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SECRET SPACE PLANE FLARES: The US Air Force's X-37B space plane is circling Earth and, although it is on a classified mission with an officially unpublished orbit, sky watchers have spotted it. "I saw the X-37B from my home in Pasadena, California, around sunrise on March 31st," reports Anthony Cook of the Griffith Observatory. "The spacecraft's appearance was remarkable. When overhead it was a little brighter than a 2nd magnitude star with a slight yellow hue. Then it flared. As the X-37B moved toward the horizon it became silvery and brightened to around magnitude -6, far outshining Venus below it." The flare was presumably caused by sunlight glinting from some flat surface on the shuttle-shaped spacecraft, but no one can say for sure because it is a classified mission. Ready for a secret flare of your own? Space plane flyby preditions may be found on the Simple Satellite Tracker or on your cell phone.
SATURN'S RINGS SURGE IN BRIGHTNESS: This Sunday, April 3rd, Saturn will be "at opposition"--that is, opposite the sun in the skies of Earth. Whenever this happens, Saturn's rings surge in brightness. Why? Scroll down for the explanation; on the way, inspect this photo taken by Paul Haese of South Australia on March 30th:
"This is how Saturn looked through my 14-inch telescope," says Haese. "With opposition so close, the Seeliger effect is really starting to show itself. The rings are much more spectacular than in previous years."
The Seeliger effect, also known as the opposition effect, is what brightens the rings. Saturn's rings are made of frozen chunks ranging in size from dust to houses. Sunlight directly backscattered from those ice particles causes the ring system to shine even more than usual for a few days around opposition. The exact mechanism involves shadow-hiding and possibly coherent backscattering.
To find Saturn, go outside at midnight and look for a conspicuous yellow "star" in the constellation Virgo. Even a small telescope will show Saturn's brightening rings. [sky map]
more images: from Efrain Morales Rivera of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico; from Christopher Go of Cebu City, Philippines
APRIL AURORAS: According to the space weather forecast, geomagnetic storms were unlikely on April 1st. It would've been foolish to go out looking for Northern Lights. Warren Gammel of Fairbanks, Alaska, decided to check the skies anyway, and this is what he saw:
"I didn't expect to see too much when I went out at 2 a.m. on April 1st, but the auroras were fairly strong," he says. "I took these pictures using a Canon T1i with a Pelang 8mm fisheye lens."
The display was caused by a minor but effective solar wind stream that arrived during the early hours of April 1st. The impact sparked bright lights across the Arctic realm of North America. No joke: It pays to be alert for auroras.
more images: from Karl Kowalski of Fairbanks, Alaska; from Beate Kiil Karlsen of Ibestad, northern Norway; from Steve Milner near Prophet River, British Columbia, Canada;