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 ( 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

Jul 07

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – July, 2019

A Golden Anniversary

It’s rather incredible to me that it has been fifty years since I saw that static-filled image of a man in what looked like a white deep sea diving suit hopping off a short ladder to step onto the surface on the Moon. July 20, 1969, was a Sunday and NASA wisely scheduled the first lunar “excursion” during prime time. It was also no accident that the engineers had mounted a television camera on a drop-down platform on one of the legs of the lander. Viewers first saw a blank screen with a message like “no signal detected” and then all of a sudden we were looking at a stark image of black sky, bright grey landscape, and a short ladder down one of the lander’s legs. A short time later we watched as Neil Armstrong descended the ladder and stepped off of it and onto the lunar surface.

It had been about six hours between the time Armstrong said “Tranquility base here, the Eagle has landed” and, “That’s one small step for man . . .” so we were all able to plan our evening and set aside the time to watch him emerge from the spacecraft and take the historic “step off the LEM”.

Be aware that this was the most highly anticipated and universally witnessed event in history. During a decade when tumultuous events (war, civil rights protests) threatened the fabric of our society, the space program was something we could all get excited about. Besides, it was a race with the Russians and we all wanted to win it.

There were many sources of information on how to record both sound and images of Armstrong’s first step. Of course, black and white broadcast television was the only source of the images so I had my 35 mm camera with black and white film mounted on a tripod in front of the television set. I also recorded the audio on a portable cassette recorder. And although anyone can now watch video and listen to recordings of the mission with a few mouse clicks, those original, personal recordings of the event are still rather special.

And then there’s the “. . . one small step . . .” line which was also highly anticipated. We are all familiar with the first words spoken from the Moon, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, but some think Armstrong actually blew his line. He had planned to say, “That’s one small step for a man . . .” because “for man” and “for mankind” seemed redundant. At the time I even had a poster with the quote on it, including the “. . . small step for a man” quote in question. There was discussion about it for a short time but it is now viewed to have been lost in the static of the transmission.

Another interesting tidbit that has recently come out is that lunar dust smells like caps or firecrackers that had just gone off. Most of the moonwalking astronauts would comment on the smell, the result of lunar dust, which had existed in a vacuum for billions of years, coming into contact with oxygen in the command module. Its properties were completely unknown so steps were taken to ensure it did not ignite during cabin re-pressurization. The astronauts even slept in their helmets and gloves to avoid the irritation from the dust.

There are those who may question the value of some space missions, but the lunar landing will always be humans’ first physical exploration of what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:

July 3: Apollo 17 geologist/astronaut, Harrison Schmitt born – 1935
July 4: Mars Pathfinder lands on Mars – 1997
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
July 25: Svetlana Savitskaya becomes first woman to walk in space – 1984

Jun 03

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – June, 2019

The Start of a New Season

Newcomers to the hobby of amateur astronomy quickly learn that observing objects and events of interest takes preparation and planning as well as cooperative weather. Part of the planning is knowing what to look for and when to see it. Another part is matching the observing experience with the age/interest level of the participants. The whole family can enjoy and appreciate the beauty of a sunset while the older kids can stay up later and do some binocular observing.

But, no matter what your experience level is, consider attending an organized observing session at a state or county park near you. Holland residents and visitors can enjoy public observing at both Holland State Park and Hemlock Crossing County Park and similar events that take place at parks statewide.

One downside of June is that it gets dark so late that telescopic observing can stretch well past midnight. The good news is, there are plenty of interesting and unique things that are not hard to find.

Beginning this Tuesday, June 4th, get out to the lakeshore (or any location with a clear view to the west) about forty five minutes past sunset and look toward the western horizon. As the sky darkens each night, look for a very thin crescent Moon and two bright planets, Mercury and Mars. On each successive night the Moon will appear higher and to the left (south) compared to the previous night. The crescent will also become larger each night, hence the term “waxing crescent”.

On Thursday, June 6, do a binocular scan up and to the left of the Moon and you should be able to see M44, the Beehive Cluster. Known since antiquity, it is a cluster of several hundred stars spanning an area of sky about the size of the full Moon. It has been described as a swarm of bees when seen through binoculars, hence the name.

If you’ve been out in the early night lately you may have noticed a very bright star-like object rising in the southeast and gaining altitude each night. That is actually the planet Jupiter and it will be with us all summer. On June 15 and 16 the almost-full Moon will be close by on either side of the planet. On the fifteenth, the two are joined by the star Antares and complete a lovely triangle.

Top off your June observing with a challenge. Starting at about 10:00 pm on the sixteenth, scan the west-northwest horizon with binoculars and return to Mercury and Mars. They should be the brightest objects nearby, much brighter than Castor and Pollux, just above them. Observe each night and watch the two planets change position with respect with one another. I highly recommend this observation. Opportunities to observe Mercury are relatively rare so to have another planet very close by is extremely unique. And you don’t even have to get up early to enjoy what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:
June 3: Gemini IV astronaut, Ed White, takes America’s first space walk – 1965
June 8: First unpowered glide test of X-15 – 1959
June 10: Mars rover “Spirit” launched – 2003
June 16: Valentina Tereshkova first (and only solo) woman in space – 1963
June 18: Sally Ride becomes first American woman in space – 1983
June 22: Evidence of liquid water on Mars announced by NASA – 2000
June 30: Tunguska impact flattens hundreds of miles of Siberian forrest – 1908

May 04

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – May, 2019

Einstein’s Eclipse

One hundred years ago everything changed. Not all at once, not even as the years progressed, but by the end of the twentieth century what had begun on May 29, 1919 would dominate our technology. For it was on that day that a total solar eclipse captured the attention of the scientific community and introduced a new scientific theory to the public all over the world. It also propelled a little known scientist named Albert Einstein to international fame.

In 1915, as the First World War raged throughout Europe, Einstein published four revolutionary papers on general relatively, an extension of his earlier theory of special relativity, that showed that spacetime is connected to matter. He used his new theory to correct a flaw in Newton’s law of gravity that incorrectly calculated a certain aspect of the orbit of Mercury. General relatively predicted the orbit precisely.

But the scientific community was not convinced and another test was needed, this one to measure the amount of deflection of light by a massive object, the basis of “gravitational lensing” widely used today, and a method suggested by Einstein in 1911. All scientists needed was an opportunity to measure the precise positions of stars near the Sun’s disc. If the bending did exist then stars appearing close to the Sun would be in a slightly different position compared to where they normally are. This can only be accomplished during a total solar eclipse when the nearby stars become visible.

Several unsuccessful attempts were made following Einstein’s 1911 calculations of the bending, and it was fortunate for him that they were, for had they accurately measured the bending, it would have been different than his earlier predictions. But when, in 1915, he recalculated the deflection based on general relativity, the numbers turned out to be spot on. Had the earlier observations been successful, Einstein’s place in history might have been very different.

The war negated eclipse viewing opportunities in 1916 and 1918, but in March of 1919, just four months after the war’s end, Arthur Stanley Eddington, then director of the Cambridge Observatory, set out from Liverpool to Principe, an island off the West African coast. Meanwhile, a second group of distinguished astronomers traveled to northern Brazil for their observations and measurements.

Eddington’s journey to Principe was a grueling six and a half weeks by steamship, only made tolerable by an abundance of bananas, a delicacy to the rationing-weary Englishmen. The other team’s trip to Brazil with 14 crates of heavy equipment took two weeks, followed by a month’s delay before they could travel to their destination, about 50 miles inland.

On the day of the eclipse there was tension at both sites due to the threatening weather. The Brazil team was fortunate that the weather finally cleared and they were able to make accurate measurements. Eddington’s team was not as lucky but were still able to gather important data.

Upon returning to England and after several months of painstaking analysis, both teams determined that the amount of bending of the light was precisely what Einstein’s theory had predicted!

These experiments were daring, provided clear evidence, promised a scientific revolution, and gave people a much sought after positive story following four brutal years of war. Although no single experiment could prove relativity, the theory has been tested and confirmed countless times over the past century.

On July 2, 2019, another total solar eclipse will be visible from nearly the same locations, almost acting as a tribute to the centenary of the eclipse that revealed to us how the universe actually works.

For a more in depth description of this fascinating event, I recommend the article, A Relatively Important Eclipse, by Benjamin Skuse in the May, 2019, issue of Sky and Telescope magazine.

This month in history:
May 5: Alan Shepard becomes first American in space – 1961
May 9: Hyabusa, the first spacecraft to bring back a sample from an asteroid, is launched – 2003
May 11: Launch of first geostationary weather satellite – 1974
May 12: Adler Planetarium in Chicago opens, first planetarium in western hemisphere – 1930
May 14: Skylab is launched – 1973
May 25: President Kennedy gives speech challenging nation to land an astronaut on the Moon before the end of the decade – 1961
May 29: First experimental test of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity successfully performed during total solar eclipse – 1919

Apr 01

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – April, 2019

Seeing Double

Many readers are familiar with double stars, the most well known probably being two stars in the handle of Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. Mizar, the bright star in the bend of the handle, and Alcor, its fainter companion, form a binary pair, known to the ancients and used as a test of warriors’ eyesight. But a closer look in even a modest telescope reveals that Mizar is itself a double star and was in fact the first double star to be discovered, in 1617. Recent observations with high-tech instruments reveal that all three members of this group are themselves double stars, making the system a true sextuple!

Now and in the coming months a number of double stars will come into view. Some can be observed with amateur equipment, so I would like to present a beginner’s guide to a few of them.

Let’s begin with Sirius, the brightest star in our sky and one of the easiest to find. Follow Orion’s belt toward the left until you come to it, shining like a beacon in the southwest. Its companion, known as Sirius B, was discovered in 1862 by Alvan Clark (using a pretty big telescope), and is a white dwarf star whose mass is roughly equal to that of the Sun, but is packed into a volume about the size of the Earth.

Above Sirius, in the constellation Gemini, is the star Castor, the right-hand member of the Castor and Pollux pair. Castor is an accessible binary for smaller telescopes. Its two components form a spectacular and bright blue-white pair, both of which are what is known as spectroscopic binaries. That means they can only be detected by analyzing their spectrum, the patterns of the light each emits. This is one way astronomers detect exoplanets which are much too dim to observe visually.

Returning to Orion we find another type of double star, a visual double. Look at the bottom star in the sword hanging down from the left side of his belt. A modest pair of binoculars shows it to be two stars, but these are not gravitationally bound to each other as all the previous examples are. One is actually several hundred light years farther away, but along nearly the same line of sight, making them appear to be close together.

I may be getting ahead of myself, but while we are on the subject of double stars, I must mention two of my favorites, the double-double in Lyra and Albireo in Cygnus. Although these two constellations dominate the summer sky, late night observers can spot them beginning in early April and on into May.

Around midnight at the end of the month, look northeast and you will see the star Vega, about thirty degrees above the horizon. It is the top right corner of an equilateral triangle of stars. Look closely at the star just to the left of Vega. Known as Epsilon Lyrae, it is a double star, easily visible in a pair of binoculars. If you are able to observe it through even a small telescope, you will see that each component is itself a double, hence the name double-double. It is truly a spectacular sight for small ‘scopes.

Alberio is the star at the head of Cygnus, the Swan, and consists of a yellow giant and a blue dwarf. The colors are distinct, even in binoculars, and are the reason some refer to Alberio as the U of M star.

I hope you will now be able to enjoy some double-star-gazing during your tours of what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:

April 2: First photograph of Sun taken – 1845
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: Apollo 16 lands on the Moon – 1972
April 24: China becomes the fifth nation to launch its own satellite – 1970
April 28: Eugene Shoemaker is born – 1928

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