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Tonight’s SuperMoon

23 Jun Tim Martindale

It has been an appalling Summer for skywatching this year. Unannounced rain and general overcast cloud cover has restricted us from viewing the heavens above this season. There is some hope for any keen amateur astronomers though and it comes in the form of our familiar friend the Moon.

Many of you would have gazed up at the shimmering disc in the sky, probably on many occasions too, but today is a special day for the Moon, the celestial body will come to its closets point on its orbit around us. Granted, this event is pretty common but nonetheless incredibly spectacular for anyone watching. There will be other SuperMoons in the future of course, in fact there is one due in July. However our cosmic neighbour wont be passing as close as it is time around.

The scientific name for this event is ‘Perigee Moon’ it marks the coincidence where a new or full Moon is at it’s closets proximity to the Earth. The Lunar surface will appear 30% brighter to us and 14% larger in the night sky. According to experts the best time to view this phenomenon is both at moonrise and moonset when it appears at its very massive.

The next SuperMoon of this magnitude wont be occurring until August 2014. So, weather permitting, keep an eye on the night sky this evening, you may just be surprised to see an old friend looking a little different.

Voyager: Humanity’s First Interstellar Explorer

21 Jun Voyager1 (Getty Images)

Interstellar space travel has only ever existed in the science fiction works of the past. Films, television and books appear to make emigrating to a new sun seem effortless and trouble free. The reality is that in order to cover these distances you need enormous amounts of energy or a copious amount of time. It is the latter that seems more realistic to us humans and the instruments of exploration we develop.

One such craft appears to be nearing this feat and is to become the first known object to traverse the stars. NASA’s Voyager twin spacecraft have been travelling through our solar system for decades now and they are approaching the final frontier and near conclusion to their epic mission. Launched in 1977 Voyager 1 and its twin Voyager 2 took advantage of the intricate clockwork of our solar system by aiming to capture Jupiter and Saturn as they aligned in what was dubbed ‘The Grand Tour’.

Gravitational Slingshot Effect

Voyager 2 seized the opportunity of planetary configuration by flying onwards to Uranus and Neptune as it followed its twin sister out into the Universe. NASA scientists used a ‘gravitational slingshot’ effect allowing both spacecraft to fly in between the planets and hurl them outwards saving energy. Voyager 1 passed Jupiter just two years after launch in 1979 and Saturn, along with her moons, the following year. Voyager 1 is now some 10.8 Billion miles away from home, with Voyager 2 some 2 Billion miles behind, both hurtling towards the edge of our solar system and into the scary yonder of interstellar space.

The craft is approaching the edge of what is known as the Heliosphere, this is a ‘bubble’ around our star where charged particles are flung out into space by the Sun and its solar winds. Any day now Voyager 1 will start to detect a rapid increase in the amount of charged particles it has already encountered as it detects stars that have exploded in the past.

 More recently, we have seen very rapid escalation in that part of the energy spectrum. Beginning on May 7, the cosmic ray hits have increased five per cent in a week and nine percent in a month. Says Project Manager, JPL – Ed Stone.

Charged particles fill the Universe between the stars streaming radiation far and wide. Voyager will negotiate this wilderness en route to Proxima Centauri, our local neighbouring star. Unfortunately it would take Voyager 76,000 years to get there but we can still  be proud a human built craft is travelling between the stars.

Voyager 1 is a true pioneer in space travel, its time in the cosmos has lasted 35 years and is sure to continue until 2025 when the spacecrafts’s plutonium core propulsion system expires. On board the machine is a gold disc containing images and sounds of Earth along with drawings of human beings in the hope a distant civilization will discover them and learn about our fascinating species.

Venus in Transit

4 Jun Venus in Transit (Google)

Astronomy runs just like clockwork and the intricate workings are there for all to see, if you know where to look. This year and specifically this week you will have the opportunity to see it first hand. The planet Venus will pass between Earth and in front of our Sun giving us humans a rare glimpse at the motion of poetry the solar system offers.

Galileo, Joseph Kepler and James Cook have all observed this transit in the past and all have made their own calculations and written their own findings but much is still to be learned. The next and last transit visible for this generation will take place tomorrow night and continue into the morning of June 6th (GMT).

Now obviously it is difficult to view the sun during the night time so viewing it on the meridian line will be near on impossible. Opportunity comes very early in the morning just after the sun rises around 4.30 (GMT). The transit will begin the night before and carry on for 7 hours before climaxing at around 4.47(GMT).

Here is a map showing all the best locations to view any point of the transit courtesy of F.Espenak, NASA.

The fact is it will be extremely difficult to view the phenomena this time around and unfortunately the same event wont take place until 2117. The only way for us in the UK to view this sensation will be once it is over and images are released for us to marvel.

As upsetting as it is not to be able to view this first hand we are lucky enough to live in a world where these events are accessible to everyone in one form or another. So once the Goddess of Beauty has finished her journey across our star take a moment to think about the intricate workings of the Solar System and the beauty it offers us for our viewing pleasure.