Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tips for researching sky events

In keeping with this week’s Mayan astrology giveaway, today I’m focusing on how to research sky events. Even when you’re writing fantasy, it’s important to get the facts right. It’s not always easy to accurately describe the phase of the moon or the timing of a total eclipse, whether your story takes place five years in the future or a few thousand years in the past.

Of course, as Brad described in his Oct. 19 post, you begin your research on Google. I came up with lots of information that way, including NASA’s eclipse website:

But to get the details took more work. For one thing, my book ZERO TIME is set in Peru, and the sky doesn't look like it does in Missouri. That’s when I came across and its online Star Dome (Track more asteroids and comets…View Saturn, Jupiter, and their moons as you'd see them through a telescope.) and Star Atlas (The interactive Star Atlas lets you pan around and zoom into the 24 full-color maps originally published in Astronomy's Atlas of the Stars.) Needless to say, I got the paid membership so I could see everything. You can change your viewing location and the dates—from the future to the past! You can even check eclipse dates 3,000 years ago. On the discussion board, you can pose specific questions.

I’ve also been interested in sun cycles for about as long as I can remember—sunspots, solar flares, solar wind and magnetic fields. You get the picture. If you aren’t a scientist, how do you find out how long it takes for the X-ray particles released in a solar storm to reach the Earth or the chemical composition of the solar wind? Check out Stanford SOLAR Center’s FAQs: Apparently I should’ve learned all of that before I went to college. Sigh.

Space weather, as it turns out, is a big area of interest for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  NOAA’s Space Environment Center (SEC) works closely with the U.S. Air Force’s Space Forecast Center. I’ve found all sorts of things on their sites, including a glossary with solar flare classifications and information on various observatories. The NOAA Space Weather Scales give current and future space weather conditions and their possible effects on people and systems. You can find out about near-Earth asteroids, auroras, meteors, flares, and links to all kinds of related sites.

The most fun? Sign up for email space weather alerts. Be the first to know of a falling satellite near you! (Just kidding…kind of.)

Do you have a favorite research site for sky events that I didn't mention? I'd love to hear about it so I can add it to my list.


  1. The real trick is creating a working astronomy for another world!

  2. Indeed! Even envisioning the sky as you would see it from another planet is difficult. Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall" was astounding because of his ability to do that. I was so excited about the app Distant Suns because it seemed to be addressing this issue ("Space travel for the rest of us.") Maybe it does allow you to shift your perspective from other star systems, but it wasn't quickly apparent. I need to spend more time with it. Thanks for stopping by!