Seeing Stars with James Wooten: January 2013

Happy New Year! This January, Mars continues to fade as it drops into the Sun’s glare. It is low in the southwest at dusk.

Jupiter is now up all night long. Opposition, when Earth is directly between Jupiter and the Sun and Jupiter literally rises at sundown and sets at sunup, is Jan. 3. After that date, Jupiter only gets higher and more prominent in the evening sky. Face east/northeast at dusk and look for the brightest thing there (unless the Moon is also there), as Jupiter outshines all stars we see at night.

Venus is lower in the east at dawn than before. You can still observe it this month and next.

Saturn is a little higher in the morning sky this month. Look for it just in the south at dawn.

Sky Map: January 2013

The Great Square of Pegasus sets in the west, while brilliant winter stars shine in the south. Orion, the Hunter, is almost due south. His two dogs, represented by Sirius and Procyon, are to his left. Above Orion is Taurus, the Bull with Aldebaran as its eye. Gemini, the Twins, are to Orion’s upper left. Jupiter, outshining all stars in the night sky, is in Taurus between Aldebaran and the Pleiades. In the north, the Big Dipper has been out of sight under the North Star for a while. In January, though, you can look for the two pointer stars, which point at the North Star, peeking over trees and houses to the north/northeast.

Moon Phases in January 2013:
Last Quarter                  January 4, 9:58 p.m.
New                               January 11, 1:44 p.m.
1st Quarter                    January 18, 5:45 p.m.
Full                                January 26, 10:39 p.m.

At 11 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 1, the Earth passed as close to the Sun as it will get this year. Thus, Earth is now just past perihelion. If we’re closer to the Sun now, why is it cooler (even in Houston)? Notice how low the midday Sun is right about now. Six months from now, take note of how high the Sun is in June and July. That’s what makes it so much cooler now and so hot then.

The Earth’s orbit is, in fact, almost perfectly circular; there is only a 3-percent difference between perihelion and aphelion distance. The 23.44-degree tilt of the Earth makes the Sun appear high if we tilt towards it and low if we tilt away, and dominates the small effect of Earth’s changing distance.

The latest sunrise of the year (at Houston’s latitude) occurs on Jan. 10. Earth, just past perihelion, has sped up a little in its orbit since it is a little closer to the Sun. As a result, sunrise, local noon, and sunset have been happening a little later each day since early December. The noon Sun is ever so slightly higher at noon each day since the solstice (Dec. 21), but as of today, the Sun is still very close to its solstice height. Beginning Jan. 11, the noon Sun’s greater height in the sky again becomes the dominant effect (as it is for most of the year). From then until June, sunsets are getting later while sunrises are getting earlier.

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.

To enjoy the stars in any weather from the comfort of the HMNS Planetarium, click here for a full schedule.

Would you like email updates on current events in the sky, at the planetarium, and at the George Observatory?  If so, send an email to

Go Stargazing! May Edition

Creative Commons License photo credit: Elsie esq.

Saturn is now in the south southeast at dusk.  We are seeing its rings a little more edge on than earlier in the year.  In fact, Saturn’s rings won’t be this edge-on to us for another 15 years.  Saturn, like Earth, is tilted on its axis (at 26.7 degrees, Saturn’s tilt is a little greater than Earth’s).  Twice per Saturn orbit, then, about every 15 years, Saturn has equinoxes where the sun is aligned with Saturn’s equator.  Since the rings orbit the equator, this puts the sun (and the Earth) in Saturn’s ring plane.  Earth was exactly in Saturn’s ring plane on September 3, 2009 when Saturn was also on the far side of the sun and hard for us to see.  This month, Earth again approaches (but will not cross) Saturn’s ring plane.  That’s why the rings appear so thin in telescopes now. Learn more about the rings of Saturn in my latest blog post.

Venus keeps getting higher in the evening sky during May.  Face west at dusk and look for a point of light that outshines everything in the sky but the sun and the moon.

Mars is very high in the evening sky, although not as bright as it was in winter.  Since January 29, Earth has been pulling ahead of Mars on its faster orbit.  As a result, Mars gets slightly dimmer each night for the rest of 2010.  However, during May, Mars remains brighter than average, and thus remains easy to see.  Look high in the west at dusk for a reddish point of light.

Jupiter is low in the southeast at dawn this month.  Look for it low in twilight as day begins to break.  It will be higher in the southeast by the end of the month.

In May, you can watch as the Dog Days begin!  We are in the Dog Days when the Dogs have vanished from the sky.  As May begins, Orion, the Hunter is clearly visible due west right after sunset.  To his left, aligned with Orion’s belt, is Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star we see at night.  Forming a triangle with Sirius and Orion’s brightest star Betelgeuse is Procyon, the Little Dog Star.  Throughout May, watch as Sirius appears slightly lower and lower to the horizon each night, until it is gone by May 31.  By mid-June, Procyon is gone as well.  When the Dogs are up only in the day, we’re in the Dog Days.

Meanwhile, spring stars are high in the south and east.  A distinct backwards question mark shape outlines the mane and forepaws of Leo, the Lion.  Three stars forming a right triangle rise underneath; they mark Leo’s hindquarters.  The Big Dipper is as high as it ever gets in the north at dusk. You can extend the curve of its handle to ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’.  These stars high in the east and southeast, respectively, by dusk tonight.

星空下的汗腾格里峰 / Mt. Khan Tengri under Galaxy
Creative Commons License photo credit: livepine

As Orion and Sirius set, the plane of the Milky Way largely coincides with the horizon.  (At Houston’s latitude, the two planes are off by less than three degrees).  We are therefore looking straight out of the Milky Way plane when we look up early on a May evening.  Thus May evenings have fewer bright stars, as most of the brightest stars in the Milky Way plane are ringing the horizon.

Moon Phases in May 2010:

Last Quarter                 May 5, 11:15 pm

New                                  May 13, 8:05 am

First Quarter                May 20, 6:43 pm

Full                                    May 27, 6:07 pm

True Colors in the Night Sky

Stepping outside on an April evening, you’ll notice many more bright stars in the western sky than in the east.   Those bright stars in the west are the stars of winter, still high in the west at dusk because winter officially ended about a month ago. 

Orion, the Hunter, remains well placed for observing.  As you watch him set in the west, his three-starred ‘belt’ seems parallel to the horizon, with the brighter stars Betelgeuse and Rigel above and below the belt, respectively.  Extend a line to the right from the belt.  This line points to Aldebaran, which marks the eye of Taurus, the Bull.   As the sky darkens, notice the dim V-shaped cluster right under Albebaran, marking the Bull’s face.  Go back to Orion’s belt, and this time extend a line to the left.  In this direction, Orion’s belt points at Sirius, the Dog Star, which is the brightest star we ever see at night.  Forming an almost equilateral triangle with Sirius and Betelgeuse is Procyon, the Little Dog Star. 

Standing over Orion as he sets in the west are the Twins of Gemini.  Look for two stars of roughly equal brightness and less then 5 degrees apart. (Three fingers held together at arm’s length is about five degrees).  These stars are Castor and Pollux, marking the twins’ heads.  To the right of Gemini are stars in the form of a pentagon–the stars of Auriga, the Charioteer.  The brightest star in Auriga is Capella.  

  Creative Commons LicensePhoto Credit:

April is the last full month to observe this swath of brilliant stars; they begin leaving the evening sky in May.  Not only does this set of stars include six of the twelve brightest stars at night, but it also includes at least one example of each spectral class of star.  Astronomers classify stars into seven spectral classes in order from hottest to coolest:  O, B, A, F, G, K, and M.  “Oh Be A Fine Girl/Guy, Kiss Me” is the most common phrase we use to remember the order. 

Astronomers learn what a star is made of by producing a spectrum of its light and noting which wavelengths are absorbed.  Black lines across the continuous rainbow spectrum indicate particular wavelengths absorbed, which correspond to particular gasses in the star. 

In the 1890 Draper Catalog of Stellar Spectra, Williamina Fleming divided stars into fifteen categories from A to O based on the presence of hydrogen lines in the stars’ spectra.  Only much later did astronomers figure out the more interesting relationship between a star’s spectrum and its temperature.  Annie Jump Cannon of Harvard eliminated redundant categories and merged others, leaving us with the seven modern categories in the current order.  

The hottest stars are bluish and the coolest stars are reddish, with pure white stars in between.  This may sound counter-intuitive at first.  If you think about it, however, you probably know that ‘white hot’ is hotter than ‘red hot’, and that the hottest flames are bluish. 

In the sky tonight, the three stars of Orion’s belt are O stars.   Rigel is a ‘B’ star, while Betelgeuse is in the coolest ‘M’ class.  Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, is an ‘A’ star.  The Little Dog Star Procyon is an F star.  Capella in Auriga is a G star (as is our Sun).  The bull’s eye, Aldebaran is a K star.  At first glance, all stars look white to us, since starlight is scarcely bright enough to stimulate the color-detecting cones of our eye.  When a bright M star is close to a bright O or B star, however, you often can see the difference by contrasting the two.  I invite you then, to contrast Betelgeuse and Rigel in the sky and see if you notice a difference in color.

 Creative Commons LicensePhoto Credit:
Sabrina Campagna

We often describe G stars such as our Sun as yellow.  The Sun’s rays even look yellowish when we accidentally glimpse it through, say, a canopy of leaves.  However, sunlight is in fact white.  The yellow in the Sun’s rays is an illusion created by our atmosphere. 

The Sun emits light of a wide range of wavelengths, including all colors of visible light.  This light interacts with the molecules of gas making up our atmosphere.  A molecule of gas, though, is much smaller than the wavelength of visible light.  As a result, the shorter the wavelength of the light, the more likely that the light will be absorbed or redirected after interacting with an air molecule.  This is called ‘scattering‘. 

Creative Commons LicensePhoto Credit: law_kevan

We often use the mnemonic device ROY G. BIV to teach the order of the colors in the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.  (By the way, we rarely use ‘indigo’ in any other context; Isaac Newton slipped it in because he really wanted seven as opposed to six colors).  This is the order from longest wavelength (red) to shortest (violet).    Therefore, our atmosphere scatters violet and blue light much more than the other colors–this is why our sky is blue.  Although violet light is even more scattered than blue light, the sky does not look violet to us because our eyes are less sensitive to violet light than to blue light.

Now that the heavy rains have passed, we’re in for a spate of clear weather this week (of April 20).  I invite you to enjoy the clear blue sky and watch a sunset or two.  And of course, keep watching after sunset as all those bright stars appear in the west.  As you learn to appreciate them, the colors in the sky become as fascinating as those in the flowers on the ground.