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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


April (2013) events: The changing of the (planetary) Guard and a Comet – still

Ahhh . . . Saturn! We love you – afterall, you brought us Saturn-day! And before I get, you still have a chance to see Comet PanSTARRS in binoculars – mark April 4 on your calendar – though it is growing quite dim.

But let’s start with Saturn In  April 2013 we have Saturn taking over the dominant planet duties from Jupiter – though Jupiter will still be with us even next month, it will get lower and lower in the west, making observing it’s wonderful moons more and more difficult for the binocular user – though next month it will have an interesting naked-eye encounter with a couple other planets.

Saturn, which has been dominating morning skies for months, becomes seriously dominant in the evening sky this month. In fact on April 28th it is at “opposition,” one of those technical terms which is easy to remember because all it means is it will be the “opposite” the Sun in our sky. That is, as the Sun sets in the west, Saturn will rise in the east. But even on the first of April it put in an appearance low in the southeast within a few hours of sunset for a nice triangle of bright “stars” with  Arcturus (our guide star for this month), and the icy, blue Spica.


Click image for a much larger version of this chart. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Click this link for a version of this chart suitable for printing: saturn_rising

Saturn will be just a few magnitudes dimmer than brilliant, zero magnitude, Arcturus and brighter than Spica, though it will be interesting to do a color comparison between these last two. Wait until they’re both pretty high and Saturn should be a creamy yellow, Spica a very definite blue. (Near the horizon they will appear to twinkle madly and flash all sorts of colors due to  our atmosphere. )

Of course Saturn’s main appeal is in the telescope – even the smallest of scopes should reveal it’s beautiful ring system which this month is well placed for observing. (Some times the ring are almost edge-on from our point of view that that is not nearly so much fun. )

Comet Tails

I’m afraid that while you may pick up Comet PanSTARRS in binoculars this month, it will be much easier to follow in a small telescope. I suspect the highlight of the month will come April 4th when the comet, just a matter of a few light minutes from Earth, will appear to pass the Great Andromeda Galaxy (M31) – a whopping 2.5 million light years away.  (Actually, it will be quite close to the galaxy during the entire first week of April.) However, while you should be able to pick up this encounter in binoculars –  both galaxy and comet in the same field of view – it will be a more pleasing sight in a small, low-powered, telescope. Even then, both the comet and the galaxy will be competing with the thick atmosphere, low on the northwestern horizon, not to mention evening twilight.  (Pictures will make both appear brighter because of the sensitivity of long exposures. )

Click image for a much larger version of this chart. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Don’t expect a tail any thing like this long – but you should detect an elongation of the comet in the general direction the tail depicted here is pointing.  M31 should be both bigger and brighter than the comet. Click image for a much larger version of this chart. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Click this link for a version of this chart suitable for printing: comet

As a guide I suggest you wait until an hour after sunset, then scan about 10 degrees (one fist) above the northwestern horizon for the pair. The familiar “W” of Cassiopeia can also help. Use the lower half of this bright asterism as an arrowhead pointing you towards magnitude 2 Mirach.  That will help get you in the right vicinity – not an easy task when you are competing with the twilight. However, even 90 minutes after sunset – when it should be completely dark – this pair will still be more than 6  degrees above the horizon.  Whether you see it or not, I suggest you check Spaceweather.com for the latest photographs because you can be sure some enterprising amateur astronomers will capture the scene.

Look East: March 2013 Roars in like a sickle and triangle! (Huh?)

Sure, I’d like to tell you March roars in like a lion – but honestly it’s easier to point to the sickle and the triangle and the “Little King” we call Regulus, this last being the new guidepost star for March. But there is a lion there, too. Let’s look at the sickle and triangle first, though, because they’re two very easy asterisms you’ll see in the east about an hour or so after sunset. The Big Dipper off to the northeast gives you an idea of size for comparison.

This is the eastern sky as it will appear about an hour after sunset from mid-northern latitudes. The circle represents a typical field of view for low power binoculars. While you should see the brightest stars easily, in twilight - or in typical light pollution - you'll find that binoculars will show some of the fainter stars nearby and help you be sure you have identified the correct bright star.  The Mars position is for the 15th, but it will change a little each night.  Click image for larger view. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

This is the eastern sky as it will appear about an hour after sunset from mid-northern latitudes. Click image for larger view. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

Click for printer friendly version of the above chart.

OK – so can you make this into a lion? I find it fairly easy if I consider the sickle his head and mane – and I consider the triangle his rear haunches. I leave the rest to my imagination and don’t really attempt to connect the dots.

Leo does look much like the Lion depicted inthe 1603 Bayer catalog.  Click image for larger version.

The stars of Leo do indeed trace out some key parts of the Lion depicted in this plate from the 1603 Bayer atlas. (Click image for larger view.) Note that the bright star that marks the tail is named “Denobola,” which in Arabic really does mean “tail.” We encounter this also in the tail of Cygnus the Swan where the bright star is named “Deneb.” The Arabic star names are frequently descriptive. (Image courtesy of Linda Hall library of Science, Engineering and Technology.)

Regulus, our new bright guidepost star for this month, means “little king,” or “prince,” in Latin. That fits right in with the lion‘s reputation as King of the Beasts. And what a lovely image to have a prince leading a lion onto the night-time stage this month!

Is Regulus memorable in its own right? Well yes. It’s a star that is spinning so fast that if we could see its disc, it would look like a beach ball that someone sat on. It takes Regulus about 16 hours to make one rotation – in comparison, our Sun, a smaller star, takes about a month to rotate. In fact, if Regulus were spinning just a bit faster, it would spin itself apart!

The rapid spinning gives Regulus an equatorial diameter that is about one-third bigger than its polar diameter. This also results in the polar regions of Regulus being much hotter than its equator.

Regulus is also a multiple star system, but as such rather dull visually. The second star in the system is much fainter, so it can barely be detected by a skilled observer using binoculars – and in a telescope it’s so far away from the primary star that the two stars don’t seem like a pair at all. Both these stars are spectroscopic doubles – meaning the companions are so close we can’t see them with a telescope.

Though a relatively young star – about 250 million years as compared to the five-billion-year age of our Sun – Regulus is apparently nearing the end of its normal life as a “main sequence” star. That is, it’s about to finish burning hydrogen, which means it will soon go into the last stages of its life. But according to Jim Kaler, Regulus is also a curious case. It appears to have a very close white dwarf companion which scientists believe once was much larger and brighter than Regulus. But the gases were drawn from the white dwarf into Regulus, making Regulus both huge and bright and causing it to spin the way it does.

In total, Regulus is another example of how what looks like a common star to us, is quite fascinating when seen in the light of modern science.

Vital stats for Regulus:

• Brilliance: Magnitude 1.35, 22nd among the brightest stars in our sky; shines with the luminosity of about 150 Suns.
• Distance: 77 light years
• Spectral Type: B7V
• Position: 10h:08m:22s, +11°:58′:02

The buzz about the Beehive (M44) and Leo’s whiskers – a binocular treat!

In ancient times the constellation Leo extended much farther east and west, and M44 was considered to be its whiskers.

from “The Next Step – Finding and Viewing Messier Object” by Ken Graun

Whiskers indeed! I like that. It’s a great way to remember where to look for M44, for if you can find the Sickle – the huge head and mane of Leo – then all you have to think is “now where would his whiskers be?” Scan 2-3 binocular fields in that direction – westward – and you should soon stumble upon M44, the Beehive. Here is a chart you can use to find it. Do wait  until about two hours after sunset when it is really dark and M44 is well up in the sky.

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

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

M44 also is known as “the Beehive,” and Praesepe, which is Latin for manger. And if you have dark skies, away from light pollution, you will see this as a small, wispy cloud, perhaps suggestive of Leo’s whiskers. It is, in fact, a beautiful star cluster as binoculars or a small telescope will reveal. Galileo first discovered its true nature, and in this hazy patch counted more than 40 stars. You should see about that many with your binoculars. This is one of the nearest star clusters to us, and although there is still debate over its exact distance, it is around 580 light years. That compares with about 400 light years for the Pleiades. The two clusters are pretty close to the same size, but M44 is considered much older. M45 – the Pleiades – is estimated to be 78 million years old, while M44 is thought to be about 660 million years old. As star ages go, they’re both quite young. But open clusters, such as these, do not last too long – the members stars tend to get drawn off by close encounters with other stars as the whole clusters moves about our Milky Way galaxy.

The Latin name, Praesepe, is worth examining because it explains the names of two relatively bright stars which flank it – Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis. Borealis means “northern” and Australis means “southern.” Asellus means “ass” – as in donkey – and Praesepe means “crib” or “manger.” In other words, the Beehive apparently looked to some like a pile of hay in a manger, and these two flanking stars were donkeys eating that hay, one to the north and one to the south. In binoculars the scene should look something like this.

M44 and surroundings as it would appear in binoculars with a 5-degree field of view. Click image for larger view. (Chart derived from Starry Nights software screen shot.)

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

The two donkeys are about as bright as the stars in the handle of the Little Dipper, so under dark skies should be faintly visible to the naked eye with the northern one the dimmest. The third star, Eta Cancri, is dimmer still. Its name, however, indicates that it, the Beehive, and other stars shown here are all part of the rather obscure constellation known as Cancer, the crab.

Update- March 5 – Outlook brightens for PanSTARRS!Events – March 2013: Get set for a real nice – BINOCULAR – Comet and more

NASA guide to PanSTARRS position and tail direction on different dates this month. This is NOT a prediction of tail length or comet brightness. It is likely tobe much shrter and fainter - but comets are full of surprises and so this still has the potential to be really nice.

NASA guide to PanSTARRS position and tail direction on different dates this month. This is NOT a prediction of tail length or comet brightness. It is likely to be much shorter and fainter – but comets are full of surprises and so this still has the potential to be really nice. (Click image for larger version.)

The latest indicators are that Comet PanSTARRS will put on a better show than anticipated just a week ago – as noted, comets are just not that predictable! – here’s a recent news item:

Observers in the Southern Hemisphere have been watching Comet PanSTARRS for weeks, but the Northern Hemisphere is due to get its first looks at one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated sky extravaganzas this week. And there’s good news for northerners: The up-and-down expectations for the cometary show are trending upward again.

March Observing Highlights  –

Comet PANSTARRS and its distant kin, the Zodiacal Light

First, let me stress Comet PanSTARRS is not likely to be nearly as bright as originally predicted – but it still should be a nice comet, especially when viewed with binoculars.  And remember – we have another due in November/December that should be much better. However, with comets we can only make educated guesses – they can – and have – surprised the experts over the years, sometimes under performing, sometimes over performing.

I’m linking this comet with the Zodiacal Light because both might be seen at their best on March 12 after sunset in the west. What’s more,  they are  both essentially dust reflecting sunlight,  presenting a related observing challenge, though they are radically different in size. March 12 may be the earliest time for a good look at Comet PanSTARRS in the early twilight – and it will be the last night in early March for the  Zodiacal Light which can be seen about 80 minutes after sunset for the first 12 days of March – after that the Moon will tend to wash out the Zodiacal Light until the last couple days of the month.

Quick Observing Guide:

  • to observe both comet and Zodiacal Light  at their best, hope for clear skies on March 12 – and some special comet luck 
  • to observe the Zodiacal Light  alone go out any evening during the first 12 days of March 2013 and look for it about 80 minutes after sunset.
  • to observe Comet PanSTARRS it may be visible – especially from low northern latitudes such as the southern US, as early as March 7 or 8th, but the week beginning March 12 will probably give the best opportunity for observers in mid-northern latitudes.

A comet is a “dirty snowball” that “melts” when it gets near the sun, giving off what can be a spectacular trail (tail) of tiny dust particles that reflect sunlight. When we think of a comet we are usually thinking of seeing one with such a tail.  And the Zodiacal Light? It’s tons of inter-planetary dust, much of it having accumulated over the years from many comets that eventually disintegrated as they made several trips around the Sun. And while your best views of Comet PanSTARRS will be when it’s near the Sun – but getting dark – your best view of the Zodiacal Light will be just as full darkness is arriving – about 80 minutes after local sunset.

The Zodiacal Light will be in a fixed position night after night – a huge, but very faint, light cone reaching from the western horizon and slanting up in the general direction of the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus  – Comet PanSTARRS will change position slightly each night, drawing away from the Sun. The Zodiacal Light is most certainly a naked eye phenomenon requiring a good view to the west and  skies that are largely free of light pollution in that direction.

The same basic requirements fit Comet PanSTARRS – you need a good view to the west with an unobstructed horizon, at least for the early – and probably best – views. While it may be visible to the naked eye, the best guess is this will be bets seen in binoculars. So by all means, break out the binoculars! You don’t need any thing special – ordinary, low-power ones will do, though if you have large astronomical binoculars, all the better.  And while you will be searching for the comet in the early twilight, do be careful. Wait until about 15 minutes after sunset before scanning the western horizon for it. At all cost, avoid looking with your binoculars at the sun, as that will seriously damage your eyes.

Yes, you are likely to hear that PANSTARRS is visible to the naked eye. Don’t get too excited, though, it’s visibility is a lot like that regular March visitor, the  Zodiacal Light – the numbers in reality don’t really add up. Thus the binoculars are highly recommended – even if its brighter than expected.

Great video guide to the comet from NASA

I read in Sky and Telescope this month that the Zodiacal Light is actually the second brightest “thing” in the Solar system.  Wow! Never prove that from my experience. I  have always found it elusive. I count myself lucky if I can see it at all!  But, of course, Sky and Telescope is right.  Here again there’s an important lesson relating to both the Zodiacal Light and a comet – the brightness they’re talking about is for a point object, but in our view of it, this light is spread out.

So when you hear the Zodiacal Light is beaten only by the Sun in brightness, you have to understand that this is determined by pretending all the light reflected from it was concentrated in a single spot – and it isn’t. It is spread out over a huge area of sky – widest near the horizon and getting narrower as it rises towards the Pleiades. For me it looks much like the Milky Way, only a bit fainter.

The same thing is true of a comet – but to a much lesser degree. That is, Comet PanSTARRS is fairly likely to reach magnitude 2 and if it does, well that’s as bright as the North Star, or most of the stars in the Big Dipper. But – and here’s the catch – that light will be spread out with much of it concentrated in the fuzzy head, but  some also appearing in the tail.

What’s more, as the comet draws away from the Sun it will almost certainly get fainter – and therein lies the crucial problem of seeing a comet at its best. What we are dealing with is a constantly changing set of variables. Generally speaking, the closer a comet is to the Sun, the brighter it is.  However, the closer it is to the Sun, the more it is competing with the lingering sun light. As the twilight deepens, the comet should stand out more – BUT, as the twilight deepens the comet is also getting lower in the sky and that means you’re looking at it through more atmosphere and that makes it appear dimmer.

So the joy – and frustration – of comet hunting is that how the comet looks to you will depend on your local weather, of course, but also exactly when you see it – how bright it is, how high it is, and how dark the sky is around it. That’s what makes viewing – and photographing – comets both fun and challenging.

So what’s the best bet for Comet PanSTARRS – for those in mid-northern latitude somewhere between March 7 and 20 probably about halfway in between. I plan to watch the weather closely from March 10th to 17th and take advantage of any clear evening to look for it. The farther south you are, the sooner it should appear at its best for you – the farther north,  the later in the month it will be at its best.

But remember – on a  clear night early in the month that you go comet hunting – hang around even if the comet is too low to see well – the Zodiacal Light should be best about 80 minutes after sunset when there is no – or little – interference from the Moon. (That means from March 1 to about March 12, 3013.)  If you see the Zodiacal Light – how well you see it depends largely on timing, local weather conditions, and the lack of light pollution.  In other words, it is not quite to finicky as the comet, but still a challenge.

Jupiter – King of the Winter Hexagon!

Wow! What a view to the south!

As the sky darkens on these March evening, don't hesitate to look due south for a wonderful view of Jupiter dominating the Winter Hexagon - thata rea of sky with more birght stars in it than any other! Click the image for a larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

As the sky darkens on these March evening, don’t hesitate to look due south for a wonderful view of Jupiter dominating the Winter Hexagon – that area of sky with more bright stars in it than any other! Click the image for a larger version suitable for printing. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

The Winter Hexagon is one of my favorite asterisms encompassing a very rich area of sky contains eight very bright stars and that most recognizable of constellations, Orion.  But bright as these stars are, Jupiter will dominate them, outshining even Sirius, the brightest star for norther hemisphere observers. Take a look in that direction about an hour after sunset – in fact, you can’t hope but notice this brilliant area as you scan in the darkening even sky for the Zodiacal Light which shine faintly in a widening cone reaching from near the Pleiades to the western horizon.

And what a fabulous binocular sight!

Use your binoculars to:

  • Look for the fuzzy area in Orion’s sword  which hangs below his belt – the Great Orion Nebulae.
  • Look for the Hyades – the fabulous star cluster that makes up the “V” of Taurus and is just 150 light years away.
  • Look for the Pleiades – my favorite binocular target, a cluster of brilliant gem stone roughly 400 light years away.
  • And, of course, if you can hold them steady enough – brace against a pole, or the corner of a house – try to pick up one or more of the four bright moons of Jupiter.
The "V" of Taurus marks the Hyades cluster and the Pleiades are bit to the right as seen when looking south about 90 minutes after sunset this month.  Watch carefully over the course of the month and you will see Jupiter slowly change position moving towards Aldebaran, the bright star that marks the bull's eye. (Click for larger version. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

The “V” of Taurus marks the Hyades cluster and the Pleiades are a bit to the right as seen when looking south about 90 minutes after sunset this month. Watch carefully over the course of the month and you will see Jupiter slowly change position moving towards Aldebaran, the bright star that marks the bull’s eye. (Click for larger version. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Oh – and I should add that Jupiter will have a real close call with a “young” crescent Moon on March 17, 2013. Exactly how close will depend on where you are, but for me on the East Coast of the US, the Moon will pass within two degrees of the bright planet and add to the fun of binocular observing on that night. They both will fit easily into the same binocular field of view!

Saturn now dominates the morning sky

Think of it as “coming attractions” if you’re not a morning person. Saturn crosses over into our late evening sky and by next month it will be quite easy t see at a reasonable hour.  For March 2013, however, it is primarily the dominant planet in the morning sky.

In fact, this is a rare month for planets – well, I should say planets are rare this month. Jupiter and Saturn are, for all practical purposes, the whole show – the other major planets being too near the Sun for easy viewing.

Our chart shows Saturn at  mid-month and midnight due southeast and about 23 degrees above the horizon. Spica – which is about half a magnitude dimmer than Saturn, will be about 18 degrees away. Be sure to look for the color difference. Saturn should appear creamy – maybe a tad yellow, while Spica is an icy blue.

Saturn and Spica at midnight in March 2013. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot. Click image for larger version.)

Saturn and Spica at midnight in March 2013. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot. Click image for larger version.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And . . .

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

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

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

February Guidepost Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vital Stats for the Guidepost Stars

For Procyon:

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

For Sirius:

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

For Adhara:

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

Look East in December 2012 – see Jupiter and take the Pleiades challenge!

“Glitter like a swarm of firefliesTangled in a silver braid.”  – No you don’t see the Plides star cluster quite like this with your naked eye, but binoculars and small telescopes give you an awesome view. (Words from Tennyson, photo from NASA.)

The focus for those learning the stars this month is the beautiful star cluster, the Pleiades, and while charming to those with dark skies and good eyesight,  I guarantee you it will look far better in just about any binoculars you point towards it.   But in December 2012 you also have Jupiter dominating the eastern sky in early evenings – it’s by far the brightest “star” there. This is also a great  year for the annual Geminid shower, Mercury puts in its best appearance of the year in the morning sky, and Ceres and Vesta offer a special challenge fror those who would like to use their binoculars to spot a dwarf planet and an asteroid. You can find all the details for these in this month’s  “events” post found here.

Here we’ll focus on the sky spectacular that happens every December when you look east starting about 45 minutes to an hour after sunset. Here’s what you should see.

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

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

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

Capella, which we met last month, dominates the northeast and now it’s easy to pick out the familiar kite figure which, lead by Capella, covers the heart of the constellation Auriga. About parallel with Capella, but south of it will be the Pleiades – but don’t expect to see them well until it gets darker. You may pick them up with binoculars an hour after sunset, but to really appreciate them, wait until an hour and a half after sunset.

East of the Pleiades – below it as you look at the eastern sky – is the bright guidepost star, Aldebaran. This month Jupiter is so close it tends to drown out the glory of Aldebaran.  Aldebran  highlights a “V” asterism that marks the head of Taurus the Bull.  You can fit Aldebaran, Jupiter and much of this “V” – which is the Hyades star cluster, into the same low-power binocular field of view. Imagine just for a moment what it would be like if Aldebaran were our Sun. James Kaler points out that it would span 20 degrees in our sky – our Sun spans half a degree! So rising in the east, it would nearly fill the space between the Pleiades and the horizon. Get the following vision of Aldebaran in your head as you gaze to the east on a December evening.

Aldebaran, looking like the “Great Pumpkin” of Peanuts comic fame, would overwhelm us with its orange brilliance and dominate our sky if it were as close to us as our Sun. (Actually, if we were this close to Aldebaran we would be overwhelmed – charred to a crisp!)

Aldebaran is what is classified as a “giant,”  and it is indeed huge when compared to our Sun, but there are many stars much larger. It’s the 14th brightest star in our sky – compare it to Capella and you will notice that Capella is  brighter.  (Again, in 2012 Jupiter will tend to dominate Aldebaran making it seem a bit less than it is when it has this corner of the sky to itself.) Aldebaran is 67 light years away – reasonably close – and in the ecliptic – the path the Sun, Moon, and planets take in our sky. This means it frequently flirts with Mars and at such times it’s fun to compare the color of these two reddish objects. It also gets occulted, from time to time, by our Moon – meaning the Moon passes in front of it. Its surface temperature is a bit lower than our Sun’s, thus the orange tint. It radiates quite a lot of its energy in infrared and is about 425 times as luminous as our Sun.

Vital stats for Aldebaran (al-DEB-ah-ran)

• Brilliance: Magnitude .85; its luminosity is the equal of 425 Suns.
• Distance: 67 light years
• Spectral Types: K5 Giant
• Position: 04:36, +16:32

Aldebaran appears to be the brightest star in another star cluster, the Hyades. (The “V” to the south of it.) In reality, it is not part of that cluster, for it’s much closer to us. The Hyades are about 153 light years from us.)  Its name – Aldebaran – means “follower” – for it appears to follow the Pleiades up the sky.  (Actually, skywatchers sometimes use the terms “precedes” and “follows” to indicate sky direction. A star that “follows” is to the east of the object it is following – and one that precedes, is to the west.)

In classical depictions of the constellations, Aldebaran is the “bull’s eye,” and  the “V” of stars near it is the bull’s head. But that V is, as mentioned ,  another open star cluster, the Hyades.

Taurus, as depicted in Uranometria (Bayer, 1603), showing Aldebran as one of his eyes. (Used with permission from the  Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, & Technolog.)

Hyades and Pleiades

Now what’s fun here is to pause a moment and go back and forth between the Hyades and the Pleiades. Both are open star clusters, and in reality they cover roughly the same area of space – about a dozen light years – but, you will notice immediately that the Hyades appear much larger. There’s a simple reason for that – the Hyades are just 151 light years away, while the Pleiades are more like 400 light years from us.

A careful observer will also notice that the Hyades tend to be yellowish stars, while the Pleiades are icy, blue diamonds. That’s because the Hyades at 660 million years are about ten times as old as the Pleiades. Of course, in astronomical terms both contain young stars, our Sun being about 5 billion years old and our galaxy something like 12 billion years. But the few hundred million years of age the Hyades has over the Pleiades means it does contain more yellow stars.

One more thing you might notice about the Pleiades – they look like a tiny dipper – in fact, I’ve had more than one visitor ask me if this is the “Little Dipper.” I guess you could call it The Littlest Dipper! You also could call it “Subaru”  as the Japanese do.  That’s their name  for  this little purse of celestial gemstones,  and the car maker does include them in its logo. And here are a couple of Pleiades challenges for you:

1. How many Pleiads can you see with the naked eye?

2. And can you see – with naked eye, binoculars, or telescope – the faint nebulosity that surrounds these stars?

It was that nebulosity that apparently inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson as he penned this famous tribute in “Lockesley Hall”:

Many a night I saw the Pleiades,
Rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fireflies
Tangled in a silver braid.

Beautiful, but no words or image can do justice to the live, real-time experience of standing outside on a crisp December evening, raising binoculars to your eyes, and seeing these icy diamonds! (Oh they can be seen with the naked eye, but binoculars give a much better view.)

Even without binoculars, the Pleiades can be quite dazzling for those with good eyes and dark skies. Not me. With my aging eyes they tend to blend together, and even when I put my glasses on I can only with care see four or five separate stars. Younger eyes do much better.

So how many stars do you see? Take your time. Patience is the key. I suggest you get a comfortable beach chair, lean back, relax, and look for at least a solid minute at a time.  How many should you see? I suspect most people who take the time to observe carefully get as many as six to 10.  Walter Scott Houston, who wrote a Sky and Telescope magazine column when astronomy was new to me in the 1950s, counted 18 with the naked eye! And the visual observer I most  admire today, Stephen James O’Meara, says in his book “The Messier Objects:”

Although largely symbolic, the age-old association of the Pleiades with the number seven remains fixed to this day – to the point that some observers swear they cannot see more than seven members, even though the Pleiades contains 10 stars brighter than 6th magnitude. Some observers question how it is possible to see 10 Pleiads in The Seven Sisters (a demonstration of the power of words . . . ) The fact is that almost three times that magic number of stars can be seen without magnification by an astute observer under dark skies.

O’Meara says he logged 17 while observing in Cambridge, MA – which hardly has dark skies.  “The trick,” he says, “is to spend a lot of time looking and plotting.” This business of “time on target” is something I find hard to convey to new observers. But it is the key. Another key is simply experience. I frequently see things that those with younger eyes don’t see, simply because I’ve seen them before and know exactly what to expect. Crossen and Tirion in their book “Binocular Astronomy” have this general piece of advice, which certainly applies here:

When I first began observing with binoculars I could not see the Rosette Nebula at all, but now it is not difficult for me even under poor sky conditions.
The most important thing in observing is to really look – a mere glance at an object or a field is simply not enough. You must keep your eye at the oculars for at least a full minute at a time.

That said, don’t let the numbers and reports by others discourage you – the Pleiades are yours to enjoy no matter how many you count.  Another noted popular astronomy author, Terrence Dickinson, writes in his book “Nightwatch,” that he has “a tough time seeing more than six stars with the unaided eye, even under excellent conditions,” but he also notes that some of his “astronomy students have reported seeing as many as 11.”

And turn binoculars on them and you should be able to easily count between 25 and 50.

The second challenge is more subtle. It involves the nebulosity that shows up in nearly every photograph of this cluster. No, don’t go looking for such a photograph. It will only prejudice you as to both the nebulosity and the fainter stars – and besides, you’ll never match a long exposure photograph with your eyes because film, or the modern CCD accumulate  much more light than our eyes.

The Pleiades, as I mentioned, are “young” stars – roughly 100 million years old, and in astronomical terms that means they’re mere babes. (Our star – the Sun – is about 5 billion years old. ) The Pleiades are not far removed from the cosmic womb of gas and dust in which they were formed. Until fairly recently it was assumed that this nebulosity we see was the last wispy remains of the nebulae in which the Pleiades were formed. Today it is more generally thought that this nebulosity is just a happy accident – an entirely different gossamer cloud of gas and dust that is reflecting the brilliant light of the Pleiades as they pass through it.

In any event, Tennyson seems to reference it when he refers to his “swarm of fireflies” being in a “tangled braid.“  When I look with the naked eye I certainly don’t see it. But be careful. A couple of these stars are quite bright, and because they’re close together, their light tends to blend and perhaps give the impression of being surrounded by nebulosity. Perhaps that’s all Tennyson saw, especially as the stars were near the horizon – or at least that’s where he puts them in his poem.

So while I assume Tennyson was talking about a naked eye view and perhaps glimpsed the nebulosity in pristine Victorian skies free of modern light pollution, I feel this second challenge is best pursued with binoculars and small telescopes.  While there is nebulosity near several stars, the brightest part is southeast of Merope. (Merope is identified in the downloadable charts at the end of this section.)  So I would look for this first.  What you need to do is look for a difference in the darkness of the background sky in this region. Using binoculars move away from the cluster a tad to avoid the glare – see how dark the sky is? Now move closer to it – do you detect any change in the background brightness?  Again, be careful you don’t confuse the glow around a bright star with nebulosity.

When you think you have spotted the nebulosity, it would be helpful to quickly sketch its location on the provided chart – then compare it with a picture of the Pleiades, such as this one, to see  if your impression of the location and size of the nebulosity matches what the camera reveals.

When to look

To take the challenge you want the Pleiades high in a dark – moonless – sky. In December of 2012  the Pleiades can be seen in moonless skies in the early evening for the first couple weeks.  The last couple weeks of the month you’ll probably find yourself hindered by varying amount of moon light.

This is a good lesson, however, for looking at any faint astronomical object. When we do that we are constantly balancing these different factors of how high the object is above the horizon – the higher the better because the higher it is the less atmosphere you need to look through to see it – and where the Moon is, because it is constantly changing position and brightness, and it tends to wash out the sky anywhere near it.  But as you can see, there’s at least a two-week window when you can take the Pleiades’ challenge – assuming the weather cooperates! And, of course, the Pleiades will still be with us through the winter.

Some helpful charts

Click image for larger version. (This chart is derived from a Starry Nights Pro screen shot. A printer friendly version appears in the links at the end of this post.)

There are three printer-friendly charts listed here, but for starters I suggest you download only the first two. They both show the brightest Pleiads but the second one has no names on it and is meant for you to use – and add to – when taking either challenge. Put it on a clipboard and take it, a pencil, and a soft red light to your observing location. Then when you spot a faint star you can mark its location in relation to the brightest stars. Once you’ve done this, take a look at the third chart which shows the Pleiades as seen through a typical pair of binoculars. This chart will tell you whether fainter stars you identified and noted on your chart are in the sky or just in your imagination 😉

Chart 1 – Download this chart as a starting point for your observations – and to get to know the names of the Pleiads. (Atlas and Pleione are the parents of the seven sisters.)

Chart 2 – Download this chart to use for note-taking while you’re observing.

Chart 3 – Download this chart to check for faint stars you detected to see if you marked them in the right position.

Finally, compare your observation of the nebulosity with a picture of the Pleiades, such as this one.

Look east In September 2012 – a pair of asterisms and three brilliant ‘guides’

There are three new asterisms this month – well, I’m not sure one of them should really be called an asterism. This third asterism is really just three stars that serve as a special marker for the equatorial coordinate system – so we’ll take that up last. As we travel September skies we’ll also move from the age of mythology to the age of science. To get started, here’s a chart of what you can expect to see in the east about an hour after sunset.

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

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

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 the constellation known as 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.”

The second asterism, 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 and their companions, however. Like most constellations, with Andromeda you need a huge imagination to see the figure these stars represented to the ancients. 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 – thus the significant tie to the equatorial coordinate system.

If you’re not familiar with this system, it 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,” which is rising in the northeast on these September evenings. In the early evening in September this is the “top” star in the “W.” 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 in September 2011. 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 August 2012 – All hail the Queen! (OK – the “W”)

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

For printer friendly chart, download this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All square on a 2012 July morning with Jupiter, Venus, the Moon and Aldebaran

That is, all will be square in the morning sky  July 15, 2012 and in the evening sky July 24, 2012 – two dates to keep in mind this month. However, Mercury puts on one of its now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t shows the first week of the month in the west and all – Venus and Jupiter flirt with the gorgeous star clusters – the Hyades and Pleiades – in the morning sky.  Here was the scene from  my driveway this morning, July 1, 2012 – typical of the whole month and quite dazzling!

I snapped this about 4 am on July 1, 2012 looking east from 42* N latitude. That’s Jupiter at about magnitude -2 on top, and Venus at -4.4 on the bottom. Aldebaran was still hidden by the trees and my skies were too murky – and twilight already too advanced – to pick up the Pleiades easily, though scanning this area with binoculars revealed them and the Hyades. (Click photo for much larger image.)

Meanwhile, over in the west you still have a chance to catch “fleeting” – make that “fleeing” – Mercury. Here’s where to find it.

At magnitude .6 Mercury is significantly brighter than the other stars, although this image makes it seem less. Use binoculars to find it – though you should be able to see it with your naked eye. Click image for a much larger view. (Prepared from Starry nights Pro screen shot.)

OK – about  the “all square” business

It’s really not a square, but it should be a pretty rectangle that will vary a bit depending on just where you are located and exactly when you look. On the morning of  July 15 the eastern sky should look something like this – at least for those in mid-Northern latitudes. With an unobstructed horizon and clear skies the best view will be about two hours before sunrise. After that it becomes a race – planets and stars all climbs higher and thus are easier to see as time goes by – but, of course, the skies also get lighter as summer twilight starts early.

Click image for a much larger view. (Prepared from Starry nights Pro screen shot.)


In fact, all month Jupiter and Venus turn up the dazzle in the early morning sky, playing in the general vicinity of  the Pleiades and the Hyades. An unobstructed eastern horizon helps, as do binoculars if you want to get a good look at the two star clusters even in twilight.  By the end of the month Jupiter will be in the Hyades and Venus will have dropped quite a bit lower – yet the whole star show will be significantly higher at the same hour. Fun to catch it several times to observe the changing dynamics of our solar system playing against the backdrop of the rest of the universe.

And in the evening sky

The second “square” feels a bit like a mirror image. I don’t think it will be as dazzling because the planets involved simply aren’t as bright  and the Moon will be significantly brighter. Still, this one takes place in the early evening of July 24, 2012 and involves Saturn, brightest at magnitude .77, Mars at magnitude 1, Spica at almost the exact same brightness as Mars, and a 6-day-old Moon.

Click image for a much larger view. (Prepared from Starry nights Pro screen shot.)




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