NASA Night Sky Notes January 2022

NASA Night Sky Notes January 2022

This article is distributed by NASA Night Sky Network

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

Hunting the Hunter: Observing Orion

David Prosper

 

If you are outside on a clear January night, it’s hard not to notice one distinctive star pattern above all: Orion!  While we’ve covered Orion in earlier articles, we’ve never discussed observing the constellation as a whole. Perhaps you’ve received a new telescope, camera, or binoculars, and are eager to test it out. Orion, being large, prominent, and full of interesting, bright objects, is a perfect constellation to test out your new equipment and practice your observing skills – for beginners and seasoned stargazers alike.

In Greek mythology, Orion is a strong hunter, with numerous legends about his adventures. Being such a striking group of stars, cultures from all around the world have many myths about this star pattern. There are so many that we can’t list them all here, but you can find a wonderful interactive chart detailing many cultures’ legends on the Figures in the Sky website at figuresinthesky.visualcinnamon.com .

What sights can you see in Orion? Look above the variable orange-red supergiant ”shoulder star” Betelgeuse to find the stars making up Orion’s “club,” then move across from Betelgeuse towards the bright star Bellatrix (Orion’s other “shoulder”) and the stars of his bow and arrow – both essential tools for the Hunter. Many interesting sights lie near Orion’s “belt” and “sword.” Orion’s belt is made up of three bright giant stars forming an evenly spaced line: Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. Move from the belt stars towards the stars Rigel and Saiph (Orion’s “feet” or “knees”) to arrive at Orion’s distinctive Sword, parts of which may appear fuzzy to your unaided eyes. Binoculars reveal that fuzz to be the famed Orion Nebula (M42), perched right next to the star Hatysa! Diving in deeper with a telescope will show star clusters and more cloud detail around the Nebula, and additional magnification brings out further detail inside the nebula itself, including the “baby stars” of the Trapezium and the next-door neighbor nebula M43. Want to dive deeper? Dark skies and a telescope will help to bring out the reflection nebula M78, the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024), along with many star clusters and traces of dark nebula throughout the constellation. Very careful observers under dark clear skies may be able to spot the dark nebula known as the Horsehead, tracing an equine outline below both the Belt and the Flame Nebula. Warning: the Horsehead can be a difficult challenge for many stargazers, but very rewarding.

This is just a taste of the riches found within Orion’s star fields and dust clouds; you can study Orion for a lifetime and never feel done with your observations. To be fair, that applies for the sky as a whole, but Orion has a special place for many. New telescopes often focus on one of Orion’s treasures for their first test images. You can discover more of NASA’s research into Orion’s stars – as well as the rest of the cosmos – online at nasa.gov.

 

Northern Hemisphere observers can find Orion during January evenings in the east/southeast skies. Can you spot the Orion nebula with your naked eye, in Orion’s sword? How does it look via binoculars or a telescope? What other details can you discern?  Please note that some deep sky objects aren’t listed here for clarity’s sake. For example, M43, a nebula located directly above M42 and separated by a dark dust lane, is not shown. Orion’s Belt and Sword are crowded, since they star-forming regions! You can read more in our November 2019 article  Orion: Window Into a Stellar Nursery, at bit.ly/orionlight .

Image created with assistance from Stellarium.

The inset image is the “first light” photo from the Zwicky Transient Facility, a large survey telescope designed to detect changes in the entire night sky by detecting “transient objects” like comets, supernovae, gamma ray bursts, and asteroids. For many astronomers, amateur and pro alike, Orion is often the “first light” constellation of choice for new equipment!

Image Credit: Caltech Optical Observatories

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NASA Night Sky Notes December 2021

NASA Night Sky Notes December 2021

This article is distributed by NASA Night Sky Network

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

The James Webb Space Telescope: Ready for Launch!

David Prosper

 

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is ready for lift-off! As of this writing (November 15), the much-anticipated next-generation space telescope is being carefully prepared for launch on December 18, 2021, and will begin its mission to investigate some of the deepest mysteries of our universe.

 

The development of the Webb began earlier than you might expect – the concept that would develop into Webb was proposed even before the launch of the Hubble in the late 1980s! Since then, its design underwent many refinements, and the telescope experienced a series of delays during construction and testing. While frustrating, the team needs to ensure that this extremely complex and advanced scientific instrument is successfully launched and deployed.  The Webb team can’t take any chances; unlike the Hubble, orbiting at an astronaut-serviceable 340 miles (347 km) above Earth, the Webb will orbit about one million miles away (or 1.6 million km), at Lagrange Point 2. Lagrange Points are special positions where the gravitational influence between two different bodies, like the Sun and Earth, “balance out,” allowing objects like space telescopes to be placed into stable long-term orbits, requiring only minor adjustments – saving Webb a good deal of fuel.

 

Since this position is also several times further than the Moon, Webb’s sunshield will safely cover the Moon, Earth, and Sun and block any potential interference from their own infrared radiation. Even the seemingly small amount of heat from the surfaces of the Earth and Moon would interfere with Webb’s extraordinarily sensitive infrared observations of our universe if left unblocked. More detailed information about Webb’s orbit can be found at bit.ly/webborbitinfo, and a video showing its movement at bit.ly/webborbitvideo.

 

Once in its final position, its sunshield and mirror fully deployed and instruments checked out, Webb will begin observing!  Webb’s 21-foot segmented mirror will be trained on targets as fine and varied as planets, moons, and distant objects in our outer Solar System, active centers of galaxies, and some of the most distant stars and galaxies in our universe: objects that may be some of the first luminous objects formed after the Big Bang! Webb will join with other observatories to study black holes – including the one lurking in the center of our galaxy, and will study solar systems around other stars, including planetary atmospheres, to investigate their potential for hosting life.

Wondering how Webb’s infrared observations can reveal what visible light cannot? The “Universe in a Different Light” Night Sky Network activity can help – find it at bit.ly/different-light-nsn. Find the latest news from NASA and Webb team as it begins its mission by following #UnfoldTheUniverse on social media, and on the web at nasa.gov/webb.

Webb will observe a wide band of the infrared spectrum, including parts observed by the Hubble – which also observes in a bit of ultraviolet light as well as visible – and the recently retired Spitzer Space Telescope. Webb will even observe parts of the infrared spectrum not seen by either of these missions! Credits: NASA and J. Olmstead (STScI)

 

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November 19, 2021 — Partial Lunar Eclipse — Sioux Falls

There will be a Partial Lunar Eclipse visible from the entire United States on Friday November 19th, 2021,  starts early in the morning Friday at 1:18am and reaches maximum at 3:02am.  The Lunar Eclipse will end at 6:03am.

To see what the Lunar Eclipse looks like from your area please visit Time and date.com or click on the link below and change your location.

Timeanddate.com

Below is a screen shot from Time and Date.com showing the Partial Lunar Eclipse times for Upper Midwest.

 

Image Courtesy Timeanddate.com

 

 

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NASA Night Sky Notes November 2021

NASA Night Sky Notes November 2021

This article is distributed by NASA Night Sky Network

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

 

Measure the Night Sky

David Prosper

 

Fall and winter months bring longer nights, and with these earlier evenings, even the youngest astronomers can get stargazing. One of the handiest things you can teach a new astronomer is how to measure the sky – and if you haven’t yet learned yourself, it’s easier than you think!

Astronomers measure the sky using degrees, minutes, and seconds as units. These may sound more like terms for measuring time – and that’s a good catch! – but today we are focused on measuring angular distance. Degrees are largest, and are each made up of 60 minutes, and each minute is made up of 60 seconds. To start, go outside and imagine yourself in the center of a massive sphere, with yourself at the center, extending out to the stars: appropriately enough, this is called the celestial sphere. A circle contains 360 degrees, so if you have a good view of the horizon all around you, you can slowly spin around exactly once to see what 360 degrees looks like, since you are in effect drawing a circle from inside out, with yourself at the center! Now break up that circle into quarters, starting from due North; each quarter measures 90 degrees, equal to the distance between each cardinal direction! It measures 90 degrees between due North and due East, and a full 180 degrees along the horizon between due North and due South. Now, switch from a horizontal circle to a vertical one, extending above and below your head. Look straight above your head: this point is called the zenith, the highest point in the sky. Now look down toward the horizon; it measures 90 degrees from the zenith to the horizon. You now have some basic measurements for your sky.

Use a combination of your fingers held at arm’s length, along with notable objects in the night sky, to make smaller measurements. A full Moon measures about half a degree in width – or 1/2 of your pinky finger, since each pinky measures 1 degree. The three stars of Orion’s Belt create a line about 3 degrees long. The famed “Dig Dipper” asterism is a great reference for Northern Hemisphere observers, since it’s circumpolar and visible all night for many. The Dipper’s “Pointer Stars,” Dubhe and Merak, have 5.5 degrees between them – roughly three middle fingers wide. The entire asterism stretches 25 degrees from Dubhe to Alkaid – roughly the space between your outstretched thumb and pinky. On the other end of the scale, can you split Mizar and Alcor? They are separated by 12 arc minutes – about 1/5 the width of your pinky.

Keep practicing to build advanced star-hopping skills. How far away is Polaris from the pointer stars of the Big Dipper? Between Spica and Arcturus? Missions like Gaia and Hipparcos measure tiny differences in the angular distance between stars, at an extremely fine level. Precise measurement of the heavens is known as astrometry. Discover more about how we measure the universe, and the missions that do so, at nasa.gov.

Image created with assistance from Stellarium

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November 19, 2021 — Partial Lunar Eclipse

Friday   November 19, 2021 — Partial Lunar Eclipse

Information by time and date.com

Sioux Falls on November 19, 2021, we will witness a partial lunar eclipse, click the link above “time and date.com” for start and end times.

The partial lunar eclipse will start at midnight and end at 600am on Friday November 19,2021

date and time.com lunar eclipse information

Graphic above from timeandate.com showing times for Sioux Falls, SD.

 

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NASA Night Sky Notes October 2021

NASA Night Sky Notes October 2021

This article is distributed by NASA Night Sky Network

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

Weird Ways to Observe the Moon

David Prosper

 

International Observe the Moon Night is on October 16 this year– but you can observe the Moon whenever it’s up, day or night! While binoculars and telescopes certainly reveal incredible details of our neighbor’s surface, bringing out dark seas, bright craters, and numerous odd fissures and cracks, these tools are not the only way to observe details about our Moon. There are more ways to observe the Moon than you might expect, just using common household materials.

Put on a pair of sunglasses, especially polarized sunglasses! You may think this is a joke, but the point of polarized sunglasses is to dramatically reduce glare, and so they allow your eyes to pick out some lunar details! Surprisingly, wearing sunglasses even helps during daytime observations of the Moon.

One unlikely tool is the humble plastic bottle cap! John Goss from the Roanoke Valley Astronomical Society shared these directions on how to make your own bottle cap lunar viewer, which was also suggested to him by Fred Schaaf many years ago as a way to also view the thin crescent of Venus when close to the Sun:

“The full Moon is very bright, so much that details are overwhelmed by the glare. Here is an easy way to see more! Start by drilling a 1/16-inch (1.5 mm) diameter hole in a plastic soft drink bottle cap. Make sure it is an unobstructed, round hole.  Now look through the hole at the bright Moon. The image brightness will be much dimmer than normal – over 90% dimmer – reducing or eliminating any lunar glare. The image should also be much sharper because the bottle cap blocks light from entering the outer portion of your pupil, where imperfections of the eye’s curving optical path likely lie.” Many report seeing a startling amount of lunar detail!

You can project the Moon! Have you heard of a “Sun Funnel”? It’s a way to safely view the Sun by projecting the image from an eyepiece to fabric stretched across a funnel mounted on top. It’s easy to make at home, too – directions are here: bit.ly/sunfunnel. Depending on your equipment, a Sun Funnel can view the Moon as well as the Sun– a full Moon gives off more than enough light to project from even relatively small telescopes. Large telescopes will project the full Moon and its phases, with varying levels of detail; while not as crisp as direct eyepiece viewing, it’s still an impressive sight! You can also mount your smartphone or tablet to your eyepiece for a similar Moon-viewing experience, but the funnel doesn’t need batteries.

Of course, you can join folks in person or online for a celebration of our Moon on October 16, with International Observe the Moon Night – find details at moon.nasa.gov/observe. NASA has big plans for a return to the Moon with the Artemis program, and you can find the latest news on their upcoming lunar explorations at nasa.gov.

sun funnels

Sun Funnels in action! Starting clockwise from the bottom left, a standalone Sun Funnel; attached to a small refractor to observe the transit of Mercury in 2019; attached to a large telescope in preparation for evening lunar observing; projection of the Moon onto a funnel from a medium-size scope (5 inches).

Safety tip: NEVER use a large telescope with a Sun Funnel to observe the Sun, as they are designed to project the Sun using small telescopes only. Some eager astronomers have melted their Sun Funnels, and parts of their own telescopes, by pointing them at the Sun – large telescopes create far too much heat, sometimes within seconds! However, large instruments are safe and ideal for projecting the much dimmer Moon. Small telescopes can’t gather enough light to decently project the Moon, but larger scopes will work.

You can download and print NASA’s observer’s map of the Moon for International Observe the Moon Night! This map shows the view from the Northern Hemisphere on October 16 with the seas labeled, but you can download both this map and one of for Southern Hemisphere observers, at: bit.ly/moonmap2021 The maps contain multiple pages of observing tips, not just this one.

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NASA Night Sky Notes September 2021

NASA Night Sky Notes September 2021

This article is distributed by NASA Night Sky Network

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

Catch Andromeda Rising

David Prosper

If you’re thinking of a galaxy, the image in your head is probably the Andromeda Galaxy! Studies of this massive neighboring galaxy, also called M31, have played an incredibly important role in shaping modern astronomy. As a bonus for stargazers, the Andromeda Galaxy is also a beautiful sight.

Have you heard that all the stars you see at night are part of our Milky Way galaxy? While that is mostly true, one star-like object located near the border between the constellations of Andromeda and Cassiopeia appears fuzzy to unaided eyes. That’s because it’s not a star, but the Andromeda Galaxy, its trillion stars appearing to our eyes as a 3.4 magnitude patch of haze. Why so dim? Distance! It’s outside our galaxy, around 2.5 million light years distant – so far away that the light you see left M31’s stars when our earliest ancestors figured out stone tools. Binoculars show more detail: M31’s bright core stands out, along with a bit of its wispy, saucer-shaped disc. Telescopes bring out greater detail but often can’t view the entire galaxy at once. Depending on the quality of your skies and your magnification, you may be able to make out individual globular clusters, structure, and at least two of its orbiting dwarf galaxies: M110 and M32. Light pollution and thin clouds, smoke, or haze will severely hamper observing fainter detail, as they will for any “faint fuzzy.” Surprisingly, persistent stargazers can still spot M31’s core from areas of moderate light pollution as long as skies are otherwise clear.

Modern astronomy was greatly shaped by studies of the Andromeda Galaxy. A hundred years ago, the idea that there were other galaxies beside our own was not widely accepted, and so M31 was called the “Andromeda Nebula.” Increasingly detailed observations of M31 caused astronomers to question its place in our universe – was M31 its own “island universe,” and not part of our Milky Way? Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis engaged in the “Great Debate” of 1920 over its nature. Curtis argued forcefully from his observations of dimmer than expected nova, dust lanes, and other oddities that the “nebula” was in fact an entirely different galaxy from our own. A few years later, Edwin Hubble, building on Henrietta Leavitt’s work on Cepheid variable stars as a “standard candle” for distance measurement, concluded that M31 was indeed another galaxy after he observed Cepheids in photos of Andromeda, and estimated M31’s distance as far outside our galaxy’s boundaries. And so, the Andromeda Nebula became known as the Andromeda Galaxy.

These discoveries inspire astronomers to this day, who continue to observe M31 and many other galaxies for hints about the nature of our universe. One of the Hubble Space Telescope’s longest-running observing campaigns was a study of M31: the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury (PHAT): bit.ly/m31phat . Dig into NASA’s latest discoveries about the Andromeda Galaxy, and the cosmos at large, at nasa.gov.

Spot the Andromeda Galaxy! M31’s more common name comes from its parent constellation, which becomes prominent as autumn arrives in the Northern Hemisphere. Surprising amounts of detail can be observed with unaided eyes from dark sky sites. Hints of it can even be made out from light polluted areas. Image created with assistance from Stellarium

While M31’s disc appears larger than you might expect (about 3 Moon widths wide), its “galactic halo” is much, much larger – as you can see here. In fact, it is suspected that its halo is so huge that it may already mingle with our Milky Way’s own halo, which makes sense since our galaxies are expected to merge sometime in the next few billion years! The dots are quasars, objects located behind the halo, which are the very energetic cores of distant galaxies powered by black holes at their center. The Hubble team studied the composition of M31’s halo by measuring how the quasars’ light was absorbed by the halo’s material.  Credits: NASA, ESA, and E. Wheatley (STScI)  Source: https://bit.ly/m31halo

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NASA Night Sky Notes July 2021

NASA Night Sky Notes July 2021

This article is distributed by NASA Night Sky Network

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

Observe the Milky Way and Great Rift

David Prosper

Summer skies bring glorious views of our own Milky Way galaxy to observers blessed with dark skies. For many city dwellers, their first sight of the Milky Way comes during trips to rural areas – so if you are traveling away from city lights, do yourself a favor and look up!

To observe the Milky Way, you need clear, dark skies, and enough time to adapt your eyes to the dark. Photos of the Milky Way are breathtaking, but they usually show far more detail and color than the human eye can see – that’s the beauty and quietly deceptive nature of long exposure photography. For Northern Hemisphere observers, the most prominent portion of the Milky Way rises in the southeast as marked by the constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius. Take note that, even in dark skies, the Milky Way isn’t easily visible until it rises a bit above the horizon and the thick, turbulent air which obscures the view. The Milky Way is huge, but is also rather faint, and our eyes need time to truly adjust to the dark and see it in any detail. Try not to check your phone while you wait, as its light will reset your night vision. It’s best to attempt to view the Milky Way when the Moon is at a new or crescent phase; you don’t want the Moon’s brilliant light washing out any potential views, especially since a full Moon is up all night.

Keeping your eyes dark adapted is especially important if you want to not only see the haze of the Milky Way, but also the dark lane cutting into that haze, stretching from the Summer Triangle to Sagittarius. This dark detail is known as the Great Rift, and is seen more readily in very dark skies, especially dark, dry skies found in high desert regions. What exactly is the Great Rift? You are looking at massive clouds of galactic dust lying between Earth and the interior of the Milky Way. Other “dark nebulae” of cosmic clouds pepper the Milky Way, including the famed Coalsack, found in the Southern Hemisphere constellation of Crux. Many cultures celebrate these dark clouds in their traditional stories along with the constellations and Milky Way.

Where exactly is our solar system within the Milky Way? Is there a way to get a sense of scale? The “Our Place in Our Galaxy” activity can help you do just that, with only birdseed, a coin, and your imagination: bit.ly/galaxyplace. You can also discover the amazing science NASA is doing to understand our galaxy – and our place in it – at nasa.gov.

 

The Great Rift is shown in more detail in this photo of a portion of the Milky Way along with the bright stars of the Summer Triangle. You can see why it is also called the “Dark Rift.” Credit: NASA / A.Fujii

If the Milky Way was shrunk down to the size of North America, our entire Solar System would be about the size of a quarter. At that scale, the North Star, Polaris – which is about 433 light years distant from us – would be 11 miles away! Find more ways to visualize these immense sizes with the Our Place in Our Galaxy activity: bit.ly/galaxyplace

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International SUNday June 20th, 2021

International SUNday is a once a year worldwide outreach event to celebrate the Sun and the Summer Solstice. It will be celebrated on the June 20th, 2021 Summer Solstic. 

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What’s In the Sky This Month? JUNE 2021 From High Point Scientific

High Point Scientific has just published this months What’s In the Sky for June 2021.

You can read it here Whats In the Sky – June 2021

 

M101 – The Pinwheel Galaxy

Plus night time planets.

 

 

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