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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 February 2013 – now that’s close but Mercury will be more fun!

Here’s a prediction: The news media will focus about mid-month on a tiny object you can’t see – and ignore a dazzling appearance by zippy Mercury and its meeting with Mars that you can see!

The tiny object you can’t see is asteroid 2012 DA 14  and it will get all the attention because it will be passing very, very close to Earth – well, very close in space terms – something like 18,000 miles in real terms.  No, don’t get nervous – it won’t hit us. (Of course, I’ve read three different predictions of how close it will come, but what’s a small error among friends 😉 Anyway, to put that in perspective, that’s about 60 times farther from us than the International Space Station, but closer to us than our geosynchronous satellites orbit and roughly one-twelfth the distance to the Moon.

NASA chart - click for larger image

NASA chart – click for larger image

Yep, that’s close. But when it happens, this asteroid – which is roughly about half the size of a football field – will be magnitude 8 – barely visible in good binoculars – and at that, visible only to observers in Europe and Asia who look in just the right place at just the right time.  (To find out where to go – and what to input – in order to learn where and when to see it, read this Sky and Telescope post.)

Now Mercury is a sight worth seeing – and not half as challenging

OK – a much, much easier target, though whimsical and quick in its own right – is Mercury, which does a little dance with Mars early this month before climbing into easier view a week later – then doing a heavenly Cheshire Cat act andvanishing almost as quickly as it appeared, which is why we frequently put the word “fleeting” in front of the name “Mercury.” And finding Mercury low in the southwest will be a great warm-up exercise for Comet PanSTARRS – scout out a good observing spot with unobscured western horizon to see Mercury and you have your ring-side seat for Comet PanSTARRS in March!

Start on February 7th and/or 8th

Mercury and Mars on the evening of February 7, 2013 about half an hour after sunset.

Mercury and Mars on the evening of February 7, 2013, about half an hour after sunset.

Here’s the drill:

  • Find an area with an unobstructed western horizon.
  • Go out just before sunset and note where on the horizon the Sun sets – it will be about halfway between west and southwest.
  • Wait half an hour and look for Mercury to emerge in the twilight less than a fist – about seven degrees – above the horizon and just a tad south of where the Sun set.
  • Use binoculars. Though you probably will be able to see Mercury with your naked eye – it is magnitude minus one –  Mars at magnitude one (more than six times fainter) will be much more difficult. But if you can find Mercury in your binoculars, you should see Mars as well. One quibble – they are very close to each other, and you may need to mount your binoculars on a tripod to split them – or even use a small telescope. Exactly how close depends on exactly where you are viewing from – they will be a bit closer for viewers on the West Coast than for those on the East Cast of the US.

As the twilight deepens they will be easier to see – but at the same time they will be getting closer to the horizon and thus more difficult to see because you are looking through more disturbed air at that point.  This is exactly the kind of race you are likely to have next month with Comet PanSTARRS, which will be near the western horizon after sunset and will get easier to see as twilight deepens – and yet, more difficult to see as it moves lower. With such objects there is always a time – totally unpredictable because it depends on local conditions – when you have the best view.

If the weather doesn’t cooperate, try the same drill on either of the next two nights. Mercury will be zipping by Mars. They actually are so close on February 8 it will take a small telescope to “split” them – they will be like a double star.  On February 9 Mars will be below Mercury and should be easy to see again in binoculars.

Best View of Mercury Alone

From the 11th – when Mercury is quite near the Moon – to the 20th, Mercury will be quite easy to see.

On the 11th it’s about five degrees below a very thin crescent Moon – should be able to just squeeze the two in a typical, low-power binocular field of view.

Each night Mercury will continue to be higher at the same time – about 30 minutes after sunset – BUT it is toying with us because as it gets higher it also gets dimmer! On the 11th it is still about minus 1 in brightness.  By the time it reaches its peak in height – around the 16th-to-18th – it has dropped to near magnitude zero. It continues to be quite high up through the 26th, but by that time it has dropped to magnitude 2 – a real challenge to pick out in the twilight.

Bottom line – try to catch it near Mars – that’s really fun. And if you miss that – try to catch it between then and the 19th or 20th. Oh – and if you do have a small telescope, it will make an interesting sight during these twilight hours. Talk about the Cheshire Cat, it will be smiling at us – really! Around the 12th it will look a bit like a quarter moon – half  lit. Twelve days later it will be just a thin crescent – which is why, of course, it is getting dimmer! So the smile gets bigger as the celestial cat vanishes. Oh my!

What else is there?

Well you can’t ignore Jupiter, high in the southeast evening sky with its four major moons continuing to dance about it. It resumes its eastward movement against the background stars, very slowly moving closer to Aldebaran.

And Saturn is putting in a solid appearance in the morning sky. At mid-month it is due south and about 35 degrees above the horizon two hours before sunrise.

And on the moonless evenings early – or late – in the month, don’t miss the chance to see the Zodaical Light.  Best time to look is 80 minutes after sunset. It will be a faint, conical glow rising up from the western horizon – about the brightness of the Milky Way.  You do need skies free of light pollution to pick it out. For more on the Zodaical light, see this post from last year – scroll down to the heading “Basking in the Zodaical Light.”.

Look East in February 2013: Two dogs – plus Jupiter – rising in a star-spangled spectacular – the Winter Hexagon

We have two “dog stars” on the southeastern horizon early on February evenings  – Sirius and Procyon – and  both are part of what is certainly the brightest, star-spangled  section of our northern night sky – the Winter Hexagon.  Adding to this annual dazzle in 2013 – and brighter than any star – is the “wandering star (ie.planet) Jupiter, just above Aldebaran.  (Jupiter doesn’t show in our pictures and charts, but you can’t miss it when you go out to look at this section of the sky this year. )

Here’s how the Winter Hexagon looked to the camera of Jimmy Westlake who took this gorgeous shot as it loomed over Stagecoach, Colorado, USA.  You may not see the faint band of the Milky Way shown here if you live in a light polluted region, but you certainly should be able to pick out the bright stars that outline the Hexagon, as well as the Pleiades star cluster visible near the top and just right of center.

Click on image for much larger view! (Copyright © 2007-2011 JRWjr Astrophotography. All rights reserved.)

Look carefully at that photo, then compare it with this star chart which is what we see from mid-northern latitudes as as we look southeast early on a February evening. (And as noted, in 2013 there will be a “star” brighter than all the others in the chart – the planet Jupiter.)

Click image for much larger version. To get the full beauty of this section of sky find an area with a clear horizon to the southeast and go out on a February evening a couple of hours after sunset. The chart shows what you’ll see. The link below provides a small black-on-white version you can print and take into the field. (Prepared from a Stellarium screen shot.)

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

People in the north tend to think that the stars are brighter in winter because the air is so cool and crisp. That certainly could be a factor. But the simple fact is our winter sky is dominated by a whole lot of very bright stars. In fact, visible from earth are 22 stars of first magnitude. Sixteen  of these are visible from the northern hemisphere and half of these are visible in the area of the Winter Hexagon on a February evening. That means nearly all these bright stars are jammed into a space taking up less than one-quarter of the February night sky – which is  just one-eighth of the total night sky we can see through the year! In other words, if bright stars like these were scattered throughout the night sky evenly there would be 64 first magnitude stars instead of just 22. Add to that the seven bright stars of the Big Dipper being dragged up the northeastern sky by the Great Bear on a February evening, and it is no wonder that in the dead of a northern winter our skies offer a lively, colorful, star-spangled spectacular.

The Hexagon alone contains seven of the first magnitude stars in our sky and an eighth that is the brightest second magnitude stars we see. This one – Castor – just misses being first magnitude by a hair.  And nearby is Adhara, a star that sits right on the border between second and first magnitude; plus Regulus, another first magnitude star, is rising low in the east. Whew! That’s a lot. Let’s review.  Going  counterclockwise and starting at the bottom, the Hexagon’s corners are marked by:

  • Sirius, the brightest, and at about eight light years one of the closest, stars in our sky – except the Sun, of course.
  • Rigel, the blue giant that marks one of Orion’s feet.
  • Aldebaran, the brilliant orange star that is the eye of Taurus the Bull and dominates the nearest open star cluster, the Hyades.
  • Capella, now high overhead, is really a complex of four stars that we see as one.
  • Castor and Pollux, the twins, one of which (Pollux) is first magnitude, while Castor is the brightest second magnitude star we see.
  • Procyon, the “Little Dog” star, which is dim only in comparison to Sirius, the “Big Dog.”

And . . .

  • Inside the Hexagon is another first magnitude star, Betelgeuse, the red giant that marks Orion’s shoulder, not to mention the three bright stars of Orion’s Belt – all second magnitude.
  • Regulus, the “Little King,” is a first magnitude star that is rising in the east and bringing us the familiar sickle of bright stars that mark the head of the lion. We’ll study it closely next month.
  • Adhara is the western-most star of the distinctive small triangle of stars beneath Sirius. At magnitude 1.5 I call it a first magnitude star, but others consider this second magnitude. So depending on how you count Adhara there are either 21 or 22 first magnitude stars.

Before leaving the Winter Hexagon, I must stress that  this is not simply a northern hemisphere show – if you live  in Sydney, Australia, you could just rename this the “Summer Hexagon.” I see these stars in the southeast – my friends in Sydney see them in the northeast of their sky – and, of course, since they’re “standing on their heads,” they see them a bit differently – something like this!

The “Winter Hexagon” becomes the “Summer Hexagon” in the Southern Hemisphere, but contains all the same bright stars. (Chart prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

February Guidepost Stars

Of the stars mentioned so far, the two dog stars, Sirius and Procyon, plus the fence sitter, Adhara, are the guidepost stars to learn this month. They are the ones you can spot near the southeastern horizon, coming into view about 45 minutes to an hour after sunset. (We’ll have more to say about Regulus next month, and the other stars mentioned we’ve met in previous months.) To see the February guidepost stars – and the asterism of the Virgins –  look low in the southeast about 45 minutes to an hour after sunset.  Here’s what you should see.

Click image for larger version. This chart shows the three guidepost stars for February as they appear about an hour after sunset in the southeast. Sirius is the brightest star we see and Procyon is not far behind, but Adhara is not much brighter than its companions, which form a distinctive, small triangle the ancient Arabs knew simply as “the Virgins.” (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

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

Procyon, the seventh brightest star we see, is first up in our sky, and thus the highest, of these three. To the southeast and a tad lower is brilliant Sirius, brightest star in our sky, and next to the North Star, Polaris, probably the best known star in the world. Adhara is the brightest star in the  “Virgins,” a simple,  distinctive  triangle asterism. But, of course, Sirius is dominant – far brighter than any other star we see in our night sky. I always think of Sirius as the eye of the great dog and as he sits, the triangle seems to be his rear haunches. From our perspective Adhara may be just another bright star, but of these three it is really the brightest by far – it’s just much farther away than the other two.  If we compared them side by side we would find that Procyon shines with the light of seven Suns, Sirius 23, and Adhara has a luminosity to the eye of 3,700 Suns! Now that’s bright.  And in another way, Adhara reveals our human bias, for if we had ultraviolet vision Adhara would be the brightest star in our sky, not Sirius. But again – that not the way we see it. From our perspective Sirius and Procyon are very bright because they are very close to Earth. Sirius, at a little more than eight light years is the closest star that we in the mid-northern latitudes see in our night sky. Procyon, at about 11 light years, is fourteenth on the list of nearest stars.  Most of the stars that are nearer than Procyon are also much fainter – in fact, too faint to see with the naked eye. If we count just those stars bright enough to see with the naked eye, Procyon is the sixth closest and Sirius is the second closest.  (The closest star, Alpha Centauri, is visible only to those in, or near, the Southern Hemisphere.) But Adhara? Adhara is 405  light years away – about the same distance as the North Star, Polaris. Sirius will frequently seem to be changing colors, but that’s just the effect of our atmosphere. Just as our atmosphere makes our Sun look red when it is rising or setting, it makes any bright star near the horizon appear to dance and change colors rapidly.

The Big Dog as Johannes Bayer depicted him in 1603. (Image courtesy of Linda Hall library of Science, Engineering and Technology.)
The Little Dog as shown in the 1603 Uranometria chart. (Image courtesy of Linda Hall library of Science, Engineering and Technology.)

Sirius is known as a “dog star” because it is the brightest star of the classic constellation, Canis Major – the Big Dog. Procyon is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Minor, the Little Dog. When you look at these constellations as depicted in early star charts, it’s hard to see how connecting the dots makes the stars take the forms the constellation’s name implies, but the images are still useful memory joggers.

Modern science, though, gives us even more reason to remember these two stars, or rather the faint companion stars that orbit them. These are designated Procyon B and Sirius B and they defy our ability to even imagine because there’s just nothing in our down-to-earth experiences that compare with these tiny stars.  One of these “pups”  – the one belonging to Procyon – is impossible to see with a backyard telescope and the other an extreme challenge.  The reason is they are quite dim and being very close to the bright stars, get lost in the glare.

But the mystery of these two fainter stars is that they are both white, indicating they are among the hottest of stars. So how could something be that hot, that close to us, and yet so dim? And the answer is more mind-boggling than the question – they are both white dwarfs, and white dwarfs are a class of stars far denser than anything we encounter on Earth. Now I always find talk of the density of stars counter-intuitive because it gets drilled into our heads that stars are gas and the gas we encounter in our daily lives is anything but dense!  In fact, it’s quite – well – gaseous!  To appreciate this, let’s take a close look at our own Sun.

Click image for larger view.Sirius – with Sirius B at lower left.  Credit: NASA, H.E. Bond and E. Nelan (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.); M. Barstow and M. Burleigh (University of Leicester, U.K.); and J.B. Holberg (University of Arizona)

The Sun is a ball of gas which reaches densities that near the center are sixteen times that of lead!  That alone should stretch your mind. But now imagine the white dwarf. The stuff that makes up a white dwarf is about one million times denser than the stuff in the Sun.

Jim Kaler writes that if you had a billiard ball made up of the stuff of one of these white dwarfs it would weigh about 70 tons – roughly the weight of an M1 Abrams tank. (Think of what that would do to your pool table, not to mention your foot if it fell on it!)

We know this because we can calculate the mass of the stars by their orbit around their bigger, brighter companions. The result is, we end up with a mass roughly that of the Sun but a size roughly that of the Earth. You can fit one million Earths – and therefore one million white dwarfs – inside the Sun. (See why a white dwarf is one million times as dense as the Sun?)

How do you take all that mass and squeeze it down to such a small size? The physics of how that’s done goes way beyond me, but if you want to put a name to it, a white dwarf consists of “degenerate matter.” Unlike other stars, white dwarfs no longer burn with nuclear fires. In fact, they are no longer burning at all. They are the dying embers of stars – and in the case of the “pups,” the embers are being seen while still white hot. But they will eventually cool.

The name white dwarfs is given to this class of stars, but in truth not all white dwarfs are white – some can even be red. To make sense of this contradiction of terms, just think about an ordinary dying ember and how its color will change as it cools. So it is with these dying stars. Unable to generate any heat, what they radiate they lose.

This is also the ultimate fate scientists expect for our Sun.  As it eventually exhausts its nuclear energy, it will turn into a bloated red giant like Betelgeuse in Orion.  Later still it will blow off its outer shell of gases, turning into a planetary nebula, such as the Ring Nebula (M57) in Lyra.  And at the core of that nebula will be the dying ember we know as a white dwarf.

I’ve never seen the white dwarf that revolves around Sirius, but perhaps this season I will. Orbits are not circles, but ellipses. This means that sometimes there’s more distance between Sirius and its “pup” than at other times – and we happen to be in a period of several years when that distance will be growing, and so it will become easier to see the pup in a good, backyard telescope. (Sirius B completes an orbit around Sirius A in 50.2 years. Procyon B, while visible to professionals, is just simply too difficult a target for most backyard telescopes.) I also plan to take a close look at Adhara with a telescope, for it has a 7.5 magnitude companion just 7 arcseconds away. This should be a challenge – because of the difference in brightness of the two –  but not nearly the challenge that seeing the companion of Sirius. For those with binoculars and small telescopes, some of the most fascinating objects are in this general area of sky, near, or inside the Winter Hexagon, including the Pleiades, the great Orion Nebula, and the spectacular telescopic open clusters in Gemini and Auriga, M35, M36, M37, and M38. All that star light certainly can make for bright nights during the dark  of a northern winter.

Vital Stats for the Guidepost Stars

For Procyon:

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 0.38, the 7th brightest star in our sky. Shines with the luminosity of about 7 Suns.
  • Distance: 11.4 light years
  • Spectral Type: F
  • Position: 07h:39m:18s, +5°:13′:29″
  • Procyon B is magnitude 10.7 and orbits Procyon in 40.8 years.  It can be as close as 9 AU to Procyon (1 AU is the distance between the Earth and Sun), or as far as  21 AU.

For Sirius:

  • Brilliance: Magnitude -1.5,  the brightest star in our sky.  Shines with the luminosity of about 23 Suns.
  • Distance: 8.6 light years
  • Spectral Type: A
  • Position: 06h:45m:09s, -16°:42′:58″
  • Sirius B is magnitude 8.3 and orbits Sirius in 50.2 years. It can be as close as 8.1 AU to Sirius, or as far as 31.5 AU. (It will reach this greatest separation in 2019.)

For Adhara:

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 1.5, it has a luminosity to the eye of 3500 times that of the Sun! (In other words, much brighter, really, than Procyon or Sirius.)
  • Distance: 405 light years
  • Spectral Type: B2
  • Position: 06h:59m, -28°:59′:18″

Look North in February 2013 – Watch the Great Bear Come out of his Cave!

When you look to the northeast early on a February evening do you see this:

or maybe this:

Used by permission from the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology.

or perhaps this?

It all depends, of course, on your imagination, but for me I see something like the last image. Even that doesn’t quite capture what my imagination wants to do with these stars. What I see is a huge and rather grumpy bear, emerging from his cave a bit early after hibernating through a few rough months, and now he’s stretching – and clawing – his way up my sky, and he is magnificent!

But I admit, for years it wasn’t that way. I saw instead what I suspect many people see – the Big Dipper rising. And I knew, sort of vaguely, that this asterism – one of the most familiar in the world – was a major portion of the constellation of the Great Bear, Ursa Major.  But really, large as the Dipper is, it’s just the hind quarter of the Big Bear, which is really large, and when I finally took the time to trace out his head and ears and front and rear paws, he quickly became one of my favorite constellations – one of the rare ones like Orion and Scorpius that really look like what they depict.  And funny – I can’t explain why, but I seldom see it as a bear except at this time of year when it is rising. Then it seems to dominate my northern sky and my imagination.

Oh – did I say it looks like a bear? No – I should have said it looks like a bear no one has seen except in the sky – a bear with a long tail! I don’t know why that is. I assume it is because of the second depiction, which is how Johann Bayer pictured the Great Bear in his “Uranometria,” a breakthrough star atlas published in 1603.  Bayer was a lawyer, not a hunter. Maybe he had never seen a bear?

The first depiction, a Stellarium screenshot, is the best one to use as a guide for finding the correct stars. Besides the Dipper stars, there are a dozen more that trace out his main features, and all of these are either third magnitude, or on the brighter side of fourth magnitude – that is between 3.5 and 4, so they should be visible from most locations – assuming, of course, you are in mid-northern latitudes.  The chart that follows gives a view of the Bear in context with the rest of the northern sky in February.

About one hour after sunset, look north and you should see a sky similar to the one shown in our chart below. The height of Polaris, the North Star, will be the same as your latitude. Polaris stays put.  Everything else appears to rotate about it, so our view of all else changes in the course of the evening – and from night to night. It’s a good idea to check the north sky every time you observe to get a sense of how things are changing and to orient yourself.  Notice that the “W” now looks more like an “M” as it starts to roll on down into the northwest.

Click image for larger view. (Chart derived from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)
Click here to download a printer-friendly image of the above chart.

Let the Year of the Great (maybe) Comets begin!

The year 2013 should bring us two of the most spectacular comets imaginable – two! But . . .


Yeah, I said “maybe ”  and I mean it. I was so proud in November 1973  when my first article for Popular Science magazine appeared with this headline on the cover:

“Get Set for Comet Kohoutek – Sky Spectacular of the Century!”

Well, as you probably know, Comet Kohoutek was the sky dud of the century! So forgive me if this time around I remain just a tad skeptical – call it “cautious” – when it comes to  what could be, for Northern Hemisphere observers,  the two greatest comets of the century – Comet PanSTARRS in March, 2013 and Comet ISON in  December of 2013.

That said, I’m psyched! Comets are the most wondrous – and unpredictable – beasties in the heavenly menagerie. They are full of surprises, beauty, and awe. The great ones dominate the sky presenting easy targets for the newbie and veteran to find and view with nothing but the naked eye, though if you have binoculars, by all means use them. Comets are easy to photograph as well and every viewing will have its unique qualities so I’m sure a lot of cameras, Iphones, and a zillion other imaging gadgets will get a real workout.

Here are the particulars – and while the dates are probably right on, the comet’s performance can be quite different depending – scientists now believe – on its origins.  More on that in a minute.

  • Comet PanSTARRS – look for it March 10-20 low in the West when it may shine as bright as magnitude -2 – that’s almost as bright as Jupiter is right now – which for a comet is very, very bright – brighter than any I’ve seen in the past half century. 
  • Comet ISON – look for it in the morning sky (before dawn, of course) in November and in both the morning and evening sky in December with the most spectacular views (and longest tail) from mid-December t until near Christmas.

That said, do keep in mind that in the final analysis the comet experts can make good forecasts of what to expect – and I respect these – but comets don’t always have the same respect. They carry a great big “your experience may vary” label. They have the ability to totally fool – as Comet Kohoutek did – and they have the ability to gloriously mystify, as Comet Holmes did in 2007. Comet Holmes was discovered in 1892 and had been coming by at roughly seven-year intervals since then with no one but a few comet experts taking notice. Then in October of 2007 without warning it suddenly brightened by a factor of about half a million, became visible to the naked eye, and eventually grew to be the largest – though very tenuous – object in the solar system!

Comet Observing – Your View will differ!

Comets do not streak across the sky, as the name implies. You have plenty of time to see them and they appear to be standing still. But – and this is a big BUT – there will be a great, good, and so-so time to see any comet, so the trick is don’t let opportunity pass you by and don’t expect that if you saw it one day, it will look the same the next. Several factors impact the view of any comet, the most obviously one being local weather.

Comets are at their brightest when near the Sun – but that also makes them difficult or impossible to see. Yes, it’s possible for a comet to be so bright that it is visible in daylight – and that could happen with either of these – but it is not likely. And even when a comet is visible in daylight it may just be for a few hours. The more typical case is a comet is going to be at its best when it’s near the Sun – which means it will be shining in twilight. This will probably be the case with Comet PanSTARRS in March.


Using Starry Nights sky simulation software I started playing around with different scenarios for this comet based on its predicted path and brightness – and possible tail length.  I found that on March 14 at an hour after sunset – dark enough to see the brighter stars, but not really dark here in Massachusetts – Comet PanSTARRS should be about as bright as the brightest stars and have developed a nice tail.  It will be about 7 degrees above the western horizon and the 3-day-old moon may be close enough (about two fists away) and bright enough to wash out the end of the tail.

Does that mean Match 14 is the only day to see it? Or the best day? Hardly. It may be better several days before or several days after that. The comet will continue to juggle several factors that impact its appearance – it will change in brightness, the tail will change in length, and it will get farther from the Sun each night meaning the sky background will be darker while it is higher – but since it’s getting farther from the Sun it’s also probably getting fainter.

The greatest comet I’ve ever seen was Comet McNaught in 2007. Here’s a picture. Take a look at that fantastic shot.  That’s how it appeared to Southern Hemisphere observers. I was extremely pleased to see it when it was a quite nice comet – but nothing like that. Here’s what I saw and photographed in Westport.


That should give you an idea of how different the same comet can appear at different times to different observers. That was taken a week before the spectacular pictures linked above – and for several such pictures, go here. Notice that even when at it’s best it is varying from night-to-night.

So will Comet PanSTARRS or ISON look like McNaught? I really don’t know. No one does.  But both are sure going to be fun to watch.

For weekly updates and detailed comet information go here – scroll for PanSTARRS and ISON.

For detailed page with charts, go here – Comet PanSTARRS or go here Comet ISON.

And keep in mind, a bright comet can appear anywhere any time and with little warning. One of the brightest comets of the last century came in 1910 when everyone was reading about – and some were worrying about – the next appearance of Halley’s Comet. But what some folks in South Africa discovered was not Halley’s Comet, but an entirely different one – only at first the professional astronomers thought they were simply mistaken.  To read about this and other very bright comets in history, go here.

So will this year’s comets be spectacular? Wait and see. Hope for the best – but don’t forget Kohoutek – I haven’t 😉

Look East In January 2013 – King Jupiter, plus a trio of twins; Orion, man of the world; Betelgeuse, giant among giants!

January 2013 brings the usual host of bright and wondrous winter stars – and one star that isn’t, but outshines them all – Jupiter. The “king of the planets” is absolutely dominant in the eastern sky this month, even though it gets a tad dimmer as the month goes on.  As we put some more distance between us and it, it drops from -2.7  at the start to -2.5 at the end of the month –  good luck on even being able to notice the change!  At magnitude 0 Capella is the brightest star we see, though in an hour or two, Sirius at Magnitude -1.5 will be up and come significantly closer to Jupiter’s brightness – but Jupiter will still dominate.

There are four new guidepost stars to meet this month and one new guidepost asterism, Orion. Orion is probably the best known figure in the heavens because it actually looks like a person and can be seen from most locations in the world since it’s centered on the celestial equator. That’s a lot for one month, but fun to think about on a dreary winter day and more fun to observe on a brilliant, winter evening. Here’s the chart for the eastern sky one hour after sunset for mid-northern latitudes. Remember, going out about 45 minutes to an hour  after sunset and looking east, you’ll see only the brightest stars as they come out. This makes it easier to identify and learn our guidepost stars. Our guidepost asterisms may not be as readily seen until a little later as the sky gets darker and more of the fainter stars come out.

The eastern sky as seen on a January evening about one hour after sunset. Click image for larger version. Use link below to download a printer-friendly, black and white version of this chart. (Chart is based on a screen shot, modified by me, of Starry Nights Pro software.)

Click here to download a black-on-white (printer-friendly) version of this chart

The January eastern sky – what to remember

 Castor – A trio of twins When you see Castor, think “twins” – a trio of twins. Well, in a sense there are really four pairs!

Castor is one of the Gemini Twins (Castor and Pollux), but in a small telescope we see it really is three stars, Castor A, Castor B, and Castor C - and though we can't see this in our telescopes, each of these stars is really a pair, making six stars in all!
Click image for larger view.

But the fourth pair is just mythological – Castor is one of the “heavenly twins” of the constellation Gemini – the other twin being Pollux. This is nothing but a fanciful relationship, though, based on how the stars appear to us – and appeared to ancient cultures as well. But there is more, much more, to Castor. And, it’s what we don’t see that makes this bright star so fascinating. And seeing withy our mind’s eye – your knowledge of what you are seeing – always enhances your experience under the night sky. So were you to look at Castor in a backyard telescope, you would see it has a twin – another bright star that appears quite close –  the two are known simply as Castor A and B. These two are related, orbiting one another about every 400 years. But there’s more. Each of these two are twins! However, you can’t see this in a telescope because in both cases the pairs of stars are extremely close to one another, orbiting one another in periods of less than 10 days. And as noted, each pair orbits the other pair in about 400 years. But there’s more. Returning to that backyard telescope you may notice a third star, Castor C, quite a distance from the first two and significantly dimmer. This star is also part of the Castor family and it too has a twin that also is so close we can’t detect it without special instruments. In fact, Castor C consists of the closest pair of all, orbiting one another in less than a day! This pair, in turn, orbits the other four stars in the system once every 10,000 years or so. So when you look at Castor, remember that in classic mythology it has a twin, Pollux – and remember that what looks to you like a single bright star is really the combined light from six stars, all held together in one of the most complex star systems we know. (I wrote much more about the Castor system on the double-star blog. That post includes a scale model that puts Castor and company into perspective with the Earth and Sun. You’ll find it here. )

Vital stats (for just the brightest star in the Castor system):

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 1.58, the 23rd brightest star in our sky and the brightest second magnitude star. Absolute magnitude is 0.9. (Yes, we call a star “second magnitude” if it’s magnitude is between 1.5 and 2.5 – so you can see castor just slips into this category.)
  • Distance: 50 light years (not among the 200 nearest stars)
  • Spectral Type: A
  • Position: 07h:34m:36s, +31°:53′:18″
  • Compared to the Sun: Castor radiates 14 times as much energy as our Sun.

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Getting to know Pollux – the bigger, brighter twin

How Bayer saw the Gemini Twins in his 1603 atlas. (Image courtesy of Linda Hall library of Science, Engineering and Technology.)

Pollux should feel a little cheated because it’s the brightest star in the constellation of Gemini and usually the brightest star was given the designation “alpha”  by the early chart maker, Bayer. Not Pollux. It is designated “Beta Geminorum” and follows its slightly dimmer twin brother around the sky. But Pollux has its own way of standing out: It has a slight edge in brilliance in our skyit is a tad closer to us; and it is an orange giant. What’s more, in 2008 it was confirmed to have a planet orbiting it. As an orange giant, it has moved off the “main sequence,” and instead of fusing hydrogen into helium, as our Sun does, it is fusing helium into carbon and oxygen. It will eventually blow off a lot of its substance becoming a planetary nebula. It is currently about eight times the diameter of our Sun – that’s huge, but nowhere near as large as our next star, Betelgeuse. The planet circling Pollux is also large – “Jupiter class” – and was first detected in 1993, but not confirmed until 2008.

Vital stats:

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 1.14, the 17th brightest star in our sky. Absolute magnitude is 0.7 .
  • Distance: 34 light years (not among the 200 nearest stars)
  • Spectral Type: K
  • Position: 07h:45m:19s, +28°:01′:35″

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 Orion – A man for all to see

If you’re in the same general latitude as I am in Westport, MA, then you see Orion like this as it rises in the east on a January evening.

Orion – as seen when rising in mid-northern latitudes. (Click for larger image.)

What always sticks with me about Orion is how Robert Frost described him in his wonderful poem, “The Star Splitter.”

‘You know Orion always comes up sideways. Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains, And rising on his hands, he looks in on me . . .

But if I lived in Sydney, Australia, I wouldn’t see it this way. What I would see is a man standing on his head!

Orion, as seen when rising in the east from Sydney, Australia. (Click image for larger version.)

The real point here is that these stars do look like a man, and they can be seen from deep into both the southern and northern hemispheres. What’s more, the three distinctive stars that form Orion’s belt also mark the approximate position of the celestial equator in your sky, a handy thing to know. Of course, if you’re in the southern hemisphere, the celestial equator appears to make an arc across your sky to your north. In the northern hemisphere it appears to make an east-west arc across the sky to the south. But in either case the belt stars of Orion will rise just about due east and set due west. How high they get in your sky is calculated simply by subtracting your latitude from 90. That is, if your latitude is 42 degrees, as mine is, then Orion’s belt will be, at its highest, about 48 degrees above the horizon when it passes due south. From Sydney, Australia, the stars in the belt will cross about 56 degrees above the horizon as they pass due north. And yes, if you live on the equator these stars will cross directly over head. Anyway you look at it, Orion is a man for all latitudes – well, almost. At the north pole you would only see his top half, and at the south pole, only his feet! Return to Menu

Betelgeuse – giant among giants – and Rigel’s pretty large as well!

When you look at the eastern sky early on a January evening, get this picture in your head!

Here’s what our eastern sky would look like on a January evening if Arcturus and Rigel, two genuine giants, were as near to us as our Sun. The Sun, to scale, is also shown. Betelgeuse is NOT show to scale.

Yes, that’s rigel represented inthe illustration, not Betelgeuse. Classified as a red supergiant, Betelgeuse is one of the largest stars you can see – and certainly up there with the biggest of all stars – yet it doesn’t look any bigger in our sky than other stars because all stars, except the Sun, are so far away they appear only as a point source of light to our eyes. Last month we showed what Aldebaran would look like if it were in our sky and the same distance from us as the Sun, and this month we’ve added Rigel to the picture. But we can’t do a similar thing with Betelgeuse – it wouldn’t be in our sky – it’s so large we would be in it if it were located where our Sun is! What’s more, it’s hard to put a number to the size of Betelgeuse, not because it can’t be measured, but because it’s hard to decide exactly what you want to measure when you’re dealing with a ball of gas – especially one like Betelgeuse. Our Sun is a little easier case. While it does not have a surface, it does appear to us to have an edge that’s fairly easy to define – it’s the place where its gases are dense enough to be opaque to our vision. Exactly how we define the size of Betelgeuse is a bit more difficult. I rely on James B. Kaler as my stellar authority. I love his books, and in one, “The Hundred Greatest Stars,” he describes the size of Betelgeuse variably as:

  • 650 times that of the Sun, or 2.8 AU (Astronomical Units – an Astronomical Unit is the distance between the Earth and the Sun – roughly 93 million miles)
  • 800 times the diameter of the Sun, or about 4 AU
  • 1600 times the Sun – about 8 AU when measured by modern observation in ultraviolet light

And on his Web site, after opting for a figure of around 8-9 AU, he writes:

However, the star is surrounded by a huge complex pattern of nested dust and gas shells, the result of aeons of mass loss, that extends nearly 20,000 AU away (Betelgeuse so far having lost over a solar mass). That, an extended atmosphere, and the pulsations make it difficult to locate an actual “surface” to tell just how large the star actually is. Moreover, because of changes in gaseous transparency, the “size” of the star depends on the color of observation.

Betelgeuse has other problems. The pulsations he refers to are a sort of puffing up that occurs from time to time and changes both size and brightness significantly. Betelgeuse is usually thought of as about magnitude 0.55, but it can be as bright as 0.3, or as dim as 1.1. All this huffing and puffing will soon lead to an explosion, and Kaler says it will then be as bright as a crescent moon! But don’t hold your breath. “Soon” in astronomical terms means sometime in the next million years or so! Its distance, too, is uncertain, but 500 light years is a good ballpark figure. Let’s focus on that 8 AU size for a moment. When we build a scale model of our solar system and reduce the Sun to something about the size of a volleyball, the tiny speck of the Earth orbits at around 75 feet away. But at 8 AU Betelgeuse would be more like 600 feet in diameter. So pause for a moment as you look at Betelgeuse on a winter evening. Imagine yourself holding an 8-inch volleyball in one hand – our Sun – while you stand next to a red, raging, unstable monster ball that is 600 feet in diameter!

Vital stats:

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 0.3 – 1.1, the 10th brightest star in our sky (sometimes). Shines with the luminosity of about 90,000 Suns.
  • Distance: 570 light years
  • Spectral Type: M
  • Position: 05h:55m:10s, +7°:24′:25″

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Rigel – Blue and brilliant

Here we go again! Like Pollux, it looks like Rigel was short-changed having been designated the “Beta” star of the constellation Orion while dimmer Betelgeuse is the Alpha. Of course, Betelgeuse, being variable, may have been brighter when Johann Bayer made his designations in 1603. Bayer’s “system” is inconsistent, however, to say the least, so there’s no sense getting too worried about this. Like Betelgeuse, Rigel is a supergiant. It’s huge and it’s brilliant too – and since it is more distant (860 light years), it is intrinsically more brilliant than Betelgeuse. Jim Kaler writes: “Only about 10 million years old, Rigel should eventually expand to become a red supergiant very much like Betelgeuse is today, by which time it will be fusing helium into carbon and beyond in preparation for its eventual explosion as a supernova.” Rigel’s radius is 74 times that of the Sun, 0.34 Astronomical Units, nearly as big as the orbit of Mercury. Rigel is a challenging double star for amateurs with moderate-sized telescopes.

Vital stats:

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 0.12, the 7th brightest star in our sky. Shines with the luminosity of about 90,000 Suns.
  • Distance: 860 light years
  • Spectral Type: B
  • Position: 05h:55m:10s, +7°:24′:25″

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