About Carolyn S

Carolyn is VP of astronomy for the Museum; she develops Planetarium shows for the Museum that tour all over the world, developed the very first Challenger Learning Center and runs the Museum’s George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park. In her spare time, she does research in the field of archaeoastronomy, which attempts to replicate the night sky at critical moments in history.

A total eclipse over Houston: What color was last night’s ‘blood Moon’?

I hope you saw the eclipse last night and didn’t lose too much sleep. The weather was perfect and the Moon performed as predicted. The press excitedly dubbed it a ‘blood Moon,’ but we didn’t know what color the Moon would actually be.

Here’s the Moon entering eclipse and fully in the Earth’s shadow (taken from my front yard). Is it a ‘blood Moon’ after all? You be the judge.

Photo by Gary Young. All rights reserved.

Photo by Gary Young. All rights reserved.

These photos were taken by my husband, Gary Young. (I was the frozen assistant.) We used a Takahashi FCT-76 telescope and a Canon 60D camera to capture the photos.

It was a spectacular eclipse, with Mars nearby to the right and Saturn off to the left. Both planets were very bright and easy to identify. The star near the Moon (and just off the field of these images) was Spica in the constellation Virgo.

The ‘blood moon’ in Houston: Stay up late at the George for a stunning celestial show

A total eclipse of the Moon will occur very early Tuesday morning, April 15. Houstonians will be able to see the whole event, which begins just before 1 a.m. You’ll be able to see the evening’s cosmic events unfold even under city lights, but if you’d like a more detailed (and dare I say captivating) look at the eclipse, the George Observatory will be open all night long!

Lunar eclipses occur when the full Moon moves into the Earth’s shadow. The first part of the Earth’s shadow that the Moon will encounter is the penumbra. The penumbral shadow’s faintness means that sharp-eyed observers will notice only a slight dimming of the Moon between 11:55 p.m. on Monday night and 12:58 a.m. Tuesday. The Moon moves into the darkest part of the earth’s shadow, the umbra, at 12:58 a.m., and will be totally eclipsed by 2:06 a.m.

The Moon’s brightness during a total eclipse depends on the amount of dust particles in the atmosphere. A large amount of dust from a volcanic eruption, for example, can make the totally eclipsed Moon almost invisible.

With little dust in our atmosphere, the Moon glows reddish-orange during totality.

This is because only the Sun’s red light comes through the Earth’s atmosphere and falls on the Moon even while it is in the Earth’s shadow. As the diagram shows, the Moon will pass through the southern part of the shadow, for about 78 minutes of totality. As a result, the northern limb, closer to the center of Earth’s shadow, will appear darker.

We’ll see our next total lunar eclipse in Houston just before dawn on October 8, 2014 (the second of four occurring between 2014 and 2015!).

For more on how lunar eclipses work, watch the video below from NASA and USA Today.

The X-Planets: Exploring the consequences of another Earth

When you look up at the night sky, do you ever think you’re seeing other solar systems? Do you ever wonder if any of the stars you see have planets like Earth in orbit around them?

We have discovered that seven planets and more than a hundred moons in our solar system are simply not enough like Earth to foster the development of life or to make colonization easy. We now realize that our search for an alien Earth must occur in solar systems around other stars.

As we approach a thousand confirmed exoplanets, we are becoming better at identifying Earth-like worlds. Sensitive measurements are required to detect the small wobble in a star caused by an orbiting planet or the drop in light caused by a planet crossing in front of a star.

Explore exoplanets at the Burke Baker PlanetariumNASA’s Kepler telescope, a planet-hunting mission, has uncovered 2,740 potential alien worlds since its 2009 launch. Of these, more than 350 are about the size of Earth. Observatories on Earth’s mountaintops are also identifying planets around other worlds and confirming the discoveries of Kepler.

Now we are working on detecting more than an exoplanet’s mass, diameter, and distance from its star by developing sensors that can identify gases in the planet’s atmosphere. This way, we can look for the oxygen and water vapor that support life on Earth.

It is just a matter of time before we find a world that is truly Earth’s twin. Studies suggest small planets like Earth are probably common in the universe — easily over 10 billion in our Milky Way Galaxy. Will the discovery of an alien Earth change the way we think about the universe and our place in it? Will we then realize that our planet is not unique, and that perhaps life on Earth is not unique either? Does this change how we think of our home planet and ourselves?

Visit the Planetarium’s new show, The X-Planets: Discovering Other Earths, to explore the first exoplanet discoveries and ponder these fundamental questions. For a full film schedule, click here.

A(nother) world away? The X-Planets, now at the Burke Baker Planetarium, takes viewers to alien earths

X-Planets: Discovering Other Earths — a full-dome show now playing in the Burke Baker Planetarium — introduces viewers to the most famous of the newly discovered exoplanets. The show first zooms the exoplanet’s star out of the star field before taking a closer look at the alien world, followed by an artist’s conception of how the planet’s surface might look.

X-Planets: Now Playing at the Burke Baker Planetarium
X-Planets visits HD28185b, the first exoplanet found in the habitable zone

Finding exoplanets is perhaps the hottest topic in astronomy, with discoveries making the news daily. For instance, just this fall we discovered a planet orbiting our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, only 4.4 light years away. The planet’s official name is Alpha Centauri Bb, indicating that it orbits one of the two major stars in the Alpha Centauri system. The planet is nearly the size of Earth but lies very close to its parent star, well inside the habitable zone where liquid water could exist.

Although the planet may be too hot for life to survive on its surface, the discovery of an Earth-sized planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B has ignited hope that this star could have a whole system of rocky worlds. Interstellar distances are so great that we need a nearby planet for any possible interstellar probe.

Another unlikely exoplanet made news this fall. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, has identified an exoplanet that fits the description of 27 light years away. Indeed, we have found so many exoplanets that we can match at least one with a famous comic book description of a fictitious alien world.

Current X-planet news is shown on the planetarium dome for visitors attending The X-Planets show. The show explores exoplanets like HD28185b, the first planet in the habitable zone of a star, and Corot 7b, the first rocky exoplanet.

For more information, including showtimes and online ticket purchasing, click here.