Category Archives: Astronomy

Sky at a Glance April 20 – 27

Photo showing location of the constellation Corona Borealis between Arcturus and Vega.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 April 20 – 27 ~by Curt Nason

One third of the way from Arcturus to Vega is a pretty semicircle of stars that makes up Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. In the middle of the semicircle is the constellation’s brightest star, called Gemma (jewel) or Alphecca (bright star of the broken ring), among other names. A few years ago the International Astronomical Union started approving official names for stars, and Alphecca was chosen over Gemma.

Some ancient societies regarded Corona Borealis as a begging bowl, and in local aboriginal legend it is the cave from which the bear (the bowl of the Big Dipper) emerges in spring. In Greek mythology it was a crown worn by Bacchus, the god of wine, who lived on the island of Naxos. Theseus, an Athenian prince, went to Crete as part of a group of youth who were to be placed in the labyrinth as food for the Minotaur. With the aid of Ariadne, the beautiful daughter of King Minos, Theseus slew the Minotaur and found his way out of the labyrinth. In love with Ariadne, he took her aboard to sail back to Athens. They stopped at Naxos where Bacchus also fell in love with Ariadne, and he made Theseus leave without her. To prove his love and his godliness to the skeptical Ariadne, he tossed the crown into the sky as a symbol of her beauty. Immortality and a lifetime supply of wine, who could pass that up?

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 6:24 am and sunset will occur at 8:12 pm, giving 13 hours, 48minutes of daylight (6:30 am and 8:16 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 6:12 am and set at 8:21 pm, giving 14 hours, 9 minutes of daylight (6:19 am and 8:25 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is near Jupiter on Tuesday, Saturn on Thursday, and it is at third quarter on Friday, April 26. Mars and Jupiter are in opposite ends of the sky this week, with Mars setting and Jupiter rising around 1 am. Saturn is a hand span to the left of Jupiter, with both being well-placed for observing as morning twilight begins. Venus and Mercury remain about a binocular width apart, rising less than an hour before sunrise. Uranus is in conjunction on Monday, and on Monday evening or early Tuesday morning you might catch a few extra meteors emanating from near the bright star Vega as the Lyrid meteor shower peaks.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance April 13 – 20

Photo showing the location of Spica in the constellation Virgo

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 April 13 – 20 ~by Curt Nason

As the Sun is setting this week, Spica is rising in the east. This blue giant star is the brightest in the constellation Virgo the Maiden, and the 14th brightest star of the night sky. It is usually located by following the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle to Arcturus and driving a spike to Spica. With Arcturus in Boötes and Regulus (or dimmer Denebola) in Leo, it forms the Spring Triangle. If you toss in Cor Coroli in Canes Venatici, below the handle of the Big Dipper, you get the Spring Diamond.

Spica represents an ear of wheat in the hand of Virgo. In Greek mythology she was Demeter, the goddess of wheat or agriculture (Ceres in Roman mythology). The Sun passes through this constellation in harvest time, and it is in the head of Virgo at the autumnal equinox. Virgo is the second largest of the 88 constellations in terms of area of sky, trailing only Hydra the Water Snake. Coincidentally, it also trails Hydra in the sky, which can be seen stretching below Leo.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 6:37 am and sunset will occur at 8:03 pm, giving 13 hours, 26minutes of daylight (6:43 am and 8:07 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 6:24 am and set at 8:12 pm, giving 13 hours, 48 minutes of daylight (6:30 am and 8:16 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at its best for April observing this weekend and it is full on Good Friday, April 19. Mars is near Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus and which marks the Bull’s eye. This gives us a good opportunity to compare their brightness and colour. Jupiter rises by 1 am and is at its best for observing before dawn. Saturn is a hand span to Jupiter’s lower left, while Venus and Mercury are about a binocular width apart rising less than an hour before sunrise.

There will be public observing in Hampton at the Dutch Point Road entrance to Dutch Point Park on Friday, April 12 at sunset, with a cloud date of April 13. RASC NB, the provincial astronomy club, meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre on Saturday, April 13 at 1 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance April 6 – 13

photo showing location of the Coma Star Cluster

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 April 6 – 13 ~by Curt Nason

The constellation Coma Berenices, or Berenice’s Hair, is midway up in the eastern sky at 10 pm this week, between the tail of Leo the Lion and kite-shaped Boötes. It is the only constellation with a mythological tale based on a real person. In the fourth century BC, King Ptolemy Soter of Egypt went to war against Assyria. His worried wife Berenice made a vow to the goddess Aphrodite that she would sacrifice her beautiful locks if he returned safely. He did return and she kept her vow against his wishes. When he visited the temple the next day he discovered the hair had been stolen, and he threatened to kill the temple priests. The court astronomer claimed that Zeus had taken the hair and placed it in the sky for all to admire, and that night he showed Ptolemy a cluster of stars.

The Coma Star Cluster, also called Melotte 111, can be seen with the naked eye in rural areas, and fills the field of view in binoculars. At one time it was considered to be the tuft of Leo’s tail. The area of sky encompassed by Coma Berenices and its surrounding constellations is called the Realm of the Galaxies. The galactic north pole lies within this constellation, perpendicular to the dusty disc of our Milky Way Galaxy. When we look in this direction the paucity of interstellar dust allows us to see deeper into space and observe other galaxies many dozens of light years away.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 6:50 am and sunset will occur at 7:54 pm, giving 13 hours, 4minutes of daylight (6:55 am and 7:58 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 6:37 am and set at 8:03 pm, giving 13 hours, 26 minutes of daylight (6:43 am and 8:07 pm in Saint John).

A very slim crescent Moon will appear in the west after sunset this weekend, looking like a smile in the sky with the cusps or horns pointing almost straight up. It is at first quarter next Friday and is near the Beehive star cluster in Cancer the following evening. Jupiter and Saturn dominate the morning sky until Venus rises an hour before the Sun comes up. Jupiter is stationary on Wednesday, beginning its four-month long westward movement against the stars. Mercury is at its greatest elongation from the Sun on Thursday, about a binocular width to the lower left of Venus. Mars continues its slide between the Pleaides and Hyades star clusters in the evening sky all week.

The Saint John Astronomy Club meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretative Centre on Saturday, April 6 at 7 pm, and the RASC NB provincial astronomy club meets in the same location at 1 pm on the following Saturday. Also, club members will be having a public observing event in Hampton at the Dutch Point Road entrance to the park on Friday, April 12 at sunset, with a cloud date of April 13. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance March 30 – April 6

Location of the bright star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes in the eastern night sky.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 March 30 – April 6 ~by Curt Nason

The spring star is springing up in the east these evenings. Arcturus is the fourth, or third, brightest star in the sky and the second brightest we can see from New Brunswick. It is just a tad brighter than Vega, the summer star, which rises around 9:30 pm this weekend. The winter star, Sirius, sets after midnight and Capella, the autumn star, never sets in southern New Brunswick. The discrepancy over whether Arcturus is third or fourth brightest depends on how you define it. Alpha Centauri, in the southern hemisphere, appears brighter but it is a close double star – too close to split with the naked eye – and Arcturus is brighter than either but not both.

Arcturus anchors the constellation Boötes (bo-oh-teez) the Herdsman, and the star’s name means “bear driver.” Boötes is seen chasing the two bears, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, around the celestial North Pole. To many people the constellation resembles a tie, a kite or an ice cream cone. The head of the herdsman, at the tip of the constellation opposite Arcturus, is the star Nekkar, which sounds somewhat like necktie.

Halfway between Arcturus and the hind leg of Ursa Major is the star Cor Coroli in Canes Venatici the Hunting Dogs. Use binoculars to look for a fuzzy patch halfway between Arcturus and Cor Coroli. This is a globular cluster called M3, the third entry in Charles Messier’s 18th century catalogue of things that resemble a comet but aren’t. This cluster contains half a million stars at a distance of 34,000 light years, nearly a thousand times farther than Arcturus.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:03 am and sunset will occur at 7:44 pm, giving 12 hours, 41minutes of daylight (7:08 am and 7:49 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 6:50 am and set at 7:54 pm, giving 13 hours, 4 minutes of daylight (6:55 am and 7:58 pm in Saint John).

The waning crescent Moon is a few degrees below Venus, and nine degrees to the right of Mercury, in twilight on Tuesday, and it is new on Friday. Saturn is a hand span to the lower left of bright Jupiter, with the pair straddling the Teapot asterism of Sagittarius. Mercury rises 50 minutes before sunrise but due to its low altitude you will require binoculars and luck to see it. Mars slides between the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters in the evening sky this week. Use Mars and the Pleiades as a guide to view the zodiacal light angling up from the western horizon about an hour after sunset. You will need a clear, dark sky to see this phenomenon of sunlight reflecting off dust along the ecliptic.

The Saint John Astronomy Club meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre on April 6 at 7 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance March 23 – 30

Photo showing some of the constellations beginning with the letter "C" in the night sky.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 March 23 – 30 ~by Curt Nason

Around 1930 the International Astronomical Union finalized the official constellations and their boundaries to cover the entire sky. Oddly, 22 of those 88 constellations begin with the letter “C.” Around 9 pm we can see 11 of those and parts of three others, so rather than deep sea fishing let’s go high C hunting. Starting in the west we might catch the head of Cetus the Whale before it sets, and toward the south Columba the Dove hugs the horizon. Meanwhile, Cygnus the Swan flaps a wing above the northern horizon for it never sets completely for us.

Higher in the north the house of Cepheus the King is upright for a change. To his west we see the W-shape of his wife, Cassiopeia the Queen, and above them we might have to strain to see Camelopardalis the Giraffe. Looking southwest, to the left of Orion are his faithful big and little dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor. Barely visible above the little dog is Cancer the Crab, nestled nicely between Gemini and Leo. In the southeast we have Corvus the Crow and Crater the Cup, both of which piggyback on Hydra. Tailing Leo high in the east is Coma Berenices, the locks of distressed Queen Berenice II of Egypt, and dogging Ursa Major is Canes Venatici the Hunting Dogs. Finally, lower in the east, we see the Northern Crown, Corona Borealis.

This episode of Sky at a Glance was brought to you by the letter C and the number 14. As you find each C constellation, count out loud like the Count (One! That’s one C constellation, ah ha ha!), and for each one you find you can reward yourself with … COOKIE!

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:16 am and sunset will occur at 7:35 pm, giving 12 hours, 19 minutes of daylight (7:22 am and 7:40 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:03 am and set at 7:44 pm, giving 12 hours, 41 minutes of daylight (7:08 am and 7:49 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at third quarter on Thursday, passing near Jupiter the day before and Saturn the day after. Throughout the week we see Venus, Saturn and Jupiter stretching from the east across a third of the sky before sunrise. Mercury rises 45 minutes before sunrise midweek but you will require binoculars and luck to see it. By the end of the week Mars will be within a binocular view below the Pleaides star cluster in the evening sky. Use Mars and the Pleaides as a guide to view the zodiacal light angling up from the western horizon about an hour after sunset. You will need a clear, dark sky to see this phenomenon of sunlight reflecting off dust along the ecliptic.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance March 16 – 23

The southern night sky on Saint Paddy's Day 2019

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 March 16 – 23 ~by Curt Nason

As darkness settles in this Sunday evening, and if you are able, go out and raise a glass to the southwest and toast the constellation Orion, the mighty sky-hunter who on this day signs his name as O’Ryan. And if you had dusted off an Irish Rovers record during the day, perhaps you will be hunting the sky for some animals in their signature tune written by Shel Silverstein, “The Unicorn.”

You will have no luck finding green alligators, chimpanzees, rats and elephants. Cygnus the Swan is waving part of one wing above the northern horizon, hoping to be picked for a long necked goose. If you check it out in the morning there is a faint constellation below its head called Vulpecula the Fox. Nineteenth century star maps depicted the fox with a goose in its mouth and the constellation was labelled as Vulpecula and Anser. There is no humpy back camel, either, but there is the large and faint Camelopardalis in the seemingly blank sky between Polaris and bright Capella in the northwest. The name means camel-leopard or giraffe.

Cats? Well, there is Leo the Lion in the east, tiny Leo Minor between it and Ursa Major, and elusive Lynx above Ursa Major. Hardly the loveliest of all, Monoceros the Unicorn is to the left of Orion, sandwiched between his bright dog stars Sirius and Procyon. Like Camelopardalis, Lynx and Leo Minor, Monoceros was imaginatively created within the past four centuries to fill in a blank area and requires a dark sky to trace its shape. A drop of the pure might help your imagination but not your eyesight. Happy Saint Paddy’s Day.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:30 am and sunset will occur at 7:26 pm, giving 11 hours, 56 minutes of daylight (7:35 am and 7:31 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:16 am and set at 7:35 pm, giving 12 hours, 19 minutes of daylight (7:22 am and 7:40 pm in Saint John). At 6:58 pm on Wednesday, March 20, the Sun crosses Earth’s equator to begin spring in the northern hemisphere. The day when we are closest to having exactly 12 hours of sunlight is actually March 17.

The Moon is full on Wednesday, less than four hours after the equinox. Throughout the week we see Venus, Saturn and Jupiter stretching from the east across a third of the sky before sunrise. For 45 minutes beginning at 6:05 Monday morning, a telescope or maybe even binoculars will show an oddity at Jupiter. Only one of its four large moons will be visible until one of them emerges from behind the planet. The other two are in transit, passing across the face of Jupiter. Mars edges toward the Pleaides star cluster in the evening sky, and beginning late in the week we once again have a two-week opportunity to view the zodiacal light reaching from the western horizon toward Mars about an hour after sunset.

The March meeting of RASC NB, the provincial astronomy club, will be held at Moncton High School on March 16 at 1 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance March 9 – 16

Location of the constellation Columba the Dove under the bright star Sirius in the southern night sky.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 March 9 – 16 ~by Curt Nason

This week we will take the path less travelled to pick out a few of the more obscure constellations in our sky. If you don’t have a clear view to the south or if you are cursed by light pollution in that direction, they will be obscure to the point of invisibility. Around 9 pm, cast your eyes toward Sirius in Canis Major, the Big Dog. If you can’t see that star, the brightest in the sky, then go back inside and read a book.

Hugging the horizon below Sirius you might detect a Y-shaped group of stars that forms Columba the Dove. This is one of the later constellations, created a century after Christopher Columbus made his first voyage, and it was meant to depict a dove sent by another famous sailor called Noah. It could also be the dove released by yet another famous sailor, Jason of the Argonauts fame, to gauge the speed of the Clashing Rocks of the Symplegades. The dove lost some tail feathers and the Argo lost a bit of its stern.

There is a good case to be made for this interpretation. To the left of Columba, rising past the rear end of Canis Major, is the upper part of Puppis the Stern. It was once part of a much larger constellation called Argo Navis, Jason’s ship, which has been disassembled to form Puppis, Vela the Sails and Carina the Keel. To the left of Puppis is a vertical line of three stars forming Pyxis, the (Mariner’s) Compass, and some say it once formed the mast of Argo Navis. At its highest it does point roughly north-south.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 6:43 am and sunset will occur at 6:16 pm, giving 11 hours, 33 minutes of daylight (6:48 am and 6:21 pm in Saint John). With the change to Daylight Time at 2:00 am this Sunday, next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:30 am and set at 7:26 pm, giving 11 hours, 56 minutes of daylight (7:35 am and 7:31 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at first quarter on Thursday, making this a great week for lunar observing. Throughout the week we see Venus, Saturn and Jupiter nearly equally spaced along the shallow morning ecliptic of spring. All three are moving slowly eastward relative to the stars, with Saturn’s motion being the slowest. Mars is zipping through the constellation Aries in the evening sky, whereas Mercury is at inferior conjunction on Thursday and will become a difficult morning target in the ensuing weeks.

RASC NB members will be holding a re-scheduled public observing event at the Kouchibouguac Park Visitor Centre on Friday, March 8 from 7:30 to 9:30 pm. The William Brydone Jack Astronomy Club meets in the UNB Fredericton Forestry-Earth Sciences building on March 12 at 7 pm. The March meeting of RASC NB, the provincial astronomy club, will be held at Moncton High School on March 16 at 1 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance March 2 – 9

Photo showing the location of two large (and long) constellations: Eridanus the River flowing from Orion's foot, and Hydra the female Water Snake whose head is opposite Orion to the east.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 March 2 – 9 ~by Curt Nason

Two of the largest constellations are seen in the southwest and southeast around mid-evening. Eridanus the River flows from Rigel in Orion’s foot to the lower right, and then makes a sharp curve to the left before disappearing below the horizon. It doesn’t end there; it extends at least the same distance southward to terminate at Achernar, the ninth brightest star in the sky. Achernar, of course, means “the river’s end.” The star near Rigel is named Cursa, which means “the footstool.” In terms of square degrees of sky, Eridanus is the sixth largest constellation. It has been associated with many earthly rivers but most often with the Po River in Italy, which the Greeks called Eridanos.

Hydra the female Water Snake rises out of the southeast, with its head reaching as high as Orion’s. A smaller constellation called Hydrus the male Water Snake is near Achernar and is never seen from New Brunswick. Hydra is the largest of the 88 constellations and one of the longest. If you consider the horizon as the ocean surface, and if you have all night, you can picture Hydra leaping completely out of the water and disappearing in a giant belly flop. Its brightest star, Alphard the “solitary one,” just makes the top 50 in terms of brightness. In mythology the Hydra was a multi-headed creature slain by Hercules as his second labour.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 6:56 am and sunset will occur at 6:06 pm, giving 11 hours, 10 minutes of daylight (7:01 am and 6:12 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 6:43 am and set at 6:16 pm, giving 11 hours, 33 minutes of daylight (6:48 am and 6:21 pm in Saint John). Sadly, for some, this is the last week of Standard Time. The later sunset times make it more difficult to perform outreach observing for youth groups and elementary schools.

The Moon is new on Wednesday and the slim crescent sits 8 degrees left of Mercury in evening twilight on Thursday. Mars is zipping through the constellation Aries and in a month it will pass between the Pleaides and Hyades star clusters. By the end of the week, Venus, Saturn and Jupiter will be nearly equally spaced along the shallow morning ecliptic.

The Saint John Astronomy Club meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre on March 2 at 7 pm. Also, RASC NB members will be holding a public observing event at the Kouchibouguac Park Visitor Centre on March 2 from 7:30 to 9:30 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance February 23 – March 2

Photo showing locations of the beautiful open clusters M44 (The Beehive) in Cancer and Melotte 111 (Coma Star Cluster) in Coma Berenices.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 February 23 – March 2 ~by Curt Nason

Winter is open cluster season for stargazers; star clusters that have formed from the same vast cloud of gas and dust and that usually hang around together for half a billion years. They are also called galactic clusters because these vast clouds typically appear in the spiral arms of our galaxy, and in winter we are looking toward a spiral arm opposite the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. Two of these, the Pleaides (M45) and the Hyades, form the shoulder and face of Taurus the Bull and they are bright enough to be seen within urban areas. Other clusters are visible to the naked eye but require a clear sky with minimal light pollution.

One of those objects is the Beehive star cluster (M44) in the constellation Cancer the Crab, which lies between Gemini and Leo. The Beehive is a large glowing patch of haze and its many stars fill the view in a telescope, but large clusters like this are appreciated best with binoculars. In times long past the cluster was used as a storm predictor. It would be one of the first objects to disappear when the light clouds that often precede a weather system would move in.

The Coma Star Cluster, or Melotte 111, lies in the constellation Coma Berenices, between the tail of Leo and Canes Venatici the Hunting Dogs. It is a large, somewhat sparse cluster that spills beyond the view of most binoculars, and centuries ago it was regarded as the tuft of Leo’s tail. The other one, or two, is the Double Cluster between Perseus and Cassiopeia. This pair fits within the view of a low power telescope eyepiece, but binoculars give a better perspective. Following a nearby string of stars with binos will bring you to the Stock 2 star cluster, less spectacular but delightful to observe.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:09 am and sunset will occur at 5:56 pm, giving 10 hours, 47 minutes of daylight (7:11 am and 6:04 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 6:56 am and set at 6:06 pm, giving 11 hours, 10 minutes of daylight (7:01 am and 6:12 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at third quarter on Tuesday and it is near Jupiter the following day. Venus pulls away from Saturn in the morning sky, while Jupiter rules over the wee hours until Venus gets out of bed. Mercury is at greatest elongation east of the Sun on Tuesday, sitting high to the left of the sunset point and an easy naked-eye target. Look for a subtle cone of light stretching from the horizon toward Mars, about 45-90 minutes after sunset. Caused by sunlight reflecting off dust within the ecliptic, seeing the zodiacal light requires a clear sky untainted by light pollution.

The provincial astronomy club, RASC NB, meets on February 23 at 1 pm in UNB Fredericton Forestry – Earth Sciences building. The Saint John Astronomy Club meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre on March 2 at 7 pm. Also, RASC NB members will be holding a public observing event at the Kouchibouguac Park Visitor Centre on March 2 from 7:30 to 9:30 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance February 16 – 23

The constellation Puppis, in the southern night sky to the left of Sirius and Canis Major.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 February 16 – 23 ~by Curt Nason

By the time I was ten I had been into astronomy for a year or two, thanks in part to a fascination with mythology. That summer I suffered through advertisements for the movie Jason and the Argonauts, knowing I wouldn’t get to Saint John to see it and it likely wouldn’t get to the Vogue theatre in McAdam for 20 years. Twenty years later the Vogue was closed and I was living in Saint John, but I finally saw the movie after buying the VHS tape. Throughout the year I get to see some of the tale in the constellations.

One of the 48 constellations in Ptolemy’s second century star chart was Argo Navis, the ship that carried the Argonauts to their adventures. The constellation was large, too large for the astronomers who designated the 88 constellations that now fill our sky, and they broke it up into three: Carina the Keel, Vela the Sails, and Puppis the Poop Deck or Stern. The first is below our southern horizon and just the tip of the sails rises, but a good chunk of Puppis is seen on winter evenings. It is the stars just behind the tail of Orion’s big dog, Canis Major, and perhaps that is why it is called the poop deck. Nicolaus Louis de Lacaille, an 18th century astronomer, had unofficially dismantled Argo Navis into these constellations and made the ship’s mast into the constellation of Pyxis, the Compass.

Some of the Argonauts are also in the sky, particularly Hercules, who is rising around midnight, and the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux. Also present are the musician Orpheus, represented by his harp Lyra, and the healer Asclepius who is depicted by Ophiuchus. The Golden Fleece, which the Argonauts sought, is represented in the sky by Aries the Ram. Draco is sometimes regarded as the vigilant dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:20 am and sunset will occur at 5:46 pm, giving 10 hours, 26 minutes of daylight (7:24 am and 5:52 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:09 am and set at 5:56 pm, giving 10 hours, 47 minutes of daylight (7:11 am and 6:04 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is near the Beehive star cluster (M44) on late Sunday evening, and it is at perigee on Tuesday just nine hours before being opposite the Sun in the sky. Being imperceptibly larger as the closest full Moon of the year, it is most noticeable in the extent of the Bay of Fundy tides over the following two days. Over the first half of the week, Venus slides above and to the left of Saturn in the morning sky, stealing attention away from Jupiter to their upper right. Mercury starts to make its presence known in the early evening, setting 80 minutes after the Sun midweek in its best evening apparition for the year. Starting late in the week, and for the next two weeks, look for a subtle cone of light stretching from the horizon toward Mars, about 45-90 minutes after sunset. Caused by sunlight reflecting off dust within the ecliptic, seeing the zodiacal light requires a clear sky untainted by light pollution.

Conditions permitting, the annual Moonlight Snowshoe Hike and stargazing at Sheldon Point barn in Saint John takes place on February 16 at 7 pm. The provincial astronomy club, RASC NB, meets on February 23 at 1 pm in UNB Fredericton Forestry – Earth Sciences building. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance February 9 – 16

The constellation Orion rising and reaching for the Moon.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 February 9 – 16 ~by Curt Nason

“Cold wind on the harbour and rain on the road, wet promise of winter brings recourse to coal.
There’s fire in the blood and a fog on Bras d’Or; the giant will rise with the Moon.”
(Giant, by Stan Rogers)

On Thursday afternoon this week the constellation Orion, mythological giant son of Poseidon, rises with the waxing gibbous Moon. We won’t see the constellation, of course, until evening twilight dwindles; but when he appears in the southeast be becomes a New York football star.

When the Moon is full or nearly so amateur astronomers can get a little grumpy because the moonlight washes out the faint galaxies, nebulae and comets. That is also when the Moon is less interesting to observe, but this time of year the nearly full Moon can play a role in some imaginative stargazing. On Thursday evening it is above Orion, looking like a football approaching his outstretched right hand. Will he catch it in the end zone and be a hero like Perseus, or miss it and be a goat like Capricornus? Unfortunately, they set before the big moment so we will have to wait for Friday evening to find out.

What if it is cloudy? Do what Stan Rogers recommends in his song: “Light a torch, bring a bottle and build the fire bright. The giant will rise with the Moon.”

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:31 am and sunset will occur at 5:35 pm, giving 10 hours, 4 minutes of daylight (7:34 am and 5:42 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:20 am and set at 5:46 pm, giving 10 hours, 26 minutes of daylight (7:24 am and 5:52 pm in Saint John).

The Moon swims below Mars on Sunday evening, is at first quarter on Tuesday, and passes through the V-shaped Hyades star cluster near Aldebaran on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Mars passes above Uranus midweek with the pair being closest, just two Moon-widths apart, on Wednesday. Toward the end of the week Mercury sets an hour after the Sun, entering its best evening apparition for the year. Venus is hoping to get a ring from Saturn for Valentine’s Day but she will have to wait until next week when the two planets meet up in the morning sky. Jupiter climbs higher in the sky each morning, claiming dominance until Venus rolls out of bed. In the late evening or very early morning during midweek you might catch comet C/2018 Y1 Iwamoto passing through the Sickle asterism of Leo above Regulus. Binoculars or a telescope and a dark sky are needed.

The Saint John Astronomy Clubs meets on February 9 at 7 pm in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre. The William Brydone Jack Astronomy Clubs meets on February 12 at 7 pm in UNB Fredericton Forestry – Earth Sciences building. The annual Moonlight Snowshoe Hike and stargazing event at Sheldon Point barn in Saint John takes place on February 16 at 7 pm.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance February 2 – 9

The early morning sky as it will appear on Groundhog Day 2019.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 February 2 – 9 ~by Curt Nason

Groundhog Day is on or near one of the cross-quarter days of the year, which lie halfway between a solstice and an equinox. Solstices are what we call the first days of summer and winter, when the sun rises and sets at its farthest points north and south. The name implies the sun is stationary, like a yo-yo that has reached the end of the string. Equinoxes occur when the sun rises due east and sets due west. Prior to the reformation of the calendar under Pope Gregory XIII, the spring equinox occurred on March 16, six weeks after February 2, hence the tongue-in-cheek prediction of the groundhog adopted in North America.

Pagan cultures celebrated the solstices and equinoxes and, always up for a party, the cross-quarter days as well. Many considered this day to be the start of spring, a reasonable belief in warmer climates than we enjoy. Bears emerging from their dens, ewes lactating prior to birthing, and the lengthening days were all signs that winter had been broken. Irish folk celebrated Imbolc at this time to honour the coming of the spring lambs.

Other cross-quarter days occur around the beginning of May, August and November, yielding such festivities as Walpurgis or May Day, and All Hallows Day with its more famous celebration of Halloween. The August quarter day has a related festival in Greece. For those who bemoan our long winters, take heart in knowing that our spring to autumn period is a week longer than autumn to spring. Earth is at its farthest from the sun in early July, therefore it travels more slowly in its orbit at that time.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:40 am and sunset will occur at 5:25 pm, giving 9 hours, 45 minutes of daylight (7:43 am and 5:32 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:31 am and set at 5:35 pm, giving 10 hours, 4 minutes of daylight (7:34 am and 5:42 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is near Saturn this Saturday morning and is new on Monday. Venus and Jupiter compete for attention in the morning, with Venus heading toward a rendezvous with Saturn in a couple of weeks. Mars holds its sunset position in the southwest, setting around 11:30 pm and awaiting some company from Mercury.

The Saint John Astronomy Clubs meets on February 9 at 7 pm in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance January 26 – February 2

Photo showing location of the constellation Lepus (the hare) under the feet of Orion in the southern night sky.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 January 26 – February 2
~by Curt Nason

With Groundhog Day coming up next weekend it would be nice to talk about the groundhog constellation, but there is none. Technically, no rodents have been so honoured, although the second brightest star in Gemini is called Castor, which is the genus of beavers. Wait a minute, what about…? Well, some time ago the cute bunnies decided they didn’t want to be associated with rodents and called themselves lagomorphs. So, at the risk of being attacked by the killer rabbit in Arthurian legend, we will celebrate the advent of Groundhog Day by focusing on Lepus the Hare.

By 9 pm Orion stands high in the southern sky while Lepus cowers below his feet, hoping to avoid detection by Orion’s larger canine companion to the east. I see the constellation as three vertical pairs of stars, with the brightest pair in the middle and the widest to the right. With a reasonably dark sky you can see the bunny ears between the widest pair and Orion’s brightest star, Rigel. If you extend the middle pair down an equal distance a small telescope will reveal a fuzzy patch called M79. This globular cluster is unusual in that it is in our winter sky, whereas most of the globulars are seen among the summer constellations. M79 could be part of another galaxy that is interacting with the Milky Way.

If you draw a line from the top of the middle pair to the top of the widest pair and extend it a little more than half that distance, a telescope might pick up Hind’s Crimson Star, one of the reddest stars in the sky. Its brightness varies by a factor of 300 over 14 months, with the red colour being most pronounced at its dimmest.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:48 am and sunset will occur at 5:15 pm, giving 9 hours, 27 minutes of daylight (7:51 am and 5:22 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:40 am and set at 5:25 pm, giving 9 hours, 45 minutes of daylight (7:43 am and 5:32 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at third quarter on Sunday and it is bracketed by Venus and Jupiter on Thursday. By the end of the week the two brightest planets will be ten degrees apart, with Venus heading toward a rendezvous with Saturn in a few weeks. Mercury is in superior conjunction on Tuesday, moving into its best evening apparition for the year in late February. Mars resembles a first magnitude red star in the southwest during the evening.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance January 19 – 26

The 2019 Lunar Eclipse near the Beehive Cluster on January 20 - 21.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 January 19 – 26 ~by Curt Nason

At the mercy of the weather, night-owl stargazers could be treated to a lunar eclipse beginning late Sunday evening. This is our first lunar eclipse since the Harvest Moon eclipse in September 2015, and we won’t get another until a deep partial eclipse in November 2021 and a total one in May 2022.

Although the Moon starts slipping into Earth’s dark shadow at 11:34 pm, look for subtle gray shading on the lunar surface beginning a half hour sooner. This is the penumbra, a lesser shadow created when Earth partly covers the Sun as seen from the Moon. From 11:34 pm to 12:41am the dark umbra will creep across the lunar surface toward totality. Note that the umbra appears on the left side, which indicates the Moon is moving eastward in its orbit rather than the westward motion we see as our planet rotates. Also, note the curvature of the shadow. Aristotle noticed this in the fourth century BC and correctly assumed it was because the Earth is spherical. Watch for more stars to appear as totality approaches and the sky darkens. The Beehive star cluster, also called the Praesepe and M44, will be just to the east of the Moon.

Totality lasts for 62 minutes, ending at 1:43 am. The Moon could take on a red or orange hue during totality, caused by our atmosphere acting like a lens and bending the red part of the sunlight moonward. Blue light is scattered more, right across our sky, which is why we see that colour on a clear day. You might also note that the top of the Moon is brighter than the bottom. The Moon passes above the centre of Earth’s shadow during this eclipse, so the top portion is farther from the deepest and darkest part of the umbra. From 1:43 you get to watch the partial phase play out in reverse over 67 minutes, followed by the fading of the penumbra.

Weather permitting, telescopes will be set up at Saints Rest Beach in Saint John and a live feed of the eclipse through a telescope will be broadcast via the Facebook page Astronomy by the Bay. The Physics and Astronomy Department at the Université de Moncton plans to host a talk and eclipse observing. Attendance is limited but the tickets are free.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:54 am and sunset will occur at 5:05 pm, giving 9 hours, 11 minutes of daylight (7:57 am and 5:12 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:48 am and set at 5:15 pm, giving 9 hours, 27 minutes of daylight (7:51 am and 5:22 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is full and somewhat brick-coloured very early on Monday morning, the traditional Wolf Moon and the Mi’gmaw Tom Cod Moon. The two brightest planets make a striking pair in the morning sky; with Venus being a binocular width above Jupiter on Saturday and about the same distance to the left of Jupiter by next Saturday. Saturn might be spotted in twilight a hand span to their lower left. Mars resembles a first magnitude red star in the southwest during the evening.

RASC NB, the provincial astronomy club, meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre on January 19 at 1 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance January 12 – 19

Photo of the winter constellations accompanied by some interesting distance to Earth comparisons in the post.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 January 12 – 19 ~by Curt Nason

Looking at a constellation it is easy to imagine its component stars as being fairly close together in space, as if it is an actual body. Let us look at two prominent winter constellations to see if that is true. Surely the three stars of Orion’s Belt are almost equidistant; at first glance they appear to be almost equally bright. Alnitak, the left star, is 1260 light years (ly) away, 60 ly farther than Mintaka on the right. Alnilam, the middle star, is much farther at 2000 ly. Orion must have a lumpy belly. Saiph and bright Rigel, marking Orion’s feet or knees, are reasonably equidistant at 650 ly and 860 ly, respectively. In the giant hunter’s shoulders orange Betelgeuse is about 600 ly away and Bellatrix is 250 ly.

Following the belt to the lower left we arrive at Canis Major, the Big Dog, with brilliant Sirius at its heart. Sirius is the brightest star of the night sky and the closest naked-eye star we can see in New Brunswick at 8.6 ly (only 82 trillion kilometres), which is the main reason it is the brightest. If Rigel were that close it would be about as bright as the quarter Moon. Adhara, in the dog’s rear leg, is the 23rd brightest star and 430 ly away, Wezen in the dog’s butt is 1600 ly, and the tail star Aludra is 2000 ly distant. Obviously, the constellations are just chance alignments of stars from our viewpoint. The distances cited here are taken from Wikipedia, but other sources could vary significantly as stellar distances are difficult to determine precisely. This is an update of an article I wrote two years ago and most of the values have changed.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:59 am and sunset will occur at 4:56 pm, giving 8 hours, 57 minutes of daylight (8:01 am and 5:03 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:54 am and set at 5:05 pm, giving 9 hours, 11 minutes of daylight (7:57 am and 5:12 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at first quarter on Monday and it sits to the left of Aldebaran after sunset on Thursday. Jupiter lies nine degrees to the lower left of Venus this Saturday; watch them close the gap by half over the week. Mercury meets up with Saturn in the morning sky this weekend but they will be difficult to observe, rising just half an hour before the Sun. Mars resembles a first magnitude red star in the southwest during the evening.

There will be public observing at Moncton High School Observatory on Friday, January 11 from 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm. RASC NB, the provincial astronomy club, meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretative Center on January 19 at 1 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.