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Clouds come and go, but stars shine on

October 29, 2009 at 12:56 PM


As I write this, snow flurries swirl, and rain has fallen off and on as the gray, leaden clouds rule the sky. Stars will have to shine on without me watching, for now.

This of course is the natural course of things. We are thankful for changes of weather. If you adopt astronomy as a hobby, you must be a person of patience, for clear weather is a necessity. At least you probably won’t feel guilty for spending too much time out under the stars, since a good clear night is fairly rare, depending on where you live in the country. Then again, to enjoy the night sky you have to be ready at the whim of the weatherman, and planning ahead usually doesn’t work.

If you are tired of earthly showers, hopefully the clouds will part long enough for you to see the meteor shower that arrives every mid-October. This is the Orionid Meteor Shower. They seem to emanate from the constellation Orion, which at this time of year, only begins to be visible on the eastern horizon around midnight. In the wee hours between midnight and dawn, when Orion reaches high, you will see the most meteors darting across the heavens.

The peak of the shower is around Wednesday morning, Oct. 21, but you may see them any clear night this week. Trackers of the Orionids from year to year have detected a possible strengthening of the shower every 12 years, and 2009 is about at the top of this cycle. Under good conditions, after midnight, you might see as many as 30 an hour. A wide open view of the sky, away from city lights, is best.

Weather isn’t confined to Earth. Most of the planets in our solar system, and at least one moon, have weather. A tour of these worlds would definitely make you never complain again about our highs and lows, fronts and storm systems. In fact, of all the worlds we know, the best place to enjoy the night sky is right here on the Good Earth.

Here’s a typical weather forecast and prospects for stargazing, from world to world:
Mercury: What weather? There is practically no atmosphere, and no breathing either. The temperature ranges from -270ºF to +800ºF. The view of the stars are fine, if you’re in a space suit and your back is to the blinding sun.

Venus: Perpetually cloudy, Venusians never heard of stars. Heat is trapped under the cloud layers, giving you a balmy average temperature of +870ºF. High winds whip the sulfuric acid clouds. The air is mostly carbon dioxide.  Thick brownies bake at +425ºF. Atmospheric pressure would crush you.

Earth: “It’s too hot, it’s too cold, too much sunshine, when’s the sun ever gonna shine? We need rain. When will it stop raining? Aagh! Snowflakes in October! There oughta be a law!” My how we complain and breath in that oxygen we take so much for granted. No space suit is needed and we sometimes get a great view of the stars.

Mars: The very thin Martian atmosphere, made up of mostly carbon dioxide, is exceedingly dry and very windy. Dust storms make the sky pink or butterscotch and dust devils chase you about. There is no oxygen. Although you couldn’t breath, at least the temperature range is almost reasonable, from -220ºF to +68ºF.  Dust in the sky would certainly compromise the clarity but the brilliant blue evening or morning star would be quite nice- Earth, with a fainter yellow star nearby (the Moon). You would also see Mars’ moons,. Phobos and Diemos, crossing the sky quite fast. P.S. The coldest temperature recorded on Earth was -128ºF (Antarctica, in 1983).

Jupiter: Forever cloudy, Jupiter might not even have a solid core to stand on. There’s lots of cyclones and lightning. Wind whips as fast as 100 miles a second. The average temperature on top the clouds is -244ºF.  Hydrogen and helium are the main ingredients.

Saturn: Similar to Jupiter but colder (-290ºFº). The winds are not as ferocious, with less heat from the sun.

Titan: Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is the only satellite known to have a dense atmosphere. Nitrogen, methane and ethane dominates. Orange hydrocarbon haze would block the view of the stars. Wind and rain creates rivers, lakes and sand dunes, but the rain is liquid methane. It’s a cold rain. Continual drizzle makes the ground mud. The average temperature on Titan is -290ºF. No picnic here.

Uranus: Similar to Jupiter but a lot colder (-350ºFº). The atmosphere, however, is mostly methane.

Neptune: Similar to Jupiter but a lot, lot colder (-373ºF). The air is mostly hydrogen, helium and methane.

Pluto: Not much of an atmosphere; the stars would be nice but its way cold (-393ºF on average). Atmospheric pressure is probably very low, but rises when Pluto is closer to the sun and frozen methane of the surface vaporizes.

New moon is on Oct. 18 followed by a lovely evening crescent moon this week.

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