There’s a meme going around Twitter called #ZodiacFacts, mostly random astrological statements. I figured I’d post some actual, y’know, facts about the Zodiac.

  • The Zodiac is the set of constellations through which the sun, moon and planets appear to move when seen from Earth. #
  • In a dark sky, away from light pollution, you can sometimes see Zodiacal light after the sun has set. #
  • Due to cycles in Earth's orbit, the present-day constellations of the zodiac no longer line up with those used by astrology. #
  • In a REALLY dark sky, you can see the Gegenshein: sunlight reflecting off of interplanetary dust. #

One evening last week I looked to the west and saw a bright light above the horizon. I couldn’t tell whether it was moving or not, and wondered: was it an airplane, or Venus?

I couldn’t remember whether Venus was visible in the evening or morning (or at all) right now. It was roughly in the direction of an airport, so it could easily have been a helicopter or an airplane traveling at an angle roughly in line with my line of sight. By the time I got home, buildings and trees blocked the horizon, so I didn’t think much more of it.

I’m in California. Interestingly enough, thousands of miles away in Ohio, people have been seeing a bright light in the west every night for the past week and making UFO reports.

Last night I decided to see how early I could spot Venus, and caught it fairly high in the sky just after sunset. It was hard to see without really looking for it because the sky was still light, but it became a lot easier as the sky darkened. Not surprisingly, as it set and brightened in the dimming sky, it passed through roughly the area I remembered seeing the unidentified light last week. Mystery solved.

I don’t understand why, in a world full of airplanes, helicopters and the occasional blimp — not to mention a world where we see stars and planets every night (barring clouds and light pollution) — people jump past these mundane explanations when they see a light in the night sky and decide it must be an alien spacecraft.

This was a fun panel with representatives from Eureka!, Caprica/Battlestar Galactica, and Fringe, moderated by Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy.

Some interesting moments:

After they talked about the ethics of interrogating a corpse, one of the guys from Fringe (I think Rob Chiappette) remarked that he wanted to see a Law & Order: Fringe show. I think I’d watch that!

One of the reps from Eureka revealed that they’d planned an episode that would take the Attack of the Killer Tomatoes concept and play it seriously, but it didn’t make it. Jamie Paglia said “It’s so good we didn’t do that episode.” Either Glenn Whitmann or Rob Chiappetta remarked immediately, “You’ll see it on Fringe!”

Phil Plait asked why there wasn’t more astronomy on Fringe, and Glenn Whitmann explained it was because it was a horror show, and it’s easier to creep people out with biology & neurology than astrophysics.

A fan asked the panelists whether they had ever done something dangerous on their show that made them worry about people trying the experiments at home (“Don’t try this at home, kids!”) For the most part they figured the level of technology, gadgetry and genius that their characters had made things impractical to imitate, though Rob Chiappetta added, “If you see Walter [Bishop] do something on screen, don’t do it!”

Another audience member mentioned that he worked in robotics, and was concerned about the way robots were portrayed as good or evil. If too many robots were portrayed evil, he might lose funding… Jane Espenson explained that “Killer robots are a lot more fun to watch.”

And of course Phil Plait plugged his book, Death from the Skies! “I love having a microphone!”

Photos will be on my Flickr account later tonight, once they trickle through the incredibly-slow hotel wifi. Update: They’re up! The trick was apparently waiting until 6am when no one else was using the wifi.

I figured I’d try spotting Comet Lulin from my back yard. I found Leo and Saturn easily enough, but just couldn’t see anything that looked like a comet. It should be a little to the right of Saturn, going by Sky & Telescope’s chart.

Too much light pollution, I guess. And unlike the bad astronomer, I didn’t have any binoculars to try a closer look.

On the plus side, I did spot a meteor out of the corner of my eye, off to the left of this field.

Figuring the camera might pick up something I missed, I took a few long exposure shots, running 15 seconds with the equivalent of ISO 1600. There’s a dot next to Saturn, but I’m not sure if it’s the comet or a star.

I’ll have to try again in San Simeon. Light should be much less of a problem, though clouds might be an issue.