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. Each week, this column will take 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:
November 18 – Leonid Meteor Shower Peaks
Set to peak in the pre-dawn hours around November 18th, the always-anticipated Leonid meteor shower is an annual November presence caused by the Earth’s passage through debris left behind by the Comet Tempel-Tuttle. Although it has a history of producing stunning meteor storms every few decades, the shower usually generates a steady 15 to 20 meteors per hour, which is this year’s expected rate. Unlike last year, the 2014 shower will have minimum interference from the moon, which is rapidly nearing its new phase. Even though the Leonids radiate from the Leo constellation, viewers should actually find a dark patch of early morning sky about 90 degrees away from the radiant point to see the most meteors. To view the show, all you need is your naked eye, a good place to lie down under a dark open sky and patience.
Pleiades Star Cluster
The storied Pleiades star cluster with its brilliant blue stars is a stunning presence in the sky from dusk to dawn throughout November and continuing into December. Also know by the names Messier 45 or the more poetic Seven Sisters, the open star cluster has a rich lore that crosses cultures and goes back thousands of years. It is fairly young, having formed within the last 100 million years, and lies relatively close to Earth at about 440 light years away. Found in the Taurus constellation, it consists of more than 1,000 confirmed stars, although an average of only six are visible to the naked eye. A dark sky free of light pollution can help a dedicated observer see around a dozen Pleiades stars, but a good pair of binoculars or a low-power telescope can quickly reveal the more elusive members of this legendary cluster.
What to remember:
November 16 – 40th Anniversary of Arecibo Message
On November 16th, 1974, a team at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico used a celebration of recent upgrades to get the message out about the facility’s profound capabilities. During the ceremony, the observatory’s massive radio telescope broadcast a carefully planned cosmic communiqué into space via a powerful radio signal. Directed at the stunning globular cluster Messier 13, which resides in the Hercules constellation, the message took almost three minutes to send. Written by SETI pioneer Dr. Frank Drake with input from famed astrophysicist Carl Sagan and others, it consisted of a string of 1,679 binary digits that captured humanity’s highlights in pictorial form. The seven components of the message were: the numbers 1 to 10; the atomic numbers of the key elements hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus; the formulas for the sugars and bases in the nucleotides of DNA; the number of nucleotides in DNA and the double helix structure; a graphic representation of a human figure next to the average height of a man and Earth’s population circa 1974; a layout of our solar system that indicates Earth’s position; and a graphic of the Arecibo Telescope with dimensions. Although a lot of thought went into the contents, the architects of the message knew the likelihood of it ever sparking an extraterrestrial conversation was virtually non-existent. It will take about 25,000 years for the message to reach its target, and by that time, M13 will have moved. The real point of the message was to communicate to those on Earth about where technological advances could someday take us.