpoint, it’s a contractual obligation of the MRO.

The site on which all of the MRO’s telescopes are built sits right in the middle of the Cibola National Forest. In exchange for the use of the public land, it was agreed the road would always be maintained by MRO staff. Keeping its promise, part of the Observatory’s staff includes team members who bear the responsibility of keeping our road safe and accessible for as many days of the year as possible. A job that they have grown incredibly adept at! No one could argue the beauty of the mountain, but an equal share of praise and awe is owed to the road and the men and women who work hard to keep it a functioning part of our Observatory! If you’re still having trouble believing roads can be beautiful, take a second look at the mountain image above. Each colored line is actually a bird’s eye view of the road that leads up to observatories around the world.


Today Crew Dragon will make history once again as it returns to Earth after a two-month stay at the International Space Station. Descent is scheduled for 1:51 PM EDT, and planned splashdown off the coast of Pensacola, FL, is expected at 2:48 PM EDT. Refer to this NASA webpage for the latest updated information.

You can watch the live stream of activities leading up to and following the descent here:

You can find more information about Crew Dragon in one of my previous blog posts.

On This Day in History:

Forty-nine years ago today we were treated to a space flight first, when the Apollo 15 lunar liftoff was televised. Apollo astronauts James Irwin and David Scott spent three days on the Moon conducting experiments, collecting 77kg worth of lunar samples, and exploring the lunar surface in the Lunar Rover.

The camera that recorded the liftoff was mounted on the Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle some 100 meters from the Lunar Module “Falcon”. Of the four lunar rovers that were built, three were left on the Moon by Apollo 15, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17.

If you would like to see the location of the Apollo 15 lunar landing site, refer to the Moon image in my previous blog post here.

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

Dragon is a Go!!

They are undocking within 10 minutes, follow the youtube stream here:

According to NASA, Crew Dragon will start its first of four deorbit burns at 1:48 AM EDT, while the astronauts are in their scheduled 8 hours of sleeping time. The deorbit burns serve to slow the spacecraft down enough to safely enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Descent is scheduled for 1:51 PM EDT, and planned splashdown off the coast of Pensacola, FL, is expected at 2:48 PM EDT. Refer to this webpage to find the latest updated information.

An update on yesterday’s observing section of my post, I was able to see the ISS pass near Comet Neowise last night, the image is below. Even in a long exposure, the comet was barely visible. This is the kind of image I was hoping to capture when the comet was still a naked eye object, but unfortunately the weather never cooperated and I was clouded out on all of the previous close ISS passes.

Don’t forget to look out for Crew Dragon’s return tomorrow afternoon, and watch history in the making!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

They’re On Their Way Home!

If the weather down here on Earth cooperates tomorrow, the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavor spacecraft will undock from the International Space Station (ISS) and take its fiery plunge through our atmosphere to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean on Sunday afternoon.

SpaceX has been sending cargo to and from the ISS since 2012, with over 20 missions successfully completed. However, SpaceX Crew Dragon made history on May 30th of this year when it became the first commercial spacecraft to carry humans to the ISS. During NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley’s two month stay aboard the ISS, they performed numerous scientific experiments, not the least of which was the successful completion of the first test flight, SpaceX Demo-2, for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP). Through the CCP initiative, NASA appointed Boeing and SpaceX to develop spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts to and from the Space Station. SpaceX won this particular space race, developing Crew Dragon in six years.

Successfully launching Crew Dragon into space and docking with the Space Station was just the first phase of the Demo-2 test flight; undocking from the ISS and returning the crew safely back to Earth is the next critical phase of this test mission. But all is expected to go well; Crew Dragon is a new breed of smart spacecraft that is able to operate completely autonomously as well as be manually controlled by its crew. Want to get a sense of what it would be like to manually dock with the ISS? SpaceX has a very entertaining simulator on their website where you can take control of Crew Dragon.

While there are only two astronauts on this Demo-2 flight, the Dragon vehicle is capable of transporting up to seven passengers into and out of Earth orbit. The expectation is that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the Dragon spacecraft will carry not only astronauts but private passengers into Earth orbit, with the eventual lofty goal of transporting humans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Dream on, Elon!

Transporting passengers into space is not the only line of space travel SpaceX has going on.  Do you have a payload you need delivered into orbit? Then the SpaceX Ride Share program may be for you! Prices start as low as a cool million to propel your payload of up to 200kg into space – such a bargain! You can even make your reservation online on the SpaceX website.

NASA will be providing live coverage of all Demo-2 test flight activities before, during, and after its return from the ISS. Currently the undocking of the Dragon “Endeavor” spacecraft from the ISS is set for 7:34 PM EDT on Saturday, August 1. If this schedule holds, splashdown will be at 2:42 PM EDT on August 2. History will once again be made as the first commercially built spacecraft returns humans from the Space Station to Earth. Please refer to this website for full coverage of the weekend’s events.

For those of us who enjoy “spotting the station”, tonight may well be our last chance to watch the ISS pass overhead with the Dragon Endeavor space vehicle still docked. It just so happens that there is a pass visible tonight at our location at the Etscorn Campus Observatory in Socorro, NM. While it will be a relatively short pass, the pass occurs not too far from Comet NEOWISE, which has all but faded from view. If you are in the local area, you can refer to the charts below for time and location information. If you are located elsewhere, you can visit Heavens Above and enter your location to see if there is a visible pass in your area as well.

Eyes to the skies!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

Big Bright Ball O’Light

As promised, I brushed off my binoculars, charged my camera battery, and spent a couple of hours enjoying the mostly clear starry sky last night. I did find Comet NEOWISE, which continues to get dimmer not only because its tail is getting smaller as it travels farther from the Sun, but because of the brightness of the Moon. At 78% illuminated, it’s one big bright ball o’light that really lights up the night sky! When the sky is so bright, dim objects such as the comet, fade from view; the image below shows the comet in all its fading glory. If there weren’t stars in the sky one would almost think this image was taken in the daytime, with that bright blue sky and puffy white clouds. We can thank the Moon for that!

Tonight the Moon will be 87% illuminated, so will look much like the image below, which was also taken when the Moon was 87% illuminated. I’ve marked several features that will be easy to pick out with binoculars. I’ve marked the Apollo mission landing sites as well, although it might be easier to pinpoint those locations with a telescope rather than binoculars.

As you see in the image, the large dark areas on the surface of the Moon are named mare or seas. This is because the early lunar observers in the 17th century thought that these dark patches really were seas of water. We now know that’s not the case at all; these lowland areas of the Moon are actually volcanic lava flows and appear darker than the highland areas because of their high iron and titanium content.

The other easily distinguishable features on the Moon are craters. Almost all of these are impact craters, formed by the collision of an asteroid or comet with the surface of the Moon. The naming convention of naming craters after dead scientists was established in the 17th century. Since 1919 the job of naming craters belongs to the International Astronomical Union (IAU).  It is estimated that there are more than one million craters larger than a half-mile in diameter on the surface of the Moon.

Last but certainly not least, I want to share one of my favorite apps with you, LunaSolCal. It is available for both Android and iOS devices, and there is a Windows version as well. Along with sunrise/ sunset and moonrise/moonset data, you can find out when the different types of twilight start and end, the azimuth of the rising and setting of the Sun and Moon, maximum altitude for Sun and Moon, and much more, for any location on Earth. I use this app constantly and absolutely love it! It is one of the best observational tools I’ve found. And it’s free!

That’s all for now, folks. If you have a particular topic you’d like to see me write about in the future, I’d love to hear from you! Please post your suggestions in the comment section below or email us.

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

Comets and Meteors and Moon, Oh My!

I had intended to talk about Moon features today, but in light of our local weather forecast calling for clear skies, I’m going switch gears. For those of us in the Socorro, NM area it’s time to take advantage of a cloudless night and chase that comet! If we’re lucky, we might catch a meteor or two as well!

Comet NEOWISE is rapidly fading in brightness and will become more and more difficult to see as time passes. When I saw it this past Monday night, its glory had faded dramatically compared to my observation a week earlier, but it was still a beautiful sight to behold! The image below is from Monday night. It was a bit tricky to locate the comet even using long exposure photography; the spotty cloud cover didn’t help. It was not a naked-eye object, or maybe just barely using averted vision. I’ve marked the approximate location of Comet NEOWISE over the next several days. Keep in mind, however, that the Moon is getting brighter as it moves toward its full phase and the comet is getting dimmer, so you’ll likely need some kind of optical aid to see the comet.

On the up side of what looked different about the comet, its coma (the gas rich cloud around its nucleus) was clearly green, much more so than it did on the other times I observed it. This eerie green glow occurs when diatomic carbon in the coma is excited by UV light from the Sun, resulting in the emission of green light. The first image below is what I saw using just a 150mm lens on my camera. The second image is a telescopic view of Comet NEOWISE. While its tail isn’t very impressive any more, that green glow sure is!

Enough about comets, let’s talk about meteors. Did you know that according to the American Meteor Society there are 13 different meteor showers in progress this week? We’re not at the peak of any of them, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see an extra meteor or two in our observation session. You may have seen talk of the Delta Aquariids and Alpha Capricornids in the media lately. While neither of these showers have a high expected rate of meteors per hour (in the single digits), your chance of seeing a meteor is a little greater than usual. The image below taken last week shows two meteors piercing the Big Dipper as I was photographing Comet NEOWISE.

The biggie that we meteor watchers wait for every year is the Perseids; this major meteor shower runs from July 17 to September 1 this year. During its peak on the evening of August 12 to the early morning of August 13, we might see as many as 40 to 50 meteors per hour! We’ll definitely revisit the Perseids when we get closer to their peak.

I don’t know about ya’ll, but for me it’s time to brush off my binoculars, charge my camera battery, and prepare for what will hopefully be a night of mostly cloud-free observing!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

To The Moon!

This past Sunday morning I was listening to The Acoustic Storm, a nationally syndicated radio show that airs on a local station in Albuquerque, NM (shoutout to Coyote 102.5, rock on!). They were playing a set of Moon-themed songs in honor of the 51st anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing on July 20, 1969. I was treated to hearing REM’s “Man on the Moon”, the Doors’ “Moonlight Drive”, “Moonshadow” by Cat Stevens, and “Harvest Moon” by Neil Young. That set list got me thinking of other songs featuring our Moon; as a musician I’ve sung and played many, from Credence’s Bad Moon Rising to Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to The Moon, and more. I did a Google search a while back and came up with 44 songs with Moon in the title; I’m sure there are more. Expand the search to Moon in the lyrics, and the list grows. Throughout time songwriters have had a fascination with the Moon!

You don’t need to be a songwriter to be fascinated with the Moon. In fact, the next few days will be a good time to observe the Moon for yourself. Tonight at 68% illuminated it is in its waxing gibbous phase. When the Moon appears more than half illuminated it is referred to as being gibbous, and waxing means it’s becoming more illuminated and heading toward being a full Moon, which will occur next Monday, August 3rd. After the full phase, the Moon will appear to us to become less illuminated over time and will be in its waning gibbous phase until it reaches the second quarter phase when it is 50% illuminated, on August 11. As its apparent laminated portion becomes smaller, it is in its waning crescent phase on its way to being a new Moon, when we see no portion of it illuminated, occurring on August 18th.  

In reality the Moon is indeed illuminated even when new, we just don’t see the illuminated portion because the Moon is positioned between the Earth and the Sun. One half of the Moon is always illuminated by the Sun, although we can’t see that from our vantage point on Earth. The continual change of the percent of illumination or lunar phases that we see from Earth occur because the Moon is in orbit around the Earth, completing its orbit and therefore its full cycle of phases every 28 days.

We’ll delve deeper into the lunar phases at another time, but now let’s get back to observing the Moon. Despite what many may think, the full phase is not the best time to observe the Moon. While it is big, bright, and beautiful in its full phase, it’s so bright that the lunar features such as craters, mountains, and valleys appear washed out. To best see the texture of these lunar features we need a combination of light and shadow, which is exactly what we see at the lunar terminator, the division between the illuminated and non-illuminated portion of the Moon. We can see a lot of detail at the terminator when the Moon is between, say, 15% and 85% illuminated. (Is it just me who hears the word “terminator” echoing inside my head spoken with a heavy Austrian accent?)

Last night when the image above was taken, the Moon was 56% illuminated (thank you, MROI staff member Dylan Etscorn for sharing your image!). As I mentioned earlier, tonight it will be 68% illuminated, and tomorrow night 78% illuminated. Break out your binoculars or telescope and explore the terminator, you will be amazed at the surface detail you see! No telescope or binoculars? Check it out anyway, our lovely Luna is always a beautiful sight to behold!

Next time we will continue our discussion of the Moon; we’ll look at some interesting features along the current terminator and pinpoint the location of the Apollo Mission landing sites. I’ll also talk about my favorite phone app that gives information on lunar phases and Moon rise and set times, as well as solar information. Meanwhile, I would love to hear what your favorite Moon themed song is, please tell me in the comments!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

Spherical Coordinates

Yesterday we talked about measuring distances in the sky using your hands. In that exercise we measured Comet NEOWISE’s altitude, its distance above the observer’s true horizon, as being about 25°. Today we’re going to take a closer look at the coordinate system we use to locate objects in the sky.

To describe the location of an object in the sky, we use a spherical coordinate system where azimuth (az) is measured clockwise around an observer’s local horizon starting due north, and altitude (alt) is the angular distance of a celestial object above the observer’s true horizon.

The sketch below illustrates the location of Comet NEOWISE on the Celestial Sphere in terms of its azimuth and altitude. The Celestial Sphere is an imaginary sphere of infinite radius concentric to Earth and centered around the observer; objects in the sky are considered to lie on this sphere. Measuring the comet’s altitude is what we did yesterday; it is the number of degrees the object lies above your true horizon, easily measurable with your hands.

With the help of the illustration above let’s look at how to determine the azimuth of an object. We start at 0° North and measure clockwise towards the east, until we reach the point on the horizon above which the object can be found in the sky, in this case measured to be at an azimuth of 305°. The easiest way to measure azimuth is with a compass. If you don’t have a regular analog compass, there are many free compass apps for your smartphone.

No doubt you recognize the compass directions of north (0° az), south (180° az), east (90° az), and west (270° az) on this chart. When describing a location using its azimuth we often use the abbreviation of the nearest compass direction as well to further clarify the azimuth angle. Below you will find a list of the abbreviated common compass directions and their azimuth in degrees:

N (0°), NNE (22.5°), NE (45°)
ENE (67.5°), E (90°), ESE (112.5°)
SE (135°), SSE (157.5°), S (180°), SSW (202.5°)
SW (225°), WSW (247.5°), W (270°)
WNW (292.5°), NW (315°), NNW (337.5°)

That’s it for today, eyes to the skies!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

Measuring Distances in the Sky

While we in the Socorro area welcomed the much-needed rainfall last night, it certainly didn’t allow for any comet viewing! The weather forecast looks about the same for tonight, which is great for our vegetable gardens but not so great for astronomical observing.

If the weather were to cooperate and give us some clear skies to the northwest tonight, Comet NEOWISE will be seen about 25° above the horizon at 9:35 PM MDT, as illustrated in the attached sky chart. Even if the skies are not clear enough to see the comet at this exact time, you may want to check again every so often, because the comet will be above the horizon for another couple of hours. If the clouds are moving about, you just might get a glimpse of the comet.

You’ve probably noticed that when we describe the location of a celestial object in the sky, we often give its distance from another easily recognizable celestial object or its height above the horizon in degrees (its altitude). Trying to figure out angular distances in the sky may sound challenging at first, but it’s quite simple to measure distances using nothing but your hands!

The drawing below illustrates the distances that different parts of your hand can measure. The key is to have your arm fully extended in front of you for these measurements to be most accurate.

The sky chart below is the same location, time and date as the previous one, but in this version we illustrate the hand position you would use to measure the comet at 25° above the horizon.

But wait! That thumb isn’t on the horizon at all, it’s below the horizon, right? Well, yes and no.

If you are measuring a distance above the horizon, you need to measure from where the true horizon would be if there were no obstructions such as structures, trees, or mountains. The true horizon is what your line of sight would be if there were no obstructions between you and the curve of the Earth in the distance, as if you were on a boat in the middle of the ocean. Your visible horizon is the line dividing the sky and the obstructions you see from your viewing position such as houses, hills, trees, etc.

Your visible horizon has a great impact on what celestial objects you can see low in the sky. For example, if you’re in the city of Socorro, like we will be tonight at New Mexico Tech’s Etscorn Campus Observatory, don’t expect to see anything close to the horizon due west thanks to our beloved M Mountain. But the view to the northwest at azimuth 310° should be just fine!

Wait, azimuth 310°, what’s that about? Stay tuned to find out!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications