About James

James is the Planetarium Astronomer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He teaches students every school morning in the planetarium, and also answers astronomy questions from the public.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: The Summer Triangle is high in the sky

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on July 1, 9 pm CDT on July 15, and dusk on July 31.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. The Summer Triangle is high in the east.  This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila.  Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to his left.  Leo, the Lion, sets in the west.  From the Big Dipper’s handle, ‘arc to Arcturus’ and ‘speed on to Spica’ in the southwest.  Watch Mars close in on Saturn this month.

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 p.m. CDT on July 1, 9 p.m. CDT on July 15, and dusk on July 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.
The Summer Triangle is high in the east. This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila. Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to his left. Leo, the Lion, sets in the west. From the Big Dipper’s handle, ‘arc to Arcturus’ and ‘speed on to Spica’ in the southwest. Watch Mars close in on Saturn this month.

This month, Mars is in the southwest at dusk this month. Mars continues to fade a little each night as Earth continues to leave it farther behind. Still, Mars rivals the brightest stars we see at night.

Saturn is also in the southwest at dusk. This month and next, Mars approaches Saturn more and more. 

Venus remains in the morning sky. Look east at dawn for the brightest point of light there; only the Sun and Moon outshine Venus. Venus remains a morning star for almost all of 2014.

Jupiter is behind the Sun and out of sight this month. 

The Big Dipper is left of the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the west at dusk. Leo, the Lion, is setting in the west at dusk.

Antares, the brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southeast, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius rising behind it. The Summer Triangle has fully risen in the northeast. The stars of summer are here.  

Moon Phases in July 2014:

1st Quarter: July 5, 7:00 a.m. 
Full: July 12, 6:26 a.m.
Last Quarter: July 18, 9:09 p.m.
New: July 26, 5:42 p.m.

At about 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 3, Earth is as far from the Sun as it will get this year. This is aphelion, when Earth is 94.56 million miles from the Sun, as opposed to the average distance of 93 million miles. On January 4, Earth was at 91.44 million miles from the Sun; that was perihelion (closest approach to the Sun). It turns out that this variation in the Earth-Sun distance is too small to cause much seasonal change. The tilt of Earth’s axis dominates as it orbits the Sun. That’s why we swelter when farther from the Sun and shiver when we’re closer. 

Click here to see what’s happening this month in the Burke Baker Planetarium

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement. 

Clear skies!

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Break out the sunscreen, ’cause here comes the Summer Solstice

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on June 1, 9 pm CDT on June 15, and dusk on June 30.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.  Jupiter sets in the west in Gemini, the Twins. The Big Dipper is as high as it gets in the north. Leo, the Lion, is high in the west at dusk. From the Big Dipper’s handle, arc to Arcturus and then speed on to Spica in the south.  Saturn left of Spica in Libra.  Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila form the Summer Triangle in the east, as Scorpius and Sagittarius rise in the southeast.  Summer has arrived.

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 p.m. CDT on June 1, 9 p.m. CDT on June 15, and dusk on June 30. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. Jupiter sets in the west in Gemini, the Twins. The Big Dipper is as high as it gets in the north. Leo, the Lion, is high in the west at dusk. From the Big Dipper’s handle, arc to Arcturus and then speed on to Spica in the south. Saturn is left of Spica in Libra. Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila form the Summer Triangle in the east, as Scorpius and Sagittarius rise in the southeast. Summer has arrived.

This month, Jupiter remains in the evening sky for one more month. Look for it low in the west at dusk, outshining all the stars we ever see at night. 

Mars is in the southwest at dusk this month. Mars continues to fade a little each night as Earth continues to leave it farther behind. Still, Mars rivals the brightest stars we see at night.

Saturn was up all night long last month. Now, it remains well-placed for evening observing. Look low in the southeast at dusk.

Venus remains in the morning sky. Look east at dawn for the brightest point of light there; only the Sun and Moon outshine Venus. Venus remains a morning star for almost all of 2014.

The Big Dipper is above the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the south at dusk.  Leo, the Lion, is high in the west at dusk.

Antares, the brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southeast, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius rising behind it. The Summer Triangle has fully risen in the northeast.  The stars of summer are here.  

Moon Phases in June 2014:

1st Quarter: June 5, 3:40 p.m. 
Full: June 12, 11:13 p.m.
Last Quarter: June 19, 1:39 p.m.
New: June 27, 3:09 a.m.

 

Summer Solstice 2014

At 5:51 a.m. on Saturday, June 21, the Sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer — the farthest point north where the Sun can be overhead. This therefore marks our summer solstice. On this date, those of us in the northern hemisphere experience the longest day and shortest night of the year, and the midday Sun is as high as possible in the sky. From the Southern Hemisphere, the Sun is as low as possible in the sky on June 21. Folks down there have their shortest day and longest night on their winter solstice. 

Interestingly, we see our earliest sunrise on June 11 and latest sunset on July 1. These are not on the solstice because Earth does not orbit the Sun at constant speed. Rather, Earth speeds up a little near perihelion (January) and slows down a little near aphelion (July).  Thus, for a period extending 10 days before and after the solstice, both sunrise and sunset occur a little later each day. (This close to the solstice, the difference in the height of the Sun each day changes only imperceptibly, allowing this small secondary effect to dominate). As most of us sleep through sunrise and are awake at sunset, days will seem to lengthen all the way through June.

Looking for a cool way to ring in the summer heat? Come out for our Summer Solstice party (part of our Mixers & Elixirs series) on June 21!

Want to learn more about the night sky? Click here for the HMNS Planetarium Schedule.

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer.  If you’re there, listen for my announcement. 

Clear skies!

Say hello to a brand new meteor shower: the May Camelopardalids

Longtime observers of meteors are familiar with the annual Perseids in August and the Geminids in December. These showers reliably produce hundreds of “shooting stars” per hour every year. 

Beginning in 2014, however, we might add another annual treat — the May Camelopardalids, peaking on May 24!

What are meteors?
Meteors are streaks of light in the night sky produced when tiny dust particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Because these particles are moving very fast as they fall through the Earth’s atmosphere, friction causes them to glow. Most meteors burn up completely while in the atmosphere. Any rocks that reach the ground are called meteorites.

Why do meteor showers occur?
Individual meteors may be seen at any time and are therefore totally unpredictable.  However, as the Earth circles the Sun, it passes from time to time through paths of comets. The comets are long gone, but dust particles swept off the comet remain behind. As these particles fall into the Earth’s atmosphere, a meteor shower occurs. (Imagine driving on a gravel road behind a truck. Although the truck is not at the point where you are, particles kicked up by its wheels strike your windshield.) Since astronomers know where these comet paths are, they can predict when the Earth will pass through them and thus roughly predict meteor showers. 

Early on May 24, the Earth passes under the path of Comet 209P/LINEAR, causing a shower known as the May Camelopardalids. Although Comet 209P/LINEAR’s most recent approach to the Sun was on May 6, there should still be many dust particles left to enter the Earth’s atmosphere on May 24.

What does “Camelopardalid” mean?
This shower is called the May Cameolpardalids because these meteors seem to “radiate” from the constellation Camelopardalis, the Giraffe. Since two other (much weaker) meteor showers, peaking in March and October, radiate from the same area, we specify “May Camelopardalids.”  Camelopardalis appears just under the North Star early on May mornings, so meteors will seem to come from the north. That’s because Earth passes under the debris stream rather than through it; debris thus falls into Earth’s atmosphere mostly near the North Pole.

When can I best observe the May Camelopardalids?
This year, the best time to observe is on Saturday morning, May 24, between 1:30 and 3:30 a.m. The very skinny crescent Moon, which won’t even rise until 3:40 a.m., is not a major factor. The closer you are to Houston’s bright lights, however, the fewer meteors you’ll see.  Also, any haze or cloudiness will hide meteors from view. Keep in mind, however, that unlike other annual meteor showers such as the Perseids or the Geminids, we have never observed this shower before. 

That’s because until recently, Earth never came close enough to the path of 209P/LINEAR for its debris to fall into our atmosphere. That changed in 2012, when that comet came too close to Jupiter. Interaction with the King of Planets put 209P/LINEAR onto a new orbit which comes closer to Earth’s. As the comet has a five-year period, 2014 is the first time it approaches the Sun on its new orbit — and the first time Earth encounters its debris field.  Therefore, the information above on when to see the most meteors is simply our best estimate.

How many meteors will I see?
Astronomers expect at least 100 to 200 meteors per hour, with only an outside chance of seeing 1,000 per hour (a meteor storm). Meteors will appear all over the sky during the shower, with each meteor streaking from north to south. Lying on your back, to see as much of the sky as possible at once, offers the best view. With the radiant low in the north for us, we won’t see as many meteors as those in the northern U.S. or Canada. 

Still, this shower has never happened before, so all projections could be off. The only way to know for sure is to watch and find out!

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Changing stars remind us that summer’s coming

 This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on May 1, 9 pm CDT on May 15, and dusk on May 31.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.  Jupiter sets in the west in Gemini, the Twins. The Big Dipper is as high as it gets in the north. Leo, the Lion, is almost overhead at dusk. From the Big Dipper’s handle, arc to Arcturus and then speed on to Spica in the southeast.  Saturn is below Spica in Libra.  Vega and Antares peek above the horizon, announcing the approaching summer.


This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 p.m. CDT on May 1, 9 p.m. CDT on May 15, and dusk on May 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. Jupiter sets in the west in Gemini, the Twins. The Big Dipper is as high as it gets in the north. Leo, the Lion, is almost overhead at dusk. From the Big Dipper’s handle, arc to Arcturus and then speed on to Spica in the southeast. Saturn is below Spica in Libra. Vega and Antares peek above the horizon, announcing the approaching summer.

Jupiter remains well placed for evening observing all spring. Look for it in the west at dusk, outshining all the stars we ever see at night. 

Mercury appears in the evening sky this month. Too close to the Sun to observe on May 1, Mercury gradually comes from behind the Sun and by mid-month, it appears low on the western horizon at dusk right above the point of sunset. Greatest elongation (apparent distance from Mercury to the Sun) is on May 25.

Mars is in the southeast at dusk this month. On April 8, Earth passed between the Sun and Mars. Mars has dimmed a little since then as Earth has begun to leave it behind. Still, Mars rivals the brightest stars we see at night.

Saturn is up all night long this month. On May 10, Earth passes between the Sun and Saturn, putting Saturn at opposition. That night, Saturn rises at sundown and sets at sunrise. Thus, Saturn is very low in the southeast at dusk, and very low in the southwest at sunup.

Venus remains in the morning sky. Look east at dawn for the brightest point of light there; only the Sun and Moon outshine Venus. Venus remains a morning star for almost all of 2014.

A swath of brilliant winter stars sets in the west at dusk. Orion, the Hunter, is still visible in the west as May begins. His two dogs, represented by Sirius and Procyon, are to his left.  Gemini, the Twins, are above Orion. The Big Dipper is above the North Star, with its handle pointing to the right. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the east and southeast at dusk. Leo, the Lion, passes almost overhead in late evening.

As Orion and Taurus set, look for Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, to rise in the southeast. At the same time, Vega, brightest star of the Summer Triangle, appears low in the northeast.  These stars remind us that summer is on the way. 

Moon Phases in May 2014:

1st Quarter: May 6, 10:16 pm 
Full May: 14, 2:18 pm
Last Quarter:  May 21, 7:59 am
New May: 28, 1:42 pm 

Click here to see the HMNS Planetarium Schedule

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer.  If you’re there, listen for my announcement.

Clear skies!