May 4, 2012 at 10:24 PM ET
The next month promises to be filled with astronomical wonders, including this weekend's "supermoon," an annular solar eclipse later this month, and a last-in-a-lifetime transit of Venus. Here are a few images to get you in the mood for those cosmic glories.
Hungarian photographer Monika Landy-Gyebnar snapped an unusual picture of a solar mirage on May 1, showing the sun's distorted disk at the eastern horizon. She told SpaceWeather.com that she expected to see the mirage, because she lives in an area where morning fog usually collects in the valley, "so it is a location colder than its surroundings." The temperature difference often creates a shimmering mirage effect, but Landy-Gyebnar was amazed by the strength of the effect on that particular morning.
"The distortion reached the region where the big sunspot 1471 is located as a visible dark dot," she wrote. "I saw the sunspot disappearing and appearing again, then its mirage appeared above the original spot higher on the solar disk, then a third mirage spot appeared. ... I was shivering with beauty!"
The picture above served as today's "Where in the Cosmos" picture puzzle on the Cosmic Log Facebook page, and Brittany Pedersen was the first to figure out that the photo showed a sunspot mirage. To reward her sharp vision, I'm sending her a pair of solar viewing glasses from Astronomers Without Borders. Stay tuned for the next "Where in the Cosmos" quiz on Facebook in a week, and you might win some solar spectacles as well.
Landy-Gyebnar's photographs, and the glasses, serve as good reminders that skywatchers should never gaze at the shining sun without proper eye protection, even during the annular solar eclipse coming up on May 20. To get ready for that rare event, check out my two-partseries and "Virtually Speaking" podcast.
Another big sky event is coming up this weekend, when the moon turns full during its closest approach to Earth. That means the moon will be 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than the norm — leading many to call the sight a "supermoon." So much has been made of Saturday night's full moon that Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait is counseling rhetorical restraint (with an artistic assist from Sci-ence's Maki Naro). But even Phil says it's worth going out and looking at the moon, on Saturday night or on any night. "It's bright and silvery and lovely and you can see features with your naked eye and with a telescope you'll see tons more," he writes.
If you have a great supermoon picture to share, please pass it along via msnbc.com's FirstPerson "Sky Highlights" upload page. We'll put together a gallery of our favorite moon views over the weekend.
The Hubble Space Telescope has been looking at the moon lately, in preparation for the transit of Venus on June 5. That's when the planet Venus makes a stately march across the disk of the sun over the course of six hours. The last time Venus did that was eight years ago, and it won't happen again until the year 2117. So the scientists behind Hubble, like many other astronomers, want to take a look.
As explained in today's image advisory, the sun is too bright for Hubble to observe directly. Instead, Hubble's scientists will check the light rays that are reflected by the moon and see whether they can discern the faint signature of the light that passed through Venus' atmosphere.
"Imprinted on that small amount of light are the fingerprints of the planet's atmospheric makeup," the Hubble team said in its advisory. "These observations will mimic a technique that is already being used to sample the atmospheres of giant planets outside our solar system passing in front of their stars. In the case of the Venus transit observations, astronomers already know the chemical makeup of Venus's atmosphere, and that it does not show signs of life on the planet. But the Venus transit will be used to test whether this technique will have a chance of detecting the very faint fingerprints of an Earthlike planet, even one that might be habitable for life, outside our solar system that similarly transits its own star."
Hubble will observe the moon for seven hours on the day of the transit to get a good sampling of spectroscopic data. Here's a practice image of the impact crater Tycho, acquired on Jan. 11:
Finally, here are a couple of videos to end the week with: On one end of the time spectrum, there's an hourlong recap of this week's Space Hangout, in which several space scribes (including yours truly) review the far-out news of the week. On the other end, there's a six-minute mashup of cosmic images from NASA, titled "Pursuit of Light." The montage starts out with Earth imagery, then moves on to shots of the moon, the sun, Mars, Jupiter and its moons, the Saturnian system and asteroids. Then you'll see nebulas, the remnants of supernova blasts, and interacting galaxies. How much farther out can you get?
More far-out imagery:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.