It’s that time of year again: winter! Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the cold, crisp sky offers spectacular views of various objects, the most famous of all being Orion the Hunter.
Credit: Stellarium Web
You might be familiar with Saturn as the solar system’s ringed planet, with its enormous amount of dust and ice bits circling the giant planet. But Uranus, the next planet out from the Sun, hosts an impressive ring system as well. The seventh planet was the first discovered telescopically instead of with unaided eyes, and it was astronomer extraordinaire William Herschel who discovered Uranus March 13, 1781. Nearly two centuries passed before an infrared telescope aboard a military cargo aircraft revealed the planet had rings in 1977.
“…We, too, are made of wonders, of great
and ordinary loves, of small invisible worlds,
of a need to call out through the dark.”
From In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa by Ada Limon
Looking up in awe at the night sky, the stars and planets pop out as bright points against a dark background. All of the stars that we see are nearby, within our own Milky Way Galaxy. And while the amount of stars visible from a dark sky location seems immense, the actual number is measurable only in the thousands. But what lies between the stars and why can’t we see it? Both the Hubble telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) have revealed that what appears as a dark background, even in our backyard telescopes, is populated with as many galaxies as there are stars in the Milky Way.
On August 1st, catch a full Moon rising in the east just 30 minutes after sunset. We are seeing the entire sunlit side of the Moon as it is nearly (but not quite) in line with the Sun and Earth. The Farmers’ Almanac calls this month’s Moon the “Sturgeon Moon”, for the time of year when this giant fish was once abundant in the Great Lakes. Cultures around the world give full Moons special names, often related to growing seasons or celebrations.
French astronomer Charles Messier cataloged over 100 fuzzy spots in the night sky in the 18th century while searching for comets – smudges that didn’t move past the background stars so couldn’t be comets. Too faint to be clearly seen using telescopes of the era, these objects were later identified as nebulas, distant galaxies, and star clusters as optics improved. Messier traveled the world to make his observations, assembling the descriptions and locations of all the objects he found in his Catalog of Nebulae and Star Clusters. Messier’s work was critical to astronomers who came after him who relied on his catalog to study these little mysteries in the night sky, and not mistake them for comets.
Bird constellations abound in the night sky, including Cygnus, the majestic swan. Easy to find with its dazzling stars, it is one of the few constellations that look like its namesake and it is full of treasures. Visible in the Northern Hemisphere all summer long, there’s so much to see and even some things that can’t be seen. To locate Cygnus, start with the brightest star, Deneb, also the northeastern most and dimmest star of the Summer Triangle. The Summer Triangle is made up of three bright stars from three different constellations – read more about it in the September 2022 issue of Night Sky Notes. “Deneb” is an Arabic word meaning the tail. Then travel into the triangle until you see the star Albireo, sometimes called the “beak star” in the center of the summer triangle. Stretching out perpendicular from this line are two stars that mark the crossbar, or the wings, and there are also faint stars that extend the swan’s wings.
Have you ever witnessed a total solar eclipse? What about an annular solar eclipse? If not, then you are in luck if you live in North America: the next twelve months will see two solar eclipses darken the skies for observers in the continental United States, Mexico, and Canada!
Venus is usually the brightest planet in our skies, and is called “Earth’s Twin” due to its similar size to Earth and its rocky composition. However, Venus is a nightmare version of our planet, featuring a thick, crushing atmosphere of acidic clouds, greenhouse gasses, howling winds, and intense heat at its surface.
Jupiter is our solar system’s undisputed king of the planets! Jupiter is bright and easy to spot from our vantage point on Earth, helped by its massive size and banded, reflective cloud tops. Jupiter even possesses moons the size of planets: Ganymede, its largest, is bigger than the planet Mercury. What’s more, you can easily observe Jupiter and its moons with a modest instrument, just like Galileo did over 400 years ago.