Most planets are easy to spot in the night sky, but have you spotted Mercury? Nicknamed the Messenger for its speed across the sky, Mercury is also the closest planet to the Sun. Its swift movements close to our Sun accorded it special importance to ancient observers, while also making detailed study difficult. However, recent missions to Mercury have resulted in amazing discoveries, with more to come.
Do you want to peer deeper into the night sky? Are you feeling the urge to buy a telescope? There are so many options for budding astronomers that choosing one can be overwhelming. A first telescope should be easy to use and provide good quality views while being affordable. As it turns out, those requirements make the first telescope of choice for many stargazers something unexpected: a good pair of binoculars!
Sometimes constellations look like their namesake, and sometimes these starry patterns look like something else entirely. That’s the case for many stargazers upon identifying the constellation of Cepheus for the first time. These stars represent Cepheus, the King of Ethiopia, sitting on his throne. However, many present-day observers see the outline of a simple house, complete with peaked roof, instead – quite a difference! Astronomers have another association with this northern constellation; inside its borders lies the namesake of one of the most important types of stars in modern astronomy: Delta Cephei, the original Cepheid Variable.
Fall evenings bring a prominent visitor to southern skies for Northern Hemisphere observers: the bright star Fomalhaut! Sometimes called “The Autumn Star,” Fomalhaut appears unusually distant from other bright stars in its section of sky, leading to its other nickname: “The Loneliest Star.” Since this star appears so low and lonely over the horizon for many observers, is so bright, and often wildly twinkles from atmospheric turbulence, Fomalhaut’s brief but bright seasonal appearance often inspires a few startled UFO reports. While definitely out of this world – Fomalhaut is about 25 light years distant from us – it has been extensively studied and is a fascinating, and very identified, stellar object.
September skies bring the lovely Summer Triangle asterism into prime position after nightfall for observers in the Northern Hemisphere. Its position high in the sky may make it difficult for some to observe its member stars comfortably, since looking straight up while standing can be hard on one’s neck! While that isn’t much of a problem for those that just want to quickly spot its brightest stars and member constellations, this difficulty can prevent folks from seeing some of the lesser known and dimmer star patterns scattered around its informal borders. The solution? Lie down on the ground with a comfortable blanket or mat, or grab a lawn or gravity chair and sit luxuriously while facing up. You’ll quickly spot the major constellations about the Summer Triangle’s three corner stars: Lyra with bright star Vega, Cygnus with brilliant star Deneb, and Aquila with its blazing star, Altair. As you get comfortable and your eyes adjust, you’ll soon find yourself able to spot a few constellations hidden in plain sight in the region around the Summer Triangle: Vulpecula the Fox, Sagitta the Arrow, and Delphinus the Dolphin! You could call these the Summer Triangle’s “hidden treasures” – and they are hidden in plain sight for those that know where to look!
We are returning to the Moon – and beyond! Later this summer, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission will launch the first uncrewed flight test of both the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft on a multi-week mission. Orion will journey thousands of miles beyond the Moon, briefly entering a retrograde lunar orbit before heading back to a splashdown on Earth.
Hercules is one of the standout heroes of Greek mythology, but his namesake constellation can be surprisingly hard to find – despite being one of the largest star patterns in our night skies! Once you find the stars of Hercules, look deeper; barely hidden in the space around his massive limbs and “Keystone” asterism are two beautiful globular star clusters: M13 and M92!
Solstices mark the changing of seasons, occur twice a year, and feature the year’s shortest and longest daylight hours – depending on your hemisphere. These extremes in the length of day and night make solstice days more noticeable to many observers than the subtle equality of day and night experienced during equinoxes. Solstices were some of our earliest astronomical observations, celebrated throughout history via many summer and winter celebrations.
Have you spotted any “night lights”? These phenomena brighten dark skies with celestial light ranging from mild to dazzling: the subtle light pyramid of the zodiacal light, the eerie twilight glow of noctilucent clouds, and most famous of all, the wildly unpredictable and mesmerizing aurora.
Many constellations are bright, big, and fairly easy to spot. Others can be surprisingly small and faint, but with practice even these challenging star patterns become easier to discern. A couple of fun fainter constellations can be found in between the brighter stars of Ursa Major, Leo, and Gemini: Lynx and Leo Minor, two wild cats hunting among the menagerie of animal-themed northern star patterns!