NASA Night Sky Notes November 2022

NASA Night Sky Notes November 2022

This article is distributed by NASA’s Night Sky Network (NSN). The NSN program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

Cepheus: A House Fit for a King
David Prosper Continue reading

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International Observe the Night Saturday Oct 1, 2022

International Observe the Night will be held Saturday October 1, 2022.  Some presenter will have live views while others will have actual telescopes set up to view the moon.  You can download a map of the moon from. NASA website at NASA Moon Map

Or follow International Observe the Night at their Facebook page at : Observe the Moon Face Book

 

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NASA Night Sky Notes October 2022

NASA Night Sky Notes October 2022

This article is distributed by NASA’s Night Sky Network (NSN). The NSN program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

Fomalhaut: Not So Lonely After All

David Prosper

 Fall evenings bring a prominent visitor to southern skies for Northern Hemisphere observers: the bright star Fomalhaut! Sometimes called “The Autumn Star,” Fomalhaut appears unusually distant from other bright stars in its section of sky, leading to its other nickname: “The Loneliest Star.” Since this star appears so low and lonely over the horizon for many observers, is so bright, and often wildly twinkles from atmospheric turbulence, Fomalhaut’s brief but bright seasonal appearance often inspires a few startled UFO reports. While definitely out of this world – Fomalhaut is about 25 light years distant from us – it has been extensively studied and is a fascinating, and very identified, stellar object.

Fomalhaut appears solitary, but it does in fact have company. Fomalhaut’s entourage includes two stellar companions, both of which keep their distance but are still gravitationally bound. Fomalhaut B (aka TW Piscis Austrini, not to be confused with former planetary candidate Fomalhaut b*), is an orange dwarf star almost a light year distant from its parent star (Fomalhaut A), and Fomalhaut C (aka LP 876-10), a red dwarf star located a little over 3 light years from Fomalhaut A! Surprisingly far from its parent star – even from our view on Earth, Fomalhaut C lies in the constellation Aquarius, while Fomalhaut A and B lie in Piscis Australis, another constellation! – studies of Fomalhaut C confirm it as the third stellar member of the Fomalhaut system, its immense distance still within Fomalhaut A’s gravitational influence. So, while not truly “lonely,” Fomalhaut A’s companions do keep their distance.

Fomalhaut’s most famous feature is a massive and complex disc of debris spanning many billions of miles in diameter. This disc was first detected by NASA’s IRAS space telescope in the 1980s, and first imaged in visible light by Hubble in 2004. Studies by additional advanced telescopes, based both on Earth’s surface and in space, show the debris around Fomalhaut to be differentiated into several “rings” or “belts” of different sizes and types of materials. Complicating matters further, the disc is not centered on the star itself, but on a point approximately 1.4 billion miles away, or half a billion miles further from Fomalhaut than Saturn is from our own Sun! In the mid-2000s a candidate planetary body was imaged by Hubble and named Fomalhaut b. However, Fomalhaut b was observed to slowly fade over multiple years of observations, and its trajectory appeared to take it out of the system, which is curious behavior for a planet. Scientists now suspect that Hubble observed the shattered debris of a recent violent collision between two 125-mile wide bodies, their impact driving the remains of the now decidedly non-planetary Fomalhaut b out of the system! Interestingly enough, Fomalhaut A isn’t the only star in its system to host a dusty disc; Fomalhaut C also hosts a disc, detected by the Herschel Space Observatory in 2013. Despite their distance, the two stars may be exchanging material between their discs – including comets! Their co-mingling may help to explain the elliptical nature of both of the stars’ debris discs. The odd one out, Fomalhaut B does not possess a debris disc of its own, but may host at least one suspected planet.

While Hubble imaged the infamous “imposter planet” of Fomalhaut b, very few planets have been directly imaged by powerful telescopes, but NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will soon change that. In fact, Webb will be imaging Fomalhaut and its famous disc in the near future, and its tremendous power is sure to tease out more amazing discoveries from its dusty grains.  You can learn about the latest discoveries from Webb and NASA’s other amazing missions at nasa.gov.

*Astronomers use capital letters to label companion stars, while lowercase letters are used to label planets.

Sky map of the southern facing sky for mid-latitude Northern Hemisphere observers. With Fomalhaut lying so low for many observers, its fellow member stars in the constellation Piscis Australis won’t be easily visible for many without aid due to a combination of light pollution and atmospheric extinction (thick air dimming the light from the stars). Fomalhaut is by far the brightest star in its constellation, and is one of the brightest stars in the night sky. While the dim constellations of Aquarius and Capricorn may also not be visible to many without aid, they are outlined here. While known as the “Loneliest Star,” you can see that Fomalhaut has two relatively close and bright visitors this year: Jupiter and Saturn!

Illustration created with assistance from Stellarium

 

The magnificent and complex dust disc of the Fomalhaut system (left) with the path and dissolution of former planetary candidate Fomalhaut b displayed in detail (right).

Image credits: NASA, ESA, and A. Gáspár and G. Rieke (University of Arizona) Source: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2020/exoplanet-apparently-disappears-in-latest-hubble-observations

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NASA Night Sky Notes September 2022

NASA Night Sky Notes September 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!

The Summer Triangle’s Hidden Treasures

David Prosper

 

September skies bring the lovely Summer Triangle asterism into prime position after nightfall for observers in the Northern Hemisphere. Its position high in the sky may make it difficult for some to observe its member stars comfortably, since looking straight up while standing can be hard on one’s neck! While that isn’t much of a problem for those that just want to quickly spot its brightest stars and member constellations, this difficulty can prevent folks from seeing some of the lesser known and dimmer star patterns scattered around its informal borders. The solution? Lie down on the ground with a comfortable blanket or mat, or grab a lawn or gravity chair and sit luxuriously while facing up. You’ll quickly spot the major constellations about the Summer Triangle’s three corner stars: Lyra with bright star Vega, Cygnus with brilliant star Deneb, and Aquila with its blazing star, Altair. As you get comfortable and your eyes adjust, you’ll soon find yourself able to spot a few constellations hidden in plain sight in the region around the Summer Triangle: Vulpecula the Fox, Sagitta the Arrow, and Delphinus the Dolphin! You could call these the Summer Triangle’s “hidden treasures” – and they are hidden in plain sight for those that know where to look!

Vulpecula the Fox is located near the middle of the Summer Triangle, and is relatively small, like its namesake. Despite its size, it features the largest planetary nebula in our skies: M27, aka the Dumbbell Nebula! It’s visible in binoculars as a fuzzy “star” and when seen through telescopes, its distinctive shape can be observed more readily – especially with larger telescopes. Planetary nebulae, named such because their round fuzzy appearances were initially thought to resemble the disc of a planet by early telescopic observers, form when stars similar to our Sun begin to die. The star will expand into a massive red giant, and its gasses drift off into space, forming a nebula. Eventually the star collapses into a white dwarf – as seen with M27 – and eventually the colorful shell of gasses will dissipate throughout the galaxy, leaving behind a solitary, tiny, dense, white dwarf star. You are getting a peek into our Sun’s far-distant future when you observe this object!

Sagitta the Arrow is even smaller than Vulpecula – it’s the third smallest constellation in the sky! Located between the stars of Vulpecula and Aquila the Eagle, Sagitta’s stars resemble its namesake arrow. It too contains an interesting deep-sky object: M71, an unusually small and young globular cluster whose lack of a strong central core has long confused and intrigued astronomers. It’s visible in binoculars, and a larger telescope will enable you to separate its stars a bit more easily than most globulars; you’ll certainly see why it was thought to be an open cluster!

Delicate Delphinus the Dolphin appears to dive in and out of the Milky Way near Aquilla and Sagitta! Many stargazers identify Delphinus as a herald of the fainter water constellations, rising in the east after sunset as fall approaches. The starry dolphin appears to leap out of the great celestial ocean, announcing the arrival of more wonderful sights later in the evening.

Want to hunt for more treasures? You’ll need a treasure map, and the Night Sky Network’s “Trip Around the Triangle” handout is the perfect guide for your quest! Download one before your observing session at bit.ly/TriangleTrip. And of course, while you wait for the Sun to set – or skies to clear – you can always find out more about the objects and science hidden inside these treasures by checking out NASA’s latest at nasa.gov.

Search around the Summer Triangle to spot some of its hidden treasures! To improve readability, the lines for the constellations of Aquilla, Lyra, and Cygnus have been removed, but you can find a map which includes them in our previous article, Spot the Stars of the Summer Triangle, from August 2019. These aren’t the only wonderful celestial sights found around its borders; since the Milky Way passes through this region, it’s littered with many incredible deep-sky objects for those using binoculars or a telescope to scan the heavens. Image created with assistance from Stellarium: stellarium.org

M71 as seen by Hubble. Your own views very likely won’t be as sharp or close as this. However, this photo does show the cluster’s lack of a bright, concentrated core, which led astronomers until fairly recently to classify this unusual cluster as an “open cluster” rather than as a “globular cluster.” Studies in the 1970s proved it to be a globular cluster after all  – though an unusually young and small one! Credit ESA/Hubble and NASA. Source: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2017/messier-71

 

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NASA Night Sky Notes August 2022

NASA Night Sky Notes August 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!

Artemis 1: A Trip Around the Moon – and Back!

David Prosper

 We are returning to the Moon – and beyond! Later this summer, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission will launch the first uncrewed flight test of both the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft on a multi-week mission. Orion will journey thousands of miles beyond the Moon, briefly entering a retrograde lunar orbit before heading back to a splashdown on Earth.

The massive rocket will launch from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The location’s technical capabilities, along with its storied history, mark it as a perfect spot to launch our return to the Moon. The complex’s first mission was Apollo 10 in 1968, which appropriately also served as a test for a heavy-lift launch vehicle (the Saturn V rocket) and lunar spacecraft: the Apollo Command and Service Modules joined with the Lunar Module. The Apollo 10 mission profile included testing the Lunar Module while in orbit around the Moon before returning to the Earth. In its “Block-1” configuration, Artemis 1’s SLS rocket will take off with 8.8 million pounds of maximum thrust, even greater than the 7.6 millions pounds of thrust generated by the legendary Saturn V, making it the most powerful rocket in the world!

Artemis 1 will serve not only as a test of the SLS and the Orion hardware, but also as a test of the integration of ground systems and support personnel that will ensure the success of this and future Artemis missions. While uncrewed, Artemis-1 will still have passengers of a sort: two human torso models designed to test radiation levels during the mission, and “Commander Moonikin Campos,” a mannequin named by the public. The specialized mannequin will also monitor radiation levels, along with vibration and acceleration data from inside its mission uniform: the Orion Crew Survival Suit, the spacesuit that future Artemis astronauts will wear. The “Moonikin” is named after Arturo Campos, a NASA electrical engineer who played an essential role in bringing Apollo 13’s crew back to Earth after a near-fatal disaster in space.

The mission also contains other valuable cargo for its journey around the Moon and back, including CubeSats, several space science badges from the Girl Scouts, and microchips etched with 30,000 names of workers who made the Artemis-1 mission possible. A total of 10 CubeSats will be deployed from the Orion Stage Adapter, the ring that connects the Orion spacecraft to the SLS, at several segments along the mission’s path to the Moon. The power of SLS allows engineers to attach many secondary “ride-along” mission hardware like these CubeSats, whose various missions will study plasma propulsion, radiation effects on microorganisms, solar sails, Earth’s radiation environment, space weather, and of course, missions to study the Moon and even the Orion spacecraft and its Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS)!

If you want to explore more of the science and stories behind both our Moon and our history of lunar exploration, the Night Sky Network’s Apollo 11 at 50 Toolkit covers a ton of regolith: bit.ly/nsnmoon! NASA also works with people and organizations around the world coordinating International Observe the Moon Night, with 2022’s edition scheduled for Saturday, October 1: moon.nasa.gov/observe. Of course, you can follow the latest news and updates on Artemis 1 and our return to the Moon at nasa.gov/artemis-1

 

Follow along as Artemis 1 journeys to the Moon and back! A larger version of this infographic is available from NASA at: nasa.gov/image-feature/artemis-i-map

 

Full Moon over Artemis-1 on July 14, 2022, as the integrated Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft await testing. Photo credit: NASA/Cory Huston  Source: https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/a-full-moon-over-artemis/

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NASA Night Sky Notes July 2022

NASA Night Sky Notes July 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!

Find Hercules and His Mighty Globular Clusters

David Prosper

Hercules is one of the standout heroes of Greek mythology, but his namesake constellation can be surprisingly hard to find – despite being one of the largest star patterns in our night skies! Once you find the stars of Hercules, look deeper; barely hidden in the space around his massive limbs and “Keystone” asterism are two beautiful globular star clusters: M13 and M92!

Since the constellation itself is relatively dim but bordered by brighter constellations, you can find the stars of Hercules by looking between the bright stars Vega and Arcturus. They are fairly easy to identify, and we have tips on how to do so in previous articles. Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra and one of the three stars that make up the Summer Triangle (June 2020: Summer Triangle Corner: Vega). Arcturus is the brightest star in the constellation Boötes, and can be found by “arcing to Arcturus” from the handle of the Big Dipper (May 2021: Virgo’s Galactic Harvest).  You may be able to Hercules’s “Keystone” asterism first; this distinct pattern of four stars is traditionally shown as the torso of the great hero, though some illustrators prefer marking the Keystone as the head of Hercules. What pattern do you see in the stars of Hercules?

Globular star clusters appear “fluffy,” round, and dense with stars, similar to a dandelion gone to seed, in contrast to the more scattered and decentralized patterns of open clusters. Open clusters are generally made up of young stars that are gradually spreading apart and found inside our Milky Way galaxy, while globular clusters are ancient clusters of stars that are compact, billions of years old, bound to each other and orbit around our galaxy. Due to their considerable distance, globular clusters are usually only visible in telescopes, but one notable exception is M13, also known as the Great Cluster or Hercules Cluster. During very clear dark nights, skilled observers may be able to spot M13 without optical aid along the border of the Keystone, in between the stars Zeta and Eta Herculis – and a bit closer to Eta. Readily visible as a fuzzy “star” in binoculars, in telescopes M13 explodes with stars and can fill up an eyepiece view with its sparkling stars, measuring a little over half the diameter of a full Moon in appearance!  When viewed through small telescopes, globular clusters can appear orblike and without discernable member stars, similar in appearance to the fuzzy comae of distant comets. That’s why comet hunters Edmund Halley and Charles Messier discovered and then catalogued M13, in 1714 and 1764 respectively, marking this faint fuzzy as a “not-comet” so as to avoid future confusion.

While enjoying your view of M13, don’t forget to also look for M92! This is another bright and bold globular cluster, and if M13 wasn’t so spectacular, M92 would be known as the top celestial sight in Hercules. M92 also lies on the edge of naked-eye visibility, but again, binoculars and especially a telescope are needed to really make it “pop.” Even though M92 and M13 appear fairly close together in the sky, in actuality they are rather far apart: M13’s distance is estimated at about 25,000 light years from Earth, and M92’s at approximately 27,000 light years distant. Since M13 and M92 appear so close together in our skies and relatively easy to spot, switching between these two clusters in your scope makes for excellent star-hopping practice. Can you observe any differences between these two ancient clusters of stars?

Globular clusters are closely studied by astronomers for hints about the formation of stars and galaxies. The clusters of Hercules have even been studied by NASA’s space telescopes to reveal the secrets of their dense cores of hundreds of thousands of stars. Find their latest observations of globular clusters – and the universe – at nasa.gov.

Composite image of the dense starry core of M92 imaged in multiple wavelengths. While your own views of these globular clusters won’t be nearly as crisp and detailed, you might be able to count some of its member stars. How far into their dense cores can you count individual stars?  Credits: ESA/Hubble & NASA; Acknowledgment: Gilles Chapdelaine. Source: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2017/messier-92

Look up after sunset during summer months to find Hercules!  Scan between Vega and Arcturus, near the distinct pattern of Corona Borealis. Once you find its stars, use binoculars or a telescope to hunt down the globular clusters M13 and M92. If you enjoy your views of these globular clusters, you’re in luck – look for another great globular, M3, in the nearby constellation of Boötes. Image created with assistance from Stellarium: stellarium.org

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NASA Night Sky Notes June 2022

NASA Night Sky Notes June 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!

Solstice Shadows

David Prosper

Solstices mark the changing of seasons, occur twice a year, and feature the year’s shortest and longest daylight hours – depending on your hemisphere. These extremes in the length of day and night make solstice days more noticeable to many observers than the subtle equality of day and night experienced during equinoxes. Solstices were some of our earliest astronomical observations, celebrated throughout history via many summer and winter celebrations.

Solstices occur twice yearly, and in 2022 they arrive on June 21 at 5:13 am EDT (9:13 UTC), and December 21 at 4:48pm EST (21:48 UTC). The June solstice marks the moment when the Sun is at its northernmost position in relation to Earth’s equator, and the December solstice marks its southernmost position. The summer solstice occurs on the day when the Sun reaches its highest point at solar noon for regions outside of the tropics, and those observers experience the longest amount of daylight for the year. Conversely, during the winter solstice, the Sun is at its lowest point at solar noon for the year and observers outside of the tropics experience the least amount of daylight- and the longest night – of the year. The June solstice marks the beginning of summer for folks in the Northern Hemisphere and winter for Southern Hemisphere folks, and in December the opposite is true, as a result of the tilt of Earth’s axis of rotation. For example, this means that the Northern Hemisphere receives more direct light from the Sun than the Southern Hemisphere during the June solstice. Earth’s tilt is enough that northern polar regions experience 24-hour sunlight during the June solstice, while southern polar regions experience 24-hour night, deep in Earth’s shadow. That same tilt means that the Earth’s polar regions also experience a reversal of light and shadow half a year later in December, with 24 hours of night in the north and 24 hours of daylight in the south. Depending on how close you are to the poles, these extreme lighting conditions can last for many months, their duration deepening the closer you are to the poles.

While solstice days are very noticeable to observers in mid to high latitudes, that’s not the case for observers in the tropics – areas of Earth found between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Instead, individuals experience two “zero shadow” days per year. On these days, with the sun directly overhead at solar noon, objects cast a minimal shadow compared to the rest of the year. If you want to see your own shadow at that moment, you have to jump! The exact date for zero shadow days depends on latitude; observers on the Tropic of Cancer (23.5° north of the equator) experience a zero shadow day on the June solstice, and observers on the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5° south of the equator) get their zero shadow day on December’s solstice. Observers on the equator experience two zero shadow days, being exactly in between these two lines of latitude; equatorial zero shadow days fall on the March and September equinoxes.

There is some serious science that can be done by carefully observing solstice shadows. In approximately 200 BC, Eratosthenes is said to have observed sunlight shining straight down the shaft of a well during high noon on the solstice, near the modern-day Egyptian city of Aswan. Inspired, he compared measurements of solstice shadows between that location and measurements taken north, in the city of Alexandria. By calculating the difference in the lengths of these shadows, along with the distance between the two cities, Eratosthenes calculated a rough early estimate for the circumference of Earth – and also provided further evidence that the Earth is a sphere!

Are you having difficulty visualizing solstice lighting and geometry? You can build a “Suntrack” model that helps demonstrate the path the Sun takes through the sky during the seasons; find instructions at stanford.io/3FY4mBm. You can find more fun activities and resources like this model on NASA Wavelength: science.nasa.gov/learners/wavelength. And of course, discover the latest NASA science at nasa.gov.

These images from NASA’s DSCOVR mission shows the Sun-facing side of Earth during the December 2018 solstice (left) and June 2019 solstice (right). Notice how much of each hemisphere is visible in each photo; December’s solstice heavily favors the Southern Hemisphere and shows all of South America and much of Antarctica and the South Pole, but only some of North America. June’s solstice, in contrast, heavily favors the Northern Hemisphere and shows the North Pole and the entirety of North America, but only some of South America.

Credit: NASA/DSCOVR EPIC   Source: https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2021/summer-solstice-in-the-northern-hemisphere

A presenter from the San Antonio Astronomy Club in Puerto Rico demonstrating some Earth-Sun geometry to a group during a “Zero Shadow Day” event.  As Puerto Rico lies a few degrees south of the Tropic of Cancer, their two zero shadow days arrive just a few weeks before and after the June solstice. Globes are a handy and practical way to help visualize solstices and equinoxes for large outdoor groups, especially outdoors during sunny days!

Credit & Source: Juan Velázquez / San Antonio Astronomy Club

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NASA Night Sky Notes May 2022

NASA Night Sky Notes May 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!

Night Lights: Aurora, Noctilucent Clouds, and the Zodiacal Light

David Prosper

Have you spotted any “night lights”? These phenomena brighten dark skies with celestial light ranging from mild to dazzling: the subtle light pyramid of the zodiacal light, the eerie twilight glow of noctilucent clouds, and most famous of all, the wildly unpredictable and mesmerizing aurora.

Aurora, often referred to as the northern lights (aurora borealis) or southern lights (aurora australis), can indeed be a wonderful sight, but the beautiful photos and videos shared online are often misleading. For most observers not near polar latitudes, auroral displays are relatively rare and faint, and without much structure, more gray than colorful, and show up much better in photos. However, geomagnetic storms can create auroras that dance and shift rapidly across the skies with several distinct colors and appear to observers much further away from the poles – on very rare occasions even down to the mid-latitudes of North America! Geomagnetic storms are caused when a magnetic storm on our Sun creates a massive explosion that flings a mass of particles away from its surface, known as a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). If Earth is in the path of this CME, its particles interact with our planet’s magnetic field and result in auroral displays high up in our ionosphere. As we enter our Sun’s active period of its 11-year solar cycle, CMEs become more common and increase the chance for dazzling displays! If you have seen any aurora, you can report your sighting to the Aurorasaurus citizen science program at aurorasaurus.org

Have you ever seen wispy clouds glowing an eclectic blue after sunset, possibly towards your west or northwest? That wasn’t your imagination; those luminescent clouds are noctilucent clouds (also called Polar Mesospheric Clouds (PMC)). They are thought to form when water vapor condenses around ‘seeds’ of dust from vaporized meteorites – along with other sources that include rocket launches and volcanic eruptions – around 50 miles high in the mesosphere. Their glow is caused by the Sun, whose light still shines at that altitude after sunset from the perspective of ground-based observers. Noctilucent clouds are increasing both in frequency and in how far south they are observed, a development that may be related to climate change. Keeping in mind that observers closer in latitude to the poles have a better chance of spotting them, your best opportunity to spot noctilucent clouds occurs from about half an hour to two hours after sunset during the summer months. NASA’s AIM mission studies these clouds from its orbit high above the North Pole: go.nasa.gov/3uV3Yj1

You may have seen the zodiacal light without even realizing it; there is a reason it’s nicknamed the “false dawn”! Viewers under dark skies have their best chance of spotting this pyramid of ghostly light a couple of hours after sunset around the spring equinox, or a couple of hours before dawn around the autumnal equinox. Unlike our previous two examples of night lights, observers closer to the equator are best positioned to view the zodiacal light! Long known to be reflected sunlight from interplanetary dust orbiting in the plane of our solar system, these fine particles were thought to originate from comets and asteroids. However, scientists from NASA’s Juno mission recently published a fascinating study indicating a possible alternative origin: dust from Mars! Read more about their serendipitous discovery at: go.nasa.gov/3Onf3kN

Curious about the latest research into these night lights? Find news of NASA’s latest discoveries at nasa.gov

Comet NEOWISE flies high above a batch of noctilucent clouds in this photo from Wikimedia contributor Brwynog.

License and source CC BY-SA 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Comet_Neowise_and_noctilucent_clouds.jpg

 The zodiacal light extends into the Pleiades, as seen in the evening of March 1, 2021 above Skull Valley. Utah. The Pleiades star cluster (M45) is visible near the top. Credit and source:: NASA/Bill Dunford .https://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc/51030289967

 

A sampling of some of the various patterns created by aurora, as seen from Iceland in 2014. The top row photos were barely visible to the unaided eye and were exposed for 20-30 seconds; in contrast, the bottom row photos were exposed for just 4 seconds- and were clearly visible to the photographer, Wikimedia contributor Shnuffel2022.

License and source: CC BY-SA 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aurora_shapes.jpg

 

 

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NASA Night Sky Notes April 2022

NASA Night Sky Notes April 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!

Springtime Catspotting: Lynx and Leo Minor

David Prosper

 

Many constellations are bright, big, and fairly easy to spot. Others can be surprisingly small and faint, but with practice even these challenging star patterns become easier to discern. A couple of fun fainter constellations can be found in between the brighter stars of Ursa Major, Leo, and Gemini: Lynx and Leo Minor, two wild cats hunting among the menagerie of animal-themed northern star patterns!

Lynx, named for the species of wild cat, is seen as a faint zigzag pattern found between Ursa Major, Gemini, and Auriga. Grab a telescope and try to spot the remote starry orb of globular cluster NGC 2419. As it is so distant compared to other globular clusters – 300,000 light years from both our solar system and the center of the Milky Way – it was thought that this cluster may be the remnants of a dwarf galaxy consumed by our own. Additional studies have muddied the waters concerning its possible origins, revealing two distinct populations of stars residing in NGC 2419, which is unusual for normally-homogenous globular clusters and marks it as a fascinating object for further research.

Leo Minor is a faint and diminutive set of stars. Its “triangle” is most noticeable, tucked in between Leo and Ursa Major. Leo Minor is the cub of Leo the Lion, similar to Ursa Minor being the cub to the Great Bear of Ursa Major. While home to some interesting galaxies that can be observed from large amateur scopes under dark skies, perhaps the most intriguing object found within Leo Minor’s borders is Hanny’s Voorwerp. This unusual deep-space object is thought to be a possible “light echo” of a quasar in neighboring galaxy IC 2497 that has recently “switched off.” It was found by Hanny van Arkel, a Dutch schoolteacher, via her participation in the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project. Since then a few more intriguing objects similar to Hanny’s discovery have been found, called “Voorwerpjes.”

Lynx and Leo Minor are relatively “new” constellations, as they were both created by the legendarily sharp-eyed European astronomer Johannes Hevelius in the late 1600s. A few other constellations originated by Hevelius are still in official use: Canes Venatici, Lacerta, Scutum, Sextans, and Vulpecula. What if your eyes aren’t quite as sharp as Johannes Hevelius – or if your weather and light pollution make searching for fainter stars more difficult than enjoyable? See if you can spot the next Voorwerp by participating in one of the many citizen science programs offered by NASA at science.nasa.gov/citizenscience! And of course, you can find the latest updates and observations of even more dim and distant objects at nasa.gov.

Map of the sky around Lynx and Leo Minor. Notice the prevalence of animal-themed constellations in this area, making it a sort of celestial menagerie. If you are having difficulty locating the fainter stars of Leo Minor and Lynx, don’t fret; they are indeed a challenge. Hevelius even named the constellation as reference to the quality of eyesight one needs in order to discern these faint stars, since supposedly one would need eyes as sharp as a Lynx to see it! Darker skies will indeed make your search easier; light pollution, even a relatively bright Moon, will overwhelm the faint stars for both of these celestial wildcats. While you will be able to see NGC 2419 with a backyard telescope, Hanny’s Voorwerp is far too faint, but its location is still marked. A few fainter constellation labels and diagrams in this region have been omitted for clarity.

Image created with assistance from Stellarium

Hanny’s Voorwerp and the neighboring galaxy IC 2497, as imaged by Hubble. Credits: NASA, ESA, W. Keel (University of Alabama), and the Galaxy Zoo Team   Source: hubblesite.org/contents/news-releases/2011/news-2011-01.html

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NASA Night Sky Notes March 2022

NASA Night Sky Notes March 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!

Embracing the Equinox

David Prosper

Depending on your locale, equinoxes can be seen as harbingers of longer nights and gloomy weather, or promising beacons of nicer temperatures and more sunlight. Observing and predicting equinoxes is one of the earliest skills in humanity’s astronomical toolkit. Many ancient observatories around the world observed equinoxes along with the more pronounced solstices. These days, you don’t need your own observatory to know when an equinox occurs, since you’ll see it marked on your calendar twice a year! The word “equinox” originates from Latin, and translates to equal (equi-) night (-nox). But what exactly is an equinox?

An equinox occurs twice every year, in March and September. In 2022, the equinoxes will occur on March 20, at exactly 15:33 UTC (or 11:33 am EDT), and again on September 23, at 01:04 UTC (or September 22 at  9:04 pm EDT). The equinox marks the exact moment when the center of the Sun crosses the plane of our planet’s equator. The day of an equinox, observers at the equator will see the Sun directly overhead at noon. After the March equinox, observers anywhere on Earth will see the Sun’s path in the sky continue its movement further north every day until the June solstice, after which it begins traveling south. The Sun crosses the equatorial plane again during the September equinox, and continues traveling south until the December solstice, when it heads back north once again. This movement is why some refer to the March equinox as the northward equinox, and the September equinox as the southward equinox.

Our Sun shines equally on both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres during equinoxes, which is why they are the only times of the year when the Earth’s North and South Poles are simultaneously lit by sunlight. Notably, the length of day and night on the equinox aren’t precisely equal; the date for that split depends on your latitude, and may occur a few days earlier or later than the equinox itself. The complicating factors? Our Sun and atmosphere! The Sun itself is a sphere and not a point light source, so its edge is refracted by our atmosphere as it rises and sets, which adds several minutes of light to every day. The Sun doesn’t neatly wink on and off at sunrise and sunset like a light bulb, and so there isn’t a perfect split of day and night on the equinox – but it’s very close.

Equinoxes are associated with the changing seasons. In March, Northern Hemisphere observers welcome the longer, warmer days heralded by their vernal, or spring, equinox, but Southern Hemisphere observers note the shorter days – and longer, cooler nights – signaled by their autumnal, or fall, equinox. Come September, the reverse is true. Discover the reasons for the seasons, and much more, with NASA at nasa.gov

This (not to scale) image shows how our planet receives equal amounts of sunlight during equinoxes.

Credit: NASA/GSFC/Genna Duberstein

Scenes of Earth from orbit from season to season, as viewed by EUMETSAT. Notice how the terminator – the line between day and night – touches both the North and South Poles in the equinox images. See how the shadow is lopsided for each solstice, too: sunlight pours over the Northern Hemisphere for the June solstice, while the sunlight dramatically favors the Southern Hemisphere for the December solstice.

Source: bit.ly/earthequinox  Images: NASA/Robert Simmon

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