Dec 02

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – December, 2018

Bright Stars Make Their Way Into December’s Sky

I was recently in a local Meijer store admiring a very nice seasonal display depicting a winter nighttime scene complete with snowy hills and pine trees, a horse-drawn sleigh, reindeer, and a dark, starry sky. But what really got my attention was the comet in the sky. It was a big comet, spanning a good portion of the sky, and, to the artist’s credit, it was a pretty good rendition of a comet -closely resembling 1998’s comet Hale-Bopp.

It reminded me that the sky is full of beacons and spotlights, patterns and stories, many of which have religious connections, with the Star of Bethlehem and the crescent Moon being two examples. I have written before about the traditions of the season and their relationships to celestial objects and events, but this year I would like to focus on the stars and constellations that are visible and offer some lesser-known facts and tidbits about them.

Many readers are familiar with the Summer Triangle which consists of the stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair, which are in the constellations Lyra, Cygnus, and Aquila, respectively. By now, however, these constellations are no longer high overhead, but are now setting in the west as the evenings get darker. Look for the Northern Cross, standing upright near the western horizon an hour or so after sunset.

In the opposite direction are the constellations of winter that will dominate the southern sky in the coming months. These include Orion, Canis Major and Minor, Gemini, Auriga, and Taurus, which contain the bright stars Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, Capella, and Aldebaran, respectively. The group is often referred to as the Winter Hexagon. One interesting feature of this group of stars is that, other than Rigel, they are all 65 or fewer light-years away. In fact, going clockwise from Sirius, the distances are 8 light-years, 11 ly (Procyon), 34 ly (Pollux), 42 ly (Capella), and 65 ly (Aldebaran).

Turning your attention straight up you will also find much to enjoy. Almost directly overhead lies the constellation Andromeda, home of M31, the Andromeda galaxy. The constellation Andromeda is not very prominent so I usually use other constellations as guideposts. One side of the “W” shaped Cassiopeia can be viewed as an arrow pointing at the constellation, for example. Consult any sky or star chart for a more detailed description. Or just set up a warm sleeping bag and scan overhead with binoculars. You will know when you have found M31. If you are under dark skies, in fact, it can be seen with the naked eye. It is the only naked eye object in our sky that is not a member of our own Milky Way galaxy. The stars in our galaxy make up everything else up in the sky.

This month in history:
Dec. 3: Pioneer 10 spacecraft makes closest approach to Jupiter – 1973
Dec. 11: First auction of Soviet space hardware and artifacts – 1993
Dec. 14: Gene Cernan, Apollo 17 astronaut, is last human to walk on Moon – 1972
Dec. 20: Founding of Mt. Wilson Solar Observatory – 1904
Dec. 24: Apollo 8 astronauts give us inspirational moment from lunar orbit – 1968
Dec. 25: Isaac Newton born – 1642

Nov 19

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – November, 2018

Getting a Closer Look at Mercury

Of all the planets, it is not surprising that the one that has been visited and studied by spacecraft from Earth the most often is Mars. It is nearby and relatively easy to get to although it is also very difficult to land on. Its surface gravity is similar to Earth’s and its surface conditions are cold and dry, but manageable, just like in the movie, The Martian. There are currently a number of spacecraft both on the surface and in orbit studying all sorts of things about Mars, most of which are related to a search for water.

It may surprise you, however, that the planet Mercury is one of the planets visited by the fewest spacecraft – two. In 1974 and 1975, Mariner 10 flew past Mercury three times and mapped almost half the planet’s surface. In 2011, Messenger went into orbit around the planet and completed mapping 100 percent of its surface. However, its data forced astronomers to rethink their theories of how the planet formed, its geography, and its surface features.

A third mission to Mercury was launched on October 19 and is currently on its seven year journey to the planet. Named BepiColumbo, the mission is a joint venture by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and includes a carrier spacecraft and two orbiters. It is named after Giuseppe “Bepi” Columbo who was an Italian mathematician and engineer in the mid twentieth century who discovered important features of Mercury’s orbit.

The spacecraft is composed of the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM), which provides electrical power during the journey from Earth, and two orbiters, ESA’s Mercury Planet Orbiter (MPO) and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO). The orbiters will separate from the MTM just before the spacecraft reaches orbit around Mercury. They will then be put in separate orbits and begin collecting scientific data.

Scientists hope the mission will help them understand not only how the planet had formed but also provide important information about the solar system’s formation. Some of the mission’s objectives include: study the planet’s geology, interior structure, composition and craters; determine the origin of Mercury’s magnetic field; investigate polar deposits; and perform a test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

BepiColumbo will also be the first ESA interplanetary mission to use solar-electric propulsion. Used successfully by a number of NASA and JAXA missions in the past, the system uses electricity generated by the spacecraft’s solar panels to create xenon ions that are accelerated to extreme speeds by powerful magnetic fields. The ion stream is of low mass but high velocity and must deliver thrust over a long period of time.

Along with the new generation of giant telescopes and upcoming missions to planets and asteroids, projects such as BepiColumbo will continue to give us a better understanding of what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:
Nov. 9: Carl Sagan born. – 1934
Nov. 12: Great Leonid Meteor Shower – 1833
Nov. 16: Interstellar message broadcast from Arecibo radio telescope – 1974
Nov. 19: Second lunar landing made by Apollo 12 – 1969
Nov. 27: First photograph of a meteor shower – 1885
Nov. 30: Fragment of 10-pound meteorite strikes and bruises Alabama woman, Elizabeth Hodges-1954

Jul 02

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – July, 2018

Harmony Has Long Been Sought in the Sky

If you are out in the country, the sounds of summer have replaced the silence of winter in the starry skies. Night birds, cicadas, and crickets accompany the “music of the spheres”, which refers to the ancient belief that the stars in their motions made music of a most wonderful harmony. Pythagoras even believed that all existence is governed by the laws of musical harmony. The Greek concept of the “music of the spheres” even influenced the great Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler who attempted to explain Copernican planetary motions by using the laws of music. He did not achieve his goal, but on the way he discovered his famous laws of planetary motion.

I sometimes lament the fact that the sun sets so late at this time of year (just before 9:30 p.m. tonight), that it’s difficult to do any serious observing without staying out well past midnight. Although there is truth in that statement, there is also a flip side. The weather should be more cooperative and there will be great things to see even early in the evening. And as the month progresses, the Sun sets earlier so the nights will begin twenty minutes sooner by the end of the month.

July will offer quite the variety of things to observe this year. Let’s start with planets. You’ve probably been watching Venus, the bright evening star that has dominated the western sky at dusk the past couple of months. On the fifteenth of this month she will be joined by a beautiful, thin crescent Moon, so close together that you won’t be able to fit two fingers held at arm’s length between them. This will be the best pairing of the two that I have seen in many years. Look west any time after sunset. In fact, you could use binoculars to see how early you are able to spot the planet.

Venus isn’t the only visible planet this month. Look right below the Moon on the fourteenth for Mercury (use binoculars). Look due south to see Jupiter about a third of the way up from the horizon and brighter than everything except Venus. Farther in the southeast lies Saturn, shining brightly over the constellation Sagittarius, the Teapot. Later Mars will rise in the southeast and begin its summer show when it is at opposition (in the opposite direction as the Sun) on July 26. Being at opposition, the telescopic viewing of the planet will be at its best.

The summer constellations begin to take their places in the sky with promises of sights to come. Look overhead for the Big Dipper and Bootes and further east for the summer triangle. Meanwhile, the southern horizon promises to reveal Scorpio and Sagittarius while Hercules, with its magnificent star cluster, is nearly overhead. In the next few months there will be plenty to see up in the sky. 

This month in history:

July 1: 100 inch mirror arrives at Mt. Wilson Observatory – 1917
July 4: Supernova, whose remnant is known as the Crab Nebula, is witnessed – 1054
July 4: Mars Pathfinder lands on Mars – 1997
July 6: Newton’s book, Principia, is published – 1687
July 9: Voyager 2 flies past Jupiter – 1979
July 20: Humans walk on Moon for the first time – 1969
July 24: First rocket launched from Cape Canaveral – 1950

Apr 01

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – April, 2018

The April Sky Has Much to Offer

Sky watchers in April should enjoy a month that begins with the appearance of one of the brightest objects in the sky, the planet Venus. Considering the clear weather we’ve been having recently (rather unusual for March) many readers have probably already spotted Earth’s sister planet low in the west after sunset. April will see Venus become higher in the sky and set a full hour later, making it even easier to see. On the seventeenth the goddess of love is joined by a thin crescent Moon, a spectacular sight indeed.

As the month begins, Jupiter shines brilliantly in the southwest before sunrise and is also visible at night, rising three hours after sunset. The time shortens to half an hour after sunset by April 30 and around mid-month Jupiter starts rising before Venus sets. Look each evening to find out the first date you can see both bright planets at the same time.

Mars and Saturn put on quite a show early in April, shining just above the Teapot in Sagittarius. Starting on April 1, if you look about an hour before sunrise on consecutive days, you will easily see how their positions change relative to one another. They will be joined by an almost-last-quarter Moon on the seventh.

Although the spectacular constellations of winter such as Orion, Gemini, and Taurus are still visible in the west, they are slowly fading and dropping out of view. They are replaced by Leo, the lion, high in the southern sky as April progresses. If you turn around, face north and look almost straight up, you will see Ursa Major, aka the Big Dipper, almost directly opposite from Leo with respect to the zenith. Many people don’t think of the Bear and the Lion as being so closely related to each other in the sky, but it is an interesting combination at this time of year.

Like Orion the Hunter, Leo is recognizable because it clearly resembles its namesake, a lion. It’s backward question mark head faces west, followed by a triangle of stars forming its hindquarters and tail. The bottom of the question mark is the bright star Regulus. The sixteenth century astronomer Copernicus gave the star its name which means “little king” and reflects the ancient belief that this was one of the royal stars which ruled the heavens. Many scholars believe that the sphinx of Egypt, a figure with a human face and the body of a lion, associated the royal power of the Egyptian kings with the impressive celestial symbolism of Leo the Lion.

Luckily, in April you don’t have to be royalty to appreciate what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:

April 1: Comet Hale-Bopp nearest Sun – 1997
April 9: NASA selects original seven Mercury astronauts – 1959
April 12: Yuri Gagarin becomes first human in space – 1961
April 12: Columbia becomes first space shuttle to be launched – 1981
April 17: Apollo 13 returns to Earth – 1970
April 20: Shapley-Curtis debate on the distance and nature of spiral nebulae – 1920
April 25: Hubble Space Telescope is deployed – 1990
April 28: Eugene Shoemaker is born – 1928

Mar 02

What’s Up In The Sky?

Do We Spend Too Much on NASA?

Mark Rober is probably not a name familiar to many people. That’s too bad because he has a very interesting YouTube channel which you can easily find by typing his name into the search window. His latest post is the inspiration for this month’s column.

Its title is “Is NASA a waste of money?” I would hope that most readers would answer “no” to that question, but can you come up with five good reasons why we don’t? I hope the following provides you with some solid arguments to use the next time you get into a discussion with a skeptic.

Mark is a former NASA engineer who worked on the Curiosity rover and a project called SMAP. One might argue that he is therefore biased in his opinion, but I would counter by saying that makes him an expert on the various projects on which NASA spends money.

First consider this: what percent of the US budget do you think goes to NASA? Most Americans think it’s about 20 percent, which helps explain why one in four think its budget should be reduced. The truth is it’s about one half of one percent, or about nine dollars a year for most of us.

So what are we getting for our one-half penny of every dollar? First, about half of the missions currently operating are studying the earth, helping us understand such things as how to improve agriculture and preserve our natural resources. The SMAP satellite monitors the moisture content of the soil and its data is shared for free with anyone in the world, helping them increase their food production. Second are the instruments on Earth used to find and track asteroids, like the one that hit our planet 65 million years ago. The dinosaurs probably wished they had seen that coming. We not only track such objects, but also are working on ways to prevent a similar catastrophe.

Third is what Mark calls “offshoot technology”. Digital cameras, GPS, live TV beamed from satellites (think Olympics) and accurately tracking hurricanes are just a few of the two thousand technology spinoffs from NASA. And expecting NASA to justify its funding by predicting what will be discovered is like Queen Isabella expecting Columbus to predict Netflix.

Fourth, is the economy. The majority of NASA’s budget goes toward the salaries of the scientists and skilled technicians who work there. Much of that money goes back into the overall economy. The same is true for all the companies that exist because of number three, above.

Fifth and foremost, is “exploration and imagination”. Humans have always yearned to find answers to fundamental mysteries of our world. The knowledge gained through research and exploration not only makes us better equipped to deal with many problems but also gives us hope for a better future.

We should be grateful to NASA for helping us understand what’s up in the sky.

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