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    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

Events July 2011 – Neptune celebrates Year One! Plus – let the Moon find stuff for you.

Can you imagine it? Neptune, the most distant full-sized planet, becomes One Neptunian Year Old on July 12! Should we sing happy birthday? Or Happy New Year?  Or how about just getting to know it a little better, then seeing if we can locate it with our binoculars?

Click for larger image. (Graphics courtesy of NASA - Neptune "facts" added by me. )

That’s right – Neptune was discovered on the night of  September 23/24, 1846.  That’s when it entered the awareness zone of the inhabitants of the third rock from the Sun.  And it has taken it all this time to make a single trip around Sol – almost 165 years.

So – your challenge this month will be to reprise the discovery of Neptune – but we won’t ask you to do the astounding math that led to its discovery in the first place.  What I really like, is when Neptune first was discovered, a graduate student working on the project exclaimed: “That star is not on the map!”

You bet – because that “star” is not a star, but a planet – a “wanderer.”  But when you look at it with your binoculars it will look pretty much like any other star – which is why it fooled some of the greatest observers, including Galileo.  In fact, even if you own a small telescope it will take very high power and steady seeing to see the disc of Neptune. Galileo recorded this “star” twice in 1613 even noting that it had moved – but he didn’t understand the significance of what he had seen. Of course, he had a lot of other things on his mind at the time and everyone assumed then that the Solar System ended with Saturn.  Who even dreamed there were two huge, exotic chunks of ice out there, Uranus and Neptune, yet to be discovered?

But first . . . we interrupt this program for this special message . . . !

I have to admit, Neptune is a challenge object, and if you’re just starting out with your exploration of the universe, why not let the Moon be your guide this month to some more modest finds? It can lead you to Mercury, Mars, one of our bright guide stars, Antares – and if you’re an early riser, even to the Pleiades! So if you feel finding Neptune is a bit much for you, then try using the Moon as a “guide star” to help you discover brighter objects you can see with the naked eye.  Jump to here for all the details.

 . . . and now back to our regularly scheduled program

OK – Neptune shines on the bright side of magnitude 8, which means it should be visible in ordinary binoculars under reasonably dark skies, although 50mm binoculars will give you a better chance, and my favorite  for this kind of a  project are a pair of inexpensive 15X70 Celestrons. I found it in a few minutes with 15X70 binoculars – with 7X35 binoculars it was just on the edge of visibility. If your skies are real dark, they would work, but I recommend at least 50mm binoculars for this project.  But whatever your binoculars, it’s important you know two things about them – their field of view, and how bright a magnitude 8 “star” such as Neptune will appear in them.

Field of view (fov) is fairly easy since on most binoculars it is written on them in degrees. If it isn’t you can make the assumption that if they are 7 power, then they probably have a fov of about 7 degrees. Ten power binoculars will have a smaller field, closer to 5 or 6 degrees, and the 15X ones I favor have a 4.5° fov.  I show a couple of different fields on the accompanying star charts so you can get an idea of how much sky you see when you use your binoculars.

Knowing how bright a magnitude 8 star should appear in your binoculars is a little tricky, but fortunately there is one fairly close to Neptune, and it will be a big help. Your binoculars, of course, gather much more light than your eye and thus you will see many more stars than you can see with your eyes alone.  Not only that, but stars you do see with the naked eye will appear brighter in the binoculars.

Start the search!

Yes, let’s get going. The Moon will offer the least interference in the first 13 days of the month.  If you don’t find Neptune by July 13, you may want to wait until the Moon is past last quarter – the final week of July.  This is an early morning project, since Neptune doesn’t rise until about three hours after sunset and  you really want it to be as high in the sky as it gets to make the search easiest.  Unfortunately, by the time Neptune is due south and at its highest point, morning twilight has already begun. So I suggest you fudge it and set your observational goal for a  2 – 3 am start time.

At that hour you want to look generally south – well, a tad east – into a sky that is really quite empty of bright  stars and clear guideposts.  The brightest star in the general vicinity is Fomalhaut, but there are two other reasonably bright stars nearby that can serve to  guide you. Take a careful look at this chart. What looks like a triangle drawn by a 2-year-old on the right is actually the relatively faint constellation Capricornus. In classic terms you can put these stars together to form a mythical creature known as the “Sea Goat” – half goat, half shark. Good luck. I see a big awkward triangle and the tail end – eastern most – has two third magnitude stars that are pretty easy to pick up, the brighter being named Deneb Algiedi.

Use this chart to make sure you have the general location of Neptune. Click for a larger version. Read more about it below. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot. )

For a  orinter friendly version of this chart, click here.

A tale of two tails

Get your general bearings by identifying the  three brighter stars in view. Fomalhaut is a first magnitude guidepost star and will be about 16 degrees above the horizon while Neptune is more than twice that altitude. Deneb Kaitos (the Sea Monster’s tail) is magnitude 2 – the same brightness as the North Star, Polaris.  Deneb Algiedi (the Sea Goat’s tail) is a bit dimmer at magnitude 2.8, but more important to our search. Finally, the “Circlet” is in Pisces – yep we have a whale, or sea monster, some fish, and a “sea goat,” a very nautical section of sky. The “Circlet” consists of fourth and fifth magnitude stars in Pisces and if you can see these, count yourself as having good, dark skies.  But don’t expect the “Circlet”to jump out at you – these stars are as faint as most of the stars in the Little Dipper.

And now, Neptune!

A simple star hop takes you to Neptune - see explanation in text below. Click for larger image. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

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

Using this chart – First, your binoculars may show more stars than these, but they will all be fainter than Neptune. The larger numbers, 1, 12, and 31, mark the position of Neptune on those dates in July 2011. Of course, you may spot it on a different date and thus at a slightly different position along an imaginary line connecting all the dates. The other numbers you see represent star magnitudes to one-tenth of a magnitude – only we don’t put a period in the number because it might be mistaken for a star. Thus “78,” for example, means magnitude 7.8.

Hop 1 –  Locate Deneb Algiedi and its slightly dimmer companion in your binoculars.

Hop 2 – Use this bright pair as a rough guide as you move to the left (eastward) with your binoculars and come to Magnitude 4.3 Iota Aquarii.  (You should be able to see this with your naked eye, as well.)

Hop 3 – Draw mental line between Iota and slightly brighter Theta Aquarii. It’s about 6.5 degrees away so you may not fit it in the same binocular field.  But Neptune lies right along that line.

Hop 4 – The 5.4 magnitude star about one third of the way along this line between Iota and Theta,  anchors a rectangle (as shown)  that includes stars of 7.4, 6.6, and 7.8 magnitude. That last star  – magnitude 7.8 – is especially interesting because that’s the exact magnitude of Neptune.  So on the first of July, for example, that star is on one side of the 5.4 star while Neptune is about the same distance away on the other side. It’s that 7.8 magnitude star that tells you how bright such a star should appear in your binoculars – very faint – and thus tells you what you should expect to see in terms of Neptune.

Of course, if you really want to be sure you have found the “wanderer” Neptune, then you need to make your own chart – you can do that from the one supplied – and mark on it where you believe Neptune is on at least two nights. Ideally they would be several days apart so you could detect the motion.

Planet hunting – at least hunting a faint, distant planet like Neptune –  is not easy.  Just taking up this little challenge should help you appreciate the task astronomers had 165 years ago.  But if you want to know more, I highly recommend you read the article in Sky and Telescope magazine for  July 2011. You can find the story told elsewhere on the Web – it involved  mathematical predictions from two different sources – but what i feel is the definitive article on the subject is in  this month’s S&T.

Let the Moon be your guide

Here’s a simple idea. Everyone can find the Moon when it’s in the sky, so why not take advantage of its travels and use it to point the way to bright stars and planets?

OK? Let’s do that! As the Moon changes location and size during the month, I’ll point out some key items in its neighborhood.  You, of course, have to look on the date specified,  And here are a couple of quibbles:

1. As the Moon gets closer to being full it’s glare will tend to drown out all but the brightest stars near it. Sometimes you may even need binoculars to see some stars that are near.

2. My charts are precise only for my latitude and longitude – roughly 42° N latitude and 71° west longitude – the East Coast of America. If you are on the West Coast the Moon will have moved a bit eastward, for example,  (It moves at the rate of half a degree an hour – that means it changes position by the size of its own diameter every hour.  This should not matter much. Just use the charts as a general guide if you live in  North Amerca.  Elsewhere in the world the difference could be significant – as much as about 12 degrees,

That said – here are the key dates to look for the Moon – and the objects expected near it, for July 2011.  Pick a date and give it a try. Even if you know the object, it could help you develop a better feel for the night sky.

July 2 and 3  – Locate  Mercury

Always hard to find because it is frequently lost in twilight when visible, Mercury makes a good appearance this month in the western evening sky. Start looking about 30 minutes after sunset.  You may also pick up Castor and Pollux, but they will be fainter than Mercury. And finding any of these objects requires an unobstructed western horizon and clear skies. Binoculars are extremely helpful as well.

Click image for larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Click image for larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

July 4 – passing Regulus

Click image for larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

July 7 – first quarter Moon with Saturn, Spica, and the “Sail”

I love this grouping. It will help you find Saturn, always a delight in any size telescope, as well as identify another bright “guidepost” star, Spica. Finally, though you’ll probably need binoculars to pull it out of the Moon’s glare, the “Sail” is a favorite asterism, for it looks like the sail on the old, gaff-rigged Beetle Catboat I spent so many wonderful summer days sailing.  These stars are more formerly  a major part of the constellation Corvus.

Click image for larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

July 11 – to the Heart of the Scorpion!

Here’s a constellation I love with a bright, red guidepost star, Antares.  And here’s the moon – getting near full and passing very close to Antares which is at the heart of Scorpius. Try using binoculars if you don’t see this bright star at first – you should be able to pick it up with it’s two companion.  But the Moon will certainly do its best to drown it out.

Click image for larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Time to switch to the morning sky! July 24 – the Moon and Jupiter.

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

July 25 – the Moon and the Pleiades

Click for larger image. (Prepared from Starry Night Pro screen shot.)

July 26, 2011 – Crescent Moon, the Hyades, and Aldebaran

Click image for larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

July 27, 2011 – Could that be Mars? you bet!

The small, red planet is barely first magnitude. But since it is within about three degrees of the Moon you should be able to fit them both in the same binocular field of view about two hours before sunrise when they are roughly 10 degrees – one fist – above  the eastern horizon.

Click image for larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Look East in July 2011 – Great Stars, Great Asterisms – even a Great Constellation!

Well, a “great constellation” if you look southeast. I’m not a big fan of constellations. Most don’t look anything like their names imply; some are quite obscure; and many simply can’t be seen in typical suburban skies these days. Scorpius is an exception. It looks like the Scorpion of its name – a truly beautiful constellation. What’s more, many of its brighter stars actually do hang out together – they are not just an accident of our line of sight.

The Scorpion as Bayer saw him in his 1603 illustrated star atlas, Uranometria. Click for a much larger image. (Used by permission from the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology.)

It dominates our southeastern sky in July, just as the Summer Triangle – a terrific asterism, dominates our eastern sky this month. And we have two fascinating new “guide” stars – the intriguingly close and rapidly spinning Altair – and the incredibly huge and red Antares that is right at the heart of the Scorpion! Let’s take a look at the chart first, then examine these stars along with their quaint little companion, a very real looking teapot complete with “steam” coming out of its spout! Wow! Summer nights may be short, but they sure offer some nice visual treats!

Oh - about that "teapot." We won't discuss it, but you can clearly see it tagging behind the scorpion. If you have real clear skies, the Milky Way is beautiful in this area and looks like steam rising from the teapot. More on this next month. Meanwhile, click image for a larger version. (Developed from a Starry Nights Pro screen shot. )

For a printer-friendly version of this chart, click here.

First up is the Summer Triangle – it’s an asterism that you can’t miss, and it will grace our evening skies right up into early winter. If you’ve been following for a few months, you’ve already met its lead star, brilliant Vega. And last month we were introduced to Deneb on the other corner. In fact, we saw that we could make a quite impressive Northern Triangle out of Deneb, Vega, and Polaris. But better known than that asterism is the Summer Triangle shown above of Vega, Deneb, and Altair.

Altair is hard to miss. It is the brightest star low in the east early on a July evening, but it is also distinctive because it has two reasonably bright companions, close on either side, that form a straight line with it. This is appropriate because it’s not hard to see Altair and those two companions as representing an eagle in flight, and that’s good because they are the major stars in a constellation known as Aquilla, the Eagle.

Altair is white, much like Deneb and Vega, and is even closer to us than Vega. Vega is 25 light years away, Altair just 16. That’s in contrast to Deneb, which you may recall is an astounding 1,425 light years from us – astounding because even at that distance it is almost as bright as its much closer companions. Altair also distinguishes itself by spinning incredibly fast. It takes our Sun almost a month to complete a rotation on its axis. Altair, almost twice as large as our Sun, spins once on its axis in just 10 hours. Why, I don’t know, but it’s one more reminder of how these stars, which all look pretty much the same to us because they’re so far away, all have their special traits that distinguish them as individuals.

The most obvious special trait for Antares, our other guide star this month, is its redness – and it’s one of only four guide stars that is quite close to the ecliptic – the path of the planets. That means that reddish Mars comes close, sometimes, to reddish Antares, and that’s appropriate because the name “Antares” actually means “like Mars.” However, science tells us something else about Antares. It is huge. I mean BIG.

Get out your calculator and do a little simple math. (OK, I’ll do the math, but really – this is simple, and I think you would appreciate the numbers much more if you did the calculations yourself.) One possible source of confusion:  To visualize a sphere I use its diameter. To actually calculate things I need the radius – since a radius is half of a diameter  you’ll find me jumping back and forth between these two terms – don’t let it confuse you.)

So try this. Start with something manageable, like the Earth. It’s about 8,000 miles in diameter and that’s a number that’s fairly easy to imagine. Let’s reduce Earth to a ball 2 inches in diameter. It would have a radius, then, of one inch.

Now let’s make a scale model Sun to go with our Earth. That’s easy. The radius of the Sun is 109 times the radius of the Earth. That means the Sun will have a radius of 109 inches – roughly 9 feet. So now we have a one-inch Earth and a 9-foot Sun. So our scale model has two balls – one two inches in diameter to represent the Earth and one 18 feet in diameter to represent the Sun.

That certainly should tell you that the Sun is a lot bigger than Earth, but my problem is, these linear measures don’t give us a really good sense of the size difference. We need to visualize spheres in terms of volume. We can get a rough approximation of the  volume  of a sphere by simply cubing the radius and multiplying it by 4. If we do this for our scale model Earth we have (1 x 1 x 1) x 4 – or four cubic inches. Now to calculate the volume of our scale model Sun – in cubic inches – we multiply 109 x 109 x 109, then multiply that by 4. Wow! Well, if you tried it on your calculator I hope you said “Wow!” You should get 5,180,116. That means you can fit well over one million Earths in our Sun! That to me is a lot more impressive than the linear measure where we find the Sun is about 109 times the diameter (or 109 times the radius) of Earth.

Now let’s do a similar exercise with Antares. Antares has a radius more than 800 times the Sun. Do the math. Our scale model Sun has a radius of  9 feet – our scale model Antares will have a radius in feet of 9 x 800. Man, that’s big. About 7,200 feet!  (Just remind yourself that a mile is 5,280-feet.)  So now we have three models – a 2-inch diameter Earth, an 18-foot diameter Sun, and a 14,400-foot diameter Antares – that last is approaching three miles!

Don’t bother to calculate the volume. Unless you use scientific notation, your calculator probably won’t handle it. But you get the idea. That little dot of red light we call Antares is B-I-G. And don’t forget – on this same scale the huge planet you are standing on is just 2-inches in diameter.

Here’s a graphic representation courtesy of Sakurambo:

Notice the artist didn’t even attempt to represent the Earth on this scale!

Think of it this way. If Antares were our star, both the Earth and Mars would be orbiting inside it!

That’s huge – even bigger than Deneb – which we noted last month was a “supergiant” – the same class that Antares belongs in. But Deneb would only reach about halfway to Earth – Antares would go past both Earth and Mars. Deneb, however, is a very young, very bright, very hot star, which is why it shines so brightly from such a great distance. Antares is much closer – about 600 light years vs 1,425 for Deneb. But Antares is old – a star in its dying stages, and is large and bright because it is so bloated. It really is quite cool as stars go – that’s why it appears red to us. But it has such a huge surface area that even from a distance of 600 light years it appears bright to us – a bit brighter in our sky than Deneb, actually.

So let’s briefly consider these four guide stars together – Vega is our “standard” star – white, about the size of the Sun, and quite close at 25 light years. Altair has some unusual features, but is still rather normal as stars go. Deneb is distinguished by being large and hot; Antares by being even larger, but relatively cool.

Vital stats for Altair (AL-tair), also known as Alpha Aquilae:

• Brilliance: Magnitude .77; its luminosity is the equal of 11 Suns.
• Distance:16.8 light years
• Spectral Types: A, main sequence
• Position: 19h:50m:47s, +08°:52′:06″

Vital stats for Antares (an-TAIR-ease), also known as Alpha Scorpii:

• Brilliance: Magnitude 1.09; its luminosity is the equal of 65,000 Suns.
• Distance: 600 light years
• Spectral Types: M, supergiant
• Position: 16h:29m:24s, -26°:25′:55″

Look north in July 2011 and take the measure of your skies and eyes!

Light pollution is a big issue these days. How does it impact you? Summer is a good time to check by looking north about two hours after sunset and seeing what stars you can see in and near the Little Dipper. Why summer? Because this is when the Little Dipper should be highest in your sky – standing upwards from Polaris, the North Star. Here’s what you should see on a typical July evening when you look north from mid-northern latitudes.

In summer the faint stars of the Little Dipper are high above the North Star. Click image for larger view. (Derived from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

For a printer-friendly version of this chart, click here.

The Big Dipper is diving downward in the northwest but is still very high, and its handy “pointers” should get you quickly to the North Star, Polaris. Roughly opposite the Big Dipper you should see the “W” of Cassiopeia starting to make its way upward in the northeast. And unless you suffer from really terrible light pollution, you should see the two “Guardians of the Pole” – the second and third magnitude stars that mark the end of the Little Dipper. The brighter of these two is just a tad dimmer than Polaris, but since it’s higher in the sky right now and thus shining through less air to get to you, it will probably look just the same as the North Star in brightness.

To do this test you first have to wait until it is genuinely dark, and in summer that’s a bit longer than in winter. Twilight actually is divided into three steps. We have civil twilight which goes from sunset until when the Sun is six degrees below the horizon. Nautical twilight is the next period, which continues until the Sun is 12 degrees below the horizon. Then you have Astronomical Twilight until the Sun is 18 degrees below the horizon. At that point it is as dark as it will get and will remain that dark until we run the sequence in reverse as the eastern horizon nears the Sun. As a general rule of thumb, you can consider each twilight period to last half an hour – but the exact length depends on where you are on Earth and the time of year. If you want to get precise, go to the U.S. Naval Observatory site, fill in the form you’ll find there, and you can get a table that will give you the start and end of these twilight times – or for that matter when the Moon rises, or the Sun sets. It’s very handy. (Note: the preceding link takes you to a page for US cities and towns – but there’s a second page here where you can put in the latitude and longitude for any location in the world, including in the US. )

The second thing you need to do is make sure your eyes are dark adapted. They are casually dark adapted after you have been out for 15 minutes and have not looked at any white lights. But it can take from half an hour to an hour of protecting your eyes from any white light for them to become fully dark adapted. That doesn’t mean you have to sit around in the dark doing nothing waiting for this to happen. In the last hour or so before full darkness there are plenty of things to see – just avoid bright lights. That also means moonlight. You’re going to want to do this when the Moon is not in the sky, for it will make it difficult to see faint objects anywhere near it. In July of 2011 the first five days or the last 10 days should work pretty well.  In the middle of the month, the Moon will dominate the evening sky.   (A good Moon-phase calendar can be found here, though for this purpose I find the table from the Naval Observatory for local Moon rise is also handy!)

So here’s the test:

How many stars can you see in the Little Dipper?

The Little Dipper consists of seven stars. Three are easy – Polaris and the two “Guardians” marked “21” and “30” on the chart below. If you can see only one of the “Guardians,” then your skies are limited to magnitude 2 stars and brighter – very poor. If you see both, but no other stars in the Little Dipper, then your limit is magnitude 3.

On our chart below, the magnitude of each star is listed as a whole number so as not to put decimal points on the chart that might then be confused for faint stars! So when you see a star listed as “21” that means “magnitude 2.1.”

For a printer-friendly version of this chart, click here.

Even in good, dark skies the other four stars in the Little Dipper may not be that easy to see – and the faintest ones may require averted vision – that is, don’t look exactly where the star should be. Instead, look a little to one side or the other, and the star may pop into view. That’s because the center of your eyes are not as sensitive to faint light as the outer regions of your eyes.

Here’s another little trick that may help you locate these faint stars – use binoculars. With typical, hand-held binoculars you may be able to fit all four stars of the Little Dipper’s “cup” into the same field of view. If not, get the “Guardians” in your field of view, then move just a little to where the other two stars of the “cup” should be. This does not count, of course, for the light pollution test. For that test we’re trying to determine the faintest star you can see with the naked eye. But looking first at the stars with binoculars helps assure you that they really are there! You also can trace out the handle this way, though you will have to move your binoculars to do so.

If you can locate all the stars in the Little Dipper with your naked eye, you have very dark skies – congratulations. To see how good they are – and continue to test your eyesight and dark adaption – look for the stars marked “55” and “60” on our chart.

The star marked “60” is traditionally thought of as the faintest you can see with your naked eye. That’s a magnitude 6 star. In really pristine skies, such as those over Mauna Kea in Hawaii, experienced observers with excellent eyes can detect stars down to magnitude 8 with the naked eye. Personally, I’m happy when I can see all the stars in the Little Dipper and especially happy if I can get that “55” star – I’ve never seen the “60” one with my naked eye. But relative to the heavily light-polluted eastern seaboard of the US, I have dark skies.

This is not simply a good guide to light pollution in your area. It also is a handy guide to tell you just how good the skies are on any given night – and to show you how well you have dark adapted at any given moment. So whenever I go out to observe I frequently glance at the Little Dipper to test both my developing night vision and the clarity of the skies. (It never fails to amaze me how much and how quickly my night vision changes. )

To the casual observer all clear nights are equal. But the experienced star gazer knows they are not, and the stars in and about the Little Dipper are a good guide, especially in the summer months when they are so high in the sky.

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