Venus and Uranus

Over the next few night Venus will pass very close to Uranus. The pair will be close for about five days, around 2° or less from the 7th to the 11th. It is on the 9th that the closest approach will occur with the pair separated by a mere 19 arc-minutes, about 1/5th of a degree and well within the same medium power telescopic field. This a is chance to find the ice-giant with relatively little effort, there will be no nearby bright stars to confuse with the 5.9 magnitude Uranus. At high magnification both planets will be seen as disks, Venus 16 arc-seconds across, and Uranus a bit over 3 arc-seconds across. Venus is now far enough between the Earth and the Sun to become somewhat gibbous, being about 70% illuminated.

An Unusual Breed

I have often noted how much many of the boulders around Waikoloa look like animals. There is one rock along the upper road that looks precisely like a cow when seen from the side at any distance. Just a natural remnant of these old Mauna Kea lava flows.

It is no surprise that most folks have the same observation, some of these rocks just look like cattle, all they need is horns?

A serious laugh-out-loud, try not to drive off the road, moment when I first saw them. Someone had indeed added some horns to the rocks. Not little horns either, but big Texas longhorn style horns. Halfway from Waikoloa Village to the Mamalahoa Highway, you can see a herd of a truly unusual breed. Perhaps the rare Waikoloa Basalt Angus?

Closer examination of the horns reveals that they are well made. Heat worked PVC pipe for the horns, tightly wrapped with rope and painted at the center. The horns are held on with heavy cable neatly crimped around the boulders.

Another surprise, the artists have signed their work, the names Ed Vasquez and Bill Bezona melted into the plastic. We have seen Ed’s art before, birds and other odd creatures appearing along local roads. We had seen nothing for a while, this is the first installation I have seen in about a year.

Nice job guys! A little fun along my morning commute.

Waikoloa Basalt Angus
A unique breed, the Waikoloa Basalt Angus at pasture, an artwork by Ed Vasquez and Bill Bezona

Mars Opposition 2012

About a month from today, on March 3rd, the planet Mars will pass through opposition.

Mars orbits the Sun every 1.88 years, with Earth only taking one year for each orbit. Like two runners on a track the two planets race each other around the Sun. But we have the inside lane, lapping the red planet every two years. These events are called opposition, when Mars is closest to us and best positioned for viewing by earthbound telescopes.

Closest approach of the two planets is not necessarily on the same day as opposition, but can vary up to two weeks. This year closest approach will occur March 5th with the two planets approaching to 99,331,411 km (61,721,554 miles) at 07:01HST.1 At this distance the red planet will show a disk 13.89″ arc-seconds across in the eyepiece.2

Mars during the 2005 oppositionMars during the 2005 opposition

Do not worry about viewing on the 3rd or 5th, any time in the month leading up to and after opposition the viewing will be very good. With even a modest telescope it should be possible to see the bright polar caps and light and dark markings on the planet.

All month Mars will be visible throughout the night, high in the sky at midnight. This is the time to enjoy observing our closest neighboring planet while it is nearby and high in the night sky.

1) 2012 Mars Opposition at SEDS
2) The 2012 Aphelic Apparition of Mars

Super-Earth Detected in Habitable Zone of Nearby Star

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

An international team of scientists has discovered a potentially habitable super-Earth orbiting a nearby star. With an orbital period of about 28 days and a minimum mass 4.5 times that of the Earth, the planet orbits within the star’s “habitable zone,” where temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface. The researchers found evidence of at least one and possibly two or three additional planets orbiting the star, which is about 22 light years from Earth.

The researchers used public data from the European Southern Observatory and analyzed it with a novel data-analysis method. They also incorporated new measurements from the W. M. Keck Observatory’s High Resolution Echelle Spectrograph (HiRES) and the new Carnegie Planet Finder Spectrograph at the Magellan II Telescope. Their planet-finding technique involved measuring the small wobbles in a star’s motion caused by the gravitational tug of a planet.

The team includes UC Santa Cruz astronomers Steven Vogt and Eugenio Rivera and was led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé and Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution for Science. Their work will be published by Astrophysical Journal Letters, and the manuscript will be posted online at

The host star is a member of a triple-star system and has a different makeup than our sun, with a much lower abundance of elements heavier than helium, such as iron, carbon, and silicon. This discovery indicates that potentially habitable planets can occur in a greater variety of environments than previously believed.

Continue reading “Super-Earth Detected in Habitable Zone of Nearby Star”

A Bright Glow from Halema’uma’u

It caught everyone’s attention, suddenly the southern sky lit up, a bright glow coming from the direction of our volcano. This occurred about 21:45 last night, we were getting ready to put away the telescopes, ending a great evening at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center.

The red glow was unmistakeable, something was happening at Halemau’uma’u. We moved to where we could see the brightly lit plume over the volcano, conversation buzzing with questions, what is going on?

Our guess is that something, most likely a large rockfall, disturbed the lava lake at the bottom of Halema’uma’u crater. The lake, normally crusted over and dark, can be easily disturbed. If something happens to break up the crust, the glow of this very hot lava is surprisingly bright. Bright enough that we were surprised by the show from our vantage point about 30 miles away.

What happened? I will have to read the daily report later today and see if anything out of the ordinary is noted. A nice event, and a treat for the tourists still at the VIS near closing. The glow faded over the next 20-30 minutes. After closing the VIS and beginning my drive back down the mountain, it had faded enough to be barely visible again.

My Canon G11 is not normally a good after dark camera, but given the bright moonlight, and the brighter glow from the volcano, it did fairly well…

Update! Today’s volcano report indicates a series of large rockfalls occurred last night.

Halema'uma'u Glow
The plume at Halema'uma'u lit up at night as seen from the Mauna Kea VIS, 15s exposure with a Canon G11

The Morning Commute

When heading to Waimea this time of year, I am driving right at sunrise. Sometimes you just have to stop and take the photo, or in this case a full set of photos for a panorama, even if I risk being late for the truck to the summit… (Click image to view properly)

Mauna Kea Sunrise Panorama
Sunrise behind Mauna Kea from the Mamalahoa Hwy, near Waimea