Mars will NOT be close to Earth, nor “as large as the Moon” in August – this year or ever!

Forget what you might have read in an email, or on Facebook, or whatever – this is the truth about how we see Mars on those every-other-year occasions when we see it at its best!   This graphic was created  by Tom Harradine and highlights the  simple reality – Mars will never be as big or as bright as the Full Moon, or even a crescent Moon.

mars_hoax

Click the graphic to get a larger version.

Sorry I have to write this, but every August since 2003 I have gotten questions about a spectacular showing of Mars in our sky because an anonymous email   or social media post makes the rounds of the Internet causing people to get excited. THIS EMAIL IS NOT TRUE. I wrote about it other years pn this site. Here’s my updated version.

The most outrageous claim in this email goes something like this:

On the night of Aug. 27, the planet Mars will come closer to Earth than it has in the past 60,000 years, thereby offering spectacular views of the Red Planet.  Mars will appear to the naked eye as bright as and as large as the full moon. No one living today will ever see this again!

No one living today will ever see this. Period. OK. here’s the simple truth.  An hour before dawn  August 27, 2013 Mars will be rising in the east and be about two fists – 20 degrees – above the horizon. It will shine a little dimmer than  two nearby stars, Castor and Pollux. As always it will have a reddish tinge to it, but to the naked eye look just like any bright star. 

In a very good telescope, Mars will look like a very tiny planet, about one-fifth the size it is when it actually does make a relatively close approach to Earth.  Mars and the Earth are relatively  close to one another  – 35 to 60 million miles apart – every two years.  In AUgust 2013 Mars is about 214 million miles away, or bout 6 times as far away as it it is on closest approach and this appearing – telescopes – about one sixth the size it appears on closest approach.   (Mar’s at it’s absolute closest is still – in telescopes – only about half the size of Jupiter.

Is there any truth in the email? Yes, there are some grains of truth here, but even they are usually distorted. This all began because in August 2003 Mars really did make an unusually close approach to Earth – but by unusual we mean just a bit closer than it gets routinely every two years.  During a close approach such as the one in 2003 Mars can be 24 seconds of arc across – and sometimes it’s “close” approach means its half that size.

In short, this Mars email is just another Internet urban legend telling us things that would be fun if they were true, but really are far, far from the truth. For details on this, please visit the Snopes.com site – in fact, anytime you receive an email that sounds too good to be true – on almost any subject – check snopes.com before you forward the email to friends. It’s a great clearing house for getting out the truth on these legends.

August 2013 – last good look at Saturn, and a Moon-free Perseids shower

The Big Dipper's handle can guide you first to bright Arcturus, then to yellowish Saturn and blue Spica - both will be about the same brightness. Venus is much birghter, but best seen about half an hour after sunset when it is about 10 degrees above the western horizon. By an hour after sunset it ishalf that or less and even if you have an unobstructed horizon, may be lost in mist and twilight.

The Big Dipper’s handle can guide you first to bright Arcturus, then to yellowish Saturn and blue Spica – both will be about the same brightness. Venus is much brighter, but best seen about half an hour after sunset when it is about 10 degrees above the western horizon. By an hour after sunset it is half that or less and even if you have an unobstructed horizon, may be lost in mist and twilight. CLick for larger image. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

For a printer friendly version of the above chart, click here.

If you have a small telescope, August 2013 will give you your last good look at Saturn for the year and if you live on the right side of the globe – not where I live – the Perseids  meteor shower should be spectacular this year with no interference from a waning Moon.  Venus, meanwhile, continues to reign low in the western sky just after sunset.

The sky north of east early on the morning of August 12, prime time to watch for Perseids meteors. (Created froma Starry Nights Pro screenshot.

The sky north of east early on the morning of August 12, prime time to watch for Perseids meteors. (Created from a Starry Nights Pro screenshot.)

For a  printer friendly version of the above chart click here.

The Perseids should reach their peak on August 12 at about 19:00 UTC. To find what time that is for your region, go here.  For about half the world that’s good news, for the other half it’s bad because you really want to see this shower in the early morning hours and you will get the best show if the shower’s peak falls during those hours for your time zone.

Locally, on the East Coast of the United States, I’m going to watch the weather and if either the morning of August 11 or the morning of August 12 is forecast to be clear, I plan to start observing about 2 am. But I am not expecting a big Perseids show – just a nice summer night with a much better chance than usual of seeing a bright meteor.

Meanwhile, I’m bracing myself to hear a lot of promotional blather about the Perseids locally from TV weather folks and others who should know better, but the truth is in North America the timing of this year’s shower could hardly be worse.  The shower is best for a couple hours either side of its peak and its peak is forecast to come at 19 hours GMT on August 12 – for Eastern Daylight Time that translates to 3 pm – broad daylight.  What’s worse, even if the peak was in the early evening hours, the Perseid’s radiant point doesn’t get high in the sky until the early morning. That’s why the best time to see Perseid meteors – regardless of the peak time – is still  between midnight and  a couple hours before dawn.

So can we in America hope to see any Perseids at all? Yes, of course we can.  Just don’t expect a “shower.” In fact, I have to say that i always wince a little at the times and rates of meteors frequently given in news reports. Hey, just the word “shower” implies a lot more than most people usually see, especially from their typically light-polluted back yards.  When someone reports that the Perseids will peak at better than 100 meteors an hour, they usually fail to mention that three conditions have to be met for you to see that peak.

1. You need the Perseids radiant point to be nearly directly overhead – for EDT that occurs in a twilight sky, but is reasonably high from midnight on. The meteors may appear in any part of the sky, but they will appear to radiate from that point, so the higher it is, the better chance we have of seeing a meteor.

2. You need very dark skies – skies that will allow you to see magnitude 6.5 stars, if you are going to experience those real high rates. I have never experienced such dark skies, but they certainly exist. However,  with my reasonably dark skies I am very happy when I can detect a star of magnitude 5.

3. And, of course, you need the shower’s peak to coincide with the radiant point being very high in your sky.

One more caution – anything can happen. This is a forecast and usually reliable. But there could be a burst of meteors at a different time. You may get lucky.

And if all these  condition aren’t met for your location? Well, it’s reasonable to expect to see a Perseid meteor about every 10-15 minutes – of course you  may get two or three in a row hardly separated at all, then not see another one for  an hour. But be patient and you will get results – just not the meteor spectacular that some reports will imply. Last year they were coming in at a rate of 15-20 an hour four hours either side of the peak.

And yes, a Perseid can show up days either side of the peak.  How will you know it’s a Perseid? Draw a mental line extending the path of the meteor back towards the Perseid’s radiant point. If your line points back to that area of the sky – see map above – then you saw a Perseid. But there are always strays around – random meteors that have no connection to the shower – and at this time of year we have a couple weaker showers that may produce a few meteors going in other directions.

Meteors and meteor showers are fun if for no other reason than they are a chance to see something happening in the sky. Much of what we look at doesn’t change – or rather changes so slowly we don’t notice the change. Meteors, on the other hand, demand that you be looking in the right place at the right time. Only on the very rare, very bright meteors do we actually have time to alert others and have them turn their heads and see what we see.  And what we see is a space event happening closer to us than any other natural one. What’s more, meteors can have real scientific value.  They are viewed by some as our cheapest “space probe.” They are relatively pristine bits of matter left over from the early days of the solar system and so can tell a story to those who know how to read them.

Meteors – “falling stars ” – can be seen any time. You don’t have to wait for a “shower” like the Perseids; you just have to be lucky. But they are most frequent at certain times in the year when the Earth happens to be plowing through a meteoroid-rich area.  We call this occasion a meteor shower. (For your dictionary: A meteoroid is a small bit of space rock that becomes a meteor when it collides with our  atmosphere and heats to incandescence as it descends towards Earth. When it gets here – which is rarely as anything except fine, incinerated dust – it is a meteorite. )

The reason for a shower such as the Perseids is that we are passing through the debris trail of a comet. Think about it. The general model for a comet is a “dirty snowball,” and as that dirty snowball nears the Sun it melts, and as it melts it leaves a trail of dirt particles behind it – particles that remain in orbit until something like the Earth sweeps by and captures some of them with its gravity.

The comet itself can vanish entirely – but the result is a river of space dust – a river that is most intense nearest where the comet actually was.  That’s why there are some years – the 1990s in the case of the Perseids – when the meteor shower is more intense than others.  Now we are in a period when we are passing through the trail of the comet that creates the Perseids at a point where that trail is relatively sparse – so there will simply be fewer Perseids than there were  15-20 years ago.

That trail is not encountered all over the sky. It collides with our atmosphere near a particular point in our sky. That point is called the radiant – you might think of it as a hole through which the Perseids fall – and in the case of the Perseids, it appears to be in the constellation Perseus.  But we don’t see all the meteors at this point. We see a meteor only when its collision with our atmosphere is intense enough to make it burn up. The faint meteors we see are made by a speck of dirt about the diameter of a pencil lead. The brightest ones are caused by something about the diameter of the pencil’s eraser.  In either case it will, for all practical purposes, burn up entirely in our atmosphere – 50 to 75 miles up – and nothing significant will remain for anyone to find on Earth. But exactly where it burns up is another thing. That’s why we will see a sudden flare – a falling star – anywhere in the sky.

And that’s awesome! Consider this: If someone struck a match 50 miles away would you see it?  Yet a grain of sand, hurtling into the atmosphere, shows us such a brilliant light we can’t miss it! Why? Well, for one thing it is hitting our atmosphere at something in the order of 133,000 miles an hour – that makes a “speeding bullet” look like the proverbial turtle!

When you are watching for Perseids, you don’t have to look near the radiant point, though you will see more there.  A meteor can flare up suddenly anywhere and appear to draw a short (usually 5-10 degrees long) straight line across the dome of the sky. (Bright ones may actually leave a trail, which you can see for a few seconds with the naked eye or longer with binoculars.) If we trace a line backwards along the meteor’s trail we will see it comes from the area near the radiant point.

In the early evening, that Perseid radiant point is low in the northeast. That means nearly half the meteors that are radiating from it are happening below our eastern horizon. That’s why the shower is best in the early morning hours when the radiant is high in our sky. If the radiant is overhead, then we have nearly doubled our chances of seeing a meteor.

There are many meteor showers in the course of a year and some are better than others. The Perseids is one of the most reliable ones and happens to come at a convenient time for northern hemisphere observers when it is comfortable to be out at night, lying on the ground, and looking up.

In the final analysis there’s only so much time you can spend lying on your back gazing at the starry sky; though I very much enjoy that time, it’s made much more enjoyable by knowing that at any instant there’s a heightened likelihood that I will see a bright meteor.  That – and the summer Milky Way – make looking for Perseids in a dark and moonless sky always worth the effort for me.

Look east in August 2013 – kick back, lie back, look up and enjoy our home galaxy!

This is the month to meet your neighbors – a few billion of them at least!

In August we break our pattern of focusing on bright stars and instead focus on that ancient stream of stars known as the Milky Way – our own galaxy. This means observing a bit later than normal, and if you live within urban or suburban light pollution, going to where you have really dark skies. This does not mean you have to move to – or visit – Arizona. I live in one of the worst light pollution regions of the US, and I can see the Milky Way from my back yard – and see it even better if I take a 12-minute drive to a nearby wildlife sanctuary. But I do have significantly darker skies than people just a mile or two from me. You need a clear moonless night and your eyes need to be well dark adapted. Then you want to look up for a wide, faint “cloud” with a  roughly north-to-south orientation.

I’ve reduced the brightness and contrast on this image in an attempt to approximate what can be seen from an area with light to moderate light pollution. Still, a photograph always shows more – but it just can’t capture the magic of being there. In this case the photographer also caught a Perseid meteor. As you can see, the heart of the Milky Way is nicely framed by the bright Summer Triangle stars of Vega, Deneb, and Altair. Click image for larger version.

Seeing the Milky Way is worth the special effort. It is one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring astronomical sights, and your naked eye is the best way to take it all in, though binoculars will provide a special treat as well.  In what follows, we’ll focus on where you should be to observe the Milky Way, when you should look. and finally,  where in the sky you should look.

1. Where you should be

Sadly, most people today are routinely denied this sight because of light pollution, but don’t despair! While the darker your skies are, the better, like me you may find that pretty dark skies are just a short drive away. There is an international guide to light pollution and here’s what it shows for light pollution in and around “Driftway Observatory,” my backyard. (OK – actually most of southern New England!)

On this map of light pollution for southeastern New England, Driftway Observatory is right in the center on the border of an orange/yellow area. Obviously black is the best. Blue is darned good. Green and yellow are desirable. Orange means getting poor; red and white are quite terrible. You should look for at least a yellow area – but to the south of a heavily light-polluted city if possible.

You can get a map  for any region of the world. The simplest path is to go here. Scroll down, to the thumbnail maps and choose a region of the world that suits you and download the map for that region. Another path is limited to observers in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. For them there are “Clear Sky Charts” – astronomical viewing weather forecasts – for hundreds of locations. You can find a location near you by starting here.  Underneath your regional Clear Sky Chart you will see a short list of “Nifty links.” The last one takes you to a light pollution map for that region. It may be helpful to know your latitude and longitude first, so If you don’t know what it is, you can find it here. All of this is useful information for any sky observer to have, so if you track down a Clear Sky Clock for your region,f or example, bookmark it.

Here’s how to make sense of the light pollution maps in terms of seeing the Milky Way.

Red – “Milky Way at best very faint at zenith.”

Orange – “Milky Way washed out at zenith and invisible at horizon.”

Yellow – “Some dark lanes in Milky Way but no bulge into Ophiuchus. Washed out Milky Way visible near horizon.”

Green – “Milky Way shows much dark lane structure with beginnings of faint bulge into Ophiuchus.”

If you can get into the blue, grey, or black areas –  all of which give increasingly good views of the Milky Way – enjoy! I envy you ;-)

One critical point though: Pay attention to where there are cities. They will create light domes that will wash out at least areas fairly low in the sky. In my situation I have two small cities, Fall River to the northwest and New Bedford to the northeast. Both have populations of around 100,000 and both create light domes in those regions of the sky. Fortunately, the northern sky isn’t important for seeing the Milky Way, especially in August. But if you have a large city – or shopping mall, or anything that might create a light dome – it is better to look for an area south of it. In August in mid-northern latitudes the  Milky  Way is best from right overhead on down to the southern horizon. That’s why my best view is from a wildlife sanctuary just a few miles away and right on the north shore of  Buzzards Bay and the ocean. It means when I’m looking at the southern Milky Way – towards the very center of our galaxy – I’m seeing it over a huge expanse of water where light pollution is the least.

2. When to look

Begin looking early on a moonless, August evening and ideally, when the skies are crystal clear – frequently this comes right after a cold front passes. Although the Milky Way can be seen many months of the year, one of the best times to see it is in August, about two hours after sunset. In 2013 your best views during that time period (two hours after sunset) will come between August 1st and 12th and again after August 26th  – on other dates in August the Moon is more likely to interfere. Of course, when the Moon is young and waxing you can always wait for it to set – and when it is old and waning  you need to make sure it hasn’t risen yet. For a Moon calendar for any month go here.  If you miss it in the first two weeks of August, try again the first two weeks of September - this guide will still be useful, though everything will have moved higher and to the west a bit.

I say two hours after  sunset because it takes that long in mid-northern latitudes for it to get fully dark at this time of year, and you need full darkness. (You can find out the local time Astronomical Twilight ends – when it is fully dark – by going to this Web site. From the drop-down menu you’ll find there, choose “astronomical twilight.”) However, you can certainly start looking earlier. This is something where beach chairs or lounges are nice, and maybe even a blanket.  You can start about an hour after sunset when the brightest stars are visible. This will help you get your bearings and you can dark adapt as the skies get darker.

Finally, you need to protect your eyes from white lights. It takes 10-15 minutes for your eyes to become about 50 percent dark adapted. At that point your color vision is as good as it will get, but your sensitivity to dim light will continue to increase. In another 15 minutes or so you will reach about 90 percent dark adaption. The remaining 10 percent can take as long as four hours.  So I consider that after half an hour my eyes are about as good as I can expect them to be.  During all this time and beyond you should avoid looking at white light. You can use a red light to check a chart if you like, but keep it dim and use it sparingly. If you’re in a location where automobiles drive by, don’t look at them – close your eyes and turn away.

Where to look

When you set up your blanket or lounge chair, do your best to align it on a north-south axis with your head to the north and feet to the south. You may want to favor the east just a bit.

What you want to find as you start out is the familiar guidepost stars of the Summer Triangle – Vega, Deneb, and Altair. These were new guidepost stars in May, June, and July. If you are just starting this journey in August,they are still easy to pick out from our chart.  As the sky in the east starts to darken they will be the first stars visible, 30-45 minutes after sunset.

Click image for a larger view. (Derived from a Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

You can download a printer friendly version of this chart here.

The brightest – and highest – of the three will be Vega, which will be approaching a point overhead. There are roughly two fists (24 degrees) between Vega and Deneb and nearly four fists (39 degrees) between  Deneb and Altair, so the Triangle is huge.

These three Summer Triangle stars roughly bracket the Milky Way – that is Vega is near the western border, Altair the eastern border, and Deneb is about at midstream.  But you need to wait, of course, for it to get darker before you can see the Milky Way.   The boundaries of the Milky Way, as with any stream, are not sharp and regular. It tends to meander a bit with little pools of light and some deep, dark areas as well.

As the skies darken and your eyes continue to dark adapt, you should try to find three distinctive asterisms that will anchor both ends of the Milky Way, plus the middle.  If you have found Deneb, then you have the first star in the Northern Cross. In fact, you may want to see this as a stick figure of the constellation Cygnus the Swan.  In that case, Deneb marks its tail; the bar of the cross, its wings, and its long neck stretch out to the south as if it were flying down the Milky Way. To the north you should locate the “W” of Cassiopeia described in detail in our “Look North” post this month. And to the south, find the “Teapot,” which we described in more detail last month. Here’s a chart showing the whole sweep of that section of sky.

Click image for larger view. (derived from Starry Nights Pro screens hot.)

You can download a printer friendly version of this chart here.

Now, if it is about two hours after sunset and if you are in a location away from light pollution and, of course, are enjoying one of those crystal clear nights with dark-adapted eyes, then you also should be seeing the Milky Way. It only takes time and patience for you to trace it out – to see areas that are brighter than others – as well as some dark patches that don’t mean the absence of stars, but the presence of obscuring dust. But don’t think of the dust as getting in the way – think of it as star stuff – for what you are seeing in many sections of the Milky Way are the parts of our galaxy where new stars are being born. Relax and explore with your binoculars – start to absorb the majesty of millions – no billions – of stars!  If conditions are right – and you have a dark sky – it will look to the naked eye like faint clouds that get brighter as your eye traces them out from north to south.

And what is it you are seeing and why does it appear this way to you? That’s the important question. And this is where you have to do some mental gymnastics.

Think of our galaxy as a large pizza pie with extra cheese and goodies heaped in the center.  Now put yourself away from that center – perhaps one-half of the way towards one edge and buried down at the level of the crust. That’s a pretty good simulation of our galaxy and our place in it. You really need to get outside it – we can only do this in our imaginations – and look at it from that perspective. If we could get outside it, here’s approximately what we would see:

Two view of our Galacy, the Milky Way. The one on the left is from  aposition above it, the one on the right shopws you the galaxy edge-on.  This is a screen shot from the wonderful, free software, "Where is  M13."

The image on the left is how we think our galaxy would look if we could get above it and look down on it – like a big pin wheel of stars.  And what if you could see it edge on? Well, that’s the picture on the right. (This is a screen shot  from a wonderful – and free – software program called “Where is M13” that helps you understand where various objects really are in relation to us and the rest of the galaxy.)

OK – focus on the edge-on image – and note how really thin most of the galaxy is. It is about 100,000 light years across, but on average just 1,000 light years thick.

plane_view_MW

Now imagine yourself on a small dot (the Earth) rotating around that small dot in our image – the Sun. Do you see a lot of stars when you look “up” – that is, look in the direction of the words  “The Sun.”

No – in fact, if you look down, you don’t see many stars either – or for that matter, if you look in just about any direction there are relatively few stars visible to you. Why? Because the disc is just 1,000 light years thick, and most of the time you’re looking right through it the short way.  But  look along the plane of the galaxy – say  directly to the right or left – and what a difference!

Looking to the left you see many stars – in fact, a thin river of stars. Looking this direction, you’re looking through about 20,000 light years of star-filled space. We are looking along the plane, generally towards the outer rim, when we look at the W of Cassiopeia. Look along the plane to the right, and you see even more stars in a much wider river. Now you’re looking through about 30,000 light years of star-filled space and then right at the star-rich, galaxy core. And this, in a general way, is what we are doing when we look toward the Teapot of Sagittarius. That’s why the Milky Way is so much brighter and denser in that direction.

Not too difficult to understand – but this is only a rough sketch. As recently as 2008 scientists came up with a much different perspective of our galaxy than we had had up until then. Prior to the latest study, we thought the galaxy was a spiral with a bulge in the center and four main arms. Now they see it as a barred spiral – that is, the bulge in the center looks more like a bar that spills into two – not four – main spiral arms. There are other smaller arms in the spiral, and it all gets quite complex.

The problem, of course, is there is no way we can get outside our galaxy and look in. The distances are incredibly vast. Even if we could send a space probe at the speed of light, it would be thousands of years before it got outside our galaxy, took some pictures of us, and sent those pictures back. So we have to try to decide what the galaxy really looks like from the outside by studying it from the inside. Imagine, for a moment, being inside your body and trying to figure out what you look  like by what you can see from the inside, and you get an idea of the problem. Fortunately we can see other galaxies, and in later months we’ll be looking at one that looks a lot like what we think ours would look like if we could only get outside it and look back.

Meanwhile, relax – look up – and dream of all  the wonders that are out there and sending their messages back to you in the form of millions of tireless photons that have traveled thousands of years to reach your eyes and ping your brain on this dreamy August evening.  Harvest some of those photons by surfing the Milky Way with your binoculars. You will notice that in some areas it is quite dense and you may even discover some tiny, tight clusters of new stars – or a globular cluster of old stars, or even a little hazy patch where new stars are being born.  You need a telescope to see these well, but you can just discern some of them with binoculars, and with telescope or binoculars, what you really need to see with is your mind’s eye. Knowing what you are looking at is what brings this faint cloud alive and turns it into the awesome collection of billions of stars – and more billions of planets –  that it is.

Look North In August 2013 – All hail the Queen! (OK – the “W”)

Click image for larger view. (Derived from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

For printer friendly chart, download this.

The easily recognizable “W” of Cassiopeia (kass ee oh pee’ uh), the Queen, is well up in the northeast early on an August evening. Find it and you have a good starting point for tracing the Milky Way on south through Deneb.

When the “W” circles to a point high overhead, it will look like an “M,” of course, but that’s just part of the fun. Some people also see this asterism as forming the chair – or throne – for Cassiopeia. I like it because along with the Big Dipper, it nicely brackets the north celestial pole and provides another rough guide for finding Polaris. As the “W” rises, the Dipper plunges until it may be too close to the horizon for many to see. Both the stars of the Dipper and the stars of the “W” are 28 degrees from Polaris – roughly three fists.  When the Dipper gets on the horizon, the “W”  turns into an “M” directly above Polaris, so just measure three fists down from this “M” and you should be in the right region for finding the North Star.

Normally I do not find constellations or their associated myths too useful. Cassiopeia is an exception. Knowing the myth connected with this constellation will help you remember several important neighbors, and though we’ll meet these in the next two months, I’ll give you a “heads up” now and repeat the story when we meet the others. It goes like this:

Cepheus (King of Ethiopia)  and Cassiopeia (Queen of Ethiopia) have a beautiful daughter, Andromeda. Cassiopeia bragged so much about Andromeda’s beauty, that the sea nymphs got angry and convinced Poseidon to send a sea monster to ravage Ethiopia’s coast. To appease the monster, Cepheus and Cassiopeia  chained the poor child (Andromeda)  to a rock. But don’t worry. Perseus is nearby and comes to the rescue of the beautiful maiden, and they ride off into the sunset on Pegasus, Perseus’ flying horse! These five constellations – Cepheus, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Perseus, and Pegasus – are all close to one another in the sky and all are visible in the fall, so we will meet them soon.

One of the bright stars of Cassiopeia is also a special aid to finding your way around the heavens, but in a more modern sense. It is part of an asterism known as the “Three Guides.”  These three bright stars are all very close to the Zero Hour Right Ascension circle in the equatorial coordinate system – the system that is roughly the celestial equivalent of latitude and longitude and is commonly used to give a permanent address to stars and other celestial objects. These three bright stars mark a great circle that goes through both celestial poles and the equinoxes and is known by the eminently forgettable name of  “equinoctial colure.”

Click image for larger view. (See note at end of post for source of this drawing.)

We’ll meet the other two stars in this asterism next month, but for now, simply take note of Beta Cassiopeia.It’s marked on our chart and is the bright star at that end of the “W” that is highest in the sky this month. Remember that this star is very near the “0” hour  circle, which you can visualize by drawing an imaginary line from Polaris through Beta Cassiopeia and eventually the south celestial pole. This line will cross the ecliptic at the equinoxes.  Of course, this helps only if you are familiar with the equatorial coordinate system! If that means nothing to you, then don’t clutter your mind with this right now.

The source for the drawing showing the equinoctial colure can be found here.

August 2012 – Mars, Saturn, Spica in the west – and a spectacular Perseids shower

Should you watch the planet show in the West in the evening? Or the meteor shower in the morning? Why not both? And if you’re getting up early to see the Perseids at their best, be sure not to miss brilliant Venus and Jupiter – well, how could you?

Over in the west we have Mars showing you how fast a planet can appear to move as it runs between  Saturn and Spica – over a period of three weeks making a colorful red, blue and yellow display.  And all over the sky for several days this month you are likely to pick up a brilliant, Perseid meteor – but particularly on the morning of the 12th of August with the 13th a good back-up – and this year’s show should be especially good because the Moon will not put in an appearance until early morning and will not be bright enough to ruin the show.

Let’s start with the west – week-by-week the changing scene will look like this low in the southwest about an hour after sunset:

The circle is 7 degrees – roughly what you can expect from a low power binocular view.

 

A fun night because a young, crescent Moon joins our trio.

You will need a clear and unobstructed  western horizon for this one because these three objects are roughly 10 degrees – one fist – above the horizon. (Early in the month they’ll be a bit higher – late in the month they get quite low.  Now what I love about this event is it demonstrates three things -

  • Color in the sky – Saturn is yellow, Mars, Red, and Spica blue. But these colors are subtle. You’ll see them better if you use binoculars and you might want to review this post on star colors to better know what to expect.
  • Perception and the effect of motion – from night to night Saturn will hardly appear to change positions relative to the background stars at all,  and Spica won’t  change – but Mars will whip right along and this will be amply clear as you check it’s position against the other two.  The reason is simple – Mars is much closer to us at about 158 million miles; Saturn is about 939 million miles and, of course, Spica is so far away we measure its distance in light years – 263.
  • The time dimension is on display as well – Mars is roughly 14 light minutes from us, Saturn is  well over a light hour, and Spica  263 light years. So what appears to be a two dimensional scene is revealed to be three dimensions as you observe the rapid motion of Mars and picture the solar system – and when you put your mind to it, you understand that the instantaneous nature of the scene is an illusion – that you are really looking into the fourth dimension and what happens simultaneously from your perspective is really happening at much different absolute times.

To help grasp the situation, take a look at this Orrery view of the Solar system for August 7. Keep in mind two things. The east-to-west motion we see as the night goes on is due to the spinning of the Earth.   The night-to-night westward – downward – drift of all  is caused by the motion of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun.

Orrery view for August 7, 2012, (Click image for larger version.)

The yellow arrow in the image above shows our view of Mars and Saturn in the evening sky. As the Earth rotates counter clockwise on any given evening, first Jupiter, then Venus come into view in our morning sky – red arrow.  If you then picture the Earth moving ahead in its orbit it’s not hard to understand why Saturn and  Mars will eventually be lost from view, while Jupiter will appear earlier each evening. Venus is a bit more complex. It too will get lost in the glare of the Sun, but since it is moving faster than us the change will appear to take place fairly slowly. Maybe I’m just slow, but it has taken me years to move from these abstract representations of what we see in the sky and how the planets are moving, to get to the point where I can look up and have a genuine, intuitive sense of what’s going on. Very satisfying and worth the effort, but even if you don’t do that, it’s a wonderful show! (The Orrery view is obtained from Solar System live web site. Go there and play with the dates to see the changing motions of the planets.)

Perseids in the morning

OK – so much for the evening sky. The morning sky is really spectacular because we’re looking at a section of sky that contains a lot of our brightest stars and  two terrific star clusters, plus the two brightest planets. What backdrop for a brilliant meteor shower!

The red oval represents the area opf the sky from which the Perseid meteors appear to radiate – however, they can go in any direction from here and might appear any where in the sky. (Click image for larger version. Prepared from Starry Night Pro screen shot.) Here’s a quick guide.

Perseids – a quick guide

When:

The night of  August 11-11 starting about 90 minutes after sunset, but best after midnight. And if that night is likely to be cloudy, the next night of August 12-13 might prove to be just as good, but the best chance looks like the 11-12. (There’s no doubt you should see meteors either night – but there is doubt as to exactly when the shower will peak.)

Where:

Any place you have a clear and dark sky – the more horizon visible the better, but in truth you can only look in one area at a time, so a clear, dark sky to the northeast is best. While a Perseid meteor can appear anywhere in the sky, your best chance to see  several will be to scan the sky to the northeast in the general vicinity of the “W” of Cassiopeia.  However,  you don’t have to fixate on one region. Get comfortable, look high in the northeast, and from time to time look around to different sections of the sky to enjoy the sights and stay alert. My most memorable Perseid skimmed the horizon to the north.

What can you expect to see?

Under the best conditions at the peak of the shower, you can expect to see between one and two meteors a minute! But I never seem to achieve those best conditions, so I don’t raise my hopes too high. I’m just sure I’ll see many more meteors than normal, but fewer than I would in a year when the Perseids are at their very best.  To put numbers to it, I’d be delighted if I averaged one every five minutes. For everyone, everywhere, the intensity of the annual Perseid “meteor shower” is in a down swing, but because we’ll have little interference from the Moon, this should be a better than average year.

Meteors and meteor showers are fun if for no other reason than they are a chance to see something happening in the sky. Much of what we look at doesn’t change – or rather changes so slowly we don’t notice the change. Meteors, on the other hand, demand that you be looking in the right place at the right time. Only on the very rare, very bright meteors do we actually have time to alert others and have them turn their heads and see what we see.  And what we see is a space event happening closer to us than any other natural one. What’s more, meteors can have real scientific value.  They are viewed by some as our cheapest “space probe.” They are relatively pristine bits of matter left over from the early days of the solar system and so can tell a story to those who know how to read them.

Meteors – “falling stars ” – can be seen any time. You don’t have to wait for a “shower” like the Perseids; you just have to be lucky. But they are most frequent at certain times in the year when the Earth happens to be plowing through a meteoroid-rich area.  We call this occasion a meteor shower. (For your dictionary: A meteoroid is a small bit of space rock that becomes a meteor when it collides with our  atmosphere and heats to incandescence as it descends towards Earth. When it gets here – which is rarely as anything except fine, incinerated dust – it is a meteorite. )

The reason for a shower such as the Perseids is that we are passing through the debris trail of a comet. Think about it. The general model for a comet is a “dirty snowball,” and as that dirty snowball nears the Sun it melts, and as it melts it leaves a trail of dirt particles behind it – particles that remain in orbit until something like the Earth sweeps by and captures some of them with its gravity.

The comet itself can vanish entirely – but the result is a river of space dust – a river that is most intense nearest where the comet actually was.  That’s why there are some years – the 1990s in the case of the Perseids – when the meteor shower is more intense than others.  Now we are in a period when we are passing through the trail of the comet that creates the Perseids at a point where that trail is relatively sparse – so there will simply be fewer Perseids than there were  15-20 years ago.

That trail is not encountered all over the sky. It collides with our atmosphere near a particular point in our sky. That point is called the radiant – you might think of it as a hole through which the Perseids fall – and in the case of the Perseids, it appears to be in the constellation Perseus.  But we don’t see all the meteors at this point. We see a meteor only when its collision with our atmosphere is intense enough to make it burn up. The faint meteors we see are made by a speck of dirt about the diameter of a pencil lead. The brightest ones are caused by something about the diameter of the pencil’s eraser.  In either case it will, for all practical purposes, burn up entirely in our atmosphere – 50 to 75 miles up – and nothing significant will remain for anyone to find on Earth. But exactly where it burns up is another thing. That’s why we will see a sudden flare – a falling star – anywhere in the sky.

And that’s awesome! Consider this: If someone struck a match 50 miles away would you see it?  Yet a grain of sand, hurtling into the atmosphere, shows us such a brilliant light we can’t miss it!

When you are watching for Perseids, you don’t have to look near the radiant point, though you will see more there.  A meteor can flare up suddenly anywhere and appear to draw a short (usually 5-10 degrees long) straight line across the dome of the sky. (Bright ones may actually leave a trail, which you can see for a few seconds with the naked eye or longer with binoculars.) If we trace a line backwards along the meteor’s trail we will see it comes from the area near the radiant point.

In the early evening, that Perseid radiant point is low in the northeast. That means nearly half the meteors that are radiating from it are happening below our eastern horizon. That’s why the shower is best in the early morning hours when the radiant is high in our sky. If the radiant is overhead, then we have nearly doubled our chances of seeing a meteor.

There are many meteor showers in the course of a year and some are better than others. The Perseids is one of the most reliable ones and happens to come at a convenient time for northern hemisphere observers when it is comfortable to be out at night, lying on the ground, and looking up.

Personally, I don’t like the word “shower.” It immediately gives the impression that what we are going to see will be more intense than what most of us actually experience. I prefer calling this a meteor “event.” But, we have been calling such events “showers” for years, and too often they are hyped in the press and then people are disappointed when nothing like a shower occurs. So keep your expectations realistic and you won’t be disappointed.

In the final analysis there’s only so much time you can spend lying on your back gazing at the starry sky; though I very much enjoy that time, it’s made much more enjoyable by knowing that at any instant there’s a heightened likelihood that I will see a bright meteor.  That – and the summer Milky Way – make looking for Perseids in a dark and moonless sky always worth the effort for me.

Look east in August 2012 – kick back, lie back, look up and enjoy our home galaxy!

This is the month to meet your neighbors – a few billion of them at least!

In August we break our pattern of focusing on bright stars and instead focus on that ancient stream of stars known as the Milky Way – our own galaxy. This means observing a bit later than normal, and if you live within urban or suburban light pollution, going to where you have really dark skies. This does not mean you have to move to – or visit – Arizona. I live in one of the worst light pollution regions of the US, and I can see the Milky Way from my back yard – and see it even better if I take a 12-minute drive to a nearby wildlife sanctuary. But I do have significantly darker skies than people just a mile or two from me. You need a clear moonless night and your eyes need to be well dark adapted. Then you want to look up for a wide, faint “cloud” with a  roughly north-to-south orientation.

I’ve reduced the brightness and contrast on this image in an attempt to approximate what can be seen from an area with light to moderate light pollution. Still, a photograph always shows more – but it just can’t capture the magic of being there. In this case the photographer also caught a Perseid meteor. As you can see, the heart of the Milky Way is nicely framed by the bright Summer Triangle stars of Vega, Deneb, and Altair. Click image for larger version.

Seeing the Milky Way is worth the special effort. It is one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring astronomical sights, and your naked eye is the best way to take it all in, though binoculars will provide a special treat as well.  In what follows, we’ll focus on where you should be to observe the Milky Way, when you should look. and finally,  where in the sky you should look.

1. Where you should be

Sadly, most people today are routinely denied this sight because of light pollution, but don’t despair! While the darker your skies are, the better, like me you may find that pretty dark skies are just a short drive away. There is an international guide to light pollution and here’s what it shows for light pollution in and around “Driftway Observatory,” my backyard. (OK – actually most of southern New England!)

On this map of light pollution for southeastern New England, Driftway Observatory is right in the center on the border of an orange/yellow area. Obviously black is the best. Blue is darned good. Green and yellow are desirable. Orange means getting poor; red and white are quite terrible. You should look for at least a yellow area – but to the south of a heavily light-polluted city if possible.

You can get a map  for any region of the world. The simplest path is to go here. Scroll down, to the thumbnail maps and choose a region of the world that suits you and download the map for that region. Another path is limited to observers in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. For them there are “Clear Sky Charts” – astronomical viewing weather forecasts – for hundreds of locations. You can find a location near you by starting here.  Underneath your regional Clear Sky Chart you will see a short list of “Nifty links.” The last one takes you to a light pollution map for that region. It may be helpful to know your latitude and longitude first, so If you don’t know what it is, you can find it here. All of this is useful information for any sky observer to have, so if you track down a Clear Sky Clock for your region,f or example, bookmark it.

Here’s how to make sense of the light pollution maps in terms of seeing the Milky Way.

Red – “Milky Way at best very faint at zenith.”

Orange – “Milky Way washed out at zenith and invisible at horizon.”

Yellow – “Some dark lanes in Milky Way but no bulge into Ophiuchus. Washed out Milky Way visible near horizon.”

Green – “Milky Way shows much dark lane structure with beginnings of faint bulge into Ophiuchus.”

If you can get into the blue, grey, or black areas – enjoy! I envy you ;-)

One critical point though: Pay attention to where there are cities. They will create light domes that will wash out at least areas fairly low in the sky. In my situation I have two small cities, Fall River to the northwest and New Bedford to the northeast. Both have populations of around 100,000 and both create light domes in those regions of the sky. Fortunately, the northern sky isn’t important for seeing the Milky Way, especially in August. But if you have a large city – or shopping mall, or anything that might create a light dome – it is better to look for an area south of it. In August in mid-northern latitudes the  Milky  Way is best from right overhead on down to the southern horizon. That’s why my best view is from a wildlife sanctuary just a few miles away and right on the north shore of  Buzzards Bay and the ocean. It means when I’m looking at the southern Milky Way – towards the very center of our galaxy – I’m seeing it over a huge expanse of water where light pollution is the least.

2. When to look

Begin looking early on a moonless, August evening and ideally, when the skies are crystal clear – frequently this comes right after a cold front passes. Although the Milky Way can be seen many months of the year, one of the best times to see it is in August, about two hours after sunset. In 2012 your best views will come between August 6th and 22nd – on other dates the Moon is more likely to interfere. Of course, when the Moon is young and waxing you can always wait for it to set – and when it is old and waning  you need to make sure it hasn’t risen yet. For a Moon calendar for any month go here.  If you miss it in the first two weeks of August, try again the first two weeks of September - this guide will still be useful, though everything will have moved higher and to the west a bit.

I say two hours after  sunset because it takes that long in mid-northern latitudes for it to get fully dark at this time of year, and you need full darkness. (You can find out the local time Astronomical Twilight ends – when it is fully dark – by going to this Web site. From the drop-down menu you’ll find there, choose “astronomical twilight.”) However, you can certainly start looking earlier. This is something where beach chairs or lounges are nice, and maybe even a blanket.  You can start about an hour after sunset when the brightest stars are visible. This will help you get your bearings and you can dark adapt as the skies get darker.

Finally, you need to protect your eyes from white lights. It takes 10-15 minutes for your eyes to become about 50 percent dark adapted. At that point your color vision is as good as it will get, but your sensitivity to dim light will continue to increase. In another 15 minutes or so you will reach about 90 percent dark adaption. The remaining 10 percent can take as long as four hours.  So I consider that after half an hour my eyes are about as good as I can expect them to be.  During all this time and beyond you should avoid looking at white light. You can use a red light to check a chart if you like, but keep it dim and use it sparingly. If you’re in a location where automobiles drive by, don’t look at them – close your eyes and turn away.

Where to look

When you set up your blanket or lounge chair, do your best to align it on a north-south axis with your head to the north and feet to the south. You may want to favor the east just a bit.

What you want to find as you start out is the familiar guidepost stars of the Summer Triangle – Vega, Deneb, and Altair. These were new guidepost stars in May, June, and July. If you are just starting this journey in August,they are still easy to pick out from our chart.  As the sky in the east starts to darken they will be the first stars visible, 30-45 minutes after sunset.

Click image for a larger view. (Derived from a Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

You can download a printer friendly version of this chart here.

The brightest – and highest – of the three will be Vega, which will be approaching a point overhead. There are roughly two fists (24 degrees) between Vega and Deneb and nearly four fists (39 degrees) between  Deneb and Altair, so the Triangle is huge.

These three Summer Triangle stars roughly bracket the Milky Way – that is Vega is near the western border, Altair the eastern border, and Deneb is about at midstream.  But you need to wait, of course, for it to get darker before you can see the Milky Way.   The boundaries of the Milky Way, as with any stream, are not sharp and regular. It tends to meander a bit with little pools of light and some deep, dark areas as well.

As the skies darken and your eyes continue to dark adapt, you should try to find three distinctive asterisms that will anchor both ends of the Milky Way, plus the middle.  If you have found Deneb, then you have the first star in the Northern Cross. In fact, you may want to see this as a stick figure of the constellation Cygnus the Swan.  In that case, Deneb marks its tail; the bar of the cross, its wings, and its long neck stretch out to the south as if it were flying down the Milky Way. To the north you should locate the “W” of Cassiopeia described in detail in our “Look North” post this month. And to the south, find the “Teapot,” which we described in more detail last month. Here’s a chart showing the whole sweep of that section of sky.

Click image for larger view. (derived from Starry Nights Pro screens hot.)

You can download a printer friendly version of this chart here.

Now, if it is about two hours after sunset and if you are in a location away from light pollution and, of course, are enjoying one of those crystal clear nights with dark-adapted eyes, then you also should be seeing the Milky Way. It only takes time and patience for you to trace it out – to see areas that are brighter than others – as well as some dark patches that don’t mean the absence of stars, but the presence of obscuring dust. But don’t think of the dust as getting in the way – think of it as star stuff – for what you are seeing in many sections of the Milky Way are the parts of our galaxy where new stars are being born. Relax and explore with your binoculars – start to absorb the majesty of millions – no billions – of stars!  If conditions are right – and you have a dark sky – it will look to the naked eye like faint clouds that get brighter as your eye traces them out from north to south.

And what is it you are seeing and why does it appear this way to you? That’s the important question. And this is where you have to do some mental gymnastics.

Think of our galaxy as a large pizza pie with extra cheese and goodies heaped in the center.  Now put yourself away from that center – perhaps one-half of the way towards one edge and buried down at the level of the crust. That’s a pretty good simulation of our galaxy and our place in it. You really need to get outside it – we can only do this in our imaginations – and look at it from that perspective. If we could get outside it, here’s approximately what we would see:

Two view of our Galacy, the Milky Way. The one on the left is from  aposition above it, the one on the right shopws you the galaxy edge-on.  This is a screen shot from the wonderful, free software, "Where is  M13."

The image on the left is how we think our galaxy would look if we could get above it and look down on it – like a big pinwheel of stars.  And what if you could see it edge on? Well, that’s the picture on the right. (This is a screen shot  from a wonderful – and free – software program called “Where is M13” that helps you understand where various objects really are in relation to us and the rest of the galaxy.)

OK – focus on the edge-on image – and note how really thin most of the galaxy is. It is about 100,000 light years across, but on average just 1,000 light years thick.

plane_view_MW

Now imagine yourself on a small dot (the Earth) rotating around that small dot in our image – the Sun. Do you see a lot of stars when you look “up” – that is, look in the direction of the words  “The Sun.”

No – in fact, if you look down, you don’t see many stars either – or for that matter, if you look in just about any direction there are relatively few stars visible to you. Why? Because the disc is just 1,000 light years thick, and most of the time you’re looking right through it the short way.  But  look along the plane of the galaxy – say  directly to the right or left – and what a difference!

Looking to the left you see many stars – in fact, a thin river of stars. Looking this direction, you’re looking through about 20,000 light years of star-filled space. We are looking along the plane, generally towards the outer rim, when we look at the W of Cassiopeia. Look along the plane to the right, and you see even more stars in a much wider river. Now you’re looking through about 30,000 light years of star-filled space and then right at the star-rich, galaxy core. And this, in a general way, is what we are doing when we look toward the Teapot of Sagittarius. That’s why the Milky Way is so much brighter and denser in that direction.

Not too difficult to understand – but this is only a rough sketch. As recently as 2008 scientists came up with a much different perspective of our galaxy than we had had up until then. Prior to the latest study, we thought the galaxy was a spiral with a bulge in the center and four main arms. Now they see it as a barred spiral – that is, the bulge in the center looks more like a bar that spills into two – not four – main spiral arms. There are other smaller arms in the spiral, and it all gets quite complex.

The problem, of course, is there is no way we can get outside our galaxy and look in. The distances are incredibly vast. Even if we could send a space probe at the speed of light, it would be thousands of years before it got outside our galaxy, took some pictures of us, and sent those pictures back. So we have to try to decide what the galaxy really looks like from the outside by studying it from the inside. Imagine, for a moment, being inside your body and trying to figure out what you look  like by what you can see from the inside, and you get an idea of the problem. Fortunately we can see other galaxies, and in later months we’ll be looking at one that looks a lot like what we think ours would look like if we could only get outside it and look back.

Meanwhile, relax – look up – and dream of all  the wonders that are out there and sending their messages back to you in the form of millions of tireless photons that have traveled thousands of years to reach your eyes and ping your brain on this dreamy August evening.  Harvest some of those photons by surfing the Milky Way with your binoculars. You will notice that in some areas it is quite dense and you may even discover some tiny, tight clusters of new stars – or a globular cluster of old stars, or even a little hazy patch where new stars are being born.  You need a telescope to see these well, but you can just discern some of them with binoculars, and with telescope or binoculars, what you really need to see with is your mind’s eye. Knowing what you are looking at is what brings this faint cloud alive and turns it into the awesome collection of billions of stars – and more billions of planets –  that it is.

Look North In August 2012 – All hail the Queen! (OK – the “W”)

Click image for larger view. (Derived from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

For printer friendly chart, download this.

The easily recognizable “W” of Cassiopeia (kass ee oh pee’ uh), the Queen, is well up in the northeast early on an August evening. Find it and you have a good starting point for tracing the Milky Way on south through Deneb.

When the “W” circles to a point high overhead, it will look like an “M,” of course, but that’s just part of the fun. Some people also see this asterism as forming the chair – or throne – for Cassiopeia. I like it because along with the Big Dipper, it nicely brackets the north celestial pole and provides another rough guide for finding Polaris. As the “W” rises, the Dipper plunges until it may be too close to the horizon for many to see. Both the stars of the Dipper and the stars of the “W” are 28 degrees from Polaris – roughly three fists.  When the Dipper gets on the horizon, the “W”  turns into an “M” directly above Polaris, so just measure three fists down from this “M” and you should be in the right region for finding the North Star.

Normally I do not find constellations or their associated myths too useful. Cassiopeia is an exception. Knowing the myth connected with this constellation will help you remember several important neighbors, and though we’ll meet these in the next two months, I’ll give you a “heads up” now and repeat the story when we meet the others. It goes like this:

Cepheus (King of Ethiopia)  and Cassiopeia (Queen of Ethiopia) have a beautiful daughter, Andromeda. Cassiopeia bragged so much about Andromeda’s beauty, that the sea nymphs got angry and convinced Poseidon to send a sea monster to ravage Ethiopia’s coast. To appease the monster, Cepheus and Cassiopeia  chained the poor child (Andromeda)  to a rock. But don’t worry. Perseus is nearby and comes to the rescue of the beautiful maiden, and they ride off into the sunset on Pegasus, Perseus’ flying horse! These five constellations – Cepheus, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Perseus, and Pegasus – are all close to one another in the sky and all are visible in the fall, so we will meet them soon.

One of the bright stars of Cassiopeia is also a special aid to finding your way around the heavens, but in a more modern sense. It is part of an asterism known as the “Three Guides.”  These three bright stars are all very close to the Zero Hour Right Ascension circle in the equatorial coordinate system – the system that is roughly the celestial equivalent of latitude and longitude and is commonly used to give a permanent address to stars and other celestial objects. These three bright stars mark a great circle that goes through both celestial poles and the equinoxes and is known by the eminently forgettable name of  “equinoctial colure.”

Click image for larger view. (See note at end of post for source of this drawing.)

We’ll meet the other two stars in this asterism next month, but for now, simply take note of Beta Cassiopeia.It’s marked on our chart and is the bright star at that end of the “W” that is highest in the sky this month. Remember that this star is very near the “0” hour  circle, which you can visualize by drawing an imaginary line from Polaris through Beta Cassiopeia and eventually the south celestial pole. This line will cross the ecliptic at the equinoxes.  Of course, this helps only if you are familiar with the equatorial coordinate system! If that means nothing to you, then don’t clutter your mind with this right now.

The source for the drawing showing the equinoctial colure can be found here.

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