Star Struck

May/June 2014 Sky Watcher’s Guide

This will be an every-two-months guide to what you can see in the night sky, geared to mid-latitude northern hemisphere observers. The original post with more detailed guidance can be found here. What can you expect to see in May and June 2014?

MAY, 2014

Moon Phases: Full on May 14th; new on May 28th. Ancient people, who observed the sky much more closely than most modern humans, knew that Moon appeared larger at some times than others. We know now that this is because its path around the Earth is not a perfect circle, but an ellipse that brings it sometimes closer and takes it sometimes farther away. The difference really is noticeable, as you can see from these comparison images. Perigee is the point of closest approach to Earth; apogee is the point of greatest distance.

This is most apparent when a full moon occurs near perigee, since the Moon’s nearness makes it much brighter. The much-hyped “super moons”—more a media-invented term than anything astronomers actually say—take place at these times.

May’s full moon on the 14th is not a super moon, but it does occur near perigee on the 18th. Barring clouds, it should be nice and bright. That will be a good time to go outside and read a large-print astronomy book!

Planets: Mercury is the most difficult of the eight classical planets to spot because of its proximity to the Sun, both from our viewpoint and in actuality.


Mercury never gets farther away than 28 degrees from the Sun, about three times the width of your fist held at arm’s length. On the evening of May 25th, it will be 23 degrees away from the Sun in the western sky. Wait until the Sun sets to be safe, then use binoculars to spot the innermost planet about halfway between the Sun and the bright, hard-to-miss Jupiter. You can try for a few nights before or after this optimum date, but don’t wait too long. Mercury moves fast—it is, after all, named for the fleet-footed messenger of the gods.

Jupiter follows Mercury behind the setting Sun, getting lower in the western sky as the month progresses.

Mars is nicely positioned for viewing in the early evening and does not set until well after midnight. In mid-May, look for an orange-reddish “star” almost due south. Don’t be confused by the bright (real) star Arcturus! It is higher in the south and a little east (to the left) of Mars.

Saturn, the universal favorite planet to see through a telescope, lies farther to the east. It reaches opposition on May 10th.



A superior planet is simply one that orbits farther from the Sun than does the Earth; opposition just means opposite the Sun in the sky. In practical terms, a planet at opposition is due south at midnight.

Saturn is moving farther from the Sun in its own elliptical 30-year orbit, but it has been getting brighter with each succeeding opposition. The key to this apparent paradox is that the angle of tilt of Saturn’s rings has been increasing as we view them. Edge-on in 2009, the northern surface is now tilted toward us by 22 degrees. The rings are very reflective, since they are composed of mostly water ice.


Meteor Showers: There are a couple of nice showers this month. On the night of May 6th, the Eta Aquarid meteor shower provides a nicer show for our southern hemisphere neighbors than for those of us who live north of the equator. The dust particles responsible for it come from the most famous comet of all, Comet Halley. Meteor showers occur when Earth crosses the path of comet, which strews dust all along its path.


For northerners, the radiant (see this original post for an explanation) is highest in our sky after the sun has already risen; our best viewing hours are just before dawn. For folks in southern latitudes, this is one of the best showers of the year. It was unusually strong in 2013 and that may repeat this year.

An unnamed shower from a comet discovered in 2004 (Comet 209P LINEAR) MAY (and I emphasize may) produce a spectacular shower on May 24th. Some predictions are for a full-fledged meteor storm, with up to 400 meteors an hour, one every ten seconds or so. This one is better positioned for us in the north, as the radiant is well to the north.

Deep Sky: A view to the south this month is dominated not only by Jupiter and Mars, but by three bright stars as well. The red giant Arcturus is the brightest of these, and is the fourth brightest star in the sky, not including the Sun. Moving from east to west (left to right) we see Spica and Regulus, respectively the 15th and 21st brightest stars.

Even though the celestial sphere looks like a dome, with stars of different brightness all the same distance away on a curved surface, it does in fact have a third dimension. A star’s brightness depends not only on its luminosity (its inherent brightness), but also on its distance. Not surprisingly, Arcturus is the closest of this triplet at 37 light years, and Regulus is 79 light years away. That leaves Spica at a distance of 260 light years. The easy conclusion is that Spica is the most luminous of these three.

To the north are two other bright stars. Capella lies low in the northwest early in the evening on its way to slipping below the horizon. Vega lies low in the northeast, and is rising higher in the sky as the night progresses. Almost directly above the north star is the upside-down Big Dipper asterism.

A deep sky object that requires a telescope but is well worth the effort to get yourself to one (here is information about Lynchburg College’s May observatory open house) is M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy. Many are familiar with the spectacular Hubble Telescope image:


But no one actually sees anything like this looking through a telescope; such images are the result of long exposures on a digital camera. Viewing time on a world-class telescope is too valuable to assign to a feeble instrument like the human eye! This is more like what you would see with the Gilbert 20-inch telescope at the Lynchburg College Belk Observatory:

M 51 in a small telescope

The Wikipedia article on M 51 is a great source for more information.

Sky Charts:

Looking south, 10 pm, May 15th.

May South Sky

Looking north, 10 pm, May 15th.

May North Sky

Southern-facing view in chart form.

May South Chart

Northern-facing view in chart form.

May North Chart

JUNE, 2014

Moon Phases: Full on June 13th; new on June 27th. In the summer, full moons are lower in the sky (more southerly) and the Sun is higher (more northerly). In the winter this is reversed: full moons are high on winter nights and the Sun is low during a winter day. All of this is from a northern hemisphere perspective.

Planets: A testament to just how fast Mercury moves is this: it was at its greatest distance from the Sun from our Earthly perspective on May 25th. Less than a month later, on June 19th, it passes on our side of the Sun, 4 degrees south of it.

Jupiter is moving ever closer to the setting sun, only one hour behind it at the end of June.

Mars and Saturn are the two brightest planets in the southern sky, and they move closer to each other throughout the month. They will pass each other in August. Saturn, the more westerly of the two, sets at 3:30 am on the first of the month and 1:30 am at the end. On the night of June 10th, Saturn and the nearly full moon will pass very close to each other.

Venus is the bright “morning star”, rising two hours before the Sun in the east.

Meteor Showers: The June Boötids are a notoriously variable meteor shower that may (or may not) peak on June 27th. The radiant is overhead at 9 pm and visible all night long.

Deep Sky: Another of those get-to-a-telescope-if-you-can objects is M 101, the Pinwheel Galaxy. A telescope of 16-inch or greater aperture will reveal structure in the spiral arms, provided you are under a dark sky, preferably with no moon.


Seeing structure in a dim object requires patience, and reveals as well as anything the difference between just looking (giving it five seconds and not seeing anything) and seeing (taking the time needed). Your eyes should be dark adapted, and you should use averted vision, not looking directly at the object. This lets you see more detail. It works because the central region of the eye has only cones, cells which detect bright light and color and are not particularly useful at night. Just a little off to the side, the concentration of rod cells is much higher, and rods detect dim light in black and white.

Here is more about the Pinwheel Galaxy.

Summer Solstice: Occurs at 6:51 am EDT on June 21st.  This marks the farthest north that the Sun travels in our sky, the official beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere, and the longest day of the year for the north.  The latest sunset, however, occurs on June 27th, so it seems like the longest day.  If you want to celebrate the solstice in a truly old school way, this is how to do it.

Sky Charts:

Looking south, 10 pm, June 15th.

June South Sky

Looking north, 10 pm, June 15th.

June North Sky

Southern-facing view in chart form.

June South Chart

Northern-facing view in chart form.

June North Chart

Posted in Sky Phenomena

Total Lunar Eclipse

In the early pre-dawn morning hours of Tuesday, April 15th, most of the Western Hemisphere will witness a total lunar eclipse.  Totality (when the Earth completely blocks the Sun as seen from the Moon) begins at 3:07 am EDT and ends at 4:25 am EDT.  Those in other time zones can adjust as needed.  The official NASA eclipse information is here.

Solar and lunar eclipses occur when the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon line up so that one body is blocking another as seen from the third body.  A lunar eclipse such as Tuesday night’s requires this sort of alignment.

The terms penumbra and umbra can be confusing, but here is what they mean.  Within the umbra, the Sun’s disk is completely obscured from view by the Earth.  Within the penumbra, only part of the Sun’s disk is obscured.  A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes into the umbral shadow of the Earth.

Since the Earth is much larger than the Sun as seen from the Moon, the Moon can spend a fairly long time passing through Earth’s umbral shadow.  Tuesday morning’s total eclipse lasts well over an hour, and that’s not even counting the time when the partial eclipse begins (1:58 am EDT) and ends (5:33 am EDT).  The exact size of the shadow depends on the distance between the Earth and the Moon at the time of eclipse, but the difference between the maximum and minimum shadow sizes is not that large.

Total solar eclipses are an entirely different story.  The necessary alignment is this.

As seen from the Earth, the Sun and the Moon are very nearly the same apparent size.  Another way of saying this is that the umbral shadow of the Moon is quite small when seen from the Earth.  Total solar eclipses do not last long (the longest possible is around seven minutes), and totality occurs only along a narrow strip of Earth’s surface.  One generally has to travel to see a few fleeting moments of the Sun’s being blocked out during the day.  But speaking as one who has done so, the sight is well worth the effort.

The good news is that lunar eclipses are much more accessible.  And if you don’t want to stay up that late or get up that early next week, you can mark your calendar for the night of September 28th, 2015.  A total lunar eclipse will begin that night at 10:11 pm EDT, and end at 12:27 am EDT the next morning.

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Posted in Sky Phenomena, The Moon

The Latest News From The Big Bang

It won’t make you richer. It won’t organize your calendar. It probably has no practical application whatsoever. But the scientific discovery announced on March 17th is one of the great discoveries of the new century, and virtually certain to result in a Nobel Prize. (Appropriate note of caution: assuming this is confirmed and stands up to peer review.) Here is a link to an article by Dennis Overbye, the long-time science writer for the New York Times.

In the question-and-answer format that follows, I’ll try to explain what the new discovery reveals and what was actually discovered. I hope it will neither annoy those who really, really know this stuff nor blow away those whose last science course was in high school! Get comfortable and settle back, because this will take a while. Maybe set aside two sessions.

What exactly was discovered?

Patterns in the polarization of radiation from the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Yeah, I know—geek talk. Let’s try and break that down to standard English.

In the early 1960s, two competing cosmological theories stood on roughly equal ground. Steady State theory acknowledged the expansion of the universe that had been detected decades earlier, but it still maintained that the overall universe did not change with time. “Continuous creation” filled in the gaps left by universal expansion; the universe billions of years ago and billions of years from now would not look any different over galactic scales of distance.

Steady State

The competing Big Bang theory discarded the idea of continuous creation, and asserted that the expansion meant that the average separation between galaxies would be greater five billion years from now than it is now. More to the point, the theory “ran the clock backward” to a hot early universe that was much smaller than today’s.  The average separation of galaxies would increase over time.

Big Bang

A successful scientific theory is one that makes testable predictions. A hot early universe would have cooled as it expanded, not by radiating heat away like a coffee cup, because there is nothing to radiate it away to–there is no “away”. You just have the same amount of energy distributed throughout a much larger universe. A universe with an average temperature of 3000 K expands by a factor of 1000, and its average temperature becomes 3 K.

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Posted in Cosmology

March/April 2014 Sky Watcher’s Guide

This will be an every-two-months guide to what you can see in the night sky, geared to mid-latitude northern hemisphere observers. The original post with more detailed guidance can be found here. What can you expect to see in March and April 2014?


Daylight Saving Time: March is one of the two months of the year in which we have to account for this abomination. Since the 15th of the month comes after the Congressionally determined switch back to standard time, the times are all Eastern Standard. Don’t get me started.

Moon Phases: New on March 1st and March 30th ; full on March 16th

Planets: Jupiter continues to dominate the early evening sky in the far western reaches of Gemini. Although he is traveling a little farther east each night relative to the background stars around him, Earth’s orbital path around the sun puts those background stars a little farther west each night, at a faster pace than Jupiter’s motion. The net result is that Jupiter will be quite low in the west in a few months–but not for a while!

Neither Mars nor Saturn show on the chart, but you should know that Mars rises around 11 pm in mid-month, and Saturn about two hours after that.

We need to give a nod to Venus, impossible to miss in the morning sky before sunrise. Because Venus is an inferior planet (it orbits closer to the Sun than does Earth), it goes through phases similar to the Moon’s. But because, unlike the Moon, Venus varies considerably in its distance from us, its apparent size in each phase is noticeably different. This should help you see why.


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Posted in Sky Phenomena

You Can’t See That From Here

Take a look at this beautiful time lapse video of the night sky.

Ah, if only we could find nice dark skies, we could see such sights ourselves, right?  Well, no.  Actually, you would need to travel to Australia (where this video was shot) or some other place equally far south of the equator.  The sky we see from the Northern Hemisphere is not the same sky that our Southern Hemisphere friends see.

Imagine an astronaut, properly space suited of course, floating free in space between the planets, so far from Earth that it is just a bright point in an infinitely black sky.  She can see stars in every direction because there is nothing to impede her 360 degree view.

Standing on the surface of the Earth has its advantages—no space suit is needed for starters.  But that 8,000-mile thick ball of rock does block the view a bit.  It’s so big that it looks pretty flat to us, so it’s sort of like standing on a big table, one that is definitely not transparent.  We’re not going to see anything that is under the table, that is in the direction of our feet.

The way that table is oriented to the sky depends on where we are on the Earth’s surface.

Put that “table” at a different spot, and we see a different part of the sky.

Why does it only matter how far north or south we are, and not how far east or west?  The Earth rotates from east to west, and will bring sections of the sky that are out of our view to the east into sight as it spins on its north-south axis.  Only at the equator itself can you see all of the sky, both the northern and the southern halves.  The north celestial pole, very near the North Star Polaris, would be on your northern horizon and the south celestial pole on your southern horizon.  If you move farther south, Polaris slips below your horizon and will stay there unless you move back in a northerly direction.

Most of the Earth’s land mass and consequently its population lie north of the equator.  But many (I only barely refrained from saying most) of the sky’s most spectacular sights are in the southern celestial hemisphere, visible only by traveling south.

Let’s take a guided tour of that video at the top of the page again.  Our Milky Way Galaxy surrounds us in a belt of stars that we can see from any point on Earth.  But its central region, rich with star clusters and nebulae, is lost in murk near the horizon from most of the northern hemisphere.  From the southern part of the Earth, it is often high overhead.  That is what you are seeing in the first few seconds of the video—our glorious galaxy showing its most star-packed neighborhoods.  Starting at about 0:45, two fuzzy patches appear that start out to the right of the Milky Way’s band.  These are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC), so named because Magellan was the first European to see them on his globe-girdling voyage.  They are companion galaxies to our own Milky Way, much smaller than our home galaxy, about 160,000 light years away for the LMC and 200,000 light years away for the SMC.

See those dark bands that seem to denote an absence of stars in some parts of the Milky Way?  That is not an absence of stars—it is the presence of obscuring gas and dust which is concentrated in the plane of the Milky Way.  It is the raw material out of which stars and planets form, and of which you and I are made.

In the sequence that starts around 2:15, you should see a familiar constellation at the left.  Don’t recognize Orion (three stars in a line for its “belt”; four stars in a rough rectangle surrounding them) when it is upside down?  Australians might dispute who in fact has the right perspective on Orion.

Travel is a wonderful experience in and of itself.  When you have new things to see above you as well as around you, it is even better!

Posted in Uncategorized

Printable Star Charts

For those of you found the star charts in the previous post to be useful, you may want something you can print out without draining all the black ink or toner you have. These are the same star maps, but in a different format that has more white space than black. Each of them is set at 10 pm Eastern Standard Time on the 15th of the month, and the views are those seen from Lynchburg.

The first two are for January, first looking south and then looking north.2014 January South Chart

2014 January North ChartAnd these two are for February, first looking south and then looking north.2014 February South Chart

2014 February North ChartEnjoy!

Posted in Uncategorized

2014 Sky Watcher’s Guide

You know all those New Year resolutions that you have already broken? I fully intended to post this at least a week ago. Ah well, better late than never…

This post is intended to introduce people to the habit of skywatching, and once the habit is ingrained, to be sure that you will never walk outside, day or night, without at least a glance over your head. Not a bad habit to gain.  Each month throughout the year (there go those resolutions again!) I intend to post a similar update for your information, and repost the background information as well. Since I am so late in the month of January, I am posting information here for February, too.  I haven’t assumed any optical aid beyond a good pair of binoculars. There is plenty to see even without them.


Moon Phases: Full moon nights are good mostly for reading—outside by the light of the moon, or inside with a good reading lamp. They aren’t much good for sky gazing since the brightness of the moon pretty much overwhelms everything else in the sky. Nights with a new moon are dark, and that allows you to see dimmer objects that might otherwise escape your notice. Between the new and full phases, the moon waxes as more and more of its visible surface is illuminated, and it rises ever later. When it is full, it rises at sunset and sets at sunrise, visible all night long. Between the full and the new phases, it wanes, and if you confine your sky gazing to the early evening before midnight, it may not rise until well after you are done.

But the moon itself is a fascinating object, the closest and most easily observed extraterrestrial object. It especially comes into sharper view with binoculars. Look at the moon when it is less than half illuminated, and look along the line separating the illuminated surface from the dark. There the Sun is low in the lunar sky and casts long shadows that throw the deep craters and the tall mountains into higher relief. See if you can spot a bright central peak poking into the sunshine from the dark floor of a deep crater. The best online lunar map I have found is here.

Planets: I’ve confined myself to the five planets that are visible to the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. For views of Earth, look down.

Meteor Showers: I haven’t tried to include every single one of these, only the ones that might be worth your while to stay up for. The moon phase greatly affects how many meteors you will see; the ideal situation is when a shower occurs during a new moon. The radiant is the point from which the meteors appear to originate; the showers are named for the constellation in which the radiant appears. This is an optical illusion in the same way that railroad tracks appear to meet in the distance; the meteors actually follow parallel paths as illustrated below:

Deep Sky: There are only a few objects beyond the solar system that are visible to the naked eye (other than stars, of course). Even there you need a pretty dark sky. Binoculars will help, and I’ve included some of the more easily spotted objects.

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Posted in Sky Phenomena

Stars of the First Magnitude

No, we aren’t talking about Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep. These are the stars you see in the sky at night. If you have ever been confused by statements like the following, then let’s see if we can help you out.

  • “On 29 November 2013, the coma dimmed to an apparent magnitude of 5. By the end of 30 November 2013, the coma had further faded to below naked-eye visibility at magnitude 7.” (from the Wikipedia article about Comet ISON)
  • “As it is configured now, the ISS has an apparent brightness, or “magnitude,” of around -3 (lower numbers denote brighter objects on this scale), said Joe Rao,’s nightsky columnist.”

As with so many conventions of math and science, it all goes back to the Greeks. Among the many achievements of Hipparchos, one of the greatest astronomers of antiquity, was the creation of the stellar magnitude scale. He assigned a value of 1 to the twenty brightest stars (stars of the first magnitude), all the way down to stars that were barely visible to the naked eye, to which he gave a value of magnitude 6. A modified version of this system is still in use.

Telescopes have extended our vision to encompass objects too dim for naked eye observation. For example, the star known as Kepler 62, with five known planets in orbit around it, has a magnitude of 13.75. What about objects brighter than the brightest star, such as Venus? The only other direction to go from 1 is to zero, and from there to negative numbers. The magnitude of Venus (it varies as its phase and distance from us changes) can be as bright as -4.6. The sun’s magnitude is -26.7.

That’s the quick and dirty. Now for the details—and the complications.

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Posted in Sky Phenomena, Stars

Shopping for a Telescope?

When you are an “astronomy guy”, around this time of year you get inquiries from friends looking to buy a telescope as a Christmas present. Often this is for a child or a grandchild, but sometimes the friend is shopping for him or herself. I must admit to skepticism when someone is willing to spend $1000 on a telescope for their four year old—just exactly who is this telescope for? :-)  But my role is not to judge, just to provide information and to make recommendations.

I want to make it clear that these recommendations are based on my personal experience from childhood until now. My first telescope (at age 10) was an inexpensive reflector from the Sears Roebuck catalog, and my current instrument is a top-of-the-line refractor. I see a lot more with my current scope than I did more than fifty years ago—I know a lot more, too—but I’m not sure I derive any more pleasure from its use. A different astronomy person would probably give you a different list. What that reflects is the wonderful range of options available today. When I built my own telescope in the late 1970s, it was better than anything I could have bought ready-made at the same price. In my opinion you are better served today buying that ready-made scope unless you are skilled in a number of areas beyond being able to use a tape measure, an electric drill and a screwdriver. That’s about all that was required for me in 1979!


DO NOT, REPEAT, DO NOT buy anything from a store that does not specialize in telescopes. What you get there is cheap plastic junk. There are wonderful showrooms scattered around the country, but most people probably do not want to drive that far. The good news is that two vendors (Astronomics and Orion Telescopes) I have used extensively both have wide selections online and excellent customer service. These are certainly not the only vendors available! If you want to get an idea of what is out there, just pick up the latest issue of Sky & Telescope at your local newsstand. These are simply the ones with which I am most familiar.

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Posted in Observatory and Telescopes

Will It Be a Spectacle Or a Speck?

Spectacle or speck?

OK, I stole that phrase. But it’s just too good not to use.

Comet ISON will very soon be upon us. The image above was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope when ISON was a little over four times as far away from the sun as is the earth. Starting in mid-November, it will get ever lower in the eastern sky just before dawn. If it survives its passage very near the sun, we could see it again in early December. But will it be the “comet of the century” promised earlier this year? Or will it join the infamous Comet Kohoutek and numerous other over-hyped comets as a disappointment for the general public? At this point no one really knows, although prospects for the former are—ahem—fading.

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Posted in Sky Phenomena