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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.

Look North in November into the Dragon’s Lair

Click image for larger view. Remember: This chart is for about 90 minutes after sunset.  With each passing hour these stars will rotate counter clockwise around the Polaris, the North Star.  So Vega will appear to get lower as the night goes on and Capella will be getting higher. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.) 

Click here for a printer-friendly version of the above chart.

Our north sky map this month is covering a slightly larger area than normal because I want to capture the relationship between Vega and Capella – two of our northernmost guidepost stars – that anchor the north sky in November. Think of them as two cornerstones and a line drawn between them will go quite close to the North Star, Polaris. What’s more, Vega will help us find the head of Draco the Dragon.

Draco is one of the north sky’s more charming constellations, for its long, slithery form does call to mind a dragon. It’s quite easy to pick out, really, but you do need dark skies with little light pollution. Start by locating Vega. The four stars that mark the head of Draco – one is quite faint – will be found roughly halfway between Vega and the two bright stars that mark the end of the cup of the Little Dipper. Having located the head, you really need a chart handy to find the rest of this long, twisting, dragon body – but it is pretty easy, and once you identify it, you won’t forget it.

Draco also harbors a special treat for binocular and small telescope users. That faint star (Nu) that marks one corner of the Dragon’s head? It’s really two, perfectly matched, 4.9 magnitude stars that are far enough apart so they can be split with binoculars – assuming you have good eyes and a really steady hand. In a small telescope they are absolutely delightful and earn their nickname of Dragon’s Eyes. ( There are actually three neat double stars in this region that are a delight for the telescope user. I’ve written about them in the double star observing blog I share with my friend John Nanson.)

Meanwhile, to the east we have a bright half circle of asterisms we’ve been talking about in the previous months. Start with Capella and move on up to the “Bow” of Perseus and from there higher still to the “W” of Cassiopeia. Directly above the Pole you’ll find the “Home Plate” of Cepheus pointing down towards Polaris.

Look East in October 2014! See a bow, the demon star, and a distant galaxy

On tap this month are:


To begin our monthly exploration of the night sky in the east, you can take a slide down Andromeda’s Couch to Mirfak and the Bow of Perseus in the northeast – that is, you can if you learned how to find Andromeda’s Couch last month. If that’s new to you, ignore it for now and simply start by looking for the “Bow” of three bright stars rising low in the northeast.

To find it, go out about an hour after sunset and watch the bright stars emerge. It may take a few minutes to see the bow clearly, but what you are looking for is three stars in a vertical arc, with the middle one – Mirfak – the brightest. How big an arc are we talking about? Just make a fist and hold it vertically at arm’s length, and your fist should just cover these three stars. How high? The bottom one should be about a fist above the horizon. Here’s a chart modified from Starry Nights Pro software.

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

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

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

For a printer friendly version of this chart go here.

The bow asterism is the core of the constellation Perseus. Now if you want to be a stickler about mythology, Perseus usually is not depicted with  a bow – he wields a sword instead, which he is holding in his right hand high over his head, while in the left hand he holds the severed head of Medusa. Here’s how the 1822 “Urania’s Mirror” depicted him.

perseus
Perseus – click for a larger version.

Oh boy – and if you can see all that in these stars, then you have a very vivid imagination. I never would have learned the night sky if I had to try to trace out these complex constellations as imagined by ancient cultures and depicted in star guides up until fairly recently. And for the purposes of helping you find your way around the night sky I think remembering the “Bow of Perseus” is easier.

Getting sharp about brightness

As you start to learn the stars, it may surprise you how precise you can be about their brightness. At first you may have difficulty just telling a first magnitude star from a second, but if you get to know Algol, the “Demon Star,” I bet you’ll find that you can quickly become quite sophisticated in assessing brightness and shaving your estimates down to as little as a tenth of a magnitude. So let’s take a closer look at the Bow and three bright stars in this region – Mirfak, Algol, and Almach.

Imagine a star that regularly varies in brightness every few days – that’s what Algol does. Exactly every 2 days, 20 hours, and 49 minutes it begins a 10-hour period where its brightness dims more than a full magnitude. If you look during the right two hours, you’ll catch it at or near its dimmest – and most of the rest of the time you’ll catch it at or near peak brightness. And it’s quite easy to judge. But first let’s find it. Here’s the chart we’ll use.

Notice how Algol makes a very nice triangle with two companions, and all three stars are close to the same brightness – Almach, the northern-most star in Andromeda’s Couch; Mirfak, the central star in the Bow of Perseus; and Algol. Algol is called the “Demon Star” because it varies in brightness – and, of course, it marks the head of Medusa. Gazing directly at her turned onlookers to stone according to Greek mythology – but I hope that doesn’t worry you because I’m going to ask you to stare directly at her – or at least at Algol! In fact, that relates to our first challenge: Go out any clear night and study these three stars and decide which is the brightest. Two are equal in brightness, but one is a tad brighter than the other two. Which is it? Algol? Mirfak? Almach? (The answer is at the end of this post so you can ignore that answer until you actually have an opportunity to test yourself.)

However . . .

Because Algol is a variable, sometimes when you look at it, Algol will actually be significantly dimmer than either Mirfak or Almach. In fact, there’s a reasonable chance it will be dimmer than either of Mirfak’s two fainter companions that make up the Bow of Perseus. If, when you test yourself, this is the case, congratulations! Make note of the date and time. But that’s not the test – just fun! For the test you want the “normal” condition, which has these three nearly the same in brightness.

OK? Back to Algol. It’s a special kind of variable star known as an eclipsing binary. That is, what looks like one star to us is really two stars very close together, and when we see Algol’s light start to dim it means its companion is passing between Algol and us causing an eclipse. Since the stars are locked in orbit around one another this happens with clockwork regularity.

algol_edu

The above diagram came from this astronomy class web site which includes a more detailed scientific explanation. Since either star of the pair can cause an eclipse, there is a much fainter, secondary eclipse of Algol – really too faint to be noticed by most observers. Why is one eclipse fainter – because one star is blue and much hotter/brighter than the other star. It is when the cooler star is in front that we see the dramatic change in light.

It’s fun to catch Algol in mid eclipse, but I suggest you not read about when to do this right now. Instead, do the little challenge first. Then when you’re ready, go to the final item in this post, which explains how and when to catch Algol in eclipse and in the process, tells you the brightness of its companions.

See a few hundred billion stars at one glance!

Yes, you can do it if you have good dark skies, you have allowed your eyes to dark adapt, and you are looking at the right place. Once again, Andromeda’s Couch is our guide, and what we are looking for this time is the Great Andromeda Galaxy aka M31.

This is our “neighbor” in space if you can wrap your mind around the idea that something “just” 2.5 million light years away is a “neighbor.” As you try to do that remind yourself that a single light year is about 6 trillion miles – of course, good luck if you can imagine a trillion of anything! OK – let’s try that – quickly. If you wanted to count one million pennies, and you counted one every second, it would take you 11 days. A billion pennies would take you about 31.7 years! And a trillion pennies? 31,700 years – roughly the time that has elapsed since the earliest cave paintings. So what if you were the cabin boy on an inter-galactic spaceship charged with ticking off the miles at the rate of one mile a second on the way to Andromeda? Think you could do it? Think you would live long enough? Hardly! The task – and journey – would take you almost half a million years – or by my crude estimate 475,650 years! And that’s non-stop counting. Ohhh – are we there yet, Mom?

And yet here you are collecting photons in your backyard that got their start on the journey to your eyes some 2.5 million years ago! Even if you live under normal, light-polluted skies, you should be able to see the Andromeda Galaxy with binoculars. In fact, this is one object where the binocular view can be as rewarding as the view through a telescope. Here’s a wide field chart for mid-month and about 90 minutes after sunset. At that point the galaxy should be roughly half way up your eastern sky. (Look for it on a night when the moon isn’t in the sky and when, of course, your eyes have had at least 15 minutes to dark adapt.)

Click image for larger version.

Starting with the preceding chart – and moving to the chart below, here’s a more detailed star-by-star hop to the Andromeda Galaxy:

  1. Locate the Great Square
  2. Locate Andromeda’s Couch off the northeast corner of the Square.
  3. Go down to the middle star in the couch, then count up two stars and bingo!
  4. You can also find the general vicinity by using the western end of the “W” of Cassiopeia as if it were a huge arrowhead pointing right at the Andromeda Galaxy.

Well, “bingo” if you have been doing this with binoculars. With the naked eye it’s more an “oh yeah – I see it – I think!” But what do you expect? Think about it. The light from the near side of this object started its journey about 150,000 years before the light from the more distant side did! And think of where the human race was 2.5 million years ago when these photons began their journey – or for that matter, where all these stars really are today! Nothing is really standing still – everything is in motion.

You might also want to think about the folks who are on a planet orbiting one of those stars in the Andromeda Galaxy and looking off in our direction. What will they see? A very faint patch – certainly  fainter than what we see when we look at the Andromeda Galaxy, but in a modest  telescope  roughly similar in shape, though about two-thirds the size. Both Andromeda and the Milky Way Galaxy we inhabit are huge conglomerations of stars. We’re about 100,000 light years in diameter – Andromeda is about 150,000 light years in diameter. The Milky Way contains perhaps 100 billion stars – the Andromeda Galaxy maybe 300 billion. (Don’t quibble over the numbers – even the best estimates are just estimates. )

And yes, in a few billion years we will probably “collide” with the Andromeda Galaxy, for we are hurtling towards one another. Such galaxy collisions are not that unusual and probably aren’t as violent as the word “collision” makes them sound – but they do, in slow motion, bring about radical changes in one another.

But all that is for the professional astronomers to concern themselves with – for us, there’s the simple beauty and awe of knowing that with our naked eye – or modest binoculars – we can let the ancient photons from hundreds of billions of stars ping our brains after a journey of millions of years.

So here’s hoping for clear skies for you so you can find a winking demon and capture in your own eye the photons from a few hundred billion stars in the Andromeda Galaxy!

And now the truth about Algol and companions

Have you done the Algol test yet? Looked at Algol, Mirfak, and Almach and tried to decide which is brightest? If so, you can check your answer by continuing to read. If not, I suggest you first do that exercise, then come back to this.

Chances are that when you look at Algol, it will be at its brightest – but how can you tell? Well, as we mentioned, you can compare it to Mirfak – but there’s an even closer match with another nearby bright star – Almach. That’s the third star in Andromeda’s Couch – the one nearest Algol.

Mirfak is the brightest of the three at magnitude 1.8.

Almach is magnitude 2.1 – which is the same brightness of Algol when Algol is at its brightest – which is most of the time. OK – for the hair splitters, Almach is a tad dimmer than Algol, but the difference is far too little to be able to tell with your eye. But that makes Mirfak about one third of a magnitude brighter than the other two. That difference you should be able to see – but it does take practice.

Here’s a chart showing the magnitude of the stars near Algol that you can use to compare it to and see if it is going through an eclipse. People who look at variable stars use charts like this, but with one important exception – the numbers are given like they were whole numbers so you will not confuse a decimal point with another star. Thus, a star like Mirfak, of magnitude 1.8, would have the number “18” next to it. I broke a convention here because there are just a few bright stars on the chart, so I didn’t worry about the possible confusion of a decimal point being mistaken for another star.

So If Algol and Almach are the same, no eclipse is going on at the moment. If Algol appears dimmer than Almach, then an eclipse is in progress. If it’s as dim or dimmer than either of the companions of Mirfak in the Bow, then you can be pretty sure you’ve caught Algol at or near its darkest. In two hours – or less – it will start to brighten and will return to full brightness fairly quickly.

Catching Almach at its dimmest is fun, but not as easy as it may seem. Why? Because although an eclipse happens every few days, it may happen during the daylight hours, or in the early morning, or some other time when it’s inconvenient. And, of course, you need clear skies. So when I want to observe an Algol eclipse, I go to a handy predicting tool on the Web that you can find here.

I then note the dates and times and pick out only those dates when the times are convenient to me – that is, happening during my early evening observing sessions. Then, given the iffiness of the weather, I consider myself lucky when I  get a good look at an eclipse of Algol. What are your chances – given your weather – that it will be clear on a night when an eclipse is visible before your normal bed time?

Algol starts to noticeably dim about two hours before mid-eclipse and is back to almost full brightness two hours after mid-eclipse.

Using the Sky and Telescope Algol calculator for October 2014 I find that  just  one hits at a good time for me  – October 13, 9:25 pm EDT

Of course the dates and time may be different for you, depending on where you live, and none of us can escape the whims of the weather!

Look North in October 2014 – and find a really bright star!


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

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

When I say “really bright,” I mean Capella – and I say it because so many folks assume, quite understandably, that the North Star will be the brightest in that section of the sky. It isn’t.

Capella is one of our brightest stars, and you may catch it this month just peeping up over the northeastern horizon about an hour and a half after sunset. And it is brilliant!  When you see Capella,  compare it with the North Star  and you will get a good idea of what the word magnitude means. There are a solid two magnitudes difference between the two – or if you want to get technical, Capella is magnitude 0 and Polaris is magnitude 2.

Yes, the magnitude system goes backwards – the lower the number, the brighter the star. Each magnitude difference represents a change of about 2.5 times in brightness. So a zero magnitude star is 2.5 times as bright as a first magnitude star – and 2.5 x 2.5, or 6.25 times as bright as Polaris, a second magnitude star. And while we’re on this subject, the faintest star in the Little Dipper – it’s over in one corner of the cup – is just about magnitude five. That means Capella is 100 times as bright as that star. (OK – if you actually do the math it doesn’t come out because I rounded off the difference – it’s really 2.512 for those wanting more precision.)

In fact, there is another interesting way to look at that star – at magnitude 4.9 it is almost exactly what our Sun would look like if it were placed just 32.5 light years away. At that distance our sun would be magnitude 4.8 – and that distance is the distance we use to compare stars. That is, to get an “absolute magnitude” for them so we can compare apples with apples,  we ask ourselves how bright a star would be if it were 32.5 light years from us.

And while we’re on the subject of magnitude, the Little Dipper does give us a great range. Polaris, as we said, is magnitude 2. The other bright star in the Little Dipper is magnitude 2 also – it’s at the end of the cup away from Polaris. Sharing that end is a magnitude 3 star, and these two are known as the “Guardians of the Pole” as they are prominent, close, and like other stars, circle around the pole  every 24 hours. Most of the other stars in the Little Dipper are magnitude 4, with the one star in the far corner of the cup being magnitude 5, as noted – well, actually 4.9. There’s a chart with these magnitudes in this post. Many people who live in light-polluted areas can see only three stars in the Little Dipper – Polaris and the two Guardians of the Pole.

How faint a star can you see? Depends upon your eye sight, the light pollution in your area, the transparency of the skies on any given night, how high the star is in the sky, and, of course, your vision and dark adaption. But as a general rule of thumb magnitude 6 has been accepted as the typical naked eye limit. However, if you live in a typically light polluted suburb you may see only to 4, or worse yet, magnitude 3. And observers on mountain tops with really clear skies reliably report seeing stars as faint as magnitude 8. All of this is with the naked eye. Add ordinary binoculars and you will certainly add three to five magnitudes to the faintest star you can see. In fact, you take a huge jump in the number of stars seen just by using binoculars with 50mm objective lenses. That’s why many amateur astronomers with fine telescopes also are likely to have a pair of 10X50 binoculars that they keep handy. I always did, but more recently I stumbled upon some very inexpensive Celestron 15X70 binoculars that I love for quick peaks, though they are two powerful and large to hold steady for serious observing.

For more serious work I now use relatively expensive 10X30 image stabilized binoculars. Yes, the 30mm means they do not gather nearly as much light as the 50mm standards – but the image stabilization means they take better advantage of the light they do gather. They’re also more compact and light, so I  don’t mind carrying them for several hours.

Capella will be a “look east” guide star next month, but you can get to know it this month as you look north. And if you live in mid-northern latitudes, it will become a most familiar site. In fact, where I live – about latitude 42°N – it is in the night sky at some time every night of the year. This is because it is so far north that as it circles Polaris, it only dips below the horizon for a few hours at a time.

Sky, Eye, and Camera: Special Opportunities for October 2014

Note: This is a new feature about events each month that are not only fun to observe with eye and binoculars, but are particularly suitable for capture as photographs –  especially photographs that convey a sense of being there and are taken with ordinary cameras.   While taking night sky photographs used to be more demanding, modern digital cameras don’t have to go to bed at night – they’re a great addition to your night sky enjoyment. Greg Stone

September 2013 - Full Moon rises shortly after Sunset with the Earth's shadow as backdrop, topped by the rosy "Belt of Venus." This shot was easy because the Moon is so bright.  But on October 8, 2014 I expect a similar situation in the morning western sky just before Sunrise. However, in that case the Moon won't simply be in line with the Earth's shadow - it will be in it, fully eclipsed. Under such circumstances will be able to see it?

September 2013 – Full Moon rises shortly after Sunset with the Earth’s shadow as backdrop, topped by the rosy “Belt of Venus.” This shot was easy because the Moon is so bright. But on October 8, 2014 I expect a similar situation in the western sky just before Sunrise. However, in that case the Moon won’t simply be in line with the Earth’s shadow – it will be in it, fully eclipsed. Under such circumstances will we be able to see it?

Photographing October’s Lunar Eclipse

The moon makes all sorts of news this month, but for U.S. East Coast dwellers such as me the big photo opportunity will be the total Lunar eclipse on the morning of October 8, 2014.

In addition, much of North America will see a partial solar eclipse as the Moon’s shadow falls on the Earth October 23. On October 17 and 18 the Moon plays tag with brilliant Jupiter in the morning sky. Then in the evening sky on October 27 and 28 a waxing crescent will dance above the Teapot right in the Milky Way and Mars will join it. Whew! Real lunacy this month! 😉

But I’m keeping my fingers crossed about the weather for the total lunar eclipse. This is one of four in a two-year period with others due next spring and fall. The first in this series –  last spring – was clouded out for me and I at first thought this one would be uninteresting, coming as it does, right near sunrise for my location. But that’s actually going to make it all the more interesting – especially from a photographic perspective! Here’s why.

Totality actually starts at 6:25 am EDT, 23 minutes before sunrise. Now I figure 5-10 minutes after totality begins the Earth’s shadow and the Belt of Venus should be visible in the west as they are about 15 minutes before every sunrise. But this time the Moon itself will be in that shadow.

How cool that will be! But, I’m holding my excitement because it could also be all but invisible!

It would be cool because during the typical total eclipse the Moon is in a dark sky and we can’t see the Earth’s shadow – we just know it must be there because the Moon is getting darker on one side as it moves into  it.  But this time we will have a totally eclipsed Moon sitting right inside the Earth’s shadow which we will see – weather permitting – the entire length of the western horizon.

Now I have no doubt that we will see the Earth shadow – we see it every clear morning – but will we even be able to see the Moon at that point? When totality starts the Moon will be only 4 degrees above the horizon. It sets – locally – about five minutes after sunrise. We can, of course, see even a crescent moon in broad daylight – but this is an eclipsed Moon.

So will it be visible at all and how visible? Even during the partial phases I expect it to be a little hard to pick up in a brightening sky. The partial eclipse begins at 05:15 am EDT. Astronomical Twilight – the first detectable lightening of the sky – starts a couple minutes later.

So during the partial phases we’ll have a moon that’s getting darker and darker and a sky that’s getting progressively lighter. Not much contrast. Civil Twilight begins at 06:21 for me with the moon is a tad less than five degrees above the horizon and close to totally eclipsed.

But now the question becomes how clear is the western horizon? The slightest bit of cloudiness will show up and obscure the moon when it’s at that altitude.

So the bottom line is this: I have no doubt that I will see the early stages of a partial eclipse. I simply don’t know at what point – even given perfect weather – it will start to become difficult to see and lose it’s appeal as two things work against visibility – the lightening sky and the Moon drawing closer to the horizon.

This, of course, will make it a challenging photographic target – but then remember, the camera can see things that are a bit fainter than what our naked eye sees – even with an exposure of just a second or two. Tripod needed, of course, and remote shutter release handy. But wait – we will be so close to dawn we can’t use a real slow shutter speed or it will wash everything else out. And that’s where I’m thankful for digital cameras because they’ll let us take test shots and check the results, immediately, over and over!

It’s probably a pipe dream,  but I would really like to see – and photograph – a beautiful shadow of the Earth topped by a deep red Belt of Venus with a barely detectable full Moon sitting on the horizon in the middle of the Earth’s shadow. Last year I got the full moon rising with the Earth’s shadow as a backdrop – that was neat, but of course the Moon wasn’t actually in the shadow at that point and it was at its  brightest.

Technically possible, I guess – so I’m skeptical, but please – surprise me!

In any event, here’s the complete relevant time table. The  lunar eclipse times are constant for any location, though of course you will have to convert them form EDT if you’re in a different zone. Sunrise and twilight times are strictly local. They apply to my location in southeastern Massachusetts and should be checked locally. To find them I use the service provided  by the Naval Observatory and found here.

For detailed advice on photographing a lunar eclipse go here.

Here’s my local time table – I’m at 71° 04′ W and 41° 33′ N

Lunar eclipse timetable – EDT  –  Plus Moon’s altitude

05:15 Partial eclipse begins 16.5°

05:17 Astronomical Twilight Begins     16.5°

05:49 NauticalTwilight Begins     10.4°

06:21 Civil Twilight begins 4.7°

06:25 Total eclipse begins 4°

06:48 Sun rise on horizon

06:53 Moon set

October’s Partial Solar Eclipse

From a photographic stand point I find a partial solar eclipse far, far, far less exciting than a total solar eclipse and more dangerous. You simply need to know that you shouldn’t be looking at the sun, even partially eclipsed, without special protection for you and your camera.

But if you’re in a section of North America where the partial eclipse will be good, I suggest you check out this site to find exact times for your locality – http://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/solar/2014-october-23 

 – and then go here for observing and photographing information.

http://www.eclipse-chasers.com/photo/Photo18.html

Because the Moon’s shadow seeps across the Earth during a solar eclipse, the time they occur depends on your location. With the lunar eclipse they happen at the same Universal Time everywhere as the Moon moves into the Earth’s shadow – but, of course that time has to be adjusted for time zones.

Other Special Night Sky Photo Ops in October

My goal, as always, is to include that most beautiful – and interesting – of planets, Earth, in any of my astronomical photography. To that end the idea is to look at when planets and the Moon approach closely and plan in advance what you wish to include in your Earth-sky photographs.

You don’t need a special event – or even the Moon – for this sort of thing, of course. I was photographing Saturn, Mars, and Antares with a crescent Moon low in the west over a seacoast last month. I was happy with this result.

September 27,2014 - c. 45 minutes after sunset looking west on beach in front of Allens Pond. Dartmouth, MA.  Waxing Moon with Saturn just south - plus Mars and Antares. (Click image for larger version.)

September 27,2014, an hour after sunset looking west on beach in front of Allens Pond. Dartmouth, MA. Waxing Moon with Saturn just south of it – plus Mars and Antares. (Click image for larger version.)

But I was happier when I turned around and caught the outlines of some folks sitting on a nearby large rock, as well as the glow of distance city lights to the north and the rising stars in the general area of Perseus and Triangulum. (Both these images need to be clicked on and displayed  large to see details.)

September 27,2014 - 90 minutes after sunset looking east on beach in front of Allens Pond. Dartmouth, MA.

September 27,2014 – 90 minutes after sunset looking east on beach in front of Allens Pond. Dartmouth, MA. (Click image for larger version.)

So here are the situations I would anticipate as offering some special opportunities this month.

Jupiter is quite high in the Eastern morning sky and very bright, so just about any time this month it offers a good twilight opportunity with the stars of nearby Leo. With it this high, however, you’ll probably want to be closer to foreground objects – trees, buildings, boats – whatever  – to include them.

A couple hours before sunrise you’ll find Jupiter roughly 45 degrees (4-5 fists) in the eastsoutheast and unmistakeable as the brightest “star” in the sky.

On the mornings of October 17 and 18 it will be joined by a waning crescent Moon less than 10 degrees – one fist – away – a nice combination. To take advantage of this you want to scout out locations that would offer a nice, twilight scene to the southeast.

The evening sky will offer a simlar situation, but with a waxing crescent Moon and the center of our Milky Way as background. Mars will be in the vicinity, but the distinctive “Teapot”  asterism which highlights Sagittarius will make it especially interesting. Will the Moon totally drown out the Milky Way? Certainly it will impact some of it, but this will be an interesting night sky challenge

Starting on the evening of October 26 a waxing crescent about three days old will form a rough triangle with Saturn and Antares low in the south-southwest. Antares and Saturn may be too low to see depending on how clear your horizon is.  The Moon you won’t miss.

In the next two days the Moon climbs higher and moves in the general direction of Mars, the Teapot, and the Milky Way. I think this provides an interesting combination through the 28th, but with each successive day the moon gets brighter and brighter, and thus will drown out more and more of the Milky Way in it’s area.  So I think the best opportunity will be on the 26th – but you can only be sure by getting out and seeing – and snapping.

Sky, Eye, and Camera: Special Viewing/Photo Ops for September 2014

Note: This is my first installment of a new feature. It’s a modification of the old “events” post and still is a guide to special events for the month – things happening in the sky that do not repeat from month to month but are special to a particular date. To this I have added – and put emphasis on – information about events that are particularly suitable for capture as photographs – especially photographs that convey a sense of being there and are taken with ordinary cameras.  This is in contrast to the traditional astronomy images that use special cameras to show us things we cannot see with the naked eye by taking long exposures and gathering much more light, usually using a telescope as the lens. Greg Stone

 

September 2014 gives us several special opportunities for nice, naked-eye views of stars and planets that also provide excellent photo opportunities, especially if you have a DSLR camera – or something similar where you can adjust the exposure.

August 2014 "super" Moon. (Photo by Greg Stone)

August 2014 “Super” Moon. (Photo by Greg Stone) Click image for larger version.

September 8, 2014 – “Super” Moon rising in the Earth’s Shadow/ Belt of Venus

I can’t get real excited about the “Super” Moon idea – we’ve had two this year already, and they’re really not all that unusual, or for that matter not quite as “super” as the word makes them sound.

But the full Moon rising is always a pretty sight and a very easy subject for photographers. One alert, though. The Moon is really quite small – half a degree – and so your picture may show a Moon much smaller than you remember seeing with the naked eye. This is because the full Moon  ALWAYS appears to be much larger to us when it’s near the horizon, whether “super” or not. A friend asked me recently why my picture of the Moon conveyed this sense of what he saw, while others didn’t.

The answer is simple. I used a small telephoto lens. Technically it was an 80mm, but because of the sensor on my camera, you have to add a factor of 1.6 to that to get the 35mm – or “full frame” equivalent. So in this case it was like using a 128mm telephoto on a 35mm camera.  Lots of simple cameras come with zooms that provide at least that much magnification. Use more magnification and you may end up with a real nice picture – but it may make the Moon look a lot bigger than what people saw with their naked eye.

That brings me to another major point. My whole approach to night sky photography is to try to convey a sense of being there. For that reason I don’t overdo the sensitivity of the CCD – that is, I don’t set the ISO real high – and I do keep the exposures relatively short. With the full Moon in August, I had the ISO set at  1600 – which meant I had a little noise to clean up with the editing software – and I could take the-picture at 1/160th of a second – that’s fast enough to hand hold even with the 128mm telephoto – and the the F-stop was 7.1, small enough to provide some reasonable depth of field.

That last is critical. The Moon is at infinity, but you want to also include some foreground subjects at close and mid-range to give a sense of proportion to the objects in the sky.

Moon rise time varies by your location. Where I am on the eastern seaboard of the US, the Moon will be rising roughly 20 minutes before the Sun sets on September 8th. This is going to provide an interesting  opportunity, I think, to catch the Moon in the shadow of the Earth and/or the Belt of Venus. These appear in the east shortly after sunset and after about 15 minutes start melding into the night. The shadow will be a darker blue than the sky above it and extend perhaps a fist above the horizon.  The “Belt of Venus” will be a rosy band above the shadow. Bottom line: I think the most interesting shots will be taken about 10-15 minutes after sunset.

Of course, much depends on local weather conditions. For me the trick is to know where the Moon will be rising – just a tad south of east in September 2014 – and find a spot that not only gives me a clear horizon in that direction, but also provides some interesting foreground objects to go along with the Moon.

September 20, 2014 – Algol at minimum brightness

This event – an eclipse of Algol – will be centered on 10:55 pm EDT; on the 17th a similar event will center on 11:06pm PDT. I’m not going to go into  detail about the “demon star” here. If you don’t know about it, you can read more in this earlier post.

What I do want to point out is it’s fun to see this star dim, then brighten over the course of a few hours, and if you like taking constellation pictures, it would be neat to get one of Perseus with Algol at full strength and one with Algol at full eclipse.

While these eclipses happen every few days, you’re lucky if you find one or two a month that come at a time convenient for you to watch – and then, of course, the weather has to cooperate.

September 22, 2014 – the  Fall Equinox

This is a fun time to get a picture of either sunrise or sunset. You don’t need to be right on this date -a day or two before or after will do fine. The basic idea is to show the Sun in relation to local landmarks and thus identify for yourself the general heading for east or west from any given spot.  Actually, a real nice project is to pick a scenic spot, take a picture of a sunrise or sunset as close to the Equinox as you can get, then do the same thing again from the same spot showing the Sun at the Winter and Summer Solstices and at the Spring Equinox. The four will then show the movement of the Sun along the local horizon in the course of a year.

September 24-30 – Mars and its Rival, Plus Saturn

Click for larger version - prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot.

Click for larger version – prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot.

I suggest you go out an hour after sunset and look southwest for three bright “stars” near the horizon. Two should have a reddish hue, one a yellowish hue – though honestly, with them all this close to the horizon the atmosphere may cause them to twinkle and change color.

Still, this is worth seeing and should provide an interesting photographic challenge. However, if you have been taking pictures of constellations, similar settings should work here. (I like to set the ISO at 6400 and expose for four seconds at F7.1 with the camera on a tripod, of course, and using a cable release. This, for me, gives a typical naked eye view – but you need to experiment. I also clean up the background noise in such photographs using Lightroom.)

The main attraction here is that Mars – the red planet – is near Antares, a red star. In fact, the name “Antares” means “rival of Mars” because its color rivals the obviously ruddy planet.  Saturn is farther away but has a distinctly yellowish hue. In the course of these six evenings, Mars will first draw a bit closer to Antares, then get farther away. Saturn will also get lower each night, though Mars is moving in a counter direction right now and will appear to hold its altitude – that is, be at the same height at the same time. Of course, all of these will get too close to the horizon and eventually set, so timing is important. I plan to start an hour after sunset, then see what works best over the next half hour or so as the sky gets darker, but Antares, Mars, and Saturn also get lower.

Again, the challenge for me is to include foreground objects and show the night sky as we really experience it.  Here’s a shot, for example, that I took last winter of Orion – with a quite bright Moon out of the picture to the left.

Orion as seen from the Town Farm in Westport, MA in the winter of 2014. (Photo by Greg Stone)

Orion as seen from the Town Farm in Westport, MA in the winter of 2014. (Photo by Greg Stone)

Crescent Moon and Planets  in September 2014

I see two photo opportunities to capture a crescent Moon near major planets. On September 20, 2o14, the Moon should be within about 6 degrees of Jupiter, both about one-third the way up the eastern sky an hour before dawn. As Jupiter fades, Venus may put in an appearance near the horizon, though it’s getting quite close to the Sun.

On September 27, 2014, Saturn will have an even closer encounter with the Moon in the southwestern sky at dusk. Yep – this is in the middle of the period suggested to capture Antares, Mars, and Saturn – so if the weather gives you a break you might get a crescent Moon as a bonus.

 

Look north in September 2014 – the king’s on the rise!

Yes, that’s Cepheus, the King – remember that Cassiopeia (the “W” ) is the Queen. Though Cepheus makes a familiar “home plate” asterism, it’s not nearly so memorable as the “W” of Cassiopeia, primarily because its stars are dimmer than those of the “W.” In fact, you might have difficulty picking it out at first, but here’s a tip: Follow the familiar “Pointers” of the Big Dipper to the North Star – then keep going, but not too far. The first bright star you meet will mark the tip of the Cepheus home plate – It’s about one fist away from Polaris. For comparison, the Pointer stars are nearly three times that far in the other direction.

Also coming up below the “W” is the “Bow” asterism that marks Perseus, who is carrying the head of Medusa, which contains the “Demon Star,” Algol. We’ll take that up next month when they’re higher in the sky and easier for all to see. Here’s a chart.

Click image for a larger version. (Developed from Starry Nights Pro screenshot.)

For a printer-friendly version of this chart, download this.

To review the connecting mythology, which helps me remember the related constellations, here’s the story in brief.

Cepheus and Cassiopeia have a daughter Andromeda whose beauty makes the sea nymphs jealous. They enlist Poseidon to send a sea monster to ravage the coastline of Ethiopia, the kingdom of Cepheus and Cassiopeia. To appease the monster, the good king and queen chain Andromeda to a rock along the coast, but Perseus rescues her and together they escape on Pegasus, his flying horse.

You meet Andromeda and Pegasus – the flying horse is much easier to identify as the “Great Square” – in the “Look East” post this month. Also in the “Look East”  post we detail the “Three Guides,” three stars that mark the zero hour in the equatorial coordinate system used to give a permanent address to all stars. The first of those Three Guides is Beta Cassiopeia, visible in our northeastern sky, and so on the chart with this post.

Moving from mythology to science, Cepheus is probably best known today for a special type of star called a Cepheid variable. This is a star that changes in brightness according to a very precise time table. What’s more, it was discovered that the length of a Cepheid’s cycle – that is the amount of time it takes to grow dim and then brighten again – is directly related to its absolute magnitude. The absolute magnitude of a star is a measure of how bright it really is as opposed to how bright it appears to us. (How bright it appears is, of course, related to how far away it is.) That makes Cepheid variables a sort of Rosetta Stone of the skies.

It is relatively easy to time the cycle of a variable, even if the star is quite faint from our viewpoint. These cycles usually cover a few days. If you can identify the length of this cycle, you then can know the absolute magnitude of a star. And if you know its absolute magnitude, it’s a simple matter to compare that to how bright it appears to us and thus determine its approximate distance from us.

This is a huge breakthrough. Without Cepheid variables astronomers were at a loss for determining the distance of anything that was more than a few hundred light years away. The distance to such “close” stars could be determined using a very common method known as parallax – that is, determining how the star appeared to change position slightly from opposite sides of the Earth’s orbit. But that change in position is extremely tiny and difficult to measure even with very close stars. With the Hipparcos satellite and computer analysis, it has been possible to use this parallax system for stars as far as 3,000 light years. But that still is close by astronomy standards. (Keep in mind our galaxy is about 100,000 light years across.) But Cepheid variables can even be found in other galaxies. In fact, they played a huge role in proving that “spiral nebulae” were really other “island universes” – that is, other galaxies. The Hubble Space Telescope has found Cepheids out to a distance of about 100 million light years – a huge leap from the 3,000 light years we can reach with the parallax method.

There are other ways of making an educated guess at an object’s distance, and they frequently are quite complex and indirect. But the Cepheid variable has been one of the most important tools in the astronomer’s tool kit for the past century. It was in 1908 that Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a $10.50 a week “calculator” at Harvard Observatory noticed a pattern while doing tedious work cataloging stars and saw it’s importance. Though she published a paper about it, she never really received the credit she deserved during her lifetime for this breakthrough discovery.

So when you look at this “home plate” in the sky, see if you can find the fourth magnitude star, Delta Cephei – it’s not hard to spot under good conditions. (See the chart above.) When you find it, pay homage to it for the key role it has played in unlocking the secrets of the universe – for once astronomers know the distance of an object they can make all sorts of deductions about its composition, mass, and movement.

Look east In September 2014 – and take a journey from mythology to science

As we travel September skies we’ll move from the age of mythology to the age of science.

First, the age of mythology. Had you been born a few hundred – or even a few thousand – years ago, the eastern sky in September shortly after sunset would look something like this to your imaginative eye.

For most of recorded human history different cultures turned the stars into familiar patterns that  illustrated familiar mythological stories. In our September eastern skies shortly after sunset we have a wodnerful collection of five related mythological figures - Cepeheus (king), Cassiopeia (queen), Andromeda (princess), Perseus (hero), and Pegasus, the flying horse. (Developed froma screen shot of  Starry Night Pro. Click for larger version.)

For most of recorded human history different cultures turned the stars into familiar patterns that illustrated familiar mythological stories. In our September eastern skies shortly after sunset we have a wonderful collection of five related mythological figures – Cepheus  (king), Cassiopeia  (queen), Andromeda  (princess), Perseus  (hero), and Pegasus, the flying horse. (Slightly modified screen shot from Starry Night Pro. Click for larger version.)

The tale is easy to remember. The king (Cepheus) and queen (Cassiopeia) felt their kingdom was threatened by a sea monster, so as a sacrifice to the monster they tied their daughter, Andromeda, to a coastal rock.   But don’t worry, our hero Perseus, fresh from slaying Medusa, appears to rescue Andromeda, and they ride off across the starry heavens on his faithful steed, Pegasus, the flying horse.  Really – today the king and queen  would be tried for child abuse!

Of course as usual with the ancient constellations, the figures bear only the crudest relationship to the pattern of bright stars, so a lot of imagination is required to see them.  But that said, I do find this myth an easy way to remember these five constellations. In modern times we’ve drawn complex boundaries around each constellation and used these imaginary celestial boundaries to name and locate stars.  But more importantly, we’ve developed a celestial coordinates system much along the lines of Earthly longitude and latitude.

If you imagine the Earth’s latitude lines projected onto the dome of the sky, they become circles indicating declination – how far in degrees a point is from the celestial equator. The celestial equator itself is a projection onto the sky dome of Earth’s equator.  Longitude is projected and marked in 24 hours of “right ascension” so the whole celestial clock appears to pass overhead in the course of a day. I found it difficult remembering where these hours begin until I learned about the “Three Guides.” These are three bright stars –  indicated by arrows in the chart below – that fall very close to the zero hour line of right ascension. Above them (think of these as preceding them, for they rise first)  the hours count backward from 24. Below them – think of these  as following them, since they rise afterwards – are the hours counting up from 0.

Prepared from a Starry Nights Pro screen shot - click for a larger version.

I prefer to remember my sky in terms of bright stars and asterisms, so Cassiopeia becomes the “W.” Andromeda  becomes “Andromeda’s Couch,”  and the flying horse becomes the “Great Square.”   But the Three Guides – the three bright stars indicated by arrows – allow you to see the sky in more scientific terms, for these lie on aline that is the starting point for placing a grid on the sky to create a precise address for each star in terms of its relation to  the grid. This grid is indicated above by the red lines. (Prepared from a Starry Nights Pro screen shot – click for a larger version.)

For a printer-friendly version of this chart, download this.

First, let’s look at the “Great Square” – or perhaps we should say “Great Diamond,” since that’s what it looks like when rising. Once overhead, it is certainly a square, and it forms the heart of Pegasus – the flying horse. The stars are all second and third magnitude – about the brightness of the stars in the Big Dipper – so wait until about an hour after sunset, then look east and you should be able to pick this out. Its stars mark out a huge chunk of sky that is nearly empty of naked-eye stars, which is why I sometimes call it the “Great Empty Square.”

Andromeda’s Couch, ties to the northern corner of the square. In fact, it shares a star with this corner. “Andromeda’s Couch” is just my memory device – others would simply call this “Andromeda” because that’s the name of the constellation it dominates. I have difficulty seeing the lovely maiden chained to a rock by looking at these stars.  But knowing that in myth Andromeda was a lovely woman who was rescued by Perseus, I like to think of this graceful arc of stars as her couch with her a misty fantasy figure lying there in alluring fashion. That said, notice three things about it:

1. The bright star at the right – southern – end is also a corner of the Great Square, as we mentioned. In fact, it is the brightest star in the Great Square.

2. The three brightest stars in the “couch” – I’m ignoring the second star which is fainter – the three brightest are about as close to being identical in brightness as you can get – magnitude 2.06, 2.06, and 2.09. They also are pretty equally spaced. Hold your fist at arm’s length and it should easily fit in the gaps between these stars, which means there are 10-15 degrees between each star. That’s similar to the spacing between the four stars in the “Great Square” as well.

3. The second star, as mentioned, is dimmer by more than a full magnitude (3.25), but it’s what gives this asterism a couch feeling to me – or maybe a lounge chair – marking a sharp, upward bend.

And where’s the hero Perseus? he should be nearby, right? Well he’s on his way, rising in the northeast after Cassiopeia, but we’ll leave him for next month when he’s more easily seen.

Now for the pièce de résistance!

This is a group of stars that are new to me, at least in this role, and I love them! They’re called “The Three Guides,” but I think of it as four guides They can all be tied together by a long, graceful arc that represents the great circle of zero hour right ascension – which is the “celetsial meridian” as defined in the equatorial coordinate system.

As mentioned, the equatorial coordinate system is essentially a projection of the Earth’s latitude and longitude system onto the sky to enable us to give a very precise address for any star or other celestial object, as seen from our planet. On Earth we require an arbitrary circle be chosen as the zero longitude line, and this is the circle that passes through the poles and Greenwich, England.

In the heavens we also need such a circle, and the one chosen is the one that passes through the point where the Sun crosses the celestial equator at the vernal equinox. But that point is not represented by any bright star, so how do we know where this “zero hour” circle is? We need it to put numbers to the entire system. Enter “The Three Guides.”

They start with the star Beta Cassiopeia. This is the western most star in the familiar “W”  – the one which rises first and leads the rest. (Remember – all stars appear to move westward as the earth turns.)  From there draw an arc to Alpha Andromedae. This is the star mentioned before where Andromeda and the Great Square are joined – they both share this star.

The third star of this trio is Gamma Pegasi – the star that appears to be at the bottom of the Great Square when we see it as a diamond when rising. (If this is not clear, one glance at the accompanying chart should make it so.)

When I look at this great arc, however, I always start to trace it right from the North Star, Polaris. All the great circles representing meridians of right ascension pass through the north and south celestial poles.

As you move upward from this zero line in the general direction of the Summer triangle, the hours count backwards counting the Zero Hour as 24. Move downward, towards the horizon and the hours count forward from zero. This sequence is marked on our chart around Polaris.

Taking a wide view of the “Three Guides” to incorporate the North Star and Summer Triangle as well. Here’s what we should see about an hour after sunset. Click image for larger version. (Derived from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

For a printer-friendly version of this chart, download this.

What’s important is to be able to visualize this one circle in the sky and connect it with the another circle crossing it at a right angle – the celestial equator. If you can do that, you will have identified the two zero points on the equatorial coordinate system and moved your knowledge of finding things in the sky from the mythological arena to the scientific one. That’s why these three “guides” excite me so. When you can look up at the night sky and see not only a dome, but a curved grid projected on it, and on this grid be able to attach meaningful numbers, then you have graduated to sky explorer, first class!

. . . and the rest of the guideposts?

If you’ve located the new September asterisms and identified The Three Guides, then it’s time to check for the more familiar stars and asterisms you might already know, assuming you have been studying the sky month by month. (If this is your first month, you can skip this section.) So here are the guidepost stars and asterisms still visible in our September skies.

  • The Summer Triangle is now high overhead, though still favoring the east. Vega, its brightest member, reaches its highest point about an hour after sunset and moves into the western sky. Altair and Deneb are still a bit east, but will cross the meridian within about three hours of sunset.
  • The “Teapot,” marking the area of the Milky Way approaching the center of our galaxy, is due south about an hour after sunset. Well into the southwest you’ll find the red star Antares that marks the heart of the Scorpion.
  • Arcturus (remember, follow the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle to Arcturus) is due west and about 25 degrees above the horizon as twilight ends.
  • The Keystone of Hercules and the circlet that marks the Northern Crown can both be found high in the western sky by tracing a line between Vega and Arcturus.

Look East in June 2014 and see if you can make the stars “pop!”

How can we make the stars pop out of the sky and into our mind’s eye?

That’s the perennial problem for me, for what we actually see is so much less than what is actually there that we can’t help but belittle the stars unintentionally. This month’s guide star, Deneb, is a prime example. It’s easy to spot using our chart as it rises in the northeast below and to the left of Vega. In terms of our bright guide star list, Deneb’s rather dim – 19th in the list of brightest stars we see with the naked eye. But that reveals much more about our point of view than about Deneb. Deneb, plain and simple, is one of the most luminous stars in our galaxy. Vega, just above and to the right of it in the northeast, looks so much brighter – but it isn’t. It’s simply so much closer. Vega is just 25 light years away.

Deneb, by one the most recent calculations, is 1,425 light years from us. (This is still open to debate and some put it nearly twice that far away!) But we’ll use the 1,425 light year figure. Put Deneb in Vega’s place – just 25 light years away –  and it would be visible in broad daylight! Does that help it “pop?”

When astronomers talk about how “luminous” a star is they don’t mean how bright it appears to us in our night sky. They mean how bright it actually is. In fact, frequently they use “luminous” to include all the radiation that comes from a star – even radiation in wavelengths that we don’t see, such as infrared and ultraviolet. They then compare a star’s luminosity with the luminosity of the Sun – the Sun being “1.” When they examine Deneb that way they get a luminosity of 54,400 Suns – awesome! (Popping yet? Can you imagine our Sun being twice as brght as it is? three times a bright? How about 54,400 times brighter?)  But when we look at Deneb we see a star that is just moderately bright – magnitude 1.25.

Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot - click for larger version.

Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot – click for larger version.

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

OK – let’s get serious about this popping business. When you look at Deneb, you have to use your mind’s eye to see it for what it really is, not just for what it appears to be. So what should we see when we look at Deneb? First we should see something huge. Deneb is classed as a “supergiant.” So sit back and try to imagine a star whose diameter is 108 times that of the Sun. No, wait! First imagine how big the Earth is. Then get in your mind the fact that the Sun is 109 times the diameter of the Earth. Got that? Now try to imagine that Deneb is to our Sun what our Sun is to the Earth. birdshotBut wait! I really do not want to talk about diameters. Those are for people who live in a flat world. Think in terms of volume, because that’s what a planet or star really is – a volume – a mass formed into a sphere. To get your mind around volume, picture the earth as a tiny bird shot just 2.5mm in diameter. Here’s one to give you the idea. Now picture a sphere about 10.5 inches in diameter – a basketball would be close, or this glass garden globe. See the difference? When talking diameters, the Sun is 109 Earths. But when you’re talking volume, you could fit well over a million Earths inside the Sun. sun_deneb Now think about the same thing in terms of Deneb. That little lead shot is our magnificent Sun. The blue globe is Deneb! That’s what you should see in your mind’s eye when you watch this month’s guide star rise in the northeast. Were Deneb our Sun, its surface would reach halfway to the orbit of Earth and needless to say, Earth would be in a hopelessly hot location. But there’s more, of course. Size is a great starting point, but it doesn’t equate with mass. A lot of stars are bloated – that is, their mass is spread out over a large area and they have a huge surface area from which to radiate a tremendous amount of energy. That is the case with Deneb. It is believed to be about 10-15 solar masses, but its total luminosity – the total amount of energy it radiates when compared to the Sun is a whopping 54,400 times that of the Sun! Wrap your mind’s eye around that! That’s why astronomer/author James Kaler writes that Deneb is

among the intrinsically brightest stars of its kind (that is, in its temperature or spectral class) in the Galaxy. If placed at the distance of Vega, Deneb would shine at magnitude – 7.8, 15 times more brightly than Venus at her best, be as bright as a well-developed crescent Moon, cast shadows on the ground, and easily be visible in broad daylight.

Deneb is unusual for supergiant stars for it is of spectral Class A – that means it’s your basic white star and very hot as stars go. Other very large stars, such as Betelgeuse, are in a different stage of development and quite cool and red to the eye. Deneb is believed to be just 10 million years old. That’s very young in terms of star ages. Our Sun is believed to be 5 billion years old. Deneb will never get to that ripe old age. Massive stars such as Deneb live in the fast lane, burning up their core hydrogen fuel relatively quickly. Kaler gives this analysis:

The star is evolving and has stopped fusing hydrogen in its core. However, it’s hard to know just what is going on. It might be expanding and cooling with a dead helium core and on its way to becoming a red supergiant, or it might have advanced to the state of core helium fusion. Having begun its life as a hot class B (or even class O) star of 15 to 16 solar masses just over 10 million years ago, its fate is almost certainly to explode sometime astronomically soon as a grand supernova.

Kaler certainly knows what he’s talking about, but don’t bother to keep a “death watch” on Deneb. “Astronomically soon” means some time in the next 100 million years or so 😉 Sherlock Holmes once chided his companion Watson saying “you see, but you do not observe.” With the stars, we have to take our cue from Holmes. We have to go beyond merely seeing. And in truth, we have to go beyond merely observing. We have to take the knowledge the scientists have given us and somehow apply it to what we see, so with our mind’s eye we truly observe. Only then can we pop Deneb out of that “twinkle, twinkle little star” category and see it for what it really is.

Vital stats for Deneb (DEN-ebb), also known as Alpha Cygni:

• Brilliance: Magnitude 1.24; its luminosity is the equal of 54,400 Suns. • Distance: 1,425 light years • Spectral Types: A2 supergiant • Position: 20h:41m:26s, +45°:16′:49″

Guide star reminder

Each month you’re encouraged to learn the new “guide” stars rising in the east about an hour after sunset. One reason for doing this is so you can then see how they move in the following months. Deneb and the Northern Cross join several other guide stars and asterisms in the June sky. Again, if you have been reading these Posts for several months, be sure to find the stars, asterisms, and planets you found in earlier months. Early on a June evening these will include, from east to west, the following: Deneb, Vega, Arcturus, Spica, Saturn, Leo’s Rump (triangle),  the Sickle, Regulus, the Beehive, and in the northwest getting near the horizon, Pollux and Castor. You may also see Capella very near the horizon. For more experienced observers looking to extend their knowledge of the skies this month, I highly recommend trying to track down two more asterism – the Northern Crown and the KeystoneOK, technically the Northern Crown (Corona Borealis) is a constellation. But I always apply the name to the handful of moderately bright stars that look like a half circle – a crown. As the chart below shows, these two asterisms are located on a line between Arcturus and Vega and they sort of divide that line into thirds. As with our guide stars and other asterisms, they will help you if you advance to finding other more interesting objects int he night sky with binoculars and telescope.

keystone-crown

For a printer-friendly version of this chart, click here. The Crown itself can provide you with an interesting test of how dark your skies are since a couple hours after sunset on a June night it is well up in your eastern sky. It consists of a circlet of seven stars which can just fit within the field of view of wide-field binoculars – the example below shows an eight degree circle. It may be helpful to look at these stars with your binoculars, even if they don’t all fit in the same field of view at once. But to test how dark your skies are – and how transparent they are at the moment – wait until your vision is dark adapted, then see how many of these stars you can see. The numbers beside the stars are the magnitudes in decimals as given by Starry Nights software. However, I’ve followed the convention of not using a decimal point, since it might be mistaken for another faint star. So “41” means magnitude 4.1, for example. If you are seeing all seven stars you can be happy with your skies and these light-polluted times. In a truly dark location, however, this will be easy – but sadly such locations are rare these nights.

Read text above for explanation of how to use. Thenc lick on image to give you a larger view and luse the link below to download a printer friendly version. (Made from Starry Nights screen shot.)

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

Look North in June 2014! See the ‘North Sky Triangle’ !

Click to enlarge. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot.)

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

Yep, that’s Deneb, the guide star that is the subject of our “Look East” Post for June, gracing our “Look North” chart as well. In fact, besides Polaris we have three key guide stars in our northern sky every June, each of which is noted for, among other things, just how far north it is.

Of the three, Capella may be the hardest to find, for it is very near the horizon in the northwest around sunset. But if you have a clear horizon in that direction, you should still pick it up, especially at the start of the month. More prominent, however, are Deneb and Vega. These stars play the key role in one of the best known sky triangles – the Summer Triangle, but that triangle becomes easier to see next month and it will be in the eastern sky. For June it is fun to link Deneb and Vega with Polaris in what we’ll call the North Sky Triangle – and the linkage has some special meaning.

We just happen to be lucky to be living in an era when we have a bright star near the North Celestial Pole – Polaris. There’s no such bright star near the South Celestial Pole, and in other eras there is none near the North Pole either. But in the distant past – and in the distant future – Deneb actually will be the bright star nearest the pole – not as near as Polaris, but still a good general guide to it.

gyroscope precessionThat’s because the Earth wobbles as it spins on its axis in much the same way as a spinning top does. So the axis of the Earth doesn’t always point to the same place. It slowly makes a great circle around the northern sky, taking roughly 25,000 years to complete. Right now our axis is pointing to within a degree of Polaris. Not precise, but good enough so it is a ready indicator of true north. A mere 18,000 years ago Deneb was within 7 degrees of the pole and will be again around the year 9800!

This wobbling of the pole is really kind of mind boggling. I look at Polaris now, and it’s a bit short of 42 degrees above my northern horizon. But in a mere 14,000 years, Polaris will be almost straight over my head, and guess what will be the pole star then? Not Deneb, but its brighter – in our skies – companion, Vega. Of course none of us is likely to witness that event, but it’s still food for thought and gives us a sense of the majestic rhythms and time frame of the heavens.

And speaking of that time frame, as I write this it occurs to me that 14,000 years really feels like a very long time from now – while the 10-million-year age of Deneb doesn’t seem that long – and it isn’t, astronomically speaking. I’m not talking now about what your mind tells you about those numbers. I’m talking about your emotional reaction to them. I wonder if it’s similar to mine? This isn’t idle speculation. It’s central to our appreciating what we are seeing. But I think 14,000 sounds like a long time because it’s a number that fits into our day-to-day experience. Huge, but we can easily imagine 1,000 of something.  So imagining 14,000 of something comes easily to us. But few of us have any experience with one million. It would take about 11 days to count one million seconds and no one in his right mind is about to try it. So when we speak of the 10-million-year age of Deneb, or the five-billion-year age of the Sun, the numbers lose their emotional impact because they don’t relate easily to our experience. But 14,000 – well, we know, in an emotional sense, just how long that is!

Look North: May is the month the North Star gets two bright flankers!

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

Click here to download a printer-friendly version of this chart.

Is the North Star – Polaris – our brightest star? No! And it certainly won’t look that way this month as it shares the northern sky with two very bright stars. But, read on. Polaris is not nearly as dim as it looks!

If you have been learning your guidepost stars as they rise in the East, you won’t be surprised by the two bright stars which flank – and outshine – our pole star in May. To the northwest is Capella, a star we first met when it rose in the northeast in November. In May the northeast is dominated by a star that is almost Capella’s twin in brightness, Vega, a guidepost star we introduce in May. (See “Look East!” for more about Vega.) As a bonus we also have the twin guidepost stars, Castor and Pollux, making their way into the northern sky high above Capella. But let’s focus on Capella and Vega.

New star watchers frequently assume the North Star, Polaris, will be the brightest star in the sky. It isn’t even close! It is bright, but its fame comes because it’s very, very close to where the axis of the Earth points to the north celestial pole. So it serves anyone trying to find true north as a very good guide. But when it comes to brightness, it’s in the same league as the stars in the Big Dipper. Quite bright, but it can’t hold a candle to Capella and Vega. When you look at a list of the brightest stars, Vega is number 5 and Capella number 6. Polaris, our North Star, is number 48!

As simple as one, two, three!

That doesn’t mean Polaris is a slouch, though. First, in the eastern sky in May you meet Spica. (That’s on our chart for the east.) One distinction of Spica is that it’s as close to being magnitude 1 as any star gets. A distinction of Polaris is, as Spica defines magnitude 1, Polaris defines magnitude 2. (To be precise it’s magnitude 2.02.) Vega and Capella are extremely close to magnitude 0. Vega is 0.03 and Capella 0.08. Good luck on telling the difference! This month, if you look north 90 minutes after sunset, you may think Capella is a bit brighter actually – but if it appears that way it will be because it’s a bit higher in the sky and thus is not dimmed by having to fight its way through as much of our atmosphere as Vega is doing at the moment. So don’t try to split hairs. And yes, you’re right – they are NOT really as “simple as one, two, three” – on the magnitude scale they are as simple as zero, one, two – but that doesn’t sound as good! (Vega and Capella are zero; Spica is magnitude one, and Polaris, magnitude two.)

So which is really the brightest star of these four? Are you ready for this? Polaris! That’s right – if you put all four stars at the same distance, Polaris would appear to be the brightest. Remember, that the lower the magnitude number, the brighter the star. In absolute magnitude – the brightness we give to a star if they are all shining from the same distance  – these four stars line up this way:

  • Polaris -3.4
  • Spica -3.2
  • Capella 0.1
  • Vega 0.3

And those absolute magnitudes also reflect their order in distance from us.

  • Polaris 433 light years
  • Spica 250 light years
  • Capella 45 light years
  • Vega 25 light years

So sometimes a star is very bright because it’s – well, very bright. But sometimes it only appears to be very bright because it is very close to us. If you put our closest star into this group, our Sun – remember, it is just 8 light minutes from us – in absolute magnitude it would be by far the dimmest of this group – absolute magnitude 4.9! So while Polaris doesn’t look all that bright, it really is a very bright star! Another way to think about this is if you move our Sun out to where Polaris is, it would be about magnitude 10! You would need binoculars or a telescope to see it!

Click image for larger view of this chart. Yellow circle represents typical field of view for low power binoculars, such as 10X50.

To get an idea of the difference between Polaris and our Sun, point your binoculars towards Polaris.  You should be able to make out the “Engagement Ring” asterism – granted, a crude ring with Polaris as the diamond.  This asterism points you towards the true north celestial pole  – just avery short distance to the other side of Polaris –  and also gives you a good idea of about how far Polaris is from that pole.  Small binoculars will not show you the companion of Polaris, but to get an idea of how bright our Sun would be at the same distance, look for the star labelled 9.8 – and if you can’t see it, see if you can see the star that’s a bit brighter labelled “9.”  Don’t expect to see these instantly. Sit calmly, relax, and keep looking for at least a minute.

And here’s one more cool secret about Polaris. It has a companion that just happens to be quite dim – magnitude 9. It’s fun to see the two of them if you have a small telescope, though it’s not all that easy because Polaris is so much brighter than its companion. But if you get a chance to see Polaris and its companion in a telescope, remind yourself that the very faint companion is still a bit brighter than our Sun would look at this distance. This companion, known as Polaris B, was discovered in 1780 by William Herschel, and for many years Polaris was thought to be a binary star – that is, a system of two stars orbiting about a common center of gravity. But Polaris was holding one more surprise – it’s really a triple star.

The top image shows Polaris and its faint companion that can be seen in any decent backyard telescope. The bottom image shows the second companion, Polaris Ab, which has only been seen by using the Hubble Space Telescope.

This has been known for some time, but no one could see the third star until they turned the Hubble Space telescope on it in 2006. That’s when NASA released the first image of this third companion. The accompanying press release explained it this way:

By stretching the capabilities of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to the limit, astronomers have photographed the close companion of Polaris for the first time. They presented their findings  in a press conference at the 207th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C.

“The star we observed is so close to Polaris that we needed every available bit of Hubble’s resolution to see it,” said Smithsonian astronomer Nancy Evans (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics). The companion proved to be less than two-tenths of an arc second from Polaris — an incredibly tiny angle equivalent to the apparent diameter of a quarter located 19 miles away. At the system’s distance of 430 light years, that translates into a separation of about 2 billion miles.

“The brightness difference between the two stars made it even more difficult to resolve them,” stated Howard Bond of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). Polaris is a supergiant more than two thousand times brighter than the Sun, while its companion is a main-sequence star. “With Hubble, we’ve pulled the North Star’s companion out of the shadows and into the spotlight.”

So as I said, Polaris is no slouch. It not only is a very bright star, but it also has two companions, and scientists are still studying it because it is unusual in other respects. We’ll talk about those other differences another month.

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