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Sky at a Glance 2020 February 22 – 29

Photo showing locations of the "minor" constellations: Ursa Minor, Canis Minor and Leo Minor.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2020 February 22 – 29
~by Curt Nason

Let’s pay attention to the minority this week. By this I mean the Minor constellations: Ursa, Canis and Leo, all of which are now visible in the evening. Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, hosts the Little Dipper asterism and it has what is arguably the most important and famous star of the night sky – Polaris, the North Star – at the tip of its tail. Although smaller and less bright than the nearby Great Bear, Ursa Minor is at the centre of action in our night sky. How many have heard or even believe that Polaris is the brightest star in the night sky? It actually ranks at number 48.

Canis Minor, the Little Dog, is noted for having the eighth brightest star, Procyon. An imaginary arrowhead formed by Orion’s head and shoulder stars points eastward to the Little Dog. We usually see it as just two stars so it is probably a wiener dog. Despite the brilliance of its luminary, the Little Dog is just the opening act for Canis Major and its leading star, Sirius, the brightest one of the night sky. In early winter Procyon rises first to announce the impending arrival of Sirius, hence the name which means “before the dog.”

Leo Minor the Little Lion experiences difficulty in being noticed, and with good reason. It is one of those inconspicuous constellations created by the 17th century astronomer Johannes Hevelius to fill gaps in the sky. We see it as a triangle between the back of Leo and the feet of Ursa Major. To give it some distinction and pride we can imagine the lion cub nipping at the heels of the Great Bear to keep it from attacking Leo.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:11 am and sunset will occur at 5:54 pm, giving 10 hours, 43 minutes of daylight (7:15 am and 6:01 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 6:58 am and set at 6:04 pm, giving 11 hours, 6 minutes of daylight (7:03 am and 6:10 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is new this Sunday, and its crescent phase will make photogenic appearances below Venus on Wednesday and to its left on Thursday. Mercury is at inferior conjunction on Tuesday. Mars continues to sneak up on Jupiter in the morning sky, closing the gap by a third over the week. Next weekend Jupiter will be halfway between Mars and Saturn.

There will be public observing at the Kouchibouguac Park Visitor Centre this Saturday evening from 7-9 pm. Also this Saturday, the Saint John Astronomy Club will be offering solar observing and other activities as part of Winter Festival at the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre from 3-6:30 pm.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance, 2020 February 15 – 22

Photo showing binocular targets within Orion.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2020 February 15 – 22
~by Curt Nason

Binoculars are great instruments for observing the brighter star clusters and nebulae in the night sky, and Orion is a great place for binocular treasures. Its most prominent naked eye feature is the angled line of three stars that make Orion’s Belt. This trio will fit easily within almost any binocular view. They are hot giant stars, with the one on the right, Mintaka, being a little dimmer than Alnitak on the left and Alnilam in between. Although they appear to be near each other, at a distance of 2000 light years Alnilam is nearly three times farther than the other two. Between Alnilam and Mintaka binoculars will show an S-shaped asterism, Orion’s S, which peaks above his belt.

Below the belt is a string of a few dimmer stars that makes Orion’s sword, one of which looks fuzzy to the eye. Binoculars reveal this to be the Orion Nebula or M42, a vast cloud of gas and dust where stars are forming. Just above the nebula is an asterism that resembles a person running or perhaps the figure in a WALK sign. Several double or multiple stars can be seen in this general area. Binoculars will also enhance star colours so check out Orion’s two brightest stars, blue-white Rigel and orange Betelgeuse. Defocussing your binoculars slightly will enhance the colours even more. Keep an eye on Betelgeuse over the next couple of months. It has dimmed considerably lately, dropping from the top ten in stellar brightness to about 25th. Will it continue to dim or will it regain its gleam?

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:22 am and sunset will occur at 5:44 pm, giving 10 hours, 22 minutes of daylight (7:26 am and 5:51 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:11 am and set at 5:54 pm, giving 10 hours, 43 minutes of daylight (7:15 am and 6:01 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at third quarter this Saturday and poses with three morning planets this week. On Tuesday, telescope users might catch it occulting, or passing in front of, Mars just before 9 am. It is then near Jupiter on Wednesday and Saturn Thursday. Mercury begins a ten-day evening plunge toward the Sun this weekend, while Venus continues to catch the eye moving in the opposite direction. If you are far from urban light pollution on a clear evening, look for the ghostly pyramid of zodiacal light along the western ecliptic starting an hour after sunset.

The provincial astronomy club, RASC NB, meets in the UNB Fredericton Forestry-Earth Sciences building this Saturday at 1 pm. On Monday, at the Brundage Point River Centre in Grand Bay-Westfield, there will be an astronomy presentation at 6 pm followed by public observing.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance 2020 February 8 – 15

Photo showing the constellation Cancer the Crab with the Beehive Cluster M44 near centre, nestled between Gemini and Leo.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2020 February 8 – February 15
~by Curt Nason

The most inconspicuous of the zodiac constellations is faint Cancer the Crab, which is nestled between Gemini and Leo. In mythology, the crab was sent by the goddess queen Hera to distract Hercules while he was battling the Hydra. The crab was no match for the strongman’s stomp. Ancient Egyptians saw it as their sacred dung beetle, the scarab. In the first millennium BC the Sun was in Cancer at the summer solstice, the time when it halts its northward motion and slowly starts heading south. This back and forth motion of the rising and setting Sun on the horizon was perhaps reminiscent of a crab sidling on a beach. The summer Sun is now situated above the foot of Castor in Gemini.

Cancer is recognized by a trapezoid of dim naked eye stars as the crab’s body, with a couple of other stars representing the claws. The four stars were also seen as a manger flanked by a pair of donkeys, Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australus. On a clear dark night we can see a hazy patch of hay within the manger, and binoculars reveal it as a beautiful star cluster called the Beehive, Praesepe or M44. Being near the ecliptic, the planets often pass through or near this cluster, masquerading as a bright guest star. The Beehive was once used to forecast storms, for if it could not be seen it was hidden by light clouds at the front of a weather system. Binoculars can reveal another star cluster, number 67 on the Messier list of fuzzy non-comets, less than a fist-width south of M44.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:33 am and sunset will occur at 5:34 pm, giving 10 hours, 1 minute of daylight (7:36 am and 5:40 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:22 am and set at 5:44 pm, giving 10 hours, 22 minutes of daylight (7:26 am and 5:51 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is full on Sunday morning and at perigee on Monday, resulting in high tides early in the week. Mercury is at its greatest elongation from the Sun on Monday; sitting a hand span below and right of Venus, which sets two hours later at 9:20 pm. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are stretched along the ecliptic from south to east in the morning, with Mars zipping toward Jupiter and Jupiter edging toward Saturn. By April, Mars will have passed both. Starting Tuesday and for the next two weeks, the subtle glow of dust reflecting sunlight along the ecliptic can be seen in rural locations beginning an hour after sunset. The zodiacal light forms an angled wedge, and this year Venus is in the middle of it.

The annual INP Moonlight Snowshoe Hike and Observing starts at 7 pm on February 8 at the Sheldon Point barn in Saint John. The William Brydone Jack Astronomy Club meets in the UNB Fredericton Forestry-Earth Sciences building on Tuesday at 7 pm, and RASC NB meets in the same location on February 15 at 1 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance 2020 February 1 – 8

Photo showing the constellation Hydra in the southern night sky.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2020 February 1 – 8 ~by Curt Nason

The constellation Hydra is the largest of the 88 and it represents a female water snake. I mention the gender because there is a male water snake constellation, Hydrus, in the southern hemisphere. A small trapezoid of stars, located about halfway below a line between Procyon in Canis Minor and Regulus in Leo, represents the snake’s head. To its lower left is a solitary bright star called Alphard, the heart of the snake. The rest of the constellation is a long serpentine string of fainter stars that stretches to Virgo. It takes about eight hours for the entire constellation to rise. Two other constellations, Corvus the Crow and Crater the Cup, are sitting on Hydra’s back.

In mythology, Hercules had to kill the multiheaded Hydra as the second of his famous labours. Knowing the creature could only be killed by severing all of the heads, and that two would grow in where one was severed, he placed a tree stump in a fire. When he cut off a head he cauterized the wound with the glowing stump to prevent the regrowth. When Hera saw that Hercules might win she sent a crab to distract him, but he easily stomped it dead. That explains the presence of the dim constellation Cancer the Crab just above the head of Hydra. Hera despised Hercules because he was the illegitimate son (one of many) of her husband Zeus. When the Hydra was slain, Hercules dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s poisonous blood for later use.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:42 am and sunset will occur at 5:23 pm, giving 9 hours, 41 minutes of daylight (7:45 am and 5:30 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:33 am and set at 5:34 pm, giving 10 hours, 1 minute of daylight (7:36 am and 5:40 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at first quarter on Saturday and it is near the M35 star cluster in Gemini on Wednesday, close to where the Sun is on the first day of summer. Venus rides high in the southwest after sunset, while Mercury can be seen a hand span to its lower right as twilight darkens somewhat. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are stretched along the ecliptic from south to east in the morning, with Mars zipping toward Jupiter and Jupiter edging toward Saturn over the next two months. The International Space Station is making early evening passes all week. Set the Heavens Above website to your location to see when and where to look for this bright satellite.

The Saint John Astronomy Club meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre on February 1 at 7 pm. The annual INP Moonlight Snowshoe Hike and Observing starts at 7 pm on February 8 at the Sheldon Point barn in Saint John.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Seeing the Constellations with Different Eyes

Photo depicting the Ojibwe concept of Orion as the Wintermaker who ushers in the cold and wind.Orion and Pleiades as the Obibwe Wintermaker and Hole-in-the-Sky (Stellarium).

Seeing the Constellations with Different Eyes ~by Curt Nason

I believe it was an early fascination with the constellations and their associated mythology that sparked my lifelong interest in astronomy. The fascination continues, and it is fun and educational to learn how other cultures interpreted those stellar figures in the night sky.

Many of the familiar constellations originated several millennia ago in the Middle East, and they were adapted by the Greeks and Egyptians to mark the seasons and complement their tales of mythology. Later, seafaring explorers to the southern hemisphere returned with charts of star patterns unseen from Europe, and astronomers of a few centuries ago created new constellations to fill in gaps in the sky. In many cases the various constellation figures overlapped and shared stars. With astronomy becoming a more global and exact science, professionals formed the International Astronomical Union a century ago. One of their early tasks was to create official names and boundaries for 88 constellations covering the entire sky. These are the constellations of science, but individuals and cultures are free to see the sky as they please.

Bright stars and eye-catching asterisms such as Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper and the Pleaides star cluster were obvious targets to immortalize earthly creatures and activities. Rather than Orion being a hunter and the giant son of Poseidon, to the Egyptians he was Osiris, the god of light, riding up the Nile on a boat. In parts of China he was Commander Tsan, protecting farmers from barbarians seeking to steal their winter supplies. Brazilian tribes saw the figure as a turtle, or as the body of a giant caiman with its tail and head extending to constellations above and below Orion. The Inuit saw Orion’s belt and sword as three hunters pulling a sledge and chasing a bear, represented by the red star Betelgeuse, into the sky.

The Big Dipper forms the back half of the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear. We see it easily as a dipper, although I often need to explain what that is during visits to youth groups. In Britain it is The Plough, ancient Germans saw it as seven plowing oxen, and for others it was obviously a cart. Several First Nations tribes, including Mi’kmaq and Maliseet, saw the bowl of the Big Dipper as a bear and the handle stars, along with other stars in the constellation Boötes, as hunters. The hunters, who are named for birds, chase the bear from spring to autumn until only the three closest hunters remain above the horizon, at which time the bear is slain by Robin. The bear’s blood stains Robin’s chest and the leaves of the trees.

The Pleiades represent seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione and they mark the shoulder of Taurus the Bull. The Maori of New Zealand imagined them as the prow of their founder’s canoe, with the upper half of Orion forming the stern. Cherokee legend in the southeastern United States tells of seven boys who, in response to being punished for not working, performed a Feather Dance and ascended to the sky. Whereas most people can see only six stars in this cluster, the legends of seven girls or boys include that one of them gets lost or falls to earth.

I greatly enjoy the science of astronomy, but when viewing the constellations I am that “starstruck” lad of my youth watching an endless movie of monsters and heroes. The first time I saw the Pleiades I thought I had discovered a new constellation and called it The Lamp. Imagine my disappointment when I saw it named otherwise in a book.

The Saint John Astronomy Club meets on the first Saturday of the month at 7 p.m. in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre. Contact Curt Nason for details.

 

Sky at a Glance 2020 January 25 – February 1

Photo showing the constellation Monoceros sandwiched between Orion’s dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2020 January 25 – February 1
~by Curt Nason

Monoceros is a constellation that is easy to locate, sandwiched between Orion’s dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor, but it is not easy to see. From urban areas its dim stars are as elusive as the unicorn they depict. It was one of eight new constellations created on a globe by the Dutch cartographer Petrus Plancius around 1612. Of those eight, only Monoceros and Camelopardalis are recognized as official constellations today. Monoceros is situated within the winter Milky Way, which is apparent in rural skies.

Despite being a dim constellation, Monoceros is home to some favourite targets of astrophotographers, in particular the beautiful Rosette Nebula. Another is the combination of the Cone Nebula, Christmas Tree Cluster and the Fox Fur Nebula. Check the Internet for their stunning images. Monoceros has one Messier object within its boundary, the large open cluster M50, otherwise known as the Heart-Shaped Cluster. It can be seen in binoculars about 40% of the distance from Sirius to Procyon. Three other open clusters on the Messier list are found near Monoceros but they lie officially within other constellations. They are the close pair of M46 and M47 in Puppis, and M48 in Hydra.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:49 am and sunset will occur at 5:13 pm, giving 9 hours, 24 minutes of daylight (7:52 am and 5:20 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:42 am and set at 5:23 pm, giving 9 hours, 41 minutes of daylight (7:45 am and 5:30 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is new on Friday, January 24, and it is at first quarter on February 1. On Monday and Tuesday it makes an eye-catching pairing below and then to the left of Venus. Also on Monday, just after twilight, a telescope or steadily-held binoculars might reveal Neptune very close to the lower right of Venus. Mercury sets around 6:30 pm midweek, an hour and a half before Venus. In the morning sky, Mars hangs out to the left of Antares in the southeast, while Jupiter makes its presence known a hand span to the lower left of Mars. Saturn rises in twilight about 40 minutes before sunrise.

RASC NB members are offering public observing at the Moncton High School observatory on January 24 from 6:30 to 8 pm; and at the Mactaquac Park office, across the road from the park entrance, from 7 to 9 pm on Saturday, January 25. The Saint John Astronomy Club meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre on February 1 at 7 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance 2020 January 18 – 25

Location of the constellation Eridanus the River in the southern winter sky to the lower right of Orion.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2020 January 18 – 25 ~by Curt Nason

There is one river seen from New Brunswick that is completely ice-free all winter, but we can only see it at night. Eridanus the River, the fifth largest constellation in area of sky, has its head just off the foot of Orion near Rigel. Even when it is at its highest in our sky, the river’s meandering path takes it more than ten degrees below the horizon to where it terminates at Achernar, the ninth brightest star.

In mythology the river is associated with Phaethon, a mortal son of Apollo. Apollo drove the Sun, a golden chariot powered by mighty steeds, across the sky by day. Phaethon was allowed to drive it one day but he couldn’t control the steeds. They ran amok, scorching the sky (the Milky Way) and the Earth (Sahara), until Zeus blasted Phaethon with a thunderbolt and he fell to his death in the river. The twisty constellation was also considered to be the path of souls.

Although we can’t see Achernar without travelling to Florida, there is a notable star in Eridanus that we can see from outside a city. Omicron-2 Eridani, also called 40 Eridani or Keid (circled on the map), has a famous fictional and fascinating planet: Vulcan, the home of Spock. Did you know that there was once believed to be a planet closer to the Sun than Mercury? It was named Vulcan after the Roman god of fire, metalworking and the forge. Anomalies in Mercury’s orbit were thought to be due to an interior planet, and some astronomers even claimed to have seen it crossing the Sun. This was about 150 years ago, after Neptune was predicted and discovered based on anomalies in the orbit of Uranus. Coincidentally, regarding the god Vulcan, the constellation Fornax the Furnace barely crests our horizon near Eridanus.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:55 am and sunset will occur at 5:03 pm, giving 9 hours, 8 minutes of daylight (7:58 am and 5:11 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:49 am and set at 5:13 pm, giving 9 hours, 24 minutes of daylight (7:52 am and 5:20 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at third quarter on Friday, January 17, and it passes near Mars on Monday and Jupiter Wednesday before reaching new Moon phase next Friday. Jupiter rises an hour before the Sun this week and about two hours after Mars. Venus rules the early evening sky, easily cutting through bright twilight in the southwest, while Mercury begins its best evening apparition for the year, setting 45 minutes after sunset by next weekend.

The provincial astronomy club, RASC NB, meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre on January 18 at 1 pm. There will be public observing at the Mactaquac Park office, across the road from the park entrance, in the early evening of Saturday, January 25. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance, 2020 January 11 – 18

Photo showing location of the constellation Canis Minor with the bright star Procyon.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2020 January 11 – 18 ~by Curt Nason

With Orion’s hourglass figure now above the horizon after sunset, the giant hunter waits an hour or so for his two dogs to get up before he starts hunting. The first to greet the night is Canis Minor the Little Dog, a small constellation highlighted by Procyon, the eighth brightest star. To identify this star, Orion’s head and shoulders form an arrowhead, with orange Betelgeuse at the apex, which points toward Procyon. Like Sirius in Canis Major, this star is bright because it is in our celestial backyard, about 11 light years away.

The name Procyon means “before the dog,” indicating it is a harbinger of Sirius the Dog Star which rises about 40 minutes later. Ancient Egyptian farmers watched for the first visible rising of Sirius before sunrise, as experience had taught them the Nile would soon flood its banks with fertile soil when this occurred. In mythology the two dogs are sometimes depicted as Laelaps (Canis Major), an extremely fast dog, and an equally fast fox (Canis Minor). The dog was sent to hunt the fox but, after a long chase with no apparent end, Zeus turned them both to stone and placed them in the sky.

I like to look at the dogs and their westerly neighbours, Orion the Hunter and Lepus the Hare, in a more modern sense. The mighty demigod Orion becomes everyone’s favourite hunter, Elmer Fudd, with that wascawwy wabbit bugging him below his feet. The big and little dogs become Spike and Chester,who were also part of the Looney Tunes gang. Just as Chester would bounce around in front of his hero, the bulldog Spike, Canis Minor bounces up before Canis Major.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:59 am and sunset will occur at 4:54 pm, giving 8 hours, 55 minutes of daylight (8:01 am and 5:02 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:55 am and set at 5:03 pm, giving 9 hours, 8 minutes of daylight (7:58 am and 5:11 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is full on Friday, January 10, and it is at perigee on Monday, giving high tides this weekend. Next Friday the Moon is at third quarter. The eastward motion of Mars relative to the stars will bring it within a binocular field above its namesake star, Antares; the red supergiant star in the heart of Scorpius the Scorpion. Compare their colour and brightness in the southeast before morning twilight. Jupiter rises about 45 minutes before sunrise midweek. Venus rules the early evening sky, easily cutting through bright twilight in the southwest. Mercury and Saturn are passing behind the Sun in opposite directions this weekend. Not to be outdone, dwarf planets Pluto and Ceres are following Saturn’s lead.

The William Brydone Jack Astronomy Club meets in the UNB Fredericton Forestry-Geology building on Tuesday at 7 pm. The provincial astronomy club, RASC NB, meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre on January 18 at 1 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance 2020 January 4 – 11

Photo showing location of the bright star Sirius, down to the left of Orion's belt, in the constellation Canis Major.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2020 January 4 – 11 ~by Curt Nason

Around midnight in the first week of January the brightest star in the night sky is due south, at its highest above the horizon. Astronomers would say it is transiting the meridian when it crosses the north-south line. Many 19th century observatories, including the one now called the William Brydone Jack Observatory at UNB Fredericton, would collaborate in timing the transits of stars to determine the longitudes of the observatories.

Sirius is called the Dog Star because is part of the constellation Canis Major the Great Dog, one of Orion’s hunting companions. If you are unsure which star is Sirius, follow Orion’s Belt down to the left. The star is about twice the size of the Sun and 25 times more luminous, but that is not why it is the brightest. It is only 8.6 light years away, a mere 82 trillion kilometres, and the nearest naked eye star for us in New Brunswick. The name means “scorcher” or “scintillating one” and it often twinkles wildly and colourfully, especially when it is lower in the sky. I like to observe it with binoculars or a telescope just to enjoy the light show. Look for the star cluster M41 about a binocular field below Sirius. With the Sun passing above Orion in summer, people once believed the hot days were due to extra heat from Sirius, hence the term “dog days of summer.”

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 8:01 am and sunset will occur at 4:46 pm, giving 8 hours, 45 minutes of daylight (8:03 am and 4:54 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:59 am and set at 4:54 pm, giving 8 hours, 55 minutes of daylight (8:01 am and 5:02 pm in Saint John). On Sunday Earth is at perihelion, when it is closest to the Sun for the year; a whopping three percent closer than in early July.

The Moon is at first quarter on Friday, January 3, and it is full the following Friday. Mars crosses the constellation border into Scorpius this week, and within a week it will be a binocular field above its namesake star, Antares, which means “rival of Mars.” They often have similar colour and brightness, although the star is currently brighter than the planet. Setting around 8 pm this week, Venus passes over the tail stars of Capricornus the Sea Goat and enters Aquarius next weekend. The brief Quadrantid meteor shower, with its radiant between the handle of the Big Dipper and Hercules, peaks this Saturday morning (January 4). With no Moon in the sky to wash out these typically faint meteors, this shower could make it worthwhile to visit an area relatively free of light pollution.

The Saint John Astronomy Club meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre on January 4 at 7 pm. The annual Irving Nature Park Moonlight Snowshoe Hike and Observing takes place at the Sheldon Point barn in Saint John on January 11 at 7 pm.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance December 28 – January 4

Photo showing some of the winter's brightest stars clustered around the constellation Orion.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 December 28 – 2020 January 4 ~by Curt Nason

Before, or after, the flash of New Year’s Eve fireworks this week, take a look around the sky. As a new year begins, many of the brightest stars are at their best when you face south. Halfway up the sky is the slanted line of three stars that forms Orion’s Belt. Above it are the shoulders of the giant hunter, marked by reddish-orange Betelgeuse and Bellatrix. Below, blue-white Rigel and Saiph are parts Orion’s legs. The Belt points to the right at the V-shaped Hyades cluster star, anchored by orange Aldebaran, and the compact, eye-catching Pleiades cluster, which together form the face and shoulder of Taurus the Bull.

To the left of the Belt is the night sky’s brightest star, Sirius, in Canis Major, the larger of Orion’s two canine companions. Bellatrix and dim Meissa, marking Orion’s head, form an arrowhead with Betelgeuse at the tip, which points toward Procyon in two-star Canis Minor. Auriga and Gemini ride above Orion. Among these New Year’s Eve constellations are five of the ten brightest stars, with 12 more in the top 50. Betelgeuse, like many red supergiant stars, varies in brightness over long periods as it expands and contracts. Over the past few months it has dimmed and might have slipped out of the top ten.

Rather than make a New Year’s resolution that involves great sacrifice and likely won’t see February, why not start an astronomy project to learn the sky over the year. I recommend the RASC Explore the Universe program, which involves observing and describing or sketching objects using your unaided eyes, binoculars or a small telescope. The objects include constellations and bright stars, lunar features, the solar system, deep sky, and double stars. By observing 55 of the 110 objects you could earn a certificate and a pin. For details, see https://www.rasc.ca/explore-universe or contact me.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 8:00 am and sunset will occur at 4:40 pm, giving 8 hours, 40 minutes of daylight (8:02 am and 4:48 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 8:01 am and set at 4:46 pm, giving 8 hours, 45 minutes of daylight (8:03 am and 4:54 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at first quarter on Friday, giving great evening views through telescopes and binoculars all week. After sunset on Thursday telescope users can see the Lunar X just inside the shadow line, a little below centre. Mars opens the New Year near the Libra-Scorpius border, rising three hours and 15 minutes before sunrise. Meanwhile, Venus shines easily through evening twilight in the southwest and Saturn sets less than an hour after the Sun. The Quadrantid meteor shower, with its radiant between the handle of the Big Dipper and Hercules, peaks on the morning of January 4. With no Moon in the sky, this shower could make it worthwhile to get up very early or stay up very late.

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

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance December 21 – 28

Photo showing the constellation Orion with surrounding stars in constellations making up the Winter Hexagon.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 December 21 – 28 ~by Curt Nason

Having official constellations doesn’t prevent us from imagining our own. The sight of Orion, with club raised high and a lion-skin shield warding off the horns of a raging bull, has been etched in my memory for over half a century. But, come December, reddish Betelgeuse in Orion’s armpit becomes Santa’s red nose in profile, the curve of the shield outlines a sack of toys, and the iconic three-star belt is…well, Santa’s wide black leather belt. And on cold, clear nights there is no mistaking that twinkle in his eye. Look to the north and there is Santa’s sleigh, usually seen as the Big Dipper, being loaded up for the long night’s ride.

Many doors and windows are decorated with wreaths and the window of the winter sky is no exception. Here, Betelgeuse is a red light near the middle of a wreath we call the Winter Circle or Hexagon. By mid-evening you can trace the lights decorating the wreath, from blue-white Rigel in Orion’s leg to brilliant Sirius the Dog Star, up through Procyon the Little Dog Star, around Pollux and Castor in Gemini and Capella in Auriga to orange Aldebaran as the Bull’s eye, and back to Rigel. Imagination is a gift and Santa won’t mind if you open yours before Christmas.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:58 am and sunset will occur at 4:36 pm, giving 8 hours, 38 minutes of daylight (8:00 am and 4:44 pm in Saint John). The Sun reaches its farthest southern position, over the Tropic of Capricorn, at 12:19 am on Sunday. In Moncton, both Saturday and Sunday have 8 hours, 37 minutes and 42 seconds of daylight, 5 second less than both Friday and Monday, and 7 hours, 8 minutes less than on the summer solstice. Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 8:00 am and set at 4:40 pm, giving 8 hours, 40 minutes of daylight (8:02 am and 4:48 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is new on Thursday, giving dark skies for observing faint star clusters and nebulae with new Christmas telescopes. For an observing challenge, use binoculars to see if you can spot the extremely thin crescent above the southeastern horizon before sunrise Wednesday morning. Mars will be about 15 degrees to its upper right. Saturn sets shortly after 6 pm Christmas Eve, followed by Venus about 70 minutes later. Jupiter is in conjunction with the Sun on Friday, and by late January it will have traded places with Mercury in the morning sky. A few shooting stars from the Ursid meteor shower might be spotted Sunday morning or evening, emanating from the bowl of the Little Dipper near the North Star. This is usually a minor shower but it has been surprisingly active on rare occasions.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance December 14 – 21

Photo location of the consolation Columba the Dove, below Orion and just about the Southern horizon.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 December 14 – 21 ~by Curt Nason

This time of year many naturalists throughout the province are busy performing Christmas bird counts. If you are on your toes and not too worn out you can add four stellar birds between dusk and dawn. Start with the easy ones around 6 pm by looking for the three bright stars of the Summer Triangle above the western horizon. The lowest of the three is Altair, the head of Aquila the Eagle, which is standing straight up on the horizon. The highest of the trio is Deneb at the tail of Cygnus the Swan, which is doing its signature dive. If it is cloudy you have a chance to catch them in the east in the morning, although the eagle will be difficult with Altair rising around 7 am.

Midnight is your best chance to spot the elusive and tiny Columba the Dove, but you will need an unobstructed southern horizon. Look below Orion for Lepus the Hare, and then try to see stars near the horizon directly below. Very few bird counts will be missing the common crow but, in case you did, look about a hand span above the southern horizon around 6:30 am for a distinct quadrilateral of stars. There you will find Corvus the Crow hitching a ride on the tail of Hydra the Water Snake.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:53 am and sunset will occur at 4:33 pm, giving 8 hours, 40 minutes of daylight (7:55 am and 4:41 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:58 am and set at 4:36 pm, giving 8 hours, 38 minutes of daylight (8:00 am and 4:44 pm in Saint John). Winter solstice occurs just after midnight on the night of December 21/22.

The Moon is at third quarter on Thursday morning, rising around 1 pm and setting 6:40 the following morning. In the morning sky Mars remains within a binocular view to the lower left of the double star Zubenelgenubi for much of the week. Mercury is moving sunward but still rises 50 minutes before the Sun next weekend. In the evening sky, Venus moves rapidly eastward from Saturn, while Jupiter is lost in twilight moving toward a conjunction with the Sun on December 27. The Geminid meteor shower peaks this Saturday afternoon and, despite the bright moonlight, it should reward us with several shooting stars from Friday evening to Sunday morning if the clouds take pity on us.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance December 7 – 14

Photo showing the location of the Geminids Meteors origin in the constellation Gemini, which is due to peak on December 14, 2019.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 December 7 – 14
~by Curt Nason

Perhaps the year’s best meteor shower radiates from near the star Castor in Gemini next weekend. Under ideal conditions the Geminids can average two shooting stars per minute, but don’t expect to see anywhere near that number. With the bright moonlight, be very happy if you see ten per hour. With Gemini rising soon after an early sunset and riding high just after midnight, convenient evening viewing is rewarded more often than for the showers from Perseus and Leo, which rise much later on their peak nights. Geminids are relatively slow and easier to catch with the eye, and they often have a golden glow.

This year the shower peaks around 3 pm on December 14, making that morning and evening the best time to watch. Dress very warmly, get comfortable in a reclining position, face an unobstructed patch of sky toward the north or south away from artificial lighting, and hope for a cloudless evening. Viewing on the days before and after could also be worthwhile if the weather forecast isn’t promising for December 14.

The parent “comet” for the Geminids is actually the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, which was discovered in 1983. It orbits the Sun in a little more than 17 months, crossing the orbits of Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury. At perihelion its temperature can exceed 600C, which can cause its carbon-water material to break down and release the dust particles that give us meteors when they burn up in our atmosphere.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:47 am and sunset will occur at 4:33 pm, giving 8 hours, 46 minutes of daylight (7:49 am and 4:41 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:53 am and set at 4:33 pm, giving 8 hours, 40 minutes of daylight (7:55 am and 4:41 pm in Saint John). After this week the sunsets will gradually occur later but the later sunrises will continue into January.

The Moon is full on Thursday morning, the Long Night Moon as it is the one nearest the winter solstice. Mercury rises 95 minutes before the Sun this weekend but that gap lessens by 20 minutes over the week. On Thursday morning Mars is very close to the double star Zubenelgenubi in Libra, looking like a colourful triple star through binoculars. In the evening sky, Jupiter sets around 5:30 while Venus has a rendezvous with Saturn, appearing below the ringed planet on Tuesday and to its left on Thursday. The Geminid meteor shower peaks on Saturday afternoon and, despite the bright moonlight, it should reward us with several shooting stars from Friday evening to Sunday morning.

The Saint John Astronomy Club meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre on December 7 at 7 pm. The William Brydone Jack Astronomy Club meets in the UNB Fredericton Forestry-Earth Sciences building on Tuesday at 7 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance November 30 – December 7

Location of the elusive Lynx and Camelopardalis constellations in the Northeastern winter sky.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 November 30 – December 7
~by Curt Nason

By 1930 the borders of 88 constellations had been set to cover the entire sky by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the overlords of all things astronomical. Many constellations were created by stargazers in Babylonia more than 6000 years ago, later to be adopted and expanded by the Greeks. Claudius Ptolemy’s second-century treatise, The Almagest, included a star map which included 48 constellations, most of which survived the IAU. A few centuries ago many constellations were made up for the newly “discovered” skies of the deep southern hemisphere and to fill in gaps in the familiar northern hemisphere. In New Brunswick we get to see all or parts of 66 constellations, but some are rather elusive.

Two of the gap-fillers lurk between the traditional autumn and winter constellations in the northeast these evenings, and they can be as difficult to see as their namesakes in New Brunswick. Stretching between Ursa Major and the Gemini-Auriga pair is a sparse zigzag of stars making the Lynx. Just as you are unlikely to see a lynx near urban areas, you need to be in a rural region to spot Lynx. Between Lynx and the semicircle of Cepheus, Cassiopeia and Perseus is the enigmatic and tough-to-pronounce-after-a-few Camelopardalis, which of course is a giraffe. With its head near Polaris, a critter this far north should have been a reindeer. Before you have a few, go out and see if you can locate them.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:39 am and sunset will occur at 4:35 pm, giving 8 hours, 56 minutes of daylight (7:41 am and 4:43 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:47 am and set at 4:33 pm, giving 8 hours, 46 minutes of daylight (7:49 am and 4:41 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at first quarter on Wednesday, making this a great week for lunar observing. Mercury is still readily visible in the morning sky, extending its eastward distance from Mars from 10 to 15 degrees over the week. The eastward motion of Mars relative to the stars keeps it about midway between Mercury and Spica. In the evening sky, Venus zooms from 1/3 to 3/4 of the distance from Jupiter to Saturn. By midweek, Jupiter is situated where the Sun will be on the first day of winter.

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

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance November 23 – 30

Photo showing the Moon and planets in the early evening sky on Thursday, November 28, 2019.

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

Stock market-minded astronomers could be inspired by looking to the northeast after twilight. On evenings in mid-May, Ursa Major the Great Bear is high overhead, dominating the sky. Taurus the Bull, meanwhile, sets early, and then we have several months of a bear market for stargazing. Later sunsets and extended twilight, with the compounded interest of daylight time, means sparse hours for viewing the summer night sky. Now that we are well beyond the autumnal equinox and have returned to standard time, early darkness reveals the Great Bear has reached bottom to the north after sunset, and the Celestial Bull is rising in the east. We are entering the bull market phase of stargazing.

Although we lose the globular clusters and nebulae that abound within the Milky Way areas of Scorpius, Ophiuchus and Sagittarius, we can still observe the summer treasures near Lyra and Cygnus before they set. The autumn constellations of Cassiopeia, Andromeda and Perseus are peaking in mid-evening, ceding their reign to the bright stars and open clusters of winter’s Taurus, Orion and his dogs, Auriga and Gemini by midnight. Early risers can start on the springtime galaxies in Leo and Virgo before morning twilight. For stargazers, as the carol goes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Invest some time in observing the night sky.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:30 am and sunset will occur at 4:40 pm, giving 9 hours, 10 minutes of daylight (7:32 am and 4:47 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:39 am and set at 4:35 pm, giving 8 hours, 56 minutes of daylight (7:41 am and 4:43 pm in Saint John).

The Moon does a snowball dance with the planets this week, appearing to the left of Mars on Sunday morning, to the lower left of Mercury the next day, and sliding above the Sun in its new phase on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Mercury and Mars edge to within 8 degrees until the inner planet reaches its greatest elongation from the Sun on Thursday, after which it turns tail and speeds away. Venus passes by Jupiter in the early evening sky this weekend, and on Thursday the Moon sits just above Venus with Jupiter a binocular width to their lower right. On Friday evening the Moon is below Saturn.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.