Seeing Stars with James Wooten: A solstice and a shower for December

This star map shows the Houston sky at 9 pm CST on December 1, 8 pm CST on December 15, and dusk on December 31.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. The Summer Triangle sets in the west.  This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila.  Mars outshines all the dim stars in the southwest.   Pegasus, the Flying Horse, is high in the south.  To the east, we see Orion, the Hunter, and Taurus, the Bull, finally entering the sky.  The brilliant stars of winter began their grand entry.

This star map shows the Houston sky at 9 pm CST on December 1, 8 pm CST on December 15, and dusk on December 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.
The Summer Triangle sets in the west. This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila. Mars outshines all the dim stars in the southwest. Pegasus, the Flying Horse, is high in the south. To the east, we see Orion, the Hunter, and Taurus, the Bull, finally entering the sky. The brilliant stars of winter began their grand entry.

This month, Mars remains in the southwest at dusk this month as it moves through Capricornus. Mars continues to fade a little each night as Earth continues to leave it farther behind. 

Jupiter is now high in the south at dawn; it is the brightest thing there. 

Venus begins to emerge from the Sun’s glare late this month. Can you spot it low in the southwest at dusk by New Year’s Eve?

Saturn begins to emerge into the morning sky by mid-month. Look low in the southeast at dawn.

In December, the Big Dipper is below the horizon at dusk. As the Big Dipper sets, though, Cassiopeia is high above the North Star. This is a pattern of five stars in a distinct M or W shape. Look for Cassiopeia high in the north on fall and winter evenings.  

The Summer Triangle sets in the west.  Watch for the Great Square of Pegasus almost overhead at dusk now and in the west by Christmas. Taurus, the Bull rises in the east.  Look for the Pleiades star cluster above reddish Aldebaran. Dazzling Orion, the Hunter rises shortly after dusk (by month’s end, it is already up at dusk). As Orion enters the evening sky, we transition from the relatively dim evening skies of autumn to the brilliant stars of winter. We are beginning to face away from the center of the galaxy, looking at stars behind us in our own part (the Orion Spur) of our galaxy.

Moon Phases in December 2014:

Full: December 6, 11:26 am
Last Quarter: December 14, 11:53 am
New: December 22, 12:35 am
1st Quarter: December 28, 5:32 pm

At 10:03 pm on Sunday, December 21, the Sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn, the farthest point south where this is possible. This puts the Sun as low as possible in our sky, and marks the winter solstice. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Sun is as high as possible in the sky—this is the summer solstice for them. 

Although the winter solstice is the shortest day, the earliest sunset occurred on about December 2, and the latest sunrise will occur January 10.

That’s because the Earth speeds up on its orbit as it approaches perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) next month. This acceleration shifts sunrise, local noon, and sunset slightly later each day this month and next. The effect is smaller than that of the Sun taking a lower path across the sky, which normally dominates in causing earlier sunsets and later sunrises. But the Sun’s apparent path varies very little near the solstice itself, allowing the secondary effect of the Earth approaching the Sun to predominate. For most people, then, (those who witness sunset but sleep through sunrise), days will seem to lengthen throughout December, although they don’t really begin lengthening until December 21.

The Geminid Meteor Shower peaks this month, as it does every December. Along with the Perseids in August, the Geminids are one of the two most reliable meteor showers, producing on average about 100 meteors per hour. 

The Geminids are unique among meteor showers because they are associated not with a comet but with an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. This means that with Geminids, we see significant activity much earlier in the night than with other showers. Most meteor showers peak in the hours immediately before dawn. This is because what plows through the debris field is the leading edge of the Earth, and that’s the side going from night into day.  Since Phaethon is an asteroid, however, debris along its orbital path forms a shallower angle to Earth’s orbital path, meaning that we begin to face into the debris field as early as 9 or 10 pm. Meteors will seem to ‘radiate’ from the constellation Gemini, hence the name of the shower. However, they may appear anywhere in the sky. 

As always, you see more meteors the farther you are from big city lights which hide dimmer ones. Our George Observatory will be open from 5pm to midnight Saturday night, December 13 for observing this meteor shower. Midnight is about when the Moon, approaching last quarter phase, will rise.

Click here for the Burke baker 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!

 

Mark Your Calendars for these events happening this week (12/1-12/7) at HMNS

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week!

Go behind-the-scenes of our offsite collections storage facility or tour one of our exhibits in the five behind-the-scenes tours offered this week, sharpen your survival skills (and an arrowhead and stone knife) in the adult education class ‘Creating Stone Age Tools’, and explore India with the last World Trekkers event of the year – this week at HMNS.

shrunken head
View shrunken heads from the Amazon up close in our Behind-the-Scenes tour of our Offsite Collections Storage facility. 

Behind-the-Scenes Offsite Collections Storage
Monday, December 1
1:30 p.m. & 6:00 p.m.
Millions of artifacts and specimens are housed at the Museum’s offsite collections storage. For the first time ever, HMNS is allowing the public to tour this facility. Participants will see old favorites no longer on display, like the shrunken heads from the Amazon, and new acquisitions that have not been seen by the public yet, including a giant African elephant. This truly behind-the-scenes tour of the museum collections will be led by Lisa Rebori, HMNS VP of collections. Participants will meet at HMNS and ride van to the offsite facility. This program is limited to adults and children age 12 and older. Reservations are required in advance. Space is very limited. Click here for tickets.

Behind-the-Scenes – Fabergé: From A Snowflake To An Iceberg
Wednesday, December 3
6:00 p.m.
This new installation of the McFerrin Collection includes over 150 new objects. The exhibition is designed to tell the history of Imperial Russia through the works of the Fabergé master craftsman and highlight the different types of items made by Fabergé – from showy fashion statements to opulent utilitarian items – all made with Fabergé’s hallmark beauty and precision. Tour this remarkable collection with HMNS master docents. Click here for tickets.

Behind-the-Scenes – Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife
Wednesday, December 3
6:00 p.m.
Walk through the different biomes of Texas that feature the flora and fauna of these distinct areas that are unique to Texas. Learn of the animals that are featured in the exhibition – some who flourish in these areas, and others who are endangered or extinct. Museum master docents will be your guide through the new Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife. Click here for tickets.

Behind-the-Scenes – Shark!
Thursday, December 4
6:00 p.m.
Learn about the important roles sharks play in ecosystems and about their unique physical characteristics in the Shark! touch tank experience. Museum biologists will lead this special after-hours, hands-on tour. Click here for tickets.

Behind-the-Scenes – Samurai: The Way of the Warrior
Thursday, December 4
6:00 p.m.
Witness the exquisite objects related to the legendary Samurai warriors of Japan in the special exhibition Samurai: The Way of the Warrior. Museum master docents will lead you through the collection that includes full suits of armor, helmets, swords, sword-hilts, and saddles, as well as exquisite objects intended for more personal use such as lacquered writing boxes, incense trays and foldable chairs. Click here for tickets.

Class – Creating Stone Age Tools
Thursday, December 4
6:00 p.m.
Discover how antler, stone and bone can be used to fashion a Paleolithic survival knife through proper percussion and pressure methods. Learn how to make an arrowhead by pressure alone and a simple stone knife using traditional hand tools. Your lithic art is yours to keep for your collection. Paleolithic archaeologist Gus Costa will teach the prehistoric skills needed to master the ancient art of stone tool making. All materials, tools and safety equipment will be provided. Participants must be at least 15 years of age. Click here for tickets.

Orion First Flight Viewing
George Observatory
Thursday, December 4
4:30 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. 
The George Observatory will be free to the general public for the viewing of Orion’s first flight. 

World Trekkers – India
Friday, December 5
6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
Leave the luggage at home, you can explore India right from HMNS’ Grand Hall with World Trekkers this December! Our last World Trekkers event of this year will transport you to India with Bollywood dance performances, rangoli display, photo ops with cultural icons, traditional Indian cuisine, and much more! Click here for more info. 
Also, don’t miss the screening of the Disney Classic The Jungle Book at World Trekkers at 7:00 p.m.

Holiday Trunk Show – Rebecca Lankford 
Saturday, December 6
12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. 
Favorite local designer Rebecca Lankford is back! With hand cast metals, fine leathers, and a casual take on gems like raw diamonds and South Sea pearls, Rebecca’s designs have earned her a devoted Houston following.Click here for more information on upcoming trunk shows. 

You Can Thank Science for Helping You Cook an Awesome Thanksgiving Dinner

Loosen your belts boys and girls, because we are approaching Thanksgiving, the day where diets and portion control cease to exist. To make things a bit easier for you, I have compiled some tips on how to make your Thanksgiving dinner a winner. And how do we do this? With science of course!

Turkey
friends animated GIF

When it comes to cooking turkey, the star of your Thanksgiving dinner, you have to make sure your bird comes out moist, tender, and flavorful. First thing to know is the cooking style and time depends on the parts of the turkey you are cooking. If you are going Ren-Fest style and just serving up turkey legs, a longer cooking time at a low temperature would be better to allow the tissue to break down slowly. However, if you are just serving up a turkey breast, it can be cooked at a higher temperature for a shorter period of time since there is not as much tissue as is in the legs.

Now I am going to assume that you are a Thanksgiving champion and are cooking the whole turkey. Here’s what you should do to make a winner winner turkey dinner:

  • As mentioned above, the breast and legs have different cooking times, however if you are cooking the whole turkey, this isn’t really an option. However, there is a way you can help differentiate the cooking times before putting your turkey in the oven. “Take the bird out ahead of time and let the legs warm up a little bit while you keep the breasts covered with ice packs. That way, you keep the breasts cold. The legs warm up by maybe 10, 20 degrees, and that way, when you put the bird in the oven, you’ve already built in a temperature differential. The breasts are going to end up, at a given time, less-cooked than the legs.“ – NPR- “Delicious Turkey Tips From Food Scientists
  • We have all had that dry, chewy turkey before, and I don’t know about you, but I would rather not repeat that experience. To help your turkey maintain its moist deliciousness, soak your bird in a saltwater solution prior to cooking–aka brining. Brining helps loosen the structure of the muscle fibers and increases the turkey’s water weight, these steps combined result in tender and juicy meat. Check out Butterball’s brining guide to find the correct brining time for your turkey.
  • If you are roasting the turkey, cook it on an elevated rack a few inches off the bottom of the pan to allow the heat to circulate evenly around the turkey. If your turkey is resting on the pan, the heat will not be able to fully circulate resulting in an unevenly cooked bird.
  • Have ever cut your turkey (or steak, too) while it is hot and seen the juicy deliciousness seeping out? Well, sorry my friend, but you are watching the flavor leave your meat. When your meat is still hot, the juices are still flowing and have not rested into the fibers yet. Therefore, you should allow your turkey to rest prior to carving. The rest time depends on the size of your turkey and can be anywhere from 5-20 minutes. Letting your bird rest will also make for easier carving.

Sides

  • Green beans
    funny animated GIF
    Blanching green beans brings out their vibrant green color, but you may have noticed that their color dulls over time. This is “a result of the chlorophyll molecules losing their magnesium ions in the heat.” To stop this, shock the beans with an ice bath immediately after they finish cooking.
  • Pie 
    the office animated GIF
    Who knew the secret to a flaky, yet easy to work with crust was vodka? When rolling out pie dough, water is often added to form a more cohesive crust that is easier to place into the pan. This is fine up to a certain point. Adding too much water will activate the gluten development causing the dough to lose its flakiness. However, vodka will add the extra moisture you need without activating the gluten development. (Don’t worry your pie crust won’t taste like vodka.) Source – Live Science
  • Stuffing
    television animated GIF  
    While cooking stuffing in the turkey is tradition, you may want to rethink that. Most stuffing mixes contain eggs which need to be brought up to a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit in order to kill the bacteria. In order for the stuffing temperature to reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit, you risk overcooking the turkey and drying out the meat – not cool. Instead cook the stuffing on its own and serve it on the side or add it to your turkey platter after the turkey has been cooked.
  • Rolls
    bread animated GIF

    Rolls are one of the best parts of Thanksgiving in my opinion, but making it is not. If you’ve had homemade rolls you know there is nothing that you can get out of a box, carton, or frozen package that compares to the delicious fluffiness of homemade rolls. No one has the time, especially on Thanksgiving, to endlessly knead bread. Unfortunately, kneading is a necessary step in the break making process to “break down existing bonds and form stronger, straighter gluten sheets.” However, you can save your hands five minutes of kneading thanks to autolyse – i.e. let the dough rest before kneading (about 20 minutes). The resting time allows for the existing bonds to break down on their own. 

    Now get ready Thanksgiving, because we are coming for you!
    friends animated GIF

Cold Snap Raises Concern: How will the monarchs fare?

Should I be concerned about the monarch butterfly?

Is it going extinct?

Will these cold temperatures kill the ones I’m raising?

What is “OE” and should I worry about it?

If you have questions about monarchs, you are in good company.

Thanks to the recent petition to US Fish and Wildlife by a number of conservation organizations to grant them “threatened” status, monarch butterflies have been in the news a lot this fall. Also, more and more people are hearing about the protozoan parasite that affects monarch health, the dreaded OE (short for the unpronounceable and unspellable “Ophryocystis elektroscirrha”). Finally, if you are in Houston, or other areas with monarch butterflies that do not migrate but spend the winter here, you may have questions about what this unusually early and unusually cold snap will have on the caterpillars and adults in your garden.

This is a quick response to all of those issues:

  1. Monarch butterflies are not in any sense endangered. The species is very widespread, found throughout the world, from Australia to southern Spain, Hawaii, etc., etc. What the groups petitioning for threatened status hope to achieve is to bring awareness to the possible end of the huge annual migration that takes place in the North American populations. Within the past decade or so, the number of individuals making the southern migration to overwintering grounds in Mexico has declined by about 90%. This is indeed worrying, and it would be a terrible loss if this unique and spectacular phenomenon ended. But there will still be monarchs – just not as many (millions instead of billions) and perhaps only non-migratory ones in areas where they can survive year-round. The decline in the North America population is thought to be due to a number of factors – the main one being loss of habitat. Genetically modified corn and soy beans have been bred to resist herbicides such as RoundUp, so farmers can spray their croplands for weeds (including milkweeds) and not affect these GMO crops. Until the widespread use of GMO crops, milkweed was abundant in the rows between plantings and in the highway right of ways.  Thus the huge expanse of farmland in the central USA cornbelt was critical in building up their populations during the breeding season (summer).  GMO crops, and subsidies for ethanol (which encourage corn farmers to plant every bit of their land, right up to the roadways) mean that this “cradle” of monarch populations is no longer available. There are other factors causing the huge decline in the migratory population – global climate change, urbanization, some habitat loss in Mexico – but this, i.e., habitat loss in the central USA, is the main factor. We do not know yet whether monarchs will be designated as “threatened” – such proposals take a long time to go through the various review processes. The good news is that this petition is raising awareness about this worrying loss of habitat – which affects not only monarchs, but bees, other butterflies, and many other organisms.

  1. “OE” is a naturally occurring protozoan parasite of monarch and queen butterflies (genus Danaus). This tiny organism multiplies inside the caterpillar stage, and is spread in a dormant spore form by the adult butterfly. Low levels of OE do not greatly affect their hosts, but parasite levels build up rapidly over successive generations of monarchs, and when infection levels are high, many detrimental effects (including death) are seen. Infected caterpillars may not pupate properly, or they may not be able to get out of the pupa, or the adults may be weak, malformed, or die early. Unfortunately, well-intentioned people raising successive generations of monarchs, especially on tropical milkweed (which does not have an annual dormant period) appear to be the main cause of OE buildup (via the very persistent spores).

    In areas like Houston, where mild temperatures allow for resident, non-migratory populations year-round, researchers have found that most adult butterflies are carrying the spores (i.e., over 75% of the butterflies they test are infected). For more information, visit the Monarch Watch organization’s website or click here for more information from the University of Georgia.

    You can also find plenty of information by doing an online search for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha.

  1. You raise monarchs and are concerned about whether they can survive the cold temperatures we’ve been having.

    The whole “point” of the monarch migration is to avoid cold temperatures – monarchs are really tropical butterflies that, like many songbirds, take advantage of our summers. However, in our area where it seldom gets truly cold, and where there is now lots of tropical milkweed available, thanks to the butterfly gardening craze, some monarchs forego the migration and spend the winter here, where they continue to breed (the migrating monarchs do not mate or lay eggs until spring). 

    Cold enough temperatures can certainly kill or harm monarchs, especially in the caterpillar stage or if they are in the process of pupating. However, unless it freezes and/or the caterpillars, pupae, or butterflies are highly exposed, monarchs can survive temperatures in the 30s. 

    During a cold snap, caterpillars will often crawl to the base of the milkweed they are eating and curl up on the ground until it warms up again. Adult butterflies can hunker down in a sheltered area and will come out again when it’s warm enough to fly. But if it’s cold enough for long enough, they will die. Of course it’s hard to tell people to let nature take its course — but that is probably best — especially given the high levels of OE we see in most people’s home-grown monarchs. If you do want to save your babies, you can always bring them inside for a few days until it warms up. 

    Butterflies can be fed sugar water, Gatorade, or fruit juice (place them with their feet touching a sponge or paper towel moistened with one of these sweet fluids and they will probably extend their proboscis to get a meal. If you would like to test to see if your butterflies have OE (only the adults can be tested), click here to learn how to do it. We (at the Cockrell Butterfly Center) would be happy to look at your samples, or you can send them to the University of Georgia.

If you have questions that were not answered here, feel free to write us at bfly-questions@hmns.org.