The Year 2001 is getting off to an impressive celestial start with two heavenly events and Juneau residents may be lucky enough to see them.
One is a meteor shower this week. The other is a total eclipse of the moon next week. The weather will determine whether they're visible in Juneau.
The Quadrantids, one of the most intense annual meteor showers, is active from Dec. 28 through Jan. 7, but Wednesday's pre-dawn hours may be the best time to watch.
The peak of a meteor shower can vary two days in either direction. But forecasters expect the shower to climax Wednesday during a two-hour interval around 3 a.m. Alaska time.
"This is the best chance for North American observers to see this shower until the year 2009," said Robert Lunsford, secretary general of the International Meteor Organization.
To view the Quadrantids, go outdoors an hour or so before the expected maximum and face north. Look for the shower's radiant, a point in the sky from which meteors appear to stream. The radiant will lie about 35 degrees above the northeastern horizon in the constellation Bootes, between the Big Dipper and Hercules.
"The advantage of setting up early is that you could see a trickle of activity turn into a torrent of meteors," Lunsford said. "The longer you watch the more likely you are to witness a Quadrantid fireball."
Like all meteor showers, Quadrantid outbursts occur when Earth passes through a stream of dusty debris swept across space by a comet or through a stream from an asteroid. Unfortunately, views of the Quadrantids are spoiled easily by a good winter storm.
The total eclipse of the moon is scheduled for Jan. 9. It should be visible in northern Canada and most of Alaska.
"Basically, there is a full moon. And the Earth passes between the sun and the moon, casting its shadow on the moon," said Greg Durocher, chief of the Earth Science Information Center in Anchorage.
The eclipse should take place about 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Juneau time, Durocher said. Though a daytime eclipse, the moon is sometimes visible when the sun is - or tries to be - out.
Local astronomy buff Michael Orelove was skeptical that cloud cover would allow residents to see these phenomena, but he didn't want to discourage sky-watchers.
"In Juneau, any time you get a clear night, it's a rare opportunity; just go out and look at the stars," Orelove recommended. "Recently you can see Jupiter and Saturn - the brightest objects overhead in the night sky. Jupiter is the brighter one, and even with a small telescope you can see the Gallilean moons."
For those wishing to know more about the heavens, the Marie Drake Planetarium is holding shows Jan. 9 and 10. On Jan. 9, Orelove said, there will be a free half-hour show, 7 to 7:30 p.m., for 4- and 5-year-olds. On Jan. 10, there will be two one-hour shows. The 7 p.m. show is for families with children. The 8 p.m. show is for a mature audience with the urge to ask more technical questions.
The subject of all shows is "Planets, More than Nine." In other words, Orelove said, it will feature the nine familiar planets in our solar system and then move further afield to planets being discovered orbiting around other suns.
Those who come early can look at the special Mars Corner exhibit, which includes a scale. Weigh yourself to find out how much you would weigh on Mars. The exhibit shows recent photographs of Mars taken from the Hubbell Space Telescope.
Orelove belongs to Friends of the Flags, whose members use a cherrypicker donated by Tyler Rentals to hoist all the state banners on Egan Drive's lightpoles between the Douglas Bridge and Marine Park.
"It's for locals, too," Orelove said. "After all, most of us locals came from someplace else."
Orelove is happy to raise the Illinois state flag - he originates from Chicago - which features a white background and a state seal (not the animal ) that features an eagle.
The Alaska flag does not receive preferential treatment, he said, and is somewhere near the bridge. And the flags are in no particular order. But since so many are on a field of blue, those so colored are spread around, he said.
Residents who aren't quite sure which flag is which and who would like to know have only to look at the base of the pole to see the state's two-letter post-office abbreviation.
Sticklers for detail will know that Georgia's flag recently changed - the Confederate battle emblem has been removed from it - and that the Friends of the Flags pennant for Georgia has not.
"We still have the old one flying and next year we'll have the new one," Orelove said.
The group also has about 30 extra flags - worn but still serviceable - that are available to the public gratis by calling him at 586 3034, Orelove said.
Orelove and his 18-year-old niece Eden are also responsible for the Community Sundial painted on the sidewalk between the Fishermen's Memorial and the tram building off S. Franklin Street.
Numbered circles designate the time. Visitors are asked to step into various parts of the center, depending on the time of year, and to watch their shadows tell the time - when there are shadows.
Orelove has established a rite that calls for local volunteer groups and schools to paint in the numbers. Friends of the Flags painted in the number 7, Orelove said, because it resembles a flag.
Sunspots, which provide the energy that lights the lights, come in 11-year cycles. This is a peak of one of those cycles, which means an active time for the aurora borealis, said Michael Orelove, a volunteer with Juneau's Marie Drake Planetarium.
"That means two things: There will be more and stronger aurora, and the aurora will extend further south than it normally does," he said. "It normally makes an oval shape around the earth in the high northern latitudes."
Monday's display, which at times filled three-quarters of Juneau's sky, was a particularly large one that was spotted as far south as the San Francisco Bay area. Residents of New Zealand probably were getting the same visual light show.
"When there are northern lights, there are southern lights, which are the exact mirror image," Orelove said.
The northern lights are linked to sunspots - dark, cool areas on the surface of the sun accompanied by increased geomagnetic disturbances, according to scientists. Charged electrons and protons fly through space and are pulled to the most northern and southern latitudes by the Earth's magnetic forces.
They strike gas particles in the upper atmosphere, generating the aurora. The color depends on how hard the gas particles are being struck. Displays take place as low as 40 miles above the Earth's surface, but usually begin about 68 miles up and extend hundreds of miles into space.
They concentrate in two bands roughly centered above the Arctic Circle in the north and above the Antarctic Circle in the south. The southern display is known as aurora australis, Orelove said.
The Marie Drake Planetarium, in the building between Juneau-Douglas High School and Harborview Elementary School, is presenting two shows this week on the aurora australis. Volunteers will show slides and videos, some from NASA and others produced by observatories, Orelove said. Tonight's show, from 7-7:30 p.m., is intended for kids 4 and 5 years old. Wednesday's show for adults and families is scheduled for 7-8 p.m. The shows are free, but donations are accepted.
In Alaska and other northern latitudes, the greatest occurrence of aurora displays is in the spring and fall months. Residents of Fairbanks see the aurora borealis an average of 240 nights a year, prompting the University of Alaska Fairbanks to issue daily aurora forecasts each winter. The forecasts can be reached on the Internet at www.gi.alaska.edu\cgi-bin\predict.cgi.
Northern lights dazzle stargazers - and more to come
The last few nights' clear skies have offered local sky-watchers a chance to view the aurora borealis. And if the weather continues to cooperate, it's going to get better.
Outstanding displays - if conditions are suitably clear - should fill the night skies between Feb. 25 and March 2, and again between March 23 and 31, said Syun Akasofu, director of the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks.
The key, as in an early Wednesday morning display, is the weather, said local stargazer Michael Orelove.
``In Juneau we have not had a lot of clear nights this winter,'' Orelove said. ``Actually northern lights are there all the time, because their three components are there all the time. They are made by the combination of the earth's magnetic field, the atmosphere and the solar wind. It's just that we can't see them during the daytime. We need dark nights that are clear.''
The aurora borealis often can be triggered by solar flares - bursts of radiation from the surface of the sun - and may precipitate faulty communication with satellites and other problems.
Roger Wetherell of the Coast Guard's public affairs office said he had had no reports of communication difficulties such as disruption of short-wave radios or aircraft communications from recent displays.
``The (aurora) forecast for Tuesday was for moderate displays, but (Wednesday's) display was pretty spectacular here,'' said Linda McGilvary of the Geodata Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Akasofu of the Arctic Research Center said displays in the Fairbanks area began around 3 a.m. Wednesday. Observers in Juneau described northern lights displays about 5 a.m.
Aurora borealis fanciers don't need to wait for a clear night to see the objects of their affections, Orelove said. The Marie Drake Planetarium, where he volunteers, is sponsoring free shows March 7 and 8 on that very subject.
A show suitable for 4- and 5-year-olds will be given from 7 to 7:30 p.m. March 7. The following evening, March 8, there will be an hour-long show for families at 7 p.m. At 8 p.m., an aurora show ``for more mature audiences'' is planned, Orelove said. All three shows will discuss how the aurora is created.