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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.

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.

 

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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.

September 2013 – pursuing the not-so-false dawn – plus planets

There’s nothing false about the false dawn – in fact, it’s quite intriguing and somewhat puzzling, but very real. Here’s a cool picture of it.

Yes, I’m talking about the zodiacal light – known for hundreds, if not thousands of years as the “false dawn” because it precedes the usual predawn light. Only it isn’t always so obvious – September and October are the best time to see it in the northern hemisphere early morning sky.  (It is best seen in the early evening sky in February and March.)

Oh  – do keep in mind that the picture above was taken through the thin air and superbly dark skies above the European Southern Observatory in Chile and  benefits from the camera’s ability to do a better job of capturing faint light  than our eyes.  We won’t see it that way. But,  the picture is very useful because it gives us a good idea of the shape and size of what we are looking for when we seek this elusive glow in our skies.

If you want to catch it you have to:

  • Be out two hours before sunrise – and  give your eyes time to dark adapt. It is best seen about 80 minutes  before sunrise.
  • Be in a place relatively free of light pollution – you especially don’t want to be looking at a light dome from a city to your east. If you can see the Milky Way your skies are dark enough – if not, you need to go somewhere where you can see it.
  • Look at a time when the Moon isn’t in the morning sky – in 2013 that means the first two weeks of either September or October. 

Is it worth it – I certainly think so – but then I think September mornings are great anyways because you get to see all the bright stars of the Winter Hexagon without freezing your tail off as you do when they are in the evening sky in January. In addition we have Mars rising low in the East and Jupiter is already pretty high up and should appear near the peak of the zodiacal light – and be brighter than any star.  (Mars will be about as bright as   Castor and Pollux,  two of the bright stars  of the Winter Hexagon. Here’s a chart.

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

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

Click here for a printable, black and white version of this chart.

For you insomniacs – or folks who just love to get up early when the world is still and most of the neighbors have turned off their lights so the sky is darker, pursuing the zodiacal light is special.

What is it? It is sun light reflecting off a  huge cloud of very fine dust between the Earth and Sun on the plane of the solar system.  That’s been agreed upon for some time.  How much dust?  Well, wrap your mind around this.  Assuming that the dust particles have the same reflectivity as the surface of the moon, it would take one dust particle every five miles to reflect that much light! We’re still looking at an awful lot of empty space. Hmmm. . . there 93 million mile between the Earth and Sun – so if we had a single straight line of dust particles, we’d still have more than 18 million of them – and of course this is much more than one single line.  Now that’s awesome.

But where did all that dust come from?    J. Kelly Beatty goes over the science history in an excellent article in September’s Sky and Telescope  and notes that the current opinion is the dust cloud is a result of short period comets.  Think of a comet as a dirty snowball that melts as it nears the Sun, leaving a trail of dust. That dust stays in orbit. Short period comets are ones whose orbit takes 200 years or less because they have been captured by the gravity of the  planets. (Other comets take much longer to orbit, or simply make a single trip around the Sun.)

Why is it obvious in the morning sky in the fall and the  evening sky in the spring? Because it follows the path of the ecliptic and the ecliptic is more or less straight up and down in the morning at this time of year – and in the evening in February and March. At other times it slants at quite an angle keeping the zodiacal light lower in the sky where it gets lost in the routine dawn light.

There’s a nice little planetary show in the west this month as well, as Venus and Saturn get cozy and on September 8 Venus has a close encounter with the crescent moon right after sunset.   It’s Saturn’s turn the next night.  About a week later  Saturn and Venus should fit comfortably in the same binocular field of view for several days.

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

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

Look east In September 2013 – 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 of 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. m 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 are the starting points for laying a grid on the sky to create a precise address for each star in terms of its places on 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 north in September 2013 – 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. The first bright star you meet will mark the tip of the Cepheus home plate. (It’s about one fist away from Polaris – 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.

In September 2012 – let Venus be your guide to the Beehive, crescent Moon, and Zodaical Light

Once again, Venus steals the show in the morning sky this September, while Mars and Saturn dance low in the southwest in the early evening. Jupiter crosses over into the evening sky, but just barely – it is still better seen during the early morning hours. In my book, the most fascinating and attractive naked eye challenge of the month will be seeing Venus  in the midst of the Zodaical Light – those minute solar system dust particles that in their own special way and time can mimic the display of the Milky Way.

Check out this wonderful photo of the Zodaical Light – and keep in mind that it was taken through the thin air and superbly dark skies of a mountain observatory and benefits from the camera’s ability to do a better job of capturing faint displays than our eyes. Still, it gives us a good idea of the shape and size of what we are looking for when we seek this elusive glow in our skies.

Zodiacal Light Seen from Paranal, European Southern Observatory.

Now I know the predawn hours are not for everyone, so let’s deal first with the continuing show in the southwest where Mars and  Saturn are still visible low in the sky shortly after sunset – and they still team up with Spica to make an interesting combination. What’s more interesting, however, is as the month goes on Saturn and Spica head  for the horizon pretty quickly while Mars will hold its own for the next several months, hanging out near the horizon and letting the background stars slide behind it.

On September 1, 2012 Mars, Saturn, and Spica will be near the horizon – but visible – 45 minutes after sunset in the west-southwest.

Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

For the rests of the month Mars will remain at roughly the same altitude – betwen 11 and 13 degrees above the horizon about 45 minutes after sunset. However, Saturn and Spica swiftly fall out of sight. By mid-month Spica is a mere two degrees above the horizon and Staurn – barely visible – at about 7 degrees high. (Using binoculars will help locate it.)  By the end of September Spica has set at this point (45 minutes after sunset) and Saturn is a mere two degrees above the horizon – most likely too difficult to find.  But Mars’ rapid orbital motion carries it eastward as seen against the background stars which all appear to be moving westward – towards the horizon – because of the orbital motion of Earth.

Venus and the Beehive

Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

From about September 9-18, 2012  you can watch Venus pass close enough to the Beehive (M44) star cluster for both to appear in the same low power binocular view. The most interesting view will come on the morning  of September 12 when they are joined by  a crescent Moon. Center Venus in your binoculars, the put it in the right side of the field of view and you should be able to see the Beehive. Put it in the left side of the field of view and you’ll see the Moon.

Oh – and on October 3, 2012 Venus will have an incredibly close visit with first magnitude guidepost star, Regulus. In fact they will be so close for those in mid-northern latitudes that  I doubt you’ll be able to separate them with the naked eye, though they should make a nice binocular – or telescopic – double! They should be about 8-minutes of arc apart – which means they’re closer together than Mizar and Alcor, the famous test of eye sight in the handle of the Big Dipper. I think you will separate them with binoculars, but the large difference in magnitude – Venus is -4.1 and Regulus about 1.3 = could make this a serious challenge. I should add, however, that Venus is moving quickly and  exactly how far apart the two  appear on this particular morning will depend on your location. If I move to the West Coast i get a larger separation. 

Basking in the Zodiacal Light

Prepared from Starry Nights Pro ecreen shot.

The second half of September 2012 will be a good time to start looking for that most elusive of Solar System sights, the Zodiacal Light – and Venus will help!  You actually have a brief window when it’s visible starting about two hours before sunrise and going to about  80 minutes before sunrise. After that the twilight will drown it out. Draw a line between first magnitude Regulus – near the horizon – and Venus. This line will tilt to the right (at least from mid-northern latitudes) and the Zdaical Light will be located along it since that is pretty much the line the ecliptic takes and the ecliptic marks the plane of our Solar System.  The ecliptic marks the general area where you are going to find most Solar System bodies – planets, moons, asteroids – and yes, tiny specks of dust that make up the Zodaical Light.

You don’t need a totally clear horizon to see the zodiacal light, or binoculars, but you do need total darkness and that means little-to-no light pollution and no  – or very little – Moon. In Septmeber 2012 the last two weeks fit the bill – from about Sept. 14-28. I feel I have a good shot at it from my favorite ocean-front observing point where I have a clear horizon to the east with no cities to create light domes there. Mornings in September and October –  or evenings in February and March – are the best times for folks at mid-northern latitudes to look for the Zodaical Light.

The Zodiacal Light is roughly the same intensity as the Milky Way, so if you can see the Milky Way from your chosen location, then you should be able to pick up this faint glow. Like the Milky Way, it stretches over a good deal of sky. It is widest near the horizon and gets narrower as it rises towards the zenith. You want to look for this starting 120 minutes before sunrise, but I advise you also allow at least 15 minutes to half an hour for your eyes to dark adapt. (For projects like this I frequently keep a red flashlight near my bed and use it to preserve my night vision when I get up.)  If you try to look for this later, you may confuse it with twilight. What we are seeing is sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust particles – dust particles that orbit in the same plane as the planets – the area we call the zodiac – and thus the name for this phenomena, Zodiacal Light.

How high? How bright? How wide? All this depends on your conditions – and even in an area where theere is little or no light pollution, it will vary. All nights are not equally transparent.  But you do want to avoid the Moon and it will come back into the equation by the 28th – but don’t worry. If you miss it this month, October and November are also good months to see it. And if you wish to see it in the evening sky, March and April are good.

If you see it, reflect on this explanation from Wikipedia:

The material producing the Zodiacal Light is located in a lens-shaped volume of space centered on the Sun and extending well out beyond the orbit of Earth. This material is known as the interplanetary dust cloud. Since most of the material is located near the plane of the Solar System, the zodiacal light is seen along the ecliptic. The amount of material needed to produce the observed zodiacal light is amazingly small. If it were in the form of 1 mm particles, each with the same albedo (reflecting power) as Earth’s Moon, each particle would be 8 km from its neighbors.

For the metrically-challenged (that includes me) that means one dust particle every five miles! And each particle is tinier than a bird shot – way tinnier than a BB. And that causes all that light?! Awesome!

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