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    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

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

Look East in December 2013 – take the Pleiades challenge!

“Glitter like a swarm of fireflies, Tangled in a silver braid.”  – (Words from Tennyson, photo from NASA.) No you don’t see the Pleiades star cluster quite like this with your naked eye, but binoculars and small telescopes give you an awesome view. I should add, however, that the nebulosity that surrounds them is difficult to see even with optical aid.

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.   When you look east starting about 45 minutes to an hour after sunset, here’s what you should see.

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

Click imager for larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro 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 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. It highlights a “V” asterism that marks the head of Taurus the Bull. Dominant as it is, 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.  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
• Position: 04:36, +16:32

Aldebaran appears to be the brightest star in another star cluster, the Hyades. In reality, it is not part of that cluster, for it’s much closer to 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.”   That’s the Japanese 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 – about 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 2013  thef first and last weeks will be the best time to see the Pleiades in relatively Moonless skies at a reasonable hour.

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.

Events November 2012: The King, his Court and a host of binocular delights in the east!

“What’s that bright star in the east,” a friend asked recently?

“Early in the evening?” I queried. “Yes.”

“Got to be Jupiter!”

And, of course, it is. But wait, there’s more! To the naked eye Jupiter is a dazzler. This month it shines at magnitude -2.8 and is in the company of two other dazzlers, Capella (magnitude 0.06) and Aldebaran (magnitude 0.84).

Jupiter also can teach you something about our journey around the Sun – how stars and tend to rise about a half hour earlier each week.  In our charts below we show Jupiter  on November 1, November 15, and November 30. In each case it is roughly 10 degrees – one fist – above the horizon – but each chart is for an hour earlier – the first for three hours after sunset, the second for two, and the last for one hour when Jupiter will still dazzle in the dying evening twilight.

But the real fun with Jupiter this month is to use your binoculars to try to spot the four Galilean Moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – his “court.”  And whether or not you can do that, be sure to turn your binoculars on two nearby star clusters – the Hyades, just 153 light years away, and the incomparable Pleiades, about 400 light years away – and yes, keep those distances in mind as you look and you will realize that the two clusters are roughly the same size, but distance makes one appear smaller, though no less brilliant with its hot, young stars. (Be sure to click on the following charts for a larger version. These are all made by modifying Starry Nights Pro screen shots.)

On November 1, 2012, there’s a bonus with the waning Moon in the picture. It a nice binocular site in itself which is good because it will tend to wash out the nearby star clusters.

Galileo always gets his name associated with Jupiter’s Moons because in 1610 he turned his telescope on them and published his results – but he didn’t get to name them. Well, he tried. He called them the “Medicean Stars”  after grand duke of Tuscany Cosimo II de’ Medici and Cosimo’s three brothers.  But that didn’t stick, instead, as Rosaly Lopes tells us in her wonderful Sky and Telescope article on planet names in the November 2012 issue, Simon Marius a German astronomer,  discovered them independently and at the urging of the famous Kepler applied the names that have stuck with these four moons.  Jupiter actually has 67 moons at last count, but you aren’t going to find the others in your binoculars. These are the big ones that even Galileo’s primitive telescope revealed.

So how do you go about seeing them yourself? Well don’t simply swing your binoculars up there and expect to see them. Maybe with your bright, young eyes you can. But most likely you’ll have to work at it a bit. Take your time. They are close to Jupiter and generally lost in its glare. But with patience you should find one or two – and if you don’t see them after a little effort, then the problem probably is that you aren’t holding your binoculars steady enough. Try holding them against a tree, the corner of the house – anything for support.  Ideally you would mount them on a tripod and in many places they sell mounts such as this for doing just that – well worth the small investment, by the way, and these little mounts work with almost all binoculars.

Another tip – do make sure your binoculars are in sharp focus. Many casual binocular users don’t know how to do this – they simply turn the center focusing knob. but that just gives you a good rough focus. For most of us our two eyes are not exactly the same, so to focus a binocular so it works best for you, do this:

Close your right eye and focus with the center knob using only the left eye and left side of the binocular.  Once the image is sharp there, close the left eye and use the  diopter adjustment on the right eyepiece to bring that side into focus. ( You usually turn the right eyepiece to make this diopter adjustment.) From that point on you should be able to  focus those binoculars by using just the center focus – but if you try another pair, you’ll need to adjust them for your eyes in similar fashion.

And what exactly can you expect to see? Up to four star-like objects on a rough line with the equator of the planet. You may only see one or two depending on how close they are to the planet.

Which is which? To learn that, go here  and use the excellent little java script utility to tell you which Moon is where at any given time. With binoculars you want the right-side up view. With small telescopes it is much easier, of course, to see these Moons, but a telescope will change the orientation and this script allows you to change that orientation to match your telescope’s view.

Is there any other planetary action this Month? Yes – but Jupiter is the main show. Saturn, Venus, and Mercury all make a nice appearance in the morning twilight near the end of the month. And Mars is setting in evening twilight – or nearly so.

In the early morning hours of November 17 there should be an excess of meteors – about 20 hours – from the Leonid Meteor Shower. This shower has from time to time yield a much more spectacular show, but right now it is in a down period. The Geminids in December should be much better.

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.)

 

 

 

Close encounters of the Venus kind! March, April, May, June 2012 – Mark your calendar!

(Go here for a personal update on observing this even – with pictures.)

Venus is a visual treat any night – and for that matter day –  this spring, dazzling us in the western sky right after Sunset as it puts in it best performance of this year and has close encounters with the Moon, the Pleiades, and finally the Sun itself. This last is a once-in-a-lifetime-appearance – the other events are less rare, but, of course, the weather has to cooperate.  Nothing is needed for most of these experiences but your naked eye, though binoculars help and a small telescope makes it even more fun. The last event – the encounter with the Sun – does require a telescope and one with a special filter to make viewing safe.

Here’ s a quick visual guide to Venus events, followed by a guide on how to find Venus in broad daylight – no kidding – and what’s more, late March through April is the best time to try to see this brilliant planet at mid day! I’ll update this post for May. Please note, the charts are specific to my location which makes them generally best  for the East Coast of the US. You can see this show from anywhere in the world, but the exact positions of Venus and the Moon on any given evening will vary somewhat depending on your latitude and longitude.

March 25, 2012

About 10 degrees separate Jupiter from Venus and Venus from the Pleaides - but the Moon and Jupiter should fit in the same low power binocular field, as should the Moon and Venus on the next night. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot - click to enlarge.

March 26, 2012

About 10 degrees separate Jupiter, Venus, and the Pleaides - but the Moon and Venus should fit in the same low power binocular field, as didthe Moon and Jupiter on the previous night. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot - click to enlarge.

March 27, 2012

Jupiter, Venus, and the Moon form a nice line that marks the ecliptic - the plane of our solar system, and if you look to the East you'll see this path completed by Mars. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot - click to enlarge.

April 2, 3, and 4 – a once-in-eight-years encounter between Venus and the Pleaides!

You really need binoculars to see this because the glare of Venus will mask the most beautiful of star clusters, the Pleiades. The encounter will be best on April 3 - but nice the night before and after. Click to enlarge. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

Venus gets near the bright stars of the Pleiades every eight years. This year it will pass through the south side of the cluster, which means that on April 3 , using binoculars, you should be able to see Venus to the left of the four core bright stars in the cluster.  The mythological implications are staggering – I can see the headlines in Ancient Greece now –  Goddess of Love Meets Seven Sisters!  Here’s how Wikipedia sums up their sex lives:

Several of the most prominent male Olympian gods (including Zeus, Poseidon, and Ares) engaged in affairs with the seven heavenly sisters. These relationships resulted in the birth of their children.

  1. Maia, eldest of the seven Pleiades, was mother of Hermes by Zeus.
  2. Electra was mother of Dardanus and Iasion, by Zeus.
  3. Taygete was mother of Lacedaemon, also by Zeus.
  4. Alcyone was mother of HyrieusHyperenor and Aethusa by Poseidon.
  5. Celaeno was mother of Lycus and Eurypylus by Poseidon.
  6. Sterope (also Asterope) was mother of Oenomaus by Ares.
  7. Merope, youngest of the seven Pleiades, was wooed by Orion. In other mythic contexts she married Sisyphus and, becoming mortal, faded away. She bore to Sisyphus several sons.

April 22, 2012

The late April show may not have all the appeal of the one in late March, but it's still nice. You will probably need binoculars to pick out Jupiter, even though it is still quite bright. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot - click to enlarge.

April 24, 2012

On April 24, 2012 the Moon splits Aldebaran and Venus, though Aldebaran may be hard to see despite being a first magnitude star, so you may have to use binoculars. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot - click to enlarge.

April 25, 2012

On April 25, 2012 the Moon is still close enough to Venus to make an interesting combination. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot - click to enlarge.

May 22, 2012

On May 22, 2012 the situation looks much different.  Venus is now getting much closer to the Sun – remember it has a date with the Sun in early June – but it still gives us one more nice combination with the Moon. Again, unobstructed western horizon is important.  The other stars named in the chart are all bright “guidepost” stars but may be difficult to see in strong twilight – however, they will be the first to appear as twilight fades. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot – click to enlarge.

June 5, 2012 – Once-in-a-Lifetime Show – Venus transits the Sun

As I wrote in January

So circle June 5, 2012. What is a transit of Venus? It’s a time when we can see Venus as a black dot cross the disc of the Sun – a time when Venus is actually between us and the Sun – and it happens rarely.  There have been just seven such transits since the invention of the telescope! And – of course – be careful! You will need special equipment to observe such a transit. Never look at the sun either with your naked eye or any  binocular or telescope unless it is one especially equipped just for looking at the Sun.  Such equipment isn’t expensive, though, and if you already have a telescope, would be a good investment to consider for this event and to regularly see  sunspots. I’m sure there will be several public observation points set up for those who don’t have such a telescope.

More details will be provided in May.

Orrery View – why we see what we see – the dance of the Moon and planets

The dance between the  bright planets and the Moon is always fascinating, but made all the more so if you understand what is going on back stage – why we see what we see.  To do that, I suggest you study the following Orrery views taken from the Solar System live web site. Take care to note the line of sight between earth, a given planet, and the Sun.  Everything is in motion,of course, but the motions that count the most for the changes we see in our Western sky right now from night-tonight are these:

  • The  moon moves about 12 degrees – more than our extended fist – each evening because of its orbit around the Earth.
  • Venus moves relatively quickly, so it’s change of position is a combination of its own movements and the motions of the Earth as we both circle the Sun.
  • The changes in how we see Jupiter are primarily caused by our own motiona round the Sun. Jupiter is in motion, but it is slower and so far away that it takes weeks, if not months to notice its motion against the background of stars. However, as with the stars, it’s position change a little each night because of the motion of the Earth.

And on June 5, 2012 – the day that Venus will transit the Sun, here’s a close-up view of the line-up of Venus, Earth, and the Sun.

In April 2012 you can meet the Goddess of Love in broad daylight – no fooling!

Actually, you can do it right now. We’re talking Venus, here, and our sister planet is so bright even in March that you can see it with the naked eye in the middle of a clear day! All you have to do is know when and where to look – and please, please avoid the nearby Sun!

What’s more, April is the best time to look for it this year because this is the month when it is at its brightest and also near it’s greatest distance from the Sun. That great distance makes it easier to see – and safer.

Here’s how. On a clear day look for Venus in the path the Sun took across the sky, but about forty -five degrees behind it. (Use your fist to get a rough idea, remembering one fist, held at arms length, is about 10-degrees.) Use binoculars and once you spot it and know exactly where to look, use your naked eye. And play it safe by leaving the Sun blocked from sight by a nearby building, tree, or other obstacle.

OK -let me expand on those instructions and give you some specifics and hints of how best to do this.

First – the day should be clear – really clear with the bluer the sky the better. Not all “clear” days are equal. Astronomers are looking for “transparency” as well, which means you don’t want a milky, white sky.

 Second – You should know that Venus follow the same general path as the Sun does across the sky – sometimes behind it (as now), and sometimes ahead of it. Usually Venus is too close to the Sun to easily – and safely – pick out. But this April – and for that matter the end of March – it well be separated from the Sun by about 45 degrees – the most it will be all year.

 Third, pick your viewing location carefully.  Everyone should know not to look at the Sun, but I don’t want your enthusiasm for seeing Venus in daylight to lead to an accidental viewing of the Sun – and besides, this will make the seeing easier. STAND ON THE EAST SIDE OF A BUILDING AFTER THE SUN HAS PASSED SO EVEN IF YOU ACCIDENTALLY LOOK TOWARDS THE SUN, YOU WON’T SEE IT!

Fourth, pick your time – generally from noon until sunset, but I think the best time will be when Venus is highest in the sky – near what is called it’s “transit.”  That gives you a good place to look – due south and roughly at the same altitude as the Sun was at around noon.  In April, 2012, Venus transits about three hours after the Sun. In other words, if you know when the Sun is at its highest point – locally, for me, that’s close to 1 pm on April 1 – then Venus will be coming along to the same point about three hours later – about 4 pm.

Fifth – begin your search with binoculars – any binoculars will do, but generally one with low power and thus a reasonably wide field of view.  And one caution. You will systematically scan the correct area of sky – but do your scanning slowly. I was out testing this the other day and found it was very , very easy to see Venus in binoculars – yet I missed it over and over again because I was scanning too fast!

Could I see it with the naked eye  in March? No. Not on the three days I looked and saw it in binoculars.  Maybe the days just weren’t clear enough – there was a lot of moisture in the air. And maybe my old eyes are just not keen enough for this sort of thing.  But I did see Venus this way several years ago and it’s one of those sights that when you first find it, you can’t believe you were missing it.

The best hint I’ve read for this – and this is true with binoculars as well as your eyes – first focus your binoculars on the  most distant object you can see – hopefully something a good half mile or more away away. That way they’ll be roughly in focus to pick up Venus.  (You can even do this the night before by focusing them on a star.)  And when you’re searching with the naked eye? Do the same thing. Focus your eyes on some distant object, THEN look up for Venus. (Our eyes tend to default to a near – or nearer – focus point if we’re not careful. )

It’s always cool to see a bright planet – but it is so much cooler to see a bright planet in broad daylight – even with binoculars Venus will be a sparkling white diamond against a beautiful blue sky.

Look East in December 2011 – 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 2011 you also have Jupiter dominating the eastern sky in early evenings – it’s the brightest “star” there – and for many parts of the world you have a total lunar eclipse on December 10. For all practical purposes the coast of Eastern North America misses this eclipse entirely – but if you live elsewhere, check out the details here – it will be especially good for those in the Pacific.

We’ll deal with the planets and lunar eclipse in more detail in a separate “events” post.   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 much larger view - prepared from Starry Nights Pro 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 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. It highlights a “V” asterism that marks the head of Taurus the Bull. Dominant as it is, 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.  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
• Position: 04:36, +16:32

Aldebaran appears to be the brightest star in another star cluster, the Hyades. In reality, it is not part of that cluster, for it’s much closer to 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.”   That’s the Japanese 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 – about 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 2011  you’ll have to wait until about December 13 to see the Pleiades in Moonless skies at a reasonable hour.  Each night it will get better – that is, the Pleiades will be higher by the time the Moon rises and so will be seen more clearly. By the 18th the Moon isn’t rising until after midnight.  By Christmas the Moon is back in the sunset sky, but won’t offer much competition for the Pleiades until near the end of the year.

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 December 2010: Seven sisters and so much more !

Click image for much larger view. (Modified from Starry Nights Pro screenshot.)

The focus for those learning the stars this month is the beautiful star cluster, the Pleiades – known in many cultures as the “Seven Sisters.” But in December 2010 there’s also a great lunar eclipse; the Geminids should put on a terrific meteor show; and the planets promise several “cool” appearances.

For details on the eclipse, Geminids, and planet show, be sure to see the December 2010 Events post. Here we’ll focus on the sky spectacular that happens every December when you look east starting about 45 minutes after sunset. Here’s what you should see.

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 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. It highlights a “V” asterism that marks the head of Taurus the Bull. Dominant as it is, imagine just for a moment what it would 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. (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.  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 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
• Position: 04:36, +16:32

Aldebaran appears to be the brightest star in another star cluster, the Hyades. In reality, it is not part of that cluster, for it’s much closer to 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 older Hyades 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.”   That’s the Japanese 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 – about 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 2010 both the first and last weeks give good, Moonless skies at a reasonable hour. At the start of the month the Moon is in the early morning sky. It’s new on December 5 and won’t start to be a problem until around the 10th. By Christmas the Moon isn’t rising until five hours after sunset, and it rises later each night through the end of the month. The Pleiades will be well up about two and a half hours after sunset.

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 something 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.

Prime Time Observing for December 2009 – take the Subaru Challenges!

“Subaru?”  Yep! That’s the Japanese name  for a little purse of celestial gemstones better known in the West as the “Pleiades,” or in many cultures throughout the world as the “Seven Sisters” or some variation of that idea.  And  yes, I said “challenges” – plural, because there are two:

1. how many Pleiads can you see with the naked eye?
2. and can you see – with naked eye, binocular, 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! And yet all that “cold” blue light really indicates they are very young, very hot stars, all of which are part of an open cluster. But more on that in a minute.  For while the Pleiades lead the observing agenda for any December, in 2009 we have some other great choices as well, including a splendid meteor shower and four nice planets to view – five if you want to get up early. And we’ll add the Pleaides “follower”  – the huge reddish star, Aldebaran – to our list of guidepost stars as well.

So let’s take a look at this month’s prime time chart – a chart that applies to the eastern sky as seen from mid-northern latitudes, 45 minutes after sunset as usual, but with this quibble – you  may not see the Pleiades that early. If you don’t, try locating November’s guidepost star, Capella, in binoculars and sweeping south (to your right), or locate Aldebaran, and sweep upwards with your binoculars. The Pleiades should pop into view. If you still don’t find them, just wait, they’ll appear as the sky gets darker. In any event, you’ll want to wait until later if you’re going to take the challenge. So here’s the chart with our new star, Aldebaran, front and center. Yes, Aldebaran – an Arabic name which means “the follower” and refers to the way this star seems to follow the Pleiades across the sky – and who wouldn’t!

Also, we’ve added a “kite” asterism with Capella – last month’s guidepost star now highinthe northeast – as the dominant star int he asterism. (This is actually the classic constellation Auriga, the Charioteer, but I think the Kite is easier to see and remember.)

Click image for larger view. (Chart derived by modifying Stary Nights Pro screen shot.)

Click here to download  a black-on-white version of the preceding chart, suitable for printing in landscape format.)

OK – here are the highlights we’ll be covering this month:

  • The Pleiades makes a challenging sight for naked eye observation – how many can you count? And they’re a delightful sight in binoculars or small telescopes  – but can you see the nebulosity?
  • The Geminids meteors should put on a terrific show with no interference from the new moon on December 13-14.
  • We draw closer and closer to Mars as we chase it down in our orbit around the Sun and this makes it both brighter to our naked eye and bigger in our telescopes.
  • And speaking of telescopes, great Jupiter, dropping low in the southwest, has its third and last – for several years – close encounter with Neptune.
  • And yes, Saturn is back for early risers with rings that are becoming much easier to see again in asmall telescope!

The Pleiades (Subaru) challenges

Even without binoculars, the Pleaides – also known as “M45” and “the Sevens Sisters” –  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. A recent 6-year-old visitor to Driftway Observatory saw them – as many adults do – as the “Little Dipper.” Well the six brightest stars do form a tiny dipper, but the real Little Dipper isn’t nearly as dazzling, is much larger, and is in the north, not the east.

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 – less than 50 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.

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 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 2009 your first opportunity for this will  be around December 5 or 6th.  The Pleiades will be well up about two and a half hours after sunset, and the Moon will not have risen at that time.  As the month progresses, you can wait later and later without interference from the Moon because the Moon rises later each night until New Moon. (And later is better because the Pleiades will be higher in the sky.) Until  about December 19 or 20th – by then the Moon is in the western sky when you look – far away from the Pleiades, but still likely to make it difficult to see the faint stars and nebulosity.  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 its constantly changing position and brightness wash out the sky anywhere near it.  But as you can see, there’s a solid two-week window when you can take the Pleiades challenge in the middle of this month – 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 froma Starry Nights Pro screen shot. A printer firendly version appears in the links which follow.)

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 something 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 Pleaides 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 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,

The Geminids show December 13-14

Click image to get an enlarged version. (Modified from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

(Download a printer friendly version of the preceding chart. )

This is a terrific meteor shower because unlike the Perseids in August and the Leonids in November, you don’t have get up at 3 am for a good view – though for East Coast observers  midnight is best this year, though plenty of meteors should be seen earlier. The radiant point for this shower is in the constellation Gemini and it is already above the eastern horizon as it gets dark.  By about four hours after sunset it is well up in the east. Since the meteors appear to radiate from this point – and you can see them anywhere in the sky – then at this stage more than half the shower meteors should be above the local horizon. So it is really worth it to start looking as early as 7 pm on December 13.

However – there’s always a however – the shower this year is due to peak at 5 hours Universal Time. That translates to midnight EST December 13/14. So my personal plan is to start looking for these meteors at 11 pm and keep looking until 1 am EST.  That gives me the best opportunity to see the most meteors, assuming the weather cooperates.

Here are some tips to get the most out of this shower no matter where you are and when you look:

1. Look up – constantly! Geminid  meteors can appear in any section of the sky – it’s just if you traced them backwards they would seem to come from one area near the constellation Gemini.  (Yes, you’ll see more most likely if you look in the general direction of the radiant point, but you may miss some too, so don’t hesitate to look around at other sections of sky.  When I say “look up” I’m not being facetious. Meteors wait for no man or woman – and there’s no instant replay. I’m amazed at how many meteor watchers don’t follow this simple rule – they talk to companions, and seem to look around at or near ground level, and then grumble when someone else spots a brilliant meteor that they missed.

2. An adjustable beach chair or lounge is great, as well as a sleeping bag or blankets. Even in warm climates, you get cold sitting still for an hour or more under a clear sky.  You’re just one big radiator sending off heat to the universe!

3. Bring binoculars and when you see a bright meteor, use them! Look where the meteor just appeared and you are likely to be rewarded by seeing the trail of smoke it leaves. You may be able to watch this for several seconds as the winds in the upper atmosphere start to twist and disperse it.

Finally, just enjoy being out there. The stars of winter are especially brilliant, not because the skies are clearer and drier (in the northern hemisphere they may be) but because there are simply more bright stars, especially in the region around the constellation Orion, which can be see from just about anywhere on Earth.

Chasing Mars

Here’s the thing – Mars and Earth are closest to one another every 2.1 years – but exactly how close they get each time varies over  a 16-year cycle.So we get close every 2.1 years, but the closest approach happens about every 16 years. This means that some close approaches are much better than others, so the best views of Mars happen every 16 years! And where are we now in that 16 year cycle? Somewhere near the bottom. But play the hand you’re dealt. If you want the best view of Mars in a backyard telescope, then the next four months offer you the best chance you’ll have until about 2014. (In 2012 it will actually be a little worse than this time.) On a positive note, this time Mars is relatively high in the sky for Northern Hemisphere observers and its fun for naked eye observers to just trace its path among background stars. This chart provides you with a starting point for Mars in mid-December.

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

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

Mars will change constantly in December. Each night it will rise earlier and be a bit brighter, doubling in brightness from the beginning to the end of the month – but still outshone by Sirius.  Its position against the background stars also changes. For most of the month it appears to move in the general direction of Regulus. However, on the 21st it stands still, then starts to move in the opposite direction – westward. This is called “retrograde” motion and is caused by our overtaking it as both planets orbit the Sun.

Here are the key numbers and dates for this apparition of Mars, according to Sky and Telescope magazine:

  • Mars will appear larger than 10 seconds in diameter from December through March – that’s big enough to see some features in a backyard telescope.
  • In late January it comes closest but will still appear to be only 14.1 arc seconds in diameter at its largest – on a really good year, such as 2018, it will appear to be over 24 seconds in diameter .
  • In 2012 – when we get another close look – it will actually be a tad smaller at its best because it will be a little farther away.

What should you be able to see? Frankly, not that much. But it’s still fun to try. With a good telescope and good astronomical “seeing” conditions, you should be able to make out some features on Mars such as the northern polar cap, and large, irregular olive drab splotches that stand out against an orange background.

Jupiter’s close encounter with Neptune

Jupiter has had three close encounters with Neptune this year – this is the last. (To read about the first, see this post.)  While Mars is a target for late evening viewing, Jupiter needs to be seen early in the evening, for it sets earlier each night. With a telescope you can start viewing 45 minutes after sunset.

You can find Neptune reasonably near it – using a telescope – all month, but it will be closest during the few nights around December 21st. This changes rapidly, so even if you are a few days either way Neptune quickly gets lost in the background of stars of similar brightness. But on or near December 21 it will be less than one degree away from Jupiter and you should be able to fit both planets in the same field of view if you are using  a low-power, wide-field eyepiece. But keep in mind, at magnitude 8, Neptune is significantly dimmer than Jupiter’s moons.

As a bonus, the crescent Moon is just five degrees away, above the two planets, on December 21. Here’s a finder chart for December 21, 2009 showing Jupiter and Neptune as seen in a low-power telescope view with the image flipped left-to-right, which is what you will see when using a telescope thathas a diagonal mirror. With a reflecting telescope the image also will be flipped AND upside down.

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

To download a printer friendly version of the preceding chart, go here.

And Saturn?

The ringed planet – and yes, it’s rings are tilted to us now in such a way that they are again easy to see in a small telescope – is an early morning treat in December.  Although it rises just before midnight at the end of month, it’s not above the horizon until nearly 4 am at the outset. My advice – get up early – about two hours before sunrise. Our chart’s for that time at mid-month and at that time Saturn is well placed in the southeast for telescopic observation. It is one of the brightest “stars” in that section of the sky and easy to pick out with the naked eye.

Click image for larger version. Starry Nights Pro screen shot with annotations added.

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

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