Spot the Planet Uranus with the Naked Eye

The “Great Planet Race” in the western evening sky this summer is beginning to wrap up; Venus has caught up with Mars as they both leave Saturn behind. As these planets set in the west, though, another rises in the east at about 9:30, and will have cleared most buildings and trees by 10 p.m. And this one is involved in a conjunction of its own.

This is none other than Jupiter, king of the planets. Once Jupiter rises, it is easy to find because it outshines everything in the sky except the sun, the moon, and Venus.  Just look east for the brightest thing in the night sky.  Last I checked, Jupiter is still missing one of its belts.  For the rest of this year, Jupiter remains well placed for observing in convenient evening hours.  If you have a telescope, watch for yourself and see if the belt returns!

Although Jupiter seems to be by itself among the much, much dimmer stars of Pisces, it in fact has a close companion that few of us ever get to see without a telescope, the planet Uranus. We typically identify Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn as the five naked eye planets, and for practical purposes, that’s true.  However, Uranus is actually visible to the unaided eye under perfect conditions.  In the time before man made light dimmed the skies, many people could see Uranus.  However, they were unable to recognize it as a planet because it is dim and changes position very slowly. (It takes 84 years for Uranus to reappear near the same stars).  Thus Uranus, although plainly visible, went undiscovered for centuries.  For example, in 1690, John Flamsteed was cataloguing stars and constellations, numbering stars in each constellation from west to east.  However, the ‘star’ he catalogued as ’34 Tauri’ (#34 in Taurus) was in fact the planet Uranus. 

 Replica of Herschel’s telescope

In March 1781, William Herschel became the first to identify Uranus as a planet when he observed it in his telescope.  As Uranus is about twice as far from the sun as Saturn, Herschel’s discovery doubled the size of the known solar system.  Herschel wanted to call the new planet ‘George’ (actually Georgium Sidus in Latin) after his patron, King George III.  German astronomer Johann Elert Bode, who had calculated an orbit for the new planet, suggested calling it ‘Uranus’ because in Graeco-Roman myth, Saturn had been the father of Jupiter and Uranus the father of Saturn. 

Here are charts showing the relative positions of Jupiter and Uranus from now into the new year.  The event depicted is a triple conjunction, in which two outer planets align on three separate occasions only a few months apart.  This occurs when distant planets align while Earth is on the same side of the sun as they are.  As Earth passes the slower outer planets, we see them slow down, stop, and reverse direction for while.  We see the planets resume direct motion once Earth has pulled far enough ahead on its much faster inner orbit.  As a result, we see three conjunctions instead of just one.  The three closest alignments of Jupiter and Uranus occur on June 8, 2010, September 18, 2010, and January 3, 2011.  At all three, Jupiter is less than one degree (about the width of an adult’s pinkie held at arm’s length) under Uranus.  The conjunction of June 8 occurred in the morning sky, but the two yet to come will be visible in convenient evening hours.  On the night of September 20-21, Earth is directly in line with the pair, causing them to rise at dusk at set at dawn–Jupiter and Uranus will be up all night long.  By winter, Jupiter and Uranus will be high in the south southwest at nightfall. 

Late 2010 is a good time to get a glimpse of a world we don’t usually notice in the sky.  A small telescope or even binoculars will reveal Uranus.  And if you find yourself away from the city on a moonless night, see if you can pick out which of the dim points of light just above Jupiter is a little more than meets the eye. 

How To Evolve a Wing

Our Archaeopteryx show has bedazzling fossils – the only Archaeopteryx skeleton in the New World, complete with clear impressions of feathers. Plus frog-mouthed pterodactyls, fast-swimming Sea Crocs, and slinky land lizards. Today we learn the different ways in which wings evoloved on various prehistoric creatures.

Solnhofen show us three ways for Darwinian processes to construct a wing from a normal arm

Dactyls:
Dactyls evolved from very close relatives of early dinosaurs. The dinosaurs and their crocodilian kin are archosaurs. Archosaurs developed a unique asymmetry in the hand. Primitive reptiles, like today’s lizards, have five fingers, each with a strong claw. In archosaurs the outer two fingers are weak and have no claw at all.

Crocodilians and many dinosaurs kept this arrangement -  for example, stegosaurs and Triceratops had five fingers and three claws on the inner fingers. Meat-eating dinosaurs usually evolved three-fingered hands, doing away with those outer two claw-less fingers.

‘Dactyls evolved their archosaur hand in a different manner: they lost the pinky (the outermost finger). The claws on the inner three fingers were strong – useful for climbing trees and the sides of cliffs. The fourth finger evolved into an organ we see in no other creature: Finger four became immense, as thick as the thigh or thicker. The finger could be folded back where it joined the wrist for walking on the ground. When flying, the giant finger four was stretched outwards.

 Schematic of a generic pterosaur wing, pencil drawing, digital coloring
Creative Commons License photo credit: Arthurweasley

Solnhofen fossils showed that the wing surface was attached to the finger four and to the sides of the body and the inner edges of the hind leg. So ‘dactyls could flap like a bat – using up and down strokes of both arm and leg to make the power stroke.

Dinosaurs and Birds:

 Archaeopteryx

Birds evolved their wing by another wonderfully unique method. Their hand bones were 99% identical to those in small meat-eating dinosaurs. Only the three inner fingers were retained. Darwinian processes had clipped off the pinky and fourth finger. Solnhofen fossils prove that specialized wing feathers were attached to the second finger. So Archaeopteryx flew with the feathered arm.

Raptor-type dinosaurs, like Velociraptor and Microraptor, had evolved feathers very like those of birds. But these small dinosaurs evolved hind-leg wings to assist the arms. Flight feathers were attached to knee and shin as well as to the forelimb. When a tiny raptor-like dinosaur evolved into Archaeopteryx, the feathers were lost from the hind-legs, leaving just the arm to do the work of flying.

Bats:

Bats are specialized mammals and no bats had evolved in the Jurassic. The first bats appear much later, about 55 million years ago.

Bats use strong skin to make the wing. But unlike ‘dactyls, who evolved just one finger to support the wing surface, bats use three or four fingers to spread the wing and control the wing in flight.

Don’t miss Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution, currently on display at HMNS. Want to learn more? Check out our previous blogs on Archaeopteryx.

Have fun and save money? Too good to be true? Not any more

Generously supported by Marathon Oil Corporation

You may have heard the big news. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is forming a new energy conservation initiative!

On October 9th, the Houston Museum of Natural Science will kick off its new Energy Conservation Club website. The Kick Off will include Billy B, hands on activities, information on conservation, and more! All for free!

All this to kick off what will become the central clearing house for energy conservation education, the Energy Conservation Club website.

Hair Weave
Recycled Art
Creative Commons License photo credit: clementine mom

So what is an Energy Conservation Club (ECC)? An ECC is a group formed at a school, home school, church, or other organization to help people promote energy conservation. They will promote energy conservation through actions; energy audits of home and school, experiments to show how much energy can be saved, plays about energy conservation, short stories, and energy conservation and recycle art. These are just a few ways to promote energy conservation. The sky’s not even the limit.

Do people who want to promote energy conservation have to form a club to use the website? No. We encourage clubs and extracurricular activities, but a teacher could just as easily assign her class an energy conservation project or use the materials on the website in any way. A fun energy conservation project could also be entered into the NEED’s Youth Awards. A great way to do two projects for the energy of one.

There is also nothing stopping individuals from using the website. If you just want to learn a way to save money on your electrical bill, you’re more than welcome to visit us. We would love for you to tell us about it, so we could share your stories with others and encourage them.

an idea
Creative Commons License photo credit: aloshbennett

What exactly will the website contain? It will have energy conservation tips updated regularly to help you save electricity and money. Grand philosophical thoughts such as “Turn the lights off when you leave the room.” We explain how to read an electrical bill and a meter. We tell how a smart grid differs from a smart meter. We’ll also show you the math and calculations behind how to choose which light bulb you should use. In addition, there will be all the information you need to teach about energy, from the science of fossil fuels to alternative energy sources. And that’s just for starters! We’ll keep updating the website with the latest and greatest energy conservation news and information.

We will also tell you what conservation events are going on in the community, such as the City of Houston’s Green building tours or the next NEED workshop for teachers. Energy in the News will keep you up to date on the exciting developments in energy.

You might be wondering why were doing all this. One answer is we want children and adults to be excited about science and learning. Another reason is that because the electrical demand of the country will grow by 30% in the next 25 years, we need an alterative to putting up coal fired power plants. Another might be the deep-seated need to be responsible and use what we have wisely, which includes not using electricity when we don’t need it.

What can you do to have access to this plethora of important information? That’s the easy part. The kick off will be at the museum on October 9th and will be free. We’ll have Billy B singing and dancing (my favorite is the water cycle) and lots of hands on activities and information. After the 9th you’ll be able to access all the information for free. The choices you make today will create the possibilities of tomorrow.

What’s Blooming Now in the Butterfly Center?

Lois’ flower has died back, but the Cockrell Butterfly Center still has many amazing flowers blooming right now!

Although not all as rare as the corpse flower, the rainforest in the butterfly center is made up of hundreds of hard-to-find tropical plant species, most of which (but not all) come from Central and South America. We have many different varieties of orchids and bromeliads that bloom at different times of the year, so there is always something new to see at the Cockrell Butterfly Center!

What’s Blooming Now?

Bromeliad – Billbergia nutans
Bromeliads are a very diverse family of plants. We currently have nine different genera, and many different species, of bromeliads growing in the butterfly center. Most of them are epiphytes but we do have a few terrestrial genera including, everyone’s favorite, Ananus comosum, aka pineapple.

Bromeliad - Billbergia nutans [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Billbergia nutans

Orchids
The Orchid family is the second largest family of flowering plants, consisting of around 25,000 species. Different orchids bloom at different time through out the year, so no matter what season you are sure to see at least a couple species of orchids in bloom at the Cockrell Butterfly Center. Also, keep an eye out for our vanilla orchid, not in bloom right now, but still a fascinating vine.

Cattleya [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Cattleya
Cymbidium [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Cymbidium
Oncidium [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Oncidium
Phalaenopsis [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Phalaenopsis

Ginger
The butterfly center has many different species of ginger, most of which stay in bloom all year round. However, the Torch Ginger, Etlingera elatior, only occasionally flowers, and right now it is putting up three flower spikes, the tallest is over SIX FEET tall.

Torch Ginger Flower [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Etlingera elatior

Other Amazing Flowers

Medinilla
Medinilla is an epiphyte, meaning it attaches itself to trees or branches in the wild. From afar the flowers look like clusters of tiny pink grapes.

Medinilla [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Medinilla
Medinilla [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Medinilla

Nepenthes
Although not a flower, Nepenthes or Pitcher Plants are definitely a sight to behold. We currently have four species of pitcher plants, each with a slightly different color, size, and shape.

Nepenthes are carnivorous plants that eat mostly small insects such as ants and flies. For more information about pitcher plants refer to my previous blog: Beautiful, but Dangerous: the Fascinating Pitcher Plant.

Nepenthes [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Nepenthes

Warszewiczia coccinea
And we can’t forget about the butterflies favorite tree, Warszewiczia coccinea or Pride of Trinidad. This tree remains in bloom almost all year at the butterfly center, but it is putting on a fresh set of flowers right now, meaning the color is at its most vibrant. This tree is the butterflies’ favorite because each inflorescence actually contains hundreds of small yellow flower, each containing nectar for them.

Warszewiczia coccinea [Cockrell Butterfly Center]
Warszewiczia coccinea

And the list goes on! These are just a few of the amazing plants we have blooming in the Cockrell Butterfly Center right now. So come on down to HMNS and get a taste of a South American rainforest here in your own back yard.

Interested in learning more about plants? Read more of Zac’s posts and make sure to check out our live webcam feed tomorrow as Zac replants Lois, the famous corpse flower.