Archive for the ‘Stars and Constellations’ Category

December 16 – 3200 Phaethon, Geminids and Beethoven   Leave a comment

Sky & Telescope diagram from 11/29/17, Bob King S&T blog

December’s not just about the holidays. There’s also a lot of nifty stuff happening in the nighttime skies now. For starters, did you know that there’s a ginormous asteroid headed our way? It’s name is 3200 Phaethon and it’s coming pretty darn close to the Earth – only 6,407,618 miles (or, to put it in perspective, 27 times the distance between the Earth and Moon). And here’s the cool thing about 3200 Phaethon: it’ll be moving so fast you’ll be able to track it! It’s going to be its closest on December 16 and if you have a 3″ telescope, you’ll able to make it out, as it will reach magnitude 10.7. It’ll pass through Perseus on December 12-14, then grow closest on the 16 as it whizzes through Andromeda, then on the 17-19 pass through the Great Square/Pegasus, and eventually heading out of view through Aquarius and Capricorn.

For an excellent article regarding 3200 Phaethon, please read Sky & Telescope’s article by Bob King.

If you do glimpse through a telescope, you might notice that it’s kind of dim as it nears closest to the Earth. That’s because it’s reflecting the sun and its full phase will be on December 12, when it’s not quite as close, and a waning gibbous as it grows nearer.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

Go outside after 21:00 UTC/9:00 pm EST and glance toward Gemini for a real treat…the Geminids!

From “The Stars,” H.A. Rey, pp. 44, 97

 

Okay, I admit the above two pictures aren’t that great (I used my iPhone to take a picture of the above pages), but they’ll give you an idea of what and where to look around 9:00 pm. Gemini is a pretty easy constellation to find. If you know what Orion looks like, you can see he’s using his club to point right at them, as if he’s showing you where they are. They’ll be rising almost in the center of the sky, a bit to the south.

3200 Phaethon happens to be the father of the Geminids. As it passes closer to the sun, it kicks off detritus that enables the Geminids to occur (again, please read S&T article for more information – you won’t regret it).

So here’s what you do in order to get the best viewing experience for the Geminids. Try to find an open space that’s relatively dark, away from too much light. Pick out Gemini and you will see two bright stars for their heads – Pollux is the brightest and Castor is dimmer. Near Casto is the radiant, or point of origin for the meteor shower. From there, all the meteors will travel outward. Think of the radiant as the center of a daisy and the petals as the outward-flying meteors.

For your reference, here’s an image from Sky & Telescope:

What also makes this the ideal year for viewing the Geminids is the Moon will be a waning crescent, so its light will not interfere with anyone’s enjoyment. Even when it rises in the early morning hours, it’ll remain more of a passive bystander than a pest, leaving everyone with immense satisfaction instead of disappointment.

So what’s all this got to do with Beethoven?

Besides being one of the greatest composers ever to have lived, he was born on December 16, 1770 (or so it’s believed; another story for another time). His music was included on the Voyager golden disk that was sent out into space in 1977. In case you’re wondering what those works are: “Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67: I. Allegro Con Brio,” played by the Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer and “String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Opus 130: V. Cavatina,” played by the Budapest String Quartet.

As you venture out to gaze at the nighttime sky to catch a glimpse of one of nature’s amazements, why not take along a recording of these works and listen as streaks of light flash past, and marvel at the wonder of it all.

Now that’s what I call a celebration!

 

 

June’s Nighttime Sky   Leave a comment

2016-june-2-mars-saturn-antares-scorpius

Credit: earth sky.org

Look up, folks!

This month proves to be a bonanza for Mars and Saturn fans! Take a look in the southeast and you’ll notice the giant fishhook that is Scorpio. You can’t miss it and if you glance at the top three stars, they form a crooked line. Here’s a better example of the constellation:

scorpio

Credit: H.A. Rey, “The Stars”

Mars slips across the southern sky, so incredibly bright, you can’t miss it. If you’ve been keeping your eye on it, you’ll notice every night it’s in a different spot, competing with Scorpio’s Antares (magnitude: 1.22). Mars is a fair distance ahead of Antares, so you can’t get them confused.

Saturn isn’t in as much of a hurry as Mars, but still commands attention. During June, the ringed planet is its closest to the Earth, and, as an added bonus, has its rings nicely tipped at a 26 degree angle, showing them off nicely for you. It, too, is in Scorpio, just above it.

Scorpio also happens to be one of my favorite constellations, glimmering all summer long. When I see it rise, in earnest, in May, I know summer isn’t far behind. It glimmers and shimmers. It never rises that high, but you can’t miss it when it’s here.

In the early morning sky, you can also see Comet Pan-STARRS near the constellation Capricorn low in the souther sky. It comes into view around 4:00 am.

If you happen to have a telescope, all of these are worth seeking out. Even a strong pair of binoculars make a difference, especially with the comet.

Here’s a brief video from NASA JPL with more details regarding Mars, Saturn and Comet Pan-STARRS. Take a moment this weekend and look south – nature will reward you with its charming beauty!

 

 

Spring Skies at Night   Leave a comment

Spring Constellation Map

 

There’s a tiny, disk-sized patch of snow behind the museum where I work, a reminder that winter wasn’t all that long ago.  I keep waiting for it to melt, but it refuses, so I ignore it and remember that its water’s going to water the grass it’s hiding.  In defiance, some crocuses finally gathered the gumption to bloom – a month late – and later the daffodils joined in.

Ah, spring!

But if that snow didn’t want to release its chilly grip on Earth, all I had to do was look up and see the spring sky greet me.  Clouds are the only impediment to these yearly harbingers of warmer times.

I’ve got a few favs I eagerly look for when the days begin to lengthen.  When Leo starts strutting up that heavenly hill come February, spring isn’t far behind.

Leo

There’s no mistaking him.  He’s got a jewel on one foot, Regulus, magnitude 1.4, and sports another in his tail, Denebola, a bright second-magnitude (2.14) star.  He leads the parade for my next favorite grouping:

The Herdsman

Bootes, the Herdsman.  You can’t mistake him either, although he’s so large it’ll might take a little patience to find him.  His main-feature star, Arcturus, lights up his lap.  He’s sitting down, smoking his pipe, wondering how all those sheep he was supposed to watch disappeared (perhaps Leo ate them?).

Or maybe he’s just trying to hide that hunk of bling behind him, the Northern Crown, or Corona Borealis.  It has a second-magnitude star, Gemma, actually a binary star, or two stars rotating around each other. Its magnitude shifts from 2.21 to 2.32, not very noticeable with the unaided eye.  You’d need seventeen straight days to stare up at it with a telescope to measure the change.

Corona Borealis, Bootes

Credit: Till Credner (Own work: AlltheSky.com) 

We all know how lions pride themselves on their gorgeous manes.  Bootes must share the same sentiment, because between him and Leo, there’s a fantastic group of very faint stars known as Berenice’s Hair.

Berenices Hair            Be's Hair

It’s small, but that doesn’t make it special!  There are eight galaxies within it, several globular clusters, 200 variable stars in its region and if that weren’t enough, the North Galactic Pole is amidst her strands.  But wait!  There’s more!  She gets all twinkly and festive during the Christmas season.  Bragging her own meteor showers during December and January, she peaks from December 18-25, right in time for the holidays.  It’s also important, when looking at her, not to expect to spot the Milky Way.  When her hair is high in the sky, the Milky Way is lower in the sky, on or near the horizon.

And speaking of meteor showers, in mornings you’ll find the Lyrids, or meteor showers occurring near the constellation Lyra.  Those occur at the end of April, peaking between April 22-25.  The radiant is where to look; the meteors seem to be originating from that point.

Lyrids-2011-12_30April-23

Credit: astrobob.areavoices.com

Now, get off that couch, stop texting, get outside and go have yourselves a great look at the nighttime sky!

 

 

Best. Present. Ever.   Leave a comment

Celestron

Andrew’s wonderful Christmas present to me…

have to trumpet the best present I’ve ever longed for and received – a brand spankin’ new telescope!  And not just any telescope, my own Celestron NexStar 130SLT! I’ve always lusted after one of these, and now, I OWN ONE. Just in time to see Comet Lovejoy!  I’d like to take it outside tonight, as it’s nearest to the earth, but we’ve had some snow and I don’t know if the sky’s going to clear in time.  That, and it’s WELL below freezing tonight.  Still, that’s the optimal time to gaze at the heavens, because there won’t be any of that nasty haze interfering with the brilliance of the winter nighttime sky.

For those of you who own or have access to telescopes, the best thing about them is how it changes your perspective on what’s up there in the nighttime sky.  I had my first one at 12, but then it fell off the roof when I was trying to focus in on Comet Kohoutek.  That ended that.  Over the years I’ve belonged to astronomy clubs and peeked through fellow amateur astronomers.  Now, for the first time in years, I have one that’s powerful enough for me to zoom in on not just the planets, but Messier objects, novas, galaxies, double stars – the works!

My husband used to look up at the evening stars with his father back in his native England.  Their back garden in Launceston, Cornwall offered a terrific view, since it was near the top of a hill, without much to obscure the stars.  After life at 40.7127° N, 74.0059° W for years, I had a chance to see things at 50.6350° N, 4.3540° W.  My eyes, formerly trained to look at my favorite celestial objects at a lower latitude now had to focus somewhere else.  That only took a moment, but it also meant that I couldn’t see a few constellations I’d grown used to seeing skirting the horizon at my latitude.

It’s fair to say Andrew’s into this scope just as much as I am.  He’s a photographer and this Celestron has the capability for nighttime picture taking.  I personally can’t wait to get the thing outside and pointed upwards.  Truth be told, I don’t care where I look.  There’s sure to be something wonderful when I peer into the eyepiece, and I can’t imagine being disappointed at what I’ll see.

 

 

The Other Orion…   Leave a comment

640px-Orion_3008_huge

Lately in the news there’s been a lot of buzz about the Orion rocket.

This post, however, is about the constellation and, unlike the rocket, is already in space and will be there pretty much forever, although with the passage of time, he’ll look a little different.  But that’s a whole ‘nother topic for another time.

Winter’s chilly skies offer an excellent opportunity to view this bright constellation.  When he rises in the east, he almost looks as if he’s climbing a hill, until he reaches the midheavens, and then he starts his journey back down into the west.  Right now’s the best time to see him, and he’ll be up right until spring.

Orion’s got plenty of company, too.  In his patch of the sky, some of winter’s brightest stars and constellations gather in his neck of the woods.  His shoulder (pictured in the upper left hand star in the above rectangle) is Betelgeuse, and his lower right hand foot is Rigel.  You can trace a hexagon going up to the right and a touch north to the “V” shape that is the head of Taurus, and the brightest star in the “V” is Aldebaran.  Next, cast your eyes up and over slightly left and you’ll come to Capella, the eye of the charioteer Auriga.  Going left in almost a straight line, you’ll come to the stick figure twins, whose heads are Castor and Pollux, which are actually the Gemini twin’s names.  Next, drop your gaze a little south and to the left and you’ll come to Procyon, the very bright star of Canis Minor, or, the Little Dog.  But his big brother, Canis Major, or Big Dog, hosts the brightest star in the sky, Sirius.  His basic shape is also a thinner rectangle, and you can easily find Sirius if you trace a southwest path using Orion’s belt as a pointer.

Winter Hexagon

Credit: Dave Snyder

Even if you have trouble finding each of these stars on the first try, you’ll notice that this section of the evening sky stands out more than others, and if you go to this site, you’ll find an explanation and some tips on locating these and other favorites.

But wait – there’s more!

A constellation as grand as Orion simply won’t stop at dominating the winter sky.  It’s what’s inside him that makes him even more fascinating.

Look at the picture above and you will see an “N” in the lower half of Orion’s depiction.  That’s the Orion Nebula, and although a bit faint, on a clear winter night you should be able to make out a tiny hazy patch. Even with typical field glasses the details of it come out clearer.  What makes that nebula so remarkable is what it contains.  A solar system nursery is there, wherein a collection of youthful stars and planets in the forming stage are present.  The New York Times has an excellent article and a wonderful video detailing the action swirling around in Orion’s belt.

So don’t just sit there! Put on a jacket, go outside and look up – you’ll be rewarded with heavenly treasure, free and yours for the taking.

 

The Fate of Our Lives, Shimmering in Eternal Light Waves   Leave a comment

images-13

Credit: ee.princeton.edu

Here’s another wonderful video from Dennis Overbye at The New York Times.  In it, he explains how time and light partner up to offer a show from nature centuries after it occurred.

Light, in space, is literally a living memory of events long past.  There’s a profound statement at the accompanying article’s end, stating that even the light on our face shine forever.

Can you imagine?  That glorious day at the beach where you smiled at the sun as it reflected on the waves and your face?  That’ll live on, in the shape of light rays.  And so, whatever light touches, it has the ability to record and send off our particular experiences.  Using light to record humanity?  There’s been speculation with sound waves and how others out there will find us via our words, sounds, broadcasts.  How would they make sense of our pictures?  They’d arrive apart, since light travels so much faster than sound ever could.

Now imagine if both the sound and light waves intersected, but with completely different meanings.  Light from the 16th century paired with sounds from this one – this jumbled mess as message.  Who would read it?  How might it be interpreted?

Light is absorbed when it encounters obstacles, such as black holes.  Light waves, from a fairly concentrated source on Earth traveling outward, face the possibility of reaching entirely different destinations.  Some of those particles risk absorption, but others fly free.  A patchwork image received by an off world interpreter might wind up with a Swiss cheesy image not entirely accurate of what it was meant to represent.  Perhaps, too, that’s what we might receive here at the home planet.

Darkness is the absence of light.  What gives some light waves the ability to survive while others terminate, creating darkness?  Or is darkness merely another form of light?  Is it light that the eyes on this planet have not evolved to discern?  What forms out there might interpret our version of light as darkness?

Just a little something for your minds to unravel as you attempt to rest your weary brains for the night.

 

What’s In a Name?   Leave a comment

Kepler Mission Planets

Credit: JPL

(Click on the below link for a VERY COOL video!)

http://nyti.ms/1g2QQ0W

Used to be that naming planets was a fairly simple task.  The Ancients looked up towards the skies, observed that a handful of stars travelled across the sky (and, in fact, planet means “wanderer”) and gave them a suitable name that reflected what they saw.

For example, Mars, glowing red in the heavens, was named for the Roman god of war.  And it wasn’t just the Romans who considered this planet the embodiment of conflict and challenges, many cultures and their languages also saw fit to give it this distinction.  The Greeks called it Ares, Hindus call it Mangela, Hebrews call it Ma’adim, in Sanskrit it is known as Angaraka, and in Babylon one would notice the rising and setting of Nergal.  

With the advent of stronger telescopes, more planets within our solar system were discovered, though not bright enough to spot with the unaided eye (mostly – if you know where to look on an incredibly clear night in the middle of a very dark, dark field with absolutely no chance of any interfering light from any source, you might see Uranus, but that depends on other conditions, too).  I’ve seen Jupiter’s four bright moons, through a telescope but with my own eyes, too (but you have to cover up Jupiter with a magazine to see them; it’s much less of a challenge to spot them even with birding binoculars or a decent pair of opera glasses).

Nowadays, we have a problem of riches.  Thanks to the hard work of astronomers, astrophysicists and others trained to observe the telltale signs of wobble and movement, there are over a thousand planets at our disposal.  Sure, they’re ridiculously far away and chances are you’ll never see any of them though your backyard reflector.  But you might see the star they’re rotating, and imagine what kind of life lives upon these exoplanets, as they’re called.

Do you want to blow your mind?  The New York Times has an amazing interactive graphic that’ll keep you busy for hours.  I can’t even find the words to describe how amazing this chart is, but if you check it out, make sure you scroll down to the end.  I won’t give away what’s there, except you’ll gasp and say, “hmm!  The ones found are the result of NASA’s Kepler mission that have confirmed planets rotating around stars.  If you click on some of the graphics on the above link, up will come information about the planet and its sun.

Of course, it’s impossible to find appropriate names for this batch that seems to be growing daily.  That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been attempts.  The International Astronomical Union is sponsoring a contest for that very purpose.  Have any ideas?  Here’s your chance to honor a hitherto anonymous planet with a memorable, catchy handle, just as you would a baby.

Trouble is, what would the inhabitants of said world think?

 

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