Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Springing forward into Daylight Saving Time

This star map shows the Houston sky at 9 pm CST on March 1, 9 pm CDT on March 15, and 8 pm on March 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. Jupiter is high overhead in Gemini, the Twins. Dazzling Orion, the Hunter is to the Twins’ lower right. To Orion’s left are the two Dog Stars—little dog Procyon and big dog Sirius. Sirius outshines all other stars we see at night. In the north, the Big Dipper is higher in the sky. Leo, the Lion, rises in the east. These stars, along with Arcturus, announce the coming spring. Mars now rises in late evening.

This star map shows the Houston sky at 9 p.m. CST on March 1, 9 p.m. CDT on March 15, and 8 p.m. on March 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. Jupiter is high overhead in Gemini, the Twins. Dazzling Orion the Hunter is to the Twins’ lower right. To Orion’s left are the two Dog Stars: little dog Procyon and big dog Sirius. Sirius outshines all other stars we see at night. In the north, the Big Dipper is higher in the sky. Leo, the Lion, rises in the east. These stars, along with Arcturus, announce the coming spring. Mars now rises in late evening.

This month, Jupiter remains well placed for evening observing all winter and spring. Look for it almost overhead at dusk and high in the west later in the evening.

Mars remains in the morning sky. It continues to brighten a bit in the south at dawn. Later in March, it also begins rising in late evening (9:30 p.m. on March 5; 8:20 p.m. on March 31)

Saturn remains in the pre-dawn sky. Face south immediately before sunup to see it.

Venus has now entered the morning sky. Look southeast 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.

Brilliant winter stars shift toward the southwest during March. Dazzling Orion is almost due south at dusk. His three-starred belt is halfway between reddish Betelgeuse and bluish Rigel. Orion’s belt points up to Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull. This winter and spring, the Bull also contains Jupiter. To Orion’s upper left are the twin stars Castor and Pollux, marking the heads of Gemini, the Twins. You can find Sirius, the brightest star we ever see at night, by drawing a line from Orion’s belt towards the horizon. To Orion’s left, about level with Betelgeuse, is Procyon, the Little Dog Star.

From Sirius, look a little bit to the right and then straight down to the horizon. If your southern horizon is clear of clouds and tall earthly obstacles, you’ll see Canopus, the second brightest star ever visible at night. This star is so far south that most Americans never see it, and many star maps made in the USA omit it. (You must be south of 37 degrees north — the latitude of the USA’s Four Corners — for Canopus to rise). As you view Canopus, keep in mind that the sky we see depends on our latitude as well as on time of year and time of night.

Joining the winter stars are stars of spring rising in the east. Look for Leo the Lion at dusk. Later in the evening, extend the Big Dipper’s handle to “Arc to Arcturus“ and then “speed on to Spica;” these stars rise at about 10 p.m. in early March, but by 9 p.m. on the March 31.

Moon Phases in March 2014:
New:
March 1, 2:02 a.m.; March 30, 1:47 p.m.
1st Quarter: March 8, 7:26 a.m.
Full: March 16, 12:10 p.m.
Last Quarter: March 23, 8:47 p.m.

Sun., Mar. 9, is the second Sunday of the month. Accordingly, Daylight Saving Time begins at 2 am that morning. (The time goes from 1:59:59 to 3:00:00, with the 2 a.m. hour skipped.) Don’t forget to set your clocks forward one hour!

At 11:57 am on Thurs., Mar. 20, the Sun is directly overhead at the equator. That makes this the vernal equinox, one of two days when everyone on the planet has the same amount of daylight. Many consider this the ‘official’ start of spring. That’s because for us, days have been lengthening, with the Sun slightly higher in the sky each day, from December until now. After March 20, days continue to lengthen, making day longer than night. In the Southern Hemisphere, their long summer days have been shortening until now, with the Sun lower in the sky each day. After March 20, they continue to shorten, making day shorter than night. For them, then, this is the autumnal equinox.

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!

(Click here for the HMNS Planetarium Schedule)

The galaxy just got bigger: Calling all future space explorers to Family Space Day!

ATTENTION FUTURE SPACE EXPLORERS: NASA has just discovered 715 new planets for you to study and learn.

But let’s back up a second.

Launched in 2009, the Kepler space observatory has been scanning the heavens for earth-like exoplanets — planets existing outside our solar system. The observatory has been able to detect strong possibilities of planets, but they needed confirmation. Mountains of data have been sent to scientists on the ground to confirm the existence of these exoplanets.

While this process has been grueling and slow going, it resulted in several hundred confirmations. However, yesterday NASA announced the discovery of 715 new planets orbiting 305 stars — boosting the number of verified exoplanets by 70%.

Kepler has collected this data by detecting the transit of planets across their stars. When planets transit (i.e., cross in front of) a star, the star’s brightness appears to dim by a small amount. The amount of dimming depends on the size of the star and object revolving around it. This process can give false-positives, however, which has necessitated that the data be confirmed by scientists on the ground.

So what’s changed?

The way scientists were sifting through the data has changed. You see, it’s much easier to confirm the existence of planets when they are part of a multi-planet system. Readings that indicate multi-planet systems exist are difficult to explain as anything other than a multi-planet system — as opposed to single planet systems that could be explained by other phenomena. Therefore, by focusing on the data from what appeared to be multi-planet systems, scientists have been able to sift through and confirm the data at a much more rapid pace.

So what’s out there?

Ninety-four percent of the planets discovered are smaller than Neptune (that is, they’re four times larger than Earth or smaller). The number of planets with 2R (double the Earth’s radius) or less has increased 1,000 percent. Our total count of exoplanets now stands at 1,700 — which NASA planetary scientist Jack Lissaur has described as a “veritable bonanza of new worlds.”

So if you’ve got a future space explorer in your family, there’s never been a better time to get excited about space adventures — just in time for our Family Space Day at the George Observatory this Saturday.

Experience what it’s really like to be an astronaut-in-training with a simulated mission. Volunteers from NASA will guide you and your family on your mission — ensuring safe travels — as you transform into astronauts, scientists and engineers flying through space.

A perfect activity for the whole family, the flight simulation is open to adults and children 7 years and older (children ages 7 to 9 must be accompanied by a chaperone), and a minimum of 10 participants per mission is required.

Don’t miss this chance to participate in real astronaut training at the George Observatory! Click here or call (281) 242-3055 for details.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Canopus rises in Texas this February

This star map shows the Houston sky at 9 pm CST on February 1, 8 pm CST on February 14, and 7 pm on February 28. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. The Great Square of Pegasus sets in the western sky. Taurus, the Bull, is almost overhead. Dazzling Orion, the Hunter is high in the south, with his two dogs behind him. Sirius, the Big Dog Star, is the brightest star we ever see at night. Jupiter, in Gemini, approaches the zenith on February evenings. Look for Canopus, second brightest star ever seen at night, low in the south.

This star map shows the Houston sky at 9 p.m. CST on Feb. 1, 8 p.m. CST on Feb. 14, and 7 p.m. on Feb. 28. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. The Great Square of Pegasus sets in the western sky. Taurus, the Bull, is almost overhead. Dazzling Orion, the Hunter is high in the south, with his two dogs behind him. Sirius, the Big Dog Star, is the brightest star we ever see at night. Jupiter, in Gemini, approaches the zenith on February evenings. Look for Canopus, the second brightest star ever seen at night, low in the south.

This month, Venus has entered the morning sky. Look southeast 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, up literally all night long last month, remains well placed for evening observing all winter and spring. Look for it in the east at dusk and almost overhead later in the evening.

Mars remains in the morning sky. It continues to brighten a bit in the south at dawn.

Saturn remains in the pre-dawn sky. Face south-southeast right before sunup to see it.

In February, the Big Dipper only partly risen at dusk. Its two pointer stars — the stars farthest from the handle which point at the North Star —may be high enough to see over trees and buildings.

Watch the Great Square of Pegasus set in the west at dusk. Taurus the Bull is high in the south. Look for the Pleiades star cluster above reddish Aldebaran. Dazzling Orion the Hunter takes center stage on winter evenings. Surrounding Orion are the brilliant stars of winter. Orion’s belt points down to Sirius, the Dog Star, which outshines all other stars we ever see at night. The Little Dog Star, Procyon, rises with Sirius and is level with Orion’s shoulder as they swing towards the south. To the upper left of Orion’s shoulder is Gemini, the Twins, which contains Jupiter this winter.

Under Sirius and low to the southern horizon this month is a star that most Americans never get to see: Canopus. Representing the bottom (keel) of the legendary ship Argo, Canopus is the second brightest star ever visible at night (second to Sirius). Thus, it is clearly noticeable along the southern horizon on February and March evenings. However, you must be south of 37 degrees north for Canopus to rise. (This is the line that divides Utah, Colorado, and Kansas from Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.)

The sky we see depends on our latitude as well as on the time of night and time of year. From any given location in our hemisphere, there is an area of the sky around the North Star in which stars never set (circumpolar stars), and an equivalent area around the South Celestial Pole in which stars never rise. The closer you are to the pole, the larger these areas are. Observers in Canada, for example, have many circumpolar stars, but there is also a large area of stars that they never see. The closer you get to the equator, the fewer circumpolar stars there are, but there are also fewer stars that never rise for you. At the equator, no stars are either circumpolar or never visible; all of them rise and set as Earth turns.

That’s why, down here in south Texas, the Big Dipper sets, although it’s always up for most Americans. On the other hand, Canopus, too far south to rise for most Americans, rises here.

Moon Phases in February 2014:

1st Quarter: Feb. 6, 1:21 pm
Full: Feb. 14, 5:54 pm
Last Quarter: Feb. 22, 11:16 am
New: Mar. 1, 2:02 am

The Moon takes 27.34 days to orbit Earth; one cycle of Moon phases lasts 29.54 days. At 28 days long, February is the only month shorter than a lunar phase cycle, and thus the only month that can have only three of the four main phases. That’s the case this year, as a New Moon occurred at the end of January and the next comes early on March 1.

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 to you!

Save Our ‘Scope: A Gueymard fundraising update & why telescope mirrors matter

If you didn’t already know, we’re in the process of raising money to repair the Gueymard telescope at the George Observatory in the Save Our ‘Scope campaign. And thanks to you, we’ve raised over $65,000 of our $80,000 goal through donations ranging from $1 to $5,000 — and we’re grateful for every last one of ‘em.

But what’s the big deal? I mean, you can totally just buy a new mirror at Target or something, right? Well, in a word: nope.

Telescopes are amazing pieces of equipment – dauntingly large (the Gueymard weighs 10 tons) and yet incredibly delicate. If the mirror in a telescope warps just a few centimeters, it can vastly distort the images you see. Therefore, it’s extremely important to keep these machines in tip top condition.

Eye see you

Think of telescopes as an extension of your eyes. We can’t see things far away very well. When you look at the sky at night (and it’s dark enough) you see tons of tiny specks of light – some are stars, some are planets, others are galaxies, or even galaxy clusters. The light can travel for thousands (or millions or billions) of light years. The light heads right into your eye, onto your retina, and sends a message to the brain that says, “Hey, that’s neat, a speck of light.”

However, due to the distance involved, we can no longer appreciate the scale or detail of the images. The further away an object is, the smaller the space it takes up on the retina.

Telescopes fix all of this so that a bright, detailed image can reach your eye as it captures more light and then focuses and magnifies it.

Light-bending lenses

Lenses bend light waves, either causing them to converge (focusing light) or diverge (spreading out light). Glass lenses were used in the creation of the first telescopes, called refracting telescopes.

In this model, light passes through the objective lens, which collects the light, causing it to converge on the eyepiece where it is then magnified. These images would become distorted, however, as different wavelengths of light bend at different angles and focus at different points.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

So, how do you solve a problem like bent light? In a word: mirrors. With reflecting and compound telescopes, the light doesn’t pass through the objective lens. Instead, it is reflected (via concave mirror) back to a smaller mirror, directing the light to the eyepiece where it is magnified. Ta-da! Beautiful, clear images of faraway objects.

The cool thing here is that the larger your mirror, the more light you capture, giving you higher resolution images with better detail.

The bigger, the better?

If your goal is to capture as much visible light as possible, then yes, bigger is better. But this comes with special problems too. Mirrors can get heavy – very heavy. Think about it: our Gueymard telescope mirror is 36 inches in diameter, and some mirrors can be several hundred inches in diameter. Now that’s a lot of mirror! All of this weight can change the shape of the mirror so that, over time, they sag and no longer properly focus light to another point.

Oh, honey

This issue can be solved with honeycomb mirrors. No, they’re not made by bees. Rather, they’ve been influenced by the structure of a honeycomb. This allows the face of the mirror to be well supported, while reducing the weight of the mirror up to 80 percent.

Now that you’re (sorta) a telescope expert, come see the big stuff at the George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park! Houston’s really lucky to have this observatory in its backyard, so to speak, since the Gueymard is the largest telescope in the country open to public viewings.

Can you spare a George for the George? We’d greatly appreciate if you pitched in to help save our ‘scope. Your efforts ensure that Houstonians can continue to stargaze through the most incredible telescope they’ll ever get to use for many years to come.