Comet ISON Sprouts a Double Tail

Today’s guest post is written by John Moffitt, Astrophysicist & HMNS Volunteer.

Amateur astronomers are getting a better look at Comet ISON as it dives toward the sun for a Nov. 28th close encounter with solar fire. As the heat rises, the comet brightens, revealing new details every day. This photo, taken Nov. 10th by Michael Jäger of Jauerling Austria, shows a beautiful double tail. One tail is the ion tail. It is a thin streamer of ionized gas pushed away from the comet by solar wind. The filamentary ion tail points almost directly away from the sun.

Comet Ison gets a double tail - 111013 - crop

The other tail is the dust tail. Like Hansel and Gretel leaving bread crumbs to mark their way through the forest, ISON is leaving a trail of comet dust as it moves through the solar system. Compared to the lightweight molecules in the ion tail, grains of comet dust are heavier and harder for solar wind to push around. The dust tends to stay where it is dropped. The dust tail, therefore, traces the comet’s orbit and does not point directly away from the sun as the ion tail does.

Comet ISON is currently moving through the constellation Virgo low in the eastern sky before dawn. Shining like an 8th magnitude star, it is still too dim for naked eye viewing, but an increasingly easy target for backyard optics. Amateur astronomers, if you have a GOTO telescope, enter these coordinates.

Four comets visible in the pre-dawn eastern sky. Look with binoculars before the sun comes up.

4 comets skymap - 111213

Comet ISON Briefings at HMNS

November 29 – December 1

To find out whether Comet ISON survives its close encounter with the Sun and how to see it in December’s morning sky, come to the Burke Baker Planetarium Friday through Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. An ISON update will precede each Planetarium show!
PLANETARIUM LECTURE
“Tracking Comet ISON and Other Possible IMPACTS”
Thursday, December 5, 6 p.m.
Tickets $18, Members $12
Comets and asteroids that roam the inner solar system and are a possible threat to Earth. Comet ISON will be grazing the Sun on November 28, and if it survives, it may come within our view. Dr. Sumners will give an update on Comet ISON and other incoming objects. Includes viewing of the show Impact!

Click here for tickets and more information on the Comet ISON briefings.

Just another day at HMNS: Angry rattlesnakes, gecko cooling and non-stop learning in the Education Department

The conversation starts innocently enough. “So, how was your day?” asks my husband. “Well,” I say, “the short version goes like this: After I spent an hour with my arms held over my head wedged inside the gecko tank to extend its misting system, I asked my Director of Education to help me transfer our very large (and angry) rattlesnake so I could clean out his tank.

Nicole conversing with Archie

After I scrubbed out the rattlesnake tank, we wrangled him back in again. Then I think I paid some standard bills: fruit flies, crickets, you know — the basics. Oh, but the best part was during my test dissection of an owl pellet for an upcoming class, when I found an entire bird skull in the pellet. It was so cool! How was your day?”

Bird Skeleton found in Owl PelletMy husband pauses to let all of that to sink in and finally says, “Fine.” Another pause. “Did you say angry rattlesnake? You didn’t touch it, did you?”

“Well…”

So begins another conversation about my day-to-day with an incredulous spouse. I assure him once again that, yes, all of that is in my job description. And it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when you think about the Overnights, Teacher Workshops, Outreach Programs, or overarching if-you-don’t-know-ask-Education requests our Department solves daily.

One thing is for sure, it’s never routine, and there’s never a dull moment.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (behind glass)

To learn more about HMNS’ Education Department, what it does and the amazing programming it offers, click here.

Check out your new HMNS with a video tour of the new Dan L Duncan Family Wing and Hall of Paleontology!

The Dan L Duncan Family Wing is complete, and, as of Saturday, our brand new Hall of Paleontology is open to the public. And we’re all incredibly excited about it!

zachOur hunky horticulturist is thrilled about the new and improved HMNS.

After years of hard work behind-the-scenes, months of planning and plenty of press, we’re ready to show it off to you. Come take a peek inside the new and improved HMNS — and hear straight from the staff what makes it so darned special:

Cockrell Butterfly Center Spring Plant Sale

Spring is almost here!

Of course it has felt like it for months now, but with all of the rain we have had lately, we should have a good show of blooms. And with the blooms come the butterflies. Most of the time, butterflies get most of the attention, but have you ever thought about creating a moth garden. Why moths? There are approximately 11,230 identified species of Lepidoptera in North America. Almost 90% of those are moths. Now, while most moths can appear small and drab, even serve as pests for some plants, there are some very interesting and beautiful species of moths. For example, Hawk or Sphinx moths (sometimes even called Hummingbird moths because of their large tapered bodies and hovering flight) are large and sometimes showy with interesting, cryptic patterns adorning their wings.

 Their caterpillars look similar to the Spicebush Swallowtail with their large eye spots and chunky bodies.

They feed on a variety of plants, but what I see the most are Tersa Sphinx moths (Xylophanes tersa) because they eat the leaves of Pentas (a very popular nectar plant for butterfly gardens). So think of those Pentas as two plants in one, nectar and host! The adults are seen mostly on white flowers that bloom (or stay open) at dusk. Moon Vine, Cestrum, Jasmine, Rangoon Creeper and Evening Primrose are all recommended as excellent moth attractors!

Most other showy moths like Polyphemus, Luna, Cecropia, IO, and Imperial moths are in the Giant Silkworm family (Saturniida) and do not feed as adults because they do not have mouthparts. Their host plants are trees, mostly Oak and Hickory related species, so it is kind of hard to find their caterpillars. If you do, you are lucky! Some of the most beautiful and impressive caterpillars are from Saturniid moths. The adults are attracted to bright lights at night, so this is a possible way of encountering them.

Polyphemus Moth

The spring plant sale for the Cockrell Butterfly Center is a one stop shop for any butterfly (and moth) plants you need. We will have the standard, reliable plants that every butterfly garden should have, like Porterweed, Mexican Milkweed, Brazilian Pipevine, several Passion vines, Mexican Bauhinia, Pentas and more. This year we also have some different natives to share with you. We will have Salvia azurea (Pitcher Sage), Cirsium texanum (Texas Thistle), Simsia calva (Bush Sunflower), Castilleja (Indian Paintbrush) and Eupatorium greggii (Gregg’s Mistflower). Some non-native, but excellent butterfly plants that we will also have are: Tithonia (Mexican Sunflower), Celosia spicata (Cramer’s Amazon Celosia), several types of Gomphrena (Bachelor’s Buttons) and many many more!

Cramer's Amazon Celosia

The spring sale is Saturday, March 31st, 2012 from 9am to noon. Located on the 7th level of the museum parking garage. We accept cash, check and credit. Come early and bring a wagon!