Welcome to Science and Math Education Center &
The Peterson Planetarium!

Loretto A. Langley Charitable Trust Award!   **     In the News  **     Cool Facts!  
About our Photography 
The Supermoon - 11/14/2016
Dr. Bharat Ratra @ ESU!
Rendezvous with a Comet!!

Night Skies by Mark Brown, VIPP

Countdown to Darkness - The 2017 Total Solar Eclilpse!!
  Reason for Seasons - Winter Solstice
Geminids to peak near Full Moon
Orion the Hunter

Spot the International Space Station
Polaris – The North Star
Venus - The Evening Star
October and Photographing the Aurora Borealis
October's Starry Sky
October's Full Hunter's Moon

About the Planetarium

Peterson Planetarium was named for Oscar J. Peterson, ESU chair of the math department from 1928-1963.  Dr. O.J. Peterson was responsible for adding the planetarium to the new Science Hall, which opened in 1958.  In 1959, Dr. George Downing became the first director and his first student planetarium operator and lecturer was Kenneth Ohm.  Ken is seated beside the newly installed Spitz A-2 Star Projector that was used from 1959-1994.

Ken Ohm operating Spitz A-2                  Ken Ohm operating the new Spitz A-2 Star Projector in the newly opened planetarium in 1959. Three rings of
                 continuous bench seating, covered in red vinyl, encircled the operator and machine. The planetarium is located
                                            in the sub-basement of Cram Science Hall. Image courtesy of Kenneth Ohm.

      Peterson Planetarium is an educational outreach branch of the Science and Math Education Center. The planetarium is a teaching facility for campus classes in space science and other courses that schedule sessions in this unique audiovisual theater. It seats 38 under a 24-foot dome, which serves as a projection screen. We have the Spitz 512 star projector that was installed in 1996 and renovated in 2014. To this supplement Earth-bound perspective of the night sky, a hemispherical mirror projection was added in 2014 to provide full dome audio video programming. A supplemental digital projector allows for interaction via the Internet or displays shows via DVDs. It is administered through the Departments of Physical Sciences with funds provided by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Programming at the Peterson Planetarium serves a variety of community and University audiences.

Peterson Planetarium holds two regular series that are open to the general public and are completely free of charge.
  1. On the second Saturday of the month, live shows of the night sky are presented accompanied by a full-dome program chosen from a variety of themes such as astronomy, Earth science, biology, history, and mathematics.
  2. Every Thursday evening from 6:30 to 7:45, a documentary series is presented on the history of U.S. space exploration. This history series is told through actual NASA footage and documentation taken from the Johnson Space center and compiled here on campus to walk the audience through the first signs of rocket development to the Space Race and beyond.
We also host presentations for campus students and K-12 schoolchildren, available to be scheduled on weekdays. Reinforce science standards in space science, earth science, biology and mathematics in your K-12 class!
To review/preview our available shows, visit our inventory HERE. Schedule a show now by calling 620-341-5636 or by going HERE.
Reviews by Teachers:
"perfect match to our 6th grade curriculum" - for Losing the Dark
"the light pollution short show connected with our students" for Losing the Dark
The planetarium is located in room 031, Science Hall, on the west side of the Emporia State University campus. Entrance is from Merchant Street parking or with school buses, use Kellogg Circle stopping just beyond Plumb Hall. Remember that while reservations are not necessary, seating is limited and to guarantee entrance to the shows.

Peterson Planetarium provides ESU students with employment opportunities to work on live show production and video presentations.  Now hiring ESU students  - if interested, contact Dr. Aber at 620-341-5636 with a resume of experience and letter of interest.


 Night Skies with Mark Brown, VIPP

Mark Brown the charter member of our Volunteers in Peterson Planetarium (VIPP). He has contributed presentations, custom shows, operator training, and photographs to Peterson Planetarium and now Night Skies. In other words, Mark is a very important person to Peterson Planetarium!
Countdown to Darkness - The 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

Where will you be on Monday, August 21, 2017? If you’re not sure, now is the time to start thinking about it because the continental United States is about to experience one of nature’s most awesome spectacles – a total eclipse of the Sun! On Monday, August 21 at 11:38am Central Daylight Savings Time, a finger of darkness will sweep down from space and touch the surface of Earth. The Moon will come between Earth and the Sun and begin casting its shadow onto the planet below.

The arrangement necessary for a total solar eclipse is an exact alignment of Earth, Moon, and Sun, with the Moon blotting out the Sun and casting its shadow on Earth. This is a fairly frequent event that occurs almost every year. However, the problem for those who wish to view a total solar eclipse is the small size of the Moon’s shadow. By the time the Moon’s shadow reaches Earth, it is usually less than 150 miles (240 kilometers) wide. One must be within this shadow in order to see darkness during the day which lasts from a few seconds to a maximum of about seven minutes.

On August 21, the limb or edge of the Moon’s disk will make contact with the limb of the Sun. From its contact point at sunrise in the North Pacific Ocean, the lunar shadow will race eastward across the ocean at over 2,000 miles per hour. At around 10:15am Pacific time, the zone of darkness will touch the continental United States. For nearly 2 brief minutes, the west coast of Oregon will come under the fast moving shadow.

For the next 1h 33m, the Moon’s 70-mile wide shadow will traverse across the entire length of the continental United States before leaving the coast of South Carolina and moving on into the Atlantic Ocean. The darkest part of the eclipse will pass through the following states: Oregon, Idaho, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina (tiny portions of Montana and Iowa are also in the path). And yes! The exciting thing is that the darkest part of the Moon’s shadow, the umbra, will clip the extreme northeastern part of Kansas. To see a total eclipse you must be in the umbra of the Moon’s shadow. For much of Kansas, 90% or more of the Sun’s light will be blotted out by the Moon. If you stay in Emporia, only about 96% of the Sun will be eclipsed (a partial eclipse). If you want to be in the direct line of the eclipse (100% coverage), you will need to travel north and east! For those in northeast Kansas where the Moon completely covers the Sun’s disk, they will experience up to 2m 38s of darkness.   


Annular Eclipse: Film image through an 8-inch telescope of the Annular Solar
eclipse on May 10, 1994. Imaged from Ft. Wayne, Indiana. This is a similar
view of what observers in Emporia will see on August 21st. 

It has been a long wait. The last total eclipse to grace the continental United States was February 26, 1979 but was only a partial eclipse event for Kansas. The last time a total solar eclipse fell on Kansas soil was June 8, 1918. After 2017, the next one for Kansas will not be until August 12, 2045. However, the next total solar eclipse for the continental United States will occur on April 8, 2024. If you see just one total solar eclipse in your life, consider yourself fortunate. But eclipses of the Sun are actually quite common – celestial mechanics dictates that there be at least two solar eclipses somewhere on Earth each year. There can be as many as five in a year, though this is rare. Often times the Moon’s shadow does not fall onto land, but onto Earth’s oceans which is why many people do not see it. 

Hybrid Eclipse _11_03_2013_bw

Hybrid Eclipse: Digital image through a 3-inch telescope of the
Hybrid Solar eclipse on November 3, 2013. Imaged from Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

It can be expected that hundreds of thousands of people from across the country and other continents will travel and converge somewhere along the darkest part of the eclipse path. Millions more will elect to stay home on eclipse day, away from the dark central path of the Moon’s shadow, but still within its lighter boundaries. For them, August 21 will bring a partial eclipse of the Sun.

Chances are you’ll be one of those eclipse watchers. Although your day will be less dramatic, it can still be memorable. Even a partial eclipse provides a fascinating example of what happens when celestial bodies align.

For those of us in Emporia, Kansas the partial eclipse will begin at 11:38am local time. For the next 88 minutes, the Moon will appear to take small bites out of the Sun’s disk. At 1:06pm, 96.46% of the Sun will be covered (maximum eclipse) with the Sun appearing as a very thin crescent.  At 2:33pm, the eclipse spectacle ends.  

Although 96% of the Sun will be covered, looking at the Sun, either during the partial phases or at any other time, can be extremely dangerous. Without any optical aid the retina of an unprotected eye can be burned in as little as 30 seconds. With the extra light-gathering ability of a telescope or binocular, a burn takes only a fraction of a second. Because the retina of the eye has no pain sensation, this injury occurs painlessly, and the visual effect of the burn will not appear until hours after the damage has been done.

I cannot stress this enough… 




On March 30th, Peterson Planetarium will host an event “How to safely observe the great American Total Solar Eclipse 2017.” This will be in Science Hall room 72 and all are welcome to attend this free presentation. This event will discuss the types of eclipses and provide details about where and how to safely view the August 21 eclipse. As the date gets closer, I will also be posting additional details and safe methods for viewing the eclipse. So…Please stay tuned! 

Reason for Seasons - Winter Solstice is Here!
The Winter Solstice arrives on Wednesday, December 21st at 4:44am Central Time and marks the official start of winter in the northern hemisphere. It is also the time of year when the day is shortest and night is longest. But why is it that the Sun’s position in the sky appears to vary over the course of the year and what causes the seasonal changes? Let me try to give a brief explanation.

In addition to rotating on its axis every 24 hours, the Earth revolves around the Sun, meaning that it orbits the Sun in about 365¼ days. As we travel with the Earth around its orbit, we experience the annual cycle of seasons. Furthermore, the seasons are opposite in the northern and southern hemispheres. When the northern hemisphere experiences summer, the southern hemisphere experiences winter.

Earth_Tilt: Image depicting Earth's axial tilt of
approximately 23.5 degrees from perpendicular.

The reason for the seasons in different hemispheres is that the Earth’s axis of rotation is not perpendicular to the plane of Earth’s orbit about the Sun. Instead, Earth is tilted about 23½ degrees away from the perpendicular. The Earth maintains this tilt as it orbits the Sun, with the North Pole pointing toward the north celestial pole. During part of the year in one part of its orbit, the northern hemisphere is tilted or leaning toward the Sun. This is called summer – when days are long (more than 12 hours in sunlight) and nights are short. It is also the time when temperatures are warmer because the noon-time Sun is higher in the sky. The Sun’s energy is concentrated or shines more directly onto a small area during those long days, which heats the ground effectively and makes the days warm.  On or about June 21st the Northern Hemisphere experiences the Summer Solstice, but in the Southern Hemisphere it is winter.

The Earth's axis of rotation is inclined 23.5 degrees away from the perpendicular
to the plane of Earth's orbit. The north pole is aimed at the north celestial pole,
near the star Polaris. Earth maintains this orientation as it orbits the Sun. The
amount of solar illumination and the number of daylight hours at any location
on Earth vary in a regular pattern throughout the year which is the origin of the seasons.

Half a year later, the Earth is in the part of its orbit where the situation is now reversed with winter in the Northern Hemisphere which is now tilted away or leaning away from the Sun. During this time of year, the days are short (fewer than 12 hours in sunlight) and the nights are long. The noon-time Sun is low in the sky, so sunlight is less concentrated and strikes the ground’s surface at a grazing angle that causes little heating. This accounts for the colder temperatures in winter.  On or about December 21st, the Northern Hemisphere experiences the Winter Solstice while the Southern Hemisphere is enjoying summer. During spring and autumn (Equinoxes), the two hemispheres receive roughly equal amounts of illumination from the Sun, and daytime and nighttime are of equal length everywhere on Earth (about 12 hours).

A common misconception is that the seasons are caused by variations in the distance from the Earth to the Sun. According to this idea, the Earth is closer to the Sun in summer and farther away in winter. But in fact, the Earth’s orbit is very nearly circular, and the Earth-Sun distance varies only about 3% over the course of the year. We are slightly closer to the Sun in January than in July, but this small variation has little influence on the cycle of seasons. When you think about it, if the seasons were really caused by variations in the Earth-Sun distance and not by the tilt of Earth’s axis, then the seasons would be the same in both hemispheres.

Noon_Sun - Winter Solstice: On the day of the Winter Solstice,
the noon-time sun is lowest in the sky where sunlight is less
concentrated and less heating of the ground takes place.

So for those of you who do not like winter or the weather it brings, there is something to look forward to as we approach the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice marks the turning point where the nights begin to grow shorter and the days grow longer – darkness decreases and daylight increases and with it will come warmer temperatures.


Geminids to peak near Full Moon -BEST SEEN 12.13-14.2016


Meteor Showers streaking through Gemini and Orion. Photos by Mark A. Brown.

The night of December 13/14 brings with it the peak of this year’s Geminid meteor shower. The bad news is that the Moon will be just shy of Full Moon phase washing the sky with unwanted light much of the night. The good news is that the Geminid shower is one that’s seen from early evening until dawn and naked-eye observers should be able to spot some of the brightest meteors despite the moonlight. Normally an observer from a dark-sky site and no moon interference might see about 60 to 100 meteors per hour. Expect to see a few dozen bright meteors per hour, the majority of them white but many streak yellow and some blue, orange, red, and green ones.

Meteor showers occur when Earth’s orbit crosses the orbit of a comet. Meteors are grains of dust released from a comet as it approaches the Sun. Often the parent comet wears away with time to leave just a stream of dust. The Geminid meteor shower, however, is different. An asteroid, 3200 Phaeton, lies in the same orbit as the Geminids. This discovery, made by a satellite in the 1980s, suggests that some comets may have solid cores lurking beneath a layer of dirty snow.  In the Geminid parent comet’s case, when all the snow melted, an asteroid was left, plus many, many more meteoroids all rolling along the same orbit. As such, asteroid 3200 Phaeton may be a “dead comet.”

The Geminid meteor stream orbits the Sun with a period of 1.65 years with tiny meteoroids slamming into Earth’s atmosphere at 22 miles per second. The point where the stream’s orbit intersects Earth’s orbit lies in the constellation Gemini, hence the shower’s name. The meteors zip into Earth’s atmosphere along nearly parallel lines, but from our perspective, they appear to radiate away from the intersection point in Gemini. To get the best view of the shower, face eastward but look about halfway between Gemini and straight overhead. Because December nights are often chilly, if not cold, dress warmly (or lie in a sleeping bag) and bring along some hot coffee, tea, or chocolate in a thermos! If it is cloudy, you may continue to see some meteors after the peak date. It’s always worth one more look.

In addition if it is cloudy or if you do not want to venture outside into the cold, you can tune into Spaceweather Radio and listen to the meteors as they slam into Earth’s atmosphere. The radar “pings” when a meteor passes overhead. The ghostly “ping” is the reflected signal from the trail left behind by the meteor.  To “listen” to the meteors you can visit http://spaceweatherradio.com/   Good Luck!


Orion the Hunter

Climbing the eastern sky in mid-evening is a constellation many people recognize – Orion the Hunter. The bright bluish star Rigel marks one knee with orange-red Betelgeuse marking his opposite shoulder.  Above Betelgeuse a few dim stars indicate his upraised club. From Bellatrix, other dim stars depict a shield on his other arm. Opposite Rigel is Saiph, the hunter’s other knee.

Orion the Hunter

The constellation Orion is a distinctive grouping rising after sunset.
Below the three belt stars in the sword is the Orion Nebula (M42),
where man stars are forming from collapsing clouds of gas.
M42 is a striking object in binoculars and small telescope.

The Great Orion Nebula, which appears as a small dim glow in a pair of binoculars. The nebula contains four very young, hot stars called the Trapezium which formed from the nebula about 100,000 years ago. Because they are young and very hot, they are heating the nebula so that it glows. Many other stars are also forming deep within the cloud.


The middle "star" in the sword region of Orion contains the
Great Orion Nebula as well as other stars shrouded in gas and dust.


The Orion Nebula (telescope view) glows brilliantly as the middle "star" in Orion's sword.
Also known as M42, the famous nebula is visible with the unaided eye,
but a pair of binoculars or small telescope will reveal much more.

Greek stories of Orion’s life are quite varied. One popular story involves Artemis, who fell in love with Orion. Artemis’s brother, Apollo, disapproved of the couple. One day, he spotted Orion swimming in the ocean and challenged his sister to hit the far away floating target with an arrow. Artemis was a skilled archer who took aim at the target, released the arrow, and struck the target on her first attempt. When Orion’s body washed ashore she was devastated, realizing she had killed her love.

It is also said that Orion met his death as the result of a scorpion’s sting. It was not uncommon for Orion to boast of his talents and conquests. He was especially proud of his hunting abilities and claimed that no animal alive could harm him and threatened to slay every beast upon the earth. The goddess Gaia became angry at Orion’s arrogant threat and decided to teach him a lesson. As such, she placed a scorpion along the path Orion always took on his way to his hunting grounds. Late one night, as Orion hunted in the forest, the scorpion silently waited along the path to ambush the hunter. When Orion passed, the scorpion mortally stung the hunter in the heel - which is why when the constellation Scorpius rises in the east, Orion flees and sets below the horizon in the west.  

       OrionGraphic artwork of Orion the Hunter from Stellarium free planetarium software.

Three stars in nearly a straight line cross Orion’s middle to form his belt; from bottom up they are Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. About halfway between Alnitak and Rigel, look for several faint stars of the Hunter’s sword. Greek stories of Orion’s life are quite varied. One popular story involves Artemis, who fell in love with Orion. Artemis’s brother, Apollo, disapproved of the couple. One day, he spotted Orion swimming in the ocean and challenged his sister to hit the far away floating target with an arrow. Artemis was a skilled archer who took aim at the target, released the arrow, and struck the target on her first attempt. When Orion’s body washed ashore she was devastated, realizing she had killed her love.

Look for Orion rising in the east around 7pm local time. By about 8pm, the mighty hunter has cleared the horizon and sits high in the southern sky by midnight.

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Spot the International Space Station

Over the next few nights this week if you step outside on a clear night you’ve got a good chance of seeing the International Space Station (ISS) as it glides across the skies of Emporia (https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html). So whether you’ve seen it dozens of times or never at all, this is your chance to see it.

Since 1998 the International Space Station has been crisscrossing the heavens. It is the largest satellite in space and is crewed with up to six people from various nations. Travelling at over 17,000 miles per hour (5 miles per second), and orbiting about 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth, ISS can appear like a very bright, fast-moving star. We see the space station because of a couple of reasons. First, it is very large – about the size of a football field. And second, it is covered by materials that reflect a lot of sunlight. Although the space station does have lights, they are much too dim and far away for us to see them. ISS is often mistaken for a passing aircraft, but if you look closely, you will not see any blinking or flashing navigation lights like an aircraft. For the most part, the reflected light from the ISS will remain bright and steady. The amazing thing is that ISS can be seen with the unaided eye!

The digital image is a long exposure photograph from an International Space Station
pass captured on February 5, 2015 over Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

It takes ISS approximately 90 minutes to complete one orbit of Earth and is usually seen before sunrise or after sunset passing from west to east. The orbital path of the space station frequently changes so it will not be seen every night or will appear in the same part of the sky. Depending on your location, the space station can trek very close to the horizon, directly overhead, or anywhere in between with passes lasting 2 to 4 minutes. But in order to see it, you need to know two things – Will it be clear? And when will it pass over your location?

Between November 28th and December 5th ISS will make a number of evening passes. But the brightest and highest passes will occur on December 1st and 2nd. On December 1st, the space station will rise in the southwest at 6:23pm. At 6:27pm, the station will be high in the northwest sky at an altitude of 74°. Its orbital path will take it to the northeast where it will disappear into Earth’s shadow at 6:28pm.

The two graphic images are from heavens-above.com -
showing the station passes over Emporia on the evening
of December 1st (above) and December 2nd (below). 

On December 2nd the space station will rise above the southwest horizon at 5:32pm and trek across the southern part of the sky. At 5:35pm, ISS will be 54° above the southeast horizon where its orbital path will then take it toward the east-northeast.

Much of this information is freely available from various websites or mobile apps for your tablets and smartphone devices. Websites such as http://spaceweather.com/flybys/ and http://www.heavens-above.com/ are online prediction tools which will provide up to the minute information on space station passes from your location. These websites allow you to pinpoint your location either by using your zip code, city name, or by clicking on a map.

For the tech savvy, you can also find mobile apps for Heavens-Above, NASA’s Spot the Station, ISS Spotter, ISS Locator, and Sky Safari. Make sure you are not paying for the app and that the app automatically updates the satellite tracking database. Some of the more advanced apps will show other visible satellite passes and even provide text or voice alerts prior to visible passes for your location.  It is important that you provide yourself with enough time to go outside and get oriented. Try to know in advance where and when you should be looking for the space station because if you’re outside looking down for the app on your phone, you just might miss it. When you do see the space station, be sure to look up, enjoy, and wave – as mentioned earlier, there are six people currently living and working up there.

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The Pleiades, located approximately 430 light years from Earth, is the brightest and most obvious star cluster visible to the unaided eye in late autumn and winter. This small grouping of stars is often mistaken for the Little Dipper because of the arrangement of its six brightest stars. The Pleiades are sometimes referred to as the seven sisters which is a reference to the seven stars visible to people with better than average eyesight. For most people, six stars are plainly visible but some have reported seeing as many as eleven stars when viewed from dark transparent skies away from city lights. There are Greek legends of a “lost Pleiad,” the seventh sister, said to have given up her place among the stars after marrying a mortal.

In late autumn evenings, the Pleiades can be seen rising slightly north of east after sunset. According to mythology, the seven sisters are being pursued by the great hunter Orion which rises after the Pleiades. Orion pursues them across the sky nearly all night in November before setting in the west before sunrise. If you have difficulty finding the cluster, wait until the constellation Orion has sufficiently risen above the eastern horizon. Now find his belt – three stars standing nearly in a straight line above the horizon. An imaginary line drawn westward through the belt points to the bright orange star Aldebaran – the fiery eye of the bull in the constellation Taurus. The V-shape pattern of stars to which Aldebaran appears to belong is called the Hyades. Extending the line just a bit further up or to the west will lead you to the Pleiades marking the shoulder of Taurus the bull.

Photo by Mark Brown; 11-20-2016.

Pointing a pair of binoculars or telescope toward this cluster will reveal dozens of individual stars. Long exposure photographs of the cluster will reveal faint wisps of nebulosity around the cluster – which is left over gas and dust from which the stars were born. The stars were born about 100 million years ago, much younger than our Sun, and many times more luminous.  

Close up of the Pleiades as imaged through a 400mm refracting telescope.
Thin wisps of nebulosity is apparent. Photo by Mark Brown, 12-29-2013. 

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Polaris – The North Star

The sky's most steadfast star is Polaris, in the constellation Ursa Minor the Little Bear. Also called the North Star or Pole Star, this is without doubt the most famous star in the sky. Many people mistakenly believe it is also the brightest star in the sky. But in fact, it ranks only 49th in brightness. Polaris is important because it is located very near to the north celestial pole, the point at which the entire northern sky appears to rotate. While other stars rise and set throughout the night and appear prominent in various seasons, Polaris stays more or less fixed at a single point in the sky – not only throughout the night, but also the entire year.

Polaris was of great importance to early navigators and explorers. By traveling either northward or southward on Earth’s globe one can take note and watch how the altitude of Polaris shifts accordingly. This star’s height above the northern horizon reflects your latitude. The latitude of Emporia, Kansas is 38.4 degrees. Hence, Polaris resides 38.4 degrees above the northern horizon. The width of the adult human fist held at arm’s length measures about ten degrees. By facing north and using your fist as a measuring tool, you can easily find Polaris’ altitude. When measuring upwards from the northern horizon, Polaris will be approximately equivalent to four clenched fists stacked on top of the other. If you stood precisely at Earth’s North Pole, Polaris would be almost directly overhead or at the zenith.

Polaris in the center of it all

Polaris is the brightest star in its constellation at magnitude 2.0. For centuries, in the mythologies of many different nations, this star has been a symbol of constancy. Yet even steady Polaris moves a bit in the sky. That’s because it is not located exactly at the pole, but instead a little less than one degree from it. Photographs of the pole taken over several minutes or hours reveal that Polaris moves in its own small circle in our sky. What’s more, Polaris is not always the Pole Star. Because of precession – a 26,000-year cycle – the position of the true north celestial pole continually shifts among the northern stars. Nearly five thousand years ago, for example, the star Thuban in the constellation Draco was considered to be the Pole Star. Polaris will be closest to the exact pole in the year A.D. 2102.

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Venus - Evening Star

This month a bright “evening star”, the planet Venus, is visible above the southwestern horizon after sunset. It shines at magnitude -3.9 meaning it is the third brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon. Venus is bright for two reasons - its orbital position with respect to Earth and from sunlight reflecting off the poisonous acidic clouds in the planet’s atmosphere. Venus is currently just over 108 million miles from Earth or about 1.17 astronomical units (AU).

It is the second planet from the Sun and travels in its orbit much like Earth, but because Venus is an inner planet and closer to the Sun it travels along its orbit faster than Earth – much like a car traveling on the inside lane of a racetrack. Over the next several months Venus will catch up to Earth reducing the distance between the two planets. As it does, the planet will climb higher in the sky away from the glow of sunset and actually become brighter.

Venus is currently moving eastward along the “path of the planets,” the ecliptic. During November, it travels among the stars of Ophiuchus and Sagittarius. On October 30th, Venus passed the pale-yellow planet Saturn and the orange-red star Antares both of which will disappear into the glow of sunset by late November. Venus itself sets about 1 3/4 hours after the Sun. The Moon will join Venus and Saturn in the evening sky on November 1st and 2nd. Compare bright Venus with the waxing crescent moon when the Moon passes nearby.

Image above for the first week in November and taken from EarthSky.org

 Image below is from September 8, 2013, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
A waxing crescent Moon and Venus loom over the western horizon shortly after sunset.  

Venus Trivia!

  • Did you know Venus has been mistaken for a UFO? Its bright appearance above the horizon or tree tops has prompted curious citizens to call local authorities to report a strange light shimmering in the sky.

  • Did you know Venus has been the only planet given permission to land at an airport? Air traffic controllers have mistakenly identified Venus as an approaching aircraft causing other aircraft in the area to remain in a holding pattern until “the unidentified plane” could land.

  • Did you know Venus once caused a train derailment? A train engineer looking down the track saw a bright shimmering light and mistook the “light” as an approaching train. Fearing a head-on collision, the train engineer abruptly activated the train’s braking system which caused the train to derail.

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October and Photographing the Aurora Borealis
When the northern lights come out, it sometimes appears as if the sky is on fire. There is an eerie connection between the Sun and our planet’s atmosphere that can sometimes cause the sky to unexpectedly glow with shades of red, yellow, purple and green; an atmospheric phenomenon called the northern lights or Aurora Borealis. The Sun is constantly spraying the solar system with millions of tons of charged particles each minute. The stream of charged particles from the Sun, or solar wind, consists mostly of electrons and protons. Sometimes the Sun is very energetic and violently ejects the particles in a solar flare or coronal mass ejection (CME). In the simplest explanation, aurorae are produced when these charged particles collide with Earth’s magnetic field and spiral down along magnetic field lines where their energy interacts with gases in Earth’s atmosphere. The result causes the gases at various levels in the atmosphere to glow or give off light.

Capturing the Aurora Borealis with a digital camera requires the simplest of equipment. All you need is a camera that has a bulb setting (look for a B on the shutter speed dial), a sturdy tripod, a fairly wide-field lens, and a remote shutter release. A remote shutter release is a way to activate your camera shutter without having to touch the camera. In the earlier days of manual film cameras, it was generally referred to as a cable release. If you have to touch your camera to open and close the camera shutter by pressing and releasing the shutter button, then there is the risk of blurring the image. A camera that has a timer to start and stop the exposure is ideal while some DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras also have the capability to trigger the shutter with a wireless remote.    

Use the widest and fastest lens you own. A normal 50mm lens will do, but a wider lens such as a 17 or 24mm lens is much better for capturing the sweeping arc of a bright display or large pillars and curtains over a wide landscape. A fast lens refers to the maximum aperture of the lens or the amount of light that your lens will let in. This is usually designated by an “f-number” or “f-stop” – for example f/2.8. The smaller the f-number, the bigger the maximum aperture is for your lens and the more light that will be collected on the image sensor or film. A lens set at f/2.8 will allow more light into the camera than will a lens set at f/4. You must also have the ability to manually focus your camera lens or to set the focus ring to infinity. In low-light or dark situations, the automatic focus feature on your camera will not work.     

Your exposure will depend on the brightness of the aurora, ISO setting, and the overall sky brightness (city, suburb, or dark rural location). The ISO setting of a digital camera determines the sensitivity of the camera’s image sensor and is similar to ISO ratings for film photography. An ISO setting of 800 increases the sensitivity of the image sensor more so than an ISO setting of 400. As such, a high ISO (800 – 1600) setting would be more appropriate for dark or low-light situations.

Faint aurora displays, which can sometimes show beautiful hidden colors, might require an exposure lasting up to 30 seconds with the aperture set at f/2.8 and ISO setting of 800. Brighter aurorae can be imaged in less time and with a lower ISO setting. Depending on the focal length of your lens, longer exposures will also lead to stars trailing in the image.

For the most striking photos, include a familiar horizon such as silhouetted trees, distant houses, hills, fences, or even an old windmill. Including foreground objects adds drama to the image. If possible, a nice touch might also include a recognizable constellation in the frame. To increase your chances of seeing an aurora, it is imperative that you find a dark location away from city lights with an unobstructed horizon. Depending on your latitude, an auroral display might only appear close to the horizon. Any city light, glare, or obstructions will reduce your chances of seeing the aurora.

Aurora and Windmill

On October 8th, 2016 a magnetic filament erupted from the Sun propelling a CME in the direction of Earth and was predicted to impact Earth’s magnetic field sometime on October 13th. I was aware that an aurora display might be possible because the CME had impacted Earth’s magnetic field and was sparking aurorae across northern Europe at mid-latitudes. As night approached, I traveled a short distance away from city lights and waited.

Indeed the aurora did make a brief appearance as seen in the accompanying image, Old Windmill and Aurora Borealis (above). I used a Canon 60Da DSLR camera with an ISO setting of 400. My lens choice was a Sigma 17 to 50mm lens at 17mm with the aperture set at f/4. The exposure was 30 seconds. I chose these particular settings because there was a bright waxing gibbous moon. Much of the aurora was drowned out by the moonlight, but as the image shows, the windmill and rural landscape was illuminated by the moonlight. The beauty of using a digital camera is that it provides immediate results without shooting several rolls of film and waiting to have them developed. Sometimes it is difficult to discern whether an aurora is present. Because the image sensor of the camera can capture and hold light, I will often times take an image or two of the sky to pick up on any activity that my eyes may not be able to see.

Red Dawn

"Raging Aurora": High arcing curtains of red and green dance in the the November sky. This image was captured on November 7, 2004 from O'Fallon, Illnois. Equipment used: Canon EOS Digital Rebel, 18-55mm lens set at 18mm,  f/4.5, ISO 400, 30 second exposure.  
Aurora can be unpredictable, but one way to know when aurorae might be on display is to watch solar websites that post when there has been a solar disturbance (flare or CME) directed toward Earth. Spaceweather.com presents a very informative website than can send you email or text alerts with auroral predictions. You never know when an aurora will make an appearance. They can happen at a moment’s notice and last all night or only appear for a brief few minutes. Be sure to always have your camera, tripod, and extra batteries ready to travel to a dark site.
"Red Dawn" aurora image: My first aurora sighting and image was captured on October 29, 2003 in St. Jacob, Illinois. A large solar flare erupted from the Sun hurtling an immense cloud of charged particles toward Earth. Within a few days the cloud impacted Earth setting off global-wide aurorae that lasted nearly 3 days. In the image, Red Dawn, you can see the familiar Big Dipper asterism bathed in the blood-red auroral glow and yellow pillars. This image was captured with a Minolta SRT-202 35mm camera with a 35mm lens set at f/3.5 and Fujicolor Superia X-TRA 800 color-negative film. The exposure was 25 seconds. This image also published in Sky & Telescope (February 2004). 
Read more on auroras at NASA Space Place (http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/aurora/en/).

Aurora - Red Dawn

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October's Starry Sky
Many sky watchers rate October as one of the year’s best observing months. The early sunsets mean that most of the summer’s stars linger in the west late into twilight. Waiting up only a few hours more brings many of winter’s best sights into view in the east, and it’s not too cold yet in the mid-northern latitudes.
Even though the autumn season is firmly in place, not all of the summer Milky Way has been lost. A short drive into the countryside away from city lights will reveal an impressive view. The Milky Way, that hazy band of light, climbs up from the southwest horizon, passes a few bright stars, divides in two, and then rejoins high overhead. From there it heads toward the northeast where it flows down to greet the early-rising stars of winter.

Looking high (and nearly directly) overhead after sunset, three bright stars form a large asterism called the Summer Triangle. The Summer Triangle is not a constellation, but a prominent grouping of stars from three separate constellations. The three stars in this triangle are Vega in Lyra the Lyre, Altair in Aquila the Eagle, and Deneb in Cygnus the Swan. Lyra is a small trapezoidal constellation and according to some of the mythological sky-lore represents the Lyre of Orpheus. Cygnus, also called the Northern Cross, is easy to trace. The long neck and body of the swan or staff of the cross follows the path of the Milky Way to the southwest while the arms of the cross or wings stretch out on either side. However, Aquila, somewhat resembling a slender diamond-shape pattern of stars, requires a bit more imagination to see the eagle. Yet, how appropriate is it to find an eagle and a swan apparently flying south in the fall?!
Summer Triangle Asterism
Image by Susan Jensen, Odessa, Washington. Take from

Following the Milky Way to the northeast will lead to a distinct side-ways letter “W” or “M” grouping of stars. This is queen Cassiopeia sitting on her throne. To her left and high in the northern sky is Cepheus her husband, and mythical king of Ethiopia. Cepheus’ stars look very similar to a child’s crude drawing of a house. The house is nearly upside down with the apex of the roof pointing toward the pole star, Polaris.
 Photography of the constellation Cassiopeia by Till Credner (2012). 
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Below the “W” of Cassiopeia stands Perseus, who in mythology was the slayer of the Gorgon Medusa and rescuer of Andromeda, the daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia. Located between the stars of Perseus and Cassiopeia your unaided eye should spy a dim fuzzy spot. However, a pair of binoculars will reveal a striking pair of open star clusters known as the Double Cluster, which is always a treat to see in the autumn sky.
Continuing your gaze to the northeast and below Perseus is Auriga the Charioteer. This constellation is marked by the bright star Capella which can be easily seen shimmering above the horizon.
 Photography of the constellation Auriga the Charioteer by Till Credner (2012). 
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Flying high in the eastern sky are the stars of the Great Square of Pegasus, Perseus’ flying horse. Pegasus’ stars form a large diamond or sideways square on early autumn evenings. The horse appears upside down with his body and wings forming the Great Square, and his neck and head arching back toward the Milky Way.
          https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c0/AurigaCC.jpg               https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2c/PegasusCC.jpg
          Photography of the constellation Auriga the Charioteer                                  Photography of the constellation Pegasus 
             by Till Credner (2012).                                                                                by Till Credner (2004).                             
         Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported                      Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
The constellations of Andromeda and Pegasus actually share a star called Alpha Andromedae or Alpheratz in the northeast corner of the Great Square. From this star we can find Andromeda springing away from Alpheratz as a double line of stars. If you look closely, those stars actually resemble the long slender legs of the letter “A”. There is another faint fuzzy patch of light near the stars of Andromeda called M-31 or the Andromeda Galaxy.
andromedia galaxyAndromedia Galaxy through the eyes of the telescope.  Photo by Mark Brown.
It is a galaxy similar to the Milky Way galaxy and is 2.2 million light-years away. When you gaze upon the Andromeda Galaxy, you are witnessing light that has traveled over 2 million years to reach your eye. This means that you are seeing the galaxy as it existed more than 2 million years ago. What does this galaxy look like today? We do not know – you will have to wait another 2.2 million years to find out.

To aid in your search of objects in the night sky, visit Peterson Planetarium and take in one of their night sky programs where you can learn more about “what’s up” in the October sky. Or you can download a free copy of the current night sky at http://www.skymaps.com/downloads.html

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October's Full Hunter's Moon
Saturday, October 8th was International Observe the Moon Night where observers were encouraged to look up, understand and appreciate the beauty of Earth’s moon. For those of you who did look up and see the moon, you should have noticed from your vantage point, that the moon appeared half lit or what is known as first quarter phase. During first quarter phase, exactly half the moon is illuminated and the other half is in shadow. This happens because the moon is at a 90 degree angle with respect to the earth and sun. Some people assume that the phases of the moon are due to the shadow of the Earth falling on the moon. However, once the relative positions of the earth, sun and moon are taken into account, it is clear that the phases of the moon are due to the varying amounts of sunlight and shadow on the moon as seen from the earth each month.

During the course of the past week, the moon has gradually changed its appearance in the night sky by growing and brightening in phase, a sequence known as waxing. On Saturday, October 15th at 11:24pm CDT, the moon will reach its full phase when the moon’s orbit takes it around to a point when the moon, earth and sun line up. It is in this alignment when the sun’s light fully illuminates the earth-facing side or full phase of the moon. In this alignment moon rise occurs very near to the same time as sunset. A full moon rising above the horizon can be an awesome sight to behold. But as viewed through a pair of binoculars or telescope, the full moon is the worst time to observe the moon. The harsh sunlight falling upon the moon washes out many of the details in the craters and other surface features. A first quarter moon will reveal more detail because of the contrast between the light and dark portions of the moon.
Moon Phases

Finally, October’s full moon is known as the Hunter’s Full Moon. As Native Americans prepared for the cold months ahead they often looked toward October’s full moon to gather meat for winter. After the fields had been harvested in late September or early October, deer and fox would venture into the fields in search of fallen grains. As such, hunters could easily spot their prey by the light of the full moon.  Regardless of whether the moon is full, at first quarter, waxing or waning, you do not need an excuse to look up at the moon. When looking at the moon, the beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder, so enjoy it.  

International Observe the Moon Night! by MB

The Moon will take center stage for stargazers around the world on Saturday, October 8, 2016 during International Observe the Moon Night (InOMN). InOMN is an annual worldwide public engagement program that encourages observation, appreciation, and understanding of Earth’s closest neighbor - the Moon, and its connection to NASA planetary science and exploration.

From Emporia, Kansas, the Moon will be high in the southern sky after sunset with planet Mars positioned to the lower right. A pair of binoculars or small telescope turned toward the Moon will reveal numerous craters and the dark lunar seas called maria. The lunar maria are large, dark, basaltic plains which formed by ancient volcanic eruptions.
So, grab a friend, look up and share in this sense of wonder and curiosity about the Moon. For more information on International Observe the Moon Night, visit http://observethemoonnight.org

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 In the News...

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 Cool Facts...

  • See where the International Space Station (ISS) is right now with the Astro Viewer (http://iss.astroviewer.net/).
  • Exoplanets are planets orbiting stars that aren't our own sun. Thousands have been identified, but only a portion of these lie within the 'Goldilocks' zone of their star system, or the habitable zone in which liquid water may be found on the surface. These are the ones we're most interested, for these are the places we're most likely to find extraterrestrial life outside of Earth. Click Here for a handful of the hundreds of 'Goldilocks' Exoplanets. Bellow are links to some videos about each planet mentioned in the slideshow.
  • NASA's first teacher in space, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, never got to fulfill that very role. She perished on January 28th, 1986 on the Challenger. However, her lesson plans survived as remnants of the six lost space science demonstrations that had been planned to be filmed while in orbit and released once she returned to Earth. These lesson plans have been restored and interpreted, and are now available to fulfill McAuliffe's famous words, "I touch the future, I teach." Find out more Business Insider Science - 1/2016 (http://www.businessinsider.com/challenger-disaster-christa-mcauliffe-lessons-2016-1).
  • We are now offering a list of opportunities for educators and students alike for each month. Check it out HERE to find webinars, contest opportunities, and much more!
  • On the 20th of January, a paper was published by Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown to confirm the existence of a ninth planet in our solar system. Like Neptune and Uranus, this 'Planet 9' has been identified by it's gravitational influence on it's surroundings. While it hasn't been visually spotted yet, it's estimated to be 700 AU (astronomical units) from the sun on average and a single year seems to take 10,000 to 20,000 Earth years.
  • With a possible new 9th planet in the news and Pluto only demoted to the status of a 'dwarf planet' in 2006, the definition of a planet has been put into our minds. So what makes a planet? Three things:
    • It must directly orbit the sun. It can't orbit something that's orbiting the sun... those are called satellites.
    • It must be large enough to be spherical (like a ball). Asteroids aren't very large, that's why they look like potatoes.
    • It must produce enough gravity to clear it's orbital field. This means it must either pull objects down to it's surface, like a meteorite, or catapult them away like a 'gravity assist' in the movie 'The Martian'. This is where Pluto failed the test... there are too many objects in it's 'personal bubble' that it doesn't 'own'.

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About our photography and more...

  • Star Party; Tallgrass photos were taken by Katie Simmons and Jim Aber
  • Mark Brown is an award winning night sky photographer who provides Peterson Planetarium with technical support and show scripts for live shows and images illustrating phenomena to view in space.  He lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania that is a city in the south central part of the state, sandwiched between Interstates 76 and 81. We are featuring his photography with...
  • Matt Seimears
  • International Space Station Pass - SPOT THE STATION! Sign up to receive notices about when you might see the International Space Station (ISS) streak across the night sky (Go to Here) The alerts will give you the day, time, and path of ISS, so you can watch for 1-4 minutes of this phenomenal orbiting manned space science mobile home!
  • 2015 is the Year of the Dwarves or as Dr. Schenk puts it.... Ceres and Pluto Get Their Due! For more, see HERE.
  • Ceres craters were featured in the Astronomy Picture of the Day, 18 February 2015 Check it out!
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Loretto A. Langley Charitable Trust Award!

The Loretto A. Langley Charitable Trust made a generous contribution to the Peterson Planetarium for children’s video programming in December 2014.  This Trust was established by Loretto A. Langley, a secondary education teacher from Lyon County, Kansas.  Miss Langley taught for 40 years and retired in 1966.  She began her career at Lowther Junior High School and ending at Emporia High School where she taught business classes.
She served on the Olpe State Bank board of directors for over 25 years.  She was a member of many organizations and professional groups including; Delta Kappa Gamma, an honorary professional teachers’ organization, the American organization, the American Association of University Women, the Business and Professional Women’s Club in Emporia, and the Retired Teachers Association. Miss Langley was a member of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church and the Sacred Heart Altar Society.
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Last Updated 2017-1-23