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Sky at a Glance June 16 – 23

Photo of the south sky at midday from Moncton, NB at the Summer Solstice.
This Week’s Sky at a Glance, June 16 – 23 ~by Curt Nason

Seasons are the result of Earth’s rotational axis being tilted about 23.5 degrees off the vertical with respect to its orbit. The first day of astronomical summer occurs this Thursday. The “astronomical” qualification is used because meteorologists have taken to confusing people with meteorological seasons based on temperatures. Meteorological summer in the northern hemisphere includes June, July and August because they have the highest average temperatures for the year. Anyone who has lost crops this month due to frost will not be in total agreement with that.

On the summer solstice, the Sun rises and sets at its most northerly points on the horizon. For those of us at 45 degrees latitude, at midday (1:21 pm in Moncton) the Sun is 90 – 45 + 23.5 = 68.5 degrees above the southern horizon, at its highest for the year. If we lived at latitude 23.5 degrees the Sun would be directly overhead at midday on the solstice. Several millennia ago the Sun was “in” the constellation Cancer on the solstice, hence that latitude is marked on maps as the Tropic of Cancer. The dim constellation does resemble a crab somewhat, but there is speculation that the Sun’s forth and back movement along the horizon at that time of year was reminiscent of a crab’s sidewise walk.

Prior to being in Cancer at the start of summer, the Sun was in Leo. Lions tended to gather by the Nile in the dry season around the solstice. Now the summer solstice point on the ecliptic, the Sun’s path through the constellations, lies in Taurus, just within its boundary with Gemini. The roaming solstice is due to Earth’s axis wobbling like a top, making one revolution every 25,800 years in what we call the precession of the equinox. Enjoy your summer, whenever it starts.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 5:27 am and sunset will occur at 9:12 pm, giving 15 hours, 45 minutes of daylight (5:35 am and 9:14 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 5:28 am and set at 9:14 pm, giving 15 hours, 46 minutes of daylight (5:36 am and 9:15 pm in Saint John). Summer solstice occurs at 7:07 am on Thursday.

The Moon is at first quarter on Wednesday, giving great views in a telescope throughout the week. If you can spot it in the east this Saturday morning, look for Venus within a binocular field above it. If you are successful with that, try for Venus without the binoculars. After twilight on Tuesday look for M44, the Beehive Cluster, just below Venus. Jupiter is situated for great observing in the evening and it will get extra attention on June 23 with the Moon nearby. A binocular view of Jupiter will show its line-up of moons and the double star Zubenelgenubi to its lower left. Saturn rises around 9:30 pm and a late evening view of it in binoculars will include the globular cluster M22 to its lower left. A dust storm has kicked up on Mars – hopefully, it will dissipate soon and not obscure features of the Red Planet like one did in 2001.

The The first RASC NB star party of the year takes place at Kouchibouguac National Park on June 15-16. The last RASC NB meeting until September takes place on June 23 at 1 pm in Moncton High School. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance June 9 – 16

Photo showing the location of some globular star clusters in the regions of constellations Bootes and Hercules.

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

Globular clusters are among the oldest and largest objects associated with our galaxy, being about 12 billion years old and containing tens to hundreds of thousands of stars packed into a compact sphere. There are more than 150 globulars orbiting in the halo of the Milky Way galaxy, and many more are known to be orbiting larger galaxies like M31 in Andromeda. Many can be seen in binoculars as a fuzzy patch of light, perhaps resembling those little white patches you see below bird feeders. A good sized telescope is able to resolve some of their stars. The larger globulars seen from a dark location have been described as granules of sugar against black velvet.

Summer is the season for observing globular clusters. M4 is just to the right of Antares in the constellation Scorpius and it is one of the closest to us at 7000 light years. M13 in the Keystone of Hercules is relatively close at 22,000 light years. One that would outshine M13 if it were higher in our sky is M22, just left of the lid of the Teapot in Sagittarius. Another easy target is M3, located halfway between Arcturus and Cor Caroli, the brightest star in the small constellation Canes Venatici below the handle of the Big Dipper. Two other standouts are M92 in Hercules and M5 in Serpens. From a dark sky, many dimmer globulars can be picked out in the region of Sagittarius and Ophiuchus.

The concentration of globular clusters in this region of sky is not by accident, and it played a role in another lesson of humility for humanity. Harvard’s Harlow Shapley studied globular clusters a century ago and noticed that most were located around Sagittarius. If they were evenly distributed around the core of our galaxy, as believed, then the centre of the galaxy must lie in that direction. Just as Copernicus and Galileo demoted Earth from the centre of the solar system, Shapley showed that the Sun was not at the centre of the Milky Way.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 5:28 am and sunset will occur at 9:09 pm, giving 15 hours, 41 minutes of daylight (5:36 am and 9:10 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 5:27 am and set at 9:12 pm, giving 15 hours, 45 minutes of daylight (5:33 am and 9:14 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is new on Wednesday and, if you can spot it around 10 am on June 16, look for Venus within a binocular field above it. If you are successful with that, try for Venus without the binoculars. Jupiter is at its best for observing around 11 pm, and with a telescope you might see its Red Spot around 10 pm on Wednesday and midnight on Friday. Saturn rises around 10 pm above the lid of the Sagittarius Teapot. Mars continues to brighten in the morning sky; it will be the main attraction for observers this summer.

The William Brydone Jack Astronomy Club meets in the UNB Forestry / Earth Sciences building in Fredericton on Tuesday at 7 pm. All are welcome. The first RASC NB star party of the year takes place at Kouchibouguac National Park on June 15-16.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance June 2 – 9

Photo showing the snake constellations Hydra and Serpens

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

When Charley Pride sang “Snakes Crawl at Night” he wasn’t talking about the constellations, but he might as well have been. When twilight gives way to darkness there are two snakes stretching nearly halfway across the sky. The first is Hydra the female water snake, which is also the largest constellation. It is so long it takes eight hours to rise completely. At 11 pm these evenings it stretches along the horizon with its head in the west and its tail to the south. In this position the snake takes only three hours to nestle underground

Almost as long but more U-shaped is Serpens, the only constellation that is in two parts, separated by Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer. The western half is called Serpens Caput, the head of the snake, and the eastern half is the tail, Serpens Cauda. Ophiuchus represents Asclepius, a son of the Greek god Apollo, who learned the healing arts by watching a snake bring another back to life. The Rod of Asclepius, a snake entwined around a staff, is the symbol of medicine and health.

If your like things in threes you can look at serpentine Draco as a snake instead of a dragon. Its tail begins above the bowl of the Big Dipper, with the body curling around the Little Dipper before arcing back toward the foot of Hercules. If that doesn’t suit you then you can go Down Under to see Hydrus the male water snake slithering around the south celestial pole.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 5:30 am and sunset will occur at 9:04 pm, giving 15 hours, 34 minutes of daylight (5:38 am and 9:06 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 5:28 am and set at 9:09 pm, giving 15 hours, 41 minutes of daylight (5:36 am and 9:11 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is near Mars on Sunday and is at third quarter on Wednesday. Venus and Jupiter dominate the western and southeastern sky, respectively, during the evening. If you can landmark where they are in bright twilight, try to see them before sunset without optical aid the next clear evening. Saturn is slowly moving westward over the lid of the Sagittarius Teapot asterism, and by the end of the month it will be rising before sunset. Mars continues to brighten in the morning sky; it will be the main attraction for observers this summer. Mercury is in superior conjunction on Tuesday, passing behind the Sun.

The Saint John Astronomy Club meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre on June 2 at 7 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance May 26 – June 2

Photo of the constellation Draco in the northern sky, including a binocular treat in the dragon's head.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, May 26 – June 2 ~by Curt Nason

By 10 pm the zigzag constellation of Draco the Dragon is halfway up the northern sky to the right of the Little Dipper. Draco’s tail is a line of stars between the Big and Little Dippers. One of those stars is Thuban, which lies between the bowl of the Little Dipper and the middle of the Big Dipper’s handle. About 5000 years ago, when the Egyptian pyramids were built, Thuban was the North Star and entrances to the pyramids were designed with a descending passageway aligned to this star. Coincidentally, the inner two stars of the Big Dipper’s bowl point to Thuban, just as the outer pair points toward Polaris.

From the tail, Draco arcs around the bowl of the Little Dipper and then curves back toward Hercules, with its head being a quadrilateral of stars by the strongman’s foot. The two brightest stars in Draco’s head, Eltanin and Rastaban, are its eyes. They are the brightest and third brightest of the constellation. The faintest of the four is a treat in binoculars, showing matching white stars that resemble headlights or cat eyes. In mythology the dragon was one of the Titans, rivals of the Olympians. In one of their battles, Athena slung the dragon high into the northern sky. Writhing to right itself, it struck against the sky and froze in that position.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 5:35 am and sunset will occur at 8:57 pm, giving 15 hours, 22 minutes of daylight (5:43 am and 8:59 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 5:30 am and set at 9:04 pm, giving 15 hours, 34 minutes of daylight (5:38 am and 9:06 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is near Jupiter on Sunday and it is full on Tuesday, the Mi’kmaq Frog Croaking Moon. Saturn now rises around 11 pm, a little before Venus sets and Jupiter is transits the north-south meridian. Jupiter’s Red Spot can be seen in a telescope at high power on Sunday at 11 pm and on Friday at 10 pm. If I drag my telescope out early enough I can now see the polar ice cap of Mars and dark ground features, and the views will get even better over the next two months as it moves into the evening sky.

RASC NB, the provincial astronomy club, meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre in Saint John on May 26 at 1 pm for astronomy talks. The Saint John Astronomy Club meets in the same location on June 2 at 7 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance May 19 – 26

Photo of the planetary lineups during summer 2018

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

The long weekend in May is usually the start of baseball season in New Brunswick. It is also the harbinger of star party season for members of RASC NB; the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, New Brunswick Centre. RASC NB has more than 100 members across the province and astronomy education through public outreach is a focal point of our activities. Star parties are part of the outreach program, along with visits to schools, youth and seniors groups, and general observing sessions.

Star parties are held in the larger parks of the province, usually when the Moon is near the new or first quarter phase. Saturday afternoon events could include solar observing, telescope clinics or children activities, and Friday and Saturday evenings involve a “What’s Up” presentation and telescope observing. This summer the four best planets for observing – Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and Venus – will be at or near their best for viewing. Mars will be at its closest since 2003. The Moon near looks astounding through a telescope, and those who stay up later will be treated to star clusters, nebulae and galaxies.

Often, a dozen or more telescopes of various types and sizes are operated by RASC NB members and guests for your enjoyment. There could be line-ups at each scope so please be patient and respectful of the equipment. All you need to do is place your eye up to, but not on, the telescope eyepiece. Touching the scope could move it off the object you want to observe. Please avoid using white or otherwise bright lights in the observing area; allow your eyes to adjust to the dimmer light. Supervise your young children and, if possible, leave the dogs at the campsite or keep them at the periphery of the observing area.

This year’s star parties are at Kouchibouguac June 15-16, Mount Carleton July 13-14, Mactaquac August 10-11, Fundy August 31-September 1, and back to Kouchibouguac September 14-15. Play ball and party with the stars!

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 5:42 am and sunset will occur at 8:49 pm, giving 15 hours, 7 minutes of daylight (5:50 am and 8:51 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 5:35 am and set at 8:57 pm, giving 15 hours, 22 minutes of daylight (5:43 am and 8:59 pm in Saint John).

The first quarter Moon will be near Regulus on Monday, and on Tuesday a telescope could reveal Rupes Recta, a 110 km long fault line commonly called the Straight Wall. Venus will be within a binocular view to the right of the M35 star cluster on Sunday and above it on Monday. Their low altitude by the time twilight ends could make this a difficult observation. Late evening is prime time for observing Jupiter, with its moons shifting positions nightly for binocular viewers and its Red Spot facing telescope viewers on Sunday and Tuesday. Saturn is now rising before midnight and teams up with Mars for those who like to get up very early.

Local RASC NB members are hosting public observing at the Moncton High School Observatory on Friday, May 18 at 9 pm, with a cloud date of May 19. RASC NB meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre in Saint John on May 26 at 1 pm for astronomy talks. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Attachment: Jupiter on May 20 at 10:30 pm

Sky at a Glance May 12 – 19

Photo showing Apparent Magnitude of various celestial objects.

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

In the second century BC the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Nicaea ranked the stars according to their brightness in six categories called magnitudes (for greatness). The 20 brightest stars were rated first magnitude and the faintest stars were sixth magnitude. This system was retained for two millennia and standardized in the 19th century when much fainter stars were being detected by astrophotography. English astronomer Norman Pogson devised a logarithmic system whereby five magnitudes was a difference in star brightness of exactly 100 times. With this system, a magnitude 1 star is about 2.5 times brighter than a magnitude 2 star, and that one is 2.5 times brighter than a magnitude 3 star.

For many of us, the faintest star we can detect with the naked eye in a reasonably dark sky is sixth magnitude (commonly just called mag 6). Vega, the fifth brightest star, is mag 0, as is slightly brighter Arcturus. With the ability to measure the exact brightness of stars, their magnitudes are often recorded to one or two decimal places, and negative values are used for very bright objects. Sirius is mag -1.4; Jupiter is currently mag -2.5 and Venus is -3.8. The full Moon is mag -12.6, approximately 400,000 times fainter than the Sun at -26.7. A first magnitude star is brighter than mag 1.5, a second magnitude star shines between mag 1.5 and 2.5, and so on.

These brightness values are for the apparent magnitude of a star, as we see them when they are highest in the sky. At lower altitudes the atmosphere will absorb some of the starlight, making them appear dimmer. Astronomers call this effect extinction. The apparent magnitude of a star depends on its size and temperature, and also on its distance from us. A doubling of distance reduces the brightness by a factor of four, and ten times the distance by a factor of 100. Therefore, if one star is ten times farther than a mag 3 star of equal size and temperature, it would be at mag 8 and we would require binoculars to see it.

Just a little astronomy lesson to brighten your day.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 5:50 am and sunset will occur at 8:41 pm, giving 14 hours, 51 minutes of daylight (5:57 am and 8:43 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 5:42 am and set at 8:49 pm, giving 15 hours, 7 minutes of daylight (5:50 am and 8:51 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is new on Tuesday and the crescent Moon pairs with Venus in the evening sky on Thursday. Jupiter teeters upward in the southeast as they totter toward the northwestern horizon. Jupiter’s famous Red Spot storm is prominent in a telescope this year and it is facing in our direction at 11:15 pm on Tuesday. Saturn and Mars offer great viewing in the morning sky, with Mars passing near the faint globular cluster M75 early in the week.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

The Apparent Magnitude chart shown above was made by the European Space Agency.

Sky at a Glance May 5 – 12

Photo showing the location and description of the constellation Hercules in the eastern spring sky.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, May 5 – 12 ~by Curt Nason

I was fascinated by the movie Hercules, starring bodybuilder Steve Reeves, which I saw one Saturday afternoon at the Vogue theatre in McAdam sometime in the early 60s. I was nurturing my interest in the sky at that time so the constellation of Hercules has long been a part of my life. These spring evenings it is in the east as twilight fades.

Look for a keystone asterism one third of the way from the bright star Vega toward equally bright Arcturus; that is the upside-down body of the legendary strongman. Hercules is usually depicted down on his right knee, with his left foot on the head of Draco the Dragon and his head close to that of Ophiuchus. Originally the constellation was called The Kneeler, and the star at his head is called Rasalgethi for “head of the kneeler.” It is the alpha star of the constellation, although Kornephoros (the club bearer) is brighter. The “head star” of Ophiuchus is called Rasalhague.

With binoculars you can pick out two globular clusters from the Messier catalogue in Hercules. Globular clusters are ancient compact groups of typically tens-to-hundreds of thousands of stars that orbit our galaxy’s core. One third of the way from the top right star of the Keystone to the bottom right star is M13, the finest globular cluster in the northern hemisphere. A line from the bottom right star through the middle of the top of the Keystone, and extended about an equal distance, will put you in the area of M92, one of the oldest objects in our area of the galaxy at more than 13 billion years.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 5:59 am and sunset will occur at 8:32 pm, giving 14 hours, 33 minutes of daylight (6:07 am and 8:35 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 5:50 am and set at 8:41 pm, giving 14 hours, 51 minutes of daylight (5:57 am and 8:43 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is near Mars on Sunday morning and is at third quarter on Monday. Jupiter takes the solar system spotlight this week, reaching opposition on Tuesday evening when it rises at sunset. A small scope will show its moon Io disappearing behind the planet shortly after 9 pm that evening and emerging from the other side two hours and ten minutes later. Venus balances Jupiter’s rise by outshining it in the west. Mercury might be spotted with binoculars and luck a half hour before sunrise. Saturn and Mars offer great viewing in the morning sky, with Mars brightening every week. The Eta Aquariid meteor shower, one of two showers arising from Halley’s Comet, peaks this weekend although it is seen better from the southern hemisphere.

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

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance April 28 – May 5

Photo showing the distance in light years of the bright star Sirius and some other objects.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, April 28 – May 5 ~by Curt Nason

When people see an amateur astronomer’s telescope that doesn’t look like it came from a department store, they often have two questions: “How much did that baby cost?” and “How far can you see with that?” The answer to the first is usually about ten times less than they guess, but the answer to the second is difficult to explain and even more difficult to comprehend. Sometimes I just say “way far” and hope they don’t press for details.

On a clear evening this weekend just go outside and look up. The brightest object will be the Moon and it will be about 380,000 kilometres away. Next Saturday it will be at its farthest (apogee) at 405,000 km. The next brightest object is Jupiter, which will be at opposition on May 8 and hence closest to us at a distance of 660 million kilometres. In the morning sky, Mars is currently 130 million km away and Saturn is 1.4 billion km out there. Light travels at 300,000 km/s, so at 150 million km the Sun is a distance 500 light seconds away. The Moon is a tad more than a light second; Jupiter is 36 light minutes and Saturn nearly 80 light minutes.

The brightest star we see in the evening now is still Sirius, the closest star we can see from New Brunswick at 8.6 light years (ly). The next brightest is Arcturus and it is 37 ly or 350 trillion km. Polaris, the North Star, is about 400 ly away; and Alnilam, the middle star of Orion’s belt, is 2000 ly, If you are under a dark sky well before morning twilight you might get a naked eye glimpse of the Andromeda Galaxy at a distance of 2.5 million light years. Yes, a small telescope will reveal things even more distant, but at what point do these distances become incomprehensible and “way far” is a reasonable answer?

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 6:10 am and sunset will occur at 8:23 pm, giving 14 hours, 13 minutes of daylight (6:17 am and 8:26 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 5:59 am and set at 8:32 pm, giving 14 hours, 33 minutes of daylight (6:07 am and 8:35 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is full on Sunday, the Mi’kmaq Birds Lay Eggs Moon, and it passes near Jupiter on Monday. Mercury reaches its greatest elongation from the Sun on Monday but it doesn’t get far above the horizon before sunrise on spring mornings due to the shallow angle of the ecliptic. Despite keeping a relatively low profile, Venus dominates the western sky after sunset. Jupiter is now rising around 9 pm and will soon be in the evening sky at sunset. With a small scope you might catch its moon Europa disappearing into Jupiter’s shadow around 10:20 pm on Thursday. Saturn and Mars offer great viewing in the morning sky, with Mars getting much brighter by the week.

The provincial astronomy club, RASC NB, meets at the UNB Forestry / Earth Sciences building in Fredericton this Saturday at 1 pm. The Saint John Astronomy Club meets on May 5 at 7 pm in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre. All are welcome to attend either and there is no fee.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance April 21 – 28

Stellarium photo of some binocular targets in the western sky at twilight.

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

Sometimes I like to go tooling around in twilight with binoculars, picking off the bright stars as they emerge or even before they are visible to the naked eye. This time of year you can nab seven of the ten brightest in twilight and maybe another four of the next ten. Toward the southwest, Sirius, the brightest star of the night sky, might be the first you see, possibly flashing colours as our atmosphere acts like a prism for starlight. Next stop is lower to the west for #7, Rigel in Orion’s knee, which sets just an hour and a half after the Sun. Orange Betelgeuse, #10, will be well above it with the three belt stars in between.

Less than a hand span to the lower right of Betelgeuse is orange Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull and wearing lucky #13. See if you can pick out the Pleiades about two binocular widths to its right. This star cluster can be entertaining when it is low, with numerous stars twinkling like a Christmas tree. High above is #6 Capella, which often takes on a yellowish hue. Also fairly high is #9 Procyon, forming the peak of an equilateral triangle with Sirius and Betelgeuse. To its upper right is #16 Pollux, the brighter of the Gemini Twins.

Before heading east for more stars have a look at Venus to the right of Aldebaran. It is much brighter than the stars and can be seen easily with binoculars before sunset. Then, head eastward for #4 Arcturus at about the same altitude as Capella. How does its colour compare with that of Capella? Look for almost equally bright #5 Vega low in the northeast, although the thicker atmosphere at that altitude will rob some of its brightness. To its lower left you will eventually catch #20 Deneb, and #14 Spica shines in the southeast to the lower right of Arcturus. Regulus, between Spica and Pollux, comes in at #21. Happy star hunting.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 6:22 am and sunset will occur at 8:14 pm, giving 13 hours, 52 minutes of daylight (6:28 am and 8:17 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 6:10 am and set at 8:23 pm, giving 14 hours, 13 minutes of daylight (6:17 am and 8:26 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at first quarter Sunday, possibly yielding a view of the Lunar X with a telescope in late afternoon or evening twilight. Look just within the shadow line a little below centre. On Tuesday, late afternoon, you might able to see the star Regulus to the right of the Moon with a scope. Venus outshines the bright stars of winter in the western sky after sunset, while Jupiter, Saturn and Mars offer great viewing in the morning sky. On Sunday evening look for a few meteors coming from between the constellations of Lyra and Hercules, as the Lyrid shower peaks in the afternoon.

If the sky is clear this weekend, look for amateur astronomers offering views of the sky for Astronomy Day.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance April 14 – 21

Photo of the constellations Orion and Taurus setting in our western night sky.

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

In April we can start a long goodbye with the winter constellations. Orion and Taurus are setting together, which makes it easier to imagine their eternal battle. The bull is protecting the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) from the amorous advances of Orion, who is about to strike a downward blow to the bull’s head with his upraised club. The bull’s long horns, one tip of which is the bottom left star of Auriga (Elnath – officially the second brightest star of Taurus), are not to be taken lightly. It is difficult to tell which of the two combatants is more keratinous.

The winter constellations of Auriga and Gemini are still up past midnight but Rigel, in the knee of Orion and the low point of the Winter Circlet of bright stars, is setting by 9 pm. Sometimes these constellations are enhanced with planets, since Taurus and Gemini are part of the ecliptic. By next weekend Venus will have crossed the constellation border from Aries into Taurus to appear within a binocular width below the Pleiades. And you will need binoculars to see the Pleiades. I have a pleasant memory of seeing them with binoculars when they were low in the west in twilight. Shining through a thicker layer of our atmosphere, the stars were flickering wildly like candles in a breeze. I had the urge to make a wish and blow them out.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 6:34 am and sunset will occur at 8:05 pm, giving 13 hours, 31 minutes of daylight (6:40 am and 8:08 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 6:22 am and set at 8:14 pm, giving 13 hours, 52 minutes of daylight (6:28 am and 8:17 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is new on Sunday, leading into Dark Sky Week and International Astronomy Week. A less than 24 hour Moon might be seen with binoculars as a very slim crescent after sunset on Monday evening. On Tuesday evening it is near Venus, and it is waxing throughout the week for public observing events. Jupiter rises around 10 pm this week but still offers great viewing in the morning sky. Saturn is stationary on Tuesday, beginning five months of westward retrograde motion relative to the stars. Mars is getting brighter now as Earth is slowly catching up in orbit, and it will continue to do so until late July when we will be treated to its best opposition in 15 years.

During Astronomy Week amateur astronomers tend to set up their telescopes for public observing if the sky is clear. If you see one, stop and have a look.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance April 7 – 14

Photo showing location of the constellation Canes Venatici the Hunting Dogs below the handle of the Big Dipper.

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

Although Orion and his two dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, are slipping into the sunset, they are not the only pooches in the night sky. The small constellation of Canes Venatici the Hunting Dogs is generally seen as a pair of stars well below the handle of the Big Dipper. They assist their master, Boötes, in chasing the celestial bears around the pole.

In one tale from mythology Boötes is Icarius, a vineyard owner who was taught the art of winemaking by Bacchus. He introduced his shepherd neighbours to his product, and when they awoke hung over the next morning they thought they had been poisoned. In retaliation they killed Icarius and threw him in a ditch. His dogs, Chara and Asterion, sensed something was wrong and when they eventually found their master they jumped into the ditch to die with him.

The brightest star in Canes Venatici is a double star called Cor Caroli, which means the heart of Charles. Edmond Halley coined this because it was said the star shone brightly when Charles II returned to London after his defeat by Cromwell. Halfway between Cor Caroli and Arcturus, the brightest star in Boötes, you can see a fuzzy patch with binoculars. This is the globular star cluster M3 from Messier’s catalogue.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 6:47 am and sunset will occur at 7:55 pm, giving 13 hours, 8 minutes of daylight (6:53 am and 7:59 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 6:34 am and set at 8:05 pm, giving 13 hours, 31 minutes of daylight (6:40 am and 8:08 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at third quarter on Sunday, rising at 3 am and setting at 12:30 pm. It is near Mercury on the morning of April 14 but both will be difficult to see even with binoculars. Venus is slowly creeping higher in the west after sunset and is seen easily in twilight. Jupiter, Saturn and Mars continue to give good observing opportunities in the morning sky before 6 am, with the bonus of having the Moon near Saturn and Mars this weekend.

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

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance March 31 – April 7

The constellation Leo in the southern spring sky, also showing the locations of several Messier deep sky objects.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, March 31 – April 7 ~by Curt Nason

Leo the Lion is regarded as the signature constellation of spring, and it is not difficult to picture a lion in its distinctive pair of asterisms. A backwards question mark or a sickle represents its chest and mane, anchored by the bright star Regulus at its heart. To the east a triangle of stars forms the back leg and tail. Originally, a faint naked-eye cluster of stars represented a tuft at the end of the tail but that now represents the tresses of Coma Berenices.

In mythology, the lion was a vicious creature that resided in the mountains of Nemea. Its hide was impenetrable to spears or arrows; the only thing sharp enough to penetrate it was the lion’s claws. The first of Hercules’s twelve labours was to kill this creature, which the legendary strongman did by strangulation. He then cut the lion’s hide off with its claws and used the skin as a shield. A friend of mine sees this constellation as a mouse, with the triangle as its head the sickle as its tail. However, legends are not made by having a strongman battle a mouse.

Amateur astronomers often point their telescopes at Leo for two trios of galaxies; one under the belly and the other by the back leg. For each, the trio can be seen simultaneously with a wide-field eyepiece. Five of the six galaxies are Messier objects.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:01 am and sunset will occur at 7:46 pm, giving 12 hours, 45 minutes of daylight (7:06 am and 7:50 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 6:47 am and set at 7:55 pm, giving 13 hours, 8 minutes of daylight (6:53 am and 7:59 pm in Saint John).

The Mi’kmaq Maple Sugar full Moon occurs on Saturday, giving us Easter on the following day as it is the Sunday after the first full Moon of spring. In determining the date for Easter, March 21 is regarded as the first day of spring regardless of when the equinox actually occurs. Mercury is at inferior conjunction on Sunday and can be seen in the morning sky, with difficulty, in late April. Venus can be seen low in the west during evening twilight, setting after 9:30 pm. On Monday, early risers can catch Mars in the same telescopic field of view as the globular cluster M22, and can perhaps include Saturn with a low power eyepiece. Mars is directly below Saturn on Tuesday. Jupiter now rises around 11 pm and dominates the morning sky in the southwest.

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

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance March 24 – 31

Photo showing the constellation Lepus under Orion.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, March 24 -31  ~by Curt Nason

This being the week leading up to Easter, let us look for signs of it in the night sky. Lambs have long been associated with spring and Easter, so we can start with Aries the Ram in the west. For many, the symbol of Easter is Peter Cottontail, the Easter Bunny. When darkness sets in we can see Lepus the Hare below the feet of Orion. 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.

In Germanic mythology, Ostara, the goddess of spring, found a wounded bird and changed it into a hare so that it could survive. This animal was allowed to run as fast as it could fly and retained the ability to lay eggs, which it did in spring to honour its rescuer. The Saxon name for the goddess was Eostre.

Sunrise services are a popular way to celebrate Easter, and that is a good time to look for religious Easter symbols in the sky if you are an hour or two early. The Northern Cross, the most recognizable part of Cygnus the Swan, is high in the east among the procession of constellations. Look for semicircular Corona Borealis to the southwest, one third of the way from the bright star Arcturus toward equally bright Vega. Can you picture this as a cave with an open door? It does play the role of a cave in a local aboriginal legend in which the bowl of the Big Dipper is a bear pursued by seven hunters.

I think the best symbol is seen on the Moon when it is full or nearly so. When it rises in spring, look for the dark bunny ears to the upper right. With them identified, it isn’t difficult to picture Peter Cottontail clutching a giant egg.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:14 am and sunset will occur at 7:37 pm, giving 12 hours, 23 minutes of daylight (7:19 am and 7:41 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:01 am and set at 7:46 pm, giving 12 hours, 45 minutes of daylight (7:06 am and 7:50 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at first quarter during Earth Hour on March 24, a great time to share views of our natural night light. The Mi’kmaq Maple Sugar full Moon occurs next Saturday, giving us Easter on the following day as it is the first full Moon of spring. Mercury spends the week plummeting sunward in the west, on its way to inferior conjunction on April 1. Venus moves slowly away from the Sun, revealing itself soon after sunset. Mars is closing in on Saturn, which is above the globular cluster M22 to the left of the Sagittarius Teapot lid. Jupiter dominates the morning sky in the southwest.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance March 17 – 24

Another way of looking at the constellation Orion, in honour of St. Patrick's Day

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, March 17 – 24 ~by Curt Nason

With this weekend being party time for many O’Revelers, is there anything green that we can see in the sky? Yes, but rarely. We can see stars that are red, orange, yellow, blue or white, but not green. The colours are representative of their outer temperature, with red being coolest and blue the hottest. Any star with an outer temperature corresponding to green, which is in the middle wavelengths of the visible spectrum, emits approximately equal but lesser amounts of red and blue light. This combination gives us white light, and our Sun is such a star.

Some stargazers have claimed to see green stars that are part of a binary pair with a red giant star. Green is the complementary colour of red, and it is thought that if you observe a white star after staring at a red one, the complementary after-image can make the white star look green. I tested this by looking at a dim red light in a darkened room for a minute and then I switched on the incandescent light. It had a green tinge. It is said that Zubeneshamali, the brightest star in Libra and the one with the longest common name, is green. It might have been the power of suggestion, but I did see it as a very pale green in an 8-inch telescope.

Some people have seen the Sun (aka Sol, the shortest name for a star) flash green just before setting, and usually over water under steady atmospheric conditions. The most common reason for green in the sky, although still fairly rare in New Brunswick, is the northern lights. Energetic electrons from the Sun can make oxygen atoms in our upper atmosphere emit green light in a manner similar to that of a neon light. Northern lights are seen more frequently around the equinoxes, and if electrons have escaped the Sun through holes in its magnetic field lines we could get lucky this weekend. If not, then take a break from the partying to look up at the constellation O’Ryan.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 7:28 am and sunset will occur at 7:27 pm, giving 11 hours, 59 minutes of daylight (7:33 am and 7:32 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:14 am and set at 7:37 pm, giving 12 hours, 23 minutes of daylight (7:19 am and 7:41 pm in Saint John). The Sun crosses the equator heading north on Tuesday at 1:15 pm, beginning our spring season. Notice that March 17 is the day when we are closest to having 12 hours of daylight, rather than on the equinox as many people believe.

The Moon is at third quarter on March 17, making a great weekend for the Messier Marathon. On Sunday in evening twilight the slim crescent Moon anchors a line-up above the western horizon, with Venus a few degrees to its upper right and Mercury an equal distance beyond. Next Saturday we get to observe the first quarter Moon during Earth Hour. Start your Monday morning with binocular observing before twilight. Mars lies between the Lagoon Nebula (M8) and the Trifid Nebula (M20), and Saturn is just north of the splendid globular cluster M22 to the left of the Sagittarius Teapot lid. Jupiter is rising before midnight again by midweek.

The provincial astronomy club, RASC NB, meets this Saturday at 1 pm in the Moncton High School. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

Sky at a Glance March 10 – 17

Photo showing location of 7 Messier objects (Deep Sky Objects) in the constellation Ursa Major.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, March 10 – 17 ~by Curt Nason

For stargazers, early spring means it is time for a Messier Marathon. In 1758 a French comet hunter, Charles Messier, started compiling a catalogue of nebulous objects in the sky that resembled comets but weren’t. His completed catalogue was issued 13 years later with 103 objects. In the mid-20th century the catalogue was expanded to 110 based on Messier’s notes. Under a clear, dark sky all of the Messier objects can be seen in a small scope. It is a rite of passage for amateur astronomers to locate and observe all them.

The Messier catalogue includes 57 star clusters, 40 galaxies, 12 nebulae of new or dying stars, and an enigmatic pair of stars. The first on the list, called M1, is the Crab Nebula, the gaseous remnant of a supernova that was seen in daylight in 1054. M110 is a galaxy seen near M31, the Andromeda galaxy. The easiest to see is M45, the star cluster also known as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. The Orion Nebula, a stellar nursery in the Hunter’s sword, is M42, with the much less spectacular M43 nearby. Ursa Major has seven Messiers including M51, the Whirlpool galaxy, and M97, the Owl Nebula.

For a few weeks in March and April, around the time of a new Moon, it is possible to see all the Messier objects in one night, hence the Messier Marathon. However, from New Brunswick one of them rises in bright twilight and is somewhere between very difficult and impossible to see at this time of year. That won’t keep some stellar stalwarts from trying.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 6:41 am and sunset will occur at 6:18 pm, giving 11 hours, 37 minutes of daylight (6:46 am and 6:23 pm in Saint John). With the time change this weekend, next Saturday the Sun will rise at 7:28 am and set at 7:27 pm, giving 11 hours, 59 minutes of daylight (7:33 am and 7:32 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at third quarter on Friday, March 9 and new on March 17. It makes a broad triangle with Saturn and Mars on the morning of March 10. Jupiter is rising before midnight but is still best for observing in the morning. Mercury is at its greatest elongation from the Sun on Thursday, when it is within a binocular view to the upper right of brighter Venus.

The William Brydone Astronomy Club meets on Tuesday at 7 pm in the UNB Forestry / Earth Sciences Building in Fredericton. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.