Wolfram|Alpha contains a wealth of astronomy data on many areas of our universe, such as objects within our solar system and in the deep sky, constellations, and computational astronomy, making it a handy resource for astronomers, students, and hobbyists. Some of the most intriguing space activity takes place right here at home, inside of our own solar system. Wolfram|Alpha makes computations and explores properties and locations for objects and events in our solar system, such as the sun, planets, planetary moons, minor planets, comets, eclipses, meteor showers, sunrise and sunset, and solstices and equinoxes. You can query any one of these objects or phenomena, and learn information such as their position in the sky relative to your location, size, or distance; their next occurrence; and much more.
Wolfram|Alpha automatically assumes your geographic location based on your IP address, which is handy when querying for the time and location of an upcoming sky event. For instance, a quick “lunar eclipse” query in Wolfram|Alpha tells us that, for our location in Champaign, Illinois, the next one will occur on August 5, 2009 at 7:38pm U.S. Central Daylight Time and will be penumbral, which means the moon will enter the Earth’s penumbra (the outer part of its shadow), resulting in an apparent darkening of the moon. A penumbral eclipse is often hard to see because the penumbra isn’t very dark.
Wolfram|Alpha can also provide interesting facts about distances, temperatures, and dimensions of objects in our solar system that are specific to the time of day and your location. What is unique about querying Wolfram|Alpha for an object’s distance is that the distance is returned in real time, based on where the Earth is in its orbit. A textbook can only provide an average distance. For instance, at the time this post was written, Wolfram|Alpha reported that the sun was approximately 1.015 astronomical units (94.35 million miles) from Earth—enter “Sun” to see its current distance.
Wolfram|Alpha also reports plenty of less time-sensitive data about the sun, such as its apparent and absolute magnitude, spectral class, surface temperature, and mass.
In the coming weeks we will explore more interesting and useful astronomy data for stargazing, exploring deep-sky objects, and computational astronomy. Has anything interesting been happening in your night’s sky? You can connect with enthusiasts from around the world having this conversation at the Wolfram|Alpha Community site.