June 29, 2015

Venus and Jupiter Reach Conjunction June 30th!

Venus and Jupiter are headed for a cozy conjunction on Tuesday. During the event, the two brilliant planets will appear only 1/3 of a degree apart from each other on the night sky’s inky canvas. Although optical aids are not necessary to enjoy the planetary pairing, they will be near enough to occupy the same field of view in a telescope at low power. This will be the closest conjunction of the two until Aug. 27, 2016.

June 12, 2015

What's Up in the Sky

At any moment of the day, countless awe-inspiring celestial events are unfolding in the sky. With a universe of options, it can be hard to pin down what to observe, what to look into or what to remember. This column takes a peek at what’s happening in the sky and in the world of astronomy in general to provide a quick list of highlights that can jumpstart your own explorations.

What to observe:

June 13 –Venus and Beehive Cluster Pairing

Get your binoculars ready because the ever-bright Venus and the popular Beehive Cluster will form a striking pair in the night sky shortly after sunset on June 13th. As the third brightest object in the sky, Venus is always a sight to behold. The opportunity to enjoy its brilliance in the same field of view as the beautiful Beehive Cluster is one that shouldn’t be missed. Also known as M44, the cluster lies about 560 light years away and can be observed with the naked eye in dark sky conditions. Located in the Cancer constellation, the cluster appears as a cloudy, intriguing mass upon first glance. But when you turn a pair of large aperture binoculars (10x50) or a small rich field telescope on it, its stellar inhabitants blaze to life. Covering more than 1.5 degrees of sky, the Beehive Cluster is home to at least 1,000 stars, with a large portion of those being red dwarfs and about 30 percent of a type similar to our Sun. It also includes some impressive blue-white beauties and a sprinkling of orange giants. Identified as a nebulous mass by the 2nd Century astronomer Ptolemy, M44 has a rich history that includes being one of the first objects studied through a telescope by famed astronomer Galileo, who realized it was actually a star cluster. It also has a strong foundation in the lore of ancient cultures. Also known as Praesepe, which means “manger” in Latin, the Greeks and Romans characterized the cluster as a manger that feeds two nearby stars, Asellus Australis and Asellus Borealis, which were seen to represent two famous donkeys that were key in a battle with the Titans.

 

Summer Triangle

Northern Hemisphere observers would be remiss if they did not check out the Summer Triangle currently reigning in the night sky. The popular asterism is, as its name suggests, a simple triangle formed by three brilliant stars – Vega, Altair and Deneb. A resident of the Lyra Constellation and easy to find in the eastern sky, Vega is a blue-white beauty that is the brightest in the trio and the fifth brightest star in the sky. A member of the Cygnus Constellation, Deneb lies to the lower left of Vega. Although the blue-white supergiant is the least bright member of the asterism, it is actually the most luminous. Its distance is what gives it its third place ranking. To the lower right of Vega, you can find the fast-rotating Altair, an oblate spheroid that is the brightest star in the Aquila Constellation. Although they are worthy sights, these three stars are not the only reasons to check out the Summer Triangle. Another notable stellar offering is the amazing double star Albireo that awaits in the middle of the triangle. When viewed through a telescope, this point of light becomes a wonderful contrasting pair made up of a blazing golden yellow star and a subtle blue star. Deep sky favorites lurking in the neighborhood include the appropriately named Ring Nebula (M57), which blooms around a bluish dwarf, and the hourglass-shaped Dumbbell Nebula (M27), which was the first planetary nebula ever discovered. In addition to all of these treats, a grander sight will be revealed under a dark sky when you see the dusty, glowing Milky Way cutting a stunning swath through the midst of the Summer Triangle.

May 15, 2015

What's Up in the Sky - May 2015

At any moment of the day, countless awe-inspiring celestial events are unfolding in the sky. With a universe of options, it can be hard to pin down what to observe, what to look into or what to remember. This column takes a peek at what’s happening in the sky and in the world of astronomy in general to provide a quick list of highlights that can jumpstart your own explorations.

What to observe:

May 23 – Saturn at Opposition

Saturn and its dazzling rings will be in a prime viewing position as the planet reaches opposition at 0200 UT on May 23rd (9 p.m. CDT on May 22nd in the U.S.). During this event, Saturn will be positioned directly opposite of the Sun when viewed from Earth. It will rise as the Sun sets and stay up all night, which provides for ample viewing time. In addition to delving into Saturn’s fascinating ring system, small telescope users might want to look for Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons, and the dark groove in the rings that is identified as the Cassini Division. Although Saturn just moved into the Libra Constellation, the quickest way to locate it is to look for it in the east above the red-hued beauty known as Antares in the Scorpius Constellation. To the naked eye, it will appear as a steady, gold point of light. Following opposition, Saturn will remain a brilliant showpiece of the night sky for several months. 

Virgo Constellation

Offering up a feast of intriguing galaxies, the Virgo constellation is an ideal May target for stargazers in either hemisphere. As the second largest constellation, Virgo covers 1,294 square degrees of celestial real estate and is visible from 80° North to 80° South.

Before dipping into all of Virgo’s galactic offerings, a new observer can get their bearings by locating the constellation’s standout star - Spica. Also known as alpha Virginis, this multi-star system dominated by a blue giant has an apparent visual magnitude of 1.04. To easily locate Spica, find the Big Dipper asterism and follow the arc of its handle as it points to Arcturus, an orange giant star in the Bootes constellation. Once your eye finds Arcturus, continue to follow the same gentle curve to the blue-white beauty Spica. Some of Virgo’s other stellar treats include Porrima, a binary star system that can only be resolved with large aperture telescopes; Auva, a red giant with variations in brightness; Vindemiatrix, a yellow giant with an apparent visual magnitude of 2.826; Heze, a white dwarf; and Zavijava, an often-occulted pale star that stays cozy with the ecliptic plane and gained a bit of notoriety when it was used by Einstein in 1922 to determine the speed of light in space.

Virgo really starts to shine when it comes to deep sky observing targets. One of Virgo’s most dynamic deep sky treasures is the Sombrero Galaxy (Messier 104), which is located about 11.5° west of Spica. Featuring between 1,200 to 2,000 globular clusters, this unbarred spiral galaxy has a bright bulging center ringed by a pronounced dark dust lane. The huge constellation also is home to the massive Virgo Cluster, which teems with a versatile mix of well over a thousand galaxies. Among its offerings are Messier 49, an elliptical galaxy with a 9.4 visual magnitude that makes it the cluster’s brightest member; Messier 87, a giant elliptical galaxy with a 9.59 visual magnitude that lies near Virgo’s border with the Coma Berenices constellation; Messier 58, a barred spiral galaxy; and the lenticular galaxies Messier 84 and Messier 86. The cluster also includes the Siamese Twins (NGC 4567 AND NGC 4568), which are colliding spiral galaxies; the Eyes Galaxies, which includes the barred lenticular NGC 4435 and the hard-to-categorize NGC 4438; the bright Messier 88 and Messier 90 spiral galaxies and the challenging Messier 91 barred spiral galaxy.  

April 25, 2015

April 21, 2015

What's Up in the Sky - April

At any moment of the day, countless awe-inspiring celestial events are unfolding in the sky. With a universe of options, it can be hard to pin down what to observe, what to look into or what to remember. This column takes a peek at what’s happening in the sky and in the world of astronomy in general to provide a quick list of highlights that can jumpstart your own explorations.

What to observe:

April 22/23 – Lyrid Meteor Shower

Right now one of the oldest meteor showers on record is taking its annual turn in the skies. The Lyrids, which are caused by the Earth’s passage through debris left behind by Comet Thatcher, are set to peak in the wee hours of April 22nd/23rd with an average hourly meteor count between 10 and 20. Especially favorable for the northern hemisphere, the Lyrids appear to radiate from a point near the bright star Vega in the Lyra constellation. However, observers should actually look at a dark patch of sky about 90 degrees away from the radiant point to see the most meteors. To view the Lyrid meteors, which have been known to briefly leave behind glowing dust trails, all you need is your naked eye and a good place to lie down under an open sky.

Hydra Constellation

April is an ideal time to view the massive Hydra Constellation, which winds its way across southern skies as a celestial incarnation of the water snake. As the largest and longest of the 88 constellations, Hydra covers a 1,303 square degree area in the sky. Defined by 17 stars, it is visible from 83° South to 54° North. In terms of stars, its brightest is Alphard (Alpha Hydrae), which is a barium-rich giant star with an orange hue and an apparent visual magnitude near 2. The constellation also offers R Hydrae - a pulsating variable star that experiences intense changes in magnitude; Epsilon Hydrae - a multiple star system that includes a spectroscopic binary; Gamma Hydrae - a yellow giant; V Hydrae - a carbon star that is one of the reddest visible stars; and U Hydrae - a carbon star that can be seen with the unaided eye. Even though Hydra is not as packed with observing targets as one might expect, it still has several notable deep sky objects. One of the easiest to spot is Messier 48, an open cluster that can be seen as a hazy patch with the naked eye or resolved into dozens of brilliant stars with a pair of binoculars. Messier 68 is a stunning globular cluster with a round appearance that puts on a great show in a larger telescope. The constellation also contains Messier 83. Known as the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy, this deep sky treat is one of the closest and brightest barred spiral galaxies. Home to six known supernovae, this active galaxy gloriously displays its spiral arm structure when viewed through a moderate to large telescope. Beyond the Messier catalog, Hydra also boasts an intriguing planetary nebula known as the Ghost of Jupiter. This feature has a bluish hue and can be easily examined through a telescope.

What to look into:

April 25 - Astronomy Day

Promoted and organized by the Astronomical League, Astronomy Day is scheduled for April 25th, and events are being planned around the country to celebrate. Boasting roots that go back to 1973, Astronomy Day has been held in the spring and fall each year since 2007. With a theme of “Bringing Astronomy to the People,” organizers describe the day as a grass roots movement with a mission to expose as many people as possible to the wonders of astronomy. Astronomy clubs, observatories, planetariums, schools and more will mark the day by holding a variety of events. For more information or to view a list of scheduled events, visit www.astroleague.org/al/astroday/astroday.html or check with your local astronomy club.

Global Astronomy Month

Astronomers Without Borders’ Global Astronomy Month is in full swing and a bounty of activities are available to enjoy. An online highlight for this week is the rescheduled Messier Marathon, which begins at 18:30 UT on April 22nd. During a traditional Messier Marathon, observers haul equipment into the field in an attempt to find as many of the 110 astronomical objects detailed in the famed Messier Catalogue as possible in one night. In this online event, The Virtual Telescope Project will do the heavy lifting for you. To access the marathon, visit www.virtualtelescope.eu/webtv/. Astronomers Without Borders organizes Global Astronomy Month each April to emphasize its motto - “One People, One Sky.” For a complete list of GAM 2015 programs, visit http://astronomerswithoutborders.org/gam2015-programs/program-schedule-2015.html.

 

 

April 10, 2015

What's Up In The Sky

At any moment of the day, countless awe-inspiring celestial events are unfolding in the sky. With a universe of options, it can be hard to pin down what to observe, what to look into or what to remember. This column takes a peek at what’s happening in the sky and in the world of astronomy in general to provide a quick list of highlights that can jumpstart your own explorations.

What to observe:

Sextans Constellation

Best seen in April, the Sextans Constellation lies in an area of the night sky populated by Leo, the lion; Hydra, the water snake; and Crater, the cup of the Greek god Apollo. Unlike its mythology-rich neighbors, which are all part of Ptolemy’s original 48 constellations from the 2nd century, the faint Sextans traces its roots back only as far as the late 17th century. Defined by astronomer Johannes Hevelius, the constellation was named to commemorate Hevelius’ own astronomical sextant - an observation tool used to measure star positions - that had been destroyed in a fire a few years before. An equatorial constellation, Sextans covers a 314 square degree area and is visible from 80° north to 90° south. Its brightest star is Alpha Sextantis, which sits on the celestial equator. The white giant has an apparent visual magnitude of 4.48 and lies almost directly south of the brilliant Regulus that boldly shines in the nearby Leo constellation. Other star targets include Beta Sextantis, a blue-white dwarf that undergoes slight variations in magnitude about every 15 days; Gamma Sextantis, a triple star system; Epsilon Sextantis, a yellow-white giant; and the challenging LHS 292, a red dwarf star classified as a flare star because its brightness will suddenly increase and then return to normal. Amateur astronomers hoping to catch a glimpse of LHS 292 will need to use a large telescope. In terms of deep sky offerings, Sextans is home to NGC 3115, which is one of two galaxies referred to as the Spindle Galaxy. This lenticular galaxy seems to lie edge-on to our own much smaller Milky Way, and it contains a supermassive black hole. Other galaxies to explore include the interacting compact spirals NGC 3169 and NGC 3166; Sextans A, a dwarf irregular galaxy with an intriguing square shape; and Sextans B, an irregular galaxy.

What to look into:

Global Astronomy Month

Astronomers Without Borders’ Global Astronomy Month is in full swing and a bounty of activities are available to enjoy. An online highlight for this week is the Messier Marathon, which begins at 18:30 UT on April 11th. During a traditional Messier Marathon, observers haul equipment into the field in an attempt to find as many of the 110 astronomical objects detailed in the famed Messier Catalogue as possible in one night. In this online event, The Virtual Telescope Project will do the heavy lifting for you. To access the marathon, visit www.virtualtelescope.eu/webtv/. Astronomers Without Borders organizes Global Astronomy Month each April to emphasize its motto - “One People, One Sky.” For a complete list of GAM 2015 programs, visit http://astronomerswithoutborders.org/gam2015-programs/program-schedule-2015.html.

April 12 - Yuri’s Night: World Space Party

When it comes to space exploration, April 12th has long held profound significance. It was on that date in 1961 that cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in outer space after he blasted off for a 108-minute flight aboard the Soviet space program’s Vostok 1 spacecraft. Although brief, this journey was a monumental milestone that ignited an international passion for space exploration. To commemorate this historic event and ensure that passion continues to thrive, organizers held the first Yuri’s Night on April 12, 2001, and, it has grown every year since. Dubbed a World Space Party, the event is a “global celebration of humanity’s past, present and future in space.” Although the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight is the foundation of the celebration, it also coincides with another April 12th milestone - the 1981 inaugural launch of NASA’s Space Shuttle, which was the world’s first reusable spacecraft and a catalyst for international cooperation. For more information or a schedule of the hundreds of related parties across the globe, visit www.yurisnight.net.

April 13-18 - International Dark Sky Week

In conjunction with Global Astronomy Month celebrations, the International Dark-Sky Association will kick off International Dark Sky Week on April 13th. The annual campaign seeks to shine a figurative light on the very real problem of light pollution. Held each year since 2003, the week-long awareness event was the idea of Jennifer Barlow, a high school student on a mission to preserve the wonder of the night sky for future generations. The goals for the week are fairly simple: Celebrate the beauty of the stars, raise awareness about the negative effects of light pollution and embolden people to act to reduce the problem. Organizers encourage individuals around the globe to mark the week in a range of ways such as hosting star parties, sharing their thoughts about the issue on social media using #IDSW2015, participating in an IDSW activity or simply visiting the website to find out more about the topic and what changes they can make. For more information on International Dark Sky Week and its associated events, visit http://www.darksky.org/int-l-dark-sky-week-main.

March 23, 2015

What's Up in the Sky - March 23-31

At any moment of the day, countless awe-inspiring celestial events are unfolding in the sky. With a universe of options, it can be hard to pin down what to observe, what to look into or what to remember. This column takes a peek at what’s happening in the sky and in the world of astronomy in general to provide a quick list of highlights that can jumpstart your own explorations.

What to observe:

Cancer Constellation

In the Northern Hemisphere, winter is beginning to cede to spring, and now is the perfect time for some to spend those slightly warmer evenings exploring the Cancer Constellation. Also known as the Crab, this zodiac constellation occupies 506 square degrees of celestial real estate along the ecliptic plane. One of its most popular treats is the Beehive Cluster (Messier 44). Lying only about 560 light years away, the cluster appears as a cloudy, intriguing mass when glanced at by the naked eye. But when you turn a pair of large aperture binoculars (10x50) or a small rich field telescope on it, its stellar inhabitants blaze to life. Covering more than 1.5 degrees of sky, the Beehive Cluster is home to at least 1,000 stars, with a large portion of those being red dwarfs and about 30 percent of a type similar to our Sun. It also includes some impressive blue-white beauties and a sprinkling of orange giants. Identified as a nebulous mass by the 2nd Century astronomer Ptolemy, M44 has a rich history that includes being one of the first objects studied through a telescope by famed astronomer Galileo, who realized it was actually a star cluster. It also has a strong foundation in the lore of ancient cultures. Also known as Praesepe, which means “manger” in Latin, the Greeks and Romans characterized the cluster as a manger that feeds two nearby stars, which were seen to represent two famous donkeys that were key in a battle with the Titans. The first of these stars was Asellus Australis (Delta Cancri). This orange giant has an apparent visual magnitude of 3.94 and is the second brightest star in the constellation. The second “donkey” is Asellus Borealis (Gamma Cancri), which is a white subgiant. Cancer’s offerings do not end with the Beehive Cluster and its mates. Its brightest star is the binary Al Tarf (Beta Cancri). The system’s main component is an orange giant but a larger telescope may show its companion. The constellation is also home to 55 Cancri, a double star system that features a yellow dwarf and a red dwarf. Five extrasolar planets orbit the primary member of this interesting system. Other stellar offerings include Alpha Cancri, a multi-star system that contains a white main sequence dwarf; Iota Cancri, a binary system made up of a yellow giant and a main sequence dwarf; and X Cancri, one of the reddest stars in the sky. The Crab also hosts the stunning open cluster Messier 67. One of the oldest of its kind, M67 has hundreds of stars and is a popular observing target for those that study stellar evolution.

What to look into:

March 28 – 8th Annual International Sidewalk Astronomy Night

On March 28th, amateur astronomers around the globe will head out to streets, parks and star parties to share the sky in celebration of International Sidewalk Astronomy Night. The annual event is sponsored each year by the Sidewalk Astronomers organization to promote astronomy outreach while honoring one of its co-founders — John Dobson. Widely recognized as one of the most influential figures in modern-day amateur astronomy, Dobson passed away in 2014. In addition to being an avid proponent of public service astronomy, Dobson made telescopes more accessible through the invention of what he referred to as a sidewalk telescope. People around the world would eventually refer to his simplistic yet revolutionary design as a “Dobsonian.” For more information on the organization and Dobson, visit www.sidewalkastronomers.us.

What to remember:

March 23rd - 50th Anniversary of Gemini 3 Launch

50 years ago, the first manned mission of NASA’s Gemini program was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Crewed by astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom and John W. Young, the nearly five-hour mission was America’s first two-person spaceflight and included the first manual maneuver done in orbit. In addition to its notable accomplishments, the Gemini 3 mission also added some colorful additions to the lexicon of space travel anecdotes. The first of these, which happened well before the launch, involved the naming of the spacecraft. Grissom had already made one journey into space during the Mercury program. This mission ended in a harrowing splashdown in which the capsule began taking on water after the hatch blew early. Grissom narrowly missed sinking with the craft. Because of this intense experience, Grissom named the Gemini 3 spacecraft “Molly Brown” in reference to the play “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” NASA officials resisted the name until Grissom presented them with his alternative – the “Titanic.” The administration relented. Once in orbit, the mission racked up an unexpected first that also displeased NASA officials. This “achievement” was the result of Young sneaking a treat into the spacecraft in a pocket of his space suit. Once in orbit, Young offered a bite of this culinary contraband to Grissom, who then became the first person to eat a corned beef sandwich in space. Although seemingly harmless, the act did leave tiny crumbs floating in the cabin that could have created unforeseen problems. The craft made three complete orbits before reentering the Earth’s atmosphere and splashing down.

March 13, 2015

What's Up in the Sky - March 9-22

At any moment of the day, countless awe-inspiring celestial events are unfolding in the sky. With a universe of options, it can be hard to pin down what to observe, what to look into or what to remember. This column takes a peek at what’s happening in the sky and in the world of astronomy in general to provide a quick list of highlights that can jumpstart your own explorations.

What to observe:

March 20 - March Equinox

A welcome sign of changing seasons for many, the March equinox is set to occur at 22:45 Universal Time on March 20th. For those in the Northern Hemisphere, this event is a harbinger of spring, while in the Southern Hemisphere, it heralds the arrival of autumn. The March equinox occurs when the Sun passes from south to north across the celestial equator, which lies directly above its imaginary counterpart - Earth’s equator. No matter where you are located, on this date, the Sun rises due east and sets due west, and day and night are almost equal in length.

What to remember:

March 16 - Anniversary of Famed Astronomer Caroline Herschel’s Birth

Caroline Herschel, who would become the first woman to discover a comet, was born in Germany 265 years ago. As a young child, she battled both smallpox and typhus, and each left her with life-changing repercussions. As a young woman, she was stifled by a mother who saw her as a house servant and discouraged her father’s attempts to educate her. But at 22, Caroline Herschel made the decision to leave Germany and join her older brother William Herschel in England, where he worked as a musician and conductor. This move set her on the path to a revered place in the annals of astronomy. Once she was in England, Caroline cared for William’s household, and he taught her mathematics and gave her voice lessons so she could sing professionally. At the same time, he delved deeper into his burgeoning passion for astronomy, and, soon, recruited Caroline to serve as his astronomy assistant. In this position, she helped him grind and polish mirrors for telescopes he built, and, most importantly, she recorded his nightly observations and did the intense calculations that were necessary to pinpoint exact locations of the objects he had seen. After he discovered the planet Uranus, William was appointed the royal astronomer, and he and Caroline embraced the skies full time. Eventually, Caroline started making her own observations and began to discover nebulae. On August 1st, 1786, she found her first comet and got on the king’s radar. The king quickly employed her as William’s paid assistant - making her the first female astronomer compensated for her scientific services. Caroline would go on to discover more nebulae and seven other comets. She also catalogued every item she and her brother had found and continued to rack up honors. These included being the first woman to receive the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal, gaining honorary membership in the same organization and receiving the King of Prussia’s Gold Medal of Science Award. Caroline died on January 9th, 1848. In recognition of all of her astounding contributions, both a lunar crater and an asteroid have been named in her honor. 

What to look into:

GAM 2015 AstroPoetry Contest

Although Astronomers Without Borders’ annual Global Astronomy Month does not officially kick off for a couple of weeks, a few related contests are already under way. One of these is the GAM 2015 AstroPoetry Contest, which runs through April 30th. Poets of all ages and skill levels are invited to submit their poems on any astronomy, night sky or space-related subject in one of three categories - Children Grades 1-6, Children and Young Adults Grades 7-12 and Adults. For information on the contest guidelines and how to enter, visit http://astronomerswithoutborders.org/gam2015-programs/astroarts/1561-astropoetry-contest-for-gam2015.html. Global Astronomy Month is organized each April by Astronomers Without Borders and emphasizes the organization’s motto - “One People, One Sky.” The month includes a wide range of events and draws participants from more than 100 countries.

2015 International Earth and Sky Photo Contest

From March 22nd through April 22nd, submissions are being accepted for the 6th International Earth and Sky Photo Contest - a collaborative effort of The World at Night (TWAN) project, Astronomers Without Borders’ Global Astronomy Month and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. Photographers of all ages are invited to participate in the landscape astrophotography contest, which targets light pollution through its encompassing theme of “Dark Skies Importance.” The competition has two categories - “Beauty of the Night Sky” and “Against the Lights” - and all entries must adhere to the TWAN style by capturing a profound mingling of the Earth and sky. The roots of the contest go back to 2008, when it started as a regional event. For more information on the contest guidelines and how to enter, visit http://www.twanight.org/contest. Winners will be announced in May.

March 06, 2015

What's Up in the Sky - March 1st-8th

At any moment of the day, countless awe-inspiring celestial events are unfolding in the sky. With a universe of options, it can be hard to pin down what to observe, what to look into or what to remember. This column takes a peek at what’s happening in the sky and in the world of astronomy in general to provide a quick list of highlights that can jumpstart your own explorations.

What to observe:

Puppis Constellation

March is an especially good time to explore the Puppis Constellation created in the mid-18th Century when the cumbersome Argo Navis constellation that had dominated southern skies for centuries was divvied up into three smaller parts. As the largest of the resulting trio of constellations, Puppis takes up a nice 673 square degree area of celestial real estate that is visible from latitudes between 40° North to 90° South. In terms of stars, its brightest is the blue supergiant Naos. Also known as Zeta Puppis, this spectacular star is one of only a few O-class stars that can be seen with the unaided eye. Other stellar offerings include Pi Puppis, an orange super giant that is the headliner in the Collinder 135 open cluster; Rho Puppis, a yellow giant that experiences subtle fluctuations in brightness; and k Puppis, which resolves neatly into two blue-white stars of nearly equal brightness when viewed through a small telescope. Puppis also is home to a bounty of deep sky offerings such as the binocular-friendly Messier 47 open cluster and the Messier 46 open cluster that visually contains the pale blue NGC 2438 planetary nebula. The constellation also includes NGC 2477, a rich open cluster filled with beautiful groupings; NGC 2451, a bright open cluster with a yellowish giant; and the NGC 2440 planetary nebula.

What to remember:

March 5th - Astronomer Jean Mueller’s Birthday

On March 5th, American astronomer Jean Mueller celebrated her birthday and marked one more year in a lifetime filled with milestones. In 1985, Mueller was the first woman hired as a telescope operator at Caltech’s renowned Palomar Observatory. In this capacity, Mueller was an essential part of the Second Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (POSS II), which was a wide field sky survey completed with the observatory’s 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope. During the 15-year survey Mueller took and scoured thousands of plates. During this research period, she discovered 15 comets, 10 asteroids and more than 100 supernovae.

What to look into:

March 6th – NASA’s Dawn Orbits Ceres

NASA chalked up another set of firsts today when the agency’s Dawn spacecraft officially went into orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres. In a news release, Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer and mission director at JPL, said, “Since its discovery in 1801, Ceres was known as a planet, then an asteroid and later a dwarf planet. Now, after a journey of 3.1 billion miles and 7.5 years, Dawn calls Ceres, home.” The icy Ceres is not the only target that Dawn has visited since its launch on September 27, 2007. In July 2011, it began orbiting the rocky Vesta asteroid. Thus, Dawn’s insertion into Ceres orbit today means it is the first human-made object to orbit more than one celestial body. By studying and comparing the data on both Ceres and Vesta, Dawn researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the evolution of the early solar system.

February 18, 2015

What's Up In The Sky - Feb. 16-22

At any moment of the day, countless awe-inspiring celestial events are unfolding in the sky. With a universe of options, it can be hard to pin down what to observe, what to look into or what to remember. This column takes a peek at what’s happening in the sky and in the world of astronomy in general to provide a quick list of highlights that can jumpstart your own explorations.

February 16th-22nd

What to observe:

Feb. 21- Conjunction of Venus and Mars

The brilliant Venus and the reddish Mars will cozy up in the early evening western sky on February 21st beneath the thin crescent Moon. During the conjunction, the planets will be positioned visually within ½° of each other — a distance akin to the diameter of the Moon — in the Pisces Constellation. This beautiful pairing will be the closest for the two planets since September 2008, and they will not snuggle up like this again until 2017. This closeness combined with the brightness of Venus, which will be 88 percent illuminated, means that it will probably be difficult to see Mars unless you have an optical aid like binoculars or a medium power telescope.

What to commemorate:

Feb. 18 - 85th Anniversary of the Discovery of Pluto

In 1905, Percival Lowell, the successful businessman, mathematician and passionate amateur astronomer who founded Arizona’s Lowell Observatory, began an intense search for a ninth planet. Lowell had observed anomalies in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus that he believed could only be explained by the presence of another planet, which he dubbed “Planet X.” After more than a decade of observing and calculating, Lowell died in 1916 with his search for this elusive object unfulfilled. After a lengthy legal battle over Lowell’s estate, the long-shelved search for Planet X began again in 1929 when observatory newcomer Clyde Tombaugh was given the task of continuing Lowell’s work. Tombaugh, who was raised on a farm in Kansas, could not afford college as a young man so he fed his avid interest in astronomy by building his own telescopes out of old equipment parts and mirrors and lenses that he ground himself. He sent detailed drawings he had made of his observations of Jupiter and Mars to the Arizona observatory for feedback and was quickly offered a position instead. Tombaugh embraced the monotonous and painstaking task of scouring the skies for Lowell’s theorized Planet X. The search involved surveying portions of the sky by using a camera to take photos of the same section of sky one week apart and then meticulously analyzing them for any signs of movement in the objects. Tombaugh used a blink comparator that quickly flipped back and forth between the photographs to look for movement. On February 18th, 1930, he found what he was looking for when studying plates that had been taken on January 23rd and January 29th. The discovery of Planet X was confirmed and then announced on March 13, which was Lowell’s birthday. Needing to name the new planet, the observatory sent out a call for suggestions. After hearing about the discovery of this long-hidden planet from her grandfather, Venetia Burney, an 11-year-old girl from England, said it should be named for Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld. Her grandfather forwarded the suggestion on and it was soon selected. Burney, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 90, did live to see the object she named lose its status as the ninth planet when it was reclassified as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union in 2006. Astronomers have slowly learned more about Pluto since it was identified. In 1978, astronomer James Christy discovered its largest moon - Charon. The Hubble Space Telescope eventually revealed four smaller moons - Nix and Hydra in 2005; Kerberos in 2011 and Styx in 2012. NASA hopes to learn more about Pluto, its moons and the Kuiper Belt in which they all reside when the New Horizons spacecraft, which was launched in 2006, arrives at the distant worlds this year.

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