Dec 02

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – December, 2019

A Look Back at History and Up at the Planets

Nineteen sixty eight was both a very bad and a very good year. The Smithsonian Magazine devoted an entire issue to 1968 as several historical events occurred that year, not all of them very uplifting, to say the least. There were assassinations (Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy), riots (the Democratic convention in Chicago), and numerous protests against the war in Viet Nam. But the year ended on a high note when the Apollo 8 astronauts, Frank Borman, Bill Anders, and Jim Lovell, made the first manned trip to the Moon, orbiting it ten times before returning to Earth.

The crew made history in a couple of other ways as well. You are probably familiar with the famous “Earthrise” photo of our own planet suspended in a vast black sky over the lunar horizon. But probably the most memorable event of the mission occurred when the three astronauts each read several verses from the Book of Genesis in a live television broadcast on Christmas Eve. Finally people could enjoy an uplifting story of bravery and courage, of exploration and discovery, and a positive ending to an otherwise negative year. In fact, after the mission, Borman received a telegram that said, “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968”.

Although this month might not turn out to be quite as historic as 1968, there will still be some interesting sights to enjoy, starting with tonight. Look low near the southwest horizon at 6:00 p.m. and you should be able to spot three planets and the crescent Moon in a straight line. Given the necessary conditions of a clear sky and a view of the horizon, they should be easy to spot as they are the brightest objects in the sky at the time. Venus will outshine them all with Jupiter close behind to her lower left. Above and to the right of Venus look for faint Saturn near the handle of the Teapot in Sagittarius.

Although Jupiter will quickly fade away toward the horizon, the other two will remain visible and will get closer and closer together as Venus moves past Saturn over the next few days. They will appear closest on Tuesday and Wednesday, December 10 and 11 when their separation will be about the size of four full Moons.

But that’s not all. Stay with Venus all month and you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the planet shining brightly over a thin, crescent Moon on Saturday, December 28.

The month of December is a time when there really aren’t that many notable constellations well placed for viewing. The summer triangle is sinking in the west and the bright stars of winter are just coming up in the east. Next month will offer better viewing opportunities for what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:
Dec. 3: Pioneer 10 spacecraft makes closest approach to Jupiter – 1973
Dec. 7: Gerard Kuiper born – 1905
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 09

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – November, 2019

A Variety of Sights Make Up November’s Nights

With few bright stars to the south, fall and winter constellations still rising in the east, and summer constellations fading in the west, it’s a good thing the Moon and several planets will add to the sights worth viewing this month.

Last month I focused on the Summer Triangle and the stars and constellations associated with it. Remember that this is an example of an asterism, a group of stars that are either part of a larger constellation, such as the Big Dipper is part of Ursa Major, or made up of stars from different constellations, such as the Summer Triangle.

Another prominent asterism is the Great Square of Pegasus, which is easily recognized high in the southeast, appearing to rest on its lower left corner. This group of stars can be used to find the Andromeda galaxy. Starting at the left-most star in the square, move to the left and notice two equally-spaced pairs of star. Right above the second pair you should be able to spot a fuzzy blur which is clearly not a star. This is the Andromeda Galaxy, the only object in the sky visible to the naked eye (under dark skies) that is not part of our own Milky Way Galaxy.

The galaxy can also be located by considering the right, or upper, half of the W-shaped constellation, Cassiopeia, to be an arrowhead pointing down and to the right, directly at the Andromeda Galaxy. This object is also a great sight for binoculars.

Now use binoculars to scan the region of the sky below Cassiopeia and you will come to one of the night sky’s finest jewels, the “Double Cluster” in the constellation Perseus. This is a pair of large, bright clusters of stars embedded in the faint glow of the Milky Way. Located 7000 light years away, the two contain many stars of differing brightness.

In addition to star clusters and galaxies, this month offers opportunities for observing the Moon and several planets. Tonight the first quarter Moon, Saturn, and Jupiter will be lined up and evenly spaced along the southern horizon. Venus will be joining the pair as the month progresses. Three weeks from now, Venus and Jupiter will be separated by a distance less than the size of a full Moon and on November 28th, they will be joined by a thin, crescent Moon creating a dazzling sight near the southwestern horizon. And therein lies the problem. Even though this close gathering will be quite a lovely sight, it will be so low in the sky that you will have to have very clear skies and a very clear view of the horizon. After sunset over Lake Michigan would be nice.

Finally, you may have heard that the planet Mercury will transit, or pass directly in front of, the Sun on the morning of November 11. Although this is a significant event, I think our chances of witnessing it are slim. First, it’s on a Monday morning. Second, you will need special equipment designed specifically for solar observing. And third, it’s November.

DO NOT attempt to observe the transit without the proper equipment. For more information, check out www.eclipsewise.com for tips on how to safely observe what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:
Nov. 3: The dog Laika is first living creature to orbit Earth, aboard Sputnik 2 – 1957
Nov. 9: Carl Sagan born. – 1934
Nov. 12: Great Leonid Meteor Shower – 1833
Nov. 19: Second lunar landing made by Apollo 12 – 1969
Nov. 20: Edwin Hubble born – 1889
Nov. 27: First photograph of a meteor shower – 1885
Nov. 30: Fragment of 10-pound meteorite strikes and bruises Alabama woman, Elizabeth Hodges-1954

Oct 05

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – October, 2019

There Is More In the Sky Than You Think

Last month I wrote about several late summer/early autumn constellations, including Scorpius and Sagittarius in the south and Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila overhead, whose member stars form the Summer Triangle. Although the former are no longer visible, the latter are still high overhead, so perhaps you may begin your observing by revisiting the Swan, the Lyre, and the Eagle.

The coming week is probably better for lunar observing since the Moon will be full next Sunday. The Moon is great for binoculars or a small telescope. Look along the terminator (boundary between light and dark) for craters whose basins are in the dark but central peak is still in the sunlight. Without much effort, lunar maps can be found online or in bookstores. These can be used to identify craters, mare, rilles and other features.

After the 15th, moonlight will not interfere with your attempts to observe small, faint constellations such as the three I am about to describe. Direct your attention again to the Summer Triangle by facing south and locating the bottom star, Altair, just below Deneb, overhead, and Vega, the brightest of the three, to Deneb’s right. Unless you are in a very good dark location, use binoculars to scan the area of the sky just above Altair. You should find a small grouping of four stars resembling a small arrow pointing left with two feathers at the right. This is little Sagitta, Latin for “arrow” and not to be confused with Sagittarius, the Archer. Sagitta is the third smallest constellation, but one that is easy to recognize. Now see if you can spot it with your naked eye.

Next scan left about the same distance as before and you will come to another constellation that looks like its name, Delphinus, the dolphin. Look for a diamond of four stars with two more to its right. You should see the dolphin jumping out of the waves of the Milky Way, with his tail arched behind him.

Stars and constellations are not the only items of interest up there. A number of satellites, including the International Space Station, make visible passes that can be fun to watch. Check out heavens-above.com for more information. Or, visit NASA’s web site to sign up for email alerts for visible passes of the ISS,

Finally, a spacecraft that flew under the radar, so to speak, was recently launched by the Planetary Society. It is called LightSail 2 and it is able to control its orbit solely on the power of sunlight. LightSail 2 was first proposed by Planetary Society founders, Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman in the 1970s. Carl even appeared on the Tonight Show where he shared the concept with Johnny Carson. It never got off the drawing board.

But the Society persevered, and the concept was resurrected in 1999. A couple of failures later, the latest version is now safely in Earth orbit, controlled solely by the pressure of the sunlight.

LightSail 2 is just the latest of our many instruments that improve our understanding of what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:
Oct. 1: Yerkes Observatory dedicates 40 inch refractor – 1897
Oct. 4: Space Age begins when Sputnik 1, first artificial satellite, is launched – 1957
Oct. 9: Johannes Kepler observes supernova – 1604
Oct. 14: Chuck Yeager breaks sound barrier – 1947
Oct. 22: First record of solar eclipse – 2136 BCE
Oct. 26: First flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan by Cassini spacecraft – 2004
Oct. 30: STS-61A Challenger Space Shuttle launched – 1985

Sep 07

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – September, 2019

September is Again a Good Time to Observe

I have often said September is a good month for observing, and this year is no exception with the addition of two bright planets to the myriad of sights for both the eye and the telescope.

Let’s begin with the constellation Scorpius. Looking low toward the southwest horizon, it will be easy to find because Jupiter will be shining brightly right above it. Just below Jupiter look for Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius and sometimes referred to as the heart of the scorpion. It earned that honor because of its dull, reddish appearance to the naked eye. It is actually a type M red supergiant star, 550 light years away, which is a good thing because it is well over 10,000 times brighter than the Sun.

To the left of Scorpius is Sagittarius, one of the easiest constellations to recognize, or at least part of it is. Sagittarius, the Archer, is actually one of two centaurs in the sky, a creature that is half-man, half-horse, with his arrow pointed toward the scorpion. But the grouping of visible stars clearly outlines a teapot, with its handle on the left and spout on the right. On a clear, dark night, you can see the Milky Way rising up like steam from the spout. The bright object just above the handle is the planet Saturn. Scan the area with binoculars or a small telescope to see a myriad of deep-sky objects.

Immediately above Scorpius is the constellation Ophiuchus, the “serpent-bearer” or, more simply, a man grasping a snake. I mention this constellation not for observational value, but for its historic record. In 1604 a bright, new star flared up in the constellation. For several months the star was brighter than any other star in the sky and even brighter than Jupiter. Coincidently, both Jupiter and Saturn were very close by, and the three formed a compact, distinct grouping.

The “new star”, actually a supernova, was studied extensively by the astronomer Johannes Kepler for about 18 months before finally fading from sight, and is now known as “Kepler’s Star”. It was the last supernova to be observed in our galaxy.

Now still facing south, look straight overhead. There you will see the Summer Triangle which, like the Teapot, is an asterism, a prominent pattern of stars that is not a constellation. The brightest, Vega, is in Lyra, the Lyre, recognizable as a small parallelogram with an equilateral triangle on top. To the left of Vega is Deneb, the tail of the swan, Cygnus. Directly below these two is Altair, in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle.

Scan Lyra with binoculars to observe several double stars. Cygnus actually looks like a cross and is sometimes referred to as the “Northern Cross”. Aim a small ‘scope or binoculars at Albireo, the star at the bottom of the cross (the head of the swan) and you will see a double star with components of different colors. Can you tell why it is sometimes referred to as the “U of M” star?

If you are fortunate enough to observe from a dark site, you will see that the Milky Way stretches all the way across the sky, from the spout of the Teapot, overhead through Cygnus, and down through Cassiopeia in the northeast. Along this “river of light” can be found many wonders up in the sky.

This month in history:
Sept. 1: Pioneer 11 is first spacecraft to fly past Saturn – 1979
Sept. 3: Last two Apollo Moon landings canceled by NASA – 1970
Sept. 8: Voyager 1 launched – 1977
Sept. 20: Wernher von Braun arrives in US – 1945
Sept. 21: Galileo mission ends – 2003
Sept. 23: Carolyn Herschel discovers NGC 253 – 1783
Sept. 25: 59 – day Skylab 3 mission ends – 1973
Sept. 30: End of daily communication with Pioneer 11 – 1995

Aug 04

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – August, 2019

Traditional Sights and a Brand New Spacecraft

For both beginner and veteran observers, August has much to offer. The sky becomes dark earlier, great constellations can easily be found and the evening sky contains two bright planets. What’s not to like?

Start the month with some lunar observing. You will find the crescent Moon near the western horizon tonight after sunset. Each night this week its position in the sky will shift toward the south and east, where it will pass close to the planets Jupiter and Saturn.

Next Friday, August 9, you will find the Moon right next to the bright planet, Jupiter, low in the southern sky. You should have little trouble identifying the planet as it is by far the brightest object in the night sky, after the Moon. Two nights later, on Sunday, August 11, the Moon will be in the southeast close to the planet Saturn. It will help to observe on both nights because on the 11th, Saturn may be lost in the glare of the nearby Moon, depending on atmospheric conditions, and it may help to know where to look.

While you are observing these events you may also want to check out two of the most well-known constellations, Scorpius and Sagittarius. The former is notable for the bright, red giant star, Antares, which can be spotted just down and to the right of the Moon and Jupiter on the 9th. The latter might be better known as the Teapot, the name of the asterism clearly visible near the southern horizon.

Both constellations contain many excellent possibilities for observing. If you are under a clear, dark sky, you will see the Milky Way appear to rise out of the spout of the teapot. This is an excellent target to scan with binoculars as the galaxies, star clusters, gas clouds, and other nebulae are numerous. The scorpion, too, is home to numerous deep sky objects so the whole area can be enjoyed with a telescope, binoculars, or simply with the naked eye.

With all the attention lately on the historic 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, many readers might have missed the news of another historic spacecraft that was launched last month. Known as LightSail 2, this spacecraft was designed, developed, and deployed by the Planetary Society (www.planetary.org). Once in Earth orbit, it unfurled a silver solar sail about the size of a boxing ring, which then used the pressure of the sunlight to propel itself along.

According to Planetary Society chief scientist Bruce Betts. “. . . (we wanted) to demonstrate controlled solar sailing . . . by changing the spacecraft’s orbit using only the light pressure of the Sun, something that’s never been done before”. LightSail 2 is the first spacecraft to use “solar sailing” for propulsion in Earth orbit. Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye describes the mission as “. . . a game-changer for spaceflight and advancing space exploration.

Just like the Moon landing, this mission might pave the way for an entirely new way to explore what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:
August 2: First televised liftoff of lunar module – Apollo 15’s “Falcon” – 1971
August 6: Curiosity rover lands on Mars – 2012
August 12: Echo 1 satellite launched – 1960
August 12: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched – 2005
August 18: Helium discovered in the Sun – 1868
August 25: Voyager 2 flies past Neptune – 1989
August 28: Galileo spacecraft flies past asteroid Ida – 1993

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