Category Archives: Astronomy

Sky at a Glance Feb 4 – 11

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, February 4 – 11 ~ 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 820 light years (ly) away, 100 ly closer than Mintaka on the right. Alnilam, the middle star, is about 50% farther at 1300 ly. Orion must have a lumpy belly. Saiph and bright Rigel, marking Orion’s feet or knees, are reasonably equidistant at 770 ly and 720 ly, respectively. In the giant hunter’s shoulders orange Betelgeuse is 430 ly and Bellatrix is 245 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 more than four times brighter than Venus. Adhara, in the dog’s rear leg, is the 23rd brightest star and at the same distance as Betelgeuse (tenth brightest). Wezen in the dog’s butt is 1800 ly, and the tail star Aludra is 3200 ly distant. Obviously, the constellations are just chance alignments of stars from our viewpoint.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:38 am and sunset will occur at 5:29 pm, giving 9 hours, 51 minutes of daylight (7:41 am and 5:36 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:28 am and set at 5:40 pm, giving 10 hours, 12 minutes of daylight (7:31 am and 5:46 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is full on Friday, February 10, with the added attraction of a subtle penumbral eclipse. A light gray shading could be detectable between 8 and 9:30 pm. For a total lunar eclipse, this is the shading you see before the Moon enters Earth’s shadow and after it leaves. This time, the Moon is passing just below the shadow. If you happen to be staying at the Luna Hilton that day you would see a partial eclipse of the Sun. This Sunday, as twilight darkens, look for the Moon passing near Aldebaran, the fiery eye star of Taurus the Bull.

Venus moves a couple of degrees further westward of Mars over the week, heading toward inferior conjunction in late March. Saturn is high enough in the southeast for decent observing by morning twilight, as is Jupiter in the southwest. On Monday Jupiter ceases its normal eastward motion relative to the stars and begins four months of retrograde motion that will carry it a fist-width west of Spica. It doesn’t really back up; that is our perspective as Earth laps Jupiter in their racetrack orbits.

The Saint John Astronomy Club meets on February 4 at 7 pm in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre. All are welcome. The annual Irving Nature Park snowshoe hike and telescope observing occurs Friday, February 10 at the Sheldon’s Point barn in Saint John. Visit the park Web site for details.

Questions? You can contact Curt Nason here.

Sky at a Glance Jan 28 – Feb 4

 
This Week’s Sky at a Glance, Jan 28 – Feb 4    ~ by Curt Nason

This might be a good week to pay attention to four lesser known constellations that were created a few centuries ago, by Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius, to fill in blank areas of the sky. You will need a clear sky with minimal light pollution, and even then you will likely see only a few of the stars in each. Look to the north around 7 pm and use the Big Dipper to locate Polaris, the North Star, halfway up our sky. It is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper and the two brightest stars of the bowl are below. If you can see the other four stars that complete the handle and bowl then you have a chance of locating these dim constellations.

Above Polaris and to the right of W-shaped Cassiopeia is a giraffe doing a headstand, but if you can see perhaps a large triangle and maybe a few scattered stars then you have spotted Camelopardalis. Hevelius imagined this as a camel with spots like a leopard, hence the odd name. A camel had been imagined here prior to Hevelius. To the left of Polaris is house-shaped Cepheus, with the peak of the roof not far from Polaris. Between Cepheus and the foreleg of Pegasus is a zigzag of faint stars that forms Lacerta the Lizard.

Now look to the right of the Big Dipper and pick out the three pairs of stars that stretch midway up the sky and form the feet of the Great Bear, Ursa Major. This trio of star pairs has been called the Three Leaps of the Gazelle. Between the middle pair and the sickle-shaped mane of Leo the Lion is a squashed triangle forming Leo Minor, the Little Lion. Finally, a long string of faint stars running from Leo Minor and across the front of the Great Bear toward Camelopardalis depicts the elusive constellation of Lynx. Imagination is a wonderful thing.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:46 am and sunset will occur at 5:19 pm, giving 9 hours, 33 minutes of daylight (7:49 am and 5:26 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:38 am and set at 5:29 pm, giving 9 hours, 51 minutes of daylight (7:41 am and 5:36 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at first quarter on Friday, February 3, giving great views through a scope from midweek through the weekend. It also provides the opportunity to check an item off your observing list. Late Tuesday morning the Moon passes four degrees (less than three finger-widths at arm’s length) south of Venus. Get them both in binoculars, and then try to see Venus with just your eyes in daylight. It is fairly easy when the sky is clear if you know where to look. The Moon passes by Mars that evening. By midweek Saturn is rising three hours before the Sun and two hours before Mercury. Jupiter rises around 11:30 pm and it is still well placed for viewing in the morning.

The Saint John Astronomy Club meets on February 4 at 7 pm in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre. All are welcome.

Questions? You can contact Curt Nason here.

Sky at a Glance Jan 21 – 28

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, January 21 – 28 ~ by Curt Nason

This time of year the brilliant winter constellations really catch the eye, but this is also a good time to revisit some favourites of the past season. If you have a good view to the north, go out before 7 pm to observe two of the best known asterisms in the sky. To the northwest the Northern Cross stands upright, with its base star Albireo about ready to set. The cross forms most of Cygnus the Swan, now making its signature dive into what I hope is an unfrozen lake. To the north, the Big Dipper stands on its handle. In a rural area you can probably see the rest of the stars that make up the Great Bear, Ursa Major. Does the bear appear to be dancing across the horizon on its hind legs? That brings back fond memories of watching Captain Kangaroo.

Stretching overhead are the autumn constellations of Cassiopeia, Andromeda and Perseus. When you are dressed in a snowsuit, a snow bank makes a comfortable surface for lying down and observing these constellations with binoculars. Look for a miniature version of Draco around the brightest star in Perseus, the galaxy M31 in Andromeda, and if you draw a line across the tips of Cassiopeia and extend it eastward by about the same distance you might chance upon Kemble’s Cascade, a string of about 20 stars. From a dark area, try to pick out the Milky Way running from Cygnus through Perseus and the feet of Gemini to Canis Major in the southeast.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:53 am and sunset will occur at 5:09 pm, giving 9 hours, 16 minutes of daylight (7:55 am and 5:16 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:46 am and set at 5:19 pm, giving 9 hours, 33 minutes of daylight (7:49 am and 5:26 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is new on Friday, January 27, giving dark skies for locating those fainter objects on your observing list. Mercury rises an hour after Saturn this weekend and an hour and a half before the Sun. With Mercury heading sunward, the gap between it and Saturn will increase steadily over the next several weeks. Jupiter still reigns over the morning sky as it rises around midnight this week. Venus moves to within five degrees of Mars in the evening sky by the end of the week.

RASC NB, the provincial astronomy club, meets for astronomy talks on January 21 at 1 pm in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre. All are welcome and free to attend.

Questions? You can contact Curt Nason here.

Sky at a Glance Jan 14 ~ 21

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, January 14 – 21 ~ by Curt Nason

Earlier this week I noticed a halo around the Moon on two nights. A clear evening sky in winter is always spectacular because several of the brightest stars are near Orion, and the early sunsets give us plenty of time to enjoy them if we don’t mind the cold. With a near full Moon in the area and the right weather conditions, the addition of a halo creates the risk of a frozen tongue as we stare open-mouthed at the scene. On Tuesday I noticed the halo was cutting Orion in half, with the belt just outside the circle.

Halos are caused by sunlight or bright moonlight shining through hexagonal ice crystals in the atmosphere. The light refracts, or bends, through two sides and leaves the crystal at an angle of 22 degrees from the direction it arrived. If we are looking at the Moon, we see that light at an angular distance of 22 degrees. This is about equal to a hand span at arm’s length, from thumb tip to the tip of your pinkie, barring any carpentry accidents. The ice crystals can form any time of year – it is cold up there – but conditions are most prevalent through winter. They are often colourful during daylight with the bright sunshine, but we need the near full Moon to reflect enough sunlight for a halo to be visible and then it is usually not bright enough to see colours. The full Moon is about 11 times brighter than it is at first quarter.

Seven of the 15 brightest stars are in or around Orion, forming the Winter Circle or Hexagon. If you like geometry, three of those also form the equilateral Winter Triangle. Those are orange Betelgeuse in Orion’s shoulder, plus Sirius and Procyon, the two Dog Stars. Betelgeuse is near the centre of the Winter Circle, surrounded by Sirius, Procyon, Pollux in Gemini, Capella in Auriga, Aldebaran in Taurus, and Rigel in Orion.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:58 am and sunset will occur at 4:59 pm, giving 9 hours, 1 minute of daylight (8:00 am and 5:07 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:53 am and set at 5:09 pm, giving 9 hours, 16 minutes of daylight (7:55 am and 5:16 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at third quarter on Thursday, rising just after midnight and setting a little before noon. Also on Thursday, Mercury reaches its greatest elongation from the Sun in the morning sky. Since you are up checking that out on Thursday, have a look at Jupiter with binoculars or a scope to see all four of its Galilean moons lined up on one side. Then try Saturn to the upper right of Mercury. Its rings are at their best viewing in more than a decade. A small scope will now show Venus in its half-lit phase, especially in evening twilight when the bright planet is less glaring. Orange Mars is less than 10 degrees east of Venus.

RASC NB, the provincial astronomy club meets on January 21 at 1 pm in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre. All are welcome and free to attend.

Questions? You can contact Curt Nason here.

Sky at a Glance Jan 7 – 14


This Week’s Sky at a Glance, January 7- January 14  ~by Curt Nason

Can you bear to be outside when it is raining cats and dogs? Or do you slither, sidle or hop back inside? If you have a clear, dark sky this week, check out the eastern sky around 10 pm to test your mettle and constellation hunting skills. There may be four dogs, three cats, two bears, a hare, a snake and a crab to greet you. Oh, and a unicorn if you believe in them.

Start looking toward the southeast where Orion is hunting. Below his feet is Lepus the Hare, staying immobile in hopes that Orion’s canine companions overlook him. Can you see the ears pointing to Rigel at Orion’s foot? Following Orion’s belt to the left brings you to sparkling Sirius at the heart of Canis Major the Big Dog, and it doesn’t take a great imagination to see a dog in this group of stars. Orion’s shoulders and head form an arrowhead that points toward bright Procyon, one of only a few visible stars in Canis Minor the Little Dog. Use your imagination to see Monoceros the Unicorn between the two dogs.

Now find the Big Dipper in the northeast. It forms the rear haunches and tail of Ursa Major the Big Bear, and from a rural area the legs and head of the bear can be seen easily. The two stars at the front of the bowl of the Dipper point northward to Polaris, the North Star, at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper, which is officially Ursa Minor the Little Bear. Below the handle of the Big Dipper are the two main stars and hounds of Canes Venatici the Hunting Dogs, seemingly nipping at the big bear’s butt.

Well below the bowl of the Big Dipper is Leo the Lion, recognized by the stellar backwards question mark of its chest and mane, with Regulus at its heart and a triangle forming its tail and hind legs. A faint triangle of stars between Leo and the Dipper is Leo Minor, the Little Lion. The third cat is Lynx, a faint line of stars running from Little Leo and past the front of Ursa Major. Between Regulus and Procyon is the head of Hydra the Water Snake, which will take much of the night to rise completely; and faint, crabby Cancer is above Hydra’s head. Stay warm and dry, and happy hunting.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 8:01 am and sunset will occur at 4:51 pm, giving 8 hours, 50 minutes of daylight (8:03 am and 4:59 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:58 am and set at 4:59 pm, giving 9 hours, 1 minute of daylight (8:00 am and 5:07 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is full on Thursday. I love to watch the full Moon setting in morning twilight this time of year. Also on Thursday, Venus reaches its greatest elongation from the Sun and passes just above Neptune. A small scope will now show Venus in its half-lit phase. Mars is less than 10 degrees east of Venus. In midweek Saturn rises two hours before the Sun and a half hour before Mercury. Jupiter rises less than an hour after midnight.

The Saint John Astronomy Club meets on January 7 at 7 pm in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre. The William Brydone Jack Astronomy Club in Fredericton meets on Tuesday at 7 pm in the UNB Forestry / Earth Sciences Building. All are welcome and free to attend.

Questions? You can contact Curt Nason here.

Sky at a Glance Dec 31 – Jan 7

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, Dec. 31–Jan. 7            ~by Curt Nason

Have you made a New Year’s resolution? I never make them but I do set astronomy goals such as the number of days I do observing, and spotting Mercury at least once in each of its six or seven apparitions during the year. In astronomy the word resolution has another meaning: seeing two closely paired objects as separate entities, most often used in reference to double stars. They can be naked eye, binocular or telescopic doubles, and resolving or “splitting” them is a popular challenge for stargazers.

Many of you have already tried splitting a naked-eye pair – the middle star in the handle of the Big Dipper. Under reasonable conditions most people can detect Alcor beside brighter Mizar after a few seconds of concentrated viewing. Doing so was once used as a test of visual acuity, an early eye chart, and the pair has been called “the horse and rider.”

Albireo, which marks the head of the swan in Cygnus, is a colourful double star that is split with binoculars. Their blue and yellow hues are seen more easily with the binoculars slightly out of focus. A favourite of mine is Nu Draconis, the faintest of the four stars in the head of the dragon, which resembles cat eyes or headlights in binoculars. In nearby Lyra we find another popular and challenging target. Beside the bright star Vega, and in line with the right side of the parallelogram that forms the body of the harp, is Epsilon Lyrae. To the eye it is a single star and with binoculars it is a pair, but with a good telescope and a steady sky each of that pair can be resolved as two stars, earning Epsilon the moniker “Double-Double.” This goes well with the constellation’s other highlight; the Ring Nebula (M57), which resembles a doughnut.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 8:02 am and sunset will occur at 4:44 pm, giving 8 hours, 42 minutes of daylight (8:04 am and 4:52 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 8:01 am and set at 4:51 pm, giving 8 hours, 50 minutes of daylight (8:03 am and 4:59 pm in Saint John). Earth is at perihelion mid-morning on Wednesday, when it is closest to the Sun for the year. The Supersun will appear 6% larger than it does in early July, but be safe and don’t look at it. If you really want to see a large Sun, wait for it to enter its red giant stage in several billion years.

The Moon is at first quarter on Thursday, giving great views in a scope later in the week. Mars takes centre stage in the solar system this week, passing very closely below Neptune on Saturday evening and remaining within a binocular view all week. A scope or hopefully binoculars should show them together this weekend. The Moon joins them early in the week, and Venus is not far away. Jupiter and Spica make an attractive couple in the morning sky. Early Tuesday the sometimes-active Quadrantid meteor shower is near its peak, shooting meteors from above the handle of the Big Dipper.

The Saint John Astronomy Club meets on January 7 at 7 pm in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre. All are welcome; no experience, telescope or money is necessary.

Questions? You can contact Curt Nason here.