About Starlady

Sheila came to La Palma with a six month contract as a software engineer for the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes. That was in 1990, and she's still here.

A new moon for the New Year

The thin crescent of the  new moon setting on January 2nd

The new moon setting on January 2nd

Happy new year.

We started 2014 with a new moon. Here it is setting on January 2nd from La Palma.

Schrödinger’s comet

As far as I can tell, Comet ISON is neither alive not dead, but in some stage in-between. Something came out from behind the sun. Watch this space.

R.I.P. Comet ISON (probably)

Comet ISON as seen by the Stereo space telescope. Credit NASA

Comet ISON as seen by the Stereo space telescope. Credit NASA

It looks like comet ISON has broken up.

I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised. The comet’s closest approach was just 1,165,000 km (724,000 mi) from the surface of the sun. This is not a safe place for a snowball.

The image above shows just how close it got. The black disc in the centre of the picture is called a cronograph. It covers up the sun so that you can see less-bright things nearby.

ISON formed some 4,500,000,000 million years ago with the rest of the Solar System. As far as we can tell, it’s spent all that time a very long way from the sun in the Oort cloud where it’s cold. Then gravitational nudges sent it falling into the inner Solar System. As it got closer to the sun, it warmed up of course, and the various ices started to boil off. That’s what forms the part you see – the original snowball of ISON was only ever 2 km across.

If NASA are wrong about this, and the comet has survived, it will put on a marvellous show in December, because it’ll be close to the Earth. I hope so – I got up early three times to try to see the comet, and every time there was one small cloud in front of it. I did at least get a nice view of Mercury and Saturn.

Path of comet ISON in December (if it survives) in the Northern hemisphere

Path of comet ISON in December (if it survives) in the Northern hemisphere

Comet ISON is visible to the naked eye

Comet ISON & Mt. Fuji photographed by Cochrane (@Sol1001) on Nov 16

Comet ISON & Mt. Fuji photographed by Cochrane (@Sol1001) on Nov 16

As comets approach the sun, they warm up and the head and tail grow bigger and brighter. ISON is now visible, in the constellation Virgo, near the bright star Spica. That’s in the east before dawn.

There’s a finder chart at http://www.aerith.net/comet/catalog/2012S1/2012S1.html
and more informationa at Phil Plait’s blog.

Please excuse the rush. I’m trying to finish a book of children’s stories about La Palma’s amazing night sky.

A lovely calendar

January from the Spanish version of StoryStellArt calendar 2014

January from the Spanish version of StoryStellArt calendar 2014

Vanessa Sancho is originally from Barcelona, but she’s been living in La Palma for the last 18 months. The island’s amazing skies inspired her to produce very good pastel paintings of nebulae. She’s crowdfunding a calendar of her paintings, and I’ve already signed up for one.

The calendar is A4 (opens to A3) and each month includes a colour painting, an explanation of what it is an where you can find it in the sky, a bit of a celestial myth or legend, plus things like the phases of the moon and the dates of the main meteor showers, eclipses and planetary conjunctions. It also looks like there’s space to write, “Dentist, 3 pm” or “Aunt Susan arrives” which is something I really need and many calendars don’t have. See why I got one?

If you haven’t come across crowdfunding before, this is how it works. You go to the website and look at details of the project. If you want to support it, you sign up. Typically, there are rewards for a certain contribution. For example, if you contribute 10€ to the calendar project, you get a calendar (you’ll also have to pay postage later) or if you contribute 45€ you get the calendar, plus a story-telling session, a visit to a farm which makes goats’ cheese. Here’s the good part – you don’t pay a penny yet. You don’t pay until (if!) the project gets enough funding to go ahead.

You can get more details of the StorySTellArt Calendar 2014 at
It’s available in English, Spanish or Catalan.

Monday’s eclipse seen from a plane

The eclipse of a November 2013 photographed from a plane  by Ben Cooper

The eclipse of a November 2013 photographed from a plane by Ben Cooper

This was photographed from a plane flying at 13,300 m going 800 km/h, 960 km southeast of Bermuda. In order to get the eclipse to one side of the plane, they flew across the path of totality, rather than along it. This required split-second timing, since the shadow on the moon moves across the Earth’s surface at 12,800 km/h. The photographer, Ben Cooper, isn’t sure whether this is totality or 1 second off. I think it’s 1-second off because you can see the sunlight shining through the valleys on the edge of the moon, creating the famous diamond ring effect. Either way, it’s a wonderful photo. More information at Launch Photography.

Solar Eclipse Nov 3rd UPDATE

Map of the track of the Nov 3rd eclipse. Official work for NASA

Map of the track of the Nov 3rd eclipse. Official work for NASA

Partial solar eclipse observation with Astrotour

Partial solar eclipse observation with Astrotour

UPDATE: There are two places where you’ll be able to observe the eclipse safely. Astrolapalma will hold a free event at Llano de las Brujas from 10:30-1:30 pm, and Astrotour will hold an event costing 2€ per person at the ecological banana plantation EcoFinca Platanologico from 11 am – 1 pm.

Do NOT look directly at the sun. You might go blind.
On November 3rd 2013 there will be a hybrid solar eclipse. “Hybrid” means that in some places it will be a total eclipse and in other it will be an annual eclipse – that is, the moon will be directly in front of the sun, but it will be slightly farther away than usual, so that it appears slightly smaller than usual – too small to cover the sun completely. In any case, from the Canary Islands the moon will cover just 40% of the sun. From here, the maximum eclipse will be at 12:15 pm. From the UK and Germany, the moon will be next to the sun in the sky, but not cover it. From mainland Spain, the eclipse will cover 10-20% of the sun, reaching its maximum at about 12:30 pm.

The next solar eclipse will be an annual eclipse in Antarctica on 29th April, 2014. I don’t think I’ll be going all the way to Antarctica myself.

Partial solar eclipse observation with Astrolapalma

Partial solar eclipse observation with Astrolapalma

Visiting the Observatory

For years, the IAC (Canarian Astrophysics Institute) has paid the cost of visits to the observatory. Now they need to be even more careful with their money, and visitors will have to pay 9€ each (6.75€ for residents of La Palma), which should cover the cost of the guide and administrative overhead. The visits are still daytime only, and last 45-90 minutes. This includes a short talk on why the observatory is on La Palma, a visit to the MAGIC telescope, and for over-12s, a visit to the inside of one of the other telescope. This is most often GTC,the biggest telescope in the world, but it may also be the WHT, INT, or TNG.

You can book your visit here

A free talk on astrophotography in Santa Cruz

Poster for the astrophotography talk in Santa Cruz on Wednesday night

Poster for the astrophotography talk in Santa Cruz on Wednesday night. Click on the image for a larger version.

On Wednesday night in Santa Cruz there will be a talk on astrophotography by Babak Tafreshi and Christoph Malin (two of the most prestigious astrophotographers in the world). They’re on La Palma to teach at Astromaster LA PALMA 2013, an advanced course on image processing and landscape photography timelapse and night which will be held in Los Cancajos this week, between July 26 and September 30.
 
The talk will take place next Wednesday 25th at 20:00 pm in the Noble Hall of the Casa Salazar, in O’Daly, 20, of Santa Cruz de La Palma.
 
More information about the event:
http://astromaster.astrolapalma.com/
http://astrolapalma.com/es/AstroMaster-LaPalma-2013-timelapse-landscape-astrofotografia
http://christophmalin.com/2013/07/astromaster-la-palma/